Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Lord Vishnu's Love Handles by Will Clarke

Here's a book that started out self-published, made it to commercial publication and deserves to be made into a movie too. It's a comedy, a thriller, a spy novel and just plain good fun to read.

Travis Anderson is your average schmuck - a dot-com millionaire living in a pretentious Dallas suburb with his wife and young son. Unfortunately, Travis has been cursed with an unusual gift; he gets psychic visions showing him all kinds of interesting (and often unpleasant) possibilities for the future. Travis copes with his unwanted visions by drinking almost constantly. When the IRS comes after him and his business partner for tax evasion, Travis discovers that his unique talent can save him and his family from financial ruin, and gets sucked into a secret organization of psycho paranormal spies who promise to fix his problems if he'll just do a little bit of work helping them. As you'd expect, he finds he's gotten way more than he bargained for and it's up to Travis to save his own sorry ass and fight to keep his family intact.

Lord Vishnu's Love Handles was difficult to put down; once the story got going, the pace kept picking up and I found I was waiting with increasing amusement to see what kind of wacky mess Travis would get into next. Travis is the kind of main character who wins you over even while you want to smack him, and the bizarre collection of people that he meets during his work as a psychic spy make the story even more readable. Highly recommended!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich

Meh... That would be the word to sum up my reaction to this book. Somehow in the last couple of books, Janet Evanovich has lost the charm that made me enjoy the previous titles in this series so much. Again I had the sense of her plugging in the various bits of the formula for a Stephanie Plum book but there was nothing to hold the whole story together and make it memorable.

Which is too bad, because it's an interesting premise. Stephanie's sexy bounty hunter pal Ranger has run into some trouble and gone into hiding. The feds seem to be looking for him, as is a somewhat crazed woman claiming to be his wife. And then there's the ten year old girl who has been kidnapped and who both Ranger and Stephanie desperately want to find. There's a lot going on in this novel, and it could have made for a really exciting, edge-of-your seat type of fluffy suspense novel, but alas, the whole thing pretty much fell flat for me.

Here's hoping that Evanovich's unique voice kicks in again for book thirteen...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Eleven on Top by Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum decides that she's tired of dealing with the hassle of bounty hunting. She's ready for a change of career. Unfortunately, right around the time that she starts her new job working for a local factory, she discovers that someone is out to get her. It seems like being a bounty hunter isn't something that Stephanie can easily walk away from - or drive away from, for that matter, as the creep who's threatening her life seems intent on blowing up her cars.

Something about this book didn't quite click for me. Although it was an easy and reasonably enjoyable read, it wasn't up to the previous standard of "compelling fluff" that I've found in previous installments of this series. All the elements were there but it felt like Evanovich was just going through the paces of writing another Stephanie Plum novel.. "oh, better make sure we put in a good sex scene here... oh yeah, a slapstick scene here... and another one here..." I'll pick up the next novel, Twelve Sharp, and hope that it proves more entertaining.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby

This young adult fantasy novel takes place in an alternate version of New York City where some pretty strange things are going on. Most people can fly, for instance - so birds are revered, cats are considered vermin and those born without flying abilities are mockingly called "leadfeet". There are also some very odd creatures living in the city's subway system - rat people, punks, albino alligators and terrible musicians. (OK, maybe that last one is not TOO different from some modern day subway systems.) Then there's the odd, reclusive professor with a garden growing on his head...

The Wall and the Wing centers on the adventures of two children, nicknamed Gurl and Bug, who meet up in an orphanage where none of the children can remember their past and the matron, Mrs Terwiliger, is Miss Hannigan's evil twin. The discovery that Gurl has the very rare ability to make herself completely invisible leads to all kinds of interesting problems for both children. Eventually, they manage to find happy endings in spite of the nefarious adults in their lives who don't have their best interests at heart.

This was a cute book - it managed to put a fun and creative spin on some rather tired storytelling devices. If there's a 9-13 year old fantasy fan in your life, you might want to suggest this book next time you visit the library. I'm going to see if I can convince my own picky 11 year old bookworm to give it a try.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

This excellent follow-up to Case Histories was well worth waiting for.

One Good Turn centers on a single event and its repercussions. A crowd of people waiting to attend a festival show in Edinburgh one summer watch a fender-bender turn into "road rage" when one of the drivers attacks the other with a baseball bat. By switching perspectives through each chapter, Atkinson shows us how those who took part, those who stood by and watched, and those who tried to help are each affected over the next few days by their decisions. Perhaps most affected is Martin Canning, a quiet writer of bad post-WWII mystery novels who in a rare moment of courage throws his laptop bag at the man with the baseball bat. He soon comes to realize the heavy responsibility of having done a good turn for a stranger. Meanwhile, ex-police detective Jackson Brodie tries to avoid involvement by leaving the scene but finds he's unable to "let go" of what he's seen. Soon he, too, is caught up in the chain of events.

It's an interesting exploration of how the decision to help someone in need of assistance - or not - can impact you. The subplots in this story are cleverly wound together, leading to a seemingly unavoidable meeting between the major players in the story.

One Good Turn is a fine example of the contemporary British crime novel. Sometimes when writers switch genres it really doesn't work (see my commentary on Goodnight Nobody, Jennifer Weiner's attempt at a mystery novel) but in Kate Atkinson's case, while I thoroughly enjoyed her earlier novels (particularly Behind the Scenes at the Museum), I'm very glad she decided to try something new.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

This book is like a fairy tale. It's the story of Ruth Reichl, a woman who has landed her dream job. Reichl is the restaurant critic for the New York Times, and before she even starts the job she discovers she has stepped into a fairy tale world, where she has to be one step ahead of the New York City restauranteurs who are eager to spot her and give her the very best possible food and treatment their establishment can offer.

It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the privileged life of the restaurant critic. While it sounds incredibly cushy to get paid to eat free meals in the best restaurants of one of the world's biggest, most multicultural cities, it can have its down sides and they are discussed in a very entertaining way in Garlic and Sapphires. Reichl resorts to a series of clever disguises to fool the restaurant owners so she can have the "normal" dining experience of an average patron, and she finds that as she puts on the wigs, the makeup and the specially chosen clothing she seems to also don a new persona. Reading about her dining experiences both as herself and her various alter egos was quite fascinating; the writing is rich and evocative, and I found myself drooling as I read the descriptions of incredible meals I will probably never be able to afford to eat.

If you like to read a good memoir, love food or are just curious about what it's like to be a restaurant critic for one of the world's biggest newspapers, I recommend this book.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

Here's a charming children's/young adult fantasy novel that I found out about from bookshelves of doom, one of the many book blogs I read (and haven't had time to add to the sidebar on this site).

The people in an Irish village called Kinvara have a problem. Everyone seems to be running out of time. No matter how frantically they rush around trying to get everything done, there's never enough time to do it all. And although this sounds like a typical problem for people all over the western world today, in this case it's a little bit more than that. JJ Liddy, a fifteen-year-old boy, finds himself in a whole new world (literally) when he asks his mother's friend Anne to help him find more time as a birthday gift to his mum. Suddenly he realizes that maybe all those crazy stories that Irish people have been telling each other for centuries - about fairies, magic, and music - might have a bit of truth to them.

JJ's adventure was a fun, light read that I think a lot of younger fantasy readers (and some of the older ones like me!) might enjoy. The author has added an interesting element to the story by inserting a relevent piece of Irish music in between each chapter. While this is a neat idea, in practice it turned out to mean lots of extra page turning - especially since the chapters tend to be really short, some only a page long. I think I'd rather have had the book come with a CD that I could listen to while I read the book, and the sheet music in an appendix. Regardless, the story was interesting enough to keep me turning those pages long past the point where the music stopped being a novelty and started being an obstacle I had to get past in between each small chunk of the book.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Grain-Free Gourmet by Jodie Bager and Jenny Lass

I was very excited to find this cookbook at my local library, since grains are pretty much off the menu for me. However, I haven't ended up trying any of the recipes. The cookbook is geared toward something called the "Specific Carbohydrate Diet" which I was not previously familiar with, and seems oddly named given that people on this diet are not really encouraged to eat any carbs at all aside from those found in fruit. The diet excludes grains, starches, sugar, and lactose. While there are many interesting recipes in here, most of them seem to depend on cheese (which is another food I can't eat - and doesn't really make a lot of sense to me in the context of a lactose-free diet, though the authors claim that cheese is "very low in lactose") and almond flour for baking (which is ludicrously expensive - the authors happen to sell it online for $7 a pound).

If I could buy almond flour in very small quantities, I might consider occasionally using some of these recipes on special occasions if I wanted to bake a pie or something, but given there are far cheaper alternatives to almond flour (such as a mixture of garbanzo and tapioca flour, which we used to make a very decent pie crust on my birthday) I don't really see the point.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich

In between fittings for her upcoming role as a bridesmaid, Stephanie is being pursued by a local gang who aren't too happy with her. Concerned about the safety of her family and friends, Stephanie seeks out a safe place to live while she continues being the clumsiest bounty hunter in New Jersey.

