Feathers – Phil Cummings, Illustrated by Phil Lesnie

This beautifully illustrated children’s picture book sends a message of kindness and the security and safety of a home and the sense of place it brings. In the story the reader follows the flight of a sandpiper as it flies to its winter home.  Along its flight path it looses a feather that is picked up by a boy whose home has been destroyed in an earthquake, to a girl who is travelling to a safer place as a refugee and finally to a little girl in a safe, happy home in the bird’s wintering grounds.

When I read this to my  grade 1’s and 2’s they were silent at first and because I work in a very rural school where we have no refugees I began to explain very simply about how different people did not have safe homes but they did. Then we looked at the story again and they began to ask very thoughtful questions and think about how lucky they were to be able to go to a safe home on the bus. This is a wonderful, gentle book that packs a powerful message for children. I would definitely read it to older students as well and it is a great anchor book for SEL lessons as well as for an intermediate writing lesson.

Stars: 5+

The Dutch Wife – Ellen Keith

“Witness our judgement without judgement.”

Amsterdam 1943 – Marijke de Graaf and her husband have just been arrested by the Nazis for being part of the Dutch Resistance and thus begins a tale of horrifying choices for Marijke.  She is sent to a labour camp and then given the choice of staying in the camp and most likely dying there or of going to a different camp to work in a brothel as a prostitute to reward the camp’s workers for their efforts. She chooses the brothel as she thinks her husband is at that camp and she will be able to find him.

Karl Muller is the SS officer who comes to the camp to live up to his father’s expectations of him and his military career.  As Karl grapples with the horrors of the torture and punishment he is to oversee he discovers Marijke and changes her life.

Paralleling this is the story of Luciano. Luciano is arrested in 1977 in Argentina during the Argentinian Dirty War. He is imprisoned, tortured but still manages to find the courage to resist the oppressive regime in any small way he can.

Woven into this story are the lives of three people who are connected by choices and their consequences.

Marijke: to have to make the choice of being a prostitute, to have feelings for someone who epitomizes evil, and to pay a penance

Karl: To lose his moral centre, to hate yet not want to hate, to not stand up for what he believes in knowing what he’s done is wrong and to pay a huge penance

Luciano: the hero who wants his father’s acceptance, for his father to see his worth and courage and who pays for everyone’s sins

This is an incredibly well written story that follows you after you’ve finished like a stray cat asking, “Who are you to judge?” and “What would you do?”

Stars: 5+

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

Well, after a long, long hiatus from reading Agatha Christie novels and because I saw the latest movie version of it, I just had to read this book! After the overt violence in Natchez Burning, the covert violence set in a bygone era of train travel glamor to countries that are now torn apart by war it was a heavenly read! I know, right, how does that make any sense, covert violence, war and it was a heavenly read?! It really was!

I think I just loved the setting. I really love stories set in this time period and I love the glamor of the travel modes in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. Christie puts together a great cast of characters, all of different nationalities, ages and social standings. Somehow they all end up travelling together during a slow time of the year.  It is to be a 3 day trip across Europe for her famous detective Hercule Poirot when he finds himself having to solve a murder, which happened on the train as it was attempting to pass through Yugoslavia but ended up stuck in a snowdrift stopping the train in the middle of the night.  Poirot is asked by M. Bouc, the director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lit, to investigate and solve the murder before the train is dug out of the snowdrift and before the Yugoslavian police show up and complicate things with the upper-class passengers on the train. So now it seems that we have a cast of characters from various parts of the world and a murderer among them as the train is still trapped for some indefinite time in a snowdrift!

I had to love the writing style, an ugly ‘dragon’  Russian princess with a face like a sheep, ( I had to wonder what the actress felt about being cast in a role with that description!) a loud, brash American woman who never seemed to shut up, and several snobby Brits, a Swedish ladies maid, a French valet … It was a wonderful read full of tantalizing hints and clues given by both the passengers and Poirot, but even though I saw the movie, (I forgot how it ended – too tired to remember it) I did not remember ‘who done it” until almost the end of the book, but still could not put the clues together until explained by the infamous Hercule Poirot! I love that fact that no matter how hard you try, you cannot figure out the truth of the matter unless himself, Hercule Poirot, explains it to you!

Stars: 5

Natchez Burning – Greg Isles

I saw this novel, the first of a trilogy, at our local bookstore and it caught my attention. I love stories about the civil rights era. I did not look at the page count and when I received the book from the public library it was a tome of 788 pages!  All dying to be read in the middle of writing student progress reports AND Christmas Concert rehearsals and prepping for my own family’s Christmas. But read it I did because I couldn’t put it down! The books in the trilogy are: Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood.

This is a story about racism and the Jim Crow era in the southern US. In this, the first book of the trilogy, the stage is set for a wide cast of characters masterfully controlled through a complex story line that slips back and forth in time yet remains easy to follow and to immerse the reader in. The story begins with a violent racially motivated death of a young civil rights activist then reverts back to today. Penn Cage is the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, formerly a lawyer turned writer. His father, Tom Cage is a beloved local doctor who has a secret that could tear his family apart as well as his reputation for being a man of honour and integrity; in 1968 Tom had a secret affair with his beautiful African-American nurse, Viola Turner. During that time of civil rights turmoil, segregation and violence Viola is gang-raped by a splinter group of the KKK, the Double Eagles. Viola leaves town for Chicago with a secret of her own, she has an illegitimate son, Lincoln.  Move forward about 50 years and Viola returns to Natchez, to die of cancer having Tom treat her in her dying days.

Lincoln believes Tom Cage is his father who abandoned him and Viola so Tom could have his nice upper-middle class White life while Viola and Lincoln struggle in poverty and bitterness. Lincoln accuses Tom of murdering his mother in an act of doctor assisted suicide and Tom is arrested.

As written by Paul Hyde, of the Greenville News, the novel “..traces the factors that allowed violent groups like the Klan to flourish: a combination of institutional racism, poverty, fundamentalist upbringing and the brutalities of combat in World War II and Korea.” Iles, an interview with Hyde, states that the issues of the Jim Crow era are not yet resolved and may take another lifetime to become so.

Stars: 5

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

I have no words. They were stolen by clowns, put in a New York Theatre and exploded onto a page in Montreal. It was insane, crazy, the best.

                  “A work of art when it is good and completed exists independently of its creator.

It is indignant, even-it doesn’t want to have an author.”

Read it. Rose will devour your soul.


The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

This is Sheena Kamal’s debut novel and it was a tough, gritty and violent read. I loved it!  It is set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where Nora Watts, an Indigenous woman,  works for a small private investigative company. She is a product of BC’s foster care system and a survivor of a horrible, violent rape that leaves her almost dead as well as pregnant. She is in a coma for months and when she awakes discovers she is pregnant and it is too late to terminate the pregnancy. She is forced to carry the child to term and after delivering a healthy baby girl, gives her up for adoption. Nora is not motherhood material.

Some fifteen years later she is contacted by the adoptive family because the girl, Bronwyn (Bonnie for short) has gone missing thus setting in motion a string of events that test Nora’s beliefs about herself, force her to relive some of her past and make the reader either love her to bits or at least have a great deal of sympathy for her. I loved her.

Through this gritty, violent story, Kamal brings to focus the plight of Indigenous women and girls, foreign investment, drug/alcohol addiction and ecological issues such as mining which have all been news-worthy topics and social issues in British Columbia. She also managed to contrast the natural beauty of B.C. with the dark, seedy side of the Downtown Eastside. It had a shocking ending to the part of Bonnie’s disappearance and a touching ending to the story. I wanted a sequel…How is Nora?…How is Bonnie and…??

It is truly wonderful to have found such a potentially great newbie Canadian author to add to my growing list of “OMG another book by….”!

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, is a raw, hard-hitting look at the black experience in the US. I loved the book, but the experiences in it are far beyond my lived experiences so I found it to be a real eye-opener, and at times, a narrative I did not always understand looking through my mature, white, middle-class eyes.

The story begins with violence. The protagonist, Starr goes to a party where gunshots ring out so she leaves with her childhood bestie, Khalil. While driving her home they are pulled over  by th ‘po-po’ and Khalil breaks every rule that Starr’s father (a former gang-banger who spent 3 years in prison) taught Starr not to do. Khalil is shot by the police office, whom Starr now refers to as Officer One-Fifteen, his badge number. Khalil was unarmed. Starr is the only witness to the shooting/murder.

Throughout the book Starr walks between two worlds. Her family have put her in a private school in the suburbs, a predominately white, middle-class school, where she struggles to fit in and hide her ‘hood’ self. When she is at home she tries to be her neighbourhood self and not been seen as putting on fancy airs as perceived by her neighbourhood friends as coming from her school environment. This dualism continues throughout the book where Starr’s father, BIg Mav, feels the family needs to stay in the neighbourhood and support it – he owns a grocery store in the community and her mother wants to move out to keep her family safe.

