Mercury- Margot Livesey

When I was about twelve,  I wanted a horse. Don’t ask me why; I certainly couldn’t tell you now. I’ve had three horseback riding experiences in my life – none of them involved me racing along a forest path or a stretch of beach, one with the horse. The one common theme of those riding experiences is me being terrified. In two instances, the horse decided to run (trot? gallop?) and I was unable to stop the bloody beast. In my 40s, while working for The Canadian Antiques Roadshow, I spent a freezing May afternoon  with some of my colleagues at a ranch outside of Lethbridge. A two-hour trail ride left me with bruises on the inside of my legs. I couldn’t sit comfortably for a week. So horses, after all, not my thing.

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That’s me in the middle. I am only smiling because we haven’t started our journey.

I tell you these stories so you’ll understand why I didn’t relate at all to Viv, one of the two narrators in Margot Livesey’s novel Mercury. Viv and her husband, Donald (the second, and predominate, narrator) live in a rural community outside Boston. Don is an optometrist; Viv runs a stable with her best friend, Claudia. They have two children.

28446368The first section of the novel is narrated by Don, a somewhat stoic Scotsman, who is still grieving over the loss of his father whom he admits he missed “in every way imaginable.” Perhaps this is meant to explain how things at home start to shift without him noticing: finances, his son’s trouble at school, his wife’s growing obsession with Mercury, a new horse being boarded at the stable.

Mercury, true to his name, was unmistakably hot-blooded. The lines of his body, the arch of his neck, the rise and fall of his stride, were, I agreed with Viv reluctantly, beautiful.

And obsession just about sums it up, too, as Viv tries to jumpstart her dream of competing with Mercury. Even though the horse doesn’t belong to her, Viv feels a kinship with him.

At the gate Mercury fixed his large dark eyes on me a nickered softly.  Then he scraped the ground, twice, with his right front hoof, choosing me.

Sadly, for me, I didn’t feel this kinship. Mercury is a novel with a billion things going on and a cast that, even though I read the book over the course of a handful of days, had me flipping back to figure out who they were. And all these characters have stories, too. There’s Don’s mom, feisty widow ready to love again; Jack, a blind (literally) professor who takes up with Hilary, owner of Mercury;  there’s Charlie, stable-girl who also covets the horse; Bonnie, a blip on Don’s devoted husband radar. The only thing keeping all these threads pulled together is Livesey’s prose. I’ve been a fan since Eva Moves the Furniture.

And, yeah, I get the whole Don’s an optometrist (irony!) but doesn’t actually see his wife. And I get that Viv’s devotion to Mercury blinkers her to everything else. And I also understand that Viv feels that Don’s grief over his father is isolating. But for me, there  wasn’t any emotional center in Mercury. I just didn’t buy that a horse could cause such a fuss.

I thank HarperCollins for providing me with my review copy and TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in this book tour.

 

My reading/blogging year, 2012

My goal was to read 60 books this year but I didn’t make it. I blame Italy. (Too much Prosecco does not, in fact, allow for close reading – or any reading for that matter. I was, however, sober enough to snap a few picures of bookstores in Rome.) My summer road trip with the kids also took a chunk out of my summer – when I would normally be reading at the beach while the kids swim, I was drivingdrivingdriving…and shopping. Still I am currently on book 54, so I am happy with that. Of course if I only read 50-ish books a year, it will take me TEN years to read all the books on my to-be-read shelves. Never mind the titles listed in my want-to-read notebook (which I anally copied over into a new notebook yesterday).

Still, it’s time to reflect on what I have read. A couple days ago I did this nifty survey, which came from The Perpetual Page-Turner.

