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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

AUTHOR EVENTS - Andrew Pyper

I'm always on the lookout for a well written, REALLY scary ghost story.  I've read many that fit the bill and many that were good stories but, for my taste, just weren't in the category of "REALLY scary ghost story". For the past several years the one holding onto to its #1 place on my virtual list has been Joe Hill's "Heart Shaped Box".  I loved it because it was current ... I mean, come on it's great ... the aging rock star with both too much time and too much money on his hands buys a ghost on eBay.  The ghost was scary ... an old suit wth a ghost attached to it ... I could almost smell the old man/corpse mustiness while I was reading the book. Currently I'm only halfway through Andrew Pyper's "The Damned" but I am already certain that if not bumping Mr. Hill's book off its top perch, unless it goes south very badly in the second half, it will be sharing the spot.

Mr. Pyper was featured at an Author Event co-hosted by the Waterloo Public Library and Wordsworth Books Waterloo yesterday evening and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend.

Mr. Pyper read excerpts from his book.  Eerily, the final excerpt he read ended in the exact spot where I last rested my bookmark.  That's pretty spooky, but at least there were no spoilers for me!  I've attended many author events over the years and have found that some authors are very good "readers" and others ... well ... not so much.  I'm always surprised when a writer is not a good "out loud reader", especially when they are reading their own words.  I guess I've become spoiled by the amazing talent that I constantly enjoy while I listen to audio books on my drive to and from work.

Mr. Pyper IS a good reader.

Mr. Pyper also has a wicked sense of humor!

After explaining how the idea for the book germinated and some "why's and what-nots" about the story he opened the floor for a Q&A.  Not only was he willing to discuss his book but was also open to questions about the writing and publishing process.  There were quite a few aspiring authors in the audience so this made for an informative and interesting discussion.  Mr. Pyper generously signed books and allowed for photo-ops at the end of the evening.



















This review added on May 8th, 2015

Twins, Ashleigh and Danny Orchard were born dead.  Their mother, not willing to accept the news, held her twins and prayed fervently.  Unfortunately the wrong deity heard her pleas and when the twins miraculously begin breathing mom knew right away something was not quite right about Ashleigh.  On their 16th birthday Ashleigh and Danny died again, this time – Ashleigh stayed dead (sort of) and Danny went on to write a book about his after-life experience, which was rather pleasant, all things considered.

Danny explains, “When you’re dead, you know that’s what you are.  You always hear about the other ones, the souls who need help “crossing over”, the confused loved ones in those paranormal TV shows who ghost around at the foot of the bed, needing to be told it’s time to go.  But in my experience there’s no mistaking it with being alive, because where I went after the fire was something better than being alive.  Heaven, you’d have to call it.  A slightly altered replay of the happiest day of my life.”

His book produced a following of “Afterlifers” but it wasn’t until Danny met Violet Grieg that he understood not everyone shared his pleasant “after life” experience and sometimes, when you come back you do not come back alone.  That’s how Ash ended up on the couch beside him watching television and, that’s why he couldn’t lead a normal life.  When Danny finally meets Willa, the love of his life, and her son Eddie, who immediately takes a special spot in Danny’s heart, he’s worried.  He knows that Ash is jealous of his being alive and now she might do anything to ruin (end?) his life.

There have been a plethora of “non-fiction” books written about near-death experiences.  I recall hearing somewhere, although I am not sure I agree, that as humans we are the only animals aware of our eventual departure from life so of course people are curious about what happens “after”.  I speculate that as long as there have been human beings capable of thinking there have also been tales of ghosts and hauntings.  In “The Damned” Mr. Pyper brings the two together in a very frightening way.

I love a good scary book and this one had several chill-worthy scenes.  I was speaking to my daughter about “The Damned” (she also loves scary books for which I will not take the credit – blame, I mean blame) when I was about 2/3 of the way through this book and mentioned to her (as I wrote earlier in this post) that “unless it goes south in the last part this could be one of the best ghost stories I’ve read”.  Well, unfortunately, it did.  I hate making negative comments about authors I enjoy but in this case the last ¼ of the book just went a little to far into “fantasy” realm for my taste. 

Is it a good, scary read?  Absolutely.


Would I recommend it?  Yes – with the suggestion that you also pick up Mr. Pyper’s “Lost Girls” and/or “The Guardians” for more, and different, examples of what an excellent writer he truly is.

Monday, 27 April 2015

My Favourite Reads - April 2015

When I started this blog I wasn't sure if I would post my book reviews.  Should anyone actually be interested in what I thought of any particular book there's a list in the sidebar or you can go to my Goodreads Bookshelf.  Then I thought about the generous authors and publishers who send books to me at no charge in exchange for a review.  Well, whether my review is good or bad, they at least deserve the exposure so other readers can make up their own minds.  Just because I didn't love doesn't mean it may not be some one else's favorite and vice-versa.

I guess what I am trying to say is I will be posting reviews ... some or all ... THAT I have not decided yet.

This month I was very fortunate to have received several books from both Netgalley and Goodreads First Reads so I've been reading rather voraciously.  I can find something redeeming in almost any book, something that captures my interest and keeps me reading.  Once in a while I will persevere through a book I may not be enjoying as much as I think I should and, very rarely and reluctantly, I just give up and close the cover before the end.  Not finishing a book always leads to guilt and remorse.  It's okay though, that usually goes away by the time I am halfway through the first page in the next book in my TBR pile.

But enough of my rambling ... in no particular order and not necessarily published this month ... these are the books that shone for me in April 2015.

ORHAN’S INHERITANCE by Aline Ohanesian.

* I received this as a free eBook from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. *

Orhan’s grandfather Kemal built the family business, making kilim rugs, out of the dust remaining after WWI.   By 1990 he has become quite eccentric often immersing himself in a brass cauldron of dye.  No one knows why, but one day he is discovered dead in one the cauldrons, his body from the neck down stained deep blue.  Orhan idolized his grandfather because of his business acumen, respected him for his dedication to family but more importantly loved him deeply; unfortunately he never felt the same way about his father.  After the funeral, when Kemal’s will is read Orhan is relieved that the business his grandfather worked so hard to build was willed to himself rather than, as tradition and Turkish law dictates, to his father.  He had worked side by side with his grandfather while his father lived off the fruits of their labour.  He knew his father would run the business into bankruptcy.  His relief was short-lived when the family estate is bequeathed to someone of whom he’s never heard.  What was his grandfather thinking?  And more importantly who was this mystery woman?

