Sunday, 23 February 2014

Review: Manor of Secrets by Katherine Longshore

Downton Abbey fans: go to the bookstore. Today. Well, first, finish this review, and then go. Manor of Secrets by Katherine Longshore (published by Point, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc.) is a lighter version of the beloved television show, aimed at readers 12 and up. With drama upstairs and down, it's full of class division, fancy dresses, impropriety, and high tea. Adults and teens alike will enjoy this novel.

Summary: At The Manor, nothing is as it seems...
Lady Charlotte Edmonds: Beautiful, wealthy, and sheltered, Charlotte feels suffocated by the strictures of upper-crust society. She longs to see the world beyond The Manor, to seek out high adventure. And most of all, romance.

Janie Seward: Fiery, hardworking, and clever, Janie knows she can be more than just a kitchen maid. But she isn't sure she possesses the courage — or the means — to break free and follow her passions.

Both Charlotte and Janie are ready for change. As their paths overlap in the gilded hallways and dark corridors of The Manor, rules are broken and secrets are revealed. Secrets that will alter the course of their lives... forever.

If you love period novels and enjoy the drama of Downton Abbey, this book makes for great reading in between episodes or seasons. Entirely age-appropriate for younger readers, this is a story of love, identity, family, and, of course, social drama. The book ends with a startling plot twist, which gives it some oomph, but otherwise, this is a charming, easy, and light read. 

Beautifully written and an enchanting YA story, Manor of Secrets was a great book for my morning commute. Katherine Longshore has written a delightful story for an audience who craves to be lost in the romanticism of an elegant society and a good cup of tea. 

3.5 Stars

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Review: The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley

The Dumbest Idea Ever! is a graphic novel from Jimmy Gownley, publishing March 1st from Graphix (an imprint of Scholastic). At 240 pages, it makes for a easy read for reluctant readers, and despite being a graphic novel, both boys and girls will enjoy the story. Based on the author/artist's own life, this is a highly enjoyable novel for readers ages 10-14.

Summary: What if the dumbest idea ever changed your life forever?

At thirteen, Jimmy was popular, at the top of his class, and the leading scorer on his basketball team. But all that changed when chicken pox forced him to miss the championship game. Then things went from bad to worse when he got pneumonia and missed even more school. Before Jimmy knew it, his grades were sinking and nothing seemed to be going right. How would Jimmy turn things around, get back on top at school, and maybe even get a date with the cutest girl in school? Renowned comics creator Jimmy Gownley shares his adventures as he grows from an eager-to-please boy into a teenage comic book artist and how the DUMBEST idea ever actually became the BEST thing that ever happened to him.

The Dumbest Idea Ever! is funny, true, and honest. Life is hard, and it never goes the way you plan for it go. This is a book that teaches readers that even when things don't go your way (you get sick, you miss your big game, you miss your chance with something, etc), that life has other plans for you; bigger and better plans. Eventually, things work out.

Readers can also learn about ways to deal with stress, frustration, and difficult situations. For Jimmy, and a lot of other kids, a creative outlet is often very effective. And for some (again, like Jimmy), this creative outlet might even be your true calling. Writing a comic book because it makes you happy, might lead you to what you're ultimately meant to do  become a writer! You never know what the universe is trying to tell you, so don't give up on the things you love just because other people think it's dumb. If you love it, it's worth something.

An inspiring, funny, highly relatable, and undeniably enjoyable book!

4 Stars 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Review: Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

Looking for a light, warm-and-fuzzy read? Better Off Friends is a great choice! We've all had a friend (or several) whom we've wondered if we could ever be more than friends with that person. Here's a story where those wonderful thoughts play out for the best. It's basically the book version of Taylor Swift's You Belong With Me.

Summary: For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can't be just friends, but these two are. They hang out after school, share tons of inside jokes, their families are super close, and Levi even starts dating one of Mac's friends. They are platonic and happy that way.

Eventually they realize they're best friends — which wouldn't be so bad if they didn't keep getting in each other's way. Guys won't ask Mac out because they think she's with Levi, and Levi spends too much time joking around with Mac, and maybe not enough time with his date. They can't help but wonder . . . are they more than friends or are they better off without making it even more complicated?

