Friday, 26 April 2013

Chemistry, Murder, and Sibling Rivalry

I'm writing this entry on Mike's new laptop, our desktop still being MIA, and I think I never want to give it back to him again! Very slick . . . but then he'd just retaliate, our home would become a war zone, our children taken away from us, and then our cats would starve. So, I'd better just give it back when I'm done with it. It's for the cats.

I wanted to share a fabulous series with you that I'm totally addicted to, and am very ticked off that I have to wait until "early 2014" for the next instalment. My friend Lynette has belonged to a book club for a while now, and though she invited me, I simply could not commit to another weekly thing. However, I started creeping on their book choices, and the first one that Lynette had me read was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Allan Bradley. Bradley is a Canadian author, and actually worked at the University of Saskatchewan for 25 years, so when this book came out (his debut novel), there was a lot of local buzz. However, it's not a setting you'd expect when you hear his background.

It's rural England in 1950, a small town known as Bishop's Lacey, and nearby is a crumbling estate, where a single father is raising his three daughters. Colonel de Luce is a WWII veteran, and a widower, and has retreated emotionally from his girls with a very stoic, stiff upper lip demeanour. The three girls rather run wild, from 16 year old Ophelia (very vain, a flirt, but a musical prodigy), to 13 year old Daphne (a sarcastic book worm who's a encyclopedia of knowledge), to 11 year old Flavia.

Flavia is the main character of Bradley's books, and I love her to bits. Really. She's a genius chemist, whose has a special place in her heart for poisons, and routinely uses her knowledge to avenge herself on her horrible sisters. Flavia hates taking baths, has her own laboratory, and is the person in the family most able to deal with Dogger, their valet/butler/gardener. Dogger fought with Colonel de Luce in the war and had been imprisoned with him in a POW camp in Japan. Dogger is a touching picture of a PTSD case, his duties at Buckshaw varying according to his mental capacity. However, Dogger is often Flavia's silent partner in figuring out the mysteries around Bishop's Lacey's sudden rise in murder statistics.

Every book has Flavia discovering a body, and then trying to beat the police in solving the crime. She's precocious, but not annoyingly so, and quite the little rebel. Racing around the county on her bicycle, Gladys, Flavia introduces us to the typical residents of the countryside, who we find not so typical in the end. Just as you get caught up in thinking this girl an adult, something happens between her and her sisters that pulls you back into childhood rivalries. Many poignant notes are sounded regarding the girls' departed mother, Harriet, whom the Colonel is still grieving after 10 years, and whom Flavia apparently closely resembles.

I have really enjoyed every book in this series (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, A Red Herring Without Mustard, I'm Half-Sick of Shadows, and Speaking from Among the Bones), but I think the first is my favourite. The newness of these characters, the delightful authenticity of the setting, the almost Addams Family/Agatha Christie/Nancy Drew feel of it is so unique to anything I've read before. The wit is dry (just how I like it), the pranks hilarious, and the way you slowly learn more about Harriet in every book just keeps you reading. They're great mysteries, but have an emotional depth and meat to them not always seen in cloak-and-dagger fiction.

So get writing Mr. Bradley!!! The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches can't come out soon enough!

Saturday, 20 April 2013


A blog post? Really? Do you even consider yourself a blogger anymore with your erratic posting "schedule" and obvious lack of discipline? Well, yes, I feel the usual Blogger's Guilt that accompanies a neglected blog, that feeling hanging over your head when you don't post with any kind of regularity. Then I thought, wait a minute, if you're here reading this YOU HAVEN'T GIVEN UP! You actually care that I might have something to say, or at least you want to read my lame excuses for not posting. Either way: I love you. Let's be friends, friends who forgive each others' shortcomings, or at least each others' procrastinating tendencies.

But I digress. The Kobo is going well, although since my desktop computer is MIA after it's hard drive bit the big one, I have not set it up on said computer, and so have not taken advantage of the library's ebooks. I really want to do this, but the browser the Kobo is equipped with sucks, so I can't do it wirelessly apparently. I also look forward to sharing titles, etc. Also, Mike bought a Kobo Mini, which is perfect for him, as the screen size is not much smaller, but the device is small enough to fit in his coat pocket. AND it was on sale (of course!) I picked up a paper book the other day, and almost forgot how to turn a page, that's how much I've been Kobo-ing it.

