Friday, 25 April 2014

What to Read in Fall 2014: Two Big Cover Reveals for YA Readers

After what feels like an incredibly long wait, YA author Maggie Stiefvater has just released the cover and title to the third book in her bestselling series, The Raven Cycle. 

Blue Lily, Lily Blue will be published by Scholastic on November 1, 2014. The cover is beautiful, haunting, and mysterious. In typical Maggie Stiefvater-style, the book is sure to be a knock-out. Maggie is a powerful writer. Her stories are thoughtful, intricate, and she has a way with language that is practically unrivalled in today's YA book world. 

The Dream Thieves (book two of The Raven Cycle) was published in September, 2013, and will be coming in paperback this fall. The series is aimed at readers ages 14 & up, and falls into the genres of fantasy, romance, and suspense. 

Click here to visit Maggie's official website.

Another recent cover reveal from Scholastic is a middle grade new series from bestselling (and wildly popular) authors Cassandra Clare and Holly Black. The Iron Trials: Book One of the Magisterium is to be published on September 9, 2014.

I love this cover for so many reasons. It just LOOKS exciting. Also, it looks like a Death Eater, and as a #Potterhead, the book gets automatic points for the similarity. This might be the first book after Harry Potter that an author — or in this case, authors — can successfully pull off a story about magic and wizardry.

Sure to please fans of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, this is a middle grade, fantasy adventure series that will consist of five books. I am incredibly excited to read it, and I have heard through the grapevine that although it is a middle grade read, it will do well with young adult readers, too. And coming from two seasoned, talented authors, we know it will be a mesmerizing and exciting story.

Click here to learn more & to read an excerpt!

Scholastic has outdone themselves this fall with two powerhouse books coming out. Are either of these two upcoming books on your to-read shelf?

Review: Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Since this title was announced on Scholastic's 2014 summer list, I have been anxious to get my hands on an ARC. I minored in Classical Studies, with emphasis on Etruscan and Roman civilizations, so this book is basically literary gold for me. I am obsessed with anything to do with Roman history; it's fascinating, and this book did not disappoint me!

Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter will be published on May 27, 2014 by Arthur A. Levine Books (a division of Scholastic Inc). It is a YA novel centred on the forbidden love affair of a young aristocratic girl and a slave, who works as a healer at her father's gladiatorial school. Their love affair, a scandalous relationship, escalates up to climax of the novel: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in 79 AD.

For those of you who aren't as embarrassingly nerdy as I am, Pompeii and Herculaneum are two fascinating ancient sites. Unlike other Roman archaeological sites, these two cities tell us so much about the way people lived. The eruption covered everything--people, houses, animals, jewelry, household items--in ash and molten rock, preserving the city exactly as it was when the volcano erupted.

Images: Above: Pompeiian ruins. Below left: a dog, below right: multiple bodies found in the wreckage.

This novel is a great YA historical read, though it's not "historical" in the sense of accuracy (this isn't a Rick Riordan novel!). There are many inaccuracies and anachronisms, but I am forgiving in this instance. I think it's more important to get kids reading and to get them interested in learning more about history, than it is to accurate.

I do have an ARC, so I'm hoping the mistake of using the Greek name Poseidon won't show up in the finished copy. Furthermore, the language is very modern and there is minimal use of cultural terminology or Latin words. You don't need knowledge of Roman history to be able to enjoy the book.

The forbidden love story is a great angle from which to tell the story. Aside from what the eruption was like, there is a lot of historical information that readers will gain from reading. Property ownership, slavery and the treatment of slaves, women's rights, gladiator schools, medical practices, class division, and true Roman practices such as exposure (discarding unwanted newborn infants) and marriage are all important tropes. Also, the author incorporates a fabulous comparison of pregnancy/birth with the eruption of the volcano. They are the same; the birth of a baby is a violent and potentially fatal moment, as is the eruption of a volcano, which is the violent and lethal birthing of nature.

There are two major twists at the end that had me turning the pages as fast as I could. This, combined with the excitement of the volcano raining down on the city, makes this book a huge success for me.
This is a heart-stopping story of survival, of forbidden love, and of a terrifying natural disaster.

Shecter does an exceptional job of balancing history with fiction, presenting both in such a way that is appealing to YA readers. There isn't any gore and the book isn't frightening; it is subtly educational and certainly exciting!

