Author: Shay Shortt

10 Years of Required Reading: Best YA

Welcome to the last round up for my first decade of blogging! My reading continues to include a lot of YA novels (particularly fantasy) so this category clearly needed its own dedicated post. Here are five of my favourites from the past ten years.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Cover image for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

by Holly Black

ISBN 9780316213103

Vampirism is a terrible reality in Tana’s world, a raging epidemic that took her mother, and almost cost her her own life. Vampires who choose to feed without killing their victims have spread the infection like wildfire, and the government has responded by sequestering vampires and their victims alike into Coldtowns across the country. When Tana wakes up in a bathtub after spending a party hiding from her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, she expects to find the usual morning-after chaos. Instead the house is deathly quiet, probably because all of the partygoers have been slaughtered by vampires. But in one of the bedrooms Tana finds Aidan tied to the bed covered in vampire bites, and a vampire named Gavriel shackled to the bedframe. Horribly familiar with the risks of infection, Tana sets out for the nearest Coldtown to turn the lot of them in. The Coldtowns are a mix of decadence and squalor, plotting and trading, where the most powerful vampires are internet reality stars. The glamour lures people into coming voluntarily to the Coldtowns with the promise of vampirism and immortality, but once inside, humans become an invaluable food source, rarely achieving their dreams of eternal life. Tana is willing to go into the Coldtown, but she’s also determined to hold onto her humanity and find her way back out. Holly Black makes the vampire narrative fresh with unique rules for her world, and unusual social consequences. At the same time, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was clearly written by someone with a deep love of the classics of vampire literature.

Categories: Fantasy

Every Heart a Doorway

Cover image for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9780765385505

A long time ago, a little girl named Ely West found a doorway, and went on an adventure to a Nonsense world, where she was very happy, until one day she was too grown up to tolerate all the nonsense. Now Eleanor West runs a school for other children who have found doorways that led them home, only to be forced back into a mundane world where no one understands what happened to them. No one except Eleanor. The newest student at Eleanor’s school is Nancy Whitman, and she has just returned from the Halls of the Dead. After years spent perfecting the art of stillness for the Lord of the Dead, everything about this world seems too hot, and fast. Her parents insist on things being just like they were before, meaning colourful clothing, regular meals, and dates with boys, even though Nancy has realized she is asexual. So Nancy is sent to Eleanor’s school to recover from her “ordeal,” and there she meets other children who have had the same experiences. But soon after Nancy arrives, someone begins murdering students. So begins the Wayward Children series, which now has seven volumes and received the Hugo award for best series this year.

Categories: Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

Himawari House

Cover image for Himawari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

ISBN 9781250235565

Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her growing up in America. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels cast adrift, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together the girls navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean into this tale of found family.

Categories: Graphic Novel

The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

ISBN 9780593125298

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through fiction, and the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long. Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Categories: Graphic Novel, LGBTQIA+

Six of Crows

Cover image for Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 9781627792127

Kerch is a land that worships gold and industry, and in this respect the slum rats of the Barrel are no different from the more supposedly more upstanding merchers of Ketterdam. Kaz Brekker has spent years building up the Dregs gang from nothing, creating the Crow Club, and laying a territorial claim to Fifth Harbour. With such a ruthless reputation, it is no surprise that a mercher might approach him with an unusual job, one that cannot be entrusted to just anyone. A Shu scientist has been captured by the Fjerdans, and is being held in the impregnable Ice Court. He holds the knowledge of a new drug, jurda parem, which can take Grisha power from miraculous to unimaginable, with terrible consequences, both for the Grisha, and for the world market. Kaz assembles a crew of his best pickpockets and thieves to travel to Fjerda during the Hringkalla festival, and attempt the impossible—breach the Ice Court, and extract Bo Yul-Bayur, before anyone else gets to him. Six of Crows is the first installment in a duology set in the world of Shadow and Bone. It is an extremely well-paced story, balanced between the past and the present, as well as action and character development. I’d particularly recommend the audiobook, which is performed by a cast of excellent narrators.

Categories: Fantasy

Thanks for celebrating 10 Years of Required Reading with me this week! If you missed the series, you can catch up beginning with a review of my most popular posts.

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Fantasy

Fantasy is easily one of the largest categories on my site, with over 125 posts. So when it came time to make a list of some of my favourite books from the past decade, it’s no surprise that there were a lot! Here are five of the best. In the interest of avoiding duplication, I didn’t include anything that made the Best Fiction list from earlier this week, or that will be on tomorrow’s Best YA list.

Certain Dark Things

Cover image for Certain Dark Things by Silvia Morena-Garcia

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ISBN 9781250099082

Domingo is a street kid who scrapes by as a junk collector on the streets of Mexico City, one of the few vampire-free zones in a world that learned in 1967 that vampires are all too real. Domingo is fascinated by the pop-culture lore of these creatures, but he has never seen one until Atl drops into his life. The scion of a powerful northern narco-clan, Atl is on the run after a disastrous clash with a rival clan. Sneaking into Mexico City is risky, but she needs to buy the papers that will allow her to escape to South America. Atl wants to get in and get out quickly and quietly, but she needs a source of blood that will not draw suspicion or attention. Unfortunately, her rivals are much less discreet, and soon the human gangs and cops of Mexico City become aware that vampires have invaded their territory. Silvia Moreno-Garcia pulls together a diverse variety of vampire lore that showcases a deep love of the genre, and is able to incorporate many different traditions. Originally published in 2016, Certain Dark Things briefly went out of print, but it is now available again in paperback!

The City of Brass

Cover image for City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

by S.A. Chakraborty

ISBN 9780062678102

Despite her abilities as healer, plying her con on the streets of French-occupied Cairo, Nahri has never really believed in magic. But when she stages an exorcism for a disturbed child, she accidentally summons a djinn who claims that she is that last descendant of the Nahids, the former rulers of the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. With murderous ifrits close on their heels, Dara vows to return Nahri to the home of her ancestors. But far from offering safety, Daevabad is a nest of politics that put the streets of Cairo to shame. While Nahri is a canny operator, she is naïve to the rules and traditions of her ancestors. The stand out feature of City of Brass is the complex dynamic S.A. Chakraborty has created between the different magical beings of this world, and even within the ranks and classes of the djinn themselves. In particular, the shafit—part human djinn—are an underclass poised on the edge of revolt. Happily this trilogy is now complete, plus a book of short stories that came out this fall, so you won’t have to wait impatiently for the sequels!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

by Neil Gaiman

ISBN 9780062280220

A man returns to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the reception he finds himself exploring the scenes of his childhood. He is drawn down the old flint lane to the Hempstock farm, a property and a family so old they are listed in the Domesday Book. Sitting by the duck pond, he remembers his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock, who called the pond her ocean. But he also suddenly remembers other darker, more impossible things, things that cannot possibly be true. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. Magic is rife in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but explanations are sparse and, for me at least, would only spoil the sense that children know but adults have forgotten. This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.” If you were ever a bookish child, and if you’re an adult who still loves tales of unbelievable magic, you don’t want to hear any more about this book. You want to go read it.

Sorcerer to the Crown

Cover image for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

ISBN 9780425283370

Following the death of his guardian, Sir Stephen Wythe, Zacharias Wythe finds himself Sorcerer to the Crown, and head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, the chief magical body of England. It was Sir Stephen’s dearest wish that Zacharias succeed him, but that does not stop rumours from circulating that Zacharias murdered his benefactor in order to seize the Staff. Worse, sorcerers disgruntled by Zacharias’ sudden rise to power have chosen to blame the ascent of a black orphan to the nation’s highest magical office for Britain’s longstanding decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. Prunella causes Zacharias to question the Society’s longstanding prohibition on women performing magic, for this untrained young woman may be the most powerful magician he has ever seen, and hold the key to unlocking the flow of magic into England. Since first reading Sorcerer to the Crown in 2016, I’ve been constantly recommending it to fans of Jane Austen and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, as well as following Cho’s other works.

