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.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: The Gathering by Kelly Armstrong

When Kelly Armstrong burst onto the YA scene in 2008 with the first book of her Darkest Powers trilogy, I was completely blown away by how good it actually was. I was expecting a generic paranormal teen, but it moved quickly, was well-thought out, and ended on a cliff-hanger that had me impatient for the next. Unfortunately, her new trilogy didn't do the same for me.

The story takes place in a small medical research town called Salmon Creek on Vancouver Island. In fact, it's so small, you won't find it anywhere on a map, and the residents number 200. Sixty Eight kids from K-12 attend the local school, including Maya, the novel's protagonist. Ever since Maya's best friend Serena , captain of the swim team, mysteriously drowns in a calm lake, strange things have been happening in the town. Mountain lions are being spotted closer and closer to the town, and her best friend Daniel has been experiencing powerful premonitions about people and situations. To make matters more complicated, Maya finds herself strangely attracted to Rafe, the new bad boy around town, who is harbouring secrets of his own.

Don't get me wrong- it isn't a bad book by any means, and there is a lot to like about it. Maya is strong, smart, and independent. She also seems to have an ability to heal animals, though she doesn't fully understand how. There are lots of supernatural elements to keep readers engaged, and I liked the ties to Native mythology. I enjoyed Maya's relationship with her adoptive parents and her friends, and the fact that she had a guy pal, who was just a pal and not a romantic interest. It would have been very easy for the author to try and push them together, but that wasn't the case. He's protective of her in a plutonic sort of way, and Maya genuinely wants him to get past Serena's death and find a new girlfriend.

There are also a few weaknesses in the novel, the biggest one being the relationship that develops between Maya and Rafe. Rafe is a reputed bad boy, and outsider, and he has a reputation for being a player. For the first half of the book Maya doesn't want anything to do with him, and when they do get together, it feels contrived. The author needs them together to move the story forward, but I just couldn't buy that she would accept him so quickly.

I also felt like the pacing was off, and maybe that's a personal preference. In her previous books, the plot unfolded very quickly, and here it takes a lot more time before anything happens. I figured out reasonably quickly where the story was going, and I kept wondering when she was going to get there. By the time she did, I was mildly annoyed, feeling like she'd tried to introduce too many plot points at the end of the book. Still, fans of paranormal romance will likely enjoy the book and stick with the trilogy. There are a couple of mature situations (Someone spikes Maya's drink and she makes out a bit with Rafe) but nothing overly graphic that would make this inappropriate for 7th and 8th graders.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Skulduggery Pleasant- A Series Not to Be Missed!

Series fiction often gets a bad rap. To be fair, you only need look in your local bookstore to see the seemingly endless shelves filled with serial fiction that earns points for popularity, but are thought of as junk food. Don't get me wrong- I'm not bashing these types of series. There is nothing wrong with something that will be popular with kids and is just fun and easy to read. I loved Sweet Valley High in middle school, and it certainly didn't hurt me to read them!

At the other end of the spectrum are series that are not a trilogy, and are both high quality and popular. I start a lot of series. I enjoy many of them, and never get to the second book. Even if I did nothing but read for a year, I'd never have time to get through all of the books I want to read. But a few series, and they are few, get me completely hooked, and I greedily and eagerly devour each successive book. The subject of this post, Skulduggery Pleasant, is one of those series, and is at the very top of my must-read series list in big bold letters!

The series, which is currently 5 books long (Note to author: Please hurry up and finish book 6!) is written by Irish author Derek Landy, and it is brilliant. I don't use that word lightly either, so that should tell you something right away! The series stars Skulduggery Pleasant, an undead, sorcerer and skeleton detective,(Who wears immaculately tailored clothing and drives a Bentley.) and his partner Stephanie Edgley (aka Valkyrie Cain), who is 12 in the first book, and ages in the successive books. By book 5, she's 16. They are supported by numerous allies, comprised of various magical sorcerers and mages, (don't call them wizards- they don't like it) who help them battle against evil forces.

What really makes these books work is how amazingly witty they are. The plots are fast-moving and action-packed, but the writing is clever and funny, drawing comparisons to The Thin Man, for the rapid fire exchanges between the characters. It is difficult to do dialogue well, and Landy does it exceptionally well, appealing to adult readers as well as kids. It's also extremely refreshing to find another fantasy series with a kick-butt heroine. She's smart, strong and quick-witted, and never runs from danger.