Another amusing episode in Stephanie's life, from the active imagination of Janet Evanovich.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

To the Nines by Janet Evanovich

Janet Evanovich continues her exploration of other "non-bail" types of bonds in this fluffy, enjoyable book. Stephanie Plum's cousin Vinnie is hoping she can rescue his reputation when an Indian man Vinnie bonded on a temporary work visa goes missing. It's Stephanie's job to track down Samuel Singh, making sure he leaves the country when his visa is up. Of course, nothing is ever simple in this series, so along the way Stephanie finds herself embroiled in the usual dark and sinister circumstances with nasty people, dead bodies and kidnappings - and of course, lots of sex, gunfire, and comic relief. There's even a bonus trip to Vegas!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Hard Eight by Janet Evanovich

OK, I know it says that I'm reading The Sea in the sidebar. I'm just taking a little detour here because this Stephanie Plum series is the perfect antidote to midterm exam stress.

In Hard Eight, Stephanie is hired by Mabel, an elderly family friend, to track down a missing single mother and her young daughter. Mabel's house is on the line: she agreed that it could be used as collateral for a custody bond for her little great-granddaughter, never dreaming that the child's vindictive father would need to cash in on the bond. As Stephanie hunts down the missing people, she finds herself pursued by a really nasty guy called Eddie Abruzzi and his henchmen, who love to dress up in costumes while they're putting Stephanie's life in danger. Meanwhile, Stephanie's love life is heating up, and the explosive fun that I missed in Seven Up is back.

It might just be pre-exam delirium, but this book made me laugh so hard I could hardly take a breath. There's a scene in Hard Eight that was nearly as funny as the dildo scene in John Irving's A Son of the Circus (a scene which tempted me to put a paper bag over my head because I seriously thought I was going to hyperventilate if I laughed any harder).

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Body Double by Tess Gerritsen

I really like Tess's blog, and read it regularly, so I thought I'd give one of her books a try. I have to admit that I had limited success. Why? Well, to put it briefly, this book scared the crap out of me.

And I only read the prologue!

Sorry, Tess - your thriller-writing abilities are just too good for this scaredy-cat.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Seven Up by Janet Evanovich

While Stephanie struggles to reconcile her feelings for the two hot guys in her life, one of whom wants to marry her and the other of whom is just plain hot and wants to get into her pants, she tries without much success to finish her latest bounty hunter task. She's been asked to bring in Eddie DeChooch, a wily old guy who keeps slipping through her fingers again.. and again... and again. And then there's the troubling disappearance of Stephanie's two gentle loser pals, Mooner and Dougie, who have gone AWOL in a haze of pot smoke... Somehow she knows this is connected to the case she's working on, which is getting more and more bizarre and sinister.

Throw an unwanted Harley, some female mud wrestlers and a frozen pig heart into the mix and you have a typical week in the life of Stephanie Plum.

This was another fun installment in the series. The only real surprise here is that one element I expect to find in every Stephanie Plum novel was missing. If you have read this series up to this point, let me know what you think. I kept waiting for this thing to happen and was disappointed when it didn't -- but I still enjoyed the story.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Lies, damned lies, and...

Yesterday, this blog officially turned one year old. In honour of the anniversary, I have decided to indulge my love for "interesting" statistics.

Here are some highlights of the past year here at Literary Afterthought.

Number of books I blogged about: 105
Average number of books read per month: 9
Number of books I rejected without finishing them: 9
Author whose books I read the most of: Alexander McCall Smith
Month that I read the most books: November 2005

Five best novels:
1. The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
2. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
3. Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella
4. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Best new discovery: Sophie Kinsella
Best humorous novel: Divorcing Jack by Colin Bateman
Best children's/young adult book: City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Best non-fiction book: Twilight children by Torey L. Hayden
An Embarrassment of Mangoes by Ann Vanderhoof

Worst book:
Dark Tort by Diane Mott Davidson
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence

Biggest disappointment: Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

Keeping this blog has been incredibly fun, and it has changed the way I read books. Thanks to everyone who read and especially to those who took the time to leave comments! I look forward to sharing more discoveries and disappointments here in the coming year.

Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray

Short, deep sentence fragments. Quaint and heartfelt imagery, excessive use of commas, fear of linking sentence clauses with conjuctions.

Books like this, they bug me.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Hot Six by Janet Evanovich

Contrary to what the title of this book suggests, there is no hot sex in this book. You see, Stephanie Plum's grandma has rebelled against her own daughter and son-in-law and decided it's time to move out on her own. But while she's looking for a place, she figures Stephanie won't mind giving up her bed (and her privacy) for an old lady. There are two evil but incompetent guys following Stephanie everywhere she goes. And then there's the cop friend who tricks Stephanie into taking on the burden of his dog, Bob. So, there isn't a whole lot of time or space for hot sex, but Stephanie has plenty of other action to keep her mind off it. She's been asked to track down her fellow bounty hunter, the mysterious and sexy Ranger, who is caught up in some serious trouble.

Another fun, light, fluffy and funny book with the usual heroics and hi-jinks. The serious prize-winner sits on the shelf while I dig out book seven to help take my mind off the stresses of my busy life.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans

When I started this book, I had no idea what it was about. The dust jacket had been removed, and I haven't seen the movie based on it. A friend loaned it to me and said she'd liked it, and that was enough for me.

By the time I was halfway through chapter one, I was completely sucked in. The story was vivid, the characters were so deftly described that in just a few sentences I understood what kind of person each was, and the action picked up pretty quickly. I was so enthralled by this story that I realized it had been a very poor choice for reading on the ride up to campus, because I have to switch from bus to train to bus and there was a pretty good chance I'd miss my stop. Still, I persevered with both my journey and my book, though I was resentful of the need to pay attention to the outside world.

At some point halfway through The Horse Whisperer, though, something changed. At first, I was reading a compelling story about a New York City family with one beloved child, a family struggling to overcome a shocking tragedy and move on with their lives. A story about Pilgrim, a horse that had been through such severe trauma that everyone had pretty much given up on him ever being able to go back to his former life. And a story about the "horse whisperer", the man with a gift for taming the wildest and most nervous horse with his gentle, empathic approach. So that was all good. But then... Sometime after Tom, our horse expert, is reluctantly hired to work with Pilgrim, suddenly I found myself reading an entirely different book. Equally well written, but... well... it was a sappy romance! Featuring adultery! With lame, poetically written justifications for it!

And geez, I just didn't want to read a romance novel; I wanted more of what there was at the beginning of this book. So, in spite of the great writing, the characters, the vivid descriptions, in the end I felt somewhat let down by The Horse Whisperer. At least Evans had the courtesy to tie up the loose ends, to give us a happy ending for some of the characters (and I guess it makes me just a tad sappy to like happy endings and loose ends tied up), but... geeeeeez. Enough with the long meaningful looks, the desperate lovers, the hot sex scenes. I want to hear more about the horse, dammit!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

High Five by Janet Evanovich

Business is slow at the bail bonding agency, so Stephanie Plum agrees to help out with a family matter. Her tight-fisted uncle Fred has disappeared, shortly after an argument with his garbage pickup company over a $2 refund. Somehow, Stephanie's family has gotten it into their heads that she can find Fred. Unfortunately, while she investigates this matter, she discovers a trail of dead bodies -- none of them Fred's.

Meanwhile, one of Stephanie's small jobs turns into a big headache when a little person (don't call him a midget!) moves in with her after she wrecks his apartment during his apprehension. Her Grandma gets hold of Stephanie's stun gun, a crazy ex-boxer is stalking her, she can't seem to get her uncle's ugly old Buick out of her life, and she's torn between the attentions of two really hot men... just another average episode in the life of this bounty hunter.

In short, a highly enjoyable novel that had me laughing out loud -- and looking lost when I finished it and realized that number six wasn't waiting on the shelf.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Four to Score by Janet Evanovich

Exciting stuff happens to Stephanie Plum in her fourth adventure. Cars explode, molotov cocktails are thrown, scary Italian grandmas give people the evil eye, grumpy old elderly women perform daring hamster rescues, and Stephanie finally gets laid.

All of this excitement is part of the background to her latest job as a bounty hunter. Stephanie needs to track down Maxine, a woman who skipped bail after the seemingly innocuous crime of "borrowing" her loser ex-boyfriend's car for a while, and ended up getting arrested when, to retaliate, he called the police and reported his car stolen. Unfortunately for Stephanie, Maxine is just a little too determined to not be found, and our heroine finds herself having to dig deeper and deeper into this puzzling situation - with occasionally disastrous results. On the positive side, though, Stephanie has gained a new sidekick, a transvestite named Sally who is a master codebreaker. The scene where Stephanie ends up taking Sally, Lula and her Grandma on a stakeout in a crowded casino is a priceless example of Evanovich's flair for mixing the serious and hilarious.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Right Attitude to Rain by Alexander McCall Smith

This book was in some ways a departure from the series, in other ways not.

For one thing, instead of being asked to investigate some outside mystery, Isabel Dalhousie is instead preoccupied with matters of the heart in this book - her own heart, as well as the hearts of others. Her traditional nosiness - err, curiosity about the doings of others, I should say - comes into play here. The book focuses far more on character development than the previous two titles, and I enjoyed getting to spend some time focused on Isabel instead of on whatever matter she is investigating this time around.

