Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore / Kim Fu  
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2018.
249 p.

This recent novel caught my eye with its evocative cover -- then the blurb -- I read it over the weekend and really enjoyed it!

It follows five girls — Nita, Kayla, Isabel, Dina and Siobhan — as they head off to an all-girl sleepaway camp in the Pacific Northwest. 

But there isn't much detail about the day to day camp experience itself -- quite quickly the story gets to the point at which the whole camp is going off on small groups on an overnight kayaking trip. This group of girls shortly finds themselves stranded, no adult to help, lost on a forested island they know has a town somewhere... but where?

Their interactions, reactions, and decisions shape the story, as their stranded experience is interspersed with chapters which one by one explore each of the girls' adult lives. Each of them is affected by this experience; the trauma lasts into adulthood and exhibits itself in different ways. 

It was a gripping read for a few reasons. The children and the fact of being lost is told in raw and realistic detail; we want to know what is going to happen to them. But it also deepened the story to read the complexity of all five girls' adult lives, bit by bit. It's almost like a novel in short stories, except that the unconnected adults are very connected indeed by the framing story.

The characters are all interesting; racial, social & economic diversity are shown in Fu's choice of characters and the worlds they inhabit. They are brave, bold, bossy, powerful, scared, quiet, strong, jealous, happy, jostling for position -- they are rounded characters. It's a realistic setting and I enjoyed how the stories wove together.

If I have one complaint, it's that the book feels a bit too short. Like there should have been more about some of the characters. And more about the camp itself. It was running along strongly, but the last few pages, to me, were a bit of a letdown. 

But this is a great new release, and if you read it too, I'd be glad to hear your take on it. It's quite different from her other novel I've read  - but never reviewed - (For Today I Am A Boy) but has the same focus on the internal lives of her characters. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


Amatka / Karin Tidbeck; translated from the Swedish by Karin Tidbeck.
New York: Vintage, c2017.
216 p.

Weird and wonderful. That's this book in brief. I picked it up at work by chance, not knowing a thing about it. Seeing that it was a speculative novel and a good pick for my Women in Translation project, I checked it out, and started reading.

I didn't really understand what was going on at all, until halfway through. But it was disorienting in the best possible way; all expectations were suspended as I tried to get a handle on this new world that Tidbeck was creating.

We start out by meeting Brilars Vanja Essre Two, a woman travelling from the main colony of her world to one of the other four colonies, the cold and outflung Amatka. 

We don't know much about how these colonies got to this world, or why. We do know that there were five colonies to begin with, but one had a disastrous encounter with the name they chose for their settlement, so then there were four. 

Names and language play a key role in this book; on this planet there are limited amounts of  'good' materials brought with the colonists; everything else has its name written on it, and things must be marked and named continually, to keep its shape. A suitcase has a label with "suitcase" written out, which must be touched and named aloud regularly. Otherwise, items will revert to a primordial 'gloop'. And if there is an error in naming, chaos may ensue. 

Into this setting comes Vanja, putatively to do some corporate research into hygiene product needs. Residents of Amatka are bemused by this, as all the colonies are Soviet style communes, with one basic product generally available to everyone in the same way. Children are raised in children's houses apart from their parents; jobs are assigned and followed by rote; even leisure time is scheduled and communal. There are those who rebel against this life -- but by choosing not to fall in line and uphold the marking and naming, by questioning or using language outside of allowable parameters, one becomes a danger. The state deals with this humanely, with lobotomies. 

However, Amatka is struggling, as this small community recently lost 100 settlers in a terrible accident. Or was it? Vanja starts to wonder what is actually going on in her new home, and begins investigating, with help from the local librarian, who is also a secret rebel. There is more to this new planet than first apparent.

This is a mystery, a dystopia, a psychological novel, a social commentary. The ending is variably interpretable -- you could read it as positive and triumphal, or terrifying and psychologically dangerous, depending on your view of the society and its rules which Tidbeck presents throughout the lead up to the sudden explosion of action in the closing pages. I'm still not sure which I think it is... 

I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone who reads speculative fiction. Its unique sensibility really sets it apart, and makes it unforgettable. For a book about the power of language, its own language is subdued but nonetheless powerful in shaping the reading experience. I haven't been so unsettled and uncertain about a story for a long time -- and I loved it.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Sputnik's Children

my library copy, with suitable fabric bookmark!
Sputnik's Children / Terri Favro
Toronto: ECW Press, c2017.
351 p.

This is the first in a string of speculative fiction I've picked up unintentionally from the library -- there were a bunch of shiny new books on the shelf so I thought I'd try some. And they were all weird and good and busted me out of a reading rut. 

This novel is the story of Debbie Reynolds Biondi, a comic book author of the cult hit Sputnik Girl. It's the story of a badass heroine with no past -- but the secret is that Debbie has based her comics on her life growing up in an alternate universe, under Atomic Mean Time. She lives in Shipman's Corners, Canusa -- a corporate part of what is our Niagara region in our time.

Debbie encounters time travellers and conspirators, all trying to either guide or keep her from collapsing Atomic Mean Time to save the world from nuclear disaster. When her AMT world collapses, everyone in it will blend with their other self in our own accustomed world; everyone except Debbie, who doesn't exist in our world, which is why she is the only one able to Save The World.

Or so she says.

Debbie is middle-aged, alone, addicted to lorazepam and martinis, fixated on her past story. But is she a reliable narrator? That's up to the reader to decide. As for myself, Favro's Cold War inspired AMT world is so convincing that I believed in this alternate reality thesis. The blend of science, true love, prejudice, a childhood in the shadow of nuclear war, and family dynamics is, well, dynamic. It's fast paced & fascinating, innocent & terrifying, funny and really sad, all rolled up in one -- or maybe two -- worlds.

The storyline doesn't have any logical errors, and I appreciated the detail in the setting and the time travel/science elements; it makes the reading very sensory and realistic. The characters, especially Debbie's family, were well drawn and convincing. All together, this was a puzzling and very entertaining read. It brings up questions of veracity, power, safety, war, authority, all alongside an accessible and enjoyable literary/speculative narrative. I had fun reading this, which is enough for me.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Happy Year of the Dog!

Year of the Dog, It Is

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Happy Year of the Dog! 2018 brings us into the Year of the Earth Dog, who is "Communicative, serious, and responsible in work". As the website TheChineseZodiac.org says, "According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2018 is the year of the Dog šŸ¶ and its characteristic word is ACTION!" ;)

Photo by Red Morley Hewitt on Unsplash

As for my lunar new year action, just as I have for the past 11 years, I am posting a booklist for this Year of the Dog. I can hardly believe that it's the end of the zodiac cycle for me; I started long ago in the Year of the Pig. For our last celebratory booklist, we have an easy subject. There are so many wonderful kids books featuring dogs! Here are a few favourites. 

RRRalph! / Lois Ehlert

What librarian isn't intimately familiar with Ehlert's many colourful books? This one features Rrralph the talking dog, lots of sound play, and the usual cheery, fun illustrations. Entertaining and a good way to investigate language with young readers.

Wiggle / Doreen Cronin    

Another classic in lively word play and active engagement, this picture book follows a dog who loves to move. It's the first of three in a series featuring this active little pup, but still my favourite, since the cover features hula hooping, one of my own favourite ways to get active ;) 

Love is my Favourite Thing / Emma Chichester Clark

A timely read so near to Valentine's Day, this sweet picture book chronicles the adventures of Plum the dog, who loves everything and everyone (except rain). Plum gets into all sorts of mischief, but through it all, her family never stops loving her. This author writes & illustrates her books, and another of her series, the Blue Kangaroo books, are among my favourites of all time (though there is no kangaroo in the Chinese Zodiac to be able to share them with you, I've snuck them in here!)

The McDuff Stories / Rosemary Wells   

These four charming stories follow McDuff, a little white Westie who finds a home and a name in the first story, then continues to have low-key adventures with his new family. McDuff is a dog in the best sense; not anthropomorphized and very doggish in his behaviour. The illustrations are beautiful as well. 

The Hundred and One Dalmatians / Dodie Smith 

One for the slightly older crowd, this is a classic readaloud. Who doesn't love Pongo & Perdita and their pups? And who doesn't like to see Cruella DeVille defeated? The book is wonderful, by a lovely writer whose other adult books are worth exploring.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Inheritance from Mother

Inheritance From Mother / Minae Mizumura; translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter.
New York: Other Press, c2016.
446 p.

I have been reading this book slowly over the past month after discovering it at my library. I suppose that's suitable, as it was first published as a serial novel in Japan. So reading it bit by bit is kind of the way it was originally created to be read. 

It's about two sisters, Mitsuki and Natsuki, who spend the first half of the book waiting for their imperious, narcissistic mother to die. The book fights against the stereotype of the devoted daughter caring for her aging saintly mother; Noriko is no saint, she is focused on her life and her desires, and has been for most of their lives. Mitsuki, in her 50's, working as a French instructor at a university, takes on most of the responsibilities for her mother's care. This is partly because she is close by, partly because she's childless, and partly due to childhood dynamics between the siblings. 

Not only is she dealing with her mother's final illness, trying to do everything she can to make her mother's last days beautiful and comforting (while feeling exhausted and resentful), she is also coping with her husband's third affair with a younger woman. This time it's serious, and Mitsuki has to try to come to a decision about how to handle it. 

Noriko dies at the end of Part One; Mitsuki then spends Part Two of the novel coming to terms with her past and her memories of her mother. She retreats to a small traditional hotel to think, and the second half of the book is full of other guests and their issues, illuminating aspects of contemporary Japanese life. The text veers off into chapters on other topics, including a disquisition on the place of serial novels in Japanese literary history, before coming back to Mitsuki and her decision to leave her husband and finally have a room of her own. 

How she manages to do that is quite lovely and hopeful. I loved the ending, and the new life that Mitsuki feels arising. The description of her new and much less expensive living space is also lovely, even though it is revealed that it is only 62 sq. feet. Yikes! 

Anyhow, despite my levity here, I thought this was a really fascinating read. While it is focusing in on issues important in modern Japan, it's also a great look at a family's history with characters that you will feel for. Both Mitsuki and Noriko evoke a sense of compassion in the reader, seeing where they are coming from and why. And the narrative pace, while slow, allows for easy reading in small doses, without losing the thread. 



This book reminded me of Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin in its examination of familial relationships and the enmeshment of mothers and daughters, though this one is set in Korea. 

It also recalled a more recent read, Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, which explores the slow move toward life after the loss of a father and husband, made by a mother and daughter together. Moshi Moshi was also published as a serial novel in its first incarnation, and the daughter ends up travelling to France to study just as Mitsuki did in her youth.