Friday, May 04, 2012

He Read/She Read

One of the joys of working in a book store is the lively discussion that springs up around books!It's like going to a book club every day of our lives around here. So when I heard that Charlene was reading Elizabeth Hay's Alone in the Classroom, new out in paperback this month, it occurred to me that since Dave read it when it was released in hardcover (and we had the author for an event) they might have very different takes on the book! And low! He Read/She Read was born!

He Read...
New in paperback, Elizabeth Hay's novel Alone in the Classroom is perhaps her finest work to date. Set in Depression era prairie and a more contemporary Ottawa valley, the novel tells the story of two schoolteachers across generations that are united by the mysterious shards around two emotional triangles in different times of their lives.
The mercurial Parley Burns is suspected of abusing a young girl in one timeline and the disappearance of another young girl years later brings the main characters together in the person of Michael Graves, the older brother of one of the girls in question, and of a second teacher and principle narrator, the enigmatic Connie Flood.  

At a time when too many novels hit one note very hard  and wrap a backstory around it, Hay's emotional nuance and strong characterization throughout her novels are most welcome.


She Read...

I am a huge Elizabeth Hay fan!
I was swept away on hazy summer days by A Student of Weather,  I spent crisp winter nights devouring Late Nights on Air and in the cool evenings of autumn I escaped to the silverscreen lit pages of Garbo Laughs. Which is why I was so delighted one warm spring day when the paperbacks of Alone in the Classroom with their fresh green covers arrived at the store.
From the opening paragraph, my intuition told me that this would be a very different ride from Hay's previous novels.  An uncomfortable yet compelling read, I moved through the first one hundred pages in a dream-like state as if walking down a long corridor, opening door after door not quite finding what I was expecting. Then upon opening the last door, discovering an even more tragic scenario than I had imagined.
With character names like Parley Burns, Susan Graves and Connie Flood, Elizabeth Hay weaves tension and mystery into stories past and present as told through the voice of school teacher Connie Flood's niece whose admiration of her aunt blurs the boundary between their personal stories.
Hay intricately describes the settings for her story in the prairies of Saskatchewan and the rugged Ottawa Valley where berry picking is a common practice.  This leads me to another character of sorts -- the chokecherry.  Yes, this may seem odd but it repeatedly shows up as a witness to human frailty and its very name stuck with me page after page.  I've never been a fan of this fruit but I think now I won't be so dismissive when we meet!   Themes of loss, self-control and past-lives are balanced with the theme of love lost and found.  Hay treats her characters with such tenderness as they fumble in and out of love that I couldn't help being drawn into their world despite its incredible tension.
As the rain clouds move in and the birds sing their song, I highly recommend you read this captivating novel by Elizabeth Hay. 

~ Charlene

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"If Jodi Picoult has her finger on the zeitgeist, Shriver has her hands around its throat"

I've been an admirer of the American novelist Lionel Shriver since the publication of her seminal 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. The book is still a favourite and her subsequent books, So Much for That, her take on the U.S health care system, and Post Birthday World, an unflinching look at boredom and desire within a marriage, are rock solid.
Shriver's literary trajectory before Kevin, however, was spotty at best, and her publisher recently released a novel that she had in a drawer after her publisher at the time rejected the manuscript. It's been reworked a bit (new ending) Shriver's novel, the New Republic has come out to some pretty curious reviews.More on that in a moment.

Edgar Kellogg is a drone of a corporate lawyer who has decided to try journalism as a way to re-invent himself.
His youthful uncertainties are still very much a part of him and he ends up in a Poruguese backwater where a homegrown terrorist threat has sprouted. Kellogg has replaced the charismatic Barrington Sadler, who has disappeared and the threat of further violence is ever present.
Or is it?

The New Republic is essentially a send up of journalists and of the vagaries of international intrigue.  The book couldn't have come out when it was written, both for reasons relating to Shriver and to the state of the world; which she chronicles in a brief foreward.

