Saturday, December 31, 2016

Goldie Vance - Hope Larson, Brittney Williams, and Sarah Stern

Title: Goldie Vance Volume One
Author: Hope Larson, Brittney Williams, Sarah Stern
Publisher: BOOM! Box, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 112 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Mystery
Started: December 31, 2016
Finished: December 31, 2016

From the back cover:

Sixteen-year-old Marigold "Goldie" Vance has an insatiable curiosity. She lives at a Florida resort with her dad, who manages the place, and it's her dream to one day become the hotel's in-house detective. When Walter, the current detective, encounters a case he can't crack, together they utilize her smarts, skills, and connections to solve the mystery...even if it means getting into a drag race, solving puzzles, or chasing a helicopter to do it!

New York Times bestselling and Eisner Award-winning writer Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel) and artist Brittney Williams (Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!) present the newest gal sleuth on the block with Goldie Vance, an exciting, whodunnit adventure that mixes the fun of Eloise with the charm of Lumberjanes.

This is a cute little mystery story with an awesome retro feel to it, kind of like a more modern day, diverse version of Nancy Drew.

Taking place in the Cold War era, Goldie works at her dad's resort doing odd jobs around the place like parking cars, but she really shines in her detective work. Smart, spunky, and persistent, Goldie manages to crack cases that Walter (the red-headed guy on the cover) can't, with the help of her friend Cheryl (the girl on the left).

Not only is the comic kid-friendly, it's funny, and has a wonderfully diverse cast of characters (racially, sexually, and in terms of body types). I picked this up purely for the representation I had hoped it showcased just based on the cover, so it's worth picking up for that fact alone, but the story itself won't disappoint either.

If you're looking for a kid-friendly graphic novel focused on witty mysteries with diverse characters, you've got it here with Goldie Vance.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the showcase of the characters in their bright 1950s clothes against the yellow background, it really makes things pop.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Star-Touched Queen - Roshani Chokshi

Title: The Star-Touched Queen
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 12, 2016
Finished: December 17, 2016

From the inside cover:

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father's kingdom. While Maya is content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran's queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar's wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire...

But Akaran has its own secrets - thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most...including herself.

A lush and vivid story that is seeped in Indian folklore and mythology, The Star-Touched Queen is a novel that no reader will soon forget.

I had picked this up once before earlier in the year and didn't have a chance to read it due to work being insane at the time. Thankfully I did pick it up again or else I would've missed an incredibly gorgeous novel.

Mayavati is the daughter of the Raja of Bharata, and unfortunately for her, she was born with a horrifying horoscope in a place that is very superstitious. Shunned at worst and tolerated at best, Maya spends her days spying on the politics of court sessions that the harem wives or other daughters would never be allowed to see. When her father decides to use her as bait to lure all their enemy countries to Bharata under the pretence of choosing a suitor, Maya is rescued from the burning palace by the mysterious Amar, who offers her not only the sun, moon, and stars; but also a relationship between equals. When Maya suspects that her life is in danger in Akaran and that Amar has been keeping secrets from her, she makes a decision that reveals her unknown past, after which she endeavours to restore her now broken world.

This story reminded me a lot of the fairy tales of East of the Sun, West of the Moon (and others based on it) since Maya marries a man she doesn't know much about who asks her to trust him and not snoop around for information essentially. She doesn't trust him (honestly I can't blame her) and discovers something that completely unravels the order of things and she goes on a journey to save her husband.

This book is impeccably written. The prose is beautiful and dreamy and just plain gorgeous. This is almost always a good thing, but in this case I found the prose to be flowery to the point where I got wrapped up in the imagery being presented and actually didn't catch everything that was going on in the plot. This isn't a huge detriment overall in my opinion because I am fully content to just waltz along with dreamy prose and ignore the plot (more of enjoying the journey rather than the destination kind of idea), but others might have more of an issue with it than me. The first part of the book where Maya is adjusting to life in Akaran was much more exciting in my opinion than the second part after things go horribly wrong and she's trying to fix everything. The romance between Amar and Maya is well done, and the (SPOILERS!) reincarnation aspect excuses any insta-love accusations I would have heaped on this. The world inspired by Indian mythology and folklore is simply amazing, and one I wish more authors would experiment with in their works.

A work of pure beauty, amazingly well-written with unique world-building that will leave you spell-bound.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the juxtaposition between the image of the palace at sunrise at the top of the cover with the night sky filled with stars on the bottom and Maya in the middle.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Canada Year by Year - Elizabeth MacLeod

Title: Canada Year by Year
Author: Elizabeth MacLeod
Publisher: Kids Can Press, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 93 pages
Genre: Children's Nonfiction
Started: December 8, 2016
Finished: December 9, 2016

From the inside cover:

At the stroke of midnight on July 1, 1867, Canada was born! Each year has a story to tell...

1881 - Construction begins on a railway that will link the country from coast to coast.

1891 - Canadian James Naismith invents basketball.

1918 - Most women are granted the vote in the country's federal elections.

1932 - Superman is born - not on Krypton, but in the mind of Toronto-born Joe Shuster.

1946 - Viola Desmond of Nova Scotia takes a stand against racial inequality.

1959 - Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens popularizes the goalie mask in pro hockey.

1977 - Willie Adams is appointed the first Inuk senator.

1984 - Astronaut Marc Garmeau of Quebec rockets into space.

1999 - Nunavut becomes the country's newest territory.

2017 - Canada celebrates its 150th birthday!

A unique look at Canadian history, Canada Year by Year captures these milestones and many more in ten chapters filled with sidebars, biographies, quotes, trivia and engaging illustrations. It's the story of the people, places and events that have shaped the country - one year at a time.

I'm always looking to expand my collection of non-fiction books for kids, especially on Canadian history since most kids find it boring as heck (not that I blame them, our history can be pretty dull at times). This book lists every year, starting from Confederation in 1867, and gives one major event that defines that year. The book is sorted into chapters centred on each 10-20 year period. There are tons of illustrations and tidbits of information in the sidebars, and information on difficult issues such as residential schools and Japanese-Canadian Internment is explained clearly and in an age-appropriate way.

A must-have for classrooms or home libraries, it makes a great little reference book and educates our kids on milestone events in Canadian history.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the illustration style, and the illustrator makes sure to depict diverse individuals throughout the book.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

And Then the Sky Exploded - David A. Poulsen

Title: And Then The Sky Exploded
Author: David A. Poulsen
Publisher: Dundurn Press, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 206 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
Started: December 5, 2016
Finished: December 7, 2016

From the back cover:

While attending the funeral of his great-grandfather, ninth-grader Christian Larkin learns that the man he loved and respected was a member of the Manhattan Project, the team that designed and created the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during the Second World War.

On a school trip to Japan, Chris meets eighty-one-year-old Yuko, who was eleven when the first bomb exploded over Hiroshima, horribly injuring her. Christian is determined to do something to make up for what his great-grandfather did. But after all this time, what can one teenager really do? His friends tell him it's a stupid idea, that there's nothing he can do. And maybe they're right. Or maybe, just maybe...they're wrong.

The first thing that caught my eye about this one was that the author is Canadian (yay Canada!). The second thing was that this book is similar to The Blue Helmet where the author uses a modern day teenage boy's experiences to explore a difficult aspect of history.

Christian is fourteen and your typical teenage boy. His great-grandfather, whom he calls GG Will, just passed away, and Christian is incredibly intrigued when he witnesses a group of protestors outside the funeral home. Not getting any answers from his parents, he is tipped off by a school bully and discovers through his own research that his grandfather was a scientist for the Manhattan Project. It's difficult for Christian to reconcile the idea that his beloved GG Will helped engineer a weapon that was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. When he has an opportunity to travel to Japan, he feels a deep need to make amends for the actions of his great-grandfather, and when he meets elderly Yuko in Hiroshima, he actually gets the chance to do so.

