Monday, February 27, 2006

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Aeeeiiiieee! This guy really knows how to end a book. I am very glad indeed that I didn't discover this trilogy while it was still in the process of being written, because the wait between books right now is agonizing enough (and it looks like the final two books were published 3 years apart!)... I am forcing myself to wake up, take notice of the world around me, and take care of a few mundane tasks like feeding my children and washing dishes before I move on to the final book, The Amber Spyglass.

What can I say about the actual content of this book that wouldn't give away any of this perfectly splendid story? Well, I can tell you that it picks right up where The Golden Compass left off, and doesn't pause for breath at all. To quote one of the reviews on the back cover, this book has "scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension." Talk about keeping you on the edge of your seat!

In this book, Lyra is joined by a boy, Will, from "our" world, who stumbles upon a portal into yet a third world where he meets Lyra and the two children begin to walk together on the still obscure path of their joint destiny. There's the same mix of fantasy, theology, science and just plain great storytelling that made The Golden Compass so incredibly compelling. Could I possibly use any more superlative adjectives here?


I have got to go do the dishes now so I can go read the next one.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I used to be a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but over the past few years I found myself getting bored with it, mostly because I was tired of the recycled plot that is used in so many series: Young, unlikely hero from humble circumstances goes on a magnificent quest to single-handedly save the world, collecting a ragtag band of sidekicks along the way and succeeding in spite of incredible odds.

However, after several years of sitting patiently on my shelf, The Golden Compass was ready to draw me back into the wonderful things that fantasy fiction has to offer. This is truly a terrific book that I am sorry I didn't pick up sooner, especially since my best friend (who is usually spot-on with her recommendations) has spoken so enthusiastically about this series. What can I say? I've got sooooo many books on that darn shelf!

Pullman has created a realistic alternate world where people are paired from birth with daemons, small familiar spirits which take the form of animals; where the arctic wastes are inhabited by large, sentient white bears with Scandinavian names; where scientists vie with theologists to determine the truth about a mysterious elementary substance called Dust, which appears to emanate from the Aurora Borealis.

The protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, is a scruffy but keenly intelligent child, who is being raised by academics at Oxford University and believes herself to be an orphan. Suddenly Lyra finds herself taken away from the college by a beautiful woman who casts a spell over her, and she is swept up into a series of events that... you guessed it... will help her to single-handedly save the world against remarkable odds. Philip Pullman did a great job setting up the story in a way that made me want to keep reading, so that once the action really got going I found it hard to stop reading. I don't want to give anything away so I won't say much about what happens, but let me just say that this book has one of the most intense cliffhanger endings I've ever come across, so if you decide to give it a try make sure you have the second book in the series (The Subtle Knife) close at hand.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

S is for Silence by Sue Grafton

Wow. This book was great! Nineteen titles into the "alphabet mystery" series, Grafton still knows how to tell a great story. In this installment, Kinsey Millhone, my favourite feisty, gun-toting, no-nonsense PI, is hired by Daisy Sullivan, who is still haunted by the mysterious disappearance of her mother over thirty years earlier. As Kinsey follows the very cold trail of this case, she starts digging up dirt from the 1950s and makes a lot of people in a small California town very nervous.

Setting aside the similarity to R is for Ricochet, which is also about Kinsey trying to solve an old mystery about a missing woman in a small California town, I found it remarkable that Sue Grafton can keep her writing fresh this far into a series. This book has something she hasn't tried before, "flashback" chapters that bring the reader back to the day when Violet Sullivan disappeared back in 1953, each told from the point of view of a different character. This technique is very effective at bringing the people and events of the 1950s to life, without detracting from the careful building up of suspense as the present-day sleuthing takes place. I found myself wandering around with this book in my hand all day, trying to avoid taking my eyes off the pages while I did other things; it was that gripping.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players by Stefan Fatsis

This book helped me to answer the question (which, quite honestly, I've never asked myself and wouldn't have wanted to know the answer to anyway):

What would it be like if someone borrowed a book from the library, smoked a new cigarette while reading each individual page, blew the smoke directly into the book and then turned the page and lit up again?

OK, so, I don't really know *for sure* that is what happened, but that's what it seemed like. Every time I opened this book, or turned the page, a powerful wafting stench of stale cigarette smoke would come out of it. This made for a very unpleasant reading experience.

And now, on to the actual content of the book. The author set out to document the American Scrabble culture, a curious underworld populated by overweight, blue-haired old ladies, socially inept geniuses, and the occasional normal middle-class guy with a full-time job and (more rarely) a family. A resident of New York City, Fatsis discovers his local Scrabble club and begins hanging around in Washington Square Park, where chess and Scrabble players converge during the warmer months of the year. Gradually, he gets to know some of the local Scrabble champions and over the course of the three years it took to write the book, he comes to count many of them among his closest friends. He also finds himself inexorably drawn into the game itself. His competitive side comes out. He enters every Scrabble tournament he can, and dreams of reaching expert status. He begs the president of the National Scrabble Association for tutoring so that he can do better. He spends hours memorizing lists of words.

In short, he becomes "one of them". Those crazy, obsessive Scrabble types that he profiles so clinically and journalistically in the first half of the book. Those people who dream about Scrabble, who can't sleep because of thinking about Scrabble, who carry notebooks around with them where they obsessively revisit missed opportunities and lost games.

Suddenly, the game defines him.

