December 19, 2010

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag - Alan Bradley

This book is the follow-up to The Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie which I read and mostly enjoyed earlier this year, and like the first book, it was a quick and easy read for me.

My biggest complaint about the first book was that I didn't find the main character, Flavia de Luce, very believable as an 11 year old. I found her much more believable in this book (despite her precocious chemistry knowledge, especially with respect to poisons). In fact, I found all of the characters to be better drawn in this book - the older sisters, Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy) are much more rounded rather than being purely evil; and most of the secondary characters seem realistic rather than just caricatures.

But unfortunately, the story doesn't hold up as well this time around. There are two mysteries to be solved that (of course) are linked together - a young boy died 6 years ago; then a visiting puppeteer dies in the middle of a performance in the "present" time (the book is set in 1950). While it was fun getting to know the characters, Flavia solves the mysteries mainly by collecting gossip from different villagers, without any excitement or true deduction. A bit like an 11-year-old Miss Marple.

There is a third book in the series due out next year - A Red Herring Without Mustard (the author seems to be into quirky titles!). As before, I will probably read it, but will either check it out of the library or wait for it to come out in paperback.

December 17, 2010

Kiss Me! (I'm a Prince!) - Heather McLeod, illustrated by Brooke Kerrigan

Everyone knows the story of the Frog Prince - a prince is turned into a frog and needs to be kissed to turn back into a prince and they all lived happily ever after. Well, this picture book speculates on what would have happened if the girl, named Ella, preferred a talking frog over a prince.

It is a real twist on the old fairy tale, as even the frog-prince decides that he enjoys not being a prince too as he now has time to play. The only problem is that since frogs don't have hands, he can't play baseball!

This book is by local Thunder Bay author, Heather McLeod, and I managed to snag a copy at the book launch before they sold out to give to my nephew and niece for Christmas. I suspect that my cousin who is raising her daughter while trying to avoid the "Disney Princess Hype" would also appreciate this story.

The pictures are fairly simple but they compliment the story well. I love how the frog pops up in every picture, even if he isn't directly involved in the story. And the expressions on Ella's face as she imagines what her life would be like as a princess are priceless.

So all in all, a great book in my adult opinion, but I guess the real test will come when the gift is opened on Christmas day...

December 12, 2010

Twenty boy Summer - Sarah Ockler

I am against book banning on principle. This probably goes back to my last year of high school when my English teacher announced that The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood had been removed from the curriculum because some parents did not think it appropriate for 18-year-olds to be reading. So I did what any curious reader would do - tracked down a copy as soon as possible, read it, and loved it. I suspect that this was Mr. Shortall's intended effect.

So when I heard over at The Broke and the Bookish about the effort to ban Twenty Boy Summer from a school board down in Missouri, I decided that it would be this week's act of subversion to track down a copy and read it. I don't think that any book should be banned - I believe, as my grandmother told me, that children (and anyone) should be allowed to read as widely as possible, and that it is only through exposure to a wide variety of authors, and genres, and qualities of books that you learn to determine for yourself what is good writing and what is not. I do think that in the case of young children that parents should play a role, and be aware of what their children are reading, and possibly to guide their choices, but every book should be made available to every person.

Ahem... stepping off my soapbox now...

On to this book. It is not a book that I would have picked up on my own. It is in the rapidly-expanding "young adult" genre - basically chick-lit for the high school set. I thought that it dealt very well with the topic of grief. At the beginning of the book, the narrator Anna falls in love with Matt, the older brother of her best friend Frankie, however Matt dies a month later leaving behind his family to mourn him publicly and Anna to mourn him in secret. The book did a good job portraying the different ways that everyone handles their grief. Anna tries to keep everything bottled up inside; Frankie enters a deep depression and then comes out of it as the Rebel Child; Matt's mother tries to cover up the emptiness in her life by re-decorating the house every week or so; and Matt's father tries to compensate by spoiling and indulging Frankie.

There is a very insightful quote about mourning towards the beginning of the book. Anna, the 16-year-old narrator reflects, "When someone you love dies, people ask you how you're doing, but they don't really want to know. They seek affirmation that you're okay, that you appreciate their concern, that life goes on and so can they. Secretly they wonder when the statute of limitations on asking expires (it's three months, by the way. Written or unwritten, that's about all the time it takes for people to forget the one thing that you never will.)"

This aspect of the book is handled very well, with the characters moving through their grief and coming out on the other end with some sort of resolution.

As to why there was an attempt to ban the book, I suspect that it has to do with the plot line of Anna's (successful) attempt to lose her virginity. And possibly the title, which has to do with Anna and Frankie's project to meet twenty boys on their 3-week vacation in California. And possibly all of the lying to the parents, sneaking out at night, underage drinking, and partying that all goes undiscovered and without repercussion.

