Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Darwin Expedition by Diane Tullson

Ok, I admit it. I totally hate it when a writer comes up with a book that's similar to one that I have been working on. And, I hate it even more when that book is really good; probably a whole lot better than the one I've been writing. So, it's back to the computer for me!

But while I pound the keyboard rewriting (figuratively of course), pick yourself up a copy of The Darwin Expedition by Diane Tullson. It's really really good. Gripping in fact and right from page one where we meet Tej who "white-knuckles the steering wheel." An accident on the highway, a logging road short-cut taken to avoid waiting, driving rain, and teenage bravado contribute to Tej and Liam getting stranded in the bush. Actually stranded is an understatement. After sliding out on the logging road, their truck flips end over end down the mountainside until a three foot tree stump stops them.

Fortunately, neither Liam who narrates the story, nor Tej, his best freind, is seriously hurt. But without cell service, and no one aware that they left the main highway, they are on their own with no choice but to hike out. Tej points out that no one would be looking for them for at least a few days since they were headed to Whistler to go snowboarding. After a long wet, cold night with nothing but a granola bar to eat, they start walking in what they think is the right direction. The day goes by before Tej admits he doesn't really know where they are. Tension between the boys escalates as fatigue, hunger and the ruggedness of the terrain take their toll. That tension is jacked up another notch when a grizzly bear is thrown into the mix.

Another cold wet night, grizzly bear tracks around their makeshift camp, and a double black diamond level scree with rock sharp enough to cut you in two, awaits an exhausted Liam and Tej the next day. But, Tullson knows her stuff, so be prepared for her to crank up the action and the tension even higher. The Darwin Expedition takes readers on a hell of a ride; one so real that you're heart will be pounding just as hard and fast as Liam's. Don't take my word for it. Read it. And if you have a lot of other things like: video games, parties, snow boarding and school cutting into your time, don't worry, this Orca Soundings title is a fast 100 page read.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Villianology by Art Slade

Ok, I've just been to Art Slade's website and you have to check out the trailer for his new book, Villianology: Fabulous Lives of the Big, the Bad and the Wicked. I admit that I haven't read it yet, but if it's anything like Monsterology: Fabulous Lives of the Revolting, and the Undead, you won't be disappointed. Then again, I admit that I'm a big Slade fan in general. I loved Tribes and read Dust in one sitting; I couldn't put it down!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Smell of Paint just won the 2007 Moonbeam Award

Fantastic News. The Smell of Paint is the gold medal winner of the Moonbeam Award in the Young Adult category. How's that for making my morning!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Check out this interview

Here is an interview that I did for Book Bites for Kids. This is a fabulous site where many children's book authors are interviewed. The host is Suzanne Lieurance who is a writer herself.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Long Way Gone: memoirs of a boy soldier by Ismael Beah

We read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a boy soldier by Ismael Beah for my book group last month, and I was blown away. There is no pretension in this moving but disturbing real life story of the devastation and dehumanization of war on children's lives.

Now a child-rights advocate, Ismael Beah tells his own story of a childhood lost to war and destruction. It is as gripping as it is horrific. I'd say it's a must read adults and teens alike, but some might find it just too difficult. The story begins in Ishmael's small village in Sierra Leone when he is twelve. It ends after a grueling three years of war, followed by a difficult rehabilitation and finally a trip to the UN in New York as a child representative. It is a lonely and painful journey, one where trust is lost to fear and the ravages of war. It is a journey that you would not wish on your worst enemy much less a child.

Not unlike kids of the same age in Western Countries, Ishmael's world is about friends and music, with the safety net of family hovering in the background. This is where Ismael's story begins. Of course there are differences. Ismael and his brother and his friends (who are in a rap group) must walk to the next village sixteen miles away to perform whereas our kids can catch a ride with parents or take the bus. But, Ismael's innocence and carefree life ends suddenly when mutilated messengers stagger into the neighboring village where they have gone to perform. The news they bring is devastating. The boys home village has been torched and their families murdered. Worse still, the rebels are on their way. The boys scatter into the jungle along with the other villagers. Their new life becomes one of hunger and fear and endlessly putting one foot in front of the other with no real place to go to. The brutality of the civil war breeds fear and distrust even of children since both the rebels and the government kidnap children and turn them into drugged killing machines. After months aimless wandering, Ismael is taken by the government forces and turned into a child soldier as addicted to killing as he is cocaine. It is frightening to read about how a precocious twelve year old who loves music and pranks can be turned into a killer without a trace of remorse.

It isn't until Ismael has spent three years as a soldier that the UN plucks he and several other boys like him out of the army and into a rehabilitation centre. Although you might imagine this to be a welcome change, the child soldiers do not. By then, Ishmael, and others like him no longer think of themselves as children at all. Their AK-47's and killing, not age defines who are are. It is their means of survival and their power and place in the world. The psychological impact of taking their guns is even more difficult to endure than their withdrawal from the drugs that have helped to numb their humanity. The question of whether or not these children's psyches have been destroyed is an all too real one. However, the staff at the rehab centre persists and little by little, Ismael and the others begin to open up, to grieve, and to heal. In Ismael's case, is what helps to heal him.

Still, A Long Way Gone is a difficult road to walk as a mere reader. And it is equally difficult to grasp how this young man walked it real life. The fact that he has survived, that he has written this book and that he continues to speak out against war, is a testament to the human spirit. You won't read a more disheartening and nor a more uplifting story. Read it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Thief and The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Time for a break from mystery writing, so thought I'd turn you on to a couple of recent reads that I just could not put down. The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner doesn't start off as a page turner, but you will soon find yourself absorbed in both the story and characters' lives and the mystery of why the thief has been broken out of jail with the sanction of the king he had threatened to fleece. An author's note at the end tells us that the setting of the story was inspired by a visit to Greece, but the characters feel truly alive, especially the Thief himself. Expect plenty of twists and turns in plot, and be prepared to dive into the next two books, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia, neither of which I could put down. My advice: get all three, and go for a marathon weekend of reading. Of course, I have the perfect excuse for reading books like these. I call it research. After all, I am working on a young adult mystery, so reading a variety of mysteries, is part of my job. What's your excuse?

Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn

Just about to head out to my monthly book group where we will be discussing Saturday by Ian McEwan. With lines like, "Even as you struggle against the numbness of poor recall, you know precisely what the forgotten thing is not." on practically every page, no wonder the man won the Booker Prize (not for this one...those judges!) Anyways, I'm hoping that I can talk everyone into reading a YA novel next time around. I'm thinking of the Fisher Staples book I talked about earlier, or perhaps Gingerbread byRachel Cohn It is one of those truly brilliant coming of age novels that likely won't get the attention it deserves because of a few swear words that are perfectly appropriate coming out of the mouth of Cyd, the main character. On the other hand, not much comes out of her surfer boyfriend's mouth, and yet he is such a strong character that you can practically see him walking into the surf or working in his older brother's restaurant. Author envy speaking here...Ah to be able to bring one's characters come to life with a few deft strokes of the pen, or keyboard as the case may be. And I practically bled for Cyd's mom and step-dad, but I suppose that's the parent in me talking. It is a fabulous read.

