Sunday, May 31, 2009
Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Reasons for reading: have been meaning to; 2004 Carnegie Medal winner for Book Awards Challenge
Description: "Two bothers, Damian and Anthony, are unwittingly caught up in a train robbery during Britain's countdown to join the Euro. Suddenly finding themselves with a vast amount of cash, the boys have just one glorious, appalling dilemma how to spend it in the few days before it becomes worthless. Torn between the vices of buying a million pizzas and the virtues of ending world poverty, the boys soon discover that being rich is a mug's game. For not only is the clock ticking the bungling bank robbers are closing in. Pizzas or World Peace, what would you choose?"
First line: "If our Anthony was telling this story, he'd start with the money."
My thoughts: What a very different book! It has one of the strongest, sweetest, oddest narrative voices I've come across in a long time, in either adult or children's fiction. Damian is a very strange, smart, different, loving boy - he's obsessed with saints to the point that he's visited by them and tries to emulate their lives and he always tries to be very good because he's worried that his father will leave if he's not (after his mother died, people told him to be good for his father and this planted a terrible seed of abandonment in him). His older brother Anthony seems to be a much more practical boy - his obsession is real estate and commerce in general.
The general message of the book is pretty obvious - money can't buy happiness and can actually cause misery. As the boys try to spend the money but keep it a secret from their dad, they basically devalue the pound on their school playground as they give away cash for favours and possessions. They can't enjoy the stuff they buy, because they have to hide it. And, of course, all kinds of people come out of the woodwork looking for it, including the man who originally stole it. Damian also has to learn the hard lesson that you can't help everyone, no matter how much money you have and how hard you try..
The story of the 3-man family trying to put itself back together while grieving, Damian's visions and strange behaviour, and the brothers' relationship fleshes out the story well beyond the initial message. The saints' visits often help Damian, though he doesn't always understand their cryptic messages. An appearance by St. Joseph at the nativity play is a highlight. Through Damian's eyes, we see every new dilemma in a naive, hopeful, and clever-in-his-own-way light.
I think I'd like to see the movie based on the book, directed by Danny Boyle. I hope they got a great kid to play Damian.
The only thing that I can't quite get past is that I can't figure out if the central plot point - that the British government burned hundreds of thousands of pounds - is in any way true. As far as I can tell, the pound is still very much legal tender and I can't find anything online that would indicate it actually happened. Still, even if that part's fictional, it makes for a great what-if story.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Reasons for reading: have always meant to; Sci Fi for the Genre Challenge; 1963 Newbery Medal-winner for the Book Awards Challenge
"Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I'll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract."
First line: "It was a dark and stormy night." [Really, that's it!]
That said, I did like the overall message of love being the greatest force in the universe. There's a forward by Anna Quindlen that points out that the creepy sameness of the bad planet they travel to was a reaction against Communism, which was pretty interesting, although it adds a bit to the dated feeling. Although I guess North Americans always tend to struggle against conformity, whatever its form.
The book is one of the ALA's top 100 most-challenged books, apparently because of L'Engle's "liberal" Christianity and its references to witches (of which there are none in the book) and crystal balls. I always love the challenges to books - if putting Jesus on the same list as great artists and writers is all you've got to complain about, you're not looking hard enough and have way too much time on your hands.
The verdict: Not really my bag but I can see why it's a classic. And even if I found the tone a bit dated, the message never gets old.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Jars of Glass by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler
Reasons for reading: I really liked the authors' two previous books; Young Adult Challenge
Description: "Teenage sisters Chloe and Shana recall fondly the days when their mother wove stories about kingdoms under the sea. Now that Mom is "away," Chloe does not allow herself to believe in fairy tales. She is too busy caring for her adopted brother, Micah, because Dad has become withdrawn. Shana copes by escaping every night under the cover of Goth garb. The day the family visits Mom for the first time is the day Chloe learns why Shana will never allow their mother to return. It is up to the sisters to pull together and form a new definition of family."
First line: "I think there are these lies that we tell each other."
My thoughts: I enjoyed the authors' previous novels, Scrambled Eggs at Midnight (which I loved!) and Dream Factory more than this one. In the previous books, the alternating chapters were boy-girl and this worked much better than the two sisters in this book - I found that Chloe and Shana's voices weren't all that different.
