Tuesday, February 25, 2014

She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick

This cover gives the
impression of a historical
ghost story. It is not
either of those things.
Marcus Sedgwick's writing is kind of hit and miss for me. It's not easy to say why, just a bad fit for my tastes. Usually, I like some aspects and dislike others within the same book. I've read five so far (mostly because they were chosen by my YA book group), and Revolver was the one I liked best, with some reservations. (See my review here.)

She Is Not Invisible is different. I loved everything about it: the two main protagonists, 16-year-old Laureth and her 7-year-old brother Benjamin; their clandestine departure from England to New York in search of their missing father, a writer; the vividly detailed setting; the power of obsession; the clues; the stylistic recurrence of number 354; and the subject of coincidence.

"Coincidences in fiction just do not work. And even in real life, they tend to fall into two sorts. The ones that are so pathetic that they don't excite anyone but you, and the ones that are so incredible that they are literally just that; unbelievable."

I learned a new word (always a plus): "Apophenia is a fancy word, but all it means is that thing we all have inside us, a desire, a tendency, a need in fact, to spot patterns. The human mind is very good at spotting patterns. It's an evolutionary development."

The human mind is also very good at creating connections where none exist. What is real? What is pure coincidence? She Is Not Invisible is a quick and intriguing read. The questions it leaves are the very best part.

Readalike: Picture Me Gone (Meg Rosoff).

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Bear's Song by Benjamin Chaud

The Bear's Song is an amusing oversized picture book by French artist Benjamin Chaud. His intricate, whimsical artwork begs close inspection. So much is happening all over the place while Papa Bear follows runaway Little Bear from the forest to the city and right into an opera house. Little Bear is hidden somewhere on each page, creating a Where's Waldo sort of hunt for readers.

The colour scheme is mostly subdued shades of gold and olive and brown, evoking a bygone Belle Epoque era as well as old fairytales. The beautiful endpapers depict golden honeycombs covered in bees, foreshadowing the end of the story.

Foreshadowing tableaus are sprinkled throughout. Two woodcutters leave a single boot behind when they climb into a tree after spotting Papa Bear. Later, opera patrons scramble away from Papa Bear, dropping shoes in their haste. Red herrings include: a child's toy bear; advertising panels featuring bears with honey jars (also foreshadowing); a child in a bonnet with bear ears; and a man wearing a bear suit.

The Bear's Song could be understood without any text at all. There are only one or two sentences across the bottom of each page. The text includes some nice alliteration and internal rhymes like "snuffles his snout," "winter's whisper," and "a busy sort of buzzing beckons."

Little Bear is following a bee that leads him to the roof of the opera house, where he finds a jackpot: hives full of honey. There, "Papa Bear and his cub settle in to sleep. After all, hibernation is better with honey. And adventure is best enjoyed together."

Enjoy this with children of any age.

Jennifer Cockrall-King writes about beekeeping in Paris in Food and the City. I checked online to see how expensive it is to buy honey from the hives on the roof of the opera house. Wow! Fifteen euros (CAN$22.50) for a tiny 2-oz jar! Chaud's bears have every reason to sing while they help themselves to this specialty honey.

From the Palais Garnier website.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada is Imogen Binnie's funny, gritty novel about a trans woman named Maria. Armistead Maupin's Anna Madrigal, one of the grand dames of trans women in fiction, grew up in small town Nevada. I wonder if this inspired Binnie to set the pivotal point of her novel in a similar location? Whatever the reason, it works.

Maria is just as wonderful as Anna Madrigal, even though they're opposites in many ways. Maria is more into books than sex. Mary Gaitskill, William Gibson, Michelle Tea and Rebecca Solnit are some of the authors she name-drops. She prefers punk clothing layers to silk and chiffon. Also, Maria tends to alienate people rather than mother them. She even picks fights with herself. Drugs are not really her thing either.

"Piranha's always got pills. She's always got something going on, some kind of illegal Robin Hood self-care. But obviously it's kind of a big deal. Heroin's the cul-de-sac at the end of Drug Street."

