Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

between-shades-of-grayWe all know about the atrocities of the Holocaust, but until I decided to read Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray with my grade nine class I knew nothing (shamefully) about what happened in Lithuania during the same time period. During that time Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They rounded up doctors, teachers, musicians, artists and government officials and their families – anyone whom they considered a threat – and shipped them off to work camps. Sepetys’ father was the son of a Lithuanian military officer. He and his family managed to escape to a German refugee camp (the irony is not lost on me). It is the author’s personal connection to this devastating blot on human history that inspired her to tackle telling the story. And what a story it is!

Lina is just fifteen when the NKVD (Russian Secret Police) burst into her home and demand that she, her ten-year-old brother, Jonas, and their mother, pack a suitcase and come with them. It is June 14, 1941 and the world Lina has known – one of art and intellect, of safety and family – is forever shattered. Their father is not home.

The first question I asked my students when we started the book was what they would take if they only had twenty minutes to decide. Lina was getting ready for bed and she remarks “They took me in my nightgown.” What is important when you have no time to think?

I put on my sandals and grabbed two books, hair ribbons and my hairbrush. Where was my sketchbook? I took the writing tablet, the case of pens and pencils and the bundle of rubles off my desk and placed them amongst the heap of items we had thrown into my case.

From the minute Between Shades of Gray starts until the final pages, the reader is living in a world that is almost impossible to comprehend. My students have no frame of reference. Even those who do not live privileged lives have never had to face this kind of terror. As I read the book out loud to my rapt students, I often found myself on the verge of tears imagining the fear, pain and plight of these people who were forced from their homes for no reason. What would I be capable of if I had to protect my family?

Lina’s mother, Elena, is a remarkable character. She is an educated woman who speaks Russian, a handy skill in these circumstances. She does whatever she has to do in an effort to keep her family together, trading items she has sewn into her coat in advance (foreshadowing  the events to come) for food, favour and, in one particularly poignant trade, for the life of her son. Her strength of character, her resiliency (which is mirrored in her children) sustains them all through the long, hard days ahead.

Eventually Lina and her family find themselves at a labour camp in Siberia. I can remember joking about Siberian labour camps as a kid. I didn’t know anything about them; I would have just made a throwaway comment about sending someone to Siberia. Sheer ignorance on my part because the conditions are unimaginable.

It was completely uninhabited, not a single bush or tree, just barren dirt to a shore of endless water. We were surrounded by nothing but polar tundra and the Laptev Sea. The wind whipped. Sand blew into my mouth and stung my eyes.

Worse – they have nowhere to live. The only two buildings are for the Soviets. It’s cold and soon it will be dark 24 hours a day.

I can say this about the book: my students loved it. Although I had promised to read it out loud to them, many read on their own, racing to finish. That’s high praise, especially since many of students would identify themselves as reluctant readers. I had several boys finish way before we did.

Sepetys talks about her novel here and it’s worth watching the video before you read the book. Sepetys talked to survivors and some of their stories find their way into this novel. I wish that the ending hadn’t seemed quite so rushed, but that’s a small niggle and may have something to do with the fact that I wasn’t quite ready to say good bye to these remarkable characters. Overall, Between Shades of Gray is a miracle of a book, a life-affirming novel of resiliency and love and a sober reminder of the terrible things we do to each other.

Highly recommended.

Bystander – James Preller

bystanderJames Preller’s middle grade novel Bystander does a good job of illustrating the school-yard bully.  Wikipedia describes that bystander effect, or bystander apathy, as “a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present.”

When thirteen-year-old Eric moves to a new town with his mother and younger brother Rudy, he meets Griffin, a boy with “soft features … thick lips and long eyelashes…pretty.”  Griffin travels with a pack and when the boys arrive at the basketball court where Eric is practicing foul shots, Eric wonders “if something bad was about to happen.” It doesn’t take him long to figure out that despite Griffin’s alluring charisma, there is something off about him, a fact reinforced when Griffin tells Eric “I’m a good guy to be friends with…but I’m a lousy enemy.”