The Starless Sea

Cover image for The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

by Erin Morgenstern

ISBN 978038554123

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student who studies video games, but has a passion for story and narrative in all its forms. Visiting the nearly-deserted library between terms, Zachary stumbles across an old book of short stories, an improperly catalogued and mysterious donation to the university’s collection. But what is truly remarkable about this book is that Zachary is in it; the third story perfectly describes a real incident from his childhood, one that he never dared to speak of, let alone commit to paper. Yet here it is, recorded in a book whose publication clearly predates his birth. And if his real story is recorded in Sweet Sorrows, is he to assume that the other stories, of pirates and bees, guardians and rabbits, owls and acolytes are true as well? And what then was recorded on the missing pages that have been torn from the book?  The Starless Sea is a story that is less about individual people than it is about our collective propensity for storytelling, and our need to make meaning, and myth, and symbol into impossibly overlapping confections without beginning or end. It is about our love affair with the concept of Fate, and our fear that it might be real, and the way we both cling to it, and lash out against it. If you love stories more than you love breathing, this is the book for you.

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Non-Fiction

When I first started planning a round up of my favourite books from a decade of blogging, I’d intended to make a Top 10 list. However, it quickly became clear that 10 was not going to be enough! So instead we’re having a week of lists, broken down by genre or category. Because I had a hard enough time choosing just five, never mind trying to rank them, the titles are listed in alphabetical order.

Between the World and Me

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

ISBN 9780812993547

Between the World and Me uses the conceit of a letter to the author’s fifteen-year-old son to explore what it means to be Black in America. The scale is at once national and yet deeply personal; Ta-Nehisi Coates encompasses America in geography and history, but also speaks directly to his own child and his individual circumstances. Touching on everything from slavery, to segregation, to mass incarceration, Coates challenges orthodoxies and rejects easy answers in his pursuit of understanding. He writes with a unique combination of lyrical prose and pitiless clarity. By asking hard questions and rendering no easy answers Coates has penned an entreaty that has stayed with me for the past seven years.

Categories: African-American

Born a Crime

Cover image for Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

by Trevor Noah

ISBN 9780385689229

When Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. The crime carried a punishment of four to five years in prison, and mixed race children were often seized and placed in state-run orphanages. But Noah’s mother was determined and clever, and she managed to hold onto her son, refusing to flee her home country in order to raise him. But it made his childhood complicated, even after apartheid officially ended in 1994. Racial hierarchies and inequities persisted, and despite receiving a good education, his upbringing was anything but easy. In a series of essays, Born a Crime chronicles Noah’s experience growing up under apartheid and its aftermath. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating. His funny but poignant memoir is excellent in either print or audio.

Categories: Memoir

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

by Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end. The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

Categories: History, True Crime

Quiet

Cover image for Quiet by Susan Cain

by Susan Cain

ISBN 9780307352149

Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. I read Quiet all the way back in 2012, and never wrote a full-length review, though it appeared in my list of Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012. It has stayed with me a for so long because it provided me with a way to talk about my experiences that I had previously lacked.

Categories: Psychology

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David Quammen

by David Quammen

ISBN 9780393239225

Zoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Sometimes, that spillover is a dead end; the circumstances are so unique that they may never occur again. Or the virus can be transmitted to humans, but not between people: game over. But the thing that keeps virologists up at night is the pathogen spillovers that are not only virulent—highly deadly to humans—but also highly transmissible between humans once the species boundary has been breached. With the possibility of the Next Big One always looming, David Quammen takes the reader through famous outbreaks of zoonotic illnesses, with sections on Hendra, Ebola, malaria, SARS, Lyme, Nipah and HIV. I read a number of books about pandemics in the spring and summer of 2020 in an effort to better understand the experience we were all going through. If you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of  the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. 

Categories: Science

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Fiction

Today marks ten years since I launched this blog with a review of the YA novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Since then I’ve read and reviewed hundreds of books, but for the anniversary I wanted to round up some of my absolute favourites, beginning with fiction. All five books listed below are ones that I’ve read more than once. They stand up to rereading, and make reliable quick picks when someone has asked me to recommend a book as a gift or for their book group.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

by Anthony Marra

ISBN 9780770436407

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Sonja escaped from war-torn Chechnya on a scholarship to study medicine in London. But she is pulled back home by the disappearance of her beautiful but troubled sister, Natasha, just in time to be trapped by the outbreak of the first Chechen war of independence. Against all odds, Sonja thrives, taking charge of a decrepit hospital and becoming a surgeon renowned by rebels and Feds alike. Miraculously, Natasha is returned to her, a shattered wreck rescued from a prostitution ring in Italy. They slowly begin to rebuild their lives, only to have them smashed again by a second war, and Natasha’s second disappearance. The story is an exercise in contrasts, filled with exquisite, lyrical prose counterpointed by brutal, senseless violence. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness. I discovered this novel after meeting the author at ALA Annual 2013, and it is a frequent recommendation for people who like books about sibling relationships.

