It’s been a couple years since I participated in Armchair Book Expo. Perhaps it will be just the jolt to get me back into blogging regularly 😉 The introduction prompt this year is 10 sentence starters; here are my responses to five of them:
I am . . . a 25 year old Canadian currently working as an EA with dreams of becoming a children’s librarian (I start an MLIS in the fall).
My favorite . . . authors are (in no prioritized order) Haruki Murakami, Helen Oyeyemi, Neil Gaiman, J.R.R. Tolkien, Cornelia Funke, Neal Shusterman, and Catherynne M. Valente.
My current read . . . I have a lot on the go right now. This afternoon I was reading Independent People by Halldor Laxness (Icelandic fiction from the 1950s). I’m also reading The Hobbit, a book of Japanese haiku, and Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hothschild. (Saving the middle grade for this weekend’s 48 hour book challenge).
My summer plans . . . include enjoying my last Winnipeg Fringe Festival (second largest in North America) before I move to Vancouver in August.
My blog. . .primarily features reviews of a wide variety of books (including fiction and non-fiction), as recording my thoughts on what I read has always been my primary purpose in blogging. I post sporadically but try to work it out to eight times a month.
The other topic for today is best practices in the online book community. I’m not the greatest at participating in community so I don’t have much to say on this topic but I am interested in what other people come up with. (Perhaps what I would have to say could be distilled down to ‘be considerate’.) Time to blog hop!
Are you participating in Armchair BEA? Leave a link to your post in the comments if so~
I purchased this book expecting a field guide of sorts to the plants found in Middle-earth*. The Plants of Middle-earth instead uses said greenery as a point from which to explore various themes and concepts in Tolkien’s work. Hazell argues that Tolkien’s careful selection and naming of plants both real and fantastic reflects the implications of the grander tale.
The Lord of the Rings is far too complex to be reduced to a simple tale of good versus evil, but one of the questions that must be asked is whether it is ultimately optimistic or pessimistic. Tolkien explores the issue in many places, not least in his botany, where he directs our gaze toward the ephemeral beauty of a single bloom and the enduring strength of nature. (43)
I particularly liked the chapter “Forest and Trees”, which discusses significance of trees (beyond the role of Ents) via a tour of the forests of Middle-Earth. I also came to appreciate a brief aside on modernization and Sarehole Mill, which I initially thought was somewhat removed from the topic (84 to 87).
Of course, The Lord of the Rings cannot become commonplace, regardless of how often we read it. But hopefully awareness of its plant life will offer a new perspective for future visits to Middle-earth. (95)
The Plants of Middle-earth is a pretty little book, an example of why one might prefer physical over digital. The deep green binding is soft to touch and the pages have a bit of weight to them.The lovely illustrations are one of this book’s feature attractions. However, the illustrations were not captioned. I could usually figure out which plant featured in the illustrations, but some pages described multiple plants and I wasn’t quite sure what was being depicted. For those wondering about the artists, that information is tucked in the back of the book (117).
I recommend this book for a fresh take on the world of Middle-earth, through the lens of its plentiful plant life.
*For anyone interested in such a field guide, a forthcoming release from Oxford UP (Flora of Middle-Earth) might be the book we’re looking for.
A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins
The title A Secret Vice refers to a talk that J.R.R. Tolkien originally gave in 1931. He discussed the joys of inventing language and the significant role language has to play in mythology creation.
I had previously read parts of Tolkien’s essay back 2013, when I fulfilled a years long dream of writing about Tolkien for my undergrad degree. The paper I wrote was titled “Retaining Meaning: Translating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth”, and it dealt very much with Tolkien’s passion for language creation. I was pleased to learn A Secret Vice” was being released in similar to fashion to “On Fairy-Stories”, which was released in an independent volume titled Tolkien On Fairy Stories. This book would have been handy to have around during my undergrad!
The talk itself spans 31 pages. A brief “Essay on Phonetic Symbolism” is also included in the book. (The editors theorize that Tolkien may have written the essay to expand on ideas not integral to “A Secret Vice” .) A 54 page introduction serves well in providing context for the actual essay. Not just padding, the introduction explores the social and cultural context in which Tolkien was writing as well characteristics of his invented languages. A 15 page coda after the essay and manuscripts titled “The Reception and Legacy of Tolkien’s Invented Languages” continues the style of the introduction in exploring Tolkien’s impact. Finally, manuscripts are also included. Sometimes these can reveal a lot about a writer’s development of thought, but I skipped them in this volume.