Then again, I have had The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter for a good month and haven't yet read it. It won the Governor General's Award in Canada, and is written entirely in verse. It is supposed to be fabulous, and I did hear Porter speak recently. If I can convince 8 other women to read it, I just might have enough incentive to finally crack the cover. Worth a try.

One More Step by Sheree Fitch

All day and only a half of a chapter written. I must confess that I have to force myself to stick to my plan of not editing along the way. I have a tendency to want to go back and rewrite. I wonder how many other writers have this particular problem. I'm pretty sure it is another of my procrastination methods. I should make a list sometime of the various ways I procrastinate...Hey, it could be another tool for procrastination!

I have to start by saying that I am a huge, and I mean huge Sheree Fitch fan. One More Step, is fabulous. It's about a couple of brothers and their single parent mom who has a new man in her life. Told from Julian's point of view, it draws you in right away.

The book starts with "Purple condoms. My brother got purple condoms in his Christmas stocking. Mom must think things are heating up between Chris and Becca. Not likely."

Julian's voice rings true throughout; sometimes cocky and belligerent, other times unsure. There are some hilarious scenes, like when they are rained out on a camping trip. On the other hand, Christmas holidays with their real dad and his young family makes your heart ache. The closeness between Julian and his no-nonsense grandfather helps centre Julian, but when Poppy suddenly dies, Julian is like a lost little boy who lashes out. I won't give away any more except to say that Fitch's deft touch ensures that this is not an issue book but a story about people you will love. It is part of Orca Book Publishers excellent "Soundings" series for teens who are reluctant readers.

The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter

On the weekend, I finished The Crazy Man, which is an absolutely must read by Pamela Porter(see earlier post for more info). It is set on the prairies in the recent past. A farm accident which injures Emaline, is the last straw for her father who destroys the dog whom he blames for the tragedy, and then walks away from his farm, his family, and a life that has been nothing but stife and stuggle. In order to survive, Emaline's mother gets help from the local insane asylum in the form of Angus, known to the town as the crazy man. A series of encounters with cruelty, ignorance and predjudice convince Emaline that crazy is very much a relative thing and that healing and friendship can be found in places where you never thought to look. So good. Strong characters, solid plot development, although I still question the structure. Free verse poetry did not really seem to me to be an essential vehicle to carry this story. Would love to hear what anyone else who has read this book thinks.

Me and the Blondes by Teresa Toten

To the detriment of this blog, procrastination in spring is about the garden rather than about books. The light lasts long into the evening, and while I may start out with a book and a cup of tea in a nice comfy chair, it isn't long before moving the sprinker turns into dividing this and pruning that...

Still, I did manage to read at least one fabulous kid’s book recently. Me and the Blondes by Teresa Toten, published by Puffin Canada. It is a must read for YA fans. It’s attractive hot pink cover signals 'chick lit', but it is oh so much more.

Sophie, who is wildly funny in a self-deprecating sort of way, is about to change schools yet again. Tired of rejection and changing schools to run from it, she comes up with a double barrel strategy to make this school work. First--she will rewrite her past by killing off her alcoholic poet father, currently doing time for murder. Second-- she will ingratiate herself with ‘the blonds’, the cliques that have made her life hell at past schools. To start, her and her charming Eastern European mother, Magda concoct a likely death for Dad so that Sophie can start fresh.

On her first day at the new school, four blondes turn up in Sophie’s homeroom. She immediately knows that she has “hit the motherlode.” Sophie reels them with a skill that speaks of desperation that only high school can bring out. Interestingly, basketball ends up being the key to the inner sanctum of the blond clique. Meanwhile, an overly sympathetic teacher, ensures that attention is drawn to Sophie's lie. The trouble is, she and her mother haven't really agreed on the details of the death, keeping the reader as on edge as Sophie. A game of Truth or Dare ups the ante.

At home, Sophie can’t pretend. Her father’s regular phone calls from prison send her mother on an emotional roller coaster that has her mother either weeping or cleaning obsessively. Either the sobbing or the smell of bleach pervades their tiny apartment, and Sophie is never sure just which it will be. A job at diner/soda fountain is a partial escape, and the owner’s family connection ensures that the secret of Sophie’s father is safe. Her growing friendship with Madison is risky though, especially when they invite her and her mother for dinner. Will they be able to keep their lies straight?

Sophie is one of those characters that will stay with you. Each time she throws a letter to her father in the trash, you feel like retrieving it smoothing it, and sending it off to him. When The Aunties descend on Sophie with food, and laughter, and the suggestion of a ‘practice boyfriend,’ you can’t help but thinking that they are as over-the-top wonderful as they are exasperating, just as Sophie does. When Sophie takes the bus to Kingston to see her father, and leaves again without even getting to the penitentiary, your heart aches for her. When she is found out in the biggest lie of all, you want to flee along with her.

What could have been a piece of nostalgia is a funny, poignant, and achingly real window into the high school world. The blonds could easily be clichĂ©, but in Toten’s experienced hands each comes alive with individual personalities as Sophie gets to know them. Each has their own personality. And like Sophie, each has her own problems. I especially enjoyed the way that Toten handled the relationship between the girls, and the fact that the love interest doesn’t railroad the story. Sophie may have started out looking for ‘the blonds’, but what she finds in the end is real friendship. And to top it all off, I have heard rumours of more Sophie adventures to come. I hope so, and so will you.

Reviewed from advanced reader's copy. Look for it soon at your local bookstore.

The Fruit Bowl Project by Sarah Durkee

The Fruit Bowl Project by Sarah Durkee is a fabulous idea. It concerns a grade 8 writing class that has a famous rock star visit them (he's related to the grade 8 writing teacher). He compares writing to painting a bowl of fruit, suggesting that every artist would have a different take, use different forms, lighting, mediums, etc. To him, writing songs isn't much different than other sorts of writing. This makes writing seem relevant to the kids which is really cool. He explains what makes one story stand out over another is what the writer brings to it. Before he leaves, he gives the kids an assignment. They are to use 7 common elements to create a story. The elements are the same for every kid, but what they do with those elements is what will make their story unique.

It is such a neat concept. I started out very hopeful, but the first part of the book is a little too much of a lesson for my taste. Still, I really enjoyed, the last half of the book, which is the stories, poems, raps, screenplays, comic strips, puzzles, etc. that each of the kids in the class comes up with. They are interesting, creative, and very different from each other stylistically. Durkee also managed to create individual pieces that reflect the different abilities and personalities that you would typically find in a classroom. Considering this is Durkee's first novel, I'd say she is worth watching for. I imagine that this is one of those books that adults will like more than kids though. Good intentions but when it comes to the execution, I'd prefer a real story, and I think that most kids will too. The cover is illustrated by David Weisman, who is fabulous as usual.