Truer words. When Eric starts his new school he wants nothing more than to get along. He’s a decent kid, a little sheltered, perhaps (he doesn’t have a cell phone and his mother won’t let him use Instant Messenger). I’ve been the new kid and I know what it’s like to start a new school, so I felt for Eric as he surveyed the cafeteria that first day, wondering where to sit.

In a month, he assured himself, everything would be fine. He’d make new friends, sit with them, eat, joke, laugh. But right now, today, the first day of school, it all kind of sucked. But on another level, none of it really mattered. Eric could smell his meatball sub and he felt hungry. He wanted to eat.

When Griffin stops at his table, chagrined that Eric is alone and invites Eric to eat with him and his friends, Eric accepts. In some ways, it’s a bit like making a date with the devil and we all know what they say about the devil you know, right. It doesn’t take long for Eric, who is a smart kid, to figure out that Griffin just isn’t the kind of friend he wants to have, even if it means that he’s going to suffer for it.

Bystander is a straightforward novel about making choices. Bullying is a hot topic these days and something we talk about even at the high school level. Published in 2009, Bystander doesn’t really address the problem of cyber bullying; Griffin is a garden-variety thug (if you can actually be a thug at 13.) The thing about Griff, though,  is that he’s sort of sympathetic; Preller doesn’t paint him with a simple black stroke.

Despite the fact that the book is intended for a younger audience, I think I have some grade nine students who would enjoy this story. They are not so far removed from middle school that they won’t remember characters just like Griff and his ilk.

Reflections on a year in reading, 2015 edition

I gave a little sneak peek of this list on Information Morning on December 7. Listen here.

It’s that time of year, top ten lists are popping up in all the usual places. I set a reading goal for myself every year…for no other reason than it helps me choose reading over Netflix. Sometimes reading loses, sadly. I keep a bookshelf over at 50Book Pledge. ca, which is a fabulous, easy-to-use virtual bookshelf site for anyone who likes that sort of thing.

Anyway, there are always bookish questionnaires floating around the Internet at this time of year that allow you to pause and take stock of your reading year. I am using The Perpetual Page-Turner’s awesome questions. I’ve done her questionnaire for the last few years and I really love looking back on the year.

Number of Books You Read: at this point 54, my goal was 60 but I didn’t make it.

Number of Re-Reads: 2

Genre You Read The Most From: YA (27 – I read a lot of YA because I teach high school English, but I do try to balance it out with other stuff.)

Non Fiction: 2

Fiction: 23


1.Best Book You Read In 2015?

Best YA: That’s a tie between Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz and Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

Best Other: Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

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

hausfrauHausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

I was pretty excited when this book was chosen for my book club. It was on a lot of top ten lists, but I hated it.
3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?

I am always surprised by books that have a lot of buzz that turn out to be just mediocre on so many levels. I’m thinking of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

4.Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)? IF-YOU-FIND-ME

I am always recommending books – although I generally try to find ‘best fit’ books in the classroom because what is right for one student might not be right for another. That said, of the books I’ve read this year I’ve recently been recommending Emily Murdoch’s If You Find Me.

5. Best series you started in 2015? Best Sequel of 2015? Best Series Ender of 2015?

I loved Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne, and I loved its sequel Sky on Fire…then I got series fatigue, so I haven’t finished the series.

6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2015?

YA – Stephanie Kuehn. I’ve read two books by her this year and I’ve loved them both.

Other – Big fan of Penny Hancock’s Kept in the Dark. I would definitely read more by her

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

Can’t really answer this one because I typically don’t read outside of my comfort zone. For example, I am not a fan of straight-up sci fi, so I don’t have any on my tbr shelf and I probably wouldn’t be purchasing any.

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

In the total page-turner department I read If You Find Me in pretty much one sitting. I was totally invested in those characters. I also loved This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

9. Book You Read In 2015 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year?

Not likely going to be re-reading anything. You might remember I talked about re-reading this summer and I had high hopes to tackle Jane Eyre, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Velocity and of the three I only managed to get to Velocity.

10.  Favorite cover of a book you read in 2015?

ruinsCome on, you know you can’t judge a book by its cover…but my favourite cover was probably Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter because Italy is my happy place and much of the book takes place there and the cover is so pretty, although I suspect it’s been photo shopped. I also loved the cover of Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod, a Canadian who gave up a good job to live and paint in Paris.

11. Most memorable character of 2015?

Oh, I met a lot of memorable characters this year – people I’ve thought about long after the final page was turned. I’m not sure I could pick just one.

12.Most beautifully written book read in 2015?

I think I will have to say Beautiful Ruins, although The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is pretty amazing, too. Both of those books manage to offer the reader style and substance.

13. Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2015?

Okay, well it has to be Donna Tartt’s massive The Goldfinch. I mean, Tartt just gives the reader so much to gnaw on…some of it frustrating, some of it extraneous and some of it absolutely, stunningly, remarkable. That was a book that made me laugh, made me cry and made me want to tear my hair out – sometimes on the same page.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2015 to finally read? 

I am going to interpret this question a little differently. Andrew Davidson’s novel The Gargoyle has been sitting on my TBR shelf for at least five years, but I only got around to reading it this year when it was chosen for book club. Sadly, it didn’t live up to all its hype.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2015?

“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time. And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently  as if I were standing in the room with you. That life – whatever else it is – is short. “ – The Goldfinch

16. Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2015?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt was the longest at 784 pages

This Is What I Did by Ann Dee Ellis was the shortest at 176 pages

17. Book That Shocked You The Most

(Because of a plot twist, character death, left you hanging with your mouth wide open, etc.)

Hmmm…maybe Kept in the Dark. 

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

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

Aristotle and Dante….so much love for these boys – they were so richly drawn.

19. Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year

Elizabeth and Lauren from Roomies. I loved both those girls and the friendship they forged via e-mail.

20. Favorite Book You Read in 2015 From An Author You’ve Read Previously

This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers I read her novel Some Girls Are last year and loved it, and this one – a zombie novel – I didn’t actually expect to like as much as I did, but it was excellent. Summers is Canadian and she is a kick ass writer.

21. Best Book You Read In 2015 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else/Peer Pressure: Kindness

Kindness for Weakness by Shawn Goodman was recommended to me by a girl in my grade eleven class. She loved it so much that she asked her parents for a copy for Christmas. So, when a student is that passionate, I feel obliged to move that book to the head of the queue. Sadie was right; this is a great book.

22. Best Worldbuilding/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?

I think Josh Malerman did a pretty good job of creating a vivid setting in his horror novel Bird Box. It was pretty dang creepy.

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

Oh dear – I’m not sure I could pick a book that I would consider the most “fun” to read. I read books that I enjoyed, but not because they were “fun.” Geesh, perhaps I need to read less gloomy books.

24. Book That Made You Cry or Nearly Cry in 2015?

The Goldfinch made me cry. Yep, not gonna lie. And this time – for the first time ever – I cried when I re-read Velocity. I’ve read that book 20 times, but I cried for the first time ever this summer.

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

Amazing Grace by Lesley Crewe. I was mad that I wasted time reading it…and I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been chosen for book club. I know people who have really enjoyed it and I even understand why they loved it – but for me…a world of no.

27. Hidden Gem Of The Year?

Kept in the Dark. I don’t know how many people know about this book, but it was really, seriously good – although perhaps the subject matter will squick some people out.

28. Book That Crushed Your Soul?

Ahhh, who doesn’t like a little soul-crushing? If You Find Me was heart-wrenching. The Goldfinch packed a wallop, for sure.

29. Most Unique Book You Read In 2015?

Hmmm. Not sure. Paris Letters, maybe. The House had the potential to be unique, but it was mostly silly.



1. New favorite book blog you discovered in 2015?

Sadly, I don’t follow any blogs regularly. I need to carve out more time for this because there’s so much great conent out there. 2015 was really a busy year for me. I am hoping things settle down some in 2016.

2. Favorite review that you wrote in 2015?

I thought I did a decent job of capturing my conflicted feelings about The Goldfinch. I also liked my review of Velocity, which is one of my all-time favourite books.

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

My blog doesn’t actually get a lot of traffic – so not too much “discussion” happening. Something I should try to rectify, although I have always said that The Ludic Reader is mostly a place for me to gather my own thoughts about the books I read.

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

Again – this is something I need to get to make more time for. The only bookish thing I get involved with is The Write Stuff, a one day workshop/reading I help organize for students in Southern New Brunswick. We do have an amazing literary festival here called FogLit. It would be so easy to get on board…gah!

5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2015?

The absolute very best bookish thing that happened to me this year was having an email correspondence with Kristin McCloy, author of Velocity and Some Girls. It started with a brief exchange on Good Reads and morphed into a full-blown friendly chat via email which made my fangirl heart almost explode with bookish happiness. I LOVE Velocity. Imagine having the opportunity to actually tell the author what a book has meant to you and …insert head explosion here.

6. Most challenging thing about blogging or your reading life this year?

It’s always being distracted by other things, I guess. I also think that setting a reading target worked against me a little. I felt, towards the end, I was whipping through books in an effort to meet the goal I’d set and so because I know I can do 50 I’m going to leave it at that and take the pressure off myself. I just want to read…

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

With 123 views, a thing I wrote about classics for The Nerdy Book Club got the most love.

8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

I think everyone should read the interview I did with my amazing son, Connor. He’s the only 16-year-old I know who read Madame Bovary of his own volition.

9. Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?

Word Porn on FB.

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

Nope. Six books shy of my goal.


1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2015 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2016?

Ha. As if. Actually, Brooklyn by ColmToibin is my first priority. It needs to be read by the 7th for our first book club of 2016. I started it last night.

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2016 (non-debut)?IMG_8859

All the books on my TRB shelf need some love. I am anticipating all of them.

3. 2016 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?

I honestly don’t follow what’s coming out in a rigorous way. I have so many backlisted books on my shelves; I am not a “I have to have that book as soon as it comes out” reader.

 4. Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2016?

I got nothing. Series drive me crazy.

5. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2016?

I would like to find a way to be a more regular blogger. I am actually a fairly organized person, but in some ways I bite off a little more than I can chew in real life, and this blog often takes a back seat. I would like to change that.

6. A 2016 Release You’ve Already Read & Recommend To Everyone:


Thanks again to The Perpetual Page-Turner for providing these questions and an opportunity to reflect on my reading year.

I hope 2016 brings you many happy hours curled up with a good book!







What We Lost – Sara Zarr

whatwelost“The whole world is wilting,” says fifteen-year-old Samara (Sam), the protagonist of Sara Zarr’s YA novel What We Lost.

She means the comment literally because it’s so hot that she wakes up every couple of hours “in a puddle of sweat,” but the observation is also figurative. Sam’s life is full of conflict and chaos. Her father, Charlie,  a pastor at the local church, is distracted and every day Sam wakes up to something “ruined or broken or falling apart.”

Part of the problem is that Sam’s mother is currently residing at the New Beginnings Recovery Center in an effort to get sober. Without her mother there, Sam feels adrift. There’s not enough money and Sam is tired of having to pretend that her mom just isn’t feeling well enough to attend church or other social functions. Things get even more complicated when Jody, a thirteen-year-old member of Sam’s church, goes missing  and Sam’s small town suddenly becomes a lens through which she is able to see all the world’s flaws, including her own.

I’ve read Zarr’s fantastic book Story of a Girl and her novel Roomies, which she co-wrote with Tara Altebrando, and which I also loved. Zarr has a real gift when it comes to creating empathetic characters and Samara is no different. Her fifteenth summer is a perfect storm of angst and confusion, suspicion and alienation.

