Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cool Water by Dianne Warren

Set in the sandy hills of southern Saskatchewan and the fictional village of Juliet, this refreshing novel is told in a series of interconnected stories. Family farms are dying, but people still have a connection to their roots on the land and many are finding the transition to the 21st century a bumpy one.

A horse escapes from his transport trailer when a stranger passes through Juliet... A pregnant teenager plans to marry the baby's totally irresponsible father... A young farmer ponders the identity of his birth mother... A bank manager worries about families whose lives will be affected by foreclosures... A wife jumps to the wrong conclusion when she finds a phone number in her husband's pocket...

Readers who love interwoven stories, a complex cast of lonely characters, and a strong sense of place will find lots to appreciate. The tone is hopeful and heart-warming, in spite of hard times in the community.

Readalikes: A Hard Witching by Jacqueline Baker (for short stories in a similar southern Saskatchewan setting); A Song for Nettie Johnson by Gloria Sawai (more small-town Saskatchewan stories); Runaway by Alice Munro (for plumbing the depths of ordinary individuals and their intimate relationships with others); Annabel by Kathleen Winter (for another community - in Labrador - shaped by the landscape).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

"What does it take to survive aboard a spaceship fueled by lies?" That question on the front cover drew me in;  the image of two silhouetted faces approaching for a kiss - not so much. I prefer the alternate cover depicting a blueprint of the spaceship Godspeed; it is on the backside of the dust jacket. Unfortunately, since I was reading a library copy with the dust jacket permanently affixed, I could only peek longingly at the other version.

The setting is a colony ship from Earth that has been travelling in deep space for hundreds of years. The social organization that has evolved in this claustrophobic environment is fascinating.

Only a handful of people know that the cargo hold contains a hundred cryogenically frozen settlers, chosen for their skills that will be needed upon landfall. Someone with murderous intent has begun thawing them. That is how teenaged Amy has found herself awake in a strange world where everybody acts like she is a freak because of her pale skin and red hair. The only person her age is Elder, a boy destined to be the leader of the next generation of children born on the ship. Elder is one of the few people aboard who treats Amy well. He even finds her attractive. But romance has to take a back seat to solving the mystery of sabotage. The safety of the entire ship is at stake.

The suspense builds at the same time as big philosophical questions are pondered. This is top-notch science fiction, the first in a projected trilogy. Grade 8 - adult.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden's novel about two young James Bay Cree men who go off together to fight in the first world war has received wide acclaim since it was published in 2005.  I listened to a Recorded Books unabridged audiobook edition (16 hours). The story is told in two alternating voices; Robert Ramirez reads the part of Xavier Bird and Ruth Ann Phimister reads the part of Xavier's aunt Niska. Both readers use a clear, calm and steady style.

Xavier has returned from the war severely injured in body and spirit. He experiences vivid flashbacks to the horrors of the battlefield, where he and his best friend Elijah Whiskeyjack were snipers. Niska tells stories to Xavier in order to keep him from giving up on life as she transports the two of them back into the northern Ontario bush by canoe. The novel translates extremely well to oral storytelling. An additional pleasure was to hear the occasional Cree words spoken, especially the titles of each chapter.

Highly recommended. Boyden's subsequent novel, Through Black Spruce, follows Xavier's descendants to present day. Readalike: Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart

Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater who works and lives in the Tower of London with his wife, Hebe, and their ancient tortoise, Mrs. Cook. Balthazar and Hebe's marriage has been falling apart since the death of their son, three years earlier. Aside from this serious element to the plot, The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise is best described as whimsical. It will appeal to readers looking for something light with a lively cast of characters (nearly caricatures) and zany action.

Hebe and her friend Valerie work at the London Underground Department of Lost Articles, tracking down owners of oddities like glass eyes and funeral urns. Valerie is being wooed by a tattooed ticket inspector named Alfred Catnip. Valerie usually manages to be wearing something odd when Alfred turns up at their service counter: a theatrical beard; a viking helmet complete with blonde braids; or a horse costume. There are several other romantic liaisons underway with characters who are even more bizarre. It's wacky, I tell you!

