Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Witch's Boy - Kelly Barnhill

Title: The Witch's Boy
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Algonquin, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 18, 2014
Finished: December 23, 2014

From the inside cover:

When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic Ned's mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it's Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community.

Meanwhile, across the enchanted forest that borders Ned's village lives Aine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King, who is haunted by her mother's last words to her: "The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his." When Aine's and Ned's paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to stop the war that's about to boil over between their two kingdoms?

I knew I recognized the author's name when I saw this. I read Iron-Hearted Violet years ago and adored it, so picking up a new book of the author's was a no-brainer.

Ned's mother is referred to as Sister Witch, who cures the town's ailments and averts disasters by channeling magic through her and suffers the ill effects afterwards. Ned and his twin brother Tam fall into a river as small children, and though Tam dies, their mother manages to merge Tam's spirit into Ned's body so that in a way both boys manage to survive. This incident leaves Ned unable to speak properly, making him stutter. Aine's (pronounced like "Anya") father is the Bandit King, who lived a quiet life when he married his wife, but reverts back to his wild ways after her death. Aine becomes very practical when her father starts to abandon her in his quest to steal the magic that Ned's mother guards. When Sister Witch is away in the Queen's city and the Bandit King arrives, Ned makes a rash decision and invites the magic into himself to help keep it safe, and gets kidnapped in the process. Thus sets in motion the events that make for a very well-written, engaging story.

The author's writing style is incredible, it's written like an old-fashioned fairy tale that draws you in (I quite enjoy that style). Each character has their own unique and individual voice, so there's no confusion when the point of view switches from one character to another (she even managed to give magic stones a unique personality, that's talent). Plus, the author gets credit for creating incredibly likeable male and female protagonists, as well as giving Aine a unique Irish name.

Incredibly well-written fantasy that will sure to please.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love that it's not your typical fantasy cover. I didn't quite realize what was going on until I looked at it twice though.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Jackaby - William Ritter

Title: Jackaby
Author: William Ritter
Publisher: Algonquin, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 299 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Mystery, Fantasy
Started: December 15, 2014
Finished: December 18, 2014

From the inside cover:

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, in 1892. and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary - including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby''s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: a serial killer is on the loose. The police - with the exception of the handsome detective Charlie Cane - are convinced their culprit is an ordinary villain. Jackaby is certain the foul deeds are the work of an inhuman creature, the likes of which the authorities are adamant to deny. Doctor Who meets Sherlock in a debut novel, the first in a series, brimming with cheeky humour and a dose of the macabre.

When I first read the hype for this in my book newsletter, I knew this was a book I was going to love. Thankfully I was right, this was an excellent book which has left me clamoring for the next installment.

Abigail is a rather independent woman for the Victorian era. She wants to go on archaeological digs like her father and absconds with her college tuition money to pursue that. When that doesn't quite work out, she travels to America in the hope of making it on her own to avoid crawling back to her rigid parents. On her first day off the boat, she meets Jackaby, a strange, but otherwise pleasing mix of Sheldon Cooper, Sherlock Holmes, and The Doctor from Doctor Who. Jackaby works alongside the police department (begrudgingly so) solving crimes that involve supernatural elements. He is in search of an assistant that can handle his unique line of work (meaning that they can avoid being turned into an animal or other such fate), and finds one in Abigail. Together they work to solve the recent mystery of a string of strange killings.

I loved this book for so many reasons. The supernatural elements are quite well done and not your typical ones either: banshees, a redcap, Caini (werewolf-like shapeshifters), a prior assistant turned into a duck, a resident ghost in Jackaby's office, and a frog that releases noxious gas if you stare at it.

The humour is wonderful here and I guarantee it will have you laughing. Jackaby himself has a kind of witty, cheeky humour that thankfully rubs off on Abigail throughout the book, so the conversations between them are quite amusing. I can picture this being made into a movie, the dialogue lends itself well to that. Plus, I love the scenes with the frog ("Oh my god, you stared at the frog, didn't you?!")

