Thursday, November 1, 2018

Jude Goodwin captures life's fleeting moments in 'The Night Before Snow'

Title: The Night Before Snow (and other wintry poems)
Author: Jude Goodwin
Genre: Poetry 

What I have to say:

Faithful followers of this blog may know about my poetry addiction. Suffice it to say, this book fed it. I meant to read a few poems a day, but once I started reading, I went through this whole collection of achingly-beautiful poems in one sitting. Yeah. Poetry.

All joking aside, though, wow. As soon as I read the first poem in the collection, I knew I was looking at something special. "There I Was Again," the poem starts, "writing urgently about the rain / as if it would ever stop / or change somehow / into something ordinary."

That stunning opener sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Goodwin has captured life's fleeting, delicate moments--the ones that are gone so soon we never really grasp them--and gathered them into a collection of beautiful, warm, sparkling jewel-poems that speak to the poignancy and wonder of the human experience. Everyday objects and events like rain, couches, heaters, and annual Christmas programs suddenly transform into rare, transcendent experiences.

The night before the first snowfall of the season, for example--there's something magical in the air, like everyone is holding their breath and wishing. I bet few of us have actually stopped to think about that, much less try to write about it. But Goodwin has, and she's done more than try: she's captured the mood perfectly. "It's quieter than any other time of the year. It is the night before snow."

I tried to pick a favorite poem from the collection for this review. I couldn't.

I loved "In Winter" which describes a boy playing the flute in the snow: a sound that will be heard forever in the speaker's memory. I loved the perfectly crafted "I Read Somewhere," so comic and yet so poignant at the same time and for the same reason.  I love "Ode to the Lights" which is about hanging Christmas lights (but is it really?). I love "The Hallelujahs" in which the speaker wonders if there will ever come a time when she won't love the Christmas season--all its hassle, all its repetition, it all sounds like hallelujah to her.

If I had to choose a favorite it might be "Her Music." The speaker loses herself in the piano music of her daughter. If she closes her eyes and listens, "the room is filled with God's rays." I loved all the poems in this collection, but none of them moved me quite as powerfully as this one.

On the outside, these poems are simple. There's no complicated rhyme scheme or cluttering punctuation. The themes are simple, too: love, light, music, snow. Anyone can read these poems, and anyone can relate to them--because we all know what it's like to wait for the snow, or to hang up Christmas lights, or to get attached to a comfy couch.

But that's not where it ends. Like the objects and experiences she writes about, Goodwin's poems speak of something deeper, something more luminous, something more wonderful than simply a couch or the snow or Christmas lights. It's the experience of being human, of being alive--with all the wonder and beauty and joy and poignancy that entails.

Like the snow itself--soft, delicate, melting away all too soon--we live and love with awe in our hearts because we know none of it will last forever. While it lasts, that's what makes it, like the snow, such a gift.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Genetic Modification in the Pages of a Children's Book AKA an Anna Rant

Purple Pup


Author: Karl Steam
Illustrator: Joshua Lagman
Published: November 27 2016
Publisher: Karl Steam

Goodreads Summary: Lav and his friends are the first of their kind, genetically modified to be wonderful pets. They quickly teach the humans that modifying DNA is easy, compared to controlling the animals that are created. Join the adventures that help them discover where they belong in this world, and what they are meant to do. 

My Thoughts
This book was unlike any other I have ever read, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. I've read plenty of books from the dogs point of view - Call of the Wild by Jack London, Thy Servant a Dog by Rudyard Kipling, and  A Dogs Life: The Autobiography of a Stray by Ann Martin to name a few. None of them even tapped into the world of genetic modification. Maybe that was a good thing.

Let me start out by saying that I have a degree in Wildlife and Wildlands Conservation, I've studied genetics, community interactions and species needs. I have strong opinions on quality of life for animals kept in captivity. I may not be as excepting of this story as others without my background.

This story explores the world of genetic modification and GMOs through the eyes of Lav the purple pup. And it's disturbing. I hate animal experimentation. I felt uncomfortable by the pain that the puppies and other creatures went through at the labs. I did not like the idea that making animals smaller removed them from their niche. Niches are one of the fundamental pillars of biological and ecological communities, and you can't just erase that and expect an animal to still function properly. The idea that "scientists" would willingly remove an animal from their part in the circle of life was baffling to me. Yes, zoos remove animals from the wild and place them into (hopefully) spacious contained areas where they can be viewed by humans. However, they still have their basic niche. Lions are still given dead gazelles to eat, or at least large forms of meat. They still have their pride, and still get to raise their cubs. Genetic Valley tried to remove the wild from the animal. After shrinking down a lion, they didn't then give him a habitat to suit his needs, they kept him in a cage, and later gave him away as a pet - to live with a regular cat. Just because an animal is smaller doesn't mean it isn't still wild. A lion that can be attacked and killed by a raccoon has had it's DNA messed with by someone pretending to be God, and I don't agree with that in any way, shape or form.

