December 28, 2009

The Blythes are Quoted - L. M. Montgomery

I know that in academic circles, it is the thing to do to declare biases at the beginning of a paper or a talk. I'm definitely not an academic, but I wish to declare that I am a huge fan of L. M. Montgomery, so this review is going to be written from this bias.

I have read all of the fiction that she wrote (novels and short stories) that are currently published, as well as some of her journals, poetry, and some of what has been written about her, so I was very excited to hear that a new book came out this fall. It is considered to be the 9th and final book in the Anne of Green Gables series, and apparently the manuscript was delivered to the publisher on the day that Montgomery died. It is not a novel, but rather a collection of short stories set in and around the village where Anne and Gilbert Blythe lived after their marriage. The short stories are connected by poems written by Anne, as well as her son Walter, as well as dialogue within the family.

The poems and dialogue are what I was really looking forward to. All of the stories were previously published (most in the book The Road to Yesterday) and so none were new to me. But the poems and dialogue give new insight into the Blythe family.

As far as the poetry goes, I'm not and expert so this is just my opinion. While a couple of the poems really struck me ("I Wish You", "The Change", "Grief", "The Aftermath"), most of them were or the style that I tend to skim across. I can't help but wonder what Mr. Carpenter (from the Emily of New Moon books) would think of the poetry. I see lots of the same faults that he finds in Emily's poetry popping up in the poems of Montgomery - overuse of certain words (including "purple"), weak rhymes in places, descriptions with no underlying meaning.

My favourite part of the book is the end, where the family comes to terms with the death of the aforementioned son, Walter, who died in World War 1 (in Rilla of Ingleside).

My least favourite part of the book is the over-mentioning of the Blythe family in all of the stories - almost as if Montgomery felt obliged to pull them in to every story, while most of the stories would have been fine without the mention.

In the publicity of this book, much has been made of it showing "the darker side of L. M. Montgomery". In fact, to quote the dust jacket, "Adultery, illegitimacy, revenge, murder, and death - these are not the first terms we associate with L. M. Montgomery. But in The Blythes are Quoted, completed at the end of her life, the author brings topics such as these to the fore." I, however, was not surprised by this. These darker themes do show up in her earlier books and stories, though maybe not as consistently as in this book. The Anne books don't shy away from darker topics (the death of Anne and Gilbert's first baby; the effects of World War 1; and some of the episodes in Anne of Ingleside); the Emily books are quite dark in places; Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat are downright depressing at times; and many of the short stories deal with the darker side of life.

But all of this doesn't detract from my enjoyment of her writing - rather, I find that it adds depth to it, when often Montgomery is dismissed as being too unrealistically cheerful and optimistic.

I can't wait to get home now to my bookcases, and compare the stories as published now in their entirety, with the previously published versions in The Road to Yesterday, and the other collections of short stories. Let me end with one of the shorter poems from the book that I enjoyed.

The Change

There is no difference this blithe morning
'Tween yesterday and today...
The dim fringed poppies are still blowing
In sea fields misty and grey.

The west wind overhead in the beeches
Is the friend of lovers still,
And the river puts its arm as bluely
Around the beckoning hill.

The rose that laughed in the waning twilight
Laughs with the same delight,
But, pale and sweet as the lilies of Eden,
A little hope died last night.
Anne Blythe

This book was read for the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

December 4, 2009

Down the Nile - Rosemary Mahoney

It is interesting to note that in the past couple of years, I have been reading more books in the "memoir" genre, whereas before, I would have never picked up this kind of book. I first discovered this genre when I was living overseas, when I would read any book that came my way and couldn't afford to be discriminating, fiction or non-fiction. I think that I came back to Canada having read every John Grisham novel ever written (and plots are all blurred together in my mind now); but I also discovered new books and authors that I enjoyed and probably wouldn't have read had I stayed at home. And I also discovered the allure of the memoir. The ability to see the world as someone else sees it; and to experience things vicariously that I will probably never experience.

In 1999, Rosemary Mahoney, a single American woman, went to Egypt wanting to procure a rowboat (of the local fishing boat variety) in order to row down the Nile from Aswan to Qena. The bigger struggle wasn't the rowing itself, but rather trying to make it understood that she wanted to row herself, and be alone, in a culture where women do not row and tourists are protected, whether they want to be protected or not.

I completely understand why she felt drawn to the challenge. Two years before this trip, she had been on a Nile cruise, and observing the river from the cruise ship, she noted, "With a score of middle-aged Spaniards sun-bathing on the deck behind me, I leaned against the ship's railing and watched, entranced, as the Nile slipped by. The wide river and its green banks looked old and placid, inscrutable and inviting, and yet it was all as distant and inaccessible to me as it had always been. Unable to leave the ship, with its planed itinerary and guided tours, I realized I might as well be watching this wonder from behind a glass wall. What I wanted, really, was not just to see the Nile River but to sit in the middle of it in my own boat, alone."

Rosemary Mahoney was used to rowing herself places, living on the water in Maine. I feel the same way about waterways as she does, but my preferred mode of transportation is a canoe. I am planning a solo overnight canoe trip for next summer, and most people that I have told my plan to think that I am crazy. But the water calls out to me and my paddle and my canoe (affectionately named Zig Zag), and the thought of being alone on the water with the shore slipping slowly by will get me through this cold winter.

So I found this book to be very readable, and I kept cheering her on in her quest to row down the Nile. And even though the actual rowing takes up much less than half the book, it was fun to read about someone else's fascination with water travel. My one quibble with the book is that it seems to end very abruptly. She arrives in Qena, ties her boat up at the dock, and gets a taxi to the train station to board a train to Cairo. There is no reflection on what she learned from the experience, how she grew from the experience, what memories she will take home from the experience. But a good read nonetheless!

November 29, 2009

Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood

I rarely post about my re-reads on here, but since I was inspired to go back to Oryx and Crake after reading (and loving) The Year of the Flood recently, I thought that I would jot down some of my random thoughts.

I first read this when it came out in 2003, and it is now apparent to me that the story didn't stick with me. Re-reading it now was like reading a book for the first time. Why didn't it stick with me? I honestly don't know. I did enjoy it this time around, but I guess I'll have to wait and see if the story sticks this time!

It was probably made more vivid by the fact that the Year of the Flood is still fairly fresh in my mind. They are being marketed as "companion books", rather than one as a sequel of the other. There is some overlap in characters, and the plot lines converge at the end. The Year of the Food read very easily as a stand-alone book, as I didn't remember the events of Oryx and Crake, however many of the plot points now make more sense, having refreshed my memory now. Apparently there is a third book planned, and they will be marketed as the Maddadam Trilogy - hopefully there will be some resolution at that time, since the first two books left me hanging at the same plot point, and I want to know what happens next! Mind you, that is one of the trademarks of Margaret Atwood's writing - leaving the ending ambiguous for the reader to decide.

I love that she has created a world so complete unto itself. It is in the not-too-distant future (my guess would be 50 to 100 years from now, based on a few references in Oryx and Crake), and it seems like everything going wrong in the world continues to escalate until the disaster point is reached - global warming, consumerism, increasing gap between rich and poor, callousness and indifference towards others. (Blogger bias here - my political views tend to be pretty far to the left, but Margaret Atwood's world view seems to be pretty similar to mine.)

One thing that I had noticed missing in The Year of the Flood was any sort of artistic community, which I found a bit strange since Margaret Atwood herself is a poet and a novelist. (And I don't count the hymns of the God's Gardeners as art - as a church musician, I can honestly say that the best hymns are no better than third-rate poetry, though the odd hymn tune has some marks of musical merit.) This however is somewhat explained in Oryx and Crake, where the arts are devalued by society as having no commercial value therefore they are worthless. You do sometimes see that attitude in our world today, but so far the artistic community has fought back. I find the thought of a world with no music, no artwork, no literature, to be as scary as the other bleak prospects proposed in these books.

I am looking forward to the final book in this trilogy, and I hope that she doesn't make us wait another 6 years for it to appear!

November 24, 2009

The Scarpetta Factor - Patricia Cornwell

When I heard that there was a new Patricia Cornwell book out this fall, I was surprised - it seems like just a few months ago that I read her last one! And looking back, it wasn't too long ago - March of this year when I read it. Fortunately, this book didn't suffer from being rushed to print.

It is everything that a good mystery should be, in my opinion. A plot that keeps you thinking and guessing all the way through, characters that are realistic in their thoughts and actions, and a satisfying resolution at the end.

I really enjoyed the storytelling technique in this book. The action takes place over only 2 days, and the narration, while always in the third person, jumps around from character to character. Which means that in one chapter you are present with Lucy in the middle of the interrogation of a suspect and observe her to be pulling some maps up on her computer, not quite sure how they relate to the plot; and then in the next chapter you have Kay receiving the maps on e-mail and yes, they are very relevant.

This was a 1-week loan from the library (as are all books with a waiting list), and I finished it well before it was due back. This is a good thing, since it is a book that definitely benefits from reading over a short period of time in order to keep track of all of the plot lines. At times, I would get confused (ie "Hunh?! What is he talking about?"), only to have the missing details supplied later on as the story is gradually revealed.

