Vikki VanSickle on Writing, Reading & Other Pipedreams

Everything I need to know in life, I learned from children's literature

YA to the Rescue: On Therese Casgrain & A Mad, Wicked Folly

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This disturbing piece of news about the Harper government erasing Canadian feminist and women’s rights activist Therese Casgrain’s name from an award (not to mention that her image was also removed from the $50 bill in 2012) made me feel many things. Angry, obviously. But also disappointed, uneasy, and incredulous. It’s easy to take the enormous achievements of Therese Casgrain and The Famous Five  for granted. This shameful debacle made me think of one of the best books about the struggles of the suffragette movement (also one of my favourite books of 2014): A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller.

Vicky is kicked out of her fancy French school when word of her posing nude gets round to the staff. She returns to London only to find her parents less than sympathetic. She is given an ultimatum: marry well, therefore erasing her scandalous past, or move to a remote town and become a spinster. What Vicky really wants is to be an artist, but the only way she can possibly pursue these dreams is to compromise by marrying the not-so-awful Edmund. But then a few choice encounters with members of the suffragette movement and a poor (but charming) police officer have Vicky second guessing everything.

I am a big Downton Abbey fan. Sybil is by far my favourite Crawley. What’s not to like about her progressive attitude, rebellious fashion choices (those harem pants!), or willingness to get her hands dirty in the name of helping others? There’s a lot of Sybil in the protagonist of this decadent historical YA novel, Vicky. She doesn’t start off as a suffragette, rather she becomes involved in their movement after a series of encounters with various individuals. Although she has strong feelings on women artists, she doesn’t immediately make the connection to the parallel political struggle. This felt true to a head-strong, self-centred (in a good way) teenage heroine. I liked this progression. It was well-paced and felt natural.

The supporting cast is excellent. There are no straight-up villains. Thought at many times I wanted to slap certain characters, Waller sheds light on their motivations and the result is nuanced, believable characters. If we want teenagers to be passionate about history and the struggles of our ancestors, there is no better way than to present them in an accessible, engaging, yet accurate manner. The book includes a fascinating historical note that outlines just how vicious the struggle became. Fans of detailed historical fiction and readers who are looking for an accurate portrayal of what women went through to get the vote will love this rich, compelling story.

A Mad, Wicked Folly is available in hard cover now from Penguin Canada.

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Nina LaCour, Patron Saint of California: Everything Leads to You Review

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This blog is in danger of becoming a Nina LaCour fansite, but I can’t  help gushing about her books. Her latest might just be her best one yet.

When Emi’s senior year ends, her brother gives her the keys to his sweet apartment for the summer, telling her to use the space and the time to make something extraordinary. Two opportunities arise, the first when Emi is offered her dream job as a production designer on an indie film, a project she truly believes in, and the second when an estate sale at the house of a reclusive Hollywood legend leads her to his secret granddaughter.

The love story, between two women, is tender and engaging, fraught with tension but without a lot of drama. The book isn’t about being a lesbian in love, but about love full stop. The more books we have where issues of diversity are seamlessly woven into the narrative and not singled out as “other” the  better. The novel is also about Emi growing into herself as an artist and a young professional. I particularly enjoyed the moment where Emi butts heads with her boss only to realize that her boss was right and she was wrong. Who hasn’t had that moment of creative righteousness, only to be humbled later on? This is a lesson we all can learn, particularly a young generation of people who have been told that everything they do is miraculous.

It is fitting that this book is about the magic and fantasy of the movies. The narrative unfolds like a fantastic indie film, the kind of movie I am always seeking but can never seem to find: funny, warm, character-driven, and gorgeous to look at. And nary a manic pixie dream girl in sight! It is a particular accomplishment to create such a lasting visual impression considering this is a novel with no visuals to speak of, only the ones LaCour conjures with her pristine language.

Everything Leads to You is about details, something I have always thought LaCour does better than her contemporaries. Just as Emi scours flea markets and auctions for the perfect couch or markets for the perfect botanical, one gets the feeling that LaCour has been just as careful in how she selects her words. There is something deliciously meta in the way that we get to experience LaCour creating a world in which Emi creates worlds.

