Monthly Archives: May 2014

‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LanestarstarstarThis lyrical fantasy for adults has a down to earth “real” feel to it, despite some of the mystery in it. The novel is about memory and surviving a difficult childhood. Sometimes when children experience darkness, it is fantasy that pulls them out into the light. Gaiman says it well, “I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.” p. 199.

The story line is simple enough and best discovered during the reading. The author himself says ‘Ocean’ is an overgrown short story. I read it easily in a day. A few things I learned/liked:

  • We all need someone to believe in and trust.
  • We all need someone to save us.
  • Two people will never remember the same event in exactly the same way.
  • There are some things we will never understand, like why people take a vegetable like raw peas that taste great and put them in tins and boil them so they become disgusting.

There’s a legend in book circles that you can read “Page 69” as a judge of whether you’ll like a book or not. By then the set up has taken place, the characters have been introduced and the author should have reached his representative stride in terms of writing style. Well, the jury is still out on whether the “Page 69 Test” works (try it out for yourself!), but in this book I coincidentally (or not) found a beautiful quote on page 69 which sums the book up well.

“I like myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”

Neil Gaiman has written a number of award winning children’s books including The Graveyard Book, Coraline, and Anansi Boys.
Book Nixie

‘What Alice Forgot’ by Liane Moriarty

What Alice ForgotstarstarstarAlice falls at the gym and hits her head. When she comes to, she realizes that she has lost memory from the last 10 years. She doesn’t remember her own children. She finds out she is estranged from her husband, her sister isn’t speaking to her, and why was she even at the gym?…she hates the gym! She discovers all kinds of strange things about herself and sure has some catching up to do – a lot of things can happen in 10 years! Essentially she must depend on the people around her to tell her who she is now. And she’s not so happy with what she finds out!

Moriarty’s opening allows her character to time travel back to a happier time and examine what may have led to the demise of her marriage. The amnesia trick is not a new one, and at first it seemed a bit contrived to me. However, Moriarty’s writing saves the set-up and the predictable ending. She does know how to build a compelling story and I did get hooked, despite my early misgivings. The novel doesn’t have as many exciting twists and turns as The Husband’s Secret and is not quite as much of a page turner, but I would say it’s a “summer beach read plus”, enhanced with some wisdom and substance. It has some really good things to say about marriage and how to make relationships work. It’s good for the reader to consider how to remember what Alice forgot.

‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg

The Power of HabitstarstarstarstarWhat I liked about ‘The Power of Habit’ is that it’s not a self-help book. It’s a thought provoking look at how things either become very successful or are devastatingly destroyed because of habits. Aside from a brief Appendix (called Reader’s Guide to Using the Ideas in the Book), New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg provides a framework for understanding how habits are formed, changed, and how they affect our lives. One thing is for sure, we all have habits and they can either work for us or against us.

Since Duhigg is a reporter, he knows how to make the science interesting and he doesn’t stick to the usual demons like smoking and drinking. Why do I distractedly start driving my route to work when I’m actually headed somewhere else? Why does toothpaste make your mouth tingle? Would we drive ourselves crazy if we had to think each time about which shoe to put on first, where to leave our keys, or decide to buckle up? Our brains use habits to make life more manageable.

I enjoyed the chapter on advertising and how habits have helped those in the marketplace analytically predict what we will buy next. Duhigg talks about music and how radio stations manage their playlists to keep our listening habits happy. He looks at society as a whole, and how behavioural aspects have even affected our communities and social movements. The author uses examples of those who have committed crimes because of habitual conditioning. Is the insecurity in South Africa so insidious that Oscar Pistorius automatically reached for a gun and discharged it when danger threatened? My example, not the author’s, and of course in his case it may just be a clever defence. Either way it involves habit.

When Duhigg explains the neurology, he points out how cravings and willpower work. He offers practical advice but not in a “one size fits all” way. The author provides the tools to examine your own habits and help you decide which ones to change and which are already working well for you. It’s simple. Your habits should be what you choose them to be. That’s powerful.

If you don’t have time to read the book, just watch the 15 minute TED Talk!

 

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Burial RitesstarstarstarstarOne of the shortlist finalists for the 2014 Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, ‘Burial Rites’ is the story of Agnes. It’s 1829 in Iceland. In a cold, remote, and harsh landscape people eke out a living in damp farmhouses. Agnes arrives, unwanted, at one of these homes, the family forced to take in the criminal as she awaits her execution. A young priest is given the task of absolving her before the final day arrives and at first he is the only one she will talk to. She encounters hostility and is prejudged to be a violent witch capable of a heinous crime. But Agnes knows the truth. This is Agnes’ story. Her story moved me.

