Category: Staff Picks
Be careful who you slight
Slights by Kaaron Warren
After an accident in which her mother dies, Stevie has a near-death experience, and finds herself in a room full of people - everyone she's ever annoyed. They clutch at her, scratch and tear at her. But she finds herself drawn back to this place, again and again, determined to unlock its secrets. Which means she has to die, again and again. And Stevie starts to wonder whether other people see the same room...when they die (Product Description)
First of all, can I just say how much I love this cover? A bunch of new paperbacks arrived at the library a few months ago, and this immediately caught my eye for its supreme creepiness. For some reason it reminded me of that movie Jacob's Ladder, but I digress.
This is an exceptionally well-written book, with an original premise that's solidly executed, but reader beware: it is a dark, depressing, claustrophobic read that never lets up. It is a richly textured novel, quite literary, but also ruthless in its barbarity. This book will shock you and make you squirm, of that I am certain. It is a mystery wrapped up in devastating family secrets.
Stevie is a villain like no other I've read in a very long time. Getting inside her head is akin to cracking open a log on the forest floor and having all sorts of creepy crawlies come pouring out -- beetles, centipedes, maggots, you name it. The ick factor is off the charts. I wanted to feel sorry for her, find some reason for empathy, but she is just so completely rotten to her core that you can't. I'm telling you, you can't! Just when I felt myself starting to soften, my burgeoning empathy was squashed by a cruel or selfish word, thought or deed.
And it's not just Stevie: no one is likable in this book. There is no one to root for and I struggle with that kind of post-modern existential reading experience. I need a hero, or at least an anti-hero, someone with one redeeming quality to hang my hat on. But everyone is horrible. Maybe it's because they're seen through Stevie's eyes, but it doesn't matter because the end result is the same.
The first half of the novel reads like a coming-of-age story with lots of jagged edges. It's a slow build, but Stevie's reminisces are painful, ugly and uncomfortable to read because Warren's language is graphic, brutalizing, and scalpel sharp. Certainly not for everyone, but an intriguing and impressive debut.
Are you ready to go to a dark place?
by Gillian Flynn
I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it....Draw a picture of my soul and it’d be a scribble with fangs.
Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived–and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.
With her second novel, Gillian Flynn has become one of my favourite authors. She blends genres like a mad genius -- crime, mystery, the macabre, the grotesque, family dysfunction, small town Americana -- all the while taking the reader on dark and disturbing journeys, where the landscape is familiar yet strange, a conflicting barrage of soothing and hostile. Her characters are careful, textured, compositions of flesh and bone. Even when you think you know how it's all gonna end, she finds a way to surprise you. Such talent fills me with a deep and respectful awe. Flynn's prose is precise, cutting, and courageous -- she does not shrink away from the truth (or going for the jugular). This is storytelling on par with Flannery O'Connor and Shirley Jackson.
Read about Flynn's bestselling debut novel Sharp Objects.
In the dark with Stephen King
Full Dark, No Stars
by Stephen King
... in the dark with Stephen King ... there ain't no place I'd rather be!!
If you really want to give the gift of the heebie-jeebies this holiday season, then you really want to make sure your loved one has a copy of Stephen King's four new novellas waiting for them under the Christmas tree.
The title really sets up the collection well -- make no mistake, these are dark tales, in places gruesome and hard to read. All of these stories feature ordinary characters forced to make awful choices. What choices! And this is why I love King -- he'll find the horror -- the real, true, white-knuckling, knee-buckling horror -- in the most ordinary of places amongst the most ordinary of people. His scariest stories are often the ones you know could really happen.
In the Afterword, King writes:
I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal...if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion [only] when the tale has been told and the book set aside.
If that is his goal, he succeeds brilliantly here because when in the fierce, unrelenting grip of these stories you are not thinking, but feeling -- terror and repulsion mostly. It's a visceral experience all right. In places I was sucked into an almost fugue state where I forgot to breathe, because I was in the story, as if it were happening to me rather than as a third-party voyeur safely removed from the action. These stories will haunt me, as will the choices contained therein.
