Wednesday 27 June 2007

A Mixed Bag of Reading and Listening

Finished June 27
You Suck: a love story by Christopher Moore
My first vampire romance. This book had a lot of humour and the characters had some depth to them. I particularly liked Abby Normal. She rang true. The police tracking the vampires, the elder vampire seeking revenge, and the blue hooker brought to town by the Animals all added their own twist to the story. The character William with his huge shaved cat were great and the sweater was a nice touch. I liked some of the subtle humour here. I think my favourite was this exchange:
"You're the one with almost an MBA," Barry, the short balding one, said to Lash.
"You should know what to do."
"They don't cover what to do with a dead hooker," Lash countered. "That's a whole
different program. Political science, I think."
So, amusing and very different.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami, Read by Janet Song
Like all Murakami's novels, this one uses language with finesse. His choice of words is always well thought out. There are some definite themes here, such as screens (like TVs) and mirrors. These blur the lines between real and dream worlds. The characters are solid and well-thought out and they relate well to each other. I love this type of novel, where you have to pay close attention to the phrasing and the mannerisms and not just the plot. The contrast between what Mari thinks of herself and how she appears to others came across strongly. She is stronger than she thinks she is, and the ties she forms with her sister and her trombonist friend show that.

Finished June 25
Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe
This is a great guide for email, guiding the reader through when, and when not, to use email for communication. Advice is given for avoiding miscommunication, often a problem with email due to the lack of tone of voice and body language. The authors even help with those situations where you've sent something you shouldn't have.
I consider myself pretty good when it comes to email etiquette, but I still learned a few things from this book. Definitely a good choice.

Sunday 24 June 2007

Three finished over the weekend

Finished June 24
This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M.Homes
I loved this book. The main character, Richard Novak is a fifty-five year old divored man who makes a living trading stocks from home. He manages his life with a full-time housekeeper, a nutritionist, a trainer, and a masseuse. The book begins when he has an attack of intense pain that takes him to the hospital emergency room. As he begins to notice what is going on around him and come back to life in a sense, many more things begin to happen. A sinkhole starts on the hill outside his house. He meets people he may never have met in his life before the pain and tries to reconnect with his family. On his way home from the hospital, he stops at a donut shop and meets the owner Amhil, whose enthusiasm gathers him into an unlikely friendship. In helping a little girl rescue her horse from a sinkhole he meets the famous actor who lives across the street from him. He finds himself becoming involved in others' lives and assisting them in making new starts as well. This is a great book and I could hardly put it down. I can't help wondering what happens next to everyone.

Finished June 23
Falling Man by Don DeLillo
This is a novel of the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Keith is a man who worked in the towers. He finds refuge in the home of his estranged wife and son, but also in sharing the events of the escape from the towers with another escapee, Florence whose briefcase he ended up bringing with him out of the building. He remains emotionally detached from all of them and ends up in a nomadic existence, living a solitary life of his own making.
Lianne, his estranged wife has accepted him back into the apartment and her bed, but still isn't sure of where their relationship is going.
Justin we see from their point of view only, a child disturbed by the attack, looking at the sky for signs of more planes, retreating into a world where he uses only monosyllabic words.
There are also choppy insertions from one of the terrorists, first from Germany where they are training mentally for the attack, then from Florida where they are taking flight training, and finally from the plane itself. These don't seem to relate to the rest of the story and don't fit well. I don't think they add anything.
For those characters dealing with the aftermath, the struggle to make sense of their lives and their futures is an ongoing one, with moments of enlightenment.

Finished June 22
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I listened to the unabridged audio with Atossa Leoni reading. I found it utterly engrossing. You hear the story first from the point of view of Mariam, a girl from Herat born out of wedlock (a haromi) and married at 15 to a much older man from Kabul. The next narrator is a young Kabul girl, Laila, who is left an orphan after a bombing in Kabul. She becomes the second wife of the same man Mariam married. The two women have very different backgrounds, and very different attitudes but become very close. The events taking place in Afghanistan, and particularly in Kabul over the years that the story takes place are made vivid as part of the story. As the women struggle with their situation and eventually escape their husband I found myself caring a lot about them. Kabul became more real as a city home to many as the daily struggles are interactions are recounted along with the larger events. The horrific decrees of the Taliban (any woman caught wearing nail polish will have a finger removed stays with me) and the struggles of the inhabitants to survive in a war zone is made very real. The emotions of both women and their thought processes are given very realistically. I absolutely loved this book.

