Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Smoked: A Detective Lane Mystery by Garry Ryan

This is the fourth in a mystery series featuring a gay police detective in Calgary. Detectives Lane and Harper investigate a missing person, a 21-year-old dental assistant named Jennifer Towers. Her body is later found in a dumpster that had been graffiti-tagged with her name. Jennifer's violent boyfriend is a prime suspect, but there's also something suspicious about the dentistry office where she worked. The two dentists drive new Mercedes but they don't seem to have many patients. Lane and his spouse, Arthur, also have plenty of drama at home, where they are the legal guardians of two troubled teenagers.

It's a character-driven novel with a suspenseful plot; more of a how-will-we-nail-him than a whodoneit. Calgary's multicultural makeup is nicely reflected in the story. Without mentioning Ralph Klein by name, or even the province of Alberta, Ryan includes a dig: "Remember when the premier got drunk and went after those homeless people down at the shelter?" I appreciate details like that.

In the author information, Ryan says the impetus behind the series came from a desire to write a mystery that would highlight the unique spirit and diverse locations of his hometown, Calgary. Kensington, Bowness, Stephen Street Mall, the Bow River and Shaganappi Trail are some of the landmarks I noted, but I'm almost positive that the name "Calgary" doesn't appear anywhere in the book. It's very odd. Even the newspaper announcement about a former Stampeder coming to town omits the city's name.

I guess the first book in this series (Queen's Park) would have made the setting clear, but in other respects, it's entirely possible to enjoy this book - as I did - without having read the first three. Read about the other books on Ryan's site.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Grizzly Manifesto by Jeff Gailus

In his impassioned plea "In Defence of the Great Bear," journalist Jeff Gailus makes the plight of Alberta's endangered grizzlies clear. There are fewer than 700 remaining in Alberta. Logging and the oil industry bring in money to the province - grizzlies do not. Parks Canada appears to be more interested in tourism than in wilderness preservation. Measures to protect bears from traffic on roads and railway tracks could be implemented, but they are not. Housing developments take priority over wildlife corridors.

Greed and politics seem an insurmountable barrier for conservationists, yet Gailus offers the inspirational example of Yellowstone Park, where there were only 200 grizzlies left in 1975. After concerted bear conservationist efforts for 30 years, there are now about 600 grizzlies in the Yellowstone area. Learning more about these magnificent animals is worthwhile and may help to sway their future fate in Canada.

The book design is unusual; a small-format hardcover with a cartoon grizzly on the front, dressed in camouflage vest and hat, wearing aviator sunglasses and holding a rifle. Maybe this (and the camouflage endpapers) will appeal to hunters, who can be significant allies in conservation efforts. I find the image rather off-putting, plus it doesn't connect with the serious nature of the text. Also, the elaborate script font used on the cover and for the chapter headings seems more appropriate for wedding invitations than nature writing. Ignore these, however, and you'll find an informed and spirited manifesto within the covers.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates

In a whimsical picture book that celebrates the joy of reading, we meet a dog who loves books so much that he opens a bookstore. It's not a good business decision - customers are few - but Dog is not daunted for long. He loses himself in books until he has the opportunity to suggest reading material to his first customer, a little girl.

Dog's body language is wondrously expressive. Children too young to read will be able follow the story through Yates' charming watercolour illustrations alone. Preschool to Grade 2.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Snook Alone by Marilyn Nelson and Timothy Basil Ering

Timothy Basil Ering (Finn Throws a Fit) has painted lovely illustrations for this long, free verse picture book about a dog who is separated from his master, a solitary monk named Abba Jacob. The setting is the tropical Mascarene islands, off the southeast coast of Africa. Snook, an adorable rat terrier, must survive alone on the tiny island of Avocaire while waiting for Abba Jacob to return.

I enjoyed Marilyn Nelson's poetic descriptions of the astounding variety of wildlife on Avocaire, especially the seabirds: "fluffy chicks / sitting dumbfounded, / like a field of white teddy bears." The fairy terns "with little fishes dangling from their beaks / like handlebar mustaches." Too often, however, the prose seemed leaden when I wanted it to sing.

The story has four parts, or chapter breaks, indicated with the starting letter decorated something like those in an ancient illustrated manuscript. The third chapter, however, seems to be broken in the wrong place, two page-spreads too late.

In picture books, the illustrations should not contradict the prose unless it is for a special effect. I didn't like that the door to the chapel is open in the image of Abba Jacob praying, when in the text he closed the door. Abba Jacob is wearing a swathed tunic in all of the images, giving a timeless feel to his existence, but the text tells us that he wears a shirt and trousers, pulling a tunic over them when he goes to town. I love the illustrations so much that I resent Nelson's prose for contradicting them, although I recognize that this is unreasonable on my part, since the text was most likely created first. I would like to know more about the collaboration between this author and artist, because I'm puzzled by these flaws.

