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.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Are You Experienced: A Trip through Music History

When fifteen-year-old Richard's girlfriend asks him to play guitar at a protest rally, he jumps at the chance. Unfortunately, the police show up and so does his dad, which means big trouble for Rich. To make matter's worse, this happens on the anniversary of his uncle's death from a Heroine overdose.

Frustrated by his dad's refusal to open up about his late uncle, Rich sneaks into his office and breaks into the cabinet that holds his dad's prize possession- an electric guitar signed by Jimi Hendrix himself. Before he knows it, Rich is transported back to 1969 and to Woodstock where he meets his fifteen-year-old dad and uncle who's still alive. What Rich learns, who he meets, and what he does could change his life- and his dad's forever.

I love Jordan Sonneblick's books. Seriously love them. Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie is still one of my favourite all-time reads, and I make a point of reading every book he writes.

Unlike his previous young adult novels which have all had contemporary settings, the majority of the story takes place during Woodstock, and I came out of it appreciating how magical an event it was. Seen through Rich's eyes, Sonnenblick vividly describes the sites, the sounds and the full sex, drugs and rock n' roll experience, and he does an excellent job of putting it in context.

There was a lot of anger and bitterness over the Vietnam War, and these feelings are reflected through his uncle, whose bitterness and cynicism initially confuses Rich. is also startled to discover that he not only likes his fifteen-year-old Dad, but is actually understanding what made him the distant, oppressive man that he turns into.

What I especially like is that there is no mission to change the future. Richard isn't sent back to help his father stand up to bullies, prevent his uncle's death or to stop Jimi Hendrix from eventually overdosing. What was meant to happen already happened,, and Richard can't change it. What he can do is use the insight he gained over those three to try and strengthen the relationship between him and his father.

This novel is sensitive, insightful and honest, and is perfect for music lovers and teen boy readers. Highly recommended for ages 13 and up.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Back to Blackbrick: A Moving Middle Grade Debut

Twelve-year-old Cosmo has always enjoyed a close relationship with his grandfather and thinks he's the smartest person he knows. But then his grandfather's memory starts to fail and he exhibits early signs of Alzheimer's.  In a moment of clarity, Cosmo's grandfather gives him a key, and pleads with him to go to the south gates of Blackbrick Abbey where the answers to everything will become clear. And so he does. In the dead of night, he steals away to the Abbey. When he unlocks the rusty gates, he is whisked away to the past and meets his sixteen-year-old Grandfather, the beautiful Maggie, and the horrible Corpamore family, and subsequently discovers some important truths about his grandfather, his family, and most importantly, himself.

I've been in a blogging rut. A long one, and one longer than I expected. It's not that I haven't been reading- I've read a ton since I last posted, and liked a great deal of them- but I just haven't felt like saying much about any of them. And then this book came along. This quiet little book that I might never have gotten to if my Simon & Schuster rep hadn't raved about it in our last meeting and insisted I read. Having a rare moment where I had no "required" reading lined up, I decided to squeeze it in, and I'm so glad I did.

From the first chapter I was completely hooked, largely in part to Cosmo's voice. Cosmo is genuine and vulnerable, but not self-pitying. The last couple of years haven't been easy. His younger brother Brian died two years before after falling out of a window, his mother took of to Australia to work, leaving him to live with his grandparents, and with his grandfather's condition, he's facing another potential loss and upheaval.

One of the things I love about Cosmo is the fierceness with which he fights to protect his grandfather, and to cure him. He's old enough and smart enough to research memory loss and try any and every possible trick to help him, but he's still a child. A frightened and grieving child whom none of the adults have considered in the wake of their own problems.

I also really enjoyed the time travel aspect of the story, and how cleverly the author connects past present and future, suggesting that life is more circular than we imagine.

This could have been a standard time travel story. It certainly wouldn't have been the first story about a kid who travels back in time to learn about a family member, but this is so much more. It's about love, family bonds, grief, and about the ways that we fight to hold onto those we love even when we know we're losing them.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fantastic Friday Find: Pi In the Sky by Wendy Mass

Twelve-year-old Joss is the seventh son of the Supreme Overlord of the Universe, and the second least smartest of the bunch. (Or so he thinks) All of his brothers have important roles to play in the creation of new worlds. They invent species, choreograph the sunrise or inspire artists. But all Joss gets to do is deliver pies. Of course these pies may actually hold all the secrets of the universe, but to Joss, they're still pies.

When Earth suddenly disappears from the universe, Joss is tasked with the not-so-simple task of bringing it back. With the help of an outspoken Earthling girl named Annika, he embarks on the quest of a lifetime.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Wendy Mass is truly one of the most amazing, and underrated authors out there writing for middle-grade readers. Every time I read one of her books I come away feeling like I've been transformed in some way. She creates the most wonderful and imaginative stories, and her characters are always authentic and likable kids.

