Jessica Miller’s Elizabeth and Zenobia Exemplifies Gothic MG

Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller

Elizabeth and Zenobia coverFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2017
Publisher: Amulet Books
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Middle grade gothic
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

When Elizabeth and her unusual and fearless friend Zenobia arrive at Witheringe House, peculiar things begin to happen.

Especially in the forbidden East Wing.

The flowers and vines of the wallpaper sometimes seem to be alive.

A mirror has a surface like the water of a pond.

And an old book tells a different story after midnight.

Zenobia is thrilled by the strangeness, but Elizabeth is not so bold…

Until she makes a mysterious and terrifying discovery.

Here is a spooky middle grade tale I can get behind! There is a countryside estate that’s been boarded up for some years, there is an overgrown garden and labyrinth, there is a distant father with a mysterious past. While the story doesn’t scare, not in the way of Coraline or The Nest, it uses a handful of gothic tropes to create its own tense and atmospheric moments. Miller writes well for this genre. Her descriptions aren’t too flowery, yet they are creative enough to set an evocative scene. What really brings the setting and story to life, however, are the delightful cast of characters.

Elizabeth and Zenobia play off each wonderfully. Miller gives each a distinct voice. If I described both girls, I might make them sound like caricatures, but they come across as believable young girls. Elizabeth makes for a unique protagonist in these kind of stories – she is not a daring and adventurous child. Zenobia is brash and bold; Elizabeth is scared of many things. Zenobia wants to contact the spirits she assumes inhabit Witheringe House; Elizabeth would rather not. And a similarity – Zenobia can only be seen Elizabeth; Elizabeth wishes her father would see her better. Zenobia’s eager tendency towards the gruesome also helps shape the darker tone of the story. They are the best of friends, and the story explores how they navigate that friendship when their personalities clash. While the plot takes some time to show itself, I found the daily interactions of Elizabeth and Zenobia in their creepy new home entertaining enough.

In addition to Elizabeth and Zenobia, there is a housekeeper whose ability to appear without warning greatly impresses Zenobia and serves as a running gag. There is a tutor who is not the antagonist of the story. And there are a few more characters that I’ll leave you to discover…

My primary criticism lies in the ending. I felt the story concluded abruptly. The mystery surrounding Zenobia never receives an explicit explanation. I like stories neatly wrapped up at the end, though I am coming to learn that’s not always necessary. Zenobia’s nature being revealed was never a promise of the main story line (though I crossed my toes hoping it would come up). The illustrations were not at all to my taste. I tried to be forgiving – “Maybe they’re meant to look like they’re drawn by a kid…” – but personally, I just think they’re bad. Edit (Oct. 13): I did not think to consider that the illustrations were not finalized in my ARC. (As a blogger who’s been reviewing ARCs for awhile, I am a little embarrassed…). Thank-you to the author for politely pointing this out to me. I have since purchased the book and am happy to report that the illustrations are much more tidy and refined, yet they still retain a quirky quality that’s very appropriate to the story and characters.

The Bottom Line:

A delightful tale of friendship between two very different young girls, Elizabeth and Zenobia is an example of Victorian Gothic middle grade fiction that other books could look up to.

Further Reading:

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August and September 2017 Month in Review

August and September Month in Review

October is here! Oh, how I love this month. Autumn seems even better here in Vancouver than in Winnipeg. The air is crisp, the sun is bright, the leaves are changing to all sorts of marvelous colours, and I can see mountains from my house. I can’t wait until my couch finally arrives next week and I can cozy up with a blanket, a mug of hot chocolate, and a good book.

In the post announcing my hiatus, I said “Look for me in October”. I have been giving some thought to whether the hiatus should continue in October, now that I have an idea of how much of my time coursework eats up. I have found the readings and assignments to be very reasonably paced. The catch with October is that I am spending two weekends travelling, so I am losing a lot of time there. I’ve decided to remain on semi-hiatus. What does that mean? I will be checking in more with everyone on Twitter, trying to comment on a few blogs, and posting maybe once a week here. I wrote a couple post in the past few weeks and they reminded me how much I enjoy blogging. I’m eager to get back into it, but will have to be careful not to mix up my priorities… TL;DR: I’ll be active again the book blogging world, but won’t be posting on a schedule or reading your blogs as much as usual. 

