July 31, 2012

Love of dance

To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel
by Siena Cherson Siegel
art by Mark Siegel

Siena was six when she first fell in love with dance. Her dreams took her from Puerto Rico to Boston to New York, where she was accepted at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Her story perfectly captures the rigour of rehearsals and the thrill of the stage. 
Mark Siegel’s art beautifully captures the world of ballet and the dancers who inhabit it. 

July 26, 2012

Sports books for teens

Sports form the backdrop in a new series of books by Lorna Schultz Nicholson. Called the Podium Sports Academy, it follows the lives of teen athletes at an elite high school. Entrance to the Academy is through a rigorous selection process based on skills, work ethic, and previous performance results. 

These are teens who are dedicated, driven, and goal-oriented. But they're not immune from pressure and doubt. Add in raging hormones and a bit of rebelliousness, and you have teens with a fair amount of angst.

In Rookie, meet Aaron Wong, who's determined to crack the first line on the Podium hockey team. But he ends up drawing the ire of Ramsey, the tough-talking captain. When Ramsey subjects Aaron to a humiliating hazing ritual, Aaron tries hard to pretend it ever happened, but finds it more difficult than he expected.

Aaron's girlfriend, Carrie, has problems as well. In Vegas Tryout, Carrie becomes obsessed with an upcoming audition for a glitzy synchronized swim team in Las Vegas. When her coach tells her to lose weight, she takes things a little too far, putting her health and her dreams in danger.

Carrie and Aaron are believable, sympathetic characters dealing with realistic situations that many teens can relate to. Their interactions with friends and family ring true, and the balance between school and sports is well done. Nicholson writes with a deft touch that will appeal to many readers, and the stories' short length - approx. 140 pages - make them a breeze.

July 24, 2012

Love and football

Love, Football, and Other Contact Sports
by Alden R. Carter

Football players and their more intelligent girlfriends are the main characters in Carter's interconnected stories. It begins, hilariously, with A Girl's Guide to Football Players, which introduces the various members of the team, from linemen to long snappers, their roles, their cars, and their brain power. With guidance, these athletic young men fumble their way through life, love, and high school, while managing to prove that they're not all stereotypical dumb jocks (though the quarterback is still a jerk). These are guys who look out for their friends and stand up to bullies; some are even brave enough to reveal their sensitive sides. With colourful characters and feel-good endings, these are stories with broad appeal for both girls and guys.

July 19, 2012

Suffering and heartbreak

Why We Broke Up
by Daniel Handler
art by Maira Kalman

Ticket stubs, rubber bands, a toy truck, and a matchbox - these are some of the things Min is returning to Ed - packed in a box she is dumping on his doorstep. These are the mementoes of a failed relationship.

At 354 pages, the book is a long, long letter written by Min, who relates every feeling, event, and situation that led to her and Ed's break-up. Min's lengthy, stream-of-consciousness writing style is full of awkward run-in sentences that often lose meaning, forcing the reader to go back and read it again. This makes for difficult reading; many readers will be tempted to give up.

The book certainly manages to capture the devastation of heartbreak, but it could have been a lot shorter. The artwork is the best thing about the book; their meanings are much clearer than the words.

For those who delight in suffering, Handler and Kalman have a website: The Why We Broke Up Project

July 17, 2012

Magic in Toronto

Gate Of Darkness Circle of Light
by Tanya Huff

A young woman named Rebecca, who is developmentally delayed, has an unusual ability - she can see things other people can't, like littles (small beings), ghosts, and trolls. When a little is murdered, it's a sign that the forces of evil are infiltrating the human world and trying to overtake it. Rebecca joins forces with Roland, a street musician; Daru, Rebecca's social worker; Mrs. Ruth, a bag lady; Tom, a warrior cat; and Evan, an Adept of the Light (an angel) to prevent the Gate of Darkness from opening.

Surprisingly, this is a very entertaining read. The book's setting is part of the appeal. Most of the action takes place in downtown Toronto, the Annex neighborhood, and the grounds of University College at U of T. The ghost of Ivan Reznikoff even plays a key role.

Huff briskly moves the plot along, leavening the suspense with brief doses of humour. She nearly loses control when she strands Roland in fairy-tale land, where he encounters giants, witches, magical harps, and the Three Bears, who unfortunately sound like folksy hillbillies. But somehow, everything comes together in the final, spectacular showdown.

