Tag Archives: Canadian

Flickers

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You don’t often find a middle-grade novel that can be classified as horror, but I just did. And it is awesome.

Isabelle and Beatrice Thorn are 12-year-old twins, orphaned in a fire that took their father’s life on their prairie farm in Lethbridge, Alberta. Rescued by their Uncle Walter, the two girls now live in Hollywood under the patronage of the mysterious Mr. Cecil, a preeminent director and inventor in the 1920s. Isabelle, a blond beauty, earns her keep as an actress in silent films. Beatrice is kept hidden away, studying science and collecting insects, her birthmarks and scars covered by flowing scarves.

But life is not as easy as it first appears. People seem to be disappearing, Mr. Cecil keeps odd, private hours, and a rare new breed of insect, the scorpion hornet, attacks Beatrice and her best friend Raul.

I did not read the blurb before picking up this book. The cover attracted me, and I didn’t even stop to consider what was behind it. I don’t even know if I looked beyond the title and the picture. So I went into this book completely ignorant. What a surprise. I picked it up thinking to read a few chapters before bed and ended up staying up ’til all hours, unable to stop until the final page was turned.

Delightfully creepy and chilling. I don’t know how else to describe this novel. Creepy in an edge-of-your-seat-can’t-put-it-down sort of way. This is 1920s movie-making horror mixed with the paranormal mixed with enough reality to make you wonder what really goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood.

The characters are wonderful. Beatrice is smart, logical, questioning and independent, and the real star. Sister Isabelle is, at first, slightly spoiled and snobby and the centre of attention. But as the story winds its way through movie making and the adulation that surrounds it, the reader discovers her depth and that her devotion to her sister is not just based on what “Beets” can do for her. The groundskeeper’s son, Raul, is the best mix of practical and fanciful, he is pure friendship for Beatrice, willing to do anything for her, but also well aware of his role and his standing in the elitist Santa Monica neighbourhood where they live. And Mr. Cecil is mysterious and enigmatic patron, supporting and encouraging, all the while trying to harness the energy of emotion and imagination.

The plot starts out in one direction and ends up somewhere totally unexpected. I will not spoil it, but give it your best guess, and you will be so wrong. The twist is nerve-rattling and out of the blue, and I did not see it coming at all. Such amazing storytelling. The pace builds as the mystery gradually unfolds, mirroring the slow, measured life on the prairies and ending up with the furious cacophony of life in LA. Along the way, author Arthur Slade looks at misdirection and reality, at bravery and friendship and redemption, and weaves it all together with old-fashioned horror and Hollywood glamour.

The research that went into the world-building in this novel is evident. 1920s Hollywood, when the silver screen was just starting to change from silent films to “talkies,” the parties and excesses, the dark theatres with orchestra pits and velvet curtains. Slade is a master of imagery; everything from the lonely prairie homestead in Alberta to the crush of the premiere and the emotion in the theatre jumped off the page at me.

The epilogue is SO perfect.

This is the first novel I have read of Slade’s (which is criminal) and he has just become one of my automatic must-read authors.

While Flickers is a middle-grade book, it can and will be enjoyed by anyone.

Flickers was published April 26th, 2016 by HarperCollins.

The Dogs

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I say I’m not the biggest fan of horror, and end up reading two in a row! Although maybe it is also fair to categorize The Dogs as a psychological thriller or murder mystery.

Award-winning Canadian author Allan Stratton has written a twisting, horrifying story about two separate cases of spousal abuse and murder occurring half a century apart, and converging in the present.

Cameron Weaver and his mother have been on the run for years from an abusive father he barely remembers. He doesn’t know the extent of what his mother endured, he just knows enough to always move when anything out of the ordinary happens.

He stops making friends as he gets older. It becomes easier to live in his own head, and have his own conversations, rather than become close to other kids and then feel the pain of leaving them behind like they never existed.

In Wolf Hollow, in the middle of nowhere, the past and present come together. Cameron begins to slowly uncover a 50 year old mystery on the farm he now calls home, drawing parallels to his life, and raising questions he’d never bothered with before.

