Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

by Kathryn Erskine
Philomel Books, 2010
256 pages

I was expecting a somewhat intense read from this one, a bit of a heart-wrencher, even. I wasn't quite expecting the punch in the gut I got when I realized what had happened to Caitlin's brother. And then I read the Author's Note (quite appropriately, thankfully, placed at the end of the book) and realized that what I hadn't expected was in fact central to the conceptualization of the novel; not an aside, as I had thought prior to reading the book, but the reason Erskine wrote Mockingbird in the first place. Makes me realize that my After School Club and I are going to have a hell of a discussion when they're done reading this one. I'm really curious to see what they thought. Consensus from the few who have finished it is LOVE. That includes one of the parents, who said she bawled through her breaks at work because she couldn't put it down once she'd picked it up out of curiosity.

Hard to talk about this without spoilers, and I'm glad it wasn't spoiled for me, so I'll try not to spoil it for you.

However, those of you who have read this and want to discuss, I declare comments a spoiler zone. Be warned. (Also, be warned that the Wikipedia page for the book is a veritable minefield.)

Instead, I can talk about what everyone knows from the summary of the novel: Caitlin is a ten-year-old girl with Asperger's syndrome. She's bright, loves to read, and is an amazing artist, but she's socially inept. She can't figure out people, and she's not sure she wants to bother. Especially now that Devon, her older brother who always explained things to her, like why she can't do certain things and why she has to do others, is dead. Devon's gone and Caitlin's father is sad, and Caitlin is adrift in a world that doesn't make sense to her without anyone to help her navigate it; all she has is her trusty Dictionary, a list of things she's really good at, a school counsellor, and Devon's memory to help her along.

Mockingbird is told from a perspective that feels at times pretty alien, but Erskine does an excellent job of making Caitlin relatable. I'll be curious to see what the kids think about the perspective, and how they feel about the idea of a writer trying to put herself in the shoes of someone with such a different way of seeing the world; it's a question I always struggle with, myself. Caitlin's voice does feel real, and the portrayal of her mental processes is nuanced and careful without feeling over-cautious. But... is it... authentic? Is that really the way people with Asperger's view the world? And if it's not... where does that leave us? Does it matter? I struggle with this. I would struggle with this further here, but the fact that I've written the next two paragraphs of this review four times and never once been articulate myself well enough to publish it suggests perhaps this isn't the time.

Suffice to say, I am curious about the perspective, and I am cautious for a whole multitude of reasons, but I think that it did work for what Erskine set out to do. Because it is in our nature as readers to try and understand and connect with the narrator of the books we read, especially first person narrators, we want to understand and connect with Caitlin, even though she has a very different way of viewing the world. Putting the reader in someone else's shoes is exactly what Erskine wanted to do. And though it is clear that Erskine works hard to make that connection possible, it's also true that she, as the author, disappears; I never felt her hand guiding me, I only heard Caitlin's voice.


And this is where I come to the part where I didn't unreservedly love the book. I did think it was largely excellent, and I did think it was ambitious, and the kids reading it in my group are really, really connecting with it. It's way out of my own comfort zone, because I don't like reading sad books and I'm not wild about contemporary, realistic drama. I've never liked stories about bad things happening to children, and having one of my own has made it doubly hard. That's all in the realm of "I know it happens, I don't particularly need fiction to bring it home to me. I'm anxious enough as it is." But I'm not sorry I read Mockingbird, because it was powerful and it was meaningful and, as I've said, I think the discussions already starting to come out of it with the kids in my After School Club are going to be worth the psychological discomfort.

BUT. There were a couple of times where I was painfully aware I was reading fiction, and fiction dealing with Issues. Particularly in regards to one of the characters, Josh, cast as one of the villains of the piece; I'm not sure the piece needed villains. And of course Josh isn't really a villain, just another kid dealing with a difficult situation. It's that of course that's the problem -- he felt like he was in there to provide discussion fodder, not as a character himself. Even worse, though, was Caitlin's arc towards the end of the book. It felt too easy, too pat, too solved. Too much like there was going to be a happily ever after, and while of course I love happily ever afters, this one felt too easy and too fast and therefore rang false. And not just in relation to the closure she was seeking, but more in relation to her Asperger's, and that was where I had a lot of trouble, and what brought my roaring discomfort with Asperger's-as-storytelling-convention to the fore. Despite all this, I didn't finish the book with a bad taste in my mouth. However, I also didn't bawl my eyes out, or even shed a tear. The overall impact of the book did suffer for me.