Station Eleven

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

by Emily St. John Mandel

ISBN 9780385353304

At a production of King Lear in Toronto, Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu that only days before seemed like a distant European epidemic. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that perform Shakespeare. When the Symphony arrives back in St. Deborah-by-the-Water after a two year absence, eagerly anticipating a reunion with two members of their group left behind there, they find the settlement irrevocably altered. A Prophet has taken over the town, driving many residents away, and bringing the rest under his sway. When the Prophet demands one of the Symphony’s young women to be his next wife, the Conductor and her people flee south into unknown territory. Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines. I first read this book in 2016, when I discovered it on the Canada Reads longlist, but it has taken on a new resonance since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Canadian

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends? The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. This beautifully written short novel gripped me so thoroughly that I read it twice in a row, and listened to the audiobook as well.

Categories: Science Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662569

Rin is a war orphan, being raised by the Fang family only because the government has mandated that families adopt such children, and because they find it convenient to use her to help them in their drug smuggling business. Living in the deep rural south of the Nikara Empire, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods, but immortals exact a terrible price. When I received a free ARC of this debut novel from the publisher in 2018, I was more struck by the cover art by Jun Shan Chang than anything else. I had no idea I was discovering one of my new favourite writers, who has since completed the Poppy War trilogy and gone on to write Babel.

Categories: Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 9780525521426

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith Plantation are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. However it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that earns this novel a place on this list.

Categories: Historical Fiction, Canadian

Because this could easily have been a list composed entirely of fantasy novels, I’ll be back later this week with a genre-specific list!

10 Years of Required Reading

When I launched this blog in the fall of 2012, shortly after my husband and I moved to the Seattle area for his job, I had no idea I would still be maintaining it a decade later! At the time, I was at loose ends waiting for a work visa, and looking for something to fill the time. Since then, I’ve returned to library work, starting in public libraries and then making an unexpected jump into the world of corporate librarianship. We’ve adopted two cats, bought a condo, and settled in to stay. These days I don’t have quite as much spare time to read or review, but I still love having a place to collect my thoughts and reading history, especially when someone asks me for a reading recommendation!

In honour of the tenth anniversary of Required Reading, I thought it might be fun to dig into the stats and find my most popular posts. Since October 2012, I’ve published 722 posts (this makes 723!) for a total of more than half a million words, which have been read by people from literally all over the world:

Heat map of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country.
Heatmap of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country

Over the course of the coming week, I’m planning to share some of my favourite reads from the the past ten years, but to kick things off, here are the top five most popular posts on the site:

The Rose and the Dagger

by Renée Ahdieh

ISBN 9780399171628

Cover image for The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

I’m not sure why this 2016 review of the YA fantasy sequel to The Wrath and the Dawn is so popular, but year after year this review continues to receive hits. It’s one of the few spoiler reviews on my site, because I couldn’t find a way to write about it without discussing the ending. It makes me think that, despite the taboo, people actually do like spoilers! Inspired by the 1001 Nights, the sequel focuses on Khalid and Shahrzad trying to break the curse that turned him into the murderous caliph who executed all of his previous brides, including Shahrzad’s best friend. She must find a way to regain the trust of her allies, and free the kingdom from this curse so that no more girls have to be sacrificed. 

