Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sugar - Jewell Parker Rhodes

Title: Sugar
Author: Jewell Parker Rhodes
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: July 28, 2013
Finished: July 29, 2013

From the inside cover:

For Sugar, life is anything but sweet.

Ten-year-old Sugar lives on River Road Plantation along the banks of the Mississippi River. Slavery is over, but working in the sugarcane fields all day doesn't make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar knows how to make her own fun: telling stories, climbing trees, and playing with her forbidden friend Billy, the plantation owner's son.

Then a group of Chinese workers arrive to help harvest the cane.  Sugar wants to know everything about them-she loves the way they dress, their unfamiliar language, and, best of all, the stories they tell of dragons and emperors. Unfortunately, other folks on the plantation feel differently-they're fearful of these new neighbours and threatened by their different customs. Sugar knows things will only get better if everyone works together, so she sets out to help the two communities realize they're not so different after all.

Sugar is the inspiring story of a strong, spirited young girl who grows beyond her circumstances and helps others work toward a brighter future.

I picked this up purely for the unique subject matter. I haven't seen too many novels set in the time directly after the Civil War and the end of slavery, and the addition of the Chinese workers as competition was interesting as well.

Sugar was born into slavery on a Louisiana plantation, and her father was sold shortly after. Ten years later in 1870, slavery has ended, her mother has since died, and Sugar feels trapped in the midst of many of the workers leaving to go north but having no one willing to take her. With mainly elderly workers remaining, the owner decides to bring in Chinese workers from British Guyana to help bring in a more plentiful crop. Everyone is justifiably worried that the new workers will put them out of the only  'jobs' they've ever known, and are immediately on their guard. Sugar, on the other hand, yearns for something beyond life on the plantation and is immediately drawn to the foreign workers.

I liked how the author showed that just because the former slaves were emancipated, things didn't get better for everyone immediately or even a couple of years later (or even a hundred years later). The workers were still illiterate, and even though they were free to go at any time and received pay for their work now, they were paid so little it took a while to save up enough to afford to leave, and they'd be going towards uncertain prospects too. People still treated them horribly (Sugar and the other workers were lucky to have a boss that wanted them willing), and for many children left orphaned, their outlooks were especially bleak.

The book is a quick read, but a good one. Sugar is spunky and fiery, and her narration and voice suck readers in quickly. The bond formed between Billy, Sugar, and Beau is really sweet and inspiring and a good role model for kids to look up to....I'm not sure how realistic it would've been in terms of the historical context, but it's awesome anyway.

Excellent children's book about the Reconstruction period in American history, complete with a great female protagonist and wonderful messages.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Sugar is drawn flying the Chinese kite away from the plantation and the sugarcane, it's a nice visual metaphor.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

World War Z: An Oral History of The Zombie War - Max Brooks

Title: World War Z: An Oral History of The Zombie War
Author: Max Brooks
Publisher: Crown Publishers, 2006 (Hardcover)
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Adult; Apocalyptic Fiction
Started: July 20, 2013
Finished: July 27, 2013

From the inside cover:

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing he often raw and vivd nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, "By excluding the human factor, aren't we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn't the human factor the only true difference between us and the 'living dead'?"

Note: Some of the numerical and factual material contained in this edition was previously published under the auspices of the United Nations Postwar Commission.

I'll admit, I love me a good zombie story. I haven't seen the movie yet, but apparently it's vastly different from the book so it doesn't really matter here.

This book isn't written like your typical survivor story; it's almost laid out like a cross between a documentary and an inquest, a series of vignettes where the author interviews survivors ten years after the war. The interviews are laid out in close to chronological order according to their content, and some accounts overlap a bit depending on the subject. Some readers won't like this format because it doesn't follow one or even a few individuals solely throughout the war in a linear fashion, rather many accounts are pieced together to give an overall impression of the events from many areas of the world from various types of people (military, medical, political, everyday people). I personally liked how the author handled it, it's appropriate in this context and it reads like a documentary (I'm a huge documentary fan).

If you're looking for something zombie-like akin to The Walking Dead, you won't really find it here. While there's definitely some good edge-of-your-seat sections, the book moreso deals with how governments, nations, and people in general react to an unimaginable crisis. You could insert any huge catastrophe (biological warfare, nuclear war, natural disaster) in place of zombies and it would still make sense and be an awesome novel.

Excellent format for the content, and a very satisfying read.