Following Fatsis's metamorphosis from detached, smug journalist chronicling the weirdnesses of loopy Scrabble fanatics to... well... loopy Scrabble fanatic was the best part of this book. However, he doles this part out to his readers. He does a very good job of equally balancing his personal experiences with information about the game, profiles of Scrabble greats past & present, and Scrabble history and folklore, but there were times I found my eyes glazing over as I read over some of this stuff - especially the blow-by-blow descriptions of fabulous Scrabble plays by expert players, or information about ratings and tournament scores. I almost wonder if Fatsis got so caught up in the Scrabble world that he forgot that "normal" people couldn't care less about the minutiae of Scrabble. At any rate, as an avid player of average recreational Scrabble, I would enjoy any book about the history and people of Scrabble, but Fatsis's personal involvement and eventual obsession with the game are chronicled in a way that really sucked me in and made this one of the rare nonfiction books that I stuck with and wanted to finish.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

I have been putting off reading this, the last of Alexander McCall Smith's books that I had not read (forgetting for the moment the incomprehensibly un-funny Professor Von Igelfeld series). I have to say I felt about it very much the same way I felt about the other book in this series, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate. It was slow and thoughtful, with lots of philosophizing. It is billed as a mystery, but is hardly one at all, since so much of the text is devoted to musing and to the personal lives of the characters, and the "mystery" itself is far too neatly (one might say implausibly) wrapped up at the end. In the end it was a fun little book but nothing outstanding.

Isabel Dalhousie, the main character in this series, is an interesting counterpoint to Mma Ramotswe from the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series; where Mma has very definite ideas about the way people should treat each other, Isabel never seems to be able to make up her mind about correct behaviour; but they each spend a great deal of their time ruminating about these issues. Isabel is also very intellectual, with interests in art and poetry, and has less of the down-to-earth charm that makes Mma Ramotswe so appealing.

I suppose I will continue reading books in this series if they should be published, because they are light and easy to read, but the series just doesn't have the same irresistible, simple appeal that has made me enjoy the "adventures" of the Botswanan detectives so much.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

This is a book that rewards you the more you keep reading it.

It starts out looking like a farce, as you meet the Lambert family, from the fictional town of St. Jude, somewhere in the midwestern USA. Each family member seems to be a caricature, a stereotype. First you encounter the parents, Enid and Alfred, who are trapped in a soured marriage (and in a house full of kitschy clutter). Enid is gossipy, snobby, and interfering. She nags her husband mercilessly, driving him to spend his retirement days in a cluttered basement workshop ignoring her. She brags to her friends about her three grown children's accomplishments, while inside she feels bitterly disappointed about the way they've turned out. She writes long letters to her offspring, full of barbed comments and questions and full of praise for the accomplishments of their siblings.

And those siblings are not a charming bunch at first. The feckless Chip sinks deeper and deeper into debt while he sits in his New York apartment amid the ruins of a failed academic career, writing a meritless screenplay. Gary, Chip's neurotic older brother, who thinks he's a real hot shot investment banker, lords it over his siblings and parents from his fancy Philadelphia mansiont (that is, when he's not escaping to work to avoid his overbearing wife and spoiled children). Meanwhile, Denise, the baby of the family, takes refuge in her career as a chef and tries to put as much distance between herself and her family as possible, actively disparaging her mother's values.

Meanwhile, Alfred seems to be the only one in the family with any sense and decency. Unfortunately, he's losing his battle with Parkinson's disease and dementia, and he's so overshadowed by Enid, not to mention the self-centeredness of his entire family, that nobody seems to pay him much attention.

Enid is maneuvering and manipulating her children throughout the course of this book, trying to get them to agree to come and spend one last Christmas with their parents in St. Jude. As the fateful holiday draws closer, a number of events are set into motion that propel the characters toward major changes in their lives. The narrative switches to focus on each of the characters in turn, and that's where Franzen moves beyond the amusing caricatures and shows us the people inside. The book becomes, to quote from the novel, "a tragedy rewritten as farce".

If you take the time to get to know people and see beyond the face they show to the world, they can show you so much more about themselves. This is not often true of fictional people, but it is true of the Lamberts. Each of them has a unique voice, an internal monologue that feels so authentic that I couldn't help being sucked into this story. As the story unfolds, they reveal their depth, their feelings and motivations. I found that I started rooting for them and wanting the best for each of them even while I laughed at their foibles and proclivities. I hoped that Enid could get over her many disappointments, that Alfred could somehow reach his children and convince them to treat him with respect, that Chip would outgrow his irresponsibility and find some kind of worthwhile focus, that Gary could find a way to connect with his family and that Denise would figure out what she wants out of life.

Read this book! And if you do, let me know what you think in the comments :-)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Piano Man's Daughter by Timothy Findley

Upon the death of his mother, Lily, in 1939, Charlie Kilworth receives a wicker suitcase full of carefully collected mementoes of her life. Each item in the suitcase helps him to tell Lily's life story, which is also the story of Lily's mother, Edith, and the story of Charlie himself. Lily lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in rural Ontario, eventually moving to Toronto, and in the background of Lily's life we see the huge changes in Ontario society during that time - the increased use of motorized vehicles, the dawning of the radio era, the great Toronto fire of 1904, and of course, World War I and its aftermath. Gradually, Charlie pieces together the important elements of his mother's story, and begins to understand the experiences that made her the person she was.

While this book was beautifully written (and thus quite painless to read), I can't say that I really liked it. There wasn't much of a plot (you don't often see those in a "life story" type of novel) and I didn't care much about Lily. As a character she is not someone I could identify or sympathize with - she is mentally ill, epileptic, reckless and a pyromaniac to boot. Ultimately, Findley and his narrator, Charlie, fail to answer the fundamental question I have about novels like this - Why should I care about this person's life enough to want to read about it?