Saturday, January 19, 2019

Map of Days By Ransome Riggs

A Map of Days is the fourth novel in the Peculiars series by Ransome Riggs. The novel opens with a prologue that sees Jacob Portman who has returned home to America after a "vacation" in Wales, in the process of being escorted by his two uncles to an asylum. His parents, who are also accompanying him, believe he has lost his mind.

Fortunately for Jacob, this is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Miss Peregrine and her peculiar wards, terrifying Jacob's parents and his uncles to the point that they crash the car into the garage doors. In an attempt to calm everyone, Bronwyn, used a copious amount of Mother Dust putting them into a "velvety sleep", long enough so that they likely wouldn't awaken until the following day.

This gives Jacob time to reunite with his peculiar friends whom he hasn't seen for the past six weeks.  With Miss Peregrine, are Bronwyn, Enoch, Olive,the invisible Millard, Hugh, Horace, Claire and Emma whom Jacob has a crush on,  While his parents and uncles sleep, Jacob and his friends enjoy pizza and talk. He learns they have travelled via the Panloopticon, exploring loops that were deemed safe by the ymbrynes. They travelled to many places including Mongolia and the Atlas Mountains of North Africa and they also spent time Sharon, the boatman from Devil's Acre.

While the peculiars are only interested in resting, Miss Peregrine tells them that they must learn how to navigate the world of normals and so she assigns Jacob the task of helping them. That night Jacob wonders how he will explain his situation to his parents. He has returned to his home in Englewood, a small community on Needle Key, a barrier island in Florida, hoping to finish his schooling. But Jacob's experiences in the peculiar world have changed him. Jacob wants his parents in his life but he also wants to be a part of both the normal and peculiar world.

Leaving Hugh behind to alert them when his parents and uncles wake up, Jacob takes Miss Peregrine and the peculiars to the beach. At the beach, following a discussion with Miss Peregrine, Jacob decides that he'd like to tell his parent the truth about what has happened, rather than having Miss Peregrine wipe their minds. When they get the call from Hugh, Jacob returns home and attempts to tell his parents the truth. His mother becomes hysterical and passes out while his father becomes angry. Jacob's father then tells him the story of  how his father took him on one of his trips with a mysterious man named "H" and relates how they were attacked in North Florida or Georgia. Jacob's father witnessed the attack and fled in terror, but has only partial memory of the attack as his memory was partially wiped.

Miss Peregrine attempts to help but Jacob's father is so upset that he insists that she wipe his memory completely. To help Jacob who is deeply upset at his parents' reaction, Miss Peregrine has him take some of the peculiars shopping for modern clothes. However, Jacob inadvertently drives to his late grandfather's subdivision. Determined to pay their respects to the memory of Jacob's grandfather Abe who was killed by a hollowgast, Emma and Olive insist on visiting his abandoned home. They find the home on Morningbird Lane in a state of disrepair and decide to clean the home. In the process discover a secret room beneath Abe's study that can be accessed through a metal door in the floor. Beneath is a bunker with four cots and supplies to last several weeks. Jacob also discovers a binder titled Operations which reveals that his grandfather was not only a hollowgast hunter but was rescuing peculiar children, a job normally assigned to the ymbrynes. The log book only leads to more questions. Why were the American ymbrynes not saving peculiar children? "...Was there still a group of hollow-hunters out there somewhere, fighting monsters and rescuing peculiars? If so, I wanted very much to find them. I wanted to be part of it, to use my gift to carry out my grandfather's work here in America. After all, maybe that's what he wanted!"

Jacob sets out to find the mysterious "H", leading him on a quest that not only places him and the other peculiars in grave danger but also challenges his relationship with Emma and the other peculiars.

Discussion

 In A Map of Days, Ransome Riggs continues the story of Jacob Portman, hollowgast hunter extraordinaire. Now back home in Needle Key, Florida, Jacob must deal with his parents who believe he is insane, his fractured relationship with the normal world, and his future as a peculiar.

The inability of his parents to accept what he is telling them and the sudden appearance of Miss Peregrine and his peculiar friends forces Jacob to confront his parents and to have Miss Peregrine wipe their memories - a convenient plot device that Riggs employs to remove them from the story. With school set to begin in a week's time, the appearance of Miss Peregrine and his peculiar friends who are now free from their loop and able to travel anywhere they want causes Jacob to wonder how he will return to normal life. "Could I really imagine sitting through interminable classes and lunch periods and mandatory assemblies every day...."  Jacob questions what he wants for his life. "I had no interest in a normal career. In settling down with someone who didn't understand who I was, or in having kids from whom I had to keep half my life a secret, like my grandfather had." 

In addition his peculiar friends, now freed from the constraints of the loops, begin to rebel against Miss Peregrine's restrictive care. Jacob notices that "The dynamic between the kids and Miss Peregrine had shifted a bit. They seemed more like teenagers now -- real ones, beginning to chafe against her authority."  

Against this backdrop, along with the discovery that his grandfather was saving peculiar children in addition to hunting down hollowgasts, Jacob decides that he wants to carry on Abe's work. To that end he seeks out the mysterious "H" who sends him on a mission that ultimately almost gets Jacob killed and sends waves of discord through the peculiar world. However, Jacob remains undeterred in his determination to continue what he views as his mission to save peculiar children.

A Map of Days is an enjoyable fourth book in the Peculiars series with a storyline that's a bit easier to follow than the confusing third installment, The Library of Souls. Story line does become somewhat muddied near the end of the novel, when Jacob and the peculiars accompanying him are trapped by a gang of peculiars set in 1930's New York.

This novel sets the stage though, for a fifth book that will likely continue the adventures of Jacob and the "uncontacted peculiar" named Noor whom he rescues against the wishes of Miss Peregrine and with the help of "H" who dies in the attempt. There's also some unfinished business between Jacob and Emma who have grown apart in this novel. Their blossoming romance at the beginning of the novel is dampened when it becomes apparent that Emma has not come to terms with the loss of Abe and his living his life mostly without her. Emma had spent decades dreaming about life with Abe that being in his time, in his home and learning about him seemed to have placed his ghost between them.

As with the other novels in the series, the book contains old photographs representing characters Jacob meets in his adventures as well as some of the clues Jacob receives to help him  However, in A Map of Days, these photographs seem secondary to the story and almost unnecessary, although they do add an element of intrigue.

Book Details:

A Map of Days by Ransome Riggs
New York: Dutton Books     2018
480 pp.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Adrift At Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and Tuan Ho

Adrift At Sea tells the story of Van Ho's older brother Tuan and his escape from communist Vietnam in 1981. Van's story was told in a later book, Too Young to Escape also authored by acclaimed Brantford author, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch.

Tuan's journey begins a year after his father had escaped Vietnam with Tuan's older sister Linh. Tuan arrives home from school one day and is told by his mother that they are leaving that night but she warns him not to tell anyone.Tuan remembers his father's last words to him, "Be brave, Tuan."

Later that night Tuan along with his sisters Lan, Loan and his mother as well as his Aunt Nghia and two of her children slip out of their house and into a truck that takes them to the ocean. Their race to a waiting boat is a terrifying one, as bullets fly past them. Tuan becomes briefly separated from his mother, but they are soon all reunited, after changes to three boats. Their boat heads out to sea, with  sixty people crammed into  it. When the motor breaks down, Tuan and his mother and sisters, along with his aunt and her two daughters are adrift in a leaky boat. Unlike many others, they are the lucky ones, eventually rescued by an American aircraft carrier.

