December 30, 2011

The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje

This is my 3rd Canadian re-read for the 5th Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set. I'm falling a bit behind schedule if I want to finish 13 by the end of June!

Book: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I'm not sure that I like this cover - mine has Kip (the sapper) scaling a mud wall.

First Read: Autumn 1995. I remember finishing this book in the middle of a university Calculus tutorial, and not wanting the book to end, so flipping back to the first page and immediately starting over again.

Original Impressions: I loved this book so much, that I have called it one of my favourite books of all time. What sticks in my mind from the original back-to-back readings were snippets of plot, some very strong images (e.g. a plane coming down in the Sahara desert), but mostly the beautiful language. I approached this re-read with some trepidation; as I was hoping, but not sure (based on Ondaatje's more recent books) that I would still love it so much.

Current Impression: I needn't have worried. I still love this book. It is still written with beautiful language. It is still peopled with strong characters. It is still a memorable book, and my favourite of all of Ondaatje's books that I have read.

I love Michael Ondaatje's poetry; and I think that his earlier novels (The English Patient, and In the Skin of a Lion) best capture the poetic language. This has somehow been lost in his more recent novels (Anil's Ghost, Divisadero, The Cat's Table). His ability to convey so much imagery in so few words is incredible and heartbreaking at the same time. As I was reading this time through, there were some phrases and sentences that caught my attention and triggered memories of my original readings - I hadn't realized that they stuck with my subconscious.

"'Do they have moondials? Has anyone invented one? Perhaps every architect preparing a villa hides a moondial for thieves, like a necessary tithe.'"

"'Could you fall in love with her if she wasn't smarter than you? I mean, she may not be smarter than you. But isn't it important for you to think she is smarter than you in order to fall in love?'"

"I was in her arms. I had pushed the sleeve of her shirt up to the shoulder so I could see her vaccination scar. I love this, I said. This pale aureole on her arm. I see the instrument scratch and then punch the serum within her and then release itself, free of her skin, years ago, when she was nine years old, in a school gymnasium."

"'I shall have to learn how to miss you.'"

There is a very limited cast of characters central to this book. There are 4 of them, in a villa in Italy, in the summer of 1945 in the closing days of the 2nd world war. All 4 are hurting due to the war. Hana is a nurse who has lost her father, all of the soldiers that she has nursed, and her unborn baby. Kip is a sapper (bomb and landmine disposer) who has lost his mentors, his co-workers, and his identity as a Sikh from Punjab. Carravagio is a thief who was recruited as a spy who was caught and tortured, then lost his thumbs and became addicted to morphine. And finally there is the "English Patient" who was burned beyond recognition in a plane crash, but who had multiple losses before the physical injury.

Hana is the one character that I would like to know more about, both after my first readings and after this reading. She appeared as a child in In the Skin of a Lion; and now as a young adult in The English Patient. I would love to see her as she grows into full adulthood, likely back in Canada. There are hints given at the end of The English Patient, but to me, they aren't enough.

I did see the movie made of this book (with the screenplay written by Michael Ondaatje himself), but it didn't make as strong of an impression on me as the book did. It focused mainly on the back story of the "English Patient" rather than the present day interactions between the characters in the villa (which is the part of this book that intrigued me most, but would be hardest to depict in a movie).

I'm so glad that this book lived up to my memories of it!

December 8, 2011

Echoes of the Remnant - Regina Coupar

This book was the first of a list of required reading for a Lay Worship Leader course that I will be taking over the next two years. I should also start by saying that the first weekend of the course was this past weekend, so I've already had a chance to discuss this book with the other course participants.

The cover of the book describes it as follows:
"Echoes of the Remnant is a collection of visual images, poetry and prose which convey the author's unique perspective on spirituality. ... The author asserts that people are responsible for shaping their own worldview by the manner in which they set priorities. As spirituality is awakened and developed, many people find their perceptions and expectations altered. Echoes of the Remnant presents new metaphors which are helpful for discussing spirituality in the language of our time."

I came to this book wanting to like it. The format intrigued me - a collection of pictures, poetry and prose. But somehow it didn't quite work for me.

First of all, I didn't "get" the pictures. I will be the first to admit that I don't know anything about visual arts so I would be open to someone explaining the pictures to me; but they didn't say anything to me.

Secondly, I found the prose to be very ramble-y. There were nuggets of beauty in there, but I had to work too hard to find them. Plus, she committed the cardinal sin of writing, by trying to explain a concept using the same words as the concept. My thoughts as I was reading it was that it would have benefited from a better editor.

Interestingly enough, I discovered while trying to find a cover image to use in this post that this book was published "under her own imprint, Gamaliel Publications." I have found that self-published books tend not to have the same quality as those published by a publisher proper - fortunately there were no glaring typos (though I am the world's worst proof-reader); but that may explain my impression that a better editing job was needed.

What kept me going through this book were the poems. That and the fact that it was required reading! The language of the poems was so clear and precise that I couldn't believe that they were written by the same person who wrote the prose sections. I flagged several of my favourites throughout the book, and I think that including one of them here would be the best way to end off this post. I've already ordered the books for the next weekend in March, and I'm hoping for better things next time around.


the gifts
of the spirit
are gifts of giving

the gift of breath
gives life

the gift of choice
gives dignity

the gift of love
gives relationship

the gift of hope
gives purpose

the gift of faith
gives peace

November 27, 2011

Anne McCaffrey: 1926-2011

I have to confess that I have not read much fantasy; but having confessed that fact, I also have to state that I love the dragon books by Anne McCaffrey, and so I was very sad to read of her death last week, at age 85, of a massive stroke.

I read her Harper Hall trilogy (Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragon Drums) back in high school, on the recommendation of my cousin and fell in love with the books and the planet of Pern. I didn't want to be a dragonrider, I wanted to be a harper and study at Harper Hall. I did go on to read many of the other Pern books, and while none of them caught my attention the way that the Harper Hall trilogy did, I found all of them to be engaging and entertaining.

I think that what captured me most was her ability to make Pern such a real place. When I am reading one of her books, Pern is more real to me than the world around me. Her books are also responsible for my love of dragons, for in her books, they are the "good guys", fighting to save the planet from devastation. Because of this, whenever dragons appear in any other book, I am always rooting for the dragons and the humans belonging to the dragons.

In an ironic twist, I have spent the past week re-visiting the Harper Hall books, so I was deep in Pernese life when I learned of the author's death. I have now picked up The Masterharper of Pern, a book that has been on my shelves for at least 10 years and that I was sure that I had read; and yet 100 pages it, it is not striking any chords in my memory. And so I am enjoying a new (to me) tale from Pern and the Harper Hall.

These are books that I hope never get made into movies. I can't imagine that any director's rendition of Pern could live up to the vividness of the writing, and my own imagination!

November 18, 2011

After Tehran - Marina Nemat

A year and a half ago, I read Marina Nemat's first book, Prisoner of Tehran, and absolutely loved it (I have to confess that my review was a bit of a rave). This is the sequel, and though it is a very different book, I loved it just as much.

Prisoner of Tehran tells the story of the author's arrest and imprisonment in Tehran's Evin Prison at age 16 in the early days of the Islamic Revolution. She was held there for 2 years and when she was released her family and friends did not want to acknowledge what she had been through. She married her sweetheart from before her imprisonment and eventually emigrated to Canada where she lives today.

This book tells the story of how she came to write Prisoner of Tehran. After her mother died in 2000, she started to experience hallucinations and flash-backs to the time of her imprisonment. In denying what had happened to her, she was denying part of herself. As she says in an interview that was posted today on the CBC website, "I decided that I had two options: one was to jump off a bridge, and the other was to write." I thought that the subtitle of the book was very appropriate - A Life Reclaimed.

Prisoner of Tehran is written as a relatively straightforward narrative - a straight line going from point A to point B. It is so gripping that I couldn't put it down and I read it in a single day. This book is different in that it is more of a series of interconnected essays. The introduction describes packing a suitcase of items to take with her to the next world, and each of the 23 essays is named after an object that she would pack in that suitcase. They jump back and forth a bit, and describe the process of confronting her family about her experiences in Evin Prison; joining a creative writing class at the University of Toronto and working her way through several drafts of her first book; having the book published and distributed around the world and the aftermath of book tours and award presentations; dealing with people who denied the veracity of her book; and re-connecting with old friends from both her childhood and imprisonment. The narrative line also sometimes wanders back and includes some stories from her imprisonment and her life afterwards up to the present day. All in all, the essays together made for a satisfying, and equally compelling if less gripping read as compared with the first book (I read most of this book in one-essay chunks at bedtime).

One thing that jumps out at me from both books, despite their dis-similarity is the author's voice. It is so clear and engaging and distinctive that it makes the books a pleasure to read. She is writing in her second language; and I only wish that I could write half as well in my first language! I suspect that she is finished now writing about her life, as there is an air of finality about this book that wasn't there in Prisoner of Tehran (because her story didn't end there). But I hope that she continues to write and publish books and I will be the first person in line to read them!

November 2, 2011

Minding Frankie - Maeve Binchy

In the last Maeve Binchy book that I reviewed, I said that opening up a new Maeve Binchy book was comforting, like curling up with a cup of tea. This book was more of the same. If you like her books, you will like this one too. If you don't like her books, give it a miss.

She included many of the characters from previous books, along with some new ones. Frankie is a baby girl born to a mother who is dying and desperate to find someone to look after her daughter. Instead of finding one person, she finds a whole community to take Frankie in.

It is set in the same neighbourhood as her last book, Heart and Soul, and it was fun to find out what happened to the characters from that book. This is probably as close to a sequel as she has ever written, while taking on new plot lines.

I do have to ask, what man treated the author so badly in her past that she keeps writing him into her books? You know, the one who can't commit, the one who is selfish, the one who borders on sociopathic? She is married to writer Gordon Snell and has publicly denied that he is the model for this character that seems to appear in every book.

What is different about this book is that there is a strong, like-able male main character. I found myself cheering for Noel through the whole book.

I'll keep reading her books as long as she keeps writing them!

October 26, 2011

The Stone Angel - Margaret Laurence

For this year's Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set, I'm trying to re-read 13 Canadian Books from my past. I'm a bit behind schedule, but here is my second contribution.

Book: The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence (point of interest - my first re-read for this challenge also had angels in the title - The Rebel Angels)

First Read: I can be quite specific here - it was the summer of 1994, between grade 12 and 13. I had received a French language bursery and spent 6 weeks in the town of Rivière-du-Loup, living with a family and taking courses at the local CEGEP. I had limited access to English books, so read everything that I had packed in my suitcase, including the 4 Manawaka books.

Original Impressions: I didn't like it. In fact, if I hadn't had such limited book access that summer, I probably wouldn't have read the rest of the series. But I did read all of them, and found each book better than the one before, until I came to the last book, The Diviners, which I quite enjoyed.

Current Impressions: I re-read The Diviners a year or so ago and absolutely loved it, so I thought that this book was probably worth a re-read. I was staying with my sister last week, and she noticed that I was reading The Stone Angel and asked why I wanted to read the ramblings of a bitter old woman (note - she had to read it for school, while I first read it of my own free will and never had to study it). I certainly enjoyed it more than I did the first time around, but I wouldn't count it as one of my all-time favourites - I didn't click with Hagar the way that I did with Morag in The Diviners.

Hagar is a 90 year old woman who, as she approaches death, reflects back on her mostly unhappy life. She grew up as the only daughter of a relatively well-off merchant in the fictional prairie town of Manawaka. She married against her father's wishes and discovered that she wasn't happy in marriage. She became estranged from her elder son; left her husband; and then lost her younger son. She ends up lonely and resentful, living with her elder son and his wife. Come to think of it, my sister wasn't too far off calling Hagar a bitter old woman!

But really, it is a story of pride and ultimately redemption. Hagar realizes, close to the end of her life, that, "pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched." She reflects, "I must always, always, have wanted... simply to rejoice. How is it I never could? ... Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances - oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart's truth?"

So I like to think that Hagar found redemption in the end and was able to leave her bitterness aside.

It was a much more enjoyable read now than it was 17 years ago; as I can see more meaning and purpose in the story of Hagar's life. I look forward to re-reading the rest of the Manawaka books.

Regarding the cover - I was reading my mother's copy which she purchased for $1.95 in the late '60s (I suspect). The McClelland and Stewart website has 3 different editions for sale (I picked my favourite cover for this post), the cheapest of which, an e-book, sells for 12.95!

Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard - Richard B. Wright

This book caught my eye because I'm always a bit of a sucker for historical fiction. Especially good historical fiction; and the author of Clara Callan promised a good read. (As a side note, I read Clara Callan back when it first came out, and absolutely loved it. I couldn't believe that a male author could express female feelings in a first person narrative so deeply and accurately that I kept forgetting that it wasn't written by a female author.)

The plot in a nutshell? As the title implies, the main character, Aerlene Ward, is the illegitimate daughter of Mr. Shakespeare, author of such well known plays as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Hamlet. Her mother Elizabeth had an affair with Shakespeare when she was a young woman recently moved to London, and Shakespeare was a young actor and playwright living in London while his wife and young children were left behind in Stratford Upon Avon. It is written as though Aerlene at age 80 is dictating her memoir, and jumps between the "present day" with Aerlene as an elderly housekeeper; her mother's story of growing up and moving to London as told to Aerlene; and Aerlene's own childhood.

It didn't have the same emotional clout (in my opinion) as Clara Callan, but again I was amazed that such believable female characters could be written by a male author (no offense intended to any men reading this!). It was a pretty easy and enjoyable read, and I passed it on to my sister to read as she recovers from an appendectomy. I thought it was a well crafted book in terms of the storytelling, and was sad when it ended.

And that's about all I have to say. There were no deeper meanings in this book to discuss; no controversy to pick apart; no unresolved issues. I enjoyed the book, and will leave it at that.

October 12, 2011

Practical Jean - Trevor Cole

After reading and loving The Best Laid Plans, winner of the 2008 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, I was looking forward to reading Practical Jean, the 2011 winner. Unfortunately I was disappointed.

While The Best Laid Plans made me laugh out loud (literally), Practical Jean left me feeling depressed instead. The blurb on the back of the book describes it as "tragicomic fiction", but in my opinion, the emphasis was on the tragedy rather than the comedy. Some of the adjectives used in the review quotes include black comedy, social satire, comic portraiture, piquant, hilarious, wickedly funny, diabolical deadpan, and mischievous. While I consider myself to have a very keen and sharp sense of humour, the humour in this book was lost on me.

The Jean in the title cares for her mother over the last few months of her life as she dies of cancer; and then decides to spare her best friends the pain and torment of a lingering death by killing them now. While she is presented as being very logical and practical; to me the tragedy is that here is a woman very obviously suffering from depression to the extreme who neither seeks out, nor is offered any sort of support or help. I'm afraid that the humour of a woman with depression systematically murdering her friends was lost on me. There isn't even a comic reversal at any point that would have added to the humour.

