Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How I Paid for College by Marc Acito

My sweetie and I are back from New York and it was a fabulous trip (even though Laurie's book did not win). In our hotel (the Chelsea Savoy) during one of our complimentary breakfasts (bagels and cream cheese), I overheard another guest (yelling is very popular in NYC) say she lives in Wallingford. Hunh! I'd only just heard of that town in New Jersey because it's the setting for Marc Acito's coming-of-age comedy, How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theatre.

The title sums up the content pretty well. Edward Zanni has always wanted to be an actor and dreams of attending Juilliard. During his final year of high school, his father tells him that he has no intention of paying for higher education unless Edward studies business. Luckily, Edward is surrounded by a group of creative friends who help him come up with ways to make $10,000 for his first year of tuition. (That was back in 1983 - I wonder how much it costs now?) Anyway, it's a great romp and worked well in audiobook format (Recorded Books: 11 hours) performed by Jeff Woodman. I was pleased that Woodman sang rather than spoke whenever that was called for in the text. His amusing renditions of accents also helped to keep the large cast of characters clear.

Over the course of the story, Edward and his friends explore their sexual feelings for each other and make several outings to a gay bar in Greenwich Village; bisexuality is a major theme. Two of their hare-brained money-making schemes involve incriminating blackmail photos and Edward's friend's enormous penis. Being reasonably certain that Wallingford was not the ideal place to develop the film, Edward takes it to a shop in the Village called Toto Photo. (Which reminds me, I saw Judy Garland's dress from The Wizard of Oz hanging in the window of the Stonewall Inn. I love New York.) It all ends happily... with only one short stint in jail.

Readalikes: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger; Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Parallel Lies by Stella Duffy

Like a nesting set of Russian dolls, there are layers upon layers of pretense in this tart thriller set in Hollywood. British-born Penny narrates the story of her work as personal assistant - and lover - to Russian-born screen idol Yana Ivanova. For the sake of public appearances, Yana is married to a man, Jimmy, and the three of them live together in not-so-perfect harmony in a lovely mansion. A series of mysterious letters threatens to topple their house of cards. Penny and Yana must sort it out before their happiness is destroyed, no matter the cost.

Duffy's writing style is conversational and witty. Penny treads carefully around another actor, Melissa, who seems to be trying to seduce her into a three-way with her ex, Mike - who also just happens to be the leading man opposite Yana in a new film: "Easily bored, his blonde siren, she needs constant change, weather-vane girl, vain girl, glorious girl." Yana pushes Penny into the situation, in order to maintain the smokescreen around their relationship, but neither is happy about it. "She was pissed off and jealous. I was sorry she was pissed off and happy she was jealous."

Sex, drugs, lies and murder and up to a quick and entertaining read.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

Not a dictionary, but a novel written in a series of vignettes documenting the feelings and day-to-day negotiations of a romantic adult relationship. Each diary-like entry is a prose poem titled alphabetically with a noun, verb or adjective: aberrant, abstain, abstraction, abyss, acronym, adamant, etc.

The tale is shaped around the consequences of an infidelity. It is told in first person without names, nor very many clues about the gender of either partner, an ambiguity which reinforces the universal nature of the subject. Levithan even references Jeanette Winterson's famously non-gender-specific novel, Written on the Body in the poem 'blemish, n.' In my interpretation of the text, however, I kept seeing two men. This may be because I know the author is gay and his previous books have had gay central characters. (This is also his first clearly adult novel after a string of successful YA titles.)

Here's an excerpt from the poem 'woo, v': "I told you that it was ridiculous to pay thirty dollars for a dozen roses on Valentine's Day. I forbade you to do it. So that day, when I went to pay for lunch, what did I find? In my wallet, thirty singles, each with roses printed on it."

Not every scene is so sweet, of course. It's a candid examination of the nature of human partnerships. It is absolutely charming.

Readalikes on the subject of love with a similarly unusual format (albeit different tones): The Incident Report by Martha Baillie; The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson; Watercolor Women, Opaque Men by Ana Castillo; Anthropology by Dan Rhodes; The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

Kelly Link demonstrates her versatile and fertile imagination in this amazing collection. There are corpses playing tricks, an entire village in a handbag, ghosts kept on ribbons as pets... all kinds of delicious weirdness. It was a good choice to have each of the nine stories performed by a different author in the Recorded Books edition (13 hours). What the tales have in common are just the right details to bring the settings and characters vividly into focus, a sense of the macabre and a fantastical twist at the end. Great fun!

Readalikes: Black Juice and Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan; Swamplandia by Karen Russell.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones

Blink was only trying to steal some breakfast from a fancy Toronto hotel when he accidently witnesses a high-stakes hoax. Caution was fed up with ill-treatment from her former lover/pimp/pornographer and steals a huge wad of his cash. Chance brings the two homeless teens together and soon they have each other's backs. They are going to need all of their wits because they are in way over their heads... and that's not even counting the tragedies that sent them to the streets initially.