After several years together, Steph and Maria are breaking up. Maria hates her job at a bookstore in New York, so that's another part of her life that's broken. She has trouble sleeping and is overdue for a hormone shot. Alcohol might be the solution, except:

"She can't really drink forties any more. Her twenty-nine year old sad old lady belly can't handle it. But sneaking a beer into the movie is the point, not the actual drinking.
[...] That stereotype about transsexuals being all wild and criminal and bold and outside the norm and, like, engendering in the townsfolk the courage to break free from the smothering constraints of conformity? That stereotype is about drag queens. Maria is transsexual and she is so meek she might disappear. She does sneak a forty into the movies, though."

(Does this remind anyone else of Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz?)

One night, Maria is so exhausted that she falls into a long, sound sleep.

"She wakes up around four thirty and feels rested. Do other people feel like this all the time? It's fucked up. Her head feels all clear and she thinks for a second about pouring herself a glass of breakfast wine, but then she thinks, no this is perfect! I have four hours until I have to be at work, which means I can shave, put on makeup, then go to Kellogg's and write for two and a half hours."

(I like the way Binnie played breakfast wine for a laugh, but it turns out that early-morning alcohol is going to be a thing here in Alberta. Premier Alison Redford announced that bars can serve alcohol at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning. Canada is in the Olympic men's gold-medal hockey game. Must. Drink. Beer.)

"No big deal but Maria is kind of popular and famous on the Internet, but so is everybody, so it's not very interesting. She's been blogging since she was a tiny little baby, like eighteen or nineteen years old, when being online was just starting to be demystified into something Rupert Murdoch could make money from. She figured out that she was trans by blogging. Awkward."

Maria still has a lot to figure out. She sets off on a road trip to the West Coast, which is why she is in Nevada, as advertised in the title.

"Kate Bornstein was right when she said none of this gender stuff is real, but she didn't go far enough. All of this gender stuff is stupid and it's so complicated that it's impossible to make sense of."

Actually, Maria does a pretty good job of making it less complicated. It is about being yourself. It is about being human. And it's about the meaningful connections we make with others.

Readalikes: Valencia and Rose of No Man's Land (Michelle Tea); Godspeed (Lynn Breedlove); and The Beautifully Worthless (Ali Liebegott).

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

Louise Doughty's psychological thriller Apple Tree Yard takes a compelling look at the dark places that exist inside us. It opens with a critical moment in court:

"The moment builds; it swells and builds -- the moment when I realise we have lost."

That moment is when perjury is uncovered. Doughty then takes us backwards, to the details of a passionate extramarital affair that led up to that point. The downfall of a love gone wrong.

The pacing is perfect: "it swells and builds." Not rushed. Inexorable.

Yvonne is a geneticist, a smart and capable woman. She loves her husband. She is happy in her life with him. What motivates her to get involved with a man who enjoys sex in risky places? The characters and their relationships are fascinating and utterly believable.

Readalikes: The Forgotten Waltz (Anne Enright); Sweet Tooth (Ian McEwan); and Before I Go to Sleep (SJ Watson).

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hild by Nicola Griffith

Nicola Griffith's Hild completely immersed me in the world of 7th-century Britain. The novel revolves around the early years of an extraordinary historical figure, Saint Hilda of Whitby.

"In a time of warlords and kings, when might was right, she began as the second daughter of a homeless widow, probably without much in the way of material resources and certainly in an illiterate culture, and ended up a powerful adviser to statesmen-kings and teacher of five bishops." (Author's note at the end of Hild.)

"Quiet mouth, bright mind." Before she was 8 years old, Hild was taught to make the most of her natural ability to see patterns in everything: the movements of birds, the ripening of grain, the types of gifts given as tribute, and the looks passed between people.

While Hild is paying attention, readers get to know characteristics of daily life, the power politics, and the natural environment of her time. It all feels so real: the muddy clothing; the smell of horse that clings to riders; a squabble between Hild and her older sister Hereswith about how tight the threads should be in their weaving project. The reverence shown to detailing the physical world through the five senses is what make this such an immersive experience. Griffith adds enchantment to the most unpretentious activities, like butter-making:

"While Hereswith wiped her arm and pinned her sleeves back on, Hild fetched a lump of grey salt for Mildburh and mortar and pestle to crush it in. She loved the gritty crunch and thump under her hand. It sounded like a cat eating a bird."

