Keep Holding On – Susane Colasanti

keepholdingonNoelle, the narrator of Susane Colasant’s YA novel Keep Holding On,  is just trying to make it through high school so that she can get the hell out of Dodge. (Dodge isn’t actually the name of the town where she lives; Noelleactually calls it “Middle of Nowhere, USA. ) Every day Noelle wishes she could “be transported to another school in an alternate universe where required learning doesn’t have to involve this traumatic test of survival skills.”

Noelle doesn’t stand out, not really, but nevertheless she’s an outsider. Mostly she’s a target because she’s poor; her lunch and clothes are often cause for ridicule. There’s also some stuff following her from her middle school days – a misunderstanding that was blown out of proportion and hangs over her like a dark cloud.

The biggest problem in Noelle’s life, besides the jerks at her school who make her life miserable, is her mother.

This one time last year, she came home really late and woke me up when she slammed the front door. Then she whipped my door open. I could see her glaring at me, the light from the hall illuminating the hate in her eyes. She didn’t say anything. She just slammed my door.

Noelle’s mom isn’t abusive per se, but she is neglectful. Noelle can’t remember a time when her mother really looked at her, but it’s certainly been since her stepfather, her mom’s second husband, died of cancer. This was clearly a traumatic event for mother and daughter and yet it’s hard to feel any empathy for Noelle’s mom; she’s just awful.  “There are plenty of days,” Noelle observes,” when mother says less than ten days to me.” Noelle’s biological father isn’t in the picture at all.

Then there’s Matt, the boy Noelle likes who seems to like her back at least enough to make out with her – although the fact that they make out is top-secret. Even though you can see the reason for Matt’s need for secrecy a mile away, it still a believable situation for Noelle.

Keep Holding On treads familiar teen ground, but the book separates itself from the pack in part because Noelle is immensely sympathetic. She wants, more than anything, to fit in, but what she eventually figures out is that fitting in isn’t nearly as important as finding your own place to belong.

Good People – Ewart Hutton

goodpeopleD.S. Glyn Capaldi, the protagonist of Ewart Hutton’s debut Good People, is a Welsh cop who got into a bit of trouble in Cardiff and had been reassigned to a dinky town in the middle of nowhere, a place where the higher-ups figure he can’t get into any more touble.

The reader doesn’t get to learn very much about Capaldi. He’s divorced. He’s smart. He’s got good instincts, but isn’t really a team player and he’s very much an outsider in Carmarthen. Detective Chief Superintendent Galbraith describes him as ” someone who used to be a good cop,” which is why Galbraith has rescued him so he isn’t “wearing a rinky-dink security uniform and patrolling the booze aisle in some shanty-town supermarket.” Capaldi is getting another chance, but he’s on a short leash.

Which is why no one wants to give him the time of day when Capaldi is suspicious about Carmarthen’s latest crime. Six men coming home from a soccer game in England, disappear into the woods with a young girl. Their abandoned mini-bus is found on the side of the road, but hours later when the party is found, not everyone is accounted for.

Police who are familiar with the men believe their story – convoluted as it is – but Capaldi isn’t as convinced.

Good People is a relatively straightforward mystery that is fast-paced and intriguing. Capaldi certainly grows on you and the story is not your standard whodunit. Instead, Good People is about  the underbelly of a town that, on the surface at least, seems quaint and shiny and  our capacity for deception.

12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northrup

12 years I can’t say that I was thrilled when 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup’s true-life account of slavery, was chosen for book club. I haven’t seen the much-lauded film because I’ve heard it’s quite violent and my tolerance for violence seems to be on the decline these days and I didn’t really have any desire to read this book either. I understand its importance but, truthfully, this isn’t a book that I’d ever pick up.

“Having been born a free man,” Northrup writes, and having “been kidnapped and sold into slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years – it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.”

Northrup intends to offer up “a candid and truthful statement of the facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or severer bondage.”

And factual it is – which I think might be part of the problem.

