Monday, December 31, 2012

What Happened to Ivy by Kathy Stinson

"I could ask him now.  I could ask him:  Did you drown her? Did you plan it, like I planned the worms?  Did you know when you helped her into her bathing suit...what you were going to do?  Or not till you carried her into the water and made her laugh one last time?"

What Happened to Ivy is a great example of the kind of book that's not getting published as much these days, but which I think is still welcomed by many young readers--what librarians refer to as "the problem novel".  Not in that the book itself is a problem--but in that the book presents a problem, often some kind of ethical issue, as its main underpinning, and explores it deeply enough to expand the reader's understanding of the issue's  emotional and  philosophical complexities.  Such as, in this case, euthanasia.  Although What Happened to Ivy is fiction, it bears a strong resemblance to the real-life Robert and Tracy Latimer case, in which a Canadian parent was convicted of killing his disabled daughter in 1993 because of her pain management and quality-of-life issues.  This case generated huge controversy for many reasons, but I think most of all around the issue of consent;  euthanasia generally involves adults who are able to make their wishes known, but in this case the victim was a minor who had never expressed any desire to die. 

Stinson's fictionalization gives us over to the point of view of David, a young teen with an even younger sister, Ivy, who has cerebral palsy, just as Tracy Latimer did.  The first half of the book takes us through what it's like to be part of a family which includes a person with neurological disabilities.  Ivy consumes a lot of family focus, leaving David feeling frustrated and invisible sometimes--this family operates in a near-constant state of crisis, and his needs will always come in second to his sister's.  On the other hand, sometimes he's too visible, being out in public with a sister who's frankly embarrassing.  Ivy drools, she wears a diaper, she's loud, repetitive and hard to understand.  She has violent seizures and has had multiple painful surgeries. She can scare away other kids, leaving David isolated.  But Ivy can also be joyful, communicative and very loving, and when she has a seizure in a lake and drowns, despite being with their father, David is devastated.  He's even more devastated when his father admits that, instead of rescuing her,  he deliberately let Ivy go.  

Despite being a pretty easy read, this is a thought-provoking book.  Was Ivy better off dead?  Was failing to save her an act of love or an act of emotional exhaustion, and does the motivation even matter?  Was Ivy capable of making her own decisions about life?  How do we, as a society, value people with complex disabilities and how successful are we in offering their families support?  What Happened to Ivy succeeds in presenting Ivy as a person of value, whose family, both before and after her death, has no easy choices.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Bride's Story; A Manga Series by Kaoru Mori

"Acclaimed creator Kaoru  Mori (Emma, Shirley) brings the nineteenth-century Silk Road to lavish life, chronicling the story of Amir Halgal, a young woman from a nomadic tribe betrothed to a twelve-year-old boy eight years her junior. Coping with cultural differences, blossoming feelings for her new husband, and expectations from both her adoptive and birth families, Amir strives to find her role as she settles into a new life and a new home in a society quick to define that role for her. Crafted in painstaking detail, Ms. Mori’s pen breathes life into the scenery and architecture of the period in this heartwarming slice-of-life tale that is at once both wholly exotic, yet familiar and accessible through the everyday lives of the rich characters she has created."
From Yen Press, the English-language publisher's web site.

Kaoru Mori's exquisite depiction of culture is, for me, the most compelling part of the still ongoing series A Bride's Story.  Created in Japanese, volumes 1, 2, and 3 have recently been published in English, and volume 4 is forthcoming in 2013.  A French translation is available as well.  Mori apparently specializes in historical fiction, and is most famous in the West for her award-winning series Emma, about a young maid in Victorian England.  A Bride's Story is set in an unnamed area along the  Silk Road, and in volume 3 it becomes clear that we are close to Russia.  In case you, like me, only have a fuzzy idea of where the Silk Road lies, here's what YoYo Ma's Silk Road Project has to say about it:

"The historical Silk Road comprised a series of land and sea trade  routes that crisscrossed Eurasia  from the first millenium B.C.E. through the middle of the second millennium C.E. The intersections among people from diverse cultures along the way promoted an unprecedented sharing of commodities, ideas, arts, sciences and innovations."

My husband Doug thinks the story is probably set in Mongolia or Kazakhstan, so I'll go with that.  It's a bit frustrating though--Mori seems to have done a huge amount of research, considering the intricate, almost photographic detail of the art.  Would it kill her to name the people she's depicting?

In volume 1 of A Bride's Story we meet Amir, an adult woman, and her husband Karluk, who has probably just hit puberty.  Some reviews have mentioned a discomfort with this, and I can see why, although it is clear that they have not consummated their relationship yet.  I think the difference in ages makes an interesting twist; this is obviously one of many cultures where marriages are arranged in terms of tribal alliances and not necessarily personal preference, but stories of older men and younger brides are more common.  Amir's a strong protagonist; she's an expert horsewoman, a crack shot with a bow and arrow, and is pretty resourceful with a stewpot.  The story shows a tremendous respect between her and her young groom;  although Amir and her adjustments to a new family are a focus in the series,  we also see Karluk struggling a bit to grow into his adult role as husband.

In some ways Karluk is still a child. 

Amir and Karluk relaxing together. 

Amir's amazing hunting skills. 

Looking good on a horse. 

The things we women will do to impress a man...

In volume 2 we see Amir's rather boorish male relatives arrive to take her back, hoping to ally themselves more strategically by marrying her off to another, more powerful family.  Amir refuses to go, now making a deliberate choice to remain with Karluk and his tribe, who unhesitatingly fight to keep her in one of the saga's more exciting turn of events.  (It's partly exciting because they don't look like they'd be such good fighters.) In volume 3 a western linguist and anthropologist, Mr. Smith, becomes a more major character and takes over the point of view for a time, taking us away from Amir and Karluk in his wanderings and adventures.  Some people have complained about the the meandering, picaresque storyline, but I think that's a little unfair;  we haven't read the whole story yet.  Besides, my favourite parts aren't necessarily the ones that further the action.  I think the best parts are the ones that highlight things like handing down traditional skills and crafts through the generations (woodcarving, cooking, embroidery).  We're really shown not just how intricate and meaningful the work is, but how long the skills take to master.

A young boy learns carving at the hands of a master artisan. 

