Sunday, June 21, 2020

Book Review: The Grace Year

The Grace Year 
by Kim Liggett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When a story takes you from annoyance, to tolerance, to friendship, to love you know it’s special. I really didn’t get this book to start. But I realize now, that’s on purpose. Liggett has given us a journey to experience, much like Hunger Games, we may not understand the constructs or the challenges entirely at first (and our lead gal doesn’t either); but as we progress with our leading gal into the dark trenches of reality and truth, we realize that we knew all along we just didn’t want to believe it. The truth is messy, dirty, bloody, and not flattering; just like real life.

Women’s Competition
This is a powerful story about girls, women, mothers, and childless crones. It is a reminder that we as women are taught to compete; not to further ourselves but to keep us apart, because apart we are stronger.
I tell my husband all the time about how meeting new women is terrifying for me and how I hate the competition. He tells me I imagine it, but I know that it’s my imagination. Especially because over the years I’ve carefully talked with other women and found out we all feel the same. And so we gain progress inch by inch by quietly discussing our realities. The Grace Year shows us how to start (or continue) the work that these girls begin. It lifts the veil (or the shroud) and tells us that not all men are evil, women don’t need to compete, and ultimately that change may be slow and our patience is required.

Change Comes with Sacrifice
From the early chapters of The Grace Year we are shown that not everyone survives, and most return broken or changed so much it’s difficult to recognize them. As our lead gal progresses through her own Grace Year we, of course, start to see why that is. The knowledge or questions our gal starts with aren’t even the most important ones she answers throughout the story.
Everyone in this story sacrifices something in someway. It’s not romantic, pretty or bittersweet. Instead it’s harsh, bloody and stark as bone. Yet each sacrifice made, and the ultimate ones made at the end, are essential for the progress of our story and characters. Liggett has intertwined them so well that I didn’t even realize what was happening to my thoughts and emotions until after I had tears in my eyes.

Very few real life relationships are fairy tales. In fact I have yet to meet someone with the perfect fairy tale spouse or life. It’s because it doesn’t exist and we are reminded of that in The Grace Year; sometimes the best you can hope for is that it not be awful. Thus when a small speck of hope and love shows up it’s all the more powerful. Liggett takes that knowledge of the poignance of love and how we all crave the fairytale and uses it against us. Watch for your emotions to be twisted and at times you won’t know what you want to happen, or even have a clue what is next. I recommend staying on the ride and letting yourself be immersed in the difficulties of living in an imperfect world (to say the least).

While the premise is intense and grabbed me quick; it’s the main character that nearly broke me off from this novel. Thank goodness I didn’t give up on it. If you hate our lead gal at the start, find her annoying or just inconsistent that’s okay. There’s a purpose to it. Were I to make a suggestion about edits to Liggett, I’d recommend that she tweak the introductory chapters to focus more on our lead gal and her male friend; and theorize less about the magic. Give us something to at least respect about this girl (and keep us reading) before she’s torn to shreds and rises back up in the most unlikely of ways.
I wonder on a reread how I’d feel about the beginning. Maybe I’d see more to it? Maybe I’d see what seemed obvious wasn’t as clear as it was portrayed? All I know is there is power when a shift happen. My brain, heart and soul shifted while reading The Grace Year, almost without my knowledge. I felt myself recognizing so many of the things said as true to my own life and experience. It’s a treat we get insight into our own lives and makes this a perfect story for the YA/Teen genre.
One of the first books as a pre-teen to make a strong impression on me was The Giver; when the apple flies through the air and changes to red. That moment in The Grace Year isn’t as clear cut, making it even more impactful in the end, but it’s there. Hidden under some small YA tropes; but once you uncover it, and keep on reading, you’ll suddenly know that this isn’t your average YA girls versus girls book. It’s got some magic of it’s own.

