Sunday, July 16, 2017

Seeking Refuge - Irene N. Watts and Kathryn E. Shoemaker

Title: Seeking Refuge
Author: Irene N. Watts and Kathryn E. Shoemaker
Publisher: Tradewind Books, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 134 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction
Started: July 15, 2017
Finished: July 15, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

Eleven-year-old Marianne is fortunate. She is one of the first two hundred Jewish children in the heroic rescue operation known as the Kindertransport, which arrived in London, England in December 1938.

Life in the new country seems strange. Marianne's few words of English and her attempts to become an ordinary English girl are not enough to please her foster mother, who wanted a girl as a domestic servant. She deeply misses her family that she had to leave behind.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Marianne finds herself being evacuated to Wales. She is shuffled from one unsuitable home to another - but there is a surprise in store, and Marianne's courage and resilience is finally rewarded.

The Kindertransport, which ultimately saved almost 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia in the nine months preceding World War II, was a triumphant human effort. Marianne's story is based on the kind of events that were actually experienced by the children. Author Irene N. Watts was one of them, arriving on the second Kindertransport in December 1938 at the age of seven.

Review:
This graphic novel focuses on one of many experiences from the Kindertransport from Germany, and later of the child evacuations from Britain. Marianne Kohn is offered a spot on the Kindertransport and arrives in London at the end of 1938. She is placed with a family who only agreed to take in a refugee for the domestic help and to look good to their circle of friends, so needless to say they're not exactly concerned for Marianne's well-being, and even accuse her of embarrassing the family when her Jewish identity is brought up. The same experiences plague her when she is evacuated from London to Wales less than a year later when Germany declares war. Though this story has a relatively happy ending, I know historically that this wouldn't have likely been the case. The thing that stands out for this particular story is that it can be adapted in relation to modern day Syrian refugee experiences, except in this case one could argue that the shared experiences between historical Jewish refugees and modern day Syrian refugees (racism, hostility, culture shock, language acquisition, etc.) are faced by the whole family rather than just the children as shown in the story here.

The art style is where this book loses marks for me. The heavy pencil sketches and shading, while adding to the atmosphere and mood, don't really allow for appreciation of detail, and in some cases even makes it difficult to differentiate between characters when there are multiple people in a panel.

Recommendation:
A good choice of graphic novel to add to your historical fiction section, with lots of modern day applications if you choose to use it in a classroom setting.

Thoughts on the cover:
The dark pencil sketch of Marianne against the bright red background makes is nicely eye-catching.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Carry On - Rainbow Rowell

Title: Carry On
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 517 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Adult; Fantasy
Started: June 29, 2017
Finished: July 9, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who's ever been chosen. That's what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he's probably right.

Half the time, Simon can't even make his wand work, and the other half, he sets something on fire. His mentor's avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there's a magic-eating monster running around wearing Simon's face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here - it's their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon's infuriating nemesis didn't even bother to show up.

Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you'd expect from a Rainbow Rowell story - but far, far more monsters.

Review:
If you've read this author's novels, particularly Fangirl, you will immediately recognize the characters from Carry On. This is  the Harry Potter-esque story and universe mentioned in Fangirl that the main character writes fanfiction about; Carry On is the author's take on her own invented universe mentioned in another work, a story within a story (let your brain tackle that for a second). You don't need to have read Fangirl first to understand what's going on in this novel, I only mention it because I do think one needs details and background to understand the context in which a book was written.

Carry On follows protagonist Harry Potter Simon Snow to Watford for his final year of magical studies. After events a few months prior, which involved Simon and friend Penny almost being destroyed by the Insidious Humdrum, Simon is glad to be back to normal...well, as normal as its gets being the Chosen One in the middle of a war in the World of Mages. But things just aren't the same without his (rumoured) vampire roommate and arch enemy Baz around, and with everything else going poorly for him, Simon just can't seem to catch a break.