Pi In the Sky, labeled as science fiction, is a departure from her usual type of story, but it's now one of my favourite reads of the seasons, and a rare 5-starred book for me.

Joss is a typical boy in most ways. He goes to school, has chores, and likes to goof around with his best friend Kal. Nothing unusual about that, right? Right- except for one thing- Although he's twelve by human standards, in the Realms where he lives, he's actually billions of years old. Time exists on a different plane in the Realm- a much, much slower plane. There are lots of interesting things about the Realms, but I'll leave you to discover those when you read the book.

Joss is a wonderful character. Being from a big family, and being the youngest, he's used to staying in the background, and when he's tasked with re-creating Earth, he's genuinely not confused as to why he was chosen. He doesn't believe that there is anything special about himself, but as he progresses in his quest, he surprises himself with what he's able to accomplish, and how special he really is.

Annika is a fantastic foil for Joss, and their relationship grows into a sweet friendship. She has courage where he doesn't. She is curious and smart and strong, and she really pushes him to not give up even when everything seems hopeless. Their interactions are realistic and funny, and her experience in the Realms helps her to grow as much as Joss.

The story is exciting, fun, engaging and extremely inventive, and I really enjoyed the light sprinkling of science facts throughout the book. There is a nice combination of tender and funny moments, and kids will identify with both characters as they learn about family, friendship, and not underestimating themselves. As there always is with anything that Wendy Mass writes, there is a great deal of meat to this novel, making it perfect for reading aloud and sharing at home or in a classroom.

If you haven't read her before, this book is a great introduction to this amazing author, and if you have, you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Waking Dark: Dark, Terrifying and impossible to put down!

The town of Oleander has always been picture perfect. Until the day that would become known as "The Killing Day". On that day, five murders take place, and all of the murderers except one die by their own hand. The one left has no answers for a shattered town. No reason for why she killed, no idea if she'll do it again. As life starts to resume in this sleepy little town, something dark begins to awaken in the people. Something that causes them to descend into madness. Now, five survivors of Killing Day are the only ones who can stop Oleander from destroying itself- but will they succeed before it's too late to save even themselves?

The five central characters are all ordinary teens from different backgrounds. There's Daniel- a 17-year-old who tries to look after his little brother, while his father, known as "Preacher"  goes off on his crazy crusades. ,Jule- a sad and lonely girl from a dangerous and crazy family who tries to avoid the leering eyes of her mother's latest loser, Ellie- who has taken up Christianity with a new zeal, and believes that everybody can be redeemed, West- the golden boy football player on the outside who hides his homosexuality from the world, and finally Cass- the "baby killer" who survived her post-murder leap out a window on the Killing Day, and believes she's been abandoned by her family and left to rot in whatever place she's been locked up in. As the story progresses, the five find each other, and band together to try and stop this unknown evil.

This is definitely one of the most frightening books I've read in a long time.  I've seen it compared to Stephen King, and I'd be inclined to agree- or at least with the assessment that it can stand toe-to-toe with the masters of horror fiction to whom I was addicted in my early teens. What makes it so frightening- and compelling, is that the there's no immediate explanation. The people haven't become zombies. There's not some apocalyptic event that can be pinpointed as the day everything changed. The Killing Day seemed as completely random and inexplicable as is the sudden shift in the behaviour of the town's people, snf it's not until about 3/4 of the way through the book that the author reveals what's really been going on.

We've all had violent thoughts at one time or another. Thought about how good it would feel to just do exactly that thing you wanted to. But we don't. And we don't because we are generally rational people who understand that there is a right way to act and a wrong way. What if that part of your brain that kept you from doing those wrong things was stripped away? Can seemingly ordinary people be "made" to commit violent and evil acts, or, is this evil perhaps inherent in all of us, and when stripped of our inhibitions, are our true natures revealed? This is the big idea that the teens struggle with throughout the novel, and it's terrifying. How easily could you let go of those inhibitions that keep you from giving in to the ugliest part of yourself? I like to think that it wouldn't be easy for me at all, but as the author illustrates, neither did the people of Oleander. Even more interesting a question, is which you is left when it's all over and everything goes back to normal? Is it the one that existed before, or is the evil, ugly you that was capable of those unspeakable acts?

The characters are well-developed and compelling, and I was fully invested in each of them. They weren't extraordinary. They were real, they were flawed, and they did the best they could under the circumstances. The plot moved at a breakneck pace, the writing is masterful, and like the best horror films, for as much as I was personally disturbed/terrified by many of the things that were taking place, I couldn't take my eyes off the page, and I had to find out how the story would play out.