This is Tim Wynne-Jones' most adrenalin-fueled novel yet. The two teens are also really interesting individuals. I appreciated the subtle ways their characteristics were revealed: Caution's mixed Aboriginal ancestry, for example. She has her father's grey English eyes and comes from Wahnapitae in northern Ontario; her cousin (on her mother's side) has a broad, brown face and answers the door in moccasins.

The chapters alternate between Blink's story - told in second person - and Caution's, which is in third. Flashbacks are in italics, so it is always easy to orient oneself. Believable dialogue helps to move the action along quickly. I'd recommend this to anyone looking for a smart thriller. Grade 8 - up.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

If this book was just being published now instead of five years ago, I wonder if it would have been promoted as YA instead of adult. It's a coming-of-age story with mature themes in the voice of an appealing young narrator named Baby. Baby's parents were both just 15 years old when she was born and her mother died soon afterwards. Her father is a drug addict and mentally unstable, so Baby spends a lot of time on the streets in the red light district of Montreal. As if her life weren't already difficult enough, Baby gets a crush on a jealous pimp who happens to like his girls young.

Miriam McDonald narrates the audiobook (Harper Audio; 9 hours) with an appropriately matter-of-fact delivery, in the way Baby herself avoids being too deeply affected by the tragedy of her situation. Audiobooks with long tracks can be really annoying because when I stop partway through a track, I have to re-listen from the beginning of the track when I get back to the book. (My player doesn't have fast-forwarding within tracks.) For some reason, Canadian titles are especially bad in this regard and Lullabies for Little Criminals is a case in point, with tracks about 20-25 minutes long. I started listening to the final CD and had to stop at the 25 minute point, even though the track wasn't yet over. Thinking that it must be near the end, I switched to track 2 when I was ready to listen again, only to hear "thank you for listening etc." So I started again from the beginning. After about 50 minutes, I managed to drop my player and it fell apart. Luckily, it still worked once I had reassembled it. Unfortunately, I had to start all over again from the beginning of the CD in order to hear how the story ended. I gave up and got a copy of the book instead so that I could read the final 15 pages.

The paper edition had a note from the author at the end, talking about Baby: "The main character is twelve for a good chunk of the book. Twelve is a beautiful and striking age. It's when kids start talking big and thinking about how they could make it on their own: just like angels right before they are cast out of heaven. They have such innocent and dangerous ideas."

I think it is this newness to the world that makes teen characters like Baby so very appealing; they remind me what it was like to experience everything for the first time.

Grade 10- up. Readalikes: Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones (which I'm going to blog about next); Rose of No Man's Land by Michelle Tea; Broken China by Lori Aurelia Williams; Saint Iggy by KL Going.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Burn by Alma Fullerton

Casey and her mom, Libby, used to travel around the world together; they were like two peas in a pod. Libby McCall is still famous, but it's been six years since she's recorded anything new. Six years ago, Casey's grandmother died and it was time for Casey to start school anyway and Libby met John, who runs a restaurant not  too far from Toronto, and then Casey's little sister Ginny was born. Ginny has autism, so she needs everything to be routine. Between the restaurant business and Ginny's special needs, travelling is out of the question... until Libby takes off on her own. Casey starts sending up smoke signal prayers to her mother, hoping that she will come back, and the fires get bigger and bigger...

As with her previous novels, Alma Fullerton has written Burn in a series of poems, a format which makes Casey's shifting emotional states immediately present. The child hardly gets a break, so be prepared with kleenex.

Readalikes: The Same Stuff as Stars by Katherine Paterson (for another girl taking charge after being dumped by her mother); Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko (for another sibling with autism); Hold Me Tight by Lorie Ann Grover (for another girl's hard luck story in verse).

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

"My name is Olemaun Pokiak - that's OO-lee-mawn - but some of my classmates used to call me 'Fatty Legs.' They called me that because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous. But I put an end to it. How? Well, I am going to let you in on a secret that I have kept for more than 60 years: the secret of how I made those stockings disappear."

This is the opening paragraph in a true story about residential schooling written by Christy Jordan-Fenton with her mother-in-law, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton.

When Olemaun begged her parents to send her to school so that she could learn to read, her parents tried to discourage her. She had no idea of the hardships she would face at residential school. She was born into an Inuvialuit family and spent her early years on Banks Island next to the Arctic Ocean. In 1944, at 8 years of age, Olemaun made the 5-day journey to Aklavik, on the Northwest Territories mainland, where her father sold his furs and stocked up on yearly supplies at the Hudson Bay Company. At Aklavik, there was also a Catholic school run by Belgian nuns and that is where Olemaun became known as Margaret. It was two years before she saw her parents again.

The nuns are described as crows and ravens doing a poor job of looking after little wrens who have been snatched from their nests. The children are forced to work very hard - cleaning, hauling wood, gardening, sewing, doing laundry and working in the hospital next door - but Margaret does learn reading and math. Her resourcefulness and strong spirit give this book an uplifting tone. Full-colour artwork by Liz Amini-Holmes and black-and-white photos from Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's own collection as well as archival materials nicely illustrate this moving account.

Grade 4-up. Readalikes suitable for children: My Name Is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling and Goodbye Buffalo Bay by Larry Loyie are two more autobiographical accounts of Aboriginal experiences in residential schools. For more for this same age group about Inuit life and culture: Arctic Adventures by Raquel Rivera and Jirina Marton; Curse of the Shaman by Michael Kusugak.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kindred by Tammar Stein

Miriam is so frightened by a visit from the angel Raphael in her college dorm during spring break that she wets herself. Meanwhile, her twin brother Moses has been chatting with Satan. As you can imagine from this set-up, the siblings end up working at cross-purposes. Their parents are both professors of theology - their father is a rabbi and their mother is a former Catholic nun. Miriam, however, isn't prepared to talk to either parent about angelic visitations. She won't even talk to them about her painful bowel problems.

I found Miriam's struggles with the symptoms, embarrassments and eventual diagnosis of Crohn's disease the most interesting aspect of the book. Miriam manages to resolve her crisis of faith, and this is how she sums up her feelings: "God watches over us and shows us the way, while the devil trips us and hopes that we fall. We can keep each other company. We can lend a helping hand. But we have to do the walking ourselves."

It's not really my cup of tea. I'd recommend this to teens who are questioning their faith and who also enjoy some paranormal aspects in a realistic, contemporary setting. Grade 8-12

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hagiography by Jen Currin

Vancouver poet Jen Currin describes a world where ghosts and trees fall to their knees, drunken fish take to the streets, and dresses are made of seaweed. Familiar things take on a strangeness that sort of tickles: "We can be sure of nothing - "

"I live in a watery soup / inside the huge vegetable / where ghosts wash / themselves to witeness." (from "Before the Birds)
"I have three pairs of pants / with which to drive out the moonlight." (from "It Seems")
"The city is always late / and missing its panties. It's best to pretend / we don't know why." (from "Once")
"I become the sudden murderer, / unable to recognize the radishes / of my hands." (from "A Bat Unveiled")
"I'm seeing stars on the stair." (from "Window Music")

Hagiography is divided into sections of Death, Childhood and Birth, with Intermissions in between. Time is not cyclical here - there is instead the sense that everything is happening in the present. Ancestors could be sipping soup at your table. I am both baffled and charmed by these poems. They have the logic of dreams. Sweet dreams.

Currin is one of the poets shortlisted for the Lammys (for her most recent book, The Inquisition Yours). I'll be there (in New York!) at the awards ceremony on May 26th, along with another finalist... my dear Laurie MacFayden.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness by Clem Martini and Olivier Martini

I was deeply moved by this memoir which is a joint creation by two brothers from Calgary. The subject is so close to my heart that it makes writing this review difficult. I've loved people with severe mental health issues. Some of them have committed suicide. Every day at work in the library, I interact with patrons who have differing degrees of mental illness. Alberta's health care system is failing too many of them and the shortcomings are outlined in Bitter Medicine.

Clem and Olivier Martini give a very personal look at the effect of mental illness on a family in which two out of four siblings have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Olivier's line drawings and Clem's prose are woven together into a sort of hybrid graphic novel/ family memoir/ mental health treatise. It is inspiring, eye-opening and heartbreaking.

Bitter Medicine is one of the final five books competing for the 2011 Alberta Readers' Choice Awards. Have you voted yet? I'm having a hard time deciding. Letters from the Lost is too similar to other grim stories of holocaust survivors to stand out. The Grizzly Manifesto is decent, although the gun-toting bear on the cover really turns me off. Cinco de Mayo has a cover that's even worse, but if you ignore that, you'll find an engaging what-if novel inside. Gruffly charming Robert Kroetsch is in fine form in Too Bad... but my heart is leaning towards Bitter Medicine as the best of them all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

In the past week I've read three books with sentences for titles: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Please Ignore Vera Dietz; and now Please Look After Mom. Odd. They are all told in multiple voices, too, if you count a play's dialogue that way. More odd. Anyway, I loved all three.

Kyung-Sook Shin's haunting novel is an international bestseller about an elderly Korean woman who goes missing at the Seoul train station. Park So-nyo and her husband had travelled from their village to attend a birthday celebration hosted by their offspring. When So-nyo's husband stepped onto a subway, thinking his wife was right behind him, she was left behind.

