Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Give a Boy a Gun - Todd Strasser

Title: Give a Boy a Gun
Author: Todd Strasser
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BFYR (Paperback), 2012 (originally published in 2000)
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: December 10, 2018
Finished: December 11, 2018

From the back cover:

For as long as they can remember, Brendan and Gary have been mercilessly teased and harassed by the jocks who rule Middletown High. But not anymore. Stealing a small arsenal of guns from a neighbour, they take their classmates hostage at a school dance. In the panic of this desperate situation, it soon becomes clear that only one thing matters to Brendan and Gary: revenge.

I hadn't known that this book was actually published shortly after the Columbine shooting while I was still in high school. I think it would've been beneficial for me to have read it back then to help me make sense of things at the time.

As a teacher, every time we practice lock down drills I always explain to my classes about Columbine (it happened before any of them were ever born), and how that is the reason we now do these drills. Kids today are unfortunately so used to hearing about shootings, they're often surprised when I tell them that it wasn't long ago that they were relatively rare, and that being a teenager when Columbine occurred was a defining moment for my generation.

You can tell that this book is heavily influenced by Columbine: it takes place around the same time, the high school and town's name is very close to the name of the Colorado town where the shooting occurred, and the characters in the book even reference the Columbine shooters by name.

I appreciate that the author delves into multiple perspectives on the same incident by including statements from parents, teachers, classmates, counsellors, neighbours, etc. You see that kids can indeed fall through the cracks: there are details missed by one party that another picks up on, but there's no recourse or system to keep track of things like this and it goes by the wayside. It definitely strikes a chord with me as a teacher when we hit a wall with something related to a kid and can't help beyond a certain point because we've done all we're legally allowed to do.

The only part of this novel that I think hasn't aged well is the technology aspect. When this book was first published in 2000, smartphones didn't exist. We had cellphones back then, but they were basic Nokia-type bricks, not mini-computers that you could text message, record video, take photos, and search the internet. The widespread use of smartphones has definitely changed the landscape of today,  especially the invention of social media, and this novel's absence of it really does reinforce how things have changed in the past 10-15 years.

This is a heavy story, but an important one. There are other books about school shootings that are more reflective of recent years, but I'd argue that this one is still important because it's indicative of the time in which it occurred.

Thoughts on the cover:
Seemingly benign until you notice the red dots on the figures.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Fed Up - Gemma Hartley

Title: Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward
Author: Gemma Hartley
Publisher: HarperOne, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 252 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction, Parenting
Started: December 3, 2018
Finished: December 10, 2018

From Gemma Hartley, the journalist who ignited a national conversation on emotional labour, comes Fed Up, a bold dive into the unpaid, invisible work women have shouldered for too long - and an impassioned vision for creating a better future for us all.

Day in, day out, women anticipate and manage the needs of others. In relationships, we initiate the hard conversations. At home, we shoulder the mental load required to keep our households running. At work, we moderate our tone, explaining patiently and speaking softly. In the world, we step gingerly to keep ourselves safe. We do this largely invisible, draining work whether we want to or not - and we never clock out. No wonder women everywhere are overtaxed, exhausted, and simply fed up.

In her ultra-viral article "Women Aren't Nags - We're Just Fed Up," shared by millions of readers, Gemma Hartley gave much-needed voice to the frustration and anger experienced by countless women. Now, in Fed Up, Hartley expands outward from the everyday frustrations of performing thankless emotional labour to illuminate how the expectation to do this work in all arenas - private and public - fuels gender inequality, limits our opportunities, steals out time, and adversely affects the quality of our lives.

More than just name the problem, though, Hartley teases apart the cultural messaging that had led us here and asks how we can shift the load. Rejecting easy solutions that don't ultimately move the needle, Hartley offers a nuanced insightful guide to striking true balance, for true partnership in every aspect of our lives. Reframing emotional labour not as a problem to be overcome, but as a genderless virtue men and women can all learn to channel in our quest to make a better, more egalitarian world, Fed Up is surprising, intelligent, and empathetic essential reading for every woman who has had enough with feeling fed up.

I remember when this author's aforementioned viral article released. I eagerly shared it, amazed that there was actually a name for this nagging frustration I experienced as a woman, something that every woman I know has experienced but we often pass it off as "just the way things are."

I remember asking my mom as a teenager why we (the women in the family) always had the job of zipping around the kitchen fetching items for guests at our home on holidays (normally thought of as being good hosts) while my father wasn't expected to do the same. I can't even remember the exact answer she gave me, but I know it didn't satisfy my teenaged self. Now, my father has improved over the years, but there are still so many aspects of emotional labour that my mother is expected to perform on behalf of both of them (especially in our Italian family), and that I am expected to perform as mother to my child that isn't expected of her father.

Emotional labour as a term is confusing to those that haven't heard it before, but all I have to do is describe the ever-present, "Why am I the only person in this house who notices the toilet paper roll/garbage/random bag needs to be changed/taken out/brought upstairs?!" scenario for women to nod their heads in instant understanding. I did this, in fact, in my workroom with my colleagues the other day when they asked about the book I was reading. This led to an entire conversation about emotional labour, which we as a room of female educators (as well as wives and mothers) are intimately familiar.

The author does a great job of describing emotional labour to her readers, with anecdotes that will have many women nodding their heads in sympathy. She also has chapters entailing how we got to this current state (not-so sarcastic hint: patriarchy and misogyny) and how to better achieve balance between the sexes and emotional labour at home and in the workforce. It's true that some men, like many single fathers, do the bulk of or all of the emotional labour in their families because they've been forced to through circumstance; but in order for change to occur for the majority of men, it's the expectation of men not just "helping" but actually "sharing" the work of emotional labour that will help fuel the change in people's relationships.

This is a must-read (as well as the article linked above), if for nothing else than having a wonderfully cathartic experience. In my case, though, it was a bit rage-inducing when I empathized with nearly all the examples put forth in this book to the point where I wanted to chuck the book against the wall....but it's fine, really, it's fine, I'm fine, totally fine.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's very utilitarian, but it gets the job done.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Hey, Kiddo - Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Title: Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction
Author: Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Publisher: Graphix (Scholastic), 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel; Nonfiction
Started: November 20, 2018
Finished: November 21, 2018

From the back cover:

In preschool, Jarrett Krosoczka's teacher asked him to draw his family with a mommy and a daddy. But Jarrett's family was much, much more complicated than that. His mom was an addict, in and out of rehab and in and out of Jarrett's life. His father was a mystery - Jarrett didn't know where to find him, or even what his name was. Jarrett was living with his grandparents - two very brash, very loving, very opinionated people who had thought they were through with raising children...until Jarrett came along.

Now Jarrett's a teenager. He's gone through his childhood trying to make his non-normal life as normal as possible, finding a way to express himself through art despite the fact that he's grown up in a house where many things remain unsaid. It's only when he's old enough to to have his driver's license that Jarrett can begin to piece together the truth of his family - reckoning with his mother, tracking down his father, and finding his own identity.

Hey, Kiddo is a profoundly important memoir about growing up in a family as it grapples with addiction, finding the people who help you get through, and the art that helps you survive.

When I read the write-up for this months ago, I knew I had to read it. This is one of those really touching stories about a kid overcoming some immensely adverse circumstances, and the fact that this is a memoir just makes it all the more remarkable.

Jarrett begins the book by outlining the history of his mother's family, starting with his grandparents' first meeting in high school. As he progresses through the decades, he outlines his mother's early troubled history, his own birth and early childhood, and the factors that lead to him living with his grandparents.

