Sunday, May 8, 2022

When Women Were Dragons - Kelly Barnhill

Title: When Women Were Dragons
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Doubleday (Penguin), 2022 (Hardcover)
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Adult; Speculative Fiction
Started: May 6, 2022
Finished: May 8, 2022

From the inside cover:

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their paths, and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex's beloved aunt Marla transform but Alex's mother did not? No one knows. It's taboo to speak of it. 

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; their upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and watching her beloved cousin Beatrice become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden. 

In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that keeps women small - their lives and their prospects - and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve. 

"I said that your mother was magic...this isn't new information, and your mother isn't alone. All women are magic. Literally all of us. It's in our nature. It's best you learn that now." (Barnhill, pg. 29-30)

"Anger is a funny thing. And it does funny things to us if we keep it inside...Who benefits, my dear, when you force yourself to not feel angry?" (Barnhill, pg. 208)

I've read this author's middle-grade novels Iron-Hearted VioletThe Witch's Boy, and her Newbery Award-winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon; so when I found out she'd written an adult novel after so many years I was excited to pick this up. To say I was impressed is an understatement, I couldn't put this down and think When Women Were Dragons is my new favourite out of everything she's written. 

Alex lives in suburban Wisconsin in the 1950s and because she's a good girl, there's many things she just doesn't speak about: menstruation, her mother's cancer, her growing attraction to her friend Sonja, the anger she feels when she's dismissed by the men around her, and the fact that some women turn into dragons. 

When Alex is eight in the spring of 1955, over half a million women across the country turn into dragons and leave their families behind. Alex's aunt, Marla, is one of those women, leaving behind a job she enjoys (though she's not often appreciated for her superior skills), a dead husband, and an orphaned baby daughter who quickly and irrefutably becomes Alex's sister instead of her cousin. Marla is soon erased from existence, and no one speaks of the dragons afterwards. When Alex's mother dies years later, and teenaged Alex is left to raise Beatrice by herself after being abandoned by her father, she slowly begins to question everything she's been taught: that dragoning is a conscious choice, that the women who dragoned were bad wives and mothers for making that choice, and that they're never coming back. 

This book is told from Alex's point of view as an adult looking back on her childhood. Interspersed with those chapters are letters, newspaper articles, redacted scientific studies and articles, and government documents that show just how much dragoning event itself and the aftermath is silenced by the government throughout the ages. 

This novel is indeed timely. Even though it takes place in 1950s white suburbia, the premise and theme that things kept hidden and shamed instead of openly discussing and welcoming is immensely relatable and applicable to more than meets the eye. The dragon metaphor itself appears at first to just represent female rage, but it can be an allegory for almost anything: sex/gender, race, queerness, disability, neurodiversity, it can be read under a number of lenses and works so well. 

Drop everything and go read this, just trust me, you won't be disappointed. I'll be buying a few of these as gifts for people this year for sure. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the dragon blends in with the plants and flowers, it reminds me of the scene where Alex's mom plants the garden in the summer. The purple and green colour scheme is nicely appealing too. 

Five Little Indians - Michelle Good

Title: Five Little Indians
Author: Michelle Good
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2020 (Paperback)
Length: 293 pages
Genre: Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: April 15, 2022
Finished: May 6, 2022

From the inside cover:

Taken from their families as small children and confined at a remote, Church-run residential school, Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie, and Maisie are barely out of childhood when they are finally released, with no money or support, after years of detention. 

Alone and without skills, support or family, the teens find their way to the seedy and foreign world of Downtown Eastside Vancouver, where they cling together, striving to find a place of safety and belonging in a world that doesn't want them. The paths of the five friends cross and criss-cross over the decades as they struggle to overcome, or at least forget, the trauma they each endured during their years at the Mission. 

With compassion and insight, Five Little Indians chronicles the bonds of friendship between this group of survivors as they help each other to reinvent their lives and, ultimately, find a way forward. 

This book has accolades galore and they are all warranted. I picked up this book not only for the numerous awards it has won, but because my school board is finally rolling out an Indigenous literature course and this book was on the list of recommended texts. 