On the other hand, The Right Attitude to Rain continues in the thoughtful and contemplative tone that I expect from this series. Being a moral philosopher by profession, Isabel Dalhousie can't help but consider the ethical implications of her actions, and she spends a fair bit of time thinking about general moral and ethical issues as well. Although this means the series will always be short on action, long on navel-gazing, it's an interesting sort of navel-gazing that gives you a glimpse into the curious, observant and gently mocking mind behind these books. I offer you a sample of these unique musings on modern life, as Isabel goes about her part-time job of editing the Review of Applied Ethics:

By lunchtime she had read and corrected almost half of the issue. Several of the authors' footnotes had been mangled in the setting, with page numbers disappearing or inflating impossibly and requiring to be deflated. Page 1027 could not exist; page 127 could, or page 102 or 107. This involved bibliographic checking, which took time, and sometimes required getting back in touch with the author. That meant e-mails to people who might not answer them quickly, or at all. And that gave rise to the thought that an article on the ethics of e-mail would perhaps be a good idea. Do you have to answer every e-mail that you get? Is ignoring an electronic message as rude as looking straight through somebody who addresses a remark to you? And what, she wondered, was a reasonable delay between getting a message and responding to it? One of her authors had sent her an enquiry only two hours after sending an initial e-mail. Did you get my message? Can you give me a response? That, thought Isabel, could be the beginning of a new tyranny. Advances in technology were greeted with great enthusiasm and applause; then the tyranny emerged. Look at cars. They destroyed cities and communities. They laid waste to the land. Our workship at their altar choked us of our very air, constrained us to narrow paths beside their great avenues, cut us down. And yet... she thought of her green Swedish car, which she loved to drive on the open roads, which could take her from Edinburgh to the west coast, to Mull, to the Isle of Skye even, in four or five hours, just an afternoon. The same trip had taken the choleric Dr. Johnson weeks, and had been the cause of great discomfort and complaint. it was an exciting tyranny, then, one which we liked.

I have to admit that this series isn't my favourite by Alexander McCall Smith - I read it mostly because I'm waiting for the next No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novel - but it does have a unique charm that makes for a fun and restful (though not thrilling and action-packed) read.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Three to get Deadly by Janet Evanovich

This series just keeps getting more and more hilarious.

In the third installment of Stephanie Plum's misadventures as a bounty hunter, she acquires a new sidekick, her pal Lula - a 200+ lb ex-whore turned file clerk at the bail bonding agency. Lula's big ambition is to become a bounty hunter herself, and she seems to be under the impression that Stephanie knows what she's doing and could teach her a few tricks of the trade. The problems that beset Stephanie and Lula as they pursue Mo, the beloved owner of a local candy shop who skipped bail, sound serious (ie, discovery of multiple corpses, death threats, being shot at multiple times) but they had me laughing so hard that I got the hiccups.

I don't want to give away the story, but be assured that if you pick this one up, you'll get more of the same things that made the first two books so great. Family dynamics, romance, thrills, and the defence of an innocent hamster's life - it's all here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Two for the Dough by Janet Evanovich

The story picks up a few weeks after One for the Money ended. Stephanie Plum has started to settle into the life of the bounty hunter, but she's still learning from her mistakes, still being a total pain in the ass to the cop and fellow bounty hunter she's learning from, still being plagued by her overbearing mother and still having to look out for her crazy granny. Luckily (or not so luckily) for Stephanie, she's trying to bring in a man who is helping her do lots of learning from mistakes. Kenny Mancuso is showing increasing evidence of being totally insane... and he isn't shy to let Stephanie know that he's not too happy about her interest in his life and whereabouts. When body parts start showing up in unexpected places, and Kenny starts targeting Stephanie's loved ones, this case becomes just a little too personal. Look out, Kenny - you won't like Stephanie when she's angry...

This book had action, suspense, and way more laugh-out-loud moments than I usually get in a mystery novel. So far this series is proving to be thoroughly enjoyable... so much so that I'm passing up the other titles on my bookshelf to read the third installment next.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner

In Her Shoes chronicles the experiences of two sisters, Maggie and Rose, who were brought closer together by the death of their manic-depressive mother when they were young. Their closeness doesn't stop them from being in almost constant conflict, though -- they are sisters, after all. Rose is the smart and successful sister, the one who went to Princeton and is now a lawyer. Maggie tries to fight her feeling of inferiority by being as pretty and sexy as possible, but even she can't escape the fact that her life is a mess, a series of failed relationships and boring retail jobs that she quit after just a few days. Rose resents the way she always has to bail Maggie out of one mess or another, the way Maggie takes whatever she wants from everyone and never seems to understand the need to make a decent living and pay her own way. Maggie, on the other hand, wishes that Rose would just get off her case and try to understand how her lifelong struggle with dyslexia has made everything she tries to do so much more difficult.

Meanwhile, their maternal grandmother, Ella, is still wounded from the way her son-in-law angrily cut her out of Maggie and Rose's lives after her daughter's death. She lives alone in a Florida retirement community, filling her days with volunteer work and avoiding close friendships so she'll never have to revisit the painful memories of her lost family.

I know these women sound like a pretty hopeless trio, but they are all likeable characters who have some personal growth to go through and closer bonds to forge with one another. As the title suggests, each of them needs to spend some time trying to look at life from the other's point of view; as an added chicklit bonus, they all wear the same size shoe so lots of shoe-borrowing symbolism comes into play during the course of the novel.

And so as I complete my blitz through Jennifer Weiner's back catalogue, the question that haunts me is - what the HECK happened with Goodnight Nobody? My conclusion: Weiner should stick to chicklit and stay away from further cross-genre experiments.

Friday, September 29, 2006

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

Remember those "alphabet mysteries" I've been raving about on this blog - starring sassy PI Kinsey Millhone?

Well, in this book I have discovered the anti-Kinsey.

Meet Stephanie Plum. She's down on her luck, in a big way. No job, no skills, no car, no money, and soon no furniture (because it's all in the pawn shop). Where Kinsey Millhone is street-smart, Stephanie is a smartass. Where Kinsey is a tough loner, Stephanie is saddled with an overbearing New Jersey family (including a crazy grandma who wears spandex biking shorts and shoots roast chickens). Kinsey set up her own PI company after learning everything she needed to know from an old pro; Stephanie takes a job as a bounty hunter for her cousin Vinnie's bail bonding company, and is so clueless that she can find her man four or five times and never bring him in.

This is a terrific book, with a voice so strong it almost reaches out and smacks you (if you haven't already fallen over from laughing). I love the way Evanovich has turned the female detective genre upside down; Stephanie Plum is absolutely hopeless in every way, and yet somehow she manages to get the job done in her own unique and appealing way. I can't wait to read the sequel.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner

Aha... now here is the answer to why Jennifer Weiner ever got published. This is her first novel, and it's quite engrossing. It's the story of Cannie, a young reporter with a terrible self-image who hasn't quite recovered from the end of her last long-term relationship. During the course of this novel, she goes through stages of healing and personal growth while various good and bad things (I won't say what) happen to her. I found the writing far better than previous Weiner novels, and Cannie was a realistic and likeable character.

I'm glad to finally have enjoyed a Jennifer Weiner book, after one dud and one "good but not great" novel by an author who has been so enthusiastically recommended to me. If you think you might like to give Jennifer Weiner a try, this is the one to start with. (Well, I say that now but I'll be reading "In Her Shoes" next, so watch this space for details...)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Little Earthquakes by Jennifer Weiner

Here I got a better answer to the question of "Why Jennifer Weiner's books are so darn popular." This novel was far more engaging than Goodnight Nobody, with more in-depth characterization and an interesting mix of four women's stories of first-time motherhood, each woven together as they become friends and share experiences. The writing was good enough and the story compelling enough that I was able to overlook the occasional annoying foray into clothing descriptions.

In brief, this novel is about the pregnancies and first months of motherhood of four people: Becky (the fat one), Lia (the sad one), Ayinde (the exotic, rich one) and Kelly (the control freak). Yes, I'm being tongue-in-cheek - there's more to these characters than a simple label, and over the course of the novel they have a range of experiences that help to make them more and more "real". Each woman struggles with some aspect of becoming a mother for the first time, and they deal with their life tragedies and challenges by drawing on each other's friendship. There's nothing deep and Naomi-Wolf-ish here, just a simple, charming tale of joy, sadness and friendship. If you're thinking you might like to try this writer and are not averse to "mommy lit", Little Earthquakes wouldn't be the worst place to start.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

Nadezhda has a problem. Well, a few problems. She's still recovering from her mother's death two years ago, she is barely speaking to her older sister Vera, and now her 84-year-old father has dropped a bombshell; he is importing a young, buxom new bride from the Ukraine, his motherland. Her name is Valentina, and according to Pappa, she is an angel. All Nadezhda can see, though, are her father's home, pension, and minimal savings being sucked away by the opportunistic, big-breasted Valentina.

Nadezhda's efforts to get Valentina out of her father's life have some unexpected consequences. She's never seen eye to eye with her sister, but now they have something in common. Pooling their strengths and resources to evict the enemy from their mother's home, the sisters discover a way to see past their differences, and Nadezhda begins to piece together the story of her family's past. Slowly, she begins to understand some of the dynamics in her family as she learns about their wartime life in the Ukraine and the hardships involved in their trek to England.

At first I had mixed feelings about this novel; while it was charming, the characters weren't people I could really connect to or empathize with. Once I got into the book, though, I became intrigued by the situation that this family was in. I wanted to know what would happen. Would Valentina settle down and become a caring wife to her elderly husband during his final years? Would Nadezhda and Vera succeed in bringing about a divorce and having Valentina expelled from Britain by the immigration authorities? And what were the awful secrets buried in this family's past? Most importantly, would the slightly loopy Pappa ever complete his book, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian?

Finding out the answers to these questions made this book a satisfying read. If you're in the mood for a touching, occasionaly hilarious immigrant family drama, you might want to check this out.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner

This is exactly the kind of book I feared to hold in my hands when I avoided reading "chick-lit" for so long.

In the first fifty pages of Goodnight Nobody, I was treated to enough descriptions of people's clothing to make me run away screaming. When you include the excessive description of hair styles, skin, facial features, decor, architecture and the tiresome dropping of brand names left, right and center... well... ARRGGHHHHHH!!!

To give you an idea of how focused on (IMO) the wrong kind of description this author is, let me share with you a passage from page 10, where the protagonist finds a body:

"Oh, God!" I clapped my hand against my mouth and grabbed onto the countertop to keep myself from sliding to the floor. Kitty had gone for the same upgrades that Ben and I had picked. Her countertops were granite, her floors were pickled maple, and the French doors leading to the garden had leaded glass insets. There was a Sub-Zero refrigerator and a Viking range, and between them was Kitty Cavanaugh, facedown on the floor with an eight-inch carbon-steel Henckels butcher's knife protruding from between her shoulder blades.

Umm... hello? You just found your pal stabbed to death on the floor, and you're taking a moment to assess her decor choices, drop a couple of appliance brand names and notice what kind of knife the killer used? This would be the kind of reaction I'd expect from a hardened crime scene detective with a curious preoccupation with kitchen decor, but it doesn't ring true from a suburban mom who has presumably never seen a murder victim in her life.

Unfortunately, though this may well be an interesting mystery, the writing style didn't pull me in. Even if I could get past all the descriptions, I didn't think the people in this book felt real. They all seemed like shallow caricatures: the suburban stepford wives, the world-weary cop, the distant workaholic husband, the single best friend who can't find a husband but is great with your kids... etc, etc.

So I'm going to close this one, and give Jennifer Weiner one more chance with Little Earthquakes.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Darcy's Diary by Amanda Grange

I picked this up at the gift shop at the Jane Austen House museum during my recent visit to England. It was a fun and well-written, if necessarily predictable, retelling of the Pride and Prejudice story from the point of view of Mr Darcy. As such, I don't have too much to say about it - if you haven't read Jane Austen's original, I suggest you go and do that rather than read this first. Then you can pick up this book and enjoy reading the story again, from a slightly different perspective, complete with the "happily ever after" chapters at the end, in which the author gets to indulge her fantasies (in an occasionally un-Austen-like manner) about Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage.

I liked Darcy's Diary far better than the hideous and embarrassing Mr Darcy Takes a Wife, which I do not recommend you pick up if you want something told in the same style and spirit as Jane Austen's stories. If only I'd taken note of the title of the other book recommended by the Jane Austen House employee - I'd enjoy reading more P&P sequels, but it's hard to figure out which ones are worth my time.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

About a Boy by Nick Hornby

This is a book that I re-read often enough I had to google my blog to figure out if I'd written about it already!

About a Boy is a charming tale of Will, a vapid, thirtysomething Londoner who has created a nice solitary life of doing absolutely nothing, being shallow, and avoiding being part of any intimate relationship. Will doesn't quite know what to do when twelve-year-old Marcus, an oddly perceptive child, pushes his way into Will's life and insists on being friends. Marcus's relentless campaign to make Will part of his own life - and Will's reaction to suddenly finding himself caring about people - is the basis of this funny, touching novel. A fine example of Nick Hornby - if you haven't tried his books yet, this is a good place to start, along with High Fidelity.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

I should know by now that I shouldn't rush out and buy a new novel in hardcover just because it is written by someone whose previous books I loved. Alas, Maeve Binchy has joined the ranks of such writers as John Irving by producing a novel that was a real disappointment.

Whitethorn Woods returns to one of Binchy's favourite settings, a sleepy Irish town. This particular sleepy town is called Rossmore, and the big drama happening there is that a new bypass road has been proposed, one that will stop heavy traffic from cutting through the town but will also ruin the nearby woods. We are reminded over and over again from the get-go that this road is very controversial and that many people are opposed to it because there's a shrine to St. Ann inside a cave in the woods, and this cave would apparently be demolished in the name of progress.

The main problem with this book is that it fails to make me care. A trademark of Maeve Binchy's writing is that not much happens in her novels, but because her characters are so compelling and believable I get caught up in their lives and want the best for them. Sadly, Binchy has managed to not make that happen this time because of the odd way she is telling the story of Rossmore: this novel consists of a series of disjointed short stories, many of which read like rushed summaries of people's lives and some of which are told twice, from the point of view of more than one person in the story. Each story includes a mention of the increasingly tiresome Rossmore with its boring controversy, so that by the time the writing finally sparked some interest in me (about 2/3 of the way through) I was thoroughly sick and tired of St. Ann's shrine and couldn't care less about the road. Binchy does make an effort to pull some of the disjointed stories together in the final chapter, but unfortunately it's too little, too late. There were just too many people to keep track of and I could barely remember who was who by the final chapter.

Alas! Maeve Binchy is one of those writers I used to be able to count on to consistently produce great novels and who are trying too hard now to be different and innovative, with the result that they just make me feel like I've wasted my money on a boring book. The uninteresting drama of Rossmore is right up there with Jack Burns and his snoozeworthy quest for his absent father in John Irving's Until I Find You, which I just can't muster up the interest to finish.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Love Over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith

Imagine my delight when, browsing in a bookstore in cold and rainy Middlesbrough a few weeks ago, I came across this book. I didn't realize this before, but the "44 Scotland Street" books are published in hardcover in the UK almost a year before we get them (in trade paperback) in Canada. So only weeks after finishing Espresso Tales, I got another dose of this wonderful series.

Things seem to pick up in this book after a bit of meandering in Espresso Tales. Each of my favourite plots was advanced, and I was left feeling extremely satisfied. Wonderful things happen to Matthew, Domenica, Pat and Bertie; and yet there are some sad events too, as one character dies, Big Lou's hopes for love turn sour and Bertie's mother persists in seeing his life as a project. I encourage you to pick up this series if you haven't before, to meet these charming characters, get to know Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh and be treated to his wry and funny observations about human nature.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Shopaholic Ties the Knot by Sophie Kinsella

Kinsella continues her amusing Shopaholic series by putting Becky Bloomwood into a new situation. Luke and Becky are engaged, and Becky has the chance to have the wedding of her dreams. Only she's not too sure which dream to choose. Torn between her mother's elaborate plans for a homegrown wedding and the spare-no-expense Manhattan fete imposed on her by Luke's icy socialite mother, Becky finds herself getting deeper and deeper into trouble as the big day approaches and she has yet to make a decision. Of course, there is plenty of humor involved and quite a bit of shopping, but I think it was a smart move to shift the central conflict away from Becky's shopping habits and mounting debts with this book. The stage is set here for future books (such as Shopaholic and Sister, which got me started reading Kinsella's entire oeuvre!) and I look forward to seeing what else will happen to Becky as she moves into new phases of her life.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone

Having enjoyed The Sea Road last fall, I was delighted to come across another Elphinstone book in a used bookstore not too long ago. With great anticipation, I packed it into my suitcase for some good holiday reading.

I have to admit that for quite a few chapters, I couldn't quite work out what type of novel I was reading. The Sea Road is a beautifully written piece of historical fiction; Hy Brasil is something quite different. Hy Brasil is a fictional mid-Atlantic island nation, populated with the descendents of pirates and shipwreck survivors. Sidony Redruth becomes fascinated with the place and manages to convince a publisher to give her an advance to write a travel guide. When she arrives in Hy Brasil, she meets Jared Honeyman, a young man obsessed with finding Spanish treasure amid the many shipwrecks surrounding his home country. The narrative switches back and forth between Sidony's and Jared's perspectives, as they both become caught up in a deadly series of political events that threaten to expose some secrets that have been hidden nearly as long as the treasure Jared seeks on the ocean floor.

Once I got caught up in this book, I found I couldn't put it down. The characters are well drawn and realistic, and the culture of Elphinstone's fictional nation is both believable and fascinating. I managed to pick up another of this author's elusive novels at a bookstore in York, so you can expect to read about it here very soon.

Shopaholic Takes Manhattan by Sophie Kinsella

Our heroine, Becky Bloomwood, has won the heart of PR whiz Luke Brandon, and she agrees to travel to New York City with him to investigate the possibility of moving there so he can open a branch of his company. With Luke frantically rushing from meeting to meeting, trying to woo investors, what else could Becky do but explore the possibilities of Manhattan shops? Alas, sinister forces are at work in Becky's life. A tabloid journalist's ill-timed expose of Becky's debts and shopping habits throws her plans into doubt.

Although this book follows the same formula as its predecessor, Confessions of a Shopaholic, it's a formula that works. Kinsella's knack for putting her appealing, slightly ditzy protagonists into hilariously dire situations doesn't fail her here. It's easy to get swept up into Becky's world, laughing at her predicaments with the certainty that everything will work out in the end.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

I didn't feel like reading my current novel, so when I saw this on the shelf in my mum's house I decided it was time for a re-read.

