Monday, November 18, 2013

Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible - Suzanne Kamata

Title: Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible
Author: Suzanne Kamata
Publisher: GemmaMedia, 2013 (Paperback)
Length: 224 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 17, 2013
Finished: November 18, 2013

From the back cover:

Aiko Cassidy is fifteen and lives with her sculptor mother in a small Midwestern town. For most of her young life, Aiko, who has cerebral palsy, has been her mother's muse. But now, she no longer wants to pose for the figures that have made her mother famous. Aiko works hard on her own dream, becoming a sought-after manga artist with a secret identity. When Aiko's mother invites her to Paris for a major exhibition of her work, Aiko resists. She'd much rather go to Japan, Manga Capital of the World, where she might be able to finally meet her father, the indigo farmer. When she gets to France, however, a hot waiter with a passion for manga and an interest in Aiko makes her wonder if being invisible is such a great thing after all.

I picked this up purely for the Japanese-inspired influences, but I'm so glad I did. Gadget Girl is a well-written coming of age story that's incredibly heart-felt and sweet.

Aiko is about to turn fifteen and wants nothing more than to be known for something else other than being the disabled daughter that inspired a series of famous statues. Looking nothing like her mother, Aiko longs for her absent Japanese father and embraces his culture: trying to grow indigo, learning Japanese,  and becoming an amateur manga artist (even though she intentionally publishes anonymously). When Aiko and her mother travel to France, they'll be forced to face their fears and insecurities and grow as people.

First off, Aiko is a wonderfully real character. In addition to the unique aspect of her cerebral palsy and the challenges that brings, Aiko is a regular teenager dealing with school, boys, popularity, an absent father figure, and trying to come into her own as a person. Her mother, though the typical flakey-artist type, is a loving parent who truly wants the best for her daughter and to celebrate who she is. Raoul, her mother's boyfriend, is a shining example of a step-father figure and is just a great person overall. Herve, the son of her mother's French friend, is the first stranger to really accept Aiko for who she is and sees beyond the limp and clawed left hand and arm. Every character was really enjoyable and I can't say there was anyone I didn't fall in love with.

I loved the addition of Aiko going on an almost pilgrimage to Lourdes in an attempt to cure her disabilities. At her lowest point, Aiko resents her mother's statues of her, hates herself for the condition that caused her father and his family to reject her existence as a baby, and believes no one could truly love her as she is. Though she isn't physically healed at Lourdes like she wants, Aiko comes away from the experience spiritually healed, accepting herself for who she is and letting go of the fear of those who think she is less because of her CP. This is symbolically represented by Aiko finally outing herself as the creator of her manga.

A wonderful, sweet coming of age story that everyone should read (especially those who like stories with a Japanese flavour).

Thoughts on the cover:
Loved the manga-style cover, very appropriate considering the content.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Allegiant - Veronica Roth

Title: Allegiant (sequel to Divergent and Insurgent)
Author: Veronica Roth
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 526 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: November 5, 2013
Finished: November 14, 2013

From the inside cover:

The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered-fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits of what she's known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris' new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature-and of herself-while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love.

Told from a riveting dual perspective, Allegiant, by #1 New York Times best-selling author Veronica Roth, bring the Divergent series to a powerful conclusion while revealing the secrets of the dystopian world that has captivated millions of readers in Divergent and Insurgent.

Like millions of other readers, after I read Divergent and Insurgent in 2011 and 2012 respectively, I was instantly hooked and this quickly became my new favourite series....and now it's over *cries*.

This really was a wonderful trilogy, the entire series is well-written, with admirable characters, great themes and discussion points, and a great plot that doesn't lag.

The one thing I wish I'd done was re-read Insurgent prior to delving into Allegiant, because you jump right in in the beginning and there's isn't any recap, so that's one thing I recommend to readers. You can get by without re-reading, but you'll be confused for a few pages till you remember what's going on.

Both Tris and Tobias/Four narrate this book, each take turns narrating alternating chapters. The addition of Tobias' voice did take some getting used to, especially since I couldn't always tell the difference between him and Tris right away.

The plot gets very political in this book, like it started to in Insurgent. Tris and Tobias get a chance to venture beyond the fence in the hopes of fulfilling what they believe the Divergent were meant to do, and in turn end up discovering that what they were lead to believe was completely false and new truths need to form. I did enjoy that all the characters are shown to be good and well-intentioned, as well as being a little bit of the villain and causing chaos and destruction, there is no black and white, everyone is shades of grey, just like humanity always has been.

There are lots of wonderful, quotable lines in this book that relate back to the great themes and discussion points readers can delve into. Towards the end of the book, Tris needs to make some really difficult decisions (can't say much more for fear of spoilers), and needless to say she stays true to her beliefs and moral code and is at peace with her decisions.

Just read it, you will have a lot of mixed emotions while reading, but I think it's worth the ride.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity between Divergent and Insurgent, everything fits together nicely.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Brother, Brother - Clay Carmichael

Title: Brother, Brother
Author: Clay Carmichael
Publisher: Roaring Book Press, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 314 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 1, 2013
Finished: November 1, 2013

From the inside cover:

Seventeen-year-old orphan Brother Grace has always dreamed of the sea-though he's never been there. His chance to see the ocean comes when his charismatic grandmother, Mem, dies and he discovers he has a twin brother-the son of a powerful conservative senator named Gideon Grayson (also known as "God"). Determined to get some answers, Brother takes a trip with his faithful dog, Trooper, to the secluded island off the coast of North Carolina where the senator and his family live. Brother's arrival on the troubled island reveals old resentments and unresolved secrets, and he soon realizes that the pure and simple truth is rarely pure and simple.

This one just sounded interesting (you don't often actually see the long lost twin cliche), so I picked it up.

This one will be hard to review without giving much away, but basically Billy Grace (nicknamed Brother) finds an image of a twin brother he never knew he had in a newspaper soon after his grandmother's death. With no one to look after him, he sets off to find his twin brother and some answers about his unknown past. After a slow buildup, Brother does find his brother and his family, but they aren't exactly what he thought they'd be. After finding out how his brother Gabe came to live with the senator's family and all the scandal related to it, he finds things even more complicated.

It's interesting how Brother remains the most human through the whole endeavour. He's not exactly innocent per se, but very set in his moral code regardless of what he encounters, which makes him quite the admirable character.

A slow but intriguing read about families with power and the heartbreak that can come as a result of it.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the twin images with the matching hoodies.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

After Iris - Natasha Farrant

Title: After Iris
Author: Natasha Farrant
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin), 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 260 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: October 31, 2013
Finished: October 31, 2013

From the inside cover:

Blue Gadsby's twin sister, Iris, died three years ago, and since then her family hasn't been the same. Her melodramatic older sister, Flora, changes her hair colour daily; her younger siblings, Jasmine and Twig, are completely obsessed with their pet rats; and both of her parents spend weeks away from home-and each other.

Enter Zoran the au pair and Joss the troublemaking boy next door, and life for the Gadsby family takes a turn for the even more chaotic. Blue poignantly captures her family's trials and tribulations in a sequence of film transcripts and diary entries that will make you cry, laugh, and give thanks (sort of) for the gift of families.

