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

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?

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Merchant's Daughter - Melanie Dickerson

Title: The Merchant's Daughter
Author: Melanie Dickerson
Publisher: Zondervan, 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 268 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale
Started: June 9, 2017
Finished: June 10, 2017

From the back cover:

Annabel, once the daughter of a wealthy merchant, is trapped in indentured servitude to Lord Ranulf le Wyse, a recluse who is rumoured to be both terrifying and beastly. Her circumstances are made even worse by the proximity of the lord's bailiff - a revolting man who has made unwelcome advances on Annabel in the past.

Believing that life in a nunnery is the best way to escape the bailiff's vile behaviour and to preserve the faith that sustains her, Annabel is surprised to discover a sense of security and joy in her encounters with Lord le Wyse. As Annabel struggles to confront her feelings, she is involved in a situation that could place Ranulf in grave danger. Ranulf's future, and possibly his heart, may rest in her hands, and Annabel must decide whether to follow the plans she has cherished or the calling God has placed on her heart.

I'm off the graphic novel kick I was on for the past month, and back to Beauty and the Beast retellings. What can I say, the end of the school year is looming and my students are driving me crazy, so I fall back on my perennial favourites to cheer me up.

This particular retelling is an interesting one because it is very overtly a Christian one. I didn't know this before I read it, and normally I stay far away from overly Christian anything. Don't get me wrong, I'm Catholic and I teach religion classes (in addition to English), I just like my religious symbolism to be a little more subtle and a little less heavy-handed. This book definitely is very heavy-handed and not subtle at all, but I have to give the author credit because it completely works and is appropriate given the context of the story.

Taking place in the mid 1300s in England, Annabel was born into a merchant family with more privilege than the rest of the people in her village. Not only is Annabel literate and otherwise well-educated, her family could pay to avoid working the fields for the lord of the area. When Annabel's father dies and his ships are lost, her family becomes indebted to the lord, so they are ordered that one family member should serve for three years under Lord le Wyse to repay their debt. With her mother and brothers begging her to marry the bailiff, Tom (who has agreed to pay their debt to the lord in exchange), Annabel instead decides to serve the lord in part to escape marriage to a man she despises.  She eventually finds her niche in le Wyse's household: as the only servant who can read, she is the one who the lord asks to read aloud from his copy of the Bible every evening. Being the 1300s before the dawn of the printing press, pretty much the only thing available to read at the time was the Bible, and even then only if you could read Latin. Since Annabel is educated and can read Latin, this is pretty much the highlight of her evening. So Annabel and Lord le Wyse wax philosophical every evening and bond, and eventually Annabel has to decide whether she truly wishes to go to a convent or to love Lord le Wyse.

Again, the Bible-thumping is pretty blatant, so if you're anti-religion this might be a turn-off. I feel that although it is a bit much, it actually does fit the context of the story given the time period (gotta love the uber religiosity of the pre-Enlightenment period). The book is a super fast read, so of course there is some depth and development that is sacrificed for that.

Worth the read in my opinion, purely because it's different, but not my favourite. I heartily recommend Heart's BloodCruel Beauty, and Megan Kearney's Beauty and the Beast as my favourite retellings if you wish to get right to the good stuff.

Thoughts on the cover:
Decent, but not amazing; but it works for the context of the story.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Dragons - Daniel Bayliss, Nathan Pride, Hannah Christenson, Jorge Corona

Title: Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Dragons
Authors: Daniel Bayliss, Nathan Pride, Hannah Christenson, Jorge Corona
Publisher: Archaia (Boom Entertainment), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 144 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Started: May 31, 2017
Finished: June 1, 2017

From the back cover:

It's not the stories you tell, but how they are told.

The critically acclaimed Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Dragons includes four epic tales of dragons and the men and women courageous enough to face them, inspired by folklore from around the world and told in the spirit of Jim Henson's beloved television series.

Featuring an astounding melange of styles and stories by some of today's most original talent, including Daniel Bayliss (Kennel Block Blues) with Fabian Rangel Jr. (Space Riders), Nathan Pride (Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard), Hannah Christenson (Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard) and Jorge Corona (Feathers, We Are Robin), this stunning hardcover edition also includes an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the process and care taken in adapting each of these timeless tales.

I've seen The Storyteller television series and read the first volume of the graphic novels and quite enjoy the premise as a whole, it appeals to the folklore-lover in me. I haven't picked up the Witches or Giants volumes yet, but based on what I've seen in the Dragons volume, I'll be picking those up shortly.

The Dragons volume features four stories entering around dragons and, very often, their dragon-slayers. I honestly enjoyed all the stories equally, they're all very engaging in terms of plot and each art style is distinctive and aesthetically pleasing. I appreciated how the stories were nicely diverse: one from Aboriginal sources, one from England, one from Russia, and the last one from Japan. I have a soft spot for the first story, Son of the Serpent, mostly because it has an interesting twist to it, and it is inspired by Aboriginal folklore, which we don't see depictions of too often in graphic novels.

Beautiful art and wonderfully engaging stories, plus the stories are all one-shots so they're short and sweet. If you enjoy stories in general or have an interest in folklore, you'll enjoy the Storyteller graphic novels.

Thoughts on the cover:
These hardcover volumes are certainly gorgeous on the shelf. Dark, earthy colours with gold accents really evoke a classic feel. I like the image of the Storyteller and his dog in the spherical image inset with the image of the focus of the book in the background.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Brave - Svetlana Chmakova

Title: Brave
Author: Svetlana Chmakova
Publisher: Yen Press, May 23, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 248 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: May 19, 2017
Finished: May 19, 2017

From the back cover:

What does it mean to be brave?

