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Ban this Book is a perfect read for any time of year, but it feels especially apt at the beginning of the school year.  Narrator Amy Anne Ollinger is a child most at home in books.  She lives at the library, and because the librarian has a rule that the same book cannot be checked out more than twice in a row, she keeps an up-to-the-minute calendar of when she can go back to check out and re-read her favourites.  The battle over banned books begins when she goes looking (desperately! eagerly!) for The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and it’s gone.  A school parent has taken it upon herself to go over the head of the librarian and strip the shelves of books she deems inappropriate.

Amy Anne is enlisted by the librarian to help fight what the principal steadfastly refuses to call censorship, but at the first school council meeting, when she has a chance to voice her concerns, Amy Anne is unable to summon the courage to deliver the speech she has prepared.  Painfully shy, as many booklovers are, she falters when her voice is so badly needed.

The first person narration of the book works brilliantly here.  We are told what the people in Amy Anne’s life are not.  We have a privileged insight into all the turmoil, anger, sarcasm and humour that runs under her silence.  Amy Anne begins covertly loaning banned books from her locker, getting great books into the hands of both avid and reluctant readers, and we see her struggle to balance her shyness and her enthusiasm for the books.

I loved every line of this book.  I especially loved that Amy Anne does not have a straight path to success and makes a lot of mistakes on the way.

Most of all, I love that Amy Anne is a Black narrator through whose eyes we see the world.  In the first chapter, when she describes the librarian as “a big white lady,” I was brought up short and realized with embarrassment that I had assumed the narrator was white.  This in spite of the cover art.

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That’s how privilege works.  We see ourselves effortlessly.

Youngest, who is in Grade 6 and who loved this book as much as I did, came with me last week to a panel discussion moderated by Zalika Reid-Benta at the Toronto Reference Library for Well-Read Black Girl, an anthology edited by Glory Edim.  It was a wonderful and uplifting discussion of community, legacy and the importance of libraries in the formation of a writer’s craft and voice.

Renee Watson described how she has a non-negotiable rule about cover art for her work.  The skin tone of the characters on the cover has to fit the content of the book.  (Amy Anne, too, insists that we see her, and she describes her skin tone in relation to her parents’ and her siblings’.)

There was much to love about the conversation, but one image that stuck with me is that books are mirrors and windows for kids to see themselves and the world.  Racialized and LGBTQIA+ kids especially need those mirrors and windows in a world that is almost always white and straight by default.  Describing the work of Jacqueline Woodson, Renee Watson writes,

That is who Jacqueline is writing for. The child in the back of the classroom, the one buried in a book, creating paragraphs in a hidden journal. She is writing mirror books for young Black children who need to see themselves in the pages of a story. She is writing window books for readers to strengthen the muscle of empathy and look into someone else’s world.

Banned books unfairly target those who need the windows and mirrors the most, which is what makes this particular brand of bullying so abhorrent to me.

It was Banned Book Week last week, an occasion to seek out, read and discuss the books that have been banned at schools.  The list of books most often banned in 2018 is notable for its censorship of and discrimination against LGBTQIA+ content.  Sigh. 

There is a lot of work to be done out there, Readers!  Kids need mirrors and windows!  Go be the voice that champions banned books!  Go have some fun reading!  Spread the word about your favourites!  Get the books that kids need onto their library shelves!

 

I stopped reading commercial fiction because I stopped trusting the author to transport me.  I had stumbled on too many flaws: holes in the plot, predictable narrative structure, wooden characters, harm to women and children as an engine of plot, outmoded models of womanhood, failure to challenge the status quo, etc.  If the whole point of reading commercial fiction is guilty pleasure, too much of the pleasure had had to give way to tripping on what had appeared to me to be glaring mistakes of craft or politics.

Then Jenny Colgan came into my hands, placed there by Marian Misters at The Sleuth of Baker Street.  Hurrah for hand-sold books from independent booksellers!

I had gone in looking for a mystery that featured trees.  It’s an odd ask, I know, but I was reading The Overstory by Richard Powers and just loving it.  I wanted that plus murder mystery.

