I'll be Watching by Pamela Porter

As Remembrance Day nears, narratives that bear witness to the long fingers of war beg to be read. I've been meaning to get to this one for ages, and am so glad it surfaced from my book piles, encouraging me to read it now. 

This is a book that packs a wallop. Each character's voice and perspective are represented in verse. Through this, the town of Argue, Saskatchewan, as it was in the 1930's and 1940's, is revealed in all it's glory and tarnish: a village where the best and worst of humanity take refuge. 

“We are all stumbling and falling under our own crosses,
those carved from our hands, our sweat,
and those not of our own making.”

Imagine the prairies in the early 1940's.
Look close and you will see a father 
drinking to keep from remembering 
the great war, a lost farm, and his wife's death. 

His four children Ran, Jim, Norah, and Addie 
struggle to carry on against the backdrop of 
a stepmother, who 
with her small minded, self righteous, religiosity, 
undoes, bit by bit, their mother's work. 

Set those children on their own,
abandoned by their father's death, 
and stepmother's folly,
prey to about as much kindness and evil 
as any small town can conjure up.

Watch the ghost of their mother,
as best she can, 
nurture and keep them safe. 

There is true evil in this tale. It's not the evil of marauding armies. It's not even the impersonal evil of a system where young boys head off to war in exchange for new boots and three square meals a day. Evil in Argue, Saskatchewan, is personal. It manifests itself in greed, incest, rumour and prejudice. 

On the other hand, there is also true kindness. It's in the actions of some townsfolk who go out of their way to support the abandoned children. It's in the sharing of books across race and culture. It's there in a community coming together to hold on to each other in the face of death. 

I think there is an assumption that books written in prose are easy reads. Porter, in both The Crazy Man, (another book I've read and loved) and now in I'll be Watching, challenges this. This book wrenched my heart out. I wept buckets. More than once. 

Five out of five stars. 

It's Monday, What Are You Reading October 27, 2014

 #IMWAYR, where bloggers share the books they have been reading in the past week. If you follow these links, Jen from Teach Mentor Textsand Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers, you can find many great reads.

Last week I finished reading Hostage Three by Nick Lake. It was dark and disturbing, but at the same time, enlightening. It isn't something I will purchase it for my elementary school library though. 

After that, I started on The Elevator Ghost by Glen Huser. To be honest, it was too light a read after the intensity of Hostage Three. So instead of reading with my eyes, I spent more time listening to Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy. 

I finished The Legend of Bold Riley, a graphic novel written by Leia Weathington and illustrated by different individuals. Bold Riley is a fabulous queer role model for girls. She is strong, smart, confident, and brave. I enjoyed the story, but found the different styles of art to be a distraction.

Last Thursday, at the British Columbia Teachers Association (BCTLA) Gala dinner, I met up with Glen Huser who autographed a copy of his book for me. I was delighted to share a table with three authors whose work I admire, Irene Watts, Linda Baily, and Helaine Becker. Darlene Foster also graced our table. I am looking forward to reading her books about Amanda, a Canadian born heroine sleuth.

On Friday I attended the Vancouver Writer's Festival. In the morning I got to see Cory Doctorow. I didn't swoon, but I did pick up a copy of Information Doesn't Want to be Free as a Christmas gift for my partner. In the afternoon I went to a session titled Forty Years of Harbour Publishing, where I discovered the works of Katherine Palmer Gordon and Robert (Lucky) Bud. I bought Gordon's book We are Born With Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia and Bud's book, Echoes of British Columbia: Voices from the Frontier, and crossed more Christmas gifts off my list. 

The important thing I learned from the BCTLA conference this year, was to remember to highlight Canadian authors in general, and local author's in particular. Next year I will set a goal for reading a number of their works.

Yesterday I started The Elevator Ghost all over again and loved it. We had to go out for dinner as I was too busy reading to cook. It is the perfect Halloween read for younger readers as it is filled with scary stories but they're not too scary. There is something about naughty boys I can't help but love. You can read my review of it by clicking the above link. 

In the next week I will continue to listen to Wildwood Imperium. In an effort to work on my my 2014 must reads list, up next is Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg.

The Elevator Ghost by Glen Huser

I am captivated by this charming tale. I adore Carolina Giddle, the supreme storyteller who drives a trinket covered Volkswagen Beetle, and keeps a tarantula named Chiquita as a pet. I am delighted with the motley collection of characters who live at The Blatchford Arms. 

I loved the unruly twins, Dwight and Dwayne Fergus, right from the start, as they scoured Blatchford for Halloween treats late into the night, even though it meant getting into trouble. (I'm sure I've had them visiting me far past their bedtimes on October 31st) Their antics when Carolina Giddle comes to babysit are hilarious. The twins are stunned as Carolina outmaneuvers them time and again. I love how her story, The Bone Game, enthralls and bridles the little rascals.

