Saturday 27 November 2010

I Dare You - and the Advent Calendar Tour 2010

So by now you all know about my weakness for book lists, and books of the year reviews.  How my TBR mountain grows because of books you love, dear Gentle Readers, as well as the recommendations from Locus, Book Awards, The Guardian, and a whole host of other book information places.  Well, today,  I went to the Guardian to see what was new on the book site, and they have put up a list of books chosen as 'book of the year' by a selection of writers.  *big sigh*  I've added 11 books to my TBR pile.  I should say I sigh happily, but matter how many books I read, there are so many more to be read out there.  We are spoiled in this age, by having far more books being published than we can ever hope to read.  So I dare you, dare you, Gentle Reader, to go the Books of Year article here and read through it all, and not find at least one book that you would like to read.  Go ahead.  And then if you like, come back here and let me know if you were seduced - and by what, of course.

 Now because you are like me and love book lists, and from my previous posts we ALL want to know what other people are reading/want to read/have read/long to get,  you all are wondering what titles I found, that I picked out as ones I'd love to get my hands on. In the spirit of "if you missed it the first time, maybe you'll find it interesting this time" and "if we are going to be poor because we spend too much money on books, let's be poor together and have a wealth of wonder instead", here is my list:

It's only a small list of books:
-Ghost Light, Joseph O'Connor.  This looked interesting enough that I added it to to my Amazon wish list as well as the book of 'books to get' (yes, it's an actual book!) I carry around with me.  Going to Amazon let me see his other books, to which I then added: 

-Star of The Sea, his earlier prize-winning novel about the 1847 potato famine and the journey in a ship from Ireland to North America that winter.  Since some of my family fled Ireland that same year, arriving here in Canada, I really want to read this novel.  It's out of print now.  So on my growing "books to look for in second-hand bookstores", I've added this title
-Heartstone - CJ Sansom.  I have the first two books to read still in this series, but this came with such a high review that I had to add it.  Dissolution is on my immediate to be read pile.  I'm warring between it and Raven Black by Ann Cleeves, which my friend Lee in Texas is waiting impatiently for me to read so we can talk about it.  She really liked Raven Black.  I told her about Martin Edwards and now she's read and enjoyed the first one, The Coffin Trail. I then sent her Louise Penny's Still Life for her birthday.  She has since sent me Janet Neel's Death's Bright Angel because it's set in York and I wanted to find more books set there.  So I told her about this series (by CJ Sansom) and Susanna Gregory's Thomas Chaloner series, plus Ariana Franklin's series which she hadn't heard about.  We're not competitive at all on how many series we can recommend that we like, are we?  
- Freedom - Jonathan Frazen.  I'm of two minds about this book, since I tend to find books everyone likes, usually not as good as I'd like.  I'm not sure if I'm so afraid of being disappointed because of the hype that I'm avoiding it, or afraid that once again my dislike of 'literary' novels is getting the better of me here.  Maybe in the new year.....
-Ghosts of Belfast/alt title The Twelve - Stuart Neville.  Since discovering that some of my ancestors are from Ireland, I've begun seeking out books on Ireland.  This led me to Declan Hughes' wonderful The Wrong Kind of Blood noir mystery earlier this year (which I still have to review), and now I add this book to my growing books about Ireland I want to read.  It's a thriller, and I'm hoping I can find it here.
- Whoops!  Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay - John Lanchester.
- Enough is Enough - Fintan O'Toole
thoughts on both books: I am amazed at how countries that were seemingly doing very well suddenly are facing bankruptcy. I'm even more amazed that the lessons about inflated mortgage schemes and property investments that caused such disasters in the 1980's, and 1990's, are recurring again.  Did no one pay attention to any of the lessons from before?  Apparently not.  I am puzzled and saddened also, and deeply worried, for the people affected - Greece, Spain, England, USA, and now Ireland - where did all the money go?  And why?  I don't like thinking that we aren't secure, and yet, earlier this week, the public service union I belong to held a vote on whether to accept the government's offer for our contract.  On the table?  This, for the largest public union of workers in Canada?  Our severance pay.  Since when does the government decide that paying out the measley severance pay to clerks if they leave service, is responsible for the sudden 'biggest debt carried by the Canadian government ever " - 1 billion dollars?  Something isn't right, something doesn't smell right, and I want to try to understand why, when the world has so much, there doesn't seem to be enough to go around at all now. 
- Human Chain - Seamus Heaney.  Poems about loss, death, which becomes a meditation on life - irresistible, especially as I go through my second year of being diabetic and glimpsing, as my kidneys started to fail this summer, that the second half of my life isn't going to be the way the first half was.
- And The Land Stay Still - James Roberston.  If you can resist what Ian Rankin says about this book, good for you.  Any time my favourite mystery writer says a book shouldn't be ignored and it's about Scotland (where some more of my ancestors are from) and a novel, I'm right there.  I miss my yearly new Rebus - it's really hitting home this year that there will be no more of him - and while I know I have The Complaints in my Christmas box (isn't it surprising how buying books for myself for Christmas is one of my true delights?), and am truly looking forward to reading about Malcolm Fox - I miss Rebus and Siobhan and gritty Scottish noir.  I'm thinking of rereading the entire series next year. In the meantime, a novel about Scotland sounds like it might just do to tide me over.  Oh dear.  I just went to look to see if it's over here in Canada.  It's not.  He does have an earlier book which looks just as interesting: 
- The Testament of Gideon Mack. It's available here. A Scottish Minister who confronts the Devil. This one was nominated for The Booker. His first book is also available,  
- The Fanatic.  Look, it's about witches and witchhunts, ghosts and ghost tours, and historical Scotland, set in Edinburgh. Oh dear dear.  Somehow they just slipped onto my wishlist.  Don't they sound like they'd make excellent Christmas reading?  And I can catch up on this interesting Scottish author while I wait for And The Land Lies Still to make its way across the ocean.
- poetry by Jackie Kay.  Poems that make you laugh and weep?  I'm so there!  
- Of Mutability - Jo Shapcott.  Poems about transformation, and mutability?  I think I am moving into reading more poetry as a way to capture the intensity of my moments and minutes, because somehow time is going by faster without my being aware of it slipping by.  I don't feel old, or  even middle-aged yet, though I am aware that being present in my life is a choice I am conscious I have to make as an adult, when as a child it simply is that way. 

Is it Christmas so soon?
Speaking about time, how is that we are now less than a month away from Christmas?   Reading over my books read for this year, I realize I still have to read over 10 mysteries to make my 50 mysteries read I promised myself this year.  So that's quite a challenge for the upcoming month!  I won't be doing my best books read this year until the end of the year, since I have so many good ones just in the 10 I am waiting to read.  It's kind of fun, really, to know I must spend the next month reading in order to make one of my goals.  The 100 books a year I have sadly laid to rest, but not for long.  Starting Jan 1, I will be back at this personal challenge again!  I do plan on catching up on my book reviews for this year, over the next month, since there are so many good books I read that I haven't let you know how I felt about, this year.  And I do want to tell you about Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (I have a Charles Dickens post planned), and The Good Fairies of New York, plus the afore-mentioned The Wrong Kind of Blood, and so many others.  It has been a wonderful year for finding good books to read.  How about you?

I am joining the Advent Calendar tour again.  I am very excited, and have a couple of ideas already.  I am looking forward to seeing what all you, dear Readers, are doing and celebrating this upcoming holiday season, as we go around the world via our book blogs.  I will be doing my entry on December 24, the last day of the tour.  This starts in three days!  Get ready! 

In my corner of the world we have been getting snow flurries in between some sun.  We have snow on the ground, finally.  It feels like winter. Now to do the impossible:  read 12 mystery books between now and Dec 31.  Hmm, sounds like the Twelve Days of Christmas, doesn't it?  "On the first day of Christmas, I let myself read:  Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves.  On the second day of Christmas, I open up: Dissolution, by CJ Ransom.  On the third day of Christmas......" Only in the life of a book fanatic!!  What are you reading over the holidays? Before?  Do you even try to read during the month of December? 

Happy reading, everyone!

Monday 8 November 2010

Who says readers don't converse in public?

Remember that post I had a few weeks back, from Chris at Book-a-Rama's post, who spotted the U.S. article about 'people who have their nose stuck in a book are considered anti-social and the stigma attached?'  Well, unexpectedly, I have the perfect answer to that outdated stupid idea:

This morning, yes, this first dark Monday morning after the clocks were moved back one hour,  the sun was just rising as my bus stopped at the major transfer station near our home, and people rushed on to the bus. Morning is not a time I talk very much.  A gentleman took the seat beside me.  He had a book in his hand, Bk 12 of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series.  He noticed me staring at the book (he hadn't opened it yet) so I said, "I'm sorry, I was looking at the book because I read up to book 9 in this series, and I didn't realize Bk 12 was out now."  And for the next ten minutes as our bus raced along the river drive into the heart of Ottawa, we discussed Robert Jordan, Isaac Asimov, Tanya Huff (he's read Enchanted Emporium, which I have sitting on my shelf to be read), Trudi Canavan (very good series he says, I haven't read it yet though I've had it from the library), and I mentioned Robin Hobb and Connie Willis, two of my favourite writers.  My stop came first, and so I said goodbye, and as I jumped off the bus, I thought to myself, "I have no idea who you are, fellow bookworm, but that was a lovely conversation about books."

Now I do have to caution you, my Gentle Readers, that most of the time I don't talk to strangers!  and especially not to strange men!  but sometimes, books break down that wall of silence we all cast around ourselves as we make our way to and from work.  This was a most unlooked for experience, as usually I have my nose in my book and I really am not looking to talk first thing in the morning.    And truly, I was  not looking for any conversation this morning, I just didn't want him to feel awkward with someone staring at the book he was holding.

So thank you, fellow bus-rider and bookreader, for an enjoyable conversation about books.  And as for that stigma about reading books?  What stigma?  I feel so much privilege in being part of a society that welcomes anyone and everyone who delights in the written word. 

It's still dark far too early in the afternoon now!  I want that hour of daylight back!

I know I still have to do my roundup of books read for Carl's RIP 5 challenge.  I did get my 10 books read, including - just finished yesterday - Phil Rickman's To Dream of the Dead, wonderfully atmospheric and moody and perfect for this time of year.  So reviews coming shortly.  We have just finished the annual two-birthdays-family visit-Hallowe'en rush at this time of year, on top of which everyone was sick with the cold virus going around Ottawa, so I am just now catching my breath.  I hope you all had fun with the challenge, I've tried to visit as many of you, my Gentle Readers, as I could lately. 

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Wednesday wanderings

Bookslut has an excellent round-up of some worthy horror and ghost novels if you are looking for something to read, here.  I forgot that Martin Millar has a sequel out to Lonely Werewolf Girl, which was my book of the year a couple of years ago.  I saw Curse of the Werewolf Girl in late summer and meant to pick it up for the RIP V challenge.  Bookslut's review of Curse of the Werewolf Girl has reminded me I should do this now!

I also liked Kat Richardson's Greywalker (reviewed in my post before this one) so much that I found myself buying book 2 in the series, Poltergeist, in the bookstore on Monday. Harper Blaine and how she sees into the paranormal world, has really caught my interest. I like Harper, she's a tough PI as well as being vulnerable and disliking the Grey (the world that the ghosts, the supernatural inhabit that shares space with our world, and only a few humans can see into it) and its clammy feeling really makes it real, what it would feel like to see the ghostly among the living all the time.

I also just found this link to an interesting new blog:  the blogger is reading women's fiction for the next 365 days of the year. The blog is called just that, 365 Days of Women Writers.  There is a fun entry on Pride and Prejudice, so I'm going to check in to this blog every so often and see who she's been reading. 

I have been looking for Willem Dafoe quoting The Raven from Lou Reed's album The Raven, which I really enjoy. I thought it would set the mood for the last 11 days before Hallowe'en.   I can't find anything on YouTube yet, but I did find this wonderful piece, that brings together three of my favourite horror things:  Tim Burton, Edgar Allen Poe, and Vincent Price.  I hope you enjoy this!

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Book Reviews! New Kittens! I missed the party again.....

I am hanging my head in shame.  *hangs head down*  I cannot believe a whole month has gone by in Carl's challenge and I haven't reviewed a single book, even though I have been very busy reading!  C'mon girl, wake up!  *shakes self*

I am most especially embarrassed because I seem to have missed my third anniversary as a book blogger!  No cake for me!  I could excuse myself, and say we have been extraordinarily busy:  school started, there were two weddings, three colds (two of us are still getting over them), and two new kittens to play with, but really, I am sorry.  I like cake!  And I do love my blog and talking books with all of you, and getting to know you all, and I LOVE reading. 

The New Kitties: 

And Rose

The new kittens came into our home in mid-September.  They are wonderful kittens, playing all night, eating everything that falls, knocking things over, and dragging my tasseled bookmarks out of books to chew on.  They also purr and cuddle and are adored already.

 Books I Have Read:

I have been busy reading.  And I see by some of your reviews that some bloggers have been busy reading the same books I am.  So I've linked some reviews already below, and please send me a link if you have reviewed a book I've just read here:

Carl's RIP V Challenge

I have been reading to my heart's content this fall all the ghost, spooky, and downright horror books I could want.  Here is the list, along with a short review - I'm afraid that if I wait to do a long post some other day, it won't get done. 

