Monday, 29 December 2014

"Audrey (cow)" by Dan Bar-El (book review)

Happy festive season!  New Years is coming up, and while I'm not typically a maker of resolutions, part of me would like to pledge to read more books.  Right now I read about 2 per month, which is only 24 books a year.  Which is probably good for your average person, but we're talking LIBRARIAN standards here people!  At any rate, holiday vacation is a good time to tear through some tough reads, so I've got some Kobo Abe and Angela Carter to catch up on before I go back to work next week.  But in the meantime, got another great advance copy from Librarything to talk about!

 Audrey (cow) by Dan Bar-El

I'm totally guilty of judging a book by it's cover on this one.  I originally requested this book from Librarything because I LOVED the cover art.  It's beautiful, colorful and inspiring.  Illustrated by Tatiana Mai-Wyss, the illustrations in Audrey are just as good as the story and add a beautiful whimsical touch to what can be at times a serious story about an unusual cow.
Audrey knows that there are three types of cows, and that she herself falls into the unfortunate category of "food cow", and will one day be trucked off to the abattoir (which is somewhat confusingly referred to as "Abbot's War" in the story, not sure kids would get it).  After hearing stories of bravery and escape involving other cows, Audrey and her friends hatch a plan to free Audrey from her fate.
As a vegan, I loved the premise of this book for several reasons.  Firstly and obviously, I loved that Audrey is expressed as a thinking, caring, loving individual who wants nothing more than to be alive.  Though the animals are occasionally anthropomorphized and some of their actions are a bit of a stretch, it is so wonderful to have a story from a farm animal's perspective when so many people are so drastically out of touch with animals typically raised for slaughter.  Audrey's enjoyments come from being able to climb a hill, gaze at the stars, and eat the sweetest flowers and grasses.  Dan Bar-El has lovingly crafted personalities for each of the farm animals while at the same time generally maintaining their distinctive animal natures.  Another reason to love this book, beyond the empathy it inspires for animals, is that it teaches the idea of independence and rejects blind acceptance of tradition.  This is especially valuable for the pre-teen audience of this book.  Audrey refuses to accept her fate as "just the way things are", which is a great lesson for all children.
Overall, despite occasional hiccups in the progression of the story, I loved Audrey (cow).  While it`s a great adventure story that can certainly be enjoyed by everyone, I think vegetarian children would especially enjoy it for the affirmation of loving kindness towards all creatures, and demonstration of how positive change can be inspired by a single individual.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Christopher Moore's "The Stupidest Angel" (book review)

I'm back!

Long time no blogging, I know.  Various things and stuff came up, you know, REAL LIFE and all that. I know that's no excuse to not talk about books, but I'm going to use it anyway.

Regardless, it's the festive season, hence the reading of a festive book for book club.  So for this month I selected a read from the ever hilarious Christopher Moore: The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror.

Disclaimer: I'm a particularly HUGE fan of Christopher Moore.  His work has made me laugh tea out of my nose on more than one occasion.  And as funny as his books are to read, they are even BETTER in audiobook format.  I used to listen to them on my hour-long commute to my student job the last time I was in university, and nearly had to pull over a few times while listening to A Dirty Job so I didn't cause an accident/pee myself.

Love him.  Love his books.  And sad for me, this is the only one I had left to read, so no more fabulous Christopher Moore books for me until he writes another one.

So then, this one in particular.  We find ourselves back once again in Pine Cove (the setting of The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove) with it's cast of idiosyncratic residents getting ready to celebrate Christmas.  Until Santa takes a shovel in the throat.  What follows is a chaotic, over-the-top romp with horny scientists, a literal-minded angel, and everyone's favorite stoner police officer.  Fans of Moore's work will find lots to love here, there are characters returning not only from Lust Lizard, but also from The Island of the Sequined Love Nun and Lamb.  Moore's slapstick style and casual cussing contrast well with the typical joy and festivity associated with the holiday season.  Now I might be giving away a plot twist here, but there are zombies in The Stupidest Angel. It's important to remember that this was written well before zombies became a trite and overdone cliche.  And besides, they aren't really your regular plague-resurrected zombies anyway.  These ones are a bit more intelligent and vengeful.  :)

My only issue with this book is the ending.  But as frustrating as I found it, the deus ex machina outcome actually fits really well considering we're dealing with an angel as one of the main characters of the story.  Suspend your disbelief at that point, if you didn't already do so for the zombies or the talking bat.

Cheers, and happy holidays.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Kicking off vegan mofo with garbage food!

Welcome to Vegan Month of Food!  This month I'm planning to blog about vegan things you can put in your bagged lunch, so you can stop buying fast food or eating out everyday and as a result you will save a kajillion dollars.


