Monday, November 8, 2010

“Nothing Left to Burn”

By Jay Varner
ISBN No. 978-1-56512-609-1

Forget “Mommie Dearest” and “Running with Scissors”, we have a new childhood memoir that defines the tell-all memoir. How’s this for a good hook? A son reports on fires for the local newspaper, his dad fights them, and his grandfather sets them. Amazing in premise and engrossing in execution, this bizarre history of THE dysfunctional family to end all dysfunctional families makes everything else you’ve read about distant fathers and alcoholic mothers seem tame by comparison. Even better than the book’s hook is its subtle motif: the destructive and yet cleansing effects of fire – so perfect for an age of Global Warming. Quote me on this: I believe that the vampire trend will eventually be replaced by pyromania.
Even better, Varner writes with both the economy of a newspaper reporter (a heat wave “feels like the countryside is sealed inside a clammy Mason jar”) and the florid poignancy of the best writers of fiction (“His face looked washed in exhaustion-blue crescent pouches formed under his eyes, and the lids look permanently heavy”). It’s a potent combo for audiences enjoying an embarrassment of riches as more and more non-fiction (Dave Cullen’s “Columbine”) turns out to be even more compelling and rewarding as the best fiction.

Monday, October 18, 2010

“Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter”

By Randy Schmidt
ISBN No. 978-1-55652-976-4

Rock-star deaths are a dime a dozen these days. Overdoses, car accidents, plane crashes; tragic ends go with the territory of living fast and dying young. What makes Karen Carpenter’s death at age 32 in 1983 different, however, was that she was more America’s daughter than Janis Joplin, and her death started a cultural conversation not about the obvious trappings of fame (easy drugs, careless suicides), but about anorexia and its roots in the darker dynamics of the American family.
They say that three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, and Richard Carpenter, as the last surviving member of the Carpenter family, likely exercises some firm control over his family’s image. Still, the access that he gives Randy Schmidt in researching and writing this book is unparalleled. And like the best biographies Schmidt uses Karen’s life to subtly open up larger areas of discourse while telling a fascinating story.
He starts with the obvious: In retrospect it’s remarkable that Karen’s gaunt, death-mask features kept showing up in the entertainment sections of magazines and newspapers without complaint or public comment. But then again, this was a pre-TMZ and pre-internet era of tightly controlled publicity. If Karen didn’t hear it from her own family and handlers (“the sharks around her,” Schmidt writes), it didn’t exist.
Then he moves onto the sensational stuff: In TV pitch terms, “Little Girl Blue” is a woman in danger storyline filtered through equal parts “American Idol”, “CSI” and the Food Channel. First there’s the unassuming beginning (Richard takes Karen on as a bandmate at their mother’s suggestion), then the meteoric rise to fame (16 consecutive Top 20 hits). After that there’s the toying with their squeaky clean image (in People Magazine they admit to actually having sex – with other people – and believing marijuana should be legalized), and finally, the bizarre yet-all-too inevitable ending (death by heart failure due to complications from anorexia).
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Little Girl Blue” is that it’s one of the first books that knows food is an American religion. And Schmidt understands all too well the irony of a major celebrity starving herself to death in what’s become an obese consumer culture.
The heavy production of the book is equal to the task of summing up Carpenter’s life. Schmidt begins with a quote by Emerson, titles his chapters with eerily prescient pieces from Carpenter songs, and writes with a weight and profundity that perfectly complements the tight, academic font of the book.
And yet “Little Girl Blue” doesn’t read like a textbook. It’s almost a Shakespearian tragedy. Schmidt manages to turn vinyl and newsprint and YouTube videos back into a flesh and blood person. It’s to the book’s credit that as I was reading “Little Girl Blue” I kept thinking that Karen Carpenter herself was interviewed for it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Serious Business: Fall Kid Lit

“The Way it Works”
By William Kowalski
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-367-2

“Silver Rain”
By Lois Peterson
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-280-4

Available through

“The Way it Works” is one of Orca’s “Rapid Reads” and presumably that means you can breeze through this 128-page book in one sitting. Then again, given that it’s about a homeless hottie living in his car after his mother’s medical expenses and death leave him both destitute and drifting, you won’t be able to put the book down until you’re finished anyway. For this is the kind of book that Orca does best: character-building through adversity. You just have to keep reading to see how things turn out – and whether our hero will win the heart of the pretty girl who doesn’t know he lives in his car. And while tweens and teens will enjoy the book, adults and writers will be equally fascinated with the economy with which Kowalski manages to draw full-fledged characters, create increasingly dramatic situations and then resolve it all in just a hundred-plus pages. Wow one.
“Silver Rain” is only fiftysomething pages longer than “The Way it Works” so it isn’t labeled a “Rapid Read” but you won’t be putting it down until you’re finished it either. What the first book had in plot, “Silver Rain” has in plot PLUS historical significance. Here, a destitute, depression-era 11-year-old named Elsie deals with vagrants, bread lines and a local dance marathon while searching for her missing father. Yes, “Silver Rain” is “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” for the tween set and it must be read - if only for curiosity value. After you pick your jaw up from the floor, however, you’ll find that this story feels wholly and respectfully authentic to its time period. There’s a Nancy Drew aspect to the book, of course (and that’ll keep the young readers reading): Will Elsie find her dad? What’s going on over at the dance marathon? But what’ll keep coming up is how Peterson gets the little, evocative details just right: old coats, stained-glass windows, and a house that looks “like a spider’s web, with the wash lines zigzagging across it.” Wow Two.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

“Frumkiss Family Business”

By Michael Wex
ISBN No. 978-0-307-39776-8

The first thing you notice about this book is its cover. Okay, maybe not. Coloured an unappetizing hard blue-green, and featuring a rough-hewn etching of what appears to be a Dodo or turkey smoking a cigarette on the cover, you could be forgiven for judging this book by its cover. Usually, something like this would a major nitpick for me; I’d argue that while I can’t single-handedly smarten up slaves of the internet to read actual books, publishers of books need to make their covers as neat and sparkly as a Facebook page to lure internet eyeballs. Yet that’d be a mistake in this case. The book cover perfectly summarizes the tone of a tough, thoughtful, and oddly engrossing view of Toronto’s Jewish community. Our main characters are Vanessa, Randall and Rachel, the three children of Canada’s most famous podiatrist. Outwardly they seem like the perfect products of metropolitan Toronto, but each of them is constantly being affected and re-shaped by new revelations (and no spoiler alert; they’ll stay revelations for the reader) about their grandfather, Faktor. What makes FFB such a great read can be illustrated by Vex’s description of a character named Milner, who “dressed like a pushcart peddler in a photo from 1892…[dished] out a way of being Jewish so authentically rooted in the lives of real Jews that some of it hadn’t been written down or recorded until he came along.” The same could be said about Wex’s book. The characters, the culture, and storyline should be stale and well-worn (Wex’s previous title was “Born to Kvetch”) but they all feel fresh and inventive; like a Lonely Planet guidebook to a family history. Think of “Frumkiss Family Business” as “Moonstruck” + Jewish history X 2 Chers and 1 Nicolas Cage.

