- Category: Helen
ValHamster by Angela Misri
Do you need a mental health boost? Has a young patron asked you for a funny book, lately? Look no further.
Each book in the Tails from the Apocalypse series focuses on one character. Pickles vs. the Zombies features Pickles the cat. Trip of the Dead stars a raccoon. Valhamster is about the intrepid Emmy.
The comedic possibilities of Emmy the hamster are many, and I would say, fully realized. She is fierce. She is fast. Her focus is the enemy. The mission is all. (That and her obsession to acquire a cape.) The very idea of a hamster having a talent for killing zombies is brilliant. The comedy is always the priority, with narration akin to a Mission Impossible movie. However, into the fast-paced plot the author introduces themes of racism – a la Emmy’s distrust of weasels before essentially ever knowing any weasels. And actually, even that is presented as ludicrous and Emmy’s subsequent introspection is very funny. There is also lots of action - zombie battles, chase scenes, quests, new enemies, new mysteries and a cliff hanger ending. I can’t do justice to most of it but I will mention how hilarious the long-haired Guinee Pig Militia camp is. I just laughed out loud, thinking about it.
And finally, is it too soon for a COVID-19 joke? The author didn’t think so. I agree, as it honestly evoked an unbecoming snort of laughter. Since I have the maturity of an average 9 to12 year old, I’m confident kids will think it’s funny too. I cannot encourage you enough to do yourself a favour and read this book. Please recommend it to the next child you see who looks like they need a good belly laugh.
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Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A. F. Steadman
When people say, “this series could be the next Harry Potter” it’s not clear what they mean. So let me try to clarify what I mean when I say, this series could be the next Harry Potter series, but better. First, comparing this story to any other doesn’t do it justice. However, the Harry Potter series is a recognized yard stick.
In Skandar’s world, some 13-year-olds are destined to become unicorn riders. Years of preparation lead to a mandatory exam. Those who pass travel to a secretive island where they have the chance to bond with a unicorn egg. If bonded successfully, those kids and their unicorns learn what kind of magic they have; fire, earth, water or air. Then the kids divide into quartets - one of each element - and they live together each year as they train with their unicorns. The day of the exam Skandar’s name is not on the list; but, a mysterious stranger finagles Skandar’s way past that obstacle, into the Hatchery line. From there at each step Skandar and his unicorn don’t fit, but one friend, then two, then three help him – and finally they become a quartet. His destiny seems both inevitable and tenuous. His friends – Mitchell, Bobby and Flo - have powerful magic and equally intriguing stories. Each character necessitates details of world building that – never the less – do not detract from the pounding suspense of their first year at school as unicorn riders.
Nuanced ideas about; choice and consequences, that good and evil are not black and white but mostly gray, that people are unique and complicated, all build toward a conclusion to book one that has both a satisfying denouement and a cliff hanger ending.
Beyond Harry Potter, I am hopeful that it will be accurate to compare this finished series to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. We will have to wait to see if the rest of the series fulfills the considerable potential foreshadowed by this exceptional first book.
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- Category: Helen
Small Town Pride by Phil Stamper
Jake came out to his friend Jenna first. Then other kids at school. Last he came out to his parents. His dad decided to support him with a “grand gesture” none other than A HUGE Pride flag – for everyone to see – when Jake got off the school bus.
At school, people were supportive of the flag. Some started wearing Pride pins themselves or putting out Pride signs of their own. Jake hadn’t expected that. Elsewhere, the flag caused a stir. The mayor visited his parents (she lived across the road). She wanted to know what people would think? What next, some asked, a parade? That, Jake had expected. Jake loved his home, his small village, Barton Springs; but he’d always assumed he’d have to leave when he grew up. He’d assumed being gay meant he wasn’t welcome. It occurred to him to give his community the benefit of the doubt, and find out. With Jenna’s help and the support of his parents, Jake set out to organize A Pride Festival. Would his community shut it down? There are lots of books about gay kids, conservative small towns and negative outcomes. Anecdotally, in my own life gay and lesbian friends have – indeed – left the small towns and villages they grew up in to live in more accepting larger cities. Jake and Jenna are well drawn characters. Readers from small towns will cheer for their Pride Festival and maybe, gain some encouragement from their journey.
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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao
Set in a near future world, Zachary and other kids in this book wear augmented reality portal lens devices. They facilitate playing AR games like Mythrealm but can also be used to access email, social media, the internet in general, etc. Zachary meets another Chinese boy, Simon, in summer school, who seems way too interested in Chinese history, encouraging Zack to look up the first Emperor of China on his portal lens. Simon claims it will help in Mythrealm. Walking home, Zack reluctantly is reading a brief bio. summary when he hears a voice in his head. He’s confused if the feed is coming from his portal lens or someone around him he hadn’t noticed. Before he can work out what is happening, a group of boys he knows through Mythrealm confronts him. The conversation quickly becomes an argument that escalates into violence. As Zack struggles, he sees one of the boy’s eyes are glowing green. A tag, in his portal lens labels the boy a Chinese “malevolent creature of greed” complete with dates, name, and pronunciation. In the midst of this chaotic action, the voice is back repeating a question which Zack eventually answers and the school ground explodes with things that make glowing green eyes seem tame.
