Monday, February 24, 2020

Book Review: All That's Bright and Gone

All That's Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Telling any story through the eyes of a child is difficult; add in mental health issues, single parents, lost children, and financial constraints suddenly you've got yourself a pretty tragic story. Consider this your warning, All that's Bright and Gone is an amazing read; but it's darker and not necessarily a feel good story. That's not to say it's all bad; but overall you're likely to feel sadness through most of it. Eliza Nellums brings us the story of a child (and her imaginary friend) coping to handle her mother's mental illness, the loss of her older brother, and childhood in general.

Children Are Innocent
At the heart of this story is Aoife, a 6-year-old, who doesn't quite understand: the things going on around her, why she gets in trouble for talking to her imaginary friend, and that frozen chicken nuggets in the microwave are perhaps not a sustainable food for weeks on end. Right from the get go we realize that Aoife is a strong, resourceful little girl, who hates when adults say her name wrong. Her obsession with her name really struck me as genuine and conveyed the way children think well. Many times we are reminded that Aoife doesn't understand adults, health care or society the way we do. She is confused: why her Mom can't come home, scared for herself (and imaginary Teddy), and yet curious about her brother's death (whom no one will talk about).
The only criticism I might have is that Aoife sure is good at eavesdropping, or has the hearing of a superhero (lol). She is often found to be in just the right place to hear the adults talking. This is obviously a way for Nellums to easily convey the story to us without Aoife understanding what is said. But it does happen a few too many times for my liking.

Mental Health
This is a very poignant story portraying how mental health hurts surrounding the inflicted person. There is no ignoring it when down days happen, and there may be no reason why things strike someone the way they do. From the neighbour to Uncle Donny to (of course) Aoife herself; we see the drastic effects that the mother has on herself and those around her.

Twists and Turns
It might seem obvious what some of the twists and turns will be from the get-go. But I bet by three-quarters of the way the average person is so enthralled with Aoife and her perspective that they forget that her narration is from her eyes; and therefore may not be truly true. Anytime a child is the storyteller the reader needs to remember that they are unreliable. Aoife's voice is so strong at times that I would completely forget that her accounting of events or experiences weren't necessarily the truth. If you allow yourself to get lost with Aoife I think the twists and turns will hit you, like they did me.

Lies and the End
This is a wonderful story that reminds us that little kids always want their parents; even when said parent is ill or dangerous. All That's Bright and Gone brings out the darkness that many families try to hide and puts it on display smack dab in the middle of the street. Nellums does a great job of showing why we should always try to be honest with children. That lie, you think might keep them safe, may one day backfire. The more we lie to children the more we skew their interpretation of the world. Usually it's just best to tell the truth. Even when the truth is difficult, messy or undesirable. Nellums shows this so well by the end of the novel that I felt, as someone who tries to tell the truth to kids, that I wasn't doing enough (and I am not a parent) for the children in my life. And so I leave you with one of the (many) comments Aoife has about adults:
"Now that Dr. Pearlman pointed it out, grown-ups really do lie all the time."

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Book Review: The Bravest Knight Who Ever Lived

The Bravest Knight Who Ever Lived by Daniel Errico

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First up, I can't comment on the Hulu show that has been made of this book as it is not (yet) accessible in Canada. Second, when I requested this ARC I was not aware it was being made into a show; I just wanted to read a fairy tale with a 'twist'.

We start out very typical with "Once Upon a Time" and while it all ends with "Happily Ever After" the content in the middle of this knight's story is not quite what you'd expect. Written in rhyming couplets it's easy to find a flow and pace that works and keeps the story quite even throughout. But watch out, I found myself thinking, talking and writing in rhyme for a time (lol).
"The driver ran away and left the carriage to the thief.

Cedric peered from up above, behind an autumn leaf."

As I said, The Bravest Knight Who Ever Lived has a couple of twists on the 'typical' knight saving story. There are three distinct differences. First we have a female dragon (but don't worry she still breathes fire) and our knight saves, not only a princess, but her brother who is (of course) a prince. Our final twist is foreshadowed many times with the repetition of the line "this isn't how it ends". [Spoiler Alert] (highlight text to read) The final twist is that in the end the knight doesn't want to marry the princess, he wants to marry the prince! There is even a moment of hesitation by the king that help us understand this is maybe a little different but okay in the end. The story is complete with a note from the United Nations (UN) that everyone should be free to be themselves.

Something interesting, that I noted right away, is that if you pick this book up and don't flip to read the end (only look at cover and blurb) you'd not guess at the ending. I like that this means children may choose the book without their parents necessarily censoring (ie: at the library) due to it's LGBTQ+ content. This helps get the message out that 'gay books' aren't to be flagged or called out. They are just the same as every other story book for children and should be consumed the same as any other story we read to kids.