Starr eventually works up the courage, with her families support, to testify in front of a grand jury. Tension mounts and it seemed I lived through the experience by viewing it through Starr’s eyes in the hard-hitting, first person narrative that Thomas so skillfully weaves. This is such a fantastic YA social justice novel that damn I so want to teach it in a senior high school English class! While I say this, there is also a component to this story that I don’t understand, but think it would make a fantastic discussion with older teens; the connection to the title and Tupac Shakur’s philosophy ‘THUG LIFE’.

RATING: 5 stars

The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King

For the past several years I have been participating in the 50 Book Pledge that is sponsored by Savvy Reader via HarperCollins Canada. It is a type of social media site where you pledge to read for the year and it allows you to keep track of what you have read or are reading or wish to read. You can earn badges, follow people, and enter book contests. What I like best about it is that they put out suggestions for a new book each month. It has made me reach outside my comfort zone of genres and read books and authors that I might not otherwise have chosen to read.

Here is my latest read; The Back of the Turtle – Thomas King.

This is not a new book. HarperCollins published this in 2014. It is undoubtedly a thick tome, 518 pages, of which I loved every word, but when I first picked it up at the library I was like, holy crap! I don’t have time for this!

It is the story of a tortured scientist, Gabriel Quinn, a soulless CEO, Dorian Asher, who must have worked for Monsanto at some point, a grieving First Nations woman Mara, a strangely interesting character Nicolas Crisp (who I deemed the Medicine Man in this story) and his nephew Sonny, who is intellectually challenged. What a strange cast of characters to throw into a book!

The book begins with Gabriel (who has left Toronto to go to British Columbia as we learn later) attempting suicide on a fictional beach – Samaritan Bay – that was once a tourist destination as the beach was the nesting place for sea turtles. His plan is thwarted by, “A hand thrust out of the water, then an arm, fragile, a slender branch caught in a flood. And then a pool of black hair, floating around a child’s face.” (7) He ends up saving a family caught in the sea. This sets the stage for Gabriel (notice the angelic name) to go through a series of repentant-like events so he – and maybe others – can forgive his past – and he has much to forgive himself for. He is the scientist who invents GreenSweep, a chemical agent that causes massive ecological destruction (ie: think: Agent Orange). Now like the Angel Gabriel he must brandish his flaming sword and right his wrongs. But King did not really go all out like that with ‘this Gabriel’. I just couldn’t resist myself!

The story then shifts to Dorian Asher, CEO of Domindion a agribusiness company that makes toxic substances and is the epitome of corporate greed (think: Monsanto). King has him enter the story: “…relaxed in the quiet comfort of the limousine and watch[ing] the world glide by…” (11). This is what Dorian does; watch the world from behind glass and subterranean offices. He has no conscience and his soullessness provides for some very dry humour. I actually liked this villain and who the heck is supposed to like the villain! I just loved it when everything is going to hell in a hand basket for his company & he is out buying expensive watches…his attitude on the tailing pond spill into the Athabasca…and his media solution to this disaster…I kept wondering what the hell he would come up with next! Oh and don’t forget about Winter, his personal assistant, who is like some kind of androgynous female robot!

Into the story walks Mara, a First Nations woman who left her reserve to pursue an art career in Toronto and whose family and reserve is destroyed by Gabriel’s GreenSweep. She decides to try to deal with her soul shattering grief by painting portraits of the people from her reserve who lost their lives from the ‘Big Ruin’. I love this character who is brash, mouthy and pointedly blunt, providing humour to the story.

The story moves forwards and backwards in time with Nicolas Crisp appearing at moments to prophetsize:

         “For the first time in a very long while, Crisp felt alive. They were all here now. Mara, Soldier, and this Gabriel.

So, it had begun.

At last, it had begun.” (85)

All brought together by Sonny’s hammer, “Wham, wham. Hammer, hammer.”

This is an environmental story pointing out the differences in view points between First Nations and Non-Native views. It is of corporate greed and hope for a better planet, if we take time to pay attention to our actions. King didn’t preach or proselytize nor was he in your face. It was subtle, humourous and well, King-ly.

As in King’s Massey Lecture: The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, “You can’t say you didn’t know, you just [read] it.” (2003)