 The Darkest Room - Johan Theorin -  Amazing mystery/suspense/ghost story.  Set in Oland, the island off Sweden's coast as his first one Echoes From The Dead, the landscape once again plays a role in creating isolation, loneliness, and it plays a real part in the outcome of the mystery.  In The Darkest Room, blizzards, the coming of winter, the loss of light, increase the melancholy that overhangs the recent death of one of the characters in teh beginning of the book.  But this is more than just the story of the Westins, it's also the story of all the people who have lived at the home since it was built in the 1700's.  So many ghosts.....I loved this book.  The characters, the setting, the return to Oland, which was so evocative in Echoes From the Dead, and the languid melancholy, and the presence of unseen from the corner of the eye, plus the menace from real every day threats - this is a very good novel. Highly recommended.

Soulless - Gail Carrigher - This is a fun supernatural novel, mixing Victorian England, manners, with vampires, werewolves, and the Queen of England. it is the first novel in the Alexia Tarabotti series. She is a spinster, almost past marrying age so this gives her a delightful sarcastic edge as she fights to retain some dignity in her role as spinster.  She also happens to be born without a soul, which is very handy when it means that anything supernatural loses its ability around her.  She is also very opinionated, and the dialogue and her observations are hilarious.  This is also a romance, as well as a mystery, charming, and delightful.  The vampires and werewolves are interesting, the idea of having a soul - or not- is believable and what it means makes for a very entertaining read.
Other reviews:
Kailana at The Written World

Greywalker - Kat Richardson.  The first in the Greywalker series featuring Harper Blaine, a PI who dies for three minutes and when she is brought back, discovers she can see into the Grey, an area that spirits can go into after death, before moving on to the light (or Dark).  It's not purgatory, it's a place that overlaps our world, but only the dead and the supernatural can exist there as well as on earth.  Only a Greywalker can see into that world; Harper is even more rare, as she can cross physically into that world after her death experience.  I loved the supernatural aspects, the Grey and how the vampires and ghosts move here and there.  How Harper finds out what is happening to her, and how she begins to attract a different set of clientele, who have special needs that involve the Grey in some way, make for a very good read.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much that at the bookstore tonight, I ended up buying book two in the series, Poltergiest.  Harper herself is also a realistic PI, and I really enjoyed the PI skills put alongside investigating the supernatural. 

The Secret History of Moscow - Ekaterina Sedia.  One day Galina discovers that her sister has turned into a bird, a jackdaw.  Galina goes in search of her and finds a way below Moscow to another world, the secret world of myth, fairytale and legend, Russian style.  Her sister isn't the only one, and in order to stop people from turning into birds, they must discover who is using the old stories - setting them free - on the streets of Moscow.  A beautiful story, with very different fairy tale figures that somehow feel similar at the same time to some characters in the Western fairytale canon. .I enjoyed the unfamiliarity of the fairy tale and myth figures, and what really impressed me was the sense of Moscow that comes through the book.  For the first time, I have a little inkling of how both wonderful historic and horribly scared by this century Moscow is.

Ghost Road Blues - Jonathan Maberry.  Straight up horror, and fun!  I enjoyed the sense of menace, the very visible presence of ghosts, evil, and history in this book.  A tiny town 30 years ago experienced a serial killer, who was brought to justice, but evil is in more than one heart, and another crime is also committed that same night.  It's in the present day, and old evil stirs in the swamp behind the town in Pine Deep, Pennsylvania, and calls out to and draws in greater evil to this little town. The dead will rise, and ghosts walk about the streets of Pine Deep, but no one is prepared for the three killers who make their appearance one night and change the town forever.  Ghost Road Blues is the beginning of a trilogy.  I will most likely seek out the other two books in the series, although I will admit I was disappointed that it was a trilogy, certainly it gives room to explore questions like can evil ever truly die?  what happens when people don't deal with their memories of the past?  There are very likable characters, and the town is fun and it's a very good setting, among the fields of corn, as the murderers strike.  Enjoyable read, some creepy atmosphere, tense killer moments.

More reviews to follow! Have run out of time, will return tomorrow with more.  It's been fun reading all these horror novels.  I have fully immersed myself in the spooky nature of this time of year, as well as the melancholy as the light slowly fades.  I love autumn, and this year, reading horror and ghost stories is adding more to my pleasure!

I hope you are reading some good books for the Challenge. Do you find that reading ghost stories at this time of year comes naturally for you, or are you finding it is too much with the growing darkness outside? 

I made some chocolate chip cookies yesterday, perhaps you'd like to share in some as I celebrate belatedly my blog's birthday?  Happy birthday, book-blog!

Monday 13 September 2010

Interesting book links and my Top 10 Ghost Stories

In keeping with the current theme of all things dark and scary, here are two things that I found today that I really liked:

- if you're looking for a ghost story treasury to read, possibly one for a 8 years or up child also, this one sounds so good that I might get it for our spooky night stories:  from Bookslut:  Stories to Tell in the Dark post.

- I was looking for a listing of the Byrant and May mystery series to make sure I had bought the right one next in line, and came across Christopher Fowler's wonderful blog.  Filled with writing tips, publishing stories, all kinds of cool things, including this wonderful photograph that is just a little bizarre and oh so cool and very in keeping with RIP themes..  Very Dickensian too, and now I'm longing to go see London again. 

When did it become a stigma to read?
Yesterday, Chris at Book-a-rama had this lovely rant post about an article that appeared in the NY Times in August about people who read books.  I can see why she ranted.  Reading it, I am incensed too. What do you mean, there is a stigma against reading alone in public?  I am left shaking my head at this one.  If there is social stigma against reading a book, I'm not aware of it.  Since reading is intrinsically a pleasure for the self, it is of course going to be done alone.  I do know we have the 'book nerd' thing attached - at least I have.  But I lost any care about that long ago.  I didn't know I had a social stigma against me for reading.  I feel kind of cool anyway.  In my little corner of the world, books are cool and interesting, and best of all, I can take a book almost anywhere and open it up and read.  Plus, I've had people approach me and ask about the book, and go away to find a copy for themselves. Personally, I think talking on cell phones in public is far more intrusive, invasive, and socially unacceptable.  I'm quiet when I read, whereas you, young woman with your phone on your ear today on the bus talking incessantly beside me to someone -and really, if she drew a breath in ten minutes I didn't hear it - oh yes, give me a book any time.  If there's a stigma against reading alone in public (and is this an oxymoron too?), then there should be a taboo against talking loudly and in public on your cell phone in spaces where people can't get away from you.

If you're still looking for some horror books to read for Carl's RIP V challenge, then  here is a top 10 list from Charlie Higson over at Guardian Unlimited.  I agree with some of his choices, and I think I'm one of the few people to have read Daphne Du Maurier's Don't Look Now, as well as seen the movie, and they both scare me very much.  I would have put The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill on the list. So.......this made me think:  what are my current top 10 of horror books?

Susan's Top 10 Horror Ghost stories books

1. The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson - my all time personal favourite ghost story.  Whatever walks at Hill House, walks alone.  Just writing those words makes goosebumps appear on me.
2. The Shining - Stephen King - I still hold this up as the best of his, although Duma Key is a very close second.  I might have to read them both again and compare........
3. The Terror - Dan Simmons - my book of the year two years ago.  Scared me, and still does. 
4. The Night Country - Stewart O'Nan - haunting and sad and beautiful.
5. Tamsin - Peter S. Beagle - my favourite ghost story featuring a ghost cat and ghost girl. 
6. The Prayer of the Night Shepherd - Phil Rickman (I swear, there are a couple of scenes in this book where I could feel the hair lifting on the back of my neck).  The scariest, so far, for me, in the series, just because that sense of the ghost was so authentic, and frightening for Merrily and for me.  Every book has eerie moments though, and is filled with a delicious sense of haunting and atmoshere.  Plus there is the ghost of Lucy. 
7. Swan Song - Robert R McCammon - still the best of the end of the world books, with evil stalking a lovely little girl, and the heroes who stand guard over her.  Due for a re-read
8. The Bone Doll's Twin series - Lyn Flewelling - it's not often a fantasy series uses a ghost so believably, and to such good purpose. Very dark fantasy and very very good.
9. The Uncanny - Andrew Klavan - gothic ghost horror story that is very good.
10. The Harrowing - Alexandra Sokoloff - classic ghost story setting: five young people, alone for the holidays in a university campus, and an ouija board.  What could go wrong?

 I can't remember if Swan Song has a ghost or not, though it's still one of the scariest books because it's so real, so possible, and the evil - yes, I dare you to read it, dear Gentle Reader, and tell me if you don't have a nightmare or two. 

So, have you read any of these? Do you agree with my list?  Do you have your own list?

Sunday 12 September 2010

If I went to buy one book and came home with 5 others, would you hold it against me?

Sometimes, that's how I feel, after I've gone to a bookstore for one book, and came home with 5 other ones, partly because the bookstore didn't have the one I was looking for.  I did say to my husband that since Christmas was nearing, I would try to not buy as many books before then, or at least put them aside for my Christmas box.  He smiled at me and sighed.  "So I guess this was to make you feel better?" he said, holding out the new FourFourTwo English Premier League magazine  that I'd also picked up, just for him.  "Well, I did go in for you, you know," I fibbed.  Him and me, more like.

So I won't bother asking if going into a bookstore for one book and coming out with others has happened to you.   I expect this is a common condition we booklovers  suffer from.  What I am curious about is, how often does this happen?  And do you find you go out of your way to avoid bookstores sometimes, just so you won't give in to temptation? I have to confess that as I came out of the bookstore on Friday night,  I did momentarily wonder how I was going to avoid going into Chapters next week.  This particular bookstore is two floors of books, practically irresistible, and it's right there where I cross the street to catch my bus home every night.  Oh yes, I wage a battle almost every day on the way home: do I step across the threshold today, or do I resolutely cross the road instead?

So here are the five books that I couldn't resist in my disappointment that no, the bookstore still wasn't stocking Alexandra Sokoloff's The Unseen:

- A Writer's Book of Days - Judy Reeves (revised edition)

- The Secret History of Moscow - Ekaterina Sedia
- Ghost Road Blues - Jonathan Maberry
- The Keeper - Sarah Langan
- Hell House - Richard Matheson
- The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

I did get The Little Stranger, which I am very pleased with and looking forward to reading very much, and found Hell House,  which I'd been wanting to read for a while.  Richard Matheson scares me. When I saw The Secret History of Moscow I was delighted, as it is in mass market finally, and I'd been waiting for a very long time it seemed to find it.

So the RIP V list grows!
All of these books (except the writing book) are being added to my RIP V challenge reading list.  Why oh why is this challenge only 2 months long??? So many good scary books to read!  I know I can read scary books any time of year, it's just that as the daylight shortens and nights grow longer, there is something thrilling about opening the pages of a scary novel that is irresistible to me.  This is the time of year for ghost stories, and zombies, and terror.  Books to keep the dark away, indeed.  The dark is right beside you...... The Keeper and Ghost Road Blues were either nominated or won the Bram Stoker Award, and as I am trying to keep up with what's the best in the fields I read, I snapped them up.  Both look very good and very, very scary, especially Ghost Road Blues

I've already read two!

Yes, indeed.   The Uninvited by Tim Wynne Jones.  Jones is a Canadian writer, so I fulfull a Canadian Challenge book as well as RIP V!!  And My Soul To Take, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

The Uninvited:  This is a YA adult novel, and very well written.  So much so that I cried at the ending.  The characters are really good, especially Cramer and Mimi.  Cramer's relationship with his mother, a failed artist, is the most gripping part of this book.  She is unstable, and how Cramer tries to live with her, and cope with her moods and emotions, make this book about more than just a coming of age teen gothic novel.  There are many gothic elements in this book, right from the family secrets to the interesting variety of families, to Mimi running away from someone only to find the same situation where she ends up.  The sense of being watched is a big thrill element in this book.  There is also a tiny cottage that is like a secret hideaway.  There is also some points made about creativity, and finding one's voice, and hints about artistic responsibility to art and to family, that I thought were interesting.  It was good to see teens interested and pursuing interests, in this book.   I enjoyed this one very much, even though some of the secondary characters were a bit stereotyped. The main drama was well-done, and I liked the characters.

My Soul To Take - Yrsa Sigurdardottir:  the second book in the Thora Gudmundsdottir mystery series, this one has a ghost so I'm counting it and it's gothic atmosphere as another entry in the RIP V challenge.  It was very surprising to me when I burst into tears at the end, but it was so sad:  the book opens with the locking in an underground room of a 4 year old, and all the way through the book I was wondering - who was she? what happened to her?  Her presence hovers over and through this mystery novel, and what finally happened to her - the sense of discovery, of revelation, is why I read mysteries.  A very satisfying mystery, and much darker than it first appears.  This mystery isn't quite as gripping as her first book Last Rituals, but it is haunting and filled with more family secrets, and the ghosts of more than one person.  Very eerie, and very good.  I am anxious to read the next one in the series, Ashes to Dust, when it comes out in softcover.

So how are you doing with reading for Carl's challenge?  Do you find yourself reading more ghost stories or mysteries in autumn?   Have you been tempted by other bloggers' lists to add books to your reading pile, and what books are they? 

Happy reading, everyone!  I hope you are reading a wonderful eerie ghost story during this weekend.

Monday 6 September 2010

RIP V - a time to get scared

RIP V is finally here! (*Edited to add:  for those who don't know, this is an annual ghost story/scary story book reading challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.) I think that as soon as one is over, I start piling books for the next year's challenge, because I love this challenge so very much.  And it's very simple:  read any gothic, supernatural, mystery, thriller, scary book that you want, between Sept 1 to Oct 31 2010.

Well, I have more than one book on my pile! Frankly, it's kind of scary:  I thought I had 8 books saved for RIP V.  When I went to the bookshelf to see what I could pull that would be interesting, I discovered I had 17 books!!  17!  and I had three out of the library already that qualified.  That's 20.

