Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Review: Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

For my return to book blogging after a long hiatus, I'm taking a step back from YA to write about a biographical non-fiction novel that I have literally been unable to stop reading between work and sleeping. Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove is addictive, emotional, unforgettable, and soulful novel about his experiences as a former SeaWorld trainer. 

If you, like me, were forever changed by Blackfish, put this book at the very top of your to-read list.

Summary: Over the course of two decades, John Hargrove worked with 20 different whales on two continents and at two of SeaWorld's U.S. facilities. For Hargrove, becoming an orca trainer fulfilled a childhood dream. However, as his experience with the whales deepened, Hargrove came to doubt that their needs could ever be met in captivity. When two fellow trainers were killed by orcas in marine parks, Hargrove decided that SeaWorld's wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers.
After leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove became one of the stars of the controversial documentary Blackfish. The outcry over the treatment of SeaWorld's orca has now expanded beyond the outlines sketched by the award-winning documentary, with Hargrove contributing his expertise to an advocacy movement that is convincing both federal and state governments to act.
In Beneath the Surface, Hargrove paints a compelling portrait of these highly intelligent and social creatures, including his favorite whales Takara and her mother Kasatka, two of the most dominant orcas in SeaWorld. And he includes vibrant descriptions of the lives of orcas in the wild, contrasting their freedom in the ocean with their lives in SeaWorld.
Hargrove's journey is one that humanity has just begun to take-toward the realization that the relationship between the human and animal worlds must be radically rethought.
Little needs to be said for the content of the book because there is no question that is poignant, moving, and engrossing. Hargrove is undeniably a knowledgable, experienced, and reliable narrator. His love for these animals is felt on every page, and from this, I feel as if I know and love them, too. 

It is a rather pricey book—and I held out for two months for the paperback release after discovering this book existed. I was worried, particularly because of the price, about buying a redundant book that would basically retell Blackfish. This is not that at all! Within 10 pages, I had decided that it was worth every penny—and more! 

Anyone who was moved by Blackfish or with a love of animals can appreciate Hargrove's struggle to work with and eventually stop working with whales in captivity. Because despite working for the corporation that has imprisoned these magnificent creatures, he and all the trainers work hard and stay there, enduring repeated injuries, poor working conditions, death-defying risk, and terrible pay all because they love the whales and want to make sure that they are cared for; to make the best of an awful situation. His many examples of agonizing injuries, fearful moments, and near-death experiences is a testament of how much a person will go through for someone they love, even when that someone is an apex predator.
Blackfish is a very thorough examination of whales in captivity, but the film is focused largely on the tragedy of Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum. Hargrove does not just repeat the things of the documentary, branching out so much more to include his path to becoming a trainer, detailing typical days with the whales, explanations of waterwork, breeding, behavioural psychology, and accidents and near-accidents. You learn more about other whales he's worked with and loved (particularly Kasatka and Takara), and his experiences at multiple parks, as well as touching on Dawn and Tilikum, and the resulting legal battle between OHSA and SeaWorld, and SeaWorld and the changing social climate of animal rights. 
Beneath the Surface is beautifully written and Hargrove allows his readers to delve a little deeper into Shamu Stadium, both in the pool and backstage. As a fellow animal lover and someone who grew up with awed visits to Marineland in Niagara Falls to watch the orca shows—something that our children will never know it is impossible not to be pulled into the narrative, exposing the terrible truths about orcas in captivity to the world. 
Eye-opening and heart-breaking. I cannot remember ever reading a book that I loved and felt this much—and I work in publishing! 
5 Stars 

Monday, 28 March 2016

Review: Bittersweet by Winnie Mack

Bittersweet is one of the newest middle grade novels from Scholastic Canada. Written by Canadian author, Winnie Mack, it is a beautifully written story about a girl who is changed forever by her diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes. Personally, I think it's hard to find a really good "issues" book for the middle grade level. It's all magical adventures, awkward humour, or friendship stories. Mack's novel addresses a real issue for kids to experience and deal with, and to come out at the end with perspective, a little education, but the good feelings of a beautiful novel.

Summary: Sam is a normal 12-year-old. She loves ice cream, sleepovers, Christmas, and her soccer team (future team captain). What doesn’t she love? Her super-annoying teenage brother, how her little sisters mess up the house and talk incessantly, and especially, how completely weird she is feeling. 

Lately, Sam has been crazy hungry and thirsty. She’s tired all the time, and, most humiliating of all, she’s started wetting the bed like a baby. 

