Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

Malorie BlackmanWhile I don’t often pan a book publicly, especially when it’s an author I love, I’m feeling a little blind-sided by Chasing the Stars. I have read just about everything Malorie Blackman has written; I even wrote a major paper on her for my Masters programme. Her picture books are great fun, and Noughts and Crosses has been a mainstay of my grade 10 English curriculum for years. So I think part of my determination to finish this book came from my disbelief that Blackman had actually written it.   It was the same sort of feeling I had when I read Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling; only my commitment to the author and the feeling I owed her something for past joys, kept me reading to the end.

Chasing the Stars is toted as Othello in space. Now I didn’t know this until I got half way through and decided to check out GoodReads to see if anyone else was hating on it as I was. Once I knew that I could play the “which character represents which character” game. That made it slightly more interesting but I still continued to skim from about midway to the end.

The novel tells the story of Olivia and her brother Aidan who are on their way back to Earth three years after a virus wipes out everyone else on their ship. Our do-gooder captain stops to risk her life to save a colony being attacked by the evil Mazon race. They manage to save a number of the colonists, and Olivia is faced with a new community on her ship after being alone for three years. An interesting premise and one I was enjoying until page 54 when Nathan came on the scene and Olivia was reduced to a hormonal teenager complete with such worldly observations as “Whoa! He was gorgeous”. Yes, explanation point. From this point on, our fearless leader is constantly “flushing” and “feeling the heat rise in her face”. Okay, fine. I can deal with the attraction. She is eighteen and has been alone and hormonal for three years. And yes it is young adult and romance, I’m fine with that; Noughts and Crosses is a romance but it’s so much more as well. This book is not.

Blackman insults her readers when she has Olivia and Nathan fall in love and get married within days of meeting each other. While I understand the novel is aimed at a teen audience, who may not be as jaded as I, even a teen audience needs more of a build up to their “Romeo and Juliet” scenarios.  Othello and Desdemona worked because they were married and established as a couple for some time before the play started. Having Olivia and Nathan meet and marry in the first third of the novel felt forced and as a reader I was apathetic after that.

Following their “joining” Olivia and Nathan are challenged by the “green-eyed monster”, leaving them to behave even more out of character. Nathan goes from loving to cold and angry within pages and Olivia loses all the common sense she must have needed to captain the Aidan.  There is a murder mystery subplot and hints of some interesting characters but both were under-developed. The story is told in alternating view points between Olivia and Nathan which got confusing at times, even with the different font. Olivia’s brother Aidan was probably the one redeeming character. I thoroughly enjoyed him but that’s not surprising as I also adore Iago in Othello, which appeared to be Aidan’s role.noughts and crosses

I scanned through to the end to make sure my guess at the “twist” was right and to fulfill my duty as a Blackman fan.  Ultimately, I am compelled to reread Noughts and Crosses and try to pretend Chasing the Stars was all just a bad dream.

If you have yet to read Noughts and Crosses I suggest you get on that right away.

I Miss Terry Pratchett

The_Amazing_Maurice_and_his_Educated_RodentsSo I’ve had cats as far back as I can remember. I was a little girl who loved cats and now I’m a big girl who loves cats.  As a big girl who loves cats I became enamoured with Terry Prachett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. It’s definitely one I would have read in my teen years had it been released 20 years earlier.  I love this book so much I centred one of my Masters papers around it; as a stunning version of the Pied Piper story.

Maurice is a brilliant cat who has a human patsy, his front really. He also has a group of mice in his employ. Using both resources he sets up a scam to send in the rats to invade a town and then have his human ride to the rescue offering to get rid of the rats; for a fee of course. This is a brilliant story told with Terry Pratchett’s usual snarky voice.  I miss it and him.

hotel catAs a little girl who loves cats, my passion was once again manifested, as most of my passions were, in the books I read. In grade 3 I took a book out of the library called The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill. It’s the story of Tom who wins himself the job of Hotel Cat because he’s such a good mouser. There Jenny, the black cat who wore a red scarf and Checkers and Pickles the Firehouse cat. Together they formed the Cat Club. They looked after each other and made plans for the Stardust (?) Ball.

I loved this book so much I kept in my desk so I could read it over and over again. I can’t remember if I renewed the book or just pretended it was lost, but I know I kept it in my desk for a long time. I thought it would be pretty cool to be like Mrs. Wilkins, an elder resident who could communicate with cats. Not the elderly part the communicating part.

