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?)

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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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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!

Cybils Nominees Featuring Animals

Cybils 2016From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features four books in which a pet or an animal play a key role.

Pandas on the Eastside by Gabrielle Prednergast

Pandas on the EastsideWhen ten-year-old Journey Song hears that two pandas are being held in a warehouse in her neighbourhood, she worries that they may be hungry, cold and lonely. Horrified to learn that the pandas, originally destined for a zoo in Washington, might be shipped back to China because of a diplomatic spat between China and the United States, Journey rallies her friends and neighbours on the poverty-stricken Eastside. Her infectious enthusiasm for all things panda is hard to resist, and soon she’s getting assistance from every corner of her tight-knit neighbourhood.

Pandas on the Eastside is alternative historical fiction, something I hadn’t previously come across in middle-grade fiction. The author’s note at the back of the book states, “In 1972, the government of China gifted two giant pandas […] to the people of the United States[.]” Prendergast notes that although the relationship between China and America was strained that year, the gift of the pandas went “went off without incident.” Her story imagines an alternate narrative “in which the panda’s journey was not quite so smooth.” I found this book tackled two unique topics for middle-grade fiction: a child’s perspective of international diplomacy (conducted via pandas!) and neighbourhood life in an impoverished area of 1970s Vancouver. Journey learns how to engage in activism with the support of a varied cast of characters who live in her neighbourhood, including shop owner Mr. Huang, teacher Miss Bickerstaff, and homeless man Kentucky Jack. There are a lot of historical references in here, including hippie life, racial tension, and American war deserters.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Review @ CanLit for Little Canadians | Add to GoodReads

When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin

When Friendship Followed Me HomeBen Coffin has never felt like he fits in. A former foster kid, he keeps his head down at school to avoid bullies and spends his afternoons reading sci-fi books at the library. But that all changes when he finds a scruffy abandoned dog named Flip and befriends the librarian’s daughter, Halley. For the first time, Ben starts to feel like he belongs in his own life. Then, everything changes, and suddenly, Ben is more alone than ever. But with a little help from Halley’s magician father, Ben discovers his place in the world and learns to see his own magic through others’ eyes.

Sad happenings fill the beginning and ending of this book. Some of those happenings could have been removed, probably to the improvement of the narrative. Halley comes across as a toned-down manic pixie dream girl, or at least a kind of inspirational cancer patient cliche. But Ben has a good outlook on life, and a nice relationship with his dog. Ben trains Flip as a service dog who assists children in a reading program at the library. That was my favourite part of the story. I don’t think Halley’s story needed to conclude as it did. Overall, not as sad as you might expect from all that happens in the first few chapters.

Review @ Book Diva Nerd | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

Wish by Barbara O’Connor

WishEleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite. But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.

I prefer this ‘dog book’ over the one above. Charlie’s had a rough time. She’smoving to the mountains to live with relatives because her father’s incarcerated and her mother’s not well enough to take care of Charlie. Every day she makes the same wish. Will it ever come true? Charlie eventually recognizes that good people surround her in her new home, including friend Howard, stray dog Wishbone, and caregivers Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus. I appreciated that Charlie had a rough temper and had to learn how to manage it.  I think the cover of this book captures the mood well – a soft and warm story about finding family.

Review @ My Shoestring Life | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby

The Nine Lives of Jacob TibbsCaptain Natick does not want to take a kitten on board his ship when it sets sail in 1847, but his daughter convinces him that the scrawny yellow cat will bring good luck. Onto the ship the kitten goes, and so begins the adventurous, cliff-hanging, lucky life of Jacob Tibbs. At first, Jacob’s entire world is the ship’s hold, where the sailors heave their heavy loads and despicable, long-tailed rats scurry in the darkness. But before long, Jacob’s voyage takes him above deck and onward to adventure. Along the way, Jacob will encounter loss and despair, brave thunderous storms at sea, face down a mutiny, survive on a desert island, and above all, navigate the tricky waters of shipboard life and loyalties.

One of my favourite books growing up was Ragweed by Avi. I also enjoy stories of ships and sailing adventures. Jacob Tibbs, therefore, suits my tastes just fine. It may appeal only to a particular type of reader – this is, after all, historical fiction narrated by cat. I have only read bout a third of the book so far. There have been sad moments and humorous moments. The tough life aboard the ship is not toned down. Tibbs, being the only cat on ship, is fairly isolated. We get glimpses into the lives of men from what Tibbs overhears. (The cat tells the story in first person.) I like the style, with its touch of formality that reflects the time. I would call this a classic adventure book, especially a solid read for those who loves cats! (And I see on Goodreads even some self-declared dog lovers enjoy the book…)

Review @ Surreal Talvi | Add to Goodreads

Do you have any favourite middle-grade stories that feature animals?

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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
GoodReads | Indigo | Amazon

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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Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 – WWII + Japanese Experiences

Multicultural Children's Book Day 2017Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017! A perfect day to kick of my series of Cybils nominee recommendations that will run for the next few weeks.  The goal of MCCBD is “to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these books into classrooms and libraries”. Check out the Twitter chat at 9PM EST to discuss with the state of children’s book publishing (and maybe win an excellent MCCBD book bundle!). Use the hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

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Cybils 2016From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the books I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features three books that explore Japanese or Japanese-American experiences of World War II.

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Coveer of Paper Wishes

Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family’s life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It’s 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese American, which means that the government says they must leave their home by the sea and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat, but she is caught and forced to abandon him. She is devastated but clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn’t until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can accept all that has happened to her family.

This is a short tale that would be a good introduction to the interment of Japanese-Americans. I liked the characters, and thought Manami’s withdraw demonstrated how difficult the experience was. A somewhat sad and quiet story, the story of the lost dog provides a way into Manami’s life to which children may relate.

Review @ The Children’s War | Add to  GoodReads

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just herThe Last Cherry Blossom and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

I visited Hiroshima a couple of years ago. Visiting the Peace Memorial Museum was one of the most sobering experiences I’ve had. This book compliments historical artifacts and information by focusing largely on what life was like for a young girl growing up in Japan during WWII. Told in first person, Burkinshaw’s writing is sensitive yet evocative. Burkinshaw’s mother’s experience surviving the Hiroshima bombing loosely inspired the story. Like Paper Lanterns, The Last Cherry Blossom would make an excellent introduction to the atomic bombing of Japan.

Review @ Randomly Reading | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

Click Here to Start by Denis Merkell

Click Here to Start coverTwelve-year-old Ted Gerson has spent most of his summer playing video games. So when his great-uncle dies and bequeaths him the all so-called treasure in his overstuffed junk shop of an apartment, Ted explores it like it’s another level to beat. And to his shock, he finds that eccentric Great-Uncle Ted actually has set the place up like a real-life escape-the-room game! Using his specially honed skills, Ted sets off to win the greatest game he’s ever played, with help from his friends Caleb and Isabel. Together they discover that Uncle Ted’s “treasure” might be exactly that—real gold and jewels found by a Japanese American unit that served in World War II. With each puzzle Ted and his friends solve, they get closer to unravelling the mystery—but someone dangerous is hot on their heels, and he’s not about to let them get away with the fortune.

This story differs from the other two in that the Japanese connection is not the main focus of the story. The main character is a Jewish-Japanese American whose now deceased great-uncle fought in World War II. The story has a lot of fun action-adventure components. It also deals with how second and third generation Americans navigate their cultural identities.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Goodreads

Be sure to check out some of the other posts in the Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 link-up.  What other books (picture books, MG, YA, anything) about Japanese experiences in WWII would you recommend?

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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
GoodReads | IndieBound | Indigo 

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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