One proviso - the plot does hinge on events that happened in previous books, so if you haven't been following the series, this book may not be the best entry point.

So a good read, and an entertaining way to spend the weekend. I'm looking forward to her next book - hopefully I don't have to wait too long!

November 15, 2009

Twilight - Stephenie Meyer

Despite the fact that I normally love reading what is usually classed as "Young Adult Fiction," I had been resisting the whole "Twilight Phenomenon", but as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was dared by my cousin to read Twilight (and there is a $25 dollar bookstore gift card riding on this). And so I broke down and borrowed a copy from the library. At least now I can say that my opinions are founded on an actual reading of the book.

The paperback copy that I borrowed was 498 pages long, and it was an easy read - I polished it off yesterday on a rainy November afternoon. Which in of itself was a nice change from the 200-ish page The Golden Mean which I had to struggle to finish within 2 weeks. But the ease of reading was pretty much the only think that I liked about this book.

Where to begin...?

Let me start with Bella. When a book is told by a first person narrator, it helps if you like and can relate to the narrator. But I couldn't stand Bella. She is annoying, 2-dimensional, and almost a caricature of herself. She couldn't just be clumsy, she had to be braining her fellow students with a badminton racket and tripping over her feet with every step that she takes. She couldn't just be smart at school, but she had to be the smartest kid in the school and spend hours every night working on her homework. Yes, I do remember what it was like to be 17, and I really can't relate to her problems. "Gee, I've got Mike and Erik and Tyler all begging me for a date, but I keep turning them down because Edward is the one that I really want." This was definitely not my experience of 17.

Moving on to the writing. Yes, it was compelling and hard to put down, but not very well written for all that. As I mentioned earlier, Bella as well as all of the other characters come across as very flat and 2-dimensional. Once you read the initial description of the character, there is really nothing else to learn. The one possible exception is Edward, the vampire boyfriend, but I think that the only difference there is that his character was revealed over a longer period of time. These people would be boring to hang out with since once you know them, there is nothing more to learn. And unfortunately, the authors vocabulary seems to be somewhat limited, and the same words and phrases kept getting re-used. If I had to read one more time about an "immeasurable moment" I was going to scream and throw the book across the room!

Then there is the whole vampire thing. I am not fascinated by vampires and the like, so don't particularly enjoy reading about them.

And finally, and what irks me the most, are the messages that I came away from this book with.
1) The whole point of your life is to meet your "soul mate" at the age of 17 in order to eventually live happily ever after. Forget anything about independence and personal growth and self-knowledge.
2) Once you find your "soul mate," you should give up everything that you have in order to be with him/her.
3) It is OK to lie so that your path is made smooth. I couldn't believe that number of times that Bella lied to others, and never with any consequence.
4) A girl, once she has found her Prince Charming, can just sit back, play the damsel in distress, and he will appear to save her.

The Twilight Saga books have won various awards for Children's Books and Young Adult Fiction, but I don't think that I would want children or young adults that I care about read them if these are the messages that they would come away with. I think about all of the role models in the children and YA fiction that would be so much better than Bella: Poly in the Madeline L'Engle books (especially in A House Like a Lotus); the children who end up in Narnia in the books by C.S. Lewis; and even the children in the Harry Potter books who maintain their integrity for the most part (at least up until the last book).

So that's my 2 cents on Twilight. Kim - you owe me $25! And I don't plan on reading the rest of the series. I've been re-reading the Anne of Green Gables series alternating with the new reads that I've been posting about on this site. It is going to take a good dose of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe to wash the ick of Bella and Edward out of my system.

November 13, 2009

2009 Giller Prize - part 2

On Tuesday evening, the winner of the 2009 Giller Prize was announced - The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre. I am happy with this choice - it wouldn't have been my top pick, but it comes in at a close second on my list.

I set out to read my way through the short list when it was announced last month, and if it hadn't been for the tediousness of The Golden Mean, I would have finished the list before the announcement was made. If I was appointed as a committee of one, to select a winner from the short list, this is how I would have ranked the books:
1) The Disappeared
2) The Bishop's Man
3) Fall
4) The Golden Mean
5) The Winter Vault

I was pleased that neither The Golden Mean nor The Winter Vault won, despite the fact that they seemed to have the most momentum leading up to the announcement earlier this week. I found both books to be quite disappointing.

Referring back to my earlier post about this year's Giller, I was disappointed about the non-inclusion of Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood on the shortlist. Alice Munro had asked that her book not be considered in order to give up-and-coming writers a better chance, and Margaret Atwood's book was on the long list but cut from the short list. But if those two books were included on the short list, this is how I would have ranked them:
1) The Year of the Flood
2) The Disappeared
3) The Bishop's Man
4) Too Much Happiness
5) Fall
6) The Golden Mean
7) The Winter Vault

I personally disagree with Alice Munro's decision - after all, the Giller is supposed to be for literary excellence, not a "first book" or "young writers'" award. And I can't help but wonder if Margaret Atwood was left off the short list as punishment for some slightly catty comments that she made about Alice Munro's decision.

Anyways, as I said, I can live with the decision to award the Giller Prize to The Bishop's Man - it was a very good book that captivated me right from the first chapter, and left me worried as I neared the end that I would be stranded without a book to read (I was traveling at the time), and yet I couldn't put it down to spin the reading time out any longer. And very timely in it's subject matter. Now the excitement of waiting to see what the next year holds in books to read!

The Golden Mean - Annabel Lyon

Unfortunately, the best thing that I can say about this book is that it is printed in a beautiful typeface. I often found myself getting distracted from what I was reading to admire an elegant question mark or a bold semi-colon.

I found this book very difficult to get through - the fact that it has taken me almost two weeks to finish a book that is only 282 pages should be a good clue. I have been flogging myself to finish it this week, and I missed my self-appointed deadline of finishing the Giller short list before the winner was announced on Tuesday.

I found the characters to be poorly drawn and inconsistent. I also had trouble keeping track of who was who (despite the list of characters at the beginning). And the plot was so disjointed that I had trouble keeping track of what was happening.

All of this is too bad, because it probably could have been a good book. It is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Aristotle and Alexander the Great. I admit that I don't know much about Greek history and mythology, but in the hands of a good story-teller, it probably could have come to life. But instead it was dry and wooden and contrived.

For anyone who is interested, this is what is printed in the back of the book about the type:
"The Golden Mean is set in Centaur, a typeface designed originally for New York's Metropolitan Museum in 1914, then adapted for general use in 1929. While a so-called modern face, Centaur is modelled on letters cut by the fifteenth-century printer Nicolas Jenson. Its italic, orignailly named Arrighi, was designed in 1925 and is based on the work of Ludovico degli Arrighi, a Renaissance scribe. Centaur is considered among the most elegant faces for book-length work."
So pick up a copy of the book in a bookstore, open it up to admire the type, then put it back down again without wasting the time to read it!

My thoughts on this year's Giller in another post.

This book was read for The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

November 1, 2009

Fall - Colin McAdam

This was book 4/5 of my Giller read-athon, and not my favourite so far. Actually, I came away from it with mixed feelings (more below).

A quick plot summary. It is essentially a love-triangle set at a posh boarding school in Ottawa, in what I am assuming is pretty close to the present day. Noel (son of the Canadian ambassador to Australia) and Julius (son of the American ambassador to Canada) are roommates in their final year of school. Noel and Julius have a very complicated friendship, and not the least of the complications is Julius' girlfriend, Fall, whom Noel is also in love with. Things come to a head when Fall disappears part way through the year. I couldn't really relate with the characters or the setting, as I have never been a rich kid at boarding school; but I found the glimpse into diplomatic life interesting. I once had dinner with a British diplomat in Tanzania, and oh boy, is it a different way of life.

What I liked about the book. The character development for one thing. The chapters are told alternating between Noel and Julius, and there is a real distinction in style between the two of them. Noel is described as a sociopath, and really, he is almost a psychopath. He initially comes across as very articulate and sympathetic; however as time goes by, he becomes more and more creepy. The casual mention of cutting off the cat's tail because he didn't like his birthday present really upset me. He takes very strong dislikes to some classmates for the most random of reasons. I can just see him becoming a serial killer in the future. While Julius is a typical teenage boy, with his entire life focus centered between his legs (or at least, not having been a teenage boy, that is what I assume). And by alternating chapters between the two boys, you get to see each one as he sees himself, but also as others see him. I would have loved to have had some chapters told from the point of view of Fall as well. The book took a bit of time to get into, but once I got into it, it was an easy read.

It took me until the end of the book to realise that the boys were telling the story along a different time line. Noel is narrating events from 12 years in the future, and he tells the story beginning a year earlier, and ending some months after Fall's disappearance. Julius is telling things in the present tense, as they happen, from the beginning of term until the morning of Fall's disappearance.