As a teacher, this book is the perfect novel to teach in applied classes: it's short, the language isn't overly difficult or clunky, it's relatable, and manages to tackle a difficult subject in a heartfelt, poignant way. The author did his homework: the petition Carson mentions actually does exist (students can google it), the details about Japan are spot-on, and he manages to capture the Japanese spirit in regards to the sentiment of war. There are a few drawbacks though. The first half of the novel moves fairly slowly but it picks up substantially once Christian is actually in Japan. The incident with the protestors is not really believable in my opinion (most people can't even name the scientists of the Manhattan Project let alone care enough to protest at their funeral), and the airport in question that Christian and Zaina are trying to navigate unsuccessfully due to not knowing Japanese actually has English on all signage and is quite easy to navigate even if you don't know a word of Japanese.

A wonderful novel study choice for applied classrooms due to its ability to tackle difficult subject matter in an approachable way.

Thoughts on the cover:
Strangely appealing but it works here.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Irena's Children: Young Readers Edition; A True Story of Courage - Tilar J. Mazzeo, Mary Cronk Farrell

Title: Irena's Children: Young Readers Edition; A True Story of Courage
Author: Tilar J. Mazzeo, Mary Cronk Farrell
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 242 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Non-Fiction
Started: November 29, 2016
Finished: December 2, 2016

From the inside cover:

This young readers edition of Irena's Children tells the incredible untold story of Irena Sendler, a courageous Polish woman now nicknamed "the female Oskar Schindler" who saved the lives of 2,500 children during one of the worst times in modern history. With guts of steel and unfaltering bravery, Irena smuggled children out of the walled Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. She put them in toolboxes and coffins, snuck them under overcoats at checkpoints, and slipped them through the dank sewers and into secret passages that led to abandoned  buildings, where she convinced her friends and underground resistance network to hide them.

In this heroic tale of survival and resilience in the face of impossible odds, New York Times bestselling author Tilar J. Mazzeo and adapter Mary Cronk Farrell share the true story of this bold and brave woman, overlooked by history, who risked her life to save innocent children from the horrors of the Holocaust.

I was first introduced to Irena Sendler through films and documentaries a few years ago, and now many of my co-workers use her in conjunction with Schindler to teach students about acts of resistance and bravery during the Holocaust.

This is an adaptation of the author's original book intended for a younger audience. I won't necessarily say its middle grade because I think your average ten-year-old would have issues navigating this book (just in terms of the difficulty of the content), but I think a mature twelve or thirteen-year-old or older wouldn't have a problem. The book begins with the occupation of Poland in 1939 and introduces us to Irena, a social worker collaborating with co-workers to forge records allowing for poor Jewish families to qualify for welfare benefits where they otherwise wouldn't. When Germany invades and occupies Poland forces the Jewish population of Warsaw into the ghetto, Irena eventually realizes that the Germans intend to eradicate them and begins to make plans to smuggle children out of the ghetto to safety.

The author really did their research, there's so many details that you don't see in the films included here, including information on Irena from the post-war period. This is a great resource showing exactly the risks she took to do what she did, perfect for teaching solidarity and social justice.

A wonderful text geared for younger readers about a modern day hero that is often overlooked in history.

Thoughts on the cover:
Interesting choice using a drawing for the children's version when the adult version of the same book used a photograph on the cover.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Kingdom of Ash and Briars - Hannah West

Title: Kingdom of Ash and Briars
Author: Hannah West
Publisher: Holiday House, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 355 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 23, 2016
Finished: November 28, 2016

From the inside cover:

Bristal, an orphaned kitchen maid, lands in a gritty fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she is an elicromancer with a knack for shape-shifting. An ancient breed of immortal magic beings, elicromancers have been winnowed down to merely two-now three-after centuries of bloody conflict in the realm. Their gifts are fraught with responsibility, and sixteen-year-old Bristal is torn between two paths. Should she vow to seek the good of this world, to protect and serve mortals? Or should she follow the strength of her power, even if it leads to unknown terrors? Time is running out as an army of dark creatures grows closer and the realm faces a supernatural war. To save the kingdoms, Bristal must find the courage to show her true form.

Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen's Emma, and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Hannah West makes a spectacular and wholly original debut.

The summary above doesn't do this story justice, save for the final paragraph that praises the book and lists the hints of other stories found within, all of which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Bristal is kidnapped from the manor home where she serves and is brought to the Water in the Forest of the West Fringe, a large body of water with the ability to discern and identify elicromancers, individuals with various magic abilities. When the two existing elicromancers, Brack and Tamarice, rescue her from captors who would use her newly gifted elicrin stone for harm, Bristal sees that she must choose between the morals of her two mentors. Brack believes elicromancers must stand at the sidelines and guide humanity without taking power themselves, while Tamarice believes that helping humans is a waste of their powers and that elicromancers should rise to their former glory. Bristal makes her choice when Tamarice turns to dark elicromancy and curses the newly born princess of Volarre and binds the other nobles in all of Nissera to the princess' fate. Using her unique shape-shifting abilities, Bristal disguises herself as an elderly woman and hides Princess Rosamund in Plum Valley, far from Tamarice and her spies. As the years pass, Bristal uses her powers to help unite the three kingdoms in Nissera that had always been quite combative, all while keeping Rosie (and in turn all Nisseran nobles) alive.

This book does borrow elements from classic tales, but when they're combined it creates a wholly unique tale. Rosie is cursed at birth by Tamarice just like Sleeping Beauty, and Bristal plays fairy godmother to Elinor ala Cinderella so she can meet and marry Prince Charles and unite their two respective kingdoms through marriage. Like in Mulan, Bristal takes on the form of a man so she can join the army with Anthony so she can get to know and influence him (and ultimately falls in love with him). The elicromancers and their magic are similar to other types from other stories we've seen before, but the depth of it makes the similarities merely superficial. Bristal as a character is likeable, she's determined and sticks to her morals, but she's not always confident and questions herself. There really wasn't a character I disliked, they're all nicely developed (even Tamarice) and no one really bugged me, which is rare.

A well-written high fantasy that pulls from classic fairytales, so it feels familiar yet new and engaging at the same time.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the colour scheme, and the image of Bristal where you can't quite see the details of her face is unsettling just enough to make it intriguing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Beast - Brie Spangler

Title: Beast
Author: Brie Spangler
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (Random House), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 328 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 21, 2016
Finished: November 22, 2016

From the inside cover:

Tall, meaty, muscle-bound, and hairier than most throw rugs, Dylan doesn't look like your average fifteen-year-old, so, naturally, high school has not been kind to him. His nickname, Beast, already announces his every step. And to make matters worse, on the day his school bans the two things that that let him hide, his hat and his long hair, Dylan goes up on his roof, only to fall and wake up in the hospital with a broken leg-and a sentence to attend group therapy for self-harmers.

Dylan vows to say nothing and zones out during therapy-until he meets Jamie. She's funny, smart, and so stunning, even his womanizing best friend, JP, would be jealous. She's also the first person to to ever call Dylan out on his superficiality. As Jamie's humanity and humour begin to rub off on Dylan, they become more than just friends. But there is something Dylan doesn't know about Jamie, something she shared with the group the day he was wallowing in self-pity and not listening. Something that shouldn't change a thing. She is who she's always been-an amazing photographer, a true romantic hidden inside a realist, and a devoted friend, who is also transgender. Will Dylan's hang-ups about himself cause him to lose the best girl he's ever known?

As soon as I read the summary for this book I knew I had to read it. It covers the relationship between a cisgender male and a girl who is trans, complete with all the questions such a relationship would raise. Ultimately, it is a sweet story about transgender teen romance, from Dylan's point of view, which makes it unique (I've read accounts from a trans character before, but not from the cisgender character).

Dylan is huge. He's already 6"4 at age fifteen and still growing. When you add that's he's insanely hairy, you can see why he earned the nickname "Beast", and he HATES it. When everyone expects Dylan to be a dumb football player, in reality he's studying for the Rhodes scholarship to go to Oxford to study cancer, what killed his father when Dylan was only three. Dylan survives school by hiding behind his hair and hat, and hanging around his friend JP. When his school bans long hair and hats, he lands in the hospital and is flagged as a self-harmer, which lands him in therapy. He meets Jamie and is awe-struck, but misses a key piece of information about her. As they get to know each other and Dylan and Jamie fall equally head over heels for the other, Jamie's trans identity is brought up and Dylan completely freezes, questioning whether this makes him gay or any of the other myriad of thoughts that would go through a teenage boy's head. Dylan even asks his dead father for a sign that he's making the right choice, until he realizes that he simply loves a girl named Jamie.

There's a lot of dimension to this book, at one end it's sweet and loving with Dylan and Jamie accepting each other fully, and on the other hand you've got kids bullying both of them when word gets out at Dylan's school that Jamie was born a boy. There's also a portion of the novel where Dylan is acting like a typical teenage boy and you want to smack him for being such an idiot, but he's a lovable idiot, so I forgave him. Jamie's not completely innocent either, the author really managed to make both protagonists very three-dimensional and flawed while still making readers root for them, except for JP though, he was just an ass. Dylan's narration is hilarious at times, it's very witty and cleverly written. The story is also equal parts realistic and positive: it's not a doom and gloom story, but it accepts Jamie's reality while still making her positive about her life.

This is a must-read, not just for the subject matter, but Dylan as a character is equally intriguing.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple yet effective, I like the blue and gold colour scheme.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Shadow Bright and Burning - Jessica Cluess

Title: A Shadow Bright and Burning (Kingdom on Fire Book One)
Author: Jessica Cluess
Publisher: Random House, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 404 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 16 2016
Finished: November 18, 2016

From the inside cover:

Henrietta can burst into flames.

Forced to reveal her power to save a friend, she's shocked when instead of being executed, she's named the first female sorcerer in hundreds of years and invited to train as one of Her Majesty's royal sorcerers.

Thrust into the glamour of Victorian London, Henrietta is declared the prophesied one, the girl who will defeat the Ancients, bloodthirsty demons terrorizing humanity. She also meets her fellow sorcerers, handsome young men eager to test her power and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her.

But Henrietta is not the chosen one.

As she plays a dangerous game of deception, she discovers that the sorcerers have their own secrets to protect. With battle looming how much will she risk to save the city-and the one she loves?

Exhilarating and gripping, Jessica Cluess' spellbinding first book in the Kingdom on Fire series introduces a powerful, unforgettable heroine and a world filled with magic, romance, and betrayal.

I have a confession to make: I'm not a massive Harry Potter fan. I enjoy the books, movies and such (I'm going to see Fantastic Beasts this weekend and devoured Cursed Child over the summer), but I'm not a diehard fan like some people I know. I think part of this reason is because Harry is a boy and while I was growing up when the books were just becoming popular, I wanted nothing more than books with female protagonists that I could really identify with (they were in severe short supply at the time). The reason I'm even on this seemingly unrelated tangent is that I think I finally found "my" version of Harry Potter with this book, not to say that the books are in any way identical (they aren't), but that this is a fantasy book about a strong, intelligent girl with magical powers who discovers her origins and tries to figure out how she fits into this new world she's thrust into.

Henrietta lives in a world resembling Victorian England, where the emergence of nightmarish demons (Ancients) terrorizing the country was the work of a Pandora's box type of story surrounding a magician and a witch. As a result, magicians are viewed with suspicion as charlatans and witches are killed outright (stupid Victorian sexism). So Henrietta grows up in a charity school after her parents die, and she has this ability to set herself on fire, which she must keep secret if she wants to live. When her friend Rook is under attack by an Ancient's familiars, she is forced to reveal her power in the presence of a sorcerer to save him. She is identified as the chosen one from the prophecy, the first female sorcerer in centuries and is brought to a shielded area in London to train with other young sorcerers to fight to save England from the Ancients. Except she soon learns that she isn't, and must determine how to survive where she meets adversity everywhere.

Henrietta is feisty, intelligent, and doesn't hesitate to speak her mind, so of course I liked her. Rook doesn't really get a lot of development other than the fact that he loves Nettie, so hopefully he gets some more spotlight in subsequent books. Agrippa is lovely and conflicted, so I quite liked him, as with Blackwood and Magnus. The Victorian setting fits quite well with the world building, which is astoundingly detailed and immense. I have to give the author credit also for creating the Ancients, which are actually horrifying and creepy when described, I like being spooked while reading my stories. I also like how magic in this world has various levels and categories and wasn't just one-dimensional.

Even though this book appears to use all the typical cliched ideas you find in fantasy books, the author turns the "chosen one" narrative on its head and the result is an engrossing, imaginative book that is gripping and fascinating. I'll definitely be impatiently awaiting the subsequent books.

Thoughts on the cover:
Stunning. I love the burning rose (makes sense when you read to the end), and the colour scheme is so beautiful.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Other Boy - M.G. Hennessey

Title: The Other Boy
Author: M.G. Hennessey
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 234 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: November 15, 2016
Finished: November 15, 2016

From the inside cover:

Twelve-year-old Shane Woods is just a regular boy. He loves pitching for his baseball team, working on his graphic novel, and hanging out with his best friend, Josh. But Shane is keeping something private, something that might make a difference to his teammates, to Josh, and to his new crush, Madeline. And when a classmate threatens to reveal his secret, Shane's whole world comes crashing down. It will take a lot of courage for Shane to ignore the ridicule and hates and show the world that's he's still the same boy he was before. But in the end, those who stand beside him may surprise everyone, including Shane.

M.G. Hennessey's timely story beautifully captures Shane's journey toward acceptance and empathy and speaks to all those who have struggled to remain true to themselves.

Thankfully there are more diverse children's and young adult books coming out in recent years, and I'm really thankful for this particular book after reading it, especially considering that aimed at middle grade readers.

Shane is in the sixth grade and is your average twelve-year-old boy. But there's one thing about Shane that isn't like all the other boys, Shane is transgender and was born biologically female. Shane's parents are divorced and he and his mom moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles a few years ago, at which point Shane transitioned and went on hormone blockers to delay female puberty. Shane faces a few key issues in this book: he has a strained relationship with his father, who isn't as accepting of his identity as his mother; he wants to begin taking testosterone so he can actually start looking like the boy he is, and a classmate discovers Shane's secret and reveals it to everyone at school.

I really liked the way Shane was presented in the book, you can tell the author did her homework and made sure to treat Shane and the issues he and his family face with the utmost respect. Shane's mother, Rebecca, is amazing and supportive, which is probably the reason why Shane is able to rise to the challenges that he faces. Most of the relationships Shane has are realistic in my opinion, except the portrayals might be a little too optimistic compared to those someone might face in a  rural/conservative area, and this is my only issue with the book, which is minor. Panels from Shane's graphic novel are illustrated as end pieces to some chapters, which is a really lovely addition to the book. The author also includes websites and phone numbers for trans support groups, which I always like to see for books like these.

