Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger

A tale of teen brothers respectively wooing the girl and boy of their dreams.
An examination of the definition of family.
A joyride through love and hope and friendships in Brookline, Massachusetts.

As camp as a row of tents, this novel starts out strong and zips right along with journal entries, email, IM and other alternative text presentations. Every single character, even the minor ones, are larger than life.

TC is handsome, charming, loyal and caring. He is politically active and gets a 98 average at school when he doesn't purposefully keep it down to B+. TC's brother Augie is adorably cute and a total stage queen, performing old musical numbers right and left. (This was almost too much for me, except that the author blurb mentions that Kluger had always seen himself as the next Ethel Merman, and so I forgave him for making Augie over-the-top.) Alejandra is a top student AND she excels at song and dance AND her best friend is an agent of the US Secret Service. You get the picture.

Lots of fun. Give this to readers who like Alex Sanchez, David Levithan and James St. James.

Note added Dec. 24/09: My Most Excellent Year has won the inaugural Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. The finalists were all books that I loved: After Tupac and D Foster (Jacqueline Woodson); Graceling (Kristin Cashore); The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman); and Me, the Missing, and the Dead [also titled Finding Violet Park] (Jenny Valentine).

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konigsburg

Eleanor of Aquitaine died on April 1, 1204 - which is 705 years ago, almost to the day. She was born in 1124 and was a very wealthy and powerful woman. Shortly after her father died, at the age of 15, she married the son and heir of King Louis VI. Louis VI died within two weeks of the marriage, and so Eleanor became Queen of France when her husband was declared King Louis VII. 15 years later, their marriage was annulled and Eleanor married Henry, the Duke of Normandy. Two years later, Henry's father died and Eleanor became Queen of England when her husband was declared King Henry the second. He later imprisoned Eleanor for more than 15 years because she supported their sons' revolt against their father. Quite an interesting life!

This book was published in 1973 and I picked it up because I was looking for a quick history of the area where I'll be travelling next month; the Dordogne was once a part of Aquitaine. It suited that purpose just fine. The main readers for this book, however, are in Grades 6 to 8. Crusades and knights and jealous princes and boys who go to war against their father should provide plenty of draw for boys, while girls will also enjoy reading the exploits of feisty Eleanor.

The conceit of the novel is that Eleanor and some other people from her lifetime are sitting around heaven in the late twentieth century, waiting to hear if her second husband Henry will finally be admitted to join them in heaven or not. That was a bit cheesy, but it did allow for a humorous fantasy element to intermittently lighten the historical account.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Earth Then and Now by Fred Pearce

Current photos of places around the world are printed side-by-side with earlier photos of the same location. The changes are due to such things as urbanization, war, forces of nature and climate change.

It is quite fascinating, even though most of the changes are depressing. Fishing ships rust on desert sand, 100 km from the current shore of the Aral Sea. This has happened because the two rivers that fed this inland sea have been diverted to irrigating fields of cotton. A few changes are nice to see, like the clearer air over Mexico City after 20 years of concerted effort to reduce smog.

There is just enough text to give context; most of this book is pictorial.

How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham

Australian author and illustrator Bob Graham has created a gentle, yet powerful, homage to compassion.

A pigeon hits the glass of a skyscraper and falls to the ground, where crowds of people pass without noticing, until a small child convinces his mother to help. They take the bird home to nurse it while its injuries heal, then release it when it can fly again.

The story is told in few words and, indeed, is easily understood without reading any of them. The watercolour illustrations are presented in comic-style panels; somber colours for the city streets and city folks, bright red jacket and blue trousers for the child, who is also bathed in yellow light.

The artwork rewards careful observation. The people in the crowds all look like individuals: two boys admire a parked motorcycle, a man blows his nose, an elderly pair assist each other, a couple of gay men carry an art portfolio, someone looks at his watch, and several women are wearing jilbabs and scarves. In the child's home, animal imagery can be found everywhere - pictures, stuffed toys, the calendar on the wall.

A deeper layer is added when the reader notices that the newspaper used to line the pigeon's box has a picture of an army tank on the front page. In a cosy, nighttime scene, as the family tends to the bird, they are illuminated by the light of the television showing three fighter jets flying above broken walls and buildings. Three swallows form a wall decoration above the tv. Sitting on the tv is a toy boat, slightly askew, containing two human figures and a mouse.

