Sunday 28 July 2013

Another cool sunny Sunday morning...

A beautiful sunny cool morning is the setting for this posting as I enjoy a steaming cup of chai tea.

I read an interesting book last week, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World by Janet Cameron, a Canadian novelist from Nova Scotia who is currently living in Ireland.  This novel tells the story of Stephen, a teenager growing up in the small town of Riverside, Nova Scotia, in the 1980s.  His mother, Maryna, a beautiful yet shy woman, is a single mother whose husband, Stanley, left shortly after they married, when Stephen was an adolescent.  Her dependence on Stephen often leads him to be cruel to her in petty ways, such as hiding her keys when he knows she will be frantically searching for them.  Growing up in a small town can present many challenges.  Navigating teenage years presents another whole set of challenges.  Completing high school and becoming an adult can be daunting to anyone.  Now throw in the fact that Stephen, a seventeen-year old senior in high school in a small town, whose father moved away years before and who has always felt like an outsider, discovers that he is in love with his best friend Mark, a guy who makes no secret about his disgust for “queers”.  While Stephen is the main character, his relationships with other characters are complex and realistic, such as his strained relationship with his father, Stanley, who now lives in Montreal with his new wife and their young daughters.  His friendships with Mark and fellow-outsider Lana are explored fully, and as in life, Cameron presents no easy answers to the hurdles he faces.  This is a very realistic novel.  While reading it, I often felt that it was a bit too long, but once I got to the last page and thought about it further, I’m not sure what could have been left out, so I guess it was just the right length.  The characters were believable, the relationships complex, and Stephen’s reactions to his ever-changing situations were both frustrating and understandable, given his age, the setting, and the timeframe for the story.  Since the story is told from the point of view of the main character who is a teen, this would definitely be suitable as a young adult novel, but it is also written in such a way that adults could also appreciate it.  There are many references to the pop culture of the 1980’s, a time during which I, too, was a teenager, which I could understand and appreciate.  I’m not so sure this book would be quite as meaningful for a reader if those references were not relevant.  Having said that, I read lots of classic novels and enjoy them even though I can’t always understand the cultural references.  This is Cameron’s first novel, and it is remarkable - I would recommend it to just about anyone, even teens.

And I mentioned in my last post that I had just started listening to The Serialist by David Gordon.  Well, I’m not quite finished, but will be soon, so I will write about it now before I forget the details by next week‘s posting time.  If you recall, it tells the story of Harry Bloch, a hack writer who receives a letter from Darian Clay, a serial killer on death row, inviting him to write his story.  So far, Bloch has written plenty of books, such as porn, sci-fi, urban crime and, most recently, vampire romance novels, all using aliases (he employs his mother, Sibylline Lorindo-Gold, to pose for the photo shoots for the vampire novels, which he publishes under her name, even after her death).  While this project presents misgivings, it may also be an opportunity to write something “real“, a book which he can shamelessly publish under his own name.  Things get complicated when the women Bloch interviews as part of the deal he and Clay made at their initial interview start turning up murdered in circumstances remarkably similar to Clay’s original victims, calling into question Clay’s guilt.  Bloch shifts seamlessly from innocent bystander to victim to suspect to detective, while attempting to uncover the truth behind these latest crimes.  There are plenty of other interesting characters in this hard-boiled noir mystery, such as his fifteen-year old “manager”, Claire, the daughter of a wealthy father whom he met while working as a tutor and for whom he now writes term papers so she can finish high school, and the twin sister of one of Clay’s victims with whom he becomes involved after she discovers he may be writing a book about the killer (whose name I can‘t remember right now - that is one drawback to an audio book vs. a physical one:  I can’t just “flip back through the pages” to find it).  While the story itself is interesting, it is the way Gordon writes that is most remarkable.  Not only is this book hilarious (and I give much of the credit for this to the narrator, who imbues each character with his or her own personality and really brings them to life), but it is insightful (Gordon, through his narrator, often offers thoughts on the roles of books and writing to readers) and creative (readers are offered snippets of some of the “novels” Bloch has written, such as chapters from a Mordecai Jones book and the latest vampire novel).  It is both literary and entertaining, and I would definitely recommend this to just about anyone.  This is Gordon’s first novel, and I anxiously await his next offering.  By the way, I was just looking online and saw that there is a Japanese film based on this 2010 novel, which was released in June of this year - I definitely want to find out more!

