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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story (Lizzie)

Title: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story (August 2016)
Author: Nora Raleigh Baskin (USA)
Age in store: 11

Briefly, what it's about: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story looks at the 48 hours leading up to the morning of September 11, 2001, through the day-to-day lives of four kids from across the United States: Sergio (Brooklyn, New York), who struggles to cope with his absentee father while living with his grandmother; Will (Shanksville, Pennsylvania), whose family is still trying to overcome the death of his father; Nadia (Columbus, Ohio), a Muslim girl born in the U.S. who gets teased for wearing a hijab, and Aimee (Los Angeles, California), who is adjusting to life in a new school after moving across the country. The book is told from the alternating perspectives of these four characters, none of whom are directly affected by the loss of a loved one that day, but rather who are forever changed by the events.

Lizzie's Rave: As author Nora Raleigh Baskin points out in the afterword of her novel, for kids today there is no “before 9/11,” that many children view it as an event that “happened in NYC” without understanding the far reaching effects of that day. She wrote this story to illustrate just how far reaching the effect was, and she succeeds brilliantly. Even though I was in elementary school when 9/11 happened, like many adults today, I remember exactly where I was when I found out.

For such a short novel, the impact of this book is remarkable. Baskin’s choice of having three-quarters of the book take place before the attacks on the Twin Towers means that we really get to know the characters, and the impact of 9/11 becomes that much more apparent. And yet, even though I knew what was coming, I found this book very suspenseful. I also loved how diverse the characters are, each with different races/religions/backgrounds/circumstances. One of the strongest features of the book is how mindful the author is of her target audience -- she does not give gory details; she only provides enough to give readers a sense of the horrific events.

As we approach the 15th anniversary of 9/11, this timely book provides the perfect opportunity to open up discussion about the events of that day. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5 stars

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Secrets, Lies and Scandals (Lizzie)

Title: Secrets, Lies and Scandals (July 2016)
Author: Amanda K. Morgan (United States)
Age in store: 14+

Briefly, what it's about: Each for their own reasons, Mattie, Ivy, Tyler, Kinley, and Cade end up in the same summer school psychology course taught by the dreaded Dr. Stanford. Following a series of events that results in Dr. Stanford dead on the classroom floor, these five students must decide how they are going to cover up what happened. A jumbled up group of characters who, in normal circumstances, would have barely spoken to one another now have to trust each other to keep their secret.  

Lizzie's rave: This book is so incredibly suspenseful, it kept me turning pages way past my bedtime. Author Morgan does a fabulous job keeping up the pace of the novel, and the plot twists and turns when you least expect it. The backstabbing among the characters and the psychological effect that covering up the death has on each one of them seems genuine and adds real authenticity to the story.  

The best feature is that it alternates among the viewpoints of the five main characters. Seeing the events unfold through multiple perspectives really builds suspense and shows how the death of Dr. Stanford affects each of them in their day to day lives. The characters are distinct, with their own personality traits, backstories and flaws: Mattie is shy, Ivy is the former “popular girl” who has slid down the social ladder, Kinley is the teacher’s pet, Tyler is the troublemaker, and Cade is stuck in the class after his father decided he needed to get ahead for the next school year. More importantly, each has their own secret that they are protecting along with the murder.

Reminiscent of the hit TV series How To Get Away With Murder, Secrets, Lies and Scandals is a definite must-read for fans of thrillers and suspense novels.

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

My Lady Jane (Lizzie)

Title: My Lady Jane (June 2016)
Authors: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows (USA)
Age in store: 14+

Briefly, what it's about: Between the reign of Edward VI and his half-sister Mary I, England was ruled for nine days by the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, a sixteen-year-old political pawn who was beheaded for treason -- at least that’s what our history textbooks say. In this fantastical and very funny retelling of history, Jane and Edward’s stories have a much happier ending. Instead of the infamous Catholic vs Protestant battles of the time, England is divided into Edians, who have the ability to shapeshift into animals, and Verities, who persecute them.

