Saturday, June 19, 2021

Book Review: The Clockwork Crow

The Clockwork CrowThe Clockwork Crow 
by Catherine Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A relatively quick middle grade book about fairies (or the others) who stole/tricked a little boy, a cursed/magical clockwork crow toy, and an orphan girl. Nothing too original here but a solid story written by an author I adore.

Catherine Fisher has a way of writing children’s/teen books that is just engrossing. I never want to put them down! I wish more of her works were released in North America.
This series is actually a republish by Candlewick Books making it more available worldwide hopefully. Or at least here in Canada (where I live) it will be readily available from Candlewick.

The perfect book for boys or girls that maybe haven’t learned to love reading yet; but are competent enough to read at a 8-9 year-old reading level. I think Clockwork Crow easy enough for most kids but interesting enough to really get them liking reading. Especially if they’ve never read a fantasy/mystery like it before.

There are two further books in the series that I already grabbed e-books for and when the full series is out from Candlewick Press I hope to get the set as I can never have enough Fisher on my shelf!

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, June 8, 2021

Book Review: The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep 
by Allan Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Authors Note... I hope, like me, you won’t judge the Donner Party too harshly... I hope you will try placing yourself in their train-worn shoes."

Wow. This book is incredible! It’s brilliantly written in a lyrical fashion. This true story is endearing, haunting, and horrifying all at once. While I read this book 2 months prior to writing this review; it feels like yesterday I finished. As anticipated, The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep has stuck with me in different ways and truly affected my psyche; especially on the issue of survival. I was very concerned that I would have trouble reading this as cannibalism is one of my major horror triggers. I avoid the topic in almost all instances. I blame the movie version of The Road and some episodes of The Walking Dead for giving me literal nightmares with their visceral portrayals of cannibalism. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. The difference here is stark. This is about pure survival of the cold, Snow, and Hunger. If your children were starving would you really allow available (dead) meat to go to waste?

No Regular Novel
So many pieces of Allan Wolf's treatment of the Donner Party story are brilliant. This is not a typical novel. To start Hunger is our narrator in places. Hunger's perspective fills in some of the holes with presumed events that are not confirmed. Hunger also lends a lot of humanity to our characters. A reminder that in the end they are starving and cannot afford to waste anything; no matter what type of meat it is.
Alongside Hunger's unique perspective we have diary entries from one of the children, the innermost thoughts of one of the father's, odd ramblings of a couple characters, a mother's despairing perspective, and Snow. Yes, Snow is a character and has pages of grey text that are literally just names. It's impactful as you start to see the accumulation, not just of the word snow from page to page; but also of the pile of dead left in their wake (or eventually at their campsites).
On top of all this the narrative is lyrical. Almost poetic in places. It read like a lullaby for me; both soothing and yet a bit horrifying. Think of the typical lullaby and you'll realize most of them had (or threatened) awful outcomes. This story is written in the same way and the treatment absolutely humanizes this true story and reminds us that it is not just a punchline of a joke; but dozens of people's lives playing out in a harsh, unforgiving, and ultimately tragic environment.

True Story of Poor Choices
One of the biggest takeaway's I have from The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep is the reminder that this is a true story. This group of people including small children, elderly, women, and a few strong men truly did make a whole host of bad decisions. The mountain pass was just the final straw. In fact they were lucky to make it to the pass at all. Honestly a large chunk of what happens feels like pure stupidity; but then Hunger will remind you that when you are unable to focus on anything but the emptiness in your stomach all other logic or common sense is set aside. Prior to Hunger being a factor we must remind ourselves that these people literally have only one way to move forward. They have left nothing behind and put all their eggs in the wagons they travel with. Turning back is never an option as their future is in their final destination.
And yet many times I wanted to just scream at the party for bad choices. Never mind the stupidity of the 'shortcut' that they convinced themselves was worth it, but their choices not to bring the animals into the cabins from the storms, sending way too many people out to find a way through the pass (wasting food on the energy needed for all of them), and overall just not thinking clearly a lot of the time.
Ironically, given the time period and importance of physical strength to much of the story, we actually see that the mothers were perhaps the most resilient in the end as they watched, their own and other, children die around them and despair at how to keep surviving so their living ones could have a future. If you look at the ratio of how many of the mothers of children lived versus the men or children it's quite startling to realize they were most fortunate (if we can call it that) in the end. If anyone was a hero in the end it must be the women who watched their families fall apart as the men searched for a way through the pass (and most didn't return), their children starved (many to death), and their ability to stay warm became imperative to anyone's survival.

The Cold and Snow
I've already mentioned that Snow is a character; but it's important to note how good of a job Wolf did of portraying what it's like to be truly cold. And I don't mind a bit chilly because it's just below freezing. We're talking about conditions with snow, and fierce wind in the pass. Where temperatures would have easily plummeted to the point where Farenheit and Celsuis meet, -40. This is a kind of cold, especially if you are wet from the snow or sweating, that is different than most people ever experience. As a Canadian, who lives in a places that see -30C or lower for at least a week each year, I can tell you that your brain is so quick to lose feeling and not notice the cold in your appendages. It tricks you into thinking it's warm, convinces you that it's safe to leave your enclosed space, and causes utter madness. It's been documented by science many times. Yet so often in fiction; cold, snow and North wind effects are downplayed; but not here. Wolf is explicit in his explanations of the cold, wind and snow on everyone. Especially well written is the narrative where a large party (of mostly men) try to summit the pass and get caught in a fierce winter storm. The eloquence and understanding that Wolf has of exactly how this situation would have played out, both physically and mentally, in real life is exquisite.

Honestly I could go on and on about so many pieces of this novel that are just perfect. Although let's face it the thing everyone wants to know is did cannibalism happen in the end? Yes the children were likely fed the remains of those they knew and some of the adults may have succumbed to Hunger as well.
At the end of the fictional account Wolf gives us a comprehensive bibliography as well as a very explicit description of exactly what is known and 100% true; versus what he has assumed or supplemented to make a complete story. As all the players are now passed on we will never truly know what happened in the valley leading up to the deadly mountain pass. Yet one thing is certain for me after reading this novel; no one from this story deserves to be demonized, mocked, or used as the butt of a joke. These were real people, just trying to survive in impossible conditions with children and adults dying around them. And so while I'm still terrified of the idea of humans being used as a meat source and locked up (like The Road); I'm no longer completely put off by the idea of surviving on what is available. If your children were starving and meat was just a few feet away, preserved in the snow (waiting for the wolves to take it away) wouldn't you feed it to them (and yourself) in order to survive?
If you think no, then I encourage you to read this book and understand the extreme circumstances that these people lived (and died) in. I guarantee it will at least have you pausing to wonder at what point Hunger would win over any ethical or morale concerns.
This incredible piece of literature deserves a lot more discussion and awareness than it has gotten to date. I hope Allan Wolf is aware that he has written an award winning piece of historical fiction and that, if nothing else, there are people out there like myself that truly respect his work; and have been strongly affected by it.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review. 
I read a hardcopy of this book from my library in order to get the feel for the page layout. I recommend this be read in print format due to the layout of the pages being a part of the narrative; especially for Snow.

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Book Review: The Best of Mythical Beasts and Magical Creatures

The Book of Mythical Beasts
and Magical Creatures
by D.K. Publishing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having read and reviewed a number of large format children's books about mythical creatures, Gods or Goddesses, and other interesting lore; it really means something when I tell you that this is the best I've ever seen of them!

Mythical Beasts & Magical Creatures has an inclusive worldwide outlook that I have not seen in most. Not only does it include multiple stories from every populated continent (sorry penguins Antarctica is the exception), but it also hasn't labelled creatures that may be common in North America now as such; these are categorized under their first influences in Europe. This then allows for the North American creatures to be of Indigenous origin. I can't tell you how happy I was to see the Windigo included!

With two full pages for almost all creatures and gorgeous illustrations this is a beautiful coffee table book for an enthusiast or a great way to introduce a child to the world of mythical animals. There is also a two-page spread in each category that sums up many types of one creature. For example: on the fairies page we have brownies, pixies, etc. On the vampire page we have the typical Dracula type vampire, as well as all the Asian inspired creatures that feed on the blood of the living. Again the inclusivity feels very balanced.

At the high price point these types of books sell for you want to make sure you are getting good paper quality, beautiful illustrations, well written content, and comprehensive worldwide outlooks. I can say with certainty that Mythical Beasts and Magical Creatures meets all these criteria and more. I just might have to add this one to my own personal library, or the toy box for the kiddos that visit me to peruse through!

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review. 
Seen in person in hardcover format at my library to evaluate the page quality, illustration colour, and other print qualities.

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