Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

The Higher Power of Lucky (The Hard Pan Trilogy 1)
by Susan Patron
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006
134 pages

I am turning over a new leaf a couple of weeks early, and never again assigning books for my parent-child book clubs that I have not yet read myself. I have good reasons for this. I had never read this book, but I've wanted to for years, and aside from the fact that it won the Newbery and I was pretty sure it would be fantastic, and that Darla recommends it, I knew very little about it.

Loved this book. Let's get that out of the way first.

Am not sure the kids in the group will love this book, but I think the parents will enjoy it, and I certainly hope they won't throw a fit over the word "scrotum" appearing. We shall see. It's a quieter story than the kids in this particular group tend to like, but it's also very short, so I think there is potential here. Also, it's hard not to love Lucky.

Lucky lives in the tiny town of Hard Pan in California, a little place in the middle of the desert that used to be a mining town but has dwindled down to a population of 43. Two of those people are Lucky and her guardian, Brigitte, a beautiful woman from France who has come to take care of Lucky at the behest of her entirely absent father, since Lucky's mother died two years before. And Lucky is certain that Brigitte is planning to head back to France any time now, leaving her entirely orphaned, so she will have to leave Hard Pan, and her friends Lincoln and Miles, her dog HMS Beagle, and everything she knows. So now Lucky really needs to find her Higher Power, like the people at the twelve step meetings she keeps eavesdropping on, because Lucky is planning to run away.

She is such a prickly child, Lucky. And she's an odd duck, there's no question. She has a very particular way of looking at the world, and it's highly amusing to an outsider, but to her it's a very serious way. She is working her way as logically as she can through some very difficult things - her mother's death is raw, and her fear of being abandoned is constant - and while an adult reader can look at Lucky and wonder exactly how she comes to the conclusions she does, they make perfect sense to the child Lucky is. She is also good-hearted, curious, and passionate. Her greatest hero is Charles Darwin. She likes snakes. How could I not love this kid?

Also, she is the kind of kid who describes things like this:

Lucky had the same jolting feeling as when you're in a big hurry to pee and you pull down your pants fast and back up to the toilet without looking - but some man or boy before you has forgotten to put the seat down. So your bottom, which is expecting the usual nicely shaped plastic toilet seat, instead lands shocked on the thin rim of the toilet bowl, which is quite a lot colder and lower. Your bottom gets a panic of bad surprise.

"A panic of bad surprise." Isn't that great?

The other characters, particularly Brigitte, Lincoln, Miles, and Short Sammy, are seen through the very close lens of Lucky's perception, though the book is told in third-person. They are therefore somewhat limited in their characterization, but Patron does a good job of fleshing them out as well as she can for us. We see through Lucky's eyes, but we notice things that she does not, in her descriptions of events and reports of conversations. And Lucky is a pretty observant kid, about many things.

It would be remiss of me to forget to mention the charming illustrations by Matt Phelan sprinkled throughout the tale. They're pencil, black and white, and they perfectly suit the mood and tale, and bring Lucky and Hard Pan to life in a slightly whimsical way.

So, yes. This book: recommended. It's maybe not a must-read for an adult, but I don't think you would go wrong by reading it, and the story and characters have stuck with me well after the book was gone. I'm looking forward to seeing how the kids react to it. Kids who are looking for contemporary stories will eat this up. It's amusing, silly, serious, charming, and just the right length.

Monday, December 30, 2013

first lines 2013

I missed Melwyk's post again, somehow, but I love the idea of using the first line of the first entry of the month as a way to review and reflect on one's year in blogging. A somewhat representative picture of the entire year can be had, it seems, by hopscotching in a measured way. At least this year I'll get the post in before the clock rolls over to 2014!

Funnily enough, we start this year with... last year's first lines!

Even though I'm a little late with it this year, I always enjoy this post.
(first lines meme 2012)

I love that my adult book club asked to read this book.
(A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs)

This book has everything: murder, politics, possible elopements and runaways, battles, mysterious heroes, snowstorms, fires, and more.
(The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters)

I have absolutely no excuse for taking over a month to finish this book, because it's really fantastic.
(Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead)

This book grew on me.
(Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill)

You're not likely to see a lot of parenting books show up here.
(Just Because it's Not Wrong Doesn't Make it Right by Barbara Coloroso)

One of the reasons I write this blog is to examine my own reactions to what I read.
(The Zabime Sisters by Aristophane)

I would have done better with this if I'd written the review right after finishing the book, but so it goes.
(Books by Larry McMurtry)

I do so love my adult book club.
(Cheating Death by Dr. Sanjay Gupta)

This is a book I've been holding on to for a long time.
(Days of Sand by Hélène Dorion)

There is something about Margaret Mahy's writing.
(Heriot by Margaret Mahy)

"Evidence that science doesn't know everything: Science will tell you that the Northern Lights are silent, cherry blossoms have no scent, and the likelihood of Santa Claus actually existing is low, to say the least."
(Coal Dust Kisses by Will Ferguson)

So, my determination to actually fully read the books I assign to my book clubs is showing up here; three of those twelve first lines are from reviews of books I've read for the adult book club I lead, where we read adventurously from many different genres. I seem to be getting over my self-imposed anxiety about reading to a deadline, but it helps that I don't worry too much if I haven't managed to finish the book by the time the meeting rolls around. All of my wonderful groups are very forgiving.

Also, I have been a lot less finicky about getting my posts up in a "reasonable" time this year; occasionally I'll finish a book and let it go a week or two before I finally post my thoughts. This more relaxed mode seems to work for actually writing about the books, rather than getting so behind like I did last year, but can come back to bite me, as my August first line points out; occasionally, if I didn't love or dislike the book, I can forget enough about it that I am at a loss for what to say.

It looks about right for the year - a mix of things I really enjoyed, and some disappointments, but overall a very solid reading year for me.

Friday, December 27, 2013

the year that flew by

I cannot believe I am already writing this post. Maybe it's just the time of day, and the time of year, and maybe it's the half-gallon of fondue I consumed this evening, but there is a lot I can't remember about the past year: it's just a blur. I spend my days running from one thing to another, but not in a stressed, bad way. It's just there's so much to pack in, now. Music classes and swimming lessons, messy art, working at the library, cleaning (all right, not that much cleaning), reading, gardening, watching my very energetic child make up stories about a dragon that likes to eat chestnuts and a stuffed toy rat called The Woolly Man. These things consume a day, and day by day they consume months, and then a year has gone by and the blog is five and I am still doing that thing where I read something and then write stuff about it.

I have felt that in some ways this has been a much better reading year for me. I've read some great stuff this year. Now if only I could remember any of it...

Books read in the past year: 42
Fiction: 31
Nonfiction: 11
Adult books: 27
Young adult books: 6
Middle-grade books: 9
Graphic novels: 1 (yikes)
Audiobooks: 9
eBooks: 10
Series started: 11 (this number is not getting any better)
Series finished: 0 (neither is this one)

Author's nationality:
Canadian: 5
American: 22
British: 10
Thai: 2
French: 1
Italian: 1
Kiwi: 1

Decade of first publication: 
2010: 9
2000: 18
1990: 5
1980: 3
1970: 1
1960: 1
1950: 1
1940: 1
1910: 1
1810: 2

The numbers don't bear much resemblance to last year, and once again I'm under 50 books read for the year. In fact, this year looks surprisingly like 2011, right down to the approximate ratios of fiction:nonfiction and adult:young adult:middle-grade. Though the publication date spread is significantly more impressive this year, too.

Last year over 30 of the books I read were graphic novels, manga, which I read extremely quickly (one can plow through 5 or 6 tankubon in a day, or more) so considering the length and difficulty of my reading this year I am not displeased with 42 books. That said, I miss manga, so expect a little more of that again in the coming year. Once I find my misplaced Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus 3.

