Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Flint Heart: Freely Abridged from Eden Phillpotts's 1910 Fantasy by Katherine Paterson & John Paterson

If you're looking for a great family read-aloud, I recommend The Flint Heart. This episodic tale begins: "Many years ago, oh, let's say five thousand, there lived in the south of England, in what is called Dartmoor, tribes of people who had never thought to make anything out of metal, much less plastic."

A talisman with dangerous powers, two wise children and their dog, a damaged hot water bottle and a whole heap of fairies keep the story lively. There are also lots of full-colour illustrations by John Rocco. All ages; the large-size type and wide leading will be friendly to young readers just getting started on chapter books.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle by Pija Lindenbaum

I'll be giving a talk on queer role models in children's picture books later this week as part of the InsideOUT speakers series at the University of Alberta. I'm looking forward to talking about some of my favourite books, like Pija Lindenbaum's Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle. The story has been translated to English from its original Swedish. It's narrated in first person by Ella, a preschooler who is such a fan of soccer that she gets called Mini Mia, after the soccer player Mia Hamm. Tommy, Mini Mia's favourite uncle, causes her much dismay when he shows up with a boyfriend. Fergus tags along wherever they go and really gets on Mini Mia's nerves. ("Doesn't he have a home to go to? Apparently not.") Her jealousy makes her extremely naughty and finally so unhappy that she takes to her bed. ("Now no one is allowed to talk to me and I don't want any dinner -- just a little bit of jam. I'm never going to hang out with Tommy again. I'm just going to lie here bored stiff. Forever.") But Tommy doesn't give up on her and, in the end, it turns out that Fergus is much better at soccer than Tommy.

I've blogged previously about some of the other books I'll be showcasing, including Christian the Hugging Lion, In Our Mothers' House, Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude, Pink, and The Odd Egg, The full list of titles I'll be talking about is here.

The talk is at 5 pm in room 7-152 Education North on Thursday, December 1, 2011. Full details available at the website for the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services. It's open to the public; I hope to see some of you there.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

In 1975, the year she turned 10, Ha and her family were forced to flee Vietnam and take refuge in the U.S.A. Author Thanhha Lai drew on her own immigration experiences to craft this moving tale. Lai's free verse format is like looking through snapshots over the course of a year. The focus on Ha's emotions is particularly effective.

Ha is a child who loves to eat. She planted a papaya tree in her yard in Saigon and watches closely for fruit: "Two green thumbs / that will grow into / orange-yellow delights / smelling of summer." Later, at the refugee camp: "Someone / should be kissed / for having the heart / to send cases of fish sauce / to Guam." Ha's family is sponsored by a man in Alabama, who brings them a paper bucket of chicken one day. They find it almost inedible, because they are used to "fresh-killed chicken / that roamed the yard / snacking on / grains and worms. / Such meat grows / tight in texture, / smelling of meadows / and tasting sweet. / I bite down on a thigh; / might as well bite down on / bread soaked in water. / Still, / I force yum-yum sounds."

The hardships are many in this National Book Award-winning story of total upheaval.

Readalike: Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate is another verse novel immigration story for children and tweens.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Theodora: Empress, Actress, Whore by Stella Duffy

Theodora is a strong and engaging character in this rags to riches story set in the sixth-century Byzantine empire. It is based on a real woman who became the consort of emperor Justinian the first. She was five when her father, the bear-keeper in Constantinople's Hippodrome theatre, was killed by a bear. Theodora began her training as an entertainer shortly afterwards and discovered that comedic acting best suited her quick wit. Throughout her life, Theodora's hot temper flares when she encounters personal injustice. This is in sharp contrast with her stoic self-control over revealing any physical discomfort. I admired Theodora's attitude toward life, as summed up in this quote: "mistakes are simply steps from which to move forward."

Theodora is a fascinating character and I enjoyed getting a glimpse into what life might have been like for a lively young woman living in this ancient time and place. Theodora and her cohorts took both male and female lovers. Queer sexuality comes up in other ways also. My favourite part, however, concerns the celibate time she spent in the desert near Antioch, living with religious mystics.

