Review: When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin

When the Sea Turned to SilverAuthor: Grace Lin
Title: When the Sea Turned to Silver
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: October 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown Young Readers
Length: 370 pages
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Why I Read: Cover + premise
Rating: ★★★★½
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I had some trouble with this review, as the beauty of this book distracted me from constructing thoughts beyond “It’s so lovely!” When the Sea Turned to Silver exemplifies beauty in both its physical design and story-telling prose. The final book in Grace Lin’s loosely connected trilogy of middle-grade novels, this delightful book tells the story of Pinmei and Yishan’s journey from their mountain homes to rescue Pinmei’s renowned storytelling grandmother.

Let’s start with the stunning book design, as that’s really where any reader starts. Lin’s artistic talent impresses me. My first thought upon holding this book was, “Wow, who is the illustrator?” Then I found out she both writes and illustrates her books. Lin “found her artistic voice” after painting a family portrait in the style of “flat, colorful Chinese folk art” (source). I love seeing a non-Western aesthetic featured so beautifully in a work for children. Lin’s artwork stars not only on the dust jacket, but inside the text as well – in the form of full page colour illustrations, line drawings at the start of each chapter, and bright borders that introduce each story. One of my favourite illustrations can be found on page 120. (…Can you tell why I’m not on bookstagram?)

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The illustrations and book design work well to convey the writing style. This kind of prose is what I enjoy most about middle grade fiction. Simple yet descriptive, everything parred down to get at the essence of what will spark your imagination.

I took a uni course on Chinese women and gender which we studied primarily via Chinese literature throughout the centuries, so I have a general familiarity with the flavour of Chinese storytelling. That being said, Chinese folklore is largely unfamiliar to me so I can’t speak much to how the tales coincide with or differ from traditional Chinese tales. What I can say is that is that stories are just what lovers of fairy or folk tales might expect. Characters trying to get ahead in life or trying to do their best, traces of the fantastic influencing their actions, and a relevance of the mini-story to the grander narrative. Aside from the sheer loveliness of When the Sea Turned to Silver, the storytelling theme is the aspect of this book I adored. I like how Pinmei learns how valuable her stories and her storytelling ability can be. I like how the stories bleed into Pinmei’s own journey. And I like what the climax of the story has to say about the importance of stories. This is a book for those who love stories. (The book read to me like a starter edition of The Orphan’s Tales ,  another book rich in prose with interconnecting tales, which is in itself a spin off One Thousand and One Nights.)

If I were pressed to be more critical of this novel, I might say that it’s a bit slow-paced. Although Pinmei and her friends are ‘racing’ to save Amah, the story does not hold a lot of tension. While there are a few chapters from Amah’s perspective, and a couple stories that describe her history and relationship with Pinmei, I would have loved more. I wonder if she pops up in the other two novels at all?

The Bottom Line:

When the Sea Turned to Silver is a gorgeous rendering of Chinese folktales, told in a novel that explores the significance of stories through a young storyteller’s own adventure.

Further Reading:

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2017 Diverse Reads banner
This book was my pick for January (based on or inspired by diverse folktales/culture/mythology – Chinese)
Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Review: You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris

You Will Not Have My HateAuthor: Antoine Leiris (trans. Sam Taylor)
Title: You Will Not Have My Hate
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: October 2016
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length: 129 pages
Genre: Memoir
Why I Read: Read an excerpt
Rating: ★★★★
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In November 2015, Antoine Leiris’s wife Hélène was killed in the attack on the Bataclan Theatre. Their son Melvil was 17 months old at the time. You Will Not Have My Hate, a slim volume of Leiris’s reflections on the time immediately following the shooting (particularly the impact on Melvil, not yet old enough to understand), is a devastating yet hopeful read. I first read an excerpt of this book in the October 2016 issue of Vogue. I immediately knew I had to read the rest. The title stems from an open letter Leiris wrote to the terrorists who perpetrated the attack. This memoir contextualizes that letter.

If you have read the letter, you will know that Leiris’s book is not really about terrorism or the attack. His letter says all he needs to about that. The book digs deeper into grief and how to keep going, especially when a little one needs you. Leiris’s beautiful writing might break your heart. (Sam Taylor translated the book from French; I assume he’s done an excellent job.) I nearly forgot it wasn’t fiction (because how can this be real, how can someone have to experience this, how can they translate it into words?). I could have selected any passage from the book to demonstrate this. Here’s a bit about viewing Hélène in the mortuary:

“I cry, I talk to her. I would to stay another hour, at least a day, perhaps a lifetime. But I must leave her. The moon must set. Today, November 16, the sun rises on our new ‘once upon a time.’ The story of a father and a son who go on living alone, without the aid of the star to whom they swore allegiance.” (40-41)

The book clocks in at just 129 pages. I estimate nearly half to be blank space, though this blank space is certainly not wasted space. This needs to be a small story, a contained story, otherwise it is too overwhelming. The blank space allows for breathing room. That little bit of space you need to pause and reflect and process. A photo at the end – of Hélène standing outdoors, looking lovely, holding Melvil snuggled against her breast – made me gasp. What a punch that photo packs after reading Antoine’s tale.