And I just started reading Lionel Shriver’s latest book, Big Brother, which so far is excellent.  I can’t wait to read further.  More on that one next week, when I will surely be finished.

Have a great day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 21 July 2013

Tea and books on a cool Sunday morning...

With cup of chai at hand and a cool breeze coming in through the windows, this may be just about a perfect summer morning to write about books.  The only thing that would make it absolutely perfect would be a freshly-baked slice of date bread, which, alas, I do not have.  But after last week’s humidity, I’m certainly happy with what I’ve got.

I want to talk about a book I read last week, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway.  It was a book that I was “assigned” to read, as I am now doing some reviews for the local newspaper.  The book opens as a pair of detectives are leaving a crime scene on the way to the hospital to interview the victim of a drive-by shooting, but one of the detectives is in the midst of a dream as he dozes fitfully in the passenger seat of the car.  Child is handsome, married and dependable; Hawthorn is neurotic, gay, and prone to bouts of weeping.  Together they roam the streets of London trying to solve peculiar crimes involving unusual characters, both criminals and victims, as well as trying to work on their own personal issues.  A tourist pickpocket and driver for a gangster, Mishazzo, becomes a police informant.  A publisher is given a strange manuscript which may be based on the disappearance and return of a man who is working for a mob leader.  A religious fanatic enters a house and holds a baby hostage, and a man who is receiving threatening emails may or may not be a paedophile.  These and other crimes are never solved.  Nor are the chapters always told from the point of view of the detectives; often they are merely observed by one of the characters in the stories.  The dialogue is not written in the customary style, with quotation marks and “he said/she said” indicators, just simple dashes.  And finally, not all of the characters have names. Despite all of these things, this was a compelling, darkly funny, raw, gritty book, one that requires me to overcome the expectation of traditional structure and just be carried along by the text.  It is not a novel in the conventional sense, more a collection of short stories that could each easily stand alone, but that are loosely connected by the two detectives and by vague, shadowy characters that flit in and out of the chapters.  While this was at first frustrating, the moments of brilliance make this book worth the effort; for example, a paranoid character voices his concerns that the mental health system is covertly encouraging him to kill himself, such as when his mental health doctor, located on the twelfth floor, left him alone in the office, seated within easy reach of the large window with a view of all of the east or south or west of London, for a full seven minutes, and that his GP prescribed enough painkillers to “kill me several times over”.  The characters are marginal, the situations bizarre, and the stories ambiguous and inconclusive.  Think Paul Auster meets Samuel Beckett – everything is slightly out of sync, yet oddly connected.  Once I realized that I couldn’t expect traditional structure, I finally achieved the right frame of mind to enjoy what will likely be the most unusual detective novel I’ll ever read.  I can’t say I would have finished this if I didn’t have to read it, but it was well worth it, and I’m actually thinking about going back and rereading it to track where peripheral characters appear, just to try to make better sense of the connections.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to any reader, but with the caveats mentioned above, it should be easier going than with no warnings at all.  Ridgway is an award-winning Dublin author of several previous works of fiction as well as a collection of short stories.

I finished listening to The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming, which proved to be as good as I remembered it to be, although the main character, Sam Gaddis, an academic at University College London who specializes in Russian history, was more of a “dawg” (no offence to my canine friends) than I remembered, seemingly wanting to hump, I mean to woo, every female he came across.  It starts out slowly but the suspense builds to reach a satisfying conclusion, and the characters are believable, in the sense that they are well-rounded, and I learned a lot about MI-5 and MI-6 from reading novels like this, the way the Secret Intelligence Service works in the UK.  But I always find it a bit remarkable how ordinary people, when thrown into these unusual situations, seem to adapt and just know what to do, situations that are beyond anything they could have ever imagined.  So in this novel, Sam receives information about a possible sixth member of the Cambridge Five, a group of double agents recruited from Cambridge in the 1930s and 40s.  After a few unsettling experiences, Sam realizes that there are people out there who will stop at nothing to keep this information from becoming public.  Suddenly he is faced with Russian FSB agents on every corner as well as British Intelligence agents trying to keep him from writing his book.  How does he know what to do in the various situations in which he finds himself?  I don’t know, but he manages to be quick-witted enough to stay alive to the end of the book (sorry if I spoiled it for you).  This was the same feeling I had when I read Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, an excellent thriller set in Denmark in which Smilla stumbles upon information that suggests the government is performing unorthodox testing on Inuits from a small island off of Greenland while investigating the death of her neighbour’s son, Isaiah, which the authorities deemed “accidental” but which she suspects was murder.  How did she know what to look for, where to look, and how to behave in these situations about which she could have had no knowledge or training?  Despite these “curiosities”, both of these books are excellent thrillers, ones I would highly recommend to just about anyone.