I wish I understood what happened between then and now. I wish there was a way to put your finger on the map of life and trace backwards, to figure out exactly when things had changed so much…

As the town searches for Jody, Sam’s dad spends time with her family, acting as a sort of spokesperson. During this time, Sam grows closer to Jody’s older brother, Nick. He “could probably be a model” Sam observes, studying him the way “every girl who has ever known Nick has studied him.”

The problem with their blossoming friendship is that Nick is a suspect in the disappearance of his sister and Charlie doesn’t want Sam to hang out with him. Charlie also doesn’t want Sam to be alone; the town no longer feels safe. Sam is shuttled back and forth between her house and her best friend Vanessa’s. Sam has suspicions of her own; she wonders why her dad is spending so much time with Erin, the church’s youth group leader.

Zarr manages all these threads beautifully, allowing Sam her questions  about her faith in God,  suspicions about her dad, loneliness for her mom and feelings for Nick to percolate under the hot summer sun.

Great read.


The House – Christina Lauren

Okay, there’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s, well, just disbelief. I so wanted to like Christina Lauren’s (the co-writing team of Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings) YA novel The House, but I didn’t. Actually, my feelings are more conflicted than that: I liked some things about the book and really, really disliked others.

the houseThe good: The writing in The House is actually pretty decent. At least decent enough that I wasn’t groaning over clunky sentences. In particular, the spooky scenes were well-written – propulsive and skin-crawlingly descriptive.

The two main characters, Delilah and Gavin are likeable teens. The story is told in alternating chapters labeled ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ so the reader is privy to the thoughts of both characters. Delilah has recently started high school in her hometown in Kansas after leaving a  school on the east coast. Gavin has lived his whole life in “the House,” an odd patchwork house hidden behind a fence. The two knew each other as children, before Delilah had been sent to live with her grandmother. Now she is intent on rekindling her friendship with Gavin.  It would seem that he is the proverbial bad boy and that Delilah is smitten.

The bad: There is no long burn here, no smolder – which is unfortunate because these stories work so much better when there is. Gavin and Delilah fall pretty much in love almost immediately. Of course, their relationship is not without its problems and that’s the part of the story that was the most problematic for me.

Things inside House can come alive in a way that I don’t think things anywhere else can. When an object is inside House…it can be alive….


Things in the house move….They take care of me. They always have. They would never leave….It’s a bit like having a really big family, but no one speaks.

Yep, Gavin’s house is alive. His parents are gone, but House has always taken care of him, anticipating his every desire, making his food, taking care of his needs. He doesn’t see it as particularly strange because, of course, it’s all he’s ever known. For most young adult readers this likely won’t seem like much of an imaginative stretch. They’ve grown up reading books where teens fight to the death, have other-worldly powers and fall in love with vampires and werewolves, but for me, I just found it sort of goofy.

As it turns out, House isn’t all that benevolent when it seems like Delilah might steal Gavin away. The novel gives new meaning to the notion of playing house, that’s for sure.

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

catcher-in-the-rye-cover-imageSo I recently re-read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time in about twenty years (or maybe longer, although I shudder to think) because I am teaching Grade 11 this year and Salinger’s classic coming-of-age story is on the reading list. Now I have to figure out what I really think about this book – not just what I want the kids to think I think about it.  It’s a problem because I believe that Holden Caulfield is definitely a character adolescents should encounter, if only because he (and this novel) is alluded to in so much of the literature, music, and films that followed.

If you’re out of the loop, The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and concerns almost-17-year-old Holden Caulfield, a smart but disenchanted student who has just been kicked out of Pencey Prep, a fancy boarding school in Pennsylvania. “You’ve probably heard of it,” Holden tells us. “They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time.” Holden is flunking all his courses except for English (he’s a voracious reader) and so he’s being sent home.

When the novel opens though, Holden is recounting “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty rundown” from a rest home in California. Once he establishes where he is, Holden starts to tell his story – embellishments (by his own admission, Holden is “the most terrific liar”) and all.