Thoughts on the cover:
Pretty basic, but it works.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Her Mother's Secret - Barbara Garland Polikoff

Title: Her Mother's Secret
Author: Barbara Garland Polikoff
Publisher: Allium Press of Chicago, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 169 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: July 22, 2013
Finished: July 23, 2103

From Amazon.ca:

Fifteen-year-old Sarah, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, wants nothing more than to become and artist. But as she spreads her wings she must come to terms with the secrets that her family is only beginning to share with her. Replete with historical details that vividly evoke the Chicago of the 1890s, this moving coming-of-age story is set against the backdrop of a vibrant, turbulent city. Sarah moves between two very different worlds-the colourful immigrant neighbourhood surrounding Hull House and the sophisticated, elegant World's Columbian Exposition. This novel eloquently captures the struggles of a young girl as she experiences the timeless emotions of friendship, family turmoil, loss...and first love.

I picked this up mainly because I hadn't read a good historical fiction piece in a while, and I like stories about the immigrant experience. This story is unique in that it's about a family of Jewish immigrants, but doesn't take place in the context of the Second World War and the Holocaust (or afterwards).

The book opens in 1892 in Chicago. Sarah is fifteen and lives with her parents, older sister Fanny, and younger brother Sammy in an immigrant neighbourhood. Conditions vary depending on circumstance (Sarah's family is lucky to have indoor plumbing), and sickness and death happen more often than not. Sarah is the odd one out in her family, dark instead of fair like her siblings, and definitely not her mother's favourite. Quiet and talented, she manages to convince her parents to allow her to take an art class at Hull House, a community centre catering to the needs of the immigrant population. In an environment away from her sheltered family, she begins to blossom, but her mother's sudden illness and  sister's disappearance threaten Sarah's newfound independence.

This makes for a quick read, but there's a lot of details in this book that also make it an interesting one. Sarah's parents are Russian Jews, so there's some mention of the czar and pogroms and the reason they left for America. Sarah's parents are also very insular even amongst the other immigrant nationalities, freaking out when Fanny falls for an Irish boy; but they actually give an legitimate answer to explain why. This is juxtaposed with Sarah's different experiences and her willingness to mingle with everyone.   I loved everything about Hull House: the community, the classes, the fact that they had doctors/midwives available in emergencies, and the fact that it was founded by a woman is amazing.

The 'secret' mentioned in the title, while not seemingly huge, is actually a pretty big deal coming from the perspective of a mother. So I'm not sure how I feel about that, but that was only a small focus of the book for me.

A quick read but full of wonderful details about the immigrant experience in 1890s Chicago.

Thoughts on the cover:
Appropriate considering the subject matter, too bad they couldn't get the archive photo to match the character descriptions (I'm assuming the two girls are supposed to be Sarah and Fanny or Sarah and Bianca).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Madman's Daughter - Megan Shepherd

Title: The Madman's Daughter
Author: Megan Shepherd
Publisher: Balzer + Bray, 2013 (Paperback)
Length: 420 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction, Science Fiction
Started: July 12, 2013
Finished: July 17, 2013

From the author's website:

Sixteen-year-old Juliet Moreau has built a life for herself in London-working as a maid and trying to forget the scandal that ruined her life. After all, no one ever proved the rumors about her father's gruesome experiments. But when she learns he's alive and continuing his work on a remote tropical island, she's determined to find out if the accusations were true.

Accompanied by her father's handsome young assistant, Montgomery, and an enigmatic castaway, Edward, Juliet travels to the island, only to discover the secret of her father's new life: he experiments on animals so that they resemble, speak, and behave as humans. Torn between horror and scientific curiosity, Juliet knows she must end her father's dangerous experiments and escape her jungle prison before it's too late. Yet as the island falls into chaos, she discovers the extent of her father's genius-and madness-in her own blood.

Inspired by H.G. Wells' classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Madman's Daughter is a dark and breathless Gothic thriller about the secrets we'll do anything to know and the truths we'll go to any lengths to protect.

I picked this up purely because of the association with The Island of Doctor Moreau. I thought this would be an awesome YA gothic thriller, and as soon as I started reading and was introduced to Juliet, I got even more excited because she's such an awesome female character. Sadly, although Juliet does rock my socks, and the plot has a ton of potential for being a true gothic thriller, I felt the story became too focused on the romance to the point where things just dragged on.

