Monday, January 29, 2007


Old Reads

...that you don't remember are interesting—is the recognition going to be satisfying, or disappointing? In the case of Brian Doyle's Easy Avenue (Groundwood/Douglas & MacIntyre, 1988), definitely the first. This was the one that set me off on a deliberate Doyle read, I believe. It is absolutely delightful. I gave it to Son, saying it was "really funny" (I read him a funny bit, to prove it) but knowing that it was also that dreaded thing, "moving." Doyle worked his charm, and Son did not dismiss the "bad" with the good. He thought the book was good.

Found King of the Middle March by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Orion, 2003) at the library and took it home. P has read the other two in the Seeing Stone trilogy to Son, while I read them on my own. It has been so long since any of us read book II that we could hardly remember what it was about. Well, once I got started it came to mind, and with a few prompts P and Son reconstructed the gist of it together. What a fantastic conclusion—I hope they enjoy it as much as I did. I don't know why I love these books. They are so rangy and dot-dot-dash, but they go so deep. I'm no fan of King Arthur stuff, though I recognize the power of the myth. Crossley-Holland makes King Arthur matter to another Arthur and through that other Arthur, makes King Arthur matter to us, and makes the myth seem so possible. The books are our "seeing stones" into a double-layered past; and, as with Arthur's stone, we understand our present that much better for having the sight.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Go Girl

Vintage/Random House has a new line called Vintage East, paperback reprints of novels by Asian authors: Ha Jin, Haruki Murakami, etc.,—and this one, The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa (2004). The ending is grim and inevitable (and there's something particularly Asian about it); the way to the end is full of surprises. Shan Sa's description of a young woman's first sexual relationship is pretty great; she (the character) alternates between stylized romanticism and self-possessed pragmaticism in the most realistic way. In this novel, the males are the romantics; for the women (except perhaps the mothers), relationships with men are a means to an end. I have noticed this before, in Asian novels.

On the totally romantic end of the scale, there is Astro City: Life in the Big City by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (those are the ones listed on the spine, anyway—there are more names on the title page: Homage Comics, 1995). This is obviously a tribute to 2950s comicdom, and since I know nothing about it, I can't comment on the book's qualities as a tribute. Son like the book and urged me to read it ("Don't be put off just because it's about superheroes, Mom.") so I did and it was fine. Very lush and rich, and practically a treatise on the art of comic book reading.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


British Family Stories

The British children's book market seems to allow for a certain kind of family story that you just don't see much of in North America.The Quigleys in a Spin by Simon Mason (David Fickling/Random House, 2005) is an example. This is a collection of stories about a family of four, an ordinary (read: middle class) family just living their lives. Each of the stories is centres around one of the family members—at least in this collection they do; there are other collections of Quigley family stories. I'd like to write stories like this. The one about the daughter's birthday party is especially fine—I laughed aloud several times ("Beardy Bob"!!!). Now that I think of it, there has been a recent Canadian offering in this genre, that I would recommend to anyone—Travels With My Family by David Homel and company.

I finally got around to reading Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates by Sean Cullen (Puffin/Penguin, 2006). Silliness abounded, which is to be expected; Son loved it, but, lacking the decades of accumulated general knowledge of his mother, he would not have caught the annoying examples of slight misuse in the employment of whimsical archaisms. Also, I wonder what he made of the footnotes. He would not have known when the information given in them was silliness and when it was true. That said, the story was interesting: and Cullen did something I want to see more of in Canadian children's literature, which is a wild, no-holds-barred, totally unearnest peopling of Canada's north with ridiculousness and adventure. Mammoths ridden by Inuit who serve their guests roasted seal meat! Settlements established by the Dutch for the manufacture of propellers! The Dutch, treated comically!

The Invisible Rules of Zoe Lama by Tish Cohen (HarperCollins, July, 2007) is of that budding sub-genre of kidslit for which I don't have a name—yet. (I'm collecting my names for things as of now. For example, in the last few weeks I've come up with two names for things I think everyone should use: 1) Googleganger: the other person you find with your (uncommon) name when you Google it. My Googleganger is a varsity basketball player in the Netherlands. 2) podcast: a general announcement made standing up in your cubicle. E.g., "I'm going for coffee. Does anyone want anything?" Okay, back to the book.) It's a sort of little-women's fiction. Now, I don't have much interest in "women's fiction"—all those sassy smart Alexises addicted to shopping and shoes, who dart and dance like hares (or bark and boss like border collies) and manage, in spite of themselves, to find happiness. I find those women tiresome. They are not real to me, whether I find them in books, on the TV screen or in life. Likewise, I find Zoe Lama tiresome—even though I can see bits of Jane Austen's Emma in her. (How is it that Emma feels real?) Also, I found the design of the book tiresome. What was the meaning of those sentences (and half-sentences!) in a different type? But I suppose girls like Zoe or her friends will be entertained by this book. I wish them joy of it.

