Off the Shelf – The Great Summer Re-Read

Listen here.

So, summer offers a great long stretch of free time for a lot of people. I do teach summer school, generally, but that still leaves me with lots of sunny afternoons at the beach and rainy days on my couch. Last time I was on Information Morning,  I offered some suggestions of great books to while away your summer afternoons, but here’s another option: re-reading. I never have time for this and I always wish I did because there have been some books in my reading life that deserve another look.

Some people say that life is too short to re-read books, but I disagree. It’s like watching your favourite movie a million times. That never gets old, right? It’s your favourite movie for a reason. It would be embarrassing to tell you how many times I saw Grease in the theatre the summer it came out. (A lot. In the double digits.)

There are lots of benefits to reading a book for the second or even fifth time.

Researchers have suggested that re-reading can benefit your mental health, reigniting emotions and benefitting knowledge. If you’ve ever had the experience of falling in love with a character, then re-reading is one way to re-connect with that character. Books themselves often have the ability to transport us back to a special time. I have very specific memories of some of the books I have purchased

Another benefit of re-reading is that the pressure is essentially off; you already know how it’s going to turn out. The flip side of that is that because you know how the plot will unfold you can concentrate on other aspects of the book, characterization on even just the beauty of the writing.

I purchase a lot of books from bookoutlet.ca and I always stumble upon books I never expected to see again. One of those books was The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier.  I LOVED that book when I was twelve; I read it when I was a student at Forest Glen school in Moncton. So – 40 years later I re-read it and I have to say that it did not in any way live up to my memories. Still, I’m so glad to have it on my bookshelf.

For me, re-reading is a real luxury because I have so many tbr books, but as I am reading The Goldfinch this summer, I think re-reading might be a nice companion to that experience.

So here are some books I think I might revisit this summer:

brooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

I probably read this book when I was eleven or twelve and it’s a book that I often recommend to my students. It’s one of those classics that I have really fond memories of because it’s evocative of a time a place that was, when I was a kid, so beyond my experience. It’s the story of Francie who grows up in Brooklyn with her younger brother Neely and her parents. They are really poor and I can remember as a kid being fascinated with how they made do with so little. I loved Francie and I would love another chance to spend time with her.

jane eyreJane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

This was, looking back, my first “adult” read. I might have been twelve or thirteen when I read it. I absolutely adored Jane who, despite not being beautiful, was smart and self-reliant. Even at my young age I admired her feisty nature and her determination to be self-sufficient. Plus, she lands the handsome but tortured Mr. Rochester. Jane Eyre was ahead of its time, although I probably didn’t appreciate it for those reasons when I read it as a kid. It would be interesting to re-read it now.

velocityVelocity – Kristin McCloy

Okay this book is really special to me for a variety of reasons. I bought it at The Strand in NYC in 1988 or 89. I don’t remember why I even knew about it except that it was kind of a superstar novel when it came out. I have reread this novel numerous times, but not recently. I actually posted a one line review of the book on Goodreads – more as a place holder than anything else, and recently Ms. McCloy herself thanked me for my “review” – which of course it wasn’t. She also provided her email address and we exchanged a few emails back and forth. I am sure I was totally inarticulate about the book. Being able to chat with the author of a book you love is sort of the literary equivalent of meeting Ryan Gosling who is my celebrity boyfriend.

Velocity is the story of 25 year old Ellie who returns to her home in the southern States after the death of her mother. Her dad is a local cop and he’s mostly silent in his grief, but Ellie’s grief manifests itself very differently. She pursues Jesse, the biker dude who lives down the road. He’s totally wrong for her and she totally can’t stay away from him. I was, at the time I read this book, of a similar age in a similar relationship and there wasn’t anything about Ellie I couldn’t relate to – except the dead mom. On top of that, the writing is just so beautiful. Never mind spending good money on E.L. James’ Grey (I mean, seriously, do we actually need to hear that story from another p.o.v.?) track down a copy of Velocity. It’s steamy, yes, but it’s also poignant and just so, so damn good. Since this segment aired, I have finished Velocity and I’ll post a proper review asap.

