Saturday, May 23, 2015

Man At The Helm

Man at the Helm / Nina Stibbe
London: Viking, c2014.
310 p.

Lizzie Vogel, middle child of 3, narrates this clear-eyed, comic tale of family dysfunction. It’s 1970, and Lizzie’s mother has just overheard a phone conversation that results in the break-up of her marriage. She takes her 3 children and old dog, and moves from their comfortable suburban English home to a small and self-contained village. As a divorcée, she and her children are outsiders from the start.

To regain some social status, and to avoid any dreaded visit from a social worker, Lizzie and her older sister come up with The Man List. It’s a working document of possible eligible men to test out – basically any man at all in their village; unmarried, financially secure, handsome… or not. 

They send letters (impersonating their mother) inviting these men to tea, one by one, in hopes that someone will stick. Among various setbacks and crises -- pet ponies in the house, a younger brother who mysteriously goes deaf when he closes his eyes, neighbouring twin sisters who target the Vogels, domestic disasters when Lizzie tries to do housework, and lots and lots of money trouble -- they persevere.

When things go really wrong, their mother finally perks up. She gets a job, moves them into an even smaller house, and begins to make things happen. At this point, when they no longer need a “Man at the Helm” to keep them going, Lizzie is about to bin the list. But then they add just one more name…

For reasons clear to those who know me, I really like stories told by middle children ;) But beyond that, I really liked this tale. The narrative voice is a mix of childishness and cynicism that is rather unique to the British. While the story is a little episodic, it carries throughout a sense of the longings of unsettled children for a peaceful, safe childhood. It also feels very 70s in the freedom that these children have to operate on their own (unthinkable now) and in the way their mother smokes and drinks and seduces various men, all matter of course. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek and altogether entertaining.

This is a quick-moving, darkly funny tale of a family in transition. Along with humour and satire, there are also wonderful moments of connection and a sense of hope amidst difficult circumstances. It relies heavily on its setting, so if you enjoy a British sensibility and are interested in a young woman’s voice telling it like it is (or was), you may just love this one.

(a briefer version of this review first appeared in the Stratford Gazette, May 20, 2015)

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Further Reading:

This book is reminiscent of Nina Bawden's A Little Love, A Little Learning. In that story, middle child Kate  relates a child's experience of the adult world. She tells us about their family life after their mother has left their father, and they've muddled along alone for a while, until finding them a stepfather. It's sharp and ironic as well.

If you like this author's voice, try her first book, a memoir in letters entitled Love, Nina. You will enjoy a true-to-life story that reveals a young and rather culturally naive girl working as a nanny in the 80s, and encountering famous British writers (sometimes unwittingly) -- then writing home about it. It is charming.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Distinctly Bookish Tea!

As longtime readers may know, I'm a big tea drinker as well as a reader -- "tea & books" is one of the best combos I can think of.

Last year, I worked with our local tea store, Distinctly Tea, to develop an Evergreen Tea Blend in celebration of the Ontario Library Association's Evergreen Award (part of the Forest of Reading). It was a special "Evergreen" blend made up of organic green tea with a touch of piney, smokey Lapsang Souchong. It's the signature blend, but it's also one that divides tea drinkers into those who love lapsang and those who really, really don't. (I love this blend by the way, and it's still available)

This year, thanks to the continued enthusiasm of Dianne Krempien, tea sommelier and owner of Distinctly Tea, we've created a new blend. Introducing....

Evergreen      OWL   Blend           Orange With Lime    Tea


(Orange With Lime Rooibos blend)

It's $10 for the 75 gram tin; it is a delicious, fruity non-caffeinated blend that smells absolutely luscious. I can attest to its yum factor both as a hot tea and as iced tea. And because it's non-caffeinated while being revivifying, you can have it day and night, and it's great for kids too. (tea party, anyone?) And don't forget to check out the Ontario Library Association's 2015 Evergreen Nominees for some fantastic reading suggestions to go along with your tea.

Distinctly Tea ships outside of Canada, and are generously donating 30% of sales to my library. Celebrating great reading with a marvellous tea, how could it be better? I encourage you to take a look -- order online or use it as a reason to come and visit Stratford!

But be sure to say hello if you do ;)

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Mountain Story by Lansens

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The Mountain Story / Lori Lansens
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2015.
365 p.

Wolf Truly is turning 18. He's going to celebrate his birthday by hiking to the top of the mountain overshadowing his home in (the not-good part of) Palm Springs. And then he's going to jump off.

Wolf has been brought to this state by a long backstory that we learn in pieces throughout the book. What we know right away is that 1. his mother is dead, 2. his father is in prison for killing 2 people while driving drunk and 3. something very bad happened to his best friend on this very mountain within the last year.

