Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

Fairytale retellings are always a treat. Best of all is when they are as surprising as Betsy Cornwell's steampunk version of Cinderella. Nicolette is an inventor, as adept with mechanical creations as her mother had been, so she doesn't mind that her nasty stepsisters call her "Mechanica."

The action plays out within a larger political and religious arena that is integral to Nicolette's personal story. Prejudice against magic and the Fey is rising to the point where war seems imminent. Social justice is a central theme, an aspect I found particularly satisfying. When she was still alive and healthy, Nicolette's mother warned her not to trust everything in their country's history books. (That's always good advice.)

"'What are the books wrong about?' I asked, tucking into another sandwich. Thin radish, sweet butter, speckles of salt. An unladylike swig of clear tea."

Which reminds me of another thing I enjoyed; Cornwell's writing style. In the example above, she clearly describes what Nicolette is eating and how enthusiastic she is about her food. These are the kinds of details that make her characters and setting real. 

(And now I'll go off on a complete tangent, because Nicolette's lunch could have been "Radishes with Sweet Butter and Kosher Salt" served at Prune, chef Gabrielle Hamilton's restaurant in New York City. In her cookbook, Prune, Hamilton admonishes: "There is nothing to this, but still... I have seen it go out looking less than stellar - and that's embarrassing considering it's been on the menu since we opened and is kind of 'signature,' if Prune had such a thing as signature dishes." It's a bit different from most restaurant cookbooks, because it's addressed to staff instead of home cooks, even though the recipes are adapted to fewer servings. Before I leave this tangent, I'd like to recommend Hamilton's memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter.)

Back to Mechanica. It's a totally enjoyable feminist tale for ages 11 and up.

Readalikes for more fresh takes on Cinderella: Ash by Malinda Lo and Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Book Bingo, Second Card, Black Out!

These are the final three categories on my second Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo card. The project, which started on the May long weekend and ended on Labour Day, was created by Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness and promoted on their delightful weekly BOTNS podcast. Links to all of my book bingo posts are here.
A BANNED BOOK: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel.

This multiple award-winning memoir has received much acclaim since it was first published in 2006. It has also been adapted into a Broadway musical that won five Tony awards in 2015. It's the story of a complex relationship between a closeted gay or bisexual father and his lesbian daughter. The main ingredients that have made it a target for censorship are its queer content and comics format, plus its wide popularity. That makes me sad. I love this book so much!

I've read it multiple times and each time I notice new things. This time, one of the scenes that caught my attention was related to the current adult colouring book craze. When Bechdel was a child, she had a "huge oversize colouring book of E.H. Shepard's illustrations for The Wind in the Willows."

"Dad had read me bits of the story from the real book. In one scene, the charming sociopath Mr. Toad purchases a gypsy caravan. I was filling this in one day with my favourite colour, midnight blue."
Alison's father says, "What are you doing? That's the canary-coloured caravan! Here. I'll do the rest in yellow, and your blue side will be in shadow. Look, by adding thin layers of goldenrod and yellow-orange, I get a richer colour." Alison, meanwhile, has wandered off. "It was a crayonic tour de force."

LAST BOOK OF AN AUTHOR BEFORE HE/SHE DIED: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff.

This is Canadian gay humourist David Rakoff's only novel and it was published after he died. I reviewed it in 2013, and re-read it this year for the July meeting of the Jasper Place Library book club. Rakoff's skill as a wordsmith was widely praised. The format of the book provided us with almost as much to talk about as the content. There was near unanimous agreement in the contention that it was not a novel at all, but rather a collection of interlinked short stories. I was in the minority, finding that the short stories - told in rhyming couplets! - interlink individual lives over the course of the twentieth century and encompass a larger social commentary. That makes it a novel, as far as I can tell.

At the same meeting, the reasons people have for attending the library book club came up, including the broadening of one's reading horizons. This title is a good example, because participants said they never would have picked it up otherwise, yet were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. Stretching my book horizons is also the reason that I enjoy playing Book Bingo.
MANGA: Library Wars, vol. 1. Love and War. Story and art by Kiiro Yumi, original concept by Hiro Arikawa, translation by Kinami Watabe.

I read a lot of western-style graphic novels, but not many Japanese-style comics. Links to some of my earlier manga reviews are here.

The premise of Library Wars is pretty cool. In near future Japan, under the Media Betterment Act, the federal government creates a Media Betterment Committee that "seeks to exercise censorship over all media, including restricting offensive books." Armed units have been set up under local governments to fight censorship under the Library Freedom Act. "Working for the Library Defense Force is considered even more dangerous than being a police officer or in the army."

In the first volume of Library Wars, we meet a young Defense Force recruit, Iku Kasahara, whose parents think she is studying to be a librarian. Iku and her drill instructor, Atsushi Dojo, are obviously attracted to each other but they act like they can't stand each other. Their relationship drove me nuts.

What I did not take into account when I picked this up is that it's shojo manga. The target audience for shojo is teenage girls and there tends to be too much romance in the storylines for my taste. I won't be continuing with the series, even though the art is pretty and I've heard that the pace picks up after the first volume.

The English edition of Library Wars preserves the traditional right-to-left layout. Volume 14 is due to be published by Simon Schuster in October 2015. The full story is serialized over 15 parts in Japan, according to Wikipedia.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Book Bingo, Second Card, Sixth Line

My book bingo card is now complete, but I'm going to separate the final two lines into two separate posts, just to keep it manageable. It took me so long to get the last few squares that I managed to read additional titles for several other categories in the meantime.

ABOUT A DISEASE: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe [Books on Tape: 9 hr 37 min: narrated by Jeff Harding]. Bonus title: On Immunity by Eula Biss.
(Intersection. See previous book bingo post here.)

A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS: A Bone to Pick: The Good and Bad News about Food, with Wisdom and Advice on Diets, Food Safety, GMOs, Farming, and More by Mark Bittman [Books on Tape: 8 hr 42 min: narrated by Robert Fass.

Social justice, public health and the environment are all addressed in Bittman's passion about food issues. This collection of about 60 short articles was originally written for his column in the New York Times. The subtitle is a good indication of the breadth of topics, as are the subheadings in the table of contents: Big Ag, Sustainability, and What's in Between; What's Wrong with Meat?; What Is Food? And What Is Not?; The Truth About Diet(s); The Broken Food Chain; and Legislating and Labeling. Thought-provoking and entertaining.

Bonus title: Selfish, Shallow and Self Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum.

I already knew and loved Meghan Daum's writing and now I know that she's great at getting other writers to contribute to an anthology on a controversial topic. It is top notch! Here's just one example, from Geoff Dyer, in 'Over and Out':

"To be middle-aged and childless is to elicit one of two responses. The first: pity because you are unable to have kids. This is fine by me. I'm always on the lookout for pity, will accept it from anyone or, if no one is around, from myself. I crave pity the way other men crave admiration or respect. So if my wife or I are asked if we have kids, one of us will reply, 'No, we've not been blessed with children.' We do it totally deadpan, shaking our heads wistfully, looking as forlorn as a couple of empty beer glasses." (The second response is "horror, because by choosing not to have children, you are declining full membership in the human race.")

Selfish, Shallow and Self Absorbed would make an excellent book club choice, because there are many different views expressed and it's a hot-button topic.

SPORTS-RELATED: Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr.

This was one of the three final categories that snagged my progress. I had it on my first card, where it also created a hindrance, until I read a great nonfiction book about soccer. It took me a while to realize that I could count Nina Revoyr's brand new novel, Lost Canyon, for this category. It's about four people who know each other only through their trainer at a Los Angeles gym, and their planned four-day backpacking trip through strenuous mountain terrain.

As it happens, I've had an advance electronic copy of it since mid-June, thanks to Akashic Books. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the pdf to open in the reading app on my iPod. Every time I wanted to read it, I had to scroll to the message in my email, open the pdf, and then advance page by page to my last stopping point. Quite a nuisance... until I came to a point in the narrative where the hiking adventure went completely sideways and the story switched gears into thriller mode. I didn't stop again until I was finished. (Format problem solved.)

The viewpoint in Lost Canyon rotates between the multi-ethnic cast of believable protagonists. If you are familiar with Revoyr's previous work, you won't be surprised that issues of race and class are explored within a compelling plot. Lost Canyon is her most adrenalin-fueled novel to date.

HISTORICAL FICTION: Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass.
(Intersection. See previous book bingo post here.)

AT LEAST 800 PAGES: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude - 880 pages [Blackstone Audio: 33 hr 34 min: narrated by Wanda McCaddon].

Audio is my favourite way to experience classic literature. Skillful audiobook narrators make complex sentence structure easy to understand. In the past three years, I've had the immense pleasure of listening to works by Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Edith Wharton, Jack Kerouac, Chinua Achebe, Beryl Markham, Ann Petry, E.M. Forster, P.G. Wodehouse, Wilkie Collins and George Eliot. Another great thing about audio is having someone else do the work of pronouncing unfamiliar names, of which there are plenty in Tolstoy.