There are three parts to this story - Escape, The Return, and The Wild. Each part changed my ideas as to who the "villain" was. During Escape, in which Lav manages to escape from Genetic Valley, the scientists are clearly the bad guys. At one point it is hinted that they plan to experiment on children. Not good. Creepy. Gross. 

The Return continues that theme, except it becomes clear that some of the animals are being modified to better help humans. Some dogs have extra sense of smell to help with Search and Rescue as well as drug detecting. In fact two dogs have this extra skill. But, they are slightly different, the one that was super modified is mean and wild. I found this to be a hint that the scientists had gone too far. 

The Wild pits the main characters against, well, the wild. They actually join a pack of wolves. It works for some of them. It is during this section that we find out what Genetic Valley is really trying to do - provide humans with good genetically modified items. Crops that promote good health, Cows that can give twice as much milk, dogs better suited for rescue, but also dogs modified simply for color, and softness, animals made luminescent simply for kicks, and wild creatures shrunk down for human enjoyment. Here I think the reader is supposed to realize that Genetic Valley is actually helping people, science just sometimes has a rocky start. I agree with the crops, and search dogs, it's okay to enhance something's natural abilities - to a point. But to change the role of the creature in nature is abhorrent. To make natural camouflagers "glow-in-the-dark" means that they could never be placed back in their natural role. Animals become the way they are through natural selection, and we shouldn't try to reverse that.

Oh, also there's this part with a baby that has glowing yellow eyes . . . which was fun . . .

In the end everything turns out okay, but I was left in a state of confusion as I tried to gauge who the audience of this story even is. The title seems to scream "It's for kids!" and the story telling itself leans that way, but the content is deep, disturbing and over the heads of most children I know. This seems to be a social commentary for adults hidden in the pages of a "children's" story. 


Thursday, October 4, 2018

Wading through prejudice in Jeffrey Bardwell's 'The Knight's Secret' (relaunched)

Title: The Knight's Secret
Series: The Mage Conspiracy Series (#1)
Author: Jeffrey Bardwell
Genre: Fantasy 
Pages: 217
Publisher: Twigboat Press

What Goodreads has to say:

Sir Corbin, retired Hero of Jerkum Pass, rides for honor, glory, and his pension with the aid of a magic ring. The knight’s mission takes him to the capital of the Iron Empire. The city is in an uproar. The emperor has been slain by rogue mages. The new empress is livid. Soon all mages are suspect . . . including Corbin’s daughter. 

When Corbin dies on the eve of the mission, his granddaughter Kelsa dons his armor and his wrinkles to save her mother. Hidden behind the magic ring, she infiltrates his old regiment. The army has become a slithering nest of vipers. Imperial mages and cavalrymen move warily around each other. Both sides snare the disguised hero in tight coils of suspicion, politics, and lies. When the vengeful empress launches a vendetta against all mage kind, Kelsa must decide whether to save her family or preserve the empire. 

Unravel The Knight’s Secret, the first fantasy adventure of The Mage Conspiracy series. Discover a world of lurid entanglements and political intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword.

What I have to say:

First of all, this is The Knight's Secret relaunched: version 2.0. (I reviewed 1.0 here.)

Now twice as gritty, twice as thrilling, and twice as thought-provoking.

Also twice as much sex, but we'll get to that in a minute.

This book gave me a lot to think about. In fact, while I've found all of Jeffrey Bardwell's books to be at least somewhat thought-provoking, this one takes the cake. 

There are two issues at the heart of The Knight's Secret: gender and prejudice. Both are beautifully illustrated in the way the story unfolds, and both feel extremely relevant right now. So I'm going to talk about them.

The gender divide

Our hero is a girl (Kelsa) -- disguised as a man. This isn't just a Shakespeare in Love situation; Kelsa is under a (voluntary) enchantment that makes her look and talk like her recently deceased grandfather, Sir Corbin Destrus. The longer she spends in his body, the more she begins to think and act like him, until it seems Corbin may have taken over entirely. But not quite.

Elsewhere, we have an empress who's just taken over from her deceased father. Wow -- wait. Didn't even think about that parallel until I wrote that sentence just now. Cool.

We've also got Maven: a mage and Corbin's former lover; and Drake: an old warrior and Corbin's best friend. 

Of course, there are plenty of other characters as well, and the gender divide plays out on smaller scales in all of them, notably in Kelsa's mother and father.