The New Republic is a different animal than the aforementioned novels but worth reading simply because Lionel Shriver is a great storyteller.  Reviews have been uneven, some noting that the book doesn't read like her later work, comes off as dated, etc. This ignores the fact that artists develop over time and skill sets don't appear out of thin air. Perhaps the admission that publishers took a pass on the manuscript prejediced some reviews, but again, that is hardly uncommon.  More than twenty publishers rejected the first Harry Potter novel.
Some noted the book reads like an attempt at Graham Greene or employs the broad satire of an Evenyn Waugh.  Perhaps so, but no one is howling that the Huner Games reads like a Lord of the Flies for our generation, or the much hyped Fifty Shades of Grey owes more than a bit to the early Anne Rice (minus any hint of editing apparently) but this is beside the point.

Shriver is a keeper, even when she's not at her best, and to quote the Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, "if Jodi Picoult has her finger on the zeitgeist, Shriver has her hands around its throat"


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Join us at KW Art Gallery on Wednesday March 7th to hear Ex-FBI agent Robert K. Wittman speak about art crime! Doors open at 7:30, tickets $15 advance, $20 at the door.

      Priceless opens with a bang and so begins a rollicking ride inside the world of art theft and the undercover rescue of the world's stolen treasures. I read Priceless practically overnight and have recounted many of its riveting scenes in my head ever since. It's a book that sinks it's teeth in and won't let go.

Robert Wittman worked as an FBI special agent for 20 years as the senior investigator of the Art Crime Team, at a time when there was very little interest in art theft recovery. The FBI were more concerned with responding to drug trafficking and there was the general perception of art theft as being a "victimless crime". Following his passion, and after a personal tragedy, Wittman persued art theft cases specifically, going undercover in the most dangerous of circumstances. His most notable case being the $500 million Gardner Museum theft in 1990, "the largest property crime in U.S. history". Multiple very well-known pieces of art history were stolen that night -- works by Degas, Rembrandt, Manet -- and the thieves were able to spend over an hour in the gallery, cutting paintings away from frames and leaving strange clues, before security showed up. After 16 years, and continual dead-end leads from the public, the case wound up on Wittman's desk. Along with one new, and very credible, clue.

Contained within the frame of the Gardner Museum case are the years that Wittman spent undercover solving thefts from galleries and museums across the world. And each riveting, well-paced story could be made into a film. Despite the seemingly harmless nature of the crime, art thieves are looking to make hundreds of thousands of dollars with their black market sale (In many cases this is a very small fraction of the piece's value), which can make a person desperate and dangerous. Wittman tells the most fantastic stories about the lengths these criminals can go, the types of people who are attracted to art theft, and how he collectively returned millions of dollars of irreplaceable art and antiquities to their rightful homes.

I was very impressed with the depth of insight and savvy that Robert shows during a case and I'm really looking forward to meeting him on March 7th. Priceless reads like a detective novel, while his insights into human nature and his knowledge about the art world is incredibly vast. He weaves a crime story, an introductory art appreciation lecture, and a personal memoir all-in-one. But chiefly entertains.

Priceless, indeed.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Bronwyn and Dave: thumb war over Ava Lee!

The Wild Beasts of Wuhan
~ Reviewed by Bronwyn
Dave and I had a thumb war when the advance copy of Ian Hamilton's third mystery arrived. He won, but somehow I finagled the book away from him and read it over the holidays. To be honest, I really had no choice because I LOVE Ava Lee, Hamilton's smart, tough, and quirky character. For those who have not read the series (and you should!) Ava is a "forensic accountant" who follows the trail of big money. She has master manipulating skills to get the money back to her client, and when those don't work she relies on bak mei, an ancient martial art.
In The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, the third book in the series, Ava is hired by Wong Changxing, “The Emperor of Hubei” and one of the most powerful men in China, after he discovers that his collection of Fauvist paintings are in fact forgeries. Ava's search for the fraudulent art dealers takes her to Denmark, Dublin, London and New York. Just as in the previous books, Hamilton has every detail pitch perfect. After finishing Wild Beasts, I wished the fourth book was already available because I am desperate to know what happens next to Ava.

