Review | The Daughter’s Tale, Armando Lucas Correa

40539216The Daughter’s Tale is a family saga about the trauma of living through a war and the lengths to which women must go in order to protect their daughters. In 1939 Berlin, Amanda Sternberg must make a difficult choice to save her two daughters from the Nazis. And in 2015 New York, one of Amanda’s daughters, Elise Duval, had been living under an assumed identity for decades until someone comes to bring her letters written by her mother during the war.

It’s a sad story, made even sadder by the fact that it’s based on true events. Correa does a good job in detailing the harsh realities that war imposes on families, and the terrible sacrifices people must sometimes make so that they or their loved ones can survive. Amanda and her family are Jewish, and when Amanda escapes to the south of France to stay with a Catholic family friend, it was particularly difficult to see the casual racism from children, and think of how deeply hatred can be absorbed at such a young age.

One thing I really struggled with — and that took me out of the latter half of the book — is the decision Amanda makes at the dock of the boat to Cuba. She is confronted with a difficult, maybe even an impossible, choice, and she does what her gut tells her to do. I’m in no position to judge her for her choice, nor even to know how I would have acted in her place, but I kept thinking she made the wrong one. Especially later on when things go south, I kept feeling that the decision she made was selfish, and put her daughter in unnecessary danger, but I also acknowledge that it’s much easier for me to say that while reading their story in the comfort of my home. The reality is there’s no way to know for sure what the right choice for yourself and for your family would be in such a situation, and it’s to Correa’s credit that he lets his heroine make such a morally ambiguous decision.

Ultimately, the book was simply too depressing for me, and I found the pace too slow, but I think that’s more a matter of personal preference. Many fans of historical fiction, especially those who enjoy novels about World War II, will likely enjoy and be moved by this story. It’s an emotional, intimate glimpse into the experiences of a single family, and it shows how far into the future the experiences of war extend.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow

43517459._SY475_Imagine a world where Doors in random locations can transport you to another place, another time. Imagine being a seventeen year old girl whose father has disappeared and left behind only a notebook with a story that seems fantastical but turns out to be true. Imagine being that girl, being Black in the early 1900s, under the care of a wealthy white guardian with ties to a shady global organization that smuggles priceless artifacts around the world. And imagine searching the world for your father while being on the run from this organization. It’s a fascinating, exciting premise, and at first glance, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is exactly the kind of fantasy novel I’d eat up.

Unfortunately, I was bored for most of the book, and kept going only because I’d requested it for review. I should preface that by saying that the writing is good; Harrow has a languid, lyrical narration style that reminds me of classic children’s stories. She also has beautiful, vivid descriptions. I can imagine other readers falling under the spell of her writing and being completely captivated by this story.

I found it too slow, and too much in love with far too many details. The story begins with a meditation on the nature of Doors, and linked to that, the beauty of words and the letters that make up words. It’s a love letter of sorts to language, and it ends up fitting with what we later learn of how Doors work, but it went on far too long for me. And while I can imagine some readers being charmed by the passage that goes into detail on the aesthetics of a single letter, I just wanted to get on with the plot.

The nature of Doors opening up to other worlds and other times offers many wonderful opportunities to explore beyond the more mundane world January grew up in, but I think there were just too many diversions, and too little of a connecting thread for me. There was a section about a place where the birds release only one feather a day and it’s such a valued item that residents chase the birds for the privilege of receiving that single feather for the day. It’s a lovely passage, and fits in beautifully with the fantastical nature of the setting, but it just didn’t move me. I think it’s partly because the settings aren’t quite fantastical enough to fully take me out of reality (like Narnia might have), yet not quite grounded enough to make me care on a rational level.

I do like the way January has to figure out how to navigate the world as a Black girl within a primarily white, wealthy community. I like how the author shows the pity and condescension her guardian and his friends subject her to, all within a veneer of politeness and affection.

I also really like the story written in the book January’s father left her. I love the romance between the Black scholar and the wealthy white adventuress, and I especially love how their relationship developed over time. I found myself hooked by that story far more than by January’s, and I wish it could have gone on a bit longer than it did.

The subplot about January’s father travelling the world had promise, especially with how it linked up to the shady group of wealthy men who want to steal valuable artifacts from around the world for their own collections. We see a bit of this group with how they chase after January, but honestly, I wanted to read a lot more about their operations, and any of the various external forces who are surely trying to take them down.

Overall, Ten Thousand Doors has an intriguing premise, and will likely charm many readers, but it just wasn’t for me. I think I would have preferred a swashbuckling romance adventure from Yule the scholar’s perspective, or an international crime-busting thriller on the smuggling organization, or perhaps a more fully fantastical, magical narrative.

TW: animal cruelty (I almost DNF’d the book after that scene)

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Thank you to Redhook Books for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | The Infinite Noise, Lauren Shippen

43263239What if the X-Men, instead of becoming superheroes, went to therapy? That was the publisher’s hook for The Infinite Noise, and it definitely hooked me in. The X-Men franchise does a great job of showing how mutant powers can isolate people, and can cause them to experience discrimination and fear from a world that’s largely non-superpowered. Lauren Shippen ups the stakes in this novel by setting this experience within high school.

Caleb Michaels is a super empath, which means he not only senses what other people are feeling, but actually experiences the same feelings himself. That’s a tough enough condition for any human being, let alone one who is surrounded by all the heightened emotions and angst of high school. Fortunately, he comes to befriend Adam, a classmate whose presence can somehow make Caleb’s experience of his powers more manageable, and eventually the teens fall in love.

I love The Infinite Noise’s depiction of mental health. Caleb’s power means he experiences a range of very intense emotions, and it’s difficult for him to distinguish which feelings are his own from those of other people. Rather than simply becoming all angsty about it or turning vigilante as many superhero narratives go, Caleb instead sees a therapist, Dr Bright, who specializes in treating Atypicals (people like Caleb who have superpowers). While Caleb’s powers are certainly unusual, his experience of being overwhelmed by emotions is something that I think many readers may be able to relate to, and I love that Shippen shows us how a good therapist like Dr Bright helps Caleb manage his condition.

Adam also lives with depression, and because of Caleb’s empathy, we see how a depressive episode can feel, from the perspective of someone who isn’t familiar with the condition. This chapter felt very real and raw, and I love how Caleb’s response is simply to be with Adam and ride out the episode with him.

The romance between Caleb and Adam is really sweet. I love the tension created by Caleb’s reluctance to tell Adam about his powers, and by Adam’s insecurity over Caleb’s feelings for him. I love the openness and honesty in the conversations Caleb eventually has with Adam, and also in the conversation Caleb has with a girl who has an unrequited crush on him. Caleb’s responses feel remarkably mature for a high school boy, and perhaps that’s an offshoot of his power of empathy.

The Infinite Noise is the first book in the Bright Sessions series, which in turn is based on a podcast by the author. It’s this connection that ends up weakening the book for me, and possibly for other readers who haven’t listened to the podcast. There are characters and plot threads that are sprinkled throughout the story, but end up not really going anywhere, and I figure that’s because their role ties into the larger Bright Sessions universe rather than within this novel itself. For example, late in the book, Caleb and Adam meet a couple of Dr Bright’s other Atypical patients, one of whom seems really shady. The other, non-shady patient ends up befriending Caleb and Adam, and helping advise Caleb a bit on living with Atypical powers, but their role ends up being fairly minor. And the shady character all but disappears after a single scene, which is too bad because their personality seems far too intriguing for a mere cameo.

Another plot thread that turned out somewhat disappointing is the suspicious link between Adam’s parents and a villainous organization that experiments on Atypicals. There’s a lot of build up about this connection, and a lot of set up for Caleb and Adam having a forbidden romance because of it, but this plot point ended up not having as significant a payoff as I expected. Again, it felt like a seed being planted for the larger universe, and possibly a reference to a familiar villainous group from the podcast, but it falls short within a standalone.

Overall, I enjoyed The Infinite Noise, its sweet romance, and its depiction of empathy, emotions and mental health. Even the elements I thought fell flat will likely delight fans of the podcast who are more aware of their larger-scale significance.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.