Welcome to my blog. I often think I was born with a book in my hand. I have always enjoyed reading, but more importantly, talking about books. This blog is partially about reviews, but is really a forum to talk about what I'm reading, and express all of the thoughts and feelings that there simply isn't room for in a professional review. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on your favourite books as you follow my reading journey.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Monster Calls: An Intense and Riveting Read

When the monster comes to Conor at exactly seven minutes past midnight, he is hardly frightened. The monster he's been expecting is the one from his nightmare-the one he's had nearly every night since his mother began the treatments, and it's far more terrifying. The monster in his backyard is different. It's ancient and wild and what it wants from Conor is the one thing that he fears more than anything- the truth!

Every once in a while comes a book that is such a true masterpiece it's hard to know where to begin to rave about it. It's dark and deep and tightly written, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since I finished it. There is a particular theme in this book, that I've seen in a few other's I've read this year as well, which is about knowing a truth in your heart and being afraid to face it. It also looks at what happens when adults try to sugarcoat the truth from children.

The monster who appears to 13-year-old Conor takes the form of an old Yew tree. He promises to tell Conor 3 stories, but in exchange, wants a story from Conor. Not just any story will do, however. He wants the real story. The true story that Conor knows but hasn't wanted to tell. The story about what is going to happen to his mother, and what will happen to him.

Is the monster real? Maybe. Conor initally thinks that it's a dream, but then sees the evidence of the monster's visit. On the other hand, maybe the monster lives inside Conor. Maybe it represents everything that he is feeling, and it's the way he copes with everything that is going on. In the course of the monster's visits, Conor learns some important lessons. He learns that good and evil are not always as simple as he thinks. He learns that sometimes people do evil things for reasons that are good. Sometimes people do things that are good for reasons that are bad. Sometimes motive doesn't matter and it's the result that matters.

This story is based on an idea from the brilliant Siobhan Dowd, who died from breast cancer before she was able to write this book, and you can tell what a personal story this would have been for her. Ness perfectly captures the emotional roller coaster of an isolated and frightened boy, and he'll pull you along with him until the heartbreaking finale.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Okay For Now: A Notable Tween Read

Fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck is starting eighth grade in a new town and a new house.  His only consolation is the Joe Pepitone jacket (a popular New York Yankee of the time) that Holling Hoodhood gives him before he leaves, and is as Doug explains, is the only thing he owns that hasn't been previously owned by someone else in his family.  His father is a bully, he has to share his room with his jerk of an older brother, and he has one more older brother in Vietnam who used to be a jerk, but changed when he went into the military. 

The cards seem to be stacked against Doug until a few things happen. 1. He meets local girl Lil Spicer, who gets him a job as a delivery boy for her father's deli, and teaches him how to drink a really cold coke. 2. He discovers the book of Audubon plates in the library, and begins taking drawing lessons with library employee Mr. Powell. 3. He meets the eccentric writer Mrs. Windermere, who drags him and Lil into a broadway adaptation of Jane Eyre. 

Through these experiences, Doug learns about life, loss and love, and he finds the strength to endure an abusive father, and overcome the skinny thug reputation that he's been saddled with. 

This stand alone companion to the Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars, though is a worthwhile read in it's own right, and is full of well-drawn, and interesting characters. One thing that Gary Schmidt does well is create characters, and he's certainly done it here. 

The story opens with Doug's family being forced to move to a new town in upstate New York when his father gets a new job working at the local paper mill with his buddy. Doug, a typical fourteen-year-old is angry about the move, and especially the fact that his new house (the dump as he calls it) is smaller and shabbier, and he'll have to share a room with his older brother who also bullies him. He walks around town with a tremendous chip on his shoulder, and while he's aware that he's acting like his eldest brother, he doesn't see a reason not to. 

Doug's brother Christopher, (the one at home) immediately gets into some trouble with the law, and is under suspicion of theft, making things even more difficult for Doug. Whether or not Christopher is guilty of anything is irrelevant- the town believes he is, and expects Doug to be the same. School starts off on a rocky note, and most of his teachers treat him like he's a criminal. This is a classic case of living up or down to expectation, and Doug decides that if nobody is going to give him a chance, he might as well be the troublemaker they think he is. 

Doug is an extremely well-developed and sympathetic character, and he's refreshingly honest. His narration is blunt and brave, and you can feel the emotion behind everything he writes. He wants to be a good kid. He wants to be a kid that people think of as dependable and likeable, but sometimes his life overwhelms him and he gives up.

Doug's brother's are also interesting characters, and there is a lot more to them than it initially seems. Christopher, Doug's second older brother, doesn't even have a name for the first part of the book, and seems to be following in his father's footsteps. He belittles Doug at every chance, steals his stuff, and seems to be a criminal in the making. Lucas, the eldest, returns from Vietnam in a wheelchair with his legs gone, and damaged eyes, and he's emotionally wrecked. Christopher, incidentally is the only one in the family strong enough to carry Lucas' wheelchair, and in his interactions with Lucas, readers start to see glimpses of someone who might be a decent person. 

And then there is Lil, who becomes Doug's friend, and doesn't take any crap from him. She has a strong personality, and she brings out the good part of Doug. She's the first girl that he falls in love with, and they form a really special bond. 

There are a number of other characters whom Doug meets on his deliveries, and they are quirky, interesting, and really give the reader a sense of the community. The characters I couldn't like were Doug's parents. His mother is basically a battered housewife, always walking on eggshells and trying to avoid her husband's wrath. She seems to love her kids, but she's pitiable. Doug's father is an abusive bully through and through, and his buddy Ernie Eco is just as bad. His dad is quick with his fists, doesn't provide for his family, and has a tremendous sense of entitlement. He acts like he's better than everybody, and complains bitterly about everyone he knows. There isn't a single redeeming quality about him, and even his one decent act at the end (not explicitly stated but implied) isn't enough to make me believe that there is anything good or decent about him. Doug certainly implies that he changes, but it's at the end of the book, and a bit too convenient for me. 

Okay For Now is an extremely compelling novel and should be high in your to read pile. The writing is excellent, and the author gives his narrator such a clear and wonderful voice that he'll stick with you long after you've finished the book. There is no swearing or gratuitous violence, but the author does touch on some sensitive issues- such as public feeling towards Vietnam and abuse, which makes it a more suitable read for grade 6 and up. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Willow Falls Series: Middle Grade Mastery

Many years ago, I picked up one of Wendy Mass' first middle grade novels entitled A Mango Shaped Space. I was hugely impressed with her writing and have since made a point of reading every single one of her books as it comes out. Her newest series of books all take place in a town called Willow Falls where interesting and unusual things tend to happen.

The series launches with 11 Birthdays, which is a kind of Groundhog Day story for kids. Amanda and Leo, born on the same day and best friends since birth have always celebrated their birthdays together. But on their tenth birthday, the friends have a falling out and stop speaking. Now they are about to celebrate their eleventh birthdays alone, and little do they know that that it's a day that they will repeat over and over again until they learn to work together to break the cycle.

One of the wonderful things about this book is the way the author so realistically captures the changing nature of boy/girl friendships at a particular age. Crushes develop, interests change, and it's hard to just hang out. It's a difficult and painful transition, and Amanda, who was used to doing everything with Leo just couldn't understand why he would make fun of her to his male friends. Leo of course didn't mean it. He was simply trying to look cool in front of the guys, but Amanda didn't know that, and he didn't tell her. So what do they do? They stop being friends and live with hurt feelings instead of talking it out and trying to fix their friendship.

The day of their eleventh birthday is awful. Nothing seems to go right for Amanda, and the week leading up to the party doesn't get any better. When the kids ditch her to go to Leo's more extravagant party, Amanda is devastated, and she can't wait to get to bed and end the day. But it's not over- not by a long shot. When she wakes up the next morning it's her eleventh birthday all over again. The first time around, Amanda does everything exactly the same, but then she realizes the opportunity she's been given, and starts to make changes. At first the changes are small, but then she gets bolder and takes more chances, and each day teaches her a little bit more about who she is.

Eventually, Amanda realizes that Leo is also repeating the day and convinces him to work with her to try and figure out why it's happening and how to end it. The shared experience also gives them a chance to work things out and to realize how much they've missed each other's friendship, and only then do they move onto the next day, with everybody else in the town none-the-wiser.

