Friday, December 19, 2008

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Imagine a great deal of raving about a truly wonderful book. Okay. That's my blog about The Graveyard Book. I can't find words except to say that I really, really loved it. It is a sure bet as a gift - Grade 5 through to adult - if you are still looking for ideas.

Listen to the author read the book at

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gay America: Struggle for Equality by Linas Alsenas

Short entries and lots of photos and illustrations make this history book easy to dip in and out of. The index appears to be thorough; I used it to refer back to material I'd previously read. The origin of the lambda symbol is an example of something I went back to, because this is a question that has been asked of me in the past and I don't remember being satisfied with the answer I found. (And it was so long ago that I don't remember what that answer was, anyway.)

The Gay Activists Alliance adopted the lambda as their logo in the 1970s. "The official reason was something about it symbolizing a 'complete exchange of energy' - but really, the designer had picked it because he thought it looked cool." According to the notes, the quote within the excerpt from Gay America is from Out for Good by D. Clendinen and A. Nagourney. I would still like to know more about the lambda logo - who was the designer, for example - so I'm pleased to have this lead on another source.

I noticed only one slip (page 123) where the author used language in a way that may not be understood outside of the GLBTQ community of a certain age: "even the crunchy Olivia Records company had shifted gears." 'Granola' in the lesbian context isn't explained anywhere in the text, so 'crunchy' (from crunchy granola) may seem an odd usage.

This book should appeal to readers from Grade 6 all the way up to adults.

Graphic Novels for Kids 7 - 12 Years Old

A request from an elementary school generated this list. They were looking for 5 or 10 graphic novel format titles to add to their existing collection of Bone, Babymouse, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. They wanted suggestions that would appeal to both boys and girls, ages 7 - 12, and did not want to purchase manga.

Rapunzel’s Revenge. Shannon & Dean Hale. Grade 4 – up
Robot Dreams. Sara Varon. Grade 3 – up
Owly. (Series; they can be read in any order.) Andy Runton. Grade 1 – up
Clouds Above. Jordan Crane. Grade 2 – 5
The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea. Anne Sibley O’Brien. Grade 4 – 8
Pinky and Stinky. James Kochalka. Grade 3 – up
Sardine in Outer Space. (Series; they can be read in any order.) Emmanuel Guibert. Grade 3 – 7
Jellaby. Kean Soo. Grade 3 – 7
The Stonekeeper. (Book 1 of the Amulet series). Kazu Kibuishi. Grade 4 – 8

For beginning readers, look at the Toon Books imprint. Try:

Benny and Penny: Just Pretend. Geoffrey Hayes. Grade 1 – 2
Otto’s Orange Day. Jay Lynch. Grade 1 – 2

Saturday, December 13, 2008

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

If you're looking for lots of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-type action with a teenage romantic triangle thrown in, the first book of the Mortal Instruments series has all of that. Demons, wizards, vampires and werewolves; all kinds of exciting supernatural characters and the shadowhunters who interact with them. Ordinary humans are called "mundanes" in this book. There are long-kept family secrets, dark betrayals, acts of courage and strong friendship loyalties.

Clary, apparently a mundane, isn't good at following instructions; the first thing she does when her mother tells her over the phone NOT to come home is to return to her apartment, where Clary is attacked by a demon. A shadowhunter named Jace comes to her rescue and then joins her in her quest to find her mother. Clary looks when she is told not to and stands still when she is instructed to run. Still, she discovers that she has unique, innate abilities and holds her own with her shadowhunter companions.

The writing style is not at all to my taste, relying heavily on cliches: raven black hair; blinding white table linens; frozen in horror; sat bolt upright (with a sudden realization of something that this reader had figured out 100 pages earlier); "dropped the truth on them with the weight of a crushing blow" and so on.

Sometimes the descriptors were oddly chosen, as when Isabelle was "holding a round spoon in her hand" -- since all spoons are rounded, why not describe it as wooden, or metal or long instead, and "in her hand" seems redundant; only mention if she was holding it in some other way, like in her mouth. The tarot cards were "tied up in a silk ribbon." There's nothing wrong with "silk" per se, but why not give us a colour? None of the characters are blind, after all. "White smoke" came out of the teapot when Clary sat down to have her fortune told. There was real tea in the pot, not incense. (I couldn't help but unfavourably compare this bit to the poetic writing by Sonya Harnett in The Ghost's Child where, when Matilda sets down a pot of tea, "quiffs of white steam waltzed and vanished.")

Other times, phrases did not make sense. Clary's arms were "aching and stinging like raw meat." They may have looked like raw meat after her fall, but does meat feel hurt? A "folded piece of paper fluttered to the floor." Clary picked it up and smoothed it out and discovered that it was a photograph. Unless they have been printed on regular bond paper, as on a computer printer, photographic paper is heavy and doesn't "flutter." This was a photo of Clary's parents and a circle of their friends, taken before she was born. There doesn't seem to be any problem of crease lines interfering with the clarity of the image.

Quibbles and overwrought prose aside, the plot kept me interested to the end. This would appeal to fans of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, especially those readers looking for someone with a little more pluck than Bella.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Ghost's Child by Sonya Hartnett

Ahhhh... I love the feeling of being caught up in masterful storytelling. Australian author Hartnett has written a fable that already feels like a classic.

Matilda, an old woman in her 70s, tells a young boy her amazing life story. As a girl, Maddy was a solitary child with emotionally distant, though wealthy, parents. Her only confidante was a nargun, a creature of stone from Australian mythology. Maddy falls in love with an unusual boy. They make a life together, for a time. But, as often happens in real life, two people who love each other can have different paths in life. It is the parting of ways from her loved ones that has a profound impact on Maddy and what shapes the woman she is to become.

Matilda hesitates at some points in her story because of her audience. The boy is not much interested in love, being too young. In another place, "She did not know how far a child should be invited into the world of his elders. With its hard laws and complicated outcomes, the grown-up world was not a good place for children."

A book that explores existential questions in luminous prose. Perfect for thoughtful teens or adults who are looking for something similar to (and much better than) Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist or Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes

Sometimes visceral shivers, an exploration of the darker side of humanity and a little psychological suspense is exactly what I'm looking for in a book.

Deborah Noyes has written five short stories set in the same haunted mansion in Brittany. The first is a retelling of Edith Wharton's classic ghost story, Kerfol. It takes place in 1613 and is told from a maid's viewpoint. The young noblewoman Perette works for is terrified of her insanely jealous and much older husband. He ends up dead, apparently torn apart by a pack of dogs... but there are no dogs at Kerfol. No living dogs, anyway.

The subsequent tales move forward in time; 1802, 1926, 1982 and 2006. Each weaves in threads from the earlier stories. Intriguing and, appropriately, haunting.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Shadow of Malabron by Thomas Wharton

A young adolescent boy, mourning the death of his mother and angry at the world, becomes lost in the world of story where he must battle monsters and a great evil in order to find his way home. That is the premise of both John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things and Wharton's The Shadow of Malabron.

It's a great premise. Too bad that Wharton doesn't pull it off as well as Connolly did. If I hadn't been motivated by the good experience of reading previous books (Icefields, The Logogryph) by Wharton, I would have put it down before page 30. It takes quite a while for the story to really get going, but the greatest flaw for me was that I didn't feel strongly about any of the characters. On top of that, the dialogue was stilted and the challenges too easily resolved.

The action seemed to flow in time warps, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. It was twilight when Rowen found Will. She led him to a shelter where they ate delicious bowls of vegetable and grain soup, then Moth led them to a town called Fable, where the night streets were busy with people, many carrying rolled papers and books - in the rain! - and then to Rowen's house, where Will had a bath and then a meal of fried sausage and eggs (he was really hungry), then Will explored the house, met Rowen's grandfather, told him how he came to the Perilous Realm, then they had tea and sandwiches... and then finally to bed.

I would find myself having to rework the pictures in my head because of conflicting story details. When the company of adventurers sets off, Finn is wearing the long grey coat of the knights-errant. Two pages later, still setting off, we learn that everyone is dressed in inconspicuous garments of green and brown cloth. Everyone except Finn, I presume. Or is that what Finn is wearing under the coat? A few paragraphs later, we learn that Will and Rowen are wearing leather tunics and boots. Again, I'm puzzled. Tunics over or under the green and brown clothing made of cloth? Why didn't Wharton describe their outfits all at once?

Speaking of garments, the cloak worn by one of the bad guys was obviously evil because it was spelled in an olde English way; the shrowde. (Kind of the way a "wyrm" in other fantasy novels is much larger and more dangerous than plain old "worms.") That was a good part.

There are other good parts. Amusing made-up quotes at the start of each chapter, for example. I liked the source of a bit about wolves: Balthazar Budd's Flora and Fauna of Wildernesse. There is a fine ice dragon... in a deus ex machina role. I enjoyed the references to other tales; Little Red Riding Hood, The Lord of the Rings, The Three Little Pigs, even The Paperbag Princess.

For diehard fantasy fans only. Age 10 and up.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi

An adventure fantasy set in a world much like Japan of the middle ages, starring a woman warrior. Basha is a bodyguard hired to protect a young prince from his own father, the Mikado, as well as from a monster who lives a parallel world. Skillful with her short spear and a master of martial arts, Basha needs all of her strength, courage and wisdom for this job.

It was the cover art, reminiscent of Hokusai's woodblock print, The Wave, that first drew me to this book. The story drew me in from Basha's spectacular initial saving of the prince, when he was thrown from a high bridge into the river (the scene depicted on the cover). In the author's note at the end, I learned that there are ten more tales in the series, that it is available in manga format and that it was recently made into an animated series for television. Good news!

Moribito is an excellent choice for a reader looking for something like Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otari.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ten Mile River by Paul Griffin

Two boys have been in and out of the foster care system and juvenile detention centres in New York City. Jose is 15 and Ray is 14. They are "friends to the ends," totally loyal to each other, and live with a pack of dogs in a shack on a wooded hillside. Break and enters, shoplifting, car theft - they do what they must to survive. Jose expects his life to be short, so he isn't afraid of taking risks. Ray has a tender heart and a strong moral compass; both qualities create conflict with Jose and the life they are leading. This gritty and moving novel is The Outsiders for the 21st century.

Ghostgirl by Tonya Hurley

This book has a very attractive design: it is a little taller and narrower than the average hardcover teen novel; the cover has the silhouette of a girl in Tim Burton-style art seen through a cutout in the shape of a coffin; the pages are of heavy, good quality paper, edged in silver; pink Art Nouveau florals adorn each page; each chapter begins with a quote by such luminaries as Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe... And now I've run out of good things to say.

From the back cover: "Charlotte Usher feels practically invisible at school, and then one day she really is. Even worse, she's dead. In this satirical yet heartfelt novel, Tonya Hurley explores the invisibility we all feel at times and the lengths we'll go to be seen."

The message may be a good one, but I found the story such a slog that after reading the first third of the book, I skipped to the final chapter. Teen readers who like school clique stories will probably be more patient.

Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale and Nathan Hale

Rapunzel in the wild west. When she escapes (without anyone's help) from her tower prison, her face appears on posters: Wanted! Dead or Alive! In her quest to free her real mother from slavery in the mines and to stop the wicked witch from doing any more harm, Rapunzel helps to right injustice wherever she encounters it. She's got twenty feet of braids to lasso the bad guys and whip their pistols right out of their hands. Yahoo buckaroo!

A full colour graphic novel for all ages.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Kitty Kitty by Michele Jaffe

Seventeen-year-old amateur sleuth Jasmine Callihan attracts trouble even when she's trying to be a Model Daughter. On the day before school was to start, her evil father, Dadzilla, announced they were moving to Venice for an indefinite period of time. Jas misses Jack, her rock star boyfriend and her friends in California but she has been banned from using the internet ever since her dad saw the bill for the time she spent fourteen hours hitting the GET MAIL button, praying for Jack's name to pop into her inbox. Jas's new friend from Italian class, Arabella, is fun - but paranoid. She thinks someone is trying to kill her.

When Arabella ends up dead, Jas doesn't believe that it is suicide. She immediately gets embroiled in something dastardly. Her trusty friends introduced in two earlier novels (Bad Kitty and Bad Kitty: Catnipped) fly in from the U.S. to help keep Jas from the same fate as Arabella.

Polly has couture superpower; the ability to outdress anyone. Roxy's superpower is to be able to build things, like a taser out of tweezers. Tom's superpower is to perfectly imitate anyone's voice. Jack's superpower is to disable people with his smile. Poor Jasmine! Her only superpower is that she is attractive to cats.

When Polly arrives, she is horrified to find Jas wearing white leather pants. It doesn't take her long to restyle them into a cute pant-jacket. "The waist of the pants was now the neck of the jacket, and one of the pockets went across the front with a button. Polly was just explaining the safety features of the ensemble - 'The button on the front can be used as a cutting device, the hem of the dress detaches for restraining your hair or bad guys, the pocket can be ripped off and has been reinforced with your Wonderbra underwires to function as a throwing star, the cuff has a two-way radio built in, and we added a Skittles-based tracking device to your boots' - when her phone rang."

Jasmine's first person voice is highly entertaining. At a solemn, conversation-stopper moment "we all got really silent and stared at our nails like we were trying to be best friends with them. Hello tiny pals! Look at you putting the CUTE in CUTICLE!" After a long stretch of little sleep, she declares, "my bed looked like a slice of linen meringue pie and I dove right into it."

Madcap thrills, a touch of danger, amusing sartorial commentary and general hilarity ensue. In the end, everything is "hunky with a side of dory."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Dance Hall Road by Marion Douglas

Quirky, eccentric, oddballs... these are the kind of people you will encounter in Dance Hall Road. It is set in small-town Ontario in 1969-1970.

Adrian, the central character, is a teenager assigned to a special education class. He isn't dumb, but his mind works differently from most. I enjoyed getting into his view of the world. Randy, his best friend, is in the same class. Randy has epilepsy and obsessive compulsive tendencies. (He lines up coloured gumdrops to make his favourite NHL team win, for example.) Cheryl is Adrian's girlfriend for part of a year, until a tragedy occurs.

The exact nature of the tragedy, how it happened, and the many satellite and parallel betrayals and ramifications are the substance of the book. Anyone who has felt misunderstood (is there anyone who hasn't?) will find someone with whom to identify. The themes include bullying, the desire to escape the scrutiny of a fishbowl existence, family dysfunction, love and desire, vengefulness and the human capability for self-delusion. The language is so evocative that I kept stopping to mark passages. Calgary author Douglas has expert control of multiple storylines, interweaving them in a leisurely pace to a hopeful conclusion.

This adult novel will appeal to older teens who enjoy literary coming-of-age stories. Martha Brooks, John Green, Marian Toews and Camilla Gibb have similarities in their work.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Compound by S.A. Bodeen

The premise of this book is fantastic. An ultra-rich man builds a luxurious underground bunker to save his family in the event of nuclear war. When Eli is 9, he and his parents and two sisters enter the bunker in a state of panic. Eli's twin brother, Eddy, is locked out, along with their grandmother. The door will not re-open for 15 years.

The story is set 6 years after they entered the compound. There are a great many plot holes, but I did keep turning the pages to find out what would happen. It soon becomes clear that the father is a psychopath of the mad scientist sort, an evil genius. In fact, this book reminded me very much of Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks. (But I liked that one better.)

Things that made me go hmmm: Why would there be two giant ovens in the kitchen? Perhaps only to bring Hansel & Gretel to mind - and to remind us that a psychopath is in charge. Grain seems to be the only food supply for the cows; this isn't a diet they can survive on for long, certainly not for 15 years. How can it be that Eli has not set foot in his father's office in 6 years? And then when he does, the reason is for help with algebra? He hasn't needed any help before now? Pitiful plot device. And how many people are they planning to fit into a helicopter? I won't go on.

Readers who enjoy James Bond-style outlandishness combined with spying (well, snooping) and some psychological suspense will probably forgive the details that don't add up.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Madapple by Christina Meldrum

Brilliant student Maren is 15 when she leaves Denmark in 1987 to study botany in New England. Maren's older sister is divorced with a young child. At Maren's request, she joins her sister in the U.S. It turns out that both sisters are pregnant. Maren seems to believe that she has conceived immaculately. Fast forward to 2003.

Aslaug describes her very unusual, secluded life with her crazy mother, Maren. Aslaug's education has been more than thorough; she reads Danish, English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Coptic, the runic alphabet and a bit of the Celtic languages. Whew! Aslaug is 15 when her mother dies of cancer. She learns something new - she has an aunt Sara and two cousins - and ends up living with them in the pentecostal church where Sara is pastor.

Something goes tragically wrong, but what exactly happened is a mystery. Chapters with Aslaug's first person narration alternate with courtroom transcripts from 2007. The leisurely pace of the first, with Aslaug describing nature, myth and science as she rambles through her version of events, contrasts strongly with the clipped pace of nothing-but-the-facts transcripts and their building sense of dread and suspense.

An unusual and satisfying book.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

In 1981, at the height of the Troubles, 18-year-old Fergus McCann lives in Northern Ireland, just across the border from the Republic. Fergus and his uncle Tally find a child's body buried in peat; her origins are mysterious. IRA bombings are so common they are barely news anymore. Fergus's older brother, Joe, is in prison for terrorist activity. There is a hunger strike protest in the prison and prisoners are dying. Amid all this bleakness shines the triumph of human spirit. First love. Courage. Hope.

Siobhan Dowd was an Irish author of immense talent. She died of breast cancer last year. All three of her novels, A Swift, Pure Cry, The London Eye Mystery, and Bog Child are luminous.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Frost by Nicole Luiken

I was immediately drawn into this story. Kathy has her arms around Johnny as they speed through cold air on a snowmobile. But who is speaking inside Johnny's head? "You know what you have to do." What does Johnny have to do?

The setting is Iqaluit. Something is wrong with Johnny, a star hockey player and one of the most popular guys in school. He is behaving so strangely. His friends and his brother try to understand and help. But what can they do against Frost, a supernatural power older than humankind?

Wow! I'm so glad that some teenager suggested this title as one of the 10 to be chosen for next year's Teen Survivor Online Summer Reading Club. A colleague and I were sifting through the 130 or so titles that were nominated and neither of us was familiar with this one. I think it will make a fine contender. I'm also pleased to have an Edmonton author on the list.

There was a line from Johnny's Inuit ex-girlfriend that jolted me. Cheryl was telling him about a bird she'd seen that "made her think of her dead baby sister, and how in the old tales dead souls lived for a time in animal bodies before being reborn human." I was just reading Helen Frost's Diamond Willow yesterday, and in that book a baby sister (and other people) have animal form. I love these sorts of connections between books.

In Odd We Trust by Dean Koontz and Queenie Chan

This kind of manga is much more to my taste than One Piece; it is complete in a single volume and the artwork is easy to decode. An additional bonus is the complexity of plot and characterization. (To be fair, maybe I would have got these from One Piece too, if I had started with volume 1 and then stuck with the series, instead of starting at vol. 19. But I doubt it.)

In Odd We Trust is my first-ever Dean Koontz. Why have I stayed away so long? Mostly because the horror genre is even less appealing to me than romance. What a nice surprise to discover Odd Thomas. He's a fry cook with a strong moral compass and a kind soul. He's also the only one in town who sees dead people. Koontz has written four other novels about him but this is the first in graphic novel format. It was created in collaboration with mangaka Queenie Chan from Australia.

A seven-year-old boy is murdered and his killer appears to have other child targets... or is it the nanny who is a risk? Odd Thomas tracks the culprit with help from the spirits and his feisty girlfriend, Stormy -- and the police, of course.

There is very little blood (in b&w) or violence depicted and the bad guy gets his comeuppance. Edmonton Public Library has catalogued this in adult fiction (with the rest of Dean Koontz) but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to readers in Grade 7 and up who are looking for suspense.

Extra material at the back includes a sample chapter from Odd Thomas. Here is an example of his lyrical language: "Like a pair of looms, using sunshine and their own silhouettes, two enormous California live oaks wove veils of gold and purple, which they flung across the doorway." Writing like that sucks me right in. I plan to read the rest of Odd Thomas and I hope that it won't be too scary.

One Piece by Eiichiro Oda. Volume 19: Rebellion

It isn't often that I'm caught without a book to read, but that's what happened when I bailed on The Luxe. So, for the bus ride home from work, I read a manga. I've been curious about One Piece for quite a while, since it is so popular. I learned that it is not a good idea to start on volume 19.

The format appears to be about 10 chapters in each volume, so I was starting with chapter 167. As you can imagine, I missed a whole heap of backstory. The larger story is that of Luffy and his dream to locate the One Piece treasure and become the Pirate King. I studied the characters introduced at the start of volume 19, but it still took me a couple of chapters before I began sorting out who was who.

It's shonen, which is action/adventure manga. I had so much trouble figuring out what was happening in the action scenes that I gave up trying to decipher those images and relied on the word balloons and non-action panels to get the gist of what was going on. Some of the sound effects in the background seemed out of place to my western mind. I associate WOOOO with spooky scenes and AHHH with happiness or satisfaction, not fight scenes. I realize that this is a culture difference, like dogs barking ruff ruff in English and ouah ouah in French.

In between chapters, the author has little chats with the reader. At first, I dismissed these as annoying interruptions. Then I found them really funny. The explanation of the three kinds of transponder snails on page 146, for example.

So anyway, in volume 19, Luffy and his band of pirates get into a scrape and get out of it but their getaway is obviously temporary, with Sir Crocodile hot on their trail and the kingdom of Alabasta embroiled in civil war. I discovered that the next volume is not due out until February 2009. I would pick up One Piece again... but probably only if I'm stuck with nothing else to read.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost

Nancy Pearl says there are four doorways into books; story, character, setting and language. It is the last of these that beckoned me into Diamond Willow.

Helen Frost sets the bar high for verse novelists. Two of the author's earlier books, Keesha's House and The Braid would be included on my list of the very best verse novels published... if I was to compile such a list.

The pages of Diamond Willow are visually stunning, with each poem shaped like the markings that give diamond willow its name. And like the scar where a limb falls, causing the pattern on diamond willow to form, there is a hidden message in each poem in bold font.

It's the story of a 12-year-old girl and her beloved sled dog, set in Alaska. Interspersed with the diamond-shaped poems, there are short prose pieces in the voices of various ancestors - ancestors now living in animal or bird form.

I found it a touch too sweet, but it may just be that I'm not in the mood for that today. The gentle cover illustration - a girl and a dog looking at each other - should draw in young readers who like this kind of story.

The Luxe by Anna Godbersen

This book is 433 pages long and I'm about 100 pages in and I'm not going any further. It's a soap opera set amid high society teens in 1899 New York.

Penelope and Elizabeth are best friends because Penelope considers Elizabeth her greatest rival and must keep her close. Penelope plans to marry rich bad boy Henry because she wants "everyone to look at us and just dry up with envy that two people so superior in every respect have found each other." This sort of shallowness is a big tip-off for me; not my kind of book. And the other characters aren't much more interesting. Penelope has a male friend, Isaac, who is good at putting on a party. "He always knew where to get the freshest flowers" and "He knew how to shriek at the cooks so that the meats would come out just done enough." Allow me to roll my eyes here. Can professional cooks not do their work without teenaged supervision?

Elizabeth is in love with a stable boy, Will. (Will's eyes are a "bright, wounded blue" - what colour exactly? wounded blue?) Anyway, Elizabeth's maid, Lina, is also in love with Will. Speaking of shallow, Lina aspires to a time when her life will not be so simple and plain, a time when she will have the elaborate clothing and fine manners of her mistress.

But Elizabeth's family has lost their fortune and so she must obey orders to marry Henry, a match Henry's father has arranged to settle his son and keep him out of scandal. So Elizabeth fakes her death in order to wriggle out of her role in society. I'm not even curious enough about the outcome to skip to the end of this book. I'll just drop it in the library return bin.

Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange by Elizabeth Partridge

I picked up Restless Spirit for two reasons. In Nashville recently, Lange's work was part of a photography exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and I was reminded of how much I like her work. I am also always looking for non-fiction titles that are specifically of interest to teens, and I thought this might fit. After reading the book, I'd say Grade 5-8 students are the main audience, so it is best shelved where it is, in the children's section, not in the teen area.

The book has wonderful quotes from Lange. My favourite: "I realize more and more what it takes to be a really good photographer. You go in over your head, not just up to your neck."

The story behind her most famous photo, Migrant Mother, was interesting. No mention was made, however, of the different editions of this photo. The one in the book has the edited thumb in the lower right corner. (I knew to look for this after comparing 2 versions at the Frist.)

I was a little surprised that no mention was made of her trip to County Clare, Ireland. The book with those photos was published in 1996 and I believe it sold very well. Restless Spirit was published in 1998. There was a fascinating documentary made when her son, Dan, who had accompanied Lange on her Irish trip in 1954, returned to Co. Clare in 2005, looking for the subjects in his mother's photos.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

GLBT list for high school

A teacher librarian asked me for suggestions of books with gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender content suitable for Grades 10 - 12. I’ve indicated Canadian authors with an asterisk.

Martha Brooks* - Mistik Lake
Peter Cameron – Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You
Stephen Chbosky - The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Kristyn Dunnion* - Mosh Pit
M. Sindy Felin – Touching Snow
Brian Francis* – Fruit
Helen Frost – Keesha’s House
Alma Fullerton* – In the Garage
Brent Hartinger – Geography Club; also the sequel: Order of the Poison Oak (Geography Club is about students setting up a gay/straight alliance club)
Susan Juby* - Another Kind of Cowboy
David Levithan – Boy Meets Boy
Perry Moore – Hero
Julie Anne Peters – Far From Xanadu (anything by Julie Anne Peters is popular)
P.E. Ryan – Saints of Augustine
Alex Sanchez – anything by this author is popular, but best is the series: Rainbow Boys; Rainbow High; Rainbow Road
Shyam Selvadurai* - Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

Two titles that specifically focus on transgender teen experience:
Julie Anne Peters – Luna (transgirl)
Ellen Wittlinger – Parrotfish (transboy)