As ordered by the king, Jane is married off to a complete stranger, Gifford (Guildford in history) Dudley, who, she quickly discovers, spends every day from sunrise to sunset running around as a horse -- something that becomes incredibly convenient when they are fleeing from Mary’s soldiers. At times silly but always delightful, this novel is filled to the brim with enthralling characters, humour, romance, and adventure.

Lizzie's rave: For a book written by three different authors, and from three different viewpoints, the flow of this book is seamless. Jane, Edward, and Gifford are very likeable characters: Jane is an intelligent girl with a feminist and progressive viewpoint, rather than the spoiled young king you would expect; Edward is a sweet young man whose main regret while dying is the fact that he has never kissed a girl; and Gifford, of course is the lord who spends his days galloping across the English countryside as a horse!

I am a huge fan of historical fiction, and I had my doubts about adding fantasy to the mix -- but it totally works in this book. You need to know before opening this book that it is definitely not meant to be taken seriously (though it is nevertheless well researched). This is a very funny, intelligent, historical comedy written in a “Monty Python meets the Princess Bride” style, with pop-culture references spanning Shakespeare to Disney to Game of Thrones. For all of its comedy, it has a very well-written plot line, full of royal secrets, conspiracies, and double crossings.

Number of stars: 5 /5 stars

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Sea Change (Steve)

Title: Sea Change (May) 
Author: Frank Viva (Canada)
Age in store: Adult

Briefly What It's About: Eliot is gearing up for summer when his parents surprise him with their plan plan to send him out to Point Aconi, Nova Scotia, to visit and work with some relatives. It sounds like the worst thing that a twelve-year-old kid could possibly imagine. And maybe it is... because after that one summer of working on a lobster boat, meeting new friends, and dealing with the kinds of problems that come with being right on the edge of growing up, the boy that Eliot becomes is not the same one who first got on the plane.

Steve's rave: This book is as beautifully written as it is illustrated. Frank Viva taps into an incredible piece of universal experience here with a story that seems both deliciously, poignantly detailed and yet completely relatable to anyone over the age of eleven. The characters are layered and lovingly crafted, and Viva's signature graphic style gives them both a grounded realism and a powerful archetypal presence. Readers will grow to love Point Aconi and its people just as much as Eliot does over this summer and feel every lurching, dizzying, soaring bit of it right along with him. It builds to such a beautiful finish that I read the last third of the book twice just to savour it.

It makes perfect sense that a man who has produced wonderful and whimsical children's books could hone in so perfectly on the feelings of that time in one's life when the whimsy of the earliest years inevitably gives way to the intrusion of a more complicated experience. It draws readers in with a superb portrait of youthful innocence and wrenches as it crumbles away.

But this book is no tragedy. The vibrance of youth is strengthened with experience. Viva's world is both heartbreaking and optimistic -- and if that isn't the way your reality life feels, then I'm sorry, you're living it wrong.
Number of stars: 5/5

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Stepping into Traffic (Loretta)

Title: Stepping into Traffic (April)
Author: K.J. Rankin (Canada)
Age in store: 14+

Briefly, what it's about: Seb lost his parents when he was young and he's been through seven foster homes in eight years. He makes a rash decision with some sketchy friends to pull a breaking and entering, and when it turns ugly, Seb's world becomes even more complicated: hello foster parents number eight. But the lady he is sent to live with is different, and moving into his boyhood neighbourhood stirs up good and bad memories. But it too is a little different, and maybe that's a good thing. Seb slowly begins to wonder if this is what hope feels like, but he isn't sure, he doesn't know what or who to trust. Gang life has its pulls and perks; even having a bad friend is having a friend. It's not until he finds the belief in himself  to dig deep that Seb realizes he may have been given another chance. If Seb wants it though, he'll have to work for it.

Loretta's rave: It must be difficult writing about a boy who is so lost that his friends are able to convince him that crime and drugs are his best option. But author KJ Rankin seems to make this flow. Seb is a great character, he's a real lost boy and I felt very much in his head the whole time, watching him make the wrong decisions while knowing he wants only a good outcome. He is a very real person and his struggle is authentic. The novel certainly speaks to a lot of reasons why kids make bad choices. He's had some bad breaks; throw in a few dysfunctional and abusive foster-home situations and he doesn't have the tools to recognize a genuine offer when he gets one. But Seb is good at the core. He knows what he wants in life but dropping friends, even potentially dangerous ones, means standing up for himself -- and that's a lonely choice to make.

