May 05, 2015

Forever Julia

by Jodi Carmichael
Great Plains Teen Fiction
262 pp.
Ages 14+
April, 2015

Julia Collins must feel like she's living her life from out-of-body. And with the life she has, I might want out too. Her much-adored dad has passed from cancer just 6 months ago, and her Mom is so grief-stricken that she can't even bear to speak of him.  They now live in a small two-bedroom flat above their bookstore and money is an issue, though Julia had never minds thrift-store shopping with her long-time best friend and creative fashionista, Annika, who understands about Julia's issues with depression and anxiety and watches out for her constantly.

But now Julia is going out with the obscenely wealthy Jeremy Thurston, a.k.a. the Third, jock and popularity icon, and he is pressuring her to have sex, though she has made it clear that she is not ready.  The gutsy Annika can’t stand Jeremy and makes it clear every time he pulls some stunt, like kicking Julia out of the ski chalet where they were supposed spend the night when she refuses his advances yet again.  Sadly, in her mind, Julia is convinced that she can have it all: the wonderful dating relationship with Jeremy who calls her “beautiful”; new friendships with the popular girls; a scholarship to USC for architecture; and the best friendship she has ever had.  Imagine thinking,
Maybe if I convince Annika to tone down her wardrobe, Jeremy would see how incredible she really is and then maybe everyone would get along. (pg. 105)
Sadly naïve, but probably not atypical for a teen who is trying to work everything out.

Then Grandma, who generally splits her time between Arizona and the cottage, arrives to stay–in Julia’s room–while being treated for breast cancer.  Now both Grandma and Mom are watching her and what’s going on around her, and they’re not always pleased by what they see.

It’s not surprising that Julia questions everything that she feels but what’s worse is that she never trusts her feelings to be legit or honest.  Whether that’s because of her anxiety or depression is irrelevant.  All that matters is that the life that was once warmed with Dad and Mom happily living in a modest home and with a reliable and loving BFF is now a life she doesn’t even recognize as her own.  Who is the girl who lets herself drink when she knows it’s verboten with the meds she’s on?  Who is the girl who kisses her boyfriend in public like there's no one else around?  Who is the girl who apologizes to a guy who thinks nothing of stranding her at a ski resort when she doesn’t want to have sex?  Jeremy may get a tattoo, even a temporary one, that reads “Forever Julia” but Julia can’t be forever when she doesn’t  know who she is, who she wants to be, or who she can be.

Jodi Carmichael gets inside of this Julia and gives her a true voice, albeit one mixed and confused with guilt, grief, envy, desire, and affection.  Julia definitely morphs over the course of Forever Julia though I suspect she hasn’t come into herself completely, yet. Forever is a long time to be someone, to love someone, to trust someone, to be friends. It may be possible but maybe not.  Not everything can be forever: not life, not love, not lust, not even family nor  friends.  And Jodi Carmichael makes sure that Julia accepts this, even if only temporarily, in Forever Julia.

May 02, 2015

The Tweedles Go Online

by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Marie Lafrance
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
For release May 2015

Monica Kulling and Marie Lafrance's endearingly old-fashioned family, the Tweedles, has returned and this time they're looking to go online.  Telephone line, that is.
"I see we are going modern," sighed Papa. "Again."
First they moved from bicycles and horse and carriage to electric car in The Tweedles Go Electric (Groundwood, 2014).  Now Mama, with children Franny and Frankie, is ready to embrace the new technology that has their neighbour Mrs. Hamm raving about staying connected with her sister and friends, and about ordering her groceries online.  Papa still prefers the olds ways of getting about, i.e., walking and horses, and spending time with family playing crokinole.  And the noisy bells, the incessant chatter at all hours, and the time the new contraption takes away from their family time has him quietly resentful, though he says nothing. Papa is too much of a gentleman and wants to keep his family happy.  But when the telephone would surely have been useful in communicating an emergency, it falls short and the Tweedles recognize its limitations, with charming acceptance.

