Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Red House by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon, author of the fabulous Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Boom! (among others), has a new book: The Red House. I loved it from the start.

Richard and Angela, a brother and sister who have long been estranged, spend a week together at a rental cottage in the English countryside, along with their respective families. Richard has recently re-married and has gained a teenage step-daughter.

All eight characters have their unique personal dramas. Angela's eldest child, Alex, and her middle child, Daisy, are both attracted to their new cousin, Melissa. It is Daisy's first realization that she might be a lesbian. She is surprised that her parents and aunt don't think it's a big deal: "Why was everyone else so fucking pleasant? At least Melissa reacted. Daisy wanted it to spin through their lives like a typhoon, ripping stuff apart."

Meanwhile, other secrets have more potential for family destruction. The viewpoint keeps shifting between all of the protagonists, giving a rounded perspective. Along with the realistic characters, Haddon's lively writing style is a big part of the attraction. He doesn't bother with extra words in describing the scenery: "Outside the damp green world sliding by. Ash and poplar. Cord moss and hart's-tongue fern." Bits of text from various books being read at the cottage are added to the mix. It is all very satisfying.

Readalikes: The Accidental (Ali Smith) and The Gathering (Anne Enright).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Kim by Rudyard Kipling / Lewis Helfand / Rakesh Kumar

I was inspired by both my positive experience with the graphic novel retelling of The Scarlet Letter, and the discussion of Rudyard Kipling by the protagonists in Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, to revisit a book that was one of my favourites, back when I was 10 years old: Kim. Campfire is a company based in India that has produced many retellings of classics in comics format, including this one with text by Lewis Helfand and full colour art by Rakesh Kumar. The background details in Kumar's artwork are nicely evocative of the setting.

The story starts in 1901 in Lahore, when it was still a part of India. Kim was a young street orphan of Irish descent who became a disciple of a Buddhist lama. By the time he was 16, Kim was working for the British Secret Service.

As a child, I found Kim's adventures exciting and I loved all the details of the exotic setting too. Maybe there is too much in Kipling's original to pack into a short (68 page) graphic novel. Each scene is so brief that there isn't time for suspense to build. When Kim overheard men planning to kill his friend Mahbub Ali, for example, it is only 5 panels later (and on the facing page) that we see the men being violently apprehended by the British police. Two men lie -- possibly dead -- on the ground. The next panel shows Mahbub Ali with his head thrown back in laughter at their fate. I found the juxtaposition disconcerting.

It is unfair to expect a comic to capture all of the drama and texture of a longer literary work. Readers intrigued by the action and characters in Lewis Helfand's retelling may very well turn to the original book. It was great that Campfire included two pages of cool information about the art of spying at the end. I had forgotten that I used to play Kim's Game with my sisters after I first read the novel. The game involves remembering as many objects on a tray as possible in a short time before it is covered up.

This edition is okay for kids, but the original version is so much better. Actually, since my social awareness has changed as I've grown up, I might be disappointed with the original if I reread it today. I guess I'll stick to my rosy memories.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Retired Major Pettigrew and Jasmina Ali discover their shared interest in literature after the deaths of their respective spouses. Lively discussions of Rudyard Kipling lead them to realize that they are attracted to each other. Many obstacles lie in the path of true love, however: their ethnic, class and religious backgrounds are different; they are getting on in years, their families do not approve; and the other inhabitants of their small English village definitely do not approve either. Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a romance for readers (like me) who don't like romance. The focus is on the interesting cast of characters, and how they develop over the course of the story.

I listened the Random House audiobook [13 hours] narrated by Peter Altschuler, who uses different voices for each person. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a domestic comedy that addresses serious issues thoughtfully. I could not help but be charmed.

Friday, July 27, 2012

And Also Sharks by Jessica Westhead

In her short story collection And Also Sharks, Canadian author Jessica Westhead has a sharp ear for dialogue. Here's an example from small talk at a party in 'What Would I Say':

"... I took her to that place, what's that place called. You know, the restaurant that's loud, with the salad they make from things that fall out of trees? That's where we went. [...] And I told Appollonia about my chapbook and she said -- if you can believe it -- 'What's a chapbook?' Oh dear. So I explained it to her, and she was thrilled for me and asked me could she buy it in the bookstores, and I said no, she could only buy it directly from me. Poor thing, she has no idea how it all works.

