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.

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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.

 

 

Biological warfare, ethics and pacifism for the under 13 crowd

Gregor the Overlander: Curse of the Warm Bloods by Suzanne Collins

Fair warning from the start: I am going to spoil this book. Now, in my defense, I did guess the big reveal in the third or forth chapter,so maybe the spoilers aren’t that huge, but you know… just in case.

Gregor is once again summoned to the Underland by his friends there, when a dangerous plague breaks out and starts killing all the warm bloods – humans, rats, bats and mice. However, his mother is unwilling to just let him and Boots, his baby sister, disappear into the darkness again, so she goes with them. Suitably embarrassed to introduce his mother to the people who call him Warrior, Gregor, his Mom and Boots arrive. They learn that Aries, Gregor’s beloved bat was the first known case, that the rats are continuing to suffer in their war against the humans and soon Gregor’s mother comes down with the plague. Guided by a prophecy and a jittery medical doctor, Gregor and Boots lead a quest of all species (human, bat, rat and cockroach) to get the cure – a special flower. But ultimately the quest fails and then they realize – the cure was always with them because the humans had been trying to engineer it the whole time, so they could use the sickness as a biological weapon against the rats. They turn back, and when they arrive home, they learn that the humans have found a cure, Gregor’s mom and Aries will be fine but Gregor’s view of his friends is forever altered. A lot less hopefully then usual, Gregor and Boots go home (their Mom is not well enough to travel), setting up the next book.

Obviously the Hunger Games, Collins much bigger (better) series, has a lot of equally large and grim commentary. This whole series does too, but biological warfare and whether or not it’s ever okay (Gregor votes no, and I think I do too) is a pretty serious concept for a middle school child. Having said that, they probably deserve a story that helps them understand what they’ve seen or likely will see on the news. It also does a good job of breaking down the theory of pacifism through a character who, after being responsible for the death of dozen of rats, including babies, refuses to fight again. Really overall, it’s a good Big Ideas book.

Also Boots, the baby, is well handled and very adorable.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, although I didn’t have a problem putting it down and coming back to it later. But it gave me a lot to think about.

Last movie I watched:

Cloud Atlas. I really liked it but I think I missed something

Last TV episode I watched:

Orphan Black!!!!! Everyone needs this show in their life.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Ethics, Apocalypses and teenage angst

Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson

This young adult novel really depends on a lot of big reveals (like maybe three of them) so I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to say without revealing these details, which I don’t want to do because it was a really, really good book and I seriously recommend reading it.

Jenna Fox is seventeen and she wakes up from a year long coma in a new house in California. She doesn’t remember the accident that put her there, she doesn’t remember well, anything really. Her life is in a future when the overuse of antibiotics created a bubonic-esk plague that has devastated the global population and left the survivors at risk from every little infection.  Her father is a leading doctor, her mother used to renovate brownstones, back when they lived in Boston. They tell her everything’s all right now, that she will regain her memories, and get her life back. But there are things they won’t tell her. She slowly pieces together  her old life and a hundred questions, but the biggest one always remains: how did she survive the accident?

For the purposes of this post, my title will be my thesis.

This book had a pretty complex discussion of medical ethics. After the loss of antibiotics thanks to a reckless medical industry a regulatory body called the FSEB has gained significant power and they fight to oversee and limit what the medical professionals can do. Their agenda is personified in Allys, Jenna’s friend, who lost her arms and legs to infection. But on the flip side, there is Jenna, saved by illegal procedures. One girl killed by medical arrogance, one saved by it and in the face of questions like that how are we supposed to decide our own best practices? Certainly right now scientific developments are happening at alarming rates, promising solutions to out most serious problems, but also at a human cost.

As far as apocalypses go, an drug resistant super bug is both a pretty real one and a pretty scary one. Like, right now it’s relatively possible and that’s super, duper scary. This book doesn’t spend a lot of time world building. That’s okay and kind of makes the super threat, which is mostly abstract since it happens well in advance of the book actually starting, kind of scarier then it already is.

The last thing this book was very good and very real I thought was Jenna’s feelings of frustration as a teenager. She’s trapped between wanting to be the perfect child, to succeed, to be perfect, be everything that her parents want her to be and being a young adult, following her passions and bucking those expectations entirely before she can set up her own. The contrast is exemplified particularly by Jenna’s conflict with her post accident self, new Jenna and her recovered memories, old Jenna. I think teens, as well as most other people will enjoy this story and the tension Jenna feels. And that’s not even touching on her complicated feelings about herself and her identity after a terrible accident, something that lots of people who have experienced that kind of trauma might relate to.

It’s a great book, and I have recently been informed, part of a trilogy, so that’s something to look forward to. I strongly suggest picking up this first book at least and just seeing what you think. Obviously, I had lots of thoughts and yours will probably be better.

Last movie I watched:

Full Monty. HILARIOUS GUYS. You don’t think a bunch of out of work steel workers in the north of England who take up stripping could be this funny, BUT IT IS.

Last TV episode I watched:

The last ever Charmed. It was worth the whole dumb 8th seasons for that episode.