I love a good book that shows what happens to families in the aftermath of grief, mostly because not enough people believe in or seek out therapy after trauma, and in a way books can be a type of therapy for some where professional therapy is unavailable or not affordable.

Twelve-year-old Blue and her family live in the shadow of her dead twin sister, Iris, who died on Christmas Eve three years prior after being hit by a car. Her parents have purposely taken intensive jobs that require travel away from the children, leaving them in the care of various babysitters and nannies. All the children are obviously still angry (Flora) and grief-stricken (Blue) with no coping skills (Jasmine and Twig), and all pine for their absent parents. A new school year starts and their parents hire Zoran, their father's Bosnian graduate student to care for them, and between himself and Joss, the new boy in the neighbourhood, they help the family tackle their grief head-on. They call the parents out on their near-abandonment, help Blue stick up for herself against bullies at school, help Flora through her teenage angst, and make them realize its okay to talk about Iris, that they need to talk about Iris.

I like how the book was done with film scripts and diary entries, it's a unique format I haven't personally seen before. It fits well with Blue's personality and also compels her family to address things they otherwise wouldn't have if they hadn't been filmed. I also like how the children have a male caregiver, and Zoran is not only shown as capable (aside from shoddy cooking skills in the beginning), but that he really does love the children and wants everyone to heal.

A well-written book about a family's sad yet humorous journey in the aftermath of grief.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how everyone has a portrait here, and how Iris is faintly penciled in beside Blue.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Wells Bequest - Polly Shulman

Title: The Wells Bequest (Companion to The Grimm Legacy)
Author: Polly Shulman
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin), 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 257 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Science Fiction
Started: October 28, 2013
Finished: October 30, 2013

From the inside cover:

What if time travel were really possible?

When a miniature time machine appears in Leo's bedroom, he has no idea who the tiny, beautiful girl riding it is. But in the few moments before it vanishes, returning  to wherever-and whenever-it came from, he recognizes the other tiny rider: himself!

His search for the time machine, the girl, and his fate leads him to the New York Circulating Materials Repository, a magical library that lends out objects instead of books. Hidden away in the repository basement is the Wells Bequest, a secret collection of powerful objects straight out of classic science-fiction novels: robots, rockets, submarines, a shrink ray-and one very famous time machine. And when Leo's adventure of a lifetime suddenly turns deadly, he must journey to 1895 to warn real-life scientist Nikola Tesla about a dangerous invention. A race for time is on!

In this grand time-travel adventure full of paradoxes and humour, Polly Shulman gives readers a taste of how fascinating science can be, deftly blending classic science fiction elements with the contemporary fantasy world readers fell in love with in The Grimm Legacy.

I read The Grimm Legacy years ago and loved it to pieces (my copy is on my "absolute favourites that I must save in case of fire" shelf). So when I found out the author was writing a sequel/companion novel, I pretty much had a bibliophile freak-out and waited ever so patiently for the release date.

The Wells Bequest takes place several years after the events of The Grimm Legacy. All the teenaged characters from the first book are older and have obviously aged-out of their jobs as pages in the Repository, but Anjali's little sister Jaya makes a reappearance as the now head page, along with a new character, Leo. Leo's family is Russian and incredibly science-oriented, his older brother and sister got into prestigious academic schools and are researching heavy-duty stuff, while Leo (though quite intelligent as well) gets the reputation as the dumb one in the family when he doesn't get into the same schools as his siblings. While researching a science fair project and subsequently encountering his future self on a time machine, Leo discovers the Repository and falls in love both with it and Jaya. After managing to get himself a job as a page and uncovering the secret of the Special Collections, Leo starts to uncover what his future self was trying to tell him and how to get H. G. Wells' time machine to work. Cue a whirlwind adventure to 1895 with scientists (and Mark Twain!) and mind-bending paradoxes about time travel (I've read my share of time-travel stuff and even I had to re-read parts), and you've got a really satisfying story.

I loved revisiting the novel's universe with the Repository, it's just amazingly fun and the stuff of daydreams. I appreciated the addition of a male main character this time around since The Grimm Legacy had a female protagonist, and it helps that Leo is smart but still very much a realistic teenaged boy with insecurities that loves his video games. The whole novel is very much an homage to intelligence of all kinds, the characters are not only well-read but are musically inclined and science and math oriented, and this is shown as a positive thing which is isn't often the case with middle-grade or YA. The characters are also multi-cultural and diverse: Leo is Russian, Jaya's family is Indian, and Marc (who makes a reappearance) is black, so diversity both in culture and gender is always a plus for me. The romance between Leo and Jaya, while one of the cutest I have seen, is a great example for young readers. Leo and Jaya treat each other respectfully and Leo says often that he likes Jaya because she's insanely smart (not to mention funny and brave), which is refreshingly different from most scenarios where girls are encouraged to dumb themselves down due to the fear that boys won't like intelligent girls. Plus, there's Mark Twain, and any book that incorporates Mark Twain automatically gets a thumbs-up from me.

A wonderfully written, satisfying story; everyone needs to read the first book (The Grimm Legacy) and this new instalment and gets as hooked as I did.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuation in style from The Grimm Legacy cover, plus the visualization of how the time travel actually occurs was interesting to see. I also like how Leo and Jaya are darkened so you can't actually see their faces or what they're wearing.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's List - Leon Leyson

Title: The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's List
Author: Leon Leyson
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 225 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Nonfiction
Started: October 22, 2013
Finished: October 23, 2013

From the inside cover:

"Not even the scariest of fairy tales could have prepared me for the monsters I would confront while just a boy of ten...or for the hero, disguised as a monster himself, who would save my life."

Leon Leyson loved playing on the Krakow streetcars with his friends and tagging along after his older brothers...

Then, suddenly, German soldiers were:
In his country.
In his city.
In his home.

Seemingly overnight, the life he knew vanished. The Third Reich wanted him, and every other Jew in Europe, dead.

The darkest of times can unleash the worst in human nature-and also the best. Leon Leyson lived through those times. Forced from home to ghetto to concentration camps, separated from his family for months, he experienced things that no child should ever experience. But there was one thing that could never be torn away: his will to survive. And one man-one Nazi-showed him that hope can come in the most unexpected way. That man was Oskar Schindler; his famous "list" would mean life for Leon and for more than a thousand other Jews caught in the Nazis' net.

The Boy on the Wooden Box is a tour de force-a legacy of hope and a call for all of us to remember those who didn't get a chance for tomorrow.

I picked this up in another attempt to work more non-fiction in my reading pile, and of course I can't turn down a Holocaust book.

This is a memoir written by Leon Leyson, one of the youngest Schindler's List members. It begins with his childhood in rural eastern Poland, his family's move to Krakow in 1938, and the increasing restrictions with the invasion of the Nazis in 1939 which lead to the Leyson family being moved from ghetto to concentration camps and eventually being saved by being workers in Oskar Schindler's factory.

I liked how the author goes into detail about exactly what it meant for Schindler to help the Jews by doing what he did. I've seen the film Schindler's List so many times, we use it in our schools fairly often, and I never fully believed that Schindler acted in a truly selfless manner, it seemed like he must have gotten something out of it like the free labour. Granted my only impression of the figure is from the movie, but that was my impression nonetheless. This book really reinforced that Schindler didn't actually get any monetary advantage from his workers, and in fact spent what remained of his fortune bribing other Nazis relating to the care of his workers and on food for them. So I now have more respect for Schindler based on this interpretation.

I also liked how the memoir goes into what happened to Leyson after the war when he settled in the United States, how hard it was to talk about what he'd been through with others because people didn't couldn't even comprehend what happened because there was almost no words to effectively describe it.

A wonderfully engaging memoir of a Jewish boy who survived the war because of Oskar Schindler.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the faded watercolour look here, not enough to see detail but enough to know what you're looking at.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Our Rights: How Kids are Changing the World - Janet Wilson

Title: Our Rights: How Kids are Changing the World
Author: Janet Wilson
Publisher: Second Story Press, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 32 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Nonfiction
Started: October 21, 2013
Finished: October 21, 2013

From the inside cover:

A girl who spoke out against her government for the rights of aboriginal children, a boy who walked across his country to raise awareness of homelessness, and a former child soldier who wants to make music not war...

Here are true stories of kids just like you who are standing up for their rights. Read about how they have made a difference.

Dylan Mahalingham from the USA started an online charity to raise money to fight child poverty. The bravery of Nujood Ali from Yemen inspired other girls who were being forced to marry too young. Anita Khushwaha from India became a beekeeper to pay for school, even though it was considered a job only men could do. All of them are making a difference for children's rights, and you can too.

My to-read pile has been severely lacking in non-fiction lately, so I perused the library and saw this lovely piece. We reinforce to our students all the time that even one person can create lasting change, and this book is a prime example of the amazing things children and teenagers can do when they want things to change in their world.

The book is a quick read, the reading level is probably around middle grade but the content is more than applicable for young adults as well. The book is laid out like so: each two-page spread is dedicated to a young person and their accomplishments relating to furthering the cause of children's rights in their country. There is a section relating directly to the person featured and another section relating to relaying information on the overall issue the person was fighting against. The topics covered are vast, from child poverty and homelessness, the rights of aboriginal children and child brides, to the right of children to have a birth certificate. Countries represented are varied as well, and I'm pretty sure I counted blurbs from every continent (except Antarctica of course). Some of the children featured are already known to some readers, some I recognized were: Malala Yousafzai, Nujood Ali, Zach Bonner, and Craig Kielburger.

The thing I liked was that not all the children represented did amazingly huge things like start their own charities and have huge movements attached to their names (some do but not all), because sometimes that's intimidating for kids that think you need to do those things to make any difference so why bother trying. A lot of these children did very simple things as individuals, like the girl in India who refused to be married at 15 and bought beekeeping kits for herself so she could work, and other girls followed her example.

This is a great book for older kids and teenagers to reinforce the idea of standing up for what you believe in, and that any small change can make a lasting difference. This is a book I'd recommend for parents to read to their kids and for teachers to have in their classrooms.

Thoughts on the cover:
The author is also the illustrator, and she makes some wonderful painting-style illustrations of the kids she describes, one of which is the cover image.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Prince Who Walked With Lions - Elizabeth Laird

Title: The Prince Who Walked With Lions
Author: Elizabeth Laird
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 281 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: October 18, 2013
Finished: October 18, 2013

From the back of the book:

War has torn Prince Alamayu's world apart. His father, the Emperor of Abyssinia, has been killed by the British, who have decided to take the young prince home with them and educate him as an English gentleman.

Alamayu is a brilliant sportsman, and soon earns the love and respect of many. To the ignorant bullies at school, though, he is no better than a slave. But Alamayu is a Prince. Can he conquer his fear and show his tormentors that he has the heart -and the courage-of a lion?

This is an interesting piece of historical fiction about colonization and empires, devastation of cultures, and xenophobia and racism. Alamayu is a young prince of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the late 19th century when Britain invades. After his father commits suicide and his mother dies of consumption, Alamayu is taken to Britain to be made into a "proper English boy".

Between missing his parents, culture, and homeland, and trying to fit into a society where most people don't see beyond his skin colour, Alamayu has a rough time adjusting to say the least. The story is a wonderful commentary on the consequences of colonialism and the dangers of building an empire on the conquered people. Alamayu spent more than 10 years in Britain, forgetting his native language and cut off from the remainder of his family at the expense of colonial expansion. This puts a very human face to things most of us only read about and rarely consider on a deeper level.

A wonderfully written piece on subject matter not often explored in children's literature.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the silhouette of Alamayu with the British cityscape along the bottom with the lion superimposed in the background.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Lexicon - Max Barry

Title: Lexicon
Author: Max Barry
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Adult; Thriller
Started: October 8, 2013
Finished: October 17, 2013


From the inside cover:

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren't taught history, geography, or mathematics-at least not in the usual sense. They are taught to persuade, to use language to manipulate minds, to wield words as weapons. The very best graduate as "poets"and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose. 

Whip-smart runaway Emily Ruff is making a living from three-card monte on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organizer's recruiters. Drawn into their strange world, which is populated by people with names like Bronte and Eliot, she learns their key rule: that every person can be classified by an extremely specific personality type , his mind segmented and ultimately controlled by the skillful application of words. For this reason she must never allow another person to truly know her, lest she herself be coerced. Adapting quickly, Emily becomes the school's most talented prodigy, until she makes a catastrophic mistake: she falls in love. 

Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Parke is brutally ambushed by two men in an airport bathroom. They claim he is the key to a secret war he knows nothing about, that he is an "outlier," immune to segmentation. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the organizationand its mind-bending poets, Wil and his captors seek salvation in the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, which, if stories are true, sits above an ancient glyph of frightening power. 

A brilliant thriller that connects very modern questions of privacy, identity, and the rising obsession of data collection to centuries-old ideas about the power of language and coercion, Lexicon is Max Barry's most ambitious and spellbinding novel yet. 


I saw this in a book newsletter and the plot sounded amazing, so I decided to give it a shot. I loved the premise in the novel that persuasion is akin to a type of magic, but not in the Harry Potter wand waving kind of way, more of the "gaze upon the amazing prowess of my mind" kind of way. 

Students are recruited to this special school based upon their ability to persuade others, but they also need to be able to hold their own against persuasion itself. They aren't told anything about what the point behind them learning Latin and studying dictionaries is, but as the students advance they start to piece things together as they are exposed to certain combinations of words that will render people associated with that personality type helpless and under the chanter's control. 

The story is told in two different times (Wil's story in present day and Emily's in the past) that eventually converge, and they way they do is a nice little twist. I loved how all the graduates got names of famous writers/poets/playwrights; especially when those names reflected different cultures (eg. a German poet goes by Goethe). I also loved how the author put in little snippets from articles in between chapters that make the reader think of the implications of this type of scenario on privacy laws. When a survey of seemingly innocuous questions can determine anyone's personality type and uncover the string of words to make them open to coercion, the ramifications are endless, not just for advertisers but for politics and law as well. 