Due to some extremely graphic and disturbing content I wouldn't recommend this for readers under the age of 15, but for those who can handle a truly horrifying horror novel, this one should be at the top of their lists when it releases in September.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Laughing Wolf & Fortuna: Teen Time Travel Adventures

Published in 2009, Laughing Wolf  introduces readers to a future society, set in the year 2213. Fifteen-year-old Felix Taylor is the last person on earth who can read and speak Latin. Technology has eliminated war, crime, poverty and famine, but has also obliterated the need for books, and the study of history. When a mysterious plague breaks out that has scientists baffled, humanity is on the brink of extinction. The cure, discovered by Felix in one of his "useless" history books, is a flower found in ancient Rome extinct for more than 200 years. Now Felix must travel back to Roman times and retrieve the flower before it's too late. It will take all of his knowledge of history and languages to navigate through the dangerous world of Spartacus, Pompey, and Cicero if he's to succeed in his mission.

In Fortuna, publishing this August, One year has passed since the Plague was cured, and the world has for the most part, forgotten about their close encounter with death. Technology exists to suppress emotions and wipe memory, creating a dangerously detached society. Just when it seems life has pretty much gotten back to normal, the world is under threat once again. Someone has discovered the time machine, and used it to project back into the past, and attempt to reverse Felix's success in curing the plague. To make matters worse, that someone is a person who is close to Felix. With the help of his friend Carolyn, Felix must travel to the time of Julius Caesar, and a later era divided by religion to stop the reemergence of the plague before the world turns to dust.

Spanish Philosopher  George Santayana famously wrote in his 1905 work The Life of Reason "

“Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”, and this is the central theme of Canadian author and high school history teacher  Nicholas Maes' Felix Taylor Adventures. 

Imagine if one day we simply decided the past didn't matter, and history was no longer studied or remembered. Not a big deal right? After all, history never repeats itself right? We'll never make the same mistake twice, right? We know that not to be the case, but that is what the majority of the people in Felix's society- including the President- believe. Reading and the study of  history and languages is antiquated- unlike technology, which surrounds him. Luckily for Felix, (and the world) his father has insisted on a different sort of education. An education where he is surrounded by books, speaks Latin, and studies ancient history. 

Luckily for the reader, Maes' teaching background has enabled him to bring history to life in these novels, in a way that will keep easily-bored middle-schoolers engaged and turning the pages. Ancient history was violent and bloody, and Maes successfully captures these details in his writing. These details, combined with a survivial-of-the-world depends on you kind of quest make for a thrilling read. What Maes also does extremely well is to challenge his readers to consider the roles that history and religion play in our lives, and to understand how vital emotion and memory actually is. 

Whether you're a history buff or a sci-fi fan, these novels are entertaining and thought-provoking, and well- worth offering to tween readers.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Eleanor & Park Read-Along Chapters 30-36

Well, now that we're over the halfway mark, the reading is getting extremely intense!

Here are some of our comments from chapters 30-36:

I like how we uncover little bits of Eleanor and Park’s history through the story. The author isn’t afraid to slowly reveal the pieces of their lives, like with Tina and Eleanor’s mom. I like that Eleanor and Park’s relationship isn’t perfect.
That said, I do feel like any second, the relationship could be derailed ...
I like that the book is addressing so many complex issues about appearance, makeup and disguise and how those play into being honest and truthful as a person. Really interesting, and I feel like it’s done in a very authentic way.- Tiff (@mostlyyalit)

I love how Park is so protective and defensive of Eleanor, and how upset he is about the writing on her books. Park is ready to kick someone’s butt for Eleanor, but as much as she loves him for it, she doesn’t quite want him to do it..
. The writing in this chapter is so revealing and so honest it’s amazing.... Christmas at Eleanor’s house is terrifying and heartbreakingly sad. At least she seems to have found some refuge in Park’s house, but I’m worried about how long that can last, despite Park’s parents’ acceptance of Eleanor. There are a lot of themes about figuring out who you are and carving out your own identity, and I love how this is explored with both Eleanor & Park. - Rachel (@rachelnseigel)

head a bit (thought the stopping point was 39 and not 36 lol). I feel like these chapters are the calm before the storm. I’m really happy the way Park’s mother came around to Eleanor and that Eleanor is opening up more to Park. I’m annoyed with Maisie but I understand why she’s the way she is. Nothing stood out too much to me in these chapters.-
Ardo (@a_wordsmith)

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you think that Eleanor should allow Park to be her protector, or is she doing the right thing trying to handle things by herself?

2. How does Park's previous relationship with Tina affects her feelings for him? Does it harm their relationship or bring them closer?