So, while awaiting my computer, I've read several free ebooks I've downloaded, some I've read before, others have been on my to read list for a while. I read Vanity Fair by Thackery recently, and actually quite enjoyed it. He has an almost Dickensian dryness to his humour, which is of course in his favour in my books.

I also read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which I haven't read in at least 20 years. It still holds up, and it's theme of the power of hope to heal our infirmities is still so true today. How many of us have holed up inside ourselves, as Colin did in his room, convinced that we'll turn out badly just as everyone said we would? Or have shown the world a selfish, sour face like Mary's when we've been neglected, or overindulged, and just decide that we don't like people (after all, they don't like us)? How many of us have lost someone or something, and our grief poisons the very things we used to love, so we lock them away, and run away from the pain, like Colin's father? And how many of us are trapped in these thoughts and patterns, until exposed to wholesome pursuits, the ability to get some fresh air, to work up an appetite, and to THINK OF SOMETHING OTHER THAN OURSELVES for a time? Whenever the breezes of the moors, and the scent of the earth is described, I can feel it, smell it, and taste it. Perhaps it's my own longing for spring, but the spring in this book is so potent as to almost be a character in itself.

We all need those plain speaking Yorkshire folk from this book. Dickon, his sister, and his mother don't worry about stepping on toes, or the "proper" way of doing things. They call it like they see it, instead of worrying about whether it's their business to interfere. These are the people who pull us out of our dark rooms where we sulk, brood, worry, and grieve. They toss us outside with our coats, show us the wonder that is in the world around us, and remind us that we are NOT the alpha and omega of everything. And the more healthy food and air to the body, the more healthy breezes to the mind, the more we are pulled OUT OF OURSELVES, the better we are.

Is this not what Christ taught us? To see the people around us, see the world around us instead of brooding over ourselves. This simple children's classic captures all of this in such a sweet way, without being sappy. It's a good wholesome read, like sitting down to a hearty lunch after playing outside all morning, and having berries and cream to finish off with - good, sweet, but not sugary.

Anyway, this post was going to be about something else, but this tangent kind of took over. Words have a way of doing that with me. I never sit down to write without the feeling that I'm not really in control here, the story will do what it wants, and I am only a conduit.

Get outside, run, play no matter what your age. See others who give you hope and nourish your soul. Play fetch with a dog, cuddle a cat, chase a child, laugh with a grandma. Get out of yourself, and you'll find yourself getting "fat" like Mary: the healthy fat of a heart that grows and a soul that stretches beyond what you thought was possible.

Friday, 15 March 2013

I caved . . .

Well, in spite of my previous post detailing my doubts as to whether to get an e-reader, I just got a Kobo Glo for my birthday. The amazing thing is . . . I'm excited about it! I also got this cool faux-book cover for it, in an old Pride and Prejudice design, which eases some of my tactile worries about it. It looks cool! So, I've been setting it up, have purchased my first ebook, and started reading. I think this is going to stick, but I was also going to blog a couple of times a week, and we all saw how that worked out!

An unexpected bonus: Free ebooks! I went through the list they had and downloaded a bunch of classic reads that I didn't have on my bookshelves. I found many classic titles by the Brontes or Dickens, and since those titles are right up my alley this was an exciting find! Going to set up my lending from the library online as soon as I pay my $9 fine (oops!), and then I'll really be off and running! Now I can fit in with all the "cool kids" at work with their fancy kobos on night shifts!

So, I'll let you know how this goes, and how well I like it. So far, so good! And thanks for reading this, I know it's been a long time since I posted. Here's to trying new things, and good blogging intentions for the future!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Inside China

Well, I'm still here, and I need to apologize for my absence. I didn't realize my last post was October 23, yikes! It kept becoming one of those things I needed to get around to, and what with poor health, work, and bereavement in our household, it kept falling to the bottom of the list. Well, here I am, on yet another night shift, and still somewhat alert so I give you a long-awaited (by some) post.

While I devour fiction with a voracious appetite, nonfiction reading goes a bit slower for me. Most often I read books related to spiritual growth, Christianity, or Bible study books, but about a year ago an autobiography caught my eye. It's called Heart for Freedom, and it's written by Chai Ling, one of the student leaders at the center of the Tiannamen Square movement in 1980s China. While I had heard about the Tiannamen Square massacre (the picture of the tank bearing down on a lone protester is well known), its roots, causes, and aftermath were unknown to me. As I read the back of the book, it gave a quick summary of how Ling escaped China in spite of being on a "most wanted" list of dissidents, and how she came to America, and now seeks ways to free China's women from the one-child policy.

The book was a gift last Christmas, but I didn't get around to reading it until a couple of months ago. What I liked about the narrative was that it felt as if Ling was sitting with me telling her story. It didn't quite have a conversational feel, but it wasn't stuffy and formal as some autobiographies can be. Perhaps too, I was influenced by recently reading Lisa See's books about ancient and early 20th century China, which had piqued my interest in Chinese culture. Ling's description of growing up as the daughter of officers in the People's Army, struggling to please her father, and doubts about the Communist party are an interesting insight into how her childhood set the stage for her political and spiritual awakening.

As she left home for a place in the prestigious Peking University (where even her major was dictated, until she fought to transfer to the new psychology department), the reader gets a taste of how mind opening the new experiences were to the sheltered girl. In particular, I found it interesting that though China had very "puritanical" views on sexuality, there was no sex education or foundation for the young people thrown together in university to make informed sexual choices. Birth control was only available to married couples, and giving birth was only allowed with a birth permit, also only available to married couples. Ling experienced her first forced abortion after her first year at University.

The movement of China's students as the Cultural Revolution ended and more freedoms were introduced is mimicked in Ling's personal life. As her horizons broadened, the students she socialized with petitioned for greater accountability of the Communist government, asking only to be heard. All of this ended up leading to the protests that held the world's attention before ending in bloodshed. Ling's crushed hopes, and survivor's guilt are so palpable as you read this section that you feel true empathy for her. Her transition to living as an overseas Chinese, trying to continue being a leader in the Chinese freedom movement, and how this impacted her prospects in the U.S. is well chronicled.

The spiritual awakening of Ling, and how she's lead to form a non profit called All Girls Allowed is an interesting twist on how she felt she could impact China's future. From the broad political reforms she once championed, Ling now turned to a fundamental truth: a culture that does not value the lives of girls equally to boys, and would force a genocide of the unborn cannot be free before this is fully faced.

The only time I found this book dragged was when Ling goes into too much detail describing the workings of her internet business that she launched; it was too technical for me. The rest of the book is a fascinating glimpse into the journey toward freedom Ling took, and how she seeks to free others as well

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry

Sorry about my delay in posting, we've been sick with what appears to be the bubonic plague (or strep throat, whichever you prefer) at our house. Now we're all rehabilitating and mostly healthy, so time to get back on top of the blogging! This post will be a combined rumination/book review.

In the ruminating category, I've been thinking a lot about the phrase "chick lit" lately. Along with "chick flicks," this tag is given to books/movies supposedly written by and for women that will have minimal appeal to men. Now, there are certain books and films that I have no trouble categorizing this way, such as my beloved Shopaholic series, which fit the category of light and fluffy, with happy endings. However, there's an implication in the phrase "chick lit" that is somewhat patronizing. After all, the "chick" writing this blog does not only read books that are about love and relationships, and whether or not the heroine will end up with her man at the end. Are all books written by women only for women, or is there a universality of audience that male authors achieve? After all, there's no "guy lit" category that I'm aware of, aside from humour books such as " The Bro Code," etc.

My feeling is that there are some authors who write with women specifically in mind, and thus end up in the chick lit category. While I enjoy reading many of these books as light reads, I do notice that they tend to be predictable and generally center around the heroine's love life/relationships. Not many men I know (okay, not ANY!) would pick these books up on their own, just as they only go to chick flicks if dragged by the girl they're trying to please. That doesn't mean they're incapable of enjoying them (like my dad and Sleepless in Seattle or my husband and The Devil Wears Prada), but they are not the target audience.

On the other side of the equation, there are authors such as Tom Clancy whose books are seen as appealing mostly to men, with their heavy military terminology and technical passages. Yet many women (including myself) have read and enjoyed these books. I have run across male authors whose portrayal of female characters have left me raising my eyebrows or laughing, and I'm sure the same is true regarding some female authors. Yet, these books still have an appeal to both genders, and are not necessarily only FOR one gender or the other.

Looking at some classic authors, such as Jane Austen and others who pioneered the female author role, are they "chick lit" writers, since their inner world of women is the focus of their books? This is a difficult question to answer, given that their "classic" status seems to "elevate" their titles above the average girly book. I certainly wouldn't put the Brontes in this category, and my love of Austen resists this idea, yet many who read these works are women.

