April 13

Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper

9781862303638Historical fiction offers the reader a wonderful opportunity to experience the past lives. Often these are completely imaginary, but Newes from the Dead is based on a true story. There is even an extensive bibliography included with the novel.

The book opens with a 17th century dissection. This was a time when the inner workings of the human body were largely a mystery and doctors rarely had the opportunity to ever see a dissection, let alone perform one. Typically the corpses provided were of criminals hanged for their crimes. But in 1650 a young woman convicted and hanged for infanticide begins to move while the doctors prepare for the demonstration. What follows is an incredible tale of survival, in spite of the medical practices of the time.

Alternate chapters tell Anne’s story. How as a simple, uneducated housemaid she was seduced by the master’s son. She discovers she is pregnant at just about the time the son is betrothed to another wealthy upperclass family. Naturally he denies all responsibility and in her ignorance and innocence, Anne believes that she can keep the pregnancy secret. About 6 months later the baby is stillborn, very premature. However, the laws of the time assume that even stillborn baby has been killed by the mother.

This book provides all kinds of opportunities to experience life in another century. Anne’s life and predicament is very real to the reader. The passages describing the medical treatments are horrific and the legal treatment is even worse.

April 12

Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children by Jen Storer

9780670073399This book had been sitting on my ‘to be reviewed’ mountain for a few months, and it was continually left until later simply because of the silly cover. But last week it was shortlisted for the CBC younger readers prize, so immediately it jumped to the top of the list.

Set just after the end of WWII, this is truly a story of another time and another place. Tensy’s mother dumps her at the steps of a hospital when she is 6 months old. She is found by the laundry man and gathered up with the washing and taken home. The rest of the family is frightened of the consequences of this impulsive decision and force the girl into the Home for Mislaid Children. This home is everything from every nightmare, complete with wicked Matron, drunken Beadle and the ghost that sucks the life from her victims. But Tensy survives and makes friends. Eventually she is instrumental in putting things right in the very unhappy home.

And comment must be made about the angels. Everyone has heard about Guardian Angels, and Hollywood has played with the idea of the incompetent guardian angel. But this book takes that idea to a whole new level. Angels are everywhere, with good intentions but not much luck. This theme gives a simple orphan story a whole level of complexity that holds interest.

I did have a question about the level for this book. On the surface it is very appropriate for upper primary, but I question how many average 11 year olds would ‘get’ the hidden themes. Would they just dismiss the angelic subplot as a distraction? I guess only time will tell.

April 12

Halo by Zizou Corder

9780141331850Before I begin, I will admit that I have never before read anything by Zizou Corder. I know that he is one of the leading children’s authors today, but generally I don’t have to promote his books. Students actively recommend them to each other. However, the selection service that I am using this year chose this book as one of the best published in the first few weeks of 2010. Since I promised myself that I was going to read everything off this list, I started Halo yesterday. Yes, yesterday.

Set in ancient Greece, a baby girl is washed ashore after a shipwreck. She is found by Centaurs and raised as one of their own. Ten years later she is captured by slavers and taken to the mainland where she escapes and tries to make her way home. Quickly she finds that life as a Greek girl is very restricted, so if she intends to move freely, she will have to become a boy, at least in dress and demeanor. Eventually she (as a boy) experiences two of the major cultures in ancient Greece, the life in Sparta and Athens. When the two cities go to war, Halo is caught in the middle with friends on both sides of the conflict.

I found there were lots of inconsistencies and even more convenient coincidences. I mean the number of times that Halo just happened to run into Leonidas was almost funny. And the ending was just too perfect. But I suspect that Corder had an upper primary student in mind as he was writing, and publishers to love those happy-ever-after endings for kids.

In spite of these restrictions, though, Corder did try to provide some serious historical facts. For example, the Spartan training regime for children was graphic and an important part of the story. The Skythian cavalry is also historically accurate.

I can see why this book is so popular.

April 12

Headgames by Casey Lever

Headgames_cover.inddEvery now and then I read a book for young adults that I find strangely disturbing. This book is certainly about the cruelty of adolescents. But it also about the intensely fierce friendships that they form.

Steven is academically smart, but socially very innocent. He has had a crush on Avery for years, and is totally unable to accept her repeated rejection. He discovers that she is getting involved in a long term game, and he is determined to join. The game is far more than he expects, a serious game of Truth or Dare, and one of the players has already been to prison. When you play truth or dare with people you don’t know, or those who actively dislike you, it can be confronting. Even worse happens if you drag your best friend into the game, and then force him to admit a secret he would rather keep hidden. Stephen Byrd is in for a few hard life lessons.

