Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Tales of the Peculiar by Ransom Riggs

Pages: 190
Intended Audience: Tweens & Teens
Genre: Supernatural
Notes for Parents: Some unusual content that may be disturbing to sensitive readers

The Back Cover
Wealthy cannibals who dine on the discarded limbs of peculiars. A fork-tongued princess. The origins of the first ymbryne. These are but a few of the truly brilliant and haunting stories in Tales of the Peculiar—known to hide information about the peculiar world—first introduced by Ransom Riggs in his #1 bestselling Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series.
Riggs now invites you to share his secrets of peculiar history, with a collection of original stories in this deluxe volume of Tales of the Peculiar, as collected and annotated by Millard Nullings, ward of Miss Peregrine and scholar of all things peculiar.

What the cover doesn’t tell you:
Many of the stories include annotations and illustrations.

What’s good?
The best description I’ve heard for these stories is “quirky in a deadpan way.” These ten short stories are unique and easy-to-read folktales of the unusual people found in the world of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The stories range from funny to macabre, and almost all come with a life lesson. Tales include a giant who helps animals, the historic fight between pigeons and humans, a classic (sort of) princess story, a ghost story (with a twist, of course), and a community of cannibals. All include strong characterization, diversity, beautiful illustrations, and several annotations.
Best Part: The copyright page stays in character. “Printed in a nomad’s tent in the desert of Lop, known to some as the Great Lop Depression, extending eastward along the foot of the Kuruk-Tagh to the formerly terminal Tarim Basin in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an almost perfectly horizontal expanse.”

What isn’t good?
I can’t really think of anything that wasn’t good. I liked some of the stories better than others, but I didn’t dislike any of them. I guess my only complaint would be that I wanted more.
Worst part: None.

Recommendation ☺☺☺☺ (5/5)
You don’t need to know the novels to enjoy these unusual short stories from the Peculiar world, but if you’ve read the novels, some of the tales give a deeper insight into characters and situations from the books. The stories are short, entertaining and wonderfully whimsical. The author has a great talent for storytelling. Definitely recommended.

Riggs, Ransom. Tales of the Peculiar. New York: Syndrigast Publications, 2017.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Pages: 433
Intended Audience: Teens
Genre: contemporary; romance; coming-of-age
Notes for Parents: Contains some language and mature scenes

The Inside Cover
Cath is a Simon Snow fan.
Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan…
But for Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.
Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fanfiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.
Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.
Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend; a fiction-writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world; a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words…and she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.
For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

What the cover doesn’t tell you:
This story has a companion novel called Carry On.

What’s good?
Complex relationships between well-developed characters highlight this story about a girl out on her own for the first time. Cath spends most of her time writing fan-fiction (her stories are very popular online), but she’s forced to open her eyes to the world in front of her when her twin sister decides they should live in separate dorms in university. This is a character-driven story that sees Cath forced to make friends, explore romance, and reconsider the dynamics of the relationships she has with her mentally ill father and absent mother. The dialogue is superb, full of wit and humor. The romance is a bit flimsy, but still sweet. And the pace is good.
Best Part: The dialogue.

What isn’t good?
The dialogue is awesome, but the descriptions are not. In fact, some lines were down right cheesy. The plot is weak and predictable. Nothing unexpected happens. While the romance was cute, she was all basket case and he was all perfection (despite having been caught kissing another girl!).  
Worst part: Nothing was terrible.

Recommendation ☺☺☺☻☻ (3/5)
In the end, this is a strong coming-of-age story. Cath becomes more determined to live outside of her fanfiction world, and sees the benefit of strengthening her relationships and her writing. The fandom is an interesting thread that weaves through the story, sometimes acting as a third wheel, but often being the catalyst for change. I enjoyed the story.

Rowell, Rainbow. Fangirl. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013.

Hidden Figures: Young Readers' Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly

Pages: 198
Intended Audience: Mature tweens and up
Genre: Non-fiction; historical
Notes for Parents: Contains some mature content

The Back Cover
From World War II through NASA’s golden age, four African-American women confidently and courageously stepped into the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now known as NASA).
Their job? To provide the mathematical calculations that would help increase airplane production during wartime and eventually send the United States into space for the very first time. Hidden Figures follows the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, who participated in some of the United States’ greatest aeronautic successes. These women lived through and persevered against the backdrop of some of the biggest movements ever to shape our nation’s history: the Civil Rights era, the Space Race, and the fight for gender equality.

What the cover doesn’t tell you:
I read the Young Readers’ Edition. Hidden Figures inspired the movie of the same name.

What’s good?
America’s aeronautics program became an important field during the war and it needed a large number of mathematicians to do the calculations needed to improve airplane design. Women with math degrees usually became high school teachers, but when World War II broke out, many men went to war, leaving important job opportunities open to women for the first time. This is the story of four of these women, black women, who worked at NACA (which would eventually become NASA) as “computers” – mathematicians who calculated complex problems. These women, despite the importance of their jobs, struggled constantly against sexism and racism in the workplace. The Young Readers’ Edition is easy to read, has small chapters, and includes pictures.
Best Part: The personal stories.

