Sunday, March 31, 2013

Moon Called by Patricia Briggs

"I didn't realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn't at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil -- and it's not like there are a lot of spare werewolves running around."

These are the first two lines in Moon Called, the first book in an engaging urban fantasy series by Patricia Briggs. Mercy Thompson is a mechanic who specializes in Volkswagens. She is also a Walker, which means she has the ability to shapeshift into coyote form. When Mercy was born, her single, teenaged mother didn't know what to do with a baby who was sometimes a pup, so Mercy was shipped off to distant relatives and raised in a pack of werewolves.

Mercy learned her trade from a gremlin, one of her personal friends is a vampire, and her next-door neighbour is the alpha of the Tri-Cities werewolf pack. Is it any wonder that trouble seems to seek her out? Since it's Easter today, I'll share an excerpt related to this time of year.

"I don't like crosses. My distaste has nothing to do with the metaphysical like it does for vampires. I have a whole spiel about how sick it is to carry around the instrument of Christ's torture as a symbol for the Prince of Peace who taught us to love one another. Really though, they just give me the willies."

Mercy is preparing to face the Mistress of the local vampire seethe. Instead of wearing a cross around her neck as a symbol of her Christian faith, Mercy wears a lamb. She is teased by one of the werewolves about this. "I can see it now, Mercy holding a roomful of vampires at bay with her glowing silver sheep."

Kidding aside, Mercy commands respect because she earns it. She's a kickass heroine with a caring heart. Moon Called has a diverse cast of characters and a suspenseful plot, with enough intrigue to move things along at a fast clip.

I listened to an audiobook [Penguin: 9 hrs 14 min] narrated by Lorelei King. It was so good that I was reluctant to unplug myself from my iPod until the story was finished.

Readalikes: The Last Werewolf (Glen Duncan); A Discovery of Witches (Deborah Harkness); Sharp Teeth (Toby Barlow).

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Jack Tumor by Anthony McGowan

You can't exactly say that fourteen-year-old Hector Brunty has lost his mind. It's more like he's gained an extra one... a talking brain tumour... named Jack. Anthony McGowan's Jack Tumor is hysterically funny.

The opening scene takes place in the waiting room of a medical clinic, where Hector "wasn't really reading, more just turning over the pages with the letters floating around like astronauts in zero gravity." Headaches and blurred vision are his reasons for seeing a doctor, but Hector is preoccupied with bigger problems: "My mum was a hippie, my dad was nowhere, my school was a dung heap; I was bullied by Neanderthals and ignored by the girls, and my friends were the Wretched of the Earth."

And now a brain tumour is yelling inside Hector's head. Jack's first word is "ARSECHEESE."

Jack is determined to make Hector's life more exciting. The two of them might not be around for much longer, so Jack urges Hector to ditch the dorky clothes, get a new haircut, and make some moves on a hot girl at school. He's a plucky little tumour, but Hector takes a lot of convincing. When Jack thinks it's time to "GO A-COURTING," Hector replies:

"No way. You are simply out of your mind, and I wish you were out of mine. I can't believe you want me to go and chat her up. I won't. I can't. I don't know how."

Jack tells Hector to let him take care of everything. After all, as he says, "REPRODUCTION IS MY MIDDLE NAME."

Jack Tumor (under the title Henry Tumour) won the Booktrust Teenage Prize in the UK in 2006. It's cancer at its funniest.

Readalikes: The Fault in Our Stars (John Green); Going Bovine (Libba Bray); Doing It (Melvin Burgess); and Ostrich Boys (Keith Gray).

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand's Radiant Days is a luminous time slip novel that connects Merle Tappit, a lesbian first-year art college student in 1970s Washington DC, with the bisexual poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1870s France. Both Merle and Arthur are rebellious teen iconoclasts. Merle prefers graffiti tagging over attending classes. Arthur's classes are cancelled because of the Franco-Prussian war. He keeps running away from his home in Charleville, determined to live as a writer in Paris, on his own terms. He says, "People want poetry to be a nursemaid. I want it to be a murderer and a thief."*

A mysterious fisherman/musician brings the two young people briefly together. Hand also uses him to add the myth of Orpheus to the philosophical mix in her textured novel.

