Saturday, 28 February 2015

Girl, Interrupted: Insightful or Madness? Either Way, It’s Good Reading!

A Review By: Amelia

There’s something so very intriguing about mental hospitals. The mind is such a hard thing to understand and then there’s the history surrounding mental health: lobotomies, electroshock, sensory deprivation. The list is long and it is cruel. It’s why mental hospitals are such a good backdrop for horror! Certainly the only things I’ve ever seen that surrounds mental hospitals are horror. It’s why I decided to read Girl, Interrupted; it was time to shed some light on the non-horror side of mental health.

The year is 1967. Susanna Kaysen has just had a session with a psychiatrist she’s never seen before and has been put in a taxi headed straight to McLean Hospital–a psychiatric hospital renowned for its famous clientele and progressive treatment. Kaysen spends the next two years of her life in the ward for teenage girls. Girl, Interrupted tells the story of the people and experiences she encountered in a series of short nonlinear scenes.

Susanna Kaysen was born and raised in Cambridge Massachusetts. She came from a priviledged family and attended high school at the Commonwealth School in Boston before being whisked off to McLean to undergo psychiatric treatment for depression. She was later diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and spent eighteen months in the hospital. Since then she’s made a name for herself as an author.

Kaysen’s memoir, Girl, Interrupted, shows her sharp perception, intelligence, and self-awareness as she paints vivid portraits of herself and her fellow patients and the doctors at McLean. It’s written almost as a parallel universe: the crisp, sterile, uniformity of the hospital against the backdrop of the late sixties. It’s a document that is unflinching in its portrayal of those around Kaysen. There’s Polly, a sweet girl with disfiguring, self-inflicted burns to her face and body. Lisa, a sociopath that may or may not be faking the whole thing just to screw with everyone. Georgina, Kaysen’s roommate, who’s dating a violent and unstable boy from another ward. The twins obsessed with roasted chicken and laxatives.

Her stories are out of order and short offering just brief glimpses into the world of mental health treatment and recovery but their shortness gives them poignancy. The stories are out of order and a little spacey, but they’re honest and darkly funny. Her story is compelling and written in a way designed to provoke questions and, honestly, it’s just so self-aware. She sees the difference between madness and sanity in such a way that you, as the reader, might begin to doubt your take on the two as you see her clarity!

My final thoughts on Girl, Interrupted are that it is ingenious. It’s a look at a girl’s life as she moves into her adult life in a most unusual way. The imagery is powerful, the writing even more so. It’s a book that shows the horrors of mental health without resorting to what horror movies do and it’s brilliantly done.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Ember: The Novel Was A Shining Adventure, The Graphic Novel... A Little Dim

A Review By: Amelia

At some point in the last two decades or so, humanity has stopped seeing the future as a shining utopia but instead as a decaying and frightening dystopia that must be survived, endured instead of enjoyed. Ember falls into the latter category and it’s an amazing take on the concept.

The City of Ember is doomed. It was created hundreds of years ago but those known only as the Builders. It contained everything needed for human survival and it worked... for a time. The storerooms are almost out of food, corruption is spreading, and the generator that supplies the electricity is on the brink of stopping and never coming back on. But hope is revived for two children, Lina and Doon, when they discover a parchment that could be the way out of Ember. But can they decipher it before the lights go out forever?

The original author of The City of Ember is Jeanne DuPrau. She received a BA in English Literature from Scripps College in California and before penning The City of Ember series, she was a high school English teacher and an editor for educational publishing companies. The adapter of the book into the graphic novel is Dallas Middaugh, who is a comics industry veteran turned teacher who writers for Bleeding Cool about his new course at NYU; and Nikals Asker, a Swedish comic book artist best known for his debut graphic novel Second Thoughts.

The art style of Ember is a plain one. Not simple, not minimalistic, just plain. Plain and so, so boring! The characters have no depth and very little emotions, the surroundings are drab and completely unvaried. Some might argue that the landscapes are meant to be that way since the novel takes place in a huge, completely dark cave, but I don’t feel like even that covers the laziness in this art! The colours all run together like mud, and (getting back to the characters) why are their complexions so dark? If they’ve never known ultra violet light, they live in the dark aside from artificial light bulbs, and they were all coloured to have tanned skin! I don’t know if this was done to try and convey the shadows of Ember, but it just didn’t work for me.