This is one of the first middle grade books with a main character who is trans (that I know of) that I've encountered, and it is wonderfully written and a sensitive portrayal of a transgender boy's experience. This is a book that should be in every classroom.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple but effective.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Female of the Species - Mindy McGinnis

Title: The Female of the Species
Author: Mindy McGinnis
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 341 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 9, 2016
Finished: November 14, 2016

From the inside cover:

Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn't feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and he killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.

While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can't be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He's the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna's body was discovered hasn't let him forget Alex, and now her green eyes amend a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn't want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher's kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad's job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex's protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex's darker side breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever. Edgar Award-winning author Mindy McGinnis artfully crafts three alternating perspectives into a dark and riveting exploration of what it means to be the female of the species.

This book is positively brutal, harsh, and traumatizing...and I'm so glad it exists. It stands as an unapologetic examination of sexual assault and rape culture in general, delving deep into what insidious little jokes and "locker room talk" can turn into.

Alex Craft is in her senior year of high school in a small town. When she was a freshman, her older sister Anna was raped and murdered, and the killer walked on a technicality. So Alex took matters into her own hands and got away with her own crime. Years later, she lives on the outskirts of her peers to keep them safe from herself, until Peekay (from PK aka preacher's kid) sees beyond Alex's standoffish behaviour and sees a girl she'd like to know. Jack, the popular boy whose image of Alex from the night her sister's body was found haunts him, yearns to be closer to her. When both Peekay and Jack slowly become accepted by Alex into her limited circle, they believe they have an idea of who Alex is. One might when Peekay is nearly raped at a party and Alex intervenes in a horrific way, they realize that Alex is so much more than what they assumed, and wonder how to proceed with what they now know.

The novel alternates perspectives from Alex, Peekay, and Jack; and I have to give the author credit because giving three unique and distinctive viewpoints and voices isn't easy, especially when that includes a voice of the opposite gender. Jack's voice is authentic and very different from the girls', Peekay is your average teenage girl but with enough of a spin so that she's not boring to read, and Alex....Alex is just astounding in terms of what's inside her head....just trust me on this one.

I love the author's examination of rape culture; women reading this will stop dead in their tracks after reading certain lines and think, "holy crap, this is spot on," while men will hopefully gain some insight into their male privilege in this area. That being said, the book is quite graphic and violent, both in terms of the language used and that actual events that take place during the course of the book (so trigger warnings abound here, people). Granted, you can't sugarcoat rape culture, it's dirty and horrible by it's very nature. But even saying that, this is definitely for older readers (probably 16+), this isn't something I'd be recommending for an immature/innocent thirteen or fourteen year old kid.

I'm slightly conflicted about how the book ends, on one hand I think it's a bit of a cop-out, but on the other hand I think there really wasn't any other way for it to end, so I'm still undecided on how I feel about the ending.

I truly think this is something all our teenagers need to read, both boys and girls alike. This will be one of those groundbreaking "issue" books that will stay with us for years.

Thoughts on the cover:
Quite clever in my opinion. I like how Alex is listed on the front under "Woman" and Branley is listed one the back cover under "Girl", this will make total sense after reading the book.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell

Title: Outliers
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2008 (Hardcover)
Length: 296 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: November 7, 2016
Finished: November 8, 2016

From the inside cover:

Why do some people succeed far more than others?

There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them-at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birthdate. The story of success is more complex-and a lot more interesting-than it initially appears.

Outliers explains what he Beatles and Bill Gates have in common, he extraordinary success of Asians at math, the hidden advantages of star athletes, why all top New York lawyers have the same resume, and the reason you've never heard of the world's smartest man-all in terms of generation, family, culture, and class. It matters what year you were born if you want to be a Silicon Valley billionaire, Gladwell argues, and it matters where you were born if you want to be a successful pilot. The lives of outliers-those people whose achievements fall outside normal experience-follow a peculiar an unexpected logic, and in making that logic plain Gladwell presents a fascinating and provocative blueprint for making the most of human potential.

This book is touted so often in education, it's been on my to-read list for a while now. After reading it, I can see why it's talked about so often, but that there's really only one chapter that can be applied to the education field.

Though numerous examples, the author makes his claim that success isn't just about ambition and intelligence, that it has more to do with opportunities, which are more likely to be given to people who were lucky enough in certain circumstances. For example, Bill Gates was born in the mid 50s (meaning he was the right age in the 70s when the computer industry took off), and was also lucky enough to be born into a wealthier family that sent him to a school that could afford a computer in the late 60s that he was able to use to practice coding on. Without those, it could be argued that he wouldn't have been as successful as he is today. Same with the top hockey players, most of which have birthdays in the first few months of the calendar year versus the end. Because those with earlier birthdays tend to be bigger and stronger than those with later birthdays, they are the ones picked for the more intensive teams, benefitting from the extra practice and end up being more successful and go pro more often than their younger counterparts.

The education chapter wasn't anything ground-breaking for anyone who actually works in education, but I'm sure would be eye-opening for those that are not. He argues that a longer school year in a culture with an emphasis on hard work, diligence, and persistence ("grit" as we call it in our professional development talks), makes for students more likely to be accepted into better schools, making them more likely to be given opportunities that lead to success later in life. That children from lower income families tend to lose a large chunk of their learning over the long summer break, which cumulates over time, contributing to the achievement gap that we as educators so often try to fix to no avail.

In a way, this book is fascinating in that it destroys the common belief that success is entirely in a person's control, that all you need is a bootstraps mentality and if you don't succeed, then you just aren't working hard enough. It offers another story: that culture, class, and circumstance matters; and that if all people were awarded similar opportunities regardless of said factors, that we would have more successful people across all areas.

A thought-provoking read that is well-known for a reason, I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple yet effective.

Monday, November 7, 2016

What Light - Jay Asher

Title: What Light
Author: Jay Asher
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin Random House), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 251 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 4, 2016
Finished: November 7, 2016

From the inside cover:

Sierra's family runs a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. It's a bucolic setting for a girl to grow up in, except that every year, they pack up and move to California to set up their Christmas tree lot for the season. So Sierra lives two lives: her life in Oregon and her life at Christmas. And leaving one always means missing the other.

Until this particular Christmas, when Sierra meets Caleb, and one life eclipses the other.

By reputation, Caleb is not your perfect guy: years ago, he made an enormous mistake and has been paying for it ever since. Sierra sees beyond Caleb's past and becomes determined to help him find forgiveness and, maybe, redemption. But as disapproval, misconceptions, and suspicions swirl around them, Caleb and Sierra can't help but wonder if love really is enough to overcome every obstacle.

If you know YA literature, you've read Thirteen Reasons Why. So when I found out the author was releasing a new book (his previous book was a collaboration with another author that I never read), I knew I had to pick it up. I think this is a case of simple disappointment: I was expecting another Thirteen Reasons Why and got...well, something not nearly as impressive.

Sierra lives with her mom and dad on a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. Every year, they pack up a trailer and drive to their family's tree lot in California where they live from Thanksgiving to Christmas selling their trees. Though Sierra misses her friends Rachel and Elizabeth back in Oregon, she has Heather and her family in California that she looks forward to seeing; however, this year might be their last in California since the lot is no longer as profitable as it has been in the past. Amidst her conflicting feelings about this, Sierra meets Caleb, an otherwise perfect boy with a smudge on his record. While Sierra immediately falls for him, everyone else tells her not to bother with Caleb due to the rumours about his past. Sierra is a big believer in forgiveness and second chances, so she manages to form her own opinions about Caleb, but between her parents not being too keen on her budding romance when they'll be leaving in a few weeks, and the locals being incredibly disapproving of their relationship, Sierra and Caleb need to determine if and how their love will survive.

