Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Pew pew pew!: Kids and Guns

How does it begin? Whether as a relative's passive aggressive attempt to annoy me or a birthday party gift picked out by a classmate, toy guns have made their way, unbidden, into my household. I have tried to avoid exposing my son to violence: I don't own a television or a video game console; I only approve gun-free games for play on my son's sweet retro GameBoy Color; and I have surreptitiously set the parental controls on his tablet to "E for everyone" games only. I've finally given up on "misplacing" the brightly-coloured rifles and pistols that he brings home and I am instead focusing my attention on trying to raise his awareness of the harm that guns do.

Air Warriors Predator (modified)

If you have a tiny gun nut living in your home, these children's graphic novels might help pave the way to a more critical perspective on guns and gun violence or, at least, provide a (gun-free) adventure alternative.

When my son developed an interest in World War I and World War II, we were making our way through the Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales series. Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood  was an excellent and surprisingly accessible introduction to this complex subject. The storyteller is the author's namesake, Nathan Hale, a soldier and spy who served with the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. (Hale, the historical figure, tells his own tale in the first of the series, One Dead Spy). In each book, Hale delays his own execution by regaling his audience (composed of his rather thick but animal-loving executioner and a gruff British military officer) with exciting stories of future events. Younger readers will appreciate the comic-relief provided by the hangman as well as Hale's efforts to explain politics and historical events in relatively simple terms. No romanticizing here although it's difficult to say whether the book succeeded in conveying something like the scale of death and destruction of the Great War to my sheltered Canadian 6-year-old.

Sheila Keenan's The Dogs of War tells three war stories - from the first and second World Wars and from the Vietnam War - with three dogs (and their handlers) as central characters. We learn about how dogs played important roles in each conflict, not least in their relationships with their human comrades-in-arms. Not surprisingly there is violence in these accounts, though not what I would call the gratuitous kind. The reader will also see moments when soldiers were afraid to fire their guns or held their fire out of compassion for the "enemy". In the last story, we also learn about what can happen when soldiers leave the battlefield in body if not in mind.

I had avoided Hidden: a child's story of the Holocaust, not because I didn't think my son shouldn't be exposed to such a heavy subject (yet) but because I wasn't confident I could get through the book without sobbing. As it happens, Loïc Dauvillier's choice to adopt a child's point of view offers readers a somewhat gentle but somber portrait of one Jewish girl's experience during the Holocaust.

If you or your child have already read the Bone series by Jeff Smith, then you know that it's possible to find thrilling adventures for children that are entirely absent of guns, bombs, and related weaponry. If you haven't read (or reread) the series yet, you should. You really, really should.

Both younger and older kids (and adults), will enjoy the Avatar, the Last Airbender series which features tribes of "benders" who use the four elements - Water! Earth! Fire! Air! (+ metal) - to engage in and resolve conflicts. The episodes are written around wholesome themes like ethics and friendship and (unlike the awful feature film version by M. Night Shyamalan) are inspired by Asian and Inuit culture.

Best of luck on deprogramming your child in a society that glorifies gun violence! If all else fails, pass out Super Soakers instead.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

9 Books to Watch for This May

In addition to new titles from big Canadian names David Adams Richards (Principles to Live By -- May 17) and Madeleine Thien ( Do Not Say We Have Nothing-- May 31), this month is chock-filled with great sounding titles from new and new-to-you authors from Canada and beyond. MAY I suggest one of these interesting looking books coming out this month?|library/m/halifax-horizon|1892270|library/m/halifax-horizon|1892181

I Let You Go by Clare MacKintosh (May 3rd): I'm getting very used to seeing books advertised as of interest to fans of Gone Girl or the The Girl on the Train. Here's the latest, but it's got a bit more than just publisher hype to support the idea it might be a big hit. A debut novel, but it was released in the UK in 2014 and became a bestseller: now it's hitting our shores. "On a rainy afternoon, a mother's life is shattered as her son slips from her grip and runs into the street . . . I Let You Go follows Jenna Gray as she moves to a ramshackle cottage on the remote Welsh coast, trying to escape the memory of the car accident that plays again and again in her mind and desperate to heal from the loss of her child and the rest of her painful past. At the same time, the novel tracks the pair of Bristol police investigators trying to get to the bottom of this hit-and-run. As they chase down one hopeless lead after another, they find themselves as drawn to each other as they are to the frustrating, twist-filled case before them."

When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall (May 3): A new book from British author Morrall, whose 2003 novel Astonishing Splashes of Colour was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. This one sounds very The Children of Men in its premise, but Morrall is sure to take us in new and interesting directions. "In a world prone to violent flooding, Britain, ravaged 20 years earlier by a deadly virus, has been largely cut off from the rest of the world. Survivors are few and far between, most of them infertile. Children, the only hope for the future, are a rare commodity. For 22-year-old Roza Polanski, life with her family in their isolated tower block is relatively comfortable. She's safe, happy enough. But when a stranger called Aashay Kent arrives, everything changes."

Perfect World by Ian Colford (May 7): Halifax-based author (and librarian!) Colford returns with his third book. "Tom Brackett has created the perfect world for himself: he has a good job, a perpetually supportive wife, two kids, a mini-van, and even a golden retriever. But then, his mental instability causes him to commit a terrifying act of violence." Colford is a previous winner of the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award for his short story collection Evidence.

Company Town by Madeline Ashby (May 17): Fans of Canadian Sci Fi take note, this long awaited dystopian novel is finally arriving. "They call it Company Town--a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd.Hwa is of the few people in her community (which constitutes the whole rig) to forgo bio-engineered enhancements. As such, she's the last truly organic person left on the rig--making her doubly an outsider, as well as a neglected daughter and bodyguard extraordinaire. Still, her expertise in the arts of self-defense and her record as a fighter mean that her services are yet in high demand. When the youngest Lynch needs training and protection, the family turns to Hwa. But can even she protect against increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?Meanwhile, a series of interconnected murders threatens the city's stability and heightens the unease of a rig turning over. All signs point to a nearly invisible serial killer, but all of the murders seem to lead right back to Hwa's front door."

Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (May 17th): Physician, scientist, and writer Mukherjee returns after his 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Emperor of Maladies with an examination of genetics: its history and the implications of its advances. "Weaving science, social history, and personal narrative to tell us the story of one of the most important conceptual breakthroughs of modern times, Mukherjee animates the quest to understand human heredity and its surprising influence on our lives, personalities, identities, fates, and choices."

It's Ok to Laugh: (Crying Is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmont (May 24): The title kind of says it all with this book, a memoir of love and heartbreak that promises to be "a fierce, hysterically funny memoir that reminds us that comedy equals tragedy plus time." "Twentysomething Nora McInerny Purmort bounced from boyfriend to boyfriend and job to job. Then she met Aaron, a charismatic art director and her kindred spirit. They made mix tapes (and pancakes) into the wee hours of the morning. They finished each other's sentences. They just knew. When Aaron was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer, they refused to let it limit their love. They got engaged on Aaron's hospital bed and married after his first surgery. They had a baby when he was on chemo. They shared an amazing summer filled with happiness and laughter. A few months later, Aaron died in Nora's arms in another hospital bed. His wildly creative obituary, which they wrote together, touched the world." 

Happy Family by Tracy Barone (May 27): I'm intrigued by any book that describes itself as "mordantly funny" so this new novel -- a debut -- piqued my interest. "Trenton, New Jersey, 1962: A pregnant girl staggers into a health clinic, gives birth, and flees. A foster family takes the baby in, and an unlikely couple, their lives unspooling from a recent tragedy, hastily adopts her. Forty years and many secrets and lies later, Cheri Matzner is all grown up and falling apart. Ironic and unapologetic, she's a former cop-turned-disgruntled academic, a frustrated wife trying to get pregnant, an iconoclastic daughter bearing war-wounds from her overbearing mother and the deeply flawed by well-meaning father who has been dead for several years. Thrust into an odyssey of acceptance, Cheri discovers that sometimes it takes half a lifetime to come of age."

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Audio Alternative

Unlike many of my colleagues and friends, I am sadly unable to read on the bus. A couple years ago I was faced with a long work commute (1h20 each way!) so I decided it was time to give the library’s audiobook collection a try. To my delight, I discovered a new world of voices which brought the stories to life in a different way from how I would read the story myself, yet unlike television or movies, allowed my imagination to visualize the stories as it would.

One of the first books I listened to was The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. I had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and was discovering him as an author of a wider range of works, not all about food. I admired and was inspired by his writing, and when I discovered that Overdrive had an audio version of another of his works I knew I needed to give it a try. In this book, Pollan uses the example of four familiar domesticated plants, and illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, the plants have also benefited at least as much from their association with us”. The story is delivered by Scott Brick’s very easy to listen to voice. After a long winter’s work day and the long bus ride home, I may have dozed off a time or two while listening (thank you to the friendly regular bus driver who knew my stop and shouted to wake me!) but only because his voice was soothing and the subject matter almost surprisingly enchanting. I would look inside my mind and see myself in a potato field, or sailing up the Delaware with Johnny Appleseed, noticing the wonder he was describing in poetic detail, then realized I was transported to that place where dreams and imagination intersect.

An artist friend of mine, who listens to audiobooks while she paints, told me about The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. According to the publisher, Brooks tells a tale of the “analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued […] during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images.” It is a tragically beautiful work made all the better by Edwina Wren, the voice artist who narrated the audio version. With her voice and her talent for accent and inflection, she was able to clearly convey which character she was speaking for, which country the character was visiting, and which era was being represented. I believe I absorbed more value from this story because of the talent of the person who read it to me than I might have reading it myself. Another appeal was the fleshing out of the life of the book itself as told through the tiny bits of evidence collected within its pages which were discovered in the restoration process.

When my circumstances changed and I no longer had such a long commute, I came to realize I was missing the world of audiobooks. I began to download them and listen to them while I was alone in the kitchen cooking or doing dishes, which added a little magic to mundane tasks. I found I would finish the dishes and start looking around for more things to do so I could stay in the kitchen and listen longer … I would clean out the fridge and then wash the floor just so I could listen to my story!

The last book that hooked me was Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, and read by Katharine McEwan. An historical fiction rendition of Beryl Markham’s life, born in England, raised by her father in Kenya, and whose personal story, I learned, intersects with the novel Out of Africa and its characters. We learn of Beryl from her early years learning the ways of the Kipsigi tribe, to becoming the first woman certified to train Derby horses when she was just 18, to becoming a pioneering aviatrix. In addition to the intriguing threads of the narrative itself, I was drawn into the story because I was sure I could feel the African sun radiating from the actress Katharine’s voice, and could almost feel what it might be like to have a lion watching me from a grassy ridge. And my kitchen floor just might be a little shiner as a result!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Staff Pick - The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

How well do you know your neighbours?

That very question was one of many sources of inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s eerie work of fantasy fiction The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the book chosen for April’s book club at Halifax Central Library. In one video interview, Gaiman recalls learning in his childhood that a neighbouring farm was noted in the Domesday Book, an 11th-century record of a survey of England. This discovery prompted Gaiman to muse: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if the people who lived on the farm had been there for a thousand years and nobody had noticed?”
Such is the case in this story with the enigmatic, unchanging women of the Hempstock farm—a grandmother, mother, and daughter who have existed since time immemorial. The anonymous narrator finds himself at the Hempstock farm after a funeral prompts him to revisit places from his childhood. Dark and distant memories come creeping in, sending the reader back to the narrator’s boyhood to a time when a traumatic experience stimulates the manifestation of a sinister force in the form a new lodger—Ursula Monkton—at the boy’s home. While his family becomes enchanted by her, Ursula’s evil doings put the boy’s very life in danger. Yet, on his own, he is powerless against her.