Armed with legal papers, an offer of a settlement and firm determination Orhan travels to America to meet this woman, with the sole intention of retaining his family’s home.  Before he arrives in Los Angeles Orhan comes to the decision that, yes, he wants her to sign the papers, but he also need to know why Kemal willed the estate to her in the first place.  What connection could this 90-year-old woman living in a nursing home possibly have to his grandfather?  When Orhan meets Seda he is very persistent and she reluctantly begins to tell him the story of her life that by default is also his grandfather’s life.  A story that takes Orhan back to when she and Kemal were children, the years of WWI and the horrors they endured during what has come to be known as the “Armenian Genocide”.  A story that cracks the very foundation of everything Orhan ever believed about his family.

This book is a touching, somewhat tragic, love story.  This book is a story of survival and the strength of the human spirit.  This book is a study of what happens when racial, religious and ethnic prejudices erupt and how it impacts on the “everyman” trying to simply live his life.  This is the kind of book that stays with you after you close the back cover and I can’t help but make comparisons to “Kite Runner” and “The Almond Tree”, also outstanding debut efforts for their respective authors as this is for Ms. Ohanesian.  This one will certainly not disappoint fans of those books.


I must admit that I was not aware of the “Armenian Genocide” issues that are so prevalent in the news these days.  There is no such thing as coincidence so I assume the publication date of this book was well planned.  “Orhan’s Inheritance” is beautifully written and tells an incredible story and if, like me, you don’t know much about that particular piece of world history it may give some perspective on current events.

THE FARM by Tom Rob Smith.

Daniel’s parents Tilde and Chris liquidate their successful nursery business in England and retire to a farm in Sweden.  Every family keeps secrets and Daniel’s family is no exception.  He thinks his parents moved to the remote part of Sweden because it is where his mother was raised and they wanted a quiet retirement.  They do not know their son is gay.  They each assume the other is leading their own idyllic life until on day Daniel receives a telephone call from his father – “Your mother is not well … she’s been imagining terrible things … she’s a danger to others and herself … she’s been hospitalized.”  Before Daniel can board a plane to Sweden his mother calls – “Everything that man has told is a lie … I don’t need a doctor, I need the police.  Meet me at Heathrow”.

When Tilde gets off the plane Daniel sees that she is but a shadow of her former robust and confident self and instead of luggage she is carrying nothing but a weathered leather satchel.  She is convinced her husband Chris is following on her heels on the next plane so at her insistence they go into hiding so she can share her story.  How can Daniel not listen to her, especially when she tells him “If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son”?

Her story unfolds as she pulls item after item out of the satchel to prove the veracity of what she says.  The secrets start to unravel, but can she convince Daniel she is not insane, as everyone claims?  Before Daniel can make that decision he needs to investigate her claims himself and that’s when he discovers that the secrets we bury deep within ourselves are often the worst secrets of all.

Reading this book is like falling down Alice’s infamous rabbit hole.  Everything sounds logical, but can you really believe what you are hearing?  Is this all imaginary?  Is it the ramblings of an old lady who has had a break with reality?  Could it by chance be true and danger is around the corner.  The writing had me guessing and wavering back and forth through the whole book.  Mr. Smith didn’t let any secrets slip and didn’t alleviate my uncertainty until he was good and ready to have me know.  At that point everything fell into place seamlessly.  I could finally release my breath.  Loved it!

I listened to this as an audio book and I have to give credit for my enjoyment of the story to the readers.  James Langton voiced Daniel and did a wonderful reading but Suzanne Toren’s voicing of Tilde was outstanding.  Excellent production!

HAUSFRAU by Jill Alexander Essbaum.  

Anna Benz, ex-pat American, married to a Swiss banker and living in Switzerland for 9 years has managed to have three children and run her household but not bothered to learn German or even “Switzer-Deutsch”. She gets through her days by keeping to herself. She is depressed, bored and lonely. Much to the relief of her husband and mother-in-law she agrees to two things: one – she will start therapy, two – she will take German lessons. As Anna attends German class her German vocabulary increases and during her visits with Doktor Messerli she (and the reader) learn more about Anna, the woman. 

One thing the reader is privy to but Anna refuses to share with her therapist (or anyone else) is the fact that while she has no close friends, Anna has affairs. Lots of them.
 

Hausfrau is Anna’s story and she has no problem justifying the affairs to herself and tries her best to convince the reader as well. Ms. Essbaum’s word play in this book was impressive. I enjoyed how she would take a small snippet of a German lesson or a doctor’s appointment and weave it into the telling of the next part of Anna’s story. Kudos to Ms. Essbaum for her creativity as it never ceased to impress me as I was reading. Anna’s psychoanalyst sessions force Anna, and by turn, the reader into thinking about the themes running through the book … marriage, fidelity, secrets, family, self respect and love. There were so many parts of this book that had me nodding my head thinking, “Good job Jill, very well done!” The writing was clever and smart.
 

In all honesty I picked up this book on a whim based on the title. I guess it appealed to my German side. If you speak German you know that “hausfrau” most commonly refers to a woman who probably does not hold a job outside the house and spends her time looking after home, hearth and family. However depending on the inflection one gives the word it can also be a genuine (or back-handed) compliment or, a snide derogatory judgment. In the case of this book is seems to be a combination of all of those.

According to Doktor Messerli “A bored woman is a dangerous woman.” The idea of an unhappily married, bored woman embarking on an affair is not a new concept by any means. Classics such as The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary through to contemporary fiction such as All The Things That Never Happened and The Girl On The Train all have adultery as one of the main threads carrying the story. Paraphrasing Dr. Messerli (again, because she really is quite wise) “A mistake made once is an oversight. A mistake made twice is a choice but a mistake made a third time is a decision”. In the end Anna learns that decisions also have consequences. As I read the book I found that I did not care for or sympathize with Anna much, however I did find her intriguing. I found myself so drawn into her rationalizations and dramas that there were tingly moments of intense anticipation and tension on my part as a reader. That certainly kept me turning the pages. While on some level highly predictable I was still surprised by the conclusion to Anna’s story. That sounds a little oxymoronic … predictable surprise … yet that was the case. I hope to meet Anna again in another book sometime down the road because I’m curious to know how things work out.


