We’re Open Labour Day

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Happy Labour Day everyone! We celebrate it here in Canada too; mostly it means the end of summer (sniff!) and the turning of a new leaf.

August Reading Stats

Total books: 28 (same as July)

Graphic Novels: 9
Mystery / thriller: 7
Literature: 4
YA: 4
Historical fiction: 2
Non-Fiction: 1
Quarterlies: 1
Series works: 17
Male : Female authors: 11 : 6

Audiobooks: 13
Library: 10
Off the shelf: 5
Unfinished: 1

Ratings:
5 stars: 0
4 & up: 20
3 & up: 6
2 stars: 1

Longest work: The Persimmon Tree by Bryce Courtenay (27h56 audio / 711 pages)
Shortest work: The Pilot and the Little Prince* by Peter Sís (48 pages)

Oldest work: Le Chien Jaune / The Yellow Dog by Georges Simenon (1931)
Newest work: The Good Girl* by Mary Kubica (July 29, 2014)

A Quick Summary 
A long month of bad migraines left me pretty brain-dead and unable to tackle anything too complex, so graphic novels were very welcome (the complete Aya* series was prominently featured, and also an omnibus of Edward Gorey’s work, Amphigorey Again), as were quick entertaining reads like the Montalbano and Maigret mystery series and a few YA adventure novels of the Harry Potter and the more recent Cinder* varieties. I did manage to fit in a bit of literary fiction, and Amsterdam* was a major hit, as was my first Bernice Rubens, with The Waiting Game*, probably because both of them featured lots of black humour, whereas more poetic novels like The English Patient, though really gorgeous, left me scratching my head and wishing I had a few more working grey cells to rub together so I could fully appreciate it. Plenty more series planned for the September Series & Sequels theme on LibraryThing (my scary list of options is here), though I will try to fit in a bit of literature in there too, like the long overdue The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell, book 2 in the Empire Trilogy. Am off to a great start with The Stockholm Octavo, briefly mentioned on this blog once, which I started on a couple of days ago and which manages to blend historical fiction and literary mastery both.

* click links for my recent reviews.

Hey, they can’t all be winners…

1483018989.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book #167: ♫ The Good Girl by Mary Kubica ★★
Source: National Library OverDrive Collection
Narrators: Lindy Nettleton, Johnny Heller, Tom Taylorson, Andi Arndt
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 10h37
Original publication date: 2014-07-29

 

 

Product description as seen on Amazon:

“Born to a prominent Chicago judge and his stifled socialite wife, Mia Dennett moves against the grain as a young inner-city art teacher. One night, Mia enters a bar to meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when he doesn’t show, she unwisely leaves with an enigmatic stranger. With his smooth moves and modest wit, at first Colin Thatcher seems like a safe one-night stand. But following Colin home will turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia’s life.

Colin’s job was to abduct Mia as part of a wild extortion plot and deliver her to his employers. But the plan takes an unexpected turn when Colin suddenly decides to hide Mia in a secluded cabin in rural Minnesota, evading the police and his deadly superiors. Mia’s mother, Eve, and detective Gabe Hoffman will stop at nothing to find them, but no one could have predicted the emotional entanglements that eventually cause this family’s world to shatter.

An addictively suspenseful and tautly written thriller, The Good Girl is a propulsive debut that reveals how even in the perfect family, nothing is as it seems….”

Here’s my take on it:

Comparisons are made with Gone Girl, but other than a surprise twist which you have to wait till the very end for, and some seriously unsympathetic characters, I’d say the two don’t have much in common. For one thing, Gillian Flynn’s writing had me completely enthralled from the very first words to the last. Mary Kubica? Had me mostly moaning and groaning with frustration at how pedestrian and déjà vu everything about her storytelling, her prose, her characters was. Gems like “She was shaking to the point of uncontrollable” had me gritting my teeth. Then there’s the narration device: the story is told from the point of view of three of the protagonists in the story; Eve, Mia’s mother, Colin, her abductor, and Gabe, the Chicago detective trying to solve the case. But where’s Mia in all this?

I’ve given up on perfectly good audiobooks within the first hour, and I’ve no idea what made me hold on with this one, because I felt right from the beginning that I was onto a dud, and there was nothing about it, at any moment that made me change my mind. The completely predictable Stockholm Syndrome, with Mia falling in love with her kidnapper, might please readers who are into romance and who buy into Colin being a really good guy after all, seeing as ‘he cares so much about his mom’, but I thought it was all a bunch on nonsense. Call me cynical. But then, this book was released by a Harlequin imprint, so that kind of twist had to be expected. I give it an extra star because I was sure I’d figured out the ending, and so was too lazy to figure out the alternative, and when it finally arrives it does put a more interesting twist on things, but still doesn’t make up for just how dull getting there was. I blame a really bad migraine that made me put up with this low-grade entertainment, in the same way a tv buff would sit and watch mindless sitcoms, just because that’s what happens to be on and the tv remote is out of reach so why bother? kind of thing.

A Great Place to Start

ed9e40c2ecbcc40596865366a41444341587343The Waiting Game by Bernice Rubens ★★★★½
Source: Audible
Narrator: Anna Bentinck
Edition: Isis Publishing (2014), Unabridged MP3; 8h47
Original publication date: 1997

This is without a doubt among the best books I’ve read this summer, and indeed, all year. I’ve been meaning to read Bernice Rubens’s books for several years now, ever since another avid reader brought her to my attention. Until then, I wasn’t really aware of her work. I’d heard of the movie Madame Sousatzka, based on her novel, because Shirley MacLaine had played the lead role, but had it not been for Kerry, Rubens might have gone on being completely unknown to me for decades longer, which would have been a sad loss. As it is, I’ve slowly been accumulating some of her books, and was delighted to discover Isis Publishing had recently put out audiobook versions of a number of her novels, all read by very good narrators.

The Waiting Game of the title takes place at Hollyhocks, a distinguished home for the aged close to Dover, where only the gentry need apply for admission. Matron, who keeps things well in hand, has always seen to that, and she has always been able to sift the scent of class from the other less pleasant effluvia of aging. Lady Celia is queen among the patrons, being the only one of the residents holding a title, and all the other residents defer to her in all matters. Of course nobody has any idea she makes a comfortable living with a thriving blackmailing concern which she runs with the help of a partner and Mr Venables, aka The Ferret. Yet, though they all show her respect, most of the residents dislike Lady Celia because their instinct tells them she will outlast them all. Jeremy Cross has more reason than most to hate her as he’s made outliving everyone his one and only obsession. He keeps a constantly updated list of those who have passed away before their time and has every intention of outliving all the other residents at Hollyhocks, especially Lady Celia.

Each resident in the house has his or her secrets and when newcomer Mrs Thackeray arrives, she and Mrs Green become friendly and embark on seemingly harmless fantasy-ridden retellings of the past. After all, Mrs Thackeray had endured a miserable and sexually abusive marriage which isn’t fit to talk about, while Mrs Green, well.. she perhaps has more reasons than most to wish to reinvent herself. Of course, for the most part, only the reader is privy to everybody’s secrets, though in the end a very big surprise is revealed to everyone. I admit I saw it coming, but this didn’t take away from my pleasure one bit especially given Rubens’s speciality happens to be a very dark brand of humour, one of my personal favourites.

I’m not sure why it is I enjoy reading about elderly people so much (and here I should specify when I say ‘elderly’, I do mean old and frail enough to need to be in retirement homes)—it probably has to do with the fact that having lived so long, and lived through many generations, they’ve inevitably accumulated life experiences, have fully blossomed into the unique individuals those experiences have forged them into, and invariably have stories to tell, and in the hands of skilled writers, these characters can yield pure magic. Two of my all-time favourite novels feature men and women who are in the winters of their lives: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark and All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (click here for my review). Both gems which I intend to revisit often and heartily recommend.

I can see lots more Rubens in my future, and this was a great place to start. Next up will be A Five Year Sentence, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978 and which I’ve pre-ordered on audio and will be released on Sept. 1. Among the endless book stacks there is Madame Sousatzka and The Elected Member, which was the Booker Prize winner in 1970. I should really clear off the cobwebs and read that one soon given how long it’s been lying around.

Signature Sís

0374380694.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry by Peter Sís ★★★★
Source: Municipal InterLibrary Loan
Edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 48 pages
Original publication date: 2014

I guess you could say I’m somewhat of a Peter Sís enthusiast by now, having read over a dozen books he’s contributed to in one way or another, either solely as illustrator or as both writer and illustrator, and it’s safe to say he’s evolved a signature style when it comes to biographical subjects (his graphic novels Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei and The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin immediately spring to mind here), telling the stories with words and pictures, and pictures within pictures that give the impression at first glance of complex tapestries that you can stare at for a long time to discover endless fascinating detail. For this reason, I find I can never take in his books in one short sitting, no matter how slender the volumes are, as they are intellectually stimulating and pack a lot of information.

