book review: forgive me, leonard peacock

One of the things I enjoy about Young Adult literature is how much fantasy and science fiction there is in the category. The whole “it’s a world like ours, but plucky protagonist discovers there are dragons in human form” kind of thing. There’s a way of turning the big existential questions that plague young people (well, I hope we never totally grow out of existential questions, but for young people especially) into metaphors to look at them differently.

Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock doesn’t do that. The only fantasy in this story is a series of letters Leonard Peacock has written to himself from the future, at the request of his Holocaust teacher.

This is the story of Leonard Peacock’s birthday which is also the day he brings a dead Nazi’s gun to school for a murder-suicide.

It’s kind of amazing. There are four characters he has farewell gifts for before he ends his life and the life of the young man who was once his best friend but has become something else, and we follow him through the day and his life with these people in his memory. We meet these four – his elderly neighbour he watches Humphrey Bogart movies with, the Iranian violinist who goes to his school, the homeschooled evangelist he has a crush on and his Holocaust teacher – and learn about the other people in his life and how it has come to this.

Quick has written Leonard as a smart kid who loves Hamlet and he tells the reader his story directly, with many asides in the footnotes. He’s also weird, and critical and feels very authentically teenagery. He snarks at the “It Gets Better” campaign, but really really wants some help with life. One of my favourite things about the book is that the people he’s giving his gifts to, they aren’t stupid. He cuts off all his hair and everyone is worried. They see the warning signs and can tell they’re warning signs but it’s hard to tell what to do. No one is stupid; they’re just people.

I loved the book and recommend it highly (probably not for middle-schoolers though). And it makes an interesting companion piece to We Need to Talk About Kevin.

book review: freshman: tales of 9th grade obsessions, revelations, and other nonsense

Corinne Mucha’s comic Freshman was a lot of fun. It did the whole Grade 9 experience in short stories (usually 2-5 pages) following four friends. There are crushes and a band is formed, all the regular high school kind of stuff. The only weird aspect was that they used the word hockey to mean field hockey, but I guess not everyone can be Canadian. I guess.

The short story aspect made it feel much more like regular school, rather than some epic tale. It’s broken into three seasons with the first chunk being about getting used to high school, then the winter section is taken up with stories around the big musical, and then in spring everyone is getting ready for dances and other relationshippy things. This is a book about being in school, but isn’t about classes by any means.

I found Mucha’s art very ziney & charming. This felt like the kind of thing a 15 year old could have been making, but with more perspective than being right in the middle of things.

Anyway, I’m completely bringing it the next time I go booktalking at the middle school. It’s a good peek into their futures.

book review: a visit from the goon squad

My friend who teaches grade 12 English recommended I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. It took me a while to get to it but I’m glad I did.

It’s a novel centred around music, but centred is a bad word. It’s much more scattered than that, bouncing itself about in time telling stories of people tangentially connected to each other. Each of the sections could stand alone as a short story (and I gather that at least some of them were published that way) and that’s part of why my friend is teaching it. He could give each person in class responsibility for becoming an expert in one chunk and then Voltron everything together with presentations in class.

Most of what I liked about the book was the shifting form of it. A different friend of mine has no patience for this kind of thing. She just wants a story that keeps her interested and makes her feel something. This book doesn’t do that per se. But there’s a chapter that’s done as a slideshow, which is amazing and inspiring as a writer looking for a form to be most comfortable in.

Children's books by, on Flickr Shared under a CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 license

shuffling stuff

Children's books by, on Flickr Shared under a CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 license

Children’s books by, on Flickr Shared under a CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 license

The second in a short series of posts where I talk about what exactly I do in my new job as a Children’s and Youth Librarian.

My least favourite part of my job is figuring out where to put books. Our library system has a floating collection across dozens of branches, which means that when a member returns a book to a branch in the system it stays where it was returned and doesn’t have to get trucked back to some other branch where it nominally belongs. What it means in practice is that we get these huge gluts of books on our shelves based on who the last requester was. It also makes getting all of the volumes in a series together on the shelf tricky.

So a big part of my job is dealing with stock rotation. I’m responsible for the Children’s/YA collections in our library and our 5 other small branches in the zone. I get a box of unwanted books from one small branch and go through it to see if we already have copies at our branch; if we do I check which branches in my zone don’t have a copy, then I label it and get it ready to get on the truck so it can be delivered to a small branch where they curse the arrival of new books because their shelves are packed. So they go through their shelves and send unwanted books back to me and it keeps on going. If we have copies in all our branches I have to go and beg and cry on the email lists to get some other library outside our zone to please take some books, and no one wants the stuff I have 18 copies of because they’ve just gotten down to 6. I send books to them and they send books to me in this endless dance of keeping the shelves interesting/relevant without overloading any one branch.

Stock rotation haunts my fucking dreams. I hate it so much.

Weeding, though, weeding I like. That consists of going through the collection and seeing what’s old, beat-up or just not being used and removing it so the stuff people are interested in doesn’t get cluttered out by the rest. One of my favourite things to do is check dinosaur books to make sure there’s at least mention of feathers, and the space books to ensure Pluto isn’t still being called a planet. Weeding is the main way I have a say in our collection development, because the way our system works there’s no librarian selecting material for the system. In order to get new books in our system we rely on our members making suggestions (awesome!) and on the vendor to tell us what we want (umm… less awesome). I get to keep the good books even if they’re old and try winnowing out the less-good ones.

In any case, this stuff I have to deal with collection-wise is in a lot of ways just part of being part of a biggish library system. If I worked in a one-branch system and was in charge of the children’s and youth stuff there, I’d probably be griping about how I have to go through catalogues and pick everything myself even if I didn’t feel qualified. Because the collection is shared among all these branches and there are shelf-space issues everywhere and boxes of books keep on showing up, this feels like the part of my job where I have the least control over anything. And that kind of sucks.

