What You Can't See Can Still Hurt You

Eden Robinson - Son of a Trickster

I love listening to Eden Robinson in interviews. Her laugh is infectious. She's funny, smart, down-to-earth. And also, she can write like a demon. Check her out in Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomperelli's Can't Lit episode 043. While you're there, subscribe to their podcast, because you'll love it and it's great. I read a chapter of this quickly before sleep one night and then the next night stayed up from 10 until 2 finishing it in one go. Yep. That readable. Also, the characters and mythology are so perfectly bound in each other that there is not even one moment of: "wait - what?"

Jared is a young teen with normal teen problems: is he really the son of a trickster? And what does that mean if he is? Are some of his friends just enabling his partying spirit? Why does he have weird vivid archetypal dreams? Does new that girl, Sarah, really like him or are those fireflies dancing above her head just happy to see him (sorry - "ultra-dimensional beings")? Will Mrs. Jaks, his friend and next door neighbour, succumb to her illness and what will Mr. Jaks do without her if she does?

It's really difficult not to give in to spoilers when talking about this book and since part of it's amazing readability is not knowing what is coming next, I'm going to spare you a lengthy plot summary here, and let you experience the book without much background.

I'll just say this - there is real world and other world and Jared can see both but doesn't know it. In the meantime real life is not being super kind to him; his parents are divorced, other kids are awful, and his mother has had some terrible boyfriends (and by terrible, we are not talking apathetic - we're talking really awful men). And, Jared has a voice in his head that kinda sorta doesn't seem like your regular run-of-the-mill conscience voice.

I was so happy to hear that Eden Robinson is expanding this book to a trilogy because this story is alive and is dancing above my head right now, saying:

"You are words. Your soul is the poem. The struggle to make mortal words say the infinite unsayable is the struggle that defines sentience." 

                       - The fireflies (aka ultra-dimensional beings) 


Feel the Music

Zadie Smith - Swing Time

Swing Time by Zadie Smith was my Christmas read this year (Thanks to Opsonic Index -- Wait. What?! Shit, did I just blow your cover, Dude?). And YEAH IT MADE ME LOVE BOOKS AGAIN. Ok. It's not that throughout all these years that have past with me not blogging haven't been filled with books. There have been stacks and stacks and stacks of books. And, oh yeah, reading a few of them. From time to time, I thought about this blog as if I had no power to open it up and write a few things in it. Let's not dwell on all that - ok? I wasn't blogging. Now I am. The end.

You'll also notice I'm actually using proper caps where they belong. I'm over it, and you should be too.

Does this ever happen to you?: 

You're in a book and you identify so strongly with the main character that even though she's flawed and full of wrong-headedness and impulsive negative actions you see yourself so strongly that you get to the end and are shocked when you can't remember her name? In this case it's because she's not named. Because it's you. And many other reasons. This book did that to me. Obvs it's not really me (or you, for that matter). I'm not a WOC, not British, didn't grow up a single child, am not a dancer, a singer or even a performer. None of it really. But her self, her inner life - that's me. Her impulse to right a wrong, her jump to defend or argue a point, her opinionated will, her lack of commitment to her talents, her practicality: but at the same time her inability to take control of her life, to make her own decisions - being ok with someone else doing that because she doesn't know her own mind, or at least doesn't think she does. Yeah, that part. (Oh did I just bare my soul? Oh, well. The ways we believe we are, right?)

Two girls meet in a ballet class and their love of dance binds their relationship. Their family lives are the same but very different, both live in the "estates" in London, but neither on welfare. One with a beautiful black feminist mother, studying to get her degree, working to move up and on in her world and a gentle hard working white father who cares for her deeply. The other, Tracey, with her struggling white mother, who is outraged that she cannot "get on the disability", and a father that she barely sees on the occasion that he is out of prison. But both are the same shade of brown, the sameness connects them and then the music holds them. But, so strange and real how even in young girls a power imbalance infuses their every day friendship. They are in the midst of their own class struggle but Tracey asserts her power because the narrator can't see her own, she is caught by Tracey's perfect form, her technical precision in dance class and so she shows Tracey all of her loves; Fred Astaire, tap dancing, all the rich and soulful piano tunes that she sang with all her heart alongside the ballet class piano accompanist, Mr. Booth, during the class "snack time". She laid it all out for Tracey and Tracey took what she wanted and disdained the rest. 

