A Rogue Librarian's Reading List

{September 14, 2013}   The Color Purple by Alice Walker

color purplePlot: Two sisters, raised in an abusive household, are separated by the men in their lives but they remain loyal to each other for decades through pain, loss and love, in spite of insurmountable distances and overwhelming odds.

This is a novel that I have been meaning to read for a long time but that I was simultaneously wary of reading. I had read a sample chapter and was left deeply troubled by the frank discussion of abuse, incest and rape. I’m glad I worked past my reluctance, however, because this is an amazing book, truly deserving its Pulitzer Prize. Don’t get me wrong, this novel is hard, triggery and often unhappy. But Celie and Nettie’s voices are so authentic, their struggles, so engaging that I could not put the novel down.

This is a novel written in letters. Most of the letters are written by the elder sister, Celie. Celie writes as she speaks, something which I don’t like in fiction generally, but Walker handles it so well that far from getting in the way of the narrative, it enhances it. It truly feels like Celie’s voice. She addresses her letters to God, at least at first, because she has no one else to write to. But as she comes to believe in her sister’s survival and see the beauty and divinity in the world around her, Nettie becomes her audience. There is so much going on in her narrative that it is hard to capture in a short review: abuse (verbal, physical and sexual), racism, family, marriage, prison, love and women finding their power. It is simply life, in all its complexity, for black women in the southern United States.

Nettie’s letters come later in the novel and deal with her mission to Africa, with the destruction of a tribe and a way of life in the name of economics and progress. There are some disturbing aspects to this mission: the missionaries look upon the Olinka and their traditions as primitive and they are hurt that they are not viewed much differently than the white missionaries. But one cannot ignore the truth that sometimes that even the well-intentioned can do or say troubling things. And Nettie’s narrative has its own ups and downs. It is as emotional and engaging as her sister’s.

Emotional, engaging, thought-provoking, spiritual… this is quite simply a beautiful, if difficult novel. One to read again and again.

2013 (#43)


rose under firePlot: While ferrying a plane through France, ATA pilot and amateur poet Rose Justice is captured by Nazis. She is sent to the notorious women’s concentration camp known as Ravensbruck along with some French political prisoners. In the camp she is subject to torture, deprivation and random cruelty but manages to hold on to hope through the friendship and loyalty of her fellow prisoners. But will she be able to bear witness to the horrors of Ravensbruck and find justice for her fallen friends?

This review was based on an ARC received at BEA 2013.

Rose Under Fire is a companion book to last year’s amazing Code Name Verity. Maddie, from the first book, appears, there are more brave female pilots and it takes place during WWII but otherwise it is a completely different book. It is just as good – though perhaps more troubling – but very different. (But if I had to pick a favorite, I would have to reluctantly say Code Name Verity… a well written unreliable narrator gets me every time.)

Rose narrates the story. The first two sections, covering the time before and during her incarceration, are written in diary style while the third, covering the trials is a newspaper article. This gives an uncomfortable proximity to the events, one that I think is absolutely necessary for this kind of narrative. But Rose is a poet, as well as a pilot, and the novel is also full of her poetry. Some are beautiful, terrible poems about life in the camp and others are simple, painfully nostalgic rhymes about home. Though her story is fictional, Rose voice is authentic and her circumstances real and carefully researched.

The simple, matter of fact (and sometimes even funny) way that Rose describes the atrocities of Ravensbruck (the hunger, the violence, the hopelessness, the death), makes them, if anything, more horrifying. “Though I don’t know,” she says of one of her first friends in the camp, “if her hair ever grew back before they gassed her” (p 121). But it was the plight of the Rabbits, young Polish girls subjected to barbaric medical experiments, turned my stomach. These are images that will stick with me for a long, long time. For though the angry, sometimes nasty young Roza and sweet, artistic Karolina are fictional, the book pays tribute to the real Rabbits who were tortured at Ravensbruck: their names are printed in the background of the title page.

