Brief Thoughts: Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Son of a Trickster

Everyone knows a guy like Jared: the burnout kid in high school who sells weed cookies and has a scary mom who’s often wasted and wielding some kind of weapon. Jared does smoke and drink too much, and he does make the best cookies in town, and his mom is a mess, but he’s also a kid who has an immense capacity for compassion and an impulse to watch over people more than twice his age, and he can’t rely on anyone for consistent love and support, except for his flatulent pit bull, Baby Killer (he calls her Baby)–and now she’s dead.

Jared can’t count on his mom to stay sober and stick around to take care of him. He can’t rely on his dad to pay the bills and support his new wife and step-daughter. Jared is only sixteen but feels like he is the one who must stabilize his family’s life, even look out for his elderly neighbours. But he struggles to keep everything afloat…and sometimes he blacks out. And he puzzles over why his maternal grandmother has never liked him, why she says he’s the son of a trickster, that he isn’t human. Mind you, ravens speak to him–even when he’s not stoned.

You think you know Jared, but you don’t.

★★★½Goodreads | Chapters 

I received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

  • My thoughts on Son of a Trickster mostly focus on the perils of basing expectations for one book on another book.
  • Two things drew me to this book: Eden Robinson (Haisla First Nation author) + magical realism. I previously read and enjoyed Robinson’s Monkey Beach.  Son of a Trickster stars teenage boy Jared, who differs greatly from Monkey Beach’s adult woman Lisa (what an astute observation, Jenna). I didn’t realize how much my enjoyment of Monkey Beach depended on Lisa until I started Son of a Trickster. Jared is a great character but not one with which I personally connect.
  • When I read Monkey Beach, I did not anticipate any magical realism. Only when I finished the book and participated in a group discussion did the term come up to describe the story. I personally wouldn’t have described the book as magical realism, although technically that’s what it was (to me it was a lot more real than magical). I only remembered all this when I looked back on my review a few minutes ago. 😛 In contrast, I had high expectations for the magical realism in Son of a Trickster. I lifted expectations for Son of a Trickster from Monkey Beach without considering the obvious differences between the books.
  • The jacket description above describes spot-on the content of Son of a Trickster. It’s my bad for expecting more magical realism in this tale. A virtual footnote in the summary translates to a relatively minor role in the story. Jared’s ‘magical’ abilities start to have a serious impact on the story about two thirds of the way in. I liked exploring particular Indigenous beliefs and culture through Jared’s eyes, as he learns bit by bit about what he can see and about his family’s background (Jared is “part ‘Namgis, part Heiltsuk”). I would definitely describe Son of a Trickster as magical realism, in a way that I wouldn’t describe Monkey Beach. But Jared’s story is really about family relationships. The ‘magic’ is just a means to explore that topic. And I suppose that’s generally how you might describe magical realism (you could argue Monkey Beach is the same way), but I’m always hoping the magical elements will be more of a focus. Honestly, as I type this out, I can imagine someone who’s read this book being aghast and saying the magic plays a lot more significant role, but that’s how it felt to me. I have the impression that the next books in the trilogy will delve more into Jared’s family background and abilities. Son of a Trickster does have something of an introductory story line vibe to it.
  • To summarize, Son of a Trickster did not match my misguided expectations, but it is by no means a poor book. Here are some reasons you might enjoy it:
  • Jared is an engaging main character. I kept reading because I wanted to know what he would do next. He really is just a kid trying to make do with an awful situation. Like the description says, he “has an immense capacity for compassion”. Most of the adults around him are disasters, often causing me to grit my teeth and roll my eyes (ugh, his Mom). He’s not an angel, but despite his poor circumstances, Jared remains a good kid, guided by good intentions. There are some moving moments in the story where I found myself thinking, “Geez, he really is just a 16 year old kid” despite the partying, drinking, etc. he gets into. If you love reading about dysfunctional families – you will love this book.
  • My favourite strength of Robinson’s is her ability to created vivid and believable settings. She does an excellent job of translating her personal experience and knowledge of real world places onto the page. (Son of a Trickster is set in her hometown of Kitimaat, in northern British Columbia, with many scenes also taking place on the nearby reserve).
  • The book contains many specific cultural references, so much so that you can easily pin down the time period of the story. Examples include Idle No More protests, songs such as Red Skin Girl and Like A G6, and debates over the best Doctor in Doctor Who. The text message exchanges between Jared and various characters felt real, not constructed. Sometimes specific references irk me. In this case, I found they added realism to the story.
  • The Bottom Line: Overall, this book is a solid addition to the field of Indigenous literature. The representation of Indigenous youth like Jared and his friends is something the field could always use more of. The magical realism aspect of the story adds another layer of culture and intrigue to something that might read too bleak. Recommended for fans of Indigenous literature, dysfunctional families, or kids trying to do their best they know how. I’d also recommend this for teens -there’s a lot for them to enjoy here.

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This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Cybils Nominees Feat. Multiple Narrators ( + Winners Announced!)

Cybils 2016From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features four books told in alternating first person chapters.

Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick

Cover of Two NaomisOther than their first names, Naomi Marie and Naomi Edith are sure they have nothing in common, and they wouldn’t mind keeping it that way. Naomi Marie starts clubs at the library and adores being a big sister. Naomi Edith loves quiet Saturdays and hanging with her best friend in her backyard. And while Naomi Marie’s father lives a few blocks away, Naomi Edith wonders how she’s supposed to get through each day a whole country apart from her mother. When Naomi Marie’s mom and Naomi Edith’s dad get serious about dating, each girl tries to cling to the life she knows and loves. Then their parents push them into attending a class together, where they might just have to find a way to work with each other—and maybe even join forces to find new ways to define family. .

I think Two Naomis has such a cute cover. I love how the greenery frames the girls. The images on the cover distinguish the girls much better than the words in the book, however. Although it’s told in alternating chapters from a first person perspective, their voices are not distinct enough from each other. I had to keep checking back to remind myself which girl was speaking. I wonder how the book was co-authored. Did each author write one of the Naomi’s chapters, or did they write everything together? The parent’s actions seemed a bit over the top. Why did they have to keep so many secrets? I found the girls’ reactions to one another, and growing relationship over the course of the story, more realistic. I appreciated that even though they were reluctant to attend a computer game programming class together, the activity eventually grew on them.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Review @ Random Musings of a Bibliophile | Add to GoodReads

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

Ms. Bixby's Last Day

Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The good ones. The not-so-good ones. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard. The ones you’ll never remember, and the ones you want to forget. But Ms. Bixby is none of these. She’s the sort of teacher who makes you feel like the indignity of school is worthwhile. Who makes the idea of growing up less terrifying. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind. Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she is very sick and won’t be able to finish the school year, they come up with a plan. Through the three very different stories they tell, we begin to understand just what Ms. Bixby means to Topher, Brand, and Steve—and what they are willing to go to such great lengths to tell her.

Topher, Brand and Steve narrate this one. Each boy has their own, unique reason for wanting to give Ms. Bixby a special ‘last day’. The story does an excellent job at conveying how a great teacher can make such a positive difference in a kid’s life. There are some fun action/adventure elements that are a touch over the top – but this is middle grade fiction. I expected the story to be more sad than it was. I didn’t cry until the epilogue 😛 I came away thinking, “Man, we need more teachers like Ms. Bixby”.

Review @ KinderLit | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL. Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own. Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in. Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.

My sister and I reviewed this book for my Family Reads series. Joe and Ravi narrate the story. I wrote the Cybils shortlist blurb for this one: “Joe has lived in New Jersey his entire life. Ravi has just moved to New Jersey from Bangalore. As they start grade five, both face new challenges. Ravi discovers he is no longer a star pupil as he was in India. His attempts to befriend Dillon Samreen (an American-born Indian) don’t go over as he expects. Joe’s best friends have moved away and his mom now supervises lunch, giving Dillon an additional excuse to pick on Joe beyond his auditory processing disorder. Over the course of one hectic week, Joe and Ravi move beyond misunderstandings and snap judgements to overcome their common challenge – Dillon. Narrated in alternating chapters by the very real voices of Ravi and Joe, Save Me a Seat offers a fresh take on bullying and friendship narratives.”

