Archive | May 2017

Stolen – Lucy Christopher

Sixteen-year-old Londoner Gemma  is in the Bangkok airport, a stop-over on her way to a family vacation to Vietnam. She’s just had a fight with her parents and she’s gone off on her own to grab a coffee and cool down. That’s when she notices the man. He’s hard to miss because he “had that look in [his] eyes, as though [he] wanted something from me.”  Gemma, on the precipice of adulthood, is drawn to the man and “those blue, blue eyes, icy blue, looking back at me, as if I could warm them up.”

stolenThis encounter is the beginning of Gemma’s journey in Lucy Christopher’s debut novel Stolen. Before Gemma has even realized what’s happening, the man is buying her coffee, introducing himself as ‘Ty’ and engaging Gemma in a conversation that makes her feel “grown-up, sitting there with the most handsome man in the café, drinking a coffee he had just bought for me.”

But then, things change for Gemma. When she wakes up – hours or days later – she is far away from her family, alone in the Australian outback with Ty. Thus begins a period of captivity for Gemma. Ty claims to have stolen her as a way to keep her safe, although from what, Gemma cannot discern.

Ty has clearly been planning this kidnapping for a long time. He slowly reveals parts of his life to Gemma and in some ways he is a sympathetic character – until you remember that he’s taken a sixteen-year-old girl away from her family and friends. The harsh landscape is alien to Gemma; they truly are in the middle of nowhere. Although there is a vehicle, Gemma has no idea where she is or how to find help. Although Ty has not physically harmed her, Gemma is constantly worried that he’ll soon tire of her and kill her. If he doesn’t, any number of poisonous critters or the harsh conditions might get her.

It all makes for a pretty compelling read.  Gemma slowly begins to adapt to her new reality and begins to trust that Ty doesn’t want to harm her and the book’s strange and alien landscape (he captures a wild camel, for instance) begins to work its peculiar magic on both Gemma and the reader.

In some ways, the book reminded me of an old movie from the 1970s, Sweet Hostage. In that film, Martin Sheen picks up hitchhiker Linda Blair and takes her to his version of  ‘Xanadu’. Under his tutelage, Blair begins to see the world as a much more beautiful place than her hard-scrabble upbringing would have her believe it is, but you can’t argue with the fact that she was, in fact,  kidnapped. Both the movie and Christopher’s novel plumb the depths of Stockholm Syndrome.

Christopher’s novel certainly offers something new to the YA genre and many teens will find Gemma’s story riveting.

 

 

 

Delicate Monsters – Stephanie Kuehn

The three central characters in Stephanie Kuehn’s darkdarkdark YA novel Delicatedelicate Monsters are hard to spend time with. From the moment we meet  Sadie, and Emerson  and his  brother, Miles, we embark on a journey that is both awful and strangely – redemptive. In any case, these train-wreck teens are hard to look away from.

Sadie has just returned to her home from a camp where the girls were “all supposed to be “troubled”” Sadie’s far tougher than these girls who are “wide-eyed and tragic, fragile herd-like things, brimming with stories of Painful Childhoods.” Sadie can’t relate because she is not like them. She has “no interest in introspection” and “she found threats a curious thing because she didn’t respond to them the way she was meant to…threats made Sadie’s skin grow cold and her brain grow mean.” Mean is exactly what Sadie is, too.

At first eighteen-year-old Emerson seems like an uncomplicated lug of a guy. He lives with his widowed mother and younger brother, Miles, 15. Miles is sickly and has been diagnosed – or misdiagnosed –  with a variety of ailments: night terrors, separation anxiety, rashes, fever, celiac. Despite his health concerns and the fact that Miles “didn’t like other people,” Emerson was convinced that his younger brother is “destined for…something. Greatness?” Miles is peculiar and although Emerson seems to care about Miles, he doesn’t defend him against the constant barrage of abuse – both physical and verbal – Miles takes from the thugs at school.

