Monday, December 26, 2011

the year that went pear-shaped

Because I also went pear-shaped. And then rather suddenly stopped being pear-shaped, well before I'd intended to. But a year it has been, making this the third year I have been blogging. It really doesn't seem like that long, but it seems like I've had this blog forever.

This was a weird reading year. A weird pregnancy can do that to one. Probably a regular one, too, but I wouldn't know... At any rate, I spent a lot of energy just trying to make it through the days and did not so much reading for significant periods of time from March - May. In June I got my second wind, but one book ate all of July, and then suddenly fishy and I were three.

Interestingly, being three has meant I do a fair bit more reading. Since at first we were spending a lot of time in the hospital just sitting, that makes sense. Now that smallfry is home, I certainly do spend less time reading, but not as much less as I'd expected at first. The big kicker is lack of energy, which is as bad now as it was in the first months of pregnancy, and my brain feels smooshier than I'd like to admit. But reading keeps me somewhat sane and in touch with things other than diapers and weight gains. Reviewing even more so. A lovely development these past few months sees fishy blogging his reading too, which has encouraged me to be a better blogger; there's a nice synergy happening.

(Incidentally, I am also really pleased to report that smallfry doesn't seem to be suffering much from her early entrance. She's growing normally, has no serious complications, and though she's about the size and developmental age of a two-month-old instead of a four-month-old, that kind of difference tends to be less and less noticeable as she gets older.)

So! Let's look at the numbers. Unsurprisingly, I haven't matched even last year's somewhat diminished output (input?) but what I've read I've generally enjoyed.

Books read in the past year: 47
Fiction read: 35
Nonfiction read: 12
Adult books read: 35
Young adult books read: 4
Middle-grade books read: 8
Canadian books read: 6
Graphic novels read: 3
Audiobooks listened to: 3
Series started: 9
Series completed: 1

And, because I've got Jean-Luc PiKobo now:
Ebooks read: 8

And, as I said I would last year, I did keep track of the nationality of the authors of the books I read, aside from the Canadian ones:
American books read: 27
British books read: 13
Japanese books read: 1

Next year I'd like to keep track of the decade the book was originally written in. Because I like numbers, you know, and it's interesting to keep track of this stuff. I used to say that I don't really read new releases, but it looks (from the brief overview I've done) that I read more newer books than I think I do. Keeping track of the nationality of the authors I read was interesting, too, because I didn't realize I was quite that American-heavy. Not that I plan to change my reading habits; life is too short for me to worry about that sort of thing, to be honest. But it's interesting to know what the shape of my reading is like, so that I'm aware of my biases when I'm helping other people find things to read.

As with last year, some of my favourite reads of the year, in the order that I read them:

  • Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson - Hands down my favourite book club read of the year (for my parent-child book club) and possibly one of the best books I've ever read. Sweet, gentle, quiet and slow and introspective without being boring. Read this touching little book even if you have no children to read it with.
  • Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson - I wouldn't recommend this for everyone because it's a bit dry and the topic is a little obscure, but I quite liked it. It was a very cool survey of collections of the written word in the precursors to Western culture from Ashurbanipal to the beginning of the Middle Ages. Not a long book, but great to read about the very beginnings of my chosen field.
  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins - I've been meaning to read this for a while, and finally did. And am I ever glad I did! Despite the fact that Collins was a contemporary of Dickens, I found Collins much easier to swallow, and reading what is often considered to be the original detective novel was both instructive and a lot of fun.
  • The City and the City by China MiĆ©ville - As my first experience with MiĆ©ville, this couldn't have gone better. Combining my love of mystery and fantasy so elegantly, this book still worms its way into my head every once in a while so long after reading it.
  • Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf - A book that I read partially for work and partially for interest that I absolutely wish everyone could read; alas, I don't think it will happen. It's not an easy read, though inspiring in its challenges. Wonderfully written book about the way reading changes the brain and the way it changes our culture.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - Yet another book that I think may be a favourite read of all time (I've done really well this year!) It was a remarkable, smart book, with an interesting plot and really wonderful characters. Also very funny. A great case of the right book at the right time.
  • The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker - A completely understated yet wonderful book written for the middle-grade reader. I'll be using this one with my parent-child book club if I can get funding to purchase enough copies. It's sweet, fascinating and a great adventure story, perfect for kids of all ages with good imaginations.
  • Witches Abroad by Sir Terry Pratchett (review pending) - Of course there has to be a Discworld book on this list! This book pulled me out of my latest slump in grand style. I love Granny Weatherwax, and this book is pretty well focused on her relationships with her fellow witches. Funny, clever, and meatier than appears at first glance. Had some excellent laugh-out-loud moments.

