Monthly Archives: July 2016

My Lady Jane

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If you are the type of person who really wishes that history class could be livened up a little, the type who reads your textbooks and thinks up alternative endings to actual events, the type who wouldn’t mind chopping off a few heads that did NOT belong to the wives of Henry VIII, then My Lady Jane is for you. Especially if you are also amused by men who turn into horses at sunrise, a king who doesn’t actually shoot the messenger but eats him instead, and the mystery of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays finally being solved.

16-year-old King Edward Tudor is dying. But given that he has yet to have even kissed a girl, much less done anything that could produce an heir (bastard or otherwise), England is on the edge of turmoil. Moreso than even Brexit could cause, because not only is the land to be without a monarch, there is also trouble brewing between the Edian and the Verities. Or, those that can shapeshift into an animal form at will, and those that believe such a skill is an abomination. This is unrest on the scale of Henry VIII’s Catholic vs Protestant divide, but much more fun.

Edward’s favourite cousin is Lady Jane Grey. Practically raised together, the two are fast friends and understand each other completely. Edward knows Jane would rather read a book about the cultivation of beets in Eastern Europe than get married. She’d rather read a book about anything than do anything else, actually. She has spent her life avoiding social interaction on any level. But Edward needs an heir, and Jane is one of the few people he trusts. So he marries her off to Gifford Dudley, second son to a Duke and afflicted with an “equine issue,” proclaims her heir the Throne, dies, and Jane becomes Queen. Much to her dismay.

HO. LEE. CRAP. I have not giggled so much and so continuously in I don’t know how long. This book was recommended to me by Kim over at By Hook or By Book, and you need to visit her right away. She has fabulous posts on everything from book reviews to current events, and I lose hours perusing her site. She called this novel a cross between Monty Python, the Princess Bride (as you wish!) and Ladyhawke, and I cannot improve on that description.

This is a hilarious, laugh-out-loud, historical comedy. There is not one serious word in it, and when even an impending beheading can make you giggle, you know it is going to be good. It is full of mockery and jokes and puns and quips and plays on words that will have you snorting your proper English tea straight out of your nose.

The story behind the humour is backroom politics that would impress even today. Backstabbing and plotting and deal-making are apparently timeless pursuits. Not sure that it makes me feel any better, but at least we know it is an honoured practice. Then add in a battle of the sexes and a few budding romances, and you have an unbeatable plot.

Obviously, what makes this story so outstanding is the characters and their language. Edward’s obsession with a second opinion that he might like better than his diagnosis of death, his realization that maybe everyone was letting him win when they practiced swordplay and played games (he approves), and his acknowledgment that being king was maybe not the be all and end all that he initially thought were all done so smoothly and with so much humour.  Jane’s desire to read and not be married to a horse is totally understandable, and her choice of frying pan as a weapon practical. And above all, Edward’s and Jane’s devotion to each other is written so wonderfully and believably, a deep abiding affection that doesn’t need humour to prop it up.

The secondary characters are as in depth and developed as Jane and Edward. I love that the authors do not make them farcical, but individuals in their own right, even when they shapeshift into skunks. Gracie and Pet and G and Bess and even Mary, Queen of Scots, are so alive and totally dominate their scenes. And Gran is friggin’ hysterical. Strong, opinionated, sarcastic, forceful and lovely, but hysterical. I think I might love her.

Coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows manage what I would have thought to be near impossible. Three authors, writing three different characters that flow seamlessly. They keep the humor constant throughout the novel, it never feels forced or contrived, and the thought of them writing together makes me picture three friends sitting with glasses of wine, throwing out ideas and laughing themselves silly far into the night. I absolutely adored the references to poems and stories and people and events throughout the novel, most of which won’t occur for the next hundred years or so. And the editorial notes throughout are as funny as the dialogue.

The novel might initially intimidate at 500 pages, but I flew through it in one sitting. It is impossible to put down. Take an evening, pour a glass of wine (or three), ignore the family, and prepare to laugh your a** off.

My Lady Jane was published June 7th, 2016 by HarperTeen.

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Jerkbait

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Back to my LGBT reading list for this one.

