Monthly Archives: February 2015

All the Bright Places


I am in love with this style of novel: writing in different voices. It gives the author the opportunity to tell the same story from various perspectives, showing how two or more people view the same incident so differently.  There are, after all, three sides to every story. At least.

Written from alternating perspectives, All the Bright Places features 17 year old high school seniors Theodore Finch and Violet Markey.  They meet on the ledge of the school bell tower, separately drawn by the thought of jumping, but each not really wanting to take the final leap.  Theo talks Violet off the ledge, but gives her the credit for saving him.

Violet is dealing with the sudden death of her older sister in a car accident that Violet survived.  Her feelings of grief and guilt are familiar as you read, as are her relationships with the people around her.  She was a regular teen before Eleanor’s death, dating the right boy, dreaming of college, trying to fit in. She shoves all that aside and just tries to make it through each day, counting down to graduation when she can escape the past.  She is unremarkable. Until Theo finds her.

Theo deals with darkness in his head.  He wants to live, and spends his time looking for any reason to continue.   He tries on different personae, one day a character from the ’80s in dress and action, one day a rough London thug, trying to figure out who he is and how he fits in.  A talented musician, he copes with a difficult homelife, is an outcast at school, carries the nickname “Freak.”  Through it all, he is an uplifting and hopeful character, even while he lives in shadows and fog.  Violet gives him a reason to fight through it.

Together, Finch and Violet take on a geography project for school (Theo embarrasses Violet into partnering with him), researching their home state of Indiana. They tour the state, looking for interesting places and people. Looking for a reason to stay.  For every place they visit, the two must leave something of themselves behind.  They quote Virginia Woolf to each other, and fall in love; that first, intense, teenage love.

The story is funny and heartbreaking at the same time.  It is real.  Jennifer Niven’s voice through her characters is authentic; these are real teens living real lives and trying to deal with everything that is thrown at them.  Theo radiates goodness, even under his cloak of rebellion.  Violet finds, and likes, herself.  Her strength is a surprise to her.

There are mature themes in this book.  The characters deal with death and sex and the aftermath of suicide.  There is the hint of abuse, emotional and physical.  Niven does not use superfluous words, and every phrase is authentic.

All the Bright Places is published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Dragon Seer (series)


Written by Newfoundland author Janet McNaughton,  Dragon Seer and Dragon Seer’s Gift are beautifully crafted stories of magic and mystery.

Dragon Seer takes place more than 1000 years ago on the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland.  The Picts, a Celtic, Pre-Christian people populate the story.  An ancient standing stone circle sets the stage for the magic that follows.

As the Picts attend their annual Gathering at the Circle, they dance and sing to worship the Sun and the Moon, and await the selection of the next Dragon Seer.  What happens is unexpected: a slave girl is chosen by the dragons.  Madoca’s life changes the moment the dragon alights on her shoulders; she takes on the mantle of leader of her people, and keeper of the ancient magic of the dragons.

Madoca becomes not only the dragons’ protector, but also their student, as they impart the ancient knowledge to her.  She learns that the life her people have known for centuries is changing, however.  Their life and culture is under attack from the Norse, the Vikings, as is the very existence of the dragons.  She must learn more quickly than planned to control her considerable powers in order to help save her beloved charges.

Dragon Seer’s Gift is set in modern day St John’s, Newfoundland, when two young teens discover the world of dragons, hidden for a millennia by their ancient magician ancestor.  Madoca’s last gift to the dragons was to send them to a place where they could not be reached by man, but one is left behind.  Gwyn and Maddie must solve the ancient riddles to help the dragon join her kind.

McNaughton weaves a magical story that is appropriate for all ages.  These are not your average scaly fire-breathing dragons, but are small and ungainly on the ground, then beautiful and graceful when they take to the air.  They speak the language of humans, can be demanding and abrupt, but also loving and caring of their people.

The Dragon Seer series is published by Harper Trophy Canada.

Brotherband Chronicles (series)


Well, I have a problem.  I like to quickly reread books before posting a review of them. Seems like a good idea, but then I get caught up in the story again, and all of a sudden time has passed, no review is written… It is a bigger problem when it is a series! So, my apologies for the delay.

