Conniff, Richard. Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. ISBN 978-0393068931 pp. $
Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time is a wonderful collection of natural history essays, but some stories are definitely more entertaining than others–sometimes Conniff gets caught up in “just the facts” and at other times, his writing just shines and he has such a nice turn of phrase.
Willingham, Bill. Peter and Max. Vertigo, 2009. ISBN 978-1401215736 400 pp. $22.99
Ordinarily, I love fractured fairy tales, and this inventive retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin set in an established fairy tale world on the edge of our own is intriguing in concept but fell flat in execution for me. The tale provides the backstory of the Piper family, juxtaposed with a modern day sibling rivalry.
First, a disclaimer: I haven’t read Fables, so my first impression was, what a silly, obvious name. It didn’t feel terribly inventive (Cinderella owns a shoe shop? really?). I DID like the clever allusions to other folk tales. Chapter epithets like in which Peter puts his wife “in a pumpkin” tickled my fancy. The writing was nothing notable and I disliked the art work, although the cover was engaging. Why wasn’t this simply a graphic novel?
DeNiro, Alan. Total Oblivion, More or Less. Spectra, 2009. ISBN 978-0553592542 306 pp. $
If you take the narrator’s first sentence at face value and just go along for the ride, you’ll LOVE this surreal book that reads like Marsden’s Tomorrow When The War Began with a touch of magical realism throw in. Unidentified horseman seem to have conducted an uprising and taken over the US, which is newly divided into strange territories and factions and stricken with an odd, insect-driven plague. Teen Macy rolls with punches as she struggles to survive and maintain a family unit.
Gingras, Charlotte and and Susan Ouriou. Pieces of Me. Kids Can Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1554532421 144 pp. $8.95
The narrative of this lovely, lyrical novel unfolds in short vignettes, like a delicate bird skimming just over the water, dipping now and then to leave deepening ripples on the surface.
Fifteen-year-old Mirabelle is like a wounded young bird who can’t break loose from the nest. Abandoned by her father who couldn’t cope with her mentally ill mother, Mira’s loneliness and desire to escape are palpable from the opening pages, garnering immediate empathy from the reader, who will feel her anguish and silently cheer when Mira finally begins to test her wings. Her tentative friendship with Cath, the new girl in her art class, coaxes Mira from her shell. Wearing a color other than black, eating French fries after school in a café, and being acknowledged as a top student in art class are rich triumphs.
Just when things are looking up, Cath unwittingly betrays Mira. In quick succession, Mira is devastated by three males in her life. Her sensitive art teacher (nicknamed “the birdman” by Mira because he rehabilitates birds) is the one who sees how fragile Mira is and recommends counseling. Paule, the blind but insightful school therapist, helps Mira begin to fit together the shattered pieces of herself.
Literary allusions and symbolism abound. Librarians will love Mira, because she is a reader and library user. Teen girls will identify with Mira’s struggle to form her identity, conflicts with her mother, and her curiosity about her budding sexuality.
Originally published in French, there seems to be nothing lost in translation. The English translation is all sparse, elegant prose and a definite contender for the Batchelder Award.