And luckily I have my blog to remember things for me. So here are some of my reading highlights from 2013:

  • The Dr. Siri Paiboon mysteries, starting with The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill - Oh, I love this series so far. I love the writing, I love the setting, I adore Dr. Siri, and as my first book of the year this one really got me started on the right foot. Funny, dark, thoughtful, incredibly creative. Very much looking forward to continuing with this series.
  • Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead - The best sort of nonfiction for me: popular science about birds, well-written and totally fascinating. I learned a lot reading this book, and I loved that the whole book was an exercise in showing how scientific knowledge isn't static.
  • Bellwether by Connie Willis - I have bought something like four copies of this book at this point, just because it's so easy to give away to anyone and everyone. It's not very long, but it's beautifully written, plus it's a book about scientists that's also kind of like Office Hours. Funny funny but sometimes a little too close to the bone.
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino - Finally introduced myself to Calvino; I've been meaning to read something by him for years. A wonderful little book that is difficult to pigeonhole, but worked for me on many levels. Felt like reading a highly structured piece of music. 
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman - Such a wonderful piece of high fantasy, original but comfortable, and with characters that stand out as being some of the most vivid I have encountered lately.
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster - A middle-grade classic that I missed out on as a kid, but encountered as a really terrific audiobook as an adult. Highly entertaining, clever, creative, and punny, it isn't perfect but its status as a  modern classic is absolutely earned.
  • Heriot by Margaret Mahy - Another high fantasy work of art. Mahy's writing is always a little unsettling; she had a turn of phrase that was always just a little bit slant. Characters were not her strong suit, but the writing is poetic and startlingly lovely.
  • The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis - I suppose there is a chance I am just including this because it happened to be one of the last books I've read this year so it's fresh in my mind, but I liked it so much I gave it to my Dad for Christmas, so... I love a good mystery, and I love a good set of characters, and this brought an extremely remote historical time to life for me in a way that I love. Looking forward to continuing this series as well.

So once again, the ratio of really excellent reads is quite high this year. October was a bit of a banner month for me; in addition to both Seraphina and The Phantom Tollbooth I finally read Old Man's War by John Scalzi, and The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson, which don't make the list only because I'm trying to keep things manageable. Though October also contained two of my bigger reading disappointments of the year, too. Not sure how I found that much time to read that month, really.

Once again I'll include a list of things I'd like to read in the upcoming year, but my track record here is generally terrible. Though from last year's list I did manage to get three of the seven actually read, and at least two of the others I'm sure to attempt soon. And two of those left were DNF, so actually - way to go, me. Some of the following are book club books, too, which I have started to at least try to finish in time for the book club meetings. I don't always get it done, but I'm trying a lot harder than I ever have. Mostly because never finishing the books I assign starts to get a bit embarrassing.

  • The Inconvenient Indian by Tom King 
  • Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill
  • Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus 3 and 4 by CLAMP
  • The Backyard Parables by Margaret Roach
  • Small Gods by Sir Terry Pratchett (yes, this is a repeat from last year's list)
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia A. McKillip
  • Shadows by Robin McKinley
  • Binny for Short by Hilary McKay
  • The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters
  • The Common Reader Volume 1 by Virginia Woolf

An eclectic mix! Just the way I like it. The length of that list should take me until probably June, the way I've been reading, but let's not think about that...

Thanks again to all of you who read this blog, and all of you who stop by to say hello every once in a while. It's wonderful to be a part of such a special community of book lovers, people who love to read and love to think about what they read, and love reading so much they want to share what they're reading and what they've thought about it. I learn something every time I visit a book blog; thanks for taking the time to read mine this year!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

half a decade seems like a long time

And a lot can happen in five years. 337 blog posts, for example. A university degree. A start to a career. A baby. Lots and lots of great books. Lots of interesting, intelligent, creative bloggers to find and read and connect to, too.

Happy birthday blog. I'm glad you're still here, patiently waiting for my updates, as life swirls on around us. I'll keep reading and you keep recording, and on we'll go together, into the wild reading yonder.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

The Silver Pigs
by Lindsey Davis
Minotaur Books, 2006 (originally published in 1989)
352 pages

This book has the dubious distinction of (I think) being the book that I have been reading for longest. In that, I started it sometime last year, and took an enormous hiatus, and picked it back up again just about ten days ago because of a conversation I had with a co-worker who is an avid reader. See, my copy here is an ebook, and while this might have been the longest break I have taken with a book, it's not the first time I have stopped reading an ebook somewhere in the middle just by virtue of the fact that a paper book has come along and supplanted it. Even if I'm enjoying the ebook, they seem to somehow take a lower precedence, particularly if I own the book and it isn't going to vanish back into library holdings within a certain number of days.

I picked up The Silver Pigs exactly where I left off. And even while I wasn't reading this book I was thinking about Falco, wondering how he was getting on. (Not well, as it happened: when I left him, he'd just fallen down an old mineshaft, broken his leg, and it was starting to snow.) I have thought about this book almost more regularly than almost any other for the duration of the hiatus, even if I wasn't quite moved to pick up the book again. I remembered exactly where we were, exactly what had happened prior, and even some of the salient names. That said, it was the names just about undid me, coming back. There are a fairly large number of important characters, all with Ancient Roman names, which do have a habit of sounding somewhat similar to this modern-day Canadian.

I have a very weak spot for historical novels that can really bring the past to life for me, that can make the so-called "little people" of history - not the big names that we all know - as real to me as someone living across the street. I have not made my love of Brother Cadfael and his world a secret here. And it looks like I will have to add Marcus Didius Falco to my list of favourite historical private investigators, too. Fans of Ancient Roman history and trivia in particular should take note: Davis has done her homework. She is also the first to admit (in the Introduction to the edition that I read) that she's probably got some things wrong, in the way that it would almost be impossible to avoid, since we are only ever speculating on exactly how day-to-day life was lived by the Romans. In fact, she notes that in some ways the entire premise of this particular book falls apart since the fraud being committed would have been impossible given new information on how the silver pigs were used.

But halt. What, exactly, is The Silver Pigs about? And no. It has nothing to do with pigs.

Marcus Didius Falco is an informer - what one, these days, might call a private eye. But as Falco is living and working in Rome around 70AD, the term "private eye" would be a bit of anachronism. One day, out in the Forum, Falco bumps into a young woman in obvious distress, and being the rather soft-hearted cad he is, he decides on the spur of the moment to help her out. Unfortunately, it appears that the beautiful young Sosia has gotten herself into much deeper trouble than either of them realize, and it eventually falls to Falco to uncover and thwart a plot that strikes at the very heart of the new Emperor Vespasian.

It's a great deal more complicated than that, and it's also a tremendous amount of fun. The story has a vaguely noir feel to it. Falco is certainly verging on a hardboiled detective, with the same curt way of speaking, the same crusty exterior, the same whatever-it-takes attitude, and the same heart of gold that one expects in the [anti]heroes of that genre. There are beautiful women, dangerous men, a loyal sidekick. There's a dark, self-deprecating sense of humour. But Falco also has a family - a mother he is in awe of, though he tries not to show it, a gaggle of sisters, an adored niece. And the setting is unique, and wonderful. Davis has thoroughly fleshed out Ancient Rome and Britania in a way that really does make it almost tangible to a modern-day reader.

Falco was a bit much for me at first. His hardboiled attitude seemed overblown, a little unbelievable. But he grew on me (like a bad rash, he might say.) Also, as I said above, the names were a bit much for me, and not just when I'd taken a break and was coming back. It took some time for characters not Falco to come into focus and sort themselves out into actual people. Once they did, though, they began to leap off the page in the way Falco did.

I've ended this book craving more Falco, and more Ancient Rome. Lucky for me, there are many more Falco books for me to explore. I shouldn't be starting new series at this point; I have so, so many on the go. But this is one I am very glad I started. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, mysteries, and books that do not take themselves too seriously, but just seriously enough.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

by Mary Stewart
Random House, 1991 (originally published in 1988)
188 pages

A book like this is, I think, much better read quickly, rather than in dribs and drabs as I did it. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the experience; it's just that an enjoyable, pleasant read like this book shouldn't seem quite so slow as it did, and I never developed any sense of urgency about reading it. Nor did the plot develop any sense of urgency, but I think that was just that the reading was so interrupted. That said, it's sometimes very nice to read something that isn't urgent, but potters along at its own pace, and doesn't demand late-night readings.

