Sunday, 30 March 2014

Review: The Finisher by David Baldacci

One of Scholastic's front list titles for spring 2014 is bestselling author David Baldacci's YA novel, The Finisher. Aimed at readers ages 10-14, this is an exciting fantasy/adventure story about a young girl who lives in a mysterious place called Wormwood. This is Baldacci's first YA novel, and my first Baldacci novel.

Summary: Why would Quentin Herms flee into the Quag? There was nothing in the Quag except certain death.
Vega Jane has never left the village of Wormwood. But this isn't unusual — nobody has ever left the village of Wormwood. At least not until Quentin Herms vanishes into the unknown.
Vega knows Quentin didn't just leave — he was chased. And he's left behind a very dangerous trail of clues that only she can decode.
The Quag is a dark forest filled with terrifying beasts and bloodthirsty Outliers. But just as deadly are the threats that exist within the walls of Wormwood. It is a place built on lies, where influential people are willing to kill to keep their secrets. Vega is determined to uncover the truth — but the closer she gets, the more she risks her life.
Vega Jane is yet another strong and confident YA heroine, demonstrating that she has the skills, smarts, and capabilities to survive and thrive in a male-dominated society. At one point, Vega is forced to enter a tournament and physically fight against men for a prize (and her freedom). Vega uses her brain and her strength to overcome her opponents and prove herself worthy of being someone we can root for. She comes up against terrifying monsters, dark secrets, and faces people who will kill anyone to protect the secrets of Wormwood. She is a formidable force for someone so young — and for being a female, as she is so often reminded.

Few authors could construct a world like this and make it so compelling. At times it is as fantastical and breathtaking as Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. The odd language, particularly the names of the monsters (ie. Jabbits) made Wormwood lightly reminiscent of Wonderland. The language is sometimes a little hard to get used to, but the repetition of the terms makes the text easy to understand.
Sliver = a moment          Sessions = years          Light = morning

The book is a little daunting at just over 500 pages, and the story is fairly complex. A lot happens in the story, so an attentive reader is a must. David Baldacci brings his exquisite use of language and storytelling abilities to this middle grade book. Although the target audience is 10-14, I'd say the book skews toward an advanced reader ages 12-14.

Overall, I enjoyed the story, but the grandeur of the story arc slowed down my usual reading pace as there was so much detail to take in. Fans of James Patterson, JK Rowling, and Rick Riordan will appreciate the fantastical, dangerous, and dark world of Wormwood. This is a great addition to libraries and personal bookshelves. Baldacci has few rivals in his ability to masterfully construct a good story.

Read an excerpt of The Finisher, and be sure to check out the book trailer below.

3.5 Stars

Saturday, 29 March 2014

On Divergent: Book, Movie, and the Drama in Between

I work in YA and children's publishing and I read the books, so of course I was excited for Veronica Roth's Divergent to hit the big screen. I went to see it last week and it was great! I devoured my bag of popcorn early on, sat on the edge of my seat, and flinched at every fight in the Pit. Afterwards, I stood on the subway platform and thought about how utterly dull it was to calmly walk as I boarded the train. 

The books are addictive and they really are "the books to cure your Hunger Games hangover." But in spite of ALL the similarities to another wildly popular franchise, in spite of the anticipation, after the HarperCollins vs. Scholastic marketing war as Allegiant came out during the holy reign of Catching Fire's premiere, and after watching as both franchises obviously made good money off the other... Divergent did not hit the ground running.

Divergent earned a terrific $56 million last weekend on its premiere. But considering the hype, the money put into marketing, into the film budget, and KNOWING that the fan base for the books gave the movie a solid chance... that number is disheartening. 

Even without it's multi-million dollar franchise to back up a giant movie budget or marketing campaign, The Hunger Games earned a whopping $152.5 million dollars on opening weekend. And that was with a fan base that was half the size it is now. Moreover, there had never been such an explosion in the popularity of the YA genre. Divergent had all its ducks in a row, so what happened?

I am Team Hunger Games, but I did have high hopes for the franchise. Divergent is simply not on the same wavelength as The Hunger Games. As much as people vehemently argue the books are too similar, they aren't. Plot aside, look at the writing style... look at the length of the books and how much time Roth spends on Tris's in-the-moment thoughts and actions. Put your petty District-Faction / Katniss-Tris comparisons aside and look at the actual look and size of the book and the target audience. Finishing Divergent requires a much larger commitment than The Hunger Games. The resulting box office numbers is likely partly due to the fact that one series is easier to get into and finish.

Divergent will not be joining the three YA titans: Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, but it was an exciting movie and I thought it was just as good as the book, no more or less. 