3. How long do you think Eleanor can continue to find refuge in Park's house? Is this a solution?

4. What do you think are Park's reasons for trying out makeup? Is it tied into his issues with his father?

5. Why is the relationship between Park and his father so difficult? What do you think either one of them should do to change it?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Eleanor & Park Read-Along Week 1- Chapters 1 through 10.


As some of you may know, @mostlyalit,) @a_wordsmith and myself have co-ordinated a Twitter read-along of Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell to take place between May 2 and May 23. If you'd still like to sign up, you can do so here: http://www.linkytools.com/basic_linky_include.aspx?id=195034"

So after the first week of reading Chapter's 1-10, here are some of our initial thoughts: 

Me: I'd like to know more about Eleanor's background. Why did Richie kick her out? Why did her mother choose now to bring her home? I just feel so much empathy for Eleanor. She really doesn't seem to belong anywhere- not wanted at home, and picked on everywhere else. I also totally understood where Park was coming from being glad the kids were picking on Eleanor and not him. It sounds cruel, but when you're being bullied, you're grateful when they stop paying attention to you.

I totally felt the same way as Rachel about Park being secretly glad the kids were picking on Eleanor instead of him...that’s completely how I felt when I was teased in elementary school. It was always a relief when it was someone else, even though I knew exactly how it felt. Also, what Eleanor thinks about gym class as torture is EXACTLY how I felt about gym when I was a kid. If there’s dodgeball in this book, I’m probably going to break down.

I’m really liking the writing so far - the metaphors and similes are easy to see in my head, but also very carefully chosen


Rowell wastes no time developing her characters. I love it! ...I’m already intrigued by these characters and I actually have empathy for both of them. I’m looking forward to reading on to see how Park and Eleanor continue to negotiate not only their relationship, but their relationships with the people around them. I’m already rooting for these two. Maybe that’s because I can relate to school-aged awkwardness :) I like the author’s narrative approach. We get into the thoughts/emotions of all the characters very easily. Her writing flows. Her descriptions and dialogue works so well in helping us to picture the scenes in this book. I’m already a fan of the short chapters. Even that seems symbolic of the tension between and awkwardness of these characters.

Joanne:  I so felt for Eleanor on the bus. Wow, she could have been me at that age, with the awkward attitude and the clothes that made her stand out... I really felt for Park, too--his angst over getting picked on and conflicting with his guilt over not helping Eleanor was so real. I like him already and am interested to see where this is going....One thing that bothers me, and maybe this is the writer in me, is the 1986 setting. I TOTALLY identify with the pop culture... but... This book is considered YA, right? How is any kid going to identify with these references?...I wonder if this is going to bug me throughout.


Discussion Questions
Based on our thoughts, here are a few questions to discuss from the first 10 chapters. (I'll try not to spoil anything, but beware if you haven't read this far yet!)

1. What are your initial impressions of Eleanor's mother? What kind of mother is she to Eleanor's siblings, and to Eleanor? Why do you think she's like that?

2. Try to imagine yourself living in Eleanor's house, without any privacy, and not even a door on the bathroom. How would you create your own space in that environment?

3. The first time Eleanor and Park see one another, he is (somewhat rudely) telling her to sit down. What motivation does he have for helping her out?
 4. How does the 80's setting impact your reading? Do you like it? Dislike it? Why?

5. What are a few of the key themes you see emerging after the reading the first 10 chapters?

Monday, April 22, 2013

A YA Author To Know: Sara Zarr

Back in 2007, I came across a novel by a new YA author by the name of Sara Zarr called The Story of a Girl. It is a story about making a mistake that follows you throughout your teenage life. About having an identity that doesn't reflect who you really are, and longing for someone who really knows you and loves you no matter what.

Needless to say, I was blown away. That's why, when I was given the opportunity to join a book club that would be discussing Sweethearts- another work by this author, I knew I had to jump on it. In fact, I loved it so much, I promptly read my ARC of her upcoming book The Lucy Variations, as well as the two other novels I hadn't read yet.

Sweethearts, like all of her novels, places a strong focus on identity. Jenna, (formerly known as Jennifer) has put a lot of effort into re-inventing herself. Gone is the fat, bullied outcast Jennifer from her Elementary School days, and in her place is Jenna- a slim, fashion conscious, popular high school senior. Jenna has everything going for her. She's got a couple of close gal pals, she's dating one of the hottest guys in school, and she's everything Jennifer wasn't.

When her childhood best friend Cameron suddenly reappears in her life after disappearing without a trace years before, Jenna is conflicted. Seeing him digs up the past she's worked so hard at burying, but it also reminds her of what it feels like to have someone in your life that knows you inside out, and loves you for who you are- not just who everyone thinks you should be.