I, RIPPER by Stephen Hunter.

** I received this in a Goodreads “First Reads” giveaway **

JEB
Jeb is a young newspaperman working for the Star, an afternoon newspaper fighting for readers and their pennies among the more than fifty newspapers coming off the presses and then hawked by the newsboys of London in the late 1800’s. He starts his career as “the intermittent substitute music critic” but when Harry Dam, the night crimes reporter, is not available one night Jeb is sent to cover “a nice juicy murder” that has just taken place in Whitechapel. This is the break that Jeb has been waiting for. Jeb had no way of knowing he was about to be introduced to the work of “Jack the Ripper”. As it turns out Jeb is very good at his job (and apparently has a very strong stomach) so soon earns the respect not only of the reporters from other papers but of the “Blue Bottles” (police) as well. They allow him up close and personal access to
the carnage The Ripper leaves behind. This is 1888 and forensics are unheard of, the head of the police department is a laughing stock, yellow crime scene tape does not exist and Jeb is in his element.

Before long he is beginning to form his own theories and suspicions about “Saucy Jack”. Although an adamant tee-tote he aggrees to attend a party one evening where he happens to meet Thomas Dare a linguistics professor at a prestigious university. Not being an abstainer, when he is in his cups Professor Dare enjoys bragging about his linguistic knowledge and how is able to see “the beneath” in writing. When a letter arrives at the newspaper allegedly penned by Jack himself and then a sign written in blood is left to taunt the police Professor Dare is convinced he can help Jeb discover the killer’s identity through linguistics. Jeb has first hand knowledge of the crime scenes and Dare has the resources and patience to put the clues together. Between the two of them (ala Sherlock Holmes … Jeb’s literary hero) they develop the first “profile” of a killer and then set out to trap him.

As any good newspaperman should, Jeb tells a good portion of this story as his first person, eyewitness account. Then, as now, the media is quick to come up with catchphrase names for serial killers and Jeb takes the credit for naming Jack the Ripper, rightly so because Jeb is also a nickname – he has a secret identity of his own. 

JACK
The rest of the account of that bloody “autumn of the knife” we hear from Jack himself. Jack keeps a journal where he writes out the meticulous planning and thought that goes into each of his kills before he carries them out. Then when the evil deed is accomplished he comes back and records exactly what happened. Being privy to a serial killers journal is gory reading, and Jack holds nothing back. He gleefully recounts every detail and takes a great amount of pleasure in the fact that he has bested the local police and stymied “the Yard”. Of course Jack never signs his journal entries.

MAIRSIAN
Mairsian is one of the fallen angels walking the streets of Whitechapel. Like so many of her fellow ladies of the evening she has an unfortunate liking for gin. Unlike some of the other ladies Mairsian has a home, parents and family. From her ramshackle room she pens letters to her mum assuring her that she is being careful and not be worried. She only “entertains” gentlemen now and has a guardian angel in the form of a nice man who doesn’t beat her to shove her about. She promises to be home as soon as she can lose her taste for the gin so her parents can be proud of her again. 

Mairsian’s letters to her mum are interspersed between Jeb’s account and Jack’s diary giving an insight into what the ladies of Whitechapel were thinking while Jack was on the loose.

“Saucy Jack”, “Leather Apron”, “The Whitechapel Killer” and “Jack the Ripper” – nicknames all – because his true identity is still unknown, 127 years after his killing spree. Countless books, both fiction and non-fiction have been written about Jack the Ripper. Add television programs and movies into that mix and you would be hard pressed to find someone not familiar with Jack the Ripper. I have read a handful of books about the subject myself and in my opinion Mr. Hunter holds his own. He does not profess (as some other authors have) to solve the mystery, but appropriately he does give us his culprit in the end. There is no doubt that this book is meticulously researched, Mr. Hunter incorporates not only accurate accounts of the killings he also draws a clear picture of the social values of the time, the poverty, filth, overcrowding and danger of the area and how the Ripper case added to the anti-Semitism rampant at the time. This is excellent historical fiction written in the era's manner of speech and peppered with colorful cockney phrases. While reading it amused me to catch certain references to modern day police procedures and newspaper terms, which the characters in the book claim to “invent” (like the profiling) or wish such a thing existed so they could somehow have at their disposal. It made me smile and that’s a good thing when I’m reading about Jack. 

Because I received an Advance reader Copy I cannot quote from the book’s text but there is a note from Mr. Hunter on the back of the book in which he writes “I hope you find it a blazing fast hansom ride through the gritty, sensual, blood spattered streets of London’s Whitechapel in the autumn of the knife … with the devil himself as your driver.”  It was a bloody good ride.

THE ALPHABET HOUSE by Jussi Adler-Olsen.  

I couldn’t describe the book any better so from the book cover:

During World War 2, two British pilots, James and Bryan, are shot down over Germany. They know that they will be executed if taken hostage. Pursued by German dog patrols, they manage to escape by jumping on to a German hospital train transporting mentally deranged German SS-officers away from the front. James and Bryan throw a couple of patients off the train so that they can occupy their sick beds, hoping to make an escape later on. However, the train takes them to "The Alphabet House", a mental hospital far away from the front line. Their only means of survival is to simulate madness. But can they do so? Without going mad for real? And are James and Bryan the only ones faking it?” 

I’ve mentioned before that I tend to stay away from books dealing with certain subjects and WWII is definitely on my personal “stay away” list.  Alas, nothing is written in stone and sometimes the premise of a book just sounds too appealing and I have to break down and give it a try.  Besides, Mr. Adler-Olsen assured me in the forward that this was not a book “about the war” it is a book “set in war time”.  The two mean the same thing to me.  Sometimes I am pleasantly rewarded for stepping out of my comfort zone (The Book Thief) and sometimes I am not.  I sit on the fence with this book. 

