Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Review: Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

For my return to book blogging after a long hiatus, I'm taking a step back from YA to write about a biographical non-fiction novel that I have literally been unable to stop reading between work and sleeping. Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove is addictive, emotional, unforgettable, and soulful novel about his experiences as a former SeaWorld trainer. 

If you, like me, were forever changed by Blackfish, put this book at the very top of your to-read list.

Summary: Over the course of two decades, John Hargrove worked with 20 different whales on two continents and at two of SeaWorld's U.S. facilities. For Hargrove, becoming an orca trainer fulfilled a childhood dream. However, as his experience with the whales deepened, Hargrove came to doubt that their needs could ever be met in captivity. When two fellow trainers were killed by orcas in marine parks, Hargrove decided that SeaWorld's wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers.
After leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove became one of the stars of the controversial documentary Blackfish. The outcry over the treatment of SeaWorld's orca has now expanded beyond the outlines sketched by the award-winning documentary, with Hargrove contributing his expertise to an advocacy movement that is convincing both federal and state governments to act.
In Beneath the Surface, Hargrove paints a compelling portrait of these highly intelligent and social creatures, including his favorite whales Takara and her mother Kasatka, two of the most dominant orcas in SeaWorld. And he includes vibrant descriptions of the lives of orcas in the wild, contrasting their freedom in the ocean with their lives in SeaWorld.
Hargrove's journey is one that humanity has just begun to take-toward the realization that the relationship between the human and animal worlds must be radically rethought.
Little needs to be said for the content of the book because there is no question that is poignant, moving, and engrossing. Hargrove is undeniably a knowledgable, experienced, and reliable narrator. His love for these animals is felt on every page, and from this, I feel as if I know and love them, too. 

It is a rather pricey book—and I held out for two months for the paperback release after discovering this book existed. I was worried, particularly because of the price, about buying a redundant book that would basically retell Blackfish. This is not that at all! Within 10 pages, I had decided that it was worth every penny—and more! 

Anyone who was moved by Blackfish or with a love of animals can appreciate Hargrove's struggle to work with and eventually stop working with whales in captivity. Because despite working for the corporation that has imprisoned these magnificent creatures, he and all the trainers work hard and stay there, enduring repeated injuries, poor working conditions, death-defying risk, and terrible pay all because they love the whales and want to make sure that they are cared for; to make the best of an awful situation. His many examples of agonizing injuries, fearful moments, and near-death experiences is a testament of how much a person will go through for someone they love, even when that someone is an apex predator.
Blackfish is a very thorough examination of whales in captivity, but the film is focused largely on the tragedy of Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum. Hargrove does not just repeat the things of the documentary, branching out so much more to include his path to becoming a trainer, detailing typical days with the whales, explanations of waterwork, breeding, behavioural psychology, and accidents and near-accidents. You learn more about other whales he's worked with and loved (particularly Kasatka and Takara), and his experiences at multiple parks, as well as touching on Dawn and Tilikum, and the resulting legal battle between OHSA and SeaWorld, and SeaWorld and the changing social climate of animal rights. 
Beneath the Surface is beautifully written and Hargrove allows his readers to delve a little deeper into Shamu Stadium, both in the pool and backstage. As a fellow animal lover and someone who grew up with awed visits to Marineland in Niagara Falls to watch the orca shows—something that our children will never know it is impossible not to be pulled into the narrative, exposing the terrible truths about orcas in captivity to the world. 
Eye-opening and heart-breaking. I cannot remember ever reading a book that I loved and felt this much—and I work in publishing! 
5 Stars 

Monday, 28 March 2016

Review: Bittersweet by Winnie Mack

Bittersweet is one of the newest middle grade novels from Scholastic Canada. Written by Canadian author, Winnie Mack, it is a beautifully written story about a girl who is changed forever by her diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes. Personally, I think it's hard to find a really good "issues" book for the middle grade level. It's all magical adventures, awkward humour, or friendship stories. Mack's novel addresses a real issue for kids to experience and deal with, and to come out at the end with perspective, a little education, but the good feelings of a beautiful novel.

Summary: Sam is a normal 12-year-old. She loves ice cream, sleepovers, Christmas, and her soccer team (future team captain). What doesn’t she love? Her super-annoying teenage brother, how her little sisters mess up the house and talk incessantly, and especially, how completely weird she is feeling. 

Lately, Sam has been crazy hungry and thirsty. She’s tired all the time, and, most humiliating of all, she’s started wetting the bed like a baby. 

One day, after a collapse at a soccer game, she wakes up in the hospital to find out she’s got Type 1 diabetes. Suddenly everything is different: not just her diet and the injections, but her relationships with her family and her friends. Will she learn to handle it? 

This poignant story of a young girl coming to terms with a serious diagnosis, is a hopeful tale about overcoming life’s hurdles.

Sam struggles to come to terms not only with having this disease, but also having to face the uncertainty and fear of her friends, classmates, and even her siblings. We see her learn to accept that while she will never be normal, her diabetes does not make her weak or unlucky. It is a positive story of overcoming life's unexpected challenges and learning to live the hand you were dealt.

Parents and educators, you'll be pleased to know this is a clean read for ages 8-12. There are no frightening scenes or upsetting moments involving medical emergencies. Mack has done her research, keeping Sam's symptoms down to a science, rather than weaving dramatics for interest's sake. If you have a reader at home that likes a feel-good, realistic, "issues" story, I highly recommend it!

Overall, I really enjoyed Bittersweet. Regardless if you or someone you know has diabetes, cancer, or any other form of illness or disease, this is a novel that sticks with you. Sam is a kid who is just like you, with dreams and fears, and likes and dislikes. Illness can strike anyone, at any time. Life is unpredictable and it can be unfair, but illness does not mean we are incapable of achieving our dreams.

4 Stars

Bittersweet will be published on April 1, 2016.