Saturday, August 29, 2015

Staff Pick - The Lady and the Poet by Maeve Haran

Not much is known about Ann More, wife and inspiration of poet John Donne. Donne first met More in the home of her uncle and his employer, Thomas Egerton. Their union was opposed by her relatives and they married in secret. As a result, Donne spent some time in Fleet Prison until the validity of their marriage could be proven. Once released, his prospects diminished, they spent their lives in financial straits producing a large number of children. Ann Donne died young and Donne, unusual for a man with such a large family, never remarried. Maeve Haran speculates about the young woman who inspired and sustained such devotion in The Lady and the Poet.

Ann More was not a typical fourteen year old of her time. In Elizabethan England, girls, like Ann's sisters, were married to men who were advantageous family connections. If the girls were lucky, they survived childbirth and grew fond of their husbands. Ann was indulged by her grandfather and spent many happy hours reading, a highly unusual activity for such a young girl. In addition to, or perhaps as a result of, her unusual education, she was spirited and forthright. She deeply felt the early loss of her mother and older sister, making her all the more protective of those left behind. She was brave and bold and could not accept either a life at Court or an unhappy arranged marriage.

The Lady and the Poet is a rich portrait of the Elizabethan age and life at Court and its environs. This imaginative portrait is also a suspenseful page-turner as the story of these star crossed lovers unfolds. The story is interspersed with Donne's metaphysical sonnets including, from Fleet Prison, the chastened - John Donne. Ann Donne. Un-done.

Other works of biographical fiction which come to mind are:

Mrs Shakespeare: the complete works by Robert Nye

"It is April 1594. Will Shakespeare, budding poet and playwright, invites his estranged wife to come to London to celebrate his thirtieth birthday. Seven years after his death, Anne Hathaway reminisces about her now-famous husband, recalling in particular that unforgettable week and what happened to her in a certain bed in his lodgings above a fishmonger's shop-an enormous four-poster that the playwright called their "private playhouse." By turns thoughtful and bawdy, Mrs. Shakespeare's tale offers insight into Will's secret lives, including the mystery of the second-best bed that he bequeathed her, as well as the question that has intrigued scholars and readers for centuries: to whom and for whom were the "Dark Sonnets" written" - publisher

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

"The story begins in the snow. It’s 1848, and Emily is a student at Mount Holyoke, with its mournful headmistress and strict, strict rules. She sees the seminary’s blond handyman rescue a baby deer from a mountain of snow, in a lyrical act of liberation that will remain with her for the rest of her life. The novel revivifies such historical figures as Emily’s brother, Austin, with his crown of red hair; her sister-in-law, Sue; a rival and very best friend, Emily’s little sister, Lavinia, with her vicious army of cats; and especially her father, Edward Dickinson, a controlling congressman. Charyn effortlessly blends these very factual characters with a few fictional ones, creating a dramatis personae of dynamic breadth." - publisher

Friday, August 28, 2015

Nerdtastic Novels

Armada by Ernest Cline caught my eye because of one word - Nerdtastic. Such a novel would fulfill the reading needs of so many people in my life that I'm going to have to break out of my usual mode of reading - give this one a go - and pass it around. What makes it Nerdtastic? Booklist says, "Cline presents Zack Lightman, a teen with anger issues obsessed with his late father, who left behind some rocking mixed tapes and notebooks delineating a wild conspiracy theory about the truth embedded in popular science fiction novels, movies, and videogames. When Zack looks out a school window and sees an alien spacecraft just like those he shoots down so decisively while playing the online alien-invaders videogame, Armada (he's ranked sixth best player in the world), he fears he's losing his mind. Readers, however, will feel confident that they're in for another hard-charging adventure that blasts open the barrier between the actual and the virtual. And indeed, Cline once again brings crackling humor and fanboy knowledge to a zesty, crowd-pleasing, countdown-clock, save-the-planet tale featuring an unlikely hero, adrenaline-pumping action, gawky romance, and touching family moments"

What else is out there to satisfy our inner nerd and get our geek on?

Constellation Games: a space opera soap opera by Leonard Richardson features an almost thirty year old who is using his programming skills to create pony themed video games for the under 10 set, while occupying his under-occupied mind with the video games of his youth. When the aliens come, he finds he has the skills necessary for first contact.

Scott Pilgrim is described as a dopey, yet content slacker. Early 20s, chastely dating a teenager, bassist in a band who finds himself drawn into a fantastical adventure involving supernatural martial arts duel and many more adventures and the series unfolds.

Science fiction and international intrigue meet in Walter Jon Williams' This is Not a Game features four partners in a video game company based in Indonesia who find themselves in trouble in the midst of a revolution. When one of their party is murdered, the rest must rely on their skills and the help of millions of online gamers to track down the killer.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Staff Pick - "Little Black Lies" by Sharon Bolton|library/m/halifax-horizon|1879072
For several years now I have been a huge fan of Sharon Bolton’s novels.