Here the subject is the author of that iconic children’s book The Little Prince (which I happened to grow up on and venerate), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Sís introduces us to Saint-Exupéry from his birth in 1900 onward to what seems to have been a fascinating and adventure-packed life, most of it having been devoted to flying and writing in more or less equal measures. Unbeknownst to me, he had made a name for himself as a hero for his flying adventures on the one hand and as a successful author on the other well before  his iconic little book about the prince from another planet was published, with his books based on his flying adventures, one of which became an international bestseller in 1931 and won him the Fémina Prize and which inspired the venerable French perfume house Guerlain to issue a perfume named after that novel two years later, Vol de Nuit, (known as Night Fligh to English readers). Sadly, he disappeared during a flying mission on July 31, 1944, when he took off in an unarmed P-38 on his ninth reconnaissance mission from an airbase on Corsica and vanished without a trace. His legend lives on.

A gorgeous book, much recommended to lovers of Sís and/or Saint-Exupéry. I was already interested in reading more work by the legendary author/adventurer, but I think I’ll seek out his other books more actively now.

(click on images to view larger)

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Straight to the “To Reread” List

 

35f278be44eaca2593149705377444341587343Amsterdam by Ian McEwan ★★★★½
Edition: Vintage Canada (1999), Paperback, 178 pages
Awards & Distinctions: Booker Prize (1998), 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 Edition)
Original publication date: 1998

Sometimes going into a book knowing little to nothing about it reserves great surprises. I picked this one up more or less unplanned as I was needing a dose of literature, having indulge plenty in lighter fare this summer with lots of YA and detective mysteries and promising myself since long ago to read more books by Ian McEwan. This one did not let me down. The story starts at the cremation site of Molly Lane, which is attended among others by two of her ex-lovers and longtime friends, Clive Lindley and Vernon Halliday. One thing that has united them through the decades, other than their devotion to the lovely Molly, who was taken too early by a mysterious illness which robbed her of the control of her body and mind at the age of 46, is a common hatred of her hugely wealthy husband George Lane, who took advantage of her reduced state by taking over her life and keeping all her friends at bay in her rapid decline. Clive is a renown composer who has been commissioned to write a symphony to bring in the new millennium, while Vernon is the latest editor of a newspaper which has been struggling to remain competitive. Also there is the much reviled Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, who was also one of Molly’s ex-lovers, though the two friends can’t understand what she ever saw in him. They are both horrified at the prospect of being struck down with a debilitating illness as Molly had and like her, unable to make decisions for themselves as the end approaches, and agree that should the worst happen and either one lose his mind, the other would ensure to end his friend’s death in a humane way, with euthanasia a procedure which has been legalized in Amsterdam.

When George, who owns a 1.5% share of The Judge, Vernon Halliday’s paper, calls the editor up and says he’s got photographs which will make his sales positively explode, things become complicated. The photos were taken by Molly and they are intimate photographs of Garmony in feminine wear. Vernon immediately sees their potential for sending sales through the roof, though Clive, whom he shares this story with, is appalled. Surely Molly would never had wanted to make those photos public and cause a scandal, or to disgrace Garmony; therefore wouldn’t George and Vernon be dishonouring Molly’s memory by publishing them? Meanwhile Clive is under pressure to deliver his symphony within a tight deadline, even though the millennium itself is still years away, and he is hell-bent on delivering a piece that will mark him as a genius. He works night and day and makes his composition his only priority, to the point that when he witnesses a rape taking place in the Lake District when he is struck by a momentary inspiration while on an outing, he decides to ignore the despicable crime and keeps taking down notes.

From there the stage is set for the drama to unfold. I was reminded, once again of why I enjoy McEwan so much. This seems like highbrow entertainment, but also makes for highly entertaining reading, with everyone out for themselves at first, and then everyone out for revenge in the end, a combination which I’d say is impossible to resist. I’m putting it straight on the ‘to reread’ list.

Fairytales, 21st Century Style

cb4ab9a9733059f59754d516a41444341587343Cinder by Marissa Meyer ★★★★
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Science Fiction
Source: National Library OverDrive Collection
Series: The Lunar Chronicles (1 of 4)
Edition: Macmillan Audio (2012), Unabridged MP3; 10h02
Original publication date: 2012

Lots of people I like and respect in the Library Thing group I’m most active on have taken a great liking for this series in the last couple of years, but still, I was skeptical: YA/Fantasy/Sci-Fi are three categories that are always iffy at best with me, with no dependable formula to rely on to guide me on whether any given book in those genres is likely to work for me or not, and to be honest I was seriously skeptical about this one in particular. Well, I needn’t have worried, because the overall effect worked its charm on me. Loosely based on the classic fairy tale of Cinderella, our heroine, here renamed Cinder, is a cyborg and the best young mechanic in New Beijing in a dystopian new world which has been rebuilt following WWIV.