The Dogs is a smalltown horror story that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. Cameron’s unstable life creates a mental anguish and chaos as he revisits the past abuses. He questions his sanity and his mother’s, questions what is true and what is just a figment of his overactive imagination, questions whether or not it was his father that was the problem, or, he wonders, was it his mother?

It takes some extraordinarily and psychologically gripping chapters for the truth to come out. Stratton’s ability to weave illusion and reality is stunning; I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what was real, who was real, and what Cameron’s exhausted brain was fabricating on its own.

The setting is eerily perfect. Stratton’s description draws on classic horror scenarios of a derelict house, a mysterious figure out in the barn, a sealed attic, a creepy coal room in the basement, shadowy woods, and the echoes of howling dogs in the distance.  Perhaps the weird neighbour with the meat-grinding machine in his barn is a bit cliché, but it certainly did not take away from the story!

Stratton wrote a really interesting teen in Cameron, but in order to make the story happen, has him make decisions that do not fit his personality. (Approaching the school bully for information about his family, when he has made your life miserable from day one, does not seem like something ANYone would do.) That said, his vacillation between imagination and truth is wonderfully written. The reader is left wondering which is which.

Cameron’s mother is believable, a woman always on the edge. Jacky is a perfect spectre from the past. The farmer, Sinclair, is appropriately mysterious and creepy. The other secondary characters move the story along well, but don’t really stand out for me.

I found the ending slightly rushed after all the build-up to it, but was by no means disappointed by the final result.

Appropriate for all teens, keeping in mind there are disturbing descriptions of domestic abuse and murder. But a fast read, and enjoyable for both fans of the genre, and those who want to give it a try.

The Dogs is published by Scholastic Canada.

Half Brother

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I approach a Kenneth Oppel book with something akin to hero worship. With good reason. EVERY story he writes is different, his voice changes, and each is better than the last. I am an unapologetic fan, and cannot wait to read everything that flows from his pen. My reviews could all be “he wrote it, you read it.”

Half Brother follows this pattern of excellence.  13 year old Ben is moved across the country from Toronto to Victoria, where his research scientist parents adopt Zan, an eight day old chimpanzee they plan to raise as a human.  He becomes Ben’s baby brother, and is dressed in clothes, fed human food, given books and toys, and observed 24 hours a day. Can he be taught language?  Can he live as a human?  Every milestone and action is recorded by a team of research assistants from the University.

What could go wrong?

At first, Ben resists the chimp, and refuses to participate in the experiment.  His parents have turned his world upside down, he misses his friends, he goes to a school he doesn’t like, and it just isn’t going to happen.  In other words, he’s a 13 year old boy.  But over time, he falls in love with Zan, protects and cares for him.  Right around the time his father starts to believe that the whole plan is not such a good idea.

Set in the early 1970s, the story explores the controversy and ethics of chimpanzee research and animal testing. But it is not an animal rights platform. Or, at least, not only. It is, at heart, a story about what makes a family. Is it blood? Language? Species? Or maybe it is just love.

As with every Oppel novel, the characters are authentic. Central to the theme of language, there is constant dialogue throughout the story, rather than description, which allows the characters to develop naturally, and adds to their realism. Ben’s relationship with his mother, his relationship with his father, and the one he develops with his “brother”, Zan, are all carefully crafted through their everyday conversations and recording of Zan’s progress.

Ben’s father and he clash constantly over the raising of Zan.  Ben treats him as one of the family, while his scientist father uses harsher methods, demands obedience, and has a very disconnected, clinical view of the chimp.

Zan learns dozens of sign language words, but does he understand the language, or just mimic what he sees?  The very topic of chimp/human understanding was at the centre of the research at the time.

As Zan gets older and stronger, the humans around him see both the best and the worst of chimpanzee behaviour.  His maturation introduces new complexities into the relationships, and Ben’s own maturity must also keep pace as new ethical concerns arise.  What is best for Zan, and at what expense?

