Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Trans-Siberian Express Refugee Story

Under the Almond Tree, Laura McVeigh
Under the Almond Tree tells the story of one refugee family fleeing conflict and war in Afghanistan in the 1990s as they travel towards freedom and safety.  Published by Hachette's Two Roads imprint.  Two Roads publishes strong, narrative-led stories of amazing lives.
  • When I first read over the list of character names I thought I was going to have a difficult time keeping tabs on all the players.  It was a pleasant surprise to discover the opposite -- in fact -- I could have coped without the name list.  Similarly, local terminology and place names weren't overwhelming.
  • A map is also among the introductory pages, and I think this is an excellent inclusion (and nice design).
  • It took me a chapter to adjust to McVeigh's long, complex sentences (half-paragraphs, often).  Her language is rich enough that there are super-low frequency words now and then, but not so rich it made for slow reading.  
  • This story employs bold imagery and a narrative device that divides fan and foe among readers.  I was a fan.  I thought it was executed well.  It'd be spoiling to specify.
  • The narrative alternates between flashbacks and the present, but there is only one proper narrator (occasional embedded alternative narrators the central narrator encounters, but these are all very manageable) and never became irritating.  I think it made the book better.
  • This story is truly harrowing, guys.  We all know from the synopsis we're in for harrowing.  There are shards of hope and obvious pointers to how people coped through such an ordeal (which allow readers to cope with it all too), but there is also disturbing content and sorrowful moments.
  • There are no sex scenes, but there are references to sexual violence taking place.  No swearing.  Brief, disturbing violence.  Presence of guns.
  • Hailing from Ireland, I was impressed with how much work McVeigh had put into her research. 
Overall: I'm always in favour of people reading things that are other, from their own experience.  In the case of Under the Almond Tree, I would hope those people were 16+ and braced for a reality check, because my First World white privilege was seriously oppressive while I read this one.

Official Publication Date: Today (28 February 2017)
Review copy received from Hachette.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Op Shop: Education Resources Haul



I went in to look for an inexpensive stereo for the girls' room.  I swung by the books and games section.  I left with a box;
The highlights for me are:
  • The Picture Atlas (which only had two populations I needed to update but otherwise was filled with illustrations which are perfect for our girls);
  • A book on the life cycle of sparrows which matches another we have on hedgehogs from the same series (laying flat in the photo);
  • The CD-Rom games which are perfect for the girls' $30, unconnected laptop; and
  • A game with spelling cubes and cards (with a flap to cover the spelling for older users). 
Total spent = $13.00. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Beauty and the Beast Retelling, with Japanese Accents

Barefoot on the Wind, Zoë Marriott
This lists as Book 2 in a series, but the pair run in tandem to each other (same world - yes, same story or characters - no) and this reads perfectly as a stand-alone companion (not sequel).  Barefoot is set in pastoral Japan, Marriott's retelling of the Beauty and the Beast is reminiscent of Uprooted (but is not so dark or heavy).  Also:
  • One thing it does very well is create an immediate sense of immersion in the world.
  • It's compelling and the plotting is tight.  If anything, it may be a little too neat, but I think it works for this sub-genre.
  • The scene imagery is enchanting.  The story is still fairly dark but this is lightened by the presence of hope and idealism.  The Japanese setting is present in more than a token way (in dress, food and abode descriptions, as well as some familial cultural tendencies) but does not saturate the pages in a way that would at all slow down, challenge or overwhelm a younger reader.
  • The main character is likable.  The characters generally are well-constructed and different from each other.
  • No humour that I can recall, predominantly a dramatic narrative.
  • No sex or swearing, and not really even steaminess .  Some violence and scary ideas. 
  • One neg: It felt overdone on emotions and thematic elements; the main characters mental incantations and thought processes stated the obvious and verged on melodramatic, as a result.  I thought it might just be a patch of it, but it continued throughout the book and it was something I came to sort of shake my head at and keep reading.  Feelings and responses to things were frequently stated and restated instead of shown, as though an effort to generate atmosphere had won out over all other devices and become transparent and louder than it should be.
  • The ethical reasoning (stated explicitly) for the community and historical characters sometimes felt like a stretch but I don't think it diminished the story.
Overall:  I think Marriott's tasteful retelling injects some much-needed diversity into the YA mainstream.  It didn't wow me, but it was enjoyable to read and certainly didn't offend me or have me filing it as "Not for my girls."  I'd be happy for them to read this at around 14 years of age (with the disclaimer it's scary).

