Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier

Ruby Red is the first in a YA time travel trilogy by German author Kerstin Gier. The story is set in present day London and features a likable teen heroine who never expected to inherit the time travel gene. That honour was supposed to go to Gwen's cousin, Charlotte. Instead, Gwen is thrown into a dangerous adventure that has her crisscrossing back and forth in time, unsure of who she can trust. She isn't at all prepared, but Gwen's common sense and her love of period films helps her to roll with it.

I read an American edition of the English translation, which keeps some of the British terminology (loo, not toilet; tablet, not pill) but not all (cookies, not biscuits, for example.) It was a little disconcerting, but nothing compared to what Gwen had to negotiate... like climbing through a tight spot while dressed in a hoop skirt. Oh, and by the way, Gwen can also converse with ghosts and gargoyles who are invisible to everyone else. It's a lot of fun.

Imagine a mash-up of To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis), Grave Mercy (Robin LeFevers), Dreamhunter (Elizabeth Knox), The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger) and The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde). Adventure, humour, fancy costumes and a cliffhanger of an ending. Sapphire Blue is the second volume and Emerald Green will be released on October 8, 2013.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Caught by Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore's Caught is a high-stakes adventure that begins in the Maritimes in 1978 when David Slaney crawls under a fence and escapes from prison. Slaney is on the run, across Canada and then onward to South America, never sure who he can trust. He is determined that he will never be locked up again.

RCMP Inspector Patterson is close on Slaney's heels. He is determined to gain a long-overdue promotion by capturing Slaney and his accomplices.

This book has everything I love: great characters, a strong sense of place, an engaging plot and an elegant way with language.

Slaney is an entirely sympathetic young man who has made some bad choices. He meets all kinds of interesting people on his travels.

A salesclerk in a Montreal toy store knew that Slaney "was Anglo by the look of him and addressed him in English. She flattened everything she said like she was running it through a ringer washer. All the th's were d's and she was dropping h's and she was emphatic. Her vowels had carbuncles and she resented having to spit them out and it was as sexy as anything Slaney had ever heard."

Slaney spent weeks on a boat in the company of a different young woman. "Ada was reading murder mysteries and Hemingway and she had a Fitzgerald and a really good Dashiell Hammett, she said, and when she was done she tossed them over the side." (That image will stay with me!)

Faith is explored from different angles. An orgasm is likened to a sacrament: "She spoke a few words and it was a phrase from a prayer." And then religion pops up again on the very next page: "Three soldiers took the bag below deck to count the money and they all waited in the hot sun with their heads bowed, silent, as though in church." A little later, "There was the ridiculous golden light, liturgical and autumnal, touching everything glass and metal."

Are our lives subject to some divine plan? "The best stories, he thought, we've known the end from the beginning."

We are mortal, and so in life it is our journeys that matter, not our end. In fiction, I want both: a good trip and a good ending. Moore delivers both in Caught.

It happened that I was listening to Piper Kerman's memoir Orange Is the New Black during the same stretch of time that I was reading Caught. It was a bit surreal, contrasting fiction and nonfiction about serving time for criminal activity relating to drugs, but also a good pairing.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists is about a mixed group of newspaper people -- reporters, editors, foreign correspondents, publishers and readers -- and about a small international English language newspaper headquartered in Rome. Canadian author Tom Rachman has created a kaleidoscope of 11 interlocking short stories, each one focused on a different character. Each story is titled with a newspaper headline and ends with a clever twist. The novel spans the 50 years of the paper's existence, right up to today's decline of print journalism.

A typical Roman street, taken on my last visit there.

The setting is so vivid that I not only got to walk the scenic streets of Rome, but continue right along inside the homes of people who live there. Private lives and work lives are contrasted with extraordinary insight.

Reviews of this book mentioned the humour, but as I listened to the audiobook narrated by Christopher Welch [Recorded Books: 9 hr 45 min] I felt it was more poignant than funny. I empathized deeply with the characters and was saddened by their troubles. After I had finished the audiobook, I read the paper book and discovered that some parts made me laugh. So I learned something new about myself. The visceral experience of audio can override my brain's recognition of what is comical about human foibles.

