Category Archives: Must-Reads!

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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Filed under Books I've Enjoyed, Books I've loved, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction, Must-Reads!

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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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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