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.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Breadcrumbs: A Bewitching and Spellbinding Middle Grade Read

Fifth-graders Hazel and Jack have been best friends forever. Hazel, with her active imagination has difficulty fitting into her new school, but Jack gets her, and he's always managed to balance spending time with her and spending time with "the guys". Sure they've had their arguments, but they've never stayed angry for long- until they did. Until the day that something hits Jack in the eye and suddenly he's mean to her. Until the day that he disappears into the snow-covered woods with the woman made of ice, and doesn't come back. Everybody believes that Jack has gone off to look after an elderly aunt out of town, but Hazel knows that isn't true. Only Hazel knows where he's really gone, and now she must muster all of her courage and venture into the mysterious woods to rescue him and bring him back.

Anne Ursu's new middle-grade novel has been receiving tons of praise this autumn, and it's deserving of every penny. This is exactly the kind of story that I would have loved when I was a kid, and I loved it now. So much in fact that I actually got a finished copy of the book to keep after I was finished with the ARC.  For those of you who are familiar with the Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen, you will immediately pick up on the elements of the story on which this is based, but there is so much more to it than just a straight retelling.

Hazel is the kind of character that you'll fall in love with, and your heart will break for her. Things haven't been easy for her lately. Her parents split up, her father moved away, and now her mother has had to take her out of the private school where she was happy and has put her into public school where she has difficulty fitting in. She's a dreamer with a fantastic imagination, and how can math possibly be more interesting than the magic of snowflakes? Her teacher dislikes her, the other kids tease her, and except for Jack, school is miserable. Hazel's mother is sympathetic, but she's having enough trouble trying to keep their heads above water, and would really like Hazel to just be a normal kid. She even arranges a play date with the daughter of a friend who is about Hazel's age, hoping that they'll become friends. Hazel gets along well-enough with the girl, but she isn't Jack.

Jack has also had a difficult time of things. His mother has been in a deep depression for some time, and his father does the best he can, but it doesn't take away the sting of missing his mother who is there but not really there. When a shard of glass from the Snow Queen's mirror hits him in the eye, everything changes. He is mean to Hazel and stops talking to her with no explanation. Hazel's mother tries to tell her that sometimes it just happens that boys and girls stop being friends, but she refuses to accept this explanation, or the one for his disappearance, and she musters her courage to go and rescue him.

This is such a beautifully written book, and I just loved the references to Narnia and to other classic fairy tales. In a particularly clever moment, the Snow Queen asks Jack if he'd like some Turkish Delight. Jack of course not being familiar with stories doesn't understand, but readers who know the story will appreciate the reference. Once Hazel enters the woods, there are several temptations to distract her from her cause, including a pair of beautiful red ballet shoes, which she would sorely love to have. Meanwhile, Jack's story becomes a more direct retelling of The Snow Queen, and he thinks only of pleasing the beautiful white lady who finds him charming and rewards him with a kiss when he's been good.

This is a story about friendship, loyalty, courage, grief and loss, and not just in a someone died kind of way, but the many different kinds of loss we experience in our lives, and I highly recommend this as a book to be read-aloud and shared, or read alone and treasured by every child who will recognize themselves in Hazel and Jack.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Toymaker: A Nightmarish Middle Grade Debut

Mathias, the grandson of a fading Conjurer has never known life outside of the traveling circus to which his grandfather Gustav belongs. When a mysterious stranger with a silver-tipped cane appears in the audience one evening, Gustav is so shocked by his presence that he stumbles and falls off the stage to his death. Gustv had many secrets, and the only key to unlocking them is a piece of paper that was sewn into his jacket. There are many who would do anything to learn what that paper contains, and danger faces Mathias at every turn. Mathias's quest ultimately leads him to a sinister toymaker who is missing just one thing that will keep his toys from winding down- a human heart.

Sometimes at a takeaway display when things get quiet and no customers are in the booth, I find a quiet moment to pick up a book off the table and read. Over the course of the day I sampled a number of titles I hadn't yet seen to get a feel for them, but the trouble was, we were selling out of things so quickly, (which is a good problem really) I ended up having to put them all back. Then I noticed The Toymaker. On a table with so few copies left of most of the titles, my eye was caught by the lonely book that hadn't seemed to sell any copies, and I immediately decided to read it and find out why.

The answer? It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or whether or not the story is good. It is- but, the book is thick, the cover is a bit young (they really should have kept the British Cover) and it's just one of those books that needs to be hand-sold to adults who will probably be pretty creeped out by it.

That being said, I actually really liked this book. The author does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere, and while there are no indications that the setting is a real place, it perfectly sets the mood. The descriptions of travelling through ice and snow certainly indicate a winter climate, and it's most likely a Germanic country. It's dark and eerie, and you just know it's not your fairy tale land.

The author's vivid use of language really brings these characters to life, and they are deliciously scary. Dr. Leiter is a perfectly evil villain, and his doll Marguerite is a terrific reminder of the sinister aspect of dolls. Marguerite is a lie-detecting automaton. If a person is telling the truth, she points to a blue card. If it's a lie, she points to red. And did I mention she's never wrong? She is just one of the creations of the "Toymaker", who though rarely seen, is at the center of the novel.

The book moves along quickly and takes many twists and turns that will keep readers turning the pages (it is surprisingly difficult to put down) but it's really violent and scary, and not for the faint of heart. There are bones broken, shootings, stabbings, and a grave-robbery to name a few, but fans of books like A Tale Dark and Grimm will likely eat this up. The publisher recommends it for 10 and up, but I'd say ideally, it's for a precocious 10 or fearless 11 or 12-year-old.

