Sunday, November 27, 2011



by Gary Paulsen

Gary Paulsen's Hatchet is a much-read, much-recommended Newbery honor book from 1988. It has sequels about Brian's further adventures, also much-read by many, many boys. So many readers have been fascinated with the survival adventures and the hardships that Brian goes through as he struggles his way out of the wilderness that Paulsen has had, over the years, stacks of letters asking him about various aspects of the book. Has he ever tried to start a fire the way Brian did? Do moose really attack people? Can a plane really crashland the way Brian's did and leave a survivor? Finally, he decided to write about some of his own experiences and how they came to form the ones Brian has in Hatchet.

This book is incredible, in that it is full of crazy experiences that are all drawn from Paulsen's real life. The man has seen a lot. A lot of death - by sharks, deer, or freezing alive. A lot of wilderness, where he hunted, camped, and learned some of the secrets of the forest and the animals, and how to use those to survive out there. A lot of brutal cold, on two Iditarod races. And a lot of hunting, which he talks about in great detail, talking about the differences between hunting with guns versus bows, and how he came to make his own bow and arrows as a young man. It's stuff from another time and place, except that some of it is not in fact that far removed by time or geography, but rather style of living.

The most interesting thing about it all, really, is maybe that Paulsen isn't being sensational about any of it. The deaths and hunting are not relished, he is factual, and shows plainly that he has enormous respect for the animals he hunts for food and for the forces of nature. His lifetime of experiences have been well-selected and boiled down to create Hatchet, and as he walks us through these times in his life and relates them back to the book, I found myself completely amazed at the varied, tough, and extremely full life he's led. Very much a worthwhile read for anyone who enjoyed Hatchet or more classic stories like those of Jack London.

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Friday, October 28, 2011


The Geek Girl's Guide to Cheerleading

by Charity Tahmaseb & Darcy Vance

What starts out as a sort of social experiment to test the fairness of cheerleading tryouts leads geek girls Bethany and Moni into entirely new territory when they find themselves members of the squad.

There are crushes on popular boys that seem to be coming to fruition, some acceptance among the popular clique girls, but also clashes with the worst of them, an ex-friend who resents not only the new status of these two rising stars, but also the attention they are getting from those most crushable boys.

Add in that Moni seems determined never to go back, going over so far into the world of the clique that it comes between the two girls, and Bethany is not too sure how this will ever end well.

Things work out, mostly, of course - this is, after all, a nice light read, but it also raises a few issues along the way, and I quite like Bethany, the main character. I'd recommend it as a somewhat meater bit of chicklit, definitely.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011


Scott Pilgrim

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life
Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness
Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together

Scott Pilgrim vs The Universe

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour

by Bryan Lee O'Malley

This set of graphic novels set in Toronto follow Scott Pilgrim in his pursuit of becoming the boyfriend of Ramona Flowers and, as required, defeat her evil ex-boyfriends, all seven of them. Sounds strange? Well, yes, but it makes more sense when you realize that it is set up much like a video game, with each book as a level, and the defeat of each boyfriend an objective that earns Scott points toward his final goal. Better?

That framework also helps explain the crazy fight scene between Ramona and Knives Chau, who Scott first dates briefly, that is held, of all wonderful things, in the Toronto Reference Library. Seriously. It is a delight to Toronto readers that the city figures so prominently and recognizably, but it doesn't limit the readership, either. It's a bit nonsensical, a little rambling, and a whole lot of crazy, mixed-up fun with characters you mostly like, even in their douchey moments, and they do have them.

I like the drawing style, a fairly comic style that keeps the fight scenes jokey and the characters seeming fun even when they have their moments. Having read the series, I can see that Michael Cera might just be the most inspired choice to play Scott Pilgrim, as he was cast - it's sitting on my shelf waiting for a viewing now.

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by Jerry Spinelli

Like many high schools, things are pretty typical in Leo's high school. So when a strange hippie chick in a range of weird costumes shows up and starts singing to people in the cafeteria, cheering for the other team, and generally acting like all the unspoken norms and rules don't apply to her.

