Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dog On It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery by Spencer Quinn

Chet - a dog with mismatched ears who failed to graduate from K-9 school - is Bernie Little's partner in a struggling private detective agency in Nevada. They are hired to find a missing teenager, but she shows up on her own. A few days later, she disappears again. Chet and Bernie are back on the case. This time, everything gets much more complicated.

Chet narrates the events and I found his voice rather annoying for the first while. All that barking... just kidding. He addresses the reader in short, often incomplete, sentences. (Hard-boiled detective style; just the facts, ma'm. Except that Chet's facts do tend to meander: "Snake. I don't like snakes.") What I found tedious are sentences like this: "They get upset, humans, and then water comes out of their eyes. What is that all about?" But then, I got caught up in the storyline and decided I really liked Chet and forgave him for being a dog.

Other people have said they laughed out loud while reading this book. I smiled a lot. Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, a mystery solved by a herd of sheep, has something of the same appeal.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Premium Beer Drinker's Guide by Stephen Beaumont

Mmmm. Beer. In this book, Stephen Beaumont concentrates on the strongest and boldest beers from around the world. It's about 10 years old, so some brands are no longer available, but it still makes tasty reading. The suggestions for food pairings are wonderful. Belgian styles are among my favourite, so I lingered in those sections. Full recognition is given to Unibroue brewery in Quebec for their Belgian-type ales: Maudite, Fin-du-Monde, Eau Benite, Blanche de Chambly and the like. Another Quebec brewery for which Beaumont and I share admiration is McAuslan - they make St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout and St. Ambroise Pale Ale. Stout is a grand winter drink but pale ale is good any time because it "can quench a thirst in the heat and satisfy the soul in the cold." "Rusty orange in colour, [St. Ambroise Pale Ale] has a pleasantly fruity, nutshell aroma and a full and marvelously balanced flavour, blending nutty and woody hop notes with peachy and orangey fruit." Don't you want one right now?

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork

Marcelo Sandoval is 17 and was looking forward to his summer job working with horses at the special school he's attended since his youth. Instead, he is forced to work in the mailroom of his father's Boston law firm that summer. Marcelo's father wants him to get out of the protective environment of the special school - and the treehouse in which he lives when he's home - and into the "real world." Although Marcelo is on the high-functioning spectrum of autism, the "real world" is scary and difficult. Marcelo grows during his summer at the law firm in ways his father never could have imagined. His story broke my heart and then healed it. Grade 8-12.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. That description is too simplistic for author Daniyal Mueenuddin's nuanced portrayal of the lives of servants in contemporary Pakistan, but be prepared for one sad outcome after another in this collection of short stories. They reminded me in style and tone of Aravind Adiga's Between the Assassinations.

I listened to an excellent Recorded Books edition, narrated by Firdous Bamji. It was nice to hear the correct pronunciation for Urdu names and words. When he said 'Himalaya' (him-ALL'-ee-a), it took me a split-second to recognize to what he referred. In the final story, A Spoiled Man, listening to details of police brutality was too much for me and I had to skip ahead in the narration. Mueenuddin exhibits a tenderness towards his characters, no matter how desperate their situations. Anyone looking for insight into the complexities of human behaviour will be rewarded by reading this book.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Where Bones Dance: An English Girlhood, an African War by Nina Newington

"I lived in Nigeria from when I was seven until I was ten but, before writing this book, I had almost no conscious memory of that time, or indeed of the first twelve years of my life. The first time I wrote about Nigeria the story startled me with its immediacy. It came from an unknown place inside myself." The University of Wisconsin Press, publisher of Where Bones Dance, assigns the following marketing descriptors on the back of the dust jacket: Fiction / Autobiography / Africa / Lesbian Interest. So, is it fiction or is it true? The author says: "I gave myself, in writing the book, complete permission to lie."

Newington's memories are vividly evocative of Nigeria as seen through the eyes of a White colonialist child. She uses the name 'Anna' in the book. Her father was a British diplomat, observing the civil war as it began in the late 1960s. Her best friend is Helen, daughter of a Korean-American spy. The first time Anna visits Helen's home, she tells her, "My name is Jake. I'm a marine." Helen says, "My name is Dave. It's a code name. I'm a spy." Anna's emerging lesbian self can be glimpsed in her interactions with Helen, as well as in her adamant statements that she will never marry.

Candid, gritty and compelling, the narrative is a collection of memory fragments - sometimes dreamlike, even nightmarish. Anna's relationship with her mother is troubled and dark. Disturbing incidents are dropped liked grenades between descriptions of kite-flying at the seaside and traditional Igbo tales recounted by Christine, a domestic employee.

For other stories of White girlhoods in Africa, try Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller); The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver); Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (Robin Scott); and Rainbow's End (Lauren St. John).

Ojingogo by Matthew Forsythe

A totally offbeat wordless graphic novel from a Canadian who draws on his exposure to Korean culture while he was teaching in Seoul, Ojingogo features the adventures of a girl and her (reluctant) pet squid in a place where anything can happen. In an Alice in Wonderland sort of way, people - and animals and even cameras - can grow larger or smaller. A monster may be carted off by a larger monster. It's funny. It's surreal. It's great. Grade 3 - adult.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude by Carol Lay

Cartoonist Carol Lay recounts her experiences with yoyo dieting and documents (in full-colour panels) how she has finally achieved lasting (several years) success. Her methods are nothing new - calorie-counting and physical exercise - but her upbeat style may be all the encouragement someone needs. Lay pays special attention to the psychological pitfalls that await dieters and has many tips to counter them. Easy exercises, sample menus and lots of recipes are included.

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden

Molly Fox is a well-known theatre actress who lends her home in Dublin to a good friend, a playwright. The playwright - we never learn her name - tells the story of her long friendship with Molly.

The novel takes place over the course of one day, without any chapter breaks. Irish author Deirdre Madden skillfully pulls this off with the strength of her narrative. I found myself searching at times for a good place to stop in order to temporarily put down the book, but there aren't even blank lines between paragraphs, which is what Roddy Doyle used to indicate pauses in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, another chapterless book.

Molly's Fox's Birthday was shortlisted for the Orange Prize this year. It is an introspective and engrossing examination of the complexities of human relationships.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pretty Dead by Francesca Lia Block

A vampire romance set in Los Angeles, complete with a happy ending. Much too romantic for my taste, and a little too much haute couture name-dropping also. It was disappointing, because I'm a fan of Francesca Lia Block's quirky, hipster fairytale style in her Weetzie Bat novels. Pretty Dead is pretty racy in places; Grade 9-12.

Arctic Adventures: Tales from the Lives of Inuit Artists by Raquel Rivera and Jirina Marton

Stories from the lives of four Inuit artists are followed by short biographies and a reproduction of one of their works of art. Pudlo Pudlat (Cape Dorset) tells of the time the sea ice on which his iglu was built broke away into the sea overnight. Kenojuak Ashevak (Cape Dorset) once saw Sedna, the goddess of the sea, when she was a child. Jessie Oonark (Baker Lake) nearly starved to death before being rescued. Lazarusie Ishulutak (Pangnirtung) describes a close encounter with a polar bear.

Jirina Marton's artwork illustrates the stories nicely. The main audience is probably Grade 3-6, but older readers - even adults - who have an interest in art and in life in the far north will enjoy this book too. See also The Shaman's Nephew (Simon Tookoome and Sheldon Oberman); The Curse of the Shaman (Michael Kusugak); Celebrating Inuit Art (James Houston) and Stones, Bones and Stitches (Shelley Falconer).

It's a Secret! by John Burningham

It's no secret that British author/illustrator John Burningham is a genius. His latest picture book, It's a Secret! is a whimsical answer to where the cat goes every night. Enjoy! Pre-school-adult.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee by Chloe Hooper

36-year-old Cameron Doomadgee died in jail 40 minutes after a white police officer arrested him for swearing in the street. This happened in 2004 on Palm Island, an Aboriginal community in the far north-east of Queensland, Australia. A decade prior to this, a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had investigated 99 deaths over a 10-year period, calculating: "if non-Aboriginal people had died in custody at the same rate ... there would have been nearly 9,000 deaths."

Doomadgee had four broken ribs, a black eye, much bruising to his head, and his liver had been nearly cut into two pieces by his backbone. Chris Hurley, the arresting officer and only person who could possibly have injured Doomadgee, was found not guilty of any wrongdoing. Palm Island's residents rioted after that verdict and burned down the police station and Hurley's house. At an inquest held later, Queenland's state coroner found reason for Hurley to stand trial for manslaughter and recommended charges be laid. "It was the first time in Australia's history a police officer had ever been found responsible for a death in custody."

