The Raft – S. A. Bodeen

raft Robie, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of S.A. Bodeen’s YA novel The Raft has been back and forth between Hawaii and the island of Midway dozens of times. She lives there with her research scientists parents, but when the novel opens she’s visiting her aunt in Honolulu. When her aunt is unexpectedly called to work on the mainland, Robie isn’t bothered about being alone. She’s used to it and knows how to look after herself.

Looking after yourself on 2.4 sqaure miles of island, as it turns out, is different from looking after yourself in downtown Honolulu. Unfortunately Robie gets accosted on the street one evening – nothing serious – but it spooks her and she decides to take the cargo plane home. Unfortunately phone and Internet service is spotty on the island and so Robie isn’t able to let her parents know she is coming home. Even more unexpectedly, the plane hits bad weather and goes down. Only Robie and the co-pilot, Max, survive.

This novel is terrific. Like, couldn’t-put-it-down terrific. Robie is resilient and smart and is able to cope with her circumstances better than people twice her age. The raft she floats in leaks, there are sharks in the water – and not much else. It’s impossible to imagine that Robie will make it, but she does.

I don’t want to say too much about the things Robie endures. Once you start reading The Raft you’ll find out pretty quickly because you won’t be able to stop turning the pages. I should also mention that Bodeen slips some compelling stuff about ocean and bird life, conservation and pollution into the mix and it all feels necessary and organic. Robie is at home in this environment and knows “more about ocean fish and seabirds than most post-graduate researchers.” It’s a good thing, too.

Bodeen’s prose is straightforward and Robie’s voice is authentic. In a moment of prescience she remarks: “Lately it seemed there were a lot more days when my life felt less  like luck and way more like suck.”

I’m not one for survival stories, really, but I enjoyed Robie’s tremendously.

Highly recommended.




The Qualities of Wood – Mary Vensel White

qualities-of-wood-pb-200Mary Vensel White’s debut novel The Qualities of Wood was provided to me by TLC Book Tours.  It looks like I’m first up on the blog tour and I sure wish I had better news for you, folks.

The Qualities of Wood is Vivian Gardiner’s story. She has given up her life in the city to join her husband, Nowell, in a small town where they will live in the house he inherited from his grandmother. The plan is that they’ll do some cosmetic work to the property and in a year or so, sell it. Nowell will also use the time to work on his second mystery novel. On the day Vivian arrives at the Gardiner homestead the body of a teenage girl is found in the woods at the back of their property.  Although her death is almost immediately ruled accidental, it still seems to be the sun around which all the players in this novel orbit. All that sounds promising, right?

I liked this novel when I started reading it. White is a lovely writer and there were several moments in the novel where I lingered over her words. For example:

They turned at the back corner of the house and the open space hit her like a deep breath.

So my issues with the book don’t have anything to do with the quality of the writing. My issues have to do with pacing and characterization. And I am a reader who can generally read books that don’t have much of a forward thrust.

Okay – so Vivian arrives at this run-down house. She and Nowell, who have only been married for about four years, have been separated for four weeks.  It’s going to take some adjusting.  Soon enough they seem to fall into this pattern. Nowell gets up early and gets to work in a little space he has partitioned off from the rest of the kitchen with a sheet. Vivian alternately lazes about or works at sorting through the lifetime of junk Grandma Gardiner left behind. The reader is treated to a laundry list of this detritus: “used paperback romances, sewing things and scraps of fabric, and entire box of plastic silverware, plates and cups.” There’s dressers full of clothes and other personal items. There’s even a gun, which seems promising – but sadly isn’t used to kill anyone.

And I think that’s my main complaint about The Qualities of Wood. There’s no mystery here. Vivian is stuck in a small, unfamiliar town with a husband who becomes increasingly strange to her. But she’s strange, too. I never really warmed up to either of them – or any of the characters for that matter. When Nowell’s brother, Lonnie, and his new bride, Dot, show up it just ups the ante of strange behaviour. The narrative alternates between Vivian doing mundane things like subscribing to the local newspaper, visiting with her new friend Katherine and running a three-day yard sale (and did we really need to hear about all three days?) and breaking into her neighbour’s house in the middle of the night. Okay, sure Mr. Stokes is odd, but Vivian this is not the behaviour of a rational person; you know that, right?

There’s also some back story – like the time Vivian got lost in the woods (I thought that was going somewhere)  and the time she snuck out of her house to go to a party (so is this, then, meant to be a novel about someone who barely had a chance to rebel and now she’s married and her husband is pressuring her to have kids and she just wants to be free?)  In some ways I think part of my dissatisfaction with this novel is that there’s too much going on. Some of it feels like filler (like describing Katherine’s driving skills) and some of it feels like unrealized potential (glimpses into Nowell’s latest novel). Either way,   I was ready to pack it in at page 100.

If The Qualities of Wood is meant to be about secrets, as the blurb on the back of the novel claims it is,  they better be worth spilling. When all is revealed in the novel’s final pages,  none of what is exposed makes up for the minutiae the reader has plodded through to get there.


The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

rosieIt’s easy to see why Graeme Simsion’s debut novel The Rosie Project was such a huge hit with readers all over the world. It’s one of those books with easy to like characters, a straightforward story and just enough quirk to make it stand out from the pack.

Don Tillman is a scientist in the Genetics department at an unnamed university in Melbourne, Australia. It’s clear from the book’s opening pages that while Don clearly has a super-sized brain, he also has some issues which have prevented him, thus far, from finding a suitable partner. Thus, the Wife Project.

Don’s two friends Gene and Claudia try to help with Don’s project, but Don felt their assistance was lacking. Their approach “was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences.”  He eventually writes a sixteen-page questionnaire that he hopes will sort the wheat from the chaff.

Don describes everyone he meets by telling us their Body Mass Index and by the time he tells us that he is “thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income” and that he should be “attractive to a wide variety of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing” we know for sure that Don is somewhere on the Autism spectrum.

According to Autism Canada

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurobiological condition that can affect the normal function of the gastrointestinal, immune, hepatic, endocrine and nervous systems. It impacts normal brain development leaving most individuals with communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. There is also a markedly restricted repertoire of activity and interests. Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to have varying degrees and combinations of symptoms

All things considered, Don does pretty well in the world. Where he struggles is with human interaction. So when Rosie blows into his life, ostensibly looking for someone to help her discover the identity of her biological father, Don’s ordered world is thrown completely off-kilter. That’s when the fun really starts.

There are several laugh-out-loud moments in The Rosie Project, and it is fun to watch socially challenged Don and prickly Rosie work their way towards each other. It’ll make a great movie.


The Worst Thing She Ever Did – Alice Kuipers

worstthing Sophie releases the details of the worst thing she ever did through journal entries and this turns out to be a blessing and a curse in Alice Kuiper’s second YA novel, The Worst Thing She Ever Did. It’s a blessing because we get to hear Sophie’s authentic teenage voice and a curse for the same reason. Teenagers are, by definition, insular and of course no where is this made more apparent than in the pages of a teenager’s diary.

Sophie is keeping this journal at the request of her therapist, Lynda, who tells her that “Writing in here will help you remember.” Sophie doesn’t want to remember, though, and The Worst Thing She Ever Did  takes its own sweet time revealing what it is Sophie is so desperately trying to forget. I’m not suggesting that Sophie’s tragedy is not worth the effort, just that Sophie often teeters on the edge of coming across more like a petulant child than the survivor of a horrific act of violence.

But maybe that is part of what would make this story so compelling to young adults. I think they will recognize themselves in the pages of Kuiper’s novel. Here is a girl who is living her life. Her sister, Emily, is home from art school and Sophie doesn’t varnish their sibling relationship. Sometimes Emily really pisses her off. Sometimes Sophie feels like Emily is the favourite child. Mostly though, Sophie misses her older sister and it is clear that something horrible and unspeakable has happened.

Sophie’s mother is coping with the loss as badly as Sophie is, but the two of them don’t talk about it. In fact, sometimes they “circled each other like cats.” Sophie pretends not to hear her mother crying. There is no joy in the house they share.

