Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Smoked: A Detective Lane Mystery by Garry Ryan

This is the fourth in a mystery series featuring a gay police detective in Calgary. Detectives Lane and Harper investigate a missing person, a 21-year-old dental assistant named Jennifer Towers. Her body is later found in a dumpster that had been graffiti-tagged with her name. Jennifer's violent boyfriend is a prime suspect, but there's also something suspicious about the dentistry office where she worked. The two dentists drive new Mercedes but they don't seem to have many patients. Lane and his spouse, Arthur, also have plenty of drama at home, where they are the legal guardians of two troubled teenagers.

It's a character-driven novel with a suspenseful plot; more of a how-will-we-nail-him than a whodoneit. Calgary's multicultural makeup is nicely reflected in the story. Without mentioning Ralph Klein by name, or even the province of Alberta, Ryan includes a dig: "Remember when the premier got drunk and went after those homeless people down at the shelter?" I appreciate details like that.

In the author information, Ryan says the impetus behind the series came from a desire to write a mystery that would highlight the unique spirit and diverse locations of his hometown, Calgary. Kensington, Bowness, Stephen Street Mall, the Bow River and Shaganappi Trail are some of the landmarks I noted, but I'm almost positive that the name "Calgary" doesn't appear anywhere in the book. It's very odd. Even the newspaper announcement about a former Stampeder coming to town omits the city's name.

I guess the first book in this series (Queen's Park) would have made the setting clear, but in other respects, it's entirely possible to enjoy this book - as I did - without having read the first three. Read about the other books on Ryan's site.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Grizzly Manifesto by Jeff Gailus

In his impassioned plea "In Defence of the Great Bear," journalist Jeff Gailus makes the plight of Alberta's endangered grizzlies clear. There are fewer than 700 remaining in Alberta. Logging and the oil industry bring in money to the province - grizzlies do not. Parks Canada appears to be more interested in tourism than in wilderness preservation. Measures to protect bears from traffic on roads and railway tracks could be implemented, but they are not. Housing developments take priority over wildlife corridors.

Greed and politics seem an insurmountable barrier for conservationists, yet Gailus offers the inspirational example of Yellowstone Park, where there were only 200 grizzlies left in 1975. After concerted bear conservationist efforts for 30 years, there are now about 600 grizzlies in the Yellowstone area. Learning more about these magnificent animals is worthwhile and may help to sway their future fate in Canada.

The book design is unusual; a small-format hardcover with a cartoon grizzly on the front, dressed in camouflage vest and hat, wearing aviator sunglasses and holding a rifle. Maybe this (and the camouflage endpapers) will appeal to hunters, who can be significant allies in conservation efforts. I find the image rather off-putting, plus it doesn't connect with the serious nature of the text. Also, the elaborate script font used on the cover and for the chapter headings seems more appropriate for wedding invitations than nature writing. Ignore these, however, and you'll find an informed and spirited manifesto within the covers.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates

In a whimsical picture book that celebrates the joy of reading, we meet a dog who loves books so much that he opens a bookstore. It's not a good business decision - customers are few - but Dog is not daunted for long. He loses himself in books until he has the opportunity to suggest reading material to his first customer, a little girl.

Dog's body language is wondrously expressive. Children too young to read will be able follow the story through Yates' charming watercolour illustrations alone. Preschool to Grade 2.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Snook Alone by Marilyn Nelson and Timothy Basil Ering

Timothy Basil Ering (Finn Throws a Fit) has painted lovely illustrations for this long, free verse picture book about a dog who is separated from his master, a solitary monk named Abba Jacob. The setting is the tropical Mascarene islands, off the southeast coast of Africa. Snook, an adorable rat terrier, must survive alone on the tiny island of Avocaire while waiting for Abba Jacob to return.

I enjoyed Marilyn Nelson's poetic descriptions of the astounding variety of wildlife on Avocaire, especially the seabirds: "fluffy chicks / sitting dumbfounded, / like a field of white teddy bears." The fairy terns "with little fishes dangling from their beaks / like handlebar mustaches." Too often, however, the prose seemed leaden when I wanted it to sing.

The story has four parts, or chapter breaks, indicated with the starting letter decorated something like those in an ancient illustrated manuscript. The third chapter, however, seems to be broken in the wrong place, two page-spreads too late.

In picture books, the illustrations should not contradict the prose unless it is for a special effect. I didn't like that the door to the chapel is open in the image of Abba Jacob praying, when in the text he closed the door. Abba Jacob is wearing a swathed tunic in all of the images, giving a timeless feel to his existence, but the text tells us that he wears a shirt and trousers, pulling a tunic over them when he goes to town. I love the illustrations so much that I resent Nelson's prose for contradicting them, although I recognize that this is unreasonable on my part, since the text was most likely created first. I would like to know more about the collaboration between this author and artist, because I'm puzzled by these flaws.

Preschool to Grade 3.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

This One's Going to Last Forever by Nairne Holtz

Contrary to the optimism of the title, the stories in this collection are mostly about the agonies of being in love. A wry wittiness keeps the tone light through most of the pieces, but there is enough depth to the characters to engage the reader's heart and provoke thoughtful responses. Some of the events and situations are downright serious, such as the massacre of 14 women in Montreal and a couple breaking up after one has her leg amputated.

Lesbians and bisexual women populate all of these stories, which take place in cities from Vancouver to Halifax. Canada's lesbian bars - Huis Clos in Montreal, the Lookout in Ottawa and the Robin's Nest in Cambridge - make appearances. The sex scenes are refreshingly frank; don't expect floral imagery and silken folds.

The very first story, When Gay Is the New Straight, is my favourite. A gay Elvis impersonator operates a drive-through wedding chapel in Sudbury. He's jaded and bitchy, even as he weds his first lesbian couple. "As I watch Nancy slip a silver band over Sylvie's finger, I think, Just Assimilated." Yet the story ends on a hopeful note, as they all do.

Readalikes: For more lesbian short stories, try Touchy Subjects by Emma Donoghue or All the Pretty Girls by Chandra Mayor. If you liked Holtz' novella-length piece, 'Are You Committed?' which makes up Part 2 of the collection, try Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall. Also, check out Holtz' excellent novel, The Skin Beneath, if you haven't already. Link through to Holtz' website to see her extensive online bibliography of Canadian lesbian literature.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fishtailing by Wendy Phillips

Four teens in a Vancouver high school. Miguel is a refugee, survivor of a massacre in Central America. Kyle's passions are music and motorcycles. Tricia is struggling to feel included in her family, where her Japanese half doesn't match her new stepfather - nor her mother nor baby half-sister. Natalie's background of abuse has twisted her in an evil way; she likes to toy with people's lives. Their English teacher, Mrs. Farr, and the school counsellor, Ms. Nishi, watch over them all - but not successfully.

Poems from shifting viewpoints tell this tragic tale. On the first day that Natalie is transferred into the school, she can tell her machinations will be "like shooting fish in a barrel." The plot is gripping. It's like watching a train wreck.

I liked that the teacher was neither good nor bad, just a flawed human making mistakes like the rest of us. She brings a note of humour to the story when she criticizes Kyle's motorcycle dream poem: "you need to be careful of innuendo. You might tone down the more overt sexual references in order to make it suitable for the poetry display board." Kyle's response is a puzzled "sexual references ?"

