Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pink by Lili Wilkinson

Ava secretly longs to ditch her all-black wardrobe and wear fluffy pink clothes. She loves her chic girlfriend, Chloe, but Ava wonders if maybe she should give boys a chance. What Ava wants most of all is to be normal. She convinces her radical left-wing parents to enroll her in one of Melbourne's exclusive private schools, where she plans to re-invent herself. Easier said than done, of course; Ava makes plenty of mistakes as she tries to be someone that she is not. Her journey to self-discovery is both funny and painful.

On Ava's first day at the Billy Hughes School for Academic Excellence, she has a meeting with Josie, who is the school's "integration architect" (guidance counsellor). Josie tells her that at Billy Hughes "We're committed to de-siloing the learning experience." She explains why students use their teacher's first names and write their own report cards (in consultation with teachers). Also, "At the beginning of each semester, you birthday a performance plan, with a list of key outcomes you want to achieve and a series of deliverables over the course of a semester that track your progress." Ava has second thoughts about attending a school where "birthday" is used as a verb, but she perseveres.

There aren't too many bisexual main characters in teen fiction and for that reason alone, Pink is a wonderful addition to the genre, but there are plenty of other reasons to love this Australian book. The prose is fresh and witty. Ava is endearingly flawed and she is backed by a whole pack of believable, funny supporting characters. The action centers around the staging of a school musical theatre - Bang! Bang! - and Ava sneaking around on her girlfriend, kissing boys, trying to fit in with both the popular crowd and the misfits in the stage crew, as well as hiding her new girly clothes from her parents. 

Ava's inevitable comeuppance is handled with compassion. The tone remains hopeful even in the face of disaster; there's the reassurance that owning up to mistakes is the first step towards forgiveness. Many teens will be able to identify with Ava's dilemma of fitting-in versus being herself.

Grade 8-12.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Karen Russell's previous book is a short story collection called St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. (Don't you love that title?) Her novel, Swamplandia!, could also have been called something like The Bigtree Fake Indians' Home for Children Raised by Alligators Named Seth. It's about an eccentric family who operate an outdated tourist attraction on an island in the Florida swamps. Daily alligator wrestling and cheap beer have been the main draws to Swamplandia!, but attendance is down and the place is on the brink of financial ruin.

A series of health-related tragedies results in the three Bigtree children mostly fending for themselves at the time the story takes place. The tale is recounted from the viewpoints of Ava Bigtree, the youngest at thirteen, and her brother Kiwi, who is seventeen. Ossie, sixteen, is going through a boy-crazy phase that troubles her siblings because her boyfriends are ghosts. Ava intends to be the next World Alligator Wrestling Champion. Kiwi dreams of attending a real school on the mainland, instead of teaching himself with ancient mouldy books from an abandoned library boat.

Dysfunctional family drama, creepy swamp scenes, a twisty plot, clever prose style and lots of humour - I loved it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

God Loves Hair by Vivek Shraya

In a charming collection of vignettes about his childhood in Edmonton, Vivek Shraya explores the concepts of identity and belonging. His brown, South Asian skin and his pretty appearance made Shraya a target at school: "I learned which hallways to avoid (faggot) and which faces to avoid (if you ever look at me again, I will pound the shit out of you, you fucking fag)."

Shraya found weekly comfort when his family attended a Hindu place of worship. "No matter what has happened during the week or what I've been called, I am only a few days away from Sunday." Other members of the congregation recognize that Shraya's gender nonconformity sets him apart, but on Sundays, he basks in their approval of his religious devotion.

Shraya survives it all and demonstrates a great compassion for his younger self. Each brief story is introduced with artwork by Juliana Neufeld, adding piquancy and fleshing out this little 90-page gem. The book was selected for this year's ALA Rainbow Project of GLBTQ Books for Children and Teens and has also been shortlisted for a Lambda award. It is available through Shraya's website.

Grade 6 - adult. Readalike: Close to Spider Man by Ivan E. Coyote.

