Review: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

Minds of WinterAuthor: Ed O’Loughlin
Title: Minds of Winter
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley
Published: 7 March 2017
Publisher: Quercus
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, cover + topic caught my attention
Rating: ★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | Wordery

 

I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson have each arrived in Inuvik, Canada, about 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Both are in search of answers about a family member: Nelson for his estranged older brother, and Fay for her vanished grandfather. Driving Fay into town from the airport on a freezing January night, Nelson reveals a folder left behind by his brother. An image catches Fay’s eye: a clock she has seen before. Soon Fay and Nelson realize that their relatives have an extraordinary and historic connection — a secret share in one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of polar expedition. This is the riddle of the “Arnold 294” chronometer, which reappeared in Britain more than a hundred years after it was lost in the Arctic with the ships and men of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition. The secret history of this elusive timepiece, Fay and Nelson will discover, ties them and their families to a journey that echoes across two centuries.

At 500 pages long, Minds of Winter dwarfs the kind of books I usually prefer to read. Had I known that, I might not have requested it. Still, I wanted to give it a go because of the focus on Arctic exploration. I hadn’t read any fiction about the Franklin expedition. Knowledge of the disastrous undertaking stuck in my mind from a video I watched a few times throughout grade school and from the recent discoveries of Franklin’s ships. Minds of Winter is far more the story of lost explorers than it is of Fay and Nelson. Their story serves as a framing device. Nelson and Fay piece together documents gathered by Nelson’s missing brother, connecting mysteries and the lives of various historical figures.

Characters who actually existed include Francis Crozier, Roald Amundsen, Jack London, and “the Mad Trapper of Rat River”, whose true identity remains unknown today. The years in which each chapter takes place range from 1841 to 1957 (plus 2009 for Nelson and Fay’s storyline). Many of the characters I had a passing familiarity with. One character I didn’t know turned out to be a strong thread throughout. The beginning of the book had me constantly looking things up on Wikipedia to discern fact from fiction (more so I was just confirming things that I suspected were ‘real’). Apparently there are some notable deviations from known fact, but none that I could recognize. That doesn’t really matter anyway. This is historical fiction; let’s have some fun. Either way, the story is based in quite a lot of fact. O’Loughlin did his research, as his acknowledgements confirm.

Fun fact: Of all the fact-based storytelling in this novel, I assumed that the chronometer had to be a contrivance, as it just fit so neatly into the plot. I was shocked (and pretty amused) to learn that the chronometer is real and that the 2009 Guardian article about it that appears in the book is also real. You can read that article here.  Kudos to O’Loughlin for tying so many elements of history together.

The story finally comes together in the epilogue. That’s pushing it for me (I would have liked things to start making sense earlier). The stories didn’t come together in the way I anticipated. However, the epilogue pleased me so much that I forgave the later half of the book, which I thought dragged on a bit. When I rated the book on Goodreads, I was sure I would calm down after a couple hours and go back to whining about how long the book was. That’s why I gave it three stars instead of a euphoric four. Yet that good feeling remains a week later, and so thankfully I can give three and half stars on my own blog. Some readers won’t like the ending, if not because it doesn’t hand out easy answers, then perhaps because it’s too blunt in its message.

The Bottom Line:

Minds of Winter may not satisfy those who want to uncover secrets about Franklin’s voyage, but it will likely satisfy those who love tales of Arctic exploration or hefty historical novels.

Further Reading:

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Two Fiction Reads to Borrow from the Library

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

NeverhomeShe calls herself Ash, but that’s not her real name. She is a farmer’s faithful wife, but she has left her husband to don the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War. NEVERHOME tells the harrowing story of Ash Thompson during the battle for the South. Through bloodshed and hysteria and heartbreak, she becomes a hero, a folk legend, a madwoman and a traitor to the American cause. Laird Hunt’s dazzling new novel throws a light on the adventurous women who chose to fight instead of stay behind. It is also a mystery story: why did Ash leave and her husband stay? Why can she not return? What will she have to go through to make it back home?

