A Delightful Early Chapter Book: Yours Sincerely, Giraffe

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe written by Megumi Iwasa and illustrated by Jun Takabatake

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe coverFormat/Source: Hardcover/library
Published: March 2017 (Originally published 2011 in Japan)
Publisher: Gecko Press
Length: 104 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction – early chapter book
★★★★½    Add to Goodreads button

 

I came across this wonderful little book while browsing new children’s books at the library. The discovery made me fondly recall those days when library browsing was my primary way of finding hidden gems and growing my TBR… Anyway! I enjoyed everything about this book.

Giraffe, feeling bored, writes a letter to which he instructs Pelican to deliver as far away as possible. Giraffe’s letter ends up in the hands (flippers?) of Penguin. The two exchange letters in which they try to figure out what the other looks like, culminating in a humorous meeting. In addition to Giraffe and Penguin, there are cute supporting characters like Whale and Pelican, who have their own independent motives and personalities.

“Pelican was a little nervous. After all, this was his first customer.” (p. 15)

“There were two reasons that Professor Whale was a teacher. Because he was extraordinarily big and because he was extraordinarily old. In other words, because he was, quite simply, extraordinary.

And he was especially extraordinary at spouting. No one could spout like him.” (p. 34)

This book is for young readers and doesn’t have a lot of text. The writing is simple yet creative. Though this is primarily a funny story, there are one or two poignant moments contained within. The doodle-like illustrations enhance the story’s mood.

The Bottom Line

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe is the kind of creatively clever story that can delight young and old readers alike.

Further Reading

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Review: Indigenous Writes is a Must Read for Every Canadian

Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel

Indigenous Writes coverFormat/Source: Paperback/Own
Published: September 2016
Publisher: Highwater Press
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
★★★★½    Add to Goodreads button

I followed Vowel on Twitter for some time before I picked up her book. If you’re new to learning about Indigenous experiences, her Twitter feed may seem overwhelming. Not so her book Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nation, Inuit, and Métis Issues in Canada. Vowel writes in a casual, conversational tone and doesn’t assume the reader to be familiar with the topics she explores.  Although the cover looks somewhat textbook-y, this book is highly accessible even to the uninformed reader. Of course, this would be an excellent text for classroom use, but I read it on my own and had no trouble digesting the content.

Indigenous Writes is divided into 31 chapters covering five topics: 1) The terminology of relationships, 2) culture and identity, 3) myth-busting, 4) state violence, and 5) land, learning, law and treaties. Throughout the book, Vowel tackles many widely held yet completely inaccurate beliefs about Indigenous peoples in Canada. I learnt about stereotypes I didn’t even know existed, such as the idea that Indigenous people receive free housing or education. Something else I was keen to learn more about was Métis identity (see Chapter 4: “You’re Métis? Which of Your Parents Is an Indian?: Métis Identity”). When I was travelling in New Zealand, I found myself on more than one occasion trying to explain Métis identity, something I really didn’t know much about despite having grown up in Manitoba. I wish I had had this book to recommend back then!

Finally, I often find myself thinking, “I know X idea/belief/concept is wrong, but why is that?” (A basic example: I know wearing clothing that has significance to a culture you don’t belong to is wrong, but how do I explain why?). Even though I considered myself a relatively educated person when it came to the challenges Indigenous people face in this country, I still lacked particular knowledge that allows for a greater understanding of the complex and often fraught history and relationship between Indigenous people and settlers like myself. For me, Vowel addresses that question at the top of the paragraph multiple times over. Here are just a handful of excerpts that helped me understand particular issues and concepts in a clearer light than I had ever before. Vowel offers numerous clear considerations of many issues that people misunderstand, misinterpret, or  misrepresent, out of intentional or unintentional ignorance. Indigenous Writes filled many gaps in my knowledge, making me very grateful for Vowel’s work.