For example, there's the chapter "The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists," in which two Americans are each hoping to get a Cairo stringer assignment. I felt bad for poor Winston Cheung, who was in over his head and annoyed by Rich Snyder, a blowhard opportunist. Yet check out this dialogue:
"I remember when I was in the Philippines during People Power back in the 1980s, and everyone's all, like, 'Oh man, Tagalog is so hard.' And I'm, like, 'Bull.' and within days, I'm, like, picking up chicks in Tagalog and stuff. That was after two days. Languages are totally overrated."
"So your Arabic must be excellent."
"Actually, I never speak foreign languages anymore," he explains. "I used to get so keyed into cultures that it was unhealthy. So I only talk in English now. Helps me maintain my objectivity."
In "Global Warming Good for Ice Creams" a cranky corrections editor fusses:
"GWOT: No one knows what this means, above all those who use the term. Nominally, it stands for Global War on Terror. But since conflict against an abstraction is, to be polite, tough to execute, the term should be understood as marketing gibberish. Our reporters adore this sort of humbug; it is the copy editor's job to exclude it. See also: OBL; Acronyms; and Nitwits."
The Imperfectionists is perfect: smart and funny and thought-provoking.

Readalike: A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Batwoman: To Drown the World by JH Williams III, W Haden Blackman, Amy Reeder and Trevor McCarthy

Kate Kane/Batwoman battles ethical conundrums that are straight out of the tragedies of ancient Greece in the second bound volume of the Batwoman series. Will she betray her father or her lesbian lover? Will she kill one person in order to save a host of children? The monsters that Batwoman battles are also straight out of the mythologies of ancient Greece -- and other places and times -- including Medusa, La Llorona, the shapeshifting fox of Japan, and the reptiles in the sewers of modern urban legend.

To Drown the World is Volume 2 in the DC New 52 Batwoman series, collecting issues 6-11. The story is told in jagged pieces, jumping between the present and assorted flashbacks. I found it unpleasantly disorientating the first time through, but everything comes together and subsequent readings went more smoothly. Several artists contributed to this work and I disliked the pale colour scheme on some of the pages, which added to the initial choppy feeling.

There are some terrific sexy moments between Kate and other women. Yes, women plural. But it is abundantly clear that Maggie is Kate's true love. I already know that a marriage proposal comes up in a future issue because of a news story on the AfterEllen website: "Batwoman writers resign, say DC won't allow Kate and Maggie to get married." It'll be interesting to see what comes next for Batwoman.

My reviews of two previous Batwoman episodes can be found here: Batwoman: Hydrology and Batwoman: Elegy.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Nocturne by Helen Humphreys

Helen Humphreys is one of my very favourite writers (The Reinvention of LoveThe Frozen ThamesCoventryWild DogsThe Lost Garden; etc.). Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother is a contemplation of existence, grief, and the solitary nature of creative work. I find Humphrey's calm writer's voice deeply comforting.

"Everything becomes a memorial. This wooden chair is a memorial to that tree."

Nocturne is a small volume with 45 brief chapters, the number of years that Humphrey's younger brother Martin lived before dying of pancreatic cancer. My copy has flags every few pages, marking beautiful passages. It is written in a conversational style, addressed to Martin.

"I've been thinking about the human soul, about the presence of the unseen in our lives, about how, the moment you died, I felt you leave. What was it that left? And why did I feel that you did leave? It wasn't simply that a light was turned off, that your consciousness was stopped, but rather that you moved swiftly from your dead body and went somewhere else. But where did you go?

Martin was an accomplished pianist and music was his life's work. The score of John Cage's 4'33" is the memoir's epigraph, a poignant choice. If you aren't familiar with it, 4'33" is a composition of silence. I've encountered it in a number of books recently, including When Women Were Birds and A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Humphreys was present when Martin performed the piece. "I remember the nervous laughter from the audience as you sat down at the piano, hands folded together in your lap, back straight, and didn't play a note. That laughter subsided into an uncomfortable silence, and that awkward self-consciousness was followed by a growing attentiveness, all in the space of five minutes."

"Is the noise of music really better than the silence it is invading?"