This cute story, with it's fun illustrations has one flaw for me. Halfway through our boy, Cedric, is knighted by the one training him. However his trainer is a knight himself. Historically this would have been a king or queen bestowing the honour; but hey nobody likes hierarchical society anyways right? :)

Overall I can't speak highly enough to this story and it's subtle, yet strong messaging. Regardless of what makes you 'different', be it gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc.; we are all the same in the end. Each of us is on a quest to find our 'Happily Ever After'.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Friday, February 21, 2020

Book Review: The Trouble with Time Travel

The Trouble with Time Travel by Stephen W. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an adorable, fun and well drawn book. The Trouble with Time Travel is cute, outrageous, and ironic. In fact the first time you read it (assuming you are an adult) you'll likely be laughing so hard at the fact that our leading girl doesn't make (what to us is) the most obvious decision about how to stop the vase from breaking (again). Gotta appreciate a kids book that gives a nod to the adult reading it!

Writer Stephen W. Martin has given us the type of picture book that is my favourite to read with kids that are 3-5 years of age. It has BIG emphasized text words that are really sounds (like CRASH or KABOOOM) and emphasized words (like great or completely) every couple pages. These are moments and opportunities (after a couple reads) to have the child you're reading to join in! They will learn which page has the word (and it's nice and big on the page) and know when to say it with you. Some of my favourite moments with kids are re-reading a story like this and laughing after each emphasis. I've also seen this help children recognize a word over time even when it's in a different context.

Overall I love The Trouble with Time Travel for its cleverness, wonderful illustrations by Cornelia Li, and re-readability. I have one small critique, the two-page spread where you have to turn the book (as they fall into the ocean) is awkward and would drive me crazy after a couple times through. But it's a minimal issue that I can easily get over and doesn't detract from the clear 5 stars this one is for me. This is a picture book suitable to buy any gender or ethnicity as, at it's core, it's about breaking something and feeling remorse for it. I only wish time travel were as easy as our leading gal makes it seem so that I could grab a pet (in her case a dog) and visit all the interesting places and times that she does.

Science note: There is a flaw which is an error commonly made with time travel... The time machine takes our gal and her dog back in time AND to a new PLACE (ie: Egypt, Rome, etc.). A 'true' time (only) machine would take her back in time to the spot she is in however many years before or after; it wouldn't displace her around the world. A nod to Big Bang Theory (and Doctor Who) for ensuring that I never forget this tidbit of science.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Book Review: Teddy Bear of the Year

Teddy Bear of the Year by Vikki VanSickle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very cute little story, suitable for bedtime, about how teddy bears need to know their ABC's. 'Always Be Cuddling'. This little phrase is Teddy Bear 101. Vikki VanSickle has just enough text and lovely full illustrated pages to make it quite well-balanced. Although there is one problem... there is a koala bear at the big Teddy Bear Awards event! Unlike panda bear's, koalas are not really bears. All I can imagine is a child who knows this getting struck on the inclusion of a koala (perhaps to their parent(s) annoyance, lol). But I suppose this oversight can be ignored given that there is an obvious attempt (and success) to show diversity among the teddy bears themselves.

I really liked how the teddy bears were obviously 'on the job' for their human counterparts and that it was about the bears being brave, loving (by cuddling of course) and attentive. Funny, these tend to be the same traits we desire in children (how clever). This is a solid story that could be bought for any child. If you need a 'generic' kids gift that could go to any child or toddler this is a perfect pick as it doesn't lean in any direction except that kindness (and cuddling) are good things; and I have to hope that everyone in the world would agree with this sentiment.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Book Review: The Ventriloquists

The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A stunning true story of ordinary people, in Nazi occupied Belgium, fighting back with printed words. As a Communications major in college (many years ago) I found The Ventriloquists to be very intriguing; both the truth and fiction. E.R. Ramzipoor does a wonderful job of breaking down what is true and what is not in her author's note for those whom feel that is important to identify. Additionally the literary style of The Ventriloquists is gorgeous and leads to quotes like:
"The typewriters has gone to sleep for the evening, taking their needful melodies to bed with them. Aubrion hated the silence. Silence reminded him of everything that was frightening in the world: night and death and audiences that didn’t applaud."

