Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ink - Alice Broadway

Title: Ink
Author: Alice Broadway
Publisher: Scholastic, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 324 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: March 8, 2018
Finished: March 18, 2018

From the inside cover:

There are no secrets in Saintstone.

From the moment you're born, every achievement, every failing, and every significant moment are all immortalized on your skin. There are honourable marks that let people know you're trustworthy. And shameful tattoos that announce you as a traitor.

After her father dies, Leora finds solace in the fact that his skin tells a wonderful story. That is, until she glimpses a mark on the back of his neck...the symbol of the worst crime a person can commit in Saintstone. Leora knows it has to be a mistake, but before she can do anything about it, the horrifying secret gets out, jeopardizing her father's legacy...and Leora's life.

In her startlingly prescient debut, Alice Broadway shines a light on the dangerous lengths we go to make our world feel orderly - even when the truth refuses to stay within the lines. This rich, lyrical fantasy with echoes of Orwell is unlike anything you've ever read, a tale guaranteed to get under your skin...

The premise behind this was just so compelling I had to give it a try, and the cover and overall visual presentation is just so stinking pretty.

Leora's world is one where babies are welcomed into the world by tattooing their names on their body. As they grow up, new marks are added as they age and enter professions. But criminals are also marked, and the worst punishment is to be Forgotten, to have the book that's made from your skin after you die be burned rather than kept safely by your family for generations. When Leora's father dies from an illness and she and her mother glimpse his book for the first time, something seems off but she can't quite figure out why. When she sees a person being marked publicly as Forgotten for stealing someone's skin, she realizes that her father bore the same horrible mark: that of a crow. With her mother refusing to talk about it with her, Leora is forced to piece things together on her own.

The world building here is truly well done, it really immerses you in a place where people are immensely afraid of being deceived and can't possibly imagine not being able to tell a person's story by looking at their skin. Leora wants to be seen as more than just a set of tattoos, but struggles with the sheer disgust and fear towards "blanks" that she's been raised in. The author writes quite well too, I never thought I'd ever think a scene about inking a tattoo could be written so eloquently and with such feeling.

My only complaint with the story is that this beautiful world building is done at the sacrifice of pacing. We get a wealth of information about Leora's world, but the main plot of trying to figure out what crime her father committed and what will become of his book goes by at a snail's pace and isn't even revealed until the last fifty pages of the novel. This is the first of at least two books, so the story will continue thankfully, but I can see readers losing patience with the pacing here.

An incredible dystopian with an original premise and amazing world building that's unfortunately done at the expense of pacing. But still worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
So. Freaking. Pretty. The copper metallic effects with the images of the owl and the crow becoming recognizable after a couple seconds is a lovely touch here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Behind the Legend: Unicorns - Erin Peabody

Title: Behind the Legend: Unicorns
Author: Erin Peabody
Publisher: Little Bee Books (Bonnier Publishing), 2018 Paperback
Length: 121 pages
Genre: Children's Nonfiction
Started: March 12, 2018
Finished: March 12, 2018

From the back cover:

Do you think elegant, elusive unicorns are real or just a myth? You decide in this new book in the nonfiction series, Behind the Legend!

Behind the Legend looks at creatures and monsters throughout history and analyzes them through a scientific, myth-busting lens, debating whether or not what is known about the creature is adequate proof of its existence. In Unicorns, readers learn about all the sightings and evidence, from ancient stories of acclaimed figures such as Julius Caesar and Marco Polo who sought to capture unicorns to the reasons behind why they were hunted so fiercely to being with. It also explores additional history about the creatures, including why their horns were so valued in the medieval era, their presence in pop culture, and people's ongoing search for unicorns in modern times.

Complete with engaging anecdotes, interesting sidebars, and fantastic illustrations, Unicorns is a book kids won't want to put down!

I initially picked this up for my unicorn-obsessed six-year-old, but realized this is a bit of a difficult read for her, its much more suited for the 8-12 age range.

The book opens with ancient historical records of animals believed to be unicorns from varied sources such as the Bible and Pliny the Elder, moving on to medieval records and then examining modern-day animals that resemble unicorns like the rhinoceros, oryx, and narwhal. The author includes a nice list of bibliographical sources, as well as a list of books and novels that feature unicorns for further reading.

This is a lovely series that is perfect for middle grade readers that are interested in fantasy and folklore. Other instalments include: Dragons, Zombies, Werewolves, Big Foot, and the Loch Ness Monster.

Thoughts on the cover:
Nicely designed with an appealing colour scheme.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Between Shades of Gray - Ruta Sepetys

Title: Between Shades of Grey
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books (Penguin), 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 344 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: March 1, 2018
Finished: March 7, 2018

From the inside cover:

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch. 