Rimbaud is considered the patron saint of young writers because he wrote most of his work when he was 15 and 16 years old. Excerpts (in Hand's own translations) are included throughout. "Arriving forever, setting out for everywhere" is an example, one that captures the feeling of being poised on the brink of possibility. It is used as an epigraph for the final section, in which we glimpse the trajectory that Merle's and Rimbaud's adult lives have taken.

I liked this book a lot better than Hand's earlier novel, Illyria. Endings are really important to me and I loved the full-circle feeling of Hand's final chapter in Radiant Days.

*Quote is from the back cover. Inside the book (on page 136), the text is one word different: "People want poetry to be a nursemaid. I want to be a murderer and a thief." Is the missing 'it' a typographical error?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones by Sue Hubbell

Sue Hubbell has a passion for invertebrates that is contagious. A long time ago, I read three of her earlier books: A Country Year; A Book of Bees; and Broadsides from the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs. They were really enjoyable. Even though I don't have a particular interest in bugs, I do appreciate fine nature writing and I love learning about the world.

I came across Hubbell's audiobook Waiting for Aphrodite [Recorded Books: 7 hrs 45 min] because I was searching the OneClick e-audiobook database for whatever was available that was narrated by Barbara Caruso. Caruso is one of the narrators of The History of Love, which I recently reviewed. Her warm voice nicely captures Hubbell's humble curiosity in Waiting for Aphrodite.

As I listened, I found myself considering spiders, millipedes, sea urchins and many other little creatures in a new light. Did you know that there are such things as sea mice? They are furry, ocean-dwelling iridescent worms, also called aphrodite. The more I learn about a creature, the kindlier I feel towards it. Hubbell assures me that this is a characteristic of the human species; we call it compassion.

Hubbell makes a good case for ecological conservation, one that is based on nervousness or fear, tempered by compassion. Fear, because we don't understand enough about our ecosystem to know what harm we will do to ourselves by eliminating other species. I like her ethics.

Readalikes: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard) and The Botany of Desire (Michael Pollan).

Monday, March 25, 2013

October Mourning by Leslea Newman

Leslea Newman has chosen verse novel format and a chorus of voices to record the events surrounding a tragedy in October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. In her introduction, Newman writes: "While the poems in this book are inspired by actual events, they do not in any way represent the statements, thoughts, feelings, opinions, or attitudes of any actual person. [...] The poems are not an objective reporting of Matthew Shepard's murder and its aftermath; rather they are my own personal interpretation of them."

Inanimate objects like a fence, a road and memorial armbands have their say, as well as a wide spectrum of people. It is very effective, very moving. I cried.

I had known that anti-gay protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church picketed Shepard's funeral. I hadn't known that people dressed as angels used their seven-foot wings to block out the same protesters at the trials of Shepard's murderers.

I also hadn't known that Newman had given a keynote speech at the University of Wyoming's Gay Awareness Week on the very weekend that Shepard died. I can understand how a writer might be compelled to respond in such a deeply personal way as October Mourning.

In Newman's afterward, she explores her reaction at the time. "Why was I feeling so emotional? Why did I care so much about Matthew Shepard? I had never met him or even heard his name until a few days before my arrival. I subscribe to many gay newspapers and unfortunately I read about gay bashings all the time. And while I always get terribly upset to read about such horrific events, being at Matthew's school, meeting his friends and teachers, and knowing that he had planned on attending my lecture, filled me with an unspeakable sadness. And a touch of fear."

Shepard's shockingly violent death in 1998 received a lot of media attention and directed a spotlight on the issue of GLBTQ hate crimes. That was 15 years ago. Sadly, the hate continues.

Newman will be giving a human rights lecture in Edmonton at the University of Alberta on Wednesday, March 27. Details are available here. I look forward to hearing her talk.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Comparison to other books is the best way I can think of to describe G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen, so I'm going to break from my usual method and list readalikes first. It has a little of each of these: Neuromancer (William Gibson); Habibi (Craig Thompson); Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson); For the Win (Cory Doctorow); The Ring of Solomon (Jonathan Stroud); Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor) and His Dark Materials trilogy (Philip Pullman). But Alif the Unseen is different from all of these, too.

It's urban fantasy set in a totalitarian state in today's Middle East. It's adventure fantasy that draws heavily on Islamic religious beliefs and the mythology of genies -- in and out of bottles. It's steeped in nerdy computer culture and anointed with romance. There's an ancient Persian book at its heart -- The Book of a Thousand Days -- whose arcane knowledge is either the prize or the curse.