Identity and belonging are a recurring theme in Sara Zarr's novels, and her heroines struggle with their perceived and their real selves. This is an idea that really speaks to me, and I'm sure to her readers as well. How often do people make judgments about us based on a single act- and how it seems indelibly tethered to  us no matter what we do. Jenna is a mask. A carefully constructed mask that keeps anyone from knowing who Jenna actually is. But wearing that mask is lonely, and what Cameron's reappearance in her life makes her realize is that Jenna, for everything she seemingly has, is intensely lonely. Whether or not she and Cameron can or will be together is irrelevant. What matters is that he makes her reconsider her world and herself, and realize that she can be strong without the mask.

One of Zarr's novels, titled Once Was Lost (re-titled What We Lost), most aptly describes her heroines. From Jenna to Lucy (in Lucy Variations) to Jill and Mandy (in How to Save a Life), they are all a little bit lost, and they all, in their own way are saved (not necessarily by a guy). They are simply trying to find their places in the world, and the journey isn't an easy one. It means a lot of bumps along the way, a lot of pain, and a lot of self-discovery and introspection, but these girls do survive, and they carve out a life for themselves in the best way they can. There are no guarantees that they will live happily ever after, but there is hope that they will, and that, along with beautiful writing, is what makes her stories so compelling to read.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket: A Whimsical Middle-Grade Read

Alistair and Eleanor Brocket pride themselves on being absolutely normal. They have normal jobs, a normal house, a normal dog, and two normal children, and they turn their noses up at anything out of the ordinary.

Then Barnaby is born, and he's anything but normal. From the moment he is born, Barnaby defies the laws of gravity, and he floats. After 8 years of being horrified by this absolute defiance of everything that is normal (normal children manage to keep their feet firmly on the ground), the Brockets make the terrible decision- they cut his weights and send him floating off into the air like a balloon. At first Barnaby is frightened, but what ensues is a remarkable journey around the world that introduces Barnaby to a cast of unusual characters, and teaches him that maybe being different isn't so abnormal after all.

John Boyne, who ever since The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has been a favourite author of mine is back with another  sweet, middle-grade offering.

Barnaby is a sweet and charming character. From the moment he exits the womb and floats up to the ceiling, his parents set to work trying to make him "normal". Other than the floating thing (which is unusual), Barnaby is a typical little boy with a big heart and an accepting nature. He accepts his new circumstances without fuss or tears, and he simply sets about trying to find a way back home. While he understands that his parents did a terrible thing, it's still home, and where else would an eight-year-old go?

The characters he meets are diverse and interesting, and not all of them are kind. More than once he encounters someone who would exploit his difference, or simply mistreat him, but amazingly, he never wavers from his goal. I particularly like that while all of his encounters are brief (some lasting only a day or a few hours), he manages to touch the lives of so many of the people he meets, as much as he is touched by them.

 In an age where teaching children to accept all kinds of people is more than essential, this book fits perfectly, and they will enjoy the imagination and the fanciful storyline. Overall it is an enjoyable and whimsical story, but- and this is a big one-  I also found the message to be so front and centre all of the time that I found myself practically shouting "Ok- I get it!" by the end of the book, and this really detracted from my ability to completely lose myself in it.

Recommended, but a bit too obvious for my taste.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tween Tuesday: Hero's Guide to Saving the Kingdom & Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle

Once upon a time there were four princes- Gustav, Frederic, Duncan, and Liam. These are the princes who saved Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty respectively, but thanks to the lousy bards who wrote the stories, they are known only as "Prince Charming". That, however is about to change. Rejected by their princesses and kicked out of their castles, the princes stumble upon an evil plot that could endanger each of their kingdoms. Now it's up to the princes to overcome their shortcomings and band together to take on evil witches, dragons and other terrors to become the heroes nobody thought they could be.

We all know how these stories are supposed to go. The princess, imprisoned in a tower by a witch, placed under a sleeping spell, poisoned by an apple, or locked up by an evil step-mother is rescued by the prince (aka Prince Charming) and they live happily ever after. Right? WRONG! At least wrong according to debut author Christopher Healey, who takes the familiar tales and spins them on their ears!

Fractured fairy tales as we call them are not new- and especially not in Middle-Grade, and yet, Christopher Healey has managed to spin something original and entertaining in his new fairy tale series. The princes in these stories are far from charming. They are flawed, bumbling, insecure, and generally not heroic, while the princesses are intelligent, competent, and adventurous.

First there's Gustav- Rapunzel's Prince. As far as princes go, he's no slouch, but he lives in the shadow of his 16 brothers who are larger and more heroic than he is, and as a result, he's got something of an inferiority complex. When his botched attempt to rescue Rapunzel results in her rescuing him, Gustav throws a tantrum and storms off, and Rapunzel decides to pursue a career as a healer.