Note: I wrote this review within minutes of putting this book down. I may not feel as strongly tomorrow; and normally I allow myself time to digest a book. But I felt like I needed to capture this emotion I have right now before it disappeared and was replaced with the depression of headline news and our own reality. I’ll be intrigued to see how I feel about this book in a week, a month or a year. Do I remember it? Does it stick like The Giver, like Black Panther, Red Wolf, like Hunger Games, like Station Eleven, or so many other dark(er) dystopian books I’m drawn to. Only time will tell.

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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Book Review: The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires
by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let me first address the 'issues' many reviewers who didn't like this book have. This is a horror genre book. This is a genre known for scariness, playing off extreme stereotypes, gory passages, and (usually) some sort of magical realism. If you weren't expecting that Grady Hendrix would: a) delivery just like he did on all his other books, b) use those genre tropes to his advantage, c) write a book just like promised in the blurb; then I'm sorry the problem isn't with the book, the author, publisher or the readers whom love it. The problem is with you. Just like those who condemn S&M activities because they aren't 'into it'; I look upon them with disgust and say 'you don't have to like it, or even be a part of it, but you should tolerate it's existence'. No one threatened your life or that of those you love to read this novel and it's existence is not hurting you in the least. It's a clear and obvious fictional spoof with horror thrown in to make it even funner.
For the record, I loved this book. It was exactly what I was hoping for a more. Gory, spine-tingling, and a chilling portrayal of the 'average housewife' in a upper middle-class suburban community. Which, for the record, is still scarier to me than fighting off a vampire; which is exactly the point Hendrix is making. The irony of those that don't get it is almost comical, if it wasn't so infuriating that they missed the point by miles and now it's somehow a 'problem' and must be stamped out.

The Women
Are all our characters 'typical'? Yep. I don't even need to see an episode of Desperate Housewives to know that these women are just like those. Or going back some years like the ladies in Melrose Place or even Dallas. These are women whose outward appearance is more important than anything. These are women who can't show weakness for fear of being chewed up (which is ironic given there is a vampire in this story, haha). These are the women so many of us (at least in my generation) don't want to be. We try to do everything in our power not to turn into these slaving housewives, mothers and/or caretakers of men and children. Hendrix hits the nail on the head with his archetypes of the different characters and gives us a glimpse into the fact, that we all have always known, being a mother and housewife isn't all it's cracked up to me. This isn't the 50's and there's very little thanks given to getting it 'right'. If you've watched The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Amazon Prime) you'll totally get what I mean. If you haven't seen this great, funny and ironic show I highly recommend it for any/all; but especially women.

The Horror
There's a lot of set-up. Similar to a Stephen King novel; we don't get much immediate excitement past a couple paragraphs to start. But don't worry the gore, fear, and terror are coming. There is a point during this book (and yes I was reading late at night while my husband slept next to me) where I had to put the book down and convince myself there wasn't a 'creature' on the roof of my own house. That's how well Hendrix writes. I remember this during We Sold our Souls as well; there's always at least once where Hendrix will drag you so far into the story that your own psychosis starts to work against you. Perfect horror and the contrast with the sunny morning eating breakfast with the children is genious.

The Ultimate Ending
The best part of The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires (seriously longest title ever!) is the ending. Our ladies are pushed to their limits, and yet while doing so are laughing at themselves. They've realized their own faults and limitations; as well as recognized that everyone is lying around them, just like they are. If there is anything this book definitely says it's that everyone is lying about almost everything. A commentary on social media and our outward desire to seem 'perfect' if I've ever read one. Hendrix takes these women, their husbands, their money (or lack thereof) and their livelihoods and strips them bare to show us the reality of what should have been obvious (and maybe was) all along. The challenge being if you see the truth in others then you suddenly start recognizing it in yourself; and most of us aren't ready for that.

I am not ashamed to say that I absolutely loved this. Whether you are young or old, male or female, married or not, a mother or not; I believe you will find aspects of these housewives in yourself and perhaps even recognize that you've been fighting against being these exact people. I know I have. I never wanted to be like my Mom whom (I think) values what everyone else thinks far too much. And yet I get caught in that trap weekly (if not daily) still today. Hendrix reminded me that life is funny and that the iconic life is actually so ridiculously treasured it can't possibly exist or if it does it feels like more of a trap than the back of a vampires nondescript white van.
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires is exactly what I expected; full of tropes, stereotypes, blood, gore, biting vampires, scared children, pompous men, and strong women. And leaves you with the solid reminder that you should never, ever invite someone into your home that you don't implicitly trust or know; because you never know what they do when you're not around and what mask they are showing at that moment, and you just might need some magical rule to save your life or that of someone you love. You'll laugh, you might cry, you'll certainly despair, and probably get at least a shiver down your spine as you watch these women fight against a vampire whose seemingly smarter than all of them combined.

Note: I have a mental health disorder, am medicated for it, and did not find the use of anxiety and delusions to be out of context or insulting here. In fact I felt like it was well purposed to portray a hysterical woman...(spoiler - highlight to read) and provide convenient reasons for her to be 'dealt with'. This is what life was like for many women, and probably still is today. They are in fear of their husbands or others determining them to be 'crazy' and not truly listening. Of being shipped off to a psych ward or being medicated past conscious thought. I have been in the shoes of this woman and terrified of being locked up myself when my anxiety peaks and makes me (for real) delusional and (frankly) crazy. If you think this is a poor portrayal then it's only because you don't understand how society has historically (and still today) treats hysterical women.

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Stitching Post: One Alice Page, Three Motifs & A New Start

Somehow these days time is both lagging and flyin by! How odd eh? Still in the midst of pandemic land here in Canada, the government is slowly opening services back-up; much to my frustration as nothing significant has changed (except that the economy is collapsing) and so the 'reasons' they gave before for shut-down (to protect immune-compromised and seniors) don't seem to matter anymore? It's a whole mess frankly and just makes me angry. So I've been trying to focus on: 
  1. New Job - week 3, I'm learning stuff
  2. Stitching - Alice page finish, 3 moTtifs (of 6, new Canada mandala start!)
  3. Reading - I'm doing the poorest here and am now leagues (okay 5-6) books behind on reading challenge. But let's focus on stitching here!
I also have three stitching updates for you (ironically):
One - Alice page finish!
This leaves one full page and a partial page left for the bottom row. Which means I am 4 pages complete of 45 pages (assuming I can do math). That just doesn't sound all that great; but I'm super happy about any page finish. Hubby wants to know when it will be 'done' and I keep telling him it might be before we die! If we're lucky! LOL! 

Two - Three little motifs

These beauties were started and stitched during the 'lockdown. I have three more of these Kelsyn's Itty Bitty's selected, with new thread colors, to put below the current ones. This was started on a whim with no plan project to keep me distracted during the chaos as my regular stitching projects weren't cutting it. I suspect this little beauty will end up being called the '2020 complication' or having some name related to covid. The full chart has 16 motifs but I just went with 6 as that's what fit this cute piece of fabric I had on hand. Threads are all Coloris from DMC which I'm crazy impressed with! 

Three - A new start! Canada mandala
Yes that is Aida you see. Crazy right? It's my first time on Aida in decades. So why Aida? Well because this square will be put on a memory blanket for fallen RCMP officers. I've been very fortunate to join an online group that sends beautifully put together quilts with cross-stitched squares on them to the family members of those RMCP (federal police) that have fallen in the line of duty. I know the topic of police enforcement is difficult right now; and I definitely support Black Lives Matter and what they stand for; but I also acknowledge that not every single officer of the law is racist (but there are many in Canada that are, no doubt in my mind). And no doubt the overall system itself is racist and we all need to take responsibility for that. Here in Canada it's directed more at Indigenous people than any other All that aside I'm super proud to be a part of this group and add contributions to the cause. This pattern is a personal favourite from Ink Circles. I hope to do it up on linen with variegated thread for myself one day. On 16ct Aida it comes in just below the 8" x 8" needed measurements for the quilts.


