Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The always war by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Tessa lives in a world of rationing and sacrifice, where the effort of her entire country is focused on supporting the war effort.  It is a hard life and the world around her is dull and grey, the buildings, the people, and the future.  The one bright spark is that her neighbourhood has a new hero, a neighbourhood boy who has been to war and returned a hero - or so they all think.  Something is not right with Gideon though, and on the day of his ceremony he declares he was a coward and runs away.  When Tessa follows him she finds herself on a journey that will change her life forever.

The always war is another absorbing and thought provoking read from Margaret Peterson Haddix.  Almost more a novella than a true novel, the story is short and concise but has some amazing moments.  It seems as though so many books lately are about dystopian futures, and so many of them seem to be churning through the same storylines - desolate future, small communities controlled by something, maybe a boarding school or two.  The always war breaks away from this tradition, offering a different kind of dystopia, one where we could be in a very short space of time, a place we could face within our lifetimes.

Without giving away the story too much, Haddix has created a world that is our not too distant future, and it looks as though the story is set in a future America - but the names have changed and not being American limits some of my understanding of the lakes mentioned in the story.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and hope that Haddix continues to write thought provoking and readable novels for many years to come.

If you like this book then try:
  • The walls have eyes by Clare B. Dunkle
  • Star split by Kathryn Lasky
  • Inside out by Maria V. Snyder
  • Genesis by Bernard Beckett
  • Sleeper code by Tom Sniegoski
  • Boy soldier by Andy McNabb and Robert Rigby

Reviewed by Brilla

Dhampir by Barb & J.C. Hendee

Magiere and her partner Leesil travel from village to village, killing the Undead that plague the nearby lands.  But the well run partnership is a con, with Magiere "killing" Leesil in each village with a stage show that leaves everyone convinced she has really done the deed.  It is a life they have lived for years, but one night the con becomes too real when a creature attacks Magiere and just about kills her.  Sick of their travelling lifestyle Magiere announces that she is moving to a tavern she has purchased, that her days of killing are over. 

It seems as though their days on the road are over, with Leesil and his dog offered a place in the tavern it seems as though they have nothing left to worry about - apart from keeping the tavern running and staying in profit.  But killing the strange man in the woods triggers a series of events that will force Magiere to accept some unpleasant possibilities - the least of which is the fact that vampires are very real, and not as easy to kill as her little road show has led people to think.

It is a little difficult to review this book without giving away too much about the story or where it is heading, as Dhampir is the first book in the Noble Dead series and a lot of the novel is about setting the scene for the future novels and future of the main characters.  It is well written and some of the mythologies are a refreshing change from the same old, same old that you can get with some vampire novels.  Magiere is also a refreshing change from some of the "heroes" of those series as she is a flawed human being (like the rest of us) - at least most of the time.  Leesil is an interesting character in his own right, and provides a strong support for both the partnership and for the novel.  Chap the dog is also interesting with little hints dropped about what he really might be, because he is definitely not just a dog.

This is the second time I have read Dhampir, the first time being about five years ago.  Sometimes re-reading a novel can leave you feeling a little like you have seen it all before, but this was like reading it for the first time and I cruised through it in a day, not wanting to put it down.  At least the first few sequels were also good and a worthwhile read.

If you like this book then try:
  • Blood price by Tanya Huff
  • Children of the night by Mercedes Lackey
  • Thief of lives by Barb & J.C.Hendee
  • Cry wolf by Patricia Briggs
  • Angels blood by Nalini Singh
  • Moon called by Patricia Briggs
  • Dead witch walking by Kim Harrison

Reviewed by Brilla

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann

Alex and his brother Aaron live in the world of Quill, where on their thirtenth birthday every child is sorted according to their future value to Quill.  The Wanteds are destined for University and a bright future amongst the leaders of Quill.  The Necessaries help to keep things working in Quill, working the farms and doing the hard labour that supports the Wanteds.  Last of all are the Unwanted, the creative minds that disturb the balance of quiet, dull, boring Quill.  Each year the Unwanteds are sent away to be Eliminated.  This year Alex knows his fate before he hears it, he has known he will be Unwanted for some time, but it is a dreadful shock when Aaron is declared a Wanted.  Taken away with all the other Unwanteds, Alex thinks he is going to his death but instead he finds himself under the care of Mr. Today, a strange man who keeps his world of Artime a secret.

