Thursday, September 29, 2011

Then - Morris Gleitzman

Title: Then (sequel to Once)
Author: Morris Gleitzman
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 198 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: September 28, 2011
Finished: September 28, 2011

Felix and Zelda have escaped the train to the death camp, but where do they go now? They're two runaway kids in Nazi-occupied Poland. Danger lies at every turn of the road.

With the help of a woman named Genia and their active imaginations, Felix and Zelda find a new home and begin to heal, forming a new family together. But can it last?

Morris Gleitzman's winning characters will tug at readers' hearts as they struggle to survive in the harsh political climate of Poland in 1942. Their lives are difficult, but they always remember what matters: family, love, and hope.

I fell in love with Once last year because it was so poignant and the writing was beautiful (thanks mainly to Felix's voice). Then takes off where Once left off, Felix and Zelda jump off the train headed toward the concentration camp and realize they need to find a place where they'll be taken care of. They come across Nazi soldiers at a mass grave of Jewish children and flee to the neighbouring town where they are taken in by Genia. Genia's an interesting character because she is anti-Semitic and yet hates the Nazis more because they hurt children. Felix and Zelda must take on new identities in the town and blend in as much they can to prevent from being discovered, and with Jews tormented and killed everyday, the possibility that they might meet the same fate grows more apparent.

Then has the same unique innocent yet not quality of writing that Once had. Felix is more aware in this book as opposed to the previous one, he's already lost his innocence, but he holds back for Zelda's sake, and softens things without completely sugarcoating them, it's an interesting balance.

Beautiful, just like it's predecessor. The ending might be a bit much for sensitive readers, so be aware (as much as I can say without spoilers).

Thoughts on the cover:
Grittier and bolder than the Australian cover of Once from my previous review, the domestic covers obviously underwent an overhaul to make them more appealing. The cover of Once was also redesigned to match this one: the Once cover features just Felix on the barbed wire against a gray background.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hourglass - Myra McEntire

Title: Hourglass
Author: Myra McEntire
Publisher: Egmont, 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Science Fiction
Started: September 16, 2011
Finished: September 20, 2011

One hour to rewrite the past . . .

For seventeen-year-old Emerson Cole, life is about seeing what isn’t there: swooning Southern Belles; soldiers long forgotten; a haunting jazz trio that vanishes in an instant. Plagued by phantoms since her parents’ death, she just wants the apparitions to stop so she can be normal. She’s tried everything, but the visions keep coming back.

So when her well-meaning brother brings in a consultant from a secretive organization called the Hourglass, Emerson’s willing to try one last cure. But meeting Michael Weaver may not only change her future, it may change her past.

Who is this dark, mysterious, sympathetic guy, barely older than Emerson herself, who seems to believe every crazy word she says? Why does an electric charge seem to run through the room whenever he’s around? And why is he so insistent that he needs her help to prevent a death that never should have happened?

Full of atmosphere, mystery, and romance, Hourglass merges the very best of the paranormal and science-fiction genres in a seductive, remarkable young adult debut.

I have to admit, I picked this book up purely because of cover-lust, it's absolutely gorgeous. Sadly, the actual book wasn't quite as satisfying even though I really really wanted to like it.

Emerson is 17 years old and since her parents passed away 4 years ago, she now lives with her brother and his wife. Since her parents' death, she's also been able to see what she thinks are ghosts from past time periods, and her brother has been trying to find someone to help her deal with this ability. When her brother hires Michael for the job, Emerson falls for him hard and fast. He belongs to an organization called Hourglass, and explains to Emerson that what she's seeing aren't actually ghosts per se, she's seeing time rips, images of people from the past while they were still alive, kind of like poking your head through into an alternate universe while still walking around in ours. He also drops the bomb that she can see these rips because she can travel back in time, just as Michael can see time rips from the future. When the two are combined, in a very cheesy "we were destined to be together" cliche, they can travel to the past or the future. Michael convinces Emerson to help him save the life of his mentor, who was killed 6 months ago, but there are risks they need to face...

