Sunday, December 27, 2015

Currents - Jane Petrlik Smolik

Title: Currents
Author: Jane Petrlik Smolik
Publisher: Charlesbridge Publishing, 2015 (Paperback) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 318 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: December 22, 2015
Finished: December 27, 2015

From the back cover:

Old Mistress doesn't make Bones' life easy. When the eleven-year-old finds her real name in the plantation owner's slave registry, she tears it out. She decides to set her name free by placing the slip of paper in a bottle and setting it afloat on the James River.

The bottle drifts across the Atlantic and lands on a beach in England where twelve-year-old Lady Bess finds it. As her conniving stepmother pilfers their estate piece by piece, Bess saves her mother's pearl-encrusted cross. She seals it in the bottle with Bones' name, and the ocean currents carry it back to America.

The bottle makes its way into the hands of twelve-year-old Mary Margaret in Boston. She keeps Lady Bess' heirloom safe in the bottle until she and her family figure out a way for it to change all their lives.

The is uplifting tale proves that every action has an impact - even across oceans.

I love it when historical fiction for kids is done well, especially from the point of view of girls and women in history. This book definitely falls into that category, and was quite an engrossing read.

We begin in 1854 on a plantation in Virginia. Bones is a young slave girl who knows how to read, courtesy of Miss Liza, the master's daughter. When Bones finds her birth record and her real name in a book in the library, she decides if she cannot be free, at least her real name will be, and she rips out the page and places it in a bottle in the James River. Lady Bess on the Isle of Wight finds it a year later. When her stepmother tries to sell off the family's possessions and tries to frame Bess' friend Harry for it, Bess manages to rescue both her friend and a piece of jewelry gifted to her by her mother. The bottle with Bones' name and Bess' cross finds its way to Mary Margaret in Boston, the daughter of Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine. Mary Margaret is a gifted writer and longs to go to school, but with a sick little sister her family needs her work earnings. The lives of all three girls are intertwined by the end and it's quite nice to see how the author weaves the stories together.

The author really did her homework for this. Not only did she research plantations and the lives of African slaves in the 1850s, she also had to research Irish immigrants and the potato famine and how they were treated when they immigrated, as well as the lives of the English gentry and explorers into British colonies. This was a veritable treasure trove of historical information. The stories for each girl start out a bit slow, but then quickly develop to the point where I was genuinely invested in the outcomes and was really rooting for all three in their individual sections.

A really engrossing historical fiction middle grade read about girls in the 1850s from various backgrounds and circumstances.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the portraits of the girls are against the background of the ocean with the bottle. I also like how the portraits look realistic as opposed to overly cartoon-like.

Need - Joelle Charbonneau

Title: Need
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Thriller
Started: December 18, 2015
Finished: December 27, 2015

From the inside cover:

What do you really need?

One by one, the teens in Nottawa, Wisconsin, join the newest, hottest networking site and answer one question: what do you need? a new iPhone? Backstage passes to a concert? In exchange for a seemingly minor task, the NEED site will fulfill your request. Everyone is doing it. so why shouldn't you?

Kaylee Dunham knows what she needs - a kidney for her sick brother. She doesn't believe a social networking site can help, but it couldn't hurt to try.

Or could it?

After making her request, Kaylee starts to realize the price that will have to be paid for her need to be met. The demands the site makes on users in exchange for their desires are escalating, and so is the body count. Will Kaylee be able to unravel the mystery of who created the NEED network before it destroys them all?

I fell in love with the author's previous series, The Testing trilogy (The TestingIndependent Study, and Graduation Day) so when I found out she had a new one-shot book coming out, I knew I'd be picking it up. Unfortunately the book didn't quite deliver in the way I was expecting.

The premise is promising: a town where a new social networking site appears exclusively to the teenage inhabitants, the site promises to grant requests they submit if they fulfill certain conditions, and the heroine of the story has a brother with a failing kidney and needs a transplant with no willing donors. Bang, I was hooked and read on waiting for this story to blow me away. But a couple key things got in the way.

First off, I teach teenagers, they are not as stupid as some people think. There is no way an entire school of them (especially the older ones) would fall for the premise of the NEED network in the first place, let alone get so swept up in it that people would start dying. Not realistic at all. Most kids know nothing in life is free and are suspicious of anything claiming otherwise. I could buy a handful, maybe 20-30 max out of a whole school buying into the concept and spreading mayhem in real life, but not close to 700 like the book explains. Nuh-uh, would not happen. So my suspension of disbelief was already not co-operating by this one fact alone.

Second of all, the creation of the NEED network itself and why it was created isn't realistic either, at least not in a modern setting. I can't divulge much for fear of spoilers, but it goes into the tin-foil hat conspiracy territory. I could've bought it under different conditions (sic-fi or dystopian setting where there are few limits placed on governments for example), but not in the modern setting the author chose.

Thirdly, there were way too many points of view. There are 10 different points of view in the entire book, starting out with Kaylee and alternating between various other characters. I could barely keep track of them all let alone identify with them. I understand the way the story is structured one would need to look at a point of view or two beyond the main protagonist (Kaylee) to see the motivations of the others involved in the NEED network, but having 10 is overkill, 2-4 would have been more manageable if done well.

A great premise but not executed well for the reasons above. I know the author is capable of great stories, so I will just assume this one was a fluke and wait for her next book.

Thoughts on the cover:
Well done in my opinion. Kaylee's face is on one side with the title down the other. It's hard to tell in a picture but there's computer-type font goings across the cover with all the "needs" the users wrote on the website, which is quite a nice touch.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Punky Brewster - Joelle Sellner and Lesley Vamos

Title: Punky Brewster
Author: Joelle Sellner and Lesley Vamos
Publisher: IDW Publishing, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 112 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel
Started: November 24, 2015
Finished: November 24, 2015

From the back cover:

Punky Brewster has never had it easy. Scraping by on the streets of Chicago with the help of her puppy sidekick, Brandon, life could be pretty tough. But Punky's never without her sunny disposition - even after the police find her and put her into foster care. The hunt is on for a new family when she meets Henry Warnimont, a long-lost relative, and decides he's the adoptive dad for her. All she has to do is convince the foster home, the family court system, and possibly Henry himself. Luckily, she's got an unbeatable resource - her limitless reserve of...Punky Power!

I'll admit, I picked this up purely for nostalgia purposes. As an 80s child, I was very well versed in the Punky universe growing up and still watch episodes of the show on YouTube when I need a pick-me-up.

This graphic novel collects the first 8 single issues of the comic and is a stand-alone story about meeting Punky, her stint in foster care, her relationship with Henry, and navigating the family court system. I loved that the story has been updated for modern readers: Punky helps a woman steal digital cameras and tablets in exchange for food, Margaux takes selfies with her smartphone, and Punky uses a Macbook in Henry's studio. The story still retains all the elements and general feel of the original show, Punky is still that cheeky, smart kid who's resilience is astounding; and Henry is still that kind but slightly grouchy older man that ends up being the perfect family for Punky. I also like how the comic goes into more information about the foster care and adoption systems than I remember the show doing.

Very charming and so sweet it'll give you cavities. A great kid-friendly graphic novel that's sure to please. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Doesn't showcase the art very well but does capture the Punky spirit pretty well. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Rules for Stealing Stars - Corey Ann Haydu

Title: Rules for Stealing Stars
Author: Corey Ann Haydu
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction/Fantasy
Started: October 25, 2015
Finished: November 6, 2015

From the inside cover:

Silly is used to feeling left out. Her three older sisters think she's too little for most things - especially when it comes to dealing with their mother's unpredictable moods and outbursts. But for Silly, that's normal. She hardly remembers a time when Mom wasn't drinking.

