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:

Jenna's signature

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

Jenna's signature

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

Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose OlderAuthor: Daniel José Older
Title: Shadowshaper (Book 1)
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: June 2015
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Length: 297 pages
Genre: YA urban fantasy
Why I Read: Heard DJO reading
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads | Indigo | Indiebound | Book Depository

I don’t read urban fantasy. That was my main reason for not checking out Shadowshaper. I could see why people would like it, but despite the awesome cover and the positive reviews, the premise didn’t catch my interested. Then I attended NerdCon. Daniel José Older read from Shadowshaper. His vivid reading convinced me to finally check out his book.

Sierra Santiago, the Afro-Latinx (Puerto Rican) teen discovering her shadowshaping abilities, shines as the protagonist. She’s my favourite part of the book. Here are some reasons why: On the first page, she’s painting a mural of a dragon on the side of an abandoned building. I love that she doesn’t hesitate to call out Robbie (her crush and guide to the world of shadowshaping) when he’s not making sense. Robbie’s not the only one Sierra calls out. I was cheering for her in the scene where she shuts down her aunt. Sierra has to deal with too real situations of racism and sexism. She takes ownership of her power. She’s confident in her own skin. She steps up for her friends even when she’s afraid. I can see Sierra inspiring a lot of young women.

“You ever look at those old family albums Mom keeps around?” Sierra went on. “We ain’t white. And you shaming everyone and looking down your nose because you can’t even look in the mirror isn’t gonna change that. And neither is me marrying someone paler than me. And I’m glad! I love my hair. I love my skin. I didn’t ask your opinion about my life and I don’t wanna hear it. Not now, not ever.” (151-152)

If Sierra’s my favourite part of Shadowshaper, Older’s world building comes in a close second. He fuses his magical world of shadowshaping with the real world of Brooklyn in such a way that his story reads true. Shadowshaping (the ability to bring one’s art to life by channeling spirits through it) is a pretty cool concept. Older has created a fast-paced and action-filled story by providing just the right amount of information on shadowshaping – no info dumping or leaving out key details here. He leaves room to expand on the concept and community in future books.

Shadowshaping comes to life in the setting Older creates. This story could not be set anywhere other than Brooklyn, where Older lives and spent years working as a paramedic. The setting, in turn, is brought to life by its characters. Sierra isn’t the only cool kid in this story. Her friends, integral to the story, are just as well-defined as Sierra. I could imagine any one of them starring in their own story (I was excited to learn there’s a novella from the perspectives of girlfriends Izzy and Tee). The conversations between all characters (not just Sierra and her teen friends) flow so realistically, I felt like I was eavesdropping.

There are a lot of great things going on in this novel and I feel like I’ve only superficially scratched the surface. Whether you’re looking for a creative contemporary fantasy or for a young adult novel that doesn’t back down from topics such as racial identity and white supremacy, Shadowshaper is an excellent read.

The Bottom Line:

Shadowshaper finally has me hooked on an urban fantasy series! A fast-paced story built on a cast of a diverse characters, I’m looking forward to what Sierra gets up to in the forthcoming sequel Shadowshouse

Further Reading:

Jenna's signature

2017 Diverse Reads banner
This book was my pick for February (POC/ Biracial/ Multiracial Main Character/Lead – Afro-Latina)
Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

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
GoodReads | Indigo | Indiebound | Book Depository

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?)

|

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:

Jenna's signature

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: ★★★★
GoodReads | Indigo IndieBound | Book Depository

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:

Jenna's signature