Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010

Here is my statistical analysis of my reading in 2010. I read more than I'd expected to, being extremely busy this year, so I am pleased by the results. I did find a few great books, but overall there were not as many outstanding reads as last year. Perhaps that was also due to my level of focus and concentration this year.

Total Reading: 158


Female: 114
Male: 35
Nongendered (collections, multiple authors, etc.): 8

Genre etc.

Fiction: 100
Non Fiction: 54
Poetry: 3

In translation: 11

French (Quebecois): 3
French (Africa): 1
Norwegian: 1
Dutch: 1
Russian: 1
Portuguese: 1
Arabic: 1
Swedish: 2

And for an interesting statistic that I started keeping after seeing at the Book Zombie a year or two ago:

My Own Books: 71
Library Books: 87

I've never had such a balance between these two numbers before -- all that focus on reading from my own shelves really paid off. I have passed on quite a few of the titles that were being neglected on my shelves and feel great that they were read and have a chance of being read again.


As for my favourite reads -- I've chosen them simply as the titles that were most enjoyable to read, or most memorable in some way. Whether it was the writing itself, the ideas in the book, or simply how much fun I had reading, these were the stand-outs this year. They are not in ranked order, rather, in the order I read them. Except I must mention that Dianne Warren's Cool Water was really the outstanding read for me this year: I really loved it and have been pushing it on everyone ;)


1. Cleavage / Theanna Bischoff
I was intrigued by this tiny first novel. Found the writing and the construction of the book quite interesting and I liked the main character.

2. Cool Water / Dianne Warren
I've made no secret of my love for this book. It is definitely my favourite read of the year, and apparently the Governor General's Award committee agreed ;) It's an excellent book that I think everyone should read.

3. Sounding Line / Anne deGrace
A novel inspired by the true life mystery of a UFO crashing into Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia. It was a quiet read also focused on a family tragedy and had a great setting and characters. Memorable.

4. Gaudy Night / Dorothy Sayers
This was my first introduction to Sayers (and to Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey) I loved it. I've now read four more of her novels, and am totally enchanted by Harriet and Peter. This is my favourite of her books though.

5. Where the River Narrows / Aimée Laberge
I've had this on my shelf for years but finally read it. Fabulous historical novel of Québec and a woman's family history. She's also a librarian, which caught my interest!

6. Things Go Flying / Shari Lapeña
Entertaining and new to me, I enjoyed this family story that is slightly off... with visits from beyond, and more.

7. Penelope's Way / Blanche Howard
This is a novel covering one year in a woman's life. It's her 70th year, and her vigorous approach to life and learning is fun, thoughtful and energizing.

8. The Woman in White / Wilkie Collins
I finally read this one this year, and it was great fun. It was Margaret Atwood's fave this year as well, and as she says, there's a reason it's never been out of print!

9. The Mischief of the Mistletoe / Lauren Willig
The latest in the Pink Carnation series, this was pure entertainment. A rogue Christmas pudding, a hero named Turnip, and a cameo by Jane Austen herself made this Regency-set romantic/humorous novel perfect for holiday reading. I never did review it, but I always look forward to new books in this series.


1. The Tale-Tellers / Nancy Huston (non-fiction)
A wonderful book focusing on the storytelling nature of humankind. Excellent.

2. Against the odds / Marjolijn Hof (juvenile novel)
Translated from Dutch, this was an amazing and lucky find. It doesn't talk down to young readers in any way.

3. Harvey / Hervé Bouchard (graphic novel)
I never did review this - but I received a copy from the publisher, Groundwood Books, and so I read it. And I cried over a graphic novel. True.

4. Lost Gospels / Lorri Neilsen Glenn (poetry)
I loved this volume of poetry from Brick Books. It's a keeper.

As always, it is very hard to select just a few "best reads" of the year. I like many of the books I read for many different reasons, so it's difficult to compare those reasons for enjoyment. But, these are a few that I can recommend as books that moved me, entertained me, and/or stuck with me. I'm looking forward to seeing everybody's 'best of' lists as well -- it always adds to my tbr immensely.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Great Viewings 2010

I found quite a number of amusing, moving and enjoyable videos this year through various bloggers and bookish connections. Here are a few of my favourites, for your entertainment.

1. Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer
Of course, the top new viewing of the bookish year. Hilarious, self-deprecating and very clever, Ron Charles of the Washington Post (and his family members) have created an addictive series of videos. I am always awaiting the next one!

2. Old Spice Guy
The viral success of the Old Spice Guy was made perfect for me by his mention of libraries. Funny, delightful nonsense.

3. Wellness Meditation
My sister, author of Introspection and owner of Sole Purpose Books, created a wellness meditation using her own photos and music, which I really like -- and not just because my sister created it :) It is really calming on days I feel especially frazzled.

And last but not least, I am sharing this video with you with the caveat that this was my first public speaking be gentle ;) I gave a speech at our local Ignite event in November -- it was entitled "A Novel Prescription: Reading for the Health of It"

I hope you'll enjoy, although I am quite sure I am preaching to the choir with my blog readers :)

The TBR Twenty

Emily of Telecommuter Talk held an "Attacking the TBR" Challenge last year which really helped me clear off some of the books I've had sitting on my shelves for a long time. I enjoyed my reading, and the numbers of books I read from my own collection increased.

