Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall - Mary Downing Hahn

Title: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
Author: Mary Downing Hahn
Publisher: Sandpiper (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2010 (Paperback)
Length: 153 pages
Genre: Children's Horror
Started: June 21, 2013
Finished: June 22, 2013

From the back cover:

When twelve-year-old Florence boards the horse-drawn coach in London, she looks forward to her new life at Crutchfield Hall, her great-uncle's manor house in the English countryside. Anything will be better, Florence thinks, than the grim London orphanage she has just left.

Florence doesn't reckon with the eerie presence the haunts the cavernous rooms and dimly lit hallways of Crutchfield. It's the ghost of her cousin Sophia, who died the year before. Sophia's ghost seeks to recreate the scene of her death and cause someone else to die in her place so that she will be restored to life. And she intends to force Florence to help her.

It was book fair season recently at my schools and this was one of the books I picked up. It's short, so it's a very quick read; but a perfect scary story for middle-grade readers.

In 19th century England, orphaned Florence is sent to Crutchfield after being tracked down by a long-lost relative. Things are unsettling from the beginning: being mistaken for her dead cousin Sophia, immediately disliked by her aunt, being left to her own devices in a huge manor house (like Mary in The Secret Garden), and being creeped out by strange laughs she hears (like Jane in Jane Eyre). Once she encounters Sophia and her power to make people do her bidding, Florence becomes a player in Sophia's twisted game of revenge and retribution.

The book is very short, so the plot moves very quickly, there's a lot of outright telling versus showing in terms of the writing style, and the characters aren't given enough 'screen time' to really develop; but since it is a middle grade novel I can forgive those things, especially since most kids will be so wrapped up in the ghost story aspect they won't be focusing on the other parts.

The author evokes a lot of other classic stories here, from Jane Eyre to The Secret Garden, and older horror stories like The Turn of the Screw and those from Edgar Allen Poe. Granted, these references will go over most young readers' heads (unless they're amazingly well read), but adults and teachers will appreciate them.

Wonderful quick read for kids that like scary stories. You might want to skip this if you've got sensitive readers though. Although Sophia's death itself is not particularly violent, the pure hatred for her brother is thinly veiled, and the plot to get James to die in her place is kinda twisted.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it. A take on the classic Victorian portrait photo in an oval frame, but with shattered glass and with drops of blood is a great way to draw readers in.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ashen Winter - Mike Mullin

Title: Ashen Winter (sequel to Ashfall)
Author: Mike Mullin
Publisher: Tanglewood Publishing, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 567 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Apocalyptic Fiction/Dystopian Fiction
Started: June 8, 2013
Finished: June 10, 2013

From the inside cover:

It's been over six months since the eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano. Alex and Darla have been staying with Alex's relatives, trying to cope with the new relativity of the dark, cold, and primitive world so vividly portrayed in Ashfall, the first book in this trilogy.

It's also been six months of waiting for Alex's parents to return from Iowa. Alex and Darla decide they must retrace their journey into Iowa to find and bring back Alex's parents to the tenuous safety of Illinois. But the landscape they cross is even more perilous than before, with life-and-death battles for food and power between the remaining communities.

When the unthinkable happens, Alex must find new reserves of strength and determination to survive.

After reading Ashfall earlier this year and loving it, I knew I had to check out the rest of the trilogy. Luckily for me, Ashen Winter came out soon afterwards, and I was not disappointed.

Ashen Winter picks up several months after Alex and Darla arrive at his aunt and uncle's farm in Illinois, so close to a year after the Yellowstone volcano erupted. When the farm is attacked by bandits brandishing Alex's father's unique rifle, he and Darla head back to Iowa to find them. After a number of events that eventually bring them back to the farm, the group is faced with protecting their community from bandits.

In a way this was obviously a different novel from Ashfall because the apocalyptic events have already passed and now we see more of the post-apocalyptic and dystopian elements. This made it definitely action-packed, but not quite as suspenseful or edge-of-your-seat feeling like I felt while reading Ashfall.  Ashen Winter was still good, don't get me wrong, it's just a different kind of good. It's interesting to see how the surviving communities govern themselves and exactly what commodities are necessary and valued in a post-apocalyptic world.

This novel is definitely what I call a bridge novel (what I call a typical 2nd book in a trilogy that doesn't have the excitement of the beginning or end instalments and falls flat slightly), so I'm looking forward to the final novel when is comes out next year.