My choice of this particular version of Anna Karenina was all about the voice narrator, Wanda McCaddon, and not about the translators. McCaddon, who also records under the names Donada Peters and Nadia May, is a sure bet. I did find some interesting articles online, however, that made me aware of the linguistic differences I would have encountered if I had listened to a different translation. (See examples in The Guardian and the New York Times.)

As with pretty much any novel that uses a person's name as the title, Anna Karenina is character-based. I didn't have a lot of patience for Anna. Her tragic romance bored me, although I felt some sympathy for the societal restrictions placed upon Tolstoy's women strictly because of their gender. My favourite character is definitely Konstantin Levin. I adored the descriptive passages about the Russian countryside and found the ideas about social, agricultural and educational reforms intellectually engaging.

One thing that still mystifies me is why the men would be so keen to shoot snipes rather than ducks. Are snipes so much tastier? Are they a more challenging target because they are smaller? If you know the answer, please tell me!

Bonus title: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson - 861 pages.

After I'd read (listened to) Anna Karenina, someone gave me a raised eyebrow about counting it for this category, since an audiobook technically has no pages at all. I still think it counts, and Ann and Michael of BOTNS concur, but since then I've read another long book, and this time it was proper paper door-stop.

Seveneves begins in the near-future, when something collides with Earth's moon and causes it to break up into seven large chunks. This in turn has a big effect on our planet. One of the most memorable points in the book is the line that begins: "Five thousand years later..." An impressive narrative leap! Some parts were a little too science-explainy but that didn't stop me from loving this overall.

Coming up next: Black Out! My final book bingo post for 2015.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Thoughts on the Giller Prize Longlist

Today the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller prize was announced and it is a very interesting list! Stephen Beattie wrote a good summary of the group on the Quill and Quire blog here.

I've only read two of them so far, and both were outstanding: Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill and Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. Don't I wish that I had been keeping up with my reviewing and had already written about these! (My review of O'Neill's charming The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is here)
The one that I'm most excited about reading next is Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt. If I had not already been hooked by my love for the black comedy in deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, I would have picked this up based solely on its description as a fable without a moral. I intend to read this before hearing deWitt speak at the Vancouver Writers Fest on October 23.

The next two that I plan to read (before the shortlist announcement on October 5) are by Rachel Cusk and Connie Gault. I haven't read either of these authors before. Their respective settings are enough to interest me: Gault's A Beauty is set in the prairies in 1930, and Cusk's Outline is set in a writing class in Athens.

Marina Endicott's Close to Hugh has an art gallery setting, a large cast of artistic characters, and a one-week time frame, all of which sounds appealing. I'm a bit hesitant to pick it up, however, because I experienced a slog with her last book. I was 250 pages into The Little Shadows before I cared about what would happen. I admired The Little Shadows once I was done, but I'm not sure I'm up to the time commitment required for another long book by Endicott. I'll be hearing her at a couple of different events at the Vancouver Writers Fest and that may be all it takes to get me excited about picking up Close to Hugh.

It's unlikely that I'll read All True, Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley, which is about Daniel Boone, because I've already given it a try and quit after a few chapters. It was okay, but didn't really grab me. I definitely do not want to get into the mind of a sexual deviant, so I will avoid Martin John by Anakana Schofield, no matter how good everyone says it is.

Check out more about these and the rest of the list on the CBC Books site.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book Bingo, Second Card, Fifth Line

So much reading, so little blogging. I started my first Book Bingo card on the May long weekend and I've finished 84 books since then, so you would think that I'd have completed three cards by now. But the final four squares on this card just haven't matched what's been on my reading pile. The stumper categories have been: a banned book; sports-related; manga; and borrowed from a friend. Thanks to my dear friend Amy, I've completed another line.

YOUNG ADULT: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman [Listening Library audiobook: 18 hr, 10 min: narrated by Mandy Williams and W Morgan Sheppard].
(See previous Book Bingo post.)
THAT INVOLVES MAGIC: Uprooted by Naomi Novik [Books on Tape audiobook: 17 hr, 47 min: narrated by Julia Emelin].

Uprooted is an outstanding fantasy novel that combines elements of traditional Russian or Polish fairytales with the freshness of realistic characters. It's told in the voice of Agnieszka, who is not your average village maiden.

"Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travellers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that's not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he's still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we're grateful, but not that grateful."

I love that Novik doesn't ignore the reasons why people would choose to remain living in a place that isn't safe. She also reveals the origins of the situation - why it became dangerous in the first place. It's a compelling and satisfying tale.

WITH AN UGLY COVER: Switch by Douglas Davey (with honorable mention to Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass, which I used for the Historical category instead; see previous Book Bingo post.)