This story started off promising with the set-up of Sierra's family and the Christmas tree farm and their annual move, but from the beginning I felt I didn't really connect with Sierra. She's certainly likeable and likes to show off her impressive vocabulary, but there really wasn't much to endear her to me. I felt once Caleb showed up, everything either became way too dramatic and/or cheesy, or just plain unrealistic. For example, regarding Caleb's past, in my opinion it really wasn't as shocking as you anticipate it being, and they milk it over the course of the book and I thought all these characters just needed to collectively let it go and move on with their lives. Sierra falls in love with Caleb waaaay too quickly, and Caleb is portrayed as too perfect with the exception of his "horrible" past. I did enjoy the Christmas setting, and the theme of forgiveness is a good addition to that backdrop, but the details of the story just didn't produce an overall satisfying read.

This author is known for his first book, go read that one (I recommend it wholeheartedly). This one pales in comparison.

Thoughts on the cover:
I do like it, even though it falls under the "YA cover focusing on a portion of a girl's face" cliche. The twinkling lights and winter hat on Sierra do reinforce the Christmas atmosphere.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Like a River Glorious - Rae Carson

Title: Like a River Glorious (sequel to Walk on Earth a Stranger)
Author: Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 406 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Started: November 1, 2016
Finished: November 3, 2016

From the inside cover:

Lee Westfall survived the dangerous journey to California. She found a new family in the other outcasts of their wagon train, and Jefferson, her best friend, is beginning to woo her shamelessly. Now they have a real home-one rich in gold, thanks to Lee's magical ability to sense the precious metal in the world around her.

But Lee's Uncle Hiram has survived his own journey west. He's already murdered her parents, and he will do anything to have Lee and her talents under his control. No one is safe. When he kidnaps her, she sees firsthand the depths of his depravity.

Lee's magic is changing, though. It is growing. The gold no longer simply sings to her-it listens. It obeys her call. Will that alone be enough to destroy her uncle?

The second book of Rae Carson's acclaimed Gold Seer trilogy takes us deep into the heart of the gold fields and continues the epic story of an unforgettable heroine.

After reading The Girl of Fire and Thorns series years ago and loving it to pieces (and turning many a reader on to it), I had a feeling that this particular author was one of those rare ones that I would love anything they wrote. Her new series hasn't disappointed me so far. After reading Walk on Earth a Stranger last year, it proved to be just as engaging and lovely as her previous series. This book is the second in her newest series, more of an historical fiction than heavy fantasy. The best part of this book is that it doesn't suffer from second-book syndrome (or Bridge Book Syndrome as I have dubbed it), it is just as exciting as the first book with none of that awful lag that so many middle books in a trilogy suffer from.

Leah has survived the trip from Georgia to California with most of her original party intact, choosing to settle in an area they name Glory. As they stake out their claims and pan for gold, Lee tells everyone the truth about her talent and that her uncle Hiram will surely come after her, and subsequently, the others. When Hiram's men kidnap Leah and imprison Jefferson and Tom, the trio must work together with the Chinese and Indian workers to overthrow Hiram and his men and return home to their friends in Glory.

This instalment manages to refresh the reader's memory right from the start, and continues on with a brisk pace that doesn't lag. Leah is still a great female protagonist, trying to be as independent as a woman during the mid 1800s could possibly be. I have to give the author credit in doing her research on the historical period she's writing about, it's incredibly detailed. The accounts of Asian immigrants and Native Americans in California during this time period were incredibly interesting and is a historical aspect I don't often encounter in fiction.

An excellent second book in a wonderful series by an incredible author. Need I say more?

Thoughts on the cover:
Oh so pretty. I like the continuation from the first cover to this one. Hopefully the third book continues this trend.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Red's Planet - Eddie Pittman

Title: Red's Planet
Author: Eddie Pittman
Publisher: Amulet Books, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 192 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Started: November 1, 2016
Finished: November 1, 2016

From the inside cover:

Red, a quirky, headstrong ten-year-old, longs to live in her own perfect paradise far away from her annoying foster family. But when a UFO mistakenly kidnaps her, Red finds herself farther away than she could have possibly imagined - across the galaxy and aboard an enormous spaceship owned by the Aquilari, an ancient creature with a taste for rare and unusual treasures.

Before Red can be discovered as a stowaway, the great ship crashed on a small deserted planet, leaving her marooned with a menagerie of misfit aliens. With her newfound friend, a small fray alien named Tawee, Red must find a way to survive the hostile castaways, evade the ravenous wildlife, and contend with Goose, the planet's grumpy, felinoid custodian. Surely this can't be the paradise she's looking for.

There seems to be a slew of awesome middle-grade graphic novels coming out lately, which I won't complain about, especially since this one in particular will certainly appeal to many younger readers.

Red (which isn't her real name) is ten, and has been in and out of various foster homes because she keeps running away in search of the paradise she wants to live in. When the cops pick her up from the latest incident with the intent of taking her to an institution, she is momentarily saved by a UFO that steals the police cruiser while she is alone inside it. When said ship crash lands on a near-empty planet, Red and the other survivors must figure out a way to live until they are rescued, especially when the planet's guardian (who looks like a big blue version of Tony the Tiger) is rather reluctant to help them.

This is part of a series that'll be continuing in 2017, so I'm hoping that my only issue with this book will be resolved with more instalments. I like Red as a character, she's spunky and strong; but, along with the all the other characters, they're just not much to them even after a whole book. For younger readers that care more about the story than character development, this won't make or break their interest, but more sophisticated readers might take issue with it.

A science-fiction story that will be sure to engage reluctant readers, complete with art that is aesthetically pleasing.

Thoughts on the cover:
A really dynamic and colourful choice of image, it really grabs your attention.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Compass South - Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock

Title: Compass South
Author: Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock
Publisher: Margaret Ferguson Books (Farrar Straus Giroux), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 224 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel; Historical Fiction, Adventure
Started: October 27, 2016
Finished: October 27, 2016

From the inside cover:

New York City, 1860-

When their father goes missing, twelve-year-old twins Alexander and Cleopatra Dodge join the Black Hook Gang. Soon after, Alex is arrested for burglary, but the twins cut a deal with the police chief and leave town to start a new life. They assume different identities, but upon their arrival in New Orleans, they find even more trouble. Alex is separated from his sister and pressed into service on a ship bound for San Francisco, and Cleo, hoping to meet him at the end of his journey, stows away on a steamer ship.

What neither twin realizes is that they hold the keys to a lost pirate treasure, and the pirates want their treasure back. Pursued by the bloodthirsty Captain Felix Worley and Luther, vengeful leader of the Black Hook Gang, Alex and Cleo must survive a series of harrowing adventures if they're ever going to to see each other-or their father-again.

This is a wonderful graphic novel in the style of an old fashioned adventure story, complete with a male and female protagonist to appeal to both boys and girls.

The story opens with Alex and Cleo's unseen mother's death, and their delivery to their adoptive father. Their collective inheritance from their mother, Hester, is a gold pocket watch and a knife, which Mr. Dodge is instructed by the infants' caretaker to never sell. Twelve years later, Dodge has disappeared, and Alex and Cleo are working with the Black Hook Gang, committing robberies with other orphans in order to survive. When Alex is arrested, he and Cleo make a deal with the police chief in a pre-modern version of the Witness Protection Program: they divulge the location of the Black Hook Gang, and they receive a clean slate and a new start in a different city far from New York. When Alex and Cleo are separated, they find themselves on journeys to San Francisco that will take them to the jungles of Central America and to the very ends of the earth at Cape Horn.

