Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Two Firsts: Major Pettigrew and The Imperfectionists

I recently finished two really good "first" novels both with similar themes of love, family, inheritance, disappointment, prejudice, community and loyalty. Both of these first novels are New York Times Bestsellers.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.
Here is the book blurb from the author's site:

You are about to travel to Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside filled with rolling hills, thatched cottages, and a cast of characters both hilariously original and as familiar as the members of your own family. Among them is Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson's wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, Major Pettigrew is one of the most indelible characters in contemporary fiction, and from the very first page of this remarkable novel he will steal your heart.
The Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother's death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?

On her website, Simonson explains her inspiration for the novel.

One day, I sat down to write a short story just for me, and found myself returning to the English countryside. I pictured a mellow brick house behind an ancient hedge – and when the front door opened, the Major just appeared, fully fledged, in his wife’s housecoat! To my surprise, this story seemed to inspire, in early readers, some very strong opinions about what the Major would do next and what his character would and would not allow. It seemed that I might have a novel.

I was very sorry to have to leave Major Pettigrew at the close of the story. I wish I'd savoured it. This is a story to read with a pot of English tea and some biscuits.

Here is a short clip of Helen Simonson reading from Chapter One of Major Pettigrew.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.

Here is the book blurb from the author's site:

Lloyd Burko is having troubles with his sources, with his technology at the paper, and with his family. Deadline is closing in and he is falling apart. The Imperfectionists is a novel about the quirky, maddening, endearing people who write and read an international newspaper based in Rome: from the obituary reporter who will do anything to avoid work, to the young freelancer who is manipulated by an egocentric war correspondent, to the dog-obsessed publisher who seems less interested in his struggling newspaper than in his magnificent basset hound, Schopenhauer.
With war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the climate in meltdown and bin Laden still in hiding, the paper has plenty to fill its columns. But for its staff, the true front-page stories are their own private lives. As this imperfect bunch stumbles along, the era of high terror and high tech bears down, the characters collide, and the novel hurtles toward its climax...

On his website, Rachman explains his inspiration for the novel.

The Imperfectionists came to me in stages, starting with the characters, who wandered into my imagination surprisingly well-formed, even down to their eyeglasses and the stains on their shirts. I organized them, placed them in a setting I knew, a news organization, and watched what happened, sometimes nudging them, sometimes nudged by them. The stories took life as I wrote them, the outcomes almost as unexpected to me at times as to any future reader.

This is a story to read with a strong espresso and almond biscotti.

Here is an interview with Tom Rachman.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Distant Hours

I waited a long time to read Kate Morton's, The Distant Hours. Both her other novels, The Forgotten Garden and The House at Riverton, are among my favourites. The book trailer I previewed many months ago was the perfect teaser, and the novel itself did not disappoint.

The book opens with the prologue from a dark and sinister children's tale, The True History of the Mud Man.

Something changes. The girl senses it and shivers. Presses her hand to the icy window and leaves a starry print within the condensation. The witching hour is upon her, though she does not know to call it that. There is no one left to help her now. The train is gone, the poacher lies beside his wife, even the baby sleeps, having given up trying to tell the world all that it knows. At the castle the girl in the window is the only one awake; her nurse has stopped snoring and her breaths are so light now that one might think her frozen; the birds in the castle wood are silent too, heads tucked beneath their shivering fenders, eyes sealed in thin gray lines against the thing they know is coming.

The story begins in England in the eary 1940's. A postman goes on a bender and leaves a satchel full of mail in his home for fifty years. The lost mail is finally delivered, and this is how a mysterious letter sent from a place called Milderhurst Castle, comes to arrive one Sunday in February of 1992, at the home of Edie Burchill's mother. Only child Edie is naturally curious about the contents of the letter, especially when her distant mother responds to it in such an emotional manner.

With some prodding, Edie discovers that her mother was evacuated from London during the Second World War. At the age of thirteen, Meredith finds herself in the village of Milderhurst, standing in a church hall, separated from her brother, her sister, and school friends, waiting to be selected to live with a local family. She is one of the last child evacuees to be selected.

"I wasn't the last to go. There were a few others, a little boy with a terrible skin condition. I don't know what happened to him, but he was still standing there in that hall when I left."
"You know, for a long time afterwards, years and years, I forced myself to buy bruised fruit if that's what I picked up first at the greengrocer's. None of this checking it over and over and putting it back on the shelf if it didn't measure up."
"She came in late. The room was almost clear, most of the children had gone and the ladies from the Women's Voluntary Service were putting away the tea things. I'd started to cry a little, though I did so very discreetly. Then all of a sudden, she swept in and the room, the very air, seemed to alter."
"...Oh, I don't know. Just more. Beautiful in an odd way, long hair, big eyes, rather wild looking, but it wasn't that alone which set her apart. She was only seventeen at the time, in September 1939, but the other women all seemed to fold into themselves when she arrived."

And now Kate Morton has hooked her reader. What happened to young Merry in the fall of 1939? Who was the seventeen year old beauty who came to claim her evacuee? What events transpired at Milderhurst Castle during the war years that have been hushed for half a century?
I'm not going to say too much more about the story- other than it is very "Miss Havisham-my."
I so love a good gothic, and this book has all of the required elements. But you can listen to Morton herself on how this story came to be. Here is a quick little video (I must warn you, not only is she an incredible storyteller, she has a cool accent, is some sort of PhD, has long shiny hair, a beautiful face, weighs about five ounces less than nothing... a bit depressing really... Would it be too much to ask that she looked more like Nanny McPhee? Okay, enough of my verbal green eyes of envy...) about The Distant Hours.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Arriving Soon: The Newest Book in the Earth's Children Series

On March 29, 2011, Jean M. Auel's latest novel in the Earth's Children series will be released. Entitled, The Land of Painted Caves, this book continues the story of Ayla, her mate Jondalar, and their daughter Jonayla. Auel's website calls it "the culmination fans have been waiting for." As Auel is now about 74, this quite likely will be the final book in the series.

Waiting for? To me, waiting for is a phrase that I measure in units of months - a year or two at maximum. This series has been over three decades in the making! Now, I didn't read The Clan of the Cave Bear in 1980 when it was released but I did begin the series several years ago concluding with Shelters of Stone in 2002 when it was first published.

Don't get me wrong. I loved this series. Exceptionally well written and researched with great characters and a prehistoric storyline. I do feel now like I may need to go back and re-read the series in order to get prepared to enjoy the story in context again. This is a big reading commitment as the novels are quite lengthy. And what if I'm let down? Should Ayla stay where I want to remember her?

I'm apprehensive because of the last great series that I loved (-ish )by Diana Gabaldon. I adored Outlander through the Drums of Autumn (the first four books in the series) and felt that was where the series should have concluded (In fact, these four novels are amongst my favourites and I would most happily reread them). I limped through The Fiery Cross and although I purchased A Breath of Snow and Ashes, I have never had the energy to open its cover. I really lost the Jamie -Claire magic and could not find chemistry with the idea of furthering the story through their daughter, what's her name. I was also quite exhausted trying to remember back to all of the intricate plot twists with the multiple time lines, the genealogy... as a reader, I knew it was time for me to move on - or I guess to actually stop- and keep these characters intact with my own conclusions.

However, I have to say that I found all of Auel's books to be strong, each building on the story while adding a new dimension to engage the reader. Auel's site allows you to read the first three chapters of this latest story as a preview. I'm going to read through those 51 pages to see what my recall is like almost a decade since I last met up with Ayla and Jondalar, or, to see if I feel that I may be able to read and enjoy this story for its own merits.

Here is a quick overview of the series. I really did enjoy reading them and have faith that Auel will deliver once again.

1. The Clan of the Cave Bear 1980

2. The Valley of Horses 1982

3. The Mammoth Hunters 1985

4. The Plains of Passage 1990

5. The Shelters of Stone 2002

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Book of Negroes

In 1978, I was 12 years old and I borrowed a copy of Alex Haley's, Roots, from the public library. I had seen some episodes of the television mini-series on TV and had wanted to read the book to get the story from start to finish. Although there were many pages in that novel that were difficult to read, I couldn't put it down. Some of the events that unfolded between those pages have stuck fast with me throughout my lifetime and came rushing back when I read The Book of Negroes. It was probably one of my earliest forays into the genre of historical fiction. I was equal parts fascinated and horrified to discover that although the characters were fictionalized, the larger events themselves had occurred. The conditions on the ship during the voyage from Africa to America, and the slave auction were the two events that most affected me. They would come to haunt me again in The Book of Negroes.

Many years later, I heard that Haley was suspected of plagiarism for parts of Roots and had paid out a settlement in a lawsuit brought against him by another author. It appears that his genealogical research for the novel also fell under suspicion. Nevertheless, I was influenced and moved by this story. In a time period when elementary education (We didn't talk about these things in my 1978 grade 6 classroom. In fact, I seem to recall my teacher asking me if I had my parents permission just to read the book.) seemed to shun the discussion of social justice, it made me think about historical events and explore them from something other than the Wonder white bread euro centric point of view.