Fast-paced and well-researched, the attention to detail brings back memories for those of a certain age. As a kid in the seventies, I did spend my days on my bike, my friends and I played in the woods and fields behind our house, did the dishes in the sink (while dancing to ABBA and the Bay City Rollers), and dreamed of owning a colour tv (didn’t happen).

This book is appropriate for all teens, animal lovers, and anyone who needs a good cry. Can it have a happy ending?

Half Brother was published January 2010 by HarperTrophy.

5 to 1

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Original.  Diverse.  Dystopian.  Gorgeous. Holly Bodger’s debut novel 5 to 1 is stunning. STUNNING.

The year is 2054, and India has a population problem.  Specifically, after decades of a one child policy that favoured boys over girls, there are five boys to every one girl.  Girls are now a hot commodity, and they have the power.

Woman, tired of selling off their daughters to the highest bidder, have seized control of the city of Koyanagar, surrounded it by a wall, and now make the men compete in Tests to earn a wife.  The fate of those who lose the Tests is kept vague.

The story is told from alternating perspectives, and alternating genres (free verse and prose!  Gorgeous!). Sudasa is 15 years old, and has come of age to choose her husband. She doesn’t want one. Kiran, contestant 5, is almost 18, and has been selected as a contestant in the Tests, competing for the opportunity to marry Sudasa and escape a life of poverty for one of privilege. He doesn’t want her, he wants freedom. As they try to outsmart each other at every twist and turn, it becomes apparent that maybe they do want the same thing, it’s just not each other.

I wasn’t sure that Sudasa’s story would develop well, as it is told in verse.  Little did I know. Her personality, her character were so rich and vivid, she could have been standing in front of me and telling me her story herself.

This is not a love story. There is no romance. It is a tale of two people fighting, separately, for a chance to live lives and destinies of their own choosing.

The world building in this novel was really interesting.  Women grabbing control and forming government and essentially turning men into chattel sounds empowering, but as you read deeper into the story, it becomes apparent that the evils of the past are not that far behind, and, in fact, are being repeated.

For a dystopian novel, this one does not rely on sci-fi or fantasy, as so many do.  Bodger’s use of Indian language and place names, along with the real problem of over-population, make this an eerily plausible story.  Would men sit idly by and watch as women took control of city and sealed it off?  I doubt it.  But that small implausibility does not make the rest of the novel less gripping.

If you are ever going to judge a book by it’s cover, this is the one.  What a heartstopping jacket. Based on that alone, pick this book up.

This is an easy read, one sitting, but you will want to return to it and reread it and soak in the words.  It is appropriate for all teens.

5 to 1 is published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

The Boundless

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If you can picture a Titanic inspired steampunk railway train, then you will love The Boundless.  Kenneth Oppel magically weaves history (Canadian!) and myth together to achieve this spellbinding book.

The Boundless is Cornelius Van Horne’s monumental ode to train travel on the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway, for those who aren’t from here, or for those who slept through grade 9 history…).  To set the stage, Oppel takes the reader through the final days of building the cross-Canada railway, including in his story the good, the bad and the ugly.  He covers it all: the beautiful scenery, great mechanical accomplishment, poor or no wages, bad food and terrible conditions, the horrible treatment of the Chinese immigrants workers, as well as the celebrated last spike ceremony, with a few poetic liberties taken.

The book is in two stages.  Will is 13 years old, traveling from Winnipeg to the Rockies to see his father for the first time in three years.  His father, James, worked on the railway, helping to build the grand CPR.  Through sheer luck, Will gets the opportunity to witness and participate in the Last Spike.  In his travels, he meets a disappearing circus girl and the great Mr Van Horne himself, along with other mysterious strangers who will feature prominently in his future.  Danger ensues, and James saves Mr. Van Horne’s life, earning his everlasting gratitude and a hefty promotion.

