Year End Wrap-Up #amreading #books

2018

Well book lovers, it’s been one hell of a year!

I didn’t do near as much reading as I normally would thanks to any number of circumstance – an interesting run of failed offers on properties, the sale of our house in record time, finally finding our dream home but with the worlds shortest possession and the endless stream of renovations that has followed rank high amongst my distractions. Then add in a new job, a bit of travel, some random health issues within the fam-jam and I’m sure you can imagine how the TBR has since spiralled out of control.

However, it’s that time of year again where wrap-ups and years-in-review dominate our streams and I simply couldn’t resist. While I once again fell short of my goal to read 100 books in a year, I’m absolutely over the with the titles that I did and I could’t wait to share a little more book-love to close out 2018.

Top Reads of 2018

Like last year, I thought about ranking these, but still can’t bring myself to compare apples to oranges or to put one book ahead of another. So, I have decided to once again select a few memorable titles from each broader genre. I am sure I have a great many, wonderful titles that I’ve forgotten to include – but this is a wrap-up, not an annotated bibliography so I’m trying my best to keep it brief!


Historical Fiction


hearts

Strong women, the French Resistance during WWII, and a serious touch of espionage – this baby had it all! Hearts of Resistance by Soraya M. Lane had me wishing that this was a TV series or feature film because there was so much juicy action. It’s well written, punchy, and it tickles my feminist heart strings to boot. It has this incredible balance between uplifting hope and the abject horror of reality, which really made it memorable in my books.

35523006

Ugh, this list would not be complete without The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. It’s not often I ignore my TBR to reread a book right after I’ve finished it, but this baby had that draw – and I might have ugly-cried the entire second read. The sheer emotional impact Morris delivers is absolutely phenomenal, the language powerfully evocative, and the story so rooted in reality that I found it hard to draw a line between fact and fiction. I loved every minute of this book, even the uncomfortable bits, and haven’t yet passed an opportunity to recommend it to family and friends.


YA


girl like that

Read it. No, seriously, read it. A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena is so damn good. This is the kind of book that denies categorization as YA or literary fiction, but it demands to be read because of it’s relevancy, willingness to tackle some rather horrible and universal issues, and because the writing is simply beautiful. Irreverent, poignant, and punchy where it matters I’m willing to bet A Girl Like That is going to have some serious staying power.

wolves

I read a lot of YA fantasy, an not much of it ends up with a review on the blog. But The Gilded Wolves by Rouhani Chokshi was the kind of amazing that has me wishing for a movie deal. The originality of the world building alone had me absolutely blown away, the diversity of the characters enraptured, and the uniqueness of the magic utterly bewitched. This book was so fun and fresh that I jumped out my seat with legitimate joy when it became clear that a sequel would be forthcoming. I just wish I knew more about said sequel… like, now!


Comics & Graphic Novels


photo

Okay, so I know this baby could fall under historical fiction, but I decided it belongs with with the graphic medium rather than the subject matter. Dark, uncomfortable, and painfully real despite it’s abstraction through comics The Photographer of Mauthausen stuck with me for weeks after I turned the final page. Given how much of the story was told through photographs I don’t think that a traditional novel would have done this retelling any justice. Heartbreaking and poignant, I would definitely put this on a list titled “If you only ever read one graphic novel it has to be…”

YvainOkay, so I know that this baby was actually published in March of 2017, but I didn’t get around to reading it until this year. But M. T. Anderson’s retelling of this classic medieval tale, accompanied by Andrea Offermann’s exceptional illustrations absolutely stole my heart. Seeing Yvain: The Knight of the Lion retold in a way that is both entertaining and accessible to modern readers of all ages ticked all the right boxes for me. It made this list purely because I find myself directing students to it at least once a week, and because I can read it over and over again and get something new out of it each and every time. Whether you’re a fan of Arthurian legends, fast paced action, or a touch of magic this baby is damn versatile it hurts.

emmie

Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson is one of those books that I picked up on a whim and ended up sticking in the back if my mind in a recurring kind of way. There are a great many works out there to help middle grade readers navigate the complexities of friendship and fitting in, but this one stood out from the crow. I think the thing that I loved the most was that Invisible Emmie doesn’t have any real mean-girls to overcome, but that it focuses on self acceptance and discovery – that alone is worth it’s weight in gold!