She doesn't know anything about the scene either, but I guess why would she? Just because she knows all these people through -- how does she know all these people? She's really kept that to herself. Although she's never even heard of sp@cebar, which is amazing to me. To be that out of touch with what's going on in the world. You put out his last flipbook, didn't you? She said to me, 'Well, what does he do?' And I said, 'He engages with the absence of sound. He communicates his poetry through gestures and facial expressions.' And she said -- you'll get a real kick out of this -- 'Isn't that what a mime clown does?' I said to her, 'Appollonia, sp@acebar is not a mime clown. He is a soundless poet.' She really doesn't have a clue. I mean, I've never seen one of his performances, but at least I know, you know?"

Westhead's stories feature awkward characters who are often oblivious to their own social shortcomings. For a deftly funny take on modern urban life, you won't go wrong with And Also Sharks.

Readalike: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Zsuzsi Gartner).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Five adults left a wedding reception in rural Wisconsin very late one night in 1983. Stoned, drunk or sleepy, none of them were in any shape for driving. Their car struck and killed a child and her death stayed with them for years. In Carry the One, Carol Anshaw explores the connections between human beings: siblings, parents, married couples, lovers and offspring, as well as fellow participants in a tragic event.

Alice, sister of the bride (Carmen), and Maude, sister of the groom (Matt), discovered a passion for each other on the night of the wedding. "All through the night Alice had tried to break down the elements of Maude, then add her up, but she kept getting lost in the higher math, the exponential blur."

Later, arithmetic comes up again when Alice speaks of the connection between all of them who were in the car that night: "Because of the accident, we're not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one."

"In a deep recess, an inchoate space where thoughts tumble around, smoky and unformed, Alice's biggest fear was that she and Maude and the accident were tied in an elaborate knot -- that her true punishment for what happened that night would be God, or the gods, or the cosmos giving her Maude, then taking her away."

The strong bond between Alice and her sister, Carmen is wonderfully portrayed, as is the way they cope with Nick, their junkie of a brother.

"Their alliance was deep, formed in the trenches of childhood where they were each other's landsmen, comrades in strategy and survival, in warding off the contempt of their parents, and in protecting their brother. These positions had been set up early and were not subject to realignment. So Alice and Carmen always approached each other carefully, with respect -- minor diplomats, one from an arctic, the other from an equatorial nation, attempting to understand each other's customs, participate in each other's holidays."

Twenty-five years pass over the course of the story. It's like a trip down memory lane. For example, Nick wore a thrift shop wedding dress to Carmen's wedding. (His sisters called him "the backup bride.") I used to share a house in the early 80s with three other dykes and two gay men, one of whom (David) liked to wear a wedding dress that he found at a charity shop. Our friend k.d. lang later wore that very same dress to collect a Juno award for Most Promising Female Vocalist. But I digress.

I also love that Carmen and Alice are both big readers. At one point, Carmen drops in to find Alice reading stacks of cheesy dyke novels from the forties and fifties:

"The covers had a sinister tone, usually represented by a woman in a black or red slip. 'They're all great,' she told Carmen. 'They're like Greek tragedies. Everyone gets horribly punished in the end. Or they hang themselves with a belt over the steam pipe.'
'But weren't these somebody's real, tortured life once?' Carmen said.
'Well, sure, but now they're more like folktales. Hardships of our ancestors. Like Lincoln walking ten miles to school every day through the snow. That sort of thing, only in bars.'"

Nick's girlfriend, Olivia, was the one driving when they left the wedding. She was negligent in many things, including her job as a letter carrier. On the night of the accident, her trunk was full of undelivered mail. I was a postal worker from 1983 to 1989, so that is another reason that Anshaw hooked me from the start.

Beautiful language, great characters and a moving plot; it all adds up to a superb book. Don't miss it!

Readalikes: The Red House (Mark Haddon); Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rivka Brunt); There but for the (Ali Smith), and Anshaw's earlier novels, especially Lucky in the Corner.

