Sunday, January 30, 2011

Freaks and Revelations by Davida Wills Hurwin

The horrific act of violence at the center of this story did actually happen in Los Angeles in 1980. A teenaged white-supremacist beat up a younger gay homeless teen and left him for dead. The boy survived. Years later, as adults the two men met again. They now work together, giving inspirational talks. Their message is respect, and of turning from hate to hope.

Davida Wills Hurwin fictionalized their lives, allowing readers to understand how one boy - Doug - can grow into a teenager addicted to violence and how another - Jason - can end up living on the street at age 13. Alternating viewpoints between the two boys, the story moves toward the assault in a sort of countdown with snapshots of their lives leading up to the event: seven years before, five years before, three years before and so on. The early part can be a bit slow but as the event draws closer, the tension builds. It is an amazing story of redemption and healing.

Readalike: Almost Home by Jessica Blank (for another novel about homeless teens in California, gay and straight). Matthew Shepard's death has an impact on Jason in Freaks and Revelations. The DVD The Laramie Project would also make a good pairing with the novel.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection

Matt Dembicki has compiled an impressively varied collection of 21 trickster tales. Depending on the source of the tale, the trickster's shape differs, but he's always a troublemaker. Many of the authors are Aboriginal and some of the artists are as well. Colourful, high quality art in 21 different styles, together with great storytelling, make this book really stand out.

Coyote in the southwest desert wants to learn the pottery-making song of Horned Toad Lady. In the wet woodlands of the Choctaw homelands, Rabbit falls in love with Girl-Wolf. Raven in Alaska tricks men into giving up their freshly-caught whale meat. Pretending to be dead is another common trick in order to get a meal without expending too much effort; this same theme is also found in Stories of Our People: A Metis Graphic Novel Anthology.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

These retold fairytales are as dark as the original German tales... except with smarty-pants authorial asides and warnings:

"Are there any young children in the room? If so, it would be best if we just let them think this really is the end of the story and hurried them off to bed. Because this is where things start to get, well... awesome. But in a horrible, bloody kind of way."

Comments like this will help young readers to process the scary parts, reminding them that it is "only a story" and allowing them to brace for goriness ahead. There are toes chopped off, fingers chopped off and even children's heads chopped off. Parents cannot be relied upon to treat their offspring well. Dangerous men and women masquerade as kindly helpers. Hansel and Gretel learn to rely on their own wit and courage over the course of their adventures through nine different stories.

I was transported to my own childhood, when I was about 7 or 8 and read through bound collections of fairytales that I found under a bed at my grandmother's house. Some of the books actually were supporting the bed, which had only three legs. I spent many hours lost in them, shivering over the gruesome parts, weeping for poor maidens and delighting in the coloured plate illustrations. I remember water babies and crystal mountains. Wicked ice queens and cruelty of every kind. White pebbles forming a shining path in the moonlight. Ants assisting with impossible tasks. Brothers turning into swans and trees giving advice.

A Tale Dark & Grimm will appeal to readers from Grade 3 and up who have bloodthirsty tastes and appreciate dark, Lemony-Snicket-type humour. This would also work well as a family read-aloud.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin

In the eighth book in the Tales of the City series, Mary Ann Singleton is back in San Francisco with the kind of bad news that is best shared with trusted friends. Mary Ann and Michael Tolliver's friendship has lasted through three decades and over long distance. DeDe Halcyon-Wilson is also staunchly at her side.

A lot of time has passed since Mary Ann left for a job on the east coast. Michael has a new partner, Ben, who is 21 years younger. DeDe and her partner D'or have grandchildren. Anna Madrigal is in her 80s, no longer living in 28 Barbary Lane, but sharing a home with a young transman, Jake, who is also Michael's business partner. Mary Ann's estranged daughter, Shawna, is also living in San Francisco, publishing a provocative blog that her mother cannot bear to read.