It doesn't contain unexplained magic, yet Hild has much in common with high fantasy. There's a young woman fulfilling a prophecy; a map; pre-industrial technology; complex dynamics of politics and religion; tricky names sorted in a genealogy chart; and lots of strange words explained in a glossary at the end. Except Griffith has used real words from the languages spoken at the time.

An example from the glossary is the Old English "Gemaecce (yeh-MATCH-eh): formal female friendship or partnership; one of a pair." Jane Yolen, in the fantasy Sister Light, Sister Dark, and Lisa See in the historical novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, also explored the practice of formalized bonds between women.
Ammonite, called snakestone in Hild

While this isn't a lesbian novel, I did appreciate the significant bisexual content. I also like the way Griffith quietly inserted a reference to her very first novel, Ammonite (1992), by having Begu gift her gemaecce Hild with one of these fossils.

Readalikes: The Eagle and the Raven (Pauline Gedge); Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel); The Skystone (Jack Whyte); The Last Light of the Sun (Guy Gavriel Kay); Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley); and Kristin Lavransdatter (Sigrid Undset).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Battling Boy by Paul Pope

Paul Pope's Battling Boy is a tongue-in-cheek adventure for all ages, Grade 5 and up. The city of Acropolis is being terrorized by monsters. A twelve-year-old demi-god is sent there by his powerful father to prove himself. In addition to defeating the creatures... with the help of his magical t-shirts, Battling Boy must also cope with his sudden fame in the city... and the manipulations of public relations specialists. It's sort of like the primping and parading that goes on when Katniss gets to the Capitol in The Hunger Games.

It is all great fun in bold colours like turquoise and orange. Pope's artwork is fantastic, moving the story forward easily. Pope's dialogue made me laugh out loud more than once, like when one of the underworld baddies uses "dingdang" in place of profanity.
 I'm a sucker for artful hand-lettering, as seen in this detail from  Paul Pope's Battling Boy.
A giant old spider pulls out folding spectacles with eight lenses before discussing an order for fireproof battle wear. Pope's garment-district spiders aren't sexy like Fiona Staples' bounty hunter, The Stalk, from Saga. They are, however, a good example of the way Pope has added texture to this world with interesting minor characters.

The car-eating monster (shown on the book cover) had me wondering if Pope had been listening to Blondie's "Rapture" while creating this story. ..."it's been eating cars all day long"...

Battling Boy ends with a challenge: can and will the heroic child be corrupted by the forces of evil? This character-based kind of cliff-hanger is the perfect hook for me. I look forward to the next installment.

Readalikes: The Lightning Thief and others in the Percy Jackson series (Rick Riordan); Poseidon; Athena; Zeus and others in the Olympians series (George O'Connor); Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant (Tony Cliff); and Batman: Year One (Frank Miller).

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

In 1997, a man chopped down a giant, beloved 300-year-old Sitka spruce in the middle of the night (!) as a protest to logging practices. His whereabouts remain a mystery. John Vaillant investigates the entire amazing affair in The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed.

There are so many intriguing parts to this story, including:

Mythology - The Haida nation held this particular tree in special regard. Vaillant also includes early history of the First Nations along the West Coast and the years of initial contact and trade with Europeans.

Greed - Humankind's unquenchable appetite for natural resources. Trees are being cut down faster and faster, leaving vast wastelands behind. Vaillant points out, however, that "Logging is the prerequisite for life as we know it. [...] In this sense, the woodcutter has been the pointman for Western civilization (indeed all civilizations)."

Madness - My favourite aspect of this book. Grant Hadwin, the man who cut down the sacred tree, is a fascinating character. He was a hellion as a child. "Grant's first day of kindergarten ended early when he was sent home in a cab with a note pinned to his sweater that said, 'Do not send this boy back.'" He worked in forestry most of his life. He underwent a mysterious spiritual awakening in the woods that changed his life. He became passionate about saving the environment. He travelled with condoms attached to his hat, proselytizing safe sex, and donated thousands of dollars to homeless shelters and food banks.