But because it's no fun to start you off with pictures of tofu and salads, we're going to start with the cream of the crap.  I'm talking about VEGAN GARBAGE FOOD.   Prepackaged nomnoms that you can pack in your lunch which might be vegan, but they sure as hell aren't healthy.  We will talk about actual, realistic, healthy lunches later, but in the meantime we are due for a trip to the snack factory.

In no particular order, here they are!

Delicious, crunchy, teeth-blackening Oreos.  So fugging good, and massively addictive.  These are the reason why I so rarely make homemade cookies.  Stick two (or ten) in your lunchbag and you'll be fighting off the urge to pop out for sweets while you slog through a clogged inbox.

Hunts Lemon Meringue Pie Snack Packs are surprisingly dairy-free.  Which is super rare in the prepackaged pudding world.  While I can't really say that these taste like a lemon meringue pie, I can tell you that they taste like a SUGAR COMA and I love them.  Keep your eyes peeled and you can find them on sale for $1 on rare occasions.  And then you stock up and have no room in the cupboard for actual food.  Cause that's life.

Also in the category of rarely vegan items we have Dortitos Sweet Chili Heat.  These are the only vegan Doritos in the universe of Frito-Lay orange-powdered snacks.  And they are completely scruptious.  These will fix your craving for a salty snack, and will also decorate your desk/blouse/pants with nuclear orange powder for an exciting fashion statement which says "I simply could not help myself".  

Corn syrup.  Er, I mean, Twizzlers!  Which are pretty much 100% corn syrup, AKA the apparent devil.  Eat them anyway.

And for the frugal among us, Airheads!  These corn-syrupy bad boys are only about 40 cents a piece, and make for the perfect little wind-me-up when you are having a massive processed sugar craving.  Which happens to the best of us.  Don't beat yourself up about it.  Go have an Airhead.  I won't judge.

And of course there are more.  What are your favorite terrible vegan snacks?  Leave a comment and clue us all in on the great sugary/salty noms we could be stuffing in our faces at our desks!  :)

Monday, 18 August 2014

YRCA 2015: "The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen" by Susin Nielsen (review)

The YRCA reads are coming along nicely!  I find summer is the perfect time for children's books because I'm able to work in more extended periods of reading and I can usually read one in only a few days!  Save the long slogs for the depths of winter, I say.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen

However, just because some children's works are brief, doesn't mean that they are all bright and sunny.  Case in point, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen.  This multiple award winner first caught my attention when it won the CLA Book of the Year for Children Award, and has been on my "to-read" list for quite some time.  Seeing it nominated for YRCA was enough to bump it to the top of the queue.
Henry Larsen is asked by his psychologist to write in a journal.  He does so reticently at first, and as Henry opens up the reader gets a first-person glimpse into the lives of those who are left behind after a tragedy.  As Henry struggles to come to terms with events, there are moments in the story which are absolutely heartbreaking, others which are hilariously funny, and on the whole the entire tale is truly thought-provoking.

In it's coverage of issues surrounding bullying, I feel that this book does an excellent job of not only presenting the victim and perpetrator, but even more so the feelings of witnesses and family members of those affected.

Reluctant Journal is so much more than just another book about bullying though.  The realistic nature of the situations of the characters and their reactions make this book absolutely haunting.  This really is a necessary read for all Junior High aged kids, and is well-written and exciting enough to hold the reader's attention despite the heavy topic.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is thusfar my favorite read of this years batch of YRCA books.  I highly recommend it not only to it's main audience of early teens, but to absolutely everyone.  Its a fascinating book that will have you thinking about it for days after you finish reading.

Next up, watch for a review of Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead and Ungifted by Gordon Korman.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

YRCA 2015: "Son" by Lois Lowry (review)

So I've taken it upon myself to get cracking and read all of the deliciously wonderful Young Readers Choice Award nominees for 2015.  Admittedly, I've already read Marissa Meyer's Cinder (and reviewed it here) and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (which I can barely speak about, let alone write about!) which are both nominated in the senior division for this year's award.  The rest are new reads to me, and I'm going to try to read them all if possible.

Today I'm reviewing my first new reads for this award: Son by Lois Lowry is a contender for the Intermediate division.

Son - Lois Lowry

Somehow, certain siblings of mine made it through school without having read The Giver.  This caused me surprise and chagrin, as it was required reading for me, and I can’t imagine a childhood without this haunting and subversive tale with the cliffhanger ending.
Son is the fourth and final installment in The Giver quartet.  It is not really a series per se, as the events of Gathering Blue and Messenger can be fully enjoyed without having read The Giver at all.  However, all three are required reading in order to fully appreciate and enjoy Son.
Son spans the history of events of all three of the other books.  There are leaps forward in time, but they are reasonable and easy to follow.  Water Claire is lost herself as she tries to seek out her lost child, and is asked to sacrifice greatly in order to be reunited with him.  And really I can’t say more than that without spoiling the whole thing.  But for lovers of The Giver or any of the other books in this series, Son offers many new twists and many answers to questions readers have had for two decades since The Giver was originally released.