Kuehn dances these three teens together when Sadie returns to her hometown. She’s been expelled from boarding school (again) for almost getting someone killed. (The details of that are revealed through email exchanges between Sadie and her ‘victim’, Roman Bender.) The aforementioned camp was clearly a placeholder because her father is M.I.A. and her mother seems to have no real interest in her daughter. She’s been out of the hometown loop for a while, but she remembers Emerson. She specifically remembers the things they used to do together when they were kids and his mother, a nurse, would bring them out to Sadie’s family’s vineyard to care for Sadie’s grandfather.

Sadie doesn’t remember Miles, though. They meet during fencing and if she has any redeeming qualities, she shows them in her interactions with him. For a kid who tries to blend into the shadows, Miles seems to respond to Sadie’s “I don’t give a shit, but here, eat this sandwich” approach to friendship.

I love the way Kuehn writes her characters. This is my third book by her and although I didn’t love it as much as I loved Charm & Strange, I still couldn’t stop turning the pages. We’d be naïve to think there aren’t lost, damaged kids like Sadie, Emerson and Miles in the world. Kuehn doesn’t mince words or tread lightly in Delicate Monsters, and as prickly as these three are – the mother in me just wanted to hug them and try to right their scarily off-kilter worlds.

Juliet’s Answer – Glenn Dixon

juliets-answer-9781501135484Glenn Dixon’s memoir Juliet’s Answer has a lot going for it especially if you a) love Italy b) teach high school English and are intimately familiar with Romeo and Juliet and c) have ever been unlucky in affairs of the heart.

Dixon started out to write a book about love – all different types, all over the world. He landed in Verona and became one of Juliet’s secretaries. These are the women of Club  di Giulietta, an organization founded by Giulio Tamassia. Tamassia, a baker  by trade, took over the task of responding to the hundreds of letters which arrive in Verona yearly. Beginning in 1937,  the letters were  answered  by the groundskeeper who tended the gravestones at the Monastery of San Francesco where Juliet is said to have been buried and where the letters were first left, propped against the gravestones, and then by a poet in the 50s and finally by Tamassia and his daughter, Giovanna. Dixon was on holiday from his day job as a high school English teacher when he volunteered to help answer the letters, the only man in the group of volunteers.

Dixon admits that he’d had his own problems with love and “part of the reason I’d come to Verona was to learn something more about this all-encompassing force in our lives. To learn something, anything, that would help me understand my own heartbreak and help me, maybe, trust in love once more.”

See – there’s this girl. She’s the one; at least that’s what Dixon thinks. They’ve known each other since university and “I guess you could say that I fell in love with her right from the start. She was pretty and smart, but it was more than that. She seemed to “get” me, just as I seemed to “get” her.” But in the 20 years since university,  Dixon has never managed to get past the friend-zone. He’s watched as the woman, he calls her Claire, falls in and out of love with other men and he doesn’t disagree when she says “you can’t choose who you fall in love with.” Ain’t that the truth. So he pines.

Dixon teaches high school English. It’s probably not a coincidence that the time we spend with him in the classroom is shared with literature’s most famous lovers – Romeo and Juliet. I admit it: I am a card-carrying member of the club. It’s amazing how many of my colleagues don’t like Romeo and Juliet, but I love the play. I love teaching it. I never get sick of Shakespeare’s language or the gut-wrenching, sob-inducing, star-defying story of those two crazy kids. What can I say? I’m a romantic.

And Italy – that’s my place. I’ve only been twice, but I dream of spending an extended period of time there. I’m not sure what it is: the heat, the wine, the shuttered windows and amazing vistas, the pasta. Did I mention the wine?  I just know that I love it.

So it was a no-brainer that I was going to like Juliet’s Answer. I related to Dixon’s quest to understand the nature of love. He’s my people aka fellow English teacher. And, hey, love found him. How’s that for a happy ending?

 

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Off the Shelf – Bookish Bits

Listen here.

I’ve had a very ‘bookish’ few day…my colleagues and I hosted the seventh annual Write Stuff at the Saint John Arts Centre last week. We hosted about 120 students from six different high schools and launched our sixth literary magazine. This is an event that always reaffirms for me the power of the written word and that students want to share their thoughts with others.