Doctors who evaluated Hadwin found he had "very overvalued ideas about the environment." I agree with Vaillant, who writes, "This is a decidedly sinister assessment: how, one might well ask, is it possible to 'overvalue' air and water?"
Haida canoe at
VanDusen Gardens, Vancouver

In addition to being captivated by the main story, I learned all kinds of things. There's a photo of an ox team hauling logs circa 1900 through what is now downtown Vancouver. It looks like Stanley Park... why did this surprise me? There's information for gardeners who aspire to cultivate evergreens with golden needles. There's mention of the giant glass sponge reef, "last vestiges of the most massive entity that ever lived," found in the ocean near Haida Gwaii (seen online here).

The CanLit book club that I host at Jasper Place Library had a wide-ranging discussion on The Golden Spruce last month. It prompted one member to propose a group road trip to Haida Gwaii. This was met with much enthusiasm. Someday, I would love to go there.

In high school, I was torn between two career possibilities: librarianship or forestry. Grant Hadwin received a forest technology diploma in 1973 -- the very same certificate that I had considered. I'm very glad to have instead chosen the path that held no ethical ambiguity. I love working at the library.

A few suggestions for further reading: Monkey Beach (Eden Robinson) for a novel set within the Indigenous communities and mythologies of the West Coast; Red: A Haida Manga (Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas) for more about the revenge culture within the Haida Nation; The Wild Trees (Richard Preston) for more about people with a passion for giant trees; Eating Dirt (Charlotte Gill) for a tree-planter's perspective; Empire of the Beetle (Andrew Nikiforuk) for more about human folly regarding forestry; Jack Pine (Christopher Patton) for an all-ages book about agriculture versus forest; and The Wayfinders (Wade Davis) for more about ecologically sustainable living.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Dance, Gladys, Dance by Cassie Stocks

Cassie Stocks' Dance, Gladys, Dance is a funny and moving novel that reminded me of Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.

When she was six, Frieda Zweig couldn't wait to start music lessons. Her elderly piano teacher hit Frieda's fingers with a ruler if she looked down at them while playing. "Thwack. I tried to learn, but fear froze my mind."

At 27, Frieda is still stuck. She quit art college and has no idea what to do with her life. All she knows is that she wants to be normal... if she could only figure out what that means.

When Frieda moves into shared accommodation in an old house in Winnipeg, she meets a ghost named Gladys. Normal must be just around the corner...

Stocks has a wonderfully slapstick sense of humour:

The third week into her job at The Wanton Warehouse porno shop, Frieda was given this "smidgen" of advice: "Your bustier is on backwards."
"She pointed at the ridiculous red satin top I'd chosen to wear.
'Oh, the top. I wondered how to get all those laces done up in the back. I had to get the bus driver to help me this morning.'"

When Frieda's landlord, Mr. H, is told of a legendary plant in the South Pacific islands whose scent is "supposed to create overwhelming sensations of serenity," he calls it "The flower of positive stinking."

I also enjoyed encountering pop culture references dating back to my childhood, like 'el kabong,' 'pining for the fjords,' and Winnie the Pooh.

"I felt more like Eeyore than Winnie the Pooh. Eeyore's slow grey voice sounded in the back of my head: 'We can't all and some of us don't. That's all there is.'
'Penny for your thoughts,' said Norman coming out the front door.
I turned. 'Inflation,' I said. 'Thoughts are two thousand bucks now.'"

Frieda's friend Norman tells her that Leonard Cohen and Eeyore sound a lot alike. "That same mournful tone; it's uncanny."

What's uncanny is how a ghost story dealing with mental illness and self-fulfillment can be so sweet, funny and uplifting. Dance, Gladys, Dance has a whole lot of soul.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

RASL by Jeff Smith

Scientist Robert Johnson meets a devil at the crossroads in Jeff Smith's noir science fiction full-colour graphic novel, RASL. The esoteric writings of physicist Nikola Tesla inspired Johnson and his partner to create a powerful new military weapon. But when Johnson realizes the dangers inherent in their project, his conscience forces him to become an outlaw. On the run, in and out of alternate dimensions, his mission is to destroy their work instead. To support himself, Johnson becomes an art thief. Booze and sex keep him fueled for his bloody, dusty quest. What a wild adventure!

While I was immersed in RASL, I found myself drawing ties to so many other books in comics format: Suspended in Language and Feynman, both by Jim Ottaviani; Richard Stark's Parker by Darwyn Cooke; The Watchmen by Alan Moore; The Death-ray by Daniel Clowes; Radioactive by Lauren Redniss; and even Gilles Tibo's illustrations for Poe's Annabel Lee. This added even more pleasure to an already rich experience.

Jeff Smith is a master. What else is there to say?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Life by Keith Richards

In his autobiography, Life, guitarist Keith Richards' tone is wryly informal, coarse language and all. This intimacy works very well in the audiobook format [Hachette: 22.5 hr]. Three main narrators perform: Johnny Depp (a few chapters at the beginning and then two again near the end), Joe Hurley (the middle section), and Richards himself (the final chapter). Depp was surprisingly bland and Richards speaks in a half slur, half mumble. Hurley stole the show with his laid-back growl, Cockney swallowed 't's, and obvious delight in the material.

Richards rambles back and forth across time, from drug charges to confessions of marital infidelity to his recipe for shepherd's pie to Rolling Stones tour madness in the 1970s.

"It's very hard to explain all that excessive partying."

Yet Richards seems able to explain, charm or luck his way out of every tight spot. One of my favourite anecdotes is how he got through airport security in New York with a .38 special and five hundred rounds of ammunition:

"I used to carry a lot of heat. None of my guns were legal. [...] In the hold it would have been cool as part of the general baggage. And Bobby got it fucking wrong, and I saw the bag with the shooter in it going through the X-ray. Fuck! No! I yelled out, 'BOB!' and everybody that's looking at the machinery turned round and looked at me and took their eyes off the screen. They didn't see it go through."

Music has always been central to Richards and of course he has much to say about it. Like this:

"When you're making records, you're looking to distort things, basically. That's the freedom recording gives you, to fuck around with the sound. And it's not a matter of sheer force; it's always a matter of experiment and playing around. Hey, this is a nice mike, but if we put it a little closer to the amp, and then take a smaller amp instead of the big one and shove the mike right in front of it, cover the mike with a towel, let's see what we get. What you're looking for is where the sounds just melt into one another and you've got that beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through. If you have it all separated, it's insipid. What you're looking for is power and force, without volume -- an inner power. A way to bring together what everybody in that room is doing and make one sound. So it's not two guitars, piano, bass and drums, it's one thing, it's not five. You're there to create one thing."

"Very soon after Exile, so much technology came in that even the smartest engineer in the world didn't know what was really going on. How come I could get a great drum sound back in Denmark Street with one microphone, and now with fifteen microphones I get a drum sound that's like someone shitting on a tin roof?"

Richards describes himself as a voracious reader. "I'll read anything. And if I don't like it, I'll toss it. When it comes to fiction, it's George MacDonald Fraser, the Flashmans, and Patrick O'Brian. I fell in love with his writing straightaway, at first with Master and Commander. It wasn't primarily the Nelson and Napoleonic period, more the human relationships. He just happened to have that backdrop. [...] It's about friendship, camaraderie. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin always remind me a bit of Mick and me."

Richards has good and bad things to say about Mick Jagger. "Well, Mick got very big ideas. All lead singers do. It's a known affliction called LVS, lead vocalist syndrome." [...] Mick is quite competitive, and he started to get competitive about other bands. He watched what David Bowie was doing and wanted to do it. Bowie was a major, major attraction. Somebody had taken Mick on in the costume and bizarreness department. But the fact is, Mick could deliver ten times more than Bowie in just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, singing 'I'm a Man.' Why would you want to be anything else if you're Mick Jagger? Is being the greatest entertainer in show business not enough?"

