Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Surly Tuesdays (yeah, I know it's Wednesday, FUCK OFF)

Yesterday did not start out well. I've been having absolutely vicious insomnia, that even breaks through my sleeping pill (which I only take occasionally, but when I do it generally knocks me right out). I turn out the light and lie down and I know within ten minutes that I'm not going to sleep. Sometime I turn on the light and read some more, but sometimes I slip into this state where I'm too tired and achy to get up again but not enough to fall asleep.

It blows big chunky bile-green chunks.

Because my husband is sweet and considerate, he often takes the kids to school when I've had a crappy night like this. This would seem to solve the problem, but it doesn't really, because what happens is that I slip into a deep, deep, BOTTOMLESSLY deep sleep around four or five in the morning, sleep too late, still wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle and feel like.... big chunky bile-green chunks.

So I started the day feeling like I was late for everything (because I was, also 'everything' wasn't anything scheduled or formal or official), and I was feeling aimless and out of joint and despondent and despairing. A few years ago, I would have just mooched around the house until it was time to go get the kids. But now I have Twitter. Twitter, which I said I would never use. And it changes everything on days like this.

I have a great friend who lives next door, and she dispenses hugs upon request. But she works Tuesdays through Thursdays. A lot of my friends work full-time. Pam is generally available, but she was skiing with the school ski club. And sometimes I need someone to tell me that I don't suck, and that things will get better, and that everyone has days like these, and when I need it, I need it immediately, if not sooner.

So thank-you to Hannah, Sarah, Mary Lynn, Nicole, HappyGeek75, Marilyn, Kerry, VelocibadgerGRL and Clara (especially Clara - she used props) for being there, and being sweet and funny and awesome. Because the kind of bad I was feeling makes minutes seem very, very long, and you all helped it go away.

Then Eve came home. Which also beats back the badness a fair measure, because, hello, this face?

Then I took Eve to dance and went for tea with Patti and Susan and Helen (and Joelle), who also must be thanked (I didn't mean to make this post feel like an awards show). Because they wear Swedish ho hats and are witty and acerbic and Dutch Reformist and unsentimental and profane and they scare my husband when he goes instead of me because they are utterly insane, which is often exactly what I need on a Tuesday night.

Then I came home and decided that, since I hadn't really been very productive, I would take a crack at busting our sex drought (it's been a rough month). Because sometimes you have to get creative in order to ensure that, even if your to-do list is resolutely unchecked, at least one thing (or someone) gets done.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mondays on the Margins: Books 2011 part 3 - the ones that Kicked Ass

And it's before March (just barely, I know -- still counts!)  And I know no one really cares - except Julie. You still care, right Julie? I still found the act of finishing it quite satisfying, and I promise that if it gets no comments I will not, under any circumstances, sink to the shameful low of begging for comments on Twitter (again).

The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell - one of the reviews on the back cover said that this was something like a Flannery O'Connor novel with zombies, which is a very apt description. The heroine is young but tough, smart and with a strong moral code. Oddly enough, her nemesis, the threat to her existence other than the zombies, the one who holds the place that would be occupied by 'bad guy' in another book, is not entirely different. The voice is measured and there is a feeling of inevitability about the whole thing. Someone on Goodreads was complaining about all the 'thinking' zombie novels, because this meant he was being cruelly duped into reading books where thoughtful prose, intelligent characters and the odd metaphor detracted from the experience of zombies just rising up and eating people. This book must have really pissed him off.

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney - reviewed on blog.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart - read for book club. I have trouble with satire, but I loved this, mostly due to the characters which were much more fully realized than they often are in satiric works. The 'less words means more fun!' marketing slogans, the way Lenny has to try to hide the fact that he reads real books from Eunice, the constant texting and shopping on mobile devices were frighteningly believable.

We Never Talk About my Brother by Peter S. Beagle - five stars. The first story I read by Peter S. Beagle was called Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros. At some point during the story, I became aware that I was grinning like an idiot. As I read the last sentence, I had trouble drawing in a breath. That's right - when he's at his best, his writing literally takes my breath away. And yet, it is not heavy in the least. It is both light and full of light. Okay, now I sound like a douche. I don't know how to articulate what it is that makes these stories seem different and larger and brighter and more full of wonder than almost anything else I read last year.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block - I love the Matt Scudder series. I haven't been able to get into any of this author's other series the same way, although I did really like his Small Town. He renders a very vivid sense of place (it's just barely possible that he overuses the phrase 'smelling of mice and urine', since that's always the one I wait for when Scudder enters another oldish apartment building or hotel, but hey - it's certainly descriptive). I sometimes find books that go back in a character's history a little tiresome, but in this case the protagonist has straightened out his life and settled down to the point that I'm constantly afraid the series will end, so I'm all for it. The fact that this book takes place early in Scudder's sobriety adds an interesting element to the story.

Rotters by Daniel Kraus - The synopsis on Goodreads calls it "moving" (curiously, yes), "terrifying" (yeah, kinda) and "unconventional" (oh my, yes). Boy's Mom dies, boy moves in with his cold, withdrawn father, boy is eventually inducted into the age-old art of..... GRAVE ROBBING? Seriously? Yes, grave robbing. This was so close to just being a gross-out fest; the pathos, the intricate structure of the guild of "Diggers"  and the characters elevate it to something more. Still gross, you understand, but also quite an affecting story. But really, really, cannot-be-overstated, over-the-top can-almost-smell-it gross.

