Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Impostor's Daughter by Laurie Sandell

Most of the books I review are borrowed from the Edmonton Public Library. Sometimes I blog about books that I purchase (my favourite bookstores are Audrey's and Greenwoods). This is the first time I've written about a book that I got free from a publisher (Hachette) and it is thanks to a give-away offer on Avis' delightful She Reads and Reads blog. I was really excited to get it in the mail, but I'm not sure that I'll want more review copies. Feeling obliged to review a book in "payment" for a free copy does not sit well with me - even though I enjoyed reading it.

Laurie Sandell is a journalist who has interviewed a great number of celebrities. Her most intriguing subject, however, is her own father. He had immigrated from Argentina to the U.S.A. as a young man. He enthralled his children with amazing stories about his life experiences before his job as an economics professor. Sandell idolized her father, but as she grew older, she began to wonder about his stories and his very odd quirks. In her search for truth, Sandell uncovered shocking secrets about her family and also realized the extent of her father's mental illness.

Sandell's graphic novel style reminded me of two other full-colour memoirs: At a Crossroads by Kate Williamson and Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto. Another readalike - with a similar quest by a daughter to understand her father - is You'll Never Know by Carol Tyler. The Impostor's Daughter is a compelling coming-of-age story.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

Mei Wang is officially an information consultant, because in Beijing in the late 1990s it is illegal to operate a detective agency. Uncle Chen, an old friend of her mother's, asks Mei to find a piece of jade that may be surfacing on the black market. Mei's investigations turn up more than she expected; secrets from her own family history.

Beijing-born author Diane Wei Liang wonderfully evokes the chaotic setting and complex culture of modern China. The relationships between Mei and her family and friends are also very well developed. Liang's writing style combines dialogue that moves the story forward with lyrical passages: "Night was like a magic brush, blacking out all the ugliness so that the hour of love and longing could unfold." Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely

In his earlier book, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely looked at biases that lead consumers into making unwise decisions. His new book's subtitle - The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home - explains the shifted focus in The Upside of Irrationality.

"Some of the ways in which we are irrational are also what makes us wonderfully human (our ability to find meaning in work, our ability to fall in love with our creations and ideas, our willingness to trust others, our ability to adapt to new circumstances, our ability to care about others and so on)." Understanding the forces that drive our actions can help us to make better decisions in our lives. Ariely's advice is to "Ask questions. Explore. Turn over rocks. Question your behaviour, that of your company, employees, and other businesses, and that of agencies, politicians and governments." Enquiring minds unite!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Discord's Apple by Carrie Vaughn

In a near-future world of increasing terrorism, military action and consumer shortages, Evie Walker writes comic books for a living. She travels from Los Angeles to the sleepy town of Hope's Fort, Colorado, because her widowed father is dying of cancer. While the Kremlin is obliterated by Mongolian bombs and the U.S. waffles on whether to side with Russia or China in the ensuing world war, Evie battles with her emotions regarding her stoic father.

Evie also learns a family secret that has been kept for thousands of years; the Walkers have been designated as guardians of the Storeroom. The room in the basement had been forbidden to Evie when she was a child. With her father's death imminent, Evie must take his place. Mythological folk show up at the door, making demands, asking for magical items from the Storeroom.

Stir together the myths of ancient Greece, Arthurian legend and European folk tales into a modern setting and you've got Discord's Apple. The story falters in the final two chapters, but I recommend it anyway. Without giving away the ending, it is safe to say that there will be a special appeal for readers who like romance. Readalikes: American Gods (Neil Gaiman); Gods Behaving Badly (Marie Phillips); The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemisin) and The Book of Lost Things (John Connolly).

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Liz is an entomologist studying monarch butterflies on the shores of Lake Erie in southern Ontario. She lives in a fieldstone farmhouse that has been in her family for generations, although most of the farmland has been sold over the years. Every summer while Liz was growing up, she and her mother used to travel from their home in Toronto to spend two months at the farm. The place was like her second home and Liz's cousin Mandie, two years younger, was her best friend.

