Thursday, September 30, 2010

Would anyone like the first book of the 3-book set of Skippy Dies?

Today I received my Indiespensable order from, and as part of the goodies they included with the book, they enclosed a copy (special printing for Powell's) of the first installment ("Hopeland") of the 3-book set of Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray. Since I already have the complete three-book set, I would love for someone to take this first book. 

first person to make a comment can have it -- who knows? You may like it enough to want the get the entire book!

Where you live is not an issue. 

September Reading Roundup

The last day of September....where has this year gone?

September found me finishing off the last of the Man Booker Prize longlist, minus one. My favorite book on the longlist was Skippy Dies, but the judges somehow did not see fit to include this one on the shortlist.  My track record of picking winners gets back to normal with that exclusion.  But that's okay -- and it will be only a few more days until the judges enlighten us with their choice.

So here's my month:

the non-longlist books:

Historical true crime
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, by Douglas Starr

Australian crime fiction
The Broken Shore by Peter Temple

British mystery and UK crime fiction
Bad Boy, by Peter Robinson 

Scandinavian crime fiction
Frozen Moment, by Camilla Ceder (not yet reviewed...coming soon)

The last of the Bookers:
The Long Song, by Andrea Levy
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore
In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut

Other book-related stuff:
1) My book group read and discussed Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

2) Added to the Amazon Wishlist:
- Annabel, by Kathleen Winter
-Cities of Refuge, by Michael Helm
-The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant
-The Mighty Walzer, by Howard Jacobson

3) From Librarything's Early Reviewer Program came Bad Boy, by Peter Robinson and The Outward Room, by Millen Brand.  Thank you to Sonia and the powers that be!  And my thanks also to Rachel at Unbridled Books for the review copy of Panopticon, by David Bajo.  Other ARCs -- again, a haul, and I thank everyone who provided me with their books!

4) Books bought this month:
-Frozen Moment, by Camilla Ceder
- Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, by Maile Chapman
-Room, by Emma Donoghue (signed 1st edition)
-Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History, by Yunte Huang
-The Stray Sod Country, by Patrick McCabe
- The Geography of Secrets, by Frederick Reuss
- The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

5) -- A short piece about the evil that lurks in the quiet English village of St. Mary Mead, for the Agatha Christie birthday blog tour, organized by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise; and
--An international giveaway of Emma Donoghue's book Room in honor of this month's reading topic

Coming up in October:  my focus will be on books from indie presses, with a spotlight on Unbridled Books, although I'll add a few other indie publishers into the mix here and there as well.  It should definitely make for interesting reading. 


Monday, September 27, 2010

It's Monday! What am I reading?


How soon Monday rolls around! I feel like I just wrote this weekly segment and now I'm writing it again.  First, my thanks to Sheila at  book journey who should be an example to us all. How she gets so much done in a day is beyond me!

So, last week I finally put aside the Man Booker Prize longlist novels.  I finished all but one -- The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner, which did not arrive in time to complete. After forking out the money for this book once, I didn't want to get another.  There will be a seller on Amazon getting a not-so-nice bit of feedback on this one.  But that's okay.  The last three I read were

In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut, The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson, and The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore, all reviewed hereAs a side note, if anyone wants my copy of The Betrayal, the first person to leave a comment here about it can have it.  And I don't care where you live.

Then I finished a book called Frozen Moment by a new (well, new to me) Scandinavian crime fiction author,  Camilla Ceder.  It's quite good, and I was amazed to find it was her first novel.   I haven't done the review yet but it will show up over at the Crime Segments part of my blog this week.  I had to laugh -- on the back cover of my book was written "Move Over, Wallander." And speaking of Wallander, he's back on Masterpiece Theater starting this coming Sunday.  I've been trying to get Larry to read the Wallander novels, but he's a literary xenophobe, preferring the American crime writers because (and I quote) "they don't have accents."  I made him promise to try one Henning Mankell novel if he likes what he sees on Masterpiece on Sunday. 

There was a winner in the international Room giveaway last week, and I also wrote a small piece for September's ongoing Agatha Christie Blog Tour, hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. 

Currently I'm finishing Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. My book group is discussing this tomorrow and I'm not quite done yet. 

This week the month ends and we roll over into October, so I'll be switching gears once again.  I'm planning to do a month of reading that focuses on independent publishers, featuring mainly books by Unbridled Books (since I seem to have amassed quite a few here recently), starting with one of their most recent books called Panopticon, by David Bajo, and moving on to A Geography of Secrets, by Frederick Reuss over the course of this week.  As the month goes on, I'll add other indie press books into the mix as well. 

So that's it.  Have a lovely reading week!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Room International Giveaway .... and the winner is....

According to, the winner of Room is commenter #9 (excluding Suzanne, who said she didn't have to be entered in the giveaway) -- and that would be Clenna!  Yay for you! I'll be ordering that for you tomorrow, so if you would be ever so kind and send me an email with your address,  it will be on its way.

And thanks to everyone else...there will definitely be more giveaways in my future, so stay tuned.  You may not have won the book, but I won a chance to check out all of your awesome blogs.

A Special thanks to Jo of Booklover Book Reviews for putting up a post about the giveaway on her lovely blog.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The last of the Booker longlist (briefly): The Finkler Question, The Betrayal, and In a Strange Room

Ever so happy am I today because I've finished 12/13 books on the longlist, and  I'm officially calling it quits. The thirteenth book hasn't shown up (I see a credit card refund in my immediate future) and because I'm dying to get to my newly-purchased Scandinavian crime fiction novels to take the edge off of my tired brain, I'm bringing down the curtain on the Booker Prize longlist. Ta-da. That's all folks. Nothing to see here -- go back to your homes. Finis.

The final three on the list were The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson, Betrayal by Helen Dunmore, and In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut. Following are my three very brief reviews.