Iron House by John Hart - good story, good writing. Always enjoy this author.

Feed and Deadline by Mira Hart -  This is what I wrote on Beck's blog, which is why it's in a slightly different font that I can't get rid of: I love zombies. I can't get enough of zombies. But I don't read just any zombie books. They have to be well-written books with great characters and engaging plots that just happen to contain zombies. If the people in them don't actually HAVE any brains worth eating, I'm outta there. These books are fabulous, and topical - they take place in a near future in which bloggers are prime players in the news. In this future, two vaccines (which cured cancer and the common cold) have combined to generate a virus which is dormant in everyone, but results in zombification after death, with the added bonus that anyone can also undergo 'amplification' at any moment and zombify spontaneously. Also, everyone names their kids George or Georgia (after George Romero) or Buffy. This series succeeds in creating a completely believable world, characters I love and genuinely heart-wrenching moments. 

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg - reviewed on blog. Which review I would have been able to find much more easily if I hadn't kept typing in Island of BROKEN Wings. Sheesh.

John Dies at the End by David Wong - reviewed on blog.

The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault - reviewed on blog.

Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier - reviewed on blog.

Killer Move by Michael Marshall - another author I love, who completely transcends his genre. Another book that, come to think of it, took a darker turn at the end much like Andrew Klavan. What's the deal, Dudes? (reviewed briefly on Goodreads).

The Second Mrs. Giaconda by E.L. Konigsburg - Can't lose with this author. About Leonardo da Vinci, a whip-smart and perceptive street urchin who becomes his assistant, and the Mona Lisa.

Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann - I think I'd like to read this again. I had some trouble getting into it, but then got completely swept away. The notes between chapters on manifestations of love in the natural world are enchanting.

Set this House in Order: a Romance of Souls by Matt Ruff - This was really different and very engaging. It's a story of 'multiple personality disorder', but avoids the associated clichés and sensationalism. It gets a little out of control near the end, but on the whole it was very moving and original.

Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne - reviewed on blog.

Digital Domains: a Decade of Science Fiction and Fantasy by Ellen Datlow - can't go wrong with a Datlow anthology.

Darkside and Blacklands by Belinda Bauer - Dark, affecting mysteries.

So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman - This seemed to be marketed as a mystery/suspense novel, which isn't really accurate, even though crime is at the centre of it. I really liked it, but I can see being disappointed if you were looking for something more plot-driven. The portrayal of the town is disturbingly vivid - a former family farm turned into an industrial dairy operation, ground contamination, poverty, closed-mindedness, stultification. The family who moves there in a passionate, misguided attempt to get 'back to the land' and live their ideals, and the terrifyingly intelligent child they end up bringing into an impossible environment. And various other sentence fragments....

I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer Fleming - dare you to read any of these and not fall in love with Russ and Clare.

Bookweird by Paul Glennon - okay, so the stuck-in-a-book thing has been done. But this is SO much fun. Kid nibbles on a page and gets stuck in a book and makes friends with a stoat - a STOAT, which is awesome, because really, talking horses and birds are kind of overdone, don't you agree? Also, other books his family is reading get into the game also and -- really, just read it.

The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham - I read this when I was working in audio publishing because my boss said it was the best book he'd ever read. Over the years I've thought about it quite often and decided to reread it to see if my discomfort with Maugham's treatment of his female characters still persisted. It kind of did. It's still a thought-provoking work with some finely drawn character studies. I tried to put it on the book club list for this year, but it didn't take.

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny - Adore this author. Would want to live in the village she's created, if not for the fact that people keep dying there. While reading this book, I began to develop the whisper of a suspicion of a thought that perhaps, just perhaps, Inspector Gamache is a little TOO perfect. But I'm sure I'll get over that. I would recommend the early ones slightly more strongly.

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff - It might have benefited slightly from the three or four total crap YA novels I've read recently. For a first novel especially, this was remarkably well-written and affecting. It has some good characters and a nicely woven sense of melancholy and dread. I thought it was a little rushed and unsophisticated in some places near the end, particularly when Mackie is trying to formulate why he identifies with the humans more than his true 'family', and it has the common modern problem of 'when is a sacrifice not really a sacrifice', but overall it was really good.

The Opposite of Amber by Gillian Philip - Reminded me a little of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews -- the same kind of smart, funny, lost adolescent female character, but the sister is still around, sort of. Less a mystery than a sort of sad coming-of-age story.

Attachment by Isabel Fonseca - An interesting twist on the 'wife suspects husband of cheating' trope. I was completely drawn in.

Spell Hunter by R.J. Anderson - Try to ignore the cheesy cover. It's an interesting and original imagining of fairies (I can't quite bring myself to use 'faery'. It makes me feel like those people who pronounce karate with the emphasis on the last syllable).

The Girl in the Green Raincoat by Laura Lippman - Not gonna lie, I do always feel slightly ripped off when authors put out novellas about their series characters - like throwing the dogs a bone so they don't lick you to death. But this was good. Short, but good.

The Happiness Code by Amy Herrick - Quirky, fun, thought-provoking. The voice sort of made me feel like I was reading a book written by one of my favourite bloggers. Pinky and Arthur are such a great pairing - the redheaded spitfire and the gloomy scientist - and Teddy is a refreshingly non-cutesy child, with his serious singlemindedness and irascibility. Some good questions about the nature - and desirability - of happiness, as an ephemeral state, an unattainable fiction, or a genetically assured certainty.

