Monthly Archives: September 2015

Fire Colour One

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This could possibly be a perfect story.

Iris loves fire and art and Thurston. She sees art in the moment and in the flame and in her friendship with the sometimes homeless but always brilliant boy. Almost 17 years old, she is blank, empty. Setting fires clears her mind when she is overwhelmed. But she is about to learn that some things are brighter and more powerful than the hottest fire.

Hannah and Lowell are her mother and wanna-be actor stepfather, drowning in debt and always a scam away from riches.

Ernest is dying, far away from his only child.  Iris thinks he abandoned her.  He believes that she must hate him.  But her mother’s greed and Ernest’s illness gives the two of them a final chance to be father and daughter. A short, wonderful, bittersweet chance.

I loved this book. Not at the beginning.  At first, I thought it was a bit precious and obnoxious and pretentious. Then came the realization that I was reading it cover to cover, afraid to put it down in case the story went away without me finishing it.

The characters are fabulous. Iris is, at first, a self-absorbed teen, filled with disdain and anger for everyone but her only friend. She reserves a special antipathy for her money-grubbing parents. While none of that is entirely a put-on or front, it does hide her loneliness, and is something she willingly gives up for Ernest.

Neither Hannah nor Lowell are subtle characters. Jenny Valentine intends for the reader to intensely dislike the two of them, and while her writing may be a bit obvious in their development, it worked: they were perfectly vile, and you won’t feel forced to hate them.

Ernest is lovely. Just how lovely isn’t fully revealed until after his death, but I fell hard for the lonely man who finally listened to his sister, and spent his daughter’s lifetime thinking of her, hoping for her happiness.

FC1 is a painting by artist Yves Klein, a stunningly graphic work he finished just before his death in 1962 (and looks NOTHING like the cover art of this book, in case you are wondering). Valentine uses the imagery of the painting, as well as references to other famous works of art to parallel the plot. A great story and a bit of art history, all in the same novel.

In the end, the unexpected plot twists makes it a masterpiece of manipulation and deceit and pure love.

Appropriate for any age, this story has something different in it for every reader.

Fire Colour One is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

The Secret Sky

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This is not a starry-eyed romance, or a predictable teenage love triangle. I’m not usually one to pick up a book that claims to be about a “forbidden love”, (seriously??) but this is the story of two teens who fight against generations of culture, their families and, most forbidding of all, the Taliban, to be together. It is worth the read.

Fatima and Samiullah were childhood friends in a small present day Afghani village.  When they were small, the friendship between a Pashtun boy and a Hazara girl was tolerated. But Sami has been away for three years, studying at a madrassa, learning the Quran, hoping to be the religious leader of his village.  He didn’t finish his studies, and no one is sure why. He holds a dark secret in his heart.

Although Fatima is now of marriageable age, she still feels like a young girl.  She wants more time to learn and study, opportunities denied to most girls in the villages, not leave her family to live in a far away village with a man she has never met. When Sami returns home and they reignite their friendship, she begins to rethink her objections.

Rashid, his cousin, sees them talking one day.  He has also returned from the madrassa, but the darkness that so disturbs Sami has taken hold of his soul. He is offended by what he sees between Sami and Fatima, and ensures that both their fathers find out about the disgrace. He turns the two innocents over to the Taliban for punishment.

Told from the three perspectives of Sami, Fatima and Rashid, The Secret Sky draws vivid pictures of the harsh realities of a war-torn country.  Interspersed with the horror and adversity are wonderful images of the beauty of the land and people. I started this book with very little knowledge, outside of what is on the news, about Afghanistan, but the characters and remote desert and mountain villages come alive in this novel.

Author Atia Abawi was born in West Germany, a month after her parents fled Afghanistan during the Soviet war. The family immigrated to the United States, where they gradually realized they would never be able to return to their homeland.  But Afghanistan called to Abawi, and she returned as a journalist, spending five years reporting on the country. She explored the villages and lived with the citizens, and the authenticity is clear in the novel.

It is a powerful story, one that is not the easiest to read.  The subject matter is gut-wrenching. It is still appropriate for all teens, but with forewarning of the violence and horror. It is terrifying. And it is beautiful.

The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan is published by Philomel Books.

Dead Jed: Adventures of a Middle School Zombie

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I obviously have the sense of humour of a 12 year old boy, because I laughed my ass off reading this book. SO FUNNY. Like snort your tea out your nose funny. I’m still giggling. But it’s more than hilarious. It’s also clever and charming and even a little bit romantic. You know, in the goth/zombie sense.

Jed is 12 years old, starting grade 7 at Pine Hollow Middle School.  And he’s dead.  Or undead. Cardiovascularly challenged. Flatline enhanced. A zombie. While most kids just have to worry about navigating classes and a new social structure in middle school, Jed worries about losing body parts. An unexpected sneeze can land his nose across the room (his record is 11 feet, 3 inches. Epic.) A particularly hard punt from the kicker while he holds the ball in position during a football game can send his hand through the uprights along with the ball. Wrong angle going into a trash can, and he can lose an arm. But lucky for him, all he needs is the heavy duty stapler and the duct tape that he always carries in his backpack, and he’s back in the action.