The book begins with a bang, describing Juliet's situation in London and her encounters at the university. Once she and Montgomery are on the ship and Edward appears, the dreaded love triangle comes into play (why, why must every YA book have a freaking love triangle?!) Everything afterwards seems to just slow down and fizzle out, Juliet waxes poetic over the attributes of both Montgomery and Edward (and in cliche fashion she swings completely from one to the other) and I just wanted to know what happened to my smart, sassy, focused Juliet and who replaced her with a vapid chick that ignores the danger and moral dilemmas around her and to instead focus on whose hands would feel better around her.


Not that I don't like love triangles, but they need to be well done and actually integral to the plot. Plus it's just not believable that Juliet would become a love-struck hormone mess in the midst of everything on the island. Again, the plot has a lot of potential but gets lost along the way.

The ending is very abrupt (fitting since this is the first book in a trilogy), but even knowing that it felt like a cop-out ending. I'll give the next book a try before I dismiss this series entirely.

Wonderful protagonist, excellent potential, but bogged down with love triangle stuff.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love it. The model and the pose looks like it belongs on an adult book, it's just very eye-catching in a subtle way.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain

Title: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain
Publisher: Crown Publishers, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 333 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: July 2, 2013
Finished: July 11, 2013

From the inside cover:

At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favour working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labeled "quiet," it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society-from van Gogh's sunflowers to the invention of the personal computer.

Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. Taking the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie's birthplace to Harvard Business School, from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical megachurch, Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century explores its far-reaching effects. She talks to Asian-American students who feel alienated from the brash, backslapping atmosphere of American schools. She questions the dominant values of American business culture, where forced collaboration can stand in the way of innovation, and where the leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked. And she draws on cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to reveal the surprising differences between extroverts and introverts.

Perhaps most inspiring, she introduces us to successful introverts-from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Finally, she offers invaluable advice on everything from how to better negotiate differences in introvert-extrovert relationships to how to empower an introverted child to when it makes sense to be a "pretend extrovert."

I'm an introvert, but I never knew it until a few years ago when I heard it explained that introverts need to "recharge their batteries"after they socialize. I thought back to the times when I would sneak off to get 5 minutes to myself in the midst of get-togethers (even company I liked and looked forward to socializing with) as if that gave me a boost to continue the evening. People would accuse me of being anti-social and unwelcoming simply because I didn't want to be all up in their business for hours upon hours (granted these specific people are not the norm and most wouldn't even bring up noticing a 5-minute absence). I hated group work in school, never liked huge parties or going clubbing, loathe small talk to this day, yearn to have deep conversations with people, and my ideal relaxation routine is to curl up with a good book. So yeah, I meet all the criteria for being an introvert according to the author...and thanks to this book, I couldn't be happier.

The author begins by outlining the differences between extroverts and introverts, how introverts do indeed enjoy socializing (they're just drained by it as opposed to energized), and how the ideal personality before the 1920s or so was an introverted one. Over time the ideal changed to value being charming, outspoken, and in-your-face. She discusses studies that can identify introverts as early as infancy, and what introverts are more or least likely to do over their lifetime. I especially like the chapters on introverts in the business world and how we wouldn't have our beloved Apple computers if Steve Wozniak had been forced to do group collaboration at work, and the hypothesis that introverts could've prevented the 2008 recession (I stretched this connection on my own but the author hints at it when she talks about being motivated by rewards or criticism).

As a teacher, I really appreciated the chapters on introverts in schools. It really is true that our schools are set up to benefit extroverts, from the desks grouped in pods of 4-6 to the movement from lecture style to group learning. As a kid myself, I hated it when we were forced to do group work, especially in large groups. Now I always give my students a choice if they want to do certain activities individually or in a group, and if an activity has to be group work I let the kids pick their groups so the like-minded kids (introverts) can at least work with each other. There's lots of good tips for parents of introverted kids, which was enlightening to read because I can't tell which personality my daughter has yet; and due to my teacher training and how introvert behaviours are still seen as anti-social, my natural inclination is to push kids to even just fake the extrovert ideal. Now I know it's perfectly okay and necessary for these kids (and me) to be themselves and to integrate ways for them to shine just as much as the extrovert kids.

A must-read if you're an introvert or interact with introverted people on a regular basis; so by the authors estimation that means pretty much everyone.

Thoughts on the cover:
Very subtle overall, yet the red font is eye-catching.