Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Beauty and the Beast: Act Three - Megan Kearney

Title: Beauty and the Beast: Act Three
Author: Megan Kearney
Publisher: The Quietly, 2019 (Paperback)
Length: 292 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Graphic Novel, Fairy Tale, Fantasy
Started: July 12, 2019
Finished: July 12, 209

From the back cover:

It hurts to love a wild thing...

Released from her contract, Beauty returns home but cannot escape the memory of The Beast's embrace. Meanwhile, as he prepares to make one final sacrifice, The Beast finds himself drawn to the truth at the heart of the labyrinth...

At what cost came Beauty's freedom? Can love save a life? In this final volume, both Beauty and The Beast must face the truths they've kept from themselves and learn that sometimes you have to fight for the one you love.

It's bittersweet when a series you love comes to an end. You're happy to get a resolution after years of reading and waiting for instalments, but at the same time you realize that there will be no more of this thing you truly enjoyed. I discovered this locally-created series one night while scouring the internet several years ago and fell oh so hard for it. I still remember the sleep-deprivation the day after staying up until the wee hours catching up on years worth of comics in one sitting (it was worth it!). For those who missed my prior reviews, here they are for Act One and Act Two. And below is the lovely series in its entirety, which has a devoted spot on my bedside table.

For those who haven't read Acts One and Two, this author's version of Beauty and the Beast is by far my favourite adaptation of the tale. Ever. And I've read practically all of them, so that's saying a lot. 

The author incorporates the original aspects of the story and expands upon them, so the story is as much uniquely hers as it is the classic tale. The artwork here is beautiful and so incredibly expressive, I especially love how the author draws Beast's expressions. The characterization really shines as well. The author flushes out all the characters so that you're emotionally invested in everyone (I personally had a soft spot for Beauty's sister Temperance). The plot is much richer here, with flashbacks from Beast and Beauty's pasts that play into the larger story. There's also a lot of detail for bookworms that's easily missed if you only read the dialogue and ignore the backgrounds. There's so much in terms of mythological imagery and symbolism, the language of flowers, as well as literary references, you could spend hours cross-referencing everything. The author truly did her homework here. 

Moving away from the work as a whole and focusing solely on Act Three, this is the emotional equivalent of being struck by a 2x4. Beauty and Beast are separated from each other, and both are miserable. Beauty has to figure out exactly what she wants and learn to communicate this to her family (and later Beast) without running away. Beast is confronted with his past actions and has to learn to embrace the person he once was and learn from those experiences rather than simply wish that part of him didn't exist. The themes present here really hit home, which is why I think adult readers would get more out of this than younger readers. Swan Mom (nickname for Beauty's mom) has a particularly poignant quote that I wish I had learned in my younger years, it would have saved me a lot of heartache, "No matter how much one might want to save someone from themselves, it can't be done. We can only love them and stand by as we wait for them to decide whether they save themselves or not. Otherwise, you will both be dragged down." 

As with the other volumes, and in fact the series as a whole, just go read this. It has beautiful, fluid artwork and superb storytelling that actually holds up to our modern criticisms of the original tale, wonderful characters, and a depth of detail that I haven't seen in many other graphic novels. All three volumes can be purchased here. You can read the entirety of the comic online here.

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, I love when covers have continuity from one instalment to the next. This last volume is in blue (with a plethora of blue accents in the illustration), which pairs well with the red of Act Two and the green of Act One.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Candle and the Flame - Nafiza Azad

Title: The Candle and the Flame
Author: Nafiza Azad
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2019 (Hardcover)
Length: 391 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: June 28, 2019
Finished: July 7, 2019

From the inside cover:

Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. There the music of myriad languages fills the air, and people of all faiths thread their lives together. However, the city bears the scars of its recent past, when the chaotic tribe of Shayateen Djinn slaughtered its entire population - except for Fatima and two other humans. Now ruled by a new maharajah, Noor is protected from the Shayateen by the Ifrit, Djinn of order and reason, and by their commander, Zulfikar.

But when one of the most potent of the Ifrit dies, trouble brews and Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, ways that scare even those who love her. Our in hand, Fatima is drawn into the intrigues of the maharajah and his sister, the affairs of Zulfikar and the Djinn, and the dangers of a magical battlefield.