A friend told me that Road to Perdition (the movie) started life as a graphic novel, a fact I forgot until I saw the thing (by Max Allen Collins; art by Richard Piers Rayner: Pocket/Simon & Schuster, 2002) at the library. Read it, loved it. Am thus spared from hearing and seeing all the violence acted out in technicolor. While in the graphic novel section, also picked up Summer of Love (Debbie Drechsler: Drawn&Quarterly, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2003). Also very good.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Pumpkin Power

I knew I forgot something. Me and the Pumpkin Queen by Marlane Kennedy (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, July 2007 release) is a sort of Wynn-Dixie with a well-adjusted Dad and pumpkins instead of a dog. Sort of. The book started oddly—the question that is introduced in the first short chapter isn't answered until the fifth, and that feels to me like those five short chapters should be one. I wonder if the short chapters are part of the same decision to pitch this story young, with a cute cover illustration, a large, open typeface and lots of white space on the page. Yet our heroine is ten, and there are bras and talk about teenagers', er, social behaviour. I'll have to wait until Daughter is ten to see if this young/old approach is valid.

Meanwhile, the story is touching, the relationship between our heroine and her best friend (a boy) solid and unfussy, and one learns a lot about giant pumpkin growing.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Madame Bovary

My bedtime reading for the past couple of months—erratic, what with the move and all; and accompanied by several conjugal attempts at a suitable limerick, involving the word "ovary"— has been the Francis Steegmuller translation of Madame Bovary. Somehow in my education I escaped reading this. The impression I had formed of Madame and her story was of a long life; of a middle-aged rouée (if such a thing exists!) looking back on her many lovers and her extraordinary parlour adventures, looking forward into the mirror, with a sigh. I was off, just a bit. Madame was really more of a mademoiselle, and her story surprisingly brief, really. And fresh: her expectations for passion and true love are as star-struck and hopeless as any small-town, half-educated 14-year-old's today. The reason she commits suicide in the end is not a grand love at all, but debt, collected in dribbles and puddles and streams into a drowning tide. As Madame observed, it turns out that "adultery is as banal as marriage."

My Sunday read (okay, I started it yesterday) has been Anne Fine's On the Summerhouse Steps (1979; Corgi ed. 2006). Told in two parts, the story is that of one Ione, a girl (eleven? twelve? thirteen?) who listens at doors (and sometimes not even that, as her father is blind and talks to himself) and uses what she discovers to get (not deliberately, just in a feeling-out way) what she needs: more family, and more meaning in her life. This is not to say that novel is heavy in any way—it's very comico-British (I hereby name this thing) and full of eccentrics and half-spoken thoughts and people caring for one another in slanted ways. Quite a bit like the Hilary McKay books, actually.

Friday, January 12, 2007


Speaking of Novels in Verse...

... here's another: Dark Sons, by Nikki Grimes (Hyperion, 2005). Yes, Nikki Grimes, the African American poet. And this IS verse, with noticeable rhythm and frequent internal rhyme. A pleasure to read. But, here's the kicker: this book is soaked in Judeo-Christianity. Two parallel (not completely alike, though—and that's one of the book's strengths, that the author let each story develop the way it had to, without forcing the similarities) stories are told, in the voices of their protagonists: Ishmael, Abraham's son, and Sam, an African American teenager whose father, in the beginning, leaves his mother, and subsequently marries a (white) Jewish woman. Ishmael, obviously, worships the God of his father; Sam is a worship-band-playing, Bible-study-attending, Jesus-following Christian. Nothing about this is incidental—his walk with God, as he deals with his anger toward his father and negotiates the changes in his life that his parents' action bring about, is the point of his story, just as Ishmael's story is about holding on to the thin thread of promise (what God has promised for Abraham, what God has promised for Ishmael's mother, what Ishmael himself chooses to make of these promises, for himself) through the buffets of a hard life. Here's how David sees it:
someone a lot like me.
A guy whose father
ripped his heart out too.
Me and you, Ishmael,
we're brothers,
two dark sons,
the spawn of
kick-butt mothers,
adopted sons of a Father
who hears.
I wonder . . . was Nikki Grimes thinking, while she wrote this, of the fact that Muslims trace their lineage in the family of the One God through Ishmael? Hm...