The second book, Finally returns to Willow Falls and readers meet Rory, a girl who is about to turn 12, and has a mile-long list of all the things she's going to be allowed to do as soon as she turns twelve. As soon as her birthday is over, Rory can't wait to start checking off all of the things on her list. But as she'll discover, being old enough isn't the same as being ready, and sometimes being grown up means knowing when to wait.

I loved this book. I remember being twelve and like Rory, wanting to seize the world and feeling so grown up.
I didn't try all of the things that Rory did quite as quickly as she did, but so many things change at twelve, and it's hard not to feel like you have to keep up. I won't spoil the book by revealing too much, but let's just say that a killer bunny and an embarrassing allergy are just a couple of the disasters that Rory faces. Amanda and Leo from the previous book also make an appearance, and the three end up forming a solid friendship.

The third, and most recent book in the series is 13 Gifts, and you guessed it- the main character is about to turn 13. Tara, a shrinking violet, lands herself in hot water when she tries to steal the school mascot- a goat, in order to fit in with the popular girls. As kids like that tend to do, they completely set her up, and Tara ended up taking the fall, while they fled. As punishment, her parents decide to send her to stay with her aunt, uncle and younger cousin Emily in Willow Falls instead of taking her to Madagascar on her mother's research trip.

When Tara finds out that she's being shipped off to Willow Falls, she can't think of worse torture. It's been years since she's seen her aunt, uncle and cousin, and her parents haven't gone back there since graduation. When she arrives, she discovers that she's lost both her mother's iPod, her cell phone and her money, and now she has to figure out a way to replace them without her mother knowing. Her solution leads her to a mysterious old shop run by an equally mysterious lady, who contracts her to find a list of 13 items before her 13th birthday. Tara has no idea what the items are or where she'll find them, but nothing happens in Willow Falls without a purpose, and that purpose will only reveal itself when everything falls into place.

As in the previous two books, Wendy Mass explores a number of relevant issues to tweens. Tara isn't a bad kid. But making friends is difficult when you move around so much and have an oddly overprotective mother, and her part in the unfortunate prank was an attempt to please her by fitting in with the popular kids. She also examines issues of friendship, and of faith, and about understanding whether or not the things you do are because you believe in them, or because you think you should.

The thing I love most about these books is that as realistic as they are, they also contain whimsy and a hint of magic, and I think that the possibilityof magic is something you should never be to old to believe in.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Breadcrumbs: A Bewitching and Spellbinding Middle Grade Read

Fifth-graders Hazel and Jack have been best friends forever. Hazel, with her active imagination has difficulty fitting into her new school, but Jack gets her, and he's always managed to balance spending time with her and spending time with "the guys". Sure they've had their arguments, but they've never stayed angry for long- until they did. Until the day that something hits Jack in the eye and suddenly he's mean to her. Until the day that he disappears into the snow-covered woods with the woman made of ice, and doesn't come back. Everybody believes that Jack has gone off to look after an elderly aunt out of town, but Hazel knows that isn't true. Only Hazel knows where he's really gone, and now she must muster all of her courage and venture into the mysterious woods to rescue him and bring him back.

Anne Ursu's new middle-grade novel has been receiving tons of praise this autumn, and it's deserving of every penny. This is exactly the kind of story that I would have loved when I was a kid, and I loved it now. So much in fact that I actually got a finished copy of the book to keep after I was finished with the ARC.  For those of you who are familiar with the Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen, you will immediately pick up on the elements of the story on which this is based, but there is so much more to it than just a straight retelling.

Hazel is the kind of character that you'll fall in love with, and your heart will break for her. Things haven't been easy for her lately. Her parents split up, her father moved away, and now her mother has had to take her out of the private school where she was happy and has put her into public school where she has difficulty fitting in. She's a dreamer with a fantastic imagination, and how can math possibly be more interesting than the magic of snowflakes? Her teacher dislikes her, the other kids tease her, and except for Jack, school is miserable. Hazel's mother is sympathetic, but she's having enough trouble trying to keep their heads above water, and would really like Hazel to just be a normal kid. She even arranges a play date with the daughter of a friend who is about Hazel's age, hoping that they'll become friends. Hazel gets along well-enough with the girl, but she isn't Jack.

Jack has also had a difficult time of things. His mother has been in a deep depression for some time, and his father does the best he can, but it doesn't take away the sting of missing his mother who is there but not really there. When a shard of glass from the Snow Queen's mirror hits him in the eye, everything changes. He is mean to Hazel and stops talking to her with no explanation. Hazel's mother tries to tell her that sometimes it just happens that boys and girls stop being friends, but she refuses to accept this explanation, or the one for his disappearance, and she musters her courage to go and rescue him.

This is such a beautifully written book, and I just loved the references to Narnia and to other classic fairy tales. In a particularly clever moment, the Snow Queen asks Jack if he'd like some Turkish Delight. Jack of course not being familiar with stories doesn't understand, but readers who know the story will appreciate the reference. Once Hazel enters the woods, there are several temptations to distract her from her cause, including a pair of beautiful red ballet shoes, which she would sorely love to have. Meanwhile, Jack's story becomes a more direct retelling of The Snow Queen, and he thinks only of pleasing the beautiful white lady who finds him charming and rewards him with a kiss when he's been good.

This is a story about friendship, loyalty, courage, grief and loss, and not just in a someone died kind of way, but the many different kinds of loss we experience in our lives, and I highly recommend this as a book to be read-aloud and shared, or read alone and treasured by every child who will recognize themselves in Hazel and Jack.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Toymaker: A Nightmarish Middle Grade Debut

Mathias, the grandson of a fading Conjurer has never known life outside of the traveling circus to which his grandfather Gustav belongs. When a mysterious stranger with a silver-tipped cane appears in the audience one evening, Gustav is so shocked by his presence that he stumbles and falls off the stage to his death. Gustv had many secrets, and the only key to unlocking them is a piece of paper that was sewn into his jacket. There are many who would do anything to learn what that paper contains, and danger faces Mathias at every turn. Mathias's quest ultimately leads him to a sinister toymaker who is missing just one thing that will keep his toys from winding down- a human heart.

Sometimes at a takeaway display when things get quiet and no customers are in the booth, I find a quiet moment to pick up a book off the table and read. Over the course of the day I sampled a number of titles I hadn't yet seen to get a feel for them, but the trouble was, we were selling out of things so quickly, (which is a good problem really) I ended up having to put them all back. Then I noticed The Toymaker. On a table with so few copies left of most of the titles, my eye was caught by the lonely book that hadn't seemed to sell any copies, and I immediately decided to read it and find out why.

The answer? It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or whether or not the story is good. It is- but, the book is thick, the cover is a bit young (they really should have kept the British Cover) and it's just one of those books that needs to be hand-sold to adults who will probably be pretty creeped out by it.

That being said, I actually really liked this book. The author does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere, and while there are no indications that the setting is a real place, it perfectly sets the mood. The descriptions of travelling through ice and snow certainly indicate a winter climate, and it's most likely a Germanic country. It's dark and eerie, and you just know it's not your fairy tale land.

The author's vivid use of language really brings these characters to life, and they are deliciously scary. Dr. Leiter is a perfectly evil villain, and his doll Marguerite is a terrific reminder of the sinister aspect of dolls. Marguerite is a lie-detecting automaton. If a person is telling the truth, she points to a blue card. If it's a lie, she points to red. And did I mention she's never wrong? She is just one of the creations of the "Toymaker", who though rarely seen, is at the center of the novel.

The book moves along quickly and takes many twists and turns that will keep readers turning the pages (it is surprisingly difficult to put down) but it's really violent and scary, and not for the faint of heart. There are bones broken, shootings, stabbings, and a grave-robbery to name a few, but fans of books like A Tale Dark and Grimm will likely eat this up. The publisher recommends it for 10 and up, but I'd say ideally, it's for a precocious 10 or fearless 11 or 12-year-old.

As for what's on the mysterious piece of paper that everybody seems to want so much, and the secrets that Gustav was hiding? To find out, you'll just have to read it yourself!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Down the Mysterly River: A Ripping Boys' Adventure

Max the Wolf, a young cub scout suddenly finds himself wandering through a strange forest with no memory of how he got there.Max, it turns out, is an accomplished young detective, and quickly sets to work trying to figure out where he is and why. Before long, he meets a talking Badger named Banderbrock, who is a fearsome warrior, and McTavish the Monster, a foul-tempered tomcat who is fleeing from a savage hunter and his hounds. They somehow manage to overcome the odds to beat him, and the now party of three escape with their lives. Eventually, they pick up a fourth member- a lovable but dopey bear named Walden. The group hears word of a mysterious wizard who can supposedly shed some light on the mystery, and they set out on a quest to find him,  all the while trying to stay ahead of the Blue Cutters- a savage group of hunters who use their blue swords who recreate the forest's inhabitants into something that more suits their taste.