Originally a talk given to a literary society (xxxi), “A Secret Vice” has a relatively casual and at times self-deprecating tone. Having read so much of Tolkien’s fiction, I find it something of a novelty to read in his own ‘voice’. Fans of Tolkien or those interested in constructed languages will appreciate the sentiments expressed and ideas explored in A Secret Vice.
Do either of these books interest you? Is there a fantasy world for which you would like to read a plants field guide?
Radio Silence blew me away. I imagine it’ll be one of my favourite reads of the year. It’s a rare YA novel that I can objectively appreciate and also personally connect with. I have a lot of thoughts on this book. The following review is broken into four sections: representing the modern high school experience, atmosphere, racial and sexual diversity, and attending university.
Representing the Today’s High School Experience
Upon first seeing the author photo of Alice Oseman, I thought she looked really young. She is – she was born in 1994. (That’s my baby sister’s age?!) Oseman’s age goes a long way to explaining how Oseman wrote such a realistic novel. She lived her teen and uni years just as I lived them. I found the experiences described in Radio Silence to be spot on as to my coming of age years. This includes small things (such as certain mannerisms) and bigger things (such as engagement in online communities). Frances narrates with blunt and dry humour. There’s no sense of “Haha, I’m so awkward” that sometimes happens when authors try to recreate teen life. I’ve never read text message conversations that felt so real, like they were lifted straight out of a friend’s phone. (That’s one thing that can be particularly different for adult writers to get right, I’ve found).
Apart from accurately representing what it’s like to grow up in the 2010s, Radio Silence cut close to home for me in a couple other ways. Frances’ friends at school don’t really know her. They have one impression of her (boring and studious). She doesn’t know how to show them what she’s really like. They don’t believe that person (the real Frances) could exist. I felt that hard in my last years of high school/first years of uni. I changed, and my friends’ understanding of me took a lot longer to catch up. It was a frustrating time, and one I’ve not really seen depicted in YA before (admittedly, my YA scope is very small).
The other aspect of the book that I deeply related to was the lack of romance and the friendship between Frances and Aled. My best friend is a guy. It has taken many of years of us being ‘just’ friends for people to start accepting that there aren’t any romantic feelings between us. I would love to see more strong friendships, like Frances and Aled’s, in YA. The lack of romance also mirrors my high school experience. My friends and I didn’t date much; we weren’t searching for our one true loves. Our friendships were definitely more important than our romantic relationships at that time.
Radio Silence captures a particular atmosphere that I hadn’t previously experienced in YA. The characters live in the real world, but the mystery of where Carys went and what Radio Silence (the underground YouTube podcast that the novel centers on) lends a mysterious air to the story. Oseman has said Welcome to Night Vale inspired Radio Silence – it definitely has a similar vibe. I’m also reminded of Stranger Things, with its focus on friendships in a spooky setting. Frances’ first person narration is down to earth and realistic, but it also gives a particular insight into one bright and creative girl’s mind.
Sexuality and Racial Diversity
I have a read few interviews with Oseman (who is White and British) where she stated she dislikes her debut novel Solitaire for its lack of racial diversity. She made a concentrated effort to improve diversity in Radio Silence. Frances is British-Ethiopian, with a White mother and an Ethiopian father (who does not play a role in the story). Frances’ race is not integral to the story (as it is, for example, in The Hate U Give). As I am White myself, I don’t feel confident evaluating whether Frances is a good example of biracial representation. I applaud Oseman’s efforts to diversify her cast of characters, though. (Supporting characters include Daniel [Korean] and Raine [Indian]).
The characters are also diverse in their sexuality. Frances is bisexual and Aled is asexual. Aled’s sexuality is something that he works out throughout the book. It’s not something that he immediately knows. Frances’ sexuality is similar to her racial identity, in that that’s just a part of her identity – it’s not a big deal. I appreciate the ace representation and normalization of bisexuality.
“You Don’t Have to Go to College”
I have mixed feelings on the “you don’t have to go to university” message. I agree that kids shouldn’t be pressured into attending university just because it’s the thing to do. A university degree does not guarantee employment, let alone employment in your desired field. University also isn’t the only choice for higher education. High school students should be made aware that they have a variety of options and that they they have the power in choosing what they want to do, be that art college or world travel or cabinet making or university. Personally, I think if you’re going to pursue further education, you should at least have some general idea of what you might want to do afterwards. I think few people are privileged enough to engage in higher education purely for education’s sake. My experiences with formal education have been thankully positive. I have always enjoyed being a good student, and I have always known the path I wanted to take through higher education (English degree, followed by MLIS, followed by career as a librarian). I am trying not to let my own experience colour my exploration of university in Radio Silence too much, as I understand my experience is the exception, not the norm. Now that I’ve laid out my general thoughts on the topic, here’s what I think about some characters’ attitudes towards university in Radio Silence.
