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, December 10, 2012

True (...Sort of) by Katherine Hannigan: Must-Read Middle-Grade

Delly (Delaware) Pattison knows that she's everything they say she is. She's trouble, she's bad, she's hopeless. She doesn't mean to be, but she also doesn't know how not to be. Everything she thinks will be great fun turns to trouble, and if ever she needed a surpresent (a surprise that turns into a present) it's now. Brud Kinney wants to play basketball like nobody's ever seen, and when the Boyds arrive, Brud meets somebody who plays like he's never seen. Ferris Boyd is unlike anyone Brud or Delly have ever met, but she will impact both of their lives like they could never have imagined, and nothing will ever be the same.

I LOVED this book so much, I seriously have been waiting all day for a quiet moment to rave about it. This is a gem of a book that really gets under your skin and is completely unforgettable.

Eleven-year-old Delly knows that she's bad. She doesn't mean to be bad-really she doesn't, but everybody's been telling her she's trouble for so long, she knows in her heart it's true. All the trouble and the hurt is replaced with mad, and comes out as  fighting and yelling, inevitably getting her into more trouble. But the thing about Delly is that she isn't bad at all. She's got a big heart, and is such an original spirit that the adults around her just don't really get her.

The real truth, is that all Delly really wants is to make her mother proud, and this, along with her brother RB's suggestion that she count and ask questions when she wants to yell or fight, helps her to start controlling her behaviour. The trouble with questions though, is that sometimes the answers can hurt,

The game changer in Delly's life is Ferris Boyd- the boy who's actually a girl, who doesn't speak and can't be touched.  Ferris is a real puzzle to Delly, and Delly finds herself wanting to be her friend. The way their friendship develops is beautifully written. Their friendship makes Delly's heart hurt just a little bit less each day, and Ferris gradually brings out the gentle and softness that she'd lost.

This book has the same kind of classic potential as Bridge to Terabithia.  It is a book about children who find each other and need one another whether they realize it or not. It's a book about keeping secrets and trusting the right people with secrets, and about understanding that a friendship is something you share- not keep for yourself.

There are so many things to love about this book, but you'll have to read it to discover them all for yourself.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Every You, Every Me: An Enthralling Photographic Mystery

Evan, a tormented teen, starts to discover a series of unnerving photographs- some of which feature him. Someone is messing with him- threatening him- but Evan has no idea who it could be. Worse, ever since Ariel's been gone, he's barely slept, and spends every night torturing himself for his role in her absence. As crazy as it seems, Evan starts to believe that it's Ariel punishing him. The more Evan starts to unravel the mystery, the more his paranoia and insomnia intensify, and the more he starts to unravel. Told with black-and-white photographs insterted between the pages, this is a one-of-a-kind departure for a one-of-a-kind author.

As often happens, I've had this book sitting on my shelf for quite some time, and as I've been selling it this season, my curiosity grew until I couldn't wait anymore to read it.

This is such a unique and intense mystery, and I was completely hooked from the first page. Where Ariel is, and what actually happened to her is a deliciously slow reveal. At the start of the novel, we know that Ariel is gone, and that Evan blames himself. Is she dead? Has she run-away? Does anybody know where she is? Will she/could she come back? These are all questions that were running through my head throughout the novel.

I also loved the way the photographs are interspersed with the text, allowing readers to see exactly what Evan is seeing. When you look at the photographs, you truly understand the phrase "a picture's worth a thousand words".  Each photograph reveals a piece of the puzzle, and builds tension until the shocking ending.

The writing style is also unique. Told in Evan's voice, the prose takes the form of a letter to Ariel that clearly will never be sent. While the strikethroughs have frustrated some readers, I found them extremely intriguing and effective. The crossed-out lines are a story unto themselves. They are a kind of un-edited, stream-of-consciousness free-write, which made Evan's unravelling even more visible.

Due to the darkness of the story, the novel may not be the best choice for a younger reader, but for mature readers in 8th grade and high school, this is a fast-paced, highly readable mystery that will keep you guessing until the last chapter.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

End of Days: A Page-Turning Teen Read

The year is 2012, and all of the world's most renowned astrophysicists, theoretical mathematicians and astronomers have died within the same 12-month period. Except they haven't. Their deaths have been faked, and They've been taken by the International Aerospace Research Institute to hopefully find a way to destroy an asteroid (200m in diameter) that will collide with earth in approximately 24 years. Seven years later, their mission is revealed by the brilliant and reclusive innovator Joshua Fichett, whose alleged death the next day is attributed to a Judgement Day group who believe that the asteroid is God's way of purifying the earth. As the day of impact approaches, society crumbles, resulting in supply shortages, violence and desperation.

Meanwhile, Fitchett, who staged his death is working on his own solution to the disaster. He recruits hundreds of gifted children and 16-year-old gang-leader Billy to lead them. The End of Days is drawing closer, and Billy and the children are the Earth's last, best, hope to preserve civilization.

When I started this book, I have to admit I was skeptical. However: It only took a couple of chapters before I was completely sucked in and absolutely riveted. Aftermath novels are extremely popular right now, but what makes Eric Walter's book unique is that he explores the impact of this impending disaster on society as it waits for the disaster.

When Fitchett makes his announcement, the reaction is understandably doubtful. They are the words of a crazy man- one who has spent too much time away from society, and surely must be wrong. But as the evidence starts to prove him correct, the world takes a different turn. In the ensuing years leading up to the disaster, Walters presents a picture of a different world than the one we know. It's a dog-eat-dog world, where religious extremists find legs, and essential supplies such as food and fuel are scarce. Poverty, starvation and violence are part of the norm, and it is an overall bleak, and chaotic environment.

The writing is tightly focused, the story suspenseful, and offers a lot of ideas for discussion. For as long as I can remember there has been speculation about the Nostradamus and Incan prophecies predicting the end of the world. So far, they've been refuted, disputed and dismissed, and the world has continued as normal. But- what if the end of the world were truly imminent? Does a visionary like Fitchett exist who could find a solution? Would religious extremists become the new leaders? These are all questions I pondered while reading the book, and Walters' vision is not difficult to imagine.

I've read quite a few of Eric Walters' books, and this is by far the best of the bunch. It is thoughtful, suspenseful and realistic, and there is no romance or teen angst to disrupt the narrative.  As a Red Maple Award nominated title for 2012, I expect that this highly absorbing and entertaining  novel will be a popular choice with teens and tweens- and especially boys.

Highly recommended!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Must Read Middle-Grade: The Casson Family Saga by Hilary McKay

Welcome to the world of the Casson family. There's Eve and Bill, the clan's artist parents, Caddy (Cadmium) the eldest, then Saffy (Saffron), Indgo and Rose.  If you live in Britain, Hilary McKay might already known to you. If you don't know her, and you've enjoyed books by authors such as Beverly Cleary, Gennifer Choldenko or Jeanne Birdsall,  you should run out and buy these books for yourself, or your favourite 10 to 13-year-old reader.

The series officially begins with Saffy's Angel, which introduces the family, and middle-child Saffron. All of the Casson family are named for colours on the colour spectrum, except Saffy. This leads Saffy to realize that she's adopted, and the story focuses on her quest to find out where she came from but also solidifies her place within the family.

