Off the Shelf – CBC Radio

So I did my second book column on CBC Radio this morning.

Listen to it here.

Here’s what I prepared for the talk about scary books.

Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defines the horror story as “a piece of fiction which creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is usually supernatural, though it can be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society.” One of the first horror novels was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, 1764 – probably not going to get too many young people reading that one today.

R.L. Stine is probably the best known writer of horror novels for the middle grader. He’s the author of all the Goosebumps books and then went on to write Fear Street, a series of over 150 titles for older teens. To date he’s sold over 400 million books, so I guess the proof is in the gloopy pudding.

Teenagers love to be scared. No one knows that better than Stephen King, who’s made a career out of scaring us. King said: “horror stories allow us to safely vent our “uncivilized emotions…lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath. In addition, for some young people, reading a scary story can be a rite of passage, a way of earning bragging rights: “That didn’t scare me!”

Heart-pounding, palms-sweating, doors locked, lights on – who doesn’t love a good scare? It’s like riding a rollercoaster, thrilling, scary, but ultimately safe. A really good book can creep you out way more than a movie – where the scary stuff is often in your face and you become desensitized. A good scary book can be way more unsettling.

So – in honour of Halloween, here’s a list of my favourite scary books.

I’m going to talk about some of the books in the genre geared for Young Adults – plus one.

First off – here’s a quick guide:

If you want to read a book about vampires – definitely check out Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Cold Town.

If you want to read a book about werewolves, check out NB writer Kathleen Peacock’s novel Hemlock.

If you want to read a book about zombies, I highly recommend Ilsa J Bick’s series, Ashes.

If you want to read a book about a ghost hunter, check out Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Now for a closer look at some of my recent scary reads.

Nevermore – Kelly Creagh

It sounds like your typical good girl, bad boy set up…but this book is awesome and super creepy. Isobel is a popular cheerleader who gets partnered up with Varen the goth kid (of course he’s a goth kid with a name like that!) to work on a project about Edgar Allan Poe. There’s your clue right there that things are going to take a seriously gothic turn and they do. I mean Poe’s the granddaddy of creepy and Creagh makes good use of his personal story. Fans of Poe will eat this book up, but even if you’re not a fan or know very much about him, you’ll get gooseflesh reading about the truly nightmarish world and Pinfeathers, the character who inhabits it. There’s a sequel, too, called Enshadowed.

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

I just read this one last week. It’s a collection of short stories written by Canadian author and illustrator, Emily Carroll. I don’t know anything about art, but I can say that the art in this book is really striking, the colours are kind of menacing. Can you say that about a colour? Anyway – these are stories about dark places and strangers and people who are not whom they seem. The first story is about three girls who live with their father in the woods and one day he leaves them to go hunting and tells them, if I’m not back in three days, head to the neighbours. Of course he doesn’t come back, and then the narrator’s two sisters disappear and the ending will just give you goose bumps. You could certainly read the five stories contained in this volume in one sitting, but I think it’s the sort of book you’ll want to revisit again and again – especially at this time of year.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

Fifteen-year-old Jake Portman has a special relationship with his grandfather, who has always been a teller of tales. Thing is, his tales are pretty fantastic and concern children who could fly or make themselves invisible. When his grandfather is killed, Jake goes to Wales to visit the orphanage that his grandfather was sent to during the war and finds out the stories might actually be true. The book is full of pretty dang creepy pictures culled from private collections, but the story itself is magical with a side of monsters.

Plus one.

I had a student a couple of years ago who insisted he’d never been frightened by a book. I promised him that I could remedy that and gave him Stephen King’s novel, It. Okay, anyone around in the 1970s will remember the miniseries starring Richard Thomas aka John Boy Walton and that clown, Pennywise. “They all float down here.” Stephen King is the king (pun intended) of making everyday things scary. He’s also really excellent at tapping into childhood fears – something all great horror fiction does – and nobody captures adolescence quite like he does. I don’t love everything King has written, but I loved It and so did my student.

Read something scary for Halloween. With the lights on, of course!



Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

throughwoodsJust in time for Hallowe’en comes Canadian author Emily Carroll’s book, Through the Woods, a collection of chilling short stories. The stories would be quite enough on their own, but Carroll ups the ante with amazing art work. As far as graphic literature goes, Through the Woods goes to eleven. (Yes, yes I did just use a Spinal Tap reference.)

There are five stories in Carroll’s collection and each one of the stories feels vaguely old-fashioned. The monsters that live on these pages have been around for a very long time.