Monday, July 23, 2012

More by I.C. Springman and Brian Lies

More is an entertaining picture book for preschoolers about the dangers of over-consumption. Illustrator Brian Lies has created an adorable magpie who starts with nothing and collects way too much. I.C. Springman uses fewer than 50 words, in keeping with her message that less is more. "Lots. Plenty. A bit much. Much too much."

Magpie's expressions and demeanor convey an extensive range of emotions and character. The acrylics and coloured pencil illustrations are realistic and it's fun to identify all of the objects that Magpie collects. I was reminded of Jillian Tamaki's Trash the Block project, which can be seen here.

Pair More with another great book for all ages: Here Comes the Garbage Barge by Jonah Winter... and let's talk about the way we crave stuff.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin's Brooklyn has an engaging cast of characters and rich details of everyday life in both Enniscorthy, Ireland, and in an Irish Catholic parish in Brooklyn in the early 1950s. Ellis Lacey is the central character. She is serious, sensible and unafraid of hard work.

There are few job prospects for a young woman in a village in Ireland in that era, so Ellis reluctantly emigrates to New York City, where she gets a job in a department store. Ellis battles homesickness, her nosy landlady, and the petty intrigues of her fellow boardinghouse residents. She also falls in love, in her slow and steady way. When a tragedy at home forces her to return to Enniscorthy, Ellis is very different from the naive woman she once was and her options for the future are much wider.

I loved getting to know Ellis and watching her transform. Listening to Kristen Potter's narration of the Blackstone audiobook [7.5 hours], I felt immersed in an earlier time. Thanks to Potter, I now know that the name 'Ellis' is pronounced 'Aileash.'

Saturday, July 21, 2012

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs

A 29-year-old man in Pakistan writes to his childhood sweetheart about his life while he convalesces after having spent 15 years in prison. In the Orchard, the Swallows deals with the effects of war and torture on an individual, and yet it's also a gentle story.

British author Peter Hobbs -- who now lives in Canada -- writes in simple, charming prose. It gives the book a timeless feel, as does the setting, a mountainous rural area where the man's family once owned a pomegranate orchard. The clues that the story is taking place in present day do not detract from its aura of timelessness.

The narrator's calm, assured voice is one that will stay with me:

"How easily these days pass. The months are wearing lightly; I hardly feel them as they go. After the slowness of time in prison, it is a shock. No longer unbearable, time has become a comfort, as soft as a blanket. [...] Boredom is something I no longer experience. It is gone from me, lost during those years of enforced stillness. I could watch the sky all day, and breathe the air, and never once grow tired of it. It is enough, more than enough, not to suffer."

I'm not sure how I feel about the ending, but I really enjoyed the rest of book, which is only 139 pages long. The narrator ponders the emotion that helped to sustain him through his ordeal. "Love must be shared, or else it is just madness." Is it love that he feels, or obsession? An intriguing question. An enchanting book.

Readalike: The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn's twisty thriller, Gone Girl, deserves all the hype it has been getting. On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, wife Amy disappears amid signs of foul play and husband Nick is the prime suspect. The telling flips back and forth between his voice (present day) and her voice (journal entries over the course of their marriage).

Amy: "One should never marry marry a man who doesn't own a decent set of scissors. That would be my advice. It leads to bad things." Apparently so.

The characters and the plot are full of surprises. In order not to give anything away, all I'll say is that criminal insanity plays a role. I'm a sucker for powerful endings and this one is a doozy. Whew!

Readalike: So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I approached Wild, Cheryl Strayed's memoir of her solo long distance mountain hike, with trepidation because of a review in Booklist. The phrases "woefully unprepared" and "experienced backpackers will roll their eyes" I took as warnings that I, too, might roll my eyes. I have little patience for reading about people who attempt foolhardy things like crossing the ocean alone in a tiny boat, for example. Getting shipwrecked is different. I like those kinds of survival stories.

Anyway, my heart went out to Strayed almost immediately. Her grief over the sudden death of her mother and the subsequent dissolution of both her family and her marriage left her feeling empty, shipwrecked and adrift. Filling the hole inside her with casual sex and heroin wasn't working, so off Strayed went to be alone in the wilderness. Strayed walked about 1100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, which encompasses nine mountain ranges and stretches from Mexico to Canada. She saved herself... and I like those kinds of survival stories.

Books and poetry accompanied Strayed on her pilgrimage. She introduces one section with my very favourite quote from Mary Oliver: "Tell me, what it is you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?" Strayed mentions the books she kept for herself while packing her mother's things after she died, including titles that I remember fondly, like The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and I Always Look Up the Word "Egregious" by Maxwell Nurnberg. I couldn't help feeling like we were kindred spirits.

Sometimes trail signs are not clear.
Me in France in 2009.
I've travelled for weeks on foot through Tuscany and southwest France, so I have some idea about the challenges of backpacking. When Cheryl lists all the things she has to fit into her backpack on her first day, my eyes widened. I wondered how she was even going to lift it. And, sure enough, she couldn't. Weight is something I pay attention to, even though my kind of backpacking is very civilized. A shower is waiting for me at the end of each day, along with a bed. I don't need to carry food for more than one day, nor cooking equipment, nor a tent. Still, the wear and tear on your body -- especially your feet! -- that comes from walking for miles while carrying everything on your back is something I understand completely.

I was surprised and happy that Wild touched me so deeply and I recommend it wholeheartedly. I listened to the audiobook [Random House: 13 hours] read by Bernadette Dunne.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

In Under the Mesquite, Guadalupe Garcia McCall uses verse to tell a coming of age story from the point of view of Lupita, the eldest of eight siblings in a Mexican indigenous family living on the American side of the border. As a result of their mother's serious illness, Lupita must step in to take charge of the rest even though she is still in high school. McCall's lyrical style is both gentle and moving.

"In the squint of morning / before anyone else is awake, / when the roaring sounds / of unbridled verses / rush furiously through my head, / the mesquite is my confidant."

Readalikes: Seeing Emily (Joyce Lee Wong) and Make Lemonade (Virginia Euwer Wolff) are other coming of age stories told in verse.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Grayling Cross by Gayleen Froese

Grayling Cross is Edmonton author Gayleen Froese's second paranormal detective novel to feature Collie and Anna, a larger-than-life duo who exchange entertaining dialogue while dead and missing bodies pile up around them. Colette Kostyna is a lesbian with a public relations / detective agency in Edmonton. Her employee and housemate is Anna Gareau, a retrocognitive clairsentient. In other words, Anna can see past events by handling objects.

Sure, there are folks doing magic right and left, but the Edmonton setting remains vivid as the pair of detectives crisscross the city in their search for both a missing teenage psychic and a murderer who is able to teleport. Collie "harboured a secret affection for [West Edmonton Mall], as she did for all things that were innocent of shame. The Mall was tacky in a way that Circus of the Stars could only envy, and Anna supposed there was something impressive about that."

The bantering relationship between Collie and Anna is another strong point. Their interactions are amusing to watch. When Collie wrote something down, "Anna didn't look over her shoulder, having learned that Collie didn't appreciate it. Sometimes she phrased her failure to appreciate it in the form of an elbow to the gut." Later, Anna "was about to remind Collie to take some paper for the liability statement [to be written en route], but that would have meant assuming that Collie had no paper in her purse. A ridiculous assumption. Collie probably had a sawmill in her purse."

Grayling Cross stands on its own, thankfully, since I haven't read the first book, Touch. I did gather enough from the text to learn that Touch is set in Victoria, B.C. where Collie and Anna met. I'm certainly up for more of their wacky adventures!

Readalike: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Sara Gran) for another mystery with a focus on character and setting... even though it has just a touch of the paranormal.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Jenny Lawson has such severe triskaidekaphobia that I thought it was best to wait until today, instead of Friday the 13th, to write about her irreverent memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened. I listened to the Penguin audiobook [8.5 hours], which is read by the author.