One day, after a collapse at a soccer game, she wakes up in the hospital to find out she’s got Type 1 diabetes. Suddenly everything is different: not just her diet and the injections, but her relationships with her family and her friends. Will she learn to handle it? 

This poignant story of a young girl coming to terms with a serious diagnosis, is a hopeful tale about overcoming life’s hurdles.

Sam struggles to come to terms not only with having this disease, but also having to face the uncertainty and fear of her friends, classmates, and even her siblings. We see her learn to accept that while she will never be normal, her diabetes does not make her weak or unlucky. It is a positive story of overcoming life's unexpected challenges and learning to live the hand you were dealt.

Parents and educators, you'll be pleased to know this is a clean read for ages 8-12. There are no frightening scenes or upsetting moments involving medical emergencies. Mack has done her research, keeping Sam's symptoms down to a science, rather than weaving dramatics for interest's sake. If you have a reader at home that likes a feel-good, realistic, "issues" story, I highly recommend it!

Overall, I really enjoyed Bittersweet. Regardless if you or someone you know has diabetes, cancer, or any other form of illness or disease, this is a novel that sticks with you. Sam is a kid who is just like you, with dreams and fears, and likes and dislikes. Illness can strike anyone, at any time. Life is unpredictable and it can be unfair, but illness does not mean we are incapable of achieving our dreams.

4 Stars

Bittersweet will be published on April 1, 2016.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Review: Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond

I am by no means a comic book junkie. I don't go to Comic Con, and I couldn't name heroes or villains outside those featured in multi-million dollar blockbusters. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that—let your geek flag fly! I just want to establish that in spite of my inexperience with the superhero genre, I loved Gwenda Bond's novel Fallout

Not only is Fallout a fantastic modern retelling of the Superman story, but it takes a talented author to write a page-turning mystery with characters who are so well-known to readers. And Bond does do them justice, capturing fearless Lois and mild-mannered Clark in their teenage years. 

Summary: Lois Lane is starting a new life in Metropolis. An Army brat, Lois has lived all over — and seen all kinds of things. (Some of them defy explanation, like the near-disaster she witnessed in Kansas in the middle of one night.) But now her family is putting down roots in the big city, and Lois is determined to fit in. Stay quiet. Fly straight. As soon as she steps into her new high school, though, she can see it won't be that easy. A group known as the Warheads is making life miserable for another girl at school. They're messing with her mind, somehow, via the high-tech immersive videogame they all play. Not cool. Armed with her wit and her new snazzy job as a reporter, Lois has her sights set on solving this mystery. But sometimes it's all a bit much. Thank goodness for her maybe-more-than-a friend, a guy she knows only by his screen name, Smallville Guy…

Although Clark Kent has a strong presence in the book,  he remains off-page throughout the story. While this was a disappointing twist, Lois does not need Superman to save her. She is no damsel in distress. This is Lois' victory —with a tiny bit of Super help, of course. Clark and Lois met on an online chat forum for the strange and supernatural, but they've never actually met. Instead of a pair of glasses, Clark hides behind a screen name and alien avatar. Clark and Lois have a "more than friends" vibe, but the romance angle is extremely PG.

I love that the book revolves around illegal experimentation with simulation gaming and technology's effect on the mind. As Lois and her friends work together to crack the case, they risk losing a lot more than a few friends to the pack of brainwashed teens.

Although the publisher indicates that this book is for readers ages 14+, it's actually a clean read (clean language, mild violence set in a video game, etc). If it wasn't for the length of the book and the detailed narrative requiring a confident reader, I would be recommending this story to middle graders. 

The world has been calling for more female superheroes and Gwenda Bond gives us a female hero we can rally behind. If you, like me, enjoy the odd Marvel movie, you liked Smallville, or you're just a fan of the Man of Steel, Fallout is a fantastic choice. Smart, witty, and incredibly well-written. Lois Lane is the female [mortal] superhero you've been waiting for!

4 Stars

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Review: Frozen Heart

A Frozen Heart by Elizabeth Rudnick is one of three Disney fairy tale retellings in novel-format. Aimed at readers ages 10-14, A Frozen Heart explores Hans' back story, allowing readers to better understand his character and his actions. As excited as I was to finally read this novel, I was a bit disappointed that compared to A Beast Within and Maleficent, it had less to offer Frozen fans who want more.

Summary: Told in alternating chapters from both Anna’s and Hans’ perspectives, A Frozen Heart takes a sophisticated look at events of Frozen, exploring the couple’s backstories, motivations, and doomed relationship.