Artime is not the fate that Alex or any of the other Unwanteds expected, and it is a shock for all of them to realise that the very acts that made them outcasts and reviled in the land of Quill are encouraged in the land of Artime, and that if they hone their skills they can even become weapons.  As Alex settles into the routines of Artime and his new life, he can't help but wonder about Aaron and what is happening to those left behind, but in his desire to connect with his brother again Alex may place all of Artime in terrible danger.  If Artime is ever discovered for what it really is then all of them are in terrible danger, and if Alex gives in to the need to see his brother then he may expose them all.

The Unwanteds is a fantastic read, a change of pace from a lot of the fantasy written at the moment.  There are no cliches - there are some stock standard characters like the hero and the villain, but the world is also populated with fantastical creatures that you will find nowhere else.  While at times the wording or turn of phrase is a little awkward, overall this is one of the most readable books I have read this year for the 9-13 year old age group.  Alex is a fantastic character, and the cast around him is full of life, laughter, talent, and loss.  There is a feeling like this could be the first book in a series, but it also finished in such a way that you are left feeling very satisfied with the ending.  At times it does feel a little like this was written as a screen play as it would translate quite easily to the screen, but it also reads so well that you don't really mind.

A fun read for all ages, but not recommended for younger readers as there is a battle scene that may leave them a little uneasy - it is not full of graphic violence as such, but it is a realistic battle with loses and some fights that may make younger readers a little upset.  While this may be an easy read for some teenagers, if you know a teenager who loves fantasy but struggles a little with their reading then this may be a good suggestion - it is engaging but not too challenging.

If you like this book then try:
  • The half men of O by Maurice Gee
  • Rowan of Rin by Emily Rodda
  • Northwood by Brian Falkner
  • Harry Potter and the philosophers stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Spellbinder by Helen Stringer
  • Ella enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
  • Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Reviewed by Brilla

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Variant by Robison Wells

Benson Fisher is a foster kid who seems to have landed on his feet.  Filling in the scholarship application seemed like a way out of the life he was living, an end to bouncing from foster home to foster home, and an escape from the latest home where he is supposed to be grateful that he has been put to work in the family business without any pay.  But Maxfield Academy is not what he was expecting, and nothing can prepare him for the world he is about to enter. 

There are no teachers on the campus, no adults what so ever.  The classes are taught by other students, and the pattern of the classes makes no sense.  The other students are just as wrong - formed into three different groups calling themselves gangs who seem to have sorted the way the school runs between themselves.  It is a very different world, one where attempts to escape are punished with detention - a death sentence reserved for the worst offences at the school.  Determined to escape, Benson soon finds himself tangled in the world of the school - it's politics, it's friendships, and it's secrets.  But will he discover the darkest secret of all before it is too late?

This is the first book in a new series, and if the rest of the series is as explosive and action packed as this first novel then readers are in for a treat.  There are lots of great things to recommend about Variant - it is deftly written without all the overbearing and O.T.T descriptions that weighs down so many young adult novels, the characters are well defined without any characters being too unbelievable, the pace is just right which keeps you going as the tension builds, and the ending is the perfect "what the?" ending, keeping you on the edge of your seat waiting for the next book in the series.  While Variant may appeal slightly more to boys because the lead character Benson is a boy, it will keep anyone interested in a really good read on the edge of their seats and wishing they could read it in one session.

Highly recommended, and hopefully we won't have to wait too long for the sequel to be released.

