10-pages-in: Imaginary Things

I really need to stop accepting books for review, because when I don’t love them I feel horribly conflicted. They gave me a free book, I should give it a nice review! But when it’s a struggle to find nice things to say, I find myself in an awkward position.

Such is the case with Andrea Lochen’s Imaginary Things. I was intrigued by the synopsis:

Watching children play and invent whimsical games of fantasy is one of life’s great joys. But what if you could actually see your child’s imagination as it unfolded? And what would you do if your child’s imagination suddenly became dark and threatening?

Burned-out and broke, twenty-two-year-old single mother Anna Jennings moves to her grandparents’ rural home for the summer with her four-year-old son, David. The sudden appearance of shadowy dinosaurs forces Anna to admit that either she’s lost her mind or she can actually see her son’s active imagination. Frightened for David’s safety, Anna struggles to learn the rules of this bizarre phenomenon and how best to protect him. But what she uncovers along the way is completely unexpected: revelations about what her son’s imaginary friends truly represent and dark secrets about her own childhood imaginary friend.

Living next door is Jamie Presswood, Anna’s childhood friend who’s grown much more handsome and hardened than the boy she once knew. But past regrets and their messy lives are making the rekindling of their complex friendship prove easier said than done. Between imaginary creatures stalking her son and a tumultuous relationship with David’s biological father, Anna may find it impossible to have room in her life or her heart for another man. But as David’s visions become more threatening, Anna must learn to differentiate between which dangers are real and which are imagined, and whom she can truly trust.

Sounds fun, right? Mothering, magic realism, maybe a little love story on the side – sounds like a great formula for a light summer read. It had great potential, but I just could not warm up to this one. To the author’s credit, I was intrigued enough by David’s experiences with the dinosaurs that I kept reading all the way through to the end to find out how it all turned out.

It was, however, a bit of a chore to endure the protagonist throughout the story. Young, self-centred and vapid, I was surprised to find myself actively disliking her, and found it nearly impossible to relate to her or her choices. When she called her son “whiny” instead of describing him as “whining” I may have actually cringed. I get that she’s supposed to be a young mother and clearly from a different generation than me, but even as a mother to a seven year old with an incredibly active imagination, I just couldn’t find anything in Anna to like. In fact, none of the characters resonated with me, not Anna’s kindly grandparents nor the imaginative little boy at the centre of the story. Only the hunky boy next door who’s “grown much more handsome and hardened” seemed to have much depth at all, and that wasn’t nearly enough to carry the story.

It’s a really neat, imaginative idea for a story, and the end was satisfying enough to make it worth the time to read, but any time I find myself actually rolling my eyes at the conventions in a story, I can’t help but give it a less-than-stellar review.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book to review. It might be the last!

Ten-pages-in book review: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

How, I keep asking myself, have I missed this book for my entire adult life? It is everything I love in a book – it’s clever, witty, cheeky and just the tiniest bit sacrilegious. It’s irreverent, intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny. It seems like every one of my friends has not only read it but loved it. I feel like a science fiction fan who has somehow missed the entire enterprise that is Star Trek.

This book is Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I at least been aware of Neil Gaiman for years, and have been quite enjoying a few of his books for kids and for grownups over the last year or so. From Fortunately the Milk for the kids to The Ocean at the End of the Lane for me, I was happy to discover a quirky author whose work I had previously overlooked. I was a little less aware of Terry Pratchett – I knew his name, and loosely his genre, but thought he was more straight fantasy in the lines of George R R Martin or David Eddings. In fact, I think I had been confusing him with Terry Brooks, now that I think about it.

As the boys and I started casting about for something to read after we finish the Anne of Green Gables series, Discworld tripped my radar and I realized that Terry Pratchett was revered on par with Douglas Adams for his witty irreverence. And to complete the mental loop, I had just last summer read Neil Gaiman’s biography of Douglas Adams called Don’t Panic. And so, I picked up Good Omens on a lark.

I don’t often literally laugh out loud when I’m reading by myself, but this book had me doing just that. The book is, to do it complete injustice in the summary, loosely the story of an angel, a demon and the coming of Armageddon to a sleepy little English hamlet called Lower Tadfield.

I have to admit, there was a bit early in the novel when I scratched my head and wondered where the hell all the various plot lines were going, but the humour kept me hooked. There was an early and ongoing bit of schtick about how “all tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into ‘Best of Queen’ albums” that had me sniggering, and at least once a chapter I was laughing out loud and thinking to myself, “Self, you have really GOT to figure out how to turn on the highlighting and underlining thingee on the Kindle so you can mark some of these quotes for future reference.

