Monday, September 1, 2014

Ruin and Rising - Leigh Bardugo

Title: Ruin and Rising
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 417 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 24, 2014
Finished: September 1, 2014

From the inside cover:

The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne. Now the nation's fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.

Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.

Aline will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova's amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling's secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter the understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction - and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she's fighting for.

I read both Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm last year and quite enjoyed the first and second books of the trilogy, so of course I was excited to get the conclusion. And then my excitement turned to deflated anger...

The story starts out well enough with Alina, Mal, and the rest (Tamar, Tolya, Genya, Nikolai etc.) managing to escape from the clutches of the Apparat and his followers underground due to the resurgence of Alina's powers. Then they go in search of the firebird to try to harness its powers before the Darkling can. Then towards the end after the firebird is found (not giving spoilers on that), things just come apart in the most spectacular fashion. Spoilers ahead, so a fair warning for everyone.

The Darkling is one of my favourite types of characters. A villain/antagonist that is a perfect mix of good and evil where you don't hate them to the point where you want them to die, but you know they need to be stopped or else everything is doomed. Plus, the scenes between him and Alina are just plain delicious dialogue-wise. So when he died in a pretty mediocre way it was disappointing, mostly because I thought the plot would've worked better if he and Alina just embraced their god-like powers together. And then Alina loses releases her powers to the citizens and Mal loses his amazing tracking skills, so they're both horribly boring and essentially go back to where they were before the first book even started. So here's a female protagonist with amazing powers greater than a god, and what happens? She reverts to mediocrity to end up with the annoying boy who had issues being there for her when she was at her best but no problems being with her when she's no better than him.

I enjoyed the series but the conclusion was disappointing, especially coming from a feminist perspective.

Thoughts on the cover:
The continuity goes on in the third cover, this time in red hues with the castle and the firebird.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts - R. J. Palacio

Title: 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts (Companion book to Wonder)
Author: R.J. Palacio
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Nonfiction
Started: August 26, 2014
Finished: August 27, 2014

From the back cover:

Inspired by the unforgettable bestseller Wonder, here are 365 precepts - principles to live by - that will enlighten, engage, inspire, comfort, and challenge readers every day of the year. There's something for everyone here, with words of wisdom drawn from popular songs, great works of literature, inscriptions on Egyptian tombs fortune cookies, characters who appeared in Wonder, and over 100 readers, who sent author R.J. Palacio their own precepts.

This beautifully designed keepsake is a celebration of kindness, hopefulness, the goodness of human beings, the power of people's wills, and the strength of people's hearts.

As many of you know, I read Wonder last year and loved it to teeny tiny pieces. Since then I've talked to many local teachers who have read it to their classes, and have even read it to my own class of grade 5s, and every time the consensus is that the kids love it, they stare in rapt attention while you're reading it and complain when it's time to put the book down, it's a phenomenon. So when I heard the author was coming out with this book, I literally squealed as I was pre-ordering it.

This book is a companion to the original novel. The author writes as Mr. Thomas Browne, the English teacher Auggie and company had in Wonder who decides to compile a book of his famous precepts (principles to live by). There are 365 of them here: some from the book, most from history, literature, modern-day figures, etc.; and even some sent in from readers (including a few from Canada, yay!) There are also written pieces done in the voice of Mr. Browne in the beginning and in between each month where he contemplates ideas and gives updates on the kid characters from Wonder (Julian even apologizes to Auggie via letter).

My favourite "month" of quotes so to speak is October's. There are ones from Victor Hugo, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Hellen Keller, Carl Sagan, Voltaire, Dr. Seuss, it's a lovely modge-podge of goodness. My favourite essay from Mr. Browne is the one after November where he discusses the idea of the four virtues (Wisdom, Justice, Courage, Temperance) and has his class weigh in on which characters from literature best embody these ideals.

I used to collect famous quotes when I was a teenager and even compiled them in a book just like this one (not as nice as this one admittedly), and using quotes as writing prompts or for assignments is something many English teachers like myself tend to do. This book is perfect for teachers looking for assignment starters or prompts for bell work, and for readers who adored Wonder and the idea of Mr. Browne's precepts.

Just read it, it's good, I promise. I could even see people buying these as gifts for the holidays, it's that type of book that has appeal.

Thoughts on the cover:
A different shade of blue than the Wonder cover, but includes Auggie's face. It's a very well put together book, very pretty.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Whisper - Chris Struyk-Bonn

Title: Whisper
Author: Chris Struyk-Bonn
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: August 16, 2014
Finished: August 23, 2014

From the back cover:

In the not-too-distant future, in a society that kills or abandons anyone with a disability, Whisper has found a loving family far from the world's cruel gaze. When she is ripped from her forest home and forced to become her brutal father's house slave, her only solace is her music. Whisper has all but given up hope of ever feeling safe or loved. Then she is sent to the city, to Purgatory Palace, where other "rejects" gather. Could it be that home and love are closer than she thought?