First off, yes this is a thinly-veiled Harry Potter-esque story, and some people won't be able to get past that. The novel relies on the reader knowing details of the Harry Potter novels, however, in order to do what it does best: take fantasy tropes and turn them on its head. Though Simon is the Chosen One and is a magical powerhouse, he can't properly control his magic at all. Rather than being revered, he's actually pretty isolated outside of his small circle of friends. His mentor, the Mage, doesn't act like the father figure that mentors are supposed to emulate. His nemesis, Baz, is more than what meets the eye. The war and its opposing factions (and even the Humdrum itself) aren't as clear cut either. Though the Harry Potter series did get past pure tropes and into some more depth in its latter instalments, we can all agree that there are a lot of fantasy properties that are guilty of this; even Harry Potter was at the beginning, there's a reason why we study the first Harry Potter novel as an example of the Hero's Journey in grade 9 English.

In addition to being a parody of the "Chosen One" narrative, this novel is impressive for including an LGBT romance (spoiler-not-really-a-spoiler, Simon and Baz end up together). The two are adorable, and the alternating points of view that the author employs make for some very amusing scenes where we see what Simon and Baz are thinking nearly simultaneously. Baz was very well-developed and my favourite character second to the Mage (even though we learn more about him from other characters and their narration than from his own since he's absent for a good chunk of the book). I also enjoyed how magic worked in this book: rather than spells said in Latin (or languages that sound a heck of a lot like Latin), spells are made by saying a set of words or a phrase with conviction, so many of the ones that Simon and his friends use are actually sayings or a turn of phrase from popular culture, such as a concealing spell made using the words, "These aren't the droids you're looking for." (I laughed at so many of these).

Recommendation:
You should give this a read, if not for the positive LGBT portrayal or turning the "Chosen One" portrayal on its head, then give it a read just for the Harry Potter-esque parts....think of it like an alternative universe.

Thoughts on the cover:
The image above was from the hardcover version, but I have to say I much prefer the paperback version shown below:


I mean, come on, how can you not like this one better, it's pretty drool-worthy (does the cover image then technically count as fan art?)


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Hunted - Meagan Spooner

Title: Hunted
Author: Meagan Spooner
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 374 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fairy Tale, Fantasy
Started: June 22, 2017
Finished: June 27, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Beauty knows Beast's forest in her bones - and in her blood.

She knows that the forest holds secrets and that her father is the only hunter who's ever come close to discovering them.

But Yeva's grown up far from her father's old lodge, raised to be part of the city's highest caste of aristocrats. Still, she's never forgotten the feel of a bow in her hands, and she's spent a lifetime longing for the freedom of the hunt.

So when her father loses his fortune and moves Yeva and her sisters back to the outskirts of town, Yeva is secretly relieved. Out in the wilderness, there's no pressure to make idle chatter with vapid baronessas...or to submit to marrying a wealthy gentleman.

But Yeva's father's misfortune may have cost him his mind, and when he goes missing in the woods, Yeva sets her sights on one prey: the creature he'd been obsessively tracking just before his disappearance.

Deaf to her sisters' protests, Yeva hunts this strange Beast back into his own territory - a cursed valley, a ruined castle, and a world of creatures that Yeva's heard about only in fairy tales. A world that can bring her ruin - or salvation.

Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?

Review:
I would've read this novel regardless, but the author officially had me hooked at her dedication:

"To the girl 
who reads by flashlight
who sees dragons in the clouds
who feels alive in worlds that never were
who knows magic is real
who dreams

This is for you."

This woman knows how to speak to me; I didn't even have to read a word of the novel itself and I was putty in her hands. Thankfully the actual novel is just as spell-binding and enchanting as the dedication.

Yeva, called Beauty, lives in a Russian/Eastern European inspired world with her father and two older sisters, Lena and Asenka. In typical Beauty and the Beast fashion, Beauty's father loses his fortune, prompting the family to sell their possessions and move to his old cabin in the forest. Yeva doesn't complain about the change at all considering she lives for hunting and loathes the shallow socializing she was forced to do when they lived in town. When her father takes off into the forest raving about a Beast and doesn't return, Yeva follows her father's trail into the Beast's valley, discovers his dead body, and is captured by the Beast. Yeva wakes up in his dungeon and vows revenge for her father's death, attempting to kill the Beast at the first opportunity. The Beast then trains Yeva to hunt in the unique environment that surrounds them, telling her that he requires her skills to break the curse that was set upon him, and that he will kill her family if she doesn't cooperate. When details of the curse and Beast's involvement in her father's death are revealed, there remains the question of whether Beauty will succeed in her revenge...or if she even wants to.

Despite my horrible plot summary above (hard to do it justice without delving into spoiler territory), the novel does a wonderful job in creating a nicely varied version of the typical Beauty and the Beast premise, somewhat similar to that in Cruel Beauty: rather than being a passive prisoner of the Beast, Beauty willingly seeks him out to kill him and slowly begins to feel differently towards him through their shared interactions. Yeva narrates the novel, but in between chapters there are excerpts from the Beast's point of view, so we do get glimpses into his mind as well.

I like the approach the author took to this particular story, both in terms of atmosphere and setting, as well as themes. The Russian setting influences elements of the story. The folktale of Ivan, the Grey Wolf, and the Firebird plays a key role not only in Beauty's background and motivation, but also in the greater plot. I really enjoyed the author's focus on the idea of want and happiness in life (that Firebird makes for wonderful symbolism and imagery), and how the novel is (mainly) about Beauty's eventual realization that the things that she wants and that make her happy culminate in her relationship with the Beast. It takes her a while to get to that point, a whole year passes over the course of the novel, which I appreciated. Beauty has to really think about what she wants for her life, and like most people, she eventually figures it out after some soul-searching. And yes, the author addresses the Stockholm Syndrome aspect as well: Yeva and her friends actually have a discussion about women who develop feelings for men who abuse them, and she is asked outright if this is the scenario between her and the Beast. The Stockholm Syndrome aspect to this tale is a dicey one that authors of retellings have to consider, and I think it was handled appropriately here.

Recommendation:
Beautifully written, a lush setting, and varied enough to stand apart from other tales of the like. Hunted will definitely be joining the ranks of my well-loved, most-recommended Beauty and the Beast retellings.

Thoughts on the cover:
Pretty bu not awe-inspiring. I like the image of Yeva from behind in her cloak in the forest, looking towards what I assume to be the Beast's domain based on the magical glow effect (either that or she's hunting the Firebird).


Monday, June 19, 2017

Flame in the Mist - Renee Ahdieh

Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 392 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Started: June 18, 2017
Finished: June 19, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she'd been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko's convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who've been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Maiko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she's within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she's appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love - a love that will force her to question everything she's ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Set against the backdrop of feudal Japan, Flame in the Mist is a passionate, action-packed adventure from #1 New York Times bestselling author Renee Ahdieh.

Review:
Whoo boy, am I having bad luck with books in the past few days...

I have a degree in Japanese Studies, I'm usually all over books set in Japanese settings so long as they don't butcher it completely. Though the author did a good job with the Japanese setting and atmosphere, not even that could save this book.

Mariko is the daughter of a daimyo in feudal Japan, who is betrothed to one of the emperor's sons. She resents this, obviously, because she's smart enough to actually do more than simply be a pawn in a political marriage. When her convoy is attacked with the intent to kill her, she dresses up as a boy and tracks down the Black Clan, said to be responsible for the attack, to infiltrate them to exact her revenge. She soon learns that the Black Clan isn't as bad as she's been led to believe (no, really?), and that her family is actually more diabolical than she ever thought possible (for someone as smart as Mariko's supposed to be, I'm amazed it took her that long to figure it out).