First of all I should warn any potential readers of a gentler constitution that there are a lot
(A LOT!!) of gristly (grizzly?) scenes in this book.  I listened to it on audio and found myself driving to work grimacing (okay, grimacing more than I usually do on my drive to work).  Of course it is a book “set in war time” so I knew that was going to be part of it.  The book consists of two parts.  Part one deals with “The Alphabet House”, an insane asylum for SS officers, where James and Bryan find themselves delivered by the train.  When one of them escapes, by necessity and lack of options leaving the other behind, we move into the second part of the book which takes place 30 years later.  With equal parts undying friendship and survivor’s guilt the soldier who escaped has never stopped looking for the friend he had to leave behind.  Despite having hired professional private detectives to search for his friend no trace of him has ever been found.  Just as he is ready to give up his search and admit that he probably did die when the hospital was bombed near the end of the war, a clue falls into his lap and he goes looking one more time.

Although both parts of the book are interesting I found myself wishing things would move along at a little bit of a brisker pace.  Obviously, since our two protagonists were forced to assume the identity of two other men there was a name change involved.  As it turns out most of the characters in this book were known by two or more name/nicknames and they were used interchangeably depending on who was doing the speaking.  This got to be a little confusing and I would have enjoyed the book a bit more if in the second half the author could have stuck to using one name per character. 

Although the book is not in a genre I usually enjoy I am glad I picked it up.  Mr. Adler-Olsen did a fine job with a complicated subject.

THE FIFTH GOSPEL by Ian Caldwell.

From the “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book …

“Two Thousand Years ago, a pair of brothers set out from the Holy Land to spread the Christian gospel.  Saint Peter traveled to Rome, becoming the symbolic founder of Western Christianity.  His brother, Saint Andrew, traveled to Greece, becoming a symbolic founder of Eastern Christianity.  For centuries, the church they helped create remained a single institution.  But one thousand years ago, west and east divided.  Western Christians became Catholics, led by the successor of Saint Peter, the pope.  Eastern Christians became Orthodox, led by the successors of Saint Andrew and other apostles, known a patriarchs.  Today these are the largest Christian denominations on earth.  Between them exists a small group known as Eastern Catholics, who confound all distinctions by following Eastern tradition while obeying the pope.
            This novel is set in 2004, when the dying wish of Pope John Paul II was to reunite Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  It is the story of two brothers, both Catholic priests, one Western and one Eastern.”

Father Alex Andreou is a Greek Catholic priest teaching gospel studies to students inside the Vatican, where he lives with his son (Greek priests are allowed to be married if they do so before taking their vows).  His brother Simon is a Roman Catholic priest working for the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.  Both are acquainted with a man by the name of Ugolino Nogara who is currently curator of the newest Vatican Museum installation … an exhibit that both brothers are excited about and fear and equal measures.  Ugara has found information that will refute the carbon testing conclusions ruling the Shroud of Turin fake, conclusions that greatly impacted the lives of the two priests when they were boys.  One night Alex receives an urgent call from his brother asking for help.  When he arrives at his brother’s location he finds that Ugo Nogara has been murdered and, impossible as it sounds, Simon may have had something to do with it.  A break and enter into Alex’s apartment which terrorizes his son seems, strangely, to be related.  When Alex attempts to get answers about what is going on he is stonewalled – the Pope’s office is unusually interested in the case, the Swiss guard is sworn to secrecy and the Vatican Police are less than forth coming with any information about the break in or the murder.  With his son possible in danger and his brother under house arrest Alex begins his own investigation.

This is the point where the book grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.  I had been reading bits and pieces of the book here and there when I had time, but when Mr. Caldwell got to the nitty-gritty of exploring the history of the gospels and of the shroud interweaving it expertly with what was going on in the lives of the characters he got my full attention.  I finished the last two thirds of the book on Sunday afternoon.  Admittedly, I do have a soft spot for conspiracy theories.  

In his author’s acknowledgments Mr. Caldwell gives thanks to all the “generous assistance” he received from all kinds of Catholic scholars and theologians, both Eastern and Western, so I am working on the assumption that what he writes about the gospels has a reasonable foundation in truth.  That part of the book was fascinating to me.  He explores the history of the bible and the evolution of the Catholic Church in it’s shining moments and its less proud actions.  However, the appeal of the book did not end there.  This book is also about the struggle of a family trying to put their family first while living the confines of a country (The Vatican) where there is only one “Papa” and religion dominates every aspect of life. 

This is the type of book that makes me wish I belonged to some sort of book club because there are so many other themes and so much imagery that could be discussed but I am refraining because this is a book review. 

Since its publication The DaVinci Code seems to be the standard to which all other books of this type are compared.  Yes, I loved it too.  I feel The Fifth Gospel holds it’s own and in some respects surpasses Dan Brown’s blockbuster.  If you pick up this book looking for another Robert Langdon – be warned – you won’t find him in these pages.  You will find a very readable, complex and intriguing story.  I feel Mr. Caldwell treated any personal beliefs readers might have respectfully throughout the book but it is a book that just might make you think twice about what you know about Catholicism and organized religion in general.  Just as Mr. Brown’s book had me grabbing for some art books and looking up famous works of art this book had me grabbing a bible off my bookshelf to check on Mr. Caldwell. 

Being familiar with the various Saints and traditions involved in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy the following quote made me laugh out loud.  Father Andreou sharing his 5-year-old son’s opinion on how to decide which is the appropriate Saint for a particular prayer.

“He told me once that praying is like being a soccer coach and calling saints off the bench.”
















Thursday, 23 April 2015

One Book - One Community 2015 (Waterloo Region)




Yesterday the Waterloo Region OBOC Committee announced its choice for the One Book – One Community read for 2015.  The announcement was made at the Waterloo Regional Airport, which seems like a rather strange venue for a book announcement but makes perfect sense when you read the book.




The winner was STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel.  Although I am not always successful, I do try to read the OBOC choice every year.  I had the pleasure of reading this book several months ago when it appeared on a list of “must-reads” for this year (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1190826224


A little about the author from Ms. Mandel’s website (which also includes a synopsis and an excerpt from the book):

St. John’s my middle name.  The books go under M.

Emily St. John Mandel was born and raised on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada.  She studies contemporary dance at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and lived briefly on Montreal before relocating to New York.

