Sunday 31 May 2009

In-depth Fiction

Finished May 31
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
This is a long book (over 600 pages) and it took me quite a while to get "into" it. The book follows a large number of characters, beginning with Olive Wellwood, an author of fairytales, and her family, and continuing on with relations, friends (both English and German), and the children resulting from all of these people. The book begins in 1895 and ends with the end of World War One. While there is a strong focus on the children of the different families and their development and interaction, we also see how this development affects the adults.
There is a lot of information around fairy tales, both German and English and their history and their popularity during this time period that I found very interesting. Another theme that came out related to the fairy tales was puppetry, particularly that of German puppet traditions.
Pottery was another strong theme that arose here with two characters being gifted in this area. There were also other writers and producers of plays that had lesser roles in the book.
With all these creative characters, a strong them for me was the genius of the artist, both physical and mental. The temperment of the artist to engross themselves in their work at the expense of those around them and the public success they valued less than their own feelings of accomplishment.
Another strong theme here was one of politics. There was a lot going on politically during this time period, including the Fabians, women's suffrage, labour union actions, anarchists, and socialism. We get glimpses into all of these within this novel and see how politics can fill the needs of some individuals.
While the events of World War One are only a small section of this novel, I felt that they were done very well, and I liked how the ending brought some interesting outcomes for the characters.
As I said, it took a while to enjoy this novel and get drawn in, but by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it and I learned so much besides.
After reading I noted a great interview with the author by one of the Dewey Divas:
I really found this interesting after reading the novel.

An Interesting Premise

Finished May 25
Resistance by Owen Sheers
This book is a fiction of an alternative history. Here the situation is that D-day was a bust and the Germans are winning World War II and have now invaded Britain.
The action takes place in a very small farming village in Wales. As the novel begins, the women in the village wake up one morning to discover that all the men are gone. There are no notes left for them, and very few clues as to where and why they have disappeared. Getting together, they decide it is in their best interest to keep things quiet and just as they have decided that and began to deal with the way their lives have changed a small detachment of Germans arrives in the village. As the Germans stay into the winter, they develop relationships of a sort with the village women and this changes everything for both sets of inhabitants.
On the women's side we see most of the story from the view of Sarah Lewis, a 26-year-old wife with no children. The German view is given from the view of their commanding officer, Albrecht Wolfram.
The characters are what really bring this book alive and we watch through their eyes as the reality of their situation sinks in and see how they deal with it. The what-if nature of alternative history brings an added element to the plot and a feeling of uncertainty about the future we don't normally get with historical fiction. I found the book fascinating and had a hard time putting it down.

Mystery in Series

Finished May 22
Red Bones by Ann Cleeves
I've been enjoying this series featuring the Shetland Islands detective Jimmy Perez and this latest one is set around an archaeological dig on the island of Whalsay and involves the family of Jimmy's colleague Sandy Wilson. It starts with the death of an elderly woman, seemingly of an accidental gunshot. Even though accidental death seems the obvious answer, Jimmy is not entirely convinced, and when a second death occurs, he begins to wonder what else is going on.
Jimmy gives Sandy more responsibility than he has before here, and Sandy is determined not to let him down. Sandy also has family responsibilities which he feels he must honour and the two come together in the end.
While I enjoyed this mystery in the series, I have enjoyed some of the earlier ones more.

Tuesday 19 May 2009


Finished May 19
Wolf: Legend, Enemy, Icon by Rebecca L Grambo, photographs by Daniel J Cox
I've always been fascinated by wolves, and remember writing my major Grade Six essay (and accompanying speech) on the wolf.
This book looks at many aspects of the wolf, in particular how it relates to humans. There is history of the wolf as a species, the various legends in Asia, Europe and the New World that relate to the wolf, how the wolf was revered or feared by different cultural groups, and how it interacts with other animals in the environment.
The pictures are gorgeous and the text is interesting.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday 18 May 2009

