Saturday, December 2, 2017

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Publisher: Crown Publishers (Random House), 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Dystopian Fiction, Science Fiction
Started: November 20, 2017
Finished: November 30, 2017

From the inside cover:

It's the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS - a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune - and remarkable power - to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday's riddles are based in the pop culture he loved - that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday's icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes' oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt - among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life - and love - in the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.

In advance of the movie coming out in March, I felt I should cover the source material since I know we'll definitely be watching the film and I want to be able to compare the two.

First of all, this is nostalgia porn (other people's words, not mine), a geeky boy's wet dream (my words). It reminds me a lot of reading Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a kid, it's such an engrossing morality tale that children can't help but love; and Ready Player One is the grown-up, geeky male version of it.

Wade Watts lives in 2044 in a world we helped destroy. Humanity now spends most of their time in the online world called OASIS. Through the use of virtual reality visors, haptic gloves, and created avatars, kids attend school there, businesses are run, and people can escape the bleakness of their poverty-stricken lives. James Halliday, the now deceased co-creator of the virtual world, left an Easter egg of sorts hidden within the OASIS, promising his fortune and ownership of the company to whomever can decipher the riddles and find the three keys and subsequent gates. Wade and thousands of others are gunters - egg hunters - deciphering Halliday's riddles and immersing themselves in the culture of the 1980s, the key to solving the clues. After working as a gunter for 5 years with no success, Wade finally stumbles upon the first, the Copper Key. What follows is nothing short of an engrossing adventure that certainly entertains.

I have only one real issue with the book itself. The world-building is quite well-done, Wade is a sympathetic character, most of the book moves along in a brisk fashion that rarely lags...but the one persistent feeling I had while reading this book was that it was oh-so blatantly male. At one point Wade lists off Halliday's favourite things, and the list is male dominated. I get that the feminine influence was lacking in the mainstream media of the 80s, but it wasn't completely absent. Even the John Hughes movies are categorized into male and female-oriented, and there's a scene where a fellow gunter makes fun of Wade for enjoying a movie that was targeted towards women. Halliday's friendship with Og falls apart because of a woman, there's only one female character for 90% of the book, and all the creators of the mentioned pop culture are male (I figured Madonna's music would at least get a mention in a book about 80s pop culture, but alas no). All these examples make the story seem sexist, despite the strong character of Art3mis later on. That's not to say the story isn't enjoyable because of this issue, as a female geek who was born in the early 80s I quite liked it, but I got the pervasive sense that this is exclusively male with no room for women or girls, much like how I felt growing up in the 80s and 90s until I discovered aspects of pop culture that could actually pass the Bechdel test. There is another issue about the "diversity" of the novel that I can't bring up because it is spoiler-heavy in regards to the ending.

A great, engrossing story. For my only issue with it, see above.

Thoughts on the cover:
This is the original cover, the new one has an image of Wade scaling the stacks. I like the little 8-bit character reaching for the key, it's a nice little detail.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Spinning - Tillie Walden

Title: Spinning
Author: Tillie Walden
Publisher: First Second Books, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 395 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Nonfiction, Graphic Novel
Started: November 18, 2017
Finished: November 19, 2017

From the inside cover:

For ten years, figure skating was Tillie Walden's life. Sh woke before dawn for morning lessons, went straight to group practice after school, and spent weekends competing in glitter and tights. It was a central piece of her identity, her safe haven from the stress of school, bullies, and family.

But over time, as she switched schools, got into art, and fell in love with her first girlfriend, she began to question how the closed-minded world of figure skating fit in with the rest of her life.

Poignant and captivating, Ignatz Award-winner Tillie Walden's powerful graphic memoir captures what its like to come of age, come out, and come to terms with leaving behind everything you used to know.

I'm still on my Yuri on Ice kick, hence the figure skating book. This isn't really a graphic novel about figure skating though, it's a coming of age memoir about a girl coming out of the closet and how her lifelong hobby, figure skating, affected that.

This memoir, in graphic novel format, is quite poignant and heartfelt; I'm amazed that the author is only 21 and managed to craft something like this. My only beef with the work is that I feel that some aspects were introduced and then abandoned too soon for my liking, like her relationship with her mother, and the sexual assault for example. I did appreciate how the author mentions that the only reason she even kept up with figure skating at the beginning was for the affection shown to her by her first coach, it really highlights the importance of other adult figures in a kids life besides parents.