The story of what happened after Doomadgee's death has the suspense of a legal thriller, culminating in Hurley's trial by jury. Chloe Hooper's investigative journalism documents the tragedy of depression, violence and substance abuse in Australia's Aboriginal communities and places them within the context of a corrupt police force and the legacy of racism and the stolen generations of children separated from their families. Alexis Wright covers similar ground in her novel, Carpentaria. Peter Carey writes "it is impossible to overestimate the importance of [Tall Man]."

Bird Child by Nan Forler and Francois Thisdale

Eliza is a very small child, all skin and bones, yet she finds the courage to stand up to bullies who torment Lainey, a new girl at her school. I really liked the author's approach to the issue of bullying, focussing on the shame of a bystander. Eliza talks to her mother about what to do and is given guidance, but it is Eliza herself who comes up with a solution. After challenging the bullies, Eliza asks Lainey, "Can I play with you?" The question demonstrates respect for Lainey - it would have been an entirely different balance of power if Eliza had invited Lainey to join her instead.

Francois Thisdale's beautiful mixed media illustrations add to the magical quality of this remarkable picture book. Highly recommended for K - Grade 3.

The Curse of the Shaman by Michael Kusugak

Finally, after many wonderful picture books for young children, Inuit author Michael Kusugak has written a story for tweens. A baby boy, Wolverine, was cursed by a cranky shaman. He grows up, falls in love with a girl named Breath and then is prevented from being with her because of the curse. It happened long before the whalers and explorers came to the area we now call Hudson's Bay. The storytelling is both simple and compelling, revealing details of the traditional lives of the Inuit people. Grade 5 - 8.

Sing, Nightingale, Sing! by Francoise de Guibert and Chiaki Miyamoto

This "Book and CD for Discovering the Birds of the World" is hard to categorize. First published in France, the original title (Chante, rossignol, chante!) is a line from a well-known folk song: A la claire fontaine. It suits this rather folksy presentation. The illustrations are bright woodcuts (by Chiaki Miyamoto) that give only a general impression of the sizes, shapes and colours of a wide variety of birds. It is most definitely not a field guide. A short description of each bird usually includes some interesting fact as well as their nesting and diet habits. The CD that comes with the book has brief recordings of most (not all) of the birds pictured. These are interspersed with original piano compositions by Daniel Goyone, playing in duet with bird songs.

The birds are mostly European species, grouped by habitat and identified only by common names. North American children may notice that the robin (tiny, round-bodied) and the goldfinch (red-headed) look quite different from the birds they call by the same names. I doubt that will matter, however. This book is more about music and art and learning that there is impressive diversity among feathered creatures. Pre-school to Grade 5.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

A classic story for readers from Grade 4 right through to adult, The Mouse and His Child offers adventure, comedy, and deep psychological insights into the human condition. It is the story of two wind-up toys, a father and son with a tender relationship and a strong desire to have a home of their own. Literary references, as to poetry by Keats, (the glass eyes of the fish lures, "staring in wild surmise") are an example of the way this tale can be enjoyed on many levels. Charming pencil and ink illustrations by David Small in the Arthur Levine 2001 edition update the original, which was first published in 1967. Since the book begins and ends at Christmas time, this is a perfect choice for family holiday reading.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Harry Houdini's famous magic trick, in which he made an elephant vanish in the Hippodrome theatre in New York in January of 1918, was no doubt the inspiration for Kate DiCamillo's charming children's story, The Magician's Elephant. The setting -- winter in the imaginary city of Baltese -- again brings Houdini's era to mind. There is also a sense of timelessness, however. The full-page illustrations by Yoko Tanaka add to feel of it being a traditional tale or fable.

Ten-year-old Peter Augustus Duchene learns from a fortuneteller that one member of his family survives: his little sister Adele. He is told that an elephant will lead him to her. This is a story about the importance and the rewards of faith and hope. People (and animals) learn to pay attention to their nightly dreams. Courage is necessary in order to bring about positive changes in the world.

A good read-aloud choice for a mixed-ages group; Grade 3 to adult. Similar books include Skellig (David Almond); The Book of Everything (Guus Kuijer); The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman) and, for slightly older children or teens, The Ghost Child (Sonya Hartnett).

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Friend by Sarah Stewart and David Small

A tiny red-headed girl spends her days under the loving eye of her family's Black housekeeper, who saves the child from drowning when she ventures off on her own. The watercolour illustrations by David Small capture the sunlight and breezes of a seaside home in summer. Author Sarah Stewart (Small's wife) dedicates this book to "all the people across the world who have saved the lives of children by paying attention when others did not -- but especially to Ola Beatrice Smith." It is clear that the tale is autobiographical: Beatrice Smith is the name of the housekeeper within the story and the final page shows the child grown into a woman, standing by a typewriter and pressing her hand to a locket over her breast. On the back end pages, the locket lies open and Small has collaged a photo inside: a black woman holding a red-haired baby. Children from pre-school to Grade 2 are the obvious audience for this picture book, but adults will appreciate it on a different level. A good pairing for readers who enjoyed The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

If you like historical fiction peopled with a large cast of players, including a great many persons drawn from real life, this is for you. Byatt's central subject is the toll taken by the making of art on artists and their families. The two main artistic creators are Olive Wellwood, a successful writer of children's novels and mother of seven children, and Benedict Fludd, a brilliant potter who has terrorised his wife and three children. There is also Prosper Cain, who is a curator at the museum that will become the Victoria and Albert, and his two motherless children. A German puppeteer and his family... a runaway found hiding in a museum basement who will become Fludd's apprentice... oh, there are so many well-developed characters in this book!

The novel begins in 1895 in London and ends at the close of the First World War. The war part doesn't start until page 578; before that, we watch children grow into adulthood in a milieu of social, political and economic activism. I was thoroughly engrossed in the world of The Children's Book.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why I Hate Saturn by Kyle Baker

I love lists of best books. That's how I found this one, which was in Danny Fingeroth's top 10 graphic novels in the Guardian. Kyle Baker's Why I Hate Saturn was published by DC Comics in 1990, but the witty dialogue and larger-than-life characters still seem fresh, nearly 20 years later. 20-something Anne is a columnist for a trendy magazine in New York City. She drinks way too much. Her best friend is an African-American guy named Ricky. Anne's sister Laura turns up and overstays her welcome. Anne can't stand Laura for lots of reasons, but especially because, despite Laura's mental instability - she believes she is from Saturn - she has no trouble picking up men. It turns out, however, that one of Laura's ex-boyfriends is even crazier than she is.

The Peep Diaries by Hal Niedzviecki

Pop culture has become peep culture: reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube and more. "We have entered the age of peep culture, a tell-all, show-all, know-all phenomenon that is dramatically altering notions of privacy, individuality, and even humanity. In the Age of Peep, core values and rights we once took for granted are rapidly being renegotiated, often without our even noticing." (From the back cover.)

Hal Niedzviecki writes with humour and insight about technology's effect on us all. How do we achieve the sense of connection and community that we seek in peep culture without being consumed, reduced and debased? Humans are social animals and so it isn't surprising that we can so easily find ourselves addicted to watching or reading strangers' lives. Niedzviecki's conclusion is that there is a benefit in not knowing. "So much of the mystery of life, so much of its inherent, unquantifiable worth, comes from that which remains a mystery. It's not knowing that makes us fall in love, that allows us to appreciate beauty, that permits us to revel in the moment despite the indisputable fact that one day we will be sick and that one day we will be dead."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman and Pamela Zagarenski

"In SPRING, / Red sings / from treetops: / cheer-cheer-cheer, / each note dropping / like a cherry / into my ear." Joyce Sidman celebrates the seasons in poetry, playfully using colours to represent objects as well as describe them: "Orange ripens in / full, heavy moons, / thick with pulp and seed. / Orange flickers, / all smoke and candles. / Orange eyes. / Orange cheeks. / Orange teeth." Each time a colour is mentioned in the text, it is printed in that colour. Pamela Zagarenski's quirky mixed-media artwork is a good match for the poetry; the overall effect is of joyous whimsy. I especially like the crowns worn by humans, animals and birds. Pre-school to Grade 3.

Dick Whittington and His Cat by Marcia Brown

Dick is a penniless orphan who grows up to be mayor of London. He gets rich thanks to a cat who is a champion mouser. Marcia Brown's retelling of this legend was first published in 1950. Her striking linocut illustrations stand the test of time, but her colonialist attitude does not. I found her portrayal of the Moors of Barbary offensive and would not recommend this book for children.

