Charis Cotter’s The Painting Explores Mother-Daughter Relationships via Time Slip

The Painting by Charis Cotter

The Painting by Charis CotterFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 19 September 2017
Publisher: Tundra Books
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade time slip
Rating: ★★★½
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Annie and her mother don’t see eye to eye. When Annie finds a painting of a lonely lighthouse in their home, she is immediately drawn to it–and her mother wishes it would stay banished in the attic. To her, art has no interest, but Annie loves drawing and painting.
When Annie’s mother slips into a coma following a car accident, strange things begin to happen to Annie. She finds herself falling into the painting and meeting Claire, a girl her own age living at the lighthouse. Claire’s mother Maisie is the artist behind the painting, and like Annie, Claire’s relationship with her mother is fraught. Annie thinks she can help them find their way back to each other, and in so doing, help mend her relationship with her own mother.

But who IS Claire? Why can Annie travel through the painting? And can Annie help her mother wake up from her coma?

Back in 2014, I was so charmed by Charis Cotter’s debut The Swallow (review here) that I nominated it for a Cybils award. Today I’m reviewing Cotter’s sophomore middle grade novel. The mention of a lonely lighthouse caught my interest. Cotter, a native of Toronto who now lives in Newfoundland, evokes crisp imagery in her descriptions of the coast and lighthouse. The atmosphere, for me, makes up for the lack of explicit ghosts.

Annie soon deduces Claire’s identity, so I don’t believe it’s a spoiler to state that Claire is Annie’s mother, some years in the past. I enjoy books that explore the familial relationships between children and adults (an enjoyment that can be traced back to my reading of Inkheart at 10 years old). The mother-daughter relationships explored in The Painting are the kind where the daughter wants one thing for herself and the mother wants something else for the daughter. Conflicts sparks as they fail to understand each other’s needs. (The Pixar film Brave also did a great job at exploring this kind of relationship.) Annie sees her relationship with Claire inverted in Claire’s relationship with her own mother Maisie – Maisie paints, Claire studies, Claire wants to attend high school in town and Maisie wants her to stay at the lighthouse. In the modern timeline, Annie finds herself clashing with Claire over Annie’s interest in art and her introverted demeanor.

A number of poignant moments are scattered throughout the story. The death of Claire’s younger sister complicates Claire and Maisie’s relationship and gives further depth to their relationship. The first person narrative of a young girl who thinks she’s to blame for her sibling’s death or who believes her mother doesn’t love her can sting to read.

If you liked the style of The Swallow, you will probably like the style of The Painting. The narrative alternates between the two girls in short segments. As with The Swallow, I found Annie and Claire’s voices to be very similar. There is less creepiness in The Painting than in The Swallow – though atmospheric, the characters drive The Painting even more so than in The Swallow.

The Bottom Line:

A touching story primarily set along Newfoundland’s atmospheric coast, Annie and Claire work together across decades to save Annie’s mother and in the process repair their own relationships with their mothers.

Further Reading:

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Patty Ain’t No Junk – Review of Patina by Jason Reynolds

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Cover of PatinaSeries: Track #2
Format/Source: ARC/Publisher
Published: 29 August 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Middle grade contemporary
Rating: ★★★★
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Patina, or Patty, runs like a flash. She runs for many reasons—to escape the taunts from the kids at the fancy-schmancy new school she’s been sent to since she and her little sister had to stop living with their mom. She runs from the reason WHY she’s not able to live with her “real” mom any more: her mom has The Sugar, and Patty is terrified that the disease that took her mom’s legs will one day take her away forever. So Patty’s also running for her mom, who can’t. But can you ever really run away from any of this? As the stress builds up, it’s building up a pretty bad attitude as well. Coach won’t tolerate bad attitude. No day, no way. And now he wants Patty to run relay…where you have to depend on other people? How’s she going to do THAT?

I first encountered Jason Reynolds last year when I read Ghost, the first book in his Track series. Ghost ended up winning the 2016 Cybils award for middle grade fiction. Patina, the follow up to Ghost, hits just as many right notes as Ghost -even if they’re different notes. In his first novel from a female perspective, Reynolds has crafted a unique voice that brings Patina to life in a distinct way from that of Ghost, the previous novel’s male protagonist. If you haven’t read anything by Reynolds, I highly recommend this series. The Track books do a great job of exploring middle grade life, the importance of friends and family, and how sport can benefit kids in more ways than one. Patina would be a good story if Reynolds tackled even just one of these topics, but he has managed to bring them all together in a well-balanced blend.

Patina’s plot differs from Ghost in that it lacks a central conflict stemming from Patina’s own actions (i.e. Ghost steals a pair of shoes and has to deal with the consequence). There is a tense pivotal moment, yet one of a very different nature than in Ghost. Instead, Patina focuses more on the exploration of Patina’s relationships with friends, family, and track mates.  I loved reading along as Patina realizes how much she loves her family and how much she values everything they do for one another. She learns to balance her competitiveness and her track life with her school and family life.

