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Monday, 18 August 2014

YRCA 2015: "The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen" by Susin Nielsen (review)

The YRCA reads are coming along nicely!  I find summer is the perfect time for children's books because I'm able to work in more extended periods of reading and I can usually read one in only a few days!  Save the long slogs for the depths of winter, I say.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen


However, just because some children's works are brief, doesn't mean that they are all bright and sunny.  Case in point, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen.  This multiple award winner first caught my attention when it won the CLA Book of the Year for Children Award, and has been on my "to-read" list for quite some time.  Seeing it nominated for YRCA was enough to bump it to the top of the queue.
Henry Larsen is asked by his psychologist to write in a journal.  He does so reticently at first, and as Henry opens up the reader gets a first-person glimpse into the lives of those who are left behind after a tragedy.  As Henry struggles to come to terms with events, there are moments in the story which are absolutely heartbreaking, others which are hilariously funny, and on the whole the entire tale is truly thought-provoking.

In it's coverage of issues surrounding bullying, I feel that this book does an excellent job of not only presenting the victim and perpetrator, but even more so the feelings of witnesses and family members of those affected.

Reluctant Journal is so much more than just another book about bullying though.  The realistic nature of the situations of the characters and their reactions make this book absolutely haunting.  This really is a necessary read for all Junior High aged kids, and is well-written and exciting enough to hold the reader's attention despite the heavy topic.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is thusfar my favorite read of this years batch of YRCA books.  I highly recommend it not only to it's main audience of early teens, but to absolutely everyone.  Its a fascinating book that will have you thinking about it for days after you finish reading.

Next up, watch for a review of Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead and Ungifted by Gordon Korman.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

YRCA 2015: "Son" by Lois Lowry (review)

So I've taken it upon myself to get cracking and read all of the deliciously wonderful Young Readers Choice Award nominees for 2015.  Admittedly, I've already read Marissa Meyer's Cinder (and reviewed it here) and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (which I can barely speak about, let alone write about!) which are both nominated in the senior division for this year's award.  The rest are new reads to me, and I'm going to try to read them all if possible.

Today I'm reviewing my first new reads for this award: Son by Lois Lowry is a contender for the Intermediate division.

Son - Lois Lowry

Somehow, certain siblings of mine made it through school without having read The Giver.  This caused me surprise and chagrin, as it was required reading for me, and I can’t imagine a childhood without this haunting and subversive tale with the cliffhanger ending.
Son is the fourth and final installment in The Giver quartet.  It is not really a series per se, as the events of Gathering Blue and Messenger can be fully enjoyed without having read The Giver at all.  However, all three are required reading in order to fully appreciate and enjoy Son.
Son spans the history of events of all three of the other books.  There are leaps forward in time, but they are reasonable and easy to follow.  Water Claire is lost herself as she tries to seek out her lost child, and is asked to sacrifice greatly in order to be reunited with him.  And really I can’t say more than that without spoiling the whole thing.  But for lovers of The Giver or any of the other books in this series, Son offers many new twists and many answers to questions readers have had for two decades since The Giver was originally released.

I highly recommend this book for any fans of Lowry’s work, and for anyone who enjoys a dystopian tale without all the robots and police and heavy-handed governments that make this genre usually seem so dark.  The government is there and lives are being controlled, but in so much subtler fashion than is currently typical in the genre.  


Next up will be reviews for The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen and Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead.  Stay tuned!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" (book review)

Oh summer.  How I love thee.  Too bad it's already half over.  And yes I know it's August 1st, but to accurately quantify summer on the Canadian prairies, one needs to approach things with a dose of brutal honesty now and then.  Because really, we all know that summer is only July and August.  It can and has snowed in June, and spring this year was so fucking cold and raining and shitty that this was even more the case this year.  And it can and has and probably will snow in September, so that is definitely part of autumn.  You can't argue with cold morning temps and pretend anymore at that point.

So while I'm already pining for yesterday, while trying to enjoy the remaining 30 days before we plunge back into the ABYSS that is not-summer, AKA pseudo-almost-winter, the thing that monopolizes our year with 10 months of temperature related agony, I am in full blown summer reading mode.  Which means that I can't read less than 2-3 books at a time.  Books are delicious, and books on the back patio with margaritas are even better.