The setting of “Little Black Lies” was one which I’ve never encountered before in popular fiction. The Falkland Islands were portrayed vividly with both geographical and historical accuracy. It reminded me a bit of the Scottish Hebrides with its abundant wildlife, windswept rolling hills and sea.
Aerial photo of Stanley
Aerial photo of Stanley

Amongst this breathtaking scenery we meet some of the inhabitants of Port Stanley, the main town of the Falklands. Stanley has a population of just over two thousand people. Not much at all for the capital of a country the size of Wales.
The narrative of “Little Black Lies” is told over the course of one week via the perspective of three different people. A plot device that is very effective in this instance.
Three years ago the women in “Little Black Lies” were vastly different people. Catrin Quinn was married to Ben and had two healthy boys with another baby on the way. Rachel Grimwood, her best friend, was also the mother of two young boys with a third on the way. The women had been friends since childhood and were closer than sisters, sharing every thought and aspiration.
The narrative begins with Catrin Quinn – a very damaged woman who has endured what is for most people is the very worst thing imaginable. She has lost two young sons in a careless accident and as a result of this trauma she has miscarried a third son… Catrin is coping as well as she can. Her marriage to Ben has dissolved and she now lives alone with her Staffordshire Terrier, Queenie.
QueenieHer days are filled with her work as a cetaceans specialist at the Falkland Conservation Headquarters. However, never a day passes that she does not think of her boys and her thoughts have become suicidal… She thinks the only reason she does not ‘end it all’ is the vast rage she feels for who she blames for their death, her former best-friend, Rachel. She keeps a diary detailing her rage and plans for vengeance.

This week is no ordinary week in the Falklands. A young boy has gone missing. This is the third boy to go missing in as many years. This has made the entire island population tense with fear and suspicion. Unlike England or the U.S., where a missing child brings about fear of pedophiles, in the Falklands people fear drowning, animal attacks or something less sinister. But with three missing children the hard-working islanders are desperate for answers and they begin imagining something more fearful. They try to assure themselves that nothing evil could happen here…
beached pilot whalesIn addition, the week holds a natural disaster. Almost two hundred pilot whales have beached themselves on the shores and it is Catrin Quinn’s mandate to cope with this distressing natural disaster.

The book’s second narrative traverses this disastrous week with Catrin’s former lover Callum Murray.  From Scotland, Callum originally came to the Falklands as a soldier in the Falkland’s War. It is as a result of this war that he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Callum is a tall, handsome man who chose to make his home in the beautiful country he so bravely defended.  The country where he accidentally met the married Catrin –  with whom he fell immediately in love.
The third narrative follows Rachel Grimwood’s week. Rachel feels like a pariah. Her guilt weighs so heavily upon her that she has difficulty coping with everyday life. She cannot look people in the eye. She shows little affection for her youngest son, though she loves her two elder sons dearly. She is often home alone with the boys as her husband Sander travels with his work. As a result of a her actions three years ago two little boys have lost their lives.  Little boys that she once cared for deeply.  She has lost her best friend. She is seriously depressed.

An intricately plotted story of how one moment of thoughtlessness can lead to tragedy that impacts upon countless people, “Little Black Lies” is filled with a pervading sense of loss. There are many surprises in store for the reader. With solid, empathetic characters and jaw-dropping plot revelations, it is a novel that will be appreciated by anyone who admires crime fiction with a psychological bent. It contains all of the elements of a great thriller: betrayal, secrecy, passion, despair, fear – and Sharon Bolton uses these elements in a seamless way that grabs you and won’t let go until the very, very end.
Highly recommended!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Staff Pick -The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia

The Fifth Servant is a fast paced historical mystery set in 16th century Prague. A Christian girl has been found murdered in a Jewish shop, leading to serious accusations of blood libel and threats of revenge. Sexton Benyamin Ben-Akiva has three days to find the murderer before the already volatile situation erupts into violence and retribution.

Kenneth Wishnia presents an enthralling blend of historical detail and charismatic, realistic characters, combined with an inventive and intelligent storyline. The writing is quite smart and thankfully it is not cluttered with extraneous historical detail. Readers can't help but to root for Benyamin, who has little more than his faith and wits to see him through his ordeal.

Both Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly gave it a star review, the latter stating "Well-developed characters and detailed portrayals of life at the time help make this historical crime thriller a gripping page-turner."
Kirkus Reviews says "Works nicely on at least three levels: as history, mystery and theology."

Also for your consideration, a couple more mysteries set in Prague:
The Doctor Dines in Prague,
by Robin Hathaway
The Phoenix of Prague,
by Douglas Skeggs

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Election 2015 - Beyond the Sound Bites

With our next federal election just a few months away, there is still time to read books by and about the politicians who are vying for your votes.