It seems the new developments of the first half of the 20th century produced similar effects to those of our 21st century: suspicion, caution, acceptance, overuse, disappointment, and finally comfort.  And how Monica Kulling is able to pack all that into a mere 32 pages, while still creating an engaging family of individuals–Papa, Mama, Franny and Frankie are completely unique and recognizable–with friends–Gladys Hamm is surely a woman we all know or knew–is astounding to me.  I said it before and I’ll say it again: I love the Tweedles!  They are refreshing, honest, unique and their take on all things new and 20th century is enchanting.

And Marie Lafrance puts colour and form to Monica Kulling’s Tweedles and story that I’m not sure anyone else could do so completely.  From their hair to their clothes, and the manner of their movements or even stances, Marie Lafrance has given life to the Tweedles and established a calming and rich environment–her colour palette is impeccable!– in which they can thrive, nay, progress.

May 01, 2015

The Missing Dog is Spotted

by Jessica Scott Kerrin
Groundwood Books
204 pp.
Ages 8-12
March, 2015

Two years ago, Jessica Scott Kerrin brought us The Spotted Dog Last Seen  (Groundwood, 2013) about Grade 6 student volunteers who help the Twillingate Cemetery Brigade and learn from the elderly Mr. Creelman and his cronies about reading epitaphs and cleaning grave markers.  But there was much more to that story, including a school’s time capsule, a spotted dog and a Mystery Book Club, and The Missing Dog is Spotted takes us to an earlier time to introduce those critical elements, while providing a great story in itself.

Sixth graders Trevor and Loyola may have a secret and unspoken pact that “under absolutely no circumstances were they to appear together side by side” (pg. 12) because of the  humongous disparity in their heights, but it seems the universe doesn’t know about that agreement, because, when they get out of volunteering together on the Twillingate Cemetery Brigade, they are then thrust together at the animal shelter to walk dogs for the elderly.  While the two kids walk their six dogs, they soon realize that everyone is more focused on the dogs, not them.  That’s okay since they will need to work together to help solve the mystery of Mr. Fester’s missing dog, Buster.  And that mystery is complicated.

The Missing Dog is Spotted may be based on Trevor and Loyola’s volunteering with dogs but it’s a far greater story about trying to do the right thing, accepting that sometimes things go wrong and can never be fixed, and guilt can be brutal.  Of course, I’m not giving away much about who feels such guilt or about what because it’s irrelevant–though you'll learn it soon enough when you read the book– since guilt is universal, even for those who could take a lesson in accepting responsibility for making the lives of others more difficult than necessary.  But Jessica Scott Kerrin doesn’t saturate The Missing Dog is Spotted with that guilt, though there is that anguish that is always involved when an animal goes missing and even more so when that animal belongs to an elderly person who adores that pet.  Instead, Jessica Scott Kerrin holds the angst back and ensures that The Missing Dog is Spotted remains a strong middle grade book that focuses on the concerns and misunderstandings that children and pre-teens might recognize, and still provides a happy ending, for a dog at least.

April 30, 2015

Authors for Indies Day: May 2, 2015

Celebrate independent bookstores in Canada
on Saturday, May 2, 2015 
with your favourite children's and YA authors 
who will be there volunteering!

Across Canada this Saturday, many authors will be volunteering their time to promote independent bookstores.   I know I’m going to miss some of your favourites but here’s a generous smattering of independent bookstores who will be hosting an assortment of authors (children’s, YA and adult) and even providing treats and prizes, if you’re lucky!

PLEASE check with the Authors for Indies website and individual bookstores listed with regards to the timing of events and schedule for author appearances. As you’ll note, authors may be at several venues during the day and I would hate for you to miss them because of a lack of clarity or detail in my listings.