A full-page close-up of a carving in progress.

The teaching process. 

A Bride's Story depicts material culture with loving attention to detail every step of the way, but it also depicts family culture with great sensitivity.  Amir's marriage literally takes her away from her birth family and into a new extended family community.  Unlike Amir's birth family, her marital family seems very warm and supportive. I enjoyed meeting all the characters, from the children to the elders.  I really loved the scene in book 3 where Tileke, a young girl who only likes embroidering hawks (embroidery is very important here, as you may have guessed by the clothing illustrations), is shown patterns associated with her maternal ancestors many generations back.  All the women gather to pass on their family heritage and inspire a member of the youngest  generation with their personal and collective memories.   There is certainly a power structure in this family, but it seems based on respect and it doesn't feel like anyone's being squashed.   This stands in contrast to some other families we see peripherally, where family power structures are used to benefit men at the expense of women.  Mori's not afraid to show us the range of experience possible in the culture she's depicting, but so far at any rate, her storyline emphasizes the positive.   I'm looking forward to following the rest of this series as it unfolds.
Amir's new family.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris

Of all the Arthurian tales, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of my favourites.  I read the original in high school, and I found it so dramatic and vigorous and full of personality.   (Mind you, I also read and loved Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. That's full of personality in a different way.) Since then I've read a few different adaptations of Gawain's adventures,  including a Tolkien edition which I read not too long afterwards, and a children's version by Selina Hastings (she also wrote a great version of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, another fine tale).  Now Gerald Morris has come out with a chapter book version of the Green Knight Incident aimed at younger children (grades 2-4 is probably the target audience) as part of his Knights' Tales series.  These books bring a very fresh feeling to Arthurian stories for kids.   Morris's tone is a little like a Boy's Own Adventure story, but more literate.  It's respectful of its source material, down to earth, and full of cheerful humour.  It's also very clear and readable,  just right for emergent readers.  

"But what many do not realize is that, at least in King Arthur's court, knights were also expected to be very courteous and respectful.  The king was very clear about this:  He wanted no bullies at his Round Table.  In fact, he said that courtesy was even more important than wearing metal suits and bashing people from horses.  Not surprisingly, this notion took a while to sink in.  Knights who had spent their whole lives learning swordsmanship and pointy-stick-bashing did not always see how something else could be more important.  Indeed, King Arthur had reigned for several years before he felt that his knights were starting to get the idea."

Morris's story follows the trajectory of the original:  the Green Knight's challenge at King Arthur's Christmas Feast, Gawain's commitment to the Knight's beheading game, his year of wandering, his stay at the Green Knight's castle and the exchange of prizes (the kissing game is toned down a lot here) and finally his visit to the Green Chapel, where he discovers that the whole thing has been an elaborate test of his (and by extension, King Arthur's) chivalry and knightly honour.

I think what Morris does best is to turn these mythic characters into concrete personalities, characters which are not necessarily so lofty but who still do King Arthur's court proud.  Kids are going to root for these knights, and the books will lay a great foundation for appreciating more mature versions of these stories later on.  Or for appreciating Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as the case may be.

Currently, other books in the Knights' Tales series include The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great;  The   Adventures of Sir Givret the Short, and The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated.  I have to mention that Aaron Renier does a great job of illustrating--don't you love that Green Knight cover?

My original Sir Gawain, read when I was about 16. 

Tolkien's translation.  I don't remember anything at all about Pearl or Sir Orfeo.   Only the Green Knight stuck with me.

Selina Hasting's children's adaptation of the Loathly Lady story, another time Gawain gets into hot water. 

Another of the Knight's Tales series. 

Charley's First Night by Amy Hest, Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

I haven't reviewed a picture book here for a while, but this one is so special I have to share it.  Charley's First Night is about a boy and his new puppy.  Look at the lovely eye contact between them on the cover.  And here's some of the writing:

"I carried him in my old baby blanket, which was soft and midnight blue, and we were new together and I was very, very careful not to slip in the snow and I thought about his name.  I was the one who thought up his name.  Charley.  Charley Korn.  My name is Henry.  Henry Korn."

Lovely, lovely, lovely.  This book is so pure and warm.  Henry is such a thoughtful and empathetic little lad, and we see him looking after Charley on his first night at the Korn household with the attentiveness of a new parent.  He's practically bursting with excitement, but it's expressed in a very nurturing way. There's a fresh, first-time innocence about how Henry cares for Charley that's very sweet.

Of course, Charley's first night is fraught--Henry's parents have a few rules, and one of them is that Charley sleeps in the kitchen, not in Henry's bed.  Henry carefully puts a pillow, a teddy bear and a ticking clock down in the kitchen to make Charley comfortable, and waits with Charley until he falls asleep.  But late at night--oh no!--Henry hears a noise.

"The crying started in the middle of the night and you knew right away it was Charley. 

'Don't cry, Charley!  Don't cry!' I ran to the kitchen and scooped him and held him close in my strong arms, and he shivered."

Henry gets Charley settled down again, only to be woken up for a second time.  I can relate--Charley's just like a new baby.  After a lot of soothing and walking around, Henry lays Charley on his bed just for a moment, thinking all the while about how his parents were pretty clear on where Charley should and should not sleep.  Of course, Henry and Charley both end up drifting off, and the last thing we see is Henry's mother's coming into his bedroom in the morning to find them fast asleep.

Helen Oxenbury is a revered name in picture books, a major talent who I'm sure will go down in illustrating history like Caldecott or Sendak or Quentin Blake.   Her specialty is drawing babies and young children, and here she just suffuses the pages with trust and quiet joy. Amy Hest's text is magical. This isn't a Christmas book per se, but it gave me the feeling of Christmas.  Love, and night-time, and excitement, and being together.

Playing with Charley in the snow.

Here's Helen Oxenbury in her studio:

Friday, December 21, 2012

(you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki

"Allison Lee is seventeen and off to college in the fall. So far, she's been in love once (total catastrophe) and on fire twice (also pretty bad). Both love and fire have left their scars."
Cover copy for (you) set me on fire. 

Q: Why do you write strong female characters?
A:  Because you're still asking me that question.
Joss Whedon, quoted on Mariko Tamaki's Website. 