Melwyk used the phrase "sweet witchiness" to describe Thornyhold, and I quite agree with that lovely choice of words. It is a quiet, simple, sweet story of a young woman, lonely and isolated in her childhood save for a few visits from her mother's kind, fiercely intelligent cousin, and isolated but rather glad of it in her young adulthood too. However, Cousin Geillis has left her goddaughter an unexpected and welcome gift: Thornyhold, a quiet cottage deep in the woods of an old estate, along with a cat, a few pigeons, lots of herbs and medicines, and a few near neighbours. Her closest neighbours are the Trapps, widow Agnes, her son Jessamy, and her mother (known only as Gran). And Agnes seems nice enough, but Gilly is not entirely sure she trusts her. Then there's the boy William, whom loved Geillis dearly and becomes quite attached to Gilly and she to him, and his father, an exceedingly attractive author, who lives in a cottage not far away.

You may see some of where this is going. Probably not all of it; there are little mysteries and twists, but this reader had not a lot of trouble figuring them out well before the protagonist did.

I think the thing I liked best about this book was the setting and the detail; Stewart did not spare when describing Thornyhold, nor indeed any of the settings in the book. In a longer book, the endless description might have felt tedious, but in the little book that Thornyhold is, the description laid the foundations for the story, establishing a certain mood and a certain type of character. Gilly tells the story firsthand; it is her attention to detail that we see. She loves the natural world and animals in particular, and so we pay attention to these things as well. I loved the setting, I loved how vivid it was in my head. I liked the level of detail. I liked that I felt that Gilly Ramsey was leading me around her world by the hand.

The characters, on the other hand, and the relationships in particular, tend to be barely sketched in. Gilly's character progression is pretty shy and retiring, like she is herself. It's hard to have a shy and retiring first-person narrator; she doesn't really want to let anyone in, including the reader. And the relationships, which for me are always the most interesting part of a book, seem... well, they kind of take a simple progression, but I'll admit I found the romance in particular almost too subtle. Stewart's light touch (or is it Gilly's?) is where I lost something by reading this book in such disjointed chunks. I think I would have appreciated the characters, and their interactions, much better if I'd been reading in a more concerted fashion.

I could see reading this again someday when I have more time to devote to it - it would go by in a single afternoon, if I had one. A quiet, simple love story with just a hint of magic and a lot of beautiful scenery.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Second Nature by Michael Pollan

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education
by Michael Pollan
Blackstone Audio, 2009 (book originally published in 1991)
8 discs, unabridged

This truly is an excellent book, deserving of the accolades it has received over the years (yes, I can even see how it might be considered "a new literary classic" as the blurb on Goodreads would have it.) It also fits quite nicely into my pattern of waiting until the garden is safely under snow before getting excited about gardening again, usually at the impetus of a book like this. I didn't agree with everything this book offers - I'll get to my objections in a moment - but I loved that I was challenged by it without being shamed, and that I can feel, even at the end, that though I do disagree with at least one of Pollan's fundamental points, this book is still incredibly valuable and powerful and necessary. Perhaps I feel this so strongly even because I disagree with it.

It starts out as a seemingly simple, straightforward gardening memoir, though Pollan tells us right off where we're going, and straightforward gardening memoir is not it. I think I would have enjoyed it even if it had stuck to that. What lifts it above, however, is that Pollan transitions between gardening memoir to philosophical tract to history to manifesto, in and out, often all four things in the same chapter. And while that might sound like an awful lot of weight for a single gardening book to bear, Pollan writes so well that we move seamlessly from philosophy to history to personal anecdote to ethics to practical gardening info without blinking. One rarely feels weighed down, even when Pollan is talking about something as weighty as the history of landscape design in Western culture or the culture of the rose, largely because of the author's enthusiasm for the subject and his wry sense of humour. Pollan is fascinated by each subject he turns his pen to; the reader (or listener, in my case) is drawn along for the ride.

Even though he's very United States-centric (this is fair) and this book was originally published in 1991, I think Pollan's argument that we need a new environmental ethic is a very pertinent one in this decade and particularly in this country. I agree with him that the paradigms we have operated under have failed us as we operate as stewards of this planet. He suggests the "wilderness ethic" that requires complete isolation of wild places, an entirely hands-off approach, a la Thoreau, has lead us to believe that anything that is not untouched wilderness is therefore fair game for development of whatever sort we happen to feel we need, generally things like roads and suburbs. There is no middle ground. He proposes a "garden ethic" as the middle ground, a way towards a "second nature" in which human culture and wild nature can coexist, where the dichotomy of culture vs. nature no longer applies. He argues persuasively that generally gardeners already practice this garden ethic, even if they themselves don't recognize it as such.

Each chapter in the book essentially goes to reinforce this argument in one way or another. I found that the chapter in which he discusses ecological restoration to be particularly edifying; I could clearly and absolutely see his point, and found that I agreed with him more than I thought I did.

Where he did lose me, at first, and where I still disagree with him, is in his interpretation of naturalists and the wilderness. He argues that naturalists are too romantically engaged with the idea of wilderness, are too hands-off, are too anti-culture to accept that some human activity in the wilderness can be a good thing and might be a necessary thing. We are too blindly protective of our wild spaces, even to the detriment of the wild space. (He also suggests, a couple of times, that naturalists are lazy gardeners - this point, I am afraid, at least in my own experience I must concede, though in my grandmother's case I take issue.) He rails against wilderness - non-garden green spaces - as trying to encroach on human space, in fact setting up the sort of dichotomy he speaks against: nature is constantly trying to take back her own, in an indifferent, entropic sort of way. He suggests, in one of the earliest chapters, that no wild forest could ever have taught him as much about nature as his grandfather's garden did as a child.

To this I would suggest that Pollan just didn't have the right teachers, or the right role-models, for understanding how to learn from a wilderness. Were his eyes open to the right sorts of things, a forest has an awful lot to teach, has an incredible amount of value to humans. If you can walk through the forest like I can, and my mother, and my grandmother, and the way my grandfather did, and see and identify birds, and see and identify the various plants, insects, mammal tracks, lichens - if you can do this, you are never at a loss for something to learn. Every walk is different, each minute brings something new. (This is why I cannot really go for a hike for exercise purposes; I stop every few minutes to look at something.) And there is something valuable about going into a place with the mindset that doesn't involve "how do I put my human stamp on this, how do I change it [for the better]." This is not, in contrast to Pollan's suggestions, a lazy way to view nature. In fact, I think for many, it's harder to realize the patient openness of the naturalist's perspective than it is to go in and try to "fix" things.

That said, I get what Pollan is trying to say: that most landscapes, green or wild or otherwise, bear the stamp of human interference, and we'd do better to reconcile ourselves to interfering than to locking nature away to be something we only go visit on weekends, otherwise we're going to lose it entirely. I agree with that, fundamentally. I agree that wildlife management is probably necessary both for human enjoyment and for the good of the species involved. Pollan maybe should acknowledge a little louder that we don't always get it right, with our management techniques - Asian Ladybeetles, anyone? - but on the other hand, I agree too with the premise that basically what we're doing is managing nature in order to keep the planet habitable and pleasant for ourselves. Otherwise we're going to squeeze ourselves right out of this place. And the planet will do just fine once we're gone, keeping on keeping on, in the way it does. Pollan's point of view is unabashedly anthropocentric, whereas I think mine leans a little further towards viewing the species we share the planet with as having a right to exist for their own sake and not just ours, but we share a lot of common ground. In the spirit of his garden ethic, I think there's places to meet in the middle where we can come to compromises that don't devalue either point of view.

The audio is well-produced, though the CD breaks are at weird spots; but maybe it's just me who notices when a chapter starts and then a paragraph later you have to switch the CD? At any rate, Pollan reads the book himself, and is a good reader. It's nice to hear the words spoken the way the author intended them to sound. He's got a dryly humourous, self-deprecating way of reading that I think probably plays up those aspects of the text, and it works really well. Though he's serious about what he's saying, it never devolves into pedantry or self-important schlock. I wondered a time or two if reading the book would have felt like more of a slog than listening did.

As you can tell, lots of fodder for discussion and thought here. You don't have to be a gardener to enjoy this book, but you might find yourself curious to try growing something yourself. And even if you don't think that will ever happen, I think this is a valuable piece of writing as an effort to establish new ground, new ways of thinking and talking about humans and the environment. If it is so ambitious that it sometimes misses its mark, at least it tries. A brave book, and a necessary one.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Dog Who Thought He Was Santa by Bill Wallace

The Dog Who Thought He Was Santa
by Bill Wallace
Aladdin Paperbacks, 2007
184 pages

You may have heard this refrain from me before, but jeebus I really should read the books I pick for kids' book clubs thoroughly before assigning them. Last time it was kind of a lucky break, with Spud. I even started a fad among eleven to thirteen-year-old boys at the local elementary school for reading that series, and got some questions from parents but never any flack.