British Columbia
Mosaic Books, Kelowna
Karen Autio

Black Bond Books (Trenant Park Square), Ladner
Susan Juby
Ashley Spires

Black Bond Books, Maple Ridge
Tiffany Stone

Talisman Books & Gallery, Pender Island
Penny Draper
Andrea Spalding

Salt Spring Books, Salt Spring Island
Margriet Ruurs
Kim Thompson

Black Bond Books (Central City), Surrey
Gabrielle Prendergast

Black Bonds Books Warehouse, Surrey
Sylvia Taylor

Kidsbooks in the Village, North Vancouver
Eileen Cook
Shelley Hrdlitschka
Ainslie Manson
David Smith

Book Warehouse on Broadway, Vancouver
Susin Nielsen
Paola Opal

Book Warehouse on Main Street, Vancouver
Sarah Ellis

Hager Books, Vancouver
Caroline Adderson
Beryl Young

Kidsbooks on Broadway, Vancouver
Caroline Adderson
Ashley Spires
Gabrielle Prendergast
Norma Charles
Kathryn Shoemaker
Susin Nielsen
Julie Flett
Jeremy Tankard
Cynthia Nugent
Tiffany Stone
Linda Bailey
Deborah Hodge
Sheri Radford
Maggie De Vries

UBC Bookstore, Vancouver
Shar Levine
Paola Opal
Sheri Radford

Bolen Books, Victoria
Daniel Luxton
Troy Wilson

Munro’s Books, Victoria
Julie Lawson
Kit Pearson
Robin Stevenson

Owl’s Nest Books, Calgary
Janet Gurtler

Audrey’s Books, Edmonton
Mike Boldt
Lorna Schultz Nicholson
Gail Sidonie Sobat
Thomas Wharton

SK Books & Collectibles Inc., Regina
Alison Lohans

McNally Robinson Booksellers, Saskatoon
Beth Goobie

McNally Robinson Book Sellers, Winnipeg
Shelly Sanders
Larry Verstraete

Mill Street Books, Almonte
Jan Andrews
Liane Shaw

Forster’s Book Garden, Bolton
Kelley Armstrong
Alyxandra Harvey
Steve and Mary Runciman, Runley Books

Lighthouse Books, Brighton
Peggy Dymond Leavey
Renee Schmidt

A Different Drummer Bookstore, Burlington
Sylvia McNioll

The Avid Reader Magazines & Books, Cobourg
Sarah Henstra
Linda Hutsell-Manning
Wesley King

Curiosity House, Creemore
Elly Mackay

A Novel Spot Bookshop, Etobicoke
Sarah Henstra
Beth Pollock
Linda Spalding

Rozanne’s Reflections Book and Card Shop, Fergus
Karen Krossing

The Bookshelf, Guelph
Douglas Davey
Thomas King
Jean Little
Kathy Stinson

Bryan Prince Bookseller, Hamilton
Gillian Chan
Joanne Levy

Epic Books, Hamilton
Sylvia McNicoll
Gisela Tobien Sherman

Novel Idea Bookstore, Kingston
Jill Bryant

Gulliver’s Quality Books & Toys, North Bay
Martha Attema
Steve Pitt

Manticore Books, Orillia
Lisa Dalrymple

Books on Beechwood, Ottawa
Allison Van Diepen

Kaleidoscope Kids’ Books, Ottawa
Kathy Clark
Don Cummer
Kate Jaimet
Caroline Pignat
Max Turner
Amanda West Lewis
Tim Wynne-Jones

Backbeat Books, Music & Gifts, Perth
Charles de Lint
Liane Shaw

The Book Keeper, Sarnia
Jacqueline Garlick

Another Story Bookshop, Toronto
Sangeeta Bhadra
Natale Ghent
Dennis Lee
Kyo Maclear
Kenneth Oppel
Drew Hayden Taylor

Bakka Phoenix, Toronto
Leah Bobet

Book City (Bloor West Village), Toronto
Sarah Henstra
Sharon Jennings
Patricia Storms