The book is well written, starts off a little slow with Wil's part (at least in my opinion) but then picks up with Emily's story. 


An excellent fast-paced novel with a wonderful mind-boggling premise. 

Thoughts on the cover:

Eh, kind of junky, but I do like how they included one of the open-ended questions from the novel's surveys, "Why did you do it?' in the background. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Testing - Joelle Charbonneau

Title: The Testing
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 344 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: October 2, 2013
Finished: October 4, 2013

From the inside cover:

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer . Isn't that what they say? But how close is too close when they may be one in the same?

The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation's chosen few, who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing-their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.

Cia Vale is honoured to be chosen as a Testing candidate, eager to prove her worthiness as a University  student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father's advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies: Trust no one.

Surely though, she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance. Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every gruelling (and deadly) day of The Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.

There was a lot of hype surrounding this release, plus the synopsis sounded like my exam nightmares from high school multiplied by a hundred, so I picked it up.

After reading the whole thing in two sittings over two days, I can sum up The Testing as, "The Hunger Games, the academic version."

Malencia (Cia) Vale lives in the Five Lakes Colony (formerly the Great Lakes area) in a post-apocalyptic North America ravaged by natural disasters, nuclear war, and political conflict. The people responsible for government, education, and genetically engineering new food crops to grow in the harsh climate are hand-picked from each of the colonies and put through a rigorous testing procedure that tests their academic skills, hands-on abilities, survival skills, and how far they're willing to go to secure a spot at the University. Cia's father was a University graduate who is haunted by his experience (yet can't actually remember it) who warns his daughter not to trust anyone. But like any good game involving others, Cia can't make it totally on her own and must rely on someone, the question is will her trust be rewarded?

There are a lot of similarities between The Testing and The Hunger Games, so much to the point where some readers are immediately turned off by it. Though I do agree there are very obvious similarities, I personally enjoyed the unique aspects of The Testing, mainly the aspect of an academic Battle Royale scenario (though it does get very Hunger Games-esque from the mid-point on with the survival test). I liked Cia as a character: she's the youngest of all the candidates but isn't overly naive or innocent, she's intelligent and very observant, plus she more or less maintains her humanity throughout the whole experience.

Cia answers questions on a history exam in order to fill readers in on the background information for the book's universe. I appreciated that the author used this method to address world-building, it wasn't forced and fit naturally into the plot.

The romance aspect wasn't amazing by any means which was a little disappointing. There isn't a lot of background on Tomas and Cia growing up, you just know they went to school together, there's no real flashbacks or memories related to their relationship to build upon, so the whole "OMG I love you so much" comes on a little fast, but understandable given the traumatic experiences they go through together. Granted this scenario is similar in The Hunger Games, but I think it did a better job of making the romance believable plus included flashbacks from childhood to add to the relationship building.

Unlike The Hunger Games where a lot of the killing occurs mainly in the background and when it is upfront it's usually done in self-defence, the killing that occurs in The Testing is very much obvious (as narrated by Cia to her horror), and either done very much on purpose by other candidates or allowed by the Testing authorities. But like The Hunger Games, the violence isn't glorified, and the consequences are shown (the witnesses are forever traumatized by it, established that the victims had families etc.).

I quite enjoyed this, so I'll be picking up the sequels (this is the first book of a trilogy), but I urge you to give it a read and see for yourself.

Similar to The Hunger Games overall but with enough differences in plot and details that it can be enjoyable depending on the reader. The violence is more extreme (though not glorified), so you'll want to have a discussion with more sensitive readers. I definitely think this is definitely for older readers (high school age and up) due to the increased violence, so I wouldn't give it to grade 7s or 8s like I would The Hunger Games.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the shimmery blue colour combined with the silver of Cia's testing symbol, it's a very pleasing cover aesthetically.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

P.S. Be Eleven - Rita Williams-Garcia

Title: P.S. Be Eleven
Author: Rita Williams-Garcia
Publisher: Amistad (Harper Collins), 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 274 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: September 23, 2013
Finished: September 24, 2013

From the inside cover:

Things are changing in the Gaither household. After soaking up a "power to the people" mind-set over the summer, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern return to Brooklyn with a newfound streak of independence. Pa has a girlfriend, Uncle Darnell is home from Vietnam, but he's not the same. And a new singing group called the Jackson Five has the girls seeing stars.

But one thing that doesn't change? Big Ma still expects Delphine to keep everything together. That's even harder now that her sisters refuse to be bossed around, and now that Pa's girlfriend voices her own opinions about things. Through letters, Delphine confides in her mother, who reminds her not to grow up too fast. To be eleven while she can.

An outstanding successor to the Newbery Honor Book One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven stands on it's own as a moving, funny story of three sisters growing up amid the radical change of the 1960s, beautifully written by the inimitable Rita Williams-Garcia.

I read One Crazy Summer a few years ago and loved it mainly because of Delphine's narration. P.S. Be Eleven is the sequel and picks up immediately after the first book ended, in the summer of 1968 with the girls on the plane back home to Brooklyn from California after visiting Cecile. More independent and with a sense of standing up to injustice, they're less likely to take the usual treatment from Big Ma, from everything from choice of school clothes to liking the Jackson Five.

Their Dad makes the quick moves by meeting and proposing to a woman while the girls were gone, which Delphine isn't impressed with but eventually becomes neutral about. The girls are mostly concerned with school and saving money to pay for half the cost of tickets to see the Jackson Five at Madison Square Gardens. Delphine regularly writes to Cecile, who although is still a very hands-off mother, manages to give her some decent advice about savouring her childhood and taking her time about tackling more grown-up issues. There's also a nice commentary on returning war veterans with Uncle Darnell, who returns from Vietnam alive but has constant nightmares and develops a drug problem.

The writing is amazing, Delphine's voice and narration makes the book yet again, and is a nice piece of historical fiction about growing up in the late 1960s.

Thoughts on the cover:
The original book's cover got a redesign after it accumulated so many awards, and the sequel cover is done in a similar style. I love the image of the girls playing Double Dutch on the street in front of the brownstones all wearing bellbottoms (even though Big Ma won't let them wear them in the book). Plus the colours are awesome.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Siege and Storm - Leigh Bardugo

Title: Siege and Storm
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: September 20, 2013
Finished: September 23, 2013

From the inside cover:

Darkness Never Dies.

Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land, all while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. But she can't outrun her past or her destiny for long.

The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling's game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her-or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

After reading the first in the trilogy, Shadow and Bone, a couple months ago and getting hooked despite a few annoying things, I knew I'd be picking up the rest of the instalments.

Siege and Storm picks up after Alina and Mal's escape from the Darkling across the Fold. After trying to live in secret in Novyi Zem, the two are recaptured by the Darkling and brought back to Ravka. After a coup by the pirate Sturmhond, who turns out to be someone completely different, Alina and Mal begin to gather forces against the Darkling. Alina yearns for more power to defeat the Darkling, but at the same time fears it because she doesn't want to become like him. Add in your traditional cliffhanger ending leading the way into the final instalment, and you've got a decent second book here.