Fabulous bloggers are already adding to my list:
Then I went to see what some of you are reading for the challenge (because you can never have too many books lined up, you know!) and discovered on Geraniumcat's Bookshelf that my favourite scary writer who writes supernatural mysteries, Phil Rickman, has a new book out!   Well, that just made my day.  I am so excited now. I love, love, love this series.  Merrily Watkins is an Anglican dioscean exorcist, which means she gets called in for anything unworldly that happens in the diocese of Herefordshire.  Spooky?  Guaranteed.  Scary?  Absolutely. Thrilling?  Murder?  Blackmail?  A teenage daughter who flirts with paganism compounds Merrily's life, and allows for a wide breadth of philosophical and religious discussion that is fun and interesting, and adds depth to this series.  Do ghosts exist?  In Ledwardine (the village Merrily lives in),  in Herefordshire, in the Midlands, yes.

In Herefordshire, so close to the Welsh border, Rickman uses local legends and myths, supersititions, as well as what is known in ghost research and studies, to create a believable atmosphere in which the supernatural occurs with frightening regularly in this area.  Sometimes it is explained away, and sometimes, as Merrily learns, there is evil, seen and unseen.  How she hangs on to her faith in the face of the unbelievable, is one of the strengths of this series. So I, my dear readers, who has somehow not seen this book even though it's been out for almost a year in paperback, am rushing to buy it.  That makes 21 on my list!

All right, let's get serious, considering that two, Drood and Under the Dome, are over 600 pages each, I'm not going to read more than 10 books at the very most for this challenge.

So I will be reading 10 books in this pile between now and October 31:

Drood - Dan Simmons
Under the Dome - Stephen King
To Dream of the Dead - Phil Rickman
Let the Right One In - John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Darkest Room - Johan Theorin
My Soul to Take - Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Voodoo Season - Jewell Parker Rhodes
The Uninvited - Tim Wynne Jones
The Mystery of Edwin Drood - Charles Dickens
Urban Shaman - C.E. Murphy
Soulless - Gail Carriger
Staying Dead - Laura Anne Gilman
Greywalker - Kat Richardson
Cry Wolf - Patricia Briggs
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill
The October Country - Ray Bradbury

Horror movie night
Now, I have also managed to fulfill the part of the challenge: "Peril on the Screen" already  part of the challenge, since my sister came over last night and we had horror movie night.

  We watched Ginger Snaps, a Canadian made werewolf movie that is very good and gruesome and funny, and one of my all-time favourite scary movies, the original Nightmare on Elm Street.  It was as scary as I remembered, and I think I scared my sister more with my jumping and screaming!

What are you reading?
So now I am in the mood for 8 weeks of ghosts, nightmares, vampires, mysteries, dread figures in black, and chills.  Are you?  What are your choices for this reading challenge?

Uh-Oh, I forgot about these:
Oh, and I have to add that Geraniumcat also is reading Thursbitch by Alan Garner, which is out of print now.  I'm going to try to find a copy somehow. I'm also looking to pick up these two:   Alexandra Sokoloff's The Unseen (not released in paperback yet, and this looks so very good), and Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger.   I read Alexandra Sokoloff's The Harrowing for RIP 3, review here., which is one of the best horror novels I've read this decade.  (The best one is The Woman in Black by Susan Hill - review here, which is a ghost story par excellence).  I've been waiting a while for The Unseen  to come out in paperback, and somehow I've missed the first printing, or it never came out in May as it was supposed to.  The Little Stranger of course, so many of you have already read, and I was waiting for this challenge to pick it  up in softcover.  Time to visit the bookstore! 

So I guess I should add that the list above is by no means written in stone!

There are so very many good, frightening, creepy stories out there; do you have any favourites that you like to read?

Thursday 26 August 2010

What poetry is teaching me

I haven't always read poetry in my life.  There have been long periods where I haven't read any, followed by the discovery of a new poem which leads me to the poet.  Anna Akhmatova.  ee cummings.  Sylvia Plath.  John Donne.  Ted Hughes.  Mary Oliver.  Wendy Cope.  Yevgeny Yevtushenko.  John Keats.  These are the main poets that I have discovered and loved since I was about 18, when I loved my first poet, Sylvia Plath. Nikki Giovanni.  Wordsworth. 

Why read poetry?  In this day and age, when people are afraid of poems, why do I read it?  Because it teaches me that I am not alone in my feelings.  That others have felt as I do, both the wild rage of pain, and the tumultousness and gentleness of love.  When I read poetry, I discover myself.  I learn about new ways to express how I feel, and how I am in the world.

What I didn't know, was that poetry actually teaches me.  I could look at Neil Gaiman's poem "Instructions" and say it teaches me about how to come to fairy tales, which it does.  I could look at John Keat's "On a Nightingale" and say that I have never heard a nightingale sing yet, though I know it through Keat's eyes and ears.  I have been by that hedge where he hears the nightingale sings every time I read that poem, and the glorious song he hears is echoed by the birds I do hear, over here in Canada - though not the same, I know, not at all.  I really want to hear a nightingale so I can go back and read the poem and see what Keats took from the singing.  I could say that Dr Seuss gave me my first love of rhythm and words that rhyme in the English language, and that I actually had a line from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas occur to me last week, the line 'we are we'. 

But truly, poetry came alive for me today, when I opened Mary Oliver's book of poems Red Bird, and re-read her poem "Invitation".  Because the day before I had seen this little bird (pictures above, he's yellow and in the middle of the thistle bush, just above) while out for my walk along the Ottawa River.  I was lucky, he was there yesterday and allowed me to take these pictures.

Later, I went to look up what it was and when I read that it was an American Goldfinch and that it loved thistles, I thought to myself, I know that.  But how do I know that?  So imagine my delight and joy when I read "Invitation":

                                Invitation                      by Mary Oliver

Oh do you have a little time
  to linger
     for just a little while
        out of your busy

and very important day
   for the goldfinches
      that have gathered
        in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
   to see who can sing
     the highest note,
        or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
   or the most tender?
       Their strong, blunt beaks
          drink the air

as they strive
      not for your sake
         and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
  but for sheer delight and gratitude -
     believe us, they say,
        it is a serious thing

just to be alive
  on this fresh morning
     in this broken world.
       I beg of you,

do not walk by
    without pausing
       to attend to this
         rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
  It could mean everything.
     It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
        You must change your life. 

This poem, from the first time I encountered it, has captured and retold what I try to do in my own life, the values that I live by, and how open I try to be to the natural world around me.  I didn't know I was also learning about goldfinches, and that Mary Oliver was writing what was real:  but there the little goldfinch was, on Tuesday and yesterday, beside the path, digging into the thistles and burying himself in the seed fluff.  Isnt' it a marvel how nature has made it, that in searching for food, the finch releases the seeds from the pods at the same time?

How cool is it that in this photo and the next, Mrs Goldfinch joined her mate on the thistle bush (he is in the lower left corner, she is the dark brown bird shape on the top right of the bush)?  They were singing back and forth to each other while they watched me take his picture above first, then when deemed safe, she flew down to join him.  