Book City (Danforth), Toronto
Evan Munday

Book City in the Beach, Toronto
Tish Cohen

Book City (Yonge at St. Clair), Toronto
Helaine Becker
Joyce Grant
Kathy Kacer
Angela Misri
Kevin Sylvester

Ella Minnow Children’s Bookstore, Toronto
Dan Bar-el
Robert Paul Weston
Dennis Lee
Mireille Messier
Edward Kay
Caroline Fernandez
Emily Adrian

Mabel’s Fables, Toronto
Helaine Becker
Paul Covello
Barbara Reid
Kevin Sylvester
Robert Paul Weston
Cybèle Young

Type Books, Toronto
Kyo Maclear
Cybèle Young
Paul Covello

Blue Heron Books, Uxbridge
Deborah Kerbel
Helaine Becker
Ted Staunton
Jennifer Dance

Words Worth Books, Waterloo
R. J. Anderson

Librairie Paragraphe, Montreal
Elise Moser

Livres Babar, Pointe-Claire
Monique Polak
Lori Weber

Librairie Clio, Point-Claire
Monique Polak

Babar En Ville, Westmount
Carol-Ann Hoyte

Westminster Books, Fredericton
Kathleen Peacock
Cory Redekop

Bookmark II, Halifax
Kate Inglis

Carrefour Atlantic, Halifax
Alison DeLory
Susan Tooke
Richard Rudnicki
Steve Vernon

Woozles, Halifax
Melanie Mosher
Natalie Corbett Sampson

Lexicon Books, Lunenburg
Joe Treggiari
Sylvia Gunnery

The Box of Delights Bookshop, Wolfville
Jan L. Coates
Ron Lightburn

Bookmark, Charlottetown
Sharon E. McKay

Broken Books, St. John’s
Charis Cotter
Andy Jones

Check out the Authors for Indies website for the plethora of adult authors I didn't even try to mention, and authors and illustrators whose names I don't even know, yet!

Any errors or omissions are completely my own. Please leave a comment if I've made any horrific impossible-to-ignore mistakes that I can resolve promptly.  Thanks.

April 27, 2015

The Journal

by Lois Donovan
Ronsdale Press
204 pp.
Ages 10+
February, 2015

In October, 2004, almost thirteen-year-old Kami is uprooted from Vancouver to Edmonton where the girl has inherited her grandfather’s home–or she will if she lives there until her 18th birthday–and where her mother has secured a “career opportunity” as an urban designer. But The Journal is not just a coming-of-age story of new experiences and adventures.  It’s a story about power, compassion, courage and family.  The control imposed on others purportedly for their own good, whether it be adults upon children, the authorities to those whom they serve, or men onto women, will give readers much upon which to reflect.  And I mean lots.

Kami is definitely thrust into a situation in which she has no control and there is no one to whom she can turn for support: her mom who accepted the position in Edmonton before talking to Kami about it is always too busy; Kami hasn’t seen her father in years; her mom’s parents remain in Vancouver; her father’s mother has passed and the grandfather who has left her his home in Edmonton has moved to PEI to live with his daughter; and her friends are as distant as all her plans for playing soccer and a joint 13th birthday party with friend Becca.  Not surprising that Kami is left alone to investigate her new home, discovering some memorabilia including photos and an old journal in the attic where she intends to make her loft bedroom.

But the journal of thirteen-year-old Helen Mitchell slips Kami into January 1929–though she remains in the same house–where she overhears talk of pilot Captain “Wot” May's plan to fly an anti-toxin up to Little Red River Settlement in northern Alberta where a diphtheria outbreak has occurred.  Though Kami returns promptly to her own time, a visit to the library and reading a newspaper clipping in the journal about the “Mission of Mercy” transports her back in time again, this time making the acquaintance of Helen Mitchell and her family as they head to the airfield to see pilots May and Horner off. But Kami cannot find the means to be transported back to 2004, and must deal with the repercussions of being a girl of Japanese heritage, seemingly without family, in a time when cowering to those in authority is deemed respectful and showing gratitude.