Overall, this was a pretty good year, I have to say. I've tried to trim the above list and there are still eight books on there. So, though my numbers were down, more of what I read was quality, I think.

Just for fun, let's have a look at the TBR to see what I have pending immediately. Of the nine books I reported being on tap last year, I actually managed to read five of them, and one I started but it turned out to be a DNF; this is pretty good, considering that I'll often have plans to read a book next and then find myself glaring at it for sitting there and mocking me for not being in the mood to read it when its turn is up. This year's list for what is coming up soon (followed by their TBR list number):

  • Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn (938)
  • Wimbledon Green by Seth (not on list)
  • A Room With a View by E. M. Forster (767)
  • The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters (918)
  • At Large and at Small by Anne Fadiman (not on list)
  • The ABCs of Literacy by Cynthia Dollins (662)
  • The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (959)
  • Reaper Man by Sir Terry Pratchett (891)

Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. I enjoy posting, and it helps me to keep reading and keep writing, which I think especially right now helps to keep my brain a little sharper than it would be otherwise. The fact that I have readers is a nice bonus, and those of you who comment are such lovely people! (I'm sure the rest of you are nice, too. You don't need to comment, but I'm glad you read. I'm a champion blog lurker myself.)

I hope you're all enjoying your holidays if you have them, and looking ahead to a fantastic new year filled with good books.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

first lines meme 2011

Wow, I can't believe I'm putting together this post already. But Melanie has already posted hers over at The Indextrious Reader, which makes me realize that yes, there are no more months in 2011... we are rapidly closing in on the end of the year.

And what a year. It's been significantly less reading for me, but I've still managed to post at least one review a month, so that's a good thing. And I've read some brilliant stuff this year. But that will be saved for my yearly "taking stock" post... this is just a fun exercise to have a look at where I was this year, month by month.

At one point I described this book to fishy as "Like Monty Python, but less subtle."

I like history, and I like libraries.

And now back to our regular programming.

Hello blog.

We went on vacation.

Mmm, good book hangover.

"How miraculous it is that the brain can go beyond itself, enlarging both its functions and our intellectual capacities in the process."

I find this book a little hard to review.

Well. So, this is an entry I didn't really expect to write for some time, which will tell you what the past two weeks of my life has been like.

This slim little volume is comprised of two stories: "Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy" and "The Bohemian Astrobleme" both of which feature a character named Lady Beatrice.

So, I can't say that it was Connie Willis who introduced me to the idea of reading Sayers; that was Nymeth, quite a long time ago.

I came across this title first in the Guardian, which was reporting that it had won the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance in 2009.

And that's it! I like this meme because it always gives me a chance to go over my reading year and reflect a little before I try to get detailed for my yearly celebration-of-the-year-past-blogiversary post. Actually, this year it's quite effective; you can see where I was struggling a bit March - August, and then the first entry of September explains quite effectively why. This year definitely feels a little pear-shaped, but as opposed to last year, I think the last four months of blogging have been a little more energized, compared to the way I fizzled out in the last half of last year. I'm certainly reading more, and I also have fishy to bounce ideas and entries off -- it's funny, now that he's reviewing more, I seem to feel I have to up my game a bit.

Head on over to Melanie's blog at The Indextrious Reader to see more first lines!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James

Talking About Detective Fiction
by P. D. James
Knopf, 2009
198 pages

When I was growing up, my mother had a shelf full of P.D. James. I used to take the books down and look at them, fascinated by the highly stylized and candy-coloured blood drops on the covers. I particularly liked Shroud for a Nightingale and Cover Her Face, if I recall correctly. Later on I read Cover Her Face, and enjoyed it quite a lot, though I haven't picked up anything else by her since. I can't say why.

But at night now, with smallfry being Very Awake because she prefers sleeping in to going to bed early (she is a child after her parents' own hearts) fishy and I have started reading to each other. And as we're both interested in reading and writing, and both fans of mysteries, P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction seemed like a great place to go. fishy had already read it once, but he was doing some thinking about detective stories and wanted to read it again anyways.