Reviewed from the advance reader's copy.

Pieces of Georgia by Jen Bryan

A rainy holiday Monday, but not a bad thing as I don't have to water all those new transplants I put in a few days ago and I spent the day drinking tea and reading an incredibly poignant wonderful new book called Pieces of Georgia by Jen Bryan. As my last post was about covers, I’d give this one an A+, but here it is so you can judge for yourself.

Interestingly, the text is a free verse poem; along the same vein of another book I reviewed recently, The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter. It seems to me that the poetic structure of this story, like in the case of Porter’s novel is not essential, although not a bad thing. I recall Porter saying at a talk that she felt the structure made it easier for non-readers, and that may well be true. Both novels are very accessible, and easy to pick up. Another thing they share is that they are not so easy to put down.

Georgia is an unpopular tongue-tied ‘At Risk’ almost thirteen year old. Her mother has died and her father works long hours. She is often found in the school nurse’s room recovering from a stomach ache. Mrs. Yocum, her school councilor gives her a red leather diary and suggests that Georgia “…write down what you might tell, or what you might ask your mother, if she were here.” As Georgia fills the pages of her diary, she worries that the similarities between she and her mother will only make her father sadder. Until one day, a gift comes to her anonymously in the mail. It is a membership to the Brandywine River Museum which house three generations of Wyeth artists. Soon, Georgia’s artistic side is seeping out, and she knows that even if her father forbids her, she couldn’t stop going to the museum. Fortunately she has an art teacher who nurtures her talents, slipping her supplies, and encouraging her to enter the district’s art competition which she does without her father’s knowledge.

Pieces of Georgia is far from a one dimensional. The small humiliations of poverty, and the pettiness of popularity are the backdrop to Georgia’s world. Fortunately, she has an artist’s natural tendency toward careful observation, and her insights into her own physical and emotional frailties extend to those of her father and others around her. When her one friend, Tiffany falls into the drug trap, it is Georgia, who notices and who worries for her. Still, she is in the dark about who has sent her the gift that firmly plants her feet on the road to a career in art. In fact, the reader will be as surprised as Georgia when she finally discovers the identity of her benefactor.

The real strength of this book though is its thoughtful rather than dramatic portray of love, loss, family, friendship, and mentorship. I guarantee that it will put a lump in your throat and bring tears to your eyes, or in my case, down right bawling.

Reviewed from advanced reader’s galley.

On Thin Ice by Jamie Bastedo

Just regrouping after spending several days on Galliano Island helping a friend set up for an art show. I love going there because she is a gardener extraordinaire in addition to creating the most beautiful fused glass work. I keep nagging her to get a website up, but she is too busy creating in her tiny studio and gardening to sit at a computer. I have several of her bowls as well as a stunning white glass window with poppies that she built me for my birthday. I helped her weed massive beds where she has hundreds of species of irises, grasses, sedges, hostas, euphorbia, four different species of elderberries, a beautiful, golden half moon maple, and dozens of plants that I never knew existed until I came across them in her garden. The garden alone could be a full time job for most normal human beings.
We spent the evenings reading and talking books, because in addition to everything else she does, my friend is a voracious reader. Without distractions, aside from those mentioned above, I managed to get through all 348 pages of On Thin Ice by Jamie Bastedo, a book unlike most teen fiction currently on the market. Polar bear dreams, shaman and ice figure largely in this northern story that is part new age hip, part teenage cynical, part ecological cautionary tale, and part ancient wisdom. I loved it.
The main character, Ashley, is like a younger northern version of Carlos Castaneda without drugs. Unlike Castaneda though, she doesn’t actually set out to find her spiritual self, she is instead stalked by it. One half Inuit, Ashley has spent her life in the north, but when her parents move back to her father’s tiny village to look after her aging great uncle, Ashley’s inner and outer world seethe with fearsome blizzards, ice storms, and floods. Whatever the weather, polar bears are on the move. When one of Ashley’s classmates turns up dead and half chewed, her dream world and her everyday life seem to be melting into one. Do dreams or nightmares come true? Is the giant polar bear that stalks her dreams real?
For a newcomer, Bastedo handles the bones of the novel like a pro. The voice in Ashley’s dream journal is pure inner world. The logical and bizarre intertwine without ever colliding while the shaman bear voice is carried through separate chapters. Ashley’s waking voice is jarringly teen contemporary, and yet straddles new and ancient Inuit worlds perfectly.
This is a stunning book which has as much to say to teens as it does to those of us who are over 50—not to mention any names... A companion Teacher’s Guide can be found on-line at

Massive by Julia Bell

Back from a trip to Vancouver where I went to watch a track meet. Yes, I am a closet, or not so closet track fan. Of course it helps that two of my daughters are track athletes, but even if they weren’t I’d love it. I always watch the Worlds, Commonwealth Games, and definitely the Olympic. I try and make locally held meets, and am a timing official for the local high school meets.

The ferry trip over to Vancouver is about an hour and a half and aside from being famous for scenery and orcas sightings, it is perfect for reading. I almost always get a book read between the trip over and back. So, on this trip, I managed to read Massive by Julia Bell. It’s one I’ve had around for a while having been published first in 2002 by Young Picador of London. This edition was published in 2003. The stark black cover with a set of weigh scales on the front is practically enough to scare anyone with weight issues off, so I had been holding off reading this one as I had the uneasy feeling that it was very much an “issue book.” But, I was much mistaken, and should have read it sooner. In fact, I suspect that Julia Bell will be one of those writers whose next book I will automatically pick up no matter what the topic.

Massive might at first appear to be a book about eating disorders, a topic that seems to be all the rage in the media, hence my hesitancy as I really don’t like issue books. What I adore, and always will, is a good story well told. I was pleasantly surprised to find that that’s exactly what Massive is. Carmen is a relatively normal fourteen year old kid, living with her mum and step-dad in a small community. Candy bars and Playstation are Carmen’s distractions when her best friend is too busy with a new boyfriend to hang out. Meanwhile, Carmen’s mum, Maria, is recovering from an unnamed illness. It doesn’t take the reader long to figure out that her mother’s problem is an obsession with being thin. Before long, her mother has left her husband and moved them to the city where Maria grew up. Carmen’s grandmother has her own food issues, and Carmen finds herself bouncing between two extremes. Kids at her new school reinforce the ‘thin is in’ ‘fat is failure’ message. Carmen’s Aunt Lisa and her mother’s childhood friend Billy are quasi guardian angels, and it is no surprise that she turns to them when things get desperate.

Don’t expect pat endings from Bell. The characters are as real and troubling as they might be in real life. While the reader is hopeful that Carmen will recover, this is by no means certain, and Maria’s recovery is even more doubtful. Bell does offer hope in the form of Carmen’s Aunt Lisa, and in the Barbie Barbeque that closes the story. This scene alone is worth the price of the book. Watch out for her second novel, Dirty Work to be released in January o7. I know I'll be reading it when it comes out.

