Saturday, November 29, 2014

Some of the dead are still breathing: Living in the future by Charles Bowden [Kelly, Central Library]

Last year, or maybe the year before, I picked up a small hard cover that had inexplicably found its way into the travel section of the collection. On the cover was a disturbing black and white photograph of what looked like a corpse floating in a river. Inside were a series of pieces the author, a journalist, had written during periods between major assignments. The topics ranged from musings on the impending future and near forgotten past, rattlesnakes and how we misunderstand them and ourselves, a brief memoir of time spent on a Sea Shepherds type vessel, a boat commandeered and crewed by misanthropes, and a meditation on hotel rooms and murder. It was the world as it is without sentiment or burnishing, ugly and punishing but not without hope or beauty.

While writing this I discovered Charles Bowden had died in September of this year. Reading this book I never got the impression that he was an easy person or without fault. I wondered if he was looking for redemption through the pen.

Here’s a video of him speaking about writing and life and what’s important:

Title: Some of the dead are still breathing: Living in the future
Author: Charles Bowden
ISBN: 9780151013951
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Year: 2009

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Us by David Nicholls (Biddy, Highland Park)

In this successor to Nicholls' bestselling novel One Day, he portrays a bittersweet story of a 21st century English family. The Petersen family comprises Douglas, a mild-mannered scientist, somewhat earnest but with a subtle sense of humour, his artistic wife Connie and their sullen 17 year-old son Albie. Albie is due to leave home to go to college and his mother has decreed that the family will experience a Grand Tour of Europe before he leaves-a chance to discover the must-sees of the art world together.

Douglas is happy with the arrangement until Connie wakes him one night to tell him that she "thinks" that she wants to leave him! She hasn't decided when but is determined that the tour must go on. Douglas is both perplexed and distraught and hatches a plan to change Connie's mind by making the holiday romantic and unforgettable.

Not surprisingly, things don't work out quite as Douglas had hoped. The novel continues with flashbacks to the early days of his life with the flamboyant Connie, an unlikely match for this rather grey and serious man, while he travels across Europe frantically searching for Albie, who has deserted his parents mid-tour in Amsterdam.

Nicholls' latest offering was long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Personally, I felt that it lacked any "wow" factor. It was best described by one reviewer as "a quiet joy, written with an undemonstrative simplicity that is hard to achieve". Worth reading nonetheless.

Title: Us
Author: David Nicholls
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, London
Date: 2014
ISBN: 9780340896990
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Thursday, November 27, 2014

I Remember You: A Ghost Story by Yrsa Sigurdardottir [Danielle, Youth Service Development]

Another entertaining recommendation from the library's Horror enewsletter, this is a supernatural horror from an Icelandic crime writer, better known for her best-selling Thora Gundmundsdottir mysteries. In alternating chapters, two stories unfold: three friends are dropped off in a remote, snowbound part of the Westfjords to fix up a run-down house, in a last-ditch attempt to save themselves from bankruptcy; and in the town of Isafjordur, a handful of old and recent crimes start to show up alarming links to a recent suicide.

I found the characters slow to warm to (no pun intended, though much of this story takes place in vividly-described below-freezing temperatures), particularly the three unlikeable 'friends' in the Westfjords house. Characters gave up their histories piece by piece, and the relationships between them became gradually clearer over the course of the book. Isolation by nature or by choice was a common thread; many of the characters had been abandoned by others in various ways.

As the paranormal activity grows in the two parallel stories, the suspense and unease heighten and there are some genuinely scary moments that made me reluctant to go down our dark hallway at night... The freezing temperatures of the Westfjords make them a great setting for a story like this, where the landscape is almost more lethal than the unnatural threats haunting the old house. I really enjoyed the baffling hints at deeper connections between events in the Isafjordur story, which kept me guessing until the end. The only complaint I had about this story was the very last page, which seemed like an annoyingly traditional 'horror' ending that undid some of the satisfying journeys the characters had been on for the rest of the book. Otherwise - very creepy, and a neat way to learn about a country I know very little about, too.

Title: I remember you: a ghost story
Author: Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Published: New York City, 2014
ISBN: 9781594631399
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We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson [Emma. Birkenhead Library]

Merricat Blackwood is straight-away a strange and tortured girl. Do you feel sorry for her? I did, at first, but as this book went on, my sympathy waned. Merricat lives with her older sister Constance (who does everything for her, just about) and her Uncle Julian. She says she is 18 years old, and she hates everyone else.

All of their family are dead, poisoned six years earlier at dinner, by person(s) and for reasons unknown. Constance was charged and acquitted of the murders, and Uncle Julian survived. Merricat, sent to bed that fateful night, escaped harm. The three now live together in a huge and creepy gracious home, feared and ridiculed by people in the nearby village. They reluctantly accept the few visitors who come to them, but on the whole deal with the world only when absolutely necessary. Until one day, moon-faced cousin Charles, seeking to steal the family fortune, forces his company into their midst. This precipitates stranger and stranger behaviour from Merricat and Uncle Julian - neither who like Charles one iota. Something has to give in these circumstances.

This is such an atmospheric story, so slowly teased out, with Merricat as narrator. Her reliability as she recounts events and her own feelings is certain, although her reasoning is often unclear. She creates a feeling of mystery and tension which you will be compelled to follow as far as you can.
Published first in 1962, this is a classic.

Title: We have always lived in the castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Published: Originally 1962.  New edition:  Penguin Books, New York , 2006.
ISBN: 9780141191454
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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Backyard Building: Treehouses, Sheds, Arbors, Gates and Other Garden Projects by Jeanie and David Stiles [Louise, Central Library]

Some people read fantasy novels, others watch soap operas. Me? I read DIY books and daydream about building a treehouse with nothing but wood and nails and MY BARE HANDS.

My previous building experience amounts to haphazardly bashing nails into small planks of wood at kindergarten, but never mind that. I’m totally on my way to going full-Thoreau and becoming one with the wilderness because I’ve just read Backyard Building. I am now, pretty much, just a trip to Bunnings away from having mad Robinson Crusoe-type skills.

I mean, the real challenge is deciding which project to choose first. This book has instructions for two dozen projects, including four different and customizable treehouses (and that’s not even counting the playhouses!) And with such bold assertions as “you can order a single-sash or barn window from your lumberyard, but it’s easy to make your own” it gives me real hope for my backyard.

With lists of necessary supplies for each project, thorough step-by-step how-to’s and lots of bonus building tips, they make it all look so darn easy. The accompanying colour illustrations by co-author David Stiles are clear and full of detail and (can I say this about a book about building?) really cute. They look like they’re out of some cool comic book, and the illustrations are supported by photos of the projects in real life.

They even include some advanced projects: timber-framed house or artist’s studio, anyone? Talk about the stuff of dreams! It’s like they looked into my head and then made my room-of-her-own dreams out of wood. (I should just point out that the measurements are all in feet and inches, which is slightly inconvenient, and there are a few Americanisms but nothing that can’t be easily translated into New Zild. Practicalities, la la la...)

Backyard Building is a coffee table book for the table you DIYed yourself (yes, I know what the Y in DIY stands for). Live the dream!

Title: Backyard building : treehouses, sheds, arbors, gates and other garden projects

Author: Jeanie & David Stiles ; designs and illustrations by David Stiles.

ISBN: 9781581572384 (paperback)

Publisher: Woodstock, Vermont : The Countryman Press, [2014]

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