Book Reviews

Swimmers by Amy Bright

Posted by on Dec 19, 2014 in Book Reviews, British Columbia | 0 comments

SwimmersSummary: Travelling by bus from Lethbridge, Alberta back to Victoria, British Columbia with his semi-girlfriend Lee, and his younger friend Poppy, Hunter reflects on the reason why he was sent away, and everything that has happened since one fateful day with his best friend Niall.

Number of Pages: 215

Age Range: 14-16

Review: I know my summary is short for Swimmers by Amy Bright, but I hesitate to say more because Bright’s book is a delicately structured read that relies heavily on the suspense of a story slowly being unveiled.

Hunter is a seventeen year-old who hasn’t always made the best choices, but when his friendship with Niall ends in tragedy, Hunter is left to sink or swim. After a cry for help his parents send him away to Alberta to live with his aunt for a while, and while he is there he meets a twelve year-old girl named Poppy who knows what he is going through for different reasons.

It’s a story about learning how to survive after being left behind, and how the decisions of others can impact our lives irreparably. Poppy was my favourite character, because I liked her personality and had the most empathy for her. Caught in circumstances completely beyond her control, Poppy is vulnerable but also possesses a great deal of spirit that drives her defend her family the best way she knows how.

I found Hunter’s story to be a bit more puzzling. I still don’t quite understand why he was drawn to Niall in the first place when he seemed to have a good support system of friends. Also, while Niall does make decisions Hunter has no control over, there are many decisions along the way that Hunter did make, over and over again.

My mind is still trying to sort everything out because it’s a non-linear tale, but I enjoyed the road trip aspect, and Hunter’s Aunt Lynne’s willingness to take him in when he really needs a place to go.

With themes of drug use and personal harm, I would recommend it to mid teen readers.

Memorable Quote:

“I let Aunt Lynne lead the way to the east side of the clinic, where they took their five vials and shipped them off to the lab at the hospital. I got that Aunt Lynne was trying to teach me something here. Something about learning the repercussions of your actions. But there wasn’t really a repercussion. My liver hadn’t failed. My lungs hadn’t shriveled up and died. I was pretty much a normal human teenage boy. Adults got off on teaching lessons to kids. But sometimes there wasn’t a lesson to learn. Sometimes stuff just happened and you dealt with it. It wasn’t all a teachable moment.” – Hunter from Swimmers by Amy Bright, page 137

Swimmers by Amy Bright is published by Red Deer Press, (2014)

Three Little Words by Sarah N. Harvey

Posted by on Dec 18, 2014 in Book Reviews, British Columbia | 0 comments

Three Little WordsSummary: Rescued from a neglectful mother by a couple named Megan and Caleb when he was just two years old, Sid has grown up in stable, loving environment. Sid’s new parents foster others as well, and over the years he has been a big brother and a little brother to many other children and teens. While his turmoil over his past comes out in his drawings, Sid seems to give little thought to his birth mother, until a man named Phil shows up one day to tell him she has disappeared. Turns out Sid has a half brother named Gawain who ran away shortly after their mother’s disappearance, and Phil is hoping Sid can help find him. Sid’s world is turned upside-down as he is asked to accommodate family members he never knew existed, and Sid is left to decide who he wants his true family to be.

Number of Pages: 218

Age Range: 13-15

Review: Up to the third Sarah N. Harvey book I’ve ever read, and every time she tugs on my heartstrings with her memorable characters and profound understanding of family.

I love the parts about Sid’s artwork and Sid and Farizi working together to make a comic book that tells about Farizi’s adventures. Their connection is simply lovely to read about, because Sid instinctually knows how her trust needs to be gained slowly. Farizi is given the time she needs to work out her personal trauma and finds her voice again.

And just when it appears Wien is unredeemable, Harvey shows us his heart. Struggling with his own bad memories, he too connects with Farizi and feels so bad for her he wants to help. I loved the ritual they all performed, writing down the terrible moments in their lives and burning them in a fire, mostly because it wasn’t about gawking at the specific tragedies, it was about each of them owning up to themselves and moving on.

Sid is a character I connected with for a couple of reasons. He needs his alone time to recharge, and he is able lose himself in his drawing so completely. Everyone needs something to ground them, that they excel at, and for Sid, it’s art.

But while there were several beautiful moments that I just enjoyed, what I loved most was Harvey’s theme – the notion that sometimes we do choose our family. Sid’s is eclectic, and by having so many people involved in his family, Sid has many people to turn to when he needs them most. Plus, it wouldn’t be a Harvey book if there wasn’t a incredibly cool and lively older person involved. Three Little Words has two.

