Saturday, October 7, 2017

She and Her Cat - Makoto Shinkai and Tsubasa Yamaguchi

Title: She and Her Cat
Author: Makoto Shinkai and Tsubasa Yamaguchi
Publisher: Vertical Comics, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 180 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: October 6, 2017
Finished: October 6, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

"It was the start of spring. It was raining. That was the day that she brought me home."

This is the story of Miyu, a woman who lives alone with her cat, Chobi. As Miyu navigates the world of adulthood, she discovers both the freedom and the loneliness that come with living independently, and Chobi learns of the outside world through her actions. Time drifts slowly for Miyu and her cat, but the harsh realities of the world soon catch up...

Review:
Makoto Shinkai is a filmmaker who has an amazingly good reputation, and well-deserved too (I've seen practically all of his movies). I haven't seen the short piece this manga was adapted from though, hence why I picked it up.

The story is narrated from Chobi's (the cat's) perspective, which is always an interesting take on any piece of fiction. We only learn about Miyu through Chobi, so it takes a while before we discover that Miyu is living alone since she recently graduated and landed a job. She struggles with depression, and we see how the responsibility of taking care of Chobi helps Miyu cope. The manga perfectly captures the unconditional love pets have for their owners, and actually does a good job of framing the story from an animal's perspective.



Recommendation:
It's worth a read just for the unique subject matter, the fact that it's a touching story is just a bonus. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Encapsulates the feel of the work, and the pearlescent finish is just a nice added touch. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Girl From the Other Side: Siuil, A Run Vol. 1 - Nagabe

Title: The Girl From the Other Side: Siuil, A Run Vol. 1
Author: Nagabe
Publisher: Seven Seas, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 180 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult, Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Started: October 5, 2017
Finished: October 5, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

Once Upon a Time...

In a land far away, there were two kingdoms: the Outside, where twisted beasts roamed that could curse with a touch, and the Inside, where humans lived in safety and peace. The girl and the beast should never have met, but when they do, a quiet fairytale begins.

This is a story of two people - one human, one inhuman - who linger in the hazy twilight that separates night from day.

Review:
I saw this cover and immediately knew I wanted to read it. People have compared it to The Ancient Magus' Bride, and on the surface level that comparison fits (otherworldly male figure paired with vulnerable female figure), but a closer inspection reveals a different type of tale. The Girl From the Other Side (Totsukuni no Shoujo) is a fairy tale immersed in magical realism that is lighthearted and dark at the same time.

Shiva is a young girl under the care of a well-dressed demon (Outsider) she calls Teacher. She is under the impression that her aunt will come fetch her from the cottage in the woods where they live, but only Teacher is aware that Shiva was abandoned in order to spare her life. During their interactions Teacher cannot touch Shiva, otherwise she will turn into a demon herself. As Teacher and Shiva go about their days in a very adorable father-daughter fashion, he struggles with protecting Shiva both from the Outsiders and from the knowledge that her aunt will never come for her.

The story is shrouded in mystery and is slow to unravel, which is part of its charm. Shiva's childlike innocence is a perfect juxtaposition to the underlying darkness and shadow that pervades everything in the world they inhabit. The art is beautiful as well, it doesn't look like your typical manga style, more like the soft watercolours you'd find in a children's storybook.


Recommendation:
The first volume ends on a cliffhanger, so I am definitely reading more of this. There are two volumes out currently in the English translation with a third coming out at the end of this month.

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, the cover is what attracted me to this title, it very much embodies the spirit of the work at least thus far.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ban This Book - Alan Gratz

Title: Ban This Book
Author: Alan Gratz
Publisher: Starscape, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 243 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: September 21, 2017
Finished: September 21, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

It's a battle of the books - and Amy Anne is determined to win!

It all started the say Amy Anne Ollinger tried to check out her favourite book in the whole world, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from the school library. That's when Mrs. Jones, the librarian, told her the bad news: her favourite book was banned! All because a classmate's mom thought the book wasn't appropriate for kids to read.

Amy Anne decides to fight back by starting a secret banned-books library out of her locker. As word spreads, Amy Anne's locker stash quickly grows into a school-wide sensation. Soon, she and her friends find themselves on the front line of an unexpected battle over book banning, censorship, and who has the right to decide what kids can read.

Review:
I so needed this book as a kid. Like Amy Anne, I was the little bookworm who was quiet and didn't stand up for themselves. I definitely would've appreciated Any Anne's transformation to become a kid who speaks her mind and stands up for what she believes in.

