The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

The Magicians Trilogy Boxed SetThe Magicians Trilogy Boxed Set by Lev Grossman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do you remember how you felt at the end of the Harry Potter books…you couldn’t believe it was all over? Lev Grossman’s world renderings have left me feeling like I have been to another world and back again. Truthfully, I didn’t start enjoying Harry Potter as an adult until we got to #3 The Prisoner of Azkaban and things took a turn to the darker. Well, Grossman starts you with that delicious darkness right away by following the angsty college-age characters into the pits of their binge-drinking, malaise, and their general feelings of invincibility. It took me awhile to get Quentin Coldwater, our protagonist, as he begins as such an unlikeable character: weak, needy, low self-esteem and perpetually whinging. Hanging in there with Quentin means you get to enjoy Grossman’s foils: Julia, Eliot, Alice, Janet, Penny and Plum. Each of his friends is suprisingly complex and I looked forward to every encounter. Grossman isn’t gentle with his readers…he expects you to have a well-versed lexicon of pop culture and regularly twists icons of the fantasy world to his will. This is a reader’s book. There may even be an encyclopedia on The Magicians’ Lore and Easter Eggs out there somewhere….and if not then someone needs to conjure one. Of course I loved the Neitherlands’ library most and I’d like to spend some real time there if I just had the right button.

I think Grossman may be ahead of his time, combining this almost dystopian and back again version of the typical fantasy quest with very real struggles with mental health themes, the continuous search for identity and enough modern slang to quickly date this book. I will recommend it to everyone but I’m not sure it will suit everyone’s taste as it breaks all sorts of archetypal rules. And readers like their archetypes.

On a side note: I am not particularly enjoying the casting of Quentin Coldwater in the TV series and actually my favourite actor is the one playing Penny, who is grossly underused in Grossman’s The Magicians. Maybe Mr. Grossman will reward my loyalty by writing a spin-off series just about Penny? Or Plum…she’s awesome too.

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They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

They Left Us Everything: A MemoirThey Left Us Everything: A Memoir by Plum Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first became interested in Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything as it has won the Ontario Library Association’s 2016 Evergreen award for best in Canadian adult fiction. This book is my surprise read of the year. Aging parents and all their stuff? The topic doesn’t really sell itself, does it? But then I engaged with Plum’s story as it speaks to the changing nature of family dynamics. Her family is challenged by her father’s Alzheimer’s disease, her brother’s cancer and the general decline of her mother. As her parents age and pass away, she is left with a monument to their time on Earth that seems psychologically insurmountable to deal with. Each item that Plum touches resonates with a history sometimes obvious but more likely it’s true meaning isn’t revealed until Plum has a series of serendipitous moments. This book spans the time it took Plum to deal with each item, the family disagreements about how to deal, and the time of putting it all to rest. This book is filled with the things that we think and don’t say and in joining Plum in her memoir, I feel better about the future challenges in my own life. It is descriptive and concise, and a true tribute to family dysfunction in all its glories. If I could, I’d buy a copy for each family member with a card attached that says “Fair warning.”

As I was searching, I found this article about the home itself filled with marvellous descriptive pictures that match the ones in my head: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/real-estate/a-lakeside-home-well-stocked-with-history/article622715/

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The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The Library at Mount CharThe Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a librarian, I rarely buy books anymore just for me but every now and then one leaps out at me, circulates through my family, and then makes its new home in my library where I recommend it to my secondary school readers. The Library at Mount Char reminds me of….American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips and The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric….with the style of Tom Robbins in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Is it just me or is there an emerging genre of gods living among us?

I can barely tell you about the book without spoilers but let me say something about the most enticing bits ….the library is THE library containing all the knowledge in the world (including resurrections, for example. …there us unspeakable violence and the threat of an approaching apocalypse and our antihero Carolyn has to learn all this while living with her 11 adopted brothers and sisters who are each mastering their own catalogue and experimenting on each other. It takes sibling pranks to a whole new level.

I will recommend this book to any student in my library who I suspect lives a double-life or has their sights on anarchy.

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Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Secret DaughterSecret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m gradually working my way through the Amnesty International Book Club recommendations and this book This book is written in a simple style, at times, overstating the emotion involved in this heartwrenching tale of gendercide and survival as Asha searches to find the meaning of family.

