Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Paper Magician (series)

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This three book series by Charlie Holmberg is a lot of fun. Full of magic and its share of conflict and gore, it’s a decent fantasy series, very easy to read in a sitting or two.

Ceony Maya Twill has just graduated from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, at the top of her class. That should mean she gets to choose which branch of magic she’ll study; she desperately wants to be a Smelter, a magician that works with metals. But the magical world is short of Folders, those who work with paper, and she is assigned an apprenticeship with the most talented Folder in Britain, Magician Emery Thane.

Ceony feels like she is throwing away her life; she drags her feet to her bonding, hoping for a miracle that will save her from a future shackled to boredom. Never happens. And she is grateful, because the wonders that await are beyond her imagination. Animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via shadowy illusions, short distance teleporting, fans that can create storm level winds. So much more.

The three books cover her two year apprenticeship, which, along with the wizardry and wonder of spell creation, also involve mystery and danger and death.  She loses friends to evil, and in order to save her teacher, must face one of the dark magic Excisioners, who has, quite literally, stolen Thane’s heart.

Concept – awesome. I love the idea of a magician as just another job. No separation of the magical and non-magical world. The various areas of magic for specialization make sense. The descriptions of the Folding and the spells are fantastic, and I adore Fennel! A paper dog! Lovely. Flying paper birds, glowing paper stars, paper that can be used in self-defence, reading fortunes, travelling through mirrors, the ideas are limitless.

Ceony and Emery and the cast of characters are really well written.  Their personalities are all distinct and developed, and I can picture each one clearly.

The execution of the story?  This is where I get wishy-washy.

The story is set in the very early 1900s, in London. It took me a while to figure that out, as the time and setting seemed too modern, like the author wanted the story to be historical, but didn’t do quite enough research. Everything seemed just a bit off – language, technology, etc.

The voyage through Thane’s heart was an incredible idea, but far too detailed and lengthy in implementation.

The romance is unneeded, and just took up space, not really adding to the story. The violence is quite graphic, which again, does not seem necessary to, or consistent with, the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed reading the series.  But I think the potential is there for a really great story, and Holmberg just didn’t know how to get there.  I am not sure this story knows what it wants to be. A fantasy that wants to be a thriller that wants to be a romance…

It is appropriate for teens, and anyone, who love the idea of magic, and can handle some violence and gore.

The Paper Magician series is published by 47North.

Armada

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Nerd alert, people. You are about to be clubbed over the head with ’80s pop-culture references.

Zackary has lived his life with no father. Xavier Lightman died, age 19, in a sewage plant explosion when the boy was just a baby. At age 17, Zack is obsessed with gaming, and his father’s short life, and is not really interested in his own future.  His mom wants him to figure out college; he wants a life full-time at Starbase Ace, the local gaming hangout.

He spends his nights climbing the world rankings in his favourite game, Armada, shooting down alien invaders and kicking extraterrestrial ass, and thinking of nothing more than adding to his kill total. Until the day he thinks he sees an alien scout craft out his high school window.  Until the day he finds out that his game is actually reality, and he has been training his whole life to defend Earth from a malevelant non-humanoid species. Until the day he goes into battle.

OK. Ender’s Game came first, and therein lies the conundrum. It was better. Not to say that Armada was bad, I liked it. But it was just not as well done.

The good.  The tech idea was cool.  Reverse engineering alien technology? Now we know where the iphone came from. Busted, Apple.

I liked Zack. He seems like a typical teen, obsessed with gaming, ready and willing to put off writing an essay or cleaning his room so he can squeeze in another battle.  He watches his ranking rise, and takes pride in his Top 10 score.  He is self-admittedly obsessed with his long-dead father, and watches his old VCR tapes of such movie classics as 2001, E.T., Star Wars and Trek, Top Gun and Iron Eagle, quoting dialogue and comparing storylines.

I didn’t really warm to the other characters too much.  They didn’t seem overly authentic; his mom is still in love with a man she met as a teen, and was married to for maybe a year, she is also a gamer and lets him play as much as he wants, his friends don’t seem to have any depth, his classmates don’t have a lot of context, and his late dad harboured anti-government conspiracy theories involving alien invasions.

The pacing was also off. Timing didn’t seem to add up – the whole second half of the book takes place in less than a day, but too much happened, too slowly, for it to work for me.

All in all, the story felt forced.  Cline wanted to have a deep moral lesson, while getting in as many gaming and movie references as possible, which slowed the action and detracted from the actual plot.