Lawson is a born exaggerator, oops, I mean storyteller. I felt thoroughly entertained. Also grateful that I could stop listening whenever I had enough, because this gal is over-the-top intense. I think the word 'vagina' comes up even more often than in a performance of The Vagina Monologues. And since I'm bringing up the subject of Lawson's favourite words, I should note that she says 'fucking' a lot. Actually, it sounds more like 'fuckink.' Lawson has a quirky way of pronouncing a final 'g' as a 'k' -- i.e. "a healthier version of carbon monoxide poisonink" -- which somehow made everything even funnier for me.

Lawson says her small town Texas school yearbook photos document "my mother's decade-long obsession with handmade prairie dresses and sunbonnets, an obsession that led my sister and me to spend the eighties lookng like the lesbian love children of Laura Ingalls and Holly Hobbie. It was a look that screamed ask me about being a sister wife." She grew up to be one of a kind, however. Check out her blog, The Bloggess, and you'll know exactly what I mean.

A stuffed mouse that Lawson has named Hamlet von Schnitzel is featured on the cover of her book as well as in the book trailer that you can view here. In honour of Lawson's love for taxidermy animals dressed in clothes, I'm including a few photos I took of dioramas at Torrington's Gopher Hole Museum, an unusual tourist attraction in central Alberta. I'm sure Lawson would love the place.

Stuffed ground squirrels at Torrington Gopher Hole Museum
Readalikes: Bossypants (Tina Fey); Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller); I Was Told There'd Be Cake (Sloane Crossley) and Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress (Susan Jane Gilman).
Ground squirrel hunting at Torrington Gopher Hole Museum

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

It is unusual for a novel with an apocalyptic premise to feel uplifting, but that is the case with The Age of Miracles. In her fiction debut, Karen Thompson Walker has imagined what would happen if planet Earth slowed in its rotation. And then kept slowing down. Days would get longer and longer and so would nights. Gravity would be affected.

"Much study has been devoted to the physical effects of gravity sickness, but more lives than history will ever record were transformed by the subtler psychological shifts that also accompanied the slowing. For reasons we've never fully understood, the slowing -- or its effects -- altered the brain chemistry of certain people, disturbing most notably the fragile balance between impulse and control."

Told from the retrospective viewpoint of Julia, who was 11 and living in California when the slowing began, the story remains rooted in realism despite the momentous environmental and societal changes happening around her. Julia observes the changes in her parents' relationship as well as her own coming of age.

"Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realized it: My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived."

Readalike: Life As We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) is similar in some ways -- imagining how a planet-wide catastrophic event would alter daily life, from the viewpoint of a young person -- but Pfeffer's book is definitely YA and The Age of Miracles is an adult book that teens would also enjoy. The difference is subtle. Julia is looking back on that extraordinary time, not recording it as it happens. Also, the changes that are affecting the adults around Julia are an import part of the story and that scope takes it into adult novel territory.

Note added July 14, 2012: Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks) is another readalike, even though it is historical, because it also character-driven, documents the disintegration of society in the face of horrific circumstances, plus an illicit love affair (which I didn't mention in my review) and yet the mood remains surprisingly upbeat. The (similar) titles of both books fit their shared mood of awe.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George

In Madeleine George's The Difference Between You and Me, Jesse and Emily are both 15-year-old girls... and that's about where their similarities end. They have been meeting for super hot makeout sessions during stolen moments, but Jesse really hates keeping her feelings for Emily a secret. Since coming out a year earlier, Jesse no longer has friends at their school. She dresses oddly and cuts her own hair with a penknife. She posters her school with fierce manifestos "demanding JUSTICE NOW! for all weirdos, freaks, queer kids, revolutionaries, nerds, dweebs, misfits, loudmouths, rapunzels trapped in their towers, trolls trapped under their bridges, animals abused by their masters, detentionites, monsters and saints."

Emily is on the student council and she has had the same boyfriend for years. She does not make mistakes. She does not acknowledge Jesse in public.

"How can Jesse explain Emily to her mother? How can she describe Emily's fluid beauty, her long-legged walk, the way her jeans fit on her hips, her laugh -- recognizable to Jesse in any crowded hallway -- her hoodies, her V-necks, the taste of her skin, the smell of her hair, the way she looks like she was just born to move down a hallway in a group of girls whenever Jesse sees her from a distance in school? How can Jesse describe this regular girl who is somehow, in some way, haloed in magic, for no other reason than because she's Emily Miller?"