This summer, Silly is more alone than ever, and it feels like everyone around her is keeping secrets. Mom is sick all the time; Dad acts like everything's fine when  clearly it isn't; and Silly's sisters keep whispering and sneaking away to their rooms together, returning with signs that something mysterious is afoot and giggling about jokes that Silly doesn't understand.

When Silly is brought into her sisters' world, the truth is more exciting than she ever imagined. The sisters have discovered a magical place that gives them what they truly need: an escape from the complications of their home life. But there are dark truths there, too. Silly hopes the magic will be the secret to saving their family, but she's soon forced to wonder if it might tear them apart.

This received a lot of hype, and I haven't read a good middle grade book in a while, so I decided to pick this up. Thankfully the hype is well deserved.

Priscilla is the youngest of four sisters: fourteen-year-old twins Eleanor and Astrid, twelve-year-old Marla, and eleven-year-old Silly. Their dad is a professor who studies fairy tales and folklore, and their mom is an alcoholic. After being "Away" several times for treatment but without much improvement, Silly and her sisters are forced to walk on eggshells around their mom while they spend the summer in a new home. When their mom turns her temper on the girls, the older sisters take to their rooms, leaving Silly to fend for herself. When they finally tell her what they've been up to, Silly discovers why they could spend hours in their bedrooms. The closets in their rooms are magical, some good, some bad. Marla's closet shows you what you want or need to see, Eleanor's closet makes dioramas come to life, and Astrid's closet is the one that Silly is warned not to go into, the one that will make you want to stay inside forever and fade from people's memories. When their mom deteriorates further and goes Away once again, the girls each have their own ways of coping. When one sister ventures into Astrid's closet, the rest need to find a way to make her want to come back and face reality with a renewed sense of hope.

This book was both beautiful and sad at the same time. Silly's attempts to describe and deal with her mother's behaviour are childishly simple but strangely truthful. Anyone who has experience with alcoholic or otherwise toxic family environments might actually find this triggering. The realistic portion of the story I feel was well-done, I enjoyed how all the sisters were very distinct in terms of personalities and how they reacted, even the twins were very much individuals rather than a unit. The four of them aren't great sisters in the beginning, but eventually learn from their mistakes to communicate better so that they can be there for each other in the absence of their parents. The magical aspect regarding the closets was an interesting way to give hope to the girls' situation, I think the author handled it well.

Beautiful yet sad, and altogether amazing.

Thoughts on the cover:
Pretty and very fitting for the story.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Walk on Earth a Stranger - Rae Carson

Title: Walk on Earth a Stranger
Author: Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 431 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Started: October 15, 2015
Finished: October 24, 2015

From the inside cover:

Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend - who might want to be something more.

She also has a secret.

Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees to California - where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.

The acclaimed Rae Carson begins a sweeping new trilogy set in Gold Rush-era America, about a young woman with a powerful and dangerous gift.

I read the author's famous Girl of Fire and Thorns series (The Girl of Fire and ThornsThe Crown of EmbersThe Bitter Kingdom) and loved it to pieces, so of course when I heard the author was writing a new trilogy called The Gold Seer, I of course had to pick it up.

This first book, Walk on Earth a Stranger, introduces us to Leah Westfall, called Lee, who can sense gold around her. She lives in Georgia in 1849, where her parents migrated from New England to stake a claim and find gold. They manage to survive despite the infrequent gold discoveries thanks to Lee's gift. But when Lee's uncle Hiram hires men to kill her parents in order to use Lee's power for himself, she escapes in the night dressed as a boy to follow her friend Jefferson to California. Not only does she have to worry about being found by Hiram and his men along the way, Lee has to survive the arduous journey from Georgia to California.

I'll have to admit, I felt the story was slow in the beginning while waiting for Lee to leave. Once she meets up with the Joyners and Jefferson and the other families she travels with, things picked up greatly. I liked how Lee and the other women in the book are strong in their own right and touch on how women are viewed as possessions (it is 1849 after all) and fight against that. I also like how the author touched on slavery and Native American relations, and even managed to incorporate LGBT characters moving to California in order to begin anew. I didn't love this book like I loved Girl of Fire and Thorns because I'm not a big fan of novels where all the characters do is travel from place to place with nothing of substance happening. I might like the subsequent novels better since the group is in California and can finally get in on the action.

Definitely worth the read but so far not as satisfying as the author's previous series.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simply gorgeous.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Strong Female Protagonist - Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag

Title: Strong Female Protagonist
Author: Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 220 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: October 16, 2015
Finished: October 19, 2015

From the inside cover:

With super strength and invulnerability, Alison Green used to be one of the most powerful superheroes around. Fighting crime with other teenagers under the alter-ego Mega Girl was fun until an encounter with Menace, her mind-reading arch enemy. He showed her evidence of a sinister conspiracy, and suddenly battling giant robots didn't seem so important.

Now Alison is going to college and trying to find ways to actually help the world while still getting to class on time. It's impossible to escape the past, however, and everyone has their own idea of what it means to be a hero...

I picked this up purely based on the title and that it featured a female superhero; this is one of the rare cases where I hadn't actually read the web comic before reading the collected version.

Alison Green lives in a world where individuals are biodynamic or chromosomally stable, you either have super powers or you don't. Alison came into her powers as a fourteen-year-old and went on to fight the forces of evil as one of the most formidable forces around, until she gave it up at nineteen when she realized it takes more than super powers to be a hero.

I like how this is a much darker and more philosophical type of super hero story (so not for the kiddies or super sensitive readers). Alison is disenchanted with her circumstances and realizes that being one of the most powerful people in the world hasn't changed things to the degree she'd have liked, and that others have actually made more of a difference than she (at least in her mind).

I like how Alison has a darker side, she actually muses on how she fantasizes about killing people because she knows she can but manages to quash it in favour of maintaining her optimism that she can bring about authentic change. I also like how a chapter on Alison's early life was included, and how awesome her parents are portrayed (yay for a hero actually having both parents for a change).

This is an incredibly refreshing take on the typical super hero story, definitely pick this up. Also, you can continue reading the story online at The graphic novel version covers chapters 1-4, but you can read the content online for free including what's covered in the graphic novel and beyond.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like Alison in the free fall pose, not sure why. Another nice touch is on the back side of the cover you see Alison in the same pose, just dressed as Mega Girl rather than her civilian self.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Astrologer's Daughter - Rebecca Lim

Title: The Astrologer's Daughter
Author: Rebecca Lim
Publisher: Text Publishing Company, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 318 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Mystery
Started: October 2, 2015
Finished: October 14, 2015

From the back cover:

Avicenna Crowe's mother, Joanne, is an astrologer with uncanny predictive powers and a history of being stalked.

Now she is missing.

The police are called, but they're not asking the right questions. Like why Joanne lied about her past, and what she saw in her stars that made her so afraid.

But Avicenna has inherited her mother's gift. Finding an unlikely ally in the brooding Simon Thorn, she begins to piece together the mystery.

And when she universe a link between Joanne's disappearance and a cold-case murder, Avicenna is led deep into the city's dark and seedy underbelly, unaware of how far she is placing her own life in danger.

Pulse-racing and terrifyingly real, The Astrologer's Daughter will test your belief in destiny and the endurance of love.

I wanted to pick this up purely because it was a bit out there and very different from what I usually read. I think I chose well.