Davina Porter narrates the Recorded Books edition of Theodora [11.5 hours] with her usual elegance and attention to subtle emotional details. Porter's British accent provokes strong reactions from audiobook listeners. When I worked in the division of the library that provides materials to blind and home-bound patrons, we kept a list of who loved or hated various narrators, and Porter appeared frequently -- sometimes loved, sometimes hated. I'm a fan, so Porter's voice was a bonus in listening to Theodora as an audiobook.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Voice and character are two outstanding aspects of Esi Edugyan's award-winning novel, Half-Blood Blues, about musicians in a jazz band in Europe during the second World War. The tale is narrated by Sid Griffiths, who is 82 years old in 1992. His story often flips backward in time as he relates the events surrounding the disappearance of his youngest bandmate after being picked up by Nazi soldiers in Paris.

Sid played bass in the Hot-Time Swingers in Berlin in the 1930s. Ninteen-year-old Hieronymus Falk, a German with a Black father, played trombone. Chip Jones, Sid's boyhood friend from Baltimore, was the drummer. Here Sid describes a session they played with Louis Armstrong, who had heard about Falk's talent:

"Chip's kit was crisp, clean, and I could feel the lazy old tug of the bass line walk down into its basement and hang up its hat, and I begun to smile. Then the kid come in. He was brash, sharp, bright. And then, real late, Armstrong come in. I was shocked. Ain't no bold brass at all. He just trilled in a breezy, casual way, like he giving some dame a second glance in the street without breaking stride. It was just so calm, so effortlessly itself. Give me a damn chill."

Fifty-two years later, on the way to the airport, Sid's cab driver asks, "Where you off to?"

'"London," I said. "I'm going back to London. I live there." Better not to tell folks your business, I figure. Nor to let them know you're leaving your pad empty. A man's got to be careful these days.
 "London?" the cabbie said. "No kidding. I used to live in London. England's alright but the food'll kill you. Whereabouts you live over there?"
I frowned. I ain't got no mind for this damn small talk. Best to shut him up quick. "Not London England," I said. "London Ontario. In Canada."
The cabbie's eyes sort of glazed over. Canada kills any conversation quick, I learned long ago. It's a little trick of mine.'

Ha! I never got tired of Sid's cranky voice. I could tell he was suffering from an old pain -- a mix of sorrow and guilt and shame -- and I stayed glued to his telling right up to the last satisfying word.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

"Rin Tin Tin is that rare thing that endures when so much else rushes past." Journalist Susan Orlean spent years investigating the many stories that originated from one German Shepherd puppy that was found in France by an American soldier near the end of World War 1. From that dog and his owner, Lee Duncan, grew a dynasty in movies and then on tv that spanned four decades and made Rin Tin Tin known around the world.

Rintintin and Nenette dolls
Lee Duncan kept two puppies he found in a bombed kennel: a male and a female. He named them Rin Tin Tin and Nenette, after a couple of French good-luck charm dolls. Duncan wore a pair of these tiny woollen dolls around his neck. My own dog happens to be named Nenette, but I had never heard of these dolls before Orlean's book. (Nenette is named for a pet goose I knew in central France - even though my girl has a much sweeter temperament.)

Orlean's research covers such topics as the origin of the German Shepherd breed, the use of canine corps in wartime and the rise in popularity of obedience training in the U.S.A. Early movies, the advent of sound and colour and some of the personalities of the film industry are also covered. It would not have occurred to me that in silent films, a dog's inability to speak is not a handicap, and so, from the beginning, Rin Tin Tin was considered a star in his own right.

I listened to a Simon Schuster audiobook (12.5 hours) read by the author. Orlean did a better job than Jennifer Jay Myers, who narrated Orlean's The Orchid Thief, but I found my interest waned at times while listening to Rin Tin Tin, depending on the topic being explored. The Orchid Thief, on the other hand, held my attention throughout. What I liked best about Rin Tin Tin was that the central theme has to do with the importance of stories in our lives. I also enjoyed the personal perspective Orlean brought into her research near the end, as she examined her own involvement in the subject.
My darling Nenette

"I had wanted [...] some proof that everything, in its way, mattered. That working hard mattered. That feeling things mattered. That even sadness and loss mattered because it was all part of something that would live on. But, I had also come to recognize that not everything needed to be so durable. The lesson we have yet to learn from dogs, that could sustain us, is that having no apprehension of the past or future is not limiting, but liberating. Rin Tin Tin did not need to be remembered in order to be happy."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Set to Sea by Drew Weing

A poverty-stricken poet is shanghaied aboard a clipper ship bound for Hong Kong in this charming graphic novel. With one panel on each page of this little book, Drew Weing uses very little text to show how, after long adventures at sea, the poet finally has the wisdom to create a successful book of poetry - which is also titled Set to Sea. It's a fable that will appeal to all ages. (Be warned that there is violence depicted in an extended pirate fighting sequence.) Set to Sea deserves all the praise it's been getting, including a Lynd Ward honor award.