The cast of characters is large, but the main ones are: Alif, a talented young computer hacker; Dina, Alif's devout next-door neighbour who has secretly loved him since they were children; a djinn known as Vikram the Vampire, and an American woman scholar who converted to Islam and is always referred to as "the convert."

"Only the Lord of Lord knows all, and He created the world three-parts unseen." Metaphysical discussion, and sometimes even proselytizing, weigh a little too heavily on the narrative. I also felt queasy whenever homosexuality was used to disparage another person ("pig-eating ass-coveter" and such like). Even so, I found Alif the Unseen a fresh and rewarding read.

I thought Wilson's earlier novel, Cairo, was even better. Cairo is a thriller with fantastical elements set in Egypt, created in graphic novel format in collaboration with artist M.K. Perker.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Karen Russell's latest collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is astonishing in variety and inventiveness. As with her earlier collection, St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and her novel Swamplandia!, Russell mixes surprising elements of the fantastical into realistic settings: vampires in contemporary Italy; fortunetelling seagulls who descend on an otherwise ordinary coastal town; girls who take on the role of silkworms in Edo-period Japan. In a brilliant send-up of sports fan culture, Team Krill champions the eternal underdog in the Food Chain Games in "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating."

The title signals the strangeness to be encountered, the juxtaposition of night creatures with a garden bathed in sunshine. This story, set in Sorrento, is narrated by a nostalgic vampire: "there is no word sufficiently lovely for the first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling -- a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums -- a soothing blankness travelled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain."

Each story has a wildly different premise and its own unique voice. The young 19th-century narrator in "Proving Up" describes "evil turkeys that have heads like scratched mosquito bites." This one gets progressively creepier; Russell often explores greed, cruelty, obsession and other dark subjects. But it is her tongue-in-cheek humour that makes me love her writing so much.

The final story, "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis", is the most disturbing. A scarecrow who takes revenge on a group of teenage bullies in New Jersey reminded me of the tragedy of Matthew Shepard. (Coincidentally, I've got October Mourning next up on my reading list. It's Leslea Newman's verse novel in multiple voices about Shepard's death and its aftermath.)

Russell talks about her writing and reads from Vampires in the Lemon Grove on Radio Times, available online here.

Readalikes (novels as well as short stories): Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King); The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender); Pretty Monsters (Kelly Link); Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Zsuzsi Gartner) and anything by Margo Lanagan or Franz Kafka.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Earlier this week, my book group discussed The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Wonderful characters, poetic language, and multiple story threads that come together beautifully are the strengths we all appreciated in this work. The two main characters are Leo Gursky, a lonely and eccentric elderly Jewish man, and fourteen-year-old Alma Singer, who is grieving the death of her father and worrying about the mental states of her mother and younger brother. They all live in New York City.

Leo narrowly escaped Nazi persecution in Poland when he was boy. His lifelong devotion to his childhood flame, Alma, has helped him to survive. Alma Singer's parents named her for the character in their favourite book, The History of Love... the very same Alma that looms so large in Leo's life.

Some book group members experienced difficulty keeping track of the different plot lines in the early part of the book, especially since there are two characters named 'Alma.' Two of us had listened to the audiobook version [Recorded Books: 9 hrs 50 min] and we had no trouble with the changing points of view. This audio production has four narrators -- George Guidall, Barbara Caruso, Julia Gibson, and Andy Paris -- which makes it easy to sort everyone out. Guidall is an expert at pacing, one of the most crucial aspects of oral storytelling. His rich timber is just perfect for Leo's voice. I played a little of the audiobook for the rest of the group and the enjoyment was unanimous.

Our group liked The History of Love so much that we have added Great House, another of Krauss' books, to our upcoming reading list.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

and then it's spring by Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead

Yesterday was the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, but it still looks and feels like the middle of winter in Edmonton. I can really identify with the child waiting for the season to change in Julie Fogliano and Erin Stead's picture book, and then it's spring.

The boy (or possibly a tomboy) waits week after week for any sign of green after planting seeds. He (or she) worries that birds might have eaten them, or bears have stomped on them, "because bears can't read signs that say things like 'please do not stomp here -- there are seeds and they are trying'." Stead's soft woodcut and pencil illustrations contain additional quiet humour. One bird, flat on its back, has eaten so many sunflower seeds that it looks ready to burst. A bear sitting in the planted area is using the 'please do not stomp here' sign to scratch its armpit. The pictures will reward close examination: all of the little creatures doing things on every page; the expressive body postures of the dog.