Frederic, (Cinderella's Prince) has grown up sheltered and protected, and can't even cope with a hang-nail. These traits do not sit well with Ella, who after years of servitude in her step-mother's home is anxious for adventure.

Duncan, Snow's prince, is a sweet and hapless character who not only believes in, but relies on "magical luck" to get him through the stickiest of situations. Snow White is fond of him, but also finds him somewhat tiresome, and urges him to get out of the castle and go for a walk. (Let's just say this wasn't the best of ideas).

Finally there's Liam. He's handsome and heroic, and was promised to Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) at three years old. When he meets her, he's dismayed to discover that she's a spoiled, nasty creature, and he decides he'd rather not marry her. But Briar Rose isn't standing for this, and sets out to make him as unheroic as possible.

Somehow, our four heroes manage to find each other, and they decide to call themselves the "League of Princes". Once this happens, much hilarity ensues, and readers of all ages will be thoroughly entertained. The writing is clever and funny, and I found myself laughing out loud (or grinning widely) throughout the novel.

I loved it for the adventure, for the humour, and for the originality, and I couldn't put it down. I also like how these extremely flawed and human characters learn how to play to their strengths- even when those strengths are perceived as weaknesses. They learn to be brave (even when they're not), to work together (even when they're used to going it alone), and most importantly, how to be a friend (even when he is being an idiot and annoying the heck out of you).

A colourful cast of supporting fairy tale characters- including a colony of trolls all named "Troll", an extremely well-mannered giant, and a terrifying bandit king (well-not really, but you'll have to read it to see why) add an extra layer of fun to the novel, and fit beautifully into this fairy tale world.

Book 2 (set to release April 30) picks up approximately a year after the first book ends, and reunites the League of Princes for another quest. I won't say too much about the plot because I don't want to spoil it, but fans of the first book will be pleased to join their favourite fairy tale characters in another crazy adventure. Having read books 1 & 2 consecutively, it's going to be an extremely long wait for book 3, where we (hopefully) get to see what kind of happily-ever-after lies in store for these characters.

Read-aloud, or read-alone, these stories are perfect for tween readers, and for anyone who still enjoys hearing about what happened "Once Upon a Time".

Monday, March 18, 2013

Middle Grade Monday: Lawless by Jeffrey Salane

12-year-old M has had an unsual education. Her homeschooling has given her a firm grasp on reading, writing, and how to escape from any room. Little did she know that this unusal education would prepare her to become a student at the Lawless school- a prestigious academy for the children of criminal masterminds.

As M navigates her way through the various criminal cliques,she stands out so much that she gets invited to join the secret society of the Masters. But when her intiation takes her off campus for a real-life art heist, M is forced to question which side she's really on.

In an era of Wimpy Kid clones and Harry Potter wannabees, it's a refreshing change to read a middle-grade novel that is not only a full-on adventure, but one which features an exceptionally unique and intelligent heroine.

M, (and no, this is not short for anything) whose father died in an accident when she was younger, has grown up with a series of tutors and a frequently absent mother. Her studies have been a bit unconventional, to say the least, but she enjoys her studies, and is well-versed in art, nature, and the art of escape.

It doesn't take long before the action begins, and M finds herself being chased by a gang of Fulbrights (enemies of Lalwess), having to pilot a plane (which is difficult since she's afraid of flying), and figuring out a way to break into her first class. (And making quite the entrance.)
The novel is fast-paced, and full of mystery and intrigue. M's time at Lawless includes escaping from a room called "The Box", planning a theft, and surviving her intiation into the school's secret society.

What's so appealing about M is that despite her many talents, she's still a vulnerable kid who wants to fit in. Her world is literally flipped upside down in an instant when she goes to Lawless, and having had substantially less preparation for the school than the other students, she has to rely on her wits and her skills to help her navigate the challenges being thrown at her. Not everybody likes her, and she certainly encounters bullies and mean girls at the school, but she learns how to be part of a team, and what it means to have friends who are loyal to you, and to be loyal to them in turn.

This is a novel of self-discovery, of family (and family secrets), mystery and humour. The characters and the story are well-developed, the villains are villainously bad, and while this story does conclude, there are still a few loose ends that will leave readers anticpating the second book in the series.

