Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan E. Coyote

Tomboy Survival GuideTomboy Survival Guide by Ivan E. Coyote

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ivan’s voice is so refreshingly Canadian…I feel so strongly about this voice (new to me but not new) and its place in the Canadian canon. Ivan speaks from the heart of the Yukon, and then BC and although they have had lots of urban experience, there’s a rural twang that’s everlasting. Ivan speaks of rural isolation, attachment to family, and struggling to make ends meet. Interwoven in this memoir is the gradual revelation of Ivan’s sexuality and gender identity, which becomes more certain as Ivan does. This book is not only sensitive and sweet, it’s really freakin’ funny. I laughed out loud while listening to the audiobook on my commute. If I had to compare Ivan’s sense of humour in their writing to another author, I’d say somewhere between James Herriott (the veterinarian stories you read in your grandma’s bookshelf) and Terry Fallis (a sardonic wit mixed with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town). I think Ivan E. Coyote should be considered for the prestigious Stephen Leacock award. There. I said it. Don’t miss out on this gem.

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The Pain Eater by Beth Goobie

The Pain EaterThe Pain Eater by Beth Goobie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maddy is gang-raped by her masked classmates when she is alone and vulnerable but she knows another person was witness to it. At first, she is only able to calm her traumatic thoughts through self-harm. Going to school each day everyone notices the change in Maddy but only a few know why. In English class, they are assigned a collaborative novel to write one student at a time. The mean girls try to make the story about the rumours about Maddy, and Maddy is tormented through gossip and verbal harassment encouraged by her attackers. Slowly Maddy also develops allies in some of her classmates and the class novel becomes more and more about the redemption and triumph of The Pain Eater. It reminds me of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and E.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear but with a unique angle on recovery.

As Maddy begins to put the puzzle together of who her attackers are, she wrestles with withdrawal, suspicion, rage and finally, a will to survive. Beth Goobie writes with an intensity that may be off-putting for some readers. However this raw and authentic exploration will appeal to anyone who can see through lesser writer’s tricks to avoid difficult conversations. Goobie tackles assault, bullying, self-harm and more head-on and young readers will appreciate her candor. I read this book as part of the Ontario Library Association’s White Pine program for teen readers and I will recommend this book to any student in my school library who likes realism.

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Subject to Change by Karen Nesbitt

Subject to ChangeSubject to Change by Karen Nesbitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Declan’s family is falling apart as his single mother works beyond her limits to keep the family together, and his brother struggles with addiction as a way to avoid confronting responsibility. Declan battles with which of his family’s secrets to keep and which to keep secret until he is pushed beyond what he can handle. Thankfully thee adults in his school are first to notice that Declan is slipping away and assign him a tutor. Through his tutor’s own example of dealing with family struggle, Declan begins to gain hope that his family could come together. Declan’s story is both a story of surviving trauma and coming-of-age, in that through his family’s hardships he realized that his role is greater than his self. This realization transforms Declan from a child into a man, and he learns to appreciate the grey areas between black and white.

I read this book as part of the Forest of Reading White Pine program for grades 9 – 12. I have difficulty believing that a) this is Nesbitt’s first novel as it is so well crafted and still authentic and b) that Nesbitt is an educator as there is a lot of raw, crass exploration of the teen lexicon and lifestyle choices that make it feel as though she has lived it. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who needs hope or who needs to understand how much the average teen is hiding and dealing with on their own.

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The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

The Marrow ThievesThe Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I chose this book as it is nominated by the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading program in the White Pine selection this year. …and I think it is a strong contender for the winner, but teachers aren’t allowed to vote. I’m not the only one who agrees it is a winner: this book is sitting on the Canada Reads 2018 long list, won the Governor General’s award for young adult literature and has even broken through the border into recognition in the American market.

It has all the makings of a popular young adult book: strong character development, a driving plot in a not unfamiliar dystopian world, and an optimistic resolution. More than this though, Dimaline takes many of the issues facing First Nations, Metis and Inuit people today and incorporates them into a book that will have readers racing to read more about reservation treaties, residential schools and environmental pillaging without making the reader feel ignorant for not knowing enough. There are so many things I liked about the book as an adult reader including the variety of adult role models that the main character Frenchie encounters.

As a secondary school teacher-librarian, I will be sure to recommend this book to any student looking for an adventurous book, with just the right amount of romance. There are well-developed, positive characters represented from a diversity of backgrounds who work together towards their common goal. This is a book for everyone.