I hope California adopts LaCour as their state laureate. In all three of her novels the topography and spirit of California is so strong it transcends setting and becomes a character. Francesca Lia Block made a name for herself as a sort of poet laureate or voice for LA, and I’ve come to associate LaCour with California at large. More, please!

Everything Leads to You is available now in hard cover from Penguin Canada.

 

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What to Read This Summer: Middle Grade

Here are some great recent/upcoming middle grade titles for the tween in your life, or, if you’re like me, your own inner tween:

 

The Glass Sentence

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Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series gets comped  a lot in fantasy, but this is the only book I’ve read in recent memory that lives up to it in terms of richness, ingenuity, and political intrigue. This is a gorgeous literary offering about a world that has been split up across time after the Great Disruption, meaning that different time eras are living next to each other. The various time zones/states have been living in relative harmony, although paranoia and suspicion has head to the borders being closed. I could just as easily have included this in the YA list, though technically it is middle grade. The finished copy of this book has all the wondrous trappings that book fetishists like me crave: maps, a velum slipcase, and embossing!

 

The Night Gardener

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Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? The latest book from Canuck Jonathan Auxier offers Irish orphans, a derelict Victorian mansion, a ghostly gardener and a potentially evil tree. Auxier’s language is perfect for reading aloud- though make sure your campers/children/friends are not faint of heart.

 

The Circus Dogs of Prague

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I was totally charmed by Rachelle Delaney’s first book about JR and the embassy dogs and the second is just as fun. Readers who prefer their middle grade fiction gentle, funny, and classic will love this series about dogs who travel the world and solve mysteries in exotic European capitals. This would make a great family read aloud, particularly for a reader adept at doing doggie voices.

 

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek 

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I’ve already raved about this teen memoir (which is technically YA), but I think in the hands of a 12 year old girl this funny, warm and smart treatise on what it means to be popular could work miracles. An ideal graduation gift for kids moving from middle school to high school.

 

A Snicker of Magic

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Author Natalie Lloyd does some fun things with language and description in this quirky read about magic lost and found. Readers who revel in words and their bookish-ness will have so much fun with this book. A little bit Chocolat (minus adult themes and Johnny Depp), a little bit fairy-tale, you really can’t go wrong with a town called Midnight Gulch and a protagonist named Felicity Pickle.

The Thickety

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What a great title! This complex middle grade tale has two of my favourite things: witches and a mysterious forest. In fact this is the second book on this list alone that features a spooky wood (The Night Gardener has The Sour Woods). Kay and her brother Taff have grown up shunned by their community after their mother is convicted of witchcraft. And when I say shunned I mean shunned. Some of the discrimination they face is cruel and upsetting. The only thing people fear more than witchcraft is the strange, dark wood that seems to be slowly overtaking the island. But Kay has always felt that the forest has called to her, and one day she ventures in…

Don’t be misled by it’s fairy-tale themes, this is a dark, harrowing tale that is more Brothers Grimm than Frozen.

Happy Reading!

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How Does a Story Grow?

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The lovely Kyo Maclear, author of inventive picture books such as Virginia Wolf, Mr. Flux, Spork, Julia, Child and luminous adult fiction (Stray Love, The Letter Opener) tagged me to take part in this tour about the writer’s process. Here goes!

1) What am I working on?

Two things! I’m going through a round of edits on my first picture book, to be published by Tundra Books in the near future, and finishing up an outline for a new middle grade novel that is decidedly X-Files-ish.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Voice is what sets books apart. Finding the right voice for a story can be challenging, but when you get it right, the story just sings. My voice isn’t any better or worse than any other writers’, but it is completely my own. When I taught creative writing I would tell my students that there is no such thing as a new idea, but what makes each story special is how it is told. I could give the same general outline to ten people and they would give me ten very different stories.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I veer towards the 9-12 age group because it was an important reading age for me personally.The middle grade years  were the richest reading years of my life. I was the furthest thing from a book snob, I would read anything and everything. In some ways, I am writing for my 11 year old self. I often stop and ask myself, “Do I like this story now? Would I have liked it when I was 11?”  I also think this time period is crucial in developing  identity and outlook on life. I am a big believer that what you read as a kid shapes who you will become as an adult (this might be a direct quote from You’ve Got Mail…)

4) How does your writing process work?