This is a perfect addition to a classroom graphic novel collection. Alex and Cleo are spunky protagonists; brave, independent, and eager to seek a new life in the most uncertain circumstances. Silas and Edwin make for good companions to Alex and Cleo, and even orchestrate some decent character development when both sets of siblings are separated from each other. The settings are gorgeous, and the dialogue is peppered with old vocabulary that kids will hardly ever see except in classic adventure stories. This is a series with at least one more book forthcoming (I'm under the impression there will be four books total), but this first instalment can also stand alone quite nicely.

An engaging adventure story that will certainly appeal to readers. I will eagerly await the next book in the series.

Thoughts on the cover:
A really dynamic cover that showcases the energy of the story quite well.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Girl Who Drank the Moon - Kelly Barnhill

Title: The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: October 17, 2016
Finished: October 20, 2016

From the inside cover:

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey.

One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna's thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge - with dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Deadly birds with uncertain intentions flock nearby. A volcano, quiet for centuries, rumbles just beneath the earth's surface. And the woman with the Tiger's heart is on the prowl.

The author of the highly acclaimed award-winning novel The Witch's Boy has written an epic coming-of-age fairy tale destined to become a modern classic.

After reading Iron-Hearted Violet and The Witch's Boy and loving this author's style, picking up her new book wasn't even a question.

The Elders of the Protectorate created the idea of a witch that demands a child in sacrifice once a year to keep the citizen in line (there's an even deeper reason for this, but can't explain due to spoilers). But little do they know, the children they abandon in the woods don't die, they are rescued by Xan, a real witch (but a nice one) and adopted by loving families in the Free Cities on the other side of the forest, where the citizens of the Protectorate do not venture. We follow Antain, a young Elder-in-training who witnesses his first Day of Sacrifice, and is deeply disturbed by it. Xan rescues the baby and is entranced by her hair, eyes, and the crescent moon birthmark on her forehead (that she shares with her mother). Distracted, she feeds the baby moonlight instead of starlight, giving her incredible magic that lies dormant. So instead of delivering another one of the Star Children to the Free Cities, she adopts Luna and raises her as her granddaughter. When Luna's magic begins to awaken at age five, Xan manages to seal it away until the time Luna will turn thirteen, but at a cost: Xan will slowly deteriorate and lose her life when Luna's magic awakens again. Over the years, we see Antain grow and question the Elders and the Sisters of the Star, we see Luna's mother lose herself to grief and become imprisoned in the Tower by the Sisters. Xan tries to teach Luna all she needs to know before her thirteenth birthday, while being aided by Glerk the swamp monster and Fyrian the little dragon. And Luna grows with no idea of who she really is.

This story has the author's trademark writing style and magical realism embedded in it, making it an engrossing read that pulls you in from the first sentence. The characters are engaging and sympathetic; I simply loved little Fyrian, he's adorable in his excitability. The perspectives and plot threads all come together in the end in a satisfying way, though the plot does drag a little at the end in the act of everyone coming together. The darker undertones and themes are a bit depressing for a middle grade book, but I'd imagine young adult readers would actually appreciate that.

A wonderfully written book that is engrossing and is a must-read, especially if you are a fan of magical realism in your literature.

Thoughts on the cover:
This is so gorgeous, I'd pick it up for the cover alone. I love Luna against the moonlight with a pose we never see on cover art, and the paper birds and Fyrian are nice additions.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ms. Bixby's Last Day - John David Anderson

Title: Ms. Bixby's Last Day
Author: John David Anderson
Publisher: Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: October 11, 2016
Finished: October 12, 2016

From the inside cover:

Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The good ones. The not-so-good ones. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard. The ones you'll never remember, and the ones you'll never forget. But Ms. Bixby is none of these. She's the sort of teacher who makes you feel like the indignity of school is worthwhile. Who makes the idea of growing up less terrifying. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind.

Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she is very sick and won't be able to finish the school year, they come up with a plan. Through the three different stories they tell, we begin to understand just what Ms. Bixby means to Topher, Brand, and Steve - and what they are willing to go to such great lengths to tell her.

John David Anderson, the acclaimed author of Sidekicked, returns with a story of three kids, a very special teacher, and one day that none of them will ever forget.

I'm a teacher, I'm a sucker for inspirational teacher stories, especially since I've had moments like this from students and parents where they hit me right in the feels and my eyes tear up and I can live for weeks on the compliments they give me. This book will simultaneously rip your heart out and rebuild it, it's funny yet tragic, both sad and a testament to the human spirit. I don't necessarily think the target age group (middle-grade) will appreciate and understand the complexities of this particular story, but this is still a must-read.

Topher, Brand, and Steve are all friends in Ms. Bixby's sixth grade class, the teacher everyone wants. She has pink streaks in her hair, puts inspirational quotes (that the boys call Bixbyisms) around the classroom, has a sarcastic sense of a humour, and actually listens to her students. With a few weeks left in the school year, she announces that she is sick with cancer and will be leaving to start treatment. With a farewell party already planned for the following week, the three boys are thrown off when Ms. Bixby enters the hospital early. They never got to say goodbye, never got to tell her things that needed to be said. When they overhear that Ms. Bixby will be transferred out of state for special treatment in a few days, they realize they may never get that chance. So the boys form a plan to skip school in order to visit Ms. Bixby in the hospital and give her the send-off she deserves, recreating what she once told them was how she would want to spend her last day on earth.

First off, the one thing that bugged me about the book. The boys don't act like they're twelve. They either act much younger (giving a scientific breakdown of cooties to a female classmate...if they're old enough to use vocabulary like that, they're too old to believe girls have cooties), or their internal monologues place them at mid to late teenage years. So that was slightly annoying, but thankfully the rest of the book manages to compensate for that early annoyance.

Ms. Bixby is positively lovely, and parts of her live on in many of my past teachers and my current co-workers. She quotes Atticus Finch to the boys and manages to figure out exactly what each one needs from her and delivers. The chapters alternate their narration from Topher to Steve to Brand (usually in that order), so we teasingly learn little tidbits along the way about exactly how important Ms. Bixby is in each boy's life. Brand is street-smart, Topher is creative, and Steve is the brainiac result of a tiger-mom type of family; Brand was my favourite, I wanted to cuddle the prickly little dude.

Everyone needs to read this, especially if you work in education. This is a touching story that will make you reach for the kleenex and restore your faith in humanity at the same time.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's cute and fitting for the story. I love how Steve's honourable mention ribbon is tacked on the corner of the door, it's a nice touch.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Beautiful Blue World - Suzanne LaFleur

Title: Beautiful Blue World
Author: Suzanne LaFleur
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (Penguin), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 210 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: October 5, 2016
Finished: October 7, 2016

From the inside cover:

Sofarende is at war. For twelve-year-old Mathilde, it means food shortages, feuding neighbours, and bombings. Even so, as long as she and her best friend, Megs, are together, they'll be all right.

But the army is recruiting children, and paying families well for their service. If Megs takes the test, Mathilde knows she will pass. Megs hopes the army is the way to save her family. Mathilde fears it might separate them forever.

This moving and suspenseful novel is a brilliant reimagining of war, where even kindness can be a weapon, and children have the power to see what adults cannot.

This seemed like a very intriguing premise, so I decided to give it a shot. This tiny novel packs a powerful punch, being a cross between a WWII story (though set in a completely imaginary realm that simply reads like WWII Europe), and a version of Ender's Game minus the science-fiction aspects.