Curses and Smoke gets 4 stars from me. I appreciate the hell out of an author who will get the younger generations interested in ancient civilizations! I also appreciate that there is a YA alternative to the hype around Pompeii in 2014 with Pompeii the movie, and the subsequent attention on the book from which it was adapted: Richard Harris' Pompeii.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Review: This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

The plot has been done many times over: small-town girl falls for gorgeous city boy. But Jennifer E. Smith has breathed new life into this familiar storyline with This is What Happy Looks Like. This is a YA romance novel that will tug on your heartstrings and make you long for your own sweet summer romance.

Ages: 12 & up

Published: 2013 by Hachette Book Group

Summary: If fate sent you an email, would you answer? When teenage movie star Graham Larkin accidentally sends small town girl Ellie O'Neill an email about his pet pig, the two seventeen-year-olds strike up a witty and unforgettable correspondence, discussing everything under the sun, except for their names or backgrounds. Then Graham finds out that Ellie's Maine hometown is the perfect location for his latest film, and he decides to take their relationship from online to in-person. But can a star as famous as Graham really start a relationship with an ordinary girl like Ellie? And why does Ellie want to avoid the media's spotlight at all costs? 

Smith's constructs a story of summer love, one full of unexpected moments and unlikely odds. The plot is largely about being brave enough to live the moments as they come to you, and that sometimes happiness is worth the risks of a broken heart. Peppered with social issues such as insecurities, teenage drama, and family problems, This is What Happy Looks Like not only is a recognizable and relatable story, but it's a cathartic story of young love, and a bit of a fairy tale come true. Haven't we all dreamed of a sexy A-list celebrity somehow picking us out of all the girls in the world? Graham is exactly what we dream every celebrity heartthrob to be. As an adult reader, my inner teenage romantic side melted a little at my own desires to be swept away by Prince Charming.

The ending didn't take the route I was expecting it to and I'm a tad bitter about that. But I like the ending in the theme of life's unpredictability. It was fitting. Regardless, This is What Happy Looks Like is a well-written and thoroughly entertaining novel. Jennifer E. Smith has written a delicious YA love story that's perfect for a cottage read, or even for when you're feeling a little blue.

This one's going on my YA favourites shelf. An unexpectedly wonderful summertime story.

4 Stars

Friday, 18 April 2014

Series Recommendation: Abandon by Meg Cabot

Series: Abandon by Meg Cabot (Scholastic Inc.)
Number of books: 3
Age range: 14 & up
Genre: Fantasy / Drama / Romance
Will be enjoyed by fans of: Twilight, Beautiful Creatures, The Raven Boys.

Series synopsis: The Abandon series is a modern retelling and twist on the Persephone and Hades myth. Pierce is only fifteen when she dies and is swept away by the powerful, mysterious, yet undeniably handsome John Hayden. But even after escaping the underworld, Pierce realizes she will never be able to escape the dark forces that threaten her — or John himself. Readers will fall in love with one of the most famous Greek myths, darkly re-imagined, and now more charming and powerful than ever.

My thoughts on the series: The first time I read the summary for these books, I admit I immediately dismissed them as being another cheesy teen romance series. The cover art, though appealing for preteen readers who want to progress to adult romance novels, may be a little off-putting to readers who avoid mass-market, formulaic romance novels. I've read the series multiple times now, and every time I come back to it, I appreciate it Meg Cabot's undeniable talent a little more. 

Cabot is one of the few authors who has managed to use Greek mythology to produce a well-written, unique, and intelligent story. The characters often refer to Hades and Persephone, comparing their situation to the original myth, and thereby teaching the reader something in the process. There are, of course, differences in Cabot's story. John is not Hades, he's not a god, and he didn't kidnap Pierce per se. The "underworld" in which he lives is not the underworld, and Pierce is your average teenage girl. Lastly, it is also interesting to note that each chapter begins with a quote from Dante's Inferno, again offering readers another subtle glimpse into the fascinating subject of classical history.

Readers who loved Edward Cullen for his physical power, for his devotion and love for Bella, and for all the reasons that makes him the perfect man, will fall instantly in love with John Hayden. Much like Edward, before he meets Pierce, John is a bit of a "wild thing."But Pierce is his perfect match, and he is hers. It is a charming and addictive love story of two young people who fall in love, in spite of all their differences. 

I find Pierce to be a much more appealing protagonist than other heroines. She isn't fragile or awkward or dull. Her life isn't easy, she had a near-death experience, and even though she leads a privileged life, she has a lot of the same insecurities, uncertainty, and problems that every teenage girl has. She's determined, stubborn, and she's a fighter. She isn't a damsel-in-distress and she doesn't let John get away with his over-protective attitude and his mood swings. 

