Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the MoonAuthor: Kelly Barnhill
Title: The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: August 2016
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Middle grade fantasy
Why I Read: Liked the description
Rating: ★★★★
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This is going to be one of those ‘reviews’ where I just gush about what I love without much critical thinking. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is my favourite kind of middle grade fantasy. In fact, it’s pretty much my favourite kind of any book. I had an easy time brainstorming why reasons why I liked this book. In no particular order:

  • Adult characters with a young female protagonist
  • Misunderstandings between good people that are reasonably resolved
  • A curmudgeonly yet caring creature who is more significant than he appears (but it doesn’t really matter)
  • A young child fulfilling a ‘destiny’/coming into their own
  • A twist on a dragon!
  • An isolated forest setting
  • An unusual feature of the landscape (volcano)
  • A woman fighting for her child
  • Straightforward but evocative fairy tale prose that feels like it was written just for me

The only truly safe passage across the forest for an ordinary person was the Road, which wa ssituated on a naturally raised seam of rock that had smoothed over time. The Road didn’t alter or shift; it never grumbled. Unfortunately, it was owned and operated by a gang of thugs and bullies from the Protectorates. Xan never took the Road. She couldn’t abide thugs. Or bullies. And anyway, they charged too much. Or they did, last time she checked. It had been years since she had gone near it – many centuries now. She made her own way instead, using a combination of magic and know-how and common sense. (19)

  • Simple yet structured and creative magic system
  • Short interludes of a mother telling bedtime stories
  • A sweet loving old lady (bonus for being a witch)
  • A forgotten/confused past that slowly comes to light
  • Bonus: A lovely cover and a title following the structure of ‘The [Noun] Who [Did Thing]’

Need I say more? By now you can probably tell if this is the sort of book you’ll love or hate. This was one of my favourite reads of the year. It reminded me of some of my childhood favourites (Inkdeath and Into the Land of the Unicorn come immediately to mind).

Some reviews on Goodreads (1 | 2) commented on its suitability as middle grade.  Generally when I review books here I’m doing it for my own personal enjoyment and recommending to people in a similar position as me (i.e. adults not children). Are there some parts of this book that could be consider too ‘grown up’ or ‘boring’ or ‘political for middle schoolers? Perhaps, yet that’s the sort of story I enjoyed as a child and it’s still the sort of story I enjoy now. As I apply to grad school for pursue my dream of becoming a librarian, I wonder if I should shift perspective in my reviews – to reviewing books for their intended audience, rather than for my own personal enjoyment. For now, this blog remains a personal hobby and I think I will keep it that way for a little while longer. But that’s really a topic for another post!

The Bottom Line:

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a beautifully written tale, with elements that add up to make it my favourite kind of fantasy story. I hope you will enjoy the adventures of Luna, Xan, Antain and the others as much as I did.

Further Reading:

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Family Reads: Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

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 and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan’s Save Me a Seat

Ash (my sister) and I had originally chosen The Queen of Blood for this month’s Family Reads. She tried reading it for a few weeks and couldn’t get into it. I suggested she choose a book from my Cybils reading stack instead. She chose Save Me a Seat because it sounded cute.

Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL.

Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own.

Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in.

Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.

Our Discussion

The authors write in first person, alternating chapters between Ravi and Joe. We have both had bad experiences with co-authored novels, but Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan have struck the right balance in Save Me a Seat. A reader might assume that Weeks wrote Joe’s chapters and Varadarajan wrote Ravi’s chapters. Though each boy has their own voice, the writing styles don’t differ hugely between them. The chapters flow nicely from one to the next. We both prefer this type of co-authoring (where you can’t especially tell who wrote what, and the style remains consistent throughout the book).

We both appreciated how realistic the story seemed. According to the author bios in the book, Weeks  was “born and raised in the United States […] and teaches in [an] MFA program in NYC”, while Varadarajan was “born and raised in India […] and now teaches second grade in Princeton, New Jersey.” Does that qualify this book as an own voices narrative? Ash and I think that it is at least safe to guess that the authors’ own experiences have informed their writing. Ash especially pointed out the frustration Ravi experiences when people cannot correctly pronounce his first name (rah-VEE, not RAH-vee), let alone his last name (Suryanarayanan). One might imagine Gita Varadarajan has encountered similar experiences.

Accents

I asked Ash if she ‘heard’ Ravi’s voice in an Indian accent. She said that she didn’t; that she never hears characters unique voices – it’s always just that ‘voice in her head’. I asked her that question because, although it’s usually the same for me (no differentiation in character voices), I actually did hear Ravi’s voice with an Indian accent. I wondered if this was because I’d  been tutoring an Indian student for about 10 hours a week and I was more ‘in tune’ to the accent. His voice was very clear in my head when I started reading. Some features of Ravi’s language that I noticed were the use of continuous tense (ex. “am playing”, “will be going”) and a slightly more formal vocabulary. After awhile, though, I stopped hearing his accent and he settled into my generic middle grade voice.