Next comes Indigo's Star, which is the only book focusing on Indigo- the only boy in the family. It's a story about bullying, and friendship, and as with the first book, McKay depicts the way that the family comes together when it matters, and the closeness that the siblings share.

The 3rd and 5th books feature the baby of the family- Rose. Rose, affectionately called "Permanent Rose" (Which is also the name of the 3rd book) because of her premature birth and initial uncertainty of her survival, picks up shortly after the events of book 2, and really demonstrates the feistiness  and determination of this character. Book 5, titled Forever Rose, picks up about a year or so after book 4, and Rose is feeling somewhat left behind. Saffy and Indigo, now teenagers, are busy with their teenage pursuits, and Caddy has been MIA ince her almost wedding just over a year ago. But Rose being Rose, she doesn't stay down for long, and readers are treated to a first-person account of Rose's irrepressible spirit.

Book 4, Caddy Ever After, focuses on the romantic entanglements of a now 19-year-old Caddy. Not to be outdone, each of her siblings also has a tangle with love, and four hilarious, and intertwining stories emerge. McKay also returns the focus to Caddy in the sixth book and prequel to the series called Caddy's World, introducing readers to Caddy at 12-years-old, the year that everything changes for her and her family.

Eve and Bill, though both artists, are quite different. Eve reminds me a great deal of the Jennifer Saunders character from the Britcom Absolutely Fabulous, (though without the drug abuse and excessive drinking), and I always picture Bill Nighy (another famous British actor) as the dad- but also completely wholesome. The pair, while not divorced, live apart during the week. Bill retains a flat and a girlfriend in the city, (though he does come home occasionally and phones almost daily) and Eve stays at home with the children, and has a sort of studio in a shed on their property. They are both loving parents, and devoted to each other and their children, but parenting is a bit of an abstract idea, and thus the children's upbringing is quite unusual- and entertaining!

Ever since the publication of Saffy's Angel in 2002, this series has been one of my favourites to read and recommend to girls who want the depth but not the content of YA.  Hilary McKay is a masterful writer, and her characters really come to life on the page. The stories are funny, fast-paced, and really entertaining. The children are realistic, the parents frazzled, and no matter what kind of situations they face, or what different directions life pulls them in, the closeness they share is unfaltering.

The Casson family is unconventional and off-beat, but are also a warm, loving and realistic family that you will wish you were part of, and want to spend time with.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip: A Home Run Read

When a freakish injury ends high school freshman Peter Friedman's career, he has a few things to figure out. Is there life after sports? Why did his grandfather just hand him thousands of dollars of camera equipment, and is it his imagination, or is the hot star of the girl's swim team flirting with him? In his new novel for tweens, Jordan Sonnenblick explores themes of friendship, romance, family, and tragedy, all with his signature humour and warmth.

A star pitcher/catcher in elementary school, Peter thought he had it all figured out. He'd play high school ball, get scouted, and eventually play in the major leagues. When he suffers a career-ending elbow injury and is told he'll never be able to play ball again, he feels like he's gotten the wind knocked out of him.

In an age where we are reading almost daily about serious injuries to young athletes, this novel imparts an important message to anyone who has ever devoted themselves to a single sport or hobby. Yeah it sucks to see your dream disappear, but when you're only 14, it's not the end of the world. He also happens to be a talented photographer (having been taught from an early age by his grandfather), and photography can open up a host of new possibilities for him- if only he'll allow himself to see them. Not every kid is necessarily super-talented at many things, but I think the point here is that when you no longer have that all-consuming thing, you can take the time to pursue other things that interest you.

I also like how Sonnenblick explores all of the other things that go through Peter's head when he can't play baseball anymore. Baseball defined him, and without it, he has no idea what he's about or who he is. Baseball was his ticket to popularity. It's what was going to get him noticed- make him stand out. And now, he's got nothing-or so he thinks. He also worries that his best friend AJ (who also plays ball) who will get wrapped up in the team and leave him behind. For a fourteen-year-old kid, these are all valid worries, and they're handled with sensitivity and understanding.

And then there is the girl thing. Angelika, the only other freshman in his advanced photography class, is smart, cute and seems to like him, but Peter is so wrapped up in the loss of his baseball identity, he can't seem to appreciate that she likes him and not AJ.

On the home front, Peter can tell that his grandfather is acting strangely, but his parents are busy and distracted and don't really pay attention when he tries to tell them that something is wrong. Unable to get them to listen, he takes it on his shoulders and tries to handle it himself. His parents are not bad people or irresponsible- there are just some things they can't or don't want to see, and it takes something major to wake them up.

Ever since I read his d├ębut novel Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie (grab it and read it now if you haven't yet), I've been sold on Jordan Sonnenblick as a major talent.  A former 8th grade English teacher, his understanding of kids- and particularly boys- is apparent in everything he writes.  His characters are flawed, yet likeable people, and they feel like kids you either do know, or would want to know. Sonnenblick has never shied away from tackling the difficult issues, and he's also one of the few authors who can make you laugh and cry in the same book. He's got a way of bringing out the humour in the most tragic of situations, and yet he doesn't detract from the seriousness of the issue.

I could go on for pages more about how wonderful this book was, but sports fan or not, this is a must-read tween novel, and I highly recommend that you become acquainted with this incredible author.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Code Name Verity: A Compelling YA Read

When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, her Nazi interrogators give her a terrible choice- record her confession of her mission, or be executed. With each page, Verity intricately weaves her confession, uncovering her past, her friendship with Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked and burning fuselage of their plane. With each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life. But will it be enough to save her from the enemy?

Wow! Wow! Wow! Really- those were the first words that came to mind the entire time I was reading this, and while it started out a bit slow, it became a book I stayed up late reading. I first heard about this on Twitter, and when enough people start raving about something, I take notice!  It's suspenseful, engaging, gut-wrenching, and just an all-around emotional roller coaster. I just don't feel like there are enough words to properly describe what a mind-blowing and essential read this book is.

Code Name Verity is one of those books that is so intricate and complex that you'll keep thinking about it long after you finish reading. It's also the kind of book that adult readers will absolutely devour. You don't read it and think "Wow, this is a great YA novel." You think "Wow! This is a great novel- period!" The first section, structured as a written-confession is told from Verity's point of view (we don't learn her real name until later), and through it, we come to know and love this incredibly brave woman. What does she actually know about the plans of the British? Something, or nothing, but she knows that whatever she tells them, she'd better make it good if she wants to stay alive. On the brink of exhaustion, cold, hungry, and a victim of torture, Verity never falters. She is courageous, gutsy, and quick-witted, and the story she tells is one of tremendous friendship and loyalty.

In an unexpected twist, the perspective shifts to Maddie for the second part of the book, who unbeknownst to Verity has survived the crash and is alive and well, and working with the resistance. Her mission is not as much about the war, as it is about finding a way to rescue Verity. Maddie's story perfectly compliments Verity's story, filling in the gaps in her story. There is, it turns out, a great deal about Verity and Maddie's mission that we didn't know about, and Maddie fills in many of those details. I know I had several "holy crap" moments as a fuller picture came into focus.