My first and most powerful experience with the subject of slavery came in 1977. I was in high school and there was a television event known as Roots. This mini-series was really must watch television and it had a profound impact on me. The story, based on the life of author Alex Haley’s grandmother, was shocking and horrific to me – a middle-class white girl from Easter Canada. My experience with people of African-American descent was really limited; I could count the number of black kids at my school on one hand. I distinctly remember watching Roots and being ashamed of the colour of my skin. I still remember the characters Kunta Kinte and Chicken George. Such is the power of fiction.

Northrup is married with three small children when he is duped by a couple of white men and taken from his life in New York to a plantation in Louisiana.  His account of the  journey and his time spent as a slave is  – I don’t know – instructive. Once in New Orleans he is purchased by a relatively kind man, William Ford. Northrup describes him as “kind, noble, candid, Christian.”

The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master…

Unfortunately, he is sold again to a less charitable master, Mr. Epps, a man whose manners are “repulsive and coarse.” When drinking, Epps’ chief delight was “dancing with his “niggers,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream.” It is with Epps that Northrup spends the bulk of his incarceration. 12 years_a

Perhaps modern readers have been spoiled by today’s memoirs, which often read like fiction. Northrup’s motivation for writing this book was, I believe, to instruct – and while I understand the merits of his tale, I felt it was missing a key ingredient: character. Yes, Northrup was clearly a good, intelligent, brave man, but there was something distancing about the very formal language of this tale. I think in his effort to report the facts, the story loses some of its impact. For example, when Eliza (someone else who has been kidnapped) is separated from her young children Northrup remarks “never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief.” Imagine how that scene might have played out in fiction.

I am not sorry that I read Northrup’s story, but is it great literature? Is it a book I would press into the hands of my friends and say “you’ve got to read this.” No.





Friends with Boys – Faith Erin Hicks

friends I didn’t know that the author and illustrator of the graphic novel Friends with Boys, Faith Erin Hicks, was  from Halifax until I finished the book. I am not going to let the fact that we are practically neighbours (well, by Canadian standards we actually are!) influence my thoughts about Friends with Boys.

…which overall I liked (although I am by no means an authority on graphic novels and have really only started to read them in any number since I started building my classroom library.) I did feel the novel missed some great opportunities and had some structural problems – but, yeah, liked it.

So, Maggie is starting grade nine. This is a pretty big deal because she has been homeschooled her whole life. She’s super nervous about it. When her dad asks how she’s feeling she says  “It’s only my first day of high school. Nothing to be nervous about. I’m not nervous. I’m not.”

Maggie’s three older brothers, twins Lloyd and Zander and Daniel have already made the transition to high school and as Daniel admits to Maggie, he likes being at school better than learning at home. Of course he’s been there a few years, and is well-known and liked.

School isn’t the only thing complicating Maggie’s life – her mother has left home. Her father says “It’s exactly seventeen years since your mom started homeschooling you lot,” to which her brother Zander replies “Yeah and to celebrate she took off.” There is all sorts of unspoken angst in this situation, which is never satisfactorily dealt with.

And she has a ghost. An actual ghost that she met when she was a kid and whom occasionally follows her around. We never quite find out what the deal is there, either.

Then there’s Lucy and Alistair, the brother and sister who befriend Maggie.  At least we learn why Alistair is a social piranha.

That’s a lot of stuff on the plate of a fourteen-year-old and any of it would could have made a rich and compelling story on its own. I was intrigued by the ghost, loved Maggie’s older siblings and wondered what had happened to the mom. Ultimately, though, I felt like Hicks only scratched the surface of all these stories.


Saturday Sum Up

Here’s what I found bookish & interesting around the Internet this week:

Anyonw who loves books already knows the truth of the matter:
Bookworms Do It Better

I am a long time Stephen King fan, but maybe you have to be of a certain age to really understand how Mr. King changed the horror landscape. In the 1970s, he was pumping out books a mile a minute – and I read them as fast as he wrote them. I don’t know what it is about horror and teenagers – they’re sort of a match made in creepy-heaven. I evenually stopped reading King, though, and hadn’t read anything by him in yeras until a few weeks ago when I read Joyland, which I loved. I’d forgotten how masterful King is at evoking a forgotten time and place. If you are just getting started with King’s massive catalogue, here’s a list of eleven books you should start with. I haven’t read eveything on this list – but I’ve read the vast majority. These are mostly old-school titles and all of them are terrific.

Essential Stephen King

Here’s something worth considering: is owning books as good as reading them? I was happy to read about someone who has even more books than I do on my TBR shelf! I’d love to hear about your TBS shelf? Do you buy more books than you’ll ever read? I have to admit – I don’t feel even remotely guilty about it.

Feel like taking a quiz? (I am not even going to tell you how badly I did on this one.)

Literary Beginnings.

Enjoy your day.


Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

peregrineMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs is the  unusual story of fifteen-year-old Jake Portman who travels to Wales to find out the truth about his much-loved grandfather.

Growing up, Grandpa Portman was the most fascinating person I knew. He had lived in an orphanage, fought in wars, crossed oceans by steamship and deserts on horseback, performed in circuses, knew everything about guns and self-defense and surviving in the wilderness, and spoke at least three languages that weren’t English.

I had a grandfather like that. Well, at least to me, he seemed like the most exotic person ever. When I was a kid, I believed he’d been to every single country in the world. He’d been a Chief Petty Officer with the Royal Navy in the war and then worked on the tugs with the Coast Guard. He knew sea shanties and dirty jokes (which he only ever told to my brothers) and had tattoos on his arms back when they meant something. I loved being in his company.

Jacob’s grandfather had been born in Poland but shipped to Wales when he was twelve because “the monsters were after him. Poland was simply rotten with them.” It seems obvious that Mr. Portman is talking about the Nazis, and he is – but there are other monsters lurking. In Wales, he comes under the care of Miss Peregrine, a most unusual woman – as it turns out – who was also responsible for the children in Grandpa Portman’s fabulous stories. These children could do amazing things: fly, make fire, turn invisible. Grandpa Portman even had pictures of some of them. These pictures, many of which are included in the book, create a degree verisimilitude for the narrative. (The pictures have actually been culled from private collections)

miss-2But then something horrible happens to Grandpa Portman and Jacob is intent on finding the answers to many of the questions his grandfather leaves behind so he convinces his father to take him to Cairnholm Island, off the coast of Wales.

Nothing could have prepared Jake for what he finds there. The island is caught in time and Jake soon finds himself believing in things he never really thought possible. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a coming-of-age tale, an adventure, a love-story. It’s sad and funny and creepy. And as an allegory for the horrors of  the Holocaust – it works very well indeed.

Tim Burton is directing a movie version of this novel – can’t think of anyone better to capture the novel’s strange and wonderful story.




Saturday Sum Up

Here’s what I found bookish & interesting on my tour around the Internet this week:

Let’s start off with a little John Green.  Here’s his quickfire list of 18 books he loves, but which you probably have never heard of. Love him.

These List Challenges were flying all over the Internet this week and they’re fun to do because instead of just an actual list – you get book covers and a satisfying sound every time you check one you’ve read.

I have embraced all sorts of social media, even giving in to my long-held belief that Facebook is the devil and rejoining, but one thing I don’t have is Tumblr. If I was so inclined, though, this would be a terrific place to start: The 25 Best Tumblr Accounts for Book Nerds.

Tomorrow is the last day for the Twitter Fiction Festival.

Have a great day.



The Dark Rose – Erin Kelly

darkroseSO ANNOYED! I had an awesome review of this book written and when I posted it all that posted was what is below between the **…and I am tired and never going to be able to recreate what I had written and I could SCREAM.

So, briefly:

39-year-old Louisa and 19-year-old Paul are both working on the restoration of a ruined Elizabethan garden in Kelstice, a small town northwest of London. She’s hiding out – as she has done for the past twenty years or so – because she’s still obsessed with the guy she was in love with when she was 18. Paul’s hiding out because his best friend, Daniel, will soon be on trial for murder and he’s the star witness for the prosecution.

Paul’s had a traumatic childhood. He lost his father in a rather traumatic and gory accident which he witnessed. Then he started to get picked on in school and Daniel became his saviour.  He’s really a decent guy who just made some stupid choices because of his loyalty to Daniel.

