Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

Set in 1936 and written in the style of a journal, it was immediately obvious why this book has drawn comparisons to Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle: the voice of the 16-year-old narrator, Sophie. She lives in a castle - a fortified house, excuse me - on a small island in the Bay of Biscay, off the coast of France. Montmaray is an island nation with only a handful of people left on it besides Sophie and her uncle, the mad King John of Montmaray. They have fallen on financial hard times and things are about to get even more difficult with the arrival of some Nazi Germans. Highly recommended for Grade 7 through to adult.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life by Brian Brett

"Born with a rare genetic malfunction that made me middle-sexed, Kallmann's syndrome, I was a troubled and difficult left-handed child, regularly thrashed by my teachers who wanted to make me right-handed, though there was a lot more help I could have used. One teacher used to give me the strap because I'd look out the window and weep at the beauty of the world -- bad form for a twelve-year-old 'boy' -- and he tried to beat the beauty and the weeping out of me. 'Be a man!' he said, as the leather strap hit my girlie-boy's outstretched hand."

That misguided teacher did not succeed in whipping the beauty out of Canadian poet Brian Brett, nor his rebellious attitude. "I question all authority and I rise on a summer morning to the haunting song of a thrush, live with the birds of the day, and sleep to the random vocalizations of the night."

Trauma Farm is Brett's warm, witty and graceful memoir of his past 18 years, which have been spent living on a small mixed farm on Salt Spring Island with his wife. He recounts one anecdote after another: joyful births, tragic deaths and many amusing incidents in between.

"The most I have learned is that living in these moments, close to the land, is good, and behaving with as much common decency as I can muster is also good." A book that satisfies my soul.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Crash into Me by Albert Borris

Four suicidal teens meet online. Jin-Ae is a lesbian who is not out to her Korean family. Owen doesn't believe anyone would really care if he dies, but he'd still like to make his death look like an accident so that no one would feel guilty. Frank doesn't think he can live up to anyone's expectations, especially his father's. Audrey, a compulsive liar, had her heart broken when her last boyfriend dumped her and so she jumped off a roof. They form a pact to commit suicide together, and head off on a road trip across the USA, stopping along the way to visit the graves of famous suicides. Final destination: Death Valley in California.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Crossroads by Chris Grabenstein

A ghost that lives in an oak tree near Zack's new house is trying to kill him, but Zack has ghostly friends on his side. Scary... but also really funny. It's a winning combination. Grade 4-8.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

Miriam Gordon, a 35-year-old library assistant at the Allan Gardens branch of Toronto Public Library, records interactions with patrons in brief incident reports. If you're in the mood for something different - amusing and perplexing and charming - give this a go. I loved it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Everafter by Amy Huntley

The spirit of 17-year-old Madison meets up with the spirit of her boyfriend, Gabe, in the afterlife. The first thing she realizes is that she misses him: "I know this sounds superficial, but I miss the way he looks. I mean, he was hot and now he's just mist. I know... I know... this is the kind of thing that keeps me attached to life and makes me a decidely unenlightened spirit."

This excerpt, together with the cover blurb from Gabrielle Zevin describing The Everafter as "a love story that transcends death," should be enough for readers to decide whether this book is for them or not. Sweet to the nth degree. A readalike that comes to mind is Heaven Looks a Lot Like a Mall by Wendy Mass.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

There's not much I can say about Terry Pratchett because his fabulousness is already well-known. If you haven't read any of his Discworld novels yet (and why haven't you?), then go ahead and start with this one. Expect wacky wizards, a benevolent tyrant and a city where humans, dwarfs, trolls and vampires have learned to co-exist, but football matches are apt to end in death. It is a story about having the courage to be true to oneself and the wisdom to view change in a positive light. Pratchett's use of language is such a delight that I will use the rest of this post to quote from the book:

"[The love letter] read as though someone had turned on the poetry tap and then absent-mindedly gone on holiday."
"Glenda was taken aback and affronted at the same time, which was a bit of a squeeze."
"Don't drink that - that's cider vinegar!" "I'm only drinking the cider bit."
"Juliet's version of cleanliness was next to godliness, which was to say it was erratic, past all understanding and was seldom seen."

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld

I first read Josh Neufeld's A.D. as a webcomic online. It is now available in hardcover book format. In five separate storylines, Neufeld follows the lives of seven people from New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

All of the stories were compelling, but what happened to Denise, a Black woman with a Master's degree in counselling, really struck a chord with me and I think of her as someone I've met and still care about. She was sharing an apartment with her mother, her niece and her niece's baby. They did not have the means to leave the city when the storm hit. The broken promise that a room would be provided at the hospital where Denise's mother worked; the man with a sick wife and child in a boat being turned away by armed soldiers outside the hospital as they all awaited evacuation; the horrors of waiting in the hot sun at the convention centre for more than a day without adequate water or sanitation facilities... her story is heartbreaking. Multiply that by thousands.