But this book is still a compelling read that shows how a happy family can be turned completely upside-down through no fault of its own. There was no magic cure at the end that allowed them to live happily ever after. Their mother's illness affects everyone differently. The girls' father becomes a father in name only - he starts drinking, smoking, and ignoring his business and children. Shana wants to get out of the sad house and finds that her only escape route is to hide under layers of Goth makeup and go out with new friends. With an absent father and sister, Chloe is left to look after Micah (an adopted Russian orphan who has nightmares, doesn't understand much English, and copes by eating huge amounts of sugar). Chloe's in a bit of denial about her mother's condition, but she knows that she doesn't want to end up like her, so she gives up the artistic talents she shares with her mom.
The novel finds the girls trying to cope with the approaching visit of Micah's social worker, their father's neglect and depression, life in a new town, and the ever-present cloud of their mother's illness. I liked that the girls were each able to find their own new friendships and also, after a lot of fighting and misunderstandings, come together again as sisters. Their story doesn't necessarily end with a happily-ever-after, but there's at least some hope.
The verdict: While more distinction between the sisters and a sooner explanation of the horrible thing their mother did would've been welcome, this is still a well-written novel about the collateral damage of mental illness and the bonds of siblings.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Masquerade: a Blue Bloods novel by Melissa de la Cruz
Reasons for reading: I enjoyed the first book in the series, so chose this one for Young Adult Challenge 2009
Description: "Schuyler Van Alen is starting to get more comfortable with her newfound vampire powers, but she still has many unanswered questions. A trip to Italy in search of her grandfather only serves to make things more confusing. What secrets are the leaders of The Committee hiding? Meanwhile, back in New York, preparations are feverishly underway for the famous Four Hundred Ball. In true Blue Blood fashion, the ball is totally fab, complete with masks-and hidden behind this masquerade is a revelation that will change the course of a young vampire's destiny."
First line: "The pigeons had taken over St. Mark's Square."
My thoughts: This was a fairly solid second entry in this series, although I definitely didn't like it as much as the first one. The vampires-as-reincarnated-angels lore is starting to get very complicated and a bit creepy. For example, vampires who are reborn into new bodies may find themselves being the sibling or cousin of their "bonded" soulmate, leading to rather inappropriate behaviour by "Red Blood" standards. In the first book I found the historical element of Blue Bloods being reincarnated from the pilgrims and other figures interesting, but in this one the whole angel thing got weird - 16 year-olds who are the embodiment of the Angel of Death? Who have been bonded to each other since prehistory? Just weird.
I liked learning more about Schuyler's family and the trouble she was having with being the first ever half-blood. And the theme of a missing 19th century heiress was interesting. But remembering who was related to whom and who they'd been in a previous life was a bit much.
The verdict: If you're a rabid A vampire-lit fan, go for it. The teens at my library have been requesting the not-yet-published third book, The Van Alen Legacy, since last year, so there are obviously lots of fans. I might even read on to see what happens, but it's not at the top of my dying-to-read list.
Friday, May 22, 2009
The Secret Lives of Saints: child brides and lost boys in Canada's polygamous Mormon sect
Reason for reading: it was this month's book club selection
From the Book Description: "From its very beginning, the Mormon church, an offshoot of Christianity, found itself on the margins of both convention and the law. In addition to their unorthodox interpretation of the more mainstream Christian denominations, the Mormons embraced one tenet in particular that others found hard to accept: the idea that only by engaging in polygamous marriage could a man enter the highest realms of the kingdom of heaven.
In 1890, under immense pressure from the federal government in the United States, the Mormons agreed to renounce polygamy in return for the right to the status of statehood in Utah, where they had settled. Since then, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has officially taken the position that plural marriage is unlawful and is not to be pursued.
However, colonies of renegade fundamentalist Mormons have continued to practise polygamy and thrive to this day in Canada and the United States, despite the fact that they are flouting the law. In the U.S., the "prophet" Warren Jeffs made headlines when, having been placed on the list of America's Most Wanted, he was apprehended in 2006 and was convicted as an accomplice to rape. While his acolytes and subjects lived in poverty, Jeffs was driving around in a luxury SUV when state troopers pulled him over.
The story is much the same here in Canada, where the "bishop" of a fundamentalist sect in Bountiful, B.C., Winston Blackmore, heads up a multi-million dollar group of companies and flies on private jets while his supporters and employees live hard-scrabble lives and tithe their meager earnings to the church.
Daphne Bramham explores the history and ideas of this surprisingly resilient and insular society, asking the questions that surround its continued existence and telling the stories of the men and women whose lives are so entwined with it — both the leaders and the victims."
