January 1, 2014

Favourite Books of 2013

I've been guilty of neglecting this blog in recent months - I've still been reading, but I seem to have had difficulty finding the time to write about the books I've read.

But I still want to compile my annual list of the my favourite books that I've read in the past year.  Same rules as in previous years - I have to have read the book for the first time in 2013 (no re-reads allowed!) but books published in any year are permitted.  Any genre, fiction or non-fiction are allowed, as are books from any country.  I've linked to my reviews (where they exist - I'm so far behind on these).

So here goes…

1.  The Orenda (Joseph Boyden) - I suspect that this book will top (or at least appear on) many people's lists this year.  It really is that good.  I can't believe that it was passed over for all of the awards this year.

2.  Quantum Theology (Diarmuid O'Murchu) - This book gets the prize for the book that I've recommended to the most people since I read it last spring!

3.  Dear Life (Alice Munro) - It's Alice Munro - what more can I say!  I inhaled this book in a day last August.

4.  MaddAddam (Margaret Atwood) - I was excited that the last instalment in the trilogy that started with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.  Fortunately the book lived up to my expectations.

5.  The Great Emergence (Phyllis Tickle) - This is a book that made a strong impression on me when I read it, and that has stuck with me in the months since.

6.  Penguins and Golden Calves:  Icons and Idols (Madeline L'Engle) - A book that managed to shift the lens through which I view the world.

7.  Three Ways of Grace (ed. Rob Fennell and Ross Lockhart) - A collection of writings on the Trinity from a variety of authors and perspectives - as someone with strong Trinitarian leanings, much of this book resonated with me.

6.  The Magic of Saida (M. G. Vassanji) - A book that took me "home" to Tanzania…

9.  Indian Horse (Richard Wagamese) - I love reading books with familiar settings.

10.  Up and Down (Terry Fallis) - Because who doesn't like a book that makes you laugh?

A few observations on my reading this year…

  • Lots of great Canadian fiction published this year!
  • The 2-year Lay Worship Leader course that I was taking finished up in July along with the "required reading."  I may have been indulging in mostly fiction since then…
  • This list seems to be stacked towards books read earlier in the year.
  • My To Be Read stack keeps growing faster than I can get through it.
  • Even though I have been writing less on my blog, I have been writing more in real life.  As in, with a pen and paper.

Wishing everyone a very happy New Year and may 2014 be filled with good books!

September 27, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbrai

Just in case you didn't know already, let me fill you in on the secret.  Robert Galbraith = pseudonym of J. K. Rowling.  Yes, that J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame.  The story is that she wanted to see if her books would sell without her name attached to it.  What is less clear is how word got out within a few weeks of this book being published that she was the true author.  I've heard stories ranging from a language-use computer analysis to someone spilling the beans to suspicions over why J. K. Rowling's editor would edit the book of a first-time author.  Who knows!

I read this book back in August when I was visiting my sister.  She had put her name on hold at the library for a copy of this book; and when it came in, she was part-way through a book and told me that I could read it first.

So, what was my opinion?  Knowing that it was written by J. K. Rowling, it seemed to be very much in her style.  What I remember from the Harry Potter books was her extreme overuse of adjectives and adverbs.  Nothing could just happen or just be; and that held true in this book.  The aforementioned sister remembers that in the Harry Potter books, the verb of most sentences was "said".  That trait (fortunately) did not carry over to this book!

This book is a mystery.  I have to confess that I like my mysteries fairly fast-paced, and I found that this book dragged.  Coming in at just over 400 pages, it took me several days to get through it.  And I did guess the resolution to the mystery before the end, but don't worry - I'm not going to post it on here!

So I guess that my overall opinion would be "meh."  I probably won't be actively seeking out any of her other books, though if the opportunity arises (like it did for this book), I would probably read them.

August 11, 2013

Dear Life - Alice Munro

Last weekend was a long weekend, so I decided to spend at least part of it binge-reading the newest Alice Munro collection of short stories.  I don't know what it is about Alice Munro, but I always associate her with summer-time reading, even her stories that are set in the dead of winter.  This is possibly because of the summer 12-ish years ago that I spent reading everything written by her that I could get my hands off!  But for whatever reason, as soon as I start reading something by Alice Munro, I think of hot summer days.  And so an August long weekend was perfect to spend curled up with a new collection.

