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Misfit by Jon Skovron
Abrams, 2011

Jael’s sixteenth birthday is approaching and she is not quite sure what to expect. She and her father have abruptly moved from city to city and country to country for her entire life, and she desperately hopes that the talk he wishes to have with her on her birthday has nothing to do with picking up and leaving yet again since she’s finally found a couple of good friends. She is also anxious to know more about her mother, who died when she was very young.  Jael’s life changes forever when her father gives her a jewel handed down from her mother and which has mysterious powers. Over the next few days, Jael discovers that not only was her mother a demon, but that Jael herself is half demon with most of Hell hunting her because she is a reviled half-blood.

Misfit started off slow and initially appeared fall into a predictable "teenage girl doesn't get along with her strict single father until some sort of major event brings them closer together" storyline. Although to a certain degree Misfit indeed progressed in that way, it did it in a fun, entertaining, and largely unexpected fashion.


Skovron's interpretation of demons is inventive. He draws connections between different religions and cultures to paint a complex picture of demons (many previously known to mortals as gods and goddesses), and the classical elements of nature play a large role as well. In fact, one of Jael's newfound skills is the ability to communicate with the different elements, all of which have different characteristics and which require convincing in different ways. I found this use of the elements, as well as Jael's heightened demon perception and other skills, to be creative and not overused for the sake of entertainment value.

The characters in Misfit were complex and enjoyable. Jael's father was not the one-dimensional stereotypical "strict father" figure that he initially appeared to be. His personality came out mostly during the flashbacks to his time with Jael's mother rather than in the present with Jael, but it worked. Jael's friends Britt and Rob are also more than they initially appear, and the dialogue between the teenagers combined with scenes with Jael's demon uncle Dagon provided lots of humour.

Overall, despite a slow start, Misfit was an engaging fantasy with an inventive interpretation of demons, fun characters, and lots of action and humour. Highly recommended.

**Electronic review copy provided by NetGalley.com.

 
 
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Imaginary girls by Nova Ren Suma
Dutton, 2011

Chloe's older sister, Ruby, is someone who gets whatever she wants whenever she wants it. Although most people would find this a difficult shadow to live under, Chloe adores Ruby like everyone else and appreciates her protectiveness, especially after Chloe finds a girl's body in a rowboat while attempting to swim across the town's reservoir and is haunted by the discovery. Only after returning to live with her sister after a two year absence does Chloe sense that something is off about her hometown, as well as with Ruby - not least because the girl she found dead appears to have been resurrected.

Imaginary girls is a beautifully-written book. Suma uses language in inventive ways that rolled wonderfully off my tongue. Phrases like "the wind billowing up inside her translucent dress and spooling out her dark hair"* and "the night stars peppering my skin" appeared throughout the novel and were always surprising. I often read sentences twice to enjoy them once again.

Despite the beauty of the language, I felt a constant disconnect with the characters and events in the book. At no point did I really care about what happened to Chloe or Ruby, and this was regardless of the constant sense of foreboding that permeated the story. There were many times that I looked at the bottom of the Kindle page to see how far along I was, and frequently I wished that I was closer to the end. I feel that the story lacked an intimacy and connection to the characters, likely because there were so few truly intimate moments within the story. Even during close moments shared between the sisters, knowing how manipulative Ruby was I constantly questioned her motives. As well, Chloe recounts the tale with a distinct sense of distance which adds to the disconnect.

However, perhaps this was Suma's intent all along: Ruby, very clearly the focus of the novel, is cold and lovely, much like the telling of the tale. If Suma wanted to reflect the distance and beauty that Ruby exudes, then she certainly succeeded. Indeed, even the cover (which is stunning) reflects that sense of icy loveliness. If this was Suma's goal, then Imaginary girls is most certainly a success.

*I read an electronic galley, so I have no indication of what pages any quotes will appear on in the printed volume.

