Tuesday 30 October 2007

Sci-Fi Novellas

Finished October 28
Now and Forever by Ray Bradbury
This book contains two novellas: Somewhere a Band Is Playing and Leviathan '99. The first is about a reporter who is led by his research to a small town in Arizona. The train doesn't even stop here. When it slows he flings off his luggage and himself and begins to explore the town. He finds that he is expected and, as he explores, he is led to certain knowledge about the town, which the inhabitants don't want him to know. He has been followed by another reporter he has competed for stories with in the past, and finds himself on the town's side against the reporter. He also finds that he has knowledge about the town that the inhabitants are not yet aware of.
This is an interesting idea around what we believe.
The second novella is one that Bradbury has written in radio play form before and keeps rewriting. It was inspired by Moby Dick, and here the ship is a spaceship that travels space looking for a great white comet that may, or may not, destroy the earth. The main character is allowed by a fellow crew member to see into the minds of the captain and other officers to see the direction of their thoughts and how they will affect the outcome of the trip.
An interesting adaptation of the Melville story.

Children's Fantasy

Finished October 28
Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
This fantasy novel is set in London, England and Un Lun Dun, a parallel world populated by a mix of individuals including some who used to live in London. Un Lun Dun is the place lost and broken items go, including many of the things people place out by the curb hoping someone else will take them. There are ways to travel between the two, but they aren't predictable and just because you try, doesn't mean that you can get there, or get back.
Here, Un Lun Dun is being threatened and it is awaiting its hero, who coming was foretold in the pages of a talking book. 12-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find an entrance one night after following a broken umbrella and it seems like the prophesy is coming true, but things start going wrong despite help from Brokkenbroll, master of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is a large pincushion; Joe Jones, a bus conductor; and a milk carton named Deeba names Curdle.
Will the girls be able to make it back to London, and if they do will their families still remember them? And what about the evil menacing Un Lun Dun?
This is a wonderful tale, with humour and excitement (including carnivorous giraffes) and the heroes learn not to judge by outward appearances. There is also an environmental aspect to this book, which is relevant to our times.
I loved it.

Monday 29 October 2007

Another Canadian Novel

Finished October 27
Remembering the Bones by Frances Itani
With the success of her earlier novel, Deafening, I wondered if her new book would be as good, but it definitely is. This novel focuses on Georgina Witley, an 80-year-old woman. Georgina was born on the same day as Queen Elizabeth II and has been invited to help celebrate the occasion at Buckingham Palace. As her husband is dead, and her mother is very old, she has decided to go on her own, including driving to the airport in Toronto. Unfortunately she drives off the road into a ravine and is thrown from the car. Unable to move much due to her injuries she finds herself looking back on her life, singing old songs, and remembering the names of the bones in her body that she learned from her grandfather's anatomy book when she was a child.
As she follows her life through her family background, childhood, marriage and motherhood, she recalls family secrets, personal emotions and hardships. She also things about the Queen's life and its similarities and differences to her own.
George, as she is known to her friends, had a life dominated by the women in her family from her grandmother down to her daughter and has good memories with all of them. Her relations with the males in the family are both more difficult and less close, yet affected her life immensely. Her memories draw the characters clearly, showing heartache and resilience and ultimately at comfort with the life she has lived.
A wonderful book.

Fun and Silly Book

Finished October 26
What Pets Do While You're At Work by Jason Bergund and Bev West
This silly little book with pictures of pets at home and short captions about how they've been caught in the act is cute. I liked the pictures of animals behaving in amusing manners or acting cute, not so much the ones where they are posed or dressed up.
If you like animals and want a laugh, this offers many.

An intriguing mystery

Finished October 25

Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber

This novel is set in Syracuse, New York. The main character, Lena Dawson, is a fingerprint expert at the crime lab. She has a small circle of friends that she works with, is separated from a philandering policeman, and is estranged from her foster parents. Lena has always felt a bit different, and has always resented her foster parents for not adopting her, even though they promised to at different times. She doesn't know anything about her true parentsHer relationship with her husband is a complex one. It was he who left her despite his infidelities and over the first few months of their separation she begged him to come back many times. She still has dinner with him once a week.
When there are suddenly more than the normal amount of SIDS deaths occurring, Lena is approached by one of the mothers to find the truth behind the deaths. Despite herself, Lena is drawn into the inquiry and finds that she may be targeted by the killer as well.
Lena's character is a interesting one, and the reader is allowed into her mind as she tries to understand what is going on, not only with the babies, but with her own past, and her own feelings in the present.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

Short stories by a master of the human condition

Finished October 24
We Are Not in Pakistan by Shauna Singh Baldwin
I've liked this author for awhile (and not just because we have the same first name, albeit spelled differently). She can really describe such a variety of human feelings and viewpoints that I find myself moved by every story. Her main characters in the story are all a little out of their element. This includes immigrants (to both the US and Canada), people and animals displaced by death, marriage or divorce, and those just looking for their place in the world. I liked each and every one in this collection, and felt their uncertainty and vulnerability. The stories surprised and gripped me, and I couldn't leave one unfinished before taking a break. She is definitely one of our star fiction writers.