Verse novels are my special love, which allows me to overlook flaws... but not entirely. I wish the individual teen voices were not so similar to each other - this is always a danger with multiple points of view - although it is easy to tell who is who because of the name at the top (or bottom, if it's an assignment poem) and the font changes. The fish imagery gets a little heavy-handed (and fishtailing a stretch); my taste is for more subtlety. All in all, it's a good book and I think teens who like dark and gritty realism will enjoy it. I wouldn't have picked it as the winner of the Canadian GG Children's Literature award, but I'm glad to see the verse novel format getting recognition.

Readalikes: Any of Ellen Hopkins' verse novels are a natural match, even though they are much longer - Impulse is about a trio of troubled teens; Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James (for the poisonous friendship); and Split Image by Mel Glenn (for a verse novel tragedy in multiple voices exploring the differences between public and private personas).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

1910: Sig is 15 and alone in a cabin with the body of his father, Einar Andersson, who has frozen to death. Big bad Gunther Wolff knocks on the door. 1899: Wolff makes a deal with Andersson. 1910: Wolff won't leave the cabin without his share of gold. He and Sig both have Colt revolvers.

The setting switches back and forth between Giron in 1910 and Nome in 1899. I know where Nome, Alaska is. Giron's location puzzled me. Sedgewick tells us only that it's at 68 latitude north. Reindeer are mentioned. Did the author mean caribou? Or is Giron in Scandinavia or Russia? Later, Sig is about to go outside to get more wood for the fire that's died down. Then Wolff comes and Sig must stay put. Hours later, the fire is still going. This is the kind of thing that really bugs me.

Even so, I'd recommend Revolver to anyone, Grade 7 through to adult, looking for a tightly-written psychological thriller. My brother, a fan of Louis L'Amour and spy novels, would love it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

Bartimaeus of Uruk is a djinni with a penchant for trouble who wise-cracked his way through Stroud's trilogy that began with the Amulet of Samarkand. Readers new to Bartimaeus can jump right in on this fourth book because it takes place in Jerusalem long before the storyline of the first three books.

Bartimaeus is like the class clown of the djinn. Even while a slave to whichever magician summons him, he will find loopholes in the wording of direct orders. He's an irresistible character and narrates his own story with plenty of footnoted asides. When two human protagonists are facing off in a tense situation, for example, he sneaks by while disguised as a fly. In a footnote: "The fly was an optional extra right then. They were so preoccupied I don't think they'd have noticed me if I'd turned into a flatulent unicorn and pirouetted gently across the room." I'm not usually big on potty humour, but it works well here. Bartimaeus is always a delight.

I also enjoyed getting to know the guard Asmira, an admirably clever and courageous young woman who has been charged by the Queen of Sheba to retrieve a powerful ring from King Solomon. Adventure and magic and lots of fun for Grade 6 to adult.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chalk by Bill Thomson

Bill Thomson's wordless picture book, Chalk, is an enchanting flight of fancy for readers of all ages. Three children find a bag of coloured chalk in a playground and the things they draw on the pavement become real. The artwork is hyper-realistic and extremely appealing. I would have guessed that it was computer-generated if not for this note at the back: "Bill Thomson embraced traditional painting techniques and meticulously painted each illustration by hand, using acrylic paint and coloured pencils." Bravo.

Readalikes: Art and Max (or anything else) by David Wiesner and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (or anything else) by Chris Van Allsburg.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wesley the Owl by Stacey O'Brien

The subtitle - The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl - is totally apt. Biologist O'Brien took in a baby barn owl with a nerve-damaged wing, knowing she would need to care for it for the rest of its life. Wesley was four days old when she adopted him in 1985. He was nearly 20 when he died. Their life together is an amazing story.

"Wesley left a mark on almost every item I owned, and I sacrificed more and more of my property to Wesley's whims - clothes, books, papers, blankets, and furniture. I just didn't care about those things and felt like the luckiest person in the world to have him in my life." Only a special kind of person would prepare meals of mice for two decades and live with frequent injuries to her skin from sharp talons... O'Brien clearly loved Wesley very much. She describes his antics and personality so well that I feel like I knew him.

I listened to the Tantor audiobook (7 hours) read by Renee Raudman. It's entertaining and informative. I know all kinds of neat things about Tyto alba now, the only barn owl species that is found in North America. Soren, the main protagonist in the Guardians of Ga'hoole, is also a barn owl, but I confess that I haven't read that series (nor seen the movie). They certainly are a very attractive bird. The audiobook contains two dozen photos in bonus material, which is cool. You can check out some pictures on O'Brien's website.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau

Young Harvey tells of the time in early spring when his father died of a heart attack. He and his little brother Cantin (who is taller than Harvey) raced toothpicks in the gutter after school that day. Harvey draws a dot on his toothpick to represent Scott Carey, the character in the movie The Invisible Man who shrinks so small nobody can see him. When they got home, an ambulance was in front of their house. Later, at the funeral, an uncle lifts Harvey to his shoulders so that he can have one last look at his father in his coffin. The final five wordless double-page spreads show Harvey disappearing.

The story is told through smudgy, delicate illustrations by Janice Nadeau and minimal text by Herve Bouchard. There is a melancholy retro feel to the artwork. In places it becomes abstract, suiting the story perfectly. I liked the subtle repetition of patterns; the village roof tops are echoed by the diamonds on Harvey's father's sweater and these later drift upward (like his essence departing) and then form a starburst with a white void in the middle (perhaps where he's gone into the light).

Harvey won two Governor General awards for French language children's literature last year, one for text and one for art. It was Nadeau's third GG - quite an accomplishment. The book has since been translated, but I haven't seen the English edition yet. I'm curious about the part where Harvey shares his mother's views on the horrors of spring, using the word "maudite" (damn) eleven times.

Harvey was recently the subject of discussion on the Graphic Novel Librarians list. The concerns centered around where this book is best shelved in a library. After reading the book, I'd say that its main audience is children in Grade 4 - 7. A review in CM Magazine recommends it for Grade 3 - 8. Edmonton Public Library has it with the children's books. In the USA, it appears to be going into teen collections. One person recommended that adults are the likely audience, calling this a challenging book. A librarian in a middle school (Grade 5-8) decided this book was entirely unsuitable for their collection, due to "an entire page being devoted to unnecessary language." (Which would be the one full of maudite).

What I found disturbing was a post by another middle school librarian who said they are keeping it behind the desk at her school for at least a year. The reasoning is that a student at the school lost a parent to a heart attack 6 months earlier and they don't want this student to come across the book as he browses the graphic novel shelves. I sincerely hope that someone at that particular library will take the book from behind the counter and book talk it to the bereaved student, giving him the opportunity to share Harvey's sadness. It would likely help any grieving young person to feel less alone.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea and Christopher Cardinale

Mr. Mendoza is an elderly graffiti artist in the Mexican town of El Rosario. Unlike the old women who merely mutter their displeasure at immoral behaviours, Mr. Mendoza takes action, paintbrush in hand. His wry wit might pop up anywhere. On the sign into town, for example, "No intelligent life for 100 kilometers." The tale centers on an incident where two teenage boys get their comeuppance when they were caught spying on some young women bathing in the river.