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Always and Forever, Lara Jean and P.S. I Still Love You

by Jenny Han

ISBNs 9781481430487 and 9781442426733

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han

My 2015 and 2017 reviews of two of the books in Han’s popular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series continue to see high traffic, with a bump driven by the recent Netflix adaptation. However, the much of the traffic here comes from some popular text graphics I shared on Pinterest, that continue to do the rounds. P.S. I Still Love You follows Lara Jean and Peter trying to figure out how to date for real after the fake dating plot of the first book, when another boy from her past shows up with a letter in hand. Then, Always and Forever, Lara Jean focuses Lara Jean’s senior year of high school and her decision about whether or not to follow her boyfriend to college. You can start the series here with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance

The Outside Circle

by Patti LaBoucane-Benson

ISBN 9781770899377

Cover image for The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

This 2016 review of a Canadian graphic novel continues to see a high hit count, and the search terms lead me to guess that maybe it is being taught in some Canadian classrooms. The Outside Circle follows Pete, a young aboriginal man who goes to jail after a fight with his mother’s boyfriend. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history in order to help them understand the cycle of abuse in which they have been trapped. The standout here is the striking art by Kelly Mellings which brings Pete’s story to life using a minimalist colour palette.

Categories: Canadian, Graphic Novel

El Deafo

by Cece Bell

ISBN 9781419710209

Cover image for El Deafo by Cece Bell

This 2015 post is a review of Bell’s graphic memoir, based on her own experiences as a deaf child in school, although the characters are drawn as cute rabbits. When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. When first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Cece’s El Deafo character doesn’t just turn deafness into a super power. Rather, El Deafo is Cece’s more assertive self, the one that is brave enough to stand up and explain when something that her friends are doing is actually making things more difficult for her.

Categories: Middle Grade, Graphic Novel

Thanks to all my readers, whether you’ve been here from the beginning or are just tuning in now! Check back throughout the week as I highlight some of my favourite reads since the inception of this blog.

The Oleander Sword (The Burning Kingdoms #2)

Cover image for The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri

by Tasha Suri

ISBN 9780316538534

“Love and love. Like two opposite points she was forever reaching for, stretching her thin. Love for Malini and love for home. Love like a future, and love like sacrifice.”

With a prophecy backing her claim, Malini is determine to wrest the throne of Parijatdvipa from her cruel brother Chandra, even as certain factions of her army would still rather see her brother Aditya wear the crown. With a war of succession inevitable, Malini and Priya are separated by duty and by circumstance. Malini has an empire to secure, and Priya a newly independent Ahiranya to help rule as one of only two thrice-born temple elders. But when a battle goes wrong, and Malini calls Priya to her side to serve as her secret weapon, Priya sets aside her new duties to answer. Their fates and their hearts are still bound, but a battlefield is a poor place for a love story.

The second volume of The Burning Kingdoms trilogy continues to be full of dark political intrigue, spinning out around two central characters whose romance must always take a back seat to their larger destinies. However, their yearning nevertheless permeates The Oleander Sword, even as political events outpace them. As in the first volume, the narrative perspective shifts through a variety of characters, both major and minor. Malini and Priya march on Harsinghar to challenge Chandra for the throne, while Bhumika remains in Ahiranya, once again caught playing diplomat between two factions whose understanding of the world are fundamentally at odds.

Something old is stirring in Ahiranya, and Priya is separated from her home and her people at a critical time, leaving Bhumika to navigate the treacherous political situation alone. In some ways Bhumika continues to have the most unenviable lot; there is no grand love story for her, no easy answers, just an unending series of compromises and the hope that she is doing enough for people, and now for her daughter. Although much of the action takes place outside Ahiranya in this installment, the events that occur there promise to be significant to the culmination of this series. The setting expands to the larger Parijatdvipa, but the troubled relationship between the two nations continues to simmer; Malini’s allies do not trust Priya, and the silence from Ahiranya is deafening.

Even with an army at her back, Malini must still fight against a system that fundamentally believes her place in the rightful order of the universe is to burn willingly on the pyre of the mothers of the flame, for the good of her people and her country. Power comes with a price, as Priya is also discovering. From maidservant to Temple Elder, Priya has never had more power at her fingertips, and yet she is still treated with suspicion by Malini’s other allies. Worse, the price for being thrice-born is becoming increasingly evident—the gods will always take their due. Whether characters are worshippers of the mothers of the flame, the nameless god, or the yaksa the demands of belief are not inconsequential. Tasha Suri’s religious world-building is richly layered and deeply tied to interesting magic systems, yet there is a deep ambivalence about both religious institutions and the powers that enable them.