Note added November 2014: God Loves Hair was republished this year by Arsenal Pulp Press.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is an introspective travelogue in full colour graphic novel format by a Jewish American artist in her 20s on a free trip sponsored by Birthright Israel. Before leaving for Israel, Sarah Glidden told her boyfriend Jamil, whose family is from Pakistan: "I'm ready to go there and discover the truth behind this whole mess once and for all. It'll all be crystal clear by the time I come back!" Not. Definitely not.

Sarah identifies as politically left-wing and progressive, which usually includes being anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. She wonders if not supporting Israel makes her anti-Jewish (and therefore self-hating). Throughout her journey, Sarah's resistance to Zionist propaganda leaves her feeling out of step with the other young people on the trip, including her good friend, Melissa. Sarah hides her disdain when she finds her travel companions gushing and sharing their feelings of inspiration; Sarah's snarky comments are not appreciated. Even Melissa gets short with her sometimes.

Sarah Glidden's watercolour artwork is very accomplished, with almost photographic details, such as ancient walls marked with graffiti (KNOW HOPE) and bullet holes (Sarah illustrates herself exploring one with her finger). In a cafe scene, the roof beams, book-laden bookshelves, pasted notices and framed art on the walls, a glimpse of staff in the kitchen under hanging cook pots, as well as customers at a nearby table all add to the richness of the setting. The Birthright tour covers a lot of ground and-drawn maps help to orient readers before each chapter.

In the end, Sarah is still muddled about the situation in Israel. Her honesty is both a strength and a weakness, depending on the reader's viewpoint. I wonder if Sarah could have gained some perspective if she had allowed more time to lapse between her trip and the writing. In any case, don't expect to understand the complexities of Israel and Palestine by the end of this book.

Readalikes: for a subtly critical view of Israeli society from within, check out Exit Wounds, a novel by Israeli comic book artist Rutu Modan.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir

Une mort tres douce was first published in 1964. Simone de Beauvoir's memoir of the time her mother spent in hospital with terminal cancer is considered to be her masterwork. Not having read any of de Beauvoir's belles-lettres previously, this translation (by Patrick O'Brian) in audiobook format (Recorded Books; 3 hours) was an excellent introduction for me.

Intellectual and emotional considerations inherent to the situation balance each other. Simone and her sister Poupette don't know if they should tell their mother the truth about the seriousness of her illness. They grapple with the question of prolonging her life (and her suffering). Most surprising to them is their mother's will to remain alive, even through extreme pain.

Narrator Hillary Huber is skillfully unobtrusive in the role of de Beauvoir speaking English. Brief piano interludes separating the chapters add a graceful touch to this thoughtful and compassionate work.

Synchronicity between the books I read continues to delight me. Pairing A Very Easy Death with The Weird Sisters (another book featuring a mother with cancer) was accidental. The epilogue to A Very Easy Death is the verse from Dylan Thomas which begins Do not go gentle into that good night. The epilogue to The Weird Sisters is also from Thomas, an excerpt from A Child's Christmas in Wales (the part with the firemen that ends with the question, "Would you like anything to read?") And, a book I read last week, Matched, features an illegally-acquired poem (not one of the sanctioned 100) - of course it is Do not go gentle into that good night. Cool.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

First-person-plural is an unusual stylistic choice for storytelling. First-time novelist Eleanor Brown makes it work in a story narrated by three sisters who don't like each other very much. The sisters come home to their parent's house in the American midwest while their mother undergoes treatment for breast cancer.

Rose (Rosalind), the oldest sister at 33, is the intelligent, responsible one. Bean (Bianca) is the attention-seeking bad girl. Cordy (Cordelia) is the adorable drifter searching for meaning, the baby of the family that everyone loves. All three have encountered big hurdles in their lives and their return home is an opportunity to reassess their priorities.

Their father, a college professor, chooses to communicate in quotations from Shakespeare. It's a quirk that would take some getting used to, I would think, but his family takes this in stride. Even so, they aren't always sure of what he means. "One of the problems with communicating in the words of a man who is not around to explain himself: it's damn hard sometimes to tell what he was talking about." His daughters have picked up the habit to a lesser extent.