Historical Reference
I'm very disappointed with myself (and my education) that I did not know the story of Le Soir or Faux Soir. Thus, I'm very thankful to Ramzipoor that she has brought this intriguing, but also important story to light. Many people today may not realize the resources it took pre-Internet to get a propaganda message out. Between paper, ink, press time, press labour and distribution it was no small feat to print and distribute a daily newspaper. Ramzipoor does a wonderful job of covering off every one of these key pieces prior to Le Soir hitting the streets for public consumption. And while she takes 544 pages to tell the story, I'm not sure I would want a single sentence cut as it all feels so critical to the ending and final piece that was printed and distributed in Belgium.
There are additional little tidbits of information in The Ventriloquists that could be novels all their own. My personal favourite true 'side' story I learned is this one:
"Germans later began shipping little fabric Stars of David to every town in Belgium; when the men and women of the post learned of Stars’ purpose, they took the Stars home and burned them."

I love reading books set in France. Not only for the fact that France always feels like a truly romantic place (I've not been there yet); but also because they speak my favourite language, French. As a born and raised Western Canadian it's a little unusual that I am fluent in both English and French. 99% of French speaking Canadians (francophone) are in Quebec (east) and on the East Coast. Let me clarify that, English is my first language; French is the language I love but am only (at best) proficient in. For me there is something about books where they combine the French phrases that many know (without translation) and English that just makes my heart soar. The mix in The Ventriloquists felt perfect to me. It might be a little bit too much French, that goes untranslated, for some; but in that case I'd encourage readers to 'Google It' for a translation and appreciate the flow and style of the French language (but I'm biased).

Whether it's the characters that Ramzipoor researched and were real, or people she had to assume existed, each of our POVs and characters feel like real people. You might think that it's easier to narrate from the POV of a person that actually existed, than a fictional one. I have found that is not always the case for many writers. I could not have told you the difference between the characters based on historical record and those that Ramzipoor inserted or assumed into the story. They all feel equally fleshed out. I know many reviewers have criticized the plethora of characters in this story but the reality is that it would take a lot of people to pull off this feat.
I would remiss not to point out my three favourite characters: a boy of about 13 who is the primary POV, a lesbian whom seduces another (high powered) lady, and the star of the story our middle aged male and lead conspirator (real person) Aubrion. However even the side characters are so impeccably done that I can't leave them all out: a gay man who forges letters like no other (and is trapped into working for the Germans to stay alive), the German turncoat, or the man that donates his printing press (at great risk) to produce the final product are all beautifully done. Many of the lovely quotes in the story come from difference characters, including this gem I love:
"An ellipsis is a poor substitute for a period, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise..."

I've been known to hate a lot of endings. I often wonder if I've liked the ending to even 30% of the books I've read in my life. I dunno what it is but endings make or break stories for me. The Ventriloquist does not let down. From the true events that happen at the climax of the story, to the fictional outcomes for many of our characters; Ramzipoor does a wonderful job of wrapping up the pieces of the story for our many intriguing people in ways that feel balanced (given it's war time and they are all conspirators) and also surprisingly satisfying. A few may (of course) bring you to tears; but there really is no avoiding that when the Nazi's are involved.
"So it was beautiful and you burned it. All of Nazi history written in a single sentence."

If you have any interest in a small rebellious group, printing of newspapers, propaganda creation and distribution, WWII in Belgium, resilient people or just WWII in general this is a wonderful book to add to your repertoire. It will require some time to read because of it's dense language and length; but I believe the pay-off is well worth the effort. For me, The Ventriloquists easily deserves to be alongside The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and other recently told WWII literary feats, that bring to light some of the billions of stories of those who survived a time most of us can't even begin to relate to. Each one of these amazing stories of resilience and hope help me to remember that it can always get worse; and that if others survived in the past than I should certainly be able to survive today's world.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Book Review: Fledgling

Fledgling (Sorcery and Society, #2)Fledgling by Molly Harper

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first book in the Sorcery and Society series, Changeling, was a good fun take on a magical school with the typical YA drama we've all come to know (and love?). While there is nothing overly special about Molly Harper's series there is also nothing particularly wrong with it. I picked this one up knowing that I wanted to: go back to a world I knew, read something light and fluffy, and that had just enough intrigue and politics to keep my brain engaged. I got exactly what I asked for.

Our 'fake' debutante, Sarah, continues into year 2 at her all ladies finishing school (really a front for magic school) alongside her two best buds Alicia and Ivy. This year instead of discovering her own powers, like book 1, she instead starts to realize the powers of others like herself, non-high born children with magical power that is supposed to be impossible. The lead up to the trip to Scotland that brings about the climax of the story is decent and exactly what I expected it to be. Lots more Harry Potter vibes but still different enough that I didn't feel ripped off.

