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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

November 11, 2014

“And you’d thank everyone for coming. We all raise a glass to Maya.
Everyone goes home happy.”
“So it’s basically a book party.”
“Yeah, sure.” 
Lambiase has never been to a book party.
“I hate book parties,” A.J. says. 
“But you run a bookstore,” Lambiase says.
“It’s a problem,” A.J. admits.

from The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Book parties aren’t the only thing A.J. Fikry hates. He is not fond of book blurbs, summer people, ghostwriters, children’s books (or children, for that matter), celebrity picturebooks, “…’postmodernisms, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism … and… this goes without saying, vampires’”. He does not like how much he drinks (that is, too much), or the frozen Vindaloo entrees and the loneliness that accompany them. And since his wife died, he has hated the work of being what he is, a bookseller on a small New England island.

Despite his closely held list of professed dislikes, Gabrielle Zevin’s A.J. Fikry may be one of the most likable characters published in 2014. Because, as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry unfolds, A.J. discovers that his ever-growing list of likes and loves is a much better one to live by. Vampires, he learns, can be watched in large doses on television without any ill effects and children are not so bad after all—nor are the books that go with them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Mr. Fox" by Helen Oyeyemi

"Solitary people, these book lovers. 
I think it's swell that there are people you don't have to worry about 
when you don't see them for a long time, 
you don't have to wonder what they do, how they're getting along with themselves. 
You just know that they're all right, and probably doing something they like." 
-- from Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Writer St. John Fox has a penchant for killing his heroines and the women in his life don't like it, not one bit. Nor are they terribly keen on each other. So it is that Mr. Fox's wife, Daphne, and his muse, Mary, each vie for his attention and affections while trying to avoid the inevitable losses that come with love. To Oyeyemi's great credit, their insightful discoveries touch upon habits, idiosyncrasies and dilemnas of all who seek love and understanding from those we care for the most.

"The girl tried, several times, to give her love away, but her love would not stay with the person she gave it to and snuck back to her heart without a sound."

Helen Oyeyemi's fascination with fairy tales is in fine form here, but Mr. Fox is no Grimm retelling.  For all its swift slayings, bodily severings, decapitations and such, Mr. Fox never loses the lightness of a game for three players where the scenes change and the characters dance in different directions, uncertain of each others' affections but always in each others' sights.

Note, a little guidance getting started with Oyeyemi is a good thing, for she is a writer and observer unlike any other. Eleanor Wachtel's 2014 interview with Helen Oyeyemi is just the ticket here

Monday, August 04, 2014

"The Lifeboat" by Charlotte Rogan

"But wouldn't you want to live anyway?" 
I asked, astonished by his vehemence. 
"Don't you want to live for yourself?" 

So asks 22-year-old Grace Winter of Mr. Preston, who sits beside her in an overcrowded lifeboat after the Princess Alexandra sinks in the Atlantic Ocean. It is 1914 and Grace finds herself, suddenly, both newlywed and widow, adrift and waiting for rescue in Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat.

But when the hardtack is gone and the drinking water run dry, the days wear on with neither land nor salvation in sight. A strange and mysterious separation emerges between passengers with the will to live and lead, at any price, and those made weak--or noble--by their circumstances. This  menacing rift swells and dangerously divides the passengers from "the only person among us who knew anything about boats and currents and the boiling sea." 

A tension of opposing forces builds to one of the few decisive acts that Grace will take in her young life. To preserve her chances in The Lifeboat any choice will be a terrible one, leaving many questions unanswered that no doctor's analysis or judgment day could ever resolve. 

A dark and masterful meditation on power, guilt, sacrifice and survival.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"The Chief Factor's Daughter" by Vanessa Winn

June 22, 2014

Think of it, Margaret… Dark skin, a country upbringing--
you would be a curiosity on a visit, but beyond that, 
you would never be accepted.
-- from The Chief Factor's Daughter 
by Vanessa Winn, Touchwood Editions, c. 2009

As Margaret Work fears herself rapidly approaching spinsterhood, her hopes for marriage and full acceptance into society begin to fade. Her Irish-Metis heritage is a source of insecurity she cannot overcome, despite a respectable social standing established by John Work, the family patriarch, as Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company outpost in Fort Victoria. 

"A courtship with her, she was painfully aware, would be a one-way passage for Mr. _____.  To marry her would also mean marrying the colony. She was born to the country, and to take her back to the Old World would be nearly unthinkable."

Even in her admirers, Margaret detects a disconcerting tendency to scrutinize her features and suspects they are trying to trace her bloodline in her face. It would be enough to make any chin-held-high heroine shy away from society, but Margaret surprises her company time and again with speech and manners that "endeavour to be worthy of the society she seeks."

Whether that society is worthy of her, author Vanessa Winn does not judge, but gives her characters plenty to keep them busy while they sort out the friendships, betrothals and marriages that will shape their lives to come. Along with riding parties, picnics and politics, there are moccasins to mend, fish to trade, taxidermy skills to practice...even a Pig War to settle.