There’s no joy for Sophie at school, either. Everything is different. “Everything going on around me – the others, the noise, the ring of the bell to get to class – was so loud it gave me a headache.” Sophie’s best friend, Abigail, has moved on.  Sophie tries to navigate the aftermath of the tragedy (which is only alluded to until almost the end of the novel) and work her way through being a teenager with varying degrees of success. There’s school to contend with and fractured friendships and boys – one boy in particular – and her mother. All of these elements would have been enough for a YA novel and a half, but Kuipers ups the ante here.

If some of the reconciliations seem a tad trite at the novel’s end (I wasn’t really fussy about the subplot concerning Abigail), they don’t really detract from the story’s larger theme: healing takes time. Kuiper’s is a lovely writer and although my feelings about The Worst Thing She Ever Did are similar to my feelings about 40 Things I Want To Tell You, I still think Kuipers is worth checking out.


If I Lie – Corrine Jackson

ifilieQuinn, Carey and Blake, the teenagers at the centre of Corrine Jackson’s debut novel If I Lie, seem ill-equipped to deal with the troubles life throws at them. Childhood friends, things begin to unravel in their senior year when Carey and Quinn break up (briefly)  and Quinn discovers she has feelings for Blake. All of this is complicated by the fact that they live in a military town and Carey has enlisted. When the novel opens, the story has already been set in motion and Carey is MIA. Quinn has been shunned by everyone, including her Lieutenant Colonel father because while she and Blake were sharing a private moment under the bleachers, someone snapped a picture and posted it on Facebook. Even though no one knew who the guy was, everyone knew Quinn was the girl.

If it seems complicated – it is. But, then, isn’t high school a complicated time? A time where you often like people who don’t like you back. A time where all your feelings sit like little bombs around your heart, ready to go off any second. A time where friendships splinter over silly things. A time of secrets. And Quinn is carrying around a big secret – one she promised she wouldn’t tell and although it makes her a target she sticks to her word.

If I Lie has a lot going for it – perhaps a little too much. Not only do we have what is happening between Carey, Quinn and Blake – but we also have Quinn’s complicated relationship with her father. Her mother left when Quinn was eleven. Well, she more than left actually; she ran off with her father’s brother – never to be heard from again. Until she shows up. There’s also Quinn’s relationship with George, a veteran she has been charged by her father to help; a punishment that turns out to benefit Quinn in ways too numerous to mention. Really, I think, Jackson was offering up a little lesson about war veterans here and I don’t mean to imply that it’s not a lesson worth learning. It just seemed one more element in an already overstuffed story.

Quinn’s voice is compelling, though. And I liked how the novel navigated her feelings for all the people in her life, without offering up any trite answers. Because if there’s one thing you learn in high school it’s that you don’t have all the answers and that relationships are complicated and the people you care about are worth fighting for.

Saturday Sum Up – May 3

I know, I know – I haven’t summed on a Saturday in ages. It’s been busy!

I am fascinated with zines and am playing with the idea of having my students make one as part of our study of Romeo and Juliet. I found a terrific link for How to Make a Zine and the simple instructions allowed me to build a zine in about two minutes  without the need for glue or staples or anything! IMG_0400

By a strange coincidence, my 14-year-old son was invited to an event last night hosted by a zine produced here in Saint John, Hard Times in the Maritimes. He had a ball and came home with a copy of the zine, which will be an excellent example to show my students.

Today is the second and last day of the library’s annual book sale, an event which I love. I didn’t find quite as many treasures as I usually do – oh who am I kidding. I lugged home three big bags full of books including some which were actually on my tbr list. I also nabbed a couple dozen new books for my classroom library. If you live here in Saint John, check it out today at Market Square until 3pm. Here’s my haul – well part of my haul because I was there first thing yesterday morning and then went back with my son after school. All those books cost me just $27.IMG_0397

This is hilarious: the Ottawa public library was asked to remove Dr. Seuss’s book Hop on Pop from its shelves because it apparently condones, promotes even, violence against fathers. What other strange requests for censorship has the library had? Read about them here.

Speaking of censorship, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories are being published without censorship for the first time.