I was at one of our local high schools this week. I loved the fact that I could do a couple of mini-booktalks on China Miéville books and the librarian, who hadn’t heard of him before that, could be really impressed and order them for the library. Just like that. In a larger system that doesn’t happen. Or at least I don’t feel like I can do that.

But my next post in this series will be happier again because it’ll be about something I do have power over. I shall leave you in suspense about what that may be.

book review: ask the passengers

In a conversation with a friend I referred to A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers as “a YA novel about a girl who isn’t sure if she’s a lesbian.” And while on some levels that’s a fair description it doesn’t really tell you why you’d want to read it.

Astrid and her family moved to small-town Pennsylvania from New York. In small worlds gossip dominates and reputations are important and fragile, so Astrid and the secrets she keeps (on her own and on behalf of others) make a difference.

Because it’s A.S. King there are also these interludes. Astrid sends love to people flying overhead in planes and we get to read tiny fragments from some of those lives. They aren’t as integral to the story as all the escape attempts in Everybody Sees the Ants, but they were well-done. Astrid is also in a philosophy class (which reminds me of the best class I took in high school) and the idea of Plato’s cave and how it relates to small-world rumours comes up throughout the book.

I’ll warn you. In the end the world does not all come together and sing kumbayah, but King does a great job working within small resolutions and the fact that things can change, incrementally but really, is a big part of what makes her books so good. Quite frankly, if you have any interest in contemporary YA literature, you should read this story of Astrid and philosophy and love.

tv review: star trek deep space 9 (season 1)

Photo Credit: The ‘Pacman Nebula’ (NASA, Chandra, Spitzer, 09/28/11) by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

When I was eight years old my cousin lived in our house for a year while she did her first year of university. One of the many things that happened was she got me hooked on Star Trek (and eating dinner for breakfast). She was supercool and liked Star Trek: The Next Generation, so TNG was always “my” Star Trek too. I know those episodes backwards and forwards. When I think of examples of leadership Picard is my go-to character. I love TNG the way you love the things you grew up with.

I have a much more complicated relationship with Deep Space 9.

DS9 came out when I was in high school and I just didn’t like it. The plots were boring. Too much political stuff. They couldn’t go anywhere without a ship. I wasn’t a fan. Then they got a ship and Worf joined the crew and I rethought my disapproval. And then the Dominion War began and it was just one ongoing war-story which wasn’t at all what I wanted out of Trek either (I was also watching less television in those days). So I always think about this sweet spot in the middle of the show’s run being where anything good would have happened.

I decided I needed to rewatch DS9 to see if my opinions about it, most of which were made when I was a teenager, still meant anything. I just finished watching the first season and there is so much more I really like about it now.

The biggest thing I like about it (that I used to hate) is its sense of place. DS9 is an Old West frontier town. They’re actually building relationships between the Federation and people who don’t really want them there but need them to keep the peace in a hostile galaxy. There’s colonialism going on, but the ethical issues don’t get quite resolved in a single episode. They’re much more complicated than something the Enterprise could zip in, solve and zip out again. I was used to that kind of story in Star Trek and this was different.

Also, I love the father-son dynamic between Ben and Jake Sisko. The way those two interact makes you feel like people in the Federation are more than just props for ethical stances. The relationships in this show just feel more accurate than the assembly of the best and brightest that you’d see on the Enterprise. I love that Jake doesn’t want to be in Starfleet and that he and Nog make weird business deals. UFP economics didn’t make much sense in TNG (though, to be fair, DS9 hasn’t really tried to deal with them too clearly this season).

Now, there are some crappy episodes in this first season. I have no kind words for “Move Along Home” the episode where Gamma Quadrant aliens pull people into a game that Quark is playing. “The Forsaken” (where Odo gets vulnerable in a turbolift with Lwaxana Troi) was less good than I remember it. I didn’t like “The Storyteller” very much, but it was neat to see that O’Brien and Bashir weren’t best buds right from the beginning of the show.

My favourite episodes of the season have Sisko refusing to be pushed around by forces bigger than him. Though the resolution of “If Wishes Were Horses” was a little pat, it was a good science fictional premise and an interesting episode (I can also see how the lack of sinister motives would have bugged young Justin). “Duet” was about a possible Cardassian war criminal being arrested on the station and was just fucking great.

While DS9 isn’t as dark or bleak as (new) Battlestar Galactica it’s different from the Treks that came before it and yeah, this first season is much better than I remember it. If you put it up against first-season TNG there is absolutely no comparison. I wonder if I’ll like the Dominion War better when I get to it this time around, or if this vastly better opinion is mainly a function of only being 13 when Season 1 aired for the first time. I probably had better taste when I was 17, right?

book review: the replacement

Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement is about a kid who isn’t normal. Oh sure Mackie has friends at school, but he also has severe reactions to the sight of blood and reacts badly to stainless steel and he has to stay out in unconsecrated ground when his father preaches at their local church. Mackie tries to keep a low low profile because his parents have always taught him about what awaits those who are different in the town of Gentry. But when Tate’s sister dies, Tate forces Mackie to quit not looking at the things that make him and the whole town weird.

I liked this book better than Holly Black’s Tithe which is an obvious comparison. It was interesting to read a faerie book where the fae person was a guy, and his relationships with both his male friends and the girls in the book were excellent and believable. There was angst but it wasn’t overpowering, ominousness that went somewhere. The only thing that felt a bit weird to me was the dropping of the musical subplot. It fed into the larger issues Mackie was going through but I’d hoped it would tie in a bit more. But that’s just quibbling. This is great, creepy YA stuff (probably a little fluffy for adult readers who want something dark about stolen children though).