It's wonderful to find a book that can make you really laugh, and even greater (though much more rare) to find that the book can still make you laugh even though you've read it half a dozen times. Bridget Jones's Diary is one such book, and it arguably started the whole chick-lit genre which seems to be about the level of reading that I'm capable of at the moment. The protagonist, in the best chick-lit spirit, is a delightfully ditzy person that you can't help liking even while you laugh your head off at her. Everything about Bridget, from her obsession with her weight, her quest for true love, to her concern over her mother's increasingly bizarre behaviour, are here for us to laugh at and relate to, all chronicled in Bridget's unique, personal pronoun-free writing style. Even though I've never been a thirtysomething single woman living in London, this book is so cleverly written that I feel like I'm right there.

The sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is even more hilarious, and it's on the shelf here too, so I think there may be a re-read in my future...

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Here's some background, at last, to the highly enjoyable Shopaholic and Sister from several weeks back. In this novel, we meet Becky Bloomwood, the shopaholic with a secret - she's piling up the debts at an alarming rate, and it becomes harder and harder for her to hide this from her friends and family, including her flatmate Suze and her adoring parents. Her hilariously inappropriate job as a journalist for a magazine called "Successful Saving" just doesn't pay enough to support her habit. Becky continues to shop, inventing ever more ridiculous stories to hold off her bank manager, until suddenly things become overwhelming. She tries to run away, only to stumble on to the biggest story of her career, one that might finally help her to get some respect from the intriguing millionaire Luke Brandon.

Stay tuned for Shopaholic Ties the Knot and Shopaholic Takes Manhattan!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith

This sequel to 44 Scotland Street feels like the way my summer has been - a series of reunions with old friends. In Espresso Tales, I get to catch up with people I haven't "seen" for a long time, and find the answers to some questions I've longed to know the answer to. For instance: will the narcissistic Bruce ever get his come-uppance? Will Pat find true love? Will Matthew, the aimless art gallery owner, discover his calling? And what of Bertie, the exceptionally gifted five-year-old - will his mother abandon her project to raise him as an ungendered, bilingual saxophonist who does yoga in his spare time?

It's funny that a book so episodic in nature (each chapter is published separately in The Scotsman newspaper) should be so riveting, but Alexander McCall Smith has a way of creating characters who have an appealing authenticity (even the most ridiculous among them, like Ramsey Dunbarton, the writer of hilariously dull memoirs). Their foibles are sketched out in a gentle, teasing manner. While the novel as a whole skips from one story line to another, it doesn't feel disconnected, because the setting of Edinburgh geography and culture helps to tie everything together.

Reading this book gives me a sense of the personality behind the writing, but McCall Smith is never intrusive and doesn't feel the need to hit you over the head with his observations about human nature. This is why I enjoy his novels so much; he's not above philosophizing, but he never takes himself or his characters too seriously.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Samantha Sweeting, twenty-nine years old, has known no other life than the law. As the daughter of a highly successful barrister, Samantha has grown up with the pressure to succeed, and has set her own goal of becoming the youngest partner in her top London corporate law firm.

On the day she is to find out whether her dream of partnership is finally going to come true, Samantha discovers that for the first time ever she has made a mistake in her work - a mistake that will cost her firm's client fifty million pounds. This throws her into a blind panic. Her agitation leads her out of her office, into the streets of London, onto a train and, eventually, to the front door of Trish and Eddie Geiger, a nouveau-riche couple in the middle of interviews for a new housekeeper. Samantha's confused state leads her to accept the job... just for a day or two... after all, how hard could gourmet cooking and a bit of housework be?

This comedy of errors, which includes the obligatory British chick-lit romance and slightly ditzy main character, did not disappoint me as I continue to work my way through Sophie Kinsella's novels. She has a great way of writing a fun story that can be read on multiple levels, depending on what you want. The Undomestic Goddess can be a light romantic comedy, or it can give you food for thought about families, love, the price and meaning of success, and many other topics.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Strange Affair by Peter Robinson

It took me so long to get around to reading this fifteenth book in the "Inspector Banks" series that the sixteenth book has already been released in hardcover! That's the curse of having too many books on your shelf and not enough time to read them all.

In this installment, DCI Alan Banks receives a troubling phone message from his estranged brother, Roy, a slightly shady businessman who lives down in London. Banks drops everything to go and investigate when he's unable to reach Roy on the phone. Meanwhile, in Yorkshire, Banks's colleagues are frantically looking for him after a search of a murder victim's pockets reveals a slip of paper with Banks's name and address written on it. Not surprisingly, Roy's fate is closely intertwined with that of the murdered woman, and it's up to Banks and his colleagues in both Yorkshire and London to figure things out.

Mystery novels in an established series like this one need a careful balance between action, investigation and character development and I felt that this book focused so much on the latter two that the action suffered. For that reason, I don't think this novel would be a good introduction to Robinson's writing; there is very little tension and no cliffhanger ending. I was able to close the book, turn out the light and go to sleep when I was only 40 pages from the end! For Inspector Banks fans, though, Strange Affair is obviously a must-read as there are a lot of important developments in his personal life. I look forward to finding out what happens in the next book, Piece of my Heart.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella

Another piece of delightfully absurd fluffiness, courtesy of Sophie Kinsella. Just the thing to absorb the mind of a brain-dead mother on summer vacation!

After utterly failing at what should have been a simple deal-closing meeting in Glasgow, junior marketing assistant Emma Corrigan finds herself on a very, very bumpy plane ride back to London. When the turbulence convinces her that she's counting down the final minutes of her life, Emma contracts a serious case of verbal diarrhea. By the time the plane lands safely at home, she has told her seatmate, a quiet American man, every single secret of her life. She doesn't cut corners - he learns about everything from her true feelings about her boyfriend, Connor, to her opinion about g-string underpants, to the way she pretends to like the garish crocheted garments made by her friend Katie.

The next day, she arrives at work to find everyone in a tizzy. The owner and founder of the large corporation is visiting for the first time. Guess who he turns out to be? And guess who Emma finds herself falling in love with over the next few weeks?

I have to say I found this book hard to put down, in spite of its chick-lit predictability. It's not so much "what" happens in books like this, it's more "how" the story is told, and Sophie Kinsella has a wonderful gift for writing a truly laugh-out-loud story with characters you can't help rooting for at the same time you're chuckling over their ditziness.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Blessed are the Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch

Abbey is a displaced Irishwoman living on a remote tropical island with her distant, obsessive husband, who is not everything he seems. Kit is a drunken New York City investment banker who has recently lost his wife, who was not everything she seemed, either. Both Abbey and Kit need to get away and start a fresh life.

Meanwhile, over in County Cork, Ireland, Abbey's grandfather Corrie and his lifelong friend Fee have realized that their time as artisan cheesemakers may be coming to an end soon. They need someone - or preferably two someones - to take over their world-famous cheesemaking operation and carry on a longtime tradition of taking in unwed mothers who milk the cows in exchange for room and board during their pregnancies. Hmm... I wonder who those two someones will turn out to be?

This book, as you probably guessed, is rather predictable, but it's a cute and fun read all the same. Since "funny, fluffy chick lit" seems to be the order of the day for me right now, I was happy that I'd selected it from my overflowing shelf of unread books and brought it with me on this vacation. Although the plot of Blessed are the Cheesemakersbrings no surprises (I guessed how the whole thing would work out, right up till the last scene, and I'm not someone who is too great at that - I didn't even figure out Professor Lupin's secret in the third Harry Potter book... duh!) , the characters are appealing. I found myself simultaneously caught up in Kit and Abbey's eventual coming together in mutual happiness, rooting for them while at the same time groaning inwardly over how predictable the whole affair was.

Next up - more fluffy fun courtesy of Sophie Kinsella!

Friday, June 30, 2006

Shopaholic & Sister by Sophie Kinsella

I picked this book up off the kitchen counter at a friend's house and next thing I knew, I was sucked into this hilarious example of British chick lit at its best. I generally like to read a series in order, but in this case I'm glad I didn't let that stop me from reading.

Our heroine, Becky Bloomwood, has a bit of an impulse control problem when it comes to shopping. She just can't resist the latest shoes, makeup, gourmet food, clothing, handbags or jewelry, among other things. With her trendy London loft apartment filling up with useless junk collected on her honeymoon, her credit cards maxed out and her career as a personal shopper in limbo, Becky is not ready for the big shock in her life - she has a long-lost half sister, Jess, the product of an affair her father had prior to marrying Becky's mother. Meanwhile, Becky's best friend, now a mother of three, seems to have ditched her for a snotty fellow mum called Lulu, and Becky's husband Luke shows his increasing exasperation for her spendthrift ways as pressures mount in his PR company.

Seeing the appearance of a sister as her best chance for intimate companionship, Becky throws herself into being the greatest sister that Jess could ever wish for. Somewhat predictably, Jess turns out to be Becky's polar opposite, but Kinsella's "odd couple" play off one another to make for a truly funny novel. Becky remains completely clueless about her shortcomings while the reader sees the "saner" characters' reactions to her behaviour through Becky's remarkably clear-sighted observations.

I am now eager to read other books by Sophie Kinsella, which seem to be just the right level of fluff for my currently addled brain.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

still here, honestly

I have not forgotten about this blog, I'm just suffering from a prolonged bout of low mental capacity that seems to be making it impossible for me to do much more than sit in front of the television. Also known as the FIFA World Cup.