This section contains spoilers for events towards the end of the novel.
I found Frances’ experience very sad. She had always been a committed student, not because she enjoyed education nor due to any pressure from friends or family, but because she just thought it was always what she had to do. Even with a mother encouraging her to take a break from studying and enjoy other aspects of life and a teacher encouraging her to pursue art, Frances committed herself to something that she didn’t really connect with. I wonder, how did she end up in that situation? How could that have been avoided? Aled, on the other hand, never actually wanted to go to university but pursued that path because of his abusive mother. Aled’s disdain for university felt more grounded to me than Frances’.
Carys gets her own paragraph. I hope I’m not being too cynical when I say I found Cary’s experience exaggerated. Carys fails all her exams in her final year of high school (I interpret this as meaning she didn’t graduate), yet manages to find a well-paid job in London, with no connections or experience. At one point, a character asks Carys how she got her job running workshops for the National Theatre without any qualifications (423). Carys replies that they didn’t ask her for any. And she doesn’t have any work experience. Really?
I imagine Carys’ situation is exceptional, not something high school students should count on. I don’t mean to come across as a person for whom school grades are the be all and end all. Some students will face immense pressure and difficulties in their high school studies. Some students won’t have access to resources that might have helped them succeed. Carys’ story, however, comes off to me as wishful thinking. I wouldn’t want students who are struggling in school to think, “Oh, I’ll just flunk my exams and get a great job with no qualifications or experience anyway”. Even though I have tried to not let my experiences influence my attitude towards Radio Silence’s university message, of course they have! So I’m curious – am I too biased in my assessment of Carys? What are your thoughts on higher education and finding employment?
Despite everything I’ve said above, I do think students face more pressure to go to university than they should. Radio Silence could and should be an eye opener for some students, whose talents and dreams can be found outside academia.
The Bottom Line:
Radio Silence exemplifies what contemporary young adult novels can be. Highly recommended for its realistic depiction of teen life, including diverse racial and sexual identities and commentary on the pressure to succeed academically.
Finally, I’ve written a Diversity Spotlight Thursday post! The purpose of this meme is to share three diverse books: One you’ve read and enjoyed, one release that you haven’t yet read, and one that hasn’t yet been released. I actually enjoy reading this meme on other blogs. It’s a great way to promote diverse books and find new ones to add to the TBR. (I haven’t seen many posts about this lately so I’m not sure it’s a still a thing?? I like the idea anyway, haha.)
Read and Enjoyed: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan
Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.
Goodreads | I’m also participating in the 2017 Diverse Reads Challenge, which has a theme for each month. I somehow mixed up April and May’s themes, which meant I read Amina’s Voice in April. (I had selected it to keep with May’s themes of ‘religious diversity’.)
I’m going to talk about this book from my personal perspective, a White girl who attended church as a kid. (I think this book would be a great read for Pakistani-American kids, but that’s not really my case to make.) Many of my friends also attended Sunday school. I didn’t know anyone who was particularly zealous about it. For most of us, it was just something we did. In Amina’s Voice, going to a mosque, participating in a religious community, etc. are everyday activities – ones that won’t seem so ‘foreign’ for church going kids.
Some of Amina’s problems come from those activities (she has to participate in a Qu’ran recitation competition but she has severe stage fright), but she worries about her friendships as much as you would except a middle grader to. The relationships Amina has with her friends and family felt very realistic. Her parents are positive figures in her life. In particular, I appreciated the missteps and assumptions she made about her friendships with Soojin and Emily. There is a lot for readers to connect with in this book, whether in the joys and trials Amina finds in her religion or in her relationships with friends and family.
The book that I should have read in April (mental health) but am going to read this month instead is…
Released but Not Yet Read: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.
When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.
Goodreads | Twitter brought Adam Silvera to my attention. I decided to give him a go for the Diverse Reads challenge, as I likely wouldn’t pick up his books otherwise (I’m not big on contemporary YA). I have heard a lot about his new release, History is All You Left Me, but MHTN’s premise appeals to me more. I always forget about that little scifi bit at the end – I’m definitely curious as to how it plays out.
Not Yet Released: the Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana
No one is entirely certain what brings the Emperor Sikander to Shalingar. Until now, the idyllic kingdom has been immune to his many violent conquests. To keep the visit friendly, Princess Amrita has offered herself as his bride, sacrificing everything—family, her childhood love, and her freedom—to save her people. But her offer isn’t enough.