At the same time, this lonely boy befriends his neighbours, the mysterious Hempstocks, and is delighted to have found a new companion in the daughter, Lettie. The boy learns that he must rely on the Hempstock women if Ursula is to be defeated, yet their quest to do so does not come without cost.
Although I’ve sometimes shied away from fantasy fiction, I love books that leave me with lots to ponder after I’ve finished—and this book was definitely one of them. I was captivated by Gaiman’s lyrical writing style, his vivid descriptions, and how, in the world he creates, magic secretly lingers within ordinary settings and objects. The protagonist is highly sympathetic and fascinating for his rich inner life. Mystical, haunting, and sometimes downright scary, this tale is also a celebration of childhood and wonder and prompts reflection on such themes as memory, forgetting, loneliness, loss, and time.

Interested in other atmospheric fantasy fiction titles with child protagonists? Try Jo Walton’s Among Others for a tale that is both suspenseful and nostalgic. Ray Bradbury’s character-driven Something Wicked This Way Comes will give you the chills with its creepy tone, while John Connolly's action-packed The Book of Lost Things incorporates retellings of old fairy tales.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Staff Pick - The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is a difficult story to pin down. In our catalogue, it's not listed as science fiction, but calling it general fiction doesn't seem to fit either. It's been touted as magical realism, but I would argue that it contains more science than magic. It's also just as much a coming of age story as it is a story about impending apocalypse.

In the not so distant future (a year is never given, but the world is identical to ours as it is now), something strange happens: the world starts spinning more slowly. Somehow, this phenomenon takes everyone by surprise, lay people and scientists alike. We have spent so much time preparing for disaster (global warming, nuclear war, massive natural disasters), but nobody thought to prepare for this. As "the slowing," as it's referred to, continues, the days get longer and longer, from 24 hours to 48 to 96 and beyond. At first, no one is sure what's going to happen. Evangelical Christians are calling it the end of days, conspiracy theorists are calling it a government hoax, and scientists around the world are scrambling to figure out how we can adapt. People start stock piling food and resources, and when the government decides that everyone should follow clock time (in other words, live by the existing 24 hour clock, and not the natural sunrise/sunset), two factions are created: those who abide by the new regulations, and "real-timers" who choose to live by the sun and are ultimately shunned.

At the center of this story is Julia, an eleven year girl who lives in California with her mother and father. While her family and everyone around her is struggling to cope with their new reality of white nights and dark days, Julia is also struggling to cope with the hardships of growing up - first loves, friendships that fall apart, fitting in at school, and parents that can't seem to get along. I loved that Walker was able to perfectly meld these two elements, to make this story just as much about the pain of going through puberty as it is about the disaster. There are plenty of apocalyptic novels written from the perspective of middle aged men and women, but there are very few that let you see it through the lens of a young girl.

Walker is a very compelling writer, I could not put this book down until I had finished it. She has a way of dropping little hints throughout the text that made me keep turning the pages. "That was the last time I ever tasted pineapple." "We were driving a silver station wagon, although the police report would later describe it as blue." They were so subtle, and they always made me think "wait, what?" She also did a beautiful job of creating the voice of Julia and developing her character over the course of the story. This is Walker's debut novel and it is absolutely stunning, with the ability to appeal to a huge audience of readers.

If you've read Age of Miracles and are looking for similar, check out:

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
While this novel may not be about global disaster, it has the same crossover appeal as The Age of Miracles in that it is grounded in normal literary fiction, but with a twist of something almost like fantasy or science fiction. It's also got that coming of age in the face of
an extremely difficult situation twist.

Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
While this novel is undeniably a work of science fiction, it contains some truly beautiful prose and the voice of main character Nell reminded me quite a lot of Julia. It also tells the story of young girls growing up in a time of global uncertainty, only this time they're doing it on their own in the woods.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
While this book loses the coming of age element, it does paint a picture of life in suburbia after a catastrophic global event. It focuses on grown-up Kevin Garvey, but still deals mainly with how regular people are trying to cope after the event.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Staff Pick: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Lyrical and engaging, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler is really a story about the pull of a small town. Henry, Lee, Ronny, and Kip (and a small host of secondary characters) grew up together in Little Wing, Wisconsin. When we meet them, they are all adults and all living extremely different lives - Henry farms the land his father once owned, Ronny is dealing with the fallout of an alcohol-induced head injury after a few years of being a rodeo star, Kip has returned to Little Wing after making it big in the financial world of Chicago, and Lee travels the world as a famous musician under the pseudonym Corvus. Despite the different paths that they have taken, the men find themselves consistently pulled back to one another, unable to break the bonds that were created by growing up in that tiny farming town. At their center is Henry's wife Beth, surrounded by secrets that threaten to pull the friends' apart.