Five Little Indians opens in the late 1960s and follows five Indigenous children as they leave the Mission, the Residential school in BC where they've spent their childhoods. A few leave by escaping, either on their own or aided by family; a few leave by aging out and returning to family, or making it on their own if they have no family remaining. Lucy's (and by extension Maisie's) story was especially poignant: aging out at age 16 with no family to go home to, sent off with a bus ticket to Vancouver and no life skills or advice on how to make it on her own as a sheltered, traumatized teenager in a big city. All the children are traumatized by what happened to them at the Mission, and they struggle to cope throughout the following decades amidst the added racism and discrimination they face. 

This book does a wonderful job of making the history of residential schools and survivors so intensely personal and vivid since the reader experiences events both at the school and the aftermath through the eyes of the children themselves. Though this book isn't necessarily a piece of nonfiction, the children's stories echo first-hand accounts from survivors, so it's pretty close. The chapters alternate from each of the characters' points of view, but it's not in a consistent pattern. For example, we hear about Howie from the other characters early on but we don't get a chapter from his point of view until later in the book. 

As a heads up, this book is incredibly hard to read, especially for sensitive readers. I actually had to put it down for a few days after one main character dies. I'd argue that a lot of people need the level of immersion this book provides to understand and empathize with residential school survivors, but for those who are already aware of the history and empathize with survivors and what they endured and continue to struggle with (or are survivors themselves), reading this novel might be a triggering experience. 

Rather than just covering what happens to the main characters during their time in residential school, this novel goes a step further and shows how their experiences continue to affect them well into adulthood. This is a must-read for Canadians, especially for anyone working in public service. 

Thoughts on the cover:
The use of negative space to make the children's shadows on the ground is clever here. 

Friday, May 6, 2022

All That's Left in the World - Erik J. Brown

Title: All That's Left in the World
Author: Erik J. Brown
Publisher: Balzer + Bray, 2022 (Hardcover)
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Post-Apocalyptic
Started: May 5, 2022
Finished: May 5, 2022


When Andrew stumbles upon Jamie's house, he's injured, starved, and has nothing left to lose. A deadly pathogen has killed off most of the world's population, including everyone both boys have ever loved. And if this new world has taught them anything, it's to be scared of what other desperate people will why does it seem so easy for them to trust each other?

After danger breaches their shelter, they flee south in search of civilization. But something isn't adding up about Andrew's story, and it could cost them everything. And Jamie has a secret, too. He's starting to feel something something more than friendship for Andrew, adding another layer of fear and confusion to an already tumultuous journey. 

The road ahead of them is long, and to survive, they'll have to shed their secrets, face the consequences of their actions, and find the courage to fight for the future they desire, together. Only one thing feels certain: all that's left in their world is the undeniable pull they have toward each other. 

This book has been getting all kind of hype lately, I mean, how often do you see queer representation in post-apocalyptic stories? If you're an older reader who has consumed a lot of post-apocalyptic stories, the plot will be predictable, but the characters are what make this story shine. 

In a post-Covid world now ravaged by another more deadly pandemic, Andrew comes upon Jamison's cabin in the Pennsylvania woods, desperate for aid after getting his leg caught in a bear trap. Jamie, now living alone since the death of his mother, welcomes Andrew cautiously after realizing he truly is alone as well. After spending weeks together as Andrew's leg heals, both boys begin to develop feelings for each other, though Jamie takes longer to accept his since this is the first time he's had feelings for another boy.  When a rogue group of survivors invade the cabin and steal their food supply, Andrew and Jamie decide to travel to an airport in Bethesda, Maryland in search of aid from the EU that is rumoured to be arriving in a few weeks. On the way the two have to come to terms with the secret Andrew is keeping, and Jamie's realization that he can't picture a future without Andrew. 

The novel is told in alternating points of view, switching from Andrew to Jamie and back again. I wasn't a fan of this purely because it was hard to tell the inner voices of the boys apart unless they were talking about each other. As an example of this, the epilogue doesn't state whose point of view it is, and since no one is referenced by name I couldn't figure out who was speaking (unless that was the point). 

