Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis
The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters by Rose George
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel
You may also enjoy our reading suggestion lists: What To Read >
Hellish Dental Ordeal
When I was ten, I was playing tag with my friends at the Ramsden Park skating rink in Toronto. I fell and broke my two front teeth in half. After two uncomfortable root canals I was fitted with expensive porcelain crowns. (Luckily my parents had the prescience, or good luck, to sign me up for insurance at school that covered the bulk of a rather expensive process.)
Almost the same thing happened to Raina Telgemeier, the author and illustrator of Smile. This autobiographical graphic novel is aimed at readers 11-15, the age that Telgemeier is as she lives through the rather hellish dental ordeal of procedures, treatment and braces for four-and-a-half years! Along with telling the tale of how her smile was restored, Telgemeier takes us through the trials and tribulations of middle school and high school. Making friends, losing friends, getting a crush on a jock, and crushing another erstwhile suitor’s dreams. Through all of her trials and tribulations, both in and out of the dentist’s office, the author discovers that looks are less important to other people than they are to her.
The illustrations are great. Simple line work and color creates great detail and emotion. The scene in the dentist’s office on pages 40 and 41, where Dr. Dragoni makes a mold of Raina’s teeth, brought back far too many memories of gagging on a mouthful of weird pink clay. (Well, it seemed like pink clay at the time.)
This is one of the first comic-based graphic novels that I’ve read and I’m quite impressed. The medium really does lend itself to this sort of emotion-laden storytelling.
It’ll Get Worse
I first encountered Michael Lewis in the early 1990s. Ever since then I’ve sought out all of his books. Boomerang is a companion volume to The Big Short. (Both books are in the collection of the Bowen Library.) As the book’s subtitle indicates, it tells the story of Lewis’s travels to places that have been severely affected by the global financial crisis (GFC). He starts in Iceland and visits Greece, Ireland, and Germany before coming back home to United States. The jacket blurb describes the trademark of his writing as “to tell an important and complex story through characters so outsized and outrageously weird that you’d think they have to be invented.” This blurb doesn't exaggerate.
In both The Big Short and Boomerang, Lewis’s observations and comments are great. I have no idea how he finds these people, but he manages to track down the most interesting characters and get them to reveal how we all got into the huge mess that became the GFC. Published in late 2011, the book reports that in many countries the worst has yet to come, and that in many places the full scope of GFC has been obscured by weird accounting practices.
I have a business background, but you don’t need one to appreciate this book. If you wonder why the retirement savings plans of many took a mighty hit over the last few years, Boomerang and The Big Short will help to explain a few things. Lewis describes rather scary scenarios that may lead you to emulate some of the people he interviews: stocking up on food and keeping a few gold bars under the bed.
Everybody Does It
A classic children’s book by Taro Gomi that always elicits kiddy giggles says it best: Everyone Poops. Tastefully – but without glossing over the grosser aspects of human waste elimination – The Big Necessity roams the world of defecation, from high-tech Japanese toilets that clean bums with warm water and then blow them dry, to the &;dquo;helicopter toilets” of Kenya: poop into a plastic bag, twist it shut, send it flying. Westerners spend upwards of $20 billion a year on ecologically harmful toilet paper (those pastels!), writes George, but “using paper to cleanse the anus makes as much sense, hygienically, as rubbing your body with dry tissue and imagining it removes dirt.” (She's on the side of the Japanese, who consider the use of toilet paper somewhat disgusting.)
This highly readable examination of excreta is rich with details: men ought to pee sitting down, the better to avoid splatter and spray that vaporizes into the air; excrement in the streets probably popularized high heels five hundred years ago, when the anti-salubrious sloshings of chamber pots were tossed out windows; and Martin Luther ate a spoonful of his own feces every day. Parts of the book are saucy and irreverent, but George gets serious when reporting how inadequate sanitation and consequent cholera and other diseases kill tens of thousands of children and adults annually, that “four in ten live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement”, and that even major Western cities continue to dump raw sewage into rivers and oceans. Yech. Your stomach may at times churn, but your mind will be opened by this riveting, fact-filled book.
No Snoozing Possible
There's a double-barreled delight to this romantic, and even sometimes erotic, retelling of the Iliad.
Readers familiar with the world of Achilles, Odysseus and Apollo, and the rest of Homer’s panoply of gods and mortals, will be enthralled by Miller’s debut novel, a page-turning rendition of a classic tale. Better yet, readers who snoozed through their Ancient Greek seminars will be immersed in a glorious blend of commercial fiction and impassioned history – a fabulously fun way to engage one of literature’s masterworks.
What sets Miller’s captivating reworking of Homer apart from other versions – there have been dozens – is that it’s narrated (even after his death) by awkward one-time prince Patroclus, selected by golden boy Achilles to be his companion and, as this telling makes clear, his lover. A ravishing novel, with its depictions of battlefield savagery and its recounting of a sensuous connection, The Song of Achilles honors the tradition of South African author Mary Renault, whose trilogy based on the life of Alexander the Great similarly brought the myths of Greek and Roman gods alive for mundane readers.