Crime Fiction


9780749023621 hidden bones hb wb

Ugh. Ugh, ugh ugh! So much good. I mean, I barely have the words to describe how much I loved reading The Hidden Bones by Nicola Ford. It had the perfect balance between crime, drama, and archaeology and I was legitimately angry when it ended because I wanted so much more! It’s been a long time since I found an archaeologist/ author that I loved as much as the O’Neil Gear’s, and I have no doubts that Ford will be a strong contender for my next fan-girl fascination.

birthday

My love of Carol Wyer’s work should be no secret by now so finding The Birthday on this list will be no surprise. Not only was it the perfect start to a new series, it was an absolutely outstanding novel! I adored Natalie Ward and her team and the crimes presented are dark and twisty in all the right ways, with just enough gore to keep you horrified but not so much as to make you pause or put the book away. This was, by far, my most favourite police procedural of the year – and I simply can’t wait for the next instalment to hit shelves.


Literary Fiction


vow

This baby makes the list because I loved it despite my decided hatred of romance. Maybe it was the fashion, maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the exceptional cast of supporting characters, but The Secret Vow by Natalie Meg Evans won me over and had me gushing in no time at all. It was the perfect way to close out the year.

1000Last but not least, we have my very first read of 2018 – which was so powerful I haven’t stopped trying to push it on all of my Canadian family friends despite our inability to locate a regular supply in print. Woman at 1, 000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason blew my socks off (pun fully intended) and opened my eyes to the world of Icelandic literature. Witty, blunt, and beyond captivating Helgason’s creation was the most memorable way I could have started the year.


So there we have it, my top reads of 2018!

Thank you all for being so wonderful and supportive, and I look forward to what 2019 has to offer.

See you in the new year!

– J

#Review: Crush by Svetlana Chmakova #GraphicNovel #Crush #NetGalley

I am in love with this book… probably more than Jorge loves Jazmine. But seriously, it’s so dang good! If you’ve never read anything by Svetlana Chmakova before you’re seriously missing out. Crush is fun, funny, and absolutely fabulous. It brings back the growing pains of being in middle school, navigating the complex world of social relationships, and the confusion of finding your place in the world. If you read only one graphic novel this year, this should be it.


crushTitle: Crush

AuthorSvetlana Chmakova

Publisher: Yen Press

Publication Date: October 30, 2018

Genre: Fiction, YA, Graphic Novel, Middle Grade Fiction

Themes: Friendship, First Love, Bullying, School

Features: N/A


My Rating: 5/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

Following the overwhelming success of AWKWARD and BRAVE, Svetlana Chmakova’s award winning Berrybrook Middle School series continues with its next installment – CRUSH!

Jorge seems to have it all together. He’s big enough that nobody really messes with him, but he’s also a genuinely sweet guy with a solid, reliable group of friends. The only time he ever really feels off his game is when he crosses paths with a certain girl… But when the group dynamic among the boys starts to shift, will Jorge be able to balance what his friends expect of him versus what he actually wants?


My Review

When I was still working in elementary schools Awkward and Brave were two of the books I went to battle over including in a start-up graphic novel collection. I stood my ground against the PTA because 1) graphic novels are ‘real books’, 2) the visual nature of comics levels the playing field when it comes to lexiles and reading levels, and 3) graphic mediums are known to convey more information regarding interpersonal dynamics and internalized feelings as they allow for readers to imagine themselves in the character’s shoes.

So, when I saw the Galley for Crush I simply had to get behind one of my favourite graphic novelists. Be warned, I am massively biased in favour of Chmakova’s work. And truth be told, the latest addition did not disappoint. The style remained consistent with her previous work, both visually and thematically, and once again Chmakova’s tackled some serious issues without delivering any overt lectures. Themes on the docket this go round include: first loves, peer pressure, group dynamics, bullying, and bodily autonomy. Whew! That’s no small chunk of change when it’s all packed into a middle grade graphic novel.