What I didn't like about the book. There are a few random chapters thrown in as told by William, Julius' father's chauffeur (again, from the vantage point of 12 years in the future). These seem to have no bearing on the story. Also, the author seems very fond of the verb "to say". He said, I said, I say, she says... Some better editing needed, perhaps? Once I noticed this (in the first chapter), it seemed to be written in neon lights every time the verb appeared. As well, the ending seemed to be very abrupt and left too many loose ends for my liking.

So my conclusion - a very mixed review. I would almost like to see the same book written by the same author, but with 10 more years of writing experience under his belt.

One more Giller nominee left to go, and just over a week until the award is announced.

This book was read for The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

October 30, 2009

The Disappeared - Kim Echlin

I actually finished this book a week ago (and stayed up far too late one night in order to finish it), but I've had a bad cold this week and have been indulging in L.M. Montgomery re-reads. I'm feeling better now, so time to get back on track with the Giller shortlist.

I knew going into it that a book set in Cambodia in the second half of the 20th century entitled "The Disappeared" wouldn't have a happy ending, but I didn't anticipate just how beautifully it would be written. The book is short (only 228 pages), and there is not one word missing or one word too many. And some of the sentences were so beautifully constructed that I would stop in my tracks and contemplate just that sentence. A lot of the beauty comes from the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas - for example: "The waiters watched and pretended not to see," or "The strangeness of my love for you is that it has made me dead in life and you alive in death."

The plot is very simple - a young girl in Montreal falls in love with a Cambodian refugee in the 1970s. The refugee returns home to Cambodia as soon as the border opens; she follows him 10 years later; they are re-united; and then he disappears. Love found; love lost; love found again; love lost again.

I have never been to south-east Asia, but with the beauty of the writing, I felt as though I had been transported there. Some day I will go, and discover if this book was realistic in it's portrayal.

One quibble with the writing style (and not only in this book, but it seems to be the case in many that are written these days). What is wrong with quotation marks? A simple punctuation mark that indicates external speech. Yes, your writing may then appear to be edgy and modern when the quotation marks are omitted, but it also becomes somewhat ambiguous and hard to follow dialogue. Hopefully this is a trend that will pass, and in the future, scholars will read books and be able to date them to this era by the lack of quotations marks (or other punctuation). And yes, I may be the only one that this bothers - after all, I am the self-proclaimed Queen of the Semicolon, and a Royal Pain in the 'S.
(Stepping off my soapbox now.)

On an unrelated note, I have been dared by my cousin to read Twilight. I have so far managed to avoid the hype surrounding the books/films, partly because the mass-marketing of them doesn't appeal to me, and neither do vampires in general; however there is now a $25 bookstore gift card riding on it. If I like Twilight better than anything else on my TBR book, I will pay up, but if another book is better than Twilight, she will pay me. Twilight will have to be quite spectacular indeed to surpass The Disappeared. I've placed a copy on hold at the local library - stay tuned here for my progress in this challenge.

The Disappeared was read as part of The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

October 18, 2009

The Bishop's Man - Linden MacIntyre

I chose to begin my Giller Shortlist read-athon with this book, since it was one that I had previously looked at in the bookstore, and probably would have read eventually even if it hadn't been nominated. And I wasn't disappointed.

Basically, it is a fictionalized account of the abuse that happened in the Catholic church that came to light over the past 15 years or so. And talk about timely. The week before the shortlist was announced, Bishop Raymond Lahey of Antigonish (Nova Scotia), who had previously worked to negotiate deals for people who had been abused by priests, was charged with possession of child pornography. In the book, the protagonist, Fr MacAskill, the "Bishop's Man," is a priest who is the right-hand man to the bishop of Antigonish, and whose main job over the years has been dealing with priests who stepped out of line. Unfortunately, both in the book and in real life, dealing with these wayward priests usually only meant shuffling them to a different diocese, province, or country. The book deals with the fall-out of this, as what happened begins to become publicly known.

While difficult in subject matter, I found this book to be very gripping and easy to read. I was reading it over the Thanksgiving weekend while staying with my sister, and my biggest fear was that I was going to finish it before I got home, and be stranded with nothing to read! (I, in fact, finished it in the Toronto airport on my way home while waiting for my flight to depart.) Admittedly, some of the foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed, but it is balanced out by the fact that some of the foreshadowing was a red herring so I was surprised when the events unfolded. And I thought that the ending was just about perfect - all of the main loose ends tied up, with just enough ambiguity to make it realistic.

If I have one criticism, it is that the characters were a bit wooden and two-dimensional at times. Yes, Fr. MacAskill is an alcoholic, but you don't have to have him pouring himself a drink or two every second sentence. And he is a bit thick not to have recognized himself as an alcoholic, especially given his past work. And the people that he encounters don't get developed very far, with a few exceptions. But this could be because the story is told as a first-person narrative. If I were telling the story of my life, do I know the people around me well enough to make them come alive on the page? Were the characters in the book flat because the author couldn't make them rounded, or because his narrator isn't able to see them as rounded?

But it was a good read, despite all of that. And as I'm already half way through my next Giller book, so stay tuned for that review.

October 7, 2009

Too Much Happiness - Alice Munro

I love Alice Munro stories. In small doses. A single volume = a small dose. The summer I tried to read a 700-page (small print) "Selected Stories" anthology, I had to take a break 2/3 of the way through or else I would have become suicidal!

Too Much Happiness is her newest collection of short stories, and I was able to detect many familiar Munro-vian themes - loss of childhood innocence, marriage break-down, aging, inter-generational misunderstanding. However there are a few changes - I noticed more male protagonists (though I will have to look back through her other recent books to see if this is a new thing), and some of the stories end more optimistically than is her wont.

I think that what I love most about Alice Munro is her ability to draw you right into the mind of her protagonist so that you see all events happening from that character's point of view, and often to the point where you, the reader, are blind to the character's weaknesses. Then often there is a twist at the end (possibly a moment of self-revelation for the character) where you get a glimpse of them from the point of view of another.

My favourite story in this collection? "Wood." This is one of the stories with a male lead - an older man whose wife snaps out of a major depression in a moment of crisis. Just a beautifully told moment of every-day life that left me smiling at the end.

My least favourite story in this collection? The title story, "Too Much Happiness." I didn't enjoy this story as much, as it is not a typical Munro story. First of all, she took a real person (albeit one who lived more than 100 years ago), researched her life, and then told the story of the final days of her life with flashbacks to her earlier life. I think that the historical detail weighed her down too much as it was being written - it kept alternating with the very personal, character point of view that I mentioned above, with some paragraphs of bald, clumsy, fact-telling. And the title is definitely ironic, as the story does not end with the character experiencing too much happiness.

So I guess if you are a Munro fan (as I am), you will probably enjoy this newest collection; but if you are not a fan of hers, then you probably aren't going to pick this book up in the first place!

October 6, 2009

2009 Giller Prize

So the shortlist for this year's Giller Prize was announced today, and I'm none too happy. The 5 books on the list are:
The Disappeared - Kim Echlin
The Golden Mean - Annabel Lyon
The Bishop's Man - Linden MacIntyre
Fall - Colin McAdam
The Winter Vault - Anne Michaels

Now of the books on the shortlist, the only one that I've read so far is The Winter Vault, but I picked up copies of the other ones today so will comment as I finish them. The winner will be announced on November 10 so I should be done reading the shortlist by then.

What I am upset about is the omission of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood which, if you read my review, you will see is one of the best books I have read recently. And with Alice Munro removing her name from the running (my review of her latest book should be up here tomorrow), the field is reduced from what it should be. The Giller Prize is given to recognize excellence in Canadian fiction, and I usually really enjoy the winning book, but if 2 of my favourite books of the year aren't on the shortlist... But I guess I have 4 more books to get though before I pass judgement!

September 28, 2009

The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood

It seems like so long since I have been able to whole-heartedly recommend a book, without reservations, that I have almost forgotten how. But here goes - I loved The Year of the Flood.

I am always a bit hit-and-miss with Margaret Atwood - either I love her books or I can't get past the first chapter. Fortunately this book falls into the former category. Right from the first couple of pages, I was drawn into the world that she has created, and it was a book that stayed with me, even when I wasn't reading.

She has created a world in the not-so-distant future where all of the bad things happening in our world today have continued and become worse - global warming, pollution, materialistic culture, privatization and increasing power of corporations, uncontrolled genetic engineering, invasive species, rapid species extinction, and the list could go on. And all of these things are drawn together so that the picture, bleak as it is, is unified and believable. There are certainly lots of lessons for our society to learn from the world that she has created.

The characters were also well drawn and believable - every one has their good points as well as their weaker points, and in typical Atwood fashion, there are some good strong female characters.

This book is being marketed as a "companion" book to Oryx and Crake, which I know that I read shortly after it came out in 2003; but as it is not on my bookshelves, I must have borrowed a library copy. I want to dig it out and read it again, to appreciate how they fit together. And I do hope that she writes a third book in this world - The Year of the Flood has a true Atwoodian ending where you are left not knowing what happens to the characters in the long run (I finished the last sentence, turned the page expecting another chapter, and that was it!), and I do want to know more.