Really, one couldn't ask for a better, more well-informed and well-read overview of the genre. James has the additional advantage of a long life lived; for example, she was reading the Golden Age detective novels as they came out, long before she thought to write a mystery of her own. This book isn't what I would call a guide, exactly, though she certainly has recommendations and in-depth discussions about some of the key works and players in detective fiction over the years. It goes approximately chronologically from Wilkie Collins to the Golden Age to modern detective fiction, does a bit of a side-trip through the American hardboiled sub-genre and spends a good chunk of time talking about the four grand ladies of the Golden Age (Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, and Christie), offering personal notes and observations on the genre as well as the observations of other critics and writers, and observations on literature and writing in general.

What makes this book great as opposed to just good and interesting is James' writing. She has a wonderful, distinct style, somewhat chatty but always impeccable, and she also has a very dry sense of humour that sneaks its way into the writing. As we were reading to each other, every once in a while one of us would laugh out loud. It's not always an easy book to read aloud; some of her sentence structures are a little convoluted, such that you'd start reading a sentence and it would turn out to be something completely different and by the end you'd have lost where you were supposed to put the emphasis... but generally the writing is clear and smart. It gives me high hopes for Death Comes to Pemberley, which I am quite looking forward to reading at some point in the future -- my favourite Austen characters couldn't be in better hands.

It doesn't hurt to have one of the grand masters of the genre take you for a bit of a tour of the last hundred and fifty years; P.D. James knows her stuff, has read a lot of books, and is cheerfully opinionated about the topic. As a librarian, I know that mystery is one of the most enduring and popular genres on the shelves, and James gives a pretty good argument as to why this is and should be the case. All in all, I'd recommend this little volume to anyone interested in detective or crime fiction, or anyone interested in literature in general even if you're not (or don't think you are) a fan of detective novels. Particularly recommended for people who work with the reading public and can't figure out why mysteries are so popular; this book will give you a direct line to why.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fer-de-lance by Rex Stout

by Rex Stout
Bantam, 2008 (originally published in 1934)
285 pages

This was, like White Rapids, another suggestion from fishy as a book we could both read and then discuss. We've both been enjoying crime fiction, and I've particularly been enjoying classic crime fiction (see: Sayers, Conan Doyle) and so he encouraged me to try this out. Rex Stout was America's answer to the Golden Age Brits, writing a detective novel set on this side of the pond with a unique creature at its heart. It's not quite of the Chandler/Hammett hardboiled persuasion, nor is it cozy like a Christie. It's somewhere in between.

One of Nero Wolfe's contract footmen comes by with a friend of his wife's. Maria's brother Carlos has gone missing, and she's worried something has happened to him, but the police are useless. Before long, it becomes clear that Carlos was a piece in a much bigger, more sinister, and more incredible puzzle. Archie Goodwin, our narrator and Nero Wolfe's right-hand (and both legs) man, sets off to bring the clues and his impressions to Wolfe, and Wolfe exercises his formidable intellect while remaining relatively stationary in his New York brownstone.

This book wasn't what I was expecting, either the plot or the characters. I was thinking it would be something closer to the lines of a cozy, Golden Age British novel, with a detective who does what he does out of joy or out of a sense of what is right. Wolfe, however, is far more mercenary than I ever expected. I'm much more used to the altrusitic detective, who does what he does because he can't let the bad guys win. I was thinking that Wolfe is probably the most self-interested detective I've encountered, but it occurs to me that Holmes is pretty self-interested too, just in different ways. Wolfe does what he does for money (maybe a bit for fun, but mostly for money) and Holmes does what he does because it's a compulsion to solve puzzles. Holmes only takes the interesting cases, and Wolfe, it appears, would only bother taking the cases where there was a chunk of cash in it for him. This, among other things, makes it difficult to like Wolfe, but he certainly is interesting.

Archie, on the other hand, is a little more familiar -- he works for Wolfe out of a passion for the work, I think, and out of a need to do right. He is our narrator, our Watson to Wolfe's Holmes, but he's also more than that. And I was quite enamoured with him. He's a little rough around the edges, and his descriptions and manner of speaking are more in line with something I would expect of Philip Marlowe. But he's got a big, surprisingly gentle heart, and his relationship with Wolfe is fascinating and rocky but with a deep affection at its core, and he's smart -- though, like Watson, his intelligence is deeply overshadowed by Wolfe's genius and he knows it. Also, unlike Watson, Archie isn't afraid to criticize the object of his admiration; far from it. I haven't met a character like Archie Goodwin before, and I really, really liked him.

It's in Archie's characterization, his narration, that Stout's genius comes through. The writing is clever and full of vibrant life and great descriptions (thank you, Rex Stout, for reintroducing the word "corpulent" to my regular lexicon), but the author himself has disappeared; it's all Archie. There is a surfeit of telling here -- we are shown everything, from Wolfe's fascinating eccentricities to Archie's kindness and intelligence. The plot is a rather typical Golden Age-type plot, with a bizarre and incredible murder and melodramatic motive (and unfortunately, racist overtones that might have fit with the target readers at the time but jar with me now), but the narration elevates this book above many of its contemporaries, and it's easy for me to see why Stout's work is still in print.

Due almost entirely to Archie, I could see reading the next in the series, despite the fact that Fer-de-Lance was a little bit out of my usual comfort zones. Unfortunately, fishy has informed me that brilliant writing that I so admired in this first book begins to fade as Stout finds his groove and his audience a few books in, and so perhaps I will avoid reading too much further, to preserve my contentment.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People
by Farahad Zama
Amy Einhorn Books, 2009
293 pages

I came across this title first in the Guardian, which was reporting that it had won the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance in 2009. I like comedy romance. Plus it was set in India, plus it was written by a man. Both are rather unusual characteristics for romance, or at least the romances I usually read, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I am not sure I'd read it again, but I'd recommend it to someone who wanted a light romance that was a little different.

Mr. Ali is a retired gentleman who has decided, because his wife needs him to be doing something other than hanging around the house making her life difficult, to open a marriage bureau. Chapter by chapter we meet the characters who need his help finding a suitable match, as well as his wife, his son, and some of his friends. As he becomes busier, he needs some help around the office, and Mrs. Ali finds him an assistant in the young, talented Aruna. Aruna has her own troubles and own story.

I think the major problem was that, once again thanks to stupid blurbs, I was expecting something that this book simply is not. One of the blurbs on the back of the book suggests that "If Jane Austen had been lucky enough to set foot in modern-day India, she would have written The Marriage Bureau for Rich People." Which... no. Just no. It's an incredibly different piece from anything Austen wrote, different in style, different in feel, different in plot, different in character. It bears almost no resemblance to Austen aside from the fact that there is a romance between two young people and it's complicated by social mores. And maybe the fact that we don't get to the romance until much further along in the book.

My first impression was that The Marriage Bureau for Rich People reads like a book about India written for people who aren't from India, which I suspect is not far off the mark. It can be a little explainy: of customs, of behaviours, of attitudes, of religions, of foods, of daily life in the city of Vizag. Since I'm not from India, nor at all familiar with really any of it except the North-Americanized version of delicious Indian food and a very little bit of surface knowledge about some of the other aspects, I actually quite enjoyed this primer. I just wasn't expecting a primer, so it took me some time to get into it. And sometimes the book was a bit heavy on the telling versus the showing in general, as though the descriptions of Indian life spilled over into the descriptions of character and plot.

There's another comparison on the back of the jacket, this one to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and this is much more apt. There is an episodic feel to the book: Mr. Ali, our matchmaker, meets prospective clients in each chapter and so we meet them too, and he solves a problem or finds a match or just generally interacts with them. Many of them pop up again later, but some don't. Then, in addition to these little vignettes, there are two overarching plots that get their starts early in the book but don't come to fruition until the end. Well, and one of the plots doesn't really resolve, exactly, though one thinks there might be a resolution on the horizon. I would definitely recommend this book to people who have liked Mma Ramotswe and the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Overall, a sweet story with interesting flavours, a pleasant pace, and a satisfying ending. Light but not necessarily fluffy, this is a charming book to while away an afternoon or three for someone looking for a romance that's a little different from the usual fare and not the central aspect of the book, or for those of you who really like descriptions of food, or someone looking for a window into daily life in Visakhapatnam, India.