Mariko Tamaki is a Toronto writer who is most well-known for her graphic novel Skim, illustrated by her equally talented cousin Jillian Tamaki.  Skim was on many best-of-the-year lists when it was published, including the shortlist for the 2008 Governor General's Literary Award.  Tamaki is also the author of the Minx graphic novel Emiko Superstar and several indie-type books for adults.  Her personal, character-driven writing is woman-centric (Skim takes place in a Catholic girls' school) and definitely takes an outsider stance.   Her characters are not always immediately sympathetic;  she's a writer who will take some risks.  

(you) set me on fire is about Allison, a young woman in first-year university who wants to reinvent herself after not particularly fitting in during high school, and having her heart broken by her only-quasi-lesbian best friend.  Allison's dorm is filled with perky, friendly, mainstream-type girls, but she is irresistibly drawn to the Dark Side, in this case represented by a flamboyant, angry goth named Shar.  Shar is a real Bad Girl, but unfortunately she's not hiding a heart of gold.  She's destructive and dangerous.  At one point I was really afraid for Allison's life.  It's actually kind of unusual for teen fiction to be set in a university, but I thought the setting made emotional sense--it's when your family is no longer around that the possibility of becoming unmoored is the greatest. 

The best things about this book are the voice and dialogue.  Mariko Tamaki studied linguistics for three years, and obviously pays careful attention to the way people speak.  The writing here is deceptively simple--sentences are short and conversational, but the more I read, the more I felt that Tamaki chose each and every word extremely carefully.  Another thing that Tamaki does really well  is give secondary characters dimension.  Allison's dorm-mates start out as silly stereotypes, but become surprisingly more. Tamaki's background in theater shows in her pacing and characterization. She's good at small, uncomfortably illuminating scenes.     

I found the character of Allison really challenging.  There's a passivity about her that makes her a frustrating protagonist.  She gives so much of  her power over to Shar, who keeps her off balance emotionally, pulling Allison close (even sleeping with her) and then pushing her away.  Shar also sabotages Allison scholastically and isolates her from others who might want to be her friends.  Allison bumbles around a lot--missing classes, getting drunk, getting called in to the Dean's office to explain her academic floundering--and becomes increasingly unhappy without really naming the reason to herself.   Shar, on the other hand, is so decisive and controlling that it seems to everyone--Allison included--that she's the stronger of the two.  Allison's not a traditional unreliable narrator though--she's very observant and she does slowly see the machinations of her new friend.  That's what's frustrating--even when she's figuring it out and others are reaching out to her, she's slow to separate herself.  She won't let go until it's almost too late.   To me, the end of their relationship felt like a wound as well as a release.  There was a definite ripping-apart quality to it.  

 Here's an interview with Tamaki in Xtra! magazine, and another one on CBC Books.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Quick science quiz:  who is the closest living relative to homo sapiens?

Did you guess chimpanzees?  Until recently scientists would have told you that chimps and humans share between 94% to 99% of their DNA, with lower estimates being more current.  It makes sense, then, that studying chimps will teach us about human behavior as well, and we've known for some time now that chimps are smart.  They can learn rudimentary sign language, use tools, and evolve unique behaviors within their communities to adapt to their particular circumstances.  But anyone studying chimps to find out more about human behavior will also find lots of bad news:  despite their intelligence they're a violent bunch, not just towards predators but also amongst themselves.  Rape, infanticide and murder are behaviors which have been observed in chimp communities, although there is debate over how common these behaviors are.  Nevertheless, observation of chimps has led to the argument  that violent behaviors are hard-wired into humanity, bred into our genes and waiting only for the right situations to bring them forth.

Well, surprise!  It turns out that chimps, while genetically close to us, aren't necessarily our only close relatives after all.  That distinction is now shared by the Bonobo, a cousin of the chimp who has  98.7 percent of its genetic material in common with ours, and has a vastly different behavioral repertoire from chimpanzees.   Bonobos, unlike chimps, are matriarchal and infants receive close and excellent care from their mothers and from the community.  Rape is virtually unknown; Bonobos are non-monogamous and use sex to cement social ties and group cohesion.  Although bonded, affectionate and cooperative within their group, they are shy of strangers.   Like the chimp, they are an endangered species and rapidly losing habitat.  And they live only in the Congo, one of the most violent and conflicted areas on earth.  It is this irony, of peaceful primates co-existing with warlike humans, which inspired Eliot Schrefer's new novel Endangered.  This is a book which I can picture appealing to a few different audiences--teens interested in science and animal behavior, teens interested in issues around development and social justice, and teens just wanting to read a great adventure novel.   

The plot is simple--Sophie, a teen of mixed race and nationality, flies from her home in America to spend the summer in the Congo with her mother, who runs a Bonobo sanctuary close to the capital city Kinshasa. On her way to the sanctuary, Sophie sees a young Bonobo who is close to death and being hawked by a poacher on the street.  She insists on stopping and buying the Bonobo, which puts her into immediate conflict with the rules of the sanctuary and her mother (who has been working hard to stop the trade in wild animals).  Unfazed, Sophie nurses the Bonobo back to health, becoming his surrogate mother, giving him 24 hour care and developing a strong mutual bond with the animal she has named Otto.    

The real trouble starts when Sophie's mother leaves for several weeks to facilitate the release of some of her rehabilitated Bonobos into the wild.  While she is gone, the government topples and an unruly band of militia attack the sanctuary, killing most of the women who work there.  Sophie and Otto manage to flee and hide inside the sanctuary forest, which is protected by an electric fence.  For a few weeks they live with a band of Bonobos there, but when the fence breaks down Sophie knows the soldiers will come into the forest looking for Bonobo meat.  She flees with Otto and together they make a long and very risky trek to find Sophie's mother, over the course of which they face both natural and human dangers.

There are a few things, I think, that make Endangered particularly good.  It's easy in adventure stories to let plot and suspense take over the book, but Endangered features wonderful characterization both of its humans and animals.  Each Bonobo is individually drawn, and their group dynamics are complex.   Sophie is a relentless spirit, refusing at several points to save herself when it means leaving Otto behind.  She won't prioritize her own human life over Otto's animal one, even under the most extreme circumstances. Her sense of responsibility is very personal, and is about honouring the relationship that she has developed with Otto;  whether, as a reader, you agree or disagree with her choices, you can really feel the emotion behind them.  Endangered could be a used to start deep conversations about important issues.  I think would be a great choice for teen book clubs.

