Monday, January 30, 2012

Taking My Life by Jane Rule

"Autobiography," writes Canadian lesbian author Jane Rule, "may be a positive way of taking my own life. [...] I have never been suicidal, but often stalled, as I have been now for some months, not just directionless but unconvinced that there is one." And so Rule wrote about her younger years, from childhood up until she reached 21, which is before she moved to Canada from the U.S.A.

Rule died in 2007 without publishing this manuscript. It was found among her papers in archives at the University of British Columbia by Linda Morra in 2008, when she was researching Canadian women authors.

Rule's teen years in the 1940s are especially interesting. She found herself attracted to women once she reached high school. Her teachers could see what Rule could not: "No one ever mentioned that loving me would be a criminal offence."

Ann Smith, a young and married art teacher, became an intimate friend when Rule was 15. Rule visited her home almost daily. Smith asked Rule one day what she talked about with her therapist, and if she told him she was in love with her. "It wasn't the first time she'd kissed me on the mouth, but it was the first time I felt the ache in my gut turn to fire. 'You have to understand,' she said, holding my face in her hands. 'We can't make love. You have to make love first with a man, adjust to that, or you'll be a lesbian.'"

The cover image is a portrait done by Ann Smith when Rule was 20, during a time when they were lovers. The book offers a welcome look at the formative years of one of Canada's foremost authors.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Beauty Plus Pity by Kevin Chong

Beauty Plus Pity: the title comes from Nabokov's definition of art, reminding us that beauty is fleeting and that "the world dies with the individual." Malcolm Kwan's world collapses around him when two life-changing events happen in quick succession - his father dies and his fiance leaves him. Malcolm was born shortly after his parents immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong. He is now an aimless twenty-something pursuing a modelling career for lack of a better idea of what to do with his life. Hadley, a younger half-sister that Malcolm didn't know about until the day of his father's funeral, becomes a catalyst for change. Thanks to her, Malcolm is drawn out of his self-absorption and begins to pay more attention to the people around him.

Canadian author Kevin Chong has an ear for the inherent humour in human foibles. Beauty Plus Pity will appeal to readers interested in themes of identity, family secrets and the immigrant experience.

Readalikes: Anything by Douglas CouplandMoney Boy by Paul Yee (for the Chinese immigrant identity and family relationships); Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron (for the feeling of malaise as a young man sorts out his future, as well as the humour and family dynamics); and maybe Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine (which is in graphic novel format, and explores ethnicity and desire with an understated, spare style).

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mangaman by Barry Lyga and Colleen Doran

A character from the world of manga falls into an American graphic novel... it's not only a great concept, but well executed. Barry Lyga and Colleen Doran have created a clever and entertaining work of metafiction in Mangaman.

Government agents are trying to devise a way to send back Ryoko Kiyama after he comes through a Rip in the universe, but after several months without success, they decide to send him to a local high school while they work on the problem. Ryoko promptly falls in love with Marissa Montaigne, thereby causing a disturbance in her school's universe. It turns out that manga conventions came through with Ryoko. When he sees Marissa for the first time, flowers appear in the air around him and his eyes turn to hearts. The students who witness this are understandably freaked out. When Marissa's ex-boyfriend moves to defend her from this weirdness, Ryoko leaps with excitement: "Big time high school challenge! Awesome karate fight!" Motion lines ray outward from his entire body -- and these become black sticks littering the ground around him in the next scene. What fun!

Will Ryoko be able to return to the manga world? Will he want to?

Doran artfully combines East and West drawing styles. It doesn't matter whether you are a fan of one or the other, I promise you won't want to miss this.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

In this epic fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay brings an alternate Tang-era China to life. Shen Tai has chosen an unorthodox way to mourn his father's death. Shen Gao was a famous general, and that is why Shen Tai spends two years in a remote valley, burying the bones of long-dead soldiers. 40,000 men from two armies fell there; every night, Shen Tai hears the ghostly screams of the yet-unburied. His efforts yield an unexpected gift, one that is so valuable that it not only changes his life, but also the history of his country.

Under Heaven is an adventure saga with a richly described setting and a large cast of realistic characters. It will appeal to fans of both historical fiction and fantasy.