The story opens with Mandie's funeral; she died in Afghanistan during a tour of military duty. Grief over the loss of her cousin opens old wounds for Liz. She addresses her narrative of memories to a particular person, identified only as "you" until the denouement. Liz's story of her extended family centers around Mandie's charismatic and mentally unstable father and the event that caused him to abandon his family when the girls were in their mid-teens. Teo, a child of one of the Mexican fieldworkers who came to the farm every year, is also part of the story. He and Liz were the same age and they both felt somewhat apart from the other kids.

It is this quality of aloofness or reservedness that is a distinguishing mark in Jane Urquart's fiction. Another reader told me she found Urquart cold, but I am fascinated by characters like Liz who protects her heart so fiercely.

Sanctuary Line is a quiet story with vivid characters and an excellent evocation of time and place. It is on the long list for the Giller Prize. Readalikes: The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys and Crow Lake by Mary Lawson.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

I love good writing about relationships and that is what I found in Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth. The stories are about the lives of Bengali immigrants in the U.S., yet they have a universal appeal. The links between parent and offspring, between siblings or roommates, and husband and wife are explored delicately and with insight. The stories are also about healing and forgiveness, the qualities that help get us through the pain of loss and the hurts we inflict on the people closest to us.

Sarita Choudhury and Ajay Naidu perform the Random House audio edition (10 hours) and their alternating male and female voices make this a very pleasant listening experience.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Georgia's Kitchen by Jenny Nelson

As part of my ongoing pursuit to find romantic fiction that I like, I read Georgia's Kitchen by first-time author Jenny Nelson. Reasons I thought I'd like it: it's about a woman chef and it's partly set in Tuscany. Which are the same reasons that I did enjoy it, plus the characterization of Georgia, the 33-year-old central character, and her relationships with lots of different people in her life.

I didn't love all the romantic angst, but that part didn't put me off the book in the way it might have if I was less hooked on other elements. The main hook was the inside view of what goes on in restaurant kitchens. I was also cheering for Georgia in her search for self-confidence and self-acceptance.

I also didn't love the many mentions of luxury brands and expensive New York City shops. (I'm dubious about the ability to tell that a business card was printed at a certain stationer just by the heft and sheen of the paper.) This name-dropping seems to be unavoidable in chick lit. The frequent references to Georgia's frizzy hair annoyed me too, since I got it the first time; her hair is difficult to control. Once would have been enough, but it was closer to once every chapter, usually with a frizz rating. Except for chapter 20, where we hear about a friend's hair for a change - "Her black hair hung in ropy, dreadlike chunks, completing the boho-chic look she was currently cultivating. The coif had probably set her back three hundred bucks at her chichi Madison Avenue salon."

Everything wraps up neatly for Georgia (and her hair) at the end. Food, friends, fiance, job hunting, single life, a faithful dog, New York, Italy and a happy ending. What else do you need?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

In one of the book clubs that I belong to, the only criteria we have for choosing books is that they be written by women. Booker prize nominees tend to foster good discussion, so I thought it would be safe to suggest Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs. Then, when I started reading it, I had the sinking feeling of having chosen badly (and how that would reflect upon me in the group). The opening scene involves the spontaneous, luxury purchase of a new dress. A book about shopping? Uh oh.

The book is not shallow, as I had initially feared. An article of clothing plays a crucial role in the plot, but revealing what garment it is would be a spoiler for anyone who hasn't read it. It is about Vivien Kovacs, a child of Hungarian immigrants, growing up in London, unaware that her parents are Jewish. She has one uncle, also living in London, about whom she knows very little, except that he served time in jail for being a slum landlord. Vivien craves information about her family history, and so she visits her uncle Sandor without her parents' knowledge.

The book group's discussion of this novel was long and lively. We were especially intrigued by the differences and animosity between two brothers raised in the same family and who had experienced similar hardships in World War II. The relationship between Vivien and her mother was also very interesting. I was pleased, in the end, to have chosen this novel.

