Monthly Archives: April 2016

Hate List

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Back in January, I read This Is Where It Ends and expected total devastation. That book didn’t deliver it, but this one does. Talk about heartbreak. Whereas the first book never really looked beyond good vs evil, Hate List looks at the shades of grey in between.

In the spring of their junior year, Valerie’s boyfriend, Nick, came to school with a plan. Make everyone who had bullied them and made their lives hell, pay. Pay for the years of abuse and degradation. Valerie had no idea that the “hate list” she had created would be used in the spree. Had no idea that Nick was serious every time he said he hoped one of their tormentors would die. Deserved to die. 

Trying to halt his murderous rampage, Valerie is shot in the leg and wakes in the hospital to find that her life is changed forever. Because of her list, the list she wrote and he used to pick his targets, she is a suspect in the shootings; was she trying to stop him, or egging him on? Did she help choose the targets? The witnesses, surveillance tapes, her own e-mails, the list, all tell different stories.

And now, senior year. What could possibly be worse?

Author Jennifer Brown focuses on the one person who is often pushed aside or forgotten in a tragedy, the one who is neither victim or perpetrator, the one who “should have known.” Valerie dated Nick for three years, how could she not have known he was serious?

Valerie is a sympathetic character, even when she isn’t being very likeable. She is swamped in pain and loneliness and anger and guilt and horror. Her private hatred and pain are displayed for everyone to see and judge and condemn, but no one thinks to question why she and Nick felt the need for such a list. She feels overwhelming guilt for mourning and missing the Nick she thought she knew.

That said, she is also selfish. Her life has been turned upside down, and she is understandably self-absorbed, but she also forgets that she has friends and family who have also been affected by Nick’s actions, some not as directly, but some even more harshly than she. Maybe they have questions and guilt and anger as well. Valerie can’t see beyond her own pain, at first. But she slowly begins to see the tragedy from more than her perspective.

What Brown also does beautifully is make Nick a person, full of pain and sadness and even selfishness, not just evil with a gun. Tired of constant bullying and derision for his differences, he breaks. The fine line between villains and victims switching places happens in a horrifying heartbeat.

It seems odd to call the multitude of secondary characters such a thing, as they were as central to the story as Valerie and Nick themselves. The varied personalities and reactions to the shooting were just as real.

The powerful second by second recounting of the shooting completely wrecked me. While I obviously have no experience with such a terrible event, every eerie millisecond dragged me in and left me speechless, and in tears. Time freezes then speeds up then slows again and sound vanishes.

School shootings are sadly a timely subject, one which is handled with utmost respect in this novel. Without blaming anyone, the author illustrates the extreme fallout from bullying, but also does not absolve the bullied from personal responsibility for their own actions.

Above all else, this book makes you think about yourself in high school and middle school.  And maybe even today. How often have you said in a moment of anger or frustration or hurt, “I could kill her/him?” Did you mean it?

Hate List was published September 1st, 2009 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

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Reboot (Reboot #1)

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Now this is an original take on the zombie apocalypse.  

The world has been decimated by the KDH virus. It kills most people, but for some, usually the young and strong, it Reboots them, bringing them back stronger, more powerful, less bothered by emotions.

17-year-old Wren is a soldier for HARC (Human Advancement and Repopulation Corporation) in the Republic of Texas.  178 minutes after she was shot in the chest three times, she came back as a Reboot, not fully human, but not dead, either. The Reboots’ value is measured by the number of minutes it takes them to revive. Depending on how long they are dead, the less human they are when they return. As a soldier, fewer emotions and faster healing are optimal. This makes Wren a legend. She is a machine. They are known by their numbers and Wren 178 is the deadliest.

Wren’s job is rounding up and bringing in sick or criminal humans, all for the protection of the species. She also trains new Reboots, and as the highest number has her choice of new recruits. So how did she end up with Callum 22? He was barely dead long enough to qualify as a Reboot. But she takes him on, and in the process of training him discovers that her humanity is not as lost as she believes. And that maybe everything she has been told is not entirely the truth.

Wren is an interesting and complex character. Having been the deadliest Reboot for five years, she is cold and emotionless, and completely focused on her role. Told repeatedly that she is less than human, she accepts everything HARC tells as gospel. This is the only life she remembers.

Wren’s relationships with Callum and Ever are built up beautifully. Wren gradually discovers attraction and feelings for Callum, and in the process, realizes that that she can consider Ever a friend, something she hadn’t believed she was capable of before. She regains her humanity as the novel progresses, although I will admit that having the boy be the catalyst was a bit too easy. I would have liked to see her friendship with Ever be the reason she could fall for a boy, instead of her attraction to Callum her reason for returning Ever’s feelings. But that is a minor quibble for otherwise excellent character development.