From romantic comedy superstar Elizabeth Eulberg comes a fresh, fun examination of a question for the ages: Can guys and girls ever really be just friends? Or are they always one fight away from not speaking again — and one kiss away from true love?
Better Off Friends is told in alternating narratives, and is divided into sections of major plot points. Each section opens with a conversation between Mac and Levi reflecting back on what just happened in the story. Never does the reader doubt the happy ending that's coming, but the story plays out wonderfully for the reader.

Like all love stories, there's quite a bit of back and forth. Mac and Levi get close to their happily-ever-after, only to be dragged apart again by fear, by other relationships, by doubt, etc. Mac and Levi are fairly 2D, making them incredibly relatable and it makes it easy for the reader to project their own feelings or similar situations into the happily-ever-after between Mac and Levi.

Better Off Friends isn't anything special, but it is an enjoyable, PG-beach read. Elizabeth Eulberg is incredibly good at writing teen chick lit. Better Off Friends is a perfect option for the YA reader interested in the romance genre.

Better Off Friends will be published March 1, 2014.

4 Stars

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Review: Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Drama by Raina Telgemeier is a middle-grade graphic novel published by Scholastic. It is a charming and sometimes bitterly realistic story of the middle school drama that occurs at the age when kids start to develop romantic feelings. 

Drama includes all the different "types" of kids who can be found at every school (popular kids, mean kids, geeky kids, average kids, outgoing kids, shy kids, etc.) Raina's characters are realistic and very identifiable to readers. Moreover, they are all smart and each have something special to offer the world. This book teaches readers that the drama that people cause because of our differences isn't worth anyone's time. It shows us how the drama can get in the way of being happy, of being one's self, and of putting on an amazing play!

Summary: Callie loves theatre. And while she would totally try out for her middle school's production of Moon Over Mississippi, she's a terrible singer. Instead she's the set designer for the stage crew, and this year she's determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when she doesn't know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that comes once the actors are chosen, and when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier! Following the success of Smile, Raina Telgemeier brings us another graphic novel featuring a diverse set of characters that humorously explores friendship, crushes, and all-around drama!

Drama has gotten some controversial attention because it explores homosexual feelings and relationships. One of the characters is openly gay, with another who isn't quite ready to share his sexual orientation with others. To these ignorant and archaic people who rip this book from the hands of their kids, I roll my eyes and say it's 2014! Equality and inclusivity for all! It's so important that we teach children to be open and accepting of others, and not pass on hatred and fear to the next generation.

I LOVE that while the characters' sexual orientation plays a major role in the story, it isn't an all-defining, single character trait. We are so much MORE than the colour of our skin, our gender and our sexual orientation. And in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. We're all humans and we should be accepting.

Sweet, funny, and down-to-earth, Raina Telgemeier is an amazing YA author. I adore Drama and her other graphic novel, Smile (click HERE for my review). Readers can recognize these characters and can reflect on the drama they have going in their own schools and in their own lives. We see how drama is only temporary, and that it's easier to move on rather than cling to the problem. Ultimately, this book shares important messages about acceptance and about establishing healthy relationships with others, regardless of our differences.

Drama is an incredibly inspiring and entirely wonderful book!

5 Stars

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Review: The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks

The Longest Ride is Nicholas' Sparks latest warm, fuzzy, and addictive romance novel. Thankfully, I didn't need the tissues like I did for The Guardian and Dear John. If you love a down-to-earth man in cowboy boots, you'll devour this story!

Told in alternating narratives, The Longest Ride is comprised of two love stories of couples who are brought together by fate. Ira and Ruth are an elderly couple who have had a lifetime of happiness and heartache, while Luke and Sophia are young and just starting out. Much like Safe Haven, there's a small supernatural twist on the plot, which gives this romance a little something extra.

In typical Nicholas Sparks' style, girl meets boy and in spite of coming from completely different worlds, they fall in love. They question whether or not they can make it work, a jealous ex causes problems, and life nearly ruins it all, but in the end, love wins out. The story is a little predictable, and I never teared up; it's commute-friendly! It's not his most powerful novel, but Sparks never fails to put a smile on my face.