I was lucky in this case too, or have been so far. Everyone I have talked to has been very understanding, and generally quite positive about the book in general. There were, unless I hear differently, no major disasters or even minor ones.

This is not a bad book. It's pretty reasonable, actually; better, in some ways, than I expected, and it grew on me as a story though the writing is very workmanlike. But the age group that this book is recommended for, that I assigned it to for my parent-child book club, is by-and-large not entirely ready for the "Is Santa real?" discussion. In the past couple of days as I frantically tried to get in touch with the parents in the group to warn them, I was told that most of the kids in my group between the ages of seven to twelve are still believers. (The ones who weren't never were in the first place.) Ten or eleven is not too old to believe in Santa Claus.

In the third chapter, one of the characters, six-year-old Susan, gets into a fight on the playground on the last day of school before Christmas break because one of the other children has told her that Santa isn't real. That was a kick to the gut, because I was Susan. At that age and at that time of year, and in a situation that was almost exactly what she experienced. Apparently I am still traumatized by that experience, as evinced by how abjectly horrified I was when I realized what I'd done after finally reading the entire book myself. I've been told I was really a fair bit more upset than the situation justified. Weird, isn't it, how some things stick with you long past the time when they really should?

It is pretty clear throughout the book that Don, the main character (he is eleven or twelve and Susan's older brother), and Frank, the other main character (he's a dog) and the parents are not believers either. In fact, it's a very touching story about the family rallying around Susan, trying to figure out what she wants from Santa Claus and trying to figure out how to get it for her without tipping her off. In other words, they're trying to keep Susan believing, even just one more year. We, as readers, are privy to this, though it's never stated in so many words.

The book ends very ambiguously: the existence of Santa Claus seems quite probable, in fact, given the ending of the book, which for kids who are already believers will be comforting and ring true. Though one of the believers in the group stated quite clearly that she was sure it was Frank who had saved the day, even if Frank himself quite clearly stated he had nothing to do with it.

Aside from the grief it caused me this book is pretty charming. It starts out slow, but as I said above, it grew on me, because I liked the way the family really did stick together. Mom and Dad are present and accounted for, and supportive as Don and Susan are both starting to deal with their own particular issues. The writing, as above, is workmanlike; it does what it needs to without fanfare and occasionally errs on the side of clunky. But both narrators, Don and Frank, have their own special charm. Frank is surprisingly believable for a very anthropomorphized dog. I shouldn't have bought into his character, but I did.

The challenge for me is who to recommend it to. Knowing what I know now, I would never recommend this book to a kid unless I knew for sure which side of the red-suited-man-line they are on. I would, however, recommend it to parents who are starting to have to answer those difficult questions. Either to read it to get a bit of perspective, or to help them think of how to answer, or to read aloud to gently open those lines of communication. Everyone who came to book club did end up really enjoying the book; we had no dissenters, which is somewhat unusual. Even the believers seem to have found what they needed in the book to confirm their belief, or are at least content to leave the questions lie for now. So, for the right kids, a pleasant, quiet, sweet, often funny Christmas story with a lot of heart and a lot of gentleness.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Coal Dust Kisses by Will Ferguson

Coal Dust Kisses: A Christmas Memoir
by Will Ferguson
Viking Canada, 2010
57 pages

Evidence that science doesn't know everything: Science will tell you that the Northern Lights are silent, cherry blossoms have no scent, and the likelihood of Santa Claus actually existing is low, to say the least.

But in each case I can assert the opposite, just as firmly and with something approaching empirical certainty. For I have heard the Northern Lights, caught the scent of cherry blossoms on the wind, and seen the evidence for Santa Claus firsthand - in the mirror, written on my very skin, a faint but undeniable smudge, Christmas, made manifest.

So begins Will Ferguson's very short and very charming little Christmas memoir. The first thing that struck me was the writing. I've never read anything by Will Ferguson before, though he comes highly recommended by many both for his nonfiction and his fiction. The reputation, if this tiny slice of holiday life is to be trusted, is well-earned. Not only does he write with clarity and gentle humour, his turn of phrase is graceful. His writing feels good to read.

(Or perhaps I am just partial to it because in this little informal piece he uses a lot of parentheses, and we all know how fond I am of parenthetical asides.)

As one might expect from a book that is a scant 57 pages long, there isn't a lot here to write about. I read this with one of my book clubs and we didn't have a lot of discussion on the book itself, though we went a lot of tangential directions from it. Ferguson is talking about Christmases he remembers, tradition, and family; he is drawing a faint arc from his great-grandfather in Cape Breton, west with his grandfather, and around the world with Ferguson himself, then back to Western Canada with his own children. There is, because this is a book about family and tradition, a slight melancholy to accompany the sweet and the gently funny. One gets the impression that Ferguson is working through something, not just writing for the benefit of the holiday reader. Or solely for the benefit of his own boys, though one gets the impression that this is a book written specifically for them and the dedication confirms it.

This is, though, a book that couldn't have been any longer. I didn't really want more. (As one of our members said, "Sometimes I wondered... what's the point of this book?") Well, it's a memoir. It's someone telling stories and making that telling look very easy, writing with an ease that if I know anything about writing is anything but easy. But any longer would have been more than necessary, would have made it less enjoyable and more work to read. Its aim isn't just to entertain, though it does that, nor is it to make the reader think, though it does that too at points. It's a sweet little record, a sharing of something special. You are being let in on the story, allowed to peek through the frosty window, just for a little moment in time.

Enjoyable, not unmissable. If you like a little amusing holiday reading that won't take long (perfect for such a busy time of year, really) go ahead and pick this up. It's liable to make you laugh out loud, and it may make you think about the traditions that surround this time of year, that seem so vital to our own holiday experiences, and how those come about and how those change over time. I will certainly be reading more of Ferguson's work; perhaps one of his travel memoirs next.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Because of Winn-Dixie
by Kate DiCamillo, read by Cherry Jones
Random House Audio, 2001 (text published in 2000)
2 discs, unabridged

This is not my first time around for this book, and I'm very happy to report that I'm sure it won't be my last, either. It improves on re-reading. Of all of the books I have read with my parent-child book club over the last three years, this has remained a steady favourite. I can think of only one or two other books that my veteran members mention as much, with as much fondness, as they mention Winn-Dixie. So when we started a second parent-child book club, this was a no-brainer choice. And when my first book club participants have all grown out of it and I'm on to a new crop of families, I'll read it with that group again.

I often don't re-read the books that I've already read for book club again, but I loved this when I read it the first time. The audiobook seemed like a good choice, and it had been a couple of years; a refresher was in order.

I'll refer you to my original entry on this book for the summary. Instead, here I'll talk a bit about the audiobook, and some of the things that occurred to me this go-round.

The audio is well done. Cherry Jones does a solid narration job, and brings India Opal Buloni and Naomi, Florida, to life. Her accent is broadly Southern and puts this Canadian more in mind of Georgia than Florida, which might have surprised me more if one of the parents in the group hadn't mentioned it to me before I got my hands on a copy. But it fits, and the cadence of Opal's voice as written really comes to life when read. It adds an extra flavour to the text, which is already rich with the feel of a small town in Florida in summer. And on audio this book is a breeze, at under two hours. It goes by almost too quickly.

I really noticed two things this time through, and they're completely unconnected. Mechanics first: this story is spare. The fact that I recognized it this time might have been exactly because the audiobook feels so short. Kate diCamillo is an expert at understatement, and there is not a single detail in this book that does not need to be there. She knows where to focus her (and therefore our) attention, and how to make time pass without narrating its passing. And she is concise. Opal and the preacher (her father) have a deeply loving relationship, and a complex one, and it is drawn in its complexity and depth with a few spare strokes. Characters, too, are drawn so carefully yet so naturally that one knows them within a few lines and yet they're not one-dimensional, unless Opal sees them as one-dimensional. And when she grows out of that view, it doesn't take more than a few words for the reader to grow their understanding of the character as well. She's a master of concision and it is a beautiful thing to read (or hear.)

