Creepy Can-Lit for Kids: Halloween Edition

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2015_10_31_RIITB_HagHead1I think the most telling thing about this book is that when my two and a half year old got a glimpse of Hag Head she said, “You can read that to yourself.”

Who better to write a creepy Halloween book for kids than Canada’s resident Sea Witch poetess Susan Musgrave?

Published in 1980 Hag Head is about a witch who is trying to steal a child on Halloween. It’s creepy. The illustrations by Canadian water colour artist Carol Evans are spectacularly creepy.

2015_10_31_RIITB_HagHead2It freaked my kids out. Definitely different than most Halloween books I have encountered lately – imagine a kids book for Halloween that is actually meant to scare children? I’m going to pull it out every Halloween.

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Honorable mention for it’s creep factor is Black and Bittern Was Night, a book we picked up by chance at the library and written by another Canadian poet, Robert Heidbreder. Sample size of two tells me that Canadian poets write the best children’s books for Halloween.

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Illustrated in cartoony, but still spooky, fashion by John Martz. I only realized, when looking up his website, that Martz is also the author of A Cat Named Tim and other Storiesa book I have been reading non-stop to my girls for the past two weeks because of it’s nomination for a Governor General Literary Award – happy coincidence.

Anyway, one of the best thing I can say about Black and Bittern was Night is that it is a joy to read aloud. The poetry is tongue tangling delicious. The second best thing I can say is that my youngest was looking out the back door one early morning and I heard her whispering, “It’s really dark out. I don’t want to see any Skul-a-mug-mugs.”

2015_10_31_RIITB_SKulamugs1It definitely left an impression.

Is there a Renaissance in Canadian YA Lit Happening?

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Or have I been only reading picture books for the last seven years?

Recently, however, I have been having so much fun reading contemporary YA books by Canadian authors (or at least authors living in Canadian which is good enough for me).

Here are two of them:

Are You Seeing Me?This was one of those books where I was annoyed with the children for making me parent instead of reading the entire book in one sitting. The kind where you hide in the bathroom, or the pantry,  so you can read a couple more pages. It is also the kind of book where your two-year old daughter climbs on your lap to wipe away your tears. Yeah, that kind. So worth it though.

Are You Seeing Me by Darren Groth (Australian by origin but lives in Vancouver with his family) is the story of twins Justine and Perry. It is also a story that seems to deviate from so many YA novels these days – there are no love triangles (the romance in the novel is minimal), there are no supernatural elements, there are no plot-contrived false-fights (I hate those), and the prose is beautiful.

Justine is the primary caregiver of her autism-spectrum brother Perry. Justine is the older-before-her-time sister while Perry is the forever-young brother. That description may sound cliche (because they are cliches) but the characters and the writing do not come across that way at all.

Justine has a speech prepared that she repeats every time people encounter her brother:

“He has a brain condition that can cause him to feel anxious or upset in different places and circumstances. He has trouble with people – mixing with them and communicating with them – and it sometimes results in inappropriate behaviours. I appreciate your understanding a patience.”

Most of the time though it seems as if Justine is trying to find the patience within herself – but not just about Perry. The great thing about this novel is that there is no doubt ever that Perry and Justine love each other. But they are 19 now and are trying to find a new normal with the loss of their father and their new adult selves. The road trip is supposed to be the last hurrah before separating themselves into adulthood. It’s funny, and bittersweet, and kind of heartbreaking all over the place.

Other than to tell you to read it that is really all I am going to say about the plot because it unfolds in such a beautiful way that I don’t want to give away any of it.

Trouble Is A Friend of MineThis one I did read in one sitting. On one hand I was smart and didn’t start it until the kids were in bed, and on the other hand that meant that I stayed up way past my bedtime. I’m the adult here so I’m allowed to do that. Nothing that a half-dozen cups of tea couldn’t fix the next morning.