In his dreams, Jensen is the biggest hero that ever was, saving the world and his friends on a daily basis. But his middle school reality is VERY different - math is hard, getting along with friends is hard...Even finding a partner for the class project is a huge problem when you always get picked last. And the pressure's on even more once the school newspaper's dynamic duo, Jenny and Akilah, draw Jensen into the whirlwind of school news, social-experiment projects, and behind-the-scenes club drama. Jensen has always played the middle school game one level at a time, but suddenly, someone's cranked up the difficulty setting. Will those daring daydreams of his finally work in his favour, or will he have to find real solutions to his real-life problems?

The charming world of Berrybrook Middle School gets a little bigger in this highly anticipated follow-up to Svetlana Chmakova's award-winning Awkward with a story about a boy who learns his own way of being brave!

I read Awkward, the first book of this series, back in 2015, and to this day I can't say enough good things about it. I've read practically everything this artist has put out over the years, and this new series set in the middle school years really strikes a chord with me as a teacher. Brave, the new instalment, takes all the great elements from Awkward and just gives readers even more to love.

Rather than focusing on Peppi and Jaime and their respective art and science club friends from the previous book, this one focuses mainly on Jensen, and Jenny and Akilah who work on the school newspaper, though previous characters do make repeat appearances. Jensen is a boy with big dreams but also big problems. He's failing math class, is being bullied on a daily basis, and his friends in the art club frequently leave him out of things. When he gets roped into helping Jenny and Akilah with a social experiment related to bullying, Jensen finally acknowledges the problems he's facing. With the help of his friends he figures out how to face his problems, as well as those of others, with bravery.

Brave does an awesome job yet again of showcasing diversity in many areas, including body types and abilities: Jensen and a few other characters have larger builds, Akilah and Mrs. Rashad are Muslim, the math tutor uses forearm crutches, and there's even a background character with vitiligo. I can't applaud this enough, but I really wish this were the norm in our books and graphic novels rather than a notable exception. The author also does a great job of taking the issues in the book a step further than what you'd normally see or expect in a middle grade book. The bullying Jensen faces from his friends is very subtle, which is why he denies for so long that it is indeed bullying. They make him the butt of their jokes and forget to include him, very much a frenemy-type relationship, which kids experience all the time but you don't usually see portrayals of. Also, Jensen doesn't stop at just resolving the bullying related to him, he goes as far as to change the entire culture in the school, including being nice to and inclusive towards one of the boys who bullied him. I love that the author goes the extra mile to get down to the root cause of the problem rather than just the surface issues. I also love how there's a subplot of Felicity getting suspended for an unfair dress code "violation" and the kids all work together to show their outrage in a respectful, yet persistent way in order to bring her back. This issue is popping up everywhere lately, and I especially like how the teachers in the story backed up the kids completely and supported them.

Not only is the artwork adorable and and full-colour, the content alone makes this a must-have for classrooms and libraries. Awkward has won several awards (kids love it) and I have no doubt that Brave will as well. I also hope that there will be more from this series in the future, it is one of my favourites in recent years.

Thoughts on the cover:
Not quite as detailed and packed to the brim as Awkward's, but I like it, and each character's pose completely reflects their personality.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Act Two - Megan Kearney

Title: Beauty and the Beast: Act Two
Author: Megan Kearney
Publisher: The Quietly, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult, Graphic Novel, Fairy Tale
Started: May 17, 2017
Finished: May 17, 2017

From the back cover:

A Man with no Heart is a Beast...

When Beauty came to the Castle to take her father's place, neither she nor The Beast could have anticipated the depth of the bond that would blossom between them. As Beauty tries to reconcile her sympathy for The Beast with her longing for home, he struggles to balance the demands of his unfeeling master with his growing affection for Beauty.

Events of the past cast a long shadow over the uncertain pair. They know nothing comes without a price, but an impossible love could be costly indeed...

Piggybacking off the last review of Act One of this series, Act Two is nearly double the size of the previous volume and packs a greater emotional punch (so many feels).

After the cliffhanger at the end of Act One, this volume starts off with flashbacks from The Beast's human past and quickly becomes a testament to the changing relationship between him and Beauty. This instalment reads like a slow tease, both in the romantic sense and in terms of the plot, slowly uncovering the mysteries of the story that still haven't been fully revealed yet. You might not notice it on the first reading, but on subsequent readings the symbolism and other references are more noticeable. My favourite scene for this is in Chapter Six where The Beast and Beauty are walking through a corridor and the paintings all around them are scenes from various myths and folktales featuring animal brides and grooms. Since I'm such a geek, I had fun trying to see how many I could identify at first glance and how many required looking up information to figure it out.

As with Act One, you just need to read this, trust me. Act One and Two books can be purchased here. The entire comic, including Act Three which is currently in progress, can be read here.

Thoughts on the cover:
As with any series, I appreciate the continuity between covers for Act One and Act Two: a similar layout and colour schemes that go together so they look nice on a shelf side by side. The cover image is simply gorgeous, and I love the addition of Argus on the bottom.

Beauty and the Beast: Act One - Megan Kearney

Title: Beauty and the Beast: Act One
Author: Megan Kearney
Publisher: The Quietly, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 170 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult, Graphic Novel, Fairy Tale
Started: May 17, 2017
Finished: May 17, 2017

From the back cover:

A Rose in Winter...

When her father returns from a journey bearing strange stories and stranger gifts, Beauty takes it upon herself to fulfill his debt to a mysterious creature called only "The Beast".

But neither the soft-spoken Beast or the uncanny Castle where he makes his home are what Beauty expects. Both harbour more secrets than she could have anticipated, and neither will give them up easily...