This one had an interesting premise, so I picked it up. Although the story is not a typical dystopian that involves a group of revolutionaries overthrowing a corrupt government that oppresses the people, the story does involve a girl that manages to maintain her human dignity at the mercy of a society that considers her barely above dirt.

In a futuristic society that is seemingly on the outskirts of a first-world nation (distinguished university nearby, radio reports about the Dow Jones), increasing numbers of people are born with disabilities and deformities. Boys are kept more often because they are valued, while "reject" girls are either killed outright or abandoned. Whisper, born with a cleft palate, was lucky; she was raised by elderly Nathanael in a camp intended for children like her. After her mother stops her annual visit and later dies, Whisper is reclaimed by the same father who tried to murder her just after her birth. When her presence at her family's home proves more a nuisance than help, she is directed to beg on the streets by playing her violin. She is then discovered by a university music professor who recognizes her gift, giving her a place at the university to study. But will Whisper be accepted there?

There were several questions that weren't fully answered but more hinted at. Why are there more children born with disabilities and deformities? Why don't the families pursue surgery to correct their children's issues? Why was Whisper still ostracized amongst the educated populace of the university? There wasn't a lot of background information given here that would help answer those questions, so I would've appreciated more of that. The story is marketed as dystopian but it really could take place in  modern times or the recent past, I'm sure there are stories of girls like Whisper that come out of third world countries that wouldn't surprise me.

The story itself, despite the lack of background information and more typical dystopian elements, is amazing. Whisper's experiences show how children born with deformities in this world are viewed and treated, and even has an example of a young man with a developmental disability (cognitive delays) whose family manages to keep him home while not invoking the wrath of the village because his issues aren't immediately visible. Whisper is subjected to subhuman treatment, at one point forced to sleep in a doghouse, and barely escapes sexual slavery; and yet the educated populace living in the same city have no idea this is going on. The story comes as a punch to the gut purely because you know circumstances like these happen everyday, that people unfortunate enough to be born in a different country with a disability, into families without money to pay for surgery to correct it, are treated horribly. Whisper gives these experiences a very human story: readers feel her shame over being treated like a dog, her stress in trying to please her father to keep herself alive, her determination to make people see her real self without her veil.

A very realistic and heart-breaking story about what happens when we view a specific part of our populace as subhuman.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they used a veil on the cover model just like Whisper herself uses, and including the little carved violin around her neck was a great touch.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Kids Are Weird: And Other Observations from Parenthood - Jeffrey Brown

Title: Kids Are Weird: And Other Observations from Parenthood
Author: Jeffrey Brown
Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 108 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel, Parenting
Started: August 20, 2014
Finished: August 20, 2014

From the back cover:

Eisner Award-winning author of the bestselling Darth Vader and Son and Vader's Little Princess Jeffrey Brown brings his perceptive humour to everyday parenting, capturing the hilarious, sweetly weird moments parents everywhere experience in the adventures of raising a child.

The author's "Darth Vader and Kids" books as I call them are well-loved in this house, I've given them as presents to my husband for Father's Day for two years in a row (with the brand new Goodnight Darth Vader book going in his stocking for Christmas, shhhh!). So when I saw he was releasing a generic parenting graphic novel, I figured it was a no-brainer. Unfortunately this particular book didn't make as much of an impression on me as his Darth Vader books.

Perhaps I'm just a huge geek and parenting anecdotes just seem funnier when experienced by the Sith Lord, but while this particular book definitely had it's weird episodes, the weirdness seemed to cross the boundary from "quirky but totally cute" to "so weird and quirky it makes you give the kid the side-eye." Most of the anecdotes just weren't all that funny. I'm sure they're funny to the author in the same way everything my 3-year-old does is hilarious to me, but at least I can admit that not everyone is going to be enamoured with my kid's quirks the way I am.

The image above is one part I did giggle at though, because let's face it, kids embarrassing parents is always funny.

The art style is great just like his other books, I noticed he tends to put a lot of detail into his backgrounds.

Didn't make as much of an impression as the author's Darth Vader books, which if you haven't read those or bought them for the dad in your life, you need to go do that now. I'll wait...

