Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blood & Beauty: The Borgias - Sarah Dunant

Title: Blood & Beauty: The Borgias
Author: Sarah Dunant
Publisher: Random House, 2013 (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 500 pages
Genre: Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: August 10, 2013
Finished: August 23, 2013

From the inside cover:

By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy are matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children but by his blood: His is a Spanish Pope in a city of Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family-in particular his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia-in order to succeed.

Cesare, with a dazzingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is Rodrigo's greatest-though increasingly unstable-weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli's The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, she embarks on a journey through three marriages, from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood & Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex, and relentless.

Aside from being Italian and loving the history of the Renaissance, I've been intrigued by the Borgia family and how ruthless and immoral they are portrayed to be.

The book is beautifully written and focuses on Cesare and Lucrezia mostly, but does touch on the other members as well. The author does a wonderful job at illustrating the kind of atmosphere that was Italy at the time and exactly why the Borgias did what they needed to in order to survive. It actually makes you feel for them in a way, because in that kind of cut-throat environment if they didn't do what they did they would've been victim to others doing the same things and would've been destroyed and left to suffer in abject poverty.

If you've seen any of the television shows about the Borgias (I've only seen the French/Czech production available on Netflix, not the Showcase version with Jeremy Irons), the novel follows historical events so a lot of the content will be the same. There are certain events that historians aren't sure exactly how they unfolded, the author makes note of these in the epilogue, so those few differ based on interpretation.

If you're a history buff or interested in the Borgias, give this a read. There's another book coming as well, so a great remedy if you find yourself wanting more.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the cover incorporates actual portraits of Cesare and Lucrezia, and using the teal and gold colour scheme is pleasing to look at.

Friday, August 23, 2013

War Brothers: The Graphic Novel - Sharon E. McKay

Title: War Brothers: The Graphic Novel
Author: Sharon E. McKay, illustrated by Daniel Lafrance
Publisher: Annick Press, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 168 pages
Genre: Adult/Young Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: August 22, 2013
Finished: August 22, 2013

From the back of the book:

An unforgettable story of resilience, based on true events.

Jacob and his friends are sharing stories about their school break, when suddenly the door of their dorm is violently kicked in. The attack only takes moments. Blinded by fear, and confusion, the boys are abducted by rebel soldiers-members of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Beaten, starved, and forced to become child soldiers, the boys begin a long march through the African bush. They wait for rescue. Where is the great army with its helicopters? Have their families forgotten them? With barely any hope left, they must make a desperate decision that will end in life or death.

With its haunting images and powerful text, this graphic novel tells a story of spirit, friendship, and courage. For Jacob and his friends, survival depends on one thing: loyalty.

Child soldiers are one of many sensitive topics that crop up in our schools. We bring it up when we talk about social justice, kids write petitions to politicians regarding it, we support various charities that help survivors; but we don't do nearly enough to inform kids about them, so it's something they know is horrible simply because we tell them it is. This is one source that will not only convey the horrors of child soldiers, it also asks the question where do victims end and criminals begin and at what point do we hold someone accountable for their actions?

This graphic novel, based on the YA novel of the same name by the same author, is very informative, but disturbing on many levels, which you can guess given the subject matter. The content is very graphic, violent, enough that I'd be very cautious about what type of reader (especially a student) I'd recommend or give this to. Heck, this gave me nightmares after I read it and not much spooks me nowadays.

Amazing account of child soldiers in the LRA in Uganda, but very graphic and disturbing, not for sensitive readers.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the red with black silhouettes and the jungle background.

Marzi - Marzena Sowa

Title: Marzi: A Memoir
Author: Marzena Sowa, illustrated by Sylvain Savoia
Publisher: Vertigo, 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Adult/Young Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: August 22, 2013
Finished: August 22, 2013

From the back cover:

"I am Marzi, born in 1979, ten years before the end of communism in Poland. My father works at a factory, my mother at a dairy. Social problems are at their height. Empty stores are our daily bread. I'm scared of spiders, and the world of adults doesn't seem like a walk in the park."

Told from a young girl's perspective, Marzena Sowa's memoir is a compelling and powerful coming-of-age story that portrays the harsh realities of life behind the Iron Curtain while maintaining the everyday wonders and curiosity of childhood. With open and engaging art by Sylvain Savoia, Marzi isa moving and resonant story of an ordinary girl in turbulent, changing times.

I love stories of people growing up in extreme circumstances, especially graphic accounts (a lot of the time you need a visual to truly understand some of the content). I think they're especially important for our students to read, partly to understand that not everyone around the world grows up like they do, and partly to realize the things that happened under communist regimes so we can prevent them from happening again.

