Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Finished July 1
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

I loved this novel. It is split into 4 parts. The first part occurs when Rose is turning 9. Her mother makes a lemon-chocolate cake for her birthday, and it tastes odd to Rose, empty, hollow, sad. She seems to understand quickly why, that she is able to taste the emotions of the person making food. From now on, this is constant, and she reverts to eating mass-produced food as a means of protecting herself. Some foods she finds herself unable to eat at all. She is unable to tell her parents, as she finds herself privy to her mother's emotions. She is only a young girl, and often the emotions she tastes are too much for her. She tells her brother's friend George, and he is intrigued, having her test food somewhere else. Her brother, Joseph, is aware, but has his own issues.
The next part is when she is twelve and has learned to deal better with her ability. She still has issues with some food, but has tasted a difference in her mother's emotions lately that make it easier for her to eat food prepared by her. She has grown to learn tastes of food grown in different areas, made in different factories. It is now that she becomes aware of her brother's issues more, and is concerned and curious about what is going on with him.
The third part is when she is seventeen, and even more able to deal with her ability. Her brother has moved out and become more insular, rarely venturing from his apartment. When something dramatic happens with him, she is the only one truly aware of what is happening.
These first three parts are all times that change her life in significant ways.
The fourth part takes place in the years following the third part. Rose finishes high school and begins working. She experiments with food in the restaurants surrounding her home, working her way further and further out, finding ones she can manage and some she even enjoys. As she does so, she becomes more aware of the secrets of her family, She begins to make connections to others and find a life for herself that she can look forward to.
This book begins with a very interesting premise, one that becomes more nuanced through the course of the novel. This book is about Rose, but also about family secrets, the feeling of being different from others, and how that affects relationships with others.

Content

Finished June 30
Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future by Cory Doctorow

This collection ranges from around 2004 to 2007 in terms of original publication. Because there is a fair bit of overlap in the subjects of some of the essays, I would have liked it more if they had been organized in chronological order. It would have been easier to see the evolution of his ideas and opinions over time that way. I was also a bit surprised at the date of the original material given that this was published recently. While all these issues are still relevant, there have been changes to the technology, environment, and public sentiment since these were written.
That said, I did find the content interesting. DRM (digital rights management) is still an issue, particularly for libraries. The standards and models for ebooks are still evolving, copyright is still important and still not balanced as well as it could be between creators and users, and privacy is a bigger issue than ever before.
Cory, with his life including both technology activist and fiction author, has a different outlook than many creators of content, more open to reuse, less concerned with protecting his own territory. He uses facts to show his point of view, arguing on the side of increased ability to use what others have created to create new material.
Something I'd recommend to other librarians as food for thought.

The Cry of the Sloth

Finished June 29
The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage

This novel is entirely composed of letters, notes, and other writings by the characters. The central character is Andrew Whittaker, a middle-aged man, whose wife left him for about two years ago. Andrew inherited a few rental properties from his father, but they appear to be running into disrepair and the tenants don't always pay the rent. He is beginning to have financial difficulties because of this. Some of the letters included are signed by other people, but I wasn't sure whether they really were, as the first couple were praising Andrew, as opposed to the impression I got from his own struggling writing. Later in the book, I began to revise this feeling, believing that they were indeed composed by others.
The action here takes place over a period of four months from July through October, sometime during the Nixon administration. Andrew seems to me to be suffering from depression, with his mental state deteriorating over the course of the novel.
Besides the letters to his ex-wife, sister, mother, tenants, an old college roommate, and creditors, there is also a series of letters to potential contributors to a literary magazine that Andrew created and edited. It also is suffering from financial problems and he has an ambitious plan to hold a literary festival to raise the necessary monies to bring it back into the black. Besides letters, other writings include bits of the novel Andrew is working on, shopping lists, advertisements for his rental units, and signs aimed at the tenants.
The title comes from an entry in a encyclopedia set about animals that Andrew finds in his house, and reappears at several points in the novel as something that Andrew identifies with.
This is an unusual book, that forced me to slow down to read it.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles

Finished June 26
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol, translated by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson

This is another good summer read choice. Set in Paris, this novel tells the story of a French family. Josephine lives with her husband Antoine and her two daughters, 15-year-old Hortense and 9-year-old Zoe. As the book begins, Antoine has been out of work for some months, and Josephine has been working hard to support the family, only to discover that Antoine has a girlfriend on the side. Josephine asks him to leave and he goes to live with his girlfriend, a hairdresser named Mylene. Soon after the two go to Africa to raise crocodiles for a Chinese man.
Josephine's older sister Iris has married a lawyer and lives a good life, but is bored and senses that her husband is growing tired of her. To impress someone at a dinner she attends, she claims she is writing a novel set in the 12th century and convinces Josephine to write it. Iris will attach her name to the book, but Josephine will get the money, something she badly needs. Against her better judgement, Josephine agrees.
As we see Josephine's extended family, her snobby mother; her kind and wealthy, but lonely stepfather; her brother-in-law, we learn a little more about her, and how she came to live the life she is in. As she must raise her girls mostly alone, we see her gain confidence as well. We see how she grows to like her brother-in-law more and her sister less as she becomes more aware of what drives each of them.
Her stepfather also begins to tire of his wife's attitude and look elsewhere for happiness.
The story extends to Josephine's friends and neighbours, with the one single mother eager to take any option to avoid working herself, while the other has a mysterious secret and the confidence to support Josephine in her steps toward a new life.
Fun and lively, this book has also been made into a movie in France, and I shall be looking for its release here.

Friday, 19 June 2015

The Killer Next Door

Finished June 18
The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood, read by Imogen Church

This suspense novel has some very graphic scenes of murder and its aftermath. But it is also ones of those books with interesting twists and turns and I just wanted to stay with it and read until the end.
In the London suburb of Northbourne, there is a house, 23 Beulah Grove, that has been split into small bedsits and apartments. The landlord is Roy Preece, a man in his 40s who inherited the house from an aunt. Overweight and predatory on his female tenants, Roy is always looking for ways to increase his rent income.
As the book begins, Collette is being shown a bedsit. The previous tenant, Nikki,  disappeared and he is quick to move someone else in, even though all her stuff is still there.
Vesta lives in the basement, in the largest apartment, one she's lived in all her life. Her rent is controlled, and on her small pension she isn't going anywhere.
Collette rents the small bedsit on the main floor, cleaning up Nikki's stuff herself to enable her to move in more quickly. Collette is on the run, and has been for three years. She hasn't been back in England since she ran from witnessing a violent attack, and both the police and her former employer are looking for her. They seem to keep finding her, causing her to move on often. She is back because her mother has been moved to a nursing home and she wants to be close to her.
Also on the main floor is Gerard, a reclusive music teacher, who plays his music at high volume for hours. They share a bathroom.
On the second floor is a young woman, Cher, of mixed race, who lives a precarious life, stealing what she needs to survive. When Roy warns her that he is raising her rent, she must take more risks to get the money she needs.
Also on the second floor is Hussein, a refugee claimant from Iran. He was a teacher there, but his views got him in trouble and his wife went out one day and never returned. He thinks she was taken to prison and tortured, but he doesn't know for sure. He isn't allowed to work while he waits, but he has been writing articles for anyone who'll take them, and the refugee board pays for his room. He and Cher share a bathroom.
On the top floor is Thomas, a man who works for the Citizens' Advisory Bureau, and whose manner and incessant talking turn away most people he encounters. He is lonely and eager to connect with others.
As the tenants interact, we see how they are all people who have slipped below notice of the rest of the world. But they make connections to each other. Vesta has always been good at making friends and she has befriended both Hussein and Cher, and quickly includes Collette in her group. She is a motherly figure, with common sense and good at observing what goes on around her. She knows that Roy is always trying to find ways to urge her to leave so he can raise the rent, by not performing maintenance and making changes to make her home less inviting, but she is determined to stay in the only home she has.
One night, the sewer back up, and Vesta is hardest hit, bringing out her emotions against Roy. When something terrible happens that night she, along with the other tenants deal with the aftermath, working together to keep their lives intact without involving the authorities.
What they don't know is that one of them is a killer, who has already murdered more than once and who has his eyes on his next victim. The reader knows him as The Lover and must wonder which of the male characters he is as the book progresses.
With Roy's greed, Collette's fear, Cher's desperation, Vesta's intransigence, Hussein's grief, Thomas' loneliness, and Gerard's obliviousness, the characters combine to form interesting interactions.
I really enjoyed this read.

The Flood

Finished June 18
The Flood by David Sachs

This disaster novel has a dystopian feel to it. As the book begins, there has been a massive (9.6 on the Richter scale) earthquake in Antarctica and a massive carving of the ice shelf. These events have caused tsunamis going up all oceans from there, and there are reports of massive loss of life from the Southern hemisphere.
In New York City, emergency measures have asked everyone to evacuate and Travis awoke to this news, made his way on foot to his ex-wife, Corrina, and son, Darren, and they along with Corrina's husband Gerry have made their way to the piers where all ships and boats available are taking on people for the evacuation. The four make it onto a cruise ship, and the ship heads out to sea, encountering the bump of the tsunami wave out there, where is it much less devastating. They believe all is well, but when they encounter another ship that has come under the control of people with violence in mind, things change completely.
They are left with a stranded ship, cut off from outside communications, and with most of the ship's officers dead. As the passengers and refugees come together to manage the aftermath, leadership clashes and resentment over the division of supplies, along with no signs of rescue, cause things to quickly slip into an untenable situation.
This book looks at human reaction to disaster, the urge by some to help others and the urge by others to help themselves. We see how some can stay calm and others quickly become panicked. Travis, as a paramedic, is more the calm, thoughtful type, used to dealing with rapidly changing situations. Others, caught up in their own image of importance breed resentment and create divisions unnecessarily. This book will make you think about how you react to situations, as well.
The writing is great, and the main characters have complexity that makes the plot even more interesting.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Wilding

Finished June 17
The Wilding by Benjamin Percy

This novel is about a man, his relationships with his father, his wife, and his son. But it is also a tale of the wild nature in all of us. There are three main speakers: Justin, a schoolteacher who has never lived up to his father's expectations of male behaviour; Karen, Justin's wife, who has largely withdrawn from their marriage after the stillborn death of their second child years before; and Brian, a young man, suffering both physically and mentally from injuries received in Iraq.
Justin works hard at his job, but has left the house repairs slide lately due to his heavy workload. He still loves Karen strongly, but has almost stopped trying to connect with her after repeated rejections. His father is a man's man, and wants to take Justin and his sixth-grade son Graham on a weekend hunting trip at the spot he and Justin go to every year, as the area is slated for development. This will be Graham's first hunting trip.
Karen is obsessed with exercise, running daily and cooking only healthy, organic food she has carefully researched and bought. She is also obsessed with the obverse, looking up ugly diseases and disgusting illnesses on the internet to make herself feel better. She has no respect for Justin, but there seems to be little rational reason for her feelings toward him. Having lost one child, she is protective of Graham, and worried about the influence of Justin's father Paul.
Brian suffered a head injury in Iraq when a bomb sent off near the vehicle he was in, and has bad headaches and unexpected mood changes as a result. He lives alone, operating the business he inherited from his father, and is obsessed with the idea of becoming a wild animal.
The hunting trip is a opportunity for Paul to orient Graham to hunting, and yet Justin shows himself to be comfortable in this environment, a man who knows how to do things and worries about things appropriately.
When the presence of a bear becomes apparent, Justin must decide how much he is willing to risk for his family, and whether he can overcome his father's authority to protect Graham.
Karen also finds herself put in the position to make a choice that will affect her family, and she finds herself strangely pliant in the face of another's wishes.
Brian is drawn to Karen after meeting her through work, and yet also drawn to the wildness in himself. He will be forced to make a choice as well.
I liked the immediacy of nature in this book, from the two instances with the owls to the setting of the hunting camp and the recurring bear. The native story about nature and its revenge was also an interesting element.