The Jasmine Throne was one of my favourite books of 2021 and The Oleander Sword is both a fascinating book in its own right and an extremely strong sequel the expands perfectly on both the characters and their world; I can’t wait to see what Suri has in store for us in the finale.

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Unmask Alice

Cover image for Unmask Alice by Rick Emerson

by Rick Emerson

ISBN 9781637740439

“It was a marketer’s wet dream. Alice was vile and vital. Immoral and important. Alice was grubby, and sleazy, and might save your life.”

In 1971, a surprise best seller took the youth literary scene by storm. Marketed by publisher Prentice-Hall as the real diary of an anonymous fifteen-year-old girl who becomes addicted to drugs before her early death, Go Ask Alice sold out print runs and was recognized as one of the best new books for young readers by the American Library Association. In reality, the book had been “edited” by an aspiring writer who had spent years looking for her big break, trying her hand at scriptwriting, newspapers, and more before hitting on the idea that would make her (in)famous. But the story about where and how she got the diary was constantly shifting, and her publisher and agent agreed it would better to publish the book anonymously. In 1978 she would try to recreate that success with Jay’s Journal, a cautionary tale of drug use and the occult that tied neatly into satanic panic. In Unmask Alice, radio host Rick Emerson investigates the origins of these best-selling books, and the deceptions of the woman who “discovered” them.

I found Alice on the shelf of the library at my Catholic K-7 elementary school circa 1998. A dark paperback with stark white lettering on a minimalist cover, I believe that it was, by that time, shelved in the fiction section, not far from the Judy Blume books I had already voraciously consumed. I remember being surprised to discover it; after reading only a small part of the contents, I wondered if the librarian and the school knew it was there. It was catalogued, so of course they knew on some level, but did they know what it contained? It was significantly more graphic than the Judy Blume books I knew some of my classmates had been forbidden by their parents to read. On the one hand, I wasn’t wrong to be surprised; Go Ask Alice was still appearing on the American Library Association’s most banned books list in the 1990s, more than two decades after its publication. On the other, it was a scared straight story, precisely the sort of book that has its moralizing agenda well-served by some lurid details. If my library possessed any of the other pseudo-diaries produced by the same author/editor, I never came across them.

In a compulsively readable narrative non-fiction style, Rick Emerson introduces us to the woman behind the books. After a hard-knock childhood, she had long aspired to be a famous writer, but had enjoyed little success. Yet she persisted for decades, while also raising a family and remaining active in her church. After the smash success of Alice, she would go on to produce a laundry list of diaries, case studies, and interviews that touched on other hot button youth issues, from hippie runaways, to satanic panic, to HIV/AIDs and teen pregnancy. As her back catalogue grew, so too did her supposed credentials and experiences, until eventually she was appending PhD after her name on the covers of all her books. She seemed to grow increasingly determined that her name never be erased again the way it was removed from Alice. The BYU library, which holds her papers, cites these supposed credentials in her biography, but the Emerson was unable to verify any of them, or find any evidence that she ever had an adolescent psychology practice. For all that her name is easily discoverable, I’m reluctant to give her the fame of her stolen glory, much of which came at the expense of a real family that had lost a child to suicide.

In some ways, Emerson mimics the style of the very books he is investigating, presenting each short section with a date header, not unlike the manner of a diary. Mid-book, Emerson switches to the story of Alden Barrett, a young man living in a small community near Provo, Utah in the 1970s. If you aren’t familiar with Jay’s Journal, this is a rather abrupt switch without an evident connection to Alice. It is a sad story that ends in suicide, but not a terribly sensational one. When Alden’s mother learned that the editor of the famous Go Ask Alice was a near neighbour and fellow member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she approached her with her son’s diary. But the book eventually published as Jay’s Journal took enough real details from Alden’s life for him to be publically recognizable to his community, while also adding a gory occult subplot that turned him into gruesome urban legend that persists to this day.

