Thursday, December 07, 2017

Brief Reviews: a collection

There are a number of books I've read over the  last few months that I've never reviewed here: some because I didn't have enough to say about them, some because I reviewed them for the Library Journal as part of my professional duties & so can't do so here. But I can share some brief thoughts about all these kind of reads, and today is the day!

First off, some Library Journal reads:

Wildwood / Elinor Florence

A Canadian novel of survival in a remote farming community, the heart of the story is in its focus on women's relationships throughout the generations. Really enjoyed it; wholesome writing, great setting. Forthcoming in 2018.

The Other Mother / Carol Goodman 

Haven't reviewed this one yet, just finished it -- it is forthcoming. But as with most of Goodman's books I can recommend it. This tale moves toward the very popular domestic suspense genre but still carries the aura of Goodman's gothic predilections. 

The Marriage Pact / Michelle Richmond

Loved it! A fun, suspenseful read that I like to call "the Da Vinci Code for marriage counsellors". You can see some of my LJ review on the author's website if you scroll down a bit.

Modern Lovers / Emma Straub

While I wasn't a huge fan of Straub's novel The Vacationers, I really enjoyed this one. It has heart. See my LJ review here.

And now for a few random reads that I never got around to talking about after I'd finished them.

The Snow Child / Eowyn Ivey
I had this on my tbr for years! I finally got around to it this year and was sadly underwhelmed. Perhaps I wasn't in the right mood but the story seemed too slow paced for me and the ending was a bit of an eyeroll. Sorry to those who've loved it! 

The Clothes on their Backs / Linda Grant
This story of an immigrant family in England faced with the existence of the main character's flashy uncle (involved in things that aren't always just so) was a complex and interesting read. I felt a little disconnected from the narrative though. I was engaged while I was reading but found the ending a bit of a let down. Lots of very tactile description in it, however, which I really liked.

Under Plum Lake / Lionel Davidson
This classic children's book was recommended to me as a vision of true utopia. I read it. I disagree strongly that the vision of a life under the sea with a very masculine focused society and a snotty know-it-all main character who condescendingly references his mother and little sister is a utopian vision. Times change, thankfully.

Mr. Rochester / Sarah Shoemaker
I read this "true story" of Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre fame quickly -- I liked it despite my usual hesitation over either real people or other writer's characters being used in new books. The writing was good and it seemed to stick to possibilities suggested by the original text. But it has quickly faded from memory. I think my own Mr Rochester is stronger in my readerly brain. But the cover is too gorgeous!

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler / E.L. Konigsburg
I would have LOVED this as a kid. I don't know how I missed this story of unappreciated Claudia who runs away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her little brother when I was the right age for it. I liked it as an adult reader but it just doesn't have the same magic when you don't find it at the right time.

I hope that I've now caught up a bit; this year has been getting away from me! More reviews and a yearly roundup to come, though... 

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Bone Mother

The Bone Mother / David Demchuk 
Peterborough, ON: ChiZine, c2017.
234 p.

As my longer-term readers may know, horror is not my first choice for a good read. But this one, longlisted for the Giller Prize (a preeminent Canadian literary prize), and set on the borders of Ukraine & Romania, interested me for those very reasons.

It's a set of short stories, all connected in ways, featuring the ancient monsters of peasant folklore, salted with some scary 'night police' tracking them down, in a nod to Soviet style tyranny.

The stories are set in Ukraine, especially three villages near the Thimble Factory, as well as a couple of stories within the Ukrainian community in Canada (the one set in Manitoba was especially good, I thought - probably the most memorable for me). 

They are full of horror; from bloody killings to cannibalism to monsters living among us -- but somehow the overall tone is more dark folklore than gratuitous gore. The stories in which I could identify real folkloric creatures like the rusalka or Baba Yaga were the most fascinating to me. There were a couple of these short tales that I didn't like much (mostly the last one) but as a whole this book was a great read. Creepy, spooky, dark, the stories were so brief (some only a page or two) that it really felt like reading folk tales, like these were stories that had been -- or should have been -- passed down in whispers through the generations. 

As one of the reviews of this book has mentioned, the actual history that this book arises from is terrifying enough on its own: Demchuk mentions the Holodomyr (Stalin's forced famine, which created plenty of real-life horror) and the way the implacable Night Police are threaded through the stories reads as Soviet reality.

Another element that adds to the book is Demchuk's use of old photographs (in the public domain) by Roman photographer Costică Acsinte, taken between 1935 and 1945. They are portraits, with individuals staring out at you from stark backgrounds; the chapters titles are simply names. It's very effective. 

A very unusual Canadian read, but one that I read in one sitting and by the way, didn't even have nightmares after reading it! 

Friday, December 01, 2017

11th Annual CanBook Challenge: December Roundup

Click on the icon above

2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)

3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as Melwyk (Anne of Green Gables)

4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")

5. In the comment section below, note whether you've read a book which meets the monthly challenge set via email for participants.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Future Home of the Living God

Future Home of the Living God / Louise Erdrich
New York: HarperCollins, c2017.
267 p.

Oh, I was so looking forward to reading this book -- I love Erdrich's style, and the summary was so compelling: 
The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Thirty-two-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.
But I just couldn't get into it. 

It was at times a fast and  exciting read; but then there were sections that dragged enormously. Both when Cedar hides out in her small, tucked away house early on, and when she is eventually discovered and locked up in the hospital, the story stalls with her inaction and focus on her internal life (that and her ever-loving fixation with her Catholic theology magazine that she still edits up until the last second possible even as the world descends into chaos). In between there are some intriguing threads but they just weren't followed up enough, for me. 

The whole premise of the book was simply stated but it wasn't developed enough. Who exactly is looking for pregnant women, and why? What exactly is happening to women and their babies? And what is the deal with the oblique mentions of white or ethnic births? I couldn't decipher which one was supposed to be more likely to non-evolve -- though with all else that was going on I am assuming the new theocracy thought white was better? Who knows, the intent was not clear in the narrative. 

It was as if the focus on Cedar's internal, philosophical and family concerns overrode any scientific rationale for the story -- evolution is going backwards because *wah wah wah* Charlie Brown Teacher voice. It just is, so you have to run with it as a reader. But I couldn't. I needed a bit more structure and explanation of the 'new world' to really buy into the scenario.

Also, the most interesting element of the story is Cedar's discovery of her birth family; when Erdrich is writing about them and their life on the reserve both before and after the big shift, there is life and humour and vitality. I'd have preferred to read about them and how their community was dealing with the political shift, I think there'd have been more to say from that perspective, at least more that I'd have found engaging. 

I suppose I'm just not all that interested in reading about the daily details of being pregnant and being tracked by a surveillance government -- they both involve a lot of anxiety and waiting around. 

Also, the book is putatively Cedar's diary to her unborn child, so the writing is diary-like and in Cedar's voice. Erdrich manages to stay 'in character', so to speak, but this means that her beautiful style is really cramped by writing in Cedar's style. There were a few golden moments, and some prescient, quotable bits to enjoy, but otherwise pretty functional writing.

So while I desperately wanted to read and love this book, I was in the end only mildly impressed. I enjoyed reading it overall, but there are so many questions left unanswered even in the vaguest ways that it was frustrating to try to figure it out after I'd finished. Also the conclusion was supremely unsatisfying for me. I hope there is a follow-up to this that can flesh out this world a little more, and give us the rest of Cedar's story. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Flush: a mystery

Flush: an environmental mystery / Sky Curtis
Toronto: Inanna, c2017.
260 p.

This is a mystery novel that's light on the mystery even though there is a murder; it's more interested in the way the crime changes the life of garden/lifestyle journalist Robin MacFarland.

After Robin is given the chance to cover a press conference by a hydro-energy company alongside her more hard-hitting colleague, she feels like her career is picking up. Coincidentally she also meets up for coffee with the company spokesperson a day later, after connecting on an online dating site.

Then he turns up dead.

Robin tries to figure out what is going on, hoping to be promoted to the crime desk via this story. She partners up with her best work friend Cindy (the actual crime reported) and gets up to all sorts of stake-out, suspect interrogation, investigative shenanigans. 

She finds that although it doesn't come naturally, she's getting better at it... and her sense of intuition about people's characters & motivation is second to none. She makes some key guesses that end up leading to the solution, and that nearly get her killed. 