The message of hope is a balm for readers of all ages.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Books for First Nations Men Who Are Non-Readers

I compiled this list of suggestions for my sister who is teaching GED English to a group of First Nations men in Whitehorse. Their competency level at the start of the program varied from Grade 2 to Grade 9.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie

Skeleton Man - Joseph Bruchac
- very short, suspenseful, based on Abenaki legend

The Lesser Blessed - Richard Van Camp
- short, realistic, gritty, tragic and funny, Tlicho First Nation, set in NWT

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J.K. Rowling
- has name recognition as well as being a captivating story

The Life of Pi - Yann Martel
- Grade 4 or 5 reading level but adult interest
- adventure and survival story

Drive - James Sallis
- 158 pages, short sentences, gritty suspense, crime, stunt driving

The Rez Sisters - Tomson Highway
Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing - Tomson Highway
- plays; dialogue is appealing for beginning readers
- First Nation northern settings

Life in Prison - Stanley Tookie Williams
- sentenced to life in prison, murderer became antigang activist
- 80 pages; many photos

To read parts aloud:

The X-Indian Chronicles - Thomas Yeapau
- Kiowa; four young male American Indians caught between two cultures
- raunchy and funny; interlinked short stories; blend of realism and mythology
- read the story about the powow fancydance competition (against Elvis!)

Me Funny - Drew Hayden Taylor
- "blue-eyed Ojibway" (part-Native) author
- essays on humour in Aboriginal culture
- other works by Taylor are also recommended

Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science - John Fleischman

The Gathering: Stones for the Medicine Wheel - Gregory Scofield
- Metis; other poetry by Scofield is good too
- also his biography Thunder Through My Veins

Dreadfulwater Shows Up - Hartley Goodweather (alias Thomas King)
- funny murder mystery set on reservation in midwestern U.S.

Fool's Crow - James Welch

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence and Teenagers on Death Row - Susan Kuklin

Other books and reading materials to have for silent reading time:

Guiness Book of Records
Bat Boy Lives - David Perel (The best of the World Weekly News)
Robert Service poems
Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
Shaman's Nephew: A Life in the Far North - Simon Tookoome
Porcupines and China Dolls - Robert Alexie (Teetl'it Gwich'in from NWT)
Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden
Tuesdays with Morrie - Mitch Albom
Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond - Joseph Medicine Crow
Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 - Mike Capuzzo (be sure to get the simplified edition that has more illustrations; i.e. ISBN 0375822313)
Some non-fiction about animals, especially dogs; maybe a dog owner's vet handbook

Agatha Christie
Raymond Chandler
Stephen King
Thomas King
Dean Koontz
Robert Ludlum

COMICS: Archie, X-Men etc.

National Geographic
Canadian Geographic
ESPN sports (better than Sports Illustrated)
Car & Driver
Popular Science
some hunting & fishing magazines

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown. Prentisstown is a colony of religious settlers from planet Earth. Something has happened to all of the women; there are none. Something on this planet has also affected the men and boys; they can all hear what each other is thinking... including animals. The effect of this is chaotic and it is called Noise.

"The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say." Todd's dog, Manchee, was a gift for his twelfth birthday. Todd would much rather have gotten something useful, like a knife.

Todd is one month away from his thirteenth birthday, and his manhood ceremony, when he discovers a new person in the marsh outside of town. This event soon leads to a run for his life and Todd learns that much of what he thought he knew was lies.

I read this in one sitting -- it's the kind of book that doesn't let you go. Be prepared for a cliff-hanger ending. Book 2 of Chaos Walking, The Ask and the Answer, is to be published in Canada later this year.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Savvy by Ingrid Law

Mississippi "Mibs" Beaumont has spent much time wondering what her savvy will be when she turns 13. Her older brothers discovered thrilling powers on their thirteenth birthdays; one can conduct electricity and another causes stormy weather. Mibs has high hopes. If she's lucky, she might be able to turn the nasty girls at school into slimy green frogs or else glue their mouths shut with the nod of her head.

