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.

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.