On defining who is Indigenous:

Blood-quantum rules have been called a ‘slow genocide’, and I think this is an apt description. Not mass murder, but extinction via definition. Every time a non-Indigenous person enters the ‘Indian gene pool’, fewer people in the next generation are counted as Indians. I’m sorry, but what are we? A breed? Or peoples with distinct languages, customs and beliefs? (77)

On restricted vs. unrestricted symbols:

If someone unfamiliar with Canadian culture were to decorate herself with a string of fake Victoria Crosses, the reaction would be different than if the same person draped a Canadian flag over her non-Canadian shoulders. (83)

On respectful access:

What access do you think you are owed? Why? How have you earned it? Who could appropriately give it to you? And, most important, what would further access do for the people you claim to admire so much?  (87)

On colonialism and racism:

In other words, there is no history of colonialism and systemic racism that informs the modern view of Indigenous peoples, because that problem was supposedly solved at some point in the past. The ‘real’ racism is in conflating ‘legitimate’ dislike for Indigenous peoples (based not on race or ethnicity, but rather on the ‘bad choices we make’) with historical colonialism/racism ‘which is over.’ In continuing to discuss colonialism and racism as present-day concerns, Indigenous peoples are engaging in so-called ‘reverse-racism and oppressing blameless settlers’. (120)

On treaties:

What bothers me is this: a treaty is an ongoing relationship. That’s how it is in every other situation that does not involved Indigenous peoples. Treaties are nation-to-nation agreements that mediate relationships, and they can and should be revisited as a relationship progresses. Indigenous people know this; this is how we approach treaties and agreements with Canada. However, Canada does not seem to understand this. they want to settle everything and never look back. Patch up the holes in their supposed Crown titles and put the whole thing to bed. (258)

The Bottom Line

A well-written book that should squash any excuses for not educating yourself about First Nation, Inuit and Métis issues in Canada, Indigenous Writes is a much-needed resource that all settlers can learn from.

Further Reading

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Review: The Child Finder = Another Excellent Sophomore Novel

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder coverFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: September 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
★★★★½    Add to Goodreads button

The Child Finder focuses on the mystery of a missing child. If you stripped away the insightful prose, made the characters full of heart and heartbreak into something more generic, and ignored the histories that drive them, you’d be left with a pretty a pretty standard tale that could be the plot for an episode of Criminal Minds. But there’s so much more to this book that makes it soar beyond the usual thriller standards. This is a book worth your time and your tears.

I knew, from having read The Enchanted (review here), that The Child Finder would be a difficult read. I started reading with a small hope that there might be a more positive lean to the story – because no one hopes to read about the physical and sexual abuse of a young abducted child – but that hope was dashed less than 30 pages in. Denfeld writes with care and compassion for the victims in her story. She is neither explicit nor gratuitous. Her writing, though, even when in metaphor, hit me hard in the chest and made breathing a little more difficult. By page 60, I noted “need a lot of breaks from this one”. The Child Finder is not an easy read – Denfeld writes both eloquently and realistically, meaning The Child Finder may be too painful of read for some people. This is not a thriller you can quickly breeze through.

Madison’s story is not the only one shared in The Child Finder. The novel is peppered with small sad stories (descriptions about Naomi’s past cases) that burn for how real they read. Juan’s story is shared as the lesson that taught Naomi to “view every act, with suspicion, every witness as questionable, and every piece of possible evidence along the way as a trap” (60). Naomi suspected a man of abducting Juan, but the man caught onto her, disposed of Juan’s body, and disappeared.

Juan Aguilar was one of her early cases. His mom was an undocumented farm worker, who, weighing the risk of going to the poilce about her missing son agains the risk of deportation, chose the police – and was deported. She had told Naomi from her jail cell, where she was shackled and waiting for the deportation bus, that she had named her son Juan because the name meant “God’s gracious gift” (59).

Not least of all, Naomi’s own story is threaded throughout. At the start of the book, Naomi has no memory as to her life before she was eight years old. She ends up in the care of Mrs. Cottle, a lovely woman who raises Naomi alongside another foster child, Jerome. Mrs. Cottle fulfills a similar role as the warden in The Enchanted  – she’s a reminder that there are good people trying to good work within difficult systems. Naomi’s memories don’t stay entirely buried, setting the stage for the next book in what GoodReads calls an ‘untitled series’.