The author does a wonderful job of conveying exactly how his mother's addiction affected him growing up. Though he admits as an adult he came to understand her limitations and that she did in fact love him, it doesn't necessarily lessen the impact of that trauma during his formative years. I also appreciate how he mentions in the afterword that therapy helped him tremendously as an adult and how it would have been beneficial during his youth, but therapy just wasn't as accepted or commonplace during the 80s and early 90s like it is now.

I also like how he subtly works in how his grandmother's drinking affected the family, beyond the fact that addiction tends to run in families. Even though his grandmother loved him too, that addiction impacted his life in different ways than his mother's, his grandmother being more emotionally or verbally abusive rather than neglectful like his mother. It showcases that addiction can still persist in what appears to be stable, loving fixtures.

You can tell this piece was cathartic for the author to create, it has this sense of synthesizing this lived experience as an adult and trying to package it in a way that could help kids today that he wished he had as a child. The little details like the letters, photos, and drawings all help reinforce the reality of the experience (not to mention the fact that the author managed a ton of stuff from his childhood years).

This memoir is truly heartfelt and can be a story of hope for so many who are in similar circumstances. This is a volume that should be in every high school library.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover's much brighter in terms of colour than the artwork inside (the author has a nice note at the end explaining the reasons behind that), but the orange tones work well against the bright blue pineapple wallpaper behind Jarrett (there's a note about the symbolism of that as well).

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Dear Evan Hansen - Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Title: Dear Evan Hansen
Author: Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Publisher: Poppy (Little, Brown and Company), 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 12, 2018
Finished: November 19, 2018

From the inside cover:

Dear Evan Hansen,
Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why...

When a letter that was never meant to be seen draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family's grief over the loss of their son, Evan is given the chance of a lifetime: to belong. He just has to pretend that the notoriously troubled Connor Murphy was his secret best friend.

Suddenly, Evan isn't invisible anymore - even to the girl of his dreams. And Connor Murphy's parents have taken him in like their own, desperate to know more about their enigmatic son from his "closest friend." As Evan gets pulled deeper into the family's swirl of anger, regret, and confusion, he knows that what he's doing can't be right, but if he's helping people. how wrong can it be?

No longer incapacitated by anxiety or hiding from the disappointment in his mother's eyes, this new Evan has a purpose. And confidence. Every day is amazing. Until everything is in danger of unraveling and he comes face-to-face with his greatest obstacle: himself.

A simple lie leads to complicated truths in this bighearted story of grief, authenticity, and the struggle to belong in an age of instant connectivity and profound isolation.

I've heard great things about the musical that this novel stems from, and not having seen it yet, I figured I may as well give the novel version a go and see if I like it. The fact that the original creators and screenwriters were a part of the novel's creation reassured me a bit as well that this would be as close to the spirit of the musical as you can get when adapting to print. Sadly, though this story has the potential to be really amazing and heartfelt (and some parts truly are), the novel's titular character just doesn't really make me that invested in him.

Evan is a severely anxious seventeen-year-old boy who is also depressed to the point of suicidal ideation. At the start of his senior year, his therapist gives him the assignment of writing letters to himself in order to try to keep a more positive outlook. After a confrontation and misunderstanding one afternoon, classmate Connor Murphy ends up with one of Evan's letters to himself. When Connor dies by suicide that night, Evan is eventually contacted by the Murphy family, asking why their loner son was writing letters to Evan. With the best of intentions to ease the suffering of a grieving family, Evan tells the Murphys that Conner and he were good friends and had been communicating in secret. With the later creation of The Connor Project, a movement to remember Connor and create awareness for mental health and suicide, Evan is thrust into the spotlight and his life as he knows it changes very quickly. However, as Evan's mother begins to enquire about the sudden changes in her son's behaviour, Evan's own guilt and anxiety over his actions begin to grow.

There are a few things about this text that I do truly enjoy. There are some lovely moments and sentiments expressed by characters about feeling isolated and disconnected from others, they allow for readers to really empathize with the characters. I also like how the effects of grief on a family are shown, especially when the person who dies has complicated relationships with the family involved. It's liberating for Zoe to say that although she misses her brother, she doesn't miss the tension in the house or the times where he would become violent towards her.

On to the parts of the novel that just didn't do it for me. Evan is a sympathetic character to a certain extent, but when his lie kept snowballing after he had multiple opportunities to correct it I really lost interest in what happened to him. There's something about lying to a grieving family in the manner that Evan did that just doesn't sit right with me. Also, the events in the conclusion just didn't seem all that realistic either, it's as if Evan gets off too easily.

I'd say this is worth the read whether you've seen the musical version of this or not, but it may fall flat for some readers as it did for me.

Thoughts on the cover:
The image of the tree, particularly the shading, is really well done; and the symbolism fits nicely with its mention in the novel.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Crush - Svetlana Chmakova

Title: Crush
Author: Svetlana Chmakova
Publisher: Yen Press, 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 11, 2018
Finished: November 11, 2018

From the back cover:

Jorge seems to have it all together. He's big enough that nobody really messes with him, but he's also a genuinely sweet guy with a solid, reliable group of friends. The only time he ever really feels off his game is when he crosses paths with a certain girl... But when the group dynamic among the boys starts to shift, will Jorge be able to balance what his friends expect of him with what he actually wants?

Following the overwhelming success of Awkward and Brave, Svetlana Chmakova's award-winning Berrybrook Middle School series continues with its next instalment - Crush!

This is the third instalment of a graphic novel series that I absolutely adore. Copies of these should be in every middle-grade classroom, they're very topical and address issues (sometimes difficult ones) that all preteens and young teenagers deal with at some point in their lives.

After falling in love with Awkward, and enjoying Brave just as much (if not a little more), I hoped Crush would be the same. Thankfully, the author is simply amazing and delivers yet another new story that is just as impressive as the previous two.

This third book focuses on thirteen-year-old Jorge Ruiz, first introduced in Brave. Jorge, at first glance, seems like your stereotypical jock: he's big, plays baseball, and a lot of kids are a little afraid of him. But as Jensen first realizes in Brave, Jorge is actually a nice, no-nonsense guy with a moral code who looks out for people at school.

In Crush, Jorge begins the story with a solid group of friends that are very similar to him. When his friend Garrett begins mingling with a group of kids that behave in ways Jorge detests, he has to decide whether he is going to stay true to his own moral code or emulate what the other group is doing. Amidst all of this, the athletics club that Jorge is a part of is organizing a fundraiser ball, and Jorge himself develops a crush on fellow classmate Jazmine. So Jorge not only has to balance school, homework, baseball practice, and all the activities he has to help out with for the ball; he also has to juggle relationship drama on top of all that.

I really enjoy how the author manages to showcase both male and female characters throughout this series to create stories that appeal equally to boys and girls. Though one character does tend to be the main focus in each story, readers are introduced to several other students as secondary characters throughout each book that they will be able to see themselves reflected in at least a couple. The fact that this book focuses on friendship and budding romantic relationships but is from a male point of view is amazing in my opinion, just because it's rare to see a middle-grade story about those themes that doesn't come from a female main character.

I also like how the author focuses on the interactions of new clubs with each story, this time looking at the athletics club and the drama club. This subtly shows young readers that they can indeed be friends with all kinds of kids, and that they aren't limited to hanging out with those who share every single interest with them.

I really appreciate that the author included the issue of consent in this story. Characters of both sexes actually ask permission if they can kiss each other, and characters in turn give clear answers. This is really a wonderful example to set for the younger generation, it's presented as the default way to be respectful.