Most importantly, no matter what fandom you follow, you should appreciate the value of a book that gets millions of young people reading. Hopefully they'll want MORE and they'll go out and find similar books and keep reading. Yes, there are people who bitterly insist that Divergent steps on the toes of The Hunger Games, but I say let them moan and groan. 

We need to encourage young people to read and Divergent has and will continue to do just that. Does it upset ME that the books are similar? Maybe a little. But I'd rather see one hundred too-similar books be published and get kids reading than worry about finding yet another synonym to describe a community.

Review: The Worm by Elise Gravel

Elise Gravel's The Worm was published March 11, 2014, and is the second book in a "disgusting creatures" series. Aimed at readers ages 6-9, this hardcover non-fiction book is filled not only with fun facts about worms, but the adorable illustrations give it a witty and humourous feel that kids will thoroughly enjoy.

Summary: The second in a series of humourous books about disgusting creatures, The Worm is a look at the earthworm. It covers such topics as the worm’s habitats (sometimes they live inside other animals), its anatomy (its muscle tube is slimy and gross), and its illustrious history (worms have been on earth for 120 million years). Although silly and off-the-wall, The Worm contains real information that will tie in with curriculum.

The Worm very much reminds me of the style, humour — and sass! — of Mo Willems' The Pigeon books. As the narrator tells kids about the different kinds of worms and where they live, the worms add their own comments, or exaggerate the narrator's point. For example, the narrator is at one point describing earthworms and says, "It's that muscle tube that's slimy and disgusting." And the worm looks offended as he replies: "Hey! I AM NOT DISGUSTING!" Of course you are, worm, but you're also cool!

Elise Gravel's accessible language, charming illustrations, and witty worms will get kids interested in animals they wouldn't necessarily want to read about. But there's something wonderful about the ridiculousness of a cute little worm whistling as he drives a dump truck or telling readers to feel his muscles (because earthworms move by squeezing their muscles!). You get to laugh with and at worms, but also take something away from the story, and therein lies the value of this series. 

The Worm will make a great addition to classrooms, libraries, and personal bookshelves, and will interest fans of Mo Willems, who enjoy an engaging book that they can enjoy again and again. 

4 Stars

Thank you to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for my copy of The Worm.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Review: Grimmtastic Girls: Cinderella Stays Late by Joan Holub & Suzanne Williams

Cinderella Stays Late is the first novel in the Grimmtastic Girls series by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams. It is a charming and delightful twist on Cinderella's fairy tale for middle grade readers, ages 8-12. This is an excellent story to share with your child due to the number of references to fairy tales and key authors of children's literature such as the Brothers Grimm, Perrault, and Anderson. This is a PERFECT springboard into teaching kids about the classics — and teaching kids was the point of these classic children's tales in the first place!

I loved all the fairy tale allusions in this book. For example, Cinda's father repairs bridges and he's currently repairing London Bridges, which are falling down. And then there's the school secretary, Ms. Jabberwocky, who breathes fire and speaks nonsense, but after a while, the nonsense starts to make sense (I LOVED seeing some Lewis Carroll!).

Holub further engages the reader's interest by adding her own unique twist on Cinderella's story. Her stepsisters (aka the Steps) use Cinderella to get the prince to fall in LIKE with them —like not love — a very age-appropriate amendment. This story is about Cinderella going to the school ball to figure out what evil scheme the Steps are plotting, and to make sure that good wins out. However, kids will still find some of the classic elements in the story, such as the glass slipper, the magic wand, the ball, the concept of "until midnight", and more. 

Furthermore, Cinderella Stays Late is an extremely relatable story. Cinda is the new girl at school, she doesn't have pretty dresses, she prefers sports over girly activities like dancing, she's teased, and she comes from a fractured family. Young readers can dive into the story for the magic and fairy tale characters, but they can also find themselves in Cinderella's insecurities and flaws, and in her hopes and dreams. 

I'm still surprised by how much I love this book. It's engaging on so many levels and is an easy, light, and sweet happily-ever-after. Cinda has some unanswered questions at the end that leave the reader to think about and decide. For example, Cinderella wonders if the prince likes her. But even with all the questions Cinderella has, as with every fairy tale, there is a morale that young and impressionable girls will benefit from hearing.

There are more important things in life than worrying over whether or not a boy likes you — being yourself, school, friends, and above all, making sure good wins over evil. 

4 Stars

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Review: In the Shadows by Kiersten White, Art & Art Story by Jim di Bartolo

In the Shadows is a teen fiction-graphic novel hybrid to be published by Scholastic Press on May 1, 2014. In the Shadows is a supernatural/ action/ thriller/ fantasy with mystery, murder, evil, and immortality. It is a beautiful book, rich in detail and content, printed on glossy paper.

Summary: If you could live forever, what price would you pay?