But Mibs' birthday does not go according to plan and her savvy surprises everyone. A good clean magic-powers story for students in Grades 5 through 7. Church-goers will feel especially welcome in this book.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sea of Poppies by Amitar Ghosh

Zachary Reid, a free Black man in Baltimore, signed up as a carpenter on a former slave ship, the Ibis. By the time the ship had reached Calcutta, Zachary's status had risen to second mate and he was the only original crew member still on board. In 1838, the British had been making huge profits on the opium they controlled in India, but their markets in China were drying up, so another cargo was found for the unlucky Ibis.

Sea of Poppies is a mesmerizing saga that follows the many lives that cross the deck of the Ibis as it carries a cargo of indentured labourers bound for former slave plantations in Mauritius.

Amitar Ghosh wields words with much flair, drawing on seafaring slang, historical spellings and anglicized Hindustani. At times I felt like I was reading Jabberwocky, so frequent were the unfamiliar terms, and yet there was always enough context to grasp intent, if not exact meaning.

"This mate was from Macao, and as chuckmuck a rascal as ever you'll see: eyes as bright as muggerbees, smile like a xeraphim." (p. 192) "Hitching up her skirts, Paulette bolted away, glad to see that there was no one within earshot except a passing chobdar, two hurrying farrashes, three mussack-laden beasties, two chisel-wielding maistries, and a team of flower-bearing malis." (p. 229) "Ever since he lost his wife every larkin in town's been trying to bundo him. I can tell you, dear, there's a paltan of mems who'd give their last anna to be in your jooties." (p. 251)

If you want another taste, here is the description of a feast in the Calcutta home of Mr. Burnham, new owner of the Ibis: "There was green turtle soup, served artfully in the animals' shells, a Bobotie pie, a dumbpoke of muttongosht, a tureen of Burdwaun stew, concocted from boiled hens and pickled oysters, a foogath of venison, a dish of pomfrets soused in vinegar and sprinkled with petersilly, a Vinthaleaux of beef, with all the accompaniments, and platters of tiny roasted ortolans and pigeons with the birds set out in the arrowhead shapes of flocks in flight." (p. 232) Phew!

Take a trip back in time with some fascinating folk.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston

"Here is a story that's stranger than strange.
Before we begin you may want to arrange:
a blanket,
a cushion,
a comfortable seat,
and maybe some cocoa and something to eat."

Katrina Katrell escapes from her evil guardian, Mrs. Kabrone, in order to avoid having the "naughty bits" cut out of her brain by an equally evil surgeon, Doctor LeFang. She joins Morty Yorgle in his search for the missing zorgles of Zorgamazoo, encountering unusual beasts along the way, such a windigo:

"The creature was big. No, bigger than big,
and covered with hair like a velvety wig.
It had sinewy arms and a generous shape,
resembling some sort of unusual ape.
Its shoulders were sloped. Its knuckles were long.
It might well have come from the Kingdom of Kong."

A wacky adventure told entirely in rhyming couplets. What fun! Great for reading out loud. Will appeal to young fans of Lemony Snicket.

Headlong by Kathe Koja

Lily has attended posh Vaughn school since pre-kindergarten. In her sophomore year, Lily's rebellion against being a perfect student and perfect daughter coincides with meeting Hazel, a new student at the school. The two girls plunge headlong into friendship as they test the limits of their emerging selves.

Lily's first person narration is occasionally interspersed with the perspective of various adults from her world, effecting a more balanced view for the reader. The boarding school setting with its cliques and pranking brings other teen novels to mind, like The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and Looking for Alaska. Recommended.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Valmiki's Daughter by Shani Mootoo

Valmiki Krishnu is a respected medical doctor with a charming wife and two daughters. Viveka, the eldest, is studying English at university. Vashti is in high school. They live in a wealthy subdivision in Trinidad and, to outside appearances, are very much like the upper-class Indo-Trinidadians that make up their social circle.

Like the caged birds that Valmiki keeps, however, the Krishnus are trapped by the bars of their rigid community. Valmiki juggles his need for his longtime male lover, Saul, with his need for discretion in a place where eyes are everywhere. Several times in the course of the story, individuals experience very personal moments and then realize, shortly afterwards, that someone has been observing them. The small island country appears to offer no safety for those who do not fit into a stifling norm. Is life worth living if it is to be posing as someone you are not?

Viveka has a growing sense of her lesbianism and her parents are witness to her feelings. Valmiki wants his daughter to make better choices than he did, yet he cannot discuss this openly with her, nor with his wife.