Review @ Puss Reboots | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

Slacker by Gordon Korman

Slacker by Gordon kormanCameron Boxer is very happy to spend his life avoiding homework, hanging out with his friends, and gaming for hours in his basement. It’s not too hard for him to get away with it . . . until he gets so caught up in one game that he almost lets his house burn down around him. Oops. It’s time for some serious damage control–so Cameron and his friends invent a fake school club that will make it seem like they’re doing good deeds instead of slacking off. The problem? Some kids think the club is real–and Cameron is stuck being president.  Soon Cameron is part of a mission to save a beaver named Elvis from certain extinction. Along the way, he makes some new friends–and some powerful new enemies. The guy who never cared about anything is now at the center of everything . . . and it’s going to take all his slacker skills to win this round.

Slacker is primarily Cameron’s story, but a variety of characters narrate different chapters. It had been a long time since I read something new by Gordon Korman. I adored his hilarious books in grade five, when my teacher read them aloud to the class. Slacker was kind of fun, though the writing and characters didn’t stand out to me. I didn’t find it was as funny as, say, the Macdonald Hall Books, but I am perhaps biased from having read those books when I was actually 10 😉 A recommended book for a reluctant reader.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads| Review @ Puss Reboots | Add to Goodreads

Cybils Winners

ICYMI – This past Tuesday (14 February) the Cybils winners were announced! Ghost by Jason Reynolds won in the middle grade fiction category. No surprise there 🙂 Of course, any of the books we shortlisted could have won and I wouldn’t have been surprised. When the shortlist was announced, I wrote this about Ghost: “I have never been a reader of ‘sports book’, but here is a book that will appeal to sports fan and non-fans alike – even if the feature sport is track. Ghost is a story about a kid finding something he loves doing, and learning how to push himself and be better. This is the first book I’ve read by Reynolds. Now I can see his appeal!” Congratulations to Reynolds and all the other nominees.

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Review: When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin

When the Sea Turned to SilverAuthor: Grace Lin
Title: When the Sea Turned to Silver
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: October 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown Young Readers
Length: 370 pages
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Why I Read: Cover + premise
Rating: ★★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | Indiebound | Book Depository

I had some trouble with this review, as the beauty of this book distracted me from constructing thoughts beyond “It’s so lovely!” When the Sea Turned to Silver exemplifies beauty in both its physical design and story-telling prose. The final book in Grace Lin’s loosely connected trilogy of middle-grade novels, this delightful book tells the story of Pinmei and Yishan’s journey from their mountain homes to rescue Pinmei’s renowned storytelling grandmother.

Let’s start with the stunning book design, as that’s really where any reader starts. Lin’s artistic talent impresses me. My first thought upon holding this book was, “Wow, who is the illustrator?” Then I found out she both writes and illustrates her books. Lin “found her artistic voice” after painting a family portrait in the style of “flat, colorful Chinese folk art” (source). I love seeing a non-Western aesthetic featured so beautifully in a work for children. Lin’s artwork stars not only on the dust jacket, but inside the text as well – in the form of full page colour illustrations, line drawings at the start of each chapter, and bright borders that introduce each story. One of my favourite illustrations can be found on page 120. (…Can you tell why I’m not on bookstagram?)

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The illustrations and book design work well to convey the writing style. This kind of prose is what I enjoy most about middle grade fiction. Simple yet descriptive, everything parred down to get at the essence of what will spark your imagination.

I took a uni course on Chinese women and gender which we studied primarily via Chinese literature throughout the centuries, so I have a general familiarity with the flavour of Chinese storytelling. That being said, Chinese folklore is largely unfamiliar to me so I can’t speak much to how the tales coincide with or differ from traditional Chinese tales. What I can say is that is that stories are just what lovers of fairy or folk tales might expect. Characters trying to get ahead in life or trying to do their best, traces of the fantastic influencing their actions, and a relevance of the mini-story to the grander narrative. Aside from the sheer loveliness of When the Sea Turned to Silver, the storytelling theme is the aspect of this book I adored. I like how Pinmei learns how valuable her stories and her storytelling ability can be. I like how the stories bleed into Pinmei’s own journey. And I like what the climax of the story has to say about the importance of stories. This is a book for those who love stories. (The book read to me like a starter edition of The Orphan’s Tales ,  another book rich in prose with interconnecting tales, which is in itself a spin off One Thousand and One Nights.)

If I were pressed to be more critical of this novel, I might say that it’s a bit slow-paced. Although Pinmei and her friends are ‘racing’ to save Amah, the story does not hold a lot of tension. While there are a few chapters from Amah’s perspective, and a couple stories that describe her history and relationship with Pinmei, I would have loved more. I wonder if she pops up in the other two novels at all?

The Bottom Line:

When the Sea Turned to Silver is a gorgeous rendering of Chinese folktales, told in a novel that explores the significance of stories through a young storyteller’s own adventure.

Further Reading:

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This book was my pick for January (based on or inspired by diverse folktales/culture/mythology – Chinese)
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Cybils Nominees Featuring Animals

Cybils 2016From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the Cybils nominees I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features four books in which a pet or an animal play a key role.

Pandas on the Eastside by Gabrielle Prednergast

Pandas on the EastsideWhen ten-year-old Journey Song hears that two pandas are being held in a warehouse in her neighbourhood, she worries that they may be hungry, cold and lonely. Horrified to learn that the pandas, originally destined for a zoo in Washington, might be shipped back to China because of a diplomatic spat between China and the United States, Journey rallies her friends and neighbours on the poverty-stricken Eastside. Her infectious enthusiasm for all things panda is hard to resist, and soon she’s getting assistance from every corner of her tight-knit neighbourhood.

Pandas on the Eastside is alternative historical fiction, something I hadn’t previously come across in middle-grade fiction. The author’s note at the back of the book states, “In 1972, the government of China gifted two giant pandas […] to the people of the United States[.]” Prendergast notes that although the relationship between China and America was strained that year, the gift of the pandas went “went off without incident.” Her story imagines an alternate narrative “in which the panda’s journey was not quite so smooth.” I found this book tackled two unique topics for middle-grade fiction: a child’s perspective of international diplomacy (conducted via pandas!) and neighbourhood life in an impoverished area of 1970s Vancouver. Journey learns how to engage in activism with the support of a varied cast of characters who live in her neighbourhood, including shop owner Mr. Huang, teacher Miss Bickerstaff, and homeless man Kentucky Jack. There are a lot of historical references in here, including hippie life, racial tension, and American war deserters.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Review @ CanLit for Little Canadians | Add to GoodReads

When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin

When Friendship Followed Me HomeBen Coffin has never felt like he fits in. A former foster kid, he keeps his head down at school to avoid bullies and spends his afternoons reading sci-fi books at the library. But that all changes when he finds a scruffy abandoned dog named Flip and befriends the librarian’s daughter, Halley. For the first time, Ben starts to feel like he belongs in his own life. Then, everything changes, and suddenly, Ben is more alone than ever. But with a little help from Halley’s magician father, Ben discovers his place in the world and learns to see his own magic through others’ eyes.

Sad happenings fill the beginning and ending of this book. Some of those happenings could have been removed, probably to the improvement of the narrative. Halley comes across as a toned-down manic pixie dream girl, or at least a kind of inspirational cancer patient cliche. But Ben has a good outlook on life, and a nice relationship with his dog. Ben trains Flip as a service dog who assists children in a reading program at the library. That was my favourite part of the story. I don’t think Halley’s story needed to conclude as it did. Overall, not as sad as you might expect from all that happens in the first few chapters.

Review @ Book Diva Nerd | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

Wish by Barbara O’Connor

WishEleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite. But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.

I prefer this ‘dog book’ over the one above. Charlie’s had a rough time. She’smoving to the mountains to live with relatives because her father’s incarcerated and her mother’s not well enough to take care of Charlie. Every day she makes the same wish. Will it ever come true? Charlie eventually recognizes that good people surround her in her new home, including friend Howard, stray dog Wishbone, and caregivers Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus. I appreciated that Charlie had a rough temper and had to learn how to manage it.  I think the cover of this book captures the mood well – a soft and warm story about finding family.