I also appreciate how, through Jorge, the author relates the idea that the people you choose to hang out with influence how you are perceived by others. Jorge dislikes James and his buddies because they're disrespectful jerks to everyone else, and loses a degree of respect for his friend Garrett when he starts hanging out with them.

This instalment, like the other two, showcases diversity across gender, race, cultural background, religion, body type, etc. I'm amazed at the different ways readers will see themselves reflected throughout this series.

I can't recommend this series enough. If you've got a preteen/teenager at home that you need to buy books for or teach that age level, just go out and buy these, you won't be disappointed.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity from the first and second covers. Jorge and Jazmine are in full colour while Jorge's friends are in lighter monochrome, and the subtle blush marks on Jorge's cheeks are just too stinking cute.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge - Lisa Jensen

Title: Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge
Author: Lisa Jensen
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 340 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fairy Tale, Fantasy
Started: October 20, 2018
Finished: October 21, 2018

From the inside cover:

They say Chateau Beaumont is cursed. Servant girl Lucie can't believe such foolishness about handsome Jean-Loup, Chevalier de Beaumont, master of the estate. But when the chevalier's cruelty is revealed, Lucie vows to see him suffer. A wisewoman grants her wish and transforms Jean-Loup into terrifying Beast, reflecting the monster he is inside.

But Beast proves to be nothing like the chevalier. Jean-Loup would never tend his roses so patiently or attempt poetry - nor express remorse for the wrong done to Lucie. Gradually, Lucie realizes that Beast is an entirely different creature, with a heart more human than Jean-Loup's ever was. Lucie dares to hope that noble Beast has permanently replaced cruel Jean-Loup - until an innocent beauty arrives at the chateau with the power to break the spell.

Filled with gorgeous writing, magic, and fierce emotion, Beast will challenge all you think you know about good and evil, beauty and beastliness.

It seems I'm back on the fairy tale retelling kick again, this time with one of my favourites that I of course had to examine when I saw the news of its release.

This particular version has a unique aspect to it: the story is told from the perspective of a servant girl, and just as much of the plot takes place before and after the curse as during it. Lucie's narrative adds an interesting element to the story because we see a victim of the chevalier's cruelty early on, which makes it all the more surprising when she later becomes Beast's greatest supporter. There's a bit of a plot twist that explains why this occurs, but I won't reveal it for fear of spoilers. It makes sense given the context of the story (and the whole suspension-of-disbelief that one needs to possess while reading fairy tales), but I can see why it might rub some readers the wrong way, especially considering the nature of the chevalier's crime against Lucie.

The book does drag a bit during the middle when Lucie, who has been turned into a candlestick, simply sits in a cupboard waiting to be taken out. This happens later on as well when Rose arrives and Lucie is carried around by her constantly, but nothing much really happens. This is perhaps the downside of a first-person narration when your narrator becomes an enchanted object midway through the book.

Worth the read for the unique take on the story (and I completely sympathize with the author's thoughts in her note at the end of the book), but there are better retellings out there.

Thoughts on the cover:
Aside from the massive font of the cliché title that made me hide the cover while at work for fear that my coworkers would think I was reading a trashy romance novel, the cover's not bad. The rose that hides a wolf's face is a nice touch, as is the candlestick at the bottom.

Friday, October 19, 2018

That's Not What Happened - Kody Keplinger

Title: That's Not What Happened
Author: Kody Keplinger
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: October 17, 2018
Finished: October 19, 2018

From the inside cover:

It's been three years since the Virgil County High School Massacre. Three years since my best friend, Sarah, was killed in a bathroom stall during the mass shooting. Everyone knows Sarah's story - that she died proclaiming her faith.

But it's not true.

I know be cause I was with her when she died. I didn't say anything then, and people got hurt because of it. Now Sarah's parents are publishing a book about her, so this might be my last chance to set the record straight...but I'm not the only survivor with a story to tell about what did - and didn't - happen that day.

Except Sarah's martyrdom is important to a lot of people, people who don't take kindly to what I'm trying to do. And the more I learn, the less certain I am about what's right. I don't know what will be worse: the guilt of staying silent or the consequences of speaking up.

From New York Times bestselling author Kody Keplinger comes an astonishing and thought-provoking exploration of the aftermath of tragedy, the power of narrative, and how we remember what we've lost.

I'm such a sucker for books like these, ones that talk about big issues that we don't often otherwise discuss in a way that invites something beyond the surface examination. School shootings are one of those issues.

Lee is one of six survivors of a mass shooting at her high school three years prior. Among the nine victims was her best friend, Sarah. Everybody believes that before she died, Sarah had a confrontation with the shooter about the cross necklace she was wearing, and is now thought of as a martyr. Lee tells us from the beginning that it isn't true, but she kept silent due to the harassment another survivor, Kellie Gaynor, received when she tried to tell the truth. As Lee is about to graduate, she learns that Sarah's parents have written a book about their daughter's story that is about to be released. Wanting to correct all the misconceptions that have emerged about the survivors as well as the victims, Lee asks the five to write letters telling their own stories about what really happened.

This novel is essentially about who controls the narrative in the aftermath of a tragedy. When people die, especially tragically, there's this aversion to talk about them as real people with flaws. No one likes to speak ill of the dead, after all. Lee is interested in the truth, even if it's not pretty, even if it means shattering the images people cling to in order to help them survive their grief. She doesn't shy away from admitting that even a victim people are mourning would've been classified as a jerk while living. But Lee grapples with her insistence on the truth, wondering who it really serves and if it does more harm than good.

I appreciated how the author made this book diverse in so many ways. Lee is asexual, and it plays a significant role in her character development. She's also the child of a single, teenaged mom who is very matter-of-fact about her deadbeat father and thankful to her mother for the sacrifices she's made. Denny is not only black (one of the only black kids in the school) but also blind. Eden is hispanic and a lesbian. The issue of religion is explored as well, from personal belief and lack of it, compared to organized religion.

I also like how the author included so many references to criticisms that we usually hear about in the aftermath of mass shootings: denying that the event ever occurred, calling the survivors "crisis actors," and pro-gun lobbyists confronting survivors. She was also very realistic about the effects of trauma: characters deal with anger, addiction, guilt, and depression that no one else really understands except for each other.

This is a gripping, engrossing story that is hard to put down. This is something everybody should read, especially considering the frequency of mass shootings in recent years.

Thoughts on the cover:
The pencil, sharpener, and eraser marks reinforce the letter theme from the book; it's simple yet effective.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Fierce Fairytales - Nikita Gill

Title: Fierce Fairytales
Author: Nikita Gill
Publisher: Hachette Books, 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 156 pages
Genre: Adult; Poetry
Started: October 1, 2018
Finished: October 6, 2018

From the inside cover:

Traditional fairytales are rife with cliches and gender stereotypes: beautiful, silent princesses; ugly, jealous, and bitter villainesses; girls who need rescuing; and men who take all the glory.

But in this rousing new prose and poetry collection, Nikita Gill gives Once Upon a Time a much-needed modern makeover. Through her gorgeous reimagining of fairytale classics and spellbinding original tales, she dismantles the old-fashioned tropes that have been ingrained in our minds. In this book, gone are the docile women and male saviours. Instead, lines blur between heroes and villains. You will meet fearless princesses, a new kind of wolf lurking in the concrete jungle, and an independent Gretel who can bring down monsters on her own.

Complete with beautifully hand-drawn illustrations by Gill herself, Fierce Fairytales is an empowering collection of poems and stories for a new generation.

