November 27, 2012

Divergent - Veronica Roth

This is the last book that I took on my beach holiday last week - I started it on the airplane flying home, and finished it on the airplane yesterday traveling for work!  (And then accidently left it in the airport along with my iPad and magazine I was reading - fortunately it is a very, very, very small airport and they were still on the table where I left them when I went back 45 minutes later after I realized that I had left them there!)

Anyways, back to the book.  I had picked up a copy after I had heard great things about it, but I didn't particularly enjoy it.  I felt as though the author was jumping on the current trend of Dystopian YA books.  It read like a bad take-off of The Hunger Games, which I had quite enjoyed.

For anyone who doesn't already know the plot basics - it is set in Chicago at some point in the future.  Society is divided into 5 factions (Amity, Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, and Candor) based on what they value and what they believe to be the cause of conflict.  No back-history is given, so the reader never learns what events led up to this situation.  At age 16, all children are required to choose which faction they wish to belong to - maybe the one that they were born and raised to, or maybe one of the other.  They are subjected to an aptitude test to determine which faction they would best be suited for.

There are also the factionless - those who for some reason have been kicked out of their faction, or are divergent (i.e. have aptitudes in more than one faction).  As you can guess from the title, the main character, Beatrice (later named Tris) is divergent.  She was raised Abnegation, but chooses to become Dauntless.  The story is about the challenges that she faces as a divergent, as well as what happens as inter-faction conflict develops.

What I liked:  it was an easy read - perfect for an airplane ride or two; the concept of factions was interesting (though I can't help but think that most people in real-life would be divergent); and the main characters, Tris and Four/Tobias were overall likable and realistic.

What I didn't like:  the secondary characters did not feel at all fleshed out - I didn't feel like I got to know them; it felt too much like a Hunger Games rip-off; no back-story was given at any point for the reader to understand how society got there; and overall it just felt a bit clumsy (I have to say that I wasn't surprised that it was mostly written while the author was a student and it was published when she was 22 years old).

I generally do like dystopian literature (Margaret Atwood - I'm waiting for you to finish the Oryx and Crake trilogy!); but I think that one of the key points to a good dystopian book is that it should make you reflect on current society.  This book did not fulfill this expectation.  With no background given, the society presented by the book seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to our current society, and so did not present any commentary on current society.  Which left me feeling flat and detached.

I don't think that I will bother reading the rest of the trilogy (Insurgent, and a 3rd yet-to-be-named book), unless I am desperate for an easy read and have nothing else on hand!

November 25, 2012

Y - Marjorie Celona

An Advance Readers' Copy of this book was sent to a friend of mine over the summer (it was released in September) and she raved about it and passed it on to me when she finished.  It later made the Giller long-list, but was cut when the shortlist was announced.

I don't think, with all of the books that I've read, that I've ever read a book dealing with the themes of this book, and it fascinated me.  Shannon (a.k.a. Shandi, Samantha, or Jo) is abandoned as a newborn on the steps of the Victoria YMCA.  She enters the foster-care system and is later adopted.  Layered with Shannon's story is the story of her parents and the events that led up to her abandonment; and later the threads of the life of Vaughn, the man who saw Shannon being left on the doorstop, are woven in as well.

Y, the title, can represent a fork in the road.  Yes or No?  The question, "Why?"  Or it can just be the Y where Shannon was abandoned.

Shannon, as she grows up, deals with issues of abandonment; issues of being adopted into a pre-existing family; issues of identity; issues of abuse.  I found her story to be very compelling.  Yula, her birth mother, I found much less sympathetic; however it was Yula's story that eventually brought tears to my eyes.  Vaughn, I found to be almost a non-entity, only introduced as a plot device.

Overall, I enjoyed this book... with reservations.  Those reservations come in the form of the inconsistency of the writing (e.g. Vaughn's story being introduced late in the day), as well as the neat and tidy ending, whereas in real life things seldom wrap up that way.  I would recommend this book to someone looking for an interesting read.  This is the author's first published novel, and I have very high hopes for her future books.

This book, along with the 3 previous reviews (419, Forgotten, and Bones are Forever) all count towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.  5 books down, 8 left to go, with 7 months left to go.  Should make it this year!

(I was on holidays this week, lounging on a beach in Florida, hence the time for reading lots of books and getting my reviews up-to-date!)

November 23, 2012

Bones are Forever - Kathy Reichs

Kathy Reichs tends to release a new book every year in late-August; and like clockwork, I pick up a copy the first time I see them on sale.  I think that I have mentioned in previous reviews of her books that she went through a slump for a couple of books a few years back, and I almost gave up on the series, but her more recent books have bounced back and this one is no exception.

I find it difficult to review mystery books without giving away too many of the plot twists, so please excuse me if this comes across as a somewhat vague review!

Tempe, the main character through the series, is a forensic anthropologist (i.e. she works in a morgue and handles the bodies that are too far degraded for the other medical examiners to handle - fire, water, and time being the biggest hazards).  She splits her time between Montréal and Charlotte, North Carolina.  Having spent 4 years on Montréal, the books set in Canada tend to appeal the most to me, since I can recognize locations around the city.

This book starts out on Montréal with the discovery of 3 infant skeletons / bodies in an apartment.  The chase then goes to Edmonton and eventually to Yellowknife.  It would take someone familiar with Edmonton and Yellowknife to know if the author captured those cities as well as she does Montréal, but it felt realistic to me!

There are the usual plot twists that I expect from a good mystery story, and as usual for Kathy Reichs, there are a couple of plots that end up twisted together in the final resolution of the book.  I did guess the ending in advance, but it was still satisfying to see the resolution coming.  I think that is why I enjoy mystery books on occasion - I know that there is going to be a good, satisfactory resolution after a few hundred pages of action and build-up!

So I will keep picking up her books each August when they are released.  I am happy to support a (part-) Canadian author by buying the books, even though I usually don't buy mysteries (they usually don't stand up to re-reading!).  I've passed this book on to my aunt and uncle, and told them to pass it along once they have finished with it!

November 22, 2012

Forgotten - Catherine McKenzie

Earlier this year, I picked up Catherine McKenzie's book Arranged as an impulse airport purchase.  Well, it wasn't a planned purchase, but I had heard her interviewed on the CBC and planned to read the book at some point.  And then I read it in a day and loved it.  I generally don't enjoy Chick Lit, but for some reason read a few books in that genre every year.  And books like Arranged are the reason why - they show what good Chick Lit can be - likable heroines, interesting and original plots.  And so based on my reading of that book, I had planned on picking up her other books when I was looking for an easy but enjoyable read.

So... imagine my delight when Harper Collins e-mailed me back in August, asking if they could please send me a copy of her newest book to read and review!  A book that I was planning to read (and probably buy) at some point, being sent to me for free!

I've had this book on my TBR stack for a while, but as I noted a few posts ago, my for-fun reading time has been somewhat limited this fall.  But this week I am on vacation with a beach and sun and lots of time to read, so I packed several of the lighter reads from my TBR stack in my suitcase.  This one was the first one up, and like Arranged, I polished it off in less than a day.

The premise in this one is very unique.  Emma, the main character, travels to Africa (to the fictional country of Tswanaland) for a month after the death of her mother.  She gets sick while there, and while recovering in a remote village, the country is hit by a devastating earthquake.  She has no way to communicate with her friends back home to let them know that she is alive; no way to travel to the capital city; and no way to fly out of the country until the airport has been re-built.  Fast-forward 6 months later and she arrives home to discover that she has been declared missing and presumed dead.

Can you imagine not having anywhere to live (her landlord got rid of her stuff and re-rented out her apartment), no job (she was a lawyer and lost all seniority as her cases got re-assigned), no boyfriend (he hooked up with her nemesis), and no mother, whose death she was trying to escape with her trip?

The premise intrigued me.  Emma was a likable character.  Not perfect, but very endearing.  Dominic, the love interest (this is Chick Lit after all) is also likable.  The emotions felt real as Emma dealt with the aftermath of her mother's death as well as the confusion of needing to start her life over again.  The writing was solid (I was reading an Advance Reader's Copy - I'm assuming that the handful of typos were corrected before the book was released).

So... this book has not changed my opinion of Catherine McKenzie.  I will continue to pick up her books when I am looking for something light and enjoyable!

419 - Will Ferguson

I want to start out by saying that I read this book before it won the Giller Prize!  I picked up all 5 short-listed books when the shortlist was announced back at the beginning of October; but my for-fun reading time was quite limited and I didn't have time to read my way through the whole list.  So instead, when I had some reading time, I picked up the short-listed book that interested me the most and lo and behold, a few weeks later, it takes the prize!