I note this observation because one of Ravi’s challenges throughout the book is that (apparently) nobody can understand his accent. When I finished the story, however, I started to think that was an assumption made by his teachers and friends. They weren’t really listening to him; they just assumed they couldn’t understand what he was saying because he had an accent.

Storyline

Joe and Ravi do not really interact throughout the story. This surprised me, as I imagined the book follow a structure of them directly arguing and fighting in the first part, then begrudgingly teaming up to take down the bully in the second half. Ash expected Joe and Ravi would defeat the bully in a stereotypical or negative way (ex. he would turn out to be a misunderstood new friend or they would bully him back). We liked how the alternating perspectives revealed how Joe and Ravi misunderstood each other (and other characters), and how they learnt about the problems with making assumptions. Overall, we enjoyed the plot of the novel, and we were happy with the conclusion.

Reading and Recommending Middle Grade

Ash doesn’t usually read middle grade. At the start of our discussion, she asked if she is judging the book for herself, or for other people (children or adults) who might read it. I explained that I generally evaluate a book for how it satisfied my taste, while making some general comments about aspects that other readers may or may not enjoy. At the end of our discussion I returned to this point, asking Ash if she thought this would be a good read for the intended audience (children 8 to 12 years old). She said, “A lot of the things I said I like will apply, I think, to kids as well and other adults. Especially in our current culture where there is a lot of immigration and many ESL learners in classrooms. The story is cute and interesting, not cliched.

Final Thoughts

We liked a few other components of this book. Non-English words are not italicized. “Ravi’s Glossary” (ex. tennikoit, Ovaltine) and “Joe’s Glossary” (ex. index card, tofu) can be found in the back. There are also two recipes – one for the cookies Ravi brings his teacher and one for apple crisp. Finally, Ash pointed out that the title (Save Me a Seat) can refer to the story’s conclusion, creating a full circle from the cover to the last page.

Save Me a Seat impressed us both with its storyline and well-written characters. Have you read Save Me a Seat or any similar middle grade books? What do you think about co-authored books? 
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Literary Pilgrimage: Visiting Middle-Earth (Part 4)

Middle-Earth Literary Pilgrimage
Earlier this year, I spent three months travelling around New Zealand. My primary reason for doing so? Exploring locations in featured in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, of course! Come along as I revisit what will likely remain my most extensive ‘literary pilgrimage’.

Wellington and Surrounding Area

Wellington, New Zealand’s capital and hub of the film industry, is home to a number of locations used in filming. Wellington differs from Queenstown in that it doesn’t have the most photogenic locations (many filming sites were dramatically altered for filming). The majority of these locations benefited from direct comparison to screen shots. Wellington’s big draw is that it is home to Weta Workshop – the company that created the special effects, digital effects, and props in the film. I did the ‘Ultimate Movie Tour Plus+’ from Adventure Safari. If you have a car, you probably wouldn’t need to do a tour. I wanted to get out to Rivendell and Weta, so the tour worked for my needs.

Lower Hutt Quarry
Quarry where Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith were built. Not a lot to see here! The set building and filming (especially the battle at Helm’s Deep) that was done in this location was very impressive – some of my favourite stuff from the film.
Harcourt Park
This public park was transformed into the Gardens of Isengard. The rough patches are remnants of the path on which Gandalf rode into Isengard.
Harcourt Park 2
Gandalf and Saruman walked through this area. The bench was covered up with a digital bush in post-production.

The following shots are from Mt. Victoria, in Wellington. The forests of this hill were the locations of the Old Forest, which the hobbits flee through while being pursued by Nazgul.

'Get off the road!' scene, filmed on Mt. Victoria
Where the hobbits fell off the slop and into the road. I have long dreamt about standing in the spot where Frodo shouted ‘Get off the road’…dreams do come true, haha.
Black Rider at the top of the path
Three guys from our group trekked up this path to recreate this shot. It was an amusing process, but it does look like the film!
Forest through which the hobbits dart while being chased by Black Riders
Rivendell gate
This gate was not used in filming. It was recently built so visitors to the Kaitoke Regional Park could get a better feel for Rivendell. I certainly appreciated it. Lovely area.
Map of Rivendell
Map of the locations built for the filming of Rivendell (structures are no longer there)
Post indicating height of LotR characters
This post indicates the heights of LotR characters (according to the books). I didn’t realize Gandalf was so short 😉

The closing piece of the tour is a trip to Weta Studios. The workshop tour was my favourite part of the day. I felt like I was in a museum, looking at all the objects that were used in filming! I had an emotional moment viewing Pippin’s Gondorian armour, haha. Unfortunately no photos allowed during the tour. I did get to take a photo of the armour (Theoden’s, worn by actor Bernard Hill) that I fangirled over in the shop, though. And of course a few shots of the trolls from The Hobbit outside. 🙂

Trolls outside Weta Cave

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7 Books to Look Forward To in 2017

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Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

The prompt for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is “books I’m looking forward to in the first half of 2017.” I don’t go searching for books that haven’t yet been released. My TBR is long enough as it! A book usually makes it onto my list if it’s received positive buzz from a blogger whose tastes match mine, or if it’s an upcoming release from a favourite author. Turns out I have seven books from 2017 on my TBR. Coincidentally, they’ll all be released in the first half of the year. 🙂

