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That Inevitable Victorian Thing (E.K. Johnston)

3 Oct

Squinks, you really need to read this if you, like me, love stories with British royalty; strong, female friendships; and Canada.  This is my first E.K. Johnston title, and I’m so glad I picked it up!

 

That Inevitable Victorian Thing

Squinklethoughts

1.  Above all else, I feel like this story is a love letter to Canada.  The setting is Toronto and the Muskoka Region (a few hours north of the city), but in a reimagined world where Canada is just one of many colonies of a British Empire that never fell.  There are so many little nods to real life, including (my favourite) a reference to my beloved Leafs tying things up in the third only to lose, spectacularly, dramatically, and not all that surprisingly in overtime.  My husband laughed when I read this part out loud.  Other allusions, like the note from the Minister of Transportation reminding officers to prepare for Friday exoduses from the city to cottage country once warmer weather begins, really made the story more enjoyable than it already was.  You’d think it’s a small thing, but it really adds to the entertainment value of a story when the readers recognize bits and pieces from real life.

 

That Inevitable Victorian Thing 3

 

2.  Despite the title, the expectations of Victorian England, as they are manoeuvred by the main characters, are just plot devices.  Yes, there is British imperialism, but that is the backdrop of the book, not a commentary on why or when or how imperialism might be okay.  In fact, Johnston doesn’t shy away from mentioning all the failings and trappings of history’s darker moments, but it’s a different world that plays with the answers to what-if questions.  I chose to read this book because I was interested in the characters and what they could do; I didn’t comb through every reference to other cultures and traditions mentioned in the story only to analyze why this culture is mentioned and not that, or why this aspect of Victorian England is highlighted and not that.  And, truth be told, I read quickly a lot of the “history” stuff.  This book is all about the characters for me.

3.  Let’s talk about those characters.  There are three fun and feisty women in this story, and I love how Johnston develops them.  I particularly like the fact that Margaret and Helena recognize that socialite Elizabeth has more to her than what the paparazzi depict.  Elizabeth is genuinely kind and incredibly knowledgeable of how her world works, using that knowledge to her advantage.  I also like that Helena, who is introduced as more of a homebody than anything else and who has essentially plotted out her path in life, discovers other interests that draw her out of her shell.  She isn’t afraid to stand alone in the corner, waiting for the debutant ball to begin.  It’s great that August, her childhood friend, appreciates that Helena had always been happy with herself.  And Margaret … I think I like her best of all.  I love the push and pull of wanting to do things your own way while knowing you simply cannot.  That kind of conflict has always been one of the more interesting ones for me.  Commoners often think that royalty have it great, but every one has battles no one else can fathom.  Margaret is kind and dutiful, both to herself and to her country, and I think many people will fall in love with her.

4.  I had absolutely no problem with a world in the future that relies on –bots and –grams and all the good stuff that come from advanced technology while also celebrating debutant balls, sending and receiving formal invitations, and … employing servants in households.  I can see how others might be offended with the concept of servants still in use in the future, but there are a few times in the novel that address this and that I think Johnston got spot on.  We can always honour someone’s professional pride regardless of the job that person chooses.  Fanny is an amazingly loyal companion to Helena, and Hiram and his sisters make the Callaghan household run smoothly.  Servants though they may be, they are integral to the lives of those they serve.  (If only this concept had been swallowed by the patricians in Ancient Rome, the Conflict of the Orders may never have happened.  But that’s another reimagined world …)

 

That Inevitable Victorian Thing 2

 

5.  I love that Margaret is so sure of her duties and responsibilities and restrictions.  I love that she knows why she can’t do something even if she really wants to.  I love that she’s innately kind and that she doesn’t want to get in the way of others who have found paths that are undeniably less complicated than hers.  We forget, sometimes, that not everyone is brought up in a family (or society) that encourages children to be what they want, marry whomever they want, or even think what they want.  It’s a great notion that we take for granted in our modern world, but we should remember that it’s not universal.  I would have loved to learn more about Margaret.  She was my favourite of the three.

6.  August is so kind and loyal.  Poor guy is in such a quagmire throughout the story.  I can only imagine how difficult it must be for him to juggle the problems at work, his parents’ confidence and trust in him, and his own expectations of being a good husband.  What a good and flawed guy.

7.  Ms. Johnston, can we please, please, have another book?  I fell in love with the three girls and August, and I’m so curious to know what life is like for them after the summer is over.  But seriously, Squinks … It’s been ages since I finished reading this book, and I’m still wondering how the rest of the summer goes for Margaret, Helena, August, and Elizabeth.  There is still so much story to tell!  I really do hope Johnston writes a sequel.

 

5 Squinkles

 

E.K. Johnston’s Online Corners
Website | Twitter | Tumblr | Instagram | Indigo/Chapters

 

Thank you, Penguin Random House Canada and Dutton Books, for sending me a copy of That Inevitable Victorian Thing in exchange for an honest review.

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

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The Winnowing (Vikki VanSickle)

28 Sep

I don’t think I’ll ever not like a book written by Vikki VanSickle, and The Winnowing is no exception.  This is her first foray into sci-fi, and it definitely had me wanting more.

 

Winnowing

 

1.  I bought The Winnowing without knowing what the book is about.  That’s how much I trust VanSickle in her ability to tell a great story.  I’ve read all of her other books, and the one thing that ties them all together is that they are written with so much authenticity … I almost believe that her characters are real.  Marivic Stone is loyal, curious, and courageous.  She’s your typical teen, but when the people in her life are threatened or hurt, she does what she can to make sure the good guys win.  But she’s also flawed in that great way I love about pre-teens and adolescents.  She, like other great MCs, wants so badly to help that she almost trips over herself in her desire to do something even without a fully formulated plan.  Marivic (a great name with roots I’m very familiar with) feels so many emotions, and you just can’t help but cheer her on.

 

Winnowing 3

 

2.  As an English teacher (with a specialist degree in linguistics), I LOVE VanSickle’s word play and allusions throughout the novel.  She has created a story with homages to or hints of The Giver (Dr. Lowry and just generally the dystopian setting), Ender’s Game (the Kesla), and Brave New World (Somnease and the in/fertility issue).  Add to that references to J.J. Abrams, Gene Roddenberry, Krypton, and the X-Files (I’m guessing, since the setting is New Mexico, but as I haven’t actually seen any X-Files episodes, I can’t be sure …), and you’ve got a treasure trove of bread crumbs left for conspiracy-loving readers.  I’m sure there are some other sci-fi-specific references that flew by me.

3.  I love the banter/arguments/fights between Kamal and Marivic.  I’m sure Marivic hated them at first, but it’s just so much better to have scenes where the two principal players despise one another.  To his credit, Kamal slowly becomes a team player, even displaying a bit of sympathy towards Marivic at some point.

4.  This book reads like it’s meant to be a standalone, but I could definitely see there being a follow-up to explore the stories of Ren, Abbott, and even Gumps.  VanSickle’s developed the other characters enough to keep her readers interested in their back stories.

5.  In general, I wouldn’t put sci-fi stories very high on my list.  But even though this book is very clearly steeped in the sci-fi genre, what shines more are the topics of friendship, growing up, and accepting who you are.  Marivic and her friends (and non-friends) are tested in terms of their loyalty to one another, obsequiousness towards authority, and accepting their differences as strengths rather than weaknesses.  Because of this, The Winnowing can absolutely be read by anyone … even those who aren’t fond of Mulder and Scully.

 

Winnowing - VVS

 

6.  Teachers, Vikki VanSickle is a wonderful storyteller and read-aloud artist.  If you get the chance to have her visit your class/school, do it!  Your kids will love listening to her read from her novel (picture above taken during her reading at the Word on the Street festival), and they may even be encouraged to put pen to paper to write their own stories.

 

4 Squinkles

 

Vikki VanSickle’s Online Corners
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Chapters/Indigo

 

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

A Map for Wrecked Girls (Jessica Taylor)

26 Sep

The best story backdrops are the ones that rip the main characters away from their natural habitats and pluck them into completely unknown worlds.  In Jessica Taylor’s A Map for Wrecked Girls, you’re in for a treat: there are TWO main characters (and a boy) stuck on a deserted island.  Only good things can come from this.

 

Map for Wrecked Girls

Squinklethoughts

1.  This story is about two sisters, and right there is the reason I wanted to read this.  Henri and Emma (great names!) have been as close as close can be.  They’re sisters and best friends and confidantes; they’re two halves of the same whole.  But things can’t always stay the way they are.  High school – and boys – get in the way.  Maybe it’s because I have sisters of my own that I was so compelled to find out how they get through the story with the chasm between them that seems all too permanent.  Can they even find their way back to each other?