Shrimp by Rachel Cohn

I finished Shrimp by Rachel Cohn a few days ago, and am finally getting around to writing about it. Of course I have been raving to my daughters and their friends, or at least any who would listen! I love Cohn who has the rebellious teen voice down to an art. She easily makes you forget that Cyd Charisse (aka CC) and her pint-sized, surfer boy friend, Shrimp not real kids that you actually know. Man she’s good.

At first I thought this might truly be Shrimp’s story which is at least as interesting as CC’s . The book’s title doesn’t deceive for long though. Cyd Charisse is as ‘front and centre’ here as she was in Gingerbread. In fact, she is the narrator, so Shrimp is seen through her eyes, and as anyone who has ever spent time around teenager knows, they tend to be a smidge self-absorbed. Shrimp starts out with CC’s end of summer return from NY where she has met her bio dad Frank and step siblings. She is determined to devote the last year of high school to her ‘true love and soul mate,’ Shrimp. Problem.— Shrimp broke up with her at beginning of the previous summer, so she has to convince him of said true love. Shrimp is nowhere to be seen the first week of school. CC meets up with a few of Shrimps friends, both girls. The jealously may be expected, but Cohn’s adept handling of budding friendships is not. It is truly a measure of her skill that she turns the predictable into an unexpected twist which adds depth to the novel and to CC’s character. When Shrimp finally does show up, he thwarts CC with the ‘lets-just-be-friends’ line. While hooking up with Shrimp drives CC her new single status allows her a first time ever opportunity to hang with her new found girlfriends.

The push and pull in the relationship between CC and her mother, and later on in the novel, between Cyd Charisse and her step-dad gave me flashbacks of when my kids were teenagers. The depth is something that adults and kids will appreciate alike, although some adults may balk at occasional four letter words. Still, Cohn never uses offensive language gratuitously; unlike so many of the films teens watch where gratuitous language, sex and violence are the norm. In fact, the way Cohn handles sex in the novel could be the topic of a ‘how to’ course for wanna be writers.

The thing I liked most about this book is the growth in Cyd Charisse. By novel’s end, she is a very different girl than the one who came back from NY with the sole aim of reestablishing herself as Shrimp’s girlfriend. While she has no problems breaking out of parental plans for her, Shrimp’s are another matter. So does CC hook up with her soul mate and live happily ever after? Sigh…I’m not telling. You’ll just have to read it to find out. I promise, though, it will be a treat.

The Cure for Crushes by Karen Rivers

Haley Harmony is neurotic, a hypochondriac, and by her own confession in The Cure for Crushes by Karen Rivers, “a bad girlfriend.” This isn’t Haley’s first appearance. She made her debut in The Healing Time of Hickeys. In this second novel, Haley spends an inordinate amount of time, crushing on inappropriate boys (her friends’ boyfriends, the concession guy at the hockey rink) and a lot of time worrying about why she isn’t really into her current and only ever boyfriend, Brad who comes across as the best thing since sliced bread. She is also a tad over the top when it comes to online research of the symptoms of various diseases she is sure she is suffering from (migraines, anxiety disorder, diabetes, brain tumors, etc.). And, she is hair obsessed and is constantly growing, cutting, dying or angsting over growing, cutting and dying her hair. In fact, hair is one of the five regular category entries in her ongoing diary.

But that isn’t all. Haley is as list obsessed as she is hair obsessed; so much of her diary is list heavy. Being a little list-obsessed myself, I loved it, and Haley. Reasons to be in a good mood, what to get her father and boyfriend for their birthdays, what she is afraid of, symptoms of above mentioned ailments, possible but unlikely careers, reasons detention sucks, reasons why she is friends with Jules even though Jules drives her crazy, and of course―things that she did instead of studying for finals. These are just some of the lists that appear in Haley’s diary. While Haley might drive you crazy, you can’t help but love her. She is hysterically funny in a self-depreciating sort of way, and manages to get herself in trouble more frequently than not.

Excruciatingly self-conscious teenagers are hardly new material but Rivers does a superb job of capturing this angst-ridden time of life. Rivers uses humor to take some of the sting out of turbulent waters of high school life, but perhaps what The Cure for Crushes does best is let all the Haley Harmonys of the world know that they are not alone.

26a by Diana Evans

I know I know. I'm on vacation. But, sometimes when I read a good book, I just have to talk about it with someone. My book club isn't meeting again until the end of the summer and "bookstore girl", my daughter (see the sidebar for her blog) who is even more obsessive about books than I am, is away doing a publishing program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. So, I just finished a fabulous book and want to talk about it. It's called 26a and it isn't a kid’s book.

26a is the story of identical twins, Bessie and Georgina, of the loft and life they share on Waifer Avenue in London. But it is so so much more. It is also their parents story--Ida their mother, who at 15 runs away from her village in Nigeria (and an arranged marriage) to Lagos where a few years later she meets and marries Aubrey, a thirty-two year old banker who is trying to break away from his mama's boy past). They fall in love, move to London, and raise a family. While Ida retreats into herself, and the village and family she carries inside of her, Aubrey is unable to recover from his unhappy childhood and traumatizes his growing family with his Jekyl/Hyde personality. It is also the story of Bel, their first born, whose ability to see frightens her father and comforts her mother and the story of Kemy, a 'third sister' to the twins, and the least traumatized by moves between Nigeria and London. Most of all, it is the story of love and dependence and of how two can be one and how loss can be be born or how it cannot.

Evans writing style is complex and sophisticated with point of view switches that challenge and yet are integral to the story. It is poetic but not in the least flowery which I detest, nor obtuse which I find incredibly frustrating. I totally loved it and recommend it highly. I really think it would appeal to young adults as well as an older audience and can easily see why Evans won the Orange Award for New Writers for this one and why it was short-listed for the Whitbread First Novel Award. I can’t wait to read more of her work. So buy this one today folks.

Zee's Way by Kristin Butcher

Finally, my edits are showing up on blogger. So, as I was saying earlier, I finished Zee’s Way by Kristin Butcher. For those of you who don’t know, it’s part of a great series that Orca Book Publishers has done for reluctant teen readers. This is a fabulous series―well worth checking out, and Orca is a really good publisher. I should know, they published my first 6 books!

The thing is, it’s kind of awkward reviewing books by people you know, and I’ve known Kristin for quite a few years now; since she retired from teaching and moved to Victoria. I don’t see her much as she’s moved up island (island talk for anything north of The Malahat-a highish altitude pass just north of Victoria on Vancouver Island). Kristin is easy to review though, cuz she just keeps getting better. Zee’s Way isn’t her newest book, and it isn’t her edgiest. It is really good though. I think I like it so much because of Zee’s artistic bent. He doesn’t start out as a graffiti artist, but with the town’s new mall being anti-teen, graffiti becomes a way for him to express his anger and frustration. Not surprisingly, he gets caught. The mural he is coerced into painting to cover his earlier work ends up being a doorway for communication between the town merchants and Zee and his friends. I really liked the way the story is told from Zee’s perspective. I liked the way Zee feels about what he paints, even before he gets caught. I like how he gradually comes to see another way of looking at things, and I like the way his art leads the older generation to look beyond teen stereotypes. I think kids will like it too. Living by a high school, I often see people my age cross the street rather than walk by a group of teenagers hanging out in front of the school.

