Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bound - Donna Jo Napoli

Title: Bound
Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Publisher: Simon Pulse, 2006 (Paperback)
Length: 186 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale
Started: January 28, 2011
Finished: January 29, 2011

Young Xing Xing is bound.

Bound to her late father's second wife and daughter. Bound to a life of servitude as a young girl in ancient China, where a woman is valued less than livestock. Bound to be alone, with no parents to arrange for a suitable husband. Xing Xing spends her days taking care of her half sister, Wei Ping, who cannot walk because of her foot bindings, the painful tradition for girls who are fit to be married. Even so, Xing Xing is content to practice her gift for poetry and calligraphy, and to dream of a life unbound by the laws of family and society.

But all of this is about to change as Stepmother, who has spent nearly all of the family's money, grows desperate to find a husband for Wei Ping. Xing Xing soon realizes that this greed and desperation may threaten not only her memories of the past, but also her dreams for the future.

I didn't know what to think of this book after I read it, I think it was because I was expecting a typical Cinderella type retelling, but I think Bound works much better simply as a piece of historical fiction rather than a fairy tale retelling.

Bound takes place in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) and follows young Xing Xing as the Cinderella figure. With her mother dead for years and now her father gone as well, Xing Xing is dependent on her stepmother's kindness to ensure she doesn't end up being sold, so she tries her best to work hard helping her half sister, Wei Ping. Now that the family is on the brink of poverty, Stepmother is determined to find a husband for Wei Ping. The girls' father never allowed their feet to be bound while he was still alive, but Stepmother knows it is nearly impossible to secure a husband for a girl whose feet aren't bound, and thus immediately starts the painful process on Wei Ping soon after her husband's death. Since Xing Xing has no prospects since the death of both parents, Stepmother doesn't bother with binding her feet. With both Stepmother and Wei Ping essentially immobile due to their feet, Xing Xing is left to do everything that requires leaving the cave where they live near the village. Stepmother grows desperate to make Wei Ping's feet ready for the upcoming festival where the prince will choose a wife, and an accident spurs on her decision to actually mutilate Wei Ping's feet. When Stepmother becomes even more cutthroat, Xing Xing decides to attend the festival on her own terms and attracts the attention of the young prince.

Bound makes for a wonderful historical fiction piece but there isn't much here in terms of what we would consider a fairy tale. The "magical" elements relating to Xing Xing's mother's spirit reincarnated as a fish, after which the clothing for the festival is miraculously found isn't so much magical as it is spiritual...and that's pretty much it. There's no fairy godmother figure, the stepmother is really well developed and is more pitiful than villainous (same with the step/half sister figure), and the festival and prince come in at the very end of the book, so it honestly doesn't feel like a Cinderella story at all. Not that I minded much, the story is still great and excellent if viewed as historical fiction.

Excellent historical fiction piece on the lives of women in Ming Dynasty China, just don't go into this expecting your typical Cinderella type story.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the split between the scenery, the title, and Xing Xing's face.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Will Grayson, Will Grayson - John Green & David Levithan

Title: Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Author: John Green & David Levithan
Publisher: Dutton Books (Penguin), 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 310 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: January 25, 2011
Finished: January 27, 2011

From the inside cover:
It isn't that far from Evanston to Naperville, but Chicago suburbanites Will Grayson and Will Grayson might as well live on different planets. When fate delivers them both to the same surprising crossroads, the Will Graysons find their lives overlapping and hurtling in new and unexpected directions. With a push from friends new and old-including the massive, and massively fabulous, Tiny Cooper, offensive lineman and musical theater auteur extraordinaire-Will and Will begin building toward respective romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history's most awesome high school musical.

I have been meaning to read this forever. Aside from receiving glowing praise, it also deals with homosexual characters, which I always try to seek out books with since I think YA can always use more diverse characters. To make it easier to differentiate between both Wills, one will be referred to as "straight Will" and the other as "gay Will", so I apologize if I offend anyone (I'm a very open-minded and liberal person), but this makes it easier to tell the two apart.

John Green's books have been a hit or miss with me (yes, I uttered the blasphemy that I don't adore everything John Green writes), but this one is unique in that he co-wrote this with David Levithan. Normally books written by multiple authors don't always work since each writer has a different style and sometimes they awkwardly mash together. This isn't the case in Will Grayson, Will Grayson since the book is narrated by both Wills in alternate chapters, so each author wrote one of the boys. Each boy's personality comes through the smallest details in the text: the straight Will writes more or less properly, how I teach my students to write. Gay Will on the other hand is a little more unique in his style: he never uses capitals where they should be, outlines conversations like they would appear in a IM chat window, and frequently expresses bold emotions all in caps.

Straight Will Grayson is afraid to feel. His two rules to prevent excessive drama are not to care and to keep his mouth shut. This doesn't help when his best friend Tiny Cooper, who Will describes as "the world's gayest person who is really, really large", is the most emotionally expressive character I think I've encountered. Even though Will likes new friend Jane, he won't allow himself to give in to his feelings and tell her he wants to date her.

Gay Will Grayson is clinically depressed and afraid to trust others and let them get close to him for fear he will ruin a potentially good thing, because in his mind, he ruins everything. When he runs into straight Will's friend Tiny Cooper, he allows himself to feel the attraction that's there (I find it hard pressed for anyone to not like Tiny Cooper), but believes it will all fall apart.

Amidst both Wills trying to find the courage to truly be themselves, Tiny's putting on a school musical about his life in which hilarity ensues and is the main event that everything else really revolves around.

I think a reader's ability to really enjoy this book depends on what they think of Tiny Cooper. He is the one character that sort of bridges the experiences of both Wills and totally steals the show. I personally loved Tiny, I think it's impossible to not fall in love with him: he's flamboyant, funny, and a total sweetheart. Plus Tiny does get some character development towards the end, so he's not a complete stereotype. The book itself, although it does talk about the issues of both Wills, does so with an incredible amount of intelligence and humour. I love how Schrodinger's Cat was worked into a relationship analogy, how awesome is that? My favourite little part was when both Wills IM each other and get into the whole "try-error-try-it" idea, it's wonderfully simple but brilliant at the same time. The writing throughout the whole book is this type of simple brilliance, conveying some universal truths in a geeky, funny way.

Both Wills started to aggravate me at various points. Straight Will has the juvenile idea that pretending not to care will translate to actual not caring, and Gay Will is just really whiny. I know the kid's depressed and taking meds for it, but seriously, like Tiny says, the kid needs to stop focusing on all the crap and try to be happy. Both Wills were very real in that respect, I think when you feel like slapping the characters for acting like typical teenage boys, the authors' have the mindset pegged. I loved Tiny and Jane though, Tiny just for being amazing, and Jane for being the girl that is amazingly perceptive and calls the guys when they're being idiots. I also liked the parents of both Wills, straight Will's mom and dad and gay Will's mom were all very loving and good parents (though straight Will's parents are absent a lot due to their work as doctors), which is nice to see since in most YA the parents of characters are either dead or you're supposed to hate them into the ground.

Deals with homosexuality, so anyone with issues regarding gay characters might not want to pick this up. For those readers who are a little more open-minded, you'll find a brilliantly written book that's incredibly funny but also explores some typical teenage themes. Plus, I'd almost say this book is worth reading just for Tiny Cooper...yes, I really did like Tiny that much.

