Tag Archive | Fiction

The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus — Knopf, 2012 — 9780307379375

I really wanted to read this book when I first heard of it. A literary novel that explores the concept of language and what happens when we can not longer communicate with those we love — it sounded very interesting. In a dystopian future, adults become ill from the sound of their children’s voices and waste away, while the children themselves are immune. A great concept and fascinating to read, especially since (even though this is the first book of his I’ve started) I think Ben Marcus is a skilled writer whose sentences are well crafted.

But it’s so bleak. The plot, the language, the overall atmosphere. Bleak and visceral and almost a pain to read at times — not because it’s bad, but because I think Marcus is good at describing the bleakness. Coupled with this dreary atmosphere is the fact that none of the characters have really been well developed, at least at the point where I stopped. But stop I must; this one can wait for another day. Until then, here’s a particularly nice passage from the book.

The true Jewish teaching is not for wide consumption, is not for groups, is not to be polluted by even a single gesture of communication. Spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding them is a compromise. The language kills itself, expires inside its host. Language acts as an acid over its message. If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language. That will certainly be the last of it, a fitting end. Language is another name for coffin. Bauman told us the only thing we should worry about regarding the sermons was if we understood them too well. When such a day came, then something was surely wrong.

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The Woman in Black

Susan Hill — Vintage UK, 1998 — 9780099288473

Recently I’ve discovered that I’m basically a wuss, meaning that I could only read this short novel during the day. It wasn’t always this way: I once read The Shining while on vacation at a cottage in the woods. Perhaps I’ve learned my lesson. That being said, this book, while enjoyable, was actually not THAT scary.

It’s the story of Arthur Kipps, a solicitor from London, who visits a remote village in a marshy part of England to sort through the documents of a recently deceased client. Upon his arrival, he’s greeted with intense stares and ominous silence from the villagers every time he mentions that he’s going to Eel Marsh House, the home of the dead woman. To make a short novella even shorter, ghostly encounters ensue.

What makes The Woman in Black interesting is the pace. For most of the story, the reader feels as though they know what is going on, but Hill takes her time when it comes to Kipps becoming aware of the entire situation. This deliberate pacing, coupled with Hill’s extensive use of commas in place of colons or even full stops, leaves you with a sense of wading through the story to get to the end (though pleasantly so). When the end does arrive both the reader and Kipps, who has caught up in his knowledge of the plot, are in for a surprise. While some might find the story to be too slow, I found it to be a nice, simple, short read. As for the movie, if I see it I’m sure I’ll find it terrifying.

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The Waterhole

Graeme Base — Puffin, 2001 — 9780142401972

I stumbled upon this book recently and was immediately transported back to my childhood. The Eleventh Hour and Animalia were two of my favourite books when I was young. I was so impressed with The Eleventh Hour that I didn’t open the special pouch at the back of the book containing the solution to the mystery for YEARS, and when I did it was a most solemn occasion.

The Waterhole was completely off my radar until now, but it’s a lovely book. Each spread features animals in a different country, region, or environment gathering around a waterhole. As you turn the pages, the waterhole shrinks, to the despair of the animals. This is brilliantly achieved by the use of a die cut within the book — as you turn the pages, the size of the die cut (and thus the waterhole) shrinks.

In addition to the animals gathered around the water source, each spread has a list of animals to find in the illustration, in true Base fashion. All the animals you’re looking for are native to the region currently featured in the spread. Not to ruin it for everyone, but when the water runs out the animals you’re looking for are all extinct. What a great way to teach children about the environment, different ecosystems and animals, as well as making them aware of the animal heritage we have lost.

Not to mention that Base’s illustrations are lovely, as always.

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The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern — Doubleday Canada, 2011 — 9780385671712

I don’t know what made me pick up The Night Circus, but I’m certainly glad I did. Overall, I enjoyed it and was pleasantly surprised with the entire experience, especially since 1) it’s a debut novel, and 2) this book has been generating a lot of buzz, which for me would usually make it one to avoid.