Here are some videos of Eliot Schrefer a) promoting Endangered, b) giving an interview about Endangered, and c) playing with some friends in a Bonobo sanctuary:

And here's a picture of Eliot and his own Bonobo friend:

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: The Raven Cycle, Book 1

 Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood
there, wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever 
dared to dream before...
(Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven)

 I finally got a chance to read the much-anticipated Raven Boys, the first book of a projected four-book series,  by the multi-talented Maggie Stiefvater.  Stiefvater's reputation as a fantasy writer is stellar, particularly after her breakout trilogy The Wolves of Mercy Falls and last year's stand-alone blockbuster The Scorpio Races.   I kept thinking of Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series as I was reading The Raven Boys, and also a book by Madeleine L'Engle called A Swiftly Tilting Planet--there are a lot of  thematic overlaps between these stories, as well as similarly mysterious characters and a compelling, slow-building atmosphere of suspense. 

The Raven Boys circles around a quest for the remains of Owain Glendower, legendary Welsh ruler who, like King Arthur, is said to be waiting to rise again when the time is right.  Gansey, one of the four Raven Boys in the novel (they're private school boys whose uniform has a raven on the jacket) is convinced that Glendower's remains lie somewhere in the area of Henrietta, Virginia  (that's in the USA, not Wales, but Gansey has an explanation for the geographic discrepancy) and has involved his three friends Adam, Noah and Connor in his search.   Meanwhile, Blue Sargent, a young woman born into a family of clairvoyant females, has a vivid and peculiar vision regarding Gansey and his death.  When Blue and the Raven Boys meet and begin to investigate the ley lines and other manifestations of mysterious energy in the Virginia landscape,  boundaries between the real world and the otherworldly begin to shift.

It's interesting that there are really two worlds at work here--Blue and her family, all women, all highly intuitive, private,  and  naturally attuned to the world of myth and spirit, and the Raven Boys,  living in a very masculine world of private school, grades, money, cars, and ambition.  Stiefvater is too sophisticated a writer to make this division simple, but moving back and forth between the two groups adds to the reading experience.  I really like how diverse the characters are, and how challenging some of them are to understand--I'm certain there's a lot more to find out about them.  The last line, uttered by Connor, utterly mystified me.  Stiefvater's always been great at creating atmosphere, and I would describe the atmosphere of The Raven Boys as "heightened".  By the end, I was getting chills up my spine.  Of course, I was reading in bed in the dead of night, when I should really have been sleeping...

As well as being a writer, Maggie Stiefvater is a musician and a visual artist.  Here is some art she drew for the trailer of The Raven Boys...I think it's exquisite.  Remember those 19th century illustrated novels for grown-ups, with their colour plates?  I so think Raven Boys could have been done like that. 

And here's the trailer:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

"'Are you really a ghost?'
'Oh, I am.'
 'And you're really my mother?'
'Yes,' said Tansey.  'I am.'
'I'll tell you what's really weird, then,' said Emer.  'I'm not all that surprised."

Anyone out there have a family ghost story?  I do.  When my grandfather was a teenager in Poland many years ago, he apprenticed as a metalworker with his uncle, who was horrible to him.  After two years of apprenticeship, my grandfather ran away and returned to his family farm.  Later, after my grandfather had moved to Canada and married, he saw his uncle in a dream and his uncle apologized for having been so mean to him.  A few weeks later,  he got a letter from his family in Poland telling him that his uncle had died the night of that dream. 

Sounds like an urban legend, doesn't it?  There are a lot of family ghost stories like that kicking around, tales of familiar family members coming back to say goodbye, reconcile, or bring comfort rather than spook or scare.  Roddy Doyle's latest book is a family ghost story, but it's not noir or gothic.  It's really just a lovely inter-generational family story, where one of the family members happens to be a ghost.  Doyle described it in a recent interview as "the afterlife from the perspective of an atheist".   It revolves around four generations of women;  Mary O'Hara (a twelve-year-old girl), her mother Scarlett, her grandmother Emer, who is dying, and her ghostly great-grandmother Tansey.

Tansey isn't the kind of ghost who is particularly mysterious or threatening.  She first appears to Mary outside Mary's  home,  and opens up by chatting about the weather.  She's a little strange--her clothes look old-fashioned and she doesn't get wet in the rain--and she wants Mary to "tell your granny it'll all be grand."  Mary's a bit taken aback, but not really scared:

"Mary should have been worried, maybe even frightened.  She was worried, and a bit frightened.  But not nearly as much as she thought she should have been.  This woman had come out of nowhere.  She knew Mary's name and all about her granny--Mary should have been terrified.  But she wasn't.  Something about the woman, the way she spoke, her face, her smile--she seemed familiar.  Mary didn't know her--but she did."

We learn that Tansey, who died when her daughter Emer (Mary's granny) was only three, has hung around in spirit, keeping an eye on Emer, because leaving her didn't feel right.  And now Emer is an old woman, dying and kind of scared about it,  and Tansey wants to ease her mind. How that happens involves all four generations and is the essence of the story. 

One of the reasons I liked A Greyhound of a Girl so much is that Doyle really conveys the emotional intimacy of  family life, but he's not at all melodramatic or obvious about it.  He's very subtle.  The theme of loss is  handled so delicately, and the warmth and comfort of family love is always there.  If ever a ghost story could be life-affirming, this one would be it.  

Roddy Doyle, of course, is a well-established writer of both adult and children's fiction.  His novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the 1993 Booker Prize. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book to Film: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower came out in 1999, a thin little book that was released straight to paperback, and one with a very unassuming cover at that.  It didn't have a lot of fancy publicity, and it wasn't a smash hit like Harry Potter or Twilight.  It was a quiet book, but there was something about it that made people want to pass it on.   Librarians handed it around to each other.  Friends recommended it to friends.   It built a following, then people started talking about it as an underground classic. It's now quite easy to find quotes from the book all over the internet (frankly, they sound kind of trite  out of context).  And finally, it's become a movie.  I read the book about seven years ago, and saw the movie with my daughter last weekend.  We both loved it.  It's a great adaptation, but then again, it should be--it had Stephen Chbosky himself as screenwriter and director.