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
320 pp.

  Julian Treslove is a rather mediocre man who has had a string of unsatisfying and unspectacular jobs (including the BBC radio 3), and now works as a double for famous people.  His best  friends are Sam Finkler, from his school days, and Libor Sevick, former teacher to Treslove and Finkler.  Finkler and the older Libor have both been recently widowed; Treslove has had a rather unsuccessful and boring love life,  and considers himself an honorary widower around his friends.

Finkler is a Jewish pop philosopher on television and in print; he's also a member of  "ASHamed Jews," who take a great deal of pride in being ashamed of other Jews who are ardent supporters of Israel and Zionism.  Libor used to hobnob with the stars in his younger days. After an evening together, which the men spend trying to transport themselves back in time when they had nothing of value to lose (pre-marriage, pre-children), philosophizing about whether or not it's better not to have experienced happiness so that there's little to mourn in the present, Treslove is walking home, thinking about the depths of sadness evoked from that evening.  Out of nowhere he is mugged, and and he thinks his attacker (a woman...oh, the indignity of it all!) made an anti-Semitic remark as she was robbing him. Treslove is not Jewish, but wonders if there was something, unbeknownst to him, which would have caused her to assume he was.  Treslove then makes the decision become a Jew, a decision which changes his life from this point on.  His observations of his friend Sam Finkler lead him to call Jews "Finklers," hence the title.

While the author explores anti-Semitism on the streets of London (even among Jews!) as well as Zionism and Judaism and how Jews define themselves,  this book is also about friendship, love, loss and grief. There's a great deal of ascerbic wit and some incredibly funny moments, but there's also an undertone of deep sadness which runs throughout the entire book that never quite seems to let up. The Finkler Question is a good book, very well written, and one which offers its readers a great deal to think about.


The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore
330 pp.

The Betrayal is set in Stalin's USSR, beginning in 1952.  The story focuses on a couple, Andrei, a doctor  and Anna, who teaches at a nursery school.  Andrei and Anna spend their days trying to do what everyone else in that period of time tried  to accomplish (with varying degrees of success):  to keep a low profile while going about their daily work and home lives.  It is becoming increasingly difficult for Andrei and Anna and Anna's younger brother Kolya to do so -- at home, they attract the wrath of their neighbors when Kolya plays the piano and at work, Anna has been told she needs to advance herself by taking some courses at the university.  This is not such a bad thing, but Anna's got secrets that a check on her family background might uncover, and she doesn't want to risk coming to someone's attention.  Andrei also goes through his normal daily routine at work, but  trouble still manages to raise its ugly head when a colleague of his requests that he take a look at a very ill boy.  As it happens,  the boy's father is none other than Volkov, who is one of the highest officers of the Soviet secret police.  Andrei realizes that he is in a most untenable position, especially when it turns out that Volkov's child needs immediate treatment for cancer.  Although everyone he knows tells him to walk away, he finds that he cannot -- with some rather unsettling consequences.

I liked it, but I wasn't wowed, unlike everyone else who seems to have fallen in love with this book and given it 4+ stars.  I know I am the lone stranger here, but I can't help it.  It's not really the author's fault -- it's just that the story was a bit too light for my taste, not as much of an in-depth look at this period as I would have hoped for.   Dunmore is a skilled writer, but if I were going to recommend fiction about life under Stalin, I think I'd go with Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, Platanov's The Foundation Pit, Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate and Shalamov's Kolyma Tales. But if you like your historical fiction on the lighter side, then you'll probably love The Betrayal.  


In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut
Atlantic Books
180 pp.

In A Strange Room consists of three novellas.  The first is called "The Follower," in which the narrator (also named Damon) is in Greece, visiting the ruins at Mycenae, and on the empty road meets a fellow traveler, Reiner, going the other way. They strike up a conversation, and Reiner tells Damon that he has to catch a train that night. However, when Damon arrives back at the hostel where he is staying, he finds Reiner there, having missed his train. Eventually Damon returns home to South Africa where he finds himself thinking of Reiner, and decides to invite him to come and visit. The two decide to travel to Lesotho where they embark on a series of long hikes with unforeseen consequences.  The second story is called "The Lover." Once again Damon is traveling, this time in Zimbabwe -- "no particular reason or intention has brought him here."  At a bar at Victoria Falls he meets a group of fellow travelers on their way to Malawi. He decides to go with them, and realizes that they don't know each other but have only banded together for safe travel. However, he soon ditches this group for another group of three people who he keeps bumping into -- Alice, Jerome and Christian. When the trip is finished, Damon decides to go home rather than to Greece where he's been invited by Jerome and Alice, but is struck with instant regret. So some time later, he takes them up on their offer for a visit to Switzerland. The last story in the book is "The Guardian," which finds Damon heading for Goa (India) with a good friend of his named Anna, "somebody he loves and who makes him laugh.  Somebody he wants to protect." He has promised Anna's partner he would watch over her carefully, because Anna's already "gone off the rails" in the past.  But Anna's troubles cause her to start  “losing the plot, living in fast motion, speeding along” and eventually, things come crashing down, spiraling out of control.

Besides the experience of traveling with someone tying together these three stories, in an interview, Galgut noted that the unifying theme in these stories is that there is a "spectrum" of  categories  people in "intimate" relationships fall into: power, love, and guardianship.  I would add that there's a theme of dashed hopes in a "what could have been" sort of way that seems to run throughout as well.