YA novels with ugly covers are one of my pet peeves. Even with a good pitch, it takes extra effort to convince a teen to read something with an unattractive cover. Without an advocate promoting them to readers, these books sit on library shelves unread for months and even years. It makes me sad when I'm performing collection maintenance tasks and find books that have never been borrowed. They are nearly always from Canadian publishers. Sigh.

Inside its unfortunate cover, I found Douglas Davey's Switch to be an enjoyable surprise. The title refers to an ambidextrous switch hitter, someone who "plays for both teams." It's a term that's had derogatory connotations for bisexuals, but the portrayal in this case is positive. Switch is a first-person account about a bisexual high school student, set in the 1980s. Circumstances have the protagonist Sheldon coming out to his entire school, an unusual experience for that era. Copious wry footnotes, written as if from a much older version of Sheldon, add a perspective that makes this novel particularly interesting for both teen and adult readers. Just ignore the cover.

I'm grateful to Red Deer Press for providing a review copy of Switch.

BY OR ABOUT A CELEBRITY: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae [Simon and Schuster Audio: 5 hr, 50 min: read by author].
(See previous Book Bingo post.)
BORROWED FROM A FRIEND: Ariel: Poems by Sylvia Plath

Amy Willans (a headliner at the Edmonton Poetry Festival earlier this year) kindly loaned me her copy of Ariel. I've read it through several times and feel like I've barely begun to understand its layers. Poetry is such a potent form of language.

"The vivid tulips eat my oxygen." - Tulips

"I am mad, calls the spider, waving its many arms. / And in truth it is terrible, / multiplied in the eyes of the flies." - Totem

My feminist book group will be discussing Ariel next week. It's the first time we've done poetry, and that's only one of the reasons I'm excited. I want to talk about the foreword by Robert Lowell (from 1966) and how it got my back up, because of the way he writes about gender. I want to talk about the poems I loved from the very first reading, and about those that still have me puzzled after three or more readings. I want to talk about mental health. I want to compare the contents of the edition I borrowed (original copyright 1961 with Ted Hughes as editor) with differences in the edition some other book group members are reading, one that restores Plath's original selection and arrangement. It should be a great discussion!

If you want to see all of my Book Bingo posts, click here.

Monday, August 10, 2015

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey

Poetry and images are combined with startling effect in Matthea Harvey's lively collection If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?

Harvey's work is fresh and compelling. Many of the poems are self-contained narratives, and these have the flavour of short stories by authors like George Saunders, Karin Tidbeck and Karen Russell, the kind of tales that are funny, dark and weird.

Some of the poems' titles herald the fun within, like "Michelin Man Possessed by William Shakespeare" and "Using a Hula Hoop Can Get You Abducted by Aliens." One series of poems has images instead of titles. Another series is all images without text: a sort of visual poem consisting of photographs of ice cubes. Each ice block contains something frozen within it.

Each in an entertaining series of mermaid stories is accompanied by a silhouette of a half-woman, half-household object. "The Deadbeat Mermaid," for example, has a grandfather clock in place of a tail/legs. She is flanked by two fish, one with an alarm clock for a head, and one with a pocket watch head. "Between meals, the Deadbeat Mermaid floats on her back and watches the giant sky, stuck on the same stupid cloud channel all day long."

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is a fantastic mix of words and art. Harvey is also the author of a quirky children's picture book about a child with a pet glacier. Cecil the Pet Glacier is illustrated by Giselle Potter. Find out more about Harvey on her website here.

I experienced connections between many of Harvey's poems and works by other writers, so I'm going to record some of them here. It may seem contradictory, because If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is unquestionably unique, but the sheer variety of literary connections also indicates why I found it so appealing.

"The Backyard Mermaid": "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" (in Tenth of December) by George Saunders.

"Cheap Cloning Process Lets You Have Your Own Elvis": "Cloudberry Jam" AND "Miss Nyberg and I" (in Jagannath) by Karin Tidbeck.

"Prom King and Queen Seek U.N. Recognition of Their Own Country... Promvania!": 99% Invisible's podcast episode #174 about micronations.

"Inside the Glass Factory": "Reeling for the Empire" (in Vampires in the Lemon Grove) by Karen Russell.

"There Is a String Attached to Everything": Ronnie Burkett's style of marionette theatre, in which the puppeteer plays an occasional role.

"In the Hell Between Heavens of Nothingness": "Torching the Dusties" (in Stone Mattress) by Margaret Atwood.

"This Is What the Last Ones Left Us": Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Book Bingo, Second Card, Fourth Line

Four out of these five books were published in 2015 and I'm pleased that I managed to get two Edmonton authors in this line! (Catch up on previous book bingo posts via this link.)