I am astounded that this deeply religious book has been published by Hyperion. Can it be that the anathema against all things Christian in the mainstream is lifting? The cynic in me wonders if "they" have figured out that Christians, being people of the Book (as they so quaintly put it in the fields of Islam), and Christian young people, especially, are the only ones still reading, these days.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Glass and Ice

Rescued By a Dog Called Flow by Pippa Goodhart (Barn Owl Books, 2005): Looking at the pub date, I see this book was first published in 1994. That explains why the approach to the book’s central subject—the struggles of a boy with undiagnosed dyslexia—seems dated. You’d have to be a capable reader to follow this very British story, whose appeal is young but whose language is tricky for a young Canadian.

A friend in the business has sent me a number of advance proofs to read, which is always delightful, but makes me feel, in the reviewing of them, as if I am walking on glass. Funny, that’s the title of the first one I picked up— Walking on Glass by Alma Fullerton (HarperCollins, 2007 release). This is another free verse novel offering, about which I feel somewhat ambivalent (there’s an earlier posting about this, which I’ll look up and reference later). But it seems to me that it might be a good way to go with a tender subject (the attempted suicide and long coma of the narrator’s mother) and the voice of a teenage boy—spare, not too mushy, not too many words. Is the name “verse” accurate? I don’t think so, not here. It’s not verse (not having some kind of rhythm or specific pace, at least that I could feel) so much as terse and unremarkable descriptions of almost photographic moments, whose cumulative effect is unexpectedly touching. A sort of stealth effect—which again strikes me as a being perhaps a good way to go with this. A walk on glass, if you will.

Anne Fine is the author of the original book Mrs Doubtfire, which was made into a (better, I thought) movie which no doubt has helped in her rise to the level of fame that makes it profitable to reissue her (astoundingly many) backlist titles as a visual series. (And these new [2006] Corgi/Random House editions are striking.) Fame or not, though, Anne Fine obviously has fans in the publishing world. Round Behind the Icehouse, for example, was originally published by Methuen in 1981, and then reissued by Penguin in 1990. It’s dedicated to her sisters, but it is about the relationship of twin brother and sister as they move out of childhood into adulthood. The brother has always felt less than his mercurial, quick, sparky sister; typical, then, that in this story he is trailing her, slowly figuring out what her “change” means, for her, for him and for their friend, the unfortunate daughter of the despicable hired hand.

As I write this, I understand that the confusion of time in the novel (it’s hard sometimes to know what the narrator means by “then”) may be quite deliberate, instead of the annoying clumsiness that it felt like while I was reading. The narrator (the brother) is confused and slow on the uptake (though less so than he thinks); he’s always figuring out too late what the significance of an interchange he’s just had means. Anyway, a fine novel. Ha ha.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Fighting the Enemy

In my continuing pursuit of things Dutch, I picked up A Traitor among Us by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk (Eerdmans, 1998). First, let me say that I find it remarkable that Christian publishing houses are selling to public libraries, not in itself but that it seems to be happening all of a sudden, in quantity. I know Eerdmans from long ago, a publisher sprung from the (American) Christian Reformed Church. This particular book isn't particularly Christian--in fact, the boy hero is a trench Christian, with little use for church. He is engaged in courier work for the Dutch Resistance during the German occupation of the Netherlands. The author doesn't spend much time getting in or out of the situation, just goes from one fear-charged skulk to another. For example, there's a tiny indication to the reader of the identity of the traitor, but we don't know, really, that Pieter knows who it is. The focus is only on Pieter's plan to lure the traitor, the dangers in carrying it out, the moment of revelation--when suddenly we learn that Pieter knows whose face he is going to see. And it's his best friend's father. I suppose one might say that the author is being true to life in choosing this way of telling the story: Resistance workers can't afford anguished thoughts, but must focus on controlling their fear and carrying out their task. But Pieter finds time for romantic mooning about his fellow worker, so. . . .

A possible antidote to Little House on the Prairie is Bear Dancer: The Story of a Ute Girl by Thelma Hatch Wyss (Margaret K. McElderry/Simon and Schuster, 2005). Based on historical reports of Cutshutchous, "Elk Tooth Dress" or Susan (Johnson), this story tells of a Ute girl taken captive by a Cheyenne band, then traded as a slave to an Arapaho band, liberated by white soldiers and taken to live with them, then finally conducted home, only to find her people greatly demoralized and weakened by the encroaching settlement of their lands. This story ends at her return, not what she expected but nevertheless welcome; the historical note tells how, as a grown woman, on the strength of her relationship to the Ute chief Ouray (her brother) she persuaded a Ute band who had taken some white women and children captive after a massacre to release their captives.