Overall things are trucking along for me. I'm not reading nearly as much as I would like, but I am now working from home and that takes some adjusting as my reading time was previously on bus. However, I can now stitch from my chair, with my full set-up at lunch! So trade-offs. 

What is super good is that it allows me to avoid public transit or an office building for \ c(hopefully) a long time; and I cut down on my previous 2+ hours commuting per day to work. All that said, I'm a bit nervous as my husband is returning to his 300+ person office on Monday (not pleased he hasn't been given option to keep working from home as he has for last 3+ months); but he will monitor situation and if becomes dicey we have the option to say I'm immune-compromised and our household can't be subject to that much risk (which is true; but I feel bad claiming it as everyone should have a right to certain safety in my opinion). Hope you're all doing well and stitching up a storm out there! I know losing my job and the pandemic really made me focus more on stitching which I appreciate. And with far fewer events/activities in the near future I'm hoping to keep the stitching momentum up.

Hope everyone is doing well and staying safe!

Monday, June 15, 2020

Book Review: A Surprising Friendship

A Surprising Friendship by Andrew Wald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While a cute story and adorable illustrations, I couldn't help but laugh from page 1. It reads:
"... a playful Canadian goose, loved swimming in the pond." 
Now if you've ever met a real Canadian goose before you will have likely encountered their massive attitude problem. These geese are not polite or nice at all (generally). Instead the geese are vicious, mean, and will literally attack you if you invade their space (even if it's next to your car or on the pathway). So while I understand what Andrew Wald was going for here in terms of showing that friendships can survive a time away from each other (over winter). I also must admit that I'm concerned some child will instantly think a wild goose makes for a great friend. I'm less concerned that a child will think of a wild bear as a friend; as if your small child is out in the woods alone and meets a bear I seriously wonder about your parenting skills (lol). But geese are found in the city, near water, etc. and so it's far more likely that a child might encounter one. So just make sure if you read this to a little one they know that the goose and bear are friends; but maybe not friends with humans the same way. 

This is a simple story that sends a great message. It's generic and so safe for a gift for any child or family. And I love the message that even if you are apart for some time that doesn't mean you stop being friends and cannot reconnect in the future.

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, June 12, 2020

Book Review: The Whispers of War

The Whispers of War by Julia Kelly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’ll never cease amaze me how many unique, important and touching stories there are to tell in history. Particularly those stories of women in WWII strike me hardest. Their bravery, determination, and pride were second to none as most volunteered to help in any way possible before conscription happened in Britain.
The Whispers of War surprised me as it's not as sad as most WWII stories are. Julia Kelly brings us a touching, moving and brilliant story of the bonds of friendship and love.

Female Friendship
It's so nice to read a book where the women aren't always competing, at each others throats, or out to get each other. I know that it's rare in real life to find the kind of friendship Kelly describes between her three main characters in The Whispers of War; but it does exist. It's so heartwarming to be reminded that people usually intend to be good; sometimes they fall the wayside and don't even realize it. I love how the tensions of the friendship ebb and flow throughout the story.

Past to Present
As with the majority of historical figure these days, this book does flip between the WWII timeline and present day. However unlike many other books set like this the present story isn't near as relevant, and not the bulk of the novel. Kelly has done a good job of keeping us in the past with the occasional snippet to the future so that we can stay 'in the story' but also understand some of the repercussions of choices our characters made 60+ years before present day. It felt understood throughout the book that the reader really only cares about the past and so keeping the focus there worked really nicely for me.