My thoughts: This book is shocking and I expected it to be. It's the point of the book. I've been vaguely interested in Bountiful, BC since hearing about it in high school (a Mormon friend roundly denounced the documentary we watched in class because she felt the teacher hadn't distinguished that it depicted a rogue sect rather than actual Mormonism).
The book suffers a bit from repetition, but that's something I often find in nonfiction. There's a fine line between trusting the reader to remember what they've been told and repeating information to make sure of it, I guess. A lot of it is hard to follow because the entire community shares about 10 names, but that's not the author's fault. But I think it could've been made clearer with less repetition and less back-and-forthing.
I was actually almost as shocked by the complete failure of the school inspectors as I was by the child abuse. Despite sermons preaching hatred against blacks and gays being piped through the loudspeaker (hate speech is illegal - but apparently all the inspectors heard were quaint homilies) and a huge ratio of "administrators" to students, inspectors have never found anything wrong with the 2 schools in Bountiful.The author included examples from a grade 11 Biology final exam from the school. It had only 11 questions. Here are 2 standouts:- How many goldfish are in the aquarium?
The verdict: Although I suppose it's hard to separate all of the threads, I'd have liked the book to focus more on Bountiful. I think there are quite a few books about the American communities and while this had a lot about Canada, there was so much back-and-forthing it got pretty confusing and then it ended with all of the stuff with Warren Jeffs. But I guess there hasn't been a defining moment like that in Canada yet. I also would have liked even more stories of "escapees." There seem to be quite a few biographies out by former "sister wives," so I might try one of them. But overall, an interesting book.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Hooray! One of my favourite challenges is back! It must be summer! Maggie's hosting it again. Info and sign-ups are here, but it's real simple - read 3 Southern books of any stripe between May 15 and August 15.
There are so many to choose from, but here's what I'm planning to read:
1. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
2. Secret Keepers by Mindy Friddle
3. Islands by Anne Rivers Siddons
Friday, May 15, 2009
Tara Road by Maeve Binchy
Reasons for reading: I've enjoyed two of her other books, so chose her May 28, 1940 birthday for the Celebrate the Author Challenge for May
Description: "Ria lived on Tara Road in Dublin with her dashing husband, Danny, and their two children. She fully believed she was happily married, right up until the day Danny told her he was leaving her to be with his young, pregnant girlfriend. By a chance phone call, Ria meets Marilyn, a woman from New England unable to come to terms with her only son's death and now separated from her husband. The two women exchange houses for the summer with extraordinary consequences, each learning that the other has a deep secret that can never be revealed."
First line: "Ria's mother had always been very fond of film stars."
My thoughts: I loved the first Binchy book I read, Evening Class. But this one just didn't quite do it for me. I still enjoyed it, but throughout I just didn't really like the characters very much. I found Ria, the heroine, a drip for the first 2/3 of the book - she seems very passive and naive. She's a great cook and is kind, etc., but she seems to just allow herself to be led by Danny (who of course you knew was bad news from his first entrance, it just took her 15 years to find out what everyone else knew). She loves being surrounded by people, even though I couldn't imagine how she could stand her carping, odd mother dropping in with her hideous, howling dog (who has all kinds of weird rules for her behaviour, such as priding herself on never coming over "unannounced" because she calls out from the gate as she approaches the house) or her completely miserable, miserly, judgemental sister Hilary. Her one friend, Gertie, is abused constantly by her drunk husband and has to beg for his booze money for by cleaning houses, but she gets upset if people offer her straight-up help, she wants her "dignity" (even though the entire neighbourhood either pities her or is disgusted by her). Her glamorous, wealthy friend, Rosemary, well, turns out not to be a friend at all.
Ria is painted as rather a saint for having such a warm kitchen and bustling, open home, but mainly all these people just show up, so she has no choice. Plus, apart from cooking, Ria doesn't have much else to do with her time, especially once the kids are older - Gertie helps her clean, she allows the front garden to be a mess and has someone else do the back, and she doesn't work outside the home except for a day a week at the charity shop. And the reason she doesn't do most of these things is that Danny says no, so she just accepts it. A drip!
Things perk up a bit once Danny drops his big news and Marilyn and Ria exchange houses. Things got quite interesting then. But even after having the scales removed from her eyes and starting to stand up to him, Ria remains stupid about Danny - mainly only standing up to him because she thinks he'll come back. I thought the best part of the book was Marilyn, who really does grow and change and come to terms with a horrible tragedy by allowing herself to become close to the weirdos of Tara Road.