Jagger had "a spongelike mentality when it came to music. He'd hear something in a club and a week later he'd think he wrote it. [...] The writers' credits under 'Anybody Seen My Baby?' include kd lang and a cowriter. My daughter Angela and her friend were at Redlands and I was playing the record and they start singing this totally different song over it. They were hearing kd lang's 'Constant Craving.' It was Angela and her friend that copped it. And the record was about to come out in a week. Oh shit, he's lifted another one. I don't think he's ever done it deliberately; he's just a sponge."

"I once had a mynah bird, and it wasn't a pleasant experience. When I put music on, it would start yelling at me. It was like living with an ancient, fractious aunt. The fucker was never grateful for anything. Only animal I ever gave away. Maybe it got too stoned; there were a lot of guys smoking weed. To me it was like living with Mick in the room in a cage, always pursing its beak." (I laughed out loud when I got to that part in the audiobook.)

One of the photos in the book shows Richards performing with Chuck Berry for the film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. You can see a clip from the 1986 concert at Fox Theatre on YouTube here. Richards writes it's "the best Chuck Berry live you'll ever get." He also explains why he was disappointed with Berry. Find more on YouTube by searching their two names. A clip showing them arguing about an amp is priceless.

Partway through listening to the audiobook last month, I felt a need to hear some Rolling Stones music. I was on holiday in Waikiki, and the only sound files on my iPod were audiobooks and podcasts, but all I needed was internet access. An hour flew by while I watched YouTube clips of Stones concerts that transported me back to my teens.

Partway through writing this review today, I heard the sad news that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has died, apparently of a heroin overdose. Richards is candid about his past addictions and knows he is fortunate to still be alive. He says he hasn't had a bump since 2006. "Actually, I've done so much bloody blow in my life, I don't miss it an inch. I think it gave me up."

Hooray for that and may you continue to thrive, Mr Richards. I was surprised to find so much pleasure in listening to your Life.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

She Rises by Kate Worsley

Kate Worsley's She Rises is a lesbian romp set in 18th-century England. Lou, a 15-year-old milkmaid, gets sent to town to be the maidservant to a rich girl of the same age. It won't take savvy readers long to figure out there are the right kind of sexy sparks flying between them. Lou's story alternates with that of her brother Luke, who went to sea when he was her age. Again, queer readers might pick up the subtle hints and guess at the direction they are taking... but since the narrative is carefully crafted to delay the full reveal, I won't say more about the plot.

Sarah Waters' books, Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet in particular, came to mind as I read. Like Waters, Worsley addresses social issues and is very good at evoking the gritty details of the historical period. Casual brutality is everywhere. Luke is press-ganged into service aboard a navy ship, where men are flogged to the bone merely to serve as examples for the other men. Women's lives are narrowly proscribed. It's clear that punishment will be harsh for anyone caught stepping outside the norm.

I enjoyed reading about food and drink. At Lou's first supper in a fancy house, she sat down to eat "platefuls of spatched eel and potatoes with persil and small beer" with the other servants. When Luke is newly aboard ship, he's advised that burgoo (stew), and some hot purl "will steady that lubber's stomach of yours." (Purl is a wormwood ale; how convenient that I recently read The Drunken Botanist!) Want to know how to make a hot flip drink?

"Nick takes the poker and brings its red hot tip within an inch of singeing his whiskers. The fiery light glints off his eyes. He grins at them all.
'The cans, laddie, come on,' says Nick, with an eye to Charlie.
Luke takes up the black jack he has filled with beer and starts to pour.
'Not so much,' says Nick. 'You know now.'
Luke sets the first mug before him and Nick lowers the poker's glowing tip into it as though to douse it. But a bright white foam surges up and the beer splutters with a noise like hail on a window pane. Nick sighs with pleasure and breathes in the taffy fumes."

There is sweet romance, too. "Our eyes were level and I saw your mouth quiver. I took a step, and then another, and you came with me. And then we were dancing together, not one of the country dances that were the only dances I knew, nor the genteel one you were trying to teach me, but some combination of the two, another dance, all our own."

A wonderful, bracing novel with rewarding depth.