2011 Picture-A-Day Wall Calendars

365 Days in Ireland
ISBN No. 978-0-7611-5806-6

365 Days in Italy
ISBN No. 978-0-7611-5534-8

365 Days in France
ISBN No. 978-0-7611-5533-1

All available through

Some magazine article I read a while back said that the health of the economy can be based on the sales of wrist watches: the more they sell, the better the economy is doing. I’m not sure what the health of the calendar business means but I’m guessing in our era of iPhones and iPods that the Wall Calendar business should be on its last legs. Or not.
Workman Publishing makes the best calendars – Wall, Desk, whatever; they’re the best. And not to diss major authors who work for a decade on a big Fall title, but I’m as excited to see the new 365 Days in Ireland Picture-A-Day Calendar as I am to see the new book by Jonathan Franzen. That’s because Workman’s Picture-a-Day Wall Calendars are the perfect marriage of Palm Pilot and art gallery. While their calendars feature everything from 365 pictures of kittens, puppies and songbirds, my favourite calendars are those of European places such as Italy, France and, as I’ve mentioned, Ireland. It’s not hard to see why. The oversized Wall calendar format is divided into a big, grand above-the-fold opening shot that summarizes the location being featured that month. Below the fold the place is broken up into different photographs for each day of the month. One day might be accompanied by a shot of a typical meal in that country; another might be the view from a B&B. All are lovely to look at - but none seem so photo-shopped as to be unrealistic (my big complaint with most calendars – and, in a way, of contemporary fiction).Each month is accompanied by some text which is just as economical yet evocative as the pictures themselves. The result is the sense of having either visited the place, or the discovery of someplace you’d like to go to. Even better, if you’ve been to any of the places featured in the calendars you’ll find neighbouring cities or towns that you didn’t hit but would plan to on your next trip there. With the best fiction you get a sense you’ve been transported to a different time or place. With these calendars you can joyously feel you’ve lost all sense of place.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

“New York”

By Edward Rutherfurd
ISBN No. 978-0-385-66427-1
Readers of a certain age can be forgiven for getting a sense of déjà vu when they read the jacket copy of this brick of a book. The last time I read “a rich, engrossing saga, weaving together tales of families rich and poor, native-born and immigrant – a cast of fictional and true characters whose fates rise and fall and rise again with the city’s fortunes,” it was the late 1970’s, the story was set in New York, and the book was E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” Well, we’re still in New York, but given the demands of the Internet generation and an audience of Twi-hards and Potter-heads used to 800-page sequels, the canvas of the contemporary novel now demands a certain length and breadth to satisfy the easily dissatisfied. Often, this results in writing that needn’t be written at all; most of these new books are just run-on descriptions of the same places described in the previous installment of the series (always a series, it seems) dressed up as new episodes. Rutherfurd has the length part down. His “New York” doesn’t just cover an era in the city; it encompasses an almost biblically long eon of time. From New York’s start as a tiny fishing village right up to 9-11, the novel is worth reading if only to admire its mechanics. It’s frankly amazing how far the author can take you in only a dozen pages. Story-wise, it’s an epic, all right. Rutherfurd wisely invests his tale with enough novel twists and clichéd plot points to keep the eye dancing and the brain clicking. The only thing that suffers – as it does with all epics – is the writing, which has to be understated, stately, proper and functional and get you to where you need to go with minimal flourish and description. But as luck would have it, that impersonality gives “New York” a real and suspenseful poignancy. Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”) has publicly expressed a desire to write a novel about the history of a place, the people who gathered there; essentially the dichotomy of the concrete of the structure and the impermanence of the people who built it. Until Cunningham writes it, “New York” is that book.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

“Krakow Melt”

By Daniel Allen Cox
ISBN No. 978-1-55152-372-9
You know how when you group your books in your bookcase by genre and there’s always a few of them that defy easy cataloguing? “Krakow Melt” is such a book. Even though it’s only 151 pages the book requires reams of text to explain even its minor plot twists. Simply put, it’s about two Polish firebugs fighting homophobia in Krakow in 2005. Wrapped up in that sales pitch, however, is the firebrand POV of its renegade author. Gender roles, sexual orientation, socio-political commitment and materialism are given valentines or bull’s-eyes in the galvanizing prose of Cox. An author’s second book is usually his safest but Cox, proving that his first book, “Shuck” was no fluke and that he still has a masterpiece in him, seems even more reckless the second time around. The characters are smarter, the dialogue is sharper and the words themselves seem to come straight from Cox’ unconscious. The book is so conversation-worthy that you don’t want to spoil it for other readers by quoting anything at all. But still, like a song stuck in your head, lines linger and demand sharing: “She then returned to her reading, which I found ridiculously sexy,” he writes. “A book lures you into a state of bodily comfort and then, once your limbs are placed just right, finger-f---s your insides. I wanted to be the book, stretching her open a little wider with very pithy sentence.” Whew… Is there a literary genre called Mental Hook-up?

