November in Books

It is a strange thing that books do not appear more regularly on this blog. I am a librarian and a writer – I eat, sleep and even dream books. Seriously. I dream in punctuation.  I also review books, recommend books, push books on unsuspecting friends, force them down my family’s throats with high-pitched, hysterical admonitions of “you have to read this right now!”

In short, I am a book freak.

Which is why I thought I would begin a monthly installment of what I have read in well, the last month. Some books will just have short commentaries, others will have full-blown reviews. I also post them on my Librarything page.

Now, what on earth does this have to do with parenting? In my case, a lot. As my kids get older and the problems get more complicated, one of the ways I stay connected with them is by sharing books. They know that if they read something they loved and suggest it to me, I’ll read it too. Then we talk about it, get excited over it or have a discussion of differing opinions. If I read something I think they should read, well, they might not always read it, but I know they are listening. But sometimes they do and then we can talk about it.

Like Buffy, this book sharing is also a way for us to tackle some of those complicated issues I mentioned above. Without making it too personal, we can take an event in a book, a character’s reaction and talk about it. Why do you think she did that? What were her reasons? It’s a way to meet on neutral ground and think about bullying, friendship, power, the world, you name it without  personal judgment. Which, as a parent is mighty hard to pull off.

In short, books are my parenting crutch.

WARNING: These might be long posts for some of you, so don’t feel bad if you find yourself pressing the delete button with gusto when this lengthy tome makes its way into your inbox.

Table of contents:

  1. Avalanche Dance by Ellen Schwartz (YA coming of age novel sent to me by Librarything Early Reviewers)
  2. Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking Book Three by Patrick Ness ( I warn you- this is a long one!
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (because I had to reread it before the movie came out, of course) – no review. Just read it.
  4. The Way it is by Donalda Reid (YA coming of age novel sent to me by Librarything Early Reviewers)
  5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows (Book Club read)
  6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (Crushin’ on Mr. Bradbury)

 Review of Avalanche Dance
In the little town of Thor Falls, B.C., Gwen and Molly had been best friends since they were little. They thought they would always be inseparable. When Molly suddenly becomes interested in boys before Gwen, their relationship suddenly changes. Molly wants to party and finds herself hurtling down a path that leads to a catastrophic conclusion. Gwen, focused on her dance career, finds refuge from Molly’s absence in her passion. But when she and her dad are buried in an avalanche, Gwen suddenly finds herself contemplating the unthinkable: a life without dance and without Molly.

    Schwartz has crafted a tight little novel about guilt. Gwen’s guilt over yelling at her dad right before the avalanche falls on them, Molly’s guilt over her actions all lead the characters inexorably to each other. This is a book where the outcomes are predictable, but no less moving because of it. The reader knows that the girls will eventually come together and help each other in some way. Every word leads to the inevitable.
   
    Yet, does this mean that it is a bad novel? There is no element of surprise; there is no unexpected twist at the end.  What it lacks in plot originality it makes up for in the coming of age journey of the two characters. Told in the third person for Gwen and in the first person for Molly, the voices of the two friends serve as efficient counterpoints to one another. Molly’s voice had to be told in the first person. We needed to be privy to her motivations in order for her actions not to come across as totally heartless. Gwen on the other hand, is going through so much emotional turmoil she is not even reliable enough to interpret her own body’s signals; third person narrative gives us the perspective to appreciate her suffering.
   
    Although the story errs only in the case of Molly, where her story ends in a slightly moralistic tone (all the clichés about the unreliability of the “bad crowd” abound), Avalanche Dance is a very readable account of two teenage girls going through the hardest lessons of growing up. At only a 185 pages, this is also a good book to give to that teenage girl who claims she doesn’t like to read. 12+

Review of Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
Since this review is all about my opinion, it is important to know what I think is a great book. So. In my opinion, a great book has two layers. The first is the story. The story has to be exciting, devastating, funny; it has to be peopled with memorable characters faced with difficult choices, with flawed and sympathetic characters. The story has to rivet you, keep you coming back for more even if you know the main protagonist is a train wreck and nothing good could come if it (except the novel, of course.) Above all, it has to give an accurate, brutally honest portrait of the human condition, whether it is a book set in the historical south or a post-apocalyptic world peopled with zombies.

    This first layer serves as a portal to the second. For any good story will serve to highlight, to emphasize the world that we live in and its ethical parameters. A writer that has mastered the art of using story as a lightning rod for philosophy is in my books (ha! No pun intended?) “il miglior fabbro”, the master craftsman. I am thinking of Dostoyevsky’s novels, or one could argue Virgina Woolf’s albeit in a very different way.
    Now, I probably sound all high-falutin’, name dropping like that. But let me be the first to say that I read and enjoy a whole range of books. Being a Young Adult Librarian gives me an excuse to read whatever I can get my hands on, an excuse that I hardly need.  Although most of these novels are not at the caliber I mentioned above (very few adult novels are either, I would quickly like to point out), I still find much to enjoy: namely fast-paced plots, endearing teen characters (hopefully with more than a soupçon of ‘tude) and, if I’m lucky a vision of the world to think about.

    Which brings me to the book I want to review today: Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness. The third and final volume in the Chaos Walking Trilogy, Ness’s story isn’t just a rollercoaster ride: it is a rollercoaster ride that has had the middle bombed out of it and the audience (in the cars) find themselves careening through fire and air at a mad, terrifying speed.

    And I mean that as a good thing. I think.

    Because not only does it have a plot that might give you a heart attack, it is also deeply resonant with our time. I think I read once that Ness was riffing on the issue of privacy in a world where we are bombarded by information and where social media has metamorphised personal barriers that used to be like the Berlin wall into tiny, washed out lines in the sand.

    The first two books are about how to cope in a world where your every thought can be heard by those around you. The final volume questions whether this is necessarily a bad thing. Add to this exploration of gender issues, a terrifying portrayal of political power and its terrorist opponents, and you have a story that I think manages to grab you on the two levels I mentioned above.

    And yet… there was something about the pace of Monsters of Men that bewilders me. How does a writer keep it up for so long? How do you convey so much in such sparse dialogue? Because Ness uses dialect brilliantly – not only dialect, but the different fonts in the book help to represent each voice.

    I guess it is not really a critique but more of an awe-inspired gaze of admiration from a would-be writer to a master of his craft. 

    Although the “Viola?” “Todd?” dialogue did get a bit cumbersome after a while, Ness manages to convey so much pure emotion, so much meaning into one word, it is breathtaking. His plot is complex, textured and completely authentic, while telling the age old stories of power, love and hope.

    Todd and Viola, the main characters, are flawed and make large mistakes, but never ones where the reader feels morally superior, where you can sit back and sneer at the stupidity of the main character. They are always confronted with a difficult choice, one that you would have had a hard time deciding if you were in their shoes.

     Chaos Walking is as innovative, resonant of our times, and as philosophically far reaching as Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass series.

Review of The Way it is by Donalda Reid

Set in the 1960s in Salmon Arm, B.C. (but salmon don’t have arms…) the story follows Ellen Manery, a tall, awkward, highly intelligent 16-year old. Teased since she was little about her height, Ellen has found it easier to stop trying to make friends. Instead she concentrates on her studies and her ambition to be a doctor. When her dad has a mid-life crisis and quits his job to buy a resort in the interior of B.C., Ellen is furious. She will have to move to Salmon Arm for her last year of high school instead of remaining in Vancouver and the school for advanced students where she has almost completed the credits she needs to graduate.

At first, Salmon Arm seems to be like every other school she’s been to, where the other students either ignore her or tease her. But then she meets Tony, the only First Nations kid in school. An unlikely friendship blooms, and Ellen finally learns the joys and pains of being close to someone.
This is a quiet, beautifully written story about first love, growing up and the horrible yet fragile face of prejudice. After being immersed in books that are heavy on the plot and light on character development, this book was a welcome change. Reid’s description of the angst Ellen feels when she has to get on the school bus, or when she has to find a seat in class, were so well done I actually felt that I had succumbed to a time warp and was right back to being a teenager, heart racing, palms sweaty wishing I could just melt into the background.

This is one of those books where nothing big happens. Nobody dies. Nobody gets pregnant or beat up, or put in jail. What does happen is that Ellen grows up. She learns how to love and be a friend and how to stand up for herself and others. Her friendship with Tony starts off slowly, but Reid is a master at imbuing these small moments with such tension I could not put the book down. Will Tony talk to her? What will she say? What if she says something wrong? Although this is mainly Ellen’s journey, the final message is one that she teaches Tony as well: the way it is, is not the way it needs to be. We all have the ability to be control of our own destinies.

I also enjoyed the way Reid handled the underlying prejudice of the town. Although it’s not overblown Mississippi Burning style (eg. Nobody gets burned on the cross), it is a constant undercurrent in the narrative. At the beginning of the novel, Ellen witnesses some drunken white men brutally beat some Indians (also drunk) on the side of the hotel. When she calls for help, the bartender just shrugs and looks away, saying that, “it’s just a bunch of Indians.” To Ellen, growing up in a sheltered liberal, academic environment, this is shocking. To the townspeople and to Tony, it is “Just the way it is.” There are a couple of episodes with Tony as well, where the racial slurs are so subtly interwoven into the fabric of the town yet so unexpected to Ellen, they feel as big and horrible as the horrors being lived to the south at that time (race riots in the U.S.)

A quibble: perhaps this is a new fangled way of interspersing first person thought in a third person narrative, but I found the odd places where the narrative suddenly switches to first person without any warning (ie. Italics, or quotes) to be disconcerting.

In all though, this is a well-crafted story told with insight, empathy and beauty. I would recommend this book as a companion piece to “To Kill a Mockingbird” or to girls who like Coming of Age stories. Ages 12+

 Brief Comments on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows

Being a Jane Austen fan, I loved the banter and wit of the first half of this book. However, it quickly melts into a puddle of two dimensional characters, where there is no real conflict and people do things that are not well explained. Our book club consensus was that it was a fast read, one that makes you feel a little manipulated and unsatisfied but is still a great, feel good book to recommend to your mother.  You also learn a lot about the channel islands during the war. Did you know that they were occupied? I didn’t.

Comments on Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Not only is this book still relevant today (if not even more relevant) it is also one of the most intriguingly written books. It’s like Bradbury is in possession of one of his Fireman’s fire hoses. but instead of fire he is jetting a torrent of words in the reader’s direction.

The most interesting part of this book to me, was the wife, who is so caught up in the media that surrounds her – the three walls of her living room are huge TVs where “the family” (the name given to all the people in the various shows that flitter on the screen) are on non-stop. She goes to sleep with a radio “shell” and drugs herself so much she forgets that she has already taken the pill and keeps on taking them until she commits suicide. Luckily, this is a common occurence in this world of bright lights, bright sounds and no thought that there are stomach pumping technicians that can be called. She can’t tell you what she’s been watching, or what the plot of a story is about. She doesn’t even remember that she killed herself.

Although this book is mostly about censorship, it is also about the danger of sensory overload, of skimming the surface of things and of the consequences of a population who have been dumbed down, who have sacrificed critical thought to an asinine concept of happiness.

Good stuff.

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    2 Responses to November in Books

    1. Thanks for the book reviews they sound perfect for my teenage daughter. I concur that books are an ideal way of initiating conversations with your kids especially if the stories are about issues which are relevant to them. I think it is so important to keep the lines of communication open with your kids. A brilliant series for initiating dialog about some of the ‘difficult to talk about’ teen issues is Ransom Publishing’s ‘The Cutting Edge Series’. If you’re interested in checking it out you can find a short description and chapter sample of each of the books in the series on Publishing Alley http://www.publishingalley.com .

    2. Pingback: Book Review: This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel | Inparentthesis

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