Saturday, December 29, 2012

Iron Hearted Violet - Kelly Barnhill

Title: Iron Hearted Violet
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Little Brown and Company, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 424 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: December 17, 2012
Finished: December 29, 2012

From the inside cover:

In most fairy tales, the princess is beautiful, dragons are terrifying, and stories are harmless. This isn't most fairy tales.

Princess Violet is plain, reckless, and quite possibly too clever for her own good. Particularly when it comes to telling stories. One day she and her best friend, Demetrius, stumble upon a hidden room and find a peculiar book. A forbidden book. It tells a story of an evil being-called the Nybbas-imprisoned in their own world. The story cannot be true-not really. But then, the whispers start. Violet and Demetrius, along with an ancient scarred dragon, may hold the key to the Nybbas' triumph...or its demise. It all depends on how they tell the story. After all, stories make their own rules.

Iron Hearted Violet is the story of a princess unlike any other. It is a story of the last dragon in existence, deathly afraid of its own reflection. Above all, it is a story about the power of stories, our belief in them, and how one enchanted tale changed the course of an entire kingdom.

I love stories which touch on the power of stories, so Iron Hearted Violet was a must-read for me. Aside from a few minor issues, I really enjoyed the novel and think it's a wonderful example of a well-done middle grade fantasy.

First off, I loved having Cassian the storyteller as the narrator. I'm so used to a first-person narration or your run of the mill third person omniscient that it was refreshing to see an actual character as the third person narrator. He has a unique voice with a self-deprecating sense of humour, so his narration is very entertaining to read. It was a little awkward at times though, Cassian obviously doesn't see everything so his credibility is questionable (I assumed he gathered information from everyone after the fact), and half the time you forget that it is actually Cassian narrating so when he's referred to by name by Violet or Demetrius it's a little jarring.

I liked the themes of the power of stories and how being a 'true princess' isn't about beauty. Stories are rightfully shown to have power based on people's belief in them, and Violet spends most of the novel learning that even though she doesn't look anything like a stereotypical princess (and is actually described as ugly), that she embodies every aspect of a 'real princess'. I did have a beef with the illustrations though (done by an illustrator, not the author), Violet is described as being quite ugly and having chipped teeth, mismatched eyes, freckles, super frizzy hair, and a pug nose. She's drawn as a cute and perky girl with awesome curly/wavy hair. I understand that no one wants to see a truly ugly character in pictures, but I believe in staying true to content, and Violet's homely appearance and not fitting into that princess ideal is a big part of the story and the illustrations should reflect that.

I liked how the Nybbas was actually disturbing and scary, something you don't see too often in a villan/antagonist in a middle grade book. I also liked that there was no love interest angle with Demetrius and Violet, but considering it's middle grade I would have been severely disappointed if they had taken that angle as opposed to the innocent friendship aspect.

A few small issues, but overall an excellent novel with enchanting writing, wonderful themes, and endearing characters.

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, my issue with the illustrations is how Violet isn't portrayed as described, but the actual cover is nice and dynamic and not typical at all (both in terms of images and colour scheme).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Crown of Embers - Rae Carson

Title: The Crown of Embers (sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns)
Author: Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (Harper Collins), 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 410 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 7, 2012
Finished: December 12, 2012

From the inside cover:

Elisa is a hero.

She led her people to victory over a terrifying sorcerous army. Her place as the country's ruler should be secure. But it isn't.

Her enemies come at her like ghosts in a dream, from foreign realms and even from within her own court. And her destiny as the chosen one has not yet been fulfilled.

To conquer the power she bears, once and for all, Elisa must follow a trail of long-forgotten-and forbidden-clues, from the deep, hidden catacombs of her own city to the treacherous seas. With her go a one-eyed spy, a traitor, and the man whom-despite everything-she is falling in love with.

If she's lucky, she will return from this journey. But there will be a cost.

After reading The Girl of Fire and Thorns last year, I loved it so much I knew I'd be reading the sequels. The Crown of Embers thankfully doesn't disappoint, in fact, I think I liked it even better than the first book.

The Crown of Embers takes place where the first book left off: Elisa is queen after Alejandro dies and names her the ruler, but confidence in her reign as queen is waning. Elisa is targeted numerous times both by members of her own court as well as Inviernos. After discovering an exiled Invierno hiding out in an underground settlement under the city who tells them of a divine source of power that only bearers of the Godstone can access, Elisa and her closest companions go on a journey to obtain this source of power to secure her position as queen.

I loved that this newest installment had even more political intrigue than the previous book, and it's rife with issues such as misogyny and monarchy, strategy, palace politics; it was a joy to read such an intelligent premise.

Elisa is once again one of my favourite YA female protagonists; she's strong, cunning, intelligent and compassionate, but is still vulnerable enough to make her a realistic 17-year-old. I also love her sarcastic sense of humour, it was a wonderful way to balance an otherwise serious novel. The other characters are well-developed and enjoyable too; readers see another side of Ximena, Mara gets more exposure especially in the latter half of the book, Hector is just plain wonderful, and I really enjoyed having Storm in the group (his interactions with Elisa were hilarious).

One thing I have to give the author credit for is the romance, which has a bigger role in this installment than in the previous one. The relationship between Elisa and Hector is wonderfully portrayed first of all, a great example of showing versus telling. The relationship is grounded in mutual respect and admiration, doesn't happen instantly like in most YA stories, and is incredibly mature (emotional maturity, not sexually).

There aren't enough words to express how much love I have for this book, so just read it, it really is awesome. The third book comes out next year and I will be impatiently waiting for it.

Thoughts on the cover:
Keeping consistent with the first book, there's the nondescript background with the Godstone front and center, with Elisa's face inside. I like the colour scheme, lots of blues and purples with a bit of green.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Juliet Immortal - Stacey Jay

Title: Juliet Immortal
Author: Stacey Jay
Publisher: Ember (Random House), 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 306 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 1, 2012
Finished: December 6, 2012

From the back of the book:

Juliet Capulet didn't take her own life. She was murdered by the one person she trusted most, her new husband, Romeo Montague, who made the sacrifice to ensure his own immortality. But Romeo didn't anticipate that Juliet would be granted eternal life as well, and would become an agent for the Ambassadors of Light.

For seven hundred years, Juliet has struggled to preserve romantic love and the lives of the innocent, while Romeo has fought for the dark side, seeking to destroy the human heart. Until now.

Now Juliet has found forbidden love, and Romeo, O Romeo, will do everything in his power to destroy their happiness.

After reading the summary of the book I knew I had to read it. I'm a high school English teacher, and Romeo and Juliet is the Shakespeare play our Grade 11s read; so when I saw a book about the idea that the typical Romeo and Juliet story is a complete lie and said book actually pulled it off, I fell in love.

The premise here is that the Romeo and Juliet story we all know is mostly true up to a point. Romeo went to the dark side (the Mercenaries) and killed Juliet in exchange for immortal life, but at the moment of her death Juliet is given a chance to work for the good side (the Ambassadors) and is granted the same deal. Both are reincarnated every few generations; Juliet tries to save the lives of a pair of soul mates, and Romeo tries to get one to kill the other in the name of love.

In present day Southern California, Juliet now occupies the body of Ariel Dragland and tries to not only fix her life to a certain degree but also to make sure soulmates Gemma and Ben stay together and don't die at the hands of Romeo. But things get complicated when Ben falls in love with Ariel/Juliet and she begins to question the purpose of all she's doing.