"Were you made in part by the music that you played? And if so, when you died, the silence we were left with was that same silence that exists in a concert hall the moment after the music stops -- a silence that still tastes of the sound it carried."

Humphreys writes that her brother's death forced her to slow down and experience the present moment. "This may be why the completely unexpected happened and I fell in love again. It saddens me that you'll never meet Nancy, and that my new life is so far removed from my old one."

Nancy Jo Cullen and Humphreys will both be at the Vancouver's Writers Fest this year and I'm looking forward to seeing them there.

Readalikes: When Women Were Birds (Terry Tempest Williams); Name All the Animals (Alison Smith).

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

The Silent Wife is a psychological thriller set in Chicago about a 20-year-marriage that is speeding towards a crash. A.S.A. Harrison gets us inside the heads of Jodi and Todd through alternating Her and Him chapters. Their destination is clear from the second paragraph, where we learn that Jodi's "notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her."

The narrative has an inexorable pull -- the details of how things can fall apart in such a spectacular way. The central characters are not admirable specimens, but Harrison makes them believable and fully human. Even though I sped through this like an express train, Jodi and Todd will live on in my memory.

Readalikes: Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn); The Middlesteins (Jami Attenberg); The Woman Upstairs (Claire Messud).

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon is a compelling first novel told in the voice of a fierce young lesbian, Anais Hendricks. Anais has spent her entire childhood as a ward of the Scottish government, placed in countless foster homes. At 15, she is moved to the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders.

Anais finds a place for herself amid the residents there, including other teenage queers. If she doesn't manage to turn over a new leaf, however -- and convince the police that she is not the one who put an officer in a coma -- the next place for her will be a secure lock-up until she turns 18.

"If they put me in a secure unit like John Kay's, with the kiddie killers or the pedos or whatever the fuck it is they keep up there, do you think there is any chance that I won't just fucking hang myself, Helen?"
"Calm down, Anais!"
"I'm not spending my life inside, for something I didnae fucking do!"
She takes coconut oil out of her bag and rubs it into her hands. She doesnae think I'm getting out -- she thinks I'm in the system now, all the fucking way. Foster care. Homes. Young Offenders. Jail. Where to when I graduate? Experiment headquarters -- so they can pickle my fucking brain.

Be prepared to have your heart broken by the circumstances of this young woman who can't seem to catch a break. Anais is like a diamond in the rough and I was cheering for her every step of the way.

Readalikes: Rose of No Man's Land (Michelle Tea); Lullabies for Little Criminals (Heather O'Neill).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Great House by Nicole Krauss

Last night my Two Bichons book group discussed Great House by Nicole Krauss. It's a National Book award-winning novel constructed with four narratives that are only loosely tied to each other. The main connection is a desk with a history that includes the Holocaust, Pinochet's Chile and too many family secrets.

We compared Great House to The History of Love, another of Krauss' novels we discussed earlier in the year. Both books have themes of memory, identity and coming to terms with loss. Although both books are composed of multiple storylines about Jewish families, The History of Love is more linear and is more about the characters. In Great House, there was only one character that allowed us to get close: Aaron.

Like Leo in The History of Love, Aaron is estranged from his son. Dov and Aaron have always been like oil and water, complete opposites in temperament. Aaron envied his wife's easy understanding of their son. When Dov returns injured in body and mind from the Yom Kippur war, the father of one of Dov's dead comrades crushes his spirit further with a letter blaming him for the death, writing, "It should have been you." Years later, Aaron looks back on that difficult time, carrying on a conversation with his son in his head. "Your mother wanted to call the father in Haifa, to shout at him, to defend you. But I wouldn't let her. I grabbed her hand and pried the phone loose. It's enough, Eve, I said. His son is dead. His parents were murdered [by the Nazis] and now he has lost his only son. And you expect him to be fair? To be reasonable? Her eyes turned hard. You have more sympathy for him than you have for your own son, she spat, and walked away." Doesn't that break your heart?

I was intrigued by a university student who was obsessed with travelling light, who didn't want to be weighed down by possessions. "The only exception was books, which I acquired freely, because I never really felt they belonged to me. Because of this, I never felt compelled to finish those I didn't like, or even a pressure to like them at all. But a certain lack of responsibility also left me free to be affected. When at last I came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn't control what came through it."

