Just so, so, so good

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

I love, love, love this book. There is so much excellence I’m not sure where to start.

It is the story of Pen, short for Penelope, a queer first generation Canadian teenager. At the start of the book Pen is doing her best to slide by unnoticed. She avoids fighting with her parents when she can by hiding in the basement where her older brother lives. Her best friend Colby defends her against anyone who bullies her in exchange for her help picking up girls. But when Colby tries to pick up the girl Pen has a crush on, Pen makes a choice for herself. Soon after events in her life start to spiral out of her control, forcing to her to evaluate the decisions she’d made so far, their consequences and man up.

There’s a lot of really, really good things about this book. The tone is great, Pen’s voice is unique and strong and she’s a great character who’s relatable to anyone who’s every felt like an outsider (every single person ever obviously). It’s also a great story of LGBT+ story in a delightful, un-simplistic way. Pen is a lesbian, 100%. Blake, her girlfriend, has dated boys but also dates a woman, implying she’s bi or possibly pan. Pen is very masculine – she cuts her hair short, she dresses in her brother’s hand-me-downs, she loves TMNT and hates Barbies but she also is very sure she’s not transgender. She really recognizes her identity as a masculine woman. But most of this isn’t really stated, it just is. There are scenes that really touch on these issues – for example Pen tells Blake she wants to be touched like a boy – but they aren’t resolved either and as far as all the characters, or at least the sympathetic ones, are concerned, that’s okay. And I think that’s a really good thing. We don’t need every single person to fit into a box.

This book has a lot of really heavy content. Here there be spoilers. The struggles of first generation Canadians are woven throughout the story – Pen struggles with vastly different expectations she has for her own life versus her parents. Language gaps, extended family, food and cultural expectations are woven throughout the book as challenges and advantages for Pen and her brother.

Finally there is some sexual assault. Pen’s internal dialogue does an amazing job of describing her frozen fear, when Colby makes sexual advances on her. Although she clearly doesn’t want them and is not interested in them but she feels like she has no power in their relationship, she’s afraid to find herself without Colby’s friendship so she has to let it happen. It’s really upsetting to read.

There’s also some pretty serious violence, alcohol, drugs and an abortion, which is handled carefully and complexly but is obviously challenging for readers.

I recommend this book enormously,  for teens and adults. If younger readers would like to take a stab at it, I’d recommend that too but encourage an adult conversation about some of the content. Just read it, enjoy it and embrace the really satisfying but not completely happy ending.

Last movie I watched:

Thor: Ragnorak. Pretty excellent, I have to say.

Last TV episode I watched:

The Red Tent. I’m actually really enjoying it, although I’m sure the book is better.

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Beauty after Tragedy

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Hermione Winter heads off to cheer leading camp before her grade twelve year sure that this will be her year. She and her best friend Polly are co-captains of their team, in a school that loves cheer leading. Her teams is the best it’s ever been. Her boyfriend’s on the team. Surely this will be her year. Until she’s drugged and raped by an unknown assailant at camp. Over the next year she looses friends and gains friends as she struggles to get through her own life but also to live free of the identity of a victim.

This book is powerful. Really, truly. The writing has a beautiful rawness to it, particularly painful to read when it relates to physical pain and sensation and flashback. I found it hard not to have a very real reaction myself (okay, so I cried at work through a few parts) just because of the stunning honesty of everything – the words, the sentences, the characters, the places.

The other things that brought me to tears was the wonderful people in Hermione’s life. From her best friend Polly, to her partners bewildered about how to help their child, the other adults in her life – her therapist, coach, guidance councilor, doctor, police – and her friends, people she’d always known and cared about but she’d never realized how they’d step up to protect her, they are all amazing. And of course, this is the most unrealistic element of the story because in real life, survivors of sexual violence often end up feeling isolated alone and betrayed by the people in their life. But here’s the thing about this book – at least for me it was impossible not to want to be that person who steps up for anyone who needs. Characters that good inspire goodness.

Just for the record, this is not a book about looking for the rapist. Of course some of the story is devoted to finding out who he was, to the police investigation and DNA and that kind of CSI stuff. But that’s not what it’s about, not at all.

There’s very little about this book that I didn’t love. Obviously there’s some pretty serious content, so I’d recommend chatting with any teens in your life who happen to be reading it if you’re uncomfortable with themes of sexual assault, abortion or trauma. But I would also recommend everyone reading it.

Last movie I watched:

I still think it’s the Karate Kid.

Last TV episode I watched:

The Musketeers! Apparently the king just kinda died. Weird.

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.

 

 

My first ever Korman

On the Run: Chasing the Falconers by Gordon Korman

The On the Run series is the stories of two children who’s parents were arrested for treason and they were sent to a detention farm but they know they have to escape to find a way to prove their parents are innocent. So they’re forced to become fugitives and head out on a quest, without an adult.

It’s a really short, easy read, clearly a step into chapter books kind of story. But it’s fast paced, fun and almost certainly a good choice for kids who like adventure and are looking for the chapter books that will help them move to reading at a higher level.

Lucky for them there are like 800 million Korman books, so if this makes a good impression, your kid is set for reading material until high school.

Last movie I watched:

Might have been Die Hard 2. Also might not have been.

Last TV show I watched:

A bit of the Crown. It’s really slow, but somehow completely captivating.

How to start a family

Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family by Natalie D. Meisner

This thin little novel is a rare piece of nonfiction for me. It’s the true story of a lesbian couple in Canada who decide they want to have a baby, and then a baby each and then because their doctors advise them that they’re too old to wait a baby each at the same time. Thus begins their quest to find a sperm donor, successfully inseminate, get through two pregnancies and survive two labours.  It is a love story and a relationship story and an LGBTQ story and parenting story and overall a great read.

Being a true story, Meisner doesn’t hide the dirtier truths about relationships, hurt feelings, miscarriages, grief, broken promises, uncomfortable situations and generally being directionless in your adult life and that makes the book striking and interesting. I also like how comforting it is to read stories about people who are like you – struggling with where they want to be but determined to fulfill their goals, in love but vulnerable and afraid sometimes and facing the unique challenges of being a lesbian couple.

The language is beautiful, particularly Meisner’s description of her wife and their children, both born and unborn.

All around loved it.

Last movie I watched:

The end of Star Trek Beyond. It didn’t get better. I’m disappointed.

Last TV episode I watched:

One of the final ones in Supernatural season 11. So they killed God I guess?

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.