I really only have two complaints about the book. Firstly, Sparks doesn't write a convincing female character. Sophia is a senior in college, a sorority girl, immature, dramatic, and above all, stereotypical. Sparks has been long out of the university scene, so I know I can't blame him too much for this, but I'm surprised his editor didn't help mould Sophia into a more believable heroine. The sorority house, her relationship with her jackass of an ex, etc. made no sense for her character.

Worst of all is Sophia's admitting to having suicidal thoughts after she and her ex break up the first time. The relationship doesn't warrant the reaction. It's unrealistic, which undermines the seriousness of the subject. It would have made more sense in a book like Safe Haven, where the character is exposed to abuse, but not in a story of a healthy, happy university student.

Secondly, Sparks hit my biggest pet peeve of them all: an unrealistic medical emergency. (I have training; I'm allowed to complain!) Ira spends most of the book trapped in a crashed vehicle, injured, and slowly dying. Given his age and injuries, he should have died of shock, if not from exposure, around the 24-hour mark. This is standard first aid knowledge! Yes, I know it's more dramatic to keep him alive, but it cheapened the story for me. And I don't see Nicholas Sparks as a cheap romance writer; he's one of the best! I'm saddened by the lack of substantive editing in both instances. Sophia's suicidal thoughts were not congruent with her characterization and clearly were thrown in for shock factor, and there clearly was no basic medical research performed to see if a major story arc would work. An elderly, bleeding man, who is dehydrated and trapped in cold car in the winter does not equal a survivor.

Regardless, The Longest Ride is an endearing and heartwarming story of couples that love each other, through thick and thin. Luke is a heartthrob in cowboy boots, and Ira's love story is as sweet and timeless as Noah and Allie's in The Notebook. A great book to warm up to this winter, but it'll also make a great beach read. This is a wonderfully written romance that will sweep you off your boots!

4 Stars

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Review: How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford

Natalie Standiford's How To Say Goodbye in Robot is a YA book for readers ages 13 & up. Published by Scholastic in 2009, this is a story of being misunderstood, of not fitting in, of friendships, and of family issues. It's not a happily-ever-after story, but there is a hopeful ending.

Summary: The new girl in town, Beatrice is expecting her new best friend to be one of the girls she meets on the first day of school. But instead, the alphabet conspires to seat her next to Jonah, aka Ghost Boy, a quiet loner who hasn't made a new friend since third grade. Something about him, though, gets to Bea, and soon they form an unexpected friendship. It's not romance exactly—but it's definitely love. Still, Bea can't quite dispel Jonah's doom and gloom—and as she finds out his family history, she understands why. Can Bea help Jonah? Or is he destined to vanish?

How To Say Goodbye in Robot is a touching and slightly heartbreaking story. Beatrice struggles as the new girl in school, and Jonas is bullied and struggles to fit in as he's different and slightly eccentric. Jonas also struggles at home with a distant, almost heartless father who has kept Jonas from his long-lost, twin brother; a brother who has been hospitalized in an institution. Due to his being lied to about and separated from his brother, Jonas' unsympathetic father, his being bullied at school, and his lack of friends, Jonas struggles with an identity crisis, with depression, and other emotional distresses. Beatrice is his light in the darkness, but one person cannot possibly save someone, no matter how much they might want to help. Sadly, Jonas embraces his identity as "Ghost Boy" and at the end of the novel, enters a destructive spiral in his attempt to finally become a ghost in the world. It's harsh, but the ending isn't all sad, I promise.

Beatrice has it a little easier at home and at school, though her parents are having marital issues and her mother struggles with mental illness. In a few various moments of selfishness and immaturity, Beatrice's mother calls her a robot.

And the award for terrible mom of the year goes to...

Beatrice is accepted by her classmates, but she feels drawn to the lonely eccentric Jonas, who obviously is not a healthy friend to have. These two misfits find solace in their friendship, for better or for worse.

Not only will teens find the social drama relatable, but readers are also exposed to an enlightened way of thinking about social connections. Jonas and Beatrice's friendship lets readers see the world from an adult's mature point of view; something that's uncomfortably missing from the parental characters in the book. It gives the reader a mature and thoughtful perspective on life.