Well, I can't really blame the World Cup for my lack of reading. If I can gobble up 2-3 books a week even when I'm studying for final exams, I can certainly read in between 2 or 3 soccer games a day. I'm not really sure what the problem is. I've got some great books in my stack here, and absolutely no interest in picking them up. Let's hope this turns around soon. Meanwhile, please enjoy some of the links in the sidebar.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident by Eoin Colfer

I hoped that reading some light young adult fantasy would help to get me reading again, so I picked up this sequel to Artemis Fowl. In this story, Artemis learns that his father, long missing and presumed dead, has been kidnapped by the Russian Mafiya and sets out to rescue him. He is helped by his bodyguard Butler, and Julius Root and Holly Short, the two "LEPRecon" agents he met in the first book. Along the way they help to foil an attempt to take over the entire underground fairy kingdom.

I think Colfer could have done a lot more with this story; on the whole, though it was a cute book, it didn't grab me. The premise isn't quite clever enough to match its predecessor, the characters feel recycled, and poor Artemis himself - the curiously likeable, highly intelligent and immoral teenager we know and love - becomes a wimpy, boring background character while various elves, goblins and nefarious humans in the book vie for "page time". I'm disappointed, but I know that sequels and second novels are not always an easy thing to pull off so I might give this series another chance.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

What You Wear Can Change Your Life by Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine

This companion to the BBC television program What Not To Wear caught my attention at a book store recently. Much kinder and gentler than the brutally helpful show, this book is a comprehensive guide to choosing clothing, accessories, shoes, hair styles and make-up to show off your personal "assets".

In case you are wondering why in the world I am reading this book, well, I have to confess I'm quite hooked on the TV show. As someone who is not much concerned with my personal appearance, I still want to look "nice" and I like the way that Trinny and Susannah, believing that all women are beautiful, focus on making the most of what you have instead of sending women off to get surgery or go on extreme diets to change their appearance. I have to admit that I am quite clueless when it comes to anything related to "fashion", and this book (along with the TV program) has helped me to be a bit choosier when I go into clothing stores. I'm not trying to look like I just stepped off the pages of Vogue but I am getting a little tired of the harried suburban mother uniform of jeans and baggy t-shirts.

Unfortunately, there were some areas of this book that seemed to fall a bit short of what I and other clueless women need; for instance, the section on choosing colours that go well together seems to assume that you have a clue about what colours actually look good on you. Also, the overall effect of reading all this stuff about things I have never thought about - necklaces, scarves, shoe styles, handbags, makeup etc. is a little overwhelming. Oh well, I'll keep reading and watching and maybe by the time I'm 40 or so I will have it figured out.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Twilight Children by Torey L. Hayden

This, it turns out, was the book I needed to read to get me out of my "reading slump". Torey Hayden's books are always gripping and this was no different. Well-written, compelling and often impossible to put down, Twilight Children chronicles Hayden's experiences working in a psychiatric ward for children. Her patients this time are Cassandra and Drake. Cassandra is an explosive, seriously disturbed child who was abducted from her mother by a vengeful father, who subjected Cassandra to shocking abuse and neglect before she was finally located and returned to her mother more than two years later. When she reaches Hayden's care, Cassandra is unpredictable, destructive and foul-mouthed - almost impossible to like or to reach. Drake is Cassandra's counterpoint - a charming and attractive fellow who gives every appearance of being a perfectly normal, outgoing, intelligent little boy except for his total lack of speech. During the course of the book, Hayden overcomes considerable odds to work with these children, figure out what they need, and help to make their lives more normal.

It can be hard to read about children experiencing abuse, and Cassandra's tale is particularly brutal. However, though she doesn't hold back any of the facts to spare her readers, Hayden doesn't sensationalize what these kids have been through. The wonderful thing about her books is reading about the power that Torey Hayden has to get through to kids whose situations seem utterly hopeless, to create a powerful connection with them, and help them to heal. In the end, after reading a Torey Hayden book, I feel a strong sense of hope that even though there are people in the world who mistreat children, there are also people out there like her who are making it possible for those children to find their way to a healthy and normal adult life.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith

I have been in quite a slump recently when it comes to reading, and so when I found out this book was waiting for me at the library on Saturday I was hoping it would be just the thing I needed. In many ways, Blue Shoes and Happiness did not disappoint; it was lovely to be back with all the familiar characters, and to learn more about the small but satisfying triumphs of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. These books are relaxing and undemanding reading. They won't win any prizes for great literature, but they have a way of drawing you in irresistibly with their quirky fluffiness.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that Blue Shoes and Happiness grabbed me in quite the same way as many previous installments in this series. I can't quite put my finger on what was "off" about this book. Maybe it was just a bit too formulaic, maybe the author was trying too hard, I don't quite know. All I can say is that many of the things that I found appealing in previous No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books just didn't quite work this time around. I wonder if Mr McCall Smith is getting tired of his characters; at times he almost seemed to be mocking them, and the character development this time around was pretty much nil. I was also disappointed that he seemed to need to knock me over the head with his message about how lovely Africa and the African people are; in past books, this was made clear through loving descriptions of the landscape and through the behaviour (and, occasionally, the internal monologues) of the people themselves. This time, that subtlety was gone, which had the effect for me of making the country and its people less charming.

Overall, then, this wasn't *quite* what I needed to get me out of my slump... but I will keep looking for that book.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Grass for his Pillow by Lian Hearn

I've been very neglectful of my book blog, and it has now been a week since I finished this book. My excuse for not writing immediately is that I was on a bus on my way to Seattle when I finished it, and after spending three days there I had a lot of other things to do and this post got lost in the shuffle. My bad!

Grass for his Pillow continues the Tales of the Otori trilogy begun in Across the Nightingale Floor. The story picks right up where it left off in the first book and is written in the same style, with alternating chapters told from the point of view of Takeo and Kaede. I don't want to give away any details of what happens here, but it was a very satisfying read.

Sometimes the middle book in a trilogy can get boggled down in bridging the beginning and the climax of the overall story, but that isn't the case with Grass for his Pillow - there's plenty of action, suspense, character development, and a very satisfying conclusion that still leaves you wanting to go and pick up the next book immediately to find out what happens next. And in fact, that is more or less what I did. Stay tuned for my thoughts on the concluding book in this series!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Isn't That Bigamy? by Mike Vogel

Since this book was one of the winners of POD-dy Mouth's 2005 Needle Awards (for those of you who don't feel like following the links, the site is a blog that offers reviews of books published through Print-on-Demand companies such as Lulu and iUniverse), I was expecting it to be good and I wasn't disappointed. Isn't That Bigamy? is a delightfully absurd suspense novel about a federal agent (Becky Li, who happens to be a lesbian with a gun fixation) forced to move to a remote town in Utah, posing as the wife of a witness she is protecting (Stan Smith, who happens to be a constantly horny heterosexual with a commitment problem). You see, Stan accidentally saw the head of an Armenian crime syndicate executing an undercover agent, and now the crime boss is not too happy with Stan and would prefer to see him dead - preferably before Stan can testify against him. To that end, he hires his favourite hit man, "Mad Dog" Moogalian (who happens to be a homophobic ex-wrestler who smokes Virginia Slims) to find Stan and eliminate him.

Unfortunately for everyone, Becky and Stan end up in the wrong town and find themselves caught up in the very weird polygamous subculture of Tamarin, Utah. I'm not sure that I need to say much more for you to understand why this book is so hilarious.

I hear that after winning the Needle Award, Mike Vogel found an agent to represent him, so I expect this book will be picked up by a major publishing house and available more widely in the next year or so. But if you feel really compelled to buy it before then, it's available through Amazon.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom

I'm not sure that I've read very many books by Northern Irish writers in the past, but over the past few months I've discovered two - Colin Bateman and now Ian Sansom. There are some similarities between this book and the Dan Starkey series by Bateman - both mysteries, featuring a lovable loser as the main character. However, Sansom's protagonist is no hard-drinking Belfast journalist and definitely does not get into scrapes with people who want to murder him and his loved ones in unpleasant ways.

Israel Armstrong, the "detective" in this book, is a fat, gormless young Jewish vegetarian from London, whose only redeeming quality is a lifelong fascination with books. This leads him to take the only job he can get with his library science degree from a second-rate university: a librarian's job that plunks him down in Tumdrum, Northern Ireland, a village populated with people who aren't afraid to tell him exactly what they think of him (not much) in the local dialect (which he barely understands). Israel soon discovers that the job, like the village, isn't quite what he expected. Due to budget cuts, the library has been closed and he has been relegated to driving a very old and rusty bus around County Antrim in his new post of mobile librarian. Also, there's the small problem of the entire contents of the library being missing.

Sansom delivers the tale of Israel's hamfisted "investigation" of the book theft with an absurb wit that makes for a very fun, light read. Be aware, though, that this is no edge-of-your seat suspense-filled crime novel - it's more like Ballykissangel on dope.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

I picked up this book based on a recommendation at Bookseller Chick's blog. It sounded like something Megan would enjoy, but since some of the reviews I found online made reference to "sexual" content, I decided I'd better read it first to make sure it was appropriate for her. I had no idea I was about to get sucked into such a spellbinding book!