Tristan and Robbie are 18-year-old identical twins. Physically, it is impossible to tell them apart. But the resemblance stops there. They are not close, they have never gotten along. Tristan loves the theatre, has a natural talent for dance and singing, and dreams of performing on Broadway.  Robbie is slated to go in a top round for the NHL draft this year. A gifted centre, he dreams of nothing but the playing for New Jersey Devils. He is their parents’ hope for the future. Oh. Another difference? One twin is gay, one straight.

One night, Robbie tries to kill himself. The pressure of his draft year, along with the secrets he keeps are too much for him to handle. Instead of getting him help, the twins’ parents decide to hide the truth.  They don’t want his draft value dropping.  So Tristan becomes his brother’s keeper, and the two boys get to know each other for the first time in their lives.

Tristan has lived his life in Robbie’s shadow. Although a good hockey player himself, he is not a star and has never dreamed of being one. But as he gets to finally know Robbie, he sees beneath the cocky exterior to the terrified boy who knows that if his secret gets out, his dream could be over. At the same time, Robbie discovers that his love for Tristan is more powerful than his fear.

This book tackles a topic that is so relevant and important today, and I was excited to read it, hoping to yell from the rooftops “READ THIS!” after. I hate to be negative when such a story is so needed. And I still think it should be read. But to be honest, while the idea is fantastic, it falls somewhat short in the execution.

The good:

The idea, the story, the support for gay athletes. So needed.

I really love that the book is written from Tristan’s perspective.  He is the straight twin, living in his brother’s shadow, raised in a hockey family to believe that homosexuality has no place in sport.  You can’t be gay and play hockey. He has no idea his brother is gay, mainly because he doesn’t pay attention. Robbie tries to tell him, several times, but Tristan doesn’t want to see. He is too comfortable in his envy and self-pity. But when he finally does see it, he starts to understand not only Robbie’s pain and but also his bravery.

Author Mia Siegert illustrates clearly the psychological trauma that a young gay athlete can go through. Actually, that any gay teen can face, athlete or not. She portrays the bullying at the hands of friends and teammates incredibly well, and the varied behaviours – everything from religious conservatism to harassment to physical brutality to love and support – ring authentic and true.

All the teens are complex, relatable, and fantastically developed characters. The friendships and rivalries and likes and dislikes and bitchy behavior and unquestioning affection brought me straight back to the halls of my high school. It seems that not much changes. Tristan’s speech to the hockey team was completely believable and showed so much pride and support for his brother.

The bad:

The execution. The story seems forced in places, as if trying too hard to make a point.

The parents. And I don’t mean they’re bad because they are homophobic and racist (that’s just obvious). They are flat, one-dimensional, overly-exaggerated characters of hockey parents, controlling everything the boys did, not wanting anyone to know about the suicide attempts, thinking only of how such attempts could affect Robbie’s future, never that he might not have one if he succeeded.

It’s 2016, and these boys are 18 years old.  The computer stuff made no sense at all. The chat rooms and messaging seemed out of date. My kids are way younger, and know all about internet safety and not chatting with strangers and DEFINITELY not meeting anyone in person that you have met online. This is not new information. Also, for parents who control EVERYTHING, this is where they decide to respect privacy and not interfere?

I don’t want to spoil it, so will just say that I know Robbie is lonely, and I know we all do stupid things when we are in pain, but the big scene near the end of the story just does not make sense. His behaviour, given his lifelong dream, is not in character at all.

Add the twin telepathy to that. We’ve all heard the stories how twins miles apart can feel when something is wrong with the other, and I have no trouble believing that. But I don’t think that after 18 years of ignoring each other, two people who have never shared so much as a twinge of recognition all of a sudden start having conversations with each other in their heads. I assume Siegert is trying to show how close they became once they started to really know each other, but to me it made believable characters less so.

I think Siegert has an incredible idea in this story. So with all the negative, I still say “READ THIS.”  The good messages in it outweigh the bad aspects, and they are important and timely and can start a much needed conversation.

The organization You Can Play, support for gay athletes, is referenced and promoted at the end.

Jerkbait was published May 10th, 2016 by Jolly Fish Press.

The Voyage to Magical North (Accidental Pirates #1)

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The adorable cover captures the story inside perfectly. Who wouldn’t want to sail aboard a pirate ship and battle sea monsters to find endless magic and treasure? Especially on a charmed ship called The Onion? (Some pirates don’t spell so well).