Rushed Ending
Unfortunately Fledging has a very rushed ending. It's like someone told Harper her book could only be a certain number of pages and she spent too much time at the forefront of the story and doesn't give us enough time to really absorb what we learn in Scotland. Also... what are the chances that a girl can randomly learn to fly some fantasy balloon contraption after one attempt? My bet is slim to none. I am proven wrong.

With a little more polish and attention to the ending, I think Fledgling could reach 4 star potential. And while Harper gave me exactly the type of book I was expecting; I guess I was hoping for a little more to draw me in and keep my attention. After all there are so many times one can read about a teen bumbling around with magic and screwing things up, right? Apparently not according to the top publishing houses of today.
Fledgling suffers from the usual middle book curse in that it really exists to set-up the story for (what I presume is) the third and final book of the series. Many pivotal set-up things happen, fate intercedes to put our heroines where they need to be and we are once again treated to a cliffhanger pushing us to find out what happens in book 3.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Friday, February 7, 2020

Book Review: Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On Earth in a time where no humans exist, and there are only human made AI robots, we are challenged to look at ourselves, human society, the definition of a 'living thing', and question our own existence. C. Robert Cargill has brought us a spectacular science fiction, social commentary through the eyes of a charismatic robot and a POV from history before humans were decimated in his novel Sea of Rust. This is easily one of the most underrated books of the 2010's (released in 2018). Forget the Martian, Ready Player One, or Annihilation; Sea of Rust deserves to be next to Station Eleven and Dark Matter as one of the most brilliant science fiction books of the 2010's decade.

As with many science fiction books there is a lot of social commentary in Sea of Rust. Cargill does not hold back on ensuring that the reader is aware of how useless and dumb society (as a whole) is. While individuals can be smart and understand issues and root cause; getting everyone to conform and agree in order to meet the greater good is nigh on impossible (look at climate change issues of today). Ironically we realize, very early on, that the same is true for our (adorable) robots. No one wants to be a part of one entity, we all want to be individuals; even if you're 'just' an AI. And what is an AI robot besides an evolution of human thinking? Afterall a human made AI must have all the same inherent flaws that human logic does. And therefore, doesn't an AI also have a personality and make its own choices just like humans?

Are AI robots alive?
The question of existence is prevalent throughout Sea of Rust. To start Cargill borrows Isaac Asimov's three rules of robotics. Now anyone whose read I, Robot (or saw the action packed movie) knows that it doesn't really work in the end. The same is true here.
In order to protect humans, (rule #3: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.), robots must act to stop the humans from being parasites and destroying the Earth.
If you need proof that this is true look at the United States or China of today. Both are nationalistic countries that don't care what happens to anyone else but themselves. They don't make global decisions, they (tend to) make selfish decisions that meet their own needs and people first. And while this makes sense to us as citizens of a country (and politically) the reality is that this attitude cannot persist if we are to keep humanity alive. That same thing happens in Sea of Rust as this Earth ends up with only robots and no humans. And so as soon as you talk about existence what you are really talking about is survival. Isn't anything that 'survives' alive?

Can robots have feelings?
The second thing that Cargill makes the reader question is if you can have feelings or love for a robot. Alternatively, can a robot have feelings for someone else (a human or another robot)?
To me it's clear that as soon as something has an identity, or can be seen as an individual, then it must have feelings that lead it to those individualities. Think of any pet (dog, cat, snake, bird, etc.), we know their nuances and personality; therefore they are individuals to us. No one cat or snake is the same as the next. Cargill eloquently show that AI Robots are the same. They make decisions based on their programming (obviously); but also based on their own learning (AI). Thus each AI perceives the world differently; just like humans. And so each AI has a feeling towards other robots or things in its perception.

There is a lot to digest here. But at no time was I overwhelmed. Instead Cargill introduces many times over, and explains in different ways, how and why his robots are the way they are. The beauty is how Cargill does so without sounding like a boring English professor. His robots have build societies and thus wars break out (because humans always want more and so do our AI counterparts). We also start to understand that the robots have a drive to survive (again like humans):
"The survivors, on the other hand, embodied the can-do attitude of the post-apocalyptic frontier spirit. In other words, they were completely fucking nuts."
"But I had to dream. I had to hope. Even if it made me the fool of this particular tale."
I won't ever be able to put into words all the amazing points, quotes and social insight that Cargill gives us in Sea of Rust. What's especially nice is that, unlike many social commentary books, Sea of Rust is in a easy to digest format. The chapter sizes feel consistent, the pacing is well set and while the concepts are complex the writing itself doesn't require a dictionary. This is a very approachable story that everyone should read; if only to understand themselves and humans as a whole better. If nothing else this line of Sea of Rust will resonate with me for a long time; because knowing things are bad and accepting those bad things are two concepts humans are very bad at reconciling:
"People knew their own nature, even when they wanted to think better of themselves."
A print copy of Sea of Rust now sits on in my personal library; right next to the equally insightful and amazing Station Eleven. I cannot possibly endorse this novel enough and hope that others find the depth to it that I did.