Discussion

Adrift At Sea presents true story of a little boy's harrowing flight from his homeland. With the end of the Vietnam War between America and the north Vietnamese communists in 1975, the country became completely ruled by a communist government. Conditions  rapidly deteriorated both socially and economically in the years following the war. Life was so terrible that thousands of Vietnamese began fleeing their country. The only way to do this was by sea, often in small, leaky boats that made the journey even more perilous. Tuan Ho's family was in an especially precarious situation because his father had worked for the Americans as a translator.  As a result Tuan's father had fled the country a year earlier taking with him his eldest daughter.

Map of Southeast Asia showing Vietnam (pink)
To write Adrift At Sea, Skrypuch interviewed Tuan Ho, now a physiotherapist with a flourishing practice in Toronto, about his experiences as a six-year-old. To keep Tuan's story authentic, Skrypuch decided to use the picture book format and to tell the story in the voice of a young boy. The picture book format uses less text and relies more on illustrations to fill in the story details.  In this way, young children could better relate to Tuan's experiences.

Award-winning artist and illustrator Brian Deines' vibrant artwork brings to life Tuan's story. Deine's illustrations are oil paint on canvas and have an impressionistic character at times. Done in rich colours, these beautiful illustrations add depth to Skrypchuk's recounting of Tuan's escape from Vietnam. Deine's artwork captures the many emotions Tuan and his family experienced as the fled for their lives. The picture book is completed with a section at the back containing family photographs, a description of life in post-war communist Vietnam, the struggles Vietnamese refugees faced in fleeing their country and an account of Tuan's family's ordeal.

Adrift At Sea is a remarkable picture book, well crafted and a must for parents, teachers, homeschoolers and anyone interested in helping young Canadians understand the plight of refugees and their remarkable courage, determination and resilience in the struggle to be both safe and free.

Book Details:

Adrift At Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and Tuan Ho
Toronto: Pajama Press Inc.                                   2016


Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe

The Promise tells the true story of two sisters who keep a promise they make to their mother to always stay together.

The two sisters, Rachel and Toby lived in the town of Wyezmnik in Poland, They were Hsaidic Jews, attending a Jewish girls school in the afternoon, after going to public school
in the mornings. Their father was a Talmud scholar who earned his living by repairing cooking pots.  The two sisters were very different in personality with Toby being curious and brave, while Rachel was calm and intelligent.

The Promise tells the story of  how they managed to stay together in order to survive the horrors of Auschwitz.

Their story beings with Rachel and Toby waking up to another brutal day in Auschwitz. Toby reassures Rachel that she has the tin of shoe paste containing gold coins safely in her pocket. She remembers back to the night the Nazis came and took all the Jewish adults from their town. Their mother, hoping to help her daughters survive, gave Toby the tin containing three gold coins and made her promise that they would do whatever was necessary to stay together.

Each day they build a wall of heavy stones, only to tear it down the next day. The work is exhausting and pointless, designed to torture, weaken and kill the inmates. Anyone who cannot get out of bed to work disappears. So one day when Rachel becomes ill, Toby and the other girls in Barrack 25 do everything they can to help Rachel try to recover overnight. But Rachel is too ill to line up for work as usual. When Toby returns at the end of the day, she finds her beloved sister has been taken away. Toby cannot accept this, knowing that to abandon Rachel will mean losing her forever. She learns where her sister has been taken and realizes that now might be the time to use the gold coins safely hidden in the tin.

Discussion

Illustration by Isabelle Cardinal
The Promise was written by Pnina Bat Zvi who is Rachel's daughter, and Margie Wolfe who is the daughter of Toby. The women often heard the story of their mothers' Holocaust experiences and the special promise they made, when they were growing up. The two authors, close cousins, decided to honour the memory of their mothers and the events they endured by telling their story.

To portray the events in the story, renowned illustrator Isabell Cardinal created digital collages by combining her own artwork with cutouts from Victorian era photographs. This technique lends a unique look to The Promise, with the cutouts of faces capturing the various emotions of anger, fear, sorrow, tenderness and concern. Cardinal is able to capture the pathos of the sisters' situation in a way that is real to young readers.