Check out Drew Weing's website.

Readalike: Good-bye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

Come, Thou Tortoise is told in the unforgettable voice of Audrey Flowers, who leaves her tortoise with friends in Oregon when she flies home to Newfoundland after getting word that her father is in a coma. She grew up in St John's with her scientist father, Walter Flowers, and her sweet Uncle Thoby, who has one arm longer than the other. The family had great fun playing with language and puns.

"My dad did sometimes refer to us - the three of us - as the Bouquet. I think the Bouquet should hit the sack, he'd say. The bouquet is wilting. Or at least one Flower is. Speak for yourself, Wilter." Audrey may have a low IQ, but like her father and uncle, she is a master of words: "The Fairfont Hotel greets you with signage so cursive you curse your inability to read it." She meets the lawyer Toff, who is "wearing a purple scarf. Sorry, cravat. Some silk business tucked into his shirt. [..] My dad used to have an expression for a flamboyant dresser: Christmas on a stick. I'm sorry but a purple cravat is flamboyant."

At one point, Audrey cannot get into her house because the doorknob broke off. She goes to her neighbour for help, still holding the doorknob, and they call a locksmith. "On the table, the brass doorknob looks amazed to be reflecting the inside of someone's house. It lies on its side like it has fainted." (I was very sympathetic, since the doorknob to my front door broke off earlier this year. Unlike Audrey, I have another door that enabled access while I waited to repair the knob.)

Audrey grieves for her father, sorts through family secrets and frets about her tortoise in the most hilarious manner. Occasionally, the narrative switches to the voice of Winnifred the tortoise, who puts up with such indignities as being used as a bookmark while she waits for Audrey to return. Winnifred loves to sit on the dashboard when she travels in a car. (She is much smaller than Mrs. Cook, the tortoise in The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.)

I would not say no to another book by Jessica Grant.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

There are a lot of beautiful picture books these days with just a few words and a clever twist at the end and they are cute, but they're not the kind of book that invites re-reading. Jon Klassen's I Want My Hat Back is not of that ilk. Yes, it only has about 250 words, many of them repeated, and yes the art is lovely. The book is beyond clever; it is outstanding. I'm fascinated by it -- both the narrative and the art. I'm not at all surprised to see it on the "best of" lists that are starting to appear (like this one in the NYT).

It's a story about a not-very-smart bear looking for his lost hat. Jon Klassen, illustrator of Cats' Night Out (and others), has combined simple cut-out shapes with textured art. The large-font text -- which would work very well for emerging readers -- is all in dialogue and in a different colour for each animal. Red, the colour of the lost hat, is used to great effect. Most of the illustrations are on the left, with text by itself on the right-hand page. Whenever this layout changes, it signifies a dramatic moment. The white background changes to red on another significant page. A crucial moment is wordless. The denouement is delicious. I love the deadpan humour thoughout. I love this book.

All ages. Readalike: Wolves by Emily Gravett.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik

This true story documents three American men who competed in 1998 to see the most different species of birds in one year. One of them managed to collect 745, which is amazing, considering that the area of the contest was restricted to Canada and the U.S.A. (minus Hawaii). Journalist Mark Obmascik profiles the men, including how they became interested in bird-watching and how they managed the time and money to chase rare birds.

I saw this white-crowned sparrow near Whitehorse.
I listened to an abridged audiobook (Random House; 6 hours), capably read by Oliver Wyman. It reminded me of another book about people and their obsessions, The Orchid Thief, although The Big Year is not as funny as Susan Orlean's book. A movie version, just released, is apparently more of a comedy; I read about it in Film Journal International online. My sweetie's father, Cliff, was a lifelong birder who kept meticulous records - he was in my thoughts as I listened to the escapades of these guys.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Humans are a story species, according to Joseph Gold. Thirteen-year-old Conor O'Malley learns about the power of stories when he meets an ancient British monster. Can anything be scarier than knowing his mother is terminally ill? Conor must find the courage to face his nightmares as well as the bullies at school.