The only other criticism I have of the book is that the plot is predictable if you've seen post-apolcalyptic tv shows or read stories similar to this. You have the theme of "the true danger lies in the people that remain rather than the virus itself", the colony that seems good at first but in reality is problematic that they have to escape from, the good survivors that redeem the characters' faith in humanity (even if only temporarily), etc. Basically, if you've seen The Walking Dead none of the plot points will be a surprise. 

Where the story does do well, however, is in Andrew and Jamie as characters. Their dynamic is very realistic and sweet: they think and act like typical teenage boys, and become immensely protective of each other. I liked the descriptions of both of their internal struggles: Andrew coming to terms with what he's had to do to survive this long and worries what Jamie will think of him, and Jamie's gentle nature not allowing him to take someone's life until Andrew is threatened (and Jamie dealing with that). The story is also a slow-burn romance and is very vanilla (the most the boys do is kiss), so if you're coming into this for the romance alone, you might be disappointed. 

Also, I loved Henri in this book, I wanted the boys to spend more time with her. We need more kick-ass grandma-type characters. 

If you want to read a queer post-apolcalyptic story with realistic characters, give this a try. If you want a unique post-apolcalyptic story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, this might not be your book. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I thought the colour scheme and visuals to depict a dessert-like setting were interesting choices considering most of the novel is spent in temperate areas, but the yellow looks pretty so I forgive it for that. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Where the Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Publisher: Putnam (Penguin), 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: April 12, 2022
Finished: April 14, 2022

From the inside cover:

For years, rumours of the "Marsh Girl" have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. 

But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life - until the unthinkable happens. 

Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we all are subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps. 

Since this book was so hyped on TikTok this past year, it's been on my TBR list for the past few months. With the movie adaptation coming out in July, my friends at work and I vowed to finally read this so we could compare the versions. I honestly wasn't expecting much from something so lauded and popular (I find anything overly popular can be a mixed bag with my personal tastes), but I was pleasantly surprised by the end. 

Catherine Danielle Clark, otherwise known as Kya, has lived (mostly) alone in her family's shack at the edge of the North Carolina marshland since her mother and older siblings left her with her alcoholic, abusive father at the age of six. When he abandons her at the age of ten, she is left to fend for herself completely. With no formal schooling and the memories of her mother's teachings of how to live off the land to feed herself, Kya manages to survive to adulthood with the help of a childhood friend and the Black community that live in a segregated area away from the town. In 1969 when Kya is in her early 20s, a local man is found dead, and although Chase Andrews was a well-known player who slept with many women and angered many a husband, Kya is the prime suspect. 

The novel is told in alternating time jumps, starting with the early 1950s when Kya is a child and switching every other chapter or so to 1969 at the time of the murder. Kya's backstory is gripping and intriguing from the start, and adding in Chase's murder keeps the reader going, wondering how Kya could possibly be connected enough to Chase for the police to suspect her of murder. 

I personally liked the themes of resiliency and community that run throughout the book. Granted, sometimes Kya's resiliency is a bit too unrealistic to believe completely, especially in the chapters before she turns ten. 

The main detriment of this book, in my opinion, is the amount of dialect in it. Granted there has to be dialect to reflect the authenticity of the premise of the story, but I have the same issue with any book set in the American south; the dialect makes my brain have to work so much harder to understand what's going on. 

If you like stories that are character-driven with a bit of mystery thrown in, you'll enjoy this. It was an engaging read and I can see why it's so popular, so give it a read before the movie version releases in the summer. 

Thoughts on the cover:
The shot used on the cover is very pretty and fits well with the descriptions in the book. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

So This Is Ever After - F. T. Lukens

Title: So This Is Ever After
Author: F.T. Lukens 
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), 2022 (Hardcover)
Length: 341 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: April 16, 2022
Finished: April 18, 2022

From the inside cover:

Arek hadn't thought much about what would happen after he completed the prophecy that said he was destined to save the Kingdom of Ere from its evil ruler. So now that he's finally managed to (somewhat clumsily) behead the evil king (turns out that magical swords yanked from bogs don't come pre-sharpened), he and his ragtag group of quest companions are at a bit of a loss for what to do next. As a temporary safeguard, Arek's best friend and mage, Matt, convinces him to assume the throne until the true heir can be rescued from her tower. Except she's dead. Now Arek is stuck as king, a role that comes with a magical catch: choose a soul mate by your eighteenth birthday, or wither away into nothing. 