The other is that though Winn-Dixie the dog may be a catalyst, he's not the star of the story as much as Opal thinks he is. She doesn't recognize it herself, but it's her integrity, bravery, and kindness that lead to the changes that happen to her over the summer. She may be braver because Winn-Dixie is beside her, but the decisions she makes are her own, and her choices to seek friendship where others might not, and to foster ties where others might not, to open lines of communications that have been silent previously, are the choices that make the difference, not Winn-Dixie's sunny, intelligent, gentle personality. And not that kids' stories have to have "good messages," but this one, in addition to being a lovely, entertaining, funny, sweetly melancholy story, does. It's a message about being kind and looking beyond the surface. That's not a bad thing to take away from a book, for a child or an adult. It's nice that one doesn't feel Messaged At to get to that point, too.

It's hard for me to say whether or not, if you are only going to do one or the other, you should read this or listen to the audiobook. Either is a good choice. But definitely do one or the other. Don't pass this book by.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Winter by Adam Gopnik

Winter: Five Windows on the Season
by Adam Gopnik
House of Anansi Press, 2011
210 pages

Disclaimer: I love winter. So does Adam Gopnik. And I have decided that I'm going to try to stop apologising for this love of mine, as fashionable as complaining about the snow and cold weather is: winter is a wonderful season, and Gopnik spends quite a lot of time validating my fondness of it. If you thought that maybe five lectures and 210 pages was too long to spend talking about winter, you would be wrong. Gopnik manages it and one gets the impression he could have kept going. And this reader - and most readers, I'd wager, even those who have no love of cold and ice - would have been pretty happy to keep following.

Winter is part of the Massey Lectures series, the printed version of the spoken lecture series heard every year on CBC's Ideas. I quite like the idea of reading each of the lecture series, although I haven't gotten very far with this mission and they just keep on piling up (there is a new one every year. How am I supposed to keep up with that?) 

Gopnik's love for this season - this accident of nature, this clockwork shift to ice due to an axial tilt as our planet orbits the sun - is incredibly well-informed. If you look at the tags on this post, you'll get an idea of the sorts of range this book has. He starts with an exploration of the way the way winter has been viewed through the years has shifted, from being a season of bitterness, loss, and hardship, to being a season of warmth, light, and fellowship. He proceeds to an investigation of the polar winter, winter as place, and specifically the draw it held for Victorian explorers. The third lecture is essentially about Christmas, and the place it holds in the Western secular holiday year, as our festival of cold and light. Then there is an extended digression into winter sport, which is mostly about ice hockey, though he spends a serious amount of time looking at the advent and evolution of ice skating period. (Gopnik is a hockey fan, and is quite clear about that, so the entire chapter devoted to expressing his love of the game is not a surprise.) And finally he looks at what it may mean to us to lose winter, either by moving away from it, or by the self-inflicted wound of climate change. Throughout each chapter he is looking at the psychology of winter; that is, what does winter instill in us, culturally, individually? What ideas and thoughts and meanings do we instill into the season? What is winter, exactly, and what has it been?

Books like this that investigate a single idea from so many angles tend to really capture me, particularly if they're done well, and I think this book is. The writing style is very informal - Gopnik's introduction explains that things, as written out, are essentially transcripts of some practice lectures he gave, with a bit of tightening for readability. At times, when a sentence construct felt a little weird, I read it out loud to myself and that fixed the problem. Gopnik is thoughtful, funny, insightful, and relaxed. He circles around particular points and draws his arguments tighter and tighter. He lets the reader in on secrets, he tells us fascinating facts, he laughs at the absurd even as he respects it.

But there was a bit of a thing, and I almost hesitate to even bring it up, because the problem with noting something like this is that, these days, it can be enough for people to pillory the book and the author unfairly. (It can also be enough to earn me the label of "too sensitive" and I hope I don't deserve it in this case, but I am wary of that too.) It was noticeable, and it did bug me, so:

Gopnik is looking a lot at history, and it is a primarily male history. There are not a lot of women in this book. Franny Mendelssohn, sister of the more familiar composer, gets a brief, positive mention. Anna Brownell Jameson, the writer of Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada - her diary, essentially - gets a lot of page time in the first lecture. And that is about it, except for some nameless skaters flirting with men in images of skating in Central Park, affectionate mentions of his wife and daughter, the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen, and then - the throwaway and unnecessary reference that solidified my feeling that maybe Gopnik should have been paying a bit more attention to the issue of gender in his lectures - a Playmate makes a very baffling metaphorical appearance. It's not that the book feels like a frat party, exactly. I don't think Gopnik is generally disrespectful of the female, the feminine, and certainly not of individual women. But I was noticing a lack, and then the Playmate comment made me actually wince. It wasn't offensive on its own, but given the lack of female presence in the book, it took on a bit more of a profile than it should have.

The thing is, history, as written by most, and as enrolled in these lectures by Gopnik, is very heavy on men and very short on women, and these lectures are a look into the history of our relationship with winter. Men feature prominently. Women don't as much, so when they do feature, I'd like it to matter. I'd like it to not be played for laughs. I'd like it to not feel a little bit as though we are the temptresses, the objects of desire, that our only relationship with winter is as it allows us to express our otherwise forbidden sexuality (as in his argument about the social role ice skating fulfilled for women and gay men around the turn of the twentieth century). Given his admiration and respect for Anna Brownell Jameson, I don't actually think Gopnik really does think of women only in this way. Unfortunately the book doesn't quite reflect that.

There is still lots to love about this book, and lots of really excellent things about it. Sure, Gopnik overreaches his point sometimes, or gets a little repetitive as he circles around his argument; but mostly it's well-written, very accessible, entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, gentle, kind. He captures the feeling of winter, particularly in his first chapter and the chapter on Christmas, the awe and wonder and affection and respect that I hold for the season. It is hard for me to know if someone who isn't as fond of winter as I am would be swayed by his argument, but I think it would be pretty difficult not to be touched by it. Recommended, for Canadians especially: we whinge a lot about this season. I don't think it would hurt us to think about it a little more deeply than just complaining about shoveling and cold.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Terroryaki! by Jennifer K. Chung

by Jennifer K. Chung
3-Day Books, 2011
144 pages

The trouble with reading this while spending the day in bed with a flu-like bug is that it will make you hungry. It will make you very hungry, even though eating sends you into unpleasant spasms. You will not care about the spasms. You will just want to eat chicken teriyaki, preferably the soul-destroyingly good kind.

So, this is not a very scary book, and it's not a very deep book, but it is rather a lot of fun, and it was, aside from the hungry-making bit, the perfect read for a sick day. It doesn't make you think too hard and it moves along at a good clip. The humour is easy-going and the characters easy to like. The plot will not make you work hard, and the writing is good enough to keep this reader engaged, if not in love.

It is helpful to come in with a certain set of expectations, mind you: this is a book that was essentially written in three days. Did you know there was an International 3-Day Novel Contest? There is. And has been going on for a while - Terroryaki! was the winner of the 33rd annual contest. It is therefore a slender little offering, and while clearly polished up a bit, it does have a few rough edges. I learned about it from Pickle Me This, quite a while ago, and when the opportunity came for me to get hold of it, I took it.

Daisy is our first-person narrator, and she is a twenty-four-year-old slacker, a daughter of Taiwanese parents who wants to be an artist, but without much idea of how to get there, or how to break it to her family. She's also a foodie, a teriyaki connoisseur. Her overachieving elder sister Sam is getting married to a man whom their mother holds in the highest contempt, and the story is structured around the months and days leading up to the wedding. Throw in a mysterious, creepy teriyaki truck that appears and disappears on a whim, and a wedding planner straight out of a Norse epic, and some blog reviews of restaurants I desperately want to visit, and you have the cheerful, somewhat frenetic book that is Terroryaki!

The negatives: everything is out there on the surface, and some things don't quite make sense. There's a scene in a nail salon that makes absolutely no sense, and appears to have just been for laughs and to add a bit more mystery around the teriyaki truck, but it didn't really do either for me, particularly as the followup to the scene just confused things a bit more. The relationship that develops between Daisy and the teriyaki truck guy is kind of ... baffling, in that it didn't really get developed so much as assumed. Also, the teriyaki truck guy talks in such an odd cadence and it felt painfully artificial, even in a book that is pretty silly.