Because Balthazar owns a tortoise, he is the Beefeater chosen to be in charge of a new menagerie at the Tower of London. The assortment of animals have all been presented as gifts to the Queen from foreign governments: a zorilla, a glutton, a pair of Jesus Christ lizards, a tiny Etruscan shrew, and so on. More fun than a barrel of monkeys. (Speaking of which, the Geoffroy's  marmosets have a habit of exposing their private parts whenever they are under stress.)

It took me a while to get used to Julia Stuart's style, which is a jumbled heap of metaphor and simile, but I enjoyed it overall. I think it was the tragedy at the heart of the tale that salvaged this book for me.

Readalikes: Quirky, romantic fare like Chocolat by Joanne Harris; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer; The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and the film Amelie.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

Dade Hamilton has had a secret boyfriend for two years. In the summer after he finishes high school, and before leaving his small Iowa town for college in the autumn, Dade decides he has had enough of being closeted. He falls for a guy from the wrong side of town, Alex Kincaid, who also happens to be the local dope dealer. As he deals with ex-boyfriend and new one, and while watching his parents' marriage fall apart, Dade learns to be true to himself.

The sense of being on the cusp of adulthood is very strong in this realistic novel. Nick Burd shines a golden light on ordinary moments in an ordinary life, illuminating the wonder of it all.

Readalikes: Someday this Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron (for a similar look at the liminal space between adolescence and adulthood from the viewpoint of a young gay man), or Sprout by Dale Peck (for a another secret boyfriend in a small town). Grade 9 - adult.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mac Slater Hunts the Cool by Tristan Bancks

I picked up Mac Slater Hunts the Cool because I liked the cover. I didn't recognize the author's name, and didn't flip to the back flap to read about him - although I did read the author's note at the beginning, warning kids not to try flying without getting in touch with the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association - and then jumped right into the story. It's about a couple of geeky boys, Mac and Paul, who like to invent things like flying bicycles.

Mac is invited to be a coolhunter candidate, someone with his finger on the pulse of the hot new trends. He has a week to compete against Cat, a girl in his grade at school, posting a video online each evening for worldwide voting; the winner will get to go to New York City. Cat is someone Mac has had a crush on for a long time, but she's never acknowledged his existence. She's a mean one. And rich. She has plenty of underhanded tricks up her sleeve because her plan is to win at any cost. Meanwhile, Mac the underdog struggles with his own understanding of what is cool.

The combination of external and interpersonal action make this a story that has a wide range of appeal for readers in Grades 4 to 6. What shocked me was the realization, after I'd finished reading it, that it is set in Australia. I read the author bio on the back flap - Tristan Bancks is an author and filmmaker who lives on Australia's east coast - and then back to the verso to find the publishing info - Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010; originally published by Random House Australia in 2008 as Mac Slater, Coolhunter: The Rules of Cool.

I'm usually really good at picking up setting clues, yet I was certain that Kings Beach was a fictional California surfing town. I've been to Kings Beach on Australia's Sunshine Coast - I've even got a photo on my fridge right now, for god's sake, of me and my sweetie posed there. Yet it never occurred to me that this was an Australian book. In retrospect, there is the clue that the kids wore school uniforms. But that's the only thing I can think of. Huh! Another case of Americanization of literature from other countries. If you want to read my previous rant about this issue, see my post about Beautiful Malice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

This excellent biography of rock legend Janis Joplin is primarily aimed at an audience of teens in Grade 9 and up. With abundant photos, coloured reproductions of concert posters and album covers, as well as psychedelic page ornamentation and lots of white space in the page design, it is a very appealing package. The text is lively and sympathetic. Joplin's alcohol and drug use, for example, are shown within the context of her emotional insecurities and the culture of the era. Her bisexuality is noted briefly: "Always hungry for affection, she compulsively sought attention from both men and women." There's a bit more in the same paragraph, mentioning only one of her female lovers (Juli Paul).

I couldn't help but compare Joplin's life to that of Johnny Weir, since I just finished his autobiography. Both seem to have been born to be divas, but Weir's strong sense of self-worth makes quite a contrast with Joplin's personal demons. Her feelings of inadequacy were fed by such humiliations as being nominated as "ugliest man on campus" when she attended the University of Texas. Her life was short and had its share of pathos, yet her determination, talent and success inspired many women who followed her in the field of rock music.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Welcome to My World by Johnny Weir

Outside of the figure skating world, everyone knows it's the gayest sport there is. Within the US Figure Skating Association, however, the athletes are expected to be totally masculine... while decked out in spandex and sequins and wearing figure skates. Johnny Weir has never followed the scripts set out by the USFSA.

Johnny Weir received his first pair of new skates in 1994 when he was eleven. They came with a package of skating lessons. Weir didn't like learning how to fall and get up off the ice amidst a horde of other children; he wanted to be jumping and spinning like real skaters - the ones he'd seen on tv. After two hours of lessons, Weir astonished his instructor by taking off on his own, heading for a small opening between two tottering young skaters, and landing an axel jump.

Weir won the World Junior Champion title in 2001 and eventually the US National Championship three years in a row. At the Olympics in Vancouver last year, Weir was at the centre of a media storm after two Quebecois broadcasters said that he needed a gender test because they didn't know if he was a man or a woman. Proud of his individuality, Weir spoke out confidently in support of all the "weirdos" of the world.

In Welcome to My World, Weir shares his deeply private self, a side that is hidden by the flamboyant poses and costumes he puts on for show. It is a moving account of a gay young man growing through an enfant terrible phase and into maturity. After I finished the book, I watched lots of YouTube videos of Weir skating - his interpretation of Lady Gaga's Pokerface is really fun.

Friday, February 11, 2011

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

My all-time favourite TED Talk is by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who tells about her experience undergoing a major stroke and then recovering completely. View the 20-minute clip online here. It has moved me to tears five times already!

Taylor's book is just as powerful as the video. Family and friends of anyone who is recovering from brain injury will appreciate her practical appendix which lists "Forty Things I Needed the Most."

The best part of the book, however, is the way it honours the unique gifts of the right hemisphere of our brains. "To the right mind, no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation. Life or death occurs in the present moment. The experience of joy happens in the present moment. [...] The present moment is a time when everything and everyone are connected together as one. [...] It perceives the big picture, how everything is related and how we all join together to make up the whole. Our ability to be empathic, to walk in the shoes of another and feel their feelings, is a product of our right frontal cortex."

"Thanks to the skills of our right mind, we are capable of remembering isolated moments with uncanny clarity and accuracy." Fortunately for the rest of us, this capability has enabled Taylor to give us an amazingly detailed account of the morning of her stroke. Her long road to recovery started with her determination to regain functioning of the left side of her brain, even though it meant giving up a newly discovered euphoria.

Taylor temporarily lost the ability to discern boundaries to her self. She experienced oneness with the universe, a state of consciousness known to some as nirvana. It took eight years before Taylor's perception of her self shifted from that of fluid energy to that of a solid being, separate from the whole. The entire journey has had a huge impact on her life and she is an inspiration to others.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Heart Transplant by Andrew Vachss and Frank Caruso

Quiet, pudgy Sean was abused by his stepfather and bullied at school. The story is told in Sean's voice, beginning with his comparisons of real life to the movies. When his parents are shot to death in their apartment, Sean's previously unknown grandfather takes him in and teaches him how to stand up for himself.

Frank Caruso's artwork is moody and dark with judicious use of bright colours. It's very effective and also handsomely presented in an almost coffeetable-size hardcover format.

This book would be great for classroom discussion from Grade 6 upwards, assisted by the essay on bullying included in an afterword by Zak Mucha. Another intriguing discussion element to the story are Sean's actions when he refuses to break into houses to steal for his stepfather, but steals a winter coat to give as a Christmas gift to his grandfather.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Ashley was three years old when she and her younger brother, Luke, were taken away from her teenaged mother. Ashley spent nine years in 14 different foster homes before being adopted at age 12. Many of the placements were overcrowded; 14 children in a home that had been approved for two, for example. In one place, she lived with a convicted pedophile. In another - a mobile home owned by the Moss family - Ashley, Luke and nine other children were sadistically abused.

Ashley's memoir is inspiring because she has been able to overcome the horrors of her past. She began speaking to large audiences about the experiences of foster children from the time she was adopted. She was part of a class-action suit against the Mosses, working to ensure that other children would not suffer as she and Luke did. And she continues to raise awareness about the foster care system in Florida and the USA. Check out her website.

