Category Archives: life_today

The Secret of Grim Hill by Linda DeMeulemeester

Time for something on the spooky side of things…

Cat Peters hates her new school. She’s in trouble from the first day at Darkmount High, for everything from not knowing the dress code and wearing the wrong sort of jeans to the total lack of any sports teams for her to join. She desperately wants to go to the private girls’ academy on Grim Hill, Grimoire School where her mom is working as the school secretary, but there’s no way her recently-divorced mom can afford the tuition. So when she hears that the prize for the winning team at the Halloween soccer tournament is a full scholarship, she jumps at the chance. And when she makes the team, she becomes a local celebrity.

However, her next door neighbour Jasper and her little sister Sookie are sure there’s something strange going on at Grimoire, but Cat doesn’t want to listen—not even when bad things start happening to anything that would stop the soccer team from practicing. Her teammate Amarjeet has Punjabi school Saturday mornings… until the school burns down. Mia needs to attend rehearsals for her sister’s wedding, until the engagement is called off. Emily spends the weekends with her dad, until he gets transferred out of town. But the only thing that would keep Cat from practice is babysitting Sookie… Cat needs to figure out what forces are at work behind the mysterious school and how it all ties into a diary from seventy years ago, before she loses everything.

This is a great mid to upper elementary series for budding fans of mysterious-type fantasy stories. The build-up is nicely ominous and creepy, and I am such a sucker for folklore elements!

You can read the first chapter on the publisher’s website, and check out the whole series. Other reviews in various places: Wands and Worlds, a blog for fantasy and science fiction for children and teens, the Montreal Review of Books

It’s also been a nominee for various reader’s choice book awards like Red Cedar, Diamond Willow, Hackmatack, and was the winner of the 2008 Silver Birch.

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.

All-Season Edie by Annabel Lyon

All Season Edie cover This book is a year in the life of Edie Jasmine Snow.

Edie lives with her mom and her dad and her older sister Dexter, who mostly she hates (like when Dexter tells her there are spiders in her attic bedroom, and Edie tried to curse her for Halloween using MacBeth as an instruction manual), but sometimes Dexter surprises her by doing something nice, like even though she doesn’t want Edie to go to ballet like Dexter because she’s convinced Edie will embarass her, Dexter tells their mom than Edie should take flamenco instead. And not just because of the mortification factor–she thinks Edie would like it better, because there’s a lot of stomping. And just for the record, Edie LOVES flamenco. But that doesn’t mean that Dexter wants her at her best friend Mean Megan’s Halloween party…

First off, the blurb caused me some needless anxiety–I will tell you straight out, her sister does not die! Her grandfather is sick right from the beginning, however… The splashy green and pink cover has been catching the eye of a lot of pre-teen girls in my library. (I will admit that at first glance, I thought that rubber boot was a cast, and kept waiting for Edie to break a leg.)

This is a really hard book to summarize, since it’s very episodic. The story’s biggest weakness is that there isn’t one strong plot thread pulling the whole thing together. There are some great moments though–like when Edie is dragged along on a Christmas shopping trip to the mall with her mom and sister. No-one realizes Edie’s running a fever, and then she starts to hallucinate that the Greek gods are at the mall too, doing their shopping… Or the argument between Dexter and her parents over taking her little sister along to her friend’s party. The horror! What ties it all together is the family’s reactions to her grandfather’s sickness and death.

The story’s biggest strength was the strong character voices. The emotions and tension between Edie and her ring true remarkably. I say this as an older sister, albeit one with younger brothers. Some things are universal. It’s a fantastic middle school point of view. (Okay, I’m harping on the point of view because the book I read just before this one was published as young adult fiction, but should have been an adult memoir. Anyhow.) This book captures delicate balance of fondness and infuriation between siblings perfectly. Even though it’s episodic, thematically, everything fits together. Give this one to girls who have ages out of Judy Moody, Ramona fans, or any nine or ten year old girl who’s drawn in by the green and pink cover.

Other reviews from (inevitably) CM Magazine, Sheryl McFarlane’s Book Blog and Welcome to My Tweendom.

Lacey and the African Grandmothers by Sue Farrell Holler

Okay, speaking of race and representation and kids getting to see themselves, I have read some great books lately! Take a look…

Lacey and the African Grandmothers coverHere’s what the publisher’s blurb says:

Can a sewing project make a difference half-way across the world?Lacey Little Bird loves spending time with Kahasi, an elder on her reserve who is like a grandmother to her. From her Lacey is learning about their people, the Siksika Blackfoot tribe of Alberta, including the art of beadwork.

Lacey hears about a project to help grandmothers in Africa who are raising their grandchildren because their parents have died from AIDS. Even though Africa is far, far away, Lacey wants to help and emails the grandmothers with a plan to raise money by selling beaded purses.

What difference can a young Blackfoot girl from North America make in the lives of grandmothers in Africa? A lot, as Lacey discovers. Her decision to help will bring about amazing changes in her life and her community.

Here’s a review from CM which is more school-focused than me (the review, not CM in general). I do see that the book would be useful in a classroom, but I also think that its appeal as a book and a story rather than a curriculum tool shouldn’t be underestimated. (And that kneejerk reaction is why I work in a public library rather than a school. Teachers, I know many of you who are truly awesome, but I was not cut out to be one of you. I gravitate towards reading for fun…)

Lacey is an appealing kid, who’s not perfect, but is thoughtful and determined. She goes to school and helps out at the outreach high school for teen parents from her community. The author doesn’t shy away from the reality of life in Lacey’s community. Lacey’s family has a lot of mouths to feed and not a lot of money, and home is especially chaotic with seven kids in the family, her mom sick and her dad on the road with his band. Lacey likes to slip away to the quiet of her grandmother’s house, where her Kahasi is teaching her traditional beading techniques. (I’m not sure why the publisher’s blurb says she’s like a grandmother to Lacey when she is her actual grandmother, and tells her stories of how the other person in her family who does fantastic beadwork is Lacey’s dad…)

Her sister is dealing with a short-tempered, potentially abusive boyfriend, a baby, and the decision whether to finish school and try to go onto college or stay home. There’s violence too–Lacey’s not sure it’s worth the project of growing plants to beautify the high school because she’s sure someone’s just going to come along and wreck them.

But she’s a determined kid, and is set on making bags and purses to help the African grandmothers even when she doesn’t know how she’s going to do it or where she’s going to get the materials. She has her moments of doubt and frustration, but ultimately, it all comes together into a fantastic story about how one person can start something that involves a whole community and truly makes a difference.

And the best bit? Lacey and the African Grandmothers is based on true events, real people, and the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign.

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.

Inferno by Robin Stevenson

Book eight of the 48-hour Book Challenge binge! I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, but award committee reading and library books with other people on the hold list have taken precedence. (And thank you again, Robin, for getting me an ARC!)

inferno-small Dante doesn’t really have any friends at her new high school. Last year, she didn’t need to–she had her best friend Beth, who, though no-one else knew, became her girlfriend. that was when Dante was still Emily, before she changed her name legally. She tells her mocking English teacher that she picked her new name because high school is hell. That goes over about as well as you would expect. Though it’s not the real reason, Dante has a lot to deal with right now. Her mom is fussing about her attitutde and that she’s cut off all her hair, and has signed her up for a social skills group for teenage girls. Beth has cut off all contact. Her English teacher is a bully, and her school is full of brain-dead stereotypes. But then a strange girl shows up at school, and mutely slips her a note reading “WOOF, WOOF. YOU ARE NOT A DOG. WHY ARE YOU GOING TO OBEDIENCE SCHOOL?” Dante is fascinated by both the girl, Parker, and the note. She quickly becomes drawn into Parker and her friends’ anti-authoritarian hijinxs. But as time goes on, Dante begins to see that Parker’s boyfriend is abusive, and may be willing to go much further to change the world than anyone else suspects.

