Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey (Random House), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Adult, Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: February 9 2017
Finished: February 22, 2017

From the inside cover:

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn't mind - she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse's fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honour the spirits of the house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa's mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa's new stepmother forbids her family from honouring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa's stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even he people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed - this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse's most frightening tales.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical debut novel from a gifted and gorgeous voice. It spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent.

I'm a sucker for Russian-inspired literature, so there was no question as to whether I would read this. The hype surrounding it made me both slightly piqued and skeptical, but I can assure you the hype is completely deserved.

Pyotr Vladimirovich is a rural lord in a world that resembles medieval Russia. Caught between old and new, Pyotr's family and the other residents in the village all attend church, but still perform the old pagan rites to appease the gods and protect their livelihood. Pyotr's wife Marina is known to have a bit of the supernatural about her, and as she lays dying, makes her husband promise to protect newborn Vasilisa since the child is destined to be important. Vasya grows up wild and free-spirited, unbound by convention or religion, with an impressive set of abilities. While everyone else in her village merely believe in the household spirits, Vasya can actually see and communicate with them. Years later Pyotr reluctantly remarries Anna Ivanova, a woman who can see the spirits and demons like Vasilisa, but who screams at the sight of them, so people think her mad. The only place Anna is free from the visions is in church, so she throws herself into religion, forbidding service to the household spirits. Years later when Konstantin Nikonovich arrives as the new priest for the area, he creates and spreads such fear in the populace that the household spirits can no longer protect the area from the clutches of Medved, the brother of Death, who after takes the form of a bear. Fires rage. The dead walk. And Vasya must summon her courage to help save her family and herself.

This novel is simply stunning. The writing is lyrical and reads like a traditional fairy tale in terms of structure, but it's unique enough to truly stand out amongst traditional tales and even modern retellings. The world-building here is astonishing. The author does and amazing job of conveying this  Russian winter wonder in the midst of a change between the old and new; and how Vasilisa, as a symbol of this old life, is a threat to those trying to control others using the new. The characters are wonderfully imagined: Vasya is spunky and smart despite only being fourteen or fifteen, her siblings are nicely developed and likeable despite some of them not appearing often, and Anna Ivanova is delightfully flawed to the point where you feel sorry for her even though she does act as an antagonist. Konstantin was a particularly interesting addition, and I loved how twisted his obsession with Vasya is, and though the whole "devout religious figure in lust with the fiery female" isn't a new cliche by any stretch of the imagination, it is both sickening yet compelling in this context.

The exploration into the frost demon and the bear doesn't happen until closer to the end of the book, and I wished there had been more time devoted to these supernatural aspects, not because the explanation was lacking, but purely because I wanted to see more of them. I loved the addition of the vazila and the talking horses because, c'mon, talking horses. The Russian names and naming conventions (oh god, the diminutives!) take some getting used to if you're not familiar with it, younger readers might not realize the various names are all attributed to the same character. The book delves into so much Russian folklore and culture, anyone familiar with it will surely appreciate the author's attention to detail.

This book demands to be read, by everyone who savours the written word, who soaks up folklore and myth, who simply adores a good story. I just discovered that there are sequel books forthcoming, and I will be waiting impatiently for them.

Thoughts on the cover:
Mysterious and beautiful, yet slightly eerie, which is a good fit for the mood of the book as a whole.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Lost in a Book - Jennifer Donnelly

Title: Beauty in the Beast: Lost in a Book
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Disney Press, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 341 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: February 4, 2017
Finished: February 7, 2017

From the inside cover:

Smart, bookish Belle, a captive in the Beast's castle, has become accustomed to her new home and has befriended its inhabitants. When she comes upon Nevermore, an enchanted book unlike anything else she has seen in the castle, Belle finds herself pulled into its pages and transported to a world of glamour and intrigue. The adventures Belle has always imagined, the dreams she as forced to give up when she became a prisoner, seem within reach again.

The charming and mysterious characters Belle meets within the pages of Nevermore offer her glamorous conversation, a life of dazzling Parisian luxury, and even a reunion she never thought possible. Here Belle can have everything she has ever wished for. But what about her friends in the Beast's castle? Can Belle trust her new companions inside the pages of Nevermore? Is Nevermore's world even real? Belle must uncover the truth about the book, before she loses herself in it forever.