Eighteen-year-old Avicenna (love that name by the way) lives with her mom in Melbourne, recently moved to yet another new place due to the unwanted attention her mother receives from her work as an eerily accurate astrologist. When her mother suddenly disappears, Avicenna is faced with the task of helping the police figure out where she might have gone and what could have happened. When the police discover that Avicenna has inherited her mother's abilities (though she mostly refuses to use them), they ask her to finish up her mother's work on some unfinished jobs. With that, Avicenna puts herself in danger when she actually helps solve a cold case murder without getting any closer to figuring out what happened to her mom.

I loved the surreal feel in this book. The writing, the setting, Avicenna's personality, the astrological influences, everything comes together really well to make for an engrossing read. The only beef I have with it is the lack of closure at the end.

If you're looking for something different with a mysterious and otherworldly (but not too out there) feel, give this a shot.

Thoughts on the cover:
Not amazingly impressive but I do like that the model is holding a magnifying glass.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Serafina and the Black Cloak - Robert Beatty

Title: Serafina and the Black Cloak
Author: Robert Beatty
Publisher: Disney Hyperion, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 293 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy/Historical Fiction
Started: September 21, 2015
Finished: September 29, 2015

From the inside cover:

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There's plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care never to be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate's maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore's corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore's owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak's true identity...before all of the children vanish one by one.

Serafina's hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

I have to say I haven't been this enamoured with a middle grade book in a while, this is one that is sure to please.

Serafina is twelve and lives in the boiler room with her father in the basement of the enormous Biltmore Estate in North Carolina in 1899. Her father is the maintenance man with the mind of an engineer, making sure the house is supplied with the electricity it needs to be as state-of-the-art as it is. He has told Serafina that she is not to be seen by the others in the house because he is afraid of them thinking ill of her, for Serafina is not like the other children. She has yellow eyes, four toes on each foot instead of five, is an accomplished hunter, and can see quite well in the dark, to the point that Serafina calls herself a "creature of the night" and grapples with the connotations that go along with it. But that doesn't stop Serafina from prowling around Biltmore at night, and it's during one of these nights that she witnesses a young girl visiting the estate being "consumed" by an eerie man in a black cloak. The next day as the adults search for the missing child and Serafina learns that this is not the first person to have gone missing from Biltmore, she vows to use her unique skills to track down who the man in the black cloak is and find out if the missing children are still alive.

First off, I have to give the author credit for a few things: setting the story somewhere different than what we normally see (North Carolina), and really doing his research on Biltmore Estate (yes it is a real place you can visit). There's a point in the book where Serafina is referred to as the mythological Diana, goddess of the hunt, and there's an actual statue of Diana on the grounds at Biltmore (I thought that was a nice touch). I only wish there had been a little author's note about the estate and maybe a photo, because it was hard to get a sense of the size of it just from reading, and upon researching it myself, I realized it's more like a large European estate or small castle than what I imagined when thinking of an estate in the southern United States at the turn of the century. See the actual Biltmore Estate below:

Moving on to characters, Serafina is a great character, and many things about her personality click into place upon the revelation about her past at the end of the book. She's spunky and fierce but also worries about herself as a person and whether she'll be accepted by others. Braeden was a charming addition, I just loved the little guy, especially how he clicks more with animals than people, which makes him odd in his upper-class setting. Braeden and Serafina make a good match as friends, and his dog Gidean makes a good character all on his own too. 

The writing is well done, and I like how the author made things genuinely spooky without making it inappropriate for a middle grade novel, which makes it perfect read for Halloween.

Excellent plot, writing, and characters; this is a must-read. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Nicely creepy with Serafina's silhouette on the top with an imagined Biltmore on the bottom (but doesn't look like the real Biltmore). 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Court of Fives - Kate Elliot

Title: The Court of Fives
Author: Kate Elliot
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: September 14, 2015
Finished: September 20, 2015

From the inside cover:

On the Fives Court, everyone is equal. And everyone is equally dangerous.

Jessamy's life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family, she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for the Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom's best contenders.

Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the two Fives competitors - one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy - causes heads to turn. When Kal's powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes' family apart, she'll have to test her new friend's loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.

In this imaginative escape from enthralling new lands, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliot's first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

This book had a lot of hype surrounding it, so I decided to pick it up. Unfortunately it didn't quite deliver, despite some promising areas.

Jessamy lives in two worlds yet belongs in neither. Her father is a Patron, an upper class man of Saroese background who is an army commander. Her mother is a Commoner, an Efean. Inter-class marriages are forbidden in Saryenia so her parents aren't married, but her father admiringly takes care of his "wife" and  four daughters (Jes, Maraya, Amaya, and Bettany), even though he would be well within his rights to have sent them to the Temple when they were born to be sequestered away for life. Since her father is actually a relatively decent man,  when he is invited to watch the Fives compete after a military victory, he wishes to take his "wife" and daughters along to show that he isn't ashamed of them. Jessamy, her mother, and her sisters all need to be well-behaved on the best of occasions since they are the product of an illicit affair frowned upon by polite society, and must not do anything to draw undue attention to their family. And Jes does just that.

The Fives is kind of like an all terrain obstacle course and race in one, where all the participants are masked. Jes is obsessed with the Fives and actually trains to compete in secret while her father is away. She had planned to compete for the first time in the very event her father is taking them all to. Knowing she cannot even win since winners must remove their masks, revealing her identity for all the Patrons to see, Jes still decides to run the Fives with the help of her sisters. When she competes with Prince Kalliarkos and lets him win, she attracts his interest. With Kal comes his uncle Gargaron, who when he uncovers Jes' identity, uses his influence to ruin her family when Jes' father's sponsor dies and the family is left vulnerable. Gargaron demands Jes run the Fives for him to try to profit from her skill while forcing her father to marry his niece and sending her pregnant mother and sisters to be sealed underground with the Oracle. Jes must rescue her mother and sisters with Kal's help and perform well in the Fives or else Gargaron will sell her to recoup his costs.

The setup for this novel was quite interesting: the class structure was intriguing and provided a unique set of conflicts. I couldn't quite get behind Jes' motivation however. Sure she has a relatively easy existence living with the comfort of a Patron without quite being accepted by them, and yeah I get that would be difficult, but to be willing to risk everyone's comfortable life just to run a race she can't even actually win? That's just dumb. Jes and Kal's relationship has no real build-up, there's the initial attraction when they compete and train, then he helps rescue her mom and sisters and then bam, insta-love. And I don't quite get Gargaron's motives behind breaking up Jes' family, he has the resources to just kill everyone with no accountability yet he has this layered scheme going on. I'm hoping all these issues will just be resolved upon reading the next book (this is the first in a trilogy/series, not sure yet).

Good premise but not executed as well as I had hoped.

Thoughts on the cover:
Interesting design but can't quite see the connection, could be random but it's pretty nonetheless.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

How I Made it to Eighteen - Tracy White

Title: How I Made it to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story
Author: Tracy White
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 151 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: September 2, 2015
Finished: September 2, 2015

From the inside cover:

This is the story of what happened to me when I had a nervous breakdown at seventeen. All the names and some details have been changed, but the following facts are true (mostly):

1. I hated my life (you know, self-loathing, $h*tty boyfriend, bitch mom, etc.)

2. I had a breakdown (lost it, went crazy).

3. I admitted myself (checked into Golden Meadows Mental Hospital).

4. I detested it even though I wanted to be happy (miserable, but still missed my crap life).

5. I realized I was in trouble (realized it like feel-it-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach realized it).

6. I finally really talked (as in, stopped lying).

7. I wrote and drew this book (the one you are holding in your hands).

Based purely on the simple artwork on the cover, you wouldn't expect to be reading a fairly dark account of the author's stay in a mental hospital as a teenager, so this book isn't for every reader, but is definitely an interesting read.