In the first story “Our Neighbor’s House,” Mary is left in charge of her two younger sisters, Beth and Hannah, while her father goes off to hunt. Their father tells them “I’ll be gone for three days…but if I’m not back by sunset on the third day, pack some food, dress up warm, and travel to our neighbor’s house.” When their father fails to return, things go from bad to worse in short order.

In the final story, “The Nesting Place, ” Bell, short for Mabel,  spends her school holidays with her older brother, Clarence, and his wife, Rebecca, at their isolated country house. Bell is a solitary child and she takes little interest in socializing with her brother. The only other person at the house is the housekeeper who warns Bell not to venture into the woods because she could easily become lost as Rebecca once had, “found three days later at the bottom of a cave…three days all alone in the dark drinking water out of a fetid pool to stay alive.” Rebecca, as Bell is soon to find out, has been deeply changed by that experience. And not in a good way.


The stories between the first and last are every bit as unsettling. Dreams and teeth and blood and beasts loom large in this collection.Carroll’s illustrations are saturated with primary colours: blood-red moons and sapphire blue rivers. I don’t know much about art, but Through the Woods is a beautiful book to look at – if slightly macabre.

See more of Carroll’s work at her website.



Gentlemen & Players – Joanne Harris

gentlemenGentlemen & Players is an intricate mystery by Joanne Harris, an author probably best known for her best-selling novel, Chocolat. Before she made it big in the publishing world, Harris was a school teacher which probably came in handy while writing this story of a public (in Britain this is the equivalent of our private, thus you pay a tuition)  school in England. For readers unfamiliar with the British school system, the story will likely seem extra exotic. I grew up reading Enid Blyton books and dreaming about going to boarding school in the UK, so I was all over the notion of the tuck shop (the place to buy sweets) and copious gallons of tea consumed by the teachers.

The novel gets its name from cricket, another very British enterprise. A first class cricket match pitting a team of amateurs (the Gentlemen) against the professionals (the Players) is a throw back to the class system in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Players were the working class guys and the Gentlemen from the middle and upper classes.

Harris’s novel has two narratives taking place over two different time periods. In one we follow Roy Straitley, a Classics teacher at St. Oswald’s Grammar School. He’s been in the business for over three decades and is soon to be turning 65. (I was relieved to see that Mr. Straitley still enjoys teaching since I’ll be at least that old before I will be able to afford to retire.) Straitley has dedicated his adult  life to teaching at the school and prides himself on his ability to control his class and remember all the boys he’s taught over the years.

In the other narrative, an unnamed narrator watches St Oswald’s from the gatehouse where they live with their father, the school’s porter (aka custodian).

I understood at once that they were a different race to myself; gilded not only by sunlight and their proximity to that lovely building but by something less tangible; a slick of assurance; a mysterious shine.

Later, of course, I saw it as it really was. The genteel decay behind the graceful lines. The rot.

Fifteen years later, the narrator shows up at St. Oswald’s with forged credentials and begins to teach and all hell breaks loose. At first the pranks are minor, missing registers and pens, but before long things get serious and lives are ruined and lost.

Gentlemen & Players was an easy read (despite all the wacky names I had to keep straight). Does it have something to say about the haves and the have-nots? Not really, since the second narrator just seems jealous and, quite frankly, crazy. Will I be thinking about these characters in a week? Not likely. Was I shocked by the surprise? No, I figured it out. Careful readers will. Still, I passed a pleasant few hours reading the book and if you like suspense thrillers, this is well-written (except for the over-the-top use of semi-colons!) and fun – if you don’t think too long on all the novel’s implausibilities.

The Splendor Falls – Rosemary Clement-Moore

splendorClement-Moore’s novel, The Splendor Falls, contains several recognizable gothic characteristics including an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, an ancient prophecy, a heroine who experiences visions, and supernatural events (there’s ghosts galore). Sadly, the book is too long and too slow to add up to much that would be considered frightening.

Seventeen-year-old Sylvie Davis is the “youngest-ever principal dancer for the American ballet” when she suffers a freak accident which ends her dancing career forever. Dancing is all Sylvie has ever known and the fact that she no longer can sends her into a tailspin of depression which is completely understandable. What is not understandable, however, is the fact that she starts to see things that she can’t explain. She starts to doubt her sanity and her mother, who has recently married a psychiatrist, decides to send her to her deceased father’s ancestral home in Alabama.

Sylvie and her purse dog, Gigi, arrive at Bluestone Hill, a plantation house which is currently being restored by her father’s cousin, Paula. It won’t take long for the reader to recognize the bit-players: the snotty daughter of Paula’s business partner, Clara; the golden-boy president of the Teen Council, Shawn; the mysterious and handsome, Rhys.

Sylvie is petulant about her circumstances. She doesn’t really know, Paula, and knows even less about her father’s childhood. It seems, though, that everyone in the small town knows her family. To make matters worse – she starts seeing things and hearing things.  The reader, by rights, should be creeped out right along with her. I can’t quite figure out why I wasn’t.

The Splendor Falls’ biggest problem is, I think, with pacing. At just over 500 pages, there just weren’t enough thrills and chills to keep the pages turning. The novel’s denouement, when it comes, doesn’t really live up to its potential.

I’d been really looking forward to this book. I loved the title and the cover and the promise of things that go bump in the night, but at the end of the day the book was more whimper than bang.

Let’s talk about books – on CBC radio!

I had an opportunity to share my thoughts about young adult fiction on CBC radio’s show, Information Morning. I hope it will be a regular gig because it was SO MUCH FUN. I had a whole big thing prepared – but eight minutes goes so fast and I didn’t have a chance to say everything that I wanted to say. You can listen to the segment here.

For the hell of it, I’ll include my prepared notes below:


Want to make an English teacher cringe? Talk about the declining number of teens who read for pleasure.

Sadly the number of young people who read for pleasure has been on the decline and as far as I can tell it’s because they’re reading Tumblr and Facebook and texts – or not reading anything at all. I also think that in school we often expect them to read things they just aren’t interested in. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I do have anecdotal evidence about the lack of interest in books. I sometimes feel like I am on a mission to connect students to books they’ll love. I’m not alone – lots of Language Arts teachers are trying to turn kids on to the love of reading.

The National Reading campaign identifies several benefits of reading including the fact that it is essential to the well-being of society and to our functioning as a democracy; it empowers critical thinking skills, lays the foundation of future learning; it increases individuals’ health and well-being. And those are all awesome reasons to read – but I tell my students that I read to know that I am not alone, to understand what it means to be human, to learn how to be more empathetic. Most importantly I read for pleasure (which is also on the list, by the way).

I’ve been a life-long reader. I’m going to date myself here, but I’m old enough to talk about The Bobbsey Twins…I value reading, partly because my parents valued it. My kids are readers because I am. They’ve been surrounded by books their entire lives. My home is filled with books and so is my classroom and I think one of the most important things I can do as a teacher is to connect students to books because I really believe that all it takes is one good reading experience to reignite that fire that has gone out in so many kids. That sounds totally evangelical, I know.

Okay – so I am going to get off my soapbox.

One of the best parts of my job is talking about books with my students. I LOVE it. I love pulling a book off the shelf and physically putting it in someone’s hand and saying “Read this.” I’ve got about 1000 books in my classroom, so it’s a very immediate thing. I read A LOT of (though not exclusively) YA/teen fic and there’s some great stuff out there…but there’s also some junk…it’s like comparing Stephanie Meyer to Joss Whedon (pop culture reference my students will get!) A quick survey always shows that most kids read when they were younger…and then it starts to drop off as they get older. I just have to remind them of why they used to love it. And I have to find them the right book.

What makes a great teen book? The same thing that makes a good adult novel. (And, by the way, I don’t subscribe to the notion that adults shouldn’t read YA fiction. There are some amazing YA writers that adults should check out and I’m going to talk about just three.)

Character – that’s true for any book, of course, but I think young readers want to see themselves reflected back to them; they want characters to care about and root for

Plot – not overly convoluted – although subplots are great, keep turning those pages; worlds they recognize and worlds they do not

Writing – obviously, although this is subjective…which is why some people love Twilight and others do not. To each his or her own.

A conversation with the student is always the way I start – what’s the last book you read? (Often times they haven’t read anything, but I have built in reading time in my class and so I insist they get back on the reading saddle.) What are you interested in? Are you a confident reader?

So today I thought I’d just talk about three books that invariably come back to me with a student stamp of approval. These aren’t necessarily new releases, but over the past few years they’ve been books that have been borrowed a lot so they’re definitely keepers.

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak, 2005

He’s an Australian writer and this book was originally intended – I believe – for adult audiences. It’s mostly touted as YA here – and I think teens would enjoy it, although they may find it a little slow to start. So it’s the story of Liesel Meminger.  Liesel is almost ten when she ends up in Molching with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents. It is 1939. In Nazi Germany. Death is personified and he’s the book’s narrator. Sometimes events are reported without comment – you forget Death’s there – other times Death weighs in on events. It might take some readers a bit to get used to. John Green – and voracious teen readers will know exactly who this guy is, called The Book Thief “brilliant and hugely ambitious.” Liesel is just a beautiful character; it is impossible not to fall in love with her. She literally steals books, the first one: The Grave Digger’s Handbook is stolen at her brother’s funeral. She doesn’t even know how to read. The Book Thief is about hope and sacrifice and love and family – all big ticket items. It’s also about the power of words and so of course I love it.

