Sunday, March 30, 2008

Science on Sunday

Rather unplanned, this Sunday has turned out to be all about science! I've spent the day reading:

1. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millett, on Jeff's recommendation. Wow -- I'm halfway through and so far I am really liking it.

2. The Universe / John Gribbin - this is a library book so I feel I need to get a start on it before it's due back! A little at a time...

3. Bits and pieces of the science fiction of my beloved Ray Bradbury

And, I also heard an interview from 2000 with Arthur C. Clarke, on the CBC's Writers & Company. Eleanor Wachtel was the interviewer, and she's a natural -- always a good interview when she's running things.

But now it's time for supper, so off I go, no more blogging for now...

Polar Reading slump

One of the 'themes' I've been reading along for the last year or so, since International Polar Year began, is Polar fiction. I haven't finished any in a while now, though I have a few with bookmarks poking out in the bedside stack. For the time being, I can share some gorgeous photos which I discovered through Bearcastle. This Norwegian photographer is quite impressive; I recall lots of aurora borealis when I was a kid up in Northern Saskatchewan, but they never looked as stunning as this. I suppose I needed to be farther North! Enjoy some surreal beauty...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Gifts & Bones

I don't know what it is this week, but I seem to be running in place and the days are simply flying by! I haven't had a chance to do much reading -- I am not sitting still long enough to read many pages at any one time. Sigh. But, I have finished one novel, a light mystery I received from the author last year (!!) at the Canadian Book Expo. I was in the mood for something mysterious, and it is set in Newfoundland, so I'm counting it toward the Canadian Book Challenge as well! Here's my take on:

I really enjoyed this one! (and also enjoyed the publisher's website -- someone has a great sense of humour). This mystery is the first is a projected series, called the Bea & Mildred Mysteries. The second, Isabella's Passion, is due out in 2008. The actual physical heft of this book was satisfying; it was nicely produced, with an atmospheric cover, good paper weight, and a good choice of font and typesetting. I notice these things, because especially with very small presses or self-published books, sometimes the physical book is off-putting or amateur. Not so this one. I don't think I caught a single typo in the whole thing -- which is good, because that just so distracts me from the story. (obsessive, I know). ANYHOW -- on to the story.

Set in 1902 Newfoundland, it features one class of person, shop employees and servants, who work for a second class of person, rich newcomers to St. John's. The Stevens, comprised of Henry, Penelope, and their sons George and Brian, are the family that our main character Bea eventually works for. The family is dysfunctional, and Bea's friend Natty (who first works for them) complains about the cold way they treat Brian, who swats his hands at the air and is very confused much of the time. Natty feels that, poor boy, he is touched. However, the day she discovers the truth, she runs away and goes into hiding. Bea, insatiably curious, takes over as housemaid, and tries to discover the ties between the Stevens and the recently arrived Nortons, a father and daughter whom she thinks may be blackmailing Henry Stevens. The plot is twined together like the multitudinous threads making up the cross-Atlantic telegraph cable (which plays a big part in the blackmail scheme). In addition to the very human elements of jealousy and revenge there are supernatural elements at play. In fact, one of the most important facts about our characters is only revealed halfway through, and came as an utter surprise to me. I don't often find that a fact in a mystery story surprises me, unless it comes out of left field and has not been set up for us to see; I usually figure it out early on. But this one shocked me, even though after I read it I could see it was perfectly supported beforehand. Very clever! And it really makes me want to continue with the series. The plot makes great use of Morse code, and as such has a table of the Morse alphabet preceding the story. I found myself flipping to it a few times to try to figure out plot points before they were revealed.