Fogliano's text has a sturdy delicacy. The words are simple and used sparingly, with attention to their poetic magic. It will stand up to repeated read-alouds to young children without growing stale for adults. When "the brown, still brown, has a greenish hum" anticipation continues to build, but it's another four double-page spreads before the green arrives. Ahhh, yes. Green is nowhere to be seen around here, but I like being reminded that it will come... eventually.

My back garden today, taken from the back door.
Can you find the garden bench in the middle?

My back garden in July, also from the back door, but
looking to the right instead of the left.

The front walk as I arrived home from
work today, March 21, 2013.
(Can you even see the path?)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire is a thought-provoking exploration of the connections between plants and humans. The twist is that Pollan looks at things from a plant's-eye view. He has chosen four common plants and focuses on how they have (metaphorically) taken advantage of basic human desires: apples (sweetness); tulips (beauty); marijuana (intoxication); and potatoes (control).

It's been more than a decade since I first read the book, but I recently listened to the audiobook edition [Audio Evolution; 8 hours, 49 minutes] available in digital format through Edmonton Public Library's OverDrive database. Narrator Scott Brick -- who does a great job with audiobooks in the thriller genre -- is not the best choice for this one because he sounds like he is pontificating. Pollan's voice is much more genuine and I would have preferred to hear him read his own work. (You can watch Pollan interviewed on the subject of The Botany of Desire on the PBS website here.) The bigger flaw is the sound quality, which is tinny and a bit fuzzy. So, avoid the e-audiobook.

The Botany of Desire is a fascinating blend of history, science and philosophy. An excellent PBS documentary of the same name is also available. Pollan is also the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Food RulesIn Defense of Food and others. I'm looking forward to his new book, Cooked: Finding Ourselves in the Kitchen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

Thrity Umrigar's The World We Found caught my eye because it's on the longlist for lesbian fiction in the current Lambda Literary Awards. It's about the lives and relationships of four Hindu women who were best friends throughout their Bombay childhood and university years.

Armaiti left India to continue her studies at Harvard, got married in America and stayed there. Kavita never admitted her attraction to Armaiti, but now, thirty years later, has a satisfying relationship with a German woman she met through work. Laleh married a rich man and they have two teenaged children. Nishta married a Muslim who has become more rigid in his views over time.

Three of the women maintain loose connections, but they've lost touch completely with Nishta. When Armaiti learns that she has a brain tumor and six months to live, she is determined to see her old friends one more time.

I felt cheated that the women in this character-driven story were not given more to do besides work through some emotional pain they'd held since they were political activists as students. Kavita also needs to find courage to live her life more openly, and they have to track down Nishta and figure out what to do when her husband won't allow her to go. But those things didn't feel substantial enough. The brief scenes between Nishta's husband, Iqbal, and Laleh's husband, Adish, are the most poignant. They're what I think about now that I've finished the book.

There's a lot of interior stuff going on with the four women, which is something I normally like. Umrigar's style, however, is overly dramatic for my taste.
"The lyrics to 'The Boxer' were burnt into [Laleh's] soul, were part of her DNA, and after all these years they still got to her, a testimonial to a battered, bruised resilience that she was beginning to understand better and better the older she got. It was a wonder that they had loved this song so much in their teenage years -- what part of it could have possibly spoken to them? [...] After Armaiti had left for America, Laleh would think of her when she heard the lines about the bleeding New York City winters and the pocketful of mumbles, and worry about her friend. But today, in the car, she heard the song differently, and thought of Armaiti in a new way, as a survivor - But the fighter still remains -- hanging on, waiting for them to reach her.
The song reached its soaring climax, the lyrics giving way to the Lai La Lai's, a rising tidal wave of sound that gave the song its anthem-like power. Laleh imagined it [...] a whole generation, soaring, transported, being lifted on the shoulders of those Lai La Lai's, marching together, resisting, fighting back, defying death together. Her melancholy was so pure and acute it tipped over and became joy."
I adored Simon and Garfunkel, and 'The Boxer' in particular, when I was a teenager too. But burning lyrics into one's soul is going too far, never mind being part of one's DNA. Also, I can't believe that melancholia can be distilled into joy. So I felt torn between identifying with Laleh and my dislike of Umrigar's writing style.

