Don’t mind the mess…

I have planned all year to migrate to WordPress from Blogger. I always said, “Well, I think I’ll get to it in the fall.” And here we are! I had a free day today and suddenly felt really motivated. Perhaps I bit off more than I can chew – things should look prettier around here by Sunday – but I think everything is functional. I probably should have made a post before I made the switchover, but I didn’t really think things through 😛  Hopefully I haven’t lost anybody in the transfer.

If you’ve moved from Blogger to WordPress, please let me know any tips you might have! (Also, if you come across any problems/errors…I know there are many, haha. I’m working on them slowly but surely. ) I’m basically starting from scratch with my design and all that. I’m excited to freshen things up and explore some of the plug-ins I hear other bloggers rave about…

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Literary Pilgrimages: Visiting Middle-Earth (Part 2)

 Earlier this year, I spent three months travelling around New Zealand. My primary reason for doing so? Exploring locations starring as Middle-earth in Peter Jackson’s films, of course! Come along as I revisit what will likely remain my most extensive ‘literary’ pilgrimage’.

Twizel

Flag of Rohan
Flag of Rohan used in fliming o.o

My next destination after visiting Mt. Sunday was Twizel. Twizel, a town in the Canterbury region with a year-round population of about 400, played host to thousands more cast and crew for filming of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This is the greatest battle scene in the trilogy, taking place towards the end of The Return of the King.  I took the two hour tour offered by local tour operator OneRing Tourstour. The location can be accessed via tour only as it is on private property. The vast, grassy fields bordered by mountains were stunning. This was my first tour with other LotR fans, and it was fun to geek out with people from around the world. The tour was very informative. I learnt a few facts I hadn’t heard before. For example, Peter Jackson initially wanted to bring in trained cavalry,  considering Canada’s own RCMP. But that idea was squashed once they realized the horses would have stay in quarantine for something like three months. I recommend this tour for fans who like to learn about the behind-the-scenes and how a big battle is brought to life.

This little water made an appearance as a larger river in The Return of the King, as Gandalf and Pippin travel to Gondor. The camera angle makes the river look much larger than it is.

The vast field – no hints of modern civilization to be found! That’s one of the main reasons this location was chosen. The placement of the mountains was also a factor. I don’t have any photos, but there was one line of telephone polls towards the edge of the field that had to be digitally removed. The road in the photo to the left was built to facilitate filming. The farmer who owns the land requested the crew leave it after filming.

I took this photo atop the ridge from where the Rohirrim make their long-awaited appearance at the Fields. Theoden, their King, gives a rousing speech before leading the charge (clip below). I haven’t watched the films since I returned from my trip. I’m a little wary of being removed from them and thinking too often “I was there!!” But when I watched this clip, I got chills. For me, there’s a sense of history about it – it has the same feel as visiting a real place where a real battle occurred in another age.

I spent ten minutes taking landscape photos while the others had fun going through the costumes and swords. I’m not the sort to dress up, but when I saw one person had donned the full Witch-king costume I couldn’t resist getting caught up in the fun…Yes, that’s a replica of Eowyn’s sword! 🙂 If ever I could pull off a real cosplay, I think I would like to cosplay as Eowyn.

Review: A Song to Take the World Apart by Zan Romanoff

Author: Zan Romanoff
Title: A Song to Take the World Apart
Format/Source: ebook/Publisher
Published: 13 September 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA with touch of magical realism
Why I Read: Cover + comparison to Leslye Walton and Jandy Nelson
Rating★★★½
GoodReads IndieBound | Indigo | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Hanging out with Chris was supposed to make Lorelei’s life normal. He’s cooler, he’s older, and he’s in a band, which means he can teach her about the music that was forbidden in her house growing up. Her grandmother told her when she was little that she was never allowed to sing, but listening to someone else do it is probably harmless— right? The more she listens, though, the more keenly she can feel her own voice locked up in her throat, and how she longs to use it. And as she starts exploring the power her grandmother never wanted her to discover, influencing Chris and everyone around her, the foundations of Lorelei’s life start to crumble. There’s a reason the women in her family never want to talk about what their voices can do. And a reason Lorelei can’t seem to stop herself from singing anyway.