The story was originally published in Urrea's Six Kinds of Sky collection. The imagined town, Rosario, is almost a character in itself. It is the same setting as that in Urrea's latest novel, Into the Beautiful North.

On top of a great story with an element of magic realism, this book has breathtaking art by Christopher Cardinale. It looks like woodcut printing; lots of black with rich greens, blues and ochre shades. Cardinale is known for his murals and his social activism. His art is absolutely perfect for the timeless feel of this story.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

In the Wild by David Elliott and Holly Meade

David Elliott's witty brief poems about wild animals and Holly Meade's striking reverse-print artwork are a stunning combination. In the Wild is a book to read over and over, marvelling at the jewel-toned art each time. (See more of Meade's striking art on her website.)

Elliott's playfulness with language is irresistible: "The Giraffe / Stilt-walker! / Tree-topper! / Long-necked / show-stopper!" Then there's the rhyming of going, going, going with boing, boing, boing in the kangaroo poem. It is so much fun! The polar bear poem makes excellent use of a page turn and I also love the double meaning that can be derived from the line "Look! She's / disappearing ... [page turn] / disappearing / in the snow." The tiger poem references William Blake - "fire, fire burning bright" - and so I would love to pair this book with one that contains "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright," such as Micheal Rosen's selection of Classic Poetry for children.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Camilla Gibb has done it again. It's been worth the five-year wait (since Sweetness in the Belly) to read another nuanced portrait of a young woman searching for her identity, and set in a part of the world that is far from Canada. The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in contemporary Hanoi. Maggie was born in Vietnam, but fled with her mother to the U.S.A. in 1975, at the very end of the war. Her father, an artist who had been tortured so severely in re-education camps that he no longer had full use of his hands, was to follow them later, but never made it. Maggie has come to Hanoi to catalog a collection of pre-communist era art and to find out whatever she can about her beloved missing father. The cast of supporting characters is fascinating and I read this book in one sitting.

Readalikes: The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly; La Perdida by Jessica Abel; The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tangles by Sarah Leavitt

Sarah Leavitt's mother Midge was only 52 when she first exhibited signs of dementia. Alzheimer's disease was diagnosed a couple of years after that and Midge died when she was 60. In graphic novel format, Leavitt documents the progression of her mother's illness and the effect it had on their entire family.

Leavitt is a lesbian and lives in Vancouver, which is on the opposite coast from her parents in Fredericton, NB. Spending time with her mother meant a long day of air travel; this wasn't something she could do often. Leavitt took notes and drew pictures so that she would remember details of their time together. She also found herself collecting tangles combed from her own and her mother's ultra-curly hair, drawing emotional comfort in keeping it near her while she slept.

I was touched by Leavitt's honesty. She is sometimes irritable, selfish and unreasonably angry - in other words, she's human. At one point, Leavitt's father tells her she has the same quality as her mother: a radiant bitchiness. He says "It's a good quality to have." I agree. Leavitt is also a compassionate woman with a strong and tender love for her mother. The sketch-like artwork helps to keep emotion from overwhelming this touching memoir.

Readalikes: Mom's Cancer by Brian Fies and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Tangles is on the longlist for the Alberta Readers Choice Award, along with White Shirt, Too Bad and other great books published in this province.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Onyesonwu ("Who Fears Death") is a child born of rape. Her mother is Okeke, a people who have been enslaved by the Nuru for years. Ethnic warfare has escalated and the Okeke people are in danger of being entirely exterminated. Onyesonwu's father is a powerful Nuru sorcerer and she exhibits extraordinary powers even as a young girl, growing up in the Sahara desert with her resourceful mother. It is Onyesonwu's destiny to save the Okeke people.

The story is a genre blend of science fiction and fantasy set in post-apocalyptic Africa. It is a nice change to read fantasy that draws on traditions from this part of the world. It is mostly for this reason that I continued reading even when it felt like a slog. Okorafor's writing style is not really to my taste; I find it quite dry. Onyesonwu is a very strong character, however, and also kept me reading. I loved that she is a shapeshifter. And the ending is rewarding, so I'm glad that I didn't give up.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cuba My Revolution by Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel with Jose Villarrubia

Inverna Lockpez was 17 in 1958; she joined many other Cubans in rejoicing the overturn of Batista's corrupt government and the coming to power of Fidel Castro. Lockpez was not quickly disillusioned, even when the darker side of the revolution began to overshadow her idealistic hopes and dreams. Eventually, in the mid-1960s, she fled to the United States, where she has become a noted sculptor. Lockpez and two additional artists use the graphic novel format to fictionalize this memoir of a dramatic period in her life - and the lives of many other Cubans.

In the novel, Sonya is the protagonist. She wants to study art, but believes that she will serve the revolution better as a doctor. When Sonya is sent as a medic to the Bay of Pigs during the U.S. invasion, she witnesses the horrors of war. There is an atmosphere of such fear and suspicion that Sonya is mistaken for a CIA agent and is taken to Havana, imprisoned and tortured. Lockpez talks about this in a short interview that is available online at PRI's The World; she says the book depicts only the tip of the iceberg of what she experienced. Amazingly, this episode did not sour Sonya/Lockpez on the revolution - that came later.

The illustrations by Dean Haspiel are in a blocky, surrealist style in shades of gray with striking additions of the colour red, painted by Jose Villarrubia. See samples here (PRI's The World, again). Readalike: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow

Lydia and Julie are two girls in Grade 5 doing "Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt & Julie Graham-Chang" - which is the subtitle of their joint secret writing project. Julie illustrates the book and they both write down their observations of the popular girls at school. It's not really a graphic novel, but it does have a lot of pictures. It's definitely a hoot.

The girls come up with plenty of harebrained schemes that backfire, like their plan to get their parents to change their minds and allow them to have cell phones. End result is that one of Julie's two dads gives her his really old cell phone. It has a screen that doesn't work, the numbers on the buttons have been rubbed off, the antenna is chewed up by their cat (named "Bad Cat") and the whole thing is held together by duct tape. Lydia's mother gets her "The ladybug: a cell phone for children! It's horrible! It looks like I'm talking into a big plastic bug! I might as well come to school wearing diapers!"

I loved that Julie's parents - Daddy and Papa Dad - are a fact of life; it's no big deal that they are gay. They love her, support her, scold her and embarrass her, just like other parents in the book. Lydia and Julie are memorable characters that will endear themselves to readers in Grade 4 and up who enjoy funny stories about friendship, school and families.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Somehow I managed to listen to two audiobooks in a row that were narrated in first person by a young woman who didn't have a mother and had just lost an older sibling. The Sky is Everywhere is aimed at an older readership than Mockingbird - I'd recommend it to Grade 9 and up (because of sexual activity) - and that recommendation is an enthusiastic one. It's a romance and I loved it. Really! If you follow my blog, you know this doesn't happen often. Like, almost never. I think the last romance I enjoyed this much was I Capture the Castle.