I'm making Tracey sound bad and mean here, and maybe that's because I'm still working her out. Without too many spoilers here, she does do some pretty nasty things throughout the novel, and despite her clear talent, and all the work she does to succeed as a performer, her home live pulls her away from everything she has worked hard for. 

Our narrator doesn't work toward her passion, and she decides - without making much of a decision about it, to give up the idea of tap dance and song for herself - when she enters a Media Studies program in College, interns with an entertainment group and makes a subconscious pledge not to really have much of a family life. 

Do their mother's lives direct their own? It hard not to think so, but it's also not that easy to draw a straight line to the conclusion either. Both girls despair a little at their family lives. Tracey rewrites her father's place in her life until the stories she weaves about him are virtually unrecognizable from the man himself. And our narrator drifts casually away from her mother when her father dies and dives instead into her new career: Personal Assistant to a famous pop singer - the fictional, (yet easy to try to pin on any number of real-life Divas - for me she was Madonna) Aimee.

Aimee's world is so full of white privilege that the rules are completely different, so when she asks for help from the narrator through her mum's burgeoning political career to help her set up a "girl's school" in a village in Senegal, it almost seems like a great thing. How can it be bad? Girls being educated, support provided. But with power, money and privilege comes a blindness to reality and the singleminded Aimee is no exception. Things begin to fall apart and the narrator's mind begins to change as Aimee's vision and presence changes the village irrevocably; she promises their translator and guide, Lamin, a Visa to stay in England, she falls in love with a baby and adopts the child from the parents without the proper paperwork and with these actions come consequences from a chain of events. Things fall apart, but in falling apart, some things improve - especially for the narrator.

This novel layers the inner evolution, interwoven through past and present, of the main character as she develops and defines (and redefines) her relationships with the women in her life. Yes, her friendship with Tracey is at the core but her difficulty and then peace with her mother and her constantly changing closeness with Aimee, her connection to Hawa in the African village, make this novel and it's background of performance a true picture of the lives of women.

Narrator watches Aimee as she poses for the camera:

"She held this position: a room full of cameras flashed. From where I stood it was a pose that collapsed many periods of her life into one: mother and lover, big sister, best friend, superstar and diplomat, billionaire and street kid, foolish girl and woman of substance. But why should she get to take everything, have everything, be everyone, in all places, at all times?"


reading decisions

choosing what to read

i've decided not to read fifty shades of grey by e l james.

much like i didn't read the da vinci code.

being a bookseller, i have a lot of biases. it's actually something i have to consciously curb when i'm at work.

people will come up to me and ask me for chicklit or ask me about the best book i've read lately and i'll point to whatever amazing book and they'll give a little grimace and say "oh. yeah no, i don't read short stories." or "isn't that a guy book?" and i give a little smile and move on.

it gives me such heartache. all the weird labels of the world - and the book labels that grew mostly from the marketing departments of modern publishing.

so when i first found out about it, i only knew about the indie ebook story part. which i love. then i found out about the part where it came out of a twilight fan fiction workshop, which made me a little bit leery. and then i found out that it has been labeled - wait for it:  "mommy porn"

what?! WHAT?!!!

so bizarre.

what? mommies can't relate to "regular" porn? i am a mom, and i beg to differ.

speaking of labels...

 i heard about the fault in our stars by john green through a co-worker, a mother with 2 teenage daughters. all the kids were reading it. but she insisted that this book was a strange and wonderful force. teenagers were doing good and positive things because of it.

i was intrigued when we got the book in. for a while i just observed the energy around it. YA is a strange medium (more labels!). in the past 10 years it has become a very trendy, one track genre of the moment:
everybody write about mean rich teenagers.
everybody write about angels/vampires/werewolves/insert desired supernatural creature here.
everybody write about dystopian society with a strong young hero/ine.

am I exaggerating? a little. but only a little. I was getting tired of wandering over to our YA section and seeing that it was 90 percent dan brown for kids. 10 percent sophie kinsella for kids.

and then hidden in there, one percent at a time: books like the fault in our stars. it's a very interesting phenomenon; these readers would pet the book when they got it and hug it to them. totally different energy. i wasn't sure if i would take the plunge and read it though. i've read a lot of the nouveau YA (as opposed to not so much of the new-best-thing in adult fiction (celestine prophecy killed all that desire).