I'm back on a poetry kick, so I'm working through my list of poets and their collections I wanted to tackle after finally reading Rupi Kaur earlier this year.

Nikita Gill caught my attention purely for this collection focusing on fairytale retellings since I'm a sucker for those. If you're expecting some woke, feminist retellings, you'd be spot on. Not that that's a bad thing, it's just that when there's a whole book of poem after poem of the same thing, it does get a little predictable after a while.

Some of my favourites include a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood (which includes the poem excerpt below) that I would actually read to my daughter, a poem about Hercules and toxic masculinity, and a little myth-inspired story about why the leaves change colour.

If you're a fan of Rupi Kaur and other similar poets it's well-worth the read, though the lack of variety with the subject matter may irritate some readers.

Thoughts on the cover:
The blue and silver line drawings really stand out here and look quite appealing.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Forest Queen - Betsy Cornwell

Title: The Forest Queen
Author: Betsy Cornwell
Publisher: Clarion Books, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 296 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fairy Tale
Started: September 17, 2018
Finished: September 21, 2018

From the inside cover:

When sixteen-year-old Silvie's brother, John, becomes sheriff of Woodshire, she feels powerless to stop his abuse of the local commoners. And when John puts to marry her off, Silvie fears she will never see her beloved home again. She runs away to the forest with her dearest friend, a handsome young huntsman named Bird, and soon a girl called Little Jane, a midwife named Mae Tuck, and a host of other villagers join them. Together, they form their own community and fight to right the wrongs perpetrated by the king and his noblemen.

But even Silvie can't imagine the depths of depravity her brother is willing to sink to, until the terrible day she's forced to confront him. Can she overcome the evil in her own family in order to save the people of Woodshire, as well as the new family she's created for herself?

Perfect for fans of fairy tale retellings, this smart, gorgeously written take on the Robin Hood tale goes beyond the original's focus on economic justice to explore love, gender roles, the healing power of nature, and what it means to be a family.

I can honestly say I can't recall ever reading a Robin Hood retelling, let alone one that flips the genders to feature a female protagonist that isn't Maid Marian, so obviously I was curious about this one.

There were many aspects of the story I enjoyed. Silvie's privilege as a noble is called out and made aware to her, and she uses that to make change. Nature plays a prominent role in the novel, and its restorative powers are addressed. Feminine power is a big theme here, as is the role of mothers and nurturing. Toxic family structures (including sexual abuse and rape) and other darker themes are explored, but not in an overtly explicit way.

What I found lacking in the novel was that all of these themes and even character development tended to suffer as a result of the length of the story. The novel felt too short and everything seemed rushed along. I think if there were another hundred pages or so to add depth to some of these things, it would make them even better.

The novel is too short, in my opinion, but its well worth the read nonetheless.

Thoughts on the cover:
I'm not sure why they thought a boot would be the best option for a cover image (the arrow is nice and fits with the story), but oh well.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Not One Damsel in Distress - Jane Yolen

Title: Not One Damsel in Distress: Heroic Girls from World Folklore
Author: Jane Yolen
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 134 pages
Genre: Children's Fairy Tale
Started: August 29, 2018
Finished: September 5, 2018

From the back cover:

This book is for you because it's important to know that anyone can be a hero if they have to be. Even girls. Especially girls. Especially you.

These fifteen folktales have one thing in common: brainy, bold, brave women - and not one damsel in distress! There is Bradamante, the fierce medieval knight; Li Chi, the Chinese girl who slays a dreaded serpent and saves her town; Makhhta, a female warrior who leads her Sioux tribe into battle; and many more women who use their cunning, wisdom, and strength to succeed.

Drawing from diverse cultures around the world, renowned author Jane Yolen celebrates the female heroes of legend and lore in a collection that will empower every reader.

This new edition features two brand-new stories and enhanced illustrations.

I've read many of Jane Yolen's books since my teenage years, including more than a fair share during one year in university when I took a course in fairy tales. I wish I had discovered this book during my teen years (apparently the earliest edition came out at the tail end of my teens), I would've devoured it.

The tales are fairly easy to read and have that lovely quality to them that begs them to be read aloud. The author did a wonderful job in trying to present a diverse offering: there are not only tales from the European/Western tradition, but also China and Japan, Africa, Indonesia, and even Aboriginal America. The illustrations included are offered at about one per tale, and are a nice touch but aren't anything to write home about (except for the cover illustration).

If you have a daughter, granddaughter, niece, etc., this is a must-buy for bedtime reading. This could even be used in schools studying mythology as well to present a more balanced offering of stories since the myths tend to skew overwhelmingly male.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it. The art style and colour palette are visually appealing, the image is dynamic, not to mention the book's diversity is nicely represented even on the cover.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Publisher: Dial Press (Random House), 2008 (Paperback)
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: September 7, 2018
Finished: September 9, 2018

From Amazon.ca:

January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she's never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written in a book by Charles Lamb.

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters,  Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends - and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society - born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island - boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society's members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humour as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

I watched the film version of this on Netflix this summer, so of course I was curious to see exactly how much was similar to the original novel and how much was changed during the switch from novel to film.

First off, I did not know the original book was written solely in letters, I don't think I've read a book in said format since I first read Dracula back in the day. A departure from the usual prose narrative tends to turn me off those books, but the letter format works well here. Juliet's letters begin with writing to Sidney, her friend and publisher, and Sophie, her friend and Sidney's sister. Once Dawsey sends her that fated first letter, Juliet begins to correspond to all the society's members until she travels to the island in the middle of the book. Once on the island, Juliet corresponds still to Sidney and Sophie, but readers also get a glimpse at letters from other characters not interacting with Juliet, like Isola writing to Sidney.

In terms of differences between the film and the novel, there are many, mainly in terms of extra secondary characters and plot points existing in the novel, whereas things have been condensed in the film. The novel is also less focused solely on the love story between Dawsey and Juliet, and more balanced about Juliet's relationships with everyone else.

The novel really is a lovely story for bibliophiles, especially the idea that's hammered into readers several times that the act of reading, which the Guernsey characters did not really engage in to a great degree before, managed to save these characters' sanities during the war and occupation.

This is quite a quick, enjoyable read. If you've seen the film, you should definitely give the novel a try. If you haven't seen the film, but you like historical fiction and literature, then you should still give it a try.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple, yet very appropriate for the novel's content. You have the title written on a letter complete with stamps and postmarks, with a figure that I'm assuming is Juliet standing pensively at the sea.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Differently Wired - Deborah Reber

Title: Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World
Author: Deborah Reber
Publisher: Workman Publishing, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 278 pages
Genre: Adult; Parenting
Started: August 16, 2018
Finished: August 21, 2018

From the inside cover:

Today millions of kids are stuck in a world that doesn't embrace who they really are. They are the one in five "differently wired" children with ADHD, dyslexia, giftedness, autism, anxiety, or other neurodifferences, and their challenges are many. And for the parents who love them, the challenges are just as numerous, as they struggle to find the right school, the right support, the right path.

Written by Deborah Weber, a bestselling author with a twice-exceptional son, Differently Wired is a revolutionary book - weaving together personal stories and a tool kit of expert advice, it's a how-to, a manifesto, and a reassuring companion for parents who can so often feel that they have no place to turn.

At the heart of Differently Wired are 18 paradigm-shifting ideas - what the author calls "tilts," which include how to accept and lean in to your role as a parent (#2: Get Out of Isolation and Connect). Deal with the challenges of parenting a differently wired child (#5: Parent from a Place of Possibility Instead of Fear). Support yourself (#11: Let Go of Your Impossible Expectations for Who You "Should" Be as a Parent). And seek community (#18: If It Doesn't Exist, Create It).