Brotherband Chronicles is not a follow-up, but a companion to Ranger’s Apprentice. The stories takes place around the same time, and with many overlapping characters.  It is just as exciting and compelling, so start with Book 1: The Outcasts, and lose yourself in the rough and tumble Skandian life this time.

16 year old Hal is an outcast in Hallasholm, son of a former Araluen slave (Karina) and a Skandian sea raider (Mikkel).  His father was killed on a raid when Hal was barely more than a baby, and his mother raised him on her own. Thorn, his father’s best friend, a one time fierce seawolf, and a man facing his own demons, steps in to mentor Hal, at the request of Karina.  Thorn is also a staunch and loyal friend to Hal and his mother, and their most steadfast defender and protector.

Hal spends his days working at his mother’s eating house, as well as apprenticing to the shipbuilder.  But his life is about to change.  Brotherband training starts soon, and he and twenty seven other young men will be learning the skills needed to join the ranks of the sailing crews of the wolfships.

Hal is elected the leader of a group of outcasts who must endure three months of brutal training, designed to form individuals into a close knit band of fighters.  The Herons, named after the boat they built, competes against the Wolfs and Sharks to win the honour of top brotherband.

Like Will Treaty in Rangers’s Apprentice, Hal must overcome many obstacles.  But he is a thinker, an inventor.  He likes to solve problems and ponder ideas.  He makes a good leader of his band of misfits; while he has confidence, he is not driven by his ego, and listens to the thoughts of his band. Which is good, because he has a habit of forgetting a few important details once in awhile.  The other boys remind him. Brotherband training is about more than learning to fight, however.  It is also about having each others’ backs, about standing up for your friends, about working together to achieve greatness.

Brotherband Chronicles follows Hal’s training and subsequent adventures, and is filled with colourful characters and sea-faring adventure.

There are, so far, five books in the series, with the story far from finished. There is the promise of more to come.  Like its predecessor series, it is appropriate for all ages, and will appeal to boys and girls alike.

Brotherband Chronicles is written by John Flanagan and published by Puffin Books.

Ranger’s Apprentice (series)


Time for another series!  This is a great one for ALL ages.  And if you are having trouble getting your son to read, hand him the first book, The Ruins of Gorlan, and go enjoy some peace and quiet.  You won’t be seeing him for awhile.  Ranger’s Apprentice has kingdoms and knights and adventure and spies and friendship and even a little bit of romance.  But just a little.

15 year old Will is an orphan, a ward of Baron Arald, the Lord of Redmont Fief, in the Kingdom of Araluen.  Tomorrow is Choosing Day.  He and the other wards of age will be either taken on by a Craftsmaster to apprentice under, or be sent to the fields as a farmer.  Will desperately wants to be assigned to Battleschool to train as a knight; being of small stature, it does not look promising.  He fears a life in the fields.  There is, however, another option he had not considered…

The Rangers Corps are a special group; they are the eyes and ears of the King, highly trained and dangerous.  They shoot longbows and ride shaggy ponies and move invisibly through thick forests.  Members are respected and feared by a superstitious population that assign many magical traits to the group that the Rangers themselves do not actively deny.

Will apprentices with Halt, the most celebrated of all Rangers.  The series follows their lives during his five year training, as well as Will’s assignments and adventures after his promotion to full Ranger.

Araluen appears to be based on Medieval England, with the surrounding Hibernia and Picta patterned after Scotland and Ireland.  The description of Fiefs could be of ancient London and Yorkshire and Cornwall, while the wild forests host creatures you know can only be hunted by brave knights carrying shields and spears.  Ally Skandia echoes the Norse countries, with wonderfully colourful characters, sea raiders and enthusiastic fighters all.

The fantastic thing about this series is Araluen seems real, almost historical, for those who long for the time of knights and chivalry.  But there is also enough supernatural to tempt those that want for a different kind of adventure, who yearn to fight monsters and legends.

It is a world where orphans can become Knights and Rangers, and maybe even marry a princess.  It is a world where everything seems possible, but you must earn your way.  And if those traits aren’t enough to convince you to read the series, would the thought of a mind-reading horse do it?

There are twelve books in this wonderful series, and you and your children (sons and daughters alike) will devour each, one after the other.