First off, people are comparing this to Mulan....it isn't; it involves Mariko dressing up as a boy, that's about as far as the comparison goes. Mariko is smart, I'll give her that, but she is such a spoiled-little-rich-girl stereotype that it makes me want to smack her. For someone so smart, she doesn't realize her privilege and that the peasants serving under her father might actually be oppressed and unhappy. The romance isn't believable; I have no clue why she ended up with the guy she did. they're not very compatible. Also, the magical elements in this book just pop out of nowhere with no explanation as to what they are or how they work. I honestly thought this was a regular historical fiction novel until Mariko witnesses a magic tree in the Black Clan's encampment that restrains and kills someone, and I had to go back to make sure I'd read it correctly, since there had been no mention of magic at all up to that point (beyond the usual generic cultural references to youkai). Mariko did become a little more tolerable towards the end, but honestly I'd lost interest by that point and was only reading for completion's sake.

Recommendation:
If you liked The Wrath and the Dawn (the author's previous work), you'll probably like this, since the stories are rather similar, but it wasn't my thing at all. This is the first book in a new series apparently, so it will be continuing.

Thoughts on the cover:
So stinking pretty. The black/orange/purple combo is just so aesthetically pleasing. I like the little detail of how the flowers slowly morph into shurikens.

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

Title: Uprooted
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 435 pages
Genre:Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: June 16, 2017
Finished: June 18, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Naomi Novik, author of the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Temeraire novels, introduces a bold new world rooted in folk stories and legends, as elemental as a Grimm fairy tale.

"Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travellers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that's not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he's still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we're grateful, but not that grateful."

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her fate.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its power at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows - everyone knows - that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn't, and her dearest friend the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong thing. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

Review:
Yet another Beauty and the Beast retelling, but this one fell flat unfortunately.

It started off so well: Agnieszka is prepared for the harvest, when the Dragon will take a seventeen year-old girl and keep her for a decade before releasing her. The girls aren't harmed and swear that the Dragon doesn't touch them, in fact he sends them off with money that many use to study at one of the universities. Agnieszka isn't worried for herself, she knows she won't get chosen, but she's afraid of losing her friend Kasia. When the Dragon chooses Agnieszka instead of Kasia, everyone is shocked. Though determined to avoid the Dragon for a decade, Agnieszka soon realizes she has magical talent, in which the Dragon instructs her. When Kasia is captured by the Wood, Agnieszka is blindly determined to save her, though the Dragon tells her it is pointless. When Agnieszka succeeds, she and the Dragon come under the scrutiny of the royal family.

The book is big on plot but sorely lacking in character development. The Dragon is a prickly bastard with no redeeming qualities. I like my fictional bad boys, but they need to possess something that makes them likeable...anything. Agnieszka is clumsy with no talents, and no one quite knows how she's able to use magic, not even the Dragon. The romance isn't believable (he insults and berates her constantly), the plot gets boring after the first hundred pages or so, and I just didn't really care about the characters enough.

Recommendation:
Disappointing since this had a decent set-up and premise.

Thoughts on the cover:
Quite pretty and eye-catching, which is misleading given how the story doesn't match up.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Thousand Nights - E.K. Johnston

Title: A Thousand Nights
Author: E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Hyperion, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Adult/Young Adult; Classic, Fantasy
Started: June 12, 2017
Finished: June 16, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.

And so she is taken in her sister's place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin's court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time. But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awakened by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.

Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning . Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.

Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.

Review:
I've reviewed this author's work before, and adored it. She's a magnificent writer, and Canadian to boot. This is an older and vastly different work, but still lyrically beautiful and just plain amazing.

At first glance, A Thousand Nights is a re-imagining or retelling of the classic work, One Thousand and One Nights, just without all the embedded stories we're familiar with, it's the framing device that is the basis for this version. The unnamed heroine and narrator shares similarities with Scheherazade in that she exists in a pre-Islamic Middle East, becomes the wife of a ruler known for killing his wives, and manages to keep herself alive night after night, and that's about where the similarities end. The book opens with the arrival of Lo-Melkhiin in the desert home in which the narrator and her family live. The narrator knows Lo-Melkhiin will choose her older sister, and so she masquerades as her in order that she may be spared death at his hands. When she leaves, the women in her community say they will build shrines to her and make her a smallgod in honour of her sacrifice. When the narrator arrives at Lo-Melkhiin's palace, she doesn't expect to feel simultaneously at home and unnerved; the people that live there treat her well and admire her, but there are traces of Lo-Melkhiin's unsettling nature everywhere. She soon discovers that Lo-Melkhiin was a kind man until he wandered into the desert and came back possessed by a demon, whose impulses fuelled his cruel actions. The narrator also learns that she has powers of her own, and that Lo-Melkhiin cannot kill her like his other wives. Despite the threats he makes against her sister and family, the narrator is torn between helping the man escape from the demon's grasp within his own mind, or killing him outright and plunging her world into chaos.