I guess I have ambiguous feelings about chick lit. There's so much humour and good old fuzzy feeling in these enjoyable books, yet I feel that all works by female authors need not fall in this category. This leads me to the book review I intended for this post (sorry, it's going to be a long one!). Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry is a haunting and intriguing read that certainly can be recommended to readers of both genders. This is her second full length novel, with The Time Traveller's Wife as her debut novel. Having read Niffenegger's first novel, I wasn't too sure I would like this one. While interesting in how convoluted the timeline was, I didn't feel very connected to the story of The Time Traveller's Wife. Yet, when I picked up this novel to read the back cover, I felt enticed by the possibilities of the book.

It's hard to determine who the protagonist of the story is, but twin sisters Julia and Valentina are central to the plot. Their mother's twin sister Elspeth dies in England, and leaves her estate to the girls, including an apartment that they are required to live in for one year if they are to inherit. However, Edie, the twins' mother is forbidden from setting foot in the apartment. That, and the fact that Elspeth and Edie have not seen each other after a rift more than twenty years old divided them sets an interesting stage. The nature of sisterhood is explored, but also the extra closeness of being twins. The older twins have severed their relationship, while the younger twins are dangerously codependent. As they undertake this unusual journey to inheritance, Julia and Valentina reveal how different they are on the inside, and how too much togetherness can endanger even the closest of bonds.

Then there is the mystery of what happened  between Elspeth and Edie all those years ago, which is slowly revealed as the story progresses. In addition to the younger twins, Elspeth is central to the story since, although dead, she is not gone. Within a few chapters, this novel takes an interesting twist, and goes places I didn't imagine when I read it's cover. I don't want to give away more, you'll have to read it.

The flat is one of three in a building containing the supporting characters of the novel. Robert, Elspeth's much younger and grief-stricken lover, could be one of the novel's central characters, but I hesitate to classify him that way. Even though his role in the story is large, he seems so incidental. He is left to the twins' along with Elspeth's possessions, although before she dies she tells Robert she is leaving the twins to him. Robert progresses through different stages of his grief, but really just seems a part of the scenery Julia and Valentina encounter in England. He is studying and works in the nearby Highgate Cemetery, a place that is so present throughout the story that it almost becomes a character in its own right. Robert almost seems to be merely an extension of Highgate.

I found the twins' other neighbour Martin much more interesting. Martin lives in the flat above the girls and suffers from crippling OCD. Niffenegger's portrait of this illness is fascinating, with an excellent description of the difference between obsessions and compulsions, and how they are interrelated. This is so well woven into the chapter introducing Martin that the reader is given a mini psychology lesson without realizing it. Martin's story line operates almost entirely independent of the main story, only briefly intersecting at Elspeth's funeral, and in the friendship he develops with Julia. Martin's wife leaves him at the start of the novel, and his journey to win her back, ironically, provides some sanity to the novel. Between the codependence of the twins, the creepy (in my opinion) relationship Valentina and Robert form, and the way Elspeth influences the twins' lives in England, the rest of the story has a barely controlled chaos about it. The orderly outer lives of the characters mask inner chaos, while Martin's outer chaos covers a simple story. I think this is a clever juxtaposition on the part of Niffenegger.

Overall, this a book well worth the read, and though written by a woman, Her Fearful Symmetry is definitely not in the "chick lit" category. It's well written, as well as having an interesting story line, and is a definite improvement over The Time Traveller's Wife.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I've decided it's time to review a book on here, and I just finished re-reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Recently made into a movie, this book had initially caught my eye at Costco, but I didn't purchase it until a few months ago. My love for historical fiction inspired this pick, as well as the chance to peek at a culture with which I'm generally unfamiliar. The story is set in 19th century China, and is about two girls who are bound together as laotong, or "old sames." This prestigious joining into a life-long friendship raises the prospects of Lily, a second unwanted daughter from a "so-so" family, enabling her to raise in society. She and her friend Snow Flower, a girl from family in better circumstances, communicate through nu shu, the secret writing of women that men are not supposed to see or know about. These messages are passed along on their fan, and chronicle their journies through the difficult stages of their lives.