I think this is probably the strongest of Robin Stevenson’s books that I’ve read so far–she’s really cut down on the number of themes and subplots in this one, which makes for a much stronger story overall. Fortuitously, it’s also got the coolest cover–although I’m not taking A Thousand Shades of Blue into consideration since I haven’t read it yet. It’s nice to see a book with a gay teenager protagonist where her orientation is essential to who she is and to the plot, but it’s not a coming-out story. The tension and the stakes mount as the story progressses, and the characters are all unique, believable individuals. It left me wanting more of Dante’s story at the end, but not in an unfinished way–which is a good thing.

Castration Celebration by Jake Wizner

Book one of the 48-hour Book Challenge binge. Let’s start things off with a bang. (Um. Pun intended. Just read the book, you’ll see.)

castration celebration

Olivia was sitting on top of her new suitcase in the courtyard of Yale’s Old Campus writing in her notebook. She had scrawled the word CASTRATION on the top of the page and was in the process of listing genital-based rhymes. So far her list read: menstruation, masturbation, elongation, lubrication, penetration, simulation, fornication, copulation, urination, ejaculation, insemination.

Olivia’s researching castration. Her sudden interest was brought on by the trauma of walking in on her father, recieving a blow job from one of his graduate students. Max, on the other hand, is very fond of his genitals, in their current fully operational condition. Both teens have a quick sense of humour and flair for rapid-fire banter. When they meet up at a summer arts program, a perfect storm of double entendres ensue. Because Max, prone to brief, intense bouts of true love, has decided that he’s madly in love with Olivia. Olivia has sworn off boys and romance–her state of mind is reflected in her summer project, the musical of the title, Castration Celebration. Add some supporting characters to the mix–Max’s stoner roomate Zeke, who has a flair for musical composition, perky queer girl Callie, Olivia’s ditzy but goodhearted roommate Mimi, and the steadfast Trish, who collaborated with Zeke on a school musical last year–and the stage is set for one very interesting summer.

First of all, forget all vestiges of adult (by which I mean grown-up) taste and decorum, and attempt to connect with your fifteen-year-old self. The humour in this book is… well, juvenile. Risque. Lewd. Crude. Offensive. There’s casual, recreational drug use, toilet humour, realistic use of expletives, and oh yeah, an awful lot of sexual humour.

This book is going to offend a lot of people.

However, let’s face it, it’s a totally realistic, uncensored portrayal of a sizeable portion of teenagers, and so, so true to the target age group. Seriously, if you don’t see a couple of teenage boys turning vampires, menstruation, and oral sex into a running joke as realistic, you’ve never encountered teenage boys in their natural habitat. (Likewise, if the concept of the aforementioned offends you horribly, go find another book instead.) Also, as a species, we find sex funny.

The book is a quick read. It spins together the story of the main cast, interspersed with the script and lyrics of Olivia’s musical, which is in turn a riff on The Taming of the Shrew, which is how the couple in the play meet, reading Shakespeare out loud in English class.

Once you’re past the shock factor of songs like “I’m in Love With Dick,” though, sex in general is treated in a fairly reasonable, healthy fashion. When Max, in a fit of jealousy, takes off and has casual sex with a girl he met on the train, he protests that “it didn’t mean anything.” He’s quickly taken to task by the girls for writing off the girl he was with. The characters are drawn in fairly broad strokes, and blurred together a bit at the beginning, but there are some more serious issues behind the masturbation jokes, like Olivia’s family instability, Max’s neediness, and why, exactly, Zeke wants to spend the entire summer stoned in his dorm room.

This book definitely doesn’t come close to Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, and I wasn’t sure if it was anything more than blatant shock tactics at first, but I think that it will find readers. It will be the kind of book circulated under desks and smuggled from backpack to backpack, and no, it’s not great literature, but it’s got more inherent merit than a Will Ferrell movie (yeah, I know, that’s totally a judgement call on my part). There’s nothing wrong with the occasional junk food reading and odds are pretty good at least one or two readers will pick it up and feel like finally they’re seeing something of their own lives and sense of humour. And maybe then they’ll read Doing It