Internment Camps and Refuge
I will confess I am very proud to read this as a Canadian. To know that we offered even one person refuge from the Nazi's is really powerful to me. Canada however is not a country without many transgressions, including our own internment camps during WWII (primarily against the Japanese); and so if you approach the end of this book and think my country is 'so great, rah, rah' (while I want to be proud of that) I would caution you that the events in Britain and elsewhere in Europe of internment and prejudice absolutely did and do still happen in Canada (sadly). No country has a clean slate; there are always skeletons in the closet.
That said it must also be acknowledged that the persecution that much of The Whispers of War focuses on in Britain is sad, frustrating and all too true. You might come away being disgusted by some of the actions of Europeans and their governments. I caution you to remember that these were extraordinary times and people were merely trying to keep folks safe. The same way that today we are engaged in extraordinary times with the covid pandemic and we can only hope that humanity of the future understands that we didn't have all the information and were just reacting as best we could most of the time.

Not unlike The Paris Seamstress this is a good 'mostly positive' WWII book. It has less death, rape, torture, etc. than books like The Tattooist of Auschwitz; and it focuses more on the girls relationships and thoughts which is easier to relate to. This is a historical fiction novel that I would definitely recommend to someone like my Mom. She likes historical novels but struggles sometimes with really gruesome events or descriptions. That's not to say that we ignore any of those awful things that certainly did happen; but a variety of novels that differ in pacing and descriptive content is always smart as it allows these stories to be accessible to more people. Otherwise some people wouldn't ever read a war time book because they can't handle the content.
For me, in the end, The Whispers of War is a must add to my growing WWII physical book collection. As always this is the highest praise I can give a book.

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, June 8, 2020

Book Review: The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully illustrated with a palette of blues, greens and soft colours; this is the original little mermaid story and so vicious and painful. No Disney happy fairy tale magic exists in the original text that Hans Christian Andersen wrote. Additionally the story is longer than your average children's book, but I didn't mind as reading the delicate font allowed me to also be immersed in each pages beautiful illustrations.

It's important to note that Andersen first published this story in 1836. To say that relations between men and women have changed over the last 250+ years would be an understatement. So be forewarned the original masculine domination themes, the trickery and subservience of women is portrayed here along with more. A lot of critique has been tossed at The Little Mermaid over the years; and rightfully so. It's not a pleasant story; and yet somehow our heroine ends up with a happy ending. This really highlights that the belief of the day was that the suffering of women would be rewarded in the afterlife. A very Christian belief that fits nicely into the rhetoric of the 1800's.

I first read this original text when I was about 8 years old. Disney had just released their version of Ariel (1989) and I was obsessed (as little girls tend to be over Disney movies). The songs, the excitement, and my favourite part, Ursula. As I grew older I came to realize that I never saw myself being a princess; but if I was any character it was likely to be the clever villain. Interpret that as you will (lol). I also realized I shouldn't trust any Disney movie ever again!

What really stuck with me, right up to today, from this original story, is that pain and suffering is usually required in order to gain something you desire. Not a bad lesson for an 8-year-old. I did wonder what my Mom was hoping I'd get from the story at the time. As an adult we discussed it and she told me that all she ever tried to do was ensure I had enough reading material as I blew through books in minutes, not hours. Content became irrelevant as I got older as she figured I'd ask questions if I had any; and just wanted to keep me reading.

If you want a copy of the original story this is a beautifully illustrated version. I definitely recommend this latest edition from NorthSouth Books. If you are hoping for some nostalgia towards the Disney movie or story this is really not for you. For today's young girls it's probably worth having them read it and then setting up a conversation about how they feel about: the outcome of the story, what they think of Ariel taking on voluntary pain to be with Eric, and if there is a level of pain or suffering that is unreasonable. My thought here is that a little girl might think that a man who loves her and occasionally beats her is acceptable based on this story (for example). Of course that is up to each individual parent to decide. I would not recommend this as a gift for a little girl you don't know really well or know how the parents might react. It's a bit too vicious to be loved by many; and it veers so far away from the Disney story that I could see some parents who have not read it being upset by the content.