Thriller with Real Life Inspiration

Finished May 18
Eclipse by Richard North Patterson
Patterson was inspired by the real-life story of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria, a country made up of many tribes speaking many languages.
Rather then try to write of Nigeria Patterson invented a country Luandia that shares the problems of Nigeria. Bobby Okari is inspired by Saro-Wiwa and the other characters are invented from scratch. The story was somewhat interesting to me and that is why I chose to read it.
I didn't find it that gripping for a thriller, and had to force myself to keep reading at points in the novel. It was somewhat interesting to see his take on the politics and corruption involved in the situation, but I didn't find the characters engaging and the pace seemed slow.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Depression Memoir

Finished May 14
A Hell of Mercy: a meditation on depression and the dark night of the soul by Tim Farrington
This memoir of a lifelong struggle with depression begins with Farrington's late adolescent onset and continues to the present. Farrington underwent medical treatment and tried various therapies but, like many creative individuals found many medications stifling to his creativity. At one point he entered a monastery in search of a solution and discovered in their library writings that were helpful to him then, and remain a source of comfort and inspiration now. His struggle resulted in the death of one marriage and reached it nadir with the death of his mother from stomach cancer.
He discusses how reaching the bottom is what led him to a true recognition of his illness and how he feels God led him to a solution.
I found this memoir interesting, although it had moments of overblown writing (eg. "...confronted with the mortifying ongoing substratum of the old, unspiritual self, finds the contrast far more painful in the light of the ideal vision glimpsed and cherished and more or less identified with during the honeymoon phase of the remodeling.") that didn't feel natural to me.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Human History

Finished May 13
Your Inner Fish: a journey into the 3.5-billion-year history of the human body by Neil Shubin
This is a fascinating look inside the human body, at the history of how we work and why we work the way we do. Shubin traces our body and its makeup back first to the fossil of an ancient fish, a fish beginning to live on land, Tiktaalik, found on Ellesmere Island. He also traces different bits of us back to worms, microbes, insects and other life forms.
He breaks down his investigation into our anatomy into different functions and makes it come alive. I particularly liked his description of how to isolate DNA in your kitchen.
He includes discussion of how the evolution of our bodies has resulted in things not working as well as they could have, and discusses why some of our body bits don't do what they are designed to.
I really enjoyed this new way of looking at the human body and the insights that arose from his connections to the past.

Immigrant Fiction

Finished May 9
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This is the story of not only Oscar, but also of his family, including his sister, his mother, and his maternal grandparents. Oscar is a Dominican-American. His mother came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a young woman.
Woven into the story is the history of the Dominican Republic, and portions of its culture. Oscar's family has a curse that follows them, but that they seldom mention. It is this that brings about misfortune to the family.
I enjoyed the story here, but my lack of knowledge of Spanish impaired my enjoyment. There are many Spanish words and phrases scattered throughout the book, and at first I tried to determine what they meant, but there are so many that I gave up. This meant that there were bits where I didn't understand. I also found that these caused for me a disconnect with the book, or a loss of flow that meant I kept getting taken out of the story to feel the frustration of less than full comprehension of the author's tale.
I think that if I had knowledge of Spanish, this book would have drawn me into the story more and I would have gotten more pleasure out of my reading.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Canadian Fiction

Finished May 5
Oonagh by Mary Tilberg
This wonderful novel of historical fiction tells the story of a young Irish woman, Oonagh Corcoran. Oonagh leaves Ireland in 1831 with her sister Mairi and her new brother-in-law Josie to come to Upper Canada. Her older brother Michael and his family are already there, and have sent the fare to bring her over. Oonagh is a woman with a strong sense of self and an independent streak. She believes in fairness and justice and will stand up for others.
In Canada, Oonagh begins a friendship with Chauncey Talor, a self-made barber who escaped from slavery in the American South. Oonagh is introduced to Chauncey by her young nephew Daniel, and as the two adults share their stories, a bond grows between them.
Their private friendship grows into a public marriage and this story illuminates the prejudices and social constraints of the times.
Tilberg based the novel on a true story of a marriage between an Irish girl and an escaped slave and has done much historical research to ensure the story is true to the times.
A great story and very well written.