**Electronic galley provide by publisher via NetGalley. Book to be released June 14, 2011.

 
 
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Devil's kiss by Sarwat Chadda
Disney Hyperion, 2009

Billi SanGreal is the newest, youngest, and only female member of the Knights Templar, who are responsible for defending London from supernatural evils. Her father is the Master of the Templars and rules with an iron fist, especially since Billi's mother was killed over a decade ago. When Kay, Billi's childhood friend, inadvertently opens a long-closed door to legions of dark angels, the Angel of Death is summoned and a plague of biblical proportions begins.

I'd been looking forward to reading this book for a while. I had read the first chapter a few months ago during a quiet afternoon at work and it sucked me right in. With a fantastic first line - "Killing him should be easy; he's only six" (p. 3) - and the first chapter following it up nicely, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, Devil's kiss didn't quite live up to my expectations.

The novel is chock full of information about the Knights Templar and their history, but after a rip-roaring first chapter, a second chapter inf0-dump was a definite let-down. As much as I liked learning little factoids about Templar history, I found the delivery clunky. Turns out that Chadda is great at writing action sequences though! As in the first chapter, subsequent scenes involving battles with supernatural beings ranging from angels to vampires to Satan himself were energetic and satisfying. Devil's kiss definitely starts and ends on high notes due to this circumstance.

Despite the selling of a love triangle on the back cover blurb, it didn't really exist at all in the story. This was fine by me - I didn't read the back cover until I finished the book so I had no expectations that way - but the romance that did exist seemed tenuous at best. I wonder if the friendship angle would have been a more powerful and believable connection, especially as Billi didn't have any friends her own age. However, the ending hints at a sequel which may make Chadda's choice of romance more evident.

I was disappointed in the lack of use of Billi's heritage in the story. While her father is presumably British, her mother was of Pakistani descent and I kept waiting for that to factor in to the story, either via some of the non-Christian beliefs in Asia or some other link. While part of me appreciates that her cultural heritage didn't sway things one way or another, another part of me wishes it could have been used more. Given the amount of information given about the Templars, a connection from them to the ancient cultures of Asia would have been welcome. Again, perhaps the sequel will explore more in that direction.

Will I read the sequel? I can see it happening. As I say, Chadda's action scenes were great and I am curious about where he takes the Templar theme in the next book.

 
 
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Forgotten by Cat Patrick
Little, Brown, 2011

Every morning, London Lane wakes up and cannot remember anything that has happened before. Not only is the previous day forgotten, but her entire life up to that point is unremembered. Reading letters that she writes to herself each night, each morning London gets caught up on what is going on in her life: school, friendships, and a very cute new boyfriend named Justin. The thing is, London can "remember" events that occur in the future - such as upcoming spring breaks with her best friend - but Justin doesn't appear to be there. When she begins dreaming of a funeral she fears that it may be connected to Justin, but how? And whose funeral is it?

Pros:
Fantastic premise.
Awesome mother.
Dreamy love interest.
Mysterious family history.

I loved the idea of amnesia combined with "remembering" the future, which is a helpful plot point in the sense that it allows London to know her mother and best friend. It also creates tension with London's dream of the funeral and working out when it happened and who died, as well as not knowing who Justin is because he's not in her memories of upcoming events. I found the beginning of the book to be confusing though, and didn't know what was going on with London and her memory for the first couple of chapters. I imagine that it would be obvious if I re-read those chapters, but when I wasn't familiar with London's situation I found it confusing.

For the most part, I liked London: she could be a bit dramatic for my taste at times, but if I couldn't remember my past I'd be sensitive to trust issues as well. She must also get up ridiculously early if she manages to read all her notes every morning! Her mother was solid and amazingly patient, and watching London repeatedly adjust to Justin's presence - it must be very odd to be in a relationship with someone you only know from notes you wrote - was entertaining.

Speaking of the notes, I appreciated how Patrick addressed the malleability of the present in London's life. For example, London can see how an acquaintance of hers will get hurt after dating a specific boy, so she works with what she knows to try to save her from that fate. Because she is so reliant on her notes, if London doesn't write down specific things about her day she will never know what happened or didn't happen. Seeing London play with this knowledge, which was a way for her to have power over her situation, was fascinating and produced unexpected results.

Cons:
London sometimes sounded like a 80-year-old.

There were a few passages that jolted me right out of the story, such as "the wind sets flight to my bright auburn locks" (p. 8 of galley) and "the thought of [Justin] serving as older brother to these two precious ladies feels right" (p. 73 of galley). What 16-year-old uses the word locks instead of hair? To say nothing of calling 2-year-old twin girls "precious ladies," which I'm guessing may come from the author being a mother of twin girls. Although I'm sure both the author's daughters and Justin's sisters are indeed precious, I have a lot of trouble believing that a teenage girl would string that particular phrase together.

All told, Forgotten is a compelling debut from Cat Patrick and I look forward to more books from her in years to come.

**Galley provided by publisher.

 
 
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The adventures of Sir Gawain the True (The Knights' Tales, book 3) by Gerald Morris, illustrations by Aaron Renier
Houghton Mifflin, 2011

As a member of King Arthur's court, Sir Gawain is expected to be courteous and honourable. Unfortunately, despite his faultless record in tournaments, Sir Gawain has not quite been living up to expectations. When the mysterious Green Knight shows up at court during Christmas celebrations, Sir Gawain finds himself avowed to him and must keep his word despite the fact that it appears to mean certain death.

This is the third book in Gerald Morris' The knights' tales series, although it is the first one that I have had the pleasure to read. Based on the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The adventures of Sir Gawain the True makes the tale easily understandable to young students, which is not a characteristic of the original if I recall my university English courses correctly. The core of the classic story is kept - the Green Knight's challenge, the woman with her sash, the magic - and the addition of modern humor and charming illustrations certainly accentuate its entertainment value.

I got a kick out of King Arthur as portrayed by Morris: he is determined to have his knights behave honourably and is very patient with them, but is occasionally exasperated. His reactions to his knights' lack of courtesy were often humourous, and his acknowledgments of improvement act as subtle cues to the reader that appropriate behaviour was displayed. After all, adventure aside, many Arthurian tales have morals and lessons within them and this version is no different. However, I didn't feel bonked over the head with a moral, and certainly Sir Gawain wasn't perfect from the beginning but manifested thoughtful and gradual change throughout the story.

The tale itself is a lot of fun, with dwarves, reclusive lords, and jousting all coming into play. Morris' descriptions of period vocabulary, such as damsel and vow, are provided in the text in such a way that they provide information, history, and humour without really bringing the reader out of the story. As a fan of both language and history, I certainly appreciated his incorporation of both into the narrative.

I am hesitant to discuss Aaron Renier's illustrations very much because I read an electronic galley on a Kindle and some of the drawings were split into two, which certainly detracted from my enjoyment of them. However, I did like what I saw despite the fact that Renier drew the knights and King Arthur as older than I envisioned them in my head, which took me aback a bit. That is my only critique (which should be taken with a grain of salt as ages and appearances were never discussed in the text) as the style and content of the illustrations were delightful.

Morris managed to pack a legendary tale into a little over 100 pages which in itself takes great skill, to say nothing of the humour and charm of the text and illustrations. Although I've not read the previous two installments of this series, I will be seeking them out and looking forward to get my hands on them as well as any future books in The knights' tales series.

**Electronic galley provided by publisher via netGalley.

 
 
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Hereville: how Mirka got her sword by Barry Deutsch
Amulet Books, 2010

Mirka wants to be a dragonslayer, but that profession doesn't exactly jive with her Orthodox Jewish upbringing. One day on her way to school, Mirka comes across a spectacular building with a woman floating in the front yard. When she tells her sisters and brother, they don't believe her so she finds the building again and picks a giant grape. Although the grape doesn't bite her, the giant pig who now follows her around might! How can she possibly get rid of it?