Exit Lines by Joan Barfoot - She really doesn't sugarcoat the realities of aging. A nice, unassuming, steals-up-on you story. Also one of those books that makes me wonder if people I know are cheating on their spouses since, if literature is to be believed, it's happening a lot more than I realize.

The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by  D.C. Pierson - I wonder if the editor shouted and screamed trying to get the author to change the title. When I saw the title, it seemed so cheesy and ridiculous that I almost didn't look at the book, but the book is fantastic. It captures the vagaries and tribulations of geeky adolescence and male friendship and first love perfectly. And, well, I've never actually met anyone who typefies a new level in human evolution or been involved in a sinister conspiracy, but I think it does a pretty good job of capturing that too. It's both entertaining and thoughtful. For any novel it's completely worth reading. For a first novel with a silly unwieldy title? It's pure gold.(less)

The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach - Five stars. I can't put my finger, exactly, on why I loved this book so much, although the characters are a big part of it. It's incredibly complex and vivid, and there are moments of insight but no trite scenes of 'redemption'.

Shelter by Susan Palwick - I adore this author, who is as quirky and gracious and wonderful in person (and by 'in person' I mean 'on Facebook') as she is in her writing. This is a sprawling, generous, big-hearted, thoughtful book. I got completely lost in it and wandered slack-jawed in amazement. I did wonder if my admiration was coloured by my love of Susan Palwick, and worried about recommending it to others, but the first person I lent it to loved it as much as I did. 

Liars All by Jo Bannister - Interesting - more of a morality play than a mystery, in a lot of ways. Definitely a lot more attention to character than you often get - verging on too much at times, or maybe it's just that the main characters are all a smidge too noble to be completely credible.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner - reviewed on blog.

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan - I usually read literary short stories with an attitude of detached admiration - of the narrative technique, of the shaping of the story arc, that kind of thing. Very rarely do I feel the kind of tension I did reading these -- I think it's the closest I've come to a genuine experience of Aristotle's catharsis involving pity and fear. In 'Fattening for Gabon' I was riveted, anticipating not just the actual taking of the children, but the realization that the adoptive godparents of whom they were so enamoured were actually child traffickers, and that their uncle was selling them. The hysterical shame and torment on the part of the uncle is horrible to see. In "Luxurious Hearses", a young Muslim boy is trying to pass for Christian so he can ride on a bus to his father's home in southern Nigeria, fleeing religious violence in the north. I was sick with tension reading about how he tries to disguise his accent and hide his missing hand, which will reveal him as a Muslim. I don't know how anyone turns the discomfort and recognition provoked by a book like this into a positive change (other than making another donation to World Vision). Anything that puts a face on the statistics has to be a move in the right direction.

Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens - I'm generally powerless in the grip of a Lori Lansens book. Stayed up way too late for two nights reading this. A lot of it is almost too freaking sad to even bear thinking about, but what a story, past and present.

The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens - Couldn't put it down -- for whatever reason it was the exact right book for this time in my life. I love Lori Lansens, not for arrestingly beautiful look-at-me-be-brilliant prose (not that there's anything wrong with that, at times), but because she tells great stories, with heartbreakingly flawed and wounded characters, and sometimes you just need a really great story to take you out of yourself.

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones - It's Diana Wynne Jones, DUH. 

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein - I loved her non fiction book about Spinoza, and then felt quite tepid about the novel I read, so I wasn't sure, but this was highly enjoyable -- maybe because it combined a lot of the concepts from philosophy with the fiction. The language play and the exuberance of the writing reminded me (somewhat inexplicably) of The Ground Beneath her Feet by Salman Rushdie.

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card - I always find living in an OSC universe so comforting and comfortable. Something about how he writes people and dialogue, how he think so deeply and carefully about how people think, draws me in so that I always feel sort of sad and bereft when it's over. Even with the slightly overly-belaboured dwelling on the intricacies of time travel.

Bedtime Story by Robert J. Wiersema - Thoughtful and moving, and also outstandingly plotted and wholly entertaining. A deeply satisfying reading experience.

All Saints by Liam Callanan - I hated the ending, but not because it was wrong or out of tone with the rest of the book. Otherwise, it was a rapturous reading experience and I was utterly charmed by the foul-mouthed, profane, irreverent, sarcastic Catholic school teacher with poor impulse control. If there were more people like this in it, I'd still be Catholic. I plucked this one at random off the library shelf for my Mom and then cracked it cautiously when she was done and my Tuesday night was totally hijacked.

The Whisperers by John Connolly - The same mix of shivery melancholy and great characters as all his other books. He's the only one I've come across so far who can work the supernatural subtly into a mainstream mystery and not have it come off hokey or unbelievable.

The Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende - Five stars. Blew my mind. Haiti before it was Haiti. The purest expression of history coming alive. 

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri - It's such a pleasure sometimes to just read a great story. No narrative tricks, no flashy post-modern tactics (not that I don't enjoy those sometimes), just a great story about an age-old theme, with wonderful characters. I'm a little annoyed by how stupidly beautiful the author is, but I can get past it.

