Friday, June 22, 2018

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery by Liz Rosenberg, 2018

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An affecting biography of the author of Anne of Green Gables is the first for young readers to include revelations about her last days and to encompass the complexity of a brilliant and sometimes troubled life.

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Maud who adored stories. When she was fourteen years old, Maud wrote in her journal, "I love books. I hope when I grow up to be able to have lots of them." Not only did Maud grow up to own lots of books, she wrote twenty-four of them herself as L. M. Montgomery, the world-renowned author of Anne of Green Gables. For many years, not a great deal was known about Maud’s personal life. Her childhood was spent with strict, undemonstrative grandparents, and her reflections on writing, her lifelong struggles with anxiety and depression, her "year of mad passion," and her difficult married life remained locked away, buried deep within her unpublished personal journals. Through this revealing and deeply moving biography, kindred spirits of all ages who, like Maud, never gave up "the substance of things hoped for" will be captivated anew by the words of this remarkable woman.

(352 pages)

I've always loved the story of Anne of Green Gables, ever since I first saw the CBC tv version when I was so young I barely understood what was going on. Few things make me feel more nostalgic than popping in the old DVD and watching Megan Follows sitting in her attic bedroom, gazing into her reflection and musing about kindred spirits. Once I got a little older, I found the L.M. Montgomery books at my local library and worked my way through quite a few of the many Green Gables books. I even picked up Emily of New Moon, though by that point I was pretty oversaturated on Montgomery's books.

While I love the premise and execution of the Anne of Green Gables series, I always felt like the series dragged on way too long. So it's very interesting to learn that Maud was never really interested in or planning on writing such a long series–she really just meant to write a standalone, but it was so popular and lucrative that she was pushed to write more and more over the years.

Really, it's just so sad to read about Maud's life. In many places, she actually feels more like a character from one of her books than a living, breathing person. Her childhood was extremely similar to Anne's, as she was raised by emotionally distant grandparents on stunningly beautiful Prince Edward Island. However, Maud was not an outsider to the island; rather, she was descended from the closest thing to "royal families" the island had–and was related to basically everyone else on the island. And while she loved her grandparents, their emotional distance was much harsher than Marilla and Matthew's was from Anne. Because she was female, Maud's grandfather even tried his absolute hardest to block her from getting an education. She managed to go to college despite him, with her grandmother's help, but it was a very hard road.

Once she reached adulthood, Maud's path became no easier. She shuffled around teaching in one-room schoolhouses, finding various happiness in the different towns. Over the course of her adolescence and early adulthood she had many suitors or almost-romances, but they were all nipped in the bud for one reason or another (often by her own choice). Her love life was truly tragic, and her life as a whole became darker and sadder the further along the story went. By the end of it, I felt choked and angry from even imagining myself in her shoes. She may have been one of the rare early female writers who found fame and relative fortune through her writings while still alive, but that just can't balance out the rest of her terrible life.

Maud was a victim of her own decisions as well as her upbringing. She was quite the coquette at times, and she flirted extremely close to sleeping with a man while engaged to somebody else. It was certainly enlightening to lift back the curtain on L.M. Montgomery's life, and depressing to see how a delicate kindred spirit can be crushed when it is not properly nourished by a wonderful support system like Anne's. I appreciated the chance to learn Maud's story, even if it is depressing, but I am also glad that I didn't learn it until I was out of my childhood. Please, whatever you do, don't pass House of Dreams on to any young readers who are still in the process of falling in love with Green Gables. Don't ruin the magic for them.

Now I need to go back and rewatch the tv show to recapture some of that magic for myself. Let's do that here, too: if you've seen or read any of the Anne of Green Gables installments. what's your favorite scene?

Monday, June 18, 2018

Lights, Camera, Disaster by Erin Dionne, 2018

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Hester Greene loves making movies. With her camera in hand, she can focus, make decisions, and have the control she lacks in life, where her executive function disorder (think extreme ADHD plus anxiety) sabotages her every move.
But middle school is not a movie, and if her last-ditch attempt to save her language-arts grade--and her chance to pass eighth grade, period--doesn't work, Hess could lose her friends, her year, even her camera. It will take more than a cool training montage to get her life together, but by thinking outside the frame, she just might craft a whole new ending.
Written partially in script form, with STOP/PAUSE/PLAY/REWIND moments throughout, this laugh-out-loud story will speak to any budding filmmaker, or unintentional troublemaker, in every act of their lives.

(272 pages)

A long time ago, I bought a copy of Dionne's The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet and absolutely fell in love with it. Something about the combination of Shakespeare, classroom issues, and sibling dynamics was just perfect for me. I went back and read it more recently and found that much of that magic has been lost to time for me, but I still wanted to read this new book by Dionne.

And I did enjoy it. Though not as much as Hamlet. The framing of the story in filmmaking terms (with chapter titles like "Saturday" and "Moments Later," and descriptions like "FAST FORWARD" and "RESUME PLAY" to zoom past boring events by summarizing them, was a great touch. I've never personally been even slightly interested in filmmaking, but it was still cool to see Hess's passion for it and how she basically thought in film for much of the time.

Many kids might find themselves in Hess, as she skates dangerously close to failing a class and having to repeat a grade, but as a type-A personality myself I struggled to relate to her (or, really, not to be annoyed with her at times). I realize that her executive function disorder makes it hard for her to focus, but she has basically completely given up on even trying at this point. She spends all her free time goofing off. And, frankly, if her disorder is bad enough that she can't make herself work, then her parents should have gotten involved way sooner than they do. My parents homeschooled me throughout elementary and high school, so I find it pretty lame that Hess's parents didn't even bother to keep tabs on her homework, or try out alternative ways to study, until things got truly desperate.

It was a good read, though, and I'm glad I had the chance. I don't think I ever would have enjoyed this book quite as much as Hamlet, even if I'd read it in that sweet spot when I was desperate for more Dionne books, but I likely would have still enjoyed it.

What authors did you read as a child? Have you ever gone back and read a new book by them, and how did it go?

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Jigsaw Jungle by Kristin Levine, 2018

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A mysterious treasure hunt helps to heal a broken family in Kristin Levine's first contemporary tale.

Claudia Dalton's father has disappeared. What began as a late night at work has spiraled into a missing persons case - one that's left twelve-year-old Claudia questioning everything she's ever known about her father and their family.

But when she finally gets word from her dad, it turns out he isn't missing at all. He's just gone to "think things over and visit an old friend," whatever that means. Feeling confused and helpless, Claudia starts to assemble a scrapbook, gathering emails, receipts, phone transcripts and more, all in a desperate attempt to figure out what's happening with her dad. Claudia's investigation deepens at her grandfather's house, where she receives an envelope containing a puzzle piece and a cryptic message.

It's this curious first clue that sets Claudia on an unexpected treasure hunt that she hopes will bring her dad home and heal whatever's gone wrong with her family.
(368 pages)

I thought this was going to be one of those puzzle adventure books, like The Gollywhopper Games or Mr. Lemoncello's Library. I thought Claudia's father had left behind a whimsical puzzle for her to find him. I wasn't thrilled with the idea that he had completely abandoned his family just to go "think things over," but I thought the focus would be enough on the puzzles that I wouldn't have to think too hard about the iffyness of the premise.

Instead, the book is basically Claudia and her paternal grandfather's journey of discovery through old footage of her father's childhood, piecing together the reason that he felt he had to leave.

I won't talk about the details of that reason, because it's a huge spoiler for the book. And I won't discuss all the reasons I think her father's actions are despicable, because that would just be too negative (plus, as I said, a major spoiler). But I will say that I believe that once you have committed yourself to your family, you can't just walk away. I don't care what your reasons are, no amount of inner turmoil makes it morally okay for you to just disappear from your loving wife and daughter's life. Claudia and her mother literally called the police when he didn't come home, because they didn't know what had happened to him. He didn't leave a note or anything. And then he starts sending them these really cryptic clues, forcing Claudia to comb through these old home videos and go to museums he went to as a kid, stringing both his father and his daughter along day after day. I can't believe I even need to state the obvious, but this is not okay!

I also can't believe how well everyone treats him once they finally do find out the reason he's gone and hunt him down. In Claudia's shoes, I would be beyond shattered. And Claudia is upset, but not nearly as upset as I'm sure she would have been in real life.

And, look, I'm not going to talk about the spoilers, but I do want to warn potential readers (and especially parents) that there is some content in the book that a significant proportion of people do not feel is appropriate for a children's book. I honestly think it's very dishonest of the publisher not to have warned the reader/parents in some way that this material would be there. I won't go into it more here, but if parents want to know more specifics they can ask me in the comments.

Moving away from the negative, I will say that I really liked both of Claudia's friends. They felt very realistic and the parts of the story with them were definitely my favorite parts. And the actual format of the book is really cool: it's the actual records Claudia kept, so they're video transcripts and phone records and text messages, etc. interspersed with some short narration to tie everything together. It's really clever and well-done, and I would love to see more books done in creative ways like this.

But honestly, I'm just sad that The Jigsaw Jungle was so much more troubling than I thought it would be. I really was looking for just a simple puzzle adventure book when I requested it! As it is, though, I'm ready to set my copy down and move on.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Death by Effigy by Karen L. Abrahamson, 2017

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A traditional Burmese puppetry troupe is more than meets the eye: these puppets hold living spirits.

Disaster strikes on the eve of a performance for a royal wedding, when one of their puppets is murdered - his neck broken, his spirit gone. They cannot perform without him, but failure to perform could cost them their livelihoods, or worse, their lives.

