The Dog Days of Summer

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Want to live longer? Apparently all you have to do is read. According to a study that will be published in  the Sept issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine  “reading doesn’t only help us to tolerate existence, but actually prolongs it,”  and that “that people who read books for 30 minutes a day lived longer than those who didn’t read at all.” The study looked at the reading habits of about 3500 people aged 50 and older and discovered that readers lived, on average, two years longer than non-readers.

Of course this is great news for people like me because I read every day – clearly in a bid to prolong my life, but also because I stubbornly refuse to leave this earth until all the books on my tbr shelf have been read. I figure I’m good until at least 140.

So there’s no time like the present to make reading a part of your regular routine – like yoga for the brain. Read the entire article from The Guardian here.

At the start of the summer I talked all about the books that I was going to try to read this summer, including the entire Harry Potter series. Yeah, not so much. I did read The Chamber of Secrets and I am currently reading Prisoner of Azkaban and there is no question of the appeal of these books but I am, for obvious reasons, finding them young. I know that as the characters get older, the themes will get darker and I will read them all as promised…but I am never getting through them all this summer.

I also said I was going to read Martin Short’s memoir I Must Say and I did read that. If you20604377 are at all a fan of Canada’s funny man, it’s worth a look. Apparently the audiobook is narrated by Short and although I don’t listen to audiobooks, I might have made an exception in this case because he does all his characters. In any case, I enjoyed reading about Short’s early life in Hamilton and his start in show business.  It’s a namedropping extravaganza.

But of the books I spoke about back at the beginning of July, that’s as far as I got. I got distracted by shiny new books and so I thought I’d offer some suggestions for the dog days of summer.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain ReidIm+Thinking+of+Ending+Things

So, Reid is a Canadian writer and this is his first book of fiction although he’s written a couple memoirs. This book is a total mind-you-know-what. An unnamed narrator is on her way to meet her boyfriend’s parents. In a snowstorm. As they drive, she catalogues their relationship and contemplates ending things. When they arrive at Jake’s parent’s house – which is in the middle of nowhere – things take a turn for the what-the-hell. It’s compulsively readable and totally strange. If you read this book, I’d love for you to tell me what you think happens.

The Crooked House – Christobel Kent

If you are a fan of the BBC miniseries Broadchurch, this is the book for you. It’s about a girl named Alison who, until she was 14, lived in a small British town called Saltleigh. Her life is irrevocably changed when her entire family, with the exception of her father,  is murdered. The police determine that it was  her dad that committed the crime. Fast forward several years later and Alison finds herself back in Saltleigh with her boyfriend to attend a wedding.  She has no choice but to start to examine the past and try to figure out what really happened. This is a slow burn, but it’s well-written and perfect for a rainy day because it can (and should ) be read in one go.

the-girls-in-the-garden-9781476792217_hrThe Girls in the Garden – Lisa Jewell

This book is about a woman who moves to a small community in London after her husband has a psychotic break and burns their house down. Which, would probably be enough fodder for a book on all its own, but that’s not really what the book is about. When the book starts the eldest daughter, soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old Grace,  is found bloody and unconscious in the community garden behind the house. Then the book sort of unspools the story of the residents that live around the garden…and the children…and what really happened to Grace. It’s a domestic drama that reads like a thriller.

 

 

 

 

Summer Reading 2016

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So – it’s summer. I’ve got all this free time stretching out in front of me and all I can think about is – what am I going to read? It’s the perfect time to make a dent in my tbr pile and yet I keep buying more books. Ridiculous. I do have a reading plan and an anti-gravity deck chair…and an awesome new deck, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about what’s on tap for  my summer reading.

First of all, I promised my daughter, Mallory,  I’d read the complete Harry Potter series, which is 4224 pages. Yikes. I’ve actually read the first book and I’ve seen all the movies multiple times.

9780545162074_p0_v2_s1200x630Here’s a funny thing. The first Harry Potter book came out the year Mal was born and probably when she was about two I started to read it to her and I just couldn’t finish it. I just didn’t like it and she was too young. She was probably in middle school when she started reading the books on her own and I think she’s read the series a half dozen times or so. I subsequently fell in love with J.K. Rowling’s adult books, The Casual Vacancy and the Cormoran Strike books which she wrote as Robert Galbraith. (I’ve only read the first, The Cuckoo’s Calling.) I also think Rowling is an amazing human being – she gives away scads of  money, crazy amounts. Anyway, I will definitely be tackling Harry Potter this summer.