2.  More than what would happen to the girls on the island, I wondered what would happen to the girls’ relationship.  This is what drives the book.  I know some people might think that it’s too contrived to have them maroon on an island, eke out desperate means of surviving desperate times, and hope that somehow their mitigating circumstances will eventually lead them to reconciliation.  In truth, I found the island survival part secondary to Emma and Henri surviving one another.  When you’ve spent your entire life dependent on another person, how do you now live feet away but worlds apart?

 

Map for Wrecked Girls 2

 

3.  I’m glad that Taylor doesn’t reveal the root of the girls’ problems until towards the end.  It gives readers a chance to get into Emma’s shoes (sandals?) through her narration.  I feel bad for what she did to Henri even though I didn’t even know what it was until the last few chapters.  But because Emma is a completely reliable narrator, I knew that it must have been really bad.  Imagine that, and attribute it to Taylor’s writing.  I had all these wild theories running around in my head about what Emma could have possibly done, but even without knowing it, I felt like Henri’s anger towards her was completely justified because Taylor writes Emma’s thoughts so well.

4.  Alex is so good.  So flawed, so human, so intriguing.  He treats the girls really well, especially considering he’s only known them for a few hours.  It must be quite difficult to deal with trying to thrive on an island while wracked with guilt for his cousin.  The best part about Alex is that he seems to really care about Emma, and he sees Henri for who she really is.  I wish that there had been more to the story just because I wanted to read about Alex more.  I know the story revolves, primarily, around Emma and Henri’s sistership, but Taylor sows the seeds for a great story revolving around Alex.

5.  Actually, I feel like the three characters – Emma, Henri, and Alex – have so many more stories to tell.  The novel is told from Emma’s perspective, but how great would it be to read Henri’s point of view of the whole mess as well?  I want more of these three!  And I want more of Jesse, the girls’ neighbour and long-time friend, who seems to be a beacon of stability in the girls’ lives.

6.  I feel really, really bad for Gavin.  Some people won’t agree.  But I think that sometimes, we use age as a fair-weather weapon to brandish about when it suits us, sheathing it only when doing so works in our favour.  There are so many other factors to consider.

 

4.5 Squinkles

 

Jessica Taylor’s Online Corners
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Chapters/Indigo

 

Thank you, Penguin Random House Canada and Dial Books, for sending me a copy of A Map for Wrecked Girls in exchange for an honest review.

 

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

Saints and Misfits (S.K. Ali)

14 Sep

What happens when a person that everyone believes to be a saint is actually a monster?  Do you let the monster be, or do you cast a light to shine on his/her true self?  Boy is Janna’s predicament one that is more common than you realize.

 

Saints and Misfits

Squinklethoughts

1.  Janna Yusuf is an excellent heroine.  She deals with the inevitable troubles of being different in a mature but very real way, and it’s something that, as a book champion and book pusher, I’m thankful for.  Too often, writers include every possible emotion that people can go through in an attempt to showcase pre-teen and teen angst.  Yes, of course there are a lot of emotions that inevitably pop up in our late-elementary and high-school years, but it doesn’t mean every single one of them has to be analyzed or even explored in a novel.  I know enough of Janna’s struggles to love her and welcome her onto my bookshelf.

2.  Let me explain more.  S.K. Ali understands that young people are not yet done growing up.  Whenever Janna tries to figure out what to do with a bad situation or how to behave whenever she sees the monster, Ali writes it in a way that doesn’t reflect the kind of overwhelming maturity that Janna wouldn’t have.  Janna is confused and hesitant and … unfinished.  Beautifully unfinished.  So many girls will make a friend in Janna.

3.  I loved learning about various aspects of Muslim and Indian cultures, especially the expectations put upon people who grow up in families of mixed cultures and religions.  What I loved even more was the fact that I know so many students who will read Janna’s story and be encouraged to be themselves.  Although there are various religious- and culturally specific concepts in this story, it really is a tale that many girls can relate to.  It is a true bildungsroman, capturing the ups and downs of Janna growing up, testing the waters, and finding herself, including the roles that religion and faith play in her life.

4.  There are lots of other strong characters, too.  I kind of wish, for example, that the story of Janna’s mom was explored a little more.  Janna’s friends are mostly great, and I’m glad that Ali didn’t make them too one-sided just because Janna, herself, is a strong character.

5.  **Spoiler Alert** Parents/teachers: The inciting incident in this story is the attempted rape of Janna by someone from her own mosque.  The lead-up to it is described, but since it doesn’t quite happen, there isn’t much in the way of specific details.  Nonetheless, it may be too sensitive for some young’uns.  I suggest reading the first few chapters to see if you think it would be okay for your kids.  On that note, I’m glad that the plot gets kicking right away.  It really leaves more room in the book for the aftermath.