The Year of the Flood is also on the Long List for the Giller Prize - the shortlist is going to be announced next week, and if this book doesn't make the short list, the competition must be pretty stiff indeed!

This book was also read for the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

September 22, 2009

The Winter Vault - Anne Michaels

I was very excited last spring when a new novel by Anne Michaels came out. It's been about 11 years since I first read Fugitive Pieces, and I couldn't wait to read another book by the same author. Unfortunately I'm not as impressed with this book.

Don't get me wrong - Anne Michaels was a poet long before she was a novelist, and you can tell when you read her prose - each word is carefully chosen (maybe that's why it took her 13 years to write it!) and it is beautiful to read. But I guess that I like plot too much, and that is what this book is missing.

I guess it is a love story - love found, love lost, new love found, new love lost, initial love found again (I hope that I haven't spoiled the ending for anyone!). But I found the characters to be rather flat and unmemorable; the story was disjointed and hard to follow; and the book didn't flow well. I started reading this book back in June, but then set it aside maybe 1/3 of the way through, didn't miss it, but picked it up again to finish this week.

There are a couple of themes similar to Fugitive Pieces - World War 2 and the consequences to Europe and Canada; the artistic community in Toronto; intergenerational relationships. In fact, some of the passages in The Winter Vault could have been taken from Fugitive Pieces.

On reflection, if you approach this novel as a book-length poem rather than a novel, it would probably be easier to handle, but in my opinion, it doesn't work as a novel.

I heard yesterday that The Winter Vault was long-listed for this year's Giller Prize. I plan to repeat my Giller reading challenge this year - read all of the short-listed books to make sure that the jury chooses the right book! Fugitive Pieces made the short-list in 1996, but it was in a very good field - Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood) won, and the other books on the short-list were A Cure for Death by Lightning (Gail Anderson-Dargatz), Fall on Your Knees (Anne-Marie MacDonald) and The Englishman's Boy (Guy Vanderhaeghe). I've read (and enjoyed) all of those books, and even though I liked Fugitive Pieces, I would have chosen Fall on Your Knees for the prize. But I guess that is off-topic!

This book was read for the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

September 13, 2009

The Birthday Present - Barbara Vine

Barbara Vine is an author who showed me just how much taste in books can differ from person to person. The first book of hers that I read was A Dark Adapted Eye. My father read it a few weeks before me and hated it - I remember him commenting that he was bored with the book because nothing happened in it, and that he wouldn't have finished the book except for the fact that he was convinced that *something* would have to happen at some point before the end! Even after such a review, I did read it a few weeks later (based in a contradictory review by one of my friends) and loved it!

Barbara Vine is a nom de plume used by Ruth Rendell, and having never read any books by Ruth Rendell, I tried to do some research to discover the difference between books by Ruth Rendell and books by Barbara Vine. The conclusion of my not-so-extensive research is that there isn't much of a difference. Ruth Rendell's books started out as standard crime mysteries, then progressed to more psychological crime books, while Barbara Vine's books started out that way. Another theory was that she wanted to switch publishers so changed her name. Or a third theory is that she was producing books too quickly and in order to capitalize on the market, she was advised to publish under two different names. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the three theories.

Anyways, while I have never read anything by Rendell, I have read several books by Barbara Vine and have always found them to be a compelling read. So when I came across The Birthday Party the other week, I didn't hesitate to buy it. And I wasn't disappointed.

Similar to several other books I have read in the past year (Through Black Spruce and The Other Side of the Bridge amongst others), the story is told from two different perspectives, however they don't alternate so at the start of each chapter, I found that I had to read a few sentences to figure out who was speaking. I liked this, but I can see that not everyone would.

It is basically the portrait of a self-centred, self-interested person, Ivor, who was a (fictional) member of parliament in the British government in the 1990s under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. There are definite historical references (hard to avoid when the main character is a politician), and I found it easy to forget that the book was fiction. Anyways, Ivor gets into a situation that could jeopardize his political status and does everything possible to avoid having it discovered, to the point where he is totally uncaring of the effects of his actions on anyone other than himself. The story is told in the first person by his brother-in-law writing in the present (2008), as well as the diaries of the friend of his now-dead mistress, written as events unfold.

I polished this book off in only a few sittings. It was as just as gripping a story as I had expected, and I really must dig out some more of her books that I haven't read yet. I'll probably pass this book on to my sister who enjoys books by Minette Walters - like her books, Barbara Vine goes behind the story and tries to figure out the why's.

September 7, 2009

206 Bones - Kathy Reichs

I have been following Kathy Reichs' books almost from the beginning. Having lived in Montreal for a few years, I love being able to recognise places that I know that pop up. Unfortunately, the series had deteriorated over the past couple of books to a series of cliches and easily guessed endings (possibly related to the fact that the book series had been turned into a television series - at one point she was churning out one book a year). Fortunately this book broke the trend and I quite enjoyed it.

Similar to Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta novels, the main character, Tempe Brennan, is a forensic anthropologist. She usually splits her time between Montreal and North Carolina, but this book is set almost entirely in Montreal. I don't want to write too much in case I give away the ending (it is a mystery, after all!), but let me just say that it involves a serial killer targeting elderly ladies (I didn't guess the ending of this one); career sabotage of Tempe's reputation (this story line was a bit easier to guess); and a continuation of the on again - off again Tempe/Ryan relationship.

The cliches are mostly gone and the book is much better written. It is, after all, 2 years since her last book which I guess has allowed a bit more time for editing and more careful selection of words :-) My one criticism is the final chapter which sounds rather like the author stepping up on her soapbox and came across as rather clumsy. I was almost ready to give up on the series, but I guess I will stick with it for now.

This book was read for The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

August 28, 2009

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey

This book is one of the classics that I had somehow missed reading up until now, and after reading a discussion of it on The Book Mine Set, I decided that I had to read it.

For others out there like me, who have not read this book before, the book takes place a particular ward of an unnamed psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, where Electro-Convulsive Therapy and Lobotomies were still commonplace (though fading from fashion). It centers around a battle of wills between a new resident who comes across as determined to overthrow the system, and the nurse in charge of the ward who is determined to run her ward with unwavering inflexibility.

One of the things that I enjoyed about this book is it's ambiguity. As it is set entirely in a psychiatric institution amongst the "inmates"; and the narrator himself is a resident thought by all to be deaf and mute; you never quite know what the truth is, and what actually happened. I can almost picture the book being re-written with alternating chapters written by "Chief", the actual narrator of the book, and the "Big Nurse" who comes across as the antagonist when the story is told from the point of view of the residents. It could then be a novel of perspectives.

I know that this book is a favourite amongst English teachers, and I don't have to think very hard about it to see themes that would make great essay-writing topics for a class full of students - The Tragic Hero; The Underdog fighting the system... I know that one of my sisters ended up studying this book in high school, but I somehow missed it. I'm glad that I have read it; and also that I don't have to write an essay on it!

The Outlander - Gil Adamson

This book first came to my attention last year when it was a contender for CBC radio's Canada Reads competition, championed by actor Nicholas Campbell. With all of the coverage of the competition last winter, I heard Gil Adamson interviewed about her book, and it sounded intriguing.

A 19-year old widow, who has murdered her husband, escapes across the prairies and into the mountains, pursued by her husband's brothers. An adventure survival story. It was a good read, but I found it a bit clunky at times, and the whole ending a bit unbelievable, given everything that the reader knows about the main character.

And another thing that annoyed me was the historical incongruence. The story is set in Canada in 1903 and is told in the present tense, but occasionally the narrator slips in a much more modern reference (and unfortunately, I can't find an example just right now). As it was always with the narrator that I noticed it, and never in the dialogue, I don't know if it was a deliberate writing technique or if it was just accidental, but it did spoil my enjoyment of the book.

The book is well paced and interesting, but never seemed real to me. I probably won't go back to re-read this book in the future.

This book was read as part of The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult

So I didn't just read non-fiction on my holiday - I also indulged in some fluff. I've never read anything by Jodi Picoult before, though I had definitely seen her books at the bookstore. The topic of this one intrigued me (I love anything to do with medical ethics!). A child develops leukemia, so the parents use genetic engineering to give birth to another child who is a perfect genetic match and can be an organ donor. What starts out as a donation of cord blood becomes blood transfusions; a bone marrow transplant; and at the point where the story begins, she is being "asked" to donate a kidney to her sister.

I guess on a superficial level, there are some ethical issues - parents divided between what is best for one child vs. the other vs. the family as a whole - but the whole situation seemed implausible the whole time. What do you mean, they never thought to ask the second child what she felt? The story revolves around a lawsuit initiated by the younger child seeking medical emancipation, and as I said before, it was a little far-fetched. And I don't really see the ethical debate - in the case of an organ donation, it must be voluntary, and the best interests of the donor have to come ahead of the recipient. Or to put it more coarsely, if the donation goes ahead, the donor will likely face life-long restrictions to her health and activity level, and the recipient will probably die soon anyways due to the underlying condition. So since I didn't buy into the ethical debate, the book seemed rather shallow, and built on a flimsy foundation.