She is the author of four novels, most recently Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  A previous novel, The Stranger’s Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France.  Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013.  She is a staff writer for The Millions.  She lives in New York City with her husband.



SO WHAT IS ONE BOOK – ONE COMMUNITY?

One Book – One community celebrates books and reading.  A committee made up of the booksellers, librarians, booklovers and the public chooses one book each year from a long list of 75 – 100 entries.  The aim of the program is to have as many people as possible reading and discussing the same book … to help build a community of readers.

In my area the criteria for each nominated book consists of the following:

  • The book must be written by a living Canadian author with, if possible, a body of work.
  • The book must be a well-written, award-winning story.
  • It must appeal to the broadest possible audience: men and women, late teen to seniors.
  • It needs to encourage the exchange of ideas, including community building and program potential
  • It must be in print and available in paperback to make it affordable and accessible for all
  • It must have some element of the *WOW* factor.
Station Eleven certainly ticks off every point.

Some past winners include:



The One Book – One Community idea is not unique to my little part of the world where it has been going on for thirteen years.  The first program of its kind was introduced in Seattle in 1998 under the name “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” by Nancy Pearl.  The first book chosen was The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.

In Canada, according to the only information I could locate, it seems the first such programs were launched in 2002 in both Vancouver, British Columbia (The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy) and in the (yay – go home area) Waterloo Region, Ontario (No Great Mischief by Allistair McLeod).  According to the US Library of Congress 404 programs were active in 2007. 

I think it is an excellent program if for no other reason than often it makes me pick up a book outside my normal “go-to” genres.  Alas, as with everything in life there are always some detractors.  Some consider the thought of reading as community to be a bad idea.  Harold Bloom was quoted as saying, “I don’t like these mass reading bees … it is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once.”

In 2002 New York City launched an effort to have a One City, One Book program that failed miserably.  The selection committee actually split into two rival groups.  Columbia Professor Ann Douglas was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “The New Yorker disdains to be a booster of his own city or of his own culture.  That is for the provinces.  As far as reading goes we are the most important group of readers and critics in the country and even possibly the world.  I would prefer to let us go on our merry way as we have for the last 100 years, deciding what everyone else should read.”



Well!  That certainly puts those of us 
who have communities successfully 
running the program in our place, don’t it?





I think NYC could take a lesson from Boston.  Their One City One Story program chose short stories and distributed thousands of them at no charge over the course of one month.

Native Canadian author Richard Wagamese is one of the most frequently selected authors for these types of programs throughout Canada.  Ragged Company was the Waterloo Region’s choice in 2013.  In the following video, available on YouTube he discusses what it means to an author to be chosen for these programs.



All in all I do believe the One Book – One Community programs are excellent for both the readers and the authors involved and I will definitely continue in my attempt to read the choices every year. 


Saturday, 18 April 2015

Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic

I read a lot.  More on that later.

I post reviews of the books I've read onto various sites.  More on that later too.


For reasons that boggle even my mind I post regularly to two, no wait, three sites; www.chapters.indigo.ca where I started posting at the behest of a fellow “Chapters Community” group member, and at www.goodreads.com where I started posting because I thought it was an interesting way to keep track of the books I've read.  What started off simply as a cyber bookshelf somehow led to posting reviews.  I've often thought, over the course of all my years reading, that I should have kept a journal to track my reading.  It would be fun to go back and look over books read years ago to see how my reading habits have changed.  Or maybe they haven’t changed all that much?  The third is a Harper Collins Publishing site where I was invited to set up a virtual bookshelf www.50bookpledge.ca.  Virtual badges are awarded for milestones and sometimes they tweet your reviews for their Twitter followers.  I reluctantly admit (blushing slightly) that I feel flattered when one of those tweets is “favorited”.  I participate in the last one for no other reason but because it’s fun.  Now don’t let me mislead you into thinking I am some kind of book review writing lunatic.  I write my reviews into a word document on my computer and then “cut and paste” the reviews into the various sites.  Each site gets the same reviews, often – unless I catch them somewhere along the way – the same typos and errors included in all of them.  A fellow reviewer once called me out for getting a book character’s name wrong.  Thank goodness for the edit function because THAT was embarrassing.  But cut me come slack, Amanda/Miranda, Miranda/Amanda, anyone could have made that mistake.  For me there is a certain amount of trepidation involved in writing reviews that are going to be seen by other people, sometimes even by the author’s themselves, so I try to be fair and kind whenever possible, not to mention the fact that I don’t want to purposely make a complete fool out of myself.  I do think about what I am about to write before I start typing. 

What prompted this particular blog post is something that happened while I was trying to post a review of a book called “In Our Prime” on the Chapter’s site.  They've recently made changes to their website which have reeked all kinds of havoc with the, once easy, process of posting.  And yes, we are all up in arms about it!   Believe me, some scathing words have been posted along with the book reviews.  All that aside, I cut and pasted my review and after glancing at it to make sure there were no glaring errors I hit the “Post this Review” button.  Immediately a message box popped up telling me that I could not post this review as “it contained profanity and/or inappropriate subject matter”.  Whaaat?  Thinking this must be glitch of the new website I cancelled the posting, clicked out of the site, signed back in and tried it again.  Same result.  Anyone who knows me knows that I do not regularly pepper my speech with four letter words.  Yes, one will slip in now and again but it is not a hard bred habit that would, by rote, translate into something I write.  Oh, I can swear a blue streak when something goes really wrong (hitting myself in the thumb with a hammer, stubbing my toe, opening the fridge and having the milk or juice or carton of eggs spill onto the floor that I finished washing just ten minutes ago … and yes all those things have happened to me at one time or another, or even several times in a row) but those incidents usually culminate with my sitting on the floor and having a good cry.

The review in question was for a non-fiction book about middle age.  The author does a fine job writing about the history of the concept of middle age, the problems middle-agers encounter, the freedoms they enjoy and how the term has changed over the years.  It’s a good book but, let’s face it, it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey.  Ha-ha-ha, I guess in some ways it is – middle age – gray hair – Fifty Shades of Grey.  Never mind!  There really was no reason to have “profanity or inappropriate subject matter” of any kind in a description or review of this particular book.  I closed the Chapter’s site and went back to my original word document to see if Spell Check or Auto-correct had sabotaged me and changed something innocent to an inappropriate and profane remark.  I scoured that document looking for the offensive words and found … nothing! 