Aside from the supernatural elements, the series also addresses adult subjects such as pre-marital sex, drugs, bullying, violence, and death. All of these mature subjects have a purpose, are handled well, and are never graphic. There is also a nice balance of typical high school drama, the supernatural, and romance. 

The books are fairly short and are easy to lose yourself in. This series is a fantastic choice for summer reading. Meg Cabot's talents as an author are revealed in her storytelling and in her construction of a world in which the afterlife is a believable place. 
I highly recommend this series for young teen readers who enjoy YA fantasy/romance novels.

You can check out the book trailer from This is Teen below.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Review: Summer Days, Starry Nights by Vikki VanSickle

Vikki VanSickle's YA novel Summer Days, Starry Nights was published by Scholastic Canada Ltd. on June 1st, 2013. This novel has been commended for OLA Best Bets 2014 and also has been commended for CCBC's list of Best Books for Kids and Teens 2013.

Summary: It's 1962, and thirteen-year-old Reenie Starr comes alive the minute guests begin to arrive at her family's summer resort. She dreams of the day she can run Sandy Shores, and she spends her time helping out at the resort, swimming, climbing trees, and singing under the stars. 

One day, Reenie's mother announces that she thinks the resort could use some entertainment. She invites Gwen, her best friend's almost-grown daughter, to come and teach a dance class. Although Gwen seems sad and remote, Reenie's thrilled to have her there. 

As Reenie starts to learn more about the world beyond Sandy Shores, she comes up with a plan that could really put it on the map. She also finds herself caught between the simpler world of her childhood and all of the wonderful new discoveries (boys) and heartaches (boys) that growing up can bring. Reenie thought she wanted Sandy Shores to never change, but after this summer nothing will ever be the same again.

Summer Days, Starry Nights is a charming summertime read, set in cottage country Ontario. Filled with colourful characters who struggle with typical teenage conundrums such as identity issues, disapproving parents, relationships, and family drama, readers both old and young will find themselves falling in love with the story. Moreover, they will find a piece of themselves in this book.  

Young girls everywhere will see themselves in Reenie. We all want to be treated like an adult as we enter our teen years. The book forces us to see the wise truth of the matter, which is that being an adult and knowing about the adult world is not a wonderful thing. Ignorance is bliss. Knowing about marital problems, the complications of love and sexual relationships, of knowing your parents' secrets... all of this knowledge comes with growing up. And all young girls, like Reenie, want to grow up too fast. Sometimes it's easier to be happy and young and free of the pain of growing up.

This is a beautiful novel from a masterful Canadian storyteller, and I was surprised by how easily and how quickly I fell in love with this book. I've never read anything else by Vikki VanSickle, but I can now agree that she's a brilliant writer and she deserves all the acclaim she's received and more.

Summer Days, Starry Nights is a fantastic choice for classrooms and libraries. The story is so beautifully crafted and reads so eloquently that teachers and librarians will find this YA novel offers substantive value to their classrooms or collections, while also speaking volumes to its young readers.

4.5 Stars

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Review by Nine Words Max by Dan Bar-el, illustrated by David Huyck

Nine Words Max is a picture book written by Dan Bar-el and illustrated by David Huyck. It will be published April 22, 2014 by Tundra Books. I loved it so much, I could never pick nine words to describe it!

This is a delightful picture book that can be enjoyed by both children and parents alike. At its most basic level, it's a cautionary tale about despising a person's intelligence and curiosity, and disliking their desire to attain and share knowledge of the world. 

In short: don't pick on the little dorky kid. One day, you'll need him. Smart kids will go far in life!

Summary:  Maximilian is a prince who loves to talk: No topic is too small, no story too boring. Max's brothers are the opposite--the less said the better. When the king and queen go on a trip and leave the brothers alone, the 3 princes put a spell on Max that limits him to speaking only 9 words at a time. The brothers are delighted: peace and quiet at last! But when a fearsome dignitary arrives, they realize the true value of their brother's insatiable need for information. A cautionary tale and a tongue-in-cheek tribute to trivia buffs, Nine Words Max is also a sly satire of our modern world's obsession with media--the 3 reticent princes spend a lot of time sending silly messages, lying around watching puppet shows and speaking in 140 characters or less... This book is a funny, quirky and madcap tale with fantastic illustrations from illustrator David Huyck.