Aside from the unique take on the typical Romeo and Juliet story, I really enjoyed Juliet's character and how the story really is a homage to true love and personal growth and acceptance. Juliet at first is angry and bitter (not to mention kick-ass) because she fell head over heels for Romeo and he screwed her over, and really, who hasn't felt that way about love at some point in their lives? Over the course of the novel, she begins to believe in love again and starts to forgive herself for the mistakes she made as a naive 14-year-old girl. The love she shares with Ben is on more equal footing and based on mutual respect, which is a good example for readers.

I loved the side-story with Ariel's life and the players in it, and especially how her mother is a realistic portrayal of a parent in YA fiction, flawed yet well-intentioned and fiercely loves her daughter. Romeo is actually well-developed and not simply an evil villain, I actually felt sorry for the poor boy at one point. Ben was lovely but I think he could've used some more time in the spotlight. Also, having the students perform West Side Story was a great piece of brilliance on the author's part.

A surprisingly enjoyable read, very unique premise with great characters and themes. I'll definitely be picking up the sequel, Romeo Redeemed, at some point.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it, the Juliet model in the red flowing dress on a rock by the ocean just fits together so well and doesn't fall into the trap of typical YA covers (close-up of a girl's face and nothing else).

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cinder - Marissa Meyer

Title: Cinder (Book One of The Lunar Chronicles)
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 387 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction, Science Fiction
Started: November 24, 2012
Finished: November 29, 2012

From the inside cover:

Sixteen-year-old Cinder is considered a technological mistake by most of society and a burden by her stepmother. Being cyborg does have its benefits, though: Cinder's brain interface has given her an uncanny ability to fix things (robots, hovers, her own malfunctioning parts), making her the best mechanic in New Beijing. This reputation brings Prince Kai himself to her weekly market booth, needing her to repair a broken android before the annual ball. He jokingly calls it a "matter of national security," but Cinder suspects it's more serious than he's letting on.

Although eager to impress the prince, Cinder's intentions are derailed when her younger stepsister, and only human friend, is infected with the fatal plague that's been devastating Earth for a decade. Blaming Cinder for her daughter's illness, Cinder's stepmother volunteers her body for plague research, an "honour" that no one has survived.

But it doesn't take long for the scientists to discover something unusual about their new guinea pig. Something others would kill for.

I had first picked this up shortly after its release, but didn't end up starting it due to the craziness of being a new mom. Now that I've reintegrated reading back into my daily life, I knew I had to give Cinder another shot, and I'm thankful that I did.

Cinder lives in New Beijing (part of the Commonwealth formed after the devastating fourth World War), and lives as a second class citizen due to her partially mechanic makeup. Earth is at constant tension with Luna (the civilization on the moon), and has been plagued by a deadly epidemic called letumosis. When Cinder is asked by Prince Kai to fix an android that she discovers has been hacked and subsequently leaked a huge political secret, Cinder becomes caught up in a mass of political intrigue, plus issues surrounding medical ethics, that makes for one seriously enjoyable and engrossing story.

On to the things I liked. First off, this is a Cinderella retelling, but definitely not your run-of-the-mill kind; in fact, the story and its characters could stand by itself without the Cinderella references (similar to Shadows on the Moon that I read earlier this year). 

Secondly, this Cinderella is a cyborg cool is that? I loved that Cinder was mechanically inclined (more so referring to her being in a traditionally male job), and paired with being a cyborg rocked my socks, this is one archetype you don't see often in YA literature. Also, the author's bio described her as being fond of Sailor Moon and Firefly (two of my favourites), and fans of those shows will definitely see the geeky influences in the novel. 

The writing was well-done, characters were wonderful, and the romance between Cinder and Kai was believable and gradual and didn't make me want to chuck things at a wall. Plus, this is the first book of a series of four, so there's lots more love to go around. If there's anything I didn't like (and it's very marginal dislike) it's that it was easy to figure out where the story was headed, almost like the author gave too many easy hints. But even though I knew where things were going, nevertheless I enjoyed the ride immensely.

Read it! Seriously pick this up, I guarantee this will be a much-adored new series, especially for geeky readers looking for a new series with a sci-fi edge. I will be eagerly awaiting the next installment coming early in the new year. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I can't express how much love I have for this cover, it's just perfect, plus it's sexy...I know, it's so weird for me to use that word and 'book cover' in the same sentence, but it's true. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Forsaken - Lisa M. Stasse

Title: The Forsaken
Author: Lisa M. Stasse
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 375 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: November 20, 2012
Finished: November 24, 2012

From the inside cover:

When the rest of the world has given up on you, who will you become?

Alenna Shawcross hasn't seen her parents since they were dragged out of her house by government soldiers of the UNA, a new nation formed from the remnants of Canada, the USA, and Mexico. And now, as a sixteen-year-old orphan; she has failed a government personality test designed to diagnose subversive tendencies.

As punishment, Alenna is banished to the wheel, a mysterious island where all the kids who fail get sent. A place where the conditions are brutal, and a civil war rages between two very different tribes of teenagers.

So when Alenna meets Liam, a charismatic warrior who is planning to escape, she must find the strength to make a difficult decision: to either accept her new life on the wheel, or to embark on a journey that will uncover shocking secrets about the UNA-and her own identity as well.

This received some hype earlier in the year, plus I love dystopian fiction, so of course I picked it up. Do I regret it? Sadly, yes. The Forsaken is unfortunately a victim of genre hype, where a specific type of story (in this case dystopian such as Hunger Games) is insanely popular and a slew of books come out in the same vein but never quite measure up, not just in terms of the type of story but as a story in general.

Right from the beginning there isn't enough world building to satisfy my suspension of disbelief. We're told through Alenna that the UNA formed in the aftermath of economic crisis and famine, but nothing more than that. How did they come to that decision? What exactly did the UNA do to anger the people and incite rebellion? I need a certain level of background information going into a story to make me say "okay, this could potentially happen, let's do this", and I didn't get that here.

There isn't enough character development either. Alenna seems so flat and vanilla, no quirks, nothing that stands out in terms of personality, she's a good girl who follows government protocol and defends it despite the fact that that same government took away her own parents. Gadya is your typical tough girl who flies off the handle, and Liam is a blank slate good guy and warrior who Alenna falls in love with instantly (I absolutely hate that, it's so unrealistic).

I think the thing that most stood out for me was that the book seemed to try to combine elements of the Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Lord of the Flies in a way that just didn't work. I admit there are books that combine elements originally used in previous works and it melds into its own unique story even with those borrowed elements...but the way it's done in The Forsaken is just sloppy.

I do have some hope with the sequel though, so I'm willing to withhold complete judgement on the work as a whole in the hopes that this was just a slow start.

Not really worth reading, there are so many better examples of dystopian fiction out there with a better plot, writing, characters, and world building.

Thoughts on the cover:
This is probably the only part of the book I do like. The black silhouette on the white background (reversed on the back), the images in the silhouette, the coloured dots that form the shape of Alenna's face, it's quite impressive.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Billy Christmas - Mark A. Pritchard

Title: Billy Christmas
Author: Mark A. Pritchard
Publisher: Alan Squire Publishing, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Science Fiction
Started: November 16, 2012
Finished: November 19, 2012

From the inside cover:

Billy Christmas is a boy with a man's problems. Since his father disappeared mysteriously last Christmas, Billy's mom has withdrawn completely into her grief, neglecting him and everything else. Now, in addition to his schoolwork, Billy must also keep the household running for both of them, cooking, cleaning, and paying the bills from their ever-dwindling bank account.

