Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Absolutist, by John Boyne

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"Seated opposite me in a railway carriage, the elderly lady in the fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years." So begins John Boyne's novel, The Absolutist, a tale that, like its memorable beginning, is not quite what it first seems. The year is 1919 and twenty-one-year old Tristan Sadler is meeting with the sister of his friend Will Bancroft, who died in the war, in order to return some letters to her. But the packet of letters is not all Tristan carries with him. He also has a secret (it's not a hard secret to figure out, but I won't ruin it). Peppered with flashbacks to 1916, Tristan reveals more about himself (and Will) as he struggles to decide what he should talk about and what he should keep hidden forever. 

John Boyne is also the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I didn't read the book, but I saw the movie and it wasn't just sad, it was mess-you-up sad. So I was nervous when I started The Absolutist, thinking I'd need to take a week off afterwards to recover from the super sadness. It's not that sad, but, you know, it's not all wine and roses for our boy Tristan. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Noughties, by Ben Masters

From the Hardcover edition
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Noughties is a "student novel" in that it revolves around a group of university students on their last night of school (in this case Oxford). It's meant to be a comment on the times (a fact that is mentioned on nearly every page), a "voice of a generation" (as the insufferable lead character on the TV show Girls might say) for the British young people finishing university at the beginning of this century. But it's a "student novel" in other ways as well.

Fans of competitive reality shows may recognize the common critique of "student work." Judges on fashion design shows like Project Runway frequently accuse aspiring designers who over complicate their garments with tricks and notions of producing "art student work." Cooking shows like Hell's Kitchen often feature contestants who are accused of being unable to "edit their dishes," an apparently common rookie mistake. The consensus seems to be that an exuberant youth is wont to needlessly over complicate a project in order to show off how clever they are, with the result being that they merely show off their inexperience. In this way, more than any other, Ben Masters' novel Noughties is a student novel.

Painfully overwritten, Noughties is a novel written without

In the Memory of the Map: A Cartographic Memoir, by Christopher Norment

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Christopher Norment's fascinating memoir takes us through his life, from childhood on, as told through stories about maps. Well, not always just maps--as in actual, physical, paper maps (though often times that's exactly what he's talking about)--but also the ideas of mapping out the world in our heads, the relationship between how we see the world and how we describe it to ourselves and each other. Norment writes from a very personal point of view--the book is about him, after all--but his writing has an almost universal quality. More than once I found myself thinking, "Yes, that's right! I know what he means! I mapped out my childhood neighbourhood according to spatial arrangements and landscape features too!" until I stopped and realized, "Wait, no I didn't! Not at all!" 

Unlike Christopher Norment, I don't have a personal kinship with maps (anyone who has ever tried to follow my driving directions probably wishes I did!) although I'd really like to be the sort of person who did. I live with someone who collects maps and globes and I have several friends and neighbours who studied cartography in school (which is amazing to me, since I think of cartography as an esoteric field, elite to the point of being almost arcane, yet I can personally name half a dozen cartographers just in my circle of friends). I suspect that even if I didn't exactly relate to Christopher Norment's lifelong relationship with maps, there are a lot of people who would, probably even in my own house.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Garment of Shadows: A Novel of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, by Laurie R. King

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When I first opened my digital copy of Garment of Shadows, I was expecting something entirely different. Having never read Laurie R. King before, all I knew was that her latest novel was part of her "Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes" series. I assumed it would be a mystery set in late Victorian or early twentieth century London, with Sherlock Holmes and this Mary Russell character solving some pesky rash of crimes, mostly from the comfort of an armchair in a smoky room on Baker Street. Don't get me wrong, I would not have been disappointed in the least if that had been the case, but it was not. Instead, I was immediately transported to the sights and smells of Morocco, where our heroine Mary Russell Holmes seems to have awoken with minor injuries and a nasty case of amnesia. As she struggles to figure out where she is and, more pressingly, who she is (a struggle I undertook right along with her, having never read any previous books in the series), she makes her way through the busy market places of Fez. The writing is so rich and detailed that I almost forgot I wouldn't need to speak Arabic to understand it! I felt like I could hear the vendors calling out to me amid their stalls of spices, teas and exotic meats (at one point there is a description of a skinned camel head hanging in a butcher shop that sincerely made me cringe, fearing I would soon be able to smell it, so vivid was the image).