When a big box department store plans to build on the outskirts of their town, Jesse and Emily find themselves on opposite sides of the issue. By switching occasionally to Emily's point of view, George provides context and complexity in her realistic and emotionally moving story.

The Difference Between You and Me highlights the shining idealism and depth of passion that we feel as teens, before time and experience teach us to guard our hearts more closely. It is good to be reminded of this, and it's one of the reasons that adults like me enjoy reading YA novels.

Readalikes: Geography Club (Brent Hardinger); Sprout (Dale Peck); and The Vast Fields of Ordinary (Nick Burd) all feature teens in closeted same-sex relationships with one partner wanting to be out and the other not. Far from Xanadu (Julie Anne Peters) has a similar feel, although the relationship between the two girls is not mutual.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault

The reasons why I was hooked from the start by Virginia Wolf, a gorgeous picture book by that dynamic Canadian duo, Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault:
1. These are the same talented women who created Spork.
2. Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa inspired the story.
3. It's about sisters.
4. It's about mental illness.
5. It celebrates imagination.
6. Illustrations and text are whimsical and beautiful and wonderful.
7. View the book trailer here... and then share the book with friends of all ages.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

I love the title of Carol Rifka Brunt's debut novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home. It's about family relationships and so I expected the wolves to be dysfunctional parents along the lines of Karen Russell's stories in St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Brunt's wolves, however, are the difficult things in life and learning to face them instead of running away.

It takes place in New York in 1987, but I consider Tell the Wolves I'm Home to be a historical novel because it's about AIDS before AZT treatment. Attitudes toward homosexuality have come a long way in the past 25 years too.  

June is 14 when her beloved uncle Finn dies. (Finn's pet name for June was Crocodile, which reminded me of another of Karen Russell's books, Swamplandia!, which is totally irrelevant and featured alligators, not crocodiles. Sorry.) June is awkward and lonely at school, estranged from her older sister, and their parents are buried in work. Comfort comes from an unexpected source when Finn's longtime lover, Toby, contacts June. She had not even been aware of his existence while Finn was alive, although she did see him outside her uncle's funeral.

Brunt's focus is on family dynamics and the shifting relationships between two sisters in their teens, as well as love, loyalty, grief, and shame. There were the same themes in Swamplandia!, come to think of it. Maybe it's a relevant comparison after all, even though there is no magic realism in Tell the Wolves I'm Home. They are both fabulous books.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

When Jake Marlowe learns that he is the last werewolf on Earth, he is ready to give up and die. Unfortunately for his suicidal ambitions, there are two groups fighting to keep Jake alive.

In writing The Last Werewolf as Jake's personal journal, Glen Duncan gets right inside what it's like change from human to monster every full moon, "doing the lunar shuffle." Werewolves are randy creatures so there's plenty of sex. Jake's cock does a lot of twitching in response to a "sly" or "clever" cunt.

"It had been ten days since I'd fucked Madeline. Ten days takes my kind to the edge. On the Curse you're desperate for sex with a She (if you're straight, that is; there are, naturally, gay werewolves -- one resists 'queerwolves'), while off the Curse your regular libido's amped up by the frustration of not having had sex with a She."

While werewolves are all but extinct, vampires are plentiful. They are not the sparkly type. They also don't go in for revenge. "Not on any kind of principle but because nine out of ten times they just can't be bothered. All motivation derives from the primary fact of mortality. Take mortality away and motivation loses its ... motivation. Thus vampires spend a lot of time lounging around and staring out of the window and finding they can't be arsed." Just to be clear, however, the vampires in Jake's world are very dangerous.

Duncan's witty prose kept me engaged despite occasional scenes of graphic violence. After it snowed, for example, "the undisturbed fall was deep (and crisp, and even)." On the Cornish coast: "The beaches are shingle and stone and even a full day of sun leaves them literally and figuratively cold. The onyxy water would be mildly amused by you drowning in it."

