Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival

I've just put together my ticket order for the Vancouver Writersfest that happens every October. It's so exciting! I plan to go to 10 of the events. My sweetie and I even changed our flight home so that we could stay until the very end on Sunday; couldn't miss Ali Smith!

This will be the fifth time that I attend -- I love love love this festival. There are always such great authors in the line-up. This year I'm excited about hearing Emma Donoghue, Lynda Barry (she's giving a writing workshop!), Ivan Coyote, Kate Pullinger, Kamila Shamsie, Andrea Levy, Yann Martel, Martha Brooks, Rebecca James, Erin Moure, David Mitchell, Drew Hayden Taylor and, of course, Ali Smith. Yeehaw!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb

I was mesmerized from the start: "Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you're dead." Helen has haunted several human hosts since her death more than a century earlier. Her current host is Mr. Brown, a high school teacher. Helen has never taken much notice of Billy Blake, a boy in Mr. Brown's English class, until the day he looks right at her. Helen learns that it is another spirit observing her, a young man named James who inhabited Billy's body when he nearly died of an overdose.

Helen and James are strongly attracted to each other, but there isn't much they can do besides talk... unless Helen finds a body too. She does find one - a teenager named Jenny - but it isn't so easy for young people act on their desires. Especially in a family like Jenny's, where Christopher Hitchens' hyperbolic pronouncement that "religion is child abuse" is apt.

I listened to an unabridged audiobook narrated by Lauren Molina. Her confessional tone wove a narrative spell in my ears. A great ghost story with interesting characters, intriguing moral dilemmas, and passionate romance. Grade 9 - adult

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Foiled by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro

I love seeing high-quality graphic novels that will appeal to girls in Grade 4 or 5 and up. It seems like there is way more stuff with boys as central characters. In Foiled, Jane Yolen's fantasy set in New York City is well matched with Mike Cavallaro's art. The green-gray tones give way to full colour when the magical action begins; a wonderful effect.

Aliera Carstairs loves reading and role-playing games. She is very comfortable with a fencing foil in her hand and has competed at fencing tournaments since she was a young girl. Now Aliera is in high school and she doesn't fit with any of the cliques there. She notices a very handsome new boy, Avery Castle, but feels sure that he would never look twice at her. He does - when they are paired together in Biology lab. (Why is that device used so often in teen novels?) Anyway, when Aliera meets Avery in Grand Central Station, she learns that his charms hide some pretty big secrets.

Readalikes: Rapunzel's Revenge (Shannon Hale and others) and Re-Gifters (Mike Carey and others).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mercy Thompson: Homecoming by Patricia Briggs

Mercedes (Mercy) Thompson is a coyote shapeshifter who was raised by a pack of werewolves. Patricia Briggs wrote several novels about her (starting with Moon Called) and then collaborated with some other artistic folk to create a full-colour graphic novel series featuring Mercy. Homecoming is the first of these.

Mercy is a great character. She is strong, self-reliant and a skilled auto mechanic. She is protective towards children and she won't let bullies boss her around. Mercy tangles with a rogue pack of werewolves who have moved into the Tri-Cities area of Washington State. Vampires and various fae are also part of the scene. I look forward to reading more, but it'll have to be in regular print format because there aren't any more comics yet. My niece has left her car at my house while she is working out-of-province and I noticed a bag of Patricia Briggs paperbacks is on the back seat...

NOTE added March 31, 2013: I finally got around to reading Moon Called and reviewed it here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Blue Dahlia by Nora Roberts

If you've been following my blog, you already know that romance is not my genre. As part of my job at the public library, however, I need to be familiar with benchmark authors and Nora Roberts is certainly one of those. My mother is among the legions of Nora Roberts fans, so I asked her to recommend one to me. Mom did quite well in selecting a title that centers on gardening, since that is a subject I love. There's also a ghost, which adds a bit of interest to an otherwise straight-forward romance. I listened to an audiobook read by Susie Breck and appreciated her use of different voices so that I could keep track of internal and external dialogue.

Stella, a widow in her mid-30s with two young boys, meets Logan, a divorced landscaper. Stella has moved to Tennessee and taken a job as manager of a nursery where Logan works. Stella's blue eyes and Logan's large, calloused hands are mentioned often. I learned that long hair is sexy - hers: red and wild; his: dark and tousled. One sure thing in the romance genre is that the couple introduced at the beginning end up together in a happy ending. A ghost tries, but fails, to intervene. The paranormal part of the novel was strangely ordinary. I'm used to more psychological suspense in a story with a ghost, but there was very little of that in Blue Dahlia. Southerners apparently take ghosts in stride.

'Workmanlike' is the best description I can come up with for Roberts' writing style. Cliched similes (her body "revved like a well-oiled machine" when held against his "muscles like warm iron") were few enough that they didn't grate on me. I did get a little tired of all the gardening metaphors. The book was okay, all 11 hours of it. (I'm now walking to and from work, so audiobooks have replaced reading on transit bus commutes.) No Nora Roberts ever again, however. Does anyone have a sure-fire romance recommendation for someone who hates romance?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tillmon County Fire by Pamela Ehrenberg

Aiden McNalley is convicted of arson for burning down a house. We learn this right from the start; it is the circumstances leading up to and following the fire that make the story. Nine different teenagers give us glimpses into their lives; their stories are like puzzle pieces fitting into a larger whole. They live in a backwater in the Appalachian mountains. They have parents who are dead, abusive, ill, emotionally distant or have otherwise abandoned them. They feel alone and misunderstood.

Each one of the teens has an interesting story. Ben is secretly seeing Rob, who is recently arrived from New York City. Ben's girlfriend, Amelia, has difficulty with being nearly the only Asian in town - she was adopted when she was a baby - and plans to leave town to pursue a relationship with someone she met online. Amelia's best friend, Lacey, has troubles of her own. And so on.

"Does anyone act alone? Maybe some places, where everyone doesn't know each other and a person can sneeze without the whole county knowing about it - maybe in those places, people act alone. but in Tillmon County, I don't think it's possible to act alone even if you want to." The multiple viewpoints show that people don't know each other as well as they think they do, even in this small town - but actions always have consequences.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Garmann's Summer by Stian Hole

The boy's face on the front cover of this Norwegian picture book reflects anxiety and resignation; a child who knows he must soldier on, despite his fears. Garmann is six and he is afraid of starting school when summer ends. His three elderly aunts are visiting, so he asks them what they are afraid of. He asks his parents, too. Garmann also worries about not being able to do things that other kids do, like hold his head underwater while swimming. When will he lose his first tooth? At the end, Garmann goes off to school, still afraid. That is what gives this story such emotional resonance: we all must learn to cope with fear.

Stian Hole's digital collage illustrations evoke the timeless quality of his story. They incorporate photos, bits of Victorian-era illustration and mid-20th century imagery. The unsentimentality of the prose is the perfect counterpoint to the nostalgic and humourous art. A book for all ages.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

By Hook or by Crook: A Journey in Search of English by David Crystal

A linguistic travelogue. David Crystal muses about accents and dialects as well as the origins of place names, catch-phrases and idioms while meandering down the sideroads of Wales and western England. Where did the expressions 'by hook or by crook' and 'the living daylights' come from? Crystal ranges farther afield when he discusses streets that have nicknames (as opposed to merely shortened versions of their names). He even explains the origin of the word 'nickname.' (In Old English, eke meant 'also.' Pronunciation of the expression an eke name - your 'other' name - changed over time, with the n of an transferring to the beginning of eke to make neke, and then the spelling changed to make the modern word.) I'm a total language nerd, so I enjoyed this book. You gotta love a guy who gets excited about orthographic innovations, such as the use of middle capital letters within a proper name - CompuServe; eBay and BiblioCommons.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

In 1905, Lily looks back on 80 decades of her life in China. As a child, she was matched with another girl, Snow Flower, in an arranged friendship formal agreement that was to last their entire lives. When they were seven, Lily and Snow Flower had their feet bound. They visited rarely, but wrote to each other often, using nu shu, the secret language of women. They marry, have children, go through famine and war. A misunderstood message caused a deep rift between them and so Lily's tale is heavily tinged with regret.

