The Secret Under my Skin, by Janet McNaughton

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In the year 2368, humanity struggles to recuperate from a technocaust that has left a generation of orphans in its wake. Strict government regulations convince people that technology is dangerous; confusion and fear rule the earth.

Blay Raytee is a government work-camp orphan. Her future seems as bleak as that of the world around her. But when she is chosen for a special mission by a guardian of the environment named Marrella, Blay begins to discover that all may not be as it seems. The secrets she uncovers could hold the key both to the healing of the world and to her own past. What she learns may just empower her to join those who struggle to restore democracy — and to discover at last who she really is.

Master storyteller Janet McNaughton vividly imagines an all-too-believable future where one child’s brave search for the truth could restore a broken world.

Thoughts: This novel shows an interesting and not entirely unbelievable vision of the future, after the world has been ruined due to pollution. People blaming everyone else, a government struggling to stay in power by fear and tight controls, and everyone, including young children, is put to work in some fashion.

McNaughton weaves an interesting future in her novel, and throws in a lot of little details that sometimes go missing in other YA novels, such as the issue of, well, clothing. In a world where technology is feared and tightly controlled, it’s not as though people can just run down to a department store and grab a new sweater. As such, the presence of the Weavers’ Guild, and the cultural meanings of things like knitting and other aspects of textile creation, are thrown into the forefront as seen as essential skills. Weavers are given high respect, and as such hold more than a small degree of power.

There’s more than one story going on here, as it is with most good books. There’s the story of Marella and her struggles to become a bio-indicator with Blay’s help, and then there’s the story of Blay trying to find out more about her past and just who she is. Side-by-side, the tale is a rich one that comes alive with ease, and draws you in.

The biggest shame about this book is that it’s so short. I hear there’s a sequel, and I suspect I’m going to have to track it down sooner rather than later, as I enjoyed this book so much. Definitely a recommend to fans of YA futuristic stories, and to those who enjoy hints of an interesting dystopia.

In Dreams Begin, by Skyler White

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Thoughts: Where do I start with how enjoyable this book was? Really, where do I start? There was so much that I really enjoyed about it that it’s hard to pick one thing to hone in one first of all.

Let’s start with the plot. In Dreams Begin weaves together two stories: the first of Laura, a modern-day newlywed graphic artist; and the second of Maud Gonne, W. B. Yeats, and Ida Jameson, figures from Victorian-era Ireland, fighting in their own ways for various kinds of freedom. Through her growing obsession with mysticism and the occult, Ida channels the spirit of Laura through time and into Maud, where Laura almost immediately falls “ass-over-elbows in love” with Will Yeats, and him with her. Laura struggles to come to grips with her incredibly realistic “Victorian dreams”, as well as her love for another man. Ida’s power-hungry personality drives the plot forward more and more as she searches for ways to gain all that she ever wanted in life, while Will and Laura must reach their conclusions about a love that transcends time.

If it sounds a little cheesy at first, just give it 50 pages. The writing style is beautifully poetic, stunningly erotic in places, and above all else paints a vivid picture of two very different times, each other them wonderful in their own way. The little details that White threw in, such as references to the semi-obscure erotic Victorian magazine, The Pearl, thrilled the history buff in me, and did wonders for making everything come alive.

This book is more than a troubled love story, or a cookie-cutter paranormal romance. (“Cookie-cutter” is probably the last term I would use to describe this book, actually.) White’s characters talk at length and in depth about difficult subjects: religion, spirituality, love, the nature of humanity, good and evil. Far more than just a fluff read, this is the sort of book I would recommend to those who enjoy a good intellectual paranormal romance, the sort that are few and far between.

If this book suffered anywhere, in my opinion, it was in the sex scenes. That’s not to say they weren’t sexy, or were inappropriate, but my goodness, was the word “cock” ever thrown about! I know, I know, it can be hard to find good euphemisms for the penis without turning in the direction of purple prose, but at times, it seemed that the word was overused.