Thoughts on the cover:
Considering there's not much you could do on a cover for a book like this (other than maybe some split profile images of both Wills), the lights and random shiny stuff make for a nice cover, that and I like my covers shiny. The lights actually look like those used for stage productions and the like, so I'll pretend they're supposed to be linked to Tiny's play.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Some Girls Are - Courtney Summers

Title: Some Girls Are
Author: Courtney Summers
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010 (Paperback)
Length: 246 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: January 23, 2011
Finished: January 25, 2011

From the back of the book:
Climbing to the top of the social ladder is hard–falling from it is even harder. Regina Afton used to be a member of the Fearsome Fivesome, an all-girl clique both feared and revered by the students at Hallowell High… until vicious rumors about her and her best friend’s boyfriend start going around. Now Regina’s been “frozen out” and her ex-best friends are out for revenge. If Regina was guilty, it would be one thing, but the rumors are far from the terrifying truth and the bullying is getting more intense by the day. She takes solace in the company of Michael Hayden, a misfit with a tragic past who she herself used to bully. Friendship doesn’t come easily for these onetime enemies, and as Regina works hard to make amends for her past, she realizes Michael could be more than just a friend… if threats from the Fearsome Foursome don’t break them both first.

This book makes your typical YA novel about bullying look like a kindergarten teacher wearing a Christmas sweater. Some Girls Are is gritty, horrifying real, and compels you to read in spite of how appalled and disgusted you are at the characters.

Regina Alfton is Anna's best friend and part of the main clique at her high school. They are the girls everyone else loves to hate, and for good reason. These girls have ruined lives, and after rumors fly about Regina and Anna's boyfriend, they decide to ruin Regina. No longer protected by her status as part of the in-group, Regina seeks the company of Michael and Liz, classmates she once helped bully. Even though Regina was merely a lackey to Anna the mastermind, she still tries to redeem herself after realizing the repercussions of her actions while getting revenge against her former friends at the same time.

Some Girls Are reminded me a little of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. Both novels deal with a girl who experiences a rape or sexual assault and are ostracized because of their initial reactions after said experience. Whereas Miranda in Speak literally doesn't speak and endures her pain in silence, Regina tries to plead her case to her friends and when that fails, very vocally gets revenge on the horrid acts committed against her.

I almost stopped reading this novel due to the content: pushing people down stairs, bullying to the point of suicide, essentially forcing a girl to be anorexic and take diet pills, filling lockers with rotting meat, locking someone in a closest with a person that nearly raped them, internet hate groups, not to mention all the derogatory slurs. I can only take so much pure ugly humanity until I need to stop, and these girls disgusted me constantly, including Regina. To the author's credit though, she takes a character that you really want to hate and makes you feel for her. Even though Regina's participated in some things that mark her as the lowest type of human being, she does regret what she's done (as evidenced by her inability to eat) and honestly does want to be good again. You feel compelled to read on to see not only if she survives the bullying against her, but if she betrays her new friends to save her own skin.

This book was remarkably well written. It was incredibly realistic and one of the more gritty novels I've read. Some Girls Are shows exactly how bad girls can get when it comes to bullying, you could almost use this as a study of human nature, sad as that thought is.

Some Girls Are talks about some pretty heavy things, not the stuff for overly sensitive readers, but is a must-read for those who can stomach human nature.

Thoughts on the cover:
Nice shot of Regina in front of her locker. They even got her wearing a sweater like in the beginning. Not sure if that's wear and tear on the locker or the painted over graffiti, but the details area nice touch.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Matched - Ally Condie

Title: Matched
Author: Ally Condie
Publisher: Dutton Books (Penguin), 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 366 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: January 19, 2011
Finished: January 22, 2011

From the inside cover:
In the Society, Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.

Cassia has always trusted their choices. It's hardly any price to pay for a long life, the perfect job, the ideal mate. So when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is the one...until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. Now Cassia is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she's ever known and a path no one else has ever dared follow-between perfection and passion.

I knew it was only a matter of time before dystopian fiction became popular enough in YA for someone to write one with a romance focus rather than the "overthrow the corrupt government" focus that is typically what defines the genre. Whereas a lot of dystopian does contain romance, it is usually a sub-plot going on while the main characters fight a corrupt dystopian government/leadership. In Matched, there are seeds of rebellion planted against the Society and its Officials, but it takes a backseat to the love triangle.

Cassia Reyes lives in the Society, where every major decision is made for citizens by Officials. People are told where they can live, who they can marry, when and how many children they can have, what they can eat, what they can wear, and how long their lifespan will be. Creativity is practically nonexistent, citizens literally have lost the ability to write, the only textual communication is via computers. Most people in the Society enjoy the benefits these limitations have given them: they live to the fullest capacity free of cancer and other diseases, they are matched to their future partners with genetic compatibility in mind, and everyone is healthy due to strict food control. We first meet Cassia on the way to her Matching Banquet, where she and other 17-year-olds will find out who the Officials have picked as their Match, the one they will eventually be allowed to marry. When Cassia is matched with her best friend Xander, she is happy; people almost never get matched with someone they know. But as she's viewing the keycard with her match information on it, another face appears on the screen after Xander's-another boy she knows. When the Officials tell Cassia that Ky Markham appearing as her match is a mistake, it plants the seed of doubt in her mind. Cassia begins to question whether or not Xander really is her true match, and why citizens in the Society aren't allowed to make such choices for themselves.

This book received soooo much hype over this past summer, but was pretty much split down the middle for me: it wasn't completely horrible, but it wasn't great by any means. Practically all the world-building details of the Society are identical to Lois Lowry's The Giver: the drab clothing, the ceremony, the jobs, the extermination of the elderly, the activities, everything. Matched can be summed up as The Giver with a female lead with a love-triangle focus. I could live with that though if that's all it was, so many books use very similar ideas to each other, so you're bound to run into stories with familiar elements in them. However, the original content in Matched either wasn't very impressive or just didn't convince me at all. For example, the idea that people in Cassia's world cannot physically write did not make sense at all given the details. People can read, study poetry, type on computer-like devices like tablets, and are allowed to draw on digital devices as children. I find it very hard to believe that even with the absence of traditional writing instruments like pens, that someone didn't have the idea to pick up a stick or something and mimic the letters they read. Toddlers can pick up a marker and mimic shapes and letters on paper without being taught, so how come no one in Cassia's world, especially adults, didn't think to ever do that? I don't buy it for a minute, it doesn't make sense.

The whole love triangle aspect wasn't even that great. I didn't really like either of the boys, Xander and Ky. Xander was completely bland, he seemed to only exist to tempt Cassia back to the familiar by being wholly understanding and overly helpful. Ky was like a bad stereotype, the loner with a bad past that happens to spout forbidden poetry. Sam in Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver and Linger is a much better poetry-spouting boy. It seemed like the whole forbidden poetry thing was included to try and make the characters seem deep but just ended up awkward, kind of like the little metaphors the author worked into the text at the end of every chapter. Some of them work, but most of them are just bad and cheesy...and once you notice them in the text it's really really annoying. Even Cassia was pretty bland. I know she's supposed to be due to the environment she grew up in, extreme emotions are repressed and all that, but even when she begins to question things after reading the poem her grandfather left for her, she was still pretty lukewarm. Perhaps it's because I like my heroines to be a little fiery when they need to be, but still.

The writing was't bad, aside from the cheesy and awkward metaphors. I did read the whole book, so it wasn't completely horrible, but a lot of that impetus to read on was the world-building and watching things eventually crumble, which was very similar to The Giver (and I love The Giver, hence my desire to read about a universe with similar details), so the author can't even claim that to her credit, because another author did it first. This is the first of a trilogy, so things could improve in future installments. The second book comes out in the fall of 2011, so I will probably read it simply because I wasn't turned off enough to abandon this series completely.