I really really wanted to love this book, but couldn’t get there. It was good, not great, and it could have been great. There is potential. The first half built up to something the second didn’t deliver on.

Totally appropriate for all teens, but you may have to be a geek of a certain age to fully appreciate all the pop-culture references.

Armada is published by Crown Publishing.

Ink and Bone: The Great Library

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What a fantastic concept: history has been re-written, and the Great Library of Alexandria is still in existence, the most powerful force in the world.  Knowledge is power. And whomever controls the books, controls the knowledge.

There are branches, or Serapeum, of the Great Library, in most major cities throughout the world. They control the flow of knowledge. While personal ownership of books is outlawed, each individual can read the great works of literature, science, philosophy and art from throughout the ages with their Codex – a blank book that instantly fills with the desired reading.  Think magical Kindle.

The Library is ruthless. Books are controlled with alchemy, practiced by a dwindling few who are kept locked away in the Iron Tower, for their protection, and for that of the Library. But that makes the Library vulnerable.

In London, 2025, Jess Brightwell is the son of a book thief.  He spent his early years as a runner, one of the boys who strap a stolen book to his chest and outrun the police, or Garda, to deliver the object to a client.  Being caught means being disowned by family, and death by hanging. But Jess survived.

Now he is 17 years old, and sitting the entrance exam to study and work in the Library.  His father wants a contact there. Which means spy. Thief. Provider of goods for the smuggling trade. Jess wants to see and touch and read real books.

Ink and Bone is about love and the power of real books. The Codex may be a technological wonder, but the feel of paper, the smell of a story, that is what people want. What lengths will they go to achieve it?

I absolutely loved the world building in this novel.  Beautiful.  I felt like I was walking through the back streets of London, and exploring the halls of the Great Library.  Rachel Caine’s writing evokes wonderful images of a lost treasure and a dystopian future.

I have mixed feelings about the various characters; I liked Jess, although his behaviour did not always seem true to his personality.  But he grew and changed and made mistakes and evolved.

Thomas was wonderfully naive.  Wolfe, possibly my favourite.  I love the nasty professor with the hidden heart of gold. He is Snape! The other students, Santi, the Artifex, and Jess’s many and questionable relatives, were all interesting characters, but I didn’t really connect with them as much. Their personalities seem flat to me, underdeveloped, but perhaps that is for another book in the series.

The pace of the story did not move quickly.  All the scheming and backstabbing and extra detail and character interaction that did not always add to the story slowed the action. But not a fatal flaw by any means!

I know we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but COME ON.  This one is GORGEOUS.

This story is great for anyone who loves the touch and smell and look of a great book.

Ink and Bone: The Great Library is the first in the Great Library series, and published by NAL.

The Fixer

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YA political thriller? Sign. Me. Up. Here is a book that will throw your head for a loop and shake your brain. EVERYTHING in this novel is a plot twist.  Nothing is as it seems. I loved it. I don’t care if it was realistic or not, this story sucked me right in. It is great.

Tess Kendrick has spent most of her 16 years on her grandfather’s ranch, after the death of her parents when she was young. But her grandfather has early onset Alzheimers, and Tess can’t care for him much longer.  Her estranged sister, Ivy, uproots her to D.C., and Tess enters a new world where power determines status.

She transfers into Hardwicke Academy, the exclusive private school for children of the Washington elite, where politics and power also rule. She bonds immediately with her tour guide, Vivvie, never guessing that this casual friendship it will lead into conspiracy and intrigue of her own.

There is the mysterious death of a Supreme Court Justice, backroom negotiations, political arm-twisting, mysterious pasts and relationships, as well as a bit of life-and-death bargaining thrown in, just in case you get bored. (You won’t.)

The characters are fantastic.  Tess is a straightforward, sarcastic, self-assured teen who takes crap from no one. She learns quickly that nothing is for free, and it is all about what she has to offer in return. Her entourage of Vivvie, Emilia, Asher and Henry are all distinct voices on their own, with believable personalities and influences on the action.

The adults, who I often think don’t get a fair shake in YA lit, are distinctive as well, with their own backstories and intrigues that play well with the teens’ storyline. Sister Ivy and her cohorts Adam, Bodie, and the host Washington power brokers she mingles amongst are all well defined.

The plot was totally the kind of conspiracy and intrigue that you imagine goes on behind the scenes in politics – whether it be in Washington, Ottawa, London or anywhere else. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You get rid of my enemy, I’ll funnel cash or contracts or position your way. Ruthlessness and power. It’s awesome.