Amy Anne is nine, and with two younger sisters at home (one of whom she shares a room with) she doesn't get a lot of quiet time to herself. So she stays in the library after school reading book after book. When she tries to check out her favourite yet again, the librarian tells her it's been removed due to a parent challenging the book's content, along with several others deemed inappropriate. Even after her parents buy her a copy of her own, Amy Anne decides that good books deserve to be read, and that only someone's parents can tell a kid what they can and cannot read. When she discovers that some of her friends own copies of the other banned books, the B.B.L.L. (Banned Books Locker Library) begins. After pooling their money to purchase more books, and even receiving donated copies from authors, the B.B.L.L. begins to grow even further. When the principal uncovers their little operation, leading to the librarian being fired, Amy Anne and her friends decide to step up their game and really show the trustees how ridiculous book banning can be.

As an English teacher and general book-lover, this book and the story it tells is so incredibly important. The story takes place in North Carolina in the US, where I know they do have more issues with banned books and censorship. I'm fortunate that I work in a school board in Canada that hasn't really had an issue with book banning and censorship in general, although a board near mine did temporarily ban Philip Pullmans's His Dark Materials a few years back which I was absolutely incensed over. I'm of the opinion that if a kid is old enough to read something let them have at it, but to be a parent and have a conversation about the content your kid is reading, same as with movies or tv shows or any media they consume. Are there some books I wouldn't let my kid read at this stage? Of course, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't let her read them ever, and that's my prerogative as her parent.

The list of banned books in this novel are real: they've all been banned at some point in time in the US over the past several decades, and the reasons are mind-numbingly stupid. Amy Anne and her friends make that point crystal clear when they intentionally look for things that would get a book banned: any behaviour considered negative like disobeying parents, violence, sexual content of any kind, having LGBT or transgender characters, and many others. I look at that list and see many books that were actually required class reading in elementary school for me: Bridge to Terebithia, Island of the Blue Dolphins, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. Not only did these books not corrupt me as a child, they made me a better human being. I see books on that list that not only would I not mind if my child read them, I've already bought those exact copies in preparation for when she's a more proficient reader (she's not quite six yet, I figure give her another year to eighteen months and she'll be voraciously devouring everything on the shelves). So needless to say, the unrestricted right to read is one I will always defend.

I love Amy Anne's character development in this novel. She goes from a meek little mouse (as Trey's drawing depicts) with very closed-minded ideas about good books and the people that read them, to a kid who will speak her mind about what she feels is right, who realizes that different people like different things, and that even the parent that instigated the book banning is actually a good person who's just a bit misguided. I also like that Amy Anne is a person of colour (as are her family), we need more diversity in our kid's lit, not to mention on our book covers too.

The only thing I have issue with in this book is that there is no way a group of average nine year olds could've orchestrated the series of events as lined out in this book without parental influence of some kind (unless they were highly gifted, which the kids in question are not). Could kids of eleven or twelve do it? Sure, but not nine, no way. But aside from that suspension of disbelief, the book is awesome.

Recommendation:
All book lovers should read this, not to mention teachers, parents, hell let's make it everyone.

Thoughts on the cover:
Very basic. It gets the message across, but this is a book that would benefit from a good cover redesign.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Ancient Magus' Bride - Kore Yamazaki

Title: The Ancient Magus' Bride
Author: Kore Yamazaki
Publisher: Seven Seas, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 180 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Started: September 19, 2017
Finished: September 19, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

Enter the Magician's Apprentice

Her name is Chise Hatori, a penniless orphan troubled by visions. Sold as a slave to an inhuman mage, she is about to begin a strange new life, filled with magic, fairies, and other beings of a fantastical nature.

Review:
I first came across this as a recommendation from an internet friend, and I must admit, I was really intrigued by the skull-headed guy (whom I later found out was Elias, the mage of the title). I've since read most of the available manga volumes and am waiting with bated breath for the anime tv series set to premiere in October. This type of story and universe seems extremely weird at first glance (I'll even admit I didn't think I'd like it), but decided to give it a shot based on my friend's tastes and am I ever glad I did.

This story does a fantastic job of world-building: there is a smaller cast of main characters (both human and non) but a cavalcade of creatures that make the world that Chise and Elias inhabit vibrant. All the characters in my opinion are very endearing (there aren't any I can honestly say I dislike) and their relationships to each other are quite heartfelt. I appreciate how even though Elias literally buys Chise from a slave auction, that they do have a sweet, almost familial relationship and they do genuinely care for each other.

Recommendation:
If you're big into fantasy, give this a shot.

Thoughts on the cover:
Nicely posed and detailed, and as always I appreciate the colour since manga has very few colour pages on the inside.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Giants - Conor Nolan, Jared Cullum, Brandon Dayton, Feifei Ruan

Title: Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Giants
Authors: Conor Nolan, Jared Cullum, Brandon Dayton, Feifei Ruan
Publisher: Archaia (Boom Entertainment), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Started: September 20, 2017
Finished: September 20, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

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

The critically acclaimed Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Giants celebrates four mythic tales of when giants roamed the Earth, inspired by folklore from around the world and told in the spirit of Jim Henson's beloved television series.

Featuring an array of styles and stories by some of today's most original talent, including Conor Nolan (Neverboy), Brandon Dayton (Green Monk), and introducing Jared Cullum and Feifei Ruan, 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.

Review:
After reading the original release and finally getting my hands on the Dragons volume from last year, I was excited to read the Giants volume since this is honestly one of my favourite graphic novel installments; partly since they release new collections so intermittently but also because there's such variety in the stories presented.

The Giants volume features four stories centered around giants, but more often than not the real focus is on those whom the giants terrorize and how they reclaim their livelihood. I didn't like this volume quite as much as the Dragons collection, but I give this installment credit for the adorable art style of the third story, "Pru and the Formorian Giants." Also, the art of the final story, "The Fisherman and the Giant" is so incredibly gorgeous I think it's worth picking up just for that, I mean, look at it:

It's a story adapted from One Thousand and One Nights, so the artist used a Middle Eastern inspired art style; it's enchanting to look at.

Recommendation:
Again, if you like folktales and stories in general you'll want to pick up these volumes.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the consistency from cover to cover in this series: the dragons volume was done in green tones, this one in blues and the witches volume in dark reds (which I still need to track down).

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Star Trek: Boldly Go - Mike Johnson and Tony Shasteen

Title: Star Trek: Boldly Go (Volume 1)
Author: Mike Johnson and Tony Shasteen
Publisher: IDW Publishing, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 152 pages
Genre: Adult/Young Adult; Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Started: September 9, 2017
Finished: September 10, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

After the destruction of their ship in Star Trek Beyond, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise have been reassigned to new ships with unseasoned crews, and unfamiliar roles. The galaxy enjoys a fragile peace, but the discoveries of new worlds, new species, new ships, all lead to a new danger unlike anything the federation has encountered before. And resistance may be futile...

Review:
While waiting for the new Star Trek series to appear on my streaming service, I thought this might be an appropriate way to pass the time.

This version takes place shortly after the events of the third film, and follows the crew as they're split up in different environments but eventually reconnect in order to rescue a ship of people from being assimilated by the Borg. There's also one issue of the six included in this volume devoted to a vignette about Jaylah.

I enjoyed how the story forces the crew to come together again, I really do enjoy them all as a group. The story was decent, enough that you could read this solely on its own or continue to the subsequent volumes. The art style of the first five issues is consistent (not the same as the cover art though), but then changes in issue six (I preferred the former rather than the latter), so that's something to be aware of.

Recommendation:
Definitely worth a look if you're a fan of the new Star Trek universe and enjoyed the movies.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the art style here, and several more of the artist's pieces are included throughout the book.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Court of Wings and Ruin - Sarah J. Maas

Title: A Court of Wings and Ruin (3rd in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series)
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 700 pages
Genre: Adult/Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 14, 2017
Finished: August 22, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Feyre has returned to the Spring Court, determined to gather information on Tamlin's maneuverings and the invading king threatening to being Prythian to its knees. But to do so she must play a deadly game of deceit - and one slip may spell doom not only for Feyre, but for her world as well. As war bears down upon them all, Feyre must decide who to trust amongst the dazzling and lethal High Lords - and hunt for allies in unexpected places.

In this thrilling third book of the Court of Thorns and Roses series by #1 New York Times bestselling author Sarah J. Maas, the earth will be painted red as mighty armies grapple for power over the one thing that could destroy them all.

