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, August 30, 2011

Waiting For the Magic: A heartwarming & enchanting story

When William's father leaves, his mother takes him and his sister to the local animal shelter, seeking to fill the void created by his absence. Instead of just one animal, they adopt 4 dogs and a cat. As if by magic, four-year-old Elinor can understand and talk to the animals. Will would like to experience the magic for himself, but can he be as brave and as strong as he needs to be to believe?

Patricia MacLachlan has a really wonderful way with words, and this book is further demonstration of her talent. What I love most about her writing is that she conveys complex ideas with simple and sparing language, and there's no extra padding.

More than just talking animals, the pets (mostly the dogs) act as a kind of chorus, frequently interrupting Will's narrative to provide commentary on the things he doesn't tell you. The pets are wise, thoughtful and funny, and at first, only Elinor can understand them. This, according to the dogs, is because she's four, and four-year-olds understand everything.

As four-year-olds tend to be, Elinor is a little sponge, and she absorbs, and acts on what she sees and hears. I couldn't help but smile at her ongoing list of bad "woods" as she calls them, and how quickly she picks up on the idea that her father is flawed. When he finally calls to speak to them, doesn't hesitate to tell him off, and she has a kind of matter-of-fact way about her.

Will is grieving for his father, but pushes the hurt deep down inside of him and doesn't talk about it so he won't upset his mother or sister.  In fact, nobody is talking about it at all, and only the dogs understand what's really going on.

There are some very funny moments, and some very serious moments. There were parts that made me laugh out loud, and yes- points in the story where I was moved to tears. It really is a special read, and I liken it to books like Eggs by Jerry Spinelli or Laurel Snyder's new book Bigger Than a Breadbox but for a slightly younger audience.

My only criticism of this novel is that it's one of those books that is difficult to place. The cover illustration and the format suggest a book for early readers (7-9 years old) but it just feels a bit too sophisticated to be properly read and understood by kids that young. The language is lyrical and poetic, and whether you read it on your own, or read it with kids, you will come away from it being thoroughly enchanted.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Variant: A Sci-Fi Thrill-Ride

Benson Fisher thought that Maxwell Academy would be the answer to all of his problems. A Foster Kid, bounced from home to home, he's looking forward to attending a good school where he can make friends, study, and participate in extra-curricular activities. It sounds perfect right? WRONG! What Benson finds when he arrives is a building surrounded by a razor-wire fence from which nobody ever leaves. A place run entirely by students divided into three factions. A place where breaking the rules equals death. When Benson stumbles on the real secret behind the school, he realizes that escape- his best chance for survival- may just be impossible.

The world of Maxwell Academy is combination of Lord of the Flies, Maze Runner, and the Escape From Furnace series. Run entirely by the students, the only thing they know is that the creators of the school are always watching, and nobody comes back from detention. Benson knows that something strange is going on and constantly thinks about escape, but he's conflicted. As part of the Variant Faction, he starts making friends and feeling like he fits in somewhere. On the other hand, there is a lot about Maxwell that doesn't make sense, and Benson's got more questions than answers. (As will the readers) Who is actually behind Maxwell Academy, and what is its purpose? What happens to the students who get detention? Are they really killed as the others believe? And most importantly, what is it that everyone's so afraid of, and why doesn't anybody ever manage to escape?

WOW! It's rare that a book can keep surprising me to the last page, but Robison Wells managed to do just that.  The atmosphere is tense, creepy, and unsettling, and  just when you think you've figured something out, Wells throws in another twist. And then, when you think you finally know where the story is going,  it takes another crazy turn. It's like a perpetually changing maze that's impossible to map, and yet, it all makes sense and it works. It's fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat good, and boys in particular are going to eat this up. Not only does it end on a cliff-hanger, but it ends with another twist that I'm positive you won't see coming!
I only regret that the pub date isn't until October, because it means that much longer a wait for book two in this amazing new series.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Candymakers: A Sweet & Satisfying Middle Grade Read

In the town of Spring Haven, four twelve-year-olds have been selected to compete in a national candy-making contest to create the most scrumptious candy in the country. There is Logan, the candy maker's son, who has spent most of his life sheltered inside the factory, and worries about whether or not he has what it takes to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps and win. Next is Miles- an unusual boy who is allergic to seemingly everything, and has an odd fascination with the afterlife. Daisey is a perky and cheerful girl who can pull taffy like it's a feather. And finally, there is Phillp- an over-achieving, suit-wearing boy who is always scribbling in a secret notebook. Each of them has their own reasons for being there, but as readers will discover, they are not what they would expect.

Wendy Mass is one of my favourite middle grade authors, and I always make a point of reading her new books when they come out. I've yet to be disappointed. She's one of those writers who really understands what being a tween (11-12-13) is like, and perfectly captures that in her books.

The Candymakers alternates between the four perspectives of the different kids, but with a third person narrator. I really enjoyed the third person in this case, because the narrator was able to provide a wider insight into the characters than first person would have. Wendy Mass begins the book with Logan's story, but in an interesting twist, warns readers to pay close attention to what he doesn't tell you in his narrative. This ends up being sound advice, because as it turns out, there is a great deal that these characters aren't telling readers but is revealed through the observations of the other characters.

The characters in this book are wonderful. They are intelligent, talented,  multi-faceted, vulnerable and mysterious, and are connected in unexpected ways. I also loved how they bonded with each other and developed a genuine friendship. Regardless of who they are, or where they came from, what they each needed most was the one thing none of them seemed to have- a friend.