And I just started listening to The Serialist by David Gordon, about a hack writer who is offered an opportunity to interview and write a book about a serial killer who is on death row.  Despite this dark premise, this book is hilarious!  It has caused me to laugh out loud on more that one occasion, which probably looks pretty strange, since I’m listening to it, not actually reading it, so the people on the bus don’t know why I’m laughing.  More on that one when I’m finished.

Have a great week!

Bye for now…

Sunday 14 July 2013

Sunny Sunday book thoughts...

On this hot, sunny July morning, I really need my soothing cup of chai tea to relax me, since I’ve been reading so many fast-paced, heart-pounding thrillers lately.

The first book I want to talk about is BC writer Chevy Stevens’ Always Watching.  This novel tells the story of a psychiatrist who specializes in healing others and helping broken families on Vancouver Island.  Unfortunately, she can’t seem to help her own situation.  When Heather, an attempted suicide, is admitted to the hospital, Nadine is called on to assess her and try to help, and recognizes parallels in Heather's experiences with the local retreat centre and her own repressed childhood memories, areas that she would rather not relive.  As she digs deeper into Heather’s life, experiences involving a spiritual retreat led by Aaron Quinn jolt her into recalling her own forgotten past involving cults and drugs.  On top of these memories, Nadine also deals with her own family issues, such as her runaway daughter, Lisa, and her estranged step-son, Garret.  As memories flood back and she seeks justice for the cult members, danger lurks around every corner, and fear for her lost daughter mounts as the novel reaches a thrilling and satisfying end.  I have never read anything by this author, although I did try reading an earlier novel, Still Missing, some time ago, but it did not grab me, unlike this one, which had me from the first page.  I felt that it dealt with many significant issues, such as the difficult themes of cults/communes, sexual abuse, drugs and street youth.  This book proved to be a real page-turner.  With a main character I could not always like but could totally understand, and themes that were definitely interesting to explore, this novel, while it dragged a bit towards the end and the main character was sometimes frustrating, was definitely a worthwhile read, though not a literary masterpiece.  I would recommend this novel to just about any reader who likes plot-driven stories, although there is some character development with Nadine.

And I read Robert Rotenberg’s fourth novel in what is NOT a series about a network of Toronto lawyers, police officers, reporters and crown attorneys, Stranglehold.   The first in the non-series is Old City Hall, which I wrote about a couple of years ago (June 15, 2011): “I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It started out offering interesting characters and complex storylines, and delivered on these promises right to the last page... on a scale of 1 to 5, I give Old City Hall 5 stars.  It is complex and intriguing to the very end.  I dare you to read it and not feel sympathetic towards most, if not all, of the main characters.”  I then went on to read the second of his novels, Guilty Plea, which I liked less well, ant the third novel, Stray Bullets, I started but it did not grab me so I didn’t even finish it.  Stranglehold, on the other hand, grabbed me right away and kept me glued to my seat for too many hours at a time (my back is cranky from sitting and reading for so long without sufficient breaks!!)  This novel tells the story of the search for the killer of one of this non-series’ main characters, and the complex story leading up to the murder.  There is great character development for almost all of the members of this complex cast of players, excellent courtroom scenes, fabulous representation of the multicultural makeup of Toronto, some humour, and potential love stories, but mostly tense, thrilling pages of story that will keep you reading long past your bedtime.  I think this is Rotenberg’s best book yet.  And I’m really impressed with him as an individual as well, since he is still a practicing lawyer in Toronto, and he seems to be a genuinely nice guy.  I saw him read a few months ago at WordsWorth Bookstore, and he was really approachable and friendly, even offering to possibly come to or at least participate in via phone one of my book club meetings, if we were discussing one of his books, which I think is pretty amazing.  He mentioned at the reading that he was working on a stand-alone at the moment, so I’m really excited about that.  And since Stranglehold was such a great book, I may go back and give Stray Bullets another try, although my “required reading” list has just grown exponentially, as I received a box of books for review a few days ago.  I guess there is not time for leisure reading.  Anyway, I would definitely recommend this book, and I think that readers could get the gist of the characters from this novel alone, even if they had not read the previous novels, although that of course helps to understand the complex relationships and situations in the book.  To sum up:  Great book that will be impossible to put down!

