A Rogue Librarian's Reading List

{February 28, 2014}   Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow

SorrowsKnotCoverPlot: Otter lives in a town besieged by the dead. Only the knots of the binders keep the living safe. Otter’s mother is one of the greatest binders who ever lived but something has gone wrong: the knots are coming undone and a mythical white hands is roaming the woods. Otter and her friends must go on a dangerous quest to the home of the first binder and find out what has gone wrong.

Erin Bow’s first novel, Plain Kate was a brilliant, unique fantasy; I cannot say enough good things about it. Sorrow’s Knot is a very different kind of fantasy but every bit as good. Bow’s second novel takes place in a matriarchal world inspired by Native American mythology and life styles (though it does not represent any specific real life tribe) which is a nice change from medieval European fantasies. (Bow admits with a bit of embarrassment that the story almost took place in such a world, it even had a blacksmith and everything ;).)

The narrative is built around traditions, secrets and the power of stories. And while Otter’s knots hold a powerful (and fascinating) magic, it is the stories that are weaved throughout the novel that ultimately save them. Otter and her two friends, Kestrel and Cricket, are coming to age in a difficult time. They show great courage in the face of the dangers of the wild and the dead but also in defying the traditions of their tribe.

I was also charmed by the romance. Part of what made it interesting is that this is a world where people do not mate for life as some animals do. They are also slow romances, built out of friendship and they give the story real heart. But a warning: as in her previous novel, Bow had me sobbing in public at one point.

Another great fantasy by a great Canadian author. Highly recommended.

2014 (#2)


{May 24, 2013}   Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

seraphinaPlot: Seraphina’s country has been at peace with the dragons for a long time but the tensions between humans and dragons persist. When a member of the royal family is murdered, suspicion falls on a dragon and the treaty seems in danger of failing. This is of particular concern to Seraphina who has a dangerous secret: she is the forbidden offspring of a human and a dragon. She teams up with the captain of the guard, a prince with a controversial parentage of his own, in order to find the murderer, save the royal family and the draconian envoy and preserve the peace.

This is a near perfect debut novel. The writing is elegant, the characters multifaceted and interesting, the world building is meticulous and the plot – mixing fantasy, politics and mystery – is enthralling. I honestly have nothing but praise for this novel.

Hartman’s dragons are fascinating: powerful, intelligent creatures who worship mathematics and can take on human form. There is also a certain Vulcan aspect to them in their strict control of emotions, and in their occasional failure to control them. They are, hilariously and accurately, referred to as “feral file clerks”. And they live in a complex world with realistic religions, divergent political factions, philosophies, literature, music and history. Hartman’s fantasy world is immersive and fully realized. It feels like a real place, one that I didn’t want to leave.

The human – and half human – characters are as interesting as the dragons. Seraphina and Prince Lucius carry the story. Seraphina is a musical genius, forced to be withdrawn, cold and a bit loose with the truth because of her secret. She is fascinating and likable. Lucian meanwhile is honest to a fault, just, erudite and with an insatiable curiosity. Their romance is subtle, touching and based on mutual respect. It is also tragic both because of Seraphina’s secret and the prince’s engagement. Princess Glisselda could have been vapid and selfish, like many fictional princesses before her. Instead she is, admittedly, slightly frivolous and prejudiced but also intelligent, friendly, and imbued with a great deal of authority for her age. I honestly could spend all day describing the various characters – from Seraphina’s music master Viridius to the clumsy young dragon Basind – because they were all, even minor thugs and guards, memorable in some way with motivations and history all their own. That is amazing to me.

The various threads of the plot – the mystery of the murdered prince, Seraphina’s exploration of her heritage, the preparations for the dragon general’s visit and the plot to sabotage the treaty with the dragon – are each interesting in their own right and weave together to create a complex and fascinating whole.

Seraphina comes to a satisfying conclusion and can stand on it’s own but I was thrilled to learn that there will be a sequel. Shadowscale is due out in February 2014 and concerns Seraphina’s search for other half-breeds like herself. I cannot wait. I predict that Hartman will be a huge name in YA.

2013 (#28)

Plot: Junior’s father dies in a tragic car accident and he must learn to deal with the loss.

For the third year in a row, I’ve been invited to attend the TD children’s literature award (French) ceremony. It’s always a pleasure, in particular because I get to bring home the winning book. This year it was La saison de pluies (which translates as The Rainy Season) by Mario Brassard, illustrated by Suana Verelst.

