Wednesday, January 23, 2013

... and I thought I might have run out of rant posts....

But no.

Says England's Communities Minister Don Foster (via):

"Libraries play a vital role in keeping this going by bringing people together across communities, helping improve literacy for children and adults alike and developing a love of reading for millions of people."

Libraries don't improve literacy: librarians improve literacy.

Oh, and seriously? That picture? You're *totally* going to get a library that looks like that if it's volunteer-run. I bet they raised those fancy beams themselves, right?

< / end rant >

Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy blogoversary to me!

It's hard to believe that it was four years ago today that I published the first post on this blog. It seems like it was yesterday, in one sense, and so long ago in another. Some things in the blog, and in life, have stayed the same (best of the year lists; a passion for public library service and a wry sense of humour - I hope!) and some have changed (fewer awards announcements since these seem to be cross-posted everywhere; my job title, of which I have gone through at least four in four years!)

I find it infinitely tiresome (and terribly unoriginal) when bloggers apologise for their absence on the blogosphere, but here we go: I have been remiss lately! To catch you all up, well, it was the holidays, then I caught the Evil Flu From Hell, and then in the middle of the EFFH, I accepted an opportunity to be an Acting Manager with OPL for the next few weeks. The job is with my old team at Diversity and Accessibility Services, which is great.

So things have been weird: that's life, you know? Stuff gets thrown at you, good and bad, and you make the best of the bad stuff and are grateful for the good stuff. Sometimes, when you are lucky, great things fall into your lap (hopefully because you've put something good out into the universe) just when you need a little boost. Last week, I was called brave and resilient (I think resilient is my new favourite word) with respect to two different situations, work and personal, and tons of colleagues stopped by my new office or dropped me a note to wish me well on this new project. People are pretty amazing. Or, to be more precise, I am so incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by amazing people.

Right now my work brain is swimming with ideas, and projects, and things to deal with, and things to learn about. It's so cool to have an opportunity to shake up my thoughts, and delve into some new (or new/old) aspects of library service... and now, more than ever, my job involves the people on our team, and supporting them to the best of my abilities. It's fun to try to pick up the threads ... and, for a type A personality, kind of crazy to get a handle on it all in a few weeks! I have to keep talking myself back into work mode and out of freak-out-and-bite-off-more-than-I-can-chew mode.

So hopefully that's a sufficiently vague, mixed-metaphor reflective blogaversary post for you. Thanks for sticking it out on the wild ride so far, and stay tuned for more. As my uncle would say, it's been real.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mark your literary calendars for the first half of 2013!

Here are some things I am looking forward to in the first half(-ish) of the coming year:

  • The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier (January)
  • The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (January)
  • American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson (January)
  • The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout (March)
  • Bone and Bread by (Montrealer!) Saleema Nawaz (March)
  • Nocturne by Helen Humphreys (March)
  • A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam (March)
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (March)
  • Z by Therese Anne Fowler (March)
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (April)
  • The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen (April)
  • All That Is by James Salter (April)
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (April)
  • Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (April)
  • The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (April)
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (May)
  • And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini (May)
  • Big Brother by Lionel Shriver (June)
  • The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (June)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (June)
  • Night Film by Marisha Pessl (August)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Favourite children's and teen books of 2012

“Once there was a girl / an all-alone girl / in her own little bed / in her own little room / in her own little castle / who didn’t have a dragon for a friend.” 

This is going to be the saddest list ever. Nonetheless, here are the books for kids and teens that floated like jetsam past my desk this year....