I once took a class on culture and literature and my insight was that fighting for gender equity isn’t going to go away until we tackle class disparity. This is very much represented in Secret Daughter. I was very relieved to see that there are no simple answers in this book, and there is a lot of grey area between culture and human rights as these are complex issues. I will recommend this book to anyone interested in the plight of female children in poverty and it will fit nicely into many of the literature studies in my secondary school library.

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#BIT16Reads: Whose mindset is the right one?

I’ve just finished reading George Couros‘ “The Innovator’s Mindset” and I think it’s time that we addressed the elephant in the room.  The word “mindset” is so five minutes ago.  There I said it.  What I mean is that putting the words innovator and mindset together in the same phrase is oxymoronic…it’s a contradiction in terms, like jumbo shrimp, military intelligence (ouch).  Doesn’t the very word mindset imply that the mind is formed and finished?  George does acknowledge that the precursor to his book was influenced by Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” which anyone who is anyone knows has rocked the business and education worlds leading to great new conversations about grit and resilience.  George leaps from here and says that (spoiler alert) the innovator’s mindset relies on the iterative process of finding problems, networking ideas, observing, creating, being resilient when faced with challenges, and being reflective in order to deepen the process.  But I can’t help but think about Chris Hadfield, whose ideas I support when he says that we need to Prepare for Failure:

I like the idea of having a calm confidence and being ready to be flexible.  The best time for my learning is when I’ve created flow, and Hadfield acknowledges this in his book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”.  But when the flow is really flowing, and a problem arises, I smile at the challenge…like a good question in a crossword puzzle…and my creativity kicks in and I work through it happily.  That flow is the culture I aim to create in my library learning commons every day….the messy, random happiness of flow.  The only time that I ‘discipline’ other students is when they interrupt another person’s flow and I say out loud: “You’re interrupting my learning” and ask them to stop.  One of the keys to my daily success is being prepared for anything to happen and I think being ready to happily go with the flow is one of my strengths.  It takes a lot of work though…often in the quiet moments outside of the school day, to be this ready for anything.  More than optimism or innovation, I think the future of my son’s success will be his ability to adapt to new situations.  This adaptability may require optimism and innovation but those might not be on his path.  It takes more than a mindset and more research is being written on this topic:

a) Canadian author Paul Tough has written this article as precursor to his latest book: Helping Children Succeed http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/how-kids-really-succeed/480744/ in which he questions the teachability of resilience and instead suggests we aim to reduce the effect of socio-economic status on learning.

b) #BIT15Reads author Jose Vilson lead me to see how systemic racism is a major factor in the outcome of students.  An emerging voice of educators see this quest for teaching grit as an enormous example of cultural bias: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2015/01/is_grit_racist.html

The best part of Couros’ book is when he nails the conditions for a culture of innovation in schools and these 5 points could sustain me for the rest of my teaching career:

  1. Focusing on strengths-based leadership

I could do this every single day with anyone of my relationships…focus on peoples’ strengths.

2.  Allow learners’ needs to drive our decisions

I need to acknowledge that learners are all of us, adults and students, that are working within their own process and my daily goal is to enable that process in any way that I can.

3.  Narrowing our focus and engaging in deep learning

I need to reiterate the why and the how as much more than the what in my teaching.  The what is often Google-able and I want to learn and teach more deeply than that.  I’ve seen leadership try to make this what so vague and inconsequential that the why and how can be suited to any sort of learning target within this umbrella what that is called a learning target or big idea….I’m not convinced that this is the right answer.  If we truly believe in the content of our curriculum, then we need to see the big goal as a continuum (as Chris Hadfield said) and see each one of our content concepts as a direct stepping stone to that idea.

4.  Embracing an open culture

Who am I to dictate how someone else should learn?  I think what George is getting at is the messiness of trying to implement and measure a truly inquiry-based project that is based on student voice and choice.  We need to be open to and confident about capturing and measuring student learning in a variety of modes and mediums. This means that I also have to be really confident about what I want to measure in order to recognize it when I see it in a new form.

5.  Create learning experiences for educators that we would love to see in the classroom

Would I like to take my own course?  Would I like to be in this atmosphere?  Every day the answer needs to be yes.