But when that’s my only complaint, and I admit it’s entirely a subjective one, that isn’t much of a deterrent.

If you’re a fan of good intelligent paranormal novels, you should definitely check this one out. You’ll close it after the last page wishing that the story had never ended.

And maybe it never really did.

The Adamantine Palace, by Stephen Deas

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Author’s website
Publication date – March 19, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Adamantine Palace lies at the centre of an empire that grew out of ashes. Once dragons ruled the world and man was little more than prey. Then a way of subduing the dragons through alchemy was discovered and now the dragons are bred to be little more than mounts for knights and highly valued tokens in the diplomatic power-players that underpin the rule of the competing aristocratic houses. The Empire has grown fat. And now one man wants it for himself. A man prepared to poison the king just as he has poisoned his own father. A man prepared to murder his lover and bed her daughter. A man fit to be king? But uknown to him there are flames on the way. A single dragon has gone missing. And even one dragon on the loose, unsubdued, returned to its full intelligence, its full fury, could spell disaster for the Empire. But because of the actions of one unscrupulous mercenary the rivals for the throne could soon be facing hundreds of dragons …Stephen Deas has written a fast moving and action-fuelled fantasy laced with irony, a razor sharp way with characters, dialogue to die for and dragons to die by.

Thoughts: For the first while I was reading this book, the first 75 pages or so, I felt a bit confused. It felt like I came in part of the way through the story rather than at the beginning, or like there was some prequel that I should have already read. Perhaps it was just my frame of mind at the time, I don’t know. Everything certainly made sense later, and the story as a whole was enjoyable, so I’m not going to count my initial reaction much toward the overall review. But still, it’s worthy of a mention.

Some fantasy novels that deal with a lot of political intrigue end up making the politics incredibly boring. Some novels that feature dragons as a main point end up filled with so much action and adventure that there seems to be no break in a series of hectic events. Neither of those problems existed in The Adamantine Palace. The blend of action and politics was a good one, just enough on both sides to make you anxious to get back to each piece as the point of view changed from chapter to chapter, to add a few more pieces to the puzzle.

I was quite happy to see that not once did any of the dragon-kings or -queens actually put together what was happening in regard to the white dragon’s disappearance. They all formed their own opinions based on what they wanted to believe and what their experience had taught them, but none of them came to the correct conclusion, and that was actually refreshing to see. Maybe I’ve just read too many “cut-and-dry” plots in novels, but for characters to not connect all the dots perfectly was surprising and pleasing, since that sort of thing seems to happen a lot.

But I guess one of the marks of a good author can be the ability to leave the characters hanging as well as the readers.

I’m quite pleased by my introduction to Deas’s writing. I’m definitely looking forward to the release of the sequel!

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through this by the end of History Month here, since I’ve been so busy and my reading time has been curtailed somewhat. But it’s the weekend now, I’m not at work, and so I had time to finish the last little bit before committing myself to cleaning and packing for the day.

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Anne Frank’s diaries have always been among the most moving and eloquent documents of the Holocaust. This new edition restores diary entries omitted from the original edition, revealing a new depth to Anne’s dreams, irritations, hardships, and passions. Anne emerges as more real, more human, and more vital than ever. If you’ve never read this remarkable autobiography, do so. If you have read it, you owe it to yourself to read it again.

Thoughts: I regret to say that it was only recently that I actually finally read this book, though I’ve one edition or another on my bookshelf since the sixth grade. And while I am tempted to do something of a joke review and talk about none of the events contained within the book were realistic and none of the people were believable as characters, I think I owe it to the people who actually went through that nightmare to do this thing seriously.

I became fascinated with what civilian life was like during World War 2 after seeing a book of my grandmother’s: Robert Westall’s Children of the Blitz. Plenty of books will tell me what the political side of the war was like, what it was like for the people on the front lines, doing the fighting, but there are too few books that will detail was it was like for those who were just trying to stay alive in their homes. It’s one thing to shake your head and say it was a terrible time and to quote some statistics, but it’s quite another to read something written by somebody who was actually there, talking about their life amid uncertainty and bombing and fear of being killed in the night. It brings it all home, makes something distant and sanitized seem actually real, and, if you think about it, might actually cause a sleepless night or two.