Some of my favourite bits:

Crowley had always known that he would be around when the world ended, because he was immortal and wouldn’t have any alternative. But he hoped it was a long way off. Because he rather liked people. It was major failing in a demon. Oh, he did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow. They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse. Over the years Crowley had found it increasingly difficult to find anything demonic to do which showed up against the natural background of generalized nastiness. There had been times, over the past millennium, when he’d felt like sending a message back Below saying, Look we may as well give up right now, we might as well shut down Dis and Pandemonium and everywhere and move up here, there’s nothing we can do to them that they don’t do to themselves and they do things we’ve never even thought of, often involving electrodes. They’ve got what we lack. They’ve got imagination. And electricity, of course. One of them had written it, hadn’t he…”Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” Crowley got a commendation for the Spanish Inquisition. He had been in Spain then, mainly hanging around cantinas in the nicer parts, and hadn’t even known about it until the commendation arrived. He’d gone to have a look, and come back and got drunk for a week.

And this:

“Anyway, it’s like with bikes,’ said the first speaker authoritatively. ‘I thought I was going to get this bike with seven gears and one of them razorblade saddles and purple paint and everything, and they gave me this light blue one. With a basket. A girl’s bike.’
‘Well. You’re a girl,’ said one of the others.
‘That’s sexism, that is. Going around giving people girly presents just because they’re a girl.”

And this:

“I don’t see what’s so triffic about creating people as people and then gettin’ upset cos’ they act like people”, said Adam severely. “Anyway, if you stopped tellin’ people it’s all sorted out after they’re dead, they might try sorting it all out while they’re alive.”

And this:

“In every big-budget science fiction movie there’s the moment when a spaceship as large as New York suddenly goes to light speed. A twanging noise like a wooden ruler being plucked over the edge of a desk, a dazzling refraction of light, and suddenly the stars have all been stretched out thin and it’s gone. This was exactly like that, except that instead of a gleaming twelve-mile-long spaceship, it was an off-white twenty-year-old motor scooter. And you didn’t have the special rainbow effects. And it probably wasn’t going at more than two hundred miles an hour. And instead of a pulsing whine sliding up the octaves, it just went putputputputput …
But it was exactly like that anyway.”

I could really just go on and on pulling quotes from this book. Seriously, HOW did I miss this treasure of a book for my entire adult life? The more I read, the more the stories started to come together, the funnier the lines got and the more I wanted to read. By the half-way point, I had tripped that magic spot where you start thinking about the book even when you’re not reading it, and by three-quarters of the way done, I knew it was going to end up on my top ten faves of all time list. I cannot remember the last time I finished a book and immediately started thinking about reading it all over again. (Oops, did I say “10 pages in” book review? Sorry, I’m a little late on this one!)

You might have heard that Sir Terry Pratchett died this past March, just a few weeks after I realized he was an author whose works I should have been reading since I was a teenager. We were discussing my late-to-the-party adoration of this book on Facebook and a friend shared this list of 50 great quotes from Terry Pratchett. I discovered one that has to be the new motto of anyone who works in social media for the government: “It’s not worth doing something unless someone, somewhere would much rather you weren’t doing it.” And this one, which came >this< close to being the new tag line for the blog: "If you don't turn your life into a story, you just become part of someone else's story" As another wise friend said, "Lucky for you, there's only about 50 more Pratchett books for you to discover. Sad for all of us, there will never be any more than that." I am still perplexed as to how I so utterly failed to notice this book before now. I'm delighted, though, that we have just a few chapters left to read in Anne of Ingleside, and then I can start reading The Colour of Money (aka Discworld #1) by Terry Pratchett with the boys. I think I may cue up a little Neil Gaiman for my own reading next. Where should I go? American Gods? Neverwhere? The Graveyard Book? Clearly I can no longer be left to my own devices when choosing books, or I would have read Good Omens 20+ years ago!

Enlighten me, bloggy peeps – what ELSE have I been missing?

10-pages-in book review: Sweetland

Waaaaay back in the day, I used to write what I called “10-pages-in” book reviews. The idea behind the 10-pages-in review is that early in a book there’s often a tipping point where you decide whether a book is worth the effort. At 10 or 20 pages in, you can still comfortably walk away and not feel like you’ve invested too much to quit. Or, you know you’re so hooked that you start canceling playdates and dental appointments just to make more time to read.

I’m more than 10 pages in to Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, but by the time I’d hit the 10th page I was in love. It’s one of those books where you keep checking to see how much is left so you don’t gorge yourself and read it too quickly – you want to slow down and savour it, but you also want to gobble it up in one big feast.

The Goodreads synopsis for Sweetland sums it up well:

For twelve generations, when the fish were plentiful and when they all-but disappeared, the inhabitants of this remote island in Newfoundland have lived and died together. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, they are facing resettlement, and each has been offered a generous compensation package to leave. But the money is offered with a proviso: everyone has to go; the government won’t be responsible for one crazy coot who chooses to stay alone on an island.

That coot is Moses Sweetland. Motivated in part by a sense of history and belonging, haunted by memories of the short and lonely time he spent away from his home as a younger man, and concerned that his somewhat eccentric great-nephew will wilt on the mainland, Moses refuses to leave. But in the face of determined, sometimes violent, opposition from his family and his friends, Sweetland is eventually swayed to sign on to the government’s plan. Then a tragic accident prompts him to fake his own death and stay on the deserted island. As he manages a desperately diminishing food supply, and battles against the ravages of weather, Sweetland finds himself in the company of the vibrant ghosts of the former islanders, whose porch lights still seem to turn on at night.

