Crowing About “Hollow Kingdom”

I’m not wishing for the end of the world any more than I long for a murder to happen but I do love reading about both of them.  So many interesting things happen in novels about the apocalypse.  Remember R.E.M‘s song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”?  It’s a checklist of perfectly terrifying elements that make a captivating story – “Birds and snakes and an aeroplane”, “Governments for hire” and the “Furies breathing down. your neck” – all the best parts of great Apocalyptic fiction.  I don’t want the end of the world to happen but when the writing is so good well, I do feel fine.  Thank you, Michael Stipe.

So many books featuring a possible apocalypse stand out when I think of my ‘best ever’ books, starting with Stephen King’s The Stand (which I first read way back in high school).  We get to meet the characters in these books when they are at their weakest, when everything is stripped away, so we really get to know them.  I still remember conversations between Stu and Franny in Stephen King’s book more vividly than I do the actual content of any class I took in high school.  It’s also fascinating to see how authors like Emily St. John MandelEdan Lepucki and Neal Stephenson choose to end our world – what exactly are the  catastrophic mistakes that they see our society making that takes us to destruction?  How do they imagine our society will rebuild?  These are the nitty gritty details that I love about this type of book.  If an advance review mentions genetic engineering gone wrong, pandemics-getting-out-of-hand, any instance where the CDC makes a mistake and tries to cover it up then I place my hold right away.  At least they will be an entertaining read and the really beautiful ones give me a chance to ponder what we value in our civilization – what would we miss if it all starts to fall apart?

I knew that I would read this debut novel about the apocalypse seen through the eyes of a domesticated crow (these were the keywords thrown around for the last few months when Hollow Kingdom was being chatted about online) but I didn’t know if it would just be a quirky read or one that rises above ‘book about a crow’.  I also wondered who I might share it with. How many other readers would like to read a book written from the perspective of a crow? From the first chapter I knew that it was a book for everyone.  Everyone!

The story begins with S.T., his human friend Big Jim, and their dog, Dennis, enjoying a fine day outside their home near Seattle. Looking back S.T. realizes that there might have been other indications that Big Jim’s health was declining but when one of Big Jim’s eyeballs falls out and rolls across the lawn he knows that things are starting to get serious. S.T. is a clever bird. Crows are, of course. He thoughtfully scoops it up and puts it into one of the cookie jars in the kitchen in case it can be used by Jim later and then spends the next few days trying to cure Jim of this terrifying illness. He tries everything – brings him the keys to his truck, tries feeding him Cheetos, carries him their favourite photographs from the fridge door, brings some medication from the local Walgreens – but nothing works.   With Dennis by his side (he attaches Dennis’s collar to a leash and leads him away from their home) they go on a mission to see if there are any uninfected humans who can help Big Jim.

It’s horrifying like all good infection-turns-humans-into-zombies novels but it’s wonderfully different because it’s all told through the language of animals and how they see us.  Author Kira Jane Buxton must have enjoyed books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down when she was a kid because she has the natural world built to perfection.  If the violence level weren’t so high I would be tempted to share this book with junior readers because there was so much to love and her passion for animals is evident throughout.

S.T. is the main voice but he is joined by Dennis and they meet other crows and dogs throughout their adventure.  We see some of the adventure from the perspective of moles, a poodle, a seagull, an armadillo, a polar bear and an octopus and it is all bewitching.   Their travels take them across the state, through a university campus, into abandoned neighbourhoods, a large zoo, an aquarium, forests and to the beach and it leads to a wide variety of discoveries about humans.  Some work out well for our team of crow and dog and some really do not.

I’m trying not to spoil the plot of the story (or the ending) but with many of the remaining humans preoccupied with their zombie thoughts this leaves an opportunity for the natural world to take over and it is all beautifully described by Buxton.  Seeing the destruction of the human world through S.T.’s opinionated eyes is the very best view. He was perfectly content being a crow who felt like he was almost human.  He has more enemies than friends among animal kind so the challenges that he and Dennis face together are doubly hard.  It becomes an opportunity for the reader to fall hard for both of them; especially as the author describes them as “a rejected crow with an identity crisis partnering a bloodhound with the IQ of boiled pudding.”