Well, I need to get where I'm going with this blog post and that's to discuss Lawrence Hill's, The Book of Negroes (Someone Knows My Name).
The second book that I have read in 2011 comes from a Canadian author and contains sections which occur in Nova Scotia over two hundred years ago. I had waited so long to read this novel that I feared that I would be underwhelmed by it once I finally read it. For those of you that follow this blog, you know my tendency to build up my anticipated reads into literary utopia's.

This novel does not disappoint. I was just as mesmerized by this story as I was over 30 years ago with a similar read and subject.

Hill had me by page 7.

"Let me begin with a caveat to any and all who find these pages. Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, dear reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary. And cultivate distrust of the colour pink. Pink is taken as the colour of innocence, the colour of childhood, but as it spills across the water in the light of the dying sun, do not fall into its pretty path. There, right underneath, lies a bottomless graveyard of children, mothers and men. I shudder to imagine all the Africans rocking in the deep. Every time I have sailed the seas, I have had the sense of gliding over the unburied."

The Book of Negroes
tells the story of Aminata Diallo, an 11 year old African girl from the village of Bayo, who is captured and sold into slavery. Aminata's story extends from Africa, to South Carolina, to New York, to Nova Scotia, to Africa and finally to England. It is a story of losses and gains. Gains in the face of suffering and loss. Remembering who you are and where you come from. Aminata proves herself to be a brave and self reliant character. I think her ability to endure a lifetime of tragedy, and to persevere, is heavily influenced by her literacy skills. She is literate in a time when it is dangerous to be so, yet her ability to read and write secure her work and a means to provide for herself, and her books are her companions and salvation in the lonely years away from her family.

I don't want to say much more. Either you have read and enjoyed this novel already or you are hoping to read this and then I shouldn't say too much. The awards and accolades, buzz and hype are right on the money with this one.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Bishop's Man

The first book that I read in 2011 was the 2009 Giller Prize winner, The Bishop's Man, by investigative journalist Linden MacIntyre.

Rather shamefully, I have to admit that I have not read much (any) Canadian literature since taking an undergrad course of the same name at Western in the late 1980's.

I remember that I had to read the two big Canadian Margaret's - Atwood and Laurence - preferring Laurence. The only book that I enjoyed (remembered) from the syllabus was The Diviners.

So I figured that it was time to do some reading in my own backyard, and decided to start the new year with novels by Canadian authors. I was somewhat apprehensive about reading The Bishop's Man because of the sensitive subject matter. But I found that MacIntyre masterfully alluded to the darker issues, leaving most details to the reader's imagination and control. I enjoyed reading this novel even though it was way outside of my usual reading comfort zone - the timeframe changes at warp speed and loose ends are not really tied up. Some books require more energy be expended by the reader and that usually results in a better understanding of the author's intent. This book definitely made me think about the theme of contrition from the perspectives of several characters and I found it to be a worthwhile read.

MacIntyre said to the CBC:
"I thought it was time for someone to take a deep look at the impact of sexual abuse on a lot of people, not the least of which are the priests who have to continue to represent this church, in spite of the bad behaviour and deviance of other priests," he said in describing the inspiration for his book. The Bishop's Man is about "a priest who goes into the business idealistically, who realizes that priests also have feet of clay, and it leads him to a personal crisis," MacIntyre said. Father Duncan, the first-person narrator, has been his bishop's dutiful enforcer, employed to check the excesses of priests and to suppress the evidence, but he is forced to examine his own past under the strain of suspicion, obsession and guilt. The book is set in Antigonish, a place that MacIntyre calls one of most religious communities in Canada."

The Bishop's Man was published around the time of the scandal in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. In 2009, Bishop Raymond Lahey was arrested for having pornographic images of children on his laptop. What was even more disturbing was that Lahey had been the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of St. John's (a position also known as the Bishop's man) and had himself just months before announced the $15 million dollar settlement between the Diocese of Antigonish and the sexually abused victims (dating back to the fifties) of the diocese priests named in a class action lawsuit.

The prize jury said that MacIntyre's book was "a brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding." I agree.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

100+ Reading Challenge 2011

The only challenge that I have decided to join this year is the 100+ Reading Challenge 2011, which is hosted by My Overstuffed Bookshelf. (Click on this link for details)

This challenge will be quite an ambitious one for me as I read just 49 books in 2010, in my first year of book blogging. I know this means I will have to double that number - but, last year I only hoped to finish 26 books, so, who knows?

