Wednesday, 29 April 2015

You / Caroline Kepnes

4 out of 5 stars

When a beautiful, aspiring writer strides into the East Village bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he does what anyone would do: he Googles the name on her credit card.

There is only one Guinevere Beck in New York City. She has a public Facebook account and Tweets incessantly, telling Joe everything he needs to know: she is simply Beck to her friends, she went to Brown University, she lives on Bank Street, and she’ll be at a bar in Brooklyn tonight—the perfect place for a “chance” meeting.

As Joe invisibly and obsessively takes control of Beck’s life, he orchestrates a series of events to ensure Beck finds herself in his waiting arms. Moving from stalker to boyfriend, Joe transforms himself into Beck’s perfect man, all while quietly removing the obstacles that stand in their way—even if it means murder.

I believe that this is the first book that I’ve encountered written in the second person. It felt awkward at first, but I was soon so immersed in the story that it ceased to matter.

It is also unusual to be able to identify with a male stalker, but I found myself reluctantly doing that as well. The author managed to get inside his skin in a very believable way. I was also amused when he remembered his previous “girlfriend” (whom he had murdered) and her name was Caroline (the same as the author). I appreciated that darkly humourous detail.

I’ve read a bit of non-fiction about stalking, and this novel conformed very well to known behaviour of such people. To some extent I thought that Joe may be a bit more social than most stalkers, but he was also described by other characters as “intense” and his obvious disdain for those that he considered less intelligent was right on the button, as was his ability to lie without compunction and to make up stories on the fly.

In this instance, Joe chose a woman who gives his a run for his money—she is a conscience-free narcissist herself and leads him a merry chase.

Not recommended for those who have ever been pursued by the obsessed.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Shining / Stephen King

4 out of 5 stars
Jack Torrance’s new job at the Overlook Hotel is the perfect chance for a fresh start. As the off-season caretaker at the atmospheric old hotel, he’ll have plenty of time to spend reconnecting with his family and working on his writing. But as the harsh winter weather sets in, the idyllic location feels ever more remote . . . and more sinister. And the only one to notice the strange and terrible forces gathering around the Overlook is Danny Torrance, a uniquely gifted five-year-old.

First, let it be said, that I am a big CHICKEN. I don’t know why I thought I could read this book comfortably (after all, I just recently read Andrew Pyper’s The Damned and spent several days hiding in bed with the covers over my head). But so many people loooooove Mr. King’s work, and I had been lured into a false sense of security because I had no problems with another of his novels, The Stand. And the Guardian put it on their list of books that everyone should read…..and well, I should have known better. I should probably also be clear that I have NEVER seen the movie. I don’t do scary movies any more than I do scary books. Because I am a CHICKEN.

So, this was another one of those books that I could read only during bright daylight. Once the shadows started to lengthen, it was on to other novels for me. But, the days are getting longer right now, so I’ve been able to finish up quicker than I anticipated.

Now, let me say that I can fully see why people rave over Stephen King’s writing. I thought that Jack Torrance was a particularly well realized character. Gee, a struggling writer with an alcohol problem—where do you think King got inspiration for that? The rage and terror both that Jack struggles through (as a result of his own childhood experiences of domestic violence) were so believable—chillingly believable! As was the worry and terror of Danny, who never asked for this talent, this shining, and is too young to understand what to do with it. Wendy is not as well developed--the story obviously revolves around the father-son relationship, probably an issue for Mr. King, as he was 2 when his father abandoned his family. I think the most terrifying part of the book is the ability of Jack to rationalize what he is doing, to take a seemingly sensible decision and to twist it to fit his own damaged morality. It would be sensible to leave the hotel—but Jack will never get another job. It would be sensible to get Wendy and Danny out on the snowmobile—but they have no family support system to rely on. They are adults who know that ghosts aren’t real—until the ghosts are entirely too real and are running the show. And Jack, the little boy who wanted his abusive father’s approval, now wants the abusive phantoms’ approval just as badly. [Much superior to the cardboard cut-out people, very good or very bad, that populate The Stand.]

Just for the record, I love Dick Halloran. Talk about a knight- in-”shining”-armour, he is that rare and wonderful thing, a decent man. Even the less-than-likeable people are believable—I’ve met examples of some of them. King is masterly at creating people you can envision meeting.

I’ve been giving some thought to why this bump-in-the-dark stuff gives me such heebie-jeebies, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I am deeply conflicted. My rational self would like to think that “of course I don’t believe in the supernatural,” but my emotional self is a fence-sitter on this one. Not willing to rule out ghosts, not entirely willing to rule them in, either. (Do ghosts seen in dreams count? I’ve met several of those. But they’ve all been comforting.)