It isn't surprising that this novel reminded me from the start of Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, with its focus on the nuances of Indo-Trinidadian society and with Valmiki Krishnu trapped in a life not of his choosing, much like Mohun Biswas. Indeed, Viveka is deeply intrigued by Naipaul's work.

The questions in this novel are not only if Viveka will demonstrate the courage she needs to be true to herself, but what effect that would have on her family if she does. A complex and deeply moving story.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Chess Rumble by G. Neri

The jacket design did not appeal to me, but I opened Chess Rumble and started reading because a) I love verse novel format and b) the book is thin and obviously a quick read and afterwards I would be able to add it to the pile of library stuff to return today.

Eleven-year-old Marcus has a lot to be angry about. His sister died a year ago, then his father deserted his family; his younger twin brothers piss him off every chance they get and his former best buddy is now his worst enemy. In the end, an adult mentor helps Marcus deal with his emotions by engaging his brain in the game of chess.

Neri has an ear for voice and his free verse perfectly captures the idiom and cadence of a young urban narrator. The illustrations by Jesse Joshua Watson nicely complement the text. The artwork is in black and grey with slight touches of tan. After I'd finished the book, I studied the cover again to think about why I didn't like it. I think it is the title itself, since a chess rumble sounds pretty hokey, as well as the weird turquoise/blue colour combination of the title against the orange/black/grey illustration of Marcus with silhouetted boys in the city scene behind him.

This book will appeal to readers in Grades 4 to 6. It is a mystery why the Edmonton Public Library has chosen to classify it as a teen novel.

One Beetle Too Many by Kathryn Lasky

The subtitle of this picture book biography is: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin. I learned new things in this delightful introduction to Darwin's life, like the fact that he was a very poor student.

My favourite anecdote came from late in his life, when in a letter to one of Darwin's adult sons, Darwin's wife Emma wrote: "Father has taken to training earthworms but does not make progress as they can neither see nor hear." The worms in my indoor compost box will not take part in any similar experiments, as I cannot fathom how I would even begin to train them, but the book is inspiring nonetheless.

For reading aloud or for independent readers in K through Grade 6. Children will be entertained by the lively text as well as the amusing artwork by Matthew Trueman.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

Sutter Keely is a fun-loving eighteen-year-old in his final year of high school in Oklahoma City. His policy is to roll with whatever life sends his way, "embracing the weird" and living in the "spectacular now."

Living in the moment is normally a good thing, a zen kind of thing, right? Not the way Sutter does it. His method includes alcohol, starting as soon as he gets up in the morning. He hides from his emotions, shuns responsibility, and is unwilling to face consequences. Still, he's a very likeable guy; he's truthful and kind and always a clown.

With the best of intentions, Sutter takes on a personal project. After recognizing that a fellow student, Aimee, must gain confidence and break free from the stranglehold of her deadbeat family, Sutter decides to help her out. Both Aimee and Sutter undergo big changes in this funny, heartbreaking and tender coming-of-age story. I was sorry to leave these characters at the end of the book.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Coventry by Helen Humphreys

I'm back in Edmonton after 7 weeks in New Zealand and am rather disappointed that there is still so much snow here. On the bright side, 9 books were waiting on hold for me at the public library -- I can ignore the weather and stay indoors reading, escaping to other places, times and climates.

Helen Humphreys is a Canadian author with a talent for poetic prose and who excels at close examination of human nature. The main story in Coventry takes place on one night: November 14, 1940. Harriet Marsh is volunteering as a fire warden, standing on the roof of the cathedral, where she meets another fire warden, Jeremy Fisher. He is about 20 years younger than Harriet and reminds her very much of her husband who died in WW I. Harriet and Jeremy become friends as they share the horrors of an extended bombing raid that destroyed much of the city of Coventry.

This short (175 pages) novel closely resembles one of Humphreys' previous works, The Lost Garden. It also has many similarities to Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, including the British WW II setting, the focus on individual lives affected by extraordinary times, and the shifts in time period. (These shifts are mostly parenthetical in Coventry, giving the reader some backstory and epilogue.) I wish I could add the similarity of lesbian content, but in typical Humphreys style, there is only lesbian subtext. Nevertheless, this book is a gem.