6.  Ali’s writing a second novel.  Another YA story, this time featuring “an ensemble cast of diverse souls, as well as LOVE” per her Goodreads bio page.  Can’t wait.

 

4.5 Squinkles

 

S.K. Ali’s Online Corners
Website | Twitter | Chapters/Indigo

 

Thank you, Simon and Schuster Canada, for sending me a copy of Saints and Misfits in exchange for an honest review.

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

Spellbook of the Lost and Found (Moïra Fowley-Doyle)

8 Aug

This book has everything I liked, which is why it jumped to the top of my reading queue.  Definitely pick this title up if you also love any of the following: secrets, magic, spells, friendship, strong women, Ireland, narratives in multiple voices, tree and flower names.

 

Spellbook of the Lost and Found  Squinklethoughts

1.  The title alone hooked me.  I like books about magic and spells, especially in modern times, so this seemed the perfect choice for me.  One thing I really like about Spellbook is that while magic permeates throughout the entire story, it’s not presented with the type of clichés that persist in other books.  The magic here is treated with respect, even by the characters who don’t believe in it at first, because there is every chance that a life will be changed.  Or lost.  No foolish wand-waving or silly incantations here.  (In fact, the spells are very nicely worded.)

2.  Right off the bat, I was sucked into the stories of SO MANY characters, all of whom narrate a chapter here and there.  In reality, there are only a handful, but it sure felt like there were more.  Once I got the dramatis personae figured out, including which girl-named-after-a-tree is related to or friends with that other girl-named-after-a-tree, the multiple narratives are not a problem at all.  Olive, Rose, Hazel, Ivy, Rowan, Laurel, Ash, and Holly … You really become invested in their stories once you meet them.  I felt like they might have been my own friends.

3.  In fact, I liked the multiple-narrative format that Fowley-Doyle employs here.  It really highlights the fact that the characters are all related but are experiencing the events of the story in his/her own way.  Even if they share scenes or encounter the same strange trinket in the woods, the characters repress different secrets and develop unique perspectives.  I do think there could have been a little more work put into adding more idiosyncrasies in the speech or thought processes of the characters because often, the narrator of one chapter sounds exactly like the narrator of the previous one.  I’m thinking along the lines of one of them always saying something like “Wotcher” (à la Tonks), though I like Rose’s quirk of blowing bubbles to manage her cigarette cravings.

4.  It is a lot of work to weave different characters’ stories together when those characters have little reason to be connected at all, and I really applaud Fowley-Doyle’s plot.  Everything came together very well, and although I got an inkling about the ending about halfway through the plot, I was sufficiently surprised at how she designed it.  Nothing seemed contrived … so much so that I wanted more.

 

Spellbook of the Lost and Found 2  

5.  About that ending … As great as the entire story was, I felt let down at the end.  Not because it wasn’t a good conclusion, but because the conclusion was so delightfully messy.  I can’t help but think (and hope) that it serves as a bridge to a sequel.  I want more of Rose’s healing, more of Hazel and Rowan’s reconciliation, more of Ivy’s secrets, more of Olive and Emily’s changing sisterliness, and more of Laurel, Ash, and Holly.  More of everything and everyone.  And I definitely want to know more about Mags.  I mean, she could be the star of her own book, and that would be awesome.  Is there even enough for a follow-up book?  I think so.  The ending of this one just leaves you wanting more … and isn’t that the sign of a great story?

6.  Fowley-Doyle writes very lyrical prose.  It was a pleasure to read her turns of phrases, though I understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (or swig of poteen). There were many times that I had to reread a sentence or phrase because it just seemed so deep that I needed to give it extra attention.  If you’re into that kind of writing, this book will definitely satisfy you.

7.  Parents/teachers, there are a few scenes that might be too delicate for certain readers, and there are sprinkles of profanity throughout the book (though not enough to seem like it was put in for the sake of sounding teenage-y).  On the whole, this story would be just fine for YA readers to devour.  Even better, I’m sure readers of adult lit would enjoy this story, too!

8.  Last thought for you to keep in mind before you begin your journey with Spellbook of the Lost and Found: Be careful what you wish for; not all lost things should be found.

 

4.5 Squinkles

 

Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s Online Corners
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr | Chapters/Indigo

 

Thank you, Penguin Random House Canada, for sending me a copy of Spellbook of the Lost and Found in exchange for an honest review.

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

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