There are other children at The Blatchford Arms, and Carolina Giddle has just the right scary stories for each of them. There's the story of The Mountain King and the Shadow Killer, for Hetty and Hurbert Croop, who is afraid of the dark. The Scaly Batmonster of Scuggins Creek, entertains Elsa, Galina, and Luba, the artist's children. The screaming Angleo Bellini is tamed by her story of The Tantrumolos. Benjamin Hooper and his siblings are entertained by The Alien Ghosts. In her final story, Carolina Giddle tells the story of the ghost at Blatchford Arms.

Huser captures the tone and setting in just a few lines.
"Blatchford was scary any night of the year, not just on Halloween. It was a very old part of town with crooked streets and bad lighting. Cats yowled and scrapped in th alleys. Teenagers with tattoos were known to hang out under the bridges by the park."

"An hour past midnight, all of the excitement over Halloween had faded away. There was just the smallest taste of it left, like the sweetness from a caramel. Children had fallen asleep, even those complaining of stomach-aches." 

This is a perfect navel to read out loud to youngsters in the week or so before Halloween. There is humour and gentle scariness in each of the tales. I think it would be best for grade five and under, but then I'm a whole lot older than that, and I am infatuated with it. 

Five Stars

It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

I'm trying to get back to joining #IMWAYR, where bloggers share the books they have been reading in the past week. If you follow these links,  Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers, you can find many great reads. 

It's been a busy week for me. I've finished three novels, and started 2 new ones. I've also been reading a few picture books to put together a collection of these for older readers

Links should take you to my reviews of the books, (If I have one.)

A picture book that jumped out at me is By the Side of the Road by Jules Feiffer. It's the story of a misbehaving boy whose father leaves him at the side of the road to teach him a lesson. The boy refuses to repent and ends up living in the field underground. While it has a happy ever after ending, it's still disturbing. 

I finished listening to Forest Born by Shannon Hale. Now I've got to go and find the first three in the Books of Bayern series.

I've been searching for a strong lesbian character in middle grade fiction and I think I found her in Staggerlee, the protagonist in The House You Pass on Your Way by Jacqueline Woodson. The more I read of Woodson's work, the more of a fan I become.

I read The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier in one day. It would have been one sitting but I was forced to carry on with the other details of living, like buying groceries. 

I've started reading Hostage Three by Nick Lake. Compared to my recent literary journeys, the reality of this one promises to take me on a dark and disturbing ride. I'm not sure I'm ready for it.

I've just started listening to Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy. I loved the first two in the series and hope this one lives up to it's predecessors. 

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

Two Irish orphans, Molly and her younger brother, Kip, are in desperate circumstances. They've run away from an orphanage, but haven't been able to find work.

The Windsor Estate in the Sourwoods forest, is their last chance, if only they can find it. An ancient crone attempts to warn them away, but they pay her no mind. Eventually she offers to give them directions in exchange for an eventual story about the house and its inhabitants.

When they finally arrive they discover that an ominous tree has embedded itself into the foundation and walls of the manor house. There is one locked room that is off limits.

It's a bleak family that lives inside it. Molly is shocked to see what they looked like before they moved to the house. The jolly curly haired family has become pale and washed out except for their black 
eyes and jet black straight hair. Something sinister happened in the house when the master was just a child. His parents disappeared but he survived. And now, the evil Night Gardener is in the process of repeating history.

It's up to Molly and Kip to save them all.

Jonathan Auxier has crafted a book with stellar characters, a gothic setting, and a gripping plot. On top of all this, he educates the reader about the Irish Potato Famine and Victorian England.

The Night Gardener is an exploration into the dark consequences of greed and keeping secrets. Would you be prepared to give up a part of your soul to get what you want? It also looks at the power of storytelling. Like all good Victorian tales, there are morals to be learned from this read. 

This is most assuredly the best creepy book I've read in a long time. Heck, it's up there with one of the best books I've read all year. It's just in time for Halloween too! I'll purchase a copy in hardcover now, and a few more when it comes out in softcover.

I highly recommend this one as a class or family read aloud.

5 stars

The House You Pass On the Way by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson is my newest favourite author.

Sometimes all you need is one or two sentences and you've fallen head over heals for a character in a novel. Staggerlee is one of them. She's a loner: a girl who likes her own company, a girl who likes long walks with her dog along the river. She's a girl who keeps her feelings and thoughts close.