Great House didn't have that kind of violent effect on me, but it was definitely invigourating. I was grateful to have other readers helping me to appreciate the impressive structure and parallels. Great House is a perfect book for discussion: challenging, beautiful, and rewarding of close examination.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Head Off and Split: Poems by Nikky Finney

What to say about poetry so irresistible that I am drawn back into the pages every time I attempt to write about it here? Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split is wise and fierce and tender and playful. Her words make me weep. They also make me smile. They make me want to raise my fist and shout, "Yes!"

I love the way Finney shows how history, politics and landscape have shaped her African American self and the lives of her female relatives. Anger simmers through some of the pieces, while others are infused with warmth and wonder. The poems in the middle section are openly lesbian.

In the prose poem Cattails, one woman drives a long distance to unexpectedly woo another. "The didn't-know-she-was-coming woman stares at she who has just arrived. She tries to read the mighty spinach leaves in her bowl, privately marveling at the driving woman's muscled spontaneity. She can hardly believe this almost stranger has made it across five states just to have lunch with her. She wonders where this mad driving woman will sleep tonight. She is of two driving minds. One convertible. One hardtop."

Finney's word play is delightful: "Easter dressy" women (Dancing with Strom); "the long solemncholy wait" (Thunderbolt of Jove); "Her humming heart in mighty step with the bee wings of the July air." (Brown Girl Levitation, 1962 - 1989). Finney's dexterity and intellect remind me of Margaret Atwood's style.

The title comes from a term used by fishmongers, a query about how a customer might like her fish prepared before it is taken home to be cooked. "Head off and split? Translation: Do away with the watery gray eyes, the impolite razor-sharp fins, the succulent heart, tender roe, delicate sweet bones?" (Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction). The warning that is the central theme of this collection is clearly stated in the final poem: "Careful to the very end what you deny, dismiss and cut away." (Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica).

Head Off & Split won the National Book Award in 2011. It's the first of Finney's work that I've read, but I am now firmly a fan and eager to read her other books. Fortunately, two of her older poetry volumes have been released in new editions, so they should be readily available. For more about this remarkable poet and her books, check out Nikky Finney's website.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

I'd Really Like to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio and Dorothee de Monfreid

I'd Really Like to Eat a Child is a hilarious children's picture book about a finicky eater. Achilles, a young crocodile, refuses to eat his usual breakfast banana, announcing that he'd rather eat a child instead. French author Sylviane Donnio uses repetition (on the part of Achilles) and histrionics (on the part of his parents) to build humour. Cartoon illustrations by Dorothee de Monfreid quickly develop the characters through body language and facial expressions. There's a wonderful sight gag when we see how very tiny Achilles is in relation to a child that he encounters. Achilles' plans to eat a child are foiled... for the time being.

Some adults have told me they find this immodest proposal content disturbing, but kids love it. A colleague and I are going to perform I'd Really Like to Eat a Child as a puppet show at 3 PM today at EPL Squared. Come down to Churchill Square in Edmonton for a giant book sale, live music, and family activities of all kinds between 10 AM and 5 PM today.

Readalikes: books for a storytime theme "Children Are Delicious" -- Boy Soup (Loris Lesynski); Monsters Eat Whiny Children (Bruce Eric Kaplan); The Qalupalik (Elisha Kilabuk); as well as traditional folktales like Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Ridinghood.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

June and Valerie were best friends, 15-year-olds on a lark who set off from the Brooklyn waterfront on a raft one sultry summer night. Only one survives, washing up unconscious under a pier. In Visitation Street, author Ivy Pochoda slowly untangles what happened, visiting the story from the viewpoint of multiple people in the girls' community and revealing additional secrets.

Flickers from other books came pleasantly to mind as I read Visitation Street, including:
the psychic women, switching viewpoints, and cross-ethnic romance in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz);
the shape of a community as seen from different angles in The Emperor of Paris (C.S. Richardson);
the tragedy of children involved in street gang violence in Yummy (Greg Neri and Randy DuBurke);
self-harm as a way of coping with grief, as well as the street artist saviour in Beneath a Meth Moon (Jacqueline Woodson);
the currents dangerous to swimmers where the East River opens into the bay, as experienced by two college students in one of the stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan);
and the rundown dockside bar and the ghosts in Sailor Twain (Mark Seigel).

Visitation Street is a gritty and hopeful story about the power of human connections. I loved it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood

Maddaddam is Margaret Atwood's wittiest book so far. It's set in a bleak near-future when ecological and scientific disasters have wiped out most of the human population on Earth. The story is surprisingly upbeat, for all that, and ends on a hopeful note.

This is the culmination of a trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood. You don't need to have read the first two because there is a summary of the earlier books at the beginning of this one. Reading Maddaddam before the others would take away the pleasure in discovering the unfolding narrative in the first books, so if you don't want to miss that, read them first. The first two books have parallel stories centering around different groups of people who meet up at the very end of Year of the Flood. In Maddaddam, the two storylines are entwined and the puzzle pieces of the backstory fall into place.

Atwood's thought-provoking narrative moves along quickly, laced as it is with dark humour.

"She has been making some effort over the past few days: pulling out a weed or two, culling the odd slug or snail. In the old Edencliff Rooftop Garden days, they'd have relocated Our Fellow Vegetable Eaters by throwing them down onto the street -- slugs, too, had a right to live, went the mantra, though not in inappropriate locations such as salad bowls, where they might be harmed by chewing."

"The Rev [leader of the Church of PetrOleum] had nailed together a theology to help him rake in the cash. Naturally he had a scriptural foundation for it. Matthew, Chapter 16, Verse 18: Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. It didn't take a rocket-science genius, the Rev would say, to figure out that Peter is the Latin word for rock, and therefore the real, true meaning of 'Peter' refers to petroleum, or oil that comes from rock. 'So this verse, dear friends, is not only about Saint Peter: it is a prophecy, a vision of the Age of Oil, and the proof, dear friends, is right before your eyes, because look! What is more valued by us today than oil?'"

"The cover story for his Seth persona was that he was making a service call at a local branch of a beauty-and-mood-enhancing Corp called AnooYoo, which was a dubious affiliate of HelthWyzer. Health and Beauty, the two seductive twins joined at the navel, singing their eternal siren songs. A lot of people would pay through their nose jobs for either one."

"Kiss-in-the-Dark Chromatic Sparkle Enhancer" toothpaste "claims to make your entire mouth glow in the dark. Toby never tried it out, but some women swore by it. She wonders how Zeb would react if he were to be confronted with a disembodied glowing mouth. Tonight will not be the night to find out, however: she'll be on sentry duty, up on the rooftop, and a light-up mouth would make an excellent target for a sniper."

Pure Atwood brilliance.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad by Alison Wearing

It was pure chance that I read Alison Wearing's Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter back-to-back with another memoir about a gay father, Fairyland by Alysia Abbott. The books both came in on hold for me at the library at the same time.

Of the two, Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter is much funnier. Alison is in a better position to write something uplifting because both of her parents are alive, healthy and even on good terms with each other. But it's her storytelling style that I found especially entertaining.

The Wearing family had a pair of Bichon Frise dogs that they bred for puppies. "The day rust appeared in my underwear (at the embarrassingly advanced age of fourteen), I gathered up my canine-inspired vocabulary and approached my mother in her bedroom, producing the evidence and announcing solemnly, 'I think I'm in heat.'"

"Once I had mastered the art of hiding menstruation from the world, I got back to the secret of having a pansy father."

Alison's father liked to sing show tunes while skipping down the sidewalk in Peterborough, Ontario. Somehow, it was still a shock to everyone when he came out in the 70s.

Alison looks back on her mother's situation with great sympathy. "My father flitted in and out of the nest of our lives like most men of his time, but I thought of my mother as the spiral of sticks itself, her limbs the very twigs that held our home together. It never occurred to me that she might have been less than fulfilled in her role as Circle of Twigs, that there might have been things she wanted to do in her life besides shop for groceries, make spaghetti, load the dishwasher and do our laundry."