The characters make this series for me. The Darkling is still a deliciously troubled villain, his character development is done incredibly well, and his relationship with Alina is one I can't help reading on about even though he's evil because he makes a darn good case as to why they belong together (can't argue with logic, even from a psycho villain). Alina seems a bit more focused in this book, not quite as naive, more dedicated to using her power to help Ravka and realizing her power is a part of herself she cannot stifle. I felt like slapping Mal upside the head for most of the book, about the time he moped around for the hundredth time because Alina was too busy saving Ravka to make time for him. Boohoo buddy, cut the girl some slack, once your homeland is safe you two can cuddle again.

I must say; the addition of Tolya, Tamar, and Nikolai were much welcomed, I loved all three. The twins were awesome pirate bodyguards and Nikolai was just darned charming and two-faced, but really enjoyable.

If you read Shadow and Bone, you've obviously already read Siege and Storm. If you haven't read these yet, give them a try if you're in the mood for a new series.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity from the first cover: the Kremlin-esque towers with the Sea Whip curled around and resting at the top. I can't wait to see the cover for the third book.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell

Title: Fangirl
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 435 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 15, 2013
Finished: September 19, 2013

From the inside cover:

Cath is a Simon Snow fan.

Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan...

But for Cath, being a fan is her life-and she's really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it's what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fanfiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath's sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can't let it go. She doesn't want to.

Now that they're going to college, Wren has told Cath she she doesn't want to be roommates. Cath ison her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She's got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend; a fiction-writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world; a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words...and she can't stop worrying about her dad, who's loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

After reading Eleanor and Park back in June, I immediately fell in love with this author, I tend to with authors that portray geek culture in a wonderful way. In this new novel she manages to endear herself to me all the more (which I didn't think was possible) because she writes about a subject very dear to me: fandom.

Growing up, I was a huge bibliophile/anime/fantasy/sci-fi geek; you name it I probably loved it, read fanfiction about it, and plastered my walls with posters of it. I am proud to say I still am a huge geek, but not to the same degree as Cath in the book (but I totally was when I was in high school and university).

Cath is the ultimate Harry Potter Simon Snow fan. She's even the most popular Simon Snow fanfic author on, with some readers liking her stories even better than the original Simon Snow novels. When Cath and Wren go off to college near their home in Omaha, Nebraska, everything starts to change. Wren begins to pull away, which forces shy, codependent Cath to expand her worldview, sometimes rather painfully (like Cath living off protein bars and peanut butter for a month because she's afraid to ask where the dining hall is on campus). Eventually she starts to become more comfortable with college life: making friends with her prickly roommate Reagan, having Nick as her writing partner in her Fiction-Writing course, and eventually dating the very awesome Levi, who begs Cath to read her fanfic aloud to him even though he's not a huge fan himself.

There are many reason why I adore this book. First off, Cath is a wonderfully realistic character, smart and witty but very vulnerable and insecure. You get to see her grow throughout the novel but she thankfully never gives up the fandom, she just has more of a balance, so I'm glad the message that being part of a fandom is 'something you need to grow out of' wasn't included here. Also, Cath writes slash fic, which I give huge props to the author for including.

Levi is a great male character, and he and Cath model a really great relationship, which I'm always pleased to see. I loved Reagan, the way she befriended Cath and essentially forced her out of exile had me laughing so hard. The dialogue I think makes this book. The conversations are incredibly realistic, I'm pretty sure I had some of these conversations while in university (and the conversations regarding fandom I'm pretty sure  I still have today). I also appreciated the deeper issues that Cath deals with: the aftermath of her mother leaving and coming back into her life, her dad's breakdown, and Wren's drinking issues. All these were handled quite well I think, adding to the credibility and realism of the book.

If you've ever been part of a fandom you need to read this, you will love the portrayal the author makes here. Even if you're not a fangirl/fanboy, it's still an immensely enjoyable read with good writing, realistic and relatable characters, and a touching coming-of-age story.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the scenario on the cover with Levi trying to get Cath's attention but she's preoccupied with Simon and Baz. I also love the aqua colour scheme.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Program - Suzanne Young

Title: The Program
Author: Suzanne Young
Publisher: Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster), 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 405 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 4, 2013
Finished: September 9, 2013

From the inside cover:

Sloane knows better than to cry in front of anyone. With suicide now an international epidemic, one outburst could land her in The Program, the only proven course of treatment. Sloane's parents have already lost one child; Sloane knows they'll do anything to keep her alive. She also knows that everyone who's been through The Program returns as a blank slate. Because their depression is gone-but so are their memories.

Under constant surveillance at home and at school, Sloane puts on a brave face and keeps her feelings buried as deep as she can. The only person Sloane can be herself with is James. He's promised to keep them both safe and out of treatment, and Sloane knows their love is strong enough to withstand anything. But despite the promises they've made to each other, it's getting harder to hide the truth. They are both growing weaker. Depression is setting in. And The Program is coming for them.

I picked this up purely because it sounded awesome, I mean a dystopian-esque YA about suicide and the government erasing memories to keep them alive, who wouldn't want to read that? However, since finishing it I have mixed feelings about the novel.

The premise is that Sloane lives in a world where suicide amongst teenagers has become a viral epidemic, so suicide is literally contagious (at least this is the claim). To combat this, the government set up The Program, a recovery program where kids are whisked away to hospital-type rehabilitation centres and return six weeks later with extremely large chunks of their memories missing. Sloane and the rest of her friends know this, so they want to avoid The Program at all costs, hiding their pain when their friends die since any signs of grief mean an automatic call to have the kids taken away to The Program.

I like how the book brings attention to the issue of teen suicide, but I'm not sure if it was handled in a way I'm comfortable with. Though suicide in the novel's universe is supposed to be an epidemic and spreads like a sickness, it wasn't really portrayed this way other than kids tending to fall into depression after witnessing a traumatic event like a friend's suicide (well duh, that already happens). So they're reluctant to seek out help from the various therapy services that are available because they know the therapist will flag them, plus they have no coping skills, so they succumb. This seems to me so very similar to how suicide is understood by teenagers today: they have the signs of depression, they're reluctant to seek help (if they're even aware of it) because there's a negative social stigma attached to it, and because they're lacking appropriate coping skills they just perpetuate a sad cycle. Throughout the book's first part, I kept thinking, "my god, what's wrong with these kids? They aren't 'sick', they just need therapy." I don't think the "suicide as a contagious sickness" was reinforced enough, it just felt like the existing views and misinformation on suicide were just packaged in a different way. I would have felt differently if there was a page somewhere dedicated to listing suicide prevention hotlines and websites but there wasn't. I know it's fiction but because we're dealing with the issue of suicide I feel things should have been handled differently. Definitely have a discussion with readers of all ages (even older teenagers I find don't know enough about mental health issues) if they're reading this.

