Monthly Archives: January 2016

This Dusty Bookshelf: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

It’s been a while since I’ve read a whole book in a day. Growing up, it was a fairly frequent occurrence, but since adulthood, reading takes longer. I don’t have the time I used to, I guess. Studying literature in university distanced me from the act of reading for pleasure, and I sometimes wonder if I still feel the long term affects of such an education. I don’t always read books just because I enjoy them; I pick books that I feel I should read, books that will somehow stretch me, or add to my understanding of the world, or merely add to the books I’ve read from the canon.

I’m not saying that this is a bad way to read. In fact, I strongly believe that books can help us find our place in the world and develop a stronger connection to ourselves and the depth of human experience. But, sometimes, I just want to read a book really really fast, and enjoy every single moment of my time in its pages.
Fortunately, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman delivered a book that was both an intensely pleasurable and fast read, while also leaving me with so much to think about: childhood, memory, magic.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

By Neil Gaiman

The book opens with a funeral and a middle aged man visiting his childhood home – or where it used to stand, anyway. He’s not quite sure why, but he decides to drive down the lane and visit the home of his first friend, Lettie Hempstock. Sitting beside the pond on her farm, his memory is triggered and the reader is thrown into a world that looks very different, but at the same time, not different at all, from the grown-up world the narrator currently lives in.
This book focuses so much on memory. It is fluid, unreliable, able to be manipulated. Throughout the short novel, the reader wonders what is real and what is not, especially as the events the narrator remembers become more and more magical, the world as we know it shifting further and further from reality. It kept me thinking about some of my own memories too. I don’t remember anything quite so magical happening in my own childhood, but, regardless, I know my own memories of my childhood have occasionally proven inaccurate, and I know that certain places and certain people have the ability to help sharpen it in the same way that the Hempstocks allowed the narrator to remember his childhood clearly and accurate. Part of the reason I loved this book so much was the way it portrayed memories of childhood.
While this book left me thinking about my own memories of childhood, it also pushed me into thinking about Isabel’s memories. She’s 18 months. Any day now, she could have her first memory. What will it be? Magical or mundane? How will she remember it when she grows up? 
Within the fluidity and unreliability of memory, Gaiman was able to address so many difficult issues, especially in relation to children. At the age of 7, the main character experiences the cruelty of abuse and neglect at the hands of his parents, and finds himself navigating the world with the help of a trio of witches, as they fight against the power of a fantastical creature crossed from the magical world into reality. 
The way Gaiman talks about adulthood really struck a chord with me. “The truth is, there aren’t any grown ups. Not one in the whole wide world.” I hear this same kind of sentiment from everyone around me; everyone feels like they’re failing at life at one time or another or, some of us, all the time. We feel like we’re failing at being adults, at being parents, at our jobs, and at our hobbies. The feeling of failing at life is so prevalent in our world today. I think, in many ways, this book is for those of us who feel like we’re failing, a reminder that everyone else is too and that it’s ok if we do because our memories of our grown-up failures are not necessarily the memories that will last.
Clearly, I enjoyed this book. Reading the last page was almost mournful because I knew it was coming to an end. I already miss the world of the Hempstocks. 

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This Dusty Bookshelf: Trickster’s Choice

So many of my peers cite Tamora Pierce as one of the foundational authors of their youth. I can’t blame them. Pierce writes strong female characters stepping boldly off the path patriarchy has laid out for them. Her books have helped girls see themselves and their role in the world in a whole new way. Her contributions to young adult literature is undeniable.

She was not, however, one of the foundational authors of my childhood. I’m not sure why. I suspect that it’s mainly because I didn’t read a lot of books designated ‘young adult’ when I was a kid. My sister was a full five years older than me and I was a bit of a copy cat; anything she read, I read, so I jumped past a lot of the traditional young adult literature and right into adult literature from a very early age. 
This means I find myself, at the age of 28, introducing myself to a lot of that stuff I missed back then. I wonder at the way I am experiencing some of this young adult literature I’m reading. I remember books having such an impact on me when I was a young girl; when I found an author I loved, I wanted to consume everything I could get my hands on, holding on to that world as tightly as I could. I read differently now, and I know it. I get less attached to authors and the worlds they build; books stick with me less; sometimes, reading feels like work. So, I wonder. How would I have felt about Tamora Pierce’s books as a child? Surely, my perception would be very different from now. How much weight does my current perception of literature have when it comes to the critique of children’s books? Can I look past my adult understanding of a book to see the value in it for a younger person? 
Anyway, on to my review.

Trickster’s Choice
By Tamora Pierce
Alianne is the daughter of one of Pierce’s previous heroines, Alanna, born into privilege, and desperate to work as a spy, a desire her parents deny her. Annoyed, Aly takes a boat to visit friends and, on the way, is nabbed by pirates and sold into slavery. Which – guess what! – turns into a spy mission when she is recruited by a god – the trickster – to play a crucial role in his plot of political intrigue. 
I enjoyed this book. Really, I did. But, the more I think about it, the fewer good things I have to say about it. And the more I think about it, the more problematic the book seems to me. But, I do want to be clear that, in terms of entertainment, this book was decent. There are multiple strong female characters, which makes me happy, and Pierce managed to make me love the family Aly is sent by the trickster god to protect. At the end of the book, she set it up well for the reader to see and anticipate all the excitement that may happen in the second book. 
But, the good kind of ends there. 
Pierce writes high fantasy, which this is. It’s set in the Tortall universe, which is the same setting for a number of other works by Pierce. I used to love high fantasy, but, since high school, I’ve read less and less. At the end of the year last year, I read The Queen of the Tearling which was set in a fantastic world that felt like high fantasy but also felt completely original. Tortall does not feel original. Tortall feels kind of stale, medieval with magic thrown in and odd names for things, chosen just to make them seem exotic. The plot moved slowly, which likely contributed to this staleness for me. I found myself checking page numbers and chapters to go before the end far too frequently.
And then, there were the problematic bits, the bits that make me wonder if I want to give Pierce a second try or not. Aly – who is annoyingly perfect, by the way – is sent by the god to protect a family of luarin, and their half raka daughters, when they are banished by the king to a remote, predominantly raka area. The two elder daughters of the family, born to the duke’s first wife, are linked to a raka prophecy, a prophecy that will free the raka from luarin rule, and Aly is charged with keeping them alive so they can fulfill it. Aly, who is Tortall. Aly who, by appearances, is luarin. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Aly is a white saviour. I have serious problems with white saviours. 
There was no reason why the trickster god needed Aly and not one of the raka themselves. Perhaps some reason may become clear in the second book, but so far, this bothers me. As wonderful as this book is for being filled with girl power and feminist ideals, it falters in its awareness of privilege. 
Am I wrong? Am I seeing problems where there are none? Am I being unfair to this book and therefore to Pierce? Am I being too critical, too grown up, too academic, perhaps? I’m not sure and this is where I wonder that my own adult perspective has turned this book into something it does not need to be. 

(In talking about this book with some of my friends, a few of them have suggested that I started with the wrong Tamora Pierce book, that I should have begun with her early works instead. This may be true, but that doesn’t necessarily address the problematic issues I noticed in this book.)
* Delightfully, I am falling behind on my goal to review every book I read this year, which means I have actually been reading, and reading fast! Next up, eventually, once I’ve sorted out my thoughts, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by the ever wonderful Neil Gaiman, who doesn’t have a wrong book to start with. I swallowed it up in just over 24 hours. Go. Get it from your library. Buy it. Do whatever you have to to get your hands on it and read it. I’m still swooning.