The story, set at the turn of the 20th century, is about two magicians, Celia and Marco, who are trained all their lives by their respective instructors to compete in a magical skill-testing competition, centred around a magical circus that is only open at night. What makes the plot work is the wonderful setting of this circus, Le Cirque des Rêves. It is magical not only because this competition of magical prowess is taking place within it, but also because all circuses have a certain amount of inherent magic in the form of illusion, performance, drama, and spectacle.

Morgenstern does a nice job of describing the sensual world the circus and its characters reside in. The overall atmosphere is mysterious, eccentric, charming, and romantic, most likely a result of intentional vagueness on the part of the author so that the reader envision the circus as they see it while reading along. That being said, I can’t help but feel as though perhaps a small part of this vagueness stems from the inexperience of this being the author’s first novel, with the result of it aiding the atmosphere of the book being somewhat unexpected. But I think it works, so I shouldn’t complain.

Overall, this was very a very enjoyable read and I appreciated the pacing of the plot and interaction between Celia and Marco — it wasn’t too rushed but rather realistically spaced out. My main qualm was that there were some romantic scenes in which the dialogue and characterization of women, as unable to control their emotions in the presence of the men they love and needing the men to hold them together, was painfully cliché and annoying to read. I hope the author abandons this device in her next book, because I would like to read it.

What I liked most was the attention to detail that went into the production of the book. The endpapers consist of black and white stripes, echoing the tents of the circus and distorting your perception. The case is black with fine sliver filigree stamped on the front and spine, echoing the descriptive signs on the circus tents. And the head and tail bands are red, like the scarlet items the rêveurs (the followers of the circus) wear to identify themselves apart from the regular circus goers. It would have been nicer if the illustration on the cover were black and white and red, instead of the current coral pink, but I think the designer realized it would echo the look of a certain series, and not to this book’s benefit.

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Coal and Roses: Twenty-one Glosas

P.K. Page — The Porcupine’s Quill, 2009 — 9780889843141

Poetry is not something I read often, but often something I want to read more of. Though Page died in early 2010, this collection was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize that year. It consists of 21 glosas — from the book:

The glosa form opens with a quatrain, borrowed from another poet, that is then followed by four ten-line stanzas terminating with the lines of the initial passage in consecutive order. The sixth and ninth lines rhyme with the borrowed tenth. Glosas were popular in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries among poets attached to the Spanish court.

In a way, this form is a good way to become familiar with poetry: you’re given a four-line quote from an existing poem and then you get to see how Page gives the poem a new life by incorporating it into her four stanzas, effortlessly taking on the style of the sourced poet while still retaining what can only be her own voice. Not to mention that Page’s sources range from modern and contemporary poets to a 17th-century Duchess, giving the reader lots of suggestions for further reading.

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Half-Blood Blues

Esi Edugyan — Thomas Allen Publishers, 2011 — 9780887627415

For me, 2011 ended with a bit of a reading slump. I was hoping 2012 would start with a book that would help get me out of it, and luckily my book club chose Half-Blood Blues as our first read of the year.

Winner of last year’s  Giller Prize (as well as a finalist for both the Man Booker and the Governor General’s awards), Half-Blood Blues is the story of a group of jazz musicians (some African-America, some German, Jewish, or mixed-race) in pre-WW2 Berlin and Paris. The plot alternates scenes set in the past with those in the near-present, as Sid Griffiths, the bass player in the group, comes to terms with the disappearance of Hiero, the group’s trumpeter, after he is arrested by Nazi soldiers when they occupy Paris. It’s a story about music, memory, race, and coming to terms with your past.

I usually stay away from books about coming to terms with ANYTHING, but this one was different. What makes it great is the way it’s written — it sounds as though you’re reading jazz, and the entire book has its own rhythm. Not to mention that Edugyan’s descriptions, pairing words you wouldn’t expect to hear together to wondrous effect, makes you feel as though you’re listening to an impromptu jam session.