The Bottom Line:

A short yet devastating read, Antoine Leiris’s You Will Not Have My Hate gives the reader a glimpse into what it’s like to tragically and unexpectedly lose someone.

Further Reading:

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Review: The Wizard’s Dog by Eric Kahn Gale

The Wizard's DogAuthor: Eric Kahn Gale
Title: The Wizard’s Dog
Format/Source: ebook/Publicist
Published: 17 January 2017
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Why I Read: Light-hearted fantasy – something I needed!
Rating: ★★★½
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I received a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review.

Meet Nosewise. He’s spunky. He’s curious. And he’s a dog who can’t understand why his pack mates Merlin and Morgana spend all day practicing magic tricks. If it’s a trick they want, he’s the dog to ask! He can already Sit!, Stay!, and Roll Over! But there’s no way Nosewise is Stay!ing when his master and best friend, Merlin, is kidnapped. There’s nothing Nosewise won’t do to get Merlin back, even if it means facing the strange Fae people and their magic-eating worms, or tangling with the mysterious Sword in the Stone. But it may take more than sniffing out a spell to do it! Nosewise’s hilarious escapades and steadfast loyalty get him and his companions through King Arthur’s Dark Ages.

Arthurian legend is one of those literary fields I have always assumed would interest me, but it is one I have yet to properly pursue. (The Once and Future King has been on my TBR for longer than Goodreads has existed. My best knowledge of King Arthur probably comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail…). It’s taken a tale told from a dog’s perspective to ease me into the literary retellings! 😉 The Wizard’s Dog stars Nosewise, a dog Merlin rescued who has an exceptional nose (even for a dog). The story describes Nosewise’s adventure in rescuing Merlin and Morgana, with the help of young Arthur. No spoilers, but this isn’t the most traditional retelling of how Arthur pulled the Sword from the Stone!

Nosewise is definitely the star of this tale. He is an easy character to love, sounding just like you might imagine a loyal dog would. His unique perspective as a dog infuses humour (ex. when the magical Asteria allows him to speak, he’s excited that he’s learned a trick no dog has learned before because that will impress Merlin [20]) and difficulties (ex. he’s a dog; he can’t open doors!) into an Arthurian fantasy that’s likely never been told like this before.

Speaking more generally, I haven’t read a lot of (any?) stories that have an animal speaking regularly with humans in a world where animals don’t speak. That normally doesn’t work for me (I prefer all or nothing), but I think The Wizard’s Dog balances the human-animal interactions well. Nosewise doesn’t chat throughout the whole book – there is a chunk where he has lost the Asteria and is without his voice.

Black and white shaded illustrations appear throughout the book. I like their style – not too cartoony or simplified. Nosewise’s silly expression on the cover is as animated as the characters get. My favourite illustrations are the darker ones depicting castles, magic, or fae. The story wraps up neatly, though not without leaving room for further adventures of Nosewise, Arthur, and the gang.

The Bottom Line:

A light-hearted tale narrated in first person by a dog, I recommend The Wizard’s Dog to those who might enjoy an ‘animalistic’ twist on Arthurian legend.

Further Reading:

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Review: Better Now by Danielle Martin

Better Now by Danielle MartinAuthor: Danielle Martin
Title: Better Now: Six Big Ideas to Improve Health Care for All Canadians
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley
Published: 10 January 2017
Publisher: Allen Lane
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley; topic I’m interested in
Rating: ★★★½
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I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

DR. DANIELLE MARTIN see the challenges in our health care system every day. As a family doctor and a hospital vice president, she observes how those deficiencies adversely affect patients. And as a health policy expert, she knows how to close those gaps. A passionate believer in the value of fairness that underpins the Canadian health care system, Dr. Martin is on a mission to improve medicare. In Better Now, she shows how bold fixes are both achievable and affordable. Her patients stories and her own family s experiences illustrate the evidence she presents about what works best to improve health care for all. Better Now outlines Six Big Ideas to bolster Canada s health care system. Each one is centred on a typical Canadian patient, making it clear how close to home these issues strike.

A few days ago, I came across an expose by the CBC’s The Fifth Estate on “The High Cost of Pharmaceuticals: Canada’s Big Drug Problem.” A lot of what that investigation discussed sounded familiar. I had just read all about it in this book, Better Now. I had originally decided to read this book because I thought it would a good supplement to the books I had read last year – books by life and death professionals (ex. family doctor, crematorium technician) about their work and how to improve their field through anecdotal stories about their patients and their own personal lives (is that specific enough? haha).  As described above, Better Now, written by a family doctor who believes ‘in the value of fairness that underpins the Canadian health care system’, presents the following ‘Six Big Ideas’ to improve the system:

  1. Ensure relationship-based primary health care for every Canadian
  2. Bring prescription drugs under Medicare
  3. Reduce unnecessary tests and interventions
  4. Reorganize health care delivery to reduce wait times and improve quality
  5. Implement a basic income guarantee
  6. Scale up successful solutions across the country.