The characters are appealing but I'm waiting on more development of them. Jackaby is intelligent but tortured, Abigail is very independent and rejects common gender roles, Charlie is fairly ordinary but likeable, and Jenny is pretty awesome. There isn't much development of said characters, so I'm hoping that will come in later books, but otherwise I like what I see here. The mystery was pretty easy to figure out, but I enjoyed the ride nonetheless.

This is a must-read, if for nothing else than the humour and Jackaby himself (can you tell I love him?). I'll be not-so-patiently waiting for the next book.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love. It. The colour scheme is very appealing, the silhouette of Jackaby actually looks like he's described, the addition of Abigail in her red dress, and the title in script font all comes together for a great piece of eye candy.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pandemic - Yvonne Ventresca

Title: Pandemic
Author: Yvonne Ventresca
Publisher: Sky Pony Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 330 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: December 9, 2014
Finished: December 12, 2014

From the inside cover:

Even under the most normal circumstances, high school can be rather tough and painful. Unfortunately, Lilianna's circumstances are anything but normal. Only a few people know what caused her sudden change from model student to the withdrawn pessimist she has become, but her situation isn't about to get any better. When people begin coming down with a quick-spreading illness that doctors are unable to treat, Lil's worst fears are realized. With her parents called away on business before the contagious outbreak, Lil's town is hit by what soon becomes a widespread illness and fatal disaster. Now, she's more alone than she's been ever since the "incident" at her school months ago.

With friends and neighbours dying all around her, Lil does everything she can just to survive. But as the disease rages on, so does unexpected tension as Lil is torn between an old ex and a new romantic interest. Just when it all seems too much, the cause of her original trauma shows up at her door.

In this thrilling debut from author Yvonne Ventresca, Lil must find a way to survive not only the outbreak and its real-life consequences but also her own personal demons.

I read the synopsis and it appealed to the paranoid, anxious person in me, and I was not disappointed.

Sixteen-year-old Lilianna has extreme anxiety and PTSD after being molested by one of her teachers. Months afterwards she is still hoarding non-perishable food items until her room looks like a food bank, consumed with being prepared for the worst. It doesn't help that her father works with the book's equivalent of the Centre of Disease Control and has anti-vitals stockpiled in a safe in their basement. When her mom and dad go away for weekend business trips just as a deadly new flu outbreak hits the east coast, Lil's town is hit and almost instantly everything shuts down. Lil has to find a way to survive the flu as well as looters, and take care of herself and band of friends that are now orphans.

I liked how the author described Lil's anxiety and paranoia, I've had moments like that right down to the stocking of emergency supplies. The timeline of the illness in the novel seemed pretty well researched, and I appreciated the index in the back of the book for websites for emergency preparedness (as well as sexual assault helplines). The one thing that I wasn't nuts about was how characters were introduced and died of the flu shortly after, so I wasn't really affected by their deaths like I feel I should be. And I think Lil and company got off easy since the book takes place in April, I figured a book on a killer strain of bird flu should take place in the dead of winter with a snowstorm (I like my characters to be challenged).

A heart-pounding book about one of my worst nightmares, and the reason why I am yet again researching 3-day emergency kits and not a bit angry about it.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the blue colour scheme and the image in the corner of the multitude of birds forming one giant bird.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sisters - Raina Telgemeier

Title: Sisters
Author: Raina Telgemeier
Publisher: Graphix (Scholastic), 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 200 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel
Started: December 8, 2014
Finished: December 8, 2014

From the back of the book:

Raina can't wait to be a big sister. But once Amara is born, things aren't quite how she expected them to be. Amara is cute, but she's also a cranky, grouchy baby, and mostly prefers to play by herself. Their relationship doesn't improve much over the years. But when a baby brother enters the picture and later, when something doesn't seem right between their parents, they realize they must figure out how to get along. They are sisters, after all.

Raina Telgemeier uses her signature humour and charm to tell the story of her relationship with her little sister, which unfolds during the course of a road trip from their home in San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado.