 

  • I added this book to my TBR after reading Shannon @ River City Reading’s review back in August 2014. She quoted the first line – “I was strong “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”. That opener was enough to capture my interest.
  • I enjoyed the prose. Ash’s manner actually felt kind of soothing, as opposed to a distracting dialect. Early example:
    • “There was an old lady outside Ketering fetched me up a drink of water from her well, took a long look at me as she handed it tome, and told me I needed to watch my step. No one else outside that lady saw what I was. I slept just exactly like a pine plank on that walk. I sent Bartholomew my first letter from Dayton. I sent him about the same one from Cincinnati. I wrote that I missed him fierce. I wrote that I was fierce happy too” (3).
  • The basic nature of the story line (woman disguised as man so she can fight for the Union in the Civil War, in place of her husband) kept me intrigued. The story lost steam for me when Ash became separated from her troop. I kept reading because I liked the mood, but that was a situational feeling – I might have dropped the book if I had read it at a different time. The conclusion was sadder than I anticipated.
    • By the end, I realized that I had been following an unreliable narrator. I dislike such narrators. Instead of understanding their reliability as a story telling technique, I just feel like I trusted someone and they abused that trust, haha. Ash reminded me a bit of the protagonist from Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon ReaderWhen her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her newfound obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.

 

  • I read this cute novella one afternoon during my family’s winter holiday.
  • The Uncommon Reader had been on my TBR for a very long time, though I don’t remember how I discovered it. I wanted to read it because it sounded like a sweet story celebrating reading. That’s exactly what I got.
  • The story eventually shifts to focus on writing. I understand the relationship between reading and writing, but I thought the story was going to focus solely on reading. The Queen ‘evolves’ from reading to writing, leading to a humorous and abrupt (though fitting) conclusion.
  • A few clues scattered throughout, mostly in reference to relatives, indicate that this Queen is our Queen Elizabeth II.

I borrowed both of these titles from the library. Though I enjoyed them both fine enough, I wouldn’t call them must buys. But if you spot them at your library – know they are solid reads for a quiet afternoon. Have you read any ‘library recommendation’ books recently? 
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Review: The Girl Who Beat ISIS by Farida Khalaf

The Girl Who Beat ISISAuthor: Farida Khalaf with Andrea C. Hoffman (trans. from German by Jamie Bulloch)
Title: The Girl Who Beat ISIS (The Girl Who Escaped ISIS in the US)
Format/Source: Paperback/Library
Published: July 2016
Publisher: Square Peg
Length: 204 pages
Genre: Memoir
Why I Read: Spotted in ‘new and noted’ at the library
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads | Indigo Book Depository

I read The Girl Who Beat ISIS in one sitting. Farida Khalaf (not her real name, nor is she the girl depicted on the cover) has an unfathomable story to share. For me, her story is unfathomable because I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be enslaved as she was, torn from family, knowing her fathers and brothers had been murdered and the rest of her family likely lost to her. Khalaf, 18 at the time of her enslavement, manages to eventually escape her captors, rescuing with her five younger girls. She beats ISIS by defying their grasp, but not before suffering what so many other Yazidi women have suffered. While reading Khalaf’s story, I desperately hoped that girl who fought who so stubbornly and held to her values would escape the sexual assault that she is rightly terrified of. Though her tale ends on a positive note, she endures atrocious torment at the hands of her captors. Khalaf has a difficult story to share. A note from Khalaf’s co-author at the end of the book details how they came to document her story, and how painful it was for Khalaf. I applaud Khalaf for finding the strength to share her story.

I became familiar with the plight of the Yazidis primarily through Khalaf’s story. I had heard the word and I knew they were a minority group, but I didn’t know much about the horrors they experienced. A very brief introduction for those like me: The Yazidis are an ethnically Kurdish religious group living primarily in Iraq, where they are a minority. ISIS has been committing genocide against the Yazidis since 2014. (See below for links to more information.) Shortly after finishing the book, I learnt about the Canadian government’s commitment to resettle 1,200 Yazidi refugees this year. Recently, I have read reporting from the CBC that describes the journeys and hopes of some of those refugees, including a nine-member family that arrived in my city. Khalaf’s book illuminates the plight of her people. I can read her story and think about the Yazidis who have come so far to escape the horror Khalaf experienced, and hopefully find a better life as my neighbour. It’s difficult and painful to realize that the genocidal atrocities which ISIS inflicts on the Yazidis are occurring right now. In sharing her story, Khalaf gives us a valuable window into her world.

The Bottom Line:

The Girl Who Beat ISIS offers a gut-wrenching look into the experiences of a young Yazidi woman enslaved by ISIS. Khalaf’s first person narration gives the reader a personal, human connection to the Yazidi genocide.

Further Reading:

  • UN human rights panel concludes ISIL is committing genoicde agains the Yazidis (2016 new release from the UN)
  • ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape (2015 article by The New York Times)
  • Canada to bring in 1,200 primarily Yazidi refugees by year end (2017 article by The Star)
  • Read the first chapter
  • Review @ The Guardian

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Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Cybils Nominees – Some Personal Favourites

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
Today’s post is part of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday!

