Sunday, June 28, 2009

Canadian Shorts

I had signed up for the Book Mine Set's 2nd Canadian Book Challenge last July 1 with the intention of reading a book from every province and territory, thirteen in all. But, with two territories left to go I realized I just wouldn't be able to do it. So instead I am counting these two short story collections as the final entries into my Canadian Book Challenge tally. They were certainly worthwhile Canadian reads!

Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill Press, c2004.
203 p.

This collection of 23 short stories has the same oddball edge as Grant's recent novel, Come, Thou Tortoise (which I loved). The title of the collection is not one of the story titles -- rather, each of the stories is in its own way a wink at fate, an aside, a way to deal with what life hands the characters. I found many of them charming, amusing and original. The first story in the collection is "My Husband's Jump", which won Grant the 2003 Journey Prize (and which is reflected in the cover design). It carries a sense of the mysterious; a woman's husband makes a ski jump at the Olympics, but never lands. Over the course of six short pages, she struggles to come up with meaning, with understanding. It highlights Grant's eye for the absurd and her concomitant compassion for those afflicted by absurdity. I liked all of the pieces collected here, but was particularly fond of one near the end, entitled "Taxation", in which two roofers look down on the world, and the dynamic of their friendship changes as one espies a woman down below. It's a wonderful tale, with a sense of hope and a sense of humour -- which could describe many of the stories collected herein.

Ottawa: Oberon Press, c2008.
118 p.
This annual collection from Oberon Press always has something of interest in it. This year I was particularly desirous of reading it, as one of the contributors is Rebecca Rosenblum, who I've been hearing much about as of late; her first collection, Once, has been released very recently. Her three stories open the book, and they are all intriguing, with youngish people negotiating their way through urban life. I found the second, "The House on Elsbeth" particularly memorable, with its triad of students reacting to and witnessing (causing?) the results of domestic violence. Very creepy in its way.

There are two other contributors, Daniel Griffin and Alice Petersen, neither of whom I've read before. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed all three of Griffin's stories; they are 'manly' -- about men, from a male viewpoint, something I don't always connect to (sounds terrible but it is true). His second story "Promise" was excellent, its last line shocking even while I should have seen it coming. The main character is distant from his disturbed brother, but has tried to make a connection at their mother's request; she is worried about him, rightly as it turns out. That crooked relationship pulls you through the story and packs an emotional punch. The last three stories in the collection are Petersen's, and I thought they were fine stories, well written, but they didn't really catch me like the others did. They are about art, about the process of creation and the toll on a person's life when they strive to be something different than what is around them. Interesting and thought provoking. This collection is one more in a series that is always worth picking up.

The 2nd Canadian Book Challenge ends on Wednesday, July 1, but don't despair. July 1 also marks the beginning of the 3rd Canadian Book Challenge! Go on over to the Book Mine Set and join us for another year of great Canadian books!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Moon Tiger

Moon Tiger / Penelope Lively
Toronto: Key Porter, 2005, c1987.
207 p.

Another book by Lively; I was so struck by Consequences that I had to read another of hers right away. Fortunately my library has a number of her titles, so I picked up this one, the book for which she won the Booker Prize in 1987. I thought it was wonderful. I am starting to get the impression that Lively is very interested in the interplay of women's lives, memory, and history.

This novel takes a form that I am quite fond of, that of old women looking back on their life from the end of it. Claudia Hampton is in hospital, recalling her past as she nears her death. She was a journalist during World War II and spent much of her professional life as a journalist and writer of popular history, and her fascination with language and history permeates the book. The narrative jumps around in time, following Claudia's thought processes, but is not confusing. As people come to see her their appearance in her hospital room prompts recollections as to their role in her life. She is a cantakerous and blunt woman, not fond of too many people, but it is repeatedly remarked upon how beautiful and attention grabbing she was in her prime. (Remember that she is telling her own story!) Players in the story include brother Gordon, with whom she has a very close relationship indeed; his bland and ordinary wife Sylvia to whom Claudia is casually cruel; daughter Lisa, pale in comparison to her fiery mother, and left to her grandmothers to raise (Claudia does not have a strong maternal instinct); Jasper, Lisa's father and Claudia's sometime lover; Laszlo, a Hungarian student refugee who she shelters for a while; and Tom, her one, brief true love.

Claudia is a vibrant, uncompromising woman who doesn't allow herself to be limited to the accepted behaviours for women in her peer group. While working as a war correspondent in Egypt in WWII, she talks her way into advancing with some male journalists to the front, and there meets Tom, a steady kind of man, an officer and a calming influence on her. Of course, we know as soon as we meet him that he will not be around for long, but his loss alters Claudia's entire life. It is the emotional centre of the story, affecting her responses to life afterward. Following the war, she works at a newspaper in England and then begins to write her histories. Repeatedly referring to history as 'kaleidoscopic', her manner of telling her own story reflects that judgement; bits of this and that combine to finally come together in some kind of pattern, in hindsight. She comes out with ideas about the permanence of language and the impermanence of the historical record:
We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum of words inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes — our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version suface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.

But she also talks a lot about the characters she meets. Her relationships are important to her, despite her bravado and claim that she is wholly independent. First with the loss of Tom, then late in life, Gordon's death, she remarks that she is less a person without them.

One thing I discovered about Penelope Lively when reading her children's books, years ago, is her excellent control of atmosphere. There is both a lot of description, using all the senses, and an evocation of mood that I find characteristic of all her books which I've read. The final pages of Moon Tiger are exquisite, carefully drawn and very moving. Here's a paragraph from a point when her brother Gordon is near the end of his illness; he, Claudia and Sylvia are driving home from a government function he insisted upon attending.
It is a grey winter afternoon, glittering with car lights, street lights, gold, red, emerald, the black rainy pavements gleaming, the shop windows glowing Wagnerian caverns. Gordon, talking, sees and takes note of all this. He talks of events that have not yet come about and sees light and texture, the kaleidoscope of fruit outside a greengrocer, the mist of rain on a girl's cheek. A newspaper kiosk is a portrait gallery of pop stars and royalty; the traffic glides like shoals of shining fish. And all this will go on, he thinks. And on, and on.
A note about the title -- I had no idea what the reference was, until I got to the middle of the book, Claudia's time in Egypt with Tom. A Moon Tiger is one of those green mosquito coils that we used to burn when camping; here it is a perfect metaphor for memory and Claudia's narrative of the past. The Moon Tiger burns beside the bed while she and Tom make love and spend hours talking about their lives, both past and possible future. When they finally drift off, "the Moon Tiger is almost entirely burned away now; its green spiral is mirrored by a grey ash spiral in the saucer." This image suggests to me that through the historical lens, the green and living experience of the past is turned into a pale imitation of itself in the retelling. Or perhaps it is suggesting that the possibilities of a happier life for Claudia had been burned away in Egypt with Tom's death. I am sure many more interpretations could be added.

