Friday, July 30, 2010

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

In a convent on the Hudson River in New York State, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration maintain a library devoted to the study of angels. Sister Evangeline is 23 years old in 1999; she is the youngest of the nuns and has lived there since she was 12.

It turns out that the angels thrown out of heaven were a very bad bunch of creatures. The males bred with human women, producing hybrid offspring called Nephilim. An elder nun, who had seen Nephilim when they attacked the convent in 1944, describes them to Evangeline. "Their beauty was a terrible manifestation of evil, a cold and diabolic allure that could lead one all the more easily to harm." The goal of the Nephilim is world dominance.

Angelologists, devoted to protecting humanity by ridding the world of Nephilim, have struggled in secret for centuries. It is all very Dan Brown Da Vinci Code-esque, with apocryphal texts and much rushing around. Author Danielle Trussoni throws real scientists into the mix: the Curie Foundation funds research into the radioactive nature of angelic light; Watson and Crick's genetic research is applied to the hybridization of Nephilim with humans; the effects of sound on organisms is compared to Masaru Emoto's experiments with water molecules.

The whole thing is much more gothic than I like and I wasn't sure I would make it through the entire book. Even at the half-way point, I was considering giving up on it, but I gave it another day and finished it.

A review in the New York Times called Trussoni's writing exquisite, but it's easy to find examples of what I disliked about her style: "In the last minutes of his life, his lungs burning for air, X____ was drawn into the horrifying translucency of his killer's eyes. They were pale and ringed with red, intense as a chemical fire stabilized in a frozen atmosphere." "When he clutched her collar, the tiny buttons of her black jacket broke free, scattering across the concrete of the platform like so many beetles fleeing the light." "The cut over his eye had been sutured and cleaned and had the appearance of raw and gruesome embroidery." "I took a sip of the cold, dry champagne. The taste was so wonderful that my tongue recoiled as if in pain."

If you don't mind overwrought prose and are looking for a thriller with lots of arcane biblical references, this may be for you. The reading experience for me was similar to Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. I was often pulled out of the story because of the OTT language. (Plus a few notable typos, like "choir of angles.") The unresolved ending turned out to be my favourite part of Angelology. It is likely that a sequel will follow, but I've had enough.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

There Are Cats in this Book by Viviane Schwarz

A lift-the-flap book with three playful cats... yay! This picture book from British author/illustrator Viviane Schwarz has some similarities to Melanie Watt's Chester books - the watercolour cats; the tongue-in-cheek humour playing with book as artifact - and it will certainly appeal to Watt's fans, but the best thing is that it is great for very young children. The bright primary colours, simple lines and comic-style word balloons work well together. And then there are the flaps and the partly-cut pages revealing details from the page beyond. It is delightful!

The cats are first uncovered by lifting a blanket-flap. Then, one by one, they wake as their individual flaps are lifted. "Hello. Who are YOU?" asks red Tiny. "Are you NICE?" asks blue Moonpie. "You LOOK nice," says yellow Andre, adding when his flap is turned "and STRONG. Could you turn a whole PAGE?."

I love the way the cats tell young readers exactly what to do. ("There's MORE! Quick, turn another page!") My favourite part is where two cats want to go back. "Let's go back to the yarn!" says Tiny. "Yes. Turn the page back!" says Andre. But Moonpie says, "NO! Keep going THIS way. LOOK! There are CARDBOARD BOXES!" He is pointing to the cut-out bottom right corner of the righthand page, where part of a box can be seen.

At the end, the cats are put to bed ("Night-night") and covered with another blanket-flap. The text on the final endpaper reads, "Did you like the cats? I think they really liked you." I liked this book very much and kids from babyhood upward will too.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Britten and Brulightly by Hannah Berry

Fernandez Britten is a dour and depressed man with huge dark circles around his eyes. He and his partner, Stewart Brulightly, have run a detective agency for a decade. Their clients are mostly jealous lovers or vengeful lovers out to get back at jealous lovers. This ugly kind of work has earned Britten the nickname "Heartbreaker." Britten agrees with his partner's suggestion that they be more discriminating in the future. "Nowadays, I don't get out of bed for less than a murder. I don't get out of bed much."

A rich woman insists that her fiancé's death was murder, not suicide. When Britten's investigations lead him to blackmail and family secrets, he wonders if it always best to know the truth.

British graphic novelist Hannah Berry has brought some wonderful characters to life with her artwork and her words. The story has the noir feel of Raymond Chandler's mysteries.

