October 27, 2014

Earth & Sky

I'm very pleased to be participating in the Earth & Sky Blog Tour organized by Vikki VanSickle at Razorbill to promote a new series by Megan Crewe, author of the Fallen World Trilogy.  Though taking her writing into a different dimension (both temporally and spatially), Megan Crewe has stayed true to her speculative fiction roots and to her young adult fans and I'm excited to share my review of Earth & Sky here with you now.

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by Megan Crewe
Razorbill Canada
336 pp.
Ages 13+
Release date: October 28, 2014

We all have gut instincts that tell us when something is wrong, though we might never listen to those warnings, but when teen Skylar gets the feeling that something is "wrong, wrong, wrong", a refrain she gets in her head periodically, she's actually perceiving subtle changes in her environment that no one else seems to pick up on.  For example, when her law class visits the courthouse, she sees a bomb going off and everyone dying, including herself, but it doesn't actually happen.  Strange thing is that it did.  But through a time shift, it was prevented from happening this time, so Skylar could live.

Sounds freaky to me and I can't even imagine why Skylar is not freaking out when a young man named Win shares all this information with her, although it is nice to have someone understand what she's been experiencing and not think she's crazy.
Every now and then, you go somewhere, or you see something, and you feel it doesn't make sense.  It should have been different somehow.  But there's no obvious reason why, and no one else seems to notice. (pg. 32)
Perhaps the freaky part is that Win identifies himself as a Traveler from his planet, Kemya, and tells her that beings from his planet have been coming to Earth for thousands of years and manipulating situations to learn more, using a time field generator that allows them to travel between the present and the past.  Problem is that there are some, like Win, who believe that this experimentation has to stop, especially since the world is becoming less stable with every shift.  Using a weapon, which their leader Jeanant has hidden on Earth, the group intends to take down the time field and let Earth be.  But the security team of Enforcers from Kemya is after them, determined to stop their plan.

Though he is breaking all protocols engaging with an Earthling, Win believes that Skylar's ability to tell when the past has been shifted could help them find Jeanant and the weapon parts.  Skylar agrees to helping, knowing that for "the first time ever, I might have the chance to set the wrongness right." (pg. 62) Using a very cool time cloth, which can function like a laptop and a time-machine, dropping them anywhere at any time (including visits to the Colosseum in 81 AD, China in 938 AD and twelve years earlier when Skylar's seventeen-year-old brother Noam disappeared), Win and Skylar begin a tenuous temporal and emotional journey.

Unfortunately, being very different beings, Win and Skylar cannot always understand the other's motivations, especially since they have personal agendas that they are reluctant to share fully.  But their growing appreciation for the trials each has endured and the companionship they enjoy is bringing Win and Skylar closer.  Now if they just could get all the weapon pieces, live through attacks by the Enforcers and an assortment of history's warriors, and start being more forthcoming with each other, there really may be a chance for them to make things right, all around.

I thought Megan Crewe's first series, the Fallen World Trilogy, was larger than life.  Its premise of a world falling apart with the explosion of a fatal epidemic that pits survivors against each other is overwhelmingly scary, and Megan Crewe's exploration of the human psyche and society's response to dire circumstances is very real.  In Earth & Sky, the surreal fate of the world is in question and Megan Crewe is still able to scrutinize how we might respond when faced with the option of doing the big good for everyone or just helping ourselves.  By extending the whole concept of social justice beyond Earth, Megan Crewe has taken a universal theme of meeting an obligation to society into the galaxy and suggests the possibility of aliens considering their role on other planets, and perhaps our's on theirs.  The fate of Earth may be up to Skylar and the aliens' time shift generator in the sky but the fates of Skylar, Win, and their worlds are safely in the hands of Megan Crewe and I trust that she'll restore some kind of justice in the sequels to Earth & Sky, having offered a smidgeon of promise–and romance–towards that end here.

