Five Non-Fiction Books By Awesome Women

 

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“Women’s March on Versailles.”

 

I believe in good vibes.   While I was compiling this list, it occurred to me that I’ve been reading all kick-ass female writers as of late. A coincidence? I think not. In light of the women’s marches happening around the world yesterday, it feels like there are a whole lot of charged emotions floating around out there. What better way is there to keep the momentum going than by reading some inspiring female writers?

Here are five of my favourite Non-Fiction reads right now:

  1. Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown – This book is the pick-me-up that you can fit into your purse (or man-bag). As a study of vulnerability, Dr. Brene Brown examines cultural myths about courage and weakness as well as providing some honest, real-human advice on how to not freak out. I was introduced to this book by a good friend of mine and was so inspired by what he had to say that I knew I had to read it. Here’s why you should read it: Brown’s heartfelt ideas on success and vulnerability will put you in an excellent mindset to go forth and be awesome.
  2. Real Artists Have Day Jobs, by Sara Benincasa – Even if you don’t make art, this book is chock full of hilarious (and short) essays that will make you laugh and think at the same time! (Did you know you could do that?) Benincasa covers such subjects as reading, decluttering your house, Feelings (with a capital “F”) and overconfidence.
  3. The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher – Do yourself a favour and listen to this one on audiobook if you can. I’ll admit that hearing Carrie Fisher’s voice in my living room was a bit freaky, but her anecdotes about what it was like filming the first Star Wars movie are equal parts entertaining and thoughtful. Read it for the diary excerpts alone!
  4. Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, Elizabeth Greenwood – I came across this fascinating read while doing research for a story I was writing and couldn’t put it down. I was drawn in by Greenwood’s premise: that she faked her own death in order to uncover the secrets of the death fraud world. What I loved, though, was Greenwood’s easy narrative tone and the way that she not only talked about her own death fraud experience, but also highlighted many other real-life cases.
  5. Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler – Full of quirky stories and personal advice, I had to include Poehler’s book on my list, mainly because I think she is amazing but also because her book made me laugh when I was sleep-deprived and that means a lot. Will it blow your mind? Maybe. Will it make you laugh and also offer up funny stories from Amy Poehler’s life? You bet. (After all, sometimes the best way to reset your mind for a big, new year full of goals is to let loose and laugh a little–or a lot).

 

What books make you feel inspired?

Rolling Blackouts: A Review

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Rolling Blackouts was my first foray into the world of graphic journalism.  As she accompanies her journalist friends to Turkey, Iraq and Syria, Sarah Glidden takes readers through what it is like to be a journalist piecing together a story in a foreign country.  At the heart of the narrative is the question: what is journalism? Beautifully illustrated and written in a conversational, at times confessional tone, Rolling Blackouts is an illuminating read.

Behind the Scenes

What I loved most about this graphic novel was the “behind the scenes” feel that Glidden shows her readers. There are moments in the narrative where the reader gets to see how the Globalist crew looks at the information that they’ve collected and decides how they are going to craft their narrative.  Moreover, since we observe the information through Sarah’s perspective as a quasi-outsider, when she asks questions of the characters it feels genuine.

Understated Watercolours

The soft watercolour scenes are beautiful and she does an excellent job of revealing countries that a lot of people might not visit. Using a mix of more intimate close-ups of character discussions and sprawling  city and country scenes, it felt like I was right there along with her.

The use of light and darkness in Rolling Blackouts serves as a means to emphasize moments  of intimacy, which is one of the best parts of this book.  In one scene, Dan, an ex-military man talks about a friend who he lost in the war.  The scene takes place in a car, driving down a darkened country road and the only light in the scene are the pinpricks of light in the distance.  The result is a deeply honest, intimate moment.

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Everyone Has a Story

Glidden winds together a lot of fascinating human stories of refugees and civilians throughout her narrative.  What makes it so engrossing is the fact that we feel like we’re privy to real conversations (most likely because Glidden recorded many of these conversations on her trip).  In a sense, it feels like Sarah Glidden has brought me along for the ride.

Apart from the thought-provoking examination of the journalistic process, the story flow is elaborate, connecting the stories of an ex-soldier’s return to Iraq, countless refugees, civilians and officials, all of which seem to be interconnected in some way. I thought that Glidden’s illustration of flashbacks later in the narrative was particularly inventive; while the characters discuss their own feelings towards the war in Iraq, the images transport us back to a moment in the past when they were protesting.  This contrast of dialogue and illustrations captures the way that the characters are often at odds with their own feelings about the war and their roles in relation to it.

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I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in journalism or likes to read travel narratives should read Rolling Blackouts.  It’s one narrative adventure that you won’t want to miss.

 

Flannery: A Review

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Funny, honest and at times emotionally searing, Flannery is an exploration of love and relationships told from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old Flannery, who is in love with  her childhood best friend, Tyrone O’Rourke. When she makes a love potion for her Entrepreneurship class, she learns a valuable lesson about the risks of love.

