Saturday, December 12, 2015

"Fifteen Dogs"

By Andre Alexis
ISBN No. 978-1-55245-305-6

How's this for a pitch? Two gods give 15 dogs staying overnight in a veterinary clinic "human consciousness" to see if they'll be as happy or miserable as their owners.
With its clever ground rules for a parallel reality of thinking, talking dogs (reminiscent of the rules of the afterlife in "The Lovely Bones") and the conundrum of mastery over "lesser" creatures (reminiscent of "A.I. Artificial Intelligence"), "Fifteen Dogs" is the latest in a very long line of stories about what happens when dogs whisper back.
The 1975 cult film "A Boy and his Dog" starred Don Johnson as a slacker Mad Max wandering through a dystopian desert with his talking dog. The 1989 movie "Baxter" was narrated by a French-speaking bull terrier. In the excellent book "The Dogs of Babel", a distraught husband tries to find out why his wife died in a freak accident by getting the only witness - a dog - to talk.
Like all of those aforementioned titles "Fifteen Dogs" is a compelling crossbreed of everything from the deepest philosophy about what constitutes a happy life to the most basic emotions around the death of a pet.
When the writing's good it's really good. A blind dog sleeping outside was "easily seen by all the creatures that walked, flew or crept past him on their way through the gardens." And when the writing's not so good (as it is in the first 44 pages) it's almost Disney-ish in its apostrophe-free depiction of plucky canine teamwork. Even worse, the gods make their bet over a few brewskis in a Toronto bar. (I know Toronto sees itself as the cultural and business centre of Canada, but now it's the mythological and philosophical centre of the whole universe??)
Yet "Fifteen Dogs" is still a very clever and rewarding read. At only 171 pages, the spareness of the writing (considering the complexities of the plot) is a miracle of sorts. When a storyteller is this assured and confident he encourages us to trust him as well. Besides, it's nice to think that our lives are determined as much by choice and circumstance as they are by imperfect gods of fate making it all up between games of Foosball.
"The first [god] spins the thread of a life," Alexis explains. "The second draws out the length of thread each being will have. The third cuts the thread and ends that being's time on earth." Whew... And when the gods toy with the fates of the dogs and their owners ("Atrapos cut two of the three lives that were wound together, then added years to the one that was left by way of balance.") make sure you have some tissues nearby. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Song for a Summer Night"

By Robert Heidbreder & Qin Leng
ISBN No. 978-1-55498-493-0

"Day's left the stage. Night's in the wings. The summer air sings what a summer night brings." In an age of books like "Go the F*** to Sleep" suggesting that already sleep-deprived parents let their children stay up waaaay past their curfews must be fighting words. But they are such lovely words. Those opening lines from this charming, beautifully illustrated lullaby of a book announce a contrarian kind of bedtime story about the promise, not of a new morning, but of the start of a day's end. When the children in this story break curfew to party with the cute creatures of the night (shy skunks, sparkling fireflies) they're appreciating the magic of a moonlit summer night many decades before they'll go gently into another, more sombre, good night. It's touching stuff.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"The World Without Us"

By Robin Stevenson
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0680-1

It takes a certain kind of courage to publish a youth novel about suicide when even the mainstream media is still trying to figure out how to report on it without nudging depressed millennials in that direction. It takes even more courage (balls? gall?) to give your book the same title as another one about what the world would look if the virus of humanity were suddenly gone for good. Stevenson's book is all those things (ballsy, galling, torn from the headlines) - just not to everyone at the same time. Yes, the titling of an end chapter "The Point of it All" suggests a certain resolution to a tragic phenomenon. It isn't. Instead, its characters are the human beings behind the headlines. They never feel like stock characters or ciphers and their motivations - ultimately - are always about doing the right thing and making the world a better place for themselves and their loved ones, now and long after they're gone. That's a heady ambition in contemporary adult fiction. That Stevenson achieves it in youth fiction is a miracle. It's a smart, daring read. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"Unnatural Selections"

by Wallace Edwards
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0555-2

We're warned right upfront: "Readers of this book, behold! Beasts from an imagined age." Those beasts come from the imagination of Professor I.B. Doodling, a "traveling artist who visits schoolchildren and takes their create fantastical hybrid animals." The results are elegant illustrations and nonsensical poems about everything from the "Whalephant" ("Everyone who gets to see him, secretly would like to be him") to the "Leofroat" (a mashup of leopard, frog and goat).
The book encourages children to spot and identify the different animals in the pictures, but it's also an unwitting introduction to the environmental ills of our rapidly (de?)evolving planet. Being "a fantastical collection of unnatural selections!" also means the book might be an empowering or emasculating read for children with emerging gender issues. Whew... Thats a LOT of forehead crunching for a children's book. This isn't a bad thing if it gets parents and children talking about stuff like "natural" selection, the implications of GMO agriculture or - considering how fast kids grow up these days - the unnatural selections in books like Margaret Atwood's dystopian "Oryx and Crake" trilogy, where glowing rabbits - a failed experiment in bioluminescence - run freely in the countryside.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