Monday 4 May 2009

Animal Story

Finished May 4
A Lion Called Christian: the true story of the remarkable bond between two friends and a lion by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall, read by John Lee
I was one of the many who watched the Youtube video of the reunion between the lion and his "owners" and was touched by the emotion shown.
Not until reading this book did I realize when the events occurred and what the full story was.
This book, originally written in 1971, has been updated to include more recent information about conservation and about the later story of Christian. It provides essential background to understanding the full relationship between the two young men and Christian and how that came to be. It is an amazing story and the youtube video has provided new impetus toward conservation for wild animals and their habitats.

Sunday 3 May 2009

Children's Fiction

Finished May 3
A Perfect Gentle Knight by Kit Pearson
This tale of eleven-year-old Corrie Bell and her family takes us into a tale of a family coping with loss. Corrie's mother died in an accident three years ago, and she and her siblings have found comfort in a fantasy world of the Round Table, where they abide by the rules of knights. Their father, always absent-minded, has retreated into his work as a Shakespearean professor and a succession of housekeepers does the basics of what the house requires. Corrie and her older siblings, Roz (13) and Sebastian (14) manage the schedules of all the children and arrange the things that need to be arranged, like meals and dentists.
While Roz is finding a life outside the Round Table, Sebastian is making it more and more the center of his life. Corrie is torn between a new friendship and her family responsibilities and loyalties and struggles with the large responsibilities placed on her.
I really enjoyed this family story and know my young niece will as well.

Natural History

Finished May 2
The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself by Hannah Holmes
There is a lot of information packed into this book. Holmes treats herself (and humans as a species) as a biological study. She starts each chapter with a textbook description of humans and spends the chapter discussing each topic in more detail, including how we compare to other animals.
The topics covered here are: physical description, the brain, perception, range, territoriality, diet, reproduction, behavior, communication, predators, and ecosystem impacts.
She uses humour throughout to keep the information from getting too heavy, but she doesn't skimp on the details. Citing scientific studies and personal observations, she takes a good hard look at humans and how we relate to the rest of the world.
I found it both immensely entertaining and educational.

Friday 1 May 2009

New Fiction

Finished April 30
The Girl Next Door by Elizabeth Noble
I thought at first this was going to be a typical chicklit, but it surprised me by having more depth. What makes it more than your average chicklit is the lack of tidy endings, and the inclusion of more than just happy endings to everyone's stories. I found the characters interesting and diverse.
Eve Gallagher relocates from England to New York City with her husband Ed, buts finds herself at a loose end with no friends or family. The novel covers not only Eve and Ed, but others in their coop building. The significant players are: Violet, an older woman living alone who organizes the others in the building into creating a garden area on the roof; Jason and Kim Kramer and their daughter Avery, a family going through adjustments; Rachael and David Schulman and their three children, high achievers with busy lives; Jackson Grayling III, a trust fund rich young man with ambition issues; Charlotte Murphy, a shy young woman who dreams of romance; Emily Mikanowski, an athletic, but beautiful loner; and Madison Cavanagh, a party girl. We see a variety of points of view, including the men as well as the women, and characters go through significant changes as the book progresses.

Fiction Audiobook

Finished April 30
The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood, Read by Hillary Huber
Mary Baxter is reeling from the recent death of her only child, Stella, of meningitis, at the age of five. She hasn't been going to work, or seeing friends or doing much of anything. Her mother, now living in Mexico, urges her to begin to knit to help with recovery. Mary joins a knitting circle in nearby Providence, Rhode Island, and as she learns knitting skills, she begins to connect with the people around her.
The book flows well, but I found that having everyone in the knitting circle recovering or dealing with some sort of trauma to be a bit much. Doesn't anyone who hasn't had to deal with this join the knitting circle? It was one sad story after another and after a while I became inured to them. Another thing that bothered me was Mary's work circumstances. She didn't go to work for a considerable time, but no one there seems to have been doing her job while she was gone, and there don't seem to be any economic repercussions for her.
The book does offer hope and recovery and the stories show a variety of circumstances.