OK it's time to talk about sex.

So like, yeah, having sex with the woman who may or may not be your grandmother is super awkward. But like, Kelsa seems to have no problem with it so.... whateves.  

(This is where I point out that this book is PG-13. Like, it wasn't super graphic or anything, but definitely there's some... stuff... going on.)

Here's one of the places we see the gender gap most clearly. It's a different experience for each gender: Corbin and Maven. But since Kelsa has experienced it from both sides, she picks up on that difference. Then she makes love to a woman the way she knows women want to be loved.

But it's not just in the bedroom that gender differences come to light. It's in the story of the Battle of Jerkum Pass, where two women and one man make a fatal mistake -- and no one but the three of them ever know the true story. It's in the plots and intrigues that swirl around the city -- to which men and women give different responses. It's in the way Drake and the empress treat Maven -- calling her a witch and disrespecting her at every turn -- when they treat Corbin with evident respect and deference. 

And Kelsa? She's the bridge. Corbin and Kelsa in one, she brings the two genders together, just as she tries to bring the mages and soldiers together.

The mage prejudice

So I only realized this time through that this book takes place way before the events of The Artifice Mage saga. (I mean, there's literally the year at the beginning of every chapter so IDK how I missed that, just unobservant apparently.) Once I realized that, I was excited to see things like the mage detectors and the Black Guards coming into being, because those are already mainstays of Devin's world in The Artifice Mage saga. But enough plugs.

Just as there's a divide between men and women, there's a growing divide between the soldiers and the mages of the Imperial Army. While they're still on fairly good terms (depending on who you ask though, really), there's definitely tension in the room -- and it's building. 

It doesn't help that the empress seems determined to ramp up that tension for her own purposes. But just as she tries to bridge the gap between men and women, Kelsa tries to hold fast the growing divide in the army. 

So maybe there's only one issue at the heart of this book after all. It's about more than just the gender gap or societal prejudice. (Though those are pretty big issues in themselves.) 

In other words, it's not the difference itself that's the issue. 'Cause there will always be differences, whether they're differences of gender, ability, race, class, you name it. It's not hard to find the differences. It's hard to find the similarities.

And what this is all about is that we hone in on the ways we differ when we should hone in on the things we share.

That's The Knight's Secret.

And now that I'm in real danger of waxing too poetical, I'll wrap up. Thank you Jeffrey Bardwell, as always, for another rousing, darkly fascinating adventure. I look forward to sharing the next part of Kelsa's journey. And I look forward to sharing more literary travels with all you lovely readers, because at the end of the day, that's why we read, isn't it? To know we're not alone.


Until tomorrow.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Happy Hobbit Day!

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” 
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
May you keep looking for good books and always find ones that aren't exactly what you were after--because they're far better. 
Erin (center), Anna (right), and their sister in Oxford at a Tolkien exhibit. There was much geeking out.

From The Wood Between the Worlds to your own cozy Hobbit hole, Erin and Anna wish you a very happy Hobbit Day. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

My stress levels rise thanks to R.E. Palmer's 'The Gates of Dawn'

Title: The Gates of Dawn
Series: The Never Dawn (#3)
Author: R.E. Palmer
Genre: YA Sci-Fi / Dystopian
Publisher: FrontRunner Publications
Date: August 17 2017
Pages: 398 pages

What Goodreads has to say:

Banished to the surface, Noah and his team struggle to survive in the harsh climate and are forced to make a difficult decision. In their quest to see the first dawn, they make a shocking discovery about their past that could help Noah bring Mother's cruel regime to an end.

What I have to say:

You know that feeling when you're nearing the end of a book, and there's maybe ten pages left, and everything is a complete mess and you're like, "how the heck can we salvage this situation? Ain't no way. Everyone's gonna die."

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present R.E. Palmer's The Gates of Dawn

This book was so stressful. Not only at the end when I was like, but wait, are they not going to win after all???? No, this book was just stressful all the way through. Like--Is this person going to die? No, they can't die! I really really like them! (Hi Reuben). Shoot, is Noah going to die? Noah can't die, he's the narrator and we still have three-fourths of the book left! But wait, is he dead? Crap, maybe everyone's going to die.

It kept me invested, it kept me guessing, and it kept me holding my breath right up to the very end. The characters' pain was my pain. Their small victories filled me with joy. Their shocking discoveries induced my horror.

Before moving on, can we take just a moment to appreciate this masterful opening paragraph:

"It turns out you can't touch the sky. I guess I really should have known it wasn't possible. But I mustn't be critical of my younger self. In every picture I'd drawn in the nursery, I'd colored the top third in blue and left the page blank until the green line of the fields where I would be playing happily with Mother."

