The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer

"Death is a hard nut to crack." 

Magical thinking permeates it's wake. 
This is how it is for Grace whose mother died in a drowning accident. She makes bargains with the unknown in an attempt to stave off the reality of life after her death. She interprets the world around her as if her mother is still sending her messages. On top of this, Grace has to learn to live with her grandmother, a woman who brought her mother great sorrow by abandoning her before Grace was born.

Grief has the capacity to rob us of our sanity, to lead us into behaviours we learn to regret. 
This is how it was for Grace's grandmother, who shunned her daughter after the death of her husband. By the time she came to realize her mistake, it seemed it was too late to make amends. This time, she is determined build a better relationship with her granddaughter. 

If Grace can unravel the mystery that was her mother, there might just be hope for the two of them. This is complicated work. 

I love these beautifully developed quirky characters. I have a special place in my heart for Max, their 8 year old neighbour who yearns for an entombment party. 

Ultimately this book is about learning to love and trust. It's about family and friendship. It's about having courage to forge a new beginning out of the broken, leftover bits of the past. 

"I thought maybe heaven wasn't only in the great big sky with comfy furniture and fireplaces. I figured it lived in small places too, like a bowl of good soup or the folds of an origami crane."

Tracy Holczer has written a heartbreakingly beautiful book. I started it and couldn't put it down. I laughed and I cried. I'm thoroughly satisfied.   

I'm going to have to go and reread some Robert Frost now. 

Deadly Thyme by R L Nolen

I enjoy reading mysteries, but I don't do scary at all. And let me warn you, this book is chilling. It's not my kind of book at all at all.

It is a testament to the quality of Nolen's writing that not only did I finish it, once started, I couldn't not finish it, no matter how horrific it became. (I do admit to taking breaks from it to calm down)

One quiet Sunday morning in a village in Cornwall, a ten year old girl, Annie Butler, is abducted. Her kidnapper, Charles, is a serial killer who believes that drinking young girls' blood will make him young again. That premise alone makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Yet it gets worse. 

Nolan's omniscient narrator takes us inside the heads of the main characters. It's this that makes it disturbing. The narrative weaves its way into the impossible logic of the psychotic Charles, then wends it's way through imprisoned Annie's terror, stays a while with her mother Ruth's frantic panic, and on to DI Jon Graham's desperate sleuthing to find Annie before it is too late. Round and about, each glimpse inside the individual characters' realities ratchets the tension and suspense up. 

I won't spoil this for you, but I admit that this is one of those books where midway through, I had to read enough of the end so that I could go back and finish the book without suffering from apoplexy. 

If you are a reader of thrillers, then this book is for you. The plot is riveting. The characters are fully developed. This book puts the reader on the Cornish coast, enmeshed in village life and inside the heads of its inhabitants. 

It isn't for my elementary school readers, so I'll send my hard copy of the book to our feeder high school. I hope The Dry, the other of Nolan's books I have, is less traumatic. 

Counting by 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan

If I am ever asked for one word to describe this book, mine will be redemption.

Redemption sneaks in through the back door for so many of these characters.

The catalyst is Willow Chance, an oddball genius with nearly nonexistent social skills. 
She is an observer of the world and its inhabitants. Yet while she is aware of the smallest detail in others, she is incapable of figuring out how to fit in with her peers. Friendless and bored witless in her middle school classes, she is thought to be a less than average student. When she aces the standardized test in 17 minutes, she is accused of cheating, and as a newly named troublemaker, ends up under the auspices of Dell Duke.

Dell Duke is a loser, a school counsellor with no empathy or compassion for the kids sent to him for help. One day, when Dell is late, Willow meets Mai and Quang-ha Nguyen. Mai becomes her first friend since grade 5.

When Willow's parents are killed it's Mai who ensures Willow is taken care of. Mai and Quang-ho's mother, 
Pattie, takes her under her wing. Pattie is like a whirlwind as she takes charge to make sure that their temporary charge of Willow goes without a hitch. 