July 12, 2012

Fun with Zarku

The Deadly Conch
by Mahtab Narsimhan

Readers who enjoyed The Third Eye will be tempted to read the next book in the trilogy, The Silver Anklet. Unfortunately, The Silver Anklet is filled with unlikeable characters who spend most of the book arguing and insulting each other. Tara seems to have learned nothing from her previous run-in with Zarku and it takes her a long time to decide what to do. In short, I found the book excruciating.

It's best to skip The Silver Anklet and go straight to The Deadly Conch. This time, Tara has to deal with Kali's daughter, Layla, who is determined to avenge her mother's death. Since the villagers of Morni are very superstitious and in denial that a nine-year-old is capable of evil, it doesn't take long before Tara is condemned. In desperation, she summons Lord Yama for help in stopping Layla's lies. But it comes with a price - Tara will have to live in the Underworld forever.

The Deadly Conch is better written than The Silver Anklet, but not by much. Even though the story is filled with urgency, the plot still seems to lag. It takes Tara a very long time to really act. She never tries to prove Layla's culpability other than to keep repeating "She's lying!" She's oblivious to the fact that whatever she says (or doesn't say) only makes matters worse. But when Lord Yama tells the villagers that Layla is a liar, they believe him! Of course, who would dare contradict the God of Death?

It's a disappointing ending, especially since Narsimhan's version of the Underworld is actually quite thrilling. Freezing cold, with its denizens attracted by the scent of blood, the book could have been a vampire movie with a Bollywood twist. Now that I'd like to see.

July 10, 2012

Fantasy with an Indian twist

The Third Eye
by Mahtab Narsimhan

Tara's mother and grandfather disappeared one year ago. Ever since, she and her brother Suraj have been cruelly mistreated by their stepmother. Though their life has been hard, worse is yet to come. Frightening things have been happening to their village. Men are disappearing from the surrounding forests and returning in an altered, mutant state. Tara suspects that the village's new healer, a man named Zarku, is causing the trouble. Zarku has a third eye in the middle of his forehead, which gives him a mesmerizing, violent power. When Tara discovers that Zarku is trying to kill her and Suraj, they run away. Tara is sure that her mother and grandfather are still alive, and if she can find them, they will defeat Zarku. But in order to succeed, Tara must seek help from Lord Ganesh and Lord Yama, the god of death.

Tara struggles to overcome her fear and uncertainty, especially when she and Suraj are separated. She then meets Ananth, a boy who has also lost his family. She adopts Ananth as her brother (a little too quickly it seems), and together they try to evade Zarku's evil minions. But it is Tara alone who must face Zarku at the end.

Narsimhan skillfully weaves together Hindu mythology and Grimm fairy tale to create an exciting, frightening fantasy.

July 5, 2012

Mayhem in the Everglades

by Carl Hiaasen

Wackiness ensues in this tale of Wahoo Cray and his animal wrangler father. Short on cash and behind on the mortgage, the Crays take a job with a reality-tv show called Expedition Survival. Things get seriously out of hand when outrageously inept star Derek Badger insists on doing his stunts with real wild animals. He eventually gets chomped, on the tongue no less, by a mastiff bat. Ill and feverish, he disappears into the Everglades, where he awaits his vampiric transformation. Meanwhile, Wahoo's friend Tuna is being stalked by her drunken, abusive, gun-toting father. And, there's a hurricane on the way.

Once again, the incomparable Carl Hiaasen has crafted a laugh-out-loud romp that's impossible to resist.

July 3, 2012

Prisoners of war

The Midnight Zoo
by Sonya Hartnett

When the Germans break up their Romany encampment during World War II, Andrej, his younger brother Tomas, and their baby sister, flee through the ruined countryside. They find themselves in a bombed-out town where they stumble upon an abandoned zoo. Like Andrej and Tomas, the animals dream of freedom, but the keys have been lost.

In sharing their respective stories, the animals - a wolf, eagle, monkey, bear, lioness, seal, kangaroo, llama, chamois and boar - forge a bond with the boys that eventually set them free.

An almost unbearable sadness permeates the book, dealing as it does, with the cruelty of war, imprisonment, and oppression. Beautiful moments are fleeting and hope is a dream. The lives of the boys and animals are very bleak; sadly, freedom only comes through death. 

A story that you may want to forget, but it will not be easy.