In his middle-grade debut, Bill Willingham, the creator of the popular graphic novel series Fables, has written an old-fashioned mystery/adventure story of the best kind. Max is intelligent, courageous, and quite level-headed, and he uses logic that would impress Encyclopedia Brown to puzzle out where he is and why.

The supporting characters are equally as impressive, and like Dorthy's troupe in The Wizard of Oz, each has their strengths and weaknesses. Banderbrock is the courageous warrior, and he frequently saves the group from peril. McTavish is selfish and srcastic, but is sharp and clever. Walden is true-hearted and fiercely loyal,a and thinks nothing of putting himself at risk for his friends. In fact, at several points during the novel he becomes gravely wounded, but makes a miraculous recovery at each turn.

The concept of the Blue Cutters may seem a bit of a complicated one for young readers, but they play a tremendous role in the mystery, and clever kids will figure out how what they have to do with Max and his friends. I don't want to explain too much or it will spoil the book, but let's just say it was very cool.

The adventure, once it gets started moves along swiftly, and there is plenty of danger and action to suit a middle-grade audience. There is also a fair amount of violence, but not the same kind of violence that inhabits movies or even books like The Hunger Games. The writing is at times overly descriptive, which might turn-off readers, but this kind of language does lend itself well to being read-aloud. It's also worth mentioning that there are no girls in this story, and few grown-ups, and the focus stays primarily with Max and his friends.

Being one of the "hype books" of the fall, I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. I was frequently reminded of books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Wind in the Willows, and while it lacks the flash of some of the more popular fiction, it's a book well-worth sharing with boys between 8 and 10 years old.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Glow: A Pulse-Pounding Dystopian Thriller

Somewhere in a murkey nebula, two ships are bound for earth, decades into their mission. Fifteen-year-old Waverly lives aboard the Empyrean, and is of the first generation of children conceived in space. The large farming vessle is all she knows, and like most teenagers, she's consumed by friends, family and her handsome boyfriend Kieran, the ship's captain to be. When Kieran unexpectedly proproses, Waverly is thrown for a loop. But before she can make a decision, everything changes.

The Empyrean is attacked by their assumed allies aboard their sister ship New Horizons. Violence errupts, people die before her eyes, and all of the girls aboard the ship are taken to New Horizons. The population of New Horizons has been unable to conceive children, and they need the girls in order to preserve their society. Waverly knows that something isn't right aboard this ship, and is determined to escape. But what she will soon realize is that sometimes the enemies aren't all from the outside.

In this riveting series debut, Amy Kathleen Ryan has created a pulse-pounding and complex world. While initially the good guys and bad guys seem clear cut, as the story progresses, the lines become substaintially more blured. Life aboard the Empyrean is peaceful, and it's what Waverly knows, but lately she finds herself questioning her role. Girls are essentially duty bound to marry and have multiple children to preserve their mission, but despite the urgings of those around her, she isn't sure if she's ready, and if Kieran is who or what she wants.

Kieran is handsome, intelligent, and will someday be the ship's captain. They've grown up together, and it seems entirely natural that they'd end up together. But then there's Seth. Quiet, mysterious Seth, and son of the ship's first officer, and Waverly can't help thinking about him. But before you start thinking that this is a space love triangle, this is where everything gets so wonderfully complicated.

After the attack, the novel really becomes two stories. That of Waverly and the girls, and Kieran and the boys, and neither one is pretty. The girls are immediately met by Pastor Anne Mather, who is the ship's self-proclaimed spiritual leader and captain. Readers quickly discover that Pastor Mather is a dangerous spin-master who has her people and many of the girls believing different stories about what really happened to the Empyrean. The thing is, while her actions seem evil, they weren't entirely without justifcation. Whether or not the end justifies the means is another story, and one with which Waverly wrestles.

Meanwhile, on board the Empyrean, everything takes a very Lord of the Flies kind of turn as the boys try to save their damaged ship, rescue the few adults who are still alive, and keep some semblance of order. Kieran knows the boys are looking for someone to take charge, and he does, but can he fully justify the consequences of his choices?

There is no graphic violence, sex or swearing in this novel, and while the themes are complex, I would have no qualms about giving this to mature students in middle school who are fans of the genre. Book two isn't due out until at least next year, but you certainly won't forget this one in a hurry.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Fifth Rule: An Unforgettable and Intense Read

It's been two years since the incident that changed Reef and Leeza's lives forever. Two years since that angry young man threw the rock off of a bridge, causing an accident that nearly resulted in a young woman's death. Two years since he met Frank Colville, his mentor, and since he started to believe that he could be more than the sum of his parts. Back in Halifax for his mentor's funeral, Reef is flooded with memories, and has no intention of staying in Halifax longer than necessary.

Leeza in the meantime has recovered physically from her accident, and is feeling stifled by her over-protective mother. Regretting her decision to stay at home for university, she finds solace in running, and tries to keep herself from thinking about Reef and what they shared.

Despite Reef's best intentions to stay away, when an eager political crusader wants to close his group home, he finds himself at the centre of controversy. Now Reef will be forced to face his demons once and for all or risk losing everything he's worked for- including the girl he loves.

I've long been a fan of Nova Scotia author Don Aker, and his latest book The Fifth Rule does not disappoint. It is gripping, emotionally complex, and it will stay with you long after you finish reading it. Picking up two years after the end of The First Stone, Aker completes the story of Reef and Leeza with absolute mastery.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and at its centre are themes of betrayal, loss and second chances. Reef made a lot of mistakes, and he's worked hard to prove that he's a different person than the one who threw that rock. It seems like he's succeeding.  Living in Calgary for the last year, Reef has spent everyday regretting his mistake, and working to prevent other kids from making a similar one. Unfortunately, second chances mean little to a politician angling for media coverage, and Reef finds himself doubting himself, and believing everything the media says about him. Maybe he is that bad. Maybe everybody was right about him. Maybe he should just do what everybody expects and let them be right about him. Through all of that, somewhere in the back of his head, he hears Frank's voice telling him that he's proud of him, but is it enough to break through?

Leeza is equally as complex.. Now 19, she knows betrayal well. Her father betrayed her and her sister by leaving them when she was just eight years old. Reef betrayed her by being the same person who caused her accident. She consistently betrays herself by pretending she's fine, and that in spite of everything, she doesn't miss Reef.  In her heart she knows that he's not the boy who threw that rock, but when his words are manipulated by the media, she questions whether she actually knows him at all. It also has begun to occur to her that her life has become about doing what people think she should do and not what she wants to do. For two years since the accident it's been easier to just go with the flow, but

From the first page, this novel grabbed me, and I just couldn't put it down until I finished it.  If you haven't read the first book don't worry. While there's definitely some back story to catch up on, the author recounts enough to catch you up, and it stands solidly on its own. If you have read the first book, you'll find this a satisfying conclusion to Reef and Leeza's story. Some swearing, as well as drinking and Marijuana use make this a more appropriate high school read, but once you read it, you'll be as engaged and invested in it as I was, and you'll be glad you gave it a chance.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Better Than Weird- A Thoughtful and Compelling Read

In this stand alone sequel to The Mealworm Diaries, Anna Kerz revisits Aaron, a character from the previous book, to tell his story. Aaron  is a smart, sweet, gentle, and extremely well-meaning boy. He is extremely smart, and very self-aware, and he knows that those around him think he's weird.  Usually, this doesn't bother him too much because he's got Gran, who has seemingly endless patience for his oddities, and his friend Jeremy from school. Lately, however, there seem to be a lot of things for Aaron to cope with. There's Tufan, the bully at school, there's the news that his dad is coming back for a visit for the first time in the eight years since Aaron's mother died, and that he has a pregnant wife, and there's the news that his beloved Gran is having an operation. But through it all, it's his big heart and his sense of humour that help him to face the challenges that he encounters.