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This Dusty Bookshelf: Where The Mountain Meets The Moon

It’s been a while since I’ve written a proper book review. In fact, the last one I wrote was full two years ago. I miss writing book reviews. They help me reflect on a book I’ve just read, to think about it critically and allow it to settle into my mind a little more fully. I don’t make New Years resolutions, but if I did, this would be it; to write a review for every book I read this year, all (hopefully) 20 of them.

I started January off by reading Grace Lin’s Where The Mountain Meets The Moon. Because Mark was off work for 10 days over Christmas, I found the time to sit, and cuddled for hours in my reading chair with this book. It was a delightful couple days of recharging for the start of a new year.

Where The Mountain Meets The Moon
By Grace Lin

Minli loves her life, but she can sense her mother’s dissatisfaction with the poverty they live in. In an effort to change their fortunes, she sets off on an adventure to find the Old Man on the Moon, a character who features prominently in the fairy tales her father tells her. The story jumps from Minli as she travels from her village to where the mountain meets the moon, to her parents as they struggle with the reality of their daughter’s disappearance, and to the world of fairy tales as Lin weaves the story of the Old Man on the Moon into Minli’s adventure.

As fairy tales generally are, this book was filled with strong moral lessons, lessons about gratitude, kindness, hospitality, adventure, and self-sacrifice. These lessons were incorporated beautifully, naturally, without being over-bearing. In all, it was the kind of story I can envision sharing with Isabel one day, when she has the attention span to sit still for a chapter or two.

This book is made all the more beautiful by the drawings that accompany the story. Lin created beautiful artwork to depict key scenes in the book. It was the first time I was pleased that I chose to read this through the convenience of my iPad, rather than uploading it to my Kobo. The images would have probably had an even higher impact with a proper paper copy, but I would have barely noticed them, and certainly not appreciated them on the black and white screen of my ereader.

I gave this book a full five out of five stars. I really have nothing bad to say about it, nothing critical at all! I definitely plan to add more of Lin’s work to my reading repertoire.

Next up? I’m halfway through my very first Tamora Pierce experience. She’s a writer that so many hold dear from their tween and teen years, but I have never before read anything she’s written, despite having loved fantasy as kid. So, I’m checking out what all the fuss about her is, and so far, so good.

What are reading these days? Do you have any reading goals for 2016?

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A Personal Reading Goal for 2016

At the beginning of school year back in September, I gave myself permission to read. On one hand, I was disappointed with the number of books I had read – a measly 6 at the end of the summer. I missed reading for pleasure so much. On the other hand, I’m in library school; while my heavy course load provides me with a myriad of excuses not to read, professionally, it’s a really really good idea for me to read and read consistently so I have a greater awareness of what’s out there and what people might like. However, keeping in mind that heavy course load, I narrowed my reading for the school year, focusing primarily on children’s and young adult novels. I need books that won’t require too much mental attention, while still being good. On top of that I want to make sure that, if I actually manage to find a job at the end of this semester, it won’t take me too long to figure out what’s good and wonderful in the world of kids and teens.

From September to the end of the Christmas holidays, I managed to double my book count for the year. Twelve books is still the least number of books I’ve ever read in a year, but, as a good friend reminded me, it can be hard to read with a toddler running around and I really need to give myself a break. 

The books I did read this past year were pretty decent. I can’t decide on a favourite; there’s a tie between Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge and Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Both are fantasy: Cuckoo Song is contemporary, set in post-World War I Britain; The Queen of the Tearling is high fantasy – or possibly dystopian, depending on how you want to look at it – set in an incredible world that Johansen has poured a myriad of beautiful – and not so beautiful – details into.