I can almost compare it to Swift's A Modest Proposal, but without the social commentary. In that case, it was the reversal of the expected that made it funny. Practical Jean is supposed to be a satire, but to my eyes it isn't satirizing anything.

If anyone else has read this book, please help me out! What did I miss? Why didn't I find it funny?

October 3, 2011

The Stepsister Scheme - Jim Hines

Yes, I know that this book isn't usually my cup of tea. But I am now visiting a friend who was my supplier of pulp fiction (not the movie sort) through university, and her husband loaned me this book (which I finished in about 24 hours). This said friend's husband is friends with the author, and told me that the author wrote this book so that his daughter (then 8, now 12) would have a princess option other than the saccharine Disney variety.

Imagine, if you will, what happened after Cinderella's Happily Ever After. Imagine that her stepsisters have turned to magic and become witches, kidnapped Cinderella's prince, and are holding him hostage in the land of the fairies. And imagine that Cinderella's mother-in-law (the queen) has a personal body guard consisting of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. And now imagine that Sleeping Beauty, contrary to the popular tale, was actually raped by the prince sent to wake her up and was awakened by the pains of childbirth; and that Snow White was poisoned by her mother who was jealous of her magical abilities and then watched her lover choose to be murdered by the queen rather than to kill Snow White (the 7 dwarves are, in fact, the 7 Anthropomorphic Incarnations of Elemental Magic - Earth, Air, Water, Fire, Light, Darkness, and Magic).

You would end up with three supremely pissed off princesses. And the story goes on from there.

I don't read enough fantasy in order to be able to judge this one, but it was certainly an enjoyable romp as far as such stories go. And yes, it offers a radially different re-telling of the stories from the Disney versions, featuring strong female leads. I just don't know that I would want my daughter to be reading it at the age of 8, or even 12. There is a lot of violence, and a number of references to sex. It doesn't seem quite geared to the pre-YA crowd... But it was a pleasant way to pass an autumn day; though I suspect that I won't be looking up the other books in the series. Like I said, not quite my cup of tea.

October 2, 2011

State of Wonder - Ann Patchett

I wanted to like this book. Really, I did. Especially after hearing the author interviewed by Shelagh Rogers (best interviewer ever for authors, in my opinion), and downloading and listening to the full, uncut version. She was so entertaining, and witty, and I loved the passage of this book that she read.

But I come away from it with mixed feelings.

Yes, it was entertaining. Yes, there were parts that were laugh out loud funny and the author can see the humour and irony around her. And yes, it kept me reading to the end, quite quickly (a plane ride on Friday made for good uninterrupted reading time). But in the end, there was too much suspension of disbelief required to make me fully enjoy it.

The premise? A drug company in Minnesota is sponsoring a researcher in the Amazon jungle who is developing a drug that will extend fertility for as long as a woman is alive. The drug company sends another scientist down to get an update on her work. He is reported dead. They send another scientist (Marina, the main character of the book) down, to both find out what happened and finish the work that he set out to do. She ends up, by the end of the first chapter, deep in the Brazilian rain forest and clueless about how to survive.

The characters were really unique and memorable, but at times Marina (who is supposed to be intelligent) is just so stupid. I wanted to smack her and ask what she was thinking at times. And none of the characters were infallible - they all had their quirks and faults which made them much more believable.

It was when Marina reached the tribe where the women bear children well into their 70s that the plot became ridiculous. I managed to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy it for a while, but then reality came back to me and I could only sit back and shake my head. I also found the tribe to be a caricature of themselves - almost what a European in the 1700's might imagine a "savage tribe" to be...

So a mixed review overall. Like I said, interesting enough to be good airplane reading; but not good enough for me to ever want to re-read it. I've already given my copy to the friend that I'm visiting. Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?

September 30, 2011

The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje

I don't know why, but I always look forward to the publication of a new Micahel Ondaatje book. I loved The English Patient when I first read it back in my university days, enjoyed In the Skin of a Lion almost as much. However with his more recent books (Anil's Ghost and Divisidaro), I have found myself wavering in my loyalty.

I think that I enjoyed The Cat's Table as much as his earlier books, and certainly more than his more recent books, but only time will tell if it is as memorable. I think that is what I didn't enjoy about Anil's Ghost and Divisidero - they were very forgettable. If you were to ask me know, I wouldn't be able to tell you what they were about.

The Cat's Table is different. I found both the plot line, the setting, and the characters to be engaging, and therefore, I hope, memorable. Michael (yes, the author has stated that this book has autobiographical tendencies) is an 11-year old passenger on a ship traveling from Sri Lanka to England in the 1950's. He is assigned to take his meals at the Cat's Table - the table farthest from the captain's table. The story revolves around his interactions with fellow passengers both at his table and from other tables; as well as the happenings at sea as they journey half way around the world.

In the second half of the book, there are some happenings from the time after Michael arrives in England interspersed with the story of the ocean journey. This was not intrusive, and the past and the future link together so that both story lines make more sense.

There is a bit of a mystery on board that Michael didn't understand as an 11 year old, and he is gradually able to piece together as an adult, as he encounters other people who had been on board the ship.

This book has made it to the longlist for the Giller Prize, and I am hoping that it makes it to the shortlist when it is announced next week.

September 19, 2011

Reference and Thank You

It's always humbling to discover that your opinion is valued enough that others will reference it and use it as a source; so I was quite chuffed to find out that a friend of mine quoted an essay that I wrote a few years back in a sermon that she gave yesterday. The full sermon can be found here, and the original essay was published by the CBC and can be found here. Thank you Laura Marie! I feel very honoured.

September 18, 2011

Le Petit Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

It has been a bit of a joke of mine that there is only room in my brain for one language other than English. So when I learned and became fluent in Swahili, I had to delete my French in order to make room. However I have since discovered that the French is still there, just a bit rusty from lack of use.

This summer when I was in Paris, I picked up a copy of Le Petit Prince from a book stall on the left bank of the Seine. This is a book that I read back in high school French class and remembered liking it a lot, though I couldn't remember any of the plot. I also remember that most of the class (probably all of the class - there were only 6 of us!) tracked down English translations and read the book in English rather than French. And I remember that we had to write an essay on the book; though fortunately I don't remember what I wrote about - probably some pompous BS (as are most high school essays) regurgitating something that the teacher had told us.

I've had a very stressful week. Actually, make that a very stressful 6 months that flared up into an acute state of stress a week ago. This was a perfect book for me to be reading this week. Those vague impressions of liking the book back in high school proved to be true.

It is a hard book to describe for those of you who haven't read it as there are so many layers to the story. On the surface, the narrator crashes his plane in the middle of the Sahara desert where he meets a young boy. It turns out that this boy (the Little Prince) has traveled from a tiny astroid far far away, via some other stars, to the earth in search of some friends. He is now trying to get back to his own planet.

Along his journey he encounters a series of people and animals and each encounter is almost a little morality tale unto itself. He encounters a series of people who show to him the ridiculousness of many people - a king with no one to rule over; a drunk who drinks to forget the shame of being a drunk; a businessman who acquires things for the sake of acquiring them; and a geographer too proud to go exploring to have something to write about.

On the earth he meets a fox who teaches him the message that he needs to learn, which the Little Prince then shares with the narrator. That what is truly important is invisible to the eyes and can only be seen with the heart. To the Little Prince, his rose that he left behind on his planet (the rose that he escaped due to her vanity and self-centredness) is important since she depends on him for protection. To the narrator, it is the relationship that he develops with the Little Prince that is important.

I could list so many favourite quotes from this book that I would lose any readers for this posting, so I will try to limit myself to just a few (all translations by me).

"Nous écrivons des choses éternelles." (We write of the eternal things.)

"Mais si tu m'apprivoises, nous aurons besion l'un de l'autre. Tu serais pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde." (The fox to the prince - But if you tame me, we will need each other. You will be unique to me; and I will be unique to you.)

"On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. C'est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante. Les hommes ont oublié cette vérité. Mais tu de doeis pas l'oublier." (We don't see except with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes. It is the time that you have spent on your rose that makes your rose so important. Men have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget.)

"On est seul aussi chez les hommes." (You are also alone when you are with men/humans.)

"Les grandes personnes sont décidément très très bizarres." (Adults are decidedly very, very bizarre."

"Ce sera comme si je t'avais donné, au lieu d'étoiles, des tas de petits grelots qui savent rire..." (It will be like I have given you, in the place of the stars, little bells that know how to laugh..)

Reading this book reminded me of another quote from high school, this time from English class. "No man is an Island, entire of itself; ... because I am involved in mankind." (John Donne - my very favourite English-language poet). Both the Little Prince and the narrator learn that it is relationships that are important to this life.

Another quote that came to mind is, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3) The innocence and child-like curiosity of the Little Prince are highlighted throughout the book; and yet he is the one that learns and teaches true wisdom at the end.

I'm glad that I was reading this book in the original French (with a dictionary at my side to look up the occasional word that i didn't know), since it forced me to read more slowly and take in every word rather than skimming. And I'm glad that I re-read this book this week. All is going to be OK with the world. I have a feeling that this book is going to be on my "to-reread-regularly" list.

September 15, 2011

The Rebel Angels - Robertson Davies

This is my first selection for the Canadian Book Challenge #5 hosted by John at The Book Mine Set. This year, I decided that rather than just reading 13 Canadian books between July 1 and June 30 (too easy - I usually finish the challenge half way through the year), I would re-read and review 13 Canadian books. Books that I have read and loved; books that I have read and disliked; books that I have read and forgotten.

Book: The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies

First Read: Maybe 1993 or 1994? I know that by the time that I went off to university in 1995 I had read everything that Robertson Davies had written, then was very sad when he died that year knowing that he would not be writing any more books for me to enjoy. This is a book that I have re-read many times since the first reading. I usually get a craving to read it in September since it is a book inextricably linked with the school year.

Original Impressions: This wasn't my favourite Davies book the first time I read it. It is the first in a trilogy, and I liked it better than the 2nd book (What's Bred in the Bone) but the 3rd book (The Lyre of Orpheus) was by far my favourite, probably because it dealt with music and musicians. The characters in The Rebel Angels are scholars and professors and academics set in place in a university loosely based in the University of Toronto. I did like the character of Maria who, at age 23, was closest in age to my 17-year-old self. She was everything that I wanted to be - intelligent, beautiful, interesting.

Current Impressions: This book grew on me over the years, probably as I went through the university system (though with a science degree, not the arts); and the humour became funnier. Robertson Davies is one of the few authors that remains laugh-out-loud funny to me, every time I re-read his books. Maria doesn't appeal to me as much now, 18 years later. Have I outgrown her? She seems so immature at times, and lacking in wisdom despite her intelligence. Or maybe it is knowing what happens to her through the next 2 books in the trilogy. She becomes boring (in my opinion). But the other characters have developed much more depth to me since my first reading. It is interesting to re-read a book that I loved at a different stage in life - there are some books that have remained favourites (e.g. Anne of Green Gables); others that have grown on me (e.g. The Diviners); and others that I no longer enjoy (e.g. several by Maeve Binchey).

On this re-reading, I was frustrated by Maria's stubbornness, intrigued by Parlabane's background, sympathetic with Darcourt's frustrations, and impatient with Hollier's single mindedness. Overall, it is a book that continues to hold my interest with each re-reading.

Next up for the challenge? I don't know - maybe a re-reading of The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, a book that I haven't re-read since my first reading.

September 5, 2011

Flash and Bones - Kathy Reichs

Well, it's the end of summer, and time for my annual Kathy Reichs novel review!

Seriously though, despite the author churning out a book a year (as well as some television scripts), this book is very readable. I have mentioned in previous reviews that at one point I was considering giving up on this series, but the writing has definitely improved. I suspect that the author got a new editor a couple of books ago.

It is a typical murder mystery with multiple bodies both old and fresh; multiple red herrings; multiple suspects; and enough clues that I could have been able to figure out the murderer, but I didn't.

For those of you who haven't read any of her books, the main character Tempe Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who splits her time between Montréal and Charlotte (South Carolina), with this book set fully in and around Charlotte. Her family as well as her romantic life to play a role in the books, though not so much in this book.

For fans of a good mystery, this book can easily stand alone from the rest of the series. For fans of the series, this is a good addition. For fans of NASCAR racing, the story is set in and around race weekend in Charlotte.

September 4, 2011

Dead until Dark - Charaine Harris

I have to confess that I approached this book with a significant amount of hesitation. After the whole Twilight fiasco, I have deliberately avoided all vampire books. However when recently visiting my cousin Kim (the same cousin who dared me to read Twilight; but who also usually has very similar taste in books to me), she loaned me a stack of books including this one. She understood my trepidation (which is why I only took the first book in the series), but assured me that this was likely much more my style than Twilight.

For anyone who doesn't know, this is the first book in the Southern Vampire Mystery series featuring Sookie Stackhouse that has recently been made into the TV programme True Blood.

I did enjoy this book, so thank you Kim for convincing me to read it and lending me your copy! I only wish that I had borrowed the rest of the series when you offered (though my co-worker has now offered to lend her copies to me). Really, the only think that this book had in common with Twilight is the fact that one of the romantic leads is a vampire.

First of all, the book doesn't take itself too seriously. There is a definite vein of humour running through it. Secondly, Sookie is a much more like-able and less spineless (sorry for the double negative!) heroine than Bella. I actually found myself relating to her throughout the book!

I heard the author interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on Q (CBC radio) earlier this summer before I had read this book, and while reading, I could hear her voice throughout with her soft southern accent.

Plot? Sookie is a mind-reader in small town Louisiana who finds herself intrigued by the new man in town, Bill, who also happens to be a vampire. As several bodies turn up, she finds herself drawn into the vampire world. Almost a cross between a murder mystery novel, a romance, and a paranormal fantasy. With a generous dash of humour thrown in.

I think that I may have found my newest guilty pleasure! Watch for reviews of the rest of the series in months to come...

August 30, 2011

The Beggar's Garden - Michael Christie

I picked up this book recently based on a raving review in the local paper and let me just say that I was not disappointed.

This is a collection of loosely linked short stories set in and around Vancouver's east side. Each one is almost like a little vignette or a mini portrait of a character, each with his or her own story to tell and view on life. There are a few interactions and connections between the characters in the different stories, but no more than you would expect from a group of people living in the same neighbourhood. There is no cute-sy wrap up or tie up where all of the characters come together in a happy campfire sing-along in the end. (oops - do I sound too cynical there?)

