Monday, January 16, 2017

Review - Brimstone and Marmalade

Brimstone and Marmalade
by Aaron Corwin
Date: 2013
Publisher: Tor Books
Reading level: MG
Book type: short story
Pages: 32
Format: e-book

Just in time for Halloween, we have a funny, sweet, and slightly skewed short story by Aaron Corwin, an up-and-coming writer from Seattle.

All Mathilde wanted for her birthday was a pony. Instead, she got a demon. Sometimes growing up means learning that what you think you want is not always what you need.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I'm really not sure whether to laugh or cry.

I've had this short story on my want-to-read list for a while. Who could say no to that synopsis? The story is actually far funnier than I thought it would be. Mathilde's demon is pretty much a hamster on paranormal steroids. He lives in a cage, eats soul pellets, and even has his own exercise ball.

It's actually a little bit of a deeper story than it seems, with Mathilde grudgingly accepting the gift of a demon because she wants to prove to her parents that she can take care of a pet. (Her ultimate goal is to get a pony.) Ix'thor was pretty cute for a demon, and I found myself kind of wanting one of my own. Of course Mathilde finds herself warming up to her "starter pet"... leading to a conclusion that's both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Aside from some clunky transitions (I'm not sure if there are just some missing paragraph breaks or what), the writing wasn't too bad. Brimstone and Marmalade is a cute, quick read... and definitely worth taking a few minutes to explore.

Quotable moment:

Mathilde peered through the glass cage. She looked at the Dark Lord's tiny clawed fingers, at his dark billowing cloud.

Mathilde thought about her pony. "Hello," she said. "What's your name?"

I AM IX'THOR, MASTER OF THE VENOMOUS PITS OF KARTHOOM! The creature raised his arms over his head. He had a voice like the truck that picked up their garbage in the morning, only smaller. BOW BEFORE YOUR MASTER, SMALL ONE!

"How about that!" The old man raised his fuzzy white eyebrows. "He told you his name first thing! He must really like you."

"Well, I don’t like him..." Mathilde crossed her arms. Ix'thor lowered his arms and hung his head a little. "... But I guess he’ll do."

Recommended to: this story would probably be enjoyed by middle grade readers and up

Plot: 4/5
Characters: 4/5
Pace: 5/5
Writing & Editing: 3/5
Originality: 5/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 4.2 out of 5 ladybugs

Friday, January 13, 2017

Review - What James Said

What James Said
by Liz Rosenberg
illustrated by Matthew Myers
Date: 2015
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 32
Format: e-book
Source: library

A funny, heartfelt, perfectly pitched story about misunderstandings and the importance of true friendship.

When a little girl thinks that her best friend James has been saying bad things about her behind her back, she takes action in the form of the silent treatment. As they go about their day and James tries harder and harder to get her to talk to him, they both realize that true friendship surpasses any rumor... or misunderstanding.

A classic childhood situation is brought to life with humor and poignancy with energetic illustrations by Matt Myers and a simple, telling text by Liz Rosenberg.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This little picture book is worth reading for the adorable illustrations alone. The intent behind the message is good, although I wish it had been spelled out a little more; I'm not sure if little kids who'd be reading this book on their own would understand the resolution without a bit of explanation from an adult.

It's all about a misunderstanding, like a game of "telephone". The little girl--our narrator--thinks that her best friend has said something bad about her. James's attempts to get back in her good graces are sweet, although the poor kid must've been so confused by his best friend's sudden shunning of him.

I loved the illustrations. The kids are so cute, with the best facial expressions. Pictures can either make or break a picture book, but they were pretty much perfect here.

Quotable moment:

I'm not sure he knows we are in a fight.

I sat with my girlfriends at lunch and glared at him across the cafeteria.

He came over and asked, "Do you have a stomachache? Do you want me to walk you to the nurse?"

"No, thank you," I said, and went and threw my lunch into the trash. I wasn't very hungry, then.

Recommended to: anyone who enjoys sweet illustrations and simple stories about little kids being kids

Premise: 4/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 4/5
Illustrations: 5/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 4.17 out of 5

Friday, December 30, 2016

Review - Change Places With Me

Change Places With Me
by Lois Metzger
Date: 2016
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 224
Format: e-book
Source: library

Rose has changed. She still lives in the same neighborhood and goes to the same high school with the same group of kids, but when she woke up today, something was a little different. Her clothes and hair don’t suit her anymore. The dogs who live upstairs are no longer a terror. She wants to throw a party—this from a girl who hardly ever spoke to her classmates before. There’s no more sadness in her life; she’s bursting with happiness.

But something still feels wrong to Rose. Because until very recently, she was an entirely different person—a person who’s still there inside her, just beneath the thinnest layer of skin.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I totally failed my Goodreads challenge for this year. This is only the third book I read all the way through. At least it was better than the other two I read in 2016... though not by much.

Please, dear author, I want some more...

The premise is about the only thing I liked in this book, and I can't even talk about it because it's one of those books that's all mysterious and whatnot in the beginning, and if you start to talk about any part of the plot, you'll give too much away. All I can really say is that it's a science-fiction tale set in the near future with some inspiration (though not necessarily any plot points) taken from the story of "Snow White".

It's all a matter of taste...

This is one of those books where you're either going to like the style or you're not. I didn't really like it. While it was edited fairly well and I wouldn't say it was badly written, it did seem a bit pretentious. The characters' voices never really rang true for me, and I spent a lot of the book wondering if that was because there was something weird going on that made all the teenagers talk like kindergartners, if it was a stylistic choice, or if the characters were just badly done. After finishing, I'd say it's more of a combination of options 2 and 3. I never liked any of the characters. I couldn't relate to the main character; I thought she was just a horrible, horrible person, and her character development wasn't believable. You know how good characters often change over the course of a story? Well, our heroine does change... but there's really not a great reason as to why. (There is a reason, but I thought it was pretty weak.)

Also, there's no climax. No high point to the story. I kept waiting for a twist, because I was nearing the end and I was getting really bored, and I thought, "Surely, something interesting is going to happen." But, nope. All we get is some weird, boring resolution with little explanation and absolutely zero emotional punch. How disappointing.

Let's get technical...

This book was surprisingly well-edited. I often end up highlighting a bunch of typos and grammar errors when I read books; those things just drive me crazy. But there wasn't much here to be bothered about.

The verdict...

Maybe I just didn't get it. I often have trouble with pretentious, literary-esque books with quirky characters or situations that just try too hard to be special. That's probably why I wasn't a fan of Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now or John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. But both of those books have audiences, and this one probably has one as well. It just wasn't me.

Quotable moment:

"Hey, we got lucky. This Sunday, Ball of Fire is coming to You Must Remember This."

For a second she forgot that Ball of Fire was a screwball comedy; it sounded like a plummeting meteor. "Sunday... I can't, I can't."

He looked really disappointed. "It's only playing that one day."

"I have to sleep--I don't know for how long."

"Really? Can't think of a better excuse?"

"I'm handling it the best I can," she said, "under the circumstances."

"What circumstances?"

"Here." She shoved the money toward him.

"Jeez, Louise, are we having our first fight?"

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 2/5
Characters: 1/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing: 2/5
Editing: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall Rating: 2.5 out of 5 ladybugs

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review - From Anna (DNF)

From Anna (Anna Solden #1)
by Jean Little
Date: 1972
Publisher: Scholastic Canada
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 211
Format: e-book
Source: library

Anna hated being different. Special, though, was something else... She did not look special, she knew. She was too big and not one bit pretty.

Anna Solden, with her wispy braids and prickly personality, is nothing like her tall, likeable sisters and brothers. She's always the odd one out. Everyone but Papa seems to expect so little of her — even Mama — she comes to believe it herself. What could she, Anna, possibly have to give?

(synopsis from Goodreads)

DNF @ 31%

I like to try to read books by Canadian authors every once in a while. There are some really good ones out there, and I hoped this would be another. I think I read one of Jean Little's books many years ago, though I couldn't tell you anything about it now. I'd never heard of From Anna, but the library had a copy of the 40th-anniversary edition, so I thought I'd give it a try. I read the first few chapters, took a break, and procrastinated about ever going back to it.

The problem with this book is that it comes across as one of those books that we had to read back in elementary school. It's the kind of book that kids are supposed to read, because it'll be good for them. But this literary equivalent of broccoli has a few problems that are obvious even in the first third of the book.

The first problem is that Anna's disability is not entirely believable. She obviously has some sort of severe visual impairment. I have no problem with this at all as a character trait... but it was handled surprisingly badly, especially considering the author is visually impaired herself. Anna's issue was so obvious, and I could not for the life of me figure out how this kid's problems could've gone unnoticed for so long. It was 1933 in a developed country, not 1133 in the middle of the jungle. People did wear glasses back then, so they must've had people who could diagnose vision problems. But poor Anna is left to be bullied by her siblings and viewed as simply clumsy... even with obvious issues like not being able to thread a needle (she thinks it odd that her mother can do so, because for her, the eye of the needle simply does not exist), ending up completely illiterate because she can't see the blackboard at school, or even tripping over a footstool. (I didn't skip ahead to find out what, exactly, Anna's problem was... but I'm fairly certain she was legally blind.)

This unbelievable portrayal of Anna's disability leads to yet another problem: the way things are described. The prose is visually bare... which makes sense. I thought perhaps this had been done on purpose, because the story was told from Anna's point of view. However, I then realized that none of the other senses picked up the slack. This led to some very lackluster worldbuilding. You wouldn't have known the first part of the story took place in Frankfurt. It could've been anywhere. There were no particular sounds or smells or even a feeling in the air that would've given the reader a sense of time or place. Perhaps the worldbuilding got better when the family arrived in Canada (since it would be a more familiar setting to the author), but I didn't get that far.

It was kind of the last straw for me when the family was on the boat and, out of nowhere, the third-person limited omniscient point of view suddenly switched to Anna's father for a couple of paragraphs before going back to Anna. It was so weird, and it really threw me out of the story. That was the only point-of-view switch in what I read, so I'm assuming it was just a mistake. Still, it's one that shouldn't have been there.

The book also shows its age, with the intentional avoidance of the word "said"; it almost comes across as a school writing assignment where the teacher instructed the students to avoid that word as much as possible... and use anything else instead. On one page alone, the characters muttered, probed, wheedled, and growled. It might've been an amusing exercise to see what other dialogue tags the author came up with... but I found it too annoying to really want to bother.

This book might pick up later, but it just didn't hold my interest enough to make me want to find out. There are better works of historical fiction for kids out there. For books with a similar theme about children coming to Canada, I'd recommend the Guests of War trilogy by Kit Pearson (another Canadian author) instead.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Review - This Is Where It Ends

This Is Where It Ends
by Marieke Nijkamp
Date: 2016
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 288
Format: e-book
Source: library

10:00 a.m. The principal of Opportunity, Alabama's high school finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.

10:02 a.m. The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.

10:03 The auditorium doors won't open.

10:05 Someone starts shooting.

Told from four perspectives over the span of 54 harrowing minutes, terror reigns as one student's calculated revenge turns into the ultimate game of survival.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book was the selection for this year's Big Library Read. I enjoyed last year's choice, so I thought I might like this year's. It was on my want-to-read list anyway, and even though I'd read some less-than-stellar reviews of it, I thought I'd give it a try.

Please, dear author, I want some more...

This is the first book about a school shooting that I've read. I know there are a few of them out there now, an unfortunate reflection of the world we live in today. Not having read anything in this vein (and not really reading much contemporary YA fiction in general), I wasn't sure what to expect. The book starts off strong, introducing us to the four characters who narrate the story, all of which (with the exception of the epilogue) takes place within one hour. There's Claire, a member of the track team who happens to be outside at practice when the shooting starts inside; Tomás, a kid banished to the principal's office with his friend, Fareed; Autumn, an aspiring dancer and the shooter's younger sister; and Sylv, Tomás's twin sister.

It's all a matter of taste...

The problem with these characters is that they all sound the same. Without looking at the section headings to see who's narrating, it's often difficult to know who's telling the story (with the exception of Claire, who isn't inside the school at all for the duration of the book). Their voices are all alike... and not quite right. These are supposed to be teenagers in Alabama, but they often come across as the middle-aged products of a finishing school. It doesn't help that their speech patterns are almost ESL, with uneven and unnatural use of contractions and odd turns of phrase; whether this can be attributed to the author being Dutch, I'm not sure. But these kids definitely didn't strike me as being from Alabama.

The biggest character problem I have, however, is the villain. I've read other reviews complaining that Tyler is over the top, a caricature, a pure evil villain with no nuance. For the first part of the book, I couldn't figure out if I was reading the same book. I thought he was nuanced, painted in shades of grey, and relatable as a hurting kid who'd experienced so much loss that he just couldn't process it.

But then the author went too far. Way too far. And all those negative reviews suddenly made sense. After about the first quarter of the book, I began to see what people were talking about. Tyler walking around, talking aloud about his hurts, almost twirling his mustache, didn't help me see him as a tortured villain; all I saw was the author behind the scenes, saying, "See? See how evil he is?" It didn't work, and it didn't make sense. For me, it would have been far more effective if the author had chosen from a couple of other options: 1) She could have used Tyler as a POV character, eliminating the need for the melodramatic monologuing to explain why he was doing what he was doing; or 2) She could have left him silent as he went on his rampage, leaving his motivations more ambiguous, but making the situation more realistic. There was one character in this book who was a true villain, but who was never properly addressed. Instead, that person is left as a mostly faceless bogeyman lurking in people's memories but never really seen. Tyler's perspective on this person could have added a lot more to the story. I know that it might be uncomfortable for authors to write from the point of view of a murderer. Instead, they write about them. It's easier. I get it. Unfortunately, I think that that may have been what this book needed to make it more than the superficial story that it turned out to be. (Then again, the author pushed Tyler so far into the insanely irredeemable category that there might not have been a way to salvage his character.)

And as long as we're talking about characters, let me just say that I didn't particularly like any of them. The girls all blamed themselves for everything (even things that didn't make sense). Tomás was (quite literally) too stupid to live... although, that's kind of the author's fault, since she had some pretty big plot holes drilled through the last part of the story. (So, at one point, some of the kids escape to the second floor... which apparently only has one staircase, which must be against fire codes, but I digress. They get out onto the roof, and then are supposedly trapped... so Tomás goes back to confront the shooter to buy his sister and friend some time. And then we find out in the epilogue that it's possible to sneak onto the roof... implying that there's an easy way off. But, hey, who needs logic?)

Let's get technical...

As I mentioned earlier, the biggest technical problem with this book is the language. There are weird things (like one of the characters referring to the shooter's father as "old Mr. Browne" as if he's some old curmudgeon who turns the hose on the neighbour kids to keep them off his lawn), and the locking of the classroom doors between periods (how long is the break between classes?!), and spiking the milk in the cafeteria with food colouring (not realizing, I guess, that kids in North America usually get individual cartons or bottles that would be pretty much impossible to tamper with). I encountered similar problems with another USA-set book by a Dutch author last year. I really wish authors would either write what they know or do a lot more research.

The verdict...

Overall, this book was a disappointment. In the beginning, I thought it would be getting a fairly high rating from me, but as the pages passed, things just kept deteriorating. I can't really recommend this one. One-dimensional characters, plot holes, and an unrealistic depiction of a school shooting dragged the whole story down.

Quotable moment:

I stand. No one notices me. All eyes are fixed on Ty and his next victim.

"Tyler." My voice is nothing more than a hoarse whisper. I swallow hard. Numbness trickles down my spine to my fingertips.

Murmurs surround me. Heads turn. The broken silence gives me strength. I clear my throat again before Tyler can shoot another student in my stead.

"Tyler. I'm here."

Premise: 3/5
Plot: 2/5
Characters: 1/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 2/5
Originality: 3/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 2.13 out of 5 ladybugs

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday - Ten TV Series That Were A Pleasant Surprise

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is supposed to have a TV theme. Not books? Well, I don't think I'll have much trouble doing this one, since I've done more TV-watching than reading this year.

Yes, I do watch TV. I still have cable, and I watch "mainstream" stations. Ads are annoying and so much of what's on is kind of crappy... but there are still some gems out there, even if they're not always obvious. Here are some of the shows that have pleasantly surprised me, and that I enjoyed (or still enjoy) watching:

Ten TV Series That Were A Pleasant Surprise:

Bob's Burgers
USA, 2011-present

The first time I caught an episode of this show, I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that I was laughing so hard, and I felt like I'd been caught watching something naughty. Despite the crude drawing style, there's something about the Belcher family that seems real... and I love the kids' interactions with their parents. Louise (in the bunny ears) is one of my favourite animated characters.

USA, 2016

This series had been heavily advertised leading up to its premiere, which kind of put me off. But there was nothing else on that night, and I had nothing better to do, so I watched it. Now I'm hooked. The characters are great, the show itself is funny, and it's a welcome bit of lighthearted relief in the midst of a nasty American election cycle. I doubt Republican supporters would like this one... but if you lean to the left even a little bit, you might find this show pretty entertaining. (Does anyone else like the musical recaps at the beginning of the episodes as much as I do?)

USA, 2009-2016

Even though I knew this show was about a writer (yay!) who tagged along with a cop, I wasn't sure I wanted to watch it. I guess I didn't realize how entertaining it would be, or how much I'd come to care about the characters. This was one of my favourite TV shows for the first 3 or 4 seasons. The final season was a complete trainwreck (and I missed much of it, not really caring enough to watch), culminating in one of the most disjointed WTF?! epilogues I've ever seen after the abrupt cancellation of the series. It was a sad ending for a show that had so much potential.

Downton Abbey
UK, 2010-2015

I think we'd been watching something else on PBS and the first episode of this show just came on. It was sort of like, "Hmm... the heir died on the Titanic, and now they're stuck with three daughters and it's all a big kerfuffle. Whatever shall they do?" Well, they did a lot in the 6 seasons of its run, although I almost stopped watching after the end of season 3 (if you're a fan, you can probably guess why). But there were enough plot threads going on that the show was always interesting.

Emergency Room: Life + Death at VGH
Canada, 2014

This is a short documentary series that we happened to stumble across. Think ER... but it's all real. It's shocking, gory, sometimes amusing... but always very, very interesting to see how the emergency room actually works. The last episode I saw had a construction worker who'd attached his jeans to his knee with a nail gun. A barbed nail right through the bone! (Don't watch this show if you're squeamish, obviously.)

The Great British Bake Off (aka The Great British Baking Show)
UK, 2010-present

I don't know how long PBS has been airing this series from across the pond, but I've caught the last two seasons and I'm hooked. I find it to be more "real" than MasterChef (which sometimes seems a bit scripted and over-edited). I love seeing what the contestants come up with!

US, 2004-2010

This was one of those shows that was so hyped up that I wasn't sure I wanted to go anywhere near it. But after the first episode, I was pretty much hooked. I enjoyed it right up until the end. And, yes, I liked the ending. (I also liked the fact that there was an ending at an appropriate point. So many TV shows could and should take their cue from Lost and quit while they're ahead.)

Secrets & Lies
Australia, 2014

Yes, I have seen the American version as well. But I'm glad I saw the original Australian version first, because it was a whole lot better. My mom and I were glued to the TV once a week while this series was playing, wondering who'd killed poor little Thom. While the American version was decent and stuck to the story fairly closely, it didn't seem quite as chilling or realistic to me... especially once the killer's identity was finally revealed.

So You Think You Can Dance
US, 2005-present; Canada, 2008-2011

I have to admit, when I first saw what this show was about, I thought it would be like American Idol but with dancers: a few big talents in a much larger pool of people looking for their 15 minutes of fame. But once I gave this show a try, I realized that the format is quite a bit different; we really only see the talent. And there's so much talent! I was really into dancing when I was little, and I would've loved this show back then. I enjoy watching it now.

Canada had its own version for a few seasons, with incredibly talented dancers. Unfortunately, it wasn't able to bring in enough advertisers to make it viable for the network, and it was cancelled.

X Company
Canada/Hungary, 2015-present

I don't watch a lot of programming on CBC, so I could've easily missed the ads for this TV show that turned out to be one of my favourites. The settings are gorgeous, the storytelling is intense, and the characters are perfectly imperfect. Two seasons in, and I think the writers are trying to give George R. R. Martin a run for his money with character deaths... but it's still an awesome show and I can't wait for the next season to be released.

What are some TV series that pleasantly surprised you?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday - Ten Books Set Outside The US

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is Ten Books Set Outside The US. Are there any? Of course there are. Some genres and age groups seem to be more heavily skewed toward the US, but that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of great books out there that take place somewhere else. Here are some of my favourites:

Ten Books Set Outside The US:

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

Setting: Germany

Nazi Germany in World War II is a setting that's used a lot... but there are so many stories to tell within that setting.
Catherine, Called Birdy
by Karen Cushman

Setting: England

England might not seem like that exciting of a setting, but this is England in the 1290s! As such, it's barely recognizable... but it creates a great backdrop for the characters and their stories.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone
by Laini Taylor

Setting: Prague, Czech Republic

The setting is incidental to this intricate story, but it's still nice to see a place other than some random American city featured as the MC's home. Having her live in a European city adds a little more magic (at least, for those of us who don't live in Europe).
The Dust of 100 Dogs
by A. S. King

Setting: Ireland & Jamaica

This book is partly set in the US, but much of it (through flashbacks) is also set in Ireland. And then the MC jets off to Jamaica. So it's not exactly what I'd call an "American" book.
Free as a Bird
by Gina McMurchy-Barber

Setting: British Columbia, Canada

Like quite a few books on this list, this one is also historical, though it depicts a time in the fairly recent past. It's hard to believe that we treated people with disabilities is such horrible ways... and that we did it within the last century.
The Lake and the Library
by S. M. Beiko

Setting: Manitoba, Canada

Though this wasn't a perfect book by any means, I really enjoyed the story, which is a mix of contemporary and paranormal, set in a small town in Manitoba. I can probably count the number of books I've read that were set on the Canadian Prairies on one hand, so this was a nice find.
Listen, Slowly
by Thanhha Lai

Setting: Vietnam

When I realized this book wasn't a verse novel like the author's first book, I almost put it down. But I'm really glad I didn't because I thoroughly enjoyed this middle-grade story about a California girl who accompanies her grandmother back to Vietnam for the summer.
The Lost Crown
by Sarah Miller

Setting: Russia

I can't pass up a good Romanov book... and this is one of the better ones I've read, a purely historical tale with no added supernatural elements (which seem to be common in books featuring Anastasia).
by Lucy Christopher

Setting: Australia

Although I've seen some Australians complain about the way the Outback is portrayed in this book, to me it seemed very real and weirdly claustrophobic (which is what the story called for).
Tiger Moon
by Antonia Michaelis

Setting: India

This is probably the most fairytale-esque book on my list, with many fantasy elements. Heck, it has a telepathic talking tiger! But it is set in a real place, which appears to be India during British rule.

What are some of your favourite books set outside the USA?