Four voices narrate the story: eldest daughter Chi-hon, eldest son Hyong-chol, the husband, and lastly, we hear from the missing wife. There are so many small details of domestic life that make the setting richly present. It's a story of family relationships, replete with regrets over things said and not said - a reminder that we often take our parents and spouses for granted. In addition to these universal themes of guilt and responsibility and love, I like Gary Shteyngart's astute observation (quoted on the jacket) that this book addresses "how the movement of people from small towns and villages to big cities can cause heartbreak and even tragedy."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Vera Dietz is in her final year of high school while also working full-time as a pizza delivery technician. She tries not to draw attention to herself because she's already got enough to deal with. Besides working her butt off to get good grades AND save enough money for college, Vera is being harassed by the ghost of her ex-best friend, Charlie, who wants her to clear his name.

If they hadn't had a huge falling out, maybe Charlie would still be alive, but Vera is still really mad at him. Too bad she's also still in love with him.

What really happened on the night Charlie died remains a mystery through most of the book. The story is told from Vera's point of view, but sometimes we hear from her dad (who includes flowcharts), sometimes from the dead kid (Charlie), and sometimes from the pagoda (a town monument with a wry sense of humour). Vera is an endearing character who struggles to do the right thing. You'll be cheering for her, even when the pagoda grumbles.

Grade 9 - adult. Readalike: The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, for a similarly fresh voice.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Vietnamerica by GB Tran

Author GB Tran's family "crammed into a U.S. cargo plane bound for America on the evening of April 25, 1975. It was one of the last to take off before the Viet Cong bombs destroyed the Saigon airport later that night." Tran's graphic novel biography pieces together the events that led up to that dramatic escape. He goes back two generations, covering the series of occupations of Vietnam by the Japanese, the French and the Americans.

Unlike his two eldest siblings, GB was born in the U.S.A. He didn't become interested in his family history until he was in his late twenties, when he happened to come across a book about the Vietnam war that his father had given to him as a graduation gift years earlier. Seeing the inscription that his father had written: "To my son, Gia Bao" and a quote from Confucius "A man without history is a tree without roots" spurred him to accompany his parents on their next trip to Vietnam.

In the way that we piece together history from the memories of living relatives, Tran's account sometimes seemed like a jumble of anecdotes. When I found it a challenge to keep track of who and when, the family tree drawn inside the book liners helped immensely. The ink brushwork is mostly in full colour, but the preponderance of black suits the sombre story. Pages of solid black, except for a drifting leaf, are especially effective. They convey the magnitude of loss faced by refugees - the severing from one's roots and culture.

This poignant account of the upheaval and displacement caused by war will appeal to readers who enjoy stories about resilience and survival.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro

In a dark comedy set in Nigeria in the near future, corruption and greed face off against grassroots resistance. Half a million people die in the flooding when a fifty-year-old dam on the Niger River bursts; TransAqua International seeks to privatize all of the water in Nigeria in the disaster's aftermath. Everyone in the extensive cast of characters stands out vividly larger-than-life.

Barbara Glass, a caucasian American working at Drop of Life in Ottawa to prevent the wholesale of African water rights is one example. "Barbara had sewn herself harem pants for winter. Unfortunately, the thick yellow tweed selected for its warmth also added volume to gathers that should have draped downwards. She looked like a balloon whose only countervailing effect was the balloon on her head -- a turban in light blue she had made from sheets. A turban, she felt, would identify their group for generations to come, much like Che Guevara's beret. [...] She walked into the boardroom, the fabric around her thighs creating a swishing sound, her Black Power pendant rattling against two Celtic necklaces and a brooch in the form of a Nigerian flag. As she entered, she bowed a Namaste to all and sat down, her harem pants puffing up around her waist."

Barbara's sister, Mary, an executive at TransAqua, is masterminding assassinations right and left, along with the Nigerian president. When the sisters unite at their parents' mansion for Thanksgiving, the atmosphere is tense. "In the dining room, each place setting was arranged with prickly attention to detail. The crystal glasses shot off sharp, disapproving glints; the silverware yawned with superiority. Although the candlesticks and vase of flowers framing the centre of the table initially appeared welcoming, once the guests sat down they loomed, obscuring the view."

In Nigeria, lawyer Femi Jegede is inspiring people to unite against their corrupt government. The new president, Ogbe Kolo, has three contract killers out to get rid of the folk hero, so Femi is on the run with his male lover, Igwe. Meanwhile, Kolo becomes so fearful of his political rivals that he sleeps in the trunk of his Mercedes. Dangerous times! Serious issues underly the farcical humour in this brilliant novel.