"The Rapture"

By Liz Jensen
ISBN No. 978-0-385-66702-9
With a lot of books a reviewer writes about what the book is about. With “The Rapture” it’s more appropriate to talk about what the book is “like.” With its flawed and haunted psychotherapist, Gabrielle, there are echoes of the young priest in “The Exorcist”. With the mother-murdering, disaster-predicting teenager under Gabrielle’s care, Bethany, there are echoes of, well, the young girl in “The Exorcist”. And if the comparison seems both flattering and simplistic, that’s intentional. That book, Pauline Kael said, “is a manual of lurid crimes, written in an a easy-to-read tough-guy style yet with a grating heightening word here and there, supposedly to tone it up.” She could just as easily been talking about the first line of “The Rapture”: “That summer, the summer all the rules began to change. June seemed to last for a thousand years.” There’s isn’t much else I can reveal without revealing too much but suffice to say that from there it all goes downhill; into horror, the folly of science to explain the unexplainable and then the redemptive minor hopeful uplift at the story’s end. As a formula, “The Rapture” has a lot going for it. And as a publishing event it hopefully marks the splintering of the audience of vampire books into a readership of more complex fiction.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


By Dave Eggers
ISBN No. 978-0-307-39906-9
The first thing you notice about the paperback edition of this book, about a married couple suffering through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is the praise. It’s the first thing you notice because you can’t miss it. It’s the first seven, eight, nine, (no, wait, there’s some of the back page) TEN pages of the book. You’d think “Zeitoun” was “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (another Eggers’ title). But the praise overload is fittingly ironic because when Bush 2 spun the deadly hurricane into an empty aria about the brave American spirit, even Mama Bush (Barbara) got into the act. (She suggested that camping out in a stadium was a step up for most New Orleanians. Most New Orleanians thought not.)
The Zeitoun of the title is Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, a New Orleans married couple and their two daughters dealing with, first, a flood of biblical proportions and then bureaucratic blunderings (racial profiling, accusations of terrorism) worthy of a Joseph Heller novel. For the sake of surprise no spoilers will be revealed here. Suffice to say that cataloguing each new humiliation Eggers’ becomes something like Rodin’s The Thinker, and the Zeitouns the helpless souls he’s looking down on as they wither and flail in the seven circles of governmental hell.
Interestingly, while Eggers still writes beautifully, he now seems to write intentionally beautifully. For instance, the opening scenes of Abdulrahman recalling magical nights of fishing for sardines in Syria (the gathering fish looked like “…a slow mass of silver rising from below”) is just too perfect, poetic and lulling a description in a book this blunt. He needs a hard word in there because having things too perfect (and then too awful) is such a clichéd American way to write. Still, that’s a minor complaint for a book that deserves every bit of praise the mainstream media have given it. As well, genre-wise, “Zeitoun” is the latest in a hopeful publishing event. Like the vastly superior “Columbine” (by Dave Cullen – who really did write “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) it’s non-fiction that’s more engrossing than any fiction.

Monday, May 10, 2010

“The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book”

By Gord Hill
ISBN No. 978-1-55152-360-6

Batman, Spiderman, X Men; all comic books; all turned into blockbuster movies. For a while there it looked like the comic book had gone the way of the Sunday newspaper funnies: light, disposable entertainment. And now comes “The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book” and it’s a reminder about just how complacent popular culture has become in the oppression of human rights, and how wonderfully engaging and provocative comic books can be if they’re done properly. The set-up is simple. Gord Hill, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, and an activist in the Indigenous people’s movement, whose causes stretch from the 1990 Oka Crisis to the anti-2010 Olympics campaign, documents – through historically accurate black-and-white drawings and text – the resistance of Indigenous people to the European colonization of the Americas. The images and stories are shocking – and not just for the gore quotient. They’re shocking because when it comes to the calendar of the world, Columbus’ visit to America in 1492 is pretty recent and still ripe for re-interpretation and correction (both political and humanistic). What’s really impressive about the book, however, is how the medium fits and re-energizes the message perfectly: the anarchy of comic books, and their ability to shape young minds. And therein lies the true importance of a comic book as brave as this one: it has echoes of the topicality of headline-grabbing causes that the government ignores, wishes would go away (and, thus, get worse). Wow…