The sections having to do with Kavita were enjoyable, but didn't take up much of the story. The other things that resonated had more to do with the contents of an Iranian memoir I happened to be reading at the same time: Nylon Road by Parsua Bashi. The two books share a background of political upheaval and religious intolerance. Also:

1. Umrigar's character Armaiti and Bashi were both militant communists who later became disillusioned with the ideology.
2. Bashi and Umrigar both address the issue of "brain drain" and loyalty to one's country; resisting the pull of money and personal safety drawing educated people towards immigration to Western countries.
3. Laleh's husband is Parsi, a member of a cultural group forced from Iran centuries ago because of religious persecution by Islamic invaders.
4. Both books portray recent historical periods of extreme violence in the streets.
4. Bashi and Umrigar both write about what it's like to wear a burka in hot weather. As does Nicola Barker in another book I read recently, The Yips.

I was disappointed with The World We Found, but I know that other readers will enjoy it. Sometimes I'm just too fussy.

Readalikes: Ya-Yas in Bloom (Rebecca Wells); Six of One (Rita Mae Brown); The Weird Sisters (Eleanor Brown); and various works by Ann Brashares, Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks. If you are looking for a whole lot of lesbian content in contemporary (or rather, 1980s) India, I suggest Babyji by Abha Dawesar.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Nylon Road by Parsua Bashi

Parsua Bashi was born in Tehran in 1966. Nylon Road is her memoir in graphic novel format about coming of age in Iran during the revolution. Bashi studied art at university during the mid-80s, when "art books had been censored with markers or scissors." Some pages were torn completely out and students were not allowed to see artistic masterpieces. Bashi was once whipped by revolutionary authorities because she was caught walking with a male student after they had been sent to an art store by their instructor.

In spite of these and other obstacles, Bashi has become a well-respected graphic artist. (Check out her website here.) In Nylon Road, her crisp artwork is reproduced in shadings of black, grey and umber.

Bashi's move to Switzerland in 2004 is the starting point for her memoir. She has conversations -- and often arguments -- with her younger selves who keep popping up and making her explain herself. Her 13-year-old self, for example, was a militant communist who annoyed her family -- including the dog -- with lectures about class oppression. Contemporary Bashi has gained perspective in the years since then. She sees similarities between the consumer culture among Swiss teenagers, young religious zealots, and political rebels like herself at 13. In each case, "No individuality is allowed."
Bashi alone in Zurich... with all of her younger selves
Bashi's cartoony style provides a humourous balance to the poignant episodes, such as being forced to leave her daughter behind in Iran. Her memoir is entertaining, informative and intimate.

Readalike: Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi); Reading Lolita in Tehran (Azar Nafisi).

Friday, March 15, 2013

The System of Comics by Thierry Groensteen

What exactly is a graphic novel? Defining comics format is as tricky as defining other arts like poetry, novels or cinema. Thierry Groensteen does a thorough job of exploring the question in The System of Comics.

I read the English translation by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. I'm glad I didn't attempt the original French edition because deciphering the academic language was challenge enough. Diegesis, micro-semiotics, lexemes, orthogonalities, syntagms, aporia... the early part of the book was slow-going because I frequently had to consult a dictionary. Once I grasped the terminology, my efforts were rewarded.

Groensteen looks at comics as a form of language. This gave me a whole new appreciation for the ninth art, as it is called in France. The foundational principle presented is that comics are composed of interdependent images. Text is secondary, and not necessary to the medium. There are wordless comics, after all. Also, any meaning that can be found in an individual image (as with a painting) is irrelevant to the discussion, since it is in the context of sequential images that narrative is formed in comics.

Since the comics medium can be used to create not only fictional works but also propaganda, journalism, testimony, autobiography and other types of messages, Groensteen asserts that this "demonstrates that before being an art, comics are well and truly a language."

It's all very interesting. Now I'd like to read something explaining why children's picture books can be considered -- or not -- to be examples of comics format. Anyone have suggestions for me?

Readalike: Understanding Comics (Scott McCloud).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark

A murder committed in 1974 and a separate case of fraud involving fake stigmata were the true crime inspirations behind Muriel Spark's dark and funny novel, Aiding and Abetting. "Lucky," the 7th earl of Lucan, was convicted in absentia of killing his children's nanny in England. Twenty-five years later, a psychiatrist with a criminal past has two new patients -- and both claim to be the missing Lucan.