While the novel The City of Ember was so fascinating in its bleakness and claustrophobia, the graphic novel just doesn’t compare. Ember is a place where that old saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ doesn’t apply. The pressure of the all-encompassing blackness of the city doesn’t translate from word to picture because you need light for pictures! You can have a whole chapter dedicated to darkness in a book but to do that in something where the medium is pictures is near–if not totally–impossible.

My final thoughts on the graphic novel Ember are that it’s a little lackluster, a touch mediocre. The
novel was a much better medium to describe the bleakness of Ember even though you’d think a graphic novel would be good for that. Unfortunately the dark doesn’t seem that imposing in the graphic novel as a single panel will be in darkness and then the next panel just mentions how long that blackout was. It just doesn’t translate well. Not to mention that so many of the major plot points were simply grazed over or not mentioned at all. It took away the sense of urgency you get from the novel and it just makes it mediocre. Give it a shot if you loved the books (it only takes about half an hour to read) but if you’re unfamiliar with the books and instead looking for a good graphic novel avoid this one. You’d probably have a more entertaining time sitting in the dark and just pretending you’re in Ember!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Nefertiti: A Heretically Good Read

A Review By: Amelia
Historical fiction is my favourite genre of novel. I love looking back on my favourite time periods and peoples of history and seeing an alternate set of events–or possibly even an alternate history entirely–play out before me! I guess I’m a nerd like that! One of my favourite time periods in history–and therefore one of my favourites to read about–is ancient Egypt, so imagine my delight when I found an author I’d yet to read anything by who writes about ancient Egypt! And not just ancient Egypt, but badass women from ancient Egypt! Well, that settled it, I was on board immediately for Nefertiti.

The author of Nefertiti is Michelle Moran, who has also written about ancient Egypt in two other historical fiction novels: The Heretic Queen and Cleopatra’s Daughter. She found her love for Egypt during her six years as a public high school teacher when she used her summers to travel the world and volunteer on archaeological digs. She has also written Madame Tussaud and The Second Empress.

Nefertiti and her younger sister Mutnodjmet were born and raised in a powerful family that have provided wives to the rulers of Egypt for centuries. Nefertiti is chosen by her aunt–the Queen of Egypt–to settle her unstable son Amunhotep, who has dreams of turning Egypt religion on its head by worshipping not gods, but Aten, the physical disk of the Sun, as the one true god. Nefertiti is chosen to calm Amunhotep and steer him away from his heretical desires, but Nefertiti does not see it as such. By manipulating her pharaoh husband out of jealously for the time he spends with his other wives and her own want for power and to be remembered through the ages, Nefertiti helps him build a city dedicated to this one god and twist tradition and religion into something that will benefit her. She becomes a second pharaoh and is beloved by the people, but is unable to see the powerful priests and generals plotting against her husband’s rule. Her sister is the only one who sees what is happening, yet remaining loyal to Nefertiti will force Mutnodjmet into a dangerous political game she never wanted to play.

The main characters in this are the beautiful yet scheming Nefertiti, the completely batshit crazy Amunhotep, and the timid plant lover Mutnodjmet. There are other characters including Amunhotep’s parents, Nefertiti’s and Mutnodjmet’s parents, and a selection of priests, generals, and Kiya, Amunhotep’s second most important wife. Overall, I was a little disappointed with the characters as they’re all pretty flat. Nefertiti was probably the most well rounded but most of the time she still came off as nothing but a spoiled brat. Amunhotep was the most interesting character for me, but that’s just because he was so obviously crazy! All the characters were scheming in one way or another and the devious political backstabbing and conniving tricks just got tiresome as the one-note characters played them out.

Looking past the lackluster characters, the best part of Nefertiti, for me, were the locations: especially Amarna, the city that Amunhotep built to be the new capital of Egypt. What makes Amarna so interesting is that Amunhotep built it over the course of just a few years, relocated the entire royal court there, and then it was abandoned only a few years later, and not again inhabited until Roman settlement. It’s all very mysterious and I just love reading about historical mysterious!