Meanwhile, his father's departure has become the chief topic of conversation in the small town of Marlow, and most of Billy's classmates either ignore or bully him. Resourceful and brave, Billy relies on his best friend Katherine for strength, and on his own inner certainty that somewhere, somehow, his father is still alive and wants to come home.

Then, twelve days before Christmas, Billy is given a magical challenge, a series of twelve difficult and dangerous tasks. If he completes them all, his dream of being reunited with his missing dad might come true.

*Here there be spoilers*

This book really intrigued me when I saw it listed among the new books in the library. After reading it through though, I don't know if it's because I was sleep deprived while reading it (my daughter's been having a rough week post immunizations), or whether I expected something completely different than what I got, but this book just didn't do it for me.

Billy Christmas' life is worse at thirteen than most adults can claim: his father disappeared on Christmas Day a year ago, leaving his mother a broken-down wreck and forcing Billy to run the household and take care of himself, plus dealing with bullying and gossip from classmates and townspeople. When, 12 days before the anniversary of his father's disappearance, Billy goes to get a Christmas tree for the house equipped with it's own set of special ornaments, he realizes this is no ordinary tree. The tree comes alive and tells him that if he agrees to complete 12 tasks (based on the ornaments) before the anniversary, he'll be able to get his father back.

I figured, okay, talking tree, not a big deal, I've read weirder stuff for sure, and in the beginning when Billy was completing the tasks everything flowed well and it seemingly had a purpose. All the tasks dealt with Billy facing up to something he'd been avoiding or helping others. The book at this point definitely had sprinklings of post-modern style and it worked...I assumed that the magic tree was there to help Billy move on from his dad's disappearance, to show him what he needed to do to heal himself and help his mother heal, and to accept the fact his dad wasn't coming back. Yeah, I was wrong...then Billy has to fight a huge stone Gargoyle and we find out his dad is really some supernatural being with imagination powers that's been locked away for a year and Billy is a hybrid and the reason why scary things are trying to kill him. I have to admit it threw me for a loop. I'll even admit my mind switched off when I didn't get the story I'd betted on. I'm wrong about books quite often but usually I end up loving what the author gives me even more than what I thought I'd get...not the case here. I was thinking this would be another A Monster Calls but was sorely mistaken.

The story takes a different turn about halfway in, so the first half has a completely different feel than the uber sci-fi latter half, so if you can take it, great. Read it and see what you think, because to be honest I don't think I'm a good judge of this one.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's okay. Not Amazing, not horrible, and it works for the story.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Breathing Room - Marsha Hayles

Title: Breathing Room
Author: Marsha Hayles
Publisher: Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: November 15, 2012
Finished: November 18, 2012

From the inside cover:

Evvy Hoffmeister is thirteen years old when she arrives at Loon Lake Sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis (or TB). Evvy is frightened by her new surroundings; the rules to abide are severe and she misses her family. But Evvy soon falls into step with the other girls in her ward. There's Sarah, both quiet and thoughtful; Pearl, who adores Hollywood glamour; and Dena, whose harsh words conceal a deep strength. Together the girls brave the difficult daily routines and forge an indelible friendship.

Set in 1940, a time of political unrest throughout the U.S. and Europe, this masterful novel-both eloquent and moving-gives voice to the brave young people who fought hard to win the battle against TB.

This book intrigued me purely because it takes place in a sanatorium. I always see sanatoriums in old movies where a sick parent or relative is gone recovering from 'consumption', but never quite knew anything more about them. Breathing Room not only acts as a history lesson in this respect, it also tells a compelling story about persevering against a sickness where recovery wasn't guaranteed (and could take years) and varied from person to person.

Evelyn (Evvy) is taken to Loon Lake Sanatorium in Minnesota in 1940 to not only be treated for TB but also isolate her and other sick patients to prevent the spread of the contagious disease. The book illustrates how harsh the medical profession was at that time in regards to the emotional well-being of patients, especially children; Evvy and the other girls are not allowed to talk, get out of bed, or even read books until they are cleared to do so by their doctor. The setting of the sanatorium really reinforces the cold and sterile setting these girls had as their normal day to day experience, and being completely separated from their families to avoid spreading the disease and speed healing (nowadays no one would dream of keeping a sick child from their parents while they're in treatment).

The range of characters gives readers an idea about exactly how varied the experience with tuberculosis could be. Some girls get released to go home, some have operations to try to improve their condition, some seemingly get better only to fall desperately ill, and some ultimately die. The girls are all shaped by their shared experience and bond as a result of it. The writing is understated yet effective, it all makes for a very nice read.

Interesting subject matter, well-written, and appealing this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the various shades of blue, it almost makes it look like a sky scene.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Home in Time for Dinner - Kathryn Ellis

Title: Home in Time for Dinner
Author: Kathryn Ellis
Publisher: Red Deer Press, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 184 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 12, 2012
Finished: November 12, 2012

From the back cover:

What would you do if you saw a picture of a missing person...and it was a photo of you?

Chris Ramsay is living a normal existence in a quiet suburb in Dallas, Texas. He stays alone with his controlling father, in a home with bare walls and no family photos. It's all routine. Tough. Predictable.

Then one evening, Chris turns on the TV. There, before him, is a photo of a kid who was stolen from his mother in Canada thirteen years ago. The eerie, computer-aged face staring back from the TV makes Chris feel like he's looking into a mirror.

Right then, Chris's quiet world is shattered and can never be the same again. He flees Dallas, meting strangers, grabbing opportunities on the fly, and assuming a succession of new identities so his father can't find him.

He's got to get home...

The premise of this book seemed really interesting, plus the author is Canadian, so I decided to give it a go.

The plot is very intriguing. Chris discovers that his controlling father kidnapped him from his mother after a divorce and custody battle. He decides to run away from his Dallas home to Kingston, Ontario where his mother lives (or so he hopes she still does). Chris takes numerous buses across most of the United States before hitchhiking into Canada (after being smuggled across the border with a sympathetic young family), and hanging out with squeegee kids in Toronto before finally reaching his destination.

Since the book takes place in 1992, there's a lot of things that aren't quite realistic if you look at this through a modern point of view. Most kids would contact the authorities (or at least call the number on the 'America's Most Wanted' type show where Chris saw his own photo), or at least seriously consider it. Crossing the border nowadays is not that easy anymore, even little kids need a passport. A lot of his hassles would have been avoided with the use of the internet and other technology.

Even with the past vs. modern comparisons, the book just doesn't really come together in my opinion. All we get is Chris' journey over the course of a little less than a week...I would've loved to see more background to Chris' parents divorce, reconnecting with his mother, and some kind of resolution with his father.

It's an okay story, I wanted to read through to find out about what happened to Chris, but I wasn't really satisfied with it overall.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's okay, not amazing but not horrible.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen - Susin Nielsen

Title: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen
Author: Susin Nielsen
Publisher: Tundra Books, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 243 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: November 7, 2012
Finished: November 9, 2012

From the inside cover:

Thirteen-year-old Henry's happy, ordinary life comes to an abrupt halt when his older brother, Jesse, picks up their father's hunting rifle and leaves the house one morning. What follows shatters Henry's family, who are forced to resume their lives in a new city, where no one knows their past. When Henry's therapist suggests he keep a journal, at first he is resistant. But soon he confides in it at all hours of the day and night.

In spite of Henry's desire to "fly under the radar," he eventually befriends a number of oddball characters, both at school and in his modest apartment building. And even though they know nothing about his past - at least, not yet - they help him navigate the waters of life after "IT."

