Tag Archives: Books

Tailored Book Recommendations Are the Best

The Chronicles of Narnia was one of the first series I remember being recommended to me. My generous uncle gave me all seven books in that series at once when I was in elementary school.

As soon as I read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, I began quietly touching the back of every closet to see if it contained a wall behind the clothing hanging in there or if it would somehow lead me somewhere interesting. I was a little young for the later, darker instalments at the time, but I loved the first few stories immediately and soon grew up enough to enjoy the rest, too.

One of the things I loved the most about the magic in that world was how unpredictable it was. Aslan didn’t always show up when you expected him to, and he didn’t necessarily meet my expectations of what the creator of a planet would be like either. I spent more time than I care to admit memorizing little details about Narnia and wondering what it would be like to go there for real.

When my uncle heard how much I adored his gift, he came up with something even better for the next round of gift-giving: copies of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The Hobbit was an instant hit with me. I loved Bilbo’s cautious nature and the exciting details of his trek to The Lonely Mountain. It was one of my first brushes with characters who were in real danger when they went on an adventure. This was a more treacherous world than the one the Pevensie children knew.  There were no adults around to save them, and I was never entirely certain if Bilbo or his companions would make it home safely again.

Not only were there carnivorous trolls in The Hobbit, Bilbo also had to face conniving Gollum (whose backstory and identity wasn’t revealed until The Fellowship of the Ring), gigantic spiders who also wanted to eat him, and many other perils.

My uncle knew what he was doing when he recommended these stories to me. The basic rules of magic were different in each universe because one was written for a younger audience than the other was, but they were both filled with creatures whose very existence tickled my imagination.

Tailor Your Recommendations

Suggesting the right book for someone is kind of like giving them clothing. Knowing the right size (or genre, in this case) will go a long way in helping you pick something out, but there are many other small details that matter as well. You have to know someone incredibly well in order to have any chance at all of giving them something they’ll want to use or read over and over again.

There have been times when I’ve recommended books to people who ended up not enjoying those tales at all. In other cases, I’ve had books recommended to me that didn’t quite fit my tastes.

Other than obvious errors like writing two-dimensional characters or using cliches excessively, so much of what goes into a great story is subjective. You might be bored stiff by plot lines that I love, and I might feel the same way about the stories that someone else could spend all day reading without ever growing tired of them.

So it came as a huge surprise to me when a friend recently recommended a book that I’m loving so far: The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes.

Fred was a completely ordinary man who was turned into a vampire as an adult. He gained strength and became a physically healthier version of himself, but he otherwise remained the same shy and quiet man he’d always been.

No, he didn’t sparkle in the sunlight, seduce teenage girls, radically change his habits, or suddenly have the nearly-supernatural ability to conquer the world. (There’s nothing wrong with liking any of these tropes, of course, but they’re not the kind of storylines I generally want to read about).

Honestly, other than the fact that he drank blood and was now allergic to daylight, Fred reminded me of myself and of a few of my friends. He had a kind soul and a sharp wit. Sometimes he worried more than he should. He wasn’t the life of the party, although he was incredibly likeable and charming once you got to know him beyond his day job and strange affliction.

This is the kind of vampire fiction I will never get enough of. It has a dry sense of humour and a realistic take on what it might be like to become a vampire but still have nearly all of the problems from your old life following you around.

Will you like this story? I don’t know. There are some readers who I’m sure will stop a few pages in once they realize that Fred is breaking nearly all of the rules that have ever been made about what a vampire is supposed to be like. It’s completely okay for them to do that, and I hope they find what they’re looking for elsewhere.

When I recommend this tale to people in the future, I’m going to save it for folks who enjoy unconventional monsters, sarcasm, and the realization that becoming a vampire isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. There’s an audience out there for every book and a book that’s perfect for even the most selective reader if you look long enough for them.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Books That Should Be Taught in School

I thought this would be a fun post to share now that the 2017-2018 school year has either begun or will begin soon for many schools in North America.

As you might have already guessed, English was my favourite subject from the time my mom began the homeschool version of preschool for me until I graduated from college.

My classmates and I read countless short stories, novellas, and novels during those years, but I barely remember ever being assigned a science fiction or fantasy book until I entered college.

This is a real shame. The sci-fi and fantasy genres are full of stories that can be used to as a jumping off point to explore logic, history, math, geography, ethics, and so much more. I wish my classmates and I had been exposed to these genres as an official part of our curriculums from the beginning.

There are five books in each section of this post for the different age ranges: elementary school, middle school, and high school.

Elementary School

Fantasy sure seems like it has a stronger influence on elementary-aged students. I wonder if it’s because of the lure of traditional fairy tales to young children? At any rate, most of my recommendations for this age groups will sit firmly in the fantasy camp.

 

Gwinna by Barbara Helen Berger

I know I’ve blogged about this book before, but I simply must mention it again. This is the most beautiful modern fairy tale that I’ve ever read. It would be a wonderful place to introduce all kinds of classroom discussions about adoption, the dangers of breaking a promise, and what the students think happened to Gwinna after the end of the final chapter.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

One of the things that first drew me into this story were its descriptions of what life was like for children in England during World War II. There are many things that have changed since then, but basic human nature will always remain the same. It would be very interesting to see how today’s children would react to the idea of being sent away from home for their own safety during a war.

Of course, some students will already have personal experience with that kind of huge life change! Immigration, the separation of families, and the sad consequences of war are still every bit as relevant today as they were in the 1940s.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Rabbit

I have a vague memory of one of my elementary school teachers assigning this book to us when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The thought of living forever had never crossed my mind until I learned about Winnie’s life, but I loved watching her mull over her choices once she discovered that the family she’d recently met had a surefire method to remain young and healthy until the end of time.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

This series covered so many timeless issues: child abuse; discrimination; grief; what happens when family secrets are finally aired. What surprised me the most about all of the Harry Potter books was how much fun the characters had even when they were dealing with serious topics that many kids face in real life.

 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book about a factory filled with candy and other sweets?

On a more serious note, I liked the way the main character responded to the difficulties he faced in life. He was such a brave kid even when the odds were stacked against him and he couldn’t imagine how he’d get out of his latest predicament.

Middle School

Middle school is a tough age. Tweens and young teenagers are often suspicious of admitting they like stories they think were written for kids, but they’re also not quite ready for more mature material. These books – or portions of them –  would be perfect for this age group.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

It takes courage to face an angry dragon, and that was only one of the many dangers Bilbo was exposed to during his first big adventure. If I were going to teach this book, I’d round off our readings with a discussion of what happens to people after other huge changes like going to war or being diagnosed with a serious disease. Bilbo’s response to what happened to him mirrored both of these real-life experiences in all kinds of interesting ways.

This is also the perfect introduction to the the Lord of the Rings universe for students who like Bilbo and want to find out what happened to him after he returned home.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book was about a developmentally disabled man who was given an experimental medical treatment that quickly began to raise his IQ. Suddenly becoming much more intelligent than you were before isn’t necessarily an easy experience, but the main character’s diary about what that process was like made me think about everything from how disabilities are defined to what happens when someone is given the chance to change their life in all kinds of unpredictable ways.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Imagine a society without war, hunger, prejudice, or pain. In fact, all but one of the people in that society couldn’t even begin to tell you what any of those experiences were like.

This was by far my favorite book when I was in middle school. I thought the society the main character lived in was a paradise at first. Figuring out its dark side made me ask myself all kinds of questions about the meaning of life and how much freedom I’d be willing to sacrifice to permanently remove suffering in the world for just about everyone.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

One of the biggest reasons why I believe this should be read by middle school students is because it distills complicated arguments about freedom, politics, communism, and propaganda into a simple allegory about a farm full of animals who decide to revolt against their owner.

The twist ending is my second largest reason for recommending it to this age group. It was as funny as it was thought-provoking.

The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The silly sections will make middle schoolers laugh, but they’ll also learn a few things about getting along with others and not assuming that you’re the centre of the universe. The sometimes-convoluted storyline would also be a good place to talk abut everything from unreliable narrators to how two people can remember the same event completely differently based on how their minds store memories and what small pieces of that day they’ve forgotten.

High School

My high school English classes assigned us a lot of John Steinbeck and Shakespeare readings. I think these books would make a perfect addition to that kind of curriculum.

Beowulf

I first read this in college, but I wish I had discovered it years earlier. The dark themes and occasional scenes of violence are best suited for more mature readers who are willing to push forward to the conclusion.

I also believe that everyone who speaks English should be familiar with the first poem we know of that was written in Old English. There is so much about the beginnings of our language that we simply don’t know. Holding onto what we do know is important.

1984 by George Orwell

Should the government be trusted? Is everything that’s shared on the news actually true? How do you know when you’re being lied to?

These have been dangerous questions to ask in many different cultures and eras. Knowing when you’re being deceived is nearly as important as knowing how to react when it happens. I think every high school student should graduate with at least a little practice at weighing what they’re told carefully.

 

 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Climate change has already begun to affect our world. How people live in a generation or two will probably be quite different from how the average westerner lives today.

Ms. Butler had such a creative take on what our future could be like. I wish she had lived long enough to finish this series, but I relish what she was able to write. High school students could learn a lot from her thoughts on prejudice and what happens when an entire society falls apart.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

This is a classic piece of science fiction about time travel and the ethical dilemmas that result from knowing what will happen in the future but not being sure how to warn everyone about what is coming. Not every conflict in life has or should have a black-and-white solution.

Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

Most high school students are probably aware that there used to be other human-like species living on Earth, but I doubt most of them have wondered how our planet would be different if early humans had died out and another species had become dominant instead.

This tale asked a lot of hard questions about intelligence, environmentalism, and what it would mean to be human if we discovered that we weren’t the only intelligent hominids wandering around after all.

What science fiction and fantasy books do you wish would be taught in schools?

Why I Love to Read Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for everything from science fiction to dystopians, fantasy to horror.

I’ve been thinking a lot about speculative fiction in general since The Handmaid’s Tale began last month. This specific storytelling style has appealed to me for as long as I can remember for several different reasons.

Honesty

Books like 1984, Animal Farm, or Brave New World reveal the ugly sides of the systems, societies, or cultures they’re critiquing without hesitation. Do they offend some people along the way? Yes, without a doubt. It wasn’t necessarily their original goal, but they’re not afraid to ruffle a few feathers while attempting to get their audiences to wrestle with the big issues that authors in this genre often explore.

I love that about these tales. There are times when I’m in the mood for something light and fluffy, but my first literary love will always be tales that rip off the parts of human society that are hidden and reveal everything they’re trying so hard to conceal.

It definitely isn’t easy to write an entertaining story that also challenges people to rethink their assumptions. When an author manages to pull this off, it’s truly magical.

Critical Thinking

One of the things that irritates me the most about many news networks in the United States is how sensationalized they are. All of their repetitive panic over serious and frivolous stories alike dulls the senses and makes it extremely difficult to think critically about what the newscaster is reporting. When everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency.

I avoided the news as much as possible when I lived in the U.S. Now that I’ve been an expat for a dozen years, I find it overwhelming when I’m back in the States for a visit.

The nice thing about the more serious side of speculative fiction is that a well-timed plot doesn’t leave room for these kinds of diversions. Yes, there are scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale that draw me into deep thought every time I read about or watch them. These scenes not about assuming the worst or blowing things out of proportion in order to snag people’s attention, though.

Everything that was included in that particular book has actually happened at least once in the past. Some of the plot points have been repeated over and over again throughout history as we try and fail yet again to learn our lessons and improve on how previous generations behaved.

Speculative fiction can push readers to sort through the various points of view in their plots, decide which ones make sense, and come up with our own theories about what happened and how we should interpret fictional stories that have something to say about real-world events.

Wonderment 

First of all, isn’t wonderment a fantastic word? It’s the kind of word that I like to gently roll around on my tongue a few times before I bother to share it with anyone else.

All of the genres I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post are full of wonder in their own way. For example, I will never forget how I felt at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when dozens of invitations to Hogwarts appeared at the Dursleys house after Harry’s uncle destroyed the first few that arrived.

Seeing the Dursleys react so strongly to simple magic makes me grin every time I see it. If only they could have seen the more powerful, playful, and sometimes downright dangerous types of magic that Harry encountered once he started attending Hogwarts!

This sense of wonder stuck with me through all of the Harry Potter books. Even the darkest and saddest scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows still tickled my imagination in small ways. Once wonderment has been introduced into a story, it almost always remains there for good.

Escapism

Yes, I know that some people use this term in a derogatory way. I don’t think of escapist literature as a negative thing at all, though.