Across the Nightingale Floor is a fascinating novel set in a sort of alternate feudal-era Japan. The main characters are Takeo, a 15-year-old orphan from a remote mountain village who is taken in by a wealthy lord and becomes embroiled in the political warfare of the local feuding clans, and Kaede, also 15, a young woman who, due to her noble birth, is a pawn in the increasingly dangerous sparring between several warlords who don't seem to have her best interests at heart. All the elements of the best young adult fiction are here: events in this book move forward swiftly, the two main characters are appealing and heroic, and the novel is a satisfying read. This was one of those books that left me feeling bereft after I finished it. I can't figure out what to do with myself now, and I feel strongly convinced that nothing else other than the next book in this series would satisfy my reading needs. I'm almost tempted to skip the meeting I had planned to attend tonight and go to the library to pick up book two in this trilogy, Grass for his Pillow.

As far as the sexual content goes, it was nothing that Megan couldn't handle, particularly given the "older youth audience" anime that she likes to watch. I was relieved to find this, because it would have been such a shame to miss out on the indescribable pleasure of sharing a book you loved with your child and being able to discuss it at great length later. As it happens, she finished her current novel while I was working on the final chapter of this one (she's working her way through Brian Jacques's Redwall series at the moment) and happened to be sitting around trying to figure out what to do with her reading time. I was very happy to be able to march over to where she was sitting, hand this book to her and instruct her to read it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto is the story of a birthday party gone wrong. Mr. Hosokawa, the president of a large Japanese corporation, is convinced to celebrate his birthday in an impoverished South American country which is so desperate for foreign investment that it coerces Hosokawa's favourite soprano to come and sing for him. A botched kidnapping attempt at the party turns into a months-long hostage crisis, the party guests trapped in the home of the country's vice-president as the government and the terrorists exchange increasingly impossible demands. Out of this nightmarish situation comes love and compassion, connection between people from different worlds, and a strange, beautiful tale, as the hostages and terrorists gradually become companions in a dreamlike existence whose days are structured around the beauty of opera.

I'm not sure what more I can say about this book that won't sound like one big long gush, but I'll try. It's beautifully written, the characters are very real, the story is compelling and just a tiny bit magical and somehow, all together, it works very very well. This is a truly immersive work of fiction, something lush to wrap around yourself like a big, soft blanket on a cold day, so that you become completely unaware of the world around you and in fact would very much prefer that it leave you alone.

Hmm... I think I'm gushing now! You can probably tell that I liked this book a lot and think that you should go and read it. When you do, come back and leave a comment in the blog so I'll get to hear what you thought. :-)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

If I hadn't had to read it for a book group, I would never have gone past the first hundred pages of this novel.

Ultimately, I found a lot to appreciate about this story; Jeffrey Eugenides can write well, and creates vivid characters. The problem with Middlesex, for me, is that Eugenides is just a bit too heavy-handed with the way he tells the story. First, he grabs your interest on page one by introducing the narrator, Cal. Born Calliope Stephanides, Cal is a hermaphrodite (though I believe the term "intersexual" is becoming more commonly used) - he has both male and female sex characteristics. He was raised as a girl, but once puberty kicked in, things changed. This is an intriguing premise that made me eager to read on; but then, before I could find out much about Cal, warm to him as a character, I was suddenly presented with the story of his grandparents. Now I like to think of myself as an open-minded, accepting person, but I was pretty squicked out by the fact that Cal's grandparents were brother and sister. Ewww - Too Much Information! I didn't think this was at all necessary for the story. It's clear that there was so much intermarrying in their village back in Turkey that the genetic anomaly that led to Cal's predicament would certainly have been passed along through one or other of his ancestors. Anyway, reading about this incestuous relationship was pretty gross and distracted me from the story to the extent that I didn't have any feeling for the characters.

Yet, mindful of my need to be able to discuss this book intelligently with the other people in the book group, I read on. It turns out that this book is more a story of a Greek immigrant family in 20th-century Detroit than a story about a hermaphrodite. Cal's part in the story is reduced to occasional, jolting reminders of his narrative presence. I wish that I had been allowed to fully appreciate the experiences of Cal's grandparents and parents as they are related in the story, instead of having to see it all through Cal's not-very-believably-omniscient lens. Eugenides also has a tendency toward "information dump" which I found very annoying; he can go on for paragraphs or even for pages giving you information about this, that or the other historical event or demonstrating the research he did into sexual disorders. I often found myself feeling quite irritated at being distracted from the story by Cal's little "asides" and Eugenides' need to pad the story with unneeded detail.

Ultimately, Cal's story doesn't really start until Book Four, 401 pages into the novel. At this point, I found my mental editor thinking that this should have been the start of the book, when Cal's anatomical differences are finally revealed to him and to his family:

The Oracular Vulva

From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn't do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows. Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive gene in my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed.

From here, Cal's experiences become the focus of the story; we find out what it's like for him to learn to live with a new definition of himself after fourteen years of believing he is a girl. Now that is what I wanted all along - why did Eugenides string me along for 400 pages before he got to it? It's definitely hard to get "sucked in" to a good book when I'm constantly revising the manuscript in my head, thinking of a better way the story could have been presented to me.

At any rate, I'm glad I stuck with this novel, because I'll have a lot more to say at the book group meeting; but I'm very sorry that so much of what I have to say is negative. Book Four, the last section of the book, was great and I was sad that Eugenides held out on giving his readers the full benefit of his writing abilities until 400 pages in.

P.S. I just noticed that the last time I actually finished a book was April 4! This has got to be a record for me. I blame my final exams for first taking up all my potential reading time with studying, and then frying my brain to the point where I couldn't string two thoughts together for several days... No wonder there is such a backlog on that bookshelf of mine. Time to go waste a few perfectly good weeks inhaling some (hopefully) good books.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl is a brilliant twelve-year old boy who is determined to continue the Fowl family tradition: become a very wealthy criminal mastermind. With the help of his faithful servant and bodyguard, Butler, he sets out to steal a pot of gold from a leprechaun. The first step is the kidnapping of elf Holly Short. Artemis soon discovers that today's modern fairies are not quite the stuff of fairy tales, and that in fact, though he might stay one step ahead of them for a while, they have some fairly unorthodox ways of getting back at him.

After the last two books' failure to "grab" me I was in the mood for something light and fun, and Artemis Fowl definitely fit the bill. This book is funny (yes, I admit I even laughed at the toilet humor that crops up here and there), original and ultimately satisfying. I appreciated most of all the way every element in the story moves it forward - everything made sense and there was a feeling of completion when everything tied up very neatly at the end. Well, almost everything - there's sequel material aplenty here, and what do you know? There happen to be three.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Man and Wife by Tony Parsons

I really enjoyed Parsons's first novel, Man and Boy. It's the story of Harry Silver, an irresponsible young man who throws away his marriage when he can't resist a one-night stand, and suddenly finds himself raising his preschool-aged son, Pat, on his own. Harry's transformation from self-absorbed young idiot to caring, mature father was a cute feel-good story that I happily recommended to many friends.

This sequel was, I'm sorry to say, a disappointment. Harry Silver is newly remarried to a wife that he loves, but he very quickly sinks back into the self-absorption that I thought he'd shaken off in the previous book. He loves his son Pat just as much, but is a little too myopic about the boy and I got pretty tired of Harry blathering about how wonderful Pat is. (Yes, yes, your kid is great. Shut up already.) This book is plagued by an annoying tendency for passages and chapters to end with several paragraphs of melancholy internal monologue followed by an angst-packed short sentence. Harry seems to be living so much inside his head that the story itself suffers, told as it is in short snippets between pages and pages of narcissistic navel-gazing.

Ay, ay, ay! In the end, I just couldn't stomach any more of it. At the end of Chapter 13, when Harry has distanced himself from his new wife and is in pursuit of a hot babe, I decided that when you feel an irresistible urge to reach into the book and slap the main character, but can't think of any other compelling reason to keep the book open, it's time to look for something better. Luckily, my shelves are very well stocked with high-potential reading material. Onward!

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

"I go to the cinema," said Kay; ... "Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way -- people's pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures. Or perhaps that's just me..."

This book is set in WWII-era London: that's one point in its favour. It's written by an author who has been glowingly recommended to me: point two.

Nothing interesting happens in the first 100 pages (see? I was generous and gave it double the usual time to prove itself to me): minus one point. The characters are dull: minus two points.

Oops, this book is a zero.

Seriously, though... I expected a lot more from a writer who has had glowing critical praise and commercial success. I didn't expect a book that was, frankly... just plain uninteresting.

These people, Kay, Viv, Duncan and Helen, all seem to lead very dull lives in post-war London. There are occasional hints that they had more interesting pasts, but for the most part they do boring things (described in far too much meticulous detail), and they have boring, stilted conversations; neither seems to do much of anything to move the story forward. They have boring love affairs that are full of petty jealousy and boring friendships that are full of insecurity.

It looks like if I'd stuck with this book for another 60 pages, the book would have taken me back to 1944 and perhaps given me a little more interesting information about these dull people's mysterious pasts. I wonder what it would have been like if I'd taken Kay's advice and started the story halfway through; but then, what if I found out that their pasts were just as boring as their future seems to be?

Well, perhaps that's just me.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the story of Stevens, a butler who served the Lord of a grand English house during the fading days of the British empire. In the 1950s Stevens remains at the house, but everything else has changed. Lord Darlington has died, the final years of his life marred by scandal and disappointment. The house has been purchased by an American businessman, most of its rooms are closed down, and the former staff of dozens of servants has been reduced to a skeleton crew of four. Stevens finds himself alone and friendless, as he has lost touch with the servants whose companionship and conversation helped him to define himself.

