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.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tween Tuesday: Hero's Guide to Saving the Kingdom & Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle

Once upon a time there were four princes- Gustav, Frederic, Duncan, and Liam. These are the princes who saved Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty respectively, but thanks to the lousy bards who wrote the stories, they are known only as "Prince Charming". That, however is about to change. Rejected by their princesses and kicked out of their castles, the princes stumble upon an evil plot that could endanger each of their kingdoms. Now it's up to the princes to overcome their shortcomings and band together to take on evil witches, dragons and other terrors to become the heroes nobody thought they could be.

We all know how these stories are supposed to go. The princess, imprisoned in a tower by a witch, placed under a sleeping spell, poisoned by an apple, or locked up by an evil step-mother is rescued by the prince (aka Prince Charming) and they live happily ever after. Right? WRONG! At least wrong according to debut author Christopher Healey, who takes the familiar tales and spins them on their ears!

Fractured fairy tales as we call them are not new- and especially not in Middle-Grade, and yet, Christopher Healey has managed to spin something original and entertaining in his new fairy tale series. The princes in these stories are far from charming. They are flawed, bumbling, insecure, and generally not heroic, while the princesses are intelligent, competent, and adventurous.

First there's Gustav- Rapunzel's Prince. As far as princes go, he's no slouch, but he lives in the shadow of his 16 brothers who are larger and more heroic than he is, and as a result, he's got something of an inferiority complex. When his botched attempt to rescue Rapunzel results in her rescuing him, Gustav throws a tantrum and storms off, and Rapunzel decides to pursue a career as a healer.

Frederic, (Cinderella's Prince) has grown up sheltered and protected, and can't even cope with a hang-nail. These traits do not sit well with Ella, who after years of servitude in her step-mother's home is anxious for adventure.

Duncan, Snow's prince, is a sweet and hapless character who not only believes in, but relies on "magical luck" to get him through the stickiest of situations. Snow White is fond of him, but also finds him somewhat tiresome, and urges him to get out of the castle and go for a walk. (Let's just say this wasn't the best of ideas).

Finally there's Liam. He's handsome and heroic, and was promised to Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) at three years old. When he meets her, he's dismayed to discover that she's a spoiled, nasty creature, and he decides he'd rather not marry her. But Briar Rose isn't standing for this, and sets out to make him as unheroic as possible.

Somehow, our four heroes manage to find each other, and they decide to call themselves the "League of Princes". Once this happens, much hilarity ensues, and readers of all ages will be thoroughly entertained. The writing is clever and funny, and I found myself laughing out loud (or grinning widely) throughout the novel.

I loved it for the adventure, for the humour, and for the originality, and I couldn't put it down. I also like how these extremely flawed and human characters learn how to play to their strengths- even when those strengths are perceived as weaknesses. They learn to be brave (even when they're not), to work together (even when they're used to going it alone), and most importantly, how to be a friend (even when he is being an idiot and annoying the heck out of you).

A colourful cast of supporting fairy tale characters- including a colony of trolls all named "Troll", an extremely well-mannered giant, and a terrifying bandit king (well-not really, but you'll have to read it to see why) add an extra layer of fun to the novel, and fit beautifully into this fairy tale world.

Book 2 (set to release April 30) picks up approximately a year after the first book ends, and reunites the League of Princes for another quest. I won't say too much about the plot because I don't want to spoil it, but fans of the first book will be pleased to join their favourite fairy tale characters in another crazy adventure. Having read books 1 & 2 consecutively, it's going to be an extremely long wait for book 3, where we (hopefully) get to see what kind of happily-ever-after lies in store for these characters.

Read-aloud, or read-alone, these stories are perfect for tween readers, and for anyone who still enjoys hearing about what happened "Once Upon a Time".

Monday, March 18, 2013

Middle Grade Monday: Lawless by Jeffrey Salane

12-year-old M has had an unsual education. Her homeschooling has given her a firm grasp on reading, writing, and how to escape from any room. Little did she know that this unusal education would prepare her to become a student at the Lawless school- a prestigious academy for the children of criminal masterminds.

As M navigates her way through the various criminal cliques,she stands out so much that she gets invited to join the secret society of the Masters. But when her intiation takes her off campus for a real-life art heist, M is forced to question which side she's really on.

In an era of Wimpy Kid clones and Harry Potter wannabees, it's a refreshing change to read a middle-grade novel that is not only a full-on adventure, but one which features an exceptionally unique and intelligent heroine.