I have to admit, I was completely baited in to read this book by the comparisons to I’ll Give You the Sun and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Those novels are two of my favourites in young adult, a category I’m very picky about. I didn’t expect A Song to Take the World Apart to stand up to those two books, but if it was even just a bit like the two, then I could see myself enjoying it. In general, I enjoy magical realism and mythical creatures and ocean settings, and I’m interested to see what can be done with them in a contemporary setting. At first, I wasn’t sure how the plot was going to go. The story starts out a bit slow and very much as typical teen romance. But as Lorelei’s abilities began to play into the plot, the story took on a more serious tone and became the kind of YA I adore.

What I liked most about this book is that the story isn’t just about first love. It’s also about love between friends and family. Lorelei’s best friend Zoe was one of my favourite characters in the book. She helps to ground Lorelei. Lorelei’s brothers, parents, and Oma also play a significant role in the story, just as important as Lorelei’s love interest Chris. Where the story is about teen romance, I appreciated how realistic it felt. I also appreciated how other characters reminded Lorelei that her high school romance was just that – a high school romance, of the sort rarely built to last. I’ve noticed some reviews crying ‘instalove!’ but for me, the development of Lorelei and Chris’ relationship was very natural and how I would expect a young relationship to grow, from my experience. I was so pleased they didn’t get a fairy tale ending. That relationship played out like I wanted it to. With regards to the relationships, I think that’s where this book finds some comparison with I’ll Give You the Sun. The relationships here aren’t as strong or striking but I think they’re just as real.

I also liked how Lorelei experiments with her ability and doesn’t fully know how to control it or use it. She gets caught up in it, as you might expect her to. She has darker moments of negativity where she allows her to use her abilities impulsively and selfishly, as she can’t really imagine the consequences. I thought this worked well as a something of a metaphor for growing up and realizing or learning how we can manipulate ourselves and others for our own greedy desires, even when we’re trying to be decent people. I think this is why I enjoyed the book. It’s not really a love story. It’s a story about growing and finding yourself.
 
When I think of Ava Lavender, I think of the particular and lovely prose. The prose here doesn’t really hold up to Ava Lavender. It’s standard contemporary YA stuff. But there are some great moments, particularly in 1) the descriptions of how Lorelei feels when singing and in 2) some dialogue that captured important concepts.  I wondered how the music scenes would play out, as listening to music can be such a unique and individual experience. Not to mention it’s a very physical thing! Reading a description of music is nowhere near the same as listening to that music. However, Romanoff doesn’t try to describe exactly how or what Lorelei sings. She instead describes the emotions of the experience, which she does very well. As for the dialogue, there were moments that touched on topics I considered important, things that maybe teens don’t hear or talk about enough. That being said, I was frustrated that Zoe and Lorelei (and Lorelei and Chris) don’t have any frank discussions about their relationships. Chris just becomes Lorelei’s boyfriend, without any talk about it. There’s a scene between Lorelei and Chris that I thought implied sex but later on when Lorelei speaks with Zoe, there’s talk about how Lorelei might be jealous because Zoe had sex before Lorelei, and Lorelei doesn’t comment on her own experience (of course the word sex is never actually used). I don’t like the dancing around the subject, though I suppose it is realistic. At that age everything is new and exciting and therefore a bit scary too.

The Bottom Line: Overall, Romanoff makes a solid debut with this contemporary YA tale and its good twist of magical realism. I recommend A Song to Take the World Apart for those who love high school setting YA but could use a little shake-up.

Further Reading:

Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

Author: Jen Sookfong Lee
Title: The Conjoined
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 13 September 2016
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 262 pages
Genre: Contemporary
Why I Read: Premise + setting intrigued me
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound | Indigo | Amazon
Thanks to ECW Press for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review,
 On a sunny May morning, social worker Jessica Campbell sorts through her mother’s belongings after her recent funeral. In the basement, she makes a shocking discovery — two dead girls curled into the bottom of her mother’s chest freezers. She remembers a pair of foster children who lived with the family in 1988: Casey and Jamie Cheng — troubled, beautiful, and wild teenaged sisters from Vancouver’s Chinatown. After six weeks, they disappeared; social workers, police officers, and Jessica herself assumed they had run away. As Jessica learns more about Casey, Jamie, and their troubled immigrant Chinese parents, she also unearths dark stories about Donna, whom she had always thought of as the perfect mother. The complicated truths she uncovers force her to take stock of own life. Moving between present and past, this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.