The art style isn't as detailed as what I'm used to seeing, but I liked it; and the purple and grey colour palette is really appealing.

A nice quick read, and worth it for the subject matter (our kids need more LGBTQ representation in their media).

Thoughts on the cover:
A nice image that showcases the author's drawing style, plus it's nicely symbolic how Tillie is the only girl looking off in the opposite direction.

Monday, November 13, 2017

An Enchantment of Ravens - Margaret Rogerson

Title: An Enchantment of Ravens
Author: Margaret Rogerson
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 7, 2017
Finished: November 13, 2017

From the inside cover:

With a flock of her paintbrush, Isobel creates stunning portraits for a dangerous set of clients: the fair folk. These immortal creatures cannot bake bread or put a pen to paper without crumbling to dust. They crave human Craft with a terrible thirst, and they trade valuable enchantments for Isobel's paintings. But when she receives her first royal patron - Rook, the autumn prince - Isobel makes a deadly mistake. She paints mortal sorrow in his eyes, a weakness that could cost him his throne, and even his life.

Furious, Rook spirits Isobel away to his kingdom to stand trial for her crime. But something is seriously amiss in his world, and they are attacked from every side. With Isobel and Rook depending on each other for survival, their alliance blossoms into trust, perhaps even love...a forbidden emotion that would violate the fair folk's ruthless laws, rendering both their lives forfeit. What force could Isobel's paintings conjure that is powerful enough to defy the ancient malice of the fairy courts?

Isobel and Rook journey along a knife-edge in a lush world where beauty masks corruption and the cost of survival might be more frightening than death itself.

Fae, fantasy, and that stunning cover. I love me some fairy lore, so I was so along for this ride. The ride was enjoyable, no doubt, but I wasn't as impressed as I was hoping I'd be.

The premise has such potential: the Fae, who are cunning, vain and cannot lie, are sorted into their seasonal courts like in many other fantasy settings. They crave the products of human imagining (writing, painting, cooking, crafting, etc.) and routinely leave their realm to visit Whimsy, a place shrouded in eternal summer where humans live to produce Craft and hope to live long enough without being subject to the callous whims of the Fae around them. There's the World Beyond that people can escape to, or humans can drink from the Green Well to become Fae themselves.

Amongst all this, Isobel is a painter, specializing in portraits, and her work is prized among the fair folk. When Rook, the Autumn price, asks for his portrait, Isobel finds herself falling in love with him, and he with her, over the several weeks he sits for her. When her work depicting human sorrow in his eyes is unveiled to Rook's court, he absconds with her back to the autumnlands to have her stand trial for her crime of exposing his weakness, but they never make it that far, being diverted by Hemlock and the Wild Hunt pursuing them.

The pure imagination of the setting and the details surrounding it are just amazing. The author is a good writer as well, so I have to give her props for those two elements. The only thing that was a bit of a detriment was that there wasn't enough explained in terms of the world building, like how did Whimsy come to be? What is the World Beyond? Why do the Fae crave Craft? What is the deal with the Alder King and the Wild Hunt? There's so much introduced here and it isn't really built upon, at least to my satisfaction. Also, the romance wasn't really believable. Isobel and Rook essentially fall in love before they go on their crazy journey through fairy land, and it just isn't realistic considering they barely speak during the time the portrait is being commissioned. Other than those two things, the book is quite the enjoyable ride, but unfortunately prevent it from being an absolutely stellar book that I was really hoping for.

Definitely worth the read, but sadly not amazing. I'm interested enough though to see what the author writes in the future though, there's a lot of promise here.

Thoughts on the cover:
Freaking stunning illustration of Isobel and Rook (in raven form). The illustrator is Charlie Bowater, seriously go Google this guy and stand in awe of his work. He has some work in his gallery from Sarah J. Maas' Court of Thrones and Roses trilogy, so any fans of that work can go ogle those like I did.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Language of Thorns - Leigh Bardugo

Title: The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Imprint (Macmillan), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 280 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 1, 2017
Finished: November 5, 2017

From the inside cover:

Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.

Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid's voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy's bidding but only for a terrible price.