Top 10 Tesday 2017 releases - cover images

  1. Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin (Feb. 4) – Historical fiction surrounding the emergence today of artifacts from Sir John Franklin’s 1845 voyage (the one where everyone died and the ship was lost until a couple years ago).
  2. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (Feb. 21) – Conclusion to the Shades of Magic trilogy. I can’t believe we’re already at the end!! Feels just like yesterday that I was enchanted by A Darker Shade of Magic.
  3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Feb. 28) – If you read about books online, you’ve probably heard of this one. YA own voices novel inspired by Black Lives Matter.
  4. Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (Mar 14) – Middle grade own voices novel about a Pakistani-American Muslim.
  5. Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (Mar. 28) – Picture book by one of my favourite author/illustrator teams.
  6. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer (May 2) – Scifi. Sounds like an excellent follow up to the Southern Reach trilogy.
  7. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee  (Jun. 20) – I love these kind of covers… Best to just copy the description for this one: “An unforgettable tale of two friends on their Grand Tour of 18th-century Europe who stumble upon a magical artifact that leads them from Paris to Venice in a dangerous manhunt, fighting pirates, highwaymen, and their feelings for each other along the way.” I’m not really a romance person but this sounds like fun.

Are any of these books on your TBR? What 2017 releases are you looking forward to?
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Review: The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

Cover of The Witches of New YorkAuthor: Ami McKay
Title: The Witches of New York
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley (hardcover since purchased)
Published: 25 October 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 504 pages
Genre: Magical realism/historical fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, cover caught my eye
Rating: ★★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Is there a better feeling than when you accurately judge a book by its cover? I requested The Witches of New York on NetGalley solely because of the cover.  I have since purchased a copy. This is one of those editions that reminds me how beautiful books can be. If the image above intrigues you, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of my review – go grab a copy now and enjoy. Ami McKay has penned an excellent tale about three witches living in 1880 New York City. I am already crossing my fingers for a follow-up tale. Here are six reasons why this book is one of my favourites of 2016.

6 Reasons Why You Should Read The Witches of New York

  1. The witches, of course (Eleanor St. Clair, Adelaide Thom, and Beatrice Dunn) – I loved the characterization of these three ladies. They each felt deeply real to me, with their flaws and mannerisms and talents. I felt as though they were real people the author might have known. I rarely connect so well with one character, let alone three. I also appreciated how, despite their differences and disagreements, they always cared for each. It would be easy to reduce them to stereotypes in an attempt to briefly describe them, but Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice are much more than that. (Plus, they all have charming names.)
  2. Feminine magic – I have recently discovered that I enjoy stories of feminine magic, where women have their own special power and work fight the patriarchy. That is not a sentence I would have written even just two years ago. I am a novice feminist when it comes to literature (see note after the list for more about feminism in this tale). But I do know that I loved the magic in this book. McKay differentiates the witch’s talents. Their magic felt real to me; I believe in it while reading the story (and I think that ties in to my point above about the realness of the characters).
  3. Historical context – McKay strikes the perfect blend of historical fiction and magical realism for me in this tale. The Witches of New York sits neatly in history, as McKay incorporates things such as the installation of Cleopatra’s Needle, the Victorian interest in spiritualism and science, and of course women’s rights. The witch’s magic fit snugly in the setting McKay crafts.
  4. Supporting characters –  I haven’t mentioned Dr. Brody, who wants to work with Beatrice to test her abilities and who may have a crush on Adelaide and who is an actually lovely man. The Reverend functioned well as the villain of the tale. (I get squirmy and angry when I think about the twisted logic people like him use to justify their actions.) He may be a one-dimensional character, but this isn’t his story. He symbolizes what’s working against women in society.  There are additional characters who we occasionally read passages about. I like stories like this where threads about seemingly unconnected people come crashing together.
  5. Additional texts  – Included throughout the book are bits of news, snippets of spells, excerpts from writings about witches, and other ephemera. These are nicely integrated into the text (both the physical book and the narrative) and give the story a little more flavour.
  6. Hints of more to come?? – While the story works fine as a stand alone, there were a few things not entirely explained that I would love to read more about. Not to worry, the plot is largely tied up in this volume, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel! Adelaide features as her younger self Moth in McKay’s The Virgin Cure, so there’s always that to check out in the mean time.

I haven’t really discussed the feminist aspects of this story. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about how this book can be considered feminist literature until I attended an ‘Evening With’ event with Ami McKay. The area was packed with women. The discussion focused on the persecution of female witches by a patriarchal society,  and how relevant this book is today (especially in context of the US election, which happened two days before the event). I appreciated the discussion as it expanded my understanding of the story. I want to learn more about the role of witches and their treatment throughout history. Can you recommend any great books (fiction or non-fiction) about historical witches?

The Bottom Line:

Ami McKay is spot on when she describes her book as “historical fiction with a twist—part Victorian fairy tale, part penny dreadful, part feminist manifesto”. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice make The Witches of New York a 2016 must read.

Further Reading:

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