Books Finished

  • Patina by Jason Reynolds (Track #2)
  • The Painting by Charis Cotter
  • Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller
  • Strangers by David A. Robertson (The Reckoner #1)
  • The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Books Reviewed

Features

Happening in October

  • 1 Oct – Publication of Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar (middle grade novel about a young girl and her mother’s involvement in Gandhi’s protests for India independence)
  • 3 Oct – Publication of Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (put this one on my TBR after reading the author interview in this month’s Goodreads newsletter) and Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore (ee, I’m sure this will be gorgeous)
  • 10 Oct – Publication of Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (do I need to say anything about this one? I’ve been a vlogbrothers fan since 2007 so while I’m not as excited about a new JG novel as I was as a teen, I’m still looking forward to this.) and The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (the excellent picture book duo strike again!)
  • 13 Oct – Publication of From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty (I had never planned to read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, her book about working in a crematorium, but I did and enjoyed it, so this also book interests.
  • 21 Oct Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon, 10th anniversary! Reader sign-ups open now. Wish I could participate, but I’ll be in Seattle (attending a Depeche Mode concert, so can’t really complain :P)
  • 31 Oct  – Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (the book I mentioned in Diversity Spotlight #4)

I’ve been disconnected from the blogging community for awhile. What books have you been enjoying? What posts have I missed out on? Please leave me a link in the comments!

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Cybils 2017

Cybils 2017

Today nominations open for the Cybils Awards. The Cybils are the Children’s and Young Adult Blogger’s Literary Awards. The award “aims to recognize the children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose books combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal”.

How to Participate

Nominations will remain open from today until 15 October. Anyone can nominate a book (one nomination per category). There are 10 categories, ranging from board books to graphic novels to young adult speuclative fiction. Nominated books must be 1) published in Canada or the USA, 2) between 16 October 2016 and 15 October 2017, and 3) written in English. Books don’t need multiple nominations to make the cut. If you nominate it, it will be considered! You can find out more about nominating at the Cybils website.

My Role

Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in the Cybils as a panelist for middle grade fiction. This year, I will be participating as a judge for middle-grade speculative fiction, my favourite genre 🙂 This means I will be part of the second round group that selects a finalist from the shortlist created by the round one panelists. I am honored and excited to work with a group of book bloggers who are experts in the genre. Be sure to check out their blogs.

Have you read any books this year that you think are worth nominating?

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Charis Cotter’s The Painting Explores Mother-Daughter Relationships via Time Slip

The Painting by Charis Cotter

The Painting by Charis CotterFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 19 September 2017
Publisher: Tundra Books
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade time slip
Rating: ★★★½
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Annie and her mother don’t see eye to eye. When Annie finds a painting of a lonely lighthouse in their home, she is immediately drawn to it–and her mother wishes it would stay banished in the attic. To her, art has no interest, but Annie loves drawing and painting.
When Annie’s mother slips into a coma following a car accident, strange things begin to happen to Annie. She finds herself falling into the painting and meeting Claire, a girl her own age living at the lighthouse. Claire’s mother Maisie is the artist behind the painting, and like Annie, Claire’s relationship with her mother is fraught. Annie thinks she can help them find their way back to each other, and in so doing, help mend her relationship with her own mother.

But who IS Claire? Why can Annie travel through the painting? And can Annie help her mother wake up from her coma?

Back in 2014, I was so charmed by Charis Cotter’s debut The Swallow (review here) that I nominated it for a Cybils award. Today I’m reviewing Cotter’s sophomore middle grade novel. The mention of a lonely lighthouse caught my interest. Cotter, a native of Toronto who now lives in Newfoundland, evokes crisp imagery in her descriptions of the coast and lighthouse. The atmosphere, for me, makes up for the lack of explicit ghosts.

Annie soon deduces Claire’s identity, so I don’t believe it’s a spoiler to state that Claire is Annie’s mother, some years in the past. I enjoy books that explore the familial relationships between children and adults (an enjoyment that can be traced back to my reading of Inkheart at 10 years old). The mother-daughter relationships explored in The Painting are the kind where the daughter wants one thing for herself and the mother wants something else for the daughter. Conflicts sparks as they fail to understand each other’s needs. (The Pixar film Brave also did a great job at exploring this kind of relationship.) Annie sees her relationship with Claire inverted in Claire’s relationship with her own mother Maisie – Maisie paints, Claire studies, Claire wants to attend high school in town and Maisie wants her to stay at the lighthouse. In the modern timeline, Annie finds herself clashing with Claire over Annie’s interest in art and her introverted demeanor.