Bea, along with Mildred, and their young cousin Jean (gifted with the second sight, this is Newfoundland after all) investigate and eventually come to discover the whole truth. It is a meticulously plotted story which is difficult to tease out into its separate strands, as everything is nicely meshed. Mildred saves the day and she and Bea bring the villain to justice. Throughout, however, there are discussions of the role that Newfoundland took in trans-Atlantic telegraphy (Marconi and Telegraph Hill appear in a roundabout way), family fishing, the landscape of St. John's and surrounding area as well as the commercial centre of the town. I think I enjoyed this book because it wasn't a dark and dreary family saga about fishermen and isolation and the degradation that women suffered, etc. -- even though it was about darker themes, it was done in a lighter cozy mystery way. I do have a couple of caveats: the writing is not perfect, at times coming across as quite clunky and expositional. Also, a few of the actions the main characters take slide awfully close to cliché. However, I see this as a series with potential, as it is creative and has nicely drawn leading characters (Bea, Mildred, Jean and their varied friends and relatives). It has a unique approach, featuring Morse Code and telegraphy, and feels very Canadian. I would recommend this to many of the regular mystery readers at our library, though if you prefer the harder-edged Scandinavians this probably isn't the one for you. It was a good read for a busy week!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker

Three men in a boat (to say nothing of the dog) / Jerome K. Jerome
London : Arrowsmith, 1889.

New York: Bantam, 1997.

I read these two novels on successive Sundays, for no challenge at all but just because I wanted to! As you can guess from the titles, Willis was inspired by Jerome's book, which she first became acquainted with through Robert Heinlein.

I'd heard quite a few people mentioning the Willis book lately, but really thought I should read Three Men first. I'm very glad I did, and so close together, as I then caught many of Willis' references -- which were very amusing. Actually both books were amusing, a nice shot of entertaining humor in between the 'serious' novels I'm immersed in.

Three Men in A Boat is about, surprisingly enough, three men -- undergraduates in fact, who feel that they need a recuperative break. So they decide that a nice boat trip up the Thames to Oxford and back would be just the thing. You can imagine how it all goes; bad steering, collisions, sleeping out in the rain, etc., all wryly told in an everyday style of speech. Jerome's use of the colloquial in this book was quite new at the time, and was critically sneered at as appealing to the " 'Arry & 'Arriets". I found it quite lively, even though from time to time he lapses into set pieces of flowery, purple prose, about History or about some Idea. I'm not quite sure whether he is seriously trying to be 'meaningful' with these bits or is satirizing the very prose found in contemporary books. In any case, it is a delightfully funny Victorian book, which reminded me somewhat of Weedon & George Grossmith's 1892 "Diary of a Nobody", a book which made me laugh out loud. Worth the reading, even if I'd suggest taking it in doses rather than all in one day - too much humour at once does make it pall a bit.

As for To Say Nothing of the Dog, Willis won a Hugo and was nominated for a Nebula award for this novel. I've still seen a number of negative reviews about it, but personally I loved it, couldn't stop reading it and wished I could start over afresh once I'd done. I really enjoyed the set-up: it is 2057 and historians time-travel through something known as The Net in order to research the past. Although she glosses over the particulars of how all this works, Willis still presents a lively story which moves along at a rapid clip from 2057 to WWII to Victorian England and beyond. If you aren't too picky about scientific explanations of an imaginary world, you will be okay with this.

As the story begins, we find Ned Henry in WWII Coventry, trying to find an objet known as the Bishop's Bird Stump. In his world of 2057, corporations have discovered there is no way to make money out of the Net, so the researchers depend on private interests for funding. One of these financial backers is Lady Schrapnell, a bully of a woman who has decided to rebuild Coventry Cathedral in all its glory (it having been destroyed in the air raids of WWII). Her favourite catchphrase is "God is in the Details", and so she endlessly sends anyone available into the past to ascertain those details. Small problem -- excessive time travel leads to 'time-lag', a disorienting illness which can only be cured with rest. In the first chapter, Ned is sent back to his own time to recuperate from a bad case, showing symptoms such as Difficulty in Distinguishing Sounds, Slowness in Answering, and Maudlin Sentimentality(the last sounding suspiciously like Jerome K. Jerome in his flights of fancy). However, Ned knows he won't be able to escape Lady Schrapnell long enough to recuperate, so his superiors order him back to Victorian England for a rest, if only he will do something for them first. He is so time-lagged that he does not know what they have asked him to do or who is to meet him in Victorian England. This leads to his dilemma -- mistaking a young undergraduate at the train station for his contact, Ned goes off on a boating trip down the river with him. They, of course, run across the three men in a boat coming the opposite way, and Ned's astonishment (being a great fan of the book) is such that he runs their boat into the bank -- an episode which makes it into Three Men in a Boat. References to the book abound, and both the chapter headings and the very feel of Willis' Victorian world come directly from Jerome's example. Ned then meets the beautiful Verity (his real contact), he runs afoul of Lady Schrapnell's great-great-great grandmother, and he discovers the infamy of butlers. Other novels are also referenced, notably Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsy detective stories, and Agatha Christie, and all of it is rollicking fun. Oh yes, and Ned and Verity do save the space-time continuum while rescuing drowning cats, arranging the love lives of Victorians and running church jumble sales. I know I will be reading this again!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Latest Bookworm Carnival

The latest Bookworm Carnival, with the theme of "Women in Literature" is now up for your perusal over at the Armenian Odar Reads. There are many fascinating posts on women around the world - looks like a lot of good reading ahead! Thanks to Myrthe for hosting once again.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Covers in Duplicate

I've noticed the trend of the same stock images on different book covers lately, and have commented on it a few times here and there. Lo and behold, January Magazine has just posted a link to a man who gathers up such duplicates! And the example they use is the very one that has been driving me crazy for the last while:

There are many more examples on his fascinating blog, The Rap Sheet.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Easter Chocolates

Easter is so early this year it's nearly taken me by surprise! Except all the chocolate bunnies and chocolate eggs and chocolate pastel-wrapped kisses everywhere I look sort of give it all away. Plus of course the upcoming long weekend to look forward to, yay! For me, Easter is not a religious holiday, unless you consider eating excessive amounts of chocolate a religious experience. So in preparation for my favourite part of Easter, here is a list of some books dealing with chocolate.

1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / Roald Dahl

You've got to love Willy Wonka, and admit it, don't you sometimes wonder when you unwrap a chocolate bar what it would be like to find a golden ticket? I enjoy Dahl's sarcastic sense of humour, but you can always watch the film too - I recommend the newer one as I find Gene Wilder kind of creepy in the original.

2. Chocolat / Joanne Harris

Something a little more adult. The book is a lovely read from an author who writes food and sensuality so well. A chocolatier and her daughter move to a small, moribund town in France where they proceed to open a chocolate shop during Lent. Very seasonal! I prefer the book to the movie despite some of my favourite actors (Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Johnny Depp) appearing in the film.

3. Like Water for Chocolate / Laura Esquivel

Another film! What is with this cinematic fixation with chocolate? Although this book is only about chocolate insofar as it is included in the title, it's a sensual read with recipes which use chocolate. A Mexican family of sisters experience passion as their longings boil up 'like water for chocolate'.

4. The Discovery of Chocolate / James Runcie

No movie here (that I know of). This is a short novel about a Spanish man, Diego de Godoy, who goes to the New World in 1518 in search of riches, and finds a lover and nearly-eternal life through a magical cocoa elixir instead. The rest of the book deals with his return to Spain, then his movements through an extremely long life (he ages 1 year for every 10 which pass) as he wanders throughout Europe and the world accompanied only by his dog Pedro -- who also drank some elixir so long ago. He meets up with people like Sacher, Hershey, and Fry. Interesting, even if I did prefer the dog to the man!

5. Daalder's Chocolates / Philibert Schogt

A Dutch book I received via Bookmooch, this one deals with an artisinal chocolatier who emigrates from Europe to Toronto and opens a gourmet chocolate shop. Initially successful, after many years the shop is being put out of business by MegaDeli, an American chain which has just moved in next door. The main character Joop Daalder is a crusty perfectionist, but his very characteristics make this book even more worth the read. He struggles for quality and individual creation in the face of mass-market Everything.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Republic of Nothing

Fredericton, NB : Goose Lane, 2007, c1994.

A Nova Scotia book for the Canadian Book Challenge, I first read this back in university when I was fixated on reading novels about or set in the 60's. I greatly enjoyed it then, and this reprint, signed by Choyce, is nicely repackaged and even came with a membership card to the Republic! I've seen it promoted as a YA novel, probably because the main character is primarily telling us his coming-of-age story, but I would classify it as an adult novel suitable for recommending to the right teenager.