Tuesday 19 June 2007

Read over the weekend

Finished June 17
Apocalypse 2012: a Scientific Investigation into Civilization's End by Lawrence E. Joseph
This book explores the significance of the year 2012 in different cultures, finding a common denominator in a massive change, rebirth, and end of "the world as we know it" among them. He goes on to look at different scientific scenarios leading to a similar outcome. These include the building of global warming; impending eruption of a supervolcano; a peak in the sunspot cycle where the low spot has already had huge numbers of sunspots; and larger cycles like mass extinction (which the earth is overdue for). It's enough to scare you underground! I found both the cultural myth side and the scientific side interesting, and the lack of concerted attention by government to the scientific issues sad. It is definitely an interesting book and may cause you to change some of your behaviours.

Finished June 16
Obsession by Karen Robards
To me the title didn't really fit the plot on this one. There is a lot going on: sexual chemistry, murder, threats, kidnapping, the CIA, jewels; but at times it seemed almost too much. The staging of events, the re-enactment of murders, the drugging of participants to keep them in character was all a bit over-the-top. Needless to say the good guys won in the end, with a small sideshow at the beginning and end to bring in the "obsession" part. And the all lived happily ever after, with all the nasty characters dealt with. Definitely a book that keeps things moving and you have to pay attention to keep on top of the plot. A good summer read.

Finished June 15
Hide by Lisa Gardner
This is a page-turning thriller. An underground room is discovered on the grounds of a disused Boston mental hospital. In the room, arranged on shelves in bags, the mummified remains of six young girls. The only obvious clue is a locket with a name around one of the girl's necks.
A young woman who used to go by that name, Annabelle Granger, goes to the police to tell her story, hoping that they might be able to tell her why she spent her life on the run with her parents, changing names and cities every couple years.
As they reach into the past to try to find the answers, a victim of an older case is drawn in as well as several possible suspects. The plot keeps moving and never feels forced, yet also isn't too predictable. I really enjoyed this.

Sunday 17 June 2007

Four more recent fiction

Finished June 13
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman, performed by Linda Emond
This audiobook grabbed me from the beginning. A woman gets into a car accident and instead of staying to deal with it starts walking down the road. When stopped she refers to a dual kidnapping from thirty years before. The woman claims to be the youngest one of the two girls that went missing, but holds out on telling the story of what happens. As we hear about the day the girls went missing from different points of view and gradually learn more and more about what really happened, our mind opens to more and more possibilities. A great suspense book.

Hidden Depths by Ann Cleeves
The discovery of a young man's body in a bathtub scattered with flowers gets the lead detective Vera Stanhope thinking. When a second body is discovered, also scattered with flowers, this time in a tidal pool, she tries to find a link between the two victims. The group of friends who discover the second body draw her attention. They are very disparate characters and yet seem very close. The character of Vera is well-drawn and sympathetic. As you discover her background and loneliness, and see how she uses it to be a better detective you come to like her more and more. I enjoyed this one, the second I've read by Cleeves and will be looking for others.

Finished June 10
Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
As expected Jodi Picoult takes a situation that is difficult to discuss and examine and helps us to see it in new ways. In this case, it is a school shooting, where ten students are killed and many more injured. She shows the leadup to the shooting and the aftermath from many different viewpoints. The four main ones are the shooter; his mother, a midwife; her estranged friend, a local judge assigned the case; and the judge's daughter and shooter's schoolmate and sometime friend. All of them are shown living their lives, making the occasional mistake that all of us are prone to make. They are also shown dealing with the aftermath of the event. The mothers question their own behaviour, wondering if and where they went wrong. You see the precariousness of popularity in high school and the peer pressure and social politics that go on, not merely with the students, but with the teachers and administration as well. Parents try to help their children protect themselves, without always understanding all they have to deal with.
It is definitely a sad book, but also a book that makes you question behaviours and norms and think about ways to make a difference.

Finished June 6
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
This short novel about a young couple's honeymoon night and the summary of its aftermath is very moving. You could see what was going to happen and yet hoped that it would not be as bad as you thought. You felt for both of them, products of their upbringing and of their particular families. You wanted them to find a way through it, that would bring their relationship to a truer, more honest place. It seemed to me to be about many of our failings as humans, about fear of admitting lack of knowledge, pride, fear of baring one's true self, and an inability to admit that we were wrong.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

A Historical Mystery with a unique setting

Finished June 6
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin
This mystery is set in 1830s Istanbul, with a eunuch as the detective. Yashim Togalu is a trusted friend of the sultan's mother, the valide. He has been summoned by the seraskier, the commander of the sultan's troops to investigate the disappearance of four young officers. He is also summoned by the valide to investigate the murder of a girl in the harem and the disappearance of the valide's Napoleonic jewels. He works at investigating both, and starts focussing on the Janissaries when the officers bodies start appearing with clues relating to Janissary methods.
Ten years before this the sultan had routed the Janissaries, who policed not only the city but also were spread around the empire. While many were killed, many more went into other professions and Yashim begins to wonder if they have regrouped and are planning a revolution.
Yashim receives assistance from several of his friends including the ambassador of Poland and Preen, a dancer transvestite. He also gets help from the Russian ambassador's wife, an archivist, and a new friend from his neighbourhood.
I found the history of Istanbul that was included here very interesting, without feeling that it was forced in. The characters were interesting and Yashim's own feelings and thoughts brought to life very well. The details that were included were pertinent to the plot and yet interesting in their own right as well. I will definitely be hoping for a second book featuring Yashim.