Berry also incorporates delightful humour. Britten's partner, Brulightly, is a teabag. He travels in Britten's vest pocket. One wet night after Britten jumps into a ditch while on the run from bad guys, Brulightly apologizes, "Look, I'm sorry: I infused in your waistcoat." Highly recommended.

Speaking of Raymond Chandler, I learned yesterday that I write like him... according to the I Write Like website. I tested a bunch of different reviews from this blog, being careful to cut out any quotes, so that it was only my words. The results were entertaining. Apparently, I also write in the style of David Foster Wallace, H.P. Lovecraft, James Joyce, Cory Doctorow, Jack London, and Arthur C. Clarke. Hmm.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

Sixteen-year-old Nick and his older brother, Alan, have have a fierce loyalty to each other. They are on their own, since their father is dead and their mother, who was once a powerful magician, is insane. Now all of the magicians in England are hunting for them with the help of demons, seeking a stolen talisman. The brothers are both quick with weapons and always on the move. Nick has always looked up to Alan, in spite of his soft-hearted ways, but when a young man shows up with his sister, seeking help against demons of their own, Nick begins to suspect that Alan has been lying to him.

Irish author Sarah Brennan has combined suspense, magic, family secrets, brotherly love and twisty action in her first novel. Highly recommended for fans of urban fantasy along the lines of Holly Black's White Cat. Grade 8 - up.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Airman by Eoin Colfer

Conor Broekhart was born in a hot air balloon in 1878. Ever since, he has dreamed of inventing some sort of a motorized flying contraption. His father is a captain of the guard of the King of Saltee, sovereign islands off the coast of Ireland. King Nicholas is a great supporter of technological marvels, so Conor has plenty of encouragement. But dastardly deeds are underfoot and Conor soon has to use his quick mind in a very different way.

The steampunk genre isn't new; it's been around for about 30 years. A recent upsurge in publishing alternate history pseudo-Victorian tales for younger readers is, however, like a tail wind pushing the steampunk dirigible into a new spotlight. Kenneth Oppel's Airborn and its sequels, Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, Arthur Slade's Hunchback Assignments and Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series are examples I've read.

Irish author Eoin Colfer is an author I can rely on for an entertaining read, so I was willing to give him the 80 pages it took before I became truly hooked on Airman. Once hooked, I didn't put it down until the satisfying conclusion. Grade 5 and up.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pinocchio Vampire Slayer by Van Jensen and Dusty Higgins

I didn't expect to enjoy a monster mash-up so very much. Geppetto has been killed by vampires and Pinocchio is out for revenge. He tells a lie and then snaps off his nose. This provides a handy and effective wooden stake that turns the vampires of Nasolungo to dust.

Dusty Higgins' strong black and white art (and Pinocchio's line "I kill monsters") reminded me of Niimura's work in I Kill Giants. There is also a woodcut sort of style to the imagery that evokes the setting and the classic original story. Patterned scarves worn by the villagers and vampires are a nice visual touch. Van Jensen's retelling - post-telling, actually - is sly, inventive and thoroughly entertaining. Grade 6 - adult.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Thanks to Yann Martel's enthusiasm in What Is Stephen Harper Reading, I finally got around to this classic, written when Francoise Sagan was still in her teens. It's about 17-year-old Cecile and her widowed father, who spend a summer in St. Tropez. Cecile falls in love with a local boy and her father has two different romantic interests. Cecile's meddling in her father's affairs has unintended consequences.

I listened to an unabridged audio version, read in French by Sara Giraudeau. It is only about 3 and a half hours long. I loved Giraudeau's voice and the story was great. It evoked lazy, hot days in the south of France, the characters came to life and the language itself was beautiful. What more do you need?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Heart Is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall

A good friend was angry and appalled when her daughter was forbidden by an art teacher to use hearts in an art project. She was told that hearts do not make for serious art. My friend's reaction (in addition to giving the teacher a piece of her mind) was to create a fabulous poem about heart shapes found in nature. That incident was also the catalyst for my sweetie's series of abstract paintings of hearts.

It's unlikely that graphic artist Michael Hall ever met that particular art teacher, but his first picture book could also be a rebuttal. Using bright colours and hundreds of heart shapes, Hall writes about the human gamut of feelings and emotions. Whether "happy as a herd of hippos drinking apple juice" or "gloomy as a lone coyote walking in the fog," Hall's animals are created almost entirely from overlapping hearts. Absolutely charming. Preschool and up.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Set in a postapocalyptic future, this adventure begins on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where work crews eke out an existence by salvaging materials from old ships. Nailer Gomez is the smallest member of his crew: he's the one who scrambles through ancient ductwork, scavenging copper wire and metal staples. His crew members dream of finding a pocket of oil - a lucky strike that they would carefully ladle out for sale. Instead, a hurricane brings with it an even greater treasure; one of the sleek new clipper ships has been run aground. The only survivor is a rich girl. She could be Nailer's ticket out of hell... or else the instrument of his death.

I found a lot of similarities to Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, but I liked Ship Breaker better, mostly because the scenario seemed more realistic. Bacigalupi has torn environmental elements from today's headlines: oil tankers in the Gulf; coastal cities drowned by rising sea levels; shipping routes across the ice-free North Pole; New Orleans destroyed by hurricanes several times; and tarsands oil development. There's plenty of action and suspense, but, unlike The Hunger Games, I never found it implausible. Grade 7 - up to adult.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

Autobiographical essays by a funny young woman who isn't embarrassed to write about her mistakes. And she does make a lot of them. She marches to a different drummer, one that is a little offbeat. Her topics include being Jewish and attending a Christian summer camp; being maid of honour to a bride she barely knows; locking herself out of her apartment and so on. My favourite piece is Bastard out of Westchester, where she writes about having an unusual first name: "Like a lunatic in the psych ward with only smocks and slippers for clothes, my name is the one definite thing I own."

Crosley's voice is borderline whiny; I think that was the quality that had me spacing out each essay by reading other books in between. On the plus side, she is not as bitchy as David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs, but she has more snark than Susan Jane Gilman (Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress). Cheryl Peck (Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs) is more tongue-in-cheek. Beth Lisick (Everybody into the Pool) is funnier and has more punk culture asthetic. David Rakoff (Don't Get Too Comfortable) is a little crankier and more pretentious. Hillary Carlip (Queen of the Oddballs) is more desperate and has a pop culture asthetic. Yet, if you enjoy any of these authors, I think you would also like Crosley. Her new collection is How Did You Get this Number.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What Is Stephen Harper Reading? by Yann Martel

"Every two weeks since April 16th, 2007, Yann Martel has mailed Prime Minister Stephen Harper a book along with a letter encouraging the politician to take time to discover the life-shaping marvel contained within books." (From the back cover.) What a bizarre -- and admirable -- project. I enjoyed Martel's letters very much.

Martel explains why he continues to mail books and letters to Harper, despite getting two paltry form letters in response. "If Stephen Harper hasn't read any of these, then what is his mind made of? How did he get his insights into the human condition? What materials went into the building of his sensibility? What is the colour, the pattern, the rhyme and reason of his imagination?"

I almost put the book down one-third of the way through because I wanted to read every single book Martel wrote about and my to-read list is already longer than I can keep up with! Making a quick tally at the end, I discovered that I had already read 20 out of the 55 books, plus different titles by another nine of the authors on his list. Whew! That's not so many still to be discovered after all. Also, the books are short ones, because Martel has acknowledged that Harper is a busy man who probably only has fifteen minutes here and there, perhaps at the end of his day, to read. The very first book, The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, is now on hold for me at the library, as is another recommendation, Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan. I look forward to reading those with Martel's comments in mind.

This monograph ends with the 55th letter and book sent, but the project continues. Check out all of the newer recommendations on Martel's What Is Stephen Harper Reading website.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Borderline by Allan Stratton

It's funny that I just blogged about the increase in Canadian teen novels that start in the States and move into Canada, and then I read another one. Borderline uses crossing the international border very effectively. Fifteen-year-old Sami Sabiri is bullied at his private school in upper New York State because he's the only Muslim there. A gay teacher provide's Sami's sole support at school.

Mr. Sabiri invites Sami to join him on a September business trip to Toronto, promising tickets to both the Blue Jays and the Leafs. At the last minute, Sami's father reneges on his invitation and that's where the web of lies begins. While his father is away, Sami goes on an overnight trip with friends to a cottage in the Thousand Islands (Canadian side). A few days later, FBI agents wake his family in the night and tear their home apart: carpets ripped from the floors; upholstery cut open; books torn apart; light switch plates removed; computers and food containers confiscated. Mr. Sabiri is taken into custody. Suspicion of terrorism means that civil rights are suspended. Sami doesn't know if his father is guilty of anything, but he's determined to learn the truth.

A gripping story that could so easily be true. We need more books like this that engage discussion about fear, prejudice and justice. Grade 7 - up.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cats' Night Out by Caroline Stutson and J. Klassen

Kids being put to bed probably already suspected that all the fun happens after dark. This suspicion is confirmed by John Burningham's It's a Secret and Caroline Stutson's Cats' Night Out. Nighttime is party time for hip cats.

