Saturday, December 31, 2005

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

One of the reviews on the inside front page of this book compared it to Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea". This didn't seem too promising to me because I thought that book was dull and uninspiring; fortunately, "Life of Pi" didn't have those qualities. The "Author's Note" at the start of the book promised that the story would make me believe in God. Well, I'm not too sure it managed to do that (at least, not any more than any other book has). However, this was an absorbing and interesting read that made my ongoing (and very slow) quest to read all the Booker Prize winners seem more achievable than it did a few months back when I started, and struggled with, and temporarily gave up on "The Blind Assassin". (Watch this space to discover if I ever make it to the end!)

In case you don't already know, this is a story about a young Indian boy, Pi Patel, who is shipwrecked and finds himself living on a lifeboat with only a hungry Bengal tiger for company. His efforts to survive the threats of tiger, elements, hunger and thirst are the main part of the story, but I almost didn't get to that part because it took me over a week of starting and stopping to really get into this book. Nothing much happens during the first 150 pages while we learn details of Pi's childhood and religious conversion. Luckily, these pages are well written and amusing enough to have kept me trying until the action picked up.

Anyway, once the story got going, this book became quite un-put-downable and for that reason I would recommend it. If you've read it, I'd be curious to know if this story made *you* believe in God (or had some other profound effect). Leave a note in the comments!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher

It has taken me a while to finish another book... and not, as one might expect, due to the holidays, but instead because my reading time has been sucked up by this golf game Jeff brought home for the PSP.

Anyway, my mum is visiting right now and has become hooked on the golf game, too, which gave me a chance to swipe the book she just finished (tit for tat!). I read this one when it first came out, but hardly remember anything about it, so was happy to read it again.

Rosamunde Pilcher's novels are peopled with beautiful, impeccably dressed characters with outlandish names. Most of them are wealthy, but generous to the less fortunate around them. This story features retired actress Elfrida Phipps, who moves to a small country village after the death of her lover; her friend Oscar, recovering from a shocking tragedy, and an assortment of relatives and hangers-on whose stories all come together in a magically contrived way at Christmas time, resulting in love, happiness, and new beginnings for all.

In spite of my flip comments, I actually really liked this book - stayed up way past my bedtime reading it. There's something engaging in the story, something that makes me want to find out what will happen to the characters, even while I'm shaking my head over the latest unnecessarily detailed description of what they are wearing. There's some entertainment here that goes beyond the curious overuse of the verb "humping" to mean "carrying something awkward or heavy". In fact I was even able to overlook the main flaw in this story, which is the totally pointless and annoying repeating of information that takes place because each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character; at some points, even the dialogue is repeated, word for word. This would be welcome and necessary if I were reading a serialized novel, but I'm not, so it made me wonder what Ms. Pilcher's editor was up to instead of cutting those sections. (Maybe s/he was busy making sure the all-important clothing descriptions were just right?)

I think the thing that was most compelling to read here was the vivid description of the settings that Pilcher has shown her love for in previous books - a bit of Cornwall, and a lot of rural Scotland. I found as I was reading that I was gripped with a very strong desire to go there; the book made me feel like I'd missed out on something very special and important by never having spent a Christmas in a Scottish village, like the people in this book. Sign me up!

Anyway, that's a lukewarm recommendation if I ever read one! But I'm tired and cranky, so there you go.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Vinyl Cafe Diaries by Stuart McLean

I've already aired my opinions about Stuart McLean and his show last week, so suffice it to say that this is more of the same that you'd find in "Vinyl Cafe Unplugged". Cute, touching, occasionally very funny stories about Dave, Morley, et al. The twist in this book is that it's divided into sections that focus on each member of Dave's family. The best stories, in my opinion, are the ones about Dave. He has an amazing capacity for foolishness. In this book, he kidnaps a duck and brings it into his Halifax hotel room, makes a complete idiot of himself when asked to speak to a university class, and manages to make an absolute, hilarious disaster of babysitting three small children.

Other books I've read by this author:

Vinyl Cafe Unplugged

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Walk to New York by Charles Wilkins

This was an interesting travelogue by a man who, upon the end of his marriage, decided the best way to recover was to go for a really long walk. So in April 2002, he left his home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and ended up 90 days later in... guess! New York City.

The author is a journalist, and it shows in the way that his writing is at its best when reporting on the places he passes through on his journey. He offers some interesting history of the towns he stops in and the people who lived there, and his descriptions of the natural beauty and the native wildlife of northern Ontario and upstate New York are evocative. I enjoyed reading about the building of the railroad through northern Ontario, the history of Manitoulin island, and the geology and history of Lake Superior. That said, there were quite a few places where I felt like he tried too hard, resulting in some odd turns of phrase that feel over-written: "And again she pressed out her throaty cavitating laugh", "my tastebuds convalesced from their umpteenth Montmorency orgasm"... etc.

Wilkins also spends an awful lot of time writing the kinds of things that you might expect someone to be thinking about when they spend hours and hours walking over the course of several weeks. Frankly, I think that stuff is probably interesting only to himself.