Didn't live up the the hype for me. Not complete crap but nothing to write home about either. People looking for a dystopian Twilight, or someone that doesn't read a lot of dystopian would probably enjoy this. People that are used to reading excellent dystopian fiction probably would find something missing here.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like Cassia in the bubble in her green banquet dress. The rest of the cover could've benefitted from some more colour though...I know it's probably a metaphor for the lack of colour in the Society, but I like my covers colourful, not drab and grey.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Grace - Elizabeth Scott

Title: Grace
Author: Elizabeth Scott
Publisher: Dutton Books (Penguin), 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 200 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: January 17, 2011
Finished: January 19, 2011

From the inside cover:
Grace was raised to be an Angel, a herald of death by suicide bomb. But she refuses to die for the cause, and now Grace is on the run, daring to dream of freedom. In search of a border she may never reach, she travels among malevolent soldiers on a decrepit train crawling through the desert. Accompanied by the mysterious Kerr, Grace struggles to be invisible, but the fear of discovery looms large as she recalls the history and events that delivered her uncertain fate.

Told in spare, powerful prose by acclaimed author Elizabeth Scott, this tale of a dystopian near future will haunt readers long after they've reached the final page.

Grace is an extremely powerful book. At only 200 pages long, the author manages to tell a very concise story that is both disturbing and heartfelt.

We first meet Grace on a train headed for the border, accompanied by a young man named Kerr. As she travels onward, she muses about what brought her to this point through a series of flashbacks.

Grace lived in the Hills with the People, above the City where Keran Berj rules in a dictatorship. The People are essentially a resistance group bent on taking down Keran Berj, using any means necessary. Boys are trained as soldiers called Rorys, and some girls are trained as Angels-suicide bombers. Grace's father was from the Hills, but her mother was from the City, and so Grace is never fully accepted as one of the People. Her father's disgrace at loving someone from the City that willingly lives under Keran Berj's rule led him to give Grace to the Angels to be trained in that it might gain some respect for their family. Even though Grace is never given the respect that an Angel deserves, she is still devoted to her destiny to die for the cause...until her mission arrives and Grace suddenly realizes she doesn't want to die. She is disgraced and forced to flee, finding a man in the City that can help her get out of the country to a border she's not sure exists.

Grace was actually hard to read at some points, mostly because you can imagine everything you read as frighteningly realistic. To get an idea of how Grace's world is portrayed, think of dictatorships from history and double the scale of atrocities they committed. The People are portrayed to be just as bad, if not worse (the idea that "the best Angels die pregnant"); so in this sense there is no wholly good group looking out for their people's interests, both groups are extremists that use their citizens as means to an end. Grace and Kerr come from both sides in the conflict, and it's interesting to see how they come around to each other and see that they have more in common than they realize.

Grace is a beautifully brutal story of choosing life and survival in a world that sees human life as expendable. Very concise and to the point, the writing in Grace is seemingly simple but conveys universal and complex themes. This book is a gold mine for a book club or a classroom; if this book does nothing else, it will surely make you think.

Dark and disturbing, Grace is just breathtaking for many reasons, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I can't stop looking at this cover, it's what first attracted me to this book, it's freaking gorgeous. The look of Grace's eyes and lips make her look so forlorn but hopeful at the same time. The explosion blended into the image of her face just reinforces exactly what Grace has been trained to do, and what she's been exposed to throughout her childhood.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Facing Fire - KC Dyer

Title: Facing Fire
Author: KC Dyer
Publisher: Doubleday Canada, 2010 (Paperback)
Length: 212 pages
Genre: Children's Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Started: January 15, 2011
Finished: January 16, 2011

From the back of the book:
Darby seems like an average 13-year-old girl-doing homework, perfecting her skateboarding moves, and avoiding her younger sister. But not everything is as it seems. For one thing, Darby and her friend Sarah share a terrible secret about what caused the fire at their junior high school. For another, the weird, dream-like adventures of the previous summer have returned: once again, Darby is transported back in time to worlds more terrifying and vivid than she could have ever imagined from history books. Over the course of a life-changing week, she discovers that the key to understanding the present might lie in unlocking the past.

Facing Fire is the sequel to the author's early 2009 children's novel, A Walk Through A Window, which I read right when it came out. In order to understand Facing Fire, you'll need some background info on A Walk Through A Window. In the first novel, Darby is 13 and is sent to her grandparents' home in Prince Edward Island for the summer while her parents are renovating their Toronto home. Her grandfather is suffering from Alzheimer's, which Darby slowly discovers, and her parents are renovating their house because they are expecting another baby, which they also neglect to tell her. While there, Darby meets Gabriel, who acts as her guide when she accidently falls through a window in Gabe's house into a timeslip into the past. Darby acts as an observer to aboriginal peoples passing the Bering Strait and Irish and Scottish immigrants arriving in Canada in the 1800s. Since she's a typical cynical teenager, these experiences all seek to show Darby the importance of her heritage and the efforts people made to come to Canada for a better life. And that was the first novel.

Facing Fire continues some months after the events in A Walk Through A Window: Darby is 14 and in high school (not sure why the info on the back-of-the-book summary is wrong), and her baby sister Grace is now around 6 months old. While hanging around her school after hours with her friend Sarah, they see an anti-gang poster that depicts a person of colour holding a gun. Sarah, who is bi-racial, takes offense at the poster and decides to burn it in protest. Darby tries to persuade her not to, but Sarah does anyway. After the girls leave, the poster ends up causing a small fire, which leads to their school closing a week early for March Break (spring break) in order to facilitate repairs. Needing care plans for their daughter, Darby's parents send her to Kingston for the week to help out a family friend, Fiona. While in Kingston, Darby falls through another window in an old house and witnesses acts of prejudice and injustice throughout Canadian history. This is prefaced by Darby naively arguing with Sarah that Canada isn't racist and doesn't engage in acts of racial profiling. Darby witnesses Acadians fleeing from the British at Fort Frontenac in 1758, Tecumseh's nephew on a prisoner ship during the War of 1812, and also the plight of an escaped slave on her way to Canada. Amidst her visions through the window, Darby meets Zander, who travels with her during some of the timeslips. Zander is Mohawk, so he and Darby get into discussions about what it means to be Canadian, both of them arguing that they have just as much claim to being Canadian as the other. Fiona is also investigating boil water advisories in Canada, which almost always occur on First Nations lands, sometimes lasting for years. So the subplots in the novel, as well as the historical visions, all deal with prejudice and injustices in Canada relating to race.

I loved A Walk Through A Window. The premise was executed well, and even though Darby just watches the historical events unfold rather than interact with them, the author made it work in the context of the story. Facing Fire follows the same mold, just with a different theme going through the novel, but it just didn't impress me as much as the first novel did. Perhaps it's because Gabe doesn't make a repeat appearance in this installment; he gave the first novel a bit of a mystic feel to Darby's adventures, that she was experiencing them for a special reason. I kept getting the feeling throughout Facing Fire that the adventures were an excuse for a thinly veiled after-school special type of message, rather than something with a higher purpose that just happened to teach Darby a message. I love these books because of the Canadian history perspective, and especially Facing Fire because the theme of it is so important and one that really applies to kids today, but in terms of a whole pleasing package, Facing Fire falls a little short compared to A Walk Through A Window.