Willow triggers something in everyone she meets. Through interactions with her, the lives of this motley cast of characters are transformed. Jairo Hernandez, the cab driver, ends up in college. Quang-ho becomes a successful student. Mai lets go of her need for control and is less anxious. Pattie's business booms and she realizes that she has to make permanent changes for her own family. Dell's metamorphosis is most pronounced. To his surprise, he finds himself caring about Willow. Then he connects to, and begins to care about the Nguyens, and eventually even himself. 

In turn, her interactions with this group help Willow transform from awkward genius into confident young woman. 

"I will go forward into the world and do my best to be the daughter that my parents would have wanted me to be. 
I'm not brave; it's just that all other choices have been thrown out the window." 

Sloan has written a profound novel about the power of love, family, and friendship. You'll wonder how these remarkable characters are getting by long after the last page is turned. 

I Have a Bad Feeling About This by Jeff Strand

I have no idea where I read about, or why I put a hold on this book from our public library. All I know is that it showed up as ready to be picked up and so I did. Honestly, I was dismayed at first. I really didn't think this would be my kind of book at all. 

I am so glad I read it. Sure it isn't my usual fare, but it is a well written engaging tale, full of ridiculous humor and madcap adventure. 

Simply put, our hero, Henry Lambert, and his best friend, Randy, are 16 year old skinny nerds who would rather play video games than romp in the great outdoors. Yet they end up in the wilds at Strongwoods Survival Camp along with three other mostly nerdy boys, Erik, Jackie, and Stu. Max, the slightly demented instructor, is determined to turn them into outdoorsy young men. 

One night Henry is forced to sleep outside as punishment. He meets up with Monica, a fearless girl from the nearby music camp, who is out walking in the dead of night through the forest. Of course he is instantly infatuated. Monica we soon discover is one feisty young woman. 

Then three gangsters show up at the camp with the intention of murdering them all. There's a lot of tomfoolery but also some seriously intense moments as the boys, with the help of Monica, save the day. 

I loved the humor in this book. I laughed out loud more times than I can remember. I snickered at the WILDERNESS SURVIVAL TIPS. Some of them are even sensible, like this one I myself depend on when I am huckleberry picking in the high bear infested Rocky Mountains. 

I really enjoyed this book except for these weird interruptions in the form of some goofy reporter trying to ask questions at a film screening of the adventure. Sure it was interesting that the movie wasn't like the real story, but it wasn't really needed. 

I'm thinking I will most certainly get this for our collection. 

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

This book was on the list of recommended reads over the summer holidays. It is always popular in the library. I decided to try it out by listening to it while doing my summer housework. It's easier to do work when your head is mostly inside a book, but this one was exceptional.  

I made potent connections to it. It is loaded with important lessons:

  • It shows how our thinking can be limited by our environment and circumstances.
  • It reveals how easy it is to be corrupted, and what the consequences of letting ourselves be corrupted can be.
  • It points out how important it is to do what you know is the right thing irrespective of how challenging this might be. 

Mostly however, The City of Ember is a really good read.

Lina and the rest of the inhabitants of the of Ember believe that their world of darkness is the only world that exists. We're not sure how long the people have been living underground, but things are starting to get desperate. The lights go out with increasing frequency. There are escalating food and other shortages. 

Then Lina discovers a message her sister chewed on, and tries to puzzle out what it says. Together with her friend, Doon, and the help of a few others in the community, they discover that it is instructions for how to leave their city. 

I read this book after finishing Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It isn't easy to go from a book like that to any other book, but this one stood the test. It is a great first dystopian novel. I loved that it had a satisfying ending. If I read the sequels, (which are on the summer to read list) it will be because I want to visit with these characters again, not because the novel left me hanging. 

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

This is a 5 star coming of age novel. It's about family, friendship, and acceptance. It's brilliantly written prose. My brother and I listened to it on a road trip home from the Okanagan Valley to Vancouver. We were often forced to stop the story in order to absorb a line or phrase.

“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn't get--and never would get.”

Sometimes we stopped the story to have a conversation about what was going on. Never have I listened to a book with someone where we were both so affected by it.

“Words were different when they lived inside of you.” 

At the same time as being unique individuals, these characters embody universal truths about what it means to be human. I love them all, but especially the boys, Ari and Dante. I love that who they are as people is so much more important than anything else about them. I love their parents. I wish all boys going through this could experience such unconditional love. 