Preschool to Grade 3.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

This One's Going to Last Forever by Nairne Holtz

Contrary to the optimism of the title, the stories in this collection are mostly about the agonies of being in love. A wry wittiness keeps the tone light through most of the pieces, but there is enough depth to the characters to engage the reader's heart and provoke thoughtful responses. Some of the events and situations are downright serious, such as the massacre of 14 women in Montreal and a couple breaking up after one has her leg amputated.

Lesbians and bisexual women populate all of these stories, which take place in cities from Vancouver to Halifax. Canada's lesbian bars - Huis Clos in Montreal, the Lookout in Ottawa and the Robin's Nest in Cambridge - make appearances. The sex scenes are refreshingly frank; don't expect floral imagery and silken folds.

The very first story, When Gay Is the New Straight, is my favourite. A gay Elvis impersonator operates a drive-through wedding chapel in Sudbury. He's jaded and bitchy, even as he weds his first lesbian couple. "As I watch Nancy slip a silver band over Sylvie's finger, I think, Just Assimilated." Yet the story ends on a hopeful note, as they all do.

Readalikes: For more lesbian short stories, try Touchy Subjects by Emma Donoghue or All the Pretty Girls by Chandra Mayor. If you liked Holtz' novella-length piece, 'Are You Committed?' which makes up Part 2 of the collection, try Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall. Also, check out Holtz' excellent novel, The Skin Beneath, if you haven't already. Link through to Holtz' website to see her extensive online bibliography of Canadian lesbian literature.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fishtailing by Wendy Phillips

Four teens in a Vancouver high school. Miguel is a refugee, survivor of a massacre in Central America. Kyle's passions are music and motorcycles. Tricia is struggling to feel included in her family, where her Japanese half doesn't match her new stepfather - nor her mother nor baby half-sister. Natalie's background of abuse has twisted her in an evil way; she likes to toy with people's lives. Their English teacher, Mrs. Farr, and the school counsellor, Ms. Nishi, watch over them all - but not successfully.

Poems from shifting viewpoints tell this tragic tale. On the first day that Natalie is transferred into the school, she can tell her machinations will be "like shooting fish in a barrel." The plot is gripping. It's like watching a train wreck.

I liked that the teacher was neither good nor bad, just a flawed human making mistakes like the rest of us. She brings a note of humour to the story when she criticizes Kyle's motorcycle dream poem: "you need to be careful of innuendo. You might tone down the more overt sexual references in order to make it suitable for the poetry display board." Kyle's response is a puzzled "sexual references ?"

Verse novels are my special love, which allows me to overlook flaws... but not entirely. I wish the individual teen voices were not so similar to each other - this is always a danger with multiple points of view - although it is easy to tell who is who because of the name at the top (or bottom, if it's an assignment poem) and the font changes. The fish imagery gets a little heavy-handed (and fishtailing a stretch); my taste is for more subtlety. All in all, it's a good book and I think teens who like dark and gritty realism will enjoy it. I wouldn't have picked it as the winner of the Canadian GG Children's Literature award, but I'm glad to see the verse novel format getting recognition.

Readalikes: Any of Ellen Hopkins' verse novels are a natural match, even though they are much longer - Impulse is about a trio of troubled teens; Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James (for the poisonous friendship); and Split Image by Mel Glenn (for a verse novel tragedy in multiple voices exploring the differences between public and private personas).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

1910: Sig is 15 and alone in a cabin with the body of his father, Einar Andersson, who has frozen to death. Big bad Gunther Wolff knocks on the door. 1899: Wolff makes a deal with Andersson. 1910: Wolff won't leave the cabin without his share of gold. He and Sig both have Colt revolvers.

The setting switches back and forth between Giron in 1910 and Nome in 1899. I know where Nome, Alaska is. Giron's location puzzled me. Sedgewick tells us only that it's at 68 latitude north. Reindeer are mentioned. Did the author mean caribou? Or is Giron in Scandinavia or Russia? Later, Sig is about to go outside to get more wood for the fire that's died down. Then Wolff comes and Sig must stay put. Hours later, the fire is still going. This is the kind of thing that really bugs me.

Even so, I'd recommend Revolver to anyone, Grade 7 through to adult, looking for a tightly-written psychological thriller. My brother, a fan of Louis L'Amour and spy novels, would love it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

Bartimaeus of Uruk is a djinni with a penchant for trouble who wise-cracked his way through Stroud's trilogy that began with the Amulet of Samarkand. Readers new to Bartimaeus can jump right in on this fourth book because it takes place in Jerusalem long before the storyline of the first three books.