It is hard to write a review of a short story collection, as each story is individual unto itself.  An Alice Munro short story is like a snapshot in time.  Sometimes you get a bit of background of what came before, and sometimes you get a hint of what might happen afterwards.  But generally, you are just thrown right into the middle of the action which will end 20-30 pages later.  I find her writing to be very vivid that it only takes a couple of paragraphs before I am right there with the characters.

This collection was no different.  I was able to relax, knowing that I was safe in the hands of a master storyteller.  That doesn't mean no plot twists, it just means that I know that I am not going to be left hanging at any point, I am going to be immersed in the setting and the action, and that the characters are going to be realistic and true to themselves.

Interestingly, the last 4 stories in the collection she referred to as the most autobiographical stories she ever had written or will write.  And yet they still had the feel of an Alice Munro story.  The only thing is that as I started each one, I knew who the narrator, who the "I" of the story was going to be.  But each story was an independent snapshot, not dependent on one another.  And I guess that can be interpreted as a compliment on her short stories.  If the non-fiction felt like the fiction, then the fiction is so true-to-life that it could have happened.

I think that it was Shelagh Rogers who said that she has a bittersweet feeling with each new collection of Alice Munro stories, as she is unsure if this is going to be the last collection due to the author's advancing age and health concerns.  I can echo that sentiment - I truly hope that there are more stories to come from this Master of the English Language; but even if she never publishes another story, this would be a good collection to go out on.

August 4, 2013

The Virgin Cure - Ami McKay

This book took me a long time to get through, and an even longer time to get around to writing a review.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement now, is it?!

Everyone out there seems to have read Ami McKay's debut novel, The Birth House, but I somehow missed it.  I certainly have seen copies in the bookstore, but never got around to picking up a copy.  This was possibly due to it's release date (February 2006), right in the middle of my 3-year cultural gap when I was living overseas and out of touch with current books and movies and music.

Anyways, after all of the hype (good and bad) about The Birth House, I decided to give her second novel, The Virgin Cure a try.  I have to say that I was underwhelmed.

It is the story of Moth, a girl trying to get by after being abandoned by her mother in the seedier side of New York City in the late 1800s.  She eventually lands in a "house of ill repute", with a Madam who makes a small fortune by selling the virginity of young girls to the highest bidder.  The Madam is especially careful though to avoid customers looking for The Virgin Cure - a belief that having sex with a virgin would cure syphilis.

I wasn't particularly drawn to any of the characters.  For me to get into a book, I generally have to be rooting for at least one of the characters, and I didn't find anyone to cheer on in this book.  Probably the character that was the most sympathetic to me was Dr. Sadie, a Lady Doctor whose job included looking after the girls in the brothel.  However even she seemed a bit to pedantic - she was so sure that she knew the best way for everything.  Moth, the main character, was a bit to cold and calculating to be particularly endearing.  And all of the rest of the characters seemed to come and go without making a very big impression on this reader.

I was especially disappointed with the author's note at the end where she talks about the origins of this book and she spends quite some time talking about syphilis and the virgin cure.  But not once does she mention that the belief in a virgin cure is still alive today, but that the disease that it is supposed to cure is AIDS.  In my time in Tanzania, there were many girls (some very very young girls) admitted to the hospital after being raped (often by a relative) in an attempt to cure AIDS.  And yet the author talks about the virgin cure as if it is a thing of the past, not as a very real and present thing in the world today.  And so the final pages of the book left a bad taste in my mouth - possibly the reason why it has taken me almost a month to write this.

Anyways, I did not enjoy this book, and I probably won't pick up any of Ami McKay's other books in the future.  I apologize to her multitude of fans out there.

July 5, 2013

Indian Horse - Richard Wagamese

This is a book that I have wanted to read for quite some time.  I have heard the author interviewed on CBC radio at several points, and then this was one of the selections for the Canada Reads debates this year.  Though why it was the British Columbia book is beyond me - this book is set, heart and soul, in north-western Ontario.

And that is why I finally picked up a copy.  I am almost finished an 8-month stay in the beautiful town of Kenora, before moving back to Thunder Bay in mid-August.  Richard Wagamese is definitely considered a "local boy" around here, even though he currently lives out in BC.  He is Ojibwe, from Wabaseemoong First Nation (known in English as Whitedog First Nation), a beautiful hour-and-a-half drive north of Kenora.  Since I work in home care and the territory that I cover includes Kenora, west to the Manitoba border, north to Wabaseemoong and Grassy Narrows, and south to Whitefish Bay, I have become very familiar with the land where much of this book is set.  The main character, Saul Indian Horse is from Wabaseemoong (though it is never mentioned by name - it just talks about a community north of Minaki on the shores of the Winnipeg river), and there are frequent mentions of other communities in this area - Kenora, Minaki, Redditt - as well as communities further east - White River where Saul is sent to school, and Manitouwadge where he eventually settles.  As I said, a book firmly set in north-western Ontario!

I was hooked right from the opening paragraph.  As I was picking up this book to begin, I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone from Whitedog with the last name of Indian Horse - if I were writing a book with a character from Whitdog, I would have given him/her the last name of Muckle or Mandamin.  And there in the opening sentences, "My name is Saul Indian Horse.  I am the son of Mary Mandamin and John Indian horse."  I may have laughed out loud at this point, but I was hooked...

Anyways, on to the story.  The premise will be familiar to anyone who is aware of First Nations / settler history over the past few centuries.  Saul is born in the bush.  His family is divided by traditional beliefs and the Christianity imposed by the European settlers through the residential school system.  His grandmother tries her best to keep him from being taken away from his family and sent to residential school, but in the end, she is not successful.  The full extent of the abuse that Saul suffers at school aren't revealed until close to the very end of the book, and the way in which the abuse unfolds is disturbing.  One thing that did come from his residential school experience is a love and talent for ice hockey, and eventually he has a chance at making a career of it; but due to systemic racism (which is, unfortunately, still very much present today though perhaps less overtly), he ends up leaving hockey behind and deals with his demons in his own way.

This book felt very personal to me, possibly because the stories ring so true.  Through my work, I have been hearing stories from clients about residential schools - the good, the bad, and the ugly if I may borrow a cliche.  I have heard stories about life in Wabaseemoong before the road was built, before the hydroelectric dam flooded much of the land, and before 3 independent communities were forced to co-exist.  I have heard stories of abuse and alcoholism and racism.  And this book does not shy away from any of these stories.  (Just to clarify - I am a physiotherapist, but there is often a lot of conversation and story-telling that goes on during my physiotherapy sessions!)

Despite the decision of the Canada Reads panelists, I do think that this is a book that every Canadian should read.  It is fiction, but it is a fair representation of our Canadian history over the past century that has too-often been hidden away and denied.  And since so many of the issues continue to resonate today, the more that they can be brought out into the open, the better.  Thank you, Richard Wagamese, for sharing this story with the world.

July 4, 2013

The Great Emergence - Phyllis Tickle

For some reason, ever since February, Phyllis Tickle's name kept coming up in conversation, generally by people whose opinion I respect.  And so when I noticed this book among the 16 pages of electives to choose from for the Lay Worship Leader course I am taking, I had to pick it up!  (Incidentally, this will be the last book that I read for the course, as we are finished in a few weeks.  But for this last interval, we had to read 3 electives and I couldn't narrow it down to just 3, so I ordered 8 and still have 5 left on my bookshelf to read!)

Anyways, getting back to this book, anyone in Christian circles these days has surely heard about the "crisis in the church" - shrinking attendance, small or no Sunday Schools, amalgamations, church closures, financial burdens, increasing policies and procedures to follow, aging clergy... the list could go on for quite some time.  What this book does is it takes this so-called crisis and puts it into perspective - both a historical perspective and a cultural perspective.

From a historical perspective, every 500 years or so, the church goes through a ground-shaking earthquake.  Tickle calls this a giant rummage sale - put everything on the table, decide what is essential to keep, and get rid of the non-essential trappings.  500ish years ago was the Protestant Reformation followed by the Roman Catholic counter-reformation.  500ish years before that was the Great Schism with the Roman Catholic Church dividing from the Eastern Orthodox Church.  500ish years before that was the splitting off of Oriental Christianity (Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian) from Western Christianity, along with the founding of monastic orders.  500ish years before that, Christianity was a renegade off-shoot of main-stream Judaism.  The name given to the upheaval that we are in the middle of is The Great Emergence.