There is no question that The Catcher in the Rye is dated. Holden peppers his speech with “goddam” (a rather tame expletive by today’s standards), he smokes and drinks (not that today’s teenagers don’t, but there is something old-fashioned about the way he treats these vices) and he’s able to spend an extended amount of time in New York City without breaking the bank (I wish!). Everyone Holden encounters is a “phony” and despite his obsession with sex, Holden is still a virgin. That said, there is something thoroughly modern in Holden’s quest to make sense of  his life, which has gone seriously off the rails.

At its heart, The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about growing up. Holden doesn’t want to, not really. It is perhaps the reason why he’s still a virgin and why he thinks the Museum of Natural History is a perfect place.

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still just be finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

Holden can’t stop time, although I think he would desperately like to. He also can’t undo the fact that his beloved brother, Allie, is dead. “You’d have liked him,” Holden tells us. He is preoccupied with the loss of innocence that precipitates the headlong fall into adulthood. He tells his little sister, Phoebe, that he would like to be a “catcher in the rye,”

…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…

Holden’s narrative amounts to a desperate cry for help, for someone to listen to him, for someone to answer his questions, questions which, on the surface (like, where do the ducks in Central Park go when the pond freezes over) seem innocent, but which really demonstrate Holden’s search for meaning.

In Holden, Salinger has created a timeless character who will always have something to say to anyone who cares to listen.

Fitz – Mick Cochrane

fitzMick Cochrane’s YA novel, Fitz, is the story of what happens when a boy decides to confront the father he’s never met.

Fitz is a “typical fifteen-year-old boy. A sophomore on the B honor roll. A kid with a messy room, an electric guitar, a notebook full of song lyrics, vague dreams about doing something great some day, a crush on a red-haired girl.”

And like many other teens, Fitz (short for Fitzgerald) lives with his single mom. His father is an unknown entity; his mother doesn’t talk about him and although he supports Fitz financially, Fitz knows nothing about him. That doesn’t mean Fitz doesn’t think about him, though.

When Fitz was a little boy, he liked to imagine that his father was quietly, secretly watching over him, loving him, for his own good and unselfish reasons, from a distance.

Circumstances have changed, though. Fitz has inadvertently discovered his father’s home address and he’s decided to confront his dad, which, sure, that seems plausible enough. What doesn’t seem quite as likely is the fact that Fitz takes a gun with him and pretty much kidnaps his father. It’s a scenario that could go horribly wrong.

Turns out, though, that Fitz’s father, Curtis, is a decent guy – clearly, he’s been paying support all these years. Over the course of the day the two listen to music, hang out at the zoo, have lunch and visit Curtis’s office (he’s an attorney). As the day unfolds, Fitz tries to figure out what it is he really wants to know about his dad and Curtis, it seems, is only too willing to talk, has – in fact – been waiting for fifteen years to have this conversation with his son. It’s kind of sweet, really.

“You were a good baby, a beautiful baby,” that’s how he starts. That’s his once-upon-a-time. He says that Fitz was healthy, bright-eyed, curious. He had amazing blue eyes. It’s just that he didn’t sleep, at least not for long stretches.

Fitz is sensible enough to listen as his father tries to explain the story of his relationship with Fitz’s mother and smart enough to realize that even parents make mistakes because, in their own once-upon-a-time, they were young enough to make them. If the story seems just a tad sentimental, Cochrane can be forgiven because Fitz is a likeable character and, thankfully, the gun is little more than false bravado.


Amazing Grace – Lesley Crewe

Holy ol’ Jesus, Amazing Grace is awful. So awful that if it hadn’t been chosen for book club, I would have abandoned it right around the time that Amazing Grace Willingdon, 60, flies off to New York City from her trailer in Baddeck, Namazingova Scotia, to help her estranged millionaire son, Jonathan, rescue her teenage granddaughter, Melissa, from making bad decisions. You know, the kind that you make because you are sixteen.