Although the story is aimed at readers ages 10-14, A Frozen Heart is a fairly clean story. There is some on-page drinking of wine (though it's not excessive drinking), and some violence that is hinted at off-page (Hans' father rules the Seven Isles using violence to enforce laws, but we don't get much detail). Other than that, A Frozen Heart is a word-for-word retelling of the Disney movie. And yes, that's how well I know the movie, because I could read this book word-for-word and recognize when dialogue was in any way modified (which was not all that often).

You do get some background on Hans and it does offer an explanation for why he does what he does. For me, that was worth the read. If you love Frozen and you're a fan of Elizabeth Rudnick's retellings, this is definitely a must-read. If you're looking for something darker and edgier, try her retelling of A Beast Within

3 Stars


Thursday, 8 October 2015

Cover Reveal: Spark by Holly Schindler

I'm very excited to be participating in the cover reveal of Holly Schindler's new YA novel, Spark. You'll want to make room on your bookshelves whether you've read her previous novels or you're looking for your next great teen read!

Published by HarperTeen, Spark is scheduled to be released in hardcover on May 17, 2016. 

Summary: When the right hearts come to the Avery Theater—at the right time—the magic will return. The Avery will come back from the dead. 

Or so Quin’s great-grandmother predicted many years ago on Verona, Missouri’s most tragic night, when Nick and Emma, two star-crossed teenage lovers, died on the stage. It was the night that the Avery’s marquee lights went out forever. 

It sounds like urban legend, but one that high school senior Quin is now starting to believe, especially when her best friend, Cass, and their classmate Dylan step onto the stage and sparks fly. It seems that magic can still unfold at the old Avery Theater and a happier ending can still be had—one that will align the stars and revive not only the decrepit theater, but also the decaying town. However, it hinges on one thing—that Quin gets the story right this time around. 

Holly Schindler brings the magic of the theater to life in this tale of family ties, fate, love, and one girl’s quest to rewrite history.

A note from Holly: “In my hometown, the restoration of a former movie theater on the town square provided the genesis for my new YA novel, SPARK. Who among us hasn’t dreamed of seeing their name in blazing neon across a gigantic marquee? Let me invite you to dim the lights and draw back the velvet curtains—let your imagination run wild as you enter my fictional Avery Theater, where literally anything goes…”     —Holly Schindler

About the Author: 
Holly Schindler is the author of three previous YA novels: PLAYING HURT as well as the critically acclaimed FERAL (starred PW review) and A BLUE SO DARK (starred Booklist review, ForeWord Book of the Year silver medal, IPPY gold medal). A writer of books for all ages, Schindler’s MG, THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, has made the master list for children’s book awards in Illinois, South Carolina, and Alabama. She is also a hybrid author, having independently released comedic women’s fiction (FIFTH AVENUE FIDOS) and the forthcoming PLAY IT AGAIN, her adult follow-up to her YA PLAYING HURT. She can be reached through her author site:, and hosts special sneak peeks and giveaways for subscribers of her newsletter.

Spark “Premieres” May 17, 2016, but you can buy your “tickets” now. Click the links below to visit these retailers, or pre-order wherever books are sold!

You can learn more about Holly and her books on her website. Or get in touch with her on social media.

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Saturday, 3 October 2015

Review: A Shiloh Christmas by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

It's been years since I read Shiloh. In fact, I was probably in elementary school when I last read it. But the time span between having read Shiloh and reading A Shiloh Christmas did not at all affect my enjoyment of the book. It is a heart-warming holiday story about hope, family, holiday miracles, and friendly. And it is perfect for reading cuddled up with your own furry friend.

Summary: Christmas is coming and Marty and his rescued pup Shiloh are sure glad about that—for their town is sure low on love and understanding and they hope that the joy of the holiday will bring with it the generosity of spirit that’s so lacking. 

It’s been a year since Marty Preston rescued Shiloh from Judd Travers and his cruel ways, and since then, Marty and Shiloh have been inseparable. Anywhere Marty goes, the beagle’s at his side, and Marty couldn’t be happier about that. Even Judd has been working to improve his reputation. 

But just as townsfolk grow more accepting of Judd, a fire in the woods destroys many homes, including Judd’s, and Judd’s newly formed reputation. Doubt, blame, and anger spread faster than the flames—flames that are fanned by the new minister, who seems fonder of fire and brimstone than love and mercy. And why are his daughters so skittish around him? And what’s happened to Judd’s dogs? With Christmas right around the corner, Marty has a lot of questions, and how they’re answered might just take a Christmas miracle.