Two sisters living in a sleepy Maine town hope for very different things. Sixteen-year-old Cora wants nothing more than to move past the wild emotions of her youth, while fifteen-year-old Minnie wishes everything in her life felt as magical as the Gothic novels she devours. Both girls are intrigued by Arthur, the boy with no past but an abundance of mysteries, living in their boarding house.
When two new boarders, brothers the girls' own age, arrive unexpectedly, the beckoning night pulls the teens out of the house and into a mystery. But as the new friends grow closer, their adventure takes a turn for the worse. Something sinister is happening in their sleepy town, and the teens must uncover the truth about its shadowy history — before the menacing past of one of their own catches up to them.
Although the book is aimed at readers 12 & up, I believe it will do better with teen readers ages 14 & up. The book is dark and fairly complex, with two different timelines, a lot of mystery, and adult themes such as suicide and violence. The story is told in both graphic novel panels (no text on these pages) and in chapters. The graphic novel sections are set in the future, working backward toward the present, while the chapters are in chronological order. I'm an advanced reader, with a degree in English literature, and I had some trouble getting used to the narrative style. The book throws you into the deep end with no text or information so you have to be an invested reader. 

The art is GORGEOUS. Jim di Bartolo is a genius and a talented artist. The severe emotion and the dark colours (as well as some of the vigilante themes) remind me of Watchmen. There's so much emotion and detail packed into every panel!

In its most basic form, In the Shadows is the struggle of man to overcome the evil in the world. Arthur is the dark knight, dispatching evil and taking down men who wield 'magic' like a weapon for self-gain. Arthur is set with the task of freeing the demon from their grasp; only then can the world be at peace and he can live happily ever after with the woman who loves him. At the heart of the story is the idea that the world needs both good and evil; the world needs balance and a hero to sacrifice everything to provide that balance. 

This book is intense, dark, and very moving. It's not my kind of novel, but when I finally understood what was happening and got used to the narrative style, I did enjoy it. I would have preferred some text on the panels, especially at the beginning, but hey, I'm writing this review in January, and the book isn't to be published until May. The final copy may still see many changes before pub. date. I recommend this to older readers who are experienced with graphic novels.

3.5 Stars

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project is wonderful and witty. Published by HarperCollins Canada, it's a love story between two misfits, whose quirks make them the perfect match. Rosie has emotional and psychological baggage and Don lives a compulsive life of organization and pragmatic behaviours that protect him from social chaos. Don is looking for a wife and Rosie is looking for her father. Two "projects" become one about self-discovery and about finding love. The Rosie Project is a story of finding the perfect person in an unexpected way, of life's unpredictability, and of finding ways to let your guard down and let love in.

Summary: A first-date dud, socially awkward and overly fond of quick-dry clothes, genetics professor Don Tillman has given up on love, until a chance encounter gives him an idea. He will design a questionnaire—a sixteen-page, scientifically researched questionnaire—to uncover the perfect partner. She will most definitely not be a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker or a late-arriver. Rosie is all these things. She is also fiery and intelligent, strangely beguiling, and looking for her biological father a search that a DNA expert might just be able to help her with. The Rosie Project is a romantic comedy like no other. It is arrestingly endearing and entirely unconventional, and it will make you want to drink cocktails.

Don's humourous and hilariously awkward attempts to find companionship will have the reader both cringing and smiling. This is a bildungsroman of sorts, as Don changes from a creature of habit and compulsion, into a man of compassion, understanding, and real heart.  It reminds of The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon and Amy's relationship. Although Don is more of an adult and more masculine than Sheldon, Don is just as hilariously obnoxious and clueless about social etiquette. If you find this TV relationship funny, this book will be enjoyable for you.

The Rosie Project is a light and easy read for adult readers. It's a sweet and funny story of a misguided and unexpected love affair.

Highly recommended.

4.5 Stars

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Review: Catch a Falling Star by Kim Culbertson

Kim Culbertson's novel Catch a Falling Star is a teen romance novel that makes for a light, lovely summer read--or a great read for your commute. Small-town girl Carter Moon (cutesy names, but trust me, it doesn't detract from the overall quality of the text), falls for teen movie star Adam Jakes, even though she's only PRETENDING to be his girlfriend for money.

The plot is very similar to Susan Donovan's The Kept Woman, but this is the teen version and as the plot moves on, it is different. Drugs, addiction, stargazing, Hollywood, and small-town charm all make this a fun, lighthearted and enjoyable read. The ending threw me for a loop, but it won't disappoint you.

Opposites attract in Catch a Falling Star. Adam Jakes is a spoiled, misunderstood, and slightly troubled young star. With all the media attention around Hollywood's effects on child stars, Adam's character is an interesting one, to say the least.