Cybils 2016From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features four books which I personally enjoyed (that weren’t shortlisted or featured on any of my other lists).

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand

Some Kind of HappinessFinley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real–and holds more mysteries than she’d ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones. With the help of her cousins, Finley sets out on a mission to save the dying Everwood and uncover its secrets. But as the mysteries pile up and the frightening sadness inside her grows, Finley realizes that if she wants to save the Everwood, she’ll first have to save herself. Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination.

[Okay, this book was shortlisted, but I just have to talk about it here.] As a child, I would have loved Some Kind of Happiness. I can’t argue that it has broad kid appeal, though I hope children who struggle with anxiety and/or depression may take comfort in this story. Sometimes Finley has blue days, where she feels desperately sad and overwhelmed, and she can’t figure out why. Early on, she writes, “(If anyone around here should feel sad, and heavy, and unable to get up and brush her teeth before bed, it should be Gretchen, or stick.) (Not me.)” (63). She comes to learn that she likely has an anxiety disorder and depression, and that there are ways for her to manage both. I found the story beautifully written (particularly the excerpts of Finley’s stories). This book sort-of straddles the boundary between fiction and speculative fiction. While Finley’s fantastical stories aren’t real within the context of the story, they feel real enough to me. It’s no secret that I prefer speculative over contemporary fiction. Finley’s writing injects that touch of fantasy I crave. Finally, I like story lines where kids are discovering the past wrongs of adults.

Own voices? – Yes. Legrand suffered from anxiety when she was a child (she wrote a guest post at SLJ about her experiences and the importance of mental illness representation in works for children).

Review @ Random Musings of a Bibliophile | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to GoodReads

Allie, First at Last by Angela Cervantes

Allie, First at LastAllie Velasco wants to be a trailblazer. A trendsetter. A winner. No better feeling exists in the world than stepping to the top of a winner’s podium and hoisting a trophy high in the air. At least that’s what Allie thinks; she’s never actually won anything before. Everyone in her family is special in some way; her younger sister is a rising TV star, her brother is a soccer prodigy, and her great-grandfather is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. With a family like this, Allie knows she has to make her mark or risk being left behind. She’s determined to add a shiny medal, blue ribbon, or beautiful trophy to her family’s award shelf. When a prestigious school contest is announced, Allie has the perfect opportunity to take first, at last. There’s just one small snag: Her biggest competition is also her ex-best friend, Sara. Can Allie take top prize and win back a friend, or is she destined to lose it all?

Please disregard that blah cover. That’s what I should have done. Because I judged a book by its cover, Allie, First at Last turned out to be my biggest surprise read of the Cybils nominees. I appreciated that Allie’s flaw is her desire to be competitive. I find that often, if a character is hyper-competitive, it’s because they’re good at something and want to always be the best. Allie is still struggling to find her ‘thing’. The exploration of friendship via her relationships with Victor (new kid in school who Allie makes some negative assumptions about) and Sara (Allie’s former friend who isn’t totally sure why they’re not friends anymore) strengthen the story. Finally, I liked the inclusion of some WWII history via Allie’s great-grandfather.

Own voices? Yes – Cervantes is Mexican-American, like Allie.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Review by Barbara | Add to Goodreads

Just Like Me by Nancy J. Cavanaugh

Just Like MeWho eats Cheetos with chopsticks?! Avery and Becca, my “Chinese Sisters,” that’s who. We’re not really sisters—we were just adopted from the same orphanage. And we’re nothing alike. They sing Chinese love songs on the bus to summer camp, and I pretend like I don’t know them.  To make everything worse, we have to journal about our time at camp so the adoption agency can do some kind of “where are they now” newsletter. I’ll tell you where I am: At Camp Little Big Woods in a cabin with five other girls who aren’t getting along, competing for a campout and losing (badly), wondering how I got here…and where I belong.

Just Like Me = camp narrative + adoption narrative. I thought the camp atmosphere was portrayed well, capturing the spirit of competitiveness that can overtake kids. I liked that the girls couldn’t always get along (although their bickering may grow old quickly for some readers). They had to learn to work together and empathize a little as they learnt about each other’s backgrounds. This applies not only to Julia, Avery, and Becca, but to the other three girls in their cabin as well.

Own voices? – Not exactly… Cavanaugh is definitely not an American girl adopted from China. The author photo in the book showing Cavanaugh (a White woman) with her daughter might lead one to assume that Cavanaugh adopted her daughter from China. However, the description does not clarify this, nor have I found explicit evidence online. In a time when we are recognizing more and more the value of own voices narratives, I am curious about the experiences (or lack thereof) which an author draws from, especially when writing contemporary fiction. I find it a tad frustrating not to be able to do that.