Butcher has a way of expressing opposite points of view through character, which is to say without preaching. She’s also a pro at snappy dialogue which she frequently uses to move a scene along. I suspect her ear for teen talk grew out of the years she spent teaching. Another thing that I like is that Zee’s home life difficulties are integrated into the story, but don’t take it over as it might have done in the hands of a less skilled author. Zee’s Way just might have you looking at graffiti with new eyes, and perhaps some of the kids who use graffiti to express themselves might look at things a little differently too. Now that’s a lot to accomplish in a little over 100 pages. But, that is what this book, and what Orca Soundings is all about. Short, readable, relevant teen novels that are hard to put down. Check out Zee’s Way, and some of Orca’s other titles at Orca Book Publishers.

So, it's only 11pm and I can get a few chapters of reading in before bed. Until next time. S.

Bass Ackwards and Belly Up by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain

What happens when post-high school plans suddenly change? Bass Ackwards and Belly Up happens. Becca, Kate, Harper and Sophie are best friends enjoying a last summer after high school in their home town of Boulder Colorado. All plan to go to different universities, but Harper has a dream, or is it a secret? When she finally confesses her change of plans to her three friends, one of them decides to chase her dreams, while another sets out to discover hers. Becca is the only one who is on track to accept a scholarship and ski for her dream university coach, but her friends insists that she too has to set herself a challenge, the challenge of falling in love.

Sounds good, and it sort of was, at least until about half way through when I just got bored.. This is a debut for Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, both seasoned television writers who have worked on The Shield and Angel, neither of which, I confess, I have even heard of. But then, I’m not the target audience, and I think that might be why I started out enjoying Bass Ackwards, but had a hard time finishing it.

It wasn’t the structure of the novel that I found tiresome. Each chapter contained one scene from each of the girls’ point of view. The point of view shift was clear and well handled. Each chapter began with snippets of the girls’ lives; sometimes an email from one of the girls to another, sometimes a list, or even a ticket stub.

After a while though, I realized that I didn’t find any of the characters particularly interesting. I also found that there were too many off-putting little things: the label dropping, the fact that each girl finds a hunk, the made-for-tvishiness feel to the story if that makes sense. And, after a while I found the predictability of the plot really put me off―Kate broke away from her parents, retreated after a traumatic experience, fell in love, but didn’t’ let it knock her out of the saddle so to speak. Becca got on the wrong side of her coach, fell in love with a jock at her new school, but , slept with a jerk from back home over Thanksgiving, and was forgiven by her real love, Sophie got duped by a Hollywood cad, won a speaking role in a movie while a struggling actor who is really in love with her waits in the wings, Harper wrestled with writing the great American novel in her parents basement while her hunky high school English teacher also waited in the wings for her. Like I said, predictable.

Still, my 18 year old thoroughly enjoyed it so you never know. If you like labels, hunks, and best friends this one might be for you. Besides, this writing pair has serious potential. I just wish they'd put it to better use. Mabye next time.

We All Fall Down by Eric Walters

Before I tell you about Eric Walter's book, I have to comment on the most amazing exhibit. I came over to Vancouver yesterday to see the Vancouver Art Gallery's Haida art exhibit which will only be here for another week. It was a wonderful combination of historical and contemporary work culled from various exhibits and private collections around the world. Some of the pieces I had seen before but many were new to me. The focus was on Raven, an important and recurring theme in Haida art. There were masks, jewelry, large and small carvings, bent boxes, and smaller totem poles as well as a dugout canoe and seven paddles carved by young artists currently being mentored. I particularly enjoyed the last room which was contemporary. I loved Robert Davidson's more modern work that has tended toward abstract but with clear ties to Haida. There was also some wonderful clothing with bold Haida influence gracing thick folds of black draping wool fabric. Another contemporary piece I enjoyed was a large hanging series of prints that told a sort of picture story; except that each picture was a provacative blend of cartoon and Haida art. It was stunning, and had also been created in book form; rather like a comic book if that makes any sense. An added treat included watching Reg Davidson carve. He is a master carver, and although I have never met him, I have two of his early numbered prints.

But, on to Eric Walter's book. As I mentioned in my last post, I have had We All Fall Down as an advance copy for some time, I think since last January. But, because of it's 9/11 subject, I have been reluctant to pick it up. With that time of the year rolling around again, I have found myself thinking about the whole question again, and about how it has truly changed the way we look at things; at least here in North America. Walter's wisely stays largely away from preaching, although he does sometimes border on it. What he does do is personalize a terrible and dark day in our collective history.

Will, the main character in Walter's story, is your average 14 year old kid, with girls, sports, and music on the brain. He is resentful that his father is always working, but other things occupy him; until a school-based job shadow forces him to drag his butt out of bed early one morning and accompany his father on the train to the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan where his father works as a trader. Of course Will would rather go on a more exiting job shadow, like his friend who is going to a firehall where his dad is a firefighter, or that hot new girl whose brother works for MTV.

All that changes though, when Will catches a glimpse of a distant airplane. Moments later, a loud crash shakes the World Trade Center buildings and it's occupants. It changes everything, Will's relationship with his father, the face of Manhattan, and history. The timespan in this novel is short, a mere two days. There is no shortage of drama though. The way Walter's describes the bank of trader televisions switching from stock market news to a plane crashing into the World Trade Centre is chilling. The scene where Will witnesses two people falling or jumping to their deaths is equally chilling, and one I recall watching in horror on television along with millions of others around the world. It is a scene I would rather forget along with the scene of a second plane crashing through glass and steel. Walters gives the sense that Will, his father, and his father's co-workers are all watching too, only they are inside. He gives a sense of their horror, their confusion and helplessness, and finally of the bravery and resolve some of which we learned of later, some of which we will never know. Will and his father's climb down the stairs toward the floors where the plane crashed rather than away from it, is gripping. Their rescue of Ting, an injured woman who must be carried down 78 flights of stairs is not without drama either. Just when we think that all is well, the building collapses. This too is a mirror of what happened on that terrible day. While Will, his father, and Ting survive, there were so many who did not.

Whatever your politics, 9/11 is one of those days that won't easily be forgotten. Walter's We All Fall Down is a window into a shocking day a young generation of young readers will now have the opportunity to learn about. One can only hope that they never have to live through a similar event.

Password Murder

Arg! Lost my post just as I was finishing writing it because my internet connection went down and I hadn't saved!