This book turned out to be even more personally relevant than I expected. I am currently searching for a new family doctor, as I found my old one unsatisfactory. I couldn’t pintpoint exactly why, but after reading about these ideas and some of the issues with our system, I see my relationship with my previous doctor reflected in them.  Idea #5 surprised me in a good way. I appreciated how Dr. Martin considers the bigger picture and explores social factors, especially in ideas #5 and #6. Her proposals are indeed ‘big ideas’. She acknowledges the potential difficulties in implementing them, but also presents them as actionable realities. She strikes an appropriate balance between support for the current healthcare system and addressing its shortcomings, which can be improved upon. One area she doesn’t explicitly address is the education of medical professionals, which is an area I imagine could use some changes.

Better Now is written in an accessible style, with straightforward prose. These are complex ideas, but there isn’t too much technical jargon or infodump – just enough so the reader can understand the ideas being presented. This is a short book and therefore largely a starting point. If one concept intrigues you, Martin provides many resources for further reading at the end of the book.

The Bottom Line:

Is it too trite of me to say ‘I recommend this book to any Canadian’? I could say, ‘I recommend this book to any Canadian with a stake in our healthcare system’ – well, isn’t that the same thing? But seriously, if you have any interest or care for your healthcare, check out this book.

Further Reading:

  • Author’s Twitter
  • Book website
  • “The doctor on a mission to heal medicare” @ The Star
  • “Toronto doctor who gave U.S. Senator a lesson on healthcare outlines her ‘6 big ideas’ for Canada” @ CTV News Health

Review: Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

Cover of Roses and RotAuthor: Kat Howard
Title: Roses and Rot Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: May 2016
Publisher: Saga Press
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fantasy
Rating: ★★½
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Rose and Rot turned out to be very different from what I expected. I had heard some general things about it around the blogosphere prior to its release date, enough to persuade me to put it on hold without investigating further. Key words that came to mind when I thought of this book were “dark, meaning of art, adults with an awful stepmother, grown up, old moody estate building in background”. Plus, the book received kudos from Gaiman (even though I swear I know by now that him and I rarely have the same taste in books). The premise of the book sounded good enough to grab my interest.

Roses and Rot contained a number of differences from the impression I had somehow formed. Though these differences are not necessarily bad, unfortunately they were not too my taste. The primary difference is that this book has a modern setting and an urban feel. Fae form an integral part of the plot. I am not a fan of modern fairies. They usually give me a weird, uncomfortable feeling. I found the concept of tithe and benefits to be convoluted. I felt this way about a number of the plot points (and the dialogue), actually – like they were contrived, i.e. just there to push the story in a certain direction. (But hold on, aren’t all books like that? I suppose the best books make those contrivances feel incidental.) I didn’t feel any suspense with the fairy plot lines (I did wonder what Imogen and Marin’s relationship would be by the end of the book.)

“Part of the appeal of the Market is its mystery, so there’s no regular schedule, though there are traditional times. The one around Halloween is a spectacle, and there’s always one just before Christmas. But really, it appears when it wants, or when it’s needed. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it really does seem to tbe the best way to explain the randomness.” (51-52)

“Oh, and Gavin says where your charm where people can see it. Especially at the Market,” Marin said, pulling her own hourglass out so it was visible over her shirt.
“Why?”
“It’s like some kind of secret sing. People will ‘treat us well’ because of it, whatever that means.” (97)

The characters often seemed like teenagers. Many times I wanted to roll my eyes at them and say “Aren’t you supposed to be an adult?!” Most of the relationships felt melodramatic to me, especially the relationship between Helena and Janet. I never felt anything sympathy towards Imogen and Marin regarding their mother, who lurks in the background of this story. They often describe how she affected them, but because she’s barely a part of their lives now, I didn’t feel impacted by her awful behaviour. I loved that Ariel was the grounded character in this novel. I would like to read a short story from her perspective.

“When I don’t go to bed at night wondering if the next day is the day she’s going to show up to try to take everything I’ve worked for away from me. That was what she always said: ‘I gave you this, I can take it back.’ And I knew she could.” (204)

My favourite part of this book were the fairy tale excerpts from Imogen’s story. Although I don’t think they were as outstanding comments on Imogen’s talent would lead you to expect, they were much more to my taste. I would love to read more writing from Howard in that genre. Also, bonus points for Narnia reference.

She wasn’t offering Turkish delight from a winter sledge, but I was pretty sure the cookies would still have tasted of betrayal. (86)

The Bottom Line

Roses and Rot sounded like my kind of book, but turned out to be something entirely different. Recommended for fans of urban fairy fantasy, who want to try something a little less urban.

Further Reading

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