I added The Innovator’s Mindset to the #BIT16Reads book club list as a way to add a leadership voice to the question:  How do we create a culture in schools to best integerate technology? and I think this book does so very well.  Moving education forward isn’t an elephant that we can eat all at once.  It’s a very complex beast.  Creating conditions for innovation, which may or may not include technology, is best for learning.

Sidenote:  As a librarian, as a researcher, I would really like an index in George Couros’ book.  I’d like it to refer to every outside reference George uses all in 1 place, and every big idea that is mentioned.  It’s one of the first things on my list when I buy non-fiction for my library….if there aren’t embedded tools for useability, it could be more useful.

The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

The Jaguar's ChildrenThe Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Remember how when you studied Canadian literature we were referred to Margaret Atwood‘s book Survival? The Jaguar’s Children is a fine example of how this same theme is evolving in the year 2016 as our main character aims to travel to El Norte to escape the oppression of his homeland in Oaxaca, Mexico. I wish I could download this book into the brains of anyone involved in political discussions about free trade and immigration if only to offer a deeply personal perspective. This character-driven book offers masterful writing as Vaillant gradually reveals why his protagonist sacrifices all he holds dear for the hope of gaining access to North America. I particularly marvel at the way Vaillant invites the reader into the language and cultural history of the Zapotec through his family history.

Nominated for an Ontario Library Association Evergreen award, The Jaguar’s Children will leave you wanting more.

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Punishment by Linden MacIntyre

PunishmentPunishment by Linden MacIntyre

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

MacIntyre masterfully combines a serene small town setting with the incestuous secrets of the past. Tony, a retired guard from the nearby penitentiary, returns home to create some space between himself and the drama of his former employment only to discover that his past won’t let him alone. White lies and half-truths abound in the community around a murder, a drug ring and the ex-convict living nearby. Tony is compelled to get further involved than he ever imagined. MacIntyre combines clues and red herrings so skillfully that the reader will never see what’s coming. Nominated for the 2016 Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen award, this gem is sure to thrill readers of all types.

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The Daughter of Smoke & Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor

Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #3)Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor

The entire Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy is just delicious. For anyone new to fantasy it gently eases the reader into the world that author Laini Taylor builds by starting us with our protagonist, Karou who is an art student in Prague with a mysterious past and an unusual upbringing. She has untapped magical powers and only realizes her potential when she is threatened. Once everything about Karou’s ultra-cool life is under attack, she has to make some very difficult decisions about what is important to her. In the truest nature of a modern fantasy, she chooses a forbidden lover, above all else. The differences between good and evil are constantly blurred which I found very satisfying as it adds layers upon layers to the character development and the age-old feud unfolding. As with any trilogy, the action gets much darker before we see light at the end of the tunnel so teachers need to be aware of mild sexuality and violence throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed the strong female characters in this book that value their identities and families as much as the action of fighting for their lives. I just loved this book and the students who are picking it up based on my recommendation are whispering about it everywhere!

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A Spy in the House (The Agency #1) by Y.S. Lee

A Spy in the House (The Agency, #1)A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Quinn finds herself in a bit of a Nikita situation….as she reforms her life, she is given a proposal to give up her traditional woman’s destiny and become part of The Agency. The really interesting part happens though when Mary is forced to acknowledge her past and there are some surprises there for the reader. This book just tripped along and I really enjoyed it. I look forward to reading the next one in the series. I would recommend this book for anyone in grade 7 and up…Mary does have to fend off unwanted male attention and there is some violence.

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The Art of Getting Stared at by Laura Langston

The Art of Getting Stared AtThe Art of Getting Stared At by Laura Langston

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book as it is nomineed for an Ontario Library Association White Pine Award. I have been criticized for praising books too highly but honestly, the White Pine selection committee does such great work. I loved this book and I was surprised when it brought me to tears a number of times. The way the Langston interweaves Sloane’s discovery of her onsetting alopecia with the calls from her mother’s volunteerism in the Sudan and Sloane’s own volunteerism at the local child hospice unit speaks to the complete spectrum of mental health stresses that humans deal with. Sloane authentically struggles not only with the onset of her immune disorder but how to weigh her grief for her hair with the grief she feels for the patients that she visits. As a teacher-librarian, I would recommend this book for anyone grade 7 and up.

