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!