This graphic novel is a whole lot of fun, and I really appreciated how her religion and lifestyle played a large yet not oppressive role. Mirka's Yiddish sayings are defined at the bottom of the page, her family's beliefs are shown and explained clearly, and the conflict between her dream to be a dragonslayer and her family's beliefs was made evident. In fact, the tagline on the cover of the book really captures the sentiment throughout: "Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl." What's not to love about that?

The drawings themselves are line drawings with black ink, greys, and apart from the night-time scenes in grey-blues, the only colours are beige and an orange shade. I enjoyed Deutsch's style, which is fairly simple but with lots of expression and movement. There is a wide variety of panel layouts throughout, but they would be easy to follow and understand for even those who are new to graphic novels. I particularly adored how he drew the troll, and appreciated the back matter in which Deutsch showed how many iterations of the troll he went through before deciding on the final design.

Hereville should hold great appeal for upper elementary or middle grade students who like fantasy, or fans of graphic novels with strong female protagonists like Rapunzel's Revenge.

 
 
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The little prince by Joann Sfar, adapted from the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Houghton Mifflin, 2010

A man is stranded in the desert with a broken-down airplane. He is asleep one night when the little prince awakes him with a request: "Please. Draw me a sheep." Thus begins a friendship between a human and a small alien boy who wants to return to his home planet and the flower that he loves.

Sfar's graphic adaptation of the classic book by de Saint-Exupéry is very faithful to the original text. True, the entirety of the text is not included, but many of the conversations, the planets that the little prince visits, and details like the drawings that the man does are the same. I haven't done a strict adaptation-to-original comparison, but a quick skim through de Saint-Exupéry's book indicates that the essence of his tale is contained in Sfar's work.

The little prince looks quite a bit different in Sfar's adaptation: he has huge eyes and a football-shaped head. The tousled blond hair and scarf remain the same, but Sfar's version of the little prince is more alien-looking than de Saint-Exupéry's. Of course, the little prince is an alien, and his appearance grew on me throughout the book and now I can hardly picture him otherwise.

Sfar's style of illustration is distinctive. There is an informal, almost sketch-like quality to his drawings, such as scribbles to indicate texture on the ground. I'm not sure if there is an actual straight line in the entire book, but the drawing are anything but haphazard. The angles Sfar uses, especially on the planets that the little prince visits, vary widely and give a sense of the space and atmosphere at each planet. I found his interpretations of the aliens and other characters strange and fascinating, especially the king on the first planet with his elephantine nose and the fox on Earth whose ears look identical to his fluffy tail. Admittedly, Sfar's style took a few pages for me to get used to, but I ended up really liking it.

While not a replacement for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's work, Sfar's graphic novel adaptation of The little prince is a lovely introduction to or a lovely reminder of a timeless story that holds a spot in many hearts.

 
 
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Kin (The good neighbors, book 1) by Holly Black (text) & Ted Naifeh (art)
Graphix, 2008

Rue's mother has been missing for three weeks and her professor father is becoming increasingly distant. Rue is struggling to live a reasonably normal life - going to school, hanging out with her friends - and ignore the strange creatures she keeps seeing. When her father is accused of murdering a young woman, Rue tries to get to the bottom of what really happened to the young woman as well as her mother, and finds far more than she bargained for.

I've been a fan of Holly Black since reading both The Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe a few years ago, and Kin certainly reinforced to me her interest in and ability to write about humans (and people who initially believe that they are human) encountering the faerie realm. I have to say that I enjoyed both Tithe and The Spiderwick Chronicles more, however, and I'm having trouble putting my finger on why.

Naifeh's art, for one thing, is stunning. The style of both the drawing and the characters is distinctive, and the atmosphere is dark yet not particularly ominous. Rue's expressions and body language are exquisite, both of which lent meaning to her words. I also enjoyed the use of different perspectives and panel layouts throughout the book, and I appreciated how items seen early in the story turned up in a more significant way later on.