Carter is hired to be Adam's girlfriend while he is in town to shoot a movie. Her presence in his life is an attempt to soften his image after a dramatic breakup with his Hollywood girlfriend. (Wouldn't this be the most opportune situation for so many Bieber-fans?) Carter discovers that there's more to Adam than his good looks or his successful career, but the fact that they are from two different worlds spells out heart break for the young couple.

It's not the next bestseller or a sizzling romance, but the premise is sweet and it was a good read. Carter is every small-town girl and Adam is every teenage celebrity heart throb who we wish would stroll into our lives and sweep us off our feet.

A solid B+ book. Catch a Falling Star will be published on April 29th, 2014

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Review: Capricious by Gabrielle Prendergast

Capricious is a YA novel for readers aged 12 & up, to be released in April 2014 by Orca Book Publishers. I received an ARC of Capricious via LibraryThing last month, and after reading this novel, I'm even more thrilled that I was chosen to review the book!

Summary: 1 girl + 2 boys = 3 broken hearts.
Ella’s grade-eleven year was a disaster (Audacious), but as summer approaches, things are looking up. She’s back together with her brooding boyfriend, Samir, although they both want to keep that a secret. She’s also best buddies with David and still not entirely sure about making him boyfriend number two. Though part of her wants to conform to high school norms, the temptation to be radical is just too great. Managing two secret boyfriends proves harder than Ella expected, especially when Samir and David face separate family crises, and Ella finds herself at the center of an emotional maelstrom. Someone will get hurt. Someone risks losing true love. Someone might finally learn that self-serving actions can have public consequences. And that someone is Ella. 

Capricious was an unexpectedly addictive read. The narrative is told in verse, and is divided into different poems (or chapters), but it reads like a regular novel. Bitterly real, Ella's bad choices and low self-esteem haunt her as she spirals through life, apparently unable to resist any chance at happiness, regardless of the cost to herself, her image, and to the people she loves. Ella's redeeming quality is that she has a desperate wish to do better; something we can all relate to. Her story is full of raw emotion and will strongly resonate with high school students. We have ALL felt the despair and shame that comes naturally to impulsive teenagers, to being in love, and of our bewildering bad choices at this age. 

Bullying, sex, love, weed, virtue, religion, identity, and mental illness all have a place in Capricious. It's essentially all of life's bullshit wrapped up in a beautiful story, told in verse. Capricious could be studied in high school as an example of how poetry is so much MORE than rhyming words and difficult interpretations. Much like poets such as William Carlos Williams, Capricious uses the arrangement of lines and words to convey as much emotion and meaning, if not more, than what the actual words give the reader.

This is by far, one of the BEST Canadian novels I've read in a very long time. Prendergast is extraordinary. I sincerely hope Capricious gets the recognition it deserves.

4 Stars

New Must-watch Webseries: Less Than Satisfactory

Less Than Satisfactory is a brand new comedy webseries. Still in the production stages, LTS is already gearing up to be something wonderfully witty on the world wide web.

Summary: Less Than Satisfactory follows the struggles and adventures of Julie McKendrick, a failing writer who takes a position at a less than average greeting card company. Surrounded by a host of characterful co-workers and friends, Julie quickly learns what is needed to survive in the wilds of the greeting card world at More Than Satisfactory Cards. (Summary from LTS Campaign page).

LTS Productions was founded by Will Preventis, Elizabeth Lee, Zachary Rintoul, and Jacqueline Twomey, and is based out of Toronto, ON, Canada. This young and up-and-coming team are all recent grads from Sheridan College, and their dedication and passion to this project's success guarantees that with a little financial support and publicity, LTS will surely find its footing.

Judging by the campaign video, LTS is aimed at a young adult audience. The main characters all appear to be in their 20s and are striving to figure out life amidst the awkwardness, social drama, and obstacles faced by young people today. Much like The Office, quirky characters, bad decisions, workplace issues, and sometimes cringe-worthy awkwardness makes up the premise of Less Than Satisfactory. In all honesty, it looks promising and I look forward to the release of the pilot!

Ten episodes will be released to the public, so be sure to check it out! I've put in a request with writer/director Jacqueline Twomey for the release of an episode for review, but no such luck just yet. From what I gather, I feel confident in saying that Less Than Satisfactory is lighthearted, cathartic, smart, funny, and wonderfully weird.

You can support the project by visiting their official page on Indiegogo, and by making a donation:
Less Than Satisfactory Campaign Page

Too low on funds? You can still help the project by getting the word out there! It only takes a second, so please: share, Like, Tweet, Post, Pin, Knock on doors, force your friend to watch it, etc.

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Please check back soon for a review of Less Than Satisfactory: season one, episode one.

All logos are the property of LTS Productions, and are being used here solely for promotional purposes.