This book has a decent enough concept, I'm all for a unique spin on time travel, but this whole plot seemed rushed from the start. Since it felt rushed with not a lot of information given or fleshed out, the plot seemed unrealistic and unbelievable. You have some decent powers that relate to time travel but then lead in with a cheesy romance where the girl and guy fall for each other way too quickly for it to be believable, and the guy is obviously hiding things from the girl and she knows it and she doesn't kick him to the curb for it! Plus the 'special powers' school screams 'X-Men', which, although I love X-Men, I hate it when every special school portrayed in fiction falls into that cliche without some personality of its own to stand on.

However, there were a few things I did like. Emerson seemed like a pretty good character at first, but she suffers once the romance element is introduced, she completely turns into that YA spineless, senseless heroine that I hate, which is unfortunate, I thought she was pretty spunky in the beginning. I also was really intrigued by Kaleb, not necessarily by his role as the other guy in the love triangle, but just himself as a character since he is an empath and was portrayed very sympathetically (plus he's a bit of a playboy, but a goodhearted one, so he's okay in my books).

Not as good as I was hoping for, but there were some good points. I will probably pick up the sequel to see if things improve in the next installment.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's sad the book itself was disappointing, 'cause the cover is freaking beautiful. I love the curve and angle of the cover model, how it looks like she's suspended in motion as a gust of wind whipped through her hair and clothing (I had to turn the book around to "get" the clue in the picture).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths - Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

Title: D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths
Author: Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire
Publisher: The New York Review of Books, 1995 (Hardcover) (originally published in 1967)
Length: 154 pages
Genre: Children's Classic/Fantasy
Started: September 13, 2011
Finished: September 15, 2011

The Caldecott medal-winning d'Aulaires once again captivate their young audience with this beautifully illustrated introduction to Norse legends, telling stories of Odin the All-father, Thor the Thunder-god and the theft of his hammer, Loki the mischievous god of the Jotun Race, and Ragnarokk, the destiny of the gods. Children meet Bragi, the god of poetry, and the famous Valkyrie maidens, among other gods, goddesses, heroes, and giants. Illustrations throughout depict the wondrous other world of Norse folklore and its fantastical Northern landscape.

I must've been deprived as a child because I only discovered the D'Aulaire mythology books as an adult. I stumbled upon the Greek Myths one years ago when I first exposed my nephew to the Percy Jackson books and he was into anything related to Greek Mythology. When I found out there was a Norse Myths book as well, I kept my eye out for it since I knew I'd want to add it to my collection. We're big on mythology in this household...we named our dog Freya and my husband briefly jokingly considered naming our child Thor ^^; I grew up on versions of the Greek myths but never was really exposed to the Norse myths until university, so although I do prefer the Greek/Roman myths I do think the Norse stories are pretty awesome too.

The D'Aulaire mythology books are just stunning to say the least. The illustrations are vibrantly colourful with a texture quality that you just don't see in modern picture books. Like the D'Aulaire Greek Myths book, the stories in the Norse Myths are presented in a somewhat linear fashion, each one is connects to the stories placed before and after it in the book. It's not a style you see often in mythology books (I find they tend to be written in entries like encyclopedias or in one-shot stories where all the backstory is either completely left out or explained in full), but I find that I like it done this way, it naturally flows from one story to another.

There's not much to say about this book aside from the fact that it's a classic for a reason and that everyone who read it as a child has fond memories of it. We recommend these books to our students when they do research projects on mythology, which considering that these books are from the 1960's is a pretty amazing thing. I now have both D'Aulaire mythology books in my collection now, which will eventually go on my daughter's bookshelf, and I can't wait to pass these on to her.