Aside from the suicide issue, Sloane as the heroine didn't really make an impact on me. She pretty much only exists in relation to James, her only motivation is related to James. Throughout the second part when she's in The Program itself and is getting memories erased bit by bit, her only concern is that she'll forget about James. Not that she might lose favourite childhood memories, not that she might forget about her brother or her friends, just about James. The novel is very much a syrupy love story with a really interesting premise, I was hoping it would be more about a person fighting for the greater good after they have a eureka moment, but Sloane (at least for now) is only concerned for herself and James. I will be picking up the next book to see where this goes though, I really hope I have a different opinion with the sequel.

This is such a promising idea with a lot of potential but just didn't wow me, though it might just be me, so I encourage you to read it and see for yourself. But please ensure you have a discussion on suicide with teenaged readers regarding this novel.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it. The clinical white hallway with Sloane and James (I'm assuming that's not Realm) in the yellow scrubs, with the different coloured pills on the back.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Katie Woo Rules the School - Fran Manushkin

Title: Katie Woo Rules the School
Author: Fran Manushkin
Publisher: Capstone Young Readers, 2013 (Paperback)
Length: 90 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: September 4, 2013
Finished: September 4, 2013

From the back of the book:

For Katie Woo, school is one big adventure. Join the stylish schoolgirl as she learns how to be a great classmate and friend. From the school play to the class pet, Katie knows how to rule the school!

I am just starting to pick up 'big kid' books here and there for my daughter. Though she's not quite two, she'll be into chapter books before I know it, so if I see something appropriate, I'll pack it away for her. I hadn't heard of this series before getting a newsletter advertising it, apparently it's so popular it has it's own book club that you can sign up to receive this book for free.

After reading it, I'll definitely keep this for my daughter. These new books (6 in the series) are compilations of previously published separate stories (4 stories per book), so the format is perfect for young readers just starting out with chapter books. The sentences are short, and there's illustrations on every page, so again a perfect chapter book for the 6-8 year olds.

I especially like how multicultural the book universe is. All races and ethnicities are represented by Katie and her group of friends in their first grade class, which is what I look for in reading material for my daughter and my students. I don't always find stuff that is culturally varied, so it's wonderful when I come across something that does fit the bill.

If you've got a young reader in your home, I encourage you to sign up at the link above (through Facebook) to get a copy of this for your child to see for yourself.

Perfect first chapter book for beginning readers with multicultural characters and good messages.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's cute with a nice colour scheme, sure to attract the kids. I like how the other books in the series utilize colours other than pink.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Rose Throne - Mette Ivie Harrison

Title: The Rose Throne
Author: Mette Ivie Harrison
Publisher: Egmont USA, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 27, 2013
Finished: September 1, 2013

From the inside cover:

Two princesses, two kingdoms, an ancient prophecy...

A throne of rose-coloured wood, intricately carved, its origins lost in time.

An island ripped asunder by powerful magic.

A princess with magic, a princess with none.

Each princess may in time rule over her own kingdom, but only one can rule over both.

Can either princess afford to follow her heart, while around them men struggle and vie for power? Can either rule if the other yet lives? And what of the prophecy, which tells of a land and magic united under a single monarch? Mette Ivie Harrison's new fantasy romance features two heroines, as different as night and day, caught up in a maelstrom of events, where love is the most dangerous of all emotions, and survival means concealing all that matter most.

The premise sounded really interesting so I picked this up. Though to be fair, the summary isn't really accurate once you read the story, so don't put too much stock into it.

The story is original and engaging. The people of the kingdoms of Rurik and Weirland possess an innate power called weyr. Taweyr is the male magic, which controls death and war. Neweyr is the female magic and controls life and the earth. Ailsbet is the 17-year-old princess of Rurik, where taweyr is valued above all else. Deemed to have no magic and worthless to her father, Ailsbet grows to be self-resilient and intelligent, and also a bit prickly. Marlissa (called Issa) is the 18-year-old princess of Weirland that is betrothed Ailsbet's 13-year-old brother Edik. Entering into the betrothal in order to help  bring the two kingdoms together through the prophecy with the idea that Edik will grow to be a better man than his father, Issa tries to forget her love for Duke Kellin and sacrifice for the good of her kingdom. When Ailsbet discovers she is Ekhono (when a person possesses the weyr of the opposite gender), she must keep it a secret to save her life, but is encouraged to work through her brother to become queen as the person with the stronger taweyr.

The concept of the weyrs could've been explained more, you never really get a concrete idea of exactly how they work or what they do. There was a lot of sexist issues in the book: who is deemed to have value, what jobs are seen as integral, and what happens when men are valued to the exclusion of women and their influence, so it was interesting to see the author delve into this territory, I quite enjoyed it. The characters are well-developed and endearing; Issa and Ailsbet are quite different but are strong females that are flawed in their own ways. Kellin, Umber, and Edik are multi-dimensional as well.

The only downside was the ending. Everything built up and up but fell flat all of a sudden, there just wasn't any satisfying resolution to any of the plot points. Thus far The Rose Throne is a one-shot with potential plans for sequels (possible trilogy?) and I really hope there are more instalments because the ending just didn't cut it.

Excellent story, writing, plot, and characters. The ending falls short (pray for a sequel), but if you can overlook that it's well worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it. Ailsbet is exactly as described, and the position of her face is not typical of most YA covers.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Bullied - Carrie Goldman

Title: Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear
Author: Carrie Goldman
Publisher: HarperOne, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 348 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction, Parenting
Started: August 30, 2013
Finished: September 1, 2013

From the inside cover:

Carrie Goldman became an unexpected voice for the antibullying movement after her blog post about her daughter Katie's bullying experience went viral and an online community of support generated international attention. In Bullied, Goldman brings together the expertise of leading authorities with the candid accounts of families dealing firsthand with peer victimization to present proven strategies and concrete tools for teaching children how to speak up and carry themselves with confidence; call each other out on cruelty; resolve conflict; cope with teasing, taunting, physical abuse, and cyberbulling; and be smart consumers of technology and media. As a mother, she calls on us all-families, schools, communities, retailers, celebrities, and media-to fiercely examine our own stereotypes and embrace our joint responsibility for creating a culture of acceptance and respect.

For parents, educators, and anyone still wrestling with past experiences of victimization and fear, Bullied is an eye-opening, prescriptive, and ultimately uplifting guide to raising diverse, empathetic, tolerant kids in a caring and safe world.

I've been meaning to read this since it came out last year but it unintentionally got pushed to the back of my reading list, but thankfully I got around to it, and just before school starts to boot. I've been following this author's blog since before she even wrote the book, she's an awesome adoption advocate and really knows her stuff about bullying, the media, and sexualization of little girls.

Bullied is an amazing comprehensive resource about bullying that talks about many aspects: the possible sources of bullying and how children get in that mindset to ostracize the "other" (media stereotypes of masculine and feminine, parents treating others disrespectfully etc.), the profiles of children that are typical targets of bullying, exactly what constitutes bullying and the different types; and ways to combat the bullying that help the victim, the bully, and the community. The author includes a lot of first-hand accounts from stories sent to her after sharing her daughter's experience with bullying, interviews from prominent experts in the field, as well as celebrities and activists.