One might argue that the cover and jacket description tricks the reader into thinking this is a dark thriller in the vein so popular these days. That closing statement (underlined above), however, hints there’s more going on here than a gruesome murder mystery. For me, this is a story about family relationships and how they can break and fail. It’s also about identity, suffering, broken social systems, and understanding how the past forms us. There’s a lot going on here, but these themes organically engage and shape one another in The Conjoined, out next Tuesday (Sept 13).

Despite knowing that two young foster girls would end up dead in a freezer, I didn’t anticipate having my heart broken by Casey and Jamie. The story’s focus on family relationships and broken social systems makes for a tough read. Lee takes us inside the the girls’ family and shows us how their lives fell apart. This quote from the girls’ mother’s perspective especially got me:

No one would believe that she was a good mother. No one would think she had tried her best. She was on the verge of losing her girls, not to a bearded, smelly man in a rusty pick-up truck, but to a phalanx of people who would look at her and see her mistakes, the gaps of time that she had left her daughters alone, the frank conversations she might have started with them but didn’t. She had worried over the wrong threats. (81)

Prose like Lee’s makes me think about why I could never be a strong writer. It’s the little vignettes that always make me pause. Those small personal observations of thoughts, characters, events, etc., bring depth and beauty to the story. These sorts of things I would never think to write about. I’m not a close observer of the world around me (alas, one of my faults!). This is why I love reading. To see, experience, feel, things I might otherwise have overlooked. Example:

She didn’t know what she was crying about – her mother, Trevor, or the girls – but it didn’t matter. She knew that weeping was its own vortex. It spun and pulled until identifiable feelings were no more than fragments, like half-words that only hinted at meaning. She let her arms and legs curl until she was huddled, small, on the floor of the hallway. (26)

Please noteThe remainder of this review contains general spoilers for the conclusion.


I did wonder about the fact that neither Jess nor her father (let alone anyone else) ever went into those freezers for 27 years. The detective briefly addresses this conundrum at one point, but it’s a moot point. This not a whodunit. For those of us who like tidy stories with clear endings, we might find reason to be unsatisfied here. Personally, I felt only a small bit of disappointment. Of course I would rather know than not know, but not knowing didn’t spoil the ending, as it might have in a lesser story.  I understand that you can’t always get a neat little ending with all the answers (in life or in fiction).  This story is, to some extent, about how two girls wind up in a freezer – but it is not about the particular logistics; it’s about something more. And I’m sure this ties in, somehow, to Jess’s growth as a character and her acceptance with not knowing what happened and not knowing her mother as well as she thought. But that’s a bit beyond my literary analysis capabilities. 😛

Some final notes on things I liked: I liked Jess, mostly because I sympathized with her attitude toward her boyfriend and the detective… I also liked how personal recollections interweave with her present day perspective. Jess’ memories slip easily into her present day narrative, just as one might slip into a daydream while folding laundry. I liked the role Jess’s father, plays in the story.

The Bottom Line: Don’t read this for the whodunit side of the story. Read it for the considered exploration of ‘the myth of social heroism’ and the complicated relationships that factor into it.

Further Reading:

Family Reads: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister select a book for us to read and discuss.

 

Sister: I previously read Patrick Ness’ the Chaos Walking trilogy and More Than This. I kept walking past A Monster Calls at work and thought it looked really interesting. A co-worker highly recommended it, which finally convinced me to purchase it.

We both give this book 4.5 stars. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). Here’s our discussion on the illustrations, the role of the monster, and the intensity of the story.

