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.

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.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Lauren Myracle's Shine- A Haunting and Unforgettable Mystery

A crime has taken place in sixteen-year-old Cat's small, but tightly-knit Southern community. Her former best friend Patrick is found near death, tied to the pump of the local gas station, with the gass nozzle shoved down his throat and taped to his mouth. The local sherriff blames out-of-towners, but Cat is certain that it was someone in town, and feels she owes it to Patrick to find out who is responsible.

As she investigates, Cat uncovers a web of secrets. Secrets of Meth use, homophobia and worse. Secrets that somebody in the town doesn't want her to know about, and would go to extreme lengths to keep hidden.

Set against a backgdrop of poverty, drugs, hate and clanishness, this is an unforgetable story about love, loss, and finding a way out of the darkness that has consumed her for so long.

When Megan Cox Gurdon published her now famous June 4 article in the Wall Street Journal about the perils of "Dark YA", this novel by bestelling author Lauren Myracle was one of the titles specifically cited for its disturbing content. After reading it, I can vhemently disagree with this position.

Black Creek, North Carolina, is in many ways, a typical southern town. While there is not the wealth and pedigree of some of the more prominent Southern cities, the feel of the south is ever-present in the novel. The community is closely knit, and they stick together. The children have all grown-up together, and everybody knows you by name. Sounds idyllic doesn't it? It's the kind of place where not much happens without somebody knowing about it, and chances are, whatever it is will get back to your mama, so you'd best not try it. On the flip side, Black Creek is also a dying town. Passed over by the railway, few outsiders have a reason to stop, and the residents get by as best they can with what little they have. It is also the kind of town where the KKK might have existed once upon a time, and any visibly different people would not have been easily tolerated.

When Patrick is beaten, everybody feels terrible, but nobody wants to delve too deeply into what really happened. To accept any explanation other than the neat little package that the Sherriff offers means facing the truth about what's really happening, and it's more than anyone can handle. Cat is also no stranger to trauma, and the events that caused her to isolate herself replay in her head as difficult truths about the teens in the town begin to surface.

No doubt about it- the subject matter is dark, and some of the language disturbing. There is no way to sugarcoat homophobic hate crimes, and the author would be doing her readers a great injustice to even attempt it. But what the Ms. Gurdon missed from atop of her soapbox was that beneath the brutality was hope, and the incredibly valuable messages that readers will take away from this book.  Cat learns many things about herself, including that she's tired of needing only herself, and that the world will open itself to her if she starts projecting yes instead of no.

It's really an amazing read. Well-written and thought provoking, and one that might just teach teens something about compassion and tolerance rather than causing them harm.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer: An Attention-Grabbing thriller

When sixteen-year-old Mara Dyer wakes up in the hospital with no recollection of how she got there or why she's there, you would think that things couldn't get much odder than that. But you'd be wrong. Mara has no recollection of what happened the night her friends were killed, but she can't shake the feeling that there is more to the accident than there appears.

Thinking that a change of scenery might help her to get past the accident, she convinces her parents to move to Florida, where she enrolls in a private school, and immediately catches the attention of bad-boy Noah Shaw.  Noah is rich and gorgeous, but his reputation preceeds him, and Mara is initially resistant to his advances.

There is also the matter of her purported Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which she believes is responsible for the visions she keeps having of her dead ex-boyfriend Jude. Mara is certain that if she could just unlock the memory of what happened that horrible night everything would start to get back to normal. What she doesn't realize is that sometimes knowing is worse than forgetting, and that her life will take a turn for the strange.

For a book not releasing until the end of September, Michelle Hodkin's YA debut has certainly been generating a lot of buzz. After reading it, I can see why. It's an edge-of-your-seat thriller that not only leaves you wondering what will happen next, but provides many "what the *BLEEP*"moments that you won't see coming.  In fact, I often found myself having to resist the urge to skip ahead  because the suspense was that intense. I particularly loved the author's use of flashbacks to the night of the accident, and they work beautifully to heighten the tension.

The characters were interesting and diverse, and I particularly loved Mara's brother Daniel, who is the epitome of the cool big brother. Her younger brother Joseph plays a fairly minor role, but does have some really adorable quirks, and feels like he's someone's real little brother. Noah, the love interest is a very complex character, and you'll have to decide once you read it what you think of him. He absolutely has the "playboy" reputation, but there are hints that perhaps it isn't entirely earned or deserved. The more Mara gets to know him, the more likeable and human he becomes.