The Promise is a touching account of a promise kept, of loyalty, courage and perseverance during a very dark time in history. A short Epilogue at the back of the book briefly tells their story and has photographs of Toby and Rachel as well as the authors.

Book Details:

The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe
Toronto: Second Story Press       2018

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo

Picking up on the interest generated from the recent Wonder Woman movie that starred Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, is this novel adaptation which focuses on a younger Diana and her involvement in the world of men.

Seventeen-year-old Diana is the daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons who lives on the hidden island of Themyscira, located in a "corner of the Aegean Sea, where compasses spun and instruments suddenly refused to obey." Themyscira was created by the goddesses Hera, Athena, Demeter, Hestia, Aphrodite and Artemis and gifted to Hippolyta as a place of refuge for female warriors who had fallen in battle.

Diana enters a footrace that is part of the Nemeseian Games. The goal of the race is to be the first to run across Themyscira to retrieve a red flag hung beneath the great dome in Bana-Mighdall. Diana, with the help of her best friend Maeve, has been training in-secret for this race and believes she can win it despite her being the smallest and youngest of the Amazons.

At the starting line, Diana's mother warns her "You do not enter a race to lose." Tekmessa (Tek), Hippolyta's closest advisor, drops the red silk flag to begin the race and Diana follows her plan of running through "the Cybelian Woods to the island's northern coast." Along the coast Diana spots a ship close to the island's protective boundary that hides Themyscira from the mortal world of men.  Diana tries to ignore the ship but when she hears a boom she glances to the horizon and sees the schooner on fire and sinking. Minutes later she hears a cry.

At first Diana tells herself to keep going, but her curiosity draws her to the rocky point. Impulsively she dives off the cliff and into the water, swimming past the boundary to the wreckage. Diana knows to save any human means possible exile from Themyscira. No human is allowed on Themyscira and breaking that rule even to save a human life means exile. Despite this, she pulls a young girl from the wreckage and carries her back to the island and to a cave on the cliff.  Diana gives the girl, whose name is Alia, food and tells her to wait for her return. Diana knows she must get Alia back to the mortal world as soon as possible.

Diana returns to the city , the race now over and the winner awarded the laurel. She endures some ridiculing for losing the race but her mother is supportive of her efforts. Diana attends the feast held after the race. Afterwards she meets Maeve who questions her about what happened to cause her to lose. Diana lies and tells her friend that she encountered a landslide. Suddenly Maeve collapses in pain and is burning with fever. Two other Amazons suddenly take ill and there is a major earthquake on Themyscira. Diana begins to suspect that this has come about because of Alia's presence on the island. She attempts to tell her mother what she has done but Hippolyta is to distracted by the sudden events to listen to her daughter.

Diana realizes that she must visit the Oracle to determine what to do next and she must do this before Hippolyta also consults the Oracle. She races to the Oracle's temple and there makes her offering of the arrow that killed her mother.  The Oracle accepts her gift, giving Diana three questions. She learns that to save Themyscira, she must let Alia die as her presence is poisoning the island and the island is poisoning her. Because Diana is made from mud of the island, she will not sicken. The Oracle also reveals that Alia is haptandra, or a Warbringer. She tells Diana, "Where she goes, there will be strife. With each breath, she draws us closer to Armageddon." and that Alia is descended from a line of Warbringers that includes Helen of Troy. The Oracle prophesies that "With the coming of the new moon, Alia's powers will reach their apex, and war will come." The Oracle therefore advises Diana to do nothing to help Alia, and she will die if she remains on the island.

For her final question, Diana asks the Oracle how she can save everyone, Alia, her island and her people and the world. The Oracle tells her "The Warbringer must reach the spring at Therapne before the sun sets on the first day of Hekatombaion. Where Helen rests, the Warbringer may be purified, purged of the taint of death that has stained her line from its beginning. There may her power be leashed and never passed to another." 