Comically Terrific, Irresistibly Stupid
There’s something to be said, as a way of escaping the everyday world, with a novel eschewing any sort of serious content. This is that: an alternate-chapter tag-team narrative by Barry, whose hilarious Miami Times column entertained readers for years, and Emmy Award-winning TV writer Zweibel.
One of the protagonists is Philip Horkman, mild-mannered and progressive (he drives a Prius) proprietor of a pet shop called, oddly, The Wine Store; the other is Jeffrey Peckerman, a boorish, foul-mouthed (and foul-tempered lout) reactionary and “forensic plumber” (whatever that is).
They first meet when Horkman calls a goal by Peckerman’s 11-year-old soccer-loving daughter offside. Tempers flare, a grudge ensues - and so does literary hilarity, as the two men’s worlds collides, first with each other, and then with (take a deep breath) road rage, an escaped lemur, a missing insulin pump, accusations of sex perversion, an alleged attempt by the duo (thought now to be al-Qaeda members) to blow up the George Washington Bridge, their escape onto a clothing-optional cruise ship, high seas piracy, an affair with a nun, political romps through Cuba (where they lead a revolution), Mozambique (captured by pirates), Yemen (rescued by the Israelis), and on to California, where quite reasonably - in the context of this insane novel - liberal Horkman becomes the Republican nominee for president, and conservative Peckerman becomes the Democratic nominee, with Donald Trump in the mix.
The verdict? Totally implausible, comically terrific, irresistibly stupid, and buzzing with infantile pee and poo references – by no means a refined read, but any reader with a tolerance for the absurd will likely laugh out loud more than once...at lines, for example, like this, from one of the characters: “I never had any intention of urinating on Sarah Palin.”
History, Memory, Life
If you don't read another book this year, do not miss this one. France and Germany in 1940, Baltimore and Berlin in 1992. During the 1930s, black American jazz musicians found a safe haven from American segregation and prejudice in Paris and Berlin.
This novel has wonderful portraits of the nightclub and cabaret scene, finely drawn and haunting characters, and great language. Excellent research finely sketches life in the back alleys and byways of Europe during the period. Then the Nazis flex their muscles in Berlin (time to flee if you are black, gay or in other ways weird) and the Germans invade France. How to hide? Where to go? Flash forward to the same musicians, now in their late eighties, leaving Baltimore for a reunion in Berlin just after The Wall has fallen.
This book is about history, memory, and life. Written by Victoria author Esi Edugyan, it was a finalist for the Governor-General's Award, the Rogers Writers' Fiction Prize, and the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It's a great story and on every page you will discover something you did not know before. Brought to us thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts and the BC Arts Council.
Gulf Islands Backdrop
Pender Island author William Deverell is back with another who-done-it featuring Arthur Beauchamp (pronounced Bee-Cham, in the Norman fashion), a cranky, Latin-spouting retired lawyer who is now a goat, fruit and veggie farmer. Arthur lurches back from tranquility on fictional Garibaldi Island to don robes and right wrongs dating back to his career as a young barrister in the 1960s. Arthur's memories of staid and comfortable Vancouver a half-century ago (with its colourful underbelly of criminals and con artists) vividly recalls the era and the place.
Life on the Gulf Islands is the humorous backdrop to this tale: Arthur's dealings with a pair of pot-growing auto mechanics and the drama surrounding Garibaldi Island's annual Best Fruit and Veggie Contest. Deverell's story is built around the impact residential schools have had on generations of First Nation people.
The best Beauchamp story yet! William Deverell is winner of the Dashiell Hammet Award for Literary Excellence in North American Crime Writing.
A Compelling Snapshot
Given the rich and long history of the English language, skank is a relatively recent word. Although a sometime synonym for slut, a word that dates back to the 15th century, skank is not to be found in my 1926 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary.
Another thing that makes skank (and slut) odd is that both words reflect a profound bias against women. Promiscuousness among women, particularly young women, is generally frowned upon by society, while similar behaviour among men is often admired, especially by their peers.
It is in this context that Teresa McWhirter's somewhat provocatively named young adult novel Skank hits the shelves. Ariel and her mother Mary live in a rented house in the Downtown Eastside. As the Victorians might have quaintly phrased it, they are living in “reduced circumstances.” A combination of personal tragedies, accident and illness have forced their relocation from the yuppie paradise of Kitsalano.
Ariel is blond and busty, and so everyone at her new school assumes that she is also a bit brainless. Apart from Algebra, she does well academically, but runs afoul of some of the girls in her new high school. Any friendly conversations with boys are seen as attempts to poach someone else's boyfriend.