The other character I liked was Colm, who opens a restaurant in Tara Road - quite a few of the dramatic scenes take place in his restaurant. Affairs come to light, a drug lord does deal and annoying side character Orla makes a fool of herself by singing while drinking vodka out of a vase. Colm is a steadying presence for everyone in the neighbourhood - not effusive or nosy, but ready to help quietly when needed.
Comic relief is provided constantly by Ria's son, Brian, who has the worst case of foot-in-mouth disease combined with general dimness ever. He's always asking the wrong thing or telling something he shouldn't, but he's never mean-spirited - he's honestly just a confused kid whose life has just suddenly turned upside down. His sister Annie is a little teenaged madam a lot of the time, but fairly endearing and her reactions to her brother are great.
The verdict: Maybe I just stepped onto Tara Road on the wrong foot - overall reviews for the book are really good, so don't necessarily take my word for it. And I still like Maeve Binchy and plan to read more of her books.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele
Reasons for reading: saw a good review in the paper; Relative title for What's in a Name?Challenge
Description: "Georgia “Peachy” Archer Laliberte has almost gotten her life under control. Peachy, her husband Beau, and their two rambunctious sons live on the family farm in a small town in Canada, just across the border from the U.S.. Their closest neighbor is Peachy’s draft-dodging hairdresser father, Lou, who lives in a trailer on their land. Although her son Sam has epilepsy, Peachy, Beau, and Lou have worked out a successful system to care for him and maintain as normal a family life as possible, and Peachy’s status as a superhuman caregiver has its own rewards.When her life on the farm isn’t quite enough, Peachy can always live vicariously through her glamorous, New York City–dwelling sister, Beth. Thin, successful, and passionate Beth has clawed her way to the top, stepping on anyone it takes to get there — including, every so often, her younger sister. Still, Peachy and Beth are close, and they support each other through crises of all kinds.They support each other, that is, until Beth decides to sleep with Peachy’s husband Beau — who just happens to be Beth’s ex-boyfriend. Furious, Peachy decides to go to New York City — alone — and leaves Beth home to care for her family. As she spends a terrified, exciting weekend alone in the middle of Beth’s life, Peachy must confront questions of love, loyalty, and family to find her way back home."
First line: "Until she left the farm for good, I never thought much about what made me different from my sister, what set me apart from her beyond our looks, beyond her hair color (unnatural blond) and mine (unremarkable brown), her body type (tall, thin) and mine (neither)."
My thoughts: This book is all about contrasts - glamorpuss/homebody, the one who left/the one who stayed, America/Canada [with an American husband, I noticed these differences particularly], single/married... Beth/Peachy. The characters are definitely not likeable all the time - Beth comes off as mostly a self-centred bitch, Peachy seems to take her husband for granted, and Beau cheats on her with Beth. About the only really "nice" character is Lou and he's almost too nice in his hippish, everyone-get-along, all-you-need-is love way. Peachy claims she's not jealous of Beth, but makes quite a few statements about her life and looks that indicate that she is. And it's easy to see why - Peachy seems almost inert. She got knocked up and therefore married Beau, who was Beth's cast-off. Because of this, she didn't finish her social work degree and she lives in the same house that she's lived in her whole life (along with her father). The only thing that's changed is her two sons, whom she loves but she's also pretty candid that the younger one is becoming a little jerk and Sam the epileptic gets all of her attention that should go to both the little one and her husband.
For all of their differences, Beth and Peachy they're each other's lifeline, even though Peachy has a husband and family of her own, she, as Beau points out, spends more time talking to Beth than to him. Peachy is constantly talking Beth down from failed affairs, crazy travels, and her increasing drinking problem. When Beth sleeps with Beau, Peachy has had it and decides to leave her at the farm while she takes their planned trip to New York. In my favourite part of the book, Peachy hurls a wonderful rant at Beth about all the things she'll be expected to do in Peachy's place - laundry, doctor's appointments, what to do for a seizure, what everyone likes to eat and when, what everyone's schedule is, and all of the other things Peachy has to take care of daily. Though she ends it with "Sounds like my life sucks, doesn't it?" you can tell she's proud of how she keeps her family running and that Beth has no idea what she's in for.
The verdict: This story of two very different sisters is by turns sharp, sad, funny, angry and, finally, hopeful. It's also good for Can-Lit fans who are looking for something lighter. (I don't often find Canadian fiction that isn't 500 pages long and bleak and depressing as all get out - though maybe I just haven't looked in the right places.)