Review copy received from Walker.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

That Klassen!


Everything he touches turns to storybook-gold.  His latest work is no exception;

Triangle, Mac Barnett
Barnett and Klassen have teamed up again to prove that with the simplest of elements they can generate  suspense, a complete narrative, and of course humour (the pair collaborated on Extra Yarn and Sam and Dave Dig a Hole).  Kudos, Barnett, for framing a commonly-used comedic device in a picture book and opening it up for debate.  Bonus: This is a great title for doing voice too.  My girls and I loved reading this book, and I loved handling it.  The thick board cover, matte finish, title-less front (the image above is the front cover!) are enough to entice you into picking it up.  I'm a sucker for Klassen.  His Hat books are such a hoot, but beyond that, I'm sure I'm not alone in finding his distinctive muted pallette gets my attention; "That's Klassen -- which means I need to check it out."  You should too, so keep your Klassen radar operational, this one's officially out March 14.

Review copy received from Walker.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Shades of Magic: Books 1 and 2

A Darker Shade of Magic

Schwab is my most happy discovery of the year thus far.  Her books have been around a while longer, but I have only become acquainted with her compelling, magical writing recently, and I am so glad we have met.  My notes on Book 1:
  • What an intriguing opening!
  • The split narrative is used for optimal effect.  It made the book better.  As the plot climbed, I found myself going, "YES!  YES!!!"  I love that feeling.  There is one scene that I found myself breathless with excitement at the sheer beauty of how it came together, I thought: "This is a gift, Schwab, this scene is such a glorious gift."
  • Both main characters are interesting and I cared deeply about them, and fast.  Faster than anything I've read in months.  I also cared about the people they cared about very quickly.  The heroine, Lila, in particular, was an easy compare for Inej (Six of Crows), and Lila was so. much. more knowable and likable.  As a result of caring, there were some moments I felt heartbroken and healed.
  • The villains are memorable and formidable.
  • The world is so. darn. wonderful.  
  • Dialogue alternates between great and excellent.  It is funny.  It's not a Funny Book, but it's got the funny in there, to be sure.  I would re-read things aloud to savour them twice.
  • The writing is definitely above average, with some beautiful moments (but is not overly dense with poetic devices).
  • Colourful language is kept well in check, with countable cuss-words (2 x S and 2 x F, if you're asking).  The latter came in a temper-filled memory and another seriously tense moment; i.e. they're not thrown in for kicks, but they're there.
  • Sex is referenced and euphemistically described but there are no sex scenes.
  • There were very few obvious moves, but the chief among them led me to groan and then check myself, since it recovered and reinvented a trope in a way that made the expected different and more than okay.
  • There is sufficient closure to feel the book's story has reached its end but clearly room for the continuation of the series.
If you enjoyed Six of Crows and Throne of Glass, these are pretty much a sure bet -- only not as dark as the first or sensual as the second.   If the sound of strong characters in compelling fantasy sounds like you, you should check this out. 

A Gathering of Shadows
The calibre of this series does not wane whatsoever;
  • It has a fantastic start.
  • There are new characters and the new characters are grand.  The already-loved characters continue being superb.
  • The culture deepens and enriches the narrative further, in Book 2.
  • I got giddy giggles of anticipation in this. 
  • There was a withhold-and-reveal in Book 2 that reminded me a lot of Six of Crows in execution.
  • There is such a cocktail of delights page to page, midwayThe plotting then climbs so nicely to a climax cluster.  
  • There be pirates, and with them some colourful language (2 x S and 4 x F, by my count).
  • There are some steamy make-outs and historical intimacy between characters is implied.  Still no sex scenes.
  • Heads up: A character shares anti-religious sentiment. 
I always looked forward to reading these.  They deserve all the fan art circulating online. 
My (hardback) copy of A Conjuring of Light (Book 3) cannot arrive fast enough.  I really look forward to re-reading these with my daughters.
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