**It’s also impossible not to relate to Louisa – at least I could relate to her. She falls madly in love with Adam Glasslake, lead singer of the band Glasslake and the more distant and unattainable he is, the more she wants him. What 18-year-old hasn’t been on that roller coaster ride?

After they make love for the first time and after Adam falls asleep, Louisa

…inhaled the thick oily skin between his shoulder blades where he smelled most like himself. If you could distill and bottle the essence of a human being, if you could crush skin like petals , then she would do this with Adam Glasslake. The vetiver scent was faint now, but his neck still bore the visible traces of the oil he had anointed himself with earlier. It was a faint dark green. Below this, on his clavicle, she had marked him for herself, a vivid red circle, half kiss, half bite. She felt intensely female and powerful, like a witch.

Louisa and Adam’s relationship is rocky at best and ends badly and years later she still gives in to a ritual that requires liquor and a few tatty mementos.   The first time she sees Paul she is so overcome that she felt that “the strength of her longing had finally called him [Adam] into being, that she had conjured his spirit.” She is so overcome she “would have smashed through the glass walls of the greenhouse to get away from him.”

When Louisa and Adam’s separate but equally compelling lives intersect, things don’t turn out at all like you might expect. And I mean that in a good way. Kelly does an admirable job making both Louisa and Paul into characters that you actually kind of root for thus elevating The Dark Rose  from run-of-the-mill thriller to literary page-turner.

The Dark Rose is my first encounter with Erin Kelly, but I will certainly be reading more of her work.**

Mason – Thomas Pendleton

masonThomas  Pendleton’s novel Mason is quite unlike any book I’ve read in recent memory. It’s a sort of strange thriller/horror hybrid populated with nasty characters without any redeeming qualities. The exceptions are Mason and Rene.

Mason’s a high school kid with developmental delays.  Mason lives with his Aunt Molly and his older brother, Gene, a sadistic psychopath who is seen as a nine-year-old trying to smother Mason in the novel’s opening chapter. Those first few pages set the tone for a novel which remains relentlessly bleak.

Rene is Mason’s childhood friend, although they’ve drifted apart.

…as children they had been best friends. They played tag in the park and chased toads out to the swamps past the Ditch, the rundown part of Marchand where Mason lived with his aunt.

But Rene had grown up, and Mason hadn’t.

Mason tries to stay out of Gene’s way, but it’s almost impossible. Whenever things don’t go Gene’s way, “someone has got to step up” and usually that someone is Mason, who endures Gene’s physical assault time and time again. Mason’s developmental delays make it difficult for him to understand that Gene is a creep and he doesn’t seem to have anyone in his corner to protect him. Aunt Molly is absent. In fact there are no real adult figures in this book, which makes Gene and his drug-dealing cronies (Hunter, Lump and Ricky) that much more menacing.

Mason, however, has a special power. He seems to be able to animate his thoughts, making gruesome images come alive. Handy skill, that, especially when something horrible happens to Rene and Mason seeks revenge.

The crows dove out of the sky as thick as a cloud. They had eyes that looked like tiny flames and beaks like wrought iron. All of the birds were wounded. They should have been dead. Even before the first one hit the windshield, Lump could see the insides hanging out of their breasts. Several of them had heads that flopped uselessly from their thick, black bodies.

Despite its violence (and it’s not too graphic, but the reader certainly gets the idea), Mason will likely appeal to readers who like straight-forward, full-speed-ahead narrative and nasty characters who get their comeuppance.


Saturday Sum up – Feb 29

I am a regular bookstore visitor. Generally on Friday night, after we drop my daughter off at ballet, my son and I head over to Indigo and while away a couple hours, browsing and barely resisting the copious books. I have a Kobo. I don’t even know how to set it up and have no real desire to. We don’t actually have an independent bookstore in my town, although we do have a couple second-hand bookstores, which I try to visit when I can.

This article by Canadian Writer David Bidini is, I think, a sad reflection on the state of independent bookstores.

Reading between the times to understand the death of indie bookstores

Speaking of indie bookstores, The Bookseller posted a disheartening article about the decline of independent bookstores in the UK. Read it here.

But just so you don’t think all is lost – read this awesome story about a young boy who wants to start a library for homeless people.

Enjoy your day!


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