I read the companion book, Smile, years ago when it first came out. It was pretty revolutionary at the time, a North American comic for kids by a female artist with a female protagonist in completely realistic situations. Most comics up until recently were mostly male-dominated with superheroes in fantasy situations, which I'm not knocking, I love my Batman stuff as much as the next fangirl, but it's not for everyone. Most girls like me in years past turned to Japanese manga for more sincere female protagonists, but I've noticed more domestic comics are coming out that appeal greatly to female readers, of which this particular artist has greatly contributed to.

Whereas Smile looked at author Raina's experience with braces and other dental horrors, Sisters examines her rocky relationship with her younger sister, Amara. Sisters takes place when Raina is fourteen and Amara is nine, while they are stuck in a car for a week each way with their mother and younger brother Will on the way from California to Colorado. Through a series of flashbacks readers see Raina at age four or five begging for a little sister to play with, and her disappointment when Amara is born and her expectations aren't met. Through more flashbacks we see the birth of their younger brother, the crowded conditions they live in, and how Raina escapes through music and art.

I liked how it showcased how different siblings can be, and how not every set of sisters are automatically best buddies for life. Raina is self-conscious whereas Amara is confident, Amara is prickly whereas Raina is more accommodating, and though both girls are quite talented in art, Amara tends to steal Raina's thunder. I also liked the scenes at the family reunion where Raina doesn't fit in with the adults quite yet, is not accepted into the circle of her older cousins, is too old for the younger cousins her brother's age, so she and Amara don't fit in anywhere. As an only child with mostly younger cousins on one side and no cousins on the other side, I can completely sympathize with that feeling, especially when I was a teenager.

A really humorous look at the tumultuous relationship that can exist between siblings. The art style is appealing, and the content is great for younger readers but can appeal to teenagers as well. Plus, the whole scene with the snake in the car was hilarious.

Thoughts on the cover:
I liked the continuation from the Smile cover, with Raina's smiley face with braces contrasted against Amara's prickly, angry face.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Zoo at the Edge of the World - Eric Kahn Gale

Title: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
Author: Eric Kahn Gale
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 233 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Started: November 28, 2014
Finished: December 2, 2014

From the inside cover:

Marlin is not slow, or mute; what he is is a stutterer, and that makes it impossible for him to convince people otherwise. What he is also is a Rackham: the younger son of the world-famous explorer Ronan Rackham, renowned for his daring exploits in the jungles of South America, taming wild beasts and filling in the blank spaces on the map. Ronan is the owner and proprietor of the Zoo at the Edge of the World, a resort where the well-to-do from all over the globe can come to experience the last bit of the wild left at the end of the nineteenth century. For Ronan, each day is a new opportunity to cast a light into the dark recesses of the world; for Marlin, each day is a struggle: to speak, to communicate, to live up to the lofty expectations that his family name carries. This isn't easy when the only ones who understand him are his father and his pet monkey.

In order to impress a powerful duke who comes to visit the zoo, Marlin's father ventures into the jungle and brings back a mysterious black jaguar, the only one in captivity. Everyone is terrified of it, including Marlin - until one night, when the jaguar confers upon him a powerful gift. Soon, Marlin finds himself with a difficult choice to make and, finally, something to say. If only he can figure out how to say it.

Marlin is twelve years old and lives in South America with his father and older brother. The family operates the Zoo at the Edge of the World, an exotic resort for the wealthy and elite to vacation to. Everyone but Ronan thinks Marlin is a dim-witted idiot, but he has a wonderful affinity with animals and can actually speak to them without a stutter. When his father captures a jaguar as the main attraction for the zoo, Marlin soon discovers that he now has the ability to communicate directly with animals and can understand them. He soon solves all the little problems the zoo has been having by talking to the animals, but also realizes a family visiting the zoo could threaten his family's livelihood as well as that of the animals and needs to take action to save his home.

The book has a wonderful evocative setting. You don't often see books set in the wild jungles of South America during a vaguely reminiscent Victorian era time period, so this was refreshing to read.  The themes of colonialism and control over things that shouldn't be within our control are quite powerful, with Marlin making the choice about what kind of person he wants to be rather than what others expect him to be.

A great little book that was a surprisingly great read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Marlin and the jaguar are featured, it's a powerful image.