There’s been some great cats in book history but I don’t remember many particular cats owning their own books like Tom and Maurice. The Cat in the Hat maybe. Tao from The Incredible Journey?  Crookshanks and Mrs. Norris from Harry Potter are great characters but supporting characters at best. warriorsI did discover, however, a series called the Warriors, the story of four clans of wild cats, which appears to be very popular with my middle school girls. It a series written by a group of authors under the name Erin Hunter (a la Nancy Drew). I’ve read the first few books and thoroughly enjoyed them. My students tell me there are many more though. They’re right. This series is a monster. Thirty-four books in the core series (and counting) with additional manga and e-book versions to add additional detail should you require it. I don’t think I’m quite up to that many.

Any cat-centric chapter books you remember? I’d love to know what else I might be forgetting.

The Horsey Phase

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The beginning (cover from 1974)

I wonder if every young girl goes through a horsey phase.  So many of my students (all girls) are horse crazy so it’s possibly not a generational thing. My horsey phase was around the age of 11 and involved every horsey book I could get my hands on.

One I managed to get my hands on (although I’m not sure where from) was A Stable For Jill by Ruby Ferguson. I read it over and over (and over) again.  It’s the story of a simple British girl growing up in the 1950’s whose life is centred around horses and the horsey world. Her mother is a children’s book writer and travels often so Jill tends to have a lot of freedom. As I was only 10, I didn’t really wonder where her parental supervision might be. In A Stable for Jill, Jill’s mother goes on a book tour of the United States and Jill is forced to spend the summer with her aunt and cousin, who are as far from horsey people as it’s possible to get. Jill resigns herself to a miserable summer without her pony, Black Boy, yet it only takes her a few days to make friends with the local vicarage children who are decidedly horsey people and the summer starts to look up.

What I love about Jill is that she’s full of ideas, hard-working and down to earth. The vicarage children are about to lose their horse, Ballerina, so Jill helps them start a riding stable so Ballerina can earn her own keep. As a ten year old I found Jill inspiring. Forty years later I still find her inspiring.

I loved reading about competitions and hunting, about grooming horses and pony treks. I was desperate for more Jill. I wanted to know how she had found Black Boy. The library had three of the other books in the series. Strangely enough they were books 4, 7 and 9. The internet didn’t exist and I had to guess at events in the other books. Until Santa bought me the complete set one wonderful Christmas. I think Santa has connections in England.

I’ve been having fun doing a bit of research about the treasured books from my childhood; and find it interesting how some of them have been “updated”. Jill’s pony, Black Boy was renamed Danny Boy in later editions, and of course all references to cigarette smoking had to be removed.   I’m not a fan of changes to original fiction, as I think a book should be experienced as an author originally intended. Books are a snapshot of their times just as painting music, yet there seems to be this constant worry of offending; but I digress. Definitely a post for anther day.

I immersed myself in all things horses from the ages of 11 to 13. I took lessons, went to summer camp and of course read everything I could get my hands. If only The Pony Book Encyclopedia had been around at the time. I probably would have worked my way through it from top to bottom.

So, am I crazy, or is there generally a horsey phase somewhere in every girl’s childhood.

Ready Player One

ready-player-one-book-cover-389x600So, definitely not a book from my childhood as I read it only five years ago, but Ernest Cline’s fantastic dystopian novel contains so much 80’s nostalgia that I felt it deserved it’s own special post.

I have no idea how I heard of the novel as it is a debut, thus it can’t be that I’d read other works by the author. I also bought it in hardback so I must have really wanted to read it. I finished it and immediately read it again, right after buying copies for my pop culture loving friends and family (those my age especially). What makes the book so wonderful is that you don’t have to get all the allusions to 80’s pop culture to understand the story. In fact, I added the novel as an independent study for my grade 10 students, and they have thoroughly enjoyed it also. For us children of the 80’s, the pop culture references are a delight as you can’t help but get a little thrill each time you recognize one. I remembered vividly the scene from War Games and the swallows from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Joust also features prominently and I couldn’t help but remember flying that friggin’ ostrich around with a joystick.  If you’re interested, the wonderful educational site, Schmoop, catalogues them all for us here.

Cline has created a vivid world and an underdog hero you can’t help but root for. The story is set in 2044 and the world has succumbed to decay and an environmental crisis. A la the Matrix, citizens escape into a more welcoming and idealized world in the OASIS, a virtual reality world created by James Halliday, an eccentric billionaire and 80’s pop culture fan. In his will, Halliday leaves his vast fortune to the first person to discover the Easter Egg he has hidden in the OASIS. Millions set out to find it but as the years go by with no progress, only the most devoted remain determined in their search.