Nafiza Azad weaves an immersive tale of extraordinary magic and the importance of names; fiercely independent women; enticing food; and, perhaps most importantly, the work for harmony within a city of a thousand religions, cultures, languages, and cadences.

This is honestly the first book that I've read in the past few months that has really captivated my attention. There's so many things I enjoyed here that I'm not sure where to start, but here goes...

Fatima lives in a world where supernatural creatures made of smoke and fire (but can also take human form) called djinn coexist with humans. There are several various types of djinn: the Shayateen and the Ghul pursue chaos and slaughter humans, the Ifrit seek order amidst the chaos and align with humans to help protect against the Shayateen. Fatima's biological and adopted family are killed by Shayateen attacks several years apart, leaving herself and her adopted sister Sunaina as the few surviving humans left in Noor. When the new maharajah takes power and people begin repopulating Noor from all over, Fatima begins to navigate the world of the Ifrit, and Fatima's world as she knows it begins to change in ways she never could've imagined.

The premise of this book is not ground-breakingly unique, but all its components work together to make it fresh and appealing. There's been a slew of Middle Eastern and Indian inspired YA fantasy lit in recent years, which is so welcome and needed in the market today, and this book can be counted in that group. Fatima's city of Noor is the optimistic poster child for cultural diversity. People of all languages, cultures, and religions all mesh together and coexist, to the point where Fatima herself participates in the cultures and religions not only of her native Islam, but also Hinduism, Sikhism, Shinto, and Buddhism. The diversity in the book is glorious, and I especially appreciate the author including a glossary at the back for the many, many times my ignorant brain needed to look up all the Arabic, Hindu, and Urdu vocabulary.

The female empowerment in this novel is amazing. Fatima begins the novel spunky and sure of herself, and emerges at the end just kicking ass and taking names (both literally and metaphorically, I can't extrapolate on the phrase due to spoilers). Sunaina holds her own in her own way, but not in the same trail-blazing way as her sister. Aruna and Bhavya also have satisfactory moments of female empowerment, but more on Bhavya a bit later.

Other little tidbits that I enjoyed: the fact that the novel opens with a heart-wrenching example of a mother's sacrifice for a child, that the plot takes its time to develop but, at least in my opinion, never feels boring, that the love between Zulfikar and Fatima is genuine and realistic despite the "insta-love" setup in the plot, and that you can see how much love and care went into this story.

The only negative aspect of this novel, at least in my opinion, is that some of the character development at the end of the story seems to come about rather abruptly. It's hard to believe that the maharajah, who we know to act when needed and can stand up to those who threaten his rule, would all of a sudden do the opposite. Its equally puzzling how Bhavya went from being a sheltered, meek princess fawning over Zulfikar one minute to literally ruling the country the next. I'm not saying the changes in the characters at the end would be completely impossible, but the lack of build-up to those changes just leaves the reader feeling disoriented by it all.

Just go read this, especially if you are intrigued by or drawn to more exotic fare than standard dragons and wizards in your fantasy, you won't be disappointed.

Thoughts on the cover:
Stunning. The illustration of Fatima's fire and the gorgeous colours just made me want to stare at this.

The Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel - Margaret Atwood, Renee Nault

Title: The Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel
Author: Margaret Atwood, art and adaptation by Renee Nault
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart (Penguin Random House Canada), 2019 (Hardcover)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel, Classic
Started: June 27, 2019
Finished: June 27, 2019

From the back cover:

Offred is a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships. She serves in the household of the Commander and his wife, and under the new social order she has only one purpose: once a month, she must lie on her back and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if they are fertile. But Offred remembers the years before Gilead, when she was an independent woman who had a job, a family, and a name of her own. Now, her memories and her will to survive are acts of rebellion.

Provocative, startling, prophetic, The Handmaid's Tale has long been a global phenomenon. With this stunning graphic novel adaptation of Margaret Atwood's modern classic, beautifully realized by artist Renee Nault, the terrifying world of Gilead has been brought to vivd life like never before.

I have a confession to make. Although I am both Canadian and an English teacher, I am not fond of Margaret Atwood's writing. I love the stories she comes up with, just not the way in which she conveys them (similar to how I feel about Tolkien). So although I have read The Handmaid's Tale and  love it for the story itself, the experience was like pulling teeth. So when I discovered a graphic novel adaptation was being released, I wanted to see if this could potentially make the written form of the story more palatable, and at least in my case, it did.