According to the author Marissa Meyer, the first version of Cinderella was written in China in the 9th century, where small feet were considered sexy, so she wanted to bring the story full circle by setting it in China again, only this time she plays around with the small shoe trope, because from the very first moment we meet Cinder, she’s fitted herself out with a new mechanical foot to replace the previous one, which was much too small, so right from the beginning, you know our heroine is a take-charge kinda girl who isn’t going to wait around for her fairy godmother to make the magic happen for her. All the other elements are there: the Charming Prince, only in this case he insists Cinder call him by his first name, Kai and practically hounds her so she’ll accompany him to the ball, which she’s determined not to got to even though he’s undeniably attractive; the evil stepmother, who treats Cinder like the second-class citizen she is, because cyborgs don’t have rights like normal human beings do in this society, and who at one point commands Cinder to leave her foot in the hall in a bit of surrealistic sadism, and of course the ball itself which Cinder ends up attending, but not just so she can capture to prince’s heart, which she’s done already without trying to, but so she can save the earth from the threat of the Lunars and their Evil Queen, who threatens to dominate humanity with her mind-control form of totalitarianism.

This story is full of surprising twists and turns, and for one expecting just a few quirky takeoffs on a familiar tale, it’s like a ride around a theme-park on a strong dose of LSD. There’s no denying it’s a fairy tale first and foremost and a teen one at that, so that suspension of disbelief must be set in place so the show can magically go on. But I joined along in the proper spirit, wanting to be fully entertained, and so the magic worked on me too. End result: I was charmed, and I’ve now put the second book,  on hold at the library. Perfect summer reading fun. Getting it ‘free’ (i.e. on my tax dollar) helps too, I won’t lie.

Engaging and Fun, Fascinating in Parts

1592404944.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter ★★★½
Source: Audible (Daily Deal)
Edition: Audible (2009), Unabridged MP3; 5h22
Original publication date: 2008

Foreword: I should start out by saying that the last few days were probably not the best time for me to be reading or listening to a book about language and grammar. At the best of time, the notion of grammar seems like Chinese to me, having missed all or most of the lessons on grammar in the three languages I was fluent in at any point as I was travelling from one continent to the other, and for another, one of the features of my migraines is I tend to “lose” words, that is, perfectly familiar words disappear into a black vortex and become temporarily irretrievable unless I go searching for them via a thesaurus equivalent, making the simplest of concepts difficult for me to comprehend when I’m in serious pain.

This being said, McWhorter has managed to write a short book which is obviously aimed at the public at large and in the audio version at least, is a narrator who is engaging and fun and obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously, which kept me going even the more arduous bits (I’ve always had a hard time with grammar). He uncovers some links in the English language which are surprisingly overlooked by most linguists, among others, the connection between the spoken languages of the Celts as well as the Welsh and Cornish who had populated Britain before the invasion of the Germanic tribes, pointing out that not only words, but grammar itself was influenced by these origins. Why historians have ignored these particular linguistic connections is anyone’s guess, and he advances some theories which are interesting.

A noteworthy reminder is for the modern reader is the fact that language was historically transmitted purely orally and on the fly, with no formal schooling in existence and was almost never put in writing, with the bulk of the population being illiterate, besides which written and oral versions of languages were often vastly different (for example, Latin exclusively in many Mediterranean countries for written matter, and Arabic, even to this day different in daily speech and printed matter).

He also goes over quite a bit of ground in this section about the use of “unnecessary do” in the modern English language, as in “do you think this is a good idea?” It took me a while to understand this concept, because we use (unnecessary) ‘do’ so much in our regular speech that we don’t even think about it, but it seems no other Germanic languages use it this way.

The end section was of particular interest to me, because having studied in grade school in Israel, I learned how Hebrew was a semitic language which at one point evolved from Phoenician, and here McWhorter argues that even the proto-Germanic language, from which modern languages such as English, German and Dutch evolved, through the extended sea travels of the Phoenicians, probably had similar influences as well.

An overview more than anything, but fascinating in parts.