But having said that, it was a light, fluffy, holiday read that kept me reading until the end. But it too didn't make it back to Canada - I left it with a Tanzanian high school student who likes to read novels. I don't see it presenting any challenges to someone for whom English is her third language!

The Orange Trees of Baghdad - Leilah Nadir

This is a book that I started reading more than a year ago. I heard Leilah Nadir interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on CBC and sat transfixed in my car when I got to my destination, unable to leave the radio until the interview was over. I think that I went out either that same day or the next day and bought the book. Then I started it, and for some reason didn't finish it. I can't tell you why, as I don't remember. I probably ended up picking up another book, and it got set aside until this summer.

Leilah Nadir is a Canadian writer born to an English mother and an Iraqi father. When the war in Iraq broke out in 2003, she became interested in researching her Iraqi roots, and ended up contacting relatives in Baghdad. The book jumps around a bit - it includes her father's story of growing up in Iraq and how he came to England; how her mother and father met, married, and ended up in Canada; and also the story of the present day and how her family in Iraq is coping with the American invasion.

I really enjoyed this book as it puts a personal face on everything that I have heard on the news, and there are some very vivid descriptions in the book. Quite amazing in places, as the writer has never been to Iraq. It is a compelling story too - as I mentioned before, I read about half of the book last year, and the second half this year - well, as soon as I finished the second half, I went back and re-read the first half again!

My one criticism of the book is that it does jump around a bit too much - from the past to the present to the past again - which made it a bit difficult to keep track of the characters. I found myself flipping back and forwards, reminding myself of who was who.

Tomorrow, I will be meeting Leilah Nadir at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival!

This book was read for The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

Our Life Together - Jean Vanier

OK - now I've settled back in at home, it's time for me to start catching up this blog with all of the books I've read this summer. Well, maybe not all - I'll skip the re-reads I think.

I've known about Jean Vanier and L'Arche for about 8 or 9 years now. I first remember hearing about L'Arche on a CBC radio holiday special - it was Good Friday, either 2000 or 2001 - and I remember thinking what an amazing concept it sounds like. People with disabilities and their helpers, living together in community.

My next encounter with Jean Vanier came a few years later when I was living in Tanzania, and a friend sent me the cassettes of Becoming Human, the Massey Lecture series that he had given. 5 hours of bliss, listening to him explain his theology, and the importance of community, relationships, and "the least of these".

So I was excited to hear him interviewed on the CBC by Shelagh Rogers, oh, it must have been almost 2 years ago, and to hear that his letters were going to be published in a volume entitled Our Life Together.

These are the letters that he wrote to the supporters of L'Arche, the network of communities around the world of people with and without disabilities living together in community. L'Arche started in the 1960s with a single home in France and since that time has spread around the world. Well into his 70s now, Jean Vanier still travels the world but considers L'Arche to be his home.

I did enjoy reading them, and his faith and dedication are inspiring, but unfortunately I found them a bit tedious at times. I don't think that all of the letters were included in this volume, but they probably could have stood a bit more editing. As the book went on, I found myself skimming more and more. A bit of a "been there, read that" attitude. Which is unfortunate, because some of the best insights came towards the end of the book, and I'm a bit afraid that I may have missed something.

But the book has found a good home - I took it with me when I travelled back to Tanzania this summer, and left it with my friend Bridget who works in a Community Based Rehab program, and is also a fan of Jean Vanier. She was also the recipient of Becoming Human after I had listened to all of the tapes!

This book was read as part of The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

July 8, 2009

Odds and Sods

As soon as the warmer summer weather hit, my brain went into re-reading fluffy books mode! So I'm going to hold off posting about books until I have something to write about. I have 3 good books on the go right now, so should have something to write about eventually. I am leaving the country next week, and will be without regular internet access, so will probably do a bunch of back-posts once I'm back.

I have also just registered for a couple of sessions at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival that will be held here in August. I'm really looking forward to this!

And I'm going to be participating in this year's Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set - watch for further postings on the books I read for this.

Finally, I thought that I would finish with a list of 15 most influential books that I recently compiled for a note on Facebook. With some thought after the fact, the one book that I missed that I probably should have included is Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway - I only read it last year, but it has had a definite influence on the way I view the world. So here's the list...

1) Anne of Green Gables (L. M. Montgomery) - My favourite book of all times. What more can I say?

2) Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) - one of the first "grown-up" books I ever read, thanks to cousin Hilary, and still a favourite.

3) Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) - another long-standing favourite.

4) Mere Christianity (C. S. Lewis) - a book that I need to re-read at least once a year. His thought processes are so logical and clear, and the writing leaves nothing to be desired. I could probably include most of his books on a list of books that have influenced me, but I will keep it to one (or 8 - see #5)

5) The Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis) - all 7 of them, to be read in the original publishing order. These were read out loud to us when we were children, and I re-discovered them as an adult. They can still make me cry after countless re-readings. It is so hard to pick favourites, but I would have to say that Voyage of the Dawn Treader would be my favourite in this series.

6) Murther and Walking Spirits (Robertson Davies) - not one of his better known works, nor my favourite of his, but it was the first book by Davies that I read (I had bought it to give to Mum for Christmas, and started reading it before wrapping it!), and started in my a love for not only his books, but CanLit in general.

7) The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje) - read part way through university. It was so beautiful that I didn't want it to end, so when I got to the last page, I flipped back to the first page and started over again. He is also a poet, and every word in his prose is so carefully chosen. It inspired in me a love for good writing, and also inspired me to try reading some poetry on my own (other than what had been prescribed in school).

8) The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradly) - OK, admittedly not great literature. But in Grade 9, I managed to read all 876 pages in 2 weeks while going to school full time. I remember rushing through my work in class in order to get done and pick up the book while waiting for the rest of the class to finish. Me? Inhale books rather than read them? Never!

9) And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie) - the Thurlow Township library was a 10 minute bike ride away, so ever summer I would ride there a couple of times a week to find new books to read. I think that I read every Agatha Christie that they had, and that was the start of my love for a good, classic mystery novel!

10) Anything by John Donne. OK, I admit that this is an author rather than a book, but how can I pick just one poem (Actually, I have them all collected in one volume, so I'm not cheating!). From the early, exuberance in the "metaphysical" poems, through to his writings after entering the church (I especially love his cycles of Holy Sonnets), I just love his writing, though somme may make proteste at the spellinge, I doth proteste!

11) The Time Trilogy (A Wrinkle in Time; A Wind in the Door; A Swiftly Tilting Planet - Madeline L'Engle) - In fact, I have enjoyed everything by her that I have read, but these books especially affected the way that I view the world. In fact, I just had an experience last week that was straight out of A Wind in the Door!

12) The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien) - I'm going to include this book, even though I didn't enjoy it, have never re-read it, and don't even remember the plot very well. It taught me that not everyone has the same taste in books! At the time when I read it, several people that I knew had loved it, but I couldn't stand it!

13) Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi) - I admit, I only just read this one a month or so ago, but it was the first book in the Graphic Novel genre I had read (even though it is autobiographical and so not technically a novel). Wow - a whole new type of book to read and enjoy!

14) Trinity (Leon Uris) - Anyone who knew me in first year university will remember this book! I flogged myself to finish it after it had been recommended by cousin Hilary. Literally, it was painful to get through (at one point I locked myself in my room with nothing else to read!). However 10 years later, after reading and enjoying several other books by the same author, while living in Tanzania, another copy came my way and I decided to give it another go. And I enjoyed it! OK - I guess that every book is worth a second try at a different time and in a different place. Maybe I'll even get around to re-reading The Hobbit at some point.

15) The Bible (God) - Yes, cliche. And yes, technically 66 different books. But still a life-changing book that definitely stands up to re-reading :-)

June 17, 2009

The Composer is Dead - Lemony Snicket

I've not read the books "A Series of Unfortunate Events," and I don't particularly have a desire to, but this book was hilarious.

In the tradition of Peter and the Wolf (Prokofiev) and A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (Britten), it was written to introduce children to orchestral instruments and "classical" music.  It is a picture book with an accompanying CD, however the word play and a lot of the humour would appeal to adults more than children.  I heard part of the story a few weeks ago on In Tune, one of the few CBC Radio 2 programmes that I still listen to (don't get me started!), and was doubled over with laughter.

Maybe it is because I am an occasional musician and former orchestra member that it particularly appealed to me, though my instrument did not fare well.  The flutes were busy doing bird imitations when the composer died, and they claimed to be much to wimpy and high-pitched for murder :-)  Fortunately the piano (my true love) was not involved in the whole scenario!

I loved this book, and can see myself giving copies of it away as gifts in the future!

June 5, 2009

The Little House books - Laura Ingalls Wilder

Summer time is a time for re-reading books.  And even though the weather hasn't turned warm yet, the days are getting long and I spent the last week and a half re-reading the Little House books.  While I am not quite as much of a fan of them as my sister is (I don't know if anyone could beat her - I even made a bonnet for her at one point so that she could pretend to be Laura - and she was 20 years old at the time!), I do enjoy revisiting the series every couple of years.