Monday 22 October 2007

Great sequel to teen novel

Finished October 21
Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
This followup to the novel Stargirl, picks up where the earlier book let off. Stargirl has moved from Arizona to a small town in Pennsylvania and has gone back to being homeschooled. As she comes to terms with her feelings regarding her ex-boyfriend Leo, back in Arizona, she learns about the people around her in her new neighbourhood. There is the energetic 3-year-old down the street who adopts her as a big sister. The man who sits in the cemetary every day by his wife's grave. The agoraphobic woman who misses the garden she used to tend. And of course the boy with the blue eyes. All these characters and more grow to care for Stargirl and become part of her new life. She also find solace in meditation and the cycles of the seasons, creating a solar calendar in a nearby field where she tracks the sun from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. Stargirl has more than ever to share with the world as she learns to value her own feelings. This is a great follow-up and a good book against conforming to the norm.

Another Nemirovsky Novel

Finished October 20
Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky
This book was originally written in 1941 and it is believed that it was still being worked on right up to when she was sent to her death in 1942. It is only recently when writers were working on an autobiography of her that the entire novel was discovered and brought together for publication. The main character here is Silvio, an older man who spent his youth travelling the world having a variety of adventures. He has sold off most of his land to pay expenses and now lives alone in a very small and badly kept house. When he attends the wedding of a young female cousin he is reminded of the fire in the blood that he had in his youth and that she has. He is an observer of the family and as he describes his young cousin and her parents and other local relations, we see other youthful loves and regrets of age, some of them long-guarded secrets. This is a short, but strong novel that shows Nemirovsky's awareness of the rural life and the social conventions of the time.

Friday 19 October 2007

Great book about Fathers and Daughters

Finished October 19
The First Man in My Life: Daughters Write About Their Fathers edited by Sandra Martin
This collection of memoirs by Canadian women about their fathers was fascinating. I consider myself to have a very good and close relationship with my own father, so the idea of it intrigued me as soon as I heard of it. The fact that these women are Canadian was even better. Not all the relationships between fathers and daughters are good ones, but they all taught the daughter some life skill (or what to avoid doing). Some daughters looked back on the relationship as an adult and talked about how it changed over time, or looked different from that perspective. Some felt the relationship had only grown stronger. This would be a great choice for Christmas periods for those on either side of the relationship.

Thursday 18 October 2007

An amusing audiobook

Finished October 16

Austenland by Shannon Hale, read by Katherine Kellgren

Jane Hayes is a graphic artist, still unmarried in her early thirties. She has had several (13) boyfriends over the years, but has never had the romance she secretly desires. She has always been enamored of the novel Pride and Prejudice, particularly of Mr. Darcy and the BBC production with Colin Firth playing Darcy only consolidates this romantic notion. When an elderly relative dies and leaves her a vacation at a "special" estate in London where she acts in a Regency era household for 3 weeks she's not sure whether to be bored, frustrated, or amused. This is very comical and light and good fun.

A Mystery Solved Years Later

Finished October 15
The Widow by Carla Neggers
Abigail Brownings husband Christopher was murdered four days into their honeymoon. Seven years later the case is still unsolved and Abigail can't let it go. Her husband was an FBI agent and her father a senior staff member at the FBI. She wonders if her family connection had anything to do with his death. When Christopher died she was a law student, but after his death she quit law school and joined the police force in Boston. She is now a detective and has many friends on the force who value her instincts and skill at her job. When she receives a cryptic phone call on the anniversary of her husband's death, she is drawn back to the cottage she still owns, where he grew up and was killed. Many of those who were there seven years ago are still there and she asks questions of all of them to try to get to the truth behind his death.
Both her drive and her emotionally state show clearly here and while her heart is now free to pursue new relationships, she feels a duty to her late husband to find out what really happened.
A good character, with many good supporting characters that have more than just simple motivations driving them as well. Enjoyable and engrossing.