It's a unique mystery, ranging all over its Toronto setting and incorporating both the world of journalism and police investigators. Robin is a middle-aged, stolid woman with a drinking problem, looking for love via online dating sites. She has body image issues and a bit of trauma from her married years. Yet she is a loyal friend and a curious person overall.

For me, though, this was a very light novel. I didn't really warm to Robin, partly because of her body issues. Right near the very beginning of the novel she is moaning about how fat and dumpy and ugly and old she is. It's a really over the top, lengthy rant. At the end of this dirge, she states how tall and how heavy she actually is in fact, and surprise, she is exactly the same size as me. So forgive me if I was annoyed with her from the start! Also, I can understand someone's unhappy but she is almost ridiculously fixated on her size and her drinking problem, which she never actually does anything about until the end of the book, when she just up and decides she will reduce her alcohol consumption. Oh if only it were that easy.

There were a few red herrings in the book that went nowhere, and a few revelations that would have helped the reader solve the mystery earlier if they'd been seeded in a bit sooner. So while it's not a perfect book, nor a perfect mystery, it did have some interesting side characters and a very complete Toronto setting. Worth reading for those aspects. 

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

11th Annual CanBook Challenge : November Roundup

1. Click on the icon above

2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)

3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as Melwyk (Anne of Green Gables) 

4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")

5. In the comment section below, note whether you've read a book which meets the monthly challenge set via email for participants.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Hoffman's Rules of Magic

The Rules of Magic / Alice Hoffman
New York: Simon & Schuster, c2017. 
367 p.

Just in time for Halloween, I finally weigh in with my first book review of the month, a delightfully witchy book by Alice Hoffman.

The Rules of Magic is a prequel to her 1995 smash hit, Practical Magic (also made into a dreadful movie which I cannot recommend!)

In this prequel, Franny, Bridget (Jet), and Vincent are the three children of Susanna Owens, a woman who has distanced herself from her family and its bloodline of magical women. She’s now living in New York with her psychologist husband. She is trying to keep all her children safe by denying their family heritage, but, of course, as they children grow up, they begin to discover their powers all on their own.

Franny, the eldest, can call birds to her and loves the feeling of flight. Jet, the quiet middle sister, finally admits that she can hear other people’s thoughts. And Vincent, the wild youngest, is oozing with charm, drawing people to him even as he is drawn to the darker side of magic.

When Franny is 17, they are all sent to spend a summer with their Aunt Isabelle Owens, who teaches them to manage their abilities. There is a lot of back story to the Owens family here, and it’s tied to Salem and the original Owens witch, Maria. Getting herself involved with one of the worst witch hunters and puritanical judges of the Salem years, Maria was deserted by him and placed a curse on her family that daring to fall in love would be punished.Her family curse, condemning true love, has affected everyone since.

Hoffman's fixation of romantic love as the point of everything feels a little tired after so many books, even with the lush writing she couches it all in. And once again in this book, she has characters die tragically and gratuitously, to serve the needs of her main characters. This was one of the characteristics of her writing which led me to give her up completely after finishing Story Sisters (the Hoffman book I dislike the very most). This book also feels a bit rushed, so as to get to the point where it connects to Practical Magic.

Spending many pages on their teenage years, the narrative then rapidly covers the adult lives of the siblings in brief, until the sisters finally meet their two tiny grandnieces, who become the main characters of Practical Magic. Don’t be alarmed, however, you absolutely don’t need to have read that first in order to appreciate this book. The lives of the three Owens siblings are complex enough to read on their own.

Having read Practical Magic when it first came out 20 years ago, I must admit my memories of it are faint, but I do recall really loving the book and Hoffman's writing. My fondness for Hoffman has certainly dropped off in the past few years, but I thought I'd try this book for its connections to that earlier read. I was a little confused about the timeline here; they are growing up in the 60s so what year is it when they meet the young girls who are the featured characters in Practical Magic? I'll have to go back to it to figure that out. 

It was, overall, still a solid read even with the flaws. The Owens family is interesting, and the story suits Hoffman's writing style and themes. It was a seasonal read that I did like, though my love for Hoffman isn't where it was 20 years ago! 

Have you read this? Do you love or loathe Alice Hoffman's writing? Are there some of her books you like and others you don't? Enquiring minds want to know.