All this combines to convince Wolf that his best bet is spending his 18th birthday as his last day on earth.

However. Fate intervenes, in the form of 3 women wandering in his path as he attempts to reach the remote point from which he means to jump. Being Wolf, and way too kind and generous despite himself, he offers to lead them to the lake they are not succeeding very well at finding. He tells himself he can leave them there and continue with his plan. Unfortunately, something happens, and they all get lost together on the mountainside. For five days.

Many harrowing things happen, to each of the players. In the blurb to the story, it reads: "Five days. Four hikers. Three survivors." And so throughout, you are calculating odds, trying to estimate the author's decisions, and guess for yourself who that lone non-survivor will be. It's nearly impossible. Do yourself a favour and try not to read anything ahead, as the uncertainty was certainly one of the joys of the book for me. It was very dramatic, and yet much more about these characters than the plot alone.

Wolf is a great character. He has depths -- despite a traumatic childhood and messed up relationships with his father and relatives (they live in the bad part of town in a chaotic household headed by his aunt and her multitude of kids), he has gravitas, and the ability to form a deep friendship with a boy he meets on his first day in California. He has solidity, and knowledge of the natural world, and cares about life in spite of himself.

The survival story is certainly compelling. The mountain is wilderness, even if they are lost within sight of the city lights far below. They face extreme weather, wild animals, impassible routes -- much to alarm them, and within this circumstance, they become closer than they might have ever thought possible. It is a fast read, as you want to keep speeding along to find out what is going to happen. But it's also a slow read, in the sense that the narrative loops back and adds to each person's story.

The three women are deftly drawn, but Wolf is the focus of the entire story, perhaps because the story is wrapped in the conceit of Wolf's writing a letter to his son to finally explain what happened all those years ago. I'm actually not sure that framing device was necessary, as the actual event that consumes the book is so vital that it doesn't really need extras. But it wasn't distracting, and there are some key moments that come from that setup.

Anyhow. A long review when the short form is: Read This. It was exciting, thoughtful, and absorbing. I loved the setting -- Lansens really brings all your senses into play with her descriptions of the smells, textures, tastes, sights and sounds of the mountain. And the characters all take a journey that is impossible to stop following.  Great choice for your next read.

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Further Reading:

For another tale of a group of people stuck on a mountain -- although this time just briefly and in a sheltering cabin -- you could try Angie Abdou's Canterbury Trail. Be warned that there is lots of recreational drug use, strong language and sexual content in Abdou's work -- but it's all character based, and in opposition to The Mountain Story, this one is darkly funny.

Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk is another story of a quiet son surviving a troubled relationship with an alcoholic father. While Franklin has much more gravitas than Wolf does, he has to trek through the wilderness to try to meet his father's final request. Wolf ends up doing something similar, without intending to.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

The World Before Us

The World Before Us / Aislinn Hunter
Toronto: Doubleday, c2014.
419 p.

I read this book a while back, but it has taken me a while to share it. I'm not sure why, as I really liked it. I loved its slow and echoing atmosphere, and the actual physical book's design made it very nice to read (love this dreamy cover).

Jane Standen is an archivist in her mid 30s. She spends her days quietly, pondering the past through the power of everyday objects. Nearly twenty years ago, though, she was a young nanny to a five-year-old girl who went missing in the woods under her care. The girl was never found, and Jane has tortured herself with guilt ever since.

Besides being haunted by her own understanding of what happened all those years ago, Jane is haunted...quite literally...by a handful of ghostly voices, tied to her research into another missing woman, one who disappeared from a Victorian asylum nearly a century before.

Jane doesn't hear these voices, a chorus which reflects and responds to her own concerns. The reader, however, is guided and enlightened by their commentary. Eventually, anyhow, as the fragmentary dialogues coalesce into an understandable narrative. These ghosts are all connected to the asylum, the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. As Jane's research progresses, the story deepens to include past and present, contrasting Jane's seemingly vital worry and guilt about her present day issues with the drifting voices of those who also had vital concerns in their own present, now barely a memory for anyone still living. It is quite effective. The ghosts strive to remain active in Jane's imagination -- as they say in the beginning, "Start with Jane because our stories are tied to hers and everything depends on what she does with them."

As I was reading this, the unemotional writing style, and the concerns with the connections between memory and the fact of history, with the objects in our lives and their deep meanings, along with the academic characters, all combined to give me a sense of one of my favourite authors, Penelope Lively. What a fitting discovery, then, to find that Lively has just written a review of this novel in the New York Times which says everything I felt about this novel, both the parts I loved and those I felt some hesitancy with. I won't try to repeat those thoughts for myself, because I couldn't be nearly as succinct or evocative as Penelope Lively!

This quiet and yet complex book needs to be read again, I think. The writing will reward another reading; now that I know where the story is going I can slow down and enjoy each phrase. There were many parts at which I stopped to reread and admire the way something was written, and that for me was one of the joys of this book.

I'll finish with a quote that ponders history, memory, and Jane's work with the artifacts in her museum. These concepts are revisited throughout the story, and I think this quote highlights the way Hunter plays with them:
Memory being what it is, we sometimes remember backwards, or sideways, or inside out. We will read the name of a song and instead of its melody some of us might experience a tightness around the ribs, a corseting. Or we might recall the notes but instead of seeing the musicians playing will picture the diamond pattern of a floor. Applause spilling out from an audience might equal heartache; a leaflet for the Fancy Fair might put the taste of toffee in our mouths. History is never perfectly framed, although the photographs in the museum may suggest otherwise. 
This is a lovely, moving book, one that moves smoothly between present, past, memory, verifiable history, and anxious anticipation of an unknown future. I found Jane an interesting heroine, despite any mistaken decisions she takes. If you like philosophical books that take on the workings of the mind as much as those of the heart, featuring archivists, professors, writers and their ilk, redolent with lost Victorian lives -- well, you will love this one.

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Further Reading:

My Ghosts by Mary Swan looks at memory and the links between past and present, within the confines of one family tree. While there are no 'ghosts' in actuality, not even the not-quite-there chorus of ghostly voices found in Hunter's book, Swan's ghosts of the title are the hidden ancestors in each of us. Similarly slowly and beautifully written as well.

Any of Penelope Lively's novels, with her characteristic concern for the vagaries of history and memory, would be a good match with this novel. Her children's novels A Stitch in Time and A House in Norham Gardens match up with the connections between objects and the past, while all of her adult novels tackle memory and our place in history in one way or another, and often reflect the tone in Hunter's novel as well.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Quick's Garden of Lies

Garden of Lies
Garden of Lies / Amanda Quick    
New York: Putnam, c2015.
359 p.

I was under the weather this week, so it was perfect timing getting my hands on the latest Amanda Quick novel. These are my favoured go-to reads when I need to simply read something light and entertaining. I love her books -- under this name as well as those under Jayne Ann Krentz and Jayne Castle -- though I think the Regency/Victorian Quick books are my favourites.

In her last few books I found she was getting a bit too dependent on her long-running Arcane Society theme, and the stories were starting to sound 'samey'. Thankfully in this one she's back on form, and the story is fresh and funny.

Ursula Kern owns a secretarial agency in Victorian London. One of the women in her employ dies; Ursula is convinced it was murder. So she resigns from her current client, former archaeologist Slater Roxton, in order to investigate. Slater, however, is not about to let her disappear from his sight, and so joins her in her investigations (along with his requisite household staff of endearing oddballs). Sparks are flying every which way in this story, and this pairing seems well-matched. Ursula is independent and a bit of a smart-ass; Slater is strong and silent, with a troubled back story and a sensitive side.

There are lots of fun bits riffing on the Victorian crazes for botany and archaeological expeditions, not to mention new inventions like the typewriter. This follows Quick's general formula, one that succeeds for her every time, if the New York Times Bestseller list is to be believed. This was an enjoyable addition to her ever-growing list, and I think that the Kern Secretarial Agency could probably shoulder one or two more books.

This story has mysterious drugs, brothels, spurned wives, evil American assassins, lost civilizations, aged fallen actresses, blackmail, scandal....and a main character who uses the labyrinth as a meditative tool. Really! I couldn't believe it. If you've read my blog for any length of time, you may know that I teach and use the labyrinth, and to see it here both as a metaphor and an actuality was pretty neat.

Slater has an old Roman tile labyrinth in the basement of his London home, and early in the book he wakens from a nightmare, and heads to the labyrinth for answers:
He knew that the dream was his mind's way of telling him that he needed to rethink some of his logic.
He needed to walk the labyrinth...
...the tile path formed an intricate, convoluted pattern that eventually led to the center. Some would have said that it looked like a maze. But a maze, with its many pathways that ended in dead ends, was designed as a puzzle, created to confuse and bewilder. His labyrinth had only a single entrance and one true path the eventually brought the seeker to the center of the complicated design.
The very act of walking the labyrinth was a form of meditation requiring concentration and focus. The exercise helped him to see patterns hidden in chaos...
Time did not matter when he walked the labyrinth. If he tried to hurry the meditative process he would not see the pattern. It was only when he ceased to care about finding the answer that it would come to him.

In sum, I really enjoyed this read and thought it was a strong, creative, fun story. If you're already a fan of hers or if you like modern sensibilities in a story that is both set in the past and told with humour, you may find this romantic romp enjoyable too.