The WWII backdrop offers readers fascinating insight into the lives of female pilots during the war, but above all, Code Name Verity is a story of friendship, loyalty and courage. It is about two young women who become as close as sisters, and who are fully prepared to die for one another. It's about friendship and the loyalty, and how far they would go to protect one another.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Middle Grade Monday: A Tinfoil Sky

12-year-old Melody knows what it's like to live rough. For as long as she can remember, she and her mother Cecily have moved from place-to-place, searching for a place to call home. When Cecily gets arrested and sentenced to a month in jail, Mel is sent to live with her grandmother. Although everything is not working out as she'd hoped, the arrangement does allow Mel to find out more about her mother's past, and to gain an understanding of herself and the kind of person that she wants to be.

Cyndi Sand-Eveland's follow-up to Dear Toni, offers readers a gritty and realistic look at what it's like for children without a place to call home.

I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. All the reviews talk about how it's a gritty look at homelessness, which it is, but I don't really see that as being the main theme of this novel. Yes Mel and Cecily have lived under bridges and in their car, but it's less about being homeless than the need and desire to have a home.

Mel's mom Cecily is a mess.  She's immature, irresponsible, and selfish. Her drinking and shoplifting are out of control, and goes from one deadbeat guy to another. She tries to take care of Mel, but she can barely take care of herself, and Mel is often forced to be the adult in their relationship. Mel doesn't approve of her mother, but she loves her, and Cecily loves her. Possibly the single mature decision that Cecily makes is knowing that she is not what's best for Mel, regardless of how hard it is to leave her.

When Cecily announces that they are going back home to live with Mel's grandmother, Mel imagines a loving and nurturing woman whom she can call grandmother, and who will welcome them with open arms. What she doesn't expect is that her grandmother won't even open the door, and that she and Cecily end up once again with no money and nowhere to go.

Mel is a wonderful character. She's world weary, yet vulnerable.  Her life isn't easy, but as we see when she's forced to spend a rainy night hungry and alone in her mother's car, we realize just how young she actually is.

Things seem to go from bad to worse when Cecily is thrown in jail for 30 days, and she's forced to live with her grandmother. She wants to believe that she's important like the judge said, but her grandmother treats her like an unwanted burden. My heart completely broke for Mel the first morning when she's locked out of the apartment because her grandmother is afraid she'll steal her stuff.

Mel finds solace at the town library, and I love that books play such an important role in transforming this girl. Wherever she's gone and whatever she does, she always takes solace in reading. In fact, books are so important, that when the judge asks Mel if there is anything she needs, she shocks everybody by asking for a library card. As the month ticks by, Mel starts putting down roots. She finds a sense of belonging, makes a friend, and even finds a part-time job reading to kids at the library once-a-week. In the back of her mind she knows there's a chance her mother will want to leave, but she desperately wants to believe that they will stay.

I also really liked the way that the relationship between Mel and her grandmother transforms. At first, she can only see Mel as an extension of Cecily- a person who has betrayed her trust and devastated her before. She's understandably not eager to open up her home or her heart, and Mel, feeling rejected and unwanted responds in kind.  Without even realizing it, they start to care about each other, and the house key is a subtle but important representation of the bond that grows between them.

A Tinfoil Sky is a novel about growing up, about finding your place, and about having the maturity to choose what kind of life you want to live, as Mel does at the end of the book. It is a beautifully and sensitively written book, and one which will give readers a lot to think about and discuss.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Middle Grade Monday on Tuesday: Small Medium at Large by Joanne Levy

After getting hit by lightning at her mother's wedding, 12-year-old Lilah Bloom is shocked to discover that she has developed a new talent- she can hear dead people! Among them are her deceased Bubby (Grandmother), a fashion designer and a mischievous boy. Together with a few other ghosts, they help Lilah navigate seventh grade and to face her one big fear- talking to a boy!

As one of the hosts of the weekly Middle Grade Lit chat on Twitter, I made a pledge to myself that I would make a concerted effort this year to try and read even more middle grade this year than I usually do. Thankfully, Canadian author Joanne Levy made this an easy pledge to keep with her debut.

Lilah is a typical 12-year-old. She's wrapped up in school, friends, and of course, boys. What she really wants is for crush Andrew Finkel to notice her and maybe even ask her to the seventh grade dance, but at the same time, the prospect of going out with a boy terrifies her.

One of the things I enjoyed about this book is how completely realistic Lilah is. (Despite having the ability to talk to ghosts.) She's smart, but not obnoxiously so, pretty, but not drop-dead gorgeous, and she has a small circle of friends, but isn't popular. She's a regular, likeable kid, and I would have liked to be friends with her when I was 12.

I also really enjoyed the way the author uses the ghosts, and especially the ghost of her Jewish grandmother  and the prissy fashion designer who of course, bonds with her bubby and is equally full of advice. Lilah's bubbe reminded me a great deal of my own grandmother (who also had a talent for bonding with strangers), and I suspect that were I able to hear ghosts, that's pretty much what it would be like. While it would have been easy to make this a story completely about using her ability to help people (which she does), or to make it something Sixth Sense creepy, that's not what this novel is really about. It's about getting your first bra (and without spoiling it, this scene will make you laugh-out-loud), going to your first dance, kissing your first boy, and helping your hapless divorced Dad get back on the dating scene. The different ghosts all help Lilah understand something new about herself, and the people around her, and to navigate some hilarious, but often embarrassing stumbles.

Overall, Small Medium At Large is a fun and original read, and if you are a fan of books by authors such as Wendy Mass or Laurel Snyder, this is definitely a book to put in your pile!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mr & Mrs. Bunny: A Fun, Whimsical Read

10-year-old Madeline is used to being the sensible one in her family, and taking care of things for her flighty, hippy parents. So when she comes home from school one day and discovers that they've gone missing, she knows what needs to be done. With the help of Mr. & Mrs. Bunny- a pair of fedora-wearing, rabbit detectives (whom she more or less stumbles upon), a garlic bread-loving marmot, and a host of other quirky characters, she sets out to find her parents, learning important lessons about friendship, family, and herself along the way.

Polly Horvath has long been one of my favourite authors, and her newest book exceeded my expectations. Madeline is a character that both adults and kids will enjoy. She's precocious without being obnoxious, and she's very clearly the grown-up in her family. It's not that her parents don't love her- they do, but they are very live-as-you-please sort of people, and have untraditional priorities. They are not the sort of parents who will come and watch her receive her school award, or be impressed that it's being given to her by the Prince of Whales, but getting a pair of white shoes for the event is important to Madeline, and she needs to get them to agree to give her the money. Madeline is thoughtful, wise, and always in charge, but she also demonstrates moments of vulnerability that remind you she actually is a child.

When some some foxes need the help of Madeline's Uncle Runyon (who just happens to be an expert decoder)  to decode a secret recipe for rabbit, they kidnap Madeline's parents in the hopes that they will lead them to him. Unfortunately, neither of them remember where he lives, which poses a problem for the foxes, but they decide to kidnap them anyway until they remember. The foxes really made me laugh. They are totally over-the-top villains, and it works perfectly for this story. They can speak, and write english (entirely self-taught), and they assume that humans are stupid and easily foiled.