 In a Strange Room is not a novel filled with action, but rather a story told in a quieter, understated tone.  The narrator relates his story often as if he's watching himself from another vantage point,  so that sometimes he's speaking in the first person, and the telling changes to a third-person narrative, where "I" becomes "he" or "Damon." And as I was reading it, I couldn't help but wonder if this was a disguised piece of autobiography, only to learn after finishing the book in the above-mentioned article that the author believes that
the process of memory is also a form of fiction. Part of the point of this book is that it should be published as fiction and make people reflect on the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction.
 And he's absolutely correct, now that I think about it.  I really liked this book as a whole, although my least favorite story was the second one, because it seemed that the longer it went on, the less powerful it became.   What comes out of  this book is honest emotion, which I appreciated.  Definitely recommended.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"There is a great deal of wickedness in village life..." -- and St. Mary Mead is no exception

Today I am writing as part of the ongoing Agatha Christie Blog Tour, created and hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. I would like to thank Kerrie for the opportunity to be a part of her tour, because I have been an Agatha Christie fanatic for years.  So now, let's get to it, shall we?

Joan Hickson, my absolute favorite Miss Jane Marple

As Miss Jane Marple has said on more than one occasion, “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.”

 But who would believe that it's even a possibility in the lovely, quiet and pastoral English countryside? According to Raymond West, Miss Marple's nephew, St. Mary Mead is so boring that he views it as a "stagnant pool, " but  au contraire, as Aunt Jane is quick to note,

 "nothing, I believe is so full of life under the microscope as a drop of water from a stagnant pond."
 (-- Murder at the Vicarage)

And whether gardening or bird watching, collecting money for charity or sitting quietly knitting a sweater for this niece or that cousin's daughter, Miss Marple with the "snow white hair, the pink crinkled face, soft blue eyes"  has seen what teems under the metaphorical microscope and has digested it all, without giving much away.  The Vicar of St. Mary Mead once noted that

"there is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands,"
(-- Murder at the Vicarage)
and time has most definitely been one of Miss Marple's greatest assets.  According to Colonel Melchett, Chief Constable of the County, she  has "hardly been out of the village all her life." Consider how very long that actually is -- and how much she's picked up in her silent study and observation of human nature over the years. 

So let's just take a few moments and examine a few examples of life in the "stagnant pond"  to discover some of  Jane Marple's inspirations that have guided her over the course of  her sleuthing career.  Who are some of the lead players in the wickedness and villainry of this quaint English village? And what have they done?   I present to you an even dozen of the more insidious evildoers that I've ferreted out among the many in trying to dig up the scandals of St. Mary Mead.

  • Mr. Badger was  the owner of the chemist's shop in St. Mary Mead, and was somewhat smitten with the young lady who worked for him.  He suggested to his wife, who enjoyed attending seances, that they should let this girl live in their home.  While his wife was away communing with the spirit world,  he proceeded to lavish upon this young woman some great presents including a diamond bracelet. But the Mrs. got the last laugh: it turns out that Mr. Badger's little honey was having a thing with a racecourse punter -- and that the lovely presents were being pawned to support his betting habits.  
    • Kindly Nurse Ellerton was taking care of one of the old ladies in the village, and was quite fond of her up until the day she died. Another patient came along, and she also died. As it turns out, Nurse Ellerton was fond of her ladies, but sent them on their way in the "kindest" manner with Morphine.  She, of course, felt that she was doing them a favor, since her patients didn't have long to live anyway. She also justified her actions saying that her patient with cancer was in a great deal of pain.  But before you go and think Nurse Ellerton was killing her charges out of mercy, kindly consider that they all signed over their money to her beforehand. And Nurse Ellerton liked money.
    • Mrs. Witherspoon saw nothing wrong with drawing Mrs. Bartlett's old age pension along with her own.  Thinking that people naturally believed that "one old woman was like another," and therefore paid no attention, she felt safe in claiming the money, even though Mrs. Bartlett had been dead for years.  
    • Mr. Harbottle's Maidservant got a bit cocky when Miss Harbottle (the master's sister) was called away to take care of a dying relative.  By the time Miss H. returned, the maid had turned in her cap and apron for a place in the drawing room chair, quite above her station.  She had also traded in her broom and mop for conversation and giddy laughter with Mr. H.  Naturally, Miss Harbottle objected and said something to the girl, but Mr. H.gave his sister her marching orders, and she was forced to rent lodgings in Eastbourne. 
    •  Mrs. Pusey's nephew traveled extensively and brought back a lot of stuff, or so he told his aunt. In reality, he was bringing home stolen goods, which he asked her to dispose of. Mrs. Pusey doted on her nephew, and was quite happy to oblige. But when the police came to the door and began to ask her certain questions, her loving nephew tried to "bash her on the head" so she couldn't rat him out. 
    • Miss Hartnell's laundry woman, Mrs. Pebmarsh quietly availed herself of an opal pin that Miss Hartnell had mistakenly  left on a blouse.  She didn't take it for herself, oh dear me no; simply out of spite (and likely out of jealousy over a man as well),  she hid it in the home of a woman she greatly disliked and then told the police where she'd seen it.
    • Major Hargraves was a married, God-fearing churchwarden, very highly respected by most of the villagers.  Imagine their surprise when Hargraves was discovered to have a home separate from the one kept by his wife -- and tongues really begin to wag when it turned out to be with a former housemaid! Granted, when she was in service to Mr. and Mrs. Hargraves she was quite reliable in turning the mattresses every day except Friday, but evidently that wasn't her only talent.  As it turns out, Hargraves and the maid had five children and lived this secret life for some time, and all the while he had the audacity to continue to pass around the collection plate every Sunday!
    • Hitting closer to home, there's Miss Marple's own maid Ethel, who, as Miss Marple notes, had a problem with the concept of "mine and thine."  Miss Marple let her go, and even went so far as to write her a decent letter of reference.  However, Miss Marple warned her friend Mrs. Edwards against hiring Ethel, which made Raymond quite angry, saying that his aunt had done a very wicked thing.  But Raymond had to eat his words when Lady Ashton took Ethel on, and came up short a few diamond brooches after Ethel had made a hasty departure in the middle of the night.  
    • The bank manager, Mr. Hodson, decided to take a cruise vacation and lost his head. He met and married a woman young enough to be his daughter, without any idea of her background.  To his detriment, he believed only what she told him -- which turned out to be totally untrue. But by then, it was too late.
    •  Now let's examine Mr. Cargill the builder, who not unlike modern contractors, tricked people into having more than what they originally wanted done to their houses. When the bills came due, his clients were shocked at the thought of having to cut off their arms and legs to pay him, but somehow he always got them to do so, justifying every pence spent.  But he did have a happy ending of sorts, in that he found a wealthy woman to marry.
    • Collecting for the Red Cross, Mrs. Partridge with her twitchy nose managed to embezzle 75 pounds by short changing the accounts, always putting off the rest to be collected until next week. 
    •  And last, but definitely not least, was the  Major Bury's beloved, a widow who finally acquiesced to be the Major's bride after ten years of him asking.  She left him high and dry only 10 days before the wedding, when she flew the coop with the chauffeur.
     There are more of these rather sordid types to be found throughout Christie's Miss Marple novels and short stories of course, but well, you get the picture. It seems that St. Mary Mead is more of a microcosm of the much bigger world than I previously realized, and maybe Miss Marple's got it right when she says that

    "...most people are too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do"

    and given this odd assortment of shady characters living in St. Mary Mead, I can see why. 

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

    Frances Coady/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    313 pp.

    Well, here's a lesson for me. When I first saw that this book had made the Booker Prize longlist, I was thrilled.  I had read the author's Small Island when it first came out some years back and liked it so I was eager to get into this one.  Then, when I picked it up and started reading it, I was a bit unsure, because my first thought was "oh no, another book about slavery." There's a story behind that remark:  about a year ago, I had read a book about slavery that was emotionally difficult to get through called The Book of Night Women, by Marcus James and frankly, I didn't think I could go there again.  But The Long Song was not at all what I was expecting -- and I ended up being unable to put it down. And while I didn't love it, I liked it very much.

    The narrator is Miss July, who was a slave at Amity plantation in Jamaica in the 19th century, as well as a witness to the end of slavery.  At first she's extremely reluctant and even apologetic in describing the night she was conceived, but eventually, her son, who is publishing his mother's memoirs, notes that this didn't last long:
     Although shy of the task at first, after several months she soon became quite puffed up, emboldened to the point where my advice often fell on to ears that remained deaf to it.
    And really, July holds nothing back; indeed sometimes her zeal leads her to fabricate, but manages to rein in the "nice" version of her stories to get back to the reality of her life in Jamaica.  She belongs to John Howarth, master of Amity, and works out in the fields until the arrival of Howarth's sister, Caroline Mortimer.  Caroline brought a maid with her from England, but the maid dies shortly thereafter, and Caroline decides to take July in her maid's place. Inside the house, the mischievous and often devilish July is given the name "Marguerite," and with the other house servants, does everything she can to thwart Caroline, including putting a soiled bedsheet on the table instead of the best tablecloth for a company dinner. Her time at Amity runs through The Baptist War or Christmas Uprising of 1831, as well as through the eventual emancipation of all of the slaves in 1838.  In the meantime, a string of overseers come to Amity, ending with Robert Goodwin, whose arrival changes everything about life at the plantation.

    The author does not disguise any of the dehumanizing and horrifying aspects of slavery, or the racism inherent among the whites who do not see slaves as people but rather as chattel.  She also examines the color line among the slaves themselves in July's discussion about  Miss Clara,  famous for her white man's boarding house, her dances (to which July would never be invited) and her jams:
    Only with a white man, can there be guarantee that the colour of your pickney will be raised. For a mulatto who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroon; and the quadroon that enjoys white relations will give to this world a mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino; and the mustiphino...oh, the mustaphino's child with a white man for a papa will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they at last stride within this world as a cherished white person....Forward only to white skin became Miss Clara's mission.
    Her characterizations are very real, from the slaves to the masters to well-meaning Christian ministers and sympathetic white people. Her sense of place is well evoked.  And even small details become meaningful, especially in one of my favorite parts of the novel: a story about a painting by the artist Francis Bear.  But what really shines through here is the emphasis on the power of storytelling, which is highlighted each time July gives an introduction to what she's writing, addressing herself often as "your storyteller," and even advising her readers that she can't go on, interjecting herself throughout the story:
    I can go no further! Reader, my story is at an end. Close up this book and go on about your day. You have heard all that I have to tell of a life lived upon this sugar island. This wretched pen will blot and splutter with ink no more in pursuance of our character July. I now lay it down in its final rest.
    But thankfully, she does go on, until her "long song" is finished.  I appreciated the fact that Ms. Levy might have chosen to bring a sappy ending to this story that might have diminished this novel and did not, thereby maintaining the integrity of The Long Song until the final word.
    I can definitely recommend this book -- it is powerful, extremely well written and it's a story you won't soon forget.

    It's Monday! What am I reading?

    It's already Monday? Where did the week go? For me most of it was spent flat -- I pulled my back yet again so I laid on a heating pad much of the time.  Oh well -- it was a good way to increase my reading time, if I look on the bright side!  Sheila of Book Journey hosts this very popular part of my reading week -- thank you!

    Last week I finished the last three books on the Booker Prize shortlist (two of which I've not reviewed yet, but will get to this week):

    The Long Song, by Andrea Levy (which I enjoyed immensely and can definitely recommend)
    In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut (which I also enjoyed very much)
    The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson (which was good, maybe not my favorite of the bunch)

    This week I'm planning to finish
    Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore -- historical fiction set during Stalin's time in the USSR
    and if it gets here on time,
    The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner.  If it doesn't arrive by the time I finish Betrayal, then we'll call it a Booker Dozen and move on.  And there's a good chance this will happen.