Paris Letters – Janice MacLeod

parisI was attracted to Janice MacLeod’s memoir, Paris Letters, mostly because of its cover. I don’t often indulge myself  – book buying via aesthetics – although I do admit that I am a sucker for books with creepy houses on the front. Still, Paris Letters is a pretty book and when I read the blurb on the back I thought it sounded familiar. I used to keep track of all the books I want to read in a little notebook which I carted around with me. Then I lost the book and now I am flying solo. It’s kind of freeing, I have to admit, but I still wonder about all those titles I have logged over the past decade and think about the reading experiences I might have had. Oh well.

Paris Letters tells the story of MacLeod’s journey from exhausted copywriter to “someone who could make a great living creating something lovely.” Originally from Ontario, MacLeod lives in Los Angeles when the book opens where she admits to being “thirty-four, single, lonely, feeling unfulfilled by my job and on the brink of burnout.”

MacLeod knows she has to make a change and so, inspired by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way,  she starts to keep a journal. She also created a blog –  a more visible way to make herself accountable. It doesn’t take MacLeod very long to figure out that what she really wants to do is quit her job, which is creatively unfulfilling.

I wrote true junk mail. I mucked up websites with ads, stuffed bills with flyers, and inundated the public with information on products they probably didn’t care about and likely never asked for. That was me. Mailing out perfect forest after perfect forest of perfectly useless messages from Fortune 500 companies. I was directly involved with the noise of daily life.

MacLeod decides that she is going to save enough money to take a year off to travel, an activity that has always given her pleasure in the past. So, with great determination, she pares down her life. She sells unused items, she gives up eating lunch out with her colleagues, she gives up cable and sells her TV. (MacLeod shares 100 things she did to save money at the back of the book.)

MacLeod’s plan was to start in Paris and end in Rome, but what she doesn’t factor into her plans is Krzysztof (Christophe), the cute butcher who “bore a striking resemblance to Daniel Craig.” Turns out, Krzysztof is one of the good ones and their relationship is the reason why Paris Letters isn’t Roman Letters.

Paris Letters isn’t so much of a story as it is a lovely meditation on what it is to live a simpler life. It’s a bit of a fairy tale, too. I mean, MacLeod is in Paris after all. She strolls around the city, visiting famous landmarks, writing in and about her favourite cafes and gardens and when her money starts to dwindle, she thinks about what she can do to supplement her income. That’s where the idea of the Paris letters comes from.

I would create a painted letter, copy it, personalize each copy, and mail them off to people who love fun mail….I listed the product on Etsy as a subscription service. For twelve months, people would receive a painted letter from me.

This is when I realized I had heard of MacLeod and her Paris letters, perhaps in a magazine like Canadian Living or Chatelaine. As a person who loves snail mail, I was intrigued by MacLeod’s concept. It’s cool, right?

Paris Letters is a love letter. To Paris. To Krzysztof. To living the life you want. You could argue that since MacLeod was unencumbered because she had no real ties to L.A. – no children or spouse or property –  leaving it all behind was easy. I still think it was an act of bravery. She didn’t know anyone; she didn’t really speak the language well; she was on her own. There are some days when I imagine shaking my own life up in exactly the same way.

Paris Letters is a quick read and, if nothing else, it will make you want to visit Paris. But for me, it made me consider the possibility of doing something other than.

My ideal bookshelf – the 2015 edition

So last year, I invited my grade ten students to contemplate their reading lives in essays and bookshelves inspired by My Ideal Bookshelf. The project was such a huge success that I decided to do it again this year, and once more the results were terrific.

My colleague, Jenn, and I made a display in the main hall at school.

DSC_0345

I’d like to share some of the art and excerpts from some of the essays my students wrote. Thanks again to Thessaly and Jane for inspiring this project.