We see that Jonas isn't a good friend for Beatrice, and that she is better off without him, at least for the time being. We also see that Jonas isn't to be blamed for his downward spiral. Failing to be a good parent reflects negatively on one's children. The reader can see how one's actions, whatever the intention, can have seriously detrimental effects on a person. We blame Jonas' father for lying and for deciding to separate Jonas and his brother. We blame the other students for bullying him. Cause and effect. So many kids are bullied in school; this book brings to light some of the consequences of what is intended as teasing or as a mean-spirited joke.

A wonderfully written and powerful YA novel that speaks to difficult subjects. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, for all its emotional ups and downs. The social drama is a little like a train wreck-- it's uncomfortable, but you can't look away from the page. There is perspective to be gained here, teen readers: not all friends are good for us, and sometimes the people we want are not the people we need in our lives.

4 Stars

Monday, 3 February 2014

Review: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd is a 2014 must-read middle grade novel. Sweet, magical, and filled with charming small-town characters, this is a wonderful YA novel for readers ages 8-12.

Summary: Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart.

But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck's about to change. A "word collector," Felicity sees words everywhere — shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog's floppy ears — but Midnight Gulch is the first place she's ever seen the word "home." And then there's Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity's never seen before, words that make Felicity's heart beat a little faster.

Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first she'll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that's been cast over the town . . . and her mother's broken heart.

Targeted at a female audience, this is a story of fitting in, of finding one's place in the world, and of finding magic and colour in the world. Felicity is a little weird. She's a word-collector and is the new girl in school. Felicity's experience as someone who doesn't quite fit in, and someone whose fears can be crippling make her entirely relatable. More than that, Lloyd's language is loaded with emotion that the reader cathartically experiences.

"Lonely. The word slithered across the cafeteria table, which didn't surprise me at all. Lonely had followed me around for as long as I could remember... But there it was. I'm fairly certain lonely's most natural habitat is a school cafeteria."

Felicitiy's ability to "see" words and to collect them will get readers interested and excited about language. Words are magical and powerful. I love this overarching theme of the power and beauty of words, especially when Felicity strings her collected words together in a poem that ultimately brings magic back to the town. A Snicker of Magic teaches readers that words are a magic of their own, and so are music, friendship, love, and imagination!

Natalie Lloyd blows me away. How beautiful, honest and true to the innocence and vulnerability of a child's mind is the language of this book?:

"My fears were monster big... Fear seems like all the world when it takes hold of me; it's all I dream about, think about, and see. But it was love taking hold of me right then. And love is the whole universe--so wide I cant even see the edges of it. Love if wild and wonderful. Love is blue skies and stardust."

Aside from being a delightful story of friendship, family, and finding yourself, the book is also full of magic! Magic still lingers in the little things, like in the ice cream flavour that brings back memories and emotions you've long forgotten. There's also something fantastical and mythical about the town name itself: Midnight Gulch. Gulch, if you recall, is the name of the woman who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. The name Gulch is evocative of something magical. I would argue that Miss Gulch isn't what she seems, and neither is Midnight Gulch. There's more than meets the eye!

On the downside, this book introduces a large number of characters, which younger readers might find it's hard to keep track of them all. Moreover, the book looks daunting in page length and in hardcover, but the text is extremely accessible and the story is nothing short of wonderful. And regardless of the number of characters and of the number of little story arcs, everything comes together in the end for a splash of magic and colour and warmth that will leave you smiling.

A Snicker of Magic is full of wonder and magic and hope. The writing is beautiful and the story is a breath of fresh air. I've never read anything that compares to this book. Another plus: the many layers of this text make this book a great book to discuss in the classroom!

Natalie Lloyd's debut novel is all kinds of wonderful, inside and out.

5 Stars

A Snicker of Magic will be published on March 1, 2014

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Review: The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The False Prince is an exciting action/adventure/fantasy story by Jennifer A. Nielsen. It is the first book in The Ascendance Trilogy. This is a great YA novel fit for 10-14 year-old-olds who aren't ready for Game of Thrones, but who enjoy this type of medieval/fantasy story.

Summary: In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king's long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner's motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword's point — he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage's rivals have their own agendas as well.
As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner's sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.
An extraordinary adventure filled with danger and action, lies and deadly truths that will have readers clinging to the edge of their seats.
This is a Bildungsroman for the modern age with sword-fighting, deception, bloodshed, corruption, and greed. Sage is an orphan who is being trained by a nobleman to deceive the entire kingdom and become the prince. The book is PG, though there is violence present in the text. This is a protagonist that pre-teen readers can get behind; he's stubborn, street-smart, clever, and even a little obnoxious.