Beyond his on-point exploration of life as a middle schooler, Reynolds also explores how Patina’s life differs from her White classmates as she and her younger sister (who are Black) are raised by her White aunt and Black uncle. Patina’s mother has lost her legs to diabetes and can no longer raise her children, but she still plays a large and important role in her children’s lives. This is a family situation I haven’t seen before in a middle grade novel. It sends a strong message that just because a mother of father can’t provide for a child in a traditional sense, doesn’t mean that they don’t love and care about them.

Something would be missing from this review if I didn’t mention track! I have (had?) no interest in sports novels before I was required to read Ghost. Now I can see where they get their appeal from. Track practice provides a unique setting for the characters to interact in. The advice from the coaches and banter between team mates felt refreshing to me – a change from the usual school or home life based discussions. And of course, the build-up to the big race creates a solid structure for pacing the novel.

The Bottom Line:

If you enjoyed GhostPatina won’t disappoint. Patina demonstrates all of Reynold’s writing chops as he tells an engaging story through a strong voice.

Further Reading:

Read Diverse 2017
This post counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 reviewing challenge!

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Understanding The American Right in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Strangers in Their Own LandFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: August 2016
Publisher: New Press
Length: 351 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: ★★★★½
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I read Strangers in Their Own Land in June. I haven’t been able to stop talking about it. When I first heard of this book, I immediately put it on hold at the library. I once thought the beliefs and convictions of the American far right were beyond my understanding. How could I ever understand how someone could hold values so severely divergent from my own? In Strangers in Their Own Land,  Arlie Russell Hochschild undertakes the important task of “truly listen[ing] to the other side in order to understand why they believe – and feel – the way they do”. Through Hochschild’s book, I have come to an understanding of how someone might hold the beliefs of the far right.

One friend of mine commented that they didn’t want to read this book because they didn’t want to empathize too closely with the actions the right. I don’t believe that would be an effect of reading Strangers in Their Own Land. My experience was that I could now understand the perspective and logic of the right, if not perfectly then at least to a better degree than before I read this book. I still think most of their fundamental beliefs are significantly flawed. For example, a few people spoke about their need to elect an anti-abortion candidate over one who was pro-environmental protection (even though they wanted the environment better protected) because God would judge them over the abortion issue and not the environment issue. I will likely never understand how someone can put their personal religion ahead of the rights of their fellow human beings. Yet I can now see how those feelings would influence their political actions.

Other aspects of their beliefs I do have a clearer understanding of. I have some small sympathy there because, from my perspective, these beliefs stem from misunderstanding, ignorance and fear. (If only we could facilitate better communication between the left and the right…) Hochschild crafts what she calls a ‘deep story’ halfway through the book. This is a story that “removes judgement [and] fact to tell us how things feel” (135). She writes in second person to share the experience of a Tea Party member. This narrative in the middle of the book helps put her research into perspective. Tea Partiers are emotional, feeling people, just like anyone else, and this story shows how they came to feel what they feel in today’s world.

Hochschild explores how Tea Partiers believe that liberals want them to feel bad for everyone who is ‘behind them in line’, when they feel “downtrodden themselves and want only to look ‘up’ to the elite” (219). They see people who receive social benefits as receiving a leg up, as jumping ahead in line when they don’t deserve to. One person is quoted as saying, “People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees. But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.” Well. :/ There’s the fundamental difference. I believe in acknowledging privilege and trying to make the world a better place for those who aren’t as lucky as me. It’s not exactly about feeling sorry for someone, yet that’s what the right wing is hearing from the left wing.  Through Hochschild’s exploration of various social, religious, and community factors, I see now how someone might come to such right wing beliefs.

There are a lot more quotes I could use to exemplify how worked up I got while reading this book. I would shake the book and scream internally, “How can you think that?!” While I may have asked that question before, it becomes almost even more frustrating to ask that question when you can see the logic and emotions behind their beliefs, and you can see where the thread of their beliefs gets pulled away from your own. Yet that’s why this is such a good read – it took me into the minds of people I would never be able to comprehend otherwise.

The Bottom Line:

For those of us on the left who want to understand why the right wing is right wing, Strangers in Their Own Land makes for an invaluable read.

Further Reading:

  • Book webpage
  • Interview @ Democracy Now
  • Review by Lory @ Emerald City Book Review
  • Review by Susanne @ Goodreads
  • Review by Ralph Benko @ Forbes (a right-wing perspective – very interesting if you’ve read the book)
  • Review by Jason DeParle @ The New York Times

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Review: Bannerless Doesn’t Live Up to its Premise

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

BannerlessFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 11 July 2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Post-apocalypse/Mystery
Rating:
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.  Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn’t yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?  In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

I went into this book hoping for some clever literary fiction exploring questions of population management, bodily autonomy, and maybe some critiquing of environmental and economic policies. I hoped the murder mystery would take a back seat, functioning as frame for those questions. Unfortunately, Bannerless falls short in all those areas. Bannerless instead tells a simple coming of age tale and murder mystery, neither of which are particularly compelling.