Paige A

Paige: My top three novels (Anne of Green Gables, A Monster Calls, Charlotte’s Web) may never have been considered anybody’s favourite, even though two are classics. To me, these books have meaning and memories attached to them. Some memories are happy and some sad. No matter what, though, I would never want to forget these books and certainly don’t regret reading them.

Destiny

Destiny: As my reading expanded, so did my desire for more of a challenge. I would ask around for new books, but the ones my mother suggested didn’t spark any interest and my sister Dominique, three years older than me, scared me away with her grumpiness and nobody else I knew liked reading. I suppose Dominique must have been in a pretty good mood one day to give me her favourite book, Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris and I have always been grateful. This one book that she loved so much was like a glimpse inside the head of a stranger I called my sister. It was then, as I was reading, that I realized maybe we weren’t so different after all.

Adara

Adara: I can remember when I was little, perhaps seven, I used to rush to get ready for bed just because if I did it quickly enough my mom would read to me and my brother. I would get some pjs on, grab my blue, fuzzy penguin blanket and pillow and settle in to hear her read a few chapters of Pawn of Prophecy. I used to get so disappointed when I didn’t get ready in time, but when I did it was some of the best times of my life. My mom has the perfect reading voice and I would get lost in the book and the sound of her voice. Every once and a while I ask my mom to read, just so I can hear that voice again.

Tatum

Tatum: Grade seven was my first taste of reading for enjoyment. Teachers practically shoved sappy novels down my throat: unrequited love, boy meets girl, the whole lot. But I hated the thought of romance; I liked gore and cussing. I thought I could only get that thrill from games played in the dark, but a fellow student taught me better. My first whiff was The Maze Runner by James Dashner. Sure, I’ve read many other books, but only because I was forced. But this time it was legit. I could not put this book down. This was my first taste of what was soon to be have an addiction because, as you know, one book is not enough.

Ben

Ben: The Green Mile was one of the saddest books I have ever read. I never knew Stephen King could write something other than a scary story. I really grew attached to some of the characters and finding out they died not long after the book ends was really heartbreaking. I often get really attached to characters in stories and if they die, it hurts a little.

Pierrette

Pierrette: My bookshelf is a collection of stories that represent who I am. From childhood stories to books I read on repeat like The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, each book means something different to me and represents a unique part of my reading adventure. As someone who dreams of being an author I hope that, even if my writing never reaches these great heights, my work will make someone pick up another book, fall in love with reading, and truly think about things in their lives.

Parker

Parker: A very important book to me is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins because it is the first book I bought with my own money. Everyone told me that it was an amazing series and I knew I had to buy it. That was the first time I wanted a book so badly that I bought it myself and it was worth every penny. After finishing it, I loved it so much that I bought the other two books in the series.

Valerie

Valerie: My mother was my gateway to the world of books. I remember the nights she would arrive home exhausted after working all day and finishing classes in the evenings. Somehow she always managed to read to me and my brother before bedtime. I never questioned this time because I adored it far too much; however I did wonder why those moments were so important to my mother. I no longer ask myself that question as I am fully aware of the gift reading is in and of itself.

Chloie

Chloie: Every year I reread The Art of Racing in the Rain just to remind myself of how impactful reading can be, and to refresh my memory on this more beautiful way of seeing the world. I don’t think I will ever be able to pinpoint exactly why this book is so lovely, but it is the only book on my shelf I love enough to destroy. All my other novels are perfectly kept, no bends or scratches; that’s how I like it. But The Art of Racing in the Rain has pages folded down from my favourite parts, notes written in it and all my favourite quotes highlighted.

Ceilidh

Ceilidh: Teddy Bear Picnic was the first book that came to mind when I thought of an ideal bookshelf. I selected this book because when I was younger it was the one book I picked every time. My mother would use one of my stuffed bears to read it with and I loved listening to her use a fake voice.

Selda

Selda: I actually didn’t like reading books, but my brother loves reading. He gave me a few books when I was nine years old. He said if I read them, he would give me chocolate for each book I finished. That was a good idea. After a while, I loved reading books and he didn’t give me chocolate anymore. All kinds of books should be on my bookshelf: horror, drama, history, liberal education, love, comedy, tragedy. Books are amazing for me because I can live in my own world when I read. They are valuable like gold or silver.

Makenzie

Makenzie: Being a teenager isn’t easy and books have become a great way for me to relieve stress and broaden my perspective and understanding on a lot of things. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time  changed a lot of my views on mental illness and other disabilities. I’ve learned more from this book about happiness and self-worth than I ever would from a therapist. I suppose that is what books are – my therapists. I know no matter what I’m feeling or questioning, there is a book to help me find the answer. Whether it be through some magic time portal, someone’s true-life story or a cheesy young adult novel, I know there is something out there for me.

Off the Shelf – Summer Reading

Listen here.

I read every day, 365 days a year, but I especially look forward to my summertime reading because I can read whatever I want. During the school year I read a lot of YA fiction, whatever my book club is reading and whatever else I can squeeze in from my ridiculous tbr shelves. In the summer- no rules, so I thought I would share some books to rev your summer reading engines.

If you want to read a YA novel…and your son or daughter is heading to university in September

roomiesRoomies – Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

My daughter, Mallory, is graduating from high school on Friday and so this book was extra bittersweet for me. It’s the story of two girls, Elizabeth and Lauren, who live on opposite coasts but who are both off to UC Berkley in the fall. Elizabeth lives in a condo with her mom. Her father is long gone and she doesn’t really have any contact with him. Her mom is sort of a serial dater and the two of them are at odds with each other. She’s an only child so she’s really excited when she gets her accommodations placement and discovers she’s going to be rooming with Lauren. Unfortunately, Lauren is the eldest of five and she really, really wants a single room. Roomies is the back and forth email conversation between the two girls and it’s fantastic. We get to watch the friendship blossom between these girls at a time when they are excited and nervous to break free of their families and lives and sort of reinvent themselves and it’s just a beautiful coming of age story.

If you want to travel to Italy…

ruinsBeautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

Everybody was raving about this book when it came out in 2012, but I just read it last week for my book club – shoutout to the girls! So, so good.

This is the story of Pasquale Tursi who, in 1962, has recently returned from Florence to his home town, Porto Vergogna, a place accessible only by boat. He’s back to run the family business – the only business really, a café and hotel called Adequate View. It’s also the story of Dee Mornay, an American actress who is in Italy to work on Cleopatra – the notorious film starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton – and ends up at the Pasquale’s hotel. And then, flash forward to present day and we meet Michael Deane, this oily Hollywood producer and Claire his disenchanted assistant and this novel beautifully marries past and present and also asks us to consider what is an adequate life? If you haven’t already read this book you really need to move it to the top of your tbr pile.

If you want to travel to Paris

parisParis Letters Janice MacLeod

I just finished this book yesterday – I basically read it in a day. MacLeod is a Canadian who was working for an ad agency in L.A. and she was just tired of it. Basically, she was writing junk mail advertising and, at 34, she just didn’t want to do it anymore. What she wanted to be was an artist and this book is all about how she made that happen for herself. She basically scrimped and saved enough money so that she could take a whole year off and travel – which she loved to do. So Paris Letters is the story of how she rediscovered herself, shed all the crap that doesn’t matter and moved to Paris and not only did she tap into this more authentic version of herself (without all the hokey self-help stuff, honest) she also fell in love with a Polish butcher.

If you are looking for a reading challenge, or people to read with

goldfinchYou should join Karen Vickers’ Facebook book club. Last year she encouraged people to read Eliot’s Middlemarch and this year we’re tackling The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. This is Tartt’s third novel, it won the Pulitzer, it’s over 700 pages long…but I can guarantee that it’s going to be awesome because Tartt is amazing. The group is secret on FB, but I will put instructions on how to hook up with us on my blog and I hope you’ll join in the fun.

Visit my Facebook page and leave your name in the comments section of the Goldfinch post and I’ll make sure your name is added to the list.