At the beginning of The Gates of Dawn, Noah, Rebekah, and a handful of their friends (I use the term loosely because one of them wants Noah dead) are sent down to New Earth by Mother. That should be cause for celebration, right? Yeah, sure, I mean except for the fact that New Earth seems to be a dark, frozen planet incapable of supporting life.

They decide to trek across the planet in search of fertile ground, but it's by no means a smooth journey. Think avalanches, sea storms, and the occasional murder attempt by that person who's not really Noah's friend. In other words, it's truly an adventure.

But what Noah and his "friends" eventually learn on New Earth sends them back to The Ark, in one final attempt to topple "Mother" from her seat of power and save themselves and everyone else still living in The Ark.

While I loved this book, and in fact, the whole series (well done on your first trilogy, R.E. Palmer), I ultimately had a problem with the ending for some reason. Being my usual super helpful self, I'm not sure exactly what that problem was. Of course, it's hard that, oh wait, hold on a sec-




OK hi. So it's hard that Noah and Rebekah end up separated at the end, and my heart aches for Rebekah who's still stuck under Mother's dominion (though we can hope that Mother is a little nicer now, right?). 

But I don't think that's where my problem with the ending lies. Maybe I wasn't sure exactly what happened at the end--how Noah averted the crisis? Or maybe averting the crisis turned out to be too simple? (Activating the fail-safe by pressing a button.) Maybe I wanted more people to die? IDK.

Or maybe it was the epilogue that fell flat for me. Maybe I needed more trees, or maybe I needed Abraham or Seth to be there. Maybe I needed something more akin to the beautiful moment in this book where Noah looks up at the first sunset he's ever seen and is overcome:

"I blink. A tear runs down my cheek. I can't touch the sky, but it can touch me."

All in all, though, this was a great story and I enjoyed it immensely. Even though I think the final book was ultimately my least favorite of the three, simply because I didn't feel it was quite as masterful as the first two (The Never Dawn and Cloud Cuckoo), it was still a fantastic, gripping dystopian adventure.

Yeah, it was heck of stressful. But that's how I like 'em.


(like... 3 and a half...? Can we get half a tree?)

Until tomorrow.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Twist follows twist in R.E. Palmer's dystopian 'Cloud Cuckoo'

Title: Cloud Cuckoo
Series: The Never Dawn (#2)
Author: R.E. Palmer
Genre: YA Sci-Fi Dystopian
Pages: 222
Publisher: FrontRunner Publications
Date: August 26 2016

What Goodreads has to say:

Following their shock discovery, Noah and Rebekah reluctantly return to the lower levels of The Ark. Isolated and apart once more, Noah struggles to remember what happened at the surface and suspects Mother has altered his memory. 

But Noah's attempts to unite the workers to rebel are halted when Mother begins The Purge. Her cruel, relentless trials bring Noah to breaking point as he fights to survive when faced by his worst fears. Forced to accept Mother's terms after a month in Re-Education, Noah finally learns the truth about his people's past that leave him determined to defeat her once and for all. 

What I have to say:

I have to admit, when I learned the title of this book, my mind immediately jumped to The Lego Movie--that supremely awesome, completely perfect work of art which we will not discuss here--but this Cloud Cuckoo is very different from the fluffy cloud-realm inhabited by rainbows and unicorn kitties. 

Then again, I'd be lying if I said this story had nothing in common with The Lego Movie. There's a totalitarian leader who masks their sinister actions behind a benevolent image. There's a clueless young worker who gradually comes to lead the rebellion. There's a spaceship.

Laying obligatory Lego Movie comments aside, though, let's dig into R.E. Palmer's Cloud Cuckoo, the second book in his dystopian series The Never Dawn.

This book is fast and furious. Book one, The Never Dawn, immersed us in the world of The Ark--an underground (or so we thought) society ruled by an all-powerful figure known as Mother. Our protagonist, Noah, is a worker helping to bring about the New Dawn by assembling weapons day in and day out. But at the end of The Never Dawn, in a brilliant twist of an ending, we realize that nothing on The Ark is as it seems. And at that point the book ended.

In Cloud Cuckoo, we pick up directly where book one left off. Noah and his friend Rebekah have made a life-changing discovery--The Ark is a spaceship. Meanwhile, someone in The Ark is concealing a secret book that could expose Mother's lies, and Mother is determined to find that person. In fact, as you may have guessed, that person is none other than Noah himself. 

In order to catch the thief, Mother invokes a Purge--and boy, it's rough. She opens up the floor and sends everyone down to a dark, low, compact level where they'll sleep in tubes that seal shut and where they'll be served only tiny portions of green mush for every meal.

