Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Girl at Midnight

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More dragons!  I am a sucker for them.  I will read any book that is about dragons, or even mentions one.  And these ones are good. But again, not the scaly fire-breathing dragons expected. These ones have adapted to live in the human world, while still retaining knowledge of fire and magic. So, dragon PEOPLE.

17 year old Echo, human, thief, and runaway, has lived with the Avicen since she was 7.  A mysterious race of bird people that live below New York City, the Avicen have feathers instead of hair, and are embroiled in an ancient war with the Drakharin, the dragon people. Both races posses magic, and have wards and spells at their disposal to keep them from the eyes of humans. They travel through shadows and darkness, and can cross great distances in the blink of an eye.  But they cannot have peace.

There is a legend with both peoples that whomever controls the Firebird, a mythical entity believed to possess unbelievable powers, will control the outcome of the conflict.  The Ala, a powerful Avicen who adopted Echo after finding her living in the NYC Library, wants her to find the Firebird and bring peace. Caius, the Dragon Prince, wants the same outcome.  His bloodthirsty twin sister, general of his armies, wants the war to continue.

This is a good story.  It has romance, mystery, magic and sword-fighting, fire-raging conflict.

Writing the story in a contemporary setting really set up the contrast for the magic and ancient peoples;  a fantasy set in the modern world always captures my imagination. (You will look at the teen in the hoodie in the coffee shop a bit differently!) Bird people and dragons, a centuries old war.  A mythical being who could be the world’s salvation or could destroy everything.

All the characters seem to possess outstanding physical beauty and a witty intellect.  Likely?  Not in my world!  But then I’ve never seen a bird- or dragon-person either, so I am going with it, happily. Everything is possible in fantasy. And it makes for a great read.

Echo is badass.  I loved her. She is sarcastic, daring, loyal and smart, and a little unsure of her place in the world, both the ancient and modern. Caius is smart, gorgeous, selfless and loyal. Not really a bad boy, but then he is a dragon, so off-limits enough to qualify for possible romance. The Ala, Jasper, Dorian, Tanith, Ivy, Rowan – are all well-crafted secondary characters that really round out the story.

The country-hopping (following clues to find the Firebird left by a former Avicen operative) sets the stage for mystical international intrigue, sort of Bond-meets-Gandalf-meets-Gregor-the-Overlander.

The story is well paced, appropriate for any teen, and a great introduction to fantasy for anyone who isn’t yet hooked. (And did I mention the dragons?!?)

The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey is published by Delacorte Press.

Mosquitoland

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After reading a few chapters of David Arnold’s Mosquitoland, my first thought was a negative “quirky, pretentious, and self indulgent”.  Wrong.  This book is authentic and gripping and I did not want it to end. I could not put it down.

Mary Iris Malone (Mim) is 17 and recently transplanted to Mississippi from Cleveland after the break down of her parents’ marriage.  Her dad and new stepmom move her for a fresh start, but she isn’t happy. She is an anomaly, different. After a chance eavesdropping in the principal’s office, she realizes her mom is very sick and hops a Greyhound to take the 987 mile trip to save her.

This is a road trip that turns everything on its head, literally.  The bus crash, the pinnacle of all Carls, a chance meeting with an elderly lady who smells like cookies and has pizzazz, the creepy Poncho Man, the search for Ahab, and the final sad truth about her mom.

Yet another book written in alternating voices, but this time, both are Mim’s.  She narrates the story, but also writes letters to someone named Iz, in the form of a journal, recording her memories and lessons learned and general thoughts on her existence to date. The journal provides an opportunity to tell of her life before the big break-up, giving insight into her family and state of mind, and allowing Arnold to seamlessly include information that would have been difficult to impart otherwise. Everything contributes to her character and the plot without feeling extraneous.

Arnold’s characters are beautiful. Mim is such a perfect, irresistible teenager; she is brilliant, vulnerable, observant, pretentious, FUNNY.  Her narration is so spot on, nothing wasted, that her voice remains with you long after you finish her story. Walt, a teen boy with Down Syndrome, Beck, the hot college boy from seat 17C, her evil stepmother, Kathy, her dad, who believes Mim has a mental illness, are all wonderfully scripted and add so much to Mim’s story.

And following the theme of “what the hell do I know?”, the ending was a complete and total surprise.  Every bit of it.  Everything I predicted would happen – wrong.  Every person I thought I knew – wrong.  It was worth reading this novel just for the ending.

