11/22/63 Read-A-Long

112263vertical_1I’m about to step out there and try something a little different and completely new to me – a book read-a-long. I had never really heard of such a thing until I entered the book blogosphere almost a year ago, but it seems like a fun idea and it is involving a book I’ve been wanting to read. So here goes ….

The book is 11/22/63 by Stephen King. I have not read any King since Salem’s Lot scared the pants off of me in high school, but I’ve always been interested in King as such a prolific writer. Thankfully, 11/22/63 is more speculative – what if JFK was not shot on 11 November 1963 – than scary. I must admit, I may have problems with the whole suspension of disbelief thing that will be required in reading this book. But it is time for me to try something new and stretch myself a little. 

I also want to thank Kristen over at My Little Heart Melodies for organizing everything and hopefully keeping us on track while we read this mammoth tome.

How To Read Novelist by John Freeman

HT-read-a-novelistQuite simply, How To Read A Novelist is a collection of articles based on author interviews by John Freeman, a well know literary critic. What makes the book remarkable is the sheer number of awesome authors he has interviewed. You name the writer, and I bet he or she is included here. There are those who you would expect like John Irving, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, but there are some more unlikely candidates as well, like Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer and Vikram Chandra. And then there were the writers I’d never eve heard of, like Imre Kertesz and Aleksandar Hemon. Overall the book contains more than 50 articles based on interviews with celebrated writers. Not bad.

My only quibble with the collection is the title: How To Read a Novelist. I found this to be misleading. The title made me think that the book was going to be a in depth breakdown of several writers’ works, not interviews. But title aside, it was a fascinating read.

Who would like this book? You know who you are. This book is meant for the individual who always flips to the arts section of the newspaper first to read about writers discussing their latest works. It is meant for the individual who does not just read books, but is interested in the process behind the work, the life of the writer and literary celebrity. It is for someone like me. It reminded me very much of Why We Write, which I reviewed earlier this year.

Vacation Round Up

I don’t normally resort to mini reviews, but I’m sick and tired and have the post-vacation blues. So here goes:

THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS by Richard Russo

bridge-of-sighsAh yes, an oldie but a goodie, or so they say. I picked up this book due to the title. I was going to Venice, the Bridge of Sighs is in Venice, so what better book could there be for the first leg of my vacation, right? Wrong. As it turns out, The Bridge of Sighs only marginally takes place in Venice. It was still a good read – it is Richard Russo after all – but it did not immerse me in Venetian life. Let’s chalk this one up to a bad choice for the situation on my part.

THE MASSEY MURDER by Charlotte Gray

massey-murderThe Masseys are a very prominent family in the founding of Toronto. Their history suffuses the streets, but a murder? How had I never heard about that? As it turns out, the murder was in a lesser branch of the Massey family – not THE Masseys so to speak. However, The Massey Murder is still a captivating tales. Gray deftly weaves the social history of the time into the narrative and places the murder within the context of the effects of World War One on Toronto, the burgeoning women’s movement and the plight of immigrants. In some ways it is a great companion to What Disturbs the Blood by James Fitzgerald in its recounting of Toronto’s social history.

The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

friday-gospelsThe main reason I read The Friday Gospels was because author Jenn Ashworth was speaking with Peggy Riley at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Aside from that, I had never heard of Ashworth, though this is her third book. It seems that her talent has not really crossed the ocean over to North America. Her books maybe a struggle to find over there, but if The Friday Gospels is anything to judge by, it is worth the effort of seeking her books out.

I really liked The Friday Gospels. It contains a number of elements that I covet in a good novel: family tensions and crises, odd characters, and struggles with faith and identity. The story takes place over the course of a single day in which Gary, the adored son, is to return from his Mormon mission in Utah. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different of the family – Jeannie the youngest child who idolizes Gary, Julian the oldest son who has turned his back on Mormonism, Pauline the proud mother, Martin the indifferent dad who is looking to leave the family, and Gary who views himself as a failure. Perhaps the most astounding thing about Ashworth’s writing is how each character has a truly distinctive voice, character and point of view.

The novel was a fast read. It seems that each character has a crisis of some sort that comes to a head as they are waiting for Gary to arrive. I do not want to give too much away, but as as you read further more of each characters’ struggle is revealed and it makes the book hard to put down.