Ranger’s Apprentice series is written by John Flanagan and published by Puffin Books.

Eleanor & Park


Rainbow Rowell writes books that make you remember what it is like to be young and in love. Set in the 1980s, Eleanor & Park explores that first, unexpected, sweet occurrence that convinces you that young love lasts forever.

Eleanor and Park are two 16 year olds, from very different worlds, who live right around the corner from each other.  Eleanor is a tall, awkward redhead, the eldest in a family of five children.  She wears ill-fitting clothes that look like they come from Goodwill (because they do), and lives with an abusive out of work stepfather and a mother who just doesn’t want to see what goes on.  Eleanor is a realist.

Park is the eldest son of an American war vet and Korean immigrant, in a home filled with love and expectation.  His father is tough on him, pushing him to succeed.  His mom is loving and judgmental, but wants what is best for her family, always. Park also sees things the way they really are.

Yet somehow, by accident, the two discover each other, and find that their obvious differences cover some very important similarities.  Eleanor discovers a kindness in Park she has never experienced before, a selflessness and love.   Park finds a girl with a very hidden love of music and stories that she is not allowed to express at home, for fear of losing it.  Her selflessness is directed at protecting her siblings from their reality.

There is darkness.  Eleanor’s stepfather is the centre of her homelife; it is not until the final chapters that the reader can actually understand that it is not just hatred of the man who abuses her mother, but real fear for her own life that Eleanor lives with every day.

The ups and downs of the relationship as Eleanor and Park discover each other, and learn to handle the baggage that each family brings, is wonderful.  Rowell has an amazing handle on the teen voice, and I can vividly see the characters in their settings as I read the story.  In fact, I am sometimes convinced I went to school with all of them.

This is a great young romance, filled with hope and honesty.

It is appropriate for a more mature teen, as the language around the abuse can be quite graphic.

Eleanor & Park is published by St. Martin’s Press

I’ll Give You the Sun


I thought since I just finished reviewing The Sky is Everywhere, I might as well jump right into Jandy Nelson’s follow-up novel, I’ll Give You the Sun.  After all, that’s how I read them, one right after another.  Because she is that good.

This is the incredible story of Jude and Noah, twins, two halves of the same whole, who are torn apart by the tragic death of their mother.  Neither knows why they are no longer NoahandJude.  Or neither knows ENTIRELY why.  Both have secrets.

They swap personalities, Noah going from introvert painter, secretly in love with the new boy, to life of the party and jock.  He abandons his passion for art, and takes up running and partying.  Jude, the daredevil rebel, becomes a quiet, withdrawn art student, plagued by bad luck, cloaked in her costumes and superstitions.  Her love of the ocean disappears, suppressed beneath her pain.

Told from alternating perspectives, the story diverges and merges.  Noah gives his pre-tragedy 13 year old thoughts, and Jude her post-tragedy 16 year old ones.  But neither realize, or perhaps neither wants to admit, that each only has half the story.  They cannot see beyond their own pain, that they need to find each other again to complete the narrative. But first, they need to find themselves.  Again, like The  Sky is Everywhere, this book is fist-pumpingly (probably not a real word, but I’m going with it) GOOD.

Nelson is lyrical and colourful in her use of language. The story is ethereal; Noah and Jude refer to magic and colour and movement in their thoughts and dialogue, and it is never ridiculous or out of character.  But the book is not about the supernatural, the characters just are.  When Noah refers to Jude’s hair as a “river of light,” that is exactly what you see.  He sees the stories of his life, and those of everyone else, in paintings.  He speaks in colour.

Jude quotes her dead grandmother’s “bible” of superstitions, calls God “Clark Gable,” (“OMCG” makes me laugh every time), sees ghosts, sculpts in stone, and speaks in action.  She wants to remake the world, she effervesces when Oscar speaks to her, she flies.  People break out of granite and colour explodes.

I’ll Give You the Sun is about love and romance and heartbreak and growing up and accepting truth.  It is about hating your parents and loving them, and accepting them for who they are.  It’s about loss and giving up the world to become whole.  If your 16 year old self doesn’t laugh and cry her way through this book, you need to give her a shake.

I’ll Give You the Sun is published by Dial Books.