Three years later, Will is back on the railway, in different circumstances.  The family lives a wealthy life in Halifax, and is preparing for a move back out west.  Mr. Van Horne has passed away, and his body will travel across the country on a final journey, on the inaugurall trip of the greatest train ever built – the Boundless.  Nearly 1000 cars long, with first, second, third and colonist class cars, the titanic train is a travelling city.  Excitement and adventure and danger abound, along with meeting old acquaintances, both welcomed and not. Will is growing up, and trying to find his own place in the world.

Included in this story are the Canadian myths of the Sasquatch (Big Foot) and the Wendigo (the demonic canabalistic half human wild beast that lives in the mountains and prairies of the west).  I always suspected they were real…

As with every book Kenneth Oppel writes, this one is fantastic.  The characters are believable, the story is detailed, and Oppel draws the reader right in.  It was hard to put down.  He writes The Boundless in the first person, which I found a little hard to get used to in the beginning, but once the story was underway, it worked really well.  Seeing the whole adventure through Will’s eyes was perfect.

This is a GREAT story for boys of all ages.  It has it all: adventure, trains, monsters, myth and mystery, and a little bit of gore.  Who hasn’t wanted to run away and join the circus?

The Boundless is published by Harper Trophy Canada.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies

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A tough one.  Winner of the Governor General’s Award in 2014, this story is inspired in part by the 2008 murder of gay teenager Lawrence King in California.  King’s shooter pleaded not guilty, and blamed King himself for the shooting, saying the boy had sexually harassed him and made him the victim of bullying.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies doesn’t hide the tragic ending.

Jude (nicknamed Judy by his homophobic classmates) is an outcast.  Everyone in his middle school falls into one of three categories, except Jude:

I definitely wasn’t a part of the Crew; I wasn’t about to be involved in anything unless it was court-appointed. I wasn’t an Extra because the last thing I could ever be was anonymous. But I wasn’t a Movie Star either because, even though everyone knew my name, I wasn’t invited to the cool parties.  So there was me, the flamer that lit the set on fire.

In his eyes, he’s destined for stardom, for the admiration and the scandal that is part and parcel.  He sees his life in movie scenes, and writes the characters and endings to suit him.  But the novel itself is not about stardom; rather, it is about Jude’s attempt to break away and save himself.

Jude suffers daily abuse from schoolmates, both physical and mental.  They consider hash tagging suggestions of his death a sport (#WhyJudyShouldDie), and ambush him whenever possible, in the toilets, in the park.  His stepfather hates him, and beats him at the slightest provocation, real or imagined.

He does have some support.  His younger half-brother Keefer adores and protects him, and his mother, while torn between her abusive husband and her son, shows flashes of love for him.  Mr Dawson, his closeted English teacher, tells him it is better to be hated for who you are, then loved for who you aren’t.  But sporadic love cannot overcome the hatred he faces.

BFF Angela is different.  While she loves Jude, she is out for herself.  She is sleeping her way through the school, keeping a list, using abortion as birth control.  The extent of her final betrayal was a shock, but as I considered it, it seemed more in character than I first thought.  Strike out in a manner that would hurt the most; consequences are never considered.

And there is Luke.  While Jude fantasizes about him, he also acknowledges he isn’t in love with him.  He just wants Luke to want him.

Jude is a vibrant and vulnerable character. He accepts himself, even as he wishes for a different life.  In many ways, he courts the abuse, seeing the attention as part of his stardom.  He leaves the graffiti  “faggot” on his locker as a tribute, and flirts with the more homophobic amongst his classmates.  He definitely does not want to be abused, but he feels more in control if he “asks” for it, acts like it doesn’t matter. He wants the right to be.

The book is well written. It is amazing. It isn’t … enjoyable to read.  Or easy.  I put it down several times, even while wondering what happens next.  Which is fine.  Books should challenge and even horrify you, if that’s what it takes to get a story told.

Raziel Reid writes a GREAT story, but I think it is written too old.  The sex, the drugs, the multiple abortions, they just didn’t ring true for middle school, on that scale.  That said, if his intention is to shock, he succeeds.  And most likely, the book would not have the same impact without the graphic scenes.