I am utterly enchanted by this book. I love the way the dialogue perfectly captures the rural Newfoundland idioms without reducing them to caricature. I love the gentle quirkiness of the characters. I love the way past and present are layered so they bleed through each other. I love the protagonist and his obstinate ways. I want to crawl inside this book and live there.

It’s more than a little ironic that given the book is about relocating people off the tiny rural island, a huge part of my heart yearns to move to just such a place. Between reading Anne’s House of Dreams to the boys and this book, I’ve practically packed our bags and moved us to Canada’s easternmost coastline. I’m not sure why PEI and Newfoundland suddenly call to me so strongly, but they do, and these wonderful books with their roots deep in a sense of place are only throwing gasoline on the fires of my imagination.

I’m already dreading the ‘tragic accident’ that’s mentioned in the synopsis, but even more I’m dreading the end of this book. I don’t want it to be done, and have already lined up Michael Crummey’s previous novel, Galore, as my next book.

Have you ever read a book that made you want to crawl inside and live there? What books have captured your imagination like this? To be reading two at the same time is rather dizzying. It also means I’m spending a rather alarming amount of time casually perusing real estate listings on PEI…

Ten-pages-in book review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve written a 10-pages-in book review. This is largely because I am in the year of the series, working my way through all seven Harry Potter books, the His Dark Materials trilogy, Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, and I’m currently in the middle of re-reading one of my all-time favourite series, Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts)(snicker). But this isn’t about those books.

The book I’m reading right now is Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. I’d seen it mentioned here and there, and it was on the library’s express read shelf. In a fit of optimism (I read quickly, but never seem to have the time to get around to reading lately, and the books are due in seven days) I picked it up. I am so glad I did.

I don’t know if this book would have resonated so deeply with me if I weren’t already in the midst of my own dietary recalibration exercise, but the timing couldn’t have been better. Pollan’s book is an examination of how we in Western society have reduced food to nothing more than nutrients, and asks why in a society completely obsessed with ‘healthy’ eating we are more overweight and more sick than ever before. It’s fascinating reading: part history lesson, part self-help, part diatribe. Even with the library-imposed deadline, I couldn’t put it down.

Why does Pollan think food needs to be defended? He observes that over the last generation or so, we have slowly replaced our intake of actual food with highly processed foodlike substances. He says that in reducing food to its nutritional components (not only macronutrients like proteins, carbohydrates and fats, but micronutrients like omega-3 and vitamins) and reducing the purpose of eating to bodily health, we actually do ourselves considerable harm.

In Defense of Food is broken into three parts. The first is a historical examination of how we came to be in this “age of nutritionism”, as Pollan calls it, and how “fake foods” became so ubiquitous. We in Western culture are so obsessed with the nutritional value of food that we have elevated it to an ideology requiring an “-ism”. Pollan blames the unholy trinity of the food industry, nutrition science and journalism our current mentality, and for propagating misleading and even dangerous dietary recommendations: “[M]ost of the nutritional advice we’ve received over the last half-century … has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter.” Not to mention, he observes, ruining countless numbers of meals.

Pollan illustrates this in the example of margarine, “the first important synthetic food to slip into our diet.” He notes that margarine was created in the nineteenth century as a cheap substitute for butter, but became the poster child for the anti-saturated-fat movement that began in the 1950s at the advent of nutritionalism. This (albeit lengthy) paragraph illustrates not only Pollan’s point but his rather entertaining style as well:

[M]anufacturers quickly figured out that their product, with some tinkering, could be marketed as better – smarter! – than butter: butter with the bad nutrients removed (cholesterol and saturated fats) and replaced with good nutrients (polyunsaturated fats and then vitamins.) Every time margarine was found wanting, the wanted nutrient could simply be added (Vitamin D? Got it now. Vitamin A? Sure, no problem.) But of course margarine, being the product not of nature but of human ingenuity, could never be any smarter than the nutritionists dictating its recipe, and the nutritionists turned out to be not nearly as smart as they thought. The food scientists’ ingenious method for making healthy vegetable oil solid at room temperature – by blasting it with hydrogen – turned out to produce unhealthy trans fats, fats that we now know are more dangerous than the saturated fats they were designed to replace. Yet the beauty of a processed food like margarine is that it can be endlessly reengineered to overcome even the most embarrassing about-face in nutritional thinking — including the real wincer that its main ingredient might cause heart attacks and cancer. So now the trans fats are gone, and margarine marches on, unfazed and apparently unkillable. Too bad the same cannot be said of an unknown number of margarine eaters.

Fake foods and nutritionism aren’t Pollan’s only targets. He notes that the problem starts in the industrialization of food production. Pollan notes that two-thirds of our daily caloric intake comes from four crops: corn, soy, wheat and rice. Think about that. TWO-THIRDS! Humans are designed to be omnivores, so this kind of restriction — not to mention the lengths to which those four crops are processed — is a completely unnatural diet. He also talks about how the way in which we produce food has slowly eroded the quality of the food in order to improve yields, pointing out that it would take three apples from today to equal the iron content in one apple from the 1940s. He goes so far as to suggest that maybe this “nutritional inflation” is an underlying cause of the obesity epidemic: we are the first generation that is overfed AND undernourished at the same time.

As far as dietary advice, Pollan’s prescription is poetic in its simplicity: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In the last third of the book, in which I am currently immersed, he expands upon this advice with a few simple dietary rules of thumb like, “would your great-grandmother recognize it as food” and “don’t eat it if it has ingredients you don’t recognize and/or can’t pronounce.”

It’s an engaging, easy-to-follow and eye-opening account, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. And, as an aside, I think Pollan is the first published writer I’ve ever seen even more in love with the parenthetical interruption of his own stream of thought than I am. Read this book, because it will totally change how you think about food.

Coming up next: integrating these ideas into the Plan B diet.

Five-thousand pages in: Stephen King’s Dark Tower books

Once upon a time, I used to write 10-pages-in book reviews. I haven’t written one in a very long time, and a large part of the reason for that is that I’ve spent the last six months immersed in the seven books that comprise Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series. I got the first four books for Christmas, and settled in to read them just after I finished the Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy. (It was, in retrospect, apparently a dark Christmas.) It was prolly mid-January when I turned the first page of The Gunslinger, and I was reading book three, The Waste Lands, while waiting for the pitocin to ramp up my contractions in the delivery room when Lucas was born. I took a bit of a breather from reading for those first blurry six weeks or so of his life, and have been charging headlong through to the end of the series since then.

To steal a phrase: what a long, strange trip it’s been.

I loved these books. They moved me, they inspired me, and they gave me the creeping willies more than once. Hell, more than a dozen times. They also deeply annoyed me at times, and I rolled my eyes in exasperation in a few places. I don’t think anyone can maintain perfection through a full novel, let alone seven of them, but much like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, this series was on whole much more good than bad, and the characters and the stories both got deep under my skin and into my head. Especially as I rolled through the last couple of books, I frequently found myself wanting to reach out to Stephen King somehow — to e-mail him, to give him a call, to pace back and forth in front of his fence for a while until he came out for a bit of a palaver*. I wanted to know more, to chew the fat about these characters and this world, to have the chance to savour them just a little bit more.

So what are the books about? This dude named Roland, who lives in a world like ours but not quite ours, is on a quest to the Dark Tower. That’s it in less than 25 words, but it takes about 5,000 pages to get there. It’s about an obsessed man’s single-minded quest, but also about love and friendship and fear and some nasty things that make squelchy noises in the dark — this is, after all, a work by Stephen King. If you’ve read a lot of King’s books, you’ll recognize visiting characters from Hearts in Atlantis, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Stand and a whole whack of others. Towards the end, there’s a surprising homage to the Harry Potter books, and even King himself makes an appearance as a character.

As I’ve written before, I avoided these books for many years. I’d see a new Stephen King book on the bookstore shelves, and then sigh in dismay. “Ugh, another stupid ‘Gunslinger’ book. Bah!” and I’d turn away. In a way, I’m glad I was late to these books, as I truly loved being immersed in the world of the Dark Tower so completely, and for such a long time. The books are set, as I said, in a world like ours but not quite like ours. Eventually, we find out that this world intersects ours, and that there are innumerable parallel worlds (another neat crossover with the central idea of Pullman’s trilogy.) The story weaves back and forth through wheres and whens in this world and others. King has not only sketched a set of alternate universes, but has coloured and contrasted them with their own histories, customs and linguistic quirks. I think this was my favourite part of these books, how rich and textured the worlds are, and after a while it felt less like reading the books and more like inhabiting the worlds. You know how sometimes when you’re reading a fantasy book, it’s like there is a little bit of scenery sort of half-imagined directly around the characters like the shadow of a spotlight, but everything else is kind of hazy? I felt like I could crawl right into these books and the scope of the world(s) around me would just go on forever.

I was fascinated by the fact that this series took Stephen King the best part of his life to write. He started it in 1970, before Carrie was written or published, and finished it a quarter of a century later in 2003. I think that fact contributes to the sprawling, epic feel to the books. In a way, Roland the Gunslinger ages and matures in Stephen King’s real time. Time is major theme in the books, almost a character in its own right.

Stephen King says in the forward to the books that what he wanted to do as a young writer was get inside peoples’ heads. He’s always been able to do that to me, always been able to crawl deep into the tiniest hidey-holes of my soul and shine a light on the bits that I try hard not to think about. In the Dark Tower series, he’s done it again. It’s been called his magnum opus, and I can see why. As I paged relentlessly through the last book of the series, I watched the dwindling amount unread pages with dismay. Now that it’s done, I think I’ll head out into the interwebs to see if I can find a discussion group or fan site somewhere. I’m deeply hooked on Roland and his ka-tet and his quest, and not quite ready to give them up just yet.

*Actual goosebumps raised on my arms when I was reading the afterward to the very final book, and King spoke about how much he values his privacy and how he intentionally obscured details of his location even as he incorporated himself into the stories so as to protect his ever-eroding privacy. To me, it was almost like a personal “thank you” for not disturbing his privacy when I was stalking him that sunny Saturday morning last year. Chills.

10-pages-in book review: The Reincarnationist

I don’t usually do sponsored book reviews as 10-pages-in reviews. I try to keep them distinct, partly so you’ll know books I’ve stumbled upon serendipitously versus books I’ve been offered to review, and partly because if someone is going to the trouble of sponsoring a review (in this case, MotherTalk provides a copy of the book and a $20 Amazon gift certificate) the least I can do is read the whole book before reviewing it!

In this case, I’m going to make an exception. I would have likely been curious enough about this book to pick it up on my own anyway. Plus, I didn’t receive it until a week or so ago, and quite frankly – I just haven’t had time to finish it yet! Right now, I’m about two-thirds of the way through.

After all that, on with the review. Today we’re talking about MJ Rose’s The Reincarnationist, a suspense thriller with a historical twist, akin to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code meets Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

Photojournalist Josh Ryder witnesses a terrorist attack in Rome, one that kills a nearby security guard and nearly kills him as well. From that moment onward, he finds himself haunted by waking nightmares, visions and hallucinations he can’t explain. They are flashbacks to Josh’s prior life as Julian, a fourth-century Roman having an illicit affair with the last of the Vestal Virgins.

The narrative swings from Josh’s story to Julian’s and back again. As the narrative leaps from modernity to ancient Rome with stops in between, the reader is drawn deeper into a complex web of interlocking mysteries that include a modern-day murder and the theft of a set of mystical objects called Memory Stones, rumoured to have the power to help the holder know all of his or her past lives.

It’s an intriguing novel and I find myself becoming more drawn into it as the story progresses. I compared it earlier to The Da Vinci Code and The Historian, and I don’t think it’s quite as compelling or well executed as those two novels – although I can’t quite put my finger on the reason why. I wish I had a better feel for Josh – and for Julian, for that matter. I have neither a clear picture in my mind of the character, nor do I quite buy into his behaviour.

Regardless, it’s one of the better books I’ve read this year, an exciting story full of page-turning suspense. There are sinister forces at play, a likeable hero, more than a hint of romance, and a handful of mysteries to be solved. What more could you ask of a book?

What I am particularly enjoying, and frankly wish there was more of, is the philosophical examination of reincarnation. I’m ambivalent about the topic myself – I tend to agree with Hamlet, who said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So while I won’t discount reincarnation outright, I also can’t say I’ve ever been compellingly convinced of its existence.

I had never really thought before reading this book about why the Catholic Church has such a problem with the idea of reincarnation (I’ll paraphrase it to “we can’t leave the eternal redemption of the unwashed masses in their own hands; whatever will our priests do?”) and found the historical description of the evolution of religion in the early years of the Church quite intriguing. I wish I knew / remembered enough about history to know whether it’s an accurate portrayal.

With a full third of this book left to read, it’s just getting really good now, and I’m quite hooked. Divergent story lines are just starting to come together, and I’m curious to see how it all comes out. If you’re curious, you can read more about The Reincarnationist on author MJ Rose’s website.

So, what do you think about the whole reincarnation thing? Were you a peasant farmer or wealthy noblesse in a past life? Or is this your one and only kick at the can?

10-pages-in book review: Everything’s Eventual

It’s a bit of a challenge to write the usual 10-pages-in book review when we’re talking about a book of short stories. I’m about half way through this book, and I’ve consumed (it’s a deliberate word choice; reading Stephen King is a literary gastronomic delight for me) a little bit less than half of the stories and the other half remain unexplored territory. But I really wanted to write a post about this book because of the excitement and sense of discovery it has inspired in me. The book, by the way, is Stephen King’s Everything’s Eventual, a collection of short stories released way back in 2002.

When the movie 1408 came out this past summer and the ads trumpeted that it was based on a Stephen King story, I was perplexed. I only saw the trailer, but it sure didn’t look like any Stephen King story I’d ever read, and I was pretty sure I’d read all the ones that had been anthologized.

When they started advertising for the DVD release a couple of weeks ago, it piqued my curiousity again and I went looking for the story on which the movie was based. I stood for a long time in Chapters, flipping through the pages of Everything’s Eventual and reading a paragraph or two out of most of the stories, and the more I read, the more convinced I became that I was holding in my hand a whole collection of Stephen King stories that I hadn’t read before. I was beyond delighted and bought the book on the spot.

That evening, I started reading it on the bus on the way home and sure enough – I recognized the second story, a rather hair-raising story about a young boy who meets the devil while fishing on the banks of the river near his home. It was the description of the devil that triggered it for me, a pallid but otherwise ordinary fellow in a black suit who just happened to have deep flaming pits where his eyes should have been. No doubt, I had read that story before. But the first story was only vaguely familiar and the third story was definitely virgin territory. So either some of the stories were anthologized elsewhere, or I got interrupted the first time I had the book and never got back to it. Since it would have been issued around the time Tristan was a newborn, I suppose that’s conceivable, but just barely.

All this to say, I am again beyond delighted to be savouring an entire book of undiscovered (for me, at least) Stephen King stories. The stories so far run the gamut from melancholy but only vaguely odd (“The Death of Jack Hamilton”) to creepy (“Everything’s Eventual”) to genuinely frightening (“The Man in the Black Suit.”) Now that “1408” is out on DVD, I’m debating whether to read the story first or watch the movie first. Ordinarily, I’d choose the story, but I do love me some John Cusack.

Aside from the simple joy of reading good stories, I love this anthology because it’s basically an annotated version. King’s introduction to the book acts as a sort of elegy for the short story as a literary form, and each story is introduced by a few paragraphs that explain how he conceived and realized it. I’m absolutely fascinated by the processes of writing, from inspiration to creation, and am especially intrigued by Stephen King’s insights. Much as I enjoy the stories themselves, I think I enjoy each snippet of insight into the process just as much.

As if finding a whole, thick anthology of fresh Stephen King isn’t enough of a gift, I’ve made another discovery. As I’ve said before, I’ve long been a Stephen King stalker fan. There were a few books back in the 1990s that weren’t very good – I’m thinking Rose Madder, Gerald’s Game – and that seemed more like he was calling them in through the haze of his then-drug and alcohol addiction. But, simply because even on his worst day he’s better than most, I’ve always gotten around to reading just about everything he’s written… with the exception of his Dark Tower books. I don’t know why, maybe it was the term “Gunslinger” that always turned me off. For whatever reason, I decided back in the day that I didn’t like that series and was always annoyed to discover a shiny new Stephen King book in the bookstore only to realize it was yet another one of the Dark Tower books.

Well, there is a short story in Everything’s Eventual called “The Little Sisters of Eluria” that is a kind of prequel to the Dark Tower series, set in the time just before Roland sets off on his epic quest. It was an engaging story, one of the best in the book so far, and I have no idea why I ever rejected the Dark Tower series in the first place. So now, in addition to a delicious new anthology, I’ve got an entire series of seven brand new epics to read; it’s like finding out JK Rowling released seven more Harry Potter books while you weren’t looking!

On this, the Canadian day of Thanksgiving, I’m extremely thankful to have not only a good book to read on a rainy holiday, but a whole line-up of new reading material stretching out ahead of me!

10-pages-in book review: The Ruins

What’s that, you say? A long, long time ago, I used to write book reviews on this blog? Hmmmmm, maybe I remember that, way back in the distant recesses of my brain.

For the most part, I haven’t written a book review here in ages simply because I haven’t read a book worth reviewing. Most of the summer has passed in an enjoyably mind-numbing fashion, reading the likes of James Patterson and other paperback pulpy nothingness. I just finished Kathy Reichs’ Break No Bones, and I was planning to write a review on that one, but I accidentally finished it before I could get a 10-pages-in review written. (I really, really like Kathy Reichs. I can’t stand that TV show, Bones, based on her protagonist, but I do love the books.)

But really, this post is not about the books that I have not reviewed (although, apparently, that is a post in itself) but the book I am currently reading and about to review forthwith and without further ado: Scott Smith’s The Ruins.

The storyline is straightforward. A group of four young Americans (two couples linked in friendship by the females) are on an extended vacation in Mexico. They befriend a single German fellow who sets off in search of his missing brother, and by happenstance more than circumstance, the four plus a fellow Greek tourist who speaks no English (nor Spanish, nor German), accompany the German fellow on a trip out to some local Mayan ruins to search for his brother. And then things quickly begin to go very, very bad.

From the first pages, the book has an unremitting tension that fairly hums through each page. Even before things begin to go badly, there is little doubt that it will. Foreboding haunts the reader from the start, pulling one inexorably onward, and menace coalesces like a fog with each hastily-turned page.

The Ruins, like Smith’s previous book A Simple Plan (later made into a movie, which I never did get around to seeing, starring Billy Bob Thorton and Bill Paxton) is in essence a book about how very ordinary people deal with very extreme circumstances. Smith uses the circumstances of the novel, which are extreme but far from inconceivable, as a lens to explore a concentrated version of basic human behaviour and interaction. I’m half way through the book, and though each of the characters has been roughly sketched out – one is more heroic, one more self-absorbed, one a whiner and one silently stoic – I haven’t yet seen a lot of character development. And yet, because each of these characters is Everyman, I understand each of their unique motivators on a personal level. I can’t imagine that’s an easy feat to pull off, as a writer!

I can’t actually say a lot more about this book without starting to give away some of the plot, and I really don’t want to do that. Suffice to say that if you, like me, have strange phobias about weeds and common garden plants, you might want to read this one in the daylight hours. Half way through this book, I’m quite glad I can probably ignore what’s left of my garden for the rest of the season, and deal with the weedy interlopers and aggressive perennials come springtime. By then I should have forgotten the parts of this book that made my toes curl like the tendrils of so much creeping ivy.

This book is a wonderfully suspensful novel that I suspect may trip over to the realm of genuine horror by the time I work my way through it.

10-pages-in book review: The Calligrapher

I haven’t been writing a lot of 10-pages-in book reviews lately simply because I haven’t been reading any books worth talking about. In fact, it’s been about a month now that in my prime book-reading time (on the bus going home) I’ve been reading magazines. Or just staring out the window. It’s been a horrible drought.

Thank goodness, the drought has been quenched (that seems a little hyberbolic, but I’ve written myself into a corner barely five sentences in – that can’t be good) with this latest book. I received it as a gift from the commenter otherwise known as Trixie, who really needs her own blog. (And again, I’m off track. FOCUS, woman.)

Ahem. So, this book – it’s amazing. It’s delicious. I can’t remember the last time I savoured a book like this – the story, the language, the turns of phrase. It’s exquisite and delightful, intelligent and wryly funny. It’s called The Calligrapher, and it’s a first novel by a British chap named Edward Docx.

The Calligrapher is the story of 29 year old Jasper Jackson of London, told in cheeky and clever first-person narrative. He’s a raffish sort of fellow, a sophisticated and self-aware womanizer and serial heartbreaker; a younger, hipper Hugh Grant sort of character. He’s a scamp and a scalliwag, just the sort of fellow whom I would find absolutely irresistible in real life – and as a literary creation.

He describes, for example, his preparations for the perfect aprés-amour breakfast when his latest conquest requests strawberries :

Even here, there is danger. The talented amateur, for example, will stride merrily out to the shops on the eve of the assignation and buy everything his forthright imagination can conceive of Рmuesli, muffins, marmalade, a range of mushrooms, perhaps even some maple syrup. Thus laden, he will return to stuff his shelves, fill his fridge and generally clutter his kitchen with produce. But this will not do. Not only will his unwieldy efforts be noticed by even the most blas̩ of guests Рas he offers first one menu, then another Рbut, worse, the elegance and effect of seeming to have exactly what she wants is utterly lost, drowned out in a deluge of petits d̩jeuners.

No, the professional must take a very different approach. He will, of course, have all the same victuals as the amateur, but – and here’s the rub – he will have hidden them. All eventualities will have been provided for, and yet it will appear as though he has made provisions for none. Except – magically – the right one.

Anyway, thank fuck I got the strawberries.

Jasper is also a formally trained calligrapher, and he is working on his largest commission to date, transcribing 30 songs and sonnets by the poet John Donne for an American buyer. Each chapter opens with a few lines of the Donne poem Jasper is currently transcribing, which happens to reflect the changing state of Jasper’s life.

I must admit to an ignomious lack of awareness about poetry. Poetry is one of those things that I’ve tried valiantly to ‘get’, mostly unsuccessfully. About all I know of Donne is that he was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and that he wrote both holy sonnets and erotic love sonnets. In this book, I adore how the narrator uses the little bits of verse to explore how he feels, and also gives a little Poetry 101 lesson by walking the reader through Donne’s verse. Donne’s poetry is so cleanly woven into the fabric of the story and such a perfect foil for the unfolding storyline that I’m curious as to how the author constructed the novel. Did the author choose the sonnets and then build the story around them?

At just shy of 100 pages into the book, I’ve just come to a critical point in the story. Jasper, recently caught in flagrante delicto with another woman and turfed by his girlfriend, has become mesmerized by a mysterious woman who appears in the garden courtyard outside his home studio. In his own words, he falls apart as he tries to discern who this perfect beauty is and whether she is available.

I’ve long been a fan of ‘lad lit’, and this book seems a particularly worthy example of that genre. In one of the reviews of The Calligrapher I read, I think it was in the NYT, called author Edward Docx the little brother of Nick Horby. I can see that. Docx writes with the same delicious dry wit, but with an extra attention to language and turn of phrase that makes me positively salivate. I also enjoy how each phrase drips with what I can only describe as inherent Britishness – you can’t read this prose without hearing the clipped wry British voice in it.

While I’m curious as to the outcome of the story, far from racing to the conclusion I’m content to savour each page as I read it. True, like a lot of first-time novels this one seems to succumb to its own bravado at times. Like Jasper, the book is perhaps a little too aware of its own cleverness on occasion, and the language comes dangerously close to excessive embellishment. But these are minor quibbles, and the literary excesses are actually a large part of this book’s charm.

A book is a lovely gift at the best of times, but giving fiction – especially fiction you haven’t yet read yourself, as Trixie admitted she hadn’t – can be tricky. There are simply so many bad books out there, and so many more that are simply mediocre, that it takes an extraordinary amount of luck to have one so exquisitely enjoyable as this one simply be gifted upon you.

A bad boy who has a way with words. I never stood a chance.

Ten-pages-in book review: Children of Men

This was supposed to be a 10-pages-in book review of PD James’ Children of Men. But the book was really good and I accidentally read the whole thing on the train going to and from my conference in Kingston last week before I could write the review. Oops, sorry about that.

I was surprised at what a great book this is. I had heard vaguely of the movie, but my life lately hasn’t permitted me a lot of time for cinematic indulgence, and the book and the movie only really tripped onto my radar screen when I read about the Barren Bitches Book Brigade Tour hosted by Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters. (Do they know how to write a catchy title or what?)

A bit of a caveat before I begin. (You know it’s going to be a long ramble when I’m making preamble-ish caveats in the third paragraph.) I’m not much of a sci-fi reader, and I’m especially not a huge consumer of dystopian fiction. I’m far too optimistic, some might even say simplistic, to submit myself to the fatalistic outlook of dystopia. So I’m not overly familiar or comfortable with the conventions of the genre, outside of what I learned from Margaret Atwood, but as soon as I read the premise of this book, I knew I had to read it and talk about it with you.

Ah yes, the book. It’s set in the year 2021, and is told in the alternating first and third person perspective of Theo Fallon, an Oxford professor and historian. The future in which he lives is not so different from the world of 2007, nor the world of 1992 (when the book was written) insomuch as there are no flying cars, no outposts of civilization on the moon, not even any mention of computers that I can recall. But it is the world of a doomed society, because it has been more than 25 years since a baby has been born. In the year 1995, all of humanity has been struck, completely inexplicably, infertile.

The book opens on a note of futulity and fatalism, many years past the panicked shock of the initial realization of infertility. Theo notes in his diary, “We are outraged and demoralized less by the impending end of our species, less even by our inability to prevent it, then by our failure to discover the cause.” Their spirits have been defeated not by the ‘what’, but by the unanswerable ‘why?’

I found a lot of resonance with my own struggle with infertility in this book. The last generation of children, born in the year 1995, are known as Omega. As they become adults, society moves to erase the painful reminder that there will be no more children: “The children’s playgrounds in our parks have been dismantled. […] The toys have been burnt, except for the dolls, which have become for some half-demented women a substitute for children. The schools, long closed, have been boarded up or used as centres for adult education. The children’s books have been systematically removed from our libraries. Only on tape and records do we hear the voices of children, only on film or television programs do we see the bright, moving images of the young. Some find them unbearable to watch but most feed on them as they would a drug.”

I was haunted by this idea, by a world without children. I think I found the concept entirely more chilling than the idea of humanity’s ultimate expiration. Theo describes in a few scenes how pets have become substitute children, as in one scene where a kitten is christened in an abandoned church. In another, he alludes to the acrimony of custodial agreements for pets: “As the registered part owner on the fecund-domestic-animal licence, I could, of course, have applied to the Animal Custody Court for joint custody or an access order, but I had no wish to submit myself to the humiliation.” (I remember joking back in the dark days, in the tight way one jokes about something that might not be so funny after all, that if we didn’t have a baby soon, one might soon find me at the mall pushing our lovely golden-shepherd mix Katie in a pram with a bonnet on her head.)

But the book isn’t entirely about infertility; it’s more of an exploration of what would happen to humanity deprived of a future and forced to live through a slow and considered extinction. Really, not the most cheerful book I ever read, but fascinating and compelling all the same.

Theo’s cousin, Xan, is the Warden of England, a benevolent dictator who gives the people what he thinks they want: protection, comfort, and pleasure. When Theo, who had previously served on Xan’s advisory council, is approached by a small group of revolutionaries who want to use Theo as a conduit to his powerful cousin, Theo is reluctant to get involved in anything that might disrupt his ordered life. When he does acquiesce in the end, it is for completely unaltruistic reasons.

The second half of the book becomes, rather unexpectedly after the thoughtful if plodding narrative of the first part of the book, a page-turning adventure that makes me glad I was too far committed to write a review before I reached the end of the story. It’s a fascinating, insightful book that left me considering the issues it raises long after I turned the last page. I’d like to go see the movie now, although I’ve heard that it’s only loosely based on the book, if only to have the excuse to re-immerse myself in the story again.

I’m not convinced I’ve adequately conveyed how much I enjoyed this book, how thought-provoking it was, and how I lingered over the last page, wondering what happened next. I’m typing this late at night, though, and rather than fuss over this and try to get the words just right, I’ll just tell you that it’s a really great book, one of the best I’ve read in a long time, and I’d love to talk about it with you.

I’ll be revisiting this book next month as part of the Barren Bitches Book Brigade Tour, and you still have time to join in if you’re interested. Read the book by the end of February and we can host our own conversation about the book on March 5.