I also attended the Eclectic Reading Club’s soiree last Wednesday night as the guest of Dr. Stephen Willis. For those who don’t know, this club is the oldest of its kind in Canada – established in 1870. It’s not a book club per se, it’s more like a throwback to the time when entertainment consisted of gathering in the warmth of someone’s drawing room chatting, and listening to readings, perhaps sipping a cup of tea or a glass of sherry. On the night I attended, the theme was pirates and privateers and those of us gathered listened to some interesting historical true-life accounts of pirates both close to home and in seas far away. It was a lovely evening. Everyone dresses up, there was the promised hot chocolate at the end of the evening and I saw people I haven’t seen in many years and met new friends. Other than that, of course, what happens in the eclectic stays in the eclectic. Top secret.

We’re only about six weeks away from the end of the school year and I am already thinking about the fall. I am very lucky to be offering a new course at Harbour View called Young Adult Literature. Like how could I not be excited about that?

The rationale behind offering a course like this is to give students who love to read an opportunity to read outside of the traditional English class and to, perhaps, make the experience slightly more authentic. I don’t mean to imply that what happens in traditional English classes isn’t authentic learning because it is – but when I‘ve finished reading I don’t write an essay or make a poster. Mostly what I want to do is talk about the book with someone else, maybe write a review so I can try to articulate my thoughts on paper. YAL is really my go at encouraging students to read widely and to share their reading experiences with others and to hopefully set them on the path to becoming life long readers – because truthfully that is what I think is the most important part of my job.

It’s pretty exciting to be thinking about a course devoted to a genre that actually had a fairly rocky beginning. Where does YA start? Think back to your own beginnings as a reader – not the books that were read to you, but the first books you selected on your own. In 1971, librarian Mary Kingsbury commented that librarians were acting like “frightened ostriches” with regards to accepting the notion of books for a young adult audience. By the 80s though, the genre was staring to take hold and names like Robert Cormier and Judy Blume were more familiar.

sehinton

Photo of a young S.E. Hinton from Penguin

It would be impossible to offer a course like this without revisiting where the YA movement – arguably –  began: S.E. Hinton’s classic The Outsiders. Is there a person on the planet who has not read this book?

 

First of all – The Outsiders is 50 years old this year. Like – doesn’t that make you feel ancient? I really do remember reading it as a kid in the 70s. That’s a million years ago – so that’s the mark of a powerful book, a formative book.  S.E. Hinton was just 16 when she wrote The Outsiders because she said “there wasn’t anything realistic being written about teenage lives.”  It was published when she was 17.  Theoutsiders novel tells the story of rival gangs in Oklahoma the greasers and the socs – the socials. It’s a simple story, really, about Ponyboy Curtis and his best friend, Johnny, but something about those characters really resonates with young readers and when I recommend the book to students who haven’t read it – the reviews are unanimously favourable. S.E. Hinton said “Teenagers still feel like I felt when I wrote the book, that adults have no idea what’s really going on. And even today, that concept of the “in crowd” and the “out crowd” is universal. The names of the groups may change, but kids still see their own lives in what happens to Ponyboy and his friends.”

thatwasthenHinton wasn’t a one-trick pony(boy) haha either. Her second novel That Was Then, This is Now, is actually better than The Outsiders, in my humble opinion. If students have read The Outsiders – and a lot of them do in middle school, I always suggest That Was Then as a follow-up. Most of them have never heard of it and again – they always like it. It’s about two childhood friends, Bryon and Mark, whose lives diverge when one chooses to go down a different – more dangerous –  path than the other. I loved this book as a kid. Loved it. And for students who’ve loved The Outsiders, Ponyboy makes an appearance – although this novel is not a sequel.

So, I am going to spend my summer thinking about the course. There will be lots of room for self-selection, of course, the only time someone else chooses what I am going to read is for book club or when I am doing a review for a third party. That said – I have read so many amazing YA novels over the past few years, and btw, by 2014, 55% of YA novels were purchased by adults – and I am looking forward to sharing these titles and talking about them with my students.