Monday, December 7, 2020

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London - Garth Nix


Title: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

Author: Garth Nix

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (Harper Collins), 2020 (Hardcover)

Length: 393 pages

Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy

Started: December 1, 2020

Finished: December 3, 2020


From the inside cover:

In a slightly alternative London in 1983, Susan Arkshaw is looking for her father, a man she has never met. Crime boss Frank Thringly might be able to help her, but Susan doesn't get time to ask Frank any questions before he is turned to dust by the prick of a silver hatpin in the hands of the outrageously attractive Merlin. 

Merlin is a young left-handed bookseller (one of the fighting ones). With the right-handed booksellers (the intellectual ones), he belongs to an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world - in addition to running several bookshops. 

Susan's search for her father begins with her mother's possibly misremembered or misspelled surnames, a reading-room ticket, and a silver cigarette case engraved with something that might be a coat of arms. 

Merlin has a quest of his own: to find the Old World entity who used ordinary criminals to kill his mother. As he and his sister, Vivien, tread in the path of a botched or covered-up police investigation from years past, they find this quest strangely overlaps with Susan's. Who or what was her father? Susan, Merlin, and Vivien must find out, as the Old World erupts dangerously into the New. 

In this pulse-pounding and laugh-out-loud expedition to the world of magical booksellers, Garth Nix crafts a unique fantasy that blurs the boundaries between reality and mythic legend. 


I've read Garth Nix's novels quite regularly since my teenaged years, so I'm always up for something new from him. This newest novel seemed quite appealing as both a bookstore-lover and a lefty. 

In an alternate imagining of London in 1983, 18-year-old Susan Arkshaw arrives before the start of her  fall term as an arts student to search for the father she never knew. When she approaches Frank Thringly, an old acquaintance of her mother's, she becomes caught up in a whirlwind of events concerning the world she knows, the Old World, and the governing body of Booksellers (left and right-handed) that keep the two from mixing. 

This story is a very fun, engaging read. It's big on plot and moves quickly. It's not a very deep story though, and doesn't really get into any depth in terms of character development, which I would've liked to see for Susan and Merlin.

Merlin makes up for any deficits in depth though, he's a great source of witty comic relief, and as a gender-fluid character, a welcome addition to diversity in YA fiction (especially for a story set in the 80s).


A fun romp, but a little lacking in depth, so for some readers this might be a book to borrow rather than buy. 

Thoughts on the cover:

I love the colour scheme of golden yellow and blue/black/grey, it makes for a gorgeous cover.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Axiom's End - Lindsay Ellis

Title: Axiom's End
Author: Lindsay Ellis
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2020 (Hardcover)
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Adult; Science Fiction
Started: July 22, 2020
Finished: July 27, 2020

From the inside cover:

Truth is a human right.

It's fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the U.S. government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblowing father . Even though Cora hasn't spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the internet, the paparazzi, and the government - and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father's leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him - until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.

Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence is completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human - and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

The author, Lindsay Ellis, is a video essayist on YouTube who posts mainly about media criticism, including all the geeky things I tend to enjoy, like Disney. Her videos are intelligent, funny, and just generally well-done (especially her Hugo Award-nominated videos on the Hobbit films); if anyone is interested in them, you can find them here. The main reason I knew about and read this book is because I'm fond of the author's work, so I wanted to be clear about my bias in regards to this novel in particular. With that out of the way, this book was definitely an engaging read. It had some blips on the radar, but this was definitely read-worthy, which is a good thing because this book is the first in a series with four more books planned.

Journalist Nils Ortega has leaked evidence that aliens known as the "Fremda Group" have been in CIA custody for decades. When the government investigates his ex-wife and three children and take them into custody in the hopes of finding him, 21-year-old Cora manages to escape and seeks the aid of her aunt Luciana, Nils' sister who, until recently, worked with the group tasked with figuring out how to communicate with the Fremda aliens, to no avail. Before she can meet up with Luciana though, Cora is followed and abducted by an alien who plants a Babel Fish-type device into her, enabling him to communicate directly into her mind. He, later named Ampersand, orders Cora to take him to the Fremda group before they are killed by another alien called Obelus, who was sent to destroy them. Cora agrees, mainly so she can leverage her ability to communicate with Ampersand to guarantee her family's safety. As the two travel to meet Luciana and later the rest of the Fremda group still in CIA custody, Cora learns about Ampersand's society and how humanity will be impacted by their interactions.