On the bottom of my list of favourites sit two books that have so much undeserved hype surrounding them, so I’m sorry if you totally you disagree with my judgement. Paper Towns by John Green was good but it really wasn’t great. It was entertaining, but throughout, I felt like it took itself too seriously. I’ve heard that Green’s books are really formulaic, so I’m not sure I’ll trying another one. And then there was Divergent by Veronica Roth. Oh world. Why do you love this book so much? The world building is weak, so weak that I couldn’t appreciate the story itself. I know it’s supposed to be fantasy, but the idea that the world would decide that everyone should be sorted into categories based on their most dominant personality trait – of which only four exist – is beyond absurd, I just couldn’t. I will admit that it was an easy, light read, but it left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I won’t be reading any of its sequels, and I’ll make no effort to see the movie. There are better page-turners out there.

So, now on to 2016. Over this last semester of school I hope to continue reading as much as I can, but I’m already looking forward to the remaining 8 months of the year. Knowing that I’m soon done with course assignments, I’ve set myself a goal of 20 books for the year, fiercely hoping that I’ll be able to surpass it. I won’t limit myself to YA completely, but I do love books that are targeted to children and teenagers, and I look forward to reading more. But, more importantly, I hope to fill my reading with a greater diversity of voices. During the course of my last semester of school, I became acutely and painfully aware of the lack of diversity in all things books – publishing, writing, and yes, librarianship. I don’t know how to help fix it except by listening listening listening, so I will fill my head with the words of women and men from different backgrounds than myself, people with disabilities, the young and old from socioeconomic positions that I am unfamiliar with. Words are for more than just entertainment: I want to be mindful of that this year in a way I have never been before.

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Happy New Year

Another year gone. I have little to say about 2015 and yet I feel like I may be missing a little retrospective in my life, that maybe looking back and reminding myself what happened this year might somehow be a good idea. The past year has felt like a limbo year, a half-assed year, a year of mediocrity. It has been a year of treading water, not always successfully, but here we are: 2016. Survival achieved.

January to April was consumed with my second semester of library school. We took those months day by day, assignment by assignment, play date by play date, daycare drop off by daycare drop off, pumping session by pumping session. In comparison to my first semester, that term of classes had felt so much easier. I was gentler on myself, I think, recognizing that I wasn’t going to be the student I had once been, and forgiving myself for it. Isabel and I had figured out our normal and I finished that semester excited for 5 months of time with my daughter before school would start up again.

I hardly remember those five summer months anymore. I know we celebrated her birthday in there somewhere, and I spent time training for my first half marathon. I know we spent sunny days in the backyard and at the park. We had play dates and made good friends. We had a good summer – don’t get me wrong. I would like to say I cherished and savoured each day. Instead, I learned the hard way that staying at home full time is chalk full of its own challenges. Just as I figured them out, my 5 months of stay-at-home motherhood came to an end and I jumped headlong into the hardest semester so far. Four months distant from those summer days, I hardly remember them, but for the few times I pulled out my camera to snap pictures of my growing baby.

My second year of my Masters of Library Science began in September. It’s different this year. When I started the program, Isabel was 2 months old. She didn’t start to crawl until I was nearly finished my second semester. She was easy: plop her on a play mat surrounded by toys while researching for my assignments, nurse until she fell asleep while doing the readings for class, wrangle her into a carrier and bounce while writing an essay. These days, she’s far more active, and in September, at 15 months, she hadn’t even begun to learn how to play independently. I worked during nap time, but my saving grace was one day of daycare when I didn’t have class, a day to research, write, and edit. Regardless, the semester was hard, and I regularly found myself overwhelmingly disappointed, working away important weekends, missing Isabel, missing Mark, losing myself in the depths of those assignments.

But, the semester ended. As far as I know, I did just fine, though I won’t get my marks back for a few more days. One more semester ahead. I’m not looking forward to it, but it’s just four months. I can do this. Once I finish school, 2016 will bring with it its own challenges. Will I be able to find a job? How will growing our family fit into this? Will I have struggled through my masters for nothing? We’ll see.

Happy New Year, world.
(Give credit where credit is due: the photo on the top left was taken by the incredibly talented Emily Jane Watson. If you’re in the Toronto area, you should definitely give her a call for some family photos.)

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