Huyck's illustrations are entertaining, incredibly detailed, and really help to make this a 4-star picture book. Maximilian is very clearly a smart child. His brothers, who can barely pull more than three words together, are simpletons: the brainless, macho brother; the gluttonous brother, and the gangly, hick-looking one. All three are useless as rulers, let alone as problem-solvers. Maximilian is an unlikely, seemingly unlikable hero, but he's a great role model for young readers when they see how his intelligence and interest in the world ultimately saves the day.

Children will giggle at silly facial expressions, hilarious images like the one of a chubby king in a ridiculous swimming getup, and crude humour of a butt crack showing. Although some sensitive parents may find the humour inappropriate, it is written for children ages 5-9, and it is no more inappropriate than the mildly crude humour of Shrek. 

The story is timeless, the characters are silly but loveable, and the intelligent, witty narrative is complemented further by the brilliant illustrations. There's so much to see in the details of every spread that readers will likely spot something new every time they read it. 

Dan Bar-el and David Huyck are a masterful storytelling duo. This book is a wonderful addition to any bookshelf. Turn story time with your little ones into fun time — and make it an engaging and memorable experience with Nine Words Max

4 Stars

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Review: Spirit Animals 3: Blood Ties by Garth Nix & Sean Williams

Blood Ties is the third book in the middle grade, multi-platform Spirit Animal series. Much like The 39 Clues and the Infinity Ring series from Scholastic, each book has a different author. Garth Nix and Sean Williams are the brains behind Blood Ties, and personally, I think this was the best book in the series yet. As much as I love Maggie Stiefvater, who wrote Book 2: Hunted, I still think Nix and Williams wrote a more compelling story.

Erdas is a land of balance. A rare link, the spirit animal bond, bridges the human and animal worlds. Conor, Abeke, Meilin, and Rollan each have this gift-and the grave responsibility that comes with it. But the Conquerors are trying to destroy this balance. They're swallowing whole cities in their rush for power-including Meilin's home. Fed up with waiting and ready to fight, Meilin has set off into enemy territory with her spirit animal, a panda named Jhi. Her friends aren't far behind . . . but they're not the only ones. The enemy is everywhere.

The third book has more action and more twists and turns than the previous two. Meilin is the focus of the story, and she chooses to go off on her own with Jhi (her panda spirt animal) to help her father defend her home of Zhong (this has been a constant source of guilt throughout the series). The mission to obtain the next talisman, poison, exposure, the lethal and distrusting rhino-riding tribe, animals driven mad after being bonded with Bile, and of course, the war. There's lots going on, and given the length, this is a fast-paced and exciting book for young readers. The book ends with two shocking twists, including a character death.

I really like Meilin's character. She has the tough exterior of a warrior, but deep down is a girl who is afraid of things we're all afraid of, like losing the ones we love. Moreover, she is just as much of a survivor as other YA heroines like Katniss, Tris, and Hermione, and she has strong moral values for one so young. Regardless of what you think of Meilin, the Green Cloaks are all unique, so readers will be able to identify with and relate to at least one of the main characters.

Spirit Animals Book 3: Blood Ties has restored my faith in this series to continue to perform well in the market. With several more books in the works already, I'm thrilled that book three ended with a bang to help young and easily distracted readers coming back for more.

The series will appeal to both genders and reads very "middle grade"--this is not a YA book. Although there is a lot of action, the violence is limited and it is not a frightening story. This is a great choice for home, school and public libraries alike!

4 Stars

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Review: The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

Rita Leganski's The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is a wholly wonderful novel. It's an addictive, powerful, and touching story. HarperCollins always delivers when it comes to publishing high quality adult fiction, and The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is no exception!

Summary: Conceived in love and possibility, Bonaventure Arrow didn't make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead. No one knows that Bonaventure's silence is filled with resonance—a miraculous gift of rarified hearing that encompasses the Universe of Every Single Sound. Growing up in the big house on Christopher Street in Bayou Cymbaline, Bonaventure can hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops. He can also hear the gentle voice of his father, William Arrow, shot dead before Bonaventure was born by a mysterious stranger known only as the Wanderer. 

Bonaventure's remarkable gift of listening promises salvation to the souls who love him: his beautiful young mother, Dancy, haunted by the death of her husband; his Grand-mère Letice, plagued by grief and a long-buried guilt she locks away in a chapel; and his father, William, whose roaming spirit must fix the wreckage of the past. With the help of Trinidad Prefontaine, a Creole housekeeper endowed with her own special gifts, Bonaventure will find the key to long-buried mysteries and soothe a chorus of family secrets clamoring to be healed.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow delves into the dark and frightening unknowns of our world. The characters are at the mercy of the power of the universe, of God, of religion, and of our own human weaknesses. Bonaventure is born a mute, Dancy is a lonely, guilt-ridden single mother, Adelaide is a religious fanatic... there are many tragedies and trials to endure in life. The best we can do is learn to live with our lot, to always do right by our family and friends, and to press on with life.