These are in the Orca Soundings Hi/Lo series for reluctant readers:
Carrie Mac* - Crush
Robin Stevenson* - Big Guy

Excellent graphic novels with gay/lesbian content:
Abby Denson – Tough Love: High School Confidential
Debbie Drechsler – Summer of Love
Mariko Tamaki* - Skim

All of the above titles are included in Edmonton Public Library booklists available online here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding

Catherine (Cat) Royal was left as a baby on the steps of the Royal Theatre in London and that is how she came to be raised in the theatre. In the winter of 1790, Cat becomes embroiled in a mystery; there is a diamond hidden in the theatre. Lots of rapscallion adventures in this book; I would suggest it to readers who enjoyed Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke.

Not Quite a Canon: Thirteen Canadian Teen Novels

My friend Claire, in Auckland, asked for my personal canon of teen novels. I decided to send a selection of Canadian teen novels that cover the spectrum of what's out there. It was hard to pare this list down, but one criteria was that that the title be available at the Auckland City Libraries.

Martha Brooks. Mistik Lake OR The True Confessions of a Heartless Girl (literary, contemporary fiction)

Chester Brown. Louis Riel. (history of Canada’s Metis people in comic strip format; Louis Riel is Canada's best-known folk hero; valuable alternative historical perspective) NOTE: I couldn’t find any Canadian Aboriginal authors listed in the Auckland City Libraries, so this is as close as I could get.

Christopher Paul Curtis. Elijah of Buxton (historical fiction told in dialect)

Charles De Lint. The Blue Girl (urban fantasy)

Deborah Ellis. Parvana OR I Am a Taxi (or read them both; they’re worth it – hardships of contemporary young people in other parts of the world)

Susan Juby. Alice, I Think (hilarious diary format)

Graham McNamee. Acceleration (suspense thriller of the sort boys like)

Lucy Maud Montgomery. Anne of Green Gables (a classic, of course)

Kenneth Oppel. Silverwing (animal fantasy) OR Airborn (steampunk fantasy)

Joanne Proulx. Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet (supernatural elements in an otherwise gritty novel; also a good example of a novel aimed at the older end of teen readership)

Shyam Selvadurai. Swimming in the Monsoon Sea (multiculturalism is a hallmark of Canadian lit; this one is set in Sri Lanka)

Sean Stewart. Cathy’s Book (I recommend this as a read-alike for Stephenie Meyer because it has romance and the supernatural in a contemporary setting. The hardcover edition in Canada had a whole bunch of loose paper elements that were integral to solving the mystery, in addition to an internet site, but the paperback version was less tactile, with the extras bound in. Also, the initial edition had product placement – a recent trend – that was dropped in the paperback editon.)

Mariko Tamaki. Skim (graphic novel format coming-of-age)

Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria and Warren Pleece

It sucks to be a young vegetarian vampire, working the graveyard shift at a convenience store in Los Angeles. But when Dave falls for Latina goth girl Rosa, life gets more interesting. Too bad for Dave that a rich surfer hunk of a vampire is also interested in Rosa. Twilight fans will like this book, especially those in Jacob's camp.

A graphic novel in luscious full colour with an entertaining cast of characters.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Shimmerdogs by Dianne Linden

When I heard that a local author's work had been shortlisted for a Governor General award, I immediately requested a library copy. It wasn't until I'd finished reading Shimmerdogs yesterday that I realized that I'd heard the author, Dianne Linden, speak eloquently at Raffaella Montemurro's funeral mass in October.

Shimmerdogs is about two children who move in with their uncle in Edmonton while their mother, a single parent, is on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. It is told in Mike's voice - he's around 7 years old. Mike is an unusual and endearing young fellow with theological concerns. His mental functioning is not the same as most other kids. His dog talks to him, for example.

A similar read might be Guus Kuijer's The Book of Everything, another book for children that has sufficient depth to draw adult readers.

It was serendipitous that the very next book that I picked up after Shimmerdogs was Jonah Winter's The Secret World of Hildegard, which is about another child with the power to see and hear things that other people cannot. Winter's picture book focuses on Saint Hildegard von Bingen's mystic visions.

I really liked the opening scene in Shimmerdogs, where Mike drowns and then comes back to life (with the help of a spirit dog). It is another point of serendipity that a very similar thing (without the spirit dog) happens at the beginning of Lu Vickers' Breathing Underwater, a book I read about a month ago.