I could gush on even more about these books, but you'll just have to trust me and read them for yourselves.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Keystone Books- A New High Interest/Low Vocabulary Series

Over the last 10 years or so, High Interest/Low Vocabulary books have grown in demand as a tool for attracting struggling and/or reluctant teen readers.

This past February, Dundurn Press, a well-respected Canadian publisher with an already solid YA line launched their new high interest series branded as Keystone Books. The first two books released in Februrary, and the third will be available early in the fall of 2011.

The two books, while drastically different from one another are both excellent in quality, and worth reading.

The first book is a new entry from Red-Maple Award nominee Marina Cohen. Like her previous book, Mind Gap is a terrific thriller with high boy appeal, and a fast-moving plot that will keep kids turning the pages.

Protaganist Jake is a fourteen-year-old boy on the verge of going wrong. He's been gambling in school, drinking and partying, and he's becoming involved in gang activity. One night, he receives a text message from a friend inviting him to a flash party on a subway train at St. George Station. He knows that he'd be letting his mother down by going, but sneaks out anyway.

A train pulls into the station that already has a party going on, but it is far from the party he expected. The train is a ghost train, filled with ghostly and somewhat terrifying passengers, and unless he does something to change his path, it looks like this is one train he'll never get off.

I enjoyed Ghost Ride, but this is an even better book. The story is like A Christmas Carol meets The Sixth Sense movie, and there is a definite twist. The train lets Jake off in his past, present and future, and he discovers just how much they are intertwined. He also discovers that he isn't the only one affected by his actions, and that the conceqeunces are felt by people he cares about.

The second novel is Accomplice by Valerie Sherrard, and is much more of a contemporary, edgy story for teens. Accomplice is narrated by Lexie, a seventeen-year-old Vancouver teen with a secret. Her boyfriend is a heroin addict, and it's her fault. She pushed him to try it at a party. They both did in fact. But she got sick, and he got addicted.

The story is dark, and edgy and suspenseful, and the author does an excellent job of illustrating the impact of drug use on teens without being preachy or predictable. Lexie acts as an enabler because she feels responsible. She also still cares about Devlin, and despite the fact that she's with a new guy now, she can't let go. I really enjoyed how much of what's going on inside Lexie's head is fleshed out for the reader, and there are definitely a lot of surprising, lip-biting moments as you wonder how she'll break free of the sprial she's in. There is some mild swearing, and I know that some of our middle-school customers have shied away from this one, but it's a great read.

At the time of this writing, the publisher has not been able to supply an exact reading level on these titles, but I'd say they're comperable to the Orca Soundings- around a grade 4 level with interest level 12 and up.

In the children's book world in particular, it often takes a while for a new series to get noticed and to pick up steam, but if you have kids who enjoy the Orcas and are wondering what to give them next, or just for a quick, stand-alone read that isn't part of a trilogy, I highly recommend giving these two books a try.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Fall Book Preview: This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of Kenneth Oppel's new book (releasing from Harper Collins Canada in August and Simon and Schuster in the States) and while I've always enjoyed reading his books, this is his best book yet.

Identical twin brothers Victor and Conrad Frankenstein have grown up together, along with a distant cousin and mutal love interest Elizabeth. One day, they discover a secret passage that leads to an underground room known as the "Dark Library" The library contains a selection of books on alchemy and ancient remedies, intriguing Victor.

When Conrad becomes gravely ill, Victor is drawn back to the forbidden library where he discovers an Elixer of life that he hopes will save his brother. But the quest for the three ingredients is a dangerous one, and if he fails or succeeds, nobody's lives will be the same.

This book will hook tween/teen readers from the first page, and Oppel masterfully foreshadows what's to come in the first scene. The characters are complex and multi-layered, and there are shades of good and evil in all of them. Set around the time of the French Revolution, it is a time when the lines between magic and science were blurry and medicine was archaic. And it's fascinating. There are many nods to the Mary Shelly novel (including the family name of Frankenstein), but comparisons could also be drawn to Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. It is a story of love, jealousy, courage and an exploration of how easily good intentions can become evil.