The story is beautifully written, filled with colourful characters that you immediately fall in love with. Leganski constructs a world so real and tragic, it's easy to lose yourself in her writing. I loved how the story shows how we affect other people over time and space. Leganski shows how we can never full anticipate how our actions will alter the course of the future. From page one to the gripping conclusion, I was hooked by this moving story. Rita Leganski is a masterful storyteller. 

I finished this novel days ago, but the ending has stuck with me. This book more than exceeded my expectations. Rita Leganski has given the world a brilliant and magical debut. I highly recommend this novel!

4 Stars

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Review: The Man Who Sunk Titanic by Sally Nilsson

Sally Nilsson's The Man Who Sank Titanic: The Troubled Life of Quartermaster Robert Hichens is the biographical/nonfiction story of her ancestor. Hichens was at the wheel of Titanic at the time of the collision, and manned lifeboat six, famously telling Molly Brown to "shut that hole in your face."

I've always been fascinated with the tragic story of Titanic, but it can be difficult to find nonfiction books that are not dry or an exhausting read. Fortunately, this book is accessible, detailed, and well-written, and covers the events before, during and after of the world's most famous maritime disaster.

With previously unpublished research and family photographs, this book by Hichens' granddaughter sets the record straight about the Titanic quartermaster who steered into an iceberg and kept control of a lifeboat. Robert Hichens has gone down in history as the man who was given the famous order to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg and failed. A key witness at both U.S. and British Inquiries, he returned to a livelihood where fellow crewmen considered him jinxed. But Robert had a long career and was a hardworking, ambitious seaman. A fisherman at 19, he quickly became a junior officer in the merchant navy. In World War II he was part of a cargo ship convoy on route to Africa where his ship dodged mines, U-boats and enemy aircraft. To Robert, being at sea was everything but the dark memories of the Titanic were never far away and in 1933 a failed murder attempt after a bitter feud nearly cost Robert his life. Here Robert's great-granddaughter Sally Nilsson seeks to set the record straight and reveal the true character of the man her family knew. This is one man's story of survival, betrayal and determination.

Although part of Nilsson's thesis is to show that Robert Hichens was not the cold and uncaring person he is often painted as, the book doesn't read with a heavy bias. Nilsson treats the history with integrity, sticking to the facts in light of her relation to Hitchens, and includes the good, the bad, and the unclear details about the disaster and his life, leaving the reader free to form their own opinion.

Other interesting facts include crew hierarchy, the ship's operations, the early parts of the voyage, other key witnesses and famous passengers, as well as emergency procedures. Nilsson even goes so far as to compare and draw parallels with James Cameron's film. By comparing moments in the film to the facts, any confident reader who saw the movie can then pick this book up, enjoy it, and learn something.

The legal proceedings were particularly interesting. Nilsson covers the questioning of key witnesses and speaks to the efforts of the White Star Line to conceal the gross negligence that inarguably occurred on April 14th. The book includes transcripts, glossy photographs, unpublished research, diagrams, and a helpful index. The writing style and flow of the narrative makes it easy to submerge one's self in the history and to really appreciate the magnitude of the disaster.

Whether you're a novice or a well-read Titanic enthusiast, this book is definitely worth reading. The book opened my eyes to the determination of the world to blame someone for the disaster. We come to understand the man who steered the ship into the iceberg and why he earned his reputation of being a coward and a bully. More importantly, we learn to sympathize with him, and with the difficult position that the surviving crew members were placed in.

Along with a lot of new information, I also began to think differently about the disaster. When you watch the film, you think about how lucky the people in the boats are to survive at all. What you don't usually consider is how terrible surviving can be. There was a large amount of shame with having your name associated with employment on the Titanic, particularly because seaman are superstitious people. Survivors were haunted by the memory of the sinking and the sounds of the dying 1500 people in the ocean. The world desperately wanted to assign blame to the crew, particularly to those who survived, when other officers went down with Titanic. On top of this was the guilt, the difficulty finding work, and the crushing pressure of the press. No, surviving was not easy. And for some, like Robert, sometimes surviving felt like a fate worse than death.

The Man Who Sunk The Titanic is an eye-opening and fascinating read. This is a great book for people interested in learning more about Titanic, and a valuable addition to school and public libraries.

4 Stars