Susin Nielsen has created a fantastic new character in Henry, whose journal entries are infused with humour and provide a riveting read about a family in turmoil.

*Here there be spoilers*

After reading Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, I knew I would read anything this author wrote. Her new novel, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, although darker than her previous books, is positively brilliant and stunning. Told in a series of journal entries, we follow Henry and his family try to put themselves back together after an unthinkable tragedy.

We first meet Henry in his therapist's office where he reluctantly writes in his new journal. He talks about "IT" but doesn't explain what it is, and every time someone asks him an uncomfortable question (usually relating to "IT"), he blows them off while talking in a robot voice.

Eventually Henry divulges exactly what happened to the family months prior in their old home of Port Salish: his older brother Jesse, after months of being bullied, took his father's rifle and killed himself and the boy who bullied him. What makes matters worse is that said aggressor's little sister is Henry's best friend. The family of the bully launches a wrongful death lawsuit, Henry's mom has a nervous breakdown and ends up in a mental hospital in Ontario, and Henry's dad moves them to Vancouver to try to start fresh after receiving death threats in their home town after the incident.

I'll be the first to say I thought this book would revolve around a suicide due to bullying, but never thought it would involve a shooting as well. With that dynamic thrown in, the book takes on a whole new meaning. I find people always think about the victim and their family in situations like this, but never about the shooter or their family, even though the shooter's family (and sometimes the shooter themselves) are just as victimized.

I loved how incredibly real the entire book was, it didn't shy away from anything. We learn about Henry's journey through therapy to try to move on after the tragedy, about the depression experienced by both of his parents (more so by his mother), about the graphic nature of the tragedy itself and the bullying incidents that came before, and about the coping mechanisms employed by the families. Henry is a funny, geeky kid, which is good because his humour breaks up the really dark parts nicely so it doesn't get overly depressing. Henry meets other damaged people (I loved Mr. Atapattu) that help him come to terms with his grief and feelings about his brother so he can move on, although acknowledging the process will definitely take time.

Not only is this a good book about the ramifications of bullying (both for the bully and the bullied), it's a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of the aftermath of a tragedy experienced by a teenaged boy.

Read this. It deals with a lot of extremely sensitive subject matter so this definitely isn't a title for everyone, but I think if you can get past the shock and manage to keep reading, you'll find something beautiful here.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover definitely doesn't insinuate that the book is as dark as it is, but the images fit with how you'd think a boy who loves wrestling would decorate his journal.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Seraphina - Rachel Hartman

Title: Seraphina
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Doubleday Canada, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 1, 2012
Finished: November 6, 2012

From the inside cover:

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend the court as ambassadors and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the peace treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift-one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina's tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they've turned the final page.

I almost overlooked this title thinking it was just another dragon book, thankfully I listened to the praise it received from early reviewers over the summer and picked it up. Seraphina is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive novels I have ever read. There are few books that make such an impression on me that they end up on my list of "things I'd save in case my house caught on fire", and Seraphina is one of those.

Right from the beginning of the novel, the author creates an extensive fantasy realm with an impressive amount of detail: politics, religious systems, customs, a glossary, and more. I have to give the author a lot of applause here, proper world-building in a high fantasy novel is not easy and not all authors can pull it off, but Hartman shines in this area.

The plot is engaging and intelligent without any annoying lags, I'm so glad to see a novel that incorporates political intrigue, social unrest, and peacekeeping in a way that draws young readers in and doesn't dumb anything down. All the characters are amazingly well-rounded, and Seraphina herself is independent and intelligent, with just enough vulnerability to make her 'real'; she is one of those ideal female role models I seek out in YA novels for my students. I also loved Orma, just because he's awesome.

I can't say much more for fear of getting into 'spoiler' territory, but trust me on this one, Seraphina left me awe-struck and in need of a sequel so I could revisit this world again, this book is a keeper and will not disappoint.

Beautifully written with extensive vocabulary, characters that you don't want to punch at random intervals, a strong female role model, exquisite world-building, and a good plot to boot...need I say more?

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the old-fashioned ink drawing look with the dragon at the top, and the maroon and gold accent colours are perfect. Now if only the publishers don't ruin this by reissuing it with a close up of a girl on the cover.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Splendors and Glooms - Laura Amy Schlitz

Title: Splendors and Glooms
Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 383 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Started: October 25, 2012
Finished: October 31, 2012

From the inside cover:

The master puppeteer Gaspare Grisini is so expert at manipulating his stringed puppets that they appear alive. Clara Wintermute, the only child of a wealthy doctor, is spellbound by Grisini's act and invites him to entertain at her home. Seeing his chance to make a fortune, Grisini accepts and makes a splendidly gaudy entrance with his caravan, puppets, and two orphaned assistants.

Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are dazzled by the Wintermute home. Clara seems to have everything they lack: adoring parents, warmth, and plenty to eat. In fact, Clara's life is shadowed by grief, guilt, and secrets. When she vanishes that night, suspicion falls on the puppeteer.

As they seek to puzzle out Clara's whereabouts, Lizzie and Parse uncover Grisini's criminal past and wake up to his evil intentions. Fleeing London, they find themselves caught in a trap set by Grisini's ancient rival, a witch with a deadly inheritance to shed before it's too late.

I'd seen some hype for this book a few months back and was intrigued by the macabre leanings, especially the puppets (nothing like evil puppets for a good scary story, right?). Splendors and Glooms is definitely macabre, but not quite as sinister as I'd imagined it would be, which I suppose is good considering it is a children's book, but it definitely has a creepy edge that readers will love without being scared off. At the same time, the story is surprisingly complex with a higher reading level and vocabulary than your typical children's fare, so I would suggest a mature reader for this one.

Splendors and Glooms opens in 1860s London with Clara on the day of her 12th birthday party where she's invited Grisini to perform with his puppets as entertainment for her guests. We get some backstory on how she met Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, along with inklings that Clara's life isn't as perfect as it appears. After some insight into Lizzie Rose and Parsefall's lives with Grisini, we learn that Clara has disappeared and Grisini is suspected based on his prior background. At the same time, Grisini's old mentor, a witch named Cassandra, has a possession that is slowly killing her and the only way for her to be rid of it is if it is stolen from her by a child. The two plots intersect and the mystery begins to unravel.

I loved the Victorian atmosphere of the novel, the author did an amazing job with her research in this regard. I liked the twist with Clara's family, very appropriate without being too 'out there' in terms of suspension of disbelief. I thought there could've been a little more character development for several characters, particularly Lizzie Rose and Parsefall (they seemed flat and cliche sometimes), but I thought Clara was quite well-rounded. The ending came together a little too conveniently, I'm not sure if that was intentional or just an oversight, but it was unrealistic all the same.

Even though this is classified as a children's book, I'm not sure your average 10-year-old would get through it. It's a wonderful book with excellent writing and a great plot, but I just can't see most kids getting into it (I on the other hand loved it). If you have a mature reader who is well-versed in some of the older classics, I'm sure this would be right up their alley.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are depicted as puppets, but the giant Grisini hand above them is kind of weird, even though the image is appropriate for the content. I think it could have worked well with Clara as the puppet also, perhaps with Parsefall and Lizzie Rose working the strings, but that might be giving too much away plot-wise.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun - Joshua Glenn & Elizabeth Foy Larsen

Title: Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun
Author: Joshua Glenn & Elizabeth Foy Larsen
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Children's Nonfiction
Started: October 26, 2012
Finished: October 28, 2012


Unbored is the guide and activity book every modern kid needs. Vibrantly designed, lavishly illustrated, brilliantly walking the line between cool and constructive, its crammed with activities that are not only fun and doable but also designed to get kids engaged with the wider world.