    Sadly, by the time I went to Book Depository to pick up Warner's book, they were sold out and so I had to rely on Amazon for a used copy from the UK.  Then to my abject horror, I was looking over my order details a few days after I ordered it, and realized that I had bought it from a seller who never came through with a book I'd ordered a few months ago, but in the meantime had changed their seller name! I should have done my Nancy Drew investigation before ordering the book, but I obviously wasn't thinking.

    so, if the Warner book doesn't arrive, then this week I'll be starting a new book called Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, by Leif G.W. Persson, a Swedish crime novel that's the first of three in a series.  And I'm planning to digest Tony Blair's autobiography A Journey: My Political Life a little at a time as well. 

    Next week I think just some well-deserved crime fiction as my reward for the last 2 months.  I have a new one coming from Book Depository called Frozen Moment by Camille Ceder which looks appealing.

    AND....I'm giving away a copy of Emma Donoghue's Room -- international entries are welcome!  Don't miss it.

    that's it...I'm going to have an awesome reading week!

    Friday, September 17, 2010

    the longlist progress: T minus 3 and counting....and a giveaway to celebrate

    The Booker Longlist 13 -- it's almost over! Yay!

    In the wee early hours of this morning I finished Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, and two days ago I finished up The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson.  So I'm almost finished with the longlist, have one more to go on the shortlist, and plan to celebrate when it's all over with a stack of deliciously mindless horror novels until October 1.

    Here's the list so far:

    1. C, by Tom McCarthy -- shortlisted

    2. In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut (to be reviewed shortly) --- shortlisted

    3. Room, by Emma Donoghue -- shortlisted

    4. The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson (to be reviewed shortly) -- shortlisted

    5. Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey -- shortlisted

    6. Trespass, by Rose Tremain

    7. February, by Lisa Moore

    8. The Slap, by Christian Tsiolkas
    9. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

    10. Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray  -- my favorite of the entire list! I'll repeat my bummedness at it not getting to the shortlist.

    Reading now:
    11.  The Long Song, by Andrea Levy -- shortlisted

    Left to go:
    12. The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore
    13. The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner

    --and now, the fun stuff --

    Giveaway of Room, by Emma Donoghue

    In honor of finally getting to the last 3 books on the longlist (which was no simple task, mind you), I'm marking the occasion by giving away a copy of Room, by Emma Donoghue.  I will be selecting a winner on September 25th.  If you'd like to try for a chance to win, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post with your blog name by September 24th.  If you don't have a blog, then please leave a comment and send me an email with your contact info.  International entries are welcome.  Note: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN UP AS A FOLLOWER.  I enjoy people's comments, and I really like the wonderful people I've "met" since I started this reading journal, but followership is not mandatory just to win a book!

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010

    It's Agatha Christie's Birthday -- happy 120th!

    and this is the Google Banner in honor of the special occasion!  Sadly, we can't see it here in the US (I don't know why...does Google think Americans are any less fond of Agatha Christie? Shame on you, Google!)  Here's an article if you're interested.  So if the grande dame were still around, I think she'd be absolutely thrilled that her birth 120 years ago actually had an incredible impact on the world.  A lot of authors come and go, but Christie has been immortalized through her millions of readers, her books and short stories, and by those for whom she was an influence on their own crime-writing careers.

    So...happy birthday, Dame Agatha!  It may seem silly to be celebrating the birthday of someone who's passed, but she's given me so many hours of absolute enjoyment for many, many years and continues to do so.

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    It's Monday! What am I reading?

      It's definitely Monday, so it's time to once again play "What am I reading?" Thanks to my host, Sheila at Bookjourney, for taking this on and doing such an incredible job!

    So here goes.  I've been primarily focusing on the novels that were selected for the Man Booker Prize longlist, which I read every year.  I have to say that this year the pickings are quite slim.  I've been amazed by the huge difference in quality from last year's longlist, but what can I say. I'm also amazed at what did NOT appear on the shortlist.

    Since I posted last, here's what's been happening:
    from the Booker Prize longlist I read
    C, by Tom McCarthy -- a very unique read, I must say. This is one that I think would be a year-long graduate course and you still may not get through it. But I liked it.
    Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray -- definitely one of the best books of 2010.  I have to say I'm shocked it did not go on to the longlist. This book is simply outstanding (and so funny at times you should read it away from others, so you're not embarrassed when you're laughing out loud).
    February, by Lisa Moore -- definitely not one of my favorites, but an okay read
    Trespass, by Rose Tremain -- this one was very likeable; very dark in tone

    off the list: 

    read, not reviewed:
    Bad Boy, by Peter Robinson - I have to get this review done today!

    Currently Reading:
    The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson (from the longlist)

    Coming up this week
    The Long Song, by Andrea Levy and In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut, both from the Booker Prize longlist. When I finish those, I'm down to the last 2 (hooray) and life can get back to normal. My brain is nearly fried. 

    I nearly forgot: I received (from Schaffner Press) a copy of Acid Christ :Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy, by Mark Christensen that I am going to get to here shortly. I love this stuff!

    I sooooo want to get done with the longlist and get back to my usual reading fare -- but I'm sure it won't be too much longer now.  


    Saturday, September 11, 2010

    Trespass, by Rose Tremain

    Chatto and Windus
    253 pp.

    (read in August)

    Veronica Verey (known as V) and her friend/lover Kitty live in a small village in the south of France. V is a garden designer, currently at work on a book called Gardening Without Rain. Kitty is a not-so-successful watercolor artist studying photography. The two find companionship in each other. Their home is an old stone farmhouse, and from the terrace they’re afforded a view of the beautiful Cévenne hills and "blinding red" sunsets. Kitty's happiness is "absolute" when they spend time on their terrace, drinking wine, taking in the view, listening to the birds -- but Kitty is also insecure, creating a sense of uneasiness between herself and V.

    Audrun Lunel and her brother Aramon  live not far from V and Kitty.  They are in their sixties, living in the Cévennes village of La Callune where their family has owned and worked the land for generations. Audrun's father had left her a piece of the family land as her very own -- a wooded area where she built a bungalow -- for reasons I will leave unmentioned. Aramon remains in the family home, the Mas Lunel, once a U-shaped house, now only the back of the U remains. Now a drunken and broken old man, Aramon has virtually given up, preferring to sit and watch television while he drinks. Aramon has decided to sell what's left of Mas Lunel, learning that he could get a hefty chunk of money from foreign buyers for the place.  Although Audrun will still have her patch of woods and her bungalow, the thought of losing her childhood memories of her mother horrifies her beyond belief, and she can envision the changes that would come if Aramon were to sell the house. 

    Enter Anthony Verey, Veronica's brother.  Anthony is 64, with a failing London antiques business. He used to thrive on the knowledge that people were envious of him and filled with admiration of his celebrity; now in his 60s, he realizes that what he sees now in the eyes of others is merely pity.  Even the young and beautiful boys he entertains no longer make him feel good -- in fact, seem to have the opposite effect.  Anthony also realizes that this is no way to continue on, and decides he's got to have that final shot at happiness.  As in the past, he turns to his sister V for rescue. He decides he will go stay with V at her farmhouse for a while; then once there, decides he should have a place of his own and make a fresh start.  This decision serves as a catalyst for tragedy as a series of events unfolds that begin to snowball out of control. 

    Trespass is aptly titled; there are many varied forms of infringements that are threaded throughout the novel: emotional and physical, native and foreign, and even the boundaries of truth are encroached upon and violated. There's also the concept of trespass in terms of sin that is explored as well.  Another major theme is the past -- for some people the past is something they can never let go of while others want to escape it and move on.

    The sense of place in this book is very well executed. The characters started out extremely strong, standing as unique individuals caught in their own lives as well as in webs of complexity within the scope of their relationships to others. The story was also strong and taut at the beginning, so much so that I couldn't put the book down.  However, in the second half of this book, at some point (for me, anyway) things became so incredibly foreseeable I continued reading just to confirm what I'd already figured out.  And it is also at this juncture that the characters started falling apart -- becoming just as predictable as the story and losing the depth that gave them so much life at the beginning.  But that doesn't mean that this is a bad novel. Au contraire; it is an incredible story and I found myself really liking it. And it's one I'd have no problems recommending. 

    (so sorry about the font change..I have to figure out how to write in MS word & have it transfer with no changes. arrgh!)

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    February, by Lisa Moore

    Grove Press/Black Cat
    February, 2010
    320 pp.

    (read in August)

    The combination of loss, grief and the necessity of moving on in life (and love) is the main focus of this novel, which focuses on Helen after the death of her husband Cal in 1982.  Cal worked on the Ocean Ranger, an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland, and was there when it went down due to bad weather and human error. All hands were lost; in horrible weather that left no opportunity for rescue by ship and water that can easily produce hypothermia in minutes, no one was saved (you can read about the Ocean Ranger here).

    Much of the story is told through flashbacks, which bounce backward and forward in time, not very linearly. Helen has put off her grief for some time, and the book examines how she coped throughout the years, creating one of three separate plotlines that run and interweave constantly throughout the novel. Much of the time she spends trying to picture exactly what happened on the Ocean Ranger, and in the midst of trying to figure out what caused the rig to sink, she thinks of Cal doing his job or playing cards with his workmates on the rig, or Cal dying alone, in the icy water of the North Atlantic.   At the time of her husband’s death, she had three children and another one on the way – her struggle to raise them alone and her children in general take up a second narrative strand, especially in the present:  Helen's son John has just found out he’s going to be a father after a trip to Iceland. The call wakes her out of a deep sleep, both in terms of reality and metaphorically.    The third storyline begins as Helen’s sister convinces her that her house needs renovating (“you want this place to be condemned or what?”) and Helen meets the carpenter Barry. 

    Grief consumes Helen, and Moore’s writing allows the reader to feel what Helen feels. Everyone can relate to the loss of a loved one, especially a partner/wife/husband, even more so when that loss comes unexpectedly before you think it should.  While the author explores the nuances of grieving, loss and love, and expresses them well through her talented writing, there’s just something more dynamic and complex that’s missing here.   While it may work on an emotional level, I noticed a surprising lack of real development of  characters who are most central to Helen’s life – her daughters.  John’s child’s mother, Jane, gets more air time than Helen’s own daughters, as does John himself, which just didn’t feel right. Even considering that their relationship was difficult and strained at times, I would have expected more from the mother-daughter aspects of this story.  This books also at times has a kind of (dare I say what I really think??) "women's-fictiony" feel to it that I didn’t particularly care for.  

    What might have worked better for me would be a book about the men on the Ocean Ranger -- their reasons for being there, their camaraderie or conflicts, their last moments and the people they left behind. Someone should write that story.

    But as always, so many people loved this book and gave it high ratings, so perhaps it will do well among the general-reading public. I'm just a demanding reader, and  this one just didn't do it for me.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    The Aussie Author Challenge .... revisited, sort of

    I was so pleased today to wake up and see a note in my email from my blogger friend Jo (Booklover Book Reviews). She posted something about me at her blog where she's been talking to participants in the Aussie Author Challenge. If you're at all interested, you can find that discussion here.  I did make a huge faux pas in giving her the name of one of my favorite Australian authors as "Patrick Voss" when I meant Patrick White...Voss is the name of one of his books, not his last name!  Duh!

    I'm jumping right back into the challenge as soon as I can -- and Jo's got a 2011 Aussie Author Challenge that she'll be hosting as well. 

