Family Reads: A List of Cages by Robin Roe

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Robin Roe’s A List of Cages

A List of Cages

Somehow, this book ended up on Dad’s to-be-read shelf. We picked it because it was readily available at the library and because we had previously talked about reading more YA together.

When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he’s got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn’t easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can’t complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian—the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years.

Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He’s still kindhearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what’s really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives…

Our Discussion

Vague spoilers about the conclusion ahead.

What we liked best about A List of Cages is Adam and his friends – a bunch of good eggs. They reminded me more of my high school experience than most YA books I’ve read. I asked Dad if it was strange reading about a modern high school. Was it much different from his experience? He said not really – particular the cafeteria scenes felt familiar.

Adam and Julian narrate the story in alternating first person sections. Unlike other books we’ve read that take this approach, we found the voice of each character was well-distinguished from the other.

Reading about Julian’s experience was certainly heartbreaking at times – especially when we considered that there are real kids who are experiencing abuse like he does. I choked up at the parts where Julian tries to justify Russell’s behaviour, showing he doesn’t know how he’s been manipulated. Roe does an excellent job at showing how kids can come to feel like they deserve what their experiencing, how they can get trapped in an abusive situation.

The ending felt a little abrupt – suddenly, the story became very dramatic. There were tense and painful moments throughout the story, but the conclusion has a lot of fast action.

Final Thoughts

Dad has only read a couple YA novels in general and I had never read a book about a child abused by their guardian, so A List of Cages was a new reading experience for both of us. I wouldn’t have elected to read this book on my own – the subject matter is too sad – but the positive characters and support from friends that Julian receives makes it a good read.  Have you read A List of Cages?  What do you think about reading YA that tackles such real and painful subjects?

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday #3

Diversity Spotlight Thursday
Hosted by Aimal @ Bookshelves and Paperbacks

Read and Enjoyed: Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Monkey Beach by Eden RobinsonAs she races along Canada’s Douglas Channel in her speedboat—heading toward the place where her younger brother Jimmy, presumed drowned, was last seen—twenty-year-old Lisamarie Hill recalls her younger days. A volatile and precocious Native girl growing up in Kitamaat, the Haisla Indian reservation located five hundred miles north of Vancouver, Lisa came of age standing with her feet firmly planted in two different worlds: the spiritual realm of the Haisla and the sobering “real” world with its dangerous temptations of violence, drugs, and despair. From her beloved grandmother, Ma-ma-oo, she learned of tradition and magic; from her adored, Elvis-loving uncle Mick, a Native rights activist on a perilous course, she learned to see clearly, to speak her mind, and never to bow down. But the tragedies that have scarred her life and ultimately led her to these frigid waters cannot destroy her indomitable spirit, even though the ghosts that speak to her in the night warn her that the worst may be yet to come.

My original review | Goodreads | Monkey Beach is an own voices (Indigenous author – Haisla) novel by Eden Robinson, originally published in 2002. I loved the book’s atmosphere and the main character Lisa.

 Released but Not Yet Read: Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith

Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher was born into a family with a rich tradition of practicing folk magic: hoodoo, as most people call it. But even though his name is Hoodoo, he can’t seem to cast a simple spell.        Then a mysterious man called the Stranger comes to town, and Hoodoo starts dreaming of the dead rising from their graves. Even worse, he soon learns the Stranger is looking for a boy. Not just any boy. A boy named Hoodoo. The entire town is at risk from the Stranger’s black magic, and only Hoodoo can defeat him. He’ll just need to learn how to conjure first. Set amid the swamps, red soil, and sweltering heat of small town Alabama in the 1930s, Hoodoo is infused with a big dose of creepiness leavened with gentle humor….

Goodreads | I added Ronald L. Smith’s two books to my TBR because they promise some solid middle grade creepiness.

Not Yet Released: The Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang

The Red Threads of FortuneFallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love.

On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.

Goodreads | This book is “one of a pair of unique, standalone introductions to JY Yang’s Tensorate Series”.  Added because it’s a non-Western fantasy with trans and queer characters, written by a non-binary Singaporean author.