Let's Take the Long Way Home: a Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell - Hard to objectively evaluate. The circumstances of their lives and personalities made for an extraordinary friendship, and Caldwell has the writing ability to articulate it well. Beyond that, either it will resonate with you or it won't. It did with me.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane - I love this author. I love this series. I love these characters. I'm not sure I can evaluate this book with anything approaching objectivity. If there were fifty more of these, I'd be a happy woman.

What I Didn't See: Stories by Karen Joy Fowler - urban fantasy-ish, feminist perspective, mind-bending.

Room by Emma Donoghue - Five stars. (Yes, yes, fine, you were all right and I was wrong, let's move on shall we? Hmph.)

The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men, (Chaos Walking Trilogy), by Patrick Ness - quite a good trilogy. Set apart from all the other dystopic YA trilogies by a higher degree or originality, more flawed and less predictable characters, genuine moral conflicts with no certainty that 'the right thing' will be chosen in the end, and some vivid illustrations of how easy it is to be co-opted into corrupt power structures. The last book dragged on a bit, but overall I would recommend this trilogy.

100 Cupboards, Dandelion Fire, The Chestnut King, by N.D. Wilson - utterly, utterly charming. Particularly because when I gave the first book to Angus last year he kept walking around saying "where's my hundred cup boards book?"

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

There Goes the Palace

There was an article in the Ottawa Citizen today about Kate the Duchess of Cambridge revealing the heretofore secret name of the royal couple's new dog to a child at a primary school she was visiting.

They named the dog Lupo, which is the Italian word for wolf.

I quote: "By choosing the Italian for wolf for a cocker spaniel -- not a large or particularly fierce breed -- the royal couple may be showing evidence of a sense of irony."

Holy shit! Has anyone told the Queen?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ramblings. And soup.

Seems I accidentally took a break from blogging.

I'm not doing that great. I thought I was doing okay, which I sort of am, but not great. And I'm not sick. Which is fantastic, I got through Christmas and vacation return without getting the Chest Thing that I always get over Christmas or after vacation return. I still cough a lot because that's just the way my crazy airways work, but it's still way better than last year, and I am thankful. Except even without being sick I'm not doing that great. But I did make it to the gym the last two weeks, and go to physio for my oh-so-poetic Patellar Femoral Syndrome. And I shelved library books and made dinner and watched Angus's volleyball tournament - okay, I'm sounding pathetic now just to console myself. My husband assures me that I'm not wrecking our children and reminds me that even the Cleavers weren't actually the Cleavers and offers to have sex with me because you know, that's what normal married couples do, and he's nothing if not a giver.

AND I did finally make an appointment with the allergist (May) and the sleep clinic (July), which is good in a way (doing something concrete to address the issues) and bad in a way (I worry that I'm going to build up my hopes that they'll be able to fix stuff and if they don't it will be a crushing disappointment, then I worry that they'll be judgey and mean and I start to hyperventilate and worry that I'll panic and not be able to make myself go to the appointments, in which case you all have my permission to kick my ass).

BUT, on Friday we were invited to a fondue by people that we only know from constantly horning in on our neighbours' parties while they were there. That's right - they know us solely by virtue of the fact that we wander over on New Year's Eve or summer Saturday nights, invite ourselves in shamelessly and say why yes, I'd LOVE a margarita, if you're offering. And they TOLD US WHERE THEY LIVED. And when one of their friends I didn't know asked how we knew them, I told her and she said "oh, you're the fun neighbours Lisa always talks about."

WE'RE THE FUN NEIGHBOURS. Hope you don't mind if I coast on that until March.

This is the Curry Sweet Potato soup (from the Winter 2012 issue of the LCBO Food & Drink magazine) that I was raving about. It doesn't seem to be on the website yet and I am of the firm belief that it must be disseminated as widely as possible, because there is every possibility that this soup might be able to bring about world peace.

Curry Soup with Spicy Cilantro Coconut Pesto (I didn't make the pesto and it was great without it)

1 tbsp (15 mL) coconut oil (I used coconut butter)
2 onions, chopped, about 2 cups (500 mL)
2 tbsp (30 mL) minced garlic
1 tbsp (15 mL) minced ginger
1 tbsp (15 mL) minced lemon grass (didn't use it, couldn't find any)
3 tbsp (45 mL) red curry paste, or to taste (used 3 tbsp)
1 tbsp (15 mL) ground turmeric
3 medium sweet potatoes, 1 1/2 lbs (750 g), peeled and chopped
1 ripe banana
3 1/2 cups (875 mL) vegetable stock (used chicken stock, had it already made)
1 can (400 mL) coconut milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Spicy Cilantro Coconut Pesto

1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt
1 tsp (5 mL) roasted red chili paste
3 tbsp (45 mL) shredded unsweetened coconut
1 cup (250 mL) loosely packed cilantro leaves
2 tbsp (30 mL) melted and cooled coconut oil
1 tbsp (15 mL) sunflower oil

1. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat and sauté onions until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add in garlic, ginger and lemon grass and sauté 3 minutes. Stir in curry paste and turmeric. Cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. (I also sautéed the sweet potato chunks in a little coconut butter at the same time in the soup pot).

2. Add sweet potato, peeled banana, 3 cups stock and coconut milk. Increase heat to bring to a boil then immediately reduce temperature so that the soup begins simmering with a light, gentle bubble. Simmer for 20 minutes or until sweet potato is fork tender.