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Further Reading:

For another tale using gardens and botany as a major theme, you could try Barbara Michaels' The Dancing Floor. While it is less snappy and more of a traditional supernaturally inflected, faux-gothic romantic suspense story (and has a lot less frank sexual content) it still has the same appeal of setting and of a strong romantic connection between the lead characters.

And if what you are looking for next is simply a story of witty characters, an archaeological element, and a growing relationship between two supremely self-confident and pleasantly obnoxious lead characters, you can't go wrong with the first book in the Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank, which, of all the lengthy series, is the most like a romance novel.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cover Designs! #7

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It's time for another edition of the Cover Designs series!


In this series, I try to match up the lovely dresses on the covers of books with sewing patterns so you can make your own version of your favourite cover design.

Here is a book that I've recommended more than once over the last few years. It's really two stories, "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow", although Kitchen is both the longer and more memorable one.

They both feature young women who are dealing with love, sexuality, identity...and kitchens. They are quirky and thoughtful, and I've read Kitchen a number of times since I first encountered it. The melding of Japanese and Western sensibilities in these stories make them very accessible to English readers, and the numerous mentions of noodles and tea in Kitchen may make you hungry while reading -- fair warning!

I love this cover, and have always thought it was a great balance of colour and adorable outfit.


To replicate this casual summer dress, you could pick up a suitable-for-beginners easy pattern, the Staple Dress by April Rhodes. This is a downloadable pdf pattern by an Indie designer which has been really popular in the sewing world.

This dress has a short sleeve, a loose skirt, and the option to make an elastic waist. It also has options for a level or a high-lo hem. The example below is very like our Banana Yoshimoto cover dress; if it had the even hem it would look even more alike. This could be worn over a white slip, or the skirt could be accented with ribbon, if you wanted a result even more like the inspiration.

(Photo from April-Rhodes.com, Staple Dress pattern)

If you look at the pattern page for the Staple Dress, you'll see that she's even styled it with boots, like our cover design. This is a super-adaptable dress that could be made Japanese style, easily!

To really reflect the cover of Kitchen, though, you might want to add some accessories.

Throw on this vegan satchel from Lulu & you're ready to go!

Or perhaps you would prefer a colour matched shoe...


Whichever option you choose, enjoy reading this book, in your comfortable matching Staple Dress!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin

Under the Visible Life / Kim Echlin
Toronto: Hamish Hamilton, c2015.
348 p.

This is a fantastic read, a story of family, friendship, and the power of music. The strong writing and international focus of Echlin’s earlier novels are also found in this one, creating a captivating read. Her style, which is a rather deliberate and restrained one, works well in this overview of two women's lives, carrying through from the 50s to the 80s.

Two women, Mahsa and Katherine, are both jazz pianists who create a powerful friendship through their commitment to their art, in the face of all sorts of family ordeals.

Both women have had unusual upbringings; Katherine was raised by a single mother in 1950s Hamilton, Mahsa was raised by her strict Uncle & Aunt in Pakistan after her parents were murdered. Both of them are half American and half 'something else' (Afghani in Mahsa's case, Chinese in Katherine's). This element also shapes their experiences in art and society.

Early on, Katherine married another jazz musician and had 3 children in quick succession; Mahsa is forced into marriage with an older man in her 20s, and has 2 children quickly. Despite their differing backgrounds, Katherine and Mahsa have much in common, including their love for piano.

They develop a friendship through jazz when Mahsa moves back to Montreal with her family, and then meets Katherine in New York. Being a jazz pianist is really the expression of their most independent, essential selves, and they maintain their playing despite the vagaries of their difficult lives. They deal with their roles as mothers, as women in the man's world of 20th century jazz, and as independent individuals in relationship with their children, lovers, parents, friends and more.

The writing is so smooth, their stories told in counterpoint, it's like the entire book is jazz. The writing is deep but fast moving and the characters (even the side characters) are all fully drawn and fascinating. Music is the thread that holds together this thoughtful tale of two women’s lives. If you are a music lover or enjoy stories that delve into the deeper issues that shape the arc of
a life, you will find much to appreciate in this book.

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Further Reading

Wayne Grady's Emancipation Day also covers the length of a life across the 20th century, a life based in music and complicated by issues of race and identity. It's also focused partly in Canada and partly in the US (this time Windsor & Detroit).

Ann Ireland's first novel A Certain Mr. Takahashi, and well as her latest novel, The Blue Guitar, both deal with music and/or musicians, family dynamics and dysfunctional relationships. They are both set in Canada, and deal with issues of self-actualization and individuation, whether that's between sisters or a gay couple with a significant age difference.