There is something to be said for immersing yourself in a completely different world when you need a short break or could use some encouragement.

The first time I read the Lord of the Rings series was shortly after my life had changed in all kinds of stressful ways due to a cross-country move my family made when I was a preteen. I had a lot of  trouble making friends and adjusting to my new school.

I was not a happy kid at that point in my life by any stretch of the imagination, but I found a lot of solace in seeing how Frodo and Sam persevered through even the most impossible circumstances.

We weren’t facing the same obstacles, but we were facing the same fears. If they could push through another day, then I could as well.

How about you? Why do you love speculative fiction? I hope you’ll pop over to Twitter today and tell me all about it!

What Do Authors Owe Their Readers?

Lately I’ve been participating in an online discussion about a famous series that started off beautifully and ended in a way that irritated many of its longterm fans.

(No, I won’t be mentioning it by name here today. If you’re insatiably curious about this, send me a private message on Twitter and we’ll talk about it there).

The first few books in this series foreshadowed some fabulous plot twists that either never happened or were far easier to solve than anyone would have guessed based on how much time the characters spent worrying about them earlier on.

 

Several questions have popped into my mind over the years as I’ve listened to fans in this community debate what the ending means, whether or not it was satisfying, and why the author chose to tie everything up the way that they did.

My answers to them have evolved over time, but this is how I’d answer them right now.

Who decides what a story means?

We all do. In no way am I downplaying the importance of understanding what an author meant to say. That would be quite the silly thing for this writer to do!

With that being said, I also believe that an audience plays a key role in understanding any story. How they interpret certain scenes might not necessarily be how the creator thought about them when he or she was in the middle of the writing process.

This is a good thing. Sometimes I’ll write a story that I honestly don’t fully understand. Surprisingly, the writing process can be fickle like that, so I really appreciate it when readers come along with their own interpretations of what certain scenes could have meant.

If you mention a gun in the first scene, must it be fired later on?

Yes.

The difference between a gun in real-life and a gun in a story is that the latter was created for a specific purpose. If the writer was never intending for anyone to use it, why on earth would you add it to the scene? Everything that’s mentioned in a piece of fiction should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong there.

What about red herrings, you might ask? While I’m not a big fan of them in general, distracting the audience from what’s really going on does give them meaning.

Writing about something that you know is a distraction from the beginning is nothing at all like writing about something that doesn’t have any reason for being there in the first place. Red herrings generally leave small clues for the audience about their true reason for existing.

A gun that isn’t fired doesn’t do anything like this. It pops into existence for no reason at all, and it never bothers to correct that no matter how long the plot meanders forward.

As you probably already guessed, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I am completely comfortable being surprised by how something ends. I am not at all okay with having the wool pulled over my eyes.

What do readers own their favourite authors?

An open mind.

I am still a fan of the series I alluded to at the beginning of this post. I’ve been reading the first few books in it over and over again since I was 12 years old, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

With that being said, I will always be disappointed by how it ended. There were so many missed opportunities in the last book to tie up all kinds of loose threads.

Now we come to the heart of the matter.

What do authors owe their readers?

Consistency.

I’ve read plenty of other stories whose endings disagreed with me for any number of reasons.The difference between those stories and the series I discussed today is that the former are consistent.

If they mention a gun in the first scene, it is fired at some point. What happens to the bullet varies from one storyline to the next, but it does leave the chamber of the gun. It never sits there unused forever.

To give another example, the main character might die in the last scene of a tale. If they do, though, there will be plenty of foreshadowing along the way to prepare you for it.

Speaking of foreshadowing, some authors use it heavily while others barely touch it at all. I can happily adjust to either technique as long as the narrator delivers on everything they hinted at early one.

All I want is for what’s hinted at in the beginning to be properly carried out by the end. Don’t leave me hanging, and I’ll be a happy reader.

Why I Love to Reread Books

Earlier this year I reread The Handmaid’s Tale in preparation for the miniseries based on this story that is coming out next week. Stay tuned! I am planning to blog about that series after I’ve seen it, but today I’ll be talking about rereading books in general.

Over the last few years I’ve also reread:

  • The Earth’s Children series
  • The Anne of Green Gables series
  • The Harry Potter series

Yes, I’ve read these stories so many times that I know every plot twist by heart. I’ve even been known to quote my favourite passages from them to my spouse when he least expects it.