3. Blend soup with an immersion blender or remove from heat and blend in batches in a food processor. If soup is too thick, add remaining 1/2 cup of stock as needed. Return to pot and simmer until heated through. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

4. Process garlic, salt, chili paste and coconut in food processor until finely ground. Add cilantro and process until finely chopped. With machine running, slowly pour in oils until smooth. Use pesto immediately.

5. Serve soup with a dollop of cilantro pesto.

Serves 6

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mondays on the Margins: Books 2011 part two

Okay - the three star entries. I'm not going to lie, as I was typing out this list, there were several that made me think "that should have been two" or "why didn't I give that four again?" One of the essays in the book I read last week, articulated very well how I feel about reading a book. Unless the book has very obvious problems or flaws, I never assume that it's the book's fault if I don't like it. Sometimes it's just the wrong time for me to meet that book. I started The Shipping News three times and couldn't get past the first chapter - when I finally read it, I adored it. Last March I began reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I bought at the same time as Come, Thou Tortoise. Maybe it was that I loved Tortoise so much I just wasn't ready to engage with a Hedgehog. In any case, I started it again from the beginning yesterday and will probably finish it tonight, and it is SUBLIME.

So I'm not going to change the ratings, but I'll mention the ones that I seem to have subconsciously rethought in the intervening months.

Divergent by Veronica Roth - reviewed on Goodreads. 3 1/2 stars. A good example of why I try never to read the first book in a trilogy until all of the trilogy is published.

No Trace by Barry Maitland - Meh. Didn't live up to the jacket copy. 2 1/2 stars.

15 Miles by Rob Scott - a little disappointing, but only because I somehow got the impression that there would be zombies. As a study of a policeman in the process of self-destructing and how he faces the crisis, it's solid. Would have been better with zombies.

The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman - one of my favourite authors, not my favourite book of hers. She deftly explores difficult family relationships with excruciating precision and skill.
I'd Know you Anywhere, by Laura Lippman - same. In my opinion, her Tess Monaghan books or To The Power of Three or Every Secret Thing are far superior.

Ultraviolet by, R.J. Anderson - Her name is ALISON (not enough Ls) and it takes place in SUDBURY, where I grew up (okay, I grew up in a small town outside Sudbury called Lively, feel free to mock). Still - first book ever. It mentions Paris Street - I've DRIVEN on Paris Street! It's also a great story. I offer up as proof that it stands out in my memory from all the other young adult science fiction books I've read in which the female protagonist thinks she's going crazy but there's actually a logical (but also mysterious) explanation.

Easy to Like by Edward Riche - reviewed on blog.

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis - read this for book club. 2011 CBC Canada Reads winner. Also won a Stephen Leacock award, which is appropriate, because I found some of Stephen Leacock's humour was the same as this - sometimes trying just a little too hard - sort of like the jokes that fathers make that make their children groan and go 'Daaaaad'...

You Could Live a Long Time, Are you Ready? by Lindsay Green - read for book club. The author interviewed several older people and put together some advice for making plans and preparations for growing older happily and well. Great advice, VERY dry writing style.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - reviewed on Goodreads. 3 1/2 stars, maybe 4.

House of the Lost by Sarah Rayne - more like 2 1/2. I've read other books of hers that have a great eerie atmosphere. This one wasn't as good.

The Identity Man by Andrew Klavan - I've loved this author for years - simple mysteries have a holy rhythm in his hands. Recently I discovered that he's ultra-right-wing and holds some opinions that I find quite objectionable. I really wish I hadn't discovered that. This was more cynical and pessimistic than some of his previous work, but was still well done.

The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou - about the tribulations of Canadian Olympic hopefuls. It was a good story, but read more like a magazine article than a novel.

Strange Affair by Peter Robinson - honestly can't remember much

The Returners by Gemma Malley - need to reread. I remember thinking the premise was great but there were significant weaknesses, but now can't remember what they are.

Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris - 'very skillfully rendered, if not enjoyable in the least' is what I wrote on Goodreads. The story, the characterization, the setting, all are brilliant, but OH MY GOD, depressing.

Already Dead by Charlie Huston - really cool (well, vampire P.I., duh). I would have given it four stars if I hadn't read his other book Sleepless, which was amazing.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon - for some reason this sort of pissed me off while I was reading it and I almost gave it two stars, but now that I'm thinking back on it I can't really figure out why it pissed me off. People were looking for people and turning out to be other people, and it's actually kind of cool in my memory.

Warped by Marissa Guibord - a modern girl, an ancient tapestry, a 16th-century nobleman (young and handsome, naturally).... it was fun. Even though the most recent review on Goodreads recommends it for 'weaver douchebags'. I might have called this a 'romp' if I ever used that word. Which I don't.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen - I've had some interesting discussions with people about this. It's a great story, I couldn't stop reading it, but (and I am NOT someone who goes overboard on notions of 'author intention') I could not stop thinking, "we all know how he feels about e-readers, but does Jonathan Franzen also really not like women very much?". I've discovered I'm not along in wondering this. The parts in which he has his character Patty Berglund write out her own writhingly bad and embarrassing behavious seems especially sadistic and woman-hating. When I think back to The Corrections it all gets quite disturbing.

Ashes of the Earth by Eliot Pattison - 'a Mystery of Post-Apocalyptic America' is the subtitle, and we all know the word Apocalyptic is like crack to me. But this turned out to be a mystery that could have taken place in any old America. I like the apocalypse to be integral to the plot.