The original book edition of Tales of the City came out in 1978, but it was serialized in newspaper segments before that. The chapters in the most recent book still have the cliffhanger style of their serialized beginnings. The pace is quick, the tone is breezy, chapters switch between different characters and the multiple plotlines eventually entwine to a satisfying conclusion. It's warm and funny; definitely a feel-good story. While you don't have to remember (or have read) the earlier books to enjoy this one, the experience will be even better if you do.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

A sleepless young woman out walking in the wee hours in Chicago encounters a bookmobile. The books are housed in a Winnebago driven by a librarian who invites her inside. It turns out that she has read every single book aboard. She even finds her childhood diary on the shelves. She cannot stay as long as she'd like to explore the collection because the bookmobile closes at dawn. Her life is forever changed afterwards.

Niffenegger has created a sort of hybrid picture book/graphic novel and the format generated some discussion amongst librarians last year about where to place this book on the shelves. One librarian in the USA found it so disturbing that she sent a review copy directly to their book sale, without adding it to their collection, because of "serious ick factor." (Whoa! What happened to intellectual freedom?) It is a rather bizarre tale, but the premise is intriguing and the art very fine. The full colour illustrations are in a realistic style, quite different from Niffenegger's earlier aquatint visual novels. Inside the bookmobile, for example, I recognized the same genre spine labels that we use at the Edmonton Public Library.

I wasn't surprised to read in the author's note that The Night Bookmobile was inspired by a dream. If you enjoy something a bit out of the ordinary - like I do - this will be a treat. It is possible to read the entire thing online, as it was published in monthly installments in The Guardian in 2008. There's nothing as good as a real book in your hands, however...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman and Rick Allen

Joyce Sidman puts out one fabulous poetry book after another. How does she do it? I've already blogged about Red Sings from Treetops and Ubiquitous. Her latest collection is all about nighttime activity in a forest. Rick Allen's woodcut illustrations in muted colours are so lovely that I want these pictures on my walls.

Each thing has its own poem, plus a brief sidebar of scientific information. We learn that the red eft, for example, is the land-dwelling stage of the red-spotted newt. After two to four years as a land-roving eft, they fade to an olive green colour, return to the water, and grow gills once again. Although the 'Ballad of the Wandering Eft' doesn't appear until the page 24-25 spread, the little red creature can be found wandering in all of the preceding illustrations.

My favourite poem is 'The Mushrooms Come' because of language like this: "they shoulder up / without a sound; / they spread their damp / umbrella tops / and loose their spores / with silent pops. / Unbuttoning the forest floor, / the mushrooms come, / the mushrooms come."

A delightful book for all ages, from preschool to adult.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

In a small community in Labrador in 1968, an unusual baby is born at home. The child has a very small penis, one testicle, and a vagina. This is the story of his life; his, because his father decides that he will have a son called Wayne. Thomasina, who was there to assist at his birth, calls him Annabel, after her dead daughter. Wayne's mother always regrets that surgery was imposed upon her child, wishing it was possible to raise the child as neither male nor female, or both.

The circumstances of Wayne's birth are kept secret from everyone else in town, including Wayne. His father, a hunter and trapper, tries to make him as tough as possible. "The child knew that a grim, matter-of-fact attitude was required of him by his father, and he learned how to exhibit such an attitude, and he did not mind it because it was the way things were, but it was not his authentic self." Wayne is careful to express his artistic side only in private: dancing, dreaming and drawing. Yet his outward appearance cannot be hidden, especially with the onset of puberty.

Lyric prose brings readers into the wilderness and the kitchens of Labrador - the latter being closely tied to the former. "Thomasina was boiling partridgeberries and sugar, and the kitchen was full of their bloody, mossy tang that smells and tastes more of regret than of sweetness."

The issue of gender identity for an intersex individual is handled with grace by author Kathleen Winter. Wayne and his parents and Thomasina are portrayed with warmth and depth. Each one of them is lonely, yet they persevere. The reward is hope and possibility.

Readalikes: The Winter Vault or Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (for the poetic writing style) or Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (for a more sensational treatment of an intersex protagonist).