One of my recent reads was the July assignment for book club, a collection of short stories by Angela Carter called The Bloody Chamber.

It could easily be said, in advance of reading this collection of works, that I am a HUGE fan of Angela Carter's work (I reviewed her creepy tale The Magic Toyshop last year).  I like to describe Carter's writing as prose that sounds like poetry.  She had an exceptional vocabulary and understanding of the English language, and the sentences simply flow beautifully.  Mechanics aside, The Bloody Chamber features a large number of familiar tales (such as Puss-in-Boots and Beauty and the Beast) re-written with a variety of results, which are quite often not-so-happy endings for the protagonist.  As always, Carter is a feminist writer and this comes through very clearly in her work.  Women who are forced into marriage as an escape from crushing poverty are a common theme in this book, and as a result Carter ends up making quite extensive commentary on sexual violence found within legally recognized relationships and the dependence and voicelessness of women who are victimized by their husbands (who in this case are more frequently their "owners" than anything else).

Although some stories resonated with me more than others, this is obviously to be expected in a short story collection.  As a whole, The Bloody Chamber is an excellent work and quite representative of Carter's style and subject matter.  Once again I would recommend anyone who hasn't read a work Carter to seriously GO READ ONE.  Nights at the Circus is the most accessible and is a bit more gentle than some of her other works in terms of subject matter.  If you enjoy well-crafted and beautifully written stories which inspire empathy and insight, trust me, you will love her works.   


Thursday, 3 July 2014

What I think about when I'm running


“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they'll go to any length to live longer. But don't think that's the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.”


Haruki Murakami wrote a particularly excellent memoir, called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I recommend to anyone and everyone who either enjoys his books or enjoys a good run.

I was thinking about this book today, and thinking about how visualizations help when it comes to setting fitness goals, and also during the actual fitness process itself.  That's not to say you have to picture the grand final result of it all, which can sometimes seem so far away as to be disheartening.  But something that helps you to keep going when you are mid-run and just want to quit.

So today I thought I'd share my own visualization, the thing I think about when I am running.  I have a tough time finding my groove sometimes, but once I settle into it and my arms and legs hit the right rhythm, my abs are pulled in nice and tight, shoulders back... only then can I settle into my visual, which propels me through the rest of my run.

I am a robot.  My arms and legs all move like clockwork.  My pace is consistent, my movements are fluid.  Robots do not tire, robots can run forever.

It is surprisingly effective.

What is your visualization?  What do you picture or think about to get you through a run?

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Lunar Chronicles (so far) - series book review

I am here today to talk to you about what I have affectionately termed "my cyborg Cinderella books".

Oh I love each and every one of you soooo much!

Some YA series are just absolute, pure enjoyment.  And Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles are just deliciously readable books.  They use familiar Fairy Tale characters (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel) as the foundation for a dystopian future where the people of the Earth and the people of the Moon (Luna) march towards war while a devastating plague runs rampant through Earth's kingdoms.

As is often the case with YA reads, this premise might seem to be a bit silly.  But Meyer uses just enough of the traditional story without leaning too heavily on it.  And although the central plot (which I cannot spoil for you) is a very well-known traditional trope, the nuances in the characters and storytelling are fresh and make an old idea seem very exciting.  I've never liked Cinderella more than when she was a cyborg.  :)

Having just read these three books over the course of a few months, I am now suffering from what I'm sure will feel like an interminable wait for the fourth and final book of the series, Winter, which won't be released until early 2015.

Which means any and all YA fans who haven't read this have time to get on it!  If you're at all a dystopian or YA fan or just like a rollicking good adventure, you will love these ones.

Over and out for now. :)

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (book review)

This month book club is reading graphic novels.  I've been waiting a while for this genre to come up, not only because I obviously love graphic novels, but because I don't know that we can really link them all together and call them a "genre".  There's so much diversity in subject matter, art, etc, that I think it will be a challenging discussion when we eventually sit down and try to figure out what ties our works together and what generalizations we can make about what is more an art form than a genre.

Anyway, this month I read the 2-volume Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, who is also the super talented author of American Born Chinese, which I highly recommend if you haven't already read it.