M, (and no, this is not short for anything) whose father died in an accident when she was younger, has grown up with a series of tutors and a frequently absent mother. Her studies have been a bit unconventional, to say the least, but she enjoys her studies, and is well-versed in art, nature, and the art of escape.

It doesn't take long before the action begins, and M finds herself being chased by a gang of Fulbrights (enemies of Lalwess), having to pilot a plane (which is difficult since she's afraid of flying), and figuring out a way to break into her first class. (And making quite the entrance.)
The novel is fast-paced, and full of mystery and intrigue. M's time at Lawless includes escaping from a room called "The Box", planning a theft, and surviving her intiation into the school's secret society.

What's so appealing about M is that despite her many talents, she's still a vulnerable kid who wants to fit in. Her world is literally flipped upside down in an instant when she goes to Lawless, and having had substantially less preparation for the school than the other students, she has to rely on her wits and her skills to help her navigate the challenges being thrown at her. Not everybody likes her, and she certainly encounters bullies and mean girls at the school, but she learns how to be part of a team, and what it means to have friends who are loyal to you, and to be loyal to them in turn.

This is a novel of self-discovery, of family (and family secrets), mystery and humour. The characters and the story are well-developed, the villains are villainously bad, and while this story does conclude, there are still a few loose ends that will leave readers anticpating the second book in the series.

The main character is a girl, but shouldn't be classified as girly. Boys and girls will equally enjoy it, and it's a perfect novel for kids who have enjoyed other series such as H.I.V.E. and Mysterious Benedict Society.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Middle Grade Monday: Gordon Korman's UNGIFTED

Donovan Curtis is definitely NOT what you'd call gifted. Unless you're referring to his trouble-making ability, at which he excels. So when Donovan accidentally causes a disaster that nearly destroys the school gym, he's certain he's gone to far. Thanks to a mix-up by a school administrator, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction- a school for the gifted. Donovan knows that it is only a matter of time before they figure out he doesn't belong but until then, it's the perfect place to hide out. But after an ongoing experiment with a live (and pregnant) sister, a dramatic school dance, and an astonishing come-from-behind robot victory, it turns out that Donovan's "gifts" may be exactly what the students at ASD needed.

I am a total Gordon Korman fan. Ever since he stood up in my sixth-grade assembly and pointed out the teacher who assigned him the writing project that became Macdonald Hall, I have religiously read and laughed at all of his books. Anyone who is familiar with his work knows that he's one of the best when it comes to zany, madcap adventures for middle-grade-  stories that appeal to the mischief-maker in all of us, and make us laugh until our sides hurt.

What I didn't expect, and was pleasantly surprised to discover about Ungifted, is that it is not only funny, but that it has depth- enough that it easily made my Canadian Library Association Book of the Year For Children Award committee's shortlist, and was a favourite with all of us.

Donovan is a trouble-maker- pure and simple. Neither particularly bright or academically challenged, He devotes a great deal of energy to playing pranks and causing trouble, but he's a surprisingly likable character. Korman makes no apologies or excuses for him- he simply is one of those kids. This is why, when after his latest prank (which results in unforeseen disaster), he's shocked when his parents receive a letter telling them that he's being transferred to a school for the academically gifted.

Again- you have to suspend your disbelief here- the mix-up is completely unlikely, and the idea that the District Superintendent  would lose his name and take most of the book to trace him is completely insane. However, this is what happens, and what really sets the story in motion.

The Gifted Academy is fairly standard as far as our image of Gifted Kids goes. The students in Donovan's new class are insanely smart, but like child versions of the characters on The Big Bang Theory, they lack certain social skills. Being normal kids has been lost on them, and everything is about academics and their robotics club.

When Donovan shows up, the kids are immediately suspicious and puzzled. He is completely alien to them, and they look at him like he's a science experiment they don't quite get. The thing is- that even though Donovan is completely average in his academics, he's actually good for the rest of the group. He names the robot Tin Man, which never occurred to them to do.  That, combined with Donovan's skill with a joystick (earning him the privilege of driving the robot in competition), emotionally invest the kids in the project, and earns him their admiration.

Told through the multiple perspectives of his classmates, his sister, and his teachers, readers will discover that being good at Math and Science alone do not make a person gifted. Donovan's gift is what he is able to do for the kids in his class- give them a sense of camaraderie, unity, and normalcy, and brings out the kid inside all of them.

Sensitively told, and laced with humour, this is a fantastic read for any kid whose ever tried to figure out what gifts they possess, and how they fit into the world.