I loved that all three sisters carry books and read everywhere. "[Bean] had long ago given up being offended by men who compulsively showered after sex. It was an excellent time to get a little reading done without anyone trying to talk to her."

Other aspects of the novel annoyed me. For example, there is Rose's attitude towards health and fitness: "[Rose] hated herself for not pushing harder, not fighting against our genetics to become strong and taut, like Bean." (Oh those lucky people who are genetically strong, without being physically active.) Overall, it was a bit too preachy and life-lessons-learned-y for my taste.

The sisters' struggles didn't fully engage me, but it was their voice, the "we," that made me persevere. I would recommend this to chick lit fans who also love Shakespeare.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Four unrelated unsolved crimes come together in a labyrinthine plot with Jackson Brodie, a private investigator in Cambridge, England, at the centre. Jackson is tortured by the recent dissolution of his marriage, but enjoys his visiting rights with his 8-year-old daughter. When he takes on a couple of decades-old murder cases, in addition to his usual investigations of marital infidelity and lost cats, the suspense builds. Now someone is trying to kill Jackson.

I listened to the Hachette audiobook edition (11 hours) read by Susan Jameson. Her subtle shifts in British accents and intonation help to keep track of the complex cast of characters. The creepiness of criminal insanity is effectively understated. Atkinson has been on my to-be-read list for years and this was a delightful introduction to her work. One of the benefits of taking a few years to get to this book is that more adventures of Jackson Brodie have since been published: One Good Turn (2006); When Will There Be Good News (2008); and Started Early, Took My Dog (2010). I look forward to reading them too.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Matched by Ally Condie

For the first seventeen years of her life, Cassia has believed that she lives in a perfect society. Everyone is healthy and happy. To avoid the confusion of too much choice, things like art and poems and novels have been narrowed down to the best 100 of each and the rest were destroyed long ago. Officials decide everything from the size and content of your meals to whom you will marry. Officials can always predict your actions. Well, almost always. When Cassia learns that Xander will be her life match, she is very happy... until she finds herself also attracted to Ky. Suddenly, having the freedom to choose becomes important.

Matched is the first volume of a projected trilogy. The premise intrigued me but I found it disappointing overall. I would have liked it better if both Xander and Ky weren't so annoyingly perfect. If this were Twilight, kind and loyal Xander would have the role of Jacob while Ky, the dangerous Aberration with exquisite self-control, would be Edward.

The ending leaves much of the plot unresolved. Usually, this doesn't bother me, but I wonder if I will like the trilogy better once I've got the entire story arc. Maybe there is simply too much romance cluttering up the dystopia for my taste.

Readalikes: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld; Across the Universe by Beth Revis; Useful Idiots by Jan Mark; and 1984 by George Orwell.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rose of No Man's Land by Michelle Tea

Rose of No Man’s Land is one of my favourite gritty teen novels. It's told in Trish’s cynical voice. She’s a fourteen-year-old loner who normally sets her sights pretty low, which is understandable considering her impoverished, dysfunctional family. Her project for the summer, however, is an ambitious one: she wants to find a friend.

Trish’s older sister, Kristy, is the go-getter in the family. Unlike Trish, Kristy wears girly clothes and is popular at school, where she is studying cosmetology. Her dream is to make it onto a reality TV program. Kristy concocts a whopping lie in order to get Trish a job at Ohmigod!, a trendy clothing store at the local shopping mall in small-town Massachusetts. Trish gets fired on her first day, but it is at the mall where Trish meets Rose, a girl one year older and a whole lot badder than she is.

Rose works in the food court of the mall. Trish is attracted to her daring, devilish attitude and disregard for authority, telling us, “I would like to be badass and free, you know, clambering around dumpsters, thieving and smoking and being a deliberate fire hazard like Rose, but it’s not so much my style.”

Rose leads Trish on a wild adventure that starts with a stolen cellphone, on through hitchhiking, double-crossing a drug dealer, drinking lots of Yikes (a vodka energy drink), doing crystal meth, causing havoc in restaurants and having sex for the first time.