Marzi is similar to other accounts I've read of children growing up in communist or militaristic regimes, but unique in that I've never read one that takes place in Poland. Marzi begins with the author recounting her early years (I'm guessing around age 5 or 6 when it starts) in a series of vignettes that illustrate linear events from her childhood, ending shortly after the fall of communism when she is 10 or 11 years old.

The story did lag in some parts, and didn't have as much political commentary as I expected, but was still a worthwhile read. The artwork is beautifully drawn, and the accounts coming from a child's perspective are actually from a child's mindset. The instances where Marzi and her parents line up at stores and overbuy items for fear they'll run out and go without are some that you can use to explain the differences in types of government for kids, they will likely understand that moreso than the latter examples of her father striking with other workers and locking themselves up in the factories.

Excellent account of growing up in a communist country, lags in some parts but worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the juxtaposition of Marzi with the soldiers behind her, and the fact that she's in full colour, including her eyes (they're usually coloured grey in the actual book) echoes to a Schindler's List effect.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hit The Road Helen! - Kate McMullan

Title: Hit The Road Helen! (Myth-O-Mania #9)
Author: Kate McMullan
Publisher: Stone Arch Books (Capstone), September 2013 (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 237 pages
Genre: Children's Mythology/Adventure
Started: August 9, 2013
Finished: August 12, 2013

From the back of the book:

Acclaimed author Kate McMullan is back with a brand-ew addition to her popular Myth-O-Mania series! As fans of the series know, when it comes to the Greek myths, things aren't always what they seem. Luckily, Hades, King of the Underworld, is here to set the record straight. This time around, Hades tackles the Trojan War and tells readers what really happened in the epic battle. Think Helen is to blame? Think again!

I got this in my mailbox while I was doing my teacher course weeks back and have only now been able to get around to reading it. Apparently this series began over a decade ago and this is the first new instalment since 2003. I'd never come across the series before either as a kid or as a teacher, so was quite excited to try out something new.

If the rest of the books are anything like this one, they're perfect to get kids interested in mythology. The book is narrated by Hades (and given a snarky no-nonsense voice to boot), and written with a ton of humour and pop-culture references modified to suit the context of the story. The book contains the same information about the Trojan War (and all the background information and related figures) that you would find in a mythology book geared towards an older audience, but makes everything much more accessible for children, particularly kids in the tween ages and reluctant readers.

Students where I live do a social studies unit on ancient cultures (Greece, Rome, Mayan) in grade 5, so these books would be perfect for teachers to have in their classroom library while they work on that unit. Kids also do a unit on Greek mythology in grade 9 English, so these books would probably still be appropriate for certain readers even at that age.

Informative, funny, and accessible for kids. A wonderful addition for school study or reading for fun.

Thoughts on the cover:
Apparently all the books in the series got cover redesigns similar to this new one, which is always good so everything looks uniform.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The New Normal - Ashley Little

Title: The New Normal
Author: Ashley Little
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers, 2013 (Paperback)
Length: 222 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 30, 2013
Finished: August 1, 2013

From the back of the book:

Tamar Robinson knows a lot about loss and regret-more than any teenager should. Her younger sisters are dead, her parents are adrift in a sea of grief, and now Tamar is losing her hair. But life goes on, and regrets are useless. Tamar isn't the most popular girl at school or the best-looking, but she's whip-smart, morbidly funny and-most important of all-tenacious.

Tamar is sixteen and lives in the Calgary suburbs with her mom and dad. She used to be the oldest, but now she's an only child after her younger twin sisters died in a drunk driving accident several months earlier. Her mom now does nothing but yoga, her dad lives in his own world, and Tamar is losing her hair due to the stress. What makes matters worse is that her sisters weren't the most likeable people in the first place so Tamar doesn't quite know how to grieve for them.

I liked this book because it deals with grief and loss, something not enough YA books dealt with back when I was actually in the target age range for them. I especially like this one because it deals with the fact that people won't always be devastated by the loss of everyone they know who dies, even if they were related to them. Some people are just not nice human beings and if they didn't bring a lot of positives to your life you're not going to be missing much when they die. Tamar tries to deal with a lot of things in the wake of her sisters' deaths: school, being hassled by her sisters' drug dealer for unpaid money, a lack of money due to her parents unable to work due to grief, and even first love.

This is a quick read but a good one. Tamar is a strong female character whose efforts at trying to find her 'new normal' are admirable.

Thoughts on the cover:
Clever way to integrate something signifying Tamar's hair loss into a cool cover image.