My only complaint has to do with the misleading cover copy: Sid is described as speaking in, “distinctive and rhythmic German-American slang”. I took this to mean that there would be actual German words in the text, and this was not the case. Not a major complaint, but it was something that stayed in my head the entire time I read the book.

Simply put, it was a pleasure to read, and makes me hopeful for the year ahead.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — Bantam Classic, 2003 — 9780553212419

Even though I’m marking this entry as unfinished, that’s not strictly the case. This is the first of a two-volume collection of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories and novels; I read A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes before deciding to pause.

My plan is to read the Holmes canon in the order in which it was written, to get a sense of Conan Doyle’s evolution of the character and the stories over time. Perhaps not the best idea, since many seem to think the best Holmes stories were written later on, but I’m sticking with it for better or worse. (Even though it will mean jumping back and forth between volumes 1 and 2 of the Bantam edition — I’m not sure why they couldn’t split the stories chronologically.)

I enjoyed A Study in Scarlet, but it was definitely not what I was expecting. The first half of the book deals with the crime and Holmes’ attempt to solve it; the second half jumps back in time and across the Atlantic to Utah and the Mormons, to provide the background for the crime. It’s an interesting way to split a mystery novel, but I think Doyle realized that this was not the way to keep readers interested when the main focus became Holmes and his method.

The Sign of Four, the second novel, was also good, but it felt a little too long.

The first collection of short stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, includes some real gems like the opening line of “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.

Interestingly enough, not all the adventures recounted by Watson are what you would consider typical mysteries: certain stories don’t have a clean resolution, or perhaps even a crime at all (“A Case of Identity,” “The Five Orange Pips,” “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb“). Others, such as “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” are classics and quite original. Either way, it’s apparent that Doyle knew enough about mysteries from the start that he understood readers need a variety of stories and plot lines. Not everything can be wrapped up neatly, yet you can’t always have stories that are too complex to be resolved.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the Holmes canon.

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I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Alan Bradley — Doubleday Canada, 2011 — 9780385668095

The fourth book in the Flavia de Luce series! I really enjoyed this one, more so than the third in the series. Perhaps it’s because setting a mystery at Christmas time makes it all the more cozy, especially if it’s a locked-room / English manor house type of mystery. Or perhaps it’s because Flavia was back with her wit and quips and that touch of naïveté. Either way, it’s a pleasant read with a small cliff-hanger of an ending that, of course, already makes me impatient for the fifth book to come out.

That being said, I was once again disappointed with the mystery aspect. The solution always seems to come about rather abruptly, and the reader can’t possibly figure it out (although you can guess) because we’re not given access to all the information. However, I’ve learned with this series not to focus too much on the mystery and to simply take in the pleasures of Flavia.

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Franklin and the Thunderstorm

Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark (illus.) — Kids Can Press, 1998 — 9781453219737

The first book I’ve read on an e-reader. The book was fun; the e-reader, not so much.

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The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes — Random House Canada, 2011 — 9780307360816

This is the Man Booker winner for 2011; a book about memory, time, and understanding. There’s been a bit of controversy over the Booker selection this year, centering on whether readability or literary merit is the most important characteristic upon which to judge a book. You’d think a mixture of the two would be best, but this year people seem to be divided into two camps, with a new literary prize being announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair, since certain people think the Booker has gone soft.

For myself, I tend to prefer novels with more emphasis on plot than character development (so, not literary prize winners), but inevitably once in a while I give one a shot. This book was enjoyable while I was reading it — Barnes certainly manages to be clear in his invocation of emotion, thus making the book readable — but when I finished it my reaction wasn’t that enthusiastic. Still, I’m glad to have read it, and at 150 pages, it wasn’t that big of a commitment.

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