“Flying Feet”

By James McCann
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-290-3

It used to be so easy. If a fight broke out during a hockey or soccer game it was poor sportsmanship, bad manners; it was just…wrong. These days the fights are fast becoming the main attraction. More than just “The Karate Kid” turned up a notch but not quite “Fight Club” for tweens, “Flying Feet” is about a youth seduced into that violent culture known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Jinho, is a young man feeling constrained by the limits of traditional tae kwan do. When he’s invited to join an underground MMA club where there are no boundaries or even referees, he’s amped. That is, until he realizes just how dangerous the sport is. What follows is the customary life lesson, the learning to depend on one’s integrity, and a frightening visit to the ring against a fighter known only as “The Ripper” [shudder]. Seriously, it’s like “Rocky” - but with real suspense. Obviously, “Flying Feet” is a topical book. But it’s also a welcome and important socio-political ring tone for kids already a bit desensitized by cement head Dad’s addiction to TV’s “Ultimate Fight Club.” It’s also written in a nice, easy style that will keep both kids’ and parents’ interest in the outcome piqued. It’s also got a bit of a surprise ending – if you expected calm heads to prevail before the big fight – because if I didn’t mention it earlier there actually IS a fight!

“Tales of the Otherworld”

By Kelley Armstrong
ISBN No. 978-0-307-35756-4

1970s television had a name for it: the spin-off. It worked this way: “All in the Family” spun off Edith’s cousin Maude into her own show and “Maude” spun off her maid, Florida, into her own show (“Good Times”). In essence, the new shows were everything you ever wanted to know about AITF’s supporting characters. It’s the same thing with “Tales of the Otherworld.” If you were curious about how Clayton Danvers fell in love, or how Eve caught Kristof, then wonder no more. This book is all about the details that have kept readers of Armstrong’s Otherworld series tossing and turning at night and filling up blogs during the day. For the sake of surprise all I can say is that even hardened readers will be surprised – and impressed. Yet the most wow-worthy piece in this book isn’t a chapter, but the book’s introduction. There, Armstrong relates how she writes FOR the reader. I mean REALLY writes for the reader. “Years ago, when I first launched my website, I wanted to do something that would thank readers for their support,” she writes, explaining the e-serials she would publish. ”I’d poll readers, then write them a story,” she says. Wow… And suddenly, all is right in the publishing world. Suddenly, the writer rules and the readers win. Because for once, this isn’t take-it-or-leave-it marketing. This is essentially Armstrong telling her stories to friends around a campfire and the effect is a heartening re-affirmation about the good the internet can do. Even better, she writes that the proceeds from TFTO are going to World Literacy of Canada. Armstrong writes: “The stories were originally intended as a gift to readers and now they’ll be ‘re-gifted’ to a worthy cause.”

Saturday, April 10, 2010


By Holly Bennett
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-158-6

These days, it seems everyone is re-writing the “Twilight” phenomenon (vampire as metaphor for alienated teen) to fit either their own writing style or to take advantage of some freakish entity (werewolf, spirit, witch) that another writer re-writing the “Twilight” phenomenon hasn’t written about yet. But even with that furious flurry of opportunistic publishing “ShapeShifter” is a standout. For starters, the book announces immediately that it intends to be different than the usual Sorcerer fare by declaring its love of Irish mythology in the Preface (nicely augmented by an old map of Ireland on the opposite page). This gives the goings-on (mythology purist alert: Bennett also includes a “version of the ancient legend” upon which she bases her story) a kind of Book of Kells curiosity and credibility. (It also gives the book an academic pedigree that parents will appreciate.) The “ShapeShifter” of the title is a Sive, a young woman discovering her powers of transformation in The Otherworld. But when she becomes a deer she becomes prey to all of the figurative and metaphoric evil around her. As for what happens next, it involves the struggle for Sive’s soul between a strong, strapping hero of Irish legend and an evil entity known only as [shudder] the Dark Man. As far as books about tween mythology go (the book is recommended for readers aged 12 years and up) “ShapeShifter” has an awful lot going for it. The story is compelling, the characters involving, the plot twists make sense, and the suspense is really, really suspenseful.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

“Walt and Skeezix 1927 & 1928”

By Frank O. King
ISBN No. 978-1-897299-39-5

Pity the comic strip. They’re rarely taken seriously, relegated to the crosswords page, and in colour only once a week. Even worse for the cartoonist, there’s no way to tell if your strip is a keeper, one that people will remember long after the newspaper’s gone into the recycle box. Is it any wonder that Gary Larson and Bill Watterson stopped writing, respectively, “The Far Side” and “Calvin and Hobbes” at the height of their success? Smart guys: they wanted to know how much their work was appreciated while they were alive and bask in the glow of adulation. Put another way, not every cartoonist has a strip as epic, far-reaching, as definitive, as “Gasoline Alley” in him.
Whereas the stories in the previous three volumes of that comic strip were mostly about the daily life in a Mayberry Farm-ish community (who got a flat tire? who needs a cup of sugar?) the main plotline driving this fourth volume of strips, reflecting the political climate of the day, has new father Walt wondering if his adopted son, Skeezix, is a descendent of Europeans. Yes, Europeans.
Now obviously the main appeal of “Walt and Skeezix 1927 & 1928” is its historical value. That’s why there’s a “1927 & 1928” right there in the title. I mean, we’re talking about a comic strip that’s as old as five Jonas Brothers or two Osmonds. Remember when Bill Paxton tells us we’re looking at a piece of paper that’s been underwater for 80 years? It’s pretty much the same thing. And like “Titanic” the story telling in these strips is as engrossing as it is revealing. The problem with reviewing a book like this is that no single synopsis can convey the depth and affection that King invests in his characters. (Even better is the inclusion of a Frank King family album, full of drawings, picnics, old houses; the worthwhile morality stuff. Sigh… “epic” – so overused in computer-generated movies these days - is the only word for it.) The Gasoline Alley strips have the socio-political weight to tell us about the kind of people we were back then – and where we’re headed.
In “Fahrenheit 451” Ray Bradbury imagined a futuristic society that burned books and banned reading. The idea seems as preposterous now as it did when the book was first published in 1953. But the truth is today’s texters have had books on a simmer for years; slowly euthanizing one consonant after another (hey, when your tweets are limited to 140 characters something has to go). In such an environment is it possible that these exhaustively detailed volumes of Gasoline Alley comic strips might someday take the place of “Little Women” and “Jude the Obscure” in high school classrooms? Are these comic strips the new “fiction” – plot-driven, metaphor-heavy, and above all, accessible?