I'll back up and give you the summary. Lennon (Lennie) Walker is 17 when her sister Bailey suddenly dies. The two have lived with their grandmother and their uncle ever since their mother abandoned them 16 years earlier. Lennie has read Wuthering Heights 23 times. She plays clarinet and she has never had a boyfriend. A month after Bailey dies, Lennie falls for Joe, a new guy in her band class. At the same time, she finds herself very attracted to Bailey's boyfriend Toby. Grief, despair and hormones lead Lennie into some poor choices. What is especially amazing is how she comes through it all.

There are some fabulous quirky secondary characters, the northern California setting is vivid and the writing is poetic with plenty of humour too. I listened to an audiobook, so I can't give you much in the way of examples of Nelson's style. Here are a couple of quotes other readers noted: "It's as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way." (Lennie describing the depth of her family's sorrow.) "Our tongues have fallen madly in love, gotten married and moved to Paris... Heathcliff and Cathy have nothing on us." (Lennie kissing Joe.) Kudos to Nelson for including a scene with an inappropriate erection (and at least one other time when a penis embarrassed its owner). Real life is awkward. Oh, and I'll also mention that Lennie's uncle Big "smokes more pot than the entire 11th Grade." Teens aren't the only ones with interesting lives in this novel.

A nice touch in the Brilliance Audio edition (7.25 hours; read by Julia Whelan) is the clarinet and guitar instrumental duet that opens and closes each CD, evoking the piece of music Joe writes for Lennie.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

In his latest collection, David Sedaris switches from his usual subject - himself - to tell cynical stories about other people instead. Except he turns them into animals. The result is both funny and dark. Act like a doormat and get eaten. Be self-important and overbearing and get eaten. Delude your self-righteous self and get eaten. The fables don't all end in death, but expect a lot of sorry conclusions. Illustrations by Ian Falconer (creator of the fabulous Olivia picturebooks) add to the black charm. I look forward to hearing Sedaris at the Winspear in Edmonton tonight.
Listen to him online here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mockingbird (mok'ing-burd) by Kathryn Erskine

Life is really hard for Caitlin Smith. She is in Grade 5 and has no friends. She has Asperger's. Her mom died of cancer a while back. Her beloved older brother, Devon, has just been killed in a school shooting. This is Caitlin's story about dealing with grief and finding closure.

It is a decent book, but I was surprised that it won the Young People's Literature National Book Award. I would have picked either One Crazy Summer or Ship Breaker as the winner; these have more layers to explore and invite rereading. Mockingbird, on the other hand, is a straight-forward story. I normally enjoy first-person narration, but Caitlin's voice is really annoying. Realistically so, I guess. For example, when her father was too sad to make supper, Caitlin said, "It's 6:30" over and over until she got a reaction out of him. I don't know that I'd have the patience to deal with an autistic child. She is a likable girl, however, and won my heart in the end.

I like to learn things when I read. I probably got some insights into the spectrum of behaviours that are possible with autism, but the fact that I found most memorable is that Virginia has a state dog, the coon hound. Why doesn't Canada have provincial dogs?

I listened to the unabridged Recorded Books edition (4.5 hours) - Angela Jayne Rogers is the reader. Readlikes for children in Grade 4-6: Rules by Cynthia Lord and The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, both of which have autistic protagonists.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

In a series of interconnected stories, a portrait of Beatrice Hempel emerges. Her mother is a Chinese immigrant and her father was mixed caucasian American. It took me a while to warm to Beatrice, who is rather baffled by life, bumbling along in her role as a young teacher in a junior high school. I was won over by her good-natured honesty in her interactions with her students. In the second story, Accomplice, I cheered her courage in choosing This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff for her Grade 7 English class study. When challenged by a parent who objects to the use of profanity in the book, she defends her choice eloquently.

Beatrice isn't sure she is cut out for the teaching profession. In Yurt, a story about a teacher who comes back to visit after taking a year of stress leave, Beatrice muses that a teacher has no time for wallowing in wretchedness. "The curriculum was always marching on, relentlessly: the scrambling dash from one unit to the next, the ancient Egyptians melting into the ancient Greeks, the blur of check marks and smiley faces, the hot rattling breath of the photocopier, book reports corrected shakily on the bus, the eternal night of parent-teacher conferences, dizzy countdowns to every holiday, and the dumb animal pleasure of rest. One could be quite unhappy and never have the chance to know it." She finds herself looking "longingly at a patch of ice on the pavement," realizing that "if she were to fall and fracture her leg in several places, then she wouldn't have to go to school."

One story takes us back to Beatrice in her early teens and the final story is an encounter years in the future with a former student. The stories together give glimpses into the events that shape Beatrice's journey through life. Very satisfying for readers like me who love intimate character portrayals and lyrical language. I enjoyed her writing so much that I'll include another quote:

"At the entrance to the library, Ms. Cruz sat behind her enormous wraparound desk. It resembled a sort of cockpit, its high sides studded with librarian paraphernalia, Ms. Cruz wheeling expertly about the interior in her ergonomic chair. The desk had two levels; the lower level was intended for the librarian's use as she tried to do her work, while the higher level was meant for those standing around the desk and bothering the librarian.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe

A Canada Reads winner from several years back, The Last Crossing probably doesn't need much promotion from me. It's a richly layered historical fiction, told from multiple viewpoints, about a couple of English brothers who go to North America in the nineteenth century to search for their missing missionary sibling. A woman is also one of the central protagonists; Lucy Stovall is looking for her younger sister's murderer and she joins the Englishmen's party.

This is a book that I've meant to read for years, so it was a happy coincidence to come across the BTC audiobook at the same time as I was nearly finished listening to a different book. The abridged BTC edition (5 hours) is enjoyably narrated by five different actors. The only thing I didn't like was that the tracks are all between 15 and 17 minutes in length. That means that I often had to re-listen to what I'd already heard, depending on where I left off the story. I prefer the more common audiobook style of changing tracks every few minutes.

Readalikes: The Outlander by Gil Adamson, for another book set in the early years of southern Alberta with a strong sense of place and vivid characters. Fool's Crow by James Welch, for life in the late nineteenth century from the Blackfoot point of view in the same general area as The Last Crossing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Temperance by Cathy Malkasian

Temperance is a graphic novel allegory about the culture of fear and its effects on society. Pa is a charismatic religious zealot who builds a ship-like enclave, Blessedbowl, where his followers will spend years waiting for him to return. The society is lead by Minerva, whose doubts and fraught relationship to Pa are kept hidden from the people. Lester is a young man who intervened when Pa assaulted his adoptive daughter, Peggy. The ensuing fight left Lester with amnesia and Minerva claimed him as her husband.

My initial reaction included puzzlement. Is Pa a tyrant or a non-physical embodiment of violence? Is Peggy a woman or a tree or the concept of balance? Is she still Peggy when she is made into the wooden doll called Temperance, or is that merely another facet of her? Is Minerva a deluded person or a good leader? The story captivated me anyway, and I could feel understanding happening on a subliminal level. I went back through it a second time, enjoying the art and the layers of meaning. For more insights, check out this interview with Malkasian at the Graphic Novel Reporter site.