Monday, January 11, 2010

How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

Language is perhaps the biggest doorway into Sarah Hall’s intellectually stimulating novel about art and the meaning of life. I agree with The Daily Telegraph’s description: “a fine, vivid prose of exceptional poetic intensity and luminous beauty.” Characterization is also very strong; the story is told in four intertwined narratives. Peter Caldicutt (‘The Fool on the Hill’) is a famous landscape painter living in the north of England. Peter’s daughter Susan is also an artist - a photographer - but loses her bearings when her twin brother dies (‘The Mirror Crisis’). Giorgio, an elderly Italian still-life artist, records the very last part of his life (‘Translated from the Bottle Journals’). A blind Italian teenager who lives near Giorgio comes of age while her mother tries to protect her from all the evils of the world (‘The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni’). If you love richly evoked settings, you will also find that in this book: the fells of Cumbria and the hills of Umbria. Put all of these parts together and you have a totally amazing book.

Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda by Elisabeth Combres

From interviews with young survivors as well as aid workers in Rwanda, French journalist Elisabeth Combres has crafted a surprisingly gentle story about the aftermath of genocide. Emma was five in April, 1994, when the rest of her Tutsi family was murdered by Hutu men. An elderly Hutu widow takes Emma in and the pair continue on with life as best they can. Years pass before Emma finally gets help to deal with her nightmares and amnesia about her past. Grade 4-9.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

If you loved Twilight, then Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver is a book for you. It's got plenty of sexual tension between teenagers from two different worlds - Sam is a shapeshifting wolf/human and Grace is human. The setting is contemporary and realistic: Mercy Falls is a small town bordered by wilderness in Minnesota. Grace is stoic and dependable, which maybe doesn't sound so appealing, but I liked her better than Twilight's Bella. She falls in love with Sam when he is a wolf and commendably maintains her attraction to him when he is human. (This steadfast romance is the part I found over-the-top, but that's just me.) Sam has gorgeous golden eyes, the only part of him that looks the same no matter which species he inhabits. He is rather a cautious sort, letting Grace take the lead much of the time, which makes him more like Jacob than Edward. There's lots of action, which kept me turning pages - wolf attacks prompting wolf hunts, a half-mad werewolf... that sort of thing. Very entertaining. Similar titles (a little edgier and far less romantic) include: Sharp Teeth (Toby Barlow) and Liar (Justine Larbalestier).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Inferno by Robin Stevenson

Dante legally changed her name on her sixteenth birthday, but her Grade 11 English teacher insists on calling her by her old name, Emily. It’s been over a year since Dante and her parents moved half way across the country, but she still doesn’t fit in. At her old, artsy school in a cosmopolitan city, Dante’s teachers loved her. “At my new school? Not so much. Apparently what was seen as ‘independent thinking’ back in the city is called ‘attitude’ here.” (The setting for this book is pretty vague, with no specific cities mentioned. It could be Canada or the USA.)

Grade 10 at the new school was bearable because Dante was wrapped up in romance with Beth… but now Beth has moved away. It was a secret affair; nobody is out at Dante’s school and she hasn’t said anything about her sexuality to her parents, either. Somebody new has caught Dante’s eye, however. Parker has sled-dog blue eyes and no eyebrows. She quit school but comes by to pass out flyers. “WOOF, WOOF. YOU ARE NOT A DOG. WHY ARE YOU GOING TO OBEDIENCE SCHOOL?” When Dante joins Parker’s small circle of activists, she was hoping to escape from the hell of school. But is she jumping into the flames instead? Grade 7-12.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

postcard and other stories by Anik See

Six stories by Anik See (A Fork in the Road) make up this collection. The settings are unmistakably Canadian: Vancouver; Toronto; Calgary; and wilderness cabins near Ottawa and in the Rocky Mountain foothills. The language, too, is Canadian: "clicks" for "kilometres" and "T.O." for Toronto. They are about loneliness and regrets; searching for love and for meaningful connections with people.

A sleepless night is lyrically evoked: "The radiator clanks again, and a train passes on the tracks a few blocks away, and then everything is quiet, the kind of quiet where you think you can hear it all happening, all the things that have no sound. Minds working, persimmons turning sweet, fish breathing underwater, sleep." In the final story, "Postcard," the innovative use of white space on the page and experimental multiple narratives are also reminiscent of poetry.

