Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: Dark of the Moon by Tracy Barrett

From Inside Jacket: Ariadne is destined to become a goddess of the moon. She leads a lonely life, filled with hours of rigorous training by stern priestesses. Her former friends no longer dare to look at her, much less speak to her. All that she has left are her mother and her beloved, misshapen brother Asterion, who must be held captive below the palace for his own safety. So when a ship arrives one spring day, bearing a tribute of slaves from Athens, Ariadne sneaks out to meet it. These newcomers don’t know the ways of Krete; perhaps they won’t be afraid of a girl who will someday be a powerful goddess. And indeed she meets Theseus, the son of the king of Athens. Ariadne finds herself drawn to the newcomer, and soon they form a friendship - one that could perhaps become something more. Yet Theseus is doomed to die as an offering to the Minotaur, that monster beneath the palace - unless he can kill the beast first. And that "monster" is Ariadne’s brother ...

My Rating: 4 hearts

Thoughts on the Novel: Dark of the Moon by Tracy Barrett is a re-telling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. As a huge lover of Greek mythology and having taken Classics courses, I debated whether to read Dark of the Moon because I was a little worried about the Minotaur now becoming a boy with a childlike mind rather than the fearsome creature that’s part bull and part man from the original myth. Thankfully, Barrett’s version works and managed to pleasantly surprise me.

Dark of the Moon’s strength is in its impeccable world building. I really felt as if I had been transplanted to Crete and yet as a modern reader, the setting also retained an element of fantasy because of people’s belief in the divine realm. I’ll admit to feeling a little lost when I first started the novel, but things slowly became clearer once the Athenians arrived on Crete because you begin to see how the Athenian and Cretan religions differ (though there is some overlap). Also, I found it interesting that the Athenians held some false assumptions about Crete because they didn’t know much about the Cretans.

The story is told through the eyes of two narrators: Ariadne and Theseus. Since not much is known about Ariadne in the original myth other than that she helps Theseus kill the Minotaur and is abandoned by him on the island of Naxos where she later marries the god Dionysus, Barrett was free to do whatever she wanted with Ariadne. Thus, in Dark of the Moon, Ariadne becomes a regular girl who loves her older brother Asterion and is rather lonely because as She-Who-Will-Be-Goddess, she commands a lot of respect and fear. It’s not surprising then that Ariadne delights in the company of Prokris and Theseus (who have their own plans for her).

Whereas you see the strength in Ariadne in that once things go wrong, she’s able to make fast decisions and isn’t afraid to do the hard thing; Theseus never really came into his own. His POV starts around the time that his mother tells him that his father left something for him under a boulder (but after Ariadne has already met him), so the transition to his story was abrupt and unexpected. Nevertheless, you soon experience his uneventful journey from Troizena to Athens and then onwards to Crete.

If you’re looking for a re-telling which incorporates Theseus having all sorts of adventures and fighting monsters, you won’t find it in Dark of the Moon. Rather, Barrett uses the well-known myths about Theseus – for example, he also encounters the Crommyonian sow and Procrustes in the book – to show how myths and legends develop and gain a life of their own.

A thoughtful, original and convincing re-telling, Dark of the Moon was released in September 2011 by Harcourt Children's Books. 

Comments About the Cover: It’s really hard to make out the shape of the Minotaur on the glossy cover. So, people might not realize that Dark of the Moon is based on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. 

In exchange for an honest review, this book was received from the publisher (Thomas Allen & Son) for free.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review: Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez

From Goodreads: Now is not the time for Carmen to fall in love. And Jeremy is hands-down the wrong guy for her to fall for. He is infuriating, arrogant, and the only person who can stand in the way of Carmen getting the one thing she wants most: to win the prestigious Guarneri competition. Carmen's whole life is violin, and until she met Jeremy, her whole focus was winning. But what if Jeremy isn't just hot ... what if Jeremy is better? Carmen knows that kissing Jeremy can't end well, but she just can't stay away. Nobody else understands her - and riles her up - like he does. Still, she can't trust him with her biggest secret: She is so desperate to win she takes anti-anxiety drugs to perform, and what started as an easy fix has become a hungry addiction. Carmen is sick of not feeling anything on stage and even more sick of always doing what she’s told, doing what's expected. Sometimes, being on top just means you have a long way to fall ....

My Rating: 4 hearts

Thoughts on the Novel: Jessica Martinez’s Virtuosity draws the reader into the world of classical music and one girl’s attempt to rediscover her passion for it. As someone who doesn’t know much about music and has absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, I tend to shy away from YA contemporaries dealing with the subject since I don’t know whether I’ll be interested. Fortunately, Martinez managed to captivate me with her plot and characters.

I found Carmen to be appealing and very relatable. Despite having a Grammy and being a successful musician, she has horrible stage fright and is so anxious about performing that she’s become addicted psychologically to Inderal. Now with the Guarneri coming up, she can’t help but obsess over it and her competition.

With her world completely revolving around music, it’s not surprising that Carmen does whatever her (horrid) mother Diana tells her. Rather than being a supportive mom, Diana is a control freak who keeps Carmen on a short leash and lives vicariously through her daughter since her own singing career was cut short. It’s only when Carmen meets Jeremy and the two spend time together that you start to see Carmen questioning her life and becoming more assertive.

Is it wrong that I loved the character of Jeremy – what’s not to like about a hot, confident and snarky guy with a British accent – even while I kept waiting for him to break Carmen’s heart and thus prove Diana right? The romance was a little too fast for me to consider that Carmen and Jeremy were in love – I’m very cynical if you haven’t figured this out by now – but I can believe that they really liked each other because as famous musicians, they understood each other’s life unlike the average person.

My favourite aspect of the book though was the climax and the prelude to it. Martinez managed to totally surprise me with how the Guarneri played out and the decision that Carmen chose. I love and admire Carmen for staying strong and doing something that a lot of people probably wouldn’t do in her situation.

With a fantastic debut like Virtuosity, I can’t wait to see what Martinez comes up with next!

Virtuosity was released by Simon Pulse on October 18, 2011. 

Comments About the Cover: I like that it looks like the girl is trying to break free; and since I always think pink and black look good together, it’s not a surprise that I also like the colour combination. 

In exchange for an honest review, this ARC was received from the publisher (Simon and Schuster) for free via Galley Grab.
original image from

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Author Interview: Katrina Kittle

Today, I'd like to welcome Katrina Kittle, the author of Reasons to Be Happy to my blog.

A bit about Katrina (as found on her website): Katrina was born in Illinois but has lived in the Dayton area since first grade, (except for her Year as a Gypsy). She attended Ohio University and was Outstanding Graduating Senior for both the English and Education departments. She taught high school English and theatre at Centerville High School for five years, and she taught middle school English and theatre at the Miami Valley School for six. She has also worked as a house cleaner, a veterinary assistant, a children’s theatre director, a costumer, and as case management support for the AIDS Resource Center (formerly AIDS Foundation Miami Valley). When not writing, Katrina enjoys gardening, cooking, traveling, acting, and time spent in the presence of animals (especially horses and a particular goat named Humphrey). 

One of the things I love finding out about is the story behind the story. What inspired you to write Reasons to Be Happy? 
     As a middle school teacher of several years, I grew so disheartened by a particular phenomenon I saw unfold over and over again: bright, bold, curious girls - strong and confident in their abilities - would hit the wall of self-doubt in sixth or seventh grade. They’d lose all sense of their own unique identity, stop taking any risks, and retreat into approval-seeking behaviors that made them all seem like watered-down clones of each other. Because I taught where the high school was on the same campus, I’d get to see my former students as they grew up and evolved, so I knew that mid-high school, most girls came through this on the other side, regaining their “personhood” and courage. But why did they have to go through it at all? Why were a few exceptional girls strong enough to withstand this challenge while others (who seemed equally exceptional) were not? And why was body image still such a huge part of this identity crisis? Instead of improving the situation with our awareness and understanding of body image and eating disorders, body image issues seem more pervasive than ever before - 40% of 9-year-olds have already dieted!
     All of my novels begin with social issue that I’m passionate about, and one day I realized this concern and obsession I had with “keeping girls brave and confident” was my new story. I began to seek the cast of characters who could inhabit this story, and Hannah Anne Carlisle came into existence. 

How much research did you do so that Hannah's experience with bulimia is depicted accurately?
     I'd studied classical ballet very seriously when I was younger, so I'd seen firsthand some varying levels of eating disorders. Then, when I was teaching middle school and high school, I had the experience of working with therapists and parents when my students fell into such behavior as well. I've long been fascinated with all kinds of addiction, and, really, an eating disorder is a kind of addiction. Like all addictions, the only way to stop it is to truly examine and explore why it began and what the person is getting from it. Until you recognize the source, or the need it fills, treatment will be very ineffective. It's necessary to find something else to fill that same need … but that's not possible until you know what it is. Eating disorders are just that: disorders. It's very complicated psychology. So, while I say I'm fascinated with addictions, I think I'm mostly fascinated by stories of human resilience. I think all my books share that theme. I'm interested in stories about the way people have been broken, but then become stronger at those broken places. I was inspired to capture the resilience of students I'd seen come through an eating disorder on the other side (which can take years and years), and possibly stop further girls from having to go through that horror at all. 

Although you have published books for adults, Reasons to Be Happy is the first novel you've written for tweens. How was your writing process for this book similar to and different from writing for adults? 
     I've written four novels for adults, but Reasons to Be Happy is my very first venture into writing for a younger audience. I tried not to change my approach or process too much. All of my stories have begun with a social issue I care deeply about (and because I'm such a sucker for comeback stories, second chance stories, and phoenix stories, those issues tend to be tough ones). I've written about AIDS, addiction, divorce, child abuse, and now, with Reasons, body image and eating disorders. Although the issue is always my seed for a story, I then work to create a cast who would populate a story about that issue, because a novel must be a story above all else - it can't just be a public service announcement! This felt even more crucial for a tween audience than for my adult audiences. No one wants to be lectured, after all, and because I was a middle school teacher for several years, I know that middle schoolers in particular have a built-in resistance to stories “with a lesson” for them. If you're patronizing them, they can smell it a mile away.
     It's more satisfying for the reader if any discoveries and revelations come through the character, not from me. I hoped readers, young women especially, would identify with Hannah's doubts, fears and struggles, and maybe think about Hannah's mistakes (and then, a writer's dream - to apply that knowledge to their own lives). My goal is always to invite the reader to think about the issue, but not necessarily tell them what to think about the issue. One of the greatest joys, for readers of any age, is to have something to discuss at the end of a book. Discussion isn't possible if everything is too black-and-white with no room interpretations and perspectives.
     In early drafts, I made the mistake of “watering down” and playing it too safe. A wonderful editor encouraged me to “forget your audience.” That sounds crazy, right? But she said, “I picture you picturing this room full of middle school girls. Forget them. Just write the novel you'd always write. The only difference is that all the protagonists happen to be in middle school.” This advice really spoke to me and allowed me stop trying to “filter” for the tween audience. Those attempts to filter will always show and will inevitably be insulting.
     Don't get me wrong. Of course there is a difference in presenting tough subject matter for a tween audience and an adult audience. But for me the key was my protagonist. Especially since Hannah tells the story in first-person, the only “filter” I needed was her. She tells the story with her perspective and understanding of events, not mine. That became important in revision: I would comb through looking for lines or passages that were colored by my own, more experienced viewpoint. When I found them, they had to go. Hannah could only know what she would know as an eighth grader with her own life experience so far.   
    The overall hope for any story, though, is the same no matter what age you're writing for. Above all else, I sincerely hope readers are entertained by the journey. Another quote I love (I heard it in a writing lecture once, but have no idea who to attribute it to!): “A novel is not a message clamped to a passenger pigeon's leg. It should be the experience of watching that pigeon fly from A to B.” 

With hobbies like traveling and acting, you seem to have a very busy life. How do you balance writing with all the other things you do? 
     I keep a very disciplined writing schedule. I taught for many years, so I keep the “school day” schedule as my writing day - at the desk working by 7:45 AM and sticking to it until 4:00 PM. I can't write new material all day - my brain just doesn't work that way - but I usually give the work in progress the first, best morning hours. After lunch, there's research, editing, correspondence, marketing, etc. I allow myself a certain number of “personal” and “vacation” days a year, just like any other job, and I really hold myself accountable. I even keep a “time card” to track my time on email and Facebook! (I know myself too well). 
Wow, there’s no way I could ever be so disciplined!

In Reasons to Be Happy, Hannah keeps a notebook of all the things that make her happy. What are five things that make you happy? 
It's so hard to pick just 5! :-)
  1. My amazing tribe of family and friends
  2. My very odd, very dysfunctional, very sweet cat named Joey
  3. Books
  4. Movies (I love stories, in any form! And I have a special spot in my heart for zombie apocalypse stories)
  5. Dark chocolate

Feeling the pressure to be perfect and dealing with a lot of changes, Hannah copes by trying to control her weight. What advice do you have for young girls who think that being thinner or controlling how much they eat will make them feel better about themselves or solve some of their problems? 
     I think it's important to encourage young girls to focus more on how they feel than on how they look (I know, I know, easier said than done). Just as Aunt Izzy encourages Hannah to “divert” the binges with something else Hannah loves - like running - young women can be encouraged to focus on activities that make them feel strong and empowered (and in control) in other ways. I also love Aunt Izzy's advice that “when you eat, just eat. Don't do anything else.” Really focus on the food and your eating, instead of zoning out with television or a book. Savor your food. Honor your appetites by giving them full attention. 

