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Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King

If you haven’t heard of A. S. King, I hope you will soon.  She is a wonderful YA author that I have just discovered, and am thinking of starting a campaign for her (though many of the awards committees like the Prinz, Kirkus, etc. etc. have started without me).

Like John Green, A. S. King creates fantastically compelling and memorable characters to tell her stories.  Her latest, Everybody Sees the Ants came close to being an all-time favourite with me, mostly on the strength of the main character, Lucky Linderman, and his wry look at those around him and his own struggles.

I just finished King’s second book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and I was not disappointed.  Like Ants there is a teen facing insurmountable odds and a heartbreaking situation – and in both the details are doled out slowly, keeping the reader in suspense.  Also like Ants, there is an inexplicably surreal element running through the story.  I suspect some readers will be put off by it, but I think King does a remarkable job of weaving the fantastical (and we’re not talking vampires or werewolves) into the real.

To give you an idea: Vera’s best friend Charlie has just died.  Except that when he died, she was angry at him, and now Vera is struggling with the conflicting emotions of losing a life-long best friend, and also a worst enemy.  As the novel progresses, the crack-lines that permeate her life and that tore apart Charlie’s become increasingly apparent.  Him from a family with an abusive father.  Her with a runaway mother and a father incapable of expressing emotion.  Him having fallen in with a bad crowd and a psychotic girlfriend.  Her with a drinking problem that is a repeat of her dad’s as a teen.  Him as a ghost by her side – haunting her and helping her.

The story telling is gorgeous and spins out beautifully – Vera’s past intertwines with the present and is interlaced with chapters told by her father, Charlie “the dead kid,” and the local landmark “the pagoda” (yes, an inanimate building).  Your heart will break for Vera and Charlie and her father, and will swell when it sees what she might make of her future, and the kind of person she is and might become.  I’ve never read a love story/friendship quite like this one – and especially in the YA genre (where every permutation is hashed to death) that is saying something.

This book was sophisticated and meaningful.  Like Ants it was not without its flaws, but it was top-notch, and deserves attention.

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The Right and the Real by Joelle Anthony

This review originally published in Island Tides, Volume 24 Number 9, May 3-16.

Reading the Right and the Real, I am already a fan of Joelle Anthony. When her first young adult novel, Restoring Harmony, came out two years ago, I read it with great relish.  Not only was it a story rooted in a place I know well (the main character starts out on a Gulf Island much like Gabriola, where Anthony lives, and travels down to Portland) – it was an all-too-real version of the future, circa 2041.  With convincing detail, Anthony turned our familiar West Coast into a bleak and chaotic landscape, populated by believable characters struggling to make their way. 

With The Right & the Real Anthony has once again proven her ability to make a big issue immediate.  Here her focal point is religious cuts, as represented by “the Right & the Real Church,” headed by the loathsome “Teacher.”  The novel begins at Jamie’s father’s wedding, where she is unexpectedly asked by the Teacher to sign the Pledge committing herself to the organisation.  Though her father has been taken in by the Church’s dogma, Jamie has remained aloof.  Yet it is only when she refuses to sign the pledge that the true nature of this organisation becomes apparent. She is summarily cast out of the church, her house, and her father’s life.  Anthony creates a keen sense of frustrated helplessness, as Jamie’s old life is inexorably stripped away from her. I find myself fuming at the unfairness of it all.

Unable to access her father, and refusing to be sent to live with her estranged mother, seventeen-year-old Jamie ends up on the street with few options.  Outside of fantasy or thriller fiction, teen authors rarely force their characters into such desperate straights, though many teens are one argument away from leaving or being kicked out of home. Jamie’s story illuminates everything these teens face: the petty day-to-day struggles to feed oneself, the looming threats of danger and violence on the streets, and the desperation of watching potential futures slip away. Thankfully, Jamie is a tough and resilient heroine, and she is helped by a guardian neighbour, LaVon.  Though LaVon is almost too perfect as a character, it is impossible not to love this gigantic black ex-con trying to kick addiction and live straight, who also knows his way around a hot plate and has an unshakable environmentalist ethic.

As with LaVon, the novel’s main weakness is when it tips towards what we would like to happen in this situation, rather than portraying what is real, particularly in the final act, where a fun but over-the-top caper dominates the action.  Nevertheless, with Anthony’s tight command over detail, character and suspense, The Right and the Real remains a compellingly right portrait of the anguish of losing a loved one and finding oneself without options in a hostile world.

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Winter Pony by Iain Lawrence

For days I have been in a land of ice, snow and frozen vistas.  I have shivered through the nights and sweated with back-breaking labour during the days…  Well, not really.  I’ve been sitting indoors on comfy furniture reading the extremely evocative new novel by Canadian author, Iain Lawrence.

A co-worker passed Winter Pony on weeks ago with high praise.  But true to form, I had other books on my list, and I put it off.  I had no idea what was waiting for me.  This is the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s epic quest to reach the South Pole – a race against Norwegian Roald Amundsen to traverse the frozen wastes of Antarctica.  The novel is told from an overarching historical vantage point, and from the point of view of one of the animals brought by Captain Scott – a plucky, if tired, pony called James Pigg.  Lawrence imagined much of this story, but he also stayed true to the facts wherever possible, and obviously immersed himself in the historical record, and the lives of ponies.  This book was startling and left me feeling mournful and rather chilly.

I won’t ruin the story for those who don’t know the tale of Scott’s voyage – as I didn’t.  Lawrence claims he might not have written the book if he had known what it would entail; similarly, I’m not sure I would have read it if I had known the journey I was on.  But once I started I was captivated.  The writing is excellent, and though there is a lot of bleakness, there is humour and comfort also.  The scale of hardship, compassion, and betrayal in this book is hard to fathom, and I sat puzzled by the recommended age level of 9-12.  They want 9 year olds to read this?  I’m not sure I was old enough for it!

To sketch it out: our white pony is captured in his youth from the mountains where he was born wild and free.  For years he is overworked and beaten by cruel men.  One day he is bought and sent on a long journey by train and then boat.  He finds himself among kinder men than he has ever experienced, but also in an unimaginably harsh climate.  Named James Pigg by the Englishmen, he is part of a team of ponies and dogs gathered together to help Scott reach his destination.  The scale of these preparations is remarkable: first the men, dogs and ponies travel south during the summer, laying down the supplies they will need the next year.  Then they return to their base camp to wait out the winter.  The next spring they venture out again in a long dash over hundreds of miles to reach the South Pole.  And this is all in a tense race against Amundsen – never really knowing if he has already stolen their prize of becoming the first to reach the Pole.

The relationship between the men and ponies was incredibly touching to read.  Through James Pigg’s eyes, the reader sees Captain Scott as a brave, compassionate, and driven man who refuses to yield before his ambitions.  The themes of this novel are incredibly grown-up – but they are told largely through the eyes of a rather child-like pony, which renders it all a bit softer and more bearable.  I think it would be a wonderful book to experience with children.  I cannot help but think it would be a memorable read, and one that might lead them into finding more fiction or nonfiction about these adventurers.

By all means, immerse yourself in this frozen world – but make sure you pack plenty of provisions, and that you don’t get lost on your return journey.  This is not a voyage for the faint of heart.

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Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

This is one of my old favourites – the Alanna quartet by Tamora Pierce.  In order, the books are: Alanna, In the Hands of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant.

I actually saw Tamora Pierce once.  Years ago when I was working at a bookstore as a cashier, I worked an in-store event where she appeared.  Having never heard of her, I was mildly amused to see dozens of teenage (and some post-teenage) girls pack in to see a mild-mannered middle age woman discuss a series of fantasy books she had written (I don’t know why, but I always expect fantasy authors to look more dramatic, or toned.  I forget that these are people who enjoy escapist fiction for a reason).  I kind of dismissed it as fluff at the time, but was eventually persuaded by a co-worker to pick up the series a few years later (at another bookstore).  And of course I loved it.  At that point, I would have happily joined the excited teens clutching books and eager to see Ms. Pierce.

Recently I found most of this series in a bargain-bin at my local library – they were clearing them out, shame on them!  Their loss was my gain and for about $1.50 I had three quarters of the series.  I put them on my shelf for later… and it turned out to be only two weeks later that I decided to read them as a present to myself.

Alanna of Trebond is about eleven when the first book starts, and she is about to be sent off to a convent to learn how to be a lady; her twin brother Thom is to be schooled as a page, then a squire, then a knight for the realm of Tortall.  However, Alanna has other plans.  She convinces Thom to switch places, and the two disguise themselves and slip away from their absent-minded father – Alanna to knight school, and Thom to the convent where he will learn to be a magician. However, only boys can become knights, and in order to realize her dream, Alanna must disguise herself as a male, putting herself at great risk.  Though the obstacles and challenges she faces as the smallest and weakest page are many, her stubborn dedication pays off and she rises through the ranks.  The first two books follow her years at school as she becomes a knight and makes friends with Jonathan, the crown prince, and George, the disreputable but loyal King of Rogues.  The last two books chronicle her adventures during the first couple years of her knighthood as she saves numerous people and kingdoms.

When I read them the first time, the love triangle between Alanna, Jonathan and George made me charge through the series.  Which was her perfect match and who would she end up with?  (Perfect for Hunger Games fans who wouldn’t mind fantasy)  Unfortunately, the relationship issues in the book also make it hard to recommend.  I’m never quite sure what age it is written for.  As the first one starts off, you think – “ah, a perfect book for a 10-12 year old” – just the write tone and dificultly of language and plot.  However, as it goes on it gets more complex and she begins sleeping with the men in her life (though there is never any detailed description of course).  Rather like how Harry Potter becomes very very dark as the series progresses.  I kind of love that she actually sleeps with them and it’s an issue of course – but not a huge huge one.  In her mind there’s no wrong in sleeping with someone you love – the world doesn’t end, and in itself it isn’t a holy grail.  But I do have a hard time recommending it to 10 year-olds and their mothers as a result…

There is a lot of action and just stuff in these books.  They are great fantasy/adventure, but their plotting is admittedly awkward, and the conspiracy leading to the climax in the last book is still confusing and full of plot holes on the second read.  However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading Alanna.  The main character is so strong and amazing – I really would love all pre-teens to read these.  The books date from the 1980s, and there have been many iterations over the years.

Recently they have been repackaged, and while I find the new covers kind of distastefully Disney (Alanna is like a gigantic tinkerbell minus the wings and plus the sword.  Why is she glowing??) – maybe it will appeal to teens today.  They remain my favourites, and I very much look forward to my next trek through this excellent series.

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Witchlanders by Lena Coakley

I didn’t have high expectations for this book, though the beautiful cover immediately grabbed me.  But it has blown me away – this is my favourite YA fantasy in quite a while.  It is insightful, smart, innovative, and well written.  I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have found it.  From the ending it seems there will be sequels, and I am looking forward to following more of this story.

Witchlanders very much has a classic fantasy feel to it.  There is magic, peasant technology, and age-old enemies.  Ryder is a young man trying to hold his family together following his father’s death.  His mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour and dependence on Maiden’s woe – a flower that gives the power of prophesy, but is addictive and poisonous – is destroying the family balance.  When she foresees terrible events, Ryder refuses to believe in her or the magic of the witches who claim to protect his people.

The second point of view is the voice of Falpian, a young man sent into exile along the border by his disappointed father.  Falpian is one of the Baen, the old enemy of Ryder’s people.  The Baen’s magic is in song, though Falpian seems to have no skill in this art.  As Ryder and Falpian draw closer, an intangible connection between the would-be enemies grows stronger, and becomes a powerful bond that neither expected to find.

I won’t give away any more of the plot – but the themes of this book are incredible.  The brutality of war; the nature of difference, prejudice and ignorance; the necessity of challenging those in power who would lead without question; the subjugation of women; the importance of faith; and the connection of living things are all strong themes running through this book.

Witchlanders does what fantasy and sci-fi should do best – take us somewhere unfamiliar to remind us of our own world and its problems.  Unlike many YA fantasies that I have read, it doesn’t just skim the surface of magic/action/adventure – it digs deep and poses questions for the reader.  Here are two quotes that stopped me in my tracks:

“‘No,’ he said. ‘He is not on our side.  But Skyla, are we only allowed to care about people who are on our side?'”

“Do you think anyone is born a killer?  Do you think I was?  Trust me, I know what I’m asking.  An assassin’s first murder is himself.  He kills the man he was.”

[My apologies to Simon and Schuster – I’m not actually checking these quotes against the finished manuscript as I’m supposed to.  I’ll just have to hope they’re in the finished copy!]

Added to the complexity of ideas is the complexity of the characters.  Not only are the two main characters well-drawn, they have very conflicted but believable loyalties and impulses.  And the range of other character is satisfying. Most are a mix of bad and good: some intent on following orders; others follow an inner sense of what is right or a loyalty to a particular loved one; others are wrong-headed and misguided, but again are doing what their experience and world view tells them is right.  I don’t think anyone is truly evil, though many evil actions are performed.  Nor does everyone gets what they deserve – innocent or kind people are harmed and some awful people are never punished.  Some readers may find this frustrating; some might see it as simply an open door for a sequel (which I’m sure it is); I again found it a nice reflection on the unfairness of life and the unique ability of those in power to stay in power whatever their actions.

Though I clearly loved it, I recognize that Witchlanders is not for everyone.  It is high fantasy (though there are no dwarves or elves), and there is almost no hint of a love story.  Most won’t have the same reaction as me, and might experience only luke-warm enjoyment.  That said, I think the action and voices are strong enough to interest most people who are well-disposed to fantasy.  I sincerely hope that many people do give it a try, and that it is not lost or neglected in the mass of dystopian fiction making its way through the market right now.  Lena Coakley has created a gem, and it deserves a few moments to shine.

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Top Ten Reasons to Love Holes by Louis Sachar


So far I’ve been very critical about a lot of the books I’ve reviewed on this site.  Part of the problem is that I’m not picking up books that would be my first choice – I’m reading my way through a constantly-renewing stack of novels that are being released this summer and fall.  So I’m going to take a moment out from all these ARCs (advance reader’s copies) to talk about an old favourite.

Holes doesn’t actually need another good review.  Written in 1998, it won the Newbery Medal (and several other prizes), gained enthusiastic and wide-spread acclaim, and has been made into a major motion picture (77% on Rotten Tomatoes).  Holes has also been done to death in schools.  It makes for an ideal novel study and teachers love using it.  I suspect that battles are fought in some schools over who gets to study it in their class.  It’s rightly a grade 4/5/6 novel, but I’ve heard of grade 2 teachers reading it to their classes.  Imagine the frustration when your class of ten-year-olds informs you with weary blase that they’ve already read the novel you’ve based a whole term around.

So Holes doesn’t need any more ink, virtual or otherwise, spilled on it.  But I’m going to slosh some more its way anyway – and I’m going to use what feels like an outdated method (because Letterman uses it, and surely that’s enough to outdate anything?) – the Top Ten List.

Top Ten Reasons Why I Loved Holes

10) Because I read it to two classes of students while in England, and they loved it.  In the middle of Essex (actually an eastern corner) I was able to do a terrible American accent and get away with it.  They loved it – the accent, the characters, the weird twists and bends.  We all had such pleasure settling down to reading time with Holes that they started requesting it.  Each time I opened the book and brought out that slow drawl, I felt like we landed up on a dusty desert in North America, and escaped to where yellow-spotted lizards spread agonizing oblivion, and where long-lost treasures and old-world curses can determine your fate.

9) Because of the author, Louis Sachar.  I can’t tell you what a soft spot I have for this guy.  He’s the author of the Sideways Stories series – books that still make me laugh today.  He also wrote There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, and while I don’t remember a single scene of it, it surely makes the list as one of the best titles ever for an intermediate novel.  Finally, his newest book, The Cardturner, manages to make bridge almost understandable, and quite interesting.  So props for that.

8.) Stanley Yelnats and his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.  Because one is a palindrome, and the other is funny, no matter how many times you read it.

7) Because the plot itself is a palindrome.  Or a web.  Or a mobeus strip.  Or a spiral.  Or a braided tapestry.  Or something.  The story takes place in the present, the past (about a hundred years ago) and the distant past (three generations ago).  At the start, Stanley Yelnats is being sent to a detention centre for troubled boys, Camp Green Lake.  He is going because everyone believes he stole a pair of used and stinky (but very valuable) sneakers.  In order to improve their character, each boy at the camp must dig a hole exactly five feet wide and five feet deep every day. Oh, and did I mention that there is no water at Camp Green Lake – just a deserted dried-up lake bottom filled with holes and deadly yellow-spotted lizards.  But read on and you’ll learn that Stanley’s bad luck, the dried-up lake and the camp itself all have their roots in the past.  Only with the help of onions, lizards, sploosh, mountains, and a song will the curse of Stanleys great-great-grandfather be lifted and another old wrong righted.  The present fixes the past and the past saves the present.

Holes Map

6)  Because every detail is used and every detail is important.   And because just about every detail is used at least twice – once in the present and also in the past.  And sometimes it will be an echo of one, and sometimes of the other.

5) Because it’s exactly the right length and ends exactly when it should.  So many books I read are too long: they go on with pointless scenes and plot twists that are there just for the sake of adding length or tiresome but pointless obstacles to the resolution.  This book is mindbendingly complex, but it is also elegant in its simplicity.  The pacing is perfect and the writing is evocative and sparse.  There’s no wasted text, but also no holes (har, har) where you’re just not sure what happened.

4) Because it improves with more readings.

3) Because Sachar deals with issues of race and privilege in a shockingly real and understandable way.  The boys at Camp Green Lake are all troubled kids and from a variety of ethnicities.  Race isn’t plastered away with political correctness in this book – it is real and tangible.  The boys accuse Stanley of practicing slavery when he gets Zero (the outcast at the camp) to dig his holes for him in exchange for reading lessons.  In another storyline, a black man is killed for daring to kiss a white woman – and she is cast out of her job and town by an enraged community.  Sachar doesn’t try to ignore history or fix it, or even present solutions for the present.  And he doesn’t hide from ugly issues but rather makes them the centre of his spiraling narrative.

2) Because it’s funny as well as clever.  It doesn’t just try to be funny.  It doesn’t just think it’s funny.  It is funny.

1) Because even after all the hype and attention, it is isn’t overrated – it still kicks ass.

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