The art style of the graphic novel is very aesthetically pleasing, especially the bright, bold colours. I love how the artist depicted the dress styles of Gilead being very billowy, very much like how little girls are dressed, they hide the body rather than accentuate it, which makes sense given the strict rules governing modesty in Gilead.

This is a great choice for anyone who is a fan of the original novel and would like to experience a new adaptation, or for anyone who wants to experience the story but can't quite manage Atwood's prose.

Thoughts on the cover:
Very simple but quite effective, the only thing aside from the title font that draws your attention is the tiny embossed Offred in the signature red dress.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Monsters - Sharon Dogar

Title: Monsters: The Passion and Loss That Created Frankenstein
Author: Sharon Dogar
Publisher: Andersen Press, 2019 (Hardcover)
Length: 451 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: June 13, 2019
Finished: June 20, 2019

From the inside cover:

1814: Two 16-year-old stepsisters run away with a married man. The results are devastating and the ripples will be felt for centuries.

This is the incredible story of Mary Shelley - radical, rebellious, and entranced. It is the story of a young woman who defies tradition and society, and who draws upon the monstrous elements of her own life to create the most memorable monster of them all.

Celebrating 200 years since the publication of Frankenstein, acclaimed writer Sharon Dogar brings to life the passion, tragedy and forbidden love of its teenage author.

I studied Frankenstein in university, as well as the work of several romantic poets, including Shelley, Byron, and Keats; so the fact that they were all acquainted with each other always interested me. I've used Frankenstein in my classes before, and had to explain a bit about Mary Shelley, so this novel peaked my interest as soon as I was made aware of it.

This novel begins with Shelley as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin at 14 years old, daughter of deceased revolutionary writer Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin. Mary's family is in debt, and combined with a tumultuous relationship with her stepmother, fiery Mary is sent to stay with family friends in Scotland. Despite finding some solace in Scotland, her family recalls her to London two years later in order to help impress a young, potential benefactor by the name of Percy Bysshe Shelley. All the daughters in the Godwin household (Mary, Jane, and Fanny) fall for Shelley's good looks and intelligence, but it is Mary that Shelley is most taken with.

Quite the revolutionary, Shelley is both an atheist and a bigamist, which doesn't earn him the best reputation in 19th century England. Despite this, Mary falls for him. When Mary's father refuses to give his consent for Mary to live with the already married Shelley, both Mary and her stepsister Jane (who would later change her name to Claire Clairmont) run away with Shelley in order to establish a community of like-minded individuals. Rumours of bigamy leads to the group being run out of England, and they seek refuge in France, and later Switzerland. It is in Geneva during the summer of 1816 where Mary conceived of the idea for Frankenstein when Byron proposed that each person in the group come up with a ghost story to share. At this point, Mary's first child with Shelley had already died, and her second child would die within a few short years. Claire's first child, fathered by Shelley, had already been placed for adoption, and she was pregnant with her second child, fathered by Byron.

Mary's feelings surrounding the death of her own mother shortly after her birth, the death, abandonment, and anxieties about not only her own children but the affiliated children of the group, as well as recent scientific news and advancements all contributed to the atmosphere and mood of Frankenstein.

I think one thing that stands out while reading this book was how idealistic everyone in the group was. Shelley legitimately thought he could do what he wanted with little to no recourse, Mary assumed her father would forgive her, especially after she had children; Claire was perfectly content to share Shelley with Mary, despite the fact that she knew he loved Mary more. Like many women, Mary's priorities change when she becomes a mother. The lackadaisical attitude of adolescence seemingly evaporates and she becomes more focused on the health and well-being of her children while still devoting time to her writing, despite the fact that she was still a teenager when she became a mother.

The naive life the group lead is definitely not idealized in the novel. This was underscored by the fact that the men in Mary's life seemed completely oblivious to the well-being of everyone else, leading to not only mental and emotional harm, but death as well. I used to idealize the Romantic era and its literature and figures; needless to say, I no longer do.

Wonderfully written and well-researched. This is a great read if you're interested in the background of Frankenstein or just Romanticism in general.