In 1941, fifteen-year-old Lina is preparing for art school, first dates, and all that summer has to offer. But one night, the Soviet secret police barge violently into her home, deporting her along with her mother and younger brother. they are being sent to Siberia. Lina's father has been separated from the family and sentenced to death in a prison camp. All is lost.

Lina fights for her life, fearless, vowing that if she survives she will honour her family, and the thousands like hers, by documenting their experiences in her art and writing. She risks everything to use her art as messages, hoping they will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive.

It is a long and harrowing journey, and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?

Between Shades of Gray is a riveting novel that steals your breath, captures your heart, and reveals the miraculous nature of the human spirit.

This book is on reading lists for several courses at the school I teach at; its the reason I was tempted to pick it up, and after reading it I can see why. Between Shades of Gray is a beautiful story about a time period in history that is decidedly cruel and ugly. This novel also has the difficult job of educating readers about events that most people know nothing about; unlike the Holocaust and other atrocities of the modern age, this was the first I'd heard about a genocide taking place in the Baltic countries.

Lina is a normal teenager with an artistic talent living under Soviet occupation in Kaunas, Lithuania. In June 1941, Soviet police storm her house and she, her mother, and ten-year-old brother Jonas are taken in the night. Unbeknownst to them, their father has already been taken to prison. After a journey in train cars reminiscent of those experienced by victims of the Holocaust, Lina and her family arrive at a farm in the Altai region in Siberia where they are expected to work in conditions similar to those of a concentration camp. After refusing to sign documents admitting they are criminals and agreeing to sentence of 25 years hard labour, their conditions deteriorate even further. Despite the occasional kindness shown to them by both their own, locals, and Soviet guards, the deportees continue to die. Being moved even farther north past the Arctic Circle forces Lina and her family to call upon a degree of strength they're not even sure they possess.

The novel is divided into 85 short chapters that contribute to the immersive atmosphere; the story envelops you from the first lines and before you know it you've read a third of the book. Lina is an engaging narrator, peppering her observations with flashbacks from the past relating to the events happening in front of her. The romance between she and Andrius isn't as well developed as I'd like, but it has the whole "shared trauma" angle to suspend your disbelief regarding it.

The main purpose of this book is shedding light on the historical events that had been kept secret for so long, and it does the job very well. It also manages to tell a very touching tale of the human spirit managing to triumph in the most horrific conditions. I also particularly enjoy Kretzsky as a character and what the author chose to do with him in the novel (won't elaborate for fear of spoilers, but it would make for an interesting discussion in relation to said themes).

Read it, it's just amazing. Especially before the film version is supposed to release later this year.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like my cover (older release) better than the newer cover art that decidedly screams "YA teenage girl". The older cover actually conveys something about the themes, whereas the new cover just looks pretty with not much substance.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Big Mushy Happy Lump - Sarah Andersen

Title: Big Mushy Happy Lump: A "Sarah's Scribbles" Collection
Author: Sarah Andersen
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 125 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: March 1, 2018
Finished: March 1, 2018

From the back cover:

Sarah Andersen's second comics collection picks up right where the first left off-huddled under a pile of blankets avoiding the responsibilities of the real world. These new comics (and illustrated personal essays!) follow the ups and downs of the unrelenting self-esteem roller coaster that is young adult life: budgeting woes, cramps, the nuances of sweater theft, and the joy of staying home all day with box of pizza. All aboard.

I can almost guarantee you've seen this artist's work on social media; in fact, the comic that was my first exposure to her work is included in this collection (that I first saw on Facebook what seems like eons ago). If you scroll down below, you'll see it's totally bang on for how I spend money...except nowadays I spend money on books for my kid rather than books for myself. Needless to say, after reading her first collection last year, picking up this one was a given.

This collection has more of the same aspects of the first: quirky, introvert humour that appeals to those in their 20s-30s about surviving this thing we call adulthood. The little addition to this instalment is that the author has some written thoughts collected along with the graphic panels that help to convey her intent behind some of the social anxiety pieces.

If you liked the first collection, or if you haven't and just recognize her work from online, pick this up and read it.

Thoughts on the cover:
Continuing in a blue colour scheme rather than the red of the first volume, I like how the title font and the sweater are velour/fuzzy, similar to the first volume. Continuity in book covers satisfies my inner collector.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Librarian of Auschwitz - Antonio Iturbe

Title: The Librarian of Auschwitz
Author: Antonio Iturbe, Translated by Lilit Thwaites
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2017 (Originally published in Spain in 2012) (Hardcover)
Length: 424 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: February 8, 2018
Finished: February 18, 2018

From the inside cover:

Based on the experiences of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.

Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Displaced, along with her mother and father, from their home in Prague - first to the capital city's ghetto, then northward to the Terezin settlement, and now to Auschwitz in Poland - Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Fredy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees, becoming the librarian of Auschwitz.

From one of the darkest chapters of human history comes an extraordinary story of courage and hope.