The ending suggests a second book in the future, but in the meantime, grab your copy as soon as it comes out, and drink some Red Bull because you won't be able to put this down.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Art of Racing in the Rain

It's been a few days since my last post, but life gets busy, and I find myself with unfinished posts in the editor and a lapse. Today I have to gush about a book that I finished reading a few weeks ago, but want to share. I first came across Garth Stein's wonderful book in a children's catalogue. The adult version was such a success that they are releasing a young reader's adaptation this spring. I read the "children's version" in a day, and promptly arranged for a copy of the adult version to compare. The children's version has been abridged, and edited slightly to remove some of the more adult content, but otherwise they are virtually the same.

Now the story: On the eve of his death, Enzo the dog reflects on his life, and recalls everything that his family has been through. Denny, his person, is an aspiring race car driver, and through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the complexities of being human. He realizes, that like racing, life is not always about going fast, and that by using the techniques needed on the race track, one can successfully navigate life's ordeals.

I LOVED this book, and I can't say enough about it. Whenever I describe it to someone, the first comment is usually "Oh no- is it sad? I don't want to read a sad book". The answer is yes and no. You'll bawl your eyes out, and then you'll smile at the end. (Really!)  Using the dog's voice to narrate this story is incredibly original, and it works really well. Enzo is funny, intelligent, and amazingly human.

It is an emotional roller coaster of a book with moments that will both touch you and break your heart, but it's worth every second of it. This is the kind of book that will grab hold of you and not let go, and it will leave you thinking about it long after you turn the last page.

Last night at Passover dinner, I gave the book to my extremely reluctant reader brother. (Who is just a few years younger than I am) He read the first few pages and put it down, insisting that it's too depressing and sad. I persisted, and he agreed to give it a chance. After dinner, he disappeared for a while, and when he came back, he was several chapters into it. Fast forward a couple of hours later, and he was more than halfway through. He stayed up late last night to finish it (which he's never done) and is passing it on to our mother to read next. I can't think of a better endorsement than what he told her when he finished it:  "It is quite the book".

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Banned Books and Unsuitable Reads

At some point in your reading experience as children/teens, somebody probably once tried to tell you that a book you wanted to read was unsuitable. If you were anything like me, it only made you want to read it all the more. Nothing piqued my interest like being told that I was too young or it was too hard, and by hook or by crook I would find a way to read that book.

In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, YA author Patrick Ness suggested his top ten picks for books that are considered unsuitable for teens, but that they should read anyway. Here is the link to the full article:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/childrens-books-site/2011/apr/08/patrick-ness-top-10-unsuitable-books-teenagers

Coincidentally, this article came out roughly at the same time as the ALA most frequently challenged books of (http://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=2008) 2010. 

Though nobody (that I'm aware of) has published such a list in Canada, there have been quite a few titles from the Ontario Forest of Reading Lists that have been challenged and banned. Just last year, Anne Laurel Carter's book The Shepherd's Granddaughter came under fire after complaints from parents and Jewish groups alledging an anti Israel bias. To make matters worse, a  trustee for Toronto Centre-Rosedale vowed to have the book removed from school shelves, but admitted to not having read it. (In the end the board voted not to remove the book) Disagreeing with an author's perspective is a personal perogative, but at least read the book first and be prepared with ammunition to defend your claim. (I have read it and didn't find evidence of bias)

I'm not a parent, but my view has always been we censor because something makes us uncomfortable, and not because it bothers the child. Books should make us think and feel, and discuss, and instead of telling children why they shouldn't read these books, there should be more people out there like Patrick Ness who tell them why they should.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Do kids really fear thick books?

It seems to me, that each season, books for young readers get thicker and thicker. Unfortunately, my customers are often reluctant to buy these 300+ page books for the library, insisting that thick books will scare the kids and they won't read them.

While that might be true for struggling readers, the global popularity of series such as Harry Potter (Book 7 is over 600 pages), Inkheart (560 pages) and Septimus Heap (Book 1 is 576 Pages) prove that thick doesn't matter if the book is engaging enough to hold their attention.

If that's the case, then what is the real reason behind this resistance to thick books? Despite overall positive results from the EQAO reading tests in Ontario, are the reading levels of GTA students that much lower than elsewhere in the province, or even the country? Is it a lack of time? Are kids so busy with after-school and leisure activities that we are assuming that they don't have time to read these thick books? Or, could it be that they avoid these books because they lack the time to read them, and are unfamiliar with the content? 

And here's an even more interesting question- as reading e-books becomes more popular with kids, will page counts still be important without a physical book to judge?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Age categories on books

One of my constant struggles as a buyer is finding the appropriate age category for the fiction books I select and sell. First novels are relatively easy to identify and to place. They contain shorter page counts, bigger print, and illustrations. They look and feel like something a 7 or 8 year old would read, and they have a section all their own.

A publisher's job is to sell their books to as large an audience as possible, and therefore, they place as wide an age-range as possible on their books. Have you ever picked up a children's book where the reading level was described as 8-12? The 8-year-old and the 12-year-old reader are two very different readers in terms of reading ability and reading interests, and I often find myself turning to the page count and age of the characters to make a decision on placement.

Even more frustrating than the generic "middle grade" rating which seems to be slapped on virtually every book for young readers is the young adult category. A few brave publishers will place the 14 years and up or even 16 years and up rating on a content-heavy YA novel, but most teen fiction carries a 12 and up rating.  Selling books to school customers requires me to offer a deeper level of division within the teen category. I work both with middle schools (grade 6-8) and high schools, and I maintain a special middle school fiction section with "clean teen" reads that are vetted for sexual content and swearing. I also have a 14 and up teen fiction section, which contains edgier novels more appropriate for a high school audience.  Before I can determine which category to place these books, I need more information about character age, content and the complexity of the writing. If I haven't read the book myself, I rely on bloggers and reviewers who have read it to answer these questions.

Some publishers maintain that bookstores don't like the 14 and up rating and believe it will hurt their sales. But wouldn't you think that the customers who are shopping for their 12-year-old sixth grader would appreciate this distinction?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reading the back of the book

Yesterday, as I was pouring through a publisher catalogue, I came across a book that looked interesting, but after reading the catalogue copy a couple of times, and sharing it with a co-worker, neither one of us could figure out exactly what it was about. We were able to glean that it was about a war and took place in India, but it was only after googling certain key words from the description that I stumbled upon a summary from Scholastic Asia's catalogue that made more sense.

I think we can all admit that despite the old adage, we do judge books by their covers, but that's only the first stage to actually making the decision to purchase/read the book. It's very nice that School Library journal thought it was "superlative historical fiction" or that it's been nominated for multiple State/Provincial awards, but how does that help the average person who just wants to find an interesting read?

When I make a decision about purchasing fiction, I want to know in a paragraph or less what the book is about, and I certainly don't need long-winded descriptions that rehash the entire plot without offering any of the really important details.

In a perfect world, book summaries would only be written by people who have actually read the entire book, but in the meantime, here's my suggestion: Put yourself in the reader's shoes, and think about what you would like to know about the book, and write that as simply and succinctly as possible.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Series Fiction- The good and the bad

As I review my spring publisher catalogues, I've noticed that there are a large number of series continuations releasing this summer, and this led me to think about series fiction.

I love a good series, but as much as they publishing gold, for the fans, they can be incredibly frustrating. One of the most commonly asked questions on author websites is "when is the next book coming", and for the fans, it's never fast enough. As soon as we finish one book, (particularly the kind that end on cliff-hangers) the long, torturous wait for the next book begins. Fans of Katniss in The Hunger Games couldn't wait to find out how her story would conclude, and by the magic of internet and social networking, these fans had a place to rant and speculate about what was coming next. Having read book 2 in manuscript format, it was an even longer wait for book 3, and trust me- it wasn't easy! Finishing the series was more of an exception for me than the norm- I don't usually have enough time to keep up with the volume of series released. But this got me thinking.

The Hunger Games series released all three books within a couple of years, meaning that for the most part, those who were teens when the first book released were still teens when book 3 released last fall. On the other side of the coin, Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, concludes this November with book 4, which will mark 8 years since the first book released.

The print run for this book is 2.5 million copies, and they continue to show strong sales. But with so many series on the market competing for readers' attention, what is it about books like these that still draw readers after so many years?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Scaredy Squirrel makes it to TV!

Scaredy Squirrel Interviews Melanie Watt

Everybody's favourite squirrel makes his television debut today on Canadian network YTV with a sneak peek at 4:30 pm, before moving to its regular time slot on Sundays at 9:30am.

As fans will discover from the Melanie Watt interview, Scaredy will look a little bit different than what we are used to from the books, but loses none of the charm. Scaredy also has his own YTV page, (http://scaredysquirrel.ytv.com/)  where fans will find lots of extras to support the show.