Kami does return to her own time, and back to 1929 again as well, but no matter what time period she is in, she must find ways to deal with issues of inequality–racial, gender and age–and learn from those who have charted pathways to making things right.

Lois Donovan does a commendable job of intertwining historical events such as the Mission of Mercy and the actions of the Famous Five with Kami’s life in 2004 Canada, and having Kami see her own dilemmas in relation to those of much more difficult times.  But I could not stop myself from despising Kami’s mother, and this probably prevented me from experiencing the fullness of the plot of The Journal.  In a book in which ordinary individuals show extraordinary courage and compassion to deliver medicine to a remote community, Kami’s mother shines as a self-absorbed parent who repeatedly fails to see how her decisions are solely beneficial for herself and disrespectful of her daughter.  The Journal's ending, however, is proof of Kami’s ability to forgive and her youthful resilience, because the theory of karma suggests that Mom should be the one tripping over herself to make things right.

I suspect that younger readers will not overemphasize Kami’s mom’s flaws as I have and instead will recognize the plotting as an opportunity to see into a different time and the bounty of their own lives relative to 1929.  By making Kami into a young teen whose strife-filled life is still manageable, Lois Donovan has provided hope for all and any, even those with me-first mothers.

April 26, 2015

The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Nicki Haddon Mystery

by Caroline Stellings
Second Story Press
152 pp.
Ages 12-16
March, 2015

I'm so sorry that I missed Caroline Stellings' first Nicki Haddon mystery, The Scratch on the Ming Vase (Second Story Press, 2013), but now that I've enjoyed The Secret of the Golden Flower, I'll go back and learn how this young kung-fu champion and spy-in-training found herself on an action-packed trajectory in aid of international security.

In The Secret of the Golden Flower, sixteen-year-old Nicki Haddon arrives in London, England with her handler and former family butler Fenwick to further her training with the British Secret Intelligence Service.  But, whilst Fenwick is summoned away to Buckingham Palace, Nicki heads to Fenwick's sister Emma's place where she will board.  Though her 40-something punker band mates, Dawn and Anika, and Anika's 18-year-old son Sid, are welcoming, Emma is less than kind and keeps Nicki en garde, just as the teen is about a flower vendor at the airport who was taking photos of her or with a friend of Sid's named Todd Bead, a heroin addict and gang member who had been stalking Nicki though he comes to warn Sid about the cops coming.

But Sid is arrested, ending up in Limehouse Prison, an unhealthy place for someone suffering from respiratory illness, such as the tuberculosis rampant in London's East End, and Nikki tries to unravel the connections between a major heroin syndicate, a series of lectures at the Natural History Museum, an old book Queen Victoria's grandsons had in their possession, and the involvement of Todd, Sid, one of Nicki's intelligence instructors, and others.

The subplots of The Secret of the Golden Flower are like petals of the titular flower: not dense and overwhelming but loosely overlapping, fragile and tender but foreshadowing something more powerful, even dangerous.  In fact, Caroline Stellings' Nicki Haddon is not unlike the flower itself, seemingly small and pretty, even delicate, perhaps a little vulnerable because of the secrecy of her heritage and adoption from China, but not one with whom you would mess, if you were wise.  Nicki is a teen with her own issues which help build her compassion for others, even heroin addicts and gang members such as Todd.
Their only option in life was to join a gang and learn to steal and use violence to try to get some control over their lives. (pg. 117)
I prefer Nicki to so many of the strong female protagonists of trendy YA lit. She is never over-the-top.  Sure, her being recruited as a spy for British Intelligence may seem unrealistic at first glance, but it never seems so in The Secret of the Golden Flower, and I suspect it is similar in The Scratch on the Ming Vase.  She just happens to be a clever and talented martial artist, with the right stuff to insinuate herself into situations in which she can problem-solve the mysteries within. And for those of you who wonder how she is able to manage all this with her family–e.g., don't her parents wonder what she's up to?–you'll need to read the books to see how seamlessly Caroline Stellings is able to integrate all these aspects of Nicki's life.