Review @ My Shoestring Life | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby

The Nine Lives of Jacob TibbsCaptain Natick does not want to take a kitten on board his ship when it sets sail in 1847, but his daughter convinces him that the scrawny yellow cat will bring good luck. Onto the ship the kitten goes, and so begins the adventurous, cliff-hanging, lucky life of Jacob Tibbs. At first, Jacob’s entire world is the ship’s hold, where the sailors heave their heavy loads and despicable, long-tailed rats scurry in the darkness. But before long, Jacob’s voyage takes him above deck and onward to adventure. Along the way, Jacob will encounter loss and despair, brave thunderous storms at sea, face down a mutiny, survive on a desert island, and above all, navigate the tricky waters of shipboard life and loyalties.

One of my favourite books growing up was Ragweed by Avi. I also enjoy stories of ships and sailing adventures. Jacob Tibbs, therefore, suits my tastes just fine. It may appeal only to a particular type of reader – this is, after all, historical fiction narrated by cat. I have only read bout a third of the book so far. There have been sad moments and humorous moments. The tough life aboard the ship is not toned down. Tibbs, being the only cat on ship, is fairly isolated. We get glimpses into the lives of men from what Tibbs overhears. (The cat tells the story in first person.) I like the style, with its touch of formality that reflects the time. I would call this a classic adventure book, especially a solid read for those who loves cats! (And I see on Goodreads even some self-declared dog lovers enjoy the book…)

Review @ Surreal Talvi | Add to Goodreads

Do you have any favourite middle-grade stories that feature animals?

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Review: The Wizard’s Dog by Eric Kahn Gale

The Wizard's DogAuthor: Eric Kahn Gale
Title: The Wizard’s Dog
Format/Source: ebook/Publicist
Published: 17 January 2017
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Why I Read: Light-hearted fantasy – something I needed!
Rating: ★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | Amazon

I received a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review.

Meet Nosewise. He’s spunky. He’s curious. And he’s a dog who can’t understand why his pack mates Merlin and Morgana spend all day practicing magic tricks. If it’s a trick they want, he’s the dog to ask! He can already Sit!, Stay!, and Roll Over! But there’s no way Nosewise is Stay!ing when his master and best friend, Merlin, is kidnapped. There’s nothing Nosewise won’t do to get Merlin back, even if it means facing the strange Fae people and their magic-eating worms, or tangling with the mysterious Sword in the Stone. But it may take more than sniffing out a spell to do it! Nosewise’s hilarious escapades and steadfast loyalty get him and his companions through King Arthur’s Dark Ages.

Arthurian legend is one of those literary fields I have always assumed would interest me, but it is one I have yet to properly pursue. (The Once and Future King has been on my TBR for longer than Goodreads has existed. My best knowledge of King Arthur probably comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail…). It’s taken a tale told from a dog’s perspective to ease me into the literary retellings! 😉 The Wizard’s Dog stars Nosewise, a dog Merlin rescued who has an exceptional nose (even for a dog). The story describes Nosewise’s adventure in rescuing Merlin and Morgana, with the help of young Arthur. No spoilers, but this isn’t the most traditional retelling of how Arthur pulled the Sword from the Stone!

Nosewise is definitely the star of this tale. He is an easy character to love, sounding just like you might imagine a loyal dog would. His unique perspective as a dog infuses humour (ex. when the magical Asteria allows him to speak, he’s excited that he’s learned a trick no dog has learned before because that will impress Merlin [20]) and difficulties (ex. he’s a dog; he can’t open doors!) into an Arthurian fantasy that’s likely never been told like this before.

Speaking more generally, I haven’t read a lot of (any?) stories that have an animal speaking regularly with humans in a world where animals don’t speak. That normally doesn’t work for me (I prefer all or nothing), but I think The Wizard’s Dog balances the human-animal interactions well. Nosewise doesn’t chat throughout the whole book – there is a chunk where he has lost the Asteria and is without his voice.

Black and white shaded illustrations appear throughout the book. I like their style – not too cartoony or simplified. Nosewise’s silly expression on the cover is as animated as the characters get. My favourite illustrations are the darker ones depicting castles, magic, or fae. The story wraps up neatly, though not without leaving room for further adventures of Nosewise, Arthur, and the gang.

The Bottom Line:

A light-hearted tale narrated in first person by a dog, I recommend The Wizard’s Dog to those who might enjoy an ‘animalistic’ twist on Arthurian legend.

Further Reading:

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