With contributions from a diverse crowd of experts, the book provides kids with information to round out their world view and inspire them to learn more. From how-tos on using the library or writing your representative to a graphic history of video games, this book isn't shy about teaching. Yet the bulk of the 350-page mega-resource presents hands-on activities that further the mission in a fun way, featuring the best of the old as well as the best of the new: classic science experiments, crafts and upcycling, board game hacking, code-cracking, geocaching, skateboard repair, yarn-bombing, stop-action movie-making, plus tons of sidebars and extras, including trivia, best-of lists, and Q&As with leading thinkers whose culture-changing ideas are made accessible for kids for the first time.

Just as kids begin to disappear into their screens, here is a book that encourages them to use those tech skills to be creative, try new things, and change the world. And it encourages parents to participate. Unbored is exciting to read, easy to use, and appealing to young and old, girl and boy. Parents will be comforted by its anti-perfectionist spirit and humour. Kids will just think it's awesome.

I saw this book receiving a lot of hype over the summer, and once I realized exactly what it was, I knew I had to buy it. A few years ago when The Dangerous Book for Boys was released (and subsequently The Daring Book for Girls), I bought so many of them as Christmas presents for both kids and adults. What I call 'compendium of information' books, they're chock full of a variety of stuff that appeals to almost everyone, and Unbored takes the format to a new high.

Unbored is full of activities, novel excerpts, how-tos, trivia, interviews and more, that are organized into four sections (You, Home, Society, Adventure). This book has a much more modern feel to it compared to similar titles, incorporating sections on blogging, geocaching, and using smartphone apps to make changes; while still bringing together classics like hand games, conkers, back-of-the-classroom games, decoupage, and making your own board game. My favourite section is Society, which includes pages showing kids how to take a stand against bullying, how to contact their political representative,  how to research, and even an old 4th-8th grade SAT quiz from 1922.

What I really like about Unbored is that it's gender-neutral. Boys and girls are equally featured in the book, dressed alike in jeans, hoodies and sneakers, and in neutral colours (goldenrod, green, grey, and red). The information in the book appeals to both boys and girls, even the sections on crafting feature boys knitting pacman ghosts on scarves and sewing eagles on the back of their jackets. I also like how the theme throughout the book is to urge readers to get involved with the world at large and how everything from the information to the activities gives kids the tools to participate in the bigger picture rather than stare aimlessly in front of a screen.

This is a must-buy for kids and teenagers (heck, even some adults would love this), I'd say ages 9-10 and up would be old enough to get the bulk of the content. I can guarantee any kid would be glad to get this come Christmas time.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the red cover with the shiny silvery font for the title, and even though all the stuff on the cover is pretty busy, it works somehow for this book.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Rock and The River - Kekla Magoon

Title: The Rock and The River
Author: Kekla Magoon
Publisher: Aladdin (Simon & Schuster), 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: October 23, 2012
Finished: October 25, 2012

From the inside cover:

The Time: 1968
The Place: Chicago

For thirteen-year-old Sam, it's not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older brother (and best friend), Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever.

Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick's bed, he's not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore.

Sam wants to believe that his father is right: You can effect change without using violence. But as time goes on, Sam grows weary of standing by and watching his friends and family suffer at the hands of racism in their own community. Sam begins to explore the Panthers with Stick, but soon he's involved in something far more serious-and more dangerous-than he could have ever predicted. Sam is faced with a difficult decision. Will he follow his father or his brother? His mind or his heart? The rock or the river?

This was picked up in my need to read more historical fiction, plus I was intrigued by a young adult book involving the Black Panthers and wanted to see how the author handled that.

Sam and Steven (Stick) are the sons of civil rights activist Roland Childs in 1968. After watching their friends beaten unjustly by police in their Chicago neighbourhood and living through the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, Stick is even more set in his conviction that his father's beliefs are not his own, and he joins the Black Panthers. Sam, confused that his brother would associate with a violent group like the Panthers, feels pulled between his father's staunch devotion to nonviolent resistance and his brother's more militant approach to the issues their community faces.

There were a few things that really stood out for me. One was that the author brings up the issue of class and incorporates it into the context of the story. Sam is from a middle class family and lives in a better neighbourhood, and even though Mr. Childs and Stick are involved in the lower-income community, it takes Sam a while to even realize and sympathize with the hardships unique to that neighbourhood because he's not surrounded by it constantly.

Secondly, I have to give the author credit for showing a balanced portrayal of the Black Panthers. The main image held of the Panthers (at least by most people I know), is one of violence, and the author does an excellent job at showing all the good things the Panthers stood for and accomplished for their communities and you can understand why a need for that type of group existed at the time. Also, the author doesn't pass judgement on which movement was 'better', Stick even explains to Sam, "It's the difference between demonstrating and organizing...between waiting for handouts that aren't coming or taking care of each other the way we have to. It's the rock and the river, you know? They serve each other but they aren't the same thing." (pg. 233).

Lastly, even if you ignore the Civil Rights issues of the book, you have a story about a dominant father whose sons don't share his ideals. At the core, you have a book about two teenage boys trying to find out who they are and where they stand in regards to a particular issue; and how part of growing up is defining oneself and standing up for what you believe, regardless of who doesn't agree with you or support you.

Excellent writing, wonderful plot with great themes, rife with discussion, and a balanced portrayal of all the sides and issues. Truly an amazing novel.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it. Sam's face is a little too close-up for my liking, but I like the pose and the fact that it was kept in sepia tones and the only thing in colour is the title.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Acts of Courage: Laura Secord and the War of 1812 - Connie Brummel Crook

Title: Acts of Courage: Laura Secord and the War of 1812
Author: Connie Brummel Crook
Publisher: Pajama Press, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 261 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Nonfiction, Historical Fiction
Started: October 20, 2012
Finished: October 22, 2012

From the back of the book:

A war fought along a vast border, pitting friends and families against each other. A secret plan for an invasion that could decide the war. This is the true story of Laura Ingersoll Secord, from her early days in Massachusetts and her family's immigration to Upper Canada to her part in the War of 1812, when she undertook a dangerous thirty-two-kilometre trek to warn the commander of an impending American attack on the British outpost at Beaver Dams.

I always liked the story of Laura Secord growing up, it isn't common to read about a woman having a major role in wars, let alone a Canadian one a couple hundred years ago. Plus nowadays I get a kick out of explaining to my students that from a historical sense she has nothing whatsoever to do with ice cream (In Canada we have Laura Secord stores that sell chocolates and ice cream in malls). Considering that this year is the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812, I figured this would be an appropriate read.

The one thing I liked about this book was that it incorporates just a little bit of creative tweaking against the true story of Laura Secord, creating an almost non-fiction/historical fiction hybrid (the creative additions are clearly marked in the author's note at the end, so no worries about not being able to tell the difference).

The book begins with Laura Secord as a young girl in Massachusetts shortly before her father decides to move the family to Upper Canada in order to guarantee security for them in the aftermath of the American Revolution. This part of the novel drags a little bit, but things pick up in the second half when Laura and her family are settled in Upper Canada and she begins her courtship with James Secord. The third part that follows Laura's journey to relay her message to FitzGibbon is better still, you can actually feel the tension and the urgency.