I came across this artist's webcomic purely by accident while researching Beauty and the Beast adaptations. As many people know, fairy tale retellings are a passion of mine, and Beauty and the Beast is my personal favourite. As a literature major and currently an English teacher, I appreciate the new perspectives these retellings give to the original tales, sometimes to the point where I find the retelling a better version than the original. Megan Kearney's graphic novel adaptation of the tale is one of those. As an artist she not only manages to portray the lush and vibrant magical setting, but also evokes a full range of emotions through the characters' expressions and designs. As a writer, she takes a bare-bones tale and expands on it, giving both Beauty and Beast their own back-stories and motivation, crafting well-developed characters and relationships. Her dialogue between characters is charming enough to reflect the original fairy tale, but is also mysterious and dark to reinforce the more mature route her version takes.

I can honestly of all the adaptations I've read and seen of Beauty and the Beast, this one is by far my favourite (and not just for the pretty artwork and the fact that the artist is Canadian). The original story and many adaptations don't really hold up well to modern expectations of complexity in what we read. We want to know why the Beast demands Beauty for something as insignificant as a stolen rose, why Beauty can't just leave after initially arriving, how can she begin to have feelings for someone keeping her hostage, and exactly what happens to change the nature of Beauty and Beast's relationship. This version addresses all those concerns, and Kearney's answers to them more than satisfy my curiosity and then some. Plus, the little details and flourishes that you only notice on second and third readings are a delight to uncover: the meanings for the flowers drawn on the chapter pages, the classic literature and mythology references, and the latin verses throughout the castle.

Read it, buy it, and then wonder why it took you so long to discover it. Act One and Two books can be purchased here. The entirety of the comic thus far (including the first few chapters of Act Three can be found here. I can't say enough good things about this, so you'll just have to take my word for it and go spend several hours reading and then wait impatiently twice a week for new updates just like me.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's images like this that make me wish the comic was fully coloured. I love how everything is layered and gradually blends in to the next from top to bottom. I like the detail of Beast's cape being the tree canopy and Beauty's hair being the forest's floor.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Adulthood is a Myth: A Sarah's Scribbles Collection - Sarah Andersen

Title: Adulthood is a Myth: A Sarah's Scribbles Collection
Author: Sarah Andersen
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 110 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: May 16, 2017
Finished: May 16, 2017

From the back of the book:

Are you a special snowflake?

Do you enjoy networking to advance your career?

Is adulthood an exciting new challenge for which you feel fully prepared?

Ugh. Please go away.

This book is for the rest of us. These comics document the wasting of entire beautiful weekends on the internet, the unbearable agony of holding hands on the street with a gorgeous guy, dreaming all day of getting home and back into pyjamas, and wondering when, exactly, this adulthood thing begins. In other words, the horrors and awkwardness of young modern life.

I've seen and shared this artist's work on social media many times, so of course I picked up this volume. The content here in my opinion is going to appeal mainly to older millennials who tend towards introversion with a slight dose of social anxiety; I don't think boomers or even some Gen Xers would really get this style of humour. The former describes me quite well, so I thought this was hilarious. The art style is simple and quirky, so it works with the atmosphere and tone the artist is going for. The topics range from the bottomless pits that are women's purses, procrastination, the pros and cons of lacy bras, being in the zone while listening to music, insights into the introvert mind, and my personal favourite: the personification of a woman's uterus (I find the period comics insanely amusing).

You've got to pick this up, especially if you're in your 20s and 30s and sometimes feel like you can't adult today...or most days. The artist has a second collection that just released back in March, so there is another one out there to satisfy readers. I almost want the artist to do a series of comics about parenthood so I can laugh about my insecurities as a mom as well as an adult in general.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple and quirky, just like the comics themselves. You can't tell from a flat image, but the title font and the sweater details both have velvet flocking on them, which is a nice touch. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

We Are Okay - Nina LaCour

Title: We Are Okay
Author: Nina LaCour
Publisher: Dutton Books (Penguin), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 234 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: April 24, 2017
Finished: May 2, 2017

From the inside cover:

You go through life thinking there's so much you need...until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother. 

Marin hasn't spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she's tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be force to face everything that's been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

An intimate whisper that packs an indelible punch, We Are Okay is Nina LaCour at her finest. This gorgeously crafted and achingly honest portrayal of grief will leave you urgent to reach across any distance with the people you love.

This book has been on many "must-read" lists recently, and once you start reading it's fairly obvious why. The writing is simple yet gorgeous, and the subject matter is raw and touching.

Marin's grandfather died a few weeks before she was supposed to leave her California home for college in New York. Already an orphan since her mother died when she was three, Marin feels even more lost than before. She lives, but barely, going through the motions so that she doesn't have to face  her feelings regarding the circumstances of her grandfather's death. It doesn't help that Marin left without a word, taking barely anything with her. Months later during winter break, Mabel comes to visit to encourage Marin to come home to live with her and her family permanently, but Marin just isn't ready to move forward yet. That would mean coming to terms with feelings she isn't sure how to process.

Nothing much happens in the book in terms of plot. Marin describes her mundane routines, the girls reminisce while cooking dinner in an empty dorm, they wait out a power outage, etc.  The emotional impact on the other hand is immense. Between this monotony of tasks there are flashbacks of the months when school ended up until her grandfather died, where relationships are revealed and Marin's current behaviour suddenly makes a whole lot of sense. There isn't a lot going on plot-wise, and I can see some readers being turned off enough due to boredom. But if you're willing to stick to it, you'll get a lovely emotional portrayal of grief and relationships that's worth the effort.

Beautiful writing and a heartfelt story if you're the type that can get through a book focused more on emotional development than traditional plot.

Thoughts on the cover:
I adore this cover. Not only are the colours appealing, but the layering of images (Marin in her dorm in pink, the beach scene in the background in blue, and the snow in white) creates a nice, yet unsettling display.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 444 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: April 19, 2017
Finished: April 23, 2017

From the inside cover:

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor black neighbourhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, Khalil's death is a national headline. Some are calling him a a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gang banger. Starr's best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protestors take to the streets and Starr's neighbourhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does - or does not - say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.