Perks was a book that really spoke to me.  First of all, it's set in the early 90s, and refers to things like making mixed tapes for your friends.  That made me all nostalgic--I had a friend who used to make the best mixed tapes for me around that time.  But it also resonated because of  how closely I could identify with Charlie, the book's main character.  He felt like me when I was a young adult.  Charlie is damaged by things he can't talk about.  He's introverted, socially awkward, clueless about setting boundaries or expressing himself (except in writing).  He reads a lot and thinks a lot, and watches people, but he's not easily noticed. He's a loner who wants to be more connected but can't seem to do it naturally.  But here's the thing--when I was growing up and going through all of that, I didn't really like myself a lot.  But Chbosky makes us just love Charlie.  I mean, just adore him.  That made the book for me right there.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about Charlie's first year in high school.  This awkward kid manages to make a few friends, Sam and Patrick, who are seniors, much older than Charlie and seemingly much freer as well.  They have a group of buddies, dramatize The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the movies every week,  go to parties where the brownies taste a little strange, and listen to lots of music.  The story is about the ins and outs of their friendship.  Charlie's friends have their own issues, and the friendships aren't straightforward, but they are very believable.  I think Chbosky has captured both how warm and enlivening it feels to belong to a community of friends, and also how left behind you can feel when a friendship falters.

I was a bit worried about the casting before I saw the film--the characters felt real to me in my head, and I didn't want to sit there thinking "Oh look, there's Hermione Granger pretending to be Sam, and Percy Jackson's taking a break from being a demigod to be Charlie."  I kind of wanted people I had never seen before playing the roles.  But Logan Lerman absolutely disappeared into Charlie, and Ezra Miller, who was a new face for me, blew me away as Patrick.  Emma Watson was obviously the big name in this film, and although she is much more of a refined, classic beauty than I imagine Sam being, she brought a lot of warmth to the role.

Even though it's a relatively short book, Chbosky streamlines the story quite a bit for the movie.  I didn't feel it lost anything, though.  The big shock at the end of the book is much more foreshadowed in the film, but I already knew the plot, so I can't really judge what that would do for someone coming to the story fresh.  One difference I did notice;  although in the book I definitely felt that I was reading about a certain time period, the movie seemed to blur that a bit.

Here's the movie trailer:

And here's an interview with Stephen Chbosky and Emma Watson:


Every Day by David Levithan

It's hard to think of a teen writer today more romantic than David Levithan. From his breakthrough novel Boy Meets Boy to the recent Lover's Dictionary, he writes about love beautifully and optimistically. Every Day is about love, of course, but being David Levithan it's a little more philosophical than many teen love stories, and it uses elements of fantasy and magic realism to explore some questions that most of us aren't forced to ask.  What is it that really makes us love someone, and how important is the physical aspect of love?  I personally trust  David Levithan and I'll read whatever he cares to write, but while I found Every Day quite thought-provoking, I thought it had a few flaws in its premise that kept me from totally buying into it.

Every Day is about a person named A.  Because A is without a body, he doesn't have the normal attributes we cluster around identity--gender, race, culture, religion, family, even language change for A every day. (I'm going to refer to A as a he, just so I don't go crazy writing he/she).   A wakes up in a new body each day, lives the life of that person with the aid of memories that he can access, and then moves on to another body in a totally unconscious process that takes place each night while he sleeps.  It's been that way for A since infancy, and while A doesn't really understand why he's different, he's never told anyone.  There are a few parameters:  A ages normally (A is now 16, and so only wakes up in bodies that are also 16) and doesn't range too much geographically.  A can't choose whose body he will occupy, and  is never in the same body twice. 

As you can imagine, A is the ultimate loner.  With no relationships to anchor him emotionally, A goes through  life mostly as an observer--the main goal being not to disrupt or interfere in the lives of his hosts, whatever they are like.  But one day A wakes up in the body of a not-very-emotionally-sophisticated 16 year old  named Justin and meets Justin's girlfriend Rhiannon. Just like that, A falls in love.

From there, the story launches into a unique courtship.  After an idyllic day at the beach, A begins to anonymously seek Rhiannon out, to meet her anew and befriend her each day. He can't bear to be without her.   A finally tells her what his life is like, and despite some initial skepticism (of course) she finally believes him.  They slowly grow more attached. They sometimes communicate by e-mail, and sometimes in person, but A's changing bodies become an issue.  You can see Rhiannon respond differently to him when A occupies the body of a handsome jock, or a really fat kid, or a severely depressed goth girl, or a transsexual.  Whether Rhiannon will hold his hand or not depends a lot on what body that hand is attached to.  It also bothers Rhiannon that there is a sense that she can't rely on A.  He doesn't know what his circumstances will be from day to day.  As she points out to him at one point, he's always going to leave her, even if he always comes back. 

There are so many interesting and unexpected things about this story and how the relationship plays out, and I thought the premise was really clever.  But something bothered me all the way through.  The way A experienced infancy and childhood, with a different family each day, should have left him not as emotionally functional and mature as Levithan makes him.  Young children do not thrive emotionally with no attachments.  Yes, there is an undertone of melancholy and poignancy around A when he thinks of  his childhood, but A is not presented as a sociopath (unlike the one other transient soul he meets toward the end).  A is a kind, moral, caring person who would probably have no trouble finding love in normal circumstances.  I can understand why Levithan set things up the way he did in terms of the storyline, but psychologically it didn't feel right to me.  Still, if you can overlook this, Every Day is an absorbing, original read. 

Here's a video of Levithan talking about Every Day:  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Soonchild by Russell Hoban, Illustrated by Alexis Deacon

[Russell Hoban was] "a maverick writer of extraordinary imaginative gifts and highly original turn of phrase;  although he was sometimes compared to Tolkien and to CS Lewis, he conformed to no obvious literary tradition...His was a unique vein of magical fantasy, taking themes...that seem too devastating for contemplation, and turning them into allegories in which humour was combined with intense imagery and narrative momentum."  
Obituary for Russell Hoban, Telegraph newspaper. 