Ashworth, who is startlingly young, was raised a Mormon in England. Although she is no longer a member of the faith, her experiences and exposure to the intricacies of Mormonism certainly inform The Friday Gospels. During her talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival she spoke of the differences between Mormons in America and Britain. The characters she portrays in her novel reflect some of these differences. Mormons in Britain are much more concerned with conformity because the community is so small. The influence of community has a greater bearing on your family life.

Who would like this book? One of the reasons I was attracted to The Friday Gospels is because I enjoy novels that deal with struggles of faith and religion. In particular, I liked the insight it gave into Mormonism outside of the United States. In North America I think we have a fairly rigid view of Mormons. We see them either as a polygamous cult as portrayed salaciously in the media or as the conservatively dressed proselytizers who come knocking on our doors. This mold is also broken by Elders, another Mormon focused novel that i recently reviewed.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

theluminariesI must admit my bias before I begin the review. I loved The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Well thought out, impeccably written and clever. After reading it I believed that Catton was a genius in our midst (and a young one at that!). All that makes for a very hard act to follow. The Luminaries, Catton’s sophomore novel, is one of the most anticipated books of the season. Indeed, it has made the shortlists for the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General of Canada’s Award for Fiction. But can it live up to its anticipated greatness?

From the first page of The Luminaries I knew the writing was great It grabbed me and took me away. As the novel continued I picked up on noticeable stylistic differences from her earlier work: The Luminaries reflects the time, the late 1800s, in which it is set, it is much more straight forward than The Rehearsal, and much more detailed and descriptive.

The story itself takes place during the Gold Rush in New Zealand at the end of the 19th century. From that perspective it is a frontier story and reminiscent of a Western, an area I tend to stay away from in my reading. If it had been written by anyone other than Catton I would not have picked it up. For me the novel was saved to a certain extent in its telling as it unravels somewhat like a Victorian Era or Agatha Christie mystery. Each character brings their own perspective to bear on the unfolding of events. At various points, though I liked what I had read, I thought how is this going to carry on for another 500 hundred pages?

And that is my main complaint about The Luminaries. It was just too long. I can’t imagine having written it. With each character that contributes to the story new details and layers are revealed. The planning that had to have gone into it is amazing. And yet for all that work, I still wonder if it could have been shorter.

Who would like this book? Simply because of the length, The Luminaries is a commitment. You are not going to plowtherehearsal through this book no matter how much time you have to dedicate to it. I would also suggest that this novel is perfect for one who revels in the detail. I am more of a big picture thinker, so although The Luminaries had much to offer in that direction, I think I became too bogged down in the minutia of each character’s perspective. This book would also appeal to those who like good literature, as it’s many nominations attests to. But when the question come to whether or not I would recommend this book, I would have to say no. Instead, I demand that you read The Rehearsal. It is brilliant and of a much more manageable size.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

this-house-is- hauntedI don’t think I’ll be giving anything away by telling you that This House is Haunted is about a haunted house. It is a darkly told gothic tale of a governess and the secrets she uncovers at the house where she is employed. Sound like you’ve read this book before? Well, you haven’t. Boyne gives a good twist on a familiar story.

John Boyne is probably most well know for his bestseller The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas. I have not read that book, but from what I understand This House is Haunted does not bear much comparison to his previous work. Boyne appears to be a writer who reinvents himself with every novel he writes. The one thing that is consistent, however, is the high quality of writing.  This novel feels like a book written in the Victorian era.

Truthfully, I am not a big fan of gothic ghost stories, but felt compelled to read this as it was given to me by a friend at Random House Canada. However, if you enjoy this genre, and I know that many do, I believe that This House is Haunted is a quality example of what can be done.

Who would like this book? If you enjoy a good old ghost story told in a crumbling English Manor house this book is for you. It reminded me of classics like the Brontes to a certain extent, but also to more recently written gothic tales such as The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfeild (btw she has a new novel coming out in November). I also have the feeling that This House is Haunted will be nominated for an award or two. I could be wrong, but that is the feeling I get.

This book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

marriagematerialI picked up Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera on a bit of a whim. I hadn’t heard anything about it, and had not read (or even heard of) Sanghera’s earlier works. Further research revealed that Sanghera is an accomplished journalist and writer in the UK. His journalistic background comes through in the crafting of the novel, which is full of startling news items about racial relations in the Midlands of England in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond. As a Canadian, I often forget or overlook the turbulence in England during that period.