If you like this book then try:
  • Hunger games by Suzanne Collins
  • Among the hidden by Margaret Patterson Haddix
  • Arrival by Chris Morphew
  • Legend by Marie Lu
  • Inside out by Maria V.Snyder
  • Tomorrow, when the war began by John Marsden
  • Shatter me by Tahereh Mafi
  • Virals by Kathy Reichs

Reviewed by Brilla

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

Mara Dyer and her family have moved from New York to Miami after the death of her best friend and two other friends in a building collapse that Mara miraculously survives.  Since the accident Mara has been unable to remember what happened, but in her nightmares she has vague memories of things that happen, and when she is awake she sees her dead friends in the mirror and other impossible places.  The move to Miami is meant to be a new start, a place where she can leave the past behind and focus on a new future, but the past wont let her go and Mara finds herself teetering on the edge of sanity.  It doesn't help that one of the girls at her new school seems to have it in for her, or that ones of the teachers seems to have it in for her too. 

The one speck of light in her life is Noah, who makes everything feel different.  Despite the fact that everyone in school thinks he is only after one thing (and once he gets it he'll be gone) Mara can't help but fall under his spell, despite all the alarm bells that go off in her head.  As her life gets more challenging Mara begins to understand more about what happened that night in the ruins of the old asylum, and she learns more about what she is really capable of.  While she struggles to understand what is happening, Mara has no idea that danger is stalking her and her family, and if she can't find her balance and figure out what is really happening it may be too late - too late for her, and those around her.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this book when I picked it up - the reviews implied that it was some kind of supernatural love story, while the opening page implied it was more of a crime novel.  The truth lies somewhere in the middle, with this deftly written book drawing together themes from a variety of genre and blending them together to form a novel that is startling - both in concept and story.  Mara is not your typical heroine, but she is also not your typical anti-heroine either.  The characters around her could easily have become cliches and ridiculous, but even the characters that are a cliche just seem to click into place and work well.  When the big revelation comes it was not quite what I was expecting which was fabulous as it made the rest of the book a really absorbing read rather than just the same old same old.

This is a challenging read, mostly because it is over 400 pages long, but also because Michelle Hodkin has not dumbed down the language for her teen audience - and this book is definitely one that has a cross over into the adult market as well.  Absorbing, gripping, and satisfying I can't wait for the promised sequel to come out so I can find out what happens next for Mara and those around her.

If you like this book then try:
  • Numbers by Rachel Ward
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
  • Subject seven by James A. Moore
  • Thyla by Kate Gordon
  • Summon the keeper by Tanya Huff
  • Rosebush by Michele Jaffe
  • Raven's gate by Anthony Horowitz
  • City of bones by Cassandra Clare

Reviewed by Brilla

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thunder dog: The true story of a blind man, his guide dog, and the triumph of trust at ground zero by Michael Hingson with Susy Flory

Michael Hingson and his guide dog Roselle were on the 78th floor of Tower 1 when the planes flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  This book is a blend of their story as they walked the 1,463 steps to escape the tower, and the story of a person who grew up in a family that didn't let his blindness stop him from living a full life.  It is a deeply moving story for so many reasons, and is more than just a memoir or a biography, it is a window into the world of an extraordinary partnership that stayed strong through a devastating and confusing event that was felt around the world.

I have read a lot of books this year that provide an account of the life shared by a handler and their assistance dog, and each one has been unique and portrayed the way their various disabilities have affected their lives.  Some have been working with dogs for years, like Michael Hingson who has worked with several guide dogs before partnering with Roselle, while for others the dog they are working with is their first dog.  As I have said in other reviews of similar books, it seems as though publishing memoirs of people with disabilities and the dogs that help them has become the favourite thing for publishers to do at the moment, ranging from stories about children with autism spectrum disorder through to people with more traditional assistance dogs such as guide dogs.

