Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

A beautiful novel about a very tragic moment in history. There are a wide range of books available about Stalin, the 1930s-40s and World War II, but this book stands out to me as being different from the rest. It's easy to locate many fantastic, well-written novels about the Nazis' persecution of the Jewish people, but this novel focuses on the genocide of the people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by the Soviets-- a tragedy not quite so common to YA literature. This book binds true personal accounts into the fiction of the narrative. It's a page-turning, shocking, and illuminating moment of insight into a terrible truth.

The cover art is gorgeous. I love the representation of hope springing up through all the death and darkness through the image of the leaf in the snow. In the end of the novel, there is a scene where the sun finally rises in the horizon in the Arctic, bringing light to the darkness. It's the same symbolic value, but this cover image works just as well. It's a beautiful image and the perfect cover choice!

The book uses flashbacks and vivid imagery to construct the terrible history between the people of the Baltic countries and the Soviets. It is written for young adults/children, so the book isn't unncessarily graphic or disturbing. No more so than the typical type of writing found in YA novels about the persecution of the Jewish people.

The love between family members and the unification of people in the struggle to survival are important tropes in this novel. The main character, Lina, is deported by the Soviets to work under brutal conditions and be treated like savages. Lina, like many, many other Lithuanians, is subjected to torture, disease, inhumane working and living conditions, and to undeniable evils that actually happened.

The epilogue concludes with Lina's stating her reasoning for writing her experiences. She says that she passed on her stories in the hopes that by sharing the truth of what happened under Stalin's reign, that such evil will never happen again. It's a beautiful sentiment, and one that resonated with me as I finished the book. Having already finished school, I look back on my education in a Canadian school system and realize that Stalin, the USSR, and the genocide that he caused was not a major point of study, as it should have been. I believe this to be a sad truth.

This novel should be studied and given to novel-readers. It's a powerful book and should be considered as important, must-reads as other similar books about war, persecution, and suffering such as Lois Lowry's Number the Stars and Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.

I highly recommend this novel! Everything about it makes me think that kids of a novel-reading age should be given this book to read for school. It's well-researched, it's well-written, and it's an exciting, page-turning, tragically beautiful novel.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Review: Who Could That Be At This Hour by Lemony Snicket

I read this book in one sitting. This book had the undertones of being Kafka-esque in the oddities of pointless, direct and snippy conversations the character Lemony has with the other characters. The whole plot feels like a nightmare with its sense of urgency to complete his mission and battle greater unconquerable forces to do so. Paranoia, urgency, distrust of law enforcement and society, a lack of justice--it's all very Kafka, but it's kid-friendly Kafka and I liked it. It reminded me greatly of The Trial, but a less scary, less metaphorical version of it.

The book follows a teenager named Lemony Snicket in a detective mystery/suspenseful tale of theft, betrayal, and heroism. As with Snicket's other books, the plot contains a certain amount of hopelessness and darkness in the setting, characters, and events. Snicket is an apprentice to a spy-heroic-P.I. type character who is less than helpful and even worse at providing her apprentice with knowledge and skills.

The book is fast-paced with many dislikable characters that the reader will love to hate. Snicket has the ability to keep the young reader guessing at the truths of plot and changing his/her mind about certain characters. Reading this book is a very similar experience to the sudden twists and turns, sense of urgency and the purposelessness within a purpose of a nightmare. That's not to say reading the book is like having a nightmare, of course.

I really enjoyed it. Who Could That Be At This Hour is quirky, it's odd, it's a little confusing--it's a typical Lemony Snicket book. It's a fairly fast read for more impatient readers and is full of action, mystery and some hilarity. A wonderful choice of book for pre-teen boys, early fans of mystery books, as well as fans of the Lemony Snicket books.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Review: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

As much as I wanted to love this series, I have it admit I struggled with this book: length-wise and plot-wise. There's a lot of acclaim for this novel and a huge fan base. I expect a lot of the love for the series comes from the YA audience it's aimed at-- teens who are desperate to find the next "Edward Cullen and Bella Swan"-type of love story. This book definitely gives readers the type of romance that today's best YA novels feature. Lena and Ethan really love each other and teens are definitely looking for their type of devotion and adoration in a romantic partner. In spite of their differences (these lovers struggle with the differences of a mortal and a witch) and the dark powers at work to ruin the world, Lena and Ethan have found real happiness.

The romance is great for the age-group, but the book is long and it drags. In my opinion, this book could have used an editor with a firmer hand. I found myself getting annoyed at a lot of text that felt like filler. There was a LOT of back-and-forth of indecisiveness and worrying on the part of Lena and Ethan. There were also many, many scenes of Lena whining about how they shouldn't be together. We get it: she has a terrible fate, her sixteenth birthday puts Ethan at great risk, her life sucks. There's no need to beat the reader senseless with it.

There's also a lot of waiting around for the ultimate dark event: her sixteenth birthday. A lot of wandering and aimlessness with the characters. Some tightening up of the plot and tweaking would have given the book a better rating from me. The book has so much potential, power, mystery and danger-- I don't feel like it gave us as much as it could. Or maybe, the authors planned to use the other three books to give us that oomph. Personally, I think the first book needs an amazing kick-off to pull me into the sequel. There was far too much build-up to Lena's 16th birthday and not enough of a pay-off in the drama and danger of the scene.
I love the Southern-spin on this love story, and I love that this supernatural romance is about witches. Thank you for stepping away from the vampire-love story (although revealing Macon and Hunting's secret lost the book a few more points from me).
As for the narrative style, the authors use the same open-ended, vague narrator as Stephanie Meyer, developing the other characters more than the main character. The open-ended, vagueness of the first-person p.o.v. allows the readers to submerge themselves into this ultimate love affair. While it is an effective device to hook readers, I still feel like I know Bella better than I know Ethan.
Overall, the book is edgy and has an exciting conclusion. There's no shortage powerful mythical things. It's a decent read and has good twist and turns. If you're a YA fan or a movie fan, give this book a go. It's a breath of fresh air in the YA section to have a book about witches. It's no Harry Potter and it really could have used a firm-handed editor, but young teens who enjoy the supernatural/romance/YA genre will enjoy it. As for me, I won't be reading the other books in the series. I'm glad I read it, but this is definitely not going on the favourites' shelf.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Review: The Serpent's Shadow by Rick Riordan

Anything Riordan publishes, you should read. Rick Riordan is an extremely talented YA author who, without a doubt, is the only author I know who can successfully write about something so educational and so unique, and who does it not only with talent, wit, and his own creative touch, but who is accurate.

While I am a fan of the Percy Jackson series more than The Kane Chronicles, I did enjoy this latest installment from the series. The cover art might also be my favourite out of all of Riordan's books. I love the colours and the way the whole image is balanced on the white obelisk. The importance of the obelisk is actually perfectly portrayed in this image. The obelisk finally makes an appearance toward the end of the book, when Chaos is close to devouring Ma'at (essentially Good/Light for those of you who have not read the books/know little of Egyptian mythology). The obelisk appears at the point of the book when the darkness is at its most threatening, but its white light is still there, glowing with power. It's size and the use of white space here is just perfect. I find it isn't often that the cover art truly exemplifies the plot, so I am truly impressed by the artist.

This book is again written in the alternating narrative of Carter and Sadie, using wit and playful banter between the siblings as comic relief from the intense, action-driven plot. Children heroes save the day in the end, including some wild and talented Kindergartens (lovingly referred to as ankle-biters, much to my amusement). Although I am certainly not buying into the idea the parents of these five-year-olds were totally fine with leaving their children at a house to train with magic and fight a war, the idea is nice. The story empowers children, like many YA series. The idea of empowerment is a nice one, so I won't judge too harshly.

The Serpant's Shadow is essentially about the final fight of good and evil: between mortals/magicians/gods/goddesses/The House of Life and Apophis, a giant snake who intends to plunge the world into nothing by devouring the sun and ending the rule of the gods. Much like The Last Olympian, the book ends with an exciting and nail-biting final battle between a titanic evil and good.

I think it's also interesting to note that a lot of Sadie's narrative includes a love triangle. This love triangle is complicated and resolved in an interesting way that might give Twilight's human-vampire-werewolf's love triangle resolution a run for its money. Sadie is in love with a magician named Walt who is slowly dying of an ancient and inescapable curse. Sadie also loves Anubis, a god of the underworld. Sadie's relationship with Walt is complicated by time and his illness, and her relationship with Anubis is complicated by the probability of his being a god. The resolution of this love triangle--which I won't spoil in this review--is very interesting and very weird. Personally, I'm not sure what to make of the resolution. I think I might prefer my werewolf-love-interest falls in love with my half-human, half-vampire baby.

Riordan handles the subject of pre-teen love very well, though. Parents can be assured that the relationships are rated 'G' and is tastefully done to hook the reader into the romance, while keeping in mind that this is a YA book and its primary genre without sliding into the teen romance classification.

The book is full of mythology and in typical Riordan-fashion, the gods and creatures are given distinct and realistic personalities so that this book is not only a fun, exciting read, but also educational. Isis and Horus are a little petulant at times, but one could argue the gods are vain and immature in the myths, too.

The book had me turning pages, eager for the final battle of the Kanes and Apophis. Friendly faces from The Red Pyramid and The Throne of Fire make appearances in The Serpant's Shadow, and there is plenty of running, destruction, and end-of-the-world drama. The inclusion of Egyptian hieroglyphs make frequent appearances and readers can definitely walk away with a sense that they know more about Egyptian mythology. This book brings to life a lot of the Egyptian history children learn about in elementary school, including names like Ramses and Tut, but also the Egyptian gods, both minor and major.

All in all, a wonderful read and a great series for parents to give their kids who are able to handle the novel. Scholastic has the paperback edition this September, so order your copy through their Book Clubs flyers for great prices and many other great reads!