The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant

Even though I enjoyed Linda Grant's novel, The Clothes on Their Backs, I felt a resistance to reading her collection of essays, The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping, and Why Clothes Matter. It was the part about the pleasures of shopping, I think, that gave me pause. I'm not very fond of shopping for anything. I like to know in advance what I want, find it quickly and then get out of the store.

I'm not much into fashion, either, so I didn't know if I'd be able to relate to Grant's text. I was wrong. I liked seeing the root of themes and ideas Grant used in her fiction, such as "In the worst circumstances of your life, if you are left with nothing, the last nothing you own are your clothes." Another good point is this: "Society will allow you to starve to death and not lift a finger, you can die for want of medical attention, but you will not be allowed to go about naked." Police will come, put a blanket around you, and take you away.

Some pieces held my interest more strongly than others, especially those about Catherine Hill, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau who came to Canada as a refugee after the war. "Thoughtful" is a good word to describe this book.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Anthropology by Dan Rhodes

And now for something completely different. A collection of the shortest short stories ever - just a few sentences long, or less than 100 words - describing bizarre straight relationships and told in first person. A girlfriend who uses his gift of a knife to carve herself a new boyfriend. A girlfriend so beautiful he feels he must parade her photo around the town square. A girlfriend with three ugly children. A girlfriend who squats in the street, begging. I found myself wondering why I continued to read one after another - I just couldn't stop. It was kind of like sweet-tart candy that I'll continue eating even when my tongue gets sore. They are freakish stories that illuminate the freakish nature of the human heart.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Too Bad by Robert Kroetsch

In Robert Kroetsch's recent collection of lyrical poetry, Too Bad, he explores the many facets of his emotional life with humour and warmth. He warns us, "This book is not an autobiography. It is a gesture toward a self-portrait, which is a very different kettle of fish."

Kroetsch's unvarnished approach is part of his charm: a horse's ass is not a petunia. "To hell with plastic surgery. We've come to like the scars." He can laugh at himself, "insanely happy" to bask in the brief sun of summer in Cottage Season. ("Robins come back. They build their nests / in blowing snow.")

If you are in Edmonton tomorrow, September 14, you can catch Robert Kroetsch reading at Leva Cappucino Bar at 6:30 pm.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Anita Blake Vampire Hunter: The First Death by Laurell K. Hamilton, Jonathon Green and Wellinton Alves

It wasn't a good idea to read this graphic novel adaptation of Laurell K. Hamilton's witchy vampire killer episodes immediately after Justin Cronin's The Passage. Anita Blake just isn't as kick-ass powerful as The Passage's uber vampire killer, Alicia Donadio. It really isn't fair, though, to compare these two very different books. A better match for Hamilton's simmering romantic tension between Anita and a dangerous guy she meets might be found in Robin McKinley's Sunshine. The deal-breaker for me, however, was the stupid curl of hair always hanging in front of Anita's face (in artwork by Wellinton Alves). It got even more annoying when the master vampire, Jean Claude, came on scene with an identical stray lock. Is it too much to ask that a murder investigation with bloody crime scenes not be upstaged by unruly hair?

The Passage by Justin Cronin

I don't need to say much about a book that's a huge bestseller and has already received a lot of promotion... except that the hype has substance behind it. It's unlike any other vampire story I've read and definitely the best vampire story I've read. The young heroine with special powers and the mood and feel resembles that in Santa Olivia, which I reviewed recently. The scope, however is far more vast than Jacqueline Carey's novel. The Passage is 766 pages of post-apocalyptic adventure told in an epic saga spanning more than a century. Be forewarned that it may keep you up reading late into the night.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tinkers by Paul Harding

"Tinkers is about the legacy of consciousness and the porousness of identity from one generation to the next. At once heartbreaking and life affirming, it is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature." - from the book jacket of this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. Marilynne Robinson says, "Tinkers is truly remarkable." A review somewhere else compared the writing to Annie Dillard's style.

