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.