For a while, people aren't sure what to make of her. Eventually, they embrace her, and a wave of individualism sweeps through the school. Leo optimistically daydreams of a new dawn, until the tide begins to turn. When their sports team begins to win for the first time ever, people suddenly start to care that Stargirl, as she calls herself, cheers for the other players as much as she does for their own, and start to view her as a traitor. The shunning is complete and Leo, her boyfriend, gradually notices it and finds himself swayed, as well, beginning to be embarrassed by the very things that he once admired.

This book doesn't go for the happy ending, as a movie or an episode of Glee would, with everyone discovering her wonderful heart again at the end, though there is a glimmer of hope. Instead, it goes deeper, and Leo finds himself talking with a wise old friend of his about the nature of her and him and the stuff of stars and stargirls. There are lessons here, to be sure, but they are imparted with a sort of longing and a mystical feel that keeps them from being earnest or preachy. In the end, Leo looks back wistfully, and still full of more questions than answers.

Note: there is a followup as well, Love, Stargirl, that I will be adding to my to-read pile, as I am curious how a sequel to this would unfold.

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Does My Head Look Big in This?

by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Amal is a pretty average girl living in Australia, though she is pretty new at her snooty prep school, and it's a bit strange after being at a school that was rooted in the Muslim community for years. Despite wanting to blend in at McLean, she decides over the holidays to start wearing the hijab as a step farther into living her faith as a fuller part of her life. This is not met without resistance, let's just say...

Her parents, to begin with, are concerned about the opposition they fear she will encounter, and worry that it may hold her back because of how she will be perceived by others. Their worries aren't unfounded, and she does indeed encounter some nasty moments along the way. Her principal is not on board, to begin with, though her parents convince her to allow the addition to the school uniform.

Her own biggest worries come with her return to school and the dog-eat-dog social world of high school. For one thing, she is already a target of mean girl Tia and her friends. For another, she has a major crush on school cutie Adam. She has some rock-solid friends, but they do have some issues of their own that they are wrestling with, making Amal's struggles to fit in as an identifiably Muslim girl in a very white school only one of the issues that this book covers.

Amal is smart and sassy, and determined not to be defined or limited by people's perceptions. She sets out to inform the people who make clueless comments about the differences and similarities between Islam and other major religions, and to point out stereotypes and assumptions where they rear their ugly heads. She wins some people over this way - including Adam, who suddenly presents a new problem, when she realizes that what part of her wants, another part does not, for she is level-headed enough to remember that her religious beliefs about intimacy are more important to her than what her heart is telling her she wants with him.

In the end, the book sets out to expose and correct a lot of ignorant beliefs and assumptions, and does a fine job of it. The characters are likeable, and have the reader with them the whole way. And best of all, the author manages to make several good points, and make them strongly, without sacrificing any of the fun in this moving book about growing up Muslim in Australia to her message.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011


A Northern Light

by Jennifer Donnelly

This is one of those books I had heard about for years, from many people whose opinions I respect immensely, but never seemed to get to, until just now. It's a period piece, which is not always my style, and it's a weighty read, which for a slower reader like myself can be off-putting when my reading pile is so very tall, but I"m glad I finally took the time to delve into it.

The book opens with Mattie Gokey working at a summer holiday spot in upstate New York, where a body has just been pulled from the lake. The victim had given Mattie some letters to destroy before she went out on the fatal boat ride, and now Mattie has some choices to make as she uncovers some truths in those letters. This story unfolds in chapters that alternate with the chapters about how Mattie came to work there, despite the wishes of her stern father and an engagement that should have seen her home.