Mathilde lives in the southern town of Lykkelig in the country of Sofarende, which has been at war with Tyssia for over a year now. Now that Tyssia has brought their aerials into the country, they have started bombing raids at night. While Mathilde fears for her father during the bombings, whose committee must be on call once the sirens start, she is even more worried about the military test that she and her other classmates are eligible to take. The military is recruiting children for service, but no one has details on what they want the children for. For families that are struggling with fathers away and food shortages, the money the military offers families of the chosen children means that some opt to take the test to keep their loved ones alive. Like Mathilde's friend Megs. Mathilde's parents decide she should take the test as a way to guarantee her safety in the uncertainty of the war. When both girls take the test, the results are surprising, as well as the jobs the children perform while in service to the Sofarende military.

The comparisons to Ender's Game were screaming in my head as soon as Mathilde started writing the aptitude test. Thankfully the comparisons are relatively shallow and this novel manages to stand well on its own as a powerful insight on war, seen through the eyes of children. It is hauntingly beautiful at times, especially when Mathilde receives her "special assignment" and the interactions relating to it. The conversation Mathilde has with her mother before she leaves is one of those life lessons that is important but often left unsaid. The ending isn't very satisfying, but there is a sequel thankfully, so the story will continue (yay!)

This would make for wonderful classroom reading, either as a read-aloud or a novel study in the older grades. Though it's a quick read and seemingly simple, the underlying messages are much more profound.

Thoughts on the cover:
I appreciate the blue colour scheme used in the image to mirror the title (which makes complete sense once you finish the book). The image of Mathilde and Megs abruptly stopped as the shadows of the aerials are seen on the ground is a powerful one, and reminds readers that this story doesn't sugar-coat the realities of war.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

As Old as Time - Liz Braswell

Title: As Old as Time
Author: Liz Braswell
Publisher: Disney Press, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 484 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: October 3, 2016
Finished: October 4, 2016

From the inside cover:

What if Belle's mother cursed the Beast?

Belle is a lot of things: smart, resourceful, restless. She longs to escape her poor provincial town for good. She wants to explore the world, despite her father's reluctance to leave their little cottage in case Belle's mother returns-a mother she barely remembers. Belle also happens to be the captive of a terrifying, angry beast. And that is her primary concern.

But when Belle touches the Beast's enchanted rose, intriguing images flood her mind-images of the mother she believed would never see again. Stranger still, she sees that her mother is none other than the beautiful Enchantress who cursed the Beast, his castle, and all its inhabitants. Shocked and confused, Belle and the Beast must work together to unravel a dark mystery about their families that is twenty-one years in the making.

I'm a huge Beauty and the Beast fan, I will read anything relating to it: classic fairy tale, Disney version, modern retelling, fan fiction, you name it. So of course, I had to read this one, especially since it is a reimagining of the Disney version, and quite a bit darker too.

This version establishes that there are magical beings in the world that are referred to as les charmantes, and though before they managed to coexist with regular humans, now tensions are beginning to appear. The story begins with Maurice meeting Belle's mother, Rosalind, one of the les charmantes; an enchantress able to change her appearance at will. As Maurice and Rosalind marry and eventually have Belle, their friends become the target of violence against the les charmantes that is encouraged by the king and queen, and their population begins to dwindle. In addition, a vast-spreading sickness breaks out all over the kingdom, which further incites violence against the les charmantes. In frustration to save her people, Rosalind curses the young, now orphaned prince of the kingdom, and suddenly disappears shortly afterwards. To protect Maurice and Belle, Rosalind arranged a spell that, if something were to happen to her, would make regular humans forget all details of the les charmantes, so Belle has no memory of her mother. The details of the Disney movie remain the same until Belle discovers the Beast's rose in the West Wing, then deviate when in this story Belle actually does touch the rose (flooding her mind with images of her mother cursing the Beast) and it disintegrates, exacting the curse immediately. Belle and the Beast then work together to try to uncover who Belle's mother actually is, and if there is a way for the curse to be lifted.

Okay first off, the plot line with magical humans living in seventeenth-century France is unrealistic, but then I remember the whole fairy tale is an exercise in suspension of disbelief, so upon reexamination it is a clever way to explain the enchantress from the original. I feel like Belle is a bit too weepy in this version and altogether not as strong of a character as she was in the film. The Beast comes around a little too quickly (granted they are under a slight bit of pressure to figure things out before the castle becomes engulfed in spider webs and traps them all), but I did appreciate the character development for Mrs. Potts (and the addition of her husband as a character). The romance between Belle and the Beast goes from comrades helping each other to affectionate kisses rather quickly, and the build-up scenes from the film that really establish their relationship aren't really present here, but instead of a substitution there isn't much build-up at all. The story becomes a bit dark towards the end involving the asylum, but not in any off-putting way. The ending is a bit contrived and lacks closure as well, which was disappointing.

If you're a fan, this deserves a read, but borrow it from the library. Sadly, there are better adaptations out there.

Thoughts on the cover:
An imposing image with a nice colour scheme, but nothing really amazing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Littlest Bigfoot - Jennifer Weiner

Title: The Littlest Bigfoot
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Publisher: Aladdin (Simon & Schuster), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy/Realistic Fiction
Started: September 29, 2016
Finished: October 4, 2016

From the inside cover:

Alice Mayfair, twelve years old, slips through the world unseen and unnoticed. Ignored by her family and shipped off to her eighth boarding school, Alice would like a friend. And when she rescues Millie Maximus from drowning in a lake on night, she finds one.

But Millie is a Bigfoot, part of a clan who dwells deep in the woods. Most Bigfoots believe that people-No-Furs, as they call them-are dangerous, yet Millie is fascinated by the No-Fur world. She is convinced that humans will appreciate all the things about her that her Bigfoot tribe does not: her fearless nature, her lovely singing voice, and her desire to be a star.

Alice swears to protect Millie's secret. But a league of Bigfoot hunters is on their trail, led by a lonely kid named Jeremy. And in order to survive, Alice and Millie have to put their trust in each other-and have faith in themselves-above all else.

Brimming with equal parts humour and heartbreak, The Littlest Bigfoot is an irresistible adventure about friendship, furry creatures, and finding the place where you belong.

This book has been getting a fair bit of hype, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Plus, how can you turn down a book about Bigfoot?

Alice is an outcast, ignored by her parents and shipped off to countless boarding schools in and around her home in New York City, and bullied by her classmates at nearly every school she's been to. For grade seven, her parents hope that The Experimental Center for Love and Learning in upstate New York will be different, that Alice will magically become less clumsy, lose weight, make friends, and be a daughter they can be proud of. Although Alice would love to be smaller and make her hair less wild, she really just wants a friend. Millie is the smallest Bigfoot in her Yare tribe, living deep in the woods across the lake from Alice's school. She has straight, silver fur when everyone else's is dark and curly, loves to sing, and isn't afraid of the No-Furs like she should be. Both girls are unappreciated by their families and communities, and yearn to find a place where they can be accepted as themselves. When Alice and Millie unexpectedly meet one night, both girls get the friend they long for that accepts them for who they are, but when the Yare tribe is threatened with exposure, both girls come together to preserve Millie's community.

The book alternates perspectives from one chapter to the next, switching from Alice to Millie, and occasionally including Jeremy, the boy who accidentally exposes the Yare tribe in his quest to uncover the truth about Bigfoot. Adding Jeremy was an interesting addition, but there's only a couple chapters from his perspective, so it's a little jarring hearing from Alice and Millie and randomly hearing from Jeremy. I feel the author either needed to leave Jeremy out completely or add more narrative from his perspective. The plot is slightly scattered due to the alternating perspectives, but doesn't retract from the overall readability of the story.

This book was incredibly cute, I'll give the author that. Alice and Millie are incredibly sympathetic characters both separately and apart, and the message of acceptance both characters convey is a sweet one (although it does get a touch pushy and unrealistic towards the end). The two girls don't even meet until over 150 pages in, so the conflict regarding the exposure of the Yare and the resolution happen really fast, to the point where it feels quite rushed. The "twist" at the end obviously indicates there will be a sequel, which though the twist itself is predictable, the cliffhanger leaves one feeling unsettled since there's no indication that this is anything other than a one-shot story.