12-year-old Brine Seaborne was found floating in a boat at sea when she was just a young girl. She has no memory of how she got there, or where she comes from. Claimed by a mediocre magician as his servant, she has grown up in a house of magic, serving the magician and his apprentice, Peter. Which is a bit of an issue, as she is allergic to magic.

One day, Brine and Peter overhear the magician making plans that will change their lives for the worse, so they steal the magician’s source of magic and flee in the middle of the night. Through one misstep after another, they get lost at sea and end up as crew of the great pirate ship The Onion, captained by none other than the beautiful and captivating (when she washes her hair) Cassie O’Pia. What follows is an adventure of a lifetime, as the crew searches for the legendary Magical North.

Oh, squeal of delight! (10 points to the sci-fi nerd who can tell me the obscure show that comes from. Without mocking me). What a completely delightful and surprising story. Love love LOVE the magic and pirates and library and bad-ass librarians and messenger gulls and sea monsters and evil bird-fish and giant octopi and ice that stalks its prey. Love all the plays on words and quips and puns. Love Brine and Peter and Tom and Ewan and Tim and Trudi and Cassie and their friendships.

The characters just leap off the page at you. Brine and Peter take a slow route to friendship, overcoming initial jealousy and dislike and mistrust to acceptance and mutual admiration. Tom comes later to the crew, but is open and eager for friends his age, something his isolated life has never allowed. And the pirates are fantastic! They are just what pirates should be – loud, dirty, distrustful, funny, scheming, with hearts of gold. If you don’t stand in the way of them getting gold. A ship full of colorful oddball individuals with quirks and personalities that had me howling with laughter. Add a sociopathic villain that strikes just the right balance between crazy and terrifying and you have the perfect cast of characters for a great adventure.

The world building is fabulous. Ships and star shells and mysterious lands and magical storms and land beneath ice and an island that holds all the world’s stories in a library that goes on and on and on. The ocean makes an endless, ever-changing backdrop that gives author Claire Fayers the opportunity to take the story in any direction. She takes full advantage, and the fast pace will keep you turning pages right to the end. And then wishing the sequel was already written!

I love how Fayers writes the novel around the idea of the stories we tell, and the ones we leave out. How stories define our lives and how others see us, how we sometimes try to manufacture the life we want others to believe. And how sometimes, we might want to erase the stories, and rewrite them. (If only… My teenage years, anyone? *cringes*)

This is an awesome middle-grade book for everyone who loves a fun adventure, with enough magic and mystery to keep it totally unpredictable. But still believable! I want to sail again on The Onion and explore the eight oceans with her crew, and cannot wait to read their next adventure.

The Voyage to Magical North was published July 5th, 2016 by Henry Holt and Co.

All American Boys

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On the Tuesday morning following the “incident,” students found the following graffiti painted on the sidewalk in front of Springfield Central High School: Rashad is absent again today. In itself, not an earth-shattering message. Until you understand why he is absent. That message starts a tidal wave of protest and rebellion in the face of prejudice and brutality.

The Friday night previous, on the way to a local house party high school junior Rashad stopped at a store to pick up some chips and gum. When he knelt on the floor to get his money and phone out his bag, a woman backed into him, falling, starting a horrifying series of events that ended up with him face down on the pavement and a cop accusing him of stealing and pummelling him right into the hospital.

The thing is, Rashad didn’t steal. And he wouldn’t. A good kid, he was looking at a bright future with his ROTC training and his art. And his dad (a former cop himself) had always said, if you are questioned by a cop, don’t argue, don’t talk back, do whatever the cop asks. But the cop saw what he saw. A black kid. In baggy clothes. Reaching into a duffel bag. So he let Rashad have it, first in the store, then on the sidewalk outside.

16-year-old Quinn saw it. Well, he didn’t see what started it, but he saw the result. He saw his best friend’s older brother, Paul, a man he had worshipped and looked upon as a surrogate father, beating the hell out a kid. He kept his mouth shut. At first. And then he saw the message, first on the school grounds, then spray-painted around town.