This is a very sweet read, and one with some positive messages. Though not explicitly stated in the text, readers will be able to infer from certain clues that Aaron has some kind of Autism Spectrum Disorder. He generally dislikes being touched, he's often clumsy, and extensive lists help him to make sense of things he has to do. He also has a great deal of trouble reading people, and works hard with the counsellor in his school to understand their facial expressions and fit in better.

Despite his efforts, the road isn't always smooth for Aaron, and I like that the author doesn't gloss over it to create a warm and fuzzy world where everybody just accepts him and accommodates him. The adults surrounding him are flawed. They try their best, but they lose patience, get angry and grumble, and it's an important part of Aaron's emotional growth in learning to understand this. This is particularly important for his new relationship with his father, which is often awkward and uncomfortable. Aaron's friend Jeremy (the featured character in the previous book) is also an interesting foil, and the author has done a nice job of creating a believable dynamic between them. Jeremy likes Aaron, but sometimes he's just a bit too much.

There are many important lessons that Aaron learns throughout the novel, including how to handle a bully, and how to slow himself down and exhibit some patience, and the author handles it sensitively and simply. The book is a fast and easy read, and teachers will find lots to discuss if it's read in a classroom setting.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Eleventh Plague: A Chilling Post Apocalyptic Novel

In an unspecified time in the future, wars have nearly destroyed civilization. A superflu virus has wiped out most of the population, and the United States is in ruins. Twenty years later, those who are left must either create something new, or find a way to survive in this devastated and dangerous landscape.  Fifteen-year-old Stephen travels with his father and his tough ex-marine grandfather. They are scavengers, living by whatever supplies they can find, and they avoid other travellers. When Stephen's grandfather dies, and his father is gravely injured, he is left on his own for the first time. 

A chance encounter leads Stephen to a community called Settler's Landing- a seeming Utopia where they live off the land, the kids go to school, and patriotism still means something. Distrustful of people by nature, Stephen quickly falls in with the town outcast Jenny Tan. As the two grow closer, he learns some unsettling facts about this perfect community, and what results is a conflict that will change everybody's lives forever. 

There are a lot of things to like about this book, but also some things that I disliked about it that keep me from rating it as highly as I would have liked to. The story is believable and chillingly realistic. Since 9/11, the possibility of chemical or viral warfare has become an ever-growing concern, and I have no difficulties picturing it. It reminds me a great deal of Ilsa J. Bick's summer release Ashes, but with a male character. 

Which brings me to the next point that I liked, which is that the protagonist is a teenage boy. So many of the books in this genre feature female characters that it's refreshing to find one that will have appeal to teen boys who are fans of the genre. 

The book is fast-paced and exciting, and teens will race to the end to see where it goes. There is a hint of romance, but that aspect of the story is minor. Jenny has her own reasons for being jaded, and Stephen's distrustful nature draws him to her. I think he eventually would have figured things out for himself, but Jenny really is the accelerant that exposes the flaws of the community in more rapid fashion. When the conflict between Settler's Landing and a neighbouring community reaches a head, it's no surprise that the result is war, and the author does a good job of making a point about how seemingly harmless acts can have devastating consequences. 

The thing I really didn't like about the book was that it felt like it lacked the emotional depth that other books in the genre have. I admire the fact that it's a stand-alone, and that it has a comparatively short page count, but the book suffers for it. There was not enough character development for me, and I just didn't feel satisfied at the end of it. There is a very definite formula that dystopian and post-apocalyptic books follow, and the author has followed it to the letter. There is no real original ground covered here, and if you're looking for a unique spin, you won't find it here.

Despite its flaws, the short length and straightforward storyline makes this a perfect read for reluctant readers, and it's a tame enough read that you can safely hand it to an eleven or twelve-year-old reader without having to worry about sex, language and gratuitous violence. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wonderstruck by Wonderstruck

Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, June 1977 and Hoboken, New Jersey, October 1927: Two stories set fifty years apart, weave back and forth until they converge at the end. The first, Ben's story is told with words. The second, Rose's story, is told entirely in pictures. What do these stories have in common? Most importantly is that both children are deaf. They also both run away, and ultimately end up at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. There is also something else that will link these stories together, but that's up to you to find out for yourself.

When I first saw The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I immediately knew that Brian Selznick was something special. I had never seen any book that was as beautiful or as unique as that, and until Wonderstruck came along last month, I hadn't again.

Being one of those readers who actually reads the acknolwedgement pages, I was particularly struck by a comment that he made about early cinema. Before the "Talkies" as they were often referred to, movies were accessible to both the hearing and non-hearing community. Once the talkies came, an entire community was suddenly cut off from this particular form of entertainment, and although there have been some strides made (like captioning in select theatres and movies), it's amazing to think that 80+ years from when Rose's story begins, it is still largely true.

Rose's story is much like the world she lives in- silent, and entirely visual. There is some text in the illustration, but the author challenges readers to do something that perhaps we don't do enough- really look at what you are seeing. The illustrations are the story, and without a narrator to tell you what you need to know about the character, they become doubly important to pay attention to.

Ben's story is somewhat more straightforwardly told, but is equally as compelling. What develops is the story of a lonely boy who latches onto the idea of finding the father he never knew after his mother's death, and who is learning how to cope in a recently silent world. 

Although the story is largely about deaf culture, it is also about much more than that. With Wonderstruck, Selznick reminds readers how much magic and wonder there actually is to be seen in this world.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Future of Us: An Ingenious & Thought Provoking Read

The year is 1996, and when Josh gives his best friend Emma an AOL disc to use with her new computer, they are excited to try the internet for the first time. As soon as they log on, a Facebook page from 2011 appears, giving them a glimpse into their future. Unfortunately, our lives don't always turn out the we expect them, and Emma quickly starts trying to alter her future. But as both Emma and Josh will learn, it's the choices they make today that determine whether or not they are happy tomorrow.

At some point in our teenage lives, most of us probably had a vision of where we thought we'd be at 30ish. Perhaps you imagined being married to your high school boyfriend/girlfriend, having your dream job, kids and money. (Or some portion of these) Now imagine being handed a crystal ball and discovering that not only don't you have those things, but you are desperately unhappy. What would you do to change it? In Emma's case, she does the most logical thing she can think of- searches for information and tries to make a change at the beginning of the chain. Unfortunately, she doesn't account for the Butterfly Effect, and every tweak she makes not only changes her own future, but other people's as well.

I love this concept, and the combination of Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler really make it work. Told in alternating perspectives between Emma and Josh, the things they see in their futures are extremely revealing, and it's these glimpses that show them what's truly important. Emma and Josh were best friends until a couple of months prior to the beginning of the story, but a misjudgement of Emma's feelings for him led to a terrible miscue, and has made things awkward between them. Josh is embarrassed, Emma is confused, and neither is quite sure what to do next. I found it especially interesting that each time Emma checks into her future she's checking to see whether Josh is still part of her life.

The book also raises an interesting philisophical arguement about how knowing your future affects the decisions you make in your present. In Emma and Josh's case, the answer is yes. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You'll have to read the book and decide that for yourself. At sixteen or seventeen, I'm sure I would have thought differently than I do now. The positive thing for Emma and Josh about their temporary Crystal Ball is that it forces them to think about where they are and what they want in their presents.

In the end, the real message of this book is that expending a lot of energy worrying about our futures is less important than finding a way to be happy in the now. If we can do that, the future will sort itself out.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Home Truths: A Difficult But Essential Read

Fourteen-year-old Brick is counting down the days until he turns 16 and he can finally escape. Escape his father's temper, his self-absorbed mother's indifference, and get as far away as possible. In the meantime, he lets out his frustrations by bullying the kids in his school. Over the summer, Brick accepts Mr. Larkin's offer of work, even though he's been forbidden to "fraternize" with the neighbours. It seems like a good plan- stash away as much money as possible before he leaves, but there's just one problem- who will his dad knock around if he's not there anymore?

This was a difficult book to read, but an extremely powerful and important one. We all know that sadly, that the abuse Brick suffers isn't a freak occurrence. It happens to kids everyday, and far more than we'd like to admit. There are also oddles of statistics about the pattern of abuse, and it continuing with each generation, etc...but I don't think I've ever seen this type of story presented from the bully's point of view.