If you enjoyed Ashfall, you'll enjoy Ashen Winter. There's a lot of squicky territory here just like in the first novel, like cannibalism and trading women as sex slaves, so you might want to know that in advance if you've got a younger or more sensitive reader.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity from the first novel cover, and how the symbol of the separated hands over Alex's scarf actually makes sense after reading. I mostly enjoy how this looks like an adult cover and not like your typical YA fare at all.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Wonder - R.J.Palacio

Title: Wonder
Author: R.J. Palacio
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 313 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: June 5, 2013
Finished: June 7, 2013

From the inside cover:

Don't judge a book boy by it's cover his face.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school-until now. He's about to enter fifth grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid, then you know how hard that can be. The thing is, Auggie's just an ordinary kid with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?

R.J. Palacio has crafted an uplifting novel full of wonderfully realistic family interactions, lively school scenes, and writing that shines with spare emotional power.

This book has been passed around my local schools like pixie sticks or some other addictive substance. And now that I've read it, I know exactly why. This book, like it's title, is a wonder. It encapsulates such subtle yet important messages about kindness and tolerance and packages it in format that's accessible to kids. I work in Catholic schools and we try to convey these ideas to our students all the time, but sometimes the methods we use don't even resonate with adults let alone children. There was a point in the book where a character talks about a quote about seeing the face of God when people are kind, and though I've encountered that exact same idea before, it was only in reading that passage that the understanding of it hit me like a freight train.

Auggie's experiences and those of his family and classmates, told in multiple points of view that move the story forward, reinforce that our actions do have profound effects both good and bad, and that there's a difference between just 'being nice' and making a conscious decision to be kind.

Well-written, engaging, wonderful characters, and just an amazing story altogether. You have to read Wonder, just trust me on this one.

Thoughts on the cover:
A very clever way of using Auggie's face without actually showing his face. There are other character portraits done in the same style throughout the book.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Eleanor and Park - Rainbow Rowell

Title: Eleanor and Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
Started: June 3, 2013
Finished: June 6, 2013

From the inside cover:

Two misfits.

One extraordinary love.

Eleanor...Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.

Park...He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds-smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

There aren't enough words to describe my love for this book. An adorably cute love story, 80s nostalgia, geeky interests galore, I totally heart this.

The place, Omaha, Nebraska. The time, 1986.

After being kicked out by her alcoholic, abusive stepfather for a year, Eleanor is allowed to return home and tries to resume a semblance of normalcy. Between walking on eggshells around her stepdad, trying to figure out why her mother even married the guy in the first place, sharing a bedroom with all four of her siblings, and living in poverty, Eleanor doesn't get much of a break. She lives for her music and books, and tries to be invisible so the kids at school won't pick on her even more.

Park is half-Korean, worries a lot, and doesn't stand up for himself to anyone. His dad's been trying to teach him to drive for a year without success, his mom employs his services in her beauty parlour, and he's a kung-fu master. He's a music junkie and loves comic books, and always seems to be living in standby...until he meets Eleanor.

From the first spark where Eleanor reads Watchmen comics over Park's shoulder on the bus, to creating mix tapes for each other and being each other's lifeline; you can't help but find the relationship between the two of them incredibly adorable. The nostalgia of first love, where you fall so, so hard for someone echoes perfectly here; and the musings of both Eleanor and Park in the alternating points of view are so spot on it's scary.

The 80s references and geek culture are so much fun here. I wasn't a teenager in the 80s (that came a decade later), but I still remember my Walkman and Discman being permanently fused to my hip,  listening to mix tapes and burned cds galore until the batteries died out or until I fell asleep. I love the fact that Eleanor and Park read comics, especially Watchmen, and Eleanor's jokes about X-men and Batman had me giggling.

The book has a lot of wonderful themes that weave through it: having the courage to take a stand against bullying, abuse, and harassment; being brave enough to go through experiences you know will likely hurt you in the end but know you'll be better off for having them, and that some things (some simple pleasures and some more complicated) make life worth living.

Go read this book. Like yesterday.

There is foul language for those concerned (lots of f-bombs), plus the various examples of abuse with Eleanor's family. The sexual content is fairly tame, no actual sex and more cutesy devotion than anything else.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love it. Very simple but it fits incredibly well.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi - Susan Aihoshi

Title: Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi
Author: Susan Aihoshi
Publisher: Scholastic, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 204 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: May 31, 2013
Finished: June 2, 2013


The harsh conditions of an internment camp become reality for a young Japanese-Canadian girl.

It is 1941 and Mary Kobayashi, a Canadian-born Japanese girl enjoys her life in Vancouver. She likes school, she likes her friends, and she yearns above all else to own a bicycle. Although WWII is raging elsewhere in the world, it hasn't really impacted her life in British Columbia.

Then on December 7, 1941, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor...and everything changes.

Suddenly a war of suspicion and prejudiced is waged on the home front, and Japanese-Canadians are completely stripped of their rights, their jobs, and their homes. Mary is terrified when her family is torn apart and sent to various work camps, while she and her two sisters are sent, alone, to a primitive camp in B.C.'s interior. Here Mary spends the duration of the war, scared and uncertain of how it will all end.