Angie Thomas' searing debut about an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances addresses issues of racism and police violence with intelligence, heart, and unflinching honesty.

This book had so much hype leading up to its release, but unlike other books that receive similar pre-publication buzz, I had a feeling this book would completely live up to it. I wasn't wrong. This book is completely deserving of all the accolades it receives and more. I was recommending it to my students last week while I was reading it.

I am so happy that this book exists. This story is not only timely, but also incredibly powerful.

I also think everyone (yes, everyone) should read this book. Especially if you're white or otherwise privileged. Yes, I went there.

When Starr was ten, she witnessed her friend Natasha's murder during a drive-by shooting. That was the impetus for her mother Lisa and father Maverick to send all three of their children to a suburban school an hour away in her Uncle Carlos' neighbourhood, not only for a better education, but for a safer environment. Starr, and her brothers Seven and Sekani, learn to forever switch between two personas: their more polished, well-spoken selves they present at school, and their more relaxed authentic selves when at home in Garden Heights. Starr hates that she needs to do this, but she knows if she slips up at school, she'll be seen as the poor scholarship student from the ghetto who doesn't know how to act properly. Not only that, she'll jeopardize her relationships with her white friends and boyfriend and her chance at a better future that her parents worked so hard to obtain.

Amidst all this, Starr witnesses her childhood friend Khalil's murder at the hands of a cop. Not only does Starr have to testify to the police and the DA, but she also tries to hold things together at school, vowing not to let on that the "witness" mentioned in the case that's now made national headlines is actually her. The media and the offending police officer makes Khalil out to be a thug and a drug dealer (and all the kids at her school believe it), but Starr knows the whole story behind who Khalil really was, and is determined to not let his voice be forever silenced.

This book shows readers a type of life some of us can't even imagine. Whereas some children are taught that police officers are ones to seek out if they need help, Starr and her brothers are taught to not make any sudden movements in the presence of police and to keep their hands visible at all times.  Where some kids are made to recite religious creeds or prayers, Starr and her brothers are raised on the Black Panther's Ten-Point Program. There's actually a really touching scene in the book where Maverick makes Starr repeat a few of the relevant points when she wants to back out of testifying due to threats made against her family. A lot of people out there have trouble understanding what white privilege really is; this book is like a crash course in it (Maverick's conversation with Starr on pages 167-171 sums it up nicely).

The author not only manages to make an authentic, honest novel based on the Black Lives Matter movement, she also doesn't make it preachy. She subtly weaves threads of community and family together till readers realize that this is the other side of the news stories. You don't see the guilt the survivors feel. You don't see the lack of choices that led people to their present actions. You don't see the nightmares. You don't feel the fear of the riots right outside your house. You don't feel the slight of racist comments that people shrug off as a joke. You don't have to watch your every word and movement for fear you won't be taken seriously otherwise. This book reminds me why we make kids read books to begin with: not just to learn, but to gain new perspectives and empathy.

Starr is an incredible character. She's a realistic teenager thrust into circumstances most of us can't even fathom, and even though she's scared out of her mind, with the support of her family she does the right thing for herself and those around her. All the secondary characters were nicely developed as well; I loved Seven and his unique situation and the perspective he brings to Starr's family, and Chris was nicely written as well as he tries to really understand Starr's perspective. I adored the family portrayal, it was incredibly loving and realistic. Lisa and Maverick fight, but they resolve conflict in healthy ways and still love each other to death. There's a scene where Starr calls them her OTP and says she looks to them as a role model for what she wants in relationships (that's right parents, the kids are watching us). Starr's parents know their kids and what they need, and ultimately make some hard decisions that conflict with what they initially want for themselves.

The book is bittersweet, mixing serious tragedy with humour (like the numerous Fresh Prince references) and ends on a realistic yet hopeful note. In terms of the writing style, I'm not sure if I imagined this, but the writing subtly changes when Starr is in Garden Heights versus at school in the suburbs, it was a nice reinforcement to the dual persona idea that Starr grapples with.

Everyone needs to read this. I'll even go so far as to say this should be required reading (heck, we can use it to complement To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of themes). Just go read this, you won't be disappointed.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the simple white background with Starr front and centre (I love the detail on her shoes, nice touch from the book). The title font is written in such a way that it spells out THUG, which of course references Tupac Shakur/2Pac nicely.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Giant Days - John Allison, Lissa Treiman, and Whitney Cogar

Title: Giant Days Volume 1
Author: John Allison, Lissa Treiman, and Whitney Cogar
Publisher: Boom! Box, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novel
Started: April 18, 2017
Finished: April 18, 2017

From the back cover:

Susan, Esther, and Daisy started university three weeks ago and became fast friends. Now, away from home for the first time, all three want to reinvent themselves. But in the face of hand-wringing boys, "personal experimentation," influenza, mystery-mold, nu-chauvinism, and the willful, unwanted intrusion of "academia," they may be lucky just to make it to spring alive. Going off to university is always a time of change and growth, but for Esther, Susan, and Daisy, things are about to get a little weird.

This is by the same publishing company that releases Lumberjanes, so I'll be honest, I picked this up on that fact alone. And I wasn't disappointed.

Esther is a goth with a sarcastic sense of humour, Daisy is a sheltered girl who was previously homeschooled, and Susan is a bit jaded. All three are first-years at a university in Britain and get along swimmingly. The girls weather their first away-from-home encounters with being sick, dealing with chauvinistic boys, when pieces of the past come back to haunt them, and just navigating university life. Like Lumberjanes this series has a similar sense of humour, diversity in many areas, and passes the Bechdel Test (yay for female presence in comics!).