Jazz by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers

A book of poetry, artwork and history together with a CD of music and spoken word combine to create this lively and informative introduction to jazz music. Sweet! For all ages.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce

Charlotte Miller is still in her teens when she and her younger sister, Rosie, are orphaned. The wool mill that they inherit is said to be cursed, but the girls grew up there and take on the running of the place. The entire village of Shearing depends on the mill for their livelihoods. The time period is around the start of the industrial revolution, with steam-powered equipment starting to make watermills obsolete. Bad luck seems to hound the Millers and their mill. Charlotte refuses to believe in a curse, but things get stranger and harder to explain. And how can she explain away something she witnesses with her own eyes? A little man demonstrates an answer to her financial troubles by spinning straw into gold.

A creepy and satisfying retelling of the Rumplestiltskin tale. Grade 7 - up. See also other versions: The Witch's Boy (Michael Gruber); Spinners (Donna Jo Napoli); Straw into Gold (Gary Schmidt); The Rumplestiltskin Problem (Vivian Vande Velde).

The Rabbit Problem by Emily Gravett

Emily Gravett, who has won two Kate Greenaway medals (the UK's most prestigious children's illustration award) brings her wicked sense of humour to a math problem that was solved in the year 1202 by Fibonacci. Beginning with one pair of rabbits, under ideal breeding conditions, how many rabbits will there be in one year? The delightful result is more of an artefact than anything else. It is designed as a calendar and even has holes pierced all the way through so it can be hung on a wall. There are miniature books within, like a baby book, a newspaper and a cookbook. There's a knitting pattern for a rabbit-eared hooded sweater similar to the one worn in Sakai's Snow Day. The final spread is a 3-dimensional paper explosion of rabbits. I'll leave it to the more ambitious to count them all; I just love the art!

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s, this novel is told in the voices of three different women: one young White socialite and two Black maids. Skeeter comes home from college to find that Constantine, the maid who raised her, has disappeared. Aibilene is raising her 17th White child, working in the home of Skeeter's friend, Elizabeth. My favourite character is Minny, an outspoken women who has lost 19 jobs because of her sassiness. I listened to an audio production brilliantly rendered by four different narrators and felt transported to the setting and time by their Southern accents. Highly recommended. Grade 8 - adult.

Burmese Lessons by Karen Connelly / Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle

Two recent books offer a look through Canadian eyes at a country suffering under one of the most oppressive military regimes in the world: Burma/Myanmar. The books complement each other well, one relying on comic strips and the other on the imagery evoked by lyrical language. Cartoonist Delisle (Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China; Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea) documents a year spent in Rangoon, caring for his infant son while his wife worked for Medecins Sans Frontiers. Connelly reveals her experiences in Burma and Thailand of more than a decade ago, when she began writing The Lizard Cage - a harrowing novel about punishment and courage - and fell in love not only with Burma, but with a Burmese man. The distillation of Connelly's lessons is that to care is the essential human act.

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney

This is an absolutely stunning, wordless picture book. Pinkney retells Aesop's fable of the mouse remembering a debt to the lion. Words are used only as part of the background animal noises within watercolour paintings that show the teeming life of the Serengeti. An excellent gift for children from 3 to 7.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

Pakistani-born Shamsie has written an ambitious saga about the entwined lives of two families: the Tanaka-Ashrafs (Japanese and Urdu) and the Weiss-Burtons (German and English). This novel threads together world events, starting in 1945 with the atomic bombing of Nagasaki; moving to Delhi in 1947, with the departure of the British colonialists and the partition of Pakistan; then to Afghanistan in 1982-83, where the mujahideen are battling Soviet occupation of their country; ending in New York in 2001-2, after the terrorists attacks that felled the World Trade Towers. An unforgettable, immensely powerful book.
Note added Dec. 5: Kim Hill of Radio New Zealand interviewed Kamila Shamsie about Burnt Shadows and learned where she got the striking image that started the book: a Japanese woman with the bird design from her kimono tattooed onto her back from the flash of the atomic bomb. Shamsie's first book was written at age 11 - A Dog's Life and After - and was about dog heaven. Their wide-ranging discussion included politics and why Pakistan's patriarchal society breeds stroppy women.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Nineteen-year-old Lisamarie Hill has a gift. Ever since she was a child, she has seen ghosts, has had prophetic dreams and has been visited by a little man with bright red hair - the spirit of a cedar tree. Since this gift seems mostly to be connected with death, it isn't something that Lisa is happy about.

At the start of the story, Lisa's younger brother Jimmy is missing. He was on a fishing boat that has disappeared off the coast of British Columbia. Her parents travel mostly by plane from their home in Kitamaat to Namu, where they will be closer to the search for survivors. Lisa dreams that Jimmy is at Monkey Beach, and decides to go there on a speed boat - an all-day trip - to look for him.

Much of the story consists of flashbacks to Lisa's childhood. There are so many secrets to uncover. It is a haunting mystery, a page-turner told with grit and humour. It is outstanding.

Dr. Keavy Martin, Professor of Aboriginal Literature at the University of Alberta, talked about Monkey Beach at a Canadian Literature Centre public lecture yesterday. Everyone in the audience was given a map of B.C. so that we could follow along as Martin read from the novel, a part where Robinson instructs the reader to locate a map and gives directions to find the Haisla territory and the village of Kitamaat. Martin spoke about the appeal factors of this book and why, of Robinson's three works so far, it is the one most commonly studied. In Monkey Beach, the reader learns details of traditional Haisla culture, like how oolichan fish are prepared, and legends of the B'gwus (the sasquatch). There is the gothic, ghost story aspect. It is also a coming-of-age story, something that has universal appeal.

Grade 9 to adult.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Child Thief by Brom

It is rare - maybe a few times in a year - that a book keeps me up reading past my bedtime (9:30). I finished The Child Thief in the wee hours of this morning, feeling entirely satisfied. It's a dark retelling of Peter Pan, taking us back 1400 years to Peter's birth. At 7 weeks of age, Peter climbed from his crib and walked over to his human family, asking to join in their fun at the dinner table. They responded by abandoning him to wolves in the forest. Peter is a fascinating character, half human, half wild thing. He loves to play... but his games are deadly. Brom blends in elements of Celtic mythology like Arthurian legend and the faerie court. Peter rescues desperate teens from modern day Manhattan - the abused, homeless and unwanted - and leads them back to his fort in an enchanted land that is dying. Peter needs the help of his recruits to battle the flesh-eaters and restore the Lady's magic in Avalon. Grade 9 and up.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd

Holly Hogan was a young girl when her mother abandoned her in their London apartment and she has been in the care of social services ever since, mostly living in group homes. At 14, Holly was offered a foster home placement, but things don't go well there. Holly wants to find her mother, who she believes is in Ireland. She puts on a blonde wig, takes on a new persona - Solace - and hits the road.

This seemed like just another YA problem novel when I started reading it, but I persevered because the author is Siobhan Dowd. Dowd only saw her first two novels - A Swift Pure Cry and The London Eye Mystery - published before she died of cancer in 2007, age 47. Since then, two other works completed before her death have been published: Bog Child and Solace of the Road. As far as I know, this is the last we will see. All of her books have been fabulous and have received many accolades. They are also quite different in style and tone from each other, but they all feature protagonists that feel very real. By the end of Solace of the Road, I cared deeply about a fictional young woman, Holly Hogan. Grade 7 and up.

For more about Dowd, see the Trust set up in her name.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Nobody by Jeff Lemire

This comic strip retelling of H.G. Well's classic science fiction story, The Invisible Man, is set in 1994 in a small lakeside town called Large Mouth. The sculpture of the giant bass near the motel reminded me of so many other Canadian small towns - Andrew's giant mallard, Falher's giant bee, Glendon's giant pyrohy, Vegreville's pysanka and so on. Vickie, a lonely 16-year-old, befriends John Griffen, a mysterious stranger wrapped in bandages, when he comes to town. Tragedy is foreshadowed by Vickie's words early on: "If I knew then what I know now, I wonder if I'd do anything differently?" As in Lemire's Essex County Trilogy, this tale holds sadness and regret. It is a moving portrayal of what it means to be human. Grade 8 to adult. A sneak preview trailer is available on YouTube.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett

As in Emily Gravett's other picture books (Wolves; Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears etc.) there is much for adults to appreciate along with children. In The Odd Egg, Duck is the only bird without an egg, but he solves that problem by finding one. (I assumed that Duck is male because of his colouring; he's either a mallard or a khaki campbell. Duck's gender is confirmed in a reference to "his egg.") A single guy adopting is enough out-of-the-heteronormative-parenting-box for me to consider this a queer text. Plus, all of the other birds are shown as single parents and they seem to live in one big family group together.

I love Gravett's sense of humour. Duck holds one leg high while peering under his body, searching for an absent egg. Owl studies 'The Bright Baby Book' while sitting on her egg and the owlet hatches spouting mathematics. The young parrot's first words as he hatches are "I'm a pretty boy!" - as the parent parrot holds up a mirror. (This could also be construed as queer content, I suppose.) There is a playful surprise at the end, when Duck's giant egg hatches, and then the action continues across the end flaps and even onto the back cover, with one final "Quack!" Ages 3 - 6. (And definitely adults too.)

Finn Throws a Fit by David Elliott and Timothy Basil Ering

A toddler throws a giant tantrum. I wasn't sure at first that I liked seeing yet another book where the child has hovering parents wrapped around his finger. In early scenes where Finn's temper is beginning to flare, the father is on his knees, cajoling with an assortment of toys and a soother. (He is obviously not a young man; his hair is half gone.) But Ering's charcoal and oil paintings won me over. They are delightfully funny. Finn himself is depicted as more head than body and wearing yellow boots. His yelling, tears and stamping feet cause storms, hurricanes and blizzards to sweep through the house, tumbling furniture, parents and pet in the rampage. The dog is surfing on a flying dinner plate in one spread. I enjoyed the hyperbole and I especially liked the ending. "It lasts until it doesn't." Tantrums are often inexplicable. Finn is sweet and lovable at the end... he even says "Please." Ages 1 - 4 (and their beleaguered parents).

The Snow Day by Komako Sakai

A young rabbit stays home from kindergarten because it snows all day. The child, who leaps out of bed wearing yellow pyjamas, could be either male or female and the apartment setting could be in any city where it snows. There are only subtle clues that it is actually Japan, like shape of the electrical outlet on the wall. I found it particularly charming that the child makes a snow dumpling outside.

It is a quiet, cozy day spent cooped up indoors until, finally, the mother relents and allows for an excursion into the silent streets after the snow stops, even though it is bedtime. The contrast between inside and outside is beautifully done in Sakai's atmospheric paintings, which are created on a black ground.

The action happening off-scene is that the father cannot get home because his airplane is grounded. This scene is illustrated on the title page; an excellent way to avoid breaking the mood in the body of the text. The final line maintains the gently reassuring tone: "Daddy will be home tomorrow, because it stopped snowing." Ages 3 - 6.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

In this look at human impact on our environment, Weisman imagines a big what if. What if all humans were suddenly to disappear? Maybe a pandemic specific only to humans, or else the rapture arrives and spirits everyone off the planet. How long would our cities last before returning to wilderness? (Not long at all, as it turns out.) What about impressive feats of engineering like the Chunnel between France and England, or the Panama Canal? What would happen to agricultural cropland and farm animals? Nuclear power plants?

There are places in the world that give us an indication of the resiliency of nature; places like the area around Chernobyl and the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. There are some scary things to think about in this book but there is also hope. It's a fascinating combination of science and imagination.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cleavage: Breakaway Fiction for Real Girls

Deb Loughead and Jocelyn Shipley are the editors of this collection of short stories about teenage girls dealing mostly with the issue of body image. One story, About My Curves, deals with a burgeoning same-sex attraction and in another story, The Giant Regina, the parents are lesbians. In most of the stories, mothers are as great a source of embarrassment as newly-developed - or under-developed - bosoms. Two of the authors, Ann Sutherland and Mar'ce Merrell, live in Edmonton. Grade 7 and up.

La Fugue by Pascal Blanchet

La Fugue is the story of a Quebecois jazz pianist looking back on his life. Each page presents a separate comic panel. Blanchet's beautiful images are highly stylistic and have the energy and verve of music. They artfully convey the passage of time with subtle changes from panel to panel. The ink is red and brown on a lovely speckled brown paper - the design of this book is absolutely gorgeous.

If you don't understand French, don't let that prevent you from picking up this almost wordless book. There are a few lines in English and a few lines in French, but it is a universal story that can be understood without language at all. Very, very, very highly recommended!

A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food and Travel by Anik See

A collection of essays by a young woman who mostly travelled on her own, on a bicycle, all over the world. In remote parts of Mexico, Malaysia, South America, Georgia and Iran, Anik See encountered generous people wherever she went. She is often asked why she chooses to travel this way. "The only way I know how to answer, especially in languages that I'm not so well versed in, is to say that I travel like this to meet people like them and to try their traditional food." Food is a highlight of her travels and she includes several recipes at the end of each entry.

Home of Sudden Service by Elizabeth Bachinsky

Sina Queyras says of this poetry collection: "Here is a poet who knows how to shake things up. Meter! Grit! These are urgent poems, inscribed in skin." Gary Geddes writes: "Don't let Elizabeth Bachinsky's smart-ass hipster lyrics and tough-girl sentiments distract from her technical prowess."

Bachinsky writes about misfits and outcasts - teen moms, punk rock boys, high school dykes and trailer park delinquents - coming-of-age in small towns. Her tender words hold the sting of truth. Highly recommended. Grade 10 and up.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Thunderhead Underground Falls by Joel Orff

Jack meets a young woman he really connects with on one of his last days before he ships out with the army. It is bitterly cold outdoors and they spend as much time together as possible. She tells him, "If only you'd met me sooner. I would have talked you out of joining the army." Jack admits to being afraid. His greatest fear is that, "I won't see things the same when I get back. It's all gonna be different. I'll be different."

A quiet story told almost entirely in pictures, Thunderhead Underground Falls rewards patient examination of the black and white artwork. In a dream sequence, for example, a nightmarish toy store displays bags marked 'missing persons,' unknown animals' and 'strangers with beards.' Grade 10 - adult.

Similar comic-format stories that examine how it feels to come of age: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes; Summer of Love by Debbie Drechsler; Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez; Night Fisher by Kikuo Johnson; Perfect Example by John Porcellino; Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell and At a Crossroads by Kate Williamson.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Elspeth and Edie were identical twins who had a major falling-out when they reached adulthood. Edie and her husband Jack moved from London to Chicago where they raised their twin daughters, Julia and Valentina. When Elspeth dies, she leaves her flat in London to her two nieces. It is a big surprise to them, since they never even knew that their mother had a twin.

Julia and Valentina are 21 when they move to London, planning to live in the flat for at least a year. There are two other flats in the house: Martin lives on the third floor and Robert lives on the ground floor. Martin battles such extreme OCD that he rarely leaves his apartment. Robert was Elspeth's lover of 10 years and is having great difficulty adjusting to her absence. The arrival of the twins has a big impact on both of these men. And Elspeth, who is now a ghost, stuck in her apartment, is in the middle of everything.

The plot gets downright bizarre, but I enjoyed following the twists. Towards the end, I was reminded of Niffenegger's illustrated novels, and could envision her aquatints replacing chunks of the text. Despite the melodrama, at its heart, Her Fearful Symmetry is an examination of consequences, especially the price we pay for lies and lack of fortitude. I liked it much better than The Time Traveler's Wife.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, was asked to give a lecture to a general audience. Pausch had recently learned that he had terminal cancer and so this lecture was an opportunity for him to reflect deeply on what matters in life. The inspirational, hour-long lecture can be viewed online. This book expands on what he said in that lecture.

He is a man with a great deal of vitality as well as common sense. The wisdom he offers is useful stuff: how to go forward when you hit a brick wall; how to work well in teams; how to be self-reflective and honest with yourself; how to realize your dreams.

Before I learned to accept it about myself, I used to despair over my own earnestness, so I cheered when I read: "I'll take an earnest person over a hip person every time, because hip is short-term. Earnest is long-term. Earnestness is highly underestimated. It comes from the core, while hip is trying to impress you with the surface."

Pausch admits that he was a jerk when he was a young man. When warranted, he gives his students the kind of advice he was given that helped shape him into a better person. "I know you're smart. But everyone here is smart. Smart isn't enough. The kind of people I want on my research team are those who will help everyone else feel happy to be here." Hooray to that as well.

"I came to a realization very early in my life. As I see it, there's a decision we all have to make, and it seems perfectly captured in the Winnie-the-Pooh characters created by A.A. Milne. Each of us must decide: Am I a fun-loving Tigger or am I a sad-sack Eeyore? Pick a camp." Pausch is clearly a Tigger, showing us how to grab life by the tail.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin grew up on a small farm in Wisconsin. Her father is Christian and her mother is Jewish, but neither parent is religious. Her younger brother, Robert (named for their father) is struggling through high school. Tassie plays electric bass guitar and also has an acoustic stand-up bass she calls Ole Bob:

"I sometimes took to smacking the back of the bass for rhythm. My playing was full of wanderings that would return to fetch back the melody, or maybe only a handful of its notes, before venturing off again. I played a Bach cello prelude I had learned only the year before. It was sometimes fun to do this, make the bass play cello, like making an old man sing a young man's song. Ole Bob would complain and bellow but get through it in a slower, hobbling way, his occasional geezer spritelinesses a farewell embrace of lost youth. It moved me. I had never known my grandfathers, but if they had lived longer, I imagined them looking and sounding a lot like Bob. It was the family name, after all."

Tassie moves to a nearby city to attend college. Between semesters, she takes on a part-time job as a nanny for a caucasian couple who have adopted a Black child. Tassie becomes enmeshed in the family drama of her employers and very attached to their daughter, Mary-Emma. Tassie also falls in love for the first time; Reynaldo sits next to her in Intro to Sufism class.

Moore's writing is described as "lyrical, funny, moving, and devastating." See also my review of her outstanding short story collection, Birds of America.

A Gate at the Stairs will appeal to adults and teens (Grade 10 and up) who like Anne Michaels, Margaret Atwood, Joan London, Fannie Flagg, Barbara Kinsolver and Muriel Spark.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley

From the jacket flap: "Snake is elegant, calm and a little self-centered; Lizard is exuberant and irrepressible. Two very different creatures learn the give and take of friendship in these warm and funny desert stories." Both the author, Joy Cowley, and the illustrator, Gavin Bishop, are from New Zealand, but the setting for these charming stories is the American Southwest. It is a lucky adult who gets to read this beginning chapter book aloud to a child, because they are absolutely delightful. Kindergarten to Grade 4. For something with similar appeal, try Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo and Someone Called Plastic by Emily Jenkins.

Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka

Celeste, 14, and Nanette, 13, are sisters living in the rural community of Unity. They are part of a fictional cult that is based on real-life polygamous religious groups. Celeste and Nanette are very different in temperament, one always questioning, the other a devoted believer. When girls turn 15 in this community, they are assigned by the Prophet to an adult husband. Celeste does not want to marry an old man and thus join a household of sister wives, but no other option appears open.

The boys in this community, meanwhile, often leave (or else are kicked out) when they are in their teens. Jon, a teenager on a neighbouring farm in the community, has got Celeste thinking impure thoughts. What will she do?

Celeste's quandary is interesting enough, but I found both she and Nanette to be puppet characters, manipulated for the purpose of the plot. A third teenage girl, Taviana, who was rescued from street prostitution and given shelter in the Unity faith, is a more three-dimensional individual. The mature themes in this novel make it suitable for older teens, Grade 10 and up.

In the past year, I've read a few other teen novels featuring religious fanaticism:
I Am Not Esther by Fleur Beale
Madapple by Christina Meldrum
Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Friday, November 6, 2009

Emma by Kaoru Mori

I had read glowing reviews and was really looking forward to reading Emma, which is historical romance in manga format. The 19th century London setting is beautifully drawn by mangaka Kaoru Mori. Emma is the only servant in the home of a retired nursemaid, Kelly Stownar. At the start of volume 1, Emma is introduced to William Jones, son of a wealthy businessman, when he pays a surprise visit to his former nursemaid. The two young people are immediately attracted to each other.

Later, William gets a surprise visit from his friend Prince Hakim Attawally, who arrives by steamship from India with an entourage of about a dozen male servants in turbans, four languorous young women wearing more jewellry than clothing, and five elephants depicted much larger than natural size. All (except the elephants) have bindis marking their foreheads. Hakim meets Emma and falls for her.

Serious-minded Emma seems to get a lot of love letters - a half-dozen at a time in one comic panel - but she has always turned down her suitors. Kelly's health is fragile and she worries about what will happen to her maid when she dies. She can see that there is a romantic attraction happening, so she subtly encourages Emma to consider William as a marriage prospect. It is clear, however, that William's father would never approve of a match between his son and a lower-class maid.

Ho hum. This book was a disappointment and I have no interest in reading further volumes (I think there are 7 in this storyline) to find out what happens in the end. The blatantly stereotypical treatment of the party from India and their inclusion for the obvious purpose of comic relief were also off-putting. Romance readers are the audience for this series. Grade 9 - adult.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Good Parents by Joan London

Maya de Jong moves to Melbourne as soon as she graduates from high school in her small town in Western Australia. She has an affair with her new boss whose wife is dying. Maya's parents, Jacob and Toni, arrive in Melbourne for a visit but Maya has disappeared. As they try to discover what has happened to their daughter, their history and their own relationships with their parents are revealed.

"When [Maya] was a little girl, the word 'mother' sounded dark and velvety and sheltering, like flowers in the rain. She hated sleeping over at other people's houses. She didn't like to be too far away from Toni." London offers psychological insights into our most intimate relationships in this elegant and evocative novel.

God Is. My Search for Faith in a Secular World by David Adams Richards

Award-winning New Brunswick author David Adams Richards has been asked if he is a Christian. This book (he describes it as a polemic) is his answer. "Faith is important because all of mankind's other concerns are actually unsolvable without faith - and great faith." He insists that faith is part of our make-up and that even atheists know the presence of God, even though they won't admit it. I wasn't convinced about the atheists, but I agreed with other things that he said, like: "Goodness, simplicity and truth are what everyone seeks in others and wars against in themselves." I, too, believe in God - although my idea of God is not the same as that described by Christians.

I've rejected the traditional notions of sin and the devil along with my Catholic upbringing, but when Richards calls them 'wrongdoing' and a 'condition,' then I can go along with his arguments. "To commit a crime or even murder because so-and-so has harmed you is in some way to rationalize one wrongdoing as sin and the other as justified." When he was younger, his circle of drinking acquaintances included murderers. "Murder is the sublime anti-miracle. The taking of life is, in a way, the miracle of people who refuse to believe life is a miracle, or at least have registered their superiority to people who believe such foolish things."

He writes openly about experiences that have confirmed his faith in God. He decries self-righteousness, mob behaviour, misplaced moral outrage, and people who ridicule what they secretly fear. He quotes Einstein, who said "Christianity will never be explained away by a smart remark." Richards has written a thought-provoking look at ethics and morality.

Theory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I was curious about this book because I've come across mention of it numerous times, usually in reference to its influence on the work of impressionist painters. Published in 1810 (first English translation 1840), it was surprisingly easy to understand. I did get a bit bogged down with all of the experiments because I didn't try them myself, only imagined their results as Goethe described them - they involved setting up coloured disks on different coloured backgrounds in specific lighting conditions; prisms; opalescent panes of glass and stuff like that.

Goethe did not believe Newton's wavelength theory of colour was correct. I knew this before I even started reading, yet it was startling to come across the following explanation for why shadows on snow may appear violet, blue, or yellow - "accidental vapours diffused in the air." He is a product of his time, of course: "it is worthy of remark that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a predilection for vivid colours; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence."

In 1820, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote: "Can you lend me the Theory of Colours for a few weeks? It is an important work. His last things are insipid." Other people are still lining up to read this. I'm only halfway through but I can't renew the book because someone else has requested it. I'll wear my pink coat and red hat to return it to the library.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Isadora Duncan by Sabrina Jones

Tagging my blog posts gives me interesting information about my reading habits, even though I don't write about every single book I read. I hadn't realized, for example, how frequently I choose biography/autobiography/memoir until I glanced at the tag list today. Out of 172 posts (over the course of a year), 26 have fallen into this category. Only seven out of these books, however, are in standard prose; the rest are either in comics format, picture books, or written in verse.

Which brings me to Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography, written and illustrated by Sabrina Jones. Jones writes, "I'm asking a generation in flip-flops to imagine how traffic stopped when Isadora strolled down 5th Avenue in her homemade sandals." 100 years ago, "Ladies in ankle boots twittered about 'the barefoot dancer.' Audiences were astonished that her naked legs could look so pure." Duncan is considered by many to be the mother of modern dance. She was born in San Francisco in 1877 and had little formal schooling. Her improvisational style of expressive dance movement was inspired by nature and by the art on the pottery of ancient Greece. She performed uncorseted in Grecian-style tunics and clingy scarves.

Although there are no films of Duncan dancing, many photos and drawings exist that Jones used to create the artwork for this book. The era comes to life as does Duncan's tumultuous and passionate private life. Grade 9 - adult.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sempe: A Little Bit of France by Jean-Jacques Sempe

From the book flap: "Renowned New Yorker cover illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempe illustrates the quirky charm of France's countryside and small towns with his signature syle and gentle sense of humour and irony. His drawings are famed for their striking use of pen and ink, their inimitable style, and most of all for their satire and tragic-comic vision." I couldn't describe this delightful book any better.

Sempe's large, wordless artwork conveys each story through a single frame. Since each illustration is a separate story, this isn't really a graphic novel, but I'll use that term as a tag for this post anyway, because it has a similar appeal. All ages.

Strange Mr. Satie by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Petra Mathers

Erik Satie, the French avant-garde composer, was a very strange man indeed. Children will be amused to learn about someone who "wrote ballets for parties and music for magical spells" and whose "habits were odd. He wore seven identical gray velvet suits and that was all. He did not take baths, but scraped himself with a piece of stone."

There is speculation that Satie may have been gay, based on his circle of friends. Tomie dePaola's Bonjour Mr. Satie is an older picture book biography that does hint at Satie's possible relationships with men, but Anderson only mentions one romantic interest, artist and model Suzanne Valadon. "She already had a boyfriend, a lawyer, a very rich man. Satie didn't mind. He invited himself along on their dates. The three of them went together: the clever young artist, the penniless musician, and the wealthy young man, who was very, very irritated. When they went to the theatre, Satie hired two boys to walk in front of them, banging drums." I laughed out loud at the illustration for this.

Children may want to hear some of Satie's music after reading the biography. Anderson recommends starting with one of his most famous piano pieces, the Gymnopedies. Grade 1 - 6.

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection selected by Michael Rosen

This is an ambitious collection of poetry from over 30 poets (mostly male) who wrote in English between the 17th century and the mid-twentieth century. They range from Shakespeare to Yeats to African-American Langston Hughes to Australian Judith Wright. It is an introduction aimed at children in elementary school with lovely illustrations by Paul Howard. I thought some of the poems, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan and Lord Byron's The Destruction of Sennacherib were rather difficult for a young age group, but adults reading to children can answer questions that arise. Sharing will bring pleasure for all ages. I was glad to come across favourites like Blake's "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright"; Browning's "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"; Poe's "To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells" (I adore the rhythm in that!); Lear's The Jumblies; Rossetti's "Who has seen the wind? / Neither I nor you"; Carroll's "How doth the little crocodile"; Wilcox's "Laugh, and the world laughs with you, / Weep, and you weep alone"; and Frost's "But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep." A grounding in classic poetry will also help children to get full enjoyment from other English literature, right up into and through their adult lives, since so many writers are inspired by these works.

Flashcards of My Life by Charise Mericle Harper

I was curious about Flashcards of My Life because it is on the list of the 10 most challenged books of 2008 in the U.S.A. The reason given is that it is "sexually explicit and unsuited to age group," so this is what I was looking for as I read. It is a funny diary (home life, school, negotiating friendships and crushes) told in the voice of Emily, who is in about Grade 7. Her words are embellished with little cartoons along the lines of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The audience for Harper's novel is girls in about Grades 5 - 8 who like the tween chick lit genre.

I didn't find anything objectionable, but these are the parts that some adults may have found unsuitable:

1. Emily's mother has a "soul-mate friend." "Aunt Chester is not her real name. It's Emily, like mine, but in high school her bazoombas suddenly inflated 'like a life raft off a sinking ship' - Dad's saying - and the name just stuck." Later, we learn that Emily's mother's missing earrings once turned up under Aunt Chester's bed. So, mention of breasts and - very big stretch - possibly a lesbian relationship between the two women. But Emily's parents are still together and Aunt Chester moved to another town four years earlier.

2. Emily's gym teacher, Ms. Clark is "tall, very pretty, and maybe a lesbian. She has a photo on her desk of her and another woman posing in front of the Eiffel Tower." When the students ask about who she is, they are told she is her roommate. "Janelle tried to start a whole Ms. Clark-is-a-weirdo-lesbian rumor, but Carol put a stop to it right away. Carol said that she thought lesbians were cool and that anyone who made fun of them was shallow and a discriminator." Emily writes, "If I were a lesbian I'd pick a girlfriend who was exactly my size so we could share clothes. Maybe that's why Ms. Clark has such an amazing wardrobe." A positive portrayal of lesbians, no matter how minor the character, is a red flag for some people.

3. Emily recounts the time she and her best friend, Sandra, spied on Sandra's older sister by looking into her bedroom from the garage roof while their parents were out of town. "It was uncomfortable weird - Claire had all her clothes off except her underpants, and Brad wasn't wearing his shirt. Sandra just freaked out! She jumped off the garage like a superhero and ran into the house shouting Claire's name. We waited for them in the living room. Claire seemed really nervous, and Brad didn't even look at us; he just left." This hint of sexual behaviour between older teens seems mild enough for readers as young as 9 or 10.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

"I was born with a light covering of fur." This is the first thing Micah Wilkins tells us about herself. Then: "My father is a liar and so am I." Her father is Black, her mother is White and she is in her final year of high school in New York City. Her relatives are reclusive hillbilly-types living in the backwoods and Micah has inherited the "family illness." She spends her summers with them, "running free." She is incredibly fast on her feet - but she keeps this a secret in the city. Her sense of smell and her hearing are unnaturally keen.

From the opening sentence, I guessed that Micah was a werewolf, although she doesn't get around to admitting it until page 171. It's an excellent reason for being a good liar - and therefore an unreliable narrator. The tension in this suspenseful story lies in untangling the truth from Micah's version of the events surrounding the death of her boyfriend. I was in the grip of her words right through to the end. Grade 9 - adult.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray

The Ostrich Boys are three British fifteen-year-olds who don't know how to grieve the loss of the fourth member of their group, Ross, who was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. They do know that the funeral they attended for Ross did not satisfy their needs and so they decide to do their own funeral for him. They decide that a tiny place in Scotland called Ross is the perfect place to hold the event. None of them had been there before, but Ross had always talked about going there to find himself; to be Ross in Ross. And so they steal the urn of Ross's ashes from his family and hop on a train. That is the start of their adventures... and misadventures. A road trip funeral with much learning along the way about the importance of friendship.

Excerpt: "Not so long ago we'd simply dismissed girls for their inability to achieve boyhood. How awful, we used to think, it must be not to be a boy. Nowadays, of course, women were magnetic - always making us want to point North." It's a treat to come across a great book for guys. Grades 8-12.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan

The Bonesetter's Daughter is told in three parts: present day San Francisco; a small village in China pre-1940; and then back to present day U.S.A.

Ruth's mother, LuLing, was born in China and raised by a horribly disfigured nursemaid called Precious Auntie. There is a mystery surrounding the identity of LuLing's mother. LuLing's husband died young, so it was just Ruth and her mother in her family as she grew up. As an adult, Ruth has great difficulty negotiating intimate relationships. She has lived with a divorced man and his two teenaged daughters for 10 years, but still doesn't feel like she belongs there. Meanwhile, she worries about her mother, who is developing Alzheimer's. LuLing and Ruth are both complex, interesting women.

The first two parts were excellent but the final part seemed rushed and everything gets resolved into an unrealistically happy ending. Still, I would recommend this to women who enjoy reading about mother-daughter relationships. That is definitely Amy Tan's greatest strength.

You'll Never Know: A Graphic Memoir by C. Tyler. Book One: A Good and Decent Man

This bittersweet memoir told in comic strips explores the way events in history continue to have repercussions. Carol Tyler's father was a young American soldier who fought in World War II. He was taciturn, prone to sudden rages and would never talk about his experiences there. Carol was born in about 1950, grew up surrounded by siblings, attended Catholic schools, married, moved far away, had a daughter, split up with her husband - all the normal stuff. What is remarkable is her honest examination of her own life and how it was shaped by her family, as well as her determination to delve into the emotional scars of her father's past. It wasn't until he was in his nineties that stories about war suddenly began to pour out of him. Something awful happened in Italy, but we still don't know what it was by the end of book one.

Usually I include a cover image from a graphic novel in order to give an idea of the art style. This time I've chosen one of Tyler's story panels because I could identify so strongly with it; the period in my life when I cried every time I went into a church.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe

The French artists who dared to paint in an entirely new way in the late nineteenth century were scorned by the arts establishment. Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Morisot and others struggled to make money through their art. Their work was rarely accepted into the yearly Paris Salon, the main venue for exhibition and sales in France.

The parts I enjoyed most in this rather dry and lengthy collective biography were the quotes from art critiques and cartoonists of the period. When one of Manet's portraits of Berthe Morisot, Repose, was displayed in the Salon, it was ridiculed with "derogatory captions that played on Manet's depictions of Berthe's darkness and disarray: A Lady Resting after Sweeping the Chimney; Seasickness; The Goddess of Slovenliness."

A small number of colour plates are bound into the book, which is helpful, but I found myself googling many more images that were not included. (See here for an online image of Repose.) Roe portrayed all of the artists in their very best light, which seemed rather unrealistic to me, but I gleaned interesting information from this book and will look elsewhere for the down and dirty.

The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous Sisters; two books by Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, has also published a couple of unusual books that are a cross between graphic novels, picture books (for adults) and art books. Niffenegger herself calls The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous Sisters "visual novels," while the publisher has added stickers to the covers identifying them as "novels in pictures." They consist of a series of aquatint etchings with a very small amount of text on the facing pages. The illustrations pretty much carry the narrative on their own, with the text supplying names for the protagonists and such.

The Adventuress is about an unlucky young woman who is rather blown about by the winds of fate: created by her alchemist father, stolen away by an evil baron and then forced to marry. But she has spunk and surprising inner resources, so this is only the beginning of her adventures. The story is surreal, the images engaging and the total effect is magical.

The Three Incestuous Sisters is more of a melodrama: two sisters in love with the same man, a number of tragic deaths and then a happy ending. One sister can levitate and mentally commune with her unborn nephew (who will be born with wings), so expect some dream-like sequences here too. The aquatints are truly fabulous. This kind of printmaking takes a lot of time; Niffenegger spent 14 years creating this book. It only takes a short time to read, but the images can be enjoyed over and over. See more of her work at her website.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada by Robert Bringhurst

Robert Bringhurst was at two of the events that I attended at the Vancouver writers festival. I was not impressed with him at the first one, "The Look of the Book," where he sat hunched in such a way as to be facing away from the rest of the panel and the audience, usually not looking at the images of the other authors' works on screen and giving curmudgeonly one-word answers to questions.

Seth, Anik See and Audrey Niffenegger were the other panelists. Their contributions were lively and thoughtful. I'll write about them in future blog posts.

My friend Merle kindly loaned me two of her books by Bringhurst after I blogged about The Elements of Typographic Style: they are The Surface of Meaning and The Solid Form of Language. The latter is an essay about the written forms of world languages and the special challenges inherent in recording sound and meaning in a visual form. It is a tiny, beautifully-made book with such a tactile dust jacket that I would say I liked the look of this book better than the contents, which are a bit too academic for me.

The Surface of Meaning, on the other hand, is very accessible and mostly consists of illustrations. It is a large book with glossy, heavy clay paper to reproduce the images as well as possible. I was particularly intrigued by Bringhurst's prologue, in which he argues that books are not necessarily physical objects. "In oral cultures, books are invisible - but in every healthy and mature oral culture, books are present. Oral books that occupy no shelf space can and do unfold to epic size in storytellers' voices - and can retain that size, and that complexity, in a thoughtful listener's mind."

I happened to come across an essay by William H. Glass (In Defense of the Book; Harper's Magazine; November 1999) this past week and he says a similar thing about books: "every real book (as opposed to dictionaries, almanacs and other compilations) is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness. Together they compose a civilization, or even several."

I was pleased that Bringhurst brought up this alternate definition of books at the festival, but the other authors were quick to disagree with him when he pronounced that neither a telephone directory nor a catalogue of paintings are books. It might have been after this interaction that Bringhurst partially withdrew from the remainder of the evening's discussion; I can't remember. Anyway, Bringhurst was also in the Saturday evening "Poetry Bash" and his poems and delivery were outstanding, so he totally redeemed himself in my eyes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

I've just returned to Edmonton after a week at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival and I'm way behind in blogging about the books I've been reading but WOW, what a great time I had!

Annabel Lyon was in a panel called "Playing with Real People," along with Thomas Trofimuk (Waiting for Columbus) and Kate Braid (A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems). I had taken note of the hype surrounding Lyon's novel; it was hard not to, since it is a finalist for the Giller, the Governor General and the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. It is told in the voice of Aristotle and covers a time period from about 343 to 350 B.C.E. I enjoy historical fiction, but I was put off recently by my strong disappointment with Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (a retelling of Virgil's Aeneid) and so I was purposefully avoiding The Golden Mean. Big mistake!

After listening to Lyon read an excerpt from her new novel, I was totally hooked. I read it yesterday. I loved it.

There's a lot of action, what with Philip of Macedon intent on world domination and grooming his psychopathic son, Alexander to follow in his footsteps, while Aristotle, as Alexander's tutor, tries to shape the boy's ethics and brilliant mind. My pleasure in reading this book is explained by Alexander, talking to Aristotle: "That's the point of the literary arts, surely. You can convey ideas in an accessible way, and in a way that makes the reader or the viewer feel what is being told rather than just hear it." Just so. The characterization is richly rewarding. The setting feels real. The language is beautiful. The Golden Mean has all four of Nancy Pearl's doorways into reading.

The final line from The Golden Mean is: "Can anyone tell me what a tragedy is?" It would have been tragic if I'd missed out on reading this. I'm glad I'm not a Giller judge having to choose between this and Anne Michael's The Winter Vault. If you want to guess the winner, by the way, there's a contest.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

If you haven't read any Shaun Tan yet, what is wrong with you? The Arrival is a masterpiece for readers of all ages. Like The Arrival, Tales from Outer Suburbia is fabulous and stands up to extensive rereading, spending time examining the details of his illustrations. A good example is the title page spread, showing a woman rowing a boat through the air down a suburban street, a tiny rain cloud watering her potted plants, while a man watering his yellow lawn with a hose watches her. One of the mailboxes along the street is a birdhouse. In the newspaper stories in the background of another story, ('The Amnesia Machine'), there are entertaining bits: "Locals are warned not to approach the pink flamingo, which is considered by the authorities to be 'highly dangerous' in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. 'It's only a matter of time before it kills a small child,' said one resident too afraid to be named."

Unlike The Arrival, Tales is not a wordless book. The stories in Tales are all brief, however, sometimes less than a page of text. Water buffalo hang out in vacant lots and give advice. Exchange students come in bizarre shapes and sizes, like Eric, who is paper-thin and about ankle-height to a human. Gifts are given to a rooftop reindeer on the nameless holiday. Hidden rooms can contain paradise gardens. Backyard missiles become part of the suburban landscape. Surrealism for everyone; Grade 4 to adult.

The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens

Mary Gooch swore she would kill herself if she ever got over 300 pounds. It happens. She doesn't. On the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary, Mary's husband disappears. Her adventure begins when she decides to go looking for him, leaving her hermit-like existence in tiny Leaford, Ontario and travelling to Los Angeles. She discovers much about herself, not least of which is courage. I liked Mary very much, rooting for her all the way.

It is a good thing that I chose this book based on positive reviews because I never would have picked it up based on the cover. The Canadian edition shows an empty box of chocolates; it screams chick lit. I read it in one day, but did not feel like I had overindulged. The story is supremely satisfying, leaving some leftovers to chew on another day.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff's teen novels have all been quite different from each other, although they are all coming-of-age stories. How I Live Now is a page-turner transgressive love story set in the near future, in an England occupied by an invading army. Just In Case is a hilarious, present-day story with touches of surrealism about trying to outwit one's destiny. What I Was feels timeless and is told from our near future about a time in our near past; a leisurely exploration of friendship and identity that highlights the difference between perception and reality.

Rosoff's latest is a dashing mix of adventure and romance set in the mid-nineteenth century English countryside. Pell Ridley, eldest of a family of 10 children, flees home on the morning of her wedding day, accompanied by her mute brother, Bean, the youngest. The tale is of a plucky heroine, getting by on her wits, determination and hard labour. The adults, usually absent in Rosoff's books, are plentiful here, but do not fare well. They are untrustworthy, if not unsavoury, and even the best of them, an old Romani woman, has her own mysterious ulterior motives for helping Pell.

The Bride's Farewell will appeal to a broad cross-section of female teen readers (and probably adults too); fans of historical romance, horse stories and even fantasy - the low-technology, small town and rural setting brings Tamora Pierce's books to mind - and, of course, there is the appeal of a spirited and capable girl-adventurer. Grade 6 and up.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pigeon by Karen Solie

I don't usually blog about the books of poetry that I read unless they form a verse novel. The reason is that I don't know what to say about poetry. I like reading poetry, but don't feel smart enough to write about it. This post is an attempt to conquer that feeling of inadequacy.

The very first poem in Pigeon, called Pathology of the Senses, stumped me. I liked the science words - phospholipase, eutrophic, caducous - but couldn't grasp what the whole thing was about. I handed it over to my sweetie, a poet and wordsmith extraordinaire, and she handed it right back to me, turned off by the first word of the poem, oligotrophic. Solie includes the meanings of these specialized words right in her poem, so that was not the problem for me. My friend Amy was more helpful. She read it and told me it was all about feeling the summer heat and humidity of an urban lakeshore in Ontario... and a tryst. Ahh! I've read that poem a few more times and I really get it now.

The rest of the book took no effort at all, so it is maybe a mistake to have Pathology of the Senses appearing first. But maybe that's just me. There are poems that I read over and over because I loved them so much: The World of Plants; Migration; Geranium. I took the book to my friends' house when I was invited there for thanksgiving dinner so that I could read the poem Tractor, in honour of the farmers who grow our food. Four Factories is about industrialization in Alberta; a poet describing the chemical plants in the east end of Edmonton deserves accolades for that alone. In Air Show, Solie echoes my own sentiments about the folly of this so-called entertainment: "celebrating / car alarms, panic attacks, canine / episodes, migraines, / childhood hearing loss / and it's free, an added bonus / of the CNE." There's also a great narrative poem, Archive, set on the High Level Bridge in Edmonton.

The blurb on the back of the book describes Solie as a "sublime singer of existential bewilderment." That says it better than I ever could.

Muskat Will Be Swimming by Cheryl Savageau

A sweet, gentle story to help children cope with name-calling. The setting is a lake in northeastern U.S.A and the young protagonist, Jeannie, is a modern American Indian. The kids at school call her and the other Indians who live at the lakeshore "Lake Rats." Jeannie's grandfather tells her a traditional Seneca tale about the role muskrat played when Skywoman came to Earth. Rich watercolour illustrations by Robert Hynes. Grades 1 - 4.

Inward to the Bones: Georgia O'Keeffe's Journey with Emily Carr by Kate Braid

In 1930, Emily Carr and Georgia O'Keeffe met at an O'Keeffe exhibition in New York. Canadian poet Kate Braid wonders what would have happened if these women had become friends and visited each other in New Mexico and Vancouver Island. The result is a fictional account of a dynamic friendship between two iconoclasts in the male-dominated world of fine art, told in a series of original poems by Braid and brief excerpts from O'Keeffe's writings.

I found the first part, Solo, a bit slow - it is the background of O'Keeffe's life up to 1930 - but the momentum picked up once the friendship - the fictional part - began. At Ghost Ranch, O'Keeffe complains that Carr can see no other colour but green: "Her eyes drip curtains of tree colour." O'Keeffe, on the other hand, sees "the bones of hills / They shimmer in the heat - / amethyst, ivory and flame." When O'Keeffe goes with Carr to paint in Tofino, the rain almost drives her mad: "In this country, by day I sip the air / and by night I float." Yet she admires the visceral drive to create that fuels Carr's emotional work: "I am brittle and thin, starving / for what feeds her."

The afterword is a quote from O'Keeffe: "Art is a wicked thing. It is what we are." A perfect end for this verse novel and an excellent summation of why art is so important to all of us.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Generation A by Douglas Coupland

In Coupland's future, bees have gone extinct. Human diets have changed quite a bit, since so many plants depend upon bees for pollination. Hand-pollinated apples command exorbitant prices, when they are even available. People eat a lot of potatoes and wind-pollinated plants like corn.

Except that corn has its own problems. We are introduced to Zack in his Iowa cornfield, driving Maizie, "a harvester so luxurious it could shame a gay cruise liner." Zack's concern is not harvesting efficiency because "the whole crop was contaminated with some kind of gene trace that was killing off not bees (a thing of the past) but moths and wasps." So he is creating a ten-acre masterpiece design chopped out of cornstalks, using real-time satellite feeds to keep track of his work. And then he is stung by a bee.

Four other people around the world get stung shortly afterwards: Harj in Sri Lanka; Julien in Paris; Diana in North Bay, Ontario; and Samantha in Palmerston North, New Zealand. I was tickled to see that Coupland used kiwi slang when he was writing in Samantha's voice - 'Palmy' for the name of her town, and 'crikey dick' to express her exasperation. The five end up in a remote location together, being studied. They are one of the Haida Gwaii islands, in the temperate rain forest of British Columbia. "Within that forest, from all directions - up, down and sideways - life squished out like a Play-Doh Fun Factory."

A clue is given early on as to what might be happening to the five stingees, when a French scientist tells Julien (regarding the human frontal lobe not yet being completely developed at his age, 22): "nature gives young people fluid personalities because society would otherwise never get soldiers to fight its wars. Young people are still capable of being tricked by idiotic ideas."

Coupland covers some of the same ground as Margaret Atwood in The Year of the Flood: the natural world gone awry with scientific tinkering and a drug that is globally popular. His humour is more ebullient than Atwood's, however. I giggled often while reading. When Samantha returns home after having been in isolation for weeks, she says, "A reunion is always nice, so please insert some generic welcome-home family greetings here." (I think Coupland stole that idea from Nicole Brossard in Yesterday at the Hotel Clarendon, but it was way funnier in Coupland's version.)

The title comes from a university commencement address given by Kurt Vonnegut in 1994. "Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all such tremendous favours when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the very end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago."

The first part of Generation A is definitely the strongest. I was not sure how I felt about the ending, so I've taken a few days (reading five other books) to think about it before blogging. I've decided I like it in its entirety. Please feel free to offer your comments.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Your World... And Welcome to It: A Rogue's Gallery of Interior Design by Patrick Mauries

Fashion designer Christian Lacroix has done the illustrations for this cheeky satire of home decor from the 60s through the 80s. Mauries' witty essays on styles like Disco Deco, Lofty Aspirations, Minimalism to the Max and Shabby Chic don't appear to have lost much in their translation from French to English.

Regarding the Shaker esthetic: "Everything the average home of today needs - spinning wheels, wooden brooms, farm tools - were suddenly transformed into works of art by the Good Fairy of Utility, who works only in cherrywood or pear." I googled unfamiliar names as I came across them. For example, in Sure-Fire Chic, ("They limit their palette to a range that can't miss: gray, beige, gray-beige, white, and the mother of all colors - black") Eileen Gray rugs and Reitveld chairs were mentioned. I image googled and discovered that I recognized their work, only not by name. So, between the entertaining words and whimsical drawings and the impromptu bit of design education via the internet that it spawned, I had a great time with this book.

Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas

Anke is fourteen, the youngest in her family. Her father is violently abusive to her older brother and sister and to her mother, but he ignores her. Anke feels like a powerless bystander, even while defying her father behind his back, playing volleyball against his wishes. Anke's confidence and courage grow along with her ability on the volleyball court. Is she strong enough to take action against her father?

This story is told in poems, so it is a very quick read. Read-alikes: Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin; Burned by Ellen Hopkins; When She Hollers by Cynthia Voight and Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Weiss. Grade 7 - up.

The Rose Grower by Michelle de Kretser

It isn't often that I give up on a book partway through, but that's what happened in this case. (I made it to page 80.) I liked another of de Kretser's books - The Hamilton Case - which was set in historical Sri Lanka. The Rose Grower is set in Gascony during the time of the French Revolution. Earlier this year, I spent three weeks hiking through the same places mentioned in the novel, so that was another appeal factor for me. Plus, there is Sophie, the rose grower of the title, who is a passionate gardener, determined to breed a dark red repeat-blooming rose. Botany and gardening hook me every time.

Except for this time. It isn't a bad book, it just isn't the book for me, right now. It's about an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times - and times are about to get even harder, with the revolt of the peasants imminent. There are three daughters: Claire, Sophie and Mathilde. An American artist, Stephen, crashes his hot air balloon near their estate and then falls in love with Claire, the beautiful one, and she returns the attraction, although she is already married (to a brute who isn't around much). Sophie pines for Stephen's attention while a local doctor, Joseph, is secretly pining for Sophie. Ho hum. All that mushy, unrequited love stuff turned me off and I found I didn't care about the characters at all. Except for Mathilde, the youngest, who quotes Rousseau and is leaning towards vegetarianism.

I would recommend this to readers who like Jane Austen.