Bullied is an excellent book that all parents, teachers, and anyone that interacts with kids on a consistent basis needs to read. Not only does the author touch on the huge issue of the media and stereotypes that kids are exposed to on a daily basis (that isn't addressed as often as it should in my opinion), it offers practical solutions that keep both the victim and the bully in mind (because typically the bullies are victims in their own right too). Also, the author has lists of other resources in the back of the book: books grouped by age level, movies, etc. She actually lists several books I've read and recommended on bullying, as well as some pretty good documentary films too, so I can tell she's done her research.

Anyone who deals with kids on a daily basis needs to read this, it's just an amazing resource that dispels the myths about bullying that people have been perpetrating forever and offers practical solutions.

Thoughts on the cover:
Kinda plain but most of the cover is taken up by the title anyway.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blood & Beauty: The Borgias - Sarah Dunant

Title: Blood & Beauty: The Borgias
Author: Sarah Dunant
Publisher: Random House, 2013 (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 500 pages
Genre: Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: August 10, 2013
Finished: August 23, 2013

From the inside cover:

By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy are matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children but by his blood: His is a Spanish Pope in a city of Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family-in particular his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia-in order to succeed.

Cesare, with a dazzingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is Rodrigo's greatest-though increasingly unstable-weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli's The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, she embarks on a journey through three marriages, from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood & Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex, and relentless.

Aside from being Italian and loving the history of the Renaissance, I've been intrigued by the Borgia family and how ruthless and immoral they are portrayed to be.

The book is beautifully written and focuses on Cesare and Lucrezia mostly, but does touch on the other members as well. The author does a wonderful job at illustrating the kind of atmosphere that was Italy at the time and exactly why the Borgias did what they needed to in order to survive. It actually makes you feel for them in a way, because in that kind of cut-throat environment if they didn't do what they did they would've been victim to others doing the same things and would've been destroyed and left to suffer in abject poverty.

If you've seen any of the television shows about the Borgias (I've only seen the French/Czech production available on Netflix, not the Showcase version with Jeremy Irons), the novel follows historical events so a lot of the content will be the same. There are certain events that historians aren't sure exactly how they unfolded, the author makes note of these in the epilogue, so those few differ based on interpretation.

If you're a history buff or interested in the Borgias, give this a read. There's another book coming as well, so a great remedy if you find yourself wanting more.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the cover incorporates actual portraits of Cesare and Lucrezia, and using the teal and gold colour scheme is pleasing to look at.

Friday, August 23, 2013

War Brothers: The Graphic Novel - Sharon E. McKay

Title: War Brothers: The Graphic Novel
Author: Sharon E. McKay, illustrated by Daniel Lafrance
Publisher: Annick Press, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 168 pages
Genre: Adult/Young Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: August 22, 2013
Finished: August 22, 2013

From the back of the book:

An unforgettable story of resilience, based on true events.

Jacob and his friends are sharing stories about their school break, when suddenly the door of their dorm is violently kicked in. The attack only takes moments. Blinded by fear, and confusion, the boys are abducted by rebel soldiers-members of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Beaten, starved, and forced to become child soldiers, the boys begin a long march through the African bush. They wait for rescue. Where is the great army with its helicopters? Have their families forgotten them? With barely any hope left, they must make a desperate decision that will end in life or death.

With its haunting images and powerful text, this graphic novel tells a story of spirit, friendship, and courage. For Jacob and his friends, survival depends on one thing: loyalty.

Child soldiers are one of many sensitive topics that crop up in our schools. We bring it up when we talk about social justice, kids write petitions to politicians regarding it, we support various charities that help survivors; but we don't do nearly enough to inform kids about them, so it's something they know is horrible simply because we tell them it is. This is one source that will not only convey the horrors of child soldiers, it also asks the question where do victims end and criminals begin and at what point do we hold someone accountable for their actions?

This graphic novel, based on the YA novel of the same name by the same author, is very informative, but disturbing on many levels, which you can guess given the subject matter. The content is very graphic, violent, enough that I'd be very cautious about what type of reader (especially a student) I'd recommend or give this to. Heck, this gave me nightmares after I read it and not much spooks me nowadays.

Amazing account of child soldiers in the LRA in Uganda, but very graphic and disturbing, not for sensitive readers.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the red with black silhouettes and the jungle background.

Marzi - Marzena Sowa

Title: Marzi: A Memoir
Author: Marzena Sowa, illustrated by Sylvain Savoia
Publisher: Vertigo, 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Adult/Young Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: August 22, 2013
Finished: August 22, 2013

From the back cover:

"I am Marzi, born in 1979, ten years before the end of communism in Poland. My father works at a factory, my mother at a dairy. Social problems are at their height. Empty stores are our daily bread. I'm scared of spiders, and the world of adults doesn't seem like a walk in the park."

Told from a young girl's perspective, Marzena Sowa's memoir is a compelling and powerful coming-of-age story that portrays the harsh realities of life behind the Iron Curtain while maintaining the everyday wonders and curiosity of childhood. With open and engaging art by Sylvain Savoia, Marzi isa moving and resonant story of an ordinary girl in turbulent, changing times.

I love stories of people growing up in extreme circumstances, especially graphic accounts (a lot of the time you need a visual to truly understand some of the content). I think they're especially important for our students to read, partly to understand that not everyone around the world grows up like they do, and partly to realize the things that happened under communist regimes so we can prevent them from happening again.

Marzi is similar to other accounts I've read of children growing up in communist or militaristic regimes, but unique in that I've never read one that takes place in Poland. Marzi begins with the author recounting her early years (I'm guessing around age 5 or 6 when it starts) in a series of vignettes that illustrate linear events from her childhood, ending shortly after the fall of communism when she is 10 or 11 years old.

The story did lag in some parts, and didn't have as much political commentary as I expected, but was still a worthwhile read. The artwork is beautifully drawn, and the accounts coming from a child's perspective are actually from a child's mindset. The instances where Marzi and her parents line up at stores and overbuy items for fear they'll run out and go without are some that you can use to explain the differences in types of government for kids, they will likely understand that moreso than the latter examples of her father striking with other workers and locking themselves up in the factories.

Excellent account of growing up in a communist country, lags in some parts but worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the juxtaposition of Marzi with the soldiers behind her, and the fact that she's in full colour, including her eyes (they're usually coloured grey in the actual book) echoes to a Schindler's List effect.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hit The Road Helen! - Kate McMullan

Title: Hit The Road Helen! (Myth-O-Mania #9)
Author: Kate McMullan
Publisher: Stone Arch Books (Capstone), September 2013 (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 237 pages
Genre: Children's Mythology/Adventure
Started: August 9, 2013
Finished: August 12, 2013

From the back of the book:

Acclaimed author Kate McMullan is back with a brand-ew addition to her popular Myth-O-Mania series! As fans of the series know, when it comes to the Greek myths, things aren't always what they seem. Luckily, Hades, King of the Underworld, is here to set the record straight. This time around, Hades tackles the Trojan War and tells readers what really happened in the epic battle. Think Helen is to blame? Think again!