This book had a bit of a slow start for me. Cora isn't a very engaging character in the beginning in my opinion. She's having some issues adjusting to adult life: she's a college drop-out with an incomplete linguistics major, loses a temp job on the first day, and in general acts younger than twenty-one (which makes sense because apparently in a first draft she was supposed to be eighteen and was aged up). Things get much more exciting once Ampersand shows up and Cora slowly pieces together the reason why the Fremda group came to Earth in the first place. The dialogue between them is engaging, and through this you can see that Ampersand does have a fully formed personality. Though Ampersand does have a chance to have his character background explained, Cora sadly doesn't. We know she has daddy issues from Nils leaving, and that she has a tenuous relationship with her mom but loves her younger siblings, and she likes to play the guitar, but no clues for why those things exist. It sometimes feels as if any time that could've been used to flesh out Cora a bit more was sacrificed to either advance the plot or to focus on Ampersand. The focus on Ampersand pays off, but I wish that we could've gotten to know Cora better (hopefully we will get that in future instalments).

In terms of the setting, it takes place in an alternate version of America in 2007. There are a lot of references from that time period from political figures to movies, music and events, so anyone who either wasn't alive or was too young to really remember that period (so anyone younger than their teens/early 20s) might have a hard time envisioning the environment the author is trying to invoke. I fear this book will not age well as a result of this.

The themes in the book can get very dark, but not to the point where you feel you have to put the book down. Colonialism, genocide, and how those two ideas often intersect in practice compose the main thematic points, with the undercurrent of what it means to be human and traits that we value and how we place those expectations on a group we view as the "other." This book could generate some great discussions in a classroom or bookclub setting.

The interactions between Cora and Ampersand are well-written and satisfying. I can't say more for fear of spoilers, but let's just say it is very on-brand for the author if you're familiar with the content she creates (it made my inner fangirl happy).

A bit of a slow start, but once it gets going this book manages to be insightful and touching and is definitely worth the read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series and seeing where the story goes.

Thoughts on the cover:
Apparently the author had numerous revisions with the publisher to get the cover to look the way she wanted, and if that's true, it was worth the hassle. The reddish-orange and beige colour scheme is aesthetically appealing, and the cover image works in the context of the story.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes - Suzanne Collins

Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic, 2020 (Hardcover)
Length: 517 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian
Started: May 19, 2020
Finished: May 26, 2020

From the inside cover:

Ambition will fuel him.
Competition will drive him.
But power has its price.

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to out charm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He's been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined - every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favour or failure. triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute...and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.

Earlier this year when I first heard that there was going to be another book set in the Hunger Games universe, I was excited. I didn't even care that it wasn't about Katniss, until news came out that the protagonist was going to be President Snow as a young man. That gave me pause. Not enough to make me not want to buy the book, but it did make me wonder what a tall order it was going to be to make me care about the younger version of the original series' chief antagonist. I have to give it to Suzanne Collins, she not only made me care about a young Snow enough to read a whole book about him, but proved that she's still got it as a writer even a decade after writing her famous series.

The story begins in the Capitol barely ten years after the infamous war mentioned in the original books has ended. The Capitol as we know it from the original series is shiny, modern, and rich. The immediate post-war Capitol is anything but. For anyone who knows their history, think of Germany after WWI or all of Europe immediately after WWII. Eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow has lost both his parents, as has his older cousin Tigris, and they both live with their grandmother in the once-lavish but currently decrepit family townhouse. Coriolanus needs a university scholarship in order to feed his family and pull them out of poverty, which he will win if the tribute he is being paired with wins the upcoming Hunger Games. With viewership levels falling, the Capitol is experimenting with new ideas to make the Games more appealing, and this is the first year mentors are being used, except instead of district winners being the mentors like in the original series, they are using Capitol students from the academy.

Since Coriolanus is not Dean Highbottom's favourite, he is assigned to the female tribute from District 12, small and understated. Coriolanus has little hope of winning, until he sees Lucy Grey Bard in the reaping footage, and hears her sing. With no real fighting skills, he plans to play up her cunning and charisma, but that hinges on the assumption that she actually trusts a Capitol boy to get her through the Games.