Thoughts on the cover:
Very bright colour scheme used here, if nothing else it's really eye-catching.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Girl in Reverse - Barbara Stuber

Title: Girl in Reverse
Author: Barbara Stuber
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: August 14, 2014
Finished: August 14, 2014

From the inside cover:

When Lily was three, her mother put her up for adoption, then disappeared without a trace.Or so Lily was told. Lily grew up in her new family and tried to forget her past. But with the Korean War raging and fear of "commies" everywhere, Lily's Asian heritage makes her a target. She is sick of the racism she faces, a fact her adoptive white parents won't take seriously. For Lily, war is everywhere - the dinner table, the halls at school, and especially within her own skin.

Then her brainy little brother, Ralph, finds a box hidden in the attic. In it is a baffling jumble of broken antiques - clues to her past left by her "Gone Mom." Lily and Ralph attempt to match these fragments with rare Chinese artifacts at the art museum. She encounters the artistic genius Elliot James, who attracts and infuriates Lily as he tries to draw out the beauty of her golden heritage. Will Lily summon the courage to confront her own remarkable creation story? The real story, and one she can know only by coming face-to-face with the truth long buried within the people she thought she knew best.

Between the time period of the early 50s during the Korean War, and the fact that the protagonist is of Asian descent (turns out later she's actually biracial), I knew I'd be picking this up.

It's 1951 in Kansas City, Missouri at the height of the Korean War. Lillian was born in 1934, then placed for adoption by her mother in 1937, shortly after which she was adopted by the Firestones. Lily is of Chinese background, a fact that her parents try to ignore rather than acknowledge, even when Lily becomes the victim of racist taunts as a child during the WWII years and then later as a teenager when the Korean War breaks out. When Lily's 11-year-old brother Ralph finds a box in their attic full of Lily's belongings from the orphanage before her adoption, it peaks both their interests in Lily's origin story. Through some interesting detective work and visits to the nearby art museum complete with an expert in Chinese art, Lily and Ralph piece together who Lily's birth mother is, why she came to the US, why she placed Lily for adoption, and even who her birth father is. As a side plot, Lily has encounters with Elliot, a boy with a talent for art, who asks her to pose for him. He ends up giving Lily a drawing that turns all the political cartoons her classmates have been using as their racist fodder back on the kids themselves (it's very clever, I'll let you read it).

The story starts out slow but quickly picks up once Lily and Ralph investigate the items in the box. I loved Ralph, he's a cute, smart little kid who steals every scene he's in. I was happy to see that the romance element was not the focus of the book, but what was there was very sweet. I think the overwhelming message of the book ends up being about the difficulties of adoption, especially trans-racial adoption during a less tolerant time (but it's still very relevant today since trans-racial adoptees still have lots of issues). The fact that Lily's parents do not acknowledge her Asian heritage and struggles with racism due to it are highlighted and shown as a negative thing for them to do as her parents, which was nice to see. There's even a heart-felt talk between Lily and her mom about why they adopted her if they were just going to ignore this huge part of her, it doesn't really resolve itself but there's the feeling that they're beginning to understand each other. I like that it didn't end happily right off the bat, because these issues are often ongoing in real life and sometimes aren't ever resolved.

A coming of age story that's an interesting look back in time with a likeable protagonist. The themes of adoption and it's difficulties, particularly trans-racial adoption, really stand out and make the book relatable to modern times as well.

Thoughts on the cover:
The green-tray tinge to the cover is pleasing for some reason, and the ink outlines of the Chinese dragons along the bottom are a nice touch.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Think Like a Freak - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Title: Think Like a Freak
Author: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 254 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: August 8, 2014
Finished: August 12, 2014

From the inside cover:

The New York Times bestselling Freakonomics changed the way we see the world, exposing the hidden side of just about everything. Then came SuperFreakonomics, a documentary film, an award-winning podcast, and more.

Now, with Think Like a Freak, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have written their most revolutionary book yet. With their trademark blend of captivating storytelling and unconventional analysis, they take us inside their thought process and teach us all to think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally - to think, that is, like a Freak.

Levitt and Dubner offer a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems, whether your interest lies in minor lifehacks or major global reforms. As always, no topic is off-limits. They range from business to philanthropy to sports to politics, all with the goal of retraining your brain. Along the way, you'll learn the secrets of a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion, the reason an Australian doctor swallowed a bunch of dangerous bacteria, and why Nigerian e-mail scammers make a point of saying they're from Nigeria.

Some of the steps toward thinking like a Freak:

  • First, put away your moral compass - because it's hard to see a problem clearly if you've already decided what to do about it. 
  • Learn to say "I don't know" - for until you can admit what you don't know, it's virtually impossible to learn what you need to.
  • Think like a child - because you'll come up with better ideas and ask better questions.
  • Take a master class in incentives - because for better or for worse, incentives rule our world.
  • Learn to persuade people who don't want to be persuaded - because being right is rarely enough to carry the day. 
  • Learn to appreciate the upside of quitting - because you can't solve tomorrow's problem if you aren't willing to abandon today's dud. 
Levitt and Dubner plainly see the world like no one else. Now you can too. Never before have such iconoclastic thinkers been so revealing - and so much fun to read. 

I read the first Freakonomics book (but not the second) years ago and loved it, so of course I picked up this for a fun read. The book is an ode to thinking outside the box, and some of the examples here will definitely have you giving the book the side-eye...not sure if anyone else does that to their books or if it's just me...

The one downside is that they do re-hash some concepts from previous books. I didn't read the second book so I'm not sure if they recycled more than what I recognized from the first book. That doesn't really detract from the overall enjoyment, but I thought I'd throw that out there. 

So in addition to the general Freakonomics ideas like incentives rule the world, and correlation does not equal causation, there are some really interesting concepts that the authors talk about in this instalment. One is the idea of weeding people out (getting people to reveal their guilt through their own behaviour, using strategies to prey upon the gullible etc.) The examples they give to illustrate this are of the Biblical King Solomon and the women's dispute over the baby, Van Halen specifically requesting no brown M&Ms while on tour, and Nigerian e-mail scammers.

I adore the part where they talk about the three hardest words in the English language are "I don't know", because it's so true, and the need to be able to admit when we don't have enough information to give a proper answer. I thought the idea behind Smile Train's "once and done" way of soliciting donations was groundbreaking, very simple yet so ingenious. And the section where a doctor proves how ulcers are really caused by swallowing a jar of bacteria was crazy yet correct. There are lots of side-stories and examples used to complement their main ideas, giving the book a nice quick pace. And as a bonus, I now have a soccer example from the book I can use to illustrate an existing idea I like to refer to as, "if you're going to fail, fail spectacularly". The authors use the soccer analogy to elaborate on why soccer players don't kick towards the dead centre of the net on a penalty kick even though statistically that's the best odds of making it.

A quick, entertaining, and enlightening read; definitely worth a trip to the library. 

Thoughts on the cover:
The little Freakonomics apple-orange hybrid is up at the top, and the cover incorporates a mostly orange cover with green font at the bottom, so the Freakonomics trademarks are easily recognized here. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War - Matt Faulkner

Title: Gaijin: American Prisoner of War
Author: Matt Faulkner
Publisher: Disney Hyperion Books, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 144 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction
Started: August 7, 2014
Finished: August 7, 2014

From the inside cover:

San Francisco, 1941: America has just declared war on Japan.

With a white mother and a Japanese father, Koji Miyamoto quickly learns that his home is no longer a welcoming one. Streetcars won't stop for Koji, and his classmates accuse him of being an enemy spy. When a letter arrives from the government notifying him that he must go to a relocation centre for Japanese Americans, he and his mother are forced to leave everything they know behind. Once there, Koji soon discovers that being half white in the internment camp is just as difficult as being half Japanese in San Francisco.

Koji's story, based on true events, is brought to life by Matt Faulkner's cinematic illustrations, which reveal Koji struggling to find his place in a tumultuous world - one where he is a prisoner of war in his own country.

I love war narratives, and graphic novels are sometimes the best format for them because I feel some stories need to be visual to make an impact. This story is a unique one, it's about the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, and while that idea itself has been done before, I don't think I've ever seen a graphic novel of it, let alone one from the point of view of a biracial Japanese American. Koji's situation is familiar: not fully accepted in San Francisco because his father is Japanese and has been away visiting Japan for the past year and that looks suspicious to the government, and not being accepted by the Japanese community either due to the fact that he's mixed.

Japan has complicated ideas about biracial children, any foreigner or part of a foreigner is labeled "gaijin" (literally "outside person"), and ostracized due to the combination of the Japanese group mentality and xenophobia. Such ideas about biracial individuals are thankfully less of an issue in this country, and are slowly being eradicated in Japan (though some people with biracial children report poor treatment while living in Japan).

Stories like this are important for kids to read, mainly because they explore cruel acts committed against innocent citizens by their own government (Canada interned it's Japanese Canadian citizens too, it's not something we're proud of. There's also the old saying that I very much believe in: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. There were many atrocities that occurred in various countries in the WWII era, and learning about how those situations even grew to the point they did and how to combat those attitudes will ensure that future generations will not face the same conflicts again. There are comparisons you could make to the current conflicts in the Middle East to modernize the content for kids that claim that that kind of stuff couldn't possibly happen these days (and oh we've proven those kids wrong before).

Eclectic artwork reminiscent of old-style comics that tells an important story. It adds credibility that the events in the book are based on the life of the author's great-aunt.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the colour palette, and that the cover resembles one of Koji's dream sequences, complete with his dad flying the little plane.