As for the poem itself, it is among the handful of poems that I want to print up and put on my walls to remind myself how to I want to live.

As a writer, this poem and Rilke's idea that I must change my life - it is from Letters to a Young Poet, and what one must do in order to write, is also moving through me.  I also think that slowing my life down, taking the time to see around me, to see nature, is something I consciously try to do every day.  I can't write, if I don't see in my own life what is there.  And only by seeing, can I bring back to my writing my own voice and view.

This is why I read poetry. 

If you read poetry, who do you like? What are some of your favourite poets, and poems?

Saturday 21 August 2010

The first week of my summer holidays.........

I started last weekend and the beginning of my summer holidays with an abscessed tooth that suddenly blew up late Thursday afternoon. On early Sunday morning I woke up to the sounds of loud fighting on the street outside, followed by gunshots. Our area was in lockdown for the next several hours as the police looked for the weapon (recovered) and the suspects (caught and charged). I was much more unsettled and disturbed by the violence (which is unusual for our neighborhood) than I was letting myself know. I have never heard gunshots before. I think this has affected me more deeply than I have realized, as it was only looking at my books read tally that I realized I have 0 books read for this week. Violence 1, books read 0.

On Monday the youngest decided he didn't want to go to the museum to see the frog exhibit and after acting out on the way to the bus, spent the morning in his room while I sorted out Ikea and the bookshelves we were still waiting for. I did try to read - I am working on In the Shadow of the Glacier by Vicki Delaney, a Canadian mystery series, but I couldn't settle into the book. Later I realized the shooting on the weekend was still affecting me. I was also dreading the next day, Tuesday, which featured a trip to the dentist and the doctor. So the hubby and daughter got to go to the museum, and I cleaned the house and spent an hour on the phone with Ikea. Trials and tribulations of life: 1, books read: 0.

Tuesday: The dentist: 2 hours of root canal, and a new crown put in, and a couple thousand dollars poorer.
The doctor: they don't know why the diabetes medication affected my kidneys, and while my kidneys are returning to normal and it's good news nothing turned up on the ultrasound, it's another mystery my body is revealing. The good news is I'm off the medication that had made me sick from day one, the bad news is I have to follow the diabetes diet very closely (instead of occasionally cheating with 2 cookies at once) as I am on nothing to moderate my blood sugar presently. This would be good if we were sure the diabetic diet would control my blood sugar, and only time will tell. Fingers crossed, and weather and health permitting (the abscessed tooth prevented any walking for almost a week), I'll be out walking every day again. Started Shakespeare Wrote For Money by Nick Hornby because it was smallish (because I couldn't carry the library book with me as it was hardcover), on my TBR stack, and I knew I would be gone several hours to both appointments. Still not done. Health 1, books read 0. *bonus, 1 book started.

So, after that, I said to my husband, surely our holidays will get better? Indeed, Wednesday our bookshelves were delivered in the morning, and we spent the day putting them up and rearranging the living room. Pictures will follow, in the next couple of days. I am very happy, I finally have enough shelves for all my books! and the living room is starting to take shape as I envision it. Still, no books read that day either. Bookshelves 1, books read 0.

Thursday we went to the Ottawa Super Exhibition, which is an agricultural exhibition and midway fair combined, an annual fair that comes every August to Ottawa for 122 years now. We had a wonderful afternoon, despite the thunderstorm in the middle of it that sent everyone scurrying for cover for almost an hour. The highlights were certainly that at the last minute, our 21 year old joined us, so we were all together for a change, and the raptor exhibit that we managed to see, which featured 5 raptors: a Harris Hawk (all the way from Texas), a kestrel, a red-tailed hawk (my favourite bird of prey), a barn owl (gorgeous) and, most wonderful, a golden eagle. Pictures will come too! No books read, as we were too exhausted to do anything but lay in front of the tv that night. Fun 1, books read 0.

Friday: we had our water unexpectedly cut off due to summer-long construction on one of the main streets close by our neighborhood. As it was near lunch time, we dashed out of the house to MacDonald's for the kids (I refuse to eat there, it's close by the house and on the way to the bus stop), and over to the local theatre (which did still have running water so was open) to watch the new movie Nanny McPhee Returns, which started early afternoon. The timing happily worked out well for us. And it was a very delightful movie. We then took our time coming home, walking along the Ottawa River shoreline, as the river is the lowest level in at least 20 years, and over 50 feet of shore are exposed now. We saw some frogs and collected a few mussel shells, as my daughter is very interested in science and nature, and like me, collects stones and natural objects for the house. When we got home, thankfully the water was back on. Our new family time in the evening is watching The Big Bang Theory, which thanks to a friend at work, I discovered in July. We are totally hooked on this tv show and watch some every night before bed. Then it was online at midnight to catch up with my friend from Texas and all things Fringe - we had a date to watch an episode last night, which helped make my week feel more properly back in rhythm again.
Popcorn 3, books read 0.

Now it's Saturday again. Ahead of me lies a whole new week with everyone back at work and daycare except for me, and I am planning lots of reading every day, for week 2 of my summer holidays.
1st week of holidays: 7 days of extreme variety, 0 books read.

Until this week, I had been doing very well, keeping up with my 8 books a month goal, so next week lies ahead of me now, and I hope some lovely blissful uninterrupted reading time. Then I will really feel like I have rested and rejuvenated my spirits, which are still recovering from last weekend. I have enjoyed (after Tuesday) my holidays very much so far, though I am definitely craving the peace and contentment that reading brings me.

Today I have managed to read a little, but it's raining out so the kids are restless, and so we can't really settle into anything for long. I am baking banana bread with chocolate chips. Baking always helps me settle down, and it's good that it's cool enough out finally that I can bake again and not heat the house to an unbearable level. It's so cool we have been wearing sweaters for much of the day. It's not reading, though it's another fun activity the family can share, since the kids put the chocolate chips in and the youngest has been by several times already to ask if it is ready to eat yet (it's cooling down). I console myself with thinking the banana bread does have yoghurt and bananas in it, good for the diabetic diet, and if I eat a slice while I read a book, that might be as good as it can get this crazy week we've had.

How are your summer holidays going? Were you able to read as much as you wanted to this summer? Have you had your holidays yet?

Sunday 8 August 2010

The books I own do reflect me.

Thanks to Eva over at A Striped Armchair, I know what I want to write about tonight. She posted today about her home library, an idea she found on a new-to-me blog: The Boston Bibliophile, who has a series she is writing on what having a home library means to her, and what she wants to see in hers. I coincidentally had read a post at Book Chase that ended with his thoughts on what having a home library means to him. So, as we are waiting on our 2 new bookshelves to be delivered, and as I stare at the piles of books on the floor and shelves, patiently waiting for their turn to have a permanent shelf to call their own, I think it's a good time to talk about what I want my home library to be.