From the first sentence I read I knew that I was going to like Marriage Material. Sanghera’s writing is both breathtaking and revealing. It effortlessly transport the reader to a different time and place. Each of his characters have a distinctive way of speaking which reveals as much about them as any actions they may take. There are native Punjabi speakers struggling to grasp the Queen’s English, young aping American Hip Hop artists and blooming political agitators spouting words meant to inflame. One character in particular is amusing in his ability to speak Punjabi to his elders, British Hip Hop slang to his friends and in one or two key scenes, plain old English.

Marriage Material tells two parallel stories: one of two Punjabi sisters growing up in Wolverhampton in the 1970s; the second of the son of one of the two sisters returning to Wolverhampton after his father’s death. The interplay of the two story lines illustrates how little things have changed for immigrants and minorities in the UK. As a relative newcomer to the UK I have found the class and immigrant issues to be viewed in a much different way than in Canada. Marriage Material did an enormous amount to educate me further upon these issues. In particular, Sanghera introduced me to the infamous British Parliamentarian Enoch Powell and his inflammatory “Rivers of Blood” speech on immigration.

Who would like this book? I found Marriage Material to be a much weightier book than the cover or title suggests.  It is not chick lit with an ethnic element! I would make favorable comparisons to White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Brick Lane by Monica Ali – all deal with complex issues and challenging themes. It is a book that will make the reader think and hopefully stimulate discussion. It has also made me re-evaluate how I view the owners of small shops in my neighborhood. Their lives and struggles are far more complex than I had previously considered.

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

pure-gold-babySeveral years ago Margaret Drabble announced that she was retiring from writing. With a novelist as prolific as she many were tempted not to believe her. And they were right, for Drabble has just come out with her latest novel The Pure Gold Baby. I have not read any Drabble before this book, so I cannot judge how it compares to the rest of her oeuvre. What I can say, however, is that I found The Pure Gold Baby to be a rather odd book. That is not to say that it is not a good book. It is a dense book, replete with literary references and illusions. I think it would be one of those books that only gets better as one studies more. Notables such as Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare and Pearl Buck make repeated appearances in the telling.

At first glance the story appears to be the type of thing I tend to like: an anthropology graduate student gets knocked up by her professor, decides to keep her baby and leaves him in the dust. The story spans the greater part of Jess and her daughter Anna’s life together. Anna initially appears to be a rather normal, happy child – a pure gold baby. As she and her cohort age, it becomes increasingly noticeable that there is something different about Anna and that she will never mature past the age of about five.

The oddity of the novel comes in the narration of it. Initially it seems straight forward enough. The story of Jess and Anna’s life is told by a friend of Jess’s. But as the novel proceeds there is something about this voice that seems a little off. I don’t know how to describe it. At times I thought the story was going to turn out to be more about the narrator than Jess and Anna, but that never came to fruition. It remains a very banal telling of the life of one family as observed by an outsider.

Who would like this book? I think The Pure Gold Baby is tailor made for a book club with a decidedly literary bent. I am quite certain that most of the cleverness of the novel went right over my head since my knowledge of the classics is not where it should be. This novel would also appeal to “those of a certain age”, that is to say people who were procreating in the late 60s and early 70s. In many ways it is a story about a certain time. Views on children with differing mental capacities, women working outside the home, and advances in healthcare were not what they are now.

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

novel cureLooking for a great gift for the book lover in your life? Try The Novel Cure (and please go visit their brilliant website) The premise is quite simple really, for every ailment there is a cure, and quite often that cure can be a book. Of course, it has to be the right book for the ailment. That is what bibliotherapy is all about. What friends Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin have done is catalog a wealth of ailments in the style of a medical dictionary, and then recommended at least one or more book to put the sufferer back on the mend.

In addition to being quite useful, The Novel Cure is also immensely amusing. They have cures for your run of the mill ills like constipation (Shantaram), they also include some more obscure ailments such as Being Very English and Chasing After A Woman Even Though She’s a Nun. As would be expected the authors include tried and true classics such as Great Expectation and Anna Karenina, which appears to be a cure-all of a book. But they have also listed a surprising number of newer works that have come out within the last year.

Who would like this book? This book is for your book loving hypochondriac. There is nothing so pleasing as sitting down and discovering that some of your favorite novels can help you deal with your aging parents (The Corrections and Family Matters). Book lovers love nothing more than reading about their favorite books and giving a knowing smile when they discover that they have indeed already read 7 of the ten books recommended to lower high blood pressure.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.