The Sky is Everywhere


The Sky is Everywhere is Jandy Nelson’s debut novel.  It is FANTASTIC.

17 year old Lennon (Lennie) is trying to come to terms with the unexpected death of her older sister, Bailey.  In typical teenage, and human, fashion, she is self-absorbed and oblivious to her surroundings as she deals with her loss. Understandably so!

Enter Toby, Bailey’s boyfriend/fiance.  As the only other person who seems to understand Lennie’s loss, he becomes a shoulder to cry on, and they lean on each other for support.  Of course, feelings become confused.

Enter Joe.  The new boy.  Beautiful, smart, funny, gifted musician.  And he likes Lennie. A LOT.  And she likes him.  But is that ok, when your sister is dead?

Lennie explores her feelings through poetry, verse she composes on bits of paper and ephemera she finds on her wanderings, empty coffee cups, tree branches, fence posts.  Her words are left for the wind and rain and soil to find.

Lennon and Joe are real.  They feel and love and hurt so much more than you or I do – they are teenagers in love.  No one has ever been in love before they discovered it.  Amazing.  When Joe tells Lennon it is over, I was straight back to my 16 year old self: flattened, devastated, DONE, because my boyfriend told me he had met someone else.  (You might need a tissue or four… I did.)

The scenes with her best friend, Sarah, and her grandmother, with whom she lives, are also authentic.  Sarah’s “free pass” for Lennie’s bad behaviour and Gram’s eventual anger that Lennie forgets other people miss Bailey too are frighteningly real.  Lennie is trying to find herself in this new world of hers, and she makes choices both bad and good on her road of discovery.  Nelson has a great voice for her characters.

It is one of the best things about YA fiction; the chance to relive those intense feelings that you KNEW no one else had ever felt or would ever understand. But with the experience and knowledge to know that you will survive it.  And a glass of wine.

Teens of all ages will love this book, as will those of us who want to relive the joy and heartbreak of first love.  It is romantic and lovely, heartbreaking and laugh out loud hysterical, and completely appropriate for all ages.

The Sky is Everywhere is published by Speak.

The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (series)


Best. Titles. EVER. Kenneth Oppel’s gothic two book series starts with This Dark Endeavour and ends with Such Wicked Intent.  How can you not want to read them?  Never have I wanted a series to go on and on so badly!   (I will probably say that often, but it is true. Every. Single. Time.)

Victor Frankenstein lives a charmed life in the family chateau with his  twin brother Konrad and cousin Elizabeth.  Along with their close friend Henry, they study their lessons and explore the mountains surrounding their home.  They also spend time exploring their ancient chateau, endless corridors and half forgotten rooms, no place off limits to them.  Except the Dark Library, home to books full of mystery and magic.  Which of course, makes it a very enticing place to Victor.

When Konrad falls deathly ill, Victor broaches the Dark Library,  searching for answers to his sickness. His intense all consuming desire to save his brother’s life leads him down a path that will eventually end in Mary Shelley’s gothic classic.  This series explores alchemy and the supernatural, obsession and love, a romance that grips the reader and does not let go.

Victor is a wonderful character, a normal yet troubled teen, one with all the trappings of noble bloodlines and inherited wealth.  He is stubborn, arrogant and rash, yet you still root for him.  There were times I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him.  Konrad is gentle and kind and intelligent, immensely likeable, but you know from page one about whom the story revolves.  His parents have high expectations for their offspring and niece, showing the examples hard work and courtly behaviour in all instances.  In his upbringing and deportment, and then his increasingly erratic and obsessive behaviour, you can see in Victor the man who will be Frankenstein.

Both books are beautifully written, with absolutely incredible character development.  No words are wasted on unnecessary description. The last 30-ish pages of  Such Wicked Intent were impossible to put down; I was a wee bit late picking my kids up from school that day. (Thank goodness the admin are easily bribed with good book recommendations!)

Oppel leaves the reader wanting more, and deliberately so.  His prequel homage to Shelley is beautiful in its imagery and language, and readers of the original will not be disappointed.  (I LOVE Shelley’s Frankenstein). The ending has promise of yet another installment, an epic cliff-hanger.  Will there be one?  I have been haunting Oppel’s website for ages now, waiting!