Illustrator Jim Kay has created lots of atmospheric black and white art that adds to the menacing suspense of the tale. The expensive clay-based paper shows off Kay's subtle textures and spiky sharp contrasts. It also make the book feel nice and heavy, even though it is barely over 200 pages long.

Irish author Siobhan Dowd died of cancer at 47, leaving behind two completed manuscripts (since published) as well as an idea sketched out for another novel. Patrick Ness crafted this story based on Dowd's notes. It is fabulous. Have kleenex handy.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An Audience of Chairs by Joan Clark

Mental illness has been Moranna MacKenzie's lifelong nemesis in this character-driven novel set in Cape Breton. She was just a child when her mother committed suicide. Years later, the loss of custody of Moranna's two daughters was due to her own instability. When Moranna learns that one of her daughters is to be married in Halifax, she is determined to finally see them again. 

The cover art on the Vintage trade paperback edition -- a folk art mermaid set against a background musical score -- ties in well with elements of the story. Moranna created a mermaid tale to entertain her girls when they were still with her; she carves folksy images of her Scottish ancestors to support herself; and Moranna performs concerts on a painted piano board every morning to an audience of chairs in her kitchen. The cover illustration also captures the whimsical, fun-loving nature of Moranna (when she isn't being contrary and self-absorbed).

There are lots of other interesting and well-rounded characters too. It's a powerful and uplifting story of redemption and family pride.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Was the re-discovery of a thousand-year-old poem the catalyst that caused the shift from medieval Europe to Renaissance? Stephen Greenblatt starts with Poggio Bracciolini (a 15th century book hunter that brought the webcomic Family Man to mind) who located a long-lost copy of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius in a remote German monastery. Lucretius recorded some mighty powerful ideas.

What was so startling - and dangerous - about the very long poem by Lucretius? Greenblatt writes that "On the Nature of Things is that rarest of accomplishments: a great work of philosophy that is also a great poem." It contained subversive ideas on politics, ethics and theology, including these elements:

1. "Everything is made of invisible particles." (atoms)
2. "The elementary particles of matter are eternal."
3. "All particles are in motion in an infinite void."
4. "Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve."
5. "The swerve is the source of free will."
6. "Nature ceaselessly experiments."
7. "The universe was not created for or about humans."
8. "Humans are not unique."
9. "The soul dies."
10. "There is no afterlife."
11. "All organized religions are superstitious delusions."
12. "Religions are invariably cruel."
13. "There are no angels, demons, or ghosts."
14. "The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain."
15. "The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion."
16. "Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder."

It took me about 100 pages to get sucked in by the narrative. Even before that, however, I enjoyed quotes like that of a 4th century historian complaining that "people were driving their chariots at lunatic speeds through crowded streets." In the end, I found The Swerve's blend of philosophy and history to be thought-provoking as well as entertaining.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

"Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well." The first two lines of the book pretty much set the tone for this paranormal romance. The first part of the book is set in contemporary Prague, where 17-year-old Karou is studying art. Later, the action moves into the world of seraphs and chimaera.

"Karou was, simply, lovely. Creamy and leggy, with long azure hair and the eyes of a silent-movie star, she moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx." This kind of description rings all kinds of warning bells in my head, but I liked Karou anyway. She is feisty and smart and self-sufficient. She is ignorant of her family origins and was raised by monsters. Karou is such a great character and I was curious enough by the mystery of her background to keep reading though all the romance-y stuff. ("___ and ___ were like two matches struck against each other to flare starlight.")

Romantic intrigue -- a handsome prince with his eye on one beautiful sister whose heart belongs to another while her ugly step-sister is secretly in love with the prince -- is really not my thing. Neither is fussing about clothes, hair and cosmetics while getting ready for a ball. Iron abs and wild, timpani hearts don't interest me. I usually sort of skip past those parts when I'm reading, but since they are central to the plot of Daughter of Smoke & Bone, I couldn't ignore them. Sigh. I much preferred Taylor's first book, Blackbringer.