The gist was yet another apology for being too busy to read, much less review. It's all about work though, so no slacking off here in sunny Victoria. I did, however, finish Norah McClintock's Password: Murder, which is a great read and a must for wanna-be writers not to mention those of us already in the bus. Great dialogue, not just crisp but helps move the action forward. One of the things I like best about McClintock though is the internal dialogue isn't contrived the way it often is in mysteries. Oh and I love the way she breaks rules. Man I will definitely be reading more of her.

With the anniversary of 9/11 in mind, I'm about to start Eric Walter's We All Fall Down. Walters has a way of grabbing you that has made me put this one off for a while. It's just one of those random terrible events that I'd rather not think aobut, but I'll give it a go. This guy is incredibly prolific. I wish I had his output but I think I'm too ADD to stick to one thing; I'm all about bouncing from the computer to the garden to the laundry back to the computer, off for a snack, and then I may get distracted by buying paint for my bedroom, which by the way is now a beautiful golden yellow and much improved from the lime green it was when it was my teenage daughter's room. Don't expect anything for a few days though. I'm busy with preparing for a writing workshop I'll be giving next week then have friends visiting from Ontario for a few days. Until next time...

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Grist by Heather Waldorf

Just finished Grist by Heather Waldorf on my daughter’s recommendation. I haven’t been reading as diligently lately what with work, helping my daughter move out of her apartment in preparation for a year in Australia, and some incredible weather. And did I mention that I have been carrying furniture and boxes up and down three flights of stairs! Meaning, that I fall into bed at night and re-read the same page of the same book over and over; although it must be said that this has everything to do with the above mentioned three flights of stairs and the large quantity of books my daughter owns and nothing to do with the quality of the writing, which in the case of Heather Waldorf, is very good. And, for any Canadian publishers reading this, the cover is so savy and cool and appealing..come on Canadian YA publishers it's possible to do cool covers!

Grist is one of those coming of age stories that ring true. Charlie, the sixteen year old narrator is a keep-your-head-down sort of girl who takes pains not to stand out, especially now that her best friend Sam has moved to Australia. The one place where she does let herself shine is in creative writing. Charlie is a wanna-be writer, and her eccentric English teacher has given her loads of encouragement; that is, up until now. On the last day of school, he calls her into his office to give her a chance to rewrite her last assignment. For Charlie, who has not been doing a very good job of handling her best friend’s absence, nor her father’s new girl-friend and her triplet sons, it is the last straw.

Of course, things only get worse. Her teacher has a sudden heart attack and her father announces that he’ll be working in Toronto for the summer and his new girl friend is joining him. Charlie is welcome to come along, or she can visit her grandmother who lives on a live in the middle of nowhere. A summer at the lake where her long deceased mother grew up sounds only slightly more appealing to Charlie who leans toward being a couch potato. She learns to paddle a canoe, and helps paint her grandmother’s house, they are nothing compared to the fireworks when she kisses Kerry, the hot boy her grandmother warns her about.

At first Charlie manages to keep those “snap, crackle, pop” kissing sessions a secret, but eventually, her grandmother catches them in the act, and that’s when the fireworks really start. Sound predictable? Well it isn’t, but I can’t reveal Waldorf’s twist. You’ll just have to read it to find out. But let me start you off with the novel’s opening passage.

“It was a sticky, last-day-of-school afternoon. The halls of Springdale High were ripe with sweaty bodies, old lunch wrappers and the anticipation of summer.”

Talk about creating a scene. You can smell the place, including a whole high school population’s desire to fly through those double doors to get out into summer. Now, you’ll just have to do the rest on your own.

The Blue Jean Book: The Story Behind the Seams by Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Just finished The Blue Jean Book: The Story Behind the Seams by Tanya Lloyd Kyi. I can't believe it took me so long to read it! I've had it in my bedside pile (an ever growing pile I might add―yikes!) since it won the BC Book prize for Illustrated Children's Book back in April of this year.

Blue jeans have been around for more than a century. While they began as tough-wearing work pants, over the years, they became synonymous with groups as diverse as cowboys, rebellious teens, and high fashion designers. The impact of blue jeans on economic, social and cultural history can be felt around the globe. Who knew that so much was woven into blue denim threads? I love the way Kyi teases out each of these threads in such a easy to read style. Old ads and plenty of old and new photographs, sit easily alongside “pockets” of facts and asides. The Blue Jean Book is packed with information that is both interesting and provocative, but what I liked most about the book was that the author doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. She tackles toxic chemicals, sweatshops and advertising and explains the way in which we as consumers can impact the industry. And book’s design fits like a snug pair of jeans. What more you want from this superb team of author, editor, designer and publisher...just another superb title.

Exit Point by Laura Langston

Provocative definitely describes Exit Point, Laura Langston’s new YA novel in the Orca Soundings series. Gripping is another way to describe it. In fact, I couldn’t put it down. The premise is that there are various points that we can exit or die at, and we in fact have a choice about those points of exit.

Sixteen year old Logan is the story’s narrator. Logan is not like most other sixteen year olds and it doesn’t take the reader long to discover why. Logan is dead. Or is he? Maybe he’s just having a bad dream. After all, he can’t remember much and who ever heard of a round room where you are fed colours except maybe in your dreams? Then there is Wade, the snake-tattooed, six foot-four man who insists that he is Logan’s Guide. But Logan is skeptical. After all, there was no tunnel of light, and he hasn’t seen any pearly gates either.

When Logan meets up with his dead grandmother, the cigarette-smoking, straight-talking, gambling-addicted Arlene, doubt begins to creep in. Maybe he isn't dreaming? Maybe he really is dead? The real clincher comes when Wade takes Logan to his own funeral. Logan is now mere ashes in an urn next to his high school picture while the "ghost" of his former self looks on from the back pew. Logan is finally forced to believe that he died in a fiery car crash that left his best friend in a wheelchair, his father wracked by guilt, his mother devastated, his girlfriend broken-hearted, and his little sister hollow-eyed. Wade whisks him away, explaining that he has exited at the wrong time.

But, Logan discovers that his death isn’t the only thing troubling his little sister. By exiting too soon, he will no longer be around to help and protect her and she is terrified. He has to go back. He has to help her now that he knows. But how? And will he be strong enough to stand up to pure evil?

All I can say is read this compact YA novel which has flashes of brilliant insight. It may not answer any questions, but it certainly will push you to pose some of your own—about life, about death, and most especially about what may or may not come after. Who could ask a novel to do more?