Marian suggested a mystery set in a bookstore with a tree growing inside it.  SOLD.  Bookshop as setting pretty much guarantees reading pleasure, right?  She warned me, though, that the book contained magic.  She was right to warn me.  I enjoyed the book, I even enjoyed it enough to go back the next day and buy the next installment, but I’m done now.

When I enthused about the bookstore setting, Marian also suggested Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Shore, and this is a book I not only enjoyed but can wholeheartedly endorse.  There are some snags of chronology, the narrative structure is not at all innovative, there is a heteronormative romance with the predictable push/pull of attraction, harm to children is an engine of plot, and there is–spoiler alert–a happy ending.  None of this mattered because it was all done deftly, and I was utterly swept up, and then I went out and bought three more of her books (The Bookshop on the Corner, the first in the series, and her two boarding school books, Class and Rules, which I enjoyed enough, but I’m probably done now.)

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So, the matter of trust, it turns out, is not about the author but the genre, and I found an author I trust.  Jenny Colgan delivers a good, guilty pleasure.  Her female protagonists are feisty and independent, and that’s enough to counter any arguments I might have with other aspects of the genre.

And the bookish ingredients are wonderful.  Her booksellers are really good at putting the right book in a lost reader’s hand.  Her narrator is really spot on about the fallout from cuts to library services, about the very slim margins in bookselling and about the precarious balance of a bookshop’s quality assurance and ability to stay afloat.  The mobile bookshop creates community wherever it goes.  There is a jaw-dropping private library around which a whole manor is built.  Some of the bookish content is trenchant commentary and some of it is utterly romantic, but there are actual lives to be saved and transformed by books–selling them, reading them, recommending them.

Obviously, it was the bookish ingredients that brought me to these books, but it was such a delight to revel in the joys of commercial fiction.  I took comfort in the assured structure.  I loved the happy ending.  I longed for the book-loving hero to sweep the book-loving heroine off of her feet.

And I’m now on the lookout for more excellent authors of commercial fiction who will sweep me off my feet.

If you’re tempted to read these, and if it matters to you to read in order, begin at the beginning with The Bookshop on the Corner.

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This post is brought to you by Kerry Clare, who pushed me back to blogging with her Blog School. Check it out.

Vinegar-girl-1-198x300Vinegar Girl

Anne Tyler

Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play.  In the mad rush to “Kiss me, Kate!” we leave behind and forget the two scenes of the “Induction,” in which a hoax is played on a poor sleeping drunkard, after which the whole merry company settles in to watch the comedy.  Christopher Sly wakes to find all around him proclaiming him a wealthy man, the bald lie a neat parallel to Petruchio’s method of taming his wife-to-be by insisting that Katherina tell lies and proclaim the sun the moon.

In her contemporary retelling of the play, Anne Tyler’s Pyotr requires no such absurd proclamations from Kate, though she does have to lie.  There is no attempt to modernize the subjugation of a woman by her father or by her groom.  I am a sucker for modern retellings of classic texts, and in that regard fairly easy to please, but Anne Tyler’s handling of the marriage plot is a stroke of genius.  Dr. Battista asks his daughter Kate to marry his research assistant Pyotr Shcherbakov so that Pyotr can continue to live in the US and help Battista with his life’s work.  A looming deportation because of an expired visa is the obstacle, the green card is the quest, and US Immigration is the unseen enemy.  US Immigration is also the unseen audience for whom Kate and Pyotr must perform, yet another stroke of genius from Tyler.  Here is the play within the play.  Aware that they could be asked to produce evidence of real courtship and marriage, they have to perform and stage and record it.  Tyler gets a lot of comic mileage from the awareness that they are being watched.  With US Immigration, Tyler kills three birds with one stone: the quest for the green card is the premise for their lies, for their marriage and for their performance.

Vinegar Girl takes its title from the saying “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  When Kate teaches him the saying, Pyotr wonders why a person would ever want to catch flies, and gives Kate the nickname Vinegar Girl endearingly.  It’s a celebration of her prickly personality, a condemnation of the gender politics that make sweetness an attractive feminine attribute, and a welcome subversion of Katherina’s monologue at the end of Shakespeare’s play.  Katherina is utterly changed at the end of the play, affirming a husband’s right to rule.  Kate changes but is not tamed.  At the beginning of the book, Kate is adrift and lonely and beginning to be bitter.  She does not have a life plan, and the impact that this lack of direction has had on her self-esteem makes all the more believable her agreeing to marry Pyotr.  It is, at the very least, a way to leave her father’s house.  She is an indifferent housekeeper and cook at the beginning of the book and at the end, and this is exactly as it should be.  Tyler’s Kate is not interested in making house or making nice, and she does not have to.  She does not have to change in order for this marriage to do the work it has to do.  And, while Shakespeare’s Bianca is sickeningly dutiful to her father, Tyler’s Bunny is a rule-breaker, a layabout and a poor student in need of hours of remedial tutoring.  It’s this last aspect of the modernization of Bianca that is my only quarrel with Tyler’s book.  Why make Bunny an airhead?  She could have had swarms of tutors coming and going for gifted enrichment just the same….

But “gifted” is not where this book is aiming.  This is easy and delightful reading.  It’s clever and charming and fun.  I loved every minute of reading it.

Check out this wonderful collaboration between Spike Jonze and Olympia Le-Tan:  Mourir Auprès de Toi (To Die By Your Side), a short stop motion film set inside the famous Parisian bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.  Eros and Thanatos and Felt.

 

I rather like the goth tone of this line of fragrances from Sweet Tea Apothecary, and after reading the fragrance notes for these scents, I do actually want to smell like a dead writer.  Or like one of her settings.  Or both.

The Dead Writers line includes Beatrix and Pemberley, Lenore and Dead Writers, and I’m dying to get my hands on some samples.  Ever since finding Christopher Brosius’s Room with a View, inspired by a passage from the E. M. Forster novel, I’ve often found myself thinking about how to bottle book settings.  Pemberley sounds just perfect for spring.

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murderA Murder of Magpies

by Judith Flanders

2015: St. Martin’s Press, New York.

It’s March Break, which means pajama days, which means days to read for hours on end.

I curled up this morning with a find from Ben McNally Books, where I never fail to find an Anglophilic read, and even better, one I’ve not yet heard of.

A Murder of Magpies is a murder mystery by Judith Flanders, best known for her work on Victorian lives and times.  Her award-winning The Invention of Murder examined how the Victorians turned what was actually a rare crime into ubiquitous press and entertainment.

Flanders’s own foray into the murder mystery genre is set in London, and its protagonist, Samantha Clair, is an editor at a publishing firm housed in a draughty building and staffed by bright young things who are not so bright.  She scorns fashion, believes passionately in the value of her work, is cheerfully independent, funny and she is sexy.  When she asks one of the powerful men in the story to account for why he had wanted to help her, he replies

“You have balls.”  He looked at me as though he’d just paid me a compliment.  Of course, in his mind, he had.  I’d just never wanted balls.  Silly me.

Sam won my heart early in the book when she described her days: they are long, they start early, and only occasionally with a run:

There are supposed to be endorphins or whatever that make you feel great when you exercise.  I don’t think I have any, because I only feel great when I’m lying on the sofa reading a book, possibly while simultaneously eating biscuits.  That’s why I work in publishing, not athletics.

Sam is about to publish a tell-all about the crimes and misdemeanours in a large fashion house, when the book’s author and her friend, Kit, goes missing.  DI Jake Field comes to her office to ask about the death of a bike courier who was carrying a copy of the manuscript, and although he is at first dismissive of her concern about Kit’s whereabouts, things soon heat up on the action and attraction front.  Sam’s mother is a very well-connected lawyer who completes the detecting trio, and together they take us through a quick and very pleasurable read.

The book was riddled with improbabilities.  No way would the detective on the case tell Sam so much.  No way would a veteran editor but rookie crime-solver investigate and solve the crimes inside a fortnight.  Now way is Sam’s mother so well connected.  None of it mattered.  I was completely willing to suspend disbelief because Sam is a hard-working, book-loving, feminist spark, and I loved her.  I also loved the casual way in which she falls into a relationship with Jake in which neither of them play the other or get caught up in games.  She’s just so smart in so many ways, and I loved her company.

The book was published in England as Writer’s Block.  Neither title works particularly well; there was no case of writer’s block, nor was there a discussion of collective nouns involving death, more’s the pity, but since it’s the story that counts, the titles are neither here nor there.  The good news from England is that there will be more.  A Bed of Scorpions will be published in England this week.  Even better, it’s a campus novel.  It’s ticks each and every one of the boxes in my list of highly desirables, and I will be on the lookout this time when it does cross the pond.

Favourite Books of 2014  

How to Be a Heroine

Samantha Ellis

How to Be Both

Ali Smith

How to Build a Girl

Caitlin Moran

[Perhaps this list should be called Favourite Books That Begin with How!!]

Among Others

Jo Walton

Thunderstruck

Elizabeth McCracken

Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

Lexicon

Max Barry

Tenth of December

George Saunders

The Victoria Vanishes

Christopher Fowler

Best Books About Books

How to Be a Heroine

Samantha Ellis

This is the story of Samantha Ellis looking for a role model in the heroines of books she read as a child and young woman.  I adored every page.  Not only did this book entertain and delight from beginning to end, Ellis sent me back to the books she discusses, prolonging the enjoyment, engaging me for weeks.

Lexicon

Max Barry

A fascinating fantasy of how the brain and its operations might be compromised by a person in possession of the right words to override the brain’s normal operating system, the right words being a proto-language with enormous power.   A mysterious society of “poets,” led by the nefarious Yeats, recruits people who have a natural gift of persuasion, then trains them in the use of secret words that can control others’ behaviour.  Some of these recruits get out of hand.  Thrills ensue. Delightfully inventive, this book reminded me a lot of The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman because the new recruits have to work really hard at mastering this magical ability.

Among Others

Jo Walton

My second read, after reading her book about her favourite SF and Fantasy books, What Makes This Book So Great? I think her fiction is more persuasive than her prose at persuading me which SF and Fantasy to pick up and try.  This book is absolutely full to the brim with love for the books of both the author’s and the protagonist’s youth.

Lost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn

Biting satire about a jury for a book prize.

Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

Kitty Burns Florey

I love how the author combines autobiography with history in these books about handwriting and sentence diagramming.  Thoroughly entertaining reads.

The Murdstone Trilogy

Mal Peet

I laughed a lot while reading this satirical metafictional adult novel about an author of young adult fiction who is struggling with writer’s block.  He makes a pact with the devil to get out of it.  The dialogue with the devil in question is so wonderfully inventive, and his voice single-handedly makes the book.  Chapter Two, in which Philip Murdstone’s agent spells out exactly how to write a successful Phantasy novel, with a P Haitch, had me in stitches.  My only criticism is that sometimes the humour was too earthy.  Toilet humour does not do it for me.

Best Interviews with Authors

from The Guardian Books Podcast

Ali Smith

How to Be Both

Isabel Greenberg

Encyclopedia of Early Earth

James Frey

Endgame

Eleanor Wachtel interviewing

P.D. James

Colm Toibin

Ali Smith

Others Raved and So Did I

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

My favourite thing about Tartt’s abilities as a writer is how she manages to depict characters from extraordinary privilege who find themselves utterly powerless to control their own lives.

Tenth of December

George Saunders

This made many best of lists for 2013, and I did not catch up until this year.

Did Not Have High Hopes, But It Was a Surprisingly Good Read

We’ll Always Have Paris

Jennifer Coburn

This book was sent to me for review for my parenting blog, and I really did not have high hopes but ended up reading it in one sitting.  It’s a memoir of a mother-daughter trip to Paris, and the narrating mother is a control freak who learns to let go and be mindful in the extraordinary moments of travel and discovery.

In Praise of Messy Lives

Katie Roiphe

We are not supposed to like her because she blamed date rape on women in The Morning After.  She’s an obnoxious cross between Margaret Wente and Leah McLaren, but she’s whip smart and in very good form in this collection of essays.  I enjoyed them all.

Disappointed

The Opposite of Loneliness

Marina Keegan

Anne Fadiman blurbed it, praising it highly.  She was Keegan’s instructor at Yale, and when Keegan died in a car crash, this collection of essays and short fiction was published posthumously.  I found the collection to be too spotty and felt that the promise she obviously had is not adequately showcased here.