Mattie, we learn, is a bright girl who should, in the opinion of her teacher and best friend, be bound for a scholarship she has won at Barnard College with the assistance of her inspiring (but, it turns out, scandalous) teacher. She wants it so badly she can taste it, yet the money to get there seems impossible and worse, her father won't give her permission to go and leave him and her younger sisters behind. She is already torn between wishes and responsibility when Royal gets in the mix, asking her to marry him, and she is pulled in yet another direction by his handsome, solid self. Add to this the trials of her dearest friend, who sees the dreams he longs for fiercely go up in smoke, and in the end, she learns a few hard truths about men and women, about love and duty and destiny.

Mattie is one of those great girl characters, the ones full of spunk and longing and fight, the ones who we root for the whole way, whose frustrations are our frustrations, and she is the core of what makes this book great. There's a lot here, though. A lot about girls and position, a lot about what we want and why, a lot about living in another time, when you were defined by what you looked like and were told not to fight it.

All this, the experience, the realness of it, and the depth of the characters make for a read that pulls you in and stays with you well after you've closed the cover. Highly recommended, and a Printz Honor Book, to boot.

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Junk / Smack

by Melvin Burgess
***(This book has been published under both titles.)

Melvin Burgess is the kind of writer who manages to take on anything and make it compelling reading - really, the reason that I wanted to read this book. He can the write the impossible so that it's believable, the creepy so that it's chilling yet not unthinkable, and in this case, the big issue in a way that neither sensationalizes nor minimizes.

This book is about junk - as in heroin - and a pair of kids who fall into using it. Well, one of them falls in, following the other, who rather jumps headlong into it as an adventure. Which is kind of how their relationship is, really - she leading blithely, he following, even though he is the one with the true problems at home. It's her thirst for something new that leads them to run away, to move out with some users, and to start themselves.

Once they start using, Burgess presents a pretty balanced picture about what the appeal is, the hold the cravings have over them, the unappealing things they do to keep that next score in sight, and the lies they tell themselves to make it seem okay. In the end, they do strive to clean up and return to a different life, and we see glimpses of where their stories will lead, some endings happier than others.

Over it all, though, is Burgess' writing, less showy here than in some of his books, but solid, unflinching, and a real enough voice to speak directly to teens and the questions they might have about this drug and the life that too often goes with it.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011


Noah Barleywater Runs Away

by John Boyne
978 0 385 67597 0

Something is wrong at Noah's home, and he decides to run away. He's not being mistreated, it's made clear, but the nature is a mystery that some readers will guess at before it is revealed at the end.

In any case, he is now on the road and encounters some strange people and situations along the way, landing finally at a strange toyshop built under a most unusual tree. There, he meets an old man who seems to understand a great deal about him. By the end of a very odd and thought-provoking day of magical happenings and meandering discussion, Noah has learned enough to change his perspective and decide to return home, and the reader has learned enough to piece together the pieces of this fairy-tale-inspired story.

The ending is satisfying, if not as surprising as it might have hoped to be, and the read has a decidedly fairy-tale quality, as mentioned above. How well it all worked, though, I'm not certain. I think it is perhaps too old for most children, or too determinedly offbeat, but that is John Boyne's style, and to be honest, I didn't love his famous title The Boy in Striped Pajamas, either. I have to call this one a book that some will enjoy and some not, because I really believe it's a case where taste will dictate more than anything whether you walk away liking it or not.

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by Avi
Harper Trophy
978 0 380 72769 8

This is one of those classics I've always thought I should read, and a favourite of many. It finally jumped off a shelf at me, and I took it home (no really, it did, when I pulled down something else for a patron!).

It's not the first of the series, as I had figured it would be, but a followup to Ragweed. Thankfully, it is not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this one, and I really didn't feel that I was missing much background starting here.

Poppy is a small mouse who lives in a field under the sadistic control of an owl who restricts their movements and eats them for any infraction. Not that he wouldn't eat them anyhow, but he enjoys their terror and gives them the illusion of safety and choice to play with them. Terrible stuff, but handled deftly, this.