Winn's is a convincing voice from a bygone era. In bringing colour and life to the very real families of colonial Victoria, she stays closely on the side of history. It takes all kinds to build a city, and Winn's research reveals the frivolous, the wanderers, the politicians and profligates, the sickly, the adventurous, the practical and persevering that built the Fort into what was to become a provincial capital of world renown.

Deftly done.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Strings Attached: One tough teacher and the gift of great expectations

May 26, 2014

If they could have seen their futures from childhood, Melanie Kupchinsky and Joanne Lipman might well have wondered how they might bear the worst of what fate had in store.

Melanie, the daughter of two musical parents, would know tragedy from an early age. Her mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis before Melanie, the eldest of two girls, was five. Virtually housebound, Jean Kupchynsky was unable to attend her daughters’ music recitals and performances, and was often hospitalized for long periods of time. Years later, the mysterious disappearance of Melanie’s sister, Stephanie, at the age of 27, left a void in the small and already splintered family. It would be seven long years of not knowing before Stephanie’s fate was resolved, confirming a tragic end to a talented young life.

Joanne would one day flee the basement of the World Trade Centre and watch the towers collapse from a few blocks away. Later, as a working mother, treatment for breast cancer would sap her strength and steal forever a period when life demanded the most of her.

But as girls with their whole lives ahead of them, Melanie and Joanne were two parts of a gifted and hard-working student string quartet. They developed a common bond in music and performing and, without realizing it, uncommon resilience. Their source was a man with deep reserves of his own—Jerry Kupchynsky had survived the Nazis and life in refugee camps to build a new life in America. He was the talented son of a mother impossible to please, the husband of an invalid wife with an incurable disease, the father of daughters Melanie and Stephanie and the manager of a small mountain of medical bills that no conductor’s baton could wave away.

“Mr. K” was also a remarkable public school music teacher. The toughest taskmaster in East Brunswick, New Jersey during the 60s and 70s (Joanne’s five-year-old self remembered him as “the meanest man I ever met”), Ukrainian-born “Mr. K.” was known for jabbing students with batons; scowling, angry outbursts (“Who eez deaf in first violins?”) and the generally not-so-benign dictatorship that was, for decades, his award-winning student orchestra.

As adults, Mr. K’s students would come to realize that his ferocity was an expression of just how good he knew they could be. Put it another way, they were worth all the yelling. Even if they didn’t know it themselves at the time.

Joanne would eventually pack away her viola and become an acclaimed journalist, writer and editor; Melanie is a violinist with the internationally renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  “Whether we stuck to the music or not,” observed one of Mr. K’s students years later, “it stuck with us.”

More than anything else, Jerry Kupchynsky wanted his students to know “the happiness that comes from hard work”. Learning music, and playing well, was the means to that end. Though there is loss and sadness, Strings Attached: One tough teacher and the gift of great expectations resonates with reassurance—that full and happy lives are not given, they are earned.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Stormy Weather

April 12, 2014

"..during a time of Depression, and drought and dust storms" Jeanine Stoddard takes her chances. On a horse named Smoky Joe that runs like a rocket, on an abandoned family farm in Texas and on a widowed man who may be her saving grace if she can only bring herself to say yes.

Paulette Jiles' Stormy Weather tests her heroine's grit, determination and loyalties to the limits. A wise woman makes her own luck in hard times and Jeanine's instincts for what will be and what is worth having above all proves wise indeed.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The One World Schoolhouse

May 1, 2014

Sooner or later almost every mere mortal meets their Waterloo in math. For Salman Khan, not the Bollywood-star, but a self-proclaimed math nerd and graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School, it was when he hit a wall tutoring his cousin in sixth grade math. Traditional coaching wasn't getting through, and Khan was troubled as to why his cousin (who was bright, engaged in school and had always done well in math) was even struggling with this particular unit in the first place. Not living in the same city, let alone the same state, was an obstacle quickly resolved when Khan realized that there could be more to Youtube than fluffy cat videos.

An advocate of mastery learning over good-enough grades, Khan developed a digital age method of tutoring his cousin that quickly spread to include other family members and students who needed similar support. The roster of videos grew, as the blackboard of the Internet site is never erased, allowing students to master a unit at their own pace before moving on to the next.

After several years of creating his video tutorials out of a closet-like space in his home, Khan quit his job as a financial analyst and devoted himself full-time to building the Khan Academy. Several thousand YouTube videos later, and with a professional team in place, the Khan Academy now educates, free of charge, millions of students world-wide every year. Sponsors and benefactors came forward, including Bill and Melinda Gates, and, in less than a decade, the Academy is no longer an experiment but a world-class centre of online learning.

It's almost the stuff Bollywood films are made of, if they were made of math. Instead, the roots, philosophy and development of the Khan Academy are now described in a book: The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined. "It's useful--and humbling," writes Khan, "to realize that the debates and controversies currently surrounding education tend not to be new arguments at all; similar conflicts have been raging among people of passion and goodwill since teaching and learning began."

In entering the debate himself, Kahn doesn't advocate for a full scale dismantling of the Western classroom model. Instead, he envisions "flipping" the classroom, to allow teachers to focus on high-value, personalized support, feedback and direction; and classes to engage in collaborative learning and problem-solving. Meanwhile, the Academy's 24-by-7 online learning tools give them a whole new forum to learn, practise, "pause and repeat as necessary" until mastery is achieved.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Smitten Kitchen

If you haven't done more with kale than pass it over in the produce aisle; if you've never spatzkoched a chicken or assembled a ratatouille sub, or if things have just gotten so downright dirty between you and your stove that you just want to kick all four elements to the curb… you may be overdue for a taste of The Smitten Kitchen. 

Based on her award-winning food blog, Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen is a down-to-earth place where there's never enough counter space, milk is measured by the "glug",  zucchini salad is the only solution for supper on a hot and humid New York night and a six-inch cake pan positively "brims with good intentions". Well, of course it does.

Flat-roast a chicken in 40 minutes? Shave asparagus for pizza? Put peaches in pancakes? When the chemistry is right, it's right as Perelman proves one recipe after another. Take heart then, a boost from The Smitten Kitchen and you might just fall in love with yours again, crappy old stove and all. 

I did.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A grateful author thanks her reviewers

January 30, 2014

I actually meant round these up over Christmas, but I did more reading than writing over the holidays and it's taken until now to sit down for a really good gratitude moment. Just like in the days when I was writing Mimi Power, Daphne is in the bath and the kitchen table is a quiet place to be. Apart from me and my laptop, the kitchen table is the collecting place a sprawl of sparkle pens, a paper fortune-teller, a silvery blue Knot Genie, a Klutz kit for making Clay Charms, a Cursive Writing exercise book and a Grade 4 agenda with a reminder in it to bring home spelling words for practice tomorrow. There are also a few stuffies on the surrounding bench backs, some coloured stamp pads for fingerprint art and six little ceramic animals on the windowsill--part of my mother's collection from boxes of Red Rose tea thirty-odd years ago.

This would be a light load for our dinner table/craft station/homework centre. Stuff moves around, but it never really gets cleaned up. And if I waited for that to happen I would never get to my gratitude moment. So I have tidied up my tear sheets, cleared myself a little corner to type this on and collected my favourite quotes from the past year of reviews.

"Fans of Junie B. Jones, Ramona the Pest and Marissa Moss's "Amelia's Notebook" will adore entertaining Mimi and her adventures in art and mischief."  -- Natalie Braham, Denver Public Library, School Library Journal, November 2013

"Clear writing and child-like illustrations enhance a great story." -- Rosemary Anderson, BCTLA Bookmark, July 2013

*Starred review (titles of exceptional character), in the The Canadian Children's Book Centre's Best Books for Kids and Teens 2013, Spring Edition.

"I enjoyed this book but it had some parts that were happy and some that were sad. I wonder how Mimi survived Waby when she lost bunny Jim. This book was very nice and fast paced so I enjoyed it." -- Thano R on

"... this book is right at home in the hands of today’s child, and it is complemented very nicely by Marc Mongeau’s whimsical, exaggerated, out-of-proportion and occasionally ironic black and white illustrations. Highly Recommended."-- Todd Kyle, CEO, Newmarket Public Library in Ontario, CM, Volume XIX Number 19 January 18, 2013

"Although Mimi describes Waby as being exceedingly annoying, she also shares her love for her sister, which I really enjoyed amongst the humorous 9-year-old angst. I really do recommend this book for the 9-11 year old group, but moms this is one you can enjoy too!" --, March 18, 2013

"Narrator Mimi is a likable, insightful and long-suffering heroine with her own challenges—including learning how to swim, making inspired art and deflecting the vortex that is Waby. Eventually, she incorporates the “je ne sais quoi” of Henri Matisse (and the title) and “paints” with scissors. Canadian writer Miles’ Power sisters are reminiscent of Judy Blume’s Peter Hatcher and his little brother, Fudge; Mongeau’s illustrations add a modern freshness to the story.

A humorous and affectionate look at the trials and tribulations of family life." (Fiction. 8-12)--Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2013

Monday, January 20, 2014

Monday, January 06, 2014

Mimi Power a 2014 Red Cedar Book Award finalist

January 6, 2014

Being a finalist alongside the likes of Gordon Korman, Karen Rivers, Marie-Louise Gay and other wonderful children's writers, it's easy to think: "Mimi Power, you have no chance." But then I remember how great it is just to be in such good company. 

Thank you, Red Cedar Awards, for everything you do to support books and inspire readers in British Columbia.