What books would you select for Diversity Spotlight Thursday? Leave a link in the comment if you’ve already written about it!
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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: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound Wordery

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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The 50 Books I’ve Read So Far in 2017

My mid-year check in is still coming on 5 July, but I decided I also wanted to do this post as a way to:

  1. remind myself of all the great books I’ve read this year
  2. easily share my reviews thus far
  3. offer a brief thought on books I won’t be reviewing (some books will still receive a review later on)

Links to my reviews where applicable. Since it’s ?? Canada Day ?? : books in red = Canadian author, books in orange = Indigenous author.

  1. * You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris – Incredibly moving, carefully written account of the days after the Bataclan attacks in which Leiris’ wife died
  2. Beast by Brie Spangler – Transgirl love interest helps cismale narrator overcome his transphobia (though I liked Jamie and thought she was well-written as a trans character, she’s something of a manic pixie dream girl). Dylan’s an unlikable guy but I liked that he had his own body image challenges.
  3. Better Now: Six Big Ideas to Improve Health Care for All Canadians by Danielle Martin – A balanced look at practical ways we might improve our health care system, Martin presents her ideas in an easy to read and understand manner. The ideas still seem like distant dreams rather than possible realities, however.
  4. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley – I gave this book four stars but I’m not sure why? Changing to three. Looking back, it was a quiet yet gripping story. If you like slow paced thrillers, you might enjoy this.
  5. Beowulf by Anonymous, translated by Seamus Heaney – Easier to read than I expected! Still enjoyable even when you know the whole story. Now that I’ve finally got a basic translation under my belt, I can tackle Tolkien’s Beowulf.
  6. Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada by Lawrence Hill – Drawing on interviews from over 30 biracial Black Canadians, Hill paints a comprehensive picture of the varied experiences these Canadians have had because of their racial identity. This book also got me thinking a lot about my own White privilege.
  7. The Girl Who Beat ISIS by Farida Khalaf – An intense read, this first person account of a young Yazidi woman persecuted by ISIS gave me a personal look into some of the atrocities happening today.
  8. The Wizard’s Dog by Eric Kahn Gale – I thought this book was going to be too silly for me, but it was a lot of fun. Cute premise. The illustrations are a bonus.
  9. When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin – Probably the most gorgeous book I will read this year. This is the kind of middle grade fantasy I could read all day.
  10. Neverhome by Laird Hunt – I liked the narrative style. The plot started off interesting but couldn’t keep up steam for me.
  11. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett – A fluffy little story about the Queen’s evolution from non-reader to writer.
  12. Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson – the first volume in a trilogy, Robinson has written a unique story about an Indigenous teen (the titular son of a trickster) that’s both hilarious and heartbreaking.
  13. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older – This is a very cool book about some very cool kids. A YA urban fantasy that even those who avoid the genre can enjoy.
  14. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – A wonderful read for a cozy winter evening. Looking forward to the sequel.
  15. Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin – A much longer book than I usually prefer…the intertwining of a number of historical Arctic (and one Antarctic) expeditions make this an intriguing read.
  16. Tolkien in Translation edited by Thomas Honegger –  Lots of great essays that got me thinking about the topics. Must read if you’re interested in Tolkien or translation.
  17. Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell – Fun middle-grade fantasy, just the sort I would have liked as a kid (even if there weren’t as many dragons as expected).
  18. The Hate U Give by Thomas Angie – Lives up to the hype. Not good just because it tackles an important topic, but also an overall excellent YA novel.
  19. A Secret Vice by J.R.R. Tolkien – A great companion to On Fairy Stories. The work by the editors enhances the text by giving it both context within Tolkien’s personal live and historical context.
  20. Mad Richard by Lesley Krueger – Not the sort of book I’d usually enjoy. Still readable if dry at times. Probably good for historical fiction fans.
  21. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa – Family Reads discussion coming 18 August…forgot to publish it in June!
  22. The Plants of Middle-earth: Botany and Sub-creation by Dinah Hazell – Another lovely physical book, I enjoyed this slim volume for its look at the philosophical implications of grand tale via its plant life.
  23. Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro – I felt like I was taking a gamble when I requested this book for review. That gamble paid off in this 1970s alternate universe coming of age tale.
  24. Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: A Book Lover Bridges the Digital Divide by Merilyn Simonds – A reflective memoir about what makes a book. I liked following Simonds’ steps as she created a beautiful book of her poetry, with every aesthetic aspect of both the physical and digital book considered.