Anyone that knows me is aware of my near-obsessed fangirl-love for Beauty and the Beast in all forms and incarnations. I have a countdown going on for when the new live-action movie is released in mid-March. When I discovered all the new books being released in conjunction with the new movie, this one caught my eye in particular, mostly because the author is a favourite of mine. Revolution is still a book that captivates me even years after reading it, and the author's foray into Disney Press in recent years has produced The Waterfire Saga. So even though I had my doubts about an original story set in Disney's Beauty and the Beast universe, I figured this author would be the best bet to pull it off. Thankfully I wasn't disappointed.

In terms of the timeline, Lost in a Book picks up just after the Beast rescues Belle from the pack of wolves in the forest. Love and Death personified as sisters are playing chess while watching the pair interact after said events and betting on the outcome of their relationship. Death of course thinks the curse will play out without salvation, whereas Love believes Belle will break the curse. Since Death hates to lose, she sneaks an enchanted book called Nevermore into the Beast's library that he has just gifted to Belle, in the hopes that it will ensnare her and prevent the curse from being broken. Belle discovers the book while cleaning the library and discovers that it leads to a realm ruled by the Comtesse du Terre de la Morte (literally Countess of the Land of the Dead...I don't know why that wasn't a big red flag in her brain). The countess offers her opportunities to socialize with Parisian nobles and claims she will plan for Belle to study at universities and travel, preying on her need for escapism when relations within the Beast's castle grow awkward and lonely. Will Belle fall victim to Death's plan to entrap her within Nevermore, or will she turn around and start taking charge of her own story?

First off, the good stuff. In terms of the story itself it was quite engrossing, and having the prologue revolve around Love and Death was the prefect way to draw readers in. The world of Nevermore, especially when the enchantment wears off, gave me a strangely creepy but oddly satisfying Wizard of Oz/Return to Oz type of vibe to it, maybe it was the inclusion of the marionettes and the automatons. It doesn't rehash too much of the original Disney plot that most people are familiar with, and when it did it was via flashbacks to flesh out more of the relationships that center around the incident. So this story does a good job of actually presenting new and original content even though it's set in the same universe we're all familiar with. The characters are obviously based on the new movie (one drawback to reading a movie-related adaptation before the actual movie is released), the Beast is more subdued and angsty, Chip comes off as slightly older than in the first film, Mrs. Potts is still maternal but less of a grandmother type, Plumette is the feather-duster character, Lumiere is less of a playboy romantic, Cogsworth is more of your stereotypical older army fellow in this adaptation, and Belle comes off (at least to me) as slightly younger/naive and less confident than in the original film. The relationships between the characters are well done here, you see the objects interacting with Belle and each other, and much more between the Beast and everyone else, which was nice to see. The themes of friendship and love were nicely explored, and the new characters were genuinely entertaining as well.

On to my only beef with this book: I found it hard to believe that Belle, being as smart as she is, fell for Death's trick and got herself trapped in Nevermore. There were so many hints that a seasoned reader such as Belle would have picked up on: the countess' title, that she always dresses in black, she's cold to the touch, that she kept encouraging Belle to eat things and got visibly miffed when she refused, that she was warned on two occasions by minions of Love not to eat anything in Nevermore and ignored them, that she knew it was too good to be true and is aware that the realm is enchanted, and each time she returns from the book it becomes harder to do so. I just had a hard time believing Belle would ignore all those red flags (the Persephone and Hades references were practically smacking you in the face) regardless of her slightly depressed mental state. Granted, Belle had to fall for it one way or another or there'd be no story, but it's still something I have a hard time believing based on her character.

I thoroughly enjoyed this foray into the Beauty and the Beast universe. It was well-written, entertaining, and builds well on the original. Any fan wanting a tidbit to hold you over until the movie comes out should definitely pick this up.

Thoughts on the cover:
So. Stinking. Pretty. The blue, white, and gold colour scheme is really pleasing, but I would've appreciated the logo and title to both be at the top rather than clutter up the bottom of the image

Monday, February 6, 2017

As Red As Blood - Salla Simukka

Title: As Red As Blood (Book 1 in the As Red As Blood trilogy)
Author: Salla Simukka
Publisher: Crown Books (Random House), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 244 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Thriller
Started: February 2, 2017
Finished: February 6, 2017

From the inside cover:

Lumikki Andersson has one rule: stay out of other people's business. She still bears the scars from the last time she made that mistake. But rules will break when Lumikki finds thousands of washed euro notes hung to dry in her school's darkroom and three of her classmates with blood on their hands. Literally.