By Christine Wunnicke (Translated by David Miller)
ISBN No. 978-1-55152-344-6

First things first, this is not a sequel to “Brokeback Mountain.” An homage maybe, but not a sequel. There are similarities, of course. Both books are slender, written by women, take the name of a place for their title, and are about gay cowboys in the American Midwest. After that, they’re completely and totally different books. Sort of.
Whereas “Brokeback Mountain” was set in the 1960s, “Missouri” takes place in the wild west of the 19th century. And whereas ‘Brokeback’ began with a sad memory, “Missouri” begins with a makeover. Yes, a makeover. Here, Douglas, a poet and intellectual sodomite of Oscar Wilde dimensions has come to cool his heels and change his hair colour after a nasty bit of scandal has driven him from England. Things look bleak in this drab little town of landmarks with hee-hee names like Bone Bank and Wabash River and New Harmony. That is, until Douglas fulfills every sex tourist’s dream by being both robbed and taken hostage by a scruffy, young outlaw by the name of Joshua. I’m not giving anything away when I say that the two men click because that’s what it says they do on the book’s back jacket (well, actually a bit more poetically: “a remarkable secret is revealed, these two very different men grow closer”) or that their relationship is threatened when Douglas’s brother tries to save him from his uncivilized surroundings (or as the book jacket says: ”Douglas’s brother tries to ‘save’ him from his uncivilized surroundings”). In-between all that is a love story of surprising delicacy. Still, I guess the biggest curiosity of “Missouri” is just how far the sex scenes go (one thing I won’t be giving away) which is a pity because while “Brokeback Mountain” re-wrote the Marlboro Man mythology of the old west, “Missouri” means to re-write the pop cultural mythology of “Brokeback Mountain.” Sad ending or not (and I’m not saying it is or isn’t) the characters in “Missouri” learned a lesson from ‘Brokeback.’ The result is that they all seem to know how short a life can be and that every second – especially in a book this thin – counts.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


By Sarah N. Harvey
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-252-1

“Bear Market”
By Michele Martin Bossley
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-220-0

Both available at

Those of you disheartened by the seemingly endless downward trajectory that is tween/teen magazines can take your heads out of the oven now. Judging from two new books for kids you may be raising Noam Chomskys instead of Paris Hiltons after all. “Plastic” is the more topical of the two books. When Leah announces she wants some plastic surgery for her 16th birthday her best friend Jack tries to talk her out of it. What follows is a dramatization of every alarmist newspaper headline you’ve read in the past couple of years about young girls wanting nicer cheekbones and bigger breasts. The difference here is that Jack’s case for a modest B-Cup is fuelled by some Hardy Boys-style investigating that flushes out a couple of corner-cutting plastic surgeons. Even better, this revelation leads to a public protest – which, in turn, leads to a violent splinter group taking up Jack’s cause without his approval. While the book milks the mediagenic outrage of a culture obsessed with physical perfection, it also illustrates the embryonic fanaticism that’s borne of – seemingly - every societal protest; be it a global summit on climate change or the Winter Olympics. Forty years ago a businessman in “The Graduate” summed up the future to the younger generation with the word “plastics,” and so it has come to pass. The strongest word for tweens and teens today is a word you hardly ever hear them say: “no.” In our hyperkinetic, disposable culture, the book “Plastic” is that rarity: a readable cautionary tale about responsible activism.
As usual, “Bear Market”, about the poaching of bears for their gall bladders, is arguably the more important yet less palpable of the two books. And it’s to Bossley’s credit that her book is just grisly enough to get young minds thinking about taking up the cause, but not so much that you have to stop reading because you’re disgusted with your fellow humankind. She presents the poachers’ side with a kind of polite, cultural respect (which is more than they deserved. See? There’s my disgust for my fellow humankind) and has her three lead characters succinctly address the moral quandaries of correcting the destructive, exploitive beliefs of other cultures. Socio-politics aside, her book is a really catchy read. Sure, there’s the suspense element, but just reading the nuts and bolts about how her characters talk is oddly fascinating. Maybe it’s a backlash against all the vague “highbrow” fiction I’ve read (or just a complete disgust for the Bret Easton Ellis humankind) but the joy of “Bear Market” is just how forthright and sincere a read it is. The book captures the tween/teen energies of today’s kids in a way I hadn’t read before.

