Monday 28 November 2011

In Other Worlds

Finished November 27
In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
This book was a thoroughly enjoyable read. This is a book that while discussing speculative fiction, science fiction, their definitions and histories, also discusses Atwood's personal experiences around them. Atwood's reading, writing, and reviewing of these forms the core of the book.
Atwood has broken the book into three parts. The first part deals with her personal experiences and consists of her previously unpublished Ellman Lectures from 2010. The second part collects several of Atwood's reviews of works in the speculative and science fiction genres. The third part has tributes by Atwood to the genre in form of short pieces. She also includes a letter to a school district where her book The Handmaid's Tale was challenged in favor of intellectual freedom, and a discussion of cover art from a book series in the 1930s.
I found this a very personal experience, full of Atwood's usual openness and humour. She is a writer who knows her stuff and this book shows how she thinks about these genres. She looks at the history and gives examples and different points of view, and continuously uses her own experiences as a reflective tool. Her humour comes through again and again, and I found that made it even more personal. While the issues brought to the fore through speculative and science fiction are often serious ones, and need to be taken seriously and addressed, there are also things we can do to lighten the load. I love her sense of humour and also loved finding out about works I hadn't come across before. One line she quoted from Visa for Avalon by Bryher stuck with me "If an individual's right to a place of his own were not respected," Robinson muses, "it was the first link in a chain that would ultimately lead to the elimination of the unwanted by any group that happened to be in power." If that doesn't speak to the current Occupy movement, what does!
I also loved her take on works I was familiar with, and enjoyed nodding in agreement or wanting to go back and take a second look.
Well worth the read, and although I read this as a library book, I think I shall have to go buy my own copy now.

McSweeney's 37

Finished November 26
McSweeney's 37
This collection wasn't one of my favorite McSweeney's collections. Even the binding of the book didn't stand up. I read it as my bedside book, so the failure of the book spine was related to abuse on my part. I think it was design. Some stories I liked, beginning with the excerpt from A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles, tucked in a pocket inside the front cover. The selection of African stories I found less enjoyable, perhaps because they were written outside the story format I'm more familiar with, perhaps because they portrayed Africans in a negative way (they are by Africans, so that's allowed, isn't it!) I generally enjoy the McSweeney's and there is usually something in every issue that I find surprising or challenging, but this time I didn't enjoy the experience as much. And now I need to figure out how to glue the spine back on.

The Maladjusted

Finished November 26
The Maladjusted by Derek Hayes
This collection of short stories features characters who are, in a word, maladjusted. Their situations vary, their ages vary, their sex varies, but they are all uncomfortable in their current circumstances and not always sure what to do about it. Some of them do find a way out, others merely change to another uncomfortable circumstance, and some simply go on with life as they know it.
The characters are interesting and the situations they find themselves in are too. This is an interesting premise for a story collection, providing a link for otherwise unrelated stories.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Kids' Stuff

Finished November 26
1. Something for Christmas by Palmer Brown
This short classic from the New York Review Children's Collection is a feel good tale of Christmas giving told with the characters of a small mouse and his mother. The small mouse wants to give someone special a gift for Christmas and his mother helps him realize the best gift of all is love.

2. Beyond the PawPaw Trees by Palmer Brown
Another classic from the New York Review Children's Collection is the story of young Anna Lavinia. Anna lives with her mother in a large house with many rooms surrounded by a field of pawpaw trees, enclosed by a wall. Anna's mother spends her days making pawpaw jelly and missing Anna's father. Anna Lavinia misses her father as well, and reads the books he left behind. Anna's mother tells her to "Never believe what you see", but her father left the instruction to "Believe only what you see", and Anna is inclined to her father's views, even though her mother cries when she thinks of him and tells Anna Lavinia he is off chasing rainbows.  She eagerly awaits the day he will return, sure that it will happen on one of the special days when the sky is lavender blue, since interesting things always happen on those days. When her mother sends her off to visit her father's sister, Aunt Sophia Maria, Anna Lavinia is thrilled. She has never been outside the wall before and is eager to have adventures. Her mother takes her to the train station and returns home, and Anna Lavinia is off on her adventure, and a good one it is. I had never come across this book before, but it is a lovely story (albeit the long-suffering mother) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. From cats to camels, tea cozies on trains to mirages off cliffs, Anna Lavinia sees a lot and believes it all.