All in all, Nefertiti was an entertaining read. The characters were flat and a little plain and the dialogue in some scenes just seemed redundant or over done, but by no means did that ruin the experience for me. Nefertiti, as a historical figure, is always fascinating to read about; and her crazy husband (at least, crazy as far as this story goes if not in life) was compelling.

My final thoughts on Nefertiti are that it’s an impulsive read. There were parts of it I didn’t care for but that didn’t stop me from wanting to know what happened next; and the last one hundred pages makes up for it anyways as the best scenes of action happen there and my favourite line in the whole piece (it’s about Anubis but I won’t spoil it for anyone!). I recommend anyone with an interest in ancient Egypt–whether it’s a passing fancy to a hardcore obsession–to give this book a shot.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Pink and Say: Be Ready to Learn Some Important Life Lessons From This Story Folks

A Review By: Amelia

History is a big seller for me. I love learning about it anyway I can: movies, television, documentaries, books. After recently finishing up Gone With the Wind I’ve become pretty interested in the American Civil War so I thought I’d check out some other media about it. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d find a children’s picture book about it–nor as heavy and foreboding a children’s picture book as Pink and Say.

This story, Pink and Say, is about a young black soldier who rescues a young white soldier who has been left for dead. He carries him home to his mother in Georgia who helps nurse him back to health. The two soldiers strike up an unlikely friendship but, unfortunately, it ends in tragedy.
Patricia Barber Polacco is the author and illustrator of Pink and Say along with many, many other picture books for children. Polacco struggled in school as she had dyslexia and was unable to read until she was fourteen. She found relief by expressing herself through art until a school teacher recognized that she couldn’t read and helped her overcome it (if you’re interested in that story, her book Thank You, Mr. Falker is her retelling and tribute to the teacher who helped her).
As the title of the book suggests, the main characters of this piece are Pink and Say. Pink is the black soldier, and Say the white soldier, but they’re both fifteen and they’re both fighting for the Union so they become kin. Their friendship is very touching and well developed. Polacco does an amazing job of showing how friendship can cross colour lines. She deals with such character traits as compassion and selflessness with ease and it’s all very natural. Like Say being scared of going back to the fighting. You don’t see him as a coward, you see him for the fifteen year old boy that he is. I especially like Pink and how he admitted he was scared to fight too, but that he had too because it was his fight. His angry and pride and courage are shown all at once in just that one section of the story and that’s something that a lot of author’s can do so naturally.

All that about characters being said, this is a very heavily themed book, but with a topic like the Civil
War there was no way it wasn’t going to be! It’s a book that teaches children about the injustices faced by non-white people in history and the cruelty of war. It’s a heavy message (not intended for the age group the publisher is trying to peddle it to, just so you know) but it’s supposed to be heavy: maybe even a little bit shocking. I think its heaviness gives it gravitas and more staying power within the reader’s mind, which makes it a great choice for a social studies unit in school, but maybe a poor choice for a bedtime tale.

The art style of Pink and Say is rough, kind of spur-of-the-moment (if you know what I mean). The lines aren’t all perfect, the proportions are strange, and the colouring looks like it could have been done by a kid with markers in some spots, but that all adds to the experience. The story is emotional so it’s only fitting that the artwork also be emotional; that it invokes a kind of stirring in you of textures and grit and pain. It’s all quite exquisite when looking at it as a whole package of story and art.

There are few picture books written about the Civil War, fewer still based on such emotionally charged true stories. Although this book had a tragic ending, the story is a poignant tribute to an interracial friendship that developed during a time when such a thing was severely punishable. While younger students may not fully understand or appreciate the story and/or its underlying themes of racism and war, the basic idea of friendship will resonate with all readers.

My final thoughts on Pink and Say are that it is incredibly heart-wrenching but it’s also incredibly important in the realm of children’s literature and history itself. It’s a true story kept alive by the gorgeous artwork and skilful language of Patricia Barber Polacco. It’s a tale that keeps being told to make people realize just how inhumane we are to our fellow man and to maybe persuade us–teach us–to take a different approach, to be respectful, to lend a helping hand and, in that, it readily succeeds.