Soonchild is a very special  treat, and we're all the more lucky to have it as it is a posthumous work.  Hoban truly shone in the field of both adult and children's literature (remember the Frances picture books,  Turtle Diary, The Mouse and His Child, or Ridley Walker?), and Soonchild is as good as his best.  Although it's not a picture book, it is generously  illustrated in black and white by Alexis Deacon, who captures the vivid, worldly-yet-otherworldly atmosphere of the book majestically.  

The hero of Soonchild is Sixteen-Face John, an inuit shaman. Being a shaman, he walks through the world of spirit as well as that of earth.  But the world of spirit isn't what it used to be in the time of the ancestors:

"Some of the spirits of the place have moved away, others have died.  Yes, spirits die.  They die when they're no longer taken notice of, no longer spoken to.  But there are still some who live on the best they can and answer if they're spoken to in the proper way...Spirits like a lot of attention.  They like to be admired, and the shaman has to know how to please them so they'll be friendly to his people."

Sixteen-Face John begins to hear whispering in the spirit world.  "The whispering was in his head and he heard it when he was sleeping and when he was awake.  It was the kind of sound a glacier might make as it slides toward the sea, inching in the night.  He couldn't make out any words and he was thankful for that...There was no doubt in John's mind that whoever was doing the whispering was waiting for him in one of those places where shamans have to go so he thought it would be a good idea to stay out of those places."  One problem, though--his wife, No Problem's, belly is big with a child who won't kick, won't move, won't come out.  His child doesn't believe there's a world left to come into, because she can't hear the world songs any more.  Is the problem with the world, or is the problem with John?  Because he's no longer the shaman he used to be, either...

Of course Soonchild includes a Big Dream, a mythic journey, companions, and danger.  After all, what father wouldn't face anything to bring his child into the wide world?    But it's also populated with the most amazing characters.  Here's how Hoban describes Sixteen-Face John:

Sixteen-Face John was the big fear man.  Nobody was as afraid as he was, nobody had so many faces to be afraid with.  If a thing was too much for him to face with his first face, he would go to his second one and so on down the line.  What I'm saying is that he had sixteen different faces for looking at what scared him.  I can't tell you how he did it because he himself didn't know how he did it, it was just what he did."  

Now there's an interesting hero.  Later Hoban tells us that "His number one face had the kind of smile you right away distrusted."   That's so great. And here's how we're introduced to No Problem, Soonchild's mother:

"No Problem was a big, strong woman with the kind of face that made you not want to make her angry.  She used to beat all the boys at wrestling when she was a girl but now that she was a grown woman she spent most of her time scraping hides and making kamiks and atigis and that kind of thing.  So there she was with her big belly.  When people asked her if she wanted a boy or a girl she said she wanted a girl.  'I could use some help around here,' she said."  

Hoban has a great sense of humour, too:

"People used to ask him how he got to be so scared.  He told them that he started out scared and as time went on he got a little more scared every day.  'There's so much to be afraid of.  Listen to the wind, how it's moaning with the voices of the dead, the cold and lonesome dead.  They're afraid the same as I am.'
What of?  they wanted to know.
'They're afraid the world will go away and so am I,' said John.  'Aren't you?'
No, they said, they weren't.
'Don't you feel it slipping away?' said John.  'Like your pants falling down?'
Maybe, they said, John felt that way because his pants were falling down.  He had a big belly and a small bottom so that was bound to happen, what did he expect."

This is the kind of story that's really timeless, but it happens to take place in the present day.  It's magical and distinctive and stirring, but also very down to earth. This is published as a teen book, I think because of a brief reference to Sixteen-Face John's bad habits (these include spending the night with various women of his acquaintance) but if you're not fussy about protecting children from  things like that it could easily be read by middle-schoolers (and really, I don't think most children would pick up on the reference). 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cinder by Marissa Meyer: the Lunar Chronicles, Book 1

"She was 36.28 percent not human."

With Cinder, debut author Marissa Meyer re-imagines the fairy tale Cinderella as a futuristic political thriller.   Cinder is an exciting story that will appeal to female fans of dystopian fiction, steampunk, science fiction, and fairy tale reinventions.  It plays with a range of ideas (medical ethics, political compromises), but especially the question of what defines us as human.  Is it our bodies?  Our emotional capacity?  Or something else entirely, something that can't be precisely understood? 

Cinder Linh is a cyborg living in the futuristic city of New Beijing, under the control of her resentful stepmother.  She is an expert mechanic and has a booth in the marketplace where she repairs all manner of broken technology.  One day, Prince Kai approaches her booth incognito.  He has a broken android, and is willing to go to great lengths to have it repaired, although it is an obsolete model.  Why?  What Cinder doesn't know is that the Emperor, Kai's father, is lying ill with a deadly disease called letumosis, a disease without a cure which is devastating the earth.

Things quickly unravel for Cinder.  Her stepsister Peony, the only person in her small family who actually likes her, catches the disease and is sent to a holding place where she is expected to die quickly.  Since Cinder was with Peony when she became ill, Cinder's stepmother vengefully "volunteers" her for medical research--as a cyborg, she is not considered fully human, and has no rights or independence.  She expects to die as a research subject, as almost none of the cyborgs enrolled as test patients survive.  Surprisingly, she does not.  She is mysteriously immune.  Meanwhile, the Emperor dies, Prince Kai is about to become Emperor in his father's place, and the sinister Queen Levana, ruler of the Lunars (who live on the moon) arrives on earth to  manipulate him into marriage.  Cinder finds herself in a perfect storm of political intrigue, deception, and danger.

The big weakness of this book is that one of the plot points (who is Cinder, really?) is pretty easy to guess from about half-way through--the clues are a little too obvious.  Still, the story is engrossing despite that.  We may know who Cinder is before she does, but we don't know how she's going to get the prince and save the kingdom, or even escape getting squashed by Queen Levana's peculiar ability to "glamour" and control those around her.  Cinder is an interesting heroine which some cool attributes of her own (her cyborg programing allows her to see when people are lying to her, for example).  Since this is a modernized version of the old tale, she is of course conceived of as much more independent and gutsy than the Cinderellas of the past. 