The plot plays out against the ongoing story of women missing from the Downtown Eastside. It seems all too likely that Ariel will make one or two bad decisions that will have a devastating effect on the rest of her life. A chance meeting with a First Nations girl, Raven, provides a much-needed grounding for Ariel. As expected Ariel goes astray, falls in with a bad crowd, makes a couple of bad decisions, and ultimately finds a sort of redemption.
If not for the stabilizing influences of Raven and Mary, Ariel's life could be truly horrible. I'm sure that hundreds of young women in the Downtown Eastside live in much worse conditions. Skank provides a compelling snapshot of a life that most of us know nothing about, and one that we are probably thankful to lack firsthand knowledge of.
Confusion and Shame
Young adult fiction has a couple of advantages over adult fiction.
1) It gets to the point, and
2) Its authors address issues that get far too little attention in adult fiction.
K.M. Walton taught for 12 years and so she has a good grasp on how young people think and react to one another. This comes in handy when writing a book that looks at the horrible home lives of two teenagers.
Bull is a bully, raised by his alcoholic single mother and his alcoholic grandfather. The home is poor, violent, and on the wrong side of the tracks.
Victor was his parent's "little accident". An only child, born when his mother was in her 40s, his parents have high expectations for him. The family is materially rich, but emotionally poor.
The two boys grapple with their unhappy home lives and end up spending five days in the "psych ward."
Told in the first person from Bull and Victor's perspectives, the book tells the tale of how the boy's bully-victim relationship developed and how they deal with each other during their enforced cohabitation in the ward.
It has been many years since I was the victim of a bully, but I can still remember my confusion and shame about being singled out for this abuse. cracked does a great job of capturing the victim's terror and feeling of vulnerability.
A Clever Counting Book
I like children's books that are clever. Because my daughter is only three, I have to read all the bedtime stories at our house. Together we've read more than 3,000 books. As a result, I have developed standards (partially in an attempt to preserve my sanity). In general, I find books based on licensed characters to be pretty dreadful. And I really don't have a lot of time for books that are too earnest about being moral or having a message. (Did I really need to read The Magic of Compost?)
So how did we end up here? I came across a book by Laura Vaccaro Seeger entitled One Boy. This is a counting book that uses clever die cuts and letter addition. As you turn the page each number turns into an explanatory statement. (Through the die cut we see “One Boy”. When we turn the page we see that he is sitting in a room “All Alone”.) As I read the book and turned the pages my daughter and I were intrigued to see how the numbers were turned into statements. And the final page explains all of the explanatory illustrations. Overall a great concept and well executed.
Languid and Lyrical
For fans of Hollinghurst's first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, his new work - seven years in the writing - may be something of a letdown: it doesn't contain the pyrotechnic combination of explicit sexual intensity and impressively perfect prose of either his debut or of his second novel, The Folding Star.
In this, the author's fifth novel, readers will find more subtle sexual moments and less fiery - but no less pristine - prose. The multi-generation, two-family saga spans almost a century, all the while tracking the at first covert and eventually (after homosexuality is legalized in England in 1967) more overt lives of gay men.
The novel opens in 1913, its five sections linked by the characters coalescing around and spinning off from Cecil Valance, a roguish lad who, brought to Cambridge friend George's home, seduces both George and his sister Daphne, scribbles a poem in Daphne's autograph book and - in the manner of real-life poet Rupert Brooke - dies soon after on a French battlefield. Tracing the afterlife of that poem, this character-rich novel is both languid and lyrical.
A Lot Like Real Life
College baseball is merely the surface subject of Harbach's perfect-pitch debut novel. At its heart is a shy and scrawny shortstop prodigy, Henry Skrimshander, plucked from dusty, small-town playing fields by Westish College baseball team captain Mike Schwartz to power the Harpooner's - so named because college president Guert Affenlight, as a student, unearthed long-lost writing by Herman Melville - to long-sought nationals.
The games recounted along the way are riveting, even for non-fans of baseball. But off the playing field, this is a coming-of-age novel that is at once spirited and melancholy. Henry's dorm-mate is fashionably effete Owen Dunne, effortlessly comfortable whether as man-about-campus or star-player-at-bat; unwed Affenlight - though he has a flighty daughter, Pella, who also figures in the story - is smitten with the lad. As the story unfolds, the destinies of these five characters reach a tipping point, leaving the reader unsure whether their dreams will be realized. In that sense, this impressively affecting novel is a lot like real life.
Any frequent borrower who haunts local library shelves out of an excess of affection for the printed page – and certainly any librarian – will savour this oddball rumination on the strange bond that develops between a children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri and the 10-year-old boy she takes under her wing.
Young Ian Drake hungers for words with a passion that disarms librarian Lucy Hull but which dismays his God-fearing, God-adhering, rigidly fundamentalist mother. Harry Potter is forbidden, so is Roald Dahl – and so, even, is wearing a Halloween costume to the library's read-aloud Friday for pre-teens.
