Saturday, 30 November 2013

Book review: The Shining Girls

Wow.  Just wow.

I'm amazed at the mixed reviews that this book has received.  I loved it.

A time traveling serial killer.  A girl who survived his attack.  She tries to put her life back together and to put an end to his murdering ways.

I felt deliciously drunk on time, as the chapters changed POV and year, but all clearly marked by the title heading.  During the last several chapters, my feet were making little running motions and I kept checking to see how many pages of tension were left.  That's rare.

What is also rare?  The killer doesn't come off as sexy or overly intelligent or all that slick.  In short, he is not glorified at all.  And the women/girls are truly shining ones--shining with intelligence, potential and determination.

I would recommend this novel highly.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Book review: Russian Winter

My book club's selection for December.

I would recommend it for those who are really into ballet, as an aging Russian ballerina is one of the main characters.  Or for those who are really interested in life in the Soviet Union during Stalin's tenure.  The portrayal of life at that time felt really gritty and realistic to me, although its a time & place that I'm not really familiar with and an expert might disagree with me on that.

It would also be of interest if you have an inclination towards high-end jewellery or are intrigued by the workings of auction houses.  Another main character, Drew, works for such an auction facility and I enjoyed the research/writing aspects as she created the auction catalogue.

The third main character, Grigori, is a Russian language & literature professor with a personal mystery which brings him in contact with both of the above women.  As an adopted child, with a limited amount of information about his birth parents, he is struggling to find out more about his real roots.  This angle appealed to the genealogist in me.

Overall, a reasonably good book, but not likely one that I will ever return to.  However, I am always glad when my book club stretches me a bit, getting me to read outside my usual comfort zone.  3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Not really a book review: Give Me Everything You Have, by James Lasdun

It was interesting to read a man's account of having an obsessed woman to cope with in everyday life.  I know that it happens, because I know a woman or two who have slipped towards that kind of behaviour when they felt wronged (and they were mightily offended when I suggested that their actions were stalker-ish).

In my experience, more women suffer stalkers than do men.  If you haven't read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, I would urge you to do so.  Women need the reassurance he offers (its okay to be on high alert under certain circumstances) and men need to realize the challenges that women face on a daily basis.  We may live in the same society, but our realities have significant differences.  As Margaret Atwood once said, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid that men will kill them."  And this scenario is played out hundreds of times per week in North America by obsessed ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends.

There was a point in time a couple of years ago when I wondered what the hell had happened to my quiet life.  Suddenly I was surrounded by creepy guys no matter where I went.  At home, there was Creepy Smoking Guy in the next condo who was wayyyyy too interested in my life, plus Creepy Maintenance Man who can't seem to speak without making an inappropriate remark.  At work, there was Creepy Guy From Another Department who would spend wayyyy too much time standing around staring at me without saying a word.  At my volunteer position, there was Creepy Visitor who found me every week and started bringing me presents for no particular reason.  Thankfully, all of them seemed to lack the ambition or focus necessary to become stalkers--they were just creepers.  My sister, on the other hand, has had to deal with a serious stalker in her 20s and a stalker ex-husband in her 40s.  When you are in one of these situations, its really difficult not to become completely paranoid.  I'm pleased to report that CSG moved and I left my volunteer position and CV behind.  I'm still dealing with the other two, but I've got the creepiness in my world cut down by half.

In contrast, I'm struck by Lasdun's situation:  its his professional reputation that is one the line.  He worries about his physical safety or that of his family only tangentially.  It is his professional image that is being attacked and it is all done covertly on the internet.  Its the uncontrollable aspect that makes it such torture--if someone is showing up at your house, you can move.  If someone is shadowing your workplace, you can attempt to find a new job.  There are actions you can take.  But if you rely on the internet to provide your professional image, what the hell can you do?  There are very few concrete steps you can take, besides complaining to relevant web sites (as Lasdun did, getting Nasreen's reviews removed from Amazon) and explaining his unusual situation to his colleagues and potential employers.

I've been fortunate--when I reported to my volunteer co-ordinator that I was distinctly uncomfortable, he helped me make appropriate changes to my routine.  And my work supervisor promised to never leave me alone in the presence of the man whose behaviour concerned me.  I still have to check carefully before leaving my condo and sometimes take alternative routes, but I only have to watch for one guy now, not two.

