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, 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.