I suspect that long time fans of this series might not have been quite as confused as I was.

The Yard, by Alex Grecian

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Whew! I just finished reading Alex Grecian's novel, The Yard, and maybe now I can finally get some sleep! This book had me up half the night trying to get in just one more chapter--or more likely twenty more chapters--before bed. I loved it so much I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been published under the full title, The Yard: A Novel for Mary Lavers, by Alex Grecian. It might not have been as big a hit, but it would have been an accurate subtitle. A murder mystery set in London in 1889, a few years after the Jack the Ripper case has gone cold, The Yard (a reference to Scotland Yard) is marketed as a book for fans of The Sherlockian. While that's true, it's also a perfect book for fans of Lyndsay Faye's Dust and Shadow, Ann Granger's Inspector Ben Ross series, or the non-fiction work of Kate Summerscale (see links for all of those after the jump). In other words, it's the perfect book for me.  

Having said that, it's still possible that I could have been disappointed with this book, despite it having one of my favourite time and place settings for mystery fiction (I'm a huge fan of mystery novels that take place in late Victorian London, when the metropolitan police force was still fairly new and forensic science was only at its very infancy). It's possible I could have been disappointed, but it didn't happen. I was completely thrilled with this book from start to finish. It's well written, well edited (something that can not be said for every book I read), well researched and well thought out. It's everything I love in a mystery. Heck, it's everything I love in a book.

The Yard could easily be the first in a series. The only problem I found when reading it was trying to guess which of the fantastic police characters could be the subject of future books. Since there are several candidates, and since this book is not labelled as "first in the so-and-so series" I found myself not knowing which characters would survive until the end of the book. At least if it had been subtitled "An Inspector Day Mystery" or " A Nevil Hammersmith Mystery" I would have thought, "Ah, at least that's one character I know will make it to the end!" As it was, I was terribly worried about all of them, right up to the end. 

Whether Alex Grecian writes more in this series or not, he has definitely found a fan in me. I can't wait to read whatever he writes next!

Do you also love mysteries set in London in the 1890's? Hit the jump for a bunch of other book recommendations!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Shades of Murder: A Mac Faraday Mystery, by Lauren Carr

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Shades of Murder is a small book with a lot going on. There's Mac Faraday, a retired detective and son of a late mystery writer who has inherited millions in the past and is now inheriting a painting and a mystery to solve. There's Ilysa Ramsay, an artist who died mysteriously years ago and whose last painting was missing until Mac inherited it. Then there's Joshua Thornton, a prosecuting attorney who finds himself investigating the unsolved murder of a Jane Doe #4. Oh, and there's Oliver Cartwright, the convicted rapist and murderer who insists he's not responsible for the death of Jane Doe #4 and wants Joshua to find her real killer. Confusing? Exactly.
          I'm not usually a fan of books that start with a dramatis personae, or cast of characters. If an author wants to tease the readers with a few juicy details about the characters we'll be meeting, that's fine. It's like the literary equivalent of an amuse-bouche, that tiny mini appetizer before a meal. But if the list of characters and their descriptions is meant to be a shorthand, a reference list that the reader is meant to commit to memory or else refer back to while reading in order to know who everyone is, well that I find cumbersome. 
          Shades of Murder starts with a

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, by Sam Kean

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The Violinist's Thumb is about DNA. It's about how our genes affect our abilities and outcomes, and about the people along the way who have been instrumental (eh? like a violin? eh?) in discovering or demonstrating genetics at work.
     The title comes from Niccolo Paganini, a violinist so talented that the church refused to bury him for decades after his death because of rumours that he had made a pact with the devil in order to play as he did. Turns out, he just had a genetic disorder that allowed him to bend his fingers and thumbs at bizarre, unnatural angles, a condition which also certainly shortened his life.
     The Violinist's Thumb is, well, a bit "science-y" in places. It's been a long time since I've had to keep track of terms like genetic coding, DNA and RNA strands, double helix and chromosonal markers (Is that last one even right? I should know this. I JUST read a book about DNA!) Some of it took me back to high school and university biology classes, and some of it caused me to glaze over a bit (much like The Calculus Diaries). But the heavy duty big brain required to follow the technical aspects of the book is more than mitigated by the wealth of interesting anecdotes

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Imperfect Bliss, by Susan Fales-Hill

If I have to read one more time that Imperfect Bliss is "Jane Austen meets The Bachelorette," I might scream. But the reason for this ubiquitous description of Susan Fales-Hill's novel (apart from a press release) is because it follows the ups and downs of four single sisters whose mother is obsessed with British culture and the marriageability of her daughters (including Elizabeth--aka Bliss--or our Lizzie Bennett) when one of them is selected to be the star of a horrifying new TV reality show called The Virgin.

There is a rule of the internet (Poe's Law, for those in the know) that says that no matter how hard you try to parody extreme fundamentalism, there are people who will believe it is real. The idea is that when the group you're trying to parody (which varies) is already so extreme, chances are that anything you pretend they're saying (using difficult-to-pull-off internet satire) seems like something they might have actually said. I personally believe that Poe's Law also applies to people trying to satirize TV reality dating shows. Does anyone remember MILF Island from 30 Rock? As awful as that was, was it any more awful than Love in the Wild? (If you've never seen Love in the Wild, don't.) So as awful as The Virgin is, it seems plausible (horribly, horribly plausible).

The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin

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The World Without You is the story of a family struggling to come together--physically and emotionally--one year after the loss of the youngest sibling, Leo, a journalist killed in Iraq in 2004. As the family gathers for the July 4th holiday in their vacation home in the Berkshires, it becomes clear that the loss of their son and brother is not the only fracture in their relationships.  The parents' marriage is crumbling, the eldest sister is so focused on trying to get pregnant she is neglecting just about everything else in her life, the youngest daughter is a promiscuous wild child turned Orthodox Jew who has moved to Jerusalem and feels alienated everywhere, and the middle child is must plain angry. Then there's Leo's widow, who is struggling to raise their young child without him. The story is about trying to let go and trying to hold on, about what--and who--we can live without if we must, and who--and what--we should try harder to keep.

This novel brought up a lot of emotions for me. Set in 2005, in the midst of the Iraq war,

The Infinite Tides, by Christopher Kiefer

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I don't know whether it was the writing style or the characters or the subject matter that I found difficult a the beginning of this novel (or just the fact that I had about a million other books to read) but I must have started it a dozen times before finally plunging in and reading it all the way through. 

It's a novel about an astronaut and math genius named Keith who has just come back from space (so not so relatable for me) to find that his shrill, unfaithful and perpetually unlikable wife has left him (a sore spot for me since I am a wife who is faithful and hopes to be likable but is, you know, human and possibly prone to shrillness) after the sudden death of their only daughter (there's the kicker--I always find child bereavement stories killers to get through...okay, poor choice of words). So this one was a tough sell for me. I almost gave up and moved on to something lighter or easier from my perpetually growing "To Be Read" pile.

I am so glad I gave it one more chance.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, by Nichole Bernier

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Did anyone see To Gillian on her 37th Birthday? That movie where Peter Gallagher still mourns his dead wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who has looked 37 for about three decades now--I'd mourn her too) two years after her death? No, me neither. But I always imagined it was something like this book. Kind of sentimental, kind of sad, but mostly about how we hold on to our impression of a person even when the real person is dead and gone.

Elizabeth has died a year earlier (at the age of 37, no less) and her family, and especially her best friend Kate, continue to idealize her as the perfect woman. It doesn't help that she died a month before September 11, 2001, in an unrelated plane crash, so the grief over her death becomes mixed in and intensified with the grief of the nation. When Kate learns that the task has fallen to her to read and sort through Elizabeth's journals--twenty-five years worth of them--she is faced with a very different image of her friend. It turns out Elizabeth had so many secrets that Kate starts to wonder if she ever really knew her at all.

Told in both diary excerpts and third person narrative,

The Far Side of the Sky: A Novel of Love and Death in Shanghai, by Daniel Kalla

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The Far Side of the Sky is a novel by Canadian emergency room doctor Daniel Kalla about the experiences of Asians and Europeans in Shanghai during WWII. I'm just going to assume that Daniel Kalla and Vincent Lam have abandoned their game of online chess and are now trying to out-novel each other. Obvious comparisons aside, The Far Side of the Sky is a fantastic novel in its own right. At times heartbreaking (okay, almost entirely heartbreaking), it tells the little known story of European Jews who fled to Shanghai during WWII to escape the Nazis. Specifically, it tells the fictional story of Franz Adler, a Jewish doctor from Vienna who decides to flee after his brother is murdered by the Nazis during Kristallnacht. He travels with his (remaining) family to Shanghai, where he meets Sunny Mah, a Eurasian nurse who also knows about discrimination and racial hatred, in her case at the hands of Japanese soldiers. I don't want to give away any endings, but

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Dead Do Not Improve, by Jay Caspian Kang

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It's rare that a book makes me laugh out loud but this one really did. Our hero, Philip Kim, is an over-educated and under-published writer in San Francisco who is so disaffected and self-obsessed that he doesn't even realize his neighbour (apparently nicknamed "The Grey Beaver" in the final edition, but "Baby Molestor" in my advanced galley copy--the "Grey Beaver" thing comes much later and is only mentioned a couple of times, perhaps they changed it?) has been murdered until he stumbles across the news story while Googling himself. Unsatisfied with his limited search engine results, he expands his search to include his address as well as descriptors such as "Asian" and "cheekbones," thinking that maybe a lonely female had spotted him from across the street and was pining over him on the internet but simply didn't know his name. Once he realizes that his neighbour has been murdered (having failed to notice the actual event or subsequent police presence) he decides to immediately take it personally. Thus begins his clumsy and hilarious investigation that has him running from publishers and angry student writers while uncovering a conspiracy that may or may not have anything to do with him (but could get him killed nonetheless). Hilarious!

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

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Our unnamed narrator in an unnamed Eastern European city has agreed to take on what should be a simple task: house-sit an apartment and two cats while his friend Oskar is away in L.A. taking care of his divorce settlement. Easy, right? Unfortunately, Oskar is anything but easygoing. He has left a frenzy of ultra-specific notes all around the apartment, detailing how to care for everything in sight (right down to the CD player) and giving stern warnings (the piano says "Do Not Play"), particularly about his beloved wooden floors. Well, predictably, things do not go well. What starts as a simple wine stain on the floor (oh no!) soon threatens to take over our hero's mental health.  

The novel's dry wit is charming and engaging. I particularly liked how Oskar, who is absent from the apartment, is actually more present than our narrator who is living there. His presence is everywhere, from the notes, to the obsessive orderliness, to his favourite music. His apartment reflects his personality so much that it starts to overtake the narrator's own personality (it's no accident that we never learn the narrator's name, or even the name of the city. All there is is Oskar...well, and his cats). It's like Oskar says, First you make your room and then the room makes you.

The Rosary Murders: A Father Koesler Mystery, by William X. Kienzle

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Ah, the seventies! It was a simpler time, when Detroit was known for its seedy underbelly of crime instead of its hungry underbelly of crushing poverty. A time when people could read about Catholic priests in the news and not automatically assume the words "molestation" or "pedophile" would be in the opening paragraph. A time when William X. Kienzle would decide to start a mystery series about a priest named Father Koesler. 

First published in 1978, The Rosary Murders is the first in the Father Koesler series. It's being promoted on NetGalley to coincide with its re-release, which is how I stumbled upon it. I'm so glad I did! What an intriguing series. It's certainly dated in places, but I didn't mind (well, not too much, though there were times when the language used was uncomfortable to read, like calling a murder victim "rapable" or an African American police officer "a black" I did mind that). It felt very much like some of my favourite horror movies from the 1970's in which Catholic priests must battle evil (mwuh-ha-ha).

The story is that there is a killer on the loose and he's targeting priests and nuns. Can Father Koesler solve the case (of course he can, he's the star of the series) before it's too late (well, no, several people die first--that's what makes it a murder mystery) while still keeping his clerical vows and maintaining the secrecy of the confessional (aye, there's the rub)?

Speaking of movies, there's also a movie version of The Rosary Murders

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

BEA BUZZ BOOKS: Excerpts From Over 30 Top Fall 2012 Titles, From Publishers Lunch

BEA BUZZ BOOKS is a website that offers "professional readers" like librarians, media professionals, book industry insiders and bloggers (hey, that's me!) an opportunity to request advanced copies of digital galleys (books that have not yet been published, often unedited or uncorrected proofs that are used to generate advanced buzz before the final copy is produced) for free. Recently they listed a digital copy of their Book Expo America featured selections, called BEA BUZZ BOOKS. It contains excerpts from dozens of upcoming titles and direct links to request them on NetGalley. There are a lot of interesting books coming up in Fall 2012, but here are the two that most grabbed my attention:

Hit the jump for more...