Wonderful premise with an important theme and message. Not as well executed as the first novel, A Walk Through A Window, but a definite must-read for kids due to the themes addressed.

Thoughts on the cover:
A different setup than the cover of A Walk Through A Window, this one has the clock image taking up less space, with the picture of the slave cabins on the bottom and Darby's legs in the upper left corner. I don't get the legs, I really don't. Are they supposed to be tip-toeing or something? I do like the turquoise and golden-yellow colour scheme.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Revolution - Jennifer Donnelly

Title: Revolution
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 472 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
Started: January 10, 2011
Finished: January 12, 2011

From the inside cover:
BROOKLYN: Andi Alpers is on the edge. She’s angry at her father for leaving, angry at her mother for not being able to cope, and heartbroken by the loss of her younger brother, Truman. Rage and grief are destroying her. And she’s about to be expelled from Brooklyn Heights’ most prestigious private school when her father intervenes. Now Andi must accompany him to Paris for winter break.

PARIS: Alexandrine Paradis lived over two centuries ago. She dreamed of making her mark on the Paris stage, but a fateful encounter with a doomed prince of France cast her in a tragic role she didn’t want—and couldn’t escape.

Two girls, two centuries apart. One never knowing the other. But when Andi finds Alexandrine’s diary, she recognizes something in her words and is moved to the point of obsession. There’s comfort and distraction for Andi in the journal’s antique pages—until, on a midnight journey through the catacombs of Paris, Alexandrine’s words transcend paper and time, and the past becomes suddenly, terrifyingly present.

Jennifer Donnelly, author of the award-winning novel A Northern Light, artfully weaves two girls’ stories into one unforgettable account of life, loss, and enduring love. Revolution spans centuries and vividly depicts the eternal struggles of the human heart.

This book is sheer brilliance. Reading it was an experience to say the least, I'm still affected by it after finishing it last night. I'll try to explain why I think this book is as powerful as it is, but I don't think I can really do it justice.

Revolution is the story of Andi and Alex. Andi is seventeen, lives in modern day Brooklyn and is slowly fading from life. Her little brother Truman was killed two years ago, her father essentially abandoned the family by throwing himself into his work as a geneticist, and her mother can't cope and spends her days painting portraits of her dead son. As Andi succumbs to anger and grief, she neglects everything except her music. When the school informs her father that Andi's on the verge of failing, he returns. He admits Andi's mother to a psychiatric hospital and takes Andi with him on a business trip to France so she can work on her senior thesis on the French musician Amade Malheurbeau. Andi's father has been asked to come to France to test the DNA of a small human heart that is believed to be that of Louis-Charles, the 10 year-old son of King Louis and Marie-Antoinette that was imprisoned and left to die in 1795 in the midst of the French Revolution. While staying with friends of the family just outside of Paris, Andi discovers a diary inside an old guitar case. The diary is that of Alexandrine Paradis, a street actor during the French Revolution. She chronicles her involvement with the royal family beginning in 1789, and her efforts to try to save Louis-Charles from his imprisonment. Andi immediately takes to the story: Alex is passionate about her craft and musically inclined like Andi, and she was trying to save a boy the same age as Andi's brother Truman. With the identity of the small heart not yet confirmed, Andi begins to hope that Alex did indeed prevent the cruel death of Louis-Charles, so much that she relies on the story to rebuild the hope she's lost since her brother's death. But what happens when she begins to doubt that Alex succeeded? How does a person regain their faith in a world filled with atrocities?

This book was amazing on so many levels. On a very superficial level, I had a soft spot for Andi because I share her nickname (Andi's real name is Diandra). I've never come across a book where the main character had the same name as me (or nickname in this case), so it was pleasing in a narcissistic way. The book was wonderfully well written, Andi's voice comes across well in the first-person narration as does Alex's in her diary entries. I loved Andi's voice, she's sad and overcome with guilt and grief but her feisty personality still shines through her music. The history is incredibly well researched, as evidenced by the four pages of sources at the back of the book. The history is interesting too. I studied the French Revolution in school, but we never really learned about the fate of Louis and Marie-Antoinette's children, and the issue of Louis-Charles really affected me. All the things in the book are like a puzzle, and it takes a while to see how everything fits together, but they all do, and to the point where it's very natural and doesn't feel cliched or overly convenient: Andi's music, her dad's DNA testing, the Revolution, Malheurbeau, everything. I even like the way the author included a love interest, Virgil. There was just enough romance, but not enough to overpower the other elements in the book. Plus, I love how Virgil and Andi would sing each other lullabies over the phone to help each other sleep, can we say "awww"?

There's a lot of allegory and metaphor in Revolution. Alex's full name is an anagram of Andi's, Louis-Charles looks a lot like Truman, the title itself, the circumstances behind Truman's death, Truman's key that Andi wears around her neck, the parallels between the girls' lives, and even the references to Dante's Divine Comedy that appear at each division of the book all carry a lot of meaning. This book is a gold mine for a teacher like me, since I think in themes and metaphors all the time.

Some people didn't enjoy this novel due to Andi and her issues, calling her too emo. To me, Andi was presented as a girl who was realistically suffering in her grief (usually people experiencing the breakdown of a whole family have a reason to be depressed), so she didn't come across as emo at all, you could call her a well-rounded griever. I guess that's a credit to the author that nothing in the book was really off-putting, even the "twist" at the end of the book (it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what it is), which would normally be cliche, comes in at just the right time and lasts just long enough to be appropriate and doesn't overtake the tone of the story. I think the only thing about Revolution that was remotely negative was that it took a little bit to get into in the very beginning, mostly because of Andi's classmates. I wanted to smack half those kids for being spoiled brats, but I'm pretty sure that was intended as an allegory as well.

All in all, Revolution was beautiful. It talks about things in our world that turn out to be quite ugly, but the message of transcending the ugly in this world with virtues that are timeless makes it beautiful. This book is an experience to read, and if you're as affected by it as I was, it will truly rock your world.

A powerful novel in all aspects that includes a little bit of everything (history, romance, adventure, etc.). This book defies description and you just have to trust me that it's awesome and you must read it. It's truly one of the best YA books I've read, so read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I really like this cover, it doesn't immediately scream "YA cover" when you look at it. I like how you get portrait shots of Andi and Alex on the cover, and how they're arranged is quite nice. I also like how Truman's key is shown on the spine, and the ribbon from it extends to the front and back covers and that's where the title is placed.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Easy Money - Gail Vaz-Oxlade

Title: Easy Money
Author: Gail Vaz-Oxlade
Publisher: Grass Roots Press, 2010 (Paperback), Good Reads series
Length: 86 pages
Genre: Adult; Non-Fiction
Started: January 10, 2011
Finished: January 10, 2011

Wish you could find a money book that doesn't make your eyes glaze over or your brain hurt? Easy Money is for you. Gail knows you work hard for your money, so in her usual honest and practical style, she will show you how to make your money work for you. Budgeting, saving, and getting your debt paid off have never been so easy to understand or to do. Follow Gail's plan and take control of your money.

Another book in the Good Reads series from ABC Life Literacy Canada, this is the only non-fiction title among the available six. In the style of a Good Reads book, this is under 100 pages, at a grade 5-6 reading level, and uses easy to understand language to make this appropriate for readers with lower literacy abilities.