So, even if she isn't running the challenge again, I am going to use the same idea for another year -- make a list of 20 books I want to read from the shelves I already own. It's a great way of keeping track of what is still on the shelves awaiting my attention. I'll also note the reasons I want to get to them this year.

The first few are titles from last year's list that I didn't quite get to - they will remain on the list for this go round.

1. Ursula, Under / Ingrid Hill

2. The Ballad and the Source / Rosamond Lehmann

3. Angel / Elizabeth Taylor

4. All the Names / José Saramago

5. Four Letters of Love / Niall Williams

6. Passing On / Penelope Lively

And newer ones:

7. The Invisible Mountain /Carolina De Robertis Received from the publisher last year -- after reading the first couple of pages I meant to get back to it; it sounds great

8. The Case of the General's Thumb / Andrey Kurkov I bought this one when I was in Kyiv -- a couple of years ago now -- and have been meaning to read it ever since

9. Waiting for Columbus / Thomas Trofimuk

10. Black Bird / Michel Basilieres

11. Confession / Lee Gowan

12. Dream Wheels / Richard Wagamese

13. Song Beneath the Ice / Joe Fiorito

All of the above are Canadian writers that I'd like to read for the Canadian Book Challenge -- I really don't read as many male writers as female, not by conscious choice, but I would like to give some of these authors a try, especially since they are languishing on my shelves currently!

14. The Deadly Space Between / Patricia Duncker I read Duncker's Hallucinating Foucault years ago and was really struck by it. This one, according to her website, is "is a disturbing psychological thriller about 18-year-old Toby Hawk and his mother's enigmatic new lover". And I've owned a copy for at least three years.

15. Dreams of my Russian Summers / Andrei Makine An award-winning novel written in French about a Russian childhood- there's a grandmother and a good dose of nostalgia and I really don't need to know much else to want to read it.

16. Excellent Women / Barbara Pym I 'discovered' Pym this fall and will read all her books sooner or later. I got a copy of this to read when I was sick, but recovered so quickly I never got to it! So I'll read it while I am healthy :)

17. The Postmistress / Sarah Blake Was gifted a copy of this in paperback last year and it looks like just the kind of war fiction I'd like to read

18. Translation of Dr. Appelles / David Treuer I can't recall whose blog I first saw this mentioned on, but I do recall that the author commented and he was charming. Then I came across a copy of the book in a sale, so had to buy it. Now I have to read it!

19. Exit Lines / Joan Barfoot A Canadian writer who I like, this particular book is set in a senior's residence and features a quartet of independent characters. One of them asks for a very particular favour...

20. Mystery Stories / David Helwig This one hasn't been on my shelves for long...I just received a copy from the publisher last month. But I love Helwig, and all of his other books I've read have been very enjoyable so this is one I don't want to let sit on the shelves for very long.

Alternates: I'll also throw in a couple of non-fiction titles for when I am more in the mood for that - I do have some to finally read this year:

1. Must Write / Edna Staebler A book about the writing life of an author better known for her cookbooks

2. The Arcanum / Janet Gleeson Slim history of the discovery of porcelain in the West.

3. The Paper Garden / Molly Peacock Fairly new to me, received from the publisher -- a small book about an English woman who started creating a botanical scrapbook with elaborate paper flower specimens in her old age. Gorgeous illustrations.

4. Chocolate Wars / Deborah Cadbury I love chocolate. My English great-greats worked for the Cadbury factory. Thus I wanted this book. Then I was sent a copy by Ron Charles of the Washington Post. What more can I say?

5. Pursuing Giraffe / Anne Innis Dagg The life of a female zoologist studying giraffes in Africa, in the 1950s. An unusual and personal memoir of a unique life.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Challenges Ahead, 2011

And here is my list of the challenges I want to participate in next year. I love setting up reading lists and thinking about all the potential reading I could be doing!

Canadian Book Challenge

This one, hosted by John at The Book Mine Set, is ongoing: it is also a year-long challenge, but runs from Canada Day to Canada Day(July 1) rather than January-December. So I am half-way through, and will continue reading for the 4th Challenge as well as knowing already that I'll be signing up for the 5th when it rolls around!

What's in a name 4

This is once again hosted by Beth Fish Reads, and is a challenge I really enjoy participating in. The random nature of the book selections makes it a lot of fun, and I usually to read from my TBR in order to clear it up just a bit!

The rules are that you must read 1 book during 2011 from each of the following categories -- my three possibilities for each category are below, as well.