Some memoirs have drifted from the path of the story, providing lots of background information that can at times be a little distracting, or they bounce from past to presence leaving you a little confused about where you are at in their life story.  Thunder dog is expertly written, blending together the story of 9/11 with the story of Michael's life, mostly alternating chapters to bring you up to speed about how Michael ended up where he did, while also providing a much needed breather from the emotional and sometimes draining description of what happened on that day. 

This was not an easy read, because while the book describes events as they unfold, as a reader (even one from New Zealand - the other side of the world) I can remember the horror of watching the news and seeing the planes flying into the towers, then watching the towers collapse, and worst of all watching the devastating aftermath as people searched for loved ones amongst the chaos.  Each step of the way you know what is coming next, and experiencing what happened along with Michael adds an authenticity to events, something that you could never gain through watching events on the television.

This is a highly recommended book and while the first thing you see when you open the book is an article written by Michael because Roselle died earlier this year, the book is full of hope and life.  Michael Hingson is a fantastic ambassador for guide dog users, but also for people with a disability who are living a full life without letting their disability control their lives. 

If you like this book then try:
  • Emma and I by Sheila Hocken
  • A dog named Slugger: the true story of the friend who changed my world by Leigh Brill
  • Hearing dog: The story of Jenny and Connie by Angela Locke and Jenny Harmer
  • A friend like Henry by Nuala Gardner
  • Cowboy & Wills by Monica Holloway
  • Finding Harmony: The remarkable dog that helped a family through the darkest of times by Sally Hyder
  • Endal: How one extraordinary dog brought a family back from the brink by Allen and Sandra Parton with Gill Paul
  • Love heels: Tales from Canine Companions for Independence by Patricia Dibsie

Reviewed by Brilla

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Anna dressed in blood by Kendare Blake

Cas Lowood travels the United States (and sometimes the world) seeking out spirits that are causing havoc for the living and laying them to rest with an athame that only he can use.  But Cas is not your average ghosthunter - he is a teenager who has to fit the ghosthunting around school and the perils that come with walking the halls of your average high school.  His current mission is to find a spirit that kills and dismembers anyone who steps into her house, a spirit know as Anna dressed in blood - a girl who was murdered in a brutal fashion and who has haunted her house ever since. 

Cas is careful to keep his double life a secret, but while hunting for clues about the location of Anna's house, Cas accidentally tangles some other teenagers up in his very complicated life.  Since his father died it has always been just Cas, his mother, and their cantankerous cat Tybalt - but now Cas has found himself making friends and enemies, which is just going to make things really complicated.  To make matters worse, Anna is like no ghost Cas has ever met before.  She is beautiful / terrifying / deadly / sweet / tortured / vengeful / torn and she seems to be a prisoner to her fate, a ghost that has as many secrets from herself as she does from Cas.  As he grapples with Anna, Cas has no idea that something dark is building, something is stalking them and unless he can keep his wits about him then everything may be lost.

Anna dressed in blood is one of the most original novels I have read this year, and not just because the text is the colour of dried blood instead of a boring and traditional black.  The story leaps straight into the action and doesn't really let up until you reach the end of the gripping climax.  While Cas is the main part of the story, his co-stars are more than cardboard cut outs making up the numbers, they have their own stories to tell and have something to add to the story rather than just being props.  I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it first came out (and own them on DVD now as a guilty pleasure) and this story reminds me of BTVS for a number of reasons - they're teenagers, they have a team of adults backing them up from a distance, the team is not perfect and has its dysfunctions, and most of all the rest of the people around them are totally clueless about what is going on.

It was a great read with some little hints of background story that kept you up to date and moving on without drowning you in details.  The ending was fantastic and kept the surprise right until the end, and while the ending is very satisfying it leaves the book with a place to go into a series if the authors wishes to keep the series going.  One of the best reads for the year and highly recommended.  It wont appeal to everyone because it has strong supernatural themes and the occasional (in context) f word, but it is engaging, a fresh voice, and promises more great things from this new author.