Mr. & Mrs. Bunny, having only recently taken up detecting (all because of the fedoras), are immediately taken by Madeline, and offer to take her case. They also insist that she stay with them until they find her parents, and get the idea that they could possibly keep her as a pet. For the first time, Madeline gets a sense of what it's like to be taken care of, and she's really conflicted. On the one hand, she enjoys being parented, but on the other, she's so used to being the adult, she can't quite trust any adult- human or otherwise to be competent to handle anything.

The Bunny's are extremely entertaining, and adults in particular will appreciate the comical banter between them. Polly Horvath does comedy extremely well, and the satire is extremely clever. Some of the jokes might go over the heads of child readers, but there is plenty about this book that will endear it to them.

I am also a sucker for beautiful language, and this book certainly has that. More than a few times I paused reading to take in a particularly wonderful phrase. The author does not shy away from using sophisticated language, and I actually see this as a plus- not a negative. This is a perfect book for both reading aloud, and it should absolutely find a place on the shelf of every middle-grade reader.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Must Read Middle Grade: Storybound by Melissa Burt

In the land of story, children go to school to learn how to be characters. They learn to be heroes, sidekicks, ladies, or even dastardly villains. They then go on to find work in stories written just for them. In our world, 12-year-old Una Fairchild has always felt out of place. That is until she stumbles onto a mysterious book in the library and is transported into Story. But all is not perfect in Story.With a Tale Keeper watching her every move, and whispers of a secret that involves Una herself- one that could put her- and Story- in grave danger!

Many years ago I read a book by Roderick Townley called The Great Good Thing. I'm not sure if it was ever a bestseller, but I loved it. I loved it because the characters in the book knew that they were characters, and yet when the book was closed, they had lives outside of the story. Storybound  reminded me a great deal of that and of course, of Inkheart, to which it's often compared.

Books like this are wonderful because they take you beyond the book, and make you wonder- what do the characters in our favourite stories do when we aren't reading them? Do they have lives outside of their stories? The characters in Storybound certainly do, and Story feels as real and as possible as ours is.

The characters are brilliantly flushed out, and nobody is exactly what they seem. On first blush, Snow is a spoiled and snotty girl, but as the novel progresses, readers learn how much more there is to her than what we saw. Snow is a lonely girl who feels abandoned by her mother (who has left her to live with a seemingly uncaring aunt and uncle) and just wants to feel important. She also wants to capture the attention of Peter, a boy in Story who is training to be a hero. Many of the other characters in Story are also not what they seem, including Una herself.

The story moves along quickly, and though I was wondering in the beginning where it was leading, it wasn't long before I was wholly engaged. I ended up finishing the last 300 pages in the space of a few hours on a Friday night because I simply couldn't put it down. The author creates some wonderful twists and turns, and I have to admit that I was totally taken by surprise by some of the revelations at the end.

Storybound is a really wonderful quest fantasy, and even better, it`s intelligent! It is not so difficult a read that kids will struggle, but it`s content rich, thoughtful, and a perfect book for reading alone or for reading aloud.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Armchair BEA: Introductions

  1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging?
I got into blogging because several of my industry colleagues suggested that I should be sharing my reviews and passion for books.

       2. What are you currently reading, or what is your favorite book you have read so far in 2012?
I am currently reading 3 books: 1. Hunted by Cheryl Reinfield, 2. This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers and 3. Outcasts of River Falls by Jacqueline Guest

       3. Tell us one non-book-related thing that everyone reading your blog may not know about you.
I am a total musical theatre nut and it's probably my second biggest passion (next to books) I am also a virtual social butterfly, but much more shy and reserved in real life. 

        4. What is your favorite part about the book blogging community? Is there anything that you would like to see change in the coming years?
My favourite part about the book blogging community is that it is a community. I love connecting with other people who are huge readers and intelligently and passionately talk/write about the books that they read. I've connected with awesome people this way. 

       5. Has blogging changed the way you think about books and how? 

I'd say yes it has. I've come to think about books more thoughtfully and critically than I did before I blogged. I've learned to go beyond my superficial reaction and consider more carefully my response to a book. 

       6.  Where do you see your blog in five years?
I honestly have no idea. I hope that I am still blogging and have grown it to a sizeable readership. 5 years seems like a really long time from now though, and I'm not sure where life will take me in that time. A lot can happen!

       7. What books do you most enjoy blogging about? 
I blog about the books I enjoy most. I read a lot and will often finish more than one book in a week. My writing time is so limited I'd rather blog about something that is a 4 or 5 star read for me than a book I didn't enjoy. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The One and Only Ivan: An Enchanting Middle Grade Read

Ivan the gorilla is used to being something of a spectacle. Taken into captivity as a juvenile, he's lived most of his life in a domain at the Big Top Mall and Arcade. Life, in general is pleasant for Ivan. He's got his favourite stuffed gorilla toy, friends in Stella the elderly elephant and Bob the stray dog, and his television. Ivan hardly thinks about the jungle at all anymore. Mostly he thinks about his art, and how to capture his thoughts with colour. Then he meets Ruby. Ruby is a baby elephant, taken from her family and brought to Big Top Mall to renew interest in the exhibit. Through her eyes, Ivan comes to see their home, and his art in a different light, and it's up to him to make things change for the better.

It's not very often that a book comes along that gets spoken about in the same breath as Charlotte's Web, but Katherine Applegate's new book has received lots of well-deserved praise and attention since it's release in January, and when we reach the 60th anniversary of its publication, I believe it will be as fondly remembered.

There's no question that animal stories are heart-tugging, but this one is especially so because it challenges us to think about the lives of animals being kept in captivity, and what it does to their quality of life and their happiness.

From the moment you meet him, you know that Ivan is special. Once the star-attraction at the Big Top Mall, he knows that people are not as interested in him as they once were, but that doesn't really bother him.  He has his friends and his art, and his memories of life in the jungle with his parents and twin sister are faint. It has been many years since he's even seen one of his own kind, and though he doesn't initially understand what the feeling is, he's lonely. Ivan's voice is pitch perfect. He has a very simple and straightforward way of viewing the world, and much like Charlotte, he finds his purpose in his promise to Stella to save Ruby.

The novel illustrates the best and the worst of humanity, and captures the both the heart-warming and the heart-breaking aspect of these animals and their relationships. Katherine Applegate is a masterful writer, and the quality of the prose alone makes this a book not to be missed.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Middle Grade Monday: The Humming Room by Ellen Potter

12-year-old Roo is an expert in hiding. Living in an unstable family, there are times when she needs to just disappear out of sight. When her parents are murdered, it's her special hiding place under the trailer that saves her life. Much to Roo's surprise, a wealthy, eccentric uncle agrees to take her into his home on Cough Rock Island. Once a Sanatorium for children with TB, the island is full of legends and secrets. Roo doesn't believe in fairy stories, but what are the strange noises she keeps hearing in the house at night, and who is that strange boy on the river? Roo knows that people are keeping something from her, and she's determined to learn the truth.

Ellen Potter has been a favourite author of mine ever since she published Olivia Kidney back in 2005, and when I learned that she had written a new novel inspired by my childhood favourite The Secret Garden, I knew I had to read this.