When her cousin, Trout, comes to visit, Staggerlee experiences her first real friendship and connects with a kindred spirit. From their mutual acceptance and intimacy, both girls grow more comfortable with who they are and who they might become.

"Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won't be gay......
Staggerlee watched her a moment. "You think the day'll come you can write something like that in the dirt and it won't faze anybody?"
Trout smiled and started writing their names again. "Guess it won't ever come if it don't start someplace, right?"

Readers are left with the knowledge that no matter what happens, these girls are going to be ok.

This book is satisfying on so many levels. Woodson can write. Her descriptions of winter seduced me into believing I was there in that moment.

"Staggerlee squinted up at the sun. It was weak today. Wintry. Everything about this place had settled into winter. Even the fish had disappeared, moved closer to the the bottom of the river. And the meadowlarks and mourning doves. They were gone too. She shivered, wrapped her arms tighter around herself as she walked. In the distance, a horse whinnied. Creek ran ahead of her, skirting the icy edge of the river."

Staggerlee's family is real. Her older brother, a gifted pianist, has been accepted to a prestigious music school, and she misses him deeply. Her older sister is going through one of those nasty teen phases. I wish I could have had parents like them or been like them when my sons were younger.

I read and enjoyed Miracle's Boys this summer, but The House You Pass On the Way has made me swoon with delight and book love.

I'm waiting for Brown Girl Dreamng, Woodson's story of her childhood, to arrive. I can hardly wait.

Steelheart by Branden Sanderson

At first I wasn't enamoured with this book. I can see why so many of our students love it, but not only did it not pull me in, the main character, David Charleston, actually irritated me. Thankfully, it was the only audiobook on my phone, and so I continued to listen. It was most assuredly worth it. 

Imagine a world filled with individuals with super powers. Now imagine that they are all evil. This is the premise behind Steelheart. A strange star, called Calamity, burst into the solar system and enabled ordinary individuals to develop these powers and become Epics. Epics have different kinds of powers. Some have more than one. While they all have a weakness, each one's is as unique as its power. 

When David Charleston was 8, he watched Steelheart, a seemingly invincible Epic, kill his father. He barely escaped with his life. Since that time he has studied everything he can about epics. He's also researched the Reckoners, a group that searches out and kills them. More than anything else, David wants to watch Steelheart die. 

David manages to introduce himself to the Reckoners and get accepted as a recruit.  Not only this, he manages to convince them to stop going after minor epics, and set their sights on Steelheart. 

David is foolishly cocky. (I fear this is true of many young men and probably young women too.) He's smart but doesn't want to come across as smart. While he has amazingly detailed notes and the capacity to figure out so much about these two groups, he doesn't seem to have the capacity to envision the consequences of his actions. He also doesn't have the wherewithal to figure out that just keeping these kinds of notes is dangerous. I just couldn't buy into the scenario of this audacious kid making his way into the group and having this kind of influence over experienced adults. 

It was only when these aspects dissipated that I got swept up in the story. I like adventure/mysteries that have many twists and turns, and this one has its share. I also appreciated the look at how power has the capacity to corrupt individuals. 

My final quibble with this book is that while there are a few strong female characters, they are both in secondary roles. One of them ends up being more or less evil: a meme that I'm tired of. I just wanted more from these women. 

In retrospect I can see why so many boys in my school like Steelheart. (After all, I did come to appreciate it!) They will clamour for the next in the series when it comes out. I'll get it for them, but I won't be reading it. 

Taking Stock of my 2014 Reading Goals

In the process of taking stock of my reading goals for this year I've come to the conclusion that I just might have too many towers of books around my house

Last January I picked 56 books for my 2014 to read list. At this point, I've only read 34. To be fair, a few of them are not yet published...

But the truth about me, is that in general I'm easily distracted, and specifically, can get a tad over excited about books.

I'm thankful that books are significant in both my work and leisure times. I spend a lot of time reading book reviews and other book bloggers. Then I get swept up in their enthusiasm, and faster than you can say what list? I've put these new books on hold at the VPL. As they start to arrive, my planned reading list gets abandoned....

Here is a perfect example of how distracted I can get. Today I opened up a box of new books. Inside was this one. After swooning and fighting with a few readers over who gets to read it first, I realized that these flashy new hardcovers that I have been waiting to read also push my to read list into the background.
I'm used to towers of books all over the place. At our house, a flat surface is just an invitation for books to pile up, but on Sunday, while listening to the end of Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, (more about this book in another post) I went to tidy my sewing room. I discovered completely forgotten piles of books I brought home to read over the summer.

You see what I mean? These towers have gotten out of hand. I collected all the school library books I brought home to read and put them in a cart to return to the library. 

I ask students at our school to limit their number of borrowed fiction from our library to 5 books at a time, (although I'm not hard core about this.) I think it's time I started following my own advice. I'll try to limit my school library books to five at a time. You never know, I might just succeed.

I've also decided to be realistic. I'm choosing 5 books from my 2014 to read list, and forgiving myself for not reading the rest this year. I haven't abandoned them forever, but for now I'm saying, "See you later."

Here are the five I'm keeping. I'd like to say I have high falootin' reasons for their remaining on the list, but I chose them mostly because they are easy to get my hands on. My goal is to have at least one of these on the go until they are done.

  1. The House you pass on the Way by Jacquelie Woodson
  2. Waking Kate by Sarah Addison Allen
  3. Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
  4. I'll be Watching by Pamela Porter
  5. Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg

Wait! Before you think I am a slothful and lazy teacher librarian, I want to brag that I have actually read 114 novels so far this year. I also read picture books, but I don't usually remember to keep track of them. This isn't to shabby is it?

Out of all my finished books I'm going to try to identify 5. I want everyone I know to read them so we can talk about them later.

  1. Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
  2. The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp by Kathi Appelt
  3. The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore
  4. Revolution by Deborah Wiles
  5. Five, Six, Seven, Nate by Tim Federle
  6. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith *
  7. American Gods by Neil Gaiman*

Ok, that's seven, but those two starred books are really not appropriate for anyone under 16 or 17.

The Dry by Rebecca Nolen

In 1895, the state of Virginia was experiencing a "deathly dry," a drought so intense that "thick clouds of dust hung chest high all day. Open windows let it inside where it coated every surface." In the midst of this, a journalist, Sam Sweeney, left his son with his uncle, and set off to discover why children were going missing from a coal mine. Then he too he disappeared. Three months later, when the search for him was called off, his 12 year old son, Elliot, went to search for him. 

Luckily, Elliot met up with Lefty, a young girl, who was searching for a brother who had gone to work in the coal mines but never returned. Soon the two of them ended up racing for their lives from Mr Nogard, a malevolent rat like man.

Their search takes them deep underground into the world of Penumbra: a world long ago fractured into a Dry side and a Water side, a world embroiled in a battle between good and evil. "There's a dragon, there's the insects so big they could chomp off a child's head in one bite, and of course, there's The Wicked Prince of Every Place himself" 

It's a world wherein it appears that this evil creature, Prince Levane, a monstrosity composed of insects, and ruler of the Dry, might win. He collects child slaves to work his diamond mines and feed the water devouring moon he has created. If he manages to win, he will destroy all of Penumbra, and the upper world with it. 

It's up to Elliot to travel across a fiery sea, climb a living mountain, meet up with Tosia, Queen of the Water, and convince her to help him rescue Lefty, his father, the other child slaves, and the earth itself. 

Nolan has manufactured a sinister world here. She is gifted with the ability to craft sentences that set a dark and ominous atmosphere. Elliot has barely left home when tension and suspense is established in a few lines, "The landscape faded as dread darkness crept on spider legs across the fields. Nightfall always left him feeling like there wasn't enough air in the world." 

Wasps have an important role in this saga. Hints of their role are revealed through the fascinating wasp facts that precede each new chapter. 

This is a story about trust, about foolish misunderstandings, about love and loss and heartache. It's about redemption and new beginnings. It's also very creepy which makes it an ideal horror story for my readers.

It has an intense beginning which is sure to pull readers in. When the initial excitement faded, I had to work a bit to stay engaged. To be honest, I was sick when I started this and maybe nothing would really have grabbed me by the throat and kept me enthralled. Still, I was too often frustrated by the foolish decisions these children made. I also wanted more from Lefty who was relegated to the role of damsel in distress, never mind her plucky beginning.

In spite of my quibbles, I can think of a number of readers off the top of my head, who will love this dark and satisfying read. 

4/5 stars

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

I am utterly charmed by this book. I love this family. I love these boys. 

You will too. 

It's a modern family classic: the story of two fathers and their four sons. Levy has crafted complicated characters for all of them. This is a family you could live next door to. These are boys you can see yourself going to school with. There's Sam, the eldest, a soccer fiend who discovers hidden talents within himself; Jax who is struggling to stay connected to his best friend and find a connection to their new neighbor; Eli the brilliant child who is learning that there is more to life than academics; and Frog (Jeremiah) the youngest, a kindergartener who brings his imaginary friend to school with him. And then there are Papa and Dad, two loving parents. 

Aside from the humour and delightful characters, under the surface this book tackles big issues like war and it's aftermath, and what kind of education is really best for children and how do we support all of them? 

I recommend this as a read aloud for everyone - kindergarten and up.