THAT YOU SAW SOMEONE ELSE READING: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

This square intersects with the first row that I completed on the card. Haven't yet got around to writing a full blog post about this hot title, but the following passage confirmed my realization that there would be no way to untangle my reading of GSAW from my fond memories of hosting a To Kill a Mockingbird costume party to celebrate its 50th anniversary, my knowledge of Harper Lee's life, the story of how GSAW came to print, and my own inclination to tease out lesbian subtext from between the lines.

In the first chapter, Jean Louise (AKA Scout) decides she will not marry her boyfriend. "For the present she would pursue the stony path of spinsterhood." There may be a lot that is autobiography in GSAW. It's a book that made me feel very sad.
Party invite designed by my sweetie. (Click to enlarge.) Everyone came in costume on that memorable evening.

POETRY COLLECTION: The Pemmican Eaters by Marilyn Dumont.

I grew up on an Alberta farm in a francophone community that was originally called St Paul-des-Métis. When I was younger, I thought all Canadians considered Louis Riel to be our greatest national folk hero. And that Gabriel Dumont, Riel's general in the 1885 rebellion, was famous too.

When I began working at Edmonton Public Library in 1989, I signed up a brown-skinned young woman for a library card and made a comment about her historic family name, "Dumont." She looked at me blankly. I said, "Gabriel Dumont." Still nothing. After telling her we had books about him in the collection, I proceeded with the library card. Later, I quizzed new friends and colleagues and discovered that Dumont, and even Riel, were not as well-known as I had assumed.

There are other books about Riel and Dumont, but Marilyn Dumont's latest collection of poetry does something different. With potent, dexterous verse, it connects contemporary lives to Canadian history.

"Upon discovery that our Gabriel, Gabriel Dumont Senior, our great-great-grandfather and uncle of the famous Gabriel, had held the position of leader at Lac Ste. Anne, I finally understood why our family's annual summer visit to the pilgrimage was so important to us."

In Dumont's poems, Louis Riel is sometimes 'Louis' and sometimes 'Riel,' but Gabriel Dumont is either 'Gabriel' or 'Gabe.' Riel is 'Our Prince' - "Louis / the one who gave us Manitoba / brokered pluralism / and language rights."

Women are in these pages too, nurturing other humans and the earth, their needlework like prayers.
Elizabeth Brass Donald. Photo source:

A photo of Elizabeth Brass Donald is referenced in 'The Land She Came From.' She was one of the victims of land swindles in Edmonton's early history: "crow woman dig down / scrape away the layers / of sleeping memory / down to the stake lines of river lots / in Rossdale and beyond / far down to the Métis family names / still breathing there: Donald, Bird, Ward [...]" 'To a Fair Country' is about wholesale land thefts through "official trickery:" "I want to forget the number of Métis / less than one percent / who hold property from that scrip today."

Much hardship is summed up in a few words in 'Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald' - "we were railroaded / by some steel tracks that didn't last / and some settlers who wouldn't settle."

Language is another aspect of Métis culture: "neither Cree, Salteaux nor French exactly, but something else / not less / not half / not lacking" - 'These Are Wintering Words'

The Pemmican Eaters is a history book with so much heart, and it's one I would have loved to suggest to that young library patron back in 1989. I will recommend it widely from now on.

Books On The NightStand BOOK BINGO FREE SQUARE: The Social Life of Ink by Ted Bishop.

Micro-history; memoir; travel writing; nonfiction; local author: if I wasn't using a free square for this, it could have fit into any of these categories (none of which happen to be on my card). The book taught me new things (i.e. Winston Churchill's mother had a snake tattoo) and made me think.

"The work you're reading is simply black marks on a page. The text that derives from it takes shape in the mind. Thus all texts are shaped by experience and context, and are always different, even for the same reader." That's exactly what I was talking about in my comments regarding Go Set a Watchman, above. More quotes and notes are included in my earlier review of Bishop's book.

The Social Life of Ink: Culture, Wonder and Our Relationship with the Written Word is a finalist for the 2015 Alberta Readers' Choice Award. Online voting is open until August 31, 2015.

WRITTEN BEFORE 1700: The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare.
Intersecting square: see previous post.

WITH A HAPPY ENDING: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertelli.

Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the angst in this up-to-the-minute YA novel derives more from the social politics of high school relationships than from the fear of coming out. It's witty and sweet and includes an ensemble of realistic characters. Suitable for readers in Grade 7 and up.

Readalikes: Boy Meets Boy (David Levithan) and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Benjamin Alire Saenz).