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Fool Moon (Dresden Files, book 2) by Jim Butcher
Reasons for reading: after the first book, I was hooked; Seconds Challenge; my husband is a Jim Butcher pusher - he has the whole series and keeps trying to get me to read them when I have a stack of library books to get through! :)
Description: "Business has been slow. Okay, business has been dead. And not even of the undead variety. You would think Chicago would have a little more action for the only professional wizard in the phone book. But lately, Harry Dresden hasn't been able to dredge up any kind of work-magical or mundane. But just when it looks like he can't afford his next meal, a murder comes along that requires his particular brand of supernatural expertise. A brutally mutilated corpse. Strange-looking paw prints. A full moon. Take three guesses — and the first two don't count... "
First line: "I never used to keep close track of the phases of the moon."
My thoughts: Another winner! Harry is a really super character - smart, witty, chivalrous, rebellious... I love reading about him and I'm glad the books are written from his point of view. This time, he gets involved with werewolves. A whole bunch of werewolves. Did you know there were lots of types of werewolves? Harry's now met 'em all. Some are good, some are evil, some are in between . . . Butcher's really done his research on wolf-lore, it's impressive.
Harry's relationships with gutsy tabloid reporter Susan and tough, tiny lady cop Murphy continue to build, fall apart, and get rebuilt. I'm really glad there are two strong female characters in the books, it makes them even more enjoyable.
The verdict: This series is addictive! Read it! (It's actually a good thing my husband has them all because I ended up tearing through the next two when I was home sick last month.)
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
Reasons for reading: many bloggers have recommended it; it sounded like my type of book; my third sisters-oriented book for the Themed Reading Challenge
Description: "Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline. In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they - and Grace - know the truth. In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace's youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties, and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever."
First line: "Last November I had a nightmare."
My thoughts: I enjoyed this book. It reminded me in some ways of Water for Elephants - they both centre around an elderly person in a seniors' home who is remembering their past self and the secrets they kept back then. It also reminded me a lot of Upstairs, Downstairs and it turns out the author acknowledges the show at the end, so I guess it was a good thing that it did!
I really liked the premise of Grace being called in to check out the movie set and the memories flowing from that - it really added a contemporary element to a story set largely in the past. I felt Morton painted the house of Riverton very well - it's almost a character by itself and she's clearly done her research. I found myself wishing I could pay it a visit.
I chose this book for the Themed Reading Challenge because it's about sisters. Hannah and Emmeline are an interesting pair of sisters, because they end up (as they themselves note) basically living the life the other wanted - suffragette-wannabe Hannah married to a staid, boring man who wants to use her family heritage to advance his political career and seeming-homebody Emmeline becoming a silent film star and jazz baby. They are very close when they're young, but their different lifestyles move them apart, and then both sisters end up in love with the same man, which brings about a tragedy.
It's also the story of Grace, who observes them all for years - she serves them faithfully, envies them, wants to be like them, and eventually gains a connection with Hannah that turns out to be more than they realized. (I don't want to spoil it!) It was a very interesting look at a domestic servant at the turn of the century - Grace was constantly reminded and honestly felt she was privileged to serve the Hartfords and in fact sacrificed a great deal of her own life and happiness for them (though happily we find that she didn't give up everything and managed to have quite the life herself eventually). This is an alien idea today, but was obviously very much the way things were then, before the Wars came and started to change the fabric of life in England.
The verdict: A great read, especially for anyone interested in the period from the Edwardian era to the two World Wars.
Friday, May 1, 2009
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Reasons for reading: it's next month's pick for our kids' book club
Description: "The city of Ember was built as a last refuge for the human race. Two hundred years later, the great lamps that light the city are beginning to flicker. When Lina finds part of an ancient message, she’s sure it holds a secret that will save the city. She and her friend Doon must decipher the message before the lights go out on Ember forever!"
First line: "When the city of Ember was just built and not yet inhabited, the chief builder and the assistant builder, both of them weary, sat down to speak of the future."
My thoughts: I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would! I read it for book club and had heard it was a good book, but didn't think it would be my style. But now I can't wait to read the second book in the series and find out how the heck these people ended up in Ember and what they're going to do now!
The novel is very atmospheric - Ember is very dim and claustrophobic. The constant threat of the lights going out forever weighs heavily on the people and while I think the reader guesses the secret of Ember long before Lina and Doon figure it out, you spend a lot of the novel wondering what on earth is happening to this strange place.
Lina and Doon are very brave in the face of a corrupt government and a populace that doesn't understand how much danger they're in. I was definitely rooting for them, sometimes with bated breath, and I can't wait to see how they'll handle the next chapter in their suddenly completely changed lives.