We don't miss out on any details of the effect that the walking has on his feet, and we hear about every change of socks or footwear. I also got a little annoyed at his unflattering description of the greater Toronto area. He walks on roads that are not designed for pedestrians, then gets annoyed when he's nearly hit by the cars rushing by. He complains that there's no place for a transient walker to go to the bathroom and that the suburbs have no character, that people in Toronto don't look him in the eye as they drive past (has it occurred to him that they are using their eyes to help them drive, ensuring they don't hit him as he walks on the road?) and apparently believes the suburbs have no character and are evidence of the decline of civilization. Well, that may be true, but I don't know about all the people who live there -- I think they're reasonably happy with it.

This kind of complaining extends to his visits to other places. There are a number of towns he walks through that were home to some writer or artist that Wilkins admires, and he gets really annoyed when the few random people he asks have never heard of the person and don't know where s/he lived when alive. He goes to Cooperstown and is disgusted at all the things that aren't in the baseball hall of fame. Etc, etc.

So, a mixed review of an interesting but at times annoying book.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Vinyl Cafe Unplugged by Stuart McLean

Stuart McLean is Canada's Garrison Keillor wannabe. He does this show on CBC Radio One, on weekends, that is suspiciously like A Prairie Home Companion, except it's Canadian. He also reads these stories out to the live audience, just like Garrison Keillor. He even reads them in a Garrison Keillor voice. And then he publishes them, just like Garrison Keillor. But I'm assured that he is not in fact Garrison Keillor. Hmm. I've never seen either of them, so I will have to reserve judgement.

ANYway... these stories. They're really quite fun, and I'm often lucky enough to be in the car (the only place I listen to the radio) with the radio on at the right moment to hear one of them in its entirety. And every now and again, I'll notice one of these books in the library and will happily take it home and gobble it up. The stories are touching and funny, and revolve around the lives of a couple from Toronto called Dave and Morley, their two children, and their friends and neighbours. Some of the stories in this collection are merely cute, some don't quite work for me, but then there'll be a gem like "Galway", where Dave tries to toilet train his sister's cat, that had me laughing till tears were running down my face, and "Susan is Serious", where Morley comes to terms with the fact that she and a longtime friend have drifted too far apart to have anything in common. This book also contains a favourite story that McLean repeats fairly often around this time of year, "Christmas Presents", about the year when Morley convinced everyone in the family to do homemade Christmas gifts for one another. Morley decides to make her ten-year-old son a chair that he can keep forever, and signs up for an evening class to help her do so.

She loved going to her chair class. The only thing that spoiled it was that no one else in her family seemed to have embraced the holiday project. She was alone on this Christmas journey.

She asked Stephanie about it one night.

"You don't understand," said Stephanie. "We're different, Mom. You're into the spirit of Christmas. I like the other stuff."

"The other stuff?" asked Morley.

"The shopping," said Stephanie, "the clothes."

"Shopping and clothes?" said Morley.

"And the TV specials," said Stephanie.

Speaking of Christmas, I'd better quit reading all these books and get to work on this spirit of Christmas stuff I'm supposed to be doing.

The War with Mr Wizzle by Gordon Korman

Although Megan has turned up her nose at many of the children's books I have recommended to her, I'm pleased that she likes Gordon Korman because it means I get to re-read these childhood favourites. Amazingly, though his books seem to lack depth and tend toward the formulaic, I still find them entertaining and funny. (I re-read "No Coins Please" and the "Bugs Potter" books on a regular basis and they still make me laugh every time.)

"The War With Mr Wizzle", which Megan picked up over the weekend during a trip to The Book Man, is part of a series that revolves around the lives and antics of some students of indeterminate age who attend McDonald Hall, a fictional boys' boarding school somewhere on the outskirts of Toronto. This novel (published in 1982) shows its age - its premise is that the school is under seige from a suspicious, nerdy guy with newfangled ideas who introduces (gasp) a *computer* to the school offices. Meanwhile, the girls' boarding school across the street (yes, there's a girls' school across the street from the boys' school - it's even called a "Finishing School" and teaches sewing, baking, and dancing!) has a new ex-military teacher who is determined to introduce some discipline and obedience into the education of the "young ladies" who attend. Not surprisingly, the students manage to get back at these pesky people in clever and amusing ways. This isn't one of the best McDonald Hall books, but it was still a fun re-read.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Evening Class by Maeve Binchy

I think of all Maeve Binchy's books this one probably contains the highest number of improbable plot points... but this is also one of my favourites :-) The premise is that a lonely Latin teacher and an otherworldly woman (who has just spent almost three decades in a little Sicilian village pining with unrequited love for the local hotelier) set up an Italian class for adults in a run-down secondary school in a "tough" part of Dublin. Each chapter of the novel focuses on a different person involved in the class, and the novel wraps up with a trip to Italy. It's lovely (though somewhat implausible, given the size of Dublin) to see the way everyone's story is interwoven with another person's - very similar to another Maeve Binchy book, "The Copper Beech", which seems less improbable since it's set in a sleepy Irish village where you'd expect people to all know each other. Ooh, maybe I'll re-read that one next.

Other books I've read by this author:
Scarlet Feather
Tara Road

Friday, December 09, 2005

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy

I finished this last night before going to sleep, but I didn't have a chance to write about it until now... this is a great book, and well worth re-reading. For some reason I tend to overlook it when I'm thinking back over my favourite Maeve Binchy novels, but it's got all the ingredients for a satisfying read. I love the way she captures the whole range of human experiences and the ups and downs of relationships, and this book has all those things in spades - everything from miscarriage to death, from new love to the slow and painful ending of a marriage.

Now I have to go and write an exam, so I can't think of anything else to say about this book. Maybe I'll go and start "Evening Class" to calm my nerves.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

Hurrah! Here's confirmation not only that Alexander McCall Smith can write something I like other than the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, but that he can be genuinely funny (which I questioned after encountering his bizarre effort to make fun of German professors in "Portuguese Irregular Verbs" -- a book I found quite UN-funny...)

I thought this book was delightful. It originally started life as a serialized novel published daily in The Scotsman, and apparently Mr McCall Smith is working on a third series at the moment, with the second imminently due for publication so I can look forward to reading that at some point in the future. His writing seems to be at its best when he's writing about "real" people, living in a place he loves -- and he clearly loves Edinburgh and its citizens as much as he loves the Botswanan people and landscape. There are even some fun moments when real life Edinburgh residents - including Ian Rankin, who apparently lives on the same street as Alexander McCall Smith - get to "star" in a chapter or two. The best bits, though, are reserved for the characters dreamed up by the author - among them a "gifted" boy with a pushy, overinvolved mother, a narcissistic property surveyor named Bruce who thinks it's perfectly normal that all women adore him, and Angus Lordie, a very eccentric artist who happens to own a winking dog with a gold tooth.

This was also perfect reading while studying for finals, because the chapters are so short. :-)

Other books I've read by this author:
Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
The Full Cupboard of Life
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

Back when I was reorganizing my books, I decided it was time to re-read some old favourites and my first pick was "Tara Road", mostly because I saw on Maeve Binchy's website a week or two ago that they've made a movie of this book, and a bit of google searching seems to hint that this movie might be coming out in North America sometime early in the new year. Fingers crossed!

This book is typical Binchy fare, which I love. It's about ordinary people living ordinary (though not always happy or emotionally healthy) lives. A bit of drama thrown in, a bit of romance, nothing spectacular plot-wise... but the way she writes about people makes them seem so real, and I get sucked in every time, caring so much about these characters and wanting good things to happen to them. How does she do it?

Tara Road is one of my favourites, featuring Ria, a woman so clueless that you want to shake her as her husband fools around and her friends take advantage of her right left and center while she believes herself to be living a perfect life. Eventually she figures it out (well, some of it) and becomes empowered. During the process, she exchanges homes with a lonely and grief-stricken American woman who finds that she begins to heal while surrounded by Ria's Dublin friends (and she even manages to stop some of them from taking advantage of Ria so much.) That's about it (see, nothing special plot wise), but it's a great read.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

Sally, an apparently universally despised unwed mother, is hired as a maid by a slightly dysfunctional family and then found strangled in her bed one morning. Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is called in to unravel the mystery of who killed Sally.

This was just an "OK" book... a good mystery that kept me guessing, but there was a curious detached feeling to the writing and characterization. I didn't really care about or feel for anyone in this book, not even the detective, Adam Dalgliesh. I'm not sure I have much more to say about it! P.D. James is a good enough writer to keep me reading even if the story is not particularly compelling, which this one really wasn't.

Other books I've read by this author:

Shroud for a Nightingale

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

I have a weakness for good children's and young adult novels. Every now and again I'll go through a phase of reading a whole bunch of them... like when I discovered Diana Wynne Jones a couple of years back. For some reason, Megan refused to take an interest in more than two of her books - "The Tale of Time City" and "Witch Week" are both falling apart from frequent rereading, but she turns up her nose at any others by the same author. Odd. At least it was fun to share those books with her.

I picked up "The City of Ember" at Village Books back in October because it was the selection for their mother-daughter book club and I thought it sounded interesting. I really wasn't sure if manga-obsessed Megan would deign to give this book her attention, but amazingly, she did, and she told me that I should really read it. I love it when she recommends books to me and I don't read them right away - she pesters me just as persistently as I do her when she won't read something that I think she'd like.

So anyway, "The City of Ember" was really, really good. Children's books don't have to be simple or pedantic - if they're good stories and well-told, they are on a par with adult books, and this one is definitely up there. It's the story of two children, Lina and Doon, who live in a city of perpetual darkness where everyone is dependent on the ancient generator beneath the streets to keep the lights on. Lina and Doon believe their city is in real trouble as the reserves of food and supplies which Ember's residents have taken for granted for decades are beginning to run out, and the generator is failing more and more often, leaving the residents of Ember in absolute darkness. This book is the story of their quest to find a solution to their city's problems. The ending makes me so eager to read the next book that I'm not all that sure I will be able to leave it hidden under the bed and wait for Megan to open it on December 25, read it, and let me have a turn. I'm really good at reading books without creasing the spine....

Monday, November 28, 2005

Shroud for a Nightingale by P. D. James

Baroness James knows how to write a good mystery. She's got the eye for detail, the understanding of human psychology, and the ability to write it all out in a way that makes it hard to put the book down. None of her mysteries seem formulaic to me, and Adam Dalgliesh (the detective character who is featured in this and many other novels) feels like a real, complex person.

This book features the murder of a nursing student at an old-fashioned English hospital, with a separate boarding school and strict hierarchy for nurses. The atmosphere of this semi-cloistered female community, complete with gossip, malice, and lack of privacy or respect, felt very realistic, and the descriptions of the setting - a Victorian mansion set in a lonely wooded area near the hospital - had just the right level of creepiness. I sure hope that most nursing schools aren't like this one.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Midnight at the Garden Cafe by Judy Fong Bates

Well, this one lasted about 80 pages. I checked it out from the library based on recommendations on Amazon, but found that it just didn't draw me in. The premise - a young girl's experience of growing up in the lone Chinese emigrant family in a small Ontario town - is interesting enough, and yet the story itself wasn't. The book came across as a disjointed series of memories, told in a detached way that didn't allow me to connect with any of the characters, and peppered with depressing bits of foreshadowing (ie, something awful is going to happen...) that didn't encourage me to keep reading. I understand that the book is semi-autobiographical, so I imagine that it might have been therapeutic for the author to write, and might strike a chord with people who had a similar experience. For me, though, it's time to keep looking for other books about what it's like to live in a different place, time or culture.

The Tiger's Child by Torey Hayden

When I was in high school, I worked for several years in the Social Science/Science and Technology department of a large public library. That was when I first became fascinated with educational theory and I read everything I could get my hands on about free schools, democratic schooling, unschooling, homeschooling, etc. I also stumbled on a book called "One Child", by Torey L. Hayden. It's been quite a few years since then but I still remember how riveting this tale was. Hayden spent time during the 70s working as a special education teacher for highly disturbed children, and "One Child" was the story of a particular six-year-old girl, Sheila, who came to Hayden's classroom as a stopgap while they waited to institutionalize her. Hayden managed to break through this girl's reserve and with incredible patience, determination and love, drew out the intelligent child within. Sheila had experienced shocking abuse and neglect as a child, but the book ended on a positive note with Sheila being put into a mainstream classroom and appearing to be headed toward a far more normal childhood than she would have had if she'd been put into an institution.

"The Tiger's Child" is a sequel to "One Child" and tells about Hayden's reacquaintance with Sheila during her teens. Given her troubled childhood, it's not surprising to find that Sheila is not exactly having a normal teenage life. Once again Hayden's persistent efforts to connect with Sheila pay off and the two become close over the several years that are covered in this book. It's interesting reading, though maybe not quite as gripping as "One Child" and some of Hayden's other books.

By the way, I found out this week that Torey Hayden has a pretty good author website.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

An Embarrassment of Mangoes by Ann Vanderhoof

Wow! Am I ever glad that I picked this book up off the library shelf and brought it home on a whim, and am I ever EVER glad that I decided to actually read it instead of taking it back to the library like so many other impulse picks.

I love travelogues, and this one is particularly memorable. It's the story of the author and her husband's two-year journey on their boat, Receta, from Toronto all the way to the Carribean and back, with many stops along the way. Vanderhoof is a journalist and it shows in the vivid writing that creates such wonderful pictures and sounds and smells in my mind as I read the descriptions of the places, people, cultures and especially, the food they encountered along the way. Each chapter ends with at least one recipe, though I'm not tempted enough to try and track down the ingredients that are abundant in more tropical places than Vancouver.

This was a perfect read for a cold late fall day. I enthusiastically recommend it!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson

I gave this one the old 50-page try, (in fact, I read over 100 pages just to be sure) but alas, do not feel like picking it up again. The protagonists are two very silly women, surrounded by other very silly people, all of them (I'm guessing) meant to be clever caricatures of the kind of nosy busybodies that are supposed to have inhabited English villages in centuries past, and indeed may still exist in some modern form for all I know. At any rate, there's nothing amusing or interesting enough about this story to make me want to finish it.

I always feel vaguely guilty when I give up on a book that's meant to be a classic -- like there's some kind of deficiency in my brain that makes me unable to appreciate the fineness of the book. Oh well. Here's to brain deficiency!

Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie

After waiting for some weeks, I recently got the next disc in the Poirot DVD collection from so I decided it would be fitting to read one of the Hercule Poirot novels that the TV series is based on. This story is of the "group of people take a holiday in an isolated location, and one of them is murdered" formula. I wonder if M. Poirot ever takes a holiday without someone conveniently being murdered nearby. At any rate, it was a quick and satisfying read. Agatha Christie's writing style is sparse - she just jumps right into the story without many embellishments - and yet she manages to characterize people quite well.

Naturally, I can't read these books now without picturing David Suchet's face and voice and mannerisms in my head. The man has Poirot down to a T... I think I'll go and watch the rest of that DVD now. Is this one of those rare cases where the screen adaptation is better than the book?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith

This was a slow, quiet, thoughtful kind of novel. I didn't find myself absorbed by it, and didn't feel the need to zip through it (particularly since the latest issue of the Official Xbox Magazine arrived just after I started the book...). I am actually not all that sure what I thought of the book, now that I've read it. The main character, Isabel Dalhousie, is a philosopher, editor of an ethics journal, and spends an awful lot of time thinking philosophically to herself through this book. She is asked by an acquaintance to help her sort out the meaning of a strange vision he has had since a recent heart transplant. Meanwhile, Isabel herself is trying to sort out her feelings for a young man who is an ex-lover of her niece. Keeping in mind that our protagonist is in her early forties, presumably with plenty of life ahead of her, I found it rather irritating the way she seemed to think of herself as some kind of dried up old maid. I can't help but think she lives a bit too much inside her head and the book was not enlivened by this. I did, however, enjoy the descriptions of life in Edinburgh and of the city itself, which is a place I've wanted to visit for some time now.