1922: Beware the Conniving Man!!! This story has lots of gooshy parts and if you have a rat phobia, it may just land you in a straight jacket. What is it with King and abandoned wells? ::shiver:: So how far would you go to get your way? To maintain your life as you know it? When is someone worth more to you dead than alive? What I love most about this story is that it shows getting what you want often comes with too heavy a price tag -- it's the Monkey's Paw conundrum.
Big Driver: This was my least favourite of the four, if only because of the subject matter -- rape and vigilantism. It's a simple story, with a fairly predictable ending. Where the story's strength lies is in King's exploration of rape victim psychology. How Tess feels and reacts to what happens to her is how I imagine a lot of women think and feel in that situation. I hope I never have to find out. This one is a real nail-biter though, total edge of your seat stuff.
Fair Extension: The shortest of the four, but wicked and horrible. It's the classic Deal with the Devil scenario, but unlike you've ever seen it. What if all the things you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, suddenly befell them at your behest? I think the most shocking part of this story for me isn't that Dave Streeter makes the deal, but that he becomes so gleefully accepting of the fallout. Not once is there a twinge of guilt. What does Streeter do? Pull up a front row seat and watch it all unfold up close and personal.
A Good Marriage: While Lisey's Story will remain King's final, beautiful, haunting word on marriage, this novella shares some worthy insights too, both soft and jagged. You can know someone, but you can never really know them. Is it possible to keep a secret from the one person who knows you and loves you best? You bet. This is my favourite of the four novellas, and I think the perfect choice to end the book. It's archetypal horror - Pandora's Box and Bluebeard are mentioned in its pages and with good reason. Is it better to know, or not to know? When presented with a secret, do we snoop or let sleeping dogs lie? When we snoop, and what we find is so horrific, what is our moral duty? Legal responsibility? To our children? To our society? I don't know what I would do in Darcy Anderson's position. Even when she went poking into that box, my heart was pounding. I was truly terrified by what she was going to find, and since I was feeling and not thinking, I was totally shocked by what she did find. In the moments leading up to the revelation, I was in no position to guess. I had to keep remembering to breathe!!!
Captive Queen by Alison Weir
Linda's Review: The Library Journal’s review of Alison Weir’s most recent work of fiction says, in part: "Historian Weir's third novel (after Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth) details the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204), the mother of much of medieval European royalty. Beginning with her first marriage to King Louis of France and following her during her scandalous marriage to King Henry II of England, the novel portrays Eleanor's difficulties as a leader and her efforts to reconcile her love of personal freedom with her love for Henry. Exceedingly well written and researched, this will more than satisfy and enchant historical novel fanatics. Weir's attention to detail, engaging dialog, and engrossing depiction of Eleanor's life make the novel an invaluable addition to the genre."
I find nothing to disagree with in this review. Even when one has a good idea of where the story is heading, it’s a page-turner. And it did keep me turning pages, often back to the map and genealogy chart at the beginning of the book. They were an invaluable resource when trying to keep track of all the family connections of the various characters, and of a France that looks very different from the 21st century version.
Colourful, dramatic, nuanced, are all words that describe Weir’s portrait of a fascinating woman often frustrated, since her position in society as a mere woman puts her at odds with her natural abilities for governing and statesmanship.
Weir freely admits that she drew on the movie “The Lion in Winter” (a personal favourite), as well as on “Becket”, when imagining the dialogue for this novel, so if either of those interest you, that’s another reason to check out this book.
If you are a fan of historical fiction, especially of fiction that is well-researched and highly believable, this is the book for you.
Numbers (2010) New!
by Rachel Ward
Whenever Jem meets someone new, no matter who, as soon as she looks into their eyes, a number pops into her head. That number is a date: the date they will die.
Burdened with such an awful awareness, Jem avoids relationships. Until she meets Spider, another outsider, and takes a chance. But while they’re waiting to ride the Eye Ferris wheel, Jem notices that all the other tourists in line flash the same number. Today’s number. Today’s date.
What pushed this book from good to great for me, is the dark and gritty subtext going on here between the lines. Jem's and Spider's world is not a kind one -- their story represents all those underprivileged, disenfranchised kids who fall through the cracks to end up working dead-end jobs, addicted to drugs, serving time, or dead. It's not a pretty picture, and while Ward is writing from a clearly British perspective, I feel it's not all that different in Canada either -- born into poverty, drugs, and violence and most likely that's where you stay. The cycle is a vicious one and very hard to break.
