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.