I highly recommend this book for any fans of Lowry’s work, and for anyone who enjoys a dystopian tale without all the robots and police and heavy-handed governments that make this genre usually seem so dark.  The government is there and lives are being controlled, but in so much subtler fashion than is currently typical in the genre.  

Next up will be reviews for The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen and Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead.  Stay tuned!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" (book review)

Oh summer.  How I love thee.  Too bad it's already half over.  And yes I know it's August 1st, but to accurately quantify summer on the Canadian prairies, one needs to approach things with a dose of brutal honesty now and then.  Because really, we all know that summer is only July and August.  It can and has snowed in June, and spring this year was so fucking cold and raining and shitty that this was even more the case this year.  And it can and has and probably will snow in September, so that is definitely part of autumn.  You can't argue with cold morning temps and pretend anymore at that point.

So while I'm already pining for yesterday, while trying to enjoy the remaining 30 days before we plunge back into the ABYSS that is not-summer, AKA pseudo-almost-winter, the thing that monopolizes our year with 10 months of temperature related agony, I am in full blown summer reading mode.  Which means that I can't read less than 2-3 books at a time.  Books are delicious, and books on the back patio with margaritas are even better.

One of my recent reads was the July assignment for book club, a collection of short stories by Angela Carter called The Bloody Chamber.

It could easily be said, in advance of reading this collection of works, that I am a HUGE fan of Angela Carter's work (I reviewed her creepy tale The Magic Toyshop last year).  I like to describe Carter's writing as prose that sounds like poetry.  She had an exceptional vocabulary and understanding of the English language, and the sentences simply flow beautifully.  Mechanics aside, The Bloody Chamber features a large number of familiar tales (such as Puss-in-Boots and Beauty and the Beast) re-written with a variety of results, which are quite often not-so-happy endings for the protagonist.  As always, Carter is a feminist writer and this comes through very clearly in her work.  Women who are forced into marriage as an escape from crushing poverty are a common theme in this book, and as a result Carter ends up making quite extensive commentary on sexual violence found within legally recognized relationships and the dependence and voicelessness of women who are victimized by their husbands (who in this case are more frequently their "owners" than anything else).

Although some stories resonated with me more than others, this is obviously to be expected in a short story collection.  As a whole, The Bloody Chamber is an excellent work and quite representative of Carter's style and subject matter.  Once again I would recommend anyone who hasn't read a work Carter to seriously GO READ ONE.  Nights at the Circus is the most accessible and is a bit more gentle than some of her other works in terms of subject matter.  If you enjoy well-crafted and beautifully written stories which inspire empathy and insight, trust me, you will love her works.   

Thursday, 3 July 2014

What I think about when I'm running

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they'll go to any length to live longer. But don't think that's the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.”

Haruki Murakami wrote a particularly excellent memoir, called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I recommend to anyone and everyone who either enjoys his books or enjoys a good run.

I was thinking about this book today, and thinking about how visualizations help when it comes to setting fitness goals, and also during the actual fitness process itself.  That's not to say you have to picture the grand final result of it all, which can sometimes seem so far away as to be disheartening.  But something that helps you to keep going when you are mid-run and just want to quit.

So today I thought I'd share my own visualization, the thing I think about when I am running.  I have a tough time finding my groove sometimes, but once I settle into it and my arms and legs hit the right rhythm, my abs are pulled in nice and tight, shoulders back... only then can I settle into my visual, which propels me through the rest of my run.

I am a robot.  My arms and legs all move like clockwork.  My pace is consistent, my movements are fluid.  Robots do not tire, robots can run forever.

It is surprisingly effective.

What is your visualization?  What do you picture or think about to get you through a run?

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Lunar Chronicles (so far) - series book review

I am here today to talk to you about what I have affectionately termed "my cyborg Cinderella books".

Oh I love each and every one of you soooo much!

Some YA series are just absolute, pure enjoyment.  And Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles are just deliciously readable books.  They use familiar Fairy Tale characters (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel) as the foundation for a dystopian future where the people of the Earth and the people of the Moon (Luna) march towards war while a devastating plague runs rampant through Earth's kingdoms.

As is often the case with YA reads, this premise might seem to be a bit silly.  But Meyer uses just enough of the traditional story without leaning too heavily on it.  And although the central plot (which I cannot spoil for you) is a very well-known traditional trope, the nuances in the characters and storytelling are fresh and make an old idea seem very exciting.  I've never liked Cinderella more than when she was a cyborg.  :)

Having just read these three books over the course of a few months, I am now suffering from what I'm sure will feel like an interminable wait for the fourth and final book of the series, Winter, which won't be released until early 2015.

Which means any and all YA fans who haven't read this have time to get on it!  If you're at all a dystopian or YA fan or just like a rollicking good adventure, you will love these ones.

Over and out for now. :)

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (book review)

This month book club is reading graphic novels.  I've been waiting a while for this genre to come up, not only because I obviously love graphic novels, but because I don't know that we can really link them all together and call them a "genre".  There's so much diversity in subject matter, art, etc, that I think it will be a challenging discussion when we eventually sit down and try to figure out what ties our works together and what generalizations we can make about what is more an art form than a genre.

Anyway, this month I read the 2-volume Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, who is also the super talented author of American Born Chinese, which I highly recommend if you haven't already read it.

I'm a big fan of the covers

Despite having taught high school history for a time, I have only a passing knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion, mostly to do in connection with imperialism in general.  My knowledge of the internal tensions and politics within China at the time is almost nil, so I was really glad to read this work not only from an entertainment perspective, but also from an educational one.

I would recommend reading these in the order suggested by the title of the combined work.  Some things are otherwise given away in Saints, or would be difficult to understand the importance of without first having read Boxers.  The two are essentially inseparable, and only happen to be bound separately.

Children Bao and Four-Girl are the protagonists of these two stories.  In Boxers, Bao is mistreated and neglected by his brothers until conflict with both "foreign devils" and "secondary devils" (Chinese converts to Christianity) leads Bao to train in martial arts, and eventually lead his brothers and the members of The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists in rebellion.  In Saints, Four-Girl's story runs parallel to Bao's.  Also a mistreated and unwanted child, Four-Girl yearns for basic recognition and a real name, and eventually finds the belonging she desires in Christianity.  Bao and Four-Girl cross paths innocently as children, but find themselves on opposite sides of a war by the time they are teens, with tragic results.

Gene Yuen Lang does a marvelous job of presenting both sides of this conflict, but I found Boxers to be a much stronger work than Saints.  I found Bao to be the more developed and complete character, with more time spent on the development of his character and exploration of his actions and motivations. The believability of the characters also extends to many of the secondary protagonists. Perhaps it is simply because Saints is a shorter volume, but I found it to be lacking in character development and storyline compared to Boxers.  I found Four-Girl to be much more static and her story less intriguing than Bao's.  Together they work well, but I really wish that as much development had occurred with Four-Girl as with Bao, it would have made for a better balance between the works.

The art of Boxers and Saints is very much in Yang's style, it is an extremely clean and almost minimalist at times, but highly expressive.  His use of colour to contrast the mundane from the supernatural is excellent, and minor characters are drawn with as much personality as the protagonists.  Architecture and landscapes are simple but appropriate and well-done as well.

Overall, I feel that Boxers and Saints is an excellent work, and I wish it had been available when I was teaching high school history.  Although this was a brief topic in the curriculum, I feel like these graphic novels give a good overview of the issues and parties involved, and would make for excellent, engaging reading for students studying this section of history.  I highly recommend this work for anyone who enjoys history, graphic novels, or just a very good story. 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa (book review)

I've learned to mistrust books described as "coming of age story".

This is mostly because they are all, essentially without exception, absolutely depressing as hell.  And Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa is no different.

Now sometimes things are depressing, especially when you're a teenager.  And sometimes things are good.  And sometimes there are books like this one, and like Catcher in the Rye, where nothing good EVER happens to the protagonist.  As opposed to a more balanced and realistic story where good things occasionally happen (as they do in real life, even if your life is really shitty), like The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  And I know that's because the writer would like us to feel the depth of their angst, but really it just serves to make the book unrelatable and unpleasant to read.  The lack of any redeeming moments or characters is what makes Kicking the Sky into a long, drawn-out, masochistic bore.

So why did I pick up Kicking the Sky knowing what type of book it was?  The premise involving a murder as the catalyst of loss of innocence was very intriguing, especially a real-life murder.  But this event is hardly mentioned at all in the middle section of the book, almost as if the author forgot about it while he was busy writing about all the terrible things that happened to everyone.  Considering the main characters are 11- and 12-year-old boys, there's lots of sex (most of it non-consensual) and drug use, assaults, and dead people that nobody seems to mind too much about.  I get that they are supposed to be neglected latch-key kids, but somebody's getting raped or molested in some way in pretty much every chapter. It was totally unnecessary.  We got it the first umpteen times, their lives are shitty and they're exposed to a bunch of crap they shouldn't be.  Which makes me question whether they had any innocence to lose to begin with, and whether protagonist Antonio can actually be pining for a childhood that didn't really exist to begin with.  So the story also falls short on that account as well, as I can hardly assume that Antonio's family suddenly woke up one day as terrible people after a childhood supposedly full of happiness.

Usually I like to build a "compliments sandwich" for my book reviews, where I talk about what I liked, then talk about the parts I didn't, and then end with something positive.  But I'm just not sure I can with this one.  It's not a dramatic story about growing up, it's just a bunch of terrible things happening to people over and over and over, with no happy moments to break up the action and create realism.  Give this one a pass.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

I'm not going to tell you how cute your child is

I am not ever going to tell you how cute your child is.

This is probably not because your child isn't cute.  I'm sure they totally are.  But a lifetime of hearing nothing but "gosh how cute and precious are you" is not going to do your kid any favors.  It might actually be a detriment to them.  So I'm cutting the cute crap, and here's why:

Firstly, "oh you're so cute" is not a message your kid needs to hear over and over and over.  While this might seem like a really good idea, it only reinforces a major problem in our society.  Which is that you (all of us, especially the girls) are only of value if you are pretty/cute/handsome.  And that is a serious problem.  Children are rabid sponges for adult interaction and information.  They are absorbing everything you say (as anyone who's ever dropped an F-bomb around a 2-year-old knows), and using that to figure out their own world.  If all the adults and random strangers on the street are focusing on how cute a child is, this quickly becomes something that they will know is important.  Being cute gets them attention from adults.  Being cute is clearly very important.  And I'm sure that's not the message we're intending to send when we compliment a child's looks, but if that's all they hear it's what they will value.  And this is not a fair thing to have them cope with, especially (I say it again, especially especially) the GIRLS, who will not only be hearing it from the adults around them, but also from their TV shows and music and toys, all of which are hyper-focused on the importance of beauty (seriously, go look at the "girls aisle" in the toy store, I have a whole other rant on this for another day).  And then we grow up trained to be perpetually dissatisfied with our appearance, and end up caking on make-up and spending hours at the gym trying to fit back into that narrow definition of cute that was so repeatedly pounded into our minds time and time again.  So do the kids a favor, and cut that shit out.

Secondly, "oh you're so cute" is actually code for "I know nothing about you kid, so I'm going to comment on the only thing I can readily see about you, which is your appearance."  What about their kindness and generosity?  Or their gentle soul?  Or their mischievous sense of humour?  Or their gregarious personality?  You know, things about them that ACTUALLY MATTER.  Now I know this is harder with babies, who have all the personality of a bag of potatoes for the first several months of their life, but make a little effort to do better than "gosh he's cute".  Banal platitudes on a child's looks can only take you so far.  What do you know about them other than that they have an adorable button nose?  Maybe spend some time with them and get to know who they are, rather than just what they look like.  I'm going to wager that there's probably a real person hiding under all the cute.

Lastly, none of this barrage of cute commentary is good for mom and dad either.  These people are doing their best to turn little Timmy into a reasonable, functional human being, and don't need these perpetual cute messages any more than their children do.  Adults are conditionable too, and hearing infinite repetitions of the same statement over and over and over will change anyone's mind over time.  Because nobody goes into parenthood knowing exactly what to do, our upbringing, our society and peer groups inform us about what's important.  We don't need any of these groups teaching us that cute is priority number one.  It's just not good for anybody.

Maybe your kid really is cute.  Good for them.  Maybe they're also a great listener, or a trustworthy friend, or full of compassion.  And maybe those things are getting overlooked because all the adults can do is comment on what they can most easily see.

Step it up people.  It takes a community to raise a child, and the community needs to stop being so shallow. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Curried Sweet Potato Chips recipe

I'm feeling quite the culinary queen now, this is my SECOND recipe that I ever made up out of my head (I'm sure you all remember my vegan chickpea donairs?)!  This recipe serves 2 as a side dish, but could easily be doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled to feed a crowd.  So without further ado, here it is!

Curried Sweet Potato Chips

(Serves 2 as a side dish of 1/2 cup each)
Delicious and naturally vegan. :)

  • 1 6oz sweet potato or yam (this is a smallish one, the big suckers you see in the store will weigh a lot more!)
  • 1 tsp vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 tsp medium curry powder
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Wash and peel the sweet potato.  Cut the potato into medallions, about 1/2" thick (not too thick or your cook time will be longer).  Cut the larger medallions in half, or even quarter them in the case of a very large potato. 
In a medium bowl, combine the oil, curry powder, turmeric and salt.  Add the cut potatoes to the bowl and toss until coated.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and put the seasoned potatoes on the tray.
Cook for 10 minutes, then use a spatula to flip the potatoes over.  Cook for another 10 minutes until just slightly blackened around the edges.
Eat as is, or dip them in ketchup or spicy vegan mayo!

They come out such a pretty color from the turmeric.  They are just a teeny bit spicy and full of flavor, enjoy!  :)

Monday, 24 February 2014

"Whisper" by Chris Struyk-Bonn (book review)

I received a copy of Whisper from in exchange for an honest review.  The book was an advance copy, it will be available in Canada in April 2014.

Whisper is the first novel from Chris Struyk-Bonn, and hopefully not her last.  The dystopian setting of Whisper is certainly meant to be of our own society, and is not a terribly distant future either.  We find the titular character living in the woods with other rejects, individuals who have been cast off from a society which shuns those with any physical defect.  Whisper’s crude but happy life in the wilderness is abruptly ended when she is reclaimed by the father who rejected her, and brought to his house to work as a servant.  As Whisper is traded from hand to hand into a life in the highly polluted cities, she retains her dignity and independence and never surrenders the hope of returning to her simple camp and the only family she has ever known.

I am a very picky consumer of dystopian fiction, as it is one of my favorite genres.  But I thoroughly enjoyed reading Whisper.  While some of the ideas are not completely original (very much reminded me of The Chrysalids), the characters are what really make the story.  Whisper herself is a highly interesting and endearing character, and the supporting casts of characters have strong personalities as well.  Character development is really what made this book for me, as the reader can see how various experiences and maltreatment impact Whisper and shape her personality and future encounters.  There are a few odd moments of inconsistency, but they are not enough to detract from the overall growth of the characters.

My only complaint about Whisper are the few odd places where the story goes off on a tangent that seems to be completely unnecessary to advancing the plot.  One example of this is a scene where Whisper is rescued during transport to the city, but then quickly returns to her captor.  I found this scene to be contrary to Whisper’s established character, and almost completely unnecessary.  The explanation of trying to protect her family of cast-offs just doesn’t work in this scenario, as she is being sent by her biological father into a life of begging in the streets.  Being fully aware of the terrible destiny that awaited her, I would have thought Whisper would take her chances in the familiarity of the woods and try to return to her kin, rather than going back to her dastardly, creepy uncle who was transporting her.  The whole scene just didn’t fit.  There is a later scene where Whisper is briefly jailed in the city, which I also felt could have been omitted without damaging the storyline.

Despite a few inconsistent and unnecessary scenes, overall I was very impressed with Chris Struyk-Bonn’s inaugural effort.  The story is interesting, moves at an appropriate pace, and the characters are fascinating and multifaceted.  I look forward to reading more by Chris Struyk-Bonn, and recommend Whisper to anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction.  

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Feeling all the feels - Bridge to Terabithia (book review)

Oh, the feels.

Book club selected "banned books" this month, and I thought it would be a natural fit to pick a children's book, because so many of the books that are challenged every year are for kids/YA.  This is probably because people are worried about their fragile little minds being unable to handle basic life concepts. Like swearing.  Or people having same-sex parents.  Or death.  Or other reminders of reality.

Now some of this concern is justifiable.  Some concepts are confusing for children.  My 5-year-old niece, who has experienced death in the passing of her great-grandmother, is a prime example of this.  Her understanding of death as it stands right now is that she doesn't want people to die because then there will be skeletons.  She doesn't understand it in terms of the cessation of life or that she will miss the person if they are gone, she just REALLY dislikes the idea of there being any skeletons in her vicinity.  But when children have a misunderstanding like this, it is an opportunity to teach them at their level about the concept, rather than pretend the concept does not exist.

Really, it is this whole "at their level" thing that throws people off and is usually at the source of the debate on most challenged books.  It's the same with other topics like suicide, drug use, drinking, sex, etc.

And this leads me to the banned book which I read for this month, The Bridge to Terbithia.

The main reason that this work has been banned in the past is because it features death as a predominant part of the story.  Which in my own personal (professional librarian) opinion, is a dumbass reason to ban a book.  Apparently people have also taken exception to the book because the main character Jess uses the word "lord" outside of prayer, and that the book portrays secular humanism in a potentially positive light. 

(Excuse me while I go clutch my pearls.)

Clearly, most of these objections to Bridge to Terabithia are products of the time from which it was written, in 1977.  More than forty years later our sensibilities have changed... or so we would like to think, but this book was among the most challenged in America between 1990-2000.  I couldn't find a stat on it since then, but I'm sure calls for censorship didn't stop just because they 90's did.

Now I've been referred to as a crazy-left-wing-hippie-plant-eater more than once in my life (actually), but I'm going to go ahead and say that these objections are pretty much ridiculous.  But really, most objections and challenges to books ARE ridiculous.  It always comes down to fear and misunderstanding of a different person or group (i.e.- foreign people, people of other religions, people with a different lifestyle, teenagers, etc.) 

Honestly I found Bridge to Terabithia to be pretty tame.  Yes there is a death (I'm not going to say who and ruin the book, although if you read the back cover it's pretty obvious), but I think there is more controversy to be had with the book's quiet subversiveness (a la Catcher in the Rye, only much less whiny).  Terabithia is really all about building the world you want to live in when you don't want to live in the world that authorities have built for you.  Which is also exactly what makes this a wonderful book.  If like me you somehow escaped your childhood without having read this one, I highly recommend it as a fast read with a real emotional punch.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Something that needs to be said

I'm going to write today about a subject I have not written about before.  And unlike pretty much every other blog entry I've written, this one is serious.  I don't usually like to blog about serious things (because I like the blog to be a happy place), but this is something that I felt the time is right to address, because I am simultaneously fed up and at the same time quite elated, as you will see...

So here goes.

Last night I experienced a moment of pure happiness and joy as my 29-year-old husband applied to go to school in the fall, to become an educational assistant.  It was a moment years in the making.  And I have to say something about everything that has lead up to this point.

As many of you might be aware, my husband has a mental illness.  This is not a secret and neither he nor I have ever been quiet or uptight about it.  These things belong in the open.  When we keep them a secret we show we are ashamed and that we have been made to feel guilty about them.  We do not shy away from admitting that we have diabetes, or epilepsy, or other LIFELONG illnesses, so why should we shy away from discussing mental illness?

But why do so many people shy away from discussing it?  Because of the JUDGEMENT.  Because if we fall sick with cancer, people gather around us and lift us up.  They bring us food and help us with chores and take care of the kids, and do everything they can to help us while we are ill.  But admit that you have a mental illness... admit that you have schizophrenia, that you have a borderline personality disorder, that you have an issue with anxiety... and people do not gather around to help.  THEY RUN.  AND THEY JUDGE.

This is because people seem to think (for some god unknown reason) that mental illness is something you can control.  That it is a simple manner of choosing to overcome it. And because you can't control it, you are therefore not really trying very hard to get better, and not worthy of being helped.  All compassion, understanding, and care for people with mental illness goes out the window because of this ignorance to one of the most common illnesses.

Here are the things I am sick of hearing people say to me about my husband:
  • Why can't he just be happy?
  • Why doesn't he just get a full-time job?
  • Why doesn't he just try harder?
  • Why can't he do ___?
so if you are one of the people saying these things, please stop, because he is doing his best with the condition he has.  As the person who lives with him, I am more than aware of his various shortcomings in the sight of his friends, family and of himself.  He does not need to be reminded (nor does his main support and caregiver person, ME) of what he is not able to do.  This only feeds his illness.  An illness which tells him constantly that he is incapable, worthless, and not even worthy of living.  Certainly he doesn't need this reinforced by anyone else.  You wouldn't remove the mobility supports of someone with cerebral palsy, why would you remove the very tenuous lines of hope which hold up someone with mental illness?

I am witness to the worst of it.  And I am lucky enough to see him at his very best. I am also the one who gets the privilege of seeing that he is improving everyday.  When you say "why can't you just _____", what you are really saying is "I have no patience for your illness, you need to get better right now or I can't accept you as a person". 

But I am proud to say how well he is doing, and that there is so much that he can do, in the midst of what everyone says he can't do.  He is able to get out of bed nearly every single day.  He takes his medications diligently and without being told.  He attends therapy twice a week.  He is focusing on healthy eating in an attempt to lose weight and be healthier.  He keeps looking for a job, despite repeated rejections.  He makes friends and socializes with them.  And most importantly, he makes plans for his future.  He has come light-years in terms of progress with his condition over the last four years,  I would like it very much if everyone could choose to see that in place of seeing only the negative.  He will never be perfect, and he will quite likely never even be what we call "normal", and his condition will likely last for the rest of his life.  But he is thriving despite of it. 

And if he can do that, with all that's working against him, I think you are capable of some understanding.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Going the distance: making homemade pasta

Yeah so long time no blogging.  I am well aware.  This is mostly because I upgraded from having a "pretend-sort-of-job" to "almost-real-job".  Now I have to do work at work and even sometimes do work at home.  THUS, we wind up here, with very little bloggy action.

So to remedy, I'd like to tell you all about the time not that long ago that I made homemade pasta using my new pasta maker that I got for Christmas!

Shiny new toy.
On my list of unnecessary but fun things to own (along with an ice cream maker and spiral slicer), we have the pasta machine.  This one is quite cool, you've got the main roller component for squishing down your dough, and then it has two cutters on the back.  One does spaghetti and the other is fettuccine (I think).   You clamp the heavy sucker to the counter and roll away!