Bartimaeus is like the class clown of the djinn. Even while a slave to whichever magician summons him, he will find loopholes in the wording of direct orders. He's an irresistible character and narrates his own story with plenty of footnoted asides. When two human protagonists are facing off in a tense situation, for example, he sneaks by while disguised as a fly. In a footnote: "The fly was an optional extra right then. They were so preoccupied I don't think they'd have noticed me if I'd turned into a flatulent unicorn and pirouetted gently across the room." I'm not usually big on potty humour, but it works well here. Bartimaeus is always a delight.

I also enjoyed getting to know the guard Asmira, an admirably clever and courageous young woman who has been charged by the Queen of Sheba to retrieve a powerful ring from King Solomon. Adventure and magic and lots of fun for Grade 6 to adult.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chalk by Bill Thomson

Bill Thomson's wordless picture book, Chalk, is an enchanting flight of fancy for readers of all ages. Three children find a bag of coloured chalk in a playground and the things they draw on the pavement become real. The artwork is hyper-realistic and extremely appealing. I would have guessed that it was computer-generated if not for this note at the back: "Bill Thomson embraced traditional painting techniques and meticulously painted each illustration by hand, using acrylic paint and coloured pencils." Bravo.

Readalikes: Art and Max (or anything else) by David Wiesner and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (or anything else) by Chris Van Allsburg.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wesley the Owl by Stacey O'Brien

The subtitle - The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl - is totally apt. Biologist O'Brien took in a baby barn owl with a nerve-damaged wing, knowing she would need to care for it for the rest of its life. Wesley was four days old when she adopted him in 1985. He was nearly 20 when he died. Their life together is an amazing story.

"Wesley left a mark on almost every item I owned, and I sacrificed more and more of my property to Wesley's whims - clothes, books, papers, blankets, and furniture. I just didn't care about those things and felt like the luckiest person in the world to have him in my life." Only a special kind of person would prepare meals of mice for two decades and live with frequent injuries to her skin from sharp talons... O'Brien clearly loved Wesley very much. She describes his antics and personality so well that I feel like I knew him.

I listened to the Tantor audiobook (7 hours) read by Renee Raudman. It's entertaining and informative. I know all kinds of neat things about Tyto alba now, the only barn owl species that is found in North America. Soren, the main protagonist in the Guardians of Ga'hoole, is also a barn owl, but I confess that I haven't read that series (nor seen the movie). They certainly are a very attractive bird. The audiobook contains two dozen photos in bonus material, which is cool. You can check out some pictures on O'Brien's website.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau

Young Harvey tells of the time in early spring when his father died of a heart attack. He and his little brother Cantin (who is taller than Harvey) raced toothpicks in the gutter after school that day. Harvey draws a dot on his toothpick to represent Scott Carey, the character in the movie The Invisible Man who shrinks so small nobody can see him. When they got home, an ambulance was in front of their house. Later, at the funeral, an uncle lifts Harvey to his shoulders so that he can have one last look at his father in his coffin. The final five wordless double-page spreads show Harvey disappearing.

The story is told through smudgy, delicate illustrations by Janice Nadeau and minimal text by Herve Bouchard. There is a melancholy retro feel to the artwork. In places it becomes abstract, suiting the story perfectly. I liked the subtle repetition of patterns; the village roof tops are echoed by the diamonds on Harvey's father's sweater and these later drift upward (like his essence departing) and then form a starburst with a white void in the middle (perhaps where he's gone into the light).

Harvey won two Governor General awards for French language children's literature last year, one for text and one for art. It was Nadeau's third GG - quite an accomplishment. The book has since been translated, but I haven't seen the English edition yet. I'm curious about the part where Harvey shares his mother's views on the horrors of spring, using the word "maudite" (damn) eleven times.

Harvey was recently the subject of discussion on the Graphic Novel Librarians list. The concerns centered around where this book is best shelved in a library. After reading the book, I'd say that its main audience is children in Grade 4 - 7. A review in CM Magazine recommends it for Grade 3 - 8. Edmonton Public Library has it with the children's books. In the USA, it appears to be going into teen collections. One person recommended that adults are the likely audience, calling this a challenging book. A librarian in a middle school (Grade 5-8) decided this book was entirely unsuitable for their collection, due to "an entire page being devoted to unnecessary language." (Which would be the one full of maudite).