1. A book with a number in the title:

The Importance of Being Seven / Alexander McCall Smith
Four Letters of Love / Niall Williams
Fahrenheit 451 / Ray Bradbury

2. A book with jewelry or a gem in the title:

The Attenbury Emeralds / Jill Paton Walsh
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl / Yiyun Li
Opal: a life of enchantment, mystery and madness/ Kathrine Beck

3. A book with a size in the title:

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party / Alexander McCall Smith
The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer / Carol De Chellis Hill
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute / Grace Paley

4. A book with travel or movement in the title:

Passing On / Penelope Lively
Far to Go / Alison Pick
Skating to Antarctica / Jenny Diski
Read: Into That Darkness / Steven Price

5. A book with evil in the title:

Soucouyant / David Chariandy
Consequences of Sin / Clare Langley-Hawthorne
My Phantom Husband / Marie Darrieussecq

6. A book with a life stage in the title:

Never the Bride / Paul Magrs
Warm the Children, O Sun (collection of stories)
The Grandmother / Bozena Nemcova

Science Book Challenge 2011

This is the fourth year of this wonderful challenge, hosted by Jeff at Scienticity I've been in on this one since the beginning, and I love it, because it makes me read more widely than I would otherwise and because it is "easy as pi" -- the rules are to read 3 (or 3.14) books over 2011. (how can you not love that slogan?) Although some years I read more than others, I enjoy this one absolutely. Here are this year's rules:

Read at least three nonfiction books in 2011 related to the theme "Science & Culture". Your books should have something to do with science, scientists, how science operates, or the relationship of science with our culture. Your books might be popularizations of science, they might be histories, they might be biographies, they might be anthologies; they can be recent titles or older books, from the bookstore or your local library. We take a very broad view of what makes for interesting and informative science reading, looking for perspectives on science as part of culture and history.
After you've read a book, write a short note about it giving your opinions of the book.

My list of possibilities includes:

Einstein Wrote Back / John W. Moffat

The Arcanum / Janet Gleeson

Decoding the Heavens / Jo Marchant

Empire of the Stars / Arthur I. Miller (I had meant to read this one last year)

Nordic Challenge
This is hosted by Zee at Notes from the North.

This blog is new to me, so this is a double delight -- a new blog and a new challenge to participate in! She states:

There is no need to make a list before hand. Any book by any author born in a Nordic country (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and/or Sweden) or a book set in a Nordic country. They can be from any genre (I will be reading a mixture of classics, children’s books, YA and mystery).

I'll be reading at the second level:

Freya: Read 3-5 books

But since one of the things I most love about joining challenges is making lists, I'm still going to make a list of possibilities to inspire me ;)

1. Astrid & Veronica / Linda Olsson -- I've wanted to read this one for ages, but it always seems to be out at my library!

2. Summer Book / Tove Janssen -- I read her novel The True Deceiver this year, and thought it was amazing. I'll be on the lookout for this one now.

3. The Tricking of Freya / Christina Sunley -- set partially in Canada and partially in Iceland, dealing with the main character's Icelandic heritage, this has been on my TBR for ages.

4. House of Orphans / Helen Dunmore -- set in Finland, by a British author

5. The Unit / Ninni Holmqvist -- so many book bloggers mentioned this one highly over the last year. It sounds intriguing.

Eastern Europe 2011 Challenge
This is hosted by Amy at The Black Sheep Dances -- another new-to-me blog and challenge! Another year-long challenge to take on.

These are the parameters:
Regions: Choose titles about or by an author from any of the following regions: Croatia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary, Belarus, Estonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Czech Rep., Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, Moldova, and Kosovo.
Titles: Can be any genre: crime, poetry, literary fiction, history, historical fiction, memoirs, etc.
tourist: 4 books over the 12 months
ambassador: 8 books over 12 months
scholar: 12 books over 12 months

As most of my long-time readers know, I have a Ukrainian background, and love reading from that area. So I will most likely be reading primarily Ukrainian literature. I'll sign up at the tourist level, while hoping to move up to the ambassador level by the end of the year! Here is my current list of potential reads:

1. The Case of the General's Thumb / Andrey Kurkov -- set in Kyiv, though originally written in Russian.

2. The Master & Margarita / Bulgakov (ditto) I started this one when I was in Kyiv a few summers ago, but never did finish it.

3. Dead Souls / Gogol (ditto)

4. Wave of Terror / Theodore Odrach

5.READ: Warm the Children, O Sun AND/OR For a Crust of Bread

These are short story collections in the "Women's Voices in Ukrainian Literature" series by Language Lanterns

READ: Penguin Lost / Andrey Kurkov
Faithful Ruslan / Georgi Vladimov
Anna's Shadow / David Manicom
The Forest Horses / Byrna Barclay

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Challenge Roundup, 2010

I participated in a few challenges this year, and worked away at them, and amazingly I nearly completed most of them. Here is the roundup of the ones I was a part of, mostly for my own records. I like participating in challenges, as it forces me to read a little more widely, as well as giving me inspiration and new titles from the other participants' reading. I never pressure myself to finish them, but I do enjoy signing up and making those preparatory lists!

2010 Challenges

2010 Colourful Challenge: read 4/9 -- challenge was to read 9 books with a colour in the title

2010 What's in a Name 4: read 6/6 -- read a book with each of six specific categories represented in the title

2010 Clover, Bee & Reverie Poetry Challenge: read 4/5 -- read a certain number of poetry collections (I chose "Limerick" level = 5 books)
(updated titles)

2010 Short Story Challenge: read 5/5 -- read 5 short story collections
(updated titles)

2010 Our Mutual Friend: read 3/8 -- read 8 books, at least 4 written during 1837 - 1901. The other books may be Neo-Victorian or non-fiction

2010 Chunkster Challenge: read 3/3 -- read 3 books over 450 pages

2010 Science Book Challenge: read 2/3 -- read 3 books connected to theme of "Science & Nature"

2010 Flashback Challenge: read 3/6 -- Literati level, reread six or more books

2010 Emily's Attacking the TBR Challenge: read 18/20

Ongoing Challenges
Canadian Book Challenge: ongoing; the goal is to read 13 Canadian books between July 1st & July 1st -- my personal challenge was to read authors new to me. I've read 13 female authors, and 1 male -- my goal is read 13 of each by July 1st, 2011. And then sign up for the next one!

Seasonal Challenges

RIP V:Sept 1-Oct 31/2010 Read 4/4 -- read 4 books of any length with a spooky theme

Once Upon a Time 4: March 21 - June 30/2010

read 1/5 (lone title!)

Whew, that was a lot of challenge reading. But that won't stop me from joining challenges again for 2011 -- I find them entertaining even I do only half finish them. What about you?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Year in First Lines

And it is that time of year again, to do a blogging round-up by sharing the first line of every month. I always intend to be clever and witty in my first post of the month in order to look much smarter when I do this every December, but somehow by March or April I've forgotten all about it again. So I'll just have to expose myself as a very lacksadaisical poster ;)

The "rules" are simple: Take the first line of each month's post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year.

January: A Very Important Announcement for all my readers: Starting today, my blog signature is being changed from "Melanie" to Melwyk

February: I first heard of this novel [Things to make and mend] from a few British bloggers, and it sounded quite intriguing so when I found a copy locally I picked it up, intending to read it right away.

March: I read the first book by this author, An Embarrassment of Mangoes, quite a few years back and recall thinking it was okay, nothing special {ed. note: yikes! I must add that the book I am actually reviewing in that post was quite good}

April: It is April again, and to me that signifies Poetry Month more than anything else

May: Wow, got really busy there and just realized how terribly I've been neglecting my poor blog.

June: The New York Times has recently released its "20 under 40" list of hot young writers.

July: What great fun I had on my recent holiday reading this detective novel! [Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night]

August: This week's Meatless Monday post is a review of one of my favourite cookbooks. Enjoy! [How It All Vegan by Sarah Kramer & Tanya Barnard]

September: It's my favourite time of year...the beginning of Fall.

October: It's the beginning of October, my favourite month in the year.

November: "Why November exactly?"

December: Penelope Stevens is trying to puzzle out the meaning of her life in various ways.

There it is, from the big change at the beginning of the year, to procrastination in reading from the TBR, to being too busy to blog, to new features like Meatless Mondays, to book reviews of all kinds... pretty much sums up the year!

If you try this, please leave a link so we can all enjoy your first-line round-up as well!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all my readers!
May you have a peaceful, happy holiday with lots of family, fun and food!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blanche Howard + Smashwords = Fantastic!

So a nice early Christmas gift for all us readers... a FREE ebook offer (limited time), for an author I've enjoyed before. Here's a selection from the press release for Blanche Howard's Dreaming in a Digital World:

Vancouver’s Blanche Howard, 87, author of five novels and a memoir, has released her new novel Dreaming in a Digital World as an original e‐book. “This is an exciting time in book publishing and I want to join the revolution,” says Howard.

Having recently reviewed (and loved) Blanche Howard's 2000 book Penelope's Way, I was delighted to receive an email from her agent's office letting me know that her latest book is just being released, as an e-book only, through Smashwords. I've just heard about Smashwords so was eager to check this out. And of course, another book by Blanche Howard is good news for me! I don't have an e-reader so I'll see if I can cope with reading on my experiment all around.

The good news is, until January 15th, anyone can download this new book for FREE, thanks to the coupon code LZ25D provided by Howard's publisher. Give it a try and see what you think of her work -- do let me know if you give this a go, we can compare experiences!

Click on Dreaming in a Digital World and open a free account with Smashwords in order to use the coupon code and get your free copy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Queen of Hearts

Toronto: Groundwood, c2010.
206 p.

Tuberculosis was a terrible diagnosis even just a few decades ago. The infectious nature of the disease led to the growth of Sanatoriums, in which the diseased were quarantined while they went through their lengthy treatments (some were there for years). There was a Sanatorium in Saskatoon, abandoned by the time I knew of it, but the great hulking empty building always fascinated me and yet spooked me when I was a young teen. I never broke in to go exploring like others we'd heard about; simply looking at it from a distance was creepy enough, and I have a couple of photos from a series that an artistic friend of mine created before the building disappeared in 1990.

So when I received an ARC of this teen novel, set during wartime in a prairie sanatorium, I immediately sat down and read the whole book.