I’m looking forward to blunting the adrenalin a little bit, now that the book is behind me. To settle back into regular life and quit jumping at every little sound.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Buried Giant / Kazuo Ishiguro

The Romans have long since departed, and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. But at least the wars that once ravaged the country have ceased.

The Buried Giant begins as a couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen for years. They expect to face many hazards—some strange and other-worldly—but they cannot yet foresee how their journey will reveal to them dark and forgotten corners of their love for one another.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge and war.

This is only my second Ishiguro novel, the first being Never Let Me Go. I was intrigued at the repetition of one theme, that of needing to prove your love for someone. In NLMG, the cloned couple, Cathy and Tommy, believe that if they can just prove that they are really in love that they will be spared from the early death of having to supply organs to “real” people. In The Buried Giant, the elderly couple, Beatrice and Axl, believe that they must prove their love in order to pass over together to a (magical) island.

I was also intrigued with the theme of forgetfulness in The Buried Giant—the suggestion that we can only have peace if we forget all the events that we might hold against others. Is it easier to love someone if you cannot remember your past conflicts? And is that relationship worth losing your memory of all the positive events in your life too? The same questions apply to nations as well—would it be worth forgetting your history in order to achieve peace with your neighbours?

I work in the museum field which celebrates history, so I cannot advocate forgetfulness. In my opinion, it’s just as well that the magic available in The Buried Giant is unavailable in our world. We are made up of both the positive and negative events that have happened to us—even the painful ones contribute to who we become and help us to develop character. I wouldn't be myself without ALL of my memories.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Book Thief / Markus Zusak

4 out of 5 stars


1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.


It's a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.


I have found that reading from book lists is an excellent way to read outside my comfort zone. I think I have previously said that I usually avoid novels set during World War II. This year, I have read four novels (in four months) set in that time period. Three of them have been on recommended reading lists and I have been pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed them.

Told from the perspective of Death, who follows the story of a young girl in Germany during the war, this book is an important reminder of the hardships suffered, especially by the poor and by those who were not enthusiastic participants under the Nazis. So many of the books set during the war are told from the Allied viewpoint and we forget that there was suffering on the other side as well.

The Book Thief also appealed to my love of books and reading, which play such an important part of the novel. I read the book while at home with a cold—my only complaint was that I cried at the end, resulting in worse congestion than ever.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Tusk that did the Damage / Tania James

4 out of 5 stars

From the critically acclaimed author of Atlas of Unknowns and Aerogrammes, a tour de force set in South India that plumbs the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and, in a feat of audacious imagination, an infamous elephant known as the Gravedigger.

Orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition, the Gravedigger breaks free of his chains and begins terrorizing the countryside, earning his name from the humans he kills and then tenderly buries. Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer, loses his cousin to the Gravedigger’s violence and is drawn, with his wayward brother Jayan, into the sordid, alluring world of poaching. Emma is a young American working on a documentary with her college best friend, who witnesses the porous boundary between conservation and corruption and finds herself in her own moral gray area: a risky affair with the veterinarian who is the film’s subject. As the novel hurtles toward its tragic climax, these three storylines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature.

There are always multiple ways to look at any situation—this novel gives us three: the elephant’s point of view, the poacher’s, and the Western film maker’s. There is truth in all three. I was a volunteer natural history teacher for 17 years—you can take the woman out of the classroom, but you can’t take the teacher out of her. I immediately began recommending this book to the folks I know who are still manning the ramparts and educating the public.

The only viewpoint that is missing from this book is that of the consumer of ivory, for which the elephants are being poached. Without them, there would be no trade in elephant parts. And you may be shocked to learn that the illegal animal trade is right up there with the international drug trade and the illegal arms trade in the matter of market value. Truly, if we could stem the desire for elephant ivory and rhino horn, we might be able to save these charismatic mega-fauna. [And if we can’t save the super stars, like elephants, what hope do the smaller, more obscure species have?]

The poachers are often folk who live a tenuous existence, barely providing the basic necessities for themselves and their children. If you’ve studied psychology, you may remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—people need to have their basic needs met, and feel safe that they will continue to be met, before they can care about higher level ideals like wildlife conservation and biodiversity.

And if you were ever in any doubt that cultural sensitivity is necessary as a foreigner in a country on the other side of the world, this book will bring that lesson home. The film makers may think their film is about elephants, but it is also very much about the people whose lives intertwine, for good or ill, with those immense mammals.

Recommended for those who love elephants, who champion wildlife conservation, and for those who love India.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The World Before Us / Aislinn Hunter

4 out of 5 stars

When she was just fifteen, smart, sensitive Jane Standen lived through a nightmare: she lost the sweet five-year-old girl she was minding during a walk in the woods. The little girl was never found, leaving her family, and Jane, devastated. Now the grown-up Jane is an archivist at a small London museum that is about to close for lack of funding. As her one last project, she is searching the archives for scraps of information related to another missing person--a woman who disappeared some 125 years ago from a Victorian asylum. As the novel moves back and forth between the museum in contemporary London, the Victorian asylum, and a dilapidated country house that seems to connect both missing people, it unforgettably explores the repercussions of small acts, the power of affection, and the irrepressible vitality of everyday objects and events. 

Can you work in archives and museums and not be haunted by the past? Maybe it depends on what your own past conceals. Sometimes, when I am doing family history research, I feel like I have a cloud of ghostly companionship—perhaps even guiding me, getting me to notice certain things, pushing little thoughts into my head. Very much like the situation that Jane discovers herself in The World Before Us.

Haunted by the disappearance of a child she was minding when she was a young teen, Jane retreats into the archival world, dealing with papers and objects rather than people. In fact her ties to the world of people are rather tenuous—an absent father, a distant brother, an ex-boyfriend, her teenage crush on the father of the missing girl. Jane has gone missing too, but unlike little Lily, no one notices her absence. In fact, when Lily goes missing, no one even thinks to comfort Jane or let her know what was going on. She is as invisible as the ghostly presences which surround her.

This is the story of Jane finding herself through investigating another missing young woman, the mysterious N. who has disappeared from a Victorian asylum in the same area where Lily disappeared. By sorting out the stories of the people involved in that event, Jane finds the wherewithal to make a connection in the real world and to break out of her self-imposed exile.

Touching, well-written, rather dreamy in tone, The World Before Us shows us that there are patterns in life, which repeat, although never exactly. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Just City / Jo Walton

3 out of 5 stars

"Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent."
Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer's daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge,  ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

My second book this year in which the Greek gods play main roles as characters (the first being Kraken Bake by Karen Dudley).

Unfortunately, for me, I preferred the playful Kraken Bake to The Just City. Now I’ll confess at this point that I probably have read some Plato during my university education, but I don’t remember it at all. It made no impression on me. So I am not the target audience for this novel.

I do like the idea that the god Apollo decides to become human in order to learn things that mortals grok better than he does. And I can appreciate the messages of choice and consent which Walton emphasizes during the course of the book. I was amused when Socrates gets dragged into the whole situation and how much of a shit disturber he turns out to be. One person’s Utopia is another’s Dystopia. Who needs to consent to do what, and who gets to make the rules? Is biology destiny, as the women once again get stuck with the child care? What counts as intelligence—can machines become intelligent? How will we recognize when they do?

With apologies to Jo Walton (whose books Among Others and My Real Children were amazing), I just found this book overly serious and the messages really, really obvious. Serious issues were discussed very seriously. And, being based on Platonic dialog, there were copious discussions of things. I prefer a little more action and light-heartedness.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Back of the Turtle / Thomas King

5 out of 5 stars
In The Back of the Turtle, Gabriel returns to Smoke River, the reserve where his mother grew up and to which she returned with Gabriel’s sister. The reserve is deserted after an environmental disaster killed the population, including Gabriel’s family, and the wildlife. Gabriel, a brilliant scientist working for DowSanto, created GreenSweep, and indirectly led to the crisis. Now he has come to see the damage and to kill himself in the sea. But as he prepares to let the water take him, he sees a young girl in the waves. Plunging in, he saves her, and soon is saving others. Who are these people with their long black hair and almond eyes who have fallen from the sky?

Filled with brilliant characters, trademark wit, wordplay and a thorough knowledge of native myth and story-telling, this novel is a masterpiece by one of our most important writers.  

My first Thomas King novel, but undoubtedly not my last. When I started this novel, I was somewhat reluctant—reading something recommended, rather like taking medicine. Promised good results, but feeling it was a bit of a chore.

That feeling was completely gone within the first chapter. The cast of characters (and they are characters) are charming, even the poor CEO, Dorian, who I came to pity. The scientist, Gabriel, who obliquely caused an event known as The Ruin, comes home to the scene of the crime, intending to see the devastation he caused and to commit suicide. However good he may be at creating toxic substances (the ironically named GreenSweep), he is not very good at self-destruction. He meets a woman who used to live on the Smoke River Reserve that was closed after The Ruin (Mara), the keeper of the hotsprings who speaks in biblical phraseology (Nicholas Crisp), and a young boy who survives by salvaging items from the beach (Sonny).

You cannot help but care for all of these people, who are finding their way in the wake of the disaster, taking care of each other to greater or lesser extents. Their stories are in marked contrast to the CEO of the company which caused the disaster, Dorian who runs Domidion. King takes a lot of pokes at our current system of capitalism through the life of Dorian. One of Dorian’s main scientists has gone missing and can’t be found (that would be Gabriel). Two dams on tailings ponds in the Athabasca area have broken, releasing toxic sludge into the Mackenzie River system and eventually the Arctic Ocean. While investigating this disaster, the media learns of the defection of Gabriel and the connection to GreenSweep and the Smoke River Reserve—Dorian is only saved from disaster by the advent of a bigger news story. But his wife has left him and he is reduced to shopping to try to make himself feel better. We witness his random purchases—expensive ties, extravagant watches, exclusive scent. When he arrives home and is still sad, he attributes the feeling to the fact that he did not buy TWO watches, when really how many watches can one person wear? He truly is the poor little rich man.

Despite its very intelligent swipes at capitalism, environmental problems, consumerism and the like, this is a highly engaging, highly entertaining work which will leave you with a good feeling about the world. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Nora Webster / Colm Toibin

4 out of 5 stars
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself. 

Nora Webster is a young widow in 1960s Ireland. She is charming, formidable, weak, heart-broken, and grief-stricken by turns. In age, Nora falls between my mother’s and my grandmother’s generations—about the time that women were supposed to aspire only to being housewives and that men were in charge of the finances and the family. When her husband Maurice dies, she is left as sole parent to four children and provider to at least the two youngest. She has to find her financial feet and deal with the work-world, all while trying to find a balance that will work for her children.

The older girls are already into young adulthood and in many ways are more sophisticated than their mother. They have education, are involved in politics, and have social lives which they find engaging. Nora has been so subsumed in being a wife and mother, that she is unsure which direction that she truly wants to go in. We watch her navigate her new life and try to maintain some privacy in the midst of a village where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business.

If you’ve lived in a small community, you know how judgemental their members can be. You question all your decisions—is it all right to laugh? After all, you’re supposed to be grieving. Can you go out or appear to have some fun without getting labelled as not suitably grief-stricken? It’s often a catch 22—people are often impatient for you to get over your grief, but also willing to judge if they think you are getting over it too quickly. In the end, you must do as Nora does—do what you want and let others think what they will. She rediscovers her love of music and singing, realizes that she can now decorate her home to her own taste, and generally becomes the captain of her own destiny.

The novel is a hopeful one—grief can be lived through, life can go on, and happiness can be regained, albeit in a much different life. 

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Damned / Andrew Pyper

3 out of 5 stars
Danny Orchard wrote a bestselling memoir about his near-death experience in a fire that claimed the life of his twin sister, Ashleigh, but despite the resulting fame and fortune he’s never been able to enjoy his second chance at life. Ash won’t let him.

In life, Danny’s charming and magnetic twin had been a budding psychopath who privately terrorized her family—and death hasn’t changed her wicked ways. Ash has haunted Danny for twenty years and now, just when he’s met the love of his life and has a chance at real happiness, she wants more than ever to punish him for being alive—so she sets her sights on Danny’s new wife and stepson.

Danny knows what Ash really wants is him, and he’s prepared to sacrifice himself in order to save the ones he loves. The question is: will he make it back this time?

I had to set some boundaries for myself with this book: no reading after dark. Seriously. It made me crazy. Why does a supernatural element in a story make me into a crazy woman? I can read true crime, all about serial killers and even the gruesome details of what all they did. I can read all about forensics and autopsies while eating lunch. But throw some supernatural aspect into the story and I am reduced to hiding under the covers and praying for morning. That said, I did like the book and as much as it scared the poop out of me, I had to read to the end to see how it all got resolved.

What if you had a twin sister? Who was a psychopath? Who controlled your life and everyone in your family? And who saw no reason to stop controlling all of you after her death? What if you almost died when she did, but returned to life after a near-death experience? You’ve seen the afterlife (The After) and written a best-selling book about it, but you have nothing in this life that makes you happy. Until you meet the love of your life.

This book is all about what Danny is willing to do for love. To what lengths will he go to keep his new wife and stepson? How is he going to break the link between himself and his twin, Ash? Thankfully, most of us don’t have to make this kind of decision—mostly we have to decide issues like am I willing to move to be with my beloved? Can I be a decent step-parent? Am I willing to sell/rent out my house and maybe sell my furniture? Am I willing to possibly have to divide my assets with this person at some undetermined point somewhere in the future? (Can you tell that I’m not a romantic?)

Well told and gripping, but it’s only getting three trembling stars because I am reading outside my genre comfort zone.