I Need Books
I have always wanted a home library. By the time I was 10, I had a long, long row of books that stretched along the floor, that were all mine. I think I have always collected books, though I have lost and let go of so many over the years. Whenever I moved, my suitcase would be half-filled with clothing, and the other half was books. When I moved to England, the books I couldn't part with were divided into the necessary few I flew with, and the rest were sent by slow mail. I still managed to give away over half of the books I owned then, something I am still learning from and about. Because as soon as I landed in England, and indeed after we came back to Canada, I started replacing the books I'd given away, or realizing that in many cases, I did want to reread them after all. It was a big lesson for me, both because I learned I can let go of most books - but not all. There are some books that have a permanent place with me. One day I'll do a post about those books! I also learned that books can be replaced, and that my idea of success is to fill my home with books. In all the phases of my life, books have been present, and I could not, cannot, feel at home in a house that does not have any books.

What kind of library - now, that is the interesting question, I think. Both Eva and Marie talk about what kind of books they have, and ask what you think a home library should be. Please let them know, and let me know also, as I'm curious: how many of us have home libraries? what kind of books do we collect? Do you collect with a purpose, or is it haphazard? How do you arrange your shelves?

I have to say that I am haphazard - I don't collect first editions, hard covers hurt my back to carry, and I buy a lot of books second-hand. Saying that, my fiction shelf is alphabetical, and my non-fiction books are all arranged by category: fairy tales and myths, history, travel, health, biography, gardening, cooking, dreams and psychology, astrology, writing, nature and science.......kind of like the dewey decimal system of arrangement, without the hassle of having numbers! Because I worked for so many years in bookstores, I was used to sorting them into categories, and it's how I find books the easiest.

That's all the mechanics of having a home library. What I'm really interested in is the soul of the home library. How many books of yours have you read? Why did you buy them? what does this book or that book mean to you? I find it's the stories we tell about why we bought books, if it was easy , or a discovery, or we had to special order it, or if it was a gift, that tells us what kind of library we have.

The Book Tour of my house
So if you take all my categories I listed above and pretend you have come into my home for a visit, what are you likely to see? First you're going to see the 4 shelves behind the sofa, in the reading area I am building. That's the fiction area. I've read almost half of those books. This is the area I fuss over the most, and where I have the unhoused piles waiting for their new home. Over by the television area are three more shelves, housing most of the non-fiction, as well as my TBR books that I have separated as books I want to read now/soon. The TBR bookshelf picture is on my sidebar. They sit beside me here at the computer. I often look at them and dream of when I can get to them, and fuss around and rearrange them for challenges I am currently working through. My husband and I share the history and travel books, and they sit closest to the tv, where we can pull out the atlas when the kids ask a geography question.

Next room is the kitchen, and I have two shelves filled with cookbooks. I love reading recipes. My sister asked me once if I read everything, including the authors' notes before recipes, and if I read cookbooks all the way through, and I was surprised. Of course I do! It was the first time I realized that my mother and I are similar in this, and my sister isn't.

My Little Creative Room
My most private books, astrology, quilting, tarot, writing and spirituality, are all upstairs in my craft room. This is a tiny room that could be a huge built-in closet, though by now you know if it's a choice between using the space for clothing or books, I'd choose books. When I first saw the room, I knew it would be my writing room one day. I have my quilting supplies stashed away, so it's not all set up yet. Funnily enough, I need some storage space for all the material I have collected! I find that the colours of quilting inspire me and help me write, though I'm not sure of how this works yet! I go in every day, and I guess thinking about it now, it would be my inspiration room. Poetry used to be here, but as I've been reading and buying more recently, that has moved downstairs. I think I want to show off that I am reading poetry and what - who - I love.

What the books I have say about me......
I think this idea of showing off what I love is important to me in the books I do have. For a long time when I was going to university, there was a pretentiousness I felt in carrying around classics and 'literature', that I've slowly learned to let go of. I do want to appear intelligent, but not because I'm carrying or reading or own the 'right' books, but because I've read them and I can discuss ideas intelligently. So while I'm proud of my books that I own, I'm also really shy about them, because they do reflect me, my personality and my tastes, now. To come into my home and see my books is to see me.

The Plan
My library is semi-organized. By this I mean, I have only recently attempted to make lists of books I am missing to have complete sets, and to really plan a permanent shelving plan. I would love to have built-in shelves in my house, and that is my secret dream for our house. To have a fireplace, and shelves built in on either side, and then up over doorways and wall to wall. I can't think of a prettier, interesting, and happier home to be in.

So that gives you an idea of where I am in my home library stage. Where are you? Do you spend time looking at books for ideas on how to shelve your books? Do you dream of a home library that fills your home with what you love, and what books would those be? Would your home spill over with books, or would they be tidy and a few shelves of the ones you love the very most?

My home library
At the back of my mind, I've always wanted a home library that meant I could find at my fingertips, in my own home, the answers to questions I wanted, or the next book to read. I think I want it all here, a copy of every book I've ever read and loved, as well as ones I think I'm likely to love when I do read them.

The children of course, all have bookshelves now too, in their bedrooms, though my son (the 21 year old) and the daughter are showing a tendency to pile books they are reading near where they happen to sit. I think they take after me. Even with all our shelves, we all have piles of books that we are looking at. And I forgot to mention that I don't have a space for the library books I've borrowed, so they are in a stack on the floor.........I think this would be called the mess of life, and I really wouldn't have it any other way.

So that's where I am in my home library stage. As I get pictures of the various areas, I'll post them, because the next best thing to being in someone's home and examining their shelves, is seeing pictures of their shelves!

I hope you have a happy Sunday reading, and thinking about your home library.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Did you know it was cool to be Canadian?

Because I have an abscess in my tooth and the Tylenol 3 is making me very light-headed, I thought I would point you to some interesting and fun links I've found today. In other words, I don't know if I will make sense if I actually blog about books today!

Did you know it was cool to be Canadian? I didn't, not until I read on "Lost in Books" the "Take me Away to Canada eh?" post.

Do You Agree?
Trish at "Hey Lady Watcha Reading?" has a very interesting post on Amazon books, "Why I hate Amazon and Will Never Ever Buy From Them Again." I have just discovered the amazing service has, but I didn't know it came at a price, and I find I'm really torn here. Sometimes I can only get books on
I escape the dilmma (sort of):
Happily, I've discovered that my local favourite indie bookstore, Collected Works, now has their shop online as well as the physical bookstore on Wellingston St, here in Ottawa. I am beyond delighted, because not only can you order online as easily as you can with, Collected Works also delivers to your door. Direct. You don't have to go down to the store to pick up your books. Here is their link, in case you live in Eastern Ontario or Western Quebec. They might even ship to the US, it would be worth enquiring, especially if you want to go the indie route for your books. I plan on making good use of them!