Brooks spent her childhood on the grounds of the Ninette Sanatorium in Manitoba, since her father was on the medical staff, and she has created the fictional Pembina Hills Sanatorium as the setting of this story. But her familiarity with such a place is clear. The setting and the relationships between the patients are both clearly drawn and very believable. Brooks details some of the more uncomfortable treatments, such as naked sunbathing, sleeping outside on winter nights so the cold air could help the lungs, or laying absolutely still unable to do anything at all, not even read. She also mentions some of the disfiguring and invasive treatments that bad cases could suffer.

The basic plot is this: It is 1940, on the prairies of Manitoba. Marie-Claire Coté is the eldest of three children, whose lovable Uncle Gerard shows up tired out from riding the rails trying to find work. His exhaustion and constant cold turn out to be TB, and he is taken off the to "the San". Sadly, he passes away there, and shortly after all three children are diagnosed with TB as well. They are sent off to the San, but it is segregated by gender and age and seriousness of infection, so all three are separated. This is one of the hardships of the treatment. Marie-Claire is the main character, and she develops a hard-won friendship with her roommate, Signy, who has been there for 7 years and is pretty much unvisited by her parents by this time (though she does receive elaborate gifts).

There are new relationships developed during the two years that Marie-Claire has to stay in the Sanatorium, both with Signy and one of the nurses who turns into a mentor, and with a teenage boy who was a patient as well. Alongside the isolation and restricted circle of the San, the story draws in world events, with the shadow of the war hovering, shown in letters that Marie-Claire and Signy exchange with soldiers who have gone overseas.

The story captures an historical moment that young readers may not be familiar with and it does so in clear writing that doesn't pull any punches, but yet is not graphic or gratuitously disturbing. The atmosphere of the book is one of hope, showing Marie-Claire's growth into an adult sense of responsibility and loyalty. Fans of the constantly ill and dying heroines of Lurlene McDaniel's books may enjoy this, and go away with a brighter sense of optimism and a new understanding of historical reality.

For more detail, Lucy Silag writes an excellent review in the Globe & Mail

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Trumpets Sound No More

Toronto: Rendezvous Crime, c2007.
248 p.

I read this mystery novel with great enjoyment. It is set in 1840 London, England, the week before Christmas, and circles around the world of the theatre. A perfect choice for me: seasonal and Victorian at the same time.

This is Redfern's second mystery novel -- his first was a contemporary story, but in this one all of his interests in Victorian theatre and in crime come together to create a complex story with shades of Dickens about it.

There's been a murder of a young and fashionable theatre manager, discovered on Saturday the 19th of December. Inspector Owen Endersby is given six days, only until Christmas Eve, to find out who the culprit was. Fortunately, Inspector Endersby is very resourceful, and he and his wife are already theatre fans and have some connections in that world -- which comes in useful. Endersby, like many Dickensian characters, deals with all levels of society, from actresses and coster girls to the wealthy and important patrons of the theatre and of the newly formed London Police force. Even without modern forensic methods like fingerprinting or blood analysis, he relies on a scientific, evidence based investigation, rather than simply arresting the most convenient suspect to make his superiors happy.

I liked the character of Endersby and his wife; they gave a very solid centre to the book. But Redfern doesn't shy away from presenting the members of the large cast as complex characters who have secret failings, from drug use to blackmail and usury. It was an entertaining mystery with a puzzling but not baffling line of clues -- I did guess 'who did it' but only a few pages before it was revealed. The setting really shines; Victorian London in all its glory and squalor comes to life in many small details. And the aspects of theatre life were especially interesting for me - I will recommend this to my actor friends. There are some minor characters who were particularly memorable, mainly the young actresses (and one young man) who are trying to make a living by going on the stage. Their lives are bleak but they live for the moments they can participate in the illusion of the theatre.

I am not sure if Redfern intends to write another book featuring this Inspector, but his character is deep and complicated enough to carry a series, if so. I hope I'll find out that another one is being written, but I don't know if it could match this marvellous combination of my favourite era and my favourite holiday, mixed in with the magic of the theatre. This one is well worth reading.

Jon Redfern was born and raised in Alberta. He has been a free-lance journalist for both the Toronto Star and The Globe & Mail, a story editor for the CBC and a children’s playwright. Jon’s first novel, The Boy Must Die, won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel in Canada for 2002. Since then, Jon has been researching and writing, teaching English as a professor at Centennial College in Toronto, serving for two years as the active Vice President, Toronto Chapter, of the Crime Writers of Canada, and traveling to Siena, Havana, and Madrid to attend conferences and continue research on up-coming writing projects. Jon lives in Toronto and in Waterton Lakes, Alberta.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Woman in White

Markham, ON: Penguin Canada, 1984, c1859-60.
648 p.

Yes, I freely admit, I hadn't read this book until just this fall! I love Wilkie Collins -- I've read many of his other works (Armadale is my favourite) but somehow I just hadn't gotten around to reading this specific one, the book that Collins himself preferred, so much so that he asked for "Author of The Woman in White" to be inscribed on his tombstone.

It was so worth it. I loved it. One of the things I really enjoy about Collins is his awareness of and focus on women's status in Victorian society. The Woman in White deals with the way in which women are reliant on men's money and men's wishes, both as a dependent daughter / niece / other female relative and even more so as a wife.

There are a few women who are vital in this story: Anne Catherick, the original 'woman in white' and Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. Ann is a mysterious wraith who first appears to Walter Hartwright when he is walking to London one night, and is the key to the entire mystery as the book goes along. Laura, who looks very much like Anne, ends up being married to Sir Percival Glyde on her dying father's wishes even though her personal preferences lead her more in the direction of Walter. And Marian is a fearless, staunch supporter of both Laura and Walter. Once Laura (a respectable heiress) becomes Lady Glyde, a new character is introduced to their lives... a shady Italian friend of Percival's, Count Fosco.

All these characters spin around each other in complex webs of deceit and desires. Marian's powerful personality is a more than a match for the excessively charismatic yet chilling Fosco. Laura herself is a little bland, but as the love interest I suppose she wasn't allowed to be too ornery or individualistic. The story is told in a series of discrete narratives -- Walter's experience, Marian's diary, letters and affidavits from varied bit players, and so on. This plethora of perspectives makes the story multifaceted and utterly absorbing. It remains an exciting thriller even today; and the treatment of the women involved and the lengths they have to go to in order to survive will make you livid.

Really, there is no need for me to describe the plot or the progress of the story. It is enough of a classic that most people likely have a vague idea of the outlines of the plot, and telling any more detail would ruin the thrill of the reading experience. What I want to share is simply that while long and involved, this is a great book with a sensational plot that will keep you turning pages, while also being full of social commentary and great characters. It's a classic that still has power to move us, to make us consider the plight of others and view our world differently.

Definitely enjoyable, lengthy read, perfect for the holidays when you have more time available to read and are in the Victorian mood.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Second Rising

Toronto: Blue Butterfly Books, c2009.
191 p.

This prairie girl was instantly sucked in by this cover. I love, love, love it! Plus this story relies heavily on food, cooking, and a grandmother's recipes. Really, Blue Butterfly Books, you don't need to try convince me any more.

This is a small book, only 4.5 x 7, and the print is not tiny. So in one sense it is a quick read. But in another, it is very slow, as it circles back on itself in repeated phrases, in broken up sections of text that don't flow with a fully forward-moving narrative thrust.

This characteristic of the text reflects the very subject matter, and it is an extremely successful interaction between the structure and the content of the story. We meet the narrator, who is the granddaughter of a much-loved, competent grandmother; but as we go along we realize that Alzheimer's is taking over the grandmother's life. Small things are being forgotten -- the procedures to long-familiar recipes, the way to the park, names -- but each forgetting is revealed with tenderness and a sense of sadness.

It is an elegaic story, full of references to memory and to loss and to what each of these mean. I had to read slowly, absorbing the slow progress of the disease and the changes in relationships within the family. Loss, both of memory and its connected sense of love and recognition, is the overreaching emotion in this very moving story. I was touched by the stately progression of the story, and the deep connection that the narrator had with her grandmother, mainly expressed through food and cooking.

Beautifully written, intensely moving, creatively constructed, this book was a surprise to me -- I hadn't heard anything about it before picking it up and was pleased by the physical object (nice cover, nice paper & font, handy size) and by the strength of the emotion in the writing. Here is a sample of the prose:

Your skin will not always fit so perfectly, she says. When you are old, it will sag with the weight of your memory, thoughts that used to be in your mind will seep out through your skin. You will try to catch them as they drip away, making memories from papers and photographs, re-sticking them to the walls of your mind. You will tell stories to others for the benefit of yourself, sure that this telling will make it stay, will make it brighter instead of faint.

Your words cannot save her, continued my mother, only remind you of what was before.

There are always endings, just as there are always beginnings -- both there for those who know (or care) to look. But it would be just as true, she said, to say that there are never endings or beginnings, that what you think is the end is really just the waiting place before you stumble over the horizon. And what you thought was the start of the story is only the place where you came in.

Really, an intense, hypnotic reading experience that brought me nearly to tears in parts. This was an excellent first novel, and a lucky find for me. Highly recommended to anyone interested in memory, the effects of Alzheimer's, or simply an emotional yet deeply respectful read.

Catherine M.A. Wiebe was born in the town of Simcoe, Ontario, and now lives, writes, and tries to recreate her grandmothers' food in Hamilton. She is a recent graduate of the Arts and Science Program at McMaster University, and has been writing (with a few other jobs on the side) since before her graduation.

** this book was printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper; cover stock contains 30% post-consumer fibre and is FSC certified. Energy used in production is offset by wind-power certificates.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On The Proper Use of Stars

On The Proper Use of Stars / Dominique Fortier; translated from French by Sheila Fischman.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2010.
269 p.

I picked up this book some time ago, seduced by the gorgeous cover (stars? tea? I am in!) Also wanted to read it for two more reasons: it is about the Franklin Expedition, a fascination of mine (as evidenced by my Polar Reading year) and because it is a translation from French - the author Dominique Fortier is from Quebec and the translator Sheila Fischman is the best in the business. All these things were pluses. So perhaps my expectations were just a wee bit high.