I will list my books on my blog's sidebar, and link to my reviews after they are posted.

1. The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre
2. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Monday, January 3, 2011

Happy New Year! 2010 Recap

It's been many months since I have posted anything on this blog and my sincere apologies. It was an incredibly busy fall at work, and for a few months the majority of my reading was strictly for work or courses. Eww!

It also seemed that for a long while I was in a reading response slump. It was the season of reading neutrally. Everything I picked up seemed just mediocre to me. Funny, because many of these books appeared on several favourites lists (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - - sorry to Jenny, she says that every time she recommends something, I am underwhelmed by it - - so maybe its just me; Fall of Giants - disappointing for Follett - thin characters entombed in a history text, honestly, there was so much time devoted to the description of the ammunition -just how many words do you need to say "bullet"? -sigh).

However, I ended the year on a high note with Girl in Translation, a debut novel by Jean Kwok. Basically, the story of a mother and daughter who come to America from Hong Kong after it had returned to Chinese rule. Brilliant!

Over a year ago, I challenged myself to read 26 books in 2010. I then enthusiastically joined a bunch of book challenges of which I completed precisely zero. I got about half way through each challenge and what I found out about myself as a reader is that I simply cannot schedule or plan my reading. One book sometimes leads me to the next, or I hear about a book in a blog post, or posted on someone's TBR list and the next thing you know, I have to read it too. (Like my dieting pledging- you know, the "I swear I'm going to start my diet on Monday, because we're doing that thing Friday night ... and I have to find some exercise clothes that cover both the moose in my caboose and my front bum! so definitely Monday - and then, what you will see with me will be complete devotion" pledge.)

However, not only did I reach my goal of 26 books, I almost doubled it! So, I think that the challenges did help me and the posts were fun to do. For 2011, I resolve to read 100 books. I only need to join one challenge, the 100+ Books 2011 Challenge - more on this in my next post.

Here is a list of the 49 books that I completed in 2010. Some books are linked to reviews I have posted and many were selections for challenges I participated in:

Top Ten Reads of 2010

1. The Help
2. The Forgotten Garden
3. Angela's Ashes
4. Girl in Translation
5. The Shifting Fog
6. Say You're One of Them
7. Her Fearful Symmetry
8. The Lace Reader
9. The Crimson Petal and the White
10. Life

Bottom Five Reads of 2011

1. The Kite Runner (I know some of you are raising your eyebrows right now, sorry, didn't dig it) 2. Mr. Peanut (What was that?)
3. Finger Lickin' Fifteen (I know, what was I hoping for with this title? - but if you have read the early Janet Evanovich, you will know what I mean)
4. Wolf Hall (Oh dreary 9000 pages of Thomas Cromwell - and historical fiction is my thing)
5. The Postmistress (The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society wannabe)

Books I Am Still Dying To Read But Didn't In 2010

1. The Distant Hours
2. The Book of Negroes (Thanks to Heather, who is bringing this to me tomorrow)


1.Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (All About the Brontes Challenge)

2. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (451 Challenge, To Be Read Challenge)

3. Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb

4. Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

5. The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

6. Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich

7. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

8. Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

9. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (What's in a Name 3 Challenge)

10. The Red Tent by Antia Diamant


11. Villette by Charlotte Bronte (All About the Bronte's Challenge)

12. The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry (To Be Read 2010 Challenge)


13. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


14. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Nifenegger (To Be Read 2010 Challenge)

15. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCort (To Be Read 2010 Challenge)

16. Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella (To Be Read 2010 Challenge)

17. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini


18. The King of Lies by John Hart

19. Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler

20. The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton

21. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

22. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake


23. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

24. Killing Floor by Lee Child

25. The Last Summer of You and Me by Anne Brashares

26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling (audio book)


27. After All These Years by Susan Isaacs

28. The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

29. The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

30. Peony in Love by Lisa See

31. Sarah by Marek Halter

32. Down River by John Hart


33. Die Trying by Lee Child

34. Zipporah, Wife of Moses by Marek Halter

35. The Inheritance by Annabel Dilke

36. Lilah by Marek Halter

37. Secret Relations by Annabel Dilke

38. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen


39. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson


40. Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

41. The Constant Princess by Phillippa Gregory

42. The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillippa Gregory

43. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters


44. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett


45. Life by Keith Richards

46. Chelsea, Chelsea, Bang, Bang by Chelsea Handler

47. Ghosts Among Us: Uncovering the Truth About the Other Side by James Van Praagh

48. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

49. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok