Thursday, August 9, 2018

Only Child - Rhiannon Navin

Title: Only Child
Author: Rhiannon Navin
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: August 8, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Sometimes the littlest bodies hold the biggest hearts, and the quietest voices speak the loudest.

Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first-grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. They've practiced lockdown drills before - it was fun and exciting then. But this time it's not a drill. A gunman has entered the school, and in a matter of minutes he will take nineteen lives and irrevocably change the fabric of this close-knit community.

While Zach's mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter's parents, holding them responsible for their son's actions, Zach retreats into the healing world of books and art. Armed with his new insights, and the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach becomes determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion they need to pull them through their darkest hour.

Only Child introduces readers to not one but two remarkable new voices: that of Zach Taylor, the precocious gentle narrator, and that of author Rhiannon Navin, who breathes life into him with the compassion, honesty, and humour of a natural storyteller. Dazzling and tenderhearted, Only Child teaches us all to "see through the noise of our adult lives, back to the undeniable truth of childhood - kindness begets kindness" (Bryan Reardon, author of Finding Jake).

Review:
As both a teacher and a mom (especially one who was a teenager during Columbine), school shootings are a paralyzing thing to read about. As a mom, I think immediately of my own six-year-old and the instinct to keep her safe (I cried when she first started lockdown drill practices in her school), and as a teacher the sickening thought that if my own class were ever involved in one, that I would most likely be killed trying to protect them.

Only Child is the story of six-year-old Zach, who survives a school shooting that claims the life of his older brother, Andy. Zach's story opens with him already in the closet as the shooting begins. The author grabs your interest right away with achingly real descriptions of what a class of six-year-olds and their teacher would be doing and feeling once they start to realize the "pops" they're hearing are actually gunshots. The teacher swears in her frustration trying to unlock her phone to call 911, kids are puking from fright and being confined in a closed space, Zach hones in on the smells and the sounds (which will later be PTSD triggers for him) because he literally can't do anything else. The chaos of the aftermath was wonderfully done too: the blood-stained clothes, the confusion, kids trying to wait for their parents and parents trying to figure out where their children are...it was so hard to read, but I have to give the author credit for a realistic portrayal.

The author not only handles the event of the shooting with realism, but also what happens after the families return home. I actually liked how the author addresses through Zach the idea that sometimes we have conflicting thoughts about people who die: Andy had ODD and was a challenging child who was a jerk to his little brother most of the time, and Zach calls out his parents when they gloss over that at the funeral and at the interviews that follow. The loss of a child is something that very few marriages manage to survive, so the aspect of the parents' relationship is depicted as well.

I fell in love with Zach as a narrator, he's not only lovable but realistic as well, reading his thoughts sounded like my six-year-old daughter talking. There is only one thing I take issue with regarding the author's portrayal of Zach: there is no way a six-year-old is mature enough to do some of the things Zach is depicted doing. Zach obtains all his information about the shooting through the news reports on TV and the iPad afterwards, requiring an impressive amount of reading. Now, this is plausible for some strong readers at six, my own kid surprises me at the complexity of words she can actually read on her own still months away from turning seven. But the author goes out of her way to mention that Zach isn't a particularly strong reader like Andy, who was tested as gifted and read the Harry Potter series at Zach's age. Zach also uses art and colour to illustrate his feelings, pairing up colours to match the mood he's in, completely on his own. That kind of concept would be difficult for some kids to understand, and for a six-year-old boy to just decide to do that completely on their own is something I have trouble believing.

Recommendation:
This is the emotional equivalent of getting hit by a train...times ten. Beware, you will ugly cry and need a box of tissues, but it's so worth it.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's very plain, but the seemingly random colours do tie into Zach's use of colour to describe his feelings: green for anger (like the Hulk), yellow for happy, grey for sadness, red for embarrassed.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

How to Build a Girl - Caitlin Moran

Title: How to Build a Girl
Author: Caitlin Moran
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 28, 2018
Finished: August 5, 2018

Summary:
From the inside cover:

What do you do in your teenage years when you realize what your parents taught you wasn't enough? You must go out and find books and poetry and pop songs and bad heroes - and build yourself.

It's 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there's no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde - fast-talking, hard-drinking gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer - like Jo in Little Women, or the Brontes - but without the dying-young bit.

By sixteen, she's smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, and working for a music paper. She's writing pornographic letters to rock stars, having all the kinds of sex with all the kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.

But what happens when Johanna realizes she's build Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters, and a head full of paperbacks enough to build a girl after all?

Imagine The Bell Jar - written by Rizzo from Grease. How to Build a Girl is a funny, poignant, and heartbreakingly evocative story of self-discovery and invention, as only Caitlin Moran could tell it.

Review:
After reading the sequel to this book, How to Be Famous, I figured I'd give the first instalment a try. How to Build a Girl is a hilarious read for sure, but I much more enjoyed How to Be Famous. 

Fourteen-year-old Johanna lives in an overcrowded, low-income housing unit in Wolverhampton in the early 1990s. After she both humiliates herself on local television and accidentally gets her family kicked off their welfare benefits, she reinvents herself under the pseudonym of Dolly Wilde and gets a job as a music writer for the magazine D&ME. She dresses like a goth, smokes, does drugs, has lots of wild, crazy sex with men she barely knows, all while travelling around interviewing bands. Not only is she trying to help support her family, she's also trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to be, which makes this novel both appealing and a touch bit cliche. Granted, what saves this novel is that Johanna and her family are hilarious to read about. Johanna's not one of those annoying heroines who doesn't figure things out in the event of a royal screw-up, she smartens up and has some real growth.

Recommendation:
Not an overall fresh type of story, but funny as all hell, so it's worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity between this first instalment and the sequel's covers, very punk and grunge-y.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Court of Frost and Starlight - Sarah J. Maas

Title: A Court of Frost and Starlight (4th book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series)
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 229 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 19, 2018
Finished: July 27, 2018

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Feyre, Rhys, and their close-knit circle of friends are still busy rebuilding the Night Court and the vastly changed world beyond. But Winter Solstice is finally near, and, with it, a hard-earned reprieve.

Yet even the festive atmosphere can't keep the shadows of the past from looming. As Feyre navigates her first Winter Solstice as High Lady, she finds that those dearest to her have more wounds than she anticipated - scars that will have a far-reaching impact on the future of their court.

Narrated by Feyre and Rhysand, this wondrous tale of hope and promise picks up after A Court of Wings and Ruin and sets the stage for the thrilling events in the future books.

Review:
The Court of Thorns and Roses series is one of my favourites in recent years. After thoroughly enjoying A Court of Thorns and Roses for its nods to Beauty and the Beast, falling absolutely in love with A Court of Mist and Fury (because it's just awesome, go read it if you haven't already), and appreciating A Court of Wings and Ruin for tying up loose ends, I honestly thought the series was done, but thankfully one of my students clued me in to this lovely surprise. This is more of a novella than a full-on instalment, it's a bridge from the first three books into however many more are coming in this series (which, according to Goodreads, is another three books and one more novella).

In the aftermath of the events of A Court of Wings and Ruin, A Court of Frost and Starlight is a fluffy little piece meant to make you smile. Winter Solstice has arrived, and all our favourite characters are trying to enjoy their brief reprieve while still suffering from the various traumas they've incurred. And what better event to bring about the warm and fuzzies than the Fae version of Christmas! Again, most of this is fluff (characters shopping for Solstice presents, lots of sex involved), but we do get a brief nod to potential plot lines in future books such as the unrest brewing in the mountain camp.

More of interest to me is the character development, and we do get some of that here. Feyre is trying to adjust to her new role and struggling with self-care, Cassian doesn't know what to do regarding Nesta, Elain and Nesta are coming to terms with being made Fae, and Lucien is torn between the Spring Court and Elain. There's not nearly enough character development for the characters I wanted to see more of, like Nesta, Elain, and Cassian, but I'm hoping future books will have more to offer for them.

Recommendation:
This is the Hallmark Christmas Movie for this series. It's meant to be fluffy and cute, which it delivers in spades, but not a necessary read if you're expecting it to be the same as the previous books.

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, I like the continuity with previous covers. Feyre is looking quite winter-y and festive, which fits the feel of the book.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Ash Princess - Laura Sebastian

Title: Ash Princess
Author: Laura Sebastian
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 433 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 5, 2018
Finished: July 19, 2018

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day the Kaiser took Theodosia's family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess - a title of shame to wear in her new life as a prisoner.

For ten years, Theo has been a captive in her own palace.She's endured the relentless abuse and ridicule of the Kaiser and his court. She is powerless, surviving in her new world only by burying the girl she was deep inside.

Then, one night, the Kaiser forces her to do the unthinkable. With blood on her hands and all hopes of reclaiming her throne lost, she realizes that surviving is no longer enough. But she does have a weapon: her mind is sharper than any sword. And power isn't always won on the battlefield.

For ten years, the Ash Princess has seen her land pillaged and her people enslaved. That all ends here.

Review:
From the start I was intrigued by this book, but wary at the same time. The cover screams Red Queen, seriously what is it with the recent trend of putting just crowns on YA fantasy books, it's almost as bad as the headless girl trend a few years back. Not only the cover, but the story seems familiar as well: girl who's lost everything is aided by boy, manipulates her way in and out of trouble, etc. But thankfully this book is saved by a few things: decent world building and a likeable heroine.

I give the author credit for the world building here, the Astrean gods and goddess stories interspersed throughout are entertaining and engaging, and the magic system is well executed. I like how the characters even get into philosophical discussions regarding this. Most Astreans believe that one needs to be chosen by the gods to wield the powers of the spirit gems, but most people enslaved in the mines by the Kalovaxians can wield the power simply because it has leeched into their blood by over exposure. Plus, there's the lovely little allegory about the very Germanic, fair Kalovaxians invading and enslaving the dark-haired, olive-skinned Astreans that definitely does not go unnoticed.

Theo is also an intriguing narrator. She doesn't delude herself about anything: her strength or lack of it, her feelings regarding anyone, how dismal her situation really is...at the very least she is honest. So  even though there is a sort-of love triangle, it isn't annoying because Theo doesn't lie to herself thinking she actually loves either boy, at least at this stage. She's smart and brave, yet vulnerable enough to root for since no one is quite sure whether her crazy schemes will actually come to fruition.

Recommendation:
Though many elements here have been done before, the world building and Theo herself make this worth the read. This is the first book of a planned trilogy, so I will definitely be picking up the next book in 2019.

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, it screams Red Queen. It's pretty, but not very original.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

How to Be Famous - Caitlin Moran

Title: How to Be Famous
Author: Caitlin Moran
Publisher: HarperCollins, July 3, 2018, (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: June 21, 2018
Finished: June 29, 2018

Summary:
From the back cover:

Johanna Morrigan (aka Dolly Wilde) has it all: she is nineteen, lives in her own flat in London, and writes for the coolest music magazine in Britain. Her star is rising, just not quickly enough for her liking.

Then, John Kite, Johanna's unrequited love, has an album go to number one. Suddenly John exists on another plane of reality: that of the famouses, a world of rabid fans and VIP access. Johanna lacks the traditional trappings of fame (famous parents, mind-scorching hotness, exotic sandals, etc.), so she does the only thing a self-respecting Lady Sex Adventurer can do. She starts a magazine column critiquing the lives and follies of the famouses around her. But as Johanna skyrockets to fame herself, she begins to realize that with celebrity comes sacrifice, and hers may mean giving up the one person she was determined to keep.

For anyone who has been a girl or known one, who has admired fame or judged it, How to Be Famous is a big-hearted, hilarious tale of fame and fortune - and all they entail.

Review:
I've been familiar with Moran's work for several years now, so when I was contacted by the publisher asking me if I wanted a copy of her newest book, I enthusiastically said yes. How to Be Famous is a sequel of sorts to her previous novel, How to Build a Girl, which you don't need to have read to enjoy this newest instalment - I haven't, but I can assure you, I will be rectifying that shortly.

How to Be Famous takes place in London circa 1994-1995 and follows the life of Johanna Morrigan, a nineteen-year-old living the life most teenagers would die for. She lives on her own, writes for a music magazine, and gets to interview famous people for a living (oh, 1994, when someone could actually live independently and have a job in the entertainment industry in their late teens). Johanna's life isn't perfect though. She is becoming increasingly aware of the sexism inherent in the male-dominated industry she works for; and her unrequited love, John Kite, rockets to stardom, leaving her further behind. She decides to win John Kite's heart the way she does best: by writing.

Moran does a wonderful job of capturing the spirit that was the mid-90s, and reminding us that even though we're looking at these events more than 20 years in the future, the problems Johanna faces are, not surprisingly, quite contemporary and relatable. There's a definite feminist vibe to the book (as with all of Moran's works), but everything is conveyed so well through Johanna's experiences to the point where you have such empathy for the character that you would literally punch Jerry Sharp in the face if he suddenly appeared in corporeal form before you.

Moran also writes with an amazing sense of humour. I began reading this book while proctoring exams, and it was a serious struggle to not burst out laughing while my poor students were trying to concentrate. So I thank the author for not only writing a wonderful book, but for rescuing me from the complete boredom that is proctoring exams. Not only is Johanna's narration deliciously funny, the character of Suzanne is absolutely hysterical. Heck, all of the characters are, but Suzanne is a particular treat for readers.

Moran's writing is not only funny, she has a gift for metaphor as well. I have several passages that are particular favourites, but this one is probably the least spoiler-y: "At this point, John's life was like a zoo on fire. Animals running everywhere. If I kissed him here, then, that kiss would just be just one more confused penguin, lost in a crowd of panicking zebras, and lions trying to eat eagles. I didn't want to be a sidelined penguin. I wanted to be the whole Ark."

Recommendation:
A deliciously funny romp amidst the backdrop of the British music scene of the mid-1990s with a feminist twist. Give this a go, you won't be disappointed.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the punk/grunge look on the kids in the image, and the hot pink and yellow colour scheme is just immensely appealing.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Shape of Water - Guillermo Del Toro and Daniel Kraus

Title: The Shape of Water
Author: Guillermo Del Toro and Daniel Kraus
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 314 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: June 18, 2018
Finished: June 20, 2018

Summary:
From the inside cover:

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito - mute her whole life, orphaned as a child - is struggling with her humdrum existence as a janitor working the graveyard shift at Baltimore's Occam Aerospace Research Centre . Were it not for Zelda, a protective coworker, and Giles, her loving neighbour, she doesn't know how she'd make it through the day.

Then, one fateful night, she sees something she was never meant to see, the Center's most sensitive asset ever: an amphibious man, captured in the Amazon, to be studied for Cold War advancements. The creature is terrifying but also magnificent, capable of language and of understanding emotions...and Elisa can't keep away. Using sign language, the two learn to communicate. Soon, affection turns into love, and the creature becomes Elisa's sole reason to live.

But outside forces are pressing in, Richard Strickland, the obsessed soldier who tracked the asset through the Amazon, wants nothing more than to dissect it before the Russians get a chance to steal it. Elisa has no choice but to risk everything to save her beloved. With the help of Zelda and Giles, Elisa hatches a plan to break out the creature. But Strickland is onto them. And the Russians are, indeed, coming.

Developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release - one story interpreted by two artists in the independent mediums of literature and film - The Shape of Water is unlike anything you've ever read or seen.

Review:
I adored the film when it came out at the end of last year, so picking up the novelization of it was a given.

If you've already seen the film, there's not much else to tell you since you already know the story. What I like best about the novel is that it's written in third person omniscient, we get to see into the minds of practically every single character, including the creature, Strickland, and even Strickland's wife. These viewpoints in particular were the most intriguing to me, I love hearing from the antagonist's point of view, and having his wife's story included was a nice bonus, she's surprisingly a pretty fleshed out character. There were only a couple segments written from the creature's point of view, but they were stunningly profound despite their simplicity in language.

Recommendation:
If you enjoyed the film you have to read the novel, it complements the film nicely and gives a greater breadth of dimension to the story and characters.

Thoughts on the cover:
I think the cover image was one version of the movie poster, if I remember correctly. It's a nice image, so it works.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Hazel Wood - Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 355 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: June 11, 2018
Finished: June 18, 2018

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Seventeen-year-old Alice Proserpine and her mother have spent most of Alice's life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice's grandmother, the reclusive author of a book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get. Her mother is stolen away - by a figure who claims to come from the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother's stories are set. Alice's only lead is the message her mother left behind:

"Stay away from the Hazel Wood."

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother's cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with her classmate and fairy-tale superfan Ellery Finch, who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To find her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood and then into the world where her grandmother's tales began - and where she might discover why her own story went so wrong.

Review:
I wanted to like this, I really did. The plot summary reads like the kind of dark fairy tale I would normally devour, hence why I picked it up.

The first half of the book is slow, granted, but was interesting enough. Alice and her mother live a nomadic lifestyle due to an uncanny amount of bad luck that follows in their wake. When they receive notice that Althea, Ella's mother and famous author, has died at the Hazel Wood, Ella believes that they can finally move on with their lives and settle down somewhere. But when Ella is taken from their Brooklyn home, Alice teams up with Ellery to discover her family's history and the reasons behind her mother's disappearance. And that's where it all falls apart.

Alice is a difficult character to empathize with and give a damn about what happens to her. I was curious about her backstory, but not invested in her as a character. Once the road trip to the Hazel Wood is underway, I lost interest, honestly. Finch is a bit of a stereotype rather than a fleshed out character, so that annoyed me. That, and the plot doesn't make much sense at a certain point, I was just confused for the last half of the book.

Recommendation:
Worth a try if you like dark fairy tale-type stories, but beware that my issues with the book were shared by other readers as well.

Thoughts on the cover:
So pretty, I love the black with gold effects.