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.