It’s a book for early to mid teens, slower paced but altogether wonderful.

Memorable Quotes:

“‘What’s that about?’ Sid says to no one in particular. He’s used to Chloe’s emotional storms – they’ve been friends forever – but lately she often seems on edge or angry or upset. He wants to ask why, but he know better than to ask a question when he’s afraid of the answer. He has learned the hard way that nothing stays the same, no matter how much he wants it to.” – Sid from Three Little Words by Sarah N. Harvey, page 11

“‘You are so bossy,’ Sid says.


‘That’s what you love about me,’ Chloe replies. ‘Now get going.’


It’s true, he thinks as he gets her bike from the garage, I do love that about her. That and a lot of other things. She always knows what to do and say: Let’s make a fort, Sid. Let’s go to the lake. Don’t step in the dog shit. Keep your fingers out of the cookie dough. Do my nails. Get me my bike. He wonders if it’s a bad thing that he like being ordered around.” – Sid reflecting on his friendship with Chloe from Three Little Words by Sarah N. Harvey, page 191

“She nudges Sid, who continues to stare silently at Devi. She’s so small, he thinks. So helpless. So – he searches for the right word – fragile. Like a robin’s egg that has dropped from a nest. There is nothing about that screams Mother or monster. Nothing at all.” – Sid from Three Little Words by Sarah N. Harvey, page 213

Three Little Words by Sarah N. Harvey is published by Orca Book Publishers, (2012)

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Posted by on Dec 17, 2014 in Book Reviews, British Columbia | 0 comments

Half BrotherSummary: When his mother comes home with a baby chimpanzee for his father’s university experiment, Ben has his doubts. Hoping to determine if chimpanzees are able to be taught language through using American Sign Language, Zan moves in with them and everyone except Ben’s father find themselves growing attached to him. The problem is while Zan is being raised like a human, he is still a chimp, and after they lose an opportunity for a major grant the whole project is in jeopardy. Ben and his mother struggle to keep Zan with them no matter what, but since he is owned by the university there’s little they can do when he is sold to a ranch in Nevada. Family is family though, and Ben and his mother refuse to let their involvement with Zan end there, especially when he has some trouble fitting in.

Number of Pages: 377

Age Range: 12-14

Review: In a stunning examination of what the concept of family truly means, author Kenneth Oppel takes the story of Ben, a regular thirteen year-old teen boy in a unique situation. His brother, Zan, is a chimpanzee.

And no, it’s not science fiction. Ben’s mother is doing a PhD dissertation and his father is a university professor. Living during the 1970s, both are interested exploring whether chimpanzees have the ability to learn language. So Ben’s father devises an experiment wherein a baby chimpanzee will come and live with them to learn sign language from the beginning.

I love how Oppel’s book is such a stimulating read. The story of Ben and his ‘half brother’ Zan has an element of historical fiction, touches on the perceptions of animal cruelty in society, and probes the nature of connection between family members who aren’t related by blood and aren’t even the same species.

Most of all though, there were two specific aspects of Half Brother I particularly enjoyed. The first is the juxtaposition Oppel creates between the behaviour of Zan and the other chimpanzees and the behaviour of Ben’s father and other human alpha males in the story. Although humans are supposed to be further evolved than chimpanzees, Oppel is making the point that we are more alike than humans want to believe. It’s not just in our DNA, it’s in our behaviour as well.

The second is how everyone fails to anticipate the potential consequences of the experiment itself. Ben’s father is wrapped up in the glory of it all, and when people question his methods and results, he doesn’t hesitate to dump the study. It’s too late though, people are attached, Zan himself is a sort of hybrid chimp/human as nature battles nurture, and Ben feels personal responsibility for Zan because he sees him as his little brother. The results of the study reveal more than Ben’s father ever anticipated, although I have my doubts that he will ever see it as more than a failed experiment.

It’s a book I already want to put on my re-read list because there’s a lot going in it and I’m sure I haven’t caught it all. Ben and Zan are vibrant characters, and I loved their connection. I have no doubt in my mind that Zan did learn language in the traditional sense and returned the feelings of love from Ben and his mother. Oppel has presented me with several new ideas through his book, and I will relish pondering them over the next few days.

Memorable Quotes:

“I was suspicious right way. I knew the whole thing was cooked up to distract me – like giving someone a handful of Smarties on a crashing plane. But Dad was a really good talker. When he was enthusiastic, you got enthusiastic. He made you feel like you were the only person in the world, and he was sharing these things with you alone.” – Ben from Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, page 5

“It wasn’t Dad’s style to come right out and say he was disappointed or angry. It was some kind of psychologist thing, I guessed. He wanted to know how I felt about the marks – as if self-improving exercise. He wanted me to look deep into myself and make the startling discovery that my marks were crap, that I’d messed up, and that I needed to try harder next time.” – Ben from Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, page 125

“Part of me wanted Zan to perform, because I was suddenly scared that if he didn’t, Dad might punish him. Make him sit in the chair all morning, or go without lunch.


And the other part of me was full of admiration. Zan could talk, but he was choosing not to.


He was saying he didn’t feel like it. He was saying no.


He was giving my father the finger.


I wished I had Zan’s courage.” – Ben from Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, page 130

“I could hear the aggression now in both their voices. It was like being back in the chimp house and seeing two males face off. In a colony there was only one alpha male, but here there were two. I could almost smell their pheromones, transmitting themselves over the phone lines. I had no idea what would happen next, but I saw defeat for Dad.” – Ben from Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, page 352

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel is published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, (2010)

Truths I Learned from Sam by Kristin Butcher

Posted by on Dec 16, 2014 in Book Reviews, British Columbia | 0 comments

Truths I Learned from SamSummary: After her mother gets married for the fifth time, seventeen year-old Dani thinks she will be spending the six weeks her mother is on her honeymoon by herself. But her mother springs a surprise on her: instead Dani will be spending the time with Sam, the uncle she never knew about. Although she could be angry about her mother keeping secrets from her, Dani opts for excitement over getting to know a new family member. Sam and Dani are two peas in a pod, enjoying an easy camaraderie right from the start. While on her vacation with Sam, Dani learns to ride a horse and starts a relationship with a local cowboy-type. Living in a trailer with Sam doesn’t offer a lot of space though, which is why Dani ends up stumbling over more secrets that will change her life forever.

Number of Pages: 177

Age Range: 13-14

Review: Truths I Learned from Sam by Kristin Butcher is a tricky read. Characters Dani and Sam are easy to love, the setting of the fictional town of Watts River is idyllic and the theme of the lengths we will go to for family is thought-provoking.

But Dani’s story seems to be a case of accepting the reality with which we are presented. At first Dani believes her mother is an only child. Then she learns she has an uncle who wants to see her and it doesn’t occur to her to question what conflict between him and his grandparents would be strong enough to keep them apart. As the story progresses, each time Dani learns something new that reveals a higher level of secrets and lies, she just seems to absorb it. Without question, and without anger. While I loved Dani as a character, I question whether what appeared to be the responses of an extremely well-adjusted teenager are actually signs of someone who has problems expressing her emotions. Will the anger over the deception simply come later?

I give kudos to Butcher though because while I did have to suspend my disbelief for the last part of the story, I still wanted to know what happens next. And this morning I found out from Dundurn Press the sequel, In Search of Sam is coming out in May. I have no idea where Butcher is going to take Dani and Sam’s story, but I know I want to find out.

Memorable Quotes:

“Books, like cooking, are something Sam and I both enjoy, which is a good thing since there are lots of books around. Even so, I make a point of choosing ones I know Sam has already read, so we can have our discussions. Sometimes we agree; sometimes we don’t. It doesn’t matter. It’s the exchange of ideas that counts, and I get totally stoked as my thoughts bubble up and overflow like a runaway chemistry experiment. The same thing happens to Sam. I can tell by the energy in his voice. Somewhere along the way, my ideas get mixed up with his until I’m not quite sure whose thoughts are whose anymore, but when we’re finally all talked out, I feel as if my whole body has been scrubbed with a brush – I’m tingly inside and out.” – Dani from Truths I Learned from Sam by Kristin Butcher, page 67

“And that’s what I leave the safe world I’ve always known and sink like a stone into oblvion. I hear what my mother has said, but my brain refuses to process it. It’s my body that reacts. My stomach clenches, and then every muscle I possess collapses and I become weak all over. I can barely hold the phone. I fall back against the futon. Tears stream down my cheeks, but I don’t bother to wipe them away. I’m too consumed with the hurt in my heart. It is literally aching.” – Dani from Truths I Learned from Sam by Kristin Butcher, page 154

Truths I Learned from Sam by Kristin Butcher is published by Dundurn Press, (2013)

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

Posted by on Dec 15, 2014 in Book Reviews, British Columbia | 0 comments

Blood Red RoadSummary: Mid-winter twins Lugh and Saba live with their sister Emmi and their father on a lonely homestead plagued with drought. While the twins’ bond is fierce, their father is awash in grief and their sister fends for herself. Everything changes one day when the Tonton appear, kidnapping Lugh and killing their father. Left alone with Emmi, Saba sets out immediately to rescue Lugh, determined to leave her sister with a family friend along the way. But nothing seems to go as planned, and Saba’s journey to get Lugh back takes her from cage fighting in Hopetown, to battling deadly worms, to dethroning a king. Saba’s single-minded determination serves her well, although her prickly nature makes it difficult for her to accept the help she needs in achieving her goal.