Counting by twos in danceable rhyming verse, Cats' Night Out has an irresistible beat. J. Klassen's atmospheric illustrations in greys and browns show pairs of kitties kicking up their heels to a city backdrop. Each boogie, tango, tap dance, twist, fox-trot and polka comes with two more cats and a costume change, but their eyes remain closed in bliss or concentration until people yell from their windows for quiet. The cats' eyes snap open and they make their way home... until the dancing starts again on the following night.

More sophisticated than most counting books, I would give this to city kids in Grade 1 to 3.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Bruise by Magdalena Zurawski

M-'s final year of college comes with some pretty big changes in her life. Change is the hardest thing for M-. She is not your run-of-the-mill quirky character. More like quirky to the nth degree. She either has Asperger's or some mental illness; whatever it is has M- watching herself as if from an outsider's perspective and obsessing about the tiniest of details.

M- keeps all of her toiletries in a bucket on her dresser in her dorm room. "The bucket was white so I was careful to purchase only white cakes of soap white washrags a white toothbrush white tubes of toothpaste and shampoo that came in white bottles. Occasionally though my scalp would begin to itch and its skin would flake and for this reason I was forced to purchase a tar shampoo that had an amber color and came in a clear plastic bottle." M- stores the tar shampoo in a drawer with her socks, since "I held the belief that things needn't be too orderly once in a drawer."

Her beliefs do not include commas, since I don't remember seeing one in the entire book. The sentence structure of the text gives insight into the unusual way M- views the world. In the example of her toiletries, one could infer that M- sees a pleasing whiteness, rather than individual items (separated by commas).

Anyway, M- has affairs with a couple of female students, G- and L-. My favourite part in the book is when M- recounts an earlier conversation with her mother, telling her "I'm not like other boys." I found myself really liking M- and admiring her strong moral compass. The final image, of Bernini's sculpture of Apollo transforming Daphne into a tree, is a good analogy for M-'s metamorphic coming-of-age.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Not Suitable for Family Viewing by Vicki Grant

The cover image on this book led me to believe it might be something like those Summer Share or Au Pair teen chick lit series. The title led me to believe it was strictly for older teens. Wrong on both counts. Lots of humour, yet not as fluffy as I expected, with an interesting 17-year-old protagonist puzzling out the mystery of her family origins. Aside from some passionate kissing and a baby born out of wedlock, it is quite chaste.

Robin is the daughter of a world-famous tv personality, Mimi Schwartz. A chance discovery of an old photo and high school ring that had been hidden in her mother's room leave Robin with questions. Mimi has never, ever mentioned Nova Scotia. When her rock-star father and his new wife forget that she is supposed to be spending some time with them, Robin decides to ditch New York City in order to investigate in the tiny fishing village of Port Minton, Nova Scotia.

(I've noticed that more Canadian authors are including ties to American locations in their books, even when they are mostly set in Canada. The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones is another example.) Anyway, this book IS suitable for family viewing, especially teen girls in Grade 7 - up who are looking for a combination of wit, romance, mystery and substance.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

White Cat by Holly Black

Cassel is the youngest member of a family of curse workers - people who can change your luck, your emotions or your memories with the touch of their bare hands. Curse working is illegal in the United States and so he comes from a family of criminals, but Cassel has no powers of his own. I was hooked from the opening scene: Cassel wakes up one night on the steep, dangerous roof of his private school. Has he been sleepwalking, or is someone trying to kill him?

Taut with twists and double-crosses, this will appeal to readers in Grade 8 and up looking for intelligent thrillers or urban fantasy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Big Big Sky by Kristyn Dunnion

Once in a long long milli somepod writes a kronking book using invented language. It prolly took me 50 pages to decide it was worth the effort to unscramble the words rather than deplug from the story entirely. By then, I was emotionally invested in the pod of female warriors: Shona, Roku, Rustle, Solomon and Loo. As fetid truths are revealed about their alien masters, the ScanMans, the warriors have every reason to be full-on paranoidal. “ScanMans have been using us all – stealing us from our biological nests, deleting our human and ancestral rememories, training and tuning and modifying us into their own perfect, elite bodyguards. Using us up, one generation of brainwashed Warriors at a time.”

Loo and Rustle are romantically involved. Rustle describes their first full fusion nuzzle: “Loo kissed me, blaaty well kissed me through and through, tingled my spinecore, fused my mind, melded it, set my wires aflame.” Precious blocks of tender time are few, however. This tough pod is on the run and fighting to survive. I didn’t leak any eye juice over their dreary woes, but I was dandystill freaking on their adventures and cheering them on. Suckle it up and enjoy. Grade 8 - up