Now deception and betrayal threaten Lumikki at every turn - not to mention the assassins who want her dead. At the centre of the chaos: Polar Bear, the mythical drug lord who despite hosting lavish parties has managed to remain anonymous. Caught in the crosshairs, Lumikki must bring the operation down. Or pay the ultimate price.

This series has received a fair bit of hype,  which makes sense considering it's a crime series from Finland, and the Nordic countries have been turning out some pretty doozy true-crime thrillers in recent years. Add in that this is young adult, so not quite as heavy as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for example.

Named after the Finnish Snow White, seventeen-year-old Lumikki lives alone away from her family as she studies at an arts high school. It becomes apparent that Lumikki is not your average teenage girl: she avoids wearing scents so no one will recognize her by smell, is on high alert at all times, and blends into the background so she's not easily noticed. When she enters her school's darkroom early in the morning looking for a quiet space and finds thousands of euros soaked in blood hanging to dry, she at first walks straight out the door, not wanting to get involved. When the money disappears and three of Lumikki's classmates discover she has seen them and knows of their involvement, she becomes wrapped up in a drug lord's dealings with a police informant, and soon discovers whose blood covered the money she found.

This story wasn't anything to write home about, the plot isn't overly shocking or novel. I did like Lumikki as a heroine, she can definitely take care of herself and she takes charge, and since there's no romance involved there's nothing really to distract her. I did find the Snow White references peppered throughout the book quite interesting in terms of the contrast of the innocent childhood stories versus the complete mess Lumikki finds herself tangled up in.

A good young adult introduction to Nordic crime fiction, but if you want something more gritty you're better off with the adult versions. The rest of the trilogy is already published in Europe and should be making its way to North America soon, and I will probably pick up the subsequent instalments because I did enjoy Lumikki as a character.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple yet effective, and a good play on the title.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte, Crystal S. Chan, SunNeko Lee

Title: Jane Eyre (Manga Classics)
Author: Charlotte Bronte, Adaptation by Crystal S. Chan, Art by SunNeko Lee
Publisher: Udon Entertainment and Morpheus Publishing, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Classic
Started: January 30, 2017
Finished: January 31, 2017

From the back cover:

As an orphaned child, Jane Eyre is expected to be humble and grateful, but her wild spirit will not be tamed or broken despite the abuse she endures. As an adult, Jane finds her soul's match in the brooding Mr. Rochester, but their love is not enough to overcome the dreadful secret within the very walls of his estate.

Charlotte Bronte's classic tale of morality and social criticism takes on an entirely new life in this Manga Classics adaptation of Jane Eyre. Experience this immortal saga of passion and defiance in the face of adversity with stunning artwork that captures the Gothic glory of Thornfield Hall, the rugged charm of Mr. Rochester, and the fiercely independent essence of Jane Eyre herself.

Intended for a young adult audience, UDON's Manga Classics are just as likely to be enjoyed in the readers's free time as in the classroom. The gripping and intense story and the lush artwork will place them easily alongside today's bestselling popular manga, with strong and accurate adaptations that will please even the toughest teacher  or librarian! UDON's Manga Classics are also a great way for adult readers to rediscover their favourite classics, or experience them for the first time!

I'm a sucker for all things Jane Eyre, so picking up this was a given. This was also a chance for me to look at Udon's line of manga adaptations of classic novels, which I've been wanting to tackle for a while.

The first thing I noticed was how big these books were, the adaptations are pretty faithful to the originals and don't leave much out. In fact, this version leaves in a few elements that are usually cut from film and television adaptations such as Rochester singing and the gypsy incident. The artwork here is gorgeous, the characters look how they're supposed to but with your expected manga influences: Jane is your wide-eyed fiery heroine, Rochester is your rugged, strong, silent male; St. John is drawn with a bit of a bishounen flair to him, and Adele is your adorable girl child with hearts and flowers around her at times. The language here is very close to the original, so no surprises here if you've read it (or seen your favourite film adaptation) so many times you've got it memorized. These would be great for your reluctant readers, they're aren't a replacement for the originals of course, but I think they'd be great to get kids interested or to reinforce the basic story and plot if you're having a hard time getting students to consume their reading in traditional novel format. There are other titles in this line, such as Les Miserables, Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, and The Scarlet Letter, so not necessarily books that I personally teach in my school board and province, but are still great to look at for pleasure reading.

A faithful adaptation and eye-candy all wrapped up in one, plus manages to make classics more palatable to younger readers. I'm quite impressed with this Jane Eyre adaptation and will be on the lookout for more from this line.

Thoughts on the cover:
Nice choice of image, especially with Thornfield Hall in the background. The art style shown is indicative of what you'll see in the rest of the book.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls - Hope Nicholson

Title: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls
Author: Hope Nicholson
Publisher: Dark Horse Books, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 279 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Nonfiction, Graphic Novel
Started: January 23, 2017
Finished: January 26, 2017

From the back cover:

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls is a nonfiction anthology mixing prose, comics, and illustrated stories about the lives and loves of an amazing cast of female creators. Featuring work by Margaret Atwood (The Heart Goes Last), Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer), Trina Robbins (Wonder Woman), Marguerite Bennett (Marvel's A-Force), Marjorie Liu (Monstress), Carla Speed McNeil (Finder), Sam Maggs (The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy), Adrienne Kress (The Friday Society), and over fifty more creators. This expanded edition includes tales told from both sides of the tables: from the fans who love video games, comics, sic-fi, to those who work behind the scenes as creators and industry insiders.

God, I wish this had been around when I was in university. I've been saying that about a few books lately, but it's true. For an anthology about sex and relationships specifically from the point of view of geeky women, this would've saved me a lot of grief and headaches.

This is a really fantastic book that, upon doing some research into its origins, I apparently missed the Kickstarter, which I assure you I am now kicking myself for. But that's not too unfortunate, because now I have the expanded edition to read. The book is a mashup of personal anecdotal stories, comics, illustrations, and essays about relationships and identities relating to identifying as a geek girl.

There are a great many pieces in here that I enjoyed, including A Divorcee's Guide to the Apocalypse by Katie West, URL > IRL by Gita Jackson, Yes, No, Maybe and Regards to the Goblin King by Megan Kearney (her art is amazing and I'm now a new convert to her web comic as well), They Bury You in White by Laura Neubert, If There's Nothing Wrong, It Must Be Love by Diana McCallum (this one really hit home), and Heard it Through the Grapevine by Brandy Dawley.

I'm amazed at how many local women (this is a Canadian anthology with many contributors residing around Toronto) grew up with similar circumstances and feelings regarding being a geek and just how many dealt with other aspects I wouldn't have even begun to imagine (some contributions touch on issues like race and questioning sexual orientation and gender). Some stories had me pondering if this author was a long-lost sister or a younger/older version of myself because some experiences were almost identical to my own: the awkwardness of not having crushes or dating when it seems like everyone else is, the struggle to find people who really understand and accept you, and the minefield that is dating and breakups. I'm also more than a little pleased and validated at how many of the contributors referenced Labyrinth, Beauty and the Beast, Jane Eyre, Sailor Moon, fanfiction, and more anime than I can count that were all so important to me growing up.

This is the kind of book I wish a mysterious donor would buy in bulk and distribute to all adolescent geek girls just to save them the angst. It shines a light on thriving emotionally as a female within geek culture, and the sheer diversity reflected here in terms of race, culture, sexuality, and body types is really refreshing.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love that Noelle Stevenson did the cover art, it's a great added touch. The cover reflects the diversity found throughout the book's content, which is always nice to see.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

My Sister Rosa - Justine Larbalestier

Title: My Sister Rosa
Author: Justine Larbalestier
Publisher: Soho Press, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: January 19, 2017
Finished: January 20, 2017

From the inside cover:

What if the most terrifying person you know is your ten-year-old sister?

Seventeen-year-old Aussie Che Taylor loves his younger sister, Rosa. But he's also certain that she's a psychopath - clinically, threateningly, dangerously. Recently, Rosa has been making trouble, hurting things. Che is the only one who knows; he's the only one his sister trusts. Rosa is smart, talented, pretty, and very good at hiding what she is and the manipulation she's capable of.

Their parents, whose business takes the family from place to place, brush off the warning signs as Rosa's "acting out." Now that they have moved again - from Bangkok to New York City - their new hometown provides opportunities for Rosa to play her increasingly complex and disturbing games. Che's always been Rosa's rock, protecting her from the world. Now the world might need protection from her.

