The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Picture the Victorian Era but with magic and even more social taboos…

4/5 stars.
ebook, 384 pages.
Read from February 24, 2021 to March 1, 2021

I don’t even know how many reviews I’m behind on now. A lot. Working full-time while doing schooling full-time isn’t conducive to spare writing time.

This book was the fourth book I read out of the five Canada Reads 2021 contenders. While I was able to read all the books before the debates I wasn’t able to get them all reviewed in time. You can read how I ranked this year’s contenders here and check out how the debates went and its winner here.

When I saw that this book was selected as one of the finalists for the debates this year I will admit, I was less than thrilled, and wasn’t looking forward to reading it. At first glance, this book looked like a tacky YA novel that had no place within a literary debate (I will admit a bit of book snobbery here). I will happily admit that I was wrong about this book and will do my best to stop judging a book by its description. This book was an enjoyable and easy read that I think would speak to a lot of young women. The best way I can describe this book is to picture the Victorian Era but with magic and even more social taboos or to think of Jane Austen but on LSD.

Beatrice is coming to an age of marriage as she enters her first bargaining season but Beatrice has no plans for marriage, in fact, she is actively looking for the one way she can find her independence and that’s through magic. Women are not allowed to become magus’, in fact, married women who can bear children are forced to wear a collar that restricts any magic so that their children are not inhabited spirits before their born and any child born this way is executed. So it’s understandable that Beatrice is obsessed with finding a specific grimoire book that will help become a magus to escape the repressive fate of so many women in her society. Unfortunately, she is so involved in escaping marriage that she hasn’t noticed that her family is in serious financial disrepair and that if she isn’t successfully married her family will lose everything. In her search for the grimoire, she encounters the Lavan siblings, the handsome Ianthe and the beautiful Ysbeta. Ysbeta manages to con the grimoire from Beatrice right when it was within her grasp so she invokes a minor spirit of luck, named Nadi, to help her retrieve it. Spirits like Nadi are anxious to embody physical forms and experience the living world. Beatrice slowly builds a friendship with Nadi as well as the Lavan siblings. Beatrice soon learns that Ysbeta, like her, is even more desperate to escape the fate of marriage.

As Beatrice attempts to avoid the entrapment of marriage things become more complicated for her as she begins to develop feelings for Ianthe, who also happens to be the most wanted bachelor of the bargaining season. It also becomes complicated with Ysbeta with the struggle to keep their ongoings secretive and as Ysbeta becomes more frantic and inpatient to avoid her marriage fate, despite her not being ready to perform the magic required. As time runs out, the friends find themselves in more than a few predicaments that will tear the fragments of their society apart and leave Beatrice with an immensely difficult decision to make.

I expected to hate every aspect of this book but I found myself happily transported in a fun world that made for a nice getaway from daily life. I especially loved the aspects and relationship that Beatrice had with Nadi, I don’t think the book would have been the same without this relationship. Further, the book offers a feminist-leaning that’s accessible to everyone. The ending is especially satisfying in this sense.

This book was exactly what I needed to read during a stressful time. A comfortable read that transported me to a different world, unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to keep it in the Canada Reads debate standings. I actually predicted that this book would win Canada Reads just because it met the theme so well, One Book to Transport Us, and especially with the way the last few debates have gone, but this year was exceptional and it was nice to see a return to a respectful debate.

I would recommend this book to YA lovers, girls, or for those who would be interested in a Jane Austen setting with a fun twist, or just want something easy and enjoyable to read.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

“Nothing you can take from me was ever worth keeping.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 528 pages.
Read from June 23, 2020 to June 28, 2020.

I was surprised at how little hype this book generated considering the popularity of The Hunger Games series. I saw it pop up on Goodreads and thought to myself, how did I only hear about this book now?! The book is a prequel The Hunger Game series and is meant to answer many of the questions fans had about the Hunger Games themselves and the world created by the author. Questions like how The Hunger Games came to be, how the war shaped the districts and how Coriolanus Snow came to be the awful man that is depicted in the series.

The war has recently ended and The Hunger Games is the new punishment that the Capitol has come up with for the uprise of the districts. In its infancy, the contestants of The Hunger Games are not celebrities like they are in the games of Katniss’ era. They are starved and tortured and as a result, the districts care little to watch their friends and neighbours suffer on television. Coriolanus Snow is just 18 years old and his family is out of money after the war despite his family’s long and illustrious history within the Capitol. He is, however, an excellent student and has been selected to help mentor this year’s Hunger Games, something that has never been done before. Coriolanus is initially disappointed as he is given the district 12 girl, Lucy, of which he initially believes that she will have no chance of winning thus effecting his placement and potential scholarship into further schooling as well as the future of his family. However, there is something about this girl as she manages to capture the media’s attention with a snake mishap and when she sings and performs a song after her selection. Her ability to win the crowd is intriguing and Coriolanus is nothing if not adaptable and seizes the opportunity to use this to his advantage. He eventually comes to care deeply for his tribute and begins to question the essence of the games and their moral purpose.

I mostly enjoyed this novel. It was interesting to get the back story on The Hunger Games and the growth of Coriolanus Snow however, this book was way too long. It’s clear the author was able to get away with a longer novel due to the success of her previous novels. I believe this novel would have been more successful had the story been halved. Further, the characters were not as robust as they were in the other books. Lucy could have been an extremely interesting character but she just fell flat for me and I didn’t feel as invested in her as I did with, say, Katniss. I was unsure of her motives and how she was able to trust Coriolanus the way she did. I just did not feel as invested in Lucy’s story or in that of Coriolanus’ since he true character started to show fairly quickly and if you’ve read the remainder of the series, you already know what type of person he becomes which steals some of the intrigue this story could have had.

I think the fans of The Hunger Games series were hoping for something that was equally as good and exciting and I, unfortunately, don’t think this novel quite met that need. If you are a fan of the series, however, this book is still worth reading especially if you had questions or wanted to know more about the history around The Hunger Games.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

“It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength. ”

4/5 stars.
197ebook, 208 pages.
Read from January 24, 2020 to Janaury 29, 2020

I had never even heard of this book until a few years ago. It kept coming up in a few blogs in lists as one of those life-changing novels that you read in your youth. You know the ones, books like Harry Potter, The OutsidersThe GiverSpeak, Tuck Everlasting, and Where The Red Fern Grows. Perhaps this book was read more in the US than it was in Canada as it didn’t reach my repertoire as a kid. I wish, however, it had.

Bridge to Terabithia was originally published in 1977 and follows the story of Jess Aarons. Jess and his family don’t have much but he has been training all summer to be the fastest runner in fifth grade. What he doesn’t expect is that a new kid, a girl named Leslie, while absolutely whoop him and all the other fifth graders on day one. While Jess was initially annoyed at losing, especially after he trained to so hard, he comes to form a formidable bond with this fearless new girl who has come from the city. The two of them create a magical place called Terabithia at tree past a stream behind Jess’ house. It’s a magical place that the two of them rule over in which they can dream and imagine. The two, despite coming from very different homes become inseparable. However, a tragedy occurs that changes Jess and their story forever.

“Sometimes it seemed to him that his life was delicate as a dandelion. One little puff from any direction, and it was blown to bits.”

I’ve read reviews of people who have never forgotten how this book made them feel when they read it as a kid and their utter devastation at the loss of one of the characters, however, I still didn’t expect the outcome and was shook when I came to the tragic point in the story. I can see now how devastating a story like this would have been for a kid reading this for the first time as even I was taken back. The story manages to breach the topic of death, loss, and grief in a way that is tangible for a young mind. Unless tragedy touched you in your own youth, chances are you never gave a second thought to death even if you watched or read about it in other mediums. There is something special about this book with the way that death is approached and how the characters cope afterwards that really drives the point home. I could see this book being helpful for a youth dealing with tragedy themselves as it depicts well someone with minimal understanding or experience of death might cope or approach a tragedy. The story encourages deep compassion for people of different circumstances that may not seem to need it at first.

The writing is inviting and the characters enjoyable and relatable, another reason this book is so timeless. We’re looking at 40+ years on and this book is still being read and discussed and that is because death and grief are universal. Despite this, we’re poor at dealing with death as a society and it’s novels like this one provide a useful way for youth to broach and deal with the topic. I would highly recommend this novel if you’ve not read it before or are looking for a middle-grade appropriate read that discusses, love, friendship, death, and grieving.