And at the end, a cliff-hanger.

Author Jennifer Lynn Barnes is no stranger to YA fiction, but this is a new direction for her, and one I hope she continues on. Hint: a sequel, please?

This book is great for any teen, and any adult who wants an evening of sitting on the edge of your seat, holding your breath and tearing through the pages.  It is not relaxing.

The Fixer is published by Bloomsbury.

Striker

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The Pan Am-Para Pan Am Games are going in Toronto, and Canada is totally kicking ass. What better time to review a sports book?  (That, and Striker is apparently my 9 year old’s “most favourite book ever,” so she cornered me…)  And it is a fun, fast read for anyone who enjoys a feel good story.

Cody is 13, and recovering from cancer surgery on his leg.  His passion is soccer, and sitting out a season while he dealt with chemo and surgery were probably harder for him than the actual illness.  But now he is on the road to recovery, and he badly wants to try out for a local rep team. His over-protective mother might be harder to convince than the cancer was to beat!

He makes the Lions as a “Super Sub,” the nickname the eleven substitute players give themselves after they realize that they will be watching the season, and not playing at all. Cody does not want to tell anyone about his cancer, and is self-conscious about his weakened leg and lack of hair, all made worse by the bullying from a few teammates.

After a mid-season shake-up, the Super Subs find themselves the only players on the team, and their good humour and willingness to play helps form them into a great team. Cody learns to trust his new friends, and his leg.

Striker is a good middle-grade novel about bullying, life after illness, friendship, and soccer. The story looks at bullying between kids AND between adults, as well as the effects of childhood cancer on a whole family.  It is a fun read for anyone who likes the sport.

Striker is published by James Lorimer & Company.

A Thousand Pieces of You

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Book one of the Firebird series by Claudia Gray starts off a bit slowly.  I’d heard it was excellent, so was excited to pick it up, but was starting to get discouraged a few chapters in. It just wasn’t holding my interest. But that changed in a hurry!

Marguerite is on a cross-dimensional search for her father’s killer. There. Did that get your attention?

17 year old Marguerite is the daughter of well-known physicists. Their theories on parallel universes were panned for years, but after incredible breakthroughs, finally accepted.  And they have an unimaginable invention on their hands to prove their research – the Firebird, which allows the users to visit other universes. Sadly, it can also be used for nefarious purposes (of course it can!). Marguerite’s father is murdered and the killer jumps to another universe before the law can touch him. The perfect crime.

The trouble is the identity of the killer: Paul, one of her parents’ research assistants, and surrogate brother to Marguerite.  So using another Firebird, she and Theo (another student) follow Paul to bring him back. But the truth is never so simple anyway. Try adding another dimension into the mix.

Did you ever see the movie Sliding Doors? (Highly underrated, in my opinion). Gwyneth Paltrow plays a woman whose life splits into parallel universes when she is fired from her job and runs for the train. What happens when she makes it, what happens when she doesn’t.

A Thousand Pieces of You does the same thing, but on a macro scale:  not just what happens if you eat in this restaurant instead of that one, if you took Job A instead of Job B, if you went on the blind date instead of faking sick. But what happens when technology takes over, or if the computer is never invented, or climate change alters the coastlines of the continents.

The pop culture references and world-building were great. Gray gives a good feeling for the different dimensions and the changes, minor or major, between them. There is a dimension where The Beatles never existed?  That’s sacrilege, in my opinion.

The novel is definitely a romance.  With a love triangle, of sorts.  But it is clear fairly early on which one of the boys Marguerite was falling for, so maybe love triangle is a bit of a stretch. I liked the cross-dimensional twist to it – which version of the man is she really falling in love with?

Kudos to Gray for keeping the characters straight. At least, I think she did… There were so many dimensions and hijackers and piggybackers and holy crap did I ever have a headache!

The truth behind her father’s murder? Did NOT see that coming. Fantastic.

Don’t read this book when you’re tired.  You need a clear head and maybe a pad of paper to keep everyone and everything organized. It’ll make you wonder how many more of you are out there!

Definitely appropriate for teens, there is a bit of sex, but not graphic, and same with the violence.  It is book one of a series, but can stand alone. That said, I can’t wait for the second book!

A Thousand Pieces of You is published by Harper Teen.

Every Last Word

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There have been a lot of books written lately dealing with teen mental illness, some successfully, some not so much. They are tough to read, and tough to review.  This one in particular was  difficult – although I really loved it, it left me with questions.