When Lucy arrives one morning to open the library, she finds a frightened Ian sleeping next to a potted plant, his head on a knapsack, on the lam from forced attendance at "Pastor Bob's weekly classes rehabilitating sexually confused brothers and sisters in Christ."
Alarmed, Lucy resolves to take the boy home to discuss Ian's qualms with his mother – but instead embarks on a cross-country odyssey to Vermont, where Ian claims he can live with a grandmother...who turns out not to exist.
Makkai's debut novel echoes classic children's books, from the Oz series to Goodnight Moon, appropriate for a story rooted in a passion for the power of books – and libraries – to change lives.
When the Harry Potter books were at their zenith, the publishers produced editions that did not look like a Harry Potter book. Evidently some adults felt embarrassed about being seen reading "Young Adult" fiction.
I have no such qualms, and heartily agree with Madeline L'Engle's observation, "When I have something to say that I think will be too difficult for adults, I write it in a book for children. Children are excited by new ideas; they have not yet closed the doors and windows of their imaginations. Provided the story is good... nothing is too difficult for children." Some of the most interesting books I've read have been aimed at the under 18 market.
In recent years I have reread L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, Arthur Ransom's "Swallows and Amazons" series, and devoured the entire Harry Potter series. (Having attended a boarding school in Australia, I had a personal understanding of the trials of the "new boy".)
Last year I came across Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. This is part of a trio, later a quartet, of books ("Uglies", "Pretties", "Specials", and "Extras") set in a rather bleak future version of North America. Like most books set in a future version of Earth, there are lots of science fiction (SF) elements. (With most of the science being fairly plausible.) But beyond the science are some disturbing allusions to North American society's obsession with physical appearance. In Uglies all children, on their 16th birthday, receive cosmetic surgery to become one of the "pretties" and move across the river to "New Pretty Town".
The underlying theme of adolescents coming to grips with changes that are out of their control will echo with teens and their parents. But beyond the "message" the books were an interesting insight into a possible world. One that I hope we won't have to deal with any time soon.
- Simon Parker
A grandfather strokes a grandchild's chest "to find those places that make him breathe hard." A man tells a woman she is beautiful, "though I haven't bathed for three days...and can only look at the wall." A young girl has "been planning my funeral since I was ten." A poet lies in a bed of balled tissues, where "somewhere in the tangle are the pills to pull me through this labyrinth."
The labyrinth is bipolar disorder, and that grandchild, that woman, that young girl, and that poet are Neale. In this evocative, provocative collection, at once tender and terrifying, reflective and raging, hurt and healed, Neale lays bare a life of emotional highs and despairing lows and, often enough, of stable, contented middles: "We sing ourselves back, and become once again whole."
Some poetry is external, drawn from the world beyond self. Other poetry is internal, drawn from the world within self. Neale's collection straddles the divide with riveting style and compelling content.
Two authors whose picture books I’ve recently read with my daughter, both women from Quebec, capture some of the charming aspects of children faced with new situations.
Marie-Louise Gay's Stella series recounts the tales of Stella's adventures with her little brother Sam. Sam is a bit unsure about how the world works, and timid about embracing what awaits him out there. Stella, on the other hand, is a fountain of benign misinformation and seems willing to try anything. In the Stella series they explore the seasons as Canadians truly experience them. In addition to the Stella series, Gay has illustrated a number of books for other authors, more than twenty of which are on the shelves at the Bowen Island Library.
Melanie Watt came up with a winner in Scaredy Squirrel. Everything is a potential danger for this furry little fraidycat. A journey out of his safe tree home is riddled with hidden dangers from such unexpected foes as piranhas, walruses and Godzilla. (He is not big on "bitey things.") But Scaredy's health and safety fears turn out to be largely groundless and he has a good time in spite of himself.
I see a bit of my three-year in both Sam and Scaredy. She has her routine and at times is a bit unsure about how to deal with new experiences. But as with those two characters, once she gets the lay of the land she jumps in with gusto. She enjoys both of these authors, but seems to have a preference for Melanie Watts' bolder illustration style. I like the softer watercolour-look of Marie-Louise Gay's Stella books, but hey, I only read them.
- Simon Parker
“Sometimes staccato, always poetic”
An unusual name for a book, and an unusual book, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. Blank Gaze, published in 2001, was Peixoto’s first novel to be translated into English and resulted in much acclaim, so when The Piano Cemetery was published in English earlier this year, it was greeted with great interest.
It is wound around the true story of the death of Francisco Lazaro, a Portuguese athlete who died at kilometer thirty of the marathon in the 1912 Olympic Games.
Lazaro’s son, like the athlete, is a carpenter whose real love is the repair of pianos. The book moves through chaotic lives of these men and their families where women are strong yet abused, men are violent yet sympathetic and their children reflect the characters of their parents.
Peixoto moves from the past to the present and back again, sometimes between one paragraph and the next; in fact some of his sentences stop midway, so that it is often a puzzle to work out which Francisco Lazaro is which. However, the story is so gripping that it is difficult to put the book down.
Peixoto’s prose is sometimes staccato, always poetic and never dull – reminiscent, aptly enough, of an interesting piece of music.
- Hilary Butler
“There is nothing more”
Mankell’s first Kurt Wallander mystery in a decade is, sadly, the last. After eight novels and one story collection, it’s obvious from the novel’s melancholy coda that defiantly dour Swedish police detective Wallander is soon to be consumed by a twilight world of the mind.
Increasingly dismayed by the politics of policing, he also worries about growing old alone, and he’smore and more forgetful as the plot progresses: “Was he already getting close to his devastating dotage, when he would become increasingly helpless?” he asks himself on one of many dark nights of the soul.
There are good days, too, particularly when his daughter bears Wallander’s first grandchild; it’s also his daughter (or, more particularly, his daughter’s husband-to-be’s father) who provides “the troubled man” – a 75-year-old retired naval commander fearfully guarding decade-old secrets concerning Swedish submarines, American meddling in Swedish affairs, Russian spies and assorted other Cold War artifacts.
Though it’s outside his jurisdiction, Wallander eventually unravels the mystery of the old man’s disappearance. Beyond that, the mystery itself doesn’t much matter in this elegiac last novel; Mankell’s focus is more on how a proud man confronts his mortality. At story’s end, there is this: “After that there is nothing more.”
- Richard Labonté
“Opera’s opulent seduction”
First-time novelist Gallaway strikes beguiling chords in this inventive blend of mystery, romance, music, and, skillfully, the supernatural.
The novel is set in 19th century Europe and 20th and 21st centuries America, times and places linked by the majestic opera Tristan and Isolde and through the artfully entwined lives of four central characters: Lucien, the musical-genius and time-transcending gay son of a Parisian scientist researching eternal life in the 1860s; Anna, a low-key diva whose singing career skyrockets in New York in the 1960s when she steps in to replace a faltering soprano; Martin, an HIV-infected lawyer with a passion for punk in his past who turns to opera in the wake of 9/11; and Maria, Anna’s operatic protégé, who shares a mysteriously embryonic kinship with Martin.
Gallaway’s passion for opera suffuses the story, which among its many charms includes a deft depiction of composer Richard Wagner. But readers who have evaded opera’s opulent seduction ought not be deterred – at its core, this cunning novel embraces the universal themes of searching for both love and the meaning of life.
- Richard Labonté
“An ecological odyssey”
When I reviewed this book a few years ago for Publishers Weekly, its U.S. title was the more earnest (and less plot-revealing) Almost Green: How I Saved 1/16th of a Billionth of the Planet.
A recent visitor spotted the galley (with the U.S. title) on a bookshelf, and exclaimed something like, “Wow. Another book by him! I loved his first book!!” Chagrined to hear that, alas, it was the same book, he nonetheless bought a Canadian edition at The Phoenix.
Here’s that original review, which I re-read, prompted by her pleasure:
The goal seemed simple: Glave, a former senior editor for Outside
Magazine with a burgeoning ecological consciousness, wanted to build a green "eco-shed" next to his less than environmentally correct home on idyllic Bowen Island, a short ferry ride from Vancouver.
His compelling account of a "cockamamie" ecological odyssey is as irreverent as the quirky title suggests – but deeply informative as well.
The author's environmental learning curve was steep. Straw bale and rammed earth construction schemes for the 260-square-foot building – to double as both a writing studio and a guest house for visitors – were considered and discarded, as he navigated the intricacies of securing recovered wood, engaging ever-busy contractors and negotiating with neighbors concerned about sight lines.
Costs mounted and so did domestic tensions, as Glave tore down a pricey carport that was a gift from his conservative father-in-law, and as his shed's footprint threatened his wife's cherished garden.
The focus of this endearing eco-memoir is primarily on getting the dream shed built, but Glave's sensible (and sometimes caustically comic) green consciousness has real universal appeal.
- Richard Labonté
It takes a few pages of searching the Amazon website to trace this book, as the subject of fame is a widely used and abused theme nowadays. However, this novel in nine episodes is far more engrossing than any of the others on Amazon's list, as it takes the notion of fame and explores it through the lens of irony, philosophical thought, black humour and serendipity. The characters in these episodes are interconnected in unexpected ways, and Kehlmann draws deft pictures of each one as we follow them from one end of the world to the other, from one farcical situation to another – farcical, yet close enough to reality to make one squirm. This young writer is brilliant!
- Hilary Butler
This young American author achieved fame for her popular 2008 novel History of Love. Her new book is equally haunting. An enormous desk with many drawers is pivotal to many people whose lives have been ravaged by war, the Holocaust, personal tragedy and loss. Their memories and their life stories are interwoven through the efforts of an antiques dealer in Jerusalem to locate the desk and recreate his father's Budapest study, ravaged by the Nazis in 1944. Krauss walks us through London, Jerusalem, Pinochet's Chile, Budapest and New York as she traces the stories and obsessions of the characters linked to the stolen desk. An absorbing read.
- Hilary Butler
Yet another book about Hemingway in Paris…but this is yet another angle, and a fascinating one. Hemingway's turbulent life there is seen through the eyes of Hadley Richardson, his first wife who stood by him for years while he wrote, drank and enjoyed very public extramarital relationships. McLain gives a fascinating description of ex-pat life in post-war (the first one) Paris with great character sketches of American literati such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and inevitably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The dialogue is great, the narrative evocative, and one can understand why Hemingway would later write of his first wife, "I wish I had died before I loved anyone but her."
- Hilary Butler
The sixth in Scottish writer Val McDermid's crime series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan and criminal profiler and clinical psychologist Tony Hill is not for the faint of heart. Teenagers are being gruesomely mutilated after connecting, unwittingly, with a serial killer on a social networking site, RigMarole (akin to Facebook), and McDermid doesn't skimp on the details. The fact that McDermid introduces readers to each of the victims before their demise only intensifies the mix of emotional and physical violence. But there's much more to this mystery than detective work: a new boss is pressuring Jordan to stop hiring Hill as a consultant, further implying that, because the two of them have a personal as well as a professional relationship, something corrupt is going on. And Hill, meanwhile, has problems of his own: his estranged father, who abandoned him as a baby, has died and left him a considerable estate – much to the horror, and the anger, of Hill's venomous mother – and the psychologist is conflicted about finally confronting his own uncomfortable past. Chilling narrative meets authorial excellence in this horribly brilliant book. (Three other titles in the series are also available ftom the Bowen Island Public Library: Beneath the Bleeding, The Torment of Others, and The Mermaids Singing.)
- Richard Labonté
One thing that can be said about Vancouver Island-born deWitt: he isn't writing the same novel over and over again (see: James Patterson). His slim debut novel, Ablutions – the subtitle is an illusion to the fact that the story is told through a series of laconic but riveting vignettes – is a cautionary tale about alcoholism, hangovers, dysfunction, nihilism, and overall depravity. Set mostly in an L.A. lowlife bar, where a down-and-out barback/bartender dissects his own sad existence while commenting on the dregs of society passing through the bar – drug dealers, whores, crack addicts, transvestites, has-been actors... the unpretty people. And they aren't funny drunks, though deWitt's sharp observational skills – he was once a bartender – transform life's ugly underside into the blackest, bleakest of comedies.
And then there's the second novel – something completely different. The writing is as incisive, as confrontational, and as compelling, and there is much physical mayhem, including the corpses of horses (and men), bloody amputations, and, shades of the first, hellish hangovers. But the setting is far from contemporary. Set in a comically askew vision of the Old West circa 1851, deWitt tells the picaresque story of cowboy brothers Eli (the nicer one) and Charlie (the cold-blooded one) Sisters, pistol-waving crazies doing the bidding of their mysterious boss: heading on their horses to Sacramento to assassinate a gold-rush prospector. As with the first novel, the narrative of The Sister Brothers unfolds through short, albeit cinematic, chapters, vignettes filtered through the perspective of Eli, the more passive bro'. Wholly original and completely compelling, this anti-Western genre novel is a grandly imaginative triumph.
- Richard Labonté
As the father of a three-year old, I've spent the last couple of years reacquainting myself with the world of children's books. My first impression? There are some gems out there. In a former life I represented illustrators and photographers and developed a somewhat educated perspective on illustration. While good illustration is essential, I also look for text that captures my attention.
Early in my exploration of storybooks I discovered Mo Willems and his Knuffle Bunny books. Given that he won six Emmy Awards for his writing for Sesame Street, I had high expectations. I was not disappointed. As with the venerable TV show, his books are aimed at children but there is enough in them to keep adults amused. The Knuffle Bunny books tell of Trixie's attachment to her stuffed bunny and her family's tribulations when the bunny is misplaced. There are three books in the series, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale; Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity; and Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion. Ideally they should be read in order as the stories are connected and Trixie ages over the course of the three books.
I'm too old for Eric Carle, but through my daughter I've discovered his work. Anyone under 40 will likely have grown up on The Very Hungry Caterpillar. When I was a kid there were a few children's book illustrators that stood out. Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) and Brian Wildsmith (Brian Wildsmith's 123), were favourites in our house. But through my daughter I'm discovering illustrators that emerged after my picture book stage, and ones that I somehow missed.
Eric Carle's work is masterful. A loose style with fabulous use of colour. His insect series, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Busy Spider, are constant favourites at our house, and despite the fact that my daughter has copies of both volumes on her bookshelf, she insists that we borrow them from the library.
However, if she has those two titles out, the Bowen Library has twenty-one Eric Carle books in the catalogue, so there are sure to be a few on the shelves.