  25. Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner – Another haunting yet vivid tale. The characters all found their way to my heart (erm, I don’t want to sound mushy but that pretty much covers it).
  26. The Break by Katherena Vermette – Speaking of haunting tales…this novel, about a family of Indigenous women that’s set in my hometown and written by a local Métis woman, cuts deep. I’m still trying to find the words to review it. I wish I could get this book into more people’s hands.
  27. Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller – A fluffy tale that was less piratey than I hoped, but still fun. I’ll probably read the sequel.
  28. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – I finally read this book…it’s definitely good, but it’s too bad he seems to think he’s the only Indigenous author of note out there.
  29. Ten Degrees of Reckoning: The True Story of a Family’s Love and the Will to Survive by Hester Rumberg – Possibly the most devastating experience I’ve ever read about (considering both fiction and non-fiction). I picked this up yesterday when I had time to kill at the library and blazed through it. I actually like that Judy herself didn’t write the book. That would have been too close, too intimate, too intense. Hester writes with sensitivity. She creates a respectful sense of Judy’s life, before, during and after the incident, without going into too much detail (unlike with other memoirs/biographies, though, I didn’t feel that she left out key details to be ‘polite’.)
  30.  The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Gaskell – A new-to-me author that I picked up for the first time for a reading event. Her writing has a very particular style – old fashioned in a way that I sometimes get in the mood for. The unicorn’s minor role was a bit disappointing, but other story elements made up for it.
  31. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg – Another classic I hadn’t heard of before I started book blogging. I loved the New York setting, as many readers before me have. I wish I had this book as a kid. I might have identified with Claudia.
  32. Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George – Finally read the follow up to Tuesdays in the Castle, two years later! Just as fun as the first. I will continue with the series.
  33. Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan – The book description gets it pretty spot on: “brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other”. I especially liked the relationships Amina has with her friends and family.
  34. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab – Oof. Well. Wasn’t sure what to expect with the conclusion of this trilogy but I suppose it was alright.
  35. The Luck of the Karluk: Shipwrecked in the Arctic by L.D. Cross – Great introduction to the tale of the Karluk for those who haven’t heard of it.
  36. If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo – An own voices YA novel about a transgirl protagonist, post-transition. Just as good as you would hope it to be.
  37. Icemen by Mick Conefrey – I liked learning about different Arctic adventures I had never heard about before. Lots of fascinating stories in this one.
  38. Radio Silence by Alice Oseman – This may be my new favourite contemporary YA ever? Excellent novel with bi and ace rep.
  39. Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel – Should be required reading for all Canadians.
  40. Drift & Dagger by Kendall Kulper – I loved reading my annotated copy of this book. I think I liked it better than the first book!
  41. In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle – My second novel by Beagle. Another unicorn story, but a very different one. I loved the fairy tale atmosphere of the real world setting.
  42. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera – A difficult read that wasn’t to my taste.
  43. The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods – A great contemporary middle grade novel race and identity, especially Black biracial identity.
  44. The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell – Another Haskell book! I enjoyed this one a bit more than Handbook, because I didn’t have any expectations of dragons. I liked the unique setting and the role of religion.
  45. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer – VanderMeer did not disappoint in his first book since The Southern Reach trilogy.
  46. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild – A mind-blowing eyeopener. I learnt so much about right wing America.
  47. Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell – A historical middle-grade novel that had been on my TBR for a long time. I will be reading more of Rundell in the future.
  48. Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa – Spotted this book at the library. Read it as a bedtime story. Giraffe is bored so he writes a letter as far away as possible. Penguin gets his letter and writes back. Cute premise, cute illustrations, fun story.
  49. When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore – One of my favourite books this year. Somehow, it was a beautiful as everyone has said. (And the romance is on fire too!)
  50. Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee – Contemporary MG novel about a girl realizing she’s bi. Somehow pulls off having a Shakespeare centered plot. Great conclusion.

And that’s that! I fudged the list a bit – I left off one book I finished last week so I could use that nice round 50. If you have questions about any of these books, I’d be happy to answer them.

What are some of your favourite books from the first half of 2017? Are there any books you wish you had skipped?

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