Sunday, November 16, 2014

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King

Every new book from A.S. King is reason for excitement. I know that I will find offbeat characters navigating this confounding world with wit and heart. Each one makes me feel that I'm encountering life in a new way. I am seduced every time.

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future begins with a quote from Walt Whitman: "The future is no more uncertain than the present."

"Prologue: The clan of the petrified bat

   So we drank it - the two of us. Ellie drank it first and acted like it tasted good. I followed. And it wasn't half bad.
   When we woke up the next morning, everything was different. We could see the future. We could see the past. We could see everything."

Yeah, so two teens on the cusp of adulthood mix a desiccated bat into beer and drink it. Then they start getting random visions of the future and the past whenever they look at people. That's the kind of crazy stuff that happens in A.S. King's novels. From then on, it's all really real.

Ellie grew up on the hippie commune across the road from Glory's house. All their lives, they have been best friends by default. Ellie has never talked to Glory about her mother.

When Glory was four, her mother committed suicide by sticking her head in an oven. Glory's father has never replaced that stove; they only eat microwaved meals at home.

Glory is now 17 and her aunt Amy still sends birthday cards with overly girly motifs.

  "Amy always had a way of going over the top because I told her I was a feminist when I was twelve, and she told Dad he'd brainwashed me into being some sort of half-boy.
   Which was bullshit. I was not a half-boy. I was still totally myself. I just wanted Aunt Amy to get paid as much as a man if ever she got off her lazy ass and got a job.
   Why did everyone mix up that word so much?"

Today on twitter I saw this:


In Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, A.S. King takes a dystopian crack at the ongoing equality debate. Glory foresees a federal Fair Pay Act being enacted 50 years in the future. It will require employers to pay women the same as men for performing the same jobs. (That's not the dystopian part!)

  "The loophole in the federal Fair pay Act will be simple. How can states make sure they won't have to pay women fairly? Make it illegal for women to work."

Whoa. Serious societal malfunction ahead. Meanwhile, Glory struggles to come up with a plan for her immediate future.

I loved this book to pieces. King is the ace of YA. You can't go wrong with any of her novels, including a couple that I've reviewed previously: Ask the Passengers and Please Forgive Vera Dietz.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

The Night Gardener contains the most evil tree I've ever encountered in children's literature. J.K. Rowling's whomping willow, Tolkein's ents, Patrick Ness' yew in A Monster Calls, and Chris Grabenstein's oak in The Crossroads have nothing on the sourwood at the heart of Jonathan Auxier's cautionary tale. Even its dried leaves are scary!

Ever think it would be great to have your deepest desire fulfilled? Read this book and think twice!

Two Irish orphans are employed to serve a formerly-wealthy English family who live on a remote, creepy estate. The family is hiding a big secret. Mysterious things happen in the night. It's all dire warnings at the crossroads, disturbing dreams, black roots and ichor. Perfect for children in upper elementary school who love a scary story.

The Night Gardener comes in an attractive package and would make a good gift. The Canadian Puffin edition that I borrowed from the library has a metallic dust jacket, patterned endpapers (black leaves on grey), decorated chapter headings (more black leaves), and black edging on the outside edges of the pages. The three parts of the story (the classic gothic format) are separated by solid black pages. The book design does a great job of setting its ominous mood.

Readalikes: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket); A Tale Dark and Grimm (Adam Gidwitz; Coraline (Neil Gaiman); and Into the Woods (Lyn Gardner).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

It's number 1 on Amazon's top 100 books of 2014: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I listened to this on audio in July and didn't blog about it then, even though I really liked it. Let's see how much I remember without referring to anyone's summary or reviews.

Two main themes stick with me: the impossibility of knowing what is going on in another person's head, and the insidiousness of racism in Western society.

The middle teenage daughter has died in a family with a Caucasian mother and a second-generation Chinese American father. What happened to her? Her death has widened the fractures in her parents' marriage, which was already under stress from thwarted ambitions and the absence of outside support. Will their relationship survive?

It's a story of loneliness and isolation. It's about accepting hard truths. It's a story of modern life. I'm glad the editors at Amazon recognized the power of this book.

P.S. The audiobook [Blackstone: 10 hours] is narrated by Cassandra Campbell. (I had to look that up.)


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Fictional Lives During World War II: A List

Poppies, France - pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper - by Lindy Pratch
In honour of Remembrance Day, I put together a list of 10 novels set during World War II. War is an extraordinary, heartbreaking, exciting and horrible circumstance that tests our humanity. I love books that focus on character and setting, so that's what you'll find here. (The links will take you to longer, earlier reviews on my blog.)

Freddy's War by Judy Schultz
War's effects on soldiers as well as those on the home front are examined in this layered novel about a young man from Edmonton who is sent with the Winnipeg Grenadiers to Hong Kong in 1941. Lots of food writing in this one!

Tamar by Mal Peet
After her grandfather's suicide, a British teenager uncovers his secret involvement in a romantic triangle in wartime Netherlands. A nuanced look at the way war affects subsequent generations.

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit
Poetically narrated in the collective voice of hundreds of women, who arrive perplexed in 1943 at a site in New Mexico where their husbands are working on a top-secret project.

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
This powerful novel threads together the lives of two families through five decades of world events, starting in 1945 when the atomic flash in Nagasaki permanently marked the pattern of a woman's kimono onto her back.

Half-blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Cranky Sid Griffiths, 82 years old in 1992, relates the events surrounding his time in a jazz band in the 1930s in Berlin, and the disappearance of his youngest bandmate, who was picked up by Nazi soldiers in Paris.

Once by Morris Gleitzman
A heart-wrenching tale for all ages about a Jewish child, left in a Catholic orphanage, who decides to search through Nazi-occupied Poland for his parents. See also the companion book, Then.

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
A lyrical, layered novel that begins with a small Polish boy, his family's only survivor, who is rescued from the Nazis by a Greek geologist. The pair eventually make their home in Canada.

Coventry by Helen Humphreys
Through the dramatic events on the night of November 14, 1940, two fire wardens on the roof of Coventry's cathedral become unlikely friends as they share the horrors of an extended bombing raid that destroys much of the city.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Friendship inspires extreme heroism when a young British pilot is captured by Germans in 1943 and made to write down the details of her mission. Very suspenseful!

B for Buster by Iain Lawrence
16-year-old Kak's idealism gradually turns to horror when he lies about his age in 1943 to enlist in the Canadian Air Force and becomes a wireless operator on night bombing raids over Germany.

Friday, November 7, 2014

She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya

Edmonton-born author Vivek Shraya's complex exploration of queer identity in She of the Mountains layers Hindu mythology with contemporary life. Episodes from the life of Parvati, mother of the universe, alternate with scenes from the life of a South Asian boy coming of age in Canada.

I'll start with the book's striking design. Raymond Biesinger's stylized green and black artwork illustrates the text and emphasizes its quality of universality. Green is a colour of growth and transformation, so the bright green pages that divide the novel into sections also contribute a layer of symbolism.

Parvati is a goddess, yet she suffers in ways that humans understand: grieving over the death of her children; feeling conflicted loyalties; emotionally wounded by her husband Shiva. Her sections are told in first person, making her story fresh and immediate.

In her incarnation as the mortal Sati, Parvati yearns for blue-skinned Shiva:

"As the prayers continued, I gazed at the fire ahead, comforted by the only presence in the room that understood my burning sense of betrayal and disappointment.
[...]
Contemplating my misfortune, I became mesmerized by the streaks of blue in the flames until all I could see was blue.
Shiva! There you are! I knew you would come, I said. I stood up and walked into the fire, arms open. This was the end of my human life."

The contemporary sections are in third person, following an unnamed boy who grew up in a Hindu family in Edmonton. Gay is an invective used against him when he was too young to even understand the word. The way that bullying squashes human potential is made poignantly clear.

"[He] stopped seeking pleasure altogether. His world was reduced to bare necessity. Home was where he slept and ate, and school was where he learned.
He graduated from high school amorphous, his teenage body and its vast possibilities left on the unpaved field where it was first attacked."

At university, he comes out and and finds community at The Only Gay Bar in Edmonton. Then his life is once again in turmoil, because he falls in love with a woman. Bisexuality is not sanctioned. He is told: "Honey, we all liked girls at one point. But the Bi Highway always leads to Gaytown."

Shraya signs books at the University of Alberta,  Sept 2014
She has skin like his own and their shared browness is a revelation: "Falling in love with her brown had unexpectedly given his own skin new value, a new sheen."

"White was almost every interaction he had, and through this relentless exposure, he learned to value it, serve it, aspire to it, his white bedroom walls plastered with white famous faces. This was where the true power of white resided."

The new couple do not fit into the gay community, yet he cannot disavow the gay aspect of himself either.

"Who could they be outside their parents' homes? Who could they be outside of university? Maybe they would move to Vancouver; she loved the ocean, and he loved every city that wasn't Edmonton."

(I've heard that last sentiment more than a few times.)

Being human is a complicated and lonely affair. This short, sensitive novel is a fine example of the way we can reconcile contradictions and establish a sense of self-worth.

Companion reads (with links to my reviews): God Loves Hair is Vivek Shraya's first book; Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, for another brief and informal retelling from Indic mythology, combined with stylized art; The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruna, to get immersed in a longer retelling from Indic mythology; Boyfriends with Girlfriends by Alex Sanchez, for another exploration of bisexuality.

Thank you to Arsenal Pulp Press for providing me with a review copy of She of the Mountains.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How to be both by Ali Smith

How to be both a girl and a boy.
How to be both sad and happy.
How to be both the surface image and the underpainting.
How to be both dead and alive.

Ali Smith's fresh and beautiful novel, How to be both, embraces contradictions.

It's one year after her mother's death and 16-year-old George is still grieving. She skips school to haunt London's National Gallery, to stand in front of one particular painting. It's by Francesco del Cossa, a 15th-century Italian artist whose fresco work captivated George's mother. The disembodied spirit of Francesco begins following George.
"Also, this girl is good at dance : I am enjoying some of the ways of this purgatorium now : one of its strangest is how its people dance by themselves in empty and music-less rooms and they do it by filling their ears with little blocks and swaying about to a silence, or to a noise smaller than the squee of a mosquito that comes through the little confessional grille in each of the blocks : the girl was doing a curving and jerking thing both, with the middle of her body, she went up then down then up again, sometimes so low down that it was a marvel to see her come back up again so quick, sometimes pivoting on one foot and sometimes on the other and sometimes on both with her knees bent then straightening into a sinuous undulate like a caterpillar getting the wings out of the caul, the new imago emerging from the random circumbendibus."
It was from her mother that George learned how to dance the twist. It is through her own inner resources and creative drive, with support from family and friends, that George learns to emerge from grief.

Smith is a master wordsmith. She knows "how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it / up-rising through the skin of it."

How to be both is divided into two parts, both called "one." They are intended to be read interchangeably: some editions start with George, some with Francesco. That aspect alone would make for a good book discussion. There are so many other, deeper things to ponder, like art, perception, and the intangible gifts we get from people we love. This book is a masterpiece.

Readalike: Fabrizio's Return (Mark Frutkin)

Sunday, November 2, 2014

100 Crushes by Elisha Lim

Butches, sissies, and other gender-fluid folk: Canadian artist Elisha Lim showers love on them all in 100 Crushes. Queer people of colour are individually celebrated and given voice in Lim's single-panel illustrated essays. Simple outline sketch portraits, with added rich colours, are accompanied by hand-lettered text and surrounded with hand-drawn decorative frames.

100 Crushes contains selections from old and new serialized works. Gender expression, sexual orientation and pop culture are explored with dignity and appreciation for the beauty in diversity.

I had never before given much thought to the way the performance of masculinity shifts in relation to ethnicity and cultural backdrop. "100 Butches Number 12" moved to the West and was disconcerted to find that she didn't draw lesbian attention in the way she had in Singapore. Layers of emasculating Chinese stereotypes meant she had to seek out a new style: "I sport fur coats, sunglasses indoors, and bleached tips. Maybe the girls don't get it, but in time they will. Chinese men are sexy!"

Pee-wee Herman is the subject in one of the panels from "Sweetest Taboo: Memoirs of a Queer Child in the Eighties." As a child, Lim thought his show was terrifying and "wished that he would stop drawing so much attention to difference." Eventually, she recognized his courage and learned to love him for it.

Lim's interview with Rae Spoon (First Spring Grass Fire) is included in the section "They." Spoon says, "A nice life is when people get my pronoun right."

By sharing personal stories, 100 Crushes helps us to get things right.

Readalike: On Loving Women (Diane Obomsawin). BTW, Lim also did the cover art for Ivan Coyote's One in Every Crowd.

Check out Lim's website, where there's good stuff like God Loves Queers and bumblebees. I also like her brief (51 seconds) claymation film on YouTube: 100 Butches #9 Ruby.