Normally I ruminate on something small- a name, a sentence, an image- until it becomes part of a greater story. The rumination (or percolation process, as I like to think of it) can take a loooong time. I think about a story until I get to the point where I absolutely must write it down or bust. I tend not to write in order, instead I jump into the scenes that interest me the most. Then I fill in necessary scenes as they crop up. This can make for some painful editing  sessions, but it keeps me engaged and on my toes and allows for those lovely surprises that happen while writing.

Next week, three of my favourite writers will be tackling the same questions:

Susin Nielsen has many adoring fans, but I count myself among her BIGGEST fans. Her books make me laugh, gasp, cringe and cheer. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

Megan Crewe is another Canuck I admire. Her books have big, speculative premises (ghosts, pandemics, alien invasions) but at the core, her stories are about the everyday realities of life.

 

 

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Tiger Eyes & Days That End in Y: I Heart the CBC

There are a million and one reasons to love the CBC, including this right here:

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First of all, what a total thrill to be featured on The Next Chapter, a fantastic program that has taught me so much about books, writers, and Canadian literature in particular. Shelagh Rogers is warm, funny, and a fantastic broadcaster. Secondly, there is NO praise more moving to me than to be compared to Judy Blume, who is arguably the most important contemporary writer for children. Big thanks to Brian Francis, a great author, blogger, and gentleman, for the shout-out. If you haven’t already done so, go pick up a copy of Fruit or Natural Order now. Among many astute observations, he has this to say about Days That End in Y:

“It’s about a father who is absent who comes back to town to seek reconciliation with his daughter, but it’s also about this girl’s relationship with her mother. That is what Vikki and Judy’s books are about: both these mother characters make mistakes and their daughters are reconciling to these mistakes, and understanding that their mother was doing the best she could do at that stage in her life.”

Listen to the full interview here

 

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What to Read This Summer- Picture Books

I have a soft spot for (and two entire bookshelves dedicated to) picture books. This summer reading list was probably the most fun to prepare. Whether you like mermaids, food, Jill Barber, cats, dinosaurs or meta-fiction, there is definitely a picture book out there for you and the wee ones in your life. Here are a few of my recent favourites:

The Mermaid and the Shoe

The Mermaid and the Shoe

Just about everything in this gorgeous book makes my heart explode. I love the sheer quirkiness of a mermaid (who, like all mermaids, has no feet) falling in love with a shoe. Poor Minnow seems to be the least talented of her 50 sisters, until an unusual object sends her on a quest and it turns out her talent is being an adventurer. There are echoes of the traditional Little Mermaid story, but K.G. Campbell‘s story has a much lighter and modern touch. IE: no one dies, no one gives up her voice for a man, King Triton is a real stand-up guy. If you’re a fan of fairytales, you’re going to love this subtle and lovely treat.

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Puss Jekyll Cat Hyde

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This hilarious book was pointed out to me by a dear friend and colleague who found it funny even though she claims to “not be a cat person”. Puss is loving, gentle and sweet. Cat is moody, prone to hunting, and destructive. Anyone who has lived with a cat will appreciate the humour in this story, which describes the duality of the internet’s favourite pet. The Puss/Cat dichotomy also presents some fun opportunities for read- alouds, ie someone reads Puss, someone else reads Cat, hilarity ensues!

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If You Happen to Have a Dinosaur

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Canadian treasure Linda Bailey is a skilled and funny writer of picture books. Colin Jack is up to the challenge of illustrating this very funny list of the various household uses of a dinosaur. This book belongs to that category of picture books where the reader is encouraged to think outside the box. Reading it brought to mind a favourite camp game of mine, “This is not a pencil, this is…” in which the group goes about re-imagining the pencil and its endless uses. This one will spark a lot of fun and multiple readings.

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Music is for Everyone

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I love Jill Barber’s music so it follows that I would love her picture books as well. But what makes this exploration of the breadth of music special are the illustrations by Sydney Smith (most recently of the Sheree Fitch picture book re-issues from Nimbus). He captures a folksy, 1970s vibe that seems appropriate for the spirit of the book- think School House Rock, but with a wider colour palette.

Julia, Child

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Oh what a difference punctuation makes! If the combination of Canadian gems Julie Morstad and Kyo Maclear doesn’t fill your heart with joy I don’t know what will. As she did in Virginia Wolf and Mr. Flux, Maclear takes a real life figure (in this case, Julia Child) and imagines a whimsical moment in her life. This book will instill a love of food and kitchen play as readers join a young Julia and her amazingly hip friend Simca on various food adventures. As a side note, I would wear every single one of Simca’s outfits IRL. Every. Single. One.

Open This Little Book

Open This Book

No picture book list is complete without at least one title from Chronicle Books.  They are the Anthropologie of publishers, offering crafty, unique books as art titles that somehow bear the Chronicle stamp despite being vastly different. At first glance I thought, ‘Here we go, another book about books, how many of these do we need?” I should have paid more attention to the fact that the innovative Suzy Lee was at the visual helm. Open This Little Book consists of a a series of books that introduce colours while getting successively smaller. It goes beyond the story within a story motif and will be treasured by adults and children alike. Check out the trailer below to get a sense of the magic:

 

Happy reading!

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What To Read This Summer- YA Edition

The May long weekend has come and gone, my patio furniture is out, it seems that summer is finally, FINALLY just around the corner! Here are some great YA reads for those summer days, starry nights (*cough* shameless plug)*:

We Were Liars

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I have been a big fan of E. Lockhart for many, many years. Her books are funny, smart, and sharply written. We Were Liars is a dizzying fever-dream of a book that weaves in and out of reality. The ending will make you flip back to the beginning just to see how she pulled it off. I read this one in two hours and was instantly sorry that I had not taken the time to savour it- but I dare you to try and read it slowly!

 

Unspeakable

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You can totally judge this book by it’s gorgeous cover- Unspeakable is a rich, beautiful love story that begins in the midst of one of the greatest maritime tragedies. No, not THAT one- the sinking of the Empress of Ireland claimed more lives than the Titanic disaster in May, 1914. One hundred years later Caroline Pignat has crafted a gorgeous tribute to the victims and survivors of this tragedy, told through the eyes of a young stewardess. This book is just as much about Ellie coming into her own as a young woman as it is about her love for Jim.

 

This One Summer

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If you’ve ever spent time at a cottage you will recognize some part of your experience in this beautifully-crafted graphic novel. The Tamaki cousins return with a book altogether different in tone from Skim, but just as human and unforgettable. Your heart will ache along with Rose’s as she realizes her crush isn’t all she wants him to be and cheer for Windy (great name!) as she blows through the book with her sunny optimism. I want This One Summer wallpaper so I can forever live inside this book.

 

Open Road Summer

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If you have ever sung along to Taylor Swift (and who hasn’t?) you will want to pick this one up. A road trip story about Reagan, a girl who’s been heading down the wrong road who switches gears to spend the summer on her best friend’s tour bus as she heads out on her first tour. It’s fun to read a story from the perspective of a reformed ‘bad’ girl, particularly one who is BFFs with the motivated, talented and squeaky clean Lilah Montgomery (think Swifty circa Fifteen). This is a great, subtly empowering story about the importance of friends that has a fun, backstage pass vibe.

 

Conversion

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I love witch books, particularly  a well-researched and absorbing psychological thriller from a bona fide Salem Scholar like Katherine Howe. A strange affliction is spreading through the population at a prestigious private girl’s school, one that medical science is having trouble explaining. Could it be related to the afflictions that turned the village of Salem to cry witchcraft in the 1700s? Is history repeating itself? A fascinating look at the pressures we put on our girls, the power of peer pressure and suggestion, with just a hint of X-Files.

 

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

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Slipping into a Jenny Han book is like putting on your fave slippers and curling up in a cozy chair with a big mug of tea…iced, if it’s summer and you’re at a cottage. She gets the every-girl vibe just right. I expected this to be a YA version of the classic Alanis Morissette song Unsent, but it’s actually quite a sweet story about the differences between our perceptions and the actualities of love and romance. For those of you who are following the #WeNeedDiverseBooks conversation, Jenny Han has always been an expert and including diversity in her narratives, and this one is no exception.

 

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*I have written not once, but TWICE about summer…which I guess makes me an expert? Days That End in Y starts with fireworks and ends in a wedding and Summer Days, Starry Nights is my middle-grade homage (read: no sex or abortions) to Dirty Dancing.

Happy (summer) reading!

 

 

 

 

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YA Gets a 1950s Make-Over: Popular Review

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Holy stars did I love this book! Fifteen year old (yes, 15!) Maya Van Wagenen is smart, funny, achingly honest and a total star. In grade 8 she decided to follow the advice of a 1950s style guide, BETTY CORNELL’S TEEN-AGE POPULARITY GUIDE (which is also being republished by Dutton at the same time, GREAT kitschy spot illustrations and all) in an attempt to become more popular. The results are a warm and truthful look at what it’s like to feel invisible, go on a diet, play with fashion, overcome shyness, deal with boys, try new things, and just put yourself out there in general. Basically, what it’s like to be a girl on the cusp of teenhood. I wish I had read this when I was in grade 8. I’m thrilled I read it in my 30s.

This book is a fantastic read for girls heading into high school, that time when you contemplate who you are and whether or not you should reinvent yourself. Don’t let the fashion and beauty angle dissuade you if that is not your thing. Yes, there are hilarious sections on what sort of jewelry (pearls, obvi) and clothes (so much nylon) you should wear, makeup tips (light lipstick, leave your eyes alone) diet and exercise suggestions (actually pretty reasonable), but it also talks about the importance of being kind, saying thank you, overcoming shyness, and being yourself. Above all else the book is about Maya finding her confidence in a non-threatening, totally relate-able way. What girl DOESN’T need that?

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It’s also a fantastic book for an adult audience. People who like inspirational/aspirational memoirs such as THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, enjoy 1950s kitsch, or love a coming of age story will eat this one up. I loved how supportive and loving her family was, I enjoyed her anecdotes about sitting with a different group at lunch everyday, and most of all, I just wanted more of Maya. Trust me, this is going to be big. The movie rights have been snatched up and Maya will be everywhere soon. This is one up and coming teenager you’ll be happy to cheer for.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek will be available in hardcover next week from Penguin Canada

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Of Ghosts, Mice & Manors: Goth Girl Review

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There are ghost stories and there are mouse stories, but to my knowledge Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse is the first book to weave both together and boy is it a charmer! One of our favourite gems at the Flying Dragon Bookshop was the Ottoline series by UK National treasure, Chris Riddell. These deluxe little hardbacks are a marvel of design; gilding on the covers, gorgeous full-colour endpages, clever illustrations throughout, and a little something extra at the end (postcards, Bog goggles, etc). The stories were warm and funny and original. I was overjoyed when Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse came to my attention. Present are my favourite Riddell highlights; glorious silver foiled endpaged, a mouse-sized(full colour) copy of Ishamel’s memoirs (in rhyme, no less!), purple tipped pages.

Ada is the only daughter of moody poet Lord Goth, who avoids his daughter because she reminds him too much of his beloved late wife. Ada is left to her own devices in the mansion, which is home to many kindly ghosts,  including Ishmael, a former sea-faring mouse who died before he could publish his memoirs. It is a lonely existence, until Ada meets meets siblings Emily (a painter) and William (who suffers from a rare condition called Chameleon syndrome which allows him to blend into any setting) who introduce her to a whole new circle of friends, the children of servants who call themselves The Attic Club. It is these new friends who she draws on for help when it becomes clear that the nefarious in-door gamekeeper Maltravers has invited a group of mythical creatures to Ghastly Gorm-Hall under false pretenses. The eclectic group (including a Siren, harpies, centaurs, etc) believes they have been invited as guests of honour at Lord Goth’s Annual Metaphorical Bicycle Race and Indoor Hunt, when in fact they are to be the creatures hunted.

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The detail in this book (in terms of story, illustration and design) is extraordinary. This is the perfect example of book as lovely object and represents the kind of experience an e-book simply cannot re-create. There are lots of cheeky nods to Victorian writers and English pop culture in general, for example the chimney caretaker Van Dyke who runs away with one of Ada’s many governesses, Hebe Poppins, or the female novelist Mary Shellfish. Despite these nods to a more adult audience, Riddell never loses his light sense of humour and observations about friendship and loneliness. Reading Riddell, you get the sense that he genuinely likes and understands children.

Fans of Ottoline, Eva Ibbotson’s younger work (such as The Beasts of Clawstone Castle) and MaryRose Wood’s wonderful and under-appreciated Incorrigible Children series will love Ada and friends. Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse received the 2013 Costa Children’s Book Award for being “wonderful, charming, delightful and inventive.” I could not agree more and am eagerly awaiting the sequel, Goth Girl and and the Fete Worse Than Death. Fete! Ha! I’m already laughing!

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse is available now from Pan-Macmillan; Harper Collins in Canada.

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Finally! A Book for DROP DEAD GORGEOUS Fans: No one Else Can Have You Review

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The lovely Suman Seewat told me I needed to read this book and as usual, she was right. Any book that is comped to the movie Fargo has my immediate attention. One has to wonder if that fantastic cover from HarperTeen is a nod to the cross-stitching in the Fargo movie poster:

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In any case, well done! In a never-ending sea of sci-fi and dystopia, a contemporary murder mystery in small town America was a welcome break in my reading.

The gruesome murder of homecoming queen Ruth Fried has everyone in Friendship, Wisconsin on edge. But no one is more confused or guilt-ridden than Ruth’s best friend, Kippy. I have a sneaking suspicion that Hale has seen and loved the movie Drop Dead Gorgeous*, as the setting, dialect, combo of comedy and murder, and a reference to Diane Sawyer immediately brought the classic dark comedy to mind.

This one is wacky in the best possible way. Black comedy is hard to pull off, particularly in print, but debut author Kathleen Hale manages to walk the fine line between horrifying and funny very well. Much of the humour comes from the dialect and syntax of the residents of Friendship, Kippy in particular.  To get a taste of Kippy’s insights and delightful oddness, check out her character blog here. She is one odd duck, given to awkward conversations (especially with Davey, the slightly unhinged brother of the deceased and possible love interest) and making unusual fashion statements (to be fair, it’s cold in Wisconsin and difficult to find flattering turtlenecks and sweaters. This is something we understand in Canada).

Not everything is kooky or a set-up for a joke. There are a few elements that offer depth and insight to an otherwise over-the-top story. Kippy and her father have a close relationship. Neither have fully recovered from the death of Kippy’s mother, but their mutual understanding and the lengths they go to in order to be careful of the other’s feelings is touching and a surprising moment of honesty. I also enjoyed how Hale reveals Ruth to be a duplicitous and at times cruel person, which doesn’t justify her murder, but instead highlights how vibrant and full of life Ruth had been, which seems to make her death even sadder.

Perhaps it’s the comp to Fargo or how much it reminded me of Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I kept imagining No one Else Can Have You as a movie, one of those under the radar quirky dark comedies that I can’t get enough of and always seem to do well at Sundance, if nowhere else.  If you are not offended by funny murder mysteries or are looking for something totally different to cleanse your palate, this winner is for you.

 No one Else Can Have You is available now in hardcover from HarperCollins.

drop dead gorgeous

*And who hasn’t? Drop Dead Gorgeous is perfection.

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