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.