With his eighteenth birthday only three months away, and only Matt in on the secret, Arek embarks on a desperate bid to find a spouse to save his life - starting with his quest companions. But his attempts at wooing his friends go painfully and hilariously wrong...until he discovers that love might have been in front of him all along. 

This book is the queer fantasy romcom I never knew I needed. It's a hilarious romp that's easy to get into and is also adorably fluffy to boot. 

Beginning at the end of your usual fantasy story, the novel opens with Arek and his band of companions fulfilling a prophecy by slaying the evil king of Ere. In the chaos that follows, Arek assumes the throne until they can find and crown the rightful heir, but even though the princess is indeed in another tower, she is long dead. Discovering that the magic of Ere requires the ruler to be soul-bound to another person or else he will fade into nothing, Arek goes about trying to secure a spouse before his eighteenth birthday. Arek is aided by the journal of the deceased princess which outlines her budding relationship with one of her ladies, using some of the situations described in order to grow closer with his friends to see if any of them could grow to love him and make a suitable co-ruler. Of course, Arek just wants to be with his childhood friend Matt and can't picture marrying anyone else, but Matt doesn't want him...right?

The plot of this novel is engaging right off the bat, and the romcom pacing and dialogue is excellent. The author does a good job of delving into all the characters and giving them nicely fleshed out backstories, though I felt Rion and Lila got a bit less compared to Arek, Matt, Sionna, and Bethany. All the characters are endearing, likeable, and hilarious; with distinct personalities that are nicely maintained throughout. I'm a sucker for roguish Lila (that scene with her "pet", Crow, is priceless) and cautious Matt, but I genuinely liked the whole bunch, which I can't always say about fantasy stories with multiple characters. I also liked how the author didn't shy away from addressing the less comedic aspects of inheriting a kingdom after a bloody ambush, like Arek and company dealing with the aftermath of trauma and figuring out how to go about establishing a governmental structure. 

If you're a fantasy fan and ever wondered what would happen after the prophecy ends, this read is for you. If you'd like your story to also be hilariously funny with great queer representation, then definitely pick this up. 

The author also wrote another book last year called In Deeper Waters (this one with more of a pirate feel) that I'll have to pick up now:

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover art for both of these novels is stunning, these are definitely books some readers have picked up just for the covers alone. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Heaven Official's Blessing - Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Title: Heaven Official's Blessing (Tian Guan Ci Fu) Volume 1
Author: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu
Publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment, 2021 (Paperback), originally published in China in 2017
Length: 417 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 14, 2021
Finished: December 28, 2021

From the back cover:

A God Fallen...A Ghost Risen

Born the crown prince of a prosperous kingdom, Xie Lian was renowned for his beauty, strength, and purity. His years of dedicated study and noble deeds allowed him to ascend to godhood. But those who rise may also fall, and fall he does - cast from the heavens and banished to the world below. 

Eight hundred years after his mortal life, Xie Lian has ascended to godhood for the third time, angering most of the gods in the process. To repay his debts, he is sent to the Mortal Realm to hunt down violent ghosts and troublemaking spirits who prey on the living. Along his travels, he meets the fascinating and brilliant San Lang, a young man with whom he feels an instant connection. Yet San Lang is clearly more than he appears...What mysteries lie behind that carefree smile?

I first discovered Heaven Official's Blessing last year when the anime series first came out (was on Funimation, now moved to Netflix). Everyone was hyping up this new show from China and I was curious and wanted to check it out. I ended up adoring the story and the characters, so picking up the official English translation of the original Chinese novel was a given. 