There are so many memorable characters in this book, I couldn’t do them justice. All are complex and even the best of them are forced to do things that we would consider uncivilized or unforgivable in order to survive. Would you be able to prop up the corpses of your fallen friends in order to fool the SS guards counting you? They are also capable of surprising acts of loyalty and generosity… even characters that should be enemies. Rose is a brave, intelligent young woman but her survival is not entirely due to courage. Some of it stubbornness and some is what Wein poetically calls “controlled flight into terrain”: she simply has no other choice but to fly blindly into danger.

This is not an easy book but it is well worth it the pain.

Rose Under Fire will be released in September 2013 and contains an ample bibliography for those who want to learn more about the horrors of Ravensbruck.

2013 (#35)

NothingBilly Bat, volume 6 (French) by Naoki Urasawa

Comic artist Kevin Yamagata finally meets Lee Harvey Oswald, who has been haunting his visions. Someone is after both men and it is hinted that Kevin’s death could trigger the end of the world. We also meet a new character visited by the mysterious bat. With every volume the stakes in Urasawa’s strange suspense series rise. I never know what to expect. I can just keep reading. Urasawa may be a genius.

La Corda dOro, volume 17 by Yuki Kure

  • This volume marks the end of Kure’s sweet, though not particularly innovative, musically-themed harem series. Kahoko continues to struggle with her violin skills – or lack thereof – with her characteristic perseverance while the boys must make serious decisions about their futures. She also finally comes to understand her feelings for the cold violin prodigy, Len. The conclusion to their romance doesn’t feel very satisfying but maybe I’m just bitter because Kazuki was my favorite of the boys. He doesn’t get enough love. 😉 My taste in boys aside, it is a nice ending to a pleasant series.

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jeppPlot: When Jepp leaves to become court dwarf to the Spanish Infanta, he is promised luxury and position. He does not expect the indignities and injustices he faces. But it is the pain suffered by the beautiful dwarf Lia that drives him to escape… and leads him, in chains, to Uranisburg where his new master, Tycho Brahe, studies the mysteries of the stars. Meanwhile Jepp struggles to discover his origins and change his fate.

This is a touching and beautiful tale about identity, fate, free will, dignity and science (as a side note, I love that Marsh is true to the science of the period and never tries to impose present knowledge on it). The tale is eloquently narrated by Jepp himself. I was drawn in by the first simple but evocative lines: “Being a court dwarf is no easy task. I know because I failed at it.” And I never lost my interest.

As Marsh explains in her afterword, this story is inspired by actual people and events and by paintings of court dwarves such as Las Meninas. She takes the figure of Jepp, a simple dwarf jester serving the Danish astrologer Tycho Brahe, and turns him into an intelligent and complex character struggling against fate and prejudice.

There is also a beautiful love story. But not the one you might expect. Jepp loves two women in this book. The first, the lovely Lia, is his equal in height and his companion in his luxurious prison. But it is Magdalena, who his equal in intelligence and shares his troubled origins, that is the truly interesting one. Jepp can`t stand her at first but watching their friendship and then love blossom was a beautiful thing.

I found the ending a bit sappy and convenient but then I’m told that I’m not happy unless the author tears my heart out at the end. I think a lot of people will be satisfied with the way Jepp makes his own fate with the woman he has come to love.

A wonderful and unique historical novel. Highly recommended.

2013 (#4)

kingdom on the wavesPlot: In the midst of the American revolution, Octavian has escaped his masters and fled to British-occupied Boston. The city is under siege but Lord Dunmore has promised freedom to all slaves that join with him against the rebels. Octavian enlists in The Royal Ethiopian Regiment but he is not prepared for the horrors of war.

The Kingdom on the Waves is the second volume in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation. The first book, The Pox Party, about a young slave boy raised like a European prince in a sick experiment, absolutely destroyed me. It shook me to my core. The second volume was as painful and thoughtful.

This novel, like the first in the series, is written in a series of diary entries, letters and proclamations (some of them real). Anderson perfectly captures the voices of the characters, their ways of speaking and seeing the world, and his writing is exquisite. His 18th century America felt so real, it was like being there. Which wasn’t always a comfortable feeling.