If you like this book then try:
  • Legacies by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill
  • Tighter by Adele Griffin
  • Thyla by Kate Gordon
  • Born at midnight by C.C. Hunter
  • Burn bright by Marianne de Pierres
  • Something strange and deadly by Susan Dennard
  • Masque of the red death by Bethany Griffin
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Reviewed by Brilla

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Bom! Went the Bear by Nicki Greenberg

Picture books filled with sounds play an important role in language development for children and are an essential part of emergent literacy for children - but so many publishers miss the point that just because they are important for learning doesn't mean they have to be boring! 

Bom! Went the Bear is anything but boring.  From cover to cover this picture book is packed full of bright and colourful characters that seem to leap off the page, and the sounds the different animals and instruments make are pulled seamlessly into a great story with a little bit of a twist at the end.  There are animals and instruments galore and any young reader will thoroughly enjoy their noisy introduction to so many new instruments and friends.

This is a lovely little book, great to share with children of all ages.  Can be read to your own little person, or can be read to a group as a storytime read.

If you like this book the try:
  • Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy by Lynley Dodd
  • Hairy Maclary and Zachary Quack by Lynley Dodd
  • The loud book! by Deborah Underwood; illustrated by Renata Liwska
  • One, two, cockatoo! by Sarah Garson
  • Should I share my ice cream? by Mo Willems
  • New socks by Bob Shea

Reviewed by Brilla

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The golden door by Emily Rodda

Rye lives in the walled city of Weld with his mother and two older brothers, living in a city that is both protected and imprisoned by the mighty wall that completely surrounds the city.  Once a year the dreaded skimmers plague the city, attacking anyone in the open at night, and they have even begun to attack buildings to reach the people inside.  It is a world of terror and fear, where the smallest sound at night can attract the skimmers to your door, and it seems as though more and more families are falling victim to the vicious creatures.  Rye and his family have been lucky so far, they all have a role to play in their town and their garden allows them to make enough money to live comfortably. 

But then comes the big announcement, anyone over the age of 18 may undertake a quest, to leave the city of Weld by a secret way and find the source of the skimmers.  Stopping the skimmers should save the city, meaning they no longer have to live in fear of the skimmers or the barbarians that send them.  Rye's older brothers leave one after the other to undertake this quest, but neither of them returns.  When Rye and his mother are driven from their home, Rye decides to undertake the dangerous quest himself - even though he is not of legal age.  The quest will not be easy, there are strange creatures beyond the walls of Weld, and their is evil beyond anything Rye can imagine.

This is the first book in a brand new trilogy by Emma Rodda, and Australian author who has carved out a unique niche for herself in the fantasy genre for children.  Her books are rich in detail and have story arcs that drag the reader in and keep them absorbed from the start of the series to the end - but at the same time she writes in a style that engages children who are struggling to read, taking away the stress of reading without dumbing down the writing or making the story too bland.  Her stories blend together strong mythologies, true friends, adventure, and heroes who are very "human" and have a destiny that they know nothing about. 

Like her other books, The golden door is very easy to read and keeps you turning the pages to see what happens next, with a fast paced story that you can sort of figure out, but also has a few mysteries and heart stopping moments to keep you wondering what will happen next.  A truly enjoyable read that will appeal to a wide range of ages and tastes.  For years I have encouraged children to read Emily Rodda (although at times she is so popular that you can't recommend them because they are just not there for people the borrow) because she is such an amazing author, but also because her series have some amazing art work courtesy of artist Marc  McBride.  I look forward to reading book two, The silver door, and will continue recommending this fantastic author to children (and adults) of all ages.

If you like this book then try:
  • Rowan of Rin by Emily Rodda
  • The forests of silence by Emily Rodda
  • Northwood by Brian Falkner
  • The silver crown by Robert C. O'Brien
  • Silence and stone by Kathleen Duey
  • Prisoner of Quentaris by Anna Ciddor
  • Princess of shadows by Paul Collins

Reviewed by Brilla