This book not only makes Coriolanus Snow sympathetic, but it also his fellow classmates. This book adds in the idea that it isn't only the districts that are suffering due to the Capitol's tyranny, and this is clearly shown through the daily grind that Coryo and his friends go through. Some of his classmates and their families weathered the war relatively unscathed, but the food shortages affect even the most influential families, to the point where the main perk of attending the academy is that the students are well fed while in attendance. The Gamemakers' decisions also lead to accidents and death not only for the tributes, but the Capitol students as well. The themes of trauma and how it shapes a person, war and its effect on society, and the degree to which people will go to in order to save themselves are well displayed here and both complement and add to the themes explored in the original trilogy.

Coryo is admittedly a likeable character for most of the novel, it's hard to believe he's the younger version of President Snow from the first series, but granted, that is the whole drive to this book, to discover how Coryo became the Snow as we know him 65 years after the fact. Lucy Grey is a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl, but a likeable one; and I enjoy how songs from the first series were incorporated through her. Sejanus is a favourite of mine (poor tormented Sejanus), and his friendship with Coryo is well developed. It's amazing how the author managed to not only name every tribute and Capitol student, but also gave most of them some area in which to develop their character so they weren't merely a name.

If you're a fan of the original Hunger Games trilogy, it's worth picking up this newest instalment. Don't let the fact that the protagonist is a young Snow put you off, trust me, the author makes it work, and it's just as good as any of the first books were.

Thoughts on the cover:
I really appreciate cover continuity, even with more than a decade between books. With the black, red, and blue colour schemes of the first three books, the choice to go with green here fits well.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Light in Hidden Places - Sharon Cameron

Title: The Light in Hidden Places
Author: Sharon Cameron
Publisher: Scholastic Press, March 3, 2020 (Hardcover)
(Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: February 18, 2020
Finished: February 22, 2020

From the back cover:

It is 1943, and sixteen-year-old Stefania has been working for the Diamant family in their shop in Przemysl, Poland. She hopes to marry one of their sons, Izio, but they must keep their love a secret since she is Catholic and he is Jewish. Everything changes, though, when the German army invades Przemysl. The Diamants are forced into the ghetto, and Stefania is alone in an occupied city, left to care for Helena, her six-year-old sister.

Then comes the knock at the door. Izio's brother Max has jumped from a train headed to a death camp. Stefania and Helena make the extraordinary decision to hide Max and eventually twelve more Jews. Now they wait, every day, for the next knock at the door, the one that will mean death. When the knock finally comes, it is two Nazi officers, requisitioning Stefania's house for the German army.

With two Nazis living below, thirteen Jews hidden above, and a little sister by her side, Stefania has one more excruciating choice to make.

Award-winning author Sharon Cameron depicts that utterly unremarkable and heroic real-life story of Stefania Podgorska in this gripping page-turner that explores the momentous decisions people make and how one person truly can change the world.

I've always liked these types of Holocaust memoirs (well, fictionalized accounts of memoirs), so when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of an upcoming book relating to an individual from history that I didn't previously know, I jumped at the chance.

The Light in Hidden Places is a novel based on the true story of Stefania Podgorska, a young woman who helped aide thirteen Jewish people in the ghetto, and later hid them in her attic. The story begins in the late 1930s, when a young teenaged Stefania moves from the rural countryside to live with her older sisters in the city of Przemysl. She begins to work for the Diamant family in their store and quickly becomes like a sister to the four Diamant boys: Chaim, Henek, Max, and Izio. Once the German army invades in September 1939, their city is bombed, and restrictions on Jewish citizens begin.

In early 1942, the Diamants are ordered to relocate to the nearby ghetto, and Stefania remains alone in the Diamant home. That same year, after her mother and brother are sent to a labour camp in Salzburg, Stefania is tasked with taking care of her younger sister, Helena. When the ghetto is liquidated, Max escapes from the train headed to a death camp and Stefania and Helena hide him in the apartment. In 1943, after securing work at a German-owned factory and a new apartment to rent with an attic where people could hide, they later add Max's brother Henek and his girlfriend Danuta and ten others from the ghetto. Her house is requisitioned by the Nazis in early 1944, so Stefania, Helena, and the thirteen others hiding in the attic shared the house in that way for the next several months until the city was liberated by the Russians in the summer of 1944.