I loved the diversity in the characters, and appreciated how the inclusive elements never felt token or forced. The representation of the school populous was anything by homogenous and presented an honest reflection of the average public school. There were cliques, distinct personality types, and it even played on the typical clubs and groups that can be found in almost any school. There’s the drama kids, the athletes, the cheer leaders, the nerds, and on and on. But what I loved most about these representations is that even though there are characters that play to stereotypes, that those characters that represent toxic masculinity and abusive behaviours are thoroughly condemned for their actions. So too are the bullies, the gossips, and the mean girls. No excuses are made, no free passes are given, and the real-word consequences for being horrible are detailed in full. Hello, cleverly disguised teaching moments!

And just as there are examples of poor behaviour and what not to do, there are some shining examples of how to be kind and conscientious human being. For this alone, I love Jorge! He’s a jock without being a jerk, doesn’t feel the need to participate in petty drama, and despite what his peers are doing he doesn’t cave to the pressure of commenting on or physically invading other’s bodily autonomy. He is supportive, respectful, and absolutely adorable. Svetlana Chmakova, thank you thank you thank you for putting forward an absolutely crush-worthy knight in shining armour. Thank you for setting the bar high when it comes to how people should be treated.

I appreciated that Jorge was painfully shy and unsure of how to navigate his first crush. He was human and relatable, yet at the same time Jorge is also confident in his individuality and unwavering in his treatment of others. I loved his patience, his willingness to forgive, and his refusal to stand idly by why others are bullied. That’s right my friends, while Crush might be about Jorge’s first love it also hands out some (not so) subtle tactics on how to stand up to d-bags of all ages.

With that being said though, the kids really taken centre stage in this book, as the few adult characters serve only to advance the plot rather than deliver lectures or provide guidance. The kids themselves navigate the grounds of what’s right and wrong, and that alone keeps it more relatable for to a middle grade audience.

As far as the artwork goes, I absolutely loved it. The line work is clean, the characters unique and easily distinguished – abstracted enough to be relatable yet detailed enough to convey meaning, and the panel arrangement easily readable. The facial expressions and body language effectively convey the differences in personalities and internal emotions, and speak volumes in a way that text never could. The panel arrangement is clean and not to cluttered, in fact it follows the  left to right, top to bottom pattern of a standard books with only a few full page panels or exceptions to the rule. The result is that this text is an easy introduction to graphic novels for those new to the medium. The colours are used for maximum impact but aren’t overwhelming. They’re subtle, soft, and don’t detract from the visual language employed. Additionally, enough action takes place in the gutter to keep the imagination firing on all pistons, but not so much as to leave the reader to their own devices – especially when it comes to the emotional implications of decisions and behaviours.

Would I recommend this book? Let’s put it this way, I’ve already bought a copy and sent it to my old school! Great for parents, kids, and anyone in-between. This is a smash hit, home-run, middle grade must read.


Many thanks to Yen Press, Svetlana Chmakova, and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review. 

#Review: Green Almonds: Letters From Palestine by Anaele & Delphine Hermans #GraphicNovel

Today I am delighted to be sharing a review for Anaele & Delphine Hermans’ graphic memoir Green Almonds: Letters From Palestine before I dive down the rabbit hole and share a series of WWII and Holocaust reviews. This autobiographical account of living and volunteering in Palestine is a much needed antidote to the oscillations between fake news and feigned ignorance found in the media when it comes to reporting on the Israel-Palestine conflict.


green almondsTitle: Green Almonds: Letters From Palestine

Author: Anaele Hermans

Illustrator: Delphine Hermans

Publisher: Lion Forge

Publication Date: July 3, 2018

Genre: Comics, Graphic Novel, Memoir, Biography

Themes:  Family, Travel, Conflict

Features: Author’s note, Illustrator’s note


My Rating: 3.5 / 5


Synopsis

The graphic novel collaboration and true story of two sisters. Anaele, a writer, leaves for Palestine volunteering in an aid program, swinging between her Palestinian friends and her Israeli friends. Delphine is an artist, left behind in Liege, Belgium. From their different sides of the world, they exchange letters.