Review:
Have I mentioned how much I love this series? After reading A Court of Thorns and Roses and positively losing my mind over how freaking good A Court of Mist and Fury was (a book that definitely does not suffer from "bridge book syndrome"), I definitely enjoyed A Court of Wings and Ruin, but honestly, A Court of Mist and Fury was good to the point where I don't think anything could've topped it, and I was right.

A Court of Wings and Ruin starts out a bit slow but picks up rather quickly. Feyre is back in the Spring Court, pretending to have been abducted and controlled by Rhysand all these months in order to obtain information on Tamlin's alliance with the king of Hybern and their responsibility for the attack on Velaris. When Tamlin becomes violent and Ianthe uncovers her true motives, Feyre and Lucien escape back to the Night Court, where she and Rhys plan to meet with the other High Lords to arrange for an alliance against Hybern. But with the king of Hybern controlling the Cauldron, Prythian forces need all the help they can get; the only question is how far Feyre and company are willing to go to save their homeland.

If you're a fan of this series already, the same things you enjoy are still here. The writing is good, the banter between characters is hilarious, the existing relationships are fleshed out and new ones are introduced, and you will be put through the wringer emotionally throughout the entire book (but damn, you will enjoy it).

Recommendation:
Go read the first two books if you hadn't already discovered this amazing series. This instalment is good, but can't measure up to the awesomeness of the second book, but is still a fitting conclusion to this particular arc. The series is set to continue in the next few years, but I'm not sure what the future books will focus on, since Feyre's story is more or less concluded at the end of this book (here's hoping for character side-arcs!).

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuation from the first two covers, this time with Feyre front and centre instead of off to the sides. Also, the red, blue, and now green colour schemes for the respective books look really nice together on a shelf.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Nunavik - Michel Hellman

Title: Nunavik
Author: Michel Hellman
Publisher: Pow Pow Press, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 150 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: August 20, 2017
Finished: August 21, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

"Do you know what constitutes a typical Inuit family? A man, a woman, two children...and an anthropologist!" Follow Montreal author Michel Hellman on a trip to Nunavik as he discovers he's the punchline to that joke.

Review:
This was an interesting selection that popped up when I was browsing through new library books. Nunavik is the northern part of Quebec, sparsely inhabited by Inuit peoples, where Montreal artist/author Michel Hellman travels to for inspiration for his new graphic novel. The end result reads like a travelogue rather than an actual story, showcasing both the beauty of the North as well as its challenges.

The art style is simple, but conveys much, and it's an interesting detail that the artist decides to portray himself as a bear but truthfully depict everyone else. I liked how the author does explain the issues that Nunavik faces, but there's no real reflection on them, they're just presented with no follow up. This would make for a good discussion prompt for a classroom or a bookclub, though.

Recommendation:
A welcome look into a part of Canada rarely explored.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover ives you a good idea of the artistic style.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Radiance - Grace Draven

Title: Radiance
Author: Grace Draven
Publisher: Grace Draven, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 2, 2017
Finished: August 7, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

The Prince of No Value

Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.

The Noblewoman of No Importance

Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn't just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she's known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.

Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.

Review:
I needed some light summer reading lately, kind of like a beach read (but not since I don't do beaches), and this is what I ended up picking. I honestly didn't have huge expectations going into it, but I have to say I was honestly surprised that I ended up actually enjoying it.

Brishen and Ildiko are both of royal blood, but aren't very important in the overall scheme of things, and as such are married off to each other for a political alliance. Brishen's people aren't human (but conveniently enough share the same anatomy with only some slight differences), so both partners find the other ugly and repulsive from the get-go, and are honest about it. While Ildiko gets used to her role as the Hercegese, she and Brishen are attacked by a neighbouring kingdom trying to take advantage of the newfound alliance.

The one thing that stands out in this novel is the dialogue. Brishen and Ildiko are brutally honest with each other from their first meeting, and this leads to some really hilarious dialogue between the two which was quite refreshing to read. Their romance is very much a slow burn that takes time to develop, and I was just thankful it wasn't another case of insta-love that I see way too frequently for my liking. There were a few things that bugged me on the other end of the spectrum. Considering Brishen and Ildiko both consider the other to be ugly (and to an extent unsettling), they are overly kind to each other at the beginning. In my experience, people who find others ugly to the point of looking like a corpse aren't exactly going to show a great degree of respect towards that person. Also, it was way too easy for Ildiko to adjust, she just fit right in to Kai society socially, her appearance being the exception. I'll buy that growing up in a courtly environment would prep her for the verbal sparring sessions, but I'd expect her to struggle with at least a couple things (like the Scarpatine, her adjustment to that was a blip on the radar for something that's described as something coming out of Alien).

Recommendation:
Worth the read in my opinion, it'll make you laugh at the very least. There is also a sequel to this that I'll be tracking down as well.

Thoughts on the cover:
The pose fits the mood of the book, but I like how Brishen is posed in such a way as to avoid really illustrating his eyes and teeth (the main descriptors that stood out while reading).

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Orphan Island - Laurel Snyder

Title: Orphan Island
Author: Laurel Snyder
Publisher: Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 269 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Started: July 23, 2017
Finished: July 26, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

"Nine on an island, orphans all,
Any more, the sky might fall."

On the island, everything is perfect. The sun rises in a sky filled with dancing shapes; the wind, water, and trees shelter and protect those who live there; when the nine children go to sleeping their cabins, it is with full stomachs and joy in their hearts. And only one thing ever changes: on that day, each year, when a boat appears from the mist upon the ocean carrying one young child to join them - and taking the eldest one away, never to be seen again.

Today's Changing is no different. The boat arrives, taking away Jinny's best friend, Seen, replacing him with a new little girl named Ess, and leaving Jinny as the new Elder. Jinny knows her responsibility now: to teach Ess everything she needs to know about the island, to keep things as they've always been. But will she be ready for the inevitable day when the boat will come back - and take her away forever from the only home she's known?

Acclaimed author Laurel Snyder returns with a powerful, original, unforgettable story of growing up - the things we fight to hold on to, and the things we struggle to let go.

Review:
This book has received a fair bit of hype both from authors and readers, and I can confirm it is definitely deserved.

The novel opens with a bell ringing in the distance; all the children running to meet the boat and its new occupant. Deen, the current Elder, takes his leave, while Jinny takes his place by caring for Ess and teaching her all she needs to know about living on the island. As the year passes, Jinny tries (while not always succeeding) to be a good Elder, both in teaching Ess and being a good example for Ben, who will replace her. She questions their existence on the island, wondering whether the oldest children actually need to leave to ensure that balance is maintained. These questions become more prominent in her mind when she discovers a letter written by Abigail, one of the first inhabitants of the island.

This book has a clear story but is so wonderfully open-ended, it leaves room for a reader's individual interpretation, this is something perfect for book clubs and classroom discussions. For example, we never find out exactly how or why the children are on the island, we don't even know what time period or alternate universe we're looking at. We know it's at least somewhat modern since the kids reference reading The Giving Tree and Harry Potter. We can assume, based on Abigail's letter, that the first child inhabitants of the island were sent away willingly by their parents, but it's hard to tell if we're dealing with some dystopian environment where the kids are sent away for protection or training purposes. Even the ending is ambiguous, which I like in children's books since it makes readers exercise their imaginations to end the story to their liking.

The themes in this novel are relatively open-ended as well. The main one explored is the transition from childhood to (young) adulthood, evidenced by Jinny's struggles on the island, but you can also identify themes of human development and parenting since the older children on the island disagree with each other on the proper ways to raise the Cares. There's even some nice Biblical imagery and symbolism thrown in, and fellow bibliophiles will even notice nods to The Lord of the Flies and Peter Pan (very superficial ones in regards to the former, since the kids coexist rather peacefully and don't murder each other).

Recommendations:
A novel that appears simple at first glance but is actually very layered and quite literary; this is something children will be able to read and enjoy but only the more sophisticated and mature will be able to really appreciate.

Thoughts on the cover:
Lush and colourful, and I like how your eye is drawn to the boat with Ess inside, it echoes how the return of the boat is this thing hanging over everyone's heads each year.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

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

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

Summary:
From the back cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Carry On - Rainbow Rowell

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

Summary:
From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Hunted - Meagan Spooner

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

Summary:
From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?

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

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

This is for you."

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, June 19, 2017

Flame in the Mist - Renee Ahdieh

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

Summary:
From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

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

Summary:
From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Thousand Nights - E.K. Johnston

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

Summary:
From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

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

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

Summary:
From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary:
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.

Review:
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.

Recommendation:
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

Summary:
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.

Review:
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.


Recommendation:
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

Summary:
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!

Review:
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.



Recommendation:
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

Summary:
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...

Review:
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.



Recommendation:
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

Summary:
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...

Review:
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.



Recommendation:
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

Summary:
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.

Review:
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).


Recommendation:
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.