Monday, July 6, 2015

Adventure Stories - The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

It has taken me a while to get around to this one but, wow, what a story!

In the fall of 1991 three weather fronts, including Hurricane Grace, met to form one of the greatest storms in recorded history. One of the victims of this so-called perfect storm was Gloucester sword fishing boat, the Andrea Gail. The crew was heading out past the Grand Banks when the storm hit. The sea took on a monster-like appearance with waves over 100 feet. Junger re-creates what might have led up to the crew's fateful decisions and their heroic attempts to get themselves and their catch home. The Perfect Storm is a window on the dangerous world of offshore fishing, the breathtaking selflessness of search and rescue personnel, and the science of meteorology.

The Perfect Storm is a classic example of a fast-paced, page turning adventure story. As the rescue helicopter crew dropped one by one into the stormy Atlantic with waves as tall as buildings crashing around them, there is no way possible to put this book down. Junger brings these heroes to life. His speculative story about the crew of the Andrea Gail raises many questions about their motivation. Was the late season trip due to the captain's pride that his catches were falling? Was the potential financial gain worth risking their lives? Did they underestimate the power of the sea? Or did the storm hit so suddenly that all decision-making was taken from them?

Part of the appeal of this type of book is the fact that this actually happened. It always sits in the back of your mind that this really happened to someone. You connect with it in a way that you may not necessarily with an imaginative story.

Stories of disaster survival often raise the question of the capacity of human beings to rise to the occasion and struggle against insurmountable odds. This issue is dealt with in the recently published The Third Man Factor: the secret to survival in extreme environments by John Geiger. In a Globe and Mail review, ""The Third Man Factor is a mystery story that takes place in some of the most horrific environments imaginable. Geiger's book has a lot going for it: The many accounts of Third Man visitations in perilous situations make for edge-of-seat reading, and the citations and explorations of the theory of the sensed presence give the book scientific weight. It even contains a moral."

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Historical Mysteries

Readers of historical fiction love to immerse themselves in the details of a bygone age. A well crafted historical mystery will evoke a sense of the time and place, while challenging the reader with a carefully plotted crime to unravel. A fellow reader with a great love for historical mysteries (and too modest to write herself for The Reader) asked for a post with some of her favourite historical mysteries.

Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters is set in Shrewsbury Abbey in the 1100's. Brother Cadfael is an expert in herbs and healing, and he solves mysteries at the Abbey and surrounding area. In a A Morbid Taste for Bones Brother Cadfael is engaged to the expedition to acquire the bones of St. Winifred. When the expedition's leader is found murdered, Cadfael must unravel this bizarre mystery.

Also set in the 1100's is Sharon Kay Penman's Justin de Quincy series. De Quincy is the Queen's Man - the queen being Eleanor of Aquitaine - and investigates the matters on her behalf. De Quincy first meets Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Queen's Man. Fast-paced and entertaining, he investigates the murder of the Queen's goldsmith which holds the clue to the disappearance of Richard Lionheart.

The Tudors have been the inspiration for a number of historical mystery series including Karen Harper's Elizabeth I, Kathy Lynn Emerson's Lady Susanna Appleton and notably C.J. Samsom's Matthew Shardlake, "the sharpest hunchback in the courts of England". Set in London during the reign of Henry VIII, in the early 1500's. Shardlake is a lawyer who starts the series as Thomas Cromwell's man and even after Cromwell's demise is drawn into crimes by people close to the King. You get a good idea of how dangerous life was then, and many historical - and dangerous - people feature in the series, like Cromwell, Thomas More, Catherine Parr and Henry VIII himself. In Dissolution, Shardrake investigates the murder of Cromwell's commissioner at a Benedictine Monastery.

The Tudors are done. Cromwell is done. Charles II has been restored to the throne. Susanna Gregory's Thomas Chaloner series is set in Restoration London, in the late 1600's. In A Conspiracy of Violence, Chaloner is a former spy for Oliver Cromwell's spymaster and is now employed by the Lord Chancellor to Charles II as a spy. He solves murders while trying to keep his job and hide his ties to Cromwell's gov't. Many historical people turn up in the books, including Samuel Pepys - whom no one seems to like!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Staff Picks - Nasty: my family and other glamorous varmints by Simon Doonan

"Nastiness is rich. Nastiness is fun. Who needs all that boring, cliche Hallmark stuff when you've got flying dentures? Nastiness has texture. Nastiness has the power to transform. Describing and embracing my nasty memories, as opposed to camouflaging them with baby's breath and doilies, has helped me integrate my past with my present and made me a more jolly and contented individual. I thoroughly recommend it."

Nasty: my family and other glamorous varmints by Simon Doonan
recounts the story of growing up in the eccentric Doonan family in working class England in the 1950's and 1960's. Now the Creative Director of Barney's New York, Doonan spent his formative years in the company of a family of loving eccentrics. Mother Betty was fabulous and glamorous with a relentlessly bleached, gravity defying hairdo. Father Terry was the purveyor of Chateau Doonan - his homemade parsnip wine. The Doonan household was populated by a variety of kooky relatives and lodgers. Of especial influence were his schizophrenic grandmother and uncle who brought colour to his life in addition to a live-long fear for his own mental health. Growing up gay in working class England at that period of time was no piece of cake. He surrounded himself with like-minded people, such as Biddie, who went on to a successful career as a drag queen. Doonan and Biddie went in search of the Beautiful People but ultimately found the beauty in the friends and misfits they gathered round.

Doonan's memoir is light, funny and somewhat chaotic. Augusten Burrough's Running With Scissors, although darker, also comes to mind. "RUNNING WITH SCISSORS is the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. So at the age of twelve, Burroughs found himself amidst Victorian squalor living with the doctor's bizarre family, and befriending a pedophile who resided in the backyard shed. The story of an outlaw childhood where rules were unheard of, and the Christmas tree stayed up all year-round, where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull, an electroshock therapy machine could provide entertainment. The funny, harrowing, and bestselling account of an ordinary boy's survival under the most extraordinary circumstances..." - catalogue

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris is another memoir of growing up amongst eccentrics. "David Sedaris returns to his deliriously twisted domain, hilarious childhood dramas infused with melancholy; the gulf of misunderstanding that exists between people of different nations or members of the same and the poignant divide between one's best hopes and most common deeds." - catalogue

In the world of fiction there is Roddy Doyle's The Van which is part of the Barrytown Trilogy. Another unconventional Irish family, the Rabbitte family story began with the acclaimed Commitments. "Set in the heady days of Ireland's brief, euphoric triumphs in the 1990 World Cup, The Van follows Jimmy and Bimbo as they haul their mobile food outlet through north Dublin, selling"grub" to the drunk and the hungry, and keeping just a step ahead of the environmental health officers. It is a hilarious and tender tale of male friendship and of family life." - dust jacket.

Friday, July 3, 2015

5 New Novels Watch for this July

Summer reading! Summer reading! Summer reading! Need even more for your summer reading pile? Here are some exciting new titles being released in July.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee (July 14): Normally I put the books in these posts in release date order but this month, it seems fitting to start with Go Set a Watchman. This will probably be the most talked about book this summer, if not this year. We've stocked up on copies to meet anticipated demand, and we're as excited as you to read this book—which the publisher is not alone in calling "an historic literary event." Written before To Kill A Mockingbird, but featuring some of the same characters and set later. It's published for the first time now.

Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman (July 7): This début novel has been getting lots of comparisons to another first novel—The Secret History; which launched the career of now Pulitzer Prize winner novelist Donna Tartt. This one is getting dual praise as having both legitimate thrills AND compelling
prose: "Georgia, Charlie and Alice each arrive at Harvard with hopeful visions of what the future will hold. But when, just before graduation, a classmate is found murdered on campus, they find themselves facing a cruel and unanticipated new reality. Moreover, a charismatic professor who has loomed large in their lives is suspected of the crime."

The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka (July 21): Author Hugh Howley has this to say of the latest from author Kosmatka,"If Stephen Hawking and Stephen King wrote a novel together, you'd get The Flicker
Men. Brilliant, disturbing, and beautifully told." When a quantum physicist publicly shares findings from a recent experiment, he faces not only controversy but also threats from those who think he's discovered too much. A great summer thriller with scientific speculation at its core.

All Together Now by Gill Hornby (Jul 21): This one sounds like a bit of light-hearted fun from an author whose previous book—The Hive—was called a mom-edy by Vanity Fair. "The small town of Bridgeford is in crisis. Downtown is deserted, businesses are closing, and the idea of civic pride seems old-fashioned to residents rushing through the streets to get somewhere else. Bridgeford seems to have lost its heart. But there is one thing that just might unite the community--music. The local choir, a group generally either ignored or mocked by most of Bridgeford's inhabitants, is preparing for an important contest, and to win it they need new members, and a whole new sound. Enlisting (some may say drafting) singers, who include a mother suffering from empty-nest syndrome, a middle-aged man who has just lost his job and his family, and a nineteen-year-old waitress who dreams of reality-TV stardom, the choir regulars must find--and make--harmony with neighbors they've been happy not to know for years. Can they all learn to work together, save the choir, and maybe even save their town in the process?"

Kitchens of the Great Midwest (July 28): Love food and cooking culture? Here's a début novel that will whet your appetite. "When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience."

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Series-ously Good Mysteries - July 2015

It's July. I'm sure you have some available extra time (can you say vacation?) this month to get caught up on the new series offerings coming out...

Spellcasting in Silk by Juliet Blackwell is the seventh title in the Witchcraft mystery series. It follows A Vision in Velvet. Lily Ivory, vintage boutique owner and gift witch would like nothing better than to relax, enjoy her friends, and take care of business at her store, which is booming thanks to San Francisco's upcoming Summer of Love Festival.  But as the unofficial witchy consultant to the SFPD, she is pulled into yet another case. A woman has jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, and her apparent suicide may be connected to a suspicious botanica in the Mission District. When the police investigate the shop, they ask Lily to look into its mysterious owner, whose granddaughter also appears to be missing. As Lily searches for the truth, she finds herself confronted with a confounding mystery and some very powerful magic.

From the author of Well Read, Then Dead  (Terrie Farley Moran) comes the second mystery featuring Sassy Cabot and Bridgy Mayfield, who bring Fort Myers Beach, Florida, residents plenty of sinful treats and killer reads at their bookstore café, Read ’Em and Eat. Caught Read-Handed finds Sassy happy to help her fellow bibliophiles with a visit to the local library with book donations for their annual fundraising sale. Unfortunately, the welcoming readers’ haven is in turmoil as an argument erupts between an ornery patron and new staff member, Tanya Lipscombe—also known as “Tanya Trouble.” She may lack people skills, but everyone is shocked when she’s later found murdered in her own hot tub. The man last seen arguing with Tanya is soon arrested. But Alan Mersky, a veteran with PTSD, happens to be the brother of Sassy’s former boss—and he’s no murderer. Now it’s up to Sassy and Bridgy to clear Alan’s name and make sure the real killer gets booked.

Bailey Cates is publishing the fifth title in her Magical Bakery mystery, Magic and Macaroons this month. It follows Some Enchanted Eclairs. For magical baker Katie Lightfoot, the only way to beat the Savannah summer heat is to whip up some cool treats for the Honeybee Bakery’s patrons. But when a meeting of the spellbook club is interrupted by a stranger collapsing on the floor of her shop, mumbling something about a voodoo talisman, Katie drops everything to begin investigating. Her search for answers quickly leads her into a dangerous blend of Savannah’s infamous voodoo queens, a powerful missing charm—and a deadly witch who seems to be targeting the city’s magical community.

Hooked on Ewe by Hannah Reed, is the second title in the Scottish Highlands series, following Off Kilter. It’s early September in Glenkillen, Scotland, when American expat (and budding romance novelist) Eden Elliott is recruited by the local inspector to act as a special constable. Fortunately it’s in name only, since not much happens in Glenkillen. For now Eden has her hands full with other things: preparing for the sheepdog trial on the MacBride farm—a fundraiser for the local hospice—and helping her friend Vicki with her first yarn club skein-of-the-month deliveries. Everything seems to be coming together—until the head of the welcoming committee is found strangled to death with a club member’s yarn. Now Eden feels compelled to honor her commitment as a constable.

Death of an English Muffin by Victoria Hamilton is the third title in the Merry Muffin mystery series, following Muffin but Murder. They say one’s home is one’s castle, but when it comes to Wynter Castle, baker  Merry Wynter would like it to belong to someone else. But until a buyer bites, she could use some extra dough, so she decides to take in renters. The idea pans out, and Merry’s able to find a handful of tenants eager to live in a real castle. The only problem is most of them are crumby, tea-swilling old biddies. The Legion of Horrible Ladies, as Merry calls them, is led by the terribly nasty—and fabulously wealthy—Cleta Sanson. The abrasive Englishwoman keeps everyone whipped into a frenzy—until she meets an embarrassing end behind a locked door. Evidence reveals that Cleta was murdered, yet no one is privy to how the deed was done. Merry knows she must quickly find the killer before another of her guests gets killed.

Nineteenth in the Meg Langslow mystery series by Donna Andrews is Lord of the Wings. It follows The Nightingale Before Christmas. It's another holiday and Mayor Randall Shiffley has turned Caerphilly, Virginia into Spooky City, USA. The residents are covering every window with cobwebs and roaming the streets in costume to entertain the tourists, and Meg's grandfather is opening a new "Creatures of the Night" exhibit in the zoo. When a real body at the zoo and a suspicious fire at the Haunted House threaten to mar the town's creepy fun, it's up to Meg Langslow to save Halloween.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Celebrate Canada Day with Award Winning Books

Canada Reads 2015

Ru by Kim Thuy

"Ru. In Vietnamese it means lullaby; in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow--of tears, blood, money. Kim Thúy's Ru is literature at its most crystalline: the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful waters. In vignettes of exquisite clarity, sharp observation and sly wit, we are carried along on an unforgettable journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a crowded and muddy Malaysian refugee camp, and onward to a new life in Quebec. There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream. As an adult, the waters become rough again: now a mother of two sons, she must learn to shape her love around the younger boy's autism. Moving seamlessly from past to present, from history to memory and back again, Ru is a book that celebrates life in all its wonder: its moments of beauty and sensuality, brutality and sorrow, comfort and comedy." publisher

Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

"After almost twenty years of caring for elderly parents—first for their senile father, and then for their cantankerous ninety-three-year-old mother—author Plum Johnson and her three younger brothers experience conflicted feelings of grief and relief when their mother, the surviving parent, dies. Now they must empty and sell the beloved family home, which hasn’t been de-cluttered in more than half a century. Twenty-three rooms bulge with history, antiques, and oxygen tanks. Plum remembers her loving but difficult parents who could not have been more different: the British father, a handsome, disciplined patriarch who nonetheless could not control his opinionated, extroverted Southern-belle wife who loved tennis and gin gimlets. The task consumes her, becoming more rewarding than she ever imagined. Items from childhood trigger memories of her eccentric family growing up in a small town on the shores of Lake Ontario in the 1950s and 60s. But unearthing new facts about her parents helps her reconcile those relationships with a more accepting perspective about who they were and what they valued. They Left Us Everything is a funny, touching memoir about the importance of preserving family history to make sense of the past and nurturing family bonds to safeguard the future." publisher

Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award

Punishment by Linden MacIntyre

"In Punishment, his first novel since completing his Long Stretch trilogy, Scotiabank Giller-winner Linden MacIntyre brings us a powerful exploration of justice and vengeance, and the peril that ensues when passion replaces reason, in a small town shaken by a tragic death. Forced to retire early from his job as a corrections officer in Kingston Penitentiary, Tony Breau has limped back to the village where he grew up to lick his wounds, only to find that Dwayne Strickland, a young con he’d had dealings with in prison is back there too–and once again in trouble. Strickland has just been arrested following the suspicious death of a teenage girl, the granddaughter of Caddy Stewart, Tony’s first love. Tony is soon caught in a fierce emotional struggle between the outcast Strickland and the still alluring Caddy. And then another figure from Tony’s past, the forceful Neil Archie MacDonald–just retired in murky circumstances from the Boston police force–stokes the community’s anger and suspicion and an irresistible demand for punishment. As Tony struggles to resist the vortex of vigilante action, Punishment builds into a total page-turner that blindsides you with twists and betrayals." publisher

Arthur Ellis Award - Best Novel

Plague by C.C. Humphreys

"London, 1665. A serial killer stalks his prey, scalpel in his hand and God's vengeance in his heart. Five years after his restoration to the throne, Charles II leads his citizens by example, enjoying every excess. Londoners have slipped the shackles of puritanism and now flock to the cockpits, brothels and, especially, the theatres, where for the first time women are allowed to perform alongside the men. But not everyone is swept up in the excitement. Some see this liberated age as the new Babylon, and murder victims pile up in the streets, making no distinction in class between a royalist member of parliament and a Cheapside whore. But they have a few things in common: the victims are found with gemstones in their mouths. And they have not just been murdered; they've been . . . sacrificed. Now the plague is returning to the city with full force, attacking indiscriminately . . . and murder has found a new friend." publisher

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Village India in fiction

India is a country with a population of over a billion people. But unlike many western countries, the majority of its people still live in villages. A great many novels set in contemporary India focus on life in the urban core, many in Mumbai (Bombay). But I grew up in village India and have fond memories of the rice fields that surrounded our town in South India, the weekly bazaars where you could buy almost anything you needed, the mud huts and crowded alley ways. These are not often described by Indian authors these days. But I have found a few that do reflect this slower but often chaotic way of life.

Here are four titles that you might enjoy as I did.

The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy - 1997

Set in South India, Ms. Roy opening paragraph describes so vividly the sights, sounds and smells of the landscape around a small village in Kerala where twins “fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family.” (Front Cover). Family relations are so complex and interwoven in fabric of Indian society and this novel portrays a particularly interesting family saga. Winner of the 1997 Man Booker Award.

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
by Kiran Desai - 1998

Indian people can be very creative in problem solving and this somewhat light hearted story of a young man who does not fit the traditional mold includes a great variety of solutions to the problems of everyday life in a small town. It felt at times like a Peter Seller’s movie gone awry! Desai won the 2006 Man Booker prize for The Inheritance of Loss.

The House of Blue Mangoes
by David Davidar - 2002

This novel spans three generations of the Dorai family in an area of South India renowned for a rare variety of blue mangoes. The story weaves historical and family events together to reflect the fabric to life in the South, with mouth watering descriptions of the dishes and fruit that were part of their diet. Did you know there are over 1,000 different types of mangoes in the world?

The Toss of a Lemon
by Padma Viswanathan - 2008

Sivikami is just ten years old when her parents arrange her marriage to a young astrologer and village healer. But by the time she is 18, she is a widow with two young children with Brahmin caste rules that dictate what she can and cannot do each day. It is a story of a woman’s love and perseverance against the norms of the times and how she uses her wisdom to affect the lives of her children. Is it all just a twist of fate, a toss of a lemon?