I liked it. I thought it was interesting enough, with really good writing and some nice twists in the tale. However, I did find it slow moving at the start, and maybe just because I've read so many, many books about the Edwardians and polar exploration, especially Franklin, I was hoping for something new. A new take on the story, something a bit different in the perceptions of the main characters or their motivations, their actions or their fate. And perhaps it delivered this kind of newness to French readers -- is there such a tradition of stories about these polar explorers in French? I don't know, as my French reading level stops at about grade four. (Please leave a comment if you do know)

It is a very English book, and maybe that is its triumph -- it is a French book which reads like British period fiction, very convincingly. The story is two-fold, moving back and forth between Franklin, Crozier and their crew stuck in the Arctic ice, and Lady Jane Franklin and her niece Sophia left behind in Europe. The double view we have of the tale -- seeing the fate of the expedition at the same time as we see the struggles of Lady Jane to get someone to express concern about the length of time they'd been away -- gives us a omniscient view of all the characters. Crozier is the real leader of the expedition, but he is homesick for a girl who doesn't dream of him. Sophia's concerns about marriage and the men who are not there versus the men who are seem a little bit vague; her connection to one of the men early in the book isn't exactly clear, and we have no real idea of who or when she will marry, or even what she thinks of it all herself. The structure of the book mirrors the separation of the female and male worlds in Edwardian England -- Lady Jane is clearly the more ambitious and capable Franklin, and yet it is Sir John who is lauded and sent off on another expedition that he doesn't seem fit for, according to the fictional journal of his second-in-command, Crozier. The two factions, men and women, exist in utterly different worlds in this story; tea parties and political angling back in England -- frostbite and gnawing on maggot-ridden hardtack in the Arctic. I did appreciate the way Fortier drew the parallels.

I suppose I wasn't overawed by this tale as it felt very familiar to me. All the action was foregone -- I knew the personalities and the progress of events, so I didn't feel as if I'd discovered anything newly fascinating. If you haven't read as much polar fiction, or are interested simply because of the topic or the author's technique, you may find it a great read. But I also have a well-documented dislike of the use of real characters in fiction, so that shaded my feelings about this tale as well.

For a story of arctic explorers gone from home for lengthy periods of time, while their various women proceed with their lives separately at home, I preferred Andrea Barrett's Voyage of the Narwhal. But I will be quite interested to see what Fortier writes next.

DOMINIQUE FORTIER was born in 1972. She holds a Ph.D. in literature from McGill University and is an editor and literary translator. On the Proper Use of Stars, her debut novel, was first published in Quebec in 2008 as Du bon usage des étoiles and was shortlisted for the French language Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Prix des libraires du Québec, the Grand Prix littéraire Archambault, and the Prix Senghor. It is being adapted for the screen by Jean-Marc Vallée.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Literary BFFs

I saw this fun meme over at Stefanie's first, who saw it at Litlove's, and Grad's and Iliana's. If you've done it too, please leave a link in the comments so I can take a peek!

I had to try it, as it caught my fancy and I've been thinking about it since I first saw it. Who would your top ten Literary BFFs be?

1. Anne Shirley I can't help it, Anne would be a true 'bosom friend' and I am sure I would have enjoyed being a child with her. Once she had all her children I don't know how much we'd have to talk about, but until then we'd have been great friends.

2. Emily Byrd Starr And in related news LM Montgomery's Emily would be a fascinating friend, with her quiet habits of thinking and writing and dreaming. I'd have liked to be friends with her from her childhood in Emily of New Moon all the way to her adult writer self by the time Emily's Quest finishes.

3. Lottie Wilkins Like Stefanie, Lottie -- from Enchanted April -- always seemed to me like such a positive, lovable, funny person to me. I'm sure she'd be very cheering to spend time with.

4. Cassandra Mortmain Cassandra (I Capture the Castle) is the diary keeper and general observer in her crazy family, who all live together in a crumbling castle. Her clever, bookish demeanor appeals; and I'm sure she really needed a good friend what with all the unrequited love and neurotic father issues she was dealing with.

5. Molly Gibson from Wives & Daughters would be an interesting friend! With her interest in science & medicine and in poetry, as well as her level-headed attitude, Molly could use a break from her charming, beautiful stepsister and elderly spinster acquaintances and just be able to hang out with other girls like her.

6. Precious Ramotswe from the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency would be a hoot to spend time with. Conversations with lots of excitement and insight into human behaviour, plus great swathes of time for tea: sounds like a recipe for friendship to me :)

7. Marion Holcombe from The Woman in White is a fearless and fiercely loyal friend to her half-sister Laura, sticking with her through thick and thin and outmaneuvering hardened criminals in Laura's defence. I'd love to have her on my side, too.

8. Amber Darke She's a nature lover, the 'plain' sister in Mary Webb's A House in Dormer Forest. Amber is a charming person who is utterly unappreciated by her strange and suffocating family. But her good qualities shine through; she would be soothing and inspiring to be around.

9. Amelia Peabody from Elizabeth Peters' Egyptian mystery series. Amelia can do anything, and make anyone else do anything she wants as well. Hopefully what she would want me to do, if we were friends, would be exactly what I wanted to do myself. Or I would be out of luck!

10. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane I would have to be friends with both of them, as I can not imagine them separately now. The company of these sophisticated, brilliant talkers might make me feel inadequate, but I would always learn something -- and they would be chummy and friendly, not snobby about any of their knowledge.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Bits and Bobs

I have a couple of books I want to talk about...when I have a bit more time... and before the holiday craziness begins. But, for today, just a few links for fun.

All the 'best of' lists are beginning to show up and it is so much fun to see what everyone is recommending. Try Largehearted Boy's huge roundup of tons of online "Best Of Everything" lists. And I've just recommended a few possible titles for gift giving on my other blog.

I am planning on doing my regular yearly round-up of favourites and challenges and so on, in a week or two. I always love doing the rounds of other bloggers at this time of year and building my own reading lists.

And for some hilarious bookish fun -- if you haven't seen these yet, which is probably a bit unlikely in our bookish circles -- my new addiction, the Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer. See his latest, a collection of Christmas gift "suggestions" ;)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Phantom Limb

Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, c2007.
169 p.

I read this book of fifteen personal essays a few weeks ago, but originally received it quite a while ago thanks to author Theresa Kishkan and the Canadian Book Challenge. It's a slim set of meditative personal writings mostly about the author's life in British Columbia -- the land, the people and animals in her life, and her musings about meanings.

I really, really liked it.

I don't read a lot of personal essays -- not by design, they just don't generally catch my eye in my regular reading. But this was a great book to change up my reading habits a bit. The tone of the book is slow. By that I mean, it makes you slow down and really appreciate each word. Kishkan is talking about the natural world, and about the things she observes about the wild animals and the trees and plants all around her. She also talks about relationships, living and dying and everything in between. I was moved, and shaken out of my rapid, shallow appraisal of the world around us that we can so easily fall into in a busy, urban life.

Each essay is a complete work on its own; this would be a book you could read slowly between other works. Read one, think on it a bit, then read another. The writing itself is clear and memorable, bringing to life small acts of everyday living, moments that matter in their specific smallness. Kishkan doesn't say that the woods are autumnal; she says that the broadleaf maple and the salmonberry bushes are losing leaves. She ties together the natural world and family cycles; she ranges from astronomy to quilting; she has a lovely essay about her time living in Ireland as a young woman. Some parts made me cry, some made me feel deeply comforted. It is a beautiful, honest book and I would recommend it to anyone with a sense of the importance of paying attention in your life.

Read a lovely, in-depth review at, with links in their sidebar to three of the essays from the book originally published in Terrain which you can read yourself to get a taste of Kishkan's writing. Give yourself a moment of peace and personal quietude by exploring one of her essays.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Penelope's Way

Regina: Coteau, c2000.
308 p.

Penelope Stevens is trying to puzzle out the meaning of her life in various ways. She talks with her oldest friends over coffees and potluck dinners, she takes a community college course called "Science for Seniors", she muses and reflects on all the elements of her past to draw out their significance. Her consideration of issues knows no bounds: her mind ranges from biology to social influences on gender, from societal violence to the love of husband, children and illicit lovers. Chance, randomness, cause and effect, Time...she ponders many Big Questions. She is a perspicacious and energetic questioner, and fortunately she is also able to leaven all this inquiry with a strong sense of the ironic and humorous in human relations. Her habitual walks around Vancouver allow for a strong sense of place to come through, and also allow her sharp observing eye to have lots of material to investigate.

The book is structured around Penelope's 70th year; beginning with November, each chapter covers a month's worth of mental, physical and social activity. She has two adult children whose sibling relationships are shifting, a young grandchild, and a group of very old friends whom she simultaneously likes and dislikes -- one of whom shuffles off the mortal coil during one of their regular potluck dinners. The novel deftly weaves Penelope's history and present circumstances into one singular present: as with most of us, the person in the mirror is a shock sometimes, when one still feels 18 or 25 and is met with a white haired person looking back. The vibrancy of Penelope's mind, the sharpness of her observations and the good-hearted optimism within which she operates all combine to make this a marvellous read. I loved it, and I know that the wide ranging subject matter that Blanche Howard has tossed in requires deeper reading -- a reread will be necessary. There is so much philosophizing and discussion of people at such different stages of life, and questions of personal agency in our own lives.

I found this book fascinating, for the wonderful characters, for the setting itself, and for the sweep of personal history that is included so naturally and comprehensively. The writing is assured, full of forward energy and amusement, while not being coy about any of the subject matter. I had only known Blanche Howard as a friend and collaborator of Carol Shields before I read this; now I have a feel for her style and clever writing, and will definitely be on the lookout for more.

Recommended, especially for anyone looking for a book about older women who are not dour or miserable -- rather, who have lived and are still living a full life of intellectual curiosity and engagement with the world around them. Lots of fun and such a congenial narrator!

Blanche Howard is an acclaimed, award-winning author of four novels, including The Manipulators, Penelope’s Way, and A Celibate Season which she co-wrote with Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields. (Blanche wrote the woman’s voice and Carol wrote the man’s voice.) She also documented a remarkable 30-year friendship with the late Carol Shields in A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Blanche Howard and Carol Shields.