There are some moments in this book that were a little scary to read and had to be returned to – if I could have read them with my eyes partially covered like you watch a horror film, I might have done so.  I read this book quickly because I almost couldn’t believe how clever it was, how she was able to make her crow’s voice seem authentic, and yet I didn’t want to finish it because the time spent with S.T. and Dennis seems far too short.  It’s the classic problem with a book that you love – reading it fast because it is perfection but just not wanting it to end.

Yes, Hollow Kingdom can also be described as a zombie novel, and it is narrated by a Cheetos-eating crow with a name that is so profane I can only share the initials in this blog post, but there were moments in this book that moved me to tears and caused me to want to write down quotations from Buxton’s beautiful text.  I could needlepoint them on a pillow with a cute little crow and dog image maybe?  The author might be trying to send us a message about the environment or the dangers of relying on technology.  She might be saying all or none of this and wants to remind us of the importance of animal welfare.  It’s an unforgettable book about the end of world as we know it and you really should read it – Cheetos optional.

— Penny M.

The Hottest Titles for Spring 2019

The snow has melted, and dreams of lounging in the sun will soon be a reality. What better way to welcome the new season than with a good book or two from our  Spring Featured Titles list.

Non-Fiction

Our topics are, as ever, wide ranging on the Featured Titles List. From a study of animal emotions to a look at how Canada’s past is affecting its future to following Alex Hannold on his free solo climb up el Capitan. We have a true tale of star-crossed lovers in Sicily or you could get the buzz from Meredith May about growing up on a honeybee farm. Hungry for more? There’s the latest from writer and food critic Ruth Reichl (including recipes!) and a behind-the-scenes look at Queer Eye’s Karamo.

Fiction

There are so many great new novels coming out this spring it was difficult to select just seven! “The Stranger Diaries” is a modern gothic novel which will have you guessing at the killer’s identity until the last page. In “If, Then” by Kate Hope Day, small glimpses at another life lead four neighbours to discover something cataclysmic in their small town. A woman suspects her new neighbour was involved in an unsolved murder but will anyone believe her? “Before She Knew Him” is a must read. High school romance moves to an elite university battleground for Marianne and Connell in the award-winning “Normal People” by Sally Rooney. Wilderness survival has never been as thrilling as it is in “The River” by Peter Heller. Or if fantasy mysteries are more to your taste, give “The Binding” by Bridget Collins a try. And finally, once again focusing on the relationship between neighbours, “White Elephant” by Julie Langsdorf is a darkly humoured look at the suburban town of Willard Park as it becomes a battleground.

FT-Spring-2019

March Break Reads

There are thousands (and thousands and thousands) of great junior fiction books just waiting to be read on March Break. Here’s my Top 4.

Missing Mike by Shari Green

Missing Mike is a love story between a little girl and her canine best friend Mike. Mike Wazowski isn’t much to look at. Mike has one eye, an ear-and-a-half, four legs and a tail. He’s named after the one-eyed green monster from Monsters Inc. At the breeders he sat at the back of cage, behind a pile of adorable puppies, probably because he didn’t think anyone would want him. But one little girl did. She saw something special in him. You see, Mike is a survivor. He came from somewhere but got lost and ended up in a fight with coyotes. That’s how he lost his eye (and half an ear). However, Mike didn’t give up. He was eventually found and came to live with Cara Donovan and her family in Pine Grove.

When the story opens, it is summer. It’s been hot and dry. The smell of wildfire starts to settle over Pine Grove and the town is put on evacuation alert. When the flames grow closer Cara’s family has only ten minutes to pack and flee from the approaching fire. In the midst of the commotion, Mike disappears. There is no time to look for him. Once her family makes it to safety, the heartbroken and guilt-ridden Cara makes a plan to go back and search for her best friend.

Missing Mike brings up a lot of questions. What makes a home? Is it four walls and a roof? Is it the people we love the most? Or is a home simply a feeling of comfort and safety? Or is it a combination of all three? To eleven-year-old Cara, a home means only one thing – her dog.

The story is full of emotion and had me tearing up on more than one occasion. The love Cara has for Mike is pure and genuine and you can’t help but get pulled into her desperation to find him. It is written in verse which makes it quick to read but also adds to the beauty of the story. Missing Mike is a Silver Birch Award Nominee and definitely has my vote for Best Junior Fiction Book.