"The receptionist looked tinier than ever as she showed the tall, tall, Englishman into the studio of Dr Hildegard Wolf, the psychiatrist who had come from Bavaria, then Prague, Dresden, Avila, Marseilles, then London and now settled in Paris.

'I have come to consult you,' he said, 'because I have no peace of mind. Twenty-five years ago I sold my soul to the Devil.' The Englishman spoke in a very foreign French.

[...] 'I don't know how it struck you,' said Hildegard (Dr Wolf) to her patient. 'But to me, selling one's soul to the Devil involves murder. Anything less is not worthy of the designation. You can sell your soul to a number of agents, let's face it, but to the Devil there has to be a killing or so involved.' "

Spark's assured and compact style makes the outlandish plot work. As an added treat, the fabulous Davina Porter narrates the audiobook [Recorded Books: 4.5 hours].

Dame Muriel Spark has come up several times on my blog in the past few years, although I don't think I read any of her work before she died (in 2006). I might have a bit of a thing for Scottish authors.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel

Mark Siegel'Sailor Twain or, The Mermaid in the Hudson is a haunting graphic novel for adults set in the 19th century. Elijah Twain captains the Lorelei, a steamboat owned by the Lafayette brothers. One of the brothers disappears under mysterious circumstances, and the other undertakes the simultaneous seduction of several women on board ship. Meanwhile, Captain Twain becomes embroiled in a fateful chain of events when he rescues an injured mermaid.

Ancient curses, star-crossed lovers and dangerous secrets all play a part in this unusual tale with a fascinating cast of characters. Siegel's moody charcoal drawings are gorgeous too.

Readalike: Set to Sea (Drew Weing); The Brides of Rollrock Island (Margo Lanagan).

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Life in Color: National Geographic Photographs curated by Annie Griffiths

Staff at the National Geographic Society have catalogued, captioned and organized "nearly 12 million photo images in a system that allows a photo editor to wander through more than 100 years of extraordinary images." From these, Annie Griffiths (one of the National Geographic's first female photographers) selected over 200 breathtaking images for a coffee table collection: Life in Color.

Looking through this book is like a balm for the soul. Beauty is celebrated in all of its guises, all around the planet. Text is minimal, mostly quotations from poets and artists on the subject of colour.

Colour is the place where our brain and the universe meet. -- Paul Cezanne

Of all of god's gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn. -- John Ruskin

Colour is a vital necessity. It is a raw material indispensable to life, like water and fire. -- Fernand Leger

Most of the images are available for purchase from the National Geographic Art website.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Big Questions from Little People ... and Simple Answers from Great Minds compiled by Gemma Elwin Harris

Thousands of children between the ages of four and twelve were invited to send in the questions they most wanted answered. According to compiler Gemma Elwin Harris, Big Questions from Little People is "an anthology of voices, a personal response from each expert to a child's idiosyncratic question." The result is utterly charming as well as informative.

None of the responses take more than a page or two, no matter how tricky the question: How do you make electricity? Why is water wet? (I learned that if you want to get wet, you need at least six molecules of water.) What are we made of? (Stardust.) How does an aeroplane* fly? I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of answers to quirky questions like "Did Alexander the Great like frogs?"

Meg Rosoff is one of three different Big People answering the most frequently-asked question -- Who is god? Jeanette Winterson provides one of three answers to How do you fall in love?

Mary Roach tackles the question "If a cow didn't fart for a whole year and then did one big fart, would it fly into space?" Actually, cows don't fart, they burp. "But instead of belching it straight up from her stomach -- which would be noisy and might give away the animal's hiding place to a predator -- she can shift things around and reroute the gas down into her lungs and then quietly breathe it out. Very dainty."

Many questions spark interesting additional information. Yes, a bee can sting another bee, but Dr. George McGavin provides more. Bumble bees usually bite intruder bees to drive them out instead of stinging them. In Sally Magnusson's answer to "Why is wee yellow?" I learned that "The ammonia in wee means it can also clean just about anything. The Romans washed their togas in it and until recently weavers used it to clean cloth. People in Britain used to be able to sell theirs for a penny a bucket. Don't get your hopes up today, though!"

A book for all ages that would make a great family read-aloud.

*British spelling and terminology from the original British Faber and Faber edition was maintained in the American HarperCollins edition. i.e. oestrogen, crisps, a 2p coin dropped in a fizzy drink.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Ronald Koertge unleashes wicked humour in Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses, a collection of fairytales retold in verse. Nontraditional voices and occasional contemporary settings add fresh perspectives. Forget Disney schmaltz; these versions are bawdy and bloody.