What isn’t good?
It’s dry. There is a lack of storytelling that leaves the reader disengaged despite the fascinating subject matter. Facts, technical terms, and process descriptions make up most of the chapters, leaving only a little room for the personal struggles of the courageous women who broke race barriers (as well as sound barriers!) in their pursuit of the American dream.
Worst part: I hear the movie is better than the book.

Recommendation ☺☺☻☻☻(2/5)

This is a mesmerizing story that unfortunately became bogged down in too much technical jargon. We learn about the personal lives of the women at NACA, but not enough to offset the tremendous amount of facts that get dumped into every chapter. I would have liked to know more about the fear, the frustration, and the strong will it must have taken to go to work each day in a place that treated the women as lesser than for being women, and even lower for being black, despite the incredible contributions they were making to the field.

Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition. New York: Scholastic, 2016.

Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance

Pages: 240
Intended Audience: Mature tweens and up
Genre: Historical / Indigenous issues
Notes for Parents: Contains some mature content

The Back Cover
In the late 1800s, both Native people and wolves are being forced from the land. Starving and lonely, an orphaned timber wolf is befriended by a boy named Red Wolf. But under the Indian Act, Red Wolf is forced to attend a residential school far from the life he knows, and the wolf is alone once more. Courage, love, and fate reunite the pair, and they embark on a perilous journey home. But with winter closing in, will Red Wolf and Crooked Ear survive? And if they do, what will they find?

What the cover doesn’t tell you:
The back cover description is a little deceiving. The story is mostly about Red Wolf growing up in the residential school system and how that affects his relationship with his family. Crooked Ear is a thread that follows Red Wolf throughout his journey.

What’s good?
While this is a middle school-level book, the nature of the content means some younger readers may not fully understand the gravity of what’s happening. This is an excellent introduction to the residential school experience and an important part of our history that every Canadian needs to know. It’s easy to read and takes a simple approach to the heart-breaking truth about the Canada’s attempt to wipe out its indigenous culture. The story of the wolf, Crooked Ear, parallels the story of the boy in that wolves were also seen as dirty and savage and white settlers set out to slaughter them, not recognizing the importance of wolves to the land’s ecosystem.
Best Part: The grandfather’s stories.

What isn’t good?
The pace is slow and the writing is choppy. The constant brutality at the residential school is difficult to read, especially since Red Wolf’s feelings about it are never fully explored. This could be because he was so young at first, but a deeper understanding of how the abuse and neglect affected him personally would have strengthened the character and the plot.
Worst part: The pace.

Recommendation ☺☺☺☻☻ (3/5)

Wolves and natives were seen as dangerous and savage by European settlers. The goal became to “tame” the natives and kill the wolves in order for the settlers to feel safe. Red Wolf’s story is a glimpse into what would eventually amount to a culture genocide that stripped the native peoples of their land, their language, and their traditions. It’s an important story, and this novel is a good introduction to that history.

Dance, Jennifer. Red Wolf. Toronto: Dundurn 2014.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood.

Pages: 552
Intended Audience: Adult
Genre: Historical / Murder Mystery
Notes for Parents: Contains some mature content. Recommended for older teens only.

The Back Cover
Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, the wealthy Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Years later, Dr. Simon Jordan—an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness—listens to Grace’s story, from her family’s difficult passage from Ireland to Canada, to her time as a maid in Thomas Kinnear’s household. As Grace relives her past, Jordan draws her closer to a dark maze of relationships and her lost memories of the day her life was shattered.

What the cover doesn’t tell you:
From the Author’s Afterword: Alias Grace is a work of fiction, although it is based on reality. Its central figure, Grace Marks, was one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 1840s, having been convicted of murder at the age of sixteen. The Kinnear-Montgomery murders took place on July 23, 1843 and were extensively reported not only in Canadian newspapers but in those of the United States and Britain.

What’s good?
The author’s re-imagining of this true story was dark and fascinating. Grace Marks, the main character, was elusive. She seemed cold yet sincere. Her questionable credibility deepens the mystery of her story. The side story with the doctor and his landlady added a little humor and drama. Supporting characters were rich and interesting, especially Mary Whitney and Jeremiah the peddler. Excerpts at the beginning of every chapter were from actual documents, or quotes and poems from real people commenting on the real events. This added to the drama.
Best Part: Mary Whitney.

What isn’t good?
The author is wordy. She included descriptions of people and things that I felt were unnecessary, and sometimes even cruel. It took her over 550 pages to tell a story that could probably have been told just as well in about 350. Also, there was a paranormal element to the story that the author never really committed to. Is possession real? Does hypnosis really work?
Worst part: Nothing terrible.

Recommendation ☺☺☺☻☻ (3/5)
It’s difficult to deny Atwood’s ability to craft a story. She’s a lyrical writer with a gift for layering her stories, and mixing surface emotions with dark undertones in a way that creates a satisfying tension. Alias Grace, however, was a bit lackluster. The character of Grace was brilliantly drawn, but I found the story itself to be monotone. Having said that, I still enjoyed it and would probably recommend it to a select few that I know would appreciate the sophisticated vocabulary, creative metaphors, and meticulous detail. 

Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. Toronto: Seal Books, 1996.