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Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Three Day RoadThree Day Road by Joseph Boyden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many settler Canadians, I am on a remarkable journey started just this year to connect with a past that was hidden from me about the atrocities towards First Nations people. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Having read and enjoyed Boyden’s Through Black Spruce a few years ago, I needed to explore more about the controversy around author Joseph Boyden and the appropriation accusations that have been made against him. I didn’t expect that Boyden’s book Three Day Road would feel as important to me as The Odyssey in terms of its place in Canadian literature. I was delighted to read Boyden’s masterful and painful character revelation and the searing hot pain of alienation, war and betrayal.

I think the argument goes that Boyden isn’t native enough to be revealing the sacred secrets of ritual and belief. Perhaps my point of view doesn’t matter, but I found this book to be accessible, to be inviting into a culture not my own, and above all, to be a really really good story.

I will recommend this to all of the students in my secondary school library at the senior level.  There are mild suggestions of sex, and the issues of violence and drug addiction are more appropriate for mature readers.

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Code in Every Class by Kevin Brookhauser and Ria Megnin

Code in Every ClassCode in Every Class by Kevin Brookhouser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A powerful little read that zips by. Although I’m personally working on my entry-level Lightbot skills, I really like how Kevin Brookhouser opens up with pseudo-coding activities to create a coding mindset and then works towards more and more challenging materials. The appendices filled with resources will be something that I return to again and again.

I’ll look forward to Kevin’s next book as he will hopefully design a continuum within each of the coding languages to help us again. I’m left with questions that lead me to think that there must be a tipping point when it becomes an embedded part of school culture, but I wonder if this needs to be taught or if curiosity will develop with the right atmosphere and opportunity.

It reminded me a lot of another small but powerful book that transformed my teaching practice: The Socially Networked Classroom: Teaching In The New Media Age

I have been really glad that I could rely on our TeachOntario community as we worked through the book together in our book club.

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A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout

A House in the SkyA House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had one of those friends at university who lived really close to the edge of always going too far. She abused alcohol, had a variety of sexual partners and walked home alone in the dark. I was always confused by her reckless behaviour and she both frightened me and made me jealous. She seemed to have no fear of consequence. As a woman I think we always seem to judge our interactions with strangers, and the dark, a little differently. The truth is that I envied that freedom. I was a young woman at the time when Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were on the loose, when we went to self-defense classes and marched in Take Back the Night.

This book by Amanda Lindhout is pivotal as Amanda’s carefree travel quest takes a misstep and she finds that crossing one more border leads her to being kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and raped. The degrading that she experiences is enough to put us all back into chastity belts by choice. It is also a book that needs to be shouted from the mountain tops because it is a uniquely female experience. Amanda portrays herself as going from the healthy to deeply depressed, degraded and suicidal. She allows herself to survive by simply leaving her body spiritually as it is tormented.

This book is a painful read, and there were times when I thought I couldn’t take any more. However because of its importance and biographical nature, I pushed myself to complete the circle.  It’s the kind of book that everyone should read, that I have in my secondary school library, the kind of conversation that I should be able to have with students, but that I’d shy away from.

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Dan vs. Nature by Don Calame

Dan vs. NatureDan vs. Nature by Don Calame

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a light read but darker than Don Calame‘s previous works. Dan and his Mom’s fiance venture into the wilderness with a motley crue of tag-alongs. Dan is intent on breaking the fiance until he starts to really struggle with the wild as nature bites back. Underneath it all is Dan’s fear of change and the healthy mistrust of this new adult. It turns out the fiance is not all he appears as well except he has an unwavering concern for Dan’s well-being.

I read this book as part of the Ontario Library Association’s selection for the White Pine program this year. I didn’t like it as much as Calame’s previous Swim the Fly in the same way that I didn’t appreciate Robin Williams trying to become a dramatic actor after being a comedy star. Perhaps Calame is morphing and this is his transition book. Regardless Dan Vs. Nature still suits the nature of male-focused fun in an otherwise morose world of young adult fiction.

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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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Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships by Mike Mignola

Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships (Baltimore, #1)Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships by Mike Mignola

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s dark and dingy but it has this throwback, homage feeling to it that really appealed to my sense of design. The story uses many archetypes and predictable twists and turns as there is a plague, and zombie-esque creatures and vampires, but really our hunter is fighting evil, and that never really goes out of style, does it? My favourite part is when the pretty sidekick (who just can’t seem to keep her blouse on her shoulders) escapes the onslaught of the zombies by hiding inside a submarine full of corpses. I’ll have to see what my secondary school readers think of it as they are always craving more brains….errr, zombies. More zombies! More zombies!

Baltimore reminds me more of something about the same age as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde then a modern day graphic novel. If you like fog and death, you’re going to love it.

Image result for baltimore the plague ships

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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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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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