“I just didn’t have my head too together after what Rose had done to me. My downstairs parts still felt pretty crazy from it, actually. Central, cracked open, transmitting and receiving. It was now the satellite dish of my body.”

Trish is a likeable heroine taking a crash course on the pleasures and pain of drugs and sex and growing up.

Note added March 14: Listen to Michelle Tea reading a great passage from the book at this website.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

Stephen King's tale of a 9-year-old girl who gets lost in the woods in New England while hiking with her mother and brother works beautifully in audio. Trisha has a portable radio with her and draws comfort from listening to Red Sox games in the evenings. In the Recorded Books unabridged edition (6 hours), narrator Anne Heche uses some sort of voice modulation to imitate the sound of radio play-by-play announcers.

Trisha's hero, pitcher Tom Gordon, becomes a sort of psychic helper and guide. The presence of a frightening creature stalking nearby keeps the suspense wound fairly tight. Heche's narration manages to shift with young Trisha's moods as she struggles to survive, reflecting silliness, awe, weariness, anger and fear. King loads the bases with a memorable, sympathetic heroine, a vivid wilderness setting, and a gripping adventure story. Add the audiobook format and it adds up to a grand slam home run suitable for family listening, from Grade 4 up.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, adapted by Nancy Butler & Hugo Petrus

Graphic novel adaptations are a painless way to get caught up on classics that I've always meant to read. Of all of Jane Austen's works, Pride and Prejudice was probably on the top of my list.

The cover of the Marvel hardcover edition that collects all five issues drew me right in. It shows a young woman (Lizzie?) in period dress with an enigmatic expression somewhere between wistful and sad. All around this image are the sorts of headlines that mimic those on the covers of modern women's magazines: 17 Secrets About Summer Dresses; Lizzy on Love, Loss and Living; Who Is Mr. Darcy?; How to Cure Your Boy-Crazy Sisters; and Bingleys Bring Bling to Britain. This looked like lots of fun!

Once inside the book, however, Nancy Butler - author of numerous regency romances - has stuck to Jane Austen's language style. Witty, but bound by the social conventions of the day. Spanish artist Hugo Petrus makes it pretty easy to keep track of the large cast of characters. He uses full colour, with golden and brown tones predominating.

It's a quick, enjoyable read; suitable for Grade 7 - adult.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How the Blacks Created Canada by Fil Fraser

The title is provocative - approaching the hyperbole of How the Irish Saved Civilization and How the Scots Invented the Modern World - but Edmontonian Fil Fraser makes clear he means that the creation of Canada is ongoing and collaborative. The scope of the book is huge, spanning 400 years of Black contributions to Canada's history.

The first chapter tells the important story of the Crown Colony on Vancouver Island in the mid-1800s, and how a large settlement of Blacks recruited from San Francisco helped to keep British Columbia from falling into American hands. Chapter 7, "The Caribbean Invasion" gave me pause, since "invasion" has such negative connotations. The praises in his text make it clear that this is not meant as a slur, however; he talks about such luminaries as Rosemary Brown, Donovan Bailey, Austin Clarke and Michaelle Jean. Plenty of relatively unknown people are also included, which is a strength throughout the book. In the same (seventh) chapter, Fraser calls John Diefenbaker "Canada's first 'Black' prime minister" because he was a proponent of minority rights. (As far as I know, all of the other Blacks that Fraser profiles are, or were, actually of African heritage.)

Fraser does go overboard in his enthusiasm: "[George Elliott Clarke's] sparkling, dynamic, 'with-it' personality destroys stereotypes on contact." (Wow! On contact?) Fraser is also prone to unsubstantiated pronouncements such as: "Without the sustenance they derived from the church, it's unlikely that many of the Blacks who helped to create Canada could have succeeded."

While Fraser's tone is avuncular and his rambling storytelling style tends to circle and occasionally repeat, his passion for his subject is undeniable. The content is interesting and easy to absorb. There is much to admire in this ambitious undertaking.