The story is more ominous than the drawings, and there is a sense of everything being not quite as it seems from the very beginning. Rue's character was well developed but Rue's parents played very little role other than causing plotting to happen, and I didn't have a sense of them as personalities. It seemed that way with many of the characters, but I'm hesitant to jump to that conclusion seeing as this is the first book in a series. Nonetheless, it felt to me as if Rue was the only "real" character in the book.

To be clear, I don't dislike Kin: it's gorgeous to look at and I am curious to see what's in store for Rue. I will seek out the sequels in the hopes that I enjoy them more.

 
 
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Dealing with Dragons (Enchanted Forest Chronicles - book 1) by Patricia C. Wrede
Magic Carpet Books (Harcourt), 1990

Cimorene is the youngest of the King of Linderwall's seven daughters, and she hates being a princess. In order to avoid royal life and marrying a prince she considers dull, Cimorene volunteers to become a dragon's princess. Although traditionally princes save princesses who have been taken by dragons, Cimorene relishes the relative freedom and becomes caught up in a plot involving wizards, dragons, and a magic stone.

Cimorene is a character that might result when the Paper Bag Princess got a little bit older: brave, smart, independent, and with no interest in being rescued by a prince. Cimorene is also perceptive and witty, and I liked her a lot (I imagine it would be quite difficult to dislike Cimorene). I found the vast majority of the characters to be entertaining and consistent, from Alianora to Kazul. Even Moranz was fun.

In fact, the my entire experience with Dealing with dragons can be summed up with that word: fun. The plot was suitably thick, the wit was quick, new and unexpected characters were delightful, and I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

 
 
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The red tree by Shaun Tan
Simply Read Books, 2003

I unabashedly adore Shaun Tan. It should be noted that this was not the case before I read The red tree. Granted, I think his The arrival is a work of genius, but The red tree spoke to me so vividly that I would probably be struck dumb if ever I was lucky enough to meet him.

The premise of The red tree is simple: a young girl wakes up and "...the day begins / with nothing to look forward to / and things go from bad to worse,"* until the end of the day when something remarkable happens. The execution, however, is anything but simple: the illustrations are stunning and the text is spare and poetic. The phrases Tan uses get right to the point, from "nobody understands" to "sometimes you just don't know what you are supposed to do." Hopelessness, fear, and yearning permeate this day in the small girl's life.

The illustrations start out simply, with a depiction of the girl getting out of bed taking up about a fifth of the story's initial two-page spread. They do not stay simple however, and scenes straight out of a dark fantasy emerge. From desolate landscapes to massive mechanical dragons and ships in roiling seas, the small protagonist encounters a long sequence of unwelcoming environments. A lone red leaf is with her throughout her day, something that I did not catch until I read the book a second time.

Having read two of Shaun Tan's other books - The arrival (2007)and Tales from outer suburbia (2008) - it is fascinating to see how some visual elements from The red tree are also found in those books. For example, one of the earliest scenes in The red tree shows the girl with a large old-fashioned submarine helmet on her head, which is very similar to the helmet found on the cover of an edition of Tales from outer suburbia. While the human characters in The arrival are more realistic in their features, the alien space and objects in The red tree have similarities to the atmosphere in The arrival.

This is a book that is, arguably, for older students. While it is as dark as it is beautiful, I would not shy away from having it in an elementary library. However, I believe that older students, especially teens, would get a lot more out of The red tree. As an adolescent I remember often feeling hopeless, misunderstood, and like nothing good would ever happen to me, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many others would agree. The red tree is a beautiful, poignant book that I will purchase for the school libraries I manage, and a thousand thanks to my professor for the recommendation.

*Another unpaginated picture book! These lines are the first three lines of the book, but all other quotes in this review will not be given a page reference.