Number of Pages: 459

Age Range: 13-15

Review: It’s a little difficult to separate what I know from reading author Moira Young’s sequel, Rebel Heart, with what I know from Blood Red Road, but when I read Young’s book the first time, I remember being struck by Saba’s powerful love for her brother. Their connection to each other goes back to a shared womb, and when their younger sister Emmi’s birth causes their mother’s death, Lugh is the only one she can rely on. They are each other’s other half, flip sides of the same coin.

So when Lugh is taken away from Saba, her only concern is to get him back. Her stubbornness and arrogance is alienating to say the least, and yet people are still drawn to help Saba even though she never willingly asks for it because her intentions are pure. Behind everything is an unyielding determination to survive, with the knowledge that surviving would never be complete if Saba isn’t able to be with Lugh.

Except along the way, something happens. Saba’s resistance to relying on anyone except Lugh is continually challenged as she must get assistance to rescue him. Also, at age of eighteen, finally out in the larger world, Saba falls in love for the first time. And while she won’t admit it, it is clear from her heartstone that Jack is her heart’s desire. The only problem is Saba seems more likely to kill him than to kiss him.

Saba’s tale is an epic adventure story set in a post-apocalyptic world. Her personality is completely captured in Young’s stylistic writing choices which makes for a more challenging read but completely worth it. I love Young’s theme of having strong female warriors able to fend for themselves, and the plethora of lovable and interesting characters Young brings into Saba’s life.

It was my third time reading Blood Red Road, and I was able to truly appreciate how completely Young has set up her sequel. Saba is in a completely different place at the end of the novel, and this will go on to affect her future relationship with Lugh as it already affects her relationship with Emmi. I have plans to read the triology’s final instalment, Raging Star, in the new year, because I am on pins and needles wondering how it is all going to turn out.

Memorable Quotes:

“Lugh thinks fer a moment. Then he says, Love makes you weak. Carin fer somebody that much means you cain’t think straight. Look at Pa. Who’d wanna end up like him? I ain’t never gonna love nobody. It’s better that way.” – Lugh from Blood Red Road by Moira Young, page 17

“I always blamed Emmi fer the fact that Ma’s dead. I never made no secret of it. Now, hearing what mercy says, I start to think about the fact that nobody asks to be born into this world. An nobody can stop theirselves bein born. Not even Emmi.” – Saba from Blood Red Road by Moira Young, page 68

“But then the red hot kicks in an at last I unnerstand what it is. It’s like animals. A animal will do anythin to live. Even chew off its own leg if it’s caught in a trap. That’s the red hot. An I’m gonna hafta learn to use it if I wanna survive in the Cage.” – Saba from Blood Red Road by Moira Young, page 146

“I stare into his eyes. Searchin fer . . . somethin. Then. I see it.


I see him. Suddenly I see him. Not the Jack of the jokes an the flirtin and the shyin away. The real Jack. The . . . truth of him. The stillness at the heart of him. Like calm water.


I saw it once before, that first night we lay unner the stars. When I told him about Lugh an he promised me we’d find him. An this is the thing. The truth about Jack’s bin right in front of me all along. I just wouldn’t let myself believe what I saw. Till now.


I laugh. Gawd help me, I says, but I do. I trust you, Jack.” – Saba from Blood Red Road by Moira Young, page 382

Blood Red Road by Moira Young is published by Doubleday Canada, (2011).

Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber

Posted by on Dec 14, 2014 in Book Reviews, British Columbia | 0 comments

Free as a BirdSummary: Born in 1957 with Downs Syndrome, Ruby Jean Sharp is put in an institution called the Woodlands School at the age of eight when her Gramma dies and can no longer care for her. The stigma against Ruby Jean’s condition is great, and those in the institution are often abused. But hope comes when Ruby Jean starts taking lessons on daily life activities with a helper named Grace, demonstrating that though others call her a retard she is capable of running her own life with some support. Finally she emerges from the Woodlands School to live with a friendly, caring older couple called Nan and Pop, but when an ambulance takes Pop away one day Ruby Jean assumes the worst. Determined not to go back to the Woodlands School again, she becomes homeless, learning about life on the street by experience but still finding a way to make friends as she always does.