I could have left it alone.

I didn’t really need to post a review of every book I read. Well … all right … I am a little OCD about it and it is necessary for me to post a review if I have read the book.

I could have moved forward and posted the next review I had ready.

But, me being me, I could not leave this alone.  Profane and inappropriate subject matter my ass!

It was time to check this review more methodically.  I reopened the Chapter’s site, pasted the review again and started reading through it all the while changing words that I thought might, by some stretch of computer imagination, be inappropriate.  None of the words changed stopped the message from popping up when I hit the post button.  So I changed them back to what I had originally written and carried on.  Was I getting a little annoyed now?  Absolutely.  This was taking more time than I wanted to spend to putz around and try and figure this nonsense out.  Then finally I was rewarded for my persistence.  About three sentences from the end of my review I found that filthy, dirty, profane and inappropriate word.  The section read; “Ms. Cohen takes the reader through trends in movies, television, and literature and, the biggest culprit of all – advertising.  She discusses age discrimination including the common practice of not hiring middle-aged men; the experimental use of human growth hormone to keep us young and supple despite the fact that the treatment is still controversial and the current pressure placed on “middle-agers” to maintain (real or enhanced) sexual prowess with Viagra, Estrogen and Testosterone therapy.”

The word?

With my sincerest apologies to polite society and gentle sensibilities for even quoting it here, the word causing the problem was “Viagra”.  Hmmm?

Shocking I know, but I do occasionally read erotic fiction and write reviews on those books as well.  I read Fifty Shade of Grey (hated it, by the way) and in various reviews over the years have used words such as “masochist”, “sexual sadist”, and “dominatrix”.  They all passed muster.  The brand name Viagra though, it did me in.

I inserted a revised the word to include a hyphen so it read “vi-agra”.  Little did I care that it now annoyed the hell out of Spell Check, it solved my problem.  I posted my review.

All that effort started me thinking about why?  Why do I get some sort of self-gratifying satisfaction out of writing and posting the reviews?  Why do I even read so much in the first place?

Reading

Reading is a pretty solitary past time.  I am the type of person who needs quiet time.Some people are only happy when there are other people around while I seek out alone time.  Maybe that comes from being an only child or maybe I was just born a solitary soul?  Wow, that sounds quite pathetic!  What I am trying to say is that as much as I enjoy other interests and my family and friends, I can happily curl up in a comfortable chair on a Sunday afternoon and very contently, without a moment of guilt or remorse, lose myself (and the afternoon) inside the covers of a book.

My mother was a reader, I am a reader and both my daughters are readers.  My eldest is an avid reader, my youngest is a binge reader but my mother was an avid reader.  I am also an avid reader.  Depending on whom in my circle of family, friends, acquaintances and librarians you ask I could be described on a scale from “keen” through “fervent” and all the way to “frighteningly compulsive”.  What can I say?  I love to read.

My mother read “romanes”, best described as the German equivalent of Harlequin romance novels.  They were about the size of a Time magazine, easy to roll up and put into a purse to read on a bus or during coffee break at work.  I’ve paid homage to my mom in blogs before.  She worked full time, was an avid gardener, baked and loved people, but at the end of the day she was sitting at the table reading a few pages of her romane before heading off to bed.  She never read in bed because she would fall asleep.  I used to laugh at that because I could go to bed to start reading then at 2 a.m. think to myself “just one more chapter and I’ll turn off the light” despite the fact that it would cause much personal regret the following morning.  I don’t think it’s quite as amusing anymore because now I find a few pages is my limit before I start to feel the my eyelids get weighty.  My favorite chair is definitely a better choice if I want to polish off more than a page or two.

My mother was also, uh, frugal.  Very rarely would she shell out retail price to buy a new copy at Fiedler’s, so every few weeks she and I would have a field trip to the KW Book exchange where one could buy, sell and trade books.  The city where I grew up had a strong German heritage so there was a large market for these little books she so enjoyed.


At the time, the whole back wall was dedicated to shelves and shelves of them.  It was a mystery to me how she knew, from the hundreds, if not thousands of selections, which ones she had previously read.  It took awhile, but I figured out her little secret.  With a green pen she would make a very small star at the bottom of the last page, so all she had to do was flip to the end of the book to see whether she had read it or not.  Clever!  She browsed, and since I was a very well behaved little girl, I was allowed to browse too.  She would leave with her “traded” romanes and I was always allowed a book to take home.

I guess the seed was planted.

As I got a little older and little more independent my girlfriend, also a young yet avid reader, and I would spend Wednesday afternoons in the summer at the bookmobile.  Our city only had one library and we were not allowed to venture out quite that distance by ourselves, but the bookmobile came right into our neighborhood and parked itself in the elementary school parking lot for 4 hours.

We’d walk home with Nancy Drew books tucked under our arms, sit outside and read, each in our own little world, until another friend came along and suddenly we were off riding our bikes to the park.  I look back and see that there was always a nice balance, but I sure do remember the books.

I think being a library user taught me to read efficiently.  The books I borrowed had to be returned within three weeks.  If I didn’t finish one I could renew it, but only if no one had the same book reserved.

As I got older obviously my reading tastes changed but the mystery/horror genre has always remained one of my favorites.  Many of the authors I read as a teenager are still favorites after all these years.  Carrie led to my being a life-long Stephen King fan, Demon Seed ensured Dean Koontz a spot, and Graham Masterton earned his place on my list with The Manitou.  As the saying goes, inquiring minds want to know, thus there were a few questionable choices amongst the books as well.  I distinctly remember reading Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter.  When my girlfriend borrowed the book her mother confiscated it and would not let her give it back to me because it was inappropriate reading for girls of our age (high-school).  What would she have said if she knew that I had Xavier Hollander’s The Happy Hooker hidden away in the back of my closet?  I had enough sense to know even my mom would grab that one out of my hands if she saw me reading it.

On a little side note: I was surprised to discover that Xavier Hollander is still alive and well and running a Bed & Breakfast establishment in Amsterdam called The Happy House.  Whenever I have had the opportunity to find myself in a used bookstore lately I have been looking on the shelves for The Happy Hooker.  I downloaded a copy of the Story of O and would like to reread it and The Happy Hooker just to see if my memories of these two erotica classics match up to my virginal, much eroticized memories and whether they can be in any way compared to more contemporary entries, purely for reasons of personal curiosity, of course.

Needless to say my reading tastes are pretty eclectic.  Lately I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction binge, but there are three genres of which I, with a few exceptions, steer clear: westerns, novels about war and sci-fi.  I don’t even like western movies, so the books hold not appeal for me whatsoever.  War novels are too real.  I’ve tried to explain this to people before and it makes no sense to anyone but myself.  I can read horror stories where atrocities are leveled on all manners of unsuspecting victims and not flinch … well okay, sometimes I flinch and cringe … but generally, it doesn’t bother me.  I think I’ve become immune because they don’t even give me nightmares.  If I read a graphic description of the tortures of POW’s though, I feel my stomach start to tighten and churn.  I do not enjoy the read.  Not liking sci-fi is nothing but a case of laziness on my part.  Sci-fi, by its nature, takes place in far-away places during far-away times where nothing is familiar.  It takes too much effort on my part to keep the scenarios all sorted out in my mind.  And, don’t even get me started on the character’s names; those take entirely too much concentration.  I can’t keep Joolushkoo Tunei Fenta straight from Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan or differentiate between Utu Noranti Pralatong and Ghamina Atreides.  It makes my head spin and I find it not very conductive to a smooth and enjoyable reading experience.  As I said, there are a few exceptions.  Despite the fact that it was set during WWII I read and loved The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  I also read the complete Songs of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin and liked it very much.  I was once taken to task for calling it the Game of Thrones series and it was explained to me in NO uncertain terms that Game of Thrones is the television series NOT the book series.  So there!  Regardless, I did manage to get through the series, considered to be in the sci-fi genre, because I found it to have less of a futuristic and more of a medieval feel.

I also do not read the classics.  I have read some and listened to others on audio only because I think I should.  When I do read books such as Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice I enjoy them, but my personal feeling is that the books are so well known and the movies have been made and remade that I am already overly familiar with the story.  Why would I read the classic when there are so many current books I have to get through?  Just in case you are wondering – only on very rare occasions do I reread books.

I read about 50 books a year.  Several years ago I reluctantly, and with some very gentle persuasion allowed myself to be introduced to audio books.  I was always very sure I would hate them.  I was wrong.  When I was generously gifted an MP3 player and then discovered that my library had a vast and always growing number of audio books that could be downloaded, I was hooked.  With a half hour commute to and from work it adds one hour to my available “reading” time every day.  Now my “reads” have doubled so I read and review in the general area of 100 books every year.

‘Riting

I try and think back to when I actually starting posting reviews.  I wouldn’t swear to it but I think it began with the Chapters site.  I joined a group called “50 Books in (insert current year here)”.  Members were invited to post their reads with a short review about the book.  Good marketing ploy on the part of Chapters because often a book mentioned would appeal to others, hopefully prompting them to purchase the book.  I do purchase many books on their site and in their stores, but I get more from the library.  That’s my little secret … never, never, never to be mentioned in the review.

I looked back on some of my early reviews and have definitely noticed a change in the way I compose them.  My original reviews were short, consisting of three of four lines, the last sentence stating whether or not I enjoyed the book.  Over the years the reviews have become a little longer and more detailed.  I have also noticed that my reviews have started to follow a distinct pattern.  It simplifies the process.

I summarize the book in the first paragraph.  With respect to potential readers of the book I try not to include spoilers.  Sometimes it cannot be helped.  Reading other people’s reviews often helps me find future reads, but the one thing I find irritating is when the review writer goes into so much detail summarizing the story that by the time I reach the end I feel as if I have already read the book.  There is such a thing as too much information. 

My second paragraph includes various reasons for why the book appealed to me, or why it did not.  I may discuss the characters, the writing, or throw in an interesting tidbit I have learned about the author.  Done.  Although I try to give them a lot of thought, in the big picture it’s not really a huge time consuming, literary effort.  My problem stems from procrastinating and not writing the review as soon as I finish the book.  I have a notebook where I write down the title of the book, the author and sometimes the date I finished the book.  I usually wait until I have read 4 or 5 books and then take an afternoon and/or evening to write about the books and post the entry.

I am the first to admit this is not the best strategy.  Unless the book was outstanding or part of a favorite series the characters and plot get a little fuzzy.  In all likelihood I am 2 or 3 books removed from the one I am writing about.  If I own the book I simply flip to the book flap to refresh my memory.  If it was a library book then a few click of the keys delivers a short library “description”.  Then I’m good to go.

That brings to mind the biggest change I notice in reading strictly for pleasure as I do now and reading for class in school back in the day.  In high school one book may have been the curriculum for the whole term.  Boy, that book was analyzed to death.  It was read and reread, dissected within an inch of its life; we were quizzed, wrote reports and then were tested on the book.  Before the next reading assignment began I was so tired of the book I couldn’t bear to look at the cover any more.  Because I needed to, I remembered plot specifics and character names and quotes and place names, and time frames … I am sure you know what I am talking about.

Reading for pleasure is much better.  I can enjoy the book while I am immersed in the pages and then move on to the next book without any feelings of guilt for not remembering a week later exactly what happened or all the character names.  Have I ever picked up or purchased a book thinking I would enjoy it, only to discover I have read it already?  Absolutely!  It usually only takes a page or two (or twenty) for me to realize it sounds familiar.  My excuse – the remainder and bargain book shelves at the bookstore are to blame.  Just between me and you – duplicate purchases make wonderful birthday and Christmas gifts for co-workers or for those people that unexpectedly show up with a gift for you and you have nothing planned to reciprocate.  I don’t feel bad.  I mean if the book ended up on my shelf twice, it must be a good book!  Just sayin’.