If you're looking for a classic book of mythology stories for your child, or even for an adult to enjoy, look no further. It's probably not the best idea to give this to a very young child though, I noticed the paper quality is a bit thin, so in order to avoid ripped pages you might want to wait until they are school-aged and more gentle with things.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the darker gray-blues of the Norse Myths cover contrast with the bright yellows and oranges of the Greek Myths cover. The image of Odin riding Sleipnir is a nice dynamic one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Vol. 1 - Naoko Takeuchi

Title: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Vol. 1
Author: Naoko Takeuchi
Publisher: Kodansha Comics USA, 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 236 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Manga
Started: September 13, 2011
Finished: September 13, 2011

Usagi Tsukino is a normal girl until she meets up with Luna, a talking cat, who tells her that she is Sailor Moon. As Sailor Moon, Usagi must fight evils and enforce justice, in the name of the Moon and the mysterious Moon Princess. She meets other girls destined to be Sailor Senshi (Sailor Scouts), and together, they fight the forces of evil!

This new edition of Sailor Moon will feature:

- An entirely new, incredibly accurate translation!
- Japanese-style, right-to-left reading!
- New cover art never before seen in the U.S.!
- The original Japanese character names!
- Detailed translation notes!

This version of Sailor Moon will be completely true to original. Join us as Sailor Moon returns to the U.S. for the first time in years!

Cheesy as this is, this was a must-buy for me. I was a huuuuuuuuge Sailor Moon fan when the show first came out (I was 12 then), and that was the first of many events that eventually led to a university degree in Japanese Studies and being fluent enough in Japanese to keep shelves of Japanese comics and novels that aren't there for show.

For those not familiar with the issues surrounding the Sailor Moon manga in North America (or if it was just before your time), I'll give you a quick synopsis (I'm assuming I don't actually need to summarize the plot of the manga itself, I'll let you find that on your own if need be).

The manga was created by Naoko Takeuchi in Japan in the early 1990s and ran until the series was completed in 1995, resulting in 18 volumes. The anime television show began in the middle of all that, ending in Japan in 1997 after the 5th season. Domestically, the television show first aired in 1995, with the English manga release soon following in 1997. However, North American licenses tried to make the show more marketable to younger viewers, so they had to amend and censor a lot of the show's mature content (turning the lesbian characters into 'kissing cousins'), and the same happened in the English language version of the manga. Plus this was back in the day when translators thought that North American readers couldn't handle the right-to-left format of Japanese comics or foreign names, so all the artwork was flipped and the characters' names were changed, and not in clean equivalent versions of their Japanese names either. Plus, English speaking viewers never got to see the final arc of the series (Sailor Stars) in the show due to the gender bending issues surrounding the Starlight characters, they figured once again that North American audiences couldn't handle some magical transvestite action. The Sailor Stars arc of the manga was eventually released in English, but I never read them before they went out of print (I had my Japanese copies by that point so I never bothered), so I don't know if the content of that arc was censored.

Anywhoo, moving on. In 2003 in Japan, the Sailor Moon franchise got a revival in the form of a live-action tv show called Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon (previously called Pretty Soldier). The manga series was re-released at the same time into 12 condensed volumes (from the original 18), the artwork was cleaned up, new cover art was created, it was altogether a very nice release (I have the Japanese volumes sitting on my shelf now, they're quite pretty). Most people assumed that North America would never see a proper Sailor Moon translation after the English-language rights expired in 2005, but this release took me by surprise, I must say (in addition to the fact that the same company is releasing the Sailor V manga in English as well, the prequel to the Sailor Moon series).

This release is essentially identical to the Japanese re-release from 2003. The cover art is the same, volume for volume, the translation is spot-on to the original, we even get the colour pages included in the Japanese release (which manga readers know is something not guaranteed in English versions). The only thing not included in this release is the stickers that came in the Japanese first-press copies (granted, I figured we wouldn't be getting those). With that aside, anyone that was only familiar with the North American version of the series (television or print) will be a little shocked, this version of Sailor Moon is not intended for little kiddies. The translation has not been censored or dumbed down in any way, so even though this was a children's comic series in Japan (Japanese kids are given much more mature material than we give our kids of the same age), I wouldn't give it to anyone younger than 13 or so, especially given the darker content later in the series.