The writing is well-done, the plot flows well, and readers will actually be engaged in the historical content...take that, history textbook!

Thoughts on the cover:
I gotta admit, this could be better. The view makes me think I'm five years old staring up at a giant Laura Secord's chest, plus the artwork leaves a bit to be desired. I would've liked to see a more dynamic image, like traipsing through the woods and the swamp complete with visible injuries.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Baby Experiment - Anne Dublin

Title: The Baby Experiment
Author: Anne Dublin
Publisher: Dundurn, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 152 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: October 18, 2012
Finished: October 19, 2012

From the back cover:

Johanna is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives in Hamburg, Germany, in the early 18th century. She feels stifled by the daily drudgery of her life and dreams of seeing what lies outside the confines of the Jewish quarter. Johanna lies about her identity and gets a job as a caregiver at an orphanage. But when the babies start dying, she discovers that there's a secret experiment taking place.

Determined to escape, Johanna kidnaps one of the babies and sets off for Amsterdam. She faces many dangers on her journey, including plague, bandits, and storms. Johanna has courage and determination, but will it be enough to save the baby and reach her destination? Will she finally find a place where she can be free?

My historical fiction reading has been rather lacking lately, so when I came across this at the library I decided to give it a go.

The plot of The Baby Experiment includes several issues which makes for an interesting story. Johanna belongs to the Jewish community in Hamburg in the early 1700s, which means her family endures horrible anti-Semitism on a daily basis and their life is severely restricted compared to the non-Jewish community. Her area has also dealt with plague outbreaks, which killed Johanna's brother, sister, and grandfather. The orphanage where Johanna ends up working was set up solely as a social experiment regarding language where the caregivers are not allowed to speak to the babies. The lack of interaction means the babies experience failure to thrive and start dying, prompting Johanna to run away with one of the babies in her care.

The themes in the book are wonderful, but overall I felt like it was too short and could've benefitted from being longer and elaborated on things a bit more. I would've liked to have seen more about Johanna's life before the orphanage and the anti-Semitic measures they had to endure, those kinds of scenes make for great classroom discussion. Usually I hate 'journey narratives' because I find them boring, but the section on Johanna's journey from Hamburg to Amsterdam felt rushed and a little too convenient.

Wonderful premise with a great wealth of historical themes, but not executed as well as it could have been.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the pink on black colour scheme and the old-fashioned etching-like illustration is a nice touch as well.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Name Is Parvana - Deborah Ellis

Title: My Name Is Parvana (4th the The Breadwinner series)
Author: Deborah Ellis
Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2012 (Hardover)
Length: 198 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: October 10, 2012
Finished: October 17, 2012



On a military base in post-Taliban Afghanistan, American authorities have just imprisoned a teenaged girl found in a bombed-out school. The army major thinks she may be a terrorist working with the Taliban. The girl does not respond to questions in any language and remains silent, even when she is threatened, harassed and mistreated over several days. The only clue to her identity is a tattered shoulder bag containing papers that refer to people named Shauzia, Nooria, Leila, Asif, Hassan -- and Parvana.

In this long-awaited sequel to The Breadwinner Trilogy, Parvana is now fifteen years old. As she waits for foreign military forces to determine her fate, she remembers the past four years of her life. Reunited with her mother and sisters, she has been living in a village where her mother has finally managed to open a school for girls. But even though the Taliban has been driven from the government, the country is still at war, and many continue to view the education and freedom of girls and women with suspicion and fear.

As her family settles into the routine of running the school, Parvana, a bit to her surprise, finds herself restless and bored. She even thinks of running away. But when local men threaten the school and her family, she must draw on every ounce of bravery and resilience she possesses to survive the disaster that kills her mother, destroys the school, and puts her own life in jeopardy.

A riveting page-turner, Deborah Ellis's new novel is at once harrowing, inspiring and thought-provoking. And, yes, in the end, Parvana is reunited with her childhood friend, Shauzia.


I read the first book in this series, The Breadwinner, when I first began teaching and before starting this blog. The Breadwinner continues to be used in elementary school classrooms in my area for a good reason: the author is excellent and she writes about children persevering through adversity. The Breadwinner series got me hooked on Deborah Ellis as an author, I read anything she writes and usually end up loving it. 

The Breadwinner series tells the story of Parvana, a young girl living in Afghanistan with her family during the Taliban rule. The books follow through Parvana dressing as a boy in order to go out and support her family when her father is imprisoned (when women were not allowed outside unaccompanied), fleeing to Pakistan after she is separated from her mother and sisters, and living in a refugee camp in Pakistan not knowing if she'll be reunited with her family. 

The chapters in My Name Is Parvana alternate between two points of view: Parvana narrating in the present day where she is being held prisoner by American forces in Afghanistan suspected of being a terrorist, and her looking back over the past few years while she and her family operate a school for girls in post-Taliban Aghanistan. The book brings up several issues, mainly the hostile environment for women and girls in Afghanistan even after the Taliban, and the treatment of the Afghani people by American forces. Parvana's voice is wonderful here, very real and gripping, it's impossible to put the book down. 


Wonderful addition to The Breadwinner series due to its discussion of post-war Afghanistan and the issues that plague it, particularly concerning women and girls. Obviously there are sensitive topics here, so you'll likely want to discuss this with children as they read it depending on their age and maturity level. 

Thoughts on the cover:

I like the new cover redesigns that have come out recently, I like them so much better than the painting-style covers from when I first bought the books. The photo of the model as Parvana fits well with the flowery patterns (they almost seem like fabric?) above and below the image.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Nobody Knows - Shelley Tanaka

Title: Nobody Knows
Author: Shelley Tanaka
Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 143 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: October 5, 2012
Finished: October 5, 2012


It’s autumn in Tokyo, and twelve-year-old Akira and his younger siblings, Kyoko, Shige and little Yuki, have just moved into a new apartment with their mother. Akira hopes it’s a new start for all of them, even though the little ones are not allowed to leave the apartment or make any noise, since the landlord doesn’t permit young children in the building. But their mother soon begins to spend more and more time away from the apartment, and then one morning Akira finds an envelope of money and a note. She has gone away with her new boyfriend for a while.

Akira bravely shoulders the responsibility for the family. He shops and cooks and pays the bills, while Kyoko does the laundry. The children spend their time watching TV, drawing and playing games, wishing they could go to school and have friends like everyone else. Then one morning their mother breezes in with gifts for everyone, but she is soon gone again.

Months pass, until one spring day Akira decides they have been prisoners in the apartment long enough. For a brief time the children bask in their freedom. They shop, explore, plant a little balcony garden, have the playground to themselves. Even when the bank account is empty and the utilities are turned off and the children become increasingly ill-kempt, it seems that they have been hiding for nothing. In the bustling big city, nobody notices them. It’s as if nobody knows.
But by August the city is sweltering, and the children are too malnourished and exhausted even to go out. Akira is afraid to contact child welfare, remembering the last time the authorities intervened, and the family was split up. Eventually even he can’t hold it together any more, and then one day tragedy strikes…
Based on the award-winning film by Kore-eda Hirokazu, this is a powerfully moving novel about four children who become invisible to almost everyone in their community and manage — for a time — to survive on their own.


When I was a Japanese major in university, one of the courses we could take was a Japanese film class. One of my favourite movies from that class was the one that this book is adapted from: Nobody Knows. Like many Japanese films, it's very sad and heartfelt, and the book of course captures the spirit of the film perfectly. 