Disclaimer: other more recent chapter books are embargoed because they are being considered for the CLA Book of the Year for Children and, as such, I cannot comment about them at this time.
  1. Lovabye Dragon by Barbara Joosse: a lonely dragon with an overbite? What's not to love? See above.
  2. Plant a Kiss by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (she of Duck! Rabbit! fame)
  3. Sam et Julia dans la maison des souris by Karina Schaapman: This gem of a book is too beautiful to miss, even if you can't read the text. If you, like me, spent a childhood enraptured by dollhouses (my two favourites were the real-life one in Windsor Castle and the one in Beatrix Potter's The tale of two bad mice), this book is for you.
  4. Oh No, Little Dragon! by Jim Averbeck: do I have a dragon thing? Perhaps! Little Dragon loses his fire-breathing ability when playing in the bathtub. Will he get it back? The suspense is killing me!
  5. The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce: I did make a vague effort to stay current with international book awards news, and as a result read this winner of the Guardian children's fiction prize. An intriguing mix of Polaroids of unknown origin and a story about a mysterious immigrant family who are being pursued by a demon.
  6. Howl by Karen Hood-Caddy: This book, and the next one on the list, are my under-appreciated underdogs from the 2012 CLA BOYCA reads. Howl actually appeared on our shortlist last year: this is a nuanced portrait of a young girl learning to cope with grief after the death of her mother, and a whole family's story of coming together to make something meaningful out of loss. Here's a review from Q&Q.                  
  7. Saving Armpit by Natalie Hyde: In a world in which quality middle grade books are often few and far between, this is an overlooked solid Canadian title about a letter-writing campaign undertaken by a group of small-town children in order to save their local post office (and thus the postmaster, coach of their local baseball team).   
  8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: again, the hype penetrated my consciousness, and I had to pick this one up. Friends and colleagues disagree over this one: someone pointed out that teens don't talk like they do in this book (fair enough!) and someone else, like me, found this book both hilarious and tragic. For those who grew up with Lurlene McDaniel (oh yes, I went there!), this is how a book about a kid with a terminal illness was meant to be written. Green knocks it out of the park.
  9. Grave Mercy: His Fair Assassin, Book 1 by Robin LaFevers: Meet your new Katniss.
  10. Monoceros by Suzette Mayr: Technically published as an adult novel, but I am including it here because I feel it has a real audience with teens, especially as a year filled with truly tragic stories of teen suicides due to bullying draws to a close. This book has a passage, narrated by the victim's mother, of such utter beauty that I think it might well be one of my favourite scenes ever. As a truly Canadian story of a teen suicide, told from different perspectives, this is another under-appreciated title. Read a review here

Previous favourite children's book lists: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008.
Previous favourite teen book lists: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008.

Favourite adult books of 2012

Happy New Year!

I read 93 adult books in 2012, up from 52 in 2011. My changing professional role was reflected in the fact that I only read 28 children's and teens books (compared to 77 in 2011).

In 2013, I hope to keep increasing those adult numbers, and since this is my last year as a judge for the CLA Book of the Year for Children, make the children's books I read great ones that I choose myself for a change! It has been a great joy to be on the BOYCA committee, but I will not miss the speed-reading of 60-odd children's novels by Canadian authors with varying degrees of talent.

Without further ado, here it is, my pretties: the top 10 of 2012!
  1. Gold by Chris Cleave: Chris’s writing has a way of grabbing you firmly by the heart and pulling, hard. The protagonists in this story are three Olympic bike racers, getting a bit long in the tooth in their early 30s and facing their last Olympics (London 2012). Despite not being at all interested in competitive sport, I could not put this down. There is much about the competitive spirit of world-class athletes in here, but there is also a love triangle, a child struggling with cancer, and a sensitive exploration of the choices we make in life, and the paths we choose and can also change. There are some absolute gems of phrasing and emotion in here. Read it. Some readers have compared the relationship in this novel between two strong women as reminiscent of Atwood’s The Robber Bride (my favourite of hers), and that is somewhat apt. For other heart-wrenching tales, however (for you masochists who like to cry while reading), I would recommend Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones or The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.
  2. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie: You may or may not know that I heart Rushdie, but we have  a fraught relationship. On the one hand, Imaginary Homelands changed my life, Midnight's Children acted as a closing bookend of sorts to my thesis about E. M. Forster, and I will watch any interview / attend any reading Rushdie gives, because I find him a fascinating and erudite speaker whose perspective I often find completely refreshing. On the other hand, I didn't finish The Satanic Verses, and have a low threshold for some of Rushdie's bombast. So, I embarked on Joseph Anton unsure how we were going to get along. Turns out I couldn't put it down, even if sometimes it drove me crazy (which probably encapsulates how I feel about Rushdie overall, frankly). I didn't mind the 2nd person narrative, found his unravelling of the Gordian Knot of his time under the fatwa deeply moving, vehemently agreed with many of his conclusions and observations about Western society's complex relationship with Islam, and found his stories about the supportive friendships that sustained him during his time in hiding (including a lovely one about a trip to Canada, involving being hugged by Bob Rae and serenaded by Adrienne Clarkson) compelling (I kept following the Husband around saying, "Listen to this!"). As a thank you of sorts to those who stood by him, and a statement about East/West relations during a tumultuous time in modern history, this is a tremendous book. As an indictment of those who abandoned, or outright criticised him, this book is less effective: Rushdie doesn't mince words, and in many cases rightly so, but sometimes a more unflattering spite seeps out of the pages, which is a pity. This is still an absolute must-read, however. Frankly, it's hard to begrudge him a little spite sometimes.
  3. Astray by Emma Donoghue: These stories are all about people on the move: between identities, places, or lives. I read this on the train, which was unintentionally perfectly appropriate. All of the stories are based on real-life people, and Donoghue follows each tale with a description of the actual events, whether it be a newpaper clipping about a female con artist or a series of letters between a husband and wife separated by an ocean (that story made me cry). The Guardian used the word frustrating when talking about the brevity of these tales; that is something that often bothers me in short stories, but here I felt that each story was so perfectly crafted that I didn't mind. Plus, frankly, I am happy to see that the pre-Room Donoghue is still around.
  4. South Riding by Winifred Holtby: see review here. Readers who enjoyed Emma Brown (completed from Charlotte Brontë’s draft by Clare Boylan), Muriel Spark or our own massively-underappreciated Gwethalyn Graham will enjoy this novel.
  5. Shine shine shine by Lydia Netzer: see review here
  6. Sleeping funny by Miranda Hill: Well, I already loved Miranda for Project Bookmark, and now I just love her extra. These short stories all have an element of the magical, or just plain odd, about them, from a suspicious neighbour who may just have dropped out of a fairy tale, to a group of children who are afflicted with visions of their own conception (some surprises there!). These stories made me laugh out loud, and also cry. Warning: the one that won the Journey Prize was actually my least-favourite in the collection.... 
  7. This is how you lose her by Junot Diaz: no, your eyes do not deceive you. I, an avowedly lukewarm reader of short stories, have chosen three collections in my top 10 this year. In October, I admitted that I was, indeed, oddly sympathetic with the rat narrator of this collection, especially for someone who spent four years with her very own serial philanderer. These stories, about the Yunior you may be familiar with from Drown, will break your heart as they draw you into the flawed but somehow tender heart of a troubled young man.
  8. The grief of others by Leah Hager Cohen: Ricky Ryrie blames her husband John for a lot, but she blames herself for more, in this story of family secrets and new beginnings. The Ryries, parents to two living children and one recently-deceased baby boy, are struggling to move forward through their grief when John’s older daughter from a previous relationship shows up on their doorstep unexpectedly. Cohen’s writing gave me goose bumps; speaking about the Ryries’ dead child, she writes, “He wore, during his short life, a white cotton shirt with a single covered side snap, a white flannel receiving blanket, and a white cotton cap. … He was given two diaper changes, the second proving unnecessary.” It’s easy to see how this gem of a book made it on the Orange Prize longlist. . It has been a long time since I have rooted so strongly for a young girl, as I did for the Elizabeth “Biscuit” Ryrie, who we first meet when she has stolen a library book about funeral rites and falls into the Hudson River after a ritual for her dead baby brother goes wrong. Everyone in this book is barely coping with their grief (over the baby but also over their own personal tragedies and changing relationships with one another), but the story is somehow still gentle, hopeful and beautiful. If the past is a foreign country, so too is the grief of others, even those closest to us. This one is for readers who enjoy Joyce Carol Oates, Julia Glass, Kim Edwards’s The Memory Keeper’s Daughter or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
  9. Everybody has everything by Katrina Onstad: Onstad captures perfectly the human spirit that lurks below a veneer of suits, heels, polished front doors, and shiny car windows in downtown Toronto. Ana and James are one such couple: half suit, half wrinkled artsy type, muddling towards early middle age childless and drifting apart (maybe). Into this mix falls small Finn, the young child of their good friends, left in their care after a car accident that claims Finn’s father and leaves his mother in a coma. Thrust into temporary parenthood (they wonder if Robert Crumb is appropriate bedtime reading as it’s the only illustrated book they have), Ana and James re-think their roles in their marriage, and the choices they have made without always realizing something was chosen. This is a character novel, and, to be frank without giving too much away, it’s about James wanting Finn desperately and Ana discovering that she doesn’t. Sure to divide readers, Ana’s struggles will hopefully spark meaningful book club discussions about what modern women can, or should, want for themselves.
  10. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris: Also on the Orange Prize longlist, this jewel of a book perfectly captures the voice of its Scottish, Victorian-era (unreliable) narrator, 35-year-old nosy spinster Harriet Baxter. Harriet, living on her own and with a small income that allows her to be a patron of the arts (as she would put it), endeavors to set the story straight for us about her relationship with the members of the Gillespie family, to whom a great tragedy has befallen (although it takes Harriet awhile to spit out the details). By the time she is out with it, however, her story begins to look more like something by Wilkie Collins than the gentle memoirs of a thoughtful family friend. Interspersing the story of her friendship with dashing young artist Ned Gillespie with her present life as an elderly woman in a mysterious stand-off with a possibly deranged maid, Harriet keeps readers under her thumb, revealing only what she wants us to see – but with an occasional slip. This is chilling, masterful, psychological drama at its best. For fans of Iain Pears’s The Portrait or Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture.
Previous lists: