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 Zip.ca 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 Amazon.com 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!