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.