Robbie is in his 4th year of middle school, and makes it his mission to torture Jed as much as possible – shoving him in the trash can, locking him in the trophy case, removing his limbs and tossing them as far away as possible. The principal doesn’t think a kid with Jed’s challenges should be at his school, and looks the other way.

But Jed has his best friend Luke, and new friends Anna and Javon and Ray and Chris, and countless other students and teachers who look past his grey skin and “ooze” and see the boy.

Jed is a typical boy (minus the zombie thing). He doesn’t really like school, wonders what he will be when he grows up, gets pissed at his parents for being, well, parents, and is tongue-tied around girls. He wants to be like everyone else, wonders what it would be like, but can see the benefits of standing out in the crowd. Sometimes.

Author Scott Craven addresses good mid-grade themes – bullying, friendship, family dynamics, sexuality and self-esteem. He deals with each topic with dry humour and frankness, and (again, minus the zombie thing, unless you went to a very different school than I did) the scenes are all familiar and relevant.

This is a great middle school read, but ANYONE who loves a good laugh will have fun with it (as long as you don’t mind a good description of squelching an arm back in place…) Don’t miss the second and third books in the series, Dawn of the Jed and Return of the Jed.

Dead Jed is published by Month9Books, LLC.

Walk on Earth a Stranger

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A Young Adult western. LOVE IT. Hate that it is book one of a trilogy, because I just read it and it came out yesterday and now I probably have to wait a year for book two.

Now that the self-pity party is over, let’s get down to brass (gold) tacks.

In 1849, almost 16 year old Leah Westfall has a secret. She can feel gold. Sense it underground. She and her prospecting/farming family have gradually hidden away a sack of gold, enough to pay their keep for a lifetime, thanks to a mystical talent they must keep a secret. The one man her parents trusted with the knowledge is the one they shouldn’t have. His greed rips her life apart, destroys her family. Leah escapes her home state of Georgia, becoming Lee, a boy heading west to make his fortune in the California gold rush.

Along the way, she learns about friendship and loyalty, and that family isn’t always related by blood. She sees strength and beauty in people who, at first glance, seem weak and inconsequential.

I couldn’t put this one down. I went downtown today on the subway, face buried in the book, and missed my stop. Which I didn’t realize until two stops later. Then on the way home, I very nearly did it again.

Author Rae Carson knows her history of the California gold rush. The images of the hardships endured by prospectors travelling through unsettled plains are striking.  She paints a tough picture of life on the trail, not just the reality of carrying your entire existence in an oxen-pulled wagon across thousands of miles, but also the mindset needed to make it all the way, and the mindset that sometimes prevented success. There was prejudice, desperation and chauvinism, along with toughness, stubborness, and pure stupid faith in themselves and God.

Leah is an amazing heroine.  Strong, self-sufficient and self-aware, not once does her personality ring false.  Here is a girl who was raised to look after herself, who faced terrible tragedy, and decided she had to survive.  And she did, using her wits and her strength, but not losing her humanity or ability to learn from mistakes and hardship. And she has magic! I’m impressed with Carson’s ability to write such a girl, without it sounding like she is on soapbox.

All of Leah’s companions are written just as vividly. Every character is changed by life on the trail, and Carson didn’t forget a single one.

I know I know I KNOW that I am constantly judging books by their covers, and I’m not  supposed to (although everyone I know does), and this time is no exception.  But I am also judging this one on its title. It’s AWESOME.

This is a fabulous book for someone who wants to lose themselves in the Old West, from the comfort of an armchair.

Walk on Earth a Stranger is published by Greenwillow Books.

Openly Straight

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This is a quick, fun-with-a-good-message read. It is a celebration of diversity and acceptance.

Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He’s gay. But he’s a little tired of being “that GAY guy”. He knows it is important to embrace who he is, but he just wants to try being “that guy”.  So he decides to escape his reality.

He transfers to an all-boys’ boarding school in New England, and elects to keep his sexuality a secret. It’s not so much going back in the closet, as just not advertising all aspects of himself. Don’t ask, don’t tell. But he doesn’t count on falling in love with a boy who can’t believe it is possible.

Ah, young, tortured, forbidden love. Awesome.  And I love the fact there is no love triangle in this story. It is all about learning the importance of being who you are, embracing yourself, and facing reality, no matter how difficult it may be.

Openly Straight is a simple story with a good message.  Rafe is lovely and warm, a boy totally comfortable with himself, in large part due to extremely supportive parents and an open atmosphere in the town where he grew up. As he thinks, perhaps too open and too accepting.  His “Coming Out” party was a bit much for anyone, even done out of love.

Bill Koenigsberg writes with a lot of humour, but also sympathy.  His characters leap off the page; each is real and believable, whether a character you end up really liking, or one that you can’t stand. It is witty and charming, and the cast and crew have distinct, authentic, engaging personalities. Room for all.