Though this book has its issues, it does convey a much-needed message which middle-grade readers will appreciate.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the night scene with the abundance of blues. It's subtle, but Millie's reflection in the lake is quite fitting and a nice touch.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Wolf Hollow - Lauren Wolk

Title: Wolf Hollow
Author: Lauren Wolk
Publisher: Dutton Children's Books (Penguin), 2016
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: September 25, 2016
Finished: September 28, 2016

From the inside cover:

Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby's strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. Soon, she will need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl's resilience and strength help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.

This book has received quite the hype, even likening it to To Kill a Mockingbird, and it is completely

Annabelle lives with her parents, brothers, and members of her extended family on a farm in a rural town in 1943. When their neighbours' granddaughter arrives from the city to live with them, everything begins to change. Betty targets Annabelle right from the beginning, demainding money and valuables from her and threatening her younger brothers if she doesn't comply. When Toby, the reclusive veteran who has always been kind to Annabelle, witnesses Betty hitting her, he then becomes a target. This fuels the town's existing wariness and thinly veiled hostility towards Toby when he is blamed for a horrible incident perpetrated by Betty. When Betty injures her youngest brother, Annabelle finally goes to her parents, which only leads to more blame directed at Toby. When both Betty and Toby suddenly disappear, even those sympathetic towards Toby like Annabelle's parents begin to suspect him. Annabelle knows that Toby is innocent and begins to take things into her own hands to clear his name.

First off, the story has this incredible prologue that sends shivers down your spine (the majority of which is the text you see on the front cover). I can see the first line as the type to be included in those lists of famous opening lines of books that cultured people love to quote.

The story really does read like a children's version of Mockingbird, just minus the racial issues. Annabelle is an older Scout, Toby is our Boo Radley, Betty is our Bob/Mayella Ewell mashup, Annabelle's parents both serve as Atticus (yay for showing both parents as equally involved even in 1943), and the townspeople resemble Maycomb's. There's a clear disgust towards the unjust accusations and mob mentality employed by the others towards Toby, and the animal imagery of the wolves replaces the mockingbirds with similar symbolism. While Annabelle has more agency than her Mockingbird counterpart, and does affect change, there isn't a happy ending with unicorns and rainbows, she does come the the realization that life sucks and is unfair sometimes, but still learns that one person can make a difference.

I liked how cruel the author made Betty, some might say it's a bit unrealistic but then I'd say those people never taught children. Betty is a psychotic, sadistic, fourteen-year-old; and while rare they aren't non-existent. The friendship between Annabelle and Toby is well-crafted, it's believable without coming off as creepy or inappropriate. Annabelle is narrating the book as an adult looking back on her youth, so while the character is eleven turning twelve, the voice is much older and sophisticated. The maturity in the voice is believable, but I'm not sure if children reading this book would really grasp the intricacies of the book itself; a teenager would, and a mature twelve year old might, but any younger and it might just go right over their heads.

Every classroom needs this book, this needs to be required reading for older children/teens, not just for how beautiful the writing is, but because of the themes and the messages delivered to readers.

Thoughts on the cover:
Beautiful. It's hard to tell from the picture, but the text and the trees surrounding the silhouette of Annabelle is embossed and shines a nice copper colour.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Seven-Letter Word - Kim Slater

Title: A Seven-Letter Word
Author: Kim Slater
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 298 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 19, 2016
Finished: September 24, 2016

From the inside cover:

Stutter. That's one seven-letter word I wish didn't exist. Fifty points extra or not.

Scrabble genius Finlay McIntosh is a different lad to the one his mother left behind. One day she was there, the next she was gone. And his dad won't even mention her name. All Finlay has to remember her by is a bag of letter tiles and an empty journal.

Then a chance remark by a mysterious new player he meets online changes everything. Has he stumbled on to a major clue that could help him find his missing mother? Finlay will do whatever it takes to find out the truth. But can he find his voice...before it's too late?

Finlay is fourteen and its been two years since his mother left. His father moved the family to Nottingham and Finlay has to deal with a new school, just as his stuttering has worsened. He is bullied by Oliver at school during the day and copes by playing Scrabble online in the evenings while his dad is working. When a new online player named Alex mentions a stepmother that left her family, Finlay suspects that his mother could be connected. When he is asked by a teacher to join the school Scrabble club and potentially represent the school during a competition, Finlay thinks its another way to somehow make himself known to his mother.

This was really intriguing story with a sympathetic set of characters. Finlay is a kid who really can't catch a break: his mother left, his dad is trying his best but isn't coping well,  and he gets picked on for stuttering. Maryam is probably the best aspect of the whole book, a Muslim girl at Finlay's school who helps him with his Scrabble skills. She is bullied for wearing a hijab and for being a foreigner in Britain, so not only do we have a diverse character (something we need more of in children's books), but we actually get to see an unfortunately common occurence that their real-life counterparts experience.

This was a relatively quick read and the plot twist involving the mother was relatively easy to ascertain, but still worth the read.

An intriguing read with some amazing characters.

Thoughts on the cover:
I appreciate how the Scrabble elements were added to the cover, it makes for a nice touch.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ghosts - Raina Telgemeier

Title: Ghosts
Author: Raina Telgemeier
Publisher: Graphix (Scholastic), 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy/Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novel
Started: September 17, 2016
Finished: September 17, 2016

From the back cover:

There's something different about this town...

Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn't happy about leaving her friends for Bahia de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbour lets them in on a secret: there are ghosts in Bahia de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister's sake - and her own.

Raina Telgemeier has masterfully created a moving and insightful story about the power of family and friendship, and how it gives us the courage to do what we never thought possible.

As a teacher, Raina Telgemeier's books are a staple in classroom libraries, not only because they're kid-friendly stories that feature female protagonists (you'd be amazed at how rare that is in kids' graphic novels) but that they're just simply amazing stories of growing up. Smile, its sequel Sisters, Drama, and now Ghosts are all engaging pieces with a wonderful art style.

Catrina's family has moved further north from their California home for the benefit of her younger sister, Maya. Carlos, the new neighbours' son, tells them of the supernatural aura that permeates their new town, and Maya is ecstatic over the news. Cat definitely does not want to meet any of the ghosts that inhabit their new home, but begrudgingly goes along with things when Maya claims she wants to ask the ghosts what happens when you die. When something goes wrong and Maya is hospitalized, Cat rejects not only the spiritual aspects of Bahia de la Luna but the cultural as well. Cat's mother is Mexican American (their dad is white), but their family isn't really in touch with their Mexican heritage, so when the whole town is planning to attend a Dia de los Muertos event that features the town's ghosts, Cat definitely isn't interested. But when Maya begs Cat to attend in her place, Cat must reconnect with her culture and reconcile her fears for the sake of her sister.

This new story not only has the author's trademark awkward story of a girl growing up, but it also enters into the realm of the metaphysical. It's established that there is no cure for Maya's cystic fibrosis and that she will eventually die, this is even acknowledged by her several times in the story. Maya even dressed up as an angel for Halloween, which makes it particularly poignant, and asks Cat if she'll be afraid of her ghost when she dies. Cat realizes that the town ghosts are simply spirits of loved ones and don't mean her any harm. The artwork is very appealing, the characters realistic and the story engaging.

Definitely worth picking up, and definitely if you're a fan of the author's works already, in this case I think this is the best of her books to date.

Thoughts on the cover:
Definitely fitting, but I would've liked something a little more dynamic.