Monday, October 8, 2007

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Back after yet another tour. I can just about count the number of days I've been home this fall on one hand...which has meant that I have been mostly too busy to read. Well, not entirely, but airplanes tend to bring out the worst in my reading choices. I've read more than a few murder mysteries and 'who done its'. One book that I did read which is a must for parents and educators and teens despite it's grim content is We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It is probably one of the most disturbing books that I have read for quite some time as it's about the recent phenomena of school killings. Told from the point of view of the mother of a fictional high school sociopath, it is frighteningly real; almost documentary in style. Each entry is a letter written by Kevin's mother, Eva Khatchadourian to her husband. Eva's letters are a way for her to try to understand what went wrong with their son. The reader is privey to the most intimate of questions that she asks about herself and her relationships with her son, and her husband. She does not spare herself consequently, the reader is not spared either. The entire book sent shivers up my spine in part because Shriver does not shy away from the pain, anguish and inevitable guilt that must result from raising a child who turns out to be a killer. Eva's letters to her husband are stark, honest and gut wrenching. The twist at the end was heart wrenching. While it is not an easy read, I would highly recommend it.

A Different Kind of Beauty by Sylvia McNicoll

Not many posts lately as I have spent so much time touring. Aside from judging a writing contest for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, hosting our speaker for the last Children’s Literature Roundtable meeting of the year, and, of course, writing, I am not busy. Can’t even garden since everything is covered in at least a foot of snow; yes this is the West Coast! So, I hope to catch up on my reading and book blogging..

I did manage to read Sylvia McNicoll’s A Different Kind of Beauty but haven’t had time to write about it until now. It is apparently a sequel to Bringing Up Beauty, which was published in 1999 and won both the Manitoba and Ontario’s Readers’ Choice Awards.

A Different Kind of Beauty has two narrators. The story begins with Liz who is fostering a lab for the Lions Foundation who trains dogs for the visually impaired. Beauty is the second dog that Liz’s has fostered and this time she is determined not to have her heart broken when it’s time to give the dog up. The turmoil of a pregnant older sister who has moved back home to get away from her abusive fiancĂ©, and an ex-boyfriend who sends mixed messages melt her resolve to keep Beauty at arm’s length. When Beauty turns out to be terrified of sudden loud noises, Liz can’t hold back. She has to give Beauty her all even if it means breaking her heart again.

Kyle is the second narrator, and his story begins in Hawaii where surf, sand and are a teenager’s dream come true. The dream is a far cry from reality though as this visit is about Kyle’s grandmother teaching him how to better control his diabetes. Unfortunately, it is also the beginning of one of the devastating symptoms of diabetes; blindness. Kyle does not adjust well to his new situation made worse when his girlfriend back home dumps him. Terrified of dogs, he resents his dependency on his family who would rather he got a guide dog. Arrogance combined with using his blindness to ‘get girls’ and buy alcohol are balanced by a vulnerability that is heart-breaking as when Kyle is abandoned by high school acquaintances in the bathroom of the mall. He takes risks as most teenagers do; but for a blind teenager with diabetes those risks can and nearly are fatal.

Kyle and Liz cross paths on several occasions, but it takes loss and Beauty to bridge their differences. McNicoll skillfully weaves their tales together without being predictable. I liked the fact that there were no pat solutions, only real characters with real lives that involved real problems. Secondary characters were just as well developed and believable. I haven’t’ read McNicoll’s earlier book, but I’ll definitely put it on my list.

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but computer woes have kept me both from reading and writing. Three hard drive crashes in two weeks has convinced or shall I say forced, me to take drastic action in the form of not only a new computer but a new operating system. Yes, I’ve gone Mac...My daughter, who is a big fan tells me I will love it, but the various quirks (such as no right click) find me spending far more time reading on-line explanations of how to do what I used to on this new system. As well, I continue to try to retrieve my email and not yet backed up files from a now dead computer, and transferring backed up files into a new operating system. For instance, I spent all of last evening reentering my contacts into my new address book while many of you probably watched the Grammy’s or read a good book. All very onerous!

But enough! After finishing getting my contacts in order, I allowed myself to start a new book, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier. This fantastic first novel by Australian newcomer is downright magical and it will delight avid readers, most especially female teens. Set high in the Transylvanian woods, in a castle known as Piscul Draculi, it follows five sisters and their monthly forays into a magical realm of fairies and full moon dancing. When one of the sisters falls in love with one of the creatures of the Other Kingdom, it is left to Jenna, the practical sister, to ensure that her lovesick sister doesn’t risk all for the impossible. Meanwhile, left under the care of relatives while their father goes south for his health, their cousin Cezar moves in ostensibly to help the girls through a brutal winter. Tormented by the loss of his brother ten years earlier, Cezar has much darker motives. Can Cezar be stopped? And will Jena’s sister be lost to them forever?

It so happens that I could tell you, but I'm sure you'd much rather enjoy the journey yourself. All I can say is if you’re anything like me, don’t start this book at bedtime! I believe it was about 4am when I finally turned the last page and turned out the light. Needless to say, this morning was no so good. Later...

Skinny Bones and the Wrinkle Queen by Glen Huser

So, I'm finally back from a wonderful trip to Australia where my three lovely daughters and I enjoyed surf and sun, great wines, and fantastic museums and art galleries for almost a month. Arrived home to power outages and a foot of snow. Yikes! That was followed by wind storms, downed phone lines, and then computer problems. I fit in a trip to Seattle for the American Library Association Conference and book signings with author friends Debbie Hodge and Linda Bailey which was also lots of fun. So, you see I have plenty of excuses for not updating this blog for a while. No more slacking off though…

While I was away, I confess to straying from my passion for kids books into an occasional thriller, a couple of Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction titles, and a few chick lit titles, but on to kids’ books. One that I totally adored was Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen by Glen Huser published by Groundwood Books. Tamara is the ‘Skinnybones’ foster care reject of the title while the ‘Wrinkle Queen’ is the ninety year old former high school teacher and senior care home resident, Miss Barclay. They meet when one of Tamara’s teachers matches students up with seniors at a nearby facility. They pair up on a Thelma and Louise style dash for the coast to indulge their respective passions—the Wrinkle Queen wants to go to the Ring Cycle Wagner operas staged in Seattle one last time while Tamara is desperate to take a modeling course in Vancouver. It takes months to lay the groundwork of subterfuge necessary, but the two finally set off with 15 year old Tamara at the wheel with her newly acquired learners’ permit. The deal is, if Tamara gets Miss Barclay to Seattle and takes her to the four day operatic extravaganza, the Wrinkle Queen will pay for her modeling course. That is if the two don’t throttle each other along the way.

Their adventures are hilarious, but what I liked most was the snappy dialogue between the two. Huser tells the story from both the Wrinkle Queen and Skinnybones point of view and manages to successfully skirt sentimentality. Neither Tamara nor Miss Barclay are initially sympathetic of the other. Despite occasionally nodding off mid-sentence, the Wrinkle Queen is as savvy when she’s awake as she would have been standing in front of a classroom of teenagers who’d rather be any where else than where they are. She easily sees through Tamara’s fake movie star smile. Meanwhile Tamara is as tough as they come. She’ll do anything to get out of the foster care cycle and into the glamorous world of modeling including: lying to her foster family and social worker, ditching school, stealing, and helping a ninety year old lady escape from a nursing home. It is when the trip begins to unravel and their respective tough veneers begin to show cracks that the story is at its strongest. Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen is one road trip you won’t want to miss.