Like Fairyland, Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter encompasses people and events that are central to gay history. The Toronto bathhouse raids that were the catalyst for LGBTQ human rights activism in Canada, for example. I came out in the late 70s, so I remember a lot of the stuff Alison describes. It is such a great book!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott

From the age of five, Alysia Abbott was raised by her single parent, a gay man. Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father is about growing up in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s. Steve Abbott was a poet who was very active in San Francisco's literary scene. He was a free spirit who rarely held a full-time job.

Alysia writes: "Dad wanted to give me the same freedom he himself enjoyed, the freedom to live a public life, that of a flaneur, where we could trade the boring concerns of home for the intellectual gymnastics of coffeehouse banter, the unpredictability of the street." "Because he hadn't felt free to be his true self growing up in Lincoln, in our fairyland he raised me with fluid boundaries."

This is mostly a story about an unconventional family, but it is also a historical and personal record of the AIDS epidemic. The main people in Alysia's world were all gay men.

"Between the years of 1983 and 1985, the numbers of Americans with AIDS went from 1,300 to over 12,000, but San Francisco was the first city to experience epidemic levels of the disease. By the time the first HIV test was introduced in 1985, close to half the gay men in San Francisco were already infected." Alysia's father was one of them.

There is a slightly mournful quality to this memoir, unsurprisingly. Alysia wishes she had been less petulant and difficult as a teenager. Her regrets are more poignant because they only had each other, and her father died so young.

I enjoyed the way Alysia brings a particular era into vivid focus. Wauzi Records, across the street from their Haight Ashbury apartment, was where she spent hours as a young teen. "Before YouTube, before everyone had their MTV, this is how we surfed culture, how we weighed style choices."

It's a trip down memory lane for me too.

Readalike: Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter by Alison Wearing.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

50 Best Graphic Novels, IMHO

I put together this list of 50 best graphic novels as a result of a request posted on the Graphic Novels for Libraries email discussion list. Stephen Weiner, author of several books about graphic novels (such as Faster than a Speeding Bullet and 101 Best Graphic Novels) asked members of the gn4lib list for input on his current research project. Weiner's requirement that the titles must be currently in print made it easier to whittle my favourites down to 50. (My heart broke a little when I learned that some of my favourites -- like Hannah Berry's Britten and Brulightly and Pascal Blanchet's White Rapids -- are out of print.) Many of the titles below include links to my reviews over the past five years.

Lynda Barry. What It Is. Drawn and Quarterly. 2008
Alison Bechdel. Fun Home. Mariner. 2007
Herve Bouchard & Janice Nadeau. Harvey. Groundwood. 2010
Chester Brown. Louis Riel. Drawn and Quarterly. 2013
Lilli Carre. Heads or Tails. Fantagraphics. 2012
Genevieve Castree. Susceptible. Drawn and Quarterly. 2013
Leela Corman. Unterzakhn. Schocken. 2012
Guy Delisle. Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. Drawn and Quarterly. 2012
Renaud Dillies & Regis Hautiere. Abelard. NBM. 2012
Joyce Farmer. Special Exits. Fantagraphics. 2010
Ray Fawkes. One Soul. Oni. 2011
Nicole Georges. Calling Dr. Laura. Mariner. 2013
Faith Erin Hicks. Friends with Boys. First Second. 2012
Gareth Hinds. The Odyssey. Candlewick. 2010
Mat Johnson & Simon Gane. Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story. DC Comics. 2012
Chip Kidd & Dave Taylor. Batman: Death by Design. DC Comics. 2012
Jeff Lemire. The Collected Essex County. Top Shelf. 2009
Robert Lepage & Marie Michaud. The Blue Dragon. House of Anansi. 2011
Cathy Malkasian. Temperance. Fantagraphics. 2010
David Mazzucchelli. Asterios Polyp. Pantheon. 2009
Carla Speed McNeil. The Finder Library. Dark Horse. 2011
Rutu Modan. Exit Wounds. Drawn and Quarterly. 2008
Papadimitriou & Doxiadis. Logicomix. Bloomsbury. 2009
Sanjay Patel. Ramayana: Divine Loophole. Chronicle. 2010
Matt Phelan. The Storm in the Barn. Candlewick. 2011
Paul Pope. 100% DC Comics. 2010
Nate Powell. Any Empire. Top Shelf. 2011
Kevin Pyle. Take What You Can Carry. Square Fish. 2012
Greg Rucka & J.H. Williams III. Batwoman: Elegy. DC Comics. 2011
Joe Sacco. Footnotes in Gaza. Metropolitan. 2010
Marjane Satrapi. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon. 2007
Mark Seigel. Sailor Twain. First Second. 2012
Seth. George Sprott: 1894-1975. Drawn and Quarterly. 2009
Posy Simmonds. Tamara Drewe. Mariner. 2008
David Small. Stitches. WW Norton. 2010
Jeff Smith. Bone: Out from Boneville. Scholastic. 2005 (The entire Bone epic, really.)
Marzena Sowa. Marzi. Vertigo. 2011
Art Spiegelman. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Penguin. 2003
Mary Talbot & Bryan Talbot. Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes. Dark Horse. 2012
Raina Telgemeier. Smile. Graphix. 2010
Craig Thompson. Blankets. Top Shelf. 2011
Craig Thompson. Habibi . Pantheon. 2011
Mariko Tomaki & Jillian Tomaki. Skim. Groundwood. 2010
Adrian Tomine. Shortcomings. Drawn and Quarterly. 2007
Sara Varon. Robot Dreams. First Second. 2007
Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples. Saga: Vol. 1. Image Comics. 2012
Chris Ware. Building Stories. Pantheon. 2012
Winshluss. Pinocchio. Last Gasp. 2011
Joff Winterhart. Days of the Bagnold Summer. Jonathan Cape. 2012
Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. Red: A Haida Manga. Douglas & McIntyre. 2010

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier, award-winning author of Smile, has created another uplifting school story in full colour graphic novel format. Drama stars Grade 7 student Callie, who is part of the stage crew in a production of Moon over Mississippi. She is determined to make a cannon fire during the show, even though she has next to no budget for creating the set.

The real drama takes place in the friendships and crushes happening offstage. The cast and crew include an out gay character and one who has yet to come out, all handled in a very positive way.

Telgemeier slyly references her own unusual first name in one panel, where Callie introduces herself to a pair of cute twin boys. One of them says, "Callie! What a happy-sounding name. Very sunshiny."

Drama is a sunshiny kind of book, sweet-but-not-saccharine; perfect for girls in Grade 5 to 8.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Best Place on Earth: Stories by Ayelet Tsabari

Author Ayelet Tsabari is an Israeli of Yemeni descent who now lives in Toronto. It's Rosh Hashanah tonight, a good time to write about Tsabari's collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth.

Women serving their obligatory military years in the Israeli Defense Forces comes up in almost all of these stories. There's something fascinating about this situation, which is almost unique in the world.

"The Gulf War had ended a few months ago, and for a brief, hopeful moment it seemed like there would never be another war. Karin was enlisting in September, predestined for the infantry corps, which was exactly what she wanted, to be surrounded by cute boys in uniform." ('Borders')

"She had inherited her father's temper, his intensity and his charm. This temper, her contempt for authority, had made her army service insufferable: a series of trials, detentions and reassignments." ('The Best Place on Earth')

"I glance at the clock and gasp, jump out of bed, still in my black miniskirt and push-up bra, a dangly earring caught in my hair. I grab my uniform from the floor, a khaki pile I'd kicked off last night before I went out. In the bathroom I pop two ibuprofens and wash my face with cold water. My olive skin looks yellow this morning, and my straightened hair is starting to curl. I quickly apply some mascara, eyeliner and lipstick. I pick through the heap of clothes on the floor, looking for my cap. Finally, I find it in the laundry basket, all squished, and stuff it in the loop on the shoulder of my uniform." ('Casualties')

Amidst the mundane lives of these young women, however, violence and death are always present.