But this rip-roaring page-turner is more than just a social critique of the English class system, it's a story of a young girl with a very unusual problem -- once she makes eye contact with you she knows the exact date of your death. That's a great hook and as soon as I heard about this book I just knew I had to read it. It doesn't disappoint. Jem is wonderful -- prickly, antisocial and with a huge chip on her shoulder, but lovable nonetheless. She's been "through the shit" and has every right to be weary and leery. It's only until she meets Spider that all that begins to change for her. And oh how I love the gangly ADHD Spider, who jitters and jives to the music in his head, never able to quite shut up or sit still.
What I love about this book is that it forces us to contemplate our own mortality (terrain most teens eat up and are comfortable with) but grown-ups often run away from. If each of us started our lives knowing exactly when we were going to die, would it change how we live? Would any of us want to know? I'm fairly certain I wouldn't. I know it's going to happen "someday" but it's freeing to not know exactly when. Knowing would somehow suck the life out of the time that's left, rather than make it more precious. I think. And you gotta respect a book that makes you think.
Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Shauna's Review: Tolstoy’s timeless observation that all families are unhappy in their own particular way holds true of course for Franzen’s latest take on the American family and that even larger social grouping, the country itself. This sprawling, cross generational, epic like examination of the nuclear family in disarray is reminiscent of his previous and much lauded work The Corrections and yet it is darker and more all encompassing in scope.
The Berglund’s of Minnesota are your typical not so typical American family that feel themselves crumbling under the weight of both desire and family and life obligations, freedom, both its’ absence and presence, being simultaneously their birthright and their bane. Yet whereas the family was written more as a “ cosm “ in The Corrections, it is definitely presented more as a microcosm in Freedom. So the teenage angst, the marital breakdowns, familial issues, addictions and the like mirror the wider crises in American culture, the war in Iraq, the economic meltdown, political backlash and so on.
Even though Time magazine heralded Freedom a literary masterpiece, the great American novel notwithstanding, I believe that the accolades are misplaced. It is certainly a great novel and well worth the read but one can think of other titles as deserving or even more deserving then his latest offering. Channeling Alice Munro…Enough said.
In some ways it seemed almost like I had read the story before with just external details changed and rearranged, the dark underside of the family and American life being reexamined once again, another foot note to post modernism it seems.
Anyhow there are certain things about Freedom that I really liked, the honest, authentic, believable characters, the social realism in which it was written and the change of voice throughout the novel as it produced a read that was both enjoyable and varied.
Freedom as theme and the exploration of how it works and mostly breaks down on all levels is interesting as it leads one out of the hinterland of the human condition and onto a much wider political discourse, like hints of The Tea Party to come, with both the American left and right howling at full decibel. How the novel will age with time remains to be seen, whether it will retain its’ relevancy and urgency or whether it will be relegated to the ranks of great nominal reads only is yet to be known. Still it is an entertaining and thought provoking read and can only be recommended for lovers of fine literature.
Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner
Description: Intricately plotted and shimmering with originality, Nikolski charts the curious and unexpected courses of personal migration, and shows how they just might eventually lead us to home.
Donna’s review - This book hit all my markers for a great read. It’s Canadian, and I love Canadian fiction. In fact it was the winner of CBC radio’s Canada Reads 2010. Lazer Lederhendler won the 2008 Governor General’s award for translating the original, written in french by Nicolas Dickner.
It has a strong sense of setting. The characters all end up in a particular neighbourhood of Montreal at some point, but the setting also takes place on the west coast, the prairies, the north shore of Quebec and Venezuela. Dickner manages to bring each place alive to the reader. It is humourous. The the twists and turns in the lives of the characters, and the way he describes the small ironies along the way makes you chuckle. The characters are quirky. Their idiosyncrasies draw you in and make them memorable. There is no neatly tied-up ending. The characters, one assumes, just go on, leaving the reader to imagine what happens next. I am almost always let down by conclusive endings because I ultimately think “I wouldn’t have ended it that way”. Nikolski, for all these reasons, was a very satisfying read and I highly recommend it.