Review @ Puss Reboots | Review @ The Book Wars | Add to Goodreads

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Towers FallingWhen her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Deja can’t help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?

I was in grade four when 9/11 happened. It’s not something I think about very often, despite its astonishing repercussions on current events. I’d briefly thought about how nearly all my students (up to grade nine) were born after 9/11. I had never thought about how one would teach such students about 9/11. To these students, 9/11 may be just as historical as Pearl Harbour. I thought Rhodes sensitively handled the depiction of the event and how it impacted(s) people, including the PTSD of Deja’s father. I loved the diversity of the characters and how they connected. Basically, I appreciated how the story unfolded and explained the events of 9/11, while exploring the concept of community. Deja has a strong voice, and is a key character in the story (ie., she’s not just a mouth piece to teach about 9/11). Like Some Kind of Happiness, I’m not sure this one has broad kid appeal. I can imagine some kids reading Some Kind for pleasure, but this one has a strong classroom vibe to it. (The book was inspired by teachers who witnessed 9/11 and didn’t have a way to talk about it with students.)

Own voices? Yes – Rhodes is an African-American educator.

Review @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction | Review @ Randomly Reading | Add to Goodreads

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February Month in Review

February Month in Review

This post is linked up at the Monthly Round-Up Wrap-Up @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction.

February posed a challenge when it came to staying on top of reading and blogging. I was travelling and offline for seven days of that short month. Plus, I found myself a full time job! 🙂 I am now working as an educational assistant in my local school division. Even with all the distractions, my posting goal didn’t suffer too much (only one post short). My reading goal took more of a hit. I’m currently 3 books behind. I plan on making up for February’s lost time with some middle grade and some (hopefully) unputdownable reads!

Books Finished

  • When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin
  • Neverhome by Laird Hunt
  • The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
  • Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Books Reviewed

  • Middle Grade feat. Animals (from the Cybils middle-grade fiction nominees):
    • Pandas on the Eastside by Gabrielle Prendergast
    • When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin
    • Wish by Barbara O’Connor
    • The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby
  • You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris
  • When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin
  • Middle Grade feat. Multiple Narrators (from tje Cybils middle-grade fiction nominees):
    • Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick
    • Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson
    • Slacker by Gordon Korman
  • Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Words and Pictures

  • A Silent Voice Vol. 1A Silent Voice Vol. 1 by Yoshitoki Ooima – It’s been a long time since I read manga. I checked out this series on Neko Neha‘s recommendation. The first volume depicts what unfolds when Shoko, a girl who is deaf, enters a six grade classroom and becomes the bullying target of Shoya, the narrator. I taught sixth grade occasionally when I was in Japan. The students were generally on their best behaviour for me (I think because my time in their classroom was rare) so I didn’t see any bullying. Of course, I know bullying like what’s depicted in this volume occurs, as I heard tragic stories about 12 year olds committing suicide and schools refusing to discuss it, let alone acknowledge that bullying was probably a significant factor. Bullying is one issue. The treatment of students with disabilities is a whole nother one. Suffice it to say they are often more stigmatized than in western society. So, A Silent Voice begins as a sad story, but one that is important to share, especially in Japanese society. Vol. 1 reads a bit like a prologue. The rest of the series fast-forwards six years to Shoya trying to make amends with Shoko. I’m curious to see how that will pan out, so I will keep reading this series!

Features

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Upcoming in March

Star-Crossed The Beast is an AnimalAmina's Voice

  • 7 Mar – Publication of The Beast is an Animal by Peternelle van Arnsdale (YA dark fairy tale)
  • 14 Mar – Publication of Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee (MG featuring a protagonist who learns about her bisexuality after developing a crush on girl at school during a production of Romeo and Juliet) and Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (MG contemporary about a Pakistani-American girl navigating her identity)
  • 14 Mar – Local launch of Will I See? by David Alexander Robertson, GMB Chomichuk, and Iskwe (graphic novel about missing and murdered Indigenous women).
  • 20 Mar – Start of Pages Unbound‘s 2017 Tolkien Reading Event
  • 25 Mar – “All Who Wander”, an evening of dramatic readings and a capella renditions of music from The Lord of the Rings.
  • 28 Mar – Publication of Radio Silencby Alice Osman (YA contemporary LGBTQA+ diverse characters and a male-female friendship(!)) and Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (picture book by an excellent duo)

February whirled by for me! How was your month? Did you read any great books?

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