“Chaotic action” is an accurate description of the complex plot and world building that ensues in this Canadian novel. The portal lens is a fantastic literary device for inserting snippets of Chinese history into escapes, fight scenes and conversations as Zack, Simon and later Melissa sprint from crisis to crisis. The device also makes it possible for Zack (and the reader) to have some idea what’s going on as he, Simon and Melissa essentially gain super powers from different Chinese emperors - who are their direct blood relations – and embark on a truly unique quest.
Before reading this book I had a vague knowledge and – frankly - not much interest in Chinese history. Now I am intrigued. I actually took notes on a bookmark while I was reading. Something I haven’t done in years. For me and other readers who have no links to China, this book is a thought-provoking window. For Chinese kids, either Daluren or Huaren, this offers what I would guess – for them - might be one of the finest mirrors published in recent years. (For definitions of Daluren or Huaren, read the book! See page 62.) Other bonuses of this book include that its author lives in Vancouver, it is the first in a series and that there are LGBTQ characters.
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Me Three by Susan Juby
Rodney, his sister and mom are forced to move to a small town when Rodney’s celebrity father is forced to stop production of his show because of false accusations from a recent, female guest. Rodney is confused that his friend, Larry – who’s mom worked on the show - won’t answer his calls or texts. He’s also confused that his dad isn’t suing the woman making the false accusations. Eventually, Rodney asks his mom why they aren’t suing the woman – and all the other women who are now also making false accusations. When his mother asks, “Why would we sue the women?” Rodney ends the conversation.
Gradually, Rodney comes to understand that the accusations are not false. Rodney’s perspective offers age appropriate revelations for young boys of what is and isn’t civilized behaviour towards girls (for them) and women (for men). Despite this heavy subject matter, I laughed out loud almost every time I read this book. Rodney’s interactions and comments with his older sister are particularly comedic. Susan Juby’s writing is hilarious. She is one of my very favourite writers. This important book is easy to recommend to anyone looking for a good laugh.
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- Category: Helen
Bruised by Tanya Boteju
The first thing Daya does when she wakes is smash her palm into her head board. She skateboards wearing no protective equipment. The more she falls, the bigger her bruises, the better. Hip bruises are the best. They are easy to hide, deep, and she can feel them often, all day, including walking, taking a seat, standing up again. In her night-time ritual she presses each of her bruises. The pain calms her.
Daya survived the car crash that killed her parents. She knows their deaths are her fault.
She sees a therapist, but is nowhere near able to talk about any of this. After a few sessions of near silence, her therapist gives Daya a notebook. She says that Daya doesn’t have to show the book to her or anyone. She encourages her to write what she “can’t say.”
A skateboarding friend, Fee, invites Daya to watch Roller Derby one evening. Daya is spellbound. It’s so rough - so many bruises – and it looks like so much fun. Joining a team and learning a new sport forces Daya to ask for help and to form new relationships. Each one nudges Daya toward communication.
What makes this book exceptionally strong is that Daya never really does talk much. She doesn’t suddenly put into words everything she’s been feeling - all her guilt, sadness, and anger. There is no golden revelation. Instead, a catastrophic mistake during a Roller Derby jam causes Daya to try to talk to her aunt and uncle. She actually tries hoping for rejection and more profound punishment than her bruising allows. She writes down in her notebook, “They died because of me.” She shows the words to her aunt and uncle and they do the rest. Later, she is able to take another step, telling her new girlfriend, Shanti about her bruising. Shanti does most of the talking. Together, Shanti and Daya put together two lists to show her therapist - lists that include admitting that she used to bruise herself.
What also makes this book exceptionally strong, is that all of these emotional breakthroughs, take place in the midst of non-stop Roller Derby action, drama and shenanigans and also as a pretty steamy relationship develops. Shanti is Daya’s first hook up that becomes more than a one-time encounter. Daya learns from Shanti that you can be strong and tough and also have an open your heart.
There are other bonus aspects of this book. Daya’s family are Sri Lankan Immigrants. There are several nonbinary characters – Fee is one – and Fee’s girlfriend is deaf and uses ASL. Also there are many LGBTQ characters including a senior citizen couple and most characters – counting these – are BIPOC. This is a fantastic book not the least because Roller Derby sounds awesome!
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