Number of Pages: 168

Age Range: 14-16

Review: Ruby Jean’s story is not an easy one to read. While nowadays in some countries, programs that were new in the 60s and the 70s for people with Downs Syndrome seem like common sense, author Gina McMurchy-Barber gives her reader a glimpse back to when they weren’t. And the glimpse is utterly disturbing.

But Ruby Jean lives though it. She deals with physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and as time passes in the Woodlands School she loses her words and any independence and autonomy she had while living with her Gramma. Living in the institution deprives Ruby Jean of her most basic need: love.

When Grace comes into her life, seeking to teach her how to live in a community setting, Ruby Jean blossoms like a flower under her tutelage. Others at the Woodlands School mistake Ruby Jean for a weed though and seem determined to cut her back at all costs. Grace is fired, and Ruby Jean descends into her wordless state once again, devolving with self-destructive behaviours as the only way to express her intense distress over her situation.

Hope comes again though in the form of Mrs. Gentry, who works with Ruby Jean until she is able to leave the Woodlands School to live with Pop and Nan, a kind-hearted elderly couple. It’s a beautiful life with them, and Ruby Jean is the happiest she has ever been with a job and people who love her until one day Pop is taken away in an ambulance. Ruby Jean knows from previous experience that ambulances only take away dead people, and fearful of being returned to Woodlands School by Nan, she runs away, living on the street.

The ending was a surprise to me, although I was thankful for it. Despite everything that happens to her Ruby Jean picks herself up time and time again, and no matter what her circumstances she continually finds people to love and who love her in return. First it was her Gramma, then Grace, then Mrs. Gentry, her friends at Woodlands School, Nan and Pop, Sister Irene, Mabel – Ruby Jean may have been beaten down on many occasions, but she continues to love. And when she loves, she’s all in.

With the historical aspect and the abuse, I’d place it as a mid-teen read.

Memorable Quotes:

“Some people figured Woodlands School was the place the prime minister king man hid all of God’s mistakes so others dint have to look at em. Maybe that’s true. But I think us kids wasn’t the only ones who was broken in that place – nope, some of em uniforms was awful broke too. I could tell cause they dint never look happy … dint smile … dint talk nice – not even to each other. Wondered if that’s cause they dint like being in Woodland neither. Spose that’s why it was a good thing they had families an places to go home to every night.” – Ruby Jean from Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber, page 24

“An I figured out Jimmy T was never really Mister Crow knowed he had to be patient to get what he wanted. He knowed sometimes ya jus hadda lie low an wait for that chance when em other ones wasn’t lookin. Maybe if Jimmy T had been like that he’da got what he wanted one day – an jus like Crow, he could’ve flied away free as a bird.” – Ruby Jean from Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber, page 35

“I waited to hear Morris and Millie in my head sayin, ‘That’s right, she’s nothing but a retard.’ But that dint happen. Instead it was Gramma’s voice.


She told me, ‘Ruby Jean Sharp, it’s time you stopped feeling sorry for yourself. It doesn’t matter what others think of you or if they call you names or if they don’t know how precious you are – you’ll just have to know it all by yourself. And anyway, there are plenty of people who see your true worth – like Grace and Nan and Pops and Mrs. Gentry … and Mabel too. But right now she needs your help. You’re the only one who can do it, Ruby Jean.'” – Ruby Jean triumphing over her inner demons with the love of her Gramma from Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber, page 139

“‘A long time ago, before I was sent to Riverview, I used to have a job sorting letters for the post office. Most letters fit into the slots just fine – that’s because they were all the same size. But every so often one came along that was too long or too wide and had to be put in the oversize drawer. For a letter sorter that was a nuisance – created more work, more effort.’


I thought bout how nice it was that Mabel used to have a job at the post office.


‘What I’m trying to say is I figure you and me are kind of like those oversize letters. We didn’t fit into any of the usual places – we weren’t like the others – so some people thought we had to be put somewhere separate. With you it was Woodlands. With me it was Riverview. But we got lucky – we got away. And just like you, I ain’t never going back. That’s why I chose the streets … it’s where I want to be. So don’t worry about me, kid. I’m a survivor.’ Then Mabel smiled at me. ‘Doesn’t mean I’d say no to a little money now and then.'” – Mabel explaining their differentness to Ruby Jean from Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber, page 152-153

Free as a Bird by Gina McMurchy-Barber is published by Dundurn Press, (2010).