Taken together, it's a lifesaving program to shift our thinking and actions in a way that not only improves the family dynamic, but allows children to fully realize their best selves.

As soon as I saw an ad for this book on Shelf Awareness (which is an awesome newsletter that everyone should read), I knew I had to read this. Not only was I not neurotypical as a child, I'm raising a daughter who is neurodiverse as well. Being differently wired in an age when people expected me to shut up and deal with it, and raising a differently wired child in an age of increasing awareness to conditions like these gives me a rather unique perspective on things. Not only does this author perfectly capture what it's like raising a neurodiverse child, but she also nails the mindset needed not only to survive the unique challenges children like ours pose, but to help our kids thrive.

This book is an awesome choice for all readers regardless of what diagnoses their children do or don't have purely due to the first section: explaining the different kinds of conditions that fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity, like ADHD/ADD, giftedness, learning differences, autism, twice exceptional, anxiety, sensory issues, etc. Despite the fact that 1 in 5 kids are neurodiverse (a number that is spot-on in my experience as a teacher), stigma and misconceptions still run rampant in regards to these labels, which I've experienced first-hand, to the point where I've had to spell out certain things at my own daughter's IEP meetings, and listened in horror as colleagues would spout the same stereotypes about gifted kids in our workroom. For reasons like these, I'm glad the author included this first section.

Later on in the first section, the author goes on to describe several unique challenges families like these experience. It was as if the author had read my mind and written directly from my own parenting experiences: being afraid your child would get kicked out of pre-school, the financial strain of having to pay for your child's assessment out-of-pocket, the anxiety of worrying how badly others are judging you and your child for behaviour they can't always control, lack of choices enjoyed by other families, and the utter isolation you feel. Reading this chapter would be quite eye-opening if I wasn't already living it, so if anyone is faced with a judgemental individual who dismisses your family's experiences, just direct them to chapter three of this book.

The second part of this book is one that isn't quite as relevant for me at this stage in my parenting journey since I already had to come to terms with most of the "tilts" through baptism by fire so to speak, but would be really beneficial for someone just beginning the process with a toddler or pre-school aged child. The "tilts" are 18 ideas to live by for parents raising a differently wired child:

1: Question Everything You Thought You Knew About Parenting
2: Get Out of Isolation and Connect
3: Let Go of What Others Think
4: Stop Fighting Who Your Child Is and Lean In
5: Parent from a Place of Possibility Instead of Fear
6: Let Your Child Be Their Own Time Line
7: Become Fluent in Your Child's Language
8: Create a World Where Your Child Can Be Secure
9: Give (Loud and Unapologetic) Voice to Your Reality
10: Practice Relentless Self-Care
11: Let Go of Your Impossible Expectations For Who You "Should" Be as a Parent
12: Make a Ruckus When You Need To
13: Align with Your Partner
14: Find Your People (and Ditch the Rest)
15: Recognize How Your Energy Affects Your Child
16: Show Up and Live in the Present
17: Help Your Kids Embrace Self-Discovery
18: If It Doesn't Exist, Create It

Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but the author does delve into details for each one. She does operate from a place of privilege for some of these though, particularly in regards to talking about options for schooling, but at least she recognizes it in her writing. Almost all the anecdotal evidence comes from parents who either homeschool or send their child to a specialized school that supports differently wired students. Not only do many of these schools simply not exist in many areas (I wish they did in mine), not every family can afford private school or give up an income and homeschool their differently wired child.

Some of the tilts I still haven't completely mastered yet are relentless self-care and finding your people. I still have to make an effort to schedule things for myself so I don't explode from the stress, but I'm working on it. In terms of finding our people, my issue is with the "ditching the rest" part, as I find it hard to let go of past friends or family members who don't care enough to be compassionate about our experience.

If you're already a seasoned parent of a differently wired child, you'll love the shared experiences to be found in this book. If you're a parent just starting on this challenging journey (or perhaps a concerned friend/family member/teacher), you'll definitely want to pick this up.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the red and white colour scheme, and the image of the kid going off the path to make a snow angel is an apt metaphor for a neurodiverse kid.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Only Child - Rhiannon Navin

Title: Only Child
Author: Rhiannon Navin
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: August 8, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

From the inside cover:

Sometimes the littlest bodies hold the biggest hearts, and the quietest voices speak the loudest.

Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first-grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. They've practiced lockdown drills before - it was fun and exciting then. But this time it's not a drill. A gunman has entered the school, and in a matter of minutes he will take nineteen lives and irrevocably change the fabric of this close-knit community.

While Zach's mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter's parents, holding them responsible for their son's actions, Zach retreats into the healing world of books and art. Armed with his new insights, and the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach becomes determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion they need to pull them through their darkest hour.

Only Child introduces readers to not one but two remarkable new voices: that of Zach Taylor, the precocious gentle narrator, and that of author Rhiannon Navin, who breathes life into him with the compassion, honesty, and humour of a natural storyteller. Dazzling and tenderhearted, Only Child teaches us all to "see through the noise of our adult lives, back to the undeniable truth of childhood - kindness begets kindness" (Bryan Reardon, author of Finding Jake).

As both a teacher and a mom (especially one who was a teenager during Columbine), school shootings are a paralyzing thing to read about. As a mom, I think immediately of my own six-year-old and the instinct to keep her safe (I cried when she first started lockdown drill practices in her school), and as a teacher the sickening thought that if my own class were ever involved in one, that I would most likely be killed trying to protect them.

Only Child is the story of six-year-old Zach, who survives a school shooting that claims the life of his older brother, Andy. Zach's story opens with him already in the closet as the shooting begins. The author grabs your interest right away with achingly real descriptions of what a class of six-year-olds and their teacher would be doing and feeling once they start to realize the "pops" they're hearing are actually gunshots. The teacher swears in her frustration trying to unlock her phone to call 911, kids are puking from fright and being confined in a closed space, Zach hones in on the smells and the sounds (which will later be PTSD triggers for him) because he literally can't do anything else. The chaos of the aftermath was wonderfully done too: the blood-stained clothes, the confusion, kids trying to wait for their parents and parents trying to figure out where their children are...it was so hard to read, but I have to give the author credit for a realistic portrayal.

The author not only handles the event of the shooting with realism, but also what happens after the families return home. I actually liked how the author addresses through Zach the idea that sometimes we have conflicting thoughts about people who die: Andy had ODD and was a challenging child who was a jerk to his little brother most of the time, and Zach calls out his parents when they gloss over that at the funeral and at the interviews that follow. The loss of a child is something that very few marriages manage to survive, so the aspect of the parents' relationship is depicted as well.

I fell in love with Zach as a narrator, he's not only lovable but realistic as well, reading his thoughts sounded like my six-year-old daughter talking. There is only one thing I take issue with regarding the author's portrayal of Zach: there is no way a six-year-old is mature enough to do some of the things Zach is depicted doing. Zach obtains all his information about the shooting through the news reports on TV and the iPad afterwards, requiring an impressive amount of reading. Now, this is plausible for some strong readers at six, my own kid surprises me at the complexity of words she can actually read on her own still months away from turning seven. But the author goes out of her way to mention that Zach isn't a particularly strong reader like Andy, who was tested as gifted and read the Harry Potter series at Zach's age. Zach also uses art and colour to illustrate his feelings, pairing up colours to match the mood he's in, completely on his own. That kind of concept would be difficult for some kids to understand, and for a six-year-old boy to just decide to do that completely on their own is something I have trouble believing.

