Tag Archive | 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.

The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer

Until about the midway point, I couldn’t put Kate Hamer’s novel The Girl in the Red Coat down. When eight-year-old Carmel Wakefield disappears, her mother, Beth,  is unhinged by her grief. Hamer’s novel follows Beth’s narrative as well as Carmel’s and until the reader understands the reasons for Carmel’s abduction, the novel is propulsive and riveting.

red coatBeth is sort of a hippie. She and her ex-husband, Paul, had “run a business together buying and selling ginseng and specialty teas.” Paul, after leaving the marriage, has been a relatively absent father and his relationship with Beth is strained mostly because he has a new, much-younger girlfriend.

Carmel is a precocious child. At a parent teacher meeting, the headmaster  explains to Beth that Carmel’s “vocabulary is extremely advanced. Her imagination is amazing, I don’t think she quite sees the world like the rest of us.”

On the fateful day that Carmel disappears, Beth has taken her to children’s story festival. She has decided that she needs to set aside the grief of her crumbled marriage and “start afresh.”

The festival is a treat and Carmel “can feel words come shooting out of the tent doors and [she] just want[s] to stand there at the openings and let them fizz on [her] brain.” It’s a hot, crowded day and pretty soon Beth is getting cross and Carmel, in an act of defiance, ducks under a table to read a book. When she reappears, ages later, the fog has rolled in and her mother is gone. That’s when the man appears. He tells her that he is her grandfather and that her mother has been in a terrible accident.

Carmel has no reason to doubt the man. Her mother has been estranged from her parents for her whole life – it’s one of the things that has plagued Carmel’s young mind. Why doesn’t she have grandparents to bring her treats like her friends do?  So, fearful and clearly alone, Carmel goes with the man who promises to take her to the hospital to see her mother. Of course, that’s not what happens.

The Girl in the Red Coat is suspenseful until Granddad’s motives are revealed and then it started to feel like a different book to me. In the first part, when Carmel is taken to a strange house where she meets her grandfather’s partner, Dorothy, Hamer does a wonderful job of stringing the reader (and Carmel) along. Why can’t she see her mom? Why can’t they contact her dad? Where are they?

Beth’s journey is also heart-wrenching. She counts the days Carmel has been gone. She searches for her daughter. She goes through the motions. But the time goes by and it’s like Carmel has dropped off the face of the earth.

Those early days are compelling for Beth, Carmel and the reader. For me, though, the novel’s suspense is spoiled by its key secret – and once that’s out I found myself caring less about all the players, which is too bad, because the book is beautifully written and had a lot of potential.

The Truth About Alice – Jennifer Mathieu

The-Truth-About-Alice-Jennifer-MathieuThe truth we probably don’t want to acknowledge is that high school is hell for loads of kids. I teach high school and even though I would like to think that my school is perfect and inclusive and bully-free, I know that isn’t actually the case. I suspect Jennifer Mathieu knows that, too. She is also a teacher, which is why her novel The Truth About Alice rings true on so many levels.

There is something about Alice Franklin that gets everyone talking. Everyone has an opinion and the four main narrators in Mathieu’s novel are happy to share their thoughts.

Elaine O’Dea, possibly the most popular girl in school (by her own estimation) remarks “She’s never been super crazy popular like me…I guess Alice Franklin has spent most of her life on the middle floor somewhere, but on the top of the middle. So she was cool enough to come to my party.” Kurt Morelli, brilliant nerd, describes her as “Alice Franklin with the raspberry lips and the bad reputation and the faraway eyes. Alice Franklin with the short hair not like any other girl’s and the gloriously loud laugh and the body that curves like an alpha wave. Alice Alice Alice Alice Franklin.”

Then, after a party at Elaine’s house, the rumour that Alice slept with two guys – one after the other – erupts. One boy, Tommy Cray, is in college and one boy, Brandon Fitzsimmons (Elaine’s on-again, off-again, on-again boyfriend) is the best quarterback Healy High has ever seen. Shortly after the party, Brandon is killed in a car accident and Alice is, apparently, to blame for that, too.

Kelsie, Alice’s supposed best friend, abandons her and aligns herself with Elaine and her crew. She adds fuel to the rumour fire by adding a few juicy tidbits. Josh, Brandon’s best friend, does his own part to fan the flames. Alice soon finds herself a pariah at school.