Highly recommended. It is challenging and rewarding and deserves repeated rereading to absorb its full brilliance.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Two protagonists are at the center of this series of linked short stories: Bennie Salazar, a music producer in New York City, and Sasha Blake, his assistant who happens to be a kleptomaniac. Swirling around this pair is a loose galaxy of other people connected to them across time and across the planet. Their stories are told in fragments and through multiple perspectives. Egan has created a fabulous cross-genre hybrid, slipping from present to past to future - where wired pre-verbal toddlers form a sizable consumer market. One story is told in a slide presentation, another is a magazine article with extensive footnotes. It all comes together in a marvelous tapestry of a novel about the pivotal events that shape our lives and the shifting nature of identity as we get older. Highly recommended, especially to readers looking for something different. If you find my blog postings too short, here is a long review at the NYRB by Cathleen Schine.

Readalikes are tough for this one. Other story-cycles (Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Louise Erdrich) stick more closely to place or time or people than Egan does. The X-Indian Chronicles by Thomas Yeahpah has a similar variety within the stories, but is quite a bit darker and grittier. Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway or Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden might work for a reader who wants more journeys to adulthood that cross culture and class.
Interesting that I'm reminded of three works by Aboriginal authors, even though there is no Aboriginal content in VFTGS. The qualities I'm matching are nonlinear storytelling, verve, humour and a melancholy tone.

Empathy by Sarah Schulman is another story set in New York and told in an avant garde style with a central theme of identity. Fault Lines by Nancy Huston, The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw and The Hours by Michael Cunningham are examples of novels told in shifting viewpoints and time periods that are connected only by the reader, not the protagonists.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

This is the satisfying conclusion to the Chaos Walking trilogy. (The books are best enjoyed in sequence, so read The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer before Monsters of Men.) The title comes from something Todd said in an earlier book: "War makes monsters of men."

Our choices and their consequences are often monstrous during war time and two teens, Viola and Todd, are in the thick of it. The indigenous Spackle want to avenge the slavery and genocide of their people. The settlers are split into two factions: one group follows a ruthless tyrant and the other follows an equally ruthless terrorist. Todd and Viola face the most difficult decisions they've ever made. Are the lives of thousands more important than the one person you love? Who do you save when forced to choose?

There are no easy answers. Three voices rotate the narration: Todd, Viola and Spackle 1017 (as he is known to humans)/the Return (as he is known to the Land, the intelligent species that are linked almost as if they are one being). As with the earlier books, the story is suspenseful, thought-provoking and supremely engaging.

With Remembrance Day around the corner, war is a timely topic. To judge by the tags I use on this blog, I read about war fairly often (24 out of 376 posts) - yet I am a pacifist to the core. It is my interest in human nature that draws me to this subject. Stories about overcoming adversity are also a big draw - and the horrors of war certainly fit that category.

Grade 9 - up. Readalikes: Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers (for a teen's first-person account of war); Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (for teens faced with complex choices in a dystopian world, edge-of-your-seat pacing and a boy-girl bond that is central to the story).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire

Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods (part 1) is a post-apocalyptic graphic novel by Canadian Jeff Lemire. It's been described as Mad Max with antlers and Bambi meets Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I kept thinking of David Small's book for young children, Imogene's Antlers, crossed with Stephen King-style horror.

At the start of the story, Gus is nine years old, living in a cabin in a former wilderness sanctuary with his father who is very ill.

"My dad says so few kids was born after the accident that god decided to make 'em special, so we got fur, or tails, or antlers. He says I'm the last one left. Outside of the trees is fire and hell, so we's gotta stay here, where it's safe."

After his father dies, Gus is found by a man named Jeppard, who promises to take him to a place that's safe for half-animal kids. Gus discovers a huge fondness for chocolate and Jeppard teases him about his sweet tooth. As as they travel together through the lawless countryside, the gun battles, fist fights, ghost towns and even a whorehouse morph the tale from science fiction into an old-fashioned western. There's also the psychological suspense of never being sure of Jeppard's motives. Is he a captor or rescuer? The ending is a humdinger of a cliff - I hope part 2 will be out soon!

Even though my pick for essential Canadian novel of the past decade - Skim - did not make the Canada Reads top 10, I'm pleased that Jeff Lemire's moving Essex County trilogy has done so. Yay for graphic novels!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James (comparing two editions)

There was a lot of buzz earlier this year in the online book world about first-time Australian author Rebecca James and her psychological thriller, Beautiful Malice. The manuscript was turned down by a large number of publishers before finally being pulled from a British slush pile and sold for big money at the Frankfurt book fair last year. I looked forward to hearing James at the writers fest in Vancouver and was excited that a library copy of the book came in on hold for me just days before I left for Vancouver.

It was quickly apparent that the copy I was reading had been heavily edited. For reasons I don't understand, Edmonton Public Library purchased the U.S. (Bantam) edition of the novel. All of the references to the original Australian setting had been expurgated and replaced with generic locations like "city" and "countryside." Setting is important to my reading experience and helps me to see the story screening like a film in my head. I puzzled over which American cities might actually fit with the bit of description left (it was on a coast or lakeshore) and also accessible to a weekend getaway in the mountains for the rare treat of seeing snow. I could guess that Sydney and the Blue Mountains were part of the original setting, but where in the U.S.A. could this same scenario play out? All this wondering detracted from the plot and I found the story disappointing.

Then I heard James read at the festival. The passage was riveting. I loved the immediacy that came through with the original words which included Aussie lingo and place names. Afterwards, I purchased the U.K. import edition (Faber and Faber) that was available at the festival bookstore and read the book a second time. What a big difference! It was great.

The novel is about a toxic friendship between two teens in their final year of high school. Katherine Patterson changed her name and moved to a new city in order to escape the sorrow, guilt and notoriety connected to the death of her younger sister. At first, Katherine was grateful when popular Alice Parrie chose her as a special friend. All is not as it appears. The first line of the prologue - "I didn't go to Alice's funeral" - reveals the outcome, but it is the journey there that is increasingly horrifying.

At the festival, I asked James about the editing process. She said the U.K. editor asked her about making a single change: semi-trailer to lorry. The editor of the Canadian edition considered changing doona to duvet, but decided to leave it in for the Australian flavour. (I noticed that lorry was switched to eighteen-wheeler in my U.K. import edition.) James said the American editor did not consult her on any changes. Tim Tams switched to Oreos and a boyfriend with an American accent switched to one with an Australian accent are examples of the changes sprinkled throughout. More follow.

Sydney and its landmarks - Circular Quay, the Rocks, Bondi beach - in the U.S. edition just become 'city,' harbor,' and 'water.'

Alice "speeds along, weaving in and out of lanes much faster than any P-plater is officially allowed..." (The U.S. edition cuts reference to driving with learner licence plates.) Katherine feels silly when her boyfriend sees her in her school uniform. (Also cut from U.S. edition.)

Katherine's narration - "Mum and Dad and I all left Melbourne about a year ago. [...] I moved in with [Aunt] Vivien so that I could finish high school at Drummond, one of the largest high schools in New South Wales, a place so big I could keep to myself, remain anonymous. My parents bought a house a couple of hours north, in Newcastle, near the beach." (U.S. edition: "Mom and Dad and I moved about a year ago. [...] I moved in with Vivien so that I could finish high school in the city, a place so big I could keep to myself, remain anonymous. My parents bought a house a couple of hours north.")