Great for teens who like classic horror novels.

This Dark Endeavour and Such Wicked Intent are published by Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.



I reread RJ Palacio’s Wonder last night, in preparation for reviewing it today.  No matter how many times I read it (and it has been a lot), my reaction never changes.  I cried throughout.  Great, flooding tears.  No sobs, just fat tears rolling down my face, soaking me.

Wonder follows the story of August (Auggie) Pullman.  After spending the first years of his life being homeschooled, the 10 year old boy is going to a real school for the first time, entering Grade 5 at Beecher Prep.  There he meets new people, adults and children, who, over the course of the school year, grow and change with him.

Auggie was born with a severe facial deformity, and his life was touch and go for several years.  He lives daily with the stares and pointing and muttered words and horrified looks, but he has never had to face it alone, day after day, at school.

Palacio uses different voices to talk about the year in Auggie’s life: Auggie himself narrates several times, along with his sister Via (her chapters are incredible, you will cry, such an honest portrayal of a young teen entering high school), her new boyfriend Justin (what a sweetheart!), and Auggie’s friends Jack (a boy who realized what he had when it was gone) and Summer (an instinctively lovely and caring girl, without pity).

The amazing thing about Wonder is the sheer reality of the feeling and relationships Palacio explores.  Via’s voice is SO true, as is Auggie’s and the other childrens’.  The reactions of adults seem especially vivd and accurate;  perhaps because we see them through the eyes of the children.  Auggie’s mom and dad display the unconditional love you expect, but they are not saints, there is yelling and anger and heartbreak and normal everyday frustrations to go along with the patience and acceptance.

This story, written for the 9-11 year old, is a lesson in kindness and strength for everyone.  Make sure you have a box of tissues beside you.  Maybe two boxes, just to be safe.

You will fist-pump at the end, I promise.

Wonder is published by Alfred A. Knopf.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate


Each chapter in this completely delightful book begins with a quote from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, setting the stage for the trials and tribulations that seem to frame 11 year old Calpurnia Virginia Tate’s life in 1899 Texas.

Callie Vee (“no one calls me Calpurnia except Mother, and then only when I’m in lots of trouble”) is the only daughter in a well-to-do family of six brothers, three younger, and three older.  Her family life is treated with humour and great detail, and I was totally swept into the bickering of brothers and sisters, the love they have for each other in spite of how vigorously they deny it, and the wonder and terror we all feel when our mothers call us by our full names.  In THAT voice.  Callie’s father may be the biggest landowner in the county, and the owner of the cotton gin, but he defers to mother in all matters dealing with the children and house.  They have a formal yet tender relationship, as seen through Callie’s young eyes.

Calpurnia develops a wonderful relationship with her grandfather, an avid naturalist, keeper of the forbidden Darwin tome, and heretofore a mysterious, gruff and somewhat scary fixture in the Tate household.  After she finally gets the nerve to approach him with scientific questions, he not only presents her with his copy of the book, they also become partners in crime, whiling away the hot summer hours collecting flora and fauna samples at the river, looking for new species, and trying to distil pecan liquor in the shed.  He becomes her sounding board and her lifeline as she tries to mount a quiet revolution against her fate.

Connections are the centre of the story; Callie’s with the servants, with her brothers, best friend, and specifically with her grandfather.  I loved seeing how the love and respect between the two of them grew, and the importance they both placed on each other and their relationship.

Kelly has written a believable ahead-of-her-time character, without making Calpurnia a 21st century girl caught in the wrong time.  Callie Vee is, without a doubt, a Texas girl in 1899, but one who is beginning to hope there is more in her life ahead than a husband and babies and knitting and cooking and sewing.  She wants to study science and follow in the footsteps of adventurous women that looked for new pathways.  Small town life is the backdrop for the six very important months in Callie’s life in which she tries to find a way to change her future.

Written for the young girl, this story seems to be historically accurate in its use of language and imagery (I am no expert in the history of Texas).  There is no swearing (although best friend, Lula, is scandalized when Callie utters “drat!” in a moment of frustration…) or violence.  It very much has a Little House on the Prairie feel to it.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is published by Square Fish Books.