Category Archives: guys_read

Jolted by Arthur Slade

Jolted coverNewton Starker is cursed. Lightning has killed every member of his mother’s side of the family, except for Newton, and his great-grandmother Edith. (Newton’s theory is that she’s too mean to die.)

Newton and his dad live in a lightning proof house. He has a set of rules to keep him safe (Rule one: Check the weather constantly. Two: Check the sky before exiting a building. Three: When thunder roars, run indoors. Four: Beware of cumulo-nimbus clouds. Five: Do not take a bath during a lightning storm….) But the rules didn’t save Newton’s mom. So he’s enrolled at the Jerry Potts Academy of Higher Learning and Survival in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, hoping that a school that emphasizes wilderness survival, banned neckties from the school uniform because they interfered with outdoor activities (some students were using them to snare ground squirrels) and encourages always carrying a sharp knife will teach him how to avoid the family curse.

But Newton breaks rule number six (Do not under any circumstances become angry. Count to ten. Breathe in. Breath out.), and before he knows it, he’s challenged one of his fellow students, Violet Quon, to a boxing match. And then there’s the matter of a slight mix-up surrounding Culinary Arts and exactly how Newton ended up with a pet pig named Francine, and an approaching outdoor expedition to the Cyprus Hills.

But no matter how busy he gets, Newton had better not forget Rule thirteen: Check the Weather. Check it again.

Jolted is a decidely tongue in cheek sort of story, as you may have figured from the lightning curse, pet pigs, and wilderness survival academies. It’s a quick-moving book with short chapters and plenty of great moments of goofy humour. But underneath it all is a suprisingly bittersweet story about Newton coming to terms with the death of his mom. The ending leaves me expecting a sequel, but Arthur Slade’s latest, the Hunchback Assignments, is definitely a series. (And awesomely steampunk!) Will we see more of Newton? I don’t know…

If you head over to Arthur Slade’s website, you can listen to the author himself reading a clip from the book.

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Danger in Dead Man’s Mine by Dave Glaze

Yay! Canadian kids’ historical fiction that doesn’t involved a) wilderness survival, b) immigrating and finding a home, c) time travel, and especially d) a boring cover. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of the aforementioned–except boring covers–but I have had my fill of them lately.

Danger in Dead Man's Mine cover This is a story about Mackenzie Davis, who is twelve, and visiting his aunt and uncle in Lethbridge, in 1912. His mom has come to stay and help out until her aunt has her baby. His uncle a coal miner and has been sick, and is waiting to be cleared by the mining company doctor to go back into the mines. The whole family’s hoping that it’s not black lung from years of breathing in coal dust, which would keep him out of the mines for good. (Annnd I’m not going to link to any pictures associated with black lung; you can google it yourself, or just trust me that it’s pretty gross.)

Even Mackenzie picks up on the family tensions right below the surface. Then, soon after he arrives, his older cousin disappears, and has most likely run away from home. His middle cousin Ruth resents having to do all the house work, and there’s something strange going on with his youngest cousin Francis, too. Francis keeps disappearing and comes home exhausted and dirty, but with everything else happening, Mackenzie is the only one who notices, and Francis isn’t telling him anything. The only one who can tell him more is the old fisherman who says he’s going back to the sea–which is quite the claim, from the middle of the prairies.

Although this is book three of a series, you can pick it up without having read the first two. There’s a lot of historical details about things like coal mining and the High Level Bridge (which turned one hundred last year!), but because Mackenzie’s new to the area, it makes sense in context that people would be telling him about all these things. It helps too that it’s the interesting sort of historical details like how afterdamp can kill a miner rather than what feels like a history lecture.

A nice touch of historical context comes from the 1912 newspaper excerpts from the Lethbridge Herald in between chapters, inserted straight from microfilms of the original newspaper to preserve the font and layout. I think kids will find it neat to see something that comes from almost a hundred years ago–I know I would have and still do! There’s a good sense of time and place, but first and foremost, this is really an adventure story–there are mysteries and cave-ins and rescue missions–that zips along at a quick enough pace to keep the book focused on the story rather than the background history. Give this one to grade four or five kids who want an adventure story, and might not read something historical otherwise.

Head over to CM Magazine and Prairie Fire for more reviews, and you can find the rest of the series on the author’s website.

The Nine Lives of Travis Keating: new cover love for Jill MacLean

travis old coverprinny coverYou know how it is when you read a great book but it has a cover that just isn’t going to catch anyone’s eye? Yeah, that’s how I felt about the original cover for The Nine Lives of Travis Keating. But with the release of the sequel, The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy, Travis has a new cover to match!