We are to understand that Grace is a firecracker because she doesn’t suffer fools easily,  the church women give her indigestion and she yells “asshole” at drivers who speed past her. It’s not her fault that she’s curmudgeonly; Grace has had a hard life including a duel with cancer (which she won), a sham marriage and a childhood as a member of a religious cult where she and her sister (Ave Maria – not a joke) and their mother, Trixie,  were repeatedly raped by the cult leader. I wish I could say that these are the only difficulties that Grace endures, but amazingly (see what I did there) they are not.

That’s at least part of the problem with Amazing Grace. When I tried to explain the story to my son, Connor, I found that I could not adequately convey the number of ridiculous things that happened to this character or the number of times she was saved by her inheritance or her son’s private jet or just old-fashioned serendipity. But the bigger problem in Nova Scotian writer Lesley Crewe’s book is the writing itself.  It’s just…bad.

I point my finger in his face. “You are going straight to hell, Ed Wheeler. You have the devil inside you and we all know what happens to evil people. They burn forever. The very thought of it makes me giddy. You tried to destroy me, but you didn’t. You tried to possess me but you couldn’t. I am the powerful one now. The tables have turned, you creep. You have no one. You are a big nobody. You will never cross my mind again, because I win, you bastard. I win.

I live in New Brunswick – right next door to Nova Scotia – so this landscape and these people should at least be familiar to me. On top of that, I am just a few years shy of Grace’s age; she’s my contemporary. But she’s not even remotely believable to me. I have never once overslept and yelled “Holy macaroni.” I can’t imagine being a grandmother and chasing my granddaughter down the hall, grabbing her from behind and then hauling her “squirming and yelling” back to the kitchen to apologize for a snotty comment because words are “the most powerful force of all.” It’s all so melodramatic and over-the-top.

Ultimately, this is a book about family – our biological family and the family we choose. But the book is so overstuffed and the writing so pedestrian that I just couldn’t have cared any less for these people.


If You Find Me – Emily Murdoch

“Mama says no matter how poor folks are, whether you’re a have, a have-not, or break your mama’s back on the cracks in between, the world gives away the best stuff on the cheap.”

IF-YOU-FIND-METhat’s the first thing fifteen-year-old Carey tells us in Emily Murdoch’s amazing novel If You Find Me. From the moment she speaks, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with her and as her story unspools, it’ll be even more difficult not to want to want to hug her and her little sister, Jenessa, who is just six.

Carey and Jenessa live in a trailer in  in the middle of Obed Wild and Scenic River National Park or, as the girls call it, “the Hundred Acre Wood.” Their mother, Joelle, is usually gone and has, in fact, been MIA for “over a month, maybe two at this point,” leaving the girls to fend for themselves. Carey does the best she can to look after herself and Jenessa but “when you’re livin’ in the woods…with no runnin’ water or electricity, with Mama gone to town for long stretches of time, leavin’ you in charge of feedin’ a younger sister…with a stomach rumblin’ like a California earthquake” it’s not easy. The girls exist, mostly, on beans fixed in “new and interestin’ ways.”

On this particular day, though, Carey and Jenessa have company. A woman “as thin as chicken bones, her gait uneven as her heels sink into the soft forest floor” and a man stumble into the girls’ campsite.

He hasn’t offered his name, and he isn’t familiar to me. But in that instant, hittin’ like a lightnin’ bolt, I know who he is.

If You Find Me is an amazing story of resilience and family and forgiveness, but it is also a horrific story of abuse and neglect, made all the more powerful because of Carey’s compelling and authentic narration. I fell in love with her the moment she started to tell her story and I know this is fiction, but I also know that children endure atrocities at the hands of their parents and guardians all the time.

Suddenly, Carey finds herself living with a father she doesn’t remember, a new step-mother and a step-sister who clearly resents her, attending school for the first time.  Jenessa seems to thrive in her new surroundings and although Carey contemplates returning to the her life in the woods, her love for her sister prevents her from running. Their journey is one of resilience and hope, but it’s not all smooth sailing.