Our hero, Wade, is an 18 year old orphan when we meet him, and he has devoted his entire life to searching for the Easter Egg, just have many others including a well-organized and well-funded conglomerate which is determined to find it before anyone else. When Wade is the first player to find the copper key (after beating the game of Joust), he becomes a target as all set out to beat him to the end.

As leery as I am about film adaptations especially of a novel I love, I can’t think of a more perfect person to take on the film version than Steven Spielberg, himself an 80’s geek. Cline is also the screenwriter so I’m feeling pretty good about this one, despite a niggling feeling it will be CGI and action heavy. Those lucky enough to attend the panel at Comic Con this past week were given a first look at the film which premiers March 30th. This will be one I see opening weekend.

Happy Anniversary Harry

harryYes I know I’m a bit late.  I was completely convinced that the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was July 17th. As a devoted Potter fan, I knew I had to commemorate the anniversary in some way so I sat down to write only to realize that June 26th was the anniversary date. Totally missed it! I think July 17th was the release of Deathly Hallows; definitely a memorable occasion for me, so I see where that came from but still annoyed at myself for missing it. Twenty years! I can’t believe it’s been twenty years. Where did that go? Anyway, better late than never I guess.

Every Harry Potter fan has their “I remember when” story I’m sure. You know, “I remember how/why/when I discovered the series”? And sorry, but I don’t count the films. I’m a purist. The films are a whole other world and a whole different set of stories. Really, the film Prisoner of Azkaban completely glosses over the Marauders, which is definitely what made that book so great. What I find sad now is that it’s not easy for Harry Potter newbies to discover the books without being influenced by the merchandising juggernaut that is Warner Brothers.

While I would like to say that I picked up Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 and waited in anticipation for the next installment, it wasn’t until 2000 that I actually discovered Harry and the magical world. Still it was before the first movie came out, so I had my own visions of the characters and Hogwarts rather than those Warner Brothers created for us.

gobletIt was my boss who introduced me to the series, however unintentionally. He sent me in search of the Goblet of Fire for his son who was demanding to read it. My boss, never one to deny his son, set me on the hunt for the sold out book, which had only been released a week ago. Keep in mind now, that this was the infancy of the internet and a time when “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” carried some credence. I hadn’t heard of the boy wizard at that point, but a bit of research piqued my curiosity as I was having a devil of a time finding a copy. Once I tracked it to an independent bookseller in Toronto, I found myself reserving two copies and hoofing it down there to pick them up. Of course I also had to get the first three books as I couldn’t read the fourth one first. So, successful in my search, I presented boss’ son with his copy of Goblet of Fire and said “we can read it together”. Ha, fat chance. I was finished all four books inside of five days. He was still only half way through Goblet. Yep, I was hooked.

I believe the true success of the Harry Potter series is a result of a combination of things. Yes, it’s a great story which I thoroughly enjoy (over and over and over again) but it also benefited from the “right place right time” phenomenon. The internet was in its infancy. Smart phones and iPads did not exist; even the iPod hadn’t been released yet. There were no social media sites and people were just discovering a whole new world of others with the same interest. The fandom was born and grew on a young internet. People could come together for the first time (anonymously for the most part) and immerse themselves in a whole new world. People from all over the world could talk about the books and play in the magical world while they waited for Order of the Phoenix to be released (three years it took!!). Somewhere in there the films came out but they were a blip in the already rabid book fandom.

The Harry Potter phenomenon as it’s been called won’t happen again as our world has changed far too much in the past 17 years. Everything so frantic and fragmented now as we are bombarded daily by tweets here and notifications there. Really it’s a talent just to keep up!

I still amazes me that it’s been ten years since the release of Deathly Hallows. Ten years. I miss Harry, and I miss the anticipation of the next installment in his story. We know how it all turns out now. His story is over and ten years later it’s still hard to accept that we have said goodbye to these characters.

Yes, twenty years have passed since the boy wizard began to take the world by storm and J.K. Rowling went from welfare mum to a woman richer than the queen. An incredible story for both of them.

Happy Anniversary. You’ve both definitely made your mark in history.

I Love a Book That Keeps Me Up All Night

skinWell, I was hoping to finish The Arc Trilogy by Jesse Daro before writing about it, but I’m still only half way through part 3, and I wanted to get something out before I left on holiday, so here we are.

The Trilogy was recommended to me on Good Reads, and after failing to find it on Kobo, I headed over to Amazon where I had success. Not ideal, as it meant I had to read on the iPad but small sacrifices. Now, a heads up before you go any further; it’s a young adult series, so if that’s not your thing, no need to read any further. Personally I enjoy reading young adult as the stories are usually fast-paced, plus I love to know what my students are reading and I love to find books to recommend to them.