This book deals with all the angst and anxiety and uncertainty and self-discovery that goes along with being a teen girl. But when held up to my personal "gold standard" of books dealing with transitioning through adolescence towards adulthood (A House Like a Lotus, by Madeline L'Engle), it falls short. I think because the girls in this book don't really learn anything or grow up at all through their experiences.

So do I think that this book should be banned? Obviously not. Would I recommend it as a "must read" book to anyone? Possibly if I knew a young person dealing with a loss (don't I sound old here!) since that is the issue that this book handles well. Do I think that it is a book that every girl should read? No - and I don't think that it is going to be a classic that will endure through the years and be read fifty years from now. It was a good read, but not a great book. That is what my grandmother's encouragement to read widely had taught me.

December 10, 2010

Essex County - Jeff Lemire

This is a book that has been generating a lot of buzz recently. I have read very positive reviews over at John's (Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3) and Wanda's (Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3) blogs; and now it is one of the finalists in the CBC Canada Reads competition.

I picked this book up on Wednesday evening, planning to read a few pages before going to bed, and by the time I turned the lights out, I was half-way finished this 510-page book! It was easy work to finish it up the next night. This is my second experience with a graphic novel (Persepolis being the first - though strictly speaking, it should be considered a graphic memoir), and a very enjoyable experience it was too.

There are 3 volumes - Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse - all collected in one volume with some "extras" (promotional material, early drafts etc). Tales from the Farm deals with a boy being raised by his uncle after his mother (who was a single mother) dies. He befriends the cashier at the local gas station, an ex-Leafs player, and fellow comic book lover. Ghost Stories is the tale of two brothers who play hockey together in Toronto in the early '50s, become estranged from each other, are re-united after tragedy strikes, and then become estranged again. And then The Country Nurse is the story of a home-care nurse, interwoven with the story of her grandmother, which ties the plot of all three volumes together.

I enjoyed the artwork for the most part, though sometimes I found the chunky black-and-white style a bit confusing (there is one picture that I had to turn back to 3 or 4 times to figure out what was being depicted). But it is the stories that are so poignant. My favourite of the volumes is probably Ghost Stories, and I found myself in tears a few times while reading it. And as far as the pictures go, I loved how the crow kept appearing throughout all of the stories. After all, what bird is more ubiquitous in Canada than the crow.

And that is, I think, what I liked most about this book - its Canadian-ness. I can't picture these stories being set anywhere other than rural southern Ontario. Farms, hockey, inter-generational histories, and yes, crows. Though I haven't read all of the other contenders for Canada Reads, I'm pretty sure that I am going to be rooting for this book.

December 7, 2010

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall - M. G. Vassanji

I love the title of this book. Vikram Lall is a boy of Indian heritage, growing up in Kenya in the era of the Mau Mau Uprising just prior to independence, and in the years following; and the title perfectly describes how he is caught in between the worlds of the black Africans and the white Europeans. Though he is born in Africa, he is considered not quite African, and while he and his family initially had British citizenship (Kenya was originally a British colony), they gave it up at the time of independence to become Kenyan citizens. There is a passage towards the end of the book that describes Vikram Lall's view of his homeland as he rides the train:
"He let me ride in his cabin, and as I watched the red earth pass beneath us, and the dense forest up ahead, and the green hills to my right where monkeys frolicked in the tree branches, and the odd gang of half-dressed children who had stopped on the paths to watch us, as the driver hummed "onward Christian Soldiers" while adjusting his controls, and the engine went clackety-clack on the rails, I told myself how desperately I loved this country that somehow could not quiet accept me. Was there really something prohibitively negative in me, and in those like me, with our alien forbidding skins off which the soul of Africa simply slipped away?"

The book is well structured with three longer sections and then a short section at the end. The first section deals with Vikram growing up in a smaller town as the Mau Mau uprising stirs around them. Vikram and his sister Deepa are friends with two British children, Bill and Annie, and an African boy, Njoroge, the grandson of a servant of the Lalls. This section does not end well, as the Mau Mau rebels murder Bill, Annie, and their parents.

The second section takes place 10+ years later in Nairobi where the Lalls moved shortly after the first section ends. Njoroge is re-united with his Indian "family" and he and Deepa fall in love. This section also does not end well, as the prejudice towards inter-racial marriage drives them apart, and they both marry other people.

The third section takes place in the decades following, as Vikram is gradually drawn into the powerful circles as government, slowly realizing that he is there as an Indian scapegoat on which to place the blame for all of the corruption taking place around him. This section (surprise, surprise) does not end well, as Njoroge is assassinated, Deepa's husband dies, Vikram and his wife separate, and Vikram is forced out of his country to Canada with his name at the top of his country's List of Shame.