Still looking for suggestions? Here’s a list of ten of my favourite (not too strenuous) reads:

lanternThe Lantern – Deborah Lawrenson

in the woodsIn the Woods – Tana French

dark-places-book-coverDark Places – Gillian Flynn

pettigreMajor Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson

one-dayOne Day – David Nicholls

the_book_of_lost_thingsThe Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

instrumentsInstruments of the Night – Thomas H. Cook

standingStanding Still – Kelly Simmons

heartshapedHeart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill

fingerFingersmith – Sarah Waters

Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

ruinsBeautiful Ruins was our last book club read before our summer hiatus. It was also the winner of ‘Best book’ or, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings when we vote, ‘book we enjoyed reading most.’ (Thus, ‘worst’ book becomes ‘book we enjoyed reading least.’) It was a close race between Beautiful Ruins and The Children Act, but Walter’s fantastic novel won out in the end.

I think I am going to have a hard time articulating how I feel about this book because it hit a lot of my sweet spots. First of all, part of the novel is set in Italy and anyone who knows me knows that Italy is my dream place. I’ve been twice and often say that some day I will live there…even if it’s just for a few months. The other part of the novel takes place in Hollywood and, okay, I admit it – I love the movie stars. Just ask anyone who was around during the David Boreanaz days…or go further back…the Robby Benson days. Ask my students how often I work Ryan Gosling into the conversation.

Beautiful Ruins follows the fortunes of Pasquale Tursi in Porto Vergogna, a tiny village near the Cinque Terre region of Italy only “it was smaller, more remote and not as picturesque.”

Port Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest – the tiny hotel and café owned by Pasquale’s family – all huddled like a herd of a sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs.

Pasquale has come back to Porto Vergogna to care for his dying mother and the Hotel Adequate View, and it is there he meets actress Dee Moray, who has come, by mistake, to the Adequate View to rest. She is in Italy to make Cleopatra, the notoriously bad film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

richard and elizabeth

The title’s phony – her job’s all assisting, no developing, and she’s nobody’s chief. She tends Michael’s whims. Answers his calls and e-mails, goes for his sandwiches and coffee.

It is not the life she dreamed of when she gave up her doctoral film studies program to make movies. Now she is on the cusp of leaving her job and going to work as a curator for a private film museum.

If you’re wondering how Walter is going to dovetail these two eras, all I can say is “masterfully.” We flip back to 1960’s Italy and recent-day Hollywood and neither story (or character) gets short-shrift. In fact Claire and Pasquale aren’t the only characters who populate this story – even minor characters are fully realized including Pasquale’s elderly aunt Valeria (who provides comic relief), Shane (a screenwriter who comes to Hollywood to pitch the story of cowboy cannibals), Alvis (the failed American writer who comes to Porto Vergogna once a year to work on his novel) and even Daryl, Claire’s hunky porn-addicted boyfriend. Even Michael Deane, slimy as he is, is fun to spend time with.

And what are these Beautiful Ruins? Well, I think that’s probably the reason everyone and their dog was praising this book when it came out in 2012. This is a great story – funny and heartbreaking in equal measure – about big ideas. The people that you meet and the choices that you make are at the very center of this book. But as Alvis says to Dee, “No one gets to tell you what your life means.”

I loved this book so much.

Highly recommended.

Jacob Have I Loved – Katherine Paterson

jacobKatherine Peterson’s novel Jacob Have I Loved was a Newberry Medal winner in 1981. Although this book has been on my radar for many years, I was perhaps just a teensy bit too old for it when it was published in 1980, so I didn’t read it then. It is a pretty famous book though, and I figured I should read it. So I did.

The title of the book comes from the bible, Romans 9:13: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” The quote refers to the story of siblings Jacob and Esau and the novel tells the story of siblings Sara Louise and her twin sister, Caroline. The girls live on Rass Island, off the coast of Maryland. Their father is a fisherman; their mother a former school teacher. Their crotchety paternal grandmother also lives with them.