Who would have thought, that a chunky, middle-aged woman would have to worry about crap like this?  I guess the main lesson is that stalking is not about attraction or sex, its about power.  Its about powerless people trying to find some kind of power by controlling the person that they are stalking.

Book review: The Dinosaur Hunter, by Homer Hickam

Read from Feb. 22 to 23, 2013

I found this book an excellent combination of mystery, paleontology, Montana and human relationships. Maybe because I come from a rural background, I really liked the depiction of the ranchers. To say they are rugged individualists would not be overstating it. It may (or may not, I haven't spent much time in Montana) be a reasonable characterization, but I know people who are very similar. That laconic style, where little is said, but much is figured out despite that. I found the paleontology to be well written (except for the flakey paleontologist in charge of the dig). In fact that's probably my biggest complaint--Dr. Pickford is a pretty dodgy dude and pretty lazy too. I have never known someone in charge of a dig to spent so little time working on it. And I don't think that any crew would actually follow someone like that either.

Was it entirely realistic? I'm not sure that the Russian mafia would actually end up in the ranch country of Montana, but it worked for me in this story. However, dig sites are not so easily found--three spectacular sites in one season? Not likely. However,when I briefly set down the book to get a cup of coffee this morning, I noticed that there was a fire truck in front of my condo complex--I never noticed it pull up. And when I returned to the book, I completely missed their departure too. Totally engrossed, I couldn't even bother to be a bit snoopy. And that's a rural habit too--keeping an eye on what your neighbours are doing!

This book hit all the high spots for me:   I was a horse-crazy kid, knew the names of all the dinosaurs by the time I was three, I love the outdoors and I adore murder mysteries. Throw in a vegetarian cowboy who is an ex-cop and it was like no mystery I had ever read before.

Review written in Feb. 2013. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Book Review : The End of Your Life Book Club / Will Schwalbe

When I heard Will Schwalbe interviewed about this book on CBC radio, I scribbled down the title and decided that I must read it.  He and his mother decide to be a book club of two and spend her final months of cancer treatment reading and discussing their selections.  Books were an important part of my relationship with my mother and I could relate to that.  In fact, for me, when my mother was killed, I quit reading entirely for a while.  Then there were long years of reading predominately non-fiction.  I couldn’t face fiction without her to discuss it with.

So I was a little envious of his ability to spend a concentrated amount of time sharing this activity with his mother.  They could see the end coming and managed to talk about so many meaningful issues through book discussions.  I’m sorry he wasn’t with her when she died—I missed my mother’s death, too, but I was with my Dad a few weeks later, and it was a moving and powerful experience.  

My book club agreed to add this book to our roster and we’ll discuss it tonight.  Two months ago, we read So Much for That by Lionel Shriver.  One member of the club has already asked for no more cancer books—we decided that next year will be the year of reading fluff, so hopefully the deadly illness books are in the rear view mirror now.  

The contrast between the financial situations in the Schwalbe family versus the fictional Knackers (in SMfT) was striking.  The haves and the have-lesses.  There was never any question of whether Mary Ann Schwalbe would get her cancer treatments—plus she could afford regular trips to Florida and Geneva to visit friends and family, not to mention paying for the treatment of someone that she meets in line at the hospital.  The Knackers are financially tapped out by Glynis’ cancer treatments—solvency is only regained by playing the system and running away to Africa.  

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who currently hates their career, either.  Will, who works for a publishing house at the beginning, is able to just quit his job and his life just goes on, apparently.  Very few of us have that option and it’s hard not to be just a teeny weeny bit jealous of his situation.  Even during the economic downturn of 2008, the Schwalbe family are very comfortable.  To Will’s credit, he does seem to involve himself in some other gainful adventures, but he also seems to have plenty of time to spend with his mother during her final months.

I enjoyed End of Your Life more that So Much for That—perhaps because Mary Ann’s treatment and death were so much less wrenching.  She and her family had plenty of time to come to terms with the situation and had the buffer of cash to make things nice.  Unlike Glynis Knacker, Mary Ann wants to spend time with the various circles of people in her life and doesn’t display much anger about her situation.  Both books do make me appreciate the Canadian health care system, where all of us get treatment closer to Mary Ann’s.  

I would recommend both books, although with caveats—don’t read SMfT without being prepared for its critique of the American health system and don’t read TEoYLBC if you have problems with well-off privileged folk.