My Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force

idealbookshelfFull disclosure – I already own one of Jane Mount’s fabulous prints. It is one of my prized possessions (take a look). So it should come as no surprise that I love My Ideal Bookshelf, an illustrated book dedicated to the ideal bookshelves of significant producers of arts and culture. I received this book for Christmas and spent most of the day slowly flipping through the pages, peaking at the ideal bookshelves of luminaries such as Judd Apatow, Michael Chabon and Alice Waters. I must admit that part of the appeal of My Ideal Bookshelf is the slightly voyeuristic nature of the endeavour. It is thrilling to see that Chabon is also a fan of Proust and that my ideal bookshelf resembles that of a book cover designer who I had never heard of!

Each contributor has also written a small piece discussing their choices. This makes for some pretty fascinating reading and has made my reading list grow with authors I have never heard of before as well as perennial favorites who I am embarrassed to say I have never read. Taken as a whole the book is revealing about what people read and why. Hemingway seems to be more widely represented than any other writer. The Great Gatsby is on many a list. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is favoured over The Corrections.

Who would like this book? Do I really need to answer this? I thought not. It goes without saying that My Ideal Bookshelf is meant for the book fetishist. So go ahead, covet this book. It’s worth it.

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Stray Love by Kyo Maclear

strayloveKyo Maclear is one of those writers who has floated just below my radar for some time now and I’m not quite sure why. Her first novel for adults was The Letter Opener. I was always attracted to it, but never picked it up. I don’t know why. So when Stray Love came out I was more than just a little bit curious.

At its heart Stray Love is about the search for identity. Each of the characters is a little bit lost, a little bit unhinged, and searching for who they may be and who they may belong to. The protagonist is a boy of unknown and mixed ethnic origin raised by a man who is not his father after his mother runs away. However, he is only one character searching for where he fits int he world. Mixed and unknown parentage is a recurring theme for many of the characters.

I didn’t love Stray Love but I am certainly glad I read it. The writing is solid, though I found the ending to be a bit unresolved. I wanted a little bit more about the protagonist’s present day life. One can imagine that his life may arch towards happiness if the right decision is made, but one does not know for sure.

Who would like this book? One of my favorite aspects of this novel is that the locations – London and Saigon – play such an important role in the telling of the story. This will be a recurring theme in my reviews –  I love to travel whether it is in real life or in a book. Stray Love also gives important insight into issues of race and acceptance in 1960s England. However, if you are looking for a happy feel good read, this may not be the novel for you. Characters’ issues are left unresolved and I wonder if any of them will ever find true happiness and get past the scars of an unfulfilled childhood.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

9781443410762If you have not yet heard if Ayana Mathis, get ready, because you are going to see her name everywhere. Her first novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, has been chosen as the latest book for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. And that means Mathis has shot to  literary stardom with unprecedented speed and she deserves it. Mathis is a brilliant writer and has heavy weights like Marrilynne Robinson backing her to prove it.

The problem is, I didn’t like The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. It is basically the story of Hattie’s twelve children and their lives in Philadelphia as part of the Great Northern Migration of African Americans. Each chapter is devoted to one of her children and the stories span from 1923 to the 1980s. Some of the chapters were absolutely breath taking. I especially liked the voice of the character in Vietnam. But for the most part, they were also overwhelmingly tragic. When the characters are down on their luck Mathis continues to plague them with more and more personal tragedies. These tragedies were even more painful because they were likely based in reality to a certain extent. It was one kick in the stomach after another. Reading it made me feel drained and listless.

In spite of dislike of the novel, I can see that it is an important novel. Like Toni Morrison, Mathis delves into and exposes important aspects of the African American experience in twentieth century America. It would not surprise me in the least if it became one of the great American novels.

Who would like this book? Obviously, Oprah’s loyal legions of followers will buy this book regardless of what I say. And buy it they should – it is an important novel. For those who like to read hefty tomes of great importance, then this book is for you. I like to read to escape and for that reason this book was not for me. It did not provide a happy escape or one iota of hope. But Mathis is a great writer, so lovers of finely crafted prose may also find this novel agreeable.

The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker

brunoBruno Chief of Police is back again solving crimes and cooking up a storm in The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker. If you are not familiar with Bruno, you should get yourself acquainted. He is a food loving, rugby playing, horse riding, wine loving French charmer, who also happens to be the Police Chief of St. Denis, a small village in the Dordogne region of France. St. Denis, in addition to being the gastronomic heartland of France, also seems to be beset by an unusual amount of crime.

In The Crowded Grave, the fourth book in the Bruno series, St. Denis finds itself at the epicenter of the war on fois gras while preparing to host a major political summit between France and Spain. But is the kerfuffle over fois gras really just a smoke screen to distract Bruno from a potential attack by Basque separatists during the summit? Oh yeah, and an archaeological team digging in the area come across a dead body. Needless to say, Bruno has his hands full.

One of the most impressive things about The Crowded Grave, like all the Bruno books, is how author Martin Walker is able to convey the complexities of topics such as the Basque separatist movement without becoming heavy handed. Looking at Walker’s background as a Senior Scholar in International Relations it comes as no surprise that he has a thorough understanding of such matters, what may be surprising is the clarity of the language that he uses. The passion Walker has for Dordogne’s food and culture is wonderfully depicted and makes the fictitious village of St. Denis as much a character in the novel as anyone else.

Who would like this book? This book is obviously a must for anyone travelling (armchair or otherwise) to the Dordogne region of France. Walker makes the character and the food of the place come alive. His descriptions of the food made me hungry for days! There seems to be a whole genre of light mysteries out there that are as much about a sense of place as solving the crime. Think Alexander McCall Smith and his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series, or Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri series. The Bruno books fit in nicely with those. However, if you are looking for a mystery or police procedural with lots of high paced action, blood and guts, this may not be for you.

Tigers in Red Weather

tigersIn late summer I started to hear a lot about Liza Klaussman – and not just that she was Herman Melville’s great-great-granddaughter (that may not be the right number of greats, but who’s counting, really?). Tigers in Red Weather is her first novel, though she has worked as a journalist for some time.

Reports surrounding the novel put it somewhere between a good beach read, a murder mystery and the next great American novel. And though there is not much resembling Melville, comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald would not be unwarranted.

It is set primarily at a summer house in Martha’s Vineyard, though there are brief forays to other American locales. Tennis, parties, and cocktails abound. And although Tigers makes a great summer read, I would wager that it is more than just a beach read. The story of family dysfunction is told in five parts and five different points of view. Klaussmann juggles the interweaving family relationships beautifully. A key theme is the lengths people will go to to protect the ones they love, especially when a dead body is involved.

Who would like this book? This book would be a great choice for a book club – lots to discuss. I also think it would appeal to anyone looking for a good literary page turner. It does focus largely on the thirty year friendship of two women, so it may have less appeal to men.