Review: Mistress Pat

Lucy Maud Montgomery
Tundra Books, 2018

Mistress Pat is Lucy Maud Montgomery’s second novel featuring Patricia Gardiner, the heroine of Pat of Silver Bush. In Mistress Pat, Pat is now eighteen and being pursued by young men who hope to marry her. But Pat is single-mindedly committed to her home and family. Over the eleven years of the novel, the world around Pat changes, and family members arrive and depart. In the end, Pat must resolve the central struggle of her life: her determination to remain at Silver Bush.

Mistress Pat would be a fine selection for readers who have worked their way through Montgomery’s Anne novels and through the Little House series. It is a gentle, slow-moving book, quite unlike much of what is currently available for middle-grade and YA readers. Although the book follows Pat through her late teens and twenties, many plot points will feel relatable for readers in their early teens (as well as for adult readers). Do be aware, however, that the novel contains passages that reflect attitudes of the early twentieth century; some readers may need to discuss the sexism and racism expressed in these passages.

For strong readers, this novel is noteworthy for Montgomery’s beautiful rendering of the landscape of Silver Bush and for her dropping of literary allusions. There is much to cherish in Montgomery’s effusive language and abundant descriptions, although her style will read as elevated and old-fashioned for some tastes. But for anyone who feels the strong tug of hearth and home — and grief for lost friends — Pat’s experiences will certainly resonate. Mistress Pat is an enjoyable, immersive book that readers will be able to revisit rewardingly, and I’m happy to see it available in this attractive new edition.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on May 27, 2018.

 

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Review: Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein

Linda Bailey
Tundra Books, 2018

 “Here is Mary. She’s a dreamer.” So begins this glorious elementary-level biography of Mary Shelley. Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein is a delightful book that tells the story of Mary Shelley in a way that’s relatable for young people, emphasizing Mary’s youth, her difficult relationship with her family, and how receptive she is to the world around her. Linda Bailey’s prose is lilting, spacious: it makes room for readers and invites us to join the story. “How could a girl like [Mary] come up with such a story?” she asks rhetorically. “But you may know.”

Júlia Sardà‘s illustration style perfectly suits the story of the dreamy, sometimes troubled Mary Shelley and her creative spirit. The pictures are dark and broody, full of spooky shapes and gothic imagery. The backgrounds are muted greys, browns, and black, while bright but intense images appear in the foreground. The whole package is very appealing and apt.

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein makes a fine complement to Bloom (Kyo Maclear’s 2018 book about Modernist fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli), which also profiles a creative and “difficult” young woman. Both books reassure kids — especially girls — that it’s OK to see the world in ways that others don’t. As we move through a turbulent period in our culture, books like these offer a poised and forthright strategy for helping readers to develop confidence, resilience, and determination and to meet the future with strength and security.

Timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Shelley’s novel, Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein is an outstanding example of the thoughtful, beautiful nonfiction picture books being published today. It is sure to inspire would-be writers and other imaginative minds. I heartily recommend this book for any library, public or personal — adult readers will enjoy it, too!

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

 

Review: Miss Mink: Life Lessons for a Cat Countess

Janet Hill
Tundra Books, 2019

Miss Mink: Life Lessons for a Cat Countess is a charming book about cats and embracing your independence. Miss Mink, a Flapper-style New Woman, has been declared a cat countess. She and sixty-seven cat companions sail the world in a steamship enjoying days of play, rest, good dining, and camaraderie.

This is a sweet, fanciful picture book, executed in Modernist style with oil paint on canvas. The paintings are dreamy and rich. I’m not sure how much child readers will enjoy this book, apart from chasing and counting the various cats, but many adult readers will enjoy the illustration style (think the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries television series) and the cat-approved lessons for living your best life.

A great pick for picture-book collectors, and a nice addition to any home library complemented by cats.

 

This review was originally published on LibraryThing on February 17, 2019.

 

Review: Optimists Die First

by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books, 2017

Petula wants her life to be as safe, quiet, and unremarkable as possible. Since the tragic death of her little sister, Petula has cut unnecessary social ties, turned inside herself, and become an expert at identifying — and avoiding — risk. Then she meets a boy she dubs the Bionic Man; soon she’s questioning her ideas about safety and security. With friendships, relationships, and her own mental wellness hanging in the balance, Petula must decide whether to take a chance on a boy who gives her so much, but could hurt her very badly.

I loved Optimists Die First. I enjoyed it much more than Nielsen’s 2016 book We Are All Made of Molecules. Although the plot sounds like a romance (and there is a romantic relationship at the centre of the plot), the novel engages much bigger issues than simply girl meets boy. A twist revelation late in the book adds depth and dimension to the story; I appreciated that the author didn’t let her characters take the easy way out.

Optimists Die First is likely to become a favourite with YA readers. With all her anxieties, Petula is initially tough to like, but she’s worth getting to know.

Originally published on LibraryThing on July 24, 2017.

 

Review: Bloom

by Kyo Maclear; illustrated by Julie Morstad
Tundra Books, 2018

Bloom is an utterly gorgeous book about art and imagination. Young Elsa suffers in her strict conformist family; she dreams of flowers, colours, beauty. As a young woman, an opportunity takes her to Paris, where she finds her passion: making clothes for women. Today we recognize Elsa Schiaparelli as a leading Modernist fashion designer and an inspiration for artistic girls everywhere; Bloom takes readers on the journey of how Elsa got there.

I just loved this book. One of Canada’s strongest writers of picture books, Maclear tells this story with compassion and insight, reminding readers that “To be an artist is to dream big and risk failure.” The story is generously complemented by Morstad’s illustrations. The pictures are whimsical, detailed, and breathtaking — and of course they feature Schiaparelli’s famous Shocking Pink.

This book is a treat. It’s a physically beautiful object that tells a delightful and inspiring story, perfect for anyone who has big dreams or encourages others to follow their own dreams — those who “want to DREAM and DO bold things.”

Originally published on LibraryThing on April 29, 2018.

 

Review: Downside Up

by Richard Scrimger
Tundra Books, 2016

downsideRichard Scrimger’s new novel opens with an intriguing premise: there’s a parallel world, just like this one, except the things we have lost remain there. Fred has recently lost his dog, Casey. When he finds an entryway to the Downside world, he begins spending much of his time there, playing with Casey, talking with his other-world self, Freddie, and observing his family and classmates from a new angle.

Downside Up is a fantasy novel embedded in a realistic novel about emotional trauma. We are well into it before we learn that the story is about much more than Fred and Casey, as this passage suggests:

“There’s lots we can’t control,” I said. “Bad things happen. Accidents, luck, whatever—these things are not our decision. But we can decide what we do about the bad luck, about the accidents. We can’t stop the dragon coming after us. But we can decide to get away.”

Although grief and depression are the dominant emotional themes, the book is really about resilience. (And dragons, by the way, are real in the Downside world.) Sensitive readers — especially readers who have experienced trauma or loss in their own lives — will appreciate the gentle unspooling of this narrative and the message of courage it conveys.

This tender, thoughtful novel is deeply moving. Its scenes and images will stay with me for a long time, and it’s a book that will reward reflection and re-reading. It is sweet and sad, and funny, and touching without being treacly. It deserves to be cherished. I hope adults will put Downside Up in the hands of younger readers who need it and will love it.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2016.

 

 

Review: Shadow Girl

by Patricia Morrison
Tundra Books, 2013

 

shadowgirlShadow Girl is a haunting book about alcoholism, poverty, and their social consequences. The cover copy describes this novel as heartbreaking, and I agree. I found Shadow Girl very affecting and sad, but it’s a powerful realistic novel that offers strong observations on how immediately family problems and social problems affect children’s lives.

When the text opens in December 1963, Jules is an eleven-year-old girl carrying heavy burdens. She is hungry, her father hasn’t bought groceries for a while, and there is nothing but a small amount of spoiled food left in the fridge. Except for Patsy, her best friend, Jules has few friends at school and is sometimes the object of bullying. She spends much of her out-of-school time at the Six Points Plaza, hanging around the Zellers toy department and pining after a doll she hopes to get for Christmas. Jules is resourceful and responsible, however; she keeps herself quietly amused, stays out of her father’s way when he’s drunk, and takes care of the house and herself as best she can.

One night, however, her father’s rage gets out of control, and he abandons Jules, leaving her by herself for several days. Eventually, a caring adult intervenes and Jules is taken into custody of social services. All she wants is for her father to come back to her, for things to be the way they once were. Slowly, Jules learns that that’s simply not possible. The book follows Jules as she comes to terms with life in foster care and the choices her father has made.

This is in many ways a difficult, unflinching book. Jules’ father, Joe, is an unlikeable character, and the adults he associates with are also negative and unattractive. One social worker is kind but ineffectual; another is bureaucratic and cold. The members of the first foster family Jules joins range from indifferent to hostile, and it’s only when Jules’ situation reaches a crisis that another solution is considered. I deeply appreciated the integrity with which the author examined the entwined issues of alcoholism, poverty, neglect, and forms of bias and prejudice. I also admire the author’s courage in producing such a bleak and unsparing study of her characters’ lives.

There are a few weaknesses in the text. The balance of showing versus telling is sometimes off, so at times the novel feels somewhat stilted. The narrative style — though not the content — emulates that of books from the early 1960s, and the exposition can feel somewhat didactic, particularly when Jules reflects on poverty and on religion. The conclusion also arrives very quickly, with limited resolution; to me, it felt truncated and not entirely believable.

Still, this is fiction for children, so the ending is modestly happy. Jules is clearly still deeply troubled, but readers see that she now has the potential for real hope in a genuinely caring foster situation. It’s muted hope, but still hope, and readers are left with the idea that positive change is possible no matter one’s circumstances.

Shadow Girl is certainly not for every reader, but thoughtful readers who seek out realistic fiction will likely enjoy this book. It’s sensitively and authentically written and very emotionally moving.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, April 2013.