The first thing about this book that stood out to me was the repetitive and self-explanatory prose. One aspect that particularly grated on me was the hammering on about how investigators are feared, terrible, powerful. Their brown uniforms symbolize of something awful, but who knows what. We’re told numerous times that the average person disdains investigators, yet the narration never shows why. I don’t like being told something over and over with no evidence. Perhaps its because investigators enforce rules that people don’t like? But we’re never shown effects of that – the system that most people live by functions well and we don’t see or hear about an investigator ruining someone’s life. (One person has an outburst about a household that was split up because an investigator discovered they were doing something illegal, but that has no connection to this story.)

Another related issue I had with the prose is that many sentences felt unnecessary, in that they told me something I could have inferred from the dialogue. It was an odd case of telling instead of showing – at times, the telling happened in addition to the showing. One chapter contains five instances of glaring, by the same two characters. In general, the prose reads amateurish and undeveloped.

This critique about the investigators ties into my main issue with the novel. Where is the dystopia? How does the investigation “reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for”? Enid doesn’t seem to question her role as the blurb hints. The story doesn’t convincingly portray birth/population control as a negative thing, which, given the book’s dystopic tropes, I would assume is the goal. There’s talk of how children born bannerless (i.e. their parents didn’t have a banner and thus shouldn’t have had a child) are discriminated against. Enid encounters people living outside the households and banners structure, but they live desperate lives which enforces Enid’s belief in the banner system (not that she ever questioned the system). Based on what happens in the novel, I support the banner system, which ensures  if you can support a child, then you can have one. Wouldn’t that be the case in an ideal world? That everyone who has a child can support that child? Of course, that’s a simplistic view that should open the door for a more complex exploration of bodily autonomy and other concepts, but Bannerless makes no room for such an exploration.

It occurs to me now perhaps the story is more complex than I’m giving it credit for. Maybe it really is advocating this method of population control, or just trying to start that discussion by showing a positive side of population control. Yet I still feel that the story would have been improved by a more nuanced exploration of the various sides of that discussion. Plus, the book is being marketed as a dystopia so I’m not sure what what Enid was supposed to discover as she investigated the murder.

The story follows two threads – Enid as a teen travelling with musician Dak and Enid as a twenty-something investigating a murder. The murder mystery itself is simple and predictable, and thus pretty boring. The investigation is blah. Enid tries to talk to people, they don’t want to talk to her. She eventually figures it out. Hooray. I did like teen Enid, despite her slow story. She follows her own path. She makes the decision to travel with Dak and she makes the decision to leave him.

The Bottom Line:

Bannerless has the premise of a fascinating story, but the weak plot and dull storytelling make Bannerless one you can skip.

Further Reading:

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Exploring Biracial Identity in The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods

The Blossoming Universe of Violet DiamondFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: January 2014
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Contemporary middle grade
Rating: ★★★★
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Violet is a smart, funny, brown-eyed, brown-haired girl in a family of blonds. Her mom is white, and her dad, who died before she was born, was black. She attends a mostly white school where she sometimes feels like a brown leaf on a pile of snow. She’s tired of people asking if she’s adopted. Now that Violet’s eleven, she decides it’s time to learn about her African American heritage. And despite getting off to a rocky start trying to reclaim her dad’s side of the family, she can feel her confidence growing as the puzzle pieces of her life finally start coming together. Readers will cheer for Violet, sharing her joy as she discovers her roots.

Earlier this year, my mom and I read Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill, a non-fiction book which profiles the experiences of biracial Black Canadians. That book opened my eyes to the unique challenges biracial people can face. The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond explores those challenges from a middle-grade perspective.

This book focuses on Violet finding her space within both her White family and her Black family. There are brief yet important discussions about race. For example, when Violet mentions her Greek friend’s grandmother’s belief that ‘there is no race, just the human race’ and Violet’s grandmother responds, “It’s not so simple, Violet. White folks made the race laws in the first place, and our history is complicated” (pg. 165). Violet’s grandmother’s initial negative attitude to her son marrying a White woman is also addressed. There are other places that allude to debated issues on racial identity, but as Violet is just 11 years old and learning for the first time about what it means to be Black and biracial. She isn’t drowned in too much information and neither is the reader.

Early in the book (around page 50), Violet learns about the circumstances of her father’s death, which explains why Violet’s paternal grandmother doesn’t like Violet’s mother. In two short sentences, Woods reveals the awful truth. Violet yelling at her mother caused me to cringe. I can’t imagine what it would be like to learn that about your parent’s past. The backstory is pretty intense way explain the disconnect between Violet and her father’s family.

I think this would be a good book to ease kids into the concept of and challenges surrounding what it means to be biracial, as well as to start a discussion about coming to terms with a particular identity. A young adult novel featuring Violet as a teen would make an excellent follow-up, giving the opportunity to delve further into ideas that Woods briefly introduces in this book.

The Bottom Line

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond features a spunky protagonist who learns what it means to be biracial. The book can serve as a good introduction to discussion about race and identity for younger readers.

Further Reading

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