The stories are told in first person. In the two that feature a male narrator, I was somewhat disconcerted by the gender switch, feeling like those stories would have worked better in a female (and therefore queer) voice. That is my only quibble, however. Altogether, they are as fresh as the scent of newly-chopped firewood and as polished as pebbles shining in the bed of a stream.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Raven Summer by David Almond

David Almond (Skellig) has done it again: another great book for teens about the complexities of growing up. Boys in northern England can be both tender and violent. They struggle to understand friendship and art and what it means to be alive as fighter jets fly above them towards the war in Iraq. A young man from Liberia is seeking asylum from war in his country. An abandoned baby is found when two friends follow a raven. To Almond, there are mysteries bordering on the numinous in everyday life, no matter where we live. Grade 6-10

Torch River by Elizabeth Philips

Saskatchewan lesbian poet Elizabeth Philips writes about the landscape and people moving comfortably through wilderness and women having sex outdoors. She writes about wanting to be a boy rather than a girl, as when "Head bowed for grace, / I am the shy daughter / and the son, wind-burnt and radiant / in disguise." She writes about babies being born, new fatherhood, widows with mastectomy scars - conditions of human life (and death) within the greater wheel of life on this planet. The prairie wind is often present in this collection, as rhythmic and graceful and unavoidable as breath.

My favourite poem is "Oxbow," one long sentence that begins: "This is the river that strayed, that slipped / aside, and, becalmed in its separate bed, / stayed, / this is the river / that feeds the rushes, the slow reeds / and heron, the river that sleeps / in a circle, and clasps within it / an island of ten white spruce, a hundred / aspen, / and a meadow / the span of an embrace / that we've claimed this afternoon ..." Torch River was shortlisted for a number of poetry awards, including the Lambda, and won the Golden Crown Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry.

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and David Small

Young Lydia Grace Finch writes letters home to her family during the Great Depression. She has been sent to live with her uncle in New York City, where she helps in his bakery. Like her namesake, her grandmother, Lydia Grace loves to garden and she brings this passion with her from the country to the city. Along with the irrepressible spirit of Lydia Grace herself, it is her delight in beauty and hope for the future that makes this such an inspiring book. Picture book for Grade 1-5.

Flight of the Hummingbird by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Michael Yahgulanaas has created striking Haida artwork in red, black and white to illustrate a fable told by the Quechan people of Ecuador. The story is of a hummingbird who is the only creature to do anything about extinguishing a fire when a great forest is burning. The other animals all watch, but do nothing, while Dukdukdiya (the Haida word for hummingbird) flies back and forth with a single drop of water each time. She tells the others, "I am doing what I can." Yahgulanaas explains that in traditional Haida stories, it is often the most diminutive being that offers the most critical gift or the necessary solution.

The fable is suitable for all ages, from about age 4 through to adult. For older readers, this very slim book also includes inspirational messages from Wangari Maathai and the Dalai Lama about caring for the environment.

Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino

"Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads." John Porcellino's simple line drawings pair well with brief excerpts from Henry David Thoreau's writings. The book is divided into four seasons, which gives a narrative flow to time spent at Walden Pond. Additional material at the beginning and the end will help orient new readers to Thoreau's work and will point them towards further reading. Grade 6-12.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

Laurel Hawthorne wakes up one night to see a ghost at the foot of her bed. It is the ghost of Molly, a friend of Laurel's 13-year-old daughter, Shelby. Molly has just drowned in the Hawthorne's swimming pool. As Laurel tries to understand how Molly ended up dead, dark family secrets come to the surface. Her perfect life in a gated Florida community is turned upside-down. I listened to an audiobook narrated by the author, which added the dimension of the voices of the Southern setting. The ghost aspect may make this sound creepier than it is; I found it rather frothy, but entertaining.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

"A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: it is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was." What a wonderful, thought-provoking book this was. It was recommended as a read-alike for Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, which I loved. I found Nassim Taleb's style more of an intellectual challenge than Gladwell's, but ultimately every bit as satisfying. Both writers are gifted with interdisciplinary genius, looking at the world with an openness that is coupled with astute analysis. Taleb writes: "understanding how to act under conditions of incomplete information is the highest and most urgent human pursuit." Thankfully, he offers practical suggestions for this quest.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Given by Daphne Marlatt

In a story that begins in present day Vancouver, a mother's death leads a daughter to go back in memory to her teenage years, the 1950s, examining her mother's life from that viewpoint. The narrators' parents were British immigrants from Malaysia and her mother had difficulties adjusting to life as a homemaker with three daughters in North Van. The hopefulness and prosperity of that era are evoked - along with the major concerns of the time, like the Cuban missile crisis. Daphne Marlatt contrasts these scenes with present-day life for a lesbian in the same "world-class city." Slogans and newspaper headlines are incorporated into the text, along with brief excerpts from writers like Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras.

When I was about 1/3 of the way into the narrative, I still could not say what exactly it was that I was reading. Was it fiction? Autobiography? Was it poetry or not? I examined the back cover, where it is called a "haunting and multi-layered long poem which reads with all the urgency and depth of a novel." So there you go. I loved it and I'm very pleased to start 2010 with such a fine book.