I was fascinated by this book, both by the character of Claudia and the structure of the story. Claudia is unapologetically herself, not trying to win over the reader; it is nice to see a female character who is not entirely 'likeable'. Interesting, intense and sometimes irritating, Claudia is the heart of this book and carries it off with panache. To succeed with a story which is anchored to one character, that character needs to be strong, and here Claudia is definitely a powerful creation able to hold the focus on herself. I am not at all surprised that this won the Booker. Recommended, especially if you already have an interest in the vagaries of history and storytelling.

Eva said...
I loved Moon Tiger when I read it back in high school. I've always meant to read more Lively. Which did you enjoy more, Moon Tiger or Consequences?

I enjoyed Consequences when I read it; that's what made me want to continue reading her work. However, I've found that Moon Tiger has stuck with me more, and that I have really been reflecting on both the issues that Claudia brings up and the style in which Moon Tiger was written.

Dorothy W. said...
I would love to hear how Moon Tiger and Consequences compare. Thanks for linking to my review of Moon Tiger! I'm curious if Consequences is as good.

BooksPlease said...
I've read Consequences and loved it. How does it compare with Moon Tiger, which I haven't read?

It's similar; they are both about a family of women, and the sweep of history over the 20th century and how it affected very particular individuals. The style of Moon Tiger is less straightforward than Consequences, in that it does not move chronologically, as well as slipping in and out of first person and third person narrative (quite effectively). And with Consequences, we are following quite a number of people through generations; Moon Tiger is all about Claudia! But they were both great reads.

Other Views:
Dorothy at Of Books & Bicycles discusses some themes

Kaizeren at the Bookish Dark gives it a deep reading

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lively's Consequences

Consequences / Penelope Lively
Toronto: Key Porter, c2007.
258 p.

Last week I asked for questions about books I hadn't yet reviewed; two of those books were by Penelope Lively. And I still haven't reviewed them, or answered those questions! So here is a little bit about the first one I read, Consequences, which got me going on her works -- I'm reading a third one now. And, I've just seen that she has a new book coming out this fall, entitled Family Album. It seems to carry on in the same vein as the ones I've read; the struggles of family and relationships over a lifetime. Plus it all circles around a house. Can not wait!

But as for this one -- it is a novel of three generations of women; the title comes from a mention of a parlour game the first generation played, called Consequences, predicated on the meeting of two randomly chosen people causing a strange and unforeseen result. This whole book, then, is a look at what results from a chance meeting of two people in prewar England.

Debutante Lorna meets artist Matt in a London park in 1935. They fall madly in love, get married and move to a small and very rustic cottage in Somerset. They have a daughter, Molly. Matt goes to war. You can imagine the result.

Lorna and Molly move to London and eventually Lorna marries Lucas, Matt's best friend. Molly grows up, does not get married, has a daughter, and ends up working in the arts field setting up poetry readings and literary events. She meets a poet and finds her own True Love.

Molly's daughter Ruth breaks the mould somewhat; she does get married and lives a conservative life, with two children and not much to do with the arts. But, she does not find her true love in marriage and gets divorced. Then her interest in family history grows and she tracks down the Somerset cottage where her grandparents had lived and loved so long ago. And guess what awaits her there?

This brief and static summary gives the bones of the story. But it is so much more. Lively's ability to create a setting is truly admirable. The Somerset cottage and surrounding landscape feel very real; Matt paints murals on the walls and while they are talking about the images they seem so present that I could almost feel the plaster under my hands. The three women are the main characters, each in their turn; I liked Lorna, loved Molly and tolerated Ruth. Each lives in such different circumstances, but I think I enjoyed reading about Molly as she is in her prime in midcentury. The surroundings were delightful, and her active involvement first in a library and then in the literary world was of particular interest to me. The focus on children, however necessary to the continuance of the family line and thus the storyline, did not appeal to me as much and perhaps that is why I found Ruth's story a bit more dull. Lorna gets the most space, and her world is nearly cinematic in its conception, but maybe it's the distance that makes it seem more romantic somehow. The war and all its attendant tragedy has a patina over it which seems to colour my reading about that era, an effect which I have to consciously try to counteract. The writing itself is masterful, parts are quite quoteable, and the straightforward chronological progression of the story is brought neatly full circle at the end. I very much enjoyed reading this and as I mentioned, it has spurred me on to read more of her work. I read her amazing children's books years ago and what I mostly remember of them is the atmosphere. Lively is very talented at creating a mood in her books, a skill I find admirable. What really made me finally pick this book up, however, was a mention of it a while back by Kerry, at her blog Pickle Me This. She quoted Molly's thoughts about the library she works at for a brief time, and it was so delightful I knew I had to read it. Here is the quote:

It sometimes seemed to Molly that the library was a place of silent discord and anarchy, its superficial tranquility concealing a babel of assertion and dispute. Fiction is one strident lie-- or rather, many competing lies; history is a long narrative of argument and reassessment; travel shouts of self-promotion; biography is just pushing a product. As for autobiography... And all this is just fine. That is the function of books: they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, they provoke irritation and admiration and speculation. They take you out of yourself and put you down somewhere else from whence you never entirely return. If the library were to speak, Molly felt, if it were to speak with a thousand tongues, there would be a deep collective growl coming from the core collection up on the high shelves, where the voices of the nineteenth century would be setting precedents, the bleats and cries of a new opinion, new fashion, new style. The surface repose of a library is a cynical deception.