I've become quite impressed with the depth and diversity of Caroline Stellings' writing, from The Secret of the Golden Flower to her previous books including The Contest (Second Story Press, 2009), The Manager (Cape Breton University Press, 2013) and Gypsy's Fortune (Peanut Butter Press, 2014).  Whether it be picture books, historical fiction, middle grade fiction or action-mystery, I think Caroline Stellings will be on the CanLit for LittleCanadians lit radar from now on. 

April 25, 2015

Neil Flambé and the Bard's Banquet

by Kevin Sylvester
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
320 pp.
Ages 8-12
January, 2015

Boy chef Neil Flambé, now 15, can't seem to keep himself out of trouble, not even when he tries.   He tries to ignore a jar of old honey with its mysterious note in it that was part of a case excavated at a demolition in London and now the basis for a meal extraordinaire he is preparing for Lord Lane of Liverpool.  But an unexpected shortage requires the ostracized jar to be opened, and the note– with a poem, some numbers and a drawing of a key–is taken by Lane, a Shakespearean aficionado and thespian supporter, but not before Neil's cousin and partner, Larry,  snaps some photos of it.  

As luck (?) would have it, Lord Lane disappears and Her Majesty "requires" that Neil and his Nose–he can sniff out anything–promptly travel to London to smell out the mystery and, of course, find Lane and the "jewel" alluded to in the note.  Neil may have the Nose but it's Larry with his limitless knowledge of Shakespeare's work–I know, go figure–and his sweet affection for the ladies who enables Neil to search out the right sources and decipher the multi-layered clues.

The two are soon partnered with Rose Patil, the uber-brilliant chemist and acquaintance of Neil's sweetie, perfumier Isabella Tortellini. The thorny Rose, who is working at recreating the actual scents that Shakespeare's wife may have worn, agrees to help them decipher the note, suggesting their investigation begin with Will Kemp, a comedic actor whose friendship with Shakespeare had mysteriously sour.  Following clues about Drake's voyage, the Globe Theater, a clock and more, Neil, Larry and Rose, and eventually Isabella and her bodyguard Jones, begin an action-packed foray into history, Shakespeare's work and Elizabethan cooking, while being pursued by the unsavoury Crayfish brothers, all in the hopes of discovering the "jewel" and finding Lord Lane, hopefully alive.

Neil Flambé and the Bard's Banquet is a full serving of epicurean delights, that infuses a mystery with history, action with education–do your homework, Neil!–and fromage with farce.  And the punning and word play is wonderfully inventive and flavourful! 
"So since food and Shakespeare are the themes of the day right now, I wondered what Shakespeare would call his plays if he were also a chef!" (pg. 212)
"Measuring Spoon for Measuring Spoon!"
"The Taming of the Stew!"
"Romeo and Omelet!"
"Twelfth Bite!"
"A Midsummer's Light Cream!"
"The Merchant of Venison!" (pg. 213)
The solution to the mystery is never, never evident, unless you are a scholar of food, Shakespeare and word play, and perhaps not even then.  It takes an assortment of characters, some sweeter than others, to separate the clues, then blend them together into something that is both recognizable, palatable and delicious. Kevin Sylvester does this easily in Neil Flambé and the Bard's Banquet, perhaps his most bountiful Neil Flambé Caper to date.  

  *  *  *  *  *  

Yes, I loved Neil Flambé and the Bard's Banquet but I must share with you a brief Twitter conversation I had with author Kevin Sylvester about the end of the book.  I hope that, if my review doesn't get this book into your hands or into your school, this might.

You'll need to read this book to see what I mean, and then we'll all have to wait for Book 6 for a more revealing answer.