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Summary: On the sixtieth anniversary of the 1942 roundup of Jews by the French police in the Vel d'Hiv section of Paris, American journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article on this dark episode during World War II and embarks on investigation that leads her to long-hidden family secrets and to the ordeal of Sarah, a young girl caught up in the raid. NoveList
Here's what the Publishers Weekly review had to say:
/* Starred Review */ De Rosnay’s U.S. debut fictionalizes the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz. Forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond, American by birth, moved to Paris when she was 20 and is married to the arrogant, unfaithful Bertrand Tézac, with whom she has an 11-year-old daughter. Julia writes for an American magazine and her editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundups. Julia soon learns that the apartment she and Bertrand plan to move into was acquired by Bertrand’s family when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed and deported 60 years before. She resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10-year-old Sarah and four-year-old Michel. The more Julia discovers—especially about Sarah, the only member of the Starzynski family to survive—the more she uncovers about Bertrand’s family, about France and, finally, herself. Already translated into 15 languages, the novel is De Rosnay’s 10th (but her first written in English, her first language). It beautifully conveys Julia’s conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah’s trials so riveting, her innocence so absorbing, that the book is hard to put down.
Watch for an upcoming blog post called:
If you like Sarah's Key, try these books
One of the Most Enjoyable Books I've Read this Year
Girl in Translation
By Jean Kwok
When eleven year old Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to America, they speak little English and own nothing but debt. They arrive in New York hopeful for a better life, but find instead a squalid Brooklyn apartment lacking heat and real furniture and a life of backbreaking labor in a Chinatown sweatshop. Unable to accept this as her future, Kim decides to use her “talent for school” to earn a place for herself and her mother in their adopted country. Disguising the most difficult truths of her life—her staggering poverty, the weight of her family’s expectations, and the true depths of her culture confusion—she embarks on a double life: an exceptional student by day, and a sweatshop worker by evening and weekend. In time, Kim learns to translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the two worlds she straddles. (Book Description)
This book moved me. I was totally enthralled with Kim’s struggles for survival and completely awed by her strength, perseverance and single minded determination for something better. The writing was so raw and vivid that I couldn’t help but wonder just how much of the story was based upon the author’s own life experiences immigrating to America from China.
I went through broad rage of emotions while taking my journey with Kim. Many times I was completely indignant and fuming because of the unfairness and the conditions she had to endure. I also felt very sorry for her, having no choice but to navigate the intricacies of being a teenager trying so desperately to fit in with her peers in a new country to boot. She was also forced to take on the role of an adult, filling out tax forms at the age of 13, working inhumane hours at a sweatshop to make ends meet and translating everything for her mother who mainly spoke Chinese. I felt very frustrated for Kim in her dealings with her mother and her retched excuse for an aunt trying to balance between the cultural expectations of her birthplace, and the ideologies of her new home. But whatever I was feeling, one thing remained constant: I couldn’t help but root for our protagonist every step of the way. Kimberly Chang will haunt me for some time to come.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone but especially to those who knows someone who’s immigrated, has undergone immigration themselves or is the child of a parent who has come to North America. And I challenge those of you who believe that this “couldn’t possibly happen in North America” to pick up “Girl in Translation” and read it with an open mind. It may be a book labeled “fiction” but I can guarantee you it’s anything but.
New book by Regina's Gail Bowen
Here's the latest by Regina's own Gail Bowen
The Nesting Dolls (2010)
Book # 12 with Joanne Kilbourn, a political science professor in Regina, Saskatchewan
Description: The city of Regina is no stranger to snowstorms, but the blizzard that hits town shortly before one Christmas is particularly brutal. It chokes streets, knocks out power lines, and leaves tragedy in its wake.
In the hours before the storm hits full force, Joanne Kilbourn and her family brave the weather for her daughter Taylor's school concert. They are on the point of leaving for home when a young woman, a stranger, walks up to Taylor's friend Isobel, thrusts an infant car seat into her arms, and disappears. In the car seat, wearing a Thomas the Tank Engine snowsuit, is a baby, probably six months old, with dark curly hair, just like Isobel's.
They next day, after the blizzard has ended and the power has been restored, the young mother's frozen body is found...... (from book cover)
First book: Deadly Appearances (1990)
Watch for copies of this novel in the Popular Picks racks of Regina Public Library. (or you can put it on hold - find it in the online catalogue here: The Nesting Dolls )
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