    My thanks to Jo and I would encourage you to go give her blog a look.  She reads widely so there's always something new!

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010

    The Agatha Christie Blog Tour -- now in progress, and running through 30 September

    Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has worked very hard to set up the Agatha Christie Blog Tour to celebrate what would have been the famous mystery author's 120th birthday.  For some of us, Agatha Christie has been and continues to be an indispensable part of our reading lives, and the blog tour will bring Christie and her creations to you from several very different perspectives.  So please take a moment, jot down the schedule, and visit the stops along the tour.  I'll be hosting one myself, featuring Miss Jane Marple, on September 23rd. 

    Whether you  like watching the BBC/Masterpiece Theater versions or you just like reading the books, there is something for every Christie fan along this tour.  Don't miss it.

    Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

    Faber and Faber
    Originally published in Great Britain, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin
    672 pages

    If you're looking for a really good book to read, this is the one.  Don't just add it to your TBR pile...go get a copy and read it. It's nearly 700 pages, but you won't even notice, especially if you buy it in the 3-box set.  It is undoubtedly one of the funniest books I've ever read, but at the same time, quite poignant; it is a book that will at times tug at your heartstrings.

    The story begins in the first book, called "Hopeland," and continues through the next two books, "Heartland" and "Ghostland."  In the very first scene at Ed's Doughnut House on a Friday evening in November, 14-year old Skippy, whose real name is Daniel Juster, is having a doughnut-eating race with his friend Ruprecht Van Doren, who boasts that he has not been beaten in "fifteen consecutive races."  But something goes wrong and (this is not a spoiler) Skippy dies after leaving the words "Tell Lori" written in jam on the floor.  And then the author takes his readers back to fall term at Seabrook College, the oldest Catholic boys' school in Ireland -- to find out exactly what brought things to this point.

    Skippy is a student who boards at Seabrook. He gets his nickname from buck teeth that cause him to make a sound when he speaks  like the voice of a talking kangaroo on TV.  Until just shortly before midterm, Skippy had been an excellent student, is on the school's swim team, and generally liked, but his grades have been falling recently.  Skippy enjoys playing a video game called "Hopeland," a kind of mystic quest, which will increase in importance as the story goes on.  He shares a room with Ruprecht, for whom 
    the world is a compendium of fascinating facts just waiting to be discovered, and a difficult maths problem is like sinking into a nice warm bath.
    Ruprecht's goal is to study at Stanford, and his hero is physicist Hideo Tamashi, whose work entails trying to solve the Big Bang via ten-dimensional string theory. Ruprecht has a lab in the basement where he conducts experiments which he hopes will lead him to the secret origins of the universe. Skippy's other friends include Dennis, who is an "arch-cynic, whose very dreams are sadistic, hates the world and everything in it..." who thinks Ruprecht talks "non-stop bollocks." He also has Geoff, Niall and Mario as friends, although these characters (and many of the other boys around Skippy) are really less developed as characters than Ruprecht and Dennis.  After thinking he sees a UFO one day, Skippy looks through Ruprecht's telescope and sees a girl throwing a Frisbee. This is Lori, a girl from St. Brigid's, a "smoking-hot" girl who immediately captures Skippy's attention.  The problem is that another Seabrook boy, Barry, has become infatuated with Lori, and Barry is bad news.

    But this book is not just about the boys of Seabrook -- the school's faculty and staff are just as much a part of the story.  One of the main characters is Howard Fallon, the school's history teacher, who himself graduated from Seabrook some ten years back, and is haunted by an episode that took place at that time. He's back at the school after a stint in the world of finance. There's Father Green, the French teacher, whose name the boys have translated into French as "Pere-vert". His calling, as he sees it, is to snuff out sin, but at the same time, he feels he must keep Skippy in a state of innocence. He has his own inner demons to deal with as well.  Then there's Greg Costigan, the acting principal of Seabrook in the absence of Father Furlong, who has suffered a recent heart attack. Costigan is snarkily referred to as "the Automator," and believes that the Paraclete Order is on its last legs, and that the only solution is to modernize the school, with himself at the helm. He believes that Seabrook's history as the oldest Catholic boys' school is brandable -- and that the school's role is to prepare the students to "get up there on the world stage and duke it out with the best of them."  He wants to roll with the times --
    Change is not a dirty word. Neither for that matter is profit. Profit is what enables change, positive change that helps everyone, such as for example demolishing the 1865 building and constructing an entirely new twenty-first-century wing in its place
    and of course, the wing just might be named after him.  Costigan represents progress in a very anti-traditionalist sort of way; he doesn't care that the boys actually learn anything, just that they pass their exams to continue Seabrook's reputation, come what may.  The reputation of the school is everything and must remain so, no matter what.   Fallon, on the other hand, begins to understand that history is something of value -- and that teaching others to care about the past may be just as  important  as throwing them into the competitive capitalist arena. 

    Although Skippy Dies is often so funny you can't help but laugh out loud (for example, there's a scene where the boys' English teacher has just gone over the meaning of  Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and one of the kids takes his interpretation to a whole new level),  the story is at times tragic and heartbreaking. It's a good look at how these teenagers understand and interpret themselves in the face of today's world (including sex and drug use) how they see adults, and how despair can cause loss of hope and yet for some, become a building experience. It's about the hold of memory on the human psyche and the importance of remembering. There are other themes at work as well -- including the socio-economic situation of modern Ireland and the role of the Catholic church in the face of all of the scandals that dog it -- making this very long book just fly by. 

    I loved this book. Absolutely. It's extremely well written, although it does get bogged down a bit for a short time in the middle.  But on the whole, it is most excellent.  Which is why I do not understand for the life of me how it did not make it on to the Booker Prize Shortlist, announced today. It is by far better than any of the books I've yet read, much more accessible and extremely reader oriented than its companions on the list.