Definitely worth a read if you're a fan of Lumberjanes or any of the other Boom! Box titles.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like this candid shot of Esther, especially against the yellow background.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Beast Is an Animal - Peternelle van Arsdale

Title: The Beast Is an Animal
Author: Peternelle van Arsdale
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 343 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: April 1, 2017
Finished: April 16, 2017

From the inside cover:

The Beast is an animal
You'd better lock the Gate
Or when it's dark, It comes for you
Then it will be too late

The Beast is an animal
Hear It scratch upon your door
It sucks your soul then licks the bowl
And sniffs around for more

The Beast is an animal
It has a pointy chin
It eats you while you slept night
Leaves nothing but your skin

Alys was seven the first time she saw the soul eaters. Twin sisters, they radiated an energy that excited Alys. Through them she felt the wilderness of the fforest, and The Beast within it. Too late, she learned of their power to destroy.

By the time she is fifteen, Alys knows too much about both the lure and the danger of the soul eaters. She lives in a world of adults who are terrified of their power, and who cower behind high walls and grim rules. Fear of the soul eaters - and of The Beast- rules their lives. Even more, they fear the ways in which The Beast may lurk among them - and within a girl like Alys.

For Alys has a connection to the soul eaters, and The Beast. And she hides a truth about herself that she can reveal to no one, for fear she will be called a witch. As the threat posed by the soul eaters grows, Alys must undertake a journey through the wild danger of the fforest. But the greatest danger is not outside her. Alys' secret about who - and what - she is terrifies her most of all. And in order to save her world, she must also risk losing herself.

The Beast Is an Animal is an eerie, compelling, wholly original tale of far-flung villages, dark woods, and creatures that hunt in the night. It is also a deeply human story about a girl finding her way in a world that is ugly and beautiful, good and bad - and discovering the same within herself.

This is a strange book, but a very good one.

Alys' village is attacked by the soul eaters when she is seven years old, leaving alive only children under the age of sixteen (the author gives a backstory to the soul eaters early on, but I'm classifying it as spoiler territory so I won't reveal it here). With no one to take care of them, the children of Gwenith are taken in by the puritanical inhabitants of Defaid who view the tragedy in the nearby village as a warning not to stray from the path of righteousness. Defaid builds a wall around itself to both keep the soul eaters out and to closely observe the behaviour of its citizens. As Alys grows she learns to keep certain things to herself, like the encounters she's had with the soul eaters and The Beast, lest she be labeled a witch and killed or banished into the fforest (and yes it is intentionally spelled that way). As the situation worsens, Alys is charged with remedying things before they degrade further still, but not before she must escape Defaid for fear of her own life.

I have to give the author credit for creating a seemingly simple book that packs a punch in terms of allegory. The writing here is simple but highly evocative, bordering on magical realism. The underlying messages here are fairly easy to uncover but nonetheless important: that humanity is a mix of both good and evil (no one can claim to be purely angelic or devilish), and that the stories we tell about ourselves, and others, shape who we become. I especially love how The Beast is described with  a capital "I" like how we ascribe to God, it just reinforces the former point all the more.

If you want to read something different, yet wholly satisfying that will leave you pondering, then read this. I'll definitely be adding this to my library at home.

Thoughts on the cover:
It is eerie and creepy and fits the feel of the novel oh so well. The tree-figure in the centre fits exactly with how the soul eaters are described.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Long May She Reign - Rhiannon Thomas

Title: Long May She Reign
Author: Rhiannon Thomas
Publisher: HarperTeen, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 422 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: March 23, 2017
Finished: March 30, 2017

From the inside cover:

Freya was never meant to be queen.

Twenty-third in line to the throne, she never dreamed of a life in the palace, and would much rather research in her laboratory than participate in the intrigues of the court. However, when an extravagant banquet turns deadly and the king and those closest to him are poisoned, Freya suddenly finds herself on the throne.

She may have  escaped from the massacre, but she is far from safe. The nobles don't respect her, her councillors want to control her, and with the mystery of who killed the king still unsolved, she knows that a single mistake could cost her the kingdom - and her life.

Freya is determined to survive, and that means uncovering the murderers herself. Until then, she can't trust anyone. Not her advisers. Not the king's dashing and enigmatic illegitimate son. Not even her own father, who always wanted the best for her but also wanted more power for himself.

As Freya's enemies close in and her loyalties are tested, she must decide of she is ready to rule and, if so, how far she is willing to go to keep the crown.

There's some hype surrounding this book, so it was a given that I'd pick it up. Plus, how could I turn down a book with a heroine that shares a name with my dog?

Freya, the daughter of a noble mother and a merchant father, is an anxious and intelligent girl who would rather conduct experiments in her laboratory than sit through the lavish and pretentious parties the king throws for his court. On the night of the king's birthday celebration, Freya and her friend Naomi leave early to test out Freya's idea of a portable heat source, As they work into the morning, they discover that practically everyone who had attended the party with them, the majority of the nobility in all of Epria, has been killed from arsenic poisoning. With the king and his heirs before her now dead, Freya automatically becomes queen, the very thing she never wanted. Of the court members that survive, some suspect her, some despise her, and most think very little of her. Unsure of whom she can trust, Freya decides to solve the mystery of the massacre herself; while at the same time trying to learn to be a better ruler than the king before her, and defending against an invasion from those that want her dead.

