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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Monster Calls: An Intense and Riveting Read

When the monster comes to Conor at exactly seven minutes past midnight, he is hardly frightened. The monster he's been expecting is the one from his nightmare-the one he's had nearly every night since his mother began the treatments, and it's far more terrifying. The monster in his backyard is different. It's ancient and wild and what it wants from Conor is the one thing that he fears more than anything- the truth!

Every once in a while comes a book that is such a true masterpiece it's hard to know where to begin to rave about it. It's dark and deep and tightly written, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since I finished it. There is a particular theme in this book, that I've seen in a few other's I've read this year as well, which is about knowing a truth in your heart and being afraid to face it. It also looks at what happens when adults try to sugarcoat the truth from children.

The monster who appears to 13-year-old Conor takes the form of an old Yew tree. He promises to tell Conor 3 stories, but in exchange, wants a story from Conor. Not just any story will do, however. He wants the real story. The true story that Conor knows but hasn't wanted to tell. The story about what is going to happen to his mother, and what will happen to him.

Is the monster real? Maybe. Conor initally thinks that it's a dream, but then sees the evidence of the monster's visit. On the other hand, maybe the monster lives inside Conor. Maybe it represents everything that he is feeling, and it's the way he copes with everything that is going on. In the course of the monster's visits, Conor learns some important lessons. He learns that good and evil are not always as simple as he thinks. He learns that sometimes people do evil things for reasons that are good. Sometimes people do things that are good for reasons that are bad. Sometimes motive doesn't matter and it's the result that matters.

This story is based on an idea from the brilliant Siobhan Dowd, who died from breast cancer before she was able to write this book, and you can tell what a personal story this would have been for her. Ness perfectly captures the emotional roller coaster of an isolated and frightened boy, and he'll pull you along with him until the heartbreaking finale.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Okay For Now: A Notable Tween Read

Fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck is starting eighth grade in a new town and a new house.  His only consolation is the Joe Pepitone jacket (a popular New York Yankee of the time) that Holling Hoodhood gives him before he leaves, and is as Doug explains, is the only thing he owns that hasn't been previously owned by someone else in his family.  His father is a bully, he has to share his room with his jerk of an older brother, and he has one more older brother in Vietnam who used to be a jerk, but changed when he went into the military. 

The cards seem to be stacked against Doug until a few things happen. 1. He meets local girl Lil Spicer, who gets him a job as a delivery boy for her father's deli, and teaches him how to drink a really cold coke. 2. He discovers the book of Audubon plates in the library, and begins taking drawing lessons with library employee Mr. Powell. 3. He meets the eccentric writer Mrs. Windermere, who drags him and Lil into a broadway adaptation of Jane Eyre. 

Through these experiences, Doug learns about life, loss and love, and he finds the strength to endure an abusive father, and overcome the skinny thug reputation that he's been saddled with. 

This stand alone companion to the Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars, though is a worthwhile read in it's own right, and is full of well-drawn, and interesting characters. One thing that Gary Schmidt does well is create characters, and he's certainly done it here. 

The story opens with Doug's family being forced to move to a new town in upstate New York when his father gets a new job working at the local paper mill with his buddy. Doug, a typical fourteen-year-old is angry about the move, and especially the fact that his new house (the dump as he calls it) is smaller and shabbier, and he'll have to share a room with his older brother who also bullies him. He walks around town with a tremendous chip on his shoulder, and while he's aware that he's acting like his eldest brother, he doesn't see a reason not to. 

Doug's brother Christopher, (the one at home) immediately gets into some trouble with the law, and is under suspicion of theft, making things even more difficult for Doug. Whether or not Christopher is guilty of anything is irrelevant- the town believes he is, and expects Doug to be the same. School starts off on a rocky note, and most of his teachers treat him like he's a criminal. This is a classic case of living up or down to expectation, and Doug decides that if nobody is going to give him a chance, he might as well be the troublemaker they think he is. 

Doug is an extremely well-developed and sympathetic character, and he's refreshingly honest. His narration is blunt and brave, and you can feel the emotion behind everything he writes. He wants to be a good kid. He wants to be a kid that people think of as dependable and likeable, but sometimes his life overwhelms him and he gives up.

Doug's brother's are also interesting characters, and there is a lot more to them than it initially seems. Christopher, Doug's second older brother, doesn't even have a name for the first part of the book, and seems to be following in his father's footsteps. He belittles Doug at every chance, steals his stuff, and seems to be a criminal in the making. Lucas, the eldest, returns from Vietnam in a wheelchair with his legs gone, and damaged eyes, and he's emotionally wrecked. Christopher, incidentally is the only one in the family strong enough to carry Lucas' wheelchair, and in his interactions with Lucas, readers start to see glimpses of someone who might be a decent person. 

And then there is Lil, who becomes Doug's friend, and doesn't take any crap from him. She has a strong personality, and she brings out the good part of Doug. She's the first girl that he falls in love with, and they form a really special bond. 