Mr Farraday, Stevens's new employer, invites his butler to take his car and go off for a week during Farraday's absence. Stevens is able to take his first holiday ever, which gives him time to look back on his life's work. The novel begins as Stevens is about to set out on this trip. The powerful first-person voice of this novel asserts itself from the first pages, and we get a glimpse into the mind of a man who has dedicated his entire self to the goal of being a perfect butler. As the story unfolds, we begin to see in Stevens the hollow shell of a man who, never having allowed himself to feel anything, having spent his entire life becoming the embodiment of "dignity", is trying to come to terms with his past. The result is a magnificent, deftly told tale. Though much is told through the memories and narrative of Mr Stevens, the real story reveals itself through subtext and implication. Many questions are suggested: Where does the work of a servant end and his own life begin? How can a person whose life revolves around being anonymous and unassuming express his own feelings and beliefs? What happens when he doesn't acknowledge those emotions? Does a servant have the responsibility to evaluate and develop opinions on his employer's behaviour and political activities? Yet Ishiguro does not provide answers to the questions, so I think I'll be pondering the implications of this novel long after having closed the book.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Regeneration by Pat Barker

This was a powerful novel, a moving and thoughtful glimpse into the lives of British soldiers' experiences during World War I. The prose is so smoothly written that you can dip into it and be completely absorbed - even submerged - in it. I'm sitting here holding the book in my hand, looking at the cover, re-reading the blurb on the back, because I am not quite ready to let go of a story that such had a profound emotional impact on me.

(And imagine! This book was assigned for my English course. At least there was *one* book in this mostly disappointing reading list that I can confidently say represents fiction at its best.)

Regeneration is a war story, a statement about the cost of war. It is an examination of the attitudes of soldiers, women, and men who weren't fighting on the front. It explores the psychological reality of "shell-shock" and the state of the psychiatric profession during the early 20th century.

The book focuses on the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who is sent to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland after publishing an anti-war declaration in 1917. In the hospital, he is put under the care of Dr. Rivers, and meets another young poet, Wilfred Owen, as well as other patients who are suffering from a variety of psychological problems after their experiences in the trenches. The story is mostly told through the eyes of Dr. Rivers, who struggles to maintain a belief in the necessity of the war while every day working with those who have been most traumatically affected by it.

Barker treats the war experiences of her characters frankly and doesn't pull any punches. The horrific memories of the men in the hospital are hard to forget, and yet they aren't sensationalized in any way. I know that in reading this book I'm getting a tiny glimpse of the death and suffering that were part of life in the trenches. What being a soldier or officer in World War I was truly like - and whether it really needed to be that bad - is something that Barker has sensibly left it to her readers to ponder after they turn the last page of this remarkable novel.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

This book reads like the confused ramblings of an eloquent madman.

I'm not opposed to great writing, no, not at all. I hope that if you've read this blog for a while, you would know that about me. What I object to is great writing used in a way that obfuscates the story. And that, dear readers, is what I found in this book. Michael Ondaatje hasn't won literary prizes for nothing; he knows how to orchestrate the language of his books in a truly masterful way. His descriptions are beautiful and expressive. He can conjure up a vivid scene in my mind in just a few short sentences.

But really, and I know I've said this before -- great writing is not enough on its own. You need to create characters that are real and that your readers will care about. You need to tell a good story. Frankly, at no point during my reading of In the Skin of a Lion was I able to figure out who the main characters really are and what exactly the plot of this book is. The book is a series of disjointed, beautifully written passages that jump from one character or situation to another with no explanation or attempt to link the narrative so that it flowed smoothly. So, not surprisingly, I felt no emotion for the characters, and didn't know what this book was really about. I just don't have any patience for what amounts to 256 pages of literary wanking.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro

Thanks to an English course I'm taking, I was forced to read this book, though I've been putting it off. This weekend I realized that I would have to pick it up, given that I need to write a paper on it that's due on Monday. Astute readers of this blog will have noticed that it's been on my shelf for quite some time now. (They will also have noticed that I have been struggling with a Michael Ondaatje book for weeks; it's not surprising that was another book I was assigned for the course. I very much hope to finish that one soon...)

Though the English course instructors seem to have an uncanny ability to choose fiction that I find uninteresting or downright awful, I'm happy to say that this was the first book that I actually liked from the assigned reading list. Though I prefer novels to stories, this book was a nice change of pace. Munro's stories are vivid and don't tend to be morbidly depressing, which is a tendency that has often annoyed me about short stories. This book is a series of bright vignettes, each one quite distinctive, and mainly told in the first person by women of a variety of ages. There's a nice balance of coming-of-age stories and stories about elderly women looking back on their lives. There's one story, "Walking on Water," that has a male protagonist, and I think it's the one I enjoyed the most. Mr. Lougheed, an elderly man struggling to understand modern young people whose behaviour and values are so different from those of his own youth, turns to a neighbor, Eugene, for insight. Eugene is a man in his twenties who has read a few too many philosophy and occult books, and seems to spend most of his time meditating, but he makes time to talk with Mr. Lougheed and help him see things from another point of view.

I don't feel motivated to say much more about this book; I spent all day plowing through it, and really wanted to watch TV instead. Guess what I'm going to do after I publish this post?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Last Stop Sunnyside by Pat Capponi

This is another Advance Reading Edition that I received from Harper Collins Canada, and also a mystery, so I was extremely curious to see how Last Stop Sunnyside would compare to Dark Tort. I'm pleased (relieved?) to say that I liked this book very much. It wasn't an edge-of-your seat thriller, but it was an enjoyable read with believable characters whose actions made sense - the author made me care about these people and cheer them on.

Last Stop Sunnyside is the first in a planned series of novels about Dana Leoni, an intelligent young woman who has, due to some unhappy circumstances, ended up living in a rooming house in Parkdale, a down-and-out area in Toronto. Dana befriends many of her housemates, who are a colourful but good-hearted bunch of people, and together they are grieving the disappearance and subsequent death of their friend Maryanne. Maryanne was unemployed, and had a known drinking problem. Her death is ruled a suicide by the local police, but Dana and her friends can't let the matter rest and decide to find out what really happened to her.

There were a lot of things to like about this book. The descriptions of Toronto, particularly of the Parkdale neighbourhood, were vivid, and I especially enjoyed the "inside" view of homeless, mentally ill and other disenfranchised people. It's rare to read a novel that shows, with such sympathy and believability, what it's like to live on the "underbelly" of Canadian society. Apparently Capponi is drawing on her personal experience of living in Parkdale and in various mental health institutions - the bio on the back cover describes her as a "psychiatric survivor" and "one of Canada's leading mental health care advocates". Last Stop Sunnyside is certainly a creative and interesting way for Capponi to draw on her own experiences and give readers a glimpse into the life she's led, but it is never preachy. I don't get the sense that Capponi has an agenda - she's just telling a good story.

On a totally unrelated note, I hope that when this book is actually published they find a better author photo.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Dark Tort by Diane Mott Davidson

Dark Tort is the story of how Goldy Schulz, a caterer, tracks down the murderer of her young neighbor, Dusty Routt.

I don't know if I'm just feeling extra nit-picky because I'm sick right now, but all I can say is that this book was just plain BAD on so many levels. The writing, particularly the dialogue, was clunky (someone needs to remind Davidson that in novels, it's better to show, not tell), the characters had no depth and their behaviour often seemed foolish or just plain didn't make sense. The story was bogged down by excessive, unnecessary description of people's appearance, clothing, church activities, and home decor, and the author had an annoying habit of mentioning the make and model of car that the wealthier characters drove, while referring to other vehicles merely by body type. This seemed to be the type of book that would appeal to materialistic, narrow-minded, upper middle class, middle-aged suburban women. You can probably guess I don't fit into that category.

There was a huge amount of extraneous material in this book that did nothing to advance the story, though I admit it might be more meaningful to people who've read previous books in the series. I definitely felt that I was at a disadvantage reading this book before its prequels; the backstory and characters were introduced in a rather confusing way. I felt like I could never keep the characters straight, never mind their relationships to one another.

I haven't even mentioned how stuffed with implausible premises this novel is. For one thing, everyone in the story seemed to know one another or to be related. And in spite of being set in what sounded like an average sort of suburb of Denver, oddly, there were an awful lot of murders going on, or referred to in the recent past of Goldy and her family and friends. Gee, is suburban Denver the murder capital of the USA? Also, Goldy the caterer is married to the person in charge of the murder investigation, and yet he seems to always be hanging around, cooking fabulous meals (isn't that supposed to be Goldy's job?) and being sweet and supportive while she solves the crime that his investigation team is apparently totally unable to figure out (maybe because he's not at work!). Apparently, it's considered totally acceptable for this woman to "help out" with solving a serious crime. Yeah, right! Even I could see the holes in the descriptions of police procedures here. Somehow, in a police search of the home of a murder victim, vital pieces of evidence such as a personal computer were overlooked. And nobody noticed some stolen property that turns out to have been hidden in the law office where the body was found. Umm, sure.

I could go on and on, but gosh, I am having trouble coming up with ANYTHING positive to say about this book... and that's actually a problem, because the copy I have is an Advance Reading Edition from the publisher, and I'm supposed to be submitting a review for them to use to promote the book on their website. Time to call upon all of my BS writing abilities, I guess.