What a wonderful treat this was to read! If you are familiar with The Secret Garden, you'll recognize the references to it in this novel,  but it isn't a necessity. Roo, the Mary Lennox character is a quiet and solitary child. When her arrival on Cough Rock Island is met with general indifference by her uncle, she's initially puzzled, (and maybe a bit hurt), but being used to counting only on herself, she's content to "disappear" all day and explore the island.

What I loved most about this book is the gradual transformation of Roo from someone who wants to be left alone to a child who cares about others and is cared about in return. Like the nearly forgotten garden that she lovingly nurtures, the island nurtures something in Roo, and awakens the part of her that probably always wanted to be loved.

The Humming Room is a beautiful novel about friendship, love, and the transforming power of nature, and is a perfect gift for the little girl in your life who still believes in magic.

Monday, May 7, 2012

White Horse: A Post Apocalyptic Debut

30-year-old Zoe is working as a janitor in the labs for Pope Pharmaceuticals when the world comes crashing down. People are dying around her from a cancer-like virus, and nobody knows what it is or how to stop it. When the American President declares that humans are no longer compatible with life, she knows it's time to flee. Scared and alone, she sets off on a journey that will take her halfway around the world. Along the way, she will see the best of and worst of human nature, and realize, that it is our actions and not genetics that define who we are.

This is one of those books that I would have no reason to know about if not for some well-timed tweets from its publisher Simon and Schuster. Being the curious sort, I clicked the link to the description, and was intrigued enough to put it on my to read list. It certainly sounded like a book I'd enjoy, and while there are infinite numbers of MG/teen novels that I'd like to read, I promised myself that I'd devote more time to doing some non-work-related reading. I'm very glad I did.

This book absolutely fascinated me. The author skilfully alternates between the past and the present, allowing the reader to witness the diminishing population, and Zoe's ultimate purpose. The past very much influences Zoe's present, and each glimpse into the past fills in another blank of where she's going and why.

Zoe is a basket case. She's intelligent, but she's a bit of a wandering soul, and took the job at Pope to do something that didn't require her to think too much, and give her some time to sort her life out. Married once in lust, as she described it, she was widowed before she had a chance to love him, and she's really not sure if she knows what love is. She wants to feel it, and maybe could feel it if she'd allow herself, but it takes something bigger than herself to realize what it is.

One of the things that makes post-apocalyptic novels interesting is that they are a study in human nature, and this book is no different. A crisis can both create anarchy and bring out the best in people, and both of these things happen. The name of the virus, White Horse, is coined by a priest who believes the virus is another plague meant to wipe sinners off of the earth. The real source of the virus is even more disturbing, and what's worse, not a stretch to imagine.

The writing is excellent, and Alex Adams fully drew me into this world that became increasingly bleak and terrifying. You can feel the world falling apart, and feel it become more sparse and desperate.  I also really like the randomness of how the virus affects people, and there are some truly deep moments.  A Larger-than-life figure proves to be flawed and human, and a quip about the virus having killed Oprah the month before offers a sobering reminder that in the end, we are all the same. There are a few story elements that definitely ask the reader to stretch their imaginations, but they don't detract from the plot.

The book can be a bit gruesome and has some violent moments, but it would make a good cross-over title for older teens and "new adults" who are graduating from the YA offerings into something a bit more mature. First in a trilogy, this book does have a definitive ending and can be read as a stand-alone, but I am definitely curious to read the next book and see how Zoe's story evolves.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Wonder of Wonder

August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to school- until now. He's about to start fifth grade at Beecher Prep, and it's hard enough being the new kid when you're ordinary- let alone when you have an extraordinary face. Can Auggie convince his classmates to get past his appearance and give him a chance?

I received a copy of this book from Random House a while ago, but not knowing anything about it, I put it on my shelf to read sometime, figuring that with all of the reading I had to do over the next several months, I'd get to it one of these days. Then, all of a sudden I started hearing things about this book. Two different colleagues/friends whose opinions I greatly respect told me that this was a book I had to read. Then I started hearing about it on Twitter, and I just couldn't resist any longer.

The book is so beautifully written, and there are moments of total heartbreak and absolute joy. You will not find another character like Auggie. He knows what he looks like, and he knows how people perceive him. In his short life, he's become a master at recognizing that flicker of shock that registers on a person's face when they first see him, and he knows when adults put on the "too shiny" smile that means they are trying to disguise what they are thinking. Imagine what it felt like as a teen when you had that huge red zit on your nose, and amplify that by 100. Then you might be able to comprehend how Auggie feels when people looks at him. As wise as he's been forced to become, Auggie is still a vulnerable little boy, and the way that people behave towards him reveals a lot about human nature both good and bad.

When his parents introduce the idea of school, Auggie is terrified. He knows that his appearance will make things difficult, and a big part of him wants to stay shielded from the world.  Kids can be extremely kind, and extremely cruel, and Auggie experiences both throughout the school year. Julian is one of the cruel, but as Auggie explains to his mother,  he only acts that way when adults aren't around.

Through the multiple voices in the novel, readers gain deeper insight into the person that everybody else sees.  Auggie's sister Via (short for Olivia) has always been his biggest champion, but now that she's in high school, she's carrying a lot of her own baggage, and just once wants the right to be selfish and think about herself first. Jack and Summer are the first kids to actually accept Auggie, but all friendships have their bumps in the road, and part of Auggie's growth is learning how to accept that people make mistakes, and find a way to get past it.

Every so often, a book comes along that is so unique and special that you just can't wait to share it with everybody you know. This is one of those gems, and I'll tell you right now- you will fall in love.  this is a one-of-a-kind book that you'll remember long after you've turned the last page, and want to start reading again immediately. A warning though:  don't read this without a box of Kleenex nearby. I got about halfway through before I started bawling (and on the subway no less) and I never quite recovered.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Way We Fall: A Chilling Speculative Read

When a deadly virus strikes sixteen-year-old Kaelyn's small island community, the government quarantines the island and posts military to make sure that nobody can get in or out. As the doctors race to find a cure, those who are left fight for dwindling supplies. Kaelyn clings to the belief that there is a way to save her friends and family, but how far will she go to save them, and what will she do if she can't?

This book completely creeped me out, but in a good way because it felt so real and so possible.. From SARS to H1N1, there have been no shortage of epidemic scares, but I think what particularly amplifies the terror of this one is that it takes place on an island.

Imagine living in a place where the only way you got supplies was by shipping them in from the mainland. Now imagine what happens when those supplies stop coming. When the people around you are sick and dying. When stores don't open, when schools are closed, and people point guns at you if you cough or sneeze in front of them. This is the world that Megan Crewe creates in the first book of her new series.

Written in letter/journal format, Kaelyn does her best to accurately record everything that happens so that Leo (the boy who was her best friend until their falling out a year ago) will know the truth in case nobody on the island makes it. As the disease claims more and more people, Kaelyn's fear is palpable. Her father, a scientist is working around the clock to try and figure out a way to treat the disease, but they are working against a clock that is rapidly running out. Kaelyn's entries also reveal the absolute terror of isolation as weather knocks out most of their communications systems, and completely cuts them off from the mainland.