Breathing Underwater is a lesbian teen coming-of-age story set in Florida in the 70s. Don't let the ugly cover put you off; it is a powerful and lyrical novel.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Correspondence from February 2004:

My stack of books to read grew while I was immersed in The Crimson Petal and the White. I LOVED that book. Sugar is a character I’ll remember always. And it has a really good ending too--with lots of room for possibilities. At the same time as I was reading Crimson Petal, I was taking The Professor and the Mad Man by Simon Winchester back and forth to work, Faber’s book being too heavy to lug around. Dictionaries have been my friends for years, so I enjoyed learning more about them. I was just a little disappointed that it wasn’t better, somehow, because I remember all the hype when it first came out. I felt the author over-sensationalized in some parts, if that is a word. (I’m not looking it up! My dictionary needs to rest after all the use it got while I read the damn book!)

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

Correspondence from February 2004:

I’ve read another book that I wouldn’t recommend: The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring). I liked it better than The Red Tent and it did make me want to go back to the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris to see the series of unicorn tapestries there again. Some parts of the book were good. I liked reading about places I recognized in Paris. I learned a lot about the making of tapestries and feel I’ll have a deeper appreciation of them next time I see some. I also enjoyed the shifting points of view -- there are about 7 different narrators.

It needed a better editor, unfortunately. Some sentences don’t make sense, like “I would like my hands to be soft as the rose petals these Ladies in the tapestries must soak theirs in.” Also, Nicolas tells us “I bowed so low my head throbbed. It never hurt to bow low.” Well, which is it? Throbbing or not hurting? I understand what the author means to say about subservience being useful to a poor artist, but I think it is an unfortunate combination of sentences.

There’s a line “Birds finding their mates indeed” which has absolutely no relation to anything said previously, although later in the betrothal feast (of Claude to a young nobleman), pairs of large birds are served for the meal. Either something was cut out or paragraphs were shifted without taking this reference to mating birds into account.

Some characters behave inexplicably. The 14-year-old love interest, Claude, is sucking on a clove because she has a toothache, yet she laughs and skips and teases Nicolas, the painter commissioned to design the tapestries. (Why not have Claude sucking on a clove later in the story, when she stays home sick and the rest of her family goes out? The author could still show off her knowledge of medieval remedies and the toothache would play a believable part in the plot.) Claude also refers to her mother as “my mistress” the first time we meet her, when neither the reader nor Nicolas know that she is a daughter of the house. Every other time, she calls her mother “maman”, yet there is no other indication that Claude purposely misled Nicolas into thinking she is a servant.

I’m guessing you aren’t going to read The Lady and the Unicorn, but if you do, don’t read this last paragraph coming up.

Most inexplicable is why the lady-in-waiting, Beatrice, would marry Nicolas. The reader is given to understand that Claude’s mother and Beatrice together conspire to this wedding arrangement in order to punish both Nicolas and Claude for their previous indiscretion. Beatrice has shown no interest in Nicolas, neither has he to her, and she knows he is a womanizer who cares not a fig for the bastard babies he fathers. And that is how the story ends.

Emma Donoghue

Just to get things going on my blog, I've decided to paste in some old correspondence. The following is from January 2004:

My lesbian book group is discussing Emma Donoghue’s Hood tomorrow night, so I’ve reread it. It was as good or better than my first reading of it. I like it best of all her books. Kissing the Witch is my second-favourite. Sara Nelson mentions Slammerkin in her memoir, So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading. Nelson LOVED Slammerkin, which she describes as being all about fashion in 18th century England - maybe that’s why I found this novel tedious. It was a slog for me to finish the book, and I only persevered because I had enjoyed 3 other books by her. Nelson compares it to the similar storyline of Alias Grace, which she found to be “didactic and moralistic.” I disagree totally, vastly preferring Atwood’s story over Slammerkin. Anyway, Nelson wrote that Slammerkin was Donoghue’s first novel, which irritated me to no end. Stir-Fry and Hood were both published in the USA, so that’s no excuse for her ignorance. Still, I enjoyed Nelson’s memoir and could relate to many of her confidences about the experience of reading, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with her tastes.

Update November 2008:
Our book group discussed Slammerkin earlier this year. Find more about the group at

Why a blog about books I've read?

Since 1993, I've been keeping a paper journal of the books I've read. I decided to try doing this electronically instead, just to see if I prefer it. Not only will I have space here to jot down my thoughts, but other readers can also comment. So, I'll see how it goes.