What I found disturbing was a post by another middle school librarian who said they are keeping it behind the desk at her school for at least a year. The reasoning is that a student at the school lost a parent to a heart attack 6 months earlier and they don't want this student to come across the book as he browses the graphic novel shelves. I sincerely hope that someone at that particular library will take the book from behind the counter and book talk it to the bereaved student, giving him the opportunity to share Harvey's sadness. It would likely help any grieving young person to feel less alone.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea and Christopher Cardinale

Mr. Mendoza is an elderly graffiti artist in the Mexican town of El Rosario. Unlike the old women who merely mutter their displeasure at immoral behaviours, Mr. Mendoza takes action, paintbrush in hand. His wry wit might pop up anywhere. On the sign into town, for example, "No intelligent life for 100 kilometers." The tale centers on an incident where two teenage boys get their comeuppance when they were caught spying on some young women bathing in the river.

The story was originally published in Urrea's Six Kinds of Sky collection. The imagined town, Rosario, is almost a character in itself. It is the same setting as that in Urrea's latest novel, Into the Beautiful North.

On top of a great story with an element of magic realism, this book has breathtaking art by Christopher Cardinale. It looks like woodcut printing; lots of black with rich greens, blues and ochre shades. Cardinale is known for his murals and his social activism. His art is absolutely perfect for the timeless feel of this story.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

In the Wild by David Elliott and Holly Meade

David Elliott's witty brief poems about wild animals and Holly Meade's striking reverse-print artwork are a stunning combination. In the Wild is a book to read over and over, marvelling at the jewel-toned art each time. (See more of Meade's striking art on her website.)

Elliott's playfulness with language is irresistible: "The Giraffe / Stilt-walker! / Tree-topper! / Long-necked / show-stopper!" Then there's the rhyming of going, going, going with boing, boing, boing in the kangaroo poem. It is so much fun! The polar bear poem makes excellent use of a page turn and I also love the double meaning that can be derived from the line "Look! She's / disappearing ... [page turn] / disappearing / in the snow." The tiger poem references William Blake - "fire, fire burning bright" - and so I would love to pair this book with one that contains "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright," such as Micheal Rosen's selection of Classic Poetry for children.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Camilla Gibb has done it again. It's been worth the five-year wait (since Sweetness in the Belly) to read another nuanced portrait of a young woman searching for her identity, and set in a part of the world that is far from Canada. The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in contemporary Hanoi. Maggie was born in Vietnam, but fled with her mother to the U.S.A. in 1975, at the very end of the war. Her father, an artist who had been tortured so severely in re-education camps that he no longer had full use of his hands, was to follow them later, but never made it. Maggie has come to Hanoi to catalog a collection of pre-communist era art and to find out whatever she can about her beloved missing father. The cast of supporting characters is fascinating and I read this book in one sitting.

Readalikes: The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly; La Perdida by Jessica Abel; The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tangles by Sarah Leavitt

Sarah Leavitt's mother Midge was only 52 when she first exhibited signs of dementia. Alzheimer's disease was diagnosed a couple of years after that and Midge died when she was 60. In graphic novel format, Leavitt documents the progression of her mother's illness and the effect it had on their entire family.

Leavitt is a lesbian and lives in Vancouver, which is on the opposite coast from her parents in Fredericton, NB. Spending time with her mother meant a long day of air travel; this wasn't something she could do often. Leavitt took notes and drew pictures so that she would remember details of their time together. She also found herself collecting tangles combed from her own and her mother's ultra-curly hair, drawing emotional comfort in keeping it near her while she slept.

I was touched by Leavitt's honesty. She is sometimes irritable, selfish and unreasonably angry - in other words, she's human. At one point, Leavitt's father tells her she has the same quality as her mother: a radiant bitchiness. He says "It's a good quality to have." I agree. Leavitt is also a compassionate woman with a strong and tender love for her mother. The sketch-like artwork helps to keep emotion from overwhelming this touching memoir.

Readalikes: Mom's Cancer by Brian Fies and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Tangles is on the longlist for the Alberta Readers Choice Award, along with White Shirt, Too Bad and other great books published in this province.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Onyesonwu ("Who Fears Death") is a child born of rape. Her mother is Okeke, a people who have been enslaved by the Nuru for years. Ethnic warfare has escalated and the Okeke people are in danger of being entirely exterminated. Onyesonwu's father is a powerful Nuru sorcerer and she exhibits extraordinary powers even as a young girl, growing up in the Sahara desert with her resourceful mother. It is Onyesonwu's destiny to save the Okeke people.

The story is a genre blend of science fiction and fantasy set in post-apocalyptic Africa. It is a nice change to read fantasy that draws on traditions from this part of the world. It is mostly for this reason that I continued reading even when it felt like a slog. Okorafor's writing style is not really to my taste; I find it quite dry. Onyesonwu is a very strong character, however, and also kept me reading. I loved that she is a shapeshifter. And the ending is rewarding, so I'm glad that I didn't give up.