May 30, 2010

Yellowknife - Steve Zipp

Imagine my surprise and delight when, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from Steve Zipp earlier this month, asking if I would like a copy of his book, Yellowknife.

And imagine my even greater delight (though not so much surprise) when I read the book and loved it!

I must confess that initially, I was a bit nervous to review a book sent to me by an author, but after reading his comments on another blog review, I was reassured that an honest opinion would be OK.

This book was also shortlisted for the National Post "Canada Also Reads" in March of this year - you can read that review here.

It seemed to be a very-much character driven, rather than a plot driven book, and oh the characters! From a drifter who develops a taste for dogfood; to a mosquito researcher who falls through the ice in the dead of winter; to a wildlife biologist who becomes catatonic in the basement of her office building after breaking up with her fiance; to a woman who spent her childhood walking and hitchhiking across Canada with her mother to return north; to a group of fish hijackers. There isn't any one main plot-line, but rather a half-dozen or so plots that all tied together in the end.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the humour, most of it bordering on the absurd. A secret underground society; an underground caribou herd; the above-mentioned fish hijackers; Ol' Slavey, the monster of Great Slave Lake; a mosquito research institute with a researcher on the hunt for white mosquitoes that are active in the winter (only in Canada!). Many parts were laugh-out-loud funny, including this, one of my favourite examples, which I shared with my sister as I was reading it:
"His name was Hugo Poisson, and he worked for the Mosquito Research Institute. Most of his summer was spent in the field marking mosquitoes with dots of paint so he could chart their ever-changing flyways. They migrated in the same fashion as caribou, forming hoards instead of herds, and the information he gathered was considered so vital to tourism that it was incorporated every year in the Explorer's Map."

The only plot line that I was disappointed in was that of Nora, one of the wildlife biologists. She was initially my favourite character; strong, intelligent, and funny. Her story took a twist when she broke up with her fiance and he disappeared, and she gradually became catatonic not leaving her basement office in one of the government buildings, even when her office was moved into a cave. But then, lickity-split, she finds out that she is pregnant, snaps out of it, becomes boring and marries a boring guy, then moves to Ottawa a third of the way through the book, and is never heard from again. I kept hoping that she would pop up again, but no such luck.

But that was only a minor detraction from my overall enjoyment of the book. I know that the characters are going to stay with me for a long time; and between my reading of this, as well as Late Nights on Air a few years ago, I really must visit Yellowknife at some point to see how accurate the portrayals are! I am intrigued...

Steve - if you are reading this, thank you for sharing your book with me. I hope that you will write more books, and I look forward to reading them!

May 27, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

This book has been so hyped up that I must confess that I approached it with some reluctance, worried that it could not live up to the hype.

Fortunately, I did enjoy it.

It is a not-so-traditional murder mystery, set in England in 1950, with an precocious 11-year-old girl, Flavia de Luce as the detective. Flavia is the youngest of three sisters (Ophelia and Daphne are the older sisters - I'd love to meet the parent who could give daughters such names!) and she accidently discovers a dead body in the cucumber patch one morning. What follows are multiple bicycle trips to the local library, a boys school, the local jail, and a local inn, as Flavia tries to sort out events from 30 years ago and reconcile them with what has happened in the cucumber patch.

I found the book well-paced and easy to read. What I enjoyed the most was reading about the antagonistic relationship between the sisters - having two sisters myself, I could definitely relate to some of what went on between them! And I've now loaned my copy to one of my sisters in the hopes that she enjoys it as much as I did.

And like The Golden Mean, it is set in a beautiful typeface, but unlike The Golden Mean, the story stood out above the font!

Now the book wasn't perfect - there are a few errors that better editing could have weeded out (these were particularly noticeable early in the book before I had decided that I liked it!); and despite all that has been said and written about Flavia, and despite the fact that I quite enjoyed reading about her, I did not find her believable as an 11-year-old girl.

There is another book featuring Flavia, and while I probably won't spend the money to buy the hardcover, I probably will either seek it out from the library or wait until it is out in paperback to read it.

May 18, 2010

The Book of Secrets - M. G. Vassanji

I love a book that makes me think.

This is a book that I have been meaning to read for years, and I finally got around to it now. It won the first Giller Prize ever awarded in 1984, and as regular readers of my rambling posts know, I am generally a big fan of the Giller winners.