Intertextuality & Romance

Flannery isn’t just a story about a crush.  A heroine on the cover of a romance novel changes from an innocent maiden to a buxom vixen with claws and fangs; another one swoons and can’t decide if she wants sexual advances or not.  Flannery’s mother Miranda even writes a blog which is inserted into the novel at times, giving the reader yet another critical lens to view the unfolding relationships in Flannery’s world.

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 An Original Narrative

Part of the charm of Flannery  is the way that the chapters alternate between flashbacks of Flannery’s life and the present.  Because of this structure, we get a real sense of Flannery’s relationship with Tyrone and her mother and it gives us a sense of how she evolves as she understands more about love.  On top of the unique structure, Flannery’s sometimes stream of conscious, always hilarious voice adds some great levity to a story that might otherwise be quite dark.

Here is one of my favourite quotes:

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Magic vs. Realism

I have always admired Lisa Moore’s realistic, yet engrossing dialogue.  There’s something about leaving out the quotation marks that gives her writing a feeling of directness.  In Flannery, the simple dialogue keeps the story rooted in reality despite the fact that Flannery is trying to sell a love potion.

In this sweet moment, Moore captures the strange, loving relationship that Miranda and Flannery have so perfectly:

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I have to admit, I thought that there would be more magical realism, but it turns out that the real magic in this story is Moore’s heartfelt and often visceral take on what it means to be in love.

Final Grade: A+

Five YA Books for World Mental Health Day

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I’ve written about mental illness before, but in light of World Mental Health Day, I wanted to share a few of my favourite YA reads that feature awesome characters who have mental illnesses.  While there are a lot of fantastic books out there, I think some of the best narratives don’t focus on mental illness as a “problem” to be solved by the end of the book.  In the list below, these narratives feature characters whose mental illnesses are only a facet of a much larger (and highly entertaining) narratives.

  1. The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, by Teresa Toten – Part love story, part hilarious super-hero themed adventure, this story is told from the perspective of Adam, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder.  It is cleverly written and filled with lots of funny and honest moments as Adam attempts to navigate a romantic relationship for the first time.
  2. Lily and Dunkin, by Donna Gephart – At its heart, this is a story about friendship.  Dunkin, who has bipolar disorder, has just moved to a new city.  As the story unfolds, he meets Lily, a transgender girl.  I loved that although part of Dunkin’s narrative deals with his struggle with bipolar disorder, the larger narrative focuses on surviving a new school and making friends.
  3. Highly Illogical Behaviour, by John Corey Whaley -Heartfelt and realistic, this narrative follows sixteen-year-old Solomon, who is agoraphobic and hasn’t left his parents’ house in three years.  Although Lisa sets out to “fix” Solomon, as you might guess, things get more complicated.  This is a fantastic book that features a character with a mental illness.  The best part? It doesn’t end with a cure.
  4. Mosquitoland, by David Arnold – Mim Malone is determined to get back to her sick mother in Cleveland and she’ll do anything to reach her.  On her road trip, Mim must face her own demons, including being medicated for her anxiety by her concerned father.  While Mim’s mantra might be “Mim Malone is not okay,” her modern-day Odyssey is a page-turner.
  5. Finding Audrey, by Sophie Kinsella – If you like Kinsella’s chick lit  books, this book has the same witty charm.  When Audrey meets Linus, they form a connection that ends up helping both Audrey and her whole family.  It’s a quick, funny read that is guaranteed to make you fall in love with Audrey too.

Five Offbeat Supernatural Reads

 

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  1. The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Patrick Ness – I’ve written about this book already, but I love it so much that I just had to mention it again.  It’s a clever take on the “chosen one” narrative, written from the point of view of Mikey, who is just a regular kid living in a town full of strange, supernatural drama.
  2. Carry On, Rainbow Rowell – Although the story of Baz and Simon started out as a Harry Potter-esque fanfic in Fangirl, it is its own unique blend of romance, battling monsters and mystery.  I love that it is set at a school for magic, but I also love that Simon Snow is a terrible wizard and Baz (his nemesis) has such a well-developed storyline as well.
  3. The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly – Angry and grieving his mother’s death, 12-year-old David seeks solace in books and finds himself becoming lost in a fictional world full of strange heroes and monsters.  While at first this might seem like a typical “door-to-other-realm” book, Connolly’s artful re-imagining of fairytales is a thoughtful study on grief told in a whimsical fashion.
  4. Dust City, Robert Paul Weston – I loved this book for the beautiful prose, but I was drawn in by the unique twist on the big bad wolf.  Told from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf’s son, Henry Whelp, Dust City is a murder mystery set in a fairy tale world that is overrun with corruption, greed and a mind-bending drug that many of the creatures are addicted to: fairy dust.
  5. Nimona, Noelle Stevenson – When Nimona, a wild-hearted shapeshifter  teams up with the villainous Lord Baluster Blackheart to prove that the heroes at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t so virtuous, all sorts of hilarious mayhem ensues.  I loved this graphic novel not only because it is told from the villains’ perspectives, but also because it does such a fantastic job of deconstructing the classic good versus evil narrative.