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether Revivals
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A sophisticated and subtly complex debut novel by Benjamin Wood, The Bellwether Revivals begins with a house full of dead bodies and a severely injured young man named Eden Bellwether. The story then pulls back to a few months prior so the reader can try to figure out how it all led up to that point. The character of Eden Bellwether is presented as an arrogant, charismatic but sinister Cambridge student who is obsessed with philosophy and music theory, but even more obsessed with himself. He leads his sister, Iris, and a small group of loyal friends further into his own cult of self, while Iris's new boyfriend Oscar--a townie--observes with discomfort and concern. Can Eden be trusted? Does he have special healing powers, as he claims, or is he perhaps mentally ill? And why does everyone around him seem to bend to his will?

In some ways the novel is one large extended metaphor. A bellwether sheep is the

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Grammar Girl's 101 Troublesome Words You'll Master in No Time, by Mignon Fogarty

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I've read a lot of style guides over the years (mostly for fun--I'm that kind of nerd) and I consider myself to have fairly good grammar. The problem is, I imagine everyone thinks they have good grammar and we can't all be right. 

In the first season of the fantastic show, American Horror Story, Marcy the realtor tells the unfortunate couple who wants to sell their haunted house and thinks they've at least decorated it with style, "Everyone thinks they have good taste and everyone thinks they're funny. Most people are wrong." 

That's how I feel about grammar. I assume I know all the rules, but then I find myself breaking the rules here and there (call it poetic license or internet casualness) until eventually it becomes a habit and I forget what the rules are in the first place. I'm sure there are several mistakes in the paragraph above, for example. 

So perhaps I'll check a style guide, just to be sure. I may dust off a copy of Strunk & White or even flip through Eats, Shoots & Leaves to find out if it's all right to say alright (sometimes my spell check just doesn't know). The problem is, sometimes these experts disagree. How do I, a mere grammar civilian, know who to believe?

Enter Grammar Girl. What sets this style guide apart from others is the format. Each "troublesome word" is first presented as a query. Why is this word confusing? What's the debate? Using the example of "alright," Grammar Girl tells us that although most style guides...

Hit the jump for more Grammar Girl stuff!

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson's debut novel follows the misadventures of three female missionaries in 1923 along the Silk Road of China, near Kashgar (which I totally knew about and didn't have to look up on a map...twice). They are presumably meant to ride their bikes around, converting everyone to Christianity and spreading the civilizing influence of English Christian ladies everywhere. None of that seems to happen, though one of the ladies in question is only there so she can write a book called A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar. Cut to modern day London, where a woman helps a homeless man on her doorstep, only to find herself unravelling a mystery she hadn't bargained on, including why she's been named next of kin to a recently deceased woman who has left her a house full of junk (and an owl!). Both stories are fascinating and compelling, leaving the reader guessing how they will eventually intersect. My only criticism is that it takes a long time for the connection to actually be explained (I guessed part of it, but was still impatient at having to wait so long) and when it is, it's a bit anticlimactic. A bit more information at the end would have made a more satisfying overall read.

On an unrelated note, it's also the second book in a row I've read about cycling (the other was Chris Cleave's Gold, which couldn't have been more different). I guess in the spirit of full disclosure I should reveal my shameful secret. Here goes:

Hit the jump for the hidden truth!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Gold, by Chris Cleave

Have your tissues ready before you read Chris Cleave's new novel, Gold. At first glance it just seems like a story about two women who are best friends and long time rivals in the world of British cycling, but add a child with cancer and a few deep dark secrets and you'll be racing through this book through a patina of tears and gasps. Okay, that sounded lame. I realize it seems like I'm overstating this, but I really was crying through the last quarter of this book. I also found myself pushing to read faster so I could find out what happens (Ah, just like a bicycle race! Clever, Mr. Cleave!). 