Katherine's parents worry for her safety and insist on replacing her old car, a Volvo, with a Peugeot. (U.S. edition substitutes a Honda - car with a very different status implication than a Peugeot.)

Coffs Harbour is rejected by Alice as a getaway destination. "No good restaurants." (U.S. edition doesn't refer to any specific place, just "I don't want to go there" because "there's no decent food.") In the end, the friends choose a four-hour drive to Merimbula. (U.S. edition simply calls it 'the beach' without any reference to distance.)

A trip to Jindabyne after the mid-winter rush becomes simply 'the mountains' in the U.S. edition without any reference to season.

References to the upcoming Higher School Certificate exams and the importance of studying for them are downgraded entirely to "I probably should be at home studying" in the U.S. edition, without specific mention of any exams.

When asking a stranger for a ride home from a party in Melbourne, Katherine says, "We live in Toorak." The driver replies, "Toorak. Yeah. Nice place, that. Real nice place. [...] Wouldn't mind a drive out that way." (U.S. edition removes the original context of a wealthy neighbourhood: "We don't live far away, just east of town." And the driver replies, "Not far, huh? Sure. I bet you two live in a nice place. A real nice place. [...] Wouldn't mind a drive.")

A flat for rent is "One bedroom, timber floorboards, new kitchen." (U.S. edition: apartment is "One bedroom. New kitchen.")

Katherine is feeling buoyantly happy when she remarks "the sky is enormous and high and a magnificent deep blue - a sky that I always think of as particularly Australian, a sky that I've never seen in Greece or Indonesia or Europe..." (U.S. edition loses the feeling of comfort in its version: "the sky is enormous and high and a magnificent deep blue - a sky that I've never seen in Greece or Indonesia or Europe...")

That's enough. Cutting out all the Australian references and a tighter layout reduced the number of pages from 353 in the U.K. edition to 256 in the U.S. one. I don't know what the American publisher was thinking. That Americans are too insular to be interested in stories set outside their borders? That unfamiliar place names and products will alienate readers? Please leave your comments below. Read this book, but avoid the bland U.S. edition if possible.

Grade 9 - adult.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reckless by Cornelia Caroline Funke

Jacob Reckless was 12 when he found that he could travel back and forth through a mirror into a world that is recognizable from Grimm's fairytales. Fast-forward 12 years, when Jacob's younger brother Will finally manages to follow him into that place, unaware of the many dangers. The tale gets underway when Will starts turning to stone and Jacob is prepared to do anything to save him. He is even willing to risk his relationship with the other love of his life, a shapechanging fox.

As with Funke's Inkheart, this is a story that will appeal to a range of readers from about Grade 5 and up, even though the characters are all adults (and talking animals and dwarves and fairies). Readalikes (especially for teens and up): The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber; The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly; The Child Thief by Brom (three books that have a similar dark tone - progressively so, in the order listed - and draw on a mixture of European folk tales - as well as Peter Pan, in the case of The Child Thief). Readers looking for an action/adventure tale in another fantasy world with a complex political situation might also enjoy Fire by Kristin Cashore.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Wise beyond her years, 11-year-old Delphine tells of the summer she and her two younger sisters travelled from Brooklyn to Oakland in order to get to know their radical poet mother, Cecile. Fern was a newborn when their mother abandoned them and their father. Cecile has changed her name and takes no interest in her daughters - she didn't ask them to come. She has no food in her house and no TV. The girls spend their days at a centre run by the Black Panthers.

The racial politics and social justice issues of the late 1960s give this story depth and texture, yet the writing never seems preachy. It is mainly a story about sisters and learning to accept hard truths. Delphine's voice is uniquely, delightfully her own. I highly recommend the audiobook narrated by Sisi Aisha Johnson (5.25 hours).

Readalike: The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Every time I set down Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, I wanted to talk about all the fascinating things I had just read. My sweetie was not interested in trivia about vomit, the unique logistics of toilet facilities for zero gravity travellers, and the reason your feet smell just like certain kinds of cheese. She kept telling me to blog about it (and to leave her in peace).

Did you know that no one is excluded from the astronaut corps based on penis size? "It is assumed that a man will fit one of the three sizes available in the condom-style urine collection device hose attachment inside the EVA suit. To avoid mishaps caused by embarrassed astronauts opting for L when they are really S, there is no S. 'There is L, XL, and XXL,' says Hamilton Sundstrand suit engineer Tom Chase. This was not the case during Apollo. Among the 106 items left on the moon's surface by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are four urine collection assemblies - two large and two small. Who wore which remains a matter of conjecture."

I love Mary Roach's irreverent curiosity and her great sense of humour. And you can learn all kinds of neat stuff from her too!

Readalikes: The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet by Leif Larsen (a novel, but it's about science and it's funny); The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (for its offbeat approach); or maybe check out Helen Pilcher (of the Comedy Research Project), who aims to scientifically prove that science can be funny.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Vote for Skim at Canada Reads!

I nominated Mariko and Jillian Tamaki's brilliant graphic novel, Skim, as the quintessential Canadian novel and it made it into the top 40. Please help get it into the top 10 by voting for it now at the CBC Canada Reads website.

If you haven't read Skim yet, then do that after you vote for it. It captures the multifaceted nature of Canadian identity: Toronto teenager Kimberly Keiko Cameron is Japanese and Scottish and Canadian and pagan and lesbian and goth and an outsider and a best friend and a daughter of separated parents. Hers is a subtly nuanced coming-of-age story told partly through text and partly through gorgeous artwork.

Voting ends on November 7. Go vote now!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

Nouf ash-Shrawi was 16 and engaged to be married went she went missing from her family's opulent home in Saudi Arabia. Nayir ash-Sharqi is the desert guide asked to lead the search for her, but his efforts are in vain; her body is found by Bedouin travellers. When the coroner rules that her suspicious death is accidental, this doesn't sit well with Nayir. Katya Hijazi, the female lab tech who assisted with the examination of Nouf's body, is also unhappy with this obvious miscarriage of justice. Nayir, a devout Muslim batchelor, and Katya, one of the rare Saudi women who work outside the home, make an unlikely pair. Within the restrictions of their gender-segregated society, they manage to continue an informal investigation, even when it looks like the secrets they uncover may destroy their good relations with the powerful Shrawi family.

Nayir's traditional beliefs are challenged and he is forced through his interactions with Katya to rethink his assumptions about women. The plot was compelling and the mystery was satisfyingly complex. I very much enjoyed the glimpse into contemporary life in the Middle East. Author Zoe Ferraris is an American who married into a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin family and lived in Saudi Arabia.

Readalikes: Mirage by Bandula Chandraratna (for a bleaker look at women's life in the Middle East) and The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (for another mystery with a focus on contemporary women's lives outside North America).

Friday, October 29, 2010

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Australian author Geraldine Brooks was inspired by a real object, a lavishly-illustrated medieval Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The book escaped destruction several times and those saviours included Muslim librarians and Catholic priests.