Celebrating new shelves!!
My booktwin Bybee over at "Naked Without Books" has acquired two new bookshelves and has posted them for us all to drool over (and wonder how long it will take her to fill the empty spaces), on "Shelf Shots". There must be something in the air for Susans, because we bought two bookshelves from Ikea last week which should be delivered tomorrow, and I will finally have all of my books up off the floor. I will be posting pictures of my redesigned library in the living room, two years in the making, then. I don't think I will have any empty spaces, though, which my husband is refusing to admit means we might need another shelf sooner rather than later......

Books and cats just go together:
Nymeth at "things mean alot" has a fabulous review of a Diana Wynne Jones short story that I really have to find now, on "What the Cat Told Me by Diana Wynne Jones". I love cats, and as some of you may remember, our cat passed away in June after fighting cancer for a year and a half. This short story is from the cat's point of view, and the review Nymeth gives has made me miss Bandit once again. I also am a fervent admirer of Diana Wynne Jones, and am sad to see that I missed Diana Wynne Jones week here on the internet.

It's never too soon to get ready for the annual RIP challenge:
Bride over at "Bride of the Book God" has reviewed a gothic book that is perfect for Carl's upcoming RIP challenge, on "The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein." I've added it to my list of books to get, since I'd already noticed this book in the bookstores.

Things you keep at work:
Carl's post at "Stainless Steel Droppings" has made me confess to my own addiction to collecting toys for my cubicle at work, on his post "Moving On." Do you collect anything for your office work space? Do you think toys have inner lives of their own?

Here are the two dunnys I've managed to collect so far: I own the one on the far left on the first set, and the far right on the second set.

The one I really really really want is the middle one of the first set.

Here is the the link to the Dunny site, so you can find your own way to your favourite one. The store that carries them has been sold out for two months now, and I'm sure the clerks are amused at the two 40-somethings who pop in almost every day to see if any have come in yet. I've managed to get my friend at work hooked on them too. Yes, toys are fun, no matter what our age! and really, for my life at work, I do need to have a toy or two to remind myself there is a world outside work. I also have a tiny collection of books for emergencies - a short story collection of fantasy stories set at Christmas, a copy of The Selected Poems of John Donne, a thriller, and a small journal for writing ideas and thoughts. What do you have at your work to keep you sane?

Happy reading, my Gentle Readers!

Sunday 25 July 2010

The Speed of Dark - an extraordinary science fiction novel

So there I was, happily blathering away about reading mysteries this very warm summer, and then I picked up The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon from the library. It won the 2004 Nebula Award, and I can say now after reading this extraordinary novel, it was deserved. You know me by now, I use the word extraordinary rarely when reviewing books. I find it easy to lavish praise on books I think are very well written, so I save a few words for those books that shine above in the realm of the written word. The Speed of Dark is a book like that.

It is a book about an autistic man, who has had some minor enhancements that are scientifically possible in the future, that enable him to speak and to express his thoughts. We see Lou Arrendale's world through his eyes. I think this book is brilliant. It is a rare insight into how an autistic person focuses, and how difficult it is for them to focus when there is so much sensory data around. It makes me wonder how much more our own brains can manage, which can sift through the enormous data we now have swirling around us, with cell phones and I-Phones and laptops to connect us as well just the daily movement and noise we have to navigate to get anywhere safely. Are we truly taking the world in now? I wonder........An autistic person can't determine what to focus on, can't sort through many different distractions at the same time. Patterns are easier, and enormously concentrating. The enhancements Lou had as a child, - sometime in the next century although we don't get an exact date, our century is referred to as an earlier century - enable him to use what he sees in patterns, and see them in everything. This enables him to work on computer programs - an interesting idea, and I would be very curious if it was possible - and live on his own without assistance, although as we see through the novel, anything new does cause him alarm and he needs to think his way through how to deal with it. It is a glimpse into a world that is simplified to the basic meaning of everything. Not simple, just the clearest way of saying something, where Lou expresses how he sees the world by using the complex patterns he works with. It is amazing, and thoughtful, and familiar too, like it's how we all, normals and autistics, do navigate in this world at the same level, in our deepest selves. Certainly in this book how Lou sees us reveals us as people who don't always say what we mean, who do unconsciously understand social cues that he cannot grasp. The ability to grasp social cues and to know how to react to them, along with the ability to verbally communicate, are the biggest differences between autistic people and normal people. This book is also revelation of how much we take for granted, that confuse autistic people - language we use that has many meanings, understanding how someone who could be a friend could also turn into someone who hates us, questions like is dark at a place before light gets there? What is the speed of dark, is it faster than light? the same as? What does it mean if we develop the ability to change how a brain processes information? How do we know how a person likes us, whether they are interested in us as more than friends or not? How do we really feel when other people come into our space? Are our lives more ordered than we would like to admit? How much of Lou do I have in me? It makes me wonder if we all start off as sorting through the world the same way as infants, and then autistics shut off part of their processing ability - or it never develops in the same way as a brain is capable of working. That at some deep level, we all process information the same way, but normal people find a way to communicate it better and can manage the daily changes that are part of life better.

This novel is about what it means to process information. Lou is offered - at first coerced, and then later is offered the choice - to go ahead with an experimental program that will refire his neurons so that he will keep his autistic ability to understand and see highly complex patterns, but he will have the neurons that understand social cues enhanced so he will be more normal. The heart of this book is Lou thinking through the ramifications of this dilemma, even as he teaches himself the science behind how the brain learns, to understand as fully he can what he is facing. Lou learns that autistic people can, and do, change. That change comes to everyone, and the choice is whether to accept it, or have it forced upon you. This is an amazing revelation for him. And when Lou makes his choice, I cried. I didn't want him to change, I didn't want to lose the Lou that existed. What does that say about memory? About our lives? What makes us human? If we need to experiment, do we understand really what we are asking the human volunteers to do?

This is an extraordinary novel. Elizabeth Moon has captured what each day, daily life, is like for an autistic person, and she has given us the gift of seeing what an autistic person can offer us, the value of their lives to the world.

I have deliberately chosen not to use science fiction here, in my desire to get as many people as possible to give this book a try. Seeing this now, I see I am doing a disservice to the science fiction genre. I don't like labels for books when it means a book won't be read because of how it is classified, and this is something science fiction books suffer under almost more than any other gentre of books. However, maybe what I should be doing is shouting from the rooftops: Look! Look everyone! This is what science fiction can do! This is the very best kind of book, and it uses science fiction to explain what could happen, and what could be. We look ahead into the future. In our current science exploration of the mind and the brain and the body, do we want to move towards a world where we can modify the brain? Give the chance to be fully the best they can to someone whose brain doesn't work like ours, no matter how the brain is originally wired? And does that mean that we lose what autistic people do give to the world, and anyone else who is 'different', special, needing special services? Is our desire to make everyone normal to make our lives easier, or theirs? These are all questions Lou asks, that his company makes him ask, and this is what the very best of novels in any genre, what the very best writing does: it entertains, it excites, and it makes us think. Science fiction, when it is written like this, is the very best kind of book for showing us the future and guiding us to where we want to go.