Saturday, February 27, 2010

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Cameron Smith is a sixteen-year-old student in Texas who has never quite fit in, unlike his twin sister, Jenna. She always knows what to say and what to wear and is surrounded by the popular crowd at school. When Cameron is diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob - mad cow - disease, his terminal illness suddenly puts him into the spotlight. A pink-haired angel in combat boots encourages Cameron to escape from the hospital and embark on a wacky road trip in search of a cure. His helpers in this quest are a Mexican dwarf and a Nordic god in the form of a garden gnome.

The story is narrated in Cameron's entertaining, sarcastic voice. I never found him entirely believable, as a character. He is obviously smart, but I wanted to understand why he was so lacking in ambition and so detached from care for anyone or any thing. The story moves along at a fast clip, keeping the reader slightly off-balance. Is Cameron dreaming? Is he experiencing multiple dimensions of reality - or is it dementia?

It's a playful romp, layered with social commentary, pop culture and literary references. The open ending suits the storyline. Many aspects of this upbeat, superficially philosophical book reminded me of Douglas Coupland's Generation A. It is quite different - and to my mind better - than Bray's 19th century Gemma Doyle series. Grade 9 - up.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

The books I love the most are the hardest ones to blog about because it's hard to avoid gushing and I don't like it when other people gush online so I try not to do that. So what happens is that I don't write anything at all about some of my very favourite books, like David Small's Stitches. It's a shame to leave out the best ones, so I'll try to restrain myself with Asterios Polyp, which is so good that everyone should read it RIGHT NOW!

We meet Asterios at about the lowest point in his life, after his wife Hana has left him and he has lost his job as a professor of architecture and all of his possessions have been destroyed in an apartment fire. With only the clothes on his back and three keepsakes in his pocket, he sets off to find a new life. In flashbacks, we learn that Asterios was pompous, irritable and self-centred. It is no wonder that Hana left him. She is a sculptor who uses found materials to create organic, whimsical structures. Asterios sees things as strictly black and white and he values only functional designs. He is not a likable man and yet I felt sympathetic to his plight, so beaten down in the opening chapter.

This is a graphic novel that makes full use of the storytelling and emotional powers of art itself. Mazzucchelli's style changes with the characters. Narrative and side commentaries are offered by illustrations that take us beyond the written text. Asterios is always shown in profile, in a style that reminds me of the old man in Pascal Blanchet's La Fugue, (which may be why I warmed to Asterios immediately, come to think of it).

The tragedy inherent in the human experience. Lots of humour. Lots of literary references. Magnificent, expressive art. This book is fabulous.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Doctors prescribed the baking dry heat of Egypt as the only cure for Lady Duff Gordon's poor health. So, Sally Naldrett, who had already served as the lady's maidservant for over a decade, and who had travelled with her seeking cures in the past, went with her to Egypt in 1862. They both knew that the move to Egypt was for the long term. A charming and efficient dragoman named Omar was hired to run their household and cook for them. The two women adapted to life in Luxor on the upper Nile by learning Arabic and discarding their stays and heavy English dresses in favour of the comfortable clothing of the place. Sally loved her new life. It came as a great shock to her when she made a misstep and her beloved mistress cast her out.

I loved the rich evocation of setting and the details of daily life that transported me to 19th century Egypt. Sally's personality is so similar to my own that it was easy to slip inside of her as she told her tale. For a similar book, try Joan London's Gilgamesh.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Path of the Warrior by Richard Van Camp and Steven Keewatin Sanderson

After a bullet meant for him hits a baby instead, Cullen decides he wants out of his First Nations crime gang, the Sindicate. In a 48-page comic book published by the Healthy Aboriginal Network, Cullen faces the consequences of his actions. Yes, it is didactic, as it is meant to send a strong message. It is also successful as narrative, with a cast of believable characters who act in realistic ways. Other teen books about getting out of gangs include Autobiography of My Dead Brother (Walter Dean Myers) and Homeboyz (Alan Lawrence Sitomer). Grade 7 - up.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fire by Kristin Cashore

In this companion to her first novel, Graceling, readers can enjoy more of Kristin Cashore's richly-detailed world-building. We are on the other side of the mountains this time, where only a young boy named Leck, with one red and one gray eye, provides a link to the setting in Graceling. Instead of graces, we are introduced to deadly magical monsters, which are brilliantly-coloured counterparts to every animal species, including humans. There is a half-human monster at the center of the story, a teenager named Fire, who is struggling to come to terms with her fearsome powers. She is in a love triangle amidst the political intrigue of a country on the verge of civil war.

