Try Not to Breathe – Jennifer R. Hubbard

breatheI think I am starting to suffer from YA fatigue. Or maybe it’s just that, despite its accolades, Jennifer Hubbard’s novel Try Not to Breathe, didn’t quite work for me. I don’t mean to imply that the novel isn’t decent or that it isn’t well-written, either. I can’t say for sure why it was that when  I got to the novel’s tidy ending,  I just felt sort of meh.

Ryan is 16 and has recently returned home from a stint at Patterson, a psychiatric hospital. Ryan attempted suicide and now “everyone snuck looks at me in the halls…Sometimes I was tempted to foam at the mouth and babble to invisible people, because the other kids seemed so disappointed that I didn’t. But I couldn’t be sure they would realize it was a joke. The few times I’d tried to make anyone laugh, all I got were nervous glances and squirming.”

Ryan’s circle is pretty small. He’s an only child; his father travels a lot and his mother works from home – to keep an eye on him. Everyone is pretty much on tenterhooks. His only freedom comes at the waterfall, where he stands under the punishing water “because [he] needed it.”

Into his world comes Nicki. She’s the younger sister of a guy he sort of knows from school. She shows up at the waterfall and the two form a friendship that soon becomes necessary to them both. Nicki isn’t afraid to ask Ryan questions, and soon Ryan discovers that he isn’t afraid to answer them. She has an agenda, as it turns out; her father committed suicide and she thinks, given the circumstances, Ryan might have some insider information.

The other important people in Ryan’s life are Val and Jake, two other teens he met during his stay at Patterson. He thinks he has feelings for Val, but a road trip orchestrated by Nicki (who is too young to drive, but does it anyway) delivers the heart-crushing news that Val is not as willing to take a chance on Ryan. It’s just one of the post-suicide-attempt blows Ryan is dealt, but he manages to rally.

Try Not to Breathe does a good job describing a teenager’s depression. Ryan had “lived behind what felt like a pane of glass, separated from the world.” Ryan is a likeable character, too, and so is Nicki. I found his parents less successful, sort of hovering non-entities. Despite my own reservations, I think the book will likely speak to teenagers who have ever considered suicide because, ultimately, Ryan’s is a story of survival.

Off the Shelf – January 26, 2015

Listen to Off the Shelf here.

I was recently invited to submit a column to The Nerdy Book Club, a well-known book blog moderated by four teachers, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about classics – because that’s sort of what I wrote about.

The impetus for the discussion was actually a discussion I had with my tenth grade English class after we finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I love the book, of course, and while the majority of my students could see its merits they also wondered why we were reading something so – as they put it – old. So that lead us to a great discussion of what makes a book a classic.

What makes a book a classic?

First off we had to decide on the criteria we’d use to determine whether or not a book is a classic. In the end, we liked the list of qualities Laura Miller listed in her Salon article “What makes a book a classic?” She actually compiled her list from a Goodreads discussion. So, according to Miller via Goodreads a classic

  • Must have stood the test of time
  • Be filled with eternal verities
  • Capture the essence and flavor of its own age
  • Have had a significant effect on that age
  • Have something important to say
  • Achieve some form of aesthetic near-perfection
  • Be challenging or innovative in some respect
  • Scholars and other experts must endorse it and study it (I guess that leave out 50 Shades of Grey)
  • It has been included in some prestigious series like Penguin Classics or Modern Library
  • It appears on lists of great books

Ultimately, though, our idea of a classic is probably defined by our own personal and highly subjective criteria…meaning, I guess, 50 Shades is back on the list.

So what happened to To Kill a Mockingbird based on this criteria. Well, of course, TKaM totally meets most of that criteria and my students could see that, for sure. Will this list make the book any more palatable for students who don’t necessarily want to read it? Like, is there anything worse than someone telling you you MUST read a book and write an essay? Unless you’re totally geeky like me, probably not, right?

My students wanted a crack at compiling their own list of classics. So, they had to pick a book – any book they’d read – and pitch it to the class. These are books that they really felt should be available for them to read in the classroom. Studied even. I’ve got 25 students in that class, so I’m not going to share all their titles, and truthfully I didn’t agree with all of them, but I will share three.

The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

So some people might know John Connolly as the author of Charlie Parker mysteries. If you’re already a fan, you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s the story of 12-year-old David who goes on a magical quest to save his mother after she dies. And that’s the simple version. I read this book a couple years ago and I heartily recommend it.

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

Now this is a book I haven’t read, but the student who pitched it, Chloie, totally sold it. Kirkus says the novel “uses a dog as narrator to clever effect in this tear-jerker about an aspiring race-car driver who suffers more woes than Job but never mistreats his dog.” Chloie said she’s read it several times and never gets sick of it, always sees something new in it. I think a book the bears up under repeat readings is pretty solid.

13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher

Now this one I have read and this one I do have some issues with, but what I like about the selection is that it demonstrated how impactful the book was for this student and there was a lot of agreement in the class about the books merits. Will it stand the test of time – or will other books eclipse it. I think probably, but what Asher did do is find a unique and original way to tackle a really difficult subject – teen suicide.

Other titles the students suggested included:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb

Perfect Chemistry – Simone Elkeles

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

Freak the Mighty – Rodman Philbrick

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

City of Bones – Cassandra Clare

Pawn of Prophecy – David Eddings

Ruby Red – Kerstin Gier

Playing with Fire – Theoren Fleury,  Kirstie McLellan Day

I Hunt Killers – Barry Lyga

The Green Mile – Stephen King

The interesting thing was the some of these books, by their advocate’s admission, did not stand up to Miller’s criteria – but they loved the book anyway. And that’s good enough for me.

Speaking of classics, Huffington Post recently posted a list of the 20 new classics every child should own. These are picture books geared for younger readers.

When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead

book-whenyoureachmeRebecca Stead’s Newberry Award winning novel, When You Reach Me, is a puzzle of a book. And I should note that the Newberry isn’t the only prize this book received – there’s a list of twenty other prizes and distinctions this book has received. This book has some serious pedigree. It’s a middle grade book, but I’m telling you – those middle grade kids better be on their toes because this book is a puzzle.

Twelve-year-old Miranda lives in a New York City apartment with her legal secretary mom. Sometimes her mom’s boyfriend, Richard, is there. That’s okay because “Richard looks the way I picture guys on sailboats – tall, blonde and very tucked-in, even on weekends.”

Miranda’s best friend, Sal, lives one floor below Miranda. For as long as Miranda can remember it’s been Sal and Miranda, Miranda and Sal. Until it wasn’t.

It happened in the fall, when Sal and I still walked home from school together every single day: one block from West End Avenue to Broadway, one block from Broadway to Amsterdam, past the laughing man on our corner, and then half a block to our lobby door.

Miranda has been receiving mysterious notes, notes that seem to predict the future. The notes seem to know an awful lot about Miranda and her life. And then the spare key to the apartment goes missing. And while all this is happening Miranda has to manage her estranged relationship with Sal and all the other pre-teen drama a twelve-year-old must face.

When You Reach Me is a delightful hybrid. It’s one part coming-of-age novel, one part science fiction, one part homage to Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and all parts fabulous.

This is What I Did: by Ann Dee Ellis

whatI didLast week Bruce kicked me in the balls at Scouts and all his buddies were there laughing and I started crying.

That’s Logan, the thirteen-year-old narrator of Ann Dee Ellis’s compelling and unusual YA novel This is What I Did:. Logan is a target for bullies for a variety of reasons: he’s the new kid and he’s mostly silent. There’s a reason, of course. His family has recently moved to the new school because of something horrific that happened concerning Logan and his best friend Zyler. Logan doesn’t want to talk about it, so the details of the event is unspooled in the kind of painful way that makes you read faster.

I also loved the way Logan shared his story.

A year ago I was fine. That’s when there was nothing wrong.

A year ago, in seventh grade, I was fine.

We were living on Mulholand with the hills and the lake and the freeway and the Minute Man Gas Stop and my best friend, Zyler, ate Twinkies and coke and hated girls, except one.

Dialogue looks like this:

Ryan: Why do you sit down here all the time?

Me: Where’s Mack?

Ryan: Helping Dad with something.




Ryan: Okay, I think I’m going to go back upstairs.

And then he left.

Logan has parents who desperately want to help him, but aren’t sure how. Given that we see them only through Logan’s eyes, they are believable and sympathetic, but by no means perfect.

It is only when Logan meets Laurel that he starts opening up. One day she hands him a note that says “Nascar=Racecar, Racecar=Palindrome.”  Soon, he and Laurel are sending each other palindromes regularly and before he knows it, Logan has made a friend.

I really liked This is What I Did:. It tackles some weighty issues without shying away from them and allows the reader to share Logan’s journey from broken to healing in  way that was both satisfying and hopeful.

Highly recommended.

Who’s with me?

26 books in 2015

There are all sorts of reading challenges out there aimed at motivating you to stand down from the TV/computer and read a little bit more. Check out this Pinterest page, which lists LOTS to consider. I aim to read 60 books this year. I didn’t meet my goal of 65 last year and the number really doesn’t matter all that much…so long as I am reading. What are your goals for the 2015 reading year?

Off the Shelf – So you want to start a book club…

Off the Shelf – CBC’s Information Morning

This morning I talked about the benefits of belonging to a book club. If you can’t find one, you can start one of your own. If you are looking for some advice, check out what I had to say about book clubs here.

If you are looking for some reading suggestions, I have a list of the books my book club has read here. Many are linked to my reviews.

The books I specifically mentioned this morning were:

ourdailybreadOur Daily Bread – Lauren B. Davis

Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones

Small Island – Andrea Levy (predates this blog)

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters finger

If you have questions, by all means, I am happy to help out! Ask away.

Rats Saw God – Rob Thomas

ratsRob Thomas shares his name with the lead singer of Matchbox 20, and although they are both writers, this Rob Thomas is better known for his television show Veronica Mars than his hit songs.

Rats Saw God is a Catcher in the Rye-esque coming of age novel about Steve York, a high school senior who ends up in his guidance counselor’s office trying to explain why he’s flunking out when his SAT scores are through the roof. The fact that he’s regularly stoned might also be a contributing factor, but in any case, Steve finds himself sitting in Mr. DeMouy being offered a cup of tea. DeMouy tells him that at the end of the semester he’ll be one English credit short.  DeMouy makes him an offer: write 100 typed pages – about anything. If he does that, DeMouy will make sure Steve graduates.

When Mom and the astronaut called Sarah and me into our Cocoa Beach, Florida (see I Dream of Jeanie) dining room to tell us they were getting a divorce, I admit I was shocked. I suppose I should have seen it coming, but the warning signs had been such a part of the status quo.

Thus begins Steve’s paper. It’s the story of his junior year. After the divorce, he moves with his dad, “that barely animate statue,” to Houston and his sister, Sarah, twelve at the time, moves to San Diego with her mom. In the summer, they swapped. Steve and his father have an estranged relationship:

He would leave for work before I woke but would provide a list of chores by the sink, paper clipped to a ten-dollar bill, which was to provide me both lunch and dinner.

At school, Steve befriends Doug, a skateboarder, and that friendship leads him to Dub, and the people who eventually become GOD, the Grace Order of Dadaists.  Dadaists, Steve explains ” were painters, writers, sculptors in the twenties who believed in art without coherent meaning. Nothing they did had to be justified. The more abstract, the weirder something was, the better.”

Rats Saw God is funny and smart  and it is a delight to watch Steve try to figure out the world, even when he has to face the truth that sometimes people will disappoint you. Of course, sometimes they’ll surprise you, too.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin

zevin_firky_hcThere are  winks and nudges galore in Gabrielle Zevin’s novel The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. This was my book club’s first read in 2015 and we gathered last night to discuss its merits. Okay, mostly everyone discussed its merits; I acted like Mr. Fikry himself before the magical arrival of Maya: grouchy.  I didn’t like the book. It was easy to read and I wanted to like it and I should have liked it, given the subject matter – bookstores and the importance of reading…but, nope, just fell flat for me.