So, Book 1 of the trilogy (Skins) sucked me in immediately probably because it opened with “The bullet struck Naomi from behind, spraying blood onto the chipped blue-and-white tiles above the kitchen sink, thickest at the center and spackling upward in a thinning arc, like a Jackson Pollock painting”. Nothing like starting with a bang (sorry…). The story continues as it begins, and I was up far to late. But hey, it’s summer break so who cares.

The story is an easy read without being juvenile, and the world-building is vivid. The main character, Seth is well-developed and proves to be an entertaining narrator. He also happens to be a Werekin, a warrior descendant of an alien race who can transform at will into a jaguar. I know, I know stop rolling your eyes. Warriors, alien races, fighting animals, all over done yes, yes. Somehow, I wasn’t thinking that as I read it. Probably because of Seth. He’s such a genuine character. Actually, he reminded me of Syd in Alex London’s Proxy (go, read, right now). Independent, quick-witted, observant and completely sympathetic.

On the run his whole life, Seth has just lost the closest thing he has to a mother (the above-mentioned Naomi of the splattering brain), whose dying words send him to his natural mother. Once there, Seth realizes he’s out of options and has no choice but to stay with “mom” and her new family. Meanwhile it’s getting more and more difficult to keep his secret as he starts high school, meets the boy next door and realizes no one is to be trusted. Add in an I-want-to-take-over-the-world despot and a growing resistance and you’ll find yourself wondering what can possibly happen next.

Each character is fully developed and we are never told what they are like, we are shown (a basic but often over-looked necessity of a good story). I quickly grew to care about them and never found myself skipping or skimming as has been a practice of mine lately (due to some of the drivel I’ve been subjecting myself to).

Eventhough I didn’t devour Parts 2 (Blood) and 3 (Bone) as quickly as I did Part 1, they are equally as entertaining, and I’m quite anxious to see how everything turns out. Everyone better survive!!

Update

I really hate that I haven’t been using my site.  It’s actually been over a year!  And it’s not like I haven’t been reading or had things to write about.  Sigh, life just gets away from you but there really are no excuses.  I have plans for what I what to write about so now I just need to get on a roll and make it a routine.

skinSo what is everyone reading?  I am currently in the middle of a great series called The Arc Trilogy by Jessie Daro.  It’s been a long time since i’ve had a book I couldn’t put down.  Part one was devoured in a day.  It’s young adult so may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s a unique an compelling story.

I’ve also starting to realize (being as old school as I am, I’m a little slow on the uptake) how many books are self-published or only published digitally now.  It appears to be a lot easier to get your book out there and into the hands of the masses.  Not necessarily a good thing judging by some of the stuff I’ve found out there, but I’ve also discovered some great reads which probably would never have seen the light of day.  Good Reads has proven to be a great help in this area.  It’s also made me think of digging my old novel out and finishing it off.  Would be great to see people reading it.

So, hope to make my presence more of a common occurrence in the next few months.  The world of books really is a wonderful world to play in!

 

For the Love of the Bard

For the Love of the Bardshake

I have had a love affair with Shakespeare as long as I can remember, but every time I hear someone say they hate Shakespeare or they don’t understand Shakespeare or why do we need to study Shakespeare, I wonder how I ended up so different. Even some English teachers I know avoid Shakespeare (to my mind a travesty but there ya go). I can’t think of anything better than a week in Stratford and I’ve lost count of the number of Shakespeare plays I’ve seen live. I roamed the streets of Stratford England in awe and saw Judi Dench in The Merry Wives of Windsor. I revel in his words and delight in his intricate plots.

Now I don’t come from a family of Shakespeare lovers. My parents didn’t read sonnets to me in the womb and there were certainly no performances to attend in tmy small Northern Ontario city. So where did my passion come from? Well I trace It all back to a single book; Cue For Treason by Geoffrey Trease. The story is set in Elizabethan England and is the tale of 15-year-old Peter who escapes prosecution for a minor offence and heads to London where he eventually ends up as Shakespeare’s apprentice. There is murder and intrigue and a plot to assassinate the queen and I was riveted from start to finish.

It was the set novel in my grade 9 English class and we spent a long time with it, tracing the historical elements, labeling maps and learning about Shakespeare’s plays.