Don't Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon
The Island of Lost Girls by Jennifer McMahon - I read one. It was kind of good. I got another one from the library. I wondered if it was the same book re-issued under an alternative title. It wasn't. Look, honey, if you're going to reuse a device, don't make it one as obvious as "I found out my father was first married to my best friend's mother by finding a picture of them together". People notice stuff like that.

The Calling of the Grave by Simon Becket - I don't know why the title is in English but the synopsis is in Dutch (on Goodreads). I read it in English. Again, a medium entry in a series I generally really admire.

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay - Didn't realize this was a ya book when I took it out of the library. This author's Wandering Fire trilogy is one of the best fantasy trilogies I've ever read and I highly recommend it. This was interesting and sweet.

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton - not sure now why I didn't give it four stars. Very interesting hook, good characters, nice suspense, a sense of melancholy fatefulness with a chance of redemption.

Stones by William Bell - reviewed on Goodreads

Fadeaway Girl by Martha Grimes - reviewed on Goodreads. I would probably more readily recommend her Richard Jury mysteries.

Thirteen Days to Midnight by Patrick Carman - 'Amazing that it's so much less cheesy than it sounds' is what I wrote after reading it.

Foundling by D.M. Cornish - I wanted to like this more than I did and might give it another crack. It's quite original, and some of the images from it have stayed with me, I just kept losing the urge to keep reading for some reason.

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins - the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.

Such is My Beloved by Morley Callaghan - Reviewed on Goodreads. This kind of book always makes me wonder if the author is imposing more modern sensibilities on a character than is fair or realistic. But then some people are always ahead of their time, right? Still, it bugs me that I can't know for sure.

A Cold Night for Alligators by Nick Crowe - reviewed on Goodreads. It seems I liked it more than I remember liking it. My Mom gets me to request books from the library for her, and then sometimes by the time the request is filled I forget who it's for. Then I'm reading this book thinking "wow, this is great, I wonder who recommended it to me" or "why the hell did I think it would be a good idea to read this?"

Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner - I just could not get a handle on this. My friend Mary Lynn loved it and said it seemed like a great Canadian novel, but it left me out in the cold, cold streets of Montreal with a wonky compass. Maybe I should try it again.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant - Reviewed briefly on Goodreads.

Old Devil Moon by Christopher Fowler - Reviewed briefly on Goodreads. Short stories.

The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Christopher - reviewed on blog.

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness- will include with the trilogy in next post

Teenagers, a Natural History by David Bainbridge - reviewed briefly on Goodreads. Read for book club.

Haunted Legends by Ellen Datlow - a little surprised I only gave it three stars because I generally love anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow. Can't remember many of the stories, though.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Today is the day after Eve's ninth birthday

When I was pregnant for the second time, I waited anxiously to feel the baby start moving.
I'd done this once. I thought I knew what to expect.

Good heavens, I thought, what on earth is this?
Flutters? Please.
Kicks? Ha

It felt more like roundhouse haymakers.
Firecrackers in my belly.
Jack Dempsey going three rounds with my spine.

"Look, Baby," I said,
""Whatever it is, we can discuss it,"
"Is it the turkey sandwich? Would you prefer egg salad?"
"Are we talking a marked preference for reality television over vampire dramas?"

No answer.
Just a concerted effort to switch the positions of my liver and kidneys

My friends said "how does it feel?"
I said "it feels angry!"

I asked the doctor "is it all the pistachios?
Do you think I've made this baby........ NUTS?"

I looked at my strapping little boy and though
"Watch out, kiddo - this one's going to give you a run for your money."

The days turned, as they do
The baby inside came out, as ever they have.

The midwife said, "it's a girl!"
I said "WHAT??!!"
Then I though "SHE'S got some explaining to do.
I mean, really - what WAS all that?"

Now I look at her and think,
"If she only knew how wrong I was",
It's silly, really.

Because I should have known all along...

........that she was dancing.

Happy birthday, Crazy Baby.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mondays on the Margins: Books 2011 part one

Yes, it's 2012, and by the way I don't like my World's Fair poster calendar nearly as much as my weird-ass Alice in Wonderland one from 2011 that periodically freaked the kids out.  Yes, I just made the sweet potato soup with red curry paste and coconut milk from the latest Food & Drink magazine and I'd much rather just talk about how transported I am by this soup which I think might be some kind of superior being in food form - wait, that's kind of gross, isn't it?  Who cares, this soup is like CRACK, people, it's like CRACK, you must ALL come over and have some, it has a BANANA in it!

Still, the book review post Must Be Done, must it not?  Well, no, nobody really gives a crap, but I have a Free Book book review coming up tomorrow so today seems like a good day for a Books I Read Just Because post.  (Aaaaaand that's when I realized it was already ten p.m. and the post would be up for all of two hours before the next post clicked in at midnight.  So here we are, on a yet-to-be-numbered even later day in February).

There are 111 books that I either remembered to record or was willing to admit to on Goodreads in 2011.  I gave four or five stars ("I really liked it" or "it was amazing") to 57 of them.  That's pretty good - it either means I read a pretty good proportion of worthwhile books, or I was too lenient with my ratings.  What exactly is the difference between "I really liked it" and "it was amazing" anyway?  Oh, now all I can think of is dirty stuff.