Krista Kim-Bap by Angela Ahn

Krista is comfortable in her own skin. She is a third-generation Korean-Canadian who wears jeans and t-shirts and always has her hair in a ponytail. Her best friend is a reddish-brown headed boy named Jason. She is happy with things the way they are. The problem is everyone else seems to think she needs to be someone else. Her grandma wants her to wear nice shoes and style her hair. Her new friends want her to dress fashionably and gossip. Things get more complicated when her fifth grade teacher assigns a heritage project. Her family’s roots are in Korea but her parents were born in Canada. They don’t even speak Korean at home.

Krista Kim-Bap is a very rich book that covers a variety of issues. Identity is a large theme in the book, but it also opens up a lot of discussion about family, friendship, culture and even cuisine. Krista is a very relatable character, especially to anyone who wasn’t the ‘favourite’ child growing up. I admired her confidence and ability to stay true to herself. I look forward to sharing this book with our young customers.

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

No Fixed Address tackles the issue of hidden homelessness. When we think of “homeless” we tend to think of people sleeping on the street but homelessness is not always so obvious. It can be people with no permanent home who are living with family, staying in motels or relying on shelters.

Felix and his mother, Astrid, live in a van. They used to live in a condo. Then it was an apartment. Then they moved into a basement apartment. Astrid held two jobs but ended up losing both of them. Unexpected expenses came up with no extra money to cover them and pretty soon they didn’t have enough money for rent. Felix and Astrid stayed with friends for a time but ultimately ended up calling a Westfalia van home.

Life at school for Felix is difficult. He doesn’t always get to shower. He doesn’t always get enough to eat. He has to make up excuses to his best friends about why they can’t hang out at his ‘house’. But things start to look up when he auditions for the junior edition of “Who, What, Where, When” (similar to Jeopardy). If he wins, the prize money could mean putting a real roof over their heads for the first time in months.

Author Susin Nielsen, brings up another overlooked issue of homelessness: it’s not just individuals who are affected – whole families can be without a permanent place to live. Set in Vancouver, there are plenty of Canadian references woven into the story. It was a light and enjoyable read but with lots of room for discussion.

Sparks! by Ian Boothby

Sparks ComicI fell in love with Sparks! on the first page. This graphic novel is about two cats that save the world while dressed in a robotic dog suit. You see, the hero felines quickly learn that no one really trusts a cat. However, everyone does trust a dog. So the cats create a dog suit. August is the dog suit inventor. Charlie is the dog suit pilot. Together, they battle an evil alien who takes the form of a human baby. Oh, and their story is told from the point of view of their litter box.

Before they became heroes, August and Charlie were held prisoner and used as test subjects for scientific experiments. As a result, they develop super powers. They escape. August uses her super intelligence to design “Sparks” the super dog and their quest to save lives begins.

August and Charlie have an ‘odd couple’ type of relationship. August is an intellectual indoor cat. Charlie is a courageous outdoor cat. Their personality clashes make for some great dialogue.

Sparks! is pure fun and even the most reluctant readers will have a good time reading it. It’s just so off the wall, you can’t help but smile.

— Lesley L.

Have You Met The Durrells?

You know how bookstores have ‘Staff Picks”?  Well I think we should have ‘WPL Customer Picks’.  Or maybe when customers return a popular DVD or book we could keep a tally of who is reporting that it is good/bad/worth the trouble and then post it at the returns desk with a little image of a thumbs up or thumbs down.  The opinions of our neighbours should be more important than the reviews we read in the Globe & Mail or the New York Times, and I would rather watch a DVD that a WPL customer recommends rather than one that gets a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  In fact, I find that material suggested to me by WPL customers is a guaranteed good read or good watch.  Thumbs up!

A favourite customer ‘gifted’ me with the television miniseries The Durrells in Corfu recently and I was as smitten with the series as she so confidently said I would be.  In fact, when I placed my hold on Season One she told me that I should place a hold on season two right away as I would be sure to want to watch Season Two as well.  She was right – it was that good (I have since thanked her for her sage advice, not to worry).  The miniseries originally aired on the British television network ITV and was picked up by PBS as part of their Masterpiece series.  We are fortunate to have both seasons at WPL and when the third season is encased in plastic on our shelves I will be faithfully waiting for it to arrive.  I will have a cup of tea ready to go and might even break out a festive meal in celebration.

The television show is an adaptation of the trilogy of books that Gerald Durrell wrote about the years his family spent on the island of Corfu.  He is at the centre of the books My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods but the screenwriters have chosen to make his mother, Louisa, the focus of their stories.  This was a great decision on their part – it gives the series a bit of snap that might be missing if the stories all centred on a young boy.  I’m sure that it would have been lovely but not quite the masterpiece we now have to enjoy.  It is fabulous.

After struggling to raise four willful children alone on a widow’s pension in gloomy England, Louisa decides to move them to a sunny Greek paradise.  Well, Louisa decides with the enthusiastic prompting of her eldest, Larry, who is determined to be a successful novelist (and becomes one – renowned author Lawrence Durrell ). The reaction of the other three is mixed at best. The chemistry between the family members is just magical.

When Louisa, Larry, next oldest son Leslie, only daughter Margo and young Gerald arrive on the island they are warmly welcomed by a taxi driver named Spiros who becomes their interpreter, protector and negotiator for everything – a villa, furniture, and the release of their funds from the bank.  While the family waits for their money to arrive they must ‘forage’ for something to eat and this is the first of many opportunities to see the different ways that the Durrells cope with adversity.  Larry flat out refuses to help, saying that he is busy writing.  Margo says that she is looking for a job and does so by sitting on their sundrenched patio in a bikini.  Leslie, always keen to help his mother, goes out with one of his many rifles and shoots some of the local wildlife while Gerald hunts for berries but ends up eating many, feeding some to their dog, and letting the remainder spoil while he is distracted by a neighbour who offers him a puppy.  Oh, the glorious little puppies.

Gerald Durrell’s passion for animals started when began keeping local wildlife as pets. They pile up so quickly that I can’t remember them all.  He had many species of birds, several types of mice, a number of insects, plus scorpions (!), turtles, otters, tortoises, snakes. In one lovely episode he wanted a goat so, so much.  The classic W. C. Fields quote about not working with children or animals does not apply in this series because actor Milo Parker, who plays Gerald, is top-notch and the furry and feathery supporting actors are sublime.  Animals and children are everywhere and make the show that much more enjoyable.  If you were to play this series without sound you would enjoy watching it for the visuals alone.

The three older children of the Durrell family also play their parts to perfection.  Larry is an aspiring novelist who spends every day wearing his underclothes and a polka-dotted robe while he types away in his room and when forced to provide encouragement or advice to his siblings he grudgingly does so but there is love behind the snide remarks.  Poor Leslie stomps about trying to find his place in their family, on the island, in the world and says “maybe I’m not the sort who is meant to be happy” but when Larry wonders if it might be time for him to return to England and they have a real brotherly conversation it is as if the two actors have really grown up together.  There is great chemistry there.  And Margo is sublime.  I’m sure that this young actor, Daisy Waterstone, is meant for great things.  She delivers every line – comic or dramatic – with such flair.  When she confesses to a local countess, played by the exquisite Leslie Caron, “I’m a bit dim”, there is really nothing more delightful.  It is so hard to choose a favourite among this cast of wonderful actors.

Each episode finds the family getting to know their new neighbours, the culture of the island, and finding their way to a happiness that they did not have in England.  It’s not an easy journey for them, thankfully, or the series would end and it would seem far too effortless.  It’s because life is a struggle for Louisa and her children that you keep watching, you become invested in their success, whether it be in Leslie’s love life, Margo’s quest for employment, or Larry’s constant pecking away at the typewriter.  And they are doing all of this while the sun is shining, they are wearing the most colourful clothes (well, Larry is usually wearing a dressing gown) and eating glorious meals on their patio which overlooks the Ionian Sea.  What more can you ask of a miniseries?  I read some terrific news online (there are spoilers about Louisa’s romantic prospects in this article so tread carefully) which tells us that ITV has committed to making a fourth season of The Durrells and that many key figures are returning to produce, direct and act in the show.

Besides Season One and Season Two on DVD,  we have many, many books written by Gerald and Lawrence in the collection.  Rosy is My Relative is a fabulous pick if you wanted something to read aloud on a car journey – it is sure to please everyone in your family.   You will find endless information about all of the Durrells on the Internet including wonderful content about Gerald’s conservation efforts and his Wildlife Conservation Trust.

It’s possible that after enjoying this miniseries you might be inspired to cook like Louisa, dress like Margo or plan a trip of your own to Greece.  The Durrells will keep you busy all through the summer with the help of the staff here at WPL.  And, if you are inspired to adopt a goat or a turtle then that’s entirely on Gerald.

— Penny M.