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Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Medicine WalkMedicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Masterfully written. This is my first encounter with Wagamese but certainly not my last. I admire his ability to weave the novel as the background stories reveal themselves. This is a must-read in the Canadian canon. I think anyone would like this book but especially someone who feels connected to our home and native land or anyone who has had to make personal sacrifices for family members or anyone who has defined their own family outside of the traditional norm. As a secondary school teacher-librarian, I will recommend this book to the senior students in my building for the adult choices that our characters have to make.

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Delusion Road by Don Aker

Delusion RoadDelusion Road by Don Aker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is nominated this year for an Ontario Library Association White Pine award and It is hopping off the shelves in my secondary school library. At first I found the book to feel very abrupt as the chapters interchange between the two essential plots and subplots of the novel. This contrived double-narrative improves towards the midway point as the plots begin to come together. The characters of Willa and Keegan are very believable and well-developed so that we really care about what’s happening as the plot thickens. Ayer even makes me feel sorry for Wynn at one point! This book, with its predictable structure, and it’s classic themes of good vs. Evil….vs. Evil will surely appeal to teens from grade 7 and up.

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Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary UnderbellyKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anthony Bourdain’s book is a guilty pleasure. Reading his sordid kitchen adventures reminded me of the lasciviousness of Life by Keith Richards. My cousin Violet, a budding saucier, loaned me her well-loved copy and I enjoyed every minute of it. I read it for an hour before bed each night and my dreams were filled with gigantic kitchens and thousands of carrots to to peel and dice. I kept my iPad handy while reading so I could look up the many French ingredients that Bourdain refers to. My favourite chapter though was the one where he goes to Tokyo. Having lived for 3 years in Japan, I know firsthand how completely OCD Japanese culture can be. They would be shocked at the cavalier nature in which I whisk my matcha. Regardless, you don’t have to be a cook or a foodie to enjoy this book, but being someone who can appreciate the complexities of food will certainly help. I plan to borrow Bourdain’s next book.

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The 5th Wave and The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up The 5th Wave because it was yet another young adult dystopian fiction novel and I’m always looking for ‘sure things’ for the teens in my secondary school library. So I fully expected it to be predictable and smug about it. But it wasn’t! The twists and turns in the plot were unexpected and juicy! Our main character Cassie’s own biases and anxiety cloud her reliability as a narrator. From the start to the finish, I had a beautiful visual movie playing in my head so I can’t wait to see it come to the screen in 2016. I’ll be sure to pick the sequel as well.

The Infinite Sea (The 5th Wave, #2)    The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Infinite Sea begins in media res as Cassie and her band of friends must pick themselves up from their last good deed in The 5th Wave. Having loved and lost Evan, Cassie’s emotions seem to be still divided between her brother and this new found will she has to see through the survival of the human race. Like the first book, The Infinite Sea keeps the reader guessing about the true ambitions of the invading alien race and there is a lot of action and many of the characters waffle between wanting to survive, and also making giant sacrifices to save each other.

Yancey never lets the reader forget that this group of hardened soldiers are actually brainwashed children who are living a nightmare. He mingles strategy with really human moments and I could not stop turning pages. I found both books to be very accessible despite the science fiction elements which require a leap of acceptance. The lexile count for both books is low enough for grade 6, and the characters are all school ages. I expect that these books will have wide appeal for most intermediate and senior students in my secondary school library.

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Rush by Eve Silver

Rush (The Game, #1)Rush by Eve Silver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eve Silver‘s book Rush is a sure fire winner with the strong young adult readers in my secondary school library. It begins with the life of an otherwise ordinary girl who gets pulled through dimensions into a ‘game’ but it turns out that she actually has to really kill the enemy Drau that she is up against. Miki ‘levels up’ as she becomes less afraid to hunt the Drau. There are hints at deeper issues as Miki deals with her own shock to the intensity of her situation, and as she tries to make a connection with the elusive leader Jackson, who has put up emotional walls to deal with his responsibility to the game. Because of the twists and turns in world-building and planar leaps, I don’t recommend this to weaker readers, but for those into science fiction, I do. I really enjoyed the game culture and also how Miki and her friends have to maintain all ‘normal’ appearances when they’re not fighting for their lives.

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