In Torn Apart, author Susan Aihoshi draws from the experiences of her own family during "The Uprooting" of the Japanese in B.C. during WWII. Through young Mary's eyes, readers experience this regrettable time in Canadian history firsthand.

Ever since I started reading the Dear Canada books back when I first started teaching, I hoped more than anything that some Canadian author would write one on Japanese-Canadian internment. I did a huge project on the subject when I was in high school, and to this day I'm amazed that it isn't covered more in our history curriculum (our kids know a fair bit about the Holocaust and concentration camps, but have no idea that Canada interned various ethnic groups during the wars).

Mary's diary begins on her twelfth birthday in the spring of 1941, outlining her life with her family in Vancouver. She goes to school, has fun with her friends, and loves going to Guides. Her parents have lived in Canada for 25 years and like most immigrant parents, they do a wonderful job of raising their 6 children with the best of both cultures. Living in a multicultural neighbourhood that includes other Japanese families, they don't really feel the effects of prejudice and racism until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Canada invokes the War Measures Act to infringe on the rights of all Japanese-Canadian citizens regardless of status (landed immigrant vs. Canadian-born). Mary's grandfather is sent away first, then Mary's father and older brother are sent to different work camps (her other older brother voluntarily leaves for Ontario). Mary and her older sisters are sent to yet another camp, while her mother and younger brother follow later. This is after they are forced to leave their jobs, home, and most of their possessions to live in the camp's primitive conditions.

The book was an equal mix of showing life in Vancouver and life during the camp. Mary's diary ends after only a few months in the New Denver camp, so it would've been nice to see more there, but the author ties up everything nicely in the afterword.

A wonderful piece of historical fiction on a subject not often explored, I'm so glad this book finally exists after many years of waiting. This is full of teachable moments from the bullying Mary gets from Billy in school to the examples of the injustice suffered by all Japanese-Canadians.

Thoughts on the cover:
Another good job in true Dear Canada cover fashion.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fat Angie - E.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Title: Fat Angie
Author: E.E. Charlton-Trujillo
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 264 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: May 30, 2013
Finished: May 31, 2013

From the inside  cover:

Angie is the only one in her family-maybe the only one in the world-who believes her captured war-hero sister is still alive. Angie needs to believe it. It's better than thinking about last year, when she tried to kill herself in front of a packed gym. Better than trying to steer clear of Stacy Ann Sloan and her posse of ultra-mean girls. Better than dealing with her corporate lawyer mother, who wants to know only one thing: When is Angie going to lose exactly twenty-nine pounds?

Then a new girl, KC, arrives in Dryfalls, Ohio. She's beautiful, hip, and smart, and everyone wants to know her. From the minute they meet, KC sees the real Angie, not the fat girl hiding from her pain under a mountain of junk food. She sees Angie for who she really is: someone who just might shake things up-on the basketball court and in KC's life. Outrageous and touching, this darkly comic, anti-romantic romance brings us unforgettable characters on the edge.

I picked this up purely for the title, not gonna lie. Thankfully my gut decision ended up being right and I really enjoyed the story, especially the LGBT romance angle.

The first thing that endeared me to the book was that, like Angie, I've been the fat girl (though not quite that harassed by my classmates), and I have had a Stacy figure that made my life a living hell. Angie's life sucks so much by many standards: probably dead sister, constant antagonism from her mom and brother, a crappy therapist, a suicide attempt, plus extremely cruel kids at school. With KC's arrival, someone finally stands up for her, which leads Angie to grow a backbone and stand up for herself against everyone, especially her family.

There's so much ground that's covered here: bullying, war, grief and loss, self-injury, family dysfunction, LGBT (non) acceptance, you can't help but feel for the characters and what they're going through. Granted, some characters are more believable and engaging than others. Angie, KC, and even Wang are pretty well-developed and sympathetic. The therapist, the kids at school, and Angie's mom are so narrow and horrible they're almost unbelievable. I know there are bad therapists, cruel kids, and really crappy moms, but to have that many people without an ounce of compassion just seems unlikely, almost as if everyone was recruited to specifically make Angie's life miserable.

I liked how the LGBT romance was portrayed as awkward, where both Angie and KC make mistakes towards each other, it made it more believable. Plus both are flawed in their own way, so no one ends up being the 'saviour' to the other.

The writing is awesome. The style is different, but the way it all blends together makes for not only a very quick read, but a good one.

A wonderful book full of issues that makes for a great read. There is mention of suicide and self-harm, but it's not too graphic, and the LGBT is handled very respectfully, but you might still want to discuss these with younger readers in case they have questions.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it. The addition of KC's trademark purple heart is a nice touch.