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

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: 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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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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Review: Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip

Author: Patricia A. McKillip
Title: Dreams of Distant Shores
Format/Source: Paperback/library 
Published: June 2016
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Length: 274 pages
Genre: Fantasy of all sorts
Why I Read: Author highly recommended; book spotted at library
Read If You’re: Looking for some fresh creativity grounded in traditional fantasy 
Rating★★★½
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Patricia A. McKillip has been on my radar since I read wonderful things about her work by Lianne. I added a couple of McKillip’s book to my TBR way back in 2014, thinking she’d be worth getting around to some day! I didn’t have plans to get to her in 2016. When I spotted this title while browsing the new and noted section at the library, the cover grabbed me and I couldn’t leave it on the shelf. I was in the mood for some new fantasy. This collection of short stories was just what I needed. Dreams of Distant Shores contains seven pieces of fiction (“Mer”, “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” and “Alien” being original to the collection) and a short essay (also original to the collection).

I enjoyed the variety of this collection. “Weird” is perfectly titled, an intriguing piece of weird fiction to open the collection. “Mer” is a fine story about a witch trapped as a goddess then as a mermaid statue in a seaside town, but not my favourite. I enjoyed “The Gorgon in the Cupboard”, a sweet tale about a painter and artists society in Victorian times – not a setting I usually encounter. “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” tells what happened one day when Edith, Harry and their driver cross over a bridge in the countryside and find a strange house. “Alien” may or may not feature aliens. (It’s not the type of story that may spring to mind when you hear that word.) “Which Witch” introduces us to a monster-battling punk rock band of witches (!!). “Something Rich and Strange” comprises the bulk of the collection – I’ll discuss it further below. Most of the stories have semi-open ended conclusions; you receive some closure but could also easily imagine more to the tale. Though I enjoyed some stories more than others, I found all of them to be creative answers to “What if X character did this?” or “What if X setting met Y characters?” I think it’s true that all stories can be formulated in terms of “What if?” but McKillip seems to have a gift for answering that question.
 
The centrepiece of Dreams of Distant Shores is the novella “Something Rich and Strange”. The final work in the collection, I didn’t realize it was a novella until I was 40 pages in and wondering when it as going to wrap up. Because I anticipated the story to be a third of its actual length, I felt it dragged on at times. Perhaps if I had a closer look at the table of contents I wouldn’t have felt that way! Overall, I loved the atmosphere of the tale – the ocean imagery, the seaside setting, the grey mood. I felt a similar stirring as I felt when reading The Ocean at the End of Lanemake of that what you will. I imagine “Something Rich and Strange” to be some sort of distant adult relative (the theme’s are different and there’s no touch of childhood in “Something Rich and Strange” but something draws the two to my mind). 

McKillip’s creativity also shines through her prose. Here is an author you might read for her style, even if her plots and characters seemed infinitely dull to you. Though their styles are distinct, Catherynne M. Valente and McKillip invoke the same sort of wonder and delight that I find in particular fantasy prose.

Jonah stood inside the mermaid’s song. It was wild and bitter and desolate, a song without words, of spindrift whipped from heaving water washed with colors not even Megan would use; of the cries of battered seals, wind-battered birds screaming over great schools of fish, blind and still, sliding like leaves across the surface of the storm; of the voices of whales and porpoises as they fled the relentless stalking shadows above them that tracked their every move. Brine lashed his eyes, his mouth; kelp torn from the sea bottom tangled around his hands; barnacles and starfish struck him, clung. An empty moon shell, tumbled through the water, caught painfuly over his ear; even I its pale, lovely hollows he heard the mermaid’s storm. (251)

Another aspect of McKillip’s writing that I really appreciated is her ability to make things that would look cool, also sound cool. To clarify – sometimes I read passages in a novel and think, “This sounds like stage directions” or “This sounds like someone just tried to describe the movie in their head.” It doesn’t always translate to the written word. But McKillips manages to write some great scenes, especially in “Which Witch”, that could easily have ‘looked cool’ but read dull.

“A note came out of Pyx that I’d never heard before. But I recognized its power and sod in one of the pins on her vest. The spiral of blackened silver and garnets started spinning, covering the open-mouthed crowd with gyrating red stars. Everybody applauded wildly. I felt the colourful force shoot past me and added something of my own: a shriek of bowed string and a word my mother taught me early on to yell in emergencies. Of course it was the Sprineel G string, and it promptly broke. Liesl added her version to mine, and Madrona walloped a cymbal so hard the reverberations scudded like fast flying golden ripples across the air at the incoming magic. Rune hit the lowest note on the bass while a deep demonic sound came out of his mouth, making the crowd go crazy again.” (110)

The last piece by McKillip in the collection is a short essay titled “Writing High Fantasy”.  I love McKillip’s attitude towards the fantasy genre! I think we will get on well. Here are two points she made that make me think that:

 “I wanted the reader to see the and Morogon lived in and how it shaped him before he left it and changed himself. So I let him talk about grain and bulls; beer and plowhorses, and his sister’s bare feet, before I let him say fairy-tale words like tower, wizard, harp and king, and state his own driving motivation: to answer the unanswered riddle.” (264)

“At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven’t heard the end of it yet.” (268)

The Bottom Line: Dreams of Distant Shores seems to be a solid introduction to McKillip’s work, if you are a first time reader like me. I enjoyed the stories and look forward to delving into her novels. I think I will enjoy those even more.

Further Reading: