Erased History and a Warning for Humanity

Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

Did you realize that Stalin committed genocide to the scale of millions of innocent people while the Second World War was happening? I didn’t. I mean, I knew he was generally considered to be a pretty bad dude, but he helped the Allies win the war so all’s forgiven right?

This is a piece of historical fiction based on the experiences of survivors of the mass deportations that occurred in Russia before, during and long after WWII. It’s the story of a Lina, a fifteen year old girl who is taken from her home one night, along with her mother and brother and deported to Siberia. What follows is a nightmare that lasted a decade for her. The book, which is a good 300 pages, only documents the first two years of her time in prison, although the epilogue confirms that she did survive another 10  more years in the camp before being freed.

It’s a devastating story. The human suffering described is heartbreaking. The human kindness and compassion from the prisoners, strangers and occasionally guards is just as heartbreaking. My library files it in the young adult section, certainly the subject matter is hard and there is some sexual violence in it, but I really think adults should read it as well, particularly if there are young people in your life who are reading it.

Given the current political climate, I think it’s really important for us to remember what happens that the “them versus us” mentality stripes us all of our humanity. When we fail to recognize the basic humanity in other people, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be human. And history will remember that, no matter who tries to suppress it.

Last movie I watched: Karate Kid.

That’s some serious bullying there guys. Serious.

Last TV show I watched:

The Musketeers. It’s just so much fun.

The other side of the Second World War

A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielson

This is an amazing older children or young adult book about Berlin after the end of the Second World War. Now, previously my history on that subject is a little dicey. As I recall it went something like “And then the Allies won the war and divided up Berlin with a wall, which was eventually torn down but we’ll cover that later in the semester”. We didn’t.

Gerta’s Papa and brother cross the into West Berlin one night to see if there’s a job for Papa there, away from the censorship and depression of East Berlin. That night, the Soviets  put up a fence, cutting Gerta off from half her family. Slowly over the next few years it turns from a fence to a wall to a manned wall and an overbearing state presence that controls every part of her life. One day she sees her father watching from the other side of the wall and he’s trying to tell her something, a way to bring them all back together. But it will mean becoming an enemy of the state and risking not just her life, but her family and friends as well.

This story is an incredibly moving depiction of a young person dreaming in a world that crushes dreams. Obviously the subject matter is a little complicated and if you’re not reading it with your child or your class you should still be prepared to have a talk with your young person about the historical context and the effects of war more broadly. This is a serious story, with only the lightest touch of humour in it  but a really moving and genuine, particularly focusing on the strength of relationships between people in hard times and that keeps it from being totally depressing. Also, the writing is very on point – if you’re not feeling nervous for the whole last half, I’m not sure you’re a human.

I strongly recommend this book (seriously) and I would recommend it even if it didn’t seem quite timely, given the current political climate. In today’s context, I think it’s even more important as a study in empathy, sympathy and for its unwavering conviction that people who do bad things are not always bad people but desperate ones and that people will defend their families no matter what the risk. This power shouldn’t be underestimated.

Last movie I watched: I have no idea. It might have been Home. It might not have been.

Last TV episode I watched: Smallville. I missed the season finale for this season (8 I think). I have to say, it’s very edge of your seat excitementy.

 

 

A rerun

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

These books will always be ones I come back to again and again and again and even if there was anything I could do about it, I wouldn’t.

Instead of a lengthy post though I will just list a few thoughts and go about my day.

  1. Technically I listened to the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I kind of reject that title on principle. I found the number of Americanism in it very jarring.
  2. The world building is amazing. I’d forgotten how much of the story takes place before the plot really picks up and it’s all world building and setting out a few clues for later.
  3. The movies are good, the books are better.

Last movie I watched:

Victor Frankenstien. Skip it.

Last TV show I watched:

Touched. AMAZING. I didn’t expect the season finale to be so small. It’s a good thing, season 2 flowed into it very easily.

I’m not falling for this “last Percy Jackson”ever stuff. If I wait long enough, they’ll be more

Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan

Understanding that the spin off series was not as good as the original Percy Jackson, let me just say: that was awesome!

Now, maybe it was just the nostalgia kicking in, but I really missed Percy Jackson andh is beautiful, wonderful internal voice in this one. It was a great book, and it’s hard not to find most of the characters and their chapters very compelling and fun, but I still missed Percy’s compelling and hilarious first person.

The big end of the series finale focused a lot on sacrifice, on each character slowly coming around to the idea that they would lose something on the quest – their lives, their friends, themselves, something. Sometimes a literal sacrifice, like Percy and Annabeth bleeding on the Acropolis or Leo’s plan, and sometimes something a little less tangible. This is pretty interesting, given the cultural significance of sacrifice to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

I also really liked that Nico turned out not to be another gay character who got sentenced to a life of misery and loneliness. There’s not point in writing in LGBTQ characters if they never get to be happy, even for a moment, when all the other characters do.

This is a short blog post, but I’m so hesitant to talk about it because of the spoilers.

I’ll just say, it was great and wait for everyone else to read it and agree.

Last movie I watched:

47 Ronin. Awkward, sexist, racially uncomfortable, weirdly paced, zero character development. I regret nothing

Last TV episode I watched:

Shadowhunters. I’m on the fence about this show. I like it but it’s also pretty bad a lot of the time.

 

 

 

Simply the best, possibly ever

The Story of Owen Dragonslayer of Trondheim by E K Johnston

There’s pretty much nothing about this book that I didn’t one hundred percent love.

Owen’s aunt Lottie is the most famous dragon slayer in Canada, possibly the world. But when she’s injured in  massive fight on the Burlington Skyway, trying to protect a few foolish reporters, that all changes. After her injury she and her family retreat to a small town called Trondheim where Owen starts high school and meets Siobhan, a very ordinary teenage girl. But Lottie has bigger plans for Owen, Siobhan and the rest of the high school that will change the country and the tradition of dragon slaying forever.

There are a couple hundred reasons this book is amazing. Due to time restrains, I’ll settle four, or five maybe. Six? I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes.

  1. It’s a true and proud Canadian story. It’s a nice change to see our geography and culture reflected in a book. Sure, when you live in New York, you see your hometown all the time, but if you live in rural Ontario – not so much. It’s kind of fun to think “oh yeah! I too have been stuck in traffic on the Burlington Skyway!” “I also have struggled with the frustration of waiting for things to come from Queens Park!” So, yeah that’s a good point.
  2. Incredible world building. It is completely solid, answering the question of what our world would look like if it was exactly the same, but if there were also dragons. A good two thirds of the book is basically really detailed, funny world building.
  3. Lottie and her wife Hannah are seamlessly integrated into the story. Generally,  LGTBQ characters are few and far between, and generally when they make an appearance they’re there as LGBTQ people, so I’m always excited to see gay characters who are well rounded actual characters, with their sexuality making up part of them, but not their whole identity. Add in a happy, stable relationship and it’s pretty much the best thing ever.
  4. Zero romance between the two main characters – how unusual and refreshing is that in a YA novel? Teens get really caught up in the romance aspect of books, even books that aren’t about romance, so I always get excited when I see a friend relationship develop, because they are equally important.
  5. I have always loved the point of view of the sidekick. Not that the hero isn’t great, but I think it adds a level of complexity  to the story.
  6. Empowering teens to change their world. Challenging traditions. Questioning the corporate control of resources and people. All interesting and great, particularly in YA lit. Plus – dragons.

There’s a second one. I haven’t read it yet but I’m so excited.

Last movie I watched:

Inside Out. Still so many feelings

Last TV show I watched:

Game of Thrones. Ouch. Major ouch.

The YA dystopian fiction that actually deserves all the hype it’s not getting

Legend by Marie Lu

Okay, some time ago I accidentally listed to Prodigy, the second book in this series, thinking it was the first one. It wasn’t. This one is the first one.

And it was as amazing as I imagined it would be. And I strong recommend everyone goes forth and reads it, in the correct order.

Legend is the story of two teenagers. One is Day, a Robin Hood like rebel, living on the streets and fighting against a government he doesn’t trust. The other is June, the only child in the Republic to ever score perfect on the mandatory government testing and is destined to be a commanding officer in the war against the Colonials. Their paths cross one night through June’s brother Matthias. And while they start out the story on opposite sides, their search for the truth and their quest to protect their loved ones will bring them together.

This book might be riding the wave the Hunger Games started, but in my option is one of the better ones. Unlike some of the others, it’s distances itself by having society divided up through strange, arbitrary rules, going instead  by class (arguably not that different from real life now), doesn’t include the test that determines your life in the book (you know about it because it’s mentioned, but it’s not actually written about) and it doesn’t feature a civil war. Just a regular war. I guess it’s good to mix things up? DO NOT START A CIVIL WAR just to keep things interesting. Also the whole story is narrated from alternating perspectives and not in a cheap Allegiant kind of way, used at the last minute to make the plot possible. It’s also relatively low on extreme violence. June’s soldier training is mostly already established, Day makes an effort not to kill anyone, not even his enemies, so compared to other recent titles in the genre, this ones pretty clean.

The book is quick paced, driven and although it’s a little predictable, Day and June both are both sympathetic and interesting characters and now that I’m all caught up, I’m very excited to read the third one!

Last movie I watched:

Jupiter Ascending. Such an interest idea. So what went so wrong?

Last TV show I watched:

Smallville! Ahh, early Smallville. If Lana says “honesty” or “trust” one more time this episode I’m going to lay down on the floor and cry.

 

Beautifully drawn, carefully written and heart breakingly true

The Outside Circle by Patti Lacoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

Outside Circle is one of the most amazing graphic novels I have ever read. I cannot emphasis enough how much this book should be required reading in all grade 10 history classes.

The book is the story of two young brothers and their struggle to escape the destructive cycle many aboriginal people are trapped in. I’m going to spoil this book (sorry because it’s so amazing) but it’s still 100% worth the read. If you trust me and are going to follow through on my advice to read this book as soon as possible and don’t want spoilers, stop now.

Pete and Joey have never known their father. They’re mother’s boyfriend is an addict, so is their mother. Pete is in a gang, a place where he finds companionship and a release for all his anger and rage. One night, they give him gun as a birthday gift. That same night he breaks up with his girlfriend after learning she’s pregnant with his baby. Joey, his younger brother waits at home for him. His mother and her boyfriend sell everything the brothers have, to buy some cocaine, and Pete is furious. He gets in a fight with the boyfriend, who attacks him. Pete pulls out his gun and kills him. Pete ends up in prison, Joey in the foster care system. But while Pete’s life improves when he’s granted bail to take part in a program for aboriginal men, instead of prison time Joey’s life gets worse, first in foster care, then on the streets, eventually in the same gang that Pete was in.

There are three things I think that make this book particularly moving. One is the history, woven in through out the story in a not-so-subtle way. The second is the illustrations, which are breathtaking. The third is that, while Pete and Joey are fictional, this is probably a true story.

Aboriginal history is a difficult and touchy subject to be taught in Canadian schools (American too probably, but I’ve never been an American grade school student, so it’s only a guess). We also live with the ongoing effects of a legacy of colonial history and the brutal toll poverty can have on a person, and how each generation inherits this trauma from the past. This graphic novel is didactic, it wants to teach the horror in aboriginal history, and it’s not trying to hide it’s agenda with subtle facts. It’s upfront, 100% clear, explained real history, even down to dates in some cases. Normally I don’t like that in a kids book, but the history is so powerful, human and heart breaking that it’s hard to look away.  That’s the point. We shouldn’t be looking away. We shouldn’t be pretending that the unimaginable death caused by Europeans, the abuse, the theft of land, the cultural destruction, the abduction of children, the explotation, the poverty and the continuing cycle of hopelessness and despair is somehow disconnected from our country’s greatest shame.

The illustrations are amazing. Some graphic novels are novels with pictures with them. Outside Circle is not one of those books. The graphics, besides being beautiful to look at, bring their own details to the story. The biggest example is Pete’s mask. Whenever he’s angry a white and red mask appear on his face. No one but the reader sees it but later in the book Pete makes a new mask as part of his therapy and you understand the subtleties of the earlier pictures. The other beautiful example is when Joey’s mother is signing away parental rights to her son. The document she signs is never described but if you read it, its an account of the long history of the loss of aboriginal children into the system.

The last, and probably worst thing about this book at it’s basically true. The author works in a real program to rehabilitate aboriginal men who have committed serious crimes, essentially because they suffering from poverty, abuse and hopelessness their whole lives and then as adults repeated the same choices their parents had made because it’s all they k know. It’s heartbreaking because it’s true.

Now, the end does offer some hope, when Pete and Joey get out of the system, Pete works, quits his gang and Joey presumably goes back to school. But my favourite change was Pete acknowledging his daughter,  making it clear that he was going to raise her exactly the way he should have been raised, and spend his life trying to bring her a place where she could be proud of her ancestry, not imprisoned  by it.

Go out and get it right now. You might cry a little, but you won’t regret the read.

Last movie I watched:

Annabell’s Wish. That beautiful baby cow!! Giving her wish to her best friend.

Last TV episode I watched:

That Grey’s Anatomy. I can’t even keep straight who’s who in that show.