A big thanks to Katrina for taking the time to give such detailed answers to my questions!

Katrina can be found on: [her website] [her blog] [Twitter] [Facebook] [Goodreads]
Reasons to Be Happy can be bought from: [Amazon] [Barnes and Noble] [The Book Depository]

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review: Reasons to Be Happy by Katrina Kittle

From Goodreads: Hannah's parents are glamorous Hollywood royalty, and sometimes she feels like the ugly duckling in a family of swans. After her mother's tragic death, Hannah's grief is compounded by her desperate need to live up to her mother's image. She tries to control her weight through bulimia, and her devastated father is too distracted to notice. The secret of her eating disorder weighs heavily on Hannah, but the new eighth grade Beverly Hills clique she's befriended only reinforces her desire to be beautiful. The only one who seems to notice, or care, that something is wrong is Jasper, the quirky misfit.

My Rating: 4 hearts
Thoughts on the Novel: Katrina Kittle’s Reasons to Be Happy is a book that explores the overarching theme of beauty. Juxtaposing Hannah’s North American life with the time she spends in Ghana, Kittle allows Hannah to realize that inner beauty and learning to accept oneself are much more important than outer beauty; and in the process, enables Hannah to see the little joys in life once again.

Hannah is a girl that anyone can relate to, especially tweens – the intended target of Reasons to Be Happy. Feeling like you don’t belong, wanting to be prettier and trying to please your parents are all things most people experience growing up, and Reasons to Be Happy definitely made me remember those times. To make herself better and regain some control over her life, Hannah however resorts to binging and purging.

Kittle’s portrayal of eating disorders is very realistic and her vivid description of Hannah gorging on food – frequently stolen – and then trying to vomit it up sometimes made me nauseous. It’s often harder for people to notice bulimia because unlike anorexics, bulimics usually tend to be normal in weight or be overweight. Thus, nobody notices that Hannah seems to have a problem even as she desperately wants somebody to help stop her.

A novel that will resonate with readers and leave them thinking about their own reasons to be happy, Reasons to Be Happy was released by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky on October 1, 2011.

Comments About the Cover: The cover doesn’t really show that the book is about bulimia, and it’s kind of got a cheerful vibe as opposed to the book which has a more serious tone.
In exchange for an honest review, this book was received from the publisher (Sourcebooks) for free.    

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Without Tess by Marcella Pixley

From Goodreads: Tess and Lizzie are sisters, sisters as close as can be, who share a secret world filled with selkies, flying horses, and a girl who can transform into a wolf  in the middle of the night. But when Lizzie is ready to grow up, Tess clings to their fantasies. As Tess sinks deeper and deeper into her delusions, she decides that she can’t live in the real world any longer and leaves Lizzie and her family forever. Now, years later, Lizzie is in high school and struggling to understand what happened to her sister. With the help of a school psychologist and Tess’s battered journal, Lizzie searches for a way to finally let Tess go. 

My Rating: 3 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: Without Tess by Marcella Pixley is a book that explores the bond between sisters while attempting to determine the line between child play and mental disorder. For psychologists and psychiatrists, diagnosing a mental disorder like childhood psychosis can be really tough because children tend to naturally be imaginative.

Although the reader doesn’t know the circumstances around her death, it’s established right from the start that Tess is dead and has been for a while. Thus, other than the insight provided by Tess’ Pegasus Journal full of creepy sketches and poems, the reader can never see things from her perspective. Instead, you see and learn about Tess through her sister Lizzie’s memories.

The young Tess appears to be fine, if not a little too creative. However, as the girls get older, Tess begins to get stranger. For example, Tess claims to be a selkie when she’s at the beach with Lizzie and refuses to believe otherwise. Insistent on proving that she’s right, – and not an ordinary human like Lizzie – the two girls lie still on the cold water and let it wash over them. As the tide gets higher and the waves get bigger, Lizzie soon freaks out (unlike Tess) and ends up bashing her head on a rock, not the first time she suffers because of Tess’ wild imagination.

When a new family eventually moves in and the sisters begin to drift apart due to Lizzie’s friendship with Isabella, a jealous Tess tells Lizzie on the night of a full moon that she might turn into a wolf and murder Isabella. Scary and confusing, Pixley makes it completely clear that Tess needs help. As an aside, I also began to question Lizzie’s sanity during this part of the story – did she delude herself into thinking that Tess had changed into a wolf or was she aware that Tess was a girl?

Since Tess was so interesting and there was such a strong focus on her, I thought the character of Lizzie kind of fell by the wayside. It’s obvious that Lizzie idolized her older sister before starting to resent the attention Tess tended to receive from others, but other than that I felt like I barely knew her. In particular, I felt really closed off from Lizzie in the present because she refuses to interact with others (since she feels guilty about her sister’s death).

When Lizzie finally does begin to open herself up to someone other than her therapist, I couldn’t buy it. Having seen Niccolo interact with both Tess and Lizzie from Lizzie’s childhood memories, knowing that he was better friends with Tess, and the fact that Lizzie doesn’t hang out with anybody, the attraction between him and Lizzie just felt forced. Their spontaneous makeout session was totally unexpected and to me, it seemed like Niccolo was transferring his possible childhood feelings for Tess (after having read her Pegasus Journal) onto Lizzie.

A book that’s probably best suited for those interested in psychological issues and who don’t mind a slow-paced, character-driven novel, Without Tess was released yesterday by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

Comments About the Cover: Since grief plays an important part of the storyline in Without Tess, I think it’s appropriate that the cover show a funeral lily and feature the first two lines in the book: “I know I never said goodbye; I couldn’t bear to see you cry.”

In exchange for an honest review, this ARC was received from the publisher (Macmillan Children's Publishing Group) for free via NetGalley.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Review: The Juliet Spell by Douglas Rees

From Goodreads: I wanted the role of Juliet more than anything. I studied hard. I gave a great reading for it - even with Bobby checking me out the whole time. I deserved the part. I didn't get it. So I decided to level the playing field, though I actually might have leveled the whole play. You see, since there aren't any Success in Getting to Be Juliet in Your High School Play spells, I thought I'd cast the next best - a Fame spell. Good idea, right? Yeah. Instead of bringing me a little fame, it brought me someone a little famous. Shakespeare. Well, Edmund Shakespeare. William's younger brother. Good thing he's sweet and enthusiastic about helping me with the play...and - ahem - maybe a little bit hot. But he's from the past. Way past. Cars amaze him - cars! And cell phones? Ugh. Still, there's something about him that's making my eyes go star-crossed ....  

My Rating: 2 hearts

Thoughts on the Novel: The Juliet Spell by Douglas Rees was a quick and easy read, two reasons why I continued reading rather than abandoning it.

First off, I couldn’t connect with any of the characters, and with the exception of Drew (whose possible explanation about how Edmund time traveled was way too hard for my brain to grasp), nor did I like any of them. I thought they were too trusting, too forgiving … well, you get the idea. Here are two examples to illustrate my point:
  1. Miranda’s mother doesn’t even blink an eye after being told by her daughter that there’s a guy sleeping in their guest bedroom, and she continues to let Edmund stay with them even after learning Miranda likes him. Sure, nothing happened, but why put the temptation there?
  2. Though Mr. Hoberman left to “develop as an individual” and didn’t pay child support while he was gone, Miranda and her mother still welcome him back with open arms once he decides that he’s ready to come home. WTH? Where did all the grovelling go? 
Also, besides the fact that Miranda and her friends didn’t really talk like the teens I know, I found it really confusing as to why they often lapsed into Edmund’s way of talking. Shouldn’t Edmund be the one trying to assimilate instead? 
Another thing that bugged me was the romance. I kept waiting for Miranda to figure out that Drew liked her, but instead she fell for Edmund. I knew the two of them were “destined” to be together the minute Miranda got the tingles from holding Edmund’s hand. (Ironically, it also just happened to be the day she summoned him). Yep, Miranda got the tingles the first day she met Edmund and wanted to be his Juliet by the next. *groan* 
It’s not all bad though. Edmund’s reactions to modern things is pretty funny, and I liked that when Shakespeare is brought into the present, it changes the present. As well, I thought the ending was fitting even if it felt very rushed. 
The Juliet Spell was released in September 2011 by Harlequin Teen. 
Comments About the Cover: I think it’s cute. The black and white gives the cover a vintage feel whereas the splash of fuschia allows the title and sneakers to stand out and emphasize that the setting is modern.  

In exchange for an honest review, this ARC was received from the publisher (Harlequin Teen) for free via NetGalley.