Brick is a bully, and while I absolutely felt empathy towards him for everything he's got on his shoulders, initially, its hard to like him. He doesn't just bully, but he enjoys making others feel small and scared, and he isn't really sorry for it. There are however a couple of key points about Brick that suggests to readers that there is still hope for him. Firstly, and most importantly is the way he is with his four-year-old sister Cassie. Sure she's a pain, and sure, he's annoyed that he's being forced to watch her for free the entire summer vacation, but he also looks out for her, and does the best he can to protect her from his father.

The regard that other adults seem to have for Brick, and how eager he is to be held in good regard is also telling, adding another dimension to his character. Behind that bullying, nasty kid is someone who just wants to feel like he can do something right, and that maybe he's not as much of a disappointment as his dad thinks. The fact that anyone's opinion actually matters to him is a surprise to Brick, and it causes him to look more closely at what kind of person he's becoming. It's also a shock to him that anyone would be willing to put themselves on the line for him, and it's extremely difficult for him to allow himself to trust anyone or their intentions.

I also really liked the contrast in the different adult characters, and that they didn't come off as being preachy or stereotypical. As terrible and unsympathetic as Brick's parents are, thanks to people like the Larkins, Brick's view of adults starts to change, and he starts to change.

The descriptions of his father's abuse are certainly not sugar-coated, and with every slap and punch that Brick described, I felt physically ill. There are many valuable lessons about strength of character, integrity, courage, and bullying that are important for kids to read, but I'd be careful of giving this to an especially sensitive kid. That being said, the writing is superb, the story is engaging, and it's the kind of book that deserves to be shared and discussed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Scorpio Races: A Fantastical, Lyrical Adventure

At the start of every November, the Scorpio Races are held. Riders fight to hold onto their water horses long enough to finish the race, and for some, the race proves fatal. Sean Kendrick is the three-time returning champion, desperate to win the race in order to finally have enough money to buy the horse he rides. Puck Kendrick, the first girl ever to enter the race, and with huge odds against her, also has reasons to win. The prize money would give her and her brother enough money to pay the debt on their house, and to live a more comfortable life. In a day where nothing is guaranteed, neither are prepared for what is going to happen.

The new book by Maggie Stiefvater  is completely different, but just as incredible as her recently completed Mercy Falls Trilogy. Based on the myth of the Water Horses- an ancient breed of cannibal horses born from the ocean, Maggie has taken this legend and made it completely her own. The writing is what we've come to expect from her. It's lyrical and spellbinding, and so beautiful to read. I found the story a bit slow to get started, but once the true preparation for the race began, the book was impossible to put down.

Sean and Puck were both likeable and emotionally engaging characters. There is no doubt of Sean's complete devotion to the horses he trains, and he can rival the Horse Whisperer in his ability to handle and calm them when no one else can. The race isn't about glory and fame. It isn't really even about the money- except as a means to finally getting his heart's desire.

Puck is fierce, strong and determined, and I loved her doggedness. There were so many obstacles against her, not the least of which was the fact that she had to ride her timid and gentle mare, and the real possibility that she and the horse could be killed in the race. Then there's the fact of her being a girl, and no girl has ever ridden in the Scorpio Races, nor should one (according to the islanders). for her also has nothing to do with glory, and everything to do with keeping her family together.

If there is anything to criticize about this book, and I'll concede that it could have just been me, it's that I didn't feel enough of a distinction between the voices. I frequently lost track of who was narrating, and I would have liked for that to have been a bit more obvious.

Other than that, I loved it, and the author actually succeeded making me bawl my eyes out at the end, and no matter how touching, it takes a lot for me to have that kind of response. I also really liked that the story didn't simply become a romance between the two characters. Yes, a relationship develops between Puck and Sean- that was inevitable, the romance is quite innocent and sweet, and the book is really about much more than that. It's about family bonds, courage, love and the loyalty and devotion that man and animal can have for one another.

The book doesn't release until October, but when it does, make sure to rush to your local book store or library and grab your copy. It's absolutely one you're going to want to read.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Please Ignore Vera Dietz: A Not-So-Ignorable Read

18 year old Vera Dietz has spent most of her life secretly in love with her best friend and next door neighbour Charlie Kahn. Over the years, she's learned a lot about him and kept his secrets- even after he betrays her and ruins everything.  When Charlie dies under mysterious circumstances, Vera is racked with grief and guilt. She knows more about what happened that night than anybody, but does she have the courage to come forward with what she knows and clear his name?

I've been hearing about this book for quite some time. It was recommended in an SLJ YA Fic webinar, it won a Printz-Honor, and it's been all over the list-servs. I'd been meaning to read it, but other books just kept getting in the way. Finally, I picked it up, and I couldn't put it down.

The story is narrated primarily by Vera, who is smart, witty, and extremely likeable. She does well in school, holds down a full-time job at Pagoda Pizza, and is essentially a down-to-earth, responsible kid. Except for the fact that she's drinking a bit too much, having a questionable romance with an older co-worker, and she's she's keeping an important secret about her best-friend Charlie's death that's eating her up inside. Oh yes- and she's being haunted by numerous Charlie's who won't leave her alone until she clears his name. You might be wondering how a girl with all of these problems can possibly be described as responsible and likeable, but trust me- once you start reading, you'll get it. Other narrators include "The Dead Kid" (Charlie), Vera's Dad and The Pagoda (a former country club and popular "parking" spot for local teens), who all offer additional insight into Vera.

The thing I love most about these additonal voices was how unique and unusual they are.  It's not often that an inatimate object offers its perspective, and you might think it would be a bit strange, but it works. The Pagoda has been around for decades, and it's a lot like that wise old town member who just knows everybody and everything. Of all the voices, it's the most objective, and the most detached, and it's the only one without a vested interest in Vera. Charlie, who speaks posthumously, is watching over Vera, and trying to get her to clear his name. Through flashbacks, readers will get a sense of Charlie's life up until he died, and will understand how and why his friendship with Vera went so wrong.

Vera's dad is also a complex character, and the author really explores how being an extremely young and single father has impacted the way they interact. Vera's mom is like the big elephant in the room. She left when Vera was 12, and neither of them have ever gotten over it or discussed it. In fact, his whole philosphy is ignore, ignore, ignore, thinking somehow that if he doesn't acknowledge something then it will go away. He deals with life by making flow charts, and he is doing his best to try and help Vera avoid making the same mistakes that he did.

In the midst of all of the drama, there is also still a big mystery- what actually happened on the night that Charlie died? Right off the bat, we learn that whatever happened, most people believe that Charlie did it. But he didn't, and Vera is the only one who knows what really happened, but that won't become clear until the end of the novel, and the author masterfully teases readers with little snippets of information before all eventually is explained.

I really can't recommend this book enough. It's quirky, clever and highly original, not to mention well-written. From reading the plot summary, it might sound like it's a dark and depressing novel, but it isn't nearly as dark as you might think. There are some heavy issues being covered there, but there are also comical moments to lighten the mood. Some mature content such as drinking, sex, and abuse push this to the high school end of the YA spectrum, but it's the kind of book that I know teen readers will love.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Waiting For the Magic: A heartwarming & enchanting story

When William's father leaves, his mother takes him and his sister to the local animal shelter, seeking to fill the void created by his absence. Instead of just one animal, they adopt 4 dogs and a cat. As if by magic, four-year-old Elinor can understand and talk to the animals. Will would like to experience the magic for himself, but can he be as brave and as strong as he needs to be to believe?

Patricia MacLachlan has a really wonderful way with words, and this book is further demonstration of her talent. What I love most about her writing is that she conveys complex ideas with simple and sparing language, and there's no extra padding.

More than just talking animals, the pets (mostly the dogs) act as a kind of chorus, frequently interrupting Will's narrative to provide commentary on the things he doesn't tell you. The pets are wise, thoughtful and funny, and at first, only Elinor can understand them. This, according to the dogs, is because she's four, and four-year-olds understand everything.

As four-year-olds tend to be, Elinor is a little sponge, and she absorbs, and acts on what she sees and hears. I couldn't help but smile at her ongoing list of bad "woods" as she calls them, and how quickly she picks up on the idea that her father is flawed. When he finally calls to speak to them, doesn't hesitate to tell him off, and she has a kind of matter-of-fact way about her.

Will is grieving for his father, but pushes the hurt deep down inside of him and doesn't talk about it so he won't upset his mother or sister.  In fact, nobody is talking about it at all, and only the dogs understand what's really going on.