Aung, the troupe's elderly singer, must navigate the labyrinth of court intrigues to solve the mystery and appease the angry spirits: goals which might be at odds. Assisting him - or is that, hindering? - is the troupe's enthusiastic but youngest puppet.

Can they salvage their performance and save their lives?

A story of magic and traditions of south-east Asia.

(129 pages)

I'm embarrassed to admit that it would take me quite a while to find Burma on a map, and that my knowledge of Burmese culture is . . . well, let's just say it's nothing to brag about.

Which means I didn't really know at all what I was in for when I started Death by Effigy. Its entire frame of reference is different from my own. I did my best to shut off the analytical part of my brain, though, and simply enjoy the ride through unfamiliar terrain. The Foreward contextualized the story by providing a short summary of the cultural and religious history of Burma leading up to the time period of the novella, painting such a fascinating picture of the country's past that I honestly would have loved if it had been expanded to fill the entire book.

Death by Effigy is an engaging, unique little novella, featuring–of all things–an old puppeteer and an ancient (though carved to be silly) living puppet as the protagonists. I would normally have taken issue with some of the outlooks espoused by characters in the story (especially Aung's sense of revulsion upon finding his childhood sweetheart has become a Christian, and the central plot of a royal wedding in which a polygamous old king is marrying a thirteen-year-old!). But I managed to shut down the parts of my brain that were offended by such things and simply focus on enjoying the story I was being presented with and appreciating the glimpse into a culture I don't usually know anything about. Once I put the book down I took a moment to recognize and acknowledge that I don't agree with these parts of the story,  but as long as they are truly authentic I wouldn't choose to remove them; it's important to honestly represent the attitudes and practices of other peoples–even if the idea of a thirteen-year-old girl marrying anyone turns my stomach.

Actually, speaking of honest representation, I should point out that the author is not actually Burmese, but is Canadian. The book's tone and content "feel" authentic to me, a complete novice, and the author sounds like she really did her research in the Foreward, but without talking to people actually from that culture I don't know for certain that it really reflects the culture or lifestyle of 19th-century Burma.

All in all, Death by Effigy was an engaging story that held my interest, exposed me to a little piece of the world that I'm unfamiliar with, and offered an exercise in setting aside my own worldview to fully enjoy my foray into a new one. Its short length made it a quick and painless read, never lagging (though I did have trouble telling some of the puppeteers apart) and the story was an interesting and engaging one. I'm glad I had the chance to read it.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novella from the publisher, who is a family friend.

Friday, June 8, 2018

A Song Unheard by Roseanna M. White, 2018

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Willa Forsythe is both a violin prodigy and top-notch thief, which make her the perfect choice for a crucial task at the outset of World War I—to steal a cypher from a famous violinist currently in Wales.

Lukas De Wilde has enjoyed the life of fame he's won—until now, when being recognized nearly gets him killed. Everyone wants the key to his father's work as a cryptologist. And Lukas fears that his mother and sister, who have vanished in the wake of the German invasion of Belgium, will pay the price. The only light he finds is in meeting the intriguing Willa Forsythe.

But danger presses in from every side, and Willa knows what Lukas doesn't—that she must betray him and find that cypher, or her own family will pay the price as surely as his has.

(416 pages)

This is the second book in the Shadows Over England series, following A Name Unknown which is about Willa's older sister-thief Rosemary. I really loved A Name Unknown. In fact, this is a direct quote from my review of it:
I believe I can unequivocally say that A Name Unknown is not only the best Christian fiction novel I've read in a very long time, but it's also straight-up one of the best romances I've read in a while.
 That's why I jumped at the chance to read A Song Unheard. Unfortunately, I wasn't quite as enamored with it. The writing is still quite good, and the historical setting (the beginning of WWI) is a fascinating one, but I just didn't connect quite as well with the characters.

Perhaps it's because I don't have a good ear for music (I have to admit it all kind of sounds the same to me), so I have a harder time relating to the bond Willa and Lukas form over their music which made it feel rather forced. Perhaps it's because I'm growing rather sick of genius characters who magically have all these super, one-of-a-kind code-breaking skills that are basically one big deus ex machina.

I think my favorite storyline was actually Lukas's sister's, because she had to grapple with the moral nuances of war as she grew to know the enemy soldier, practically old enough to be her father, who seemed to grow to care for her and her mother, but was also a part of the forces which had torn their city apart. These are the sorts of ethical complexities I like to see in all war books.

I enjoyed A Song Unheard well enough that, even if it were the first book in a series, I would still be interested in reading the followups. Since it's following A Name Unknown, I am definitely hoping to read the next books in the series. These books are on the long side, but they are well-written and engaging, and even this slightly weaker entry is still much better than much of the competition.

What other historical romance books would you recommend for some light summer reading?

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.