Also chilling are the episodes of cruelty and anarchy that occur when the community is at its most vulnerable. Not only do some people start breaking into stores and stealing, but they also start burning homes and killing people who seem to be infected with the virus. It's horrible to imagine, but not unlikely that this would and could happen.

What I liked most about the book is how the author manages to make it an extremely human story. In the midst of everything that's happening, Kaelyn finds a friend in the girl who she thought was her rival and romance with a boy she thought was an enemy. When I read this on the jacket copy I rolled my eyes thinking it would be really corny, but it wasn't. I think circumstances have a way of drawing people together who in any other time might not have connected, and Kaelyn is totally aware of this. Would either of these relationships have happened if not for the virus? Probably not, but does it really matter? No.

My only criticism of the book is that it left me with some nagging questions. Who was patient zero? How did it get to the island, and how did it spread? Most likely it is airborn, but that's really just a guess. Hopefully they will be better answered in book 2.

Overall, I thought that this was a fantastic and thrilling read, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is looking for something thrilling yet not dystopian or post-apocalyptic.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder: An Unexpected Treasure

When 16-year-old Amber sneaks out early on a rare spring-like morning, she's hoping to have one perfect day. One day where she can escape the pressures of family and friends. One day that's just for her before her world is turned upside down. When she meets Cade, they form an instant connection. Cade has also come to the beach also looking for an escape, but for a very different reason. Neither of them know what tomorrow will bring, but whatever happens, they are determined to make the most of every minute of the day before.

There is a bit of a story behind how I came to read this book. I was going through my Simon & Schuster catalogue choosing the YA novels I want to stock & promote this fall and the book caught my attention. After reading a few positive blog reviews about it, I decided that it looked like something I'd be interested in reading and I went rummaging through my books to find an ARC. I really wasn't planning on reading it that day. I'd already started reading something else, and had several more in the to-be-read stack behind me, but something compelled me to open it up. I did, and after just three pages I was hooked and decided I had to read it immediately.

Told in verse through Amber's eyes, readers gradually discover the reasons why both Amber and Cade have come to the beach. Tomorrow is a day that both are dreading, and that neither want to arrive. Tomorrow is a day full of unknowns. All they know is that tomorrow is when their lives will irrevocably change, and it scares the heck out of both of them.

As you have probably already figured out from the title of this post, I absolutely loved this book! It's such a compelling and beautiful story, and it ended up being completely different than what I was expecting. This is not a book about a great love story, or even a tragic one. It is about two people that find something unexpected in each other, and give each other the courage to face whatever happens tomorrow.

I loved Amber's character. Amber loves music and movies, and even loves to drum. Though her parents are divorced, she sees her father regularly, has a loving and supportive mother, and a good relationship with her younger sister. I love how they leave each other notes when there is something they just can't express by talking. Amber's world is about to change, and she's confused and scared. All she wants is some time to herself to block everything out, and that's what her day is all about.

When Amber meets Cade, they just seem to understand each other, and it's easy between them. No  obligation, no questions, no promises. Amber senses that Cade is hiding something, but she leaves it to him to reveal it in his own time and own way- if he wants to. The jacket copy implies that there is a darkness about him, but I didn't really see that. I don't think you could even call it brooding. His tomorrow is also something major, and he just wants this day to live it as fully as he can.

I love the impulsiveness of the day, and the magic that they find in simple things like throwing glitter into the air, flying a kite and flipping a coin. Days like that are so special and rare, and the author does a phenomenal job of drawing the reader so completely that while you're reading it everything else disappears.

The language is absolutely beautiful and there were so many passages that I wanted to highlight and quote, but there was one that particularly stood out for me (as it did for many others judging by the number of times it's referenced on Goodreads.)

when I read a book, 
I want to savor 
each word, 
each phrase, 
each page, 
loving the prose 
so much, 
I don't want it 
to end. 

Other times 
the story pulls me in, 
and I can hardly 
read fast enough, 
the details flying by, 
some of them lost 
because all that matters 
is making sure 
the character 
is all right 
when it's over.” 

This book was both of these things for me. It was a story that I could hardly read fast enough and yet I didn't want to finish it. I wanted to linger over it and save it, and savour it, and I didn't want it to end. It's a book that will stay with you once you've finished reading, and like the seashells in the sand, is an absolute treasure. 

Highly recommended for Grade 6 and up. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Re-reading Jane Austen

It is a truth universally known that Jane Austen is a constant staple in our pop-culture. You can scarcely turn around without finding an adaptation of her books or her life in some incarnation, and the masses continue to eat them up. (Myself included) We love to passionately argue over which Darcy is our favourite (Colin Firth-no contest) and the 2009 parody of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a smash success, popularizing the literary mash-up genre. Recently, I came across a charming BBC mini-series called Lost in Austen, and I confess- I was bitten once again by the Austen Bug.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time as an adult was a wonderful experience. Having read the novel at least 3x in university, and having been consistently exposed to the various adaptations, I wasn't sure what to expect with this re-reading. Had I stayed away from the book long enough that I could find anything fresh to consider? Would I look at the book any differently than I had as a young woman in her early 20's with all the naivete and lack of life experience of some of her characters? And most importantly, could I enjoy reading something again that I practically knew by heart?

The answer turned out to be a resounding yes on all counts. Knowing the story so well, there were no real surprises in the plot, but I was surprised to find myself paying much more attention to the narrator's voice this time, and looking for the subtexts that I may not have seen in my earlier readings.

Firstly, there were numerous times that I wanted to throttle Elizabeth for being so ridiculously proud, and for her own prejudices against Darcy, all formed on a comment that she overheard and took out of context. Not that Darcy was innocent either- he had his own share of faults, but I had never really considered his point of view before, and I found that I had a great deal more sympathy for him this time than I had in the past. He totally put himself out there for her and she stomped on him quite horribly. It reminded me just how easily we can prove our own opinions (justified or not) when we are determined to believe something.

I also found it much more difficult to feel any empathy for Jane, who when I consider it, really didn't act like a woman in love. She certainly was intelligent enough to recognize that Bingley would be a good match, and I believe that the attraction was real, but if I've learned anything in life, it's that you can't expect anyone else to know what you want or how you feel if you don't go after it. I'm not sure if Jane could have won either way- had she come on too strongly, she could have been   rejected for being improper and wanton, and she still wouldn't have gotten what she wanted.

There were no great surprises in Lydia and Kitty, though I did find myself wondering how much improved Kitty was, and how her story ended. Most likely, one of her sisters introduced her to the "right" sort of gentleman, and she probably settled down and lived a quiet and ordinary life.

And what of Mary? Poor Mary. Stuck in the middle, she wasn't really connected to either group of sisters. Elizabeth and Jane were close in age and always together. Lydia and Kitty were also chummy, and that left Mary with what? Not much really, and that probably didn't change. I doubt if any of her married sisters particularly wanted her around. (I wouldn't have) I always thought she would have been the perfect match for Mr. Collins- they certainly deserved each other, but maybe there were deeper reasons that nobody seemed interested in finding her a match.

In the end, I very much enjoyed re-reading Pride and Prejudice, and it has inspired me to revisit other classics that I studied in university and see how my readings of them will change. Now my question to all of you:

What book(s) did you read in school that you'd like to re-read at your current stage of life (whatever that might be) and how do you think your reading will change?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Going Bzrk for BZRK!

Unbeknownst to the general population, there is a war being fought on a biological and a technological level for all of humanity. On one side is the Armstrong Fancy Gift Corporation, and the conjoined Armstrong twins. (Yes I said conjoined, and yes they're pretty freaky characters) They believe that in order for humanity to reach a state of harmony and complete happiness, we need to all share one mind. In other words (and if you've ever watched Star Trek, you'll know what I mean) they want to turn the human race into BORG. They do this by implanting nanobots into people without their knowledge, and gaining control over their actions. On the other side of this war (and presumably our side, though how can you really be sure) is a top secret agency called "BZRK", whose aim is to stop the Armstrong Twins and preserve our individuality. They have earned their name due to the fact that if their biobots (a biological version of the nanobot which melds with the human brain) get damaged, the person suffers brain damage and either goes bzrk or dies.Teens Noah and Sadie are recruited by BZRK to help bring down the creepy Armstrong Twins, and if they fail, all of humanity is at risk. 

In this new age of reaching kids on a technological level, BZRK perfectly melds book & technology.  I don't know how he came up with this concept, but it's brilliant. Labeled a "transmedia" series, the series crosses over multi-platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, several websites, a downloadable video game, and of course the print book.  It operates on the presumption that fans who discover the web content will flock to the book, and kids who read the book will go online and explore the enhanced content. 

The book is fast-paced, thrilling, and just odd enough that it will pique readers' curiosity and get them invested in the story. While character development is minimal, the teens are quite believable. They think and act like teens, and neither Sadie nor Noah become immediate superheroes. They get scared, frustrated, and injured, and at times, distracted by their attraction for one another. 

Michael Grant certainly knows what appeals to kids, and most importantly, he has accomplished a rare feat- he's created something that is not only well-written and original, but is also something that will hook that ever elusive teenage boy and have him looking forward to the next book in the series. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Fourth Stall: A Magnificent Middle Grade Series

Mac (whose real name is Christian but has been nicknamed MacGyver for his ability to solve problems) is the sixth grade equivalent to “The Godfather”.  His office is set up in the fourth stall next to the high window of the boys’ bathroom in the East Wing of his middle school.  There is no toilet there any longer (due to an unfortunate prank a long time ago that resulted in the principal getting crazy glued to the toilet seat), and is in a part of the school that hasn’t got any classrooms, so nobody ever comes in there except for his clients, who are usually other kids from the school. These “clients” come to Mac whenever they have a problem, and for a reasonable fee, (and/or sometimes a favour) Mac will solve it. He’s got connections everywhere, and a network of other kids he calls on to get the job done. Vince, his best friend and business partner keeps the books, Joe is the muscle, and Tyrell is surveillance. (And his camouflage techniques would put the best private eyes to shame)  What do they do with the money? For the last four years they’ve been saving their earnings to buy tickets to see the Chicago Cubs play in the World Series, and it seems like this year might be the one, so making money is more important than ever. Business is booming until one particular Monday when trouble walks into their office, and this time it may be more than even Mac can handle. 

II   In book 2, a new problem lands on Mac's desk in the form of an eighth grade girl. She claims that a teacher in the school is unjustly giving her detention, and wants Mac to do something about it. But that's not the only problem that Mac has to solve. The new No-Nonsense Vice Principal is on Mac's tail, the school is being forced to take an impossibly difficult standardized test, and the cafeteria is serving ridiculously unhealthy lunches. Strange things are happening in the school, and Mac's determined to get to the bottom of it before it's too late! 

     This new middle grade crime series is clever, funny, and refreshingly original. Drawing inspiration from "The Godfather", boys will eat this up. Author Chris Rylander completely gets what Middle School is all about, and more importantly, he gets boys.  Mac is cool, confident and popular, and boys will want to be him. He's flawed, but not a jerk, and he's easy to like and easy to forgive when he screws up. The cast of bullies that Mac occasionally uses as hired hands are completely over the top and hilarious, (Come on-a bully named "Kitten"?)  and the villains are completely villainous. 

I     The writing is intelligent, the plots move at a rapid pace, and they are filled with suspense, crazy characters, and several laugh-out-loud moments. I read the first chapter out loud to my non-book-loving boyfriend, and he was laughing so hard he had tears coming out of his eyes! Being a die-hard baseball fan myself, I also completely related to their eternal loyalty to the Cubs. Our Toronto team hasn't won a championship in nearly 20 years, but every year we continue to hold out hope that this season will be the one! Chris Rylander has also managed to incorporate some heavier issues such as bullying, poverty, and friendship without ever seeming heavy handed or preachy.

      From the moment I started reading I was completely hooked on this amazing new series. I gobbled up both books in succession, and I can't wait for book three to release next year. 



Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Observe No Name Calling Week with Addie on the Inside

12-year-old Addie Carle is the only girl in her group of friends. She is smart, outspoken and opinionated, and maybe just a tad obnoxious. As seventh grade progresses, Addie's tough exterior becomes just a little difficult to maintain, and she starts questioning everything about herself.  Told in accessible verse, James Howe perfectly captures the inner turmoil of a girl who just doesn't quite fit in, and how she faces the pain of growing up.

Ten years ago, James Howe published a groundbreaking book called The Misfits. Set in a town called Shaker Falls, the book focuses on a group of four friends- Addie, Bobby, Skeezie and Joe, who for various reasons are slightly on the outside. Tired of the bullying and the name calling in school, the gang decides to challenge the popular kids for a seat on Student Council running on the platform of "No Name Calling", hoping to wipe out name calling and taunting in their school. The book was the inspiration for No Name Calling Week, which is observed across the U.S. and Canada. A few years later, he returned with Totally Joe, told from Joe's point of view, and this past fall, followed up with Addie on the Inside, told from Addie's point of view.

Addie is not like the other girls. She's smart and speaks her mind. She's tall, flat-chested and hangs out mostly with guys, which results in frequent teasing from her classmates. Her boyfriend DuShawn is black, which makes the black girls hate her, and he's popular, which leads to whispers about what he could possibly see in her. DuShawn also doesn't help matters when he seems to always be telling her that she's too...a lot of things. Added to the mix is Becca, who was Addie's friend when they were little and before she moved away, but has since returned and become a queen bee, who does that thing that girls that age do by offering Addie "helpful" advice on her appearance, clothes, etc... and spreads rumours behind her back.

In some ways, Addie is lucky. She has supportive parents who love her, and an extremely close relationship with her grandmother, who encourages her to be herself and be comfortable in her own skin. So many kids don't have that kind of support, and even if they do, it's not enough. Too many kids like Addie end up committing suicide, one of whom- Phoebe Prince, is mentioned in one of the poems. Addie is stronger than that, but she's still extremely vulnerable and confused. On the one hand, she longs to fit in, and on the other, she wants nothing to do with these silly girls who seem to start every sentence with "Like, Omigod". I particularly loved the poem "The Omigod Chorus" which exemplifies just how silly they sound.