Not your mother's Sailor Moon, which in this case is a very good thing. True to the Japanese re-release, this is a translation that English-language fans can be proud of (plus they kept it pretty to boot). Again, not meant for little kids due to mature content (alternative lifestyles, sexual content, violence, etc.), but this'll be tame stuff to the average teenager.

Thoughts on the cover:
The overall presentation isn't as pleasing as the Japanese version (I'm just biased though, I like the look of the Japanese dust covers), but still quite nice. The cover image itself is identical to the Japanese cover, and from what I can tell, the rest of the volumes will follow suit (volume two is Sailor Mercury, 3 is Mars, 4 is Jupiter and so on). The English release cover is glossy plastic, so the colours aren't quite as soft as the Japanese matte cover.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Cleopatra's Moon - Vicky Alvear Shecter

Title: Cleopatra's Moon
Author: Vicky Alvear Shecter
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 343 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: September 5, 2011
Finished: September 7, 2011

From the inside cover:
Princess of Egypt, Prisoner of Rome

Cleopatra Selene is the only daughter of the brilliant Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and General Marcus Antonius of Rome. She's grown up with jewels on her arms, servants at her feet, and all the pleasures of a palace at her command, and she only wants to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a great and powerful queen.

Then the Roman ruler Octavianus, who has always wanted Egypt's wealth, launches a war that destroys all Selene has ever known. Taken to live in Octavianus' palace in Rome, she vows to defeat him and reclaim her kingdom at all costs. Yet even as she gathers support for her return, Selene finds herself torn between two young men and two different paths to power. Will love distract her from her goal-or help her achieve her true destiny?

Epic in scope and ravishing in detail, this novel reveals the extraordinary life of a girl long hidden in history: the remarkable Cleopatra Selene.

I picked this up purely because I hardly ever see YA historical fiction based in this period of history, and definitely not on this particular subject. My husband was a history and classics major in university, as were most of my friends, so I love these types of historical fiction stories. Luckily for me, Cleopatra's Moon was a joy to read: wonderfully evocative and thought-provoking.

The story opens up in 25 BCE with Cleopatra Selene at age 16 as she grieves the death of her twin brother Alexandros Helios. The story then backtracks to Selene at age 7 in Alexandria, Egypt, where readers get a snapshot of her life at the palace with her mother, father, and brothers (Caesarion, Alexandros Helios, and Ptloemy Philadelphios). We see through conversations that Octavianus, Julius Caesar's heir apparent (but not biologically), is preparing to wage war on Egypt and eventually achieves that when Selene is 11. Overwhelmed and vulnerable, Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra both commit suicide (Antonius doing this in front of Selene), and Caesarion is killed to remove his claim to succession (Caesarion is the child of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar). In a carefully balanced show of Rome's political goodwill towards its conquered countries, Octavianus takes Cleopatra's 3 remaining children back with him to Rome as prisoners of war. Living in Octavianus' compound with his sister Octavia, wife Livia and all their children, always being reminded of her family's demise and subject to constant insults about her mother, Selene vows to somehow regain control over Egypt and defy Octavianus.

Some reviewers have criticized the novel as being too slow at times, and that Selene's narration is too old and mature considering the various ages she progresses through. I didn't find the novel slow in any parts, but granted I liked all the detail of her early life in Egypt, so it might be just me. As for the narration, I think what most of these reviewers failed to realize is that Selene is looking back on the events of her early life at the age of 16/17, so of course her narration will sound like an older teenager's even though she's supposed to be 7 at the time, because she's reflecting, kind of like a memoir. Those are a few common complaints that I found kind of moot.