You will find yourself laughing out loud at times, and cringing at others.  There is happiness and despair, joy and depression. Rafe is definitely a teenager trying to find his way, and his attempt to go label-free just creates a lie that he can’t find a way around.  In the end, it causes more trouble than honesty would have from the start.  But isn’t that usually the way.

This novel is appropriate for all teens.  There are discussions of sex, not graphic, and even the crude locker room humour you expect from an all boys school is somewhat toned down.

The open and frank discussion about the importance of being who you are, and a celebration of all who are different, is front and centre, without beating the reader over the head with it.

Read it and enjoy.

Openly Straight is published by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Between the Notes

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This book was a surprise.  I picked it up on a whim (actually, it was the cover that got me – SO pretty) and couldn’t put it down!  It is funny and charming and sweet, with just a touch of acid.

16 year old Ivy Emerson is rich. Well, her parents are. And then, suddenly, they aren’t any more.  They sell their huge house, and downsize to a small 3 bedroom apartment, on the wrong side of town. Ivy goes from having her own room AND one for her grand piano, with her best friend living next door, to living in a tiny attic bedroom with paper thin walls and a drug-dealing teen in the house beside her. That’s a bit of a step down in the world.

I didn’t like Ivy at first, which is probably the point. She is snobby and stuck-up and judges everyone by money and looks and where they live. She handled the move fairly well, didn’t throw a tantrum at her parents when she found out they were broke, but WHAT a snob. I can’t move to Lakeside! What if my friends find out? What do you mean no cell phone? I can’t ride THAT BUS to school! What will people think?

All that said, she rings true as a character. Her relationships with her parents and her twin 6 year old siblings are authentic, and it never seems like the author forces anything into the story to work. Her love and fierce protection of her mentally challenged brother and her conflicting wish for a life where her dreams aren’t secondary seems normal.

Reesa and Molly are well written characters, again, very true to teenage life. Kaya and Brady are great 6 year old twin siblings, and Lennie and James were as they should be. One a bit scary with a heart of gold, and one too perfect to be true.

I am not usually a fan of the love triangle, which is so prevalent in YA fiction, but I guess it is a quintessentially teen conundrum. Always fall for the wrong guy, even though he sees you only as friend or likes your best friend, all the while ignoring the one you should be with.  I guess we’ve all been there. Ahem. Anyway.

And this story is all about the love triangle. And how perceptions can change when you actually take the time to know someone, instead of assuming.

I liked the musical theme throughout the story, and the parallels with Ivy’s life. She is a  talented pianist, and her music helps her figure out who she is, and what is important in her life.

Between the Notes is funny and sweet, predictable but enjoyable, and is appropriate for all ages. (The kissing will make anyone giggle.)

It is published by Harper Teen.

The Witch Hunter

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Elizabeth Grey is an orphan, and a witch hunter, one of the best in the country of Anglia, in the service of young King Malcolm.  But lately she has been making mistakes, a lot of them, serious ones, and is lucky her best friend is also her partner, and can cover for her.  But even Caleb doesn’t know why her concentration has broken, and she doesn’t know how to tell him.

Then one night, full of drink and unable to focus, she is caught with witch’s herbs in her pocket, and she is arrested and sentenced to burn.

Her salvation comes not from her oldest friend, her only family, but from someone whom she considers a mortal enemy. Nicholas Perevil is the most powerful and dangerous wizard in the kingdom, but he will save her, in return for a favour only she can grant. As long as he doesn’t find out who she really is.

Phew. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book.  I was really excited to read it – it has so much I love in a fantasy novel.  Witches? Check.  Witch hunters? Check. Alternate medieval universe? Check. But the execution of the story is where author Virginia Boecker loses me. I’ve sat on it for awhile, turning it over in my mind, and I still can’t say it’s good, but I also can’t say it isn’t. Don’t love it, but don’t hate it either…

I think the problem is that the premise is fantastic, but the story doesn’t quite get there.  Boecker has a great plot, in theory, but a lot of it doesn’t add up. She isn’t sure of the story  enough, and where to take it, to make it happen.  Too much is forced.

The great thing about fantasy is that ANYTHING can happen.  But it still needs to make sense to the reader. i.e.: Elizabeth is a witch hunter is a world where witches are feared and hated, but instead of being revered because she is a witch hunter, she is also feared and hated, and must hide herself for fear of her life. Could someone explain??????

The characters, on the other hand, were decent.  The secondary characters were fairly developed.  The Inquisitor, Lord Blackwell, her oldest confidant, Caleb, her new protector, Nicholas Perevil, as well as all the new acquaintances she makes after her rescue, all seem to have distinct personalities that work for the story.  Elizabeth is actually the weakest of all, with constant changes in personality and making decisions that just don’t fit with what you already think of her. But maybe she can get her sh*t together in book two.

So, if you are a fan of fantasy, give The Witch Hunter a try.  I do have some reservations, but think the series deserves a chance in the second book.

It is appropriate for all teens; there is some violence and gore (witch burnings and sword fights), but the description is fairly benign.

The Witch Hunter is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.