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February 2019

Jo's Picks

The Water Cure

by Sophie Mackintosh
(Penguin Canada)

This dystopian novel has been compared to The Handmaid's Tale and The Virgin Suicides which sets the bar high. I did find elements of both in it although more of Eugenides's style than Atwood's. It contained elements of the fever dream lushness and sexual awakening of The Virgin Suicides and the quiet menace and rising dread of The Handmaid's Tale without a doubt. I might also draw comparisons to The Lord of the Flies. The writing is lovely and evocative - is there anything better than horrific things described in flowing gorgeous prose? King - the sole male - and his wife raise their three daughters (Grace, Lia and Sky) in complete isolation. Their island home is protected from the mainland by barbed wire and fencing. No one can land from the water but none of them can leave either. The girls endure numerous trials akin to torture in order to build an invulnerability to the toxic male world. They are being prepared. King disappears suddenly and three strange men wash up on their shore. What ensues is a sort of psychological game told mainly from Lia's point of view - the daughter who is denied love. I loved the immersively dreamy, slightly vague atmospheric tone as the plot slowly unfolded. Not all is revealed, the ending slightly rushed, but I enjoyed filling in the holes myself. Ultimately this book triumphs in creating an unsettled feeling in the reader and raising many questions about self, violence, isolation, and masculinity.


Darius The Great Is Not Okay

by Adib Khorram
(Dial Books)

Darius is a an awkward, nerdy fractional Persian (as he puts it) American teenager who loves Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, and doesn't fit in anywhere. He is obsessed with tea, he is overweight and can't play ball games to save his life. When his Iranian Granddad is diagnosed with a brain tumour, Darius's family- his Persian mom, Caucasian dad  and Farsi-fluent little sister- travel to Iran so that the kids can get to know their family and history. Darius battles depression and social anxiety but in Yazd he meets a young Baha'i boy named Sohrab who has his own battles with racism to conquer, and who becomes the first close friend Darius has ever had. Darius is a winning, endearing character; his voice is both heartbreaking and hilarious. His relationships, familial and other, are complicated and real. I would say (it is only hinted at) that Darius is questioning. Not just his sexuality but his identity and his heritage. I found so much to love in this depiction of modern Persian life.


Alice's Picks

Her Body and Other Parties

by Carmen Maria Machado
(Graywolf Press)

Her Body and Other Parties is an incredible collection of short stories that does not feel at all like a debut. These are very strange, genre-bending stories, that effortlessly combine science fiction, high realism, humour, fantasy, and horror into a very satisfying whole. True to the title, the stories beautifully delineate the corporeal and psychic reality of women's bodies - violence, sensuality, sorrow, strength. Machado's stories hold their own alongside those of say Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Kelly Link, and Helen Oyeyemi. They are sly, inventive, and extremely well-written.


How to Appear Normal at Social Events

by Lord Birthday
(Andrews McMeel Publishing)

Lord Birthday is one of the most hilarious and touching cartoonists working today. How to Appear Normal at Social Events is not in fact a working guide for same, but it is an absolutely outrageous and absurd collection of cartoons and lists, which describe the opposite situation. The writing is so concise, funny, and poignant that I think of it as a book of list poems with brilliant drawings. As life is itself so continually surreal, perhaps this IS actually a helpful guide, pointing out all the ridiculous social and interpersonal situations we humans pretzel ourselves into. When I read this book, I can laugh myself to tears, which is in itself a balm and a boon.

Anne-Marie's Picks

Julián is a Mermaid

Written and illustrated by Jessica Love

I wish this book was unremarkable. Sure, its illustrations are whimsical and expressive, and the grandmother and her swimming pool buddies have a surplus of character, but otherwise it is simply a nice heartwarming story about a boy and his grandmother; nothing to write home about perhaps. Except that in these times it is still remarkable for a picture book to casually portray gender nonconformity, even in small children. Especially without being didactic. This is just a story about a little guy who wants to be a mermaid - and it is enough to make the book daring, heart-in-mouth stuff. What action will the adult in his life take when she sees him in lipstick, with a cascading fern crown and trailing mermaid skirt? His grandmother’s stern face upon discovering him makes your stomach clench. Will she punish him? Violently rebuke him? Destroy his joy?  Nope, she takes him to a parade where he can float along with other mermaids and iconoclasts. It was as easy as that. A pure expression of unconditional love and celebration. My hope is that for more and more children, this book will become as unremarkable as “Jill Wants To Be a Mermaid”, where the most tension they experience in its reading will be worrying about how angry grandma will be that Julián picked the ferns and dismantled the curtains.


Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein

Written by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Júlia Sardà
(Tundra Books)

This is one of a number of books published to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein and introduce young readers to its creator, Mary Shelley. Linda Bailey effectively weaves a story about the making of an author, teasing out her influences and inspirations. While many picture books exalt children’s imaginations - lauding the loners and the daydreamers - this book connects the dots between a vivid imaginary life and the creation of literary legend. Mary’s early life resembled a kind of macabre Cinderella story with an evil stepmother and a childhood marred by neglect. She was a child who wandered alone, absorbed by her daydreams and “castles in the air.” Bailey pieces together critical points in Mary’s life which led to her penning her famous novel, culminating in a stormy night and a challenge by one Lord Byron to a ghost story writing contest. The result was Frankenstein, and at the time people were incredulous: no 18-year-old girl could have written such a story! It must have been her male partner, they cried. But there was no Prince Charming.  As any fiction writer knows, Mary’s rich dreamworld served up plenty of inspiration and authenticated her authorship of what many claim to be the first modern science fiction novel. Accompanied by Júlia Sardà’s dark, gothic illustrations, in a palette of rust reds, greys and black and peopled with cadaver-like figures and menacing creatures formed out of thunderclouds, this book is not for the faint of heart (or perhaps those under 10). It is, however, for those who think they’d enjoy a spooky romp through the origins of a legendary novel with a handful of 19th century literary luminaries.

Alice's Recommendations

Anne-Marie's Recommendations

Jo's Recommendations