This book will make you think.  While it is YA fiction, I would say for the upper end of the age bracket, not the lower.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies is published by Arsenal Pulp Press.

Dragon Seer (series)

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Written by Newfoundland author Janet McNaughton,  Dragon Seer and Dragon Seer’s Gift are beautifully crafted stories of magic and mystery.

Dragon Seer takes place more than 1000 years ago on the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland.  The Picts, a Celtic, Pre-Christian people populate the story.  An ancient standing stone circle sets the stage for the magic that follows.

As the Picts attend their annual Gathering at the Circle, they dance and sing to worship the Sun and the Moon, and await the selection of the next Dragon Seer.  What happens is unexpected: a slave girl is chosen by the dragons.  Madoca’s life changes the moment the dragon alights on her shoulders; she takes on the mantle of leader of her people, and keeper of the ancient magic of the dragons.

Madoca becomes not only the dragons’ protector, but also their student, as they impart the ancient knowledge to her.  She learns that the life her people have known for centuries is changing, however.  Their life and culture is under attack from the Norse, the Vikings, as is the very existence of the dragons.  She must learn more quickly than planned to control her considerable powers in order to help save her beloved charges.

Dragon Seer’s Gift is set in modern day St John’s, Newfoundland, when two young teens discover the world of dragons, hidden for a millennia by their ancient magician ancestor.  Madoca’s last gift to the dragons was to send them to a place where they could not be reached by man, but one is left behind.  Gwyn and Maddie must solve the ancient riddles to help the dragon join her kind.

McNaughton weaves a magical story that is appropriate for all ages.  These are not your average scaly fire-breathing dragons, but are small and ungainly on the ground, then beautiful and graceful when they take to the air.  They speak the language of humans, can be demanding and abrupt, but also loving and caring of their people.

The Dragon Seer series is published by Harper Trophy Canada.

The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (series)

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Best. Titles. EVER. Kenneth Oppel’s gothic two book series starts with This Dark Endeavour and ends with Such Wicked Intent.  How can you not want to read them?  Never have I wanted a series to go on and on so badly!   (I will probably say that often, but it is true. Every. Single. Time.)

Victor Frankenstein lives a charmed life in the family chateau with his  twin brother Konrad and cousin Elizabeth.  Along with their close friend Henry, they study their lessons and explore the mountains surrounding their home.  They also spend time exploring their ancient chateau, endless corridors and half forgotten rooms, no place off limits to them.  Except the Dark Library, home to books full of mystery and magic.  Which of course, makes it a very enticing place to Victor.

When Konrad falls deathly ill, Victor broaches the Dark Library,  searching for answers to his sickness. His intense all consuming desire to save his brother’s life leads him down a path that will eventually end in Mary Shelley’s gothic classic.  This series explores alchemy and the supernatural, obsession and love, a romance that grips the reader and does not let go.

Victor is a wonderful character, a normal yet troubled teen, one with all the trappings of noble bloodlines and inherited wealth.  He is stubborn, arrogant and rash, yet you still root for him.  There were times I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him.  Konrad is gentle and kind and intelligent, immensely likeable, but you know from page one about whom the story revolves.  His parents have high expectations for their offspring and niece, showing the examples hard work and courtly behaviour in all instances.  In his upbringing and deportment, and then his increasingly erratic and obsessive behaviour, you can see in Victor the man who will be Frankenstein.

Both books are beautifully written, with absolutely incredible character development.  No words are wasted on unnecessary description. The last 30-ish pages of  Such Wicked Intent were impossible to put down; I was a wee bit late picking my kids up from school that day. (Thank goodness the admin are easily bribed with good book recommendations!)

Oppel leaves the reader wanting more, and deliberately so.  His prequel homage to Shelley is beautiful in its imagery and language, and readers of the original will not be disappointed.  (I LOVE Shelley’s Frankenstein). The ending has promise of yet another installment, an epic cliff-hanger.  Will there be one?  I have been haunting Oppel’s website for ages now, waiting!

Great for teens who like classic horror novels.

This Dark Endeavour and Such Wicked Intent are published by Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.