Despite all the darkness contained within this story, it is more hopeful than the last bleak book I read (The Good People, review here). Madison, through her trauma, retains at least part of herself,and Naomi begins to learn how she might heal from her own trauma.

The Bottom Line

I can’t sum up this book better than Erin Morgenstern, whose blurb reads: “Rene Denfeld has a gift for shining bright light in dark places. […] Raw and real yet wrapped in a fairy tale, as lovely and as chilling as the snow.”

Further Reading

  • Author website
  • Read an excerpt
  • Interview @ Psychology Today (this is a great interview that offers some insight into Denfeld’s experiences and how she is able to write in such a vivid and moving way)
  • Review @ Oregon Live
  • Review @ Publisher’s Weekly

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Review: Hannah Kent’s The Good People is a Devastating Read

The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People coverFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: September 2017
Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: ★★★★½
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBoundWordery 

I waited impatiently over a year for this book to be released in Canada. I first expected it in September 2016 (but that was only the Australian release date), then in December 2016 (but then it got pushed all the way back to September 2017). The book was worth the wait! I devoured it in three days. The Good People tells the story of three women – Nóra, a widow whose daughter has also recently died, leaving her young son Mícheál in Nóra’s care; Nance, the village’s healer woman; and Mary, a young woman Nóra hires to help care for Mícheál.

And at once Nóra, her heart fluttering at his screams, saw that the boy was not, could not be the child she had seen in her daughter’s cabin. Her eyes began to water, and she saw plainly the puckish strangeness that people had been speaking of. All those months she had thought there was a shadow of Johann about the boy, a familiarity that anchored him to her. martin had seen it, had loved him for it. But now, Nóra knew that nothing of Johanna ran through this child’s blood. it was like Tadgh said. She had not recognised him as her own because there was nothing of her family in the creature. He was a cuckoo in the nest. (140)

Nóra unsettled me. At first, she’s quite the sympathetic character, grieving for her husband and daughter. She misses the happy, healthy Mícheál she once met.  She seeks the priest’s help but he dismisses her, saying that Mícheál  has turned ‘idiot’ and that Nóra shouldn’t speak of fairies. After her visit with the priest, she whips Mícheál  with nettles, claiming she hoped to cure him, as Nance once used the method to cure Nóra’s husband of a minor injury. But as the story progresses, Nóra starts believing the whispers of the townspeople. The boy is not really Mícheál – he’s a changeling, and perhaps Nance, familiar with the Good People, can bring the real Mícheál back. I grew uncomfortable with Nóra’s behaviour as she takes increasingly drastic actions to be rid of the ‘changeling’. Thankfully, Mary brings an outsider’s perspective to Nóra’s actions. She emphasizes the idea that Nóra’s beliefs and actions aren’t right, despite what folk belief says.

The keener. The handy woman. Nance opened her mouth and people thought of the way things went wrong, the way one thing became another. They looked at her white hair and saw twilight. She was both the woman who brought babies to safe harbour in the world, and the siren that cut boats free of their anchors and sent them into the dark. (28)

The villagers play a significant role in the story. They gossip and fuel rumours about a changeling in Nóra’s household, then they disdain her further when she believes those rumours. The new priest, who wants the village to disavow Nance, only increases the tension. The villagers continue to seek help from Nance, as they have always done, but they scorn her afterwards and spread lies about her intentions. Even redheaded Mary frightens some of the villagers, Mary who does her best to protect Mícheál. Kent excels at capturing the nuances and hardships of rural life two centuries ago, at exploring how relationships and behaviours can be transformed by belief.  When I think about this setting, I often reduce it to a simple kind of life. Kent crafts a story from a rich history and time period and gives us a striking look into a different way of life, where people’s lives are just as full of story and emotion as our own today.