I was surprised how little the story is actually about Shiloh. There are many references to the original classic novel so the reader doesn't need to worry about remembering what happened in Shiloh. But the story is largely about a person's ability to change. We see how Judd has changed from his abusive ways, and in the end, we see the new minister is capable of great change, too. 

While a fire tests the community's strength and resiliency, the Bible-thumping new minister brings his own kind of fire to the community. He preaches about sin and the fires of hell, warning of a vengeful God to those who stray from His path, as was common in the South at this time. Marty's family does not take well to his way of teaching the Bible. Though religion is a major theme, the characters do not encourage the readers to accept this way of thinking. Especially when the readers learn that the minister is as fiery at home with his children and wife as he is at church. 

Yes, child abuse is a startling theme of the novel. Besides the heavy religious themes in the long-winded Old Testament sermons from the preacher, parents and educators need to be aware that there is emotional/psychological child abuse. HOWEVER, the novel is set during early 20th century West Virginia. Marty's parents comment that while the preacher's discipline methods are frowned upon, they are NOT illegal and they consider it to be in his right, so long as he does not resort to violence. That is the accepted social thinking of the time period. 

Due to the mature content, I'd like to be clear about what is in this book:
  • The preacher never hits his children and has never hit his children. They never have marks or injuries to suggest physical abuse. The eldest daughter confirms he does NOT beat them
  • The abuse all takes place OFF-PAGE
  • The eldest child is locked in a cold shed with no coat and no bathroom, for an unknown amount of time
  • They used to own a chair with manacles of some sort to restrain the kids (the eldest daughter managed to throw it out)
  • The youngest was forced to put her feet in ice water as punishment
  • The youngest was forced to put all her food in her milk and drink it as punishment
  • The wife and children all show outward anxiety about defying the preacher. He is severely strict, limiting their social engagements with others
Overall, the content does not feel inappropriate for middle grade readers. It is NOT graphic or upsetting, I would advise it is best for ages 10 & up. As long as the reader can appreciate the historical cultural views and the fact that the protagonist's family sees this behaviour as wrong, I don't see it as being an issue.

A Shiloh Christmas is the fourth book in The Shiloh Quartet. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is an award-winning author whose stories are very much worth the read. The book ends with a warm-and-fuzzy hopeful Christmas moment for the minister's family. In a Christmas miracle, it seems he has seen the error of his ways. It is the holidays, after all! 

I very much enjoyed reading this book and recommend it to anyone looking for a new children's classic for middle grade readers! It is a heart-warming holiday tale about friendship, about a heroic dog, and the lesson that people can change for the better.

4 Stars

Monday, 7 September 2015

Review: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a fantastical fairy tale retelling of the Snow Queen. Although I'm not a fan of the cover art, Karen Foxlee has crafted a beautifully written story of adventure, friendship, magic, and danger for middle grade readers. Ophelia is an asthmatic, underdog hero who must rescue a magical boy and help him find a sword to defeat the evil Snow Queen once and for all.

Summary: This is the story of unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard who doesn't believe in anything that can't be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it always snows. On her very first day in the museum Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a long forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty, the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting for Ophelia's help. As Ophelia embarks on an incredible journey to rescue the boy everything that she believes will be tested. Along the way she learns more and more about the boy's own remarkable journey to reach her and save the world. A story within a story, this a modern day fairytale about the power of friendship, courage and love, and never ever giving up.

Although the publisher has rightly targeted this chapter book at ages 8-12, the narrative style feels better suited for older, more confident readers. Foxlee's magical adventure requires a reader who can appreciate the imagery and what I can only describe as an original "Brothers Grimm"-type feel. This story might actually make a really good read-aloud or bedtime story, too. You can view a sneak peak on Penguin Random House's website.

Personally, I would have liked to see this story written for an older audience, with thrills and chills to amp up the plot. The Snow Queen is a frightening villain (as scary as middle grade will allow without actually scaring anyone). The writing style certainly translates for a well-read audience who can appreciate the narrative. 

Content-wise, this is a clean read. There are no frightening scenes or objectionable language to upset the target audience. Frozen fans might appreciate hearing a story about the original fairy tale that inspired Disney's multi-million dollar success.

All in all, this is a beautifully written book with lessons about being brave and not putting vanity above all else (Ophelia's sister, and countless other girls, were captured by the Snow Queen because of this weakness). With plenty of starred reviews to back it, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a great choice for confident readers who love fairy tales and magical adventures. 

3 Stars