The author, Stacy (real name Tracy, but all names have been changed) checks herself into Golden Meadows after she punches her hand through a window. Throughout her stay we see her interactions with the other patients and her doctors/counsellors, her denial and unwillingness to work with them at first but then reaches a breaking point and does make a change for the better. There's lots of heavy stuff here: drugs, depression, eating disorders, molestation, and bad relationships in general, so this isn't something every kid is going to want to read, but will surely hit home for some who may have been in similar situations. I like how the author had a focus on Stacy's friends at the end of every chapter where a question is posed to them about their relationship with Stacy, it's intriguing to see how the answers differ depending on what stage of life the friend was from and how some elements stayed the same regardless.

A dark, heavy look into a teen's mental health recovery, so not for everyone but nonetheless important.

Thoughts on the cover:
The simplistic art shown on the cover is indicative of what you see throughout the graphic novel, which though it's refreshing, I prefer more intricate art.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Awkward - Svetlana Chmakova

Title: Awkward
Author: Svetlana Chmakova
Publisher: Yen Press, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 224 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: September 1, 2015
Finished: September 1, 2015

From the back cover:

Cardinal Rule #1 for Surviving School: Don't get noticed by the mean kids.

Cardinal Rule #2 for Surviving School: Seek out groups with similar interests and join them.

On her first day at her new school, Penelope - Peppi - Torres reminds herself of these basics. But when she trips into a quiet boy in the hall, Jaime Thompson, she's already broken the first rule, and the mean kids start calling her the "herder girlfriend." How does she handle this crisis? By shoving poor Jaime and running away!

Falling back on rule two and surrounding herself with new friends in the art club, Peppi still can't help feeling ashamed about the way she treated Jaime. Things are already awkward enough between the two, but to make matters worse, he's a member of her own club's archrivals - the science club! And when the two clubs go to war, Peppi realizes that sometimes you have to break the rules to survive middle school!

I haven't thoroughly enjoyed a graphic novel like this in a long time, I'm completely enamoured with this book. I've read other works by this artist and I love them all, so I'm not surprised I love this one too.

Penelope has moved to a new town and is starting at a new middle school. Right on her first day she trips and spills her books across the floor, which is embarrassing enough, but when quiet Jaime helps her out, the other kids immediately start teasing both of them. Penelope reacts by shoving Jaime and telling him to leave her alone, and she regrets it for weeks afterward, wanting desperately to apologize but feeling too awkward about the whole encounter to actually approach him. In the meantime, the art club that Peppi has joined is clashing with the science club across the hall that Jaime is a part of. The art club has failed to contribute to the school community and has lost their table at the club fair, and a prank gone wrong by the science club has also lost them their table. When a competition between the two clubs to obtain a table goes horribly awry, Peppi and Jaime brainstorm to come up with a way to end the animosity between the groups.

First off, this graphic novel is adorable. The art work is a cute, anime-style with a soft colour palette, so it's very eye-pleasing. The characters are realistic for middle-schoolers, the creator captured the awkward adolescent mood perfectly in my opinion. Also, I love the diversity displayed here: equal numbers of male and female characters, Peppi is biracial, and there are characters of many different races and ethnicities, including a girl in a hijab, which I don't think I've ever seen in a children's graphic novel. We also have different abilities represented too, since Jaime's mom is in a wheelchair. In addition, both Peppi and Jaime are really good role models. They mess up like all kids do, but rectify the situation eventually while preserving relationships amongst them and being an example for the other kids. There's this scene at the end where the bullies that made fun of Peppi and Jaime at the beginning are doing it again but this time both sets of kids from the art and science club stand up for the two of them, and it was just beautiful.

All classrooms need this book for their students since kids will be all over this like they flock to the Amulet, Bone, and Raina Telgemeier graphic novels.

Thoughts on the cover:
So. Stinking. Cute. I love how the author/artist captured the essence of the story between Peppi and Jaime in the foreground and the art and science clubs in the background.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Lumberjanes - Stevenson, Ellis, Watters, Allen

Title: Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy
Authors: Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, and Brooke Allen
Publisher: Boom! Box, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 127 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: August 30, 2015
Finished: August 31, 2015

From the back cover:

At Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types, things are not always what they seem. Three-eyed foxes. Secret caves. Anagrams. Luckily, Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley are five rad, butt-kicking best pals determined to have an awesome summer together...and they're not gonna let a magical quest or an array of supernatural critters get in their way! The mystery keeps getting bigger, and it all begins here.

Written by awesome all-star Noelle Stevenson (Nimona, Adventure Time) and brilliant newcomer Grace Ellis, and illustrated by the tremendously talented Brooke Allen (A Home for Mr. Easter).

Along with Nimona, this was another comic that came highly recommended, so of course I picked it up.

Lumberjanes takes the stereotypical image of Girl Scouts/Guides and throws it on its head, just look at the camp's name above. The craziness begins with the group of five girls getting attacked by weird three-eyed mutant foxes while being out in the woods at night following a bearwoman (cause why wouldn't they follow a bearwoman they saw outside their cabin?) and it just gets better. I really like how it's a female-centric comic (we don't see nearly enough of those as we should) where the five main leads are quite different in terms of personality: Ripley is off-the-wall silly, April appears stereotypically girly but is actually incredibly strong, Mal appears more masculine but is really sensitive, Jo is your intelligent leader-type, and Molly is a bit of everything. The group is not only diverse personality-wise, but also racially/ethnically and in their body types. The humour is great, as is the art style. It's just a really entertaining story that has some great female leads that we don't often see in North American comics.

Incredibly funny and girl-centric graphic novel, go read it!

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Stevenson's cover was chosen for this compilation even though Allen does the artwork in the book itself (they also showcase all the covers and character designs by all the creators in the back of the book).

Friday, August 28, 2015

Nimona - Noelle Stevenson

Title: Nimona
Author: Noelle Stevenson
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 266 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Started: August 25, 2015
Finished: August 27, 2015

From the inside cover:

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: to prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are. Explosions will be involved. Science and Sharks will be too. But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.

Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson based on her award-winning web comic.

I heard nothing but good things about this graphic novel so I decided to pick it up. After reading it, this is a graphic novel I will be adding to my classroom collection for its humour, art style, feminist undertones, LGBTQ hints, and general awesomeness.

Nimona inhabits a medieval-inspired fantasy universe where there are dragons and knights, but surprisingly high-tech. She wants to become sidekick to Ballister Blackheart, the realm's resident villain who holds a grudge against Sir Goldenloin as the cause of the loss of his right arm (replaced by a mechanical one). Blackheart still holds to certain morals however (he used to be a knight in training with Goldenloin), and tries his best to keep Nimona's intensity in check. When the Institution realizes that Nimona is a shapeshifter, they order her death. Goldenloin has a bit of a conscience though, and only agrees to kill Nimona if the Institution will spare Blackheart. Throughout the comic, Goldenloin and Blackheart spar physically and emotionally (hence the LGBTQ hints) and try to uncover Nimona's backstory to figure out exactly what she is.

I love the fact that Nimona can take any form she wants (including dinosaurs and dragons) and chooses to take the human form of a chubby redhead, yay for body diversity! And I love that Nimona still has a very specific identity and personality regardless of the form her body takes, Nimona is still Nimona no matter what she looks like (how's that for body acceptance?) The story starts off goofy and sarcastic and cool and slowly morphs into a story with much deeper, darker themes. I also like the little bonus comics and sketches at the back of the book, including one of Blackheart and Goldenloin as kids at Christmas and early character development sketches.