Friday, March 12, 2010

“The Wild Things”

By Dave Eggers
ISBN No. 978-0-307-39904-5

It’s official: Maurice Sendak’s children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” is now a cottage industry. First it was a rudimentary bedtime story that parents read to their kids. Then the book became a movie – and then a book again in the form of a shaggy hair tome by Dave Eggers (who wrote the movie’s screenplay). And now the book-turned movie-turned concept book has turned into something closer to its original form: a paperback. In a way this makes perfect sense. In an era of Twihard Grandmothers and middle-aged PotterHeads, a 284-page novelization of the movie adaptation of one of the most enduring – and controversial – children’s books ever written is arriving right on time. No trilogies or series of books here; “Where the Wild Things Are” has gone through so many transformations it IS the series of books. And why not? Eggers clearly has affection for the story of a naughty boy’s time out that turns into a celebration of the id in every kid. In its own trendy way (looking inside instead of out) “The Wild Things” is very much an epic of the “David Copperfield” tradition; one in which a young man has a great, maturing, heroic adventure. True, it’s an adventure overly friendly to today’s Gamers but there’s still plenty here for the geezer generation to enjoy. Even better, Eggers’ descriptions and plot twists make so much sense that you can read this book aloud without feeling like an idiot (hey, that means something these days!). “The beasts took off in seven different directions,” Eggers writes. “Then, one by one, they turned to see where Carol was running, and they changed directions to follow him.” See? Dignity intact; intellect stimulated. And if it works that well read out loud then it works equally well read to yourself or to your child.

“What Do You Want?”

By Lars Klinting
ISBN No. 978-0-88899-988-7

There’s a kind of children’s book that I call the “piece together” genre. It’s probably the most common kind of kid’s book; the kindergarten-starter book that shows how something fits with something else. “What Do You Want?” is a new addition to the “piece together” genre – but with a twist. But first a little background. Normally, I just leaf through these kinds of books to see how easily their lessons in pairing can be absorbed by a child’s eyes. But as I was reading “What Do You Want?” my mind wandered away from the etiquette lesson for newborns (i.e. chairs have to go with tables) and started to wonder about the very nature of wanting and pairing in a world where nothing is guaranteed anymore. For instance, on one page of the book is a picture of a bumblebee. The next page shows what it wants: a flower. The text says as much: “The bumble wants…[turn the page] its flower.” There. Done. But in that example arise all sorts of messy philosophical wanderings about instinct, desire, fate, and free will. Sigh… On a brighter note, of course everything in the book makes sense and is beautifully rendered in daydreamy watercolours. But as you read about all this wanting in a world of increasingly limited resources you begin to realize the book is more than just a lesson in pairing alike things. There’s a poignancy to the simplicity of this book. Read through it a couple of times and you’ll learn something important; you’ll slowly realize that contentment – real achievable contentment – already exists all around us.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


By Dave Cullen
ISBN No. 978-0446546928
In the 1970s Vincent Bugliosi wrote “Helter Skelter”, an exhaustive investigation of the Manson murders. The book began with a note that anyone of a certain age can paraphrase: this book will scare the hell out of you. Now, Dave Cullen has written what surely must be the definitive document on the Columbine school massacre, and given the millennial generation its own “Helter Skelter.”
But what can Cullen tell us about the worst high school shooting in America that the mainstream media already hasn’t? LOTS, it turns out which is a miracle in itself. While Bugliosi had the tactile advantage of detailed coroner’s photos, police reports and court papers to sift through, Cullen had to unpack all that and a veritable internet server of information, perceptions, and false memories, to piece together exactly what happened before, during and after the shooting. Even harder, he has to correct the hyperventilating media that insisted the massacre be crunched down to a TV show plotline. That the book reads like a book at all is a testament to Cullen’s ability to turn newsprint back into flesh and blood. Along the way “Columbine” – the book - becomes something bigger than just a savvy, smart re-think. I mean it as the highest compliment that, in a cultural environment where books, movies and music no longer inspire (or you’ve already read the “Twilight” series a dozen times), a book as good as “Columbine” reads like the most touching teenage love story, the most compelling parental drama, the most devastating Greek tragedy. Most novels try and fail to tell a single story; “Columbine” tells the grand arc of several lives all at once and does so brilliantly. “Columbine” is the first great book of the Millennium.