After the owl eats Poppy's boyfriend and denied her family permission to move to a larger home with more food, Poppy takes matters into her own hands, and sets out to find out more about this new home. The owl, Mr. Ocax, is both panicked and enraged by her defiance, and tries to stop her, but she allies herself with a grouchy porcupine who helps her avoid him as she finds out what has Mr. Ocax so scared and returns to her family home. By the time she gets there, she has made fast friend of Ereth the porcupine, and Mr. Ocax has died, never to harrass the mice again, who can now move as they please. The scene is set for the next book of the five-book series.

These are fantastic animal tales in the vein of Redwall or the Rats of Nimh, with the small overthrowing the mighty, and the valiant taking the day. It's got some scary bits, of course, but on the whole is written to be pretty accessible even to grade two or three kids, if they are not the easily frightened type, like my girl is.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011


Punk 101

Punk is a catchall title that covers subgenres widely ranging from Ramonescore to Grindcore to Queercore, and is hotly debated by its listeners, whether or not they live one "punk" lifestyle or another - and again, there are many. With punk being so hard to pin down, it should come as no surprise that while these two teen books both caught my eye for their otensible punk theme, they are wildly different.

So Punk Rock
by Micol Ostow

ISBN: 9780738714714

Ari is a serious music lover, and also in dire need of some cool points, especially since his best friend Jonas is one of those effortlessly charismatic types who overshadows him at every turn. In pursuit of rock stardom, they drag in a few other classmates along the way, act like jerks to each other at times, and of course, learn a few valuable lessons by the end - but not too much of the lesson stuff.

Ari also attends a Jewish day school with his friends, and references to their shared culture abound, from co-opting the term "kosher" to mean cool to mentions of bar mitzvahs, bagels, bubelehs, and the like. It's great fun, and makes the character come to life even as he pokes fun at his own stereotypical family and school settings.

The short graphic interludes and notebook drawings add another dimension to the novel and the character, and introduce David Ostow's art, as well. A great pick for a reluctant reader or a teen who wants some funny in a light, music-themed read.

Mosh Pit
by Kristyn Dunnion
Red Deer Press
ISBN: 9780889952928

Simone, a young lesbian punk is at the centre of this rough, raw story of living on the edge. She has a lingering loyalty to Cherry, her self-destructive, addicted best friend who she is in love with, despite her manipulation and recent alliance with a nasty, violent dealer. She is at the same time falling for Carol, a streetsmart tranny with a heart of gold, who also happens to be wise enough to know that Simone has a long way to go to be ready for a real relationship with her.

Simone does has a circle of tight friends like Hardcore Hank, Velvetine, and Diesel, who all help her at the worst times, including after she is badly beaten by a cop, and want the best for her. In the end, they save her and help her find a way back to okay after a horrific run-in with Cherry and her psycho boyfriend that nearly has her and her friend's little niece killed in a park. Seriously.

This is most emphatically not a book for the faint of heart, but a reader looking for a gritty read about offbeat characters that you can root for will find plenty of friendship and violence in equal measure here.

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Friday, July 22, 2011


Emily the Strange: Stranger and Stranger

by Rob Reger and Buzz Parker

I've always kind of loved Emily the Strange... but until not that long ago, she was mostly a vague character to me. The new series of half-graph novels/diaries are delving further into the world and mind of Emily, and giving me a whole new appreciation. Being based on an already-successful character, these didn't have to be great to sell - but they are pretty darn good, to be honest. Way better than they have to be, which is a real treat to find!

This second installment is not quite as great as the first (my review of The Lost Days here), but still interesting and as amusingly twisted as you could hope for. This time, Emily successfully duplicates herself, only to find her mother initially unreceptive to this new twin, and soon enough, she isn't feeling so keen on the idea anymore either, as she discovers that this twin is more EvilMe than Emily, and has not only stolen her dark side, but her skating skills! She seeks help from her neighbour, a former spy trainer, and eventually hatches a plan to get rid of the twin and regain what she's lost...

As with The Lost Days, the book is funny, and Emily has unexpected cool little quirks that make her even more awesome. Definitely a worthwhile read, even for those who are not hardcore fans of the Strange!

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