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.