Trouble is a Friend of Mine is by Winnipeg-based (but from all over the world) author Stephanie Tromly’s first book. The jacket says that at one point Tromly worked in Los Angeles as a script writer and I can believe that. This book reads like a fast paced adventure movie, complete with ridiculous plot points pushing the story forward. However, the ridiculousness of the plot doesn’t subtract from the enjoyment of it. If anything, it made the story of Zoe and Digby that much more endearing. Who wouldn’t want to be a teenage sleuth, solving a missing girl case and bringing down a criminal meth ring? Plausibility of plot is not why one reads this book. Who knows, in Digby’s bizarre world it seems like anything could happen – and it does. Good news for those who were left hanging on the last page is that a sequel is coming next year. The only request I would have is that Digby turns down his creepiness a bit – I mean, he is quirky and adorable and all but reading a teenage girl’s diary really draws a line.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

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I don’t think I have ever asked my husband to read a book before that I wasn’t sure he was going to like. I mean, sure, we’ve shared books like Catch-22 and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve read books because they helped shape who he is (the whole David Eddings Belgariad series) and he’s read books because he wanted to know why I was so obsessed with them (*cough* Harry Potter *cough*). However, I think Attachments by Rainbow Rowell is the first book where I have said, “I would really like it if you read this.” I don’t know if this book falls under that awful chick-lit banner – are we done with that label yet? – but I was still nervous to ask him to read it. Yes, Rowell is a woman and her books are romantic but she also writes dialogue that is laugh-out-loud funny and makes you cry. I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed dialogue so much before reading this book. I’ve read this book twice. I bought this book and my book-buy budget is fairly limited.

Attachments

So I asked the Mister to read it too. Not just because the main character Lincoln O’Neill is a Dungeons & Dragons playing I.T. guy with many post-graduate degrees under his belt. Although the similarities between the male lead in the story and the male lead in my life certainly added to this book’s charm. The similarities between the main female lead, Beth Fremont, who works at a newspaper writing movie reviews and has a long-term wannabe-rock star boyfriend who is indifferent to her and my life once-upon-a-time were a little eerie as well. (I think both Beth and I “traded up” with our I.T. Dungeons & Dragons dudes.)

However, I love this book for so many reason in addition to all the parallels to my own life. Because of how Lincoln is so lost but still has enough class to hate a job that has questionable morals. Because of Beth and her friend Jennifer’s witty and poignant back and forth inter-office e-mails (which Lincoln keeps promising himself that he will stop reading). Remember when we still email one another instead of texting all the time?I love this book because it was so great to read a story about a guy who was genuinely nice. Maybe I’m reading the wrong books if that’s something that impresses me these days, or maybe it’s because I married the nice guy that I think they should be written about more often. It seems like we (women) have to go through the wanna-be rockstars to get to guy who is actually going to want to spend Saturday night watching a movie with us. Or maybe it’s just me. But even without the life parallels I would love this book because the whole Y2K non-debacle is so brilliantly summed up by Jennifer and Beth with their entries for a New Year’s headline contest: Yawn 2K and Meh-llennium. And yes, the Mister liked it too. I even heard him laughing while he read it.

Book 17: More Joy in Heaven

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More Joy

 

In this novel, which many people consider to be his best, Morley Callaghan displays his usual insight into human relationships and weaknesses, and questions the conventional morality of the Canadian community. More Joy in Heaven is the story of Kip Caley, an ex-criminal, intent of becoming a useful and honourable human being. His struggle with himself and with a society which will not let him regain his human dignity is presented with great perception and sympathy.

Sometimes I wonder if it is worth reading the introduction on some of these novels. Or maybe I should wait and read it afterwards. However, for this novel I read the introduction before digging into the narrative and so I felt like I knew too much going in. I knew for certain that things were not going to end well for Kip Caley, the reformed criminal and lead in Callaghan’s “powerful and moving story of an ex-criminal’s struggle for regeneration.”

By “certain” I mean this wasn’t just a hunch, this is a Canadian novel after all.