The unthinkable happens, and Amrita finds herself a fugitive, utterly alone but for an oracle named Thala, who was kept by Sikander as a slave and managed to escape amid the chaos of a palace under siege. With nothing and no one else to turn to, Amrita and Thala are forced to rely on each other. But while Amrita feels responsible for her kingdom and sets out to warn her people, the newly free Thala has no such ties. She encourages Amrita to go on a quest to find the fabled Library of All Things, where it is possible for each of them to reverse their fates. To go back to before Sikander took everything from them.
Goodreads | That gorgeous cover and library reference in the title convinced me to add this to my TBR without even knowing what it is about. Look for it on July 18.
This post focuses all on 2017 releases. I hope to highlight more backlist diverse books in future posts. What books would you select for Diversity Spotlight Thursday? Leave a link in the comment if you’ve already written about it!
Icemen: A History of the Arctic and Its Explorers by Mick Conefrey + Tim Jordan ★★★★ | GoodReads | No longer in print – check your library!
Icemen: A History of the Arctic and its Explorers is a great introduction to the topic of Arctic exploration. Originally published as a companion to a series on The History Channel, the book describes a number of incredible historical incidents in an intriguing and accessible manner. Ten chapters focus on either a particular explorer or expedition/historical incident, beginning with the lost Franklin expedition and concluding with the forced relocation of Inuit to the Arctic Circle. (I braced myself for a poor depiction of the Inuit, but Conefrey and Jordan have written respectfully about them, particularly in that final chapter.) The book could be used as a jumping off point for any number of topics you may wish to explore further. Icemen contains29 black and white photos in the center of the book. Published in 1998, this book is a wee bit dated but there are still many fascinating tales to be found within. Here are five events that I knew nothing about before reading this book:
1) Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897 (Chap. 4)
Did you know three men attempted to reach the North Pole via hot air balloon in the late 19th century? This photo was recovered from film found in the Arctic nearly 40 years later. I found the tale of what happened on their journey the most fascinating of all the stories.
2) WWII in the Arctic (Chap. 8)
Did you know that Spitsbergen, an island in the Norwegian Arctic, played a role in World War II as Germany sought to establish weather reporting stations? There was a lot more happening up there than I knew about (granted, my knowledge of WWII is pretty lacking…).
3) 5 Weeks Buried in Snow (Chap. 7)
Did you know a man can spend 5 weeks alone buried under snow in his tent, and emerge alright? That was one tiny piece of the chapter (pg. 128) on Gino Watkin’s Greenland explorations, but it’s the one that made my eyebrows jump the most, haha. Here he is shortly after emerging:
4) Peary and Cook Rivalry (Chap. 2 and 3)
I knew of their rivalry in passing (mostly because of Captain Bob Bartlett’s involvement in Peary’s journey), but I didn’t really know what the fuss was about. Now I do! Peary and Cook both claimed to have been the first to reach the North Pole, resulting in a bitter rivalry between the former shipmates. Today, both of their claims are widely doubted.
5) Airship Crossing of the North Pole (Chap. 6)
Did you know an airship reached the North Pole (having spent 60 hours in flight above the Arctic on a previous outing), only to meet a disastrous end due to inclement weather on the way back? My eyes bulged as I read that part of the airship broke off on ice, depositing ten men, while six men remained trapped on the airship as it floated off again, never to be seen again.
6) The Karluk Disaster (The Luck of the Karluk)
One of my favourite tales of an Arctic expedition that Icemen does not mention(presumably due to the fact that it did nothing for exploration) is that of the Karluk. A brief summary: The Karluk was part of a poorly planned expedition to the Arctic. The ship became trapped in ice early in ts journey. The expedition leader abandoned the ship, leaving Captain Bob Bartlett in charge. The men journeyed across the ice and eventually reached a desolate island. Bartlett left the island to get help. The remaining men were rescued just over a year from when the ship was initially trapped.
The Luck of the Karluk is part of the Amazing Stories series from Heritage House, which Heritage House describes as “shorter narratives designed for younger readers, new Canadians and casual readers” [source]). That makes the book a good introduction to the Karluk if you aren’t familiar with the story. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, but it’s still a great story and this makes for an easier reread than Jennifer Niven’s The Ice Master! The narrative is pretty factual (and thus less ‘biased’ than Niven’s book) – which is fine, because the facts of what happened are pretty gripping – though some authorial interjections crop up to add moments of colour to the narrative. I recommend Niven’s book for a more detailed look at the personalities of and relationships between those on board. Bartlett’s first hand account is also a must-read if the tale catches your interest.
Had you heard of any of these stories? Which event would you be interested in reading about? Would you ever like to visit the Arctic?