Callum and Ever and Officer Leb make great contrasts to Wren’s emotionless state. None of them deal with her through fear, but acceptance, trust, and warmth.

The plot is interesting and fast paced; the action sequences fill the story and really set the tone. There is graphic violence, but it is not gratuitous to the storyline. What does stand out is the commentary on humanity’s inhumanity.  Differences are not celebrated but shunned and imprisoned. Fear is the prevalent emotion, not acceptance. Walls are built to keep the wealthy safe and the poor isolated. The Reboots are feared and enslaved. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Good world-building. Post-apocalyptic Texas is divided between the rich and the poor, the clean, well cared for homes and the dirty fenced-in slums. Amy Tintera does a fabulous job of bringing the reader through the dark, foul-scented streets where the impoverished and sick find shelter. The HARC building is a comfortable yet inpenetrable prison for the Reboots and the few glimpses they have of the outside world is usually in the dark on missions to extract the sick.

This is a really well-written, thought-provoking story, and it will be interesting to see where the sequel, Rebel, takes it. Definitely not for the squeamish, make sure you have a full evening free when you pick it up; you will not put it down until the last page is read.

Reboot was published May 7th, 2013 by HarperTeen.

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall

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After the death of her great-aunt Cordelia, the Piven family house now belongs to 17-year-old Delia. She and her family plan to spend the summer at the house, readying it for sale. Except when they arrive, they discover it isn’t just a house. It is the former Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females, known locally as “Hysteria Hall.”

And the house has plans of its own. It has a mission, a purpose: to keep troubled girls, some insane but some just strong-willed, locked away, even in death. And Delia has had a few troubles. The house wants her to stay. It goes to great lengths to keep her. Now Delia must find a way to make sure her little sister doesn’t get trapped as well.

I am on the fence about this one. It is very well written and entertaining, and there is a great twist just a few chapters in that I did not see coming, but I could never get emotionally involved in the story.

Main character Delia is real. She is a fabulous narrator for the story; neither bratty nor spoiled, she is funny and charming and still unsure of herself. Her voice made me laugh out loud throughout the novel. She has a touch of teenage defiance, just enough to get her into trouble and attract unwanted attention.

Her parents’ reaction to her defiance is a bit over the top for what she did. She was stupid, yes, but not exactly criminal. Delia’s reaction to her parents’ flip out, on the other hand, seems very realistic.

With that one exception, her parents seem genuine, and along with all the other characters in the novel, distinct and fun to read. The relationship between Delia and Janie, her five years younger sister, alternates between love and hatred. Your typical older-younger sister stuff. Her friendship with Nicole and relationship with ex-boyfriend Landon strike true. The ghosts, all of whom are from different decades of the institution’s history, cover the scale from happy and friendly to scared and shy to terrifying.

The setting is awesome. A haunted house? Love it. There is very little in this world creepier than an abandoned asylum. Filled with the ghosts of former residents who died there, Hysteria Hall has more than its share of both evil spirits and benevolent apparitions.

It is difficult to write a balance of humour and darkness without it feeling forced and false, but author Katie Alender somehow achieves that balance perfectly. And the ending could not be better.

Although it nicely fills the quota of creepiness and suspense, this is not a scary story. In the end, for all that I enjoyed reading it, I do want more. Maybe I am just heartless, but for a story with such great potential it needs more to suck me in. More horror. More emotion. There are places in the novel where I knew I should be in tears, be heartbroken, be terrified. It just didn’t happen. This is a like, not a love.

If you are easily scared, don’t read this one at night, when things go thump and bump. Just in case. But it is a nice daytime read for anyone.

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall was published August 25th, 2015 by Point.

Airships of Camelot: The Rise of Arthur (#1)

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A post-apocalyptic steampunk wild west retelling of the Arthurian legend. That should get your attention, am I right?  There is a LOT going on in this novel. And I’m on the fence about how well it works.

To escape the Spanish flu epidemic after the Great War, U.S. Navy officers took to their airships in search of isolated places to hide their families and make a new life. But instead of banding together and saving their country, only three generations later there is an uneasy alliance between the now divided territories, each controlled by an Admiral. And that Admiral must negotiate with the Texans who control the helium reserves, or the airships don’t fly.

18-year-old Arthur is heir to one of the territories, Camelot. But although it is a peaceful land, his father’s mistress Morgan and bastard son Mordred scheme for power. Arthur’s ship spends weeks at a time raiding the various settlements his crew comes across for plunder. The Camelot residents see the inhabitants as savages, potantially infected with the Spain. Any goods they might have are ripe for the taking. But during a risky raid, Arther is stranded on the ground and he begins to see his life and land a bit differently.

This is one of those books that started out very slowly. It didn’t grab me by the throat and refuse to let me go, but I still read it cover to cover in one sitting.