Chris Cleave's previous novel, Little Bee, was a huge critical success but I was ambivalent about it. I thought it seemed a little inauthentic, like Chris Cleave doesn't really know what it's like to be an African refugee woman (but, then, it's not like I do either). With Gold, however, I believed that the author not only knew what it was like to train as an Olympic athlete, he also knew what it was like to have a child with cancer, and to be a child with cancer for that matter. In his author's note he mentions a lot of research

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Love and the Art of War, by Dinah Lee Küng

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The hilarious premise makes for a delightful novel. I didn't expect that to be the case because I've read a lot of, well, tripe lately (plus some amazing gems, so I guess it balances out) but this one really was a delight. The premise is that Jane, a nervous librarian worried about the state of her relationship, signs up for a night class called "Mending Marriages" but is surprised to find out that the class is comprised of only a handful of men, none of whom is wearing a wedding ring. And then the instructor starts talking about Sun Tzu. Turns out the class is actually a management class that uses The Art of War to gives tips for the office (when I mentioned this to my partner Mike he said, "Oh that's very '80's!" but I have it on good authority that he currently uses Sun Tzu's The Art of War to teach chess strategy to his junior high kids). When Jane tries to leave the class, the instructor convinces her to stay because she'll learn more from his class than she ever would from "a class of discarded wives." So begins Jane's attempts to save her marriage using ancient Chinese military tactics. I could see this being made into a quirky movie, a la Shirley Valentine

Journey to Virginland: Epistle 1, by Armen Melikian

Despite having what could be the worst book description ever written (hit the jump to read it in full), with a snark factor akin to those Facebook memes that start, "I'm sure 98% of you won't care enough to re-post this..." Journey to Virginland falls short. I expected it to at least live up to its own claim that it's a smart book for smarties and if you don't like it, it's because you're a dumb dummy who didn't get it, but it didn't. It's just a dull book with a convoluted idea and a lot of polysyllabic words. It's essentially Tyra Banks' Modelland with a half-assed attempt at religio-political commentary and a thesaurus. As one review put it, if you want a scathing religious satire with a great vocabulary, read Salman Rushdie, not Armen Melikian. 

Hit the jump to read his giveaway page. It's quite spectacular in its pomposity. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Codley and the Sea Cave Adventure, by Lisl Fair and Michaela Grace (illustrated by Ismedy Prasetya)

This book is beautifully illustrated and, if the text were to be rewritten a little, it might make a lovely picture book. When I read that the author is a Speech and Language Therapist who is interested in writing children's books that are educational, I assumed that the character in the book who has a stammer (Pokie the pufferfish) would have some resolution. Maybe the book is about stuttering, I assumed. I was wrong. Pokie's stammer just seems to be a way to distinguish when he is the one speaking (though just adding words like "Pokie said" would have been much more effective for young readers). And, like Lisl Fair's other book

Lexi Fairheart and the Forbidden Door, by Lisl Fair (illustrated by Nina de Polonia)

This book is beautifully illustrated and the story has potential, but it needs work. First, to state the obvious, the vast majority of children's picture books are 32 pages long (It's true. Go look at your kids' book shelves if you don't believe me. I'll wait.) so the author would probably want to adjust it a bit from the awkward 17 pages of the e-book edition is she plans to have it published by a major publishing house. Beyond that, though, it could use some editing. There are grammar mistakes, which aggravates me in children's books ("one of these creatures were on the loose"? Really?), and the ending is unsatisfying and flat. Why was the door so forbidden? What's the resolution to the story? Just because the book is for preschoolers doesn't mean

GUEST BLOG: A Mouse Called Wolf, by Dick King-Smith

We read this book aloud to Magda (she’s two-and-a-half), finishing around June 2, 2012. I asked Magda questions about it on June 5, 2012. Here’s what she had to say:

What book is this?
A Mouse Called Wolf

Who wrote it?
          Wolfgang Amadeus!

Haha. No, that’s the character in the book. Who’s the author of the book?
          Dick King-Smith

Was it a good book?
Yeah, we read it all!

What is the book about?
It’s about Wolf.

Who’s Wolf?
A animal.

Is it a wolf?
No, something else.

A boy! A mouse who’s a boy.

Hit the jump for more, plus Magda's sheet music painting...

