Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith

The latest in the Isabel Dalhousie series was a real joy to read. McCall Smith is back in his best thoughtful form as he chronicles Isabel's efforts to cope with new motherhood, internal politics at the applied ethics journal she edits, and the distance of her niece Kat.

The best thing about this series is the very low-key mystery that is gently incorporated into each book, and I particularly enjoyed the one in here about a suspected forged painting by a Scottish artist.

Section 31: Abyss by David Weddle and Jeffrey Lang

I've suddenly woken up to the fact that 2007 will be over in a few months and I haven't yet made even a tiny dent in the stack of books waiting to be read on my bookshelf. I decided that since I'm reading so fast and prolifically these days, I had better take advantage of it and start working on my new year's resolution to read at least half of those books. Of course, it really doesn't help that I've acquired yet MORE books instead of whittling down my to-read pile.

So here's my first selection in my renewed effort to work my way through some of these dusty books: a Star Trek novel. I'm not sure if it has been revealed on this blog before now, but I have a guilty secret -- I actually read Star Trek novels! And in many cases, I even like them. This is probably no surprise to anyone who's seen the Starfleet Academy sticker on the back of our family minivan. Laugh all you like - to a trekkie who is starved for new episodes to watch, the licensed novels are a treasure. A well-written Trek novel is pure brain candy for me. It's like watching an episode in my head.

Section 31: Abyss is one of the books based on the Deep Space Nine series, after the events in the final episode. The premise is that once again, Dr. Bashir receives an unwelcome visit from a agent in Section 31, the mysterious rogue spy organization that nobody in Starfleet will admit the existence of. Instead of his planned vacation on Earth with Ezri Dax, he finds himself in a runabout on his way to a planet in the Badlands where a crazed madman is trying to breed himself an army of Jem Hadar. It's up to Bashir, along with Dax, Ro Laren (yeah, she has mysteriously reappeared as a DS9 crew member in the novels) and Taran'atar, a Jem Hadar who is bound to help them as much as he can, although he may not like it very much.

Like I said - brain candy. A fun story, nothing more or less; a way to feed my Star Trek addiction without turning on the TV. If you liked DS9, you would probably enjoy it; if not, you probably aren't even reading this post any more.

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson is back, and this time he's got friends. A good thing, too, because things aren't going too well over at Camp Half-Blood. The new activities director is a bit of a sadist, and someone has poisoned the protective shield that keeps monsters away from the camp. Meanwhile, everyone is making fun of Percy because of his newly discovered half-brother. What else can a guy do in that situation except to go on a life-threatening quest to save the world from evil?

I was delighted to find this book every bit as hilarious and smart as its predecessor. Riordan has completely won me over to his unique brand of humor, mixing modern America with ancient Greece in a ridiculous and yet strangely believable way.

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

It turns out that Philip Pullman has a whole other series to his name aside from the deservedly-hyped His Dark Materials trilogy. This is the first title in that series, and it's billed as "A gripping mystery from the depths of Victorian London".

For the most part, it lives up to this description. The book has a decidedly Victorian feel to it - a sort of semi-Gothic creepiness, sinister thieves, young street urchins. Sally Lockhart, the heroine, is a smart and savvy young girl who, having just lost her father, is determined to sort out the mystery surrounding his death and find her own way in the world (despite the machinations of the grouchy old maid of an aunt whom Sally finds herself living with).

While enjoyable, this book didn't quite have the unputdownability I was hoping for, based on other Pullman novels I've read. However, I am still looking forward to reading the other three books in this series, so watch this space to see if the stories get any more absorbing after this.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Wow - I can't believe how many months this gem sat on a bookshelf in Megan's room, collecting dust, before she finally decided to pick it up and then finally decided to recommend it to me.

Our hero is Percy Jackson, a kid who's always had slightly odd things happen to him, a kid who has ADD and dyslexia and has been kicked out of way too many schools because of all those inconvenient accidents that happen near him. (Here, the similarities to Harry Potter end.) One day Percy finally twigs to the fact that he's more than a little bit different from his peers, when his math teacher suddenly turns into a horrible creature with bat-like wings and he's forced to wield a ballpoint pen that turns into a sword to defeat her. Soon the truth comes out - Percy is actually the son of a Greek god. In fact, the entire ancient Greek pantheon (along with an assortment of minor creatures and characters) is alive and well and living in twenty-first-century America. And even more remarkably, there are lots of other kids like Percy - in fact, he soon discovers that he's been admitted to a summer camp for half-bloods. (Honestly, it's really not like Harry Potter, even though it sounds like it... just trust me here.)

Hilariously and cleverly written, this is a very promising start to a series that pits modern kids against ancient sources of evil.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

I started out reading this one to my son every night at bedtime. Well, wouldn't you know it - he picked the damn thing up one night and finished it on his own. As soon as he moved on to the next book, I picked up Matilda so that I could finish it and find out what happened.

As I was reading, I had that vague feeling you sometimes get - some parts were a little familiar, so I was sure I'd read it before, but for some reason I couldn't really remember what happens in this novel. This is odd for me, because I tend to have a pretty good memory for books I've read. Obviously it's been a long time, though, or else Matilda is a particularly forgettable story.

Anyway, it's a fun book in the usual style of Roald Dahl: horrible adults are taken down by smart, good kids. In this case, one smart, good kid - Matilda Wormwood, who manages to overcome a truly unfortunate set of parents and a school headmistress who could give Dolores Umbridge a run for her money. Matilda's primary weapon is her brain, though she gets a bit of help from a slightly more supernatural skill...

East by Edith Pattou

A few weeks ago, my daughter gave me a stack of books with the instruction to "READ!". This was the first one I picked up.

East is a beautiful retelling of the old fairy tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon". It's set in a sort of alternate-historical Norway and told from the point of view of five people: Rose, a feisty girl with a serious case of wanderlust; Neddy, her older brother who is the closest to her of her seven siblings; Rose's father; a troll Queen who has enslaved a young man in the body of a white bear; and the white bear himself.

If you're familiar with the fairy tale, you'll know the basic premise here, though there are many versions of it. In East, Rose is forced to go off with a talking bear in order to save her family from illness and poverty. She spends a year living with the white bear in an enchanted palace and grows to love him. Meanwhile, her family desperately searches for Rose in an effort to bring her back home.

I loved the way this novel was written; it was lyrical and evocative. I look forward to reading more of Edith Pattou's work.

Getting caught up

Thanks to my frequent bus rides, I've had lots of reading time since classes began, but precious little time to sit down and compose thoughtful posts about the books I've read. I'm going to do my best to catch up today with some "short and sweet" comments. Hopefully the more in-depth posts will return in the near future!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've read much about this book and finally got a chance to read it. I love Ishiguro's novels, with their keen insight into human nature and the relationships between people. Never Let Me Go had all that, with a somewhat chilling science-fiction parcelling. The novel is told from the point of view of a former student of Hailsham, a boarding school for cloned children who are brought into the world for the sole purpose of donating their organs once they're adults. There is a whole subculture within the Britain of this novel for these organ donors, who grow up knowing they are different, but not exactly why, and who then go on to care for others like themselves while they wait for their turn to become donors and eventually, to die. Their longing for a normal life while knowing that it is an impossible dream is what makes this novel both chilling and poignant.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler

You could say Courtney Stone, a sassy modern-day girl from LA, is down on her luck. She's just discovered that her fiance is cheating on her, and that her supposed best friend was covering it up. There's nothing more comforting for Courtney that to get thoroughly pickled while re-reading her favourite Austen novels for the umpteenth time.

Bizarrely, though, when she wakes up the next morning she finds she has been somehow planted in the body of a Regency-era woman named Jane Mansfield. Alarmingly, Jane is on the verge of being "bled" by a physician who wants to cure her from a head injury. Somehow, Courtney recovers from this double shock and even, over time, gets used to being inside Jane's body and living the constricted life of a young, unmarried woman in the England of two hundred years ago. As time passes, she begins to learn a lot of things about herself and come to terms with the life choices that led her to be betrayed by her bastard of an ex-fiance. Now, if only she could get back to LA and live her own life again...

This was a fun, light novel - the characters were believable, and the premise was entertaining, with elements of fantasy fiction that you have to be able to swallow if you want to enjoy it.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean

I'm a loyal CBC listener, and though I don't make it a point to listen to any particular program regularly (I wish there were a TiVo for radio!) I still enjoy hearing Stuart McLean read his stories aloud during The Vinyl Cafe when I catch it. I know I've talked before about this program here so my apologies for repeating myself.

This is the latest installment in the large collection of short stories McLean has written about the oafish Dave, his bland wife Morley, and their family, friends and neighbours. Most of the stories fall into the "cute and sweet" category, and they usually have a sappy ending. Occasionally, though, they hit that perfect mixture of absurd, comical and believable and then they become immensely funny. There's one story in this book that made me laugh till I cried, and has earned its place next to the story in Vinyl Cafe Unpluggedabout how Dave tried to toilet-train his sister's cat, which had a similar effect on me. There's another that is quite hilarious but somehow I felt it would have been much funnier if I'd heard it on the radio. In case you read this one, I'm not going to name the stories I thought were funniest, but I'd love to hear your opinion if you happen to be a Vinyl Cafe fan.