I got this in my mailbox while I was doing my teacher course weeks back and have only now been able to get around to reading it. Apparently this series began over a decade ago and this is the first new instalment since 2003. I'd never come across the series before either as a kid or as a teacher, so was quite excited to try out something new.

If the rest of the books are anything like this one, they're perfect to get kids interested in mythology. The book is narrated by Hades (and given a snarky no-nonsense voice to boot), and written with a ton of humour and pop-culture references modified to suit the context of the story. The book contains the same information about the Trojan War (and all the background information and related figures) that you would find in a mythology book geared towards an older audience, but makes everything much more accessible for children, particularly kids in the tween ages and reluctant readers.

Students where I live do a social studies unit on ancient cultures (Greece, Rome, Mayan) in grade 5, so these books would be perfect for teachers to have in their classroom library while they work on that unit. Kids also do a unit on Greek mythology in grade 9 English, so these books would probably still be appropriate for certain readers even at that age.

Informative, funny, and accessible for kids. A wonderful addition for school study or reading for fun.

Thoughts on the cover:
Apparently all the books in the series got cover redesigns similar to this new one, which is always good so everything looks uniform.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The New Normal - Ashley Little

Title: The New Normal
Author: Ashley Little
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers, 2013 (Paperback)
Length: 222 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 30, 2013
Finished: August 1, 2013

From the back of the book:

Tamar Robinson knows a lot about loss and regret-more than any teenager should. Her younger sisters are dead, her parents are adrift in a sea of grief, and now Tamar is losing her hair. But life goes on, and regrets are useless. Tamar isn't the most popular girl at school or the best-looking, but she's whip-smart, morbidly funny and-most important of all-tenacious.

Tamar is sixteen and lives in the Calgary suburbs with her mom and dad. She used to be the oldest, but now she's an only child after her younger twin sisters died in a drunk driving accident several months earlier. Her mom now does nothing but yoga, her dad lives in his own world, and Tamar is losing her hair due to the stress. What makes matters worse is that her sisters weren't the most likeable people in the first place so Tamar doesn't quite know how to grieve for them.

I liked this book because it deals with grief and loss, something not enough YA books dealt with back when I was actually in the target age range for them. I especially like this one because it deals with the fact that people won't always be devastated by the loss of everyone they know who dies, even if they were related to them. Some people are just not nice human beings and if they didn't bring a lot of positives to your life you're not going to be missing much when they die. Tamar tries to deal with a lot of things in the wake of her sisters' deaths: school, being hassled by her sisters' drug dealer for unpaid money, a lack of money due to her parents unable to work due to grief, and even first love.

This is a quick read but a good one. Tamar is a strong female character whose efforts at trying to find her 'new normal' are admirable.

Thoughts on the cover:
Clever way to integrate something signifying Tamar's hair loss into a cool cover image.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sugar - Jewell Parker Rhodes

Title: Sugar
Author: Jewell Parker Rhodes
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: July 28, 2013
Finished: July 29, 2013

From the inside cover:

For Sugar, life is anything but sweet.

Ten-year-old Sugar lives on River Road Plantation along the banks of the Mississippi River. Slavery is over, but working in the sugarcane fields all day doesn't make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar knows how to make her own fun: telling stories, climbing trees, and playing with her forbidden friend Billy, the plantation owner's son.

Then a group of Chinese workers arrive to help harvest the cane.  Sugar wants to know everything about them-she loves the way they dress, their unfamiliar language, and, best of all, the stories they tell of dragons and emperors. Unfortunately, other folks on the plantation feel differently-they're fearful of these new neighbours and threatened by their different customs. Sugar knows things will only get better if everyone works together, so she sets out to help the two communities realize they're not so different after all.

Sugar is the inspiring story of a strong, spirited young girl who grows beyond her circumstances and helps others work toward a brighter future.

I picked this up purely for the unique subject matter. I haven't seen too many novels set in the time directly after the Civil War and the end of slavery, and the addition of the Chinese workers as competition was interesting as well.

Sugar was born into slavery on a Louisiana plantation, and her father was sold shortly after. Ten years later in 1870, slavery has ended, her mother has since died, and Sugar feels trapped in the midst of many of the workers leaving to go north but having no one willing to take her. With mainly elderly workers remaining, the owner decides to bring in Chinese workers from British Guyana to help bring in a more plentiful crop. Everyone is justifiably worried that the new workers will put them out of the only  'jobs' they've ever known, and are immediately on their guard. Sugar, on the other hand, yearns for something beyond life on the plantation and is immediately drawn to the foreign workers.

I liked how the author showed that just because the former slaves were emancipated, things didn't get better for everyone immediately or even a couple of years later (or even a hundred years later). The workers were still illiterate, and even though they were free to go at any time and received pay for their work now, they were paid so little it took a while to save up enough to afford to leave, and they'd be going towards uncertain prospects too. People still treated them horribly (Sugar and the other workers were lucky to have a boss that wanted them willing), and for many children left orphaned, their outlooks were especially bleak.

The book is a quick read, but a good one. Sugar is spunky and fiery, and her narration and voice suck readers in quickly. The bond formed between Billy, Sugar, and Beau is really sweet and inspiring and a good role model for kids to look up to....I'm not sure how realistic it would've been in terms of the historical context, but it's awesome anyway.

Excellent children's book about the Reconstruction period in American history, complete with a great female protagonist and wonderful messages.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Sugar is drawn flying the Chinese kite away from the plantation and the sugarcane, it's a nice visual metaphor.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

World War Z: An Oral History of The Zombie War - Max Brooks

Title: World War Z: An Oral History of The Zombie War
Author: Max Brooks
Publisher: Crown Publishers, 2006 (Hardcover)
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Adult; Apocalyptic Fiction
Started: July 20, 2013
Finished: July 27, 2013

From the inside cover:

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing he often raw and vivd nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, "By excluding the human factor, aren't we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn't the human factor the only true difference between us and the 'living dead'?"

Note: Some of the numerical and factual material contained in this edition was previously published under the auspices of the United Nations Postwar Commission.

I'll admit, I love me a good zombie story. I haven't seen the movie yet, but apparently it's vastly different from the book so it doesn't really matter here.

This book isn't written like your typical survivor story; it's almost laid out like a cross between a documentary and an inquest, a series of vignettes where the author interviews survivors ten years after the war. The interviews are laid out in close to chronological order according to their content, and some accounts overlap a bit depending on the subject. Some readers won't like this format because it doesn't follow one or even a few individuals solely throughout the war in a linear fashion, rather many accounts are pieced together to give an overall impression of the events from many areas of the world from various types of people (military, medical, political, everyday people). I personally liked how the author handled it, it's appropriate in this context and it reads like a documentary (I'm a huge documentary fan).

If you're looking for something zombie-like akin to The Walking Dead, you won't really find it here. While there's definitely some good edge-of-your-seat sections, the book moreso deals with how governments, nations, and people in general react to an unimaginable crisis. You could insert any huge catastrophe (biological warfare, nuclear war, natural disaster) in place of zombies and it would still make sense and be an awesome novel.

Excellent format for the content, and a very satisfying read.

Thoughts on the cover:
Pretty basic, but it works.