I'm a big fan of the covers

Despite having taught high school history for a time, I have only a passing knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion, mostly to do in connection with imperialism in general.  My knowledge of the internal tensions and politics within China at the time is almost nil, so I was really glad to read this work not only from an entertainment perspective, but also from an educational one.

I would recommend reading these in the order suggested by the title of the combined work.  Some things are otherwise given away in Saints, or would be difficult to understand the importance of without first having read Boxers.  The two are essentially inseparable, and only happen to be bound separately.

Children Bao and Four-Girl are the protagonists of these two stories.  In Boxers, Bao is mistreated and neglected by his brothers until conflict with both "foreign devils" and "secondary devils" (Chinese converts to Christianity) leads Bao to train in martial arts, and eventually lead his brothers and the members of The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists in rebellion.  In Saints, Four-Girl's story runs parallel to Bao's.  Also a mistreated and unwanted child, Four-Girl yearns for basic recognition and a real name, and eventually finds the belonging she desires in Christianity.  Bao and Four-Girl cross paths innocently as children, but find themselves on opposite sides of a war by the time they are teens, with tragic results.

Gene Yuen Lang does a marvelous job of presenting both sides of this conflict, but I found Boxers to be a much stronger work than Saints.  I found Bao to be the more developed and complete character, with more time spent on the development of his character and exploration of his actions and motivations. The believability of the characters also extends to many of the secondary protagonists. Perhaps it is simply because Saints is a shorter volume, but I found it to be lacking in character development and storyline compared to Boxers.  I found Four-Girl to be much more static and her story less intriguing than Bao's.  Together they work well, but I really wish that as much development had occurred with Four-Girl as with Bao, it would have made for a better balance between the works.

The art of Boxers and Saints is very much in Yang's style, it is an extremely clean and almost minimalist at times, but highly expressive.  His use of colour to contrast the mundane from the supernatural is excellent, and minor characters are drawn with as much personality as the protagonists.  Architecture and landscapes are simple but appropriate and well-done as well.

Overall, I feel that Boxers and Saints is an excellent work, and I wish it had been available when I was teaching high school history.  Although this was a brief topic in the curriculum, I feel like these graphic novels give a good overview of the issues and parties involved, and would make for excellent, engaging reading for students studying this section of history.  I highly recommend this work for anyone who enjoys history, graphic novels, or just a very good story. 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa (book review)

I've learned to mistrust books described as "coming of age story".

This is mostly because they are all, essentially without exception, absolutely depressing as hell.  And Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa is no different.

Now sometimes things are depressing, especially when you're a teenager.  And sometimes things are good.  And sometimes there are books like this one, and like Catcher in the Rye, where nothing good EVER happens to the protagonist.  As opposed to a more balanced and realistic story where good things occasionally happen (as they do in real life, even if your life is really shitty), like The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  And I know that's because the writer would like us to feel the depth of their angst, but really it just serves to make the book unrelatable and unpleasant to read.  The lack of any redeeming moments or characters is what makes Kicking the Sky into a long, drawn-out, masochistic bore.

So why did I pick up Kicking the Sky knowing what type of book it was?  The premise involving a murder as the catalyst of loss of innocence was very intriguing, especially a real-life murder.  But this event is hardly mentioned at all in the middle section of the book, almost as if the author forgot about it while he was busy writing about all the terrible things that happened to everyone.  Considering the main characters are 11- and 12-year-old boys, there's lots of sex (most of it non-consensual) and drug use, assaults, and dead people that nobody seems to mind too much about.  I get that they are supposed to be neglected latch-key kids, but somebody's getting raped or molested in some way in pretty much every chapter. It was totally unnecessary.  We got it the first umpteen times, their lives are shitty and they're exposed to a bunch of crap they shouldn't be.  Which makes me question whether they had any innocence to lose to begin with, and whether protagonist Antonio can actually be pining for a childhood that didn't really exist to begin with.  So the story also falls short on that account as well, as I can hardly assume that Antonio's family suddenly woke up one day as terrible people after a childhood supposedly full of happiness.

Usually I like to build a "compliments sandwich" for my book reviews, where I talk about what I liked, then talk about the parts I didn't, and then end with something positive.  But I'm just not sure I can with this one.  It's not a dramatic story about growing up, it's just a bunch of terrible things happening to people over and over and over, with no happy moments to break up the action and create realism.  Give this one a pass.