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!