I'm a big fan of Gail Vaz-Oxlade. My husband and I have a pretty good handle on our money, but we watch her shows Till Debt Do Us Part and Princess to remind us that no matter how much we complain about money, we are nowhere near as bad as the kinds of families she has on her show. I've also read her Debt-Free Forever book, and my mother's reading her new book on retirement savings, Never Too Late.

Easy Money is similar in content to Debt-Free Forever, but condensed in an 86 page, easy to understand book. Small chapters on Needs versus Wants, Budgeting, Credit Cards, Debt, Savings, Emergency Funds, and Bank Accounts take all the essential knowledge on managing everyday money needs and makes it available for all readers. The content is very straightforward and fun to read, so it's enjoyable even if you've never picked up a book on finance before. I would not only give this book to an adult with limited literacy skills, but for kids, teens, and people moving out on their own for the first time to teach them about the basics of money.

A great read on the essentials of everyday money management, ideal not just for adults, but for kids, teens, and anyone managing their own finances for the first time in their life.

Thoughts on the cover:
You've got Gail's face against a green background, a nice basic cover.

In From The Cold - Deborah Ellis

Title: In From The Cold
Author: Deborah Ellis
Publisher: Grass Root Press, 2010 (Paperback), Good Reads series
Length: 74 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: January 10, 2011
Finished: January 10, 2011

From the back of the book:
Rose and her daughter Hazel are on the run in a big city. During the day, Rose and Hazel live in a shack hidden in the bushes. At night, they look for food in garbage bins. In the summer, living in the shack was like an adventure for Hazel. But now, winter is coming and the nights are cold. Hazel is starting to miss her friends and her school. Rose is trying to do the right thing for her daughter, but everything is going so wrong. Will Hazel stay loyal to her mother, or will she try to return to her old life?

When I was doing research into activities for Family Literacy Day (January 27th up here), I came across a series of books affiliated with ABC Life Literacy Canada made with adult literacy learners in mind. The Good Reads series is made up of 6 books all written by Canadian authors, 5 fiction, one non-fiction. All the titles are under 100 pages, are written at a grade 4, 5, or 6 reading level, and are what teachers call "high interest, low vocabulary", aka books struggling readers will want to read and not have issues with the text itself. There are a ton of resources out there for kids and teenagers that are struggling readers. I've used them in my schools and they are pretty successful with the kids, especially the more recent ones where they capitalize on topics kids are actually interested in, especially ones that cater to boys. But there aren't a lot of resources out there for adult literacy learners. A lot of the materials I've seen are old and look juvenile, not something a lot of adults look forward to using. These books are written with adult characters in situations that are interesting to adults, plus they employ an uncomplicated easy to read style appropriate for adult learners to gain confidence. The Toronto Star did a piece on the series that you can read here. These books are available at many educational organizations and libraries, but I picked these up at my local bookstore (my library only just ordered them and they won't be circulating for a little while yet). Because the books are so short, they're only about $7 each if you're buying them. I picked up 4 out of the 6 titles, so I'll post thoughts on them as I read them.

Okay enough about the series, on to the book itself.

Deborah Ellis is one of my favourite Canadian authors. She writes a lot of children's and young adult books on difficult issues, and her novels are ones I keep for use in my classes when I want to explore international issues like Afghanistan, and HIV in Africa in a way appropriate for kids. Her Breadwinner trilogy is one that schools use all the time, but my personal favourite is The Heaven Shop, showing the effects of HIV on children in Africa. When I found out she'd written a story for this series for adults, it was the first one I read.

In From The Cold is about Rose and her ten-year-old daughter Hazel living on the streets. Four months ago, Rose and Hazel lived a relatively comfortable life in a middle-class neighbourhood, but now they scavenge through dumpsters for food and sleep in a shack. Hazel asks her mother why she can't go back to her school, so you learn a bit about why Rose and Hazel are on the run to begin with. With the cold weather coming, Rose begins to wonder whether she should leave so Hazel can go into foster care and just start over somewhere else. Since it's a short story that's relying on plot, you don't get a lot of insight into the characters, but you get enough to feel for their situation and what drove them to this. Readers also see the real-life need for resources for women and children when they become as desperate as Rose and Hazel.

An easily accessible title for adult readers with limited literacy skills that's actually engaging to read. These would appeal to young adults too, hence why I'm adding them to my classroom library for my struggling readers.

Thoughts on the cover:
A nice appealing cover photo, makes it obvious that the book is on homelessness.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Nevermore - Kelly Creagh

Title: Nevermore
Author: Kelly Creagh
Publisher: Atheneum, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 543 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: January 8, 2011
Finished: January 10, 2011

From the inside cover:
Cheerleader Isobel Lanley is horrified when she is paired with Varen Nethers for an English project, which is due—so unfair—on the day of the rival game. Cold and aloof, sardonic and sharp-tongued, Varen makes it clear he’d rather not have anything to do with her either. But when Isobel discovers strange writing in his journal, she can’t help but give this enigmatic boy with the piercing eyes another look.

Soon, Isobel finds herself making excuses to be with Varen. Steadily pulled away from her friends and her possessive boyfriend, Isobel ventures deeper and deeper into the dream world Varen has created through the pages of his notebook, a realm where the terrifying stories of Edgar Allan Poe come to life.

As her world begins to unravel around her, Isobel discovers that dreams, like words, hold more power than she ever imagined, and that the most frightening realities are those of the mind. Now she must find a way to reach Varen before he is consumed by the shadows of his own nightmares.

His life depends on it.

When I first saw this book, the idea of a paranormal romance somehow involving Edgar Allen Poe was intriguing. After reading it, I feel that not only is Nevermore one of the better paranormal romances I've read, it's also one of the more creative ones too.

Cheerleader Isobel is paired with goth/emo boy Varen for their big English project, and the only reason she agrees to work with him is that she needs a decent mark in English to remain on the cheerleading squad and be allowed to go to Nationals. Both of them make it very clear they want nothing to do with each other, bot once Varen realizes that Isobel isn't a typical cheerleader and Isobel learns that Varen isn't a stereotypical goth boy, they begin to enjoy each other's company while working on their project on Edgar Allen Poe (Varen's choice). As the two grow closer, Isobel notices strange things happening around her: strange figures appearing outside her home, freaky birds outside her bedroom window, hearing her name being whispered around her when no one else is actually escalates to pretty freaky stuff. After having some pretty intense nightmares and finding Varen gone, Isobel learns of a dream world created by Varen's imagination where Poe's stories are terrifyingly real. Her guide, Reynolds, tells her that she has power over this realm since she has a hold on Varen, and therefore, the world her created. Isobel needs to figure out how to control the dream world if she wants to save Varen from his own dreams. I can't say exactly how all this relates to Poe himself (not just his stories) without entering spoiler territory, but the author works Poe in very nicely.

Not only was the plot very engaging and the book well written, the characters really make this story shine. Isobel isn't your typical evil, bitchy cheerleader that you usually see portrayed, she's actually a pretty nice person and is very independent. She knows what she wants and doesn't waver in her determination. She dumps her football star boyfriend Brad when he and Isobel's other friends bully and humiliate Varen, which I felt was really admirable that she stuck up for him that way before she ever really liked him. Varen seems like a freak at first, but aside from being a bit of a loner, he's pretty normal too (aside from his own personal issues, which get explored a bit). Normally in paranormal romances, I either have a beef with the girl being irritating and stupid, or the boy being a bastard and not understanding why the girl likes him at all. I didn't have that while reading Nevermore. Isobel is kind and true to herself, while Varen is strong yet vulnerable, they make a very good pair and I really enjoyed both characters individually and as a couple.

The supernatural element of the story doesn't really come into play until the last third of the book, but when it does it is well executed and actually a little scary too, which was a nice change, a paranormal romance book actually giving me the creeps (thanks to Pinfeathers mostly). The plot relating to the supernatural element was easy to follow and not confusing, and things are left open just enough at the end to follow through in the sequel (Nevermore is the first in a series).

If you're sick of typical, disappointing paranormal romances, give Nevermore a shot, it just might change your mind about them.

Thoughts on the cover:
Varen and Isobel are exactly as a pictured them. I like how Varen's jacket and Isobel's dress are pictured too (Isobel's dress actually comes into play towards the end of the book). The script across the cover is a nice touch too. And of course the font is purple, with a nod to Varen's purple ink pen.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Secret School - Avi

Title: The Secret School
Author: Avi
Publisher: Harcourt, 2010 (Hardcover) (Originally published in 2001)
Length: 153 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: January 8, 2011
Finished: January 8, 2011

From the inside cover:
More than anything, fourteen-year-old Ida Bidson wants to become a teacher. That's not going to be easy, especially for a girl living in the remote Colorado mountains in 1925. Still, Ida knows she can do it. She just needs to finish eighth grade so she can go on to high school.

But then her town's one-room school unexpectedly closes, and for the first time Ida's dream seems unattainable. Her only hope is to keep the school open without anyone finding out. Yet even a secret school needs a teacher. Ida can't be it...or can she?

In the spirit of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, two-time Newbery Honor recipient Avi once again has created a compelling story featuring a headstrong and memorable heroine who is determined to take control of her destiny.

The local newspaper here participates in a program called Breakfast Serials, where they take children's novels and publish one or two chapters a week in the newspaper. I've used the program as a teacher and it works great for junior and intermediate grades: the kids cut out the chapter of the week from the paper (which gets delivered to the school in class sets), you can do it as a read-aloud, they do the questions sent in the supplementary teacher materials, you discuss as a class, it makes for a wonderful addition to the Language program. I started reading the list of stories serialized in the past, and discovered that Avi, one of my favourite children's book authors, has quite a few of his stories in the program (I think it's because he started the program, but his stories are quite good either way), and The Secret School is one I hadn't read yet.

It's April 1925 in the rural Colorado mountain town of Elk Valley. Ida Bidson and her classmates are shocked to learn that their school must close early when their teacher abruptly leaves. What's worse, that means Ida and fellow eighth grader Tom Kohl, won't be able to take their exit exams and move on to high school in September. Knowing that her family's ability to send her to board in town to attend high school isn't guaranteed next year, she is determined to find a way to finish the eighth grade now rather than repeating it. So the kids all concoct a plan to keep attending school with Ida as the teacher, and they arrange to take their final exams. Of course the secret leaks out eventually, but by then the school officials are so impressed with the kids essentially educating themselves for two months that they agree to allow the kids to take their exams, except they have a condition that all the kids have to write exams, not just Ida and Tom. So Ida has to juggle being a teacher, her own schoolwork, chores on her family's farm, and her sanity, not to mention the pressure of wanting everyone to succeed.

This is a really cute little story about determination and working to achieve something you really want. Ida wants to become a teacher, and knows she has to go to high school to do so, which means she has to graduate from the eighth grade. Her friend Tom wants to work with machines and needs to go on to high school too. Even with all the pressures of juggling everything, Ida is still set on her goal, even though the head of the school board doesn't think girls should concern themselves with a high school education (it's 1925 keep in mind).

There's a lot of really nice details on schooling itself in the 20s: the readers, the subjects and the type of information kids were expected to learn back then, the one-room schoolhouse environment etc. Makes for a great discussion on how things have changed in education since then.

This is also a good story to show kids to value their education and not take it for granted. I recently read a story to a group of grade 2s about an elderly man learning to read. The kids asked why he didn't know how to read and I explained to them that it wasn't so long ago that not everyone got a chance to go to school, that even today their are people (kids and adults) that aren't able to go to school for various reasons, and that they were very lucky that they were able to go to school every day. So many kids don't realize that their futures depend on the schooling they get (in whatever capacity or length), and this book actually has kids of varying ages really taking their education seriously.

A great little piece of historical fiction with a focus on education in the rural 1920s.

Thoughts on the cover:
Much better than the old cover. This one really makes it obvious that it's historical fiction: the one room-schoolhouse, the kids in old the sepia tones makes it look aged too. I also like how there's exactly 8 kids sitting on the log outside the school in the picture, the exact number of kids that attend the school in the story.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Lost Hero - Rick Riordan

Title: The Lost Hero (Book 1 of The Heroes of Olympus series)
Author: Rick Riordan
Publisher: Disney Hyperion Books, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 557 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Adventure, Fantasy
Started: January 6, 2011
Finished: January 7, 2011

From the inside cover:
Jason has a problem. He doesn’t remember anything before waking up in a bus full of kids on a field trip. Apparently he has a girlfriend named Piper and a best friend named Leo. They’re all students at a boarding school for “bad kids.” What did Jason do to end up here? And where is here, exactly?

Piper has a secret. Her father has been missing for three days, ever since she had that terrifying nightmare. Piper doesn’t understand her dream, or why her boyfriend suddenly doesn’t recognize her. When a freak storm hits, unleashing strange creatures and whisking her, Jason, and Leo away to someplace called Camp Half-Blood, she has a feeling she’s going to find out.

Leo has a way with tools. When he sees his cabin at Camp Half-Blood, filled with power tools and machine parts, he feels right at home. But there’s weird stuff, too—like the curse everyone keeps talking about. Weirdest of all, his bunkmates insist that each of them—including Leo—is related to a god.

Join new and old friends from Camp Half-Blood in this thrilling first book in The Heroes of Olympus series.

I loved the Percy Jackson series when I read it a couple of years ago. They remind me of the awesome action-adventure type books I used to read when I was ten, it gives you the same feeling while reading them. When the first book in Riordan's new series, unrelated to the Percy Jackson universe but with similar elements in it, The Red Pyramid , came out back in May, I was kind of disappointed. The Red Pyramid was okay, it just didn't wow me as much as the Percy books did. The Lost Hero is the first book in another new series from Riordan, this one taking place in the same universe as the Percy Jackson books (about two years or so after the events in The Last Olympian), and featuring the same characters from the old books as well as some new ones. I was kind of worried when I picked it up, thinking it would be disappointing like The Red Pyramid, but it was unnecessary. The Lost Hero was amazing!

Minor spoilers ahead, so tread carefully!

The Lost Hero uses a similar premise to the Percy books, but the plot is upped a notch to the point where I was thinking "Riordan is cruel yet brilliant!"

Jason, Piper, and Leo are around 15-16 years old and find themselves on a wilderness retreat with their school for "bad kids" when storms rise up around them and Annabeth rescues them and takes them to Camp Half Blood where they all discover that, ta da!, they're all demigods. Jason is the son of Zeus, Piper is the daughter of Aphrodite, and Leo is the son of Hephaestus, so they're sectioned off into their perspective cabins and are soon issued the prophecy and quest typical of these books:

Child of lightning, beware the earth,
The giants' revenge the seven shall birth,
The forge and the dove shall break the cage,
And death unleash through Hera's rage.

