Sunday, September 29, 2019

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe - Benjamin Alire Saenz

Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 359 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 3, 2019
Finished: September 18, 2019

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Dante can swim. Ari can't. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair-skinned. Ari's features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life, would be the last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself.

But when Ari and Dante meet, they bond. They share books, thoughts, dreams, laughter. They teach each other new vocabularies and begin to redefine each other's worlds. And they discover that the universe is a large and difficult place.

This is the story about two boys, Ari and Dante, who must learn to believe in each other and the power of their friendship if they are ever to become men.

In breathtaking prose, American Book Award winner Benjamin Alire Saenz captures those moments that make a boy a man as he explores loyalty and trust, friendship and love.

Review:
The last book I reviewed, We Contain Multitudes, was often compared to Aristotle and Dante in publications and other reviews. I've been meaning to read it for years but hadn't quite gotten around to it until now. I'm disappointed that I let such a gem of a book go unread for so many years, but I'm glad I've read it now.

Aristotle "Ari" Mendoza and Dante Quintana are teenage boys growing up in El Paso, Texas in the late 1980s. The book follows the pair across a couple of years, from age fifteen to seventeen, as they grow from tentative, unsure boys to confident young men.

Ari acts as our narrator, beginning as a boy who admits he's lonely but prefers to keep to himself. With a dad dealing with the traumas of his time in the Vietnam War, and his family struggling with the ghost of his older brother Bernardo in prison, Ari has questions about a lot of things but few answers. In comes Dante like a summer storm, gently but persistently involving himself in Ari's life, even across a great distance later on in the book. Eventually the two of them discover the answers they are seeking, while discovering love for each other.

The writing is beautiful without being pretentious, and the boys themselves are very well-developed as characters as well as realistic teen boys. The novel does a good job of developing the theme of what happens when secrets fester as opposed to having open lines of communication, which we see not only through Ari and Dante but also with Ari's dad and brother.

Recommendation:
This is a beautiful book that everyone should read. Not only is it an awesome story with good themes, it also has wonderful LGBTQ and Latino/a/x representation.

Thoughts on the cover:
The night sky with Ari's truck is a great choice for a cover image, and the colour scheme is very pleasing.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

We Contain Multitudes - Sarah Henstra

Title: We Contain Multitudes
Author: Sarah Henstra
Publisher: Penguin Teen (Penguin Random House Canada), 2019 (Hardcover)
Length: 377 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: August 17, 2019
Finished: August 23, 2019

Summary:
From the inside cover:

When Walt Whitman fan Jonathan Hopkirk and football player  Adam "Kurl" Kurlansky are partnered in a weekly pen pal assignment, they don't expect to get much out of it.

With each letter, however, the two are led deeper into a friendship that eventually grows into love. But faced with homophobia, bullying, and devastating family secrets, Jonathan and Kurl must struggle to hold on to their relationship - and each other.

This gripping, gorgeously written novel celebrates love and life with engaging characters and stunning language, making it perfect for fans of Jandy Nelson, Nina LaCour, and David Levithan.

Review:

"Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

      - Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"


This excerpt from Walt Whitman's epic poem is included on the first page of the book in place of a dedication or a preface (perhaps not intentionally but I thought it interesting). It serves to highlight what I think is a theme that runs through this novel: people are complicated.

Adam Kurlansky ("Kurl") is eighteen and redoing his senior year of high school. He's a star football player recently let go from the team and has a reputation for picking fights. Jonathan Hopkirk is a slight, fifteen-year-old boy passionate about Walt Whitman's poetry to the point where he even dresses like him. These two seemingly polar opposites are paired together through a shared English teacher's assignment to write weekly letters to each other.

The novel is written in epistolary format, through letters written by Kurl and Jo back and forth to each other. At first the boys' only interactions with each other are through their letters, but as time progresses Kurl and Jo eventually spend more time together at and after school, which does make the format grate a bit at times. Jo can say "oh, I want to hear your account of the same event we were both present at" all he wants, but it still gets annoying.

The novel is beautifully written, I have to come right out and say that. The language at points has the ability to make you feel like you've been sucker-punched in the gut, it's that moving. The author is an English professor in Toronto (yay for local Canadian YA lit!), so that doesn't surprise me in the least. The only thing about the writing that bugged me a bit was that since the novel is told through letters, we're supposed to believe that all this beautiful writing is actually coming from eighteen and fifteen-year-old boys. I teach teenagers, few boys (heck, even girls) are capable of this level of writing, especially at age fifteen...I'd be more inclined to believe Kurl's letters are possible coming from an eighteen-year-old, but I really shake my head at the sophistication of Jo's letters. Here's some examples:

When asked by Kurl why he continues to dress in period costumes when it just makes him a bigger target to the bullies who already harass him for being gay, Jo responds:

"I do it on purpose, because I want to be mindful of the decades and centuries behind us of people making beautiful things designed to last. I want to walk down the hallways of Lincoln High with one part of me in the eternal, the timeless, and the other part of me slipping so fast through the here and now that nobody can pin me down, not even the butcher boys" (Jo, pg. 126).

No fifteen-year-old writes like that, not even the brilliant ones that are gifted in language (unless they all attend a very exclusive private school that I could only dream of teaching at). So I went through the book thinking Jo was, essentially, a unicorn.

After Kurl and Jo admit their feelings for each other and actually discuss their relationship in their letters, Kurl describes Jo as such:

"Your scent, Jo. It's like wool and bread and something else. I don't know. A scent like if laughter had a scent, or daybreak. You filled the whole car with a yellow light like daybreak. I swear it felt like light pouring into my veins" (Kurl, pg. 188).

Again, coming from Kurl it's slightly more believable, but still not something I would assume came from a teenage boy.

When Jo is contemplating revelations about his deceased mother, Raphael, and likening them to a Whitman poem:

"More bitter than I can bear. I was remembering, just now, those suffering words from Walt. You burn and sting me. Is that how Raphael feels to Lyle and and Gloria as well as to me? The lost Raphael, the ghost of Raphael? Or is it different for those who remember her, who knew her before she was a ghost?" (Jo, pg. 358)

Again, the writing is sophisticated and beautiful. These lines were a joy to read in a YA novel, we could use more complex writing in YA books as a whole. I just think the writing would more believable if written in third person rather than in a series of first-person letters by teenaged boys.

On to the story. Kurl and Jo's romance is realistic in how it unfolds and plays out, though there are more than a few questionable instances related to consent that I wish had been better explored or called out more than they were. There is quite a train wreck of climactic events that at first appear quite out of character for both boys until you remember that these are, in fact, teenagers, and they've both been dealing with the after-effects of a boat-load of trauma. That whole "people are complicated" bit comes in handy here.

Recommendation:
This book is a real treat for language and poetry lovers; it's a beautifully written story about that hesitant first love between teenagers that also happen to be boys and the challenges that go along with that. There are some aspects of the novel that I took issue with, but they don't necessarily take away from the overall enjoyment of the piece. I highly recommend this, it has received its fair share of hype for a reason.

Thoughts on the cover:
The image of Kurl and Jo laying on the grass (perhaps inspired by the park scene?) is a nice image that intrigues without spelling out the contents of the story. The limited colour palette with a pleasing aqua/turquoise background is a nice touch.

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

Summary:
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.

Review:
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." 


Recommendation:
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

Summary:
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.

Review:
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.

Recommendation:
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

Summary:
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.

Review:
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.






Recommendation:
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

Summary:
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.

Review:
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.

Recommendation:
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

Summary:
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.

Review:
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.

Recommendation:
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.