There were only 12 that I gave two stars or less to.  Two stars means 'it was okay', one star is 'I didn't like it', and one book I actually didn't finish - I think that brings my lifetime total of books I didn't finish to..... two.

That means I gave three stars ("I liked it"), to.... the rest (you're all smart enough to do the math - Pam, you can use your iPad).

Let's start with the turkeys.

The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler.  Written by a Swedish couple (remember how this type of pseudonym crap makes me cranky?)  There are a lot of really good mystery writers out of the Netherlands.  This is not one of them.  Two of them?  Whatever - it wasn't horrible, it was just kind of -- clunk.  There was a present-day mystery that was connected very clumsily to a past mystery, a lot of people doing things with no obvious motivation, and a couple of people get their noses cut off.  Which has nothing to do with why the book isn't good, just, ew.

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt.  I usually love A.S. Byatt.  This, I did not love.  The framing device of the 'thin child', evacuated to the British countryside during the war and taking refuge in an old book of Norse legends was, well, thin.  The legends themselves seemed to be an excuse for extravagant lists of adjectives -- yes, I get that Jormundgandr the worm god thingy is immense, colossal, behemothic, elephantine, immeasurable, massive, mighty and monumental. Are we on the same page? Yeah - the thing is REALLY EFFING BIG.  Also, Loki is a pain in the ass douchebag, and whenever some unassuming little dude sidles up to you and says something like "wanna do something really fun?" or "have I got a deal for you!" it's PROBABLY HIM, so steer clear.

The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner.  So close and  I saw the first one in the book store and thought it was even odds whether it was interesting or just a rip-off of the Hunger Games.  The first two books aren't horrible; the premise is interesting and there's some hope of an exciting conclusion.  The last one is a mess - the characters are so wooden that even having to kill one of his close friends doesn't elicit any kind of believable reaction on the part of the main character.  All the supposed 'witty banter' is really unfunny too, which is one of the hardest things for me to forgive.

Skin River by Steven Sidor - I actually picked this up and flipped through it again before I took it back to the library because all I could remember was that it was profoundly disappointing.  It was stupidly obvious who the killer was, and the sections from his point of view were superfluous and icky.

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel - I still can't figure out where I come down on this one.  I freely admit that I have trouble not being influenced by the fact that, having heard a few interviews with Yann Martel, I can't stop thinking of him as a pompous git.  This was not the case when I read and loved Self and The Life of Pi, before ever reading or hearing anything about Martel himself.  Again, the framing device of the author being screwed over by the publishers - hey, you know what? I think I just don't like framing devices of any kind.  Also, there are lists again.  Paragraphs-long lists of things.  That's not fiction, people -- that a handbook or manual (I'm studying subject classification right now - I know these things).  Still, some of the actual play (Beatrice & Virgil) was affecting.

Killer Heat by Linda Fairstein - Meh. This is one of those 'fool me twice, shame on me' things.  I've read this series before, and I always tell myself I'm not going to read any more, then I see a description and think it looks interesting.  I hereby vow to all of you that I will NOT read any more books about plucky red-haired district attorneys who wear four-inch heels and fight inexhaustibly for the downtrodden unless Publisher's Weekly gives one a starred review or it has zombies in it.

The Dead of Winter by Christ Priestey - On rare occasions, I get a book in the mail that I ordered from, an online used bookstore, and once I start reading it I have no earthly idea why I thought I would like it.  This was over-the-top gothic and old-fashioned - fine for what it was, but not my thing at all.  Filed under 'WTF was I thinking?'

All the Colours of Darkness by Peter Robinson and The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith - I had read a couple of the Inspector Banks series years ago and liked them (and also met Peter Robinson when I worked at Chapters, when I was caught offguard and said something both inane and pretentious and possibly sexually suggestive, like "Hi - I really like your stuff" AGH CRINGE CRINGE CRINGE) and I have heard great things about McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe series; I should have been more mindful of the fact that I had heard NOT A THING about this series.  These were meh at best.  And why is it that, while in theory it seems kind of cool to me that Robinson always talks about the kind of music his Inspector is listening to at home or in the car and what kind of mood it evokes, on paper it leaves me cold as a dead fish?  It's a mystery.

Ring of Fire (Century Quartet) by Pierdomenico Baccalario - read my review on Goodreads if you so desire.  This sounded so great and was so....not great.

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann - my friend's husband used to say he didn't like theatre, until she took him to a play that he loved, and he realized that it was just that he had only ever seen bad plays.  So with this book: is it that I don't actually like Steampunk as a genre that much, or is it just that this is not very good Steampunk?

The Awakening by Kate Chopin - I had been meaning to read this for years, and I admit that I was disappointed - not entirely certain whether it was more in the book or in myself.  I may have been expecting a more modern tone (and a less whiny, bitchslappable heroine) than was realistic for the time in which it was written.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson - "do nothing, loll about, arty-farty rich people" (I ripped that off from another Goodreads reviewer, for obvious reasons) musing on what it means to be Jewish.  Some of them hate themselves.  Some of them provoke hatred in others - readers, for example.  Not because they're Jewish, but because they're hugely pompous self-involved gits.