Sara Louise, or Wheeze, is the narrator. She is an adult when the novel opens, returning to Rass Island where her mother still lives. “…it is a pure sorrow to me,” she says, “that, once my mother leaves there will be no one left with the name of Bradshaw. But there were only the two of us, my sister, Caroline, and me, and neither of us could stay.”

The bulk of the story takes place in 1941 and the years that follow. Wheeze, 13, and her best friend, Call, 14, spend their days hunting for crabs. Their little island is isolated and days there are marked by routine – fisherman out on the water early and home late, school and church, the occasional ferry trip to the mainland. Paterson deftly creates a world that will be – for most of its young readers –  a place long ago and far away.

While readers may not recognize the time or place, they will most definitely recognize the friction between Wheeze and her sister, the beautiful and musically talented, Caroline. A sickly baby, Wheeze feels that Caroline has been coddled all her life and that in “the story of my sister’s life…I… was allowed a very minor role.”

There is a rare snapshot of the two of us sitting on the front stoop the summer we were a year and a half old. Caroline is tiny and exquisite, her blonde curls framing a face that is glowing with laughter, her arms outstretched to whoever is taking the picture. I am hunched there like a fat dark shadow, my eyes cut sideways toward Caroline, thumb in my mouth…

Wheeze is resentful and jealous, even though Caroline never really seems to give her any reason to be. It’s one of the lovely things about this book, which is remarkable in its stillness. Wheeze isn’t particularly likable, but you grow to love her just the same.

Jacob Have I Loved is without the bells and whistles that marks much of the YA fiction out there today. I would suggest that this is a book better suited to middle school readers, but I think anyone who has ever shared close quarters with a sibling would enjoy this story.

White Crow – Marcus Sedgwick

whitecrowMarcus Sedgwick’s YA novel White Crow is not for the faint of heart, but careful readers will certainly be rewarded by this atmospheric tale. It’s a creepy story of science and obsession, of ghosts both real and imagined.

Rebecca and her policeman father move to Winterfold, a seacoast town in England. Like many other villages along Britain’s coast, Winterfold is slowly being eroded by the sea and what was once a bustling village of thousands of people is now “storm by storm, year by year” crumbling into the sea  and all that remains is “a triangle of three streets, a dozen houses, an inn, a church.”

Rebecca is none too happy about having to leave her more urban life for the much quieter Winterfold. She doesn’t quite know what to do with herself besides harbor resentment towards her father (who is, essentially, hiding out after some mishap at work) and pine for Adam, the boy who she left behind.

Then she meets Ferelith, a local girl who is, frankly, pretty strange. In fact, Rebecca notes she’s “the strangest-looking girl she’s ever seen.”

There’s something elfin about her. Everything ends in points: her nose, her eyes, her chin, her lips, her fingers, the spikes of her long tresses of black hair….her teeth, not quite a vampire’s, but not far short.

Rebecca and Ferelith don’t immediately gel, although it’s clear that Ferelith is smitten. Eventually, though, with nothing better to do, Rebecca starts to hang out with her a bit and Ferelith starts to reveal Winterfold’s somewhat sinister past.

That’s where the third narrator comes in.  Entries in a diary dated 1798, reveal the strange relationship between the writer, a Reverend, and a French doctor. The two men are fascinated with the prospect of discovering if there is life after death and their methods turn out to be – well – horrifying. He writes:

And so this young man has become our first subject, and though my hopes were high, the results were low.

I scorn myself to record it herein, but we learned nothing.

Not a single thing.

But, oh!

The blood! The blood!

White Crow is like one of those old fashioned horror movies I used to watch when I was a kid. I could almost hear the menacing music as Ferelith tours Rebecca around Winterfold, through old, decaying ruins and to the one remaining church with the missing wall. When the novel reaches its climax, it’s creepy, page-turning fun. Young readers will have to pay attention; I know I did. But the book pays off in spades.