Told from the alternating perspectives Rashad and Quinn, one the black teen that suffered the beating, and one the white teen that witnessed it, the story covers the week following the assault.  They are good kids, artist and basketball player, both wondering about their future. The way they each have to approach their futures differently brings home the divide in their community and their realities.

Interestingly, the story is written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, a white man and a black man. But Reynolds writes the part of Rashad, and Kiely that of Quinn. Together, they look at police brutality, racial profiling, family tensions, loyalty, and give voice to the struggle teens face every day of trying to figure out what is right and what they can do to stand up for it, wanting change but not knowing how to bring it about, all in the face of family and societal pressures.

I also liked that both Rashad and Quinn’s struggle are highlighted. Rashad’s decision to protest was not an easy one, but the pressure he felt was different. He is the symbolic face of the demonstration, even as he fights to recover from the beating that injured him both physically and psychologically. The urge to walk away and try to get on with his life is overwhelming. Quinn has to make a choice that could forever estrange him from friends and family, even as he knows deep down it is the right one.

If I am going to offer criticism, it is that I would have liked to see the good side of the police officer, the side Quinn grew up with, before we saw the bad. It might have added depth to Quinn’s struggle, made it a bit more relatable; as it was, the first time we meet Paul in the novel he is an uncontrollable monster, and after, under investigation, he is self-righteously defending his actions, trying to save himself. The reader never sees any good in Paul, which makes it harder to understand how Quinn could ever be conflicted over the right path to take. Although, maybe it also means that there was no good in the man in the first place.

This is an important book, a book that can start conversations.  Sometimes it is difficult to see clearly past our own experiences. I think that as a YA novel, All American Boys has the rare opportunity to show both the experiences of the victim and the witness to a group of young people who will hopefully be the ones who can fix this mess.

All American Boys was published September 29th, 2015 by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.

Lockdown (Escape From Furnace #1)

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When I am finished reading a book it usually looks pretty close to the way it did when I first opened it. I am obsessive about taking care of my books, I don’t break the spine, I don’t dog-ear pages. Not this one. The front cover is rough-edged and crumpled where I was gripping it and the spine is cracked and I think I might have bitten it because it looks like there are teeth marks on a few pages… Every fear I have ever had? Meet the written word.

Built after the “Summer of Slaughter” when teens in Britain ran wild on a murderous crime spree, Furnace Penitentiary is buried miles beneath the surface, the world’s most secure young offender’s prison. There is one way in, literally. And no way out. You get convicted of murder, you take an elevator down through the granite, and never see the surface again. The problem is, not everyone in Furnace is actually guilty.

14-year-old Alex Sawyer is a petty thief, spending his time shaking down kids on the schoolyard for their cash, breaking into houses for bigger scores. He lives large and thinks himself invincible. But then it all goes sideways.

Convicted of a murder he did not commit, Alex is sent to Furnace for life without parole. Death might be the better choice. Furnace is beyond imagination. Blood-coloured rough rock walls and pulsing with heat, it houses thousands of teens kept under control through fear of a fate worse than death. Think mutant beasts, giant men in black, inhuman creatures that take screaming boys from their cells in the dark of night, a warden that seems to hold supernatural control over both inmates and employees.

And the outside world could not care less. These kids are no longer their problem.

Deep breath. Whew. The characters in Lockdown are incredible. Alexander Gordon Smith has written teens that we all recognize and can relate to in some way. They handle the horror of Furnace believably: they scream in their sleep, they have nightmares, they band into gangs, they throw up their lunch and they look the other way when violence breaks out.

Alex is the perfect blend of stupidity and bravado and bad choices and a good heart. He is not a bad kid, just one who didn’t think about the consequences until it was forever too late. What starts as a life controlling the playground ends as one of terror. He fights to stay himself in a place that fights just as hard to rob him of his identity.

And the friends he makes in Furnace are also a great cross section. Donovan has a tough exterior that hides fear and desperation, Zee, like Alex, is innocent of the crime he serves time for, and needs friendship but fears reprisals, and Monty has a surprising internal strength that could get him killed.

Smith’s talent for description is mind-boggling. He draws such a vivid picture of hell under the earth that you will swear it must exist. Furnace is gang wars and hard labour and overwhelming exhaustion and fear and the blackest evil. It is tier upon tier of tiny two-to-a-room cellblocks that lockdown when the siren wails. It is the simultaneous fear of death and overwhelming desire for it.