This isn't a fast paced action book. It's a thoughtful perusal into family dynamics, identity, and sexuality.

I laughed that Dante hates to wear shoes. (So do I)
I ached that Ari's father come back from war burdened with invisible scars.
I cried that Dante experienced the mindless hate of ignorance and prejudice.
I rejoiced that Ari's self acceptance is facilitated by his loving parents.

Some books take your breath away as you read them. They resonate long after they are done, whispering phrases and small bits of truth.

“Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing.” 

You forget the characters are fictional and wonder how they are doing. You want it to never end and when it does, you go and check out all of the author's books from your public library. Maybe you'll even purchase them.

This is one of those books.

It's Monday, Here's What I've Been Reading!

I'm delighted to be part of the #IMWAYR community of readers. Hugs to Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and The Folks at Unleashing Readers for hosting

I've been reading, but I've also been grieving. Walter Dean Myers, a writer whose work I've come to adore over the past few years, both for his writing and his humanity, died last week. He is one of my secret tools for bringing reluctant boy readers into the fold. His star will be missed.

Other than that, I'm trying to get my head around what I've been reading since when. I missed last week because I was just too busy with house renovations.

Since last Monday I think I've finished four novels, one picture book and am working on two more. Clicking on the links will take you to my longer reviews of these books. 

I finished Adaptation by Malinda Lo. I loved how it messes around with gender expectations. It was a gripping, fast paced science fiction novel with ample plot twists and turns. 

Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg was cleverly written. I liked the format of alternating points of view for the two characters and I really enjoyed the humor in it. The story resonated with me at a personal level.

For Keeps by Natasha Friend is an intense novel about a teen going through a complicated time in her life. All of her work is very popular at school and this book isn't going to be an exception to that. 

The Summer I Saved the World in 65 days by Michele Weber Hurwitz was as delightful a read as they come. I enjoyed the random acts of kindness and how they transformed Nina Ross and her neighbourhood, but it is the cast of characters that make me love this book. 

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend - About all I can say about this book is Wow. I loved that Beekle imagined that his friend would be a boy and it turned out to be a girl. I loved Beekle's courage to go out and find his special friend. One of my boys had an imaginary friend when he was young. Beekle would have made a fine match for the other. 

On the go right now is Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets Of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.  My brother and I started listening to this while travelling back from the Okanagan today. This is some book. On occasion either one of us would stop the book just to say wow, or else we would stop it just to talk about what was going on. Holy crow! I am definitely going to read more of Benjamin Alire Sáenz!

I'm also working on Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

This coming week I'm hoping to get to, I have a Bad Feeling About This by Jeff Strand, Persopolis by Marjane Satrapi, Counting by 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. I'm trying to be reasonable since we're off to a music festival next week and I'm not sure how much reading I'll get done there. 

For Keeps by Natasha Friend

Natasha Friend writes intense novels about teens and preteens coping with challenging circumstances. The issues are pertinent for kids today. Girls in Perfect are dealing with eating disorders. Lush takes on teen drinking. Her books are so popular in our library that they regularly go missing.

Josie's mom, Kate, was 16 when Josie was born. All Josie knows is that her father, Paul Tucci, abandoned them before her birth. In spite of being a single mom, Kate managed to build a satisfying life for the two of them. Then their comfortable, honest relationship is turned upside down by a number of things. First, her father's parents move back into town. Second, Kate meets someone and becomes involved in her first serious relationship since Josie's birth.

Both of these foment distress and conflict between them. To add to the confusion, Josie finds herself dealing with her own first romance, her best friend's teen pregnancy worries, and the usual travails of high school.

I'm pretty sure that not all relationships are as honest as they are between these characters, but I loved the openness anyway. At the very least Friend provides models for what intimacy in its many formulations might become.

Friend's strength is that she creates richly developed characters you can believe are real people. Her books provide opportunities for readers to learn vicariously from their mistakes, while at the same time, developing deeper levels of compassion. Josie and Liv are strong independent young women, the kind I would like to have for a daughter. Matt, Josie's boyfriend, is a decent person. Kate; Liv's parents, Pops and Do; and the other adult characters act like real people living complicated lives.

On top of all this, there's humour. Really, what more can you ask from a book? 

This book has content that necessitates it going on the grade 7 shelf.

Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis has the capacity to write about difficult issues with remarkable elegance and grace. Moon at Nine is no different. 

Based on a true story, it's about two girls, Ferrin and her friend Sadira. They are high achieving students attending a private girls' school for gifted learners. The time is 1988, shortly after the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Shah. 

Ferrin's life is tangled with secrets. Her parents live western style lives behind closed doors. Her mother is working to bring the Shaw's son back into power. Any of this could bring them to the attention of the revolutionary guards and destroy them. 

As if this wasn't enough, Ferrin and Sadira are also keeping a dangerous secret. They love one another. It will mean certain death if they are discovered. 

While not a complicated story, it is tense and fast paced. I wanted this story to have a happy ending, but was prepared for the worst. 

It will be a welcome addition to our library because it opens a world into diverse characters in a diverse setting. 

It is suggested for students in grades 9 and up, but I feel my grade sevens, and even my sophisticated sixes could manage it. 

The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz

“It is very often the ordinary things that go unnoticed that end up making a difference. As you embark upon your high school careers, be unnoticed, but be remarkable.”  Mr Pontello, eighth grade history teacher.

I’m charmed to bits by this sweet story.
Nina Ross, following the advice of her grade 8 history teacher, decides to do one kind thing anonymously for every day of her summer holidays.

It begins with one simple deed; planting the flowers her elderly neighbor, Mrs Chung, can’t plant herself because of a broken leg. As the deeds add up, her neighborhood transforms from a sterile closed off collection of families and individuals into a vibrant connected community.

While the good deeds play a significant role in this tale, Nina has numerous other issues to deal with. She’s still grieving the loss of her grandmother, the only person who really got her. Jorie, her self-absorbed friend, doesn’t seem to have any inkling about who Nina is, or what she might want for herself. (Yet, while it might be fraught with difficulty, the two girls still have a loving relationship) Nina’s lawyer parents are so caught up in the most important divorce trial of their careers, they have no time for Nina or her brother, Matt. Matt seems to have almost disappeared from the family, showing up to sleep and shower before he is off again to some mysterious rendezvous.

The neighborhood is full of interesting characters. Mrs Millman, the conspiracy kook, is certain the empty house on the block is haunted. Mrs Cantalani is expecting her fourth child at any time and has three wild boys who manage to wreck havoc in their wake. Mr Dembrowski, the terror of the neighborhood, has many secrets. Mrs Chung has a history of stories and beliefs. Mrs Bennett struggles alone to support her two boys; four year old Thomas, who runs around with his wooden sword capturing invisible criminals; and Eli, Nina’s age, who tries to help out his mother, and deal with his reprobate of a father.

I can think of at least 6 girls off the top of my head who will love this book as much, if not more than I do. 

I gave this book to my brother, a grade seven teacher, who is already coming up with plans for how he will use it in his classroom. 

I'm thinking a few boys I know might also enjoy it. 

Better Off Friends by Elzabeth Eulberg

Can a boy and a girl be best friends in a platonic relationship?

This is the story of Macallan and Levi who became friends when they were 12. Levi arrived in Wisconsin the year after Macallan’s mother was killed in a car crash. They didn't hit it off at first, but ended up friends because of their mutual enjoyment of a British sit-com. Their parents connected and became close so they spent a lot of time together as extended family.

I liked the format. Alternative chapters in the book are written in distinct font to portray which character's perspective is being revealed. Each chapter is followed by an interlude where the two of them reflect on the content. The characters are witty and charming. I liked both of them.

Honestly, I read this book because, a very, very, long time ago, I married my best friend. I wondered how an author would deal with a boy and a girl being best friends. Would it feel authentic and truthful? Would my much younger self be able to connect?

The answers are sort of.