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yummy by G. Neri and Randy DuBurke

Yummy Sandifer was an eleven-year-old boy who accidentally shot and killed a girl in Chicago and was the subject of a manhunt that made international news in 1994. His true story is told in graphic novel format through the viewpoint of a fictional character, Roger. Roger's older brother, Gary, was a member of the same gang as Yummy, the Black Disciples.

Gangs took advantage of the laws that protected young kids from felony conviction and put "shortys" to work for them. Gary tells Roger, "Yummy's a good little shorty. He do what he's told. He wants to impress, so you give him assignments. 'Hey, homie, get me a car, a red sports car, by tonight. I'm taking my woman out.' Or 'Go pop that dude that's messing with our business.' See, he's like our little pit bull puppy dog. But when he gets big, that's when you gotta watch out!"

A woman in the criminal justice system is quoted: "Yummy averaged a felony a month for the last year and a half. 23 felonies in all by the time he was 11. Now you got over 1000 Black Disciples like him, all under 13, all with guns. In this country, 15 kids under the age of 19 die by guns every day."

Yet Yummy was also a boy who slept with his teddy bear and whose body was scarred where his mother had whipped him. His father was in prison for drugs and his mother had been arrested 41 times. Was Yummy a bully or a victim? His case galvanized the public on the issues surrounding youth gang violence, which is the good thing that came out of Yummy's tragic life.

G. Neri is also the author of Chess Rumble, another book about an inner-city eleven-year-old. See more of artist Randy DuBurke's work on his website.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Out by Sandra Diersch

During the summer before Grade 12 in Maple Ridge, BC, Alex Straker must deal with questions more difficult than any he has faced before. Alex witnesses a church leader in a compromising situation. Then, after Alex's younger brother Mark comes out to him, he doesn't know how to react. At the same time, Alex can't turn to his usual source of solace - the church - because he is undergoing his own crisis of faith.

Teens who enjoy realistic fiction with a steady pace will find this a quick read at only 130 pages.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey

This story of an unlikely almost-friendship is set during the time of the French Revolution and is loosely based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville. Olivier is the son of French aristocrats who escaped the guillotine. Parrot, twice Olivier's age, is the son of an itinerant English printer. Olivier (like Tocqueville) was sent from France with a mission to study the American penal system. Parrot, who has already had many adventures in his life, is sent with Olivier to be his secretary. Parrot has also been instructed to spy on him.

The chapters alternate between the very different viewpoints of the two men, beginning with their childhoods. Olivier is a snob, yet well-intentioned. Parrot is as cheeky as his namesake and chafes at the yoke of servitude. From the start, they cannot stand each other, but a sort of understanding grows between them over time. Their larger-than-life adventures are recounted with verve and style.

Peter Carey is an Australian author who has twice won the Booker prize (Oscar and Lucinda; and The True History of the Kelly Gang). I listened to an audiobook read expertly by Humphrey Bower (Blackstone: 17.5 hours). Bower moves easily between the accents of the various characters, bringing their personalities to life. Carey's witty prose translates very well to audio.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Listening to crabs is what got 10-year-old Keeper into a whole lot of trouble. Besides Keeper, only three other people live on Oyster Ridge Road on the Texas seacoast. Signe has looked after Keeper since Keeper's mother left 7 years earlier. Dogie lives in a yellow school bus which is also a surfboard shop. Elderly Mr. Beauchamp sits on his porch, carving driftwood and telling Keeper stories about merfolk from his days as a sailor. After listening to the crabs, who told her that they didn't want to be made into gumbo, all three of the grown-ups in her world are angry with Keeper. The only thing to do is to set to sea in search of her mermaid mother. Will Yemaya, goddess of the sea, answer Keeper's prayers?

The story has a timeless feel; contemporary and yet touched by the magic of fables. It is told in very short chapters and in the rhythms of oral tales. The animal characters (two dogs, a cat and a seagull) are given nearly as much depth and personality as the humans.