All this sounds fabulous - a good match for my reading tastes - but I couldn't get past one hour of the audiobook version. (It's less than 5 hours in total, unabridged.) It wasn't Christian Rummel's fault; he did a fine job of reading. The story itself was only mildly interesting. There are some kinds of stories that just don't work for me in audio. This is one of those. I need to ingest the words at a speed only possible in silent reading. So Tinkers has gone back to the library and now an audiobook of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri has me mesmerized every time I put the headphones over my ears.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods

Bonobos are a kind of ape that share 98.7 of their DNA with humans. Chimpanzees are also very close to humans in their makeup, but they are scary. Beyond the age of 5, chimps become too unpredictable and prone to violence to be used in Hollywood films. By the age of 7, a chimpanzee is stronger than any human man. Vanessa Woods reports on some horror stories involving testicles ripped off men and tossed away, noses bitten off and disembowelment.

Unlike chimpanzees, bonobos live in female-led communities and are all about peace. And sex. Lots of sex, starting from babyhood. Every kind of sex, including lesbian, gay, intergenerational, missionary position and masturbation... they do it all. Bonobos prefer hugging, kissing and sexual activity over violence to relieve stress. Sex is a bonobo handshake.

Bonobos are an endangered species. The only place they live in the wild is in one forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Woods (who is Australian) and her husband (an American) travel to Congo to do research at a bonobo sanctuary. In a country devastated by war, they hope to learn secrets of bonobo physiology. Can humans learn to behave more like bonobos and less like chimpanzees?

Justine Eyre was an excellent narrator for the Tantor audiobook edition (8.5 hours). Be prepared for some very disturbing passages regarding war crimes against women and children. Woods weaves factual background information about Congo in with her feelings and memoir-like passages, which keeps the overall tone from becoming too heavy. It ends on a hopeful note regarding the survival of bonobos.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Instructions by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

Instructions is a poem about what to do if you find yourself inside a fairytale. "Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story." Illustrations by Charles Vess give it the look of a classic. It would make a good gift for someone embarking on a journey: starting school; graduating; moving to a new job or city; getting married or having a child. It is suitable for readers of all ages.

A lovely recording of Gaiman reading the book, complete with Vess's artwork, is available here.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

Not all urban fantasy is set in a city. The small town of Santa Olivia was once part of Texas, but is now in a military buffer zone between the U.S. and Mexico. (The setting reminded me of that in Nancy Farmer's House of the Scorpion.) A large army base was built nearby and the civilian residents of Santa Olivia are forbidden to leave, even decades after the buffer zone was created. Life is very tough for them, strictly controlled beneath the military's boot. What the people of Santa Olivia need most is hope, and this is what they get when a young woman takes on the role of an avenging angel-saint.

Loup Garron's father was a wolf-man; genetically modified to be faster and stronger than normal human beings. He was on the run from either government scientists or the army or both when he came through Santa Olivia. Loup has inherited her father's gifts, but she must hide them or risk being taken away by whoever was after her father.

Loup is such a great character, with amazing physical abilities, a total lack of fear and a strong sense of justice. She also has a passionate love affair with another young woman. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Say the Word by Jeannine Garsee

The word that Shawna Ghallagher refuses to say is 'lesbian.' Her mother abandoned her and her father in order to be with her new love, Fran. In the years since then, Shawna has barely seen her mother, who has made a life with Fran and two sons. Then, she gets a phone call from Fran: her mother is dying.

Shawna has always strived to be perfect, but when her mother dies, there are so many hard choices. She is torn between pleasing her controlling father and doing what her heart tells her is the right thing. The path to perfection is no longer clear.

Psychologically-complex characters struggling with thorny issues make this an emotionally engaging coming-of-age story.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ciao Italia Five-Ingredient Favorites by Mary Ann Esposito

My sweetie and I hardly eat out anymore because we prefer our own cooking. Meals, including breakfast, are often some variation of sautéed vegetables with rice or pasta. Sometimes it's fun to try new recipes and, working at a library, I am spoiled for choice of cookbooks.

I've never watched Mary Ann Esposito's Ciao Italia television show, but the subtitle - Quick and Delicious Recipes from an Italian Kitchen - had me hooked. My fond memories of travelling in Italy always include the fabulous food. Plus, usually by the time I think of preparing a meal, I'm already hungry, so the "quick" part of the title sounds good too.

Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Roasted Vegetables has already become part of my standard repertoire. The first time I made it, however, I had to triple the suggested roasting time. (This didn't surprise me; I didn't expect them to be tender after 10 minutes, even though I chopped them smaller than instructed and used a higher oven temperature.)

Another recipe - Garlic, Oil, Walnut and Pecorino Sauce - seemed so out-of-proportion that I altered it without hesitation. It was supposed to dress a pound of linguine and called for 1 cup of olive oil, 2 cloves of garlic, 1/3 cup parsley, 1/2 cup walnuts and 1/4 cup grated pecorino cheese. I halved the oil and doubled the other ingredients and it was perfect. Then, I noticed a very similar recipe - Linguine with Walnut Sauce - in another section of the book. It called for 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 1/2 cups walnuts, 4 cloves of garlic and 1/2 cup of parsley served with 1 pound of linguine. The absence of cheese doesn't make the second recipe very much different from the first (aside from the proportions of each ingredient); it therefore seems an oversight to have them both included.

If you are an experienced cook who doesn't follow recipes so much as use them for inspiration, then this book will satisfy a craving for good Italian food.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How I Made It to Eighteen by Tracy White

"This is the story of what happened to me when I had a nervous breakdown at seventeen." Tracy White's simple line drawings and spare text create a very readable account of a messed-up teenager. She has switched her name to 'Stacy Black' and also given her friends pseudonyms. Four of these friends make regular appearances throughout the book, answering interview questions. Their cameos are a good counterpoint to the main story, set in a hospital. Flashbacks are made visually clear by presenting those panels on a grey background. It's a quick read, but her story is memorable. Readalikes: Perfect Example (John Porcellino); At a Crossroads (Kate Williamson) and Inside Out: A Portrait of an Eating Disorder (Nadia Shivack).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi covers about 15 years of his life story, starting in 1945 when he was 10 years old. Tatsumi chose to alter some names in the book, most notably his own. He calls himself Hiroshi Katsumi.

It was nice to pair reading this book (at work during breaks) with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (at home). A double dose of Japanese culture. Tatsumi’s illustrations of himself stepping up into his family home’s doorway and sliding the paper screens shut between rooms were exactly how David Mitchell described Nagasaki architecture in the 19th century.

Tatsumi’s depictions of custom and dress are delightful too. For example, Hiroshi bows in apology to someone to whom he is speaking over the telephone. In another panel, a publisher sitting across a table from Hiroshi bows towards him in thanks while still in a partly seated position. Traditional wooden clogs were apparently still very commonly worn in the 1950s.

I also learned that censorship opposition to comics was not restricted to North America. In 1960, an organization of Japanese bookshop owners, in cooperation with police, attempted to eradicate “immoral books.” Their definition of immoral included "any book with pages, two thirds or more of which is without text."

Even if, like me, you don’t have a special interest in the history of manga, there is much to enjoy. The depth in this autobiography comes from the portrayal of the artist’s passion for his work and his efforts to overcome selfdoubt.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

In 1799, a young accounting clerk disembarks at Nagasaki to begin a five-year stint for the Dutch East Indies Company. The trading company's warehouses and crew quarters are on Dejima, a small island connected to the city by a short bridge. Japanese guards are posted at the gates to Dejima and access is strictly controlled in both directions. It is an era when Japan was still tightly closed against foreigners.

Jacob's job is to untangle ledgers that hide evidence of corruption in the highest levels of the company ranks on Dejima. This does not make him popular, to put it mildly. Life for Jacob soon becomes even more difficult as dramatic events unfold. It's a good thing that he has a strong moral conscience and stout courage. It is his heart that is Jacob's greatest challenge; he falls in love with a Japanese woman who studies medicine on Dejima.

The intricate cast of characters, the fascinating setting, the complex plot that includes evil practices at a secretive Japanese shrine -- all of these combine in a fabulous story. A very rewarding read.