Damn, this was one freaky, unsettling book...and it was awesome! I had a feeling it would be a good read nonetheless, based on my impressions of the author's previous book, Liar; but this was even more impressive than I had anticipated.

Seventeen-year-old Che and his ten-year-old sister Rosa are the products of very laid-back parents that insist on their children calling them by their first names as opposed to "Mum" and "Dad." Named after revolutionaries, Che and his sister are carted around from country to country every few months to a year, when Che would much rather be home in his native Australia. For his parents' latest business venture, they are taken to New York City, and Che has a few goals for his time in the city: keep Rosa under control, start sparing in boxing class, get a girlfriend, and go home to Sydney. The first proves to be the most difficult, mostly because Rosa is a certifiable psychopath. She lacks empathy, is reckless, doesn't care what anybody thinks, and is highly manipulative. Recently she's begun to manipulate people into hurting animals, and even though Che makes her promise not to hurt or kill anyone or anything, he knows Rosa lies.

This book was truly creepy once you got into it. Once you really see what Rosa's capable of, she becomes like all those creepy horror movie kids where you jump out of your skin a little once they pop up (and it's always suddenly, the little buggers), so the author does a good job of creating a tense atmosphere. I love how the book actually delves into brain science, and how the brains of psychopaths/sociopaths are actually different on brain scans than those of neurotypical people. The people that Che encounters in New York City are quite diverse and a real treat, especially Sojourner and Leilani (Sojourner's view of Christianity was a refreshing one, and Leilani is just freaking awesome).

A must-read, purely for the subject matter, which I've rarely seen done in YA, and to be done this well is a credit to the author's amazing writing skills.

Thoughts on the cover:
Love how the cover echoes the butterfly reference from early on in the book, plus the whole package just looks creepy and already sets you on edge.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Wonder Women - Sam Maggs

Title: Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History
Author: Sam Maggs
Publisher: Quirk Books, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Nonfiction
Started: January 12, 2017
Finished: January 13, 2017

From the inside cover:

You may think you know women's history pretty well. But have you heard of...

Alice Ball, the chemist who developed an effective treatment for leprosy - only to have the credit taken by a man?

Mary Sherman Morgan, the rocket scientist whose liquid fuel compounds blasted the first U.S. satellite into orbit?

Huang Daopo, the inventor whose weaving technology revolutionized textile production in China - centuries before the cotton gin?

Smart women have always been able to achieve amazing things, even when the odds were stacked against them. In Wonder Women, author Sam Maggs tells the stories of the brilliant, brainy, and totally rad women in history who broke barriers as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, adventurers, and inventors. Plus, interviews with real-life women in STEM careers, an extensive bibliography, and a guide to women-centric science and technology organizations - all to show the many ways the geeky girls of today can help to build the future.

Another well-received Christmas gift, and an appropriate second book for this author after her first, The Fangirls' Guide to the Galaxy, (which I also enjoyed immensely).

This book features in-depth profiles of twenty-five women throughout history that contributed in a significant way to various fields: Science, Medicine, Espionage, Innovation, and Adventure. The author actually writes about more than twenty-five total since an additional handful of women are mentioned in brief snippets at the end of each chapter. One thing I have to really give the author credit for is that she's chosen a really nice variety of historical women, from the cultural backgrounds (there's several East Asian women featured, and it's balanced against the North American and European choices), to the sexual orientations and gender non-conforming women as well (her sarcastic "gals being pals" references had me cracking up while reading). Another thing that's striking is realizing how ignorant I actually am about important contributions made by women throughout history (as someone who considers herself a history buff), and I realize that media and schooling systems were and still are partly to blame, hence why I really try to include a more gender-balanced portrayal in my lessons with my own students. I appreciate the interviews with modern-day women in STEM fields, and the STEM website list and detailed bibliography at the end are really lovely additions that make this a book I really wish had existed for me when I was in high school 15-18 years ago. As the author says, representation matters, and girls can't be what they can't see, or in this case, don't have the opportunity to even learn existed.

A must-read, not only for the wealth of historical information being presented here, but for the humorous writing style and lovely illustrations.

Thoughts on the cover:
Nicely laid out, and the orange and cream colour scheme is strangely appealing as well.