The main character is a girl, but shouldn't be classified as girly. Boys and girls will equally enjoy it, and it's a perfect novel for kids who have enjoyed other series such as H.I.V.E. and Mysterious Benedict Society.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Middle Grade Monday: Gordon Korman's UNGIFTED

Donovan Curtis is definitely NOT what you'd call gifted. Unless you're referring to his trouble-making ability, at which he excels. So when Donovan accidentally causes a disaster that nearly destroys the school gym, he's certain he's gone to far. Thanks to a mix-up by a school administrator, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction- a school for the gifted. Donovan knows that it is only a matter of time before they figure out he doesn't belong but until then, it's the perfect place to hide out. But after an ongoing experiment with a live (and pregnant) sister, a dramatic school dance, and an astonishing come-from-behind robot victory, it turns out that Donovan's "gifts" may be exactly what the students at ASD needed.

I am a total Gordon Korman fan. Ever since he stood up in my sixth-grade assembly and pointed out the teacher who assigned him the writing project that became Macdonald Hall, I have religiously read and laughed at all of his books. Anyone who is familiar with his work knows that he's one of the best when it comes to zany, madcap adventures for middle-grade-  stories that appeal to the mischief-maker in all of us, and make us laugh until our sides hurt.

What I didn't expect, and was pleasantly surprised to discover about Ungifted, is that it is not only funny, but that it has depth- enough that it easily made my Canadian Library Association Book of the Year For Children Award committee's shortlist, and was a favourite with all of us.

Donovan is a trouble-maker- pure and simple. Neither particularly bright or academically challenged, He devotes a great deal of energy to playing pranks and causing trouble, but he's a surprisingly likable character. Korman makes no apologies or excuses for him- he simply is one of those kids. This is why, when after his latest prank (which results in unforeseen disaster), he's shocked when his parents receive a letter telling them that he's being transferred to a school for the academically gifted.

Again- you have to suspend your disbelief here- the mix-up is completely unlikely, and the idea that the District Superintendent  would lose his name and take most of the book to trace him is completely insane. However, this is what happens, and what really sets the story in motion.

The Gifted Academy is fairly standard as far as our image of Gifted Kids goes. The students in Donovan's new class are insanely smart, but like child versions of the characters on The Big Bang Theory, they lack certain social skills. Being normal kids has been lost on them, and everything is about academics and their robotics club.

When Donovan shows up, the kids are immediately suspicious and puzzled. He is completely alien to them, and they look at him like he's a science experiment they don't quite get. The thing is- that even though Donovan is completely average in his academics, he's actually good for the rest of the group. He names the robot Tin Man, which never occurred to them to do.  That, combined with Donovan's skill with a joystick (earning him the privilege of driving the robot in competition), emotionally invest the kids in the project, and earns him their admiration.

Told through the multiple perspectives of his classmates, his sister, and his teachers, readers will discover that being good at Math and Science alone do not make a person gifted. Donovan's gift is what he is able to do for the kids in his class- give them a sense of camaraderie, unity, and normalcy, and brings out the kid inside all of them.

Sensitively told, and laced with humour, this is a fantastic read for any kid whose ever tried to figure out what gifts they possess, and how they fit into the world.

Monday, January 21, 2013

False Prince & Runaway King: Must-Read Young Adult Political Fantasy

In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the people, Conner, a nobleman of the court hatches a risky and dangerous scheme- to install an impersonator of the long-lost prince on the throne, and use him as a puppet to control the kingdom. Four orphans are recruited to "audition" for the role, including Sage- a defiant young orphan and thief, who bears a striking resemblance to the lost prince. Sage knows that Conner's motives are dubious, but he also knows that if his life almost certainly depends on being chosen for the role.

As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner's sumptuous palace, layers of deceit and treachery unfold, culminating in a revelation that is bigger and more dangerous than all the lies together.

The Runaway King, the second book in the Ascendance trilogy picks up where book one leaves off, taking readers on a roller-coaster ride of treason and murder.

For months I'd been hearing about Jennifer Nielsen's The False Prince as something I had to read, and I was not disappointed! Years ago I was enthralled by Megan Whalen Turner`s The Queen`s Thief series, and this trilogy greatly reminded me of these fabulous books.

From the very beginning you know that Sage is different from the other chosen boys, but you just can`t quite put your finger on what. He`s a thief- and smart one. He seldom gets caught, but can talk his way out of trouble (mostly) when he does, he`s witty, nimble, and is not nearly as malleable as Conner expects him to be. While the other boys mostly fall in line with Conner`s plans, Sage will not be manipulated or controlled.

For the careful reader, there are clues- and if you follow them, you`ll understand exactly what makes Sage so different, and why he can be so confident that he will be king. I picked up on the clues pretty quickly and figured out the twist early on, but it didn`t detract from my enjoyment of the book at all.

The author does a fantastic job world-building, and the political tensions and intrigue is completely believable. You also can`t help but adore Sage, and root for him to become king. In a situation where he could have been cut-throat and done anything necessary to win, he demonstrates compassion and justness-qualities you wouldn't expect to see in an orphan and a thief.