Addie however refuses to be a victim. Never shy about standing up for what she believes in (she founded the Gay/Lesbian/Straight Alliance in her school in support of her gay best friend Joe) she arrives at school one day with duct tape over her mouth, and a card explaining that she will not speak for an entire day in protest of all of the name calling that occurs in her school. This action is met with mixed reactions from the teachers and students, but Addie is steadfast and doesn't give in easily. Addie is every girl. She's a mix of anguish,courage, vulnerability,  toughness, and confusion, and all she really wants is to be allowed to be who she is.The messages in this book are universal, and if they make a difference to even one kid whose been bullied or bullies, then I'd call that a good start.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Scrawl: The Compelling Story of a Bully

Tod Munn is a bully. Times are tough, but Tod is tougher. Only now the wimps have stopped coughing up their money, the administration is cracking down, and Tod and his buddies got caught doing something really bad. Now he's being forced to sit in the hot detention room with Mrs. Woodrow, the guidance councilor, every day until she tells him he's done. Tod isn't sure why he's there and not suspended or outside raking leaves with his buddies, but Mrs. Woodrow does, and she's not telling. As punishment, Tod has to write his story in a beat-up notebook. Can this bad guy be redeemed? Read Scrawl and decide for yourself.

Written in a journal format addressed to Mrs. Woodrow, readers will have to dig deeper for the kind of information that is generally revealed in a diary or a first person narrative. There is no introductory paragraph that reveals Tod's age, grade or even his appearance, but by reading between the lines of both his entries and Mrs. Woodrow's comments back to him, a lot of important details are revealed. We learn that the school (and Tod's home) are likely in an inner city. The kids have to pass through metal detectors on their way in and out, and armed security guards police the school. We also learn that there are the "haves", and "have nots", and that Tod definitely falls into the latter category. Perhaps the biggest secret/surprise that readers will figure out is that Tod is extremely smart and is a gifted writer. He gets good grades in school (and especially English) but tries not to let on to the other kids that he's smart for fear of tarnishing his reputation as a tough guy.

I absolutely fell in love with Tod (and not in a romantic way) and his character is so rich and deeply layered that you will absolutely be pulled into his story. Yes he is a bully, but he believes it's the only way he can get what he needs. He is also extremely vulnerable, and that vulnerability comes out in entries that are both funny and brutally honest. Everybody thinks that they've got Tod figured out. They think he's a thug and criminal and they all treat him accordingly. Tod will tell you til kingdom come that this is just how he likes it, but his scrawl says something different. What Tod desperately wants is for someone to believe in him, and even if he doesn't say it outright, it becomes painfully honest as you go deeper into his notebook.

So what was the cataclysmic event that put Tod one step away from Juvie? You'll have to read it to find out.  Recommended for Grade 7 and up.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Playground: A Raw and Honest Read for Middle Grade

13-year-old Butterball hasn't got a lot going for him. He's teased about his weight, he hates the Long Island suburb his mom moved them to, and he wishes he could live in the city with his dad.  And now Butterball is stuck talking to a therapist named Liz, who somehow makes him talk about things that he didn't think he would ever confess- especially not to a stupid white lady who doesn't understand. As truths are revealed about what led to the playground incident, Butterball starts to consider why he bullies, and what kind of person he wants to be.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I really loved this book! Inspired by his own adolescence, and written with his fourteen-year-old son in mind, 50 Cent has written a powerful story of bullying and redemption. Told in Butterball's voice, it is authentic, raw, and honest, and he's an amazingly sympathetic character. Don't get me wrong- the book does not excuse his behaviour, but Butterball believes that he has good reasons to do what he's doing, and I could completely understand where he was coming from.

Butterball is an angry kid, and for good reason. The brief glimpses of Butterball's father reveal a lot about where his attitude come from, and you can't help feeling heartbroken for him. Butterball's relationship with his mother is also difficult. She works all of the time and doesn't talk to him, and there's a lot he doesn't understand so he draws his own conclusions and lashes out. He is virtually friendless at school, and the boys he's hooking up with are bullies themselves. They push him to do things he innately knows are wrong, but at the same time, he doesn't want to look like a coward.

Thankfully, Butterball's a kid who can still be redeemed, and who wants redemption, whether he realizes it or not. Despite his complaints about his mandated sessions with Liz, she is probably the only person who has ever met him without judgement, and she guides him, rather than pushes him, to a deeper self-awareness.

Butterball does swear liberally throughout the text, but it's in context for the character, but don't let that deter you from reading and discussing it. It's gritty, but it's real, and is perfect for kids who are a bit too young for Walter Dean Myers but are craving those kinds of stories.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Moon Over Manifest: A Captivating Middle-Grade Read

Twelve-year-old Abeline Tucker feels abandoned when her father puts her on a train to Manifest to spend the summer with an old friend. Armed with her few treasured possessions and a list of universals, she jumps off the train in Manifest, hoping to learn about the boy her father was. At first, Manifest seems like a boring, old, dried up town, but all of that changes when she discovers a cigar box of mementos that lead her and her new friends Lettie and Ruthanne, on a real spy hunt. Their hunt sends Abeline down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a visit to Miss Saidie- a diviner who tells stories of the past. Abeline soon discovers that the town is full of shadowy figures and long-buried secrets. As Manifest's secrets are revealed one by one, Abeline begins to discover her own story, woven into the fabric of the town.

When this quiet little book came seemingly out of nowhere last year to win the Newbery Medal, I immediately added it to my reading pile, anxious to see what the fuss was all about. There it sat for about a year as other, higher priority books climbed to the top of the stack. After hearing its praises sung by some of our Middle Grade Lit Chat participants, I impulsively moved it back to the top of the pile and decided that I'd better read it before the 2012 Newbery winner is announced in a few weeks!

Having finished it just minutes ago, I now wonder why I didn't read it sooner. It's a wonderful and rich story that just pushes its way into your consciousness and doesn't let go. I absolutely fell in love with the town and its characters, and the author really brought them to life.

The novel is structured as a story within a story, and readers will feel like they are sitting right alongside Abeline as she tells her stories. While it isn't immediately obvious how the past ties to the present (which being historical fiction is also the past), the way everything comes together will delight and surprise you.

As Sadie reaches the end of her story, Adeline comes to an important realization. Sadie has told her that the line between truth and myth is difficult to see, and Abeline starts to wonder whether or not all of the stories were myths that have nothing to do with her. At that moment, she has a choice. She knows she could walk out and be done, or she can stay and see it through no matter how it ends. She chooses to stay, but it was never really a choice. The people in the stories were real. They were people that she'd come to know and to care about (whether they were living or not), and they were a part of her. They, as she put it, had welcomed her into their world, and now, the only way she could give back was by being faithful to the story no matter how it ended. This is the power of books, and I know we've all read a story or two that made us feel that way, (Little Women anyone?) but somehow as readers we steel our courage and read to the last word, even when we know that our hearts might be broken.

 This is a beautifully written, and beautifully told story, and it reminds us of something important and often forgotten: History is made up of stories, and these stories are full of living, breathing people and places. Abeline hoped to learn something about her father's childhood, but she learned so much more than that. She learned how the past can shape the present and make us who we are. How we can be inspired and devastated by it at the same time, and how an entire town can be brought together by love and loss.