A story about friendship between women and written with a strong sense of time and place. This has the ingredients I like, but somehow it didn't work for me. I think it's because I didn't warm to either of the central characters. Snow Flower was too perfect and yet also too passive. Normally, I would root for a flawed character like Lily, sympathizing when she made mistakes, but in this case I was apathetic. My strongest reaction was to the descriptions of foot binding - it is very hard to hear about little girls being tortured. Author Lisa See did a credible job, however, of presenting this from within the cultural viewpoint, as a desirable thing. Lily and Snow Flower bound their daughters' feet also.

Another reason I didn't care for this novel may be because I didn't feel that I gained any insights from it. I listened to an audiobook version competently read by Jodi Long. The best part was an essay at the end, read by the author, explaining her research.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The first time that Rose Edelstein began tasting the emotions of other people in the food they prepared, she was 11 years old. Her strange ability was an affliction more than a talent; when Rose was twelve, she learned the taste of her mother having an extramarital affair.

The Edelstein family encompassed another child with special talents: Rose's older brother, Joseph. Joseph was a math and science genius with a particular interest in particle physics. He was not at all interested in people. Rose suspected that he was disappearing entirely into the world of objects.

Rose's father had such a fear of hospitals that he would not even go inside when his children were born. The Edelsteins are a quirky bunch, but somehow that doesn't overpower their story. The novel is about coping and about accepting life's challenges. It is gracefully told - as sweetly tart and satisfying as a slice of lemon cake.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species by Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore's gorgeous photographs of animals and plants celebrate the diversity of life on our planet. It is bittersweet to look at them, however, knowing that some are already extinct and many others soon will be. Sartore's subjects are (or were) recognized under the Endangered Species Act in the United States. Loss of habitat is the major threat for these species, so it is fitting that Sartore chose to use stark black or white backgrounds for the photos. This also contributes to the striking quality of the work. Some animals - like the St. Andrew beach mouse or the Santa Catalina Island fox - are innately cute, but a photographer who can also capture the beauty of beetles, snails and blind salamanders is truly a master.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Hive Detectives by Loree Griffin Burns

Millions of honey bees have disappeared. The cause is still unknown, but what is being called Colony Collapse Disorder - CCD - was first reported in 2006. This catastrophe is explored in The Hive Detectives. Excellent background information is given about honey bees, then details of the scientific research into CCD. It's a real-life mystery, which gives this book a great hook.

Loads of excellent photographs, laid out in scrapbook style, add to the appeal. I don't recommend eating your lunch while reading this book, especially the part where bee autopsies are being performed. (But the difference between a healthy bee's internal parts and that of one from a hive diagnosed with CCD is striking!)

Maryann Frazier, who has been identifying chemicals found inside beehives, says, "It was shocking to us to find, on average, five pesticides in each pollen sample. In one sample we found seventeen different pesticides." I wasn't surprised that the chemicals found most frequently, and at the highest levels, were those that beekeepers themselves put in the hive to protect their bees from Varroa mites. Presently, the best guess is that a combination of factors - viral, chemical and dietary - lead to CCD. The mystery continues.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I Know Here by Laurel Croza and Matt James

I spent the past weekend at Edmonton's Folk Music Festival, where I heard plenty of paeans to place. The sentiment in I Know Here would make a great folk song. It's no slouch as a picture book, either, having garnered several awards. Author Laurel Croza has based the book on her own experiences growing up on a remote dam site in Saskatchewan.

The girl in the story tells about attending a one-room school, where she is the only child in Grade 3. The news that her family will be moving to Toronto comes as a shock, and she is determined to record all the things she loves about the only place she has known so far. Matt James' whimsical and surrealist paintings are a perfect match for a little girl's boundless energy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Kashtanka by Anton Chekhov; illustrated by Gennady Spirin

Since I panned Tolstoy in my last post, I thought I would write about a Russian story I really liked. The best picture books have strong text AND strong art, the two elements creating an even better whole. This is the case with Kashtanka in the Gulliver Books edition illustrated by Gennady Spirin. Spirin's lush colours and rich details are a sensual delight. The watercolour paintings brought me right into the historical setting. Chekhov's story about a lost dog who is taken in by a circus clown has a gentle poignancy. The death in Kashtanka is that of a white goose named Ivan Ivanovich, and he is more genuinely missed than Ivan Ilych. A great book to share with children from preschool age up.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Life is shallow and then you die. And the people who knew you only care about how your death affects their welfare. That pretty much sums up this classic satire about an upwardly-mobile judge. Yikes. This was the first book that Yann Martel recommended to Stephen Harper. Maybe lawyers and politicians are more likely to find resonance in it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

I love books that transport me to another place and I love lots of variety in my reading, which is why I find translations of international literature so appealing. Sofi Oksanen is an award-winning Finnish-Estonian author. I heard about another book of hers -- Baby Jane -- which has lesbian content, but I didn't find a copy at any local library or bookstore, so I picked up Purge instead.

The story is set almost entirely in the countryside of Estonia, with a few scenes in Vladivostok and a few in Berlin. A map at the beginning shows the immense distance between Vladivostok, which is on the Russian coast north of China, and Estonia. The time period moves back and forth between 1992 and 1936 onward. The brief occupation of Estonia by Nazi Germany, and then the years of Soviet occupation, followed by independence, have strongly shaped the lives of the two women that we meet.

Aliide Truu is in her late sixties in 1992. She lives alone in the house where she grew up. A desperate young woman, Zara Pekk, shows up on her doorstep in very bad shape after escaping from sexual slavery. Zara carries an ancient photo of Aliide and her sister Ingel. Aliide tells Zara that she has no sister. Their shared family history is untangled slowly, in spite of mutual suspicion and fear. Old and new atrocities are revealed.

Details of domestic life bring the setting vividly to life: the flyswatter made of leather; pickles prepared with horseradish; fruit drink made by melting jelly in boiling water and adding citric acid; bits overheard on the radio in the kitchen ("... Since there's no milk to give to our children, and no candy, how can they grow up to be healthy? Should we teach them to eat nettles and dandelion greens?") I've learned a little about a place I will likely never get to in person.

Both women are presented with psychological complexity. Their story is powerful, disturbing and, ultimately, redemptive.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner

Sixteen-year-old Cass is mourning the recent death of Julia, her best friend since Grade 3. Their circle of friends was a group of drama nerds, although Cass always felt that they were more Julia's friends than hers. Julia had almost finished writing a musical before she died, and so the group decided to stage Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad as a tribute to her. Cass was working on set design, but when her nemesis Heather gets cast in the lead Ninja Princess role, it's more than she can take. Back in Grade 8, before she transferred to a Catholic school, Heather made sure the whole school knew that Cass was a dyke.

Julia and Cass had been planning a summer road trip from Chicago to California in Julia's car, so Cass decides to do the trip solo. On bicycle.

The story is told in alternating Then and Now chapters. 'Now' is the end of summer, after her bicycle adventure, with Cass having returned to help with the musical that will open when school starts in September. 'Then' is before and during the big trip. In Cass's coming-of-age year, she learns not to denigrate the value of friendship by saying things like "we were just friends." She kisses a girl for the first time. And she learns to give people a second chance.

The nuanced cast of characters is a strong appeal element here. And then there is the really wacky musical, along the lines of the one in Will Grayson, Will Grayson (David Levithan and John Green) but with lots of fake blood. Michelle from my book group, who sent me this link to The Onion's story about staging Shakespeare, would appreciate the part where Cass describes doing everything with Julia, even "when Shakespeare in the Park did Twelfth Night with finger puppets."

Highly recommended. Grade 7 and up.