A number of poignant moments are scattered throughout the story. The death of Claire’s younger sister complicates Claire and Maisie’s relationship and gives further depth to their relationship. The first person narrative of a young girl who thinks she’s to blame for her sibling’s death or who believes her mother doesn’t love her can sting to read.

If you liked the style of The Swallow, you will probably like the style of The Painting. The narrative alternates between the two girls in short segments. As with The Swallow, I found Annie and Claire’s voices to be very similar. There is less creepiness in The Painting than in The Swallow – though atmospheric, the characters drive The Painting even more so than in The Swallow.

The Bottom Line:

A touching story primarily set along Newfoundland’s atmospheric coast, Annie and Claire work together across decades to save Annie’s mother and in the process repair their own relationships with their mothers.

Further Reading:

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Patty Ain’t No Junk – Review of Patina by Jason Reynolds

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Cover of PatinaSeries: Track #2
Format/Source: ARC/Publisher
Published: 29 August 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Middle grade contemporary
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Patina, or Patty, runs like a flash. She runs for many reasons—to escape the taunts from the kids at the fancy-schmancy new school she’s been sent to since she and her little sister had to stop living with their mom. She runs from the reason WHY she’s not able to live with her “real” mom any more: her mom has The Sugar, and Patty is terrified that the disease that took her mom’s legs will one day take her away forever. So Patty’s also running for her mom, who can’t. But can you ever really run away from any of this? As the stress builds up, it’s building up a pretty bad attitude as well. Coach won’t tolerate bad attitude. No day, no way. And now he wants Patty to run relay…where you have to depend on other people? How’s she going to do THAT?

I first encountered Jason Reynolds last year when I read Ghost, the first book in his Track series. Ghost ended up winning the 2016 Cybils award for middle grade fiction. Patina, the follow up to Ghost, hits just as many right notes as Ghost -even if they’re different notes. In his first novel from a female perspective, Reynolds has crafted a unique voice that brings Patina to life in a distinct way from that of Ghost, the previous novel’s male protagonist. If you haven’t read anything by Reynolds, I highly recommend this series. The Track books do a great job of exploring middle grade life, the importance of friends and family, and how sport can benefit kids in more ways than one. Patina would be a good story if Reynolds tackled even just one of these topics, but he has managed to bring them all together in a well-balanced blend.

Patina’s plot differs from Ghost in that it lacks a central conflict stemming from Patina’s own actions (i.e. Ghost steals a pair of shoes and has to deal with the consequence). There is a tense pivotal moment, yet one of a very different nature than in Ghost. Instead, Patina focuses more on the exploration of Patina’s relationships with friends, family, and track mates.  I loved reading along as Patina realizes how much she loves her family and how much she values everything they do for one another. She learns to balance her competitiveness and her track life with her school and family life.

Beyond his on-point exploration of life as a middle schooler, Reynolds also explores how Patina’s life differs from her White classmates as she and her younger sister (who are Black) are raised by her White aunt and Black uncle. Patina’s mother has lost her legs to diabetes and can no longer raise her children, but she still plays a large and important role in her children’s lives. This is a family situation I haven’t seen before in a middle grade novel. It sends a strong message that just because a mother of father can’t provide for a child in a traditional sense, doesn’t mean that they don’t love and care about them.

Something would be missing from this review if I didn’t mention track! I have (had?) no interest in sports novels before I was required to read Ghost. Now I can see where they get their appeal from. Track practice provides a unique setting for the characters to interact in. The advice from the coaches and banter between team mates felt refreshing to me – a change from the usual school or home life based discussions. And of course, the build-up to the big race creates a solid structure for pacing the novel.

The Bottom Line:

If you enjoyed GhostPatina won’t disappoint. Patina demonstrates all of Reynold’s writing chops as he tells an engaging story through a strong voice.

Further Reading:

Read Diverse 2017
This post counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 reviewing challenge!

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