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See Megan Crewe's official book trailer for Earth & Sky here and check out more about her new series at http://www.EarthSkyTrilogy.com

October 26, 2014

The Haunting of Heck House: The Wiggins Weird, Book 2

by Lesley Livingston and Jonathan Llyr
Illustrations by Steven Burley
Puffin Canada
280 pp.
Ages 8-12
For release October, 2014

It's less than a week before Halloween and authors Lesley Livingston and Jonathan Llyr launched The Haunting of Heck House (sequel to How to Curse in Hieroglyphics, 2013) yesterday, and I can't think of a better reason to finally post my review of this captivating middle-grade read that smacks of funny and scary in equal parts.

Unbeknownst to their grandfather and guardian, Pops Pendleton, twelve-year-old babysitting aficionados and cousins Tweed Pendleton and Cheryl Shumacher sneak out to compete in an overnight babysitting competition at the previously-unknown home of Sir Hector Hecklestone the Third on Eerie Lane.  Along with their varied babysitting tools of the trade, the two take along a malfunctioning drive-in speaker that holds the talkative essence of the Great Simon Omar, dead magician. (You'll need to read Book 1 in The Wiggins Weird, How to Curse in Hieroglyphics, to understand the means by which a portal into the Egyptian afterlife probably created Speakie i.e., a disembodied Omar with audio).  

While these plucky girls intend to go to the Hecklestone house and prove that they're the best babysitters/housesitters for the job, there seem to be super-natural forces working against them, not the least of which are a grand piano plummeting down the stairs, flying books assaulting them, dripping ectoplasm, doors that open and lock without explanation, and their competition, tech wizard Feedback, and 13-year-olds Hazel Polizzi and Cindy Tyson.  Luckily, the cousins get the help of their friends Pilot and Artie to help problem-solve their way out of a haunted house while playing their make-believe game ACTION! in the roles of the League of Awesome so they can get through some scary situations. 

The house with its "early-Munsters vibe" (pg. 104) seems to have its own agenda and all the kids must share their skills–including lock-picking, tech, gargoyle-translation, role-play and mechanics–to help escape its evil hold, and save the ghosts trapped within.  Never fear, though, because The Haunting of Heck House is more humour than horror, wordplay than wickedness, and fun than frightening.  Of course, an 800-lb. piano tumbling down the stairs at the girls is rather disconcerting but, still believing that their skills are being tested, they all take it with comic sensibility.
"What the heck kinda test was that anyway?" Cheryl glowered. "Agility? Musical appreciation?"
"I really didn't appreciate that," Tweed said grimly.
(pg. 106)
Even Simon in his audio-speaker form pipes in that, "Guess there will be no encore tonight". (pg. 106)  And then there's an adorable little gargoyle whose "bat-like wings...red eyes, a sharp-hooked beak and talons"(pg. 130) might have been frightening except Ramshackle purrs and likes being stroked like a pussycat!

It's not surprising that, with Lesley Livingston and Jonathan Llyr both involved in acting, that The Haunting of Heck House is a story ripe with a quick-paced plot, highly-visual settings and characters, and priceless dialogue.  And, while Steven Burley's illustrations of the kids' ACTION! role-plays provide entertaining graphics, The Haunting of Heck House is so well written that it easily provides readers with a virtual visual that runs like a movie that could played at the twins' beloved Starlight Paradise Drive-In, with or without 3D-glasses.  Enjoy the movie!

October 25, 2014

Beyond Vampire Boyfriends: a YA literary salon (Toronto)

Here's a great event for fans of young adult novels!

A trio of young adult authors 

Deborah Kerbel
C. K. Kelly Martin
Helaine Becker

will discuss 
their newest books, 
writing challenges 
writing for young adults

as well as 
answer questions and sign books


Tuesday, November 4, 2014
6:30 p.m.


Toronto Public Library - Northern Branch
40 Orchard View Boulevard
Toronto, ON

All courtesy of sponsors
Mabel's Fables, Dancing Cat Books and Toronto Public Library

Together We Remember: A Family Remembrance event (Kleinburg, ON)

Celebrate peace
honour those who made sacrifices in war


Together We Remember
a Family Remembrance event


the team behind 

Bear on the Homefront 
(Pajama Press, 2014)

authors Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat
illustrator Brian Deines

Sunday, November 9, 2014

11 a.m. to 3 p.m.


in Kleinburg, Ontario 
(just north of Toronto)

The event includes:
• a presentation featuring Bear on the Homefront and its prequel A Bear in War
• an exhibit of Brian Deines' original artwork
• interactive musical performance by JUNO-nominated musician Mike Ford
• hands-on watercolour workshop promoting peace and tolerance

• Family programming activities are included in the cost of admission.
• Adults must be accompanied by a child. 
Learn more at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection website.