There is good character development. Familiar names pop up throughout the story, and the instinct is to immediately connect them to the original myth. But author Robson Wells doesn’t make it that easy. Instead, he takes their personalities and builds new characters from the legendary ones. He succeeds fairly well. And Excalibur itself gets a new backstory and a steampunk makeover.

Wells does a marvelous job of world building. Recognizable landmarks in the southwestern US are given a bit of a twist to adapt them to the new world order, and they truly add to the atmosphere of the story.

The plot is slow at first. The history of the conflict, the epidemic, the way of life in the post-war society, the personalities involved, all take quite a bit of time to properly set up. But once Arthur is on the ground, the pace picks up along with the action.

There is a lack of information about the technology and steampunk aspect in the post-war world. Technology should be front and centre in steampunk, but it takes a bit of a back seat in this novel. Not enough is made of it; mechanical lungs, metal arms, juggernauts, etc., do not seem to be completely commonplace, yet there is neither an aversion or intense curiosity about the technology. It just is. And I want my steampunk to be very steampunk-y.

I’m not sure how much I would really label this story a retelling of Arthur. While there is acknowledgement of the legend and vague links to the original characters and storyline, without the title of the series the connection is not too obvious.

SO. I didn’t love this book, but would definitely finish the series. It is a fun nod in the direction of the Arthurian legend, with a tenuous link to the original story. But it has all the elements needed for a good tale, and with sequels, there is the potential to ramp it up a notch or two. It is good, not great, but can be read by anyone who likes an adventure.

The Rise of Arthur was published October 15th, 2015 by Franklin Shepherd.

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave

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No one said which Christmas“.

Recommended to me by the wonderful ravenandbeez, this book will hit you right where you live. (Thanks for breaking my heart, ladies. Sheesh.)

The day Alfie Summerfield turned 5, the First World War broke out. Alfie’s dad Georgie promised him that he wouldn’t join up, but broke the promise the next day, leaving Alfie and his mum on their own.

Now Alfie is 9 and hasn’t heard from his dad for more than two years. His mum says Georgie is away on a special mission for the government, but Alfie knows it can’t be true. He knows something has happened, he just doesn’t know what. He goes to school two days a week because those are the days that have the subjects he enjoys. The rest of the week, he shines shoes for pennies at King’s Cross Station and slips the money into his mum’s purse at the end of the day, to help her out and do his share. And it is there that he happens upon some information that leads him to the truth about his dad.

Which is that he is hospitalized for PTSD (shell shock, 100 years ago). In WWI doctors, nurses and medical professionals were trying to deal with and treat a condition that had no physical symptoms, all the while battling the public and government perception that the men were merely suffering from cowardice. Georgie is one of those men.

Holy. Crap. Alfie!  What a wonderful narrator for the story. Intelligent and funny and straight forward. Author John Boyne perfectly captures the innocence and bluntness of youth in the boy. Alfie sees the world his own way, and everything is black and white. There are no overtones of adult logic or greyscale, just what Alfie sees and how he perceives it, and it is SPECTACULAR.

Georgie and Margie and Joe and Mr. Janacek and Kalena and Granny Summerfield are so true to life. Margie holds a job for the first time, doing her bit for the war effort while trying to keep a roof over their heads. Joe, the conscientious objector and Georgie’s lifelong friend, who holds onto his beliefs in the face of those who call him coward and would force him to kill. Mr. Janacek is persecuted for his birthplace while Kalena dreams of being Prime Minister one day. And Granny is the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip Brit who is fiercely loyal to her own. And all are seen through Alfie’s eyes, with his perception of each. They are perfect.

Wartime London is grey and suspicious and close-knit. Families and neighbourhoods close ranks and protect one another, but are quick to turn when someone doesn’t conform.

This book is a true historical novel. Boyne does not shy away from the horror and terror and hardship of war, he just sees it through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy, doing a masterful job of portraying the culture and societal norms of the time.

It makes it no less painful to see a man break even though his son doesn’t quite understand what is broken. To tackle a topic such as this in a middle-grade novel might seem too much, but Boyne handles it gently and in terms a young reader can grasp. And while it may seem like something we don’t want our children to face, with terror and war raging around the globe many already are.

Be prepared for a punch in the heart.

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave was published September 26th, 2013 by Doubleday Childrens.

The Improbable Theory of Ana & Zak

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Fun cover, fun premise, fun execution. A laugh out loud, quirky, fluffy contemporary with an improbable (!) plot that actually does work, and the fabulous over-arching theme that everyone has more sides that you might see on the first impression. Don’t judge a book by its cover. (Even though you can in this case.)

Ana Watson is driven to succeed, afraid of failure, always looking for the next event or activity or test result to put on her application for college. She wants to leave. She has to leave. Her suffocating, over-controlling parents make it impossible to stay. So this weekend trip to the Quiz Bowl in Washington should have been a slam-dunk. Until her genius little brother, Clayton, takes off from the hotel to attend the huge Washingcon sci-fi convention. By himself.

