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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.

FUNNY AND HEARTFELT: We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

Molecules_CoverWe Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen May 12th 2015 by Tundra Books

Susin Nielsen strikes gold once again with her new YA novel We Are All Made of Molecules. Much like her previously published books, Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom (reviewed by bellsiebooks) and The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen (reviewed by Consumed by Ink), copies of this new book are sure to sell like hot cakes. Molecules will make the Best of 2015 lists everywhere. Mark. My. Words.

When we first meet 13-year-old Stewart, we realize right away that he is different and gifted. He has an endearing—though totally geeky—way of explaining how he and his father have been coping after the death of his mother. He explains that his family “had been like an equilateral triangle. Mom was the base that held up the whole structure. When we lost her, the other two sides just collapsed in on each other.” We learn that father and son have had a tough time since she died. Stewart views this period as the time his father “was Sad Dad twenty-four-seven, and [he] was Sad Stewart twenty-four-seven, and together [they] were Sad Squared, and it was just a big black hole of sadness.” After such a heartfelt, adorable declaration, it was impossible for me not to like and root for Stewart when I found out his life was about to change. He and his father move in with his new girlfriend, Caroline. The new girlfriend’s daughter—a fourteen-year-old, popular drama queen named Ashley—makes the move difficult from the start.

Stewart’s new stepsister isn’t happy about her new living arrangements. She’s still angry and ashamed about her parents’ divorce. On top of that, she’s paranoid that her friends and classmates “would love the fact that [her] so-called life was built on one gigantic lie.” That lie: her father came out of the closet. He’s gay, and that doesn’t sit well with Ashley. Nor does the idea of having a “midget-egghead-freakazoid” move into her home. Ashley is teenage angst personified. She is self-centered and hypercritical. She blows up at the tiniest annoyance or provocation. At school, she is obsessed with looking her best and maintaining her it-girl status. She’ll step on anyone’s toes to ensure that things go her way. So, when Stewart transfers to her school and shows up in Ashley’s English class wearing a smiley-face tie, I enjoyed reading about her squirm.

This story follows a familiar, predictable arc: two people with clashing personalities must eventually join forces to overcome the narrative’s main problem or obstacle. Still, Nielson has a fresh take on this much-used storyline. The author’s use of first person point-of-view brings Stewart and Ashley’s emotions to the forefront. Their voices are so different and believable. The author touches a lot of issues: bullying, homophobia, blended families, death, and mourning. She managed to do so without being preachy or talking down to her young, smart audience. I giggled and *nearly* cried along the way.

I think this is a touching, fun, and important book. It’s ideal for mature middle grade kids and young high school teens aged 12 to 15. Then again, I think any YA-loving teen or adults with enjoy this fast-paced book. With yet another great title under her belt, Susin Nielsen is quickly becoming the John Green of Canada.

Here are two other bloggers’ glowing reviews of the novel:

Darren at ShinraAlpha claims it’s a “book with some serious heart.”

Stephie at The Book Wars contends that “Nielsen is simply a great Canadian writer.”

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

READING THE CLASSICS: Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd

farfrom_poster

I loved Tess of the d’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy as a teenage girl. So why haven’t I read another of his books until now? Beats me. I enjoyed reading his novel Far From the Madding Crowd for the Reading the Classics Challenge in 2015, especially since my blogging buddy Naomi was reading it along with me! And just in time too, since the new movie adaptation starring Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts hits theatres tomorrow.

***Contains spoilers.***

 

Five Highlights While Reading Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd

FarFrom_Cover25)  A strapping young sheep farmer—Gabriel Oak— helps a dark-haired, vain young milkmaid (sneaking peeks at herself in a mirror) ride a horse carriage past a gatekeeper. At first glance (not at the mirror, but at the first chapter), I was leery. This introduction is reminiscent of Harlequin romance novel, not a book penned the author of heart-rending, tragic Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I already feel like they will end up together, in the end. But, soon enough, I learned that…

4) …although Bathsheba (the blushing milkmaid) is somewhat vain and fickle, she also demonstrates confidence and assertiveness. She teases Oak by letting him hold (but not kiss) her hand and by not telling him her name (Can’t say that I blame her. I guess when your family name is Everdene, you tend to get a tragic first name. Re: Katniss.) Bathsheba even saves his life when he falls asleep in his smoke-filled hut! She’s a bit strange (re: weird horse riding habits) and runs the show.

She started growing on me.

3)  Later still, she becomes the mistress of a large farm in nearby Weatherbury. Although prone to making silly jokes (the fake valentine… GASP!) and bad decisions (Troy and his big… sword), I admired her strong will to govern her workers and her fierce desire not to marry her first suitors. One could say she was an early day feminist. Or rather, Hardy was an early day feminist writer.

The following bit of dialogue between Gabriel and Bathsheba may be my favorite in the whole novel:

[Gabriel:] “Do you like me, or do you respect me?”

[Bathsheba] “I don’t know — at least, I cannot tell you. It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

I think these words, written by a man in 1874, speak volume, don’t you think?

FarFrom_Cover32) In true Hardy fashion, we encounter a tragic heroine: Fanny Robin. She’s a kind servant girl who missed her chance to marry sword-wielding Troy by going to the wrong church on her wedding day. She then becomes an abandoned woman who wastes away quickly in a workhouse. In the end, she’s a love-starved, deserted lover who dies, along with her baby, during childbirth.

Fanny is my favorite character. She is true of heart. Never fickle or vain. Our hearts hurt for her She is the antithesis of Bathsheba (who drove me nuts at times). She is perhaps a truer version of a 19th-century women.

1) The best part of this book is the lyrical language that describes the rural landscape and rustic lifestyle of England during this period. It reflects the moods and hardships of Hardy’s characters. The setting is alive, perhaps even a character, seemingly influencing the fate of others. Check out this passage from Chapter 2, and dare to tell me this doesn’t foreshadow the unfortunate demise of Oak’s flock of sheep:

“The instinctive act of humankind was to stand out and listen, and learn how the trees on the right and the trees on the left wailed or chanted to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir; how hedges and other shapes to leeward then caught the note, lowering it to the tenderest sob; and how the hurrying gust then plunged into the south, to be heard no more.”

It’s no surprise that the descriptive language in this novel steals the show. Hardy was a poet, after all.

Check out Naomi’s review of Far From the Madding Crowd on her awesome book blog—Consumed by Ink.

Have you read the novel? If so, what did you like best? Please let me know if you go see the film. Tell me if it’s worth seeing in the cinema or waiting until it pops up on Netflix.