This is not a story about the glory of war. There is nothing glorious about the conditions that the Royal Ethiopians live and die in. They are hounded by the rebels, trapped on ships, riddled with disease and mistreated by both sides of the war. But their anger, their grief and their striving for freedom and a better life really touched me. It is all the worse for knowing that we once treated people like this.

This is a YA book but Anderson never talks down to his audience. His book is incredibly smart, full of references to classic litterature and philosophical reflections. He makes us consider the nature of liberty, of war, of altruism and of identity. Though his characters have many reasons to despair and to lose faith in the goodness of man, the book ends with a measure of hope.

This series is a must read for all fans of historical fiction. It is gripping and eye-opening.

2012 (#117)

Plot: Hugo Cabret is the orphaned son of a clockmaker living in the walls of a train station in Paris in 1931. All that remains of his father is his last project: an automaton of a writing man. He spends his days maintaining the station’s clocks and stealing the pieces he needs to fix the automaton. But he would never have suspected that the machine and the message that it holds will lead him to the mysterious Georges Melies, one of the first great filmmakers.

Selznick has created a beautiful and inovative graphic novel (and by that I mean a novel with important visual elements, not a comic). The Invention of Hugo Cabret is so much more than than an illustrated novel: Selznick’s images don’t simply illustrate the text but add to it. He continues the written narrative through his striking and detailed black and white images. This format is perfect for a novel about early cinema: each image looks like a shot in a sequence (indeed, flipping through the pages is great fun) and the text reminds me of the title cards in silent film.

Hugo is a fascinating character: he is skilled, intelligent and distrustful of others and he has had a remarkably hard life. I enjoyed reading about him and the people he encounters, not least of which Georges Melies. There are mysteries, secrets and chases a plenty. But the real pleasure for me was the wonderful and detailed history about films, magicians and automatons and the ways in which Selznick brings them all together.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a quick, engaging read. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. There is absolutely nothing supernatural about this book and yet it possesses a rare magic sure to enchant.

Also check out Selznick’s second novel, Wonderstruck, which is written in the same style.

Also check out the movie trailer:


2012 (#88)

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{August 14, 2012}   What I Was by Meg Rosoff

Plot: An old man looks back on his adolescence in the 60s and the friendship that changed his life. When he was sent to St. Oswald’s, one more in a string of dismal boarding schools, he expected more of the same: boredom, mediocrity and loneliness. But there he met Finn, a mysterious boy living alone in a hut on an island off the coast of England. He insinuates himself into Finn’s life until they become unlikely friends.

Rosoff’s novel is a unique meditation on adolescence and friendship. Her language is beautiful and evocative: I kept wanting to underline sentences. The narrator has some very interesting insights on his life (though he is ultimately shown to be quite naive). But if you are looking for something fast-paced and action-heavy, this isn’t the novel for you.

What I Was is, as the title suggests, a character study and it is ultimately all about the narrator. The other characters serve as mirrors into his psyche. Finn, as the narrator sees him, is the masculine ideal (free and self-sufficient) that he aspires to become whereas Reese is the needy, Gollum-like figure he fears that he actually is. We see hints of the characters’ true selves but the narrator’s adolescent self is too self-absorbed to notice. This self-absorption is what makes the climax of the book believable.

The narrator isn’t always likable: he clearly doesn’t like himself, which colours the way he is portrayed, and he is selfish in his relationships with others. The friendship at the center of the novel is really all about himself and the image of Finn that he makes up in his head. But Finn is fascinating and, like the narrator, I really wanted to know more about him.

Though the book has a great climax, well delivered, I found the ending a bit meandering and unsatisfying… very much like endings in real life can be. However, real life isn’t necessarily what I’m looking for in my fiction. I would have liked a bit more closure. But this doesn’t affect the beautiful writing and the fascinating character study.

2012 (#83)

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Plot: Octavian is the son of a proud Oyo princess. For as long as he can remember, they have lived in Boston in a house full of natural philosophers. He was given a classical education worthy of a prince and his every action was carefully studied. Just as he begins to understand the nature and purpose of his experiment, everything changes. Revolution, vanishing funds and a small pox epidemic strip him of all his remaining liberties and luxuries. His only solution may be to run.