And now she is stuck with the uber-geek himself, Zak “Duke” Duquette, whom she blames for Clayton’s disappearance. But if Ana hopes to find her brother in the nerd herd of Trekkies and Chewies and zombies and Strawberry Shortcakes and elves and trolls and orcs and Katnisses before her parents or teacher chaperone do, she needs Zak.

Brian Katcher creates great chemistry between Ana and Zak, who are wonderful and likeable main characters. Although not at first. Told in dual POV by Ana and Zak, the format showcases their very distinct personalities. Ana starts as a self-centred and study-obsessed girl while Zak is big-headed and smug; forced to spend time together, the two find it difficult to maintain their usual facades and begin to learn about each other and themselves.

The secondary characters are just as diverse and fun as the two main, although I would have killed my brother if he put me through that crap. Slowly and painfully. With great enjoyment on my part. But Warren and Strawberry and Ana’s parents and Roger (love him) and Mrs. Brinkham and the rest of the Quiz Team crew and all the various and sundry characters at Washingcon are awesome additions to the cast.

The plot is engaging and fast moving, with twists and turns that the reader just doesn’t see coming. Taking place over 24 hours and full of pop culture references (“Hey, Asshole!” is probably my favourite and sadly, thanks to their dad my kids can quote the whole movie it comes from…), and witty banter that isn’t forced or unbelievable, this book is pure  entertainment.

Of course, there are a few weak spots, but not enough to wipe out the enjoyment. The storyline with Nichole doesn’t make much sense the way it unfolds, and there is a big scene near the end of the story that seems out of place in the novel. But overall, this is a light, fluffy book good for the entire YA age range, although those with pop-culture addictions may find it the most fun. It won’t challenge you or reduce you to tears, but you will have a good escape and more than a few laughs.

The Improbable Theory of Ana & Zak was published May 19th, 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books.

The War that Saved My Life

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I cannot count the number of times I ended up in tears reading this novel. Which made traveling the subway a little embarrassing, and working out on the treadmill downright dangerous.

In 1939 London, 10-year-old (maybe) Ada has lived her life in pain, due to a foot deformity and the mental and physical abuse inflicted by her mother. Neglected and mistreated, she has never been outside her Mam’s one room apartment, never seen grass or a tree, has never learned to read, doesn’t know her own age or birthday, and is ignorant of practically everything that anyone else would take for granted. Ada spends her time looking out her window onto a cheerless laneway, and looking after her little brother Jamie while her mother works in the pub below the flat.

When WWII looms, she and Jamie escape to the country with the child evacuees, hoping to leave their cruel mother behind.

This may be a middle-grade book, but absolutely nothing is unsophisticated about the writing or the emotions in this story. Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written an incredible story about family and hope.

Ada and Jamie and their reluctant hostess Susan are beautiful characters. And while Ada is the central figure in the story, the other two complete the circle. The depth of the children’s neglect and abuse is detailed naturally in their conversations and actions, without horrific description. Susan is not painted as the perfect substitute mother; rather she is a lonely and bitter woman, who has lost love, trusts no one, acknowledges her inability (and lack of desire) to care for children, and embraces her darkness. Her former relationship with her “dear friend” Becky is clear without being gratuitous and offers great context for her withdrawal.

All three grow and change during their life together, with the relationships deepening as the trust develops. What starts as an arms-length relationship when the world is sunny and war is far off, changes to a deep affection and attachment as the world darkens around them. Ada and Jamie learn that there can be safety and kindness and that determination and confidence can help change the world. Or at least, their small corner of it. Susan realizes that she has been holding the world at arms length, rather than the world pushing her away.

There are many types of wars; those between nations, those of ignorance, and those that are fought with oneself. Ada fights pain and ignorance and lack of self-worth, Jamie fear, and Susan loneliness. Surrounded by conflict, each fights personal battles against a backdrop of great evil and terror.

And the evil and terror are accurately depicted.  WWII England was waiting for an invasion in 1939-40, hearing about Hitler’s march through other nations, and wondering if their great country would fall.

The War that Saved My Life celebrates families of all kinds, those you are born into, and those you choose. One is not necessarily superior, but the novel also does not shy away from darkness; sometimes, blood is not a barrier against neglect and hatred. Sometimes it is a perfect cover.

It is a book about hope and kindness. It is about love and finding your place. It is about learning and accepting that you deserve goodness.

And yes, these themes are common in middle-grade fiction, and we have all read the story before. But there is nothing common about this book. Anyone can read it, and should, with a box of tissues alongside.

The War that Saved My Life was published January 8th, 2015 by Dial Books.