Hera's been kidnapped by the giants (Gigantes), and our new group of demigods need to go off and discover why Hera was taken, and how it relates to the overarching plot that will span the series. At the same time, Piper's dad has been kidnapped by Enceladus (another of the giants), an act that attempts to divide her loyalties and break up the new group of heroes. So while trying to rescue Hera and Piper's dad, the three of them attempt to deal with issues from their pasts and what the demigod revelation means to their lives. If that wasn't enough, Jason has no clue who he is or where he came from, so they're trying to figure out Jason as well.

Whereas the Percy Jackson books had a first person narrative, and The Red Pyramid had alternating first person narratives, The Lost Hero has a third person point of view that alternates every two chapters between Jason, Piper, and Leo. I like how this book focuses on three main characters rather than mainly Percy in the previous series, you get to examine the different personalities a lot more closely than you did before. Jason's the reluctant leader, Piper is the slightly brainy mediator, and Leo is the handy one that thinks out of the box, so there's a character type for everyone this time. Similar to The Red Pyramid, Riordan's including more characters from different cultural backgrounds and races, which is really nice to see. Jason's Caucasian, but Piper is Cherokee, and Leo is Latino, so there's a nice mix here. I really liked how we got to see inside more of the cabins, especially Piper in the Aphrodite cabin. I never really thought much of Aphrodite and her kids, all pink and frilly and obsessed with their looks, but Piper is the complete opposite of that, and she explores what it really means to be a child of Aphrodite.

The only thing I disliked about this book was the length, which was the same complaint I had in The Red Pyramid. This book is over 550 pages, and certain parts in the middle felt unnecessary....I think you could trim or condense about 100 pages from this and it wouldn't suffer from it.

It's not hard to figure out the surprises in the plot once it gets going, but once you realize exactly where this series is going with it and get to the cliffhanger ending, you'll be incredibly hooked. Aside from my issues with the length, I'd have to say I'm liking this series just as much, if not more than the Percy Jackson books. The plot is more intricate, the characters are relatable and nicely varied, the writing is still super funny (kids will love it), and the new satyr character (Gleeson Hedge) that replaces Grover has the personality of a high school gym teacher/coach....that's right, he's awesome and hilarious.

This is a planned 5-book series, with one book released per year with the final one expected in late 2014. Which means I'll still be buying these books when my youngest nephew is nearly finished high school....that is a long way ahead. Book 2 comes out in the fall of 2011, so only about 10-11 months to go to read the next one!

Just as good if not better than the Percy Jackson books, so read this! It's probably not necessary to read the Percy books before starting on this, but you do get more of an appreciation for things if you do.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love it. The turquoise and gold colour scheme paired with the dynamic image of Leo, Piper, and Jason on Festus the mechanical dragon makes for a really eye-pleasing cover. The orangey font used for the author's name does seem out of place, but oh well.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Forge - Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: Forge (Book 2 in the Seeds of America series)
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Atheneum, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: January 4, 2011
Finished: January 6, 2011

In this compelling sequel to Chains, a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson shifts perspective from Isabel to Curzon and brings to the page the tale of what it takes for runaway slaves to forge their own paths in a world of obstacles—and in the midst of the American Revolution.

The Patriot Army was shaped and strengthened by the desperate circumstances of the Valley Forge winter. This is where Curzon the boy becomes Curzon the young man. In addition to the hardships of soldiering, he lives with the fear of discovery, for he is an escaped slave passing for free. And then there is Isabel, who is also at Valley Forge—against her will. She and Curzon have to sort out the tangled threads of their friendship while figuring out what stands between the two of them and true freedom.

After reading Chains last year, I knew this was a series I was going to be following. The author is one of my favourites, and anything she writes is golden. Forge is another one of her historical fiction titles, following Chains in a series about the American fight for independence and the impact on slavery at the same time. In Chains we looked at Isabel, sold to a Tory family in New York with her sister Ruth, and her struggle with loyalty over who will award her freedom. When she realizes neither side will honour promises made to slaves, Isabel runs away with a fellow slave named Curzon in the hopes of eventually reuniting with her sister, who was sold and sent to the South.

In Forge, the focus shifts from Isabel's narration to Curzon's, so we get more of a look into another aspect of the revolutionary war: the winter of 1778 at Valley Forge and the conditions soldiers had to endure. Curzon and Isabel separate when she insists on going south to find Ruth, while he falls into a stint as a soldier in the Patriot army that is eventually stationed at Valley Forge. Curzon chronicles his life as a soldier, through the hard labour of building cabins in the winter, the food shortages (I learned what Firecake is and how much I never want to eat it), as well as the lack of clothing supplied to soldiers even in the midst of winter. I liked how we had Isabel's perspective as a house slave in the first book, and now Curzon shows us how free black men and slaves both served in the revolutionary army. Of course the author is trying to illustrate the hypocrisy of people fighting for freedom when white people felt only they were deserving of it and denied it to their slaves. Whereas Chains pretty much focused on Isabel and her environment as a slave struggling with her loyalty, Forge shows that as well as the conditions that soldiers endured at Valley Forge regardless of race, so you see a few different issues in Forge, which was nice.

The writing is wonderful, handled with a surprising amount of humour (the potty talk between Curzon and his fellow soldiers is hilarious), and the issues presented are important yet not often examined in traditional children's historical fiction (slavery in the Revolutionary War as opposed to the Civil War). I have to give this author credit for making this kind of historical information really accessible through her novels, she has a great way of packing a lot of learning into her narratives without the reader even realizing it. The series continues in Ashes (out hopefully later this year), so I'll definitely be picking that up when it's out.

One of the better children's book series I've read, and it's historical fiction to boot (getting kids to read historical fiction and like it is like pulling teeth, so this makes it easier!). You do need to read Chains before starting Forge to get the full effect of the series, so read both of these!

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuation from the cover of Chains to Forge's. The same type of block colour illustration shows Curzon outfitted as a soldier, though with much more clothing than he normally has throughout the novel. I like how you can see the title in the smoke from his rifle, similar to how the title in Chains was designed to appear like cuffs on Isabel's wrists.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I Am Number Four - Pittacus Lore

Title: I Am Number Four
Author: Pittacus Lore
Publisher: Harper Teen, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 440 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Science Fiction
Started: January 3, 2011
Finished: January 4, 2011

Nine of us came here. We look like you. We talk like you. We live among you. But we are not you. We can do things you dream of doing. We have powers you dream of having. We are stronger and faster than anything you have ever seen. We are the superheroes you worship in movies and comic books—but we are real.

Our plan was to grow, and train, and become strong, and become one, and fight them. But they found us and started hunting us first. Now all of us are running. Spending our lives in shadows, in places where no one would look, blending in. we have lived among you without you knowing.

But they know.

They caught Number One in Malaysia.
Number Two in England.
And Number Three in Kenya.
They killed them all.

I am Number Four.

I am next.

I was really hoping this book lived up to all the hype, I really was. Sadly, this book seems like it was made specifically for the upcoming movie: decent yet predictable plot that's mostly action, flat characters, with writing that's mediocre at best.

Number Four and his guardian, Henri, leave Florida and make their way to Paradise, Ohio. Going by the name John Smith, the 15-year-old seamlessly integrates into small town life, all the while being constantly on guard for the Mogadorians, the alien race that drove the group of Loriens from their home planet and still hunts the survivors. Number Four is special however, he and the other Garde children from Lorien spread out all over the world with their perspective guardians will all eventually develop powers called Legacies. It is the hope of their guardians that they can keep the Garde children alive log enough to develop their powers, giving them an advantage in the fight when they eventually return to Lorien. A special spell/charm was developed to help keep the children alive for as long as possible: so long as the nine children are separated, they can only be killed in order of their numbered names. Any attempt to kill them out of order will result in the effect of the offensive attack reflected back on the attacker. As the children are killed in order throughout their years in hiding, the remaining kids develop a scar around their ankles reflecting each life lost. When Number Four develops the third scar on his ankle, he knows his is next, and he and Henri must be even more careful and vigilant than before.