While reading this, I was struck with just how alike Anne was to the girls of her age that I knew and know. Occupied with the same problems, thinking the same thoughts, and never mind that Anne was in hiding from Nazis and nobody I know can claim that. Reading entries about things like her daily routine, her thoughts about others, the sense that “life goes on” really came through clearly. No matter what, no matter how serious the situation, we still remain ourselves and the same old things will still bother us. We may not complain about them as much, but they’re still there.

I her thoughts about Peter to be particularly amusing. It started with, “Oh, he’s so dull,” went to, “He’s interesting, but you mustn’t think I’m in love with him, because I’m not,” right to, “I can’t stop thinking about him, I think I’m in love with him.” Oh, teenagers.

I don’t often come across books that I would recommend to everyone I meet, but it seems a shame if a person goes their life without reading this book. There are echoes of World War 2 still in our society today, and to not understand even a little of what that all means is a little bit sad. It’s not knowing your own history, particularly if you’re in, well, Europe, North America, various parts of Asia… Yeah, there’s a reason it was called a World War, after all. If you happen to live in this world, do yourself a favour and read this book if you haven’t already. It may not contain any stunning revelations about life, but you close the book at the end feeling a bit different than before.

The Last Full Measure, by Ann Rinaldi

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) As Confederate and Union soldiers take over their town, the local residents can do little more than hunker down in their homes while cannon and gunfire explode around them. But the battles are not only fought between soldiers. At home, fourteen-year-old Tacy and her disabled brother lock horns as David struggles with his desire to go to war. He has strong principles, and it tortures him to allow others to fight while he does nothing.

In the aftermath of this great and terrible battle, in which so many soldiers sacrifice their lives for their beliefs, David gives his last full measure … and leaves Tacy struggling to make sense out of it all.

Thoughts: This was the first novel by Ann Rinaldi that I have read, and I have to say that I can’t imagine a better introduction to her works of YA historical fiction. The story being told from the first person perspective, I loved the way even the narration contained what we now consider to be antiquated ways of speaking, turns of phrase and attitudes evident of the time period in which the novel takes place. That little touch made a big difference in being able to fall into the story.

Tacy’s story was not one of grand adventure or romance or saving the day. Ultimately, it was the story of someone trying to get by in difficult times, when it feels like the world is falling apart around her. It’s not heavily action-based, and you’re not going to find yourself on the edge of your seat with excitement, but you’re going to see real people in a real situation from history, and if you’re the sort to love character-driven stories, then the pages will keep turning and you’ll find yourself engrossed in the story, wondering what happens next in spite of the fact that there’s no major personal conflict or resolution. There is fear, though, and a great sense of loss that’s very easy to empathize with, even if you haven’t lost somebody to war.

Above all else, Tacy is believable. She could easily be a friend from school, a sister, someone across the street. Her thoughts and feelings come across well, she’s a very well-rounded and fleshed-out character (as they all are, really, even the ones we don’t get to see too much of), and I like her spunk.

What struck me the most when reading this book is that war doesn’t change. Certainly, the technology used in war changes, but war itself is always going to be full of death, of broken bodies and limbs and blood, of the stench of the dead and people mourning for them. It’s the same today as it was a hundred years ago, two hundred, and so on back. People die as often for the right cause as the wrong one, and more often than not, those lines aren’t as clearly drawn as some would have people believe. There are gentlement enemies and bastard allies.

I can say with certainty that if I got the chance to read more of Rinaldi’s novel, I’d take that chance. I love her style, the way she writes to let the reader fall into the story and become a part of it rather than just seeing it from the outside. Very smooth, easy to grasp. Not the most spectacular novel ever written, but still very enjoyable nonetheless, and I was glad to have read it.

if you’re the sort to like character-driven stories (as I said before), or just have an interest in historical fiction, you should definitely check this one out.