An amazing story with great art and humour, and an awesome female protagonist. Plus, sharks and dragons, you need to read this.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it, especially with the green tones. I like how Nimona is in quasi-dragon form here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Book of Spirits and Thieves - Morgan Rhodes

Title: A Book of Spirits and Thieves
Author: Morgan Rhodes
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 359 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 14, 2015
Finished: August 25, 2015

From the inside cover:

Worlds collide in this suspenseful, page-turning Falling Kingdoms spin-off series, which explores a whole new side of Mytica - and an even darker version of its magic.

Crystal Hatcher and her little sister, Becca, are working in the Speckled Muse, their mother's downtown Toronto bookshop, when an unexpected parcel arrives. Inside is an object that will change their lives forever: a large leather-bound book written in an unrecognizable language. When Becca opens it, she falls into a deep coma that sends her spirit to another world.

Meanwhile, on the ritzier side of town, Farrell Grayson parties away his parents' fortune. When the mysterious leader of a powerful secret society invites him to join his inner circle, Farrell seizes the chance to prove his worth - no matter how much he has to sacrifice.

Worlds away in Mytica, merciless goddess Valoria hunts for the elusive treasure that will make her ruler not only of her realm, but of all the unseen worlds that lie beyond it. But Valoria's plans are thwarted when Maddox Corso, a commoner, meets a pretty stranger from a faraway land who desperately needs his help. Her name is Becca Hatcher, and when Maddox realizes he's the only one who can see her, their meeting feels like much more than chance.

I haven't read the author's Falling Kingdoms series, the one that this book (the first in a new series) is based on, so keep in mind I have no background of the Falling Kingdoms universe.

The book contains three different narratives across two universes: Crystal and Farrell in modern-day Toronto, and Maddox in the high fantasy realm of Mytica. Crystal and Becca work in the Speckled Muse bookshop that has been in their family for generations, and when their Aunt Jackie sends the store a package with a mysterious book in it, it soon sends Becca into a coma while having no affect on Crystal. Farrell and his wealthy family are involved in a secret society lead by Markus King, a strange man with god-like powers that punishes evil not unlike a vigilante. In Mytica, Maddox, a boy with the magic powers of a necromancer, is thrust into a plot to overthrow the goddess Valoria, while also trying to help the spirit of Becca Hatcher return to her world. All these seemingly unrelated plots eventually intertwine quite well, and the voice of each of the three different narrations is quite distinct , so there's no confusion.

I really enjoyed the dual perspective of modern-day world alongside a high fantasy world (and can I say yay for the author being Canadian and setting the book in Toronto), it really made certain details interesting especially given the Canadian setting. Crystal is quite spunky and fiery, plus she's smart enough to figure things out and not allow herself to be taken advantage of. Farrell is a classic bad boy with an angst-ridden background that is really good deep down but makes some very bad decisions (and to be fair it's not entirely his fault). Maddox is sweet and doubts himself but really comes into his own by the end of the book. I felt like Crystal and Farrell were more developed than Maddox and Becca mainly because Crystal and Farrell's narratives tend to overlap since they deal directly with each other in Toronto, while Maddox and Becca we only see for one-third of the book.

There was some lag in the middle of the story between setting up the story and just waiting for something to happen, but the latter third of the book is where things pick up nicely, leaving things open-ended enough for the next book. The book is heavy on the dialogue, and it leaves a bit to be desired in that department, but the story is still engaging and worth the read.

Secret societies, bookstores, magic, and Toronto, need I say more?

Thoughts on the cover:
Not quite sure which character is supposed to be on the cover, but it's a nice image nonetheless.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mosquitoland - David Arnold

Title: Mosquitoland
Author: David Arnold
Publisher: Viking (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: August 9, 2015
Finished: August 13, 2015

From the inside cover:

After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the "wastelands" if Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland.

So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travellers along the way. But when her thousand-milejourney takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.

Told in an unforgettable, kaleidoscope voice, Mosquitoland is a modern American odyssey, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.

This book has had a lot of hype, mainly for being quirky, so I figured it was worth a read. In fact, it is quite quirky, I'm talking John Green kind of quirky.

Mary Iris Malone (Mim) is a hot mess, to put it lightly. Her parents are divorced, her dad quickly got remarried, her stepmom is pregnant, they moved her a thousand miles away from their home in Ohio to Mississippi (what Mim calls Mosquitoland), her dad thinks Mim is mentally unstable and forces her to take medication she doesn't really need, and to top it off, she learns her mom is sick back in Ohio. Mim takes off from school, raids her stepmom's coffee can stash of $800, and boards a Greyhound bound for Cleveland. Cue the quirky cast of characters including an adorable old lady named Arlene, a gruff but loveable bus driver, the cute guy in seat 17C, creepy Poncho Guy, a runaway with Down Syndrome named Walt, and more.

I quite enjoyed Mim's road trip journey, though it did drag a bit in the middle. Some parts felt a bit contrived and quirky just for quirky's sake, but overall I enjoyed the ride. Mim is headstrong and smart but makes some pretty ill-advised decisions along the way, which makes her a pretty realistic teenager. I wanted to smack Mim's dad upside the head several times (he needs therapy), and her stepmom Kathy does become pretty likeable in the end. I I have to admit I didn't get the point of adding Walt and Beck, I didn't feel they added much other than more quirk and a love interest that didn't really go anywhere.

Worth the read if you're a fan of John Green-esque novels.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the teal colour scheme, and Mim on top of the bus is a nice touch.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Court of Thorns and Roses - Sarah J. Maas

Title: A Court of Thorns and Roses
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 3, 2015
Finished: August 9, 2015

From the inside cover:

When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she knows about only from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal but Tamlin - one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As Feyre dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility to a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she's been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it...or doom Tamlin - and his world - forever.

From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Sarah J. Maas comes a seductive and breathtaking new book that blends romance, adventure, and faerie lore into her most unforgettable story yet.

This is one of the books that's been receiving a lot of hype this summer, and whoo boy is it well deserved.

Feyre lives in a world separated by fae and mortals. Her family lives south of the the wall that separates the two realms and the human population as a whole isn't faring well. Needing to head out into the woods near The Wall to hunt for food, Feyre kills a wolf knowing full well it is a Fae in disguise. Another fae in beast-form later comes to her home to collect her in retribution for killing his friend, taking her to his home in Prythian (the fae lands) to live out the rest of her days. It turns out the beast is actually a High Lord named Tamlin, who, along with friend Lucien, is trying to protect the Spring Court that he rules over from the invading force that is slowly affecting all the courts in Prythian. Tamlin turns out to be a kind master, giving Feyre essentially the run of the estate except in cases where her safety is threatened by the numerous faerie creatures that could kill her if not for Tamlin's protection. As Feyre tries to discover more about Tamlin, Lucien, and the issues Prythian faces, she begins to fall in love with Tamlin, but she'll need to face the faerie blight head on in order to save Tamlin, Prythian, and the mortal realm.

I really liked how the story was very loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, there were enough elements to recognize but also enough originality to not get bored with the story. Feyre is an intriguing character, very fiery and prickly and doesn't show much vulnerability until closer to the end of the book, she's pretty much a human fireball. Tamlin feels like a cliche fantasy male that starts off cold and standoffish and later kind and likeable, but I didn't really mind that. Lucien is quite entertaining, he's witty and his banter with Feyre is hilarious. I did enjoy the plot with Amarantha, that part spiced up the story quite nicely just when things started to get slow. This is the first book in a series, and this book ended well in my opinion (no obvious cliffhanger), so it'll be interesting to see what is in store for future books. This book can get a bit steamy at times with sexually explicit language (not so much sexual scenes just descriptions), so this might not be something you want to give a twelve-year-old for example. There's also a fair bit of violence and gore so same thing applies to exercise caution with young or otherwise sensitive readers.