I never did watch the television show, so I can't make any comparisons here.

Some random thoughts that crossed my head this time through...

I wonder what Laura's Pa and Almanzo's father would have thought of each other?  I bet that Almanzo's father would have thought Pa to be a drifter; lazy and uncommitted.  While Pa would have thought that Almanzo's father was stodgy and boring and unadventurous.

How much bad luck can one family have?  Little House in the Big Woods wasn't bad; but then in Little House on the Prairie, they are just getting settled when they are kicked off their land; On the Banks of Plum Creek is one disaster after another; By the Shores of Silver Lake starts out with the family needing to start over again on top of the family being ill; and in The Long Winter the family almost starves to death.  Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years are a bit more positive, but then Laura and Almanzo's married life starts out with a four year run of bad luck in The First Four Years.

I wonder what would have happened, had the Ingalls family decided to stay in Wisconsin and become settled farmers, rather than moving out west?  Would they have become prosperous land-owners sooner than they did?

Why are the books so appealing, despite all of this bad luck?  I think that it is the love and the bond of family that shines through all of the stories, through good times and bad.

Anyways, just a few random thoughts as I go into the weekend.  I have no idea what book I am going to pick up next.  I had started the latest Anne Michaels book before diving into the Little House series - I may finish that, or I may pick something else up.

May 18, 2009

Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir - Marina Nemat

I don't know when I last had the luxury (and a good enough book) to read an entire book, cover-to-cover, in a single day!  And I swear that I did do stuff other than read today!

This book made an excellent companion book to Persepolis, which I read a couple of weeks ago. They are set in the same time frame - Iran in the late '70s and '80s - and both feature a strong young woman rebelling against The Authority.  I am glad though that Prisoner of Tehran was not a graphic novel, as it does go into some detail about the torture that Marina experienced in prison.

Marina Moradi-Bakht was born in 1965, and was brought up in a somewhat loveless home in Tehran.  The book does go into some details about her life before being arrested - her first boyfriend who died fighting in the revolution that overthrew the Shah; her deepening Christian faith (her grandparents were Russian); her love of reading; her growing rebellion as the Islamic Revolution took hold.  Then at age 16, she was arrested for "activities against the Islamic government" - activities which started when she led a walk-out of the students at her school insisting that the teachers teach the assigned subject, rather than re-enforcing government propaganda.  She was taken to Evin, the political prison in Tehran, where she was tortured, sentenced to execution (which was changed to life in prison at literally the last minute), then forced to convert to Islam and marry one of the prison's interrogators.  She was eventually released after just over 2 years (arranged by her husband's father, after her husband was assassinated), married for love, and later emigrated to Canada.  I think that what really sticks out in my mind was the willful non-acceptance of her family and friends to what she had been through.  Even husband #2 didn't realise what she had been through until reading the manuscript as she was writing this book.

It does make a good companion book to Persepolis, as it included more detail about what was happening politically, and why (which I guess you can do, if your book is made up mainly of words, rather than pictures!).  I am going to be lending Persepolis to my sister (who's husband is from Iran), and I will probably throw this one in for her to read as well.

I didn't realise it, but I had heard the author, Marina Nemat, telling part of her story on the CBC last year (I think that it was one of the Easter Monday specials), but I was working so only managed to catch the first 5 minutes of it or so.  It intrigued me, and I tried to find the podcast (unsuccessfully) so that I could hear the rest.  But as soon as I started reading this book, I recognised not only the story, but also the voice.  I'm glad that I finally know how her story ended.

The Almost Archer Sisters - Lisa Gabriele

I read Lisa Gabriele's first book, Tempting Faith DiNapoli, several years ago, and while I remember enjoying the read, I don't remember anything more about it.  I think that this book is going to be the same.  I quite enjoyed reading it (and finished it in just a few days), but I don't think that it is going to make a lasting impression on me.

It is the story of two sisters who are opposites of each other - Peachy got pregnant and married at 20, and stayed on the family farm; while her older sister Beth chose to move to New York at 18 and live the high life.  Things come to a crisis when Peachy's husband commits adultery with Beth (his first girlfriend); and Peachy takes off for New York leaving Beth to mind her family for the weekend.

I think that my biggest complaint about this story, and why it won't stick with me, is that it doesn't go anywhere.  There is no character development from beginning to end; nobody learns any lessons; and, other than the implied temporary estrangement of Peachy and her husband, everyone ends up in the same situation that they started the book in.

A good read, but no depth.

May 16, 2009

The Eye of the Leopard - Henning Mankell

This book appealed to me on the bookstore shelf as a story of Africa - I struggled with it at times because it is definitely not *my* story of Africa, but I think that in the end, I liked it, and may even re-read it.

It is the story of the end of colonialism in southern Africa; Zambia in this case.  The main character, Hans Olofson, had lost direction in his life in Sweden when he arrives in Zambia in 1969 for a 2 week holiday / pilgrimage.  18 years later, he is running his egg farm and living in fear for his life.

I couldn't relate with the colonial attitudes and racism that pervaded the white community in that time and place - that was not my experience of Africa.  But I know that these issues still exist in places like Zimbabwe and Kenya - you only have to read the news to hear about stories of white farmers having their land taken, and even today's BBC website has a story of a white "Kenyan Aristocrat" jailed for killing a black poacher (Link).

Other parts of the story I could relate to.  The story of Hans' arrival in Africa for the first time had me laughing out loud, mostly in recognition of his experience.  It also made me glad for two things when I got back to Tanzania this summer:  1)  I already speak the local language, and 2)  I have a friend meeting me at the airport so I won't need to navigate the taxi / hotel system!

There was also a good rant that echos my cynicism about "International Development" (quotes are intentional).  And the last chapter of the book was probably the most brilliant in the book, summarising what Hans has learned in his 19 years in Africa - that is where you see hope for the future, moving beyond the colonial model.

The book was written in 1990 in Swedish, with this English translation done just last year.  I am always a little hesitant when it comes to translations, but this one was quite easy to read.  There were a couple of words when I wondered if that was the meaning that the author had intended, but overall, I was able to forget that I was reading a translation.

I'm planning something a bit lighter for my next read...

May 8, 2009

Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

So this is the first graphic novel that I have ever read.  But since it is autobiographical, can we really call it a graphic novel.  Maybe a graphic autobiography?  Anyways, lots of pictures!

This book has been made into a film (animated - called Persepolis) that was co-written and co-directed by the author of the book.  I saw the film just over a year ago at the film festival, and it received a standing ovation from the audience that I was a part of.  And the book is as good as the film, only more so.  Since the film was adapted from the book, by the author of the book, it was a condensed version of the book, but nothing was changed (which is usually my biggest complaint about film adaptations).  The only difference is that the book has more details and events.

The author and main character of the book was born in Iran in 1970, and that fact alone should imply that she saw a lot of history in the making.  She witnessed the overthrow of the Shah; followed by the Islamic revolution and the fundamentalist regime.  Her parents sent her to study in Europe where she suffered as a misfit in an alien culture.  She hit rock bottom, moved back to Iran where she completed university, then at the end of the book moves to France to escape the rules imposed by the Iranian government.

I do have a personal interest in this story, as my roommate from university, as well as my brother-in-law both grew up in Iran, slightly younger than Marji, but witness to the same period of history, before moving to Canada.  Interesting that on my last book-buying spree, I picked up a couple of books set in Iran.  I wonder if the increased interest by the general public in that part of the world is increasing the number of books telling stories set in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc?

I don't know what I was expecting from a graphic book (I won't call it a novel).  I certainly wasn't expecting it to read as a book, but it really does.  It is laid out in chapters, and I have been reading a chapter or two before bed all week.  I think that the pictures made me slow down a bit, and appreciate the story a bit more.  The format certainly works for this book, and I will probably try another graphic book at some point.

May 3, 2009

The Other Side of the Bridge - Mary Lawson

I read Mary Lawson's first book, Crow Lake, when I was living in Africa, and I quite enjoyed it, so I was pleased to see her second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge" when it came out a couple of years ago.  It has taken me a while, but I'm glad that I finally had a chance to read it.

Like Crow Lake, it is set in northern Ontario farm country (but a generation earlier), and many themes and plot devices are similar between the two books - the death of parents; an unplanned pregnancy resulting in an unplanned marriage; the dynamics of a small town; the dynamics of family units.

And like some of the other books that I have read recently (Through Black Spruce and Three Day Road come to mind), it is written as two separate stories, alternating chapters, that come together in the end to form one story.  Arthur and Jake are brothers growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, and to put it mildly, there are "issues".  Ian is a boy finishing high school in the late 1950s who gets a job on Arthur's farm to help pay his way through university.  It is essentially the story of the two brothers, but it is interesting to have half of the story told by an outsider who is unaware of the history between the two.

Well written, an interesting and engaging plot - what more could one ask for in a book!

April 26, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Two books finished in under a week - a good week!

This is a book that first caught my attention in the bookstore because of it's title.  And then I started hearing some very positive reviews which made me want to read it even more.  And it really is a lovely little book.