My favourite line: "Reader, I ate him."

Readalikes: The Eyre Affair (and the rest of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde), Sharp Teeth (Toby Barlow); Bite Me (Christopher Moore); and American Gods (Neil Gaiman).

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Barbados author Karen Lord drives Redemption in Indigo with the voice of a storyteller experienced at controlling her audience: "A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscience with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing."

There is nothing awkward or untidy about Lord's retelling of a Senegalese folktale. It feels both timeless and fresh, neatly packaged in under 200 pages. 

Paama abandoned her husband Ansige after 10 years and moved back in with her family in a village in Africa (or maybe the Caribbean?). Gossips try to get the dirt from her, but Paama will not be drawn in. "The village longed for word on just what was the situation with Paama's marriage, but no-one could break past Paama when she decided to be earnest. She had the talent of speaking many things with little meaning, the gift of red herrings."

The truth is that Ansige is a prodigious glutton who cannot see past his own selfishness. "Ansige unreeled the tale of his tribulations, thoroughly ransacking the truth and then dipping into the bag of embellishment and sprinkling with a free hand." He is the buffoon of the story.

When Paama is given a supernatural stick that controls the powers of chaos, a djombi with indigo skin comes looking for her. This trickster holds humans in contempt, but finds he has things to learn from them.

Readalikes: For a similarly strong storyteller's voice, but without supernatural elements, try No Sweetness Here (Ama Ata Aidoo) or The Long Song (Andrea Levy). The Icarus Girl (Helen Oyeyemi) has some elements of African folklore - a nonhuman being who takes the form of a child - but in a more contemporary setting. The Icarus Girl is also darker and less straight-forward than Redemption in Indigo. For trickster stories from a different part of the world, I recommend the graphic novel collection Trickster: Native American Tales (compiled by Matt Dembicki). Ansige also reminded me of the much scarier glutton in Skeleton Man (Joseph Bruchac).

Note added July 14, 2012: Gav and Simon have a great interview with the author and then discuss the book on their podcast, The Readers.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex

Is it the author or the illustrator who is more important in the creation of a picture book? That is the conflict in Chloe and the Lion. Author Mac Barnett and artist Adam Rex duke it out on the pages after Rex draws a dragon instead of the lion that Barnett called for in the text. Poor little Chloe, the ostensible star of the story. She really has to put her foot down to get proper attention from either of them!

Rex uses photoshop to pull together artwork made of paint, pencil, wood, fabric and modelling clay. The wooden stage sets reminded me of Edmonton Public Library's wonderful Storytime Station videos.

Fun for all ages. See the book trailer for Chloe and the Lion here for a preview.

Readalikes: For more picture books with cool multimedia collage artwork: Mirror (and many others by Jeannie Baker); 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore (and sequel, 11 Experiments that Failed, by Jenny Offill); and Here Comes the Garbage Barge (Jonah Winter). For more hilarious metafiction in picture books: Bad Day at Riverbend (Chris Van Allsburg); The Stinky Cheese Man (Jon Szieska and Lane Smith); and Wolves (Emily Gravett).

Also, dig up a copy of the Caldecott-winning classic Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty, which was obviously a source of inspiration for Chloe and the Lion.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

Someday this Pain Will Be Useful to You is one of my all-time favourite books, so I was excited to read Peter Cameron's new novel, Coral Glynn. I wasn't disappointed, even though about the only things the two books have in common is that they feature gay themes and society's misfits. They are also both short -- under 250 pages.

Coral Glynn is employed to nurse Mrs. Hart, an elderly woman dying of cancer, in a remote house in England, a few years after WWII. The woman's son, Clement, decides Coral would make a suitable wife for himself, even though he has only just met her. Clement has had a longtime relationship with another man, who is married and lives nearby.

Coral is likable, yet flawed, and I found sympathy for Clement, too. The claustrophobic domestic setting and societal constraints of the time add to the sensation of feeling trapped with few choices. Tragic stuff happens, there are lies and misunderstandings, and things work out differently than you might expect.