(Dis)Honourable Mentions go to two non-fiction books, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life by Sandra Beasley, and My Imaginary Illness: A Journey into Uncertainty and Prejudice in Medical Diagnosis by Chloe G.K. Atkins.  I actually gave both of these three stars, and I had the utmost sympathy for the plights of both of these women.  However, I found myself thinking in the midst of reading both books, "Couldn't she have made her protagonist a little more likable? Oh, wait.... it's not fiction."  Certainly it was difficult, if not downright miserable, for Sandra Beasley growing up allergic to almost everything (dairy, egg, soy, beef, shellfish, nuts and mango just to name a few) before the world was as food-allergy-friendly as it is today (and I am aware that even today it's not ideal).  But surely at some point she would have learned that it was best to ask her boyfriend if he'd been scarfing down Hershey's kisses before sticking her tongue down his throat and then spending the rest of the evening wheezing resentfully?  It's not like she was new at this!  And Atkins's mistreatment by high-handed and closed-minded doctors is truly horrifying.  But I wanted to hear a little more about how she "somehow" had ended up estranged from most of her family, and yet whenever she needed expensive tests or treatments or a wheelchair-friendly apartment, some well-heeled friend would step forward, wallet extended.  But we all know I tend to be extra-bitchy and unforgiving when reading autobiographical books - it's like a tic, I can't turn it off.

Okay.  So much for the dreck.  Stay tuned for the mediocre!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Book Review: The Invisible Ones, by Stef Penney

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney, embodies everything I revere about the mystery genre.  Not the simple collection of tropes that comprise a whodunit or a 'thriller', but a mystery, in the most gracious and wide-ranging sense of the word; a work that is about trying to find something, and, in that finding, to address the sense of loss that inevitably accompanies being a thinking person in this world.

Ray Lovell isn't a new type of character - the world-weary, battle-scared private investigator - but he is a fine example of the type.  Half Romany, half 'gorjio' (a pejorative term gypsies use for non-Gypsies), he was raised in a house rather than a caravan and is fairly distanced from his heritage, and yet he feels a kinship with Leon Wood, who hires Lovell to find out what happened to his daughter Rose, and with the Jankos, the family Rose married into who claims to have no idea of her whereabouts (I apologize sincerely for that sentence, but I don't have it in me to go back and start over).

Ray is confined to a hospital bed, partially paralyzed and suffering memory loss, trying to trace which of his interactions with the Jankos led to his current state.  The other side of the story is carried by JJ, a teenager who lives with his single mother on the Jankos' site; he gives a perceptive and absorbing account of being a Romany in a world that often views his kind with suspicion and animosity.  As the only young person he's also an outsider even in his community of outsiders.  He lives with his grandparents, Jimmy and Kath, his great-uncle Tene, his mother and Ivo, JJ's uncle and Rose's husband.  Rose also reportedly left behind Christo, her son by Ivo who suffers from 'the family illness', an obscure disorder that renders him weak, unhealthy and small for his age.

The story is rich with themes of family, community, otherness and different levels of bereavement.  As a private investigator, Lovell is still plagued with the dilemma of whether it is always best for the lost to be found or the truth to be uncovered.

I love labyrinthine stories tracing the disappearances of people.  I love stories about Gypsy culture.  I love stories with a vibrant web of characters and an underpinning of melancholy with a hope of connection and redemption.  This book has all of those things.

The Invisible Ones has been extensively well-reviewed, even receiving what always induces me to read a book, the coveted starred review in Publisher's Weekly,  Penney's author video is here - I love her voice.  I am the caboose of a blog-tour caravan of The Invisible Ones, which was reviewed most recently at Curled up with a Good Book and a Cup of Tea yesterday.  I haven't read any of the other blog reviews yet because I'm always afraid of unconscious plagiarism or getting stage fright after reading someone else's brilliant prose, but I'm off to look at them now.

Memorable Quotes:

"I don't often think about my -- my what? Race? Culture? Whatever word the sociologists are using these days" (ways in which they weren't really 'Travelers'). "But despite them, we knew things.  I (especially me, as the dark one) knew what it meant to be called a dirty gyppo; I knew, too, about the long, petty battles over caravan sites, and the evictions and petitions and squabbles over education.  I know about the mutual distrust that stopped Leon from going to the police about his daughter -- or to any other private investigator.  I have some inkling of what made him come to me, and I realize that he must be desperate to do so."

"Sometimes you can know too much.  Of all people I know this to be true.  Ignorance is bliss.  Knowledge is power.  Which would you prefer?  I have seen countless people walk in through our door, having, like Mr. M., chosen option B.  They end up miserable, and paying me to make them so.  Because they have to know.  I once asked another client -- a likable man -- if, having found out his wife was unfaithful , he wouldn't rather go back to living in ignorance, and he paused a long time before answering .     'No, because there was something I didn't know.  She knew, and I didn't.  And that was stealing my life.  All the time she lied to me, I didn't have the choice about whether to stay with her or not.  She had the choice and I didn't.  That's what I can't bear.  The years I lost.'"

The dark is nearly complete in my sitting room.  It's the time of day the French, so I'm told, call entre le chien et le loup -- between dog and wolf.  First the sun sets, then, as dusk deepens, when the sky reaches a certain shade of dark blue that is not yet black, the dog retreats, and the wolf is waiting in the wings, or padding toward us around the corner.  The shape in the shadows could be friend or foe.  I wonder how long it lasts, the moment that belongs to neither."

Disclaimer: I was sent an Advanced Reading Copy of this book by Penguin Canada for review purposes.  Opinions are my own.