One year. Three hundred and sixty five days. That’s how long Travis has to wait to get out of the small Newfoundland town of Ratchet and back to St John’s. His dad has accepted a one-year contract as a community doctor after Travis’s mom’s death, and is hoping that the change will help both of them deal with their grief. But Travis manages to get on the bad side of Hud, the school bully on his frist day of school, and now no-one wants to talk to him. He misses his hockey team. And of course, he misses his mom, and blames his dad for not being able to cure her.

travis new coverBut Travis discovers that there’s something he can do in Ratchet–when he finds a group of feral cats living in the abandoned fishing shacks down by the docks, he’s determined to feed them and tame them. His rescue mission draws in two other kids from school, quiet Hector, who doesn’t say much but loves to build things, and Prinny Murphy, who is routinely mocked at school for her greasy hair and grubby clothes, but is struggling to hold her own family together and deal with her alcoholic mother. (Prinny’s story is told in the sequel.) The three of them have to save the cats from the weather, the price of cat-food, wild dogs… and Hud.

First off, there’s nothing like a good animal story to appeal to a wide range of kids. It’s easy to relate to Travis’s need to protect the cats, and it’s also a realistic look at a potentially grim situation. Travis is also a very real, likeable kid who has a lot to deal with. All of the characters are believably complex, from Prinny or Travis’s dad, to Hud, may be a bully but doesn’t have the world’s greatest role models at home. With all this going on, you’d think that we’d be in problem novel territory, but it’s all just part of the deeper motivations that makes everyone who they are, and takes this book from good to great. This was a surprisingly fast read, probably because the story moves along quickly and I found it hard to put down! This is a good pick for anyone in grades four to seven who likes animals and a story with some underlying serious stuff. I also think it would be a great book to share as a readaloud at home or in the classroom.

Random fact: Jill Maclean wrote the story for her grandson Stuart–but not the Stuart Maclean of Vinyl Cafe fame, despite a quick double-take on my part!

Bonechiller by Graham McNamee

Bonechiller coverIt’s been a day of spring blizzards here on the prairies, and after five hours without electricity, something with lots of snow seemed apropos…

Danny and his dad are in the middle of nowhere. His dad’s been retreating from the world ever since Danny’s mom died, and he and Danny have recently moved from the big city to a a small, northern Ontario town. Danny is on his way home late at night and he gets the feeling he’s being watched. He starts to run, and when he looks back, there is this huge, white, albino-ish creature chasing him, all hairless and creepy looking. It knocks him down, and the last hing he remembers before passing out is seeing its weird pointed tongue coming at him.

When he comes to, there’s a little blue dot on the back of his hand, like from a pen, but no bite marks, no tracks, no monster. He must have imagined the whole thing, right? It must have been a big dog or something and he must have hit his head.

BUT. He starts having weird dream. And the one guy from school who was hospitalized for a mysterious infection kinda went crazy and ran away and now they can’t find him. Then his friend Pike is out ice-fishing with his brother Howie. When Pike comes in to get donuts and coffee, they hear screaming, and ice cracking. SOMETHING REALLY HEAVY has broken the ice and Howie has fallen in. there is rescue and emergency rooms… but he has this blue dot on his neck…

And then the two of them start sharing nightmares of ice and cold and being stalked by a giant albino creature.

And their body chemistry is changing–they can’t tolerate heat, are most comfortable in the extreme cold, and are really sensitive to light, and keep seeing this THING in their dreams…

And of course, Howie does some research and tracks down a history of disappearances over really cold winters…

And then Danny’s sort-girlfriend Ash’s Ojibwe dad starts telling him stories about the wendigo

Oh man, this was a thrill ride and a half! It’s a combination of monster story plus suspense, with the extremes of a wilderness survival story, with a hefty dose of folklore in the backstory, and that had me hooked. The cliche about Canadian literature is that you can tell it’s Can Lit because the landscape is a character in and of itself. Graham Macnamee, your Canadianness is showing, to excellent effect! There’s a monster after Danny, but the weather could kill him just as easily. And what takes this book out of the realm of just another thriller are how the characters are all fully realized people in their own right and not htere just to push the plot along. Danny’s got his own tensions and issues, and so do his friends. I especially loved tough girl Ash. Plus, I am a sucker for stories that incorporate folklore into them, so I found the riff on the wendigo mythology especially cool.

If you’re feeling brave, read this one on a cold January night–or save it for a sticky hot August afternoon, just for that cold chill down the back of your neck….

Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen

Word Nerd coverAmbrose has
– a gift for scrabble
– a talent for saying the worst thing at the worst possible time
– a severe allergy to peanuts.

He also has an overprotective mother, so when the school bullies slip a peanut into his cheese sandwich, and he ends up first in anaphylactic shock and then in the hospital, his mom swoops in and decides that it will be much safer if Ambrose finishes out the school year at home through correspondence courses. Of course, Ambrose may have complicated things by telling his mother that the aforementioned bullies were his best friends. And by telling everyone at school that his family was rich, and spent weekends at their chalet in Whistler, and the only reason he was in a public school was to mix with “normal” kids… you can see why they didn’t take his peanut allergy seriously when he told them it might kill him.

Ambrose and his mother are not rich. They live in a basement apartment–their landlords are Mr and Mrs Economopolous, the elderly Greek couple who live upstairs. The Economopolouses have taken to saving Ambrose from health-food dinners alone while his mother is teaching, feeding him home-made (peanut-free) moussaka and letting him watch The Amazing Race. But then their youngest son, Cosmo, gets out of jail and comes back home to live with his parents.

Ambrose thinks Cosmo is clearly the coolest thing ever. Ambrose’s mom is less than impressed, and bans him from visiting upstairs. Ambrose figures that what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. And since she doesn’t approve of Ambrose visiting in the same house, it’s a really good thing she doesn’t know when Ambrose and Cosmo start hanging out… and playing scrabble… and join a weekly scrabble club together… and if that sounds complicated, you should see what happens when Cosmo falls in love, his pre-jail buddies track him down and the Scrabble tournament comes up….

This is not just a book for anyone who’s ever done a victory dance when they hit the triple word score with a q or x. Ambrose is a perfect mix of adolescent insecurity and social awkwardness, but ends up being sympathetic never the less. He’s a lot like the plot of the book, a discongrous mix of things (Scrabble! Ex-cons! Peanut allergies!) that come together into something quirky and oddly endearing that’s more than the sum of its separate parts.

Sidenote: Word Nerd is on this year’s Rocky Mountain Book Award shortlist, for grades four to seven and is also on the Ontario-based Red Maple Award list for grades seven and eight, and was the subject of a parent complaint in Hamilton due to, ironically, language. Here’s an account at Susin Nielsen’s blog, and a bit of follow up.

On a more positive note, here are Ten Questions With Susin Nielsen from Open Book Toronto.

The Blue Helmet by William Bell

This ie one of my catch-up posts from the 48 Hour Book Challenge. I don’t know why it took me as long as it did to read this one–William Bell is pretty consistently awesome, and I do try to read most of the Canadian kids and YA award winners. Maybe because I thought it had more to do with gang life than it does, and I wasn’t in the mood for something gritty. Anyhow, I’ve unreservedly recommended it to several people since then, and I’m glad I finally did read it.

BlueHelmetLee’s used to being on his own. His mom died of cancer when he was seven. His dad has worked two jobs for years, trying  to pay off the trip to Italy that was the last thing he could do for his dying wife–a trip where Lee got left behind with his aunt.

Lee doesn’t need his family. He tells himself he doesn’t need anyone, but he’s still trying to get into the toughest gang in his neighbourhood. When his initiation ends with Lee in the back seat of a police car, he’s forced to face up to the fact that someone betrayed him and tipped off the cops. It just confirms what he already knows. You can never show weakness or give in. You have to stand up and fight for yourself because no-one else will.

Lee gets lucky. Instead of jail time, he finds himself facing exile, sent away from Hamilton to live with his Aunt Reena in the town of New Toronto. Lee’s hugely resentful at first, but gradually finds himself drawn into the routine, and into the lives of the regulars at Reena’s Cafe Unique. Some of them are college students, some of them are down on their luck, and others are just plain wierd. When Lee starts delivering meals for Reena by bike, he gets to know Andrea the pharmacist, Krantz, a meterology buff, and Cutter, a paranoid, possibly schizophrenic conspiracy theorist.

Lee finds Cutter fascinating. Cutter has a brilliant mind, top-notch computer equipment, and when he’s taking his medication and having a good week, he’s eccentric. And amazingly enough, he trusts Lee. But when everything changes abruptly and irrevocably, Lee starts to put together Cutter’s story and finds his own life profoundly altered as a result.

William Bell packs an awful lot into a deceptively skinny book. This is a story of choices, of redemption, and of the far-reaching consequences of violence. It’s also a well-paced, fast-moving book starting in the back of a police car. Lee could have been a totally unsympathetic character, but knowing where he’s coming from and seeing the decisions he makes is part of what makes this such a powerful story. And when I realized where exactly the title came from, it was blindingly obvious, and perfectly fitting.

Wart by Anna Myers

Book nine of the 48-hour Book Challenge binge!

wart_small You could say that it started when Stewar’s cousin declared that he needed to be popular, but would have to ditch his long-time friends Ham and Rachel to do it. But things really started to change when Stewart and Ham’s art teacher showed up hiding in the supply closet, and had to take some time off. Because that’s when Wanda Gibbs, the subsitute came to town. And now she’s a) stuck Stewart with the nickname Wart, b) is dating his dad, and c) is probably a witch who turns her own son Ozgood into a frog periodically to punish him. She’s helped him get a spot on the basketball team, but is brainwashing his little sister. Thanks to her intervention, the most popular girl in the school is interested in him, but now she’s probably going to marry his dad. What’s a guy to do?

It took me a bit to get into this one, but it was a pretty funny, solid middle school read, all things considered. The plot plays off the is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-witch uncertainty quite well right up until the end, Stewart’s geeky friends are awesome in their right–Ham is kind of clueless skinny kid who’s alwasy eating, and Rachel is the sort of girl who collects esoteric bits of trivia and has an elaborate training system worked out to win a local pet show. And his little sister Georgia will throw temper tantrums on demand for Stewart–until Wanda shows up. Then there’s Wanda’s son Ozgood, who plays big band music lous enough to shake the walls, and says things like “I am undone” when he’s upset. An oddball cast and amusing plot–it’s too bad the cover looks like a do-or-die sports story.