The positives, which in the end outweigh those negatives for me: the food, the humour, the family (particularly the dynamic between Daisy and her dad) and the fact that silly or not, things work to create an entertaining story. But especially the food. As I mentioned, Daisy is a foodie, and she blogs about her favourite (and not-so-favourite) restaurants, and we are treated to a sampling of her blog entries. (And no, they don't really have much to do with the plot, except that they allow for a bit more character development of Patrick, Sam's fiancee, than the rest of the book could squeeze in; this is okay, as they are humourous and delicious.) Daisy's got a good sense of how to be entertaining without being nasty, which is a good thing in a restaurant review. She's also enthusiastic, which is also key. And her good reviews make me want to eat the food she's talking about, badly. She also talks lovingly about the art of teriyaki right in the text, and about other foods too.

A sidenote, but worth noting: the production quality of this little gem is quite impressive. The cover is perfect, the paper weight is lovely, and the watermarks on the first pages of each chapter actually really add to the experience of the book, for some reason. The blogging sections are different enough but not gimmicky. This was a nice book to hold in the hand and to look at.

Something a little different, something a little fun, something a lot tasty. Recommended if you have an afternoon to spare and need something to take your mind off anything but your stomach.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Heriot by Margaret Mahy

by Margaret Mahy
Faber and Faber, 2009
353 pages

There is something about Margaret Mahy's writing. The way this woman used words is special, and I always find myself feeling a little breathless and awed when I am reading her books - even her children's books, our favourite of which is Bubble Trouble. I don't think her writing is for everyone; I do think, occasionally, that the way the words are put together takes precedence over the story and the characters, and a perfectly marvelous little jewel of the English language will shine a little too brightly for the rest of the paragraph to support it. But I am in love with my language, and am okay to admire something that is just so beautiful, or apt, or beautifully strange that it pulls one away from the story it is telling for just the briefest moment.

Beautifully strange pretty much describes this book, as well. The titular character, Heriot Tarbas, is only one of three point-of-view characters in the novel, though he gets the majority of the book. We meet him as a boy, living on a farm built in the ruins of a much grander structure (love this) and surrounded by his industrious and loving, but somewhat puzzled, family. Heriot has always been a little strange, plagued by visions, vivid dreams, and terrible headaches and "fits." So he is marked as being different. But he loves his life on the farm, and when events conspire to pull him away from it, he is desperate to escape his destiny.

Heriot is inextricably tied, by magic and then by friendship, to Dysart, the third son of the King of Hoad, our third point-of-view character and considered "mad" because he too is plagued by strange visions and dreams, as well as extraneous because he has two elder brothers to be heirs to the throne. The second point-of-view character is Linnet, daughter of one of the Lords of Hoad, whose fortunes become tied to Dysart's and by extension to Heriot's when she and Dysart are thrown together in classes while Dysart's father is negotiating a peace with their warring neighbours.

It struck me as interesting that I've now read two novels in the past two months that are about how difficult maintaining a peace can be - more difficult, in some ways, than constant warring. In both it is the generation that grows up in peacetime, that is used to peace and understands their function in it, that can be the instruments of preserving the peace when it becomes strained. But this is only one of the themes in Heriot worth mentioning. The book also explores the dangers of seeing people as symbols, themes of love and friendship, the process of self-discovery and self-actualization. It looks carefully at the stories we tell ourselves and the stories others tell about us, and what those stories can mean to the teller and the told, and what powers one has and doesn't have over the stories told about oneself.

It is not a perfect book, despite my love for it. Frankly I thought Linnet was entirely underused, her storyline somewhat predictable and undeveloped, and that was disappointing. And all of the characters can be a bit slippery, hard to define, despite being distinct and interesting. There can be a distance between the reader and the characters, even the point-of-view characters. I was fascinated by Heriot and grew to love him; I loved Cayley, the fourth major character, from the start, but he's not an easy character to pin down, either. This is not completely unexpected with Mahy, though, I don't think. I feel the same distance from Sorry and his family in her book The Changeover and I think it is a bit of a function of the strangeness of the characters' abilities and situations. Because that's the thing: there is strangeness, and discomfort. The characters experience it and the reader does, too, and not just because the characters are experiencing it. There is something about Mahy's writing that can be uncompromisingly odd. I wish I could tell you how she does it.

The other thing that amazes me is that she can walk that line between being beautifully (sometimes viscerally, brutally) descriptive and can take a person out of the story with her language, and yet I have never considered her to be flowery or purple in her prose. It all seems to fit, or perhaps I am giving her a pass because passages like "What he could make out was the unfamiliar accent, much quicker and more clipped than the family voices, and more careful. Lord Glass polished every word a little bit before he let it out on its own in the world." delight me so much.

And if you are the sort of person who needs to have all the blanks filled in, this is not a book that will agree with you much; there are periods of time that go unexplored and many things that go unsaid. The reader has to do a bit of work, and it's not always easy work either. I have noticed, too, that some people find the ending too explain-y, but I didn't mind that particular bit at all. The clues were all there, and I found it cathartic to have someone finally lay it out, make the final important connections.

I can't say for sure whether this is the best introduction to Mahy if you've never read anything by her; to be honest, I've read a lot of her children's books (all of them? I hope not) and only two of her books for older readers. Between the two, I do think The Changeover is more accessible, because Laura's an easier character to grasp and to inhabit. But Heriot has a scope and a sweep that The Changeover does not, and lovers of high fantasy who are willing to give something a bit different a try, or who love it when an author revels in her facility with words and is able to share some of that joy with her readers, would do well to read this one.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Eldritch Manor by Kim Thompson

Eldritch Manor
by Kim Thompson
Dundurn, 2012
176 pages

Days after finishing this, I am still trying to pin down exactly what it was that irked me so much about this book. I am trying, too, to separate out what was just irritation because I had higher expectations than was fair, and what legitimately did not agree with me.

It's not that I'm about to tear this book apart. I just can't do that, and I don't get any joy out of that sort of thing. Especially when this is a first novel, and the author is Canadian, and I wanted to like the book. Furthermore, Eldritch Manor has some really excellent things going for it, so let's talk about those first. There is a reason that this was chosen to be on the Forest of Reading nominees list for 2014, after all.

The concept? Is awesome. It was the reason my expectations were so high. How can one not be taken with the idea of a book where the main character is hired on as a housekeeper in a house where the inhabitants are retired mythical and fantastical creatures? And of course things will start to go wrong, and of course Willa, our heroine, will be called on to save the world, with a little help from her new elderly, crotchety, mythological friends. I love the idea of this book so much. I thought the cast of characters was creative, I thought the way the world worked made sense, I thought that the ideas and the setting worked. The world-building, albeit brief, was totally satisfying.

And yet... and yet. Something went wrong for me with this book, and if I had to pinpoint it I would say that I don't think the execution was up to the premise - for me as an adult. This is an important point, and I will get to why in a moment.

I think things went flat in a couple of places: the style of the writing didn't work for me, and that can be a very subjective thing, so this sometimes happens. But I also found that there were things packed in to the book that felt unnecessary, which meant that things that should have had more time (especially Willa's relationship with the sphinx Horace) missed out because we were spending time on other things that didn't need attention. Or else those things should have grabbed more attention. There was a family situation that could have meant quite a lot to Willa's character-building, and some of the other characters as well. It wasn't a surprise when it popped up right near the end of the book (I mean, in the last chapter) because there had been some foreshadowing. But it was extraneous to the story, or could have been if an editor had done something about it. It was dealt with so quickly and so ineffectively that it was a non sequitur.

Overall I felt that character development was fairly perfunctory and typecast. There just wasn't a lot there, and characters mean pretty much everything to me in a story. Action and dialogue was even a bit typecast, and that can bug me, especially where expressions are used that frequently appear in pop culture, but when actually read they make no sense.

All of this said, aside from the problem with the ending, which I don't think will be ignored by children either, I suspect the things that bugged me actually won't bother kids as much. The writing is simple - that isn't a dealbreaker for kids. The characters are quickly-drawn, but at least they are interesting - again, not going to bother kids. I ate up The Babysitters' Club books and Nancy Drew as a kid and I'd say this is at least as good as anything in either of those series, and way more imaginative. It's leaps and bounds ahead of the perennially popular Fairy books by Daisy Meadows that we can't keep on the shelves at the library.

And while I might occasionally roll my eyes at those Fairy books, I think there is a place for books that appeal more to kids than adults. Something about those simple storylines, the simple writing, and the action-filled plots with characters that are clear and easy to grasp, really appeal to kids even as they drive adults to distraction. Those are often the books that kids start to read all by themselves once they can read chapter books, and the process of reading them helps develop literacy and fluency. They are easy to read, and they are fun, and they are satisfying, and so kids want to read more. The process of decoding written language is already challenging enough for many kids without having to keep track of layers and complexity that the kind of children's books I love contain.

Sometimes the same kids who eat those up also love the more complex, more "literary" books written for kids, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they only want to read Nancy Drew. And you know what? That's okay. Maybe someday they will move on to things that are a little more complex, writing- and structure-wise. And if they don't, that's okay too. Lots of adults love James Patterson, or Julia Quinn, or Danielle Steel, and some of them won't read anything else either. At least reading is an enjoyable part of their life, and every book has value in one way or another.

So, in the end: not a book for me. But I do hope it finds its audience, and I think being nominated for the Silver Birch category of the Forest of Reading will help it do that, because its audience is kids, and should be. I wish the book and Kim Thompson all the best, and I hope she finds an editor who can help her tighten things up a bit -- there is potential here for some great children's books down the line.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle
by Eva Ibbotson
Pan Macmillan, 2005
3 discs, unabridged

A perfectly spooky tale for a spooky time of year, and entertaining for the whole family. It's a simple tale, this one, on the surface. Madlyn and Rollo's parents are off in New York, because their father has taken a badly-needed commission. They are packed off to spend the summer with their Great-Uncle George and Great-Aunt Emily at an old castle in the north named Clawstone. Once there, it is apparent that things are not going well; the neighbouring castle, Trembello Towers, is drawing all the local visitors, and there is no money for the upkeep of the castle, the grounds, or most importantly, the herd of unique, wild white cattle who inhabit the grounds. Madlyn and Ned, one of the local children, come up with an idea to draw visitors back to Clawstone with the help of some rather unusual entertainers.

This is very much a children's book, in that the villains are villainous and unpleasant, the good characters are good beyond reproach, and there isn't too much in between. The characterization is enough, but not deep. But the writing is solid and the plot is, while occasionally completely ridiculous in a fun way, well-executed. And there are deeper issues here that would make for great discussion with kids. They are never belaboured, but it is not as if Ibbotson was ignoring them; they are an integral part of the plot, but this is a short book, and so if the plight of refugees in the UK is never investigated deeply it's not because the seriousness of the problem isn't recognized. It's just not the point of the story. There are other stories that deal with that.

Where things do get a bit sketchy is with a few minor plot threads towards the end that do odd things. Why did the banshees bother to come to Black Scar Island with Great-Uncle George if nothing was going to be said about them on that visit? What was the point of their presence? Did I miss it because I was listening to an audiobook? Was it just intended to be amusing at that moment? (I don't think this counts as a spoiler, at least not a major one, unless I really did miss something important.) It was just such a strange oversight, in a book that otherwise seemed to tie up the ends rather neatly if not always in the way one expected. I was confused enough about it that I actually paused the disc once I realized nothing more was going to be said about them. Thrown out of the story. I am of the Chekhov school - if you are going to have a banshee or three in the back of the car, those banshees had better be used in the plot. Otherwise they just confuse me.

The audio is excellent. It's David Tennant doing the reading, so how can it not be? He's got a wonderful reading voice, and he does the character's voices well, and one never feels like one is being spoken down to, which is always a turnoff for me with kids' audiobooks. I'd love to do this book with one of my child-parent book clubs, because of the fact that I think there is meat to discuss but also just a wonderful, entertaining, spooky but not too spooky story that would appeal to all ages. Much thanks to Darla for bringing it to my attention, lo those many years ago.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War
by John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2005
362 pages

Ever since reading On Basilisk Station I have been extremely, extremely wary of anything that hints at military science fiction. That was a good book, and I got attached to the characters, and then it caused me sleepless nights for days after I finished the thing. Not exaggerating. But Old Man's War has been on my list for ages (since Nymeth's review, to be exact) and I thoroughly enjoy John Scalzi's nonfic writing. So, looking for something different for my genre book club, this made the cut, and I went ahead and read it. Not without trepidation, which was somewhat justified, but I'm very glad I was brave and didn't cheat by just reading a summary on Wikipedia.

Without giving too much away: John Perry is 75, and he is about to join the army. The Colonial Defense Force, to be exact. Humans are a spacefaring race, but we're not the only ones, and competition for habitable planets is fierce. Earth is a quarantined backwater, and the only way off for most of those humans is the way Perry has decided to go: volunteering for the military force that keeps human colonies safe, scouts out, and (as necessary) takes by force new habitable planets for colonization. But the CDF only takes recruits of a certain age, and John Perry has made it there. And he is smart enough to know that the universe is a strange place - but nothing could prepare him for how strange, wonderful, and terrible it really is.

And it is easy to give things away, so I'll stop with a summary there. There are numerous little and some large surprises along the way, for Perry and therefore by extension for us. Some of them are funny, some of them are dark, some of them are just plain cool. I do not wish to spoil them for you.

What is interesting to me is how smart this book is. Which is not to say that science fiction, or military science fiction, or space opera (which this is, I think, though I have a surface understanding of the term) cannot be smart, and knowing what I do of John Scalzi I should have been prepared for just how smart this book is. But a large part of me had written this off as a fun book, a book with spaceships and larger-than-life heroes and battles and really nifty technology, written well and probably often quite amusing because, well, Scalzi. And I also assumed that there'd be some major space battle and most of the characters I'd grown to like would die, because I respected John Scalzi's intelligence and integrity enough to figure he wouldn't write a book about a space army without characters dying. He wouldn't play with the reality of what war is that way.

I am realizing this doesn't reflect well on me -- because yes, I'd apparently bought into the stereotypes I carry secretly about mass-market military science fiction, and I expected that sort of thing. I got a lot more and that is why I should read out of my comfort zone more often. Or one reason, anyway.

There were two themes that really struck me and stayed with me, and that were investigated in more depth than I would have expected. The first was aging, and what it means to grow old, and that theme really shouldn't surprise anyone, given the summary of the book I gave above. The second was marriage and love, and what marriage is, and what it means over a lifetime, and that is not the sort of thing I expected in a military SF book at all.

Aging, both mentally and physically, plays the largest role at the beginning of the book, but does come back again in interesting ways later on. Perry is 75, and despite the fact that we're a lot further in the future and some medical advances are to be expected, no one on Earth has come up with a way to reverse the aging process, and 75 in that future looks pretty darn similar to 75 in this present. Except that the CDF has apparently found a way to get a 75-year-old human into some sort of fighting shape. What this means, and what this means to Perry as an individual, and some of his newfound friends, is investigated pretty intimately, since the book is from Perry's perspective in first person. It's handled with sensitivity and insight and I was impressed.

I was even more impressed, and somewhat flabbergasted, to find marriage holding a central role in the book. Perry's wife Kathy had also volunteered to sign up, but died of a massive stroke before her 75th birthday. He misses her, thinks of her often and often first, and while I wouldn't say that the Perrys' marriage plays a central role in the book's plot, exactly, it is such a central part of John Perry's character that it therefore looms large over the whole book. It's a rumination on the effect on a person of sharing the better part of a life with someone else one loves dearly. It adds a very human dimension to Perry, who could possibly be a larger-than-life character, except that he is so grounded in this very fundamental relationship that has very much defined who he was and is. And it adds a very warm, gentle dimension to a book that is, at its core, about someone learning to be a good, efficient, and effective soldier.

Unexpected, and delightful. The writing is also just excellent, the world imaginative, and other themes and conundrums interesting and worthwhile. Characterization is solid at worst and really, really good at best. I've recommended this book to several people since reading it. One of my book club members has already come back for the second book in the series, The Ghost Brigades. I may even read that one myself, though I'm pretty satisfied with where I left John Perry and company. I wasn't sure it was possible for me to have a higher opinion of John Scalzi than I already did, but reading Old Man's War managed to surprise me there, too.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster
Harper Children's Audio, 2008 (originally published in 1961)
4 discs, unabridged

When I saw this audiobook was narrated by David Hyde Pierce, I had reservations. I wasn't sure how I felt about Niles Crane reading to me for the entire length of a book I'd been looking forward to for ages. I shouldn't have worried. This was one of the most enjoyable audiobooks I've run across ever, and Pierce can take a fair chunk of the credit for that. He is a wonderful reader.