He’d had a nightmare. Well, not a nightmare. The nightmare. The one he’d been having a lot lately. The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. The one that always ended with – (1)

 Illustrations

Sister: I think the illustrations are really cool. I could see why it won an award for them! 
Reno: Yeah, I was thinking about why I like them – I enjoy dark images with lots of textures and layers. 
Sister: Agreed. I also like gray scale illustrations; I think it’s cooler to imagine the colours than to be shown them. 
Reno: Plus, these illustrations are actually scary at times! When you see the whole monster on that first two-page spread, I was like “OMGGGGG he’s coming in!!!” I didn’t expect to see an actual big scary monster. 
Sister: I saw a non-illustrated edition at work and I thought, “What is the point?” The illustrations add so much to the story. I wonder if the movie cinematography will match the atmosphere of the book.

Monster

Reno: I was surprised that there were ‘two’ monsters.
Sister: You don’t think they’re the same?
Reno: *considers this new idea*…I GUESS SO. I guess they could be the same! But what I meant was, you know at the beginning the boy is afraid it’s the monster from his dream but then he’s not scared because “Oh, it’s just a tree.” I was expecting the monster of the title to be the one from his dream. I was surprised when there was also an actual monster. When Conor’s dream monster finally appears, I thought “Here’s the monster I expected.” But then, like you said, maybe they’re the same monster…
Sister: I only thought about that once I finished the book and considered it from a certain religious perspective. As in – if I think the monster is God, and I’m the sort of person who think God has a hand in everything, then God is also cancer/the monster pulling his mom over the cliff? It was just something I thought of afterwards.
Reno: Ahh, right. I don’t think they’re the same, though, especially because of this paragraph.
Sister: I don’t actually think so either; it’s just one theory I thought of. I wonder who’s voicing the monster?
Reno: I don’t know…Liam Neeson or someone haha. Like Aslan, but – what’s his movie about kidnapping? – in a more serious crackly voice.
Sister: I did imagine a kind of crackly voice, though. Cos he’s a tree! *Googles film* Ah, the movie was written by Patrick Ness. Liam Neeson is the monster!
Reno: OMG are you serious?! That is so exciting! High five! Hahaha. I was just joking; maybe I read that somewhere earlier and forgot about it.

Story Intensity

Reno: Did you cry at any part? I mean, even just the quiet kind where your nose gets sniffly and tingly and your eyes sting and then suddenly your vision blurs.
Sister: I don’t cry at books…
Reno: I had a moment with this book. I think the passage where Conor finally admitted his fear to himself might have been that moment.
Sister: Yeah, this story is intense. It’s a veery real thing for everyone whose experience a loved one dying, I think. You just want them to go because you want their pain to end, you want them to die so it stops but you feel bad thinking ‘I want you to die’. I think it’s relatable for a lot of people. I now recommend this book when I have customers tell me ‘I need to talk to my kids about cancer’.
Reno: That’s not something I’ve ever really experienced so I can’t pinpoint that feeling but I did find the story SO SAD when I was reading it. Sad, and very intense.
Sister: Yeah, I was very ignorant of the outside world while reading.
Reno: I was happy his mom didn’t die before he got there. I was relieved. That would have been too nasty. But then, ‘in real life’, what are the chances that he would have made it? She could have passed at any time. But then again, you often hear stories about holding on for their loved ones.

Reno: I’ve read a few things (mostly promotional material for this book) that refer to it being ‘painfully funny’. Was this book funny at any point?
*long pause*
Sister: Nooooo?
Reno: I didn’t think so either! There were a few tiny moments of “Oh, haha.” for some of the monster’s dialogue.
Sister: Cos he acknowledges the boy is being a bit bratty.
Reno: Yup, but not enough to call it ‘painfully funny.’ I suppose the marketing department just don’t want it to come across as too depressing. Even though it’s sad, I don’t think it necessarily needs to humour to make it less sad. There is redemption in this story that prevents it from being too bleak.

At the end of our discussion, we wondered about Siobhan Dowd (who had the initial idea for this book) and what kind of life she lead. We learnt that she passed away from cancer after a three year battle. Have you read this book or any other that deals with a dying parent? Will you see the film version when it’s released in October?