The book reads as almost a script of the movie. Akira and his mother move into a new apartment and smuggle in his three younger siblings. Their mother doesn't allow the children to go to school (due to fear of Japanese cultural taboos about children born out of wedlock and/or without a traditional family structure), so the kids spend their days doing chores and generally lounging about. When their mother finds a new boyfriend, she takes off for longer periods of time before she leaves altogether, leaving money for Akira to take care of things while she's gone. Expecting his mother to return, Akira is amazingly responsible and, together with younger sister Kyoko, actually manage the household on their own. When the money runs out and the utilities are shut off, Akira and the others come to the slow realization that their mother isn't coming home. 

I'll warn you right off that this plot is immensely sad, especially regarding events towards the end of the book (it involves a death). What makes the film particularly poignant is when you apply an understanding of Japanese culture to the scenes. It helps readers understand why the children don't attend school, why the mother chooses to abandon her children rather than simply make it clear to the boyfriend that her and her kids are a package deal, why the multitude of characters (both children and adults) don't take any steps on the children's behalf to rescue them from neglect, and why Akira is so adamant that he and his siblings not be split up (and why there wouldn't be a place where all 4 siblings could stay together). It would make for a wonderful discussion in a social studies class, especially if the relevant cultural notes are made. 


The book version captures the spirit of the film nicely, so both formats could be used simultaneously if desired. The content is extremely sad (I cannot stress this enough), so probably not the best choice for sensitive readers. 

Thoughts on the cover:

The cover uses a still shot of Akira from the film. It's kind of a 'meh' cover since there's not much else that would realistically be used. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Child of the Mountains - Marilyn Sue Shank

Title: Child of the Mountains
Author: Marilyn Sue Shank
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 249 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: September 13, 2012
Finished: September 16, 2012

From the inside cover:

Growing up poor in 1953 in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia doesn't bother Lydia Hawkins. She treasures her tight-knit family. There's her loving Mama, now widowed; her whip-smart brother, BJ, who has cystic fibrosis; and wise old Gran. But everything falls apart after Gran and BJ die and Mama is jailed unjustly. Suddenly Lydia has lost all those dearest to her.

Moving to a coal camp to live with her uncle William and aunt Ethel Mae only makes Lydia feel more alone. She is ridiculed at her new school for her outgrown homemade clothes and the way she talks, and for what the kids believe her mama did. To make matters worse, she discovers that her uncle has been keeping a family secret - about her.

If only Lydia, with her resilient spirit and determination, could find a way to clear her mother's name...

I'm a big fan of historical fiction, especially about topics not often explored in mainstream literature. This caught my eye because it reminded me of a book I read as a child with a similar title. When I saw that it was about a girl growing up poor in Appalachia in the 1950s, I was hooked. I find it's important for my students to read about lifestyles (historical or modern) different from their comfortable middle-class ones in order to realize how good they have it. Thankfully this book has more to its credit than just its subject matter.

The book is narrated by Lydia (aged 11 or 12) writing in her diary recounting the events leading up to her mother being imprisoned. Her father, an unemployed alcoholic, died when she was three and her mother was pregnant with her little brother. BJ is born with cystic fibrosis and the family allows him to be part of a study at a children's hospital in Ohio in order for him to receive medical care that they cannot otherwise afford. Mama, Gran, Lydia, and BJ live in poverty but make ends meet, and even donate homemade presents to their worse-off neighbours at Christmastime. When BJ gets sicker and it's obvious he will not live for much longer, the hospital refuses to release him to spend his last days with his family. After Lydia and Mama break BJ out of the hospital and he passes away, Mama is accused of causing BJ's death and she is put in jail. When Lydia goes to live with her uncle and aunt a few towns over, she feels guilty over her inability to set things right regarding her mother, and to top it off she's encouraged not to speak of the issue due to the shame felt by the family. When she finally tells her understanding teacher what is bothering her, she learns there might just be a way to free her mother.

First off, I'm not usually a fan of dialect (and with the plot taking place in the mountains of West Virginia there's a ton of it), but I either simply didn't mind it here or it was part of what made the book unique and charming. Lydia not only speaks in dialect, she talks about her love of the mountains where she's grown up, and displays her determination and perseverance in all that she does. Not only are the characters endearing and the plot intriguing, it also addresses a lot of issues still pertinent today, such as quality of health care (both physical and mental), alcoholism, poverty and unemployment, education, and affordable legal access and representation.

One of the better children's books I've read this year, mainly due to Lydia's unique voice and strong character, definitely something readers will enjoy.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the mountain scene with Lydia off to the side. Her body posed as if she's running looks a little awkward, but that might be just me.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Prince Who Fell From The Sky - John Claude Bemis

Title: The Prince Who Fell From The Sky
Author: John Claude Bemis
Publisher: Random House, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 258 pages
Genre: Children's Science Fiction, Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 7, 2012
Finished: September 13, 2012

From the inside cover:

In Casseomae's world, the wolves rule the Forest, and the Forest is everywhere. The animals tell stories of the Skinless Ones , whose cities and roads once covered the earth, but the Skinless disappeared long ago.

Casseomae is content to live alone, apart from the other bears in her tribe, until one of the ancients' sky vehicles crashes to the ground, and from it emerges a Skinless One, a child. Rather than turn him over to the wolves, Casseomae chooses to protect the human cub, to find someplace safe for him to live. But where among the animals will a human child be safe? And is Casseomae threatening the security of the Forest and all its tribes by protecting him?

Middle-grade readers who are fans of post-apocalyptic fiction are in for a treat with this inventive and engaging animal story by the author of the Clockwork Dark trilogy.

The premise for this sounded really intriguing so I decided to pick it up. I wasn't sure what to expect since 'animal stories' can be a hit or miss depending on how the author handles it. I've heard this described as a dystopian version of The Jungle Book, which is true, but thankfully it goes beyond that in a good way.

First off, the book is narrated from the point of view of the animals involved, and they can't speak to the boy and vice versa. I love that the author chose to write it this way rather than from the point of view of the boy, or have the boy and the animals magically able to talk to each other. Since having it from the animals' point of view allows for a deeper complexity due to their limited knowledge of humans, there's an incredible amount of world-building that goes on here, which is something you don't see very often in middle-grade books.

I loved all the animal characters, they were surprisingly well-rounded. Casseomae the bear grieves her litters of stillborn cubs and is extremely maternal but also very strong-willed. Dumpster the rat is hilarious and rough around the edges. Pang the dog is honourable and dedicated to serving the Companions (humans). I was a little disappointed we didn't really get to know the boy, we don't even find out his name, but granted this story isn't really about the boy, so it's excusable in this case.

Wonderfully well-written with intricate world-building and amusing characters. Readers who like animal stories that are ready to graduate to something more sophisticated will love this, as would readers that enjoy sci-fi stories with a unique spin.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the cover art. The colour scheme of purples and yellows/oranges are really appealing, and the illustration is well done. The boy does look a bit older than he's portrayed to be, but that could just be me.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Story of Holly and Ivy - Rumer Godden

Title: The Story of Holly and Ivy
Author: Rumer Godden
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books, 2005 (Paperback)
Length: 58 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: September 5, 2012
Finished: September 5, 2012

From the back cover:

It is Christmas Eve and, for the toys in Mr. Blossom's shop, it is their last chance to be sold. Holly, a small doll dressed especially for Christmas, wishes hard for her own special child. But the day ends and Holly is left in the window.

On Christmas morning a little lost orphan girl finds herself outside the toyshop. Ivy has never had a doll to love, but when she sees Holly, she knows at once that this doll is meant specially for her. And Holly knows that this girl is hers. But Ivy has no money, and the shop is closed...