(Book obtained for review from NetGalley.)

Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

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Thoughts: I honestly can’t count the number of times I’ve read this novel, and I think it’s the sign of an excellent book when one can read it time and time again without once growing bored of the story that they know by heart.

Arthur Golden’s novel of the life of a geisha in pre-war (and some post-war) Japan is a captivating one, the kind that draws you into another world from the very first sentence. It’s at once familiar and foreign, simple and complex, straightforward and twisty. The story’s gimmick is that it’s presented as though it’s nonfiction, the transcription of a story that the geisha Sayuri told to a loyal friend and finally published after her death. The truth is that it’s a stunning piece of fiction. Arthur Golden certainly did his homework, it’s true, but the story itself is pure fiction.

Thanks to this perspective, though, the story feel very real. The characters, cruel or kind, are presented as real people rather than caricatures or flat character archetypes. Anything we learn about them is seen through Sayuri’s eyes, which is another thing that makes it very easy to fall into the story.

I was particularly impressed with the way some sensitive material was handled, such as the subject of mizuage, or the act of losing one’s virginity to someone who has paid for it. This could have been written distastefully, or Golden could have attempted to use the scene to convey some sort of moral message, but instead it was told for what it was, and any subjective thoughts were subjective only to the situation in which the scene takes place. I really have to give the man kudos for doing that so well!

If this book suffers anywhere, it’s in the overuse of similes. This is supposed to lend a somewhat poetic feel to the narration, and very often it works, if you take each event on its own. But when you’re getting a simile in every paragraph or two, it becomes a little difficult to read, and some of the poetry, I’m sad it say, gets lost along the way.

Still, when that’s the only real failing worth noting, that still speaks very well for the novel. I definitely recommend this to, well, just about anybody, but especially those interested in Japan, history, or memoir-style books.

I am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Nine of us came here. We look like you. We talk like you. We live among you. But we are not you. We can do things you dream of doing. We have powers you dream of having. We are stronger and faster than anything you have ever seen. We are the superheroes you worship in movies and comic books—but we are real.

Our plan was to grow, and train, and become strong, and become one, and fight them. But they found us and started hunting us first. Now all of us are running. Spending our lives in shadows, in places where no one would look, blending in. we have lived among you without you knowing.

But they know.

They caught Number One in Malaysia.
Number Two in England.
And Number Three in Kenya.
They killed them all.

I am Number Four.

I am next.

Thoughts: I’d heard nothing but good things about this book, and so I was really happy when I got the chance to read it for myself. And I’m quite happy to say that the book lived up to its hype quite well.

I’m usually a bit leery of books written in the first person, because there are so many things that can go wrong. Too little detail being given for the story to make sense, too much info given that the character wouldn’t have, the urge to wax poetic about things like scenery and personal appearance even when the character wouldn’t. But once I got into the story, it was easy to see why this was done. When you’re dealing with characters that give false names, who otherwise only have number designations, writing from their perspective seems like the best way to do things to avoid having to overuse the designation or potentially confuse the reader if a name changes.

The story was smoothly written, fast-paced and action-packed, and the development of the characters was good and believable. I have to confess to some rather sickly-sweet smiles I gave in regards to “John”‘s relationship with Sarah. Young love at its finest, close without being overtly sexual, sweet and innocent without being sanitized and cold, and important without being dangerously consuming. A very fine balance, and one that I think could stand a greater place in YA novels today. (I’m not the only one who’s tired of the obsessive love trope that Twilight popularized.)