And to top off my week of thrilling reading, I’m nearly finished listening to The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming, which I’ve listened to before, but I forgot how tense and suspenseful it was.  More on that next time, but suffice it to say that it is not a calm, relaxing story by any stretch.

That’s all for now.  Stay cool and read more!

Bye for now…

Friday 5 July 2013

Tea and book talk on a rainy Friday afternoon...

It’s a rainy, muggy day as I sit in my thankfully-air-conditioned living room in my reading chair, with my cup of tea and CBC Radio Two playing softly in the background, thinking about what I’ve read recently.  I’ve actually been reading a lot lately, devouring books as they come to hand, which is not a bad thing at all.

I finished Helen Humphreys’ memoir/homage to her brother, Martin, shortly after posting my last entry.  Nocturne: on the life and death of my brother continued to be all the things I described in my last post, haunting, beautifully written but also somewhat self-indulgent and too personal.  Having said that, while it may not have wide appeal for all readers, I am glad I read it, as some of the passages were incredible.  I’m not a big fan of Humphreys, having read only one of her novels, Wild Dogs, which I thought was brilliant and heartbreaking, like a poem in prose.  I think her most famous novel is The Lost Garden, which I have but have never read.  I believe her most recent title is The Reinvention of Love, which I also have not read.  While the imagery and use of language in Nocturne was often breathtaking and also heartbreaking, I also learned much about Humphreys as a writer, some of her experiences growing up, and the ways she undertakes the process of writing.  It was an interesting reading experience, and now that I’m one week and several additional books removed from the actual experience, I think my memories of the book are fonder than my initial response last week.

I also read Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok for my book group, which met this morning.  This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Ah-Kim, an 11-year old girl who moves to New York with her mother from Hong Kong, and is forced to make her way in a foreign country and face the many obstacles that stand in her way as she tries to both fit into the new culture and still keep the core values of her traditional upbringing.  This is Kwok’s debut novel, and we all agreed that it was a wonderful read.  It was an easy read, but one that was also well-written.  One of my book club members, who usually begins the book on the Monday before our Friday meeting since it regularly takes her the week to finish the selection said that she started it on Monday morning and finished Monday night before she went to bed, she enjoyed it that much.  I also plan my reading according to a similar schedule, and I finished this novel in 2 days.  We all agreed that the characters were interesting and well-drawn, and that the story was both complex and realistic.  Our least favourite character was Aunt Paula, our favourite was Ma.  Kim’s story explored cultural traditions, the realities of child labour and sweatshops in America, the immigrant experience, and the success that results from the perseverance of strong characters with family support even in the face of adversity.  Kim was simultaneously serious and funny, and the situations described in the novel were alternately humorous and heartbreaking.  Based on Kwok’s own experiences growing up as an immigrant in New York, this novel is at once accessible and enlightening, and I would highly recommend it to just about anyone.

I’m reading Always Watching by Chevy Stevens right now, and I’ll write about it when I’m finished, but I’ll just say that it, too, is un-put-down-able, but in a different way than The Silent Wife, more plot-driven, and less literary, but still compelling.  More later…

And speaking of The Silent Wife, since I finished reading it, I’ve been reading reviews by others who have called it “a literary Gone Girl” - I started reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn but it didn’t grab me.  I’m now even less inclined to read it than I was before, and that’s OK, since I’ve had a chance to read so many gripping, compelling novels, and written by Canadian authors to boot!  It’s been a good reading summer so far…

That’s all for now.  Have a great weekend!

Bye for now…