Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Beast Within - Serena Valentino

Title: The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince
Author: Serena Valentino
Publisher: Disney Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 215 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: September 18, 2014
Finished: September 19, 2014

From the inside cover:

The tale is as old as time: a cruel prince is transformed into a beast. A lovely maiden comes into this monster's life. He is transformed by her compassion, and the love he feels for her in return. The two live happily ever after.

But any tale, especially one as storied as Beauty and the Beast's, has been told many different times, and in many different ways. No matter which version one hears, the nagging question remains: what was it that transformed the prince into the beast we are introduced to?

This is one version, pulled from the many passed down through the ages. It's a story of vanity and arrogance, of love and hatred, of beastliness, and of course, of beauty.

Anyone who reads my reviews knows I'm a huge Beauty and the Beast fan. From the original fairy tales, to the Disney version, to creative retellings; I love them all. So of course, when I found out that Disney was making a book that explores the Beast's past as the Prince before the curse, I was all over it. The author is seemingly writing these in a series examining the untold tales of Disney villains (though the Beast doesn't exactly fit the villain motif), she previously did an instalment on the evil queen from Snow White that was well received. That is why reading this particular book was so incredibly painful; her other work received praise, which made me wonder what the heck went wrong here.

The story begins with Belle imprisoned in the Beast's castle as he reflects on his sorry state, wondering if he is even capable of the kind of love Belle showed towards her father by taking his place as prisoner. Then by a series of flashbacks we see the man the Beast once was. The Prince is friends with Gaston, and the way the author worked this in actually made it believable that they grew up together. The Prince is engaged to Circe, the youngest of a group of four witches. When Gaston realizes that Circe is the daughter of a pig farmer and informs the Prince, the engagement is cancelled. Heartbroken, Circe and her sisters curse the Prince and his household, but contrary to the film the Prince doesn't immediately change into the Beast physically. The novel examines more of the psychological changes that occur as he continues on with his 'beastly' behaviour, paranoid that what Circe cast upon him will come to fruition. As the curse slowly becomes apparent with every horrible act the Prince commits, his household changes as well. Here is another difference from the film: where servants turn into household objects that everyone else can still see and interact with, the Prince sees them merely as inanimate objects, leaving him incredibly isolated. The ghastly statues in the castle seen in the film, while harmless to everyone else, actually come alive to torment the Prince. These are details that I actually enjoyed, and if the rest of book had simply kept up with these I would've had a different impression.

The writing is poor. The word 'butt-chinned' is used to describe Gaston; I'm shocked that appeared in a formal novel, especially one set in Romance-era France where a contemporary word like that wouldn't be used. The plot is disjointed and half the time I couldn't tell what the author was trying to focus on. First there's the Beast agonizing over Belle, then backstory on the Prince and Circe with lots of Gaston, then a lot of focus on Circe's sisters trying to sabotage everything between the Prince and the annoying Princess Tulip, then talk of Ursula (obviously the focus of the next book), and then bam back to the Beast and Belle falling in love and breaking the curse. Belle is not given much focus at all, which is fine if the book only examined the Beast's story, but then to talk about how the curse is broken without Belle's character development is misguided. There are inconsistencies between the book and the film that don't make sense. If Gaston and the Prince were friends, does he not recognize the castle he spent so much time in? How does Belle attend the Prince's ball at the castle pre-curse and not put two and two together later on when she's back there? If the Prince was cursed around 11-ish according to the film, then why is he seen pre-curse as a late teen trying to woo all the ladies?

Overall a disappointment, which is sad since I saw potential here.

Thoughts on the cover:
A very cool thing they did was to put the Prince's face on the actual cover underneath the Beast's on the dust jacket.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Queen of the Tearling - Erika Johansen

Title: The Queen of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 434 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy, Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 10, 2014
Finished: September 17, 2014

From the inside  cover:

An untested young princess must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness in this spectacular debut - the first novel in a trilogy.