This story gives her credible reasons for her negotiations. On the surface, the reader can see her gratitude to the white people who took her in as a friend. But it is her relationship with her brother that gives her her strength of character. Ouray understands, and teaches his sister, that they have been born into a time when "fight words" aren't useful anymore, not against a powerful enemy who has already won. If the Utes are to survive as a people, they will need to practice a different kind of strength. The author thanks the great-great-great-granddaughter of Elk Tooth Dress herself, who coordinates the Ute Language Program of the Ute Tribe Education Division, for reading the book in manuscript. Does the very existence of this descendant, and the works she does, not speak of the nature of that strength?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Coffee Break

Just had some coffee and read Interplanetary Avenger by Caroline Luzzatto (Holiday House, 2005), an amusing tale of alien hijinks and getting out from under in a new school/bullying situation. Disgusting at times (boy appeal) and quite funny. Particularly amusing is the poke at school bureaucracy, apparently the same in every galaxy.


Love, Grief and Anger

Went looking for Notes From a Liar and Her Dog by Gennifer Choldenko (recommended by a sister) and not finding that title took home Al Capone Does My Shirts (Putnam/Penguin, 2004) instead. A very fine book. You could use it as an example of an extended metaphor. Our hero is a 12- or 13-year-old Depression-era American boy just moved with his family to Alcatraz Island, where his father has taken a job. Meanwhile, his elder sister is in a prison of her own, on the shady end of the autism spectrum. In this book one can see how the natural soup of love and frustration present in every family is set on a constant boil when one of the members is a child with autism. Our hero's love for his sister saves them both. The scene of his father telling his children how proud he is of them is very, very moving. But this is a funny book, really. The angle-working dishonest daughter of the head warden is a wonderful character.

Work led me to pick up Chickenpox...Yuck! by Josie Montano (Lothian, 2002). I couldn't get past the first few pages. The writing was choppy, the print too large and I didn't like the narrating character's voice. All outrage and no depth.

Julius Lester (or his publisher, anyway) calls his book Day of Tears (Hyperion, 2005) "a novel in dialogue." That pretty much describes a play, to me, and this is pretty much like a play, with the addition of interior monologue. Which could be delivered on stage simply as monologue. So, why not simply call it a play? There's even a cast of characters list at the beginning. Maybe because plays don't sell to fiction readers.

Whatever. The form serves its purpose very well, which is to give voice to silent victims of history. The story works out the human implications of "the largest auction of slaves in American history" in Savannah, Georgia on March 2 and 3, 1859. All the slaves a came from one owner and one plantation. Here is what Lester himself says about this book: "History is not only an accounting of what happened when and where. It includes also the emotional biographies of those on whom history imposed itself with a cruelty that we can only dimly imagine. This book is another in my attempts to make real those who did not have the opportunity to tell their stories from themselves."

Finally, the one I've been saving. I, Coriander by Sally Gardner (Orion, 2005) is so attractive a book, I finally could not resist and bought it while doing some Christmas shopping. It is excellent. English literature is lucky, lucky, lucky for having such a deep tradition of faery to draw from. The story is that of a girl uncovering her mother's otherworldly past while she struggles in Cromwellian England to survive the absence of her father at the hands of an ignorant, wrathful stepmother. Just that word, wrath, is one of the richnesses of the this novel, for it perfectly describes the people TV and the newspapers are full of, the ignorant, sly, cruel, angry people who abuse children and beat up old women. Shut up in a chest to suffocate and die, Coriander instead finds herself in her mother's world. When she emerges from the chest, three years have passed and she is a young woman, no longer smaller than her abusers and old enough to make use in the world of the friendship and love of her neighbours.

Interestingly, Coriander's escape is an echo of her mother's experience. Her mother was abused in her own world, escaped to the mortal world and found safety in love and marriage with Coriander's father. For her, death in the mortal world was preferable to returning to her own world and the power of her mother (stepmother? can't recall right now), who rules there.

Coriander's salvation comes not through love (her lovers' reunion is anticlimactic) but through wrath. The evil stepmother goes truly mad; her boyfriend's life is sucked from his body by the evil power he has been serving. When Coriander defeats her (and her mother's) enemy, this is what she does: "I allowed myself to feel all the anger, all the misery, and all the grief for everything that had happened to me. It was like a tight knotted ball and it came to the surface, passed through to the mirror and like an arrow shot from a bow went straight for Rosmore." The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that only good overcomes evil: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, a soft answer turns away wrath. But Rosmore is from another world, where (as Coriander observes earlier) there is no God. She must be defeated by her own tools, of fear and rage.

I would love to talk about the symbolism of faery vs mortal world and the Restoration after Cromwell. It's so easy to see the lightness in the one and the heaviness in the other, but the faery world in this book has its own Cromwell, for whom only one Will matters.

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