You can tell that this book was written with a great deal of love and compassion. The author has done her homework and researched it all impeccably well. Stefania's son Ed is quoted on the back cover as to the accuracy and spirit of the book being in line with his mother and father's memories. Contrary to my expectations, it isn't sugar-coated in the slightest (I figured it would be a little since it was published under the Scholastic banner) and tells the very raw details of Stefania's experiences. She is assaulted and nearly raped several times (there's a very hard scene to read where 8-year-old Helena is badly beaten by the SS), and she even expresses resentment at times because of the sheer amount of work and stress involved in her situation. At the same time, Stefania states how she simply couldn't live with herself if her actions (or inaction) had allowed her thirteen to be harmed in any way, which is part of what makes her story so remarkable.

I can appreciate the level of honesty in this novel because you don't often hear about the mental anguish that Holocaust survivors and their helpers endured, most narratives tend to focus on the bravery. This book is unique in that it acknowledges the PTSD that affects people who endure trauma on this scale, I feel like we as readers understand this now, but years ago it wasn't something that was really discussed as part of their story.

The only thing that nagged at me a bit was that it was difficult to follow the progression of years at the beginning of the story and how old people were. Like how Stefania was actually sixteen in 1941, not 1943, and for the majority of the events in the story she was actually eighteen and nineteen years old.

In researching this book, I came across this clip on YouTube of Stefania and Max's son, Ed, giving a talk about his parents in 2019. He mentions this very book, and he even shows a copy of the drawing Max drew for Stefania that was mentioned at the end of the book that was really nice to see. This is a great clip to start with if you'd like to learn more about Stefania's story.

This is a wonderfully-written account of how the small actions of a few can really changes people's lives for the better. This more mature narrative should be available in all our high school libraries and is one we should encourage our children to read.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's a typical YA cover, nothing much to write home about. You'd think they'd incorporate something with an attic and light and shadow or something like that given the content, so a missed opportunity in my opinion.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Empire of Wild - Cherie Dimaline

Title: Empire of Wild
Author: Cherie Dimaline
Publisher: Random House Canada, 2019 (Hardcover)
Length: 298 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: January 28, 2020
Finished: February 11, 2020

From the inside cover:

"Joan had been searching for her lost husband for eleven months and six days, since last October when they'd fought about selling the land she inherited from her father and he'd put on his grey jacket and walked out, the screen door banging behind him."

One hung-over morning in a Walmart parking lot in a little town near Georgian Bay, broken-hearted Joan is drawn to a revival tent where the local Metis have been flocking to hear a charismatic preacher. By the time she staggers into the tent the service is over, but as she is about to leave she hears an unmistakable voice.

She turns, and there is Victor. Only he insists he's not Victor, but the Reverend Eugene Wolff, on a mission to bring his people to Jesus. And he doesn't seem to be faking: there isn't even a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

With only two allies - her odd, Johnny Cash-loving twelve-year-old nephew, Zeus, and Ajean, a foul-mouthed euchre shark with a deep knowledge of the old ways - Joan sets out to remind the Revered Wolff who he really is. If he really is Victor, his life, and the life of everyone she loves, depends upon her success.

Inspired by the traditional story of the Rogarou - a werewolf-like creature that haunts the roads and woods of Metis communities - Cherie Dimaline has created a propulsive, stunning and sensuous novel.

After reading The Marrow Thieves a couple years ago, I knew I'd read anything this author wrote. When I discovered she had written a second novel, and not YA, I picked it up immediately. Ultimately, this is an adult version of Little Red Riding Hood (but with werewolves) set in Ontario with Indigenous characters and backdrop.

Joan, from the town of Arcand, is in her mid-thirties and searching for her missing husband. While her family tries to gently tell her that Victor probably just left her and that she needs to stop her constant searching, Joan refuses to give up on him. After a night drinking, she finds a Christian mission setting up in a parking lot. Led by a man named Heiser, the group travels around northern Ontario to Indigenous communities that just happen to be in negotiations with natural resources companies over the use of their traditional lands. When Joan recognizes the Revered Wolff as her missing husband, she endeavors to make him remember her.

Joan is great character, she's fiery and determined and very well-developed. The supporting cast isn't as fleshed out as Joan sadly, but I think if the novel had been a little longer that could've been achieved. The plot grabs you right at the beginning with almost fairy-tale like descriptions of Arcand and its people, and just keeps going. Joan's relationship with Victor is described quite poetically, you as the reader root for them to be reunited. The social commentary contained in the story is quite timely and cleverly done, something this author also did in her previous book. The ending feels a bit abrupt and dissatisfying though, but I think that was the only downside for me.

A wonderfully engrossing read with representation we need more of.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the black and grey image of the woods with the image of the green chair from Victor's dream state; the pink font of the title really pops against this.

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood - Lisa Damour, Ph.D.

Title: Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood
Author: Lisa Damour, Ph.D.
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Nonfiction, Parenting
Started: February 11, 2020
Finished: February 13 2020


In this sane, highly engaging, and informed guide for parents of daughters, Dr. Damour draws on decades of experience and the latest to reveal the seven distinct - and absolutely normal - developmental transitions that turn girls into grownups, including Parting with Childhood, Contending with adult Authority, Entering the Romantic World, and Caring for Herself. Providing realistic scenarios and welcome advice on how to engage daughters in smart, constructive ways, Untangled gives parents a broad framework for understanding their daughters while addressing their most common questions, including:

  • My thirteen-year-old rolls her eyes when I try to talk to her, and only does it more when I get angry at her. How should I respond?
  • Do I tell my daughter that I'm checking her phone?
  • My daughter suffers from test anxiety. What can I do to help her?
  • Where's the line between healthy eating and having an eating disorder?
  • My teenage daughter wants to know why I'm against pot when it's legal in some states. What should I say?
  • My daughter's friend is cutting herself. Do I call the girl's mother to let her know?

Perhaps most important, Untangled helps mothers and fathers understand, connect, and grow with their daughters. When parents know what makes their daughters tick, they can embrace and enjoy the challenge of raising a healthy, happy young woman. 

I've been meaning to read this book for quite a while. Not only do I work with teenage girls every day to the point where it feels like an extension of parenting duties, but I've also got my girls at home. This book has come recommended in a long line of parenting books specifically targeted to the unique needs and concerns of raising girls. The author states that many of the developmental transitions she discusses in her book do apply to both boys and girls, but some of the details differ regarding girls. 

Overall, this is a great general, yet comprehensive guide that covers information that will apply to most girls. Obviously if you're dealing with a child that's experiencing trauma, abuse, mental illness, etc. then this information likely won't address all your concerns, but it's a great place to start. 

One thing I love about books like these are real-life examples and anecdotes that the author has encountered in her practice that puts information in an easily accessible format. The book itself is very easy to read and it could easily be finished in a few sittings or less. 

The developmental transitions the author mentions are the following:
  • Parting with Childhood
  • Joining a New Tribe
  • Harnessing Emotions
  • Contending with Adult Authority
  • Planning for the Future
  • Entering the Romantic World
  • Caring for Herself
Parting with Childhood explains why girls all of a sudden act like they're allergic to their families and abandon many of the things they associate with childhood, while still struggling with maturity and can sometimes seem like they're flip-flopping between child and adult ('cause they are). Joining a New Tribe explains why girls attach themselves so strongly to their friends as opposed to their families, and the difficulties this can cause.

Harnessing Emotions was a really eye-opening chapter in that it explains that emotional growth occurs only when people are uncomfortable, so if a girl doesn't have the opportunity to experience uncomfortable emotions she won't be able to grow in this area. For example, if a parent swoops in to solve her problems so she never develops those coping skills, or if she relies on technology to vent and potentially worsen the situation rather than being able to cool down and see the potential consequences of that text message or that social media post. Contending with Adult Authority is about girls becoming savvy enough to see that people are complex and often hypocritical, so rules need to make sense and be about safety first and foremost rather than about controlling their behaviour, because they'll buck that just to prove they can't be controlled...almost like toddlers. It also explains that if authority figures are too lax girls feel insecure, so they actually want rules and boundaries even if they buck them constantly.

Planning for the Future deals with having goals and ensuring success in school, since girls need one to achieve the other and sometimes need help seeing how one directly influences the other. Entering the Romantic World is about dating and sex and the concerns that come with that relating to keeping girls safe while still allowing them some freedom. Finally, Caring for Herself is about drugs, alcohol, and risky sexual behaviours and again about keeping girls safe when they get too over their head.

Great informative read if you have teenage girls of your own or work with them on a consistent basis. It explains a lot of the things teenagers do that adults often find frustrating that actually end up being quite normal.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's your average parenting book cover.