A. J. owns a bookstore on the fictional island of Alice which is located somewhere off the coast of Hyannis. He’s a cranky guy, but I guess it’s understandable because his wife, Nic, was killed in a car accident just under two years ago and A.J. hasn’t recovered. The book store was a joint venture, dreamed up when he and Nic were in grad school. They took her trust fund money and opened Island Books, but A.J. is sort of the antithesis of everything you’d expect in a book store owner.

In fact, we meet first meet him when Amelia Loman arrives at his store to discuss Knightley Press’s winter catalogue. A.J. tells her:

I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magical realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where there shouldn’t be – basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful  – non-fiction only please. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and – I imagine this goes without saying – vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry or translations.

Island Books sounds like an inviting place, eh? Luckily for A.J. it’s the only game in town and Alice Island is a popular summer destination, so he makes a decent living off the tourists. He’s not popular with the locals, but no wonder; he has the personality of a prickly pear.

Then, someone leaves a baby in the bookstore and A.J.’s paternal instincts kick in. In short order, much like the Grinch, A.J.’s heart grows in size and everything in his life changes. Of course it does.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry should have been right up my alley. Island Books inhabit a purple Victorian cottage. Be still my heart. A.J. has my dream job in my dream building. The novel is peppered with references to short stories and plays and novels, most of which I am intimately familiar (thus the nudging and winking). It celebrates the value and power of books.


I just didn’t believe it. There was something hokey and almost to-good-to-be-true about the book, about the characters and their journeys. I won’t go so far as to say that it was a waste of time, but I have to admit to being disappointed when I finished.

2014 End of Year Book Survey

For the last few years, readers have jumped on Jamie’s End of year Book Survey bandwagon (or perhaps I should say ‘bookwagon’) and I am nothing if not a lemming.


Number of Books You Read: 27 “adult” novels, 21 YA, 3 graphic, 2 memoirs, 1 non-fiction for a total of 55, well short of my goal of 65 books

See my shelf here

Number of Books You Re-Read: 0

Genre You Read The Most From: Contemporary


Best Book You Read In 2014?

(If you have to cheat — you can break it down by genre if you want or 2014 release vs. backlist)

Best YA: More Than This – Patrick Ness

Best Other: Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

Heading Out to Wonderful – Robert Goolrick

Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read in 2014?  I read a lot of duds this year, more than normal: Creep, Firefly Rain, The Birthing House , Kiss Crush Collide

Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did) In 2014?


More Than This – Patrick Ness



Best series you started in 2014? Best Sequel of 2014? Best Series Ender of 2014?

Not a series starter, generally, although I have started a couple  that I really need to finish – none of them in 2014, though.

Favorite new author you discovered in 2014?

I discovered a few new authors this year that I will definitely be looking to read more from: Megan Abbott, Tammara Webber, Erin Kelly

Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone?

Nada – I’m up for just about anything with the exception of sci fi/fantasy…and since I’m not really into it, I don’t read it.

Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?

The Lantern – Deborah Lawrenson Certainly not action-packed, but this was a real page-turner and a lot of fun to read.

Book You Read In 2014 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year?

I really wish I had more time for re-reading. I would like to re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 2015. It’s probably been 40 years since I read that book and I just remember loving it.

Favourite cover of a book you read in 2014?

myidealbookshelf1_grandeMy Ideal Bookshelf – Thessaly La Force and Jane Mount

I loved everything about this book.


Most memorable character of 2014?

Addy Hanlon from Megan Abbott’s Dare Me. Caustic and compelling.

Lucas from Tammara Webber’s Easy. Hot. Hot. Hot.

Most beautifully written book read in 2014?

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2014?

The Children Act – Ian McEwan. McEwan always gives you something to think about.

Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2014 to finally read? 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

My own kids were always after me to read this book when it first came out, but it wasn’t until the teachers in my department suggested this book for a teachers’ book club that I got around to reading it. Loved it.

Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2014?

““What if we had the chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful.” Teddy from Life After Life  I’m not in the habit of writing down passages that I like, but this quote – which is central to Atkinson’s novel – also  resonates with me for other reasons.

Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2013?

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq, 32 pages

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson, 544 pages

Book That Shocked You The Most (Because of a plot twist, character death, left you hanging with your mouth wide open, etc.)

The Raft – S.A. Bodeen. Didn’t see that coming!

OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!)

Hands down: Jacqueline and Lucas from Tammara Webber’s Easy

(OTP = one true pairing if you aren’t familiar)

Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship of The Year

Seth, Regine and Thomasz of Patrick Ness’s More Than This

Favorite Book You Read in 2014 From an Author You’ve Read Previously

More Than This – Patrick Ness

Best Book You Read In 2014 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else/Peer Pressure:

None – it’s not the way I generally choose books

totally joeNewest fictional crush from a book you read in 2014?

I have to admit that I fell in love with Joe Bunch, the 13-year-old protagonist of Totally Joe. He is a great character.



Best 2014 debut you read? throughwoods

Through the Woods – Emily Carrol

Best Worldbuilding/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?

Tie between The Coldest Girl in Cold Town – Holly Black


More Than This – Patrick Ness

Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read?

My Ideal Bookshelf – Thessaly La Force and Jane Moun

Book That Made You Cry or Nearly Cry in 2014?

There were lots of lump in the throat moments in Life After Life

Hidden Gem Of The Year?

icecreamThe Ice Cream Girls – Dorothy Koomson Maybe this book got a lot of love when it came out, but I’d never heard of it nor the author. It is well-written and a real page-turner, too

Book That Crushed Your Soul?

Living Dead Girl – Elizabeth Scott

It was so bleak

Most Unique Book You Read In 2014?

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

It maximized quirky photos and a unique story. I really enjoyed it

Book That Made You The Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?

Birthing_HouseThe Birthing House – Christopher Ransom

Utter Crap! And a frustrating waste of time. I can’t believe I actually read the whole thing.


New favorite book blog you discovered in 2014? 

Electric Lit – although I guess it’s not strictly a book blog.

Favorite review that you wrote in 2014?

 The Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black

Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?

I loved that I got to share how I used My Ideal Bookshelf in the classroom.

Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?

I was very lucky to welcome best-selling Canadian novelist Kelly Armstrong intokelly my classroom in October. She was in town to participate in FogLit, a literary festival, and came to my school to speak with about 70 students and then work with about 20 in a small group setting. There were sooo many excited students at school that day!

Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2014?

Another cool, bookish thing that happened in 2014 was that I started doing book columns on CBC Radio’s Information Morning in October 2014. I love talking about books and this is a really fun gig. You can listen to past columns by clicking on the links in the sidebar.

Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

This post got the most views all year I credit Ryan Gosling. 6fa389c166845d58b0b214b55af9eccd

Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

I’d love to have a little more interaction overall on my blog, but I do it because I love to do it – not for site stats…so it’s all good. That said, I loved sharing this activity I did with some grade ten students and wish it had received a little more attention.

Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?     I am looking forward to diving into this post from the Guardian: Top Ten Best Book Bloggers – all YA.

Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?

I intended to read 65 books this year – just up from the total of 62 I read last year, but I didn’t make it – for a variety of reasons.

looking-ahead-books-2015-1024x278One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2014 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2015? Oh, please.

Bookship of theseus You Are Most Anticipating for 2015 (non-debut)?

My son gave me J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s novel Ship of Theseus for Christmas. We’ve long been intrigued by this books, so I am looking forward to reading it.

2015 Debut You Are Most Anticipating

No idea.

Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2015?

I would like to make it a priority to finish Ilsa J. Bick’s Ashes trilogy, Kelley Creagh’s Nevermore Trilogy and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. There. I said it. Of course, none of these are new series.

One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2015

Setting goals for myself in this regard is just asking for trouble

A 2015 Release You’ve Already Read & Recommend to Everyone. Nope.

Interested in reading more End of Year surveys? Go here.