Monthly Archives: July 2012

‘Gold’ by Chris Cleave

With the London Olympics in full swing on my doorstep, it seemed appropriate to read a novel about the lives of Olympic athletes. Chris Cleave does a great job of allowing the reader to not only be a fly on the wall, but also to enter the very psyche of Olympic cyclists. The velodrome is scary – watch this hilarious but instructive Rick Mercer Report which gives a glimpse into how hard this sport is! Imagine riding a bike without brakes on a steep incline, going round and round, much less racing on one!

The competition is not alone one of strength and speed, but it is deeply psychological and involves a considerable amount of strategy.  The stakes are high. A small miscalculation can bring tragic results to years of hard training. And so with life and relationships.

Cleave begins the story quite simply with Zoe and Kate, Olympic hopefuls, rival cyclists, but also good friends. Tom and Kate have a daughter Sophie suffering from leukaemia. As the story progresses and clever twists of plot are revealed, the intensity builds and the stakes for all of the characters increase. I was riveted.

Cleave set out to offer a story dealing with the extremity of sickness and health, and while Olympic gold is a great thing to achieve, he wants to send the message that there is other gold in human experience as well. There is a short 2 min video interview with the author on his website which is worth watching.
Chris Cleave Website

‘The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection’ by Alexander McCall Smith

Book series can be wonderfully addictive. The No. 1 Ladies Detective series is one of those for me. Here is the 13th instalment and I’m not tired of it yet. McCall Smith has several series to choose from, all helpfully listed on his website.

Alexander McCall Smith Website

In this one, the detection guru Clovis Andersen actually makes a guest appearance in Botswana, much to the delight of his ardent followers at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency! There is also an interesting road trip into the bush where Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are stuck on a deserted road in the Kalahari and are worried about lions. My favourite part though, is when Mma Ramotswe (a traditionally built woman) uncharacteristically goes for a beauty consult at the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. Of course there are the usual intriguing questions and problems involving the well known characters in the series, most of which get resolved eventually.

One reviewer on Amazon called this series ‘literary comfort food’. Exactly right. It won’t win a lot of literary awards, but fans will be nicely satisfied once more.

‘When the Game is Over, it all Goes Back in the Box’ by John Ortberg

John Ortberg’s books have great titles: ‘If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat‘, ‘God is Closer than You Think‘, and ‘Everybody’s Normal Till You get to Know Them‘ are some good examples. Ortberg’s teaching is in spiritual growth and formation. His devotionals are mostly anecdotal which is a powerful teaching tool. It would not be very instructive to ask someone else, “what are the main points in this book?” Because the point comes in the story, and story is most powerful and memorable.

Using the game of Monopoly as example, (he used to get whipped at the game by his grandmother, wouldn’t you love to meet her?) Ortberg reminds us that stuff is temporary and that which is eternal will last. When the game is over, it all goes back in the box.

‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an acclaimed and award winning Nigerian author. This book won the Orange Prize in 2007. When asked why she wanted to write a book about the Biafran war she said this:

“I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don’t ever want to forget. I have always known that I would write a novel about Biafra.”

Few of us can forget the images of starving children from the Biafran war. Stick thin arms, swollen bellies, blank expressions, but what caused the war and what was it really about? In the novel, there are three characters whose lives tell the story. Ugwu, a poor houseboy who works for a University professor and develops a passion for writing. Olanna, a young woman who abandons her life of privilege to live with her revolutionary and charismatic lover. Richard, an English writer who comes as an expatriate and never leaves Nigeria or Olanna’s twin sister.

Earlier this year I heard Adichie speak at a book conference. Her written and spoken voice is insightful, important, and articulate. Though she has studied at Harvard and Yale, she is dedicated to promoting the writer’s craft in her home country of Nigeria, leading yearly workshops in Lagos.

In 2009 Adichie held a TED Talk which captivated me. She talks about the danger of the single story. It is 20 minutes long, but listening to it is time well spent. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie )

‘The Looneyspoons Collection’ by Janet and Greta Podleski

Janet and Greta
Good food
Good health
Good fun

These sisters are dedicated to making cooking healthy and happy using good food, great recipes and lots of punny fun along the way. The book is literally packed with beautiful photos, useful recipes, nutritional information and lifestyle tips. When looking for a recipe in this book, I often get a bit of “ADD” and end up reading a bunch of the sidebars and inserts which have helpful and interesting tidbits, which is not a bad thing!  There has been a lot learned about nutrition in the past years, and their recipes focus on including better carbs, better fats, more fiber, less sugar, and less salt, all without sacrificing taste.  This book was a gift from a friend and I had never heard of this duo before, but apparently they are on TV and have had their recipes in magazines. Healthy living is a priority for everyone, but this book also includes many recipes for diabetic, gluten-free, and vegetarian diets.

And the recipe and table of contents names will keep you chuckling and make you eager for someone to ask for the recipe or say, “what is this called?”

Become a Beleafer (salads)
Ladle Gaga (soups)
House of Carbs (cakes, puddings, pies)
Satayday Night Fever (scrumptious chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce)
Broccoli Mountain High (crunchy and creamy broccoli coleslaw with turkey bacon)
Salmon and Garfunkel (creamy salmon and corn chowder with dill)
Quiche Me, You Fool! (crustless roasted pepper and potato quiche)
Worth Every Penne (whole wheat penne noodles with chicken, bacon, vegetables and pesto sauce)
Tuna Turner (grilled tuna steaks with a tropical fruit marinade)
Life in the Fast Loin (skillet pork loin chops drizzled with apricot-mustard sauce)
Honey, I Shrunk My Thighs (honey-garlic marinated chicken thighs)
A Bran New World (scrumptious bran muffins with sweet potato and currants)

Alright, alright, enough already….. 🙂 If you happen to be one of my children reading this, don’t buy it…you might find it under the tree at Christmas… recipes complete with “Mommy” jokes, what could be better?

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery

 adj. Extremely beautiful and, typically, delicate.
El-e-gant adj. 1. Pleasingly graceful and stylish in appearance or manner. 2. Pleasingly ingenious and simple.
Au-to-di-dact  n. A self-taught person.

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’, translated from the French, is simply exquisite. The writing is so, so beautiful. It is human and real, so full of good humour and wit, capturing simultaneously both the simple and the profound. What a pleasure to read.  Barbery is a philosopher with insight into so much. Breathtaking phrases, like this of drinking a cup of tea, are typical in the book.

“The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and of the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed.”

The story line from the flyleaf is also so well written, I won’t try to improve on it.

“We are in an elegant hôtel particulier in the centre of Paris. Renée, the building’s concierge, is short, ugly, and plump. She has bunions on her feet. She is cantankerous and addicted to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she is everything society expects from a concierge at a bourgeois building in a posh Parisian neighbourhood. But Renée has a secret: she is a ferocious autodidact who furtively devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humour she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants – her inferiors in every way  except that of material wealth.

Then there’s Paloma, a super-smart twelve-year-old and the youngest daughter of the Josses, who live on the fifth floor. Talented, precocious and startlingly lucid, she has come to terms with life’s seeming futility and has decided to end her own on the day of her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue hiding her extraordinary intelligence behind a mask of mediocrity, acting the part of an average pre-teen high on pop subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a new tenant arrives, a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu. He befriends Paloma and is able to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the mysterious event that has haunted her since childhood. This is a moving, witty, and redemptive novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.”

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ by E.L. James

Unless you like to read erotic sadomasochism, don’t buy this.

Because you may have seen this book everywhere lately, you might be wondering about it and I felt a responsibility to address it.

It amazes me that booksellers are shamelessly promoting ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ as a powerful bestseller. Normally it would be lurking on a back shelf somewhere with a warning attached. The cynic in me suggests that publishers saw $$$ signs in their eyes with this one and went for it, publishing immediately in paperback with a classy looking cover, and launching a bold marketing campaign.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not a prude. I am not against a trashy beach novel with a few steamy scenes now and then, but this one goes too far and has no literary merit whatsoever.  The writing is poor, with a thin plot line and undeveloped characters providing only a stage for the erotica. I couldn’t finish it.

Sex is not a spectator sport and a book like this undermines the beauty of sex in committed relationship. So should there be any sex in novels at all?

Sex and violence are part of human story and therefore do belong, unless they are gratuitous. Some authors hint at sex and others are far more explicit, making it a matter of style for the author and matter of taste for the reader. If sex is handled well by an author it can naturally flow from the narrative and add to the story. Author skills vary in this area but we do recognize those who capture a moment well and those who do not. The purpose of the author in any case, is to produce good literature and depict human story. The purpose of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ however, is to titillate and stimulate, not to educate, appreciate or acculturate.

‘Theodore Boone: The Abduction’ by John Grisham

This is the second instalment in the story of Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, YA novels written by John Grisham in his adventurous legal thriller style. You can see my earlier post on the first in the series. (Just click on Young Adult in the Genre Categories sidebar on the right).
Theo’s good friend April goes missing under mysterious circumstances. She is believed to be in danger and Theo wastes no time using his legal knowledge, investigative skills, and family connections to solve the case. Though this series is rated for 9 – 14 year olds, Grisham provides an intelligent read which I enjoyed thoroughly. Grisham’s gift for adventure and humour are as evident in this read, as in any of his adult legal thrillers. His writing is clean and straightforward. And there is a third in the series which has just come out.’ Theodore Boone: The Accused’.

Taking a Walk on the YA Side

Why is it that so many adults these days are reading and enjoying YA novels?   Series like ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Harry Potter’, and books like ‘The Book Thief’ and ‘The Thief Lord’ are examples of  YA books that are written in an approachable style, are fast paced, and have intriguing story lines. I don’t believe it is a “dumbing down” of reading choices for adults, since the successful cross over ones are usually good literature, with the exception of things like the Twilight series. The best cross over books address tough subjects without talking down to kids.

The young adult genre is a strange one and I don’t think all YA books fall into the ‘crossover to adults’ category. Some YA authors write juvenile type books for teens, which are flat and cliché and far too uninteresting. Others go to the opposite extreme of including as much bad language and high risk behaviour as possible, since they think this is what teens want to read. So it is important to keep an eye on the genre and know what your teens are reading. Perhaps that is how it happened…parents were checking what their children were reading and got hooked! Or perhaps they are enjoying the nostalgia of reading ‘coming-of-age’ stories! David Leviathan,  editor at Scholastic says,  “Issues of identity and belonging and finding your way in the world are new when you’re a teen, but they never actually go away.”

It is exciting that the best of YA can stand up to anything for adults. Perhaps authors who write for children are more conscious of how they craft a novel to engage the reader quickly and capture the imagination well. I compare it to a high school principal who likes to hire elementary school teachers, because not only do they know their subject, they also know how to teach.