My Life in Books

I’ve enjoyed reading other book bloggers’ posts in The Time and Place Book Tag. Bloggers write vignettes explaining the memories and places associated with reading particular books. In Chelsea’s post, she explains, “My life can be told in books, and it is one of the most special things about them.” So friends, here’s my life in books.

The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon StoneGrover

My favorite book as a teeny, bespectacled girl featured Grover from Sesame Street. Although I was quite young, I remember my mother reading the story to me. A growing tension builds as Grover pleads with the reader not to turn the pages. There’s a “scary” monster at the end of the book, after all. My mother would pretend she was terrified of the page-turning, just like Grover, and I would laugh and turn each page defiantly. I still own a worn, cherished copy of the Monster book.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

OwenMeanyCoverThe first book I read by John Irving was A Prayer for Owen Meany. When I was in high school, I went on my first out-of-town day trip with my boyfriend. We left our tiny town, and we drove nearly two hours to reach a “much bigger” town with double-lane roads, a multi-screen cinema, and a chain bookstore. It rained during the ride. We listening to the single cassette of “Wish I Was Your Lover” over and over. I felt grown-up, so clearly I had to buy an “adult” book to mark the occasion. In the clearance bin at the Coles bookstore, I found a book with an armadillo on its cover. The inside flap revealed it was by the guy who also wrote The World According to Garp. I had seen and loved that weird R-Rated movie and figured this book would be just as strange and as adult-themed as Garp. Little did I know that I’d spend the following weekend tucked in my sister Joe’s basement bedroom (she was attending University at the time) and get lost in this story. I remember reading the ending so vividly. I was sprawled on Joe’s bed. I bawled for what felt like forever. I felt both overwhelmed and uplifted. It was the best thing I had read in all my 17 years. (It might still be the best novel I’ve read in all my 40 years. It’s in a tie at the top of my list with Jane Eyre).

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

MeTalkCoverMy husband Brian gave me this collection of essays to read when we flew off to Prague to (secretly) get hitched. He had introduced me to Sedaris (and to This American Life). We listened to podcasts featuring the humourist reading to live audiences. I must admit I was too excited to read when we left Canada. So, I read the whole book during our return flight. I laughed out loud a few times. I cried a bit, too. These stories will forever be associated with Brian smiling at my side, fluffy white clouds, and my left hand sporting a new, sparkling ring.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

HarryPotterPhoenixMy sister, who taught grade 7 for over a decade, introduced me to the Harry Potter series. She lent me the first three books, and I read them over the span of a couple of weeks shortly before the fourth one was published. I couldn’t wait to read the fifth book, but I would have to wait a while for it to get published. Two years later, and a few days before it hit the bookstores, I had a pregnancy scare. I was four months pregnant and was put on strict bedrest for two weeks. This Harry Potter book helped me remain calm and entertained. I remember being thankful it was over 800 pages long. I spent much of my time reading it while sitting on my old plaid couch near the living room picture window. I didn’t lift a finger during this time. I read, read, and read while my baby got stronger. That December, my healthy daughter weighed 8.14 lbs at birth.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

TheWorldBeforeUsCoverI read this gorgeous novel last year. I’d read it early in September during the early morning hours. I was determined to take advantage of the last days of summer by hanging out on the new, cedar deck my husband and father had built together. Reading. Drinking coffee. It was bliss. On one of these mornings, I looked up to see a dozen or more hot air balloons floating above me. I’d forgotten it was The Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival that weekend. The balloons often land all over our neighbourhood in parks and farmland. The sky dance was as TheWorldBeforeUsBalloonspectacular as the book. The World Before Us became one of my two favorite reads of 2014 (the other being Sweetland by Michael Crummey).

If you participated in the Place and Time Tag, please share the link with me. I’d love to read your bookish stories. Happy reading!

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On Needing a Teeny Tiny Break

BedroomBookshelf
Sometimes, you just have to keep those little piles of too-read books from accumulating in corners and crooks of your home. Books that were gifted. Books that you bought on a whim. Books you put aside, but desperately want to crack open. Books that were on inter-library-loan waiting lists for months. And months. And months. And are finally here. All. At. Once.

Lately, you need to read with abandon without sticky notes at the ready. Read without writing book reviews. Just because. You need to escape. Go on a reading binge. And binge, binge, binge. Just for a bit. For a couple of weeks.

Then, you’ll have your fill and miss writing reviews. Resurface. Refreshed. And be at the ready for those to-be-published  galleys needing to be reviewed in August. All will be well. But for now, you’ll catch up. Chillax. After all, it’s summer.

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A FAMILY SAGA’S CURSE: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Book_Speculations_CoverThe Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
St Martin’s Press, June 2015, 352 pages.

“The book is a beautifully broken window with an obstructed view of what is killing us, and something is definitely killing us.”