Samantha McAllister is a junior in high school, and has been diagnosed with Purely-Obsessional OCD; she can’t turn off her brain without the help of meds and dark thoughts can overwhelm her.  Her crushes on various boys are not always based in reality. Sleep can be nearly impossible and the number three has far too much influence on her daily activities.

She has been best friends since junior kindergarten with the same group of girls – the Crazy Eights (now down to five). They are the popular girls, they set the trends for make-up and clothes, are on every social committee, are the ones everyone else wants to be.  Or so Samantha thinks.

In reality, she is no longer comfortable around the group, and she feels like the fifth wheel. The petty jealousies, the social structure and watching every word she says and every outfit she chooses is tiring. She is ready to move on, but is afraid to leave the safety of familiarity, afraid to make such a change.

Then she meets Caroline, who helps her find her own voice.  Sam is introduced to Poet’s Corner, and accepted into a group of individuals who all have their own ideas and quirks, who all are ready to like her for her. She competes at an elite level in swimming, and finds strength in the pool and in her writing. Slowly, she starts to feel “normal,” and occasionally leaves behind some of her regular behaviours.

I did NOT see the twist coming at the end.

Tamara Ireland Stone writes fabulous characters.  Sam, AJ and Caroline were so alive, and the various friends and frenemies were absolutely believable. Stone evokes emotion without effort throughout; the story made me angry, made me hold my breath, cringe, laugh and cry.

Here is my issue with the story: I cannot judge how successful it is in portraying OCD accurately. To me, Sam’s challenges seemed a bit romanticized, if I can use that word. Is it really likely that a teenage girl was able to hide her OCD from the friends she had hung out with almost daily since kindergarten? When she was diagnosed so young?

That said, it feels like an honest attempt, and I think was done respectfully. Any effort to shine a light on and bring understanding to teen mental illness should be applauded.

Given the subject matter, the novel is appropriate for age 12 and up.

Every Last Word is published by Hyperion.

The Impossible Knife of Memory

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Certain books stay with you long after you close the cover; these same books are almost impossible to put down when you are reading them.  And re-reading them, time after time.  The Impossible Knife of Memory is one of those books.

I read this novel twice, devouring it the first time, galloping through, reading so quickly that I missed whole sentences in my rush to find out what happened next.  As soon as I finished it, I turned back to the first page, and read it again slowly, absorbing the words.  And I cried in exactly the same places, even though the second reading told me so much more.

Hayley, 17 years old, is living in a house for the first time in five years. She has been on the road as her father’s navigator in his rig, as he tries to escape the demons that have haunted him since his tours overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq.  She is self-taught and homeschooled, until her father Andy decides it is time to settle down for her final year of high school. Is this a chance for her to have a normal life?

Although the demons had been present on the road, neither Andy nor Hayley was prepared for the onslaught that awaited them at his family home in Belmont, New York. And not just his demons.  Hayley has some ghosts of her own that she has been avoiding, and they seem determined to make a reappearance.

Hayley and her father are great characters. Hayley is a teen thrown into unfamiliar territory, with too much responsibility and pressure.  Unused to the structure of school, she does her best to keep her head above water. She is smart, sarcastic and witty, and afraid that Andy’s secrets will come out.  She loves him fiercely, even as she hates him. Hayley’s interactions with her father’s ex-girlfriend Trish were selfish and hateful, and true to life.

Andy’s days are unpredictable; one can start out promising, and end in a drunken blackout at the tiniest trigger. He cannot escape his memories, and has given up trying.

Trish, Finn (the new boyfriend), Gracie (the old friend), and the teachers are all strong secondary characters in the narrative. Each deals with his or her own baggage, which sometimes distracts Hayley, and other times adds to her stress.

Laurie Halse Anderson channels the teenage mind and voice so accurately, her books read like true life biographies. And, in some ways, the subject matter in this book is autobiographical; according to her notes at the end, she lived with a father who suffered from PTSD, long before it was recognized as such.  Her truth and sincerity ring throughout the story.

My only disappointment in the whole book is the ending.  For me, it was too neat and tidy.  The book – Hayley’s life – was messy. The story seems to change direction in the final chapter.

The book can be frightening at times. The subject matter is tough. It is appropriate for all teens, but does have some disturbing images of violence, alcohol and drug use, although not too graphically described.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is published by Penguin Books.

The Wrath & The Dawn

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Inspired by A Thousand and One NightsThe Wrath & The Dawn is a good tribute to the classic.