Fascinating book about growing up

Finished October 12
Flower Children by Maxine Swann
This novel follows the maturing of four children growing up in rural Pennsylvania with parents that can best be defined as hippies. The parents divorce when the children are quite young and the story moves back and forth between living with the mother, and her various boyfriends, in the countryside, and visiting the father, and his various girlfriends elsewhere. It takes into account the grandparents on the father's side, also somewhat of a hippie nature, with many people coming and going, no focus on financial security and lots of free thinking. The one visit to these grandparents that is described is enchanting and sad at the same time. The visits to their maternal grandmother are quite different. They are on their best behaviour, dressed tidily and behaving politely.
The children are mostly free to spend time on what interests them, and yet are aware of the differences between their home life and that of most of their friends at school. The father in particular treats the children as small adults and talks to them of things like his sex life and other adult subjects.
The last chapter is one of reminisence, as the children visit their childhood home as adults and see it all with adult eyes.
The characters come alive and, with much of the book told from a child's perspective, the observations seem very honest and factual, without the overtones of approval or disapproval.
I really enjoyed this novel.

One for work

Finished October 11
The Hands-Off Manager: How to Mentor People and Allow Them to Be Successful by Steve Chandler
I enjoyed this book and learned some techniques that I will hopefully put into practice. The management philosophy espoused here is very similar to what comes naturally to me, and validated some of my own behaviours. I believe that a good manager tries to remove the barriers from her staff in order that they can excel. I also believe that you should encourage your staff to move upward whereever appropriate and not be competitive with them. I am lucky to have skilled staff to begin with, that I can use many of the ideas given here in terms of mentoring and coaching and encouraging them to make their own decisions and try new things. I hope I can use the ideas here to give my team even more success in the future.

Foreign Mystery

Finished October 10
The Glass Devil by Helene Tursten
This Swedish mystery took me a while to warm up to. At first the story seemed unemotional, but it gradually came to sections where the characters seemed to gain depth and warmth. The main detective here is female, Irene Huss, and she is a member of the Goteborg police force. The police procedure is glossed over somewhat, so you don't get a detailed sense of how the force operates, but there is some discussion of regular meetings and shifts. Irene seems to have a comfortable yet formal relationship with her boss, and good relations with several of her colleagues, some of whom she respects more than others. The humour between the characters gradually takes shape, as does Irene's family. Her observations are described very factually, and yet with some intuition showing as well. I will try another one by this author to see if the sense I had by the end of the book remains with me.
As to the content of the mystery, it centers around a particular family with the father a minister, the mother with a history of depression, and the son seemingly interested in mission work, as well as teaching. With the son and parents murdered early in the book, the relationships they had with the sister in England becomes very important, and she stays a bit of an enigma as both the British police and Irene find it difficult to make headway with her.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

About Reading

Finished October 9
The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List by Shelley Mosley, John Charles, Joanne Hamilton-Selway, and Sandra Van Winkle
This book attempts to give the reader a list of the top books from all fiction genres and narrative fiction genres to provide a list of books to read. While it certainly gives some good choices in the many genres, it is obviously influenced by the personal tastes of the four authors and I found many of my own choices missing. In terms of historical fiction, the United States is the only "new world" country present, thus leaving out Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and all of Latin America. Asia is given only one page, which considering its many cultures and countries, is severely short-changing this continent.
This is just one example in a continuing pattern of gloss over rather than true overview and certainly far from an "ultimate" reading list.
I suggest you make your own list, as I have, from past reading, observations of friends, book reviews, library recommendations, serendipitous finds, and other personal sources. Let your list be an ever-growing one and you will never lack something to grab your interest.

British Mystery

Finished October 9
Retreat from Murder by Marion Babson
In the quiet village of Brimful Coffers, which has a large number of mystery writers living among the population, Lorinda Lucas returns from a stateside book tour to find many new developments. A young girl has been killed by a hit and run driver who is still being sought by the police. Her cats, Had-I and But-Known, have taken pity on neighbour cat, Roscoe, who has been put on a diet by his owner's new girlfriend. Lorinda's friend Freddie has developed an interest in mysteries with recipes and is busy trying them out on her friends and the cats.
When two visitors to the village, mystery writers using the same character, get added to the mix, another murder brings suspicion to the newcomers. As Lorinda unravels the many stories drawn together by her friends, the understated humour of this book remains ever-present.

Canadian Fantasy

Finished October 9
Widdershins by Charles de Lint
This fantasy centers around the conflict between native Canadian spirits based on animals of North America and the imported European fairies that came with the settlers to Canada. There is also added baggage of the destruction of environment by the settlers themselves and how that affected the native spirits.
When a direct conflict is instigated by a small group of dwarf-like fairies killing the daughter of a native spirit leader, things are brought to a head.
Also involved in this situation are several musicians, particularly those who fiddle, and their ties with both the spirit groups. As the humans and some spirits try desperately to avoid all-out war between the two groups, the humans involved also face their own demons and truths and come to grips with their own roles in the world.

History from World War II

Finished October 7
The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
This history of Jan Zabinski (the zookeeper) and Antonina Zabinski (his wife) is of Polish Christian zookeepers in Warsaw, and their experience of World War II. The animals do not figure as intimately as I expected, mainly because German zoos took most of the animals they wanted after occupying Poland. Some animals were killed in the battles between the Poles and the Germans before this, as well as some that were killed due to their enclosures being damaged. After the Germans had taken what animals they wanted, many more were killed for sport by the soldiers.
Despite this, the affinity for animals by Antonina comes through and her strong feelings of care for those persecuted by the Germans. Jan comes across as more reckless and less feeling than his wife, but that may be due to the author's sympathy for her main subject.
This book would have been better if the author had stuck to a narrative over time instead of going down distracting sidelines. It would also have been more meaningful to animal lovers if she had shown more clearly what happened to specific types of animals in a more complete way.

Saturday 6 October 2007

Wonderful Canadian Novel

Finished October 5
Cloud of Bone by Bernice Morgan
I really enjoyed Morgan's first book, and liked her second one, but this one I loved. Her details of the Beothuks in their last days were founded on fact, and thus read true. The story of Shawandithit is touching, and appealing to me. She came alive, as did the other Beothuks around her. The character of Kyle Holloway, a young Newfoundland man who entered the Navy early by lying about his age, also comes alive. He finds himself in deeper than he expected and struggling to cope. The present day character of Judith Muir also reads very true. Her grief and day-to-day actions as she retreats from society are honest, and the discovery that compels her beyond this to action is as compelling for the reader as it is for her.
This is definitely on my list of top books for the year and I will be recommending it highly.

Friday 5 October 2007

A Good Listen

Finished October 4
The Collaborators by Reginald Hill, read by Michael Tudor Barnes
This one took a while to get through (13 CDs) but was excellent. The book was came out in 1987, but the audiobook is recent. The story is set in Paris from 1940 to 1945, mostly during the German occupation. Janine Simonian, daughter of patisserie owners Claude and Louise Crozier, married Jean Paul Simonian who is missing in action. When she tries to flee Paris ahead of the Germans, her car is destroyed by German planes and she and her children, Paulie and Cece, return to Paris. Janine is fiercely anti-Nazi and yet ends up being helped by a German Abwehr officer, Gunter Mai, when she tries to find out what happened to her husband. She turns to Mai later in the war when her children are rounded up after staying with their Jewish grandmother. With Paris under German occupation, some residants accept the patronage, some work with them, some collaborate openly, and some join the resistance. As the characters show their priorities and personal as well as national loyalties and do what they feel they must to survive, the complications emerge. After Paris is liberated, Janine is accused of supplying information to the Germans that led to the arrest and torture of members of the resistance, and to the murder of her husband. What is the truth of it, and where do the betrayals lie. I found the complex characters, the situation in Paris during this time and the actions of the plot engrossing and moving. I would definitely recommend this book.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

A Crime Thriller

Finished October 2
The Devil's Playground by Stav Sherez
This first novel is a very complex thriller, with events from the present linked back to the Holocaust. The main character is Jon Reed, a music writer turned website writer from London. Jon has turned away from his music writer after a negative review was followed by the musician's suicide. Jon has recently taken in a homeless man, Jake Colby, that he has seen often and finds himself becoming attached to him and his story. Jake has gone back to his Jewish roots in Amsterdam after discovering them late in life, and his death there leads Jon to Amsterdam as well. Dutch police detective Ronald Van Hijn is on the case which he thinks is linked to a set of serial murders in the city. There is also an American woman, Suze, studying the work of a Jewish artist who was killed in Auschwitz. As these three characters cross paths and grow closer to the truth of what is happening, they are in more and more danger. The theme of music persists here as well, with both Reed and Van Hijn deeply interested in music and one of the clues hidden in music. A very interesting first novel.

Monday 1 October 2007

The Newest Inspector Banks

Finished September 30
Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson
The latest in the series featuring Inspector Alan Banks does not disappoint. DI Annie Cabbot is on loan to Eastern and has a difficult murder case before her. Not only lacking in suspects, she has to dig for information on the quadriplegic victim as well.
Banks has the case of a young woman brutally raped and murdered. Is she, as one of his officers believes, the first in a series? Was it targeted, or just opportunistic? There are many questions, and the case doesn't get easier when there is a second murder victim in the same area a week later.
As always, this case includes windows into the personal lives of Banks and Cabbot, their relationship with each other as well as other relationships. Annie is still unsure of what she really wants, and she doesn't always trust her own reactions.
As good as ever, and keeps you reading.