I loved this book because I loved Carey. I wish the ending hadn’t seemed so rushed, though, because I don’t think Carey’s relationship with Ryan was as fully developed as it might have been and other pieces fell into place just a tad conveniently, but whatever; I haven’t read a YA book with a narrator I’ve loved quite as much as I loved Carey in a long time.

Highly recommended.

Off the Shelf – Moving Day

bookshelvesListen here.

So, I recently moved. I moved a lot as a kid and a young adult; I probably didn’t appreciate how much work it was for my mom to pack up a whole household, kids and pets and move as much as we did.  I’ve been in the same place for eight years and the amount of crap my kids and I had accumulated was daunting, but I figured that now was the time to divest myself from some of the junk we no longer used or wanted. But I am a terrible hoarder, so how was I ever going to part with some of this stuff.

Enter The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

So Marie Kondo is a Japanese cleaning consultant who claims that if you adopt her “KonMari” method of decluttering, you’ll never be untidy again. Her secret is to discard and then organize and she offers all sorts of tips on everything from how to fold your clothes (apparently we all do it wrong) to organizing your closet to getting rid of ephemera (and don’t we all have way to much paper even in a so-called paperless society)…and then here’s the one I needed help with – books. I guess, to a degree, Marie and I parted company on books.

bookshelvesSo, I moved into my new place and pretty much the first thing that had to happen was I needed bookshelves built, which my amazing brother Tom did for me. Now, if I was going to follow Marie’s advice, I’d put all my books on the floor (as it turns out – that’s where they all were – in piles all over the floor) – she’s big on having people put stuff on the floor, spread out so you can see it, but also so you have to pick up the book to put it back on the shelf. Here’s her criteria for making the decision about whether or not the book goes back on the shelf: decide “…whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it.”

Kondo herself only keeps about 30 books at a time – which is horrifying to me, that’s about the amount I have stacked on my bedside table – but I think her advice is generally sound. She would definitely take issue with my tbr shelf because her take on that is when it comes to the claim that you will get around to reading a book “sometime” is that “sometime” never comes. Kondo and I have differing opinions on that, I guess.

This book would be a great little gift for someone who needs to do some decluttering and she really does make the claim that if you follow her advice, you’ll never be buried under your junk again.

So, once I got all my books on my shelves…they all sparked joy, every one of them, btw…I picked a book from my tbr shelf (I think just to show Ms. Kondo that I actually DID read those books – eventually) and that books was

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

This is a book about a high-powered lawyer who lives with her daughter Amelia in Brooklyn. She’s a single mom and a bit of a workaholic, but she and her daughter, who is 15, have a great relationship. Her daughter attends a prestigious private school where she’s a top student and athlete.  The book opens with Kate getting a call from the school that Amelia is being suspended for plagiarizing an essay and Kate has to go pick her up from the school. By the time she arrives, Amelia is dead – which, not a spoiler, it’s on the back of the book. McCreight unspools the story, not only from Kate’s point of view, but also through Amelia’s first person narrative and it’s a real page-turner as Kate tries to figure out what happened to her daughter and Amelia tries to navigate the tricky underbelly of teenage cliques.

This book was scary, actually, because it really highlighted how little we know  – as parents – about the lives of our kids, even when we have a good relationship with them…and a lot of that has to do with social media, cell phones…so this is a timely story, a family drama and sort of a thriller all rolled into one.

Then I picked a book off my tbr shelf at school…yes, I have one…it’s a thing

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

So I read Kuehn’s book Charm & Strange earlier this year and loved that book and Complicit is pretty dang good, too. Kuehn actually has a doctorate in clinical psychology, which is why I think she manages to create such compelling damaged characters. In this instance, a story about siblings Cate and Jamie, who were placed in foster care s children after the shooting death of their mom. Years later, Cate ends up being sent to juvie after she burns down a neighbour’s barn…and then a couple years after that, she comes back to town and throws her brother’s life into turmoil. It’s a total page turner, with complex characters, excellent writing.

Although I am not completely settled into my new place, my books are in their rightful place and looking at them gives me great joy.