It would be easy to hate all the people involved with ostracizing Alice, but the truth is that these teens all have their own issues: parental expectations, sexuality, religion, weight and Mathieu does a pretty good job of allowing the reader to see their motivations and vulnerabilities.

This is a novel about the damage rumours can do. Healy is a small town and even the adults know the stories, but no one intervenes. Alice’s single mother is non-existent in a parental role, leaving Alice to fend for herself. We don’t hear from Alice until the very end – which I actually think was a smart choice on Mathieu’s part. Instead, we watch her navigate the steady stream of vitriol and slowly start to find her path due to her unexpected friendship with Kurt, a character you can only imagine has suffered his fair share of bullying.

The truth will out and when it does, some of the machinations didn’t ring quite true to me, particularly Alice and Elaine’s conversation in the hair salon, but that’s only a small niggle. I thought The Truth About Alice tackled a timely subject with a lot of honesty and many teens will certainly see themselves in the story.

Dancing With Myself – Billy Idol

Back in the 80s, I had tickets to see Billy Idol at Madison Square Garden. A guy I was dating at the time had scored the tickets for my birthday and I was so excited because, hello, Billy freakin’ Idol. Alas, it was not to be. As I recall, there was some sort of issue with asbestos or something and the concert was cancelled.

“White Wedding” was one of the very first videos I ever remember watching. Canada’s version of MTV, MuchMusic launched in 1984 and Idol’s song came out in 1982. I think Idol was one of the first video stars ever because he’s so pretty. (And I don’t mean to imply that was the only reason he was a huge video hit – there’s no denying Idol’s charisma or talent.)  He made a lot of videos in the 80s and was a huge star, so I was really sad that I didn’t get a chance to see him live.

Of course, I didn’t really know much about Idol and although I am not in the habit of reading rock star memoirs, I kind of had to read Dancing With Myself. Idol wrote the book himself and his straight-ahead style serves his story well. billy_idol_dancing_with_myself_final_cover-1

Billy Idol was born William Broad in 1955 in North London. When he was four, he and his parents moved to Long Island, NY where he lived until he was eight and the Broads returned to the UK. At that point, Idol considered himself an American and so often felt like a fish out of water.

“Music always pulled me through,” he said, “voices laying out a tale of their lives, musicians riding the wave.” He was also a voracious reader, reading everything from Enid Blyton to every history book he could get his hands on. Like lots of other smart kids, school wasn’t his bag and although he did one year of college, he dropped out. Still, Idol and his younger sister, Jane, enjoyed a happy, middle-class life with parents who loved and supported him – even when they didn’t always understand him.

But the times, they were a changin’. In 1976, Idol saw The Sex Pistols play for the first time.

On that night, the Pistols onstage were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Johnny Rotten, with orange, razor-cropped hair, was hunched over, holding a beer and staring bug-eyed out at the crowd through tiny, tinted square glasses….While hardly moving, John radiated a defiant intensity that demanded your attention….It made a strong impression on me.

The punk scene blossomed out of what was happening in England at the time. “In mid-’70s England, you couldn’t get a shit job, let alone have a career,” Idol recalls. The punk movement was part political statement and part fashion statement and Idol was in the right place at the right time. The punk scene was “a reaction to everyone who was telling people our age what we should do to succeed.”

I don’t think even I realized how connected to the British punk scene Idol was. His first band, Generation x actually experienced some success and launched Idol’s successful solo career.

When things began to disintegrate with Gen X, and Idol no longer felt there was a future in punk, he decided to go the States and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dancing With Myself is filled with the requisite name-dropping and behind-the-scenes stuff relating to the music business, but mostly it’s a straight up tale of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Idol is very candid about his drug use – which was copious and scary, really. He also had more than his fair share of sexual encounters. The love of his life, Perri Lister, a dancer he met during his punk days and the mother of his son, Willem, is clearly an important person in his life although they haven’t been together in years. Idol also has a daughter, Bonnie, from another relationship.

I enjoyed reading this book, actually. I am not a music aficionado by any stretch and so the music biz stuff would likely be more interesting to someone who is plugged into that. I was interested in Idol the man, though. The guy trying to make good choices for his kids; the son who cared for his dying father; the big brother and uncle; the friend. Idol probably shouldn’t have made it through all those crazy drug-filled days, or survived the horrific motorcycle accident he had in 1990. But he did. His memoir proves his resilience and his relevance and although not always a nice guy, he owns his mistakes and that makes him pretty awesome in my book.