I mentioned at the top of this (too long) essay that there is a small sense of trepidation before I hit the “post” button on a review, particularly on the Goodreads site.  Authors join the site and have been known to read the reviews of their books.  I have received messages from authors thanking me for a review I posted.  I always feel touched that they took the time to bother with a message.  I am sure not all authors read the postings and the authors that do cannot possibly read all of them.  But, it does not surprise me that some read them.  I would.  I was the kid in school who was never really happy with a grade at the top of the paper.  I wanted comments too.

The other half of the reluctance I feel before hitting the send button comes with posting a negative review.  It’s my opinion, and I know I am entitled to it, but what if no one else agrees with me.  I once posted a very uncomplimentary review of a book written by a favorite author.  It was a tough one to write and submit.

The day after I posted it there was a notification in my email inbox telling me that someone had commented on that particular review.  Without sounding like I am tooting my own horn, I do get a lot of “likes” on my reviews, but not too many comments.  This was a comment on a negative review.  Crap!  I was afraid to go onto the site to look at it, but at the same time, neither could I resist.  With great relief the comment read simply “You nailed it”.  Whew.

I think I’m fairly comfortable with the thought of submitting reviews now. Recently I received notification from Goodreads that I was in the top 1% of the reviewers on the site.  I am not certain how they arrived at that figure.  Is it quantity, quality or response?  Honestly, it doesn't matter, I was extremely pleased!  Hey, who doesn't like positive reinforcement?

Alas, with glory comes responsibility as I am now receiving messages from “new” or “self-published” authors asking if I would review their work.  I am not sure how they choose their prey and at first it was flattering, now it is becoming a little intrusive.  No offense to struggling artists trying to break into a tough business, but it they are self-published (wincing) there is usually a reason.  I feel a sense of obligation to read the book if they send it to me electronically.  There are a few problems with accepting the works:  I have yet to find a hidden gem, I do not enjoy reading on my e-reader (and yes that topic could be whole other blog) and I don’t feel I have enough time to read the books I personally choose.  With great difficulty I have started to say “no thank you” to their requests.

‘Rithmetic

The sites on which I post are not content with my reviews being shared, they have to throw in a curveball and expect me to rate the book with stars as well.  On the surface it seems like an easy thing to do, but things are never as simple as they appear.  You see, there are five stars from which to choose.  One star signifies I “really didn’t like it” and five stars indicate I “loved it”.  One or three or five … I hate making that decision.  It’s just too ambiguous!  It’s akin to being asked to rank your level of pain when you go the hospital.  Compared to someone else my pain level may feel like a six, but for me right there, right then it feels like a 12, so just make it go away and stop asking me stupid questions about numbers.


I may pick up a non-fiction book because the topic interests me at the time or the subject matter reflects something currently going on in my life.  Since the book is satisfying a need I have for information it is serving a purpose.  If the book imparts the information I was looking for it will get 5 stars because it met my expectations.  Where the issue starts to get cloudy is the fact that another reader will see 5 stars, assume that it is the most brilliant book ever written on that particular subject, pick it up with a completely different expectation and hate it.  Whoops!

A book that is part of series may receive 4 stars because I enjoy the series, the story moved the characters forward and it’s just fun for me to revisit the familiar.  Seeing 4 stars may entice someone to pick up the book without the background of the previous entries in the series and not understand what the heck is going on.  Whoops again!  Or, and here I speak from personal experience, they may love it and decide to catch up by reading the previous books.  In that case, “your welcome” publisher!  Please do not send me recommendations – I do not have the time to get involved in yet another series (she said again and again).

I hesitantly admit that I sometimes get caught up in the hoopla of an outstanding marketing campaign, Twilight for example.  Sorry, but I just couldn’t get on the bandwagon.  Had I even been able to finish the book it would have received 1 star.  I’m quite certain a wagon ride out of town involving tar and feathers would have been in my future.

Sometimes I like the story but find glaring errors in the text while reading the book.  I can forgive the occasional spelling mistake (typos being a particular specialty of mine) but a gross error in the continuity of the story or an outright mistake in information makes me grind my teeth.  I once read a description of the main character receiving an email that so upset her she had to walk away from her computer to calm down.  On the following page she returned to reread the message and was described as “picking up the letter to read it again”.  It was an email … she never printed it off … there was no letter to pick up!  I know it’s petty, but we avid readers demand a certain level of excellence.  Recently I was reading a book where the character was explaining the reason she and some friends were on their way to Washington.  It seems they had read about Gettysburg in one of their Thursday night ladies book club selections and decided to take a field trip and visit the place about which they were reading.  Hmm?  Now I’ve been to Gettysburg.  Admittedly I was not driving, so I didn’t pay close attention to road signs, but I would pretty much swear to the fact that I was not in Washington.  One less star for those books.

I’m sure you can see my dilemma; 1,2,3,4 or 5 stars is just too much pressure.  Thinking about it now, a negative star system might be more effective?  Nah – same pressure, just in reverse.


I guess the bottom line is that I enjoy reading.  I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s make believe and I enjoy sharing that with others who may get a little enjoyment out of the same books.  It’s very satisfying to think that someone would fall in love with a book that I, in some small way, was responsible for them picking up in the first place.


Originally posted on 09/22/2013

AUTHOR EVENTS - Charlotte Gray

My reading tastes are fairly eclectic.  Two things I do enjoy are true crime books and books that have locales with which I am familiar.  The Massey Murder combines those two things in a readable and informative book.  (my complete review of the book can be found on Goodreads).

As I was reading the book I had one of those "wait a minute" moments that made me Google the Massey Mansion to see if I was correct.  I was!  The Massey Mansion is now The Keg Mansion in Toronto and I have enjoyed dinner there.  I thought that was pretty cool!  No wonder the restaurant is rumored to be haunted.

I was off to my local library again when I heard that Charlotte Gray and Edward Greenspan, one of Canada's best known criminal defense attorney's, were going to be there discussing The Massey Murder not only as a book but the case itself.  Mr. Greenspan discussed how he would have defended Carrie Davies.  It was a riveting discussion and I was surprised at how much humour Mr. Greenspan displayed.  At the risk of being accused of stereotyping I wasn't expecting it.  Sadly, not long after the event Mr. Greenspan passed away, so I was even more pleased to have been able to hear him speak.
































Ms. Gray's book The Massey Murder was chosen as the Waterloo Region One Book - One Community read for 2014.