I had heard that this book has gay content; it does, but you have to be patient. Henri Beauchamp's backstory is not introduced until more than halfway through the book. When he was 15, he fell in love with another boy in France. Before Henri boarded a ship headed for Texas, Jack gave him a porte-bonheur. This talisman - lost and found - not only brings Henri happiness in his old age, but also is instrumental to the success of Keeper's quest. The theme of chosen family is also important.

For readers in Grade 3 and up. It would work well as a family read-aloud. The nonsense words borrowed from Jabberwocky may inspire a re-reading of Lewis Carroll's poem. Readalike: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, for another spirited girl who loves the natural world and is raised by a woman who is not her biological mother.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Story of Salt by Mark Kurlansky and S.D. Schindler

Mark Kurlansky has taken the best parts of his book for adults - Salt: A World History - and made them into an excellent children's book. The history and science surrounding the only rock eaten by human beings is made even more appealing through S.D. Schindler's amusing illustrations.

I learned all kinds of cool facts:
"A healthy adult's body contains about 250 grams of salt, which would fill three large saltshakers."
"A wide road near Lake Erie was made by buffalo, and the salt lick found at the end of it became the city of Buffalo, New York."
"In the 1600s, conditions in French prisons were so bad that many prisoners died before they could be brought to trial. So they were preserved in salt and kept until their court date!"

This last bit ties into the adult novel that I'm currently reading, Parrot and Olivier in America (Peter Carey), since the study of prisons in America is the reason Olivier has been sent there by the French government. During French revolutionary times, pigeons owned by aristocrats (such as Olivier's family) went to trial, were found guilty, and then killed for the crime of stealing grain. I'm seriously digressing here.

The Story of Salt will fascinate curious readers in Grade 3 to 7.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh

Salem Brownstone learns about his father's death via telegram. It's quite a surprise, since Salem never knew him. He inherits a gothic mansion "more House of Horrors than swingin' bachelor's pad" as well as the responsibility to safeguard a talisman. The safety of an entire planet is at stake.

Salem receives help from unlikely sources, including a contortionist and a monkeygirl from Dr. Kinoshita's Circus of Unearthly Delights. South African artist Nikhil Singh's meticulous black ink work could also be described as an unearthly delight. It is deliciously macabre and ornate. Salem's dreamlike adventure in his new role as psychopomp leads him to a satisfying, albeit temporary, conclusion. One eyebrow remains cocked the entire time.

Grade 8 - adult.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins & Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate as told to Lesley M M Blume, illustrated by David Foote

Whether you think of all fairies as "lovely winged creatures, frolicking around in bluebell fields" or as well-groomed men frolicking in nightclubs, this book will set you straight (so to speak). It is narrated by Edythe McFate, whose credentials include seven decades spent studying the ways of every known species of fairy. Her fairy sightings have confirmed that New York City is chock-full of dwarves, brownies, pixies and other magical immigrants from the old world. She warns readers to be careful, since fairies can be quite nasty and dangerous.

True tales of unlucky encounters with fairy folk are interspersed with practical advice and interesting tidbits of information. A penny can help you tell if the fairy you encounter is good or bad. It is possible to use stinky socks to repel fairies. Velveeta may disappear from your kitchen; fairies use it as a building material. Goblins may be frozen under the spell of certain music, such as "Stairway to Heaven."

This highly entertaining book is made even better with the creepy black and white art by David Foote. It's something like Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas: see this book trailer. Consider yourself warned: this book is more tart than sweet. Grade 4 - 7 (plus adults who delight in this sort of thing).

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Girl Unwrapped by Gabriella Goliger

As the daughter of holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada, Toni Goldblatt is used to negotiating life as an outsider. In addition to being Jewish, Toni realizes early on that another thing sets her apart: her attraction to women. After a childhood spent as a tomboy in the streets of 1950s Montreal, Toni falls in love for the first time with a counsellor at Jewish summer camp. Her coming-out journey takes her to Israel shortly after the end of the war in 1967, then back home to Canada, where she learns to stand up for herself.