'The Poets in the Kitchen Window,' is set during the bombing of Tel Aviv that began a few hours after Operation Desert Storm started in Iraq. An older sister, who has become somewhat of a hippie since finishing her military service, comes home to her family in Ramat Gan when her mother is hospitalized. Yasmin encourages her little brother Uri to find solace in creative writing. She brings him a book of Roni Someck's poetry from the public library.

"That night, he lay in bed, mouthing the poems to himself. He had never read poetry like that, hadn't known it existed: the verse written in an easy, fluid language, sometimes even slang, and often about everyday things. Yet it was beautiful, haunting, filled with such passion that Uri felt seized by it himself, unable to put the book down, too wired to fall asleep. The back of the book said that Someck was born in Baghdad -- an Iraqi poet! -- and lived in Ramat Gan, which both pleased and stunned Uri, the idea that a real poet lived and walked and found inspiration in these dull suburban streets."

There's an intensity to Tsabari's stories that probably mimics the experience of life in contemporary Israel. I loved the glimpses they gave into the inner and outer worlds of her characters.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Heads or Tails: Stories by Lilli Carre

Heads or Tails is a collection of whimsical stories by comics artist Lilli Carre. These surreal tales have few words and seem to come straight out of fever dreams. Under the hot streets of a city, people swim in pools of their own sweat. A woman splits into two selves. "There's a very small town where the people spend their days picking the moss off hollow logs." 

'My New Look' has only four panels and it is one of my favourites. A woman is convinced that her cups are insulting her, calling her a fatso and an old bag, so eventually she breaks them all. "I started drinking out of my hat." "Impractical, sure, but a much better life." The hat says, "Lookin' good, cowpoke."

In 'The Flip,' two women get more and more absurd as they prepare to flip a coin in a game of Heads or Tails. 
"If it's heads: the sound of my voice will make men, rabbits and lions stop in their tracks."
"If it's tails, you'll make me forget every embarrassing and nasty moment I've ever had."
"Heads: the world will fit in the palm of my hand." 
"Tails: I will live one day as a dandelion puff."
The coin goes up... but doesn't come down. Several stories and more than 50 pages later, Carre reprises the story. The coin falls... and we witness the winning wager. Okay, maybe this one is my favourite. 

It is hard to choose, because each bizarre story is perfectly brilliant. Just like the guy with a gemstone for a head (after he asked a witch for lasting beauty).

In Carre's stylized art, nonchalant heads without bodies lie around like Brancusi sculptures. Elaborate decorations gradually encroach on a king's space. A curly green cloud of vegetation emerges from between a woman's teeth after a meal. Check out Carre's website to see her astonishing work.

Readalikes: The Principles of Uncertainty (Maira Kalman); Tales from Outer Suburbia (Shaun Tan); Ojingogo (Matthew Forsythe); and, without pictures: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (Etgar Keret).

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Sisters and secrets. Those two elements might be all the temptation you need to pick up Bone and Bread, a multilayered first novel by Canadian author Saleema Nawaz.

Beena and Sadhana were raised in a small apartment above their father's bagel shop in Montreal. When they are orphaned as teenagers, their dour Sikh uncle takes charge.

"Uncle was as strange to us as a new kind of tree, a fir in a grove of maples, and he might have felt the same way about us, since he had always been a bachelor. He said things like 'You must fight your feminine tendencies towards lasciviousness' and 'You are in league with each other, I know,' which baffled and insulted us but gave me the idea that we made him nervous. Taken with his tendency to leave us to ourselves, Uncle's remarks were like those of an armchair anthropologist, a Victorian studying the natives by virtue of reports and illustrations alone. Like the first attempts of the ancients to track the stars, he managed to get some things right, for who were we in league against if not him?"

Sadhana, the younger by two years, is bisexual and struggles with anorexia. One of the bakery employees gets Beena pregnant when she is 16. Her son is nearly 18 when his aunt Sadhana dies of heart failure at age 32. Beena, distraught by the loss of her recently-estranged sister, is looking for a more complete picture of what was going on in her life. Beena's son Quinn, meanwhile, wants to know about his father.

Bone and Bread moves back and forth in time, revealing a unique family and a strong sisterhood bond. I found Nawaz's portrayal of attitudes towards immigration and a plural society in contemporary Quebec particularly compelling.