This is a sad, realistic story and you really do get caught up in Junior’s emotions, but I found it a little unsubtle thematically. It is about Junior’s grief about his father and nothing else, no frame or secondary storyline. This isn’t bad per se but it does make it feel a little educational, not something a child would pick up for the joy a reading. The subtly comes through in the language: it is almost a poem. The word is occasionally a little sophisticated for a 7-year-old boy but not enough to take me out of the story.

Verelst’s sketchy, black and white art really ads to the tragedy of the story. Some of my favorite illustrations include an attempt to draw Junior’s father’s absence and Junior’s foot peaking onto the otherwise blank page as he runs away. Some of the other illustrations lack the significance and emotion of my two favorites but on the whole they are well chosen and well executed. La saision des pluies wouldn’t be the same book without these pictures.

It is a lovely, poetic story and it deserves its award but I’m starting to think that award juries have a bias for stories about death and war. I can almost always pick out the winner from the shortlist. Other subjects – and, gods forbid, funny books – are worthy of praise and reward too and may appeal more widely to children than something with so obvious an agenda. But that’s just my two cents.

I look forward to finding out who wins the English version of the award.

2012 (#103)

Plot: Victor Frankenstein failed to save his twin brother Konrad with the elixir of life and lost two fingers in the process. But he isn’t ready to give up yet. He has stumbled upon another of his ancestor Wilhelm’s secrets: a way to communicate with the dead. He hatches a plan to construct his brother a new body but he soon realizes that the thing he is bringing back is far more sinister than he ever imagined.

Nothing says Halloween reading like Frankenstein!

This is the second book in The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. I don’t yet know if there will be a third book but I’ve loved the first two and I’d be first in line for a third. It is the kind of horror that I love: eerie with a lot of atmosphere and little gore. Add to that some ancient evil, ghosts and some terrible foreboding and you have a chilling Halloween read. It helps that Oppel is a terrific writer and he really brings the Frankenstein castle, with all its dark secrets, to life.

Victor is an interesting hero and narrator because, frankly, he isn’t a very good person. He is arrogant, ambitious, envious and selfish. He only occasionally acknowledges these things about himself but they are obvious to the reader nonetheless. But it is his relationships with others that are most troubling. His desire to save his brother is selfless on the surface but beneath it is the desire to show up his perfect brother, to have him in his debt. He enjoys being superior to people and this is probably why he is increasingly displeased by his friend Henry’s new strength and courage. When Henry shows interest in Elizabeth, it brings out the worst in Victor’s personality.  Meanwhile, his feelings for Elizabeth are more possessive and obsessive than loving; his thoughts of her sent a shiver down my spine more than once. And everything he does is tainted by his quest for power and knowledge. He has one moment of true selfless goodness at the end of the book but even that doesn’t end well.  Victor is a character who is hard to like but who is endlessly fascinating.

The character I like best is Elizabeth. She is fiercely intelligent and though she shares some of Victor’s dark impulses and reckless behaviour, she truly wants to be good. I fear that one day one  of Victor’s plots is going to end very badly for her.

The creepiest part though? The fact that after all that has happened in This Dark Endeavour and Such Wicked Intent, Victor has not truly learned from his mistakes. He is already prepared to embark on new dark experiments. But then, if he wasn’t, he’d never grow up to create his monster, would he?

2012 (#101)

{July 30, 2012}   Half World by Hiromi Goto

Plot: There are three worlds: the world of the flesh, where the living reside; the half-world, where the dead go to work through their issues; and the world of the spirits. Originally, the living died, passed into the half world, then the spirit world and were reincarnated. Only a millenia ago, the three worlds were severed. Prophecy says that only a child born in the Half World, where nothing is ever born, can reunite the three worlds and bring order back to the universe.

Half World is a fascinating fantasy novel, halfway between an Escher and a Bosch painting. The heroine, Melanie, goes through a pretty standard hero’s journey but the well constructed mythology, the strange world and the stranger characters that inhabit it bring something new to the familiar narrative. This novel is not, however, for the faint of heart: mixed with the quest and the fantasy are brief moments of horror that sent shivers down my spine.

Melanie is a great heroine for this sort of narrative. She has no powers. She isn’t athletic (she is, in fact, described as slightly overweight) or unsually intelligent, she has no magic. She changes her world through her birth and by having the courage to make choices.

I enjoyed this novel (though I gasped outloud in disgusted horror more than once) but if you are a fan of buddy stories, this isn’t the book for you. Melanie is followed by crows and (sometimes) has a magical jade rat, she is also aided by wise old archivists but she makes her journey alone. This isn’t a fault but it may not appeal to all.

On the whole this is a well written, well constructed tale about life, death and how people can be twisted by suffering. And like these things, it is not always easy.

2012 (#77)

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{July 17, 2012}   Money Boy by Paul Yee

Plot: Ray Liu’s father moved their family from Beijing to Toronto 4 years ago, allegedly to give his sons a better chance at the future. Ray has struggled with English, school, his parent’s divorce and his father’s disappointment in him. When his father discovers a browser history full of gay sites, he kicks Ray out of the house. Faced with the reality of life on the street, he considers working as a money boy to make ends meet.

The blurb on the back of the book calls the novel “gritty” but I’m not sure that’s the word I would use. This isn’t a novel about a life of prostitution as the plot summary might seem to suggest. Is it realistic? Probably. Do bad things happen? Yes. But Ray spends a grand total of 7 days on the street (which I suspect felt very long to him) and though some hard, traumatic things happen to him during this time, so do some miraculously lucky ones. In the end he is fine and has a touching reunion with his grandfather. These things don’t make Money Boy a bad novel, far from it, but I wouldn’t call it gritty either.

Money Boy is more interesting than it is emotional or wrenching. And it reveals far more about the difficulties of life as a Chinese immigrant in Canada than it does about life on the bad streets of Toronto (that sounds a bit sarcastic, sorry). Ray, his friends and family go to terrible lengths in order to maintain the appearance of “good immigrants” and it is tragic that they need to do this, even when homeless and desperate. The novel is worth reading for this perspective alone.

Yee’s novel is a fascinating peek into the life of Chinese Canadians staring a troubled and sympathetic gay teen with a video game addiction. But if you are looking for a tell all about life on the street, this isn’t it.

2012 (#73)

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Plot: 10-year-old Gabriel loves playing street hockey with his friends and making up war stories. But on October 16th 1970, his games become very real. His friends’ fathers and brothers are being arrested without charges and armed soldiers roam the streets. Then one day, he spots a woman tied to a bed through a window. He’s certain that she needs help but no one believes him and he isn’t sure that he can trust the police anymore. He may have to save her himself.

Mesures de guerre (War Measures) recounts the October Crisis from the point of view of a 10-year-old boy. For those of you unfamiliar with Quebec history, in October 1970, the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) kidnapped a British diplomat and the Minister of labour in the name of sovereignty. In response to the kidnappings, the Canadian Government declared martial law. It’s a heavy subject for 8 to 10 year olds but Marois does a good job of describing events in a way children can understand and relate to.

It is a well written and easy to read novel. It’s also a great jumping point for debates about civil order and civil liberties (which are quite relevant given current events in Montreal). It can be a bit repetitive where such political concepts are concerned but that suits the reading level. All and all it is a quick, interesting read.

This is actually one of two children’s novels written on the subject in as many years. I’ve also heard great things about 21 jours en octobre (21 Days in October) by Magali Favre, which targets a slightly older readership, and hope to read it in the near future.

I’ve reviewed a few of Marois’ mysteries for children and teens here.

2012 (#61)

Plot: Henry and his father have just moved to Vancouver where no one knows about the terrible thing that happened a year ago. But Henry can’t forget. His mother has been admitted to a mental institution, he is plagued by nightmares and worried about a possible divorce. Most of all, he is terrified that his family’s secret will be revealed and they will be ostracized once more. When he notices that his new friend – and fellow professional wrestling fan – Farley is the victim of bullying, he fears the past may be repeating itself. On his therapist’s suggestion he has been writing down his experiences. This is his reluctant journal.

This review is based on an ARC provided by Netgalley.

Nielsen’s third book takes place in the same world as Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney (indeed Ambrose from the former and Karen from the later return). The themes are much darker than in the previous two titles but The Reluctant Journal retains Nielsen’s signature humour. A book about bullying and grief should probably not be funny but she has a gift for making a person smile even in the midst of terrible tragedy.

A large part of this is due to her casts of quirky, complex characters. Henry, “who is only writing this because his therapist said he had to, which stinks”, is not quite as strange as Ambrose nor as horrible as Violet but he is awkward and troubled and deals with adversity By. Talking. In a. Robot. Voice. His friend Farley is a stereotypical nerd (with a pocket protector and all) with the ability to bounce back whatever happens to him. And then there is Alberta with her excentric clothes, her lazy eye and her unabashed rudeness whom Henry falls head over heels for. Add to that some quirky, quarrelling neighbours and two parents too overcome by grief to be proper parents to their remaining son. I feel like I’ve known these people all my life (and have occasionally been exasperated by them ^_^).