I don’t remember how many times I read it but I went over and over my favourite scenes and answered every study question in the back. It was a fascinating study of the times and the political and social climate, not to mention how theatres operated.

elizabeth_11  I then sought everything I could find about Shakespeare, theatre, Elizabethan England and the Tudors. Strangely enough I didn’t study Shakespeare in high school until my final year and I wonder if that might not have cemented my love of the Bard. Honestly I don’t think I could have been turned off, but I can’t help wondering if a bad first experience with Shakespeare is where all the haters come from. Students who are presented with the Bard too early, before they can appreciate the genius of the language and the bawdiness of the comedy. Or a teacher who is indifferent to Shakespeare but forced to teach it, resulting in everyone being unhappy.

I was lucky. I had two very passionate English teachers in high school that I credit with nurturing my newfound love, leading me to eventually study and teach dramatic literature.cue new cover

There is no doubt that the impact of a single book can be very powerful in its influence on a child. Saying that Cue for Treason is the reason I am where I am today is pretty simplistic, but it certainly started me down the path. I feel an overwhelming desire to read it again but I’m a little afraid that as an adult reader I won’t feel the same magic.

Will let you know how it goes…

Update

eighth day

Well, eventhough my plan to post weekly hasn’t worked out, I am writing.  I was hoping to have something up this weekend, but I’m not quite happy with either of the pieces I’m working on.

So, I’ll have something up soon.  In the meantime, I’m reading this amazing series and my students are devouring it.  A little bit of King Arthur and a little bit of parallel times.  An easy read yet a very innovative story.  The Eighth Day by Dianne Salerni.

 

The Great Girl Detective

nancy drewThere was a secret place under the basement stairs at my aunt’s house. In this “secret” place were boxes and boxes of books, all sizes and colours.  Huddled under those stairs, I got lost in the adventures of Joe and Frank, Freddy and Flossie, Nan and Bert, Trixie Belden and, my very favourite, Nancy Drew. Nancy was a teenager who had great friends, a fantastic car, unlimited funds and Ned. Each book immersed me in her world of adventure and with Nancy I began my love affair with mystery books. I loved trying to figure out “who done it”.

pine hillI wanted to be just like Carolyn Keene when I grew up.  Yes, I thought she was a real person.  You see, when I was young, you couldn’t just Google a name and find out all about them. And there was no reason for me to believe she wasn’t a real person. I was an adult before I found she was just a name for a stable of authors who wrote from a publisher’s outline. I was a bit let down I have to say. It seems it wasn’t an unheard of phenomena either. Franklin W. Dixon (Hardy Boys) and Laura Lee Hope (Bobbsey Twins) where also pseudonyms, crushing my hopes of every meeting them some day. I wonder if there are any more I should know about. Does James Patterson really write a book a month (she said sarcastically)?
I decided to see what else I didn’t know about Nancy (which is quite easy now we have Google) and was interested to learn that she has quite a transformation over the years).  It appears the original 1930’s Nancy was quite a tomboy with a sassy mouth. (I need to see if I can get my hands on some of those originals). The Nancy I knew (1950’s Nancy) was more respectful of male authority and went to church as often as she could.  That was the post-war Pollyanna image of women that the media was using to promote home and family.

drew18a I had all of these 1960’s/60’s Nancy Drews; the real ones with the list of books on the back. Until recently, I didn’t realize that most of them came from that original collection I had discovered under my aunt’s basement stairs. Even more importantly I didn’t realize this treasure
trove under the stairs belonged to my cousin before my aunt found them a new home (with me).  I continued to add to that original collection and each time a new one came out I bought it and read it within a day. My favourite was Phantom of Pine Hill and I’m a little ashamed to say it was because it was the one that featured Nancy’s “romance” with Ned.

I stopped reading Nancy in my teens although do remember trying one or two of the Nancy Drew Files. I don’t remember much about them but I do find it interesting to look at the difference in these covers and those of the original series. On the original books, Nancy was presented with a magnifying glass, or a clue or in some kind of setting. On the new series it was with a boy. I guess the mystery wasn’t enough in the 80’s. There needed to be more romance.

old clocknancy drew files

My last post was a result of my brother’s rhapsody about The Great Brain, and dedicated to him. This post is dedicated to my cousin, whose pain at losing her Nancy Drew collection to me was matched only by my own when my mother gave them all to a garage sale. My cousin has always been my kindred spirit, loving books and writing as I do (she also shares my feelings about cooking and cleaning but I digress). I have to wonder how much of an impact Nancy had on her.  After all she did grow up to write her own mysteries!  Head over to Amazon to get her novel A Bother of Bodies.  Murder never was so much fun!

Resources and Links           

http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/bai/lapin.htm

http://series-books.blogspot.ca/2010/05/nancy-drew-first-pc-that-isnt.html

Kismaric, Carole; Marvin Heiferman (2007). The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Fireside. ISBN 1-4165-4945-5. (via Wikipedia)