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness, 2009 (part of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which also includes The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men); American writer who lives in Britain; also author of A Monster Calls and More Than This, both of which I highly recommend

It’s about a kid named Todd who is just about to turn 13 and when he does he’ll be a man. He lives in this place called Prentisstown, which strangely sounds like some town ripped out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western…but it’s remarkable for a couple other reasons: there are no women and everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. It’s dystopian. Then one day, Todd’s out with his dog Manchee (he can hear the dog’s thoughts, too – which is often pretty comical) and he suddenly hears…nothing. When he reveals that to the men who have been looking after him they tell him to run…and keep on running and, literally, all hell breaks loose. The second and third books are every bit as fantastic as the first and, in fact, I had a grade ten student burn through all three in about a week…and the fact that he loved them and talked about them encouraged a couple more kids to start and one girl to actually go out and purchase the first book. Yay!

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green- sold 6,000,000 worldwide – movie came out a few months ago

There’s probably not a teen out there who hasn’t read this book, but I am going to talk about it because I think all the moms and dads should read it, too. Kelley Armstrong was recently at Harbour View to talk to students. In case you don’t know who she is, she’s a Canadian writer of both adult and teen fiction – a best-selling writer. She was talking about trying to sell her first book, Bitten, which is about werewolves…and it was just sort of by way of explaining how publishing changes. She said that what publishers are looking for now is the next John Green. I love the guy. He’s super smart and super nerdy and The Fault in Our Stars is just one of those books that – yes, it’s a “disease of the month” book, but it not. Hazel Grace is seventeen and she has lung cancer which is being controlled by some drug (not real). She’s addicted to America’s Next Top Model – which tells you the state of her life. Her parents insist that she attend a cancer support group and so she does, reluctantly, and that’s where she meets Augustus. This book is driven by the magic that is Hazel and Augustus and it will make you laugh and cry and curl up in a ball sobbing hysterically at 3 a.m. Possibly all at once. My favourite book in 2012. Not just my favourite teen book…my favourite book.

The Blessings – Elise Juska

blessingsWe welcomed a new member into our book club last year and she hosted the first meeting after our summer hiatus. Elise Juska’s novel The Blessings was Margo’s selection and our discussion of the book – which I didn’t particularly enjoy while I was reading it – was certainly elevated by her superior hostessing skills. Oh, and okay, listening to the other women in my group talk about the book did soften me towards it. A bit.

The Blessings is the story of a large Irish-Catholic family in Philadelphia. You’d need a chart to untangle the siblings and cousins, the spouses and parents. There’s Gran and Pop; their children, John, Margie, Ann and Patrick and then the kids. Their story – played out over twenty years – isn’t really follow a linear narrative. Instead, Juska unfolds the story, or parts of the story, by allowing us to ‘visit’ with some of the family members.

For example, when the novel opens, eighteen-year-old Abby (daughter of Ann and Dave) is home from college for Thanksgiving. Through her eyes we see her aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. She reflects that “most people did not have families like hers.”  I would counter that everyone has a variation on a family like hers. Nevertheless,

If every family has a certain kind of music, Abby’s is the murmur of sympathy around a dining room table. It starts in the pause after dinner and before dessert, when the men migrate to the living room and turn on sports, and the women surround the wreckage, spilled crumbs and crumpled napkins and stained wineglasses. They pinch lids from sugar bowls and dip teabags in hot water, break cookies in half and chew slowly. They trade stories of other people’s hardships. This is the melody, the measure , of her family: the response to sad things.

The novel moves in and out of people’s lives, allowing us glimpses of failed relationships, eating disorders, love affairs, and deaths. For me, the narrative was too broken up to allow me to feel connected to any one of the characters. Just when I settled into the rhythm of their story, the chapter would end and we’d be on to the next person. Sometimes what had been happening would be alluded to later on, but we’d be hearing about the event from a completely different perspective. The Blessings was like reading a series of connected short stories.

Matriarch Helen (Gran) sums it up best:

The truth is that life in the end – even a long life – amounts to a handful of a very few things. The longer you live, the shorter the story.

The Blessings is a quiet story about family and if you’ve got one, you can probably relate to this book in some way.