Young Kelsea Raleigh was raised in hiding after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, far from the intrigues of the royal Keep and in the care of two devoted servants who pledged their lives to protect her. Growing up in a cottage deep in the woods, Kelsea knows little of her kingdom's haunted past...or that its fate will soon rest in her hands.

Long ago, Kelsea's forefathers sailed away from a decaying world to establish a new land free of modern technology. Three hundred years later, this feudal society had divided into three fearful nations who pay duties to a fourth: the powerful Mortmesne, ruled by the cunning Red Queen. Now, on Kelsea's nineteenth birthday, the tattered remnants of the Queen's Guard - loyal soldiers who protect the throne - have appeared to escort the princess on a perilous journey to the capital to ascend to her rightful place as the new Queen of the Tearling.

Though born of royal blood and in possession of the Tear sapphire, a jewel of immense power and magic, Kelsea has never felt more uncertain of her ability to rule. But the shocking evil she discovers in the heart of her realm will precipitate an act of immense daring, throwing the entire kingdom into turmoil - and unleashing the Red Queen's vengeance. A cabal of enemies with an array of deadly weapons, from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic, plots to destroy her. but Kelsea is growing in strength, her steely resolve earning her loyal allies, including the Queen's Guard, led by the enigmatic Lazarus, and the intriguing outlaw known simply as "the Fetch."

Kelsea's quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun. Riddled with mysteries, betrayals, and treacherous battles, Kelsea's journey is a trial by fire that will either forge a legend...or destroy her.

This book received oh so much hype, mainly due to its kick-butt heroine, so I knew I had to check it out. There were a few things that bugged me, but overall the hype is well-deserved.

First off, I liked how the world-building was set up as a fantasy, but not quite. The founders of the Tear and the surrounding lands (collectively called New Europe) originally fled from our modern-day North America and Europe, escaping decimated lands. So this book is actually set in the future and meets a lot of the criteria of a dystopian novel as well as a fantasy. William Tear felt his society's downfall was due to technology, so he founded the Tearling without the use of technology. Unfortunately, that also meant the Tearling had a lack of trained medical professionals as well, and combined with the influence of God's Church (a thinly veiled reference to Catholicism) and the lack of mandatory education, the Tearling is an overly poor, illiterate, feudal society.

This is the world Kelsea finds herself inheriting. After being sent away as an infant and raised by Barty and Carlin Glynn in a remote cabin in the woods, Kelsea receives a balanced education and develops into a resourceful young woman quite the opposite of her late mother. She finds the Queen's Guards waiting to escort her back to the Keep on her nineteenth birthday, but most suspect she will be assassinated before she even gets there.

Kelsea is a great female protagonist: she's not drop-dead pretty or super skinny, she can wield a knife to defend herself (granted her weaponry skills can use some improvement), she sticks to her own moral code, she's a book nerd with an awesome library, and she's quite witty. The only thing that doesn't quite make sense to me is how amazingly well she adjusts to society after being exposed to only two people growing up. I know she read a lot and Barty and Carlin had different personalities, but there's no way she could seamlessly integrate the way she does, there would have to be bumps along the way...

I do appreciate the allusions to the consequences of a society that values religion above education.  God's Church in the Tearling is a powerful influence that forbids contraceptives and doesn't say anything against the degradation of the education system or the immorality of the monthly caravans of Tear citizens sold as slaves to Mortmesne. Printing presses aren't used, so all books from the pre-Crossing era are rare. One of the most touching scenes for me was when Kelsea retrieves all Carlin's books from the cabin and fills her mother's empty bookshelves in the Keep. The children of Kelsea's female workers and her guards are all sitting around reading, and Kelsea gets the inspiration to create libraries again. And props to the author for references to Tolkien and Harry Potter in Kelsea's library.

Excellent start to what seems like a great new series. Will definitely be picking up the subsequent books.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the black and gold colour scheme, other than that it looks like your typical fantasy cover with your token castle.

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.