Definitely a YA novel, not really for the younger crowd.  Anyone 14 and waaaaay up will love it.

Mosquitoland is published by Viking Children’s Press.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

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OK.  So.  I had couple glasses of wine while I was reading this book. Not a good idea, really;  if I’d  written about it at the time, the entire review would have consisted of “squeeee!” and “OMG!”, two expressions (among many others) which should NOT exist. (So, your lesson for today: never drink and type. Well, my lesson. Thank goodness for proofreading.).

I adored this story. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is laugh out loud hilarious without being campy.  It is authentic and touching and just a blast to read.

Simon is a 16 year old boy who is just coming to terms with the fact he is gay.  A few failed girlfriends that he was terrified of during his early dating years should have pointed him in that direction earlier, but he’s figuring it out in his own time. He is most definitely not out yet.

He lives in small town Creekwood, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Creekwood High has a Tumblr account, Creeksecrets, where students post pictures and thoughts and random gossip for all to see and comment on anonymously.  One day, Simon stumbles across a grammatically perfect entry by someone intriguingly named Blue, about being gay and lonely in the ocean of people surrounding him, and answers “THIS.

What follows is a story of two boys getting to know each other over e-mail, and falling in love without knowing the identity of the other. They both attend the same school, and may even have classes together, but Simon and Blue exchange thoughts and feelings, confidences and fears, not identities. During their correspondence, they give each other the courage to face their own anxieties about coming out, and help themselves in the process.  It is only after they are both out, they can finally meet face to face.

But after an email falls into the wrong hands, their secret is at risk. Blackmailed by a fellow student, Simon’s sexual identity could become common knowledge, before he is ready to handle the reaction. There is intrigue and bullies and love triangles galore. Author Becky Albertalli handles it all with humour and charm, and never exchanges authenticity to get a cheap laugh.

Simon, with his teenaged angst and moony thoughts about possible candidates for the mysterious Blue, is a vivid, hilarious character and a failed cynic. He feels that the teenage years are a chance to reinvent and renew himself, but every change seems to be met with astonishment by his friends and family. “If she thinks me drinking coffee is big news, it’s going to be quite a f@#king morning.”

Albertalli has written some really wonderful characters. The supporting cast is treated with the same care as she took with Simon; Nora and Alice, Nick, Abby and Leah, family and friends with their own secrets that needed to come out. The resolution to all the teenage drama at the end was perfect. Trying to guess the identity of Blue was futile for me, maybe you will have more luck!

I think it goes without saying that Oreos are their own food group.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is published by Balzer & Bray.

5 to 1

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Original.  Diverse.  Dystopian.  Gorgeous. Holly Bodger’s debut novel 5 to 1 is stunning. STUNNING.

The year is 2054, and India has a population problem.  Specifically, after decades of a one child policy that favoured boys over girls, there are five boys to every one girl.  Girls are now a hot commodity, and they have the power.

Woman, tired of selling off their daughters to the highest bidder, have seized control of the city of Koyanagar, surrounded it by a wall, and now make the men compete in Tests to earn a wife.  The fate of those who lose the Tests is kept vague.

The story is told from alternating perspectives, and alternating genres (free verse and prose!  Gorgeous!). Sudasa is 15 years old, and has come of age to choose her husband. She doesn’t want one. Kiran, contestant 5, is almost 18, and has been selected as a contestant in the Tests, competing for the opportunity to marry Sudasa and escape a life of poverty for one of privilege. He doesn’t want her, he wants freedom. As they try to outsmart each other at every twist and turn, it becomes apparent that maybe they do want the same thing, it’s just not each other.

I wasn’t sure that Sudasa’s story would develop well, as it is told in verse.  Little did I know. Her personality, her character were so rich and vivid, she could have been standing in front of me and telling me her story herself.

This is not a love story. There is no romance. It is a tale of two people fighting, separately, for a chance to live lives and destinies of their own choosing.

The world building in this novel was really interesting.  Women grabbing control and forming government and essentially turning men into chattel sounds empowering, but as you read deeper into the story, it becomes apparent that the evils of the past are not that far behind, and, in fact, are being repeated.

For a dystopian novel, this one does not rely on sci-fi or fantasy, as so many do.  Bodger’s use of Indian language and place names, along with the real problem of over-population, make this an eerily plausible story.  Would men sit idly by and watch as women took control of city and sealed it off?  I doubt it.  But that small implausibility does not make the rest of the novel less gripping.

If you are ever going to judge a book by it’s cover, this is the one.  What a heartstopping jacket. Based on that alone, pick this book up.

This is an easy read, one sitting, but you will want to return to it and reread it and soak in the words.  It is appropriate for all teens.

5 to 1 is published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

How to Be Bad

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Looking for something fun, that brings back teenage memories?  E. Lockhart understands, and joins fellow YA authors Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle to offer you How to Be Bad.  In a word, FABULOUS.  But one word is never enough, is it?

Think road trip.  Think stealing your mom’s ancient deathtrap of a car. Think best friends and boyfriends and new friends and bad food and tourist traps and bad weather.  Then add fights and hugs and understanding and yelling and silence, both awkward and comfortable.  Alligators, dead and alive.  Dumping your boyfriend because you are lonely and afraid. Picking a fight with your best friend because you can’t face what could be coming your way.

Niceville, Florida, to Miami, with detours along the way.  Vicks is the take-no-prisoner, self-assured girl whose boyfriend hasn’t called since he left for college two weeks ago.  Jesse is the judgy, tightbottomed Christian who is lashing out and running away, instead of facing a scary future.  And Mel is the new girl, desperate for friends and always the odd one out.  Together, they embark on a trip to find out why Brady hasn’t called, visit some tourist spots, and get a lot more than they bargained for along the way.

The girls learn that it’s not about the destination, it is how you get there.  Yes, possibly one of the oldest cliches out there, but so applicable, and so right.

How to Be Bad is told from the three points of view of the girls, with alternating chapters, each one offering her take on the experiences along the road.  It is fun and well written, and all three change over the road trip, believably, given their backgrounds and circumstances.  There are a lot of subplots, and the reader has to pay close attention to follow the different mini-stories going on throughout.

It isn’t going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but three really good YA authors collaborated on a really good YA story, and I had a blast losing myself in it. It is an easy read, the characters are distinct, and the story provided a relaxing Saturday afternoon for me.

Any teen can read this.  Pretty sure the boys won’t be too interested, but the girls will dive right in.  Just don’t tell your daughter about the time(s) you did something similar.  She doesn’t need any ideas.

How to Be Bad is published by HarperTeen.

Reconstructing Amelia

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This was an interesting book to read.  And challenging to review.  Because on one hand, I want to yell from the rooftops “WOW!!  Read this, now!”  On the other hand, I think, “Eh. It’s ok…”  Why the dichotomy?  It is a good story. But is it great?

Kate is a single mom in New York City, a partner in a law firm, busy, stressed, happy to have an intelligent, independent daughter in Amelia, who understands her schedule.   Amelia attends an exclusive private school, Grace Hall, and dreams of going to Princeton to be a writer.  She’s a lock for it.

Until she is caught cheating on an English paper, and suspended.  Until she jumps from the roof of the school, in despair.

And a month later, after returning to work, unable to deal with the loneliness of her empty brownstone, Kate receives an anonymous text:  She didn’t jump

What follows is the story of an anguished mother who begins to feel like she didn’t know her own daughter.  She reads Amelia’s texts and Facebook posts and reconstructs her life, sifting through emails, texts, and social media to get to the truth about the last days of her life.

Kimberly McCreight’s debut novel is interesting. The idea behind the book is fantastic; the story is developed well, and I love the social media posts and texts that Kate follows as she deciphers Amelia’s last days. It begins with a great punch. The gossip blog gRaCeFULLY sets the mood for the entire novel with a nasty, celebrity-magazine tone.

This is another story in alternating voices, and alternating times, giving both the girl and her mother a chance to live the same experiences.  Amelia is in the present, immersed in experiences first hand, unable to see the forest for the trees.  Kate sees the same experiences with wisdom of age and hindsight.  It is a story of secrets, of love, of discovery and of betrayal, of bullies, and of friends you thought you knew.

In the end, it is about how well a mother ever really knows her daughter.

My issue with the novel was McCreight did not let us draw our own conclusions. She is a victim of her own ideas, and a bit unsure about conveying them. She can’t let the reader follow the story and make his or her own assumptions about personalities or relationships.  She leads the reader by the hand through everything, and the story loses spontaneity.

The characters are not totally believable, but again, that is McCreight’s inexperience as a writer showing through.  The bones of a fantastic book are all there.

So read this book.  The story will leave you guessing.  Enjoy it for the excellent ideas and twists and turns.  Decipher the texts and try to guess the players involved.  They all come as a surprise.

Appropriate for all teens.

Reconstructing Amelia is published by Harper Perennial.

Seraphina

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Dragons ROCK. For those of you who think, seriously, enough with the dragons, read this book and change your mind. Rachel Hartman has created a wonderful, mystical alternative-medieval world populated by rational, mathematical, fire-breathing beasts who share an uneasy peace with their human counterparts.

Four decades have passed since the treaty between the species, but the mistrust between them continues. Old prejudice dies hard. When the ruler of the dragons comes to the capitol to commemorate the treaty, factions on both sides plot to sabotage the fragile accord.

Hartman has written fascinating dragons.  With the ability to fold themselves into human shape, or saarantrai, they attend court as ambassadors, and act as teachers and scholars at the universities in the Kingdom of Goredd.  They are logical beings who suppress their violent tendencies and do complex mathematical equations in their heads. On the other side of the coin, they do not understand emotion of any kind, and have no tolerance for human frailties.

Seraphina, according to all beliefs, should not exist. She is the offspring of forbidden love between a man and a dragon, so her identity is her baggage, a secret she must guard for her life.  Contrary to her need to hide, she is the musical mistress of the castle, and lives in plain sight of all who would harm her. She is both distrustful and caring, shy and bold at turns. She makes music magical.

Princess Glisselda and her cousin and fiance Lucian, while at once royalty and a class above, become friends and confidants to Seraphina. Glisselda, heir to the throne of Goredd, initially annoyed me – I thought she was set up to be bubbly and charming and ineffectual. Incorrect.  She is strong and intelligent and a queen in waiting. Prince Lucian starts out a weaker character, in my eyes, but believable and strong by the end.

All characters and villains are equally fantastic and believable.  Orma, Claude, Immlann, Fruit Bat, Lars, Viridius, Apsig – the author takes the time to imbue each character with a distinct personality.

Hartman has created a very complex society; philosophy, love, art, religion, music and dance, what it means to be human and dragon, acceptance, class structure, are all meticulously developed.

Neither the dragons or the humans are the villains or heroes – this is not a classic story of good vs evil.  In equal numbers, both species want peace yet distrust the other.  Both see abominations in the half breeds and treat them as such.

Seraphina is an excellent introduction into epic fantasy, with an unpredictable plot. I was turning back pages and even chapters, trying to figure how I missed clues that were so obvious, in hindsight…  I first picked up the novel thinking it was stand-alone story, but soon discovered there are two more in the series.  I can’t wait to read them!

It is good for all ages, but the language is challenging for younger readers. This is the novel you read to your 9-11 year olds.  And while the novel is written from a female point of view, any boy interested in medieval fantasy and dragons would find this world intriguing.

Seraphina is published by Doubleday Canada.

The Geography of You and Me

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I have heard a lot about Jennifer E. Smith’s books, but have never yet read one.  I’m glad I picked up The Geography of You and Me.  It is simple, sweet, and adorable; easy to read in one sitting, and brings back high school memories.

Do you remember the blackout of 2003?  10 million people in Canada and 45 million people in eight US states lost power; a big chunk of northeastern North America went dark for 24 hours.  It was incredible living in Toronto, and seeing total darkness and a star-filled night.  We don’t get that here!  Imagine that happening in New York City, and imagine living in a 42 story building.  What about if you happened to be in an elevator with a boy you barely recognized when the power blew?

Almost 17 year old Lucy and and really 17 year old Owen meet in the elevator, stuck between the 10th and 11th floor of their building in New York City, during the citywide blackout. The son of the new building manager and the daughter of the successful financier hadn’t crossed paths until this point.  But the unexpected event leads to an hour of cautious getting to know each other, and a further evening of exploring the dark city and surveying it and the heavens from the rooftop in the stifling end of summer heat.

With the following day comes the return of power to the city, and reality to Owen and Lucy. After a few mistakes dealing with the building, Owen’s dad loses his job. Father and son leave NYC to look for work, and a new school for Owen.  Lucy’s parents move to Edinburgh for her father’s career, and she leaves the city without having a chance to find out if Owen and she share the same feelings.

What follows is the story of two teens who can’t get each other out of their minds, who remember a few stolen hours and an instant connection, and try to find a way back to each other, to see if the feelings are real.

Oh, FUN.  Instant, teenage, heart wrenching love.  Silly fights because you don’t want to be the first one to say how you feel.  Long distance pouting.  Kissing the wrong boy/girl, just to get someone out of your head.  Smith writes a light summer read that will have you remembering that first boyfriend that you fell in love with across the room in 11th grade science.  The characters are believable and the scenarios reminded me of high school escapades that are a milestone for every teen.

Appropriate for any teen, fun for you.  It’s not life-changing, but pour a glass of wine, read the story, and look through your high school year book.

The Geography of You and Me is published by Little, Brown and Company.

The Fourteenth Goldfish

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Did you read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate?  I told you it was good, didn’t I?!  Picture it re-imagined for present day, and you have The Fourteenth Goldfish.  Mould and atomic bombs and fish scales and cheese.  And cooking and drama.  And a 76 year old teenager. If that isn’t the plot of Pulitzer, I don’t what is.

In an attempt to teach her young students about the circle of life, Ellie’s kindergarten teacher gave each child a goldfish.  Everyone’s fish died, except Ellie’s.  Her fish lived until Ellie’s 12th year. She thought. It turned out that her mother did NOT want her learning about the circle of life, and had been flushing and replacing them as they died.  All 13 of them.

Around this time, her 76 year old scientist grandfather came to live with them.  Except he’s not 76 anymore.  Following years of exhaustive research, he develops a way to reverse the aging process, and is now 13. And the cantankerous senior becomes the crabby teen.

This story is FUN.  But so much more than that.  Ellie’s new relationship with the grandfather she barely knew, her burgeoning discovery and love of science, and the maturity she gains through her new interests are wonderful themes running through the book.

As with Calpurnia and her grandfather, there is a wonderful relationship that develops between grandfather and granddaughter. In The Fourteenth Goldfish, they are forced to spend time together as Melvin re-enters middle school.  But their companionship becomes a choice. Like Walter, Melvin encourages scientific curiosity, showing Ellie how science is everywhere, even in cooking.

She, in turn, teaches him that while growing old might not be fun or easy, all stages of life are there to revere and celebrate, to learn from and pass along the lessons you have learned along the way.

Jennifer Holm writes a really fun, well developed story.  The characters come alive easily, and the reader is transported into the novel. Although aimed at 9-11 years old, this book is fantastic for all ages.  An easy read for those a little past the teen years, but with some good reminders and life lessons for us.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is published Random House.

The Mysterious Benedict Society (series)

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This is a GREAT series for boys who want a challenge.  (Fabulous for girls too, but when I find books boys will dig into, I like to highlight them). Trenton Lee Stewart has written a great four book puzzle for you to wrap your mind around, and it is a LOT of fun.

The mysterious Mr. Benedict (eccentric narcoleptic) advertises for special children who want a challenge.  Many show up for the series of unusual tests (which includes a pencil that falls down a drain and a maze within a house in the dark), but only four are chosen.

Reynie, Kate, Constance and Sticky are the four gifted young orphans/runaways recruited to solve mysteries and save the world.  Each possesses a certain skill set.  Reynie sees puzzles and solutions where others see obstacles; Kate is a fearless 12 year old McGuyver; Sticky possesses an eidetic memory; and Constance… Well, Constance is rude. And brilliant.  A poet.  Maybe psychic?  With an additional small surprise added in.  Individually, they are unusual; together, they make a formidable team.

Benedict must unravel a devious plot involving his arch nemesis, Ledroptha Curtain, on Nomansan Island. (Ok. I can die happy. Great names!)  The four members of his Mysterious Benedict Society must put aside what they believe, and become what they are not as they journey far and wide to put a stop to Curtain’s dastardly schemes.

Curtain’s sinister henchmen, the Ten Men (so named because they have ten different ways of inflicting harm) are thugs who approach their work with a casual, gentlemanly air about them.  Curtain is the evil brains, the Ten Men are the evil brawn.

The four children learn to rely on each other and work together. They are almost immediately a family, squabbling over the small stuff, but having each others’ backs when it really counts.  Stewart develops their characters believably; they grow together and take on new characteristics and abilities as they change and mature.

Each book is like a mystery within a conundrum with an enigma thrown in for good measure, where the reader is challenged to piece the plots together, very much like a classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit.  It is a lot of fun to look for the clues and solve the puzzles as the children do; there were more than a few times I had to look back and re-read parts to see what they saw!

Given that the books are written for the 9-11 year old group, they may look a bit intimidating at first glance.  Don’t let the size scare you off. Nearly 500 pages in length, each book is a page turner, and the stories will seem to positively fly by.  You will wish it was 1000 pages. The illustrations in the series are as fantastic as the story, and make the characters come alive.

Appropriate for ANY age.

The Mysterious Benedict Society series is published by Little, Brown.