I loved that! There is another atmospheric moment I'd like to share with you; in this scene, Molly and her daughter Ruth are having dinner with Lucas and Molly's brother Simon. The power goes out and they light candles and continue on.

There are so many shadows in this room, she thought. Candlelight creates a further dimension. No wonder people used to believe so fervently in ghosts. Space seems suggestive, packed with possibility. It's Caravaggio as opposed to David Hockney. The Fulham kitchen had become a glowing cavern, its mundane furnishings muted, turned into vague murky shapes. The light picked out faces, hands, the red intensity of wine, the white cascade of wax from candles. Everyone had acquired a new presence; Lucas and Simon were craggy Hogarthian characters, Ruth was romantically pretty. When you can't see things clearly, thought Molly, they are open to interpretation. What is that shape in the corner? The small dark blob on the dresser shelf? What elegant hands Lucas has.

I'll leave you with those samples of Lively's writing. I hope they will intrigue you and perhaps encourage you to give her work a try. It's very rewarding.

(questions will be answered in tomorrow's post on my next Lively, Moon Tiger)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tea Break

I know I have to post some reviews and share some bookish goodness, but all I can think about is something cold to drink... a muggy 30 celsius today and it's not quite noon. Sigh.

So until my brain reengages with the reviews I'm working on, I will just share these objects of beverage lust that I am currently experiencing:
(both found at Mellow Monk)

Mmmmmmm. Tea. As I just saw on a colourful poster, "Tea: Crack for Vegans". ;)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Byatt's Children's Book

The Children's Book / A.S. Byatt
Toronto: Knopf, c2009.
617 p.

I've taken a long time to try to review this book because there is just so much in it that I had to digest first. It's a huge, sprawling saga taking us through the Edwardian Age up into the First World War and its end. I have a particular fondness for the Edwardians and so was very intrigued by the first intimations of the theme of this novel.

Olive Wellwood is a successful writer of children's fairy stories; she supports her large family (impecunious, philandering husband Humphrey; spinster sister; eight children) with her writing and lives in the world of her fiction. She also writes individual, private stories for each of her children, kept in specially bound books. We really only get to read from (oldest son) Tom's and (oldest daughter) Dorothy's stories though. It's no surprise that these two are the most fully developed characters out of all the Wellwood children. But the novel does not limit itself to just the Wellwood family. We open with Tom (probably the most frequently appearing of the younger generation), at the South Kensington Museum. The curator, Prosper Cain, former military man, is a fascinating character and provides an inside glimpse into the way the Establishment dealt with the upsurge in arts & crafts at this time. As the story opens, Tom and the curator's son Julian discover a poverty stricken boy living in the vaults under the museum. Philip, the runaway, is a budding artist and is taken along to the Wellwood's Midsummer party with the rest of the characters, where he is apprenticed to local potter Benedict Fludd. At this huge traditional party we meet most of the characters who will make up the dramatis personae of the book -- and I think a list of all the characters and their relationships at the beginning of the book would have come in very useful as something to flick back to while reading. At times I had to stop and retrace my steps to figure out which of the young people Byatt was now talking about! We meet and consequently follow the fortunes of Basil Wellwood, Humphrey's brother, and his German wife and children. We meet all the Fludds and a few of the other locals. There is also a family of German puppeteers who perform a dark, Grimm version of Cinderella that is described with such visual acuity that I felt as if I was watching it myself. (And it made me want to go watch some puppet shows -- when I was in Kyiv there was a children's puppet theatre that performed elaborate shows which seemed to be in this same tradition but unfortunately all in Russian so no luck for me.) The number of characters who are German allow for some travel into prewar Germany and a view from both sides of the cultural and political divide, revealing many similarities but also some vital divergences. The plethora of characters is both a blessing and a curse; they allow for a very wide look at aspects of this era, in all the professions and social classes which they cover, but with there being so very many of the same ages in the same circles, it also led to confusion at times. For example, as I was getting really interested in one character's story, it would break off and not return to the same character for fifty pages. It also meant we only delved into the depths of a few characters, leaving others with more briefly sketched motivations for their actions.

Still, this is a novel of ideas as much as characters, and there are hundreds of themes to follow through the book. The main focus is the idealism of this Edwardian, Art Nouveau "counterculture" in which we find ourselves, beginning with the Wellwoods. The characters are writers, potters, weavers, jewellery designers, curators, puppeteers, impresarios, actors and so on, with Basil Wellwood, a banker, the odd man out. We see the influence of William Morris, of various colleges which educated the younger people in folklore and folk arts (author Hope Mirrlees is mentioned as a former pupil of a particular professor) and of figures like H.G. Wells. There is one particularly unsavory man with an insatiable need to seduce every woman who walks by, and to me he was a shadowy reflection of Wells. But we also see that in the younger generation there are rebels like Geraint Fludd, who wants to become a banker alongside Basil, and Dorothy, who stubbornly pushes against the gender restrictions of her era and becomes a doctor. We attend huge events like the 1900 Exposition Universelle (World Expo) held in Paris (gorgeous descriptions), the opening of the Museum which became the Victoria & Albert; get to see the social conditions in Germany which led to war, have to suffer through following the young men we've met as they experience World War I; and see how all of these individual lives are affected by the social movements they must move within. At times, especially near the end, it begins to read like an almanac: lists of dates and who did what when, both the fictional characters of the book and the real life historical figures all around them. That was a bit dreary. However, in another review, I saw someone mention that the novel starts in a dreamy, slower style reflecting the enchantment of childhood, and as this generation grows older and starts to lose its innocence, the pace of the storytelling speeds up and becomes more fragmented as well. This was a great point; and I think it is supported by the final few pages in which those people who find themselves back in London after the war gather together and have a supper which is described in such a way that it feels like a painting, a moment frozen in time, something perhaps more cinematic and modern, with the Edwardian veils finally torn away from reality. There is a dark dissonance to the juxtaposition of beauty and danger in much of Art Nouveau, an eroticism that doesn't always play out well for the cast of characters here. After the depths the world sunk into during the war there is a feeling of cautious optimism at the conclusion that some of those dissonances might be resolved.