Cinder is the start of a four-book series, which Meyer has stated will each be based on a different fairy tale.  Scarlet is coming out in 2013, Cress in 2014 and Winter in 2015.  Cinder's story is left unfinished, but it looks like the next book will focus on different characters.  Here's a short author interview put out by the publisher:

The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson

For fans of science fiction and fantasy who have sought and craved non-White voices, characters, and perspectives, the small number of Black writers in these literary genres have provided them few options from which to choose... Nevertheless, recent developments have excited Black speculative fiction and fantasy enthusiasts about the prospects for the fiction of the new millennium to reach into the future and, just as importantly, grapple with issues centuries old and older. At the center of this fervor is the Black speculative fiction and fantasy novelist Nalo Hopkinson, who forever changed the field in the three short years following the 1998 publication of her much-acclaimed novel, Brown Girl in the Ring. Following in the thematic footsteps prefigured by Octavia E. Butler, the first Black female writing speculative fiction and fantasy, and yet writing in an inimitable style no one could have anticipated, Hopkinson makes her fiction as rich as her own background.
Gregory E. Rutledge

The first thing I want to say is that it is a pleasure to read a teen book which features the city of Toronto so graphically and unapologetically.   I could follow the action in The Chaos down to the street. This story had an incredible sense of place for me, partially because it's set in my hometown and I could recognize many landmarks, but also because I think place is one of the things grounding this very unusual book.

 The Chaos is Nalo Hopkinson's first novel for teens, but she has a stellar reputation for her adult work, which has been adopted by the sci-fi/fantasy community although her writing has at times been described as boundary-breaking.  She has won or been nominated for many major awards, including winning the World Fantasy Award for her anthology Skinfolk.  Her themes typically encompass issues of race, culture, queer identity, and history.   Her books have been variously described as urban fantasy, black fiction, occult fiction, speculative fiction and magic realism.  I think the term magic realism applies best to this particular novel, but Hopkinson pushes the genre to it's extreme.  The term that kept coming to mind as I read The Chaos was surrealism.  This novel is a bit like Kafka, a bit like Charles de Lint, but wilder, richer and with more diverse imagery than either of them.  I think what gives it its richness is partly Hopkinson's gift for description, but mostly her ability to mash up the folklore of extremely different cultures without blinking an eye.  As an experienced reader, that's something that appeals to me.  It feels very fresh.   Like Kafka, Hopkinson does not offer explanations for her fantastical situations --we never know exactly what the Chaos is, what drives it or how and why it manifests on earth.  Hopkinson just plunges her heroine into unreality and watches her grow.   This book is going to frustrate readers who want to understand the internal logic of fantasy worlds.  It's going to frustrate readers who like closed endings.  It's even at times going to frustrate readers who want to know what the heck's going on. We don't always know.  To get into this book, you have to let yourself go a little.  But I think it's worth it. 

The plot centres around a young woman, Scotch, who is the child of a white Jamaican father and a black Canadian mother.  Her parents are strict and the atmosphere at home is tense and uncomfortable.  Strange things are happening to Scotch--she keeps getting black, sticky rashes on her skin that mystify doctors and that grow frighteningly quickly, and she has started seeing surreal floating creatures that no one else seems to notice. At an open mic with her older brother, a strange bubble of light appears, and her brother vanishes.  A volcano shoots out of Lake Ontario, mythical creatures take on form and substance, and almost every physical object transforms into something else.  Traffic lights become highlighters, bathroom stalls become singing clock towers.  Scotch's black rash starts to thicken and cover her whole body like a crust, threatening to turn her into a monster, and as she races to find her brother, Baba Yaga and a Rolling Calf (a monster from Jamaican folklore) seem to follow her around.  It's like a crazy, dangerous dream.  But amidst all the panic and confusion, Scotch is given the opportunity to make choices and show courage.  She is given the opportunity to grow. 

I haven't talked at all about the secondary characters and how strong they are, or  about the clever way that Hopkinson smashes all sorts of stereotypes.  This is a book which combines depth with imagination.  I'm not sure it will be the right book for the mainstream teen reader, but for the teen ready for something a bit more experimental, it's a good choice.

Here are some short video clips of Hopkinson discussing influences on her writing:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook by Shel Silverstein

I'm not the world's biggest Shel Silverstein fan--I find The Giving Tree kind of creepy--to me that story seems more about ingratitude and disrespect than giving.  Silverstein's poetry books are clever, but I don't always find much depth there.  However, I came across Runny Babbit a few days ago and loved the concept.  Published in 2005, Runny Babbit is a project Silverstein apparently spent over 20 years working on.  The poems not only rhyme, but also feature tongue-tripping nonsense words that can be decoded by switching first letters around.  Here's an example:

Runny fad a hamily--
Matter of fact, he had
A sother and two bristers,
A dummy and a mad. 
His mamma fed him marrot cilk
And parrot cie and such,
And all of them were happy
In their cozy hunny butch.

I thought this book was hilarious.  But I must report that I didn't get great reviews when I brought it home.

Me (to son who loves funny books):  "Hey, listen to this, Ewan, it's really funny!"  (reads two poems)
Son (with bored look on his face):  "I don't get it."

Not one to be discouraged, I try again.
Me (to husband who is normally incredibly supportive of my bookish enthusiasms):  "Listen, I want to read you something--" (reads one poem).
Husband:  "Yeah.  I've got to read the newspaper." 

So maybe it's just me.  By the way, I love the part in Diary of a Wimpy Kid where a young Greg Heffley's parents tell him that if he gets up in the night he might find Shel Silverstein walking around in their hall, and how much that freaks Greg out.  Can't say I blame him.  This is Silverstein's author photo for The Giving Tree.

Would you want to find this guy prowling your hallway at night? 

Here's one final poem from Runny Babbit:

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Letter Q: Queer Writer's Notes to Their Younger Selves: Sarah Moon, ed.

"To hear the more than 50 contributors tell it, one might think that queer adults mostly end up living in ritzy corners of New York and becoming published authors."  
Kirkus reviews.

"YES!  You actually get to be PUBLISHED!  And you get to be friends with some of your HEROES!  Like oh not to name names but like MAURICE SENDAK!  I know!  I KNOW!  SCREAMMM!"
Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked (among other books) and contributor to The Letter Q.