Green Almonds: Letters from Palestine is a personal look into a complex reality, through the prism of the experience of a young woman writing letters to her sister about her feelings and adventures in the occupied territories. Green Almonds is an intimate story with big implications.

A young woman discovers a country, works there, makes friends, lives a love story, and is confronted with the plight of the Palestinians, the violence on a daily basis that we see on our screens and read in our newspapers. Anaele’s story is brought to life by Delphine’s simple and evocative drawings, which give full force to the subject and evoke the complexity of this conflict, creating a journey to the everyday life of Palestinians.

Green Almonds: Letters from Palestine received the Doctors Without Borders Award for best travel diary highlighting the living conditions of populations in precarious situations when it was published in France in 2011.


My Review

First, lets get the uglies out of the way – 3.5 stars is a good review. In fact, it’s an above average review. I really liked Green Almonds, but know that I failed to connect with it on a personal/ aesthetic level. Now, this is the part where I expose my bias… you see, I cut my teeth on comics journalism/ conflict travelogues reading Joe Sacco (think Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza, and Safe Area Gorazde) and I find it difficult to read anything along these lines without drawing direct comparisons to the genre’s founder.

While Green Almonds has all of the deeply disturbing and emotional elements that I have come to appreciate and expect from works looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where this book feel just a little short for my tastes was in the art. The abstractions, while easily identifiable and unquestionably human, were just a little too cartoonish (if not a little childish) in relation to the subject matter at hand. I appreciated that the result was an emphasis that focused squarely on the personal narrative portrayed, ultimately I found the graphic element to be lacking in depth and emotion. The landscapes were simple with minimal detail and I was left wanting shading, texture, and a little realism. I know that this is entirely personal, but I had trouble with the overwhelming amount of white space!

But, and this is the important part, the panels and pages were meticulously blocked, the script expertly distributed, and the story fully supported and portrayed by the images at hand. There was an easily identifiable sense of time and place, with carefully controlled pacing that lent a realistic quality to the reading experience. There was ample variety in the panel sizes and arrangements which kept every pages feeling fresh and never boring, and the use of multiple transition types kept me on my toes. Additionally, enough action takes place in the gutter to allow the imagination enough agency to fill in the blanks based on assumptions or personal experience, with just enough imagery to keep everything on track.

Additionally, I really loved the alternation between the sisters with the comics/ postcard dichotomy. It really facilitated a difference in voice and character, even though Delphine is rarely portrayed, and highlights the ways in which siblings can be connected yet entirely opposite. I loved how Delphine was meticulous, succinct, and almost professional while Anaele embodied the type of free spirit that engages in voluntourism. I was most drawn to Anaele’s interactions with locals on either side of the conflict, and genuine appreciated how both Israelis and Palestinians were portrayed without bias or judgement. Every character had a story, a unique experience, and a lived reality that translated beautifully to the page.

It has always been difficult for me to conceptualize the spectrum of lifestyles lived within such a small geographical area, and yet Green Almonds portray’s beautifully how a wall and some checkpoints can separate opulence from poverty and oppressor from oppressed. As the pages progress it becomes increasingly clear how living in such conditions can wear a person down. The number of personal narratives relayed creates a critical mass highlighting a humanitarian crises, and really calls to question how we are able to sit by and turn away from this reality.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. Although perhaps not to those who are new to the comics medium. Yet, the memoir and autobiographic elements are evocative, touching, and truly thought provoking. Green Almonds is most definitely a worthwhile and introspective read.


Many thanks to Diamond Book Distributors and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.