The part that bothered me about the novel, and I'll preface this by saying it might not have if I'd understood from the beginning that it's not a stand-alone, is the ending. While there was plenty of action throughout, and the pacing was sound, about three quarters of the way through the book, an event happens that seems to come from so far out of nowwhere that I had to go back and re-read the preceeding chapter in case there was something I glossed over. (Which I didn't). From that point on, it was like a floodgate opened, and there were several more bizzare occurances that were obviously not going to be resolved by the end of the book.

I have heard that the author has a plan, and ultimately everything will make sense, so if you decide to read it now, be prepared to be left with a lot of questions and a long wait until the next one. Otherwise, ignore the hype, wait until book 2 is available, and read them together when you won't have to suffer like the rest of us, waiting to find out what happens next.

On the whole, this is a highly-enjoyable read that will suck you in and keep you reading under the covers with your flashlight long after you should have gone to bed.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bigger than a Breadbox: A Magical Middle Grade Read

12-year-old Rebecca is miserable when her mother suddenly whisks them off to Atalanta to stay with her grandmother for an unknown amount of time. As happy as she is to see her grandmother, she misses her father and her best friend back in Baltimore, and wants desperately for her parents to get back together.

Her discovery of a wish-granting breadbox in her grandmother's attic, makes things easier for a while, and the seemingly endless supply of hair ribbons and candy that she wishes for goes a long way to helping her to fit in at school. When one of Rebecca's wishes reveals where the items are really coming from, she is forced to think about who she really is, and who she wants to be.

First of all, if you have never heard of Laurel Snyder, rush out and buy her previous three books while you wait for this one's September release. Those of you who enjoy Wendy Mass's books (another author who deserves Spinelli like status) will particularly enjoy these, and Any Which Wall is one of my favourite books to recommend for read-aloud.

 Often referred to as "magical realism", her books are deceptively simple.  Rebecca is a normal, and likeable girl, who like most kids, gets a bit carried away with her wishing. Starting over, whether we realize it or not, usually means leaving something behind, and her wishes are designed to try and make her a little less lonely. For the first time in her life, she's the outsider, and it's a very natural desire to want to fit in.  As Rebecca discovers, however, wishes will only take her so far, and the moment when she discovers where the items she wishes for are coming from, she is faced with a complex moral choice that defines her as a character. It's the first time that she really sees herself, and it's a transforming moment. I also loved her Becky/Rebecca dillemma.  Rebecca is who she really is, but somehow Becky seems to fit in better. Rebecca is the girl who stands up for a bullied girl, Becky stays silent, not wanting to draw attention to herself.

Like Wendy Mass, one thing that Laurel Snyder does extremely well is allow her characters to work things out for themselves without a great deal of adult interference. Wishes and wishing play a large role in her books, and the magical element is designed to help the protagonists work out their problems rather than escape from them. Rebecca's parents are not bad people. They both love her and her brother, and my heart broke when she said goodbye to her dad.  Neither parents aren't perfect, and Snyder shows her readers that it's ok to get mad at them sometimes, and to stand up for themselves. Parents can be selfish and wrong but it doesn't mean they love their children less.  For the growing number of children that are dealing with separated/divorced parents, it's an extremely reassuring message.

This is a book that will run you through a whole gamut of emotions. There is no fairy tale ending for these characters, but you'll close the book with a sigh of relief, and a smile, knowing that no matter what happens after that, they'll be ok.

Perfect for middle-grade readers who need a complex story, but are not yet ready for really gritty reads.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Value of YA & Touching the Lives of Readers

On June 4, 2011, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial essentially stating that "reality" has no place in YA literature. The author seems to be of the view that teens should be kept in darkness (pardon the pun) about the harsh realities that surround them. She even goes so far as to comment that the shelves are filled with "lurid and dramatic covers" and that there are no appropriate books out there for teens to read. Full article can be found here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038.html
Thanks to the power of Social Media, within minutes, Twitter was buzzing with rebuttal, all aimed at the Wall Street Journal, and a special Hashtag #YAsaves quickly became the third highest trending topic of the evening.

Where to even begin on this.... Firstly, addressing Gurdon's anecdote about the mother of the thirteen-year-old, I have one question- why not ask a bookseller for assistance? Seriously. There are lots of other YA fiction choices that are not dark, issue-based books, and a knowledgeable bookseller could have helped her to find something lighter and more fun, like, for example, the newly released Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. It's both clever, and laugh-out-loud funny, and no real beauty queens were harmed in the writing of this book. I'm quite certain that even Ms. Gurdon would have to admit that reading this is not going to turn girls into murderous beauty queens.

Now onto the heart of the matter- the purported unsuitability of gritty, and realistic fiction for teens. There is darkness in the world, and it is naive to try and pretend that there isn't. It is also naive to try and convince ourselves that teens are neither aware of this, and that their lives aren't affected by it, or to claim that our own teen years were all sunshine and rainbows.

Several years ago, Philomel Books published a collection of letters entitled Dear Author: Letters of Hope.  The book is a collection of letters, written by tweens and teens to their favourite authors, sharing stories of how he/she was affected by reading the author's books. In a heartbreaking letter to Laurie Halse Anderson, a teenage girl details how she, like the protaganist in Speak had been date raped, and how reading the book gave her the courage to speak up and tell somebody what had happened to her. There are letters to Ellen Wittlinger, Christopher Paul Curtis, Chris Crutcher, and many others, and the teens in these letters have all had these difficult situations thrown at them.

These books aren't published to be deliberately inflamatory, or with the intention of normalizing these behaviours. They are published because they reflect realities that many of us don't understand and need to. Their purpose is to get readers thinking and to send a message that no matter how bleak things might seem, there is someone out there who understands.

These books are not for everybody, but what right does one individual have to decide that they are inappropriate for the masses? The more aware teens are that these issues exist, the more we empower them to put a stop to the hate and ignorance that fuels world wars, and to make the world a better place. And in the end, isn't that what's really important?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Rot & Ruin + Dust & Decay: Spine-Chilling Zombie Dystopias

Zombies have long-fascinated both readers and movie-goers. Vampires are romantic. Werewolves are sexy. But zombies? In a word- terrifying.  These undead creatures are difficult to kill, have no conscious thought, and are perpetually hungry for blood. And worst of all, if they catch you, you are doomed to an eternal existence of roaming the earth as one of them.

The Benny Imura series begins with Rot & Ruin, and is set in a Zombie-infested, Post-Apocalyptic America. In this new world, every teenager must find a job by the time they reach fifteen or else be forced to survive on half of their rations. Benny Imura, a nearly-fifteen-year-old boy lives with his older half-brother Tom Imura, who is a revered Zombie Hunter in the community, but is far from a hero in Benny's eyes. Though just a toddler during what is now referred to as "First Night", Benny is certain he remembers his brother running away that night, leaving his mother to die in the apocalypse. Forced to apprentice to Tom when he can't find any other suitable job, Benny expects to be bored, but instead, learns the meaning of what it is to be human.

In the second book Dust & Decay, the story picks up six months later, and after months of rigorous training, Tom, and Benny and his friends are preparing to leave the ruin in search of whatever lies beyond. From the beginning, everything that can go wrong does, and they encounter horrors way beyond their imagining. Nobody and nothing can be trusted in the ruin, and somebody may not make it out alive.

As early as last spring, I was hearing a great deal of excited buzz about a new Zombie series from Bram Stoker Award-winning author Jonathan Maberry, and upon hearing the author talk about it during a Children's Author Speed Dating event at last year's BEA, I knew I was going to have to put aside my biases about zombie stories, and read Rot & Ruin.  And I'm so glad I did! In fact, as soon as I got my advance copy of the sequel Dust & Decay, I literally put down the book I had in process to read it right away.

I can't say enough about these books. They are so much more than simple zombie stories, and they give readers a lot to think about, and particularly themes of courage and humanity. What makes somebody brave? Does it take courage to violently slaughter the walking dead, or is it more courageous to give them as humane and respectful a death as possible?

Is it courage to hide in a proverbial bubble, or is courage being brave enough to challenge the status-quo and to fight to make things better? These questions are only the tip of the iceberg for Benny, and he finds no easy answers. As they prepare to leave Mountainside in the second book, questions of courage morph into even more complex questions of heroism, and obligation. Tom has never asked to be viewed as a hero, nor does he want to be. When word gets out that he is planning to leave, people try to pressure him to stay, arguing that he is responsible for keeping them safe. And then there are Benny's friends. There is Lila, the "Lost Girl" who is possibly more reckless than brave, his girlfriend Nix, who has survived unspeakable horrors and is desperate for escape, and best friend  Chong, who exhibits courage by admitting that he is afraid.

All of these characters are multi-layered and incredibly human. They have faults, they make mistakes, and they are far from stereotypical. They are everyday people doing what they have to in order to survive, and they are likeable. The author even made me see zombies in a new light, and forced me to recognize that they too had once been alive and human.

Far from simple "zombie" fiction, these books are terrifying, suspenseful, thought-provoking and emotionally challenging. They are not only among some of the best "dystopians" I've read this year, they are among the best books period, and they are absolutely worth the read.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Skeleton Creek & 3:15 Stories: Blending Technology and Books

It's no secret that technology plays a much bigger role in our universe than ever before, and books compete with video games, computers and the Internet for kids' attention. One author, however has come up with a brilliant and innovative idea for attracting kids to books by creating multimedia concepts that combine technology and reading. The first series is Skeleton Creek- a four-book horror series aimed at tween/teen readers. The books come packaged in a slip-case resembling a VHS tape (for those of you who remember what they look like) and the book itself looks like a composition notebook, and takes a diary format. When the story begins, Ryan, the author of the diary, is stuck in bed after some kind of accident, but his memories of exactly what happened to he and his best friend Sarah are fuzzy. All he knows is that whatever happened, his parents have forbidden him and Sarah to communicate, and he's being watched like

 a hawk. Something strange is happening in Skeleton Creek, and they are determined to get to the bottom of it. While Ryan records everything in his journal, Sarah uses her video-camera to uncover clues, and then secretly sends Ryan links to a password-protected website where she posts her videos. At varying intervals in the book, readers are given a new password to unlock a video on Sarah's website where more clues to the mystery are revealed. The books are creepy scary, and the videos are eerily real. Reluctant readers are eating these up, and the web-content makes them particuarly attractive.

The new series, 3:15 Stories takes the interactive element one step further, and are first being released as  *gasp!* smartphone/iPhone apps, with a book to follow in the fall. 3 is for the three components of the stories, and 15 is the number of minutes it will take you to read the story. When you download the story, first you listen to a brief introduction from narrator Paul Chandler. Next you read the story,and there is a secret message embedded in the story text. Lastly, you watch the video that gives you the solution to the story. The key here is that the components all work together. When Scholastic releases the stories in book format, like Skeleton Creek, they will include that same interactive component. The videos are pretty spooky, so be warned- neither series is for the faint of heart!

The first story is available to download for free on the website- http://315stories.com/ and subsequent stories, (which are releasing every two weeks) are 99 cents. There is also a place on the website where kids can log in and share thoughts and comments with other readers.

Patrick Carman fully believes that we can and should be using technology to get kids reading, and with his multimedia storytelling, he has done just that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Horton Halfpott- A Quirky Mystery for Clever Kids

Horton Halfpott, a good-natured, young kitchen servant in the Luggertuck household has accepted his lot in life. During the day, he keeps his head down, and tries to avoid Miss Neversly's wooden spoon. At night, he escapes to kindly Lord Emberly's special study, filled with books and treasures that ignite his imagination.    
The trouble begins one day when M'lady Luggertuck does something unthinkable- she loosens her corset. This leads to all kinds of unusual behaviour, including the planning of a costume ball. And then it happens- the LuggertuckLump, a precious family heirloom goes missing, and the Luggertcuks are looking for someone to blame. Could it be that the mild-mannered Horton is to blame?

I loved this book, and author Tom Angeleberger is a real talent. The book is funny and intelligent, and there are no fart jokes to be found! I especially like the character list at the beginning of the novel, because it will come in handy once you start reading. The cast of characters is huge, and each plays a role to perfection.  The adults are mean and silly, and the kids are intelligent and resourceful. It also has the bonus of being a challenging and satisfying mystery, that has just enough clues to lead readers to the solution without giving anything away too quickly. I think if Roald Dahl had written mysteries, they would look a lot like this.

 Being a Victorina spoof, the author adapts a 19th century style, and while the story is fast-paced and funny, reluctant readers may struggle with the formality of the language, but it would make a great read-aloud and an enthusiastic reader could really bring this to life for young readers.

This is only the author's second book, (First being The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda) but he is absolutely one to watch!