The book is divided into five parts, named for where they take place. The first part (The Mountain) and the last two (Loulou's and The Ghetto) are the strongest. The cast of characters is broader and more lively in these sections. In the final section, Toni's mother is given more depth and Toni herself sheds her awkwardness as she comes of age. It ends on a satisfying, hopeful note.

Scenes in the lesbian bar, Loulou's, are reminiscent of Marie-Claire Blais' classic Nights in the Underground, which is set in about the same era. For more stories of lesbians in Montreal, read Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall and the story 'Are You Committed?' in This One's Going to Last Forever by Nairne Holtz.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

This is the funniest account of Armageddon ever. By the time the four horsepersons come riding in on their motorcycles, an assortment of demons, angels and satanic nuns have made a bumbling mess of the Great Plan. It starts with swapping the Antichrist for the wrong baby in the latter part of the 20th century. A witch named Anathema Device attempts to sort it out and save the world with the help of an ancient book. She and her ancestors have been deciphering The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch for over 300 years. The prophecies are 100% accurate. If only Agnes Nutter had not been so cryptic...

I listened to an audiobook (Recorded Books: 12.5 hours) narrated by Martin James. He did a fabulous job with the many characters and the footnoted asides. It was always clear who was who. I spent my three days of holiday time over New Year's wearing headphones around the house because I did not want to stop listening.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Koko Be Good by Jen Wang

Jon lives in San Francisco while his much-older girlfriend, Emily, is finishing her graduate studies on the opposite coast of the USA. In a few short weeks, they'll both be moving to Peru; Emily will be working in an orphanage and Jon just wants to be with Emily. Koko is a young woman who crashes into the apple cart that is Jon's life. She's an irrepressible scallawag who'll take advantage of anyone, but upon meeting Jon she is inspired to become a good person. As with any of Koko's undertakings, this is something done with her whole heart... for brief periods of time... and with consequences that are just short of disastrous. Jon, meanwhile, is learning things from Koko about being true to himself.

Jen Wang's watercolour artwork in subdued shades of brown somewhat reminds me of Hannah Berry's Britten and Brulightly. Wang's characters have large eyes and wonderfully expressive faces. Koko is a lovable anarchist. How can you resist someone for whom buying and eating carrots constitutes a plan to be good? Grade 8 through adult.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan and Brian Floca

Three people - Greenberg, Jordan and Floca - have created a book about the making of Appalachian Spring, a dance piece that was in turn a collaboration between three people: Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer; Aaron Copland, composer; and Isamu Noguchi, the artist who designed the set. This innovative ballet was about a marriage, a new home and a new life in pioneer America. It premiered in 1944 in Washington D.C. The text is distilled free verse, muscular in content, yet dancing lightly on the page. Floca's watercolour illustrations make the whole thing vividly real. From the frustrations of rehearsals to the triumphant first performance, I felt like I was right there, participating. Bravo to a fabulous book. Grade 3 and up for solo reading, all ages for read-aloud enjoyment.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson

Maggie Lloyd carefully plans her escape from an unsatisfactory second marriage. She flees Vancouver and heads for the interior of British Columbia with a small pack and a fishing rod. Her journey leads to a job as a cook in Haldar and Vera Gunnarsen's fishing lodge 25 miles north of Kamloops. Maggie's compassionate nature, good cooking and hard work are appreciated by all - except Vera, who is a bitter, jealous woman. Despite Vera, Maggie is determined to create a new life there for herself.

One of Maggie's friends believes that all things are connected, saying "I see God everywhere." Some previous reader had altered the text with blue ink so that "Goddess" was substituted instead. I frown upon the defacement of library materials, but this made me smile.

I've started the new year with a Canadian classic; Swamp Angel was first published in 1954. I'm glad that one of my book groups decided to discuss this one, since it's been on my TBR list for a long time. Sometimes I need a shove to fall into a book. It turned out that the water was delightful. Maggie Lloyd is a character I will remember fondly.