I suspect that even if I hadn’t read the introduction I still would have read More Joy in Heaven with a large knot in the pit of my stomach.

For someone who was really good at robbing banks, Caley seemed awfully innocent and rather dumb – although naive would probably be the more appropriate word. The story illustrates how there are many different types of criminals – some legal – and many different types of crimes; like using one man’s redemption to make yourself feel better. It’s a hard read. It’s hard to watch Caley’s faith in himself crumble. It’s hard to read about his naive choices when sometimes he is so close to making the right choice. In the end it is hard to watch him fall and have those he cares about fall with him.

To sum up this is probably the most stereotypical “Canadian Lit” novel so far on this list. There was no hope at the end! Every thing was bleak and I kind of wanted to just lay in bed and cry for days at the waste of humanity. It was, in a word, fantastic.

Highly recommended!

Death Toll: Two. Main characters. Proudly Canadian.

Reading, writing and life in general

I think my brain is coming back.

I say that from time-to-time but I’m optimistic that this time it is really true. I’ve been reading like mad and not just crappy stuff. Real books that I have to think about.

I’ve been writing a lot too. (Writing that may be crappy, I can’t really judge my own work.)

What I’ve been reading lately:

Heretic and Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So much to think about.

Ascent of Women by Sally Armstrong: A real wake-up call for what is going on in the world beyond my SAHM bubble. Everyone I know is getting this book for Christmas this year – it’s that important. (Sorry to ruin the surprise friends and family.)

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. Laugh out loud funny in parts, I really enjoyed it. Yeah, I don’t know why it took me so long to read it either.

The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket: books 1-5, I’m currently on 6. Chosen by F, this seemed like a good idea at the time and the girls love it. However, we will be taking a break after book 6 ends because they are starting to get painful. Definitely not a series that was meant to be read all at once.

The Frogspell series by C.J.Busby. This was chosen by M, it was a fun age-appropriate (she’s 7) take on magic and the King Arthur legends.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. The first in the Cormoran Strike series and by now everyone knows that Robert Galbraith is really JK Rowling. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any detective fiction but this was engaging and I got right into it. Cormoran Strike is an interesting bloke and I’m enjoying getting to know him. I’m currently reading the follow-up novel The Silkworm.

The Collected Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Trying to mix things up a bit.

More Joy in Heaven by Morley Callaghan. Yes, believe it or not, I’m starting up again reading through the New Canadian Library. I read this one about two years ago but can’t find my notes on it so I decided it would be best if I read it again.

Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I read the graphic novel version. Fascinating. I’m really looking forward to the next installment but now I’m wondering if I should have read the book. (And now I went and looked it up on Goodreads and most of my ‘friends’ there loved it and now I really should probably read the novel version.)

There’s more too but that’s enough worth mentioning for now. I obviously need to up my Canadian content.

(A note about the links: If you click on any of them you are taken to somewhere that will give you more information about what you are clicking on. I get nothing in return except to babble away about what I’m reading these days. Feel free to click away at your pleasure.)

 

 

 

Book Review: Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

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Dance of the Banished

Confession: When I first got the e-mail asking if I wanted to review Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch I misread the title as Dance of the Banshee. So I immediately said I would review it because I have a thing for banshee stories (all things Celtic/Gaelic really, hence the names of my children). I wasn’t even sure if I was ready to start accepting books to review yet but I thought banshees would be a good reason to start.

So imagine my surprise when I actually took the time to read through the synopsis of the book (instead of quickly reading through the email on my phone) and discovered there were no banshees to be found in the narrative. Instead of mythological scary creatures we have a book about something much more scary: the Armenian genocide during World War 1.

I’m rather embarrassed to say that the things I knew about the Armenian genocide and Anatolia before reading this book wouldn’t even have filled up a post-it note.