What I really liked about these stories was the uniqueness of each one. All of the characters were memorable, and each one had a unique voice, some more likable than others, some more memorable than others, but each one with a story to tell. From the woman running a thrift shop to a heroin junkie getting high, to a grandfather trying to track down his grandson who is living on the streets, to a young couple who meet at the dog park then come together over their dogs' friendship, to a banker who "befriends" a beggar as his marriage is falling apart, to a man in a psychiatric hospital who descends into more and more delusions as he stops his anti-psychotic meds; each character seemed so real to me as I was reading the stories.

I can't pin down a story as being my favourite or least favourite, but I can say that this is one of the best collections of short stories that I have read in a long time. I started each story with anticipation to find out who would be introduced, and what story he or she would have to tell.

OK - have I raved enough about this book yet? I really hope to see it on some of the award lists this fall!

Mistress of the Son - Sandra Gulland

I think that I may have mentioned at some point in the past how much I enjoyed Sandra Gulland's Josephine books (The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.; Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe; and The Last Great Dance on Earth); and so I was looking forward to going 100ish years earlier with the same author.

The title character is Louise de la Vallière (aka Petite); born to a family of minor nobility with no money for a dowery either for marriage or to enter a convent; and destined through a series of chances to become mistress of Louis IV, the Sun King.

Unfortunately, while it was an enjoyable read, I didn't love it as much as the Josephine books. I quite enjoyed the beginning when Petite is a child, with the description of French country life in the 17th century. Unfortunately I found that it really lost momentum in the middle part when Petite reaches the court; and then there was a pile of action in the last 50 pages and then the book ended. I never had the feeling of being right there in the middle of the action, the way that I did with Josephine B.

It was an easy read though, perfect for the summer when I don't want to have to devote too much energy to reading. And for when I was staying with my sister and her 3 children under the age of 5 and had very little energy left in the evening when I finally had a chance to open a book!

August 9, 2011

The Moonspinners - Mary Stewart

I don't think that I've ever raved about my love for Mary Stewart's books on this blog. She is an author that I've loved ever since I was in high school, and one that I go back to whenever I feel in need of a good read, even though I've read everything that she ever wrote multiple times.

How would I describe Mary Stewart? She is a family favourite, enjoyed by my grandmother, my aunts, my mother, my cousins, and my sisters. Between my grandmothers bookcase, my mother's bookcase, and the local library, I read my way through everything that she wrote at least once by the time I finished high school.

She writes what I would consider light romantic suspense novels. They usually feature strong and independent female heroines who get into adventures in far-flung corners of the globe. There is usually a romance involved that culminates in a chaste kiss at the end. She was the wife of a professor of geology, and as thus she had the opportunity to travel the world and her books take place in a variety of countries. My sister and I both want to visit Greece some day as a result of reading her books. As well, she wrote a series of books re-telling the Arthurian legend with Merlin as the main character.

So when Niranjana over at Brown Paper hosted a Mary Stewart giveaway this year, I had to enter. Twice. The giveaway was sponsored by Hodder & Stoughton, Mary Stewart's life-long publishers, and with each entry, the contestants could specify any Mary Stewart book that they wanted to win. (I entered to win The Moonspinners as well as The Gabriel Hounds). So imagine my excitement when, on Canada Day, I received an e-mail from Niranjana telling me that I had won a copy of The Moonspinners, a book that I hadn't read in years but remember loving.

The plot is classic Mary Stewart. Nicola is working for the English embassy in Greece and is on holidays with her cousin Frances in Crete; she ends up getting involved with some English boys on holidays who have run into a bit of misadventure; they end up solving the mystery with not a small amount of danger along the way; and end up sailing off into the sunset at the end. Nice, light, adventurous, and romantic while not offending my feminist sensibilities. A perfect summer read. In fact, all through university when I was home on summer holidays, I would visit the local library in order to re-read all of the Mary Stewart books that they had in their collection.

I feel as though I should loan this book to my sister now that I have re-read it - I told her about the giveaway and she also entered for a chance to win this book but didn't. So I will be the good sister and pass my copy on to her next time I see her.

Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese

I can't decide if I liked this book or not. When I was reading it, I was totally engrossed in the story; and yet I could put it down for days (or weeks) on end with no compulsion to continue the story.

I am a sucker for books set in Africa; and this book, set in a mission hospital in Ethiopia held a special appeal to me since I worked at a mission hospital in Tanzania from 2003-2006. I loved how he captured the atmosphere of an African mission hospital - I found myself right back at Ndolage at times while reading the first part of this book. There were just a few minor errors that stood out, and were made even more obvious by the overall accuracy of the details (e.g. a British surgeon called Dr. Stone, while in the British system, Dr. so-and-so refers to a physician while surgeons are referred to as Mr. so-and-so). But the descriptions of the patients waiting to be seen, and the families present at the hospital, and the logic (or lack there-of), and the pandering to donors, and the frustration and desperation and joys in different circumstances all rang so true.

The story would probably be considered epic in nature (and in my opinion, maybe just a bit too far reaching?). A British surgeon and an Indian nun in Ethiopia fall in love. Twins are born to the nun who dies and the surgeon disappears. The twins are raised by two other doctors at the hospital. One twin becomes a local specialist on fistulas, while the other twin goes to med school and eventually has to flee the country due to a misunderstanding in the civil war. That twin ends up in America where his past eventually catches up to him; and he learns more about his origins and ancestors.

Like I said, when I picked up this book, I could read it for hours on end with the impression of barely any time passing at all; and yet I could also put it down for weeks on end without picking it up again. But overall, my impression of this book is a positive one. The characters were well rounded and 3-dimensional; the story was interesting; and the setting was well described. I'd love to visit Ethiopia some day!

Bride of New France - Suzanne Desrochers

This is the other book that I packed in my bag for my trip to Paris last month, and I was glad that I had it when I finished The Time In Between on the plane, then missed my connection in Toronto and had to wait 6 hours for another flight home to Thunder Bay. I had packed it since it was on my TBR list, and is set partly in France!

It was another thoroughly enjoying book, and I could tell that the author knew the time period and history well. This book evolved out of her master's thesis on Les Filles de Roi, and in turning it into fiction, it allowed her to imagine what the life of one of her real-life subjects might have been.

I remember learning about Les Filles de Roi in grade 7 (I think) history class many (many, many) years ago. My impression at the time was of adventurous girls who travelled from France to New France in order to be married to the settlers and so populate the new world. I also had the impression that they were feted and celebrated and pampered as their title, Daughters of the King, implied.

This book paints a starkly different picture. Laure, the main character, was stolen from her homeless parents, placed in an orphanage, and once she showed some intelligence and skills at needlework, she was placed in a special ward destined to be seamstresses to the nobility. Due to a conflict with the matron, she is banished to the new world; a journey that involves a wretched ship ride lasting several months that leaves her weakened on arrival due to illness and malnutrition. On arrival, she is expected to choose between a handful of illiterate and uncouth settlers, who are basically being bribed with a wife in order to stick it out in the wilderness of what is now Québec. This picture is likely the more accurate one.

Laure was a very enjoyable main character. Non-conformist for the time and circumstance that she was living in, with a free and independent spirit. For a while (spoiler alert), I was worried that she was not going to survive the book, but she did. I would love to see a sequel to this book so that I can find out how she ends up adapting to life in the new world, and hopefully thriving as well as just surviving.

Interestingly, I am reading another book now (Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland) that is set in France in the same period. I look forward to comparing their perspectives - watch for my review of that one later.

The Time In Between - David Bergen

I've been a lazy blogger this summer. Blame the beautiful weather that we've had. Or blame the weekend trips that I've been taking this year. Or blame the fact that I've been reading some good books and it's been hard to pause to take time to blog!

I've wanted to read this book ever since I read The Matter With Morris last year as part of my Giller Shortlist reading project. I loved The Matter With Morris; and while it didn't win the prize, I figured that this, an earlier book that had won the big prize, would still be a good read. Then Wanda's review over at A Season to Read was the straw that broke the camel's back and I went out to buy a copy.

I wasn't disappointed.

I read this book on the plane going to and from Paris back in July (no time while in Paris on a whirlwind weekend trip to do any reading), and it was perfect airplane reading for me. Entertaining enough to keep me interested; not so heavy that it was an effort to read even on a long-distance flight; and non-fluffy enough to keep me engaged and interested in the characters.

The plot is a bit hard to describe as it jumps around a bit between different times and places. A father tries to raise his children alone in the wilderness of BC after the death of his estranged wife; that same father returns to Vietnam in an attempt to come to terms with his war experience; a daughter travels to Vietnam trying to discover what happened to her father after he broke off communications. And above all, similar to The Matter with Morris, it is a book about relationships between different people, and the complexities that these relationships bring.

I love the title of this book. It implies a time in between the time that was before and the time that is to come. For Ada (the daughter mentioned above), it can refer to her time in Vietnam, in between her life in BC that she left and will go back to. For Charles (the father), it may refer to his time in BC raising his children, in between his experience fighting in Vietnam and his going back again as an adult. And for me, the reader, it referred to my time in the airplane, in between the origin and the destination. It has always struck me that time spent in an airplane is a bit of a blank time; or a time out of time. A time that must be passed through, but in which nothing of significance happens. And when I cross multiple time zones, that impression increases. I left Paris at noon, and arrived in Toronto 8 hours later at 2pm (only to find out that I had missed my connection and had to wait 6 hours for another flight to Thunder Bay); having read this book all the way across (except when I was napping).

My verdict? I really enjoyed this book, though not quite as much as The Matter With Morris. I didn't find that it packed the same emotional punch as TMWM; and I found that it ended on a pessimistic note, as compared with the overall optimism of TMWM. I am looking forward to reading more books by this author.

July 6, 2011

July Bookish Ramblings

It has been a while since I posted a review - I am about half-way through an enjoyable book, but for some reason I stopped reading it a few weeks ago, and instead I have been indulging in re-reads of old favourites (Madeline L'Engle's Kairos series - A Wrinkle in Time etc - in case anyone's interested). I do plan on finishing the book I stopped reading (I have no idea why I put it down) this weekend. Tomorrow afternoon, I'm heading out to Quetico Provincial Park with just my canoe and a few books for company.

Just a few odds and ends and ramblings this post.

For the past 2 summers, I have enjoyed attending the Sleeping Giant Writers' Festival, but when I checked out the website to see the lineup for this summer, I discovered that it has been cancelled this year, no reason given. I am somewhat disappointed... Mind you, I may have had to miss it anyways, since I will be away for a few weeks in August visiting my sister and her growing family.

My Canada Day started with an e-mail from Niranjana over at Brown Paper, telling me that I had won a copy of The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart. Can you say excited?! Mary Stewart is a "family favourite" author; and by the time I finished high school, I think that I had read everything that she had written, courtesy of my grandmother's bookshelves and the local library. My sister Laura also read her books and the ones set in Greece (including The Moonspinners) led us to plan a trip there some day. The trip hasn't happened yet, but who knows, some day? This giveaway allowed the participants to pick which Mary Stewart book they would like to win - the hardest part was choosing which one I wanted! Her books wouldn't be considered high literature, but they are entertaining, adventurous (and possibly partly to blame for my travel bug), and usually feature strong and independent female characters. And don't forget the romance that never verges on anything distasteful. After all, my grandmother and mother and aunts and cousins and sisters all read and enjoyed these books!

I finished the Canadian Book Challenge 4 over at The Book Mine Set, reading and reviewing a total of 28 Canadian books between July 1 2010 and June 30 2011. (13 are required to compete the challenge). I had a bit of a reading and reviewing slump in January and February, so I wonder how many I would have read otherwise? I have signed up for the 5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge, and this year I plan on reading and reviewing 13 Canadian books that will be re-reads for me. There are several books that I read a while back that I want to re-visit, so this will give me an excuse to do so. This challenge got some coverage in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago - you can read the article here.

And finally, one week tomorrow I will be on an airplane, heading for Paris. Does anyone have any book suggestions that are set in Paris? Fiction and non-fiction suggestions are eagerly welcomed! I love being able to connect places that I travel to with books, however in thinking back, I can't come up with any memorable books that I have read that are set in Paris. I'm very excited about this trip, since I've wanted to visit Paris for I-don't-know-how-many years!

June 24, 2011

Alone in the Classroom - Elizabeth Hay

I approached this book with some mixed feelings. I read Late Nights on Air, Hay's last book, after it won the Giller back in 2007 and I was not overwhelmingly impressed. The last third of it was exciting (when the group goes on the canoe trip, for those of you who have read it), but I found the first 2/3 of the book slow-going, muddled, and hard to get attached to any of the characters.

Reading this book, I could hardly believe that it was the same author. The writing style was very crisp, the story moved along, and it was the sort of book that I didn't want to put down.

One of the things that I loved about this book is that it is being told by Anne, and we see things as Anne sees them, and we learn things as Anne learns them. It is truly a first-person narrative where there is no all-knowing presence giving hints as to what is to come. (Though like N icola, I did have trouble at times, remember who the "I" was that was telling the story, especially when jumping between different generations and stories.). There were a lot of layers to this story, however in the end they all came together to tell the story of a family. I could compare it to an onion, with all of the layers making up the whole, except that I don't like onions and I did like this story!

What are some of these plot layers? There is Connie, a teacher in rural Saskatchewan in 1929, struggling to teach a student with dyslexia who is gifted in other area and struggling with a creepy principal who may or may not have "interfered" with a 13-year-old student. Then in 1937, Connie is a reporter covering the murder of a young girl in the Ottawa Valley, where her life ends up linked with Anne's when her brother meets and marries a young woman who become Anne's parents (ie Connie is Anne's paternal aunt). Anne also tells us the story of her own life, and then ends with telling the story of her mother's family and of her mother, growing up with a domineering mother (Anne's grandmother). My overall impression is that Anne had to approach family history indirectly through her Aunt's story before she could get up the courage to examine her own story and the story of her direct ancestors.

But more than the plot itself (in fact I found the plot annoying at times, with implied significance to certain events fizzling out to nothing - though isn't that the way real life goes at times?), I loved seeing how all of these layers and generations and characters came together to make a whole story. This story could have been told chronologically, beginning with Anne's maternal family and their carpentry business in the Ottawa Valley intersecting with Anne's paternal family struggling in the Saskatchewan prairie; but that would have been much less interesting.

4 good books in a row (and the one that I'm reading now is interesting too) - I'm on a roll!

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think? How would you compare it to Late Nights on Air?

June 10, 2011

Irma Voth - Miriam Toews

The world of this book has been a very enjoyable place to spend the past few days.

I am one of the few people who didn't like A Complicated Kindness, despite all of the awards that it won. I found it to be a very forgettable book. I did, however, love The Flying Troutmans that came out a few years ago (I finished reading it just a few weeks before starting this blog, so I'm afraid that I can't link to a review) and have been looking forward to reading this book for several months, ever since I heard that Miriam Toews would be having a new book published.

It is set in the Mennonite world that defined A Complicated Kindness, this time in the Mexican Mennonite community. Irma has been disowned by her father following her marriage (though she remains on good terms with her mother and her sister Aggie) and abandoned by her husband, a Mexican, non-Mennonite, sometimes drug-runner.

Irma made her first tentative advances into the world outside the Mennonite Campo when she meets and marries her Mexican husband. She has a chance to further broaden her horizons when a Mexican film crew sets up next door and offers her a job as a translator. Eventually her sister Aggie gets drawn into the film, one thing leads to another, and finally the three sisters (Irma, Aggie, and a newborn baby) end up running away to Mexico City.

This book felt a bit like a stone rolling down a hill. It was a bit slow to get going, but gradually picked up momentum so that by the end, things were careening out of control.

Ultimately though, it is a book about family. A family divided by a violent father. A new non-traditional family that forms when the sisters take off together. And even a loose family-like-unit that sets up when Irma gets a job at a Bed-and-Breakfast in Mexico City.

I really felt drawn to the character of Irma. Initially shy and withdrawn, she is curious about the world around her and outside of her experience. As her sister Aggie observes, she likes the world inside her head better than the world around her. She is forced to take on responsibilities that she didn't ask for or want, and is often over-shadowed by her younger sister. And yet she not only survives but manages to thrive and in the end, she carves out a niche for herself. I loved watching how she grew up and gained confidence over the course of the book.

One of my favourite passages in the book comes near the end when Irma is writing in her notebook / journal.
YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO DIE! I read over the original heading in my notebook, the one that Diego had given me a long time ago to record my thoughts and observations. I pondered his dark advice. I scratched out the word DIE and wrote LIVE. The that seemed cheesy and too uncooly emphatic so I added the words SORT OF. AT LEAST TRY. Even that seemed bossy so I added, in parentheses, a joke: OR DIE TRYING. Then I told myself that it wasn't funny and crossed it all, every word of it, out and started again.

My one disappointment was that this book was so short and ended so abruptly. I would have loved for it to continue for another 200 pages! And I would love to know what happened to Irma and Aggie after the last page. Sequel, anyone?

June 5, 2011

The High Road - Terry Fallis

As I mentioned in my post on Friday, I purchased The High Road, the sequel to The Best Laid Plans, on my way home on Friday before I had even finished The Best Laid Plans. Yes, I loved The Best Laid Plans that much.

I spent the weekend deep in this book, continuing to follow the exploits and adventures of Angus McLintock, fictional Member of Parliament for the fictional riding of Cumberland-Prescott. (For anyone who is interested, in real life, part of Cumberland is in the Ottawa Orleans riding; while the rest of Cumberland and Prescott are in Glengarry-Prescott-Russell Riding. Both ridings are currently Conservative, however were Liberal up until the 2006 election and still have strong Liberal turnouts. So much for Cumberland-Prescott being the "safest Conservative riding in the country!" Have I mentioned that I am a bit of a political junkie?)

In this book, Angus continued to insist on taking the high road, while wading through another election (which he actually wants to win this time); researching then writing the McLintock Report and dealing with its aftermath following the collapse of a bridge (Angus is an engineer after all); hosting the President and First Lady of the United States; and trying to influence the Throne Speech and Federal Budget.

I don't think that I laughed out loud as much in this book as in the first, but it was still a very amusing read. And engaging. I did polish it off in 2 days; and even this afternoon, I was going to read for another 15 minutes then make dinner and when I checked my watch again, 45 minutes had passed.

I continued to enjoy the narrative style which was the same as the first book - most of it is told in the first person through the eyes of Daniel Addison, Executive Assistant to Angus; with a brief journal entry by Angus at the end of each chapter giving his perspective on the story. Some of the jokes started to get a bit stale by the end (e.g. Angus and Daniel correcting split infinitives), but I was sorry to see the end of this book. The author's website announced last week that his next book is going to be published in September 2012. After spending the last week immersed in this fictional, yet eerily reminiscent of real life, world, I don't know how I am going to wait for a year and a half to read the next installment.

The one thing that this book did was make me sad for the state of Canada today. I'm afraid that our government is going downhill; and I wish that we could have one Member of Parliament with the integrity and audacity of Angus McLintock that could change the direction for the better. I suspect that the budget that is going to be announced tomorrow afternoon will have nothing in common with the budget announced at the end of The High Road. Where is the Canadian politician today that will take the high road?

June 3, 2011

The Best Laid Plans - Terry Fallis

I should probably warn any readers from the outset that this post may contain some gushing.

I loved this book!

If I had read it prior to the Canada Reads debates, I probably would have been cheering for it, even over Essex County.

I first heard of this book last summer, when Terry Fallis was one of the authors at the Sleeping Giant Writers' Festival and I was fortunate enough to sit next to him at lunch. It was a very hilarious lunch around our table, even though none of us knew each other, and I figured that if he was as entertaining in print as he was in person, this book would be a good read.

I am also a closeted political junkie who tends to come out of the closet during election campaigns, so this book was custom made for me.

The premise, just in case you don't already know, is that Daniel, a young speech writer for the Liberal Party of Canada, decides to leave Ottawa after a particularly nasty break-up with his girlfriend. As a parting promise to the party, he agrees to find a candidate to run in the "safest Conservative riding in the country." He convinces his landlord, Angus McClintock, to run, on the agreement that under no circumstances would he ever win. Of course, since it is a comedic book, a sex scandal dethrones the Conservative candidate, Angus wins, and he is off to try and change Ottawa with Daniel as his somewhat blinkered executive assistant at his side.

This book is not one that I should try to read in public, as I was laughing out loud at times. It was, however, a book that had me putting on my PJ's at 9 every night this week so that I could get an extra hour of reading in at bedtime.

It was also a very timely book, given the recent federal election. There is definitely the analogy with all of the NDP candidates in Quebec who ran with no expectation of winning (some of them having never been to the riding that they were running in, and spending the election campaign out of the country) and then ended up in parliament. There were no dates given, or names for most of the political figures in the book (they are instead referred to as The Prime Minister, The Speaker, The Leader of the Official Opposition), and the election was a fictional election based on fictional issues; but it all could have been real. Listening to the Speech from the Throne this afternoon had extra meaning, given the fact that the Speech from the Throne following an election plays a pivotal role in the book.

I have been recommending this book left, right, and centre all week, even though I only finished it today. Well, mostly left, since that is the way that I tend to vote, as well as the people that I tend to hang out with. I also purchased the sequel, The High Road, on my way home this morning, even though I hadn't quite finished this book yet.

The book isn't perfect. I thought that the romantic thread running through it was a bit unnecessary and tacked on. I also found the first part of the book more engaging and amusing. The second part was less laugh-out-loud funny, but more plot-driven.

I also loved the story-telling style. Most of the book is first-person narrative from Daniel's point of view, so we see events unfolding from his perspective. But at the end of every chapter, there is a journal entry by Angus, in the form of a letter to his deceased wife, which gives the reader his perspective, including his opinion of Daniel. I just hope that this style carries over into the next book.

In summary, the best book I have read in quite some time!

May 28, 2011

Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin

I read this book on a dare. Not quite on the scale of the infamous Twilight Dare; more of a self-inflicted dare. Loni first alerted me to the offensive New York Times article implying that women wouldn't watch the new HBO series based on the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series of which this is the first book. The writer, Ginia Bellafante, states,
While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

Now I have never heard of Lorrie Moore, but I found this to be extremely offensive. Not only have I read The Hobbit, but I also worked my way through the full Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time when I was 13 years old; Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider books are among my favourite series; and I have read lots of fantasy books in my time (often recommended by my cousin - waving to Kim if you are reading this!). So based on this article, how could I not read Game of Thrones!