All I had to do was glance at the title to know I had to read this. Not only do I love historical fiction in general, books centred on the Holocaust just tend to have this pull on me that I can't resist.

The book opens in early 1944 with Dita describing the family camp in Block 31 in Auschwitz-Birkenau, a section where thousands of prisoners were allowed to keep not only their own clothes and hair, but also their families. This is a piece of history I hadn't been aware of, we tend to think that young children were killed immediately upon entering Auschwitz, so the idea that there were hundreds of small children kept alive there for months on end was fascinating to read about, even if it only existed as a front to the international community to disguise Nazi genocide.

Though flashbacks, we learn that Dita was put in charge of the eight books used in the makeshift school within Block 31 that had been smuggled into the camp. Of course this is forbidden, so Dita takes great risk in doing this. It gives her a sense of purpose, not only in taking care of the books so that others can use them, but also in reading them herself. We see this especially as the book progresses and circumstances become more dire: characters die, the individuals within the family camp are threatened with selections, as well as relocation to different camps. Dita gathers strength from stories, one in which parallels her journey to the end of the war when her camp is liberated.

I really appreciated the research that went into this book. Not only did the author track down some amazing primary sources in print, he was able to interview the real-life Dita, which I think gives the book a greater sense of legitimacy. I appreciate the inclusion of Fredy Hirsch's sexual orientation (still trying to figure out if the real-life Fredy was gay or not) and the moment Miriam has with Dita where she tells her that it doesn't matter if Fredy is gay or not.

The themes of what makes us human and how culture allows humans to thrive even in the midst of chaos and tragedy are touching ones. Characters question the point of the efforts of the family camp when, in the end, so many of the prisoners in them ended up dying anyway (no spoiler alert needed, we are talking about Auschwitz after all). The author postulates that if human beings aren't moved by beauty or able to activate their imaginations, then they are not complete persons, a thought which I tend to agree with.

A beautiful, haunting novel that you have to read, especially if you're a fan of historical fiction.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love how the cover is set up with the barbed wire fence, the stack of books, and Dita at the top with the Star of David and how the books allow Dita to look over the camp fence.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up - Marie Kondo

Title: The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up
Author: Marie Kondo
Publisher: Ten Speed Press (Penguin Random House), 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 186 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel, Nonfiction
Started: February 5, 2018
Finished: February 6, 2018

From the back cover:

Marie Kondo, author of the #1 New York Times best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, presents a graphic novelization of her famed KonMari Method that's sure to spark joy!

Chiaki is a young woman in Tokyo with a cluttered apartment, messy love life, and lack of direction. Through a series of entertaining and insightful lessons, decluttering guru Marie Kondo helps Chiaki exorcise the spirits of boyfriends past, organize her living space, streamline her wardrobe, and unearth her passions. In the end, will Chiaki finally find what brings her joy?

I'd heard of this cleaning method, not necessarily by name, but by the trademark "if it doesn't bring you joy, throw it out" line. That's more or less how I clean already, so I didn't really learn anything from reading this, but it was such a cute read. The visual medium I'd imagine also helps reinforce some concepts like how to fold clothes to conserve space, and how to hang clothes in a closet; the diagrams were nicely done. The story is very cliche and predictable if you're familiar with manga conventions, but again it was still enjoyable.

This is worth the read just to satisfy your curiosity. It's cute and comedic, so well worth borrowing from the library.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple, yet effective.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Milk and Honey - Rupi Kaur

Title: Milk and Honey
Author: Rupi Kaur
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 207 pages
Genre: Adult; Poetry
Started: January 13, 2018
Finished: January 14, 2018

From the back of the book:

milk and honey is a
collection of poetry about
and femininity
it is split into four chapters
each chapter serves a different purpose
deals with a different pain
heals a different heartache
milk and honey takes readers through
a journey of the most bitter moments in life
and finds sweetness in them
because there is sweetness everywhere
if you are just willing to look

-about the book

Piggybacking off of the more recent The Sun and Her Flowers, I decided to give the author's first book of poetry a try to see if it was as good as the second.

This first collection is shorter than the second and makes the author's age and relative lack of life experience at the time of writing fairly obvious, hence why I prefer The Sun and Her Flowers over Milk and Honey. The poems in this collection aren't as profound and don't make as much use of metaphor and allusion as the second, you read them and think, "yeah, and so..." When compared to the second collection published three years later (and who knows how much time passed between the actual writing of the poems and the time of publication of the first collection), you can see the author's maturity reflected in her more recent work. Don't get me wrong, there are still a few good ones in this volume that do make you pause to think, but they are few and far between compared to the second instalment.

Though enjoyable, I didn't quite like Milk and Honey as much as The Sun and Her Flowers. I would definitely recommend the former as the kind of book to just borrow from the library rather than owning outright like the latter.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple yet effective. The shiny feel of the cover irks me but it certainly does look nice.