Inspired by myth, folklore, and fairytale, #1 New York Times bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.

Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange - to a fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.

I read the Shadow and Bone trilogy (Shadow and BoneSiege and StormRuin and Rising) years ago and adored it, so once I heard the author was releasing a short story compilation from the same world, I knew it would be awesome, and it is indeed.

The Language of Thorns is comprised of six stories from various locations in the Grishaverse world, most from Ravkan, but also one each from Zemeni, Kerch, and Fjerdan. You don't need to be familiar with the author's previous books to enjoy these stories, they all stand on their own as enjoyable pieces of fiction with no background knowledge needed. The author's note at the back of the book states that the author's inspiration for these stories were feelings of unease she felt as a child while reading traditional fairy tales. Those feelings are reflected in these stories, since most are adaptations of traditional tales we all know well, with some major twists to them, especially in "The Witch of Duva" and "When Water Sang Fire". All the tales are beautiful, but my personal favourites are "Ayama and the Thorn Wood" and "When Water Sang Fire."

Another aspect I have to mention is the simply gorgeous illustrations done by artist Sara Kipin. Her drawings are on every page, and the progression is amazing. They begin very simply, and with every page more is added or in some cases even changed, until the end of the story reveals a drawing on a full-page spread. It's hard to describe properly, but hopefully the pictures below will help:

Simply stunning, both the writing and the visuals. If you enjoy folktales that aren't your usual fare, then you will surely enjoy this.

Thoughts on the cover:
The picture doesn't do justice to the cover, it has lovely copper tones with light blue for the thorns, plus everything is embossed, which is a bonus.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Girling Up - Mayim Bialik

Title: Girling Up: How to Be Strong, Smart, and Spectacular
Author: Mayim Bialik
Publisher: Philomel Books (Penguin Random House), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 177 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Nonfiction
Started: October 29, 2017
Finished: October 29, 2017

From the inside cover:

Growing up as a girl in today's world is no easy task. Juggling family, friends, romantic relationships, social interests and school...sometimes it feels like you might need to be a superhero to get through it all! But really, all you need is a little information.

Want to know why your stomach does a flip-flop when you run into your crush in the hallway? Or how the food you put in your body will affect you in the future? What about the best ways to stop freaking out about your next math test?

Using scientific facts, personal anecdotes, and wisdom gained from the world around us, Mayim Bialik, the star of The Big Bang Theory, shares what she learned from her life and her PhD in neuroscience to tell you how you grow from a girl to a woman biologically, psychologically, and sociologically.

Want to be strong? Want to be smart? Want to be spectacular? You can! Start by reading this book.

I love The Big Bang Theory, so when I heard through the grapevine that Mayim Bialik was publishing a book about growing up female, I was so in. I honestly thought it was going to be a book from the parental perspective about raising girls in our society, but instead it ended up being a book intended for girls themselves to read about growing up in real time.

The book is divided up into six sections: how our bodies work, how we grow, how we learn, how we love, how we cope, and how we matter. The first half of this book is all standard fare that you can find in any number of puberty books for girls. If all you want is information about puberty itself and bodily changes then I'd actually suggest those other books since they are illustrated more than this book is (which for that type of information I'd argue visuals are key).

The latter half of this book is where the author really shines, talking about love and dating, how we cope with stress and which coping skills signal a problem (information kids need but don't get), and how to make decisions about your future and what you want to do with your life. These latter sections contain information most puberty books for girls don't even touch, the type of sage wisdom one usually gets from their mother or other female role models in their life.

Perfect for older pre-teens or young teenagers who need information about growing up female that they aren't likely to find from the usual sources.

Thoughts on the cover:
I'm not sure why the author is donning a superhero cape here (beyond the one reference in the summary it's not brought up again, and it's not like the book is a magical cure all for their growing pains), but it does make for a more dynamic cover.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Threads of Blue - Suzanne LaFleur

Title: Threads of Blue (sequel to Beautiful Blue World)
Author: Suzanne LaFleur
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (Penguin), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 203 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: October 23, 2017
Finished: October 26, 2017

From the publisher's website:

A war took Mathilde away from her family when she was chosen to serve her country, Sofarende, with other children working on a secret military project.

But now the other children - including her best friend, Megs - have fled to safety, and Mathilde is all alone, determined to complete her mission.

In this powerful and deeply moving sequel to the acclaimed Beautiful Blue World, Mathilde must make her way through a new stage of the war. Haunted by the bold choice she made on the night she chose her country's future over her own well-being, she clings to the promise Megs made long ago: "Whatever happens, I'll be with you."

I read Beautiful Blue World last year and loved it, so of course I knew I'd be picking up the sequel (especially with the cliffhanger ending of the first book).

This book picks up where the previous one left off, with Mathilde on her journey alone to Eilean after allowing Rainer to escape (essentially committing an act of treason). In doing so, she was separated from the rest of the child soldiers, including her friend Megs, and had to travel separately. She eventually makes it to Eilean and is reunited with her Sofarende military contacts while they form a plan of attack on Tyssia. Eventually, Mathilde and Gunnar are asked to go on a new mission that will lead them back into the ruins of Sofarende, all while Megs refuses to speak to Mathilde since her return.

Though I liked Beautiful Blue World better, this novel, like its predecessor, does a wonderful job of viewing war through a childlike lens. Mathilde spends time in a Eilean refugee camp with other Sofarender children and it really highlights how children experience war: worrying about whether family members are alive, trying to survive in a new environment, and worrying about who will take care of you. There's even the experience of rebuilding a war-torn country and the process of trying to locate missing family and resettling. The book even raises ethical concerns about how far one can do to end a war: do you bomb a country, possibly killing civilians, if it means you can force the enemy to leave? Or do you save the civilians and leave the future uncertain?

Thought not as thought-provoking as its predecessor, this one is definitely worth a read if you enjoyed the story thus far.

Thoughts on the cover:
Beautifully symbolic, as with the first. You see Mathilde, Gunnar, and Rainer in the boat; its a lovely scene till you realize the shadows of the bombs over their heads.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jane - Aline Brosh McKenna, Ramon K. Perez

Title: Jane
Author: Aline Brosh McKenna and Ramon K. Perez
Publisher: Archaia, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 224 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Classic, Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novel
Started: October 23, 2017
Finished: October 23, 2017

From the back cover

Growing up in an unhappy family in a small New England town, Jane dreamed of escaping to New york City to study art and live a life of independent adventure. Soon after arriving, she takes a job as a nanny for a mysterious, powerful businessman, Rochester, and his lovable but lonely daughter, Adele, in a lavish apartment filled with unsettling secrets. Jane soon finds herself drawn into a world of intrigue, danger, and romance that takes her far beyond her childhood dreams.

Award-winning screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) makes her graphic novel debut with Eisner Award-winning illustrator Ramon K. Perez (Jim Henson's Tale of Sand) in this modern day reimagining of Charlotte Bronte's classic novel Jane Eyre.

I'm a Jane Eyre enthusiast, and like with Beauty and the Beast, I'll read any new version that is released; so of course I picked this up. This version does a great job of updating the story for a modern context: Jane is American, escapes her neglectful, extended family to study art in New York, and becomes a nanny to support herself. Rochester is a business tycoon whose wife was shot by a bullet intended for him, is now essentially brain-dead, and he keeps her in the upper floor of his Manhattan penthouse in hope of a recovery. Jane empathizes with Adele, and in her persistence in getting Rochester to step up and be a more involved father, the two bond and a romance develops.

This version does a great job of certain things but falls flat in others. The opening pages show rather than tell about Jane's childhood and neglectful upbringing using very little narrative dialogue, and a lovely metaphoric grayscale colour palette that slowly emerges to brilliant colour as readers see Jane settle in New York. On the other end, the romance between Jane and Rochester is horribly rushed and doesn't do justice to the original. The conversations that they're supposed to bond over are absent, and it just makes for an unrealistic portrayal of the pair. The art style isn't my cup of tea, but it is nicely done.

Worth a read if you're a fan of the original, it's a nice modern take on the tale but not a perfect adaptation. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Showcases Jane's personality and the graphic novel's excellent use of colour. 

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

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...

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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...

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.

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

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.

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).

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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).

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

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.

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).

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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).

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

From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?

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

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

This is for you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Flame in the Mist - Renee Ahdieh

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

From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

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

From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Thousand Nights - E.K. Johnston

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

From the inside cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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