Diana flees the island, taking Alia with her, their destination, Therapne. It is a quest to save not only Alia but the world of mortal men from a war that will draw in her own people as well. Little does Diana realize that she will have to overcome both mortal men and the gods of war and death.

Discussion

Wonder Woman: Warbringer is an exciting novel that will appeal to fans of the Avenger Movies. The opening storyline is very similar to the Wonder Woman movie. In the movie,  a U.S. pilot Steve Trevor crashes on the island and is rescued by the Amazons including Diana. She leaves the island on a quest with Trevor to stop the god Ares who is believed to be instigating World War II. In Warbringer,  a younger Diana rescues a young girl, Alia Keralis from drowning and then upon learning Alia is a Warbringer - a mortal who foments war and conflict,  goes on a quest to purify her in order to save the world of mortal men from certain war. This quest will result in Diana proving herself and becoming a true Amazon warrior, although at the end of her quest neither her mother nor other Amazons will be aware of this accomplishment.

Bardugo uses her characters to explain some of the stories which are part of Greek mythology.   For example, through the character of Diana, readers learn about Helen of Troy. One version of Helen's parentage is that Zeus and Leda were the parents of Helen but another version states that Nemesis, the goddess of retribution may also have been her mother. In the latter version, Nemesis changes herself into a goose to avoid Zeus, but he becomes a swan and mates with her, resulting in her laying an egg which results in Helen.  As the daughter of Nemesis, Helen was "born with war in her blood, first of the haptandrai..." a Warbringer, the beginning of a line of Warbringers.

Warbringer also weaves several gods and goddesses into the plot. Diana and Alia, along with Alia's brother Jason and her friends Poornima (Nim) Chaudhary and Theo Santos find themselves pursued not only by humans bent on destroying Alia (the Warbringer) but also by a several gods and goddesses. These immortals appear to take the place of Nim and Theos, threatening Diana and attempting to thwart her mission. Nim at times looks like Eris, the goddess of strife, who Diana describes as "...a battlefield god. She incites discord and thrives on the misery it creates."  She has black wings and talons, black eyes and gold smeared on her lips from the apple of discord.  At other times Diana sees  Phobos, the god of panic, instead of Theo. Phobos with his pale face, yellow pointed teeth tipped in blood and wearing a black helm, terrifies Diana but she overcomes her terror to protect her new friends. The group is also chased by Deimos, the god of terror in his chariot as he tries to run them off the mountain road in Greece.

Many readers will easily pick up on the hidden villain in the story. Initially Bardugo leads her readers to believe that the villains are those trying to kill Alia - the enemies of the corporation that Alia and Jason's parents founded. Diana, inexperienced in life and unfamiliar with the duplicity of the mortal world, does not suspect Jason. But subtle hints abound that something is not quite right about Alia's brother.

As the climax of the story approaches, Jason reveals that he has no intention of seeing his sister, Alia reach the spring at Therapne to be purified. Instead he intends to use her power as a Warbringer to wage war. Jason eventually reveals his true nature at the river when he tells Diana that "We can't stop war, ... but we can change the way wars are waged." Jason wants to unleash monsters on the world that will unite mankind in the fight against them. But Diana tells Jason that he doesn't understand what he is doing, that he will unleash "a nightmare of loss."  In an attempt to win Diana over to his world vision, Jason offers her the chance to be the warrior she has always desired, achieving glory. But she is not tempted. Alia's desire to die rather than see Jason's vision of the mortal world come to fruition, defines the courage and true strength Diana has been taught as an Amazon warrior. It is her determination to defend this noble belief  that results in her death. Almost.

Bardugo has fashioned a novel jam-packed with one exciting battle after the next, pitting Diana against both mortals and gods and culminating in a thrilling climax. The conclusion to Warbringer leaves open the possibility of a sequel. Fans of Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman will truly enjoy this well written novel that portrays Diana as a noble, selfless Amazon warrior who wishes to bring peace to the mortal world.


Book Details:

Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
New York: Random House Children's Books    2017
364 pp.