As for what's on the mysterious piece of paper that everybody seems to want so much, and the secrets that Gustav was hiding? To find out, you'll just have to read it yourself!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Down the Mysterly River: A Ripping Boys' Adventure

Max the Wolf, a young cub scout suddenly finds himself wandering through a strange forest with no memory of how he got there.Max, it turns out, is an accomplished young detective, and quickly sets to work trying to figure out where he is and why. Before long, he meets a talking Badger named Banderbrock, who is a fearsome warrior, and McTavish the Monster, a foul-tempered tomcat who is fleeing from a savage hunter and his hounds. They somehow manage to overcome the odds to beat him, and the now party of three escape with their lives. Eventually, they pick up a fourth member- a lovable but dopey bear named Walden. The group hears word of a mysterious wizard who can supposedly shed some light on the mystery, and they set out on a quest to find him,  all the while trying to stay ahead of the Blue Cutters- a savage group of hunters who use their blue swords who recreate the forest's inhabitants into something that more suits their taste.

In his middle-grade debut, Bill Willingham, the creator of the popular graphic novel series Fables, has written an old-fashioned mystery/adventure story of the best kind. Max is intelligent, courageous, and quite level-headed, and he uses logic that would impress Encyclopedia Brown to puzzle out where he is and why.

The supporting characters are equally as impressive, and like Dorthy's troupe in The Wizard of Oz, each has their strengths and weaknesses. Banderbrock is the courageous warrior, and he frequently saves the group from peril. McTavish is selfish and srcastic, but is sharp and clever. Walden is true-hearted and fiercely loyal,a and thinks nothing of putting himself at risk for his friends. In fact, at several points during the novel he becomes gravely wounded, but makes a miraculous recovery at each turn.

The concept of the Blue Cutters may seem a bit of a complicated one for young readers, but they play a tremendous role in the mystery, and clever kids will figure out how what they have to do with Max and his friends. I don't want to explain too much or it will spoil the book, but let's just say it was very cool.

The adventure, once it gets started moves along swiftly, and there is plenty of danger and action to suit a middle-grade audience. There is also a fair amount of violence, but not the same kind of violence that inhabits movies or even books like The Hunger Games. The writing is at times overly descriptive, which might turn-off readers, but this kind of language does lend itself well to being read-aloud. It's also worth mentioning that there are no girls in this story, and few grown-ups, and the focus stays primarily with Max and his friends.

Being one of the "hype books" of the fall, I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. I was frequently reminded of books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Wind in the Willows, and while it lacks the flash of some of the more popular fiction, it's a book well-worth sharing with boys between 8 and 10 years old.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Glow: A Pulse-Pounding Dystopian Thriller

Somewhere in a murkey nebula, two ships are bound for earth, decades into their mission. Fifteen-year-old Waverly lives aboard the Empyrean, and is of the first generation of children conceived in space. The large farming vessle is all she knows, and like most teenagers, she's consumed by friends, family and her handsome boyfriend Kieran, the ship's captain to be. When Kieran unexpectedly proproses, Waverly is thrown for a loop. But before she can make a decision, everything changes.

The Empyrean is attacked by their assumed allies aboard their sister ship New Horizons. Violence errupts, people die before her eyes, and all of the girls aboard the ship are taken to New Horizons. The population of New Horizons has been unable to conceive children, and they need the girls in order to preserve their society. Waverly knows that something isn't right aboard this ship, and is determined to escape. But what she will soon realize is that sometimes the enemies aren't all from the outside.

In this riveting series debut, Amy Kathleen Ryan has created a pulse-pounding and complex world. While initially the good guys and bad guys seem clear cut, as the story progresses, the lines become substaintially more blured. Life aboard the Empyrean is peaceful, and it's what Waverly knows, but lately she finds herself questioning her role. Girls are essentially duty bound to marry and have multiple children to preserve their mission, but despite the urgings of those around her, she isn't sure if she's ready, and if Kieran is who or what she wants.

Kieran is handsome, intelligent, and will someday be the ship's captain. They've grown up together, and it seems entirely natural that they'd end up together. But then there's Seth. Quiet, mysterious Seth, and son of the ship's first officer, and Waverly can't help thinking about him. But before you start thinking that this is a space love triangle, this is where everything gets so wonderfully complicated.

After the attack, the novel really becomes two stories. That of Waverly and the girls, and Kieran and the boys, and neither one is pretty. The girls are immediately met by Pastor Anne Mather, who is the ship's self-proclaimed spiritual leader and captain. Readers quickly discover that Pastor Mather is a dangerous spin-master who has her people and many of the girls believing different stories about what really happened to the Empyrean. The thing is, while her actions seem evil, they weren't entirely without justifcation. Whether or not the end justifies the means is another story, and one with which Waverly wrestles.

Meanwhile, on board the Empyrean, everything takes a very Lord of the Flies kind of turn as the boys try to save their damaged ship, rescue the few adults who are still alive, and keep some semblance of order. Kieran knows the boys are looking for someone to take charge, and he does, but can he fully justify the consequences of his choices?

There is no graphic violence, sex or swearing in this novel, and while the themes are complex, I would have no qualms about giving this to mature students in middle school who are fans of the genre. Book two isn't due out until at least next year, but you certainly won't forget this one in a hurry.