A friend of mine recommended this as one of the doll stories this children's author is apparently famous for. It was originally written in the 1950s, so the story is very sweet but hasn't exactly aged well in terms of how realistic the plot is.

Ivy is a six-year-old girl in a British orphanage who gets sent to the countryside at Christmastime. Upset that she has no family to spend Christmas with, she gets off at the wrong train station in attempt to find the grandmother she doesn't have. She comes across a toy store with a doll, Holly, in the window that she falls in love with. Combine a childless police officer and his wife, a lost key, and a shop full of talking toys, and you have a sweet little Christmas story that little girls (and I'm sure younger boys) will love. A 7-9 year old reading independently could get through this in one sitting, but reading this to a younger child could take a couple sittings depending on how long their attention span is.

Very sweet and a wonderful old-fashioned Christmas story. Plot hasn't held up over time realistically speaking but younger kids likely won't notice.

Thoughts on the cover:
The illustrations in this edition are spectacular. They're simple black and white pencil drawings but some of them are just stunning, especially close-ups of Holly's face.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Now - Morris Gleitzman

Title: Now (sequel to Once and Then)
Author: Morris Gleitzman
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 182 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
Started: August 31, 2012
Finished: September 2, 2012

From the inside cover:

Felix is a grandfather. He has accomplished much in his life and is widely admired in the community. He has mostly buried the painful memories of his childhood, but they resurface when his granddaughter, Zelda, comes to stay with him. Together, armed only with their gusto and love, they face a cataclysmic event, one that can help them achieve salvation from the past, but also brings the possibility of destruction.

Set in the present day, this is the final book in the series that began with Once and continued with Then. It is...Now.

I fell in love with Once and Then when I first read them because they were Holocaust stories written with an amazing, authentic child voice.

Now is a little different because it takes place 70 years later when Felix has long since moved to Australia from Poland, had a family, and retired from a successful career as a surgeon. His son and daughter-in-law are doctors working in Darfur and their 11-year-old daughter Zelda (named after Felix's friend from Once and Then) is sent to live with Felix while they're gone. Felix is still obviously affected by the trauma from his childhood and Zelda tries her best to help him deal with it. The two are later trapped in their remote area by increasing bushfires (based on Australia's Victorian bushfires in February 2009) and must not only save themselves but also others in town.

Zelda narrates this book as opposed to Felix, so the voice is still childlike (although she seemed a bit younger than eleven at times which threw me off), but the impact of the naive childlike voice isn't quite as profound as in the two previous books because the horrors they're narrating aren't nearly the same. So with that in mind, this book doesn't have quite the same impact as the previous two, but it's still enjoyable. I do feel for Zelda though, she's given a name that is a major trigger for her grandfather (he never refers to her by her actual name), and is living with him trying to understand his behaviours and not to drudge up memories that make him feel bad. That just goes to prove that therapy is a traumatized person's best friend.

Now isn't on the same level with Once and Then due to the change in subject matter, but it's worthwhile because it completes Felix's story and also helps to illustrate that certain horrors continue to haunt people long after the experience.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the change in covers from the original Australian versions to the American versions (but I'm pretty sure they're all changed to reflect the new look now). The image used in this review is not exactly what my book's cover looked like, the locket on my cover is heart-shaped, the chain is straighter to resemble the barbed-wire tightrope that Felix and later Zelda walk on in the redesigned covers for Once and Then, and the blurb at the top is different.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore - William Joyce

Title: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Author: William Joyce
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 52 pages
Genre: Children's Picture Book
Started: August 30, 2012
Finished: August 30, 2012

From the inside cover:

Morris Lessmore loved words.

He loved stories.

He loved books.

He loved books.

But every story has its upsets.

Everything in Morris Lessmore's life, including his own story, is scattered to the winds. But the power of story will save the day.

In case you haven't noticed, I'm a big book nerd. Bookworm, bibliophile, literary geek, you name it. I especially love stories about books and libraries. This picture book is the ultimate book about being a book lover, the transformative power books have over people's lives, and how our individual stories play a role in the bigger picture. There's a lot of deeper symbolism here as well, it would make for a wonderful discussion piece with slightly older children, or even to start little kids on the road to critical thinking.

The story is simple yet profound, and incredibly beautiful. The illustrations are gorgeous, from the 'lifeless' sepia scenes to the brilliant colours of the library and the countryside. My own geeky moment was highlighted at the scene with Morris repairing one of the books complete with a stethoscope and  the first thought in my head was, "he's doing book surgery!" (what I call fixing the books my students end up destroying).

There's also an Oscar-winning animated short film of the same name (I found the full version easily on youtube if anyone is interested in watching it), and it would be great to show kids in conjunction with the book, especially if any teachers want to integrate it into a media studies teaching moment.

Get this. Now. It doesn't matter if you have young children or older kids, or no kids at all, if you know a reader of any age, they will love this book. Heck, I'd say that even people who aren't big readers will still love this story, I think it's destined to become one of those universal stories that is special to everyone. I know this will be a treasured book in our family's personal library.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the illustrator's style, there's a lot of bright, bold colours and I like the 'old-timey' atmosphere that the pictures evoke.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tomo - Holly Thompson

Title: Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction-An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories
Author: Holly Thompson (Editor)
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 374 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Science-Fiction
Started: August 18, 2012
Finished: August 23, 2012

From the back of the book:

One year after the March 2011 Japan earthquake, this collection brings teens closer to Japan and contributes to long-term relief efforts.

Tomo (which means "friend" in Japanese) features thirty-six stories-including ten in translation and two graphic narratives-by authors and artists from around the world, all of whom share a deep connection to Japan.

Here are entertaining tales of family, mystery, war, love, ghosts, magic, science-fiction, and history that will propel you to Japan past and present, to countryside and to city, and to Japanese communities around the world. This is a Japan fresh and different but still familiar: you are as likely to befriend a ninja in these pages as you are a young student riding the trains and texting classmates on a cellphone.

I was a Japanese major in university and grew to love this particular publisher (Stone Bridge Press) since they tend to put out a lot of excellent Japan-centric material, from dictionaries and flash cards to novels. These days I'm out of the loop where Japan-related materials are concerned since my focus has shifted from Japanese stuff to YA and children's literature, but when I saw this listed late last year I knew I had to read it.

Tomo is a great concept: an anthology of Japan-centric short stories where the proceeds benefit recovery efforts in the aftermath of last year's earthquake. Short stories, especially a nice variety of genres as those in this book, are a great way to get kids interested in fiction, plus I find they're great for readers with a smaller attention span or just less patience for things to really get going like in full-length novels. The stories are broken up by broad themes: Shocks and Tremors (stories directly relating to earthquake experiences), Friends and Enemies (stories about Japanese experiences in WWII), Ghosts and Spirits (supernatural stories), and various others. I loved the manga-style graphic pieces, they were a nice touch and a great nod to Japanese artistic culture. I had several favourites across the themes, there's something for everyone to enjoy here.

This anthology is a wonderful way to introduce readers to Japanese subjects and themes in literature. There are several here that would be ideal to use in a classroom setting. There's a glossary at the back for Japanese terms that pop up, but it might be proactive to explain to readers about Japan's somewhat xenophobic attitudes (the theme of biracial and foreign characters being ostracized occurs in many of the stories).

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the yellowy-green background with the red-orange title font and kanji, as well as the silhouettes of the kids along the bottom of the book.