I listened to an audiobook (Blackstone: 8.5 hours) read by the author and highly recommend it. Grade 8 - adult.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Funny Misshapen Body by Jeffrey Brown

In this collection of stories from his childhood through to his college years, Jeffrey Brown charms with his honesty and his ability to laugh at himself. His scratchy black ink artwork pairs well with his clear-eyed appraisal of the foibles of his younger self. Brown writes about his experience with Crohn's disease, working in a wooden shoe factory, bingeing on alcohol and drugs, and awkward interactions with the female sex. He vaguely wants to make art his life's work, but it takes years before that desire coalesces into the form of autobiographical comics like this one.

Graphic novel readalikes about men coming of age: Perfect Example by John Porcellino; Paul Has a Summer Job by Michel Rabagliati; Stitches by David Small.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit

If you love to read about food and cooking, the subtitle "A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook" should be all the incentive you need to get this book in your hands. Segnit has a really fun, opinionated style. Sometimes she makes me chuckle out loud. I've been dipping in and out of the book for three weeks and now I'm sorry to return it to the library - but other folks are waiting for their turn. Here are a few tasters:

On the pairing of cucumber & mint - "Colder than a couple of contract killers. Add yogurt, also known for its cooling properties, and you have a form of gastronomic air-conditioning [...]"

"In place of parsley's cold-rain flavour, cilantro is more redolent of the monsoon, with hints of warm earthiness and fruity citrus peel."

"If you don't like the resinous flavour of pine nuts in pesto you'll find that walnuts make a fine, and far less opinionated, substitute."

"Raw [parsnip] is rather dispiriting, especially in combination with its fibrous, woody texture, for which you might as well substitute a macrame plant holder. Roasted or mashed, using plenty of fat and salt, parsnip takes on a gorgeous sweet spiciness that can recall coconut or banana."

"Star anise flatters carrot's fresh, woody quality, which is all to the good, as carrot flourishes under a surfeit of praise."

Recipes are in paragraph form, such as this entry under Anise & Rhubarb:
"Take a lead from Mark Miller, one of the great masters of californian cuisine, and add anise seeds to the topping for a rhubarb crumble. Roast and crush the seeds first and stir them in with the sugar. Use 2-3 tsp for a topping made with 1 1/4 cups flour, 1/2 cup sugar and 1 stick butter. This works for apple and plum crumbles too."

It all makes my mouth water. I'll be getting this book out from the library again.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Thanks to Liz at A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, I was alerted to some best audiobooks lists and awards. I adore listening to stories and so I always have an audiobook on the go. (Currently, it's Three Little Words: A Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter, read by the author.)

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex has won the Odyssey Award, as well as making the ALSC Notable list. I look forward to the treat of listening to that one! The print book is a big favourite of mine.

I was surprised to see will grayson, will grayson on YALSA's top 10 list because I found the audio version disappointing. I LOVED the print book and then recently listened to the audio before I booktalked it, in order to have the story fresh in my mind. The gay Will Grayson sounded much too angry to my ears; his character as it lives in my mind is more despairing and hurt. In the scenes from Tiny's musical, where audio format could really have shone, the story was simply narrated. Too bad. If I had only listened to the audio, without having read the print book, I doubt that I would feel such affection for this story, which was one of my top reads of 2010.

I'm curious about the audio version of The Knife of Never Letting Go, which was another favourite in print. How will the Noise translate? Also, Todd's idiosyncratic spelling will be absent. Hmmm. I'll give it a listen, anyway. I'm reminded of M.T. Anderson's Feed, which was done brilliantly in audio (by Listening Library), so I can see the possibilities.

YALSA's Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults includes Silksinger by Laini Taylor (with her name misspelled - oops!). Davina Porter's Recorded Books interpretation of Taylor's first book in the Faeries of Dreamdark series, Blackbringer, was so absolutely perfect that I'm afraid to hear Cassandra Campbell's version for Brilliance Audio. Campbell's voice might be better for all-American teen girl and women's stories. I did like her reading of The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn (Penguin Audio).

I'm in total agreement with One Crazy Summer being on both the Amazing Audiobooks and the ALSC Notables lists. (My review is here.) Sisi Aisha Johnson does a fabulous job as reader; I think dialect translates particularly well in audio format - maybe even better than print.

There are lots of audiobooks on these lists that sound great - I look forward to hours of good listening.