It tells the story of Whalebone Island and its small, unique population. Whalebone is a biggish island separated only by a small bridge from the mainland of Nova Scotia. The story begins with the birth of Ian McQuade, our narrator. When Ian is born, his father decides they need to celebrate by declaring independence, so sends a letter proclaiming such to the government of Canada and to the UN, naming themselves The Republic of Nothing. As Ian says, his father Everett McQuade "declared the independence of Whalebone Island on March 21, 1951, the day I was born. It was a heady political time even on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. New, pint-size nations were emerging all over forgotten corners of the globe and my old man decided that the flowering of independence should not pass us by.”

However, as the story continues, Everett finds himself drawn into provincial politics, and Ian watches him change from an anarchist to a politician in serious contention for Premier. As a politician Everett lives in Halifax while his family stays behind on the island. Ian spends his days observing his little sister Casey, his new age-y mother and her intense friendship with a recent addition to the island, their other neighbours, and especially Gwen Phillips, who has been the love of his life ever since she and her family fled the US and found refuge on Whalebone when Ian was 5. He also keeps his eye on his so-called friend, Burnet, who is a mean, ill-tempered brute but who is nevertheless extremely popular in their high school. The dangerous and sexy Burnet ends up with Gwen, getting her pregnant before leaving to enlist in the US. The novel tackles many historical issues, ie: the anti-Vietnam War movement in the US, draft dodgers in Canada, sex and the availability of legal abortion, and even environmental degredation. It also covers much emotional landscape: family loyalty, friendship, integrity, tolerance, and True Love. It deals with rebellion, and the individual need to find a moral path through life. It's a book jam-packed with discussion points for classrooms or for bookclubs, but more importantly, it is a great read. The McQuade family and the inhabitants of the eccentric Whalebone Island are quirky, but not overly so, and the story is so focused on character that all the world events Ian stumbles into do not overwhelm. He comes across as a thoughtful, mild young man with a mystical mother and a firecracker of a father, who is enough of an observer to give us a mostly impartial view of everyone he meets. My only reservation about Ian is that he seems to let things happen to him, for the most part. I would have liked to see him act with more agency near the end of the book.
However, this was an enjoyable reread from an astonishingly prolific author and musician. I was delighted to receive this reissue compliments of Goose Lane and kindly inscribed by Lesley Choyce, who was gracious despite my highly incoherent comment of "I love this book!"

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

To all those Irish and semi-Irish and somewhere-along-the-line Irish out there; Happy St. Pat's! I'm celebrating by wearing green, so here are some books I've read which have "Green" in their titles. That's a pretty loose connection to St. Pat's, I admit, but I have posted a booklist of Irish themed novels as well. This year it's all about green!

It's been 100 years since this favourite story of a red-haired orphan was first published, to great acclaim. If you haven't read it, do -- you will enjoy it. Really!

I've listed this one before, but it's worth doing so again. This novel about a Canadian woman who discovers she has a Ukrainian past is fascinating even for non-Ukrainians! The main character goes to Ukraine to track down her family history and finds the Green Library, a park where people sit around and READ.

This native author writes marvellous books, and although this is a difficult book to summarize, let's see... it's about 4 very old Indians who regularly break out of their Home, a Blackfoot family in Alberta, a Western movie, and the trickster Coyote. Read it for an entertaining romp!

Part of a series of books featuring the owner of a tea shop, it's a light read with some entertaining tea related trivia. And recipes. This one is about an open air tea party at a regatta; of course it is ruined by murder... This is a fun series for tea lovers.

Finally, one about Ireland! This is a fictionalized memoir of Bradbury's time in Ireland, writing a screenplay of Moby Dick for John Huston. He wasn't too keen on Ireland at first, and was sure it rained 12 days out of 10. Despite the romantic view of alcohol, this is a treat for Bradbury fans.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Many uses for a Library

This is a picture of the gorgeous Vancouver Public Library. I wandered through it when on holiday in Vancouver a few years ago (what can I say, I don't know a single librarian who does not tour other libraries on holiday). The building itself is beautiful, and I was so envious of a public library with so much public space - and the fact that there are subject specialists working on each floor - it's like a university library, almost. I'd LOVE to work there, although living half a continent away sort of makes that difficult. But, it's interesting that there are many different ways people see such a building. Here's one:

Julia Taffe just can't stop hanging around the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library. There's something about Moshe Safdie's colonnades and curving architectural walls that makes her want to create aerial dance. As a dancer and choreographer for her company Aeriosa Dance, Taffe has created four other dances for the inside and outside walls of one of the city's most distinctive buildings.

Taffe likes that the building has become a community gathering place."The building has personally inspired me to create dance in Vancouver," Taffe said. "Without it, my art form would not have developed in the same way."

Read the whole article in the Vancouver press, if you'd like. And do go to the dance company's site to watch some videos of their performances. It's gorgeous!

Friday, March 14, 2008

To Buy a Book

Just a quick announcement -- my husband and I have moved our collection (which used to reside in our bricks and mortar bookshop, Chumley & Pepys Used Books) online to This is an online bookseller's collective, smaller than the better known ABE or Amazon, and is based in Kentucky. We feel they do a great job of book retailing, as well as supporting a charity building libraries in Bolivia. Also they have a wonderful newsletter of interest to bibliophiles.

Use the search box in the sidebar to search all of Biblio, or go to and look for Chumley & Pepys to view our specific inventory. I'm thrilled to be part of this!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Eat up your favourite books

This is very cute -- the International Edible Book Festival. It's held on or near April 1 every year; I was reminded of it because a library in a town down the road from me is participating. The idea is to make something edible inspired by a favourite book, or just the idea of books in general. Here are some samples:

What kind of food item would you make? I'm thinking perhaps a Bundt cake with a doll in the middle, iced like the antebellum skirts of Scarlett O'Hara... or maybe a stack of millefeuille pastry, decorated to appear like individual books of a TBR pile... this could be fun.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sunlight on a Broken Column

London : Virago, 1989, c1961.

I had this novel in the house, sitting on a bookshelf, waiting to be read, because it was a Virago and it looked intriguing when I picked it up via Bookmooch some long time ago now. Thanks to Annie's Challenge, I finally had a reason to push it to the top of the TBR list, and I'm glad I had that push, because after all that, I found this book fascinating. (Does this paragraph sound like German is my first language??)

I've been sick with a nasty flu for the last couple of weeks, but the good news is that (after the first 2 days of complete whining inaction) I actually got quite a bit read. This one was first. It was a good choice, because although not exactly a plot driven page turner, it was a look at a completely unknown-to-me culture, that of an upper class Muslim family in India just before Partition. The main character, Laila, is an orphan who is living with her grandfather, along with the rest of the female 'loose ends' in the family; a female cousin, a couple of aunts, and also the 2 sons of one of the aunts. The women are in purdah, meaning they have their own quarters and they don't see men other than their relatives and a couple of servants. Even when they go out, they have curtains covering the windows of their car. The grandfather dies and the household is broken up, with Laila going to live with her liberal, British educated uncle and his family. The story follows her through her schooling, her friendships and her first romance, with a young man of no means for whom she ends up defying her family to marry. The final part of the book is Laila's return from England years later, to see her now abandoned family home before her cousin sells it. The two brothers have been separated by Partition; the elder stayed in India, trying to represent Muslims and his family rights, while the younger moved his family to the new country of Pakistan. In all the political upheaval, they have been effectively isolated from one another for many years, being unable to cross the border back and forth between the two countries. Laila looks back on what their life was like then; a privileged and very different world, though at the cusp of change both politically and socially, especially in terms of women's lives. It is poignant and breathes nostalgia for a lost world.

Though this plot summary is rather perfunctory, the book itself is full of fascinating social commentary, of descriptions of the absolute gorgeousness of the land, of the cultural milieu Laila existed within, of the vastly differing lives of servants vs. Laila's family and also vs. her Hindu friends. It's an absorbing story of a life in 1930's India, which I found utterly irresistible.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Kobzar Award goes to Janice Kulyk Keefer

The Kobzar Literary Award is a huge, $25,000 biennial award which "recognizes outstanding contributions to Canadian literary arts through the author's presentation of a Ukrainian Canadian theme with literary merit." How did I miss this year's announcement? I watch for these things! But thanks to The Savvy Reader, I see that a book I really enjoyed recently, The Ladies Lending Library by Janice Kulyk Keefer, has won this year's award.