But it gets worse. Everyone will undergo interrogation at the hands of Mother's prefects.

Dude, this section is so intense. (Yeah, I use the word "dude" when I get really excited. I'm not sure why.) People are dropping like flies. Noah is starting to suspect everyone. Could his fellow team member Barnabas know something? Could he be planning to betray Noah to the prefects? And what will Noah tell the prefects when his turn comes?

It's such a great way to open the second book in the series, because after that revelation at the end of book one, we all know Noah can't just go back to his old life. The stakes are high, and Mother's Purge raises them even higher. It's relentless, it's grueling, and it's a page-turner.

Noah's not perfect. And he's not yet the brave leader he'll become later on in the series. Unable to handle the pain inflicted by the prefects--during The Purge interrogation and later in Re-Education, he buckles. He gives names.

The stakes just get higher and higher, and eventually Noah is forced to admit that he has the book. He's then sent to Re-Education, where, after enduring intense pain and betraying a few more of his friends, he's effectively brainwashed and sent back to his old life--well, not exactly. He's assigned to the kitchens. But that doesn't last.

Throughout the rest of the book, Noah moves from one level of the ship to another, gradually attaining new levels of knowledge as he climbs the social strata. Mother is leading him toward her ultimate goal--she will turn him into a Hero Worker, a role-model for the others to look up to, someone who follows Mother devotedly and inspires everyone to keep working for The New Dawn. 

But Noah's goal is very different. He'll expose Mother's lies and stir the others up to rebellion. They'll defeat Mother and find their way to New Earth, so they can finally be free of this ship and start a new life on the surface.

Unfortunately, Noah learns what many before him have already discovered--revolution is freaking hard.

If The Never Dawn led up to that one gut-wrenching twist at the very end, Cloud Cuckoo delivers a new twist every few chapters, each one more shocking than the last. Again and again, the author fools you into thinking you know what's going on, only to pull the carpet out from under your feet. No way! That was a shock. OK, but now you know what's going on. Ha ha nope! And so on.

I loved every mind-boggling, gasp-inducing twist and turn. I was so invested and I couldn't stop reading. I had to know what was going to happen next.

I think I have a bias toward middle books in a trilogy. Maybe it's because the middle book is the one that really tests the characters and molds them into the heroes they'll be in book three. Maybe it's because the middle book is always so intense and twisty. Maybe it's because I just love watching everything go to pot. 

Whatever the reason, I've now finished The Never Dawn trilogy (review of book three to come), so I can safely tell you that Cloud Cuckoo was my favorite of the three. It's not that the other two weren't also great--it's just that this book is so masterfully done. I love watching the characters develop and I love watching their relationships harden. I love experiencing Noah's pain, shock, and despair alongside him. 

Hmmm, OK, on second thought, that doesn't sound like it should be fun. I guess I'm just a sucker for those failed revolution plot-lines.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

When the alphabet goes rogue: Review of B.C.R. Fegan's 'The Day that A Ran Away'

Title: The Day that A Ran Away
Author: B.C.R. Fegan
Illustrator: Lenny Wen

After their adorable Henry and the Hidden Treasure, author and illustrator B.C.R. Fegan and Lenny Wen are at it again--serving up an imaginative, quirky little adventure sure to delight both children and parents. It delighted me, and I'm a fully functioning adult (maybe).

On the story's first page, young Jet faces a common dilemma: he hasn't completed his homework assignment. 

Or wait--he has! But no sooner had he finished writing out the alphabet in his school notebook then (gasp) the letter A ran away!

From there we launch into Jet's high-flown (and fully rhyming, naturally) explanation of what happened to all the letters he wrote down in his notebook. One can only imagine his teacher, Mrs. May, listening with increasing incredulity, but Jet, not one to be deterred, gets through the whole alphabet before Mrs. May gives her verdict.

I got about halfway through this delightful picture book before I realized that each page features a number of objects starting with that particular letter. Also, each letter resembles something that starts with it, so to give you an idea: V is a volcano, K is a king, and M is an adorable furry monster. Then, of course, I had to start over from the beginning and find all the Easter eggs on each page. 

As a kid, I loved books like that (and apparently I still do), so I can only imagine how much fun younger readers will have searching for all the hidden objects on each page--and I'm sure they'll laugh at the whimsical appearances of Jet's rogue letters.

I'll let you find out for yourself whether or not Jet's incredible story wins points with Mrs. May, but this simple, quirky story definitely won points with me. If Jet can just manage to keep his letters on the page for once, I think he's got a promising future as a writer.

Until tomorrow.