a reader's trajectory

i am 42 years old - and i'll admit it, i totally judged women my age that didn't see the twilight series for what it was (i'll leave that alone). but i am a reader, and between the ages of 14-22 I read a whole range of crap. not just crap, but a lot of crap. from jude devereaux to a whole range of series mysteries and sci-fi that i barely remember. old school intrigue like helen mcininnis and semi-gothic romance/mysteries by mary stewart (with nine coaches waiting still ranking very high on my pleasure reads list), every non -series agatha christie, all of john lecarre, robert ludlum and jack higgins (I thought I was going to be a spy). my point here is, i think that every reader has a trajectory. i don't enjoy the twilights and the the hunger gameses and even yes, (potentially) the fifty shades of greys as much as I maybe would have 20 years ago. I've just read too much.

but really excellent books transcend their genre. like, for instance, the fault in our stars by john green. i read this book in one sitting and i would not get up, not even to pee, until i was done. here's why i think it transcends its genre: it about bigger things and it doesn't hide that fact. some of the most moving anthemic books in every generation take the simplest formulas and hold up a mirror for kids to see themselves; clever, shallow, desperate to belong, desperate to be unique. this book just happens to have the extra bonus that most of the main characters are kids dying of cancer. oh yeah, tearjerker as well. also, very funny.

it's hard to choose when you are a bookseller. sometimes you feel a certain responsibility to your customer to read the same books they are reading - but my take is this: i have more of a responsibility to myself as a reader and bookseller to read what i think i should pass on to other readers - because they may not pick that book up otherwise. the fault in our stars needs me to pass it on to people that are not 16 years old (and to 16 year olds that may not pick it up), fifty shades of grey doesn't need me.

i don't think i'm a better person because i won't read every book that becomes uber-popular. but i do think it's made me a better reader.

disclaimer: the reader's bill of rights (thank you to daniel pennac) enables me to change my mind about reading fifty shades of grey any. time. i. feel. like. it. also, please note that fifty shades of grey and dan brown and sophie kinsella are all symbols in this blog post. don't be so literal.

also please visit john green's vlog (also with his brother hank - who is also super cool). because it's hilarious. also see nerdfighters; because if i had had that when i was 14, i think i would have rocked my own world instead of hiding in my room all day reading. oh but then you may not have this really poorly updated book blog to read! yeah. let's not talk about it.


fairytale angst

fractured by joanna karaplis is the kind of book i would have loved when i was YA (and, ok, yes, i'm still very YA at heart). what i love about this book is all the classic elements of fairytale lore intertwined with true-to-life teenage problems:

the main character in the first tale is a teen named yuki white, (yes, that's snow white to you) - and the title is snow white and the seven dorks. the seven dorks are the computer club geeks that yuki befriends at her new school. they are the quintessential computer nerds:

They’re all so stereotypically nerdy that I wondered, at first, if they were for real [....] the computer lab quickly became my second home, which is how I basically became the one-and-only female member of the Computer Club. Not that I officially joined or anything... can you imagine the yearbook photo? Me with my shit-kicking boots and them with their T-shirts that came free with the latest computer game? 
so the dorks are super dorky and we love super dorky because secretly or not we all suspect we are too. i know i am a dork and  i also knew i was in high school. so, like, yuki, although i kinda was trying to be all rebel and cool i preferred the company of geeks. and so does snow white, safe in her computer lab with her 7 dorks.

but the story is not just high school angst - it's also heavy into mixed race cultural identity and the weight of grief brought on by the loss of a parent:

when yuki's japanese mother dies and her father brings her "to his hometown, this tiny little place in the middle of nowhere where I felt like the only non-blonde, non–blue-eyed person for miles around." (hence the dorky friends and new school) you can feel 'snow's' alienation setting in; so much so that she doesn't even care that everyone at school ends up calling her 'snow' - at least its not 'yucky' she says referring to the usual mis-pronunciation of her name.

the loss of her mother is clearly something yuki is not really ready to process; when one of her best dorks, kevin, brings up an anime fan photo on the internet, yuki's cultural identity and her mother's death all get tied up in a knot of emotion:
“Sorry, I don’t watch anime.”
“But you’re Japanese!”
“Half-Japanese. Maybe I only got the sushi-loving genes. I definitely missed out on the anime ones,” I snapped.
and she leaves the scene upset by happy memories of her mother's manga reading and guilt ridden that she never thought to keep her mother's collection of japanese comics.