I only have two complaints to really make about this story, one minor and one major. The minor one is the statement made early on that people from Lorien interacted with humans and aided them, giving them language, which is why their languages are so similar. If you know anything about world languages, this is pretty much an impossible thing to claim. Linguists have yet to figure out if there actually was only a single root language for all the world’s languages both past and present, and it’s one hell of a stretch to expect people to believe that the Loric either spoke English and influenced things on earth to the point where English would be such a dominant language, or that every single language here diverged in the very same ways that it did on Lorien, and around the same time, in spite of radically different cultures. Er, sorry, but no. Frequent interaction between two groups doesn’t mean that their languages will be identical, or even similar, in the end. Things happen, dialects emerge and converge and disappear, migration patterns change, splinter groups form….

I know this is a YA novel and most teenagers won’t catch that, but it’s still something that ought to have been given more thought in what was otherwise a pretty well thought out book.

My major beef is the “always chaotic-evil” presentation of the Mogadorians. An entire race of people have ruined their planet, then all act with one motive to ruin another planet, and then have such a mindless pursuit of resources that they’ll travel to yet another planet to attempt to kill some children? Who are technically not really much of a threat if they want to overwhelm humanity to take Earth for themselves. 9 kids and their guardians versus an entire race of people who have already overtaxed and wiped out two planets? Seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through.

But it gives us an enemy, and one we’re not supposed to be able to sympathize with, which was the point. Not sure how the Mogadorians didn’t wipe themselves out eons ago, though, if their race is that mindlessly destructive.

But aside from a few oversimplifications, this was a highly enjoyable book, one that I wouldn’t mind recommending to sci-fi and YA fans. It conveys a clear environmental message without being heavy-handed about it, it evokes emotions that make you feel as though you’re right alongside “John” as he goes through hell and happiness. I Am Number Four is a story that sucks the reader in and won’t let them go until the very end.

Draw the Dark, by Ilsa J Bick

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Author’s website
Publication date – April 27, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) There are things in Winter, Wisconsin, folks just don’t talk about. The murder way back in ’45 is one. The near-suicide of a first-grade teacher is another. And then there is 17-year old Christian Cage. Christian’s parents disappeared when he was a little boy, and ever since he’s drawn and painted obsessively, trying desperately to remember his mother. The problem is Christian doesn’t just draw his own memories. He can draw the thoughts of those around him. Confronted with fears and nightmares they’d rather avoid, people have a bad habit of dying. So it’s no surprise that Christian isn’t exactly popular. What no one expects is for Christian to meet Winter’s last surviving Jew and uncover one more thing best forgotten the day the Nazi’s came to town. Based on a little-known fact of the United States’ involvement in World War II, Draw the Dark is a dark fantasy about reclaiming the forgotten past and the redeeming power of love.

Thoughts: I am a ghost in a land of phantoms and remembered nightmares.

To be perfectly honest, the only reason that this book didn’t get a 5-teacup rating is because of the method of narration toward the beginning of the story. It was written as people talk, complete with an overuse of “well,” “like,” and an ellipsis ended every third sentence. That thankfully ended after the first chapter or so, but while it was there, it was bordering on painful to read.

The rest of the book was pure dark deliciousness. This is a book that doesn’t pull any punches with what the reader can handle. I know a lot of people get their knickers in a twist when books for teens have swearing and expressions of sexuality. This has swearing, sexuality, crude humour, complete jackasses, and gory death.

The story contained in Draw the Dark was multilayered. The issue of the sideways place, the overarching mystery surrounding David Witek, and Christian’s everyday life and troubles with Karl Dekker all played their part and tied in with each other smoothly. Happily, the story didn’t end with the revelations of the Witek mystery, which I had been fearing it would. It continues on after that, ties up loose ends that could easily have been overlooked by readers, and ends the story in such a way that I really can’t imagine a more satisfying ending. I can imagine a happier one, sure, but not one more satisfying, nor so right-feeling.

Draw the Dark is truly a wonderful book, one that will make you want to keep turning the pages long after your common sense tells you it’s time to do something else. This isn’t just a book for teens. It’s a book for fans of horror in general, for those who enjoy a well-told supernatural mystery, and for those who want an example of what great first-person writing is. (Once you get past the beginning, that is.) Truly, this is not a book to be missed.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley)

Heart of Valor, by L J Smith

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Summary: (Taken from When an earthquake shakes California, Alys, Janie, Charles and Claudia suspect it isn’t just a typical earthquake. A year and a half after their journey into the Wildworld, they believe that the Passage between their world, the Stillworld, and that parallel universe of legend and danger may no longer be stable.

