Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Book Review: Night Spinner

Night Spinner
by Addie Thorley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The nice thing about going in with low expectations is you can be pleasantly surprised! While it took me a few chapters to really get into this; once I was in there was no getting out. If you think you know how this story might go because it’s a retelling then think again. There are twists and turns here I did not expect (or even see coming!). All of the plot points play well into the character personalities set-up (nothing cheap) and adhere to the constructs were given for this (somewhat gothic) fantasy universe.

A Creative Retelling
The biggest mistake here would be to expect the Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney or original) characters or story in anything more than on the surface. While the basic construct of the story is similar, our lead gal is obviously the hunchback, and many themes are picked up; Night Spinner has so much more to give. In fact I think it probably doesn’t give enough credit to Addie Thorley to say this is ‘just a retelling’. The last 100 pages took me by total surprise (which was great) and is where Thorley really makes this plot her own once and for all.

How many different essays could be written based on the themes, archetypes, and twisted plot of Night Spinner? Dozens at the very least! There’s so much to unpack here. Of course we have the major theme which is what makes someone a ‘monster’. Other themes include: desertion, morality, loyalty and betrayal, family versus blood, and finally treason. All these are globbed together in such a way that we feel every decision our main gal (and others) make.

This may be on the one place where Thorley could make some larger improvements; but given most YA fantasy literature out there these days I’m willing to give it a pass. Our characters are very clear archetypes at times and make decisions as expected (nothing cheap here). Some are a bit one dimensional at first; but all of them play key elements in the end. I love the way many characters who seem to be ‘unimportant’ at first become critical players in the end.

Coolest Magic!
I want our leading gals magic so bad! It’s different from most of the people in her land and seriously badass. The ability to gather darkness and surround yourself (or others) in it, so that you become almost invisible, is crazy cool and has a gothic feel I adore.

” soon as I flex my wrists, the ribbons of darkness wing from the forests like bats...”

Thorley uses this control of shadows and darkness in unique ways and ensures we are aware that the magic comes at a price and needs certain sources in order to work. Use of magic takes a massive physical toll on the user. Bringing me to one of my favourite elements of the novel, actual injuries and fatigue.

One of the constant themes in Night Spinner focuses on mortality. Although our characters are all from different areas, races and religions, they are all still human-like and mortal. And each of them is falliable and subject to injuries they can’t just ‘fight through’.
Even more surprising is while there is magic to essentially revive someone or bring them back from the brink (and yes it’s used); it didn’t feel cheap to me when used. Thorley is selective about using the magic and healing; instead generally defaulting to having characters that need actual rest and sleep to heal. It’s refreshing to not have characters that seem to be unbeatable and have an endless amount of energy. In fact our lead gal spends most of the story needing rest and pushing herself to accommodate and overcome her physical disabilities and it’s probably 50/50 whether she can find reserve strength or falters entirely.

What I have no doubt of is that Thorley has set us up with a beautifully constructed fantasy world. There is so much to explore still. This could be the type of series that runs past a trilogy if continuity is held up and advance thought out into the plot. Given how much happens in Night Spinner I don’t think plot or twists will be a problem for Thorley to continue to deliver on. As each time our characters do (almost) anything it’s subject to a morality test there are innumerable number of circumstances available.
My recommendation, get in now and be a part of what could very well be the next big YA fantasy series. I hope that even though this is with a smaller publisher it gets the marketing and attention it deserves. This gothic fantasy universe has so much more to give and I can’t wait to read more!

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, August 18, 2020

Book Review: Riot Baby

Riot Baby 
by Tochi Onyebuchi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”We don’t get where we’re going by matching hate for hate.”

This is an odd little story. I’m not sure I understood it all. But I hope I got enough of it that I know what Toni Onyebuchi is trying to say. It jumps around a lot. So be prepared to really pay attention.

My favourite part is when Onyebuchi describes using algorithms that are coded to persecute POC as the same as cops making conscious decisions. This is very powerful to me. Thus stating, systematic racism is no different than allowing a computer to run a program and determine the outcome. It’s 100% predictable. Sadly I think this absolutely true. People have been coded to react a certain way based on the colour of someone’s skin.

My privileged white girl self is completely at a loss on how to break things down and fight back to help all POC most days. Certainly understanding is the obvious first step. I desire to do more and so am trying to consume ownvoices fiction and truly listen to what is being said. Questioning my own thoughts and actions regarding race; and no longer letting family or friends make casual racist remarks. It’s long past time to call people out for what they say and how they say it. I certainly felt that part of Riot Baby was about driving home how many riots and times this issue has crept to the surface; and then been beaten down again with no change. I hope that this 2020 riot push back doesn’t go away until true progress can be made.