Stephen Harper by John Ibbitson

"The authoritative biography of Stephen Harper, to be published on the eve of the next election. As one of the important prime ministers in the life of our nation, Stephen Harper has reshaped Canada into a more conservative country, a transformation that his opponents tacitly admit will never be reversed. Under its 22nd prime minister, Canada shows the world a plainer, harder face. Ibbitson presents an intimate, detailed portrait of a man who has remained an enigma to supporters and enemies alike." publisher

Common Ground by Justin Trudeau

"The experiences that have shaped Justin Trudeau over the course of his life and how how his passion for Canada and its people took root. Covering the years from his childhood at 24 Sussex to his McGill days during the tumultuous time of the Charlottetown Accord to his first campaign in Papineau to his role as Liberal Party leader today, the book captures the foundational moments that have formed the man we have come to know and informed his vision for the future of Canada. Filled with anecdotes, personal reflections, and never-before-seen photographs from his own collection, Mr. Trudeau's memoir shows how the events of his life have led him to this moment and prepared him for the future. " publisher.

Strength of Conviction by Tom Mulcair

"He was known in Québec as the provincial Opposition's "pit bull." Here, in his own words, is the story of Tom Mulcair's rise from middle-class beginnings to the threshold of power. Who he is, how he thinks, and how he comes by the values that shaped his character. Unwavering in his convictions, he shares information on the reasons why he resigned as Québec's minister of the environment under Charest; his decision to rejoin the New Democratic Party; and what it was like working closely with Jack Layton to help spearhead the "Orange Wave" that enabled the NDP to become the Official Opposition in the 2011 federal election. Mulcair sheds light on past immigration and environmental policies, the Québec Referendum, Native residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Harper government's Anti-Terrorism Act. He reveals his vision for the country and his position on the issues that matter most." publisher.

Who We Are: reflections on my life and Canada by Elizabeth May

"Elizabeth May reflects on her life and the people and experiences that have formed her and informed her beliefs. From daughter of activist parents, to waitress and cook on Cape Breton Island, to Dalhousie University law student, lawyer, and environmentalist, and finally to leader of the Green Party and first elected Canadian Green Member of Parliament. May believes that Canadians must rescue our threatened democracy, return to our traditional role as a world leader, develop a sustainable economy, and take immediate and decisive action to address the climate crisis. A portrait of a remarkable woman and an urgent call to action." publisher.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Year in a Life

A colleague of mine recently returned from having a year off work. During this time he crossed off a bucket list worth of travel going to Germany, China, Argentina, Cuba, Thailand and a few more that I am sure that I have forgotten. Going to just one of those areas would be dream enough for a lot of people but he was lucky enough - and financially wise enough- to check these countries off his list. This got me to wondering what might be done in one calendar year if you put your mind to it.

Living Oprah: my one year experiment to walk the walk of the queen of talk by Robyn Okrant.  “in 2008 I performed an experiment. For an entire year, I lived my life completely according to the advice of Oprah Winfrey...Oprah frequently urges her viewers and readers to “live your best life”....would the costs of living as Oprah prescribes (financial, energy, time spent) be worth the results?....”. The author spent $4,781.84 - plus 1,202 hours and one minute following Oprah’s advice. Did she find it worth it? I guess you have to read the book and judge for yourself. Personally I won’t be able to walk Oprah’s walk.....I would fall off her high heels.

I must admit that the main reason that I picked up the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert was because of the cover. I just thought it was so clever, even before I knew the subject matter. So after a few weeks of this book passing me by at the circulation desk, I gave in and read it. There are probably few people who don't know what it is about now that the movie starring Julia Roberts has been released. For those who don’t, it is a year long spiritual and physical voyage of self-discovery taken by the author after her painful divorce. I refer to it as a voyage to the three “I”s - Italy, India and Indonesia. For those who want to figure out what happens next they can read the follow up book, Committed: a skeptic makes peace with marriage.

Another book made into a movie is Julie and Julia: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen: how one girl risked her marriage, her job, her sanity to master the art of living by Julie Powell. This is one of those books that makes you think to be careful what you wish for. The stress of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking put a strain on the author’s job, marriage, finances and dress size. Cleaving: a story of marriage, meat and obsession is the follow-up book of what happened next to Powell and her life.

Also consider:

Better Off: flipping the switch on technology
by Eric Brende

Super Size Me (film)
by Morgan Spurlock

The Year of Living Biblically: one man’s humble quest to follow the bible as literally as possible, by A.J.Jacobs.

The Guinea Pig Diaries: my life as an experiment, by A.J.Jacobs.