With their parents overseas and the great sorceress Morgana Shee traveling north to find the epicenter of the quake, the siblings are left on their own. But peril lurks around every corner. A magical attack sends the Hodges-Bradley kids’ on a journey that will test all of their skills, including Janie’s sorcery and Claudia’s ability to communicate with animals.

Morgana’s archrival, Thia Pendriel, is waiting. With Heart of Valor, the Forgotten Gem she has stolen, Thia’s power is almost limitless—and she is ready to spring her trap.

Thoughts: This book being the sequel to Night of the Solstice, I was glad to see that it detailed a lot more of Morgana’s past. No longer was she seen as the sorceress who had a very magical mystical-sounding name, but she was tied back to the Morgan of Arthurian legend, giving her a depth even beyond what Smith writes of her character.

We see a significant growth in maturity for the four main characters, too. Their personalities are much the same as we saw them in the previous book, but their adventures last time, plus their continued presence around magic, has helped them to grow and strengthen. It was nice to see characters who grew without changing completely, and remained familiar without acting as though the past never occurred.

This wasn’t a spectacular novel, but it was a fun one to read nevertheless. It had good pacing, a good mix of calm deduction and heavy action, and would be a good read for mid-grade kids who enjoy a good modern-day fantasy story involving ordinary children getting to save the world. Teenagers and adults may still get enjoyment from this novel, too, though perhaps more as a fluff read than anything else.

If this book has any one flaw, it’s that it takes trips to Exposition City. Crazy things happen, and when all is said and done, somebody has to recap and fill in the blanks with information that they have cleverly deduced somehow but that never actually gets a mention in the story itself. It ties up loose ends, certainly, but it makes for a weak ending.

Still, I can’t say I didn’t have fun reading this one, even if for me most of the fun was in the nostalgia of the book, reliving a few days in high school when I’d found a copy of this tucked back in the shelves.

Learning to Bow, by Bruce Feiler

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Since its publication, Learning to Bow has been heralded as one of the funniest, liveliest, most insightful books about the clash of cultures between America and Japan. With warmth and candor, Feiler recounts the year he spent teaching within the world’s most heralded school system, and through his unique perspective, demystifies contemporary Japanese life.

Beginning with a ritual outdoor bath and culminating in an all-night trek to the top of Mount Fuji, we accompany Feiler as he discovers the roots of modern Japanese culture: watching boys and girls learn gender roles; experiencing the impact of strict school rules; and understaning the reason for Japan’s business success. In school, Feiler teaches his students about American culture, while after hours, they teach him their own customs – everything from how to properly dress an envelope to how to date a Japanese girl.

Thoughts: Bruce Feiler takes us on an insightful and often humourous look at what it’s like to teach English in a Japanese junion high school. He combines classic cultural research with his own personal experiences, giving the reader a good look inside a world that so many people both love and often misunderstand.

It isn’t just the Japanese school system that Feiler lets the reader explore in Learning to Bow. All aspects of Japanese culture are up for grabs, from dating to the proper way to eat lunch to fashion. He often makes comparisons between Japanese and American methods, drawing his own conclusions but still giving us a chance to form our own without his bias. While he may disagree with the benefits of some parts of Japanese culture, he doesn’t say, for example, that those aspects are bad. Merely that he disagrees.

I’ve read this book twice before, and still love it now as much as I did when I first opened the cover to page 1. Though Feiler’s experiences recounted in the book take place in the late 80’s, the words and story themselves have such a timeless feel that they could have been written yesterday.

Most certainly, I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s seriously interested in teaching in Japan (through the JET program, perhaps), or for those who are interested in another look into Japan’s fascinating culture.