Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thornhill by Pam Smy

When picturing a traditional ghost story, I envision someone dying of mysterious causes, hanging around the place of their untimely demise, and interacting with those left behind – often with nefarious intentions. This graphic novel takes the traditional ghost story setup and adds an interwoven tale of friendship. Thornhill is the story of Mary and Ella. Mary is an orphan living at the Thornhill Institute in the early 1980s. Ella is a young girl in 2017. 

Ella and her father have just moved to the house across the street from the boarded up old Thornhill house, and she sees a young girl in the window and gardens of the estate. Smy’s wonderful drawing hold a touch of anticipation while capturing the loneliness of both girls. And, while Thornhill is not particularly scary, there is emotional turmoil as the reader witnesses the torrent of bullying and emotional abuse  Mary endures from another orphan at the institute. The inability of the adults in her life to intervene is frustrating, especially as the reader can see that things are going to end poorly for the girls at Thornhill house.

Thornhill is a graphic novel for middle grade readers who enjoy a good ghost story. If you are looking for another middle grade ghost story I highly recommend Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Haun.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

Matthew suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His condition has spun out of control, leaving him home bound hiding out in his room, and obsessively cleaning to reduce his anxiety. To entertain himself Matthew has taken to observing the world outside his windows, quickly developing a keen knowledge of the schedules and lives of the neighbors around him. When a toddler goes missing from the house next door, the town  learns that Matthew was the last one to see the boy. As the community comes together to search for the missing child, Matthew must push himself out of his comfort zone and join forces with unlikely friends to help solve the mystery.

The Goldfish Boy is a compassionate contemporary tale full of quirky characters and a suspenseful mystery. I was impressed with portrayal of what someone living with OCD could be dealing with. This youth book highlights the gift of empathy in a world where everyone is dealing with a loss or personal struggle. And while a youth title, I found it a well-paced and enjoyable read for adults as well.

Readers who enjoy GoldfishBoy may also like the resilience of the characters in Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer: A Novella by Fredrik Backman

I have adoringly savored each of Fredrik Backman’s books, even when I picked one up thinking the subject matter wouldn't interest me. While his titles might be “about” curmudgeonly old men or hockey clubs, at their root each is truly about the nature of humanity and the shared experiences of life.

Backman takes his ability for creating exquisitely real and nuanced characters and situations one step further in And Every Morning the WayHome Gets Longer and Longer. In this novella, three generations are effected by a Grandfather's struggle with Alzheimer's disease. Told at times through the eyes of one experiencing this disease, Backman captures the fluctuating states of confusion and reality, immersing the reader in an interpretation of this experience.

Having lost my own Grandmother to this terrible disease, the emotions and descriptions felt true and had me in tears throughout the book. While a heart wrenching topic, the overall mood of the story is one of comfort. The Grandfather’s story is rooted in his love for his wife and family, and reader has a sense of appreciation for the depth of relationship and connection between the grandfather and grandson. 

If you have been effected by this disease and don’t mind a good cathartic cry I highly recommend this Novella.

Also, readers who enjoy novels with rich character development should checkout any of Backman’s novels, including A ManCalled Ove, My Grandmother Asked me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt- Marie WasHere, and Beartown. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Stranger Game by Cylin Busby

Teenage Nico has spent 4 years living under the shadow of her older sister’s mysterious disappearance. While her parents commit themselves to the endless search, Nico quietly adjusts to a peaceful routine without the abuses of life with Sarah in the house.

Then Sarah is inexplicably discovered in Florida, with no memory of what happened and where she spent those missing years, Nico’s life is again upended. While her parents are overjoyed, Nico has questions, and as Sarah spends more time adjusting back into her old life the details of a complicated tale begin to take shape.

Readers who relish quick suspenseful reads and psychological thrillers will enjoy the twisted turns and twisted motives of The Stranger Game. I enjoyed the audiobook and highly recommend this version to anyone looking for entertainment during a long commute or car trip.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

Skip Beat by Yoshiki Nakamura

The Skip Beat manga series starts off sounding like a fairly typical teen romance:

Nice girl (Kyoko) follows her sweetheart (Sho) to the big city when he pursues his dreams of making it big as a rock star.  She is his biggest fan and supports him by working multiple part-time jobs.  She finds out he was using her and did not really care about her. 

Goodbye, nice girl.

It would be so cliché, but things veer off course to something completely awesome:  Kyoko is heartbroken and quite mad, yes.  She seeks revenge.  Not in any small, petty way, she is going to become a more famous star than Sho is. She plans to do it by joining Sho’s rival agency, which comes with its own huge star, Ren (cue love triangle?).  She has no idea how or what to do, just plain guts and determination that she will accomplish this.  And you have heard about the angel and demon on your shoulder or maybe personal demons?  Kyoko’s inner monologue and emotional tirades are hilariously illustrated with a life of their own as grudge demons. Read it to believe it.

This series is considered “shojo,” stories for teen girls, but there is nothing girly-girly or teen fluff romance about it and would appeal to many looking for a unique graphic novel story.  Once readers get pass the outrageous premise, it is a well-developed story with solid plot and characters and plenty of comedy (if running at 39 plus volumes is any indication of its success).  Kyoko’s character is a force to be reckoned with and constantly surprises others with her persistence and doing the unexpected.  Kyoko is a wonderfully complex character full of contradictions who readers cannot help but cheer her on.  Her character and a strong cast carry the story. 