The Letter Q is associated with The Trevor Project, which in turn is a spin-off of the It Gets Better project.  It Gets Better is a website targeted to LGBTQ youth who are struggling with a lack of acceptance or sometimes outright hostility from those around them. On the It Gets Better website, the message is that "it" (life as a LGBTQ adult) can turn out better than you'd think when you're in high school and people are spitting on you and throwing eggs at your house (or worse).  That queer adult life can, with any luck,  turn out to be not just better but surprisingly rewarding.  Of course, it probably doesn't hurt to have talents like some of the writers here to help you shape a bright, beautiful future.

I feel sad that we still need books like this.  Reassuring as this book is, warm and funny as it sometimes is, understanding as it is, it's still not fair for kids to have to wait to feel good about themselves. It's interesting the importance of coming out to one's family has in these small autobiographies--most contributors had to face lots of angst over this, and some families take years to come together again.

"It will take a good long decade after that first terrible coming out conversation.  (Hang on, Arthur, I swear.)  There will be years when the tension between you and your folks will be nearly unbearable.  But very, very gradually, it will begin to ease."
Arthur Levine

"You will reassure Dad that you don't hate men, especially not him.  He will love you fiercely until his last breath, a shallow inhale that comes just hours before your son is born.  Mom had no intention of pushing you away.  After today, she will tighten her grip, pulling you torture you.  She will continue to power away at you, doing everything she can to convince you that you are not a lesbian....It will take five years, but Mom will finally realize that she can't change you back...She will cut her losses and love her two grandbabies--and you.

One day many years later you will ask her if she wishes you were straight.  She will hesitate, then say,"I love you just the way you are." You will never forget that."
Linda Villarosa

I don't think this book will have much of an audience outside of its target one--it's a book with a specific purpose, and that's fine.  Most of the contributors are actually not primarily writers for teen readers, and I'm not sure how many of them most teens would recognize.   For queer teens who are currently unfortunate enough to find themselves in difficult circumstances, though, these frank, gentle and understanding messages could be a lifeline.

Here's the somewhat earnest publisher's trailer:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What I Actually Do

Well, actually I don't spend a lot of time balancing beside the bookshelves on one leg...but otherwise, pretty accurate.   

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The A-Z of Geekdom by Mark Gonyea

This isn't a real ABC book, but maybe it should be! 

There are one or two I don't get--I guess I'm only 95% geek.  Apparently "Jane, get me off this crazy thing!" is a quote from the opening sequence in "The Jetsons" (I had to google it).

Brought to us by Mark Gonyea, author of A Book About Color;  A Clear and Simple Guide for Young Artists,  A Book About Design:  Complicated Doesn't Make It Good,  and Another Book About Design:  Complicated Doesn't Make It Bad.   

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

"And, at that moment, I felt my own ignorance spread suddenly out behind me like a pair of wings, and every single thing I didn't know was a feather on those wings.  I could feel them tugging at the air, restless to be airborne."

Reading a book by Frank Cottrell Boyce feels like putting yourself in the hands of a master storyteller.  It's a little bit mesmerizing, a little bit magical.  He's also a writer I love to hear read out loud.  The Unforgotten Coat has a lot in common with his first book, Millions, which I adored;  it's funny, insightful and optimistic,  has a touch of bittersweetness, characters I defy you not to fall in love with,  and writing which just lifts right off the page.  The Unforgotten Coat has a simpler storyline and  is aimed at a younger audience than Boyce's previous works, but it's every bit as sophisticated.  Polaroid photographs are used add a mysterious visual element which expands the story. (The photographs were provided by filmmakers Carl Hunter and Clare Heney, who have worked with Boyce in his other career as a screenwriter.)  And speaking of photographs, I love the cover of this book.  The child, the coat and the title all seem to pop at once--I find it really striking.

The Unforgotten Coat is narrated, in flashback, by Julie, who as a child went to school in the U.K.   When two refugee brothers from Mongolia join her grade 6 class near the end of the school year she is instantly fascinated.  Chingis, the older brother, invites her to be their "good guide" to their new country and Julie gladly takes on the role, hoping to be invited to their home, which she is sure must be full of exotic treasures, just as Chingis and his brother Nergui bring new ideas into Julie's life.

"A few weeks before, I had not known that there was any such thing as a portable bamboo palace.  I hadn't even known there was such a person as Chingis Khan, who had been born with a clot of blood grasped in his fist and who had conquered nearly the entire world in hardly any time at all, sweeping over the steppe into Central Asia and right up to the very gates of Europe.  I hadn't even known there was such a place as the steppe!  The steppe that was flat as pavement but as wide as a sea, with nothing but grass and great bustards.  Wide as a sea and I hadn't even known it was there.  If there were seas of grass and woven palaces in this world, why couldn't there be demons too?  And why wouldn't one of them be crouched on our doorstep on William Morris Avenue right that minute, munching a boy made of dough?"

Julie does her best, but the task of guiding the brothers safely in their new home and culture proves more difficult than she could have known. I don't want to give away the rest of the plot, although I will say it ends, like Millions, with a loss that is healed.  The book was inspired by the very first class visit Boyce made after Millions was published. He met a refugee from Mongolia, a girl named Misheel who "just lit up the room".

"The other children were touchingly proud of her and told me about the time Misheel showed up to the school dance in full Mongolian costume with her elaborate headdress and fabulous robes.  They knew all about Mongolia--its customs and epic landscape--because of her.  Her presence massively enriched their lives...Then once day the Immigration Authorities came and snatched her and her family in the middle of the night.  Misheel managed to get one call through to Sue Kendall before one of the officers grabbed her phone.  And, of course, she has not been seen since...I do know that a country that authorizes its functionaries to snatch children from their beds in the middle of the night can't really be called civilized." 

One of the things I admire most about this book is how dimensional Boyce has made Chingis and Nergui --they are not at all stock "exotic refugee" figures but fully realized individuals, and their world view is treated with a respect that seems to come completely naturally.

Boyce has donated this book to the Reader Organisation, which aims to transform "society's collective approach to reading by making literature accessible, available, emotionally rewarding, and fun."  Hey, that's what librarians want to do too!