here's where the cool kid, jason, decides he needs to be her friend too. now, there's nothing wrong with being blonde and beautiful with a gorgeous smile. but you can kind of tell things are moving in a different direction when he shows up in the computer lab completely out of the blue to say "cool" three or four times to yuki:
and then Kevin stated the obvious:
“Well, that was weird,”...
yes, kevin. yes, it was.

but - wait! there's more fairytale analogy! not only is there a prince and all that - but there is also the apple! the poisoned apple! - cleverly disguised as a little pill and cloaked in good, yes, i'll say it amazing feelings and a first kiss. that goes very, very wrong. chalk it up to princey wanting too much too soon. luckily yuki is only conscious enough to realise she's being taken advantage of but luckily  kevin, already crushing on her, has been watching jason's moves and doesn't like them one bit. rescuing and bonding ensue and yuki goes home to face a good grounding but not before realising she's lost nothing in dissing jason and gained a lot in trusting kevin, her main dork.

yay! the dork wins!

tale #2: cyberella

how much did i laugh while reading this tale? a lot. very funny dialogue - joanna karaplis deserves huge kudos for her very true to life teenage dialogue. or in this case text-a-logue. or whatever.

cindy, the main character in this tale, and her best friend, matt, are huge fans of the reality tv show, true2life; the story is told weaving the the messaging between matt and cindy and the fan blog posts for the tv show together. cindy, of course, has troubles at home what with the evil stepfamily always on her case, but she is determined to win vip tickets to the "castle" nightclub to participate in the halloween episode where the cast of the show will be mingling with the the vip. and maybe then she will meet her favourite cast member, ryder. and meet him she does! this is a great modern redo of the cinderella fairytale that is charming and fun to read.

tale #3: swan song

this tale is a serious commentary on our values as a society and the pressure marketing and social media puts on youth to ascribe to a certain image - especially young women.

tag line for the story is:
(this “little mermaid” found out the hard way that change must come from within. some of us will learn  from her mistakes. some of us won’t.)
if you have read the hans christian andersen fairytale (not the disney version) you will know how this could end, and karaplis doesn't pull any punches with the harshness of the original moral.

the story begins with adriana after a very bad choir practice where she has been mocked, again, for her most predominant facial feature, her nose. the reader quickly realises that adriana has a self image problem that she is in conflict with herself and her mom about. she wants a nose job. her mom thinks she is too young. but after much discussion her mom relents. in the meantime, to boost her potential singing career, adriana's best friend, fiona, has convinced her to upload a video of herself to youtube. she works up the courage but decides to sing with her face obscured, as "bedroomsinger" so that no one will recognize her. they don't, and her videos end up going viral on youtube. she gets "spotted" by a producer for "talentvox" a youtube talent show and he invites adriana to audition for their show. meanwhile there is a lot of facebook bullying going on and adriana convinces herself that her upcoming surgery will save her life and make all of her problems go away.

but after a brief moment of a smaller nose and a full heart vindicated, everything quickly spirals out of control: nose, voice, life.

while i read this story, i forgot about 'the little mermaid' throughline and was entirely caught up in the true-to-life characters and plot thus i forgot to anticipate the ending (something very good story should make a reader do) - so i won't deny the catch in my heart and breath when i realized what the ending had to be.

these three stories wonderfully original modern takes to classic fairytales, thanks joanna karaplis and mckeller & martin for really great fridayreads!


eschew the label, girls!

i can't tell you how much i appreciate this book. i am so glad that it exists. thanks emily mullock for being a) such a cool and talented illustrator b) for twisting around the girl themes a bit without taking sides.

(also, thanks mckellar & martin for rocking the sparkles)

go away, unicorn! shows us girls everywhere that it's ok to not to like unicorns but it's ok to like them too, and it's really about what we are inside that counts; and unicorns can be good friends too.

here's the story:
a unicorn shows up to alice's 10th birthday - but not because he was invited: more because he smelled cake. but then he saw alice and her gold party hat. what follows is a wonderful schtick of unicorn-meets-girl, girl-doesn't-want-to-be-with unicorn, unicorn-finally-gets-the-picture story. but it turns out unicorns are really good friends after all.

the illustrations are bold and expressive (i've never seen a unicorn look so shocked when alice tells him she would prefer a goldfish) and the story is charming and funny. and my seven year old son liked it too.

i was a unicorn loving girl that didn't like pink either so this story speaks to my inner seven year old too.