The psychological aspect of this novel is completely and totally unnerving. Not only does the fear of telling the truth and not being believed resonate, but the use of total blackness and despair to control a population is terrifying to the extreme. Yes, of course you know that darkness can’t hurt you. Intellectually. But tell that to the 5-year-old that still inhabits your brain in the middle of the night when the power has gone out and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Add the knowledge that there are actual things to fear in the dark in a hellacious prison, and you can start to feel the panic.

I wanted to stop reading this book. But it is told with so much suspense and in such a terrifying voice, it was impossible to put down. Alex’s voice is compelling and real and absolutely sucked me in to the point where I was begging out loud for him to survive as I tore through the pages.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn on all the lights and quadruple check that all the windows and doors are locked. And maybe put some furniture in front of them. And maybe let my two dogs sleep on my bed tonight. Just this once. Just in case.

Lockdown (Escape From Furnace #1) was published October 27th, 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Looking Glass Wars (#1)

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So. I haven’t posted for a couple of weeks because I was up north at my cottage, and the wifi was down. Talk about a champagne problem. I had to spend my time watching the kids swim while sitting on the dock, drinking wine and reading. It was tough. But it did give me some time to start working through my TBR pile!

Another retelling, this one of Alice in Wonderland. Full disclosure. I have never been the biggest fan of Lewis Carroll’s novel. It just never really grabbed my attention when I was younger, and I haven’t really felt the urge to revisit it now. So I am looking at Beddor’s story through new eyes. And I think it is the right way to read this novel, the first in a series of three.

7-year-old Alyss Heart, the heir to the throne of Wonderland, has just celebrated her birthday and is learning to control her powerful imagination. Full of mischief and fun, she uses her powers for amusement, dreading the day she will become Queen, and have to do all the boring stuff that goes with the wearing the Crown. But her peaceful life is disrupted violently when her estranged Aunt Redd and her Cat assassin attacks the Crystal Palace and destroys her future. Hatter Madigan, trusted Royal guardian and advisor, escapes through the Pool of Tears with Alyss to save her, but loses her in the time stream. After emerging through street puddle into Victorian London, Alyss fears she will never find her way back.

Purists will probably hate this book, but I didn’t. Beddor definitely takes liberties with the original (he starts by stating the Carroll got it all wrong) and adds a fantastical sci-fi element that held my attention.

The characters were good, if a bit underdeveloped. Although as this is the first book in the series, there is always room for that to change as the story progresses. The exception is Alyss. The story begins with her at age 7, but she seems to be written older, which was confusing at first. That problem is ironed out, and her true age matches up much more smoothly with her actions. The story takes place over more than a dozen years, with Alyss going through many changes beyond her control. Beddor handles the different transitions well, and Alyss’ final identity is strong and the natural conclusion to her difficult growth.

Hatter, the Cat, Dodge Anders, Bibwit Harte, are all recognizable characters, even as they take on fantastical new roles. I think Beddor assumed a bit too much for their background because they all appear fully formed, but they seamlessly fit into the story.

The political struggle and resulting war in Wonderland are just dressing for the main storyline. They are well done. But the main plot line, that of Alyss searching for herself and validation of her life will resonate with most readers. She fights a constant battle to remember who she is in the face of others denying her story, and she struggles to hold on to her history. Her loss of self hinders her ability to help her people win the war; the rebuilding of her identity is the lynchpin to the entire story.

What I think is absolutely outstanding is Beddor’s world-building. Our world is somewhat behind Wonderland in technology and unknowingly relies on the fantasy world for our innovation and progress. Driven by the power of imagination, Wonderlanders imagine everything from gas lamps and hot air balloons to internal combustion engines that are then transferred to our world through a series of crystals, where someone here “invents” them. Incredible!

This is a successful retelling of Alice in Wonderland. Again, not for the purists, but if you are looking for an action-packed, often gory look at the adventures, this is a good book for you. I am hoping the that few issues I found with the first book are ironed out with the next two.

The Looking Glass Wars was published September 26th, 2006 by Dial Books.