Here are some additional thoughts about my reading/blogging year:

1. Not all Young Adult books are created equal.

I have been reading a lot more YA fiction these days. I have two teenagers at home (a daughter, 15 and a son, 13) who are both avid readers. My son, in particular, is constantly telling me I have to read [insert title]. I also teach high school English and I am really, really working hard to create a culture of book love in my room. I am slowly, but surely, building a classroom library and I am trying to read my way through it so that I can offer real advice to those kids who need it.  So when I say that not all YA is created equal I feel like I have a little bit of credibility.  Here are the YA titles I read this year:100_2088
1. Reality Check – Peter Abrahams
2. I Am Not Esther – Fleur Beale
3. Things Change – Patrick Jones
4. Between – Jessica Warman
5. Chasing Boys – Karen Tayleur
6. Nevermore – Kelly Creagh
7. The Day I Killed James – Catherine Ryan Hyde

100_20908. Ashes – Ilsa J. Bick
9. The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
10. Drowning Anna – Sue Mayfield
11. Jane – April Lindner
12. He’s After Me – Chris Higgins
13. The Returning – Christine Hinwood
14. I’ll Be There – Holly Goldberg Sloan
15. Divergent – Veronica Roth
16. Nothing But Ghosts – Beth Kephart
17. Things You Either Hate or Love – Brigid Lowry
18. Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness
19. Gone – Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson
20. Nevermore – Linda Newbery
21. The Heights – Brian James
22. 40 Things I Want To Tell You – Alice Kuipers
23. The Death of Jayson Porter – Jaime Adoff
24. Surrender – Sonya Hartnett
25. The Ask and The Answer – Patrick Ness
26. The Invention of Hugo Cabret – Brian Selznick
27. Played – Dana Davidson
28. Right Behind You – Gail Giles

Of those titles here were my favourites.

#1   NO CONTEST: The Fault in Our Stars – John Green  ( I have SO MUCH love for this book. Everyone should read it.)

#2  Nevermore – Kelly Creagh

#3  Ashes – Ilsa J. Bick

#4 The Ask and the Answer /  Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness (Yes, I know it’s cheating to put two books in one slot, but these are the second and third books in Ness’s amazing Chaos Walking trilogy, which starts with The Knife of Never Letting Go.

#5 Between – Jessica Warman

#6 Nothing But Ghosts – Beth Kephart

#7 The Death of Jayson Porter – Jaime Adoff

#8 Surrender – Sonya Hartnett

#9 Right Behind You – Gail Giles

#10 Played – Dana Davidson

When I read YA fiction I am looking for good writing, authentic characters, good writing. I mean, if we want kids to know what that is – we have to make sure they have opportunities to read it.  I think YA has come a long way from where it was, but there is still a lot of junk  out there. (Sparkly vampire books, I am looking at you!)

2. I have less patience for books than I used to. ( aka I am aware of the dwindling sand in my reading hour glass.)

Last year I started a Book Graveyard, a place to keep track of the books that I just couldn’t get through – for whatever reason. If I give a book a couple tries, or a few dozen pages and I just can’t read it – I make note of it here. Robby Benson’s novel Who Stole the Funny? recently landed there. Sorry, Robby. I still love you.

3. I don’t love any books. (At least that’s what my kids tell me.)

I actually love all books; I just don’t like some of them. Here are some of the  titles  I read this year, which I didn’t like at all.

Now You See Her – Joy Fielding

The Heights – Brian James (YA)

The Returning – Christine Hinwood (YA)

Jane – April Lindner (YA)

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James

Graveminder – Melissa Marr

Until It’s Over – Nicci French

4. But here are the ten titles I did love this year. (I’ve left the YA books off this list and the titles aren’t in any particular order.)

#1 The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

#2 A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore

#3 Room – Emma Donoghue

#4 The House at Riverton – Kate Morton

#5 The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

#6 The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

#7 Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson

#8 Stitches – David Small (graphic novel)

#9 So Much Pretty – Cara Hoffman

#10 Evidence of Blood – Thomas H. Cook

If I am going to consider my entire year of reading, though, my absolute favourite book would be John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars – which I can’t recommend highly enough.

5. Blogging failures.

I started 2012 with this ridiculous notion that I would post book-related content every day. Yeah. That lasted until April 17th.

6. My blogging year in review. A look back at some of my favourite posts.

I posted several entries this year I was really proud of. Who knows if anyone saw them but me.

Become a fangirl of writers

Let’s talk about love

My shelves, my life part one (although I don’t think I ever did a part two, come to think of it!)

Me and Mr. Jones (my thoughts after the death of Davy Jones)

The importance of a classroom library

Scary books for All Hallows’ Eve

7. Some content that wasn’t mine, exactly, but which is worth a second look.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore

The Joy of Books

Ryan Gosling loves books

8. Blogs I admire

Bella’s Bookshelves –  crazy smart reviewer and Canadian!

Books I Done Read –  witty and honest and also Canadian

Nerdy Book Club – keep your finger on the pulse of kid-related books and stuff

Savidge Reads – Simon is a voracious reader and promoter of all things literary

Dot Scribbles – I always add new titles to my want-to-read list after visiting this blog

The Perpetual Page-Turner – content galore, well-written, too

bite by Michelle – if you are even remotely interested in food, this is a keeper

9. And my first ever giveaway…was

The Golden Book of Bovinities by Robert Moore which went to Lynne from Dartmouth, NS

10. Looking ahead to 2013

I am currently reading Gillian Flynn’s novel Dark Places…I might even finish it today (although it’s not likely).  I’ll head over to chapters.indigo.ca and roll the calendar over on my little group 50 Books in 2012…Speaking of Chapters/Indigo, I have a shopping cart order just waiting to be placed. I will continue to read read read – nothing gives me quite as much pleasure.

And how about another giveaway. Hey, if you made it to the end of this really long post, you deserve the chance to win something…so I’ll draw a name at random from anyone who comments on this post between Jan 1 and 31st…and send a book-related gift your way!

Happy New Year…and all the best for 2013.

 

I Am Not Esther – Fleur Beale

i-am-not-estherDespite the praise Fleur Beale’s YA novel, I Am Not Esther has received (Kirkus called it “an engaging and credible survival story of an unusual nature”), I wasn’t particularly moved or invested. Perhaps the story was just geared a little young for me or perhaps I just felt that the story – which was intriguing, for sure – was just a tad superficial.

Kirby is 14 and has spent much of her young life looking after her  “dizzy flake of a mother” mother. Just after Christmas, Kirby’s mum announces that they are leaving Auckland (New Zealand) and moving to Wellington. Everything happens so suddenly, Kirby doesn’t even have an opportunity to process this before everything changes again. Kirby’s mum announces that she is going to do missionary work in Africa and Kirby is going to be staying with relatives she didn’t even know she had. Worse, her uncle and aunt and cousins are members of a strict religious sect.

They’re religious. They all are. They’re called Children of the Faith. They threw me out when I was sixteen because I…because…

So, lickety-split Kirby is dropped off at her Uncle Caleb and Aunt Naomi’s house and expected to adapt to an alien and strict way of life. There is no radio or television. The family prays and works. Punishment for disobedience, Kirby learns quickly, involves long hours on your knees or seclusion in a windowless room learning bible verses. Uncle Caleb changes Kirby’s name to Esther.

Caleb and Naomi aren’t horrible people; they just believe in something Kirby doesn’t. And, clearly, neither does her mum. So one of the problems with the book is why Kirby wasn’t dropped off with to live with the brother (she has five of them and three sisters) who also left the church. It seems non-sensical to me that she would leave her daughter to a life that she had trouble living herself.

Kirby adapts as best she can; what choice does she have? She never even hears from her mother, it’s like she drops off the face of the earth.  She finds a friend in her older cousin, Daniel, and the guidance counsellor at school. When the resolution comes it isn’t all that compelling because it’s not like Kirby’s life was ever in danger. And although Kirby is a likeable character, the book itself was only just okay. That said, I suspect younger readers would really enjoy it.

Now You See Her – Joy Fielding

now you see her

Well, there’s a few hours I’m never getting back.

I am not a book snob. I like a fast-paced, plot-driven suspense thriller as much as the next girl. Now You See Her, on the surface at least, seems like a book that would be right down my dark alley. Marcy Taggert is on holiday in Ireland. It was supposed to be a second honeymoon, but her husband, Peter, has run off with the golf pro from his country club and so Marcy has gone solo. While enjoying a cup of tea with a man she’s met on her day-trip to Cork, Marcy sees her daughter, Devon. Which isn’t possible because Devon is dead. (cue music)

I really wanted to like Now You See Her. For one thing it’s written by Canadian Joy Fielding (who has had a great deal of success in this genre). For another, I felt like I should be able to relate to Marcy. We’re of the same vintage, at any rate. But nothing about this book spoke to me.

So Marcy sees Devon and tears off looking for her. Of course, she doesn’t find her. But she returns to Cork and sets up camp and becomes more and more convinced that Devon is not dead. Marcy’s supposition might, in fact, be possible because Devon’s body was never found. She meets various characters along the way, some of whom have nefarious motives, some who want to help her. Some who think she’s crazy and as the book plods along it’s possible that crazy is exactly what Marcy is.

Here’s why the book didn’t work for me:

1. Marcy is stoo-pid. She actually meets a man in a pub and goes off with him after he tells her that, yes, miraculously, he knows her daughter. Really? Really?

2. The writing is clun-ky. Sometimes,  apropos of nothing, we get a little history lesson.  No one sounds Irish. The transitions are often confusing.

3. There are characters who just appear – out of nowhere – conveniently. Fresh baked muffins, anyone? Also, the characters are not believable. Seriously, wait until the lacklustre denouement, see who plays a part in it and then see how you’ve been mislead all along.  But not in a plausible way. Peripheral characters, Marcy’s son, for example, are footnotes.

4. If you are going to weave a tangled web, the spider at the center wants to be believable. Um. Just no.

I don’t know where Now You See Her comes in Fielding’s canon, but I won’t be rushing to read any more of her work.

The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

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I’m not sure I would have ever read J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy if it hadn’t been chosen by a member of my book club. For starters, the book didn’t sound all that appealing to me – Barry Fairbrother dies and leaves a vacant seat on the  parish council. Small town politics? Ugh. I wouldn’t have been motivated to read it because I’m a fan of her other books either. You know, the ones about the wizard and his friends and he who shall not be named.  Yeah. I’ve only read the first one. Loved the movies, though.

So, I started this novel not really expecting very much of anything. I mean, c’mon, it’s 503 pages long. It’s about a small British town. There are a zillion characters. And I loved it. Okay, maybe love is too strong a word. (My kids say I never love any book, but that’s not true.) I really liked The Casual Vacancy. A lot.

First of all, I lived in England for a couple years and so Pagford, the fictional setting of this novel, seemed familiar to me. I knew the shops and the narrow streets, the school  and the council flats. I could hear the characters (I kept imagining Coronation Street although I know that’s probably the wrong accent.) Once I got settled, the characters and their stories (all of which intersect due to their relationship with Mr. Fairbrother) felt very much like I was watching a British soap opera marathon. Every character was brought brilliantly to life. Fathers and mothers, teenage children, doctors, addicts, rich and poor – no one is left out.  I really think that writing character is Ms. Rowling’s true gift as a writer. Characters drive story and that is certainly the case in this book. Nothing much happens. And everything happens and all of it because Barry Fairbrother dies.

Some of The Casual Vacancy is laugh-out-loud funny. For example, middle-aged Samantha’s growing preoccupation with the hunky lead singer of a British boy band. (I may know a thing or two about this, as I find myself staring at pictures of Zayn Malik from One Direction just a teensy bit longer than is necessary.) Some of the characters are so heart-breaking you just want to hug them: Krystal and her little brother, Robbie. Some characters are reprehensible, yes, Simon, I’m looking at you! All of them are so…human…though. Flawed and brave and cowardly and pretentious and blind and you’ll see yourself or someone you know in every single one of them. This isn’t a book where something happens. The plot is pretty much incidental to the novel. Spending time with these people is time well spent, though.

I do have one niggle with the book. Rowling took such care building up these people in this place and time, I did find the ending a little rushed. I would have been happier, perhaps, with a little less in the middle in exchange for a little more at the end. I didn’t feel cheated, exactly, I guess I just wanted more. I don’t need to know the fate of everyone, but some pretty dramatic things happen near the end and I just felt pushed along.

I’d recommend this book, though. If you weren’t a fan before, The Casual Vacancy could very well win you over. I am definitely going to read those Harry Potter books.

 

 

My first-ever giveaway: The Golden Book of Bovinities

cow

I am nervous about this – talking about Robert Moore’s fourth book of poems, The Golden Book of Bovinities.  Here’s the thing, in the spirit of full disclosure: I count Bob among my dearest friends. I’ve known him for twenty years. When I returned to university to finish my Arts degree, there he was. When I did my honours thesis on Thornton Wilder, he graciously agreed to be my advisor. We have had many, many conversations about literature and life and children over  bottles of Corona and glasses of wine.

So I come to Bob’s poetry with a great deal of affection. When I teach poetry I come at it from the perspective that it is meant to savoured, rolled around in the mouth like a piece of hard candy. Not really understanding it shouldn’t necessarily hinder your enjoyment of the way the words sound. Poetry, almost always, should elicit an emotional reaction.

I had the pleasure of hearing Bob read from The Golden Book of Bovinities a few weeks ago. Bob’s an actor at heart, I think, and it is always an occasion to hear him perform. Suddenly the words on the page are  living, breathing  – well, in this case, cows – and as a listener it’s almost always easier to guess at the poet’s intent when you hear the poems being spoken.

So, a book of poetry about cows, eh?  Um. Okay. I love Bob’s poetry. In his three previous volumes (So Rarely in Our Skins, 2002; Museum Absconditum, 2006; and Figuring Ground, 2009) I can easily pick out poems which speak to me personally. The Golden Book of Bovinities is a different kind of poetry book, though.

Select some ordinary object like a tree,

and focus. Stare at it until the pain comes,

air turns to bone, blood branches, horns soften,

hooves turn to root, go thirsting underground.

Try not to blink. Try not to think.

When it becomes unbearable, bear it

a little longer. One day soon after,

if you’ve proven yourself worthy, you will feel

that tree’s feathered eyes upon you.

The tricky part comes now: everything depends

on how you proceed to return the favour –

pretending to be  cow.

This book of poetry is a series of connected vignettes, some of them somber, some beyond my intellectual capabilities,  others laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly liked: Humans often speak of The Milk of Human Kindness./What that could possibly taste like is anyone’s guess. And I liked how each poem caused me to pause and ponder – which all poetry should require of its reader.

When Robert read from The Golden Book of Bovinities at the Lorenzo Society Reading Series, some of the laughter was raucous, some polite, some uncomfortable. At the end of the reading, when Bob took questions, one brave soul asked “Are we the cows?”

Beef cattle may look at dairy cattle and think,

“That’s the life.” And dairy cattle

may look at beef cattle and think,

“That’s the life.” But understand this:

every guest at Death’s groaning buffet

shall find themselves uplifted and equal at the end

of the same fork and knife.

The Golden Book of Bovinities is a very “moo-ving” book of poetry. (Sorry, it had to be said!) I should also mention that it is illustrated by the talented artist, Chris Lloyd.

I am thrilled to say that I have a signed copy of Robert’s book up for grabs. Comment below and on December 10th I’ll pick at random and send this copy your way – wherever you are.

If you are interested in learning more about Robert, there is a very interesting interview with him over at Maisonneuve.

Between – Jessica Warman

Elizabeth Valchar has it all: looks, popularity, a boyfriend who loves her, a best friend who is also her step-sister. On the night of her eighteenth birthday, Liz wakes up to a new reality: she’s dead. That’s not a spoiler, by the way – we find know this by page 6.

Jessica Warman’s YA novel Between is a curious hybrid. It’s part mystery (I really found myself flipping those pages to see what had happened to Liz), part social commentary, part ghost story  and part teen drama.

When Liz ‘wakes up’ and realizes that she is between life and death she also discovers that she is not alone. Her companion is a former classmate, Alex, a boy who had been involved in a hit and run a few months previously. Alex is her guide in this strange new space Liz finds herself.

By placing her hand on Alex, Liz can revisit moments in her life and she isn’t all that happy with the things he has to show her because, as it turns out, Liz  Valchar wasn’t that nice.

My stomach feels hollow with guilt and shame as I watch my younger self, and all my friends, giggle while Topher torments Frank.

“But it’s not like I really did anything…I mean it was mostly Topher-”

“You’re fight,” he interrupts, you didn’t do anything. You never did anything to help him. You wouldn’t have dared; it might have made you less cool.”

As Elizabeth comes to terms with who she’d been in life, we also see how many of the people in her orbit cope with her death. Her ability to listen in on conversations and revisit significant moments in her life gives her insight and ultimately makes her a better person. Although I figured out one of the novel’s central mysteries relatively early on, it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of this book.

I think teens will really see themselves in Liz and her friends. They’ll certainly root for her redemption.