Readalike: Tales of the Otori series by Lian Hearn.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn by Sean Dixon

Family secrets, the bonds of friendship and the scourge of urban development are at the heart of this entertaining novel set in contemporary Toronto. Poor folk living and working in the Kensington Market area battle rich property developers who want to level it and put up high rise buildings there instead. Revenge based on mistaken assumptions gets carried beyond the grave when ghosts join the fight.

One of the joys of this quirky novel is the omniscient narrator who addresses the reader directly, at times, but not in the Victorian "dear Reader" style. On page 2: "Mani may not seem to be a particularly likeable character, but he is not going to be in this story for very long."

"'Why don't you sit down?' [Nancy said to Henry.] 'Have a glass of water. It's got fluoride in it.' 'That's because the government wants you dead,' said Henry. 'But at least they're killing you slowly,' said Nancy. 'There's time to sit down.'"

Find time to read this when you're in the mood to be charmed.

Readalikes: Come Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant; Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King; The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff

Planets are won or lost in the galactic poker games of the gods in Meg Rosoff's There Is No Dog... which is how a dyslexic adolescent god named Bob came to be in charge of Earth, a "tiny, unproven" planet, "badly positioned -- miles off the beaten track in a lonely and somewhat rundown part of the universe."

Bob was lazy, but he could be creative when the mood struck him. "And, boy oh boy, did Bob go to town on the creatures. He put spines on some, and strange colours on others; he added feathers and scales and sometimes feathers and scales; savage teeth and beady eyes on some, and sweet expressions and razor-sharp claws on others. Some of the fowl were lovely to look at, with long graceful necks and luxuriant plumage, but others had the most idiotically large feet, or wings that didn't work. [...] And then Bob went on to create every creeping thing, and some that leapt and climbed and slithered and tunnelled as well, and he told them to be frantic and multiply, which they did by the most gobsmackingly weird mechanism ..."

Skip forward many millenia, to find that Bob has mostly lost interest in his Earthly creations. Except for a certain young woman, a human. Lucy is a zookeeper in contemporary England. She has no idea what she is in for when her world's god decides to come wooing.

There Is No Dog is imaginative, playful and witty. Highly recommended for Grade 7 through to adult.

Readalikes: The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams; Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Money Boy by Paul Yee

Ray Liu is a closeted gay 18-year-old Chinese immigrant in contemporary Toronto. He came to Canada against his will four years earlier with his father and stepmother. Ray's English is still quite poor, he's a lackluster student and his main interest is online gaming. When his father discovers that Ray has been visiting gay websites, he kicks him out and locks the door.

Life on the street is a shock for Ray, who has been rather spoiled and sulky up to that point. Now, the only way that he can think of to support himself is by selling his body -- what's called being a money boy in Beijing. The poignancy of Ray's story is rooted in Paul Yee's realistic portrayal of Ray, the hard choices he must make, and the way his character strengthens over a short period of time.

I'm excited about booktalking Money Boy to a gay-straight alliance club at J. Percy Page high school tomorrow. Many of the students at that school were born outside Canada. The other books I'll be telling them about are listed here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Huntress by Malinda Lo

Set in the same fantasy world as Malinda Lo's Ash, Huntress is a prequel that stands on its own. Something has gone awry with the seasons and widespread famine is a possibility. Taisin and Kaede are both 17-year-old girls who have been chosen to be part of a covert group who will respond to an invitation to visit the Fairy Queen's court at midsummer. The hope is that the fairies will be able to provide assistance in dealing with the world's dire lack of sunshine.

Taisin is alerted by her prophetic sight that she will be deeply in love with Kaede at some point in the future, but she is adamantly opposed to this happening. It's not because she has any objection to same-sex romance, but rather because Taisin is determined to be a sage at the Academy and that job comes with a vow of celibacy. It makes for a lot of sexual tension in the story. Meanwhile, their mission is fraught with danger every step of the way.

Huntress has more of an Asian flair than Ash; a sort of I Ching meets fairies and unicorns. I happen to like Ash better only because I have a soft spot for grief themes and also for retellings of traditional stories (Cinderella, in this case). Both books are great for teens and adults who enjoy fantasy with strong female characters. Queer content is a bonus!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Any Empire by Nate Powell

Once again, Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole) explores the American psyche in his latest graphic novel, Any Empire. This time he looks at the effects of war and violence on young people growing up in a small town. Powell's artwork is often wordless except for sound effects: the huff of exertion; a cry of pain; distant voices indicated in word balloons with text to small to read; ... and the wup, wup, wup of unseen helicopters and boom of unseen bombs.

Lee and Purdy hang out together as kids, even though their only shared interest is playing imaginative war games. Both have fathers who were in the U.S. military. Purdy is the leader of a small group of boys, but Lee doesn't participate in their mysterious activities. Meanwhile, a girl named Sarah suspects the boys of killing turtles.

Fast forward to Lee and Sarah, meeting again after they are out of high school, living once again in the same town. Purdy has been injured in army duty overseas and he is back too. Expect some weirdness - this is Nate Powell - and be ready for a powerful tale. The ending is pure genius.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Finder Library (Volume 1) by Carla Speed McNeil

Collecting the first 22 issues of the comic Finder (plus extra material), The Finder Library allows complete immersion into about 650 pages of the imaginative world-building, complex relationships and compelling characters created by Carla Speed McNeil. The detailed black and white art is especially absorbing in its depiction of exterior and interior settings. McNeil's sharp social commentary is softened by her sense of humour.

Set far in the future on Earth, the stories center on Jaeger Ayers, who is part Aboriginal. His dual roles as both a sin-eater and a finder set him apart from everyone else. Jaeger's sometime lover is Emma, who has left her abusive husband, Brigham. Emma and Brigham are from different clans and their mixed marriage was frowned upon from the start. Jaeger and Brigham have a long history together that began in the army. Emma's three children - Rachel, Lynne and Marcie - are intriguing characters negotiating life within the context of their mixed heritage and insane father. The middle child was born male but raised as a daughter. Emma's father looks more feminine than her mother - another tantalizing thread in the overall cultural picture. The queer content is secondary, yet well-integrated and appealing.

Talisman was the only portion of this story that I had previously read and I was delighted to encounter it again within this collection. Volume 2 of The Finder Library beckons, but I've got a stack of other books to get through first.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

In a post-apocalyptic future that resembles the lawless wild west of yore, Saba vows to rescue her twin brother, Lugh, from the horsemen who stole him away from their dust bowl farm. She is admirably single-minded in her quest, undeterred by setbacks like being caged and forced to fight against other girls. Brave Saba escapes to tangle with skeletons and battle giant mutant worms. Even the sexiest of guys -- with moonlight silver eyes and a muscled, hairless chest -- will not sidetrack her resolve. So what if Saba's magic pendant gets warm whenever Jack is near... she will push him in the mud if he tries to kiss her!

"I ain't dreamed of fire before. An it warn't Lugh I was searchin fer so frantic. I dunno who it was." Saba's backwoods diction and terse style translate well to audiobook format (Recorded Books; 11.25 hours) performed by Heather Lind. I'm a sucker for dialect, especially in audio. The downside in this novel is that there is a lot of yelling, which Lind whisper-shouts. It was easier on the ears than actual shouting, and I don't know if there is a better alternative, but it was annoying anyway.

Blood Red Road is pure escapist adventure, the kind of book with witty quips exchanged during battle skirmishes and the ability to somehow see perfectly across long distances on cloudy nights. Young women racing on horseback, long past the age of combustion engines, urge one another to "get the lead out." It isn't a book for thinking; it's for when you feel like being swept away by fierce characters, a vivid setting and nonstop action. I liked that Saba isn't a romantic. When Jack tells her: "You make my brain hurt," she says: "Yer the most puffed-up big-headed swagger boots I ever met."

It's Canadian-born Moira Young's first novel. It's a lot of fun and it won the Costa Children's Book Award earlier this week. If you enjoyed The Hunger Games, you gotta read Blood Red Road.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki

Shigeru Mizuki says that 90% of his historical manga is based on his own experiences in the Imperial Army in the South Pacific during World War II. His artwork contrasts cartoonish figures of people against very realistic background drawings of Papua New Guinea's tropical setting. It is a moving account of what happened to the troops who survived after their commanding officer ordered them to die in battle in a suicide mission. From the blurb on the cover: "Mizuki deftly addresses and critiques the moral depravity of war."

Readalikes: Alan's War by Emmanuel Guibert for another graphic novel about the senselessness of war from a soldier's point of view; The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa for its similar art style; and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami for the storyline (among several) that is about a Japanese soldier's experiences in Manchuria.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask by JonArno Lawson

JonArno Lawson's jaunty poems collected in The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask beg to be shared out loud. I'm particularly fond of the shortest ones:

"We saw a hippopotamus; / I don't know what it thought of us. / I doubt it thought a lot of us; / a glimpse was all it got of us." (Hippopotamus)

"Aghast that a guest was a ghost, / a fellow guest goaded the host -- / The gist of it was / he was angry because / a gust from a ghost chilled his toast." (Aghast)

Lawson's love of language is evident in poem titles like: A Princess Apprentice; The Rhinostrich; and The Frog Knows His Prognosis. Simple illustrations by Sherwin Tjia accentuate the slightly oddball, playful mood.

Readalikes: anything by Dennis Lee.

Monday, January 2, 2012

An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus by William Todd Schultz

Photographer Diane Arbus has a mystique to match her fame. What compelled her to photograph people "in the midst of the residue of their disordered lives"? The facial expressions she captures are often of discomfort, embarrassment or irritation. There are no photos included in An Emergency in Slow Motion, but many of those referenced can be viewed in a gallery online here.

Prostitutes, cross-dressers, lesbians, eccentrics and nudists were some of the subjects that fascinated her. Biographer William Schultz writes that her camera "provided a kind of harsh yet undeniable attention people believed they deserved." Statements like this made me uneasy as I read; how does Schultz know what Arbus' subjects believed? Penelope Tree describes modelling for Arbus as torture: "Now I know why everyone in her pictures looks like they do -- because they have to spend three hours with Diane Arbus staring at them."

I was curious to know more about Arbus, so I persevered with this book, even though psychobiography is not my thing. I'm not convinced that it's possible to understand an artist by analyzing their work.

Schultz admits that the best he can aim for in his interpretation is a blurry picture. "But that's what people are. Personality is blurry. Life itself is blurry. We live in ambiguity. We die there too." In 1971, when she was 48, Arbus killed herself. Even though she took two kinds of barbiturates and slashed both wrists, Schultz doesn't believe that her death was intentional. He strengthens his case with input from Arbus's therapist, but it still looks like suicide to me.

In addition to overcoming my resistance to Schultz's approach, getting used to his specialized language took me about three chapters. For example, in reference to photos exploring sameness (as with twins and triplets): "She welded bodies symbiotically, forced physical unities, while at the same time flaunting binary oppositions. I see this as a visual representation of Arbus's internalized object relations." Thankfully, unfamiliar terms are usually explained within the text: "Compulsion is [...] a response to ego-dystonic thoughts -- ideas at odds with the self."

Schultz doesn't shy away from discussing sex and the way he sees it defining Arbus's motives and conflicts. "If what Arbus wanted, and this is what she said herself, was to freeze sordidness, perversity, nastiness, puerility, then sex fits the bill. Freaks show us, aggressively, what we prefer overlooking, but sex ups the emotional ante." Arbus had both male and female sexual partners. She "called herself an explorer, and she was, no doubt, with all the requisite bravery and heedlessness. She was seeking the territory of the self."

Was Arbus a freak, as Schultz asserts? Was her pathology also her genius? I don't know if it matters, but I will view her photos with more context from here onward.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff

It's tricky to write about Kid and Scout, teens living on the streets one summer in contemporary Brooklyn, because author Steve Brezenoff carefully never identifies the gender of either of them. Kid addresses the tale directly to Scout, jumping backwards and forwards in time to explain the situation.

Gender fluidity is unacceptable to Kid's father and it's the reason his fifteen-year-old is not welcome at home: "I've got the only kid I know who doesn't know whether to be straight or gay or a girl or a boy or what."

Kid is an artist and musician who had fallen hard for Felix, a junkie. Felix has been gone for nine months but Kid is still grieving when Scout turns up in response to an old poster calling for potential band members. The attraction is immediate, but tentative, as they guard their hearts and find a chosen family at a bar -- not the easiest place for a couple of teens to find safe harbour. There is also the accusation of arson at an abandoned warehouse where Kid and Felix used to sleep.

It's a tender story in a gritty setting. Kid is someone who can see beauty in the weeds coming through cracks in the pavement. I am happy to report that Brooklyn, Burning ends on a realistically positive note.

Readlikes: Almost Home (by Jessica Blank) for another book about queer homeless teens; Written on the Body (by Jeanette Winterson) for another novel narrated by a person of unknown gender.