There are several mysteries that unfold over the course of the story, and only those who pay close attention will figure out how all of the pieces fit together. Readers will also enjoy imagining themselves in the contest around all of those sweet confections, and dreaming up their own special candy in the process.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What is Real: An Edgy & Surreal Teen Read

Seventeen-year-old Dex Pratt, a star basketball player and budding filmmaker has had his life turned upside down. His mother has re-married, his father tried to commit suicide, failed and is wheelchair bound, and now Dex has had to move back to his small B.C. town to care for him. When he gets there, he finds everything has changed beyond recognition. Gone is the house, the cars, the fancy bikes and the toys. They've been replaced with a rotting rented house on the back of a cornfield. His father too has changed. He's given up his law practice, and instead of defending marijuana growers, he has become one. Unable to cope, Dex smokes himself into a state of surrealism, and begins to lose touch with reality, causing him to finally question: What is real?

Firstly, I'll say I love Karen Rivers' YA material, and I don't think I've read something that makes use of this kind of storytelling recently. Told from Dex's point of view, he narrates with blunt, stream-of-conciousness style, often interrupting with flashback movie scenes from a director's perspective. The flashbacks fill in the details of what Dex doesn't tell you, but his own perceptions of reality and fantasy are so blurred, it can be difficult to tell whether or not it is true. In fact Dex is the epitome of the unreliable narrator, frequently contradicting himself or outright lying. What I find interesting is that they are directed more at Dex himself than the reader. I got the sense that Dex was constantly revising and reconstructing his life, trying to form it into a believable fiction that he can live with. There are a lot of things that Dex will tell you, and a lot of things he won't, and making sense of how the pieces fit together is part of the challenge of this book

The secondary characters are far less developed, but since Dex is telling the story, I'm ok with this.  These people may or may not even exist, and if they do, readers only see them through a drug-induced distored view. Yes, they all impact his life in different ways good and bad, but they are more like the blurred images of people that we sometimes see in our dreams than concrete characters.

This isn't an easy book to read in the literal or emotional sense. Time jumps around in Dex's mind, and therefore isn't a linear plot. There is also liberal drug use and a great deal of swearing, which makes it more ideal for older teen readers. Emotionally, Karen Rivers challenges readers to think about their own perceptions of reality, to think about the validity and reliabilty of memory, and most of all, to ask the question that makes up the title of this book- what is real?

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Unwanteds: A Magical Middle-Grade Debut

Every year in the Quill, 13-year-olds are sorted into three categories: Wanted, Necessary, and Unwanted. Naturally, Wanteds get the education, the plum jobs, and money. Necessary's get no special treatment, but are the working class, doing all of the lowly jobs that need to get done. And then there are the Unwanteds. Unwanteds are creative and artistic- qualities which have no value to the Quill society, and are sent to a special farm for elimination. Alex and Aaron are twins. Straight-laced Aaron is classified as Wanted, and immediately rises to the top. Alex on the other hand is Unwanted, and is marked for elimination.

Upon arrival at the "Death Farm", Alex discovers an amazing secret. The farm is actually a magical mirage, and behind it lies a magical world called Artime. In Artime, children are encouraged to foster their creative talents, and are sorted into disciplines to cultivate their magical abilities.

Life in Artime is almost perfect. Alex quickly makes friends, and everything he could ever imagine is at his fingertips. But- it's highly unusual for twins to be separated, and Alex's quest to be reunited with his brother results in a magical battle for the survival of Artime, and forces them both to choose sides once and for all.

In her middle-grade debut, Lisa McMann has created a rich, and vivid magical world that young readers will appreciate and enjoy. The world of Quill is literally all work and no play. There is no place for creativity or imagination, and life is colourless and strictly monitored by the government to keep it that way Inspired by the ongoing cuts being made to school arts programs around the U.S, the Quill is an extreme example of what life would be like without the arts.

Artime, on the other hand nearly rivals Hogwarts as a magical school for children, and I was reminded of Harry Potter several times while reading it. Children take only subjects that interest them, everything they can dream of is available to them, and entire sections of the world only exist when they are needed to save room. Unlike in Harry Potter, however, the students don't immediately begin magical training- first they have to find their artistic aptitude, as this is where the magic comes from. This was an element of the story that I particularly enjoyed, and kids will love the idea of creating weapons out of origami or reciting a Shakespearian soliloquy to put your opponent to sleep. But don't worry- even though there is ultimately a war, the violence is nominal and not especially scary.

The character of Alex is well-developed, and like Harry Potter, he is a boy who does not fit into his existing world, but really finds himself in his magical surroundings. The path isn't easy, however, and he will experience ups and downs with his new friends as most children do. When it seems like his friends are succeeding and leaving him behind, he becomes sullen and jealous, and increasingly brooding. McMann also charmingly deals with the subject of first crushes, and when one of the girls starts playing tricks on him, he doesn't realize that it's because she likes him- or that he likes her too. I also liked the twin aspect of the book (I so wanted to be a twin when I was a kid) and the connection that Alex just can't seem to let go of. Aaron also has a great deal more depth to him than what initially is obvious, and while he's not as noble-hearted as Alex, he's not purely evil either.

The publisher is referring to this as a dystopian novel, and to some degree it is, but I'd push it more towards dystopian fantasy or fantasy with dystopian elements. The plot moves quickly, the writing is solid, and as either a gentle introduction to the genre, or as a fantastical read for Harry Potter fans, The Unwanteds will absolutely hit all the right notes with its readers. Recommended for ages 9+.