Quad by C.B. Watson

While I was at the American Library Assoication Conference in Seattle, I picked up a few titles that looked interesting. One that I just finished was Quad which will be out in May 07 by Razorbill; part of the Penguin group. The author is C.B. Watson, a high school teacher and newbie. The author’s familiarity with the age group has served the author well. While the dialogue in this disturbing YA title sounds like it came directly from the halls of your local high school and the cluster of teens gather with Slurpees and skateboards outside your local 7-Eleven, the author’s approach is subtle and insightful. The narrative starts with the central issue of a high school shooter. What I liked so much about this book was the way in which the author doesn’t centre on the shooting, but on what led up to it. This is done through short chapters told from various points of view: “FREAKS, JOCKS, PREPS, DRAMA QUEENS, CHOIR BOYS, and TECHIES”. Each chapter offers a slice of the cruelties of high school life and insight into the reason why some kids snap. By letting us see that each group has kids who are vulnerable, Watson not only keeps the suspense high, but pushes us to examine what might be going on under the surface of our own schools and with our children. This is a disturbing and powerful novel, but one that teens, educators and parents will benefit from reading. C. G. Watson is definitely an author to watch out for. I'll post a cover as soon as it's available on the publisher's sight.

The Smell of Paint book signing

Here I am at American Library Association Conference in Seattle signing my new YA novel, The Smell of Paint. I am with two fantastic Fitzhenry & Whiteside Sales Reps. Stephanie Stewart (left), and Penny Taylor (right).Here I am at American Library Association Conference in Seattle signing books. I am with two fantastic Fitzhenry & Whiteside Sales Reps. Stephanie Stewart (left), and Penny Taylor (right).

The 25 Pains of Kennedy Baines by Dede Crane

The 25 Pains of Kennedy Baines by Dede Crane surprised me. Crane, who is new to writing, started off with an adult novel, Sympathy. Although Sympathy garnered a great deal of praise, I admit that I haven't yet finished it. The writing was good, but the subject matter of losing a husband and child in a car accident and the main character's tenuous grip on sanity was something you have to be up for and I just wasn't. So, I expected Crane's first YA novel be as grueling. Not so. It was fresh and easy to read and was about as true to the ups and downs of teenage life as you can get. I enjoyed the way Crane wove threads from the classic Pride and Prejudice, Kennedy's favourtie book, throughout the structure of her novel. There is modern day version of Austen's flashy Wickham character, Colin, the handsome yet sleazy son of Kennedy's mother's university friend. Colin is unappealing to all except Kennedy and her inexperienced friends. His counter is Eliot, an ethnic version of Mr. Darcey, who is every bit the gentle, learned soul. Like Elizabeth, Kennedy finally figures it all out in the end, but not before a sexual encounter heats things up. This scene was my only problem with the book and my discomfort had nothing to do sex. I just found that Colin stepped too far out of character to make it believable. Still, The 25 Pains of Kennedy Baines is a great teen read and I'd definitely recommend it. In fact, giving a young reader both would be a perfect way to introduce a classic, and it may just help to keep the door to discussions about sex open.

YA Books Central

Here is a really cool link I've discovered to more great reviews, bios and book excepts not to mention a great place to win book prizes, so check it out. Sheryl.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

I’d heard of Looking for Alaska by John Green from my daughter, Ali who was working in a bookstore when it came out. I had it on my must-read-one-of-these-days list long before I heard John Green speak at the SCBWI conference in LA this summer. It was his speech, which blurred the line of truths, lies and fiction which made me move it up to the top of my ever growing pile. I finished it last night, and know that it will stay with me for a long time to come.

The story begins with Miles, a sixteen-year old Florida boy about to leave for boarding school. At his mother’s insistence, Miles endures a going away party where, as he expects, almost no one shows up. Obsessed with last words, this only confirms his need to leave his lonely and uneventful life behind to pursue what Rabelais called “The Great Perhaps.” Of course, Miles is also hoping that he’ll meet friends and even have adventures at Culver Creek Boarding School.

He is as unprepared for the Alabama heat as for what lay in store. First, there is his new roommate, the five-foot nothing Chip Martin. Known as The Colonel, he renames Miles, smokes like a fiend; drinks vodka mixed will milk, and memorizes the names and capitals of countries. A middle of the night brush with another group of boarders called Weekend Warriors firmly establishes a friendship between The Colonel and Miles AKA Pudge. Friendships with Takumi, a Japanese-American who is clever with a rap, but hopeless at pre-calculus and the sweet Romanian-born Lara with whom Pudge has a short-lived romance follow. But, it is Alaska who is the glue that holds them all together. She is equal parts gorgeous, well read, and self-destructive. Of course Pudge is smitten with “her eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor.”

Looking for Alaska is a rich stew of characters brimming with energy intensity. Green serves up their stories with such potency that once you have a taste of these kid’s lives, you’ll want more. I expected great writing. After all, Looking for Alaska won the Michael L. Printz Award for Young Adult Literature. I expected subtle wit and a certain amount of well-drawn teenage angst. What I didn’t expect was to be thrown into the emotional minefield of adolescence. What I didn’t expect was to care so very much about Pudge, The Colonel, and Alaska, the girl they knew, and the one they never could. What I didn’t expect was that a lie could feel, and taste and smell so very real.

I'd Tell You I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

So, if you happen to be looking for a nice light read, and enjoy both teen and spy novels, you’re in luck. I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter has just hit the press, and it is a total hoot. Cammie Morgan is a student at the Gallagher Academy For Exceptional Young Women. While the name implies the epitome of snooty girls’ private school, it is anything but. Not only are the girls all geniuses, the Academy is a covert operation for young female spies in training. The girls get extra credit for breaking CIA codes in computer class. PE involves advanced martial arts. And science class teaches the latest in chemical warfare. All the training in the world doesn’t help Cammie when it comes to dating though. She may be able to speak fourteen languages, kill a man seven different ways with her bare hands, or follow him without detection, but she gets weak in the knees when it comes to ordinary boys, especially one by the name of Josh Abrams. Of course any self-respecting spy is aware of the danger of infiltration, so Cammie’s friends decide to check Cammie’s potential new boyfriend out just to be on the safe side. Breaking into his house, hacking into his computer, and checking out the family trash are just a few of the tactics hilariously employed.

Carter’s book is a blast. She’s obviously has a solid handle on the James Bond variety of spy fiction as well as her target audience. This was a fun read, which has, by the way been optioned by Walt Disney so don’t be surprised when it arrives at a movie theatre near you. In the meantime though, Ms. Carter is working on a sequel, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy. I can’t wait to read Cammie’s further adventures with her friends, with boys, and with the whatever mission Gallagher Academy For Exceptional Young Women or life throws her way.