3. The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick
This short book is inspired by Harry Houdini and tells the story of ten-year-old Victor who wants to be a magician just like him. Despite a lack of success, Victor keeps trying to get himself out of locked trunks and walk through walls, and is thrilled when he has a chance meeting with Houdini himself who promises to teach him some secrets.

Follow Me Down

Finished November 25
Follow Me Down by Marc Strange
This mystery is set in Ontario cottage country in the fictional small town of Dockerty. Orwell Brennan is the chief of police and there are threats to close down the local police force and use the OPP instead. When a man is found murdered just outside town near Brennan's home, he uses all the resources he can to stay in the loop on the case. The murder location falls in the OPP's jurisdiction, the victim proves to be from Halton Region and the Metro force steps in to manage things. Brennan wants to prove the worth of his force and also solve the case. When Metro, with Brennan's assistance identifies someone for the crime, Brennan isn't sure they have the right man and continues to gather information. The case has lots of twists and turns and more players than one first thinks. Brennan comes through in the end, proving the local knowledge of the community along with solid investigative skills always wins the day. A good mystery, and I always like the local stuff.

Friday 25 November 2011

Not Being on a Boat

Finished November 25
Not Being on a Boat by Esme Claire Keith
An odd novel, set on a luxury cruise ship, this book takes us to a world dark and violent. Rutledge has bought a suite under the Lifetime-Lifestyles package. His suite includes a living room, bedroom, and bathroom, with a balcony. Money doesn't seem to be an issue for him and he is a hefty tipper. He doesn't give much away about his past, and is looking to explore the stopovers, make contacts, and generally enjoy himself. He makes himself known to his steward Raoul and lets him know he expects high-end service. He gets to know some of his fellow passengers, but only in a very superficial way. After a few excursions to shore, he decides to spend some time aboard at one stop and this changes everything. The ship must leave port suddenly and some of the passengers and crew are stranded. Violence in the region seems to escalate and further port stops are cancelled for the time being. Things on the ship seem to be going downhill fast and Rutledge must make choices and call on his contacts to ensure things go well for him.
This is a dark novel, with an interesting scenario, but I can't say that I really enjoyed it.

Room for All of Us

Finished November 24
Room for All of Us by Adrienne Clarkson
Clarkson gathers stories of Canadians who have brought something from another culture to make Canada a richer country in its people and outlook. From Ismaili Canadians, through Holocaust survivors, from Vietnamese boat people to Tamils, from Vietnam War deserters to Chilean refugees, she looks at people who came to this country with nothing or very little. These people haven't forgotten their past, but they have become Canadians and are looking to the future and how they can make Canada even better. This is an interesting look at an issue that reappears in our country time and again, how we accept immigrants including refugees, and what difference they make to the country.
The people she has chosen have not only done well for themselves, but also have done well for the country. The book makes the argument to continue our past practice of welcoming newcomers and continuing to make Canada a country where the identity of a Canadian is a positive, sharing, community-building one, that helps its poorest citizens become productive members of the community.
Inspiring and a call to look at our immigration practices.

Monday 21 November 2011

The Cat's Table

Finished November 21
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje, read by the author
This is a lovely story, based on Ondaatje's own experience as a child travelling from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) to England. The three-week journey has the young boy Michael sitting at the table farthest from the captain's table, known as the cat's table. Also sitting there are two other young boys, and some other interesting passengers. Michael describes the experiences of the journey, his relationships with the other two boys, his cousin Emily (who is also on board), and various other adults. The story includes not only the experiences of the 11-year-old boy, travelling on his own such a great distance, but also his reflections on them, his later analysis of the different interactions, and his life as a result of them.
Ondaatje's voice is wonderful, but it took me a while to get used to it. I listen to books in the car as I have a long commute and his sibilant voice sometimes wasn't clear over the road and car noise. Once I adjusted, I was mesmerized by the voice. Although this is billed as a novel, one can't help but wonder just how much of the story was taken from Ondaatje's real life experience. This story is engaging, surprising and one that will stay with you.

The Return

Finished November 21
The Return by Dany Laferri ère, translated by David Homel
This is a fascinating novel/memoir told mostly in poems. Laferrière came to Montreal from Haiti as a refugee fleeing the regime of Baby Doc. His father before him fled to New York from Papa Doc when Dany was only 4. When his father Winston dies, Dany struggles with how that makes him feel, telling the story of his emotions, his trip to New York and his father's funeral, and his subsequent return to Haiti. In Haiti, he feels both like a native and like a foreigner, and he reconnects with family and friends, explores the Haiti of his past and the Haiti of now. He finds himself finding a new relationship with his country of birth as he brings his father's spirit back home.
This book was extremely engaging and once I started it, I found it difficult to put down. Using poetry to tell the story makes it magical and brings the emotions to the fore. It allows the exploration of different aspects of the story that a straightforward memoir wouldn't allow. This book is a gem.

Shatner Rules

Finished November 20
Shatner Rules: your guide to understanding the Shatnerverse and the world at large by William Shatner with Chris Regan
I was never a watcher of Star Trek, although I did catch the occasional episode in after school television and I was working at a movie theatre when the first Star Trek movie was released. I never watched the other shows Shatner was in either, but became more interested in him when I came across a Youtube clip of a serious stage performance he'd done. This book is humour and memoir, philosophy and marketing. Shatner tells of his past, his acting career, his life, his habits, and his passions. Using the construct of actor's ego, he makes himself bigger than life, while talking of taking chances and being open to new ideas. Shatner is an interesting man, but Bill is even more interesting. From horses to songs, mindfulness to talk shows, we learn what he is up to now and why we should be interested. I am.

The Far Side of the Sky

Finished November 20
The Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla
This is a story that is based on the reality of the German Jews in Shanghai just before and during World War II. The story begins in Vienna on Kristallnicht, when Franz, a young surgeon, finds his brother killed. It is made clear to Franz that his best hope is to leave, and he, wanting to take his daughter, his brother's widow, and his father with him finds that Shanghai is his only choice. Franz is also a widower and he dotes on his young daughter Hannah.
In Shanghai, Sunny is a nurse. Her father is a doctor and he encourages her in her medical career, believing her capable of more. Sunny feels herself an outcast in her society, child of a Chinese man and a white woman. Life in Japanese-controlled Shanghai is not an easy one, but Sunny drives herself harder by volunteering at the Jewish refugee hospital as well as working as a nurse in the County Hospital. Franz also works at the County Hospital, although he is not given the surgeon's role he deserves. He spends a large amount of time at the Jewish refugee hospital, doing what surgeries he can with the limited supplies he can find. Franz makes contact with the local Japanese officers and Jewish community, and as the war is brought to Shanghai struggles to use the contacts he has to protect his family once again.
This is a saga and a love story, and the tale of a Jewish community seldom told. Interesting history and interesting characters.

Friday 18 November 2011

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

Finished November 17
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
A very interesting collection of short stories that I would call "what if..." stories. Stories that take something from our lives, a trend, a news items, an observation on society and take it to an extreme and see what happens. From the adoption of Chinese baby girls to aging sixties activists living suburban lives, Gartner takes everyday society in Canada today and says "what if". Thought-provoking and mind-boggling, this collection will have you reeling.

The Affair

Finished November 16
The Affair by Lee Child, read by Dick Hill
I always love the Jack Reacher novels and this was no exception. Dick Hill captures his voice perfectly, a great match for the series. Here, we reach back to 1997, when Jack Reacher was still in the army. The Affair tells the story of the event that began Reacher's wandering life. Reacher was a major in the army and an MP. When he is sent to small town in Mississippi, where there is an army base, his task is unusual. He is to be undercover, located in the town, rather than on the base, and to find out as much as he can around the recent murder of a young woman. It is suspected that, because the woman spent a lot of her time socializing with soldiers, a soldier may have been involved in the crime. Another MP Major is stationed on the base. Reacher discovers quickly that things are not straightforward and that he may be on a mission his career will not survive.
When Reacher meets the local law enforcement, he discovers that more has gone on in this community that he was told, and as he uses his army friends to gather information, he finds more about people on or connected with the base. Fast-moving, with a great plot (and some great sex scenes that Dick Hill brings to life!) this is a winner of a tale.

Monday 14 November 2011

Into That Darkness

Finished November 13
Into That Darkness by Steven Price
This is a dark novel, set in Victoria after a major earthquake. The story follows three characters. Arthur Lear is an older man who lives alone in the house his grandfather raised him in. Arthur is an artist, a painter who hasn't worked on his art in some time. He is a man who feels his age, but the earthquake draws him out of himself to assist with digging others out and assisting them. Mercia is a single mother of two children, Mason and Kat, who runs a small cafe. She is a strong character and puts her children above other needs. Mason is Mercia's son, a small boy who notices more than other people think.
When the earthquake occurs Arthur has just been to the cafe and is at the nearby tobacco shop, where his friend Axa works. Mason is in the cafe with Mercia. Arthur survives the collapse of the building with minor injuries, but Mercia and Mason are buried for quite a while.
As we get a sense of the devastation around them, the lawlessness that has come upon the city, and the barriers to their finding loved ones, we get into each of the character's heads and see their motivations and the way they try to protect each other.
A very good read.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Half-Blood Blues

Finished November 8
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
This novel is told from the point of view of Sidney Griffiths and moves back and forth between 1992 and 1939-40. In 1939 Sid was part of a group of jazz musicians playing in Berlin. The group consisted of a mix of American and German musicians and had black players, Jewish players and others. Jazz music was becoming more of an unacceptable form of music in Germany, and the black and Jewish players had additional obstacles. One of the group was a young German black man named Hieronymus Falk, an amazing horn player. As the pressure increases, one incident in particular causes the group to try to leave for France and the jazz scene in Paris. For the members that leave Paris provides at first an opportunity and then becomes a waiting room as the Germans move closer. Before they can get out, young Falk is caught and transported to a concentration camp.
In 1992, the discovery of a number of recordings of the group and in particular a recording done in Paris of an original song by Falk has revived interest in the horn player as well as the rest of the group. Sid has moved on in his life, leaving music behind. Chip has made music his career. Chip convinces Sid to participate in a documentary and attend a festival in German, but Sid has regrets of some actions he took back in the day and finds that they still cause him guilt.
This story has it all: love, jealousy, fame and the aftermath of war. I found myself slow to get into the cadence of Sid's voice, but once I did I was held by it. The story and how it all ends is gripping and a great exploration of an experience and time not much talked about: the black man in Europe during World War II, and especially the jazz scene.
And I discover this morning that it has won the Giller too! Even better, as that means more will be likely to read it and experience this great read.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Favored Queen

Finished November 7
The Favored Queen by Carolly Erickson
I've been interested in the wives of Henry VIII since my high school days when I read a series of books about them. This novel is told from the point of view of his third queen, Jane Seymour, but also includes the end of Catherine of Aragon reign and all of Anne Boleyn's reign. Jane was a maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon and to Anne in turn. Here we see her own dreams and how her family's behaviour and her situation caused them to perish before she gained them. We see the relationship she developed with Henry and how her own good nature and moral sense brought her to her own fate.
This is an interesting characterization of the historical figure, reimagined by the author.

Death at Christy Burke's

Finished November 6
Death at Christy Burke's by Anne Emery
This novel is part of the Collins-Burke mystery series featuring Father Brennan Burke and lawyer Monty Collins of Halifax. Here, the adventures take place in Ireland, mostly in Dublin.
Monsignor Michael O'Flaherty, Burke's boss, is on vacation in Ireland, a place where he regularly brings Canadian pilgrims touring holy sites. He has just seen off a tour group and is looking forward to relaxing and spending time with friends. Burke and Collins are both here on vacation as well and Michael spends a good deal of time with them. Burke's uncle Finn runs a local named Christy Burke's and it has been targeted lately by unpleasant graffiti. Finn asks them to keep an ear and eye open for anything that may help figure out who did the vandalism. Michael decides to look into the background of the bar's regulars and his search leads him around Ireland, into Northern Ireland, and across to England as well. Burke gets drawn into family intrigues, some of which he isn't that comfortable with. Collins is less active in this mystery, helping with some information but also preoccupied with his own family issues.
The Irish conflict figures large in this book, and we get history as well as the present day goings on. I think it is this aspect that made the book dense for a mystery, the detail of information relevant, yet requiring concentration. There are many good characters here, with backgrounds more complex that they seem at first. An interesting story.

Saturday 5 November 2011


Finished November 5
Shelter by Frances Greenslade
I read this book in one sitting as it just captured me. The speaker here is Maggie. She is looking back and telling the story of her childhood. Despite being the youngest daughter, Maggie was also a born worrier and her parents often reassure her. She spends time with her father in the woods where he teaches her to be self-sufficient and a resourceful camper. When her father is killed in a logging accident, Maggie's world is turned upside down. At first things her family seems to be adjusting well, but when her mom temporarily leaves her and her older sister Jenny with a couple in Williams Lake while she finds work, Maggie gets worried again. The stretch at the billet grows for the two young girls from months to years, and while they try to rely on each other and their own ingenuity, they long for their mother, Irene. When Jenny finds herself in trouble beyond what she can cope with, Maggie decides it is finally time to go looking for their mother, a search that leads her in a new direction and forces her to look at her mother in a new way.
Maggie is a strong character despite her worrier nature and has been taught from a young age to be self-reliant and resourceful. These skills put her in good stead both in Williams Lake and when she goes on her search. She has a good sense for her own safety and what risks are worth taking, but her youth and lack of life experience do show as well. As we learn more about Irene and her motivations, Maggie shows her strength of character and finds a way forward for the family.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Before the Poison

Finished November 3
Before the Poison by Peter Robinson
This is a wonderful novel with a very interesting mystery. Chris Lowndes left England decades ago and has a successful American career writing music for films. Following his wife's recent death, he has decided to return to his home country and has bought a large house in rural Yorkshire. As he settles in, he learns that a previous owner of the house, Grace Fox, was tried and hanged for murdering her husband. The story intrigues him and he wants to know more. As he locates and reads a write-up of the trial, and follows leads to local people and those who have moved elsewhere, he is drawn to Grace as a person and believes she could not have committed such a crime. Along the way he is also making himself a new home in Yorkshire, finding new friends, meeting his neighbours and coming to terms with moving on in his own life. The story will take him back to his own childhood and beyond to World War II. It will take him beyond his new home in Yorkshire to France and South Africa. It will take him beyond his grief to a new way of living.
The references to music, movies, and books are classic Peter Robinson and fit neatly into the story here. The emotional and nostalgic feelings of his characters are well drawn and make sense both in the story and with the characters. This is a story of past and present, motives and morals, that gripped me strongly.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

Finished October 30
The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer
Duncan and his mom have been on their own together forever. When she loses her job in Michigan, the two head home to Drilling Falls, Pennsylvania and move in with his great aunt, Aunt Djuna, and his mom gets a job at Thriftee Mike's Warehouse. Duncan's mom has told him that his father, Joe Wright, died of a rare disease called panosis before he was born, but she doesn't like to talk about him.
Duncan is lonely, having lunch with the other new kid at school, Andrew Tanizaki, a loneliness only enhanced by his ill-begotten nickname Lunch Meat. So when he discovers he has special powers, he is surprised by his mother's insistence to keep them secret, but agrees.
In a rare move to make friends, he reveals his power to Andrew and immediately draws the attention of a boy at the next table. Carl gloms onto Duncan and insists that he be his partner for Scrabble, going to the upcoming Youth Scrabble Tournament in Florida. Carl is sure that he can use Duncan to win the tournament.
Across the country in Portland, Oregon, young April is also planning to attend the tournament. She is a non-athlete in an athletic family and feels that if she makes the sports network televised Scrabble finals, she will final get recognition by her family. In New York City, Nate is being groomed by his dad to win the tournament as well. Nate's dad is consumed with this goal, having lost the tournament himself when he was young.
The story of the three pairs of Scrabble players, the other players they meet at the tournament and the changes the tournament makes in all their lives is a good one, and will lead to lasting friendships. And Duncan's secret power is pretty cool too.

Pigeon English

Finished October 30
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
This is one of those novels with a clear voice, here the voice of Harri (Harrison) Opoku. Harri lives with his mom (a midwife) and his older sister Lydia on the 9th floor of an apartment building in London, England. Harri's dad, little sister and grandma are still back in Ghana and Harri wants desperately to see them again, as the phone calls aren't enough for him. Harri has made a friend, Dean, and the two boys spend a lot of time together. Another boy from Harri's school has been knifed and killed and Harri and Dean take it upon themselves to look for the killer since the police don't seem to be making headway. The two boys relish their role as detectives and take clues seriously, trying to gather fingerprints and other hard data.
Harri is also a bird lover, and takes a special liking to a particular pigeon, having secret conversations with it. He is also both fascinated and repelled by the local gang, the Dell Farm Crew, and is occasionally singled out by their leader X-Fire.
Harri is an innocent, trying to be the man of the house in his father's absence, and is a good boy at heart. Even his work to find the boy's killer is a good work, one he feels drawn to because the boy once did a nice thing for him. This is a story that will stick with you, young Harri's voice grabbing you and not letting go.