Based on true events, Kent teases out the details of how this mysterious woman might have come to death row. She brings the reader on a remarkable journey of small reveals while building the suspense. She recreates 19th century Iceland so well, it almost functions as another character in the novel. Atmospheric and beautiful, I wanted to slow down and enjoy the writing, but I also wanted to keep the pages turning, gripped by what might be coming next.

Stories of Agnes in Iceland have achieved myth status and yet not much is actually known. Kent researched her topic thoroughly and has given us a respectful and plausible fiction that is unforgettable. The author prefers to classify ‘Burial Rites’ not as historical fiction, but as speculative biography. A haunting, unique and powerful novel. Highly recommended for book clubs.

Don’t listen to the following interview with the author until after you’ve read the book, because it does contain spoilers. But it’s a worthwhile 10 minute footnote to the reading when you are done.

‘Uitlaatklep’ by Bertien de Moor

UitlaatklepstarstarstarOn a recent trip to the Netherlands, I read a sweet little Dutch novel written by my cousin, Bertien de Moor.  It’s the story of Fuut Mons, recently widowed, who walks his dog Flip and meets other dog walkers in the woods. They talk and the dogs play (or fight). These humorous vignettes show how the dog gets Fuut out of the house on a regular basis and how this speeds his recovery from sadness and loss, through interactions with others.

The author captures well the therapeutic health benefits of dog walking – not only the physical exercise, but the emotional outlet of being able to interact and connect with others who are also out on the trail. Though discussions may begin with the weather or the age of the dogs, walkers often share a common bond and it is not unusual for strangers to open up and spontaneously (and candidly) share personal triumphs or woes while the dogs run and frolic. Sort of letting off steam while letting out the hound!

The stories about the people Fuut meets, are funny and heart warming, indeed a bit of fresh air.  The book is written in Dutch, so if that is not your language of choice, stay tuned. I plan to translate this little gem into English.

‘Five Minutes’ Peace’ by Jill Murphy

Five Minutes' PeacestarstarstarstarToday is Mother’s Day (in North America). It is an honour to be a Mother. Mothers should thank their children on Mother’s Day instead of the other way around. Recently I read a post on Facebook that said “My greatest blessings call me MOM!” I agree with that. But I’ve had chaotic days like Mrs. Large too when I had to resort to locking myself into the bathroom in order to get five minutes of peace. So this picture book resonated with me. It is one of five in a series by award winning author and illustrator Jill Murphy, about the Larges, a family of elephants.

Her illustrations remind me of Janet & Allan Ahlberg picture books, also British. Both depict home life as wonderfully warm, messy, comforting, and inviting. Definitely not perfect, but what home with kids is? The subtle humour in this series make the books as inviting to parents as to the kids they are reading to.

Sit back and listen to the entire story, read to you for your enjoyment. (Sorry about the page turn ‘pings’). 🙂

‘Frog Music’ by Emma Donoghue

Frog MusicstarstarstarstarThis original tale just leaps off the page. It is based on the true story of an unsolved murder of a frog catcher in San Francisco during a rare heat wave in 1876. A smallpox epidemic hits at the same time. It is an unusual but compelling piece of historical fiction, impeccably researched and entertainingly told.

Jenny Bonnet literally bumps into Blanche on the street while riding her high wheeler bicycle one day, and the encounter results in a unique friendship between the two women. Blanche is an exotic dancer, and works in a brothel. Her lover Arthur and his friend Ernest squander her earnings and form an odd ‘menage a trois’, until Jenny arrives on the scene and changes all of their lives forever. It is no spoiler to say that Jenny is shot in a grimy bar on the outskirts of town, because it happens on the third page.

Donoghue wittily captures the raucous atmosphere of this seedy, sticky and unhygienic world of San Francisco’s Chinatown, with the same panache and precision as she captured the claustrophobia in a small shed in Room. As an author she doesn’t believe in pages and pages of description, so the characters’ lives tell the story which keeps it moving. The dance tunes are woven seamlessly into the novel and further notes on them are given at the back. There is a glossary of French phrases given as well.

‘Frog Music’ is fiction but is completely based on true events. Only a few minor characters were invented. There are raw and crude scenes which may be a bit much for some, but are part of the story and the author handles them well. The appalling conditions that some women and children had to endure was admittedly hard to read, but the spirited determination of Blanche and Jenny is uplifting.

The book is sort of like “French bohemian meets the Wild West” – a quirky time and place which I enjoyed learning about, all wrapped up in an intriguing murder mystery! C’est si bon!