Congratulations to Janice Kulyk Keefer! She had some tough competition, but this possibility did cross my mind when I read this novel last year. It's a great summer read, for this upcoming summer or for right now when we just wish it was already summer!

Mysterious FREE books!

Ok, this is enough to force me into breaking my blog silence...

Check out HarperCollins' new contest, March Mystery Madness. It is amazing; a sports-inspired match-up of mysteries of all kinds, running throughout March. You vote for the mysteries you prefer, you enter a contest to win ALL 64 BOOKS! Yes, that's right, sixty-four. As in four more than sixty, six less than seventy - any way you look at it, a LOT of books! If you are a mystery fan, you will love this one. Here's what they're telling us to do:
Every week the landscape of the tournament will have changed, a new round will begin, and the voting will continue until only one book remains. By choosing the winners in each weekly match-up, you’ll both be a part of choosing our 2008 champion and earn chances to win the ultimate prize: all 64 books entered in the tournament.

It's run by HarperCollins Canada, as far as I can tell. Not sure about the rules as to who can enter and win... maybe someone at HarperCollins will let us know!
Addendum ** The contest appears to be for Canadians only...sorry, everyone else!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Treading Water

Toronto : McArthur & Co., c2005.

This is my choice for British Columbia, for the Canadian Book Challenge -- which, I might say has been a challenge far more interesting and indepth than the insipid Canada Reads debates this week. But, to get back to the point; Anne DeGrace has here written a novel in short stories, with a few of the chapters being published separately before the novel. The story deals with the fictional town of Bear Creek, which was founded in 1904 and then flooded out of existence with the construction of a dam in 1967. (it is inspired by the story of the BC community of Renata).

The book begins with the first settlers in Bear Creek, and each section, headed by a date, follows the community from various people's perspectives. The community grows and families become more and more entwined, which you see from all angles. I appreciated the first half of the book most; the writing style suited the doomed existence of this town, and drew me in with intriguing characters. Suddenly, however, in '1932', the story shifts to first person, a story told by a young boy. I found the tone and the point of view jarring, and never really recovered the enchantment of the earlier chapters. This is also the first piece of the book which had been published earlier as a short story, and while it certainly works as a short story, I felt it didn't quite fit in with the rest of this novel somehow. The characters involved reappear in the later chapters, in different configurations once they are older, but the book began so strongly focused on the family of the first child born in Bear Creek, Ursula Hartmann, that I was really most interested in her. She does play a big role in most of the chapters and it was those not featuring her which felt a bit out of place.

Still, this book gives a panoramic view of a century in one town (the final section is '2005', in which Ursula's granddaughter returns to the original site of the town at low water). It draws portraits of settlers driven by religious or family feeling to set up a remote community, based mainly on farming. As it is BC, most of the families have orchards, and the town is known for its cherries. The story traces the decline of the town to a point in the 60's when fruit is no longer profitable, and orcharding has been given up by most residents. They work outside of Bear Creek, and children go to school in a distant town, with a lengthy commute across the river and down the highway. It is at this point that BC Hydro wishes to buy out everyone in the town and flood it. Most people settle, but the holdouts (including Ursula and her husband Ed) do so through their sentimental attachment to Bear Creek. It causes all kinds of bad feeling among these people who have known each other all their lives, and when Ursula finally settles it is because she knows it is impossible to resist any longer. Hers is the last family to leave, save the ferry operator, who must take Hydro's work crews across the river where they are burning down all the houses.

The book is an elegy, but the writing only matches that sensibility in the first half and in parts of the second half. I felt that the second half read more like discrete stories than a novel. Despite this flaw, I enjoyed the story and the characters, some of whom were brilliantly conceived. It does provide a view of BC as the final frontier for the restless. I also appreciated the intriguing idea of telling the story of a town from creation to destruction. I'd rate it as recommended with a few reservations.