The Little Woods – McCormick Templeman

littlewoodsTen years after the death of her older sister, Clare,  Cally Woods gets accepted at St. Bede’s Academy, a boarding school in the Sierra region of California. It’s a big deal for Cally: her father is dead, her mother is a mostly absent drunk and Cally’s been offered a full-ride scholarship to St. Bede’s because of what happened to her sister. Seems that as a kid, Clare had visited St. Bede’s with a friend whose mother taught there and “on the third night of her visit, she and her friend had vanished from their beds. Their bodies were never found.” That’s pretty much the premise of  McCormick Templeman’s debut novel, The Little Woods.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, making it difficult to decide whether or not it’s a straight up mystery.  (There are definitely some mystery elements; Cally is there, after all, to figure out exactly what happened to her sister. Although as the police never have it’s ridiculous to think she’ll be able to solve the whodunit on her own. Still.) Is it a coming of age stor? (It’s certainly got all the bells and whistles: mean girls and first love.) It’s peopled with a wide variety of teenage characters: the beautiful jock (“he was black with vaguely Asian features, bright eyes and the most incredible body I’d ever seen); the student body president (whom Cally catches going through her underwear drawer) and Jack (“one of those boys who make you dizzy when you look at them). You’ll recognize all the players well enough.

Cally finds it relatively easy to infiltrate the inner-circle and soon enough learns that St. Bede’s is a hot-bed of rumours and disappearances. In fact, she’s moved into the room of a girl who disappeared only a few months ago. There’s also talk about the “little woods.” Hunky Alex explains at a party:

“All due respect, but everyone knows these woods are straight-up haunted. We do this walk all the time, and there’s always some scary fucking noise that can’t be explained. Ask anyone.

I’ll tell you what we’re hearing…We’re hearing the lost girls.”

It is at this party that Cally discovers that her sister’s death is legend: “The woods are haunted. These two little girls were murdered out there….Seriously, you guys. They wandered off into the woods or whatever, but they were totally murdered.”

Although Cally doesn’t expose her connection to Clare, she watches and listens for any clue that will help her uncover the truth.

As far as mysteries go, The Little Woods is decent enough. The problem I had with it is that the story is bogged down by so many other things – side-plots and intrigues, that it was hard to keep the whole convoluted story straight. Doesn’t mean avid YA readers won’t eat it up, though.

Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn

sharpMy son Connor recently purchased Sharp Objects and zipped through it in a couple days. I had the same reading experience and now I’ve read all three of Flynn’s novels. Of the three I liked Dark Places the best, though I know Flynn is most well-known known for Gone Girl. One thing I can say for sure, she sure does like damaged female protagonists.

Camille Preaker is a reporter for a third-rate Chicago paper, the Daily Post. Mostly she covers “slice-of-life” pieces, stuff her curmudgeonly editor Frank Curry hates. Then, when a young girl goes missing in Camille’s home town, Wind Gap, Missouri, Curry suggests Camille head home and see what’s the what. Camille isn’t all that fussy about going back to Wind Gap, a town she describes as “one of those crummy little towns prone to misery,” but she can’t say no to Curry, a man whose always looked out for and believed in her.

Wind Gap truly is a backwater, though, and it’s been eight years since Camille has visited. Her mother, Adora, and step-father, Alan, still live there. So does, Amma, her half-sister who is just thirteen. Then there’s the ghost of Marian, Camille’s baby sister who died many years ago.  Camille’s arrival back at the family home, “an elaborate Victorian replete with a widow’s walk, a wraparound veranda, a summer porch jutting toward the back, and a cupola arrowing out of the top” is fraught with polite tension. When Camille rings the doorbell and her mother answers, Adora actually asks if everything okay and “didn’t offer a hug at all.”

Small towns don’t change and secrets are hard to keep, but as Camille works the few connections she has in Wind Gap, another girl goes missing and Camille struggles to keep her equilibrium. Wind Gap, it seems, is filled with old ghosts, ghosts she has worked extra hard (including a stint in a psychiatric hospital) to keep at bay.