Repeated references to Fire's menstrual cycles - she is a particular target for monster raptors during that time - had me feeling a bit uneasy about this reinforcement of a popular urban legend regarding dangerous animals being attracted to menstruating women on wilderness trips. On the other hand, I appreciated Cashore bringing the topic into the open. It made a stark contrast to the total absence of any monthly bleeding in Twilight, where it would have made sense to mention it, given the extreme reaction Edward and his family had when Bella cut her finger.

Fire is an intriguing character and Fire is an engrossing, romantic and suspenseful story. It is also a Cybil winner. Grade 9 and up.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Are you in the mood for a paranormal southern gothic set in a contemporary small town in South Carolina? Beautiful Creatures has a good balance of foreboding nightmares, high school social politics, an ancient curse and buttermilk pie. Ethan fell in love with Lena, the girl of his dreams, before he had ever met her. Then, he recognized her at school, where she was a new student. Lena comes from a long line of witches. Ethan is a mortal. Their feelings for each other are dangerous in ways they don't fully understand.

I liked that the story is told from Ethan's point of view because that kept the romance element - which is crucial to the plot - from being too emotional for my taste. Ethan and Lena are misfits so sympathetically portrayed that it's everyone else in the school who seems freakishly normal. Recommended to fans of urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Grade 8 - up.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

The botanical atrocities described in this entertaining and informative guide include plants that are deadly, intoxicating, illegal, painful, dangerous and destructive. A few are merely offensive; social misfits that stink, slobber or have other disgusting habits. What common garden plants that can kill a person, even in small doses? Do you know which houseplants are deadly to cats? What leaf has fueled a global war? Can you name famous people who have died of botanical poisons? Get your answers in this book.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Falling Cloudberries: A World of Family Recipes by Tessa Kiros

This is a cookbook for people who love to read cookbooks. I only made one of the recipes, but I read the book cover to cover. Tessa Kiros grew up in South Africa with a Finnish Jewish mother and a Greek-Cypriot father. When she writes of cinnamon and rose water - memories of her Cypriot grandfather - I can almost smell and taste the rice pudding she describes. Lush photos illustrate not only prepared dishes but also close-up images of ingredients in market stalls as well as textiles and stone pathways and black-and-white photos of Tessa's ancestors.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Only a Witch Can Fly by Alison McGhee and Taeeun Yoo

A little girl's longing to fly is portrayed as a Halloween story. Alison McGhee has written it with the hypnotic rhythms of a sestina. The word repetition, the night-time setting and the ever-present moon, together with Taeeun Yoo's woodcuts in subdued oranges, greens and browns, reminded me of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd's Goodnight Moon. Highly recommended for preschool to Grade 1, at any time of the year.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Likewise by Ariel Schrag

This is the final installment of Ariel Schrag's High School Comic Chronicles. Through her Grade 12 year, Ariel is unable to get over Sally, the lover who dumped her and who is now attending college and dating guys. Ariel makes her way through Sally's favourite book, Ulysses by James Joyce (which is pictured accompanied always by an annotated guide to Ulysses). Ariel also spends a lot of time trying to find a scientific answer for why people are gay. And she spends hours on her epic autobiographical multivolume comic project.

On Ariel's 18th birthday, her mother gives her some money and Ariel plans to spend it on a sex toy. Sally comes by for a visit with her college roommate, Alexis. The text boxes feature Joycean stream-of-consciousness: "let them morose and apathetic. Sally pats on head: 'what's wrong?' disinterested in imbecility. In room I shove paunch of money into my pocket. looks like an eager erection."

