Saturday, March 30, 2013

Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

Sarah Jio’s third novel, Blackberry Winter, provides the same delightful mix of mystery, romance, and history, as her first two, along with unique twists and its own emotional storyline.

Like The Violets of March and The Bungalow, Blackberry Winter fluctuates between two time periods where an unsolved mystery from the earlier time period comes to light decades later and a female protagonist works to find the truth, including an unexpected connection to her own life. 

Blackberry Winter is set in Seattle, both in 1933 and 2010, and unlike her earlier books, Jio’s main focus is not on romance but instead on motherhood– though the romance is definitely still important.

In 1933, during a May 1st storm, the three-year-old son of single mother Vera vanishes; the only trace he leaves behind is his teddy bear– face down in the snow. In 2010, another unexpected May 1st snowstorm happens and Claire, a reporter covering it, discovers the story of the unsolved abduction and works to learn what really happened.

Just as The Bungalow found some unexpected characters from Jio’s debut appear, a few more show up for an important appearance in Blackberry Winter. Although each novel is absolutely a standalone, it’s nice to get to revisit favourite characters again, even if they aren’t always doing quite as well as you hoped.

The novel itself is probably Jio’s strongest so far, as her storytelling has an emotion to it that is heartbreaking regardless of if it is Vera or Claire narrating. There are some striking images, such as the teddy bear, and the theme of motherhood is especially powerful.

Jio’s transition from one time period to another is incredibly smooth and I never got confused about which story I was reading. Her writing is easy to read, but has some lovely details immerse the reader in the setting and time period. The snowy scenery makes it a perfect read winter read.

Like Jio’s first two books, Blackberry Winter certainly has some convenient coincidences in it, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it, and even when I could mostly tell how things were going to turn it, there was a surprise or two in store.

After three novels there are certain things that can be expected of Jio, in particular a page-turning mystery that is also engaging on an emotional level, such as Blackberry Winter provides. I will certainly be picking up her fourth book, The Last Camellia, which is released on May 28th.

Release Date: November 27th 2012  Pages: 290  Format: Paperback
Source: Publisher  Publisher: Penguin Buy It: Book Depository

Friday, March 29, 2013

Orchards by Holly Thompson

Orchards is a powerful novel in verse by Holly Thompson, about the repercussions of bullying and the meaning of home. In this novel, Kana Golberg is sent away to live with her mother's family in Japan after a classmate commits suicide. During her summer in Japan, Kana works on the orange farm and is forced to reflect on the role she may have played, and what she could have done to stop the bullying. It's a simple story, but its strength is really in the setting. Thompson brings the Japanese farm to life, and deftly takes on the cultural issues felt by Kana who is half Japanese and half Jewish-American. There definitely aren't enough novels with biracial protagonists, and I thought this one did an excellent job with mentioning some of the unique issues without making it Kana's defining feature.

I thought it was really interesting how even though the novel was in verse, it was still divided up into chapters. The verse writing is excellent, and the page and line breaks are thoughtful and well-placed. It really added to some of the fragmentation of Kana's thoughts at times, and made it quick, easy, and lovely to read. The story is complimented by some illustrations, though I found them unnecessary. Thompson's words illustrated everything I needed to see.

Ultimately, I don't know why I waited so long to pick up Orchards, but as soon as I did I couldn't put it down. I devoured half the book that night before bed, and read the rest before work the next day– I just couldn't leave until I finished it. The writing was smooth and lyrical, and it was easy to form an emotional connection with Kana, even though– or maybe because– she wasn't perfect. I will definitely be recommending Orchards and I'm very excited to pick up Thompson's followup, The Language Inside when it is released in May.

Release Date: February 22nd 2011  Pages: 336  Format: Paperback
Source: Publisher  Publisher: Random House  Buy It: Book Depository

Thursday, March 28, 2013

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Friday, March 08, 2013

Tigers Be Still by Kim Rosenstock

A lesser-known fact about me: I'm a Theatre minor! I am really passionate about the theatrical world, where I've been involved since I was 13. Acting, stage managing, costuming, make-up, construction, run crew--been there, done it all! So I was really excited to get the opportunity to discuss a play I read and enjoyed here on In the Next Room. Hopefully, this will be the first play of many I'll review for the site!

Tigers Be Still by Kim Rosenstock is still a fairly new play, first staged by Roundabout Theatre Company to many positive reviews. Since then, Rosenstock has gone on to cement her position as a writer, most notably for the hit show "The New Girl" starring Zooey Deschanel. And believe me, if you enjoy "The New Girl," you'll love this play.

Rosenstock's dark humor and sensitivity to nuances in character is showcased as she tells the story of Sherry, a recent graduate with a failing job search. After being so disheartened that she moves home and retreats to her childhood bed, Sherry gets her first position as an art therapist, a job that galvanizes her into renewed hope and optimism. Throughout the play, she tries to bring this attitude to her resistant first patient, her depressed and overweight mother, and her grieving sister, who was abandoned by her fiance and struggling to come to terms with the break-up. As if that wasn't enough for one person to deal with, a tiger has escaped from the local zoo!

What really stood out to me in this comedy were the relationships between characters. They were humorous and stretched the bounds of reality, but in a good way--I would love to see this staged! Not only that, but there are real moments of unexpected poignancy that stuck with me after the play ended. Tigers Be Still may not be a theatrical masterpiece, but it was an enjoyable read with strong high points. I'd suggest checking it out, especially if it is playing on a stage near you.

I leave you with this, my favorite quote from the entirety of the script:

Recommended to: people who follow "The New Girl," anyone who enjoys a darker brand of comedy, recent grads desperate for jobs, people who want to ease into the practice of reading plays

Book Type: NYP Price: $20.00 ISBN/Code: 978-0-8222-2540-9

Friday, March 01, 2013

Dancing in the Dark by Robyn Bavati

Dancing in the Dark is the debut novel of Robyn Bavati, which originally published in Australia but is just making it to North America in 2013. It's the story of Ditty Cohen, a 12-year-old girl who secretly falls in love with ballet, despite being forbidden to even sign up for it by her Haredi (extremely Orthodox Jewish) parents. The beginning of the story takes place five and a half years later, when Ditty's religious and dance worlds collide, before going back to the start again and following the years that lead that point. 

From the moment I saw its haunting cover and read the summary, I was incredibly excited to pick up Dancing in the Dark, because the concept sounded amazing and I have also been wanting to read more books with Jewish characters. However, as soon as I started the book I realized it might not be a great match, as it began with an unnecessary and overly dramatic prologue, ending with "memories flash before my eyes..." – the ellipse is a direct quote from the ARC.

As it continued the story definitely caught my interest. However, because Ditty started at age 12, she read quite young, even when she got older, which meant the end result was more middle grade than young adult to me. Still, she was complex and interesting, especially when it came to her faith. Unfortunately, sometimes other characters' reactions felt simplistic and lacked the nuance I wanted. In one example, despite there being other Jewish kids at Ditty's ballet school, when somebody asks Ditty what she's getting for Christmas and she says nothing because she's Jewish, they laugh and say everyone gets Christmas presents. Ditty might not have Internet or access to TV, but these other kids certainly do, so it felt like a kinda silly reaction, even though the kids are only 12.

Another reason Dancing in the Dark came across quite young was because some conversations seem like they are there just to tell a message or explain why people have certain beliefs rather than being completely organic. Some examples include an argument between Ditty's father and uncle, or when her father discusses with her sister's husband his favourite Talmud passage for the week, and it just happens to be on conflicting values– I realize if it wasn't something relevant it wouldn't be a part of the novel, but I just didn't want it to be quite so obvious.

That said, there were some really interesting discussions about faith, such as between Ditty's cousin Linda and herself.  Maybe I enjoyed those portions more because Ditty was an active participant, rather than a bystander. Like Intentions by Deborah Heiligman which I read last year, Dancing in the Dark, it was clearly written for readers who know nothing about Judaism. As a Jewish individual, that was probably a huge factor in what made it a bit dull or frustrating to read at times.

Additionally, the conflicts tended to resolve really easily. Like when Ditty needs someone else to walk home her younger siblings, suddenly her eight and a half year old sister is old enough to do it– even though Ditty had been the one walking her home, and even though eight seems awfully young for that to me. There are other examples but they are spoilers so I won't mention them.

Finally, time passes really quickly, the novel starts at age twelve and by 160 pages in it's two and a half years later. There are just brief moments to show time passing, and at times I felt like I was missing bits. I also felt like it was hard to really see Ditty getting older, because there wasn't much in between to show her becoming more mature. The quick pace makes it really easy to read, because there's always lots of action, but it means that there isn't a lot of time to connect with characters.

So that was a lot of thoughts. I really focused on the aspects that disappointed me, because I wanted so badly to love Dancing in the Dark and it just didn't quite succeed for me. That said, I do think it would be great for younger readers, like maybe old MG or young YA level, and perhaps it was the cover the swayed me into thinking it would be more mature than it was. I definitely think there needs to be more young adult featuring Jewish characters, and I hadn't read a YA featuring Haredi characters before. I did enjoy Ditty, she was believable and I found her journey exciting and interesting to follow. Overall, Dancing in the Dark is definitely worth picking up if you're looking for some insight into very Orthodox Judaism, and it's a quick-paced, exciting read with an authentic main character, even though it wasn't quite right for me.

Release Date: February 3rd 2013  Pages: 321  Format: E-galley
Source: NetGalley  Publisher: Flux  Buy It: Book Depository