I admit that I am a sucker for any book set in Africa, and that is probably why I picked this one out of the shortlist to read.  419 refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code to do with fraud.  I'm sure that anyone who is online receives these e-mails on a regular basis.  "Dear Madam, I am writing you because ....  Please send me $100 immediately by Western Union, and you will receive $100,000 in return..."  Fortunately I have a good spam filter on my e-mail account so only see them in passing as I empty my junk folder!  The premise behind this book is that an older man falls for one of these scams, loses all of his money and is about to lose his house, and commits suicide.  His family is then left trying to put the pieces together to figure out what happened.

At least that is the top layer of this story.  What I loved about it is how gradually the author introduces seemingly unrelated story lines; and the reader gets to see the different story lines eventually converge in the end.  Another story line is of the independent e-mail scammer working away in an internet cafe in Lagos, Nigeria, and how he gets drawn into the world of organized crime.  Then there is the young girl who is pregnant fleeing her home in north-eastern Nigeria on foot.  Then there is the layer of a young boy growing up in the Niger delta - known these days for the oil companies destroying the environment and causing violent conflict and kidnappings and murders.

But it was not just the layered structure of this book that I loved.  It has now been a month since I finished the book, and it is the images that have stayed with me.  A young girl, on foot, walking through the desert.  The absolute devastation to the environment, and thus to the people living there, caused by the oil industry in the delta.  A slightly agoraphobic and neurotic woman flitting between her condo in Calgary and the food court downstairs.

Will Ferguson is known mostly for his humour writing which I have never read, but based on this book, I will be picking up more of his books in the future.

I have loaned my copy of this book to a friend.  I had to leave it in her mailbox and so I e-mailed her the next day to make sure that she had received it.  She replied that yes, she had it, and that she was half-way through it already and loving it!

November 21, 2012

Catching up...

 It feels like a long time since I have posted anything here, and looking back at my posts, it has been a long time!  Life has been busy for the past several months, and I haven't been able to keep up with my reviews.  That doesn't mean that I haven't been reading though!

Over the summer, I did a lot of "fluff" reading.  Last year, I mentioned that I had found my latest guilty pleasure when I discovered the first Southern Vampire Mystery book (a.k.a. the first Sookie Stackhouse book), Dead Until Dark.  In the second part of August and into September, I read books 2-6 in the series (there have been 12 published so far with one more expected).  They continued to be easy and enjoyable reading, but I started to lose interest in reading one after another at that point.  Friends have loaned the rest of the series to me - I will probably pick them up at some point in the future to keep reading - just not right away.

Since September, I have also been reading the next set of books for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am doing.  I'm not going to write full reviews here, but will write a few sentences about each of the books I have read for the course.

 The Sermon:  Dancing the Edge of Mystery (Eugene Lowry)
We were told to pick one book on preaching from a list, and I picked this one because the title appealed to me.  I loved the juxtaposition of the word "sermon," a word with connotations of dullness; with the words "dancing" and "mystery."  The book did live up to my expectations, and I have found that it has really changed the way that I think about sermons.

Wonderful Worship in Smaller Churches (David R. Ray)
This book was required reading.  He defines "smaller churches" as anything with an attendance of fewer than 100; and so most of my worship experiences (in English!) fall into that category.  I did find that he provided a strong argument for the value of smaller churches, but I found him to be a bit prescriptive at times.

A History of God (Karen Armstrong)
This book was my elective from this time around.  It was very interesting reading - it looks at the way that the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have perceived God over the past 4000 years.  I had no idea that there were so many ways of perceiving God, and my own perspective has been broadened.  I think that the most valuable insight that I gained is that while God remains the same, each time and place views God through it's own cultural lens.

Over the summer, I also discovered free e-books for the Kobo and Kindle app on my iPad.  The problem with free e-books is that you get what you pay for.  The advantage of free e-books is that they are free.  I am still opposed to e-books (I much prefer reading traditional paper books) and refuse to actually pay money for them, but when they are free....  I have been reading them at the gym on my iPad which has the distinct advantage of staying open on the ledge of the Elliptical machine (unlike a paper book), and you can make the font size large which is an advantage whilst reading.  But since they tend to be trash, I won't waste space here with reviews!

I have read a couple of other books, which I will write full reviews of in the next couple of days.