“Bike Thief”

by Rita Feutl
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0569-9

In 1948 it was a movie called “The Bicycle Thief”, which is memorable for being both an affecting neo-realist examination of Italy’s working class and - according to Mia Farrow - the only movie that ever made Woody Allen cry. This year it’s a book simply called “Bike Thief” and it updates, westernizes, and youthenizes the concept of bike theft for the internet, foster home, and fixed-gear bicycle age. When stalwart Nick visits the local pawn shop to replace the TV his sister broke (hopefully before their foster parents find out) he’s coerced by the store owner to steal bikes to pay for the TV. What happens next is the moral quandary of every tween trying to do the right thing – but with some surprisingly evocative, millennial and grown-up touches. When the pawn shop owner asks after Nick’s younger sister his how-is-she “smells of sex – or drugs.” Bike chains in a chop shop “spill from an old box like a mess of snakes trying to escape.” When Nick doubles a girl he likes home on his bike he thinks: “Good thing she’s facing forward. She can’t see the grin on my face.” Eventually the clever touches – which both adults and kids can appreciate – elevate “Bike Thief” above the genre of youth lit.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Margaret Atwood ends her Dystopian Trilogy

“Oryx and Crake” (ISBN No. 978-0-3073-9848-2; Vintage Canada)
“The Year of the Flood” (ISBN No. 978-0-7710-0844-3; McClelland & Stewart)
“Maddaddam” (ISBN No. 978-0-7710-0846-7; McClelland & Stewart)

 There’s something unfair about using only 500 words to review 900+ pages of a dystopian trilogy but such is the state of blogging about books about the coming dystopia in our age of drive-by publishing and nanosecond attention spans.
To put it so the Millennials understand it, Margaret Atwood’s threesome is basically AMC’s “The Walking Dead” – without the gore, and with scientists, ciphers and their human-like creations as its survivors. And like TWD the start-up is thrilling and enthralling; the later stuff not so much.
In some action movies the budget is so large that the final half hour is nothing but special effects and explosions, a burning off of what’s left of the budget. “Maddaddam” applies a similar technique. Here Atwood burns off some of the most punishing back-and-forth dialogue I’ve ever read in order to use up the background she’d apparently written for her characters – but wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t use in the first two books of the trilogy. When a character says “needless to say” they’ve summed up three-quarters of “Maddaddam.”
To be fair there’s an emptiness here that eerily suggests a world suddenly uncluttered by pretty much everything - except the obligatory power struggles required in most dystopian fiction. There are “wow” moments about the book (I especially enjoyed the glowing rabbits, just one of the lab experiments of the future running wild when everything collapses) but for a writer of Atwood’s stature (and perhaps indicative of the disposable vampire/werewolf/teen romance content of Wattpad, the creative writing site she champions) the quiet assuredness of “Maddaddam” suggests a darker future for fiction. “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood” were wonderful but “Maddaddam” is that most typical of millennial pursuits: elegant, empty art.

"Ace's Basement"/"Caught in the Act"

“Ace’s Basement” by Ted Staunton
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0437-1
“Caught in the Act” by Deb Loughead
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0496-8

 “Ace’s Basement” is – depending on your POV – about how Rebecca Black really feels about her YouTube video for the song “Friday” or well, okay, it’s a fictionalized treatment about how Rebecca Black probably feels about her YouTube video for the song “Friday.” In “Ace’s Basement” a youth band puts out a video and the attention it gets is a lot like Rebecca Black got for her YouTube video for “Friday.” What the band really gets is a good introduction to the consequences of hastily posted videos and tweets and the permanence of social media. All of this will be covered in the next news story about online bullying (gee, how did I know there’s a “next” one?) but the long form of a short novel allows Staunton to suggest the freaky frustration of self-absorbed youth who suddenly become punchlines, entertaining other self-absorbed youth.
The kids in “Caught in the Act” are the usual good kids who do something bad and then try to explain it away with an “I don’t know” when asked why they did it. The difference here is that they know how to get out of the stuff they’ve done – and not feel too bad about doing it or lying about it. Well, for a while, at least. It’s surprising how long Loughead dangles the prospect of redemption in front of her characters before they decide to do the right thing, but the wait is weighty enough to impress even the most hardened reader of finger-wagging tween fiction.