Plus it is mainly set in Tanzania, a country that I know fairly well.

What more could I ask for in a book?

The style of this book is very different, but I didn't realise this until I had almost finished it. It is a mish-mash of journal entries, first-person narrative, third-person narrative, letters, memos, book excerpts, footnotes. But they are all woven together so seamlessly that as I said, I didn't even think about the format until close to the end.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have found myself reading more memoirs in recent years, and I especially enjoy the ones that flow like a novel. I think that I can say that this is a novel that almost reads like a memoir. It is hard to believe that the events in this book didn't take place in real life!

The place came alive for me. I have spent a bit of time in Dar es Salaam, and it was fun to come across descriptions of places that I know (though in an era that I don't). I am interested to know what other people who have read this book but who haven't been to East Africa think of the descriptions - it is hard to read a book as an impartial observer!

It is a multi-threaded story where the threads don't come together until the very end. The story of an English colonist in East Africa; the story of an Indian school teacher arriving in Tanganyika (now Tanzania); the story of a family tragedy. I want to go back to the beginning now and re-read it with the knowledge of how all of the parts fit together.

So a great read through-and-through!

May 9, 2010

The Mistress of Nothing - Kate Pullinger

This book has sat on my TBR stack for a few months, but I couldn't bring myself to get around to reading it. I think that it was partly due to the Governor General award that it won last year - I generally don't enjoy the GG-winning books, and find them dry and uninteresting. But after hearing Kate Pullinger interviewed on the radio yesterday, I had to pick it up, and polished it off in less than a day.

I quite enjoyed the read. It is very fast-paced and interesting, and kept me wanting more every time I put it down. Basically it is the story of 2 women - Lucie Duff Gordon and her "Lady's Maid" Sally Naldrett - as they travel to Egypt from England in the 1860's in an attempt to cure the mistress's tuberculosis.

Sally is the first-person narrator, and I found myself drawn in by her voice. Lucie Duff Gordon (who is a real historical person) comes across as quite a character and rebel for the time period in which she lived - dressing in the clothing of an Egyptian male, learning Arabic, becoming involved in politics, and generally doing things that a well-bred English lady didn't do. She also seems to have a touch of the "little girl, who had a little curl" in her (i.e. when she was good, she was very, very, good, but when she was bad she was horrid). As long as you were on her side, you were fine, but if you dare to cross her, watch out!

After finishing the book, I am surprised that it won the GG award, as it is a very female book. It focuses on the relationships between Sally and Lucie; Sally and Omar (their dragoman and father of Sally's child); then Sally and Mabrouka (Omar's first wife). It is strange that the award committee would choose a book that only appeals to half of the reading public. Mind you, that is me writing from a female perspective. If there are any fellows out there who have read this book, I would be interested in your take on it!

May 8, 2010

This Body of Death - Elizabeth George

I love Elizabeth George's series of murder mysteries featuring the team of Lynley and Havers (and others), so when a new one was released 2 weeks ago, I rushed out and bought a copy. I have read all of the books to date, and one thing that I love is that the main characters aren't static - they have lives outside of their work, and you can follow what is happening in their private lives as they solve the mystery.

This book didn't disappoint in that respect - Havers and her neighbour Hadiyyah (my two all-time favourite characters!) feature thoughout the book, as does Lynley as he slowly recovers from the death of his wife (3 books ago, I think). A new character, Isabelle Ardery is introduced as the Acting Superintendent, and the end of the book implies that she will be appearing in future books. I will say now that I really don't like her, but her presence adds an interesting dimension to the team.

The other thing that Elizabeth George is brilliant at is the art of the red herring, and they are present in abundance throughout this book.

The plot was interesting - the body of a young woman is found in a graveyard with her carotid artery slashed, and no identification on her, which eventually leads to her home and family and friends. I don't think that it is one of her strongest plots though, as I had pretty much guessed the ending half way through the book. But I don't think that it's a case of an author running out of plots - What Came Before He Shot Her (2 books ago) is my favourite book that she has written.

My other critique of this book is in its length. At 689 pages, it could have easily been 100-200 pages shorter with some better editing. There seemed to be a lot of repetition that did nothing to forward either the plot or the character development.

But overall a decent read, and I look forward to the next book in the series whenever it might come out.