There are a number of other characters whom Doug meets on his deliveries, and they are quirky, interesting, and really give the reader a sense of the community. The characters I couldn't like were Doug's parents. His mother is basically a battered housewife, always walking on eggshells and trying to avoid her husband's wrath. She seems to love her kids, but she's pitiable. Doug's father is an abusive bully through and through, and his buddy Ernie Eco is just as bad. His dad is quick with his fists, doesn't provide for his family, and has a tremendous sense of entitlement. He acts like he's better than everybody, and complains bitterly about everyone he knows. There isn't a single redeeming quality about him, and even his one decent act at the end (not explicitly stated but implied) isn't enough to make me believe that there is anything good or decent about him. Doug certainly implies that he changes, but it's at the end of the book, and a bit too convenient for me. 

Okay For Now is an extremely compelling novel and should be high in your to read pile. The writing is excellent, and the author gives his narrator such a clear and wonderful voice that he'll stick with you long after you've finished the book. There is no swearing or gratuitous violence, but the author does touch on some sensitive issues- such as public feeling towards Vietnam and abuse, which makes it a more suitable read for grade 6 and up. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Willow Falls Series: Middle Grade Mastery

Many years ago, I picked up one of Wendy Mass' first middle grade novels entitled A Mango Shaped Space. I was hugely impressed with her writing and have since made a point of reading every single one of her books as it comes out. Her newest series of books all take place in a town called Willow Falls where interesting and unusual things tend to happen.

The series launches with 11 Birthdays, which is a kind of Groundhog Day story for kids. Amanda and Leo, born on the same day and best friends since birth have always celebrated their birthdays together. But on their tenth birthday, the friends have a falling out and stop speaking. Now they are about to celebrate their eleventh birthdays alone, and little do they know that that it's a day that they will repeat over and over again until they learn to work together to break the cycle.

One of the wonderful things about this book is the way the author so realistically captures the changing nature of boy/girl friendships at a particular age. Crushes develop, interests change, and it's hard to just hang out. It's a difficult and painful transition, and Amanda, who was used to doing everything with Leo just couldn't understand why he would make fun of her to his male friends. Leo of course didn't mean it. He was simply trying to look cool in front of the guys, but Amanda didn't know that, and he didn't tell her. So what do they do? They stop being friends and live with hurt feelings instead of talking it out and trying to fix their friendship.

The day of their eleventh birthday is awful. Nothing seems to go right for Amanda, and the week leading up to the party doesn't get any better. When the kids ditch her to go to Leo's more extravagant party, Amanda is devastated, and she can't wait to get to bed and end the day. But it's not over- not by a long shot. When she wakes up the next morning it's her eleventh birthday all over again. The first time around, Amanda does everything exactly the same, but then she realizes the opportunity she's been given, and starts to make changes. At first the changes are small, but then she gets bolder and takes more chances, and each day teaches her a little bit more about who she is.

Eventually, Amanda realizes that Leo is also repeating the day and convinces him to work with her to try and figure out why it's happening and how to end it. The shared experience also gives them a chance to work things out and to realize how much they've missed each other's friendship, and only then do they move onto the next day, with everybody else in the town none-the-wiser.

The second book, Finally returns to Willow Falls and readers meet Rory, a girl who is about to turn 12, and has a mile-long list of all the things she's going to be allowed to do as soon as she turns twelve. As soon as her birthday is over, Rory can't wait to start checking off all of the things on her list. But as she'll discover, being old enough isn't the same as being ready, and sometimes being grown up means knowing when to wait.

I loved this book. I remember being twelve and like Rory, wanting to seize the world and feeling so grown up.
I didn't try all of the things that Rory did quite as quickly as she did, but so many things change at twelve, and it's hard not to feel like you have to keep up. I won't spoil the book by revealing too much, but let's just say that a killer bunny and an embarrassing allergy are just a couple of the disasters that Rory faces. Amanda and Leo from the previous book also make an appearance, and the three end up forming a solid friendship.

The third, and most recent book in the series is 13 Gifts, and you guessed it- the main character is about to turn 13. Tara, a shrinking violet, lands herself in hot water when she tries to steal the school mascot- a goat, in order to fit in with the popular girls. As kids like that tend to do, they completely set her up, and Tara ended up taking the fall, while they fled. As punishment, her parents decide to send her to stay with her aunt, uncle and younger cousin Emily in Willow Falls instead of taking her to Madagascar on her mother's research trip.

When Tara finds out that she's being shipped off to Willow Falls, she can't think of worse torture. It's been years since she's seen her aunt, uncle and cousin, and her parents haven't gone back there since graduation. When she arrives, she discovers that she's lost both her mother's iPod, her cell phone and her money, and now she has to figure out a way to replace them without her mother knowing. Her solution leads her to a mysterious old shop run by an equally mysterious lady, who contracts her to find a list of 13 items before her 13th birthday. Tara has no idea what the items are or where she'll find them, but nothing happens in Willow Falls without a purpose, and that purpose will only reveal itself when everything falls into place.

As in the previous two books, Wendy Mass explores a number of relevant issues to tweens. Tara isn't a bad kid. But making friends is difficult when you move around so much and have an oddly overprotective mother, and her part in the unfortunate prank was an attempt to please her by fitting in with the popular kids. She also examines issues of friendship, and of faith, and about understanding whether or not the things you do are because you believe in them, or because you think you should.

The thing I love most about these books is that as realistic as they are, they also contain whimsy and a hint of magic, and I think that the possibilityof magic is something you should never be to old to believe in.