Red Means Run
~ Reviewed by David
Crime fiction is full of iconic leading men who have reconciled colourful pasts, but Brad Smith has a more relaxed and less obvious character in Virgil Cain.
He's has the wild past, but for now he's happy enough just running his upstate New York farm. When police confront him over the death of Mickey Dupree, a criminal attorney found with a gold club through his chest, Virgil finds himself in jail pretty quickly. To make things right, Virgil has to find the real killer. This means breaking out of jail. Things get weird after that...
Smith's publisher is billing Red Means Run as 'country noir' and that makes perfect sense, as the title recalls a Neil Young lyric and I think this is a book that the late Warren Zevon would have loved.
Brad Smith has had success with his previous books. He shares many similarities with his character Virgil. Both have had a lot of jobs, both are decidedly blue collar, and Virgil is very easy to get to know. I'm sure the same will be true with Brad when he comes to Waterloo on Feb. 1 to join another favourite crime guy around here, Ian Hamilton.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Perfect Gift Pt.2

Got a Canoeing Fan on Your List?
Part epic adventure, part romance and part true-crime thriller, Coppermine is a dramatic, compelling, character-driven story set in 1917 in the extremes of Canada’s far north and the boom town of Edmonton. The story begins when two Catholic priests disappear in the remote Arctic region known as the Coppermine. North-West Mounted Police officer Jack Creed and Angituk McAndrew, a young Copper Inuit interpreter, are sent on a year-long odyssey to investigate the fate of the lost missionaries. On the banks of the Coppermine River, a few miles from the Arctic Ocean, they discover their mutilated remains. Two Inuit hunters are tracked and apprehended, and the four begin the arduous journey to Edmonton for the trial. The crowded, energetic city is a strange new world for the Inuit, and through their impressions as told to the press they become celebrities, while inside the courtroom the bizarre story of the killing of the priests unfolds.  

Looking for Cutting-Edge Lit?
Hal is a mild-mannered IRS bureaucrat who suspects that his wife is cheating with her younger, more virile coworker. At a drunken dinner party, Hal volunteers to fly to Belize in search of Susan's employer, T. the protagonist of Lydia Millet's much-lauded novel How the Dead Dream who has vanished in a tropical jungle, initiating a darkly humorous descent into strange and unpredictable terrain. Salon raved that Millet's "writing is always flawlessly beautiful, reaching for an experience that precedes language itself." In Ghost Lights, she combines her characteristic wit and a sharp eye for the weirdness that governs human (and nonhuman) interactions. With the scathing satire and tender honesty of Sam Lipsyte and a dark, quirky, absurdist style reminiscent of Joy Williams, Millet has created a comic, startling, and surprisingly philosophical story about idealism and disillusionment, home and not home, and the singular, heartbreaking devotion of parenthood.

For Anyone who Loves Canada: 
Join Will Ferguson as he travels to Yukon in search of gold, to Quebec City in search of a lost love and to PEI in search of someone—anyone—who will criticize Almighty Anne. From his days as a space cadet at the CN Tower’s “Tour of the Universe” to his encounter with a pair of burly Canadian brothers playing semi-pro hockey in Japan. From essays “On Margaret Atwood, and Other Inanimate Objects” to an “Open Letter to Women, on Behalf of All Men.” From lessons of a mini-bar ninja to his misadventures working on the Vancouver Olympics Closing Ceremonies, penning monologues for the likes of William Shatner and Michael J. Fox, to his cross-Canada quest in search of Big-Assed Objects Beside the Highway, this is Will Ferguson at his high-flying best. 