At any rate, I am going to seek out The Sunday Philosophy Club, which is the first book in this series, and see if I find Isabel Dalhousie interesting enough to make this series compelling to keep reading if the prolific Mr McCall Smith (who has apparently written another No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency book) wants to keep writing about Isabel Dalhousie.

Other books I've read by this author:
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
The Full Cupboard of Life
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding

Reasons why I liked this book:

1. Olivia Joules likes to make lists, just like me. How could I not like a character that makes lists?
2. Olivia Joules is paranoid and carries a survival kit and an emergency hat pin with her at all times.
3. Olivia Joules has, as the title suggests, an overactive imagination. I can relate to that.
4. Unlike me, Olivia Joules's overactive imagination sometimes turns out to be right on target.

Over the past few weeks, I've read a number of books that are slightly humorous, or supposedly humorous, but I've not found them to be much more than clever or amusing. This book made me laugh out loud many times. I'm grateful that Helen Fielding didn't let herself get into the trap of writing endless books about Bridget Jones, and instead decided to branch out so that we could meet the hilarious Olivia Joules, who is an engaging character in her own right (although she has some Bridget-like qualities).

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith

I'm sorry to say this is the last book in this lovely series... at least, until Mr McCall Smith can manage to write another one. I think I liked this book best of all aside from the first one. It seems that the actual solving of cases at the detective agency is receding into the background, no more important than the fixing of cars at Mr J. L. B. Matekoni's garage, and in exchange the books are focusing more on the characters and their lives. I've finally figured out that these are not mystery novels at all, but rich stories about some good people living in a beautiful land and trying to live up to their hopes and dreams for themselves.

In this book, Mma Ramotswe is forced to confront and make peace with the lingering hurt from her first marriage, Mma Makutsi signs up for ballroom dancing classes and buys a new pair of shoes, and Charlie the apprentice finally gets a rich girlfriend. Nothing out of the ordinary here, but that's part of the appeal of these great little books - they aren't too shocking or dramatic, just warm and fun.

Other books I've read by this author:
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
The Full Cupboard of Life
Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

Ahh, after the disappointment of "The Kalahari Typing School for Men" I am delighted to say that Mr McCall Smith is back on form with this one. This book had plenty of character development, a good story and didn't go overboard on the "simple people living simple lives" theme that can be a bit much sometimes in this series.

This book features many significant events in the lives of the main characters, even Charlie, one of the lazy apprentices in Mr J. L. B. Matekoni's garage. Mma Makutski moves into a nicer house now that her typing school has taken off, Mma Ramotswe investigates a client's four suitors to help her decide which to marry, and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni is pressured into a very brave and risky stunt to raise money for his friend the matron of the "orphan farm" outside of Gaborone.

I'm often struck when reading this series that Alexander McCall Smith is very severe upon his own sex (to quote the immortal Mr Darcy). He has a wonderful grasp of the feminine psyche and most of this series is written from the point of view of women, who don't have much good to say about men. Here's an excerpt from one of Mma Ramotswe's discussions with Mma Potokwane, the strong-willed orphan farm matron; they are discussing the lengthy engagement of Mr Matekoni and Mma Ramotswe, who have yet to set a wedding date.

"'Mr J. L. B. Matekoni is not a man who makes hasty decisions. He likes to think about things for a long time.'

"Mma Potokwane shook her head. 'That is a weakness, Mma Ramotswe,' she said. 'I'm sorry to have to say this, but there are some men who need to be organised by women. Every woman knows this. It is only now, in these modern days, with men getting ideas about running their lives without any help from women -- those dangerous, bad ideas -- it is only now that we see how much these poor men need our assistance. It is a very sad thing.'

"'I don't know about that,' countered Mma Ramotswe. 'I know that ladies have to help men in many things. Sometimes it is necessary to push men a little bit. But one should not take it too far.'

"'Well it's not going too far to push men to the altar,' retorted Mma Potokwane. 'Women have always done that, and that is how marriages take place. If you left it up to men, they would never get there. Nobody would be married. You have to remind men to get married.'"

Would any of my male readers care to comment?

Other books I've read by this author:
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton

In this installment of the "alphabet mystery" series, Kinsey Millhone is hired by two ex-cops who want to solve an eighteen-year old murder. The book is based on an actual unsolved murder in the part of California where Grafton lives part-time. I'm not sure why but this book didn't immediately suck me in the way the others in this series have done. Partly it was because I had all these other distracting books sitting on the shelf, but it also seemed like the book started out very slowly due to the encumbrance of the two retired police detectives that Millhone is working with - they're both suffering from ill health, along with a healthy dose of self-destructive behaviour, and they come off as rather pathetic. The story sort of plods along at first as the trio trace down the few leads that they have in the case, and doesn't really pick up until our fiesty heroine manages to shake off her sick partners and sets out to get to the bottom of the mystery. Eventually, of course, she figures it out, and the story builds up to the trademark tense climax as Millhone confronts the guilty party.

My mum has promised to bring the next book in this series when she visits me again, so I will have to occupy myself in the meantime by checking out some of those long-ignored books on the shelf I mentioned yesterday.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

My personal library...?!

Yesterday after several hours of studying, I needed a break and decided to weed out and reorganize our entire book collection. Two hours later I found myself with one bookshelf unit entirely devoted to books I have bought or borrowed and not yet read. I hadn't realized that I had quite so many books in this category... the middle shelf in the unit has a double row of paperbacks since I needed the bottom shelf for photo albums and yearbooks and old issues of the Star Trek Communicator.

Someone tell me to stop using the library and for goodness sake, to stop buying more books until I've worked my way through some of these.

What's "literally" on my shelf Posted by Picasa

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

In the fourth installment of the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, Mma Ramotswe helps a man make peace with a mistake in his past, her assistant, Mma Makutsi, starts her own business and experiences her first romance and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe's fiance, recovers from his bout of depression to resume managing his garage.

This was another nice quick read and, though this book felt a tad formulaic, a satisfying story. There is something soothing about the simple lives and unchanging natures of the characters, the touch of wry humor, and Mma Ramotswe's musings about the "old Botswana morality" that she believes should guide everyone's behaviour.

Now I really must ignore the stack of novels sitting on my bookshelf and focus on my philosophy textbook.

Other books I've read by this author:
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone

Oh, my goodness. Where do I start? I loved this book. It was quite marvellously immersive... one of those books that just pulls you in, making everything and everyone around you disappear so that you need to come up for air every now and again to make sure you're still part of the real world. I picked it up this morning to add it to my "on the shelf" list for the blog template, then started reading and next thing I know it's 8 pm. Where did my day go?

This novel is the story of Gudrid of Iceland, who lived a thousand years ago and accompanied one of the Norse expeditions to North America. She is credited with giving birth to the first European born on North American soil, was married to a brother of Leif Eriksson and comes alive in this novel as a hardy, pragmatic, independent woman. The novel itself is actually set in Rome, where Gudrid, as an old widow, has come for a final pilgrimage and meets Agnar, a young priest who has been asked to transcribe her remarkable story of travel "beyond the world" to what we think of as North America (archeological evidence seems to indicate that the settlement's location was in Newfoundland). Most of the story is told by Gudrid to Agnar, the silent transcriber, with occasional entertaining asides as she talks to him about their "present" lives in Rome and about her wish to return to Iceland before her death. This is punctuated by evocative third-person descriptions of specific moments, memories of Gudrid's life.

I have no idea how factually based this book is, but that hardly matters... what matters is the vivid beauty of the writing, the way that Margaret Elphinstone made this woman come alive and made her experiences, so different from my own, seem familiar. Go, read this book! And be sure to let me know what you thought of it.

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

"How was your day today?" asked Gran as I walked back on board the Sunderland.
expositional to begin with," I said, (...) "but it ended quite dramatically."

Jasper Fforde really knows how to tell a good story. His characters are vivid and engaging... his ideas are imaginative. He has obviously spent a great deal of time thinking through all the workings of his fictional universe. I just wish he'd spend a bit *less* time sharing every detail with his readers and more time on the plot.

As this story opens, Thursday Next, literary detective, has decided to go into hiding in a never-published, substandard crime novel. She is hired by Jurisfiction, the literary world's internal policing system, as a new apprentice. There's plenty going on in the Book World - a minotaur is on the loose, the three witches from Macbeth keep making mad prophecies about Thursday's life that somehow, unnervingly, come true, and someone is systematically killing off Jurisfiction agents. But wait! What about the cliffhanger ending of the last book, Lost in a Good Book?? I was waiting to find out how Thursday was going to bring her eradicated husband back to existence and squirm her way out of the rather serious situation she'd got herself into (ie, hunted by the evil Goliath megacorporation AND by SpecOps, her old "real world" employer). Apparently, Mr Fforde has decided that story needs to be put on hold for about oh, the length of a book, treated as just another side plot while he shares with us all these fascinating details about the Book World (see above). And besides, this means he doesn't have to come up with a new cliffhanger ending for this book - he can just recycle the idea from the last novel, which, not surprisingly, is perfectly justified by the rules of the fictional universe he himself created - a place where there hasn't been an original idea for over a hundred years.

This series is quite maddening, because the stories and characters make for compelling reading, but the books rarely manage to make me laugh out loud and tend to be a little heavy on the details. I think I will probably read the next one, and the next, and the next, just to find out what happens, but will likely gripe about each one along the way. Lucky readers of this blog can look forward to my review of the next title, Something Rotten, which appears (judging from the reviews) to pick up where the aforementioned cliffhanger ending left off.

Other books I've read by this author:
Lost in a Good Book

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Friend who Got Away edited by Jenny Offill & Elissa Schappell

I saw this book in Village Books a few weeks back and decided to request it from the library. Today I picked it up, read about half and realized I just wasn't going to be able to finish it. It's a collection of 20 essays by woman writers, sharing stories about the loss of friendship, usually a long-term friendship with another woman that started in childhood. Far too many of these tales are excruciatingly self-absorbed as the writers share every nuance of their efforts to figure out what went wrong or attempt to explain why they took the actions that brought an end to the friendship. Others simply lay out the events that led to the friendship's demise, without all the elaborate explanation and "intellectual" writing style that mars the other stories - can you tell these were the stories I preferred? (I wish there had been more of them!) Most surprising to me was the pair of stories by two women who had once been close, each writing her own emotional version of the "breakup". I wanted to knock their heads together and tell them to get off their narcissistic high horses and either make amends, or move on. There's something decidedly weird to me about choosing to write together about a friendship and its end in such a public way. I don't get it.

I just can't say that I find this book as gripping and extraordinary as the book jacket promises (not that I'm saying I believe everything I read in a book jacket!). The stories told here are quite painfully ordinary, and I'm left hoping that their publication helped the writers to come to terms with the lost relationships they write about, because frankly, they aren't offering me much enlightenment about my own experiences of lost friendship.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Ramotswe and her assistant Mma Makutsi are moving up in the world. They are hired by two very important men to solve cases, and become responsible for the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors business when Mma Ramotswe's fiance, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, is overcome by depression.

Thanks to the Burnaby Public Library, the third installment in the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series made its way to me yesterday. These books are such a delightful treat - nice quick reads, engaging characters who are becoming very familiar but not at all dull.

For some reason (perhaps as a way of prolonging the engagement?), Mr McCall Smith appeared to want to get Mr J. L. B. Matekoni out of the way for this book. So he made him depressed and exiled him to the "Orphan Farm" for most of the book. I'm not disappointed that we got to spend more time with Mma Makutsi, whose role has moved far beyond that of secretary. She's every bit as fun as her boss, and just as prone to moments of philosophical reflection.

Speaking of which, I thought I'd share one of Mma Ramotswe's internal monologues from p. 78. She is really big on morality and values, and has very decided opinions about the way people ought to think and live.

"Mma Ramotswe had listened to a World Service broadcast on her radio one day which had simply taken her breath away. It was about philosophers who called themselves existentialists and who, as far as Mma Ramotswe could ascertain, lived in France. These French people said that you should live in a way which made you feel real, and that the real thing to do was the right thing too. Mma Ramotswe had listened in astonishment. You did not have to go to France to meet existentialists, she reflected; there were many existentialists right here in Botswana. Note Mokoti, for example. She had been married to an existentialist herself, without even knowing it. Note, that selfish man who never once put himself out for another -- not even for his wife -- would have approved of existentialists, and they of him. It was very existentialist, perhaps, to go out to bars every night while your pregnant wife stayed at home, and even more existentialist to go off with girls -- young existentialist girls -- you met in bars. It was a good life being an existentialist, although not too good for all the other, nonexistentialist people around one.

Mma Ramotswe did not treat her maid, Rose, in an existentialist way..."

Other books I've read by this author:
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Fforde's ffolly

I finished another Alexander McCall Smith book today and have my nose stuck in "The Well of Lost Plots". However, I can't wait until I finish that to tell you that I just discovered that Jasper Fforde has one of the most extensive and entertaining author websites I've ever seen - it's not easy to navigate, but it has just as much personality coming through as the official site of another favourite writer of mine, Lindsey Davis.


PS I particularly recommend the ffotographica section of Jasper Fforde's website - he has taken some truly wonderful photos.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

Literary detective Thursday Next is on a mission to save the world, but first she needs to figure out how to retrieve her husband, who has been erased from existence, and dodge the mysterious villain who is using entropic powers to try and bring Thursday's life to an early end.

It's been some time since I read Fforde's debut novel, "The Eyre Affair", and I'm glad that I finally remembered to pick up this sequel on a recent trip to the library. Fforde's style has been described as "decidedly quirky and strangely thought-provoking" and I'd say that is definitely an accurate assessment of "Lost in a Good Book". Protagonist Thursday Next lives in a sort of "alternate 1980s" where extinct species have been revived, the world is in the clutches of a megacorporation called Goliath, people can travel through time and, most importantly, people and characters can travel in and out of books. A whole bureaucratic system has been set up to detect literary infractions and forgeries, as stories in this world are fluid and changeable.

Like another "humorous" book I read recently, this book did not make me laugh out loud - I'd say that it is merely "clever and amusing", rather than truly funny - but there's a solid story behind the quirky premises in this book, and Thursday Next feels like a real, compelling heroine so it's easy to overlook the silly names and not-quite-funny attempts at social satire.

The next title in this series is waiting on my bookshelf!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

A murder at the Louvre throws together an American professor and a Parisian cryptologist. Pursued by the authorities and by members of a religious sect, they explore parts of Paris and London on a quest to unravel a series of clues left behind by the murdered man.

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain..."

I'm sorry to say that for me, this book did not live up to the avid recommendations that have come my way over the past year. The premise of the book was interesting enough, though it bears more than a tiny resemblance to the movie "National Treasure," which I saw recently enough that I kept picturing Nicolas Cage as I read. As a matter of fact, Cage's woeful "acting" is a great parallel for the author's lowest-common-denominator writing style - describing absolutely everything in simplistic terms, leaving nothing to the reader's imagination (including superfluous details such as what type of engine a plane had and the processing speed of a computer doing a document search) was so distracting that I couldn't really suspend disbelief and just enjoy the story, however implausible. Brown's love of explanations also made this book far too heavy on exposition - either he or the main character, Robert Langdon, spent at least half of this book expounding endless theories (which are presented as fact), without nearly enough action to balance out this weighty theorizing.

Speaking of Langdon, I was pretty sick of him by the end of the first couple of chapters. Here is a man whose extensive knowledge is constantly amazing, shocking, astounding, overwhelming and stunning the people around him, while he grins (or, for variety, smiles) as he pontificates to everyone from prison inmates to unrealistically engaged college students, and of course, to his naive sidekick, cryptologist Sophie Neveu - who in spite of being a brilliant woman, with impressive responsibilities and academic credentials, is very much shocked, stunned, overwhelmed, etc by almost every "amazing" fact or historical detail that spouts out of Langdon's mouth. But wait, there's still more! Part way through the book, Langdon recruits yet another sidekick, the roguish Sir Leigh Teabing, who just happens to live near Paris, and just happens to also be able to spout great amounts of knowledge about the very subjects that Langdon and Neveu most need to know about, always with a twinkle in his eye and endless money at his disposal (fear not, we are treated to many expository passages to make it clear just *exactly* how Teabing has spent his inherited funds).

I did manage to make it to the end of the book. What's left in my mind is one pressing question: What *is* it about this story that has made this book such a bestseller and has led thousands of tourists to visit the sites that are mentioned in it? Whatever that is, it certainly escaped me. Can I have my twelve dollars back now?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

The second title in the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series. Precious Ramotswe prepares for her upcoming marriage, helps a mother to solve the mystery of her son's disappearance and promotes her secretary to assistant detective.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which had a bit more structure than "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (it had one overarching mystery for Mma Ramotswe to solve, with only one or two minor cases coming up in the midst of the main investigation), though that gave this book a bit less charm than the last one. That said, it has just the right amount of Mma Ramotswe's philosophical musings, and the author's evocative descriptions of Botswana and the Kalahari desert.

On a side note, the edition that I borrowed from the library read like an uncorrected proof - it was full of typos, missing words (can something be full of something that's not there but is supposed to be??) and other such things. I'm not sure what was more irritating - the lack of proofreading, or the fact that some previous reader had gone through the entire book and corrected every single mistake in pencil. Why do people write in library books?! It's so annoying.

Other books I've read by this author:
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Portuguese Irregular Verbs

PS I just heard an interview with Alexander McCall Smith on CBC Radio where he mentioned that he wrote half of this book while staying in Vancouver with his two sisters. Cool!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith

This is a plotless tale of the life and "adventures" (I use the term loosely because they aren't very exciting) of a tall, eccentric German professor of philology.

Eager to read more of this author's books and impatient for the next "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" book to come in at the library, I decided to check out a couple of the "Professor von Igelfeld" novels. This is the first, and I found it disappointing (though I did finish it). It was meant to be humorous, but sort of like Napoleon Dynamite, the humor lies in laughing at the foibles of the main character. I don't often find odd people funny, I guess. So the story just came off as weird and sort of pointless - why would I want to read about all the stupid things this odd person does?

That said, I am not giving up on Mr McCall Smith and will be trying his "Sunday Philosophy Club" series.

P is for Peril by Sue Grafton

Sassy PI Kinsey Millhone is hired by the unlikeable ex-wife of a local doctor who mysteriously disappeared nine weeks previously; during her investigation, her quest for a new office goes badly wrong.

Another marvellous instalment in the "Alphabet mystery" series. I don't know how, but Grafton keeps churning out these books and they are all good! Each one feels fresh, suspenseful and interesting and yet they are comfortable and familiar. I love the main character, Kinsey Millhone - she's feisty and quirky.

The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Botswanan Precious Ramotswe, mourning the death of her beloved father, uses the proceeds from his estate (a sizeable herd of cattle) to purchase a store and open her own detective agency. She solves a variety of mysteries in her own charming, no-nonsense style, and along the way we learn about her childhood, her brief marriage and her frienship with a local auto shop owner who is besotted with her.

I've avoided this series for quite some time now, for the silly-sounding reason that the books just looked too short. Well, I found this used at Village Books in Bellingham on Saturday and am so glad I decided to pick it up. It was charming, evocative and quite addictive... I finished it while on campus (supposedly to focus on my school work) and had to stop myself from walking into the University bookstore to buy the next title in the series. Instead, I went online and requested the next book at the public library, and at last, it's sitting next to me here, while I relish the fact that I have it in my possession and savour the anticipation of reading it.

One of the most memorable things about this book is its beautiful descriptions of the landscape and people of Africa. You get the feeling that the author (born in Zimbabwe and now living in Edinburgh) really misses the land that he grew up in. I love reading books that give me a glimpse into another country or culture, and though I have no interest in visiting Africa, I have vivid impressions of the landscape, the climate, and the people in Botswana.

Turning over a new page

So, back in March of 2003, inspired by a site whose address I have long since lost (but which consisted of a wonderful archive of every book the site owner had read over the previous four years) I started this blog where I could keep track of every book I read, with comments on each one. I never posted to it. I've decided to give it another shot here, because the original blog seems to be permanently broken - I can't change the template or put a title on any new posts (which seems a shame).

I'll start with the books I read over the weekend and hope for the best. If I can manage to keep this up, I guess I'll share the site with friends.