I can't really do it justice in a short review; there is too much in its 617 pages to summarize. If you have the patience to wade through quite a lot of social history and have an interest in Art Nouveau and textile arts, I think it is worth reading. If you're a Byatt fan you will also like it; there's no violent alteration in her style or subject matter to object to here.

The jacket designer did a fantastic job as well; the cover is gorgeous and comes straight out of the novel. It is definitely designed after Tom's book, a dark blue scrapbook with ferns pasted on; and the mysterious dragonfly image is a René Lalique brooch design that is described at length in the book, which Tom sees at the Paris World Expo. (It was created for Sarah Bernhardt). This is a novel full of the magic and mystery of the decorative arts, of writing and storytelling, of the struggles of family relationships and the finally unknowable secrets within each person. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize how multilayered the text was, and think that I will have to reread it someday.

Kate S. said...
I eagerly await your review of The Children's Book. That one is close to the top of my TBR list, but it seems like a book that requires commitment, so I'm holding off on it until I get caught up with my overdue reviews!

Louise said...
I would love to know more about AS Byatt.

Yes, this one did take commitment! I was able to read most of it while I had a few days off work, otherwise it would have taken much longer, I am sure. It did have bits that ran a bit slower but overall it drew me right through with the complicated interwoven characters' lives.

Eva said...
Very jealous you've already read the new Byatt! :) How does it compare to her other short story collection?

Kailana said... The Children's Book: Do you recommend this to someone that isn't a big short story reader? What was your favourite story and why?

This one sounds like it could be short stories, as the blurb talks about the idea of main character Olive Wellwood creating a fairy story for each of her children. But, it is all tied in to make one behemoth of a 600+ page family saga! Actually, I would have liked to read each of the children's stories but the only ones we really get to know are eldest son Tom's and daughter Dorothy's.

Maree said...
I'm interested in The Children's Book, too. I've never read A S Byatt, though; is it a good place to start?

It's a really long starting place; I'd probably try one of her short story collections like The Little Black Book of Stories first to see if you like her style. Or Possession, which I still preferred to this book, even though I did find this one absorbing.

gnoegnoe said...
I'm curious about the A.S. Byatt book. Is it anything like Possession or something completely different (and how so)? I guess it's about books again?

It's similar to Possession in that it is about art (pottery, jewellery, design, and writing in this one) but it doesn't go back and forth between time periods. It begins in the Edwardian Era with the Wellwood family and all their outlying acquaintances, and follows Olive and Humphrey Wellwood, their eight children, Olive's maiden sister, potter neighbours the Fludds, curator of the Victoria & Albert Museum Prosper Cain and his children, Humphrey's brother and his half German progeny, itinerant German puppeteers and so on and so on. Possession had fewer characters to keep track of, and more of a dashing, romantic feel. This is a sweeping historical epic fully immersed in the "counterculture" of the Edwardian Era, leading up to the horrors of World War I and the destruction of that innocence that the Edwardians cultivated.

thedarkinthedark said...
In The Children's Book, Olive writes Fairy Tales. Is there any connection between her and Fairies or is it told completely real?

It's completely real. The fairy tales are deeply versed in Grimm, Freud, Bettleheim, etc. -- representative of psychological depths to human existence. Olive also uses her stories as a way in which to control or manipulate her children and the way in which she chooses to perceive them. She really is an extremely self centered creation. The whole idea of fairy tales and a fairyland apart from normal human existence echoes the theme of the novel; the artistic milieu in which all these characters orbit feels like a dream world which is rudely shattered by the unavoidable disaster of the War.

A few other Readers speak:

Dovegreyreader reviews it glowingly

Kerry at Pickle Me This

Shan at Half Soled Boots gives it a rethink

Isabella at Magnificent Octopus reviews it, and posts about seeing Byatt at Blue Metropolis

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Story Sisters

New York: Shane Arehart Books, c2009.
325 p.

Let's start with something positive: the cover of this book is beautiful and mysterious. It was all downhill from there, for me. Hoffman's books can be a bit of a chance to take -- I didn't like the last three overly much, but some of her earlier ones I really loved. I often love Alice Hoffman, which is why I had requested a review copy of this book. Here is the precis:

The Story Sisters charts the lives of three sisters–Elv, Claire, and Meg. Each has a fate she must meet alone: one on a country road, one in the streets of Paris, and one in the corridors of her own imagination. Inhabiting their world are a charismatic man who cannot tell the truth, a neighbor who is not who he appears to be, a clumsy boy in Paris who falls in love and stays there, a detective who finds his heart’s desire, and a demon who will not let go.What does a mother do when one of her children goes astray? How does she save one daughter without sacrificing the others? How deep can love go, and how far can it take you? These are the questions this luminous novel asks.

It sounds promising, but I am afraid that the family dynamic did not work for me, not at all. As children, the sisters are extremely close, even inventing a language of their own called Arnish, and telling themselves tales of a dark otherworld with a threatening queen. As they grow up, things change. Eldest sister Elv goes wild, getting into drugs and becoming scary and unreliable. Meg and Claire try to negotiate a space for themselves as their single mother tries (ineffectively) to deal with the problems Elv causes.

The difficulty I had with this book comes right out of the summary for the book. It asks "how can she save one daughter without sacrificing the others?" And so I expected to read a story about a family that overcomes its struggles to find a new relationship to one another. What I got, however, was much different. I don't want to say too much, but when I got the end of Part I, I nearly threw the book across the room in disgust.

Part II takes us to Paris a few years later, where Claire is living with her Grandmother. While it is all very interesting, it didn't seem like the same book to me. It was disjointed, and felt as if Hoffman had suddenly morphed into Joanne Harris. Perhaps after so very many books set in New England, I can't see Hoffman heroines anywhere else. Or perhaps it was that I really didn't like or have sympathy for the heroines, or believe in their redemption. There were also far too many issues going on here; drug addiction, childhood abuse, cancer, and so on. Additionally, there are quite a few deaths in the book which began to feel overly melodramatic and didn't seem to serve much purpose besides moving the plot along. They did not feel integral to the story or like a natural or desirable outcome in the context of the Story family's experiences.