There are some very funny moments, and some very serious moments. There were parts that made me laugh out loud, and yes- points in the story where I was moved to tears. It really is a special read, and I liken it to books like Eggs by Jerry Spinelli or Laurel Snyder's new book Bigger Than a Breadbox but for a slightly younger audience.

My only criticism of this novel is that it's one of those books that is difficult to place. The cover illustration and the format suggest a book for early readers (7-9 years old) but it just feels a bit too sophisticated to be properly read and understood by kids that young. The language is lyrical and poetic, and whether you read it on your own, or read it with kids, you will come away from it being thoroughly enchanted.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Variant: A Sci-Fi Thrill-Ride

Benson Fisher thought that Maxwell Academy would be the answer to all of his problems. A Foster Kid, bounced from home to home, he's looking forward to attending a good school where he can make friends, study, and participate in extra-curricular activities. It sounds perfect right? WRONG! What Benson finds when he arrives is a building surrounded by a razor-wire fence from which nobody ever leaves. A place run entirely by students divided into three factions. A place where breaking the rules equals death. When Benson stumbles on the real secret behind the school, he realizes that escape- his best chance for survival- may just be impossible.

The world of Maxwell Academy is combination of Lord of the Flies, Maze Runner, and the Escape From Furnace series. Run entirely by the students, the only thing they know is that the creators of the school are always watching, and nobody comes back from detention. Benson knows that something strange is going on and constantly thinks about escape, but he's conflicted. As part of the Variant Faction, he starts making friends and feeling like he fits in somewhere. On the other hand, there is a lot about Maxwell that doesn't make sense, and Benson's got more questions than answers. (As will the readers) Who is actually behind Maxwell Academy, and what is its purpose? What happens to the students who get detention? Are they really killed as the others believe? And most importantly, what is it that everyone's so afraid of, and why doesn't anybody ever manage to escape?

WOW! It's rare that a book can keep surprising me to the last page, but Robison Wells managed to do just that.  The atmosphere is tense, creepy, and unsettling, and  just when you think you've figured something out, Wells throws in another twist. And then, when you think you finally know where the story is going,  it takes another crazy turn. It's like a perpetually changing maze that's impossible to map, and yet, it all makes sense and it works. It's fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat good, and boys in particular are going to eat this up. Not only does it end on a cliff-hanger, but it ends with another twist that I'm positive you won't see coming!
I only regret that the pub date isn't until October, because it means that much longer a wait for book two in this amazing new series.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Candymakers: A Sweet & Satisfying Middle Grade Read

In the town of Spring Haven, four twelve-year-olds have been selected to compete in a national candy-making contest to create the most scrumptious candy in the country. There is Logan, the candy maker's son, who has spent most of his life sheltered inside the factory, and worries about whether or not he has what it takes to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps and win. Next is Miles- an unusual boy who is allergic to seemingly everything, and has an odd fascination with the afterlife. Daisey is a perky and cheerful girl who can pull taffy like it's a feather. And finally, there is Phillp- an over-achieving, suit-wearing boy who is always scribbling in a secret notebook. Each of them has their own reasons for being there, but as readers will discover, they are not what they would expect.

Wendy Mass is one of my favourite middle grade authors, and I always make a point of reading her new books when they come out. I've yet to be disappointed. She's one of those writers who really understands what being a tween (11-12-13) is like, and perfectly captures that in her books.

The Candymakers alternates between the four perspectives of the different kids, but with a third person narrator. I really enjoyed the third person in this case, because the narrator was able to provide a wider insight into the characters than first person would have. Wendy Mass begins the book with Logan's story, but in an interesting twist, warns readers to pay close attention to what he doesn't tell you in his narrative. This ends up being sound advice, because as it turns out, there is a great deal that these characters aren't telling readers but is revealed through the observations of the other characters.

The characters in this book are wonderful. They are intelligent, talented,  multi-faceted, vulnerable and mysterious, and are connected in unexpected ways. I also loved how they bonded with each other and developed a genuine friendship. Regardless of who they are, or where they came from, what they each needed most was the one thing none of them seemed to have- a friend.

There are several mysteries that unfold over the course of the story, and only those who pay close attention will figure out how all of the pieces fit together. Readers will also enjoy imagining themselves in the contest around all of those sweet confections, and dreaming up their own special candy in the process.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What is Real: An Edgy & Surreal Teen Read

Seventeen-year-old Dex Pratt, a star basketball player and budding filmmaker has had his life turned upside down. His mother has re-married, his father tried to commit suicide, failed and is wheelchair bound, and now Dex has had to move back to his small B.C. town to care for him. When he gets there, he finds everything has changed beyond recognition. Gone is the house, the cars, the fancy bikes and the toys. They've been replaced with a rotting rented house on the back of a cornfield. His father too has changed. He's given up his law practice, and instead of defending marijuana growers, he has become one. Unable to cope, Dex smokes himself into a state of surrealism, and begins to lose touch with reality, causing him to finally question: What is real?

Firstly, I'll say I love Karen Rivers' YA material, and I don't think I've read something that makes use of this kind of storytelling recently. Told from Dex's point of view, he narrates with blunt, stream-of-conciousness style, often interrupting with flashback movie scenes from a director's perspective. The flashbacks fill in the details of what Dex doesn't tell you, but his own perceptions of reality and fantasy are so blurred, it can be difficult to tell whether or not it is true. In fact Dex is the epitome of the unreliable narrator, frequently contradicting himself or outright lying. What I find interesting is that they are directed more at Dex himself than the reader. I got the sense that Dex was constantly revising and reconstructing his life, trying to form it into a believable fiction that he can live with. There are a lot of things that Dex will tell you, and a lot of things he won't, and making sense of how the pieces fit together is part of the challenge of this book

The secondary characters are far less developed, but since Dex is telling the story, I'm ok with this.  These people may or may not even exist, and if they do, readers only see them through a drug-induced distored view. Yes, they all impact his life in different ways good and bad, but they are more like the blurred images of people that we sometimes see in our dreams than concrete characters.

This isn't an easy book to read in the literal or emotional sense. Time jumps around in Dex's mind, and therefore isn't a linear plot. There is also liberal drug use and a great deal of swearing, which makes it more ideal for older teen readers. Emotionally, Karen Rivers challenges readers to think about their own perceptions of reality, to think about the validity and reliabilty of memory, and most of all, to ask the question that makes up the title of this book- what is real?

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Unwanteds: A Magical Middle-Grade Debut

Every year in the Quill, 13-year-olds are sorted into three categories: Wanted, Necessary, and Unwanted. Naturally, Wanteds get the education, the plum jobs, and money. Necessary's get no special treatment, but are the working class, doing all of the lowly jobs that need to get done. And then there are the Unwanteds. Unwanteds are creative and artistic- qualities which have no value to the Quill society, and are sent to a special farm for elimination. Alex and Aaron are twins. Straight-laced Aaron is classified as Wanted, and immediately rises to the top. Alex on the other hand is Unwanted, and is marked for elimination.

Upon arrival at the "Death Farm", Alex discovers an amazing secret. The farm is actually a magical mirage, and behind it lies a magical world called Artime. In Artime, children are encouraged to foster their creative talents, and are sorted into disciplines to cultivate their magical abilities.

Life in Artime is almost perfect. Alex quickly makes friends, and everything he could ever imagine is at his fingertips. But- it's highly unusual for twins to be separated, and Alex's quest to be reunited with his brother results in a magical battle for the survival of Artime, and forces them both to choose sides once and for all.

In her middle-grade debut, Lisa McMann has created a rich, and vivid magical world that young readers will appreciate and enjoy. The world of Quill is literally all work and no play. There is no place for creativity or imagination, and life is colourless and strictly monitored by the government to keep it that way Inspired by the ongoing cuts being made to school arts programs around the U.S, the Quill is an extreme example of what life would be like without the arts.

Artime, on the other hand nearly rivals Hogwarts as a magical school for children, and I was reminded of Harry Potter several times while reading it. Children take only subjects that interest them, everything they can dream of is available to them, and entire sections of the world only exist when they are needed to save room. Unlike in Harry Potter, however, the students don't immediately begin magical training- first they have to find their artistic aptitude, as this is where the magic comes from. This was an element of the story that I particularly enjoyed, and kids will love the idea of creating weapons out of origami or reciting a Shakespearian soliloquy to put your opponent to sleep. But don't worry- even though there is ultimately a war, the violence is nominal and not especially scary.