Camille is not dissimilar to the main character in Dark Places, Libby. Both are women with troubled pasts. Both are prickly and anti-social. Both are smart and resilient.  I think, ultimately, I liked the mystery in Dark Places better than the one in Sharp Objects but if you are looking for a well-written psychological page-turner, Flynn won’t disappoint, no matter which book you read.

Off the Shelf – The “C” Word

Listen here.

Dave Pilkey, author of the often-challenged Captain Underpants books, made a great little video about censorship:

According to Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee, “Young Adult books are challenged more frequently than any other type of book.”

The topic of censorship is a tricky one because I have my own personal views which, basically, can be summed up like this: I think people should be able to read whatever in the heck they want…and that includes teenagers. I am a parent and I have teenagers who love to read. My son read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History when he was barely 14. Is there adult content, sure. Could we talk about it – absolutely.

The question that immediately springs to mind for me is: what are we so afraid of that we have to censor reading material? Personally, I believe that people should have access to all sorts of reading material without judgement or interference. That said, you won’t find Fifty Shades of Grey in my classroom library. For obvious reasons. When I am choosing books for my library I try to pick material with literary merit…

The Canadian Organization, Freedom to Read has a comprehensive (and honestly, funny,) timeline of books that have been banned dating back to 259-210 B.C.

It’s amazing what’s on that list – everything from Shakespeare (1788: Shakespeare’s King Lear was banned from the stage until 1820 — in deference to the insanity of the reigning monarch, King George III.) to Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books (1980s: During its examination of school learning materials, the London County Council in England banned the use of Beatrix Potter’s children’s classics The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from all London schools. The reason: the stories portrayed only “middle-class rabbits.”) And here’s one of my favourites: 1983: Members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank because it was “a real downer.” It was also challenged for offensive references to sexuality.

I thought I’d share with you three YA books that have been banned at one time or another in one place or another and which I think are worth reading:

part time indianOne of the most challenged book in the US is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

This is a National Book Award winner and I read it a couple years ago. Here’s the funny thing – acclaimed books, award winning books often make the banned books list as well.

This novel is, in part, based on the author’s own experiences growing up. It’s the story of Arnold ‘Junior’ Spirit, a fourteen year old Native American who lives on’ the rez’. He’s got a whole host of physical problems, ten teeth too many and a head that’s too big. He’s picked on a lot and says he’s a member of the “Black Eye of the Month Club.” But he’s funny and smart and it is almost impossible not to fall in love with him.

So, this book has been banned in multiple school districts in the States for being vulgar, making references to masturbation and using inappropriate language. Personally, I didn’t find it objectionable and I often recommend it to boys who aren’t particularly enthusiastic readers because it’s straight – up funny and also because Junior is an aspiring artist, it’s filled with drawings and doodles. I haven’t had a single kid tell me they didn’t like it.

ratsRats Saw God – Rob Thomas (not of Matchbox 20 fame, but of Veronica Mars fame and a former Journalism teacher)

This book is about a high school senior called Steve York who is pretty close to flunking out of school despite the fact that he’s super smart. This book was challenged because Steve smokes drugs, but the book hardly endorses drug use – it’s actually very much a coming of age story a la Catcher in the Rye (another books that has been challenged multiple times.) Anyway, Steve’s guidance counselor gives him one last chance to save his year- he has to write a 100 page paper about…anything…and ultimately Steve uses the writing to work through his issues. Clever book, terrific main character….positive messages for struggling teens.

eleanor and parkEleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell

So this was Ms. Rowell’s first novel and it caused a huge splash when it was published – partly because John Green wrote a glowing review and partly because it’s awesome – but it’s also been called “dangerously obscene” – which it is certainly not, unless maybe you don’t like 80s new wave music.

Eleanor is an awkward teenager who lives with her mother and step-father (who is a creep) and her younger siblings and Park is half Korean and comes from a stable, loving home and this novel is about friendship and love.

Interesting discussion with some Australian YA writers about banning books