Here’s another book I should have read, but haven’t – A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of the time he spent living in Paris in the 1920s. I would say, generally speaking, that I am not a fan of Hemingway. I understand his place in the literary canon, but just not my cup of tea. Then I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It’s a fictional account of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their time spent in Paris surrounded by the literati of the day: Gertude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound. I mean, you can’t really call yourself a literature lover and not be a little bit intrigued by those people. I highly recommend The Paris Wife and after I finished it,  I bought A Moveable Feast and my friend Karen has chosen Hemingay’s novel For Whom The Bell Tolls as our summer book club on FB. So, looks like I’ll be reading two Hemingways this summer.

Then – on top of all this, I am going to try to make some room to read some fun stuff. I started Martin Short’s memoir I Must Say a couple nights ago. I’ve been a life-long fan and I can hear all his voices – Ed Grimley and Jiminy Glick –  in my head.

I also have a couple thrillers on my bedside table, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, for example.

Speaking of thrillers, if anyone out there is looking to read a highly unusual thriller I can recommend M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts. It’s a zombie apocalypse novel – not normally my cup of tea, but definitely worth checking out, especially if you like to read the book before you see the movie. Carey is quite a well-known writer of comic books, The X Men and Lucifer. The book takes place in the U.K. and concerns a heavily guarded compound where ten-year-old Melanie and other “hungries” are studied in the hopes of finding a cure for the world’s zombie problem. It’s quite a big problem, actually. Melanie is a wonderful character and the novel is action-packed, smart and kinda sad, too.

What are you planning to read this summer?

 

 

Off the Shelf – Should we let kids read what they want?

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Um. Yeah. That’s the short answer. The long answer is a lot more complicated.

This is a topic we’ve tackled before, but it’s endlessly fascinating, isn’t it?  Just the thought of someone telling me what I can and can’t read gets my hackles up – but it’s an even pricklier subject when you start to consider younger readers. I deal with young adult readers every day and have a classroom library of more than 1000 books, several of which have been on a banned book list at some point, I’m sure.

According to an article in The Guardian, books are banned for all sorts of reasons including “Racism, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit scenes, gritty topics like suicide and drugs, and talking animals.”  C’mon, you’re going to tell me Winnie the Pooh is objectionable – some of my fondest childhood memories of are of my mom reading me Winnie the Pooh.

“According to the American Library Association, the most common initiators of book challenges are parents, and the most common settings for book challenges are schools, school libraries, and public libraries. In other words, we can assume that books are most frequently challenged by concerned parents, who believe materials are unsuitable for children or teens.”

Okay, we’re going to head down the rabbit hole now.

TwilightbookObjecting to reading material is subjective. I object to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series all the time – loudly – in my classroom, but I have the whole series in my library. My students know I think Meyer is a hack, but that’s about the quality of her writing, not about the subject matter and it’s a personal opinion.  If students want to read her books, they should read them. And then they should read other, better vampire books like Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Cold Town or the granddaddy of them all Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Young adult novels have definitely changed – but as much as things change they stay the same. So let’s have a quick primer.

Seventeenth Summer released by Maureen Daly in 1942 is widely considered the first ever YA novel. Fairly benign, certainly by today’s standards.

The first golden age of YA books happened in the 70s with novels by Judy Blume, Robert Cormier and Lois Duncan

Judy Blume’s novel Forever was an absolute a right of passage for anyone who grew up in the 70’s. The book has been on many, many challenged/banned lists since it was published in 1975, but as Ms. Blume says “How are young people supposed to make thoughtful decisions if they don’t have information and no one is willing to talk with them?”

Then there was a little lull before the baby boomers came of age in 2000. This second golden age in YA introduced readers to J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and, yes, Stephanie Meyer.

If  you ask me whether or not we should allow young people to make decisions about what they read my answer has to be yes. Because let’s face they have access to way more potentially contentious stuff than what they’ll find in my classroom library, or the school library and they’ve got the power right in the palms of their hands.

And that’s really the crux of the matter. Books that are potentially controversial (and the range is crazy, Who Has Seen the Wind? for goodness sake)  are the exact books that are worth talking about because those are the books that will help young readers learn about their own limits and tastes and viewpoints and by deciding for them what those things should be we are taking away their right to develop into discerning and well-read humans.

I have been at Harbour View since 2009 and I haven’t had any issues with parents objecting to the books in my classroom. I post an introductory letter at the start of each academic year telling parents about my library and that some of the books might be considered ‘objectionable’ and I would certainly respect any parent’s right to prevent their teen from reading a book from my library – but why? It makes more sense to let them read the book and then, you read the book and then talk about the book together. That’s what I do in class. Talk about the books.

I read an article titled “The Not So Horrible Consequence of Reading Banned Books” where  psychologist Christopher Ferguson was quoted from the journal  Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. He noted that “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA.” However, it was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.”  Ferguson’s research went on to report that “Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or — better yet — to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way the books may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”

And yes, there are some dark books out there. It’s a dark world. Burying our heads in the sand doesn’t make it any less dark. But I will say this – a book could save a life and Ferguson found that “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms.”

161426Allowing students to self-select reading material is important, but it is a skill and it starts at a young age. Read to your kids when they are young, take them to the library, talk about what they’re reading and read it, too. I know that when my daughter Mallory was about twelve she read a book called How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff…a book that I also read…quite an adult YA book and we actually did a mother/daughter review for my blog. Fantastic book and a powerful book for her and a book and conversation that we got to share. To me, that’s way better than any social media interaction I have with my kids.

Alice Munro talks about banning books, including her book Lives of Girls and Women here.

 

 

Can you trust these narrators?

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First of all, I want to go all fangirl on you because you had Ruta Sepetys in the CBC studio last week and I went with a couple teachers and some students from HVHS to hear her speak at the library on Thursday night. Writers are rock stars in my book and any personal interaction you get to have with them is so squee-worthy.

I haven’t read her other books, but I did read Between Shades of Gray with my grade nine class this year and I have to say it was a remarkable experience. Even students – mostly boys – who weren’t readers enjoyed that book and in fact read way ahead of the class. So, you know there’s something good going on when that happens. I know, too, that one of my colleagues at St. Mac’s said they’d walk through the halls during the 20 minutes they’d set aside for the school to read and there was silence…and they mentioned how gratifying it was to hear students talking about the book in the halls at lunch and break. That is solid-gold to teachers. Her talk at the library was lovely and she is so warm. She took pics with our kids (in the photo below she is on the far left), selfies even, and answered their questions. She was terrific.

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Okay – with that out of the way, let’s talk about the books.

I want to talk about books of a type – you know how a book will hit it big and then all of a sudden there are a bunch of similar books on the market. So, for example, everyone was talking about The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and I jumped on that bandwagon and I liked the book – didn’t LOVE the book. But then all of a sudden there were all these books with unreliable narrators and so I thought I would talk about a couple of those today.

still-mine-9781476790428_hrStill Mine – Amy Stuart

Stuart is a Canadian writer and this is her first book. It’s the story of Clare O’Dey, a woman on the run from her abusive husband, Jason, who ends up making a deal with the man he’s sent to find her. In exchange for her freedom, she has to go to this tiny mining town – I’m going to say it’s Northern BC or Alberta – and find a woman called Shayna who has gone missing. Clare finds herself wholly invested in the search for Shayna and it makes a weird sort of sense because Shayna’s past is as messed up as Jason’s. The town, Blackmore, is peopled with all sorts of damaged and dangerous characters including Shayna’s ex-husband, the town’s drug dealer and even Shayna’s parents.
widowThe Widow – Fiona Barton

It’s the story of Glen and Jean Taylor, a pretty average 30-something couple in England whose lives are totally upended when Glenn is accused of kidnapping a little girl named Bella. When the novel opens Glenn is dead – hit by a car – and Jean has decided to tell her story to the press. Although we also spend a little time with Bella’s mother and the police detectives who are investigating the case and the reporter, it’s really Jean’s story – whether you believe her or not – that ties everything together. I should warn listeners that the subject matter of The Widow might be objectionable to some – it deals with online pornography. However, there is nothing graphic here – I promise. Just a lot of skeezy characters.

Finally, just to balance it out a YA book with a character you can trust.