So when it comes to the dough I searched around the web for basic egg-free vegan pasta recipes, which are pretty numerous and all generally about the same.  Along with your flour and water, the universal recommendation seems to be to add a pinch of turmeric for colour.  I used predominately white all-purpose flour with a little bit of whole wheat thrown in for some pretend healthy. 

The "fun" part comes before you get to even use the machine.  Once the dough is made you have to work it out for a good solid 10 minutes.  It's a heck of a forearm exercise I'll tell you!  Then you break it up into smaller sections and the rolling and cutting begins!  I hung the pasta over the cupboard doors to dry so it wouldn't stick together.

Not very glamorous...
A single recipe ended up making enough for two meals, so I bagged and refrigerated half, and cooked the other half for supper!

All-in-all, I found the pasta maker to be pretty easy to use, and the pasta it made was pretty yummy!  However it is one of those things that I'm not sure how often I would go out of my way to make it.  The whole process was about 2 hours from beginning to end, which I would qualify as a very time consuming recipe.  But I feel the same way about samosas and green onion cakes.  There are some things that end up getting relegated to the weekend for this reason.

Kind eating!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

This is the real world! - A holiday with two dystopian YA reads

Ah, the Canadian winter.

For reasons I'd rather not get into, I found myself stuck on semi-operational passenger trains full of awful children in the middle of the prairies for what added up to several DOZEN hours over the course of the holiday season.

At any rate, with such extravagant amounts of time on my hands, you had to know I would get lots of reading done.  And I did.

Here are a pair of reviews for the YA dystopian novels I read, which were highly suitable to the situation if I do say so myself...

#1: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf - Ambelin Kwaymullina

I wasn't sure what to expect from this particular YA read, which I snagged as an advance copy through LibraryThing (the rest of you will have to wait until April 2014 to get your mitts on this one).  This is Ambelin Kwaymullina's first novel, but the premise sounded very interesting.  In a post-apocalyptic world where there are regular folks, there are also individuals who are known as "illegals", who have special abilities which many fear will upset the Balance which keeps society intact.  One such illegal is Ashala Wolf, whom we meet at the outset of the novel as she is being brought into a detention centre for interrogation.  Now this seemed to me like an odd place to start the novel.  I really wanted to know more about her deeds before being brought to prison, but that is actually part of "the twist" so I can't say anything more about that!  However at the time this aspect of the novel really bothered me, I had a hard time getting into the story for about the first 100-pages.  And I can't tell you what part of the book changed my mind without spoiling the whole thing for you, but trust me when I say that the action in the book picks up dramatically, and that it was a very enjoyable and exciting read from there on out.  There are many twists and turns and leaps through time, and the ending is really quite satisfying.  I am very glad that I didn't give up on this one, it was worth the initial struggle and turned out to be a really interesting story in the end. If you enjoy dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games or Matched, then I would recommend you pick up a copy of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf once it is released.

#2: More Than This - Patrick Ness

As some of you may already be aware, I am guilty of being a HUGE fan of Patrick Ness.  I absolutely devoured his Chaos Walking triology, despite the fact that it is probably the goriest set of teen books I have ever read, and I'm not usually a big fan of violence in my reads.  But his stories are so riveting and the violence is sometimes just an integral part of the action.  Also, if you haven't read A Monster Calls then you should, it's not his usual vein of writing but it damn near broke my heart and not many books can almost make me cry, but it was damn close.
Anyway, onto the matter at hand.  Ness' latest YA release does not disappoint as the author delivers us into a world that keeps the reader guessing right up until the end. When young Seth drowns he does not meet his end as one would suspect, instead he wakes up in the old home where he used to live, completely alone.  At least for a little while.  Seth strives to understand how his reality has changed, while at the same time trying to figure out his new environment and avoid forces that don't want him to know the answers.  And I'm sorry for that terrible description of the plot but I really just can't tell you what happens in this book because it would totally ruin it for you if I did.  Trust me when I say that it is a great read and keeps you guessing right up until the end.  Ness' consciousness of relying on old tropes is directly addressed within the book, so while some aspects of the story are not entirely original ideas, the way that they are put together is exciting and fresh.  And the ending!  I'm a fan of great endings that don't let you know exactly what happens after the book ends.  This one really reminded me of the lake scene at the end of Haruki Murakami's Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World; the protagonist steps into the unknown with no clear answer for the reader as to where exactly he will wind up.  
While I think I was more engrossed with the Chaos Walking books, I found More Than This to be an exciting and engaging read, and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA books, dystopian fiction, and works with GLBTQ leads.

So that's it for now.  Book club is reading classics this month, so excuse me while I go completely switch gears...