Although it is a great YA read, my only complaint is the narrative style. Sage spends about 70% of the book confused, angry, and afraid as he and the other boys are essentially held hostage by a corrupt nobleman. And then, suddenly, when it's revealed that Sage is Prince Jaron, Sage is suddenly intellectual, cunning and very much not confused. The shift in his character was too abrupt, even for me. It felt as if Nielsen had decided partway through the novel that Sage is actually Jaron. I think the book (and this major climatic reveal) would have been more effective told from a third-person, omniscient narrator, rather than in third-person from Sage's POV. Most of the shock factor was lost due to the narrative style. His character's reactions for most of the book are just not plausible if he's known the whole time that he is the prince.

Other than that, I enjoyed reading The False Prince. It's a great series, especially for boys. The length isn't daunting for reluctant readers. It is also notable that the characters are mostly male. There are only two prominent women in the book (a Princess and a servant girl), both of whom have small roles and could be potential love interests, though there is no romance angle in this first book. Some young male readers prefer to read about male readers, so make of that what you will.

A great start to a great series. Nielsen's storytelling is riveting and memorable.

3 Stars. 
Book 2 (Available now)        Book 3 (Available Mar 1/14)

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Review: The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve

The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve has been on my to-read shelf for a long time. I first read Fortune's Rocks by Anita Shreve back in high school and loved it. Shreve is able to write about twisted social issues and immoral romantic drama like no other. Don't let the fact that The Pilot's Wife is an Oprah's Book Club book put you off from reading it. Shreve is a masterful fiction writer who deserves the acclaim surrounding her books. She's accessible, detailed, and unique in her storytelling.

Summary:  A pilot's wife is taught to be prepared for the late-night knock at the door. But when Kathryn Lyons receives word that a plan flown by her husband, Jack, has exploded near the coast of Ireland, she confronts the unfathomable-one startling revelation at a time. Soon drawn into a maelstrom of publicity fueled by rumors that Jack led a secret life, Kathryn sets out to learn who her husband really was, whatever that knowledge might cost. Her search propels this taut, impassioned novel as it movingly explores the question, How well can we ever really know another person?

As I largely read and review YA books, I often find myself impatient to get through an adult novel. Thankfully, reading The Pilot's Wife was easy for me; I love her storytelling and the complicated lives she weaves for her characters. Shreve makes you feel invested in these characters. Kathryn could be anyone's sister, friend or neighbour. She's an ordinary wife who has a seemingly easy and happy marriage until someone knocks on her door and turns her world upside down. I was so absorbed in finding the answers to the mysteries of the plane crash and of Jack's final moments that I had no problems getting through this book.

The drama of the characters (the death of a loved one, a fractured family, adultery, having a secret life, a failing marriage, etc. ) is wrapped around the mysterious plane crash that killed Kathryn's husband and the other passengers on-board. Although this book was originally published in 1998, the horrific tragedy of September 11, 2001 has made plane-related accidents and words like "terrorists" strike hard with readers. The tragedy of that day makes the events of this book more real and therefore the book to be more powerful. I needed to know if this seemingly average and decent man could possibly be a terrorist; a word that is all too real to me.

The Pilot's Wife feels like a chick-lit/contemporary fiction hybrid, which is great for readers like me who don't have a lot of patience to withstand a heavy read. You get the complicated romance angle of chick lit, but it's wrapped up in something dark and grim. Don't look for a love-you-forever, standard happy ending. Shreve likes to write about love in its most complicated forms, usually in that love is never easy, it's never what you expect it to be, and often it means loving the wrong thing.

The narrative is fast-paced and is character-driven. The unknowns surrounding Jack and his final moments keep the reader wondering and wanting throughout the book. Moreover, Shreve addresses ugly [possible] realities like adultery and the loss of a spouse and father; subjects we do enjoy experiencing safely through a good book.

The Pilot's Wife makes for a great weekend read you won't want to put down. Looking for something with a little more shock-factor? Try Fortune's Rocks

3.5 Stars