    I have absolutely zero qualms about recommending this book. It is so good you will not be able to stop reading it.  I really hope it becomes a runaway bestseller.

    Monday, September 6, 2010

    Wrap up, Catch up, and Ramp Up -- this week's the charm

    Just a short post -- I miss my computer and communicating with everyone!

    Tough times the last couple of weeks have left me with very little computer time, not to mention time in general. But things are winding down here so I'll be back to my usual verbiose self here shortly -- with new reviews, a spot on the Agatha Christie blog tour, hopefully a giveaway or two etc etc.

    Coming soon -- please stay tuned!

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    C, by Tom McCarthy

    Jonathan Cape, 2010
    310 pp. 

    Trying to put all of my thoughts together about this book was like giving birth, I swear. It took me forever, even after having read this book twice.

    When you begin reading C, you immediately discover that you’re in for something well off the beaten path. The book is divided into four parts: the first offers the main character’s (Serge Carrefax) birth and childhood. At the time of Serge’s birth, as we learn from Serge’s father, the inventor Marconi was out on Salisbury Plain, doing his final demonstrations of his new wireless radio (he would receive the patent from the British that same year). Marconi’s invention proved that radio waves could travel through air, rather than through wires – from a transmitter to a receiver and ushered in the birth of modern telecommunications. This theme of transmission and receiving becomes a solid core element of McCarthy’s novel.

    Serge has a rather unconventional childhood, with a father who runs a school for the deaf (where he focuses on teaching them to speak) and is obsessed with communications and technology. The first time we meet Simeon, he’s in the midst of spooling copper wire all around the grounds of the family home, Versoie, experimenting with signal transmission. Simeon hopes to find “a patent way for using radio to sense the weather in advance.” His mother raises silkworms, processing their cocoons to produce silk that brings very high prices on the market. He also has an older sister, Sophie. As they grow up, they are great playmates and friends. They are both interested in codes and ciphers (unlike their father, who believes codes & encryption go “against the whole principle of communication”), combing through the Times personals to find secret messages; they become involved in a rather complicated game of Monopoly designed by their tutor on the Versoie grounds (where there is constant noise and humming, both natural and technological – so that the grounds of their home are literally alive) where they come to thrive on the competition; both enjoy experimenting with chemistry from the Boy’s Playbook of Science – in other words, they grow up with a close connection to each other, as close as two siblings can be – much like two complementary opposites of a whole.

    Sophie has a love for the natural world, and when she’s older, chooses to study natural science. Serge is like his father, more on the scientific end. He spends a great deal of time listening to the wireless, picking up static (“like the sound of thinking….the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush”), and then silence, and finally the “first quiet clicks” where “words start forming…”. He starts out on the local frequencies, moving out farther and farther into the airwaves, to Paris, then on to even higher frequencies, and as the clock climbs to the top of the hour, there’s silence – then the clicks start up again. As he listens, he conjures up images local to where the transmissions are originating. And at some point, the clicks dissipate, and “wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear.” But then…trauma strikes in the form of Sophie's death and as a result, Serge ends up at a sanitorium, where his doctor notes the cause and the cure:
    “…Blockage. Jam, block, stuck. Instead of transformation, only repetition…Blockage must be broken, then body and soul will open up, like flowers…Out now…Go and start transforming.” begins.

    The second part finds Serge off to the first world war, to the British Air Force, working as an aerial observer, where he is able to see from above. Conversely, when taken prisoner, he finds solace in staying below in the tunnels. It is during his time as in the war that he also discovers the joy of cocaine, at first rubbing it in his eyes and then moving on to snorting it, offering him a heightened sense of awareness & perception. He continues his drug use once back in London where he hangs out with some very off-beat people living a rather Bohemian lifestyle as part three of the book begins, and in part four, Serge is off the Egypt, where it’s now 1922, and Egypt is celebrating its nominal independence from the once-great British Empire. He’s down in the crypts, exploring the history of the ancients, leading to an impressive and appropriate finish.

    At first glance, this book seems to be a rather conventional novel. And in some sense it pretends to be: it’s a sort of coming-of-age story, told linearly, along the path of technological progress in the opening years of the 20th century. That’s what most conventional readers are used to. But when you start getting into it, McCarthy muddies those particular waters by adding in his theme of transmission and repetition throughout the novel, giving the reader pause for thought. You have to ask yourself: what is actually being transmitted here – what is being repeated?

    This book isn't very user friendly, but in many ways, this stems from trying to unlock the keys to the puzzles here, of which there are many. I I think that part of what McCarthy is trying to show is the sense of loss, despair and a sense of alienation that began to make its way into the realms of literature & art and characterize this period of time in history -- all of these are reflected in Serge at the loss of his sister.  Major dislocations across the world occurred during this time, not the least of which was a new web of  "interconnectedness" (for lack of a better term) and "webs"  across the globe.  This was made possible by technology that furthered communication, transportation and, as the author notes toward the end, the beginnings of "Westernization" (and fyi, I hate that word)  desired by many formerly-colonized countries as the power of the Empire began to wane across the globe. Societies that once were based on tradition now wanted what the "West" had -- and in some cases, this wasn't always a good thing.  But I digress. Serge spends a great deal of his young life seeking to make connections that rationality (logic and reason) can't really explain -- and ultimately, it is not until he is down with the dead in Egypt and then on a boat home that things begin to converge for him. I think that my lack of familiarity with some of the art & literature referenced (and derived from) by the author put me at a definite disadvantage. But I've come to realize that it doesn't really matter. 

    After the second reading, I decided I liked the book, didn't love it, but I do recognize that McCarthy is an extremely talented writer. I want to try his book on Tintin next. I don't know if this is a book that the general public is going to embrace, but it's still very worth the time you spend reading it.