The character of Alex is well-developed, and like Harry Potter, he is a boy who does not fit into his existing world, but really finds himself in his magical surroundings. The path isn't easy, however, and he will experience ups and downs with his new friends as most children do. When it seems like his friends are succeeding and leaving him behind, he becomes sullen and jealous, and increasingly brooding. McMann also charmingly deals with the subject of first crushes, and when one of the girls starts playing tricks on him, he doesn't realize that it's because she likes him- or that he likes her too. I also liked the twin aspect of the book (I so wanted to be a twin when I was a kid) and the connection that Alex just can't seem to let go of. Aaron also has a great deal more depth to him than what initially is obvious, and while he's not as noble-hearted as Alex, he's not purely evil either.

The publisher is referring to this as a dystopian novel, and to some degree it is, but I'd push it more towards dystopian fantasy or fantasy with dystopian elements. The plot moves quickly, the writing is solid, and as either a gentle introduction to the genre, or as a fantastical read for Harry Potter fans, The Unwanteds will absolutely hit all the right notes with its readers. Recommended for ages 9+.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Happened to Serenity- A Solid Early Teen Dystopia

In a not-so-distant future, 15-year-old Katherine lives under strict rule with her parents and younger brother in a Paternalistic society. Founded after the "Ecological Revolution" in the 1970's that made the rest of the world uninhabitable. Life in the Community is pretty simple. Everybody does their part, puts the community first, and the pursuit of knowledge and asking of questions is forbidden. When Serenity, her best friend's little sister disappears, Katherine is determined to find out what happened to her, whatever the cost.

In a crowded YA dystopian field, author P.J. Collins has managed to still create something original and engaging, if not completely unpredictable. Katherine is a typical teen. She's intelligent, compassionate, and worries about what the future has in store for her. Will she be matched with the boy she likes? Will she be assigned a good life role? Her only fault, ironically is her thirst for knowledge, and there are consequences for her inquisitiveness.

Though the story is set only a decade into the future, the community is extremely old fashioned and plain. Technology is absent from all homes, and farming is the primary industry. They churn their own butter, chop their own wood, and have no media except a device called "The Remote" which broadcasts community news.   As I read this, I was reminded of Margaret Peterson Haddix's book "Running Out of Time", and those familiar with the book will see the similarities.

The society is well thought out and believable, but when the story necessarily moves to the real world, I felt like the story lost credibility. Things seemed to work out a bit too quickly and conveniently, and I just couldn't buy it. While the author does indicate that Katherine's parents live somewhat on the edge of the rules, I had to question why it seemed like nobody else had any questions about their world. The community was only about 40 some odd years old, and most of the adults were young children when they were brought there. Is it really likely that they all fell in line with the history so easily? Maybe, but it just felt a bit too easy to me.

Being that it has little romance, and a low degree of complexity, I can't see older teens being too interested, but young teens who are just getting into the genre should enjoy it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wildwood: A New Modern Classic

Prue McKeel's life is ordinary. She lives in Portland, Oregon where it rains a lot. She has a mother and a father and a baby brother. Ordinary. At least until her brother is abducted by a flock of crows. And so begins an adventure that will take Prue and her friend Curtis deep into the Impassable Wilderness. There they uncover a secret world in the midst of violent upheaval, a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics and powerful figures iwth the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something  much bigger as the two friends find themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness.

Colin Meloy, lead singer of the Decemberists has hit a home run with his debut middle-grade fantasy novel. Prue and Curtis are wonderful characters, and I love the way that Curtis transforms in her eyes from being a pesty, and annoying boy from school to a true friend worth fighting for. It was quite delightful to see a story that focuses on a boy-girl friendship and not crushes or dating, and have it work. I also loved that Prue is a strong girl, and she figures out ways to get herself out of trouble, and never needs rescuing.
Early reviews have compared this to Narnia, and I have to admit, that while I was reading, I did see echoes of Narnia. The Governess reminded me very much of the White Witch from the Narnia books, and at times, Curtis and Prue made me think of Edmund and Lucy. Curtis is a bit of an outsider, and he eagerly laps up the praise and attention he receives from the Governess. While I immediately suspected that her motives were less than pure, that might just have been my familiarity with Narnia that made me suspicious.

Prue is spunky, courageous, and quite a sensible girl. When her brother is snatched by the crows, she wastes no time in making the decision to go after him through the Impassible Wilderness, even though it should have been impossible. Once through the woods, she encounters a bureacracy the likes of which would put any city to shame, has a meeting with a stately owl who is prince of the avains, and gets drawn into a revolution between the two ends of this magical world. Curtis is awkward and shy, but fiercely loyal, When he's given the opportunity to leave Wildwood, he chooses to stay and fight with his new friends.

Adding some comic relief to the story are a merry band of bandits, and a pretty clueless mouse. The bandits definitely draw from Robin Hood in that they only steal from the rich, and though they do drink and smoke, they are courageous, loyal and endearing. Integrity, loyalty and courage are key themes in this story, as well as the importance and strength of family bonds.

Aside from great charcters and a fast-moving story, I liked the fact that the story took place in real time. For about the first third, once they went into the woods, I waited for time to stop, or to discover that it moved differently there, but Meloy never resorted to using that device. I also liked the subtle environmental messages in the book about connecting to and protecting nature.

The language is sophisticated and lyrical, and it's another book that really begs to be read aloud. The publisher suggests 8-12 as a reading level, but I'd suggest 10 and up for independent reading due to its length and complex storyline. Planned as a fantasy trilogy, the first book works well as a stand-alone, but I am absolutely looking forward to seeing what further adventures lie in store for Prue and Curtis.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

All Good Children- A Chilling Dystopian Read

In the middle of the 21st century, the privileged children of New Middle Town are all about to receive a special treatment that turns them into well-mannered, obedient, model citizens. Seventeen-year-old Max, a prankster, graffitti-artist and misfit observes the changes with increascing concern. The "treatment" seems to be turning the kids into zombies, sapping them of creativity, initiative, and individuality, and his sister Ally is a target for the treatment. He and his best-friend Dallas escape the treatment, but must pretend to be zombies while they watch their world decay. When Max's family decides to flee New Middletown and head for the border, taking Dallas with them, Max's creativity becomes an unexpected bonus rather than a liability.

The world of New Middletown is fascinating, and eerily easy to imagine.  Children are genetically engineered, and even within the engineered children, there are different classes. The extremely wealthy keep mixing cocktails until they create the most superior product, and it's no coincidence that the most superior children are exempt from the treatments. The financial crisis has become so bad that only the elite own homes and send their children to academic schools, and the rest live in permanently parked cars.

I loved that the narrator is a guy, and an authentic one. He's not a bad kid. but he's intelligent, witty and something of a smart-aleck. He does well in school without having to try to hard, he is consumed by art, and he is a sharp observer of his universe. I also loved the personality of his little sister Ally. She is a typical six-year-old- curious, compassionate, and completely innocent, and Max does his best to protect her from drawing attention. Their mother, a nurse, is aware of the treatments, but is virtually helpless to do anything to stop them. In fact, her passivity is a point of contention between her and Max, who is angry at her for being afraid, and not understanding that they have to escape.

While adults may sigh wistfully at the idea of rowdy teens into perfect children, teens will identify with the oppresiveness and pressures of Max's society. At what cost comes success? Are creativity and individuality a problem or an assest, and do we punish or reward free thinkers?

Poised for a possible sequel, this new novel from Canadian author Catherine Austen is all the things a good dystopian should be. It's plausible, frightening, and thought-provoking, and readers won't want to put it down.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn & Eona: The Last Dragoneye: YA Dragon Fantasy

In the first book of this epic duology, readers are introduced to Eon- a physically handicapped twelve-year-old boy, who has been training most of his life to become a Dragoneye- an apprentice to one of the twelve energy dragons that maintain balance and harmony in the kingdom. But Eon has a secret- he is actually Eona- a sixteen-year-old girl, who must never be exposed. The practice of dragon magic is forbidden in this kingdom, and she will face a terrible death if she's found out.

After the sword ceremony, Eon's affinity with the dragons pulls him into the trecherous world of the imperial court where he will have to navigate the politics of the court, keep his true identity hidden, and ultimately choose sides in the battle that is soon to come.

Eona picks up shortly after the end of the first book. The powerful and dangerous Lord Sethon has claimed the emperor's throne, killing the remaining heirs, dividing the kingdom and pulling it into battle. The true heir Lord Kygo lives hidden in safety, but if the young Pearl Emperor is to claim his rightful throne, he will need Eona's power. The only trouble is, she is untrained and her magic is wild, posing a threat to those around her. To learn its proper use, she will need the help of the traitorous Lord Ido. But can he be trusted long enough to give her what he needs? Romance and adventure blend in this lip-biting conclusion to the duology.

I absolutely LOVED this duology. It's quite a refreshing change to read something that begins and ends in two books, and it could easily have been a single epic novel. The writing is excellent, the story is complex, and in a crowded field of YA fantasy, they stand out as something truly special.

The setting is a time hundreds of years ago in a land that is a combination of Ancient China and Japan, and many aspects of these ancient cultures are drawn upon to create this story. Dragons are common symbols in Asian culture, and you can read more about her research and what the energy dragons are drawn from on her website www.alisongoodman.com.au.  The world is vividly drawn and completely engrossing, and it doesn't take long before you get swept away by it.

Alsion Goodman's characters are also incredible. They are complex, complicated, and they all make mistakes. Their relationship to one another and to the court is far from simple, and none are free to simply act upon their will. Eon, who has lived as a crippled boy most of her life is adjusting to being female, and is unsure how to act. She knows she has feelings for Kygo, and that he has for her, but again, it isn't that simple. He needs her power to unseat Sethon and take his place as ruler, and she worries that he can't separate the two. Lady Dela is a twin-soul- both woman and man, who lives as a female but is not accepted by the court, and Ryko is one of Lord Kygo's men, in love with Lady Dela but afraid that he has nothing to offer.

And then there is Ido. A villain to the core it would seem, but what if he's not? There's always something in the back of your mind shouting to Eona not to trust him, but then Goodman manages to create sympathy for him and make you wonder if redemption is possible. Eona is physically drawn to him, and an interesting love triangle forms, framed by a similar triangle 500 years prior with Eona's ancestor.

There is political intrigue, action, romance and many twists and turns to these novels, and they reminded me of Megan Whelan Turner's The Queen's Thief series in many aspects. There is a great deal of moral and political conflict, and you'll be biting your nails as you wait to see where Goodman is taking you.

They aren't easy to read, but fans of Kristen Cashore and Tamora Pierce will absolutely want to add these to their shelves and they won't be disappointed.

Highly recommended for 12 and up.

Monday, July 4, 2011

True Blue: An Engaging and Gripping Read

Casey, “Preying Mantis” has always known she was going to be an entomologist. And what about Jess? When Jess became a runner, Casey nicknamed her “Dragonfly.” The pair have been best friends forever, but when Casey is arrested for murder, the whole town takes sides, and Jess finds herself the centre of attention. Without Casey, Jess feels left behind, but will she find the courage to stand by her friend when she needs her the most?

With her new book, True Blue, (releasing in August from new publisher Pajama Press) Deborah Ellis departs from her usual fare to create a complex psychological story. Jess and Casey have always been inseperable, and when Casey is arrested for the murder of one of their summer campers, Jess can hardly believe it. In fact, she's so certain that it will all turn out to be a mistake, when her mother springs into action, Jess does nothing, and continues to do nothing, even as Casey's situation becomes more dire.

At first glance, it would be easy to dislike Jess for not supporting her friend, but what Deborah Ellis so skillfully illustrates, taking the moral high road is never as easy at it seems.
Casey is all anyone talks about in town, and it seems like they've already tried and convicted her before she's even gone to trial. Everyone knows that Jess and Casey are best friends, and Jess suddenly finds herself the centre of unwanted attention. At the same time, she begins to enjoy some newfound popularity, and feelings of resentment for Casey bubble to the surface. Maybe Casey was holding her back all along, and now that she's alone, she can finally be part of the crowd.  While part of her is suspicious of their motives, some part of her also enjoys belonging, and she ignores the inevitable.

There's a lot going on in Jess' head, and with a silent father and a mother who is quickly spiraling back into mental illness, she finds herself completely alone, and unable to bring herself to do what she knows is right. No matter what she does, there is no winning for her, and her awareness of this makes her an extremely interesting and complex character.

What most appealed to me about the book was that there is never that dramatic moment where the main character stands up in front of everybody and makes the speech that turns the tide and there are no happily ever afters. Whether or not Casey was guilty is largely irrelevant. What's more important is the impact of the accusation itself, and the lives that are irrevocably changed by it.

This is a fast-paced and thought-provoking read, and one that will generate lots of interesting questions for discussion both in and out of the classroom for tweens and teens.

Highly recommended 12 years and up.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sisterhood Everlasting: A Bittersweet Reunion

In the fifth book of the Sisterhood series, Ann Brashares fast-forwards 10 years to the summer before the "September" girls' 30th birthdays. Life in many ways has given each of them what they wanted, but the one thing that's missing from their lives is the closeness they shared as teenagers. When Tibby, now living in Australia sends them each a plane ticket to Greece for a reunion, they eagerly accept, anxious to renew their friendships. What they find when they get there changes their lives forever, and helps each of them to find the courage to go after what they want, and not to settle for what they have.

When I discovered that there was going to be another Sisterhood book,  I was surprised and delighted to have the opportunity to revisit these girls who felt so much like my friends, but wondered what could be left to say when the fourth book was such a perfect finale to the series.

One of the things that made this book work so well is that although Ann Brahares picks up 10 years after the end of the last book, she resists the urge to summarize in detail the last 10 years, and offers readers only the important details as they relate to their present. If you had any illusions that they all were living happily ever after, and that all of their dreams had come true, think again. For as much as they've tried to hold onto their closeness, their lives have split and their friendship drifted- even more so when Tibby inexplicably seemed to deliberately dissapear from their lives.

I think the idea of the drifting friendships is what resonated most with me in this novel. Over the years, I've had a few close girlfriends, and as the years go by, it becomes more difficult to keep the friendships going. Life just gets in the way, and as much as you want to hang on to those relationships and return to that period of closeness, sometimes it just doesn't happen. What makes the Sisterhood different is that as different paths as they'd all taken, their friendship was the missing piece in each of their lives. They needed a reason to find their way back to one another, and Tibby's invitation gave them the push they needed.

I also loved the fact that they were questioning their lives and their choices. It's easy to get stuck in a rut where you know you want something more or something different, but you don't know how to get past it because you're following the path you think you're supposed to, and not necessarily the right one.

The novel is emotionally complex, layered and a wonderful reunion with long-lost friends.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Liesl and Po: An Enchanting Fairy Tale Classic

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Liesl. Although her mother died when she was quite young, she and her father had a wonderful and happy life. Then her father re-married, and everything changed. Her Stepmother was a mean and cruel woman who locked Liesl in the attic when her father became ill, and refused to allow her to say goodbye. Grieving and lonely, Liesl is surprised one night by a ghost named Po. The pair quickly become friends, and with Po's help, Liesl escapes from the attic and embarks on a journey to bury her father's ashes beside her mother at the cozy cottage where they had been so happy together.

Along the way, Liesl accidentally comes into possession of a box of powerful magic, and finds herself pursued by the alchemist who created it, her evil stepmother, and a host of other characters who all want what she possesses.

First of all, WOW! Seriously WOW! I love Lauren Oliver's YA work, but her new middle-grade novel (releasing in September from HarperCollins) is absolutely ineffable.  Reminiscent of Dickensian London, the world that Liesl inhabits is cold and colourless with few bright spots. Liesl herself is a ghostly looking child, and since the death of her father three days before the start of the book, the colour that once existed in her drawings seems to have left her as well.

She is the kind of character you want to reach out and hug, and her lonlieness is palpable. Po, neither girl nor boy (gender is vague on "The Other Side") appears just at the moment Liesl most needs a friend, and helps her to get the closure she needs in order to heal. The adults of the piece are mostly villians, and they are as wicked as the most wicked of fairy tale characters. Only the bumbling security guard has any goodness in him, and he is pure of heart and close to childlike himself.

At its most basic, this story is a story about overcoming grief, and for anyone who has ever lost someone or something that they loved, the book offers gentle and reassuring messages about death. But more than that,  it is a story about courage, hope, friendship and love, and about bringing the colour back into your world when things are at their most grey and lonely. 

The design is beautiful and the writing lyrical, and this is a story that just begs to be read aloud and treasured.  This book will quietly work its way into your heart until you reach the end, and realize that it is magical in itself.