The fourth and final section takes place with Vikram returns to Kenya in an attempt to clear his name and regain the ability to visit his home country. This section ends ambiguously, and I'm not going to reveal any more!

It sounds like a depressing book, but really it isn't. There are definitely some heavier issues brought up - corruption, race relations, post-colonial history in Africa - but what really shone through for me were the characters and the love that they have for one another. The different sections of the book are drawn together as Vikram tells his life story to a friend in Canada, with some input from Deepa and Njoroge's son Joseph.

The narrative ends somewhere in the mid- to late-90s, however many issues are still relevant today. There is still corruption in Kenya and much of Africa. There is still inter-tribal conflict in Kenyan politics that flares up every couple of years (most recently following the general elections on Dec. 26, 2007). Inter-racial marriage in Africa is still very uncommon.

I think that I liked this book at least as much as The Book of Secrets, and definitely more than The Gunny Sack. I suspect that this story will stay with me longer than either of the other two.

December 1, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson

Poor M. G. Vassanji seems destined not to get read. First he was bumped by my need to indulge in some fluff, and then when I got half way through the book, I received an e-mail from the library saying that my copy of The Girl that Kicked the Hornet's next was ready for me to pick up.

The e-mail probably couldn't have come at a worse time - not only was I half way through another book, but I am just coming out of my busiest week in quite some time. I have been out almost every night, and have had a lot of music commitments, all of which have eaten into valuable reading time! And I only had a week to get through all 563 pages of this book! (Actually, one of my biggest complaints about this book is the sheer size of the hardcover - my hands hurt from trying to hold this book while reading. But more on the length of it later.) But I stayed up until midnight last night in order to finish it, and will be returning it to the library as soon as I am done writing this post.

You may recall that I did not enjoy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (GDT), but quite enjoyed The Girl who Played with Fire (GPF). This, the final book in the trilogy, falls somewhere between the first two. It was not as slow going as GDT, but there was still a lot of detail about the Swedish government structure and history that I found myself skimming over. And while the plot centers around Lisbeth Salander (similar to GPF), she tended to be shunted to the sidelines (maybe because she spends most of the book in hospital or prison).

Overall, I though that this book could have used some better editing. As I mentioned, I found myself skimming over entire pages; and there was a whole separate plot line concerning Erika Berger that could have easily been left out without affecting the plot.

There are some aspects of the plot that bear some reflection given what is going on in the world today. Salander is awaiting trial and the government wants to lock her up in a psychiatric hospital for the rest of her life, despite knowing that she is not crazy, because they consider her to be a risk if she is left free based on what she knows. There is one section where the secret police are justifying to themselves that unlawful imprisonment and even murder is OK in "the interest of National Security". This inevitably draws comparison with what has happened around the world (especially in our neighbours to the south?) in the years since 2001. The ending of the book tells us quite clearly where the author (who was apparently the editor of an anarchist magazine!) stands on this issue. And it has been interesting this week, watching the aftermath of the WikiLeaks publication of classified documents and the Interpol warrant for the arrest of the WikiLeaks founder (wanted in Sweden, of all places). Though the founder is wanted on a charge of rape, and I definitely don't condone rape, but this book has triggered the conspiracy theorist in me, and comparisons with Salander's situation are inevitable in my mind!

B. Kienapple, over at A Certain Bent Appeal, said that she was disappointed in the ending as she read her way through all 3 books in the expectation that Blomkvist and Salander would get together in the end, and then they didn't. I didn't feel this way, simply because I don't think that Bomkvist deserved her. Yes, he's a great journalist. Yes, he's persistent and works doggedly to get the job done and to see truth prevail. But he's a player who doesn't care about the feelings of anyone else. It is all done for the glory of Mikael Blomkvist. His sister sums him up well towards the end of the book. "My brother is completely irresponsible when it comes to relationships. He screws his way through life and doesn't seem to grasp how much it can hurt those women who think of him as more than a casual affair." I lost count of how many women he slept with, but most of them ended up sad, lonely, and disappointed.

I did have some believability issues with this book as well. 2 characters surviving point-blank gunshot wounds to the head? And I lost count of how many hard drives Salander saved onto her tiny hand-held computer. How big was the hard drive of that thing?! It was also amusing at times to read about the computer use of the time. Anyone remember ICQ? And not a single mention of Facebook (no Facebook in 2004 - how did we ever survive without it?).

So am I glad that I read these books, and persisted to the end of the trilogy? Yes. Will I ever re-read them? Probably not. Will they make my top 10 books of 2010? Again, probably not. But they were good for an entertaining read, and Lisbeth Salander is one of my favourite characters in fiction in a long time!

Now off to the library to return the book before 9 and avoid overdue fines!