Saturday 2 June 2007

One for work and one for fun

Finished June 2
The New Yorkers by Cathleen Schine
This novel looks at a number of people and dogs that live on one block in New York City. She tells the story from a number of points of view and shows how the different characters interact with each other and are changed by this interaction. I found several of the characters appealing, and all of them believable. A theme running through the book is that we are all only human after all and have feelings and behaviours that we are not always proud of, but that are things that make us vulnerable to others. The way that dogs are used to assist in the interaction of the characters is interesting and the dogs are individualized as well.

Finished May 30
151 Quick Ideas to Recognize and Reward Employees by Ken Lloyd
This quick read gives a variety of ideas to motivate staff, some more practical than others. I found about 40 that would work for me, although I am already doing quite a few of them. It was useful as a reminder of the different ways to encourage people to give their best work and feel good about their commitment to the organization.

Vacation Reads

These books were read over a three week trip to Newfoundland for fun and business and where my reading was definitely not up to my normal level!

Finished May 26
Tsunami: The Newfoundland Tidal Wave Disaster by Maura Hanrahan
On November 18, 1929, an offshore earthquake on the Grand Banks triggered a tsunami that hit the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland, killing 27 people, destroying homes, wharves, flakes, and boats and sweeping away everything from provisions and heating fuel for the winter to the fish ready to be sold. This meant that families lost not only homes and supplies, but the source of income and the tools for earning the income. This book tells the story of the communities, individual victims, and those to who stepped in to help them and it brings the disaster to life.
An excellent read.

Finished May 12
The Devil's Feather by Minette Walters
This queen of psychological crime fiction has done it again. Reuters correspondent Connie Burns grew up as the daughter of a white farmer in Zimbabwe. She has often had the role of a war correspondent, covering civil unrest in Sierra Leone, and most recently, the war in Iraq. While Connie was based in Sierra Leone, there were several incidents of women found raped and hacked to death in their own homes. A British DI, Alan Collins, in the country as part of a training force, is troubled by the crimes and by the way the three young men who are indicted for the crimes are caught. He thinks the assaults were the work of one man, maybe even one of the foreign contingent and mentions this to Connie. This remark focuses Connie's suspicions on John Harwood, a foreigner on private contract as a bodyguard. She remembers his face from a previous stint in the Congo, but thinks he was a mercenary soldier there under a different name, Keith MacKenzie. When she is posted to Iraq and encounters him there working in a private security firm apparently under the name Kenneth O'Connell, her interest in his previous crimes is awakened. She is blocked from contact with him, and this encourages her to research crimes in Iraq that are similar to those in Sierra Leone. She contacts Alan Collins to get his advice but she is already being stalked by someone gaining access to her hotel room when she is out. As she becomes scared enough to leave town, she is kidnapped on the way to the airport. When she is released 3 days later, she has no visible signs of abuse, but flees to England, and eventually to the British countryside. Here, she meets her independent neighbour Jess Derbyshire and draws from the young woman's strength of mind to face down her experience and her fear. The characters are brilliant and there is true suspense.

Finished May 8
Q&A by Vikas Swarup
This delightful novel tells of a young Indian man's difficult and eventful life story through the means of a television contest, "Who Win Win a Billion?". Ram Mohammed Thomas, abandoned as a baby, and brought up in a variety of environments, has entered and won the contest. The television producers are unprepared for such a win this early in the show's history and don't believe he could have done it without cheating. He is questioned by the police and unexpectedly rescued by a young female lawyer. She goes through the footage of the contest with him and he explains how his life experiences gave him the knowledge to answer each question. The characters come alive as do their difficult circumstances. I found myself cheering for him throughout.

Finished May 6
Twenty Questions by Alison Clement
The main character, June, is married to Bill and works in the school cafeteria. When her car fails her one day, a man offers her a ride and she refuses. She hears later that a woman was killed after accepting a ride from the same man. Ronald Pruett is arrested for strangling Vernay Hanks. Vernay's daughter, Cindy, is a student who assists in the cafeteria. She finds herself drawn to Cindy and pretends a friendship with Cindy's mother. She gets drawn into Cindy's home life with her uncle, Harlen, and finds herself having a secret life that her husband is not aware of. When her two worlds collide, she finds herself having to make a decision. It took me a while to get into the story, but once I did it was engrossing. You really get to understand June and how her life has become what it is.