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard andwestay

This is a beautiful novel that marries prose and poetry – a technique Hubbard used in her novel Paper Cover Rock, which I also highly recommend. In this book, sixteen-year-old Emily Beam has been whisked away from her home to attend The Amherst School for Girls. The reasons for this abrupt change have to do with a tragedy which occurred back home and that tragedy is revealed through flashbacks and through the poems Emily writes. Ad We Stay won quite a few awards and is, imho, deserving of them. This is a quiet novel that treats its subject matter and its characters with care and respect. Plus – there’s Emily Dickinson, so come on.

 

Books, books and more books.

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So usually when I am preparing for a visit to Info AM, I try to think of a theme – something to hold all my bookish thoughts together. That’s probably the teacher in me – trying to make connections. Not going to happen today – today I just want to talk about some books I’ve read recently that I’ve really loved.

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng everything

So this was my book club pick this year. I had such a hard time picking because I left it really late. This book was on my tbr shelf already and there were loads of copies at the book store and it had received copious praise, so it met all the requirements. It was an amazing book.

The book opens “Lydia is dead” and then it unspools the story of Lydia Lee, her younger sister, Hannah, and older brother Nathan and their parents Marilyn and James. It’s 1970s Ohio. Lydia’s story can’t be told without understanding Marilyn and James’ story…so we hear about Marilyn who is brilliant and won a scholarship to Radcliff. She’s on her way to becoming a doctor when she meets James, a fourth year graduate student in history. He’s Chinese. They fall in love, in part, because they recognize the “otherness” in each other. It’s the 50s, remember. So, Marilyn’s dreams have been deferred and she hoists all her failed ambition on Lydia. This is a tremendously powerful novel about family – and the things that we keep from the people we love the most. You know, we often talk about the transformative power of fiction – the ability of a story to just get under your skin and shake something loose and this book certainly did that for me. I came of age in the 70s, so I recognized the pop culture references and the whole book just felt familiar to me. But beyond that, it’s a mystery – like, what happened to Lydia – but it’s also about our need to follow our own path, which is sometimes very difficult to do. I felt this book in my heart and my gut. So good.

 

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock – Matthew Quick

forgive meQuick might be better known for his novel (and the subsequent film) Silver Linings Playbook. This is a YA novel about a tricky subject – a book that, I think, has the potential to articulate something many of its readers might not be able to talk about. What do I do when life it just utterly miserable and I no longer have the will to go on?

Well, the answer to that question for 18-year-old Leonard Peacock is to pack his grandfather’s P38 WW2 handgun in his bookbag and head to school where he first intends to kill his former best friend, Asher, and then take his own life.

You know sometimes you start reading a book and you just fall in love with a character – yep, I loved Leonard from the start. He’s wry and self-deprecating and brutally honest. He’s also in terrible emotional distress. His mother has virtually abandoned him to pursue a career in fashion design; his father – a former rock star – is on the lam from the IRS. Leonard, although he is 18, is pretty much left to his own devices. So, on the day he decides to end it, he wraps some gifts and sets off to first visit the handful of people who have made a difference in his life including the old man who lives next door with whom he watches classic films and the one teacher at his school who actually looks him in the eye. Think about that – going through your whole day without anyone really looking at you.

Anyway – this is a fine book, quirky and funny and heart-breaking and hopeful. High school can be really hard for some kids – it seems interminable and pointless and teenagers have interior lives to which adults are not privy. This book would certainly speak to those kids. Loved it.

I ran out of time and therefore couldn’t talk about the next two books:

For my third choice I was torn between two books I read – one YA and one not, so I am going to briefly talk about them both because I couldn’t decide. Of their type they were both really good.

The first one is The Book of You by Claire Kendall. book of you

I started it and finished it pretty much in one sitting. The story is not original – woman has a one night stand with a guy she works with who turns out to be a psychopathic stalker times a million. It’s a really timely story because woven into Clarissa’s narrative is the court case she’s on jury duty for – a woman with a dodgy past who has been raped and the guys who did it are on trial. Kendall has some interesting observations about victim blaming. Not only is Clarissa reluctant to go to the police until she has gathered sufficient evidence against her stalker, we also have to hear the horrific details about the rape-victim…and her past being called into question as a way to dismiss the charges against her attackers. Total page-turner, well-written, I’d warn readers that it is graphic.

Second book is The Replacement by Breanna Yovanoff

7507908This was quite unlike anything I’ve read in the YA genre. Sort of a hybrid horror/fantasy novel. Sixteen year old Mackie is a replacement. He was swapped with the real Mackie when they were infants. He can’t stand blood or metal or go to church. The reason for the swap is a weird bargain the townsfolk have made with the House of Mayhem, a strange underground world ruled by The Morrigan, a child-like creature. In return for human babies, Gentry flourishes. But then when the little sister of a classmate goes missing, Mackie has to decide just how human he really is. It’s a creepy, compelling story that was quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read…which is cool in YA because genres tend to come in waves.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading recently. What’s on your nightstand?

That’s amore

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Boy meets girl – it’s the oldest story in the book, right? And now, thankfully for modern readers, we can also add boy meets boy and girl meets girl.

A couple of years ago I talked about love and the sorts of stories that make my heart skip a beat, or more often than not, break…a feeling I have to admitting I like just a little more than is probably healthy. You can read about what I said here.

I am a romantic at heart. Sappy, even. I’m not sure I grew up believing that a handsome prince was going to ride in on his white stallion and save me, but I did believe in happily-ever-after, although I am currently on the fence about that now.

My most favourite kind of love story is the one where the couple overcomes tremendous obstacles to be together – sacrifices are made – or, even better, that they love each other deeply but just can’t be together. Angst, baby. Buffy and Angel. Hello.

So since Valentine’s Day has just passed, I thought I would talk about romantic books.

I cut my teeth on my mom’s bodice rippers – Rosemary Rogers type stuff. Sweet Savage Love. You know, wild men who can’t be tamed and the virginal women who tame them.

Clearly romance novels have changed over the years – like 40 of them – when I first starting reading them. Some argue that modern romance novels are actually empowering because they are mostly written by women for women, women are generally the hero – or should I say heroine – of the piece and then there’s the s-e-x. In the modern romance novel, women are often in charge of their own pleasure, something I doubt Rosemary Rogers would have acknowledged back in the day.

All that said – I still have a soft spot for romance between two people who have to overcome horrible odds…and if they can’t actually overcome them – even better. Clearly, I have a type and it’s all about the doomed love. I am the person who still blubbers like a baby watching Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

Ultimately, though, I think there should – at the very least- be the potential for a happy ending, even if it never actually happens.

So, if you are feeling the love – or you want to feel the love – or, you just want to curl up in a ball and cry…I have some recommendations for you.

The Lost Garden – Helen Humphreys lostgarden

The link to my musings about this book predate this blog, but what you’ll find if you follow the link is an entry I did for Book Drum.

Humphreys is a Canadian writer and The Lost Garden is the story of Gwen Davis a young horticulturist in 1941 London. She gets a job leading a team of Land Girls at a neglected estate in Devon. They’re going to be growing crops for the war effort. While there she meets Raley, a Canadian officer waiting to be posted to the front. She also befriends Jane, a young woman whose fiancé is MIA. From these two people – in these fraught circumstances, Jane comes to understand the meaning of love. I was so enchanted with this book that when I was in England in 2007, my kids and I spent the day at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, an estate which is very much like the one Gwen works on in the novel.

IMG_0834 IMG_0838

Can I just share a little bit from the beginning of the book?

We walk the streets of London. It is seven years ago. We didn’t meet, but we are together. This is real. This is a book, dusty from the top shelf of a library in Mayfair. The drowned sound of life under all that ink, restless waves breaking on this reading shore. Where I wait for you. I do. In a moment. In a word. Here on the street IMG_0846corner. Here on this page.

But it is shutting down, all around me, even now, this moment that I stopped. The story disappears as I speak it. Each word a small flame I have lit for you, above this darkened street.

The Lost Garden is a really lovely, and surprising love story.

So, I asked my eighteen-year-old daughter why she reads romance. She was pretty quick to point out that most of the love stories she reads are unrealistic and that she realizes that. However, that doesn’t get in the way of her enjoyment. She counts books like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook or The Last Song among her favourites. Nicholas Sparks definitely offers readers a heaping helping of schmaltz.

If you’re looking for schmaltz, you can’t go wrong with Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison BridgesOfMadisonCountyCounty. You could read this book in an afternoon, it’s short. I don’t mean to suggest that Waller is a wordsmith, but this book broke my heart when I first read it. Francesca is a war bride and she lives with her husband and her kids on a farm in Iowa and one afternoon – while her family is away at a state fair or something – she meets a photographer named Robert who is in the area to photograph covered bridges. The encounter changes her life and his, too. Sacrifices must be made. Their story is discovered by her adult children after her death and they are shocked to realize their mother was more than the woman who made their meals and washed their clothes. People might know the movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and it’s a decent version, but the book is pretty good if you have a couple hours and a box of Kleenex.

So clearly, I’ve just outed myself – if a book can make me cry the writing doesn’t even have to be stellar.

Now – how about a YA romance?

easyEasy – Tammara Webber

This is for mature teens…it kind of just crosses the line, but it’s about a second-year university student named Jacqueline who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. She meets Lucas and he’s – I suppose – the proverbial bad boy, but he’s not really. This book hit all my guilty pleasures and then some. There’s tension galore, there’s a likeable minor cast and the two main characters are smart and kind and when they finally reach their happily ever after, you’ll be swooning.

Yep – there’s something super satisfying about a love story. Check out these:

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

I cried so hard when I read this book, I couldn’t even see the pages.

The Banquet – Carolyn Slaughter

Henry meets Blossom at Marks & Spencer. He’s a conservative architect; she’s a young shop girl. There’s is an all-consuming love affair. Carolyn Slaughter is one of my all-time favourite writers.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Two boys, true love. So beautiful and life-affirming.

Me Before You – JoJo Moyes

Just in time for the movie. Plain Jane meets handsome paraplegic.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

My first-ever romance. And you never forget your first, right?

What’s your favourite romance novel?

 

 

 

Pass it on

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Pass it on.

One of the questions that we often ask at book club is “would you pass this book on?” That got me thinking about my own personal criteria for recommending a book. I know that that’s what I do here with you…but who am I, really, to be making recommendations to anyone, right? Book love is so subjective.

I read a lot of books, but not many of them would fall into the “here – you gotta read this” category. So I started to think about my own litmus test for books…what books have I read that I would definitely press into the hands of someone else?

I think a book has to be well written. But that doesn’t mean that every single book I’ve loved has to be Shakespearean. Sometimes a book can be just super fun to read without all the literary bells and whistles, I am thinking about a book like …oh, who am I kidding? I took a look through the highly recommended section of my blog and really, all the books I’ve really loved have had that beautiful combination of story and character and writing. That is not to say that I haven’t read my share of books that have been fun to read, but would I insistently pass them into the hands of other readers? Do I think about them long after I’ve closed the pages? Probably not – so maybe that’s actually the test for me. Do I think about these books when I’m finished? Do I want other people to read them so we can share our thoughts? That’s the book I want to pass on. So – I’ve got three for you today, two adult and one YA read that I would heartily recommend to readers of all stripes.

Let’s start with the book I just finished and which I mentioned the last time I was here as a book that I hoped would be a page-turner and man, was it ever.

Descent by Tim Johnston descent_thumb

So, this is the story about the Courtland family, mom and dad, Grant and Angela, their 18 year old daughter, Caitlin and their 15 year old son. Sean. They are in the Rocky Mountains on a little family getaway before Caitlin heads off to college on a track scholarship. Early in the morning, Caitlin and Sean head out so Caitlin can run up the mountain with Sean following on his bike. Then, Sean gets hit by a jeep – strange first of all because they are literally in the middle of nowhere. He’s really badly hurt and when his parents get the call from the hospital they are also informed that Caitlin is missing. Fast forward a year and the Courtlands are still fractured. Dad has moved to the town where Caitlin disappeared; Sean is driving around the country aimlessly; Angela is back on the east coast living with her sister. They are all damaged. Johnston’s novel is the perfect combination of style and substance. The writing is sharp and lyrical, but it never slows the action down and – trust me – this novel has some pulse-pounding action sequences that were just so good. I would definitely hand this one over…like, not to keep, of course!

Our Daily Bread – Lauren B. Davis ourdailybread

This one I actually touched on a while back when I talked about starting a book club. I couldn’t stop thinking about this book for days and days after I read it. Despite the controversial subject matter, Davis’s book is so compelling, the writing so good and the characters so broken…it’s impossible not to read this book without feeling something.

Our Daily Bread concerns the fortunes of two families: the Erskines who live up on North Mountain and the Evanses who live down in Gideon. Albert Erskine is different from the crack-smoking/dealing relatives with whom he lives on a sort of compound. He’s smart and he wants more from his life, but life has dealt him a particularly rough hand. Bobby Evans has it tough in another way – as he watches helplessly as his parents’ marriage deteriorates he looks for a place to belong and, strangely, he and Albert become friends. The intersection of these two young lives makes for some compelling reading, I’ll tell you that. This book is, at turns, horrific and heartbreaking, but you will fall in love with these characters – I promise.

Our Daily Bread was long-listed for the Giller in 2012.

jumpstartFinally, a YA novel that I would definitely pass on is Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Jumpstart the World, which I just finished last week. It’s the story of Elle, a fifteen-year-old girl whose mother sets her up in an apartment across town because her new boyfriend doesn’t get along with her. Yep – mom chooses the guy over her daughter. So, here’s Elle living on her own, starting a new school. She meets her next door neighbours Frank and Molly and is immediately taken with Frank, who seems really kind and nurturing…clearly traits her mother doesn’t possess. She also makes some friends at school – outsiders all…

Then she discovers that Frank is transgender and it forces Elle to really examine herself as a human being. What I liked about Jumpstart the World is that it never preaches. It will offer young people an opportunity to examine their own prejudices, for sure, but it also has a lot of really amazing things to say about love and family and accepting who you are. It’s really a lovely book and I would certainly press it into the hands of my students.

Catherine Ryan Hyde is probably best known for her novel Pay It Forward, a book I haven’t read – but I did read her YA novel The Day I Killed James and it was also excellent.

 

Pulse Pounding Thrillers

There’s nothing I like better than a thriller; it’s my go-to genre when I want to jumpstart my reading. I love a good mystery, a page-turning, heart-pounding, protagonist in peril book that I can’t put down. I know I am not the only one who likes suspense, just look at how popular books like The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl are. I love it when you find a book with the perfect combination of creepy thrills and stellar writing, so I thought I would share five books for any readers out there who are looking for something to curl up with while the weather is crappy.

 Intensity – Dean Koontz

So, I rintensityead this book about twenty years ago. Koontz is a very prolific writer of supernatural fiction. I’ve read a few of his book, but this one was totally propulsive. It’s about a Chyna Shephard, a young woman who is visiting a with her best friend’s family when really bad luck arrives in the form of serial killer Edgler Forman Vess. What follows is a thrill ride that will have you turning the pages super fast.
Instruments of Night – Thomas H. Cook instruments

You might have to order books by American mystery writer Thomas H. Cook online because it’s rare to find him on the shelves of our local book stores-which I don’t get because he’s fabulous. The first book I ever read by Cook was called Breakheart Hill and it had a killer opening line: “This is the darkest story I ever heard and all my life I have labored not to tell it.” I had to buy it…and I’ve probably read seven or eight books by him now. One of my favourites by Cook is Instruments of Night.

It’s the story of writer Paul Graves, a man who has spent his career writing about the horrible dance between serial killer and sadist Kessler (and his accomplice, Sykes) and the man who has spent his career chasing him, Detective Slovak. Instruments of Night operates on more than one level, though. Graves has almost completed the 14th installment of his series when he is invited to upstate New York to meet with Allison Davies, mistress of an estate known as Riverwood. Fifty years ago, Allison’s best friend, Faye, was murdered on the grounds and now Allison wants Paul to “imagine what happened to Faye. And why.” Couldn’t put it down

If you like literary mysteries- you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better than Cook.
dark-places-book-coverDark Places – Gillian Flynn

So everyone knows Flynn for her novel Gone Girl, but I actually read her book Dark Places first. It’s her second novel, her first is Sharp Objects…also really good, but Dark Places is – I think – her best. It’s about Libby Day, this rather unlikeable woman who has – no question – survived a lot of hardship. Her mother and two older sisters were murdered when she was a kid and her testimony helped convict her older brother Ben – who was fifteen at the time – for the crime. Flynn weaves the past and present together as Libby finds herself confronted with the truth of the crime that changed her life. Fantastic book.
End of Story – Peter Abrahams endofstory

You could polish off End of Story in an afternoon – because once you get going you won’t be able to put it down. It’s the story of tells the compelling tale of Ivy Siedel, an aspiring writer, who takes a job teaching writing to a small group of inmates at Dannemora Prison, in Upstate New York. When one of her students, Vance Harrow, turns out to be a talented writer, Ivy decides to take a closer look at his history and discovers something about him that both shocks and excites her…and changes her life forever.
descent_thumbAnd my last pick is a book I just purchased this weekend and I haven’t read it, but I am expecting great things because it’s been given copious praise by everyone and their dog. It’s called Descent and it’s by a new-to-me author, Tim Johnston. A family is on vacation. The college age daughter and her brother go out for a run and only the brother returns.