I found an online interview with Schrag that helped me understand why the final third of Likewise makes such radical style shifts. Schrag is brave, insightful and talented. The artwork includes realistic masterbation and sex scenes, so I don't recommend this for reading on public transit... otherwise, I recommend it to any adult who enjoys honest character portrayal.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Wayfinders by Wade Davis

Wade Davis coined the term "ethnosphere" to describe the wide variety of cultures that span the planet. In the 2009 series of CBC Massey Lectures, he explains "why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world" and why even our concept of what is "modern" hinders our ability to see the benefit to our planet that would come from incorporating non-western cultural viewpoints. For the sake of all of us sharing living space on Earth, we need to open our eyes to better possibilities. The Wayfinders is an impassioned - and very readable - account of vibrant current cultures that are in danger of being lost.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream by Wade Rouse

One half of a gay couple recounts their "Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life" after they leave their city home in St. Louis for a cabin in the woods near Lake Michigan. Wade Rouse wants to follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau. It's a stretch; he doesn't try to hide the fact that he can be shallow and silly. I found Wade's whining to be somewhat annoying. Mostly, however, his adventures amused and entertained me. Towards the end of this memoir, after the guys have weathered country living for the better part of a year, Wade has clearly learned many lessons and I found him more endearing. Recommended to readers who enjoy the neurotic and arch styles of Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris and David Rakoff.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Ash by Malinda Lo

Aisling - Ash for short - grows up as a servant in her stepmother's household after her parents die. She spends whatever free time she has either reading fairytales or walking in the woods. Ash is attracted to two different people: Sidhean, a handsome and powerful fairy, and Kaisa, the King's Huntress. Where does her future lie?

It has been far too long since I've read a lesbian-themed retelling of a traditional story. This one is pitch-perfect. Even the design details of the book (published by Little, Brown, 2009) add to the atmosphere, with elaborate drop-capitals opening each chapter and judicious use of an elegant script font for the first line.

Any sexual references are oblique. For example, when Ash asks "Will I die?" the answer is "Only a little" and then the scene changes to the next morning. I am comfortable recommending this novel to Grade 6 and up. A shorter retelling of the Cinderella story can be found in Emma Donoghue's lesbian-feminist collection, Kissing the Witch.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pink! by Lynne Rickards and Margaret Chamberlain

Patrick is a school-age penguin who turns pink overnight. He feels like he no longer fits in at school, so he journeys to the land of the flamingos. But he doesn't fit in there either, so he goes home. His friends all welcome him back and Patrick decides that being different isn't so bad after all.

This book is more about self-acceptance than being gay, but a hot pink colour for boys is associated with gays or sissies, plus Patrick's best friend, Arthur, seems to have an extra gleam in his eyes when Patrick returns. So I'll assign this one a GLBTQ tag. Preschool - Grade 3.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura

Barbara Thorson is not a typical Grade 5 student. She is tougher than Emily Strange and cares nothing about schoolwork, boys, dating, clothes - or anything that distracts her from her task, which is to be prepared to kill giants. She is fearless when faced with school bullies; her enemy is much greater than that. Over time, Barbara learns that she doesn't have to be alone in her struggles and that it is okay to accept help with life's demons. Ken Niimura's black and white inkwash art is a good pair with Joe Kelly's text. The atmosphere is of looming menace. At times, it isn't easy to discern what is happening - which is a reflection of the troubled workings in Barbara's mind. Grade 7 to adult.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

People tend to believe whatever they read or hear in the media. That's one of the central themes of The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver's historical saga set in the 1930s and '40s. Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and their distinguished guest, Leon Trotsky, appear to be immune to the lies told about them. A young gay man who works for them, Harrison Shepherd, has a much harder time accepting this fault of the press - and the public. Shepherd had a lonely childhood as the son of a Mexican mother who left her gringo American husband and sought male company and financial support wherever she could. The story is told through Shepherd's journals, starting from about age 12. His voice is kind, diffident and witty and captured me from the moment I began reading his amazing life story.