October 22, 2014

Oddrey Joins the Team

by Dave Whamond
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
August, 2014

First came Oddrey (Whamond, 2012), the winner of the 2014 Blue Spruce readers' choice award. Then came Oddrey and the New Kid (Whamond, 2013), a current nominee for the Forest of Spruce®'s Blue Spruce award.  Now here's Oddrey Joins the Team, a third adventure in this highly-acclaimed series by cartoonist and award-winning children's author and illustrator Dave Whamond to show children that being an individualist like Oddrey can make you an awesome team player too.

Oddrey is a star at accepting others and bringing out the best in them so it wouldn't be surprising that Maybelline, the new kid from Oddrey and the New Kid, would ask her new friend Oddrey to join the soccer team, the Piccadilla Bees.  Maybelline is a very good soccer player and all the kids on the team are eager to play and have fun by embedding their special talents, from karate kicks to cartwheeling to dance, into their skills training.  Unfortunately, these aren't the gifts that Maybelline is trying to coach into them and they're not the skills that win games, especially against the Quagville Crushers.  But, just as Oddrey has saved the day before, she does so here bringing all their special talents into play just as their team's namesakes successfully do to ensure a smooth running beehive.

I love Oddrey's joie de vivre and her natural ability to include everyone.  She may perform an awesome pirouette, both on the field and off, but she is no prima donna, recognizing the value of appreciating what everyone has to offer.  Luckily, even with those who lean towards taking control, like Maybelline, Oddrey can help them see the benefits of relying on a team approach while allowing everyone to stay true to themselves.

But, while I love the little girl, and the wordplay in the text, I appreciate Dave Whamond's illustrations even more.  There are so many quirky details in the children's faces and actions that, though the words may be read quickly, you'll need to stay on the pages longer to catch all the bold facets of Dave Whamond's cartoons:  from the immense eyes, voluminous smiles, crowned queen bees and playful extraordinariness of the ever-present pup.  Learning life lessons with a chuckle and a smile along with Oddrey and Dave Whamond continues to be a delight.

October 20, 2014

Playing with Matches

by Suri Rosen
ECW Press
256 pp.
Ages 11+
September, 2014

Forgive me my ignorance but I have to share my silly prediction about Playing with Matches before I read the book. When I first read the title, I thought the book must deal with arson and lighting fires.  Wrong!  But, though Playing with Matches doesn't have anything to do with fire, teen narrator Raina Resnick learns pretty quickly that you can still get burned with romantic matches!

With her older sister Leah getting married in a few months to Ben and starting their new life together in Toronto, Raina is sent to live with her Aunt Mira and Uncle Eli in Toronto to provide some stability from her parents' regular migrations for her dad's work and to be there for her sister prior to the marriage.  But when Ben calls off the wedding because of Raina's behaviour and Leah blames Raina for ruining her happiness, Raina feels completely friendless.  Not surprising she befriends a woman, Tamara, with whom she regularly sits on the bus to school.  In fact, learning that Tamara is single and desperate to find a life partner, Leah arranges for her to meet Jeremy, the thirty-ish Jewish man who boards with Aunt Mira and Uncle Eli.

This is the beginning of Matchmaven.com, the site Raina uses to communicate anonymously and arrange the match between Tamara and Jeremy which is a hit. (Though not so much for Leah whom Aunt Mira had planned to set up with Jeremy!)  But when Tamara shares the site with her friends, including Leah, Raina is left wondering whether she actually has a gift for matchmaking or if it was just luck.

Meanwhile, Raina is being watched very carefully at home and at school to ensure she's not up to her old antics.  Taking care of her grandmother, Bubby Bayla, Raina finds the older woman has great spirit and skill for getting into her own trouble, but she is supportive of Raina.  Then a fortuitous mistake (while running an errand for her aunt) introduces Raina to a Professor Kellman, a lonely widower with a computer which he allows her to use for her matchmaking, unknowingly.  And the pairing of Raina at school with a geeky girl, Dahlia Engel, to help Raina with her school work brings a tech wizard and friend to Raina finally.