This story has great potential and there were many things I quite liked, but unfortunately it didn't quite deliver. I loved Freya and her characterization, that she is more logical and loves science but also has social anxiety issues. She has a strong sense of her own moral code and sticks to it regardless of the influence of others, and I admire that in a character. Once she knows the ropes and how things work at court, she is confident in her choices and exercises her power as queen to bring about positive social change. The book had a big focus on female friendships, which I also enjoyed (yay for books passing what I imagine is the book equivalent of the Bechtel test). However, there were a few things that didn't really fit. The fact that even though Freya has a legion of people against her (Torsten Wolff and his supporters), she manages to dissuade them and succeed by playing on the idea that she was chosen by the Forgotten, it was just way too easy. Also, Freya just happens to find amazingly supportive people to help her without any betrayal or typical back-stabbing (not counting the twist at the end)? Again, way too easy. There was conflict mind you, but it was so easily resolved. Fitzroy's character was your typical clown who plays everything for a joke but in reality just masks the kinder persona beneath it, which I feel is something I've seen before and would've liked to see him a bit more developed. Freya's social anxieties seem to disappear halfway into the book, so there's that as well. And although the murder mystery aspect was quite well-constructed and interesting overall, the end result just wasn't all that realistic (can't elaborate due to spoilers). There was also no real world-building, which is disappointing since I quite enjoy learning about a novel's universe and how things work in it.

This is an enjoyable read overall, but won't be a jaw-dropping favourite due to the above issues. Oh, but there's also a quirky lab cat, so that gives it a few more points in my book.

Thoughts on the cover:
I really enjoy the fortress/prison in the beaker bottle, it's a very unique image that works well for the tone of the book.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Heart's Blood - Juliet Marillier

Title: Heart's Blood
Author: Juliet Marillier
Publisher: Roc, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: March 20, 2017
Finished: March 22, 2017

From the inside cover:

Whistling Tor is a place of secrets, a mysterious wooded hill housing the crumbling fortress of a chieftain whose name is spoken throughout the region in tones of revulsion and bitterness. A curse lies over Anluan's family and his people. The woods hold a perilous force whose every whisper threatens doom. And Anluan himself has been crippled by a childhood illness.

Then the young scribe Caitrin appears in Anluan's garden, admiring the rare plant known as heart's blood. Retained to sort through entangled family documents, Caitrin brings about unexpected changes in the household, casting a hopeful light against the despairing shadows.

But even as Caitrin brings solace to Anluan, and the promise of something more between them, he remains in thrall to the darkness surrounding Whistling Tor. To free Anluan's burdened soul, Caitrin must unravel the web or sorcery woven by his ancestors before it claims his life - and their love.

I'm on a Beauty and the Beast kick currently, so when I looked up a list of books inspired by the original tale and this one came up, I knew I had my next read.

In a world resembling medieval Ireland (cue the numerous Google searches on how to pronounce all the characters' names), Caitrin is a scribe who is escaping her abusive relatives after the death of her father. When she comes upon Whistling Tor and finds out the chieftain of the area is looking for the services of a scribe trained in Latin, Caitrin jumps at the chance for safety and security despite the stories in the settlement that the chieftain's family is cursed, and that supernatural beings haunt the hill. Anluan is the crippled leader of Whistling Tor, whose family curse originated with his great-grandfather Nechtan a hundred years prior. When Caitrin is hired to translate Nechtan's personal documents from Latin to Irish, she learns, both through the documents and experience, that the supernatural beings in the woods are actually an army of undead spirits: those who were once human but lingered in a purgatory-like existence after death due to some unfortunate error they committed and who are bound to whomever is the current chieftain at Whistling Tor. Anluan can command this army, collectively called the host, but it severely weakens him because he must constantly suppress the evil urges that sometimes overcome them. Detested by the folk of the settlement and angry over his handicap, Anluan is an awkward and self-loathing man that, despite his rough manners, Caitrin comes to admire due the loyalty he inspires from those in his household. After she is saved by Anluan and the host when her kinsman, Cillian, tries to bring her back home, Caitrin is determined to find some way to end the curse and set the host free. Throw in an invasion by the Normans and you've got an intriguing plot that is quite involving (at leastuntil the reader figures everything out).

What makes this retelling so superb is partly the writing style; the author does tend to be verbose, but I appreciated it since it added to the atmosphere. She is so skilled at not only crafting an engaging story that uniquely stands on its own despite borrowing elements from the Beauty and the Beast tale (enchanted castle, special flower, magic mirrors, Beauty's literacy and love of books), but by creating such realistic characters and a genuinely creepy environment that will send shivers down your back. Caitrin and Anluan are deeply flawed, realistic characters: Caitrin detests the frightened person she became under her abusive family, and Anluan believes he is less of a man and a leader not only because of his affected body, but because his control over the host does not allow him to leave the hill, leading to strained relationships with the folk in the settlement below. Caitrin is optimistically hopeful, which leads both her and Anluan to believe that with courage and determination they can improve their lot in life. I have to give the author credit for including the magic in the mirrors, it was a great way to experience a different point of view, plus it was just deliciously creepy and unsettling.

An excellent read with a wonderful story, well-crafted romance, and lovely characters (I loved all the secondary characters as much as I loved the mains).

Thoughts on the cover:
It's kind of meh, but I can't quite figure out why.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: The Journey of Doaa Al Zamel - Melissa Fleming

Title: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: The Journey of Doaa Al Zamel
Author: Melissa Fleming
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 274 pages
Genre: Adult/Young Adult; Nonfiction
Started: March 8, 2017
Finished: March 8, 2017

From the inside cover:

The stunning story of a young woman, an international crisis, and the triumph of the human spirit.

Adrift in a frigid sea, no land in sight - just debris from the ship's wreckage and floating corpses all around - nineteen-year-old Doaa Al Zamel floats with a small inflatable water ring around her waist and clutches two small children, barely toddlers, to her body. The children has been thrust into Doaa's arms by their drowning relatives, all refugees who boarded a dangerously overcrowded ship bound for Sweden and a new life. For days, Doaa floats, prays, and sings to the babies in her arms. She must stay alive for these children. She must not lose hope.