Readalikes: The Outcast (Sadie Jones) for a similar time and place with an element of dark suspense; Rough Music (Patrick Gale) for the tragedy of living closeted lives; and maybe Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) because the evil housekeeper in Coral Glynn is a match for Mrs. Danvers.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Railsea by China Miéville

Anytime I’m in the mood for something completely different, China Miéville’s genre-defying speculative fiction delivers. In Un Lun Dun, a young adventurer encounters predatory smog, sentient garbage and flesh-eating giraffes in a world beneath London. City and the City is a police procedural complicated by jurisdiction because two separate cities are contained in one folded bit of time and space. Railsea is a rollicking retelling of Moby-Dick, except with trains instead of ships and a giant ivory-coloured mole named Mocker-Jack instead of a whale.

Miéville’s language is as playful as can be. “There was a time when we did not form all words as now we do, in writing on a page. There was a time when the word “&” was written with several distinct & separate letters. It seems madness now.”

Young Sham ap Soorap is a doctor’s apprentice on the moletrain Medes, captained by Abacat Naphi. “The Medes passed the clatter & clank of diesel vehicles like their own. Past the shrill fussy shenanigans of steam trains that spat & whistled & burped dirty clouds, like irritating godly babies, & others. The railsea: a vast & various train ecosystem.”

Captain Naphi lost her left arm to Mocker-Jack, so now that mole has become her obsession – her philosophy.

“Not every captain had [a philosophy], but a fair proportion grew into a close antipathy-cum-connection with one particular animal, which they came to realise or decide – to decidalise – embodied meanings, potentialities, ways of looking at the world. At a certain point, & it was hard to be exact but you knew it when you saw it, the usual cunning thinking about professional prey switched onto a new rail & became something else – a faithfulness to an animal that was now a worldview.”

“Shiverjay ran a finger down a rumour-list, past tales of the largest badger, albino antlions, aardvarks of prodigious size. Some had the names of captains marked alongside. Some had more than one: oh, those were awkward occasions, clashes of hunt. What to do when more than one philosopher sought the same symbol? It was notoriously embarrassing.”

“There were times, Sham felt, when the captains regretted there being only two types of limb they could lose to their obsessions. On the whole, you were a leg person or an arm person: had one a tail to lose, a pair of prehensile tentacles, a wing or two, it would increase the possibilities for those vivid scars of philosophising.”

Encouraging a crewmember to get to the point, Captain Naphi asks him to “expedite this journey relevance-ward.” No need to rush, in my view. The journey is such fun! An adventure suitable for readers age 10 to adult.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

It's Canada Day and I regret that I don't have a uniquely Canadian title to blog about today...  Instead, I'll find Canadian connections with Jack Kerouac's autobiographical beat generation classic, On the Road. Kerouac was born to French Canadian parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he grew up speaking French. My maternal grandmother was also born to French Canadian parents in Lowell.

For any of you who haven't read On the Road (I've only just got around to it myself, and mostly because it happened to be available on One Click, an eAudiobook database at the library) it's a rambling narrative about a group of young men who crisscross the USA with no money and a great deal of drinking. The emphasis is on experiencing all that life has to offer.

According to the social researcher Michael Adams, there are some marked differences between the personal values and worldviews of an average Canadian and an average American. An example has to do with the value placed on experience versus materialism. In Sex in the Snow (1997), Adams found that a Canadian was most likely to use an unexpected windfall of money to go on a big trip, while an American would be more likely to buy a nice car. Of course these are generalizations that don't hold true for every individual, and also probably evolve over time, but still, it's interesting.

In any case, Kerouac's Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road, is a writer on an existential search with little interest in material things. Kerouac has a great ear for dialogue. His prose is a delight for anyone who loves language and the whole thing is based on real people and events, which adds another layer of appeal.

The unabridged Recorded Books edition is 11 hours and 15 minutes long and Frank Muller is an excellent choice as performer, as he is a credible and enthusiastic storyteller. In spite of this, I found myself having to take a break partway through, switching to some podcasts. (Books on the Nightstand and The Readers... if I'm not listening to books, I'm listening to people talk about books.) Anyway, when my mood shifted and I was ready for it again, I enjoyed the rest of On the Road.