This is a great book about a difficult situation. Young readers will be able to relate to Henry, to his troubles and to his love of professional wrestling (indeed, Nielsen has almost made me want to watch it). I highly recommend it.

I was thrilled to be able to meet Susin Nielsen at BEA. And she remembered me from Twitter! Keep writing awesome books about strange, troubled kids. ^_^

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen will be released in September 2012.

2012 (#54)

Plot: Two years ago Violet’s father left her mother for an actress. Since then, her mother has been dating a string of losers, each worse than the last. When things start to get serious with her new boyfriend, the unfortunately named Dudley Wiener, Violet knows that she has to do something. Spying, interrogation and pranks are no longer enough. She needs to find a man worthy of her mother and only one man fits the bill: George Clooney.

I think the title says it all. Even the cashier at this book store wanted to read the book after seeing the cover. ^_^

This is a fun, quick read about the grief caused by divorce. Hardly a new subject in middle grade fiction but Nielsen writes effectively and fills her world with interesting, well rounded characters. Nielsen could have, for example, made the step-parents as terrible as Violet expects them to be but Dudley and Jenneca turn out to be much better, more complex people than she gives them credit for at first. And that is without mentioning her sweet little sister Rosie, her mother and a host of other colourful characters. But of course, as we are delving into Violet’s psyche, she is the most developped of all.

Violet is awful. And like her best friend Phoebe, I mostly mean that as a compliment. She is not subtle and she takes out her pain at being abandonned by her father out on everyone around her (even if, like her half-sisters and Phoebe, they do not deserve it). But she is truly creative in driving away her mother’s horrible boyfriends and in punishing her absent dad. I can’t help but smile at the mischief she gets into. And it’s hard to be truly mad at her because her pain and her secret wish to see her family reunited are clear in her every action (even if they are not always clear to her).

The whole story comes to a very satisfying conclusion. I really can believe in Violet’s catharsis and her healing because Nielsen has been building toward it throughout the book. And though I’m not a George Clooney fan, his role in the ending made even me melt a little.

As an added bonus, Violet is an avid reader and mentions many real books for children and teens. I’ve already read a lot of them but it makes me want to go out and find the rest! (Because what I need right now is more books to read. ;P)

Dear George Clooney takes place in the same universe as Nielsen’s previous novel, Word Nerd. Cosmo, Amanda and Ambrose all make appearances. If you liked this book, definitely check out Word Nerd it is as charming and quirky but even funnier.

2012 (#39)

Plot: Maya’s world was turned upside down when she discovered that the small research town where she grew up might actually have been researching the town’s teens. Because Maya is a skin-walker with the power to turn into a cougar and it quickly becomes apparent that she isn’t the only young supernatural in Salmon Creek. A fire forces Maya and her friends to flee by helicopter but they aren’t out of danger. The fire was a ploy by an organization that wants to kidnap the young supernaturals. They must escape into the forest and figure out who they can trust if they want to have any chance of getting out of this situation alive and free.

This is the second book in the Darkness Rising trilogy. I have reviewed the first book, The Gathering, here.

The new book hits the ground running. The teens face helicopter crashes, wilderness survival, pursuits and traps. Maya and her friends never get a chance to catch their breaths and the cost of their freedom is painfully high. It is non-stop excitement and loss. The teens survive by working together, using their brains and their wilderness skills… and occasionally Maya’s cool cougar powers.

Maya and Daniel are my favorite characters. Maya is proud, capable and practical with a deep love for nature. Daniel is a genuinely kind and caring person who is impossible to dislike. They have a wonderful, trusting relationship; they support and complement each other. Litterature needs more boys and girls who are just friends, because yes, it can happen. We unfortunately do not see enough of Rafe, Maya’s bad-boy love interest from the first book, in this book but we do learn a lot about the other teens. Sam, Hayley, Nicole and Corey are not what they first appeared and hints of their powers are starting to show. I can’t wait to learn more about them!

This volume is a bit light on the romance compared to the first book but there are several hot scenes toward the end that will wet your apetite for what is no doubt to come.

If I had one complaint, it’s that Armstrong explains too much. It is a second book and a certain amount of explanation is necessary to situate the reader, to remind us of the characters and their histories. I have no problem with that but I am capable of making connections by myself, it is not necessary to explain every thought process, every emotion. I felt like I was being led along by the hand at times. The feeling lessened, however, as the novel progressed.

In the third and final book, Maya and her friends will meet up with the characters of the Darkest Powers trilogy. I’m really excited, I’ve missed Chloe, Simon and Derek!

2012 (#38)

et cetera