I don't know what I was expecting going into this book, other than "boy fiction" as Ms. Bellafante calls it. I guess I was expecting lots of sex and violence and hopefully a well-developed fantasy world.

Sex - yes it was there, but not as graphic as I had feared. Violence - yes, but again not too graphic or offensive; more as a plot device which was not lingered on for longer than necessary. And the fantasy world? Yes, it was there (with some striking similarities to the European Middle Ages), and while I was reading, it was real to me. And dragons even made an appearance at the end!

I really liked how the story was told, with chapters alternating between different points of view from different characters. It wasn't told in the first person - that would have been too disjointed - but the different points of view gave a very balanced view of different characters. I'm not quite sure who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, but that's real life I guess.

Now for what I didn't like...

The length. This book came in at 800 pages in paperback, and it is the shortest one in the series to date. The 5th book is scheduled to come out in July and there are 7 planned in the series. It is huge in scope with multiple inter-connected plot lines taking place simultaneously (hence the multiple points of view); however I can't help but wonder if it is so broad that it looses focus. I really found that it dragged on by the end, and I can't see myself plodding through further, longer volumes. Plus all of the plot lines ended without any resolution - almost like all 7 books are really one book in multiple volumes - one very long, 5600 page book.

The treatment of women. Maybe there is something to Ms. Bellafante's critique. There are a few stronger female characters, but for the most part, the women are either prostitutes or the property of their men-folk. The only truly strong female character (in my opinion) is Daenerys who takes the lousy hand she is dealt and manipulates the situation so that she thrives. (Another character, Arya, is strong, but gets there only by pretending to be a boy.) Plus there is a very blatant double standard - men are expected to have at least one or two bastards hanging around (or in some cases, many, many bastards); while if a wife gives birth to a child, no-one questions that it must be her husband's.

The despair. Every character seems to be longing for a time of peace, and "the way things used to be;" and yet there is no hint that anyone is going to get there. Plus the so-called good guys keep getting killed.

So am I glad that I took up the dare and read this book? Yes. There were some characters that I really liked (Daenerys, Tyrion, Bran). Will I read the rest of the series? Probably not, based on the length if nothing else; though I may watch the HBO series and from what I've heard, it is a fairly faithful adaptation of the book. Besides, I can always find out what happens in subsequent books on Wikipedia!

May 20, 2011

Port Mortuary - Patricia Cornwell

I have been reading Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta books for several years now, and can generally count on them for a good diversion - interesting enough to keep me occupied for a week or so, but not so great that I need to rush out and buy a copy as soon as they are released. This one was no different.

When it came out last November, I added my name to the (very) long hold list at the local library. Now when there is a waiting list for a book, you only get it for a week, no renewals allowed; and yet my turn didn't come up until the end of February. I had waited so long that I assumed my name had been taken off the list! And when the e-mail did arrive in my in-box, I was 4 provinces away, at the beginning of a week's holiday. So needless to say, I wasn't able to pick it up in the 3 days specified, and when I got home again, I put my name back at the bottom of the list. And finally this month, I got to read the book.

The story was what I've come to expect from the series - some gory murders, scientific analysis of the evidence, and lots of red herrings. This book focused a lot on the relationship between Sarpetta and her husband, Benton, and I missed the presence of Lucy through much of the story. The writing was so-so. There were several glaring grammatical errors that made me cringe; and yet there was another scene that was so brilliantly written that I was drawn right in to the situation.

Possible Spoiler below.
(The book is written in the first person with Scarpetta as narrator. At one point, she is accidentally drugged, but didn't realize it at first. As I was reading, I was getting very frustrated with the dialogue and the characters, and I was getting ready to throw the book across the room because none of it was making sense. And then when Scarpetta realized that she had been drugged, it all made sense - we, the readers, were seeing the situation through her drugged view. I was drawn right in, and had no clue what was happening - I just knew that it wasn't making sense.)
End Spoiler

So I probably will keep reading the books in this series as they are released, but they will remain as library books, rather than purchases.

May 6, 2011

Skim - Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

This is a book that has been on my "Want to Read" list for a while, and so last weekend, when I was putting in an online order, I decided to add it to the list. And when the order arrived this afternoon, I couldn't wait to pick it up, even though I have 2 library books that I should have read first.

It is a quick read, as I am discovering that graphic novels usually are. But for the hour or so I was reading, I was transported right back to high school, and all of the confusion and insecurity associated with that time. I could relate to Skim (officially Kimberly Keiko Cameron) and her experience of feeling isolated and not quite understanding what was going on. The issues that I remember from high school are not the same as what Skim is facing - I don't remember any suicides at my school, and I didn't have a lesbian crush on one of my teachers - but the issues that I do remember (depression, bullying, teen pregnancy...) resonated the same. I still remember the feeling of wanting to fit in, and yet seeing fitting in as being hypocritical. As an interesting side note, the book takes place in the fall of 1993 when Skim is 16 - I was also 16 in the fall of 1993.

I loved Skim's observations of the crazy world around her. "Truthfully I am always a little depressed but that is just because I am sixteen and everyone is stupid (ha-ha-ha). I doubt it has anything to do with being a goth." "Halloween is when a lot of non-witches dress up like witches. So it's hard to see people as they really are. Unless they are dressed up like Barbie or Nixon or Freddy, in which case you know they are lame-o freaks." "My school = goldfish tank of stupid." "P.S. Mom is NOT a light sleeper. Good thing I'm not a drug addict or anything or I could easily rob her blind."

So who should read this book? Anyone who remembers the real angst of being a misfit in high school. Or anyone who is currently experiencing the angst of being a misfit in high school. (Interestingly, this book is put out by a children's publisher.) Maybe not the "popular girls" from high school - though I'm not saying that they didn't have their problems, they just appeared as though they didn't.

And as an extra bonus, the day after I ordered this book, John over at The Book Mine Set announced a mini-challenge - if 10 Canadian books with a Japanese connection are reviewed in the month of April, he will donate $200 to the Red Cross. As Mariko and Jillian Tamaki are cousins of Japanese origin, this book definitely counts!

April 23, 2011

Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John - Jean Vanier

This is a book that is very difficult to review. It is a devotional, with meditations written on John's gospel, by a hero of mine, Jean Vanier. Each chapter is devoted to a section of the gospel (usually a full chapter), and reads a bit like a sermon - not the boring kind of sermon that is easy to tune out but more like the type of sermon that engages your attention and causes you to reflect on the implications in your own life.

It was recommended to me by a retired minister a month or so ago, when I phoned him to ask him to cover a Sunday service at my church. He told me about this book, and that he reads through it as a devotional every year during Lent. As I mentioned above, Jean Vanier is a hero of mine; plus I love reading the Gospel of John, so the book seemed like a perfect match. And so it was. It lived up to it's title, "Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus" and at times I could sense the presence of Jesus in the room with me as I was reading.

I also managed to time my reading so that I was reading through the second half of the gospel this past week; reading about Jesus entering Jerusalem last Sunday (Palm Sunday), his arrest and crucifixion yesterday (Good Friday), and then his resurrection today, as the world prepares to celebrate the Easter miracle tomorrow. I suspect that this added extra depth to my reading.

Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who is a fan of Jean Vanier and his work; anyone who loves the Gospel of John; and also to anyone who is seeking to know Jesus or learn more about Christianity. I suspect that I will join the retired minister who recommended this book to me in making it a part of my annual Lenten devotions.