#Review: The Photographer of Mauthausen by Salvia Rubio #GraphicNovel #WWIILit

My posting schedule has been a little sporadic to say the least lately, so what better way to get back at it than with a WWII graphic novel? Salvia Rubio and Pedro Columo work in perfect harmony to tell the long silent story of Francisco Boix. Gritty, raw, and absolutely enthralling, this baby turned out to be one of my favourite reads in the first half of the year.


photoTitle: The Photographer of Mauthausen

Author: Salvia Rubio

Illustrator: Pedro Columbo

Publisher: Europe Comics

Publication Date: April 18, 2018

Genre: Comics, Graphic Novel, Non Fiction

Themes: WWII, Survival, Concentration Camps, War Crimes


My Rating: 4 / 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

This is a dramatic retelling of true events in the life of Francisco—or François—Boix, a Spanish press photographer and communist who fled to France at the beginning of World War II. But there, he found himself handed over by the French to the Nazis, who sent him to the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp, where he spent the war among thousands of other Spaniards and other prisoners. More than half of them would lose their lives there. Through an odd turn of events, Boix finds himself the confidant of an SS officer who is documenting prisoner deaths at the camp. Boix realizes that he has a chance to prove Nazi war crimes by stealing the negatives of these perverse photos—but only at the risk of his own life, that of a young Spanish boy he has sworn to protect, and, indeed, that of every prisoner in the camp.

 


My Review

 

I was first turned on to graphic novels as a medium for delivering rich, emotive, nonfiction in the final year of my undergrad when I was introduced to Joe Sacco and comics journalism. And I have to say, I think that the comics medium is perfect for relating WWII and Holocaust stories as the visual nature delivers such an immersive experience. Of course I’ve read MausMoving Pictures and We Are On Our Own, but the Photographer of Mauthausen was an entirely different (and amazing) kind of experience!

At just 118 pages, this book packs a big punch. Everything from the artwork to the scripting works together in perfect harmony to balance emotion with story and iconography with imagination. We’ve all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, so when you start putting 7-10 images a page, the impact is compounded. But what killed me the most, was how the pictures that Francisco and his crew worked so hard to protect were never used by the War Tribunal to give the victims a voice. Of all the injustices depicted throughout, that was one of the hardest to swallow.

I love how the book opens and closes at the French-Spanish border. Both nations flags are presented in opposite panels, and the colours of each flag filter down into the images below and periodically punctuate the pages to create a sense of time and place. With the majority of the illustrations are in washes of blue, grey, and brown when other colours are present they cary a whole lot of impact. So to do the facial expression and postures assigned to the characters. We see once jovial and supportive friends become gaunt and brow furrowed with worry. Not only are we told what they are going through, but we can also see the emotional and physical toll that enduring Mauthausen has on each man.

And the panel arrangements! I typically gravitate towards comics with consistent and predictable page layouts, but the creative use of shapes was absolutely divine. The geometry of the irregular shape leads the eye, creates a fractured and frantic reading, and tactfully manipulates time. Panels bleed of the page, images exist free of constraint, and the gutter isn’t the clean meaning-making space that novice readers might be used to. Yet, despite the constant flurry of information the pages are never cluttered or difficult the read.

The story itself was heartfelt and told with tenderness despite the atrocities displayed on the page. You get a real sense for Francisco’s convictions, his national pride, and his determination to not let deaths that he witnessed to be in vain. The balance that had to be made between morality and survival, selfishness and selflessness, protecting others and protecting yourself is unimaginable and yet entirely authentic. To watch their plan come together perfectly, and simultaneously fail catastrophically after the war was the most draining emotional rollercoaster!

Would I recommend this book? I can’t sing it’s praises highly enough! It’s visual, it’s visceral, and it’s one of my favourite WWII reads this year. And more than that, given the struggles that Francisco had telling this story during his life, I think that his story is one that needs to be heard by world now that it’s on the page. If you like graphic novels, WWII Fiction, or nonfiction this one is for you!


Many thanks to Net Galley and Europe Comics for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

#Review: Yvain the Knight of the Lion by M. T. Anderson #GraphicNovel

Today I am delighted to present a review for M.T. Anderson’s debut graphic novel Yvain: Knight of the Lion, an adaptation of one of my favourite Arthurian Romances! Visually rich and deeply nuanced, this comic captures the original romance and presents it anew for another generation to enjoy.


YvainTitle: Yvain the Knight of the Lion

Author: M. T. Anderson

Illustrator: Andrea Offermann

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Publication Date: March 14, 2017

Genre: Comics, Graphic Novel, Arthurian Romance, Medieval Romance

Themes: Chivalric love, honour, duty, family, female agency, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table

Features: Author’s note, Illustrator’s note


My Rating: 4 / 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

In his first graphic novel, National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson turns to Arthurian lore, with captivating art by Andrea Offermann bringing the classic legend to life.