Well worth the read in my opinion. Not as stellar as some other Beauty and the Beast inspired stories, but very enjoyable nonetheless, and I'll be looking for the sequels in the future.

Thoughts on the cover:
Typical B&B inspired colour scheme of red and black, with what I assume is Feyre on the one side, it looks cool regardless.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Family Romanov - Candace Fleming

Title: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, & The Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House), 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 292 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Nonfiction
Started: August 1, 2015
Finished: August 1, 2015

From the inside cover:

He was Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: the wealthiest monarch in the world, who ruled over 130 million people and one-sixth of the earth's land surface, yet turned a blind eye to the abject poverty of his subjects.

She was Empress Alexandra: stern, reclusive, and painfully shy, a deeply religious woman obsessed with the corrupt mystic Rasputin.

Their daughters were the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia: completely isolated and immature, girls who wore identical white dresses and often signed joint letters as OTMA, the initials of their first names.

Their only son was the Tsarevich Alexei: youngest of the Romanovs, heir to the throne, a hemophiliac whose debilitating illness was kept secret from the rest of the world.

Award-winning author Candace Fleming  brilliantly showcases the extraordinary lives of the royal family, from their opulent upbringings to the crumbling of their massive empire, and finally to their tragic murders. Using captivating photos and compelling first-person accounts throughout, Fleming deftly maneuvers between the extravagant lives of the Romanovs and the plight of Russia's poor mass - the starving peasant farmers, the factory workers toiling long hours for little pay, and the disillusioned soldiers fighting in the trenches of World War I. Readers will be transported back to a remarkable time when both a family and an empire came tumbling down.

We're Russian history enthusiasts in our house, so of course I had to pick this up. This book is incredibly well-written and researched (as evidence by the massive list of sources and footnotes at the back of the book), which made it a joy to read.

I like how the author incorporated first-hand accounts of the other social classes throughout the book (particularly peasants and workers) to illustrate what their lives were like compared to the royal family. It allows you to see the stark difference between the most privileged and the average citizen in Russia at the time. The author also includes a few pieces of information that were quite new to me, like how the education of the Romanov children was quite lacking in quality (I assumed that being royalty, they would've had the best tutors available).

Extremely well-researched and written account of this time in Russian history that also includes accounts of the lower classes from the same time period.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they included my favourite picture of the Russian royal family, as well as a picture of peasants towards the bottom, very true to the theme of the book.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

El Deafo - Cece Bell

Title: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Publisher: Amulet Books, 2014
Length: 241 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: July 29, 2015
Finished: July 29, 2015

From the back cover:

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece's class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in the school - in the the teacher's the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it's just another way of feeling different...and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

This funny, perceptive graphic novel memoir about growing up deaf is also an unforgettable book about growing up, and all the super and super embarrassing moments along the way.

This graphic novel has won several awards and accolades, so of course it went in the to-read pile. Cece is growing up in the mid-seventies with her family when she contracts meningitis at the age of four, and subsequently loses her hearing. After being outfitted with a hearing aid, she can hear again, but not as clearly as she could before. She is fortunate to attend a kindergarten class for deaf children where her teacher instructs them how to read lips and use visuals, gestures, and context clues to fully understand when other people speak to them. After her family moves, Cece attends first grade in a regular classroom, so she is given a more powerful hearing aid that allows her to hear everything with amazing clarity so long as her teacher wears a microphone around her neck. Cece struggles to make friends, partly because of her hearing loss and partly from your average everyday social issues kids go through. Some of the friends she makes treat her differently because of her hearing aid and some don't, and along the way she learns how to navigate friendships and speak up for herself.

The superhero aspect is pretty cute. Cece refers to her superhero alter ego as El Deafo and considers the Phonic Ear (the special hearing aid she wears for school) to be her superpower. She longs for a sidekick (a good friend) to share adventures with, and through learning to communicate and open up she eventually gets her wish.

It's interesting to see this author's gripes about the hearing population portrayed here. As written in her afterward at the end of the book, every deaf person's experience is different: some prefer to use hearing aids and cochlear implants and some don't, some prefer to use sign language and some don't, some view their hearing loss as a disability and some don't. As a child, the author preferred not to use sign language and rely on her hearing aids and reading lips. She gets exasperated with one friend that insists on speaking slowly, emphasizing the syllables, because it affects Cece's ability to properly lip-read. She hates it when her friends turn off the lights at a sleepover while continuing to talk to her because she can't see their lips.

I found it interesting that the technology for the hearing impaired hasn't really changed that much, I've used a system that resembles Cece's Phonic Ear, though is much more aesthetically pleasing. As a teacher, I've used a microphone that amplifies my voice directly into a student's earpieces, as well as an FM system that amplifies my voice via speakers so it can be heard by all students, not just the ones with a hearing impairment. I have a mild hearing impairment (and had it as a child) and would've benefitted from these systems, so I'm glad that kids are better able to access these things.

A great little graphic novel about growing up in general and with a visible difference. I would recommend this for junior, intermediate, and high school classrooms, it's sure to please.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Cece is shown in her superhero persona among the clouds. You can also see a good example of the author's drawing style, where all the people are drawn like rabbits (super cute!)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Wrath and The Dawn - Renee Ahdieh

Title: The Wrath and The Dawn
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Publisher: G.P Putnam's Sons (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 17, 2015
Finished: July 26, 2015

From the inside cover:

In a land ruled by a murderous boy-king, each dawn brings heartache to a new family. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, is a monster. Each night he takes a new bride only to have a silk cord wrapped around her throat come morning. When sixteen-year-old Shahrzad's dearest friend falls victim to Khalid, Shahrzad vows vengeance and volunteers to be his next bride. Shahrzad is determined not only to stay alive but to end the caliph's reign of terror once and for all.

Night after night, Shahrzad beguiles Khalid, weaving stories that enchant, ensuring her survival, though she knows each dawn could be her last. But something she never expected begins to happen: Khalid is nothing like she'd imagined him to be. This monster is a boy with a tormented heart. Incredibly, Shahrzad finds herself falling in love. How is this possible? It's an unforgivable betrayal. Still, Shahrzad has come to understand all is not as it seems in this palace of marble and stone. She resolves to uncover whatever secrets lurk and, despite her love, be ready to take Khalid's life as retribution for the many lives he's stolen. Can their love survive this world of stories and secrets?

Inspired by A Thousand and One Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn is a sumptuous and enthralling read from beginning to end.

This book is surrounded by so much hype, I pretty much had to read it. Although I didn't fall madly, crazy-in-love with it, it was an immensely enjoyable read.

Based on 1001 Nights, you have a king in a middle-eastern/arabian-esque land who takes a new bride every night and kills her by morning. A new wife manages to defy the odds by spinning tales that keep the king intrigued enough to let her live. When Shahrzad's best friend, Shiva, dies in such a manner, Shahrzad volunteers as Khalid's next bride so she might avenge Shiva's death. Shahrzad is great as a character, she gets my stamp of approval. She is fierce and fiery, sharp-tongued, and pretty good with a bow and arrow. She wavers on the whole revenge thing when she realizes she's falling in love with Khalid, which takes her down a few pegs, but they have to fall in love for the story to work, so not much you can do there. Khalid was very nicely developed as well, he's very stoic at times, but then surprises everyone by being incredibly romantic and emotional and a formidable swordsman. I also liked Jalal, especially how he interacted with Khalid. Shahrzad and Khalid make for an incredible couple, and their conversations made me feel like I'd been hit by a 2x4 and then melted in a puddle on the floor, some of the dialogue is amazing.