This novel is driven as much by its setting as it is by its characters. The story is told through the alternating voices of the five main characters (Henry, Ronny, Kip, Lee, and Beth), sometimes dipping into the past, and sometimes detailing current events. While each character is dealing with their own set of issues and complications, everything centers back around their relationship to Little Wing - either their desire to get out of the tiny town, or their drive to make their way back home. Butler is a champion of descriptive writing, and it's easy to be pulled in to the world he creates. After reading the book I feel like I've really been to Little Wing, when in actuality I could barely point Wisconsin out on a map. I just have the clearest pictures of the farm houses, silos, old taverns, and closed down storefronts. One of the most engaging aspects of this novel for me was that you can tell Butler just gets small towns. While Nova Scotia is a very different place than the American mid-west, and I grew up around more fisherman than farmers, there were many times while reading this novel that I was nodding my head emphatically in agreement. Whether you grew up in a small town feeling trapped and wanting to get out, or you had to leave for opportunity's sake and are desperately longing to come back, Butler understands you and he has written this book for you.

The reason that I actually picked this book up in the first place is because of it's connection to one of my favourite bands. Butler grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and went to highschool with Bon Iver's frontman Justin Vernon. While he says he hasn't spoken to Vernon in 20 plus years, the character of Leland is loosely based on him. Vernon composed Bon Iver's first album For Emma, Forever Ago, by himself, isolated in a cabin in the woods after a particularly bad breakup. Similarly, the fictional Leland recorded his first album in a souped-up chicken coop and was also driven by heartbreak. Butler was mainly inspired by Vernon's choice to remain in Eau Claire after he became famous, and pour a lot of himself and his own resources back into the small city. Throughout the novel, Leland is driven by his desire to get back to Little Wing and the friends he grew up with.

Check out some similar titles below:

Smoke Jumper by Nicholas Evans
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradel
You Are the Love of my Life by Susan Richards Shreve

Friday, April 22, 2016

Happy Birthday Nabokov!

File:Vladimir Nabokov 1973.jpgVladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov is considered of the world's greatest writers. Born on April 22nd, 1899 in Saint Petersburg to a noble and wealthy family, he spoke Russian, English, and French from an early age. Nabokov graduated from the University of Cambridge and met his wife Vera while living in Berlin. In 1940 they fled from war-torn Europe to the United States with their only son, Dmitri. Nabokov taught at Wellesley College and Cornell University for many years, and his students included Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thomas Pynchon. He was fascinated by lepidoptery (the study of moths and butterflies) throughout his life and spent time working at the American Museum of Natural History and Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. In the early 1960s, he and his wife returned to Europe, where they stayed until his death in 1977.,%20memory%20author:nabokovNabokov's family history is complex, dramatic, and tragic. He wrote about his early years in Speak, Memory, a memoir of his youth and life up until moving to America with his wife and son. Don't be dissuaded - this not a dry autobiography. Each chapter (most of which were first published as individual essays in the New Yorker) covers a different subject with recollections that combine to create a rich exploration of memories in elegant prose.'s most famous novel, of course, is Lolita, often found on various "best novels" lists. Nabokov wrote the novel in English over a period of five years, and later translated it into Russian himself. Controversial from the beginning, the book was initially banned in the UK and France. It's written from the the view of unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert, who becomes obsessed with his landlady's 12-year-old daughter Dolores, whom he nicknames Lolita. The novel has comedy, tragedy, and wordplay, and can be considered Nabakov's love song to the English language. Letters to Vera, edited and translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd, is composed of Nabokov's written messages to his wife Vera over the course of their relationship, which lasted half a century. Vera was not only Nabokov's wife, but his devoted partner in editing, translating, and solidifying his literary legacy. Reading these letters gives a glimpse into the more intimate and personal life of Nabokov - if only Vera hadn't destroyed all the letters she wrote in return!