The plot is decent enough and it could've really been a good novel if not for the writing and the characters. The writing feels like a movie script with barely any descriptive writing; everything is told, not shown. Not to mention Number Four has some of the most cheesy lines I have ever read...and not just when he's talking to Sarah either. The characters, with maybe the exception of Number Four and Henri, are complete cliches without any real development. Sarah is the typical "insert love interest here" character, Mark is the quarterback bully that used to date Sarah (surprise surprise), and Sam is the geeky sidekick that just happens to have an interest in aliens and UFOs. The plot is fairly predictable (with similarities to X-Men and Superman), and things seem to come together way too how Henri and Number Four have no issues with money while on the run because when they left Lorien ten year ago their ship just happened to blast off with a supply of diamonds that they sold for money...yeah, like I believe an alien planet just happened to be a source of uber expensive diamonds.

I did like Henri, he was a good father figure and was well-developed. And Bernie Kosar, the dog with the awesome name, was a nice addition too. The novel was a quick read because of the writing style, and will probably appeal to boys because of the emphasis on action and the entire "reminiscent of Superman" thing.

Good concept, but poorly executed. Will probably appeal to boys due to the content (lots of action scenes). If you're expecting something well written, this probably isn't for you.

Thoughts on the cover:
Eh, it's okay but not great. I do like the logo/symbol they've created and how it appears everywhere, which makes me love the cover underneath the dust jacket (it has the huge symbol embossed in red against the black cover).

Monday, January 3, 2011

Homework for Grown-Ups - E Foley & B. Coates

Title: Homework for Grown-Ups, Canadian Edition
Author: E. Foley & B. Coates
Publisher: Harper Collins Canada, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 440 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction/Reference
Started: December 31, 2010
Finished: January 2, 2011

Homework for Grown-ups is a brilliantly informative and entertaining book of old-school knowledge for adults. It is the ultimate refresher course on mathematics (remember Pythagoras' theorem? You will!), English grammar and literature (do you know your Margarets?), and chemistry and the sciences (including the big bang theory). It spans geography (can you name the planets in order?), history (what exactly was the Family Compact?), art, Latin, phys. ed. (hockey!), home economics and much more...including, crucially, recess (finally, definitive rules for Red Rover!).

Packed with essential facts, figures and theories, Homework for Grown-ups is a practical and wonderfully nostalgic revision guide for adults that will entertain while exercising the mind. It'll make readers the hit of any cocktail party, and might even equip parents to handle their child's homework without humiliation.

I saw this while out Christmas shopping weeks ago and knew this was a keeper. Like The Dangerous Book for Boys, this is one of those wonderful "compendium of information" type books that is successful purely because it has a fun, nostalgic value. This started out as a book in Britain, then spread to the US, and now a Canadian edition was published in the fall of 2010. Of course the information in the book differs between the British, American, and Canadian versions.

The book is divided into various subjects: English, Math, Home Economics, History, Science, Religious Education, Geography, Classics, Phys. Ed., and Art. Contained within each section is a very brief explanation of all the key learnings children learn in school that adults could benefit from remembering. Of course, coming from a teacher, if such a book were to summarize the key learnings children are exposed to throughout school, this book would be much bigger. Some of the sections are a little lacking: the English section is pretty much grammar rules with some summaries of classics and a piece on Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. The History section is pretty good though, and I was surprised to see a Home Economics's not required for any students in our local school boards. The Math section is kind of limited, it only covers material up to grade 8 or 9 (which is still a lot of material). The classics section is a very nice addition for adults but pretty useless if we're only going by material that kids learn in school....classics isn't really explicitly taught in schools here aside from the odd piece of history and Greek/Roman mythology. But the Classics chapter does go into a bit of Latin, which redeems it in my book (especially since Latin was pretty much required for students in Catholic schools here until the 80s).

The book has its limitations, but all in all this is a really neat little concept. It covers material taught in schools that adults older than I will remember (I went to school in the late 80s and throughout the 90s), so it would work if your sole purpose in buying this is to remember things you forgot if you went to school in the 50s-70s, but not so great if you're buying this purely to refresh your memory in order to help your kids with their homework. The modern day curriculum is so different now, the material in this book covers some things but leaves out others that are given more of an emphasis for modern day students.

Definitely buy this for it's nostalgic value, but don't rely on it to help kids with their homework like the back of the book claims you can: invest in some updated reference books that reflect the new curriculum to help the kids with their homework.

Thoughts on the cover:
This is a nice, red hardcover book that actually looks like an old-school least it looks like the textbooks my parents used in the 60s/70s.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) - Kody Keplinger

Title: The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend)
Author: Kody Keplinger
Publisher: Poppy (Little, Brown and Company), 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 277 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: December 28, 2010
Finished: December 30, 2010

From the inside cover:
Seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper is cynical and loyal, and she doesn't think she's the prettiest of her friends by a long shot. She's also way too smart to fall for the charms of man-slut and slimy school hottie Wesley Rush. In fact, Bianca hates him. And when he nicknames her "Duffy," she throws her Coke in his face.

But things aren't so great at home right now. Desperate for a distraction, Bianca ends up kissing Wesley. And likes it. Eager for escape, she throws herself into a closeted enemies-with-benefits relationship with Wesley.

Until it all goes horribly awry. It turns out that Wesley isn't such a bad listener, and his life is pretty screwed up, too. Suddenly Bianca realizes with absolute horror that she's falling for the guy she thought she hated more than anyone.

You really have a realistic, relatable character in Bianca. She's seventeen, sarcastic, her parents are getting a divorce, her dad's a recovering alcoholic that's threatening to relapse, and she doesn't believe in all that mushy love crap. So when things get too much for her to handle at home, she escapes by getting into a purely sexual relationship with the school's man-whore, Wesley Rush.

This novel is actually a really sweet (albeit very sexed up) story about facing your problems head-on rather than taking up with things (or people) to distract you from them. The characters are very believable teenagers and are realistic in what they say and do. Bianca, Jessica, and Casey are refreshingly good friends that aren't out to screw each other, and other than Bianca's exploits, they've all got good heads on their shoulders. Even Wesley the playboy is a well developed and layered character.

The only qualm I had with the book was the amount of sex. Not that I'm naive enough to believe that teenagers don't have sex, I teach them every day, I know they do, but I just don't think they have quite that much of it. So that part of it was a little taxing on my suspension of disbelief. However, I do love the way sex was handled in the book. Everyone takes the proper protective precaution, and there's even a pregnancy scare that leads to a wonderful "holy crap, I could've ruined my life, I'm going to do things differently from now on" moment. So even though there is a lot of teenage sex in this novel, I couldn't ask for a better portrayal of it.

A really nice story about facing up to your problems: well-written, and very relatable characters. While there is quite a bit of sex in the novel, it's responsibly portrayed, so I can honestly say I wouldn't have any issues giving it to a high school aged kid to read. All in all, a really fun, enjoyable read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it. Yellow is an under-represented colour in covers these days, and it fits into this so well. I also like how Bianca's eyeshadow and her gum are in matching colours, very cute.