Immediately, the author lets us know through her first-person narration of the character Lily, that misfortune and misunderstanding will overtake Lily and Snow Flower. Born as girls into a culture that only values sons, these "useless branches" of the family tree endure footbinding, marriage, childbirth, political unrest, and changes in fortune. However, these obstacles are nothing to the unravelling of their cherished friendship that is based on misunderstanding. Knowing this will happen makes the earlier passages of the perfect soul match between the girls the more poignant to read.

Lisa See does a wonderful job detailing the lives of these girls, with each section of the book following the traditional life stages of Chinese girls. The chapter detailing footbinding was hard to read, but eye opening for me. Though I knew this practice was cruel, the way it was actually carried out was unknown to me. However, See not only faithfully depicts the agonizing process of footbinding, she shows us its significance in Snow Flower and Lily's society. The quality of a women's bound feet, as well as whether her feet are bound or not, said a lot about her character, her desirability, and her prospects in life. It is Lily's "perfect" feet that change her destiny, as well as that of her family.

One thing I enjoy about this book is that See doesn't superimpose 21st century beliefs on 19th century China. I find this is often a problem with historical fiction, where the characters act and think in a far more liberated manner than they would ever have done in that era. Although progressive thinking is not entirely missing from classic works of fiction, it's often glaringly obvious when an author's beliefs supercede that of a realistic character of that time period. See avoids this pitfall, and although Lily and Snow Flower long for some control over their lives, they accept their limitations, and try to work through them in a traditional manner, using their nu shu to give themselves voices.

The style of writing is easy to read, and at times almost feels poetic in its flow. Lily's voice, spoken as an 80 year old widow looking back on her life, is convincing, but provides enough suspense by being first-person. We don't know the motives of the other characters, or what Snow Flower is thinking, until Lily herself finds out.

I really enjoyed this book, and have since read everything else that Chapters carries by Lisa See. I recommend it as a good read that goes deeper than "chick lit" often does. Well worth picking up. How have you found it, if you've read this book? What are you reading now that you're really enjoying?

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Old Fashioned Gal

Christmas is only about 90 days away! I always have these great intentions of starting the buying early, so I don't have to roll pennies for gas money come December, but it often doesn't turn out that way. I have, however, begun making a list of gift ideas to try to get ahead of the game. For me, a book or two is definitely a part of my letter to Santa.

This year, I've been considering something new: an e-reader. I've hear from people who have these new fangled contraptions, and all are very happy with them, but I'm not totally convinced. I realize there are perks with the e-readers, such as quick access to books, as well as the ability to carry many reads with you at once. On slow shifts, having a variety of titles to choose from would be a bonus, since my reading mood is pretty touch and go. Not having to drag four books with me on a trip would be nice too. I've noticed that the screens make it look like you're reading off a real page, and there isn't the same eye fatigue as reading off a computer screen.

In fact, e-readers have done such a great job at duplicating the pages of the traditional book, that in this age of electronic everything it seems a no-brainer decision to buy one. But there are things an e-reader cannot provide that, for me, are a significant part of the reading experience.

Reading is definitely a sensual experience for me. Before you get creeped out, no, I'm not talking THAT kind of sensual! I mean the five senses (or perhaps four, I haven't started tasting my books). I really am into the aesthetics of my books. Cover choice can truly play into whether or not I pick up a book and flip through it. The plastic protective covers libraries apply to their books makes a certain sound that fills my mind with memories. I remember being a child and hearing that sound as the spine was cracked on books the librarian would read to us. There's also a feel to certain papers used for books, and the weight of the paper itself lends a different feel as you turn the pages. Some of you are now thinking I'm nuts, and should not blog on night shifts, but these things really do add to my reading experience.

Then there's the new book smell. I think we can all relate to this phenomenon, that perfume arising from the book whose spine you have freshly cracked. That sound and that smell MEAN something to my mind. They tell me that I'm embarking on a journey, an adventure, just me and this book. In that moment, no matter what the truth of the matter is, I am the FIRST person to read this story, the person discovering this place, this time, these people. And as I enter this sacred place of imagination and escape, I feel a sense of anticipation and possibility, seasoned with a touch of trepidation. After all, this author may disappoint my expectations. And it is all set in motion by the touch, the feel, the smell of the book.

So for now, no e-reader for me. Someday I may be seduced by their flashy claims, but for now this old fashioned gal will curl up with an inconvenient book, and let her senses take her to another place.