The flaws will be worth discussing too. I want to know if the kids felt the same way, saw the same things, or if they are so deeply in love with the book that they just swallowed it whole (I know this is my tendency with books I've loved.) I'll have to be careful not to be the grinch who picks apart a beloved book, but I think I can discuss it from a place of respect and interest.

So, recommended, but especially recommended if you've got someone to discuss it with. Not the most brilliant book I've ever read, but well-written, ambitious, and worth reading even with its flaws.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill

The Coroner's Lunch
by Colin Cotterill
Soho, 2004
272 pages

I don't think I could have asked for a better way to start the year. This series of mysteries about Dr. Siri Paiboon, Head Coroner for the fledgling communist regime in Laos in the 1970s, has been on my radar for a long time. I decided to pick the first one up for my mother for Christmas, as she's always on the lookout for new mystery series; I decided I'd better read it first before I gave it to her, to make sure it was as good as the internet whispers suggested. (In my defence: I read a library copy, not the shiny new one that arrived for her!) And it was as good as I had hoped. Maybe even better.

A lot of the buzz around Dr. Siri suggests some sort of relation to Mma Ramotswe of No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency fame. I find this a bit misleading, because though there are some similarities, the tone of the books is completely different. Both do feature protagonists who have lived full lives before coming to their own as detectives, who aren't particularly concerned about the establishment and authority, and both are set in locales far different from the vast, vast majority of English-language mysteries out there. But I think the similarities stop there, really, and I almost find it a bit... irksome that because these two series are set in different "exotic" locations they get lumped together by critics.

This book, at least, was a lot darker, and the pacing was faster, and the stakes were higher than I recall from No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (and yes, I did really like that book too, but it's a very different animal.) People die. In unpleasant ways. Siri is doing a complex dance of trying to get to the truth and trying to work within a new system that hasn't really figured itself out yet. He's dealing with political intrigue as much as individual cases. In some ways, though, it is also deceptively gentle; Siri himself is a wryly observant, obstinate, and compassionate soul with a crusty exterior. He's not afraid of much, even the things he should be, but he does worry about those around him.

Dr. Siri Paiboon happens to be the last qualified (and we use this term loosely) person left in Laos to be head coroner after the victory of the communist rebels over the monarchy. Everyone else with the necessary education has fled the country. After being part of the cause for 40 years, he had assumed he'd get to rest to the end of his days -- he is 72, after all, decades older than the average life expectancy of his countrymen. But he is pressed into service despite the fact that he's never performed an autopsy in his life, and he's not particularly pleased to have to start now. Hampered by lack of supplies, experience, and co-operation from his superiors at the Justice Department, Siri sets out to do the best job he can with what he has. Things plod along slowly until one Mrs. Nitnoy, wife of a senior official in the new government, shows up in his freezer -- and is just as quickly hustled out by her now widowed husband, before Siri has the chance to finish his autopsy and his report.

And that's not all. Before long, Siri has someone who might have been a top-secret Vietnamese diplomat on his table, and a couple of senior military officials who died very, very strangely are waiting for him in the south of the country... and Siri is about to be busier, and in a lot more trouble, than he has been in a long, long time.

I am having trouble writing this review largely because I don't want it to be ten thousand words long. The summary is bare-bones, and look at the size of it! There is a lot of complexity here in this relatively short book.

I really, really enjoyed this read, more than I expected to once I realized that it wasn't just straight forensic mystery. Because Siri isn't just a coroner and a scientist and a very sharp amateur detective, but he also happens to see the spirits of the dead in his dreams. I wasn't sure how that was going to work for me when it popped up pretty much in the second chapter. And then it got weirder and I was carried along with the flow, because it all grew out of the plot and characters and setting so organically. I have nothing against fantasy, but I do have trouble when I'm not expecting my straight-up mysteries and fantasy to cross (see: Maisie Dobbs.) But here, Siri's visions didn't feel out of place or odd, nor did they feel at all deus ex machina. Even when things got really weird in the middle of the book, I was right there along for the ride. It didn't have a fantasy feel to me. And I think I can put this down to two things: it felt culturally appropriate, and the fact that even though he gets visions, nothing is spelled out for Siri. He still has to figure the clues out, and so does the reader. It's just that some of the clues don't happen to have been spotted in the corporeal realm.

The bones of this book are excellent. Cotterill has a real grasp on the time and place and culture, and he's creative with his characters, and his plots (there are several) are twisted and thrilling and deftly managed. The writing is funny (often very funny) without making fun, descriptive while managing a wonderful concision, and there is a dry factuality about all of it, mixed with the colour of the Laotian language and culture, that really works. The setting feels foreign, as it should to me, but without ever making me feel like I couldn't understand what was going on, or that I couldn't connect with the humans populating the story. Cotterill is both clear-eyed and respectful.

The only thing that didn't work for me, although I can understand why he did it, was the extreme ending of the story. The last few lines. And the reason those didn't work was because it felt a little forced-cliffhanger to me, where I could have been quite happy if those same few lines had turned up at the beginning of the next book. I wouldn't have felt manipulated. That said, it's a small transgression, relatively, and easily forgiven. I can hardly wait to read the next book, Thirty-Three Teeth. Except that I have about a million other series I really should try to read from, too...

Recommended for mystery readers, and armchair travellers. Yes, if you liked Mma Ramotswe, you'll probably like this too. But you'll also like it if you like political intrigue, forensic mysteries, and historical fiction.

Friday, January 4, 2013

the year that was missing a few months

They say that time speeds up as you get older. I remember summers, for example, being ages and ages long; days that went by like molasses in which there never seemed to be enough activities to fill the hours and boredom would set in. As an adult, I find summers go by in the blink of an eye, and I have a list of things I'd like to do as long as my arm by the time a day is over. So this is my excuse for missing posting entirely for three months this year: April, August and September have nothing at all going on, as far as blogging went. The days were too short. Of course, that doesn't mean that nothing was happening. I was even reading during that time, but for the first time ever I didn't blog each book I read. I discussed the completed books in my annotated list, but part of me still feels almost guilty for never getting around to doing those books justice (Bird and Reaper Man in particular.) I even forgot a few for that list and have never bothered recording them publicly.

In the past year I've gone back to work, after several months of waffling about whether or not I wanted it at all; it's been both a blessing and a curse. It turns out that taking a year away from your job means missed opportunities and vast changes, all of which I am still, after four months of being back, trying to catch up on. That's hard. (It also shouldn't be shocking. But the knowledge and the reality are totally separate things.) That said, I'm loving the day-to-day work -- seeing my regular patrons again, helping people with big questions and small ones, advising people on what to read next, and having tens of thousands of titles at my fingertips is all as awesome as I remembered it being. I'm running more programs than I ever have, including a new after school book club for an age group I've never had success drawing in, and my other book clubs are taking off like wildfire. Being back at work has inspired me to get back to blogging and reading, too.

The work/not-work split has meant that looking back at January of last year I feel almost as though I'm a different person from the person who wrote those reviews and read those books. Perhaps putting together this post will help unify things. Numbers! I still love them!

Books read in the past year: 54
Fiction read: 53
Nonfiction read: 1 (really?!)
Adult books read: 21
Young adult books read: 31
Middle-grade books read: 2
Graphic novels read: 23
Audiobooks listened to: 2
eBooks read: 13
Series started: 8
Series finished: 0 (though there are several of the above series I'm not intending to go any further with)

Canadian: 4
Japanese: 23
American: 21
British: 5
South African: 1
Brazilian: 1

Books read by decade:
2010: 17
2000: 30
1990: 4
1980: 3
1930: 1

Aaand... I have to admit I'm surprised by some of those numbers. I can't believe I only read one nonfiction book in the whole of 2012. That seems crazy. I really like nonfiction. But it must be true. I'm also a little startled by how little Canadian fiction and nonfiction I managed to read last year. I don't pay a lot of attention to that sort of thing, but I do try to read locally, at least a little bit. Apparently I need to try a little harder. It occurs to me that most of the nonfiction I read does tend to be Canadian, so if I'm not reading as much nonfiction, I'm probably not reading as much Canadian.

Incidentally, though it looks like I read more books than last year, those numbers are heavily padded with manga series -- seven books of The Story of Saiunkoku and fourteen of Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle. And while I believe those books have a place on my list, they are short and generally easy reads, and it makes my tally look more impressive than I feel it is.

Beyond the numbers, here are my favourite reads of the year in the order I read them:

  • The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa - The one Japanese book that I read that wasn't manga, and such a wonderful book it was, too. Slow, and not a lot happens, but beautiful in writing and beautiful in character. Has to be the only book about baseball that I've ever actually enjoyed. Possibly the only book about math that I have ever finished. A very special book that makes one look at the world with fresh eyes.
  • The Story of Saiunkoku (manga series) by Sai Yukino and Kairi Yura (review of Volume 8 pending) - I am enjoying this series so very much! The art is great, but it's the story and the characters who have me hooked. Shurei is a fantastically determined woman, and if some of the plot points stretch believability (okay, that's putting it mildly) that's all part of the fun. Feel good storytelling with enough excitement and [melo]drama to keep me on my toes.
  • Lakeland by Alan Casey - My only nonfiction of the year! But it deserves a place on this list for more than that reason. It's well-written, engaging, and about a topic near and dear to my heart. Very Canadian, but not necessarily exclusive; a good primer for anyone wanting to know more about Canada, as it delves into our collective psyche well.
  • Green Grass, Running Water by Tom King - A great, and different, reading experience. Reads more like an oral story than a novel in some ways, and navigates those waters well. About a segment of the Canadian population that is poorly understood by the rest of us and poorly treated, but the book doesn't wallow in self-pity. Also extremely funny. Probably should be required reading for Canadians, especially right now.
  • The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker - A surprise, and am I ever glad I saved it from the ignominy of being discarded into the rubbish heap when we did some aggressive weeding of our library collection a couple months ago. For whatever reason, no one seemed to be reading this in my community, and that's a shame. It's a quirky little book with a fantastic narrator and a lot to say about little things. 

Not bad, for a year missing a couple of months. There is a notable lack of Discworld on this list. I did read Reaper Man and of all of the books I read this year, it was certainly a good one; but I didn't get around to reviewing it, and in the Discworld canon I wouldn't suggest it was one of my favourites. Don't get me wrong, though, I'd read it again. And probably will.

As always, the TBR list looms. Looking at last year's list, I actually checked off three of the eight I meant to read immediately, which isn't bad... the others either got started and left unfinished because they weren't working for me at the time (three) and some of them never got started (the remaining two). Actually, the following list might be better classified as a list of books I have started and hope to finish sometime this year. I have discovered that e-readers really facilitate starting books and dropping them, forgotten. I don't think this is a good thing.

  • Paradise Under Glass by Ruth Kassinger
  • Small Gods by Sir Terry Pratchett
  • The Silver Pigs by Lindsay Davis
  • The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress
  • The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill
  • Venetia by Georgette Heyer
  • The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters

Lots of mystery on that list. And one book of nonfiction! Hopefully that won't be the only one all year...

Thanks again to all of you who wander by regularly to read about what I think about what I've read. I'm returning the favour if you've left a comment or two and have a blog of your own... I just might be lurking instead of commenting. And this year I'm okay with that. I'm hoping to read more books, write more reviews... those are my two goals for the year, and I'm leaving it at that. Low pressure, and I'm more likely to be able to manage it!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

first lines meme 2012

Even though I'm a little late with it this year, I always enjoy this post. It's a fun way to hop through time and get a fairly decent sample of what was happening in my reading year. This year, for example, one will note the ENORMOUS GAP in the middle. I fell off the reading/blogging train and landed face-first in the having-a-kid-who-still-doesn't-sleep-through-the-night mud. (I'm still somewhere down there, but clinging to the train with my fingertips...) Getting back to work has been great for my reading, though, as I'm trying to keep up with the book clubs with mixed success, and thinking more carefully about the books I do manage to read.

This is a yearly exercise Melanie put together over at The Indextrious Reader -- pop over and give hers a look too. In short, sift through your blogging year and pick the first line of the first entry of every month and collect them in one place.

Witches Abroad was the Discworld novel I read just before I discovered how wonderful the Discworld is.

First of all, free eBook.

Who would have thought that I would have become so enchanted by a book about math and baseball?

Oh my lord, I thought I was never going to read anything again.

I have got to get this review finished and posted.

What a lovely, lovely book.

I have come to the reluctant conclusion that I am never going to catch up on my book reviews.

Huh, 407 pages went by really, really fast.

"I woke up thinking a very pleasant thought. There is lots left in the world to read."

This is kind of a weird place for me to be in, because I look back at the beginning of the year, and I remember reading those books and writing those reviews, but it all seems so very long ago. Also, interesting to me is that as we get further and further down the year, the more my first lines become about the reading and reviewing itself, rather than the book. And then we finish the year on a strong note, a quotation from one of my favourite reads of the year.

Next up: a detailed examination of my reading over the past year, and I'll pull out some of the high points. I'd forgotten I'd read The Housekeeper and the Professor this year, for example; it's become such a part of my consciousness. That one will be going on the Recommended list for sure.

What about you? Do your first lines have things to say about your blogging year?