I love the feminist undertones woven throughout the whole novel. Selene is used to an Egyptian society that values women, and is surprised when she encounters other faiths and societies that don't (first the Jewish population in Alexandria and then Rome itself). Selene is like her mother: fiery, determined, and willing to do what she must for the good of Egypt. Although she holds onto the fact that the Goddess Isis will show her her destiny, it takes Selene the better part of the book to realize that she must make her own decisions and not base them on what she thinks the Goddess wants for her or what her mother would have done. The love triangle element in the book really isn't a huge focus like in typical YA, which was nice to see, and isn't really a triangle, since Selene makes it clear early on that she desires only one choice while she would use the other purely for political gain (I had to smile at that part). Selene is a very strong female character, and I have to commend the author for not only presenting a well-written and researched piece of historical fiction, but one that contains inherently strong female characters that she balances between historical fact and added details to flesh out their personalities.

Rarely explored subject matter for YA, amazingly well-written, incredibly well-researched, and a strong female character to boot, what more could you ask for? An excellent novel, one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love it. The black and gold colour scheme is beautiful (especially the fact that the gold parts are shiny in some areas), and the whole layout of the cover and the pose of the model is simple yet elegant. I also like how the model looks like Cleopatra Selene would've looked like, so yay for no whitewashing in this cover!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Ruby Red - Kerstin Gier

Title: Ruby Red (Book 1 in the Edelstein Trilogy)
Author: Kerstin Gier (translated from the German by Anthea Bell)
Publisher: Henry Holt, 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 322 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Science Fiction
Started: August 31, 2011
Finished: September 4, 2011

Gwyneth Shepherd's sophisticated, beautiful cousin Charlotte has been prepared her entire life for traveling through time. But unexpectedly, it is Gwyneth, who in the middle of class takes a sudden spin to a different era!

Gwyneth must now unearth the mystery of why her mother would lie about her birth date to ward off suspicion about her ability, brush up on her history, and work with Gideon--the time traveler from a similarly gifted family that passes the gene through its male line, and whose presence becomes, in time, less insufferable and more essential. Together, Gwyneth and Gideon journey through time to discover who, in the 18th century and in contemporary London, they can trust.

Yet another time travel book, which I'm always happy to see. Ruby Red started off pretty slow, but picked up about 100 pages in once the plot actually delved into something beyond Gwen and Charlotte.

Gwyneth's family inherited a special gene that allows certain members every few generations the ability to travel back in time (with certain restrictions). Along with a few more similar groups, the individuals who throughout the years could travel through time make up a group of 12 that all have codenames based on gemstones. When it's discovered that Gwyneth is the final person in this group of 12 (and not her cousin Charlotte as previously thought), the circle is now complete, and when that event occurs and certain conditions are fulfilled, that group will unleash a power that is yet unknown, and some people don't want that to happen and try to sabotage the time travelers. Ruby Red is essentially Gwyneth trying to uncover her past and the mystery surrounding her family, and working with Gideon to try to meet the certain conditions for the circle to be completed and running into issues along the way.

The book did start off really slow, to the point where I wasn't sure that I wanted to read on, but at about the 100 page mark, things picked up and I was much more pleased with the book after that point. A lot of other reviewers point out that Gwyneth comes off as much younger than nearly 17-years-old, which I did notice, but I chalked that up to character personality and cultural differences; this book is written by an international author, and teenagers in Europe do act differently than those in North America. The thing that kind of irked me is that, at least in this book, the time traveling is more of a plot device to account for the whole "blood in the chronograph" part of the plot and there's nothing really substantial that comes from Gwyneth and Gideon time traveling other than dressing up in pretty costumes and going to a certain time for a set number of hours purely to avoid random, spastic time traveling. I do love the gemstone theme woven throughout the series, and it includes something else I love: family trees and diagrams! The series shows a lot of promise by the end of Ruby Red, so I'll definitely be picking up Sapphire Blue when it comes out next year.

Starts off slow, but picks up eventually and results in a nice start to what is hopefully a great trilogy, I will definitely be keeping my eye out on this one.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love it. The curlycues with the ruby gemstones and Gwyneth's picture at the top make this whole cover a wonderful piece of eye candy, and the shade of red is quite nice too. Hopefully we'll get some continuity in the covers for Sapphire Blue (book 2) and Emerald Green (book 3).