As Emerson impresses upon the reader early on, publishers do not typically take responsibility for fact checking books; their contracts typically indemnify them. Indeed, Emerson shares that portion from his very own contract. So it is quite the surprise to find Emerson arguing that because most of the facts in Unmask Alice are a matter of public record that can be checked by anyone, citations are unnecessary. Be that as it may, citations make it significantly easier to perform such verification, rather than trying to reverse engineer the author’s research process. The lack of explicit sourcing adds a note of caution to what was otherwise and intriguing and readable account of a very long con. Instead, Emerson asks the reader to trust where he is going. And it turns out that the destination is a short section towards the very end of the book that reveals he may have discovered a real girl who might have been part of the inspiration for Alice. Not a real diary this time, but another real adolescent like Alden Barrett nevertheless. This speculation about a tiny seed of possible truth at the heart of Alice adds little to the overall narrative and brings the book to a weak conclusion.

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Mini Reviews: Nonfiction about China

The Subplot

Cover image for The Subplot by Megan Walsh

by Megan Walsh

ISBN 9781735913667

This brief Columbia Global Report encourages Western readers to consider Chinese literature beyond the works written by famous dissidents in exile. Such books do not reflect what people in China are reading, given censorship in the country, but artists working under oppressive governments still fight to express themselves. Journalist Megan Walsh focuses on modern Mainland Chinese fiction, albeit still with an emphasis on works that are available in English in some form. The chapters include sections on generational differences in literary tastes, migrant worker poetry, and the paradox of trying to write a mystery novel in a country with Hayes Code-esque rules about how police and criminals can be portrayed. Walsh notes that Chinese online fiction is the largest publishing platform in the word, but the section on web novels is fairly cursory—expected in such a short volume—and surprisingly dismissive in tone given how little oversight the format enjoys compared to print publishing. If you want to know what average Chinese people are reading for entertainment, this is probably the place to look deeper. The other frontier of great interest is science fiction and fantasy, speculative works that take advantage of the genre to try to fly above political turbulence using the guise of the future to offer commentary on the present. Although brief and limited, I still found The Subplot to be a fascinating glimpse into the Chinese literary scene.

Red Carpet

Cover image for Red Carpet by Erich Schwartzel

by Erich Schwartzel

ISBN 9781984878991

Money has always shaped what gets made in Hollywood, but with the American box office stagnating and film budgets ballooning, profits from global markets have become increasingly important. The most powerful of these overseas markets is China, with its large population and rapid expansion of movie theatres for a growing middle class. Author Erich Schwartzel reports on Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal, and in Red Carpet he examines China’s complicated relationship with the American film industry. It begins with two controversial 1997 films about the Dalai Lama: Kundun directed by Martin Scorcese and Seven Years in Tibet directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. These films marked a turning point, with China flexing its increasing economic power to influence releases that were never intended for the Chinese market. Schwartzel proceeds to chronicle the growing difficulty of getting American films into China amidst opaque censorship rules, and the difficulty of predicting which American movies will be popular with Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, the Chinese film industry has been growing, with a better bead on what domestic audiences want, and what authorities will allow. As the skill-gap closes, China is poised to create its own domestic blockbusters, while continuing to influence how it is portrayed to global audiences in American cinema, and which foreign films its citizens are permitted to legally see and financially support. Schwartzel’s in-depth reporting highlights the unexpected effects of globalization on one of America’s most notable exports.

Kingdom of Characters

Cover image for Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu

by Jing Tsu

ISBN 9780735214729

Kingdom of Characters chronicles the evolution of technologies for the written Chinese language in the years since contact with the West, with a particular focus on the past century. Western communication innovations have long been based on the Roman alphabet, from moveable type to the telegraph to Unicode. Even non-Roman alphabets such as Cyrillic have been little more than afterthought in these systems; ideographic languages like Chinese were deemed impossibilities, if they were thought of at all. Yale comparative literature professor Jing Tsu dedicates seven roughly chronological chapters to the inventors, thinkers, and advocates for the Chinese language who fought to preserve its script in the face of tremendous pressure to modernize and simplify. Although Western imperialism played its part, the process was not without internal tensions, from rivalries over who would invent to the first marketable Chinese typewriter, to regional disputes about how to standardize a language that has tremendous local variation, and political in-fighting between the Communists in China and the Nationalists in Taiwan over script simplification. While written for a general audience, this book still has a decidedly academic bent reflective of the author’s background, with detailed descriptions of the technologies discussed, and the challenges of their application to the Chinese language. However it tells an important story of how China’s script was—perhaps against the odds—preserved, and continues to flourish into the twenty-first century.