First of all, in my opinion the story was relatively easy to get into. Granted I've studied Chinese history, religion, literature, and mythology back in university so I'm coming from a knowledge base most people don't have, but I still think the concepts are not beyond comprehension to the average person. The translation team for the English release thankfully included a ton of cultural guides, notes and glossaries at the end of the book, which help immensely. They even show names in Chinese characters and break down what each character means, which I appreciated since I realized the names are allegories or symbolic to the respective character. 

The translation itself is what appears to be a middle of the road translation: not insanely literal, but not fully localized either. It's relatively easy to read as well. This first volume (out of four total, the second is supposed to release in February) matches up with the content of the first season of the show, and doesn't really contain anything in addition to that (if anything the show added in slight details not present in the novel), so if you've seen the show you know the plot of this first volume. 

For those who can get into the story, the characters are worth the investment. Xie Lian is adorable in his  sincerity and the descriptions in the book just make you want to hug him. San Lang/Hua Cheung reveals his intentions pretty early on, and he could be the literal poster boy for devotion and loyalty. Even the secondary characters like the other gods have their moments and bring some great humour into the story. 

For English fans of the show, you need to read this. For anyone else who's perhaps wanting to explore danmei (a genre of Chinese literature featuring romantic relationships between male characters), this is a great example of it. If you're not sure if this is up your alley, I recommend trying out the show on Netflix to see if you can get into it. The show is gorgeous on its own, so it's not a wasted effort by any means. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I was hoping they'd use an image from the wedding scene, and I got my wish. There's also a full colour two-page spread of the same enlarged image in the beginning of the book, which is a nice bonus. I love the red and gold colour scheme with Hua Cheung's signature butterflies. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Stray Dogs - Tony Fleecs and Trish Fornstner

Title: Stray Dogs
Author: Tony Fleecs and Trish Fornstner
Publisher: Image Comics, 2021 (Paperback)
Length: 144 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel, Horror
Started: December 13, 2021
Finished: December 13, 2021

From the back of the book:

Meet Sophie, a dog who can't remember what happened. She doesn't know how she ended up in this house. She doesn't recognize any of these other dogs. She knows something terrible happened but she just...can't...recall...Wait! Where's her lady?

A heartbreakingly adorable suspense thriller by My Little Pony comic artists Tony Fleecs and Trish Fornstner.

I first saw this recommended on TikToK a while back, and I'm always up for a gritty graphic novel that isn't superhero related. And boy, does this ever deliver on the horror and suspense. The cute art style is deceiving, this is some pretty disturbing stuff. 

The story opens with Sophie being brought by a man to a house full of dogs and she can't remember how she got there. The other dogs show her the ropes and talk of the master who saved them from their previous homes. Sophie is still on edge, and it isn't until the master wraps Sophie in a scarf that she remembers why. The master is actually a serial killer, her lady was one of his victims, and he collects his victims' dogs as trophies. The other dogs don't believe her (they also don't remember their old lives) until Sophie urges them to explore the areas of the house they aren't allowed in, where they find photos of their previous owners and other mementos from past killings. Now that the dogs know the truth, how are they going to escape from the master?

This book is a perfect example of graphic novels pushing the limits of their genre and what is typical of it. Again, the cutesy art style is deceiving here because this book is definitely not for children. It's not overly graphic or gory (in my opinion), but trigger warning: the content does show flashbacks to the murders, and some of the dogs suffer injuries and death at the hands of the master in the second half of the story, so sensitive readers are going to want to pass on this one. If you can handle the sensitive content it's a great, gripping story that does end happily for the most part, and coming from the perspective of the dogs is wonderfully creative. 

I purchased this edition, which has a gallery at the end of all the variant covers from each issue in the series.

This one is my favourite though:

If you're in the mood for something gritty and new, or if you ever wondered what would happen if Don Bluth made a horror movie, give this graphic novel a read. If you can't handle movies/stories where the dog gets hurt or dies, then you'd better pass on this. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I much prefer the original cover (image at the top of the review) to my special edition copy cover (middle image). The original is more unsettling compared to the special edition, which feels more juvenile.