Guernsey and the other Channel Islands first came to my attention when I met my friend Judy who grew up in Guernsey and now lives in Devon.  Then I read a bit about it in Elizabeth George's book "A Place of Hiding" (not one of her better books, but I was able to pass it on to Judy from Guernsey when I was done reading it!).  And here is another book featuring the island.

It is set in 1946, immediately following the Second World War, and is told strictly through letters (imagine an era when a letter written would arrive to it's recipient the very next day!) and telegrams.  Thinking back, I can't recall reading a novel set in immediate post-war Europe - it is very interesting to read about in this book, as the war looms large in everyone's memory and thinking, yet they are all trying to move on.

I can't give a brief plot synopsis as there isn't really one - this is very much a character-based book rather than a plot-based book.  There are several stories or plot lines woven together.  The story of how the islanders survived the German occupation during the war, by creating the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (the topic of discussion was books; the potato peel pies were the snacks served).  The story of Juliet, a London-based author who found success during the war and decides to write about Guernsey.  A gentle love story, made the more tender by being offset by a tumultuous one.  Elizabeth's story - her unconventional bringing up, her love affair, her illegitimate daughter, her imprisonment in a German camp.  Remy, who was befriended by Elizabeth in the camp and is now trying to get on with life post-prison camp.  A series of letters written by Oscar Wilde.

The book works.  The characters, as eccentric as they may be, are believable.  As are the letters - each writer has a distinct voice, and the personality comes through.  I was sad when the book ended, and I wanted to know more.  This book will definitely be filed under "to be re-read".

April 22, 2009

The Private Patient - P.D. James

I love reading a good mystery once in a while, especially one by an author that I know won't disappoint.  I think that it is partly the knowledge that there is going to be a resolution in the end, and partly the journey that gets us to that resolution - the thoughts and feelings of everyone involved.  And some of my favourite mystery authors keep the same cast of characters in terms of the investigators, and allow those character's lives to develop over the course of a series.

Some of my favourite mystery authors include P.D. James, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Elizabeth George, Minette Walters, and of course, some of the grand masters of the genre including Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.

This latest offering by P.D. James lived up to my expectations - interesting characters, a solid murder mystery, and good writing.  I did correctly guess the murderer about 1/2 way through, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book - as I said, half of the fun comes from the journey to the resolution.  And my favourite detectives - Adam Dalgliesh and Kate Miskin - are back, and I don't think that it is saying too much to reveal that Dalgliesh and Emma get married at the end of the book :-)

The entire book, as well as the ending, beg the question of whether the author is planning another book in the series.  She is 88 years old after all, and still publishing a book every couple of years.  In terms of the characters, there are several hints throughout the book that change is afoot in New Scotland Yard, and that the Special Investigation Squad is about to be dissolved.  Plus with the happy ending of the wedding (as well as Kate and Piers getting together again), the series could end here without leaving faithful readers wanting to know what happened.  We'll have to see what happens...  I, for one, am hoping for more!

So my question for anyone who might be reading this blog - who are your favourite mystery writers, and why?

April 10, 2009

Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden

I read Boyden's Through Black Spruce last year as part of my Giller shortlist read-athon, and then ranked it as the best book that I had read all year.  It was only after I had read it that I learned that it was, in fact, the second book of a planned trilogy, with the first book being titled Three Day Road.  Having lived in "deepest darkest Africa", there is a 3-year gap in my cultural knowledge, and as Three Day Road was published in 2005, I missed it completely.

Three Day Road is similar to Through Black Spruce, in that it is made up of two distinct, intertwined stories, told by two different people - in this case, Xavier Bird who goes over to Europe to fight in WW1, and his aunt Niska who is trying to keep the old way of life alive, in defiance of the white settlers.  Xavier is the father / grandfather to the main characters in Through Black Spruce.

My big revelation came in the first half of the book, and it involved a complete re-working of my concept of Canadian history.  Back in Grade 7 and 8 history class, we learned about the Hudson's Bay Company, and the fur trade, and the Voyageurs.  Here in Thunder Bay, we are right on the old Voyageur route as they headed out west.  But I had never before considered what the original inhabitants of this beautiful land may have thought and felt about these invaders.

To me, it was Niska's story that had the more powerful impact.  She would have been born in the second half of the 19th century, and she experienced an early childhood with a nomadic lifestyle, following the game and truly living off the land.  Then after her father dies, she and her mother and sister end up in Moose Factory living on the reservation.  (I should probably mention that she is epileptic, and becomes a medicine woman and Windigo-killer.)  After a (very) brief and traumatic stay at a residential school, she and her mother return to the bush where she spends most of the rest of her life.  Later in life, she rescues her nephew, Xavier, from that same residential school, and brings him up the way that she was brought up.  But the resentment towards the nuns, the European system, the fur traders, the alcohol, comes across very clearly.

I love it when a book can make me change my perspective so very completely.

On the other hand, I have a friend who says that it was Xavier's first hand telling of trench warfare that made the biggest impression on her.

Early in the book, I started thinking that this was even better than Through Black Spruce, but unfortunately I found that it dragged on a little too long towards the end.  I kept reading eagerly though, as several questions present in the early chapters (Why did Niska think that Xavier was dead, and vice versa?  How did Elijah die?  How did Xavier lose his leg?) that aren't solved until the very end of the book.

I want to go back now and re-read Through Black Spruce (once I get my copy back), and I look forward to the next book.

March 19, 2009

The Shack - Wm. Paul Young

This book has had a lot of buzz recently - near the top of best-seller lists for months now, and lots of "word on the street".  The interesting thing is that if you go to a site like Chapters-Indigo and look at the reviews for this book, people either love it or hate it.  It is a very polarizing book.

Well, I am going to buck that trend, and come down in the middle.  If I were rating it, I would probably give it 3 out of 5 stars.  A good middle-of-the-road rating.  But the reasoning behind that rating is thus - I loved the story, but the writing style (or lack thereof) got in the way.  So if I were rating the story, I would probably give it the full 5 stars (or at least 4 1/2).  But when evaluated against great works of literature that have stood the test of time, I would have to give it 1 star in terms of style.  And that is unfortunate.  I would be reading along, and loving the story, and laughing out loud (and even crying at one point - in the middle of an airplane!), but then I would come across an ill-written sentence or paragraph, and I would be jolted out of that world, and reminded that it is only a book.

The story is an allegory - a man suffers a great tragedy, and spends a weekend in a shack in the middle of the mountains, in the company of all 3 members of the Trinity, Father (aka Papa), Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit (aka Sarayu).  Each chapter centers around a conversation or interaction with one of the Trinity, and an important spiritual lesson is being taught to the man (and also to the reader).  But unfortunately, the writing style gets in the way, and I was never able to forget that I was being taught a lesson in each chapter.

There were moments of pure brilliance - my favourite was when Jesus was trying to persuade the man to walk on water - but then there would come a sentence or paragraph that is supposed to be part of a conversation, that I could never see anyone actually saying out loud.  The book could have used some serious editing by a better writer.

So, as I said, 3 stars.  I enjoyed reading it, and I'm glad that I did.  I may even re-read it in the future.  But it will not make my top-10 list for the year.  Unfortunately, because I really did want to like the book.

March 8, 2009

Heart and Soul - Maeve Binchy

Opening up a Maeve Binchy book is like curling up under a blanket with a steaming mug of tea - comforting.

This book lived up to all of my expectations.  There is no dramatic plot, but the pages are full of characters that could be my next-door neighbour, or the person in line next to me at the shop, or sitting next to me in the office.

The book centres around a cardiac rehab clinic in Dublin, and reads like a collection of related short stories that are not told sequentially, but are rather are intertwined with each other.  There is some mild drama - a few accidents, a wedding that almost doesn't happen, allegations of impropriety made against a priest - but of course it all works out in the end.  The typical "Binchy bad-guys" make an appearance - the selfish and self-centered boyfriend, the haughty mother-in-law - but most of the characters are sympathetic.

True Binchy fans (like myself!) will recognise characters from some of her other books popping up in this one, usually in a secondary character role.  Aidan and Nora Dunn (Evening Class), Tom and Cathy Feather and the twins (Scarlet Feather), and Fiona and the gang (Nights of Rain and Stars) all pop up in this book.  It is almost as if she has created her own city (which I call Maeve Binchy's Dublin), populated with real people who, of course, will run into each other and interact with each other.

Finishing 2 books in 2 days is a record, even for me, but I was about 2/3 of the way through this book when I got the e-mail saying that Scarpetta was waiting at the library for me, so I really can't brag!

March 7, 2009

Scarpetta - Patricia Cornwell

I was part-way through another book when I received an e-mail from the library telling me that a book that I had placed a hold on was available to pick up.  Now when there is a waiting list for a book, the rule is that you only get it for a week, so I had to put the other book aside and devote the past week to reading the latest Patricia Cornwell book.  What a hardship :-)  I finished it just under the wire today, and managed to get it back to the library 15 minutes before closing time.

Spoiler alert - if you follow the series but haven't read this book yet, some details may be revealed below.

I have followed the adventures (and mis-adventures) of Kay Scarpetta for the past several years, and this book did not disappoint.  Several loose ends from the end of the last book were cleared up, and more so that some of her other books, there was a happy ending.  I finished the book with a smile on my face, rather than biting my nails wanting another one right away.  Now with a successful series, that may be a mixed blessing.  After the ambiguous ending of her last book, I had my name on the waiting list at the library as soon as this book came out, but I don't feel quite the same urgency to get my hands on the next book (whenever it is written).

The standard cast of characters made an appearance - Kay and Benton, Lucy, Marino - and some old faces make a comeback, including Berger.  There is a tentative reconciliation between Marino (who isn't dead) and the others, and we learn about the death of Rose, shortly after the end of the previous book.

The central mystery itself was conventional and a bit disappointing - nothing too complex, and it seemed designed to further the story of the cast of characters.

I don't think that Patricia Cornwell has ever written a bad book.  This one isn't one of my favourites in terms of the mystery to be solved, but I did enjoy the focus on her characters that I have been following for years.  And it was no challenge to get through the 500 pages in a week - the pages just flew by.

Now back to finish up the book that was interrupted...

February 22, 2009

And the winner is...

Now, having read all 5 books that were shortlisted in 2008 for the Giller Prize awarded for Canadian fiction, here is the order that I would rank them in...

Drumroll please...

1.  Through Black Spruce - Joseph Boyden
2.  Good to a Fault - Marina Endicott
3.  Barnacle Love - Anthony De Sa
4.  Cockroach - Rawi Hage
5.  The Boys in the Trees - Mary Swan

So I agree with the judges, who also chose Through Black Spruce as the top book of the year.  It was a brilliant book, and I have since purchased Boyden's first book, Three Day Road, and look forward to reading it - watch for future postings.  And the story and characters of Good to a Fault have stayed with me beyond the first reading - I will probably go back and re-read it in the future - the sign of a good book.

Interesting to note that two of the shortlisted books this year deal with the "Immigrant Experience".

And I am doing my very best to forget The Boys in the Trees.  It has not grown on me with time.

This year, I should try to read all of the books after the shortlist is compiled, before the winner is announced!

Barnacle Love - Anthony De Sa

This is the fifth and final Giller nominee, my reading of all of the shortlisted books having been interrupted by a few library books.

This book is different from the others, in that it is a collection of 10 interconnected short stories - each one can be read independently of the others, but read together they form the portrait of a family.  In the first half of the book, the head of the family, Manuel, arrives in Newfoundland in the mid-1950s after being "lost overboard" from a Portuguese fishing boat and gradually builds a life for himself in his adopted country.  His background is gradually revealed - his abuse by the parish priest as a child, his mother's reluctance for him to move away from his village and her rejection of his wife, and Manuel's eventual rejection of his mother.

The second half of the the book is set a few years later in the late 1970's as Manuel's children struggle to live a double life - as "normal" Canadian children when out of the house, while being the children of immigrants when at home.  This is where the tone of the book focuses.  Manuel's hopeful ideals of his new country are being shattered, as he comes to grips with the lack of reality of his dream.  I think that is where the crux lies - Manuel always had a "dream" of a life in Canada, but that dream was never defined, not even to himself.  So an undefined dream can never be fulfilled.

Very good writing in this book, and an interesting plot and characters, but the story probably won't stay with me beyond the reading.  It was a great story while I was reading it, but somehow, it just wasn't that memorable (and I only just finished it an hour ago).  And I also found the ending to be very clumsy.  Almost as if the writer was thinking "In writing school, they told us that ambiguous endings would make the readers think, and therefore your book will make a greater impression."

Now on to sum up the nominees....

February 16, 2009

The Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie

I must confess that the first Salman Rushdie book that I read was The Satanic Verses, and that reading was inspired by the controversy that the book itself had inspired.  But in reading The Satanic Verses, I discovered an author whose books I continue to enjoy.

The Enchantress of Florence is his latest book, published in 2008 and winner of the Booker Prize.  It is vintage Rushdie, with all of the elements of Phantasie (deserving of the old-fashioned spelling), ambiguity and time-bending of his other books, drawn together by beautiful writing.  I think that is what I enjoy most about Salman Rushdie's books - he is a true craftsman with the English language, with not a word misplaced.  A few excerpts, describing Jodha, the phantom queen created by the Emperor Akbar:

"The creation of a real life from a dream was a superhuman act, usurping the prerogative of the gods.  In those days Sikri was swarming with poets and artists, those preening egotists who claimed for themselves the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings, and yet neither poet nor painter, musician nor sculptor had come close to what the emperor, the Perfect Man, had achieved."

"She was a woman without a past, separate from history, or, rather, possessing only such history as he had been pleased to bestow upon her, and which the other queens bitterly contested.  The question of her independent existence, of whether she had one, insisted on being asked, over and over, whether she willed it or not.  If God turned his face away from his creation, Man, would Man simply cease to be?"

The story is a good old-fashioned fairy tale - a princess abducted from the Mogul court who ends up in Persia, the Ottoman empire, Florence, and finally the New World.  There are phantoms, magic, and witchcraft galore.  The tale is not told in a linear manner but rather jumps back and forth in time and locale.  I'm sure that the book isn't to everyone's taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Now back to finish up my Giller Prize read-athon...

February 1, 2009

The Other Queen - Philippa Gregory

It has been a while since my last posting, and that is because it has taken me this long to finish this tedious book.  What a disappointment!  It is the 6th book in the series that began with The Other Boleyn Girl - a series that I began reading while living in Tanzania, and continued to track down once I was back in Canada because I found them interesting - fluffy, but a good read.

Each book takes a historical character from Tudor England, and tells their story, usually from the point of view of someone close to them.  In this case, the historical character is Mary, Queen of Scots, and the chapters alternate between Mary, the Earl of Shrewsbury (her jailer), and his wife, Bess of Hardwick.  Interesting idea, but in reality it made the book tedious.  The story seemed to go in circles, alternating between the different characters, and never seemed to go anywhere.  And the story didn't have a proper ending - just a chapter randomly tacked on at the end, set 15 years after the rest of the book, on the day of Mary's execution.

Bess of Hardwick was the most believable of the main characters - she came across consistently as a woman who, in her own words "made the most of myself, and getting the best price for what I could bring to market ... a self-made woman - self-made, self-polished and self-sold - and proud of it."  Her husband George, the Earl of Shrewsbury is indecisive one minute, loyal to the Queen of England the next; trusting his wife one minute, betraying her with the Queen of Scots the next.

And Mary, Queen of Scots is the least believable character in the book.  In the author's note at the end of the book, the author writes that "I believe she was a woman of courage and determination who could have been an effective queen even in a country as unruly as Scotland.  The principal difference between her and her successful cousin Elizabeth was good advice and good luck."  However the character in her book is unpredictable, changeable as the wind, and inconsistent in her behaviour and reactions.  One minute she is strong and courageous, scaling down the wall of a castle to escape; the next time we see her she is hysterical, and taken to bed with hysterical pains.  She is manipulative and a 2-faced lier, and yet she seems unable to make a decision for herself.  So annoying to read about!

It took me 2 1/2 weeks to finish this tedious book - and it is only 400 and some odd pages.  I'm glad that it is a library book, and I can now return it.  I have been flogging myself to finish so that I can move on to something more interesting!

January 14, 2009

Cockroach - Rawi Hage

This was book 4 out of 5 in my Giller read-athon.  I was really looking forward to reading this book since it had been named as the favourite to win the Giller this year (as Hage won a few years ago for DeNiro's Game),  and though I wasn't impressed at first, the book did improve the further I got through it.  It could be summed up, if it were subtitled "Cockroach:  Ramblings of a delusional thief who believes he is a cockroach, following a failed suicide attempt".

I think what grated on me most was the style - very much stream-of-thought - which made it very rambly and slow to go anywhere.  But once I latched onto the plot, that was easier to overcome.  And it was interesting to get into the head of a delusional thief who believes he is a cockroach!  Not something that I experience every day.  And I don't want to be the grammar police, but would a few quotation marks once in a while hurt anyone?  305 pages, lots of dialogue, and not a single quotation mark.  He may have been striving for ambiguity - there was certainly some of that, as I didn't know in places if the words were said out loud or not - but I did find it frustrating.

The plot itself was interesting, once it got going.  The unnamed narrator is an immigrant from an unspecified middle east country (more ambiguity here!) - my guess was Syria or Lebanon - living in Montreal, interacting mainly with other immigrants.  Having lived in Montreal for the 4 years that I was at McGill, it was fun to come across locations that were familiar.  It is always fun to read books set in places that you know.  The ending is beautifully written (I'm not going to give it away) in its inevitability.

So a mixed review here.  Ended better than it started, an interesting cast of characters, but written in a style that I didn't enjoy (though someone else may love the style).

I'm going to have to pause before reading the 5th and final Giller nominee, as I have 2 books borrowed from the public library that will be due back at the end of the month, and they have to take priority in my reading list.