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.

The Widows

I have to admit at the outset that I struggled a bit to get into The Widows by Jess Montgomery. I don’t know if it was the book or just my attitude at the time but I came very close to bailing. However, I am glad that I didn’t as I became quite engaged with the story and the strong female characters within.

Based in 1924 Ohio coal-mining country, this is the story of two women, both young widows, who overcome the powerful grip of grief and pain to stand strong for what they believe in. Lily Ross’s husband, Sheriff Daniel Ross, had been murdered and pregnant Lily is asked to replace him as Sheriff until elections can be held to fill the role ‘properly’. Marvena Whitcomb, Daniel’s best friend, (unbeknownst to Lily) is in the throes of grieving for her own husband who was killed in an explosion at Ross Mining Company’s Mine No 9, also known as “The Widowmaker”.

Two prominent themes, still evident today, thread through this story. Both Lily and Marvena are powerfully courageous women butting up against a male-dominant societal norm that is eager to suppress and negate them.

In a town where corporate greed has been responsible for the killing and maiming of many of the town’s miners, organizing for unionization puts Marvena directly in the sights of the ruthless mine owner, Luther Ross. He will stop at nothing to suppress calls for improved conditions at his mine.

Lily too meets powerful resistance as she tries to uncover the truth about her husband’s murder. In a town where trusting someone can be a fatal mistake, these two women must find the courage to overcome their fear and join forces to uncover the truth that will set them and their community free.

All of the female characters in this story demonstrate an iron rod of internal strength and commitment to caring and nurturing their families and their community.

In the author’s notes, Jess Montgomery talks about learning that in 1925, in Vinton County Ohio, a woman by the name of Maude Collins was elected Sheriff after filling the post temporarily upon the unexpected death of her husband, Fletcher Collins. She went on to have a long career in law enforcement.

Technically, The Widows is at times well-written and then, variously choppy. I struggled off and on to keep characters straight but the underlying story was strong and some of Montgomery’s descriptions of the countryside landscapes were just gorgeous. So, I would rate The Widows 3*** for writing but 4**** for the story and the character development.

— Nancy C.

The Matchmaker’s List

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli is a heartwarming and impressive debut novel that is a mix of a few things. It’s a sweet coming-of-age story with a touch of romance, a sprinkle of humour and a dash of Canadian pride that looks at the positive aspects and complications of family, friendship, culture and community.

While it appears to be a cute romantic comedy (and it is!), Lalli also introduces several deeper issues into a story that focuses on one determined grandmother as she tries to find her single granddaughter Raina a husband. Readers get a look into the rich Canadian-Indian culture of Raina’s family and also witness the pressures it puts on three generations of women. It’s through these relationships of family and friends that Lalli shows how cultural expectations can sometimes clash with individual needs.

The story is set in “Toronno” (aka Toronto) and with Lalli’s vivid descriptions of that vibrant city and its diversity, it makes it a great setting for this story. And can I just say how much I love it when a Canadian author sets their story in Canada?!!

My only issue with the book is how Raina, in one instance, tries to curtail her grandmother’s husband hunting. It just didn’t sit well with me. While I appreciated the discussions it will create and the insight it gives readers about an aspect of the Indian community, I wasn’t fond of the execution and felt this misunderstanding went on for too long. However, it will spark some good book club discussions!

Overall, this was an enjoyable multi-cultural romance that had a touch of humour and went beyond the typical romantic fluff. I applaud the author for tackling larger issues including diversity, acceptance versus shame, multicultural and generational differences, and the deep influence tradition and culture have on people of all generations.

— Laurie P.

Bibliophile : an illustrated miscellany

As the cliché goes, never judge a book by its cover. Judging a book by its cover enables us to prejudge the worth or value of stories by its initial outward appearance.  Yet, what if we celebrated books by creating a book of curated lists of books while illustrating their covers? Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount is a book about books, or more accurately, a book with illustrations of curated stacks of the most defining books in every genre you can think of. But that’s not all this book is about. There are five-word literary quizzes that challenge readers to guess the book by a five-word summary and there are pages dedicated to authors’ workspaces including the likes of Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl.  Other pages are devoted to illustrating notable bookstores, libraries, and even bookmobiles around the world.

Bibliophie is a book for book lovers. For a person like me who likes the written word so much, it was a refreshing wonder to see a visual celebration of the most influential books over the years. Each page stacks iconic book spine atop of iconic book spine. It’s a treasure trove of literary facts and wonders. It’s delightful to not only read through, but get lost in looking at each title on the spines of every book, either seeing perennial favourites, or discovering an unfamiliar cover, a new intriguing title to add to a new ending TBR pile.

I think readers can be the hardest on books because of their covers. We tend to judge them in seconds based on whether they catch our eye, how the design is meant to symbolize what the story is ultimately about, or we even judge a book by its dense length. This book seems to minimize those impulses and aims at making you focus on not its cover, but the spine: The title. What does the title say about the story? Do the words themselves entice you? What do they allude to?

Bibliophile is a playful book that is as delightful as it is whimsical. It’s a celebration of the rich collections of books that humanity has circulated for centuries. It is also the epitome of modern bookish culture that in our ever-present digital world continues to grow and preserve our storytelling tradition. For all booklovers, this is a book to check out, test your bookish knowledge, and discover other miscellaneous facts that will fuel your passion for books.

— Eleni Z.

Graphic Novels : way more than superheroes

Are you a graphic novels fan? Until recently my answer would have been a resounding “no.” Just not my cup of tea, or so I thought. But one day, more out of idle curiosity than anything, I decided to give them a shot. Now graphic novels are a part—not a big part, mind you, but still a part—of my reading repertoire.

Here’s what I like about ’em. They allow for a fairly quick and easy read but then you can go back for a second (or third) look and discover things you didn’t see the first time round. Also, the words and pictures work together in a very special way so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I think you call that “synergy”.

This is the one I’m reading right now: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (2018). Krosoczka has written and illustrated a number of kids’ books, including the very popular Lunch Lady series. In this outing, Jarrett tells his own story and that of his big, messy, dysfunctional family. He was raised by his grandparents and never knew his father. As for his mother, she flitted in and out of his life but mostly she was gone. One day he learned the reason why: his mother was a heroin addict. Much of her adult life was spent either in jail, in rehab or using. For such a bleak subject, I found this book to be ultimately positive and affirming.

Here are some other graphic novels I have enjoyed over the years. All of them are real life stories (which I think is part of the appeal for me) and just note the incredible range of subject matter.

My Friend Dahmer by Derk Backderf. This was my intro to the graphic novel world and was recommended by a former WPL staffer. It’s the story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer while he was still in high school but already plenty disturbed. A very interesting read. You might want to check out the DVD of the same title. Actor Ross Lynch is excellent in the title role.

Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs. The author, a renowned children’s illustrator, tells the story of his parents, two working class Londoners who met in the 1920’s and stayed together until their deaths. It is utterly delightful and more moving and funny than you might expect from a graphic novel. Also check out the DVD of the same title. Every bit as charming as the book.

Becoming Unbecoming by Una. This one is about sexual violence against women, including the author’s own experiences. There is a lot more going on in this book besides personal narrative (such as various stats, questions and musings) which adds to this graphic novel’s complexity. The illustrations perfectly express the author’s emotions.

Secret Path by Gord Downie (of The Tragically Hip) and Jeff Lemire. It’s a true, unbearably sad story about Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack, a 12-year-old Indigenous boy sent to a Canadian residential school. Then Chanie decided to run away… The story and images will haunt you.

— Penny D.

PS  And just released is Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation. I haven’t read it yet, but it is getting a lot of buzz.

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell

I like to read a variety of genres and, like many readers, I have a list of my favourite authors whom I trust to give me an awesome read in their usual genre. But I also love it when an author breaks out of his or her genre to try something different.

Case in point – Robert Dugoni. He is one of my go-to authors for suspense (if you haven’t read his Tracy Crosswhite series you really must — start with My Sister’s Grave). With The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, he branches out to write a stand-alone, heart-felt coming-of-age story about a boy named Sam Hill who faces adversity throughout his life because he was born with a genetic abnormality – ocular albinism which gives him red eyes.

Sam Hill (nicknamed “Sam Hell”) is a main character readers will easily get behind. The story is told using short chapters alternating between Sam’s childhood and adulthood, where readers witness Sam’s struggles with discrimination, a ruthless bully and being a social outcast. Through it all he has the unwavering support of his two best friends and his parents but it’s his relationship with this mother, his staunchest champion, that brought a few tears to this reader’s eyes (which is no easy feat, I’m telling you).

This is an engaging and touching story that hits all the emotional buttons and will be most appreciated by those who have ever felt like an underdog. Sam’s story is about faith, loyalty, persistence and unconditional love. You’re simply going to love Sam Hill.

Note: I highly recommend you read the author’s acknowledgements at the end of the book. I loved learning about his personal connection to the story and how the idea of Sam Hill came to him.

— Laurie P.

Featured Titles – Winter 2019

Our WPL Collections Department staff have waded through reviews, catalogues and blogs, searching out the next must-read titles to share with you. You can browse through their latest selections on the Featured Titles list for Winter 2019.

Fiction Picks

Secret identities. Deception. The theft of people’s scandalous stories for personal gain. Murder. Fashion design. Royals. The topics are wide-ranging and there are definitely novels for every taste on the winter 2019 list.

Non-Fiction Picks

From essays and speeches to Googling that weird rash, seasonal eating to autonomous cars, downed ships and, a popular topic year round, the weather. It was difficult to select just seven titles to feature but we did it!

Happy reading!

featured-titles-winter-2019

Once Upon A River

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield is a well-written, deeply atmospheric novel and, as its title suggests, has a strong sense of folklore. One might even call it more of a Gothic fairy tale. At the heart of the story is a mystery surrounding the identity of the young girl who is found in the Thames and pronounced dead … until she isn’t.

Within the first few pages I realized I was in for a treat. Readers will immediately be drawn to Setterfield’s wonderful writing, vivid descriptions of the setting and her diverse group of characters which drive the story much more than the mystery. Much like the Thames itself, the story meanders as the various tributary subplots and characters are introduced. If readers can wade through the slower points in the middle, they’ll realize that these aspects all have purpose and are given an incredible amount of depth.

This Gothic folktale stands out for its vivid characterizations, imaginative plot and hint of fantastical things with Setterfield’s enchanting storytelling abilities easily being the highlight of this book for me. Recommended for fans of Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale.

— Laurie P.

Powerful Women. Powerful Books.

I wish that my reading goal for 2018 had been to read books about outstanding women because I would have fulfilled it several times over.  I know, it’s like I’m retconning my reading list goals but I read some really fantastic memoirs last year from authors like Elizabeth Hay and Terese Marie Mailhot. B.C. writer Lindsay Wong gave us the terrifically-named memoir The Woo-Woo : how I survived ice hockey, drug raids, demons and my crazy Chinese family while Michelle Obama beat U.S. publishing records this year with her warm autobiography Becoming.

Being welcomed into the lives of these outstanding women felt like a break from the everyday grind. It seemed like they were becoming new friends with each page I finished whether they were telling stories of caring for parents, children or relaying their own coming-of-age journey.  There was something to be learned from every one of these books and I think it’s possible that I might return to them again in the future, something that I love to do with books that become such good companions.

At first glance you might not consider the women in my non-fiction favourites of 2018 to be among your first choice for a companion as they include characters who use deception and, when the situation required, incredible violence to succeed.  But when I looked back at the list of novels that I adored this year I found that I had read quite a few featuring women who used their strength, determination, and wit to make their way in difficult situations – these really are perfect choices for a new friend even if they come in book form.

heresyHistorical fiction often focuses on women who need to be rescued and so many contemporary novels have a tendency to make women into victims or heroic figures – women who can ‘do it all’ and wear a snappy business suit at the same time.  The author of Heresy, Melissa Lenhardt, recently pointed out that it is no longer enough for novels to portray women as superheroes. They must also be permitted to demonstrate their need for revenge, greed, and bloodlust – just as male characters have been doing for decades.

I thought her latest novel, Heresy, about a group of female outlaws living in the American West in the 1870s seemed to spring to life the minute I began reading it.  I could almost hear the piano soundtrack while I read the first pages.  This was one of those rare books that had a story that wins me over even though I didn’t really like the concept.  She tells the story of a group of women from multiple perspectives, different time periods, and even includes a transcript of a podcast from a 2018 but this didn’t spoil the thrill of learning about the lives of Hattie La Cour and Margaret “Garet” Parker.  I loved these two women and their loyalty to each other as soon as I met them.

Hattie and Garet are the driving force behind the Parker Gang who begin robbing banks and stagecoaches after their ranch is stolen from them by their dishonest neighbour (who also tries to force Garet to marry him).  The story of either of these women would be enough to fill any epic Western but combine their crime spree with shootouts, a few bar fights, the possibility of being caught by Pinkerton detectives (one eventually joins their gang) and this is a book that would satisfy any reader.  It certainly prevented me from getting any meaningful work done while I had the book at home.  I haven’t stopped talking about it or thinking about the way that these women controlled their destiny at a time when this was not an easy choice.

a1-tqf9zzvlIn The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco the main character, Almas Rosales, is another kind of outlaw and, coincidentally, also a Pinkerton detective.  Or, was she a Pinkerton detective?  I don’t want to spoil things by revealing too much about the role Alma is meant to play in this novel but at one point it is suggested that she has been discharged from the agency for ‘bad behaviour’.  This poor behaviour serves her well because in the world of 1880s opium smuggling the skills needed to succeed include being able to use weapons, fight in dingy warehouses, wear any number of disguises and out-think criminals.

Alma Rosales is one of the most compelling characters that I have read in years and, although this novel is written as an adventure with high stakes, it was also absolutely fascinating to learn about the Washington port town.  I cheered for Alma in every gunfight, during every horrifying walk down a dark alley, and each time she made the decision to scrap with a despicable thug.  She is trying to solve a mystery– to discover the leak in the opium smuggling ring – but is also slowly being caught up in a romance with the powerful woman who heads the local operation and cleverly use this attraction to her advantage.  Alma’s choices make this a thrilling story that is worthy of a stay-up-until midnight read.  You will not regret it.

I read some other fabulous books featuring first-rate female characters this year including Madeline Miller’s Circe (you can read my review) and the amazing YA sensation by Tomi Adeyemi Children of Blood and Bone.  Sarah Bird chose the first woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers as the main character in her novel Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen and Imogen Hermes The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock was a voyage into 1870s London through the eyes of a beautiful courtesan named Angelica Neal.  She wasn’t the only person in that novel to think that creature would make her fortune but the story will capture your heart – I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

Looking ahead to the rest of this reading year I think I will continue on this streak of enjoying books featuring female characters in all their complexities – not just being rescued or becoming victims of crime.  I’ve just placed a hold on a debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson called American Spy.  It’s the story of an FBI operative who had been caught in the dull bureaucracy of 1987 until she is chosen to be part of a CIA covert operation.  The summary of this novel is fascinating but my favourite line was about how she and her sister dreamed of being secret agents when they grew up – that sounds like my kind of book.  I can’t wait to read about more mayhem, deceit, and a few fights in dingy warehouses, with women making the choices about who will be throwing the punches.  2019 is going to be an exciting year.

— Penny M.

The Next Great Teen Read

As a Library Assistant, there is nothing I find more encouraging than having a teenager approach my desk looking for something to read. With Tumblr, Snapchat, WhatsApp and whatever other social media outlets out there that I’m far too old to understand it’s awesome to know that there are still so many teenagers who enjoy reading a good old fashioned book.

The best reader’s advisory questions I get are from high school students looking for their next great read. I always make sure I have a running list of the latest teen fiction to suit which ever genre appeals to them. This can be tricky, however, when faced with those keen readers that have already finished all of the popular teen titles in our collection. For this reason I was thrilled when The Echo Room by Parker Peeveyhouse crossed my desk.

In The Echo Room, Rett wakes up in an abandoned building. There is no food and no water. He has no memory of how he got there. There is blood on his clothes. There is blood on his hands. The only clue is the phrase “Scatter 3” written on the wall.

Stumbling through empty rooms, he comes across a girl named Bryn. She also claims to have no memory. As they explore, danger arrives. Their memories erase and the day repeats. And it repeats again. And again. Every time the day repeats, the reader learns a little more about Rett and Bryn’s situation.

The outside world is failing. Crops are making people sick. Parents are forced to work off their medical bills at government run facilities. Their children are being left to be raised in orphanages. As Rett and Bryn make their way through the abandoned building, they discover that surrounding area has turned into a wasteland- nothing but rocks and ruined structures. As the days keep repeating, Rett and Bryn begin to recall tiny parts of their former lives and they must put all the pieces together if they want to survive.

I am so excited to have another excellent title to recommend to those enthusiastic teen readers who come to my desk. The Echo Room will appeal to fans of The Maze Runner series, yet it offers a whole new take, combining all of the elements of a thriller, survival and science fiction book into one. Teen readers this IS your next great read.

— Lesley L.