Things I didn’t know:

  • Where Anatolia was
  • What happened during the Armenian Genocide and how many people died (estimate is between 1 and 1.5 million)
  • What an Alevi Kurd is (or that there was such a thing)

Dance of the Banished follows the story of two engaged Anatolian teenagers who are separated by war: Ali is in Canada to work and gets sent to an internment camp in northern Ontario. Tired of waiting for contact from Ali, Zeynep leaves her village and is a witness and a recorder (through the journal she is writing) of the Armenian Genocide. Throughout the book they are writing to each other without knowing if they will ever get to see one another again.

This book is for ages 12 and up so there isn’t anyone at home I would be reading it to just yet. However, I am looking forward to reading and discussing this with my daughters when they are older. Zeynep is such a strong and smart girl that hearing about the genocide through her words and how she is trying to help those around her is both fascinating and heart breaking. I enjoyed her feistiness and her views on religion as she lived with the Christian missionaries in a world that seemed set to pit Christians vs Muslims and didn’t know how to categorize the Alevi Kurds. (To be honest, neither did/do I. The only way I can really think to describe them is that if the Muslim world has its own branch of tree-hugging pagans they would be it but that – of course – is an oversimplification.)

Warning: you will most likely cry reading this book. A lot of hard (but important) questions are going to need to be answered if you are reading this book with a child/teen. I’m glad I have years to think of an answer even though if the question is “why do people suck so bad?” I’m not sure I will ever have an answer for that.

As much as I enjoy fantasy YA literature I also feel it is important for children to read books about strong characters that are based in the here and now (or in history). I find that a lot of fantasy books geared towards young adults have an underlying theme of: being a human sucks because you grow old and die, life is much better when you are a beautiful immortal (vampire, fairy, werewolf etc) who won’t age and who can solve problems through magic or some other inhuman ability. Those books can be fun but the message they send isn’t always that helpful (writes the woman who can pretty much quote Harry Potter word for word). Dance of the Banished helps to fill the void for true-to-life stories that I think is currently missing in the world of YA literature.

 

Book 16: The Stepsure Letters

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The Stepsure LettersI’ve been avoiding reading this book for at least two years. It was one of the reasons I stalled on this blog (the other, of course, being babies and baby-brain.) Finally I sat down and said “I’m going to read this and get on with my life!” All of this avoidance was before I even knew what the book was about. Then I read the introduction by Northrop Frye who talked about how Thomas McCulloch is a great Canadian satirist and how The Stepsure Letters is a great example of Canadian Satire. Then the comparisons to Sam Slick were made and my stomach dropped. More ancient Canadian satire is not what I feel like reading these days (if ever). I think even Northrope Frye had a hard time finding good things to say about this book.

So after reading the introduction I put the book down and started avoiding it again. The problem is that I told myself I would do this New Canadian Library challenge in order so I had to read the book if I want to move on, right? Well, according to my husband I’m wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Life is too short to read books you are not inspired to read.

Things I have learned so far by reading through the New Canadian Library: the term “Canadian satire” makes me break out in rashes. Much like movies that employ the use of physical comedy for humour. (Sitting through something like Meet The Parents is a form of punishment for me.) I could be using my time more wisely reading, well, pretty much anything else at all at this stage.

Currently I am reading Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces and why would I want to stop reading that (which I am enjoying) to read this book? Not to mention that I have to read Robert Munsch’s Up Up Down a dozen times a day to my toddler who still won’t stop climbing everything. (Would that be considered irony? I’m not even sure any more.) Plus WordFest is coming and I am determined to go this year and have much reading to do before then.

Death Toll: My interest before I began. I’m not apologizing for this.

Shameless Plug

My one friend from undergrad at Concordia who was actually my friend and not someone who probably thought my name was ‘the girlfriend’ had a story published recently in The Puritan.

Go read: Duck-Diving Tsunamis by Graham Arnold (and then stick around for some of the other stories).

CBC Books 2014 Reading List

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Who doesn’t love a good reading list? Many times I have set myself up for a challenge based on a reading list (as this blog can attest to since a certain list is the whole reason it was created). I don’t always fail either. For years I have been quietly reading through the list of Pulitzer Prize winning novels starting at the beginning.

Here is the CBC’s top 10 picks for reading Canadian this fall.

Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder

Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Chez L’arabe by Mireille Silcoff

The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King

Mãn by Kim Thuy

Sweetland by Michael Crummey

Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson

Boundless by Kathleen Winter

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Between Gods by Alison Pick

Where to start? Where to start? I decided to start with Ellen in Pieces and not just because it was the first book to arrive at the library (I do wish I could buy them all because I can’t always finish in three weeks – plus I am very pro-supporting authors but the library is a wonderful place indeed) but also because every one who read Kerry Clare’s review at Pickle Me This immediately went out and got a copy of the book. I also loved Adderson’s Pleased To Meet You when I did a review for it years ago for the Calgary Herald. However, I didn’t know she also writes books for children which is very exciting news indeed since 80 per cent of my time is spent reading books to children.

After that I would like to move on to Girl Runner because it’s Carrie Snyder (enough said?) and Between Gods sounds fascinating and really I just want to read them all at once. I’m pretty sure my children don’t need my attention this fall, right?

Do you plan on reading any of these?

(If you are looking for more book lists how about 100 Novels That Make You Proud To Be Canadian or the CBC Literary Prizes 2014 Fall Releases, some of which are on the list above but not all.)

Book 15: Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

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Sunshine Sketches of a Little TownMalcolm Ross (Father of the New Canadian Library) has some really lovely words to say about Stephen Leacock and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town:

It is hard to imagine anyone reading Sunshine Sketches for the first time. When was it that the book unprinted itself, flew clean off the page, and somehow got lodged in the marrow of generations of Canadians yet unborn? I doubt if there is – or ever will be again – a three-year-old in all the land who does not look up with a start of recognition at the sound of the words “Mariposa Belle” – as at the echo of a half-recalled prenatal dream.

Who, then, in these latter days dares to “introduce” Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town? Not I. This is a preface, not an introduction, written in the belief that the editor’s job (and the publisher’s) is simply to keep the book going ad infinitum – for people who want to read it for the hundredth time, as well as for yesterday’s crop of three-year-olds who may want to read it as though for the first time.

My copy of Sunshine Sketches was published in 1960 and I think it is safe to assume Ross wrote the introduction around then. I wonder if Ross would be shocked at how little notice people are taking of his beloved book these days.

I can think of a lot of things my children knew about at the age of three:

  • the words to Wild Pack of Family Dogs by Modest Mouse
  • who P.J. Harvey is
  • which Black Keys album & song is their favourite
  • the complete soundtrack to the movie Frozen
  • the belief that Rapunzel has magic hair, and that the Little Mermaid is actually named Ariel (she is never named in the fairy tale) and that she lives in the end (she doesn’t but you probably already knew that)
  • The difference between Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny
  • What a Gruffalo is

I can assure you that my children knew no more about Sunshine Sketches when they were three in the years 2011 and 2014 (someone just turned four last week) than I did in 1980. However, I did know all the words to Angel of the Morning by Juice Newton (and still do) even if I didn’t understand their meaning.

My point is that this novel is not as timeless as Ross thought. Perhaps to those who enjoy the tongue-in-cheek humour of Stephen Leacock this book has stood the test of time but I doubt it is that way to most people. The back proclaims that the collection of stories remains “curiously undated” but a lot has happened between when it was first published in 1912 and now. Maybe too much has happened?

In any case I read this book two years ago and didn’t get a chance to make notes on it and the thought of having to read it again right now doesn’t sit well with me. The characters are nostalgic for a time that was long past when Leacock wrote it and I feel so far removed from the content I had a hard time enjoying it. There were moments I enjoyed but not enough to read it again just for the sake of a review.

While children these days may be inundated with adult music of questionable content and the saccharinization (I made that word up) of fairy tales by Disney (and let’s not even talk about my ongoing battle against Dora the Explorer), I doubt any of them were having Sunshine Sketches read to them while in the womb.

Death Toll: My interest, once again.