The complexity and hilarity of Raina attempting to control her matchmaking enterprise, which continues to blossom through word of mouth, while trying to make things right with Leah (including finding Leah her own partner) and keeping up her school work and resolving the trouble that caused her to leave her last school and humiliate her family will keep the reader eager to turn the page and learn what else can go wrong or perhaps right. Raina has much to worry about, including the possibility of "matchmaking malpractice" (pg. 146) but with her growing maturity and good heart, Raina has all of the best intentions and is less negligent with her actions and voice.

Playing with Matches is a fabulously unique story–formal matchmaking is definitely not a regular theme in YA–that embeds all the angst of falling in love and growing up and doing right by your family and yourself all under one cover.  I believe that the story will definitely resonate more for Jewish readers who may understand the cultural nuances of dating, dress, and relationships better than I could.  Having grown up in Toronto, I couldn't understand how the only people Raina met were Jewish, or how she happens to enter the wrong house far from home and it be the unlocked home of a Jewish man that her aunt knows, or that her sister's fiancĂ© would break off the wedding because of something inconsiderate Raina did (not murderous, just inconsiderate).  Those inexplicable questions kept me from buying wholeheartedly into the story.

But Suri Rosen can turn a phrase well and get me laughing with the antics of her characters, who are definitely larger than life, and undoubtedly has a plethora of stories to tell if Playing with Matches is any indication of the experiences with which she is well versed. I look forward to reading more from this author (though I hope she will recognize that not all her readers are Jewish and may need a bit more background to understand the full story).

October 17, 2014

Princess Pistachio

by Marie-Louise Gay
Pajama Press
48 pp.
Ages 5-8
For release October, 2014

For the child who is convinced that she is adopted because she has nothing in common with her parents or family who just don't understand her, Princess Pistachio will both charm her and divert her attention from that premise promptly!

Marie-Louise Gay, creator of the ever-popular Stella and Sam series of picture books, introduces Pistachio Shoelace, an orange-haired, freckle-faced moppet, to star in a new series of early readers.  In this first book, Princess Pistachio, Pistachio receives a golden crown in the mail with a card that reads, "Happy birthday, my little princess!" (pg.7)  Believing that it is from her real parents, the king and queen of Papua, an island she'd found on her map, Pistachio is convinced that they have finally found her after she'd been abandoned by a witch at the home of her adoptive parents, Mr. and Mrs. Shoelace. Donning this crowning proof, Pistachio insists that her princess status be recognized.

Regardless of her newly-recognized regal status, Pistachio's life is still grounded in the daily grind of eating her spinach, watching her baby sister Penny and going to school.  And no one seems to pay homage to Princess Pistachio: not her parents, not her best friends, not Penny, and not even the two duelling boys who must be fencing for her honour!  Sadly, a surprising phone call and a errant little sister bring a new reality to Pistachio (even if Penny is still a pest).

Children have always been taken with Marie-Louise Gay's Stella and Sam series of books, by the wonder and wisdom of an older sister and the innocent inquiry of her little brother.  Now, these readers can enjoy Marie-Louise Gay's signature illustrations in the more challenging stories of Pistachio, the girl who is definitely more like a pixie than an angel.  She may still have Stella's dramatic flair but it's wrapped up in a scampish nature that is all Pistachio.

But, what will exalt Princess Pistachio to the upper echelons of early chapter books is the voice that Marie-Louise Gay has given the little girl and the richness of the text in general.  Delightful play with words and challenging vocabulary enriches Princess Pistachio above most early readers.
 "Princess?" Gabriel sniggers. "Even an ugly old toad would want nothing to do with you!"
"To die for a mustachioed pistachi-toad! Ugh!" Jacob cries out.
They run away laughing like monkeys.
"Brutes! Peasants!" Pistachio screams.  "I'll feed you to the lions!"
With a second book, Princess Pistachio and the Pest, already scheduled, I believe that Marie-Louise Gay and Pajama Press have just created an Anne of Green Gables for the very youngest of youngCanLit readers, and one who will poke at our hearts and funny bones alike.