The fictional account begins in Sarajevo in 1996, when the war in Bosnia has just barely ended. Hanna Heath is an Australian rare book expert hired to examine and restore the haggadah. During the conservation process, Hanna discovers minute clues to the book's enigmatic past. In a series of flashbacks to progressively older times, the artifacts uncover the mystery of the book's history and creation.

The present-day storyline revolves around Hanna's troubled relationship with her mother, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, and Hanna's romantic involvement with Ozren Karaman, chief librarian of the National Museum and custodian of the haggadah. The romance aspect rather detracted from my overall enjoyment of this book, but that is a minor quibble. I loved the glimpses into earlier times and the puzzle-solving aspects of the story.

Readalikes (well, I can't think of any book really similar... so consider these tangential readalongs): The Spanish Pearl by Catherine Friend (for readers who enjoyed the section with the lesbian romance set in Moorish Spain); Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay (for those fascinated by the pigments used in the haggadah); The World to Come by Dara Horn (for a Jewish experience told in two timelines); Fax from Sarajevo by Joe Kubert (for what Ozren Karaman's experience might have been like while his city was under siege); and Accordian Crimes by Annie Proulx (for another narrative that follows an object through history).

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

July Goodwin is an elderly woman in 1898, telling the tale of her life that began in slavery on a Jamaican sugar cane plantation. Her voice is wry, saucy and brooks no nonsense. She addresses her readers directly:

"Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire."

July's musical voice lingers in my mind even after her story is told. She is a remarkable character and I miss her.

Readalike: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill.

Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks

All three children in the Cote family come down with tuberculosis and are admitted to a sanatorium near their farm in southern Manitoba. It is 1941 and treatment consists mostly of absolute bed rest and as much fresh air as possible. No matter how cold it is, patients are bundled up and their beds are trundled outdoors at night. For 15-year-old Marie-Claire, boredom is the worst part of her illness. Having an annoying roommate like Signy is almost as bad. But growing up happens no matter where we are and love can be found in unlikely places. A quiet story about friendship and family dynamics. Grade 5 - 9.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival Highlights

I'm heading home to Edmonton later today after a wonderful week on Granville Island, listening to authors read, chat with each other and answer questions from the audience. The Vancouver writersfest is really good at putting together interesting panel discussions. They also bring in a fabulous line-up and it's hard to choose between concurrent sessions. I did manage to attend ten events. These are the highlights:

Ali Smith at two different events yesterday, impish and witty despite jetlag. I wasn't the only one laughing out loud when she read the story, Last, in its entirety. (Last is available online in the Manchester Review.) When we heard that Smith would only be appearing on Sunday, we rescheduled our flight in order to hear her. I'm so glad we did!

Lynda Barry's fabulous writing workshop, Do You Wish You Could Write? Barry's gospel is that creativity is a human necessity. She was so inspiring and really funny too.

David Mitchell (in an excellent pairing with Katherine Govier). He read from a part in The Thousand Autumns in which there was a continuity error that he hadn't noticed until that very moment. (Birthmark on the right, then the left.) The audience roared when he flipped back to double check, then announced there would have to be a product recall.

Erin Moure performing her work. (I love that there were so many other wonderful poets and spoken word artists there as well.)

Rebecca James, Alice Kuipers and Martha Brooks in a lively discussion about "family and friendship." I'll post something about James' debut thriller, Beautiful Malice, in the near future.

There are always new discoveries at a festival like this. Andrew O'Hagan is a case in point. I didn't hesitate to add his book, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and his Friend, Marilyn Monroe, to the stack I am taking home with me. Funny and philosophical and told in the voice of a Maltese dog that was given to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra. Run out and get it asap!

Emma Donoghue (Room), Kate Pullinger (The Mistress of Nothing), Kamila Shamsie (Burnt Shadows) and Andrea Levy (The Long Song) were all wonderful as well. And there were more. It was such a great festival!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bannock, Beans and Black Tea by John Gallant and Seth

The title - Bannock, Beans and Black Tea - describes a poor family's daily diet and the subtitle - Memories of a Prince Edward Island Childhood in the Great Depression - describes the content of this collection of anecdotes as told by John Gallant to his son, Gregory (who is better known as the graphic novelist, Seth). Gallant was born in 1917. He was part of a very large and utterly destitute Acadian family. Gallant's slightly bitter humour includes lists of "lucky breaks" that were connected to his upbringing, itemizing such things as: "We didn't have to fast for lent - we were always fasting." "No garbage to put out - you'd eaten it." His voice comes through clearly and these stories would work well read aloud to multi-generational listeners.

Readalikes: Prayers of a Very Wise Child (Roch Carrier); Halfbreed, especially the first part that describes the hardships of her childhood (Maria Campbell).

Curiosity by Joan Thomas

In a novel set in Lyme Regis during the earliest days of paleontological discovery, Joan Thomas imagines the life of a real person, Mary Anning. Born in 1799, Mary was a fossil collector from childhood, selling them as curiosities so that her family could eke out a meagre existence. The seashore and cliffs that were her collecting ground are famous and now considered a World Heritage Site. Mary was barely acknowledged for her part in scientific exploration during her lifetime - the accolades went to the men who purchased her finds.

Using alternating storylines, Thomas explores romantic, intellectual and class tensions between Mary and a high-society gentleman, Henry De la Beche. They are only two in a large cast of fascinating characters. The time and place are as pungent as Mary's folk wisdom: "A cheese full of maggots is livelier than a sound cheese."

Readalike: The Coral Thief (Rebecca Stott).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Know I Am, But What Are You by Samantha Bee

I've never seen Samantha Bee on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but her book amused me. It also sometimes horrified me - reading accounts of embarrassing moments from her childhood onward made me feel like a voyeur. There is such a thing as too much information! Yet I laughed out loud...

Bee's stepmother PG-yelling at a bear when they were hiking: “GO TO H-E-DOUBLE-HOCKEY-STICKS!”

When Bee was a teenager involved in car thefts (“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking”) she describes her family's car: “there was no great black-market demand for boxy cars from Communist countries […] It was like driving Hitler’s mustache.”

When employed as a costume character in a children’s entertainment show: “The narrative was so vague and ridiculous that it could have been written by a basket of acorns that had fallen onto a laptop by accident.”

More hyperbole in reference to her grandmother’s obsession with American celebrities, who could not possibly have been born vaginally: “She insisted that they had emerged, glowing and smooth from their gossamer star nests, surviving by gently nibbling on the most tender leaves and shoots of spring; their twenty-four-inch-waisted bodies permanently draped in the spangly creations of Bob Mackie; the only discharge their tiny bodies could ever emit was in the form of a fragrant potpourri of organic matter that would make your tomatoes come in bigger than ever, should you ever be privileged enough to have one of them over for a garden party.”

Bee's comic essays about her life growing up in Canada aren't the sort that resonate with wisdom... but they sure are funny.

Readalikes: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress (Susan Jane Gilman); Everybody into the Pool (Beth Lisick); I Was Told There'd Be Cake (Sloane Crosley).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

This Book Is Overdue! by Marilyn Johnson

How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All - Marilyn Johnson's subtitle sums up her enthusiasm for the profession of librarianship. She is a writer who values the services provided by library staff. She praises the objectivity, determination, idealism and intelligence of people who, as a group, tend to be quietly humble. She profiles librarians of all kinds: missionaries teaching information skills to distance education students; lesbian zine-writers; Second Life avatar librarians; tattooed children's librarians; bloggers letting off steam about library patrons; and library directors gagged by the Patriot Act. Listening to this audiobook (read by Hillary Huber; 7.5 hours) reminded me why I love my job at Edmonton Public Library.