Part of my visceral dislike of this book may come from the fact that I myself am the middle of three sisters; I felt myself growing more and more upset by Meg's role in the story, and I certainly didn't agree with what happens to her. Okay, I can't get around this: SPOILER ALERT! (highlight to read)

Meg is viciously attacked by her older sister, verbally and psychologically, and is afraid of Elv. When Elv returns from the juvenile hall her parents sent her to, Meg takes to locking her door and even nailing her windows shut so Elv can't sneak in. All these obvious signs of distress and a strong sense of self-preservation, and her mother takes no notice, only worrying about poor Elv. Claire is pulled between her two older sisters, but when the end of Part I arrives and Meg gets in to the car with Elv and Claire I couldn't believe it. She may have done so out of a feeling she needed to protect Claire, but I didn't feel that, given her fear of and distancing from Elv previously, this was likely to happen. Her ultimate fate was both predictable and completely unnecessary and infuriating.

Anyhow -- this book has been getting lots of positive reviews so perhaps it is just me and my dislike of this particular storyline. But I felt it was a bit overdone and disappointing. The feeling of Fate taking charge and all the overly magical elements became tiresome and weighty, one more bad thing piled on top on another. I'd be interested to see if Hoffman writes another book set entirely in France, or somewhere outside of New England, as that part of the book was new for her and quite lovely. It seemed out of place in this story, but I can see that the setting might be a new and intriguing departure for her. The French grandmother and her neighbours were the liveliest characters in the book, in my opinion.

I'm not sure who I'd recommend this to; current Alice Hoffman fans perhaps. But I can give a counter-recommendation to any other middle sisters: it's disturbing reading for those of us in the middle!

gautami tripathy said...
Would like to know about The Story Sisters. What is it about. Where is it based?

Like most of Hoffman's books this one starts out in New England; it opens in New York City, and the family lives somewhere in a small town nearby. The second half of the book has a lot of the action taking place in Paris, and feels different from the first half.

Kailana said... The Story Sisters: (Which I really need to read because I own it too) Is this your first Hoffman, if not, how does it compare to her other books? Do you think I need to read it right away or can I wait?

I've read all of Hoffman's books, and that was why I was looking forward to reading this one. I have enjoyed many of her books (Practical Magic and Blackbird House are two of my favourites) so was really disappointed by my reaction to this.

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...
I've only read one of Alice Hoffman's books, and that was a while ago. How would you sum up The Story Sisters for someone who knows nothing about it? What kinds of readers do you think are most likely to enjoy it?

To sum up...three sisters who live with a single mother in a big old house in New England; it has magical overtones with odd occurences and a barely concealed sense of danger. Like all of her books there are ominous boyfriends, love and obsession, bad things happening and an ending with something redemptive and uplifting about it. The writing is dreamy, sensuous and full of mysterious plants/animals/nature scenes. I am not sure which kind of reader would be most likely to enjoy this; I just know it wasn't for me, and probably not for many other middle daughters!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter

Faery Rebels: Spell hunter / R.J. Anderson
New York: Harpercollins, c2009.
329 p.

This middle grade fantasy begins with the premise that there really are fairies at the bottom of the garden; or, since it's told from the perspective of the fairies, that there are humans at the end of the garden! It is set in England and has an English sensibility which works very well with the storyline. The fairies live in an old oak tree -- their community is called the Oakenwyld, and has been isolated from other fairies for as long as they can remember. All the fairies are female, and they do not have any magic; it has been lost sometime in the past. They are ruled by a strict queen and have designated duties to keep the community running. Knife is unusual in that she is extremely curious about humans. When she is of an age to be apprenticed, she ends up training to be the Queen's Hunter, under Thorn, the wonderfully ornery current Hunter. This takes her outside the oak much more than she would have been able to access otherwise, and leads to much of the action that follows. She watches the humans, especially Paul, the college age son who has returned home and whom she thinks must be extremely important as he rides about in a 'throne' while everyone else walks. One day as she is hunting she is injured by a crow -- she literally falls into Paul's lap, he helps her recuperate and a friendship is born. The relationship between Knife and Paul is the impetus for her to raise many questions about the Oakenwyld, and to doggedly search for answers to the problems they have. She has to face the Queen herself to get answers, and through her bravery bring about some hope for the future of the Oakenwyld.

This is a very brief summary of a magical story that contains many wonderful moments. Knife is an amazing character, funny and brave and not too sweet or too obnoxious. Her relationship with Paul is developed nicely, and one element of that relationship that I enjoyed was the fact that they help each other to develop their creativity and that is important to both of them. The community of female fairies is a delight; there are personality conflicts but also alliances and some wonderful creations (like the librarian, who I SO wanted to be!) The fairies, being only female, now reproduce by egg -- when one comes to the end of their 300+ yr. life, she consciously gives up her life to create an egg, from which comes a new fairy. This elaborate routine is clearly explained and is sad and beautiful at the same time. The interrelations between the fairy world and the human world in the past are also of vital importance. All these questions are raised and resolved for the reader alongside Knife's discoveries, which makes for a great reading experience. I really enjoyed the story and the use of traditional motifs, as well as the accomplished writing style. I'm glad to hear that there's to be a sequel -- can't wait to hear more about the Oakenwyld!

Bart's Bookshelf said...
Ooh, I've got Knife in my TBR pile and read good things about it. I'd like to ask, what you thought of the other fairy characters in this book.

I enjoyed the way all of the characters were individuals in this story. Bryony, who becomes Knife, is a strong lead, but there are also other fairies who are quite different from her in personality. Thorn, the Queen's hunter who takes Knife on as an apprentice, is a tough talking, straightforward kind of gal. Wink, Briony's foster mother, is a meek and rather scatter brained individual who is nonetheless eminently loveable. There is even a faery librarian who is quite protective of her books :) Each character fits in to the parameters of the world that's been created but it is not a homogeneous community despite the fact that the Oakenwyld is made up entirely of female faeries.