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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Book Review: Reverie

Reverie by Ryan La Sala

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, I hate to say this but Reverie is a bit of a mess. It's sad because Ryan La Sala seems great online and is adorable in general. However none of that can make up for this poorly put together teen novel. All the right elements exist here, and then some, including: a clueless and unreliable lead boy, a strong villain, a cast of supporting characters, a unique concept, lots of action, sibling in peril, magic, etc. And yet it's put together in such a haphazard way that there's no coherency, consistency, or clear goal even as we approach the end.

Amnesia as a Plot Device
The most convenient way to create mystery, allure, and fool your reader is by giving your main character amnesia. It can work, but it's rare for it to be done in a really clever way. Most often the use of amnesia indicates weak plot or writing. Reverie seems to have lots of plot, and sort of does; but it's so hard to follow at times. I felt like I might as well have had amnesia about what I'd read before each time I sat down to give Reverie reading time.
Even more disappointing is that our MC learns aspects to his life, prior to the amnesia, by overhearing a conversation that he 'conveniently' trips over between his friends. La Sala uses a weak plot device and then pairs it up with my least favourite aspect to most stories, convenience. If you had to put your character in just the right place, for no real reason (ie: they literally stumble into a hallway and hear a conversation), then you've likely not given conceivable motive for them to be there. I usually attribute it to lazy writing; but in this case I think it's just immature writing.

On first glance our cast of characters seems pretty good. We have our gay lead teen boy, his annoying younger sister, some parents (that are of course a non-factor, because what parents would be concerned about their kid that just woke up with amnesia after a large incident... let's not even get into this ridiculous teen troupe...), a villain, a female best friend, a couple other friends to make up the little team, and of course, a (gay) love interest. Sounds not bad... expect that none of these characters (expect maybe the sister) really have any actual personality. A hint to La Sala and other writers; if you want the reader to believe that someone is acting or given powers opposite of their 'normal' nature, you have to first let them see and understand their 'normal' nature! One line about how someone is kind, hates illusions, or wishes they didn't have certain memories is just not going to get the reader there. The average reader wants depth, emotion, and understanding of these people. Sadly we don't get that here.

Unraveling the Story
In order to really do a mystery back story well a writer has to be skilled at unraveling and revealing the story to their reader. This is La Sala's debut novel, so some allowances might be given, but not enough to make this novel feel anything less than a knotted mess. Between not really understanding what a reverie is (or how they come to exist) and constantly feeling like I was missing something critical to really follow the story; there was no chance of me unraveling this complex and disorienting plot. Additionally a reveal near the end felt random, inconceivable and really highlighted that the rules of reveries, this 'magic' or power, and just general physics of this world was never well explained. If you are going to have something surprising happen then it needs to feel like it was there all along. Instead I realized I clearly misunderstood some aspect of reveries. Even after contemplating this miss for a day I still can't figure out how the reveal is even possible! It's very mind boggling and doesn't make for a 'fun' time on the readers behalf.

La Sala has the right idea when it comes to setting up a complex, intricate, interesting teen novel. All the elements are there but each of them needs some major refinement. From setting the rules of the magic/power in the story, to expanding on characterization, to making the scenarios feel realistic to this fantasy world (a version of our own). If a reader isn't convinced that something is possible, or at least an intriguing idea, then they will not buy into the premise of the story; and with no buy-in you might as well have blank pages.
All that said: with a killer editor, some stronger plot lines and explanations, and maybe some really harsh beta readers I think La Sala has the base components to be a good writer. I did after all finish the book (even if I was frustrated nearly the entire time by what I didn't understand). With more time and refinement La Sala could be a real powerhouse for LGBTQ+ teen literature. He maybe just needs to grow up a little, get some more experience under his belt (I always recommend short stories as they have to be simpler but clever), and find a way to bring his story all together.

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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