I wish the magic had been more developed. It felt as if the magic element came out of nowhere towards the end in regards to the reasons why Khalid kills all his brides. I also wish readers could've seen more of the reasons why Khalid keeps Shahrzad alive, we can guess but we never really know. The good thing is that a sequel is coming (the cliffhanger had me going for a while until I saw the preview for book 2), so we'll get a chance to see more development in those areas.

If you like retellings, you need to give this a shot, if for nothing else than the incredible portrayal of the romance between Khalid and Shahrzad, it's worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I adore how this was designed. The red cover with gold inlays make for an eye-pleasing colour scheme, and you can see a hint of a portrait of Shahrzad underneath, the full colour version of which you can see on the inside cover. I love how Shahrzad actually looks middle eastern as well (yay for diversity in YA fiction!).

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Yo, Miss - Lisa Wilde

Title: Yo, Miss: A Graphic Look at High School
Author: Lisa Wilde
Publisher: Microcosm Publishing, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 160 pages
Genre: Young Adult, Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: July 21, 2015
Finished: July 21, 2015

From the back cover:

Yo, Miss - A Graphic Look at High School takes the reader inside John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy, a second-chance high school in New York City, where Lisa Wilde has worked since 1997. A school where all the students are considered at-risk, Wildcat offers these teens a ticket to the middle-class - a high school diploma. With humour and humanity, Yo, Miss challenges preconceptions of who these kids are and what is needed to help them graduate.

As a teacher who has taught many of the types of students depicted in this book (and yes I have been addressed as "Yo, Miss" and have responded to it), this was a must-read. Many people who aren't teachers have no clue what it's like to teach actual children, especially when you have a class of kids from wildly different backgrounds. You could have one student you're hounding for assignments because they've just come back from a three-week ski vacation, and another you're worried about because they've been working to help support their family and haven't had time to complete their work. Teaching different groups of kids comes with different skill sets, you have separate approaches for teaching in one demographic area than another. This graphic novel takes a look at the unique circumstances that surround at-risk students and the specialized approaches that are required to help them succeed at what most consider to be the bare minimum, like graduating high school.

Lisa Wilde teaches English at Wildcat Academy, a second-chance high school operating as a charter in New York City. All the students are at-risk, and have not been successful at traditional school environments for various reasons (many heavily impacted by poverty). The kids in the novel are fictional composites of the numerous students she's taught over the years, and I think most teachers will be able to see several of their own students in the characters as well. The patience and understanding (and several second chances) offered by Wilde and the other staff in the novel are instrumental in helping these kids succeed, and the genuine concern that comes from the teachers is really heart-warming.

A must-read if you're a teacher, or otherwise surrounded by children all day.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they included the conversation about Oedipus on the left and the cross-section of Wilde's teacher brain on the right, it's very realistic in showing how teachers juggle concerns for their students and their workload, plus their own lives (teachers do have lives outside of school).

Monday, July 13, 2015

Daughter of Deep Silence - Carrie Ryan

Title: Daughter of Deep Silence
Author: Carrie Ryan
Publisher: Dutton Books (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 375 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 8, 2015
Finished: July 13, 2015

From the inside cover:

In the wake of the deadly devastation of the luxury yacht Persephone, just three souls remain to tell its story - and two of them are lying. Only Frances Mace, rescued from the ocean after torturous days days adrift with her dying friend Libby, knows that the Persephone wasn't sunk by a rogue wave as survivors Senator Wells and his son, Grey, are claiming - it was attacked.

To ensure her safety from the obviously dangerous and very powerful Wells family, Libby's father helps newly orphaned Frances assume Libby's identity. After years of careful plotting, she's ready to expose the truth and set her revenge plans into motion - even if it means taking down the boy she'd once been in love with: Grey Wells himself.

Sharp and incisive, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan is a deliciously smart revenge thriller that examines perceptions of identity, love, and the lengths to which one girl is willing to go when she thinks she has nothing to lose.

This book has received some hype recently, and I have read some of the author's previous books and enjoyed them, so I decided to give it a go. The premise sounded amazing: a disaster on a cruise ship,  few survivors, a cover-up of what really happened, years of plotting revenge, it all sounds great. However, despite the potential, this book didn't turn out to be all that great after all.

Frances Mace was fourteen when she went on a cruise with her parents, where she also met her new friend Libby, and fell in love with Grey Wells. When men with guns storm the ship, killing Frances' parents, Libby's mother, and the rest of the passengers save for Senator Wells and Grey, Frances and Libby are lucky to escape alive. They drift afloat on a life raft for several days until they are rescued, but Libby is already dead from exposure. Libby's father believes Frances' story about the ship being attacked, which is very different from Senator Wells' account of a rogue wave taking down the entire ship that he and Grey have since given all the media outlets since their rescue. In an attempt to keep Frances safe while they try to uncover the true story, Libby's father suggests to Frances that they claim that she herself died and take over Libby's identity instead. Frances agrees. Four years later, after Libby's father's death, Frances, living as Libby, returns to Libby's hometown in South Carolina from boarding school in Europe. Since the Wells also happen to live in the same town, Frances decides that the time has come to seek revenge.

There were two main factors which really prevented me from enjoying this book: the various unrealistic plot holes, and the romance (also unrealistic). First off, I find it very hard to believe that the Senator managed to orchestrate the plan to have the ship attacked without it being uncovered. You claim it was a rogue wave (really?) and everyone just believes you without checking the various scientific equipment that monitors weather conditions in the Atlantic? Libby's dad suggests that Frances just assume Libby's identity to protect her because it would be easier than try to adopt her the old fashioned way? And no one else attempts to interview or question Frances after the rescue that could uncover the ruse? And she agrees to plastic surgery to try to resemble Libby more than she already does? And nobody pulls up old pictures or otherwise figures out that "Libby" isn't really Libby? And after so many years, Cecil (Libby's dad) doesn't make any headway into uncovering the truth despite being rich enough that he could hire private investigators or have the privilege of being believed by the police if he came forward with the story? And Frances and Shepherd figure out how everything is connected in about 20 minutes of talking to each other?

And as far as the romance goes, Frances and Grey happen to fall madly in love after two weeks on a cruise at the age of fourteen? And they're still madly in love with each other four years after the fact? Most early teen romances are fleeting enough that an eighteen-year-old would cringe at the memory of a fling they had at fourteen, but nope, Frances and Grey are totally legit (yeah, right). And Frances isn't obviously revenge-obsessed enough if she's willing to overlook Grey's involvement in her parents' death long enough to engage in heavy make-out sessions. Sigh.

Too many plot holes, unrealistic romance, not all that great in the grand scheme of things.

Thoughts on the cover:
Very pretty, I like how they incorporated Frances standing in front of the painting that hangs over Grey's bed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes - Sabaa Tahir

Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 446 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 1, 2015
Finished: July 7, 2015

From the inside cover:

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire's impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They've seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia's brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire's greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school's finest soldier - and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias only wants to be free of the tyranny he's being trained to enforce. He and Laia soon realize that their destinies are intertwined - and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

This book has received so much hype not only from publishers, but from other authors as well, so I figured I needed to pick it up. It didn't completely wow me like I expected (the danger of too much hype), but it was quite entertaining and well worth the read.