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Thursday, February 6, 2020

Book Review: The Dreamers

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If The Dreamers, my first read of 2020, is any indication of what my reading year will look like then it will be an amazing one. Karen Thompson Walker provides action, plot, character development and true terror in her dystopian novel. We are taken on a rollercoaster ride that is spurred by contagion, hysteria, 'fake news', constraints of medicine, human emotion and ultimately asked the question: is our perceived reality just a dream? Could our dreams be reality?

When I read The Dreamers, one month ago from time of writing this review, I had never heard of the coronavirus. As of posting this 500+ people have died in China from coronavirus and thousands are infected. The flu-like virus is slowly starting to infiltrate countries around the world which have resulted in countries closing their border, huge population areas being under strict quarantine, cancelled flights and travel, and the WHO declaring a pandemic.
I thought The Dreamers was quite disturbing at the time that I read it. Today I think it's terrifying to think that Walker may have predicted the future to a certain degree. It may not be the sleep virus she created for her novel; but any scenario where thousands of sick people need medical care and quarantine will result in complex politics, human rights discussion, and ultimately questions around what is needed to save the human race. Walker adds the further dystopian element that those infected cannot advocate at all for themselves and require sustained hydration and feeding in order to remain alive (assuming they wake up at all).
As I call this a dystopian novel I wonder if it may be more of a near-future prediction, or even be telling a parallel story to events happening right now, for 2020 and on. This is an interesting quote when we think about morality and reality, The Dreamers is riddled with wonderfully quotable lines like this:
"..time moves in only one direction. Not everything that breaks can be repaired."

Points of View
Every POV an author adds to any story has a purpose. Often it's to give us a larger picture of what is happening, another perspective on the same events or to allow us to understand why something happened the way it did. Walker uses POV's so well in The Dreamers from: media snippets, children's thoughts, parents fears and college students stuck at the epicentre of the outbreak. Walker touches on many realistic scenarios that could, and probably would, exist when a quarantine of a town, city or area happens. This includes children whose parents fall ill, travelers with nowhere to go, risk of infection to first responders, infants being born, vulnerable isolated elderly, and every time of person you can think of in-between. The Dreamers provides a well rounded out account of the types of resource constraints, inconveniences and extreme decisions that must be made in a pandemic crisis.

At times I felt perhaps Walker simplified or exaggerated the risks of contagion, medical diagnosis and other scientific pieces to the story. However I remind myself that The Dreamers is a fiction novel, not based on a true story, and these literary choices are absolutely allowed. In fact given the amount of research that Walker clearly put into The Dreamers it is probably intentionally skewed to make the story easier to consume and follow; plus her disease is made-up so she gets to define the rules. It may feel easy to to nitpick at some of the events, statements or science; I would encourage any reader to consider the complexity Walker is presenting the reader and how she gets many more things correct than otherwise. Not unlike the science and concepts in The Martian; it's more than good enough to make for a (fairly) realistic and definitely enjoyable story.

When I read The Dreamers four weeks ago it was scary and felt relevant. Today, just over 30 days after reading, with coronavirus spreading (and killing) quickly, this story is even more of a horror than I first realized in al the ways you might expect and more.
I'll leave you with a quote that I think is the truest statement in The Dreamers. This quote has really stuck with me as it reminds me that a viral or contagious virus isn't the only concern during an outbreak. I believe this statement by Walker will forever influence my future actions, decisions and choices personally and above all else medically:
"Hysteria—that’s the real disease of this era."

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Monday, February 3, 2020

Book Review: Why do we say Good Night?

Why Do We Say Good Night? by Champ Thornton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sweet little bedtime story that focuses on God as the main protector from the dark night time world. As someone who grew up Christian but doesn't practice anymore, this book had a bit too much religion in it for me; but if that is how you are raising your child then this is a solid bedtime choice.
As many children that are raised Christian or other religions where God exists do prayers before bed and ask God to look over people, animals, etc. This book feels like the perfect pairing to those prayers. Or could perhaps be in place of prayer if your child is too little to do so. Specifically it ends on a high note that God is always all around watching us; the dark doesn't stop him. It's a lovely comfort read and I could see children who are afraid of the dark settling because they know God is watching.
Overall, any child whom is attending church and services is likely to love this comforting and beautifully illustrated book by Champ Thornton.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the author via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review. (less)

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