I can’t believe this book has just been sitting on my shelf unread for years. I met M.T. Anderson when I was at BEA 2012 (and watched Shannon Hale write on his arm :)) and it’s probably best for him that I hadn’t read it yet. I would have gushed incoherently. I LOVED this book. Anderson is an amazing writer. I’m in awe of his perfectly constructed sentences, of his subtle language and of the way he captures both Octavian’s narrative voice and the language of the period.

This isn’t an easy novel. Anderson pulls no punches and I was often shocked breathless by the little inhumanities heaped upon Octavian and his fellow slaves. Though he asks for no pity, it’s hard not to be sickened by the way he is treated; in fact, the straight forward way (observant, he calls it) in which he describes these indignities makes them seem so much worse. Something as simple as a name can speak volumes about the status Africans in the colonies. Worst perhaps is the knowledge that while the revolutionaries speak of liberty, most do not intend it for the slaves who fight and die alongside them.

Yet, in the midst of this unspeakable horror (some moments so terrible that Octavian literally cannot write them), there are also moments of humour. I laughed out loud at the description of one of the philosophers who believed that things only existed when observed: he was known to run to his room, throw open the door and yell “ah-ha!”. And this is just one example of the wonderful little details that bring the characters to life.

I could talk forever about the wonders of this book. If you have any interest in history, slavery or the history of science, you should read The Pox Party. This is one of the best historical novels that I have ever read, YA or otherwise. Octavian’s story continues in Kingdom of Waves. I cannot wait to read it.

To end, I leave you with Octavian’s thoughts on the joys of reading:

By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one’s familiar walks and avenues; while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness; and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways; immobile and thus unfettered. (p. 143)

2012 (#72)

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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)

{June 12, 2012}   The Diviners by Libba Bray

Plot: When Evie touches something, she can glimpse the owner’s secrets. But after she reveals a shameful secret about the town’s golden boy at a drunken party, her whole family’s reputation is threatened. Her parents send her to stay with her bachelor uncle in Manhattan until the scandal blows over. It is meant as a punishment but Evie can only think of shops, speakeasies and a reunion with her friend Mabel. Instead she, and several other young New Yorkers with powers such as her own, find themselves caught up in a string of gruesome, mystical murders.

This review is based on an ARC received at BEA 2012.

Another eagerly awaited book that far exceeded my expectations! The Diviners reminded me a bit of The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. The two novels take place in different countries and time periods but both are about girls with supernatural powers helping to solve gastly murders involving ghosts. So if you liked the mystery and the supernatural in Johnson’s book, you will surely like this one as well.

But that is where the similarities end. Bray’s novel takes place in the roaring twenties, in the world of flappers, jazz and prohibition. Bray brings this world to vivid life; I could almost hear the music, smell the smoke. Evie fits right into this world (as she never did in her home town): she is a true modern girl in the endless pursuit of fun, of life. She can be selfish and careless, too much as her parents and peers call her, but she is ever clever, a pleasure to be around and anything but ordinary.

Indeed most of the characters have hidden depths. There are too many to go into great detail: Harlem poet and healer, Memphis; Ziegfield girl, Theta and her “brother” Henry; Evie’s scholarly uncle Will and mysterious assistant Jericho; Mabel, a subdued girl and the daughter of socialists. And then there is Sam. My friends say I like a scoundrel and I must admit that it’s true: though he is a thief and a liar, I cannot resist Sam. He always puts a smile on my face. It’s truly a wonderful cast and I wasn’t eager to leave them.

The mystery will, meanwhile, send a chill down your spine. The murders are terribly gruesome and seem almost inevitable: the murderer is always a step ahead of the protagonists. Bray keeps raising the stakes, no one seems safe. I can still hear the murderer’s eerie little rhyme “Naughty John, Naughty John, does his work with his apron on…” I might have nightmares. 😉

The Diviners will be released in September 2012 by Little, Brown.

2012 (#57)

et cetera