Number of stars: 4/5

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Shadows of the Dark Crystal (Steve)

Title: Shadows of the Dark Crystal (June 2016)
Author: J.M. Lee (United States)
Age in store: Fantasy (ages 10+)

Briefly, what it's about: Taking place before the events of the Jim Henson movie The Dark Crystal, this first entry in a new series follows the Gelfling Naia on her quest across the magical world of Thra to discover the truth of her brother’s alleged treason. For fans of the film, this book does an incredible job of capturing the spirit and tone. For newcomers, it is an exciting and delightful adventure in a richly detailed world.

Steve's rave: I really enjoyed this book! I’m not a hardcore fan of The Dark Crystal (I saw it once or twice), but I thought it was a great movie and this book captures it's spirit perfectly. You can tell the author is a real fan, and he isn’t a bad storyteller either. Naia is a strong and sympathetic character who should appeal to both male and female readers, and her quest is both personal and challenging: in the mysterious absence of her brother, an alleged traitor, she must make the long journey from her home village to the Castle of the Crystal to face trial on his behalf.

The pacing is good, the characters are engaging and the plot is archetypal without falling too much into cliché. But the best part of this novel is the world! From the swampy territory of Naia’s Drenchen clan, to the expanse of the Dark Wood, to the Castle of the Crystal, the world of Thra with its three suns and three moons and strange creatures beyond count is brought vividly to life. Every inch of it feels intensely true to the style of Jim Henson’s classic fantasy films, as does the atmosphere. The author does a very good job of painting his story in the same broad strokes of wonder and infectiously creepy details that defined The Labyrinth and The Dark CrystalThis is not just a great addition to the story of The Dark Crystal, it is an new middle grade fantasy series that does exactly what fantasy is supposed to do.

Number of stars: 4/5

Perfect for fans of: Jim Henson, The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly BlackA Nearer Moon by Melanie Crowder, WondLa series by Tony DiTerlizzi

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Land of Forgotten Girls (Loretta)

Title: The Land of Forgotten Girls (April 2016)
Author: Erin Entrada Kelly (United States)
Age in store: 10

Briefly, what it's about:  After Sol and Ming's father abandons them, life in Louisiana with their volatile and spiteful stepmother is endless days of angst and unhappiness. The sisters once knew a life that was beautiful and sweet and full of magical fairy tales. But that was when they lived in the Philippines, when both their mother and middle sister, Amelia, were alive. Soon after their deaths, their father quickly remarried and took them to a cramped, dirty apartment on the wrong side of New Orleans. 

To deal with their new reality, young Ming grabs on to one of the stories their mother used to tell, of an eccentric and mysterious Aunt Jovelyn who travels the world. Ming begins to believe that Aunt Jovelyn is coming to rescue them from their horrid life, but Sol isn't so sure, so she imagines a world for them called the Land of Forgotten Girls, where Mother Hush is a gentle guardian and always knows what they need.

Loretta's rave"A closet is a closet, but it's also a rocket or a tree house...your mind is a palace, as long as you go in the right rooms," so assures the ghost of Amelia when the sisters are banished to the closet once again by Vea. For a story full of big moments of sadness, there is heaps of warmth and hope in The Land of Forgotten Girls. I feel like Sol is an old soul and knows how to figure things out for herself and her sister. Her maturity doesn't seem forced, just desperate and so she is always searching for ways to make life better before their stepmother, Vea, only a few steps away, thwarts their plans. Although Vea is a nasty person, we see glimpses of who she might have been before life threw disappointments her way. Even though Sol struggles with how to solve their problems, she possesses an urge and a longing for the past, to bring herself and her sister to a better place. The ending was not as satisfying as I'd hoped -- not everyone gets what they want -- but maybe that's okay. I'm still thinking about it. A good book is supposed to provoke and this one, with its big heart, certainly does. 

Number of stars: 5/5