The story moves along at a breakneck pace, and even suspecting where it was going, I was compelled to keep reading just to find out how everything would resolve itself. Calling a book clever is not something I do very often, but the plotting in False Prince is extremely clever and intelligently done, and kids will love the twists and turns.

In book 2, and I won't say much about this plot for fear of giving away spoilers, the story continues. The new king is in place, and adjusting to his role, the bad guy (or at least the known bad guy) has been taken care of, and now the politics of the kingdom and the full weight of the returned king take the focus. The book retains the quality and consistency of book one, and I found it to be equally exciting as the first. In fact, I probably liked the second book a bit better, (which is rare) just because it was so much more intense. I was very fortunate to have an ARC of the second book on hand to read it immediately after reading the first, and now I can't wait for the third book!

In an age where everybody talks about getting boys- and particularly those in 7th or 8th grade reading- Jennifer Nielsen has created a masterful pair of books full of action, adventure and danger that will keep them on the edge of their seats, and never wanting to leave this world and these phenomenal characters.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Nix Minus One & Counting Back From 9: Compelling YA In Verse

It happens sometimes that I inadvertently pick similar books to read, and as I was reading Nix Minus One and Counting Back From 9, it became apparent that I'd done it again. I decided to read both of these books largely because of my affinity for these authors, and neither one disappointed. Books in verse can be extraordinarily challenging to execute well, but both of these authors rose above the challenge to create emotionally resonant and compelling novels.

Nix Minus One, releasing from Pajama Press this February, is told from the point of view of Nix- a fifteen-year-old boy who although he has recently shed some of the fat that earned him the nickname "Fatty Humbolt", still struggles to make friends and to emerge from his elementary school handle.  At home, he finds refuge in woodworking and constructing intricate boxes and furniture in his father's workshop. He also spends his time trying to avoid arguments with his polar opposite sister Roxy, who seems to radiate energy. His relationship with Roxy is explosive, but Nix would still do anything for her- especially if it meant saving her from the guy he knows is trouble. When he's not in the workshop, Nix spends his time walking and caring for Twig- a neighbour's neglected dog. When Twig is endangered and Roxie gets into some real trouble, Nix is forced out of his comfort zone and into action in order to save those he loves.

Nix's story is one of transformation. Nix is an introvert. He finds relationships difficult, and is more at home expressing himself through the things he makes. A connection he does form his to his neighbour's neglected (and possibly abused) dog, whom he arranges to start walking every day. With Twig, Nix can do what he can't do for his sister Roxy. Nix knows that Roxy's relationship is toxic, but she won't listen to him. The more out of control she becomes, the more desperate he becomes to protect Twig.

What I loved most about this book is the the way that Nix evolves.In the same way that Twig transforms from a sad and frightened animal, Nix transforms from a sad and timid boy into the knight-slaying dragon he wishes he could be. Nix finds strength he didn't know he possessed- the strength to fight for what matters and protect what he loves no matter how difficult or at how high a cost.

Counting Back From 9, (Fitzhenry & Whiteside November 2012also told in verse, is about love, loss, and secrets. Laren Oliver knows that having a romance with a friend's ex-boyfriend is against the rules, but her attraction to Scott is just too strong and she can't stay away. Laren tells herself that if she can just keep the romance a secret, everything will be fine, but she's not the only one with something to hide. In a year-long journey through secrets, lies, exposures and betrayals, Laren must find a way to reconcile who she is with what she's done. And when tragedy strikes, Laren finds herself struggling with a discovery so shocking, it rocks the foundation of her world.

Remember being a teenager and being completely obsessed with the guy/girl you know you shouldn't be with but can't stay away from? This is Laren's problem. Scott is her best friend's ex-boyfriend, (except he wasn't an ex yet when they first got together) and she knows that it's all kinds of wrong. The thing is, she needs to be with him. The attraction between them is so strong (or so she believes), she'd rather keep their relationship a secret than give him up. Of course, a secret never stays secret, and when their relationship gets out, Laren finds herself completely shunned by her circle of friends, and left alone with her feelings of guilt, regret and loss.

While she's dealing with all of this, tragedy strikes. Her father is killed in an accident, and it turns out he had some secrets of his own. Everything she thinks she knows about her family is thrown into turmoil, and Laren is forced to examine some hard truths about her own supposed relationship.

Both of these books were impossible to put down, and left me thinking about them long after I finished reading. They are emotionally engaging and thought-provoking, and the verse format asks readers to read between the lines and fill in the blanks. They deal with loss, and secrets, and figuring out who you are, and are highly accessible and appealing teenage reads.