Roseanna

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The series written by this couple became the ur-texts for police procedurals.  The problem with going back to the ur-text after having read a lot of police procedurals, is that the original can feel stale and half-formed.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne-Jones

I read it aloud to the kids, and it was a bit of a slog.  I had such high hopes, but we all found it just too disjointed.

Outlander

Diana Gabaldon

A case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”  Historical fiction and time travel just do not often work for me.  But this book does stand out for one of the best exchanges I read all year.  The time-travelling (and married) Claire is about to be married off to a hottie in the past:

“Does it bother you that I’m not a virgin?” He hesitated a moment before answering. “Well, no,” he said slowly, “so long as it doesna bother you that I am.” He grinned at my drop-jawed expression, and backed toward the door. “Reckon one of us should know what they’re doing,” he said.

Stoner

John Williams

Again, it’s not you, it’s me.  I don’t like passive characters whose fates flow over them.

Elizabeth is Missing

Emma Healy

Transparent from the beginning.

Must Read Everything Authors

(with thanks to Buried in Print for the category)

Confirmed:

Alan Bradley

His latest Flavia de Luce mystery, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, confirmed that Flavia is a sleuth to love.  I wait obsessively for the next books to come out.

New:

Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird kept me on the edge of my seat.  I had to track down all her other books after reading it.

Ali Smith

I loved How to Be Both so much that I did not pick this book for my book club choice; I did not want to hear anyone disagree with me about how absolutely wonderful it is.  I re-read First Person, then went out to get all her other books.  I read Hotel World and The Accidental as soon as I could get my hands on them.

Elizabeth McCracken

New to me with Thunderstruck, and so wonderful was it that I had to have more.

Mysteries to Fall For

The Word Exchange

Alena Graedon

Humans begin to lose the ability to speak because of a deliberately-released virus.  A gripping bibliophilic thriller.

Northanger Abbey

Val McDermid

She rewrites Austen’s classic by substituting vampire fiction for the gothic novel.  Hilarious, timely and pitch-perfect.

The Victoria Vanishes

Christopher Fowler

I can’t remember how I found him, but I did something very unusual for me and began his series of Bryant and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit books in the middle, with The Victoria Vanishes, and fell head over heels in love.  In addition to being very well plotted, with well-rounded characters, it’s chock full of trivia about London’s pubs.  Other books in the series deal with London’s underground tunnels and theaters.  Fascinating reads for both the whodunit and the trivia.

Young Adult  

Half Bad

Sally Green

Half Bad is all good.  Harry Potter and Twilight meet Divergent.  I think the guilty pleasure of reading these books is the good vs evil plot, the clearly drawn lines.  The protagonist, though, does not know what he will be, White or Black witch.  He exposes the hypocrisy of the first, and is seduced by the mystery of the second.  So, not so black and white after all.

We Were Liars

E. Lockhart

A loose retelling of the story of King Lear and his daughters.  The narrator spends her summers on the family island off of Martha’s Vineyard with her grandparents, aunts and cousins.  She has an accident and cannot remember the events around it.  The novel is her piecing it all together with a great twist at the end.

Blood Red Road, Rebel Heart and Raging Star

Moira Young

I’ll say right from the start that the narrative voice annoyed the hell out of me (first person, present tense narration in the drawl of a cowboy: nuthin, haveta), but once past that, I found this Canadian trilogy gripping.  Strong female characters in a post-apocalyptic world.  I loved that the women are so strong, although, in the end, there does seem something of a patriarchal, hetero-normative resolution.  Not entirely, but I was getting a bit uncomfortable with the excessive use of the word “family.”

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Liani Taylor

Jenny recommended this, and I loved this, the first in a trilogy about angels and demons.  The world building is so assured and the eroticism is simply pulsing.  I found the next two disappointing, however.

Fabulous Nonfiction

The Perfect Scent

Chandler Burr

Burr is the first curator of olfactory art at MOMA, a position he created for himself with a view to encouraging the growth of a body of intelligent criticism for the art of making perfume.  In this book, he follows two perfumers through the process of creating and bringing to market a new perfume: Jean Claude Ellena for Hermes, and Sarah Jessica Parker.  This was my second reading of the book, and I loved it.

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