This book was a very quick read, probably because I couldn’t put it down. Anyone involved with adolescents knows very well that they can thoughtlessly cruel to each other. Oftentimes no offence is meant, but the comments cut deep. This book encourages every reader to think carefully about how their comments can hurt others.

This will be a very good book for those who like stark, realistic fiction.

April 12

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

9780718155193The formal reviews that I have seen for this book are very negative. They claim the book lacks focus and planning, and even plot. Bookshops can’t decide whether it is for adult fantasy readers or young adults. But the copies in the library have been walking off the shelf and getting very positive comments, so it was time I read it for myself and made up my own mind.

Thomas Cale was kidnapped at a very young age and sent to the Sanctuary of the Redeemers. There he was enslaved and beaten, forcing him to submit to the Lord Redeemers who believe that cruelty and violence are the best ways to force others to believe in the One True Faith. But Cale is not broken, he continually bends the rules. Until one day he opens a door to find the Lord of Discipline dissecting a living girl. Horrified, he kills the Lord and escapes. The remainder of this book is about his escape and it’s consequences.

Now I will agree that this book does have some faults. It would have benefited from more editing. Characters appear and disappear without logical reason. There are so many obviously important tokens that it seems like a computer game, how much do you collect for later. But I think young adult readers can happily accept these faults and remain aware of the bigger picture.

But there are also a lot of things I like about it. Firstly, I love the ‘corruption’ of the terminology, Redeemers are wicked and cruel, the sanctuary is a prison, etc. I also believe that the One True Faith is a lot like medieval Christianity, and perhaps Hoffman is asking the reader to think about the consequences of such violence. Personally, I prefer fantasy that leaves the non-stop adventure long enough to make the reader think about the real world.

April 12

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

9780141326085Not another vampire romance! Certainly that is promised by the blurb. But I am seriously trying to inject some discipline into my reading, so this book was next! Thank goodness this blurb was very misleading.

Set in the deep South of the US, this book covers about 150 days in the lives of two young people who appear destined to be together. As the book opens, Ethan is suffering from nightmares where he is trying to rescue a girl who is falling, but never succeeds. Imagine his surprise when that very same girl walks into his school, claiming to live in the local ‘haunted house’. From that day, Ethan is caught up in a world of voodoo, magic, deception and ancient evil.

This was a great read. The setting in the deep South was perfect, a small town almost trapped in time and linked to the Civil War. The supporting characters of Amma and Macon are very credible and that in itself makes the story live.  And personally, I loved all the references to To Kill a Mockingbird. Every now and then it made me stop and think about what the authors were really trying to say.

No this is not another vampire romance, in spite of the blurb. It is about two young people caught up in the magic of love. Yes, some of the characters have supernatural power. But this book is also very much about prejudice and what it does to a community. It is about the power of love and the sacrifice that is sometimes necessary.

As you can probably tell, I loved it.

April 12

Loving Richard Feynman by Penny Tangey

9780702237256For once this year I need to read every single one of the CBC shortlist for 2009. So I guess I can look forward to reading some really good stuff for teenagers. Certainly this little book is delightful.

Catherine is a 15 year old maths/science nerd. The family motto is ‘question everything’, and she does. That process certainly puts her outside the ‘in’ group at school. In fact she is regarded as something of a freak. And then she finds out about Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize winning physicist who also seemed not to care about what others thought. He becomes her hero and she devours everything she can find out about him.

At the same time Catherine is ‘in training’ for a statewide maths competition. When a new boy to the school is added to the team, Catherine is very put out because she no longer appears to be ‘the best’. Life is really falling apart. But then somehow it all goes back together again.

I really liked this book. Certainly as a science teacher I was always going to be prejudiced in its favour. But I can still remember what it was like at high school when I was good at maths and science. Catherine’s voice seemed very strong and very real.

I also liked the subtlety in the text. It is written as a series of letters to Feynman, and therefore short ‘chapters’ each moving the plot forward. For a long time I was jumping all the introductory bits and leaping into the story, but gradually I worked out the those introductory bits were important and had to go back. At it is rare for a young adult novel to stand up to the scrutiny of re-reading.

I also had some difficulty deciding what age level to recommend for this. The general rule of thumb says two years younger than the main character, and there is certainly nothing unsuitable for lower secondary. But somehow I think the themes will be more important to middle secondary.

Will it win the CBC prize? Of course, I haven’t read any of the others yet, so I could easily be wrong, but I don’t think it provides a challenge to convention that can be found in so many award winning books.

April 4

Tempted by PC and Kristen Cast

9781905654581

Before you go any further, be warned, if you haven’t read the first 5 books in the House of Night Series you need to go online and go through some plot summaries. Even so, there are inevitably going to be spoilers as this review is about book 6.

The story so far? Zoey is a new vampire, and her first year in her new school has been anything but boring. You see, Zoey is also the High Priestess in training. But in book 5, that training came to an abrupt end when the current High Priestess raises a demon with the obvious intention of world domination. So does that make Zoey the real high priestess? Anyway the last book finished in a big battle where the combined spiritual power of the Church, the Cherokee tradition and the vampires faithful to Nyx, their goddess, simply to protect the innocent. Where on earth is Zoey going to find the ability and strength to defeat Neferet and Kalona once and for all? Well, I will warn you, this book keeps the secret.

In fact I was wondering how the authors were going to raise the tension once again. Everyone knows that in a long series each book has to outdo the last. And the big battle scene is saved for the very end of the very last book. So after the battle, where is book 6 going? Actually it is retreating slightly and adjusting the focus on the cast of characters. They also changed the voice slightly, allowing each of the central characters to tell their own story. I liked that change, and it felt comfortable.

Yes, I do like this series. Although it doesn’t have the market share of Twilight, I actually prefer the stronger female characters. And the twist to the traditional vampire mythology works, at least in my view. I have a few problems with Oklahoma as the hellmouth, but I guess the authors are comfortable there.

However, I do have a serious objection to the ending of this book. Saturday afternoon serials and television series final episodes can have cliffhangers, but not books! I want Burned, and I want it now.

April 4

The Executor by Jesse Kellerman

9781847443823OK, I admit it. I have been bypassing all the books by the Kellerman children since they first appeared. I have been a regular reader of Mum and Dad’s books and made the incorrect assumption that the kids were just copycats. But a few months ago I missed out on requesting my review books and so this month I have been treated to the publicists choices for me.Well, this book just proves how wrong one can be.

Joseph Geist is a man alone. He is a real Doctor of Philosophy, well almost. He just needs to finish his dissertation, but that has been growing for years. Now his girlfriend has thrown him out and he is literally living from hand to mouth totally unqualified and uninterested in anything resembling a real job. But then he sees an advert for the perfect job. Wanted: a conversationalist. If nothing else all his years of study qualify him to make intelligent conversation. From the day he applies for the job, his life changes. But then his employer dies…

This is not a formula crime thriller. In fact it isn’t even a thriller until the final quarter of the book. It is far more an analysis of a man’s life, his loneliness and his desperation. The reader really gets to know Joseph Geist. And that makes the final pages even more engrossing.

Some readers may find the sudden change of gear disconcerting. Once the action starts you really don’t have time to draw breath. But I found it a real adrenaline rush. But be warned, once you hit the gear change, you will not put the book down until then end, no matter how important that meeting is. Fortunately I could be late for work that day.

This book was so good that I could leave Jonathan Kellerman’s new books in the review queue while I hunt up the backlist for Jesse. Thank you to the publicist.

April 4

Hunted by PC and Kristen Cast

9781905654574I told you I had read a lot of these adolescent vampire series. Well for now consider this proof.

Hunted is book five in the Cast family’s House of Night series. Zoey, for once, is without boyfriend, although there is an interesting archer introduced in this book. In fact, she is very much alone, depending on her circle of friends and the Stevie Rae’s undead fledglings for support. But she is rapidly becoming a High Priestess, with all the power, insight and authority that comes with the position. As Neferet becomes more and more involved with evil powers, Zoey discovers that she has the strength to stand up to her mentor. Perhaps not alone, but that has been a continuing theme in the series, but by enlisting the spiritual powers from many different faiths, it is certainly possible that good can overcome evil.

This is well and truly the best book of the series so far. It is far more than just a vampire romance. The theme of spiritual strength and the power of good is strong, but doesn’t overpower the action. In fact, the battle scene in this book is one of the best in all the different series that I have read. Not necessarily because of the battle tactics or the numbers of soldiers, but simply because of the power of each individual that unites with the others for success. It is hard to say more without giving away the storyline. Just take it from me, read it. And then be prepared for the battle scene to stick in your mind for weeks.