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Damned Nations by Samantha Nutt

I just finished this the other night. I was riveted by Samantha's observations after providing hands-on care in some of the world's most violent places. She is the founder of War Child and has lots of experience to back up her intense opinions on war and aid. I was also impressed with her well thought-out solutions. Check out two interviews with her here: 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Words: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

"Deeti's shrine was hidden in a cliff, in a far corner of Mauritis, where the island's eastern and southern shorelines collide to form the wind-whipped dome of the Morne Brabant. The site was a geological anomaly - a cave within a spur of limestone, hollowed out by wind and water - and there was nothing like it anywhere else on the mountain. Later Deeti would insist that it wasn't chance but destiny that led her to it - for the very existence of the place was unimaginable until you had stepped inside it.
   The Colver farm was across the bay and towards the end of Deeti's life, when her knees were stiff with arthritis, the climb up to the shrine was too much for her to undertake on her own: she wasn't able to make the trip unless she was carried up in her special pus-pus - a contraption that was part palki and part sedan chair. This meant that visits to the shrine had to be full-scale expeditions, requiring the attendance of a good number of the Colver menfolk, especially the younger and sturdier ones. 
   To assemble the whole clan - La Fami Colver, as they said in Kreol - was never easy since its members were widely scattered, within the island, and abroad. But the one time of year when everyone could be counted on to make a special effort was in mid-summer, during the Gran Vakans that preceded the New Year. The Fami would begin mobilizing in mid-December, and by the start of the holidays the whole clan would be on the march; accompanied by paltans of bonoys, belsers, bowjis, salas, sakubays, and other in-laws, the Colver phalanxes would converg on the farm in a giant pincur movement: some would come overland on ox-carts, from Curepipe and Quatre Borne, through the misted uplands; some would travel by boat, from Port Louis and Mahebourg, hugging the coast until they were in sight of the mist-veiled mipple of the Morne."

In September 1838 a storm blows up on the Indian Ocean and the Ibis, a ship carrying a consignment of convicts and indentured laborers from Calcutta to Mauritius, is caught up in the whirlwind. When the seas settle, five men have disappeared - two lascars, two convicts and one of the passengers. On the grand scale of an historical epic, River of Smoke follows its storm-tossed characters to the crowded harbors of China. There, despite efforts of the emperor to stop them, ships from Europe and India exchange their cargoes of opium for boxes tea, silk, porcelain and silver. Among them are Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant out of Bombay, his estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt, the orphaned Paulette and a motley collection of others. All struggle to cope with their losses – and for some, unimaginable freedoms – in the alleys and crowded waterways of 19th century Canton.    

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Several Christmas's ago, I took a copy of Cutting for Stone home with me on Christmas Eve. My favourite memory of that holiday, is being curled up on my rocking chair with a cup of tea voraciously reading the novel. Since then, I have been on the lookout every Fall for my "Christmas Day Book" to continue the tradition. 

I heard all the buzz about Sea of Poppies when it first arrived on the scene, but never gave it more than a glance. That is until the sequel, A River of Smoke, came into the store. I took one look at the beautiful blue cover and knew that I wanted to read this book on Boxing Day. Which naturally means, I need to read Sea of Poppies now! 

The novel (which is actually part of a trilogy) features a glorious cast of characters that come together on a magical boat, the Ibis, just before the Opium Wars took place in China. The ship's destination across the Indian Ocean, is to fight in China's vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars.

Some of my favourite characters include: Deeti, a widow, along with her lover, who is escaping her brother-in-law's rage. Paulette is the orphaned daughter of a French biologist who can't find a way to fit in with the British colonists, Jodu is the Indian playmate that she grew up with. Zachary is a freed mulatto American slave, now the second Captain after everyone died on the voyage to India. The diverse cast of Indians and Westerners each have an enchanting story to tell. Once they board the ship, they let go of their family ties and caste stereotypes and begin to see themselves as ship-brothers. 

What I am enjoying most about this enchanting book is the different stories of the characters before they arrive on the boat, the various slang that they use, and the lush descriptions of the poppy fields by the Ganges river, the sea that has a life of it's own, and the backstreets of Calcutta and Canton. 
- Bronwyn 

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