I liked this book well enough. There are parts I thought were very smart and maybe even brilliant. It even felt authentic at times. There were some truths I related to:

  • It’s hard for others to get that you can just be friends with someone of the opposite gender. 
  • It can be uncomfortable when your best friends date each other because of the fallout if they fall out. 
  • High school relationships tend to be temporary and fraught with angst and upheaval. Against that backdrop, it wouldn't be worth it to give up a solid friendship for something so transient. 
I wanted to love this book but couldn’t. I was disappointed that the friendship was marked by sexual tension and hints of jealousy from early on. Maybe it’s because I’m too old for my younger self to connect to the teen angst inherent in it. Maybe it’s because I did have a platonic relationship with a boy who was one of my best friends, and for me at least, the romantic component never played a part. (Well not until we had graduated, gone off in separate directions, and met each other again as adults)

Here’s what I know for sure. Marrying your best friend when you are ready to make a commitment goes a long way to ensuring success in the relationship. I can only wish for the best for these fictional characters.

2014 Must Read Challenge

Holy Goodreads it's time to check in on my 2014 to read list!
Here's the good news: I've read 68 novels so far this year. And the bad news: only 27 of these are from my to read list of 57 books. 

Click on the above image to get to a list of different participants in this challenge.

After perusing my summer reading list I've realized that none of my 2014 books are on there, so I'm going to have to make some adjustments.

Some of the books I've read have wowed me. Here is a list of my five stars books. They are not in any particular order of preference because really, how can you choose one spectacular book over another? I loved each of these for different reasons.  I've linked to books that I blogged about in case you want to read more of my opinion....

  1. The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp written by Kathi Appelt and read by Lyle Lovett was so delicious that no sooner did I finish it, I started all over again. 
  2. Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. I tumbled head over heels in love with these characters and Turnage's writing, so I just had to read:
  3. The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage. It was as good if not better than the first. 
  4. American Gods by Neil Gaiman: Just remembering this book takes my breath away. I loved it so much that I read the sequel, 
  5. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman: I loved this book. Maybe this wasn't quite as stunning as American Gods, but then, what could be?
  6. The Raven Boys and by Maggie Stiefvater &
  7. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater: These characters are so compelling I am desperately waiting for the next in the series to come out!
  8. The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielson: This book is both dark and hopeful. I couldn't put it down. 
  9. This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl: I wasn't sure what to expect with this one, but John Green was a friend of Esther Grace, and so I picked it up. It's a heartbreaker, but full of love and hope at the same time. 
  10. The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck: I hadn't read any Steinbeck since my late teens, but he is my son's favourite writer so I asked him to recommend something. Wow! This collection of short stories about families that live in a farming community is so loaded with lyrical whimsy it feels like magical realism except it's not. Steinbeck's power is that he takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. 
  11. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley: Flavia de Luce is one of my favourite fictional characters, but I think I came to care more for her in this one. I can't wait to see where Bradley takes her next. 
  12. Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle: I fell in love with Nate last summer and was tickled pink to read this sequel. Federle didn't let me down!
  13. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea there was such a thing as fan fiction til I read this book. I'm happy to say I've turned many of my sophisticated grade 7 readers onto Rainbow Rowell. 
  14. The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore. Love love love this book. I was heartbroken that our paperback lit circle set arrived too late to use. 
  15. Countdown by Deborah Wiles. I've long been a fan of Wiles, but the integration of nonfiction elements into fiction makes Countdown truly brilliant!
  16. In Darkness by Nick Lake: This is dark magical realism, a disturbing tale embedded with Haitian religion and mysticism. The characters are complex and not always likeable. The setting is depressing. In spite of all this, there is a glimmer of hope. 
  17. The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall was a spring break recommendation. I loved how it felt like an old time children's classic. 
  18. The Archived by Victoria Schwab. I'm not generally a fan of such scary stories but I loved the unique world building and strange convoluted plot. 
  19. The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henke. I'm waiting for this to come out in paperback so I can order a set for literature circles for younger readers. 
  20. The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne Valente: This novel reads almost like poetry. 
  21. Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein: I loved this as much as Code Name Verity. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to handle this book, but it is as much about love and friendship as it is about the horrific circumstances in the concentration camp.

I'm now reading Adaptation by Malinda Lo. It was recommended by my niece Casey, whose blog, Casey the Canadian Lesbrarianis the place to go if you are interested in queer Canadian fiction. 

We're deep into renovations of our internet free house in the Southern Okanogan Valley, so I'll try to get this posted and look forward to reading everyone's responses when I am back in Vancouver.