The Martial Empire rules a land that was once ruled by the Scholars, who are now enslaved. Centuries later, prevented from even learning how to read, the descendants of the Scholars are mostly slaves to the Martials. Laia's family is free, but constantly in fear for their lives, especially considering Laia's now deceased parents were the leaders of the Scholar resistance. When her older brother, Darin, is captured, and her grandparents murdered, Laia tracks down the resistance and begs them to help her brother. They agree, but only if Laia agrees to spy on them from within Blackcliff, the military academy where the Martials brutally train children as young as six, where the new Emperor will be chosen from. As Laia tries to uncover the mysteries of Blackcliff, Elias is trying his best to escape it. Son of the Commandant, he is favoured as a candidate for Emperor (something he himself wants least of all), but as the trials continue, Elias struggles to maintain his soul and sense of morality in such a brutal place.

I loved the world building and set up here, the author did a great job with creating a world similar to ancient Rome but quite unique unto itself (I never would've pegged this world as Rome-like until I read the blurb). The book lagged a bit in the beginning until the action moved to Blackcliff, I loved the school setting purely because all the action and blood was there. The Commandant was amazing as the antagonist, and I loved Elias and Helene as characters. Laia fell a bit flat for me as a character, purely because she was really naive and took a while to clue in to things, but she's spunky, so she was redeemed a bit.

I was not a big fan of the love octagon going on here. Not only did we have girls falling over Elias, we had boys falling over Laia, plus crossover, it was a bit much. Males and females can be in contact with each other and just be friends without wanting to rip each other's clothes off, I'm not sure why this fact is so rare in YA books. This next bit wasn't a downside for me personally, but I can see where it could for some readers: there is a lot of violence, gore, blood, plus numerous threats of rape; sensitive readers beware.

Very worth the read, plus there is a sequel in the works, so the unanswered questions from this book will hopefully be resolved in the next instalment.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's gorgeous, I'll leave it at that.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Shadow Scale - Rachel Hartman

Title: Shadow Scale (sequel to Seraphina)
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Doubleday Canada, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 596 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: June 26, 2015
Finished: June 29, 2015

From the inside cover:

Seraphina is tangled amid the grapple for power between the dragon rebels and the human court. The dark secret of her true identity - half-dragon, half-human - has now become her advantage. Only she has the power to unite the kingdom of Goredd, and she intends to use it. She scours the land for the rest of her half-dragon brethren, whose unique gifts may make the difference in the struggle.

But gathering her people is no straightforward task, and the more Seraphina learns, uncovering hidden histories and outright lies, the more she comes to realize that someone is working against her. What hope is there for brokering peace between dragons and humans when one of her own is determined to see both worlds go up in flames?

William C. Morris YA Debut Award-winner Rachel Hartman continues Seraphina's story with an adventure that will chart new frontiers of the soul.

I read Seraphina years ago and adored it to pieces, so picking this up was a no-brainer. The spectacular writing and amazing world-building that I loved in the first novel is still present here, but (and it absolutely pains me to write this) unfortunately this sequel just doesn't live up to the reputation of its predecessor.

The novel opens up a few months after the first book left off, with Glisselda as queen in the midst of a  burgeoning civil war between humans and dragons after years of peace. Seraphina, with her unique position in the court and being half-dragon, is sent to various areas of the country to locate other half-dragons in hopes of recruiting them to fight the dragons. Jannoula, the villain who can control the minds of other half-dragons, has more of a presence in this novel as she works towards her own agenda. The first half of the novel is concerned with Seraphina travelling and interacting with the other half-dragons. This part, though rich with great characters and world-building, was a bit dull overall. The pattern of searching for the ityasaari, finding them,  then overcoming the obstacle Jannoula presents repeats across several destinations with no real effect on the civil war back home in Lavonadaville. I would've preferred a focus on the war, the spotlight on the ityasaari, while intriguing, didn't hold my interest.

My other issue comes in the second half of the novel when Seraphina comes home and everything comes together. The romance between Seraphina and Lucian Kiggs, while very sweet in the first novel, makes my jaw drop in this one. I understand Kiggs' behaviour (but don't excuse it), he's betrothed to Glisselda and conflicted between his royal duty and his passion. But Seraphina, who never struck me as a naive girl with no spine, sure acts like one in relation to Kiggs, which knocks her down a couple pegs in the "outstanding YA female protagonist" category. I just couldn't believe she was happy to relegate herself to the role of mistress rather than focus on her music and find someone who could actually be dedicated to her as a partner. And the strange proclamation of love from Glisselda was just strange and abrupt with no closure. I felt the whole romance aspect was like a disorienting smack to the face and feel there should have been more novel dedicated to this.

Still amazingly well-written with a great world to get sucked into, but with a more dull plot and romantic elements that made me shake my head, readers are probably better off sticking with the first novel.

Thoughts on the cover:
Quite nice, and I like how they kept it in theme with the first novel's cover.

Friday, June 19, 2015

I Am Princess X - Cherie Priest

Title: I Am Princess X
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Thriller, Mystery
Started: June 15,2015
Finished: June 19, 2015

From the inside cover:

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the comics, May wrote the stories, and Princess X fought monsters, ghosts, and other assorted creepazoids from her haunted house high on a hill.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom driving across a bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now, May is sixteen and lonely when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window - a figure in a gold crown, pink dress, red Chucks, and a long katana sword...

Princess X? Suddenly, May sees the princess everywhere: stickers, patches, graffiti - an entire underground world built around a webcomic at The more May explores the comic, the more shocking connections she finds between Libby's death and Princess X's adventures. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon - her best friend, Libby, who lives.

Illustrated throughout with the Princess X webcomic, I Am Princess X is a mystery, wrapped in a friendship story, bound up with a cyberthriller...and all-around awesome.

I picked this up based on the premise and the cover. The book didn't quite end up being what I expected, but that's not really a bad thing.

Libby and May became best friends when they were ten due to boredom. The result of their creative collaboration was Princess X. Throughout middle school they continued to work on their stories and comics, until Libby and her mother were in a car accident. Though Libby's body was eventually found (washed ashore and unrecognizable), May always hoped Libby had somehow survived. Years later, the summer before May turns seventeen, she notices a faded sticker near one of her favourite hang-outs and the image on it is of Princess X. After discovering that Princess X has a cult following, May pores over the websites dedicated to the webcomic. After reading the actual comic, she can't help but feel it includes references to things only she and Libby would have known, and after finding out Libby and her mother's car accident was really a homocide, May is determined to find answers. She gets in contact with a computer hacker named Patrick ("Trick") who helps her navigate the clues in the Princess X webcomic to try and discover what really happened to Libby.

The premise of the story is really promising, it's a cool mystery and a thriller with geek culture thrown in. The whole idea of a childhood creation coming back to you years later to relay information about the whereabouts of a friend is spine-tinglingly awesome. Granted, some details aren't quite plausible: that police wouldn't have had Libby's washed up "body" identified through DNA before declaring her dead, and that a high school hacker could navigate complex online security systems that somehow eluded police detection. The writing isn't as sophisticated as I would have assumed, it reads more like a middle-grade novel as opposed to YA, but that's not a huge detriment in my opinion.

The webcomic pages inserted throughout the book are a nice touch that enhance the story. I really enjoyed the whole "scavenger hunt" where May and Patrick follow the clues in the comic using knowledge only May would know about Libby to uncover what happened to her. It was a fun little ride, even if some of the details weren't realistic.

A fun mystery/thriller about solving a murder via a webcomic, it's worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the cover is recreating the image of the sticker and how May found it, very appropriate.