The first tale is told jointly by Cinderella's bitter stepsisters, after birds have plucked out their eyes:

"Even in tatters Ella was desirable -- a little thigh showing here, some soot at her cleavage. And what a tease -- dashing away at midnight, leaving the heir to the throne groaning in his purple tights." [...]
"And then, insult to injury, we have to go to the wedding. Mother insisted. There will be men there. Other princes or earls or rich merchants or anybody, really, with a penis and a pulse."

There are no happy endings. The newly-handsome beast misses his fangs. The princes are in rehab and Rapunzel's mother sees a therapist three times a week. Thumbelina leaves a trail of dead bodies behind her. The final voice is that of the wolf:

"Let's get a few things straight. Only a few of us like to dress up like grandmas and trick little girls."

Andrea Dezso's cut paper illustrations are a perfect match for Koertge's dark satire. Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses is a treat for teens and adults alike.

Readalikes: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith); Kissing the Witch (Emma Donoghue); Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes (Roald Dahl); and Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People (Douglas Coupland).

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Simon Vance is one of the top audiobook narrators and the first two books in Hilary Mantel's Tudor trilogy have both been awarded the Booker prize, so there isn't much I can add in praise of Bring Up the Bodies audiobook [MacMillan]. It's fourteen and a half hours well spent.

Thomas Cromwell is introduced in Wolf Hall. He is a fascinating character, portrayed believably and sympathetically by Mantel. He was the guy who took on the pope in order to arrange Henry VIII's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so Henry could marry Anne Boleyn. That was covered in Wolf Hall. Three years later, Henry wants to be rid of Anne because he has his eye on Jane Seymour. It is Cromwell's job to fix things again.

I wonder if readers who object to spoilers avoid reading any historical fiction that closely follows fact? Knowing the outline -- and outcome -- of the historical events ahead of time makes no difference to enjoyment of Bring Up the Bodies because it is all about the characters and how it all happened. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz

In Drinking at the Movies, cartoonist Julia Wertz documents her booze-fueled first year in New York City, after moving there from San Francisco when she was in her mid-twenties. A series of crummy apartments, getting fired from a series of jobs, and adjusting to the change in climate are all fuel for her self-deprecating humour. In addition to her own problems with alcohol and depression, Wertz writes about her brother's serious drug addiction. At five-foot-two, Wertz is sometimes mistaken for a child, but she makes up for it with her potty mouth.

Wertz knows how to tell a joke. Punch line panels punctuate every page or two, making it easy to read this memoir in a stop-and-start kind of way. I especially enjoyed her flights of fancy, like the times when either her brain or her wallet escapes. Just before a trip to Chicago, she leaves her wallet in a taxi. Wertz imagines her wallet enjoying its freedom, living it up, gambling and getting drunk. A month later, it is found among the possessions of a man recently deceased. "Son of a bitch!" the wallet exclaims as it is returned to her.

In October last year, Wertz was interviewed at The Comics Reporter about her new book, The Infinite Wait. 

Readalikes: Lucky (Gabrielle Bell); The Madame Paul Affair (Julie Doucet); Funny Misshapen Body (Jeffrey Brown) and Marbles (Ellen Forney).

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Glaciers by Alexis Smith

A wistful longing permeates Glaciers, Alexis Smith's slim debut novel. Isabel, a 28-year-old library worker in Portland, loves thrift store shopping and dreams of foreign travel. She is "on the cusp of possible love." Isabel has a crush on Spoke, a colleague who was injured when he fought in Iraq. She is too shy to speak more than a few words to him, but she notices everything, like the buttons on his shirt.

"She pours the last of the tea from the metal pot and sips. It is lukewarm, now, and she holds it in her mouth and lets it roll over her tongue. She cracks her fortune cookie and thinks of buttons. Small, pearly shirt buttons. The way they feel between your fingertips, against fingernails, slipping through cloth."

Introspective vignettes span one day in Isabel's life, slipping backward in time as she thinks about her childhood in Alaska. Isabel plans to attend a party that evening after work, where she'll meet up with her gay friend, Leo.

The subtle parallels between Glaciers and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway get an extra nudge when someone at that party mentions that she regrets dismissing the opportunity to "visit the river in which a beloved writer drowned" while on a trip to England.

Smith's lyrical and delicate style appealed to me very much. I was also surprised at the similarities between my own life and Isabel's, like wearing thrift clothes from the 50s when I was her age, dressing up as Nancy Drew one Halloween, and being vegetarian.

Readalikes: Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf); Five Bells (Gail Jones); The End of the Alphabet (C.S. Richardson); Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum) and Weetzie Bat (Francesca Lia Block).

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Lester's Dreadful Sweaters by K.G. Campbell

In Lester's Dreadful Sweaters, a child endures the embarrassment of wearing to school one dreadful handmade garment after another. K.G. Campbell is both author and illustrator of this delightful children's picture book.

Lester is an obsessive compulsive boy who uses a ruler to check that his socks are even. His parents force him to be polite about gifted sweaters from his family's new house guest. ("Say thank you, Lester," said Lester's mother. "Thank you." whispered Lester.)

Campbell's text plays with internal rhyme -- starting with the title -- and alliteration, starting with the first line in the book: Cousin Clara's cottage was consumed by a crocodile. The descriptions of Lester's sweaters are as wonderful as the illustrations of them. One is repulsively pumpkin, uncommonly crooked and had a hideous hood, another is an awful olive and had alarmingly large buttons. Repetition is also nice, especially for young readers learning to recognize new words: the less than pleasant yellow sweater generates a less than pleasant remark from Lester's schoolmate, Enid. Another day, Enid said several irksome things about Lester's irksome pink sweater. (Enid reminded me of Nellie Oleson, as played by Alison Arngrim, in the Little House on the Prairie tv series.)

The household items and toys in the background -- a stick telephone, a wringer-washing machine, a coal oil lamp -- set the story in the early twentieth century. Campbell's coloured pencil artwork is beautifully textured and evokes a feeling of nostalgia. The most vibrant tones are reserved for the wild yarn creations -- purple pompoms against yellow, pink buttons against green.

Readers of all ages will enjoy Campbell's visual jokes, like Enid's outfit, which rivals the outrageousness of Lester's sweaters, and is almost a perfect match for the pinata at her birthday party. Lester's father has a pointy shock of orange hair identical to that of a clown at the party. I found this photo of K.G. Campbell on the Kids Can Press website. Campbell looks a lot like Lester... and that papillon dog in the photo looks familiar too...

Highly recommended.

Readalikes: Amos's Sweater (Janet Lunn and Kim LaFave); Rude Ramsey and the Roaring Radishes (Margaret Atwood and Dusan Petricic); and The Pet Shop Revolution (Ana Juan).

Friday, March 1, 2013

(you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki

Mariko Tamaki and her cousin Jillian Tamaki are the creative duo behind one of my favourite graphic novels, Skim. Mariko's new text-only novel, (you) set me on fire, also features a shy lesbian protagonist. Burn-scarred Allison Lee is socially awkward but her voice is wonderful on the page.

"I'm into girls, but I have some pretty strong reservations on my heart's part. [...] It's like, why, given my MANY experiences with the claws and fangs of girls, would I decide to put myself on the path of pursuing them for the rest of my life? It's shocking to me that I could fall in love with a girl, let alone more than one girl. Although, you know, let's not exclude the possibility that some boy will come along and sweep me off my feet. Boys, it seems, are just so cool and everyone wants one. Why not me?"

Allison is ready to reinvent herself when she starts her freshman year at college. Unfortunately, she falls for the wrong person. VERY wrong. Shar tells her, "I'm not into girls, but I mess around with them sometimes." And things do get messy. Everyone but Allison can see that Shar is bad news. Unfortunately, self-destruction seems to be Allison's modus operandi. She's the kind of girl who accidently sets herself on fire. Will she be like a phoenix, and emerge reborn?

With wry humour, Tamaki describes Allison's immersion in college life: a whole lot of drinking, vomiting, loitering and, when she can't think of anything else to do... going to classes. The tone is light, but the poisonous friendship at its core gives this book satisfying substance. Brava!

(you) set me on fire could possibly fit the 'new adult' genre category. It's suitable for Grade 10 and up.

Readalikes: Rose of No Man's Land (Michelle Tea); Far from Xanadu [alternately titled Pretend You Love Me] (Julie Anne Peters); The Cheese Monkeys (Chip Kidd); and Beautiful Malice (Rebecca James).