The narration makes it, but the book itself is just fantastic too. It is silly but substantive, clever without being obnoxious about it, incredibly imaginative, strangely relevant, and often wise. Also, puns. Many, many puns. The wordplay is everywhere.

Milo is bored. He is a boy for whom life holds no joy: he is not interested in anything, he is always in a hurry, and he is never satisfied. So when a mysterious purple tollbooth shows up in his bedroom one day, the only reason he attempts to use it at all is because there is simply nothing better to do. But the tollbooth is no ordinary toy, and Milo is transported to a world where things start to interest him in spite of himself. This is the Kingdom of Wisdom. He is caught in the Doldrums, visits Dictionopolis and meets King Azaz the Unabridged, makes his way through the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound, encounters the Mathemagician in Digitopolis, and finally takes on the Mountains of Ignorance. For all is not well in the Kingdom of Wisdom: a horrible mistake was made, and the princesses Rhyme and Reason have been banished, and everyone is counting on Milo to bring them back.

Most criticisms I have seen of the book lie in the fact that it is too clever for its own good; the words are too long, the concepts too difficult, for children to understand. These criticisms started when Juster released the book back in 1961 and they continue today. I think this is incredibly unfair. Not to the book, because it is indeed full of delightful words and challenging concepts, but to the children whose parents (or teachers, or librarians) decide not to attempt it because they think it will be too hard. This is a book that has many charms, and if a child doesn't get all the jokes, they'll still enjoy the adventure story. And frankly, most children I know love a good joke. (And lots of bad ones, too, and lots of things that aren't really jokes at all...) And many of them have no trouble taking things literally, as Juster often does with his idioms (how do you get to the Island of Conclusions? You jump there, of course.) So what if they don't pick up on everything the first time through. Let them read it again. This book has staying power. My suspicion is that they will want to read it again. And they will get more out of it the second time through. And yet more the third time.

I say this because I was actually scared off reading this with my parent-child book club for a couple of years because of the suggestion it might be too hard for kids to enjoy. What a shame, because there are kids who have moved on from the group and won't be reading this with me now, and I regret that. Checking in with the kids who still come to book club, all of them adore it so far. None of the parents in the group were more than passingly familiar with the book either, and certainly hadn't read it. Those I have talked to are loving it, too. I should know better than to fear the appropriateness of a book because it is "difficult." I should trust my instincts, but I should also trust the kids themselves.

My criticism doesn't lie with the supposed difficulty of the book. My criticism lies in the fact that there is a Message, and very occasionally the plot serves the Message rather than the Message coming out of the plot organically. There were moments when it was clear that Learning is Good and Fun and You Should Do It Even If You're Not Sure Why You're Doing It Right Now, and Also Pay Attention Kid. It was just that I was enjoying David Hyde Pierce's reading so much and the inventiveness of the plot and world so much that I didn't much care about being Messaged At. The other important point here is that the book isn't trying to be coy; it knows it has a Message. It's pretty clear on that. The major win is that it also tries hard to be an enjoyable story, and succeeds 99.5% of the time. 

This is a book I will buy so that I have it lying around. I will reread it myself (and I suspect reading will be a different, but still very enjoyable, experience, not least because I missed out on Jules Feiffer's illustrations) and I look forward to reading it with others, too, and reveling in the sheer silly joy of the English language.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

by Rachel Hartman
Doubleday Canada, 2012
499 pages

The positive review is a challenging thing; it is hard not to gush praise all over the page and undermine one's own recommendations by sounding too enthusiastic to be entirely trustworthy. Thus, I've given myself a couple of days of distance from the book and its ending and I'm hoping that will help me at least be balanced.

According to my notes, I first became convinced I needed to read this through Aarti's musings, as is often the case. It would likely have appealed to me anyhow, though, given the subject and trappings: a secondary world fantasy novel with a heavy emphasis on music and politics. Plus dragons. Throw interesting dragons into a story and I am usually pretty well caught.

And boy, are these dragons interesting. So. Seraphina is the assistant music mistress to the court composer in the country of Goredd, a very medieval place that borders, among other places, the northern Dragon Lands. For forty years, Goredd and the dragons have been at a hard-won peace, and the celebration of the fortieth year of the Treaty is upon them; Seraphina is up to her neck in trying to get various things organized for the celebrations and the visit of the Ardmagar, the dragon leader. Unfortunately, she's also up to her neck in trying to tread very fine lines: Seraphina is not what she seems to the greater world, and in a world where dragons and humans live side-by-side only uneasily if at all, she has to find a way to keep those she loves safe, and serve her queen and country without betraying herself.

That sort of covers it, though there is a lot more to this story than that summary covers. We've also got a murder mystery on our hands: days before the story starts, the queen's only son was discovered, headless, lying in a field after he got separated from his party during a hunting trip. We also have a bit of a romance - and even a love triangle, though this is far different from the sort I am used to seeing in young adult novels and was a refreshing change. The romance is only one thread in the story, though, and is so well woven into the story that anyone romance-shy shouldn't worry too much about it.

But for me, the component of the story that stuck out and made me sit up and pay attention was the investigation of racism and its consequences, both for individuals and for society. In fact, at the beginning, the book felt like the wrong one for me. Aside from the fact that I couldn't stop thinking about it (sometimes a bad thing, when you're thinking about it at two in the morning and need to get up in four hours) I was almost - almost - turned off by the violent, ugly racism exhibited by certain characters and groups, and the fact that Goreddi society is extremely religious. I find both things uncomfortable to read, and I was looking for an escape read, not one that was going to be making me squirm. But this is a case where fantasy sheds light on "real world" problems - it's hard to believe, for example, that anyone in this world was ever as virulently, blatantly, unashamedly racist as some of the characters in Seraphina. But they were. And they are. And when that racism hits close to the home of a character one has grown to love... well, fantasy once again provides an excellent lens through which to view everyday problems.

And the characters are where the strength of this book lies, I think. Seraphina herself is just marvellous. A good, strong, and flawed character, the story is narrated from her first-person point of view. It is not always a comfortable place to inhabit; Seraphina is not fond of herself. She is a bundle of contradictions. But she does her best to view things honestly, she has a [sometimes dark] sense of humour, and while she occasionally does cringe-worthy things, her motivations and reasons are never in doubt and they feel like the right thing to the reader at the time, too. She feels entirely real, and I became deeply, deeply attached to her without losing sight of the wider story.

Other characters - Orma, her tutor; the Princess Glisselda; Prince Lucian Kiggs, Glisselda's fiancee and Captain of the Guard; Lars, the mysterious bagpiper and machinist; Viridius, the court composer and Seraphina's master - are vivid and complex, even when viewed from a first-person narrator's point of view. Nice to know that can be done in a realistic way.

The world, too, is clearly described and delineated, and rich in detail and substance. The religion that so turned me off at first is actually pretty interesting, with Goreddis and others worshipping a pantheon of Saints, some contradictory and all with their own place and purview. It permeates the entire book, but it is complex enough to bear that weight, which is not generally my experience with fantasy religions. The politics are tangled and high-stakes. Seraphina's father is a lawyer. She is well-versed in the laws of her land governing dragons and dragon-human interactions. Even more, these things are interesting when she tells us about them.

This is not to say that there aren't issues with the book. There are a few. Seraphina occasionally gets away with things that seem a little brazen for an assistant music mistress. I wanted more music; I didn't think she spent enough time at her actual job, and far too much time poking her nose in things where it really had no place (and not getting called on it often enough, either.) But overall, these issues are mild and don't distract from the quality of the tale.

Oh so recommended. If you like fantasy, you should read this book - even if you're sick of romances in your fantasy, even if you're wary of it usually being designated young adult, don't let those things scare you away. This story transcends its targeted age group, and its take on certain genre cliches is fresh and often fascinating. A really, really enjoyable read, and I'll be curious to see where Hartman goes next. This debut deserved the accolades.