No one story or book will change everything; but like The Hate U Give, I think Riot Baby is a wonderful contribution to stating the issues in a way to give a different perspective. It’s very important we continue this conversation and change the delivery to get to more people. I recommend reading this, even if you feel a bit lost like I did, just so you can experience a perspective you’ve likely never seen/heard before. Thank you to Onyebuchi for providing this unique and moving story.

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, August 14, 2020

Book Review: I Couldn't Be Anne

If I Couldn't Be Anne 
by Kallie George
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Since Anne of Green Gables came out of copyright and into the public domain there has been a multitude of children's books and 'inspired by' texts to peruse. I have yet to find one that I feel embodies or moves the Anne of Green Gables legacy forward in a meaningful manner.

As a born and raised Canadian, whose got family members buried not 15km away from Anne's house on Prince Edward Island (although I live in the West), I have a bit of a protective 'mama bear' attitude towards L.M. Montgomery and Anne. I totally understand that like so many classic children's/middle grade books many of us have fond memories of Anne and her travels. But we weren't five years old when those memories began; and yet they keep publishing board/children's books about Anne even though it's much too young for full exposure.

Let's face it, the nostalgia factor for the parent means nothing to a small child. This story abut Anne could be about any girl of any name and it would still be: boring, insignificant, and underwhelming. At the age group this is targeted at we are much better off having books about animals, social responsibility, morals, etc. We are deluding ourselves if we think any children under 7 think some random redheaded girl is important (unless her name is Merida).
I think we should preserve Anne for the middle-grade group of children. Allow them to peruse the novel(s) the same as we did at the age. I do not believe there is a need for an introduction to Anne earlier than that. This book is just fluff.

While the illustrations are gorgeous, and the verse kind of cute, this just doesn't do it for me. Funny enough my middle name is Ann (without an E) and I remember telling my Mom how disappointed I was in her choice of spelling (I'm told my relatives didn't have an E on their name). It's funny now, but I can't even imagine if I had been obsessed with Anne at an earlier age than 8 as I might not have understood that how you spell a name is irrelevant at the end of the day. So I recommend you don't give any girls named Ann (without an E) a complex and find something a little more educational for your little ones for story time. Provide Anne at the right age so they can love her like we all do.

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, August 12, 2020

Book Review: The Swap

The Swap 
by Robyn Harding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fair warning: this is not a happy book. It features a lot of spousal abuse, massive mental friendship abuse, insecurity, jealousy and every other emotion you can think of that you might experience when you are desperate for someone's attention. I didn't dislike it; but I didn't really like it either. Robyn Harding delivers a well written, quick to read story that is shroud in a pseudo-mystery. While our lead couple pretend not to know what is going on; I believe in reality they do and so they keep the idea that there is a mystery alive in order to protect one another from the truth.

Hit Close to Home
The Swap reminded me of a time in my life (about 10 years now) where I let a girl control everything about my life and happiness. It took my husband saying I was forbidden to speak to her for me to actually break the toxic cycle. I had been stuck in that cycle for almost 15 years (since I was about 10 years old).
Everything said in this book is like a ghost of what I said to myself time and time again as a teen and into my early 20's. Harding brought me right back to those insecure moments where I justified the lying, cheating, and verbal abuse because I 'needed' this friend. As such I didn't really 'enjoy' reading this. And yet I did.

The Conundrum
If you read a book and it's super impactful; but not necessarily in a happy way, does that make it a good book? I think usually the answer is yes. In this case I felt icky after reading The Swap. But I don't think that is Harding's fault. I think it's that I'm still embarrassed to say that I fell for every tactic in the book in the past; as our leading gal also does. So I guess I would say The Swap is likely to make you feel uncomfortable at times. For some you may just want to yell and shake our leading lady into oblivion because you can't believe what she's doing. I had a little of each reaction at times.

I'm always intrigued by alternate choices from monogamy. Harding asks a hard question here about 'what is sexual infidelity'? If both parties in a marriage make the exact same mistake does that make it okay? Is it infidelity? If you believed you were doing what your 'partner wanted' does that justify the action? These are all questions that The Swap asks. I'm not sure an answer is really ever given. These are very personal acts and I believe each person will react differently based on their own past experiences or existing state of any sexual relationships.

What is clear to me, by the end of the book, but also on the topic in general: truth with your partner is always the best choice. Always. It's rare that lying to 'save someone's feelings' is a good option and this is no exception. Be upfront and you will find that maybe you're not as far away from the same thought as your partner. And if you are, then accept what you've done and figure out the next steps.
Love is a funny thing and Harding really puts strain on a couple to see what will happen and who will 'break' first. While this book made me feel belittled again I think the majority of people will really enjoy it if they have read Harding in the past. Give it's outside my usual genre, got personal, and has asks tough questions; The Swap was still superbly written and well worth a look.

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Monday, August 10, 2020

Book Review: With the Fire on High

With the Fire on High 
by Elizabeth Acevedo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Contemporary teen fiction and I have a shaky past. With the Fire on High has some great moments; unfortunately it also has some cliche writing. Given what else is out there for contemporary teen novels; this is (finally) one I can straight-up endorse. Written by Elizabeth Acevedo, this is an own-voices story about a teenage girl who ended up pregnant. Unlike most teenage pregnancy books it's not about her time being pregnant. Instead it starts about 1 year after that point when she is trying to: attend high school, have a part-time job, enjoy extracurricular activities (in her case cooking), retain friends, consider a boyfriend, and take care of an almost toddler. All these thing combined turn into quite the life for our lead gal.

Love Interest
As with all contemporary teen stories there is a love interest. A cute, modest 'new kid' to the school. He is charming and completely focused on our lead girl; even after he learns she has a daughter. I want to caution everyone out there, this guy is a pretty rare breed. He doesn't push for physical contact, he's far too considerate and nice at times, and overall just feels like a unicorn among the scum of other boys available to our lead girl. I hate to tell you but he is a unicorn in real-life. Yes there are amazing boys and men out there; but, on average, you don't meet one this perfect during those tough teenage years. Why? Because few people are truly selfless as teenagers. Although I adored this boy's character and loved how sweet he was; I do question if it doesn't set-up an unrealistic expectation for teen girls reading this?

Reality of Paying Dues
Acevedo does an excellent job of helping our lead girl, and the reader, to understand what it really means to pay one's dues. Very little falls into our leading gal's lap (except a baby). She falls down and has some rough days, she laments being a teenage mom (even though she, of course, loves her daughter wholly), and she realizes that hard work is really, well, hard. I liked this portrayal that felt more realistic than most regarding the lack of sleep due to early hour and late nights; and overall worn down feeling that comes from paying ones dues. That's not to say that some miracle things don't happen in the story. They do; but it's easier to accept them when you know the recipient has worked hard.

Uncomfortable Family Issues
Here's where With the Fire on High truly shines. This is a messy family situation. A dead Mom from childbirth, a non-existent Dad, a Grandmother whose tired, a distance Aunt, and no siblings are all aspects of our leading gal's life that make up her disjointed family. I loved how Acevedo shows genuine struggles that adults have, how they are perceived by teenagers, and eventually how everyone starts to understand one another. It's important that we remind children and teens that adults are not perfect. This is something I wish I had better understood as a child. I blamed my parents for many things because I thought they were supposed to know everything. The reality is very different. It helps that a teenage Mom knows very little and so they can start to appreciate how difficult being a parent can be. The ending of this story has a very poignant moment that I think is perfect for any teen (or adult) that is struggling to understand why their family member acts a certain way. It reminds the reader that sometimes it's not at all what you think and the only way to learn that is by open, honest communication.

The cutest part of this story is easily the cooking references. There are a couple adorable recipes listed that include outrageously unspecific measurements. Our leading gal uses cooking and food to console herself. It's always great when someone's 'feel better' activity contributes in a tangible way (I often wish mine was cleaning and not reading, lol); and given the circumstances of our teenage Mom it feels perfect that she's not only a good cook; but puts her heart and soul into it.

I could tell you more about my frustrations with some of the writing in this; including the use of the let go the breathe I didn't even know I was holding line (ugh). But honestly those feel small in the overall context of what Acevedo delivers in With the Fire on High. Throughout the course of the story we are reminded that our leading gal is a teenager, doing her best and fighting through exhaustion. Given this is reality for many teenagers (and adults) it feels genuine. I think many events in the story are probably taken from real-life events. Whether ones Acevedo had herself, or those she has been told about by others. This is the perfect way to write a contemporary story, in my opinion, as it leaves reality solidly on the table.
It's rare I find a contemporary story I would recommend; but this is one of them. It's icing on the cake that it happens to be written by a black woman about a black girl. I hope more stories like this can bubble to the surface that speak of the reality of living in 'the ghetto' (as put by the leading gal in this story), paycheque to paycheque, whilst also trying to improve your life situation. The more we understand each others thoughts and struggles the more we can have empathy for one another.

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