Kailana said...
Faery Rebels: Have you read any of the other 'popular' fairy books people are reading nowadays? If so, how does this compare? If not, why did you choose this one over the others and did it hold up to that?

I've read a couple of the other fairy books (such as Wondrous Strange) but not all of them. This one differs primarily in its audience; it's aimed at a middle grade market, so doesn't have the sleek, sexy love story approach that many of the teen ones do. I actually preferred the creativity in this one. Why did I choose it? Well, primarily because the author lives in my hometown and came in to the library to give us a review copy and chat about it. But then because it looked so great! And the author is so nice. :)

Dreamybee said...
I like the idea of fairies in the garden, so could you tell us a little more about Faery Rebels? What was the tone of this book-light and entertaining, dark and twisted, etc? I've never read much fairy literature? Fairy-tale-inspired? I'm not really sure what genre this book would fall into, but would you recommend this as an intro to the genre?

This story has a light tone, but with some serious issues (loyalty, bravery, independent thought, responsibility to one's community, etc.) in the plot as well. As mentioned, it is aimed at middle grade readers, so it doesn't have a sense of darkness or sexuality; but it is still dense with ideas and a well developed romantic storyline so that adults will enjoy it as well. (at least this one did!)

Eva said...
One more question!What did you enjoy most about Faery Rebels? There are so many YA faery books right now; did this one stand out?

I loved this one for the characterizations and the use of the traditional idea of fairies as little tiny winged creatures living alongside us. And then the breadth of the world created from that kernel of tradition. The writing was also excellent, smooth and well constructed with no awkwardness.

thedarkinthedark said...
It looks from the page you link to that the cover for Knife is way cooler than the other. Which do you feel portrays the book more accurately and why?

I personally prefer this UK version. I like the title's emphasis on Knife's role. And I think this cover is really magical, placing Knife as a very non-human character in an important element: darkness. Knife's going out in the dark, which is forbidden to the fairies of the Oakenwyld, leads to her connection with Paul. Also, she looks tough here! So I think this cover is really representative. The North American one is quite pretty but I think it makes Knife too pretty somehow.

So that's it for my opinion -- here are a few others:

A nice UK review by Scrap Girl at Serendipity
A teenager's review at Lauren's Crammed Bookshelf
Nicola's take at Back to Books
An interview by LisaMay at Look at that Book

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Reviews: upcoming and questionable!

This week's project for the Weekly Geeks is timely for me: it is all about catching up on reviews! For some reason I've been reading a lot more than writing & reviewing the past few weeks so I do have quite a number of books I want to talk about. Here's the complete WG assignment:

1. In your blog, list any books you’ve read but haven’t reviewed yet. If you’re all caught up on reviews, maybe you could try this with whatever book(s) you hope to finish this week. (Be sure to leave a link to this post either in the comments of this post, or in the Mister Linky below.)

2. Ask your readers to ask you questions about any of the books they want. In your comments, not in their blogs. (Most likely, people who will ask you questions will be people who have read one of the books or know something about it because they want to read it.)

3. Later, take whichever questions you like from your comments and use them in a post about each book. Link to each blogger next to that blogger’s question(s).

4. Visit other Weekly Geeks and ask them some questions!

So, here are some of the books I will be reviewing sometime soon; please question away!

Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter / R.J. Anderson
(YA tale known as Knife in the UK, it's her first novel and a wonderful take on having fairies at the bottom of the garden)

(Scottish author; read as an ARC)

(via Random House Canada)

(also via Random House Canada)

(2 of Lively's novels from the library; I've always meant to read her books and a patron got me started; now I can't stop)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

YA Roundup: A Triplet of Titles

I've read a number of YA novels lately, but just haven't got to writing up proper reviews. I'm going to just give a quick blurb on three that I've just finished:

Sun and moon, ice and snow / Jessica Day George
New York: Bloomsbury, c2008.
328 p.

This one was irresistible to me because it is based on one of my favourite fairy tales, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon". Like the author, I read the version illustrated by P.J. Lynch years ago and was enthralled by it. This story starts out with a poor and crowded family in a small house somewhere in what appears to be Norway. The youngest daughter doesn't have a name; there are so many children that she ends up just being called "pika" (which means girl). Her oldest brother is a sailor, but gets home from one voyage a ruined man - he seems to have suffered some trauma which he won't talk about. Pika meets up with an enchanted white reindeer when she is quite young and afterwards has the ability to understand animal speech (leading to some amusing dialogue). This comes in handy when a huge polar bear bursts into their cottage and tells Pika he needs her to go home with him; if she does her family will prosper. She does, and the story then follows the familiar arc of the fairy tale. It is fleshed out with wonderful descriptions of the endless winter their country is suffering through, the marvellous details of the ice palace Pika and the bear live in, the servants at the palace (wonderful), and much more. It is enchanting and smoothly told, hewing to the original but adding lots of unique touches. I really enjoyed it.
Other views:
Review by Claire at Lands of Pleasure
Review at Bookalicious

Wondrous Strange / Lesley Livingstone
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2009
327 p.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. A Canadian author, theatre and Shakespeare, and fairies. Sounds great! And I am sure that for the right reader it would be fantastic, but for me it was just ok. Neither the writing itself nor the love story really did it for me. But, there were many creative and notable elements: using Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as the play our heroine is involved in when she discovers her fairy heritage is great. It really works and lends itself to many interwoven elements of the mortal and fairy worlds. There were some wonderful characters - I especially liked the Kelpie that Kelley rescues; it's very sweet for a creature from Mab's realm! And the inclusion of the Wild Hunt gives the tale a dangerous edge which adds some complexity. There is also the city of New York, which is an intricately drawn character in itself. I found lots of interest even if I didn't absolutely love it myself but can see it being loved by others.

Other opinions:
Bookshelves of Doom
Dar at Peeking between the Pages

Here's the atmospheric book trailer I found on Lesley Livingston's website:

Exchange / Paul Magrs
London: Simon & Schuster, 2007, c2006.
295 p.

This book caught me with its back cover blurb:

Following the death of his parents, 16-year-old Simon moves into his grandparents' claustrophobic bungalow, which quickly becomes a refuge from his bullying peers. United by their voracious appetite for books, Simon and his grandmother stumble across the Great Big Book Exchange - a bookshop with a difference. There they meet impulsive, gothic Kelly and her boss, Terrance - and the friendships forged in the Great Big Book Exchange result in startling and unsettling consequences for all of them.

Doesn't that sound great? Sadly, I didn't enjoy it much at all. I found the last line of the blurb misleading; Simon and his grandmother meet Kelly and Terrance and use the Great Big Book Exchange, but there don't seem to be any consequences at all. A possible romance between Simon and Kelly, and Terrance and the youthful grandmother, both come to naught. Everyone's lives go on exactly the same as they did at the beginning. Simon perhaps begins to feel a bit less distraught about his parents' loss, but there's not much change evident. Winnie, his grandmother, reads a book from the Exchange written by a childhood friend; this brings about a reunion, but even that fizzles and doesn't change the trajectory of their lives. And his grandfather is a jerk. This book was shortlisted for the 2006 Booktrust Teenage Prize in the UK but I can't picture many teens wanting to read this. At least there were a few apropos bookish quotes to enjoy -- this one comes near the beginning and made me smile:

Simon was suddenly realising: I'll never have enough time to read all the books I want to. Even if I read every hour, every day of my life and if I took breaks only to eat and sleep enough to keep me alive... I'd still never read everything. There were too many novels out there. They stretched into infinity and usually he would find that thought consoling ('I'll never run out of stories to distract me! To fill up my time!') but today the thought of reading and reading and never getting to the end; of never really getting anywhere... this thought actually made him shiver.

But here are a few other opinions:
Marineko's review at Dreaming out loud
The Good, the bad and the Bookish

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Martel gets faint signal...

Wow, imagine this... after two years of sending PM Stephen Harper books and dvds and fascinating essays, Yann Martel has received three replies! Not from the Great Man himself of course, but from various 'assistants'. The first book, The Death of Ivan Illyich, had a reply, but nothing since... until now.

For all of us following along with the Martel-Harper Challenge, you'll be glad to learn that Martel's essays will be collated into a book this fall, by Vintage Canada. Interesting! It will be entitled What is Stephen Harper Reading? Yann Martel's Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister (and Book Lovers of All Stripes). We're already all ahead on the reading list. :)

Quick cover question

Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of The Day the Falls Stood Still (the first book in my list of Niagara stories) sent me a link to the cover images for her upcoming novel. They are all quite beautiful -- but it made me think that it would be interesting to see whether bookish people like ourselves are really influenced by covers in our reading choices. Which image would most influence you to pick up this book if you didn't know anything about it? (I really love the first two).

Canadian Cover

UK Cover

US Cover

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Stories of Niagara Falls

I realize I haven't done a book list in quite a long time, even though I find them fun to do. So, in honour of my trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake last weekend, I thought I'd gather up a book list about a place just down the road, Niagara Falls.

This is upcoming this fall from HarperCollins and I'm eagerly anticipating it. Written by a woman who grew up in Niagara Falls, the story starts in 1915 and follows 17 yr old Elizabeth Heath. She comes from a privileged family, but tragedy strikes and she must befriend a riverman...the story promises romance and an overview of the history of the Falls. Can't wait!

A dark and dysfunctional family tale; it centres itself around Em and Blue, twins who take different paths to surviving their messed up childhood with an alcoholic mother and a totally loser of a dad who eventually abandons them. They grow up in Niagara Falls.

3. Falling / Anne Simpson

A young girl drowns tragically off a beach in Nova Scotia. One year later, her mother and brother return to the mother's childhood home in Niagara Falls to scatter her ashes. The return to the family, now only one man (a former daredevil) and his son, causes all kinds of re-emergence of emotions and memories. Will they remain mired in the past and in grief, or be able to move forward?

4. The Whirlpool / Jane Urquhart

Urquhart's first novel, this is about an undertaker's widow living in Niagara Falls in the late 19th century, who must retrieve both bodies and various items from the whirlpool beneath the Falls. The widow also has a son, who does not speak. It's told in Gothic style and incorporates descriptions of Robert Browning, as well as the characters of a lovesick poet and his beloved, an admirer of Browning's poems.

5. Falling Angels / Barbara Gowdy

Another tale of family dysfunction, this one is about three sisters who deal with their childhood traumas in different ways, but all have to come to terms with the horror in their family: the fact that their mother dropped their baby brother over Niagara Falls. Though most of the book is not set there, the Falls loom large over the story and make a final reappearance as well.

6. Murder on location / Howard Engel

Book #3 in the Benny Cooperman series, this mystery has Benny searching for a missing woman among the Hollywood types invading Niagara Falls to make a movie, The Ice Bridge.

7. The Widows / Suzette Mayr

Published by small publisher NeWest, this is a story of three old women who decide to break out of the constraints of their age and steal a barrel to go over Niagara Falls in. And they do it. There is more to the novel, however; questions of racism, homophobia and other issues play a part and make it a wide ranging, fascinating tale.

8. The Falls / Joyce Carol Oates

I think the question here should be, is there anywhere or anything Oates hasn't written about? This book opens with a man throwing himself over the Falls the morning after his wedding. The grieving widow attracts the attention of a local attorney who falls in love with her -- eventually they marry and have children. She can never attain full happiness however, and her lawyer husband is a workaholic. Happiness and fulfillment must be found by their children.

9. City of Light / Lauren Belfer

Set in Buffalo and encompassing the power station at the New York side of Niagara Falls, this thriller set at the turn of the century gives us Buffalo in its heyday. High society, lots of money, big industry, and of course, crime. Absorbing reading, utilizing the early industrial potential of the Falls.

10. Stone House Diaries / Robert C. Moore

A historical novel published by a very small independent press, this book looks intriguing because it takes us through much of the history of the development of the town of Niagara Falls. All the way back from Loyalists crossing over to Canada forward, the story follows the families who build the town. If you like history this would be a good bet.

11. Mirette and Bellini cross Niagara Falls / Emily Arnold McCully

For my final choice, a selection from this lovely picture book author's series about Mirette. In this book, Mirette and Bellini go to North America to walk across Niagara Falls on a wire, after having been challenged by the boastful Mr. Patch. Drama, skullduggery, and a new friend saving the day makes for a delightful story for ages 5 and up.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Two more Reasons to Read

There are two new themes for group reading that I've found in the last couple of days. The first is suggested by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set, as part of the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge. There is only one more month left of the Second challenge; the 3rd will begin July 1 as usual (and I am looking forward to signing up once more). John is encouraging all participants to read Canadian this month to push the total of books read up to 1000 -- we're very close. Even if you aren't formally participating in this Challenge, join us for the month of June and Read Canadian!

The other is a suggestion by HarperCollins -- their summer promotion revolves around the short story, which I have been overlooking a bit recently. It's called Summer is short: Read a story!

For the Canadians reading this, one of the first stories available online is Frances Itani's Bolero. It's from her collection entitled Leaning, leaning over water, one of the choices that HarperCollins Canada is suggesting for this promotion. If you read two of their suggested short story collections, you have a chance to win a new Fall book. Sounds easy and fun; I've read quite a few of the suggested books and there are some fantastic ones on the list.

I'll read some Canadian short stories and do both at once! Especially as The Book Mine Set also hosts Short Story Mondays, so if you do read one, dissect it on your own blog and then link to John's post.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Goudge's Little White Horse

Oxford : Lion Hudson, 2008, c1946.
222 p.

I'm not sure why I've never read this before: it is children's fantasy and by Elizabeth Goudge, both of which I adore. But, I recently read a glowing review over at Shelf Love as well as seeing a new copy appear at work (a movie tie-in; this book has just been made into a film -- greatly altered -- called 'The Secret of Moonacre'). So I brought it home; it is exactly what I would expect from Elizabeth Goudge, religious elements, nature, and food all equally important. But it was quite literally enchanting.

Maria Merryweather is a 13 yr old orphan, and the story opens as she travels with her governess to live with her last relative, Uncle William Merryweather. It's a magical night journey as their rattly coach travels through a long dark tunnel to emerge in a beautiful park lit by moonlight, leading up to the grand house of Moonacre. The house comes complete with tower, which turns out to be Maria's room, with a door so tiny only she can get through it. Sugar biscuits at night and clothing in the mornings mysteriously appear for her -- this room is a marvellous creation, and many people have mentioned that the description of the room is something that stays with them from childhood on. It has a starry ceiling and ultimate privacy, and is altogether worthy of envy!

The characters populating the novel are also quite memorable: the dog Wrolf, and cat Zacharias are more than they first appear. She meets Old Parson, a very unusual minister, and his beautiful housekeeper who lives in a cave under a hill, as well as re-encountering her childhood's imaginary friend, Robin, who is alive and well and very much in the flesh. Maria must take her place as a true Moon Princess of Moonacre and remove the curse on the family, and the antagonism of the Dark Folk who live in the pine wood on the hill and block access to the sea. Both the curse and the antagonism were created by the actions of her distant ancestor, Sir Wrolf. With great courage and level-headedness, with the help of Robin and of the various animals, she of course succeeds.

It is a marvellously odd tale; with characters like Marmaduke Scarlet, dwarf and cook at Moonacre who creates extravagant spreads; Miss Heliotrope, gawky governess who is nevertheless a sterling individual; blustery Uncle William; the nefarious Cocq de Noir; Loveday Minette and Robin; and of course the animals. There are catastrophic estrangements arising from such things as disagreements over one's liking of the colour pink, and character reversals prompted by the vision of phantom white horses from the sea. It's all strange enough to feel like a dream, like a truly enchanted world. Like all Romances it ends with everyone satisfactorily paired up and all conflict past, pink geraniums abounding as a symbol of accord. It's a lovely story, well worth exploring, with a strong sense of fairytale about it.

Here's the trailer for the movie, which appears to be much altered to allow for handsomer leads and extra conflict for more modern excitement:

Other opinions:

Review at Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover

Review at Framed and Booked

Monday, June 01, 2009

Sunday in the Park...

This Sunday I had a very pleasant outing; a few of us from work decided a while ago that we would like to go down to another theatre town in the area, Niagara-on-the-Lake, to the Shaw Festival. We did this specifically to see Sunday in the Park with George, one of our favourite Sondheim pieces, starring one of our favourite actors (who has been in Stratford previously), Steven Sutcliffe.

It was a great day; the weather was exquisite, the drive was fine (though long) and the show was fabulous! The actors were all very accomplished, and the singing was wonderful. Have I used enough superlatives yet? In brief, it was just perfect. If you know this show, you will know that the main character, George, is on stage for nearly the entire time, in both acts. George was played by Steven Sutcliffe, and his performance was amazing. I love his voice! Of course, I could be a little biased, as he could probably stand on stage and smile and I'd think he was great. ;) Seriously, with this show, the ability to articulate the very exact pointillistic words to the elaborate, wordy songs is key. Sutcliffe and the leading lady, Julie Martell, are both excellent at this. So you know it's not just me, let me share the words of a theatre critic, Gary Smith:

At the centre of this astounding experience is a landmark performance from Steven Sutcliffe that is brilliant in every way. Sutcliffe is even more devastating, more charming, more musically connected to the artistic spirit of Seurat than Mandy Patinkin was on Broadway.

There! If you like Sondheim and are nearby, this is absolutely worth travelling to.

Another great thing about going to Niagara-on-the-Lake is that it is such a pretty, pretty town. We wandered around a little, enjoying the sun, then went for dinner at Shaw's Café & Wine Bar. I found it rather amusing that a restaurant named after George Bernard Shaw (vegetarian since age 25 who stated that "A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses") should have so very many meat dishes available and only three vegetarian options. But I enjoyed my vegetarian pasta nonetheless. It was a lovely dinner with convivial company and was the perfect ending to a lovely day out. (except for the long drive home, of course...)

George Bernard Shaw