This is the emotional equivalent of getting hit by a train...times ten. Beware, you will ugly cry and need a box of tissues, but it's so worth it.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's very plain, but the seemingly random colours do tie into Zach's use of colour to describe his feelings: green for anger (like the Hulk), yellow for happy, grey for sadness, red for embarrassed.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

How to Build a Girl - Caitlin Moran

Title: How to Build a Girl
Author: Caitlin Moran
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 28, 2018
Finished: August 5, 2018

From the inside cover:

What do you do in your teenage years when you realize what your parents taught you wasn't enough? You must go out and find books and poetry and pop songs and bad heroes - and build yourself.

It's 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there's no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde - fast-talking, hard-drinking gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer - like Jo in Little Women, or the Brontes - but without the dying-young bit.

By sixteen, she's smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, and working for a music paper. She's writing pornographic letters to rock stars, having all the kinds of sex with all the kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.

But what happens when Johanna realizes she's build Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters, and a head full of paperbacks enough to build a girl after all?

Imagine The Bell Jar - written by Rizzo from Grease. How to Build a Girl is a funny, poignant, and heartbreakingly evocative story of self-discovery and invention, as only Caitlin Moran could tell it.

After reading the sequel to this book, How to Be Famous, I figured I'd give the first instalment a try. How to Build a Girl is a hilarious read for sure, but I much more enjoyed How to Be Famous. 

Fourteen-year-old Johanna lives in an overcrowded, low-income housing unit in Wolverhampton in the early 1990s. After she both humiliates herself on local television and accidentally gets her family kicked off their welfare benefits, she reinvents herself under the pseudonym of Dolly Wilde and gets a job as a music writer for the magazine D&ME. She dresses like a goth, smokes, does drugs, has lots of wild, crazy sex with men she barely knows, all while travelling around interviewing bands. Not only is she trying to help support her family, she's also trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to be, which makes this novel both appealing and a touch bit cliche. Granted, what saves this novel is that Johanna and her family are hilarious to read about. Johanna's not one of those annoying heroines who doesn't figure things out in the event of a royal screw-up, she smartens up and has some real growth.

Not an overall fresh type of story, but funny as all hell, so it's worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity between this first instalment and the sequel's covers, very punk and grunge-y.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Court of Frost and Starlight - Sarah J. Maas

Title: A Court of Frost and Starlight (4th book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series)
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 229 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 19, 2018
Finished: July 27, 2018

From the inside cover:

Feyre, Rhys, and their close-knit circle of friends are still busy rebuilding the Night Court and the vastly changed world beyond. But Winter Solstice is finally near, and, with it, a hard-earned reprieve.

Yet even the festive atmosphere can't keep the shadows of the past from looming. As Feyre navigates her first Winter Solstice as High Lady, she finds that those dearest to her have more wounds than she anticipated - scars that will have a far-reaching impact on the future of their court.

Narrated by Feyre and Rhysand, this wondrous tale of hope and promise picks up after A Court of Wings and Ruin and sets the stage for the thrilling events in the future books.

The Court of Thorns and Roses series is one of my favourites in recent years. After thoroughly enjoying A Court of Thorns and Roses for its nods to Beauty and the Beast, falling absolutely in love with A Court of Mist and Fury (because it's just awesome, go read it if you haven't already), and appreciating A Court of Wings and Ruin for tying up loose ends, I honestly thought the series was done, but thankfully one of my students clued me in to this lovely surprise. This is more of a novella than a full-on instalment, it's a bridge from the first three books into however many more are coming in this series (which, according to Goodreads, is another three books and one more novella).

In the aftermath of the events of A Court of Wings and Ruin, A Court of Frost and Starlight is a fluffy little piece meant to make you smile. Winter Solstice has arrived, and all our favourite characters are trying to enjoy their brief reprieve while still suffering from the various traumas they've incurred. And what better event to bring about the warm and fuzzies than the Fae version of Christmas! Again, most of this is fluff (characters shopping for Solstice presents, lots of sex involved), but we do get a brief nod to potential plot lines in future books such as the unrest brewing in the mountain camp.

More of interest to me is the character development, and we do get some of that here. Feyre is trying to adjust to her new role and struggling with self-care, Cassian doesn't know what to do regarding Nesta, Elain and Nesta are coming to terms with being made Fae, and Lucien is torn between the Spring Court and Elain. There's not nearly enough character development for the characters I wanted to see more of, like Nesta, Elain, and Cassian, but I'm hoping future books will have more to offer for them.

This is the Hallmark Christmas Movie for this series. It's meant to be fluffy and cute, which it delivers in spades, but not a necessary read if you're expecting it to be the same as the previous books.

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, I like the continuity with previous covers. Feyre is looking quite winter-y and festive, which fits the feel of the book.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Ash Princess - Laura Sebastian

Title: Ash Princess
Author: Laura Sebastian
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 433 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 5, 2018
Finished: July 19, 2018

From the inside cover:

Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day the Kaiser took Theodosia's family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess - a title of shame to wear in her new life as a prisoner.

For ten years, Theo has been a captive in her own palace.She's endured the relentless abuse and ridicule of the Kaiser and his court. She is powerless, surviving in her new world only by burying the girl she was deep inside.

Then, one night, the Kaiser forces her to do the unthinkable. With blood on her hands and all hopes of reclaiming her throne lost, she realizes that surviving is no longer enough. But she does have a weapon: her mind is sharper than any sword. And power isn't always won on the battlefield.

For ten years, the Ash Princess has seen her land pillaged and her people enslaved. That all ends here.

From the start I was intrigued by this book, but wary at the same time. The cover screams Red Queen, seriously what is it with the recent trend of putting just crowns on YA fantasy books, it's almost as bad as the headless girl trend a few years back. Not only the cover, but the story seems familiar as well: girl who's lost everything is aided by boy, manipulates her way in and out of trouble, etc. But thankfully this book is saved by a few things: decent world building and a likeable heroine.

I give the author credit for the world building here, the Astrean gods and goddess stories interspersed throughout are entertaining and engaging, and the magic system is well executed. I like how the characters even get into philosophical discussions regarding this. Most Astreans believe that one needs to be chosen by the gods to wield the powers of the spirit gems, but most people enslaved in the mines by the Kalovaxians can wield the power simply because it has leeched into their blood by over exposure. Plus, there's the lovely little allegory about the very Germanic, fair Kalovaxians invading and enslaving the dark-haired, olive-skinned Astreans that definitely does not go unnoticed.

Theo is also an intriguing narrator. She doesn't delude herself about anything: her strength or lack of it, her feelings regarding anyone, how dismal her situation really is...at the very least she is honest. So  even though there is a sort-of love triangle, it isn't annoying because Theo doesn't lie to herself thinking she actually loves either boy, at least at this stage. She's smart and brave, yet vulnerable enough to root for since no one is quite sure whether her crazy schemes will actually come to fruition.

Though many elements here have been done before, the world building and Theo herself make this worth the read. This is the first book of a planned trilogy, so I will definitely be picking up the next book in 2019.

Thoughts on the cover:
Again, it screams Red Queen. It's pretty, but not very original.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

How to Be Famous - Caitlin Moran

Title: How to Be Famous
Author: Caitlin Moran
Publisher: HarperCollins, July 3, 2018, (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: June 21, 2018
Finished: June 29, 2018

From the back cover:

Johanna Morrigan (aka Dolly Wilde) has it all: she is nineteen, lives in her own flat in London, and writes for the coolest music magazine in Britain. Her star is rising, just not quickly enough for her liking.

Then, John Kite, Johanna's unrequited love, has an album go to number one. Suddenly John exists on another plane of reality: that of the famouses, a world of rabid fans and VIP access. Johanna lacks the traditional trappings of fame (famous parents, mind-scorching hotness, exotic sandals, etc.), so she does the only thing a self-respecting Lady Sex Adventurer can do. She starts a magazine column critiquing the lives and follies of the famouses around her. But as Johanna skyrockets to fame herself, she begins to realize that with celebrity comes sacrifice, and hers may mean giving up the one person she was determined to keep.

For anyone who has been a girl or known one, who has admired fame or judged it, How to Be Famous is a big-hearted, hilarious tale of fame and fortune - and all they entail.

I've been familiar with Moran's work for several years now, so when I was contacted by the publisher asking me if I wanted a copy of her newest book, I enthusiastically said yes. How to Be Famous is a sequel of sorts to her previous novel, How to Build a Girl, which you don't need to have read to enjoy this newest instalment - I haven't, but I can assure you, I will be rectifying that shortly.

How to Be Famous takes place in London circa 1994-1995 and follows the life of Johanna Morrigan, a nineteen-year-old living the life most teenagers would die for. She lives on her own, writes for a music magazine, and gets to interview famous people for a living (oh, 1994, when someone could actually live independently and have a job in the entertainment industry in their late teens). Johanna's life isn't perfect though. She is becoming increasingly aware of the sexism inherent in the male-dominated industry she works for; and her unrequited love, John Kite, rockets to stardom, leaving her further behind. She decides to win John Kite's heart the way she does best: by writing.

Moran does a wonderful job of capturing the spirit that was the mid-90s, and reminding us that even though we're looking at these events more than 20 years in the future, the problems Johanna faces are, not surprisingly, quite contemporary and relatable. There's a definite feminist vibe to the book (as with all of Moran's works), but everything is conveyed so well through Johanna's experiences to the point where you have such empathy for the character that you would literally punch Jerry Sharp in the face if he suddenly appeared in corporeal form before you.

Moran also writes with an amazing sense of humour. I began reading this book while proctoring exams, and it was a serious struggle to not burst out laughing while my poor students were trying to concentrate. So I thank the author for not only writing a wonderful book, but for rescuing me from the complete boredom that is proctoring exams. Not only is Johanna's narration deliciously funny, the character of Suzanne is absolutely hysterical. Heck, all of the characters are, but Suzanne is a particular treat for readers.

Moran's writing is not only funny, she has a gift for metaphor as well. I have several passages that are particular favourites, but this one is probably the least spoiler-y: "At this point, John's life was like a zoo on fire. Animals running everywhere. If I kissed him here, then, that kiss would just be just one more confused penguin, lost in a crowd of panicking zebras, and lions trying to eat eagles. I didn't want to be a sidelined penguin. I wanted to be the whole Ark."

A deliciously funny romp amidst the backdrop of the British music scene of the mid-1990s with a feminist twist. Give this a go, you won't be disappointed.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the punk/grunge look on the kids in the image, and the hot pink and yellow colour scheme is just immensely appealing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Shape of Water - Guillermo Del Toro and Daniel Kraus

Title: The Shape of Water
Author: Guillermo Del Toro and Daniel Kraus
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 314 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: June 18, 2018
Finished: June 20, 2018

From the inside cover:

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito - mute her whole life, orphaned as a child - is struggling with her humdrum existence as a janitor working the graveyard shift at Baltimore's Occam Aerospace Research Centre . Were it not for Zelda, a protective coworker, and Giles, her loving neighbour, she doesn't know how she'd make it through the day.

Then, one fateful night, she sees something she was never meant to see, the Center's most sensitive asset ever: an amphibious man, captured in the Amazon, to be studied for Cold War advancements. The creature is terrifying but also magnificent, capable of language and of understanding emotions...and Elisa can't keep away. Using sign language, the two learn to communicate. Soon, affection turns into love, and the creature becomes Elisa's sole reason to live.

But outside forces are pressing in, Richard Strickland, the obsessed soldier who tracked the asset through the Amazon, wants nothing more than to dissect it before the Russians get a chance to steal it. Elisa has no choice but to risk everything to save her beloved. With the help of Zelda and Giles, Elisa hatches a plan to break out the creature. But Strickland is onto them. And the Russians are, indeed, coming.

Developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release - one story interpreted by two artists in the independent mediums of literature and film - The Shape of Water is unlike anything you've ever read or seen.

I adored the film when it came out at the end of last year, so picking up the novelization of it was a given.

If you've already seen the film, there's not much else to tell you since you already know the story. What I like best about the novel is that it's written in third person omniscient, we get to see into the minds of practically every single character, including the creature, Strickland, and even Strickland's wife. These viewpoints in particular were the most intriguing to me, I love hearing from the antagonist's point of view, and having his wife's story included was a nice bonus, she's surprisingly a pretty fleshed out character. There were only a couple segments written from the creature's point of view, but they were stunningly profound despite their simplicity in language.

If you enjoyed the film you have to read the novel, it complements the film nicely and gives a greater breadth of dimension to the story and characters.

Thoughts on the cover:
I think the cover image was one version of the movie poster, if I remember correctly. It's a nice image, so it works.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Hazel Wood - Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 355 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: June 11, 2018
Finished: June 18, 2018

From the inside cover:

Seventeen-year-old Alice Proserpine and her mother have spent most of Alice's life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice's grandmother, the reclusive author of a book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get. Her mother is stolen away - by a figure who claims to come from the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother's stories are set. Alice's only lead is the message her mother left behind:

"Stay away from the Hazel Wood."

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother's cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with her classmate and fairy-tale superfan Ellery Finch, who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To find her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood and then into the world where her grandmother's tales began - and where she might discover why her own story went so wrong.

I wanted to like this, I really did. The plot summary reads like the kind of dark fairy tale I would normally devour, hence why I picked it up.

The first half of the book is slow, granted, but was interesting enough. Alice and her mother live a nomadic lifestyle due to an uncanny amount of bad luck that follows in their wake. When they receive notice that Althea, Ella's mother and famous author, has died at the Hazel Wood, Ella believes that they can finally move on with their lives and settle down somewhere. But when Ella is taken from their Brooklyn home, Alice teams up with Ellery to discover her family's history and the reasons behind her mother's disappearance. And that's where it all falls apart.

Alice is a difficult character to empathize with and give a damn about what happens to her. I was curious about her backstory, but not invested in her as a character. Once the road trip to the Hazel Wood is underway, I lost interest, honestly. Finch is a bit of a stereotype rather than a fleshed out character, so that annoyed me. That, and the plot doesn't make much sense at a certain point, I was just confused for the last half of the book.

Worth a try if you like dark fairy tale-type stories, but beware that my issues with the book were shared by other readers as well.

Thoughts on the cover:
So pretty, I love the black with gold effects.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Archival Quality - Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz

Title: Archival Quality
Author: Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz
Publisher: Oni Press, 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 280 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Adult, Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Realistic Fiction, Mystery
Started: May 26, 2018
Finished: May 26, 2018

From the inside cover:

The Logan Museum is a mysterious old building practically covered in skulls, and also the new workplace of Celeste "Cel" Walden, a librarian who was let go from her previous job after a mental breakdown. But Cel is desperate to feel useful, and Abayomi Abiola, the Logan Museum's chief curator, is desperate to hire an archivist.

Cel soon realizes the job is unlike any other she's had. There's an apartment onsite she's required to live in, she only works in the middle of the night, and she definitely gets the impression that there's more to the museum than Abayomi and her new boss, Holly Park, are letting on.

And then strange things start happening. Odd noises. Objects moving. Vivid, terrifying dreams of a young woman Cel's never met, but feels strangely drawn to. A woman who for some reason needs Cel's help.

As Cel attempts to learn more about her, she begins losing time, misplacing things, passing out - there's no denying the job is becoming dangerous. But Cel can't let go of the woman in her dreams. Who is she? Why is she so fixated on Cel? And does Cel have the power to save her when she's still trying to save herself?

This just sounded really unique when I came across it, and after reading it, I can say that this was definitely an intriguing choice.

Cel makes for an engaging character due to her mental health struggles, and the addition of the supernatural elements adds a unique and appealing twist to the story. It really does make you question whether Cel is actually seeing the ghost and the weird events or if it's just a reflection of her life after her breakdown. The backdrop of the museum as an asylum in the past also gives a nice little reflective piece on how our understanding of mental health has changed in just the past few decades, let alone the past 100 years.

I also really appreciated the examination of Cel's insistence that she do everything on her own without help, and how she has to come to terms with the idea that she needs to reach out to her support network and actually accept the help of others if she really wants to get better. The cast of characters is small, but nicely diverse across many aspects, so that gets bonus points as well.

This is definitely a must-read, if not for the portrayal of mental health issues, then for the creative story. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the shiny gold that the title font is done in, it makes for a nice touch. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Why Gender Matters - Leonard Sax

Title: Why Gender Matters: Who Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Science of Sex Differences
Author: Leonard Sax
Publisher: Harmony Books, 2017 (Second Edition) (Paperback)
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Adult; Parenting
Started: May 21, 2018
Finished: May 25, 2018

From the back cover:

When first published in 2005, Why Gender Matters broke ground in illuminating differences between boys and girls - how they perceive the world, learn, process emotions, and take risks. Dr. Sax showed that when we overlook their differences, we may end up reinforcing damaging stereotypes and fail to help our kids reach their full potential.

In the years since, the world has changed. An avalanche of new research supports, deepens, and expands Dr. Sax's work. This indispensable guide for parents and educators is thoroughly revised and updated to include new findings about how boys and girls interact with social media and video games; differences in how they see, hear, and smell; and guidance about how to support gender-nonconforming, LGB, and transgender kids. Dr. Sax accessibly weaves the science with stories and insights from his decades of clinical experience to show how to raise happier, healthier kids.

After reviewing this author's books on parentingboys, and girls, I finally get to the book on gender differences. Right off the bat, I notice that this book does contain a lot of repeat material from the other three books. The other books definitely go into more detail in each of their subject areas, but there were certain sections that were repeated verbatim in this book. That doesn't necessarily negate the existence of this book, since this particular instalment goes into details that the other three do not: differences in sight, smell, hearing, among others. There are even sections on differences regarding homosexual and transgender kids.

What I found interesting were the points made on sense differences between boys and girls, namely that you need to speak louder to the average boy than the average girl to have him hear you the same. This actually makes sense in the classroom, especially since most boys end up sitting at the back of the room when you let them pick their own seats. Also, boys tend to be more risk-takers than girls, so while you need to give boys a safer channel for their risk-taking, you need to encourage girls more since they tend to be risk-averse. These are points that I definitely see anecdotally in my career, but its nice to see research back it up as well.

The author's chapter on transgender children might be a bit controversial. The author poses that while transgender children definitely do exist, he believes, based on research, that the prevalence we're seeing in recent years is more about restrictive gender roles than about kids actually believing they were meant to be the opposite gender...that if gender roles were more flexible and kids saw that, we'd see less children identifying as transgender. While I do think gender roles are still too restrictive these days, especially for boys, I'm not sure how I feel about the author's point here.

Definitely worth a read, though you will notice some content repetition if you've read the author's other books.

Thoughts on the cover:
Nice and modern looking.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Girls on the Edge - Leonard Sax

Title: Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls
Author: Leonard Sax
Publisher: Basic Books, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 258 pages
Genre: Adult; Parenting
Started: May 20, 2018
Finished: May 20, 2018

From the inside cover:

Many girls today are engaging in self-destructive behaviour: cutting themselves; obsessing over their appearance, grades, sports, and social networking sites; acting sexy when they don't feel sexyMany have a brittle sense of self. A growing proportion of teen and tween girls are confused about their sexual identity, and there is new evidence that environmental toxins are accelerating their physical maturity faster than their emotional maturity. Many girls today may look confident and strong on the outside, but inside, they're fragile.

In Girls on the Edge, psychologist and physician Leonard Sax provides the tools we need to help girls become independent and confident women. He offers parents practical tips on everything from helping their daughter choose a sports team to deciding limits on social networking sites. Sax also shows how and why girls are more likely to reach their potential if they are involved in communities of women, communities that bridge the generations.

Essential and inspiring, Girls on the Edge points the way to a new future for today's girls and young women.

So after reviewing this author's books on parenting and boys, I've now come to his book on girls, which is fitting and concerns me the most since I'm the parent of daughters.

Similar to the trend with males, the author illustrates that girls are going through a crisis of their own, it's just different from the boys: whereas boys tend to act out their problems, girls tend to turn inward onto themselves. This means girls who don't have a developed sense of self will focus on things that are superficial enough that when they erode and crumble (because they always do), a girl's sense of self crumbles as well, because she chose to focus on ranking and grades, beauty, or intense athleticism. The author identifies four factors driving this crisis in girls: sexual identity (or sexual objectification), the cyberbubble (internet culture), obsessions, and environmental toxins (specifically endocrine disruptors).

I honestly wish this book had been around when I was a teenager, I think it would've saved me some heartache at the very least to be able to put into words all the things I was feeling at the time. I can identify with practically everything the author has compiled here, except for the cyberbubble part since internet culture was in its early days when I was a teenager and I don't believe it had as huge of a formative part of my upbringing as it does for kids nowadays.

The chapter on sexuality is one that echoes a lot of sentiments in other parenting books I've read (specifically on parenting girls). When I found out I was going to have a daughter, one of the first things that hit me was that, based on recent research at the time, my future child would have a fifty percent chance of being molested/sexually assaulted at some point in her life....boys don't come with stats like that. Granted boys have their own toxic gender issues to deal with, and our culture isn't great for boys either, but boys don't have to deal specifically with the sexual objectification and fear of sexual violence the way that girls and women do, so I'm glad there was a chapter devoted to this. Since girls are going through puberty earlier than in the past, girls physically mature long before they mature emotionally, so they're dealing with their "place" in society as this image of sexual gratification before they can even comprehend what this means...and it messes up the psyches of so many girls, I know it did for me.

The chapter on obsessions was really eye-opening for me. I teach so many girls who fall into these various categories: the smart one, the athletic one, the girl who drinks, the girl who obsesses over her appearance (to the point of having an eating disorder), and the girl who cuts herself. The author describes these as "anorexia of the soul," and I can't think of a more poignant word phrase for it. In the absence of a developed sense of self, girls turn to these things to the point of obsession, so the idea is to help girls discover their sense of who they really are by being part of a community of supportive women. The author is also in favour of single-sex classrooms for both girls and boys, which, although backed by research, isn't always a viable option depending on what area you live in.

Like the author's other books I've recently reviewed, this needs to be read even if you don't have daughters or teach young women.

Thoughts on the cover:
I'm not sure if this particular book received a revised and updated edition like the other ones I've read, but hopefully it does at some point just to receive cover art that matches the other updated editions.