A Season for Miracles

One of my favourite things that the Dear Canada series has done is put together collections of Christmas-themed short stories that are addenda to the Dear Canada books themselves. I love it. And it’s Christmas time, so let’s have a look at them!

A Season for Miracles: Twelve Tales of Christmas, various authors, 2006.

To go through every short story would involve spoilers, so let me just give a brief recap of each short story and what book it’s connected to!

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Shot at Dawn

I had so many mixed feelings about this book. I read it when it first came out, when I got a quarter of the way through and thought “What the hell,” and now I read the whole thing and thought “WHAT THE FUCK?” This book is for young people. Good Lord.

Shot at Dawn: World War I, Allan McBride, France, 1917, John Wilson, 2011.

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For starters: I think it was a particularly brave decision by Scholastic for their very first book in a series that they would hoping be a popular spinoff to a popular series to be about a deserter being faced with execution. I mean, really. John Wilson is a great author who’s done a great job with it, so no qualms there (he also wrote Graves of Ice later in the series, which was also great), but this is pretty intense for what is ultimately a book targeted at YOUNG PEOPLE.

The structure of this book is also a bit different from some of the others—it starts out with a prologue where Allan is being held overnight in preparation for his execution the following morning, and telling his story to the officer guarding him will form the bulk of his story. I also don’t know for sure but I’d like to think that the choice of McBride is an allusion to The Green Fields of France, which if you haven’t listened to it (you should) refers to a young man by the name of Willie McBride. Anyway, that has nothing to do with anything, but I enjoyed it.

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Flame and Ashes

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I looked at this book and thought “When the hell did St. John’s have a great fire?” Not being a native of St. John’s, or Newfoundland, (or Canada if you want to get down to it,) I’m probably missing some things, but I can honestly say I learned something here.

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Flame and Ashes: The Great Fire Diary of Triffie Winsor, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1892, Janet McNaughton, 2014.

One of the interesting things that I enjoyed about the acknowledgments in this book (which is not a sentence I write very often), is that she noted that Barbara Haworth-Attard (another Dear Canada author) informed her that Triffie, initially, “was not a likable character.” Knowing that gave the book a very different cast to me! This is a classic “fortunes reversed” story, and I have no complaints against that when it’s done well—and it is done well here. But I can see, in certain lights, how Triffie is absolutely not a likable character, certainly in the first portion of the book.

Here’s another thing—the only other book set in Newfoundland is set in the early part of settlement, and this one is set near the turn of the century in an urban setting, which is an interesting choice. Newfoundland is usually stereotyped as backwards and rural, but this is very modern and urban in tone, which is interesting and a nice choice.

Anyway, Triffie (which if you’re wondering is a nickname for Tryphena, and which my born-and-bred Newfoundland correspondent tells me is a very old-fashioned and familiar name there, which is a very neat little touch) is the daughter of a wealthy department store owner in St. John’s, where she lives with her parents, older sister Sarah, and younger brother Alfie. Alfie is sickly with a lung complaint (asthma), and he and Triffie are very close, which means they are usually in trouble somewhere in their magnificent house. Triffie is a bit spoiled thanks to her wealth and her generous father, and their home is full of beautiful and expensive things. Triffie’s foil is their youngest maid, Ruby, who is almost her age, but comes from around the bay and is working in St. John’s because her family needs the money. Not that knowing her story makes it any better—Triffie writes that when she gave Ruby an old dress, “I am not sure Ruby was properly grateful for this Act of Charity. I think those who are unfortunate enough to be poor should at least have the grace to show gratitude.”

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Behind Enemy Lines

I don’t know where I expected this book to go but this was NOT it.

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Behind Enemy Lines: World War II, Sam Frederiksen, Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1944, Carol Matas, 2012.

I think the entire reason I had no idea what was coming was because the back cover blurb on this book is terrible. Just terrible! Our fearless hero Sam has his plane shot down, and in his effort to get back to England he works with the French Resistance. It does not go well to say the absolute least.

The other thing that’s strange about this series is that some of them are more diary-style (numbered entries, text like “I don’t know what to write” or things like that) and some of them, like this one, are just straight first-person recounting that happen to have a date at the beginning of the chapter to orient the reader. Neither one is better, it’s just a little bit odd for me, the reader. (Or possibly it doesn’t bother normal people and it just bothers me, the reader reading these things for detail and comparing and contrasting them to other books in the same and sibling series.)