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Cold Night for Alligators, by Nick Crowe

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Reading Nick Crowe's debut novel, A Cold Night for Alligators, is a little like being in a bar after midnight, six beers in, sitting at a table with a stranger who has just beaten you at darts and leans in to tell you a tall tale. At first the story seems so bizarre you want to giggle or turn away, but the man is staring you down, looking you right in the eye while he tells you a story that is either crazy or bone chilling--but you're a little too drunk to figure out which--until finally he finishes and you're left wondering what the hell just happened. 
          The novel certainly has elements of a quirky, even crazy, tale that would make it seem like a dark comedy. The main character, Jasper, wakes up from a seven-month coma after being pushed in front of a Toronto subway train, only to embark on a road trip to the Florida everglades in search of his long lost mentally ill brother, Coleman. But Nick Crowe holds steady, not allowing the bizarre story to veer too far into the comedic, though it is dark at times. It's like Heart of Darkness but

In One Person, by John Irving

A couple of decades ago, a group of Biblical scholars (I believe they were called The Jesus Council) got together to discuss the four books of the gospel in the New Testament. They concluded that each of the books had elements in common but that they weren’t necessarily derivative of each other, but rather from another, older text, one that had presumably been lost. They called the missing text “Q”. It represented the set of facts and stories that each of the gospel writers would have been familiar with and would have used as the basis for their own accounts (if I remember correctly, only three of the gospels relied heavily on Q while the gospel of John—or was it Luke?—varied a great deal). Anyway, I bring this up because if you were to create the “John Irving Council” (Garp Council, perhaps?) you could draw the same conclusion. The majority of John Irving’s novels have so many elements in common that it seems like a dozen retellings of the same person’s life, the life of Q.

Who is John Irving’s Q? Well, he’s likely the son of a single mother who has both mommy issues and daddy issues. His father may have been a war hero, but he’s not really sure and spends a fair bit of time wondering about it. He lives with his mother somewhere in New England. He probably is interested in wrestling as a teenager and aspires to be a writer. His first sexual experience is almost certainly with a somewhat masculine girl to whom he is not necessarily attracted but to whom he submits out of curiosity and fear. She will continue to influence his sexual development but will never be his idea of “girlfriend material.” She may be an inappropriate choice, perhaps because he sees her as a friend, or perhaps because she is related to him. Either way, he finds her sexually aggressive. There will be another woman whom he idealizes, even though things will probably not work out with her either. He will probably travel to Germany or Eastern Europe at some point. He may or may not encounter a bear.

Who is this person? Is it just a constant recreation of Garp, the character who shot John Irving to literary stardom? Or is it a version of Irving’s own life? I’ve always wondered.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Twitter Diaries: 2 Cities, 1 Friendship, 140 Characters, by Georgie Thompson and Imogen Lloyd Webber

The Twitter Diaries is an idea that was bound to happen: a long distance relationship written like a Twitter conversation. I admit, I don’t really “get” Twitter. I have an account, but I never know if I’m using it correctly. So maybe this book was a little lost on me. It seems like the sort of book that was more fun to write than it is to read (although it does look like it was really fun to write). Perhaps if I were reading it on a smart phone? Oh, who am I kidding? I’m still trying to get used to my e-reader. By the time I start using my cell phone for more than calling a tow truck, they’ll probably be obsolete and The Twitter Diaries will be a cute reminder of a time gone by. Still, it makes me want to enlist a friend in helping me write a Facebook novel. Or has that been done? And I guess a MySpace musical is right out...

Bleed for Me (Joseph O'Loughlin #4), by Michael Robotham

The only reason it took me more than a day to finish Michael Robotham’s thriller novel Bleed For Me is because I had to sleep sometime. Every time I put it down to eat, sleep, or go about my day, I kept thinking, “Oh I should go finish watching that show” instead of “I should go back and finish reading that book.” I had to remind myself that it was not a dramatic police procedural show that I was in the middle of, but a novel. That’s not to say that I prefer television to reading. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I love to read. It’s just that this book was so gripping, so perfectly paced, so easy to imagine in vivid detail, that I found myself remembering it like a really great episode of Law & Order that I couldn’t wait to get back to after the commercial break.
      This is not the first in the Joe O’Loughlin series but if they’re all as good as Bleed for Me, I can’t wait to read them all. I imagine