Readalikes: Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out. (Jessamyn West and others); The Incident Report (Martha Baillie).

Art & Max by David Wiesner

David Wiesner has been awarded the Caldecott Medal three times. His new book, Art & Max, is worthy of a fourth. Wow! Lizards like you have never seen before.

Arthur is a large and slightly cantankerous portrait artist, rather puffed with self-importance. Max is half Arthur's size, full of goofy enthusiasm, and wants to learn how to paint. From this beginning, events evolve into a metafictional free-for-all, with paint everywhere and drawing lines unravelled. Max's creative problem-solving is infectious and the story ends with a new and joyous freedom for everyone, including the reader.

Readalikes: Bad Day at Riverbend (Chris Van Allsburg); Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crockett Johnson); Have You Seen Art? (Jon Scieszka).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Boom! by Mark Haddon

I have a particular fondness for books with cross-generational appeal like Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Even though Boom! (Or, 70,000 Light Years) doesn't have the depth to be that kind of book, it is highly entertaining and readers in Grade 4 to 6 will love it.

Jimbo and his friend Charlie accidently discover that two of their teachers speak a foreign language. Then Charlie is kidnapped and Jimbo enlists his insufferable older sister's help to rescue his friend. It turns out that the mystery language is from a planet 70,000 light years away... The whole thing is downright silly and loads of fun. It would work well as a read-aloud. Don't be afraid of the alien words, which are not hard to pronounce. Gridzbi Spudvetch was the original title of this book, back in 1992. It looks like mouthful, but is actually quite easy to sound out.

Readalikes: The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex); My Teacher Is an Alien (Bruce Coville); Ignatius MacFarland, Frequenaut! (Paul Feig).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Pulse by Lydia Kwa

Natalie Chia is a 48-year-old lesbian acupuncturist in Toronto. She had moved from Singapore to Canada with her parents when she was a young woman. Since then, Natalie has had little contact with her old lover, Faridah. But a letter from Faridah brings sad news; Faridah's son, Selim, has committed suicide. Natalie decides to attend the memorial service in Singapore out of loyalty to her friend and because she liked Selim, a young gay man who shared Natalie's interest in kinbaku - a Japanese form of erotic bondage. She is also puzzled about why he killed himself... if it was indeed suicide.

The settings - Toronto's Chinatown and Kensington Market areas as well as Singapore's bustling Joo Chiat district - are richly detailed. Descriptions of colours, architectural details, voices, specific music and street food all add to the feeling of being there in the middle of it all. This quality gives an earthy balance to the cerebral, reflective tone of the story. Natalie is an incest survivor. She promised herself that she would never let anyone get close enough to her heart to hurt her again. "Memories hurt us. Or is it truer to say that it's our refusal to release ourselves from our past that's the cause of our pain?" Natalie grapples with forgiveness as her trip stirs up memories from her past.

Lydia Kwa' s earlier novels, This Place Called Absence and Walking Boy are also recommended.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant

"My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded." Pia Kolvenbach was 10 at the time of that freak incident in the small German town where she has lived all her life. Other children shun her afterwards - out of fear that Pia will be the next to burst into flames - and so Pia becomes more of a loner than ever.

Herr Schiller, an elderly friend of her grandmother, is kind to Pia and tells her stories. Pia loves the thrill of his scary tales about witches, ghosts and demons made of fire. But then young girls start disappearing from their town. The police ask children to report anything odd. To Pia, many things are odd. Pia believes Herr Schiller and his stories might hold a clue to these current events. If she can solve the mystery of the disappearances, she hopes that people will finally forget the circumstances of her grandmother's death.

A haunting story in which psychological suspense builds slowly but steadily. Grade 5 to adult.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Tent Peg by Aritha van Herk

Mackenzie did not intend to hire a woman cook for his all-male crew of geologists. They would be spending three months in tents in the Canadian north, sampling rocks, searching for anything of value (uranium; gold). Mackenzie is getting too old to be going out into the field every year, but this is how he runs from his personal demons.

J.L. is also running from her past. She was hired on the basis of her resume and a letter of recommendation - one that didn't happen to mention her gender - and with her androgynous looks, Mackenzie did not even realize she was a woman when he met her. J.L. decided to clear up his misconception when they were getting supplies together in Yellowknife before the other eight members of the crew arrived.

Everyone gets a turn in narrating the story of a summer spent in the wild beauty of the Yukon mountains. The isolation in the wilderness takes its toll, but J.L. is the peg that keeps their sanity tethered. She plays a grounding, healing role - quite unlike the Biblical Ja-el for whom she was named.

I'm glad that someone in my book club suggested Tent Peg. I had read it nearly 30 years ago when it was first published and only remembered a) that I liked it and b) that it was about a bisexual female camp cook amid a group of men. Rereading brought back memories of myself at 20 years of age as well as the mystical earth-mother sensibilities of the late '70s and early '80s. It may have been the first novel in which I encountered multiple points of view.

Nostalgia aside, this book stands up well as a contemporary tale. The vast northern Canadian landscape has changed very little and continues to be a good metaphor for self-exploration. Attitudes towards women in male-dominated fields have (unfortunately) also changed very little.

The Edmonton Public Library only has one copy of the book, and it is kept in the Alberta Literature reference collection (because van Herk was living in Edmonton around the time the book was published in 1981). Luckily for readers, Tent Peg has been reissued by Red Deer Press. My only complaint is about the weird typos in the edition I purchased. These appeared to be errors from OCR translation of copy into digital format, because why else would "you'll" appear as "you 'I!" and "tell" as "tel1"? Other people in our book group read the same edition and did not even notice these, so I guess it is pretty minor.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

Five-year-old Jack is the wonderful narrator in this story about a young woman who was kidnaped from a college campus when she was 19 and kept as a sex slave for years. Born in a room that measures 11 feet square, Jack has never known any other world. What he sees on television is not real to him. Even Old Nick, the kidnapper, seems not entirely real, since Jack sleeps inside the wardrobe during his visits. So it comes as a shock to Jack when his Ma tells him that Outside is a real place. And she wants his help to get there.

I've been a fan of Emma Donoghue for a long time. She was the subject of my very first blog post back in 2008. With Room, my admiration for her writing continues. Jack's chatty voice perfectly captures a young child's syntax and mercurial mood swings. His mother is also a memorable character. She has made her son's life as normal as she possibly can in their nightmarish circumstances. It is her love for her son that seems to give her the strength to continue looking for a means of escape.

The only queer content in the novel is a cameo appearance by a couple of gay guys with their little boy, but I'll add the GLBTQ tag to this post for those of you who, like me, prefer to read books by queer authors whenever possible. Irish-born Donoghue has lived in Canada for over a decade, so I'll add a Canadian tag too. I look forward to hearing Donoghue at the grand opening event of the writers festival in Vancouver later this month.