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Prisoner of Dieppe

I don’t know how I feel about this book. Hugh Brewster is an excellent writer, but the choice of material is slightly odd. Why are there two I Am Canada books that deal with Canadian soldiers being captured as POWs—this one, and Behind Enemy Lines? And yet no one wrote a book about the Canadian contribution on D-Day?

Prisoner of Dieppe: World War II, Alistair Morrison, Occupied France, 1942, Hugh Brewster, 2010.

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So, I get where we’re coming from here. The failed raid on Dieppe was a big deal, which led to an awful lot of Canadians being kept prisoner for years, which is not something that most people learn a lot about in school. So yes—but again, I feel like the “Canadians kept as POWs” aspect was reasonably well covered in Behind Enemy Lines. Am I wrong? Is it because these men were kept for so long—until the liberation of France and invasion of Germany? I don’t know. Let’s recap and find out.

One of the things I did enjoy about this book is how unabashedly not-into-it Alistair is about being a soldier. He is a bookish, shy kid who moves from Scotland to Ontario with his parents and younger sisters, and when his father dies fairly young, his mother has to take over making the money. Alistair’s friend Mackie, who is older and far more athletic, more or less strong-arms Alistair into joining the military in the summer of 1940, and we’re off to the races. Alistair’s mother is devastated, since her husband, Alistair’s father, was gassed very badly in the First World War, and he was never right after that and it probably contributed to his early death. So we’re already not off to a great start.

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Winter of Peril

I’ve only read this once before, and I have Thoughts. They’re mostly not all that good.

Winter of Peril: The Newfoundland Diary of Sophie Loveridge, Mairie’s Cove, New-Found-Land, 1721, Jan Andrews, 2005.

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My first question is why? Newfoundland has such a long, storied history with such great stories in it that I don’t know why Andrews opted to focus on this one. I would have guessed, if it had been up to me, that for the Newfoundland entry Dear Canada would have opted for a slice-of-life style diary (think Days of Toil and Tears) about life in an outport fishing village sometime in the mid-1800s, which would probably be the most iconic. Or maybe a Second World War story about the Battle of the Atlantic, or joining Canada in 1949, or even (and stay with me here) a story about the Viking settlement at L’anse-aux-Meadows! (Too out there? Probably.) I love Newfoundland A LOT and just returned from an extremely agreeable weekend there, so I’m favourably disposed to like it this story, but for whatever reason both Newfie entries in Dear Canada end up falling flat. (The other being Smoke and Ashes, which is relatively new and about the fire of St. John’s in 1892.)

At any rate, what we have here is a fairly classic fish-out-of-water story about a wealthy girl from Dorset who comes to Newfoundland with her parents, who are equally wealthy and out-of-touch, and they stay over during a harsh winter. You’d think there’s room for an engaging story there, but ultimately it falls fairly flat despite an awful lot of drama. Maybe it’s just me because I don’t care for Sophie’s voice, but overall, this one was not a win for me.

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Not a Nickel to Spare

Do you have any idea how many times I’ve read this book? So many! I don’t even like it all that much, to be honest. I just keep reading it and reading it in an effort to recap it and somehow never get up the energy to do so. I own this book and it’s taken me forever to get around to it, which should tell you just how much I don’t enjoy it.

Not A Nickel to Spare: The Great Depression Diary of Sally Cohen, Toronto, Ontario, 1932, Perry Nodelman, 2007.

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Here’s the thing: this is overall a really well-written book, and Nodelman is a professor of children’s literature and the editor of Canadian Children’s Literature, and has written textbooks on the subject. There are parts of this book that I adore—it’s a terrifically evocative picture of Toronto during a certain place and time. But (and you knew there was a “but” in there because I can’t unequivocally like anything ever)…something about it just does not work for me. Part of it is because so much of the book is focused on Sally’s cousin Benny—overwhelmingly so, to the point where it really seems like he just wanted to write a book about Benny and the Christie Pits riots but got roped into writing this instead. And part of it is because it doesn’t ring true as a realistic depiction of a preteen girl. I don’t think it’s because he’s a man, since I think any good writer is capable of writing a persuasive character regardless of whether they can personally identify with them, but it seems like it’s because he just was more interested in writing about Benny!

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