In an ancient land ruled by a murderous young king, 16 year old Shahrzad has become the latest in a series of his brides taken for one night. If her marriage follows the pattern set by the dozens before, her life will end at dawn with a silk cord around her neck, and her family will be left to mourn her.

Shahrzad, however, is not like the ones that have come before her.  Not only has she volunteered for the duty, but she plans to see the sunrise.  Survive, and end the life of the 18 year old Caliph of Khorasan, in revenge for him taking the life of her best friend, Shiva, months before.

Her first night does not end in her death, as expected, as she tells the King a story to catch his interest, and leaves him with a cliffhangar, in exchange for one more night. She adds to the story the next night, again leaving an open ending.

What follows is predictable, in many ways, even if you are unfamiliar with the original.  The evil king will meet his match in his new bride, and she will tame his heart. She wins over his spies and courtiers, and becomes a force to be reckoned with within the palace. But the familiarity ends there.

What is new to the story is the reason he takes the life of his brides. What is the source of his evil and hatred? The story looks at sacrifice and duty, strength and purpose, in an unexpected way.

The story is good. Renee Ahdieh is fantastic with her world building, the description and nuance are enough to make you taste the flavours of the meals the characters share, and the sights they see jump off the page.

I did, however, find the story rushed in places.  Certain characters never developed, and some situations did not seem to flow properly. Tariq and Rehim came in and out of the story with no seeming direction.  Days passed without any indication. Magic was present, but never really explained. Shahrzad’s character was uneven, and the romance between Shazi and Khalid seemed to just happen, not develop.

That aside, I liked it.  When I picked it up, I did not realize it was book one of a series. And thank goodness it is, because the ending was incredibly unsatisfying. In the tradition of the classic, Ahdieh left a cliffhanger. I don’t necessarily need hearts and flowers and riding off into the rainbow/sunset together, but I do need an ending. Of course, now I have to wait for book two.

This is a good, fun read. It has romance and fantasy, it has sword fighting and action.  Good for all teens who don’t mind a bit of death and magic in their romances.

The Wrath & The Dawn is published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

None of the Above

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This was a difficult book for me to categorize.  I started it thinking it was a transgender romance, but was unprepared for the actual story.  I had never heard the term “intersex” before reading None of the Above (neither had my laptop, it keeps autocorrecting to “interest”). What an important story to be told.

Kristin is a normal teenage girl, popular, star of the track team, dealing with her senior year in high school, college acceptances, life, boyfriend, sex. Until her Homecoming dance, when she and boyfriend Sam decide it is time to go all the way.  It doesn’t work out the way she thought it would. It doesn’t work at all. The first time, or the next.

At a visit to the doctor to make sure everything is ok, Kristin (and her doctor) are shocked to discover she is intersex. Specifically, Kristin has AIS, or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Outwardly, she looks like a girl. She feels like a girl. But inside, she has male chromosomes, and even testicles.

The story of a teen girl having her world turned upside down, the bullying she endures when her secret is leaked, the friends that stand beside her and those that turn their backs, would be heartbreaking under any circumstances. Add ignorance and intolerance to the mix, and your heart will stop.

But along the way, as she learns to live with and accept her condition, Kristin finds others who have the same challenges. She reads stories online, finds support groups, and realizes that not all of her friends have turned their backs on her.

This novel is definitely not a romance, but the relationships in the book do impact on the theme of acceptance.  They help drive home the point that it is the person you love, not their chromosomes (to paraphrase a lovely boy with courage and common sense).

Kristin is a great narrator for this story. She questions everything, and looks at all angles for her answers.  She is, in the end, willing to see that she is not the only one dealing with the shock of her condition. I found her combination of maturity in some areas of her life, and childishness in others, incredibly realistic. Teens are not adults; their lack of life experience, whether it is dealing with broken friendships or an unexpected medical diagnosis, shows itself at different times.

The novel is funny, sad, hopeful, terrifying, horrible, heartbreaking and full of love and acceptance. The characters and their different reactions to Kristin were authentic; shock, questioning, horror, disbelief, respect.   Her father’s relief in learning Kristin doesn’t have a cervix, so can never die of the terrible disease that climbed his wife’s life, seemed so dad-like to me.

Author Irene Gregorio is a surgeon, and met her first intersex patient when she was a surgical resident.  Read her notes at the end to understand her inspiration for the novel.  They will make you cry as much as the story does.

Everyone should read this book.  It is a lesson in tolerance and understanding, and is a very important story.

None of the Above is published by Balzer & Bray.