What could you dedicate a year of your life to or for?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Staff Pick: Black Alley by Mauricio Segura

Okay, here’s the truth. I’ve been having a horrible time trying to write this post about Black Alley by Mauricio Segura. And I keep asking myself, why? I really liked this book: I thought it was well written, had a great story and an important message. However, the more I think about the book, the less I feel like I'm able to articulate my thoughts about it in a way that will do it justice. I find myself frozen in my attempts to describe it, which is weird, because it’s a book that I really want to have the opportunity to tell more readers about.

I’m going to ease myself into this, here's how the book jacket describes the story:

"In the Côte-des-Neiges area of Montreal, the first stop for many new immigrants, live people of more than 100 nationalities. Marcelo, the sensitive son of Chilean refugees, and Cléo, a shy boy from Haiti, find friendship on the track, winning a major relay race together. Years later, in the same streets, two violent gangs, the Latino Power and the Bad Boys, confront each other, and their leaders must decide whether they will be united by their childhood friendship, or divided by race.... "

There were a lot of things that grabbed my attention about this book. Despite my love for the great historical novels written by many Canadian authors, I frequently feel that there are less stories being told about modern Canada. Even though this book is actually set more than a decade ago (it was originally published in French in 1998) it feels very much as though it depicts life in Canada as it is now—highlighting stories of immigrants, multiculturalism and the changing makeup of Canadian society. I also feel that I read a lot of Canadian books that look at life in rural areas and small towns, but not as many urban ones—so Black Alley’s Montreal setting also interested me. Finally, I always seem to be drawn to stories of youth and coming-of-age, and the various ways that authors can depict that tumultuous time of life, which was certainly an appeal here too.

So that’s what made me want to read this book, here’s what I found when I did.

The novel opens in a crowded high school gymnasium where the principal has gathered the students to talk about recent incidents in the school that have arisen through ethnic tensions. In the rough and boisterous actions of the students—quick spats with one another, power games with the school monitors who are there to keep the peace, boos and shouts at the principal's words—we are immediately immersed in the world of the characters, and we stay immersed in that world. The characters—their conversations, thoughts and struggles—feel very real, as does the setting.

There is a lot in this book to praise—both plotwise and stylistically. The plot grows gradually through the everyday lives of the characters, flashing back to their childhoods, and arriving at a climax, that for the characters seems simultaneously inevitable and a shocking surprise.

Stylistically, Segura made some interesting choices that, for me, really enhanced the story. In part of the book, he uses 2nd person narration (if you haven’t encountered it before, the wikipedia explains it as “a narrative mode in which the protagonist or another main character is referred to by employment of second-person personal pronouns and other kinds of addressing forms, for example the English second-person pronoun "you".”). In the 2nd person parts of Black Alley, the story becomes extremely personal for the reader: the character is being addressed and talked to, but on some level it feels as though you—the reader—are also being addressed, or are at least a fly-on-the-wall in a private conversation.

A second stylistic choice is the that book tells it story in a number of languages. The bulk of the story is told in English (French originally but this is a translation) but it is peppered with incidences of the characters addressing each other in their first languages–Spanish and Haitian Creole. The storyline remains clear, but the setting is enhanced by the bits of meaning that are dropped out: you feel like you are on the street with the characters, hearing the multitude of languages that are spoken in an urban centre. In particular in the scenes of tension between the rival groups,this heightens the tension, because you (presumably like the members of the rival gang), don’t necessarily know what has just been said.

This is a book that has left me with a lot to mull over in my mind: about life in Canada, life in Quebec, about the challenges for new immigrants to this country and about the things that you take for granted when you were born and raised somewhere. But it also has left me thinking about the challenges of youth, how we grow up and form our identities, the opportunities we have or in other cases don’t, the choices we made when we were young and how decisions that seem to make sense at the time, can have terrible and lasting impacts. There are probably pages worth of other things that I could have said about this book as well, but you’ll have to read it yourself and discover what those might have been.

And because here at The Reader we like to do this kind of thing, here are a few books that might also interest you if this story sounds appealing.

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay: several sources have made comparisons between these two, on many levels, quite different books. Tremblay's novel also examines the lives of Montrealers at a particular place and time—in this case Mont-Royal in the 1940s. The two would make interesting companion pieces for people interested in the social history of the city. Like Black Alley this novel is translated from the original French.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton: although this book is based around clashes between economic groups, not cultural ones, I can't help but feel like there is a strong link here. If Black Alley's story of teen gang life and the difficulty of belonging appeals to you, you might want to revisit this classic.

More by Austin Clarke: for another take on the urban experience of immigrants—this time in Toronto. Clarke's book includes the reality of teen gangs, but focuses on the parent of a gang member. From the publisher "At the news of her son's involvement in gang crime, Idora Morrison collapses in her rented basement apartment. For four days and nights, she retreats into a vortex of memory, pain, and disappointment that unravels a riveting dissection of her life as a black immigrant to Toronto. "