Doaa Al Zamel was once an average Syrian girl growing up in a crowded house in a bustling city near the Jordanian border. But in 2011, her life was upended. Inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, Syrians began to stand up against their own oppressive regime. When the army was sent to take control of of Doaa's hometown. strict curfews, power outages. water shortages, air raids, and violence disrupted everyday life. After Doaa's father's barbershop was destroyed and rumours of women being abducted spread through the community, her family decided to leave Syria for Egypt, where they hoped to stay in peace until they could return home. Only months after their arrival, the Egyptian government was overthrown and the environment turned hostile for refugees.

In the midst of this chaos, Doaa falls in love with a young opposition fighter who proposes marriage and convinces her to flee to the promise of safety and a better future in Europe. Terrified and unable to swim, Doaa and her young fiancee hand their life savings to smugglers and board a dilapidated fishing vessel with five hundred other refugees, including a hundred children. After four horrifying days at sea, another ship, filled with angry men shouting insults, rams into Doaa's boat, sinking it and leaving the passengers to drown.

That is where Doaa's struggle for survival really begins.

This emotionally charged, eye-opening true story represents the millions of unheard voices of refugees who risk everything in a desperate search for the promise of a safe future. Melissa Fleming sheds light on the most pressing humanitarian crisis of our time and paints a vivid, unforgettable portrait of the triumph of the human spirit.

There's been some hype surrounding this book, calling it "required reading." In my experience, if people throw that phrase around, there's usually a good reason, so I picked this up. It wasn't until after I'd started reading that I realized I'd encountered this story before; the author had given a TED Talk on the Syrian refugee crisis that I'd watched, and Doaa's story of surviving the aftermath of the sinking had been the focus.

The book opens with Doaa's childhood in Daraa, Syria, outlining Doaa's family dynamics and the events of her early years. It moves on to document the events of the Arab Spring-inspired protests in Daraa that Doaa participates in after the arrest and torture of a group of young boys in February 2011, and the stark decline of living conditions and the increase in violence in the months to follow. When Doaa's father Shokri fears for the safety of his daughters, the family seeks asylum in Egypt in late 2012. Though the family is initially welcomed in Egypt and they are soon able to have some semblance of the life they left behind, the Egyptian government under Morsi was overthrown in July 2013, which lead to hostile treatment of Syrian refugees almost overnight. Amidst all this, a man named Bassem, a fellow Syrian refugee in Egypt, falls in love with Doaa. She eventually accepts his proposal, and the two become engaged. After tensions lead to Doaa's younger siblings to be threatened at school, the young couple know they cannot remain in Egypt, so they make plans to leave for Europe in the only way available to them: illegal smuggling. After several failed attempts, Doaa and Bassem find themselves aboard a fishing vessel with five hundred other refugees in September 2014 headed for Italy, which later is intentionally struck by another boat and sinks. After days adrift at sea, Doaa is one of the only survivors to be rescued.

The author is wonderful at telling Doaa's story with a lovely narrative quality about it; I had to remind myself that I wasn't reading a work of fiction, that this was actually someone's real life. Doaa's story is quite sad, even more so because it is real for millions of people. It is for this reason that I echo the idea that Doaa's story should indeed be required reading, especially for anyone that is directly involved with refugees in fields such as politics, education, public policy, and social services.

Though it is an incredibly sad account, this is one that everyone should truly read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they did the split view of Doaa's face parallel to the title font.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Warden's Daughter - Jerry Spinelli

Title: The Warden's Daughter
Author: Jerry Spinelli
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 341 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: March 6, 2017
Finished: March 7, 2017

From the inside cover:

"For twelve years the warden had been enough. But now I was sick and tired of being motherless. I wanted one. And if I couldn't have my first-string mother, I'd bring one in off the bench."

Cammie lives with her father, the warden, in an apartment above the entrance to the county jail - so most of the mother figures she's got her eye on are inmates. There's a flamboyant shoplifter named Boo Boo, who dreams of hot fudge sundaes. And a sullen reformed arsonist named Eloda, who works as their housekeeper. Not ideal candidates maybe, but Cammie's nickname isn't Cannonball for nothing. She's a girl who decides what she wants and launches herself at it.

And this summer, Cannonball's fuse is lit and she is set to blow. Her best friend is discovering lipstick and Elvis. The guys she plays baseball with think she plays too rough. A child killer is brought to her prison, and demonstrators are gathering outside her windows. It's the kind if summer when a girl could really use a mom.

In this captivating novel by Jerry Spinelli, Cammie learns that you don't always get what you want. But what you need may be right around the corner.

The premise sounded really promising, and after reading an excerpt online, I decided to give this a shot. I've read a few of the author's previous books years ago and was quite impressed, but I have to say this newest one was a bit of a let-down.

Cammie lives in an apartment above the Pennsylvania county prison with her father, the warden. Cammie's mother died in an accident when she was a baby, pushing her out of the way of a moving truck. Years later in 1959 when Cammie is turning thirteen and about to enter junior high school, she realizes she wants a mother-figure, to have that love she's been denied for so long. She hones in on the only female figures available in her environment: inmates. Eloda, a prison trustee (trusted inmate) who acts as their housekeeper, and Boo Boo, an obese black woman who adores Cammie.

The main issue with this book is that Cammie just isn't likeable in my opinion. She's twelve years old, and though I get that she's full of anger and love-starved (the whole theme of Cammie being in a prison of her own just like the inmates), kids know by that age that it doesn't give them the right to be a brat to everyone. The child was literally hell on wheels, which I'd expect from a younger kid, but not at nearly thirteen. If Cammie had been more developed as a character and had a chance to evoke more sympathy from readers, then perhaps I'd feel differently. The adults weren't much better to be honest. Not only does the warden give his daughter the keys to the prison yard so she can go socializing with the female inmates inside the fence (I find it hard to believe any professional in his position would do that), but both the warden and Eloda know that Cammie is angry and wanting attention and love from a female figure and acting out as a result...and in turn they deny her that outright love, watch from the sidelines as she engages in self-destructive behaviour, and then conveniently refuse to discipline her until she "gets it out of her system". I know people didn't believe in therapy in the 50s, but my god, Cammie would need a crap-ton of therapy after those brilliant parenting methods.

There's also the underlying issue of race in the novel, the issue being that it isn't addressed at all. It takes place mainly in the summer of 1959, so a key time period, and in addition to the black kids that Cammie plays with and the other black women in the prison, there's the issue of Boo Boo. She's the stereotype of the big, jolly black woman who has a soft spot for the little white girl. This wouldn't be as glaring of an issue if the characters were explored a bit more so they would be more than just a caricature, but in the absence of proper development, it just leaves me shaking my head. You do eventually get some development regarding Cammie's father and Eloda, but that doesn't happen until the very end of the novel (it's a miracle I even made it that far).

Pales in comparison to Stargirl, Milkweed, or Manic Magee; so perhaps skip this novel and pick up one of the former instead.

Thoughts on the cover:
I do like the cover, the image of Cammie inside the cage freeing the birds is quite clever.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wintersong - S. Jae-Jones

Title: Wintersong
Author: S. Jae-Jones
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: March 1, 2017
Finished: March 3, 2017

From the inside cover:

All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous, Goblin King. They've enraptured her mind and spirit and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family's inn, Liesl can't help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.

But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds - and the mysterious man who rules it - she soon faces an impossible decision. With time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.

Dark, romantic, and powerful, Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won't soon forget.

When I first saw this described, I immediately thought, "Labyrinth retelling!" (which was more than enough to make me want this with such fervour); when in reality it's a bit of a mix of Jim Henson's Labyrinth, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, and the Hades and Persephone myth, complete with music and German language references thrown in for good measure....and it made me love it even more (if that's even possible).

Liesl (Elisabeth) is the eldest daughter of an innkeeper family in 18th (possibly 19th) century Germany. Though Liesl has a talent for composing passionate, moving music, she is often overlooked compared to her beautiful sister Kathe and her little brother Josef, who is a musical prodigy. When Liesl was a child, she used to play and share music with the Goblin King (Der Erlkonig) in the Goblin Grove near her home, even promising him that she would marry him one day. When she abandons flights of fancy for responsibility, the Goblin King becomes tired of waiting for her, and kidnaps Kathe as a ruse to bring Elisabeth to the Underground. While in the company of Der Erlkonig, Elisabeth learns more about him and his realm, which leads her to face some difficult decisions regarding her future.

The book is divided into four parts, but they can be summed up in two phases: the world above, and the Underground. The first phase is concerned with establishing Liesl's role within her family and village and how she feels about herself, whereas the second phase deals with Elisabeth in the Underground and how her relationship with Der Erlkonig evolves along with her sense of self-worth.

The writing here is simply gorgeous. There's so much lovely imagery reminiscent of Rossetti's Goblin Market (the English teacher in me was geeking out over this), particularly where Kathe is offered luscious peaches and, though Liesl tries to stop her, she is distracted by an encounter with Der Erlkonig himself, and she discovers Kathe with swollen lips and fruit juice dripping from her mouth. Those types of descriptions are just the start of the sexual imagery in the novel, the sensuality is overflowing here; not to the point of vulgarity or impropriety (the language is appropriate in the context of the story), but it's still fairly mature, so prudish or otherwise sensitive readers be forewarned.

There are some pacing issues, such as when readers are waiting for Liesl to actively decide to stop living in what she clearly knows is the Goblin King's fever dream world where Kathe doesn't exist. It drags on, granted for the purpose of establishing that Liesl is flawed and has thought about what life would be like if her sister wasn't in it. I didn't find the overall pacing horrible, mainly because I love character-driven stories so development in that area doesn't bore me, but readers who are into plot-driven stories might have issues here.

I really enjoyed Liesl/Elisabeth as a character, I could really identify with her struggle of putting on a metaphorical mask to downplay or erase parts of yourself because you're in an environment where you wouldn't be fully accepted or supported otherwise. She's incredibly well-developed and has her share of personality flaws, she's truly a very human character. I'm not a huge fan of the idea that the impetus behind her self-actualization was having sex with the Goblin King, not because I'm a prude, but because this is a YA novel, and I'm not keen on teenage girls thinking that they just need to get laid to "find themselves" (I'm a teacher, some girls actually believe this; heck, some boys too). The author did touch on a key idea regarding relationships that I have to give her credit for including though: that physical intimacy is one thing, but to have a truly fulfilling relationship you need to open up and experience emotional intimacy with your partner as well.

The Goblin King/Der Erlkonig was another incredibly well-developed and complex character. He is described as having an appearance similar to David Bowie's Jareth in Labyrinth, but his demeanour is much more complicated. Elisabeth describes him as presenting almost as different people (the idea of different masks for different situations): he can be cruel and menacing one moment and encouraging and sympathetic the next. I'm enjoying this trend of new-age Gothic romance stories where the heroine experiences her coming-of-age/sexual awakening at the hands of a mysterious/supernatural/imposing figure, but that the being is given a back-story to the point where it's no longer about the heroine having to work against the figure or rejecting him in order to grow, but that she needs to actively work with him to accomplish this. Wintersong is no exception, and it's expressed beautifully here.

Wintersong had me so involved and entrenched in its world, I didn't want to leave. If you're a fan of Cruel BeautyThe Star-Touched Queen, or The Wrath and the Dawn, you need to check this out. I've discovered that there is a sequel in the works (yay!), so I'll be waiting ever so impatiently for it.

Thoughts on the cover:
This is the only aspect of the novel I find rather unimpressive. The internet thinks this cover is freaking stupendous and astounding though, so it might just be me.