‘Oh, Nóra,’ Peg murmured. ”Tis no easy thing. As Nance was telling ye, sometimes ’tis better to care for the changeling in your grandson’s place if you can’t be getting rid of it.’ (253)

I recently reread The Witches of New York. That book features real witches performing real magic; I would call it historical magical realism. Here in The Good People, which is pure historical fiction, I found myself wishing the magic was real so that Nóra could be set at ease and everything could turn out alright, as she imagined it would.  Although I knew true events inspired this book, I didn’t know what those events were. In Burial Ritesit was well-publicized that the book was about the last woman executed in Iceland, so I knew that Agnus would die at the end. The conclusion of The Good People was a surprise to me.  What happened at the climax was particularly intense – I found myself holding my breath and having to look away from the page.

The Bottom Line

A bleak yet atmospheric read, The Good People tells the tragic story of what can happen when a woman finds no support in her community and has to cling to folk beliefs in the name of love.

Further Reading

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Jessica Miller’s Elizabeth and Zenobia Exemplifies Gothic MG

Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller

Elizabeth and Zenobia coverFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2017
Publisher: Amulet Books
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Middle grade gothic
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

When Elizabeth and her unusual and fearless friend Zenobia arrive at Witheringe House, peculiar things begin to happen.

Especially in the forbidden East Wing.

The flowers and vines of the wallpaper sometimes seem to be alive.

A mirror has a surface like the water of a pond.

And an old book tells a different story after midnight.

Zenobia is thrilled by the strangeness, but Elizabeth is not so bold…

Until she makes a mysterious and terrifying discovery.

Here is a spooky middle grade tale I can get behind! There is a countryside estate that’s been boarded up for some years, there is an overgrown garden and labyrinth, there is a distant father with a mysterious past. While the story doesn’t scare, not in the way of Coraline or The Nest, it uses a handful of gothic tropes to create its own tense and atmospheric moments. Miller writes well for this genre. Her descriptions aren’t too flowery, yet they are creative enough to set an evocative scene. What really brings the setting and story to life, however, are the delightful cast of characters.

Elizabeth and Zenobia play off each wonderfully. Miller gives each a distinct voice. If I described both girls, I might make them sound like caricatures, but they come across as believable young girls. Elizabeth makes for a unique protagonist in these kind of stories – she is not a daring and adventurous child. Zenobia is brash and bold; Elizabeth is scared of many things. Zenobia wants to contact the spirits she assumes inhabit Witheringe House; Elizabeth would rather not. And a similarity – Zenobia can only be seen Elizabeth; Elizabeth wishes her father would see her better. Zenobia’s eager tendency towards the gruesome also helps shape the darker tone of the story. They are the best of friends, and the story explores how they navigate that friendship when their personalities clash. While the plot takes some time to show itself, I found the daily interactions of Elizabeth and Zenobia in their creepy new home entertaining enough.

In addition to Elizabeth and Zenobia, there is a housekeeper whose ability to appear without warning greatly impresses Zenobia and serves as a running gag. There is a tutor who is not the antagonist of the story. And there are a few more characters that I’ll leave you to discover…

My primary criticism lies in the ending. I felt the story concluded abruptly. The mystery surrounding Zenobia never receives an explicit explanation. I like stories neatly wrapped up at the end, though I am coming to learn that’s not always necessary. Zenobia’s nature being revealed was never a promise of the main story line (though I crossed my toes hoping it would come up). The illustrations were not at all to my taste. I tried to be forgiving – “Maybe they’re meant to look like they’re drawn by a kid…” – but personally, I just think they’re bad. Edit (Oct. 13): I did not think to consider that the illustrations were not finalized in my ARC. (As a blogger who’s been reviewing ARCs for awhile, I am a little embarrassed…). Thank-you to the author for politely pointing this out to me. I have since purchased the book and am happy to report that the illustrations are much more tidy and refined, yet they still retain a quirky quality that’s very appropriate to the story and characters.

The Bottom Line:

A delightful tale of friendship between two very different young girls, Elizabeth and Zenobia is an example of Victorian Gothic middle grade fiction that other books could look up to.

Further Reading:

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