The serial format allows readers to see Kyoko’s growth as a person and budding actress, as she comes to see acting as a career and passion rather than mere revenge.  Backstories for Kyoko and the other characters are filled in, along with each drama and new conflict adding to the growing storyline.  This is Kyoko’s story, but it is more than that with the other characters she meets and how their stories intersect and impact each other.  The developing romance is slow (still not resolved at 39 volumes) and does not dominate the story, which is refreshing for a supposed teen romance story.  Even though love triangles are rather cliché, it is not the central part of the story, and the characters are carefully developed so that they are not only defined by this romance.  Plus, Kyoko is a bit oblivious about being in a love triangle, so it is a bit lopsided and more interesting to follow.

Look for the Skip Beat series in the VBPL Catalog. It currently runs at 39 volumes, so that will keep you reading for a while.  For more strong female leads in manga, try Hiro Fujiwara’s Maid Sama and Kiiro Yumo’s Library Wars.  For a fresh teen adaptation of a popular comic icon, try Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman: Warbringer.

Review posted by Tracy V.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota series)

Too Like the Lightning is one of these books that will challenge you every bit of the way, then leave you stunned and wondering “what the…?!?.”

In the futuristic twenty-fifth century, the world has changed greatly and reached a global balance, an utopia of sorts. The main narrator, Mycroft Canner, is one of the most notorious convicted criminals the world has known, and he is atoning for his crimes by serving any who need his help. When the story begins, a new Sensayer visits while he is protecting a young boy named Bridger with a unique ability to make inanimate objects come to life.  Bridger’s people want him kept secret because his ability would shake up the world. There is a international scandal that Mycroft is tasked with investigating, which uncovers a conspiracy theory-worthy plot. This rather bland summary does not even begin to encompass the kind of world and people Palmer has crafted.

Philosophy comes to a life in literally unexpected ways with factions adhering to different philosophies. Their representatives debate with each other in every interaction and conversation. The public practice of religion is outlawed, though there are spiritual counselors called Sensayers. People are no longer divided by national borders or traditional family structures with the advance of technology, communication, and transportation making physical boundaries a moot issue. People are connected through communities called bashes that are a combination of extended families united by similar philosophical ideals and economic roles in the world. There are strict rules and formalities to how people interact with each other, including gender norms. Palmer immerses readers into this world with full culture shock and little handholding, except when Mycroft remembers his readers are unfamiliar with this world and its workings. The writing style has an old-fashioned formality and style reminiscent of classical literature and philosophy texts, including how the narrator converses with his audience.

Palmer manages to juggle a story with creative world-building, heavy with conflicting philosophies, fascinating politics (brings to mind that line about strange bedfellows), switching viewpoints with distinct voices and compelling dialogue, a huge cast, and multiple plots and intrigues. It makes for a unique and challenging read. Though the story supposedly centers around Bridger and his strange ability, Mycroft is the lynch pin that holds the story together. He is a reformed criminal who the world’s leaders and movers call for help with a security clearance to match. He sincerely serves for his crimes yet keeps his own counsel and secrets. Mycroft is a fascinating product of this world and such a complex character who is still sympathetic enough to serve as the reader’s guide through this book.

Look for Too Like the Lightning in the VBPL catalog. The rest of the Terra Ignota series includes Seven Surrenders and The Will to Battle. For more philosophy and strange societies in your speculative fiction, try Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy, Ian McDonald’s Luna series (see review), and Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles.

Review posted by Tracy V.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

 “We are such stuff
 As dreams are made on…” (Prospero, 4.1.173-4)

That line?  It is probably as familiar as what happens in The Tempest:  A storm forces Prince Ferdinand and his ship to a mostly deserted island inhabited by Prospero, his daughter (Miranda), a feral servant (Caliban), and a number of elementals.  The Prince and Miranda fall in love, and the Prince takes her and her father home.  The end.  Happily ever after.

It is Shakespeare, and his writing brought this story to life in a way that still resonates today.  Carey, more known for her bold and subversive fantasy, is more understated and quietly challenges the play’s storyline. The Tempest was Prospero’s story, while Caliban served as comic relief, and Miranda was the pretty token.  This retelling is Miranda and Caliban’s story.  Carey fleshes out the backstory of life on the island before the events of the play along with Prospero’s careful scheming, adds a doomed romance between Miranda and Caliban, and gets into the minds of both of them. Though a huge imaginative what-if, readers get to know them better, watch them grow up together, and see their role in how the story turned out.  Both of them have more agency, which makes it all the more bittersweet when readers know how the story ends.

The retelling is subtly subversive and does not add anything shockingly different, plot-wise, from what happens in the play.  Miranda is sheltered and, though educated by her father, she is naïve about the world and people outside the island.  The most noticeable change is that of Prospero’s character from protagonist to a more controlling, villainous one. Miranda is the dutiful daughter, any rebellion effectively quelled by Prospero’s magic.  It justifies Miranda’s obedience to her father while retaining a historical feel of the expected role Miranda plays as daughter and woman.  She has a good heart and is a kind person in unusual circumstances.  Seeing the story from Miranda and Caliban’s eyes, there is more of a challenge to Miranda’s courtship and the play’s supposed happy ending.  Her budding but doomed romance with Caliban gives heart to the story and drives it forward to its conclusion.  The expected ending is rather bittersweet, hanging tentatively between hope and denial, possibility and hard reality.  With the play and the retelling ending at the same place, readers are left to wonder what becomes of Miranda and Caliban and what will either do afterwards.

Look for Miranda and Caliban in the VBPL Catalog.  Though this a more subtle and understated work, try some of Jacqueline Carey’s more shocking fantasy titles.  The classic Tempest by William Shakespeare is a definite and certainly adds to this retelling.  See the modern retelling of The Tempest on DVD with Helen Mirren as Prospera.  For more Shakespeare retellings, try L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Prospero’s Children series and the Hogarth Shakespeare series in which various authors were commissioned to retell a Shakespeare work, including Margeret Atwood's Hag Seed (The Tempest retelling).

Review posted by Tracy V.