From a cultural perspective, each of these "church rummage sales" has accompanied a massive cultural upheaval.  2000 years ago, it accompanied the Roman Empire and all of the good and bad that went with that.  1500 years ago was the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Dark Ages.  1000 years ago ushered in an age of broadening borders (Vikings and the Norman Conquest anyone?) as well as local fiefdoms.  500 years ago saw expanding scientific discoveries (Copernicus and Columbus) as well as the possibility for a middle class.  And the past century has included another seismic shift from Newtonian to Quantum mechanics, the harnessing of electricity, and internal combustion engines. Is it any wonder that the church has to shift as well?

And that is what I loved about this book.  If you just listen to the media and church board meetings, it may seem like we are seeing the end of Christianity.  But in each of the previous upheavals, the Christianity that has emerged has been more vital, less ossified, and has been able to spread to new geographic and demographic locations.  And so, rather than mourning the death of the church as we have known it (at least for the past 400-500 years), we should be celebrating the fact that we get to be a part of this shift.  I am rejoicing!

In the last section of the book, Tickle tries to predict how the church is going to move in the future, and the model that emerges is quite beautiful.  Flavours of Christianity from across the multi-dimensional spectrum converging around the centre, along with those that resist this convergence moving to the margins and re-defining and re-strengthening their beliefs, and various other points in-between.  It was fun to try and place my own beliefs, as well as those of my church into the model.

If I had one little quibble about this book, it is that it focused on Western Christianity rather than a more global perspective.  As someone who spent a few years involved in the church in another part of the globe (Tanzania), I couldn't quite see how the non-Western perspective would fit into this model.

But a great book overall.  I'm glad that I read it, and it left me filled with hope for the future.

June 2, 2013

Inceptio - Alison Morton

With this blog, I am occasionally contacted by authors and publishers asking to send me books to read and review.  I end up turning down more of these offers than I accept for two reasons:  1)  My to-be-read stack is overflowing and so I don't want to pile it even higher, even if the book is free, and 2)  I don't want to accept books that I don't think that I will like since, fun as it is to write negative reviews, I don't want to be in a position where I have to write a negative review on a book that was given to me for free!

Fortunately, I am not in that situation with this book!

When Alison Morton approached me last winter and offered to send me a copy of Inceptio when it was published, I was intrigued by the concept.  This book is considered to be "Alternative History".  What if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen?  What if a faction had left Rome and settled in a corner of Europe, and had created an independent country which had survived and thrived through to today?  I have to say that the Roman period of history has fascinated me since I was young and exposed to novels like Eagle of the Ninth.  In high school, I wanted to learn Latin (my school had the only Latin teacher left in the school board), but I was the only one in the school who wanted to learn Latin and so the class was cancelled.  And so I agreed to receive a copy of this book for review.

It did take me a bit to get into, but I blame this on the fact that I started reading it in the evenings while sleeping in a tent on a weekend filled with 12-hour days of meetings.  When I was able to start reading it for real this week, I was hooked.  I blame this book for too many nights this week spent up waaaay too late reading, since I couldn't put this book down.

The main character, Karen Brown / Carina Mitela has lived her whole life in the country of Eastern United States.  Both of her parents are dead, and she is very self-sufficient in New York City.  But then her world starts falling apart as she is fired due to corruption from the volunteer position that gives meaning to her life; and all of a sudden her life is being threatened.  She then discovers that she can renounce her EUS citizenship and become a citizen of Roma Nova as her mother was from Roma Nova, and she is her grandmother's heir.

I was fascinated with the Roma Nova society.  It is matriarchal - the women have the power, and the eldest female inherits from her mother.  There are elements from ancient Roman society that have carried over, including the gods and the festivals and the language (Latin isn't dead after all!); and yes, prisoners of the state are sentenced to hard labour in the silver mines.  It is a very hierarchical society, and Karen is lucky to have been born into the top layer; however the genders are treated equally, with maybe a slight preference towards females.

And speaking of females, let me say that Karen / Carina was an awesome heroine!  She takes charge of her own life and she does things her way rather than being a pawn - she is a kick-ass (literally, at times) character as she trains her body and her mind and rises to the top of the Roma Nova military (the Praetorian Guard Special Forces).

If I had one complaint about this book it would be that it is almost too action-packed.  It almost felt like 3 or 4 books crammed into one.  Some stretching out of the time in between the action or description of normal day-to-day life in Roma Nova would have been nice.

I was, however, excited to read at the end of the book that there is a second book in the series planned - Perfiditas.

Thank you, Alison Morton for writing this book and for sending me a copy!  It was a treat to read a book that was well written, imaginative, and gripping all in one.