First-time novelist Erika Swyler attracts her reader with dark tales about an 18th-century travelling circus that parallels a tension-filled, modern-day narrative in The Book of Speculation. The altering story lines—one from the past and one from the present—are intricately bound together like the pages of the two-hundred-year-old book bestowed upon librarian Simon Watson. An elderly, unknown bookseller sends Simon a hand-written book since he thinks it may shed light on Simon’s family history.

Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles is  water-damaged and therefore only offers fractures answers to a family’s cursed past. In it, Simon recognizes familiar tales, historical patterns, and parallel lives. It also alerts him to his alienated sister’s impending death. To break the book’s spell, and to save his sister, Simon must first unravel the family saga of his people. A saga that started in Peabody’s menagerie—involving an ancient Russian seer, a mute wild boy, and an ethereal mermaid—over two centuries ago.

Swyler will pull in readers who value plot and twists over character development. This novel, which hits American and Canadian bookstores next week, has hints of The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield) and The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Alice Hoffman). Still, The Book of Speculation lacks the detailed, believable characterization that made me fall in love with those two books. Best save Swyler’s book for a lazy, rainy day when you want to escape into a fun story without being consumed by it.

*Thanks to the publisher for sending me a galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review.*

A VIP READING EXPERIENCE: Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas

Circus_Cover Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas Freehand Books May 2015, 196 pages 

Reading Rhonda Douglas’ collection of short stories Welcome to the Circus is a VIP experience at a series a of intimate performances: the live fantasy shows in the family-run Porn Emporium, the execution of a famous exotic dancer during WWI, and the confessional of anger-prone God. Sharp, dark humour livened up the dialogue. Lush, poetic phrases dotted the narrative. Always was I surprised by the strange and alluring stories crafted by Douglas.

The standouts? My favorite was “Cancer Oratio” whose different vignettes take the form of a musical composition while the characters come to terms with the fate of their dying friend. And, despite being distracted by several typos in the French text, I loved “Nous and René Levesque”, the story that landed Douglas on 2014 CBC Short Story Prize longlist. It’s a fresh take on different point of views concerning a possible “séparation” of Quebec in years gone by. Although every story is unique in topic and form, each has a lot of heart and memorable characters. I look forward to reading other original, weird, and fiercely smart stories from this author.

*I’d like to thank Freehand Books for sending me a copy of this book.*

SUMMER READING: A Trio of Tween Books for Boys and Girls

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (Henry Holt and Co., June 2015)

Ages 9+

BookScavenger_COVERWhen immersed in Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, the reader embarks on a fun, bookish adventure with 13-year-old Emily and her new buddy James. Shortly after moving to San Francisco, her idol Garrison Griswold gets shot moments before the launch of his new city-wide, book-hunting game. With the first hidden book in their possession and a duo of tugs on their tails, Emily and James must crack ciphers and go sleuthing across the city. Their aim: finding out what treasure awaits them at the end of the game. A treasure so important it put a man’s life in jeopardy.

I enjoyed watching Emily develop a friendship with James. Having been on the move from state to state since she was a little girl, making lasting friendships proved to be difficult for her. Watching them gain each other’s trust and working together to solve the mystery was the best part of the story.

Highlights:
A character named Steve pops up (or should I say sticks out) in many scenes. He’s a cowlick on top the of James’ head. That’s right. A cowlick. My middle-grade daughter laughed each time the author managed to incorporate Steve into the story.

What to watch out for:
This 368-page book is jam-packed with long sentences, in addition to detailed instructions and graphics of ciphers, making it a less-than-ideal choice for a “read aloud” experience.

Talk To Me by Sonia Ellis (FastPencil Wavecrest, December 2014)

Ages 9+

TalktoMe_COVERTalk to Me by Sonia Ellis puts 14-year-old Sadina in the spotlight while she struggles to help her family out of a pickle. Her mother is falsely accused of embezzlement, and her little sister Maddie is the only person who can clear her mother’s name. But Maddie has selective mutism, which means she has extreme anxiety of speaking to anyone outside her family. She is unable to tell authorities what really happened on the night an intruder entered their home. Everything depends on Sadina and her friends’ ability to help Maddie voice the truth before their mother goes to prison.

Kids will be able to relate to Sadine’s self-doubt and need to fit in. When she feels unsure about what will happen to her family, she thinks, “What I’m not so sure about is where this path is heading. I’ve never thought of this before, that something I do or say today might be like choosing a train at the station. It might be one that runs east instead of west, so that much later when it reaches its destination I might step off and suddenly realize it’s not at all where I wanted to be.” The tension Sadine feels throughout the story is palpable.

Highlights: This novel is not only available in print, but also for free online and as an audiobook at www.throughmywindow.org. There are also activities for kids and support material for teachers available on this site.

What to watch out for: I wasn’t 100% sold on this book’s success at promoting computer science and engineering to young girls. I feel like that technology-based scenes were awkwardly and unrealistically incorporated into the story.

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin (Little Brown Readers, May 2015)

Ages 11+

Joe-All-Alone_COverWhen looking at the quirky cover image of Joanna Nadin’s latest novel Joe All Alone, readers may envision a comical story reminiscent of the movie Home Alone. That’s a false assumption since the harrowing story of 13-year-old Joe Holt is one of grim poverty, child neglect, and longing.

Joe’s alcoholic mother leaves him all alone, for several days, when she takes off with his mean stepfather for Spain. At first, Joe feels relief due to his newfound freedom, “as if there’s electricity instead of blood in [his] veins like a superhero.” But when food and money quickly run out, while he is laying low in his inner-city flat, his reality becomes bleak. Luckily, he meets his neighbour’s granddaughter, Asha, his “maybe-one-day girlfriend” whose goodness is “so bright [he] can’t see any of the crap that’s there or the stuff that should be but isn’t.” Having a friend on his side makes Joe feel alive, loved, and able to conquer the difficult measures he must take to survive.

Nadin gave a boy a believable, unforgettable voice. Joe is a lonely, vulnerable boy you will root for every step of the way. Although his story tugs at your heartstrings, it will also make the reader laugh and be hopeful until the very end.

Highlights: The author’s gorgeous lyrical expression and in-depth character development will make it impossible for you to stop turning the pages.

What to watch out for: Although this book is marketed for kids 9 years and older in the UK, I consider it more appropriate for kids 11 years of age and older. The author uses harsh language and sexual terms. The world she depicts is at times too cruel for younger readers.

*I’d like to thank the publishers who sent me galleys in exchange for honest reviews.*

ALIX HAWLEY WINS THE AMAZON.CA FIRST NOVEL AWARD!!!

AlixHawleyCover   Alix Hawley just won the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel Award for  All True Not a Lie in It. It examines the life and trials of Daniel Boone in a new light. And it’s simply wonderful. Congrats to the author! Read my review to learn a little bit more about the book. Rush to your bookstore or library and read it. You’ll be happy you did.

A WEIRD, FUNNY, AND HEART-RENDING JOURNEY: BOO by Neil Smith

Boo_CoverIt’s no secret that I adored Bang Crunch, a collection of short stories by Montreal-based writer Neil Smith. So, when I heard he was coming to the city for the Ottawa International Writers Festival, to read from his first novel Boo, I was ecstatic.

Then, I heard about the premise of his book. It’s narrated by 13-year-old Oliver Dalrymple who’s dead and hanging out in Heaven—a place called “Town” inhabited solely by dead, 13-year-old American kids—trying to find out who killed him. I got a bit leery. It sounded too much like The Lovely Bones, the overrated novel that once made my eyes bleed. Profusely. But, after hearing Smith read the first chapter of Boo and explaining the inspiration for his book, I decided to give the book a chance. Thank “Zig” (aka God according to Oliver) because it was awesome.

Oliver’s a pale (hence the nickname Boo), socially-awkward kid. He’s in Town, writing his thoughts and experiences in a manuscript for his still-living parents. Early on, he reveals, “I learned I was no good at small talk, perhaps because I do not know how to make small talk.” You see, he was a loner without any friends during his short time on Earth. He’s got an outrageous IQ that explains his eloquent language and obsession with the periodic table. Full disclosure: I fell in love with this quirky character in Chapter 1.

He becomes friends with maternal, heavyset Thelma, a cynical girl with dwarfism called Esther, and Johnny with a double-crown that “according to [Oliver’s] Grandmother, meant two separate spirits inhabited a person’s body.” Johnny, it turns out, was also killed at school alongside Oliver. Having friends is a new experience for Oliver. When making Johnny laugh for the first time, he thinks, “I am normally not this playful. Maybe Zig altered my personality to better suit my surroundings.” I loved watching Oliver learn to connect with other people. By the time the gang sets out to find out who killed the boys, I was 100% engaged on how the journey transforms Oliver.

The landmarks and the streets in Town are a nod to novels and characters we loved as kids and teenagers: the Meg Murray Infirmary, The Gene Forrester Jail, the Jerry Renault Park, and Boo Bradley Street. On top of that, there are endearing scenes in Boo that emulate the Children’s Literature.  It’s fitting, considering the characters are all thirteen-year-olds. But don’t be fooled; this book is laced with dark humour and themes intended for an adult audience. It looks at suicide, murder, mental illness, and loneliness in a new light.

I loved reading this book even though the dialogue, the knowledge, and behaviors of the kids felt too mature and stable at times. I kept expecting the narrative to unravel in true Lord of the Flies fashion. It didn’t. Not really. But, that was part of the book’s charm and the reason I’m still thinking about it today. If you love dark humour and are still a child at heart, I urge you to follow Oliver on his quest. With a box of tissues at the ready.