I’ll let you know how that one turns out.

 

Have you read any good thrillers? I’d love to hear about them.

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.

Off the Shelf – My Book Graveyard

Listen here.

Books are like a relationship, sometimes you have to break up with them

I’ve been a little bit of a reading slump of late. I blame Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which at almost 800 pages gave me a total book hangover. After finishing that, I definitely needed some lighter fare to cleanse my palate. So, I headed to my ridiculous TBR shelf and chose The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw. I thought that might have been just the ticket to jumpstart my reading again, but it’s been super-slow going. It’s the story of two families whose lives intersect because of not one but two affairs and I have almost given up on it a couple of times. The writing is good though, so I keep trudging along.

I used to be the reader who finished everything she started. I couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning a book that I’d started, but the older I get and with more demands on my time (aka Netflix bingeing) I find that I am not as willing to go the distance with a book that doesn’t float my boat.

So, what causes me to close the book forever?

  1. Style over substance. Okay,  I am attracted to the pretty. But I am also more – how should I say this – seasoned. I am less enthralled by a beautifully written book with nothing to say. It doesn’t take long for  the pretty to wear off.  I’ll compare it to being at the bar. Across the room you see this gorgeous guy. You make eye contact. Then you realize he isn’t actually looking at you; he’s looking at his reflection in the mirror behind you. A book that works so hard to be literary, to impress, but is really just naval gazing loses my interest pretty fast.
  2. Unbelievable characters. I don’t have to like the characters, but I do have to believe in them. Even if the author has chosen to put them in crazy situations, I want to share their journey.  I can’t travel with characters who fail to earn my respect or admiration or sympathy. So, I’m back at the bar. Handsome guy across the room. Eye contact made. You move towards each other. He buys you a drink. Then he starts talking and after about five minutes you realize he’s as dumb/self-involved/humourless/dull… as a pet fence.  You stop listening to him because you stop caring about him. Characters like that.
  3. S-L-O-W/tooquick  plot. Not every novel is driven by plot. Some stories don’t depend on what happens as much as to whom it happens. I don’t have a preference. Pacing is everything. Back at the bar, you’ve consumed your drink(s); there’s potential. And then he sticks his tongue down your throat. Whoa, buddy, didn’t see that coming! Timing is everything. If you are building suspense, build it. If your characters are going to do the horizontal mambo, let them take their time; but if nothing happens for page after page after freakin’ page while the author describes cutlery and grass clippings, sorry, it’s over. Or, if without any character development or too much exposition the book lands me in an unreasonable place, we’re through.
  4. Bad writing. Come on. Who is going to slog through a poorly written book? Not me. Not anymore. It’s amazing to me that these things get published! I mean, Twilight, okay. New Moon. Seriously!? And two more after that? Yikes. Books like that come with buzz – like your handsome friend at the bar. Until he opens his mouth and, dude, you need some breath mints or something.

So, I have a little Book Graveyard at The Ludic Reader and that’s where I send the books that just don’t make the cut. Some of those books include:
Erin Vincent’s memoir Grief Girl, which was well-reviewed but I just couldn’t finish it. It’s the story of an Australian teen whose parents are involved in a horrific traffic accident…but it was just so plodding and

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare  is a super popular teen franchise which has been adapted for television. Loads of my students have read and loved these books but I just found them derivative and poorly written. I gave up pretty early.

The Dark Heroine: Dinner with a Vampire by Abigail Gibbs

I actually read 300 pages of this book before I relegated it to the book graveyard. I would consider myself a huge fan of vampire fiction, but this book – which was written by a seventeen year old and started its life in serial form on Wattpad. Seems to be the way lots of writers are discovered by traditional publishers, but man – this book needed some serious editing help.

I would love to hear from you: what book have you given up on and why?