Shiver: A Review

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I’ve read a lot of paranormal romances, and the best ones are almost always self-aware of the genre that they are a part of, folding in intertextual links and subtle connections to earlier lore.  Shiver does this, among many other things, quite well.  It’s the story of Grace, a somewhat “different” teenage girl who falls in love with Sam, a werewolf and their struggle to be together against all odds.

A Self-Aware Narrative

One of my favourite scenes in the book happens when Sam meets Grace’s parents.  She builds the scene around a classic horror movie that Sam and Grace are watching on TV before her parents come home.  Apart from the quips about classic “monster” stories, she weaves in a neat, self-aware commentary on stories about werewolves.  Although Maggie Stiefvater doesn’t exactly explain the how and the why of werewolves, she offers up a lot of questions that fuel the plot in many exciting ways.

Mounting Tension, Among Other Things

There were a number of excellently paced scenes that built tension so well I couldn’t put the book down.  I think the most artful example might be later in the book when they are looking for Sam and the tension mounts through the dialogue, which is choppy and terse.  Although not much is said, it’s pretty clear that this is a frightening scene.

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Of course, there’s also a nice balance of humour, even when things get scary.  Isabel’s dialogue in so many places had me laughing, but here is one of my favourites:

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Poetic Prose

The prose in this book is elegant.  I found myself slowing down in a lot of scenes just to read and re-read sections that sounded so lovely I didn’t want them to end.  Sure, there was an exciting plot, but what kept me reading Shiver was the language.

Here is one of my favourite sentences:

“She waited to change, and I waited to change, and we both wanted what we couldn’t have” (343).

Another favourite happens earlier, when they visit a chocolate shop:

“Peppermint swirled into my nostrils, sharp as glass, then raspberry, almost too sweet, like too-ripe fruit.  Apple, crisp and pure. Nuts, buttery, warm, earthy, like Sam.  the subtle, mild scent of white chocolate” (280).

 

The Bottom Line

I’m glad I finally read this book.  After looking at its’ beautiful cover on my shelf for some time, as it turns out, this book is beautiful on the inside too.

Grade: A +

Why You Should Read for Comfort

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Comfort food usually invokes visions of radioactive orange mac and cheese and hot buttered toast.  (I know, it’s not healthy, but it’s delicious and warm and comforting).  Similarly, sometimes what I need is to curl up with an old favourite book that allows me to escape into a fictional world that I know well, giving my brain the comfort food it needs.

One of my favourite go-to series is Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic quartet.  I can remember reading about Daine, the protagonist, and feeling like we were kindred spirits. Although I  lack Daine’s ability to talk with animals, I have always admired her plucky nature and her epic archery skills. Throughout the series, Daine learns to use her gift while traveling to remote locations and fighting epic battles.  It’s an awesome and inventive read if you’re looking for a unique twist on a coming of age story.

The Nostalgia Factor

What does nostalgia do for us anyway?  Through scents, music, food, and even our favourite stories we are reminded of our connection to other people.  It’s even been known to counteract depression and give our lives meaning.

In a TIME Magazine article, Alexandra Sifferlin writes that “comfort foods remind us of our social ties, which means they may help us feel less lonesome when we feel isolated.”

Similarly, escaping into a fictional world can create a sense of community, which makes us feel just a little less alone.  It’s possible that just like eating comfort food or listening to a song that reminds us of good times, a good comfort read can entirely change our moods.  At least, that’s the way it feels for me each time I crack the spine on one of Pierce’s books, or start reading the Harry Potter series for the millionth time.  (A recent article in Psychologies talks more about what sorts of books most people like when it comes to comfort reading, but I prefer a good old fantasy read where good always wins).

Here’s a thought: if comfort reading is so good for us, why do people see it as a “just for fun?”  And why is it that “fun” and “education” can’t mix? 

The Issue

One recent article suggests that reading too many comfort books actually hurts young readers’ development.  As an English teacher, this bugs me a whole lot.  Obviously I would like students to be totally in love with To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespeare, BUT, I also love it when I see a student reading a book that they just enjoy. I like it even better if that student is having a rough day and the book they are reading makes them feel better.  The best part about young readers is that when they love a book, they want to read more like it.  And you know what?

READING IS GREAT FOR YOUR BRAIN! (Like broccoli? Maybe?)

Better than Broccoli!

If reading links us to a larger community and makes us draw connections about the world around us, the act of reading,even for pleasure, is helping readers to become more socially aware. Also, I could blah blah on for a while about building vocabulary and making inferences and stuff, but I won’t, because I’m not in the classroom now.

Read what you want to read, because unlike mac and cheese, reading of any kind is actually good for you.

What are your favourite comfort books? Do you think that comfort reading has value?