- Simon Parker
This blockbuster 2001 novel, winner of both the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Giller Prize, is available at the Bowen Library. Clara is an independent, single woman living in 1930s-era small town Ontario.
Wright's novel tells the story of her struggles to observe the niceties of a close-knit traditionally minded community without relinquishing her dreams. Her sister Nora has headed for New York and a glamorous career as a radio soap opera star. The big city brings its own complications. The story unfolds through an exchange of letters between Clara and Nora.
Against the ominous clouds of Fascism in Europe, and the possibility of war, the two sisters, bound together by a shared past, struggle to find their places in the complicated and changing web of expectations for young women in the 1930s – but the story is fresh, modern and exciting.
- Len Gilday
This political satire is a sequel to The Best Laid Plans (2007), which won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. It centres around Angus McLintock, an eccentric engineer who, through a series of comic adventures, becomes the Liberal Member of Parliament for Cumberland-Prescott, the most Conservative riding in Canada.
In The High Road, McLintock decides to run for re-election, to the dismay of his Executive Assistant, Daniel Addison. Of course, more misadventures follow, involving many of the same characters from The Best Laid Plans. A few of these mishaps concern Baddeck, the homemade hovercraft that McLintock has invented and sometimes uses as a campaign vehicle, with disastrous results.
This novel is the winner of Canada Reads so has become a popular read. It is therefore highly recommended, particularly for those who love the parry and thrust of our political scene.
- Hilary Butler
A recent read of Andrea's was Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Set in a small community on the Coast of Maine, it weaves the character of Olive through thirteen stories that are about relationships, change, and grappling with the challenges of life. We can relate to the characters that are flawed, damaged, bitter and confused and yet display moments of tenderness, empathy and vulnerability.
- Andrea Little
Master Irish storyteller Toibin, an Irish writer now teaching at Princeton University, follows last year's novel, Brooklyn – about an Irish lass's lonely immigrant life in 1950s America – with this collection of nine stunning stories set in different countries and different times, but linked by a pervasive sense of melancholy, longing and loss.
It's tempting to read autobiographical elements into several of the stories – into, for example, "Barcelona, 1975," in which a now-mature narrator recalls his sexual romps, as a "raw and unhappy" 20-year-old Irish lad, with sexy Spaniards; Toibin lived in Spain from 1975 to 1978.
There's nothing autobiographical, however, in the novella-length last story, "The Street," in which Toibin seamlessly enters the mind of a Pakistani lad, indentured to contemporary servitude as an immigrant in Barcelona, who dares to embark on a physical and emotional relationship with a fellow Muslim. Not every story in the collection is as gay-themed, but there are whispers of Toibin's age, sexuality, nationality, and profession in most: in "One Minus One," the academic who returns to Dublin from New York to care for his dying mother is the dutiful gay son.
There's not a single clunker in this haunting, no-word-wasted collection about exile, regret, and lonely lives.
- Richard Labonté
A baby is born in 1968, in far-from-everywhere northern Labrador, Canada. He is a hermaphrodite – a word unfamiliar to the midwife present at his birth, and to his stoic father and his fanciful mother – with both penis and vagina.
His is a masculine world of men who trap for a living. After some days, his unsettled parents settle on Wayne as his name. He will be raised a boy, but his shadow self, Annabel – the name his mother whispers when they are alone – will live within him for two decades.
Wayne heads into the bush with his father, but at home he dreams of synchronized swimming and begs for a sequined bathing suit. He is she, and they are a fluid, pastel contradiction in a rigid, black and white world. Puberty sets in and there is a medical emergency – Wayne's abdomen floods with menstrual blood. And, once adult, Wayne will transform himself into who he wants to be. Winter's dazzling debut addresses the riddle of gender and the tragedy of conformity with astonishing insight and eloquence.
- Richard Labonté
What's most astonishing about the forty-eight stories in this scrumptious career-spanning collection – every one appeared in New Yorker magazine, the first in 1974 – is that the earliest are every much as polished as the most recent.
Beattie was hailed as one of the finer writers of her generation when she arrived in the venerable magazine's hard-to-crack fiction section at age twenty-six; back then, with the counter-cultural '60s still very much a cultural presence, she wrote of women and of men – affectionately of both sexes – who were "finding themselves" within nontraditional (but not too out-there) lifestyles, stoners adrift, people in their twenties willing to experiment (but not too much) with sexual mores.
Her '80s stories are more adult: the suburbs are often the setting, marriages are dissolving, the angst of her characters is more profound. By the '90s, middle-aged children are coping with Alzheimer's afflicting their parents.
In the most recent stories, the boomer generation, once jaunty and flighty and often daring, has settled into an aged uncertainty – but Beattie, thirty-six years after her precocious debut, continues to track America's middle class with fluid fidelity.
- Richard Labonté
This political satire is a sequel to The Best Laid Plans (2007), which won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour.
It centres around Angus McLintock, an eccentric engineer who, through a series of comic adventures, becomes the Liberal Member of Parliament for Cumberland-Prescott, the most Conservative riding in Canada. In The High Road, McLlintock decides to run for re-election, to the dismay of his Executive Assistant, Daniel Addison.
Of course, more misadventures follow, involving many of the same characters from The Best Laid Plans. A few of these mishaps concern Baddeck, the homemade hovercraft that McLintock has invented and sometimes uses as a campaign vehicle, with disastrous results.
Some of the characters in this novel are not as deftly drawn as one would hope, and interest sometimes flags. One is surprised that, in a satire based on contemporary Canada, the term Progressive Conservatives is used for the Conservative Party.
Apart from one or two such problems, this is an amusing read, particularly for those who love the parry and thrust of our political scene.
The horrific is rendered unsettlingly normal – even hauntingly innocent – in Donoghue's mesmerizing novel about five-year-old Jack and his young mother, held captive in a tarted-up garden shed by a sexual pervert.
"Ma," as she is known for most of the novel, was kidnapped at age nineteen, and knows there is a world outside their four Spartan walls. But for Jack, born inside the windowless room, the world is compressed into Rocker and Wardrobe, Lamp and Bed, five children's books, and a few channels on Television – which for the boy is in no way a representation of reality.
His mother – who still breastfeeds the lad – has consciously raised him in the cocoon of a self-contained universe; he doesn't know that an "outside" exists. For the boy, their hell is a perverse paradise. Narrated entirely and endearingly in Jack's voice, the story of their isolation – ruptured weekly when their captor, Old Nick (Jack's father), enters the shed for sex with Ma – is nonetheless never claustrophobic, a testament to Donoghue's amazing, always-credible imagination.
There's a good reason this engrossing novel appeared on most of the Best Books of 2010 lists.
- Richard Labonté
Sophie Hannah is a well-known poet, professor and novelist who lives and works in Cambridge, England. Her best-known novels are Little Face (2006), Hurting Distance (2007) and The Point of Rescue (2008). In a room swept white, she further explores her favorite subject—women and children in distress.
Unlike many crime writers, Hannah's don't start with a dead body. They always set the scene with great detail before introducing the murder. However, this book cannot be labelled as a just a crime novel; it is a study in psychology and a thriller as well. In a room swept white, a murder revolves around the murder of a woman convicted of the murder of her children, and subsequently released after an appeal had established that SIDS was in fact the cause of the deaths (a topic al issue, often discussed in our media).
Hannah uses most of the police officers that readers of her previous novels know and sometimes love. Both the policemen and the other characters are blemished in some way, but very lifelike because of this. The plot is complex; the style is sometimes poetic, sometimes clinical, and always interesting. The ending is unexpected and the suspense lasts right up to the last moment, a feature that is essential to a successful thriller.
After six essay collections, Sedaris seemed to be running out of a life – his own – to mine for caustic commentary and quirky incidents. So it's apt that he has transferred his sardonic style to this sharp-toothed collection, skewering human characteristics in the guise of beasts and birds.
Be warned: despite the illustrations, this is not a book for the kiddies. Bad behavior is the norm, and gleeful tastelessness abounds: leeches plucked from a hippo's feces-smeared butt burst into song, for example, and a cat presses on her baboon hairdresser the importance of a well-licked anus.
The stories, most just a few pages long, are rife with oddball moments: storks wonder whether it's best to tell their chicks that the mice brought them, a mink confesses at an AA meeting to selling her pelt for Kahlua, and a vindictive rabbit stands in for every overbearing border guard ever encountered.
The closest the collection comes to gay life, a topic often suggested in Sedaris' memoiristic essays, is the title tale, in which Chipmunk allows prejudice to color the possibility of happiness with Squirrel – the kind of resonance woven, however weirdly, through all of these amoral fables.
- Richard Labonté
There is something to be said for knowing what to expect from an author. From Coyote – certainly for her story collections – that means a divinely astute and gently witty lot of life-based vignettes (though the book is labeled fiction).
The short-shorts – most just four pages long, revised from Coyote's regular column in a Vancouver weekly paper – cover a spectrum of situations and experiences, but most are rooted in the author's mixed-signal gender identity: she's a boyish-looking butch lesbian with a lapdog for a pet.
The 30 tales, a bracing blend of self-effacing and brave, embrace universal themes within singular moments – "Good Old Days," about teaching memoir writing to a class of senior citizens, both confronts Coyote's concerns about their potential prejudice and realizes the sentiment that "love is just love."
Fans of the author's previous collections won't find a new take on life here, or a distinct departure in style. But in the case of Coyote's warm, perceptive storytelling, familiarity breeds contentment. The author headlined the Write on Bowen! festival in 2010, and readers captivated by this most recent collection will also find her other books on the Library shelves: Slow Fix, Loose End, Missed Her, One Man's Trash, Bow Grip, and Close to Spider Man.
- Richard Labonté
©2011 Bowen Island Public Library Association.