Eager for glory and heedless of others, Sir Yvain sets out from King Arthur’s court and defeats a local lord in battle, unknowingly intertwining his future with the lives of two compelling women: Lady Laudine, the beautiful widow of the fallen lord, and her sly maid Lunette. In a stunning visual interpretation of a 12th century epic poem by Chrétien de Troyes, readers are — at first glance — transported into a classic Arthurian romance complete with errant knights, plundering giants, and fire-breathing dragons. A closer look, however, reveals a world rich with unspoken emotion. Striking, evocative art by Andrea Offermann sheds light upon the inner lives of medieval women and the consequences Yvain’s oblivious actions have upon Laudine and Lunette. Renowned author M. T. Anderson embraces a new form with a sophisticated graphic novel that challenges Yvain’s role as hero, delves into the honesty and anguish of love, and asks just how fundamentally the true self can really change.


My Review

I grabbed this graphic novel on a whim from the library because I have been missing my research and palaeography days. And, I have to admit, I originally didn’t have high expectations because the other comic adaptations I’ve encountered for Arthurian legends have been sorely disappointing. I have always loved medieval romances, especially Arthurian epics and Breton Lais – and normally read them in the vernacular – and I was pleased to discover that Anderson and Offermann did an incredible job of capturing the nuances of the genre and bringing this tired old tale back to life in a way that can be enjoyed by all.

For those that are familiar with the stories of Yvain and Gawain, this is an absolute home run! The dialogue reads true to Chretien de Troyes down the intonation and syntax, and the imagery presented alongside it illustrates the irony and (lack) of chivalry that dominated the original tales. I love how the iconic elements such as being given a year to complete a mission, love at first sight, battling for honour, being manipulated by powerful and intelligent women, and King Arthur being a disengaged and rather cowardly figure were all maintained. And I really loved how subtle digs were made about Guinevere’s behaviour in a way that couldn’t be ignored, how Yvain’s descent into madness was depicted, and the repetition of imagery that mirrors the way in which the original poems are structured.

I will say this though, the story won’t be for everyone. Sure, the women are strong, but they also adhere to some entrenched gender stereotypes typical of the times. These women are sneaky and manipulative, their power either comes from witchcraft or beauty, and they often hold no power outside of their homes. But at the same time Anderson and Offermann work to highlight how Chretien de Troyes and other authors of Arthurian Romances often subverted these stereotypes. And further to that, I love how Anderson made no effort to reinvent Yvain and the Arthurian court into chivalric knights either. They remained cowardly, pompous, puffed up pricks who enjoy feasting, bragging, and women and very rarely commit genuine heroic deeds. While some will hate the story for this, I seriously revelling in the authenticity.

Offermann’s art work if off the wall as well. It carries in it hint of medieval tapestry, allusions of calligraphic fonts, and a colour palette that evokes a sense of nostalgia. The demons and lions look like miniatures that walked right out of a manuscript, and all of the faces are incredibly expressive. But with that being said, I would suggest that this is probably not the right book for a first time reader of graphic novels. Offermann utilizes some incredibly complex panel arrangements, intersperses tightly packed and frantic panels with full and/ or multi-page spreads, and leaves no room in the gutter for thought or interpretation. The result is an intense, action-packed read, that at first glance can be somewhat overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it, but I can see where at times the arrangement will be difficult to follow.

Would I recommend this book? In a heart beat! Not only do I love it as a throw-back to some outstanding classical literature, I think that it likely has a place in education at a high school or post secondary level. Anderson’s adaptation is just as good, if not better, than many of the modern translations handed out in Survey literature courses, and the graphic elements make it ten time more enjoyable than highly syntactic (and often heavily amended) verse. Now add in all of the information relayed through the visual elements and I think that modern readers and students will get so much out of it. Sure, it might have a YA stamp on it from the publishers, but I would suggest you ignore it. The story itself is timeless, and like the orginal, Anderson’s adaptation should be considered for all ages.