This is, and probably will continue to be, compared to The Wrath and the Dawn, the insanely hyped book which came out around the same time. The Wrath and the Dawn was a romantic drama, whereas A Thousand Nights is a thoughtful, densely packed, more literary read that you just want to savour. The writing and atmosphere are just lovely; it reads like an old style classic but spruced up a bit to appeal to modern readers who want a more complex story. Although this is annoying as all heck at first, I really do appreciate the symbolism behind the author making practically everyone in the story nameless with the exception of Lo-Melkhiin. It doesn't necessarily make a case for gender or class here since men and women alike are unnamed regardless of status, but it does serve to remind us that even those who are unknown have power and are a force to be reckoned with.

Recommendation:
Definitely give this a go so long as you're not in a rush, you'll want to take your time with this one.

Thoughts on the cover:
Very clever. At first glance, the stuff floating around the title font appears to be smoke or mist, but when you look closer you see they're actually quotes from the book.

Monday, June 12, 2017

No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America - Ron Powers

Title: No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America
Author: Ron Powers
Publisher: Hachette Books, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 331 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: June 5, 2017
Finished: June 12, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

How did we, as a society, get to this point? It's a question that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author Ron Powers set out to answer in this gripping, richly researched social and personal history of mental illness. Powers traces the appalling narrative  - from the sadistic abuse of "lunaticks" at Bedlam Asylum in London seven centuries ago to today's scattershot treatments and policies. His odyssey of reportage began not long after not one but both of his beloved sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia.

From the earliest efforts to segregate the "mad" in society, to the wily World War II-era social engineers who twisted Darwin's "survival of the fittest" theory to fit a much darker agenda, to the follies of the antipsychiatry movement (starring L. Ron Hubbard and his gifted, insanity-denying compatriot Thomas Szasz), we've struggled to deal with mental health care for generations. And it all leads to the current landscape, in which too many families struggle alone to manage afflicted loved ones without proper public policies or support.

Braided into his vivid social history is the moving saga of Powers' own family: his bright. buoyant sons, Kevin (a gifted young musician) and Dean (a promising writer and guitarist), both of whom struggled mightily with schizophrenia; and his wife, Honoree Fleming, whose knowledge of human biology and loving maternal instincts proved inadequate against schizophrenia's hellish power. For Powers the questions of "what to do about crazy people" isn't just academic; it's deeply personal. And he's determined to forge a better way forward, for his family's sake as well as for the many others who deserve better.

Review:
As soon as I saw the blurb for this book, I knew I had to read it. Anyone working in education especially bemoans the state of our mental health care system even in Canada (many therapies and mental health programs aren't covered here), so anything related to the subject instantly attracts my attention.

The author gives an account of the social history of mental illness, while at the same time elaborating on his personal life, particularly his sons' descent into schizophrenia. I enjoy the social history aspect of the book, it shines a lot of light on how the state of mental health in modern life has gotten to this point (the chapter on why people suffering from psychosis cannot be involuntarily committed was particularly interesting). The thing that I found detrimental in my opinion was the author's equal focus on his family's personal experience with schizophrenia. I enjoy books that use anecdotes to personalize some dry and sterile subject matter, but in this case the author devotes whole chapters to his family's unique experiences, which in my opinion detract from what I really wanted to read about: the history of mental health.

Recommendation:
Worth a read, but you might get annoyed at the equal focus on the history and the author's sons'  experiences like I did.

Thoughts on the cover:
Dark, foreboding, with no apparent way out...matches the atmosphere of the book quite nicely.