There are a few different reasons why I occasionally like to go back and revisit these tales despite the fact that there are many new books left on my to-read list.

Reason #1: I Already Know I’ll Like the Story. 

Several months ago, I started reading something that I was fully expecting to love. The blurb was amazing, the reviews of it were really good, and I’d spoken to someone else who’d read it and thought it was wonderful.

Imagine how surprised I was when I could barely make it through the first scene. Not only was the main character written in a stereotypical manner, the narrator seemed more interested in describing what her body looked like than why she woke up in a world that had shifted from being completely ordinary to not making any sense at all.

I was disappointed. Rather than getting sucked into the story, I quietly closed the file and went looking for something else to read.

The nice thing about returning to old favourites is that I already know what I think of them. If they have flaws, I’ve already weighed them against the storyline and decided that they aren’t serious enough to destroy my warm feelings about the characters or plot in general.

Most of the books I read are still new to me, but sometimes it is really nice to be guaranteed a satisfying read.

Reason #2: I Don’t Always Identify with the Same Character.

I thought Marilla was a stuffy, old grouch the first dozen times I read Anne of Green Gables. Many of the rules she expected Anne to follow didn’t make sense to me, and I thought she was far too strict with the girl in general. The last time I read it, I was surprised by how much I empathized with her.

I am nowhere near Marilla’s age, but I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to suddenly become the permanent legal guardian of a rambunctious preteen who has never known a stable home life, has limited respect for social conventions, and pushes back against almost every boundary you try to set with her.

At least I have memories from a good childhood and a nephew who is close to Anne’s age. Marilla didn’t have any experience with children at all when she first met Anne, and the bits and pieces of her upbringing we later learn about make it sound strict and dreary. Nobody gave her warmth or affection at that age. All she had ever known was duty and hard farm work, and yet somehow she was expected to look after a young girl who was starving for affection.

All of these details make the strong, loving bond she eventually forges with Anne even more remarkable than I remembered it being.

Reason #3: I Know I’ll Find Something New in Them Every Time

Reading the same book again is like walking down your favourite trail and noticing small differences in the landscape this time. It was nowhere near this beautiful  – and possibly photoshopped?! – but when I was a kid I used to love to walk down short mountain trails and find plants I hadn’t noticed before.

No matter how many times my family had previously walked down those paths, there was always some kind of flower or shrub that I’d missed the last time. Had they not been in season on our last visit, or was I looking elsewhere then?

I don’t know, but last winter I reread my favourite book in the Earth’s Children series,The Valley of Horses. The Clan of the Cave Bear, the first book in that series, was full of difficult – and even traumatic – experiences for Ayla, the main character.

What I enjoy the most about The Valley of Horses is how much time she has to reflect on all of the things she experienced after she was permanently banished from her adoptive tribe. There were periods of loneliness in those years she spent living alone, but all of that solitude did give her the opportunity to heal emotionally from the things that had happened to her.

One of the details of this story that I’d begun to forget was that Ayla survived pneumonia while she was living on her own. As someone who has had this disease before, I’m amazed at how well she did at looking after herself while she recovered.

Even the mildest form of pneumonia is a nasty illness. It sucks every ounce of energy out of your body no matter how many hours of the day you sleep, and the symptoms can last for weeks if you happen to be a character living in a time and place where antibiotics won’t exist for another 30,000 years or so. Something as simple as taking a bath or staying awake for more than a few hours at once is extremely difficult even if you’re lucky enough to have a prescription for antibiotics, a warm, safe house, and a fridge full of nutritious food that can be reheated easily.

I can’t imagine having to prepare and cook food, gather wood, keep a fire going, melt snow or ice for water, stay alert for any hint of danger that might be approaching your cave, and try to recover from this horrible disease all at the same time.

It’s something I’d overlooked in the past, but it makes me like Ayla even more now that I’m aware of what that experience must have been like for her.

How about you? How do you feel about rereading books? I’ll be on Twitter throughout the day, and I’d love to discuss it with you.

What Do You Read When You’re On Vacation?

I arrived home from a relaxing, tropical vacation a few days ago. One of my personal earmarks of a good trip is what I got to read while I was away. Not only is it nice to get lost in a novel while you’re traveling to your destination, it’s also fun to have something to do during the inevitable… Read More