Review | The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

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Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armoured bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal–including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.

Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavours? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want–but what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other.

A masterwork of storytelling and suspense, Philip Pullman’s award-winning The Golden Compass is the first in the His Dark Materials series, which continues with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

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I read The Golden Compass for the first time when I was about 10 years old – while I didn’t understand a lot of the themes, I loved the armoured bears, witches, and Lyra. Naturally, when I came across a beautiful hardcover copy in Shakespeare and Company, I just had to pick it up again and see if it was as magical as I had remembered.

Lyra was just as much of a treasure as I had remembered. She’s precocious and clever, a compulsive liar (this behaviour is reflexive enough to earn her the nickname “Lyra Silvertongue”), and is filled with such love.

It’s also very easy to get sucked into the magical world that Pullman created: the daemons, witches, armoured polar bears, and mysterious energy called “Dust” are vividly imaginative and completely enthralling. I was pleasantly surprised that I remembered so many of these magical details (including one rather intense scene involving Iorek), although as a child their associated religious undertones went completely over my head.

Overall, I loved The Golden Compass just as much as (if not more than) I did when I was a kid and can’t wait to re-read the rest of the series.

Review | Hope Is A Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera

Ten-year-old Star Mackie lives in a trailer park with her flaky mom and her melancholy older sister, Winter, whom Star idolizes. Moving to a new town has made it difficult for Star to make friends, when her classmates tease her because of where she lives and because of her layered blue hair. But when Star starts a poetry club, she develops a love of Emily Dickinson and, through Dickinson’s poetry, learns some important lessons about herself and comes to terms with her hopes for the future.

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“Hope is a Ferris wheel, because you can be far away from something, really wanting it, and the wheel can bring you closer. And sometimes you can step right off, but sometimes the wheel doesn’t stop spinning, and you keep moving around and around in a circle. But you never lose sight of what you want.”

Hope Is A Ferris Wheel is an absolutely charming, yet incredibly honest, read. I was worried at first that it would be a bit too young for me (“heavenly donuts!” is an expression that the main character uses, after all), but Star’s sweet naiveté quickly won me over.

Star’s voice was incredibly authentic. She’s innocent, witty, and many of the things that she said (or, in the case of her vocabulary sentences, wrote) reminded me a lot of the children that I used to babysit. It isn’t easy being the new kid at school, especially if you don’t conform to their idea of “normal,” but Star showed remarkable resilience, determination, and optimism in spite of that. I also really liked Star’s relationship with her sister, Winter; they both love, respect, and rely on one another, despite their age differences.

Despite it’s light and humourous tone, Hope is a Ferris Wheeltouches on quite a number of heavy topics. There was one scene, in particular, that I was definitely not expecting… though, in retrospect, there was enough foreshadowing that I really shouldn’t have been surprised. These scenes completely broke my heart, as the heaviness was both alleviated and compounded by the fact that it was told through the eyes of a ten year old.

My favourite portion of the story, though, involves the poetry club that Star starts. I fully believe that there is a song, story, or poem for every moment, so I loved seeing how one poem could make such a difference in Star’s life. It generated so many wonderful, thought-provoking discussions, and I especially loved reading all of the metaphors about hope that they came up with.

Overall, Hope Is A Ferris Wheel was a charming, thought-provoking read. If I were a middle grade teacher, this would definitely find its way onto my class reading list.

Review | The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?

The School for Good & Evil is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one.

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The School for Good and Evil would make an excellent movie. It has an original premise and vivid descriptions, and also deconstructs fairytale tropes in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. It’s adorable, creative, and (surprisingly) quite dark at times, so I could easily visualize it as a cross between Shrek and Into the Woods, if it were to get the Disney treatment.

One of the things that I loved the most about The School for Good and Evil was its underlying messages. No one is inherently good or bad. You don’t have to live up to others’ expectations or society’s ideals. The School for Good and Evil also made mention of how looks aren’t everything, and that it’s the choices we make and what’s on the inside that truly count. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel as though this last message was as effectively presented – which is unfortunate, given that it’s truly important.

Our main characters, Agatha and Sophie, were the perfect foil for one another. Agatha was quite easy to sympathize with and root for, but Sophie was less likeable. That being said, I absolutely loved the character arc that Sophie went on – especially once she realized how truly important her friendship with Agatha was.

Overall, The School for Good and Evil was creative, entertaining, and filled with so many excellent messages. I’m excited to see where Agatha and Sophie’s tale goes next!

Review | The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

All aboard for an action-packed escapade from the internationally bestselling author of Airborne and the Silverwing trilogy.

The Boundless, the greatest train ever built, is on its maiden voyage across the country, and first-class passenger Will Everett is about to embark on the adventure of his life!

When Will ends up in possession of the key to a train car containing priceless treasures, he becomes the target of sinister figures from his past.

In order to survive, Will must join a traveling circus, enlisting the aid of Mr. Dorian, the ringmaster and leader of the troupe, and Maren, a girl his age who is an expert escape artist. With villains fast on their heels, can Will and Maren reach Will’s father and save The Boundless before someone winds up dead?

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The Boundless was one of my more anticipated middle grade titles for this year. It combined Canadian history (such as the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and Sam Steele) and associated lore (the legend of the last spike) with supernatural/mystical aspects (sasquatches, muskeg hags, and magic) to create a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The Boundless is written in third person present. This tense doesn’t normally work for me, since it’s harder to become emotionally invested in the characters, however it provided a sense of immediacy to this alternate Canadian history which made up for that.

Will Everett is an ordinary boy who wishes to take part in an amazing adventure story of his own. He’s a refreshing change from most heroes, as he isn’t incredibly brave or reckless in survival situations; instead, Will is loyal and determined to a fault, and has a strong sense of what is right, making him incredibly easy to like. It was a bit difficult to reconcile his voice with his supposed age, though; his internal monologues made him seem closer to a pre-teen than an adult. While this allowed The Boundless to fall into the middle grade classification, it was a bit disconcerting at first.

The secondary characters were incredibly colourful, ranging from tightrope walkers to railway workers. My absolute favourite was Mr. Dorian, the circus master, whose actions and motivations placed him firmly on the grey scale of morality. I also appreciated the parallels to another famous literary character of the same name – picking up on these subtle references wasn’t crucial to the plot (as younger readers likely haven’t read Oscar Wilde’s works), but it added a level of intrigue for those who did.

My only complaint is that the villain felt quite one-dimensional, and that the characters didn’t undergo as much growth as I had hoped they would. The villain’s anger and resentment were warranted (though his actions certainly aren’t condoned), however that wasn’t explored too much – and while that makes sense, given the target age range of the story, it would have created a more morally ambiguous character whose motivations were clearly understood.

Overall, The Boundless is a well-paced, magical adventure that is sure to appeal to middle grade audiences. It functions well as a stand alone, however I wouldn’t mind another glimpse into this alternate history that Oppel created.

I received a copy of this book from HarperCollins Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Coraline by Neil Gaiman

 “Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house. . . .”

When Coraline steps through a door to find another house strangely similar to her own (only better), things seem marvelous.

But there’s another mother there, and another father, and they want her to stay and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.

Coraline will have to fight with all her wit and courage if she is to save herself and return to her ordinary life.

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“When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.”

Coraline is a book that would have terrified me when I was younger. From Other Parents with buttons for eyes to rats that sing creepy songs, I’m positive that it would have given me nightmares. Even though I’m slightly older than the target age range for this middle grade story, I’m pleased to say that this spooky read was still thoroughly enjoyable.

Coraline Jones is someone I would love to go exploring with, since she’s curious, intelligent, adventurous, brave, and a little bit reckless. As she faces her fears in the Other world, Coraline learns some very important lessons: that getting everything you want isn’t as fun as you’d think, and that you should be careful what you wish for.

The illustrations included in the Coraline are beautiful and haunting, adding to the atmosphere of the story. My only complaint is that the story felt rather short; including the illustrations and notes from Neil Gaiman on his writing process (which are incredibly interesting to read!), it only took me a couple of hours to read the 160 pages. Although I’m quite happy with the way that it was told, I would have loved to further explore the Other world and its origins… perhaps in a sequel or companion story?

Overall, Coraline mixes a rather dark storyline with the whimsical nature of children’s literature, making for a wonderfully spooky read.

Top Ten Books On My Fall TBR List

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly book meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, she posts an idea relating to books and encourages other book bloggers to respond with their own top ten lists.

This week’s topic is “top ten books on my fall TBR list.” As always, click on the book cover to be taken to its Goodreads page.

Which books are on your to-read list for this fall? Leave me a list or a link to your Top Ten Tuesday post in the comments below.

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Saturday Showcase (September 6)

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Saturday Showcase is a weekly event hosted here at The In-Between Place which features books that you wish more people had read (or, at least, heard about).

This week’s featured book is The Bully Book by Eric Kahn Gale.

The rules governing middle school are often a mystery, but for Eric Haskins, they’re a mystery he needs to solve, and fast. He’s a normal, average kid, until sixth grade starts. For some inexplicable reason, the class bully and his pack make Eric the Grunt. Even his best friend since first grade turns on him. Eric can’t figure out why he’s the Grunt until he hears about the Bully Book, a cryptic guide that teaches you how to “make trouble without getting in trouble, rule the school and be the man” and how to select the Grunt-the kid who will become the lowest of the low.

Eric Haskins may be this year’s Grunt for now, but he’s determined not to stay at the bottom of the social ladder forever. Hilarious and compelling, The Bully Book is a must-read for every tween, tween parent, librarian and educator!

Although it’s a middle grade read, The Bully Book is for everyone as it covers a wide range of issues – bullying, peer pressure, the bystander effect – in an interesting, powerful, thought-provoking manner. I may have picked it up for Team Starkid, but I definitely kept reading for the captivating storyline.

What are some of your favourite underrated books? Leave a list in the comments below.
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Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.”

“Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.”

Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

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Fortunately, the Milk is just as quirky and imaginative as Gaiman’s other works, but a fair bit more lighthearted and humorous as it’s geared towards a younger audience. That’s not to say that adults won’t enjoy it as well; this time-traveling adventure involving pirates, wumpires, a Stegosaurus, aliens, and, of course, milk, should bring out the inner child of even the most jaded individuals. The story is complemented perfectly by Skottie Young’s illustrations in a style that reminded me strongly of a Tim Burton movie.

Overall, Fortunately, the Milk just solidifies my belief that Neil Gaiman can do no wrong – or, in this case, that he is incapable of writing a book that isn’t completely enthralling and filled to the brim with magic. If a clever, intergalactic adventure appeals to you, I highly, highly recommend giving it a try.

Friday Finds (June 27)

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Friday Finds is a weekly event hosted by Should Be Reading, where you discuss books that you’ve discovered and added to your to-read list over the course of the week. These books don’t have to be ones that you’ve purchased – they can be books that you’ve borrowed, found online, heard about from a friend, etc.

As always, if you’re interested in learning more about one of these books, click on the picture and you’ll be taken to its Goodreads page.

What books did you find this Friday? Leave me a list or a link to your Friday Finds post in the comments below.

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Top Ten Favourite Middle Grade Books

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly book meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, she posts an idea relating to books and encourages other book bloggers to respond with their own top ten lists.

This week’s topic is “top ten favourite books in X genre.” My first inclination was to pick fantasy, but I feel like a lot of the books I would choose have been used for so many of my Top Ten Tuesday posts. So, to try something different, here are my top ten favourite middle grade books* — some are childhood favourites, others are new-found loves.

*Note: these are what my local library considers to be MG books, since there’s a lot of overlap between YA and MG on Goodreads.

What are some of your favourite middle grade books? I’m always looking to read more MG fiction, so feel free to leave me recommendations!

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