Thoughts on the cover:
Not quite as sophisticated as I would've liked, it doesn't really match the contents in terms of tone, but it's okay.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Cold Is in Her Bones - Peternelle van Arsdale

Title: The Cold Is in Her Bones
Author: Peternelle van Arsdale
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2019 (Simon & Schuster) (Hardcover)
Length: 278 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: April 19, 2019
Finished: April 20, 2019

From the inside cover:

To Protect Your Home From Demons:
1. If you see a snake, kill it. Then burn it.
2. Pour salt where air comes in - sills, thresholds, hearths.
3. Stay inside after dark. Lock tight doors and windows.
4. Pray.

Milla knows two things to be true: demons are real, and fear will keep her safe.

Milla's whole world is her family's farm. She is never allowed to travel to the village, and her only friend is her beloved older brother, Niklas. When a bright-eyed girl named Iris comes to stay, Milla hopes her loneliness might finally be coming to an end. But Iris has a secret she's forbidden to share: the village is cursed by a demon who possesses girls at random, and the townspeople lives n terror of who it will come for next.

Now, it seems, the demon has come for Iris. When Iris is captured and imprisoned with other possessed girls, Milla leaves home to rescue her and break the curse forever. Her only company on the journey is a terrible new secret of her own: Milla is changing too, and may soon be a demon herself.

Suspenseful and vividly imagined, The Cold Is in Her Bones is a novel about the dark, reverberating power of pain, the yearning to be seen an understood, and the fragile optimism of love.

After reading the author's first book, The Beast Is an Animal, a few years ago, I knew I'd read anything this author wrote. Thankfully her second book is just as satisfying as the first. Inspired by the Medusa myth, The Cold Is in Her Bones is a strange tale like the author's first, but well worth the read.

Milla lives on a remote farm in a medieval European-type setting and the only people she has ever known are her parents Jakob and Gitta, older brother Niklas, and the elderly next-door neighbours Stig and Trude. Compared to her adored brother Niklas, Milla is a disappointment to her parents, forever chastising her to obedient or else she will succumb to the demons. While Niklas is allowed to accompany their father to the village, Milla is forbidden to leave the farm. When Stig and Trude's granddaughter Iris comes to stay with the intention of marrying Niklas, Milla has finally found a companion. But when Iris starts hearing a voice inside her head and screams at her grandparents, Stig and Jakob take Iris to The Place, where all girls possessed by the demon are taken. When snakes begin growing in Milla's wild hair, she leaves to try and save Iris. Little does she know about the power of the curse that the demon has laid on the town, and what it will take to lift it.

Like the author's first book, this story is laid out very simply, yet infused with magical realism. As Milla learns about the history of the demon and her family's connection to it, the allegory of the story becomes more and more apparent. Like the author's first book, we have a pre-modern setting that is very puritanical in practice, which feeds into the theme of judgement and othering, which in turn leads to the idea that love and understanding is needed in order to dispel vengeance and hate. It's a simple lesson that's crafted quite beautifully here.

Go read both books this author has written, you won't be disappointed.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simply gorgeous. I love how Milla is off to the side with Sverd and Selv wrapped around her arms. Plus we get to see a character with wild, curly hair, which isn't something we get too often.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris

Title: The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Author: Heather Morris
Publisher: Harper, 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 262 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction/Historical Fiction
Started: February 24, 2019
Finished: March 10, 2019

From the back cover:

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tatowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Late witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism - but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.

One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov's experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

I've heard plenty of hype about this novel for a while now, and since I was in the middle of a Judaism and Holocaust unit with one of my classes, I felt in the right mood, so to speak, to tackle reading a Holocaust book.

Lale Sokolov, the namesake tattooist of the book, was actually known by the author for several years before he died. She recorded his story, which later became a novel. There has been some discrepancy over some of the information presented in the book, hence why I listed it as both non-fiction and historical fiction. The author herself says she does not tout the book as an academic piece of non-fiction, and that she has in fact changed certain details for creative license, so just a heads up for those reading it currently or who may read it in the future.

On to what I disliked, just because it's glaringly obvious within the first few pages by anyone who reads it. The author isn't actually a novelist, she's a screenwriter. In fact, the novel was written first as a screenplay and later adapted into a novel. It shows. The writing is very straightforward and relies heavily on dialogue. This makes it more engaging to a wide audience of people, but it also leaves much to be desired by those who expect a bit more from their reading. I feel like this would make for a great film or television series, but as a book, it falls flat.

The plot is engrossing enough to make it through, but I didn't feel very invested in Lale's story. It feels bad to say that, given that it isn't a "story" at all and it really did happen, but it's true. I think that this is just a case of good source material that just should've been put in someone else's hands. The themes of perseverance and having hope in the worst of situations are wonderful and very relevant to today's readers, it's just too bad the overall package wasn't presented as well as it could've been.

A wonderful, yet horrific story that should be read. It's unfortunate that the source material wasn't given the best treatment in book form, but I can hold out hope of a film version.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it better than some other covers floating around, this one depicts a more serious tone.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Girls of Paper and Fire - Natasha Ngan

Title: Girls of Paper and Fire
Author: Natasha Ngan
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson Books (Little, Brown and Company), 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 385 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: January 23, 2019
Finished: February 1, 2019

From the inside cover:

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the King. It's the highest honour they could hope for...and the most demeaning. This year, there's a ninth. And instead of paper, she's made of fire.

Lei is of the Paper caste, the lowest class in Ikhara. Even so, rumours of her golden eyes have piqued the King's interest. and so she is ripped from her home and taken to the opulent palace, a gilded prison, her life now beholden to the Demon King's every whim.

But as Lei dreams of escape, the does the unthinkable: she falls in love. Her forbidden romance, enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the King's very reign, will force Lei to decide just how far she's willing to go to fight for her freedom.

Lush, poetic, and utterly unforgettable, Girls of Paper and Fire is an extraordinary tale, reminding us that pure love and passion can transcend even the bleakest of fates.

This novel has such promise to it. A fantasy land inspired by a variety of Asian cultures complete with a female Asian protagonist, class warfare between magical demons and humans, stirrings of rebellion, and an LGBTQ relationship. For the most part I enjoyed the story with the exception of a few (albeit glaring) things.

The story's world building is quite impressive. You have a fantasy realm that is inspired by a melding of several recognizable Asian cultures: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian. That same fantasy realm is inhabited by three castes: human (paper), demon (moon) and human-demon hybrid (steel), ruled over by the demon King. There's hundreds of years of political history and alliances to familiarize yourself with, and at the core you have humans oppressed by the demon upper class.

Lei, our protagonist, is sympathetic enough. With a previously captured (and presumed dead) mother, and an attitude strong enough to resist the injustices put upon her, readers generally want her to succeed and flee the situation she is in before she can be assaulted and raped by the King like the other girls.

I like the variety showcased in the book. The cultural references were fun to pinpoint and identify, all the girls had different, well-developed personalities, and I noticed how they each had an identifiable coping mechanism for their assault and rape. Lei fights back, Aoki tries to placate the King, and Chenna and Wren seem to detach and accept that this is something they just can't escape at the moment.

I also like that the novel is hopeful in that something horrific like assault and rape isn't the end of the story: that it is possible to rise above the horrific circumstances in one's life.

The things I didn't like were small, yet nagging. Lei's attraction to and subsequent relationship with Wren is an affirming example of a healthy lesbian relationship. We need more examples of affirming LGBTQ diversity in YA novels. And yet, the relationship as presented just wasn't really that believable in my opinion. When Lei suddenly admits to herself that she has feelings for Wren, there's no prior interactions with Wren or any other clues to suggest that Lei not only identifies as a lesbian, but that she even thinks of Wren in a romantic way. At that point in the story, an attraction to Aoki would make more sense, her interactions with Wren can be chalked up to curiosity and not much else.  You could read into them as attraction, but it would be a hard sell.

The whole plot thread about trying to assassinate the King starts to make less sense as it progresses. Wren is suddenly removed from the palace, so Lei is recruited to do the deed despite the fact that she's not a trained martial artist. Wren shows up anyway, so it seems like it was facilitated just to have Lei play a part in the assassination.

This book is the first in a trilogy, so I will likely give the subsequent novels a try to see if any of these issues factor in to my opinion of said books.

Not as amazing as it could have been, but worth the read anyway.

Thoughts on the cover:
Just gorgeous. I love how Lei's eyes and hair has metallic accents to really make the fire in the image pop.