Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Morality for Beautiful Girls ( I still love me some Alexander McCall Smith)

I was at a friend’s cottage this past weekend and we had a fabulous time! Luckily, in between outdoor adventures, trivial pursuit ( with just the cards, not the whole game ), beer, s’mores and chatting, there was time to read Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith In this sweet installment of the always-pleasing No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Mma Ramotswe has quite a bit on her plate --- even for a traditionally-built woman.

Her fiancé, the excellent Mr.J.L.B. Matekoni is suffering from the signs of depression, a Government Official believes that his sister-in-law is trying to poison his brother and bills are piling up at the agency—with few too cases to counter them. Not to mention, J.L.B. Matekoni is unavailable to work in his condition and while he hides out at the orphan farm to recuperate and take some medication, Mma Makutse ( her prickly, be-spectacled and utterly delightful secretary) finds herself the manager of Twolkeng Speedy Motors. It is a sumptuous book. Mma Ramotswe is so jolly and delightful she’s Prozac! You just feel giddy reading about her and how innately good she is.

This particular installment delves into the backstory of her adopted orphans, Puso and Motholeli and gave a bleak glimpse into the hardships African children undergo upon the death of parents. McCall Smith speaks very starkly about J.L.B’s depression and we, as well as Mma Ramotswe, not only sympathize but no what is at stake for someone so well respected to be under the cloud of such a condition. Mma Ramotswe goes undercover to a farm near her home village of Mochudi and we see, for the first time, how the legacy of her father has rippled through the local community.

I really enjoyed this book and its subtle wisdom. What a great tonic these stories are! While Mma Ramotswe is out of Gabarone, Mma Makutsi is approached by Two Shots Poulani: one of Botswana’s lead Beauty Contest orchestrators ( according to McCall Smith, beauty pageants are quite popular in Bostwana and they always jump at a chance to crown a pretty girl). Sponsors are concerned that the women parading in the pageants do not have the moral integrity needed to provide a good example to spectators. Thus, Mma Makutsi ( who, face it!, has always found women in short skirts and heels problematic due to her own dwindling self worth) has no trouble writing off girls who aren’t nearly worthy enough of the title of Miss Beauty and Integrity. When she finds a beautiful, rural girl who not only embodies the humble spirit needed of a girl of integrity but wants to attend the Botswana Secretarial College, Mma Makutsi finds herself rooting for a beauty contest contestant. All in all a charmingly wonderful story.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Piano Teacher by Janice Lee

I recently joined a book club with some work colleagues.

I had been a previous book club in university but that turned quickly into “book club”: an excuse to get together at the pub and drink red wine and conveniently forget to read the book. Besides, one co-bookclubber wanted to read She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb and as it wasn't 1999 and as we are no longer in high school, we cannot make excuses for that kind of thing, booksnob that we are.


This book club is meeting for the first time at a favourite haunt in the Annex on Wednesday Night and I have high hopes. Why? Because we read a book that has a lot of points for discussion.

The Piano Teacher with its startling cover, comparison to Michael Ondaatje and caption that “Sometimes the end of a Love Affair is really just the beginning” gives the impression of an exotic, perhaps tortured love story set in the orient, with colour and lovemaking and regret and loss.

It brought to mind the Painted Veil ( that gorgeously-spun book by W. Somerset Maugham) on first contact.

Reading it, however, left me with quite a different impression.

This is not a mysterious beach read. This is not the enigmatic Memoirs of A Geisha: what with its romanticized world of the mystic orient and its slowly unfurling love-story.

Instead, it is a troubled, troubled story about lust, greed, power and corruption: set against the canvas of Japanese occupied Hong Kong in the early 1940s.

Flipping to and fro from 1950s Hong Kong and the viewpoint of the English Piano Teacher,Claire Pendleton, to the wartime experiences of her love, Will Truesdale: a Britishmen helplessly in love with a Eurasian goddess, the socialite Trudy Liaing.

Will and Trudy’s wartime experience vibrates well into the next decade and, readers surmise, into generations thereafter.

This is a wonderfully written book with sparse, taught prose and a real “feel” for the time and place. Lee has done her research and her words just breathe the essence and place she is writing about.

A sometimes-problematic approach, Lee’s descent into war-time Hong Kong and back to the early 1950s runs very smoothly.

A mystery involving the famed and fictional “Crown Collection” ( an abundance of wealth the Japanese long to capture from British occupants) is the centre of many different, tragic lives.

The story’s thesis is not so much about love experienced and lost rather the lengths people will go to sustain propensity, status and wealth. Lee’s descriptions of the foreign English internment camps erected by the Japanese invaders were harrowing and sad. Indeed, I knew very little about this slice of the war before reading about it in the book.

The main problem ( and its hard to say problem because this may well be Lee’s intention ) is how unlikeable all of the characters are. I had trouble identifying with the exotic and sexualized Trudy, the proud and stiflingly honourable Will, and especially the social-climbing Claire: who pilfers trinkets and scarves from her employers when she arrives to teach daily piano lessons.

Perhaps I had trouble identifying with the characters because I refused to see what drastic measures and actions they took in relation to myself. It is hard to imagine how one would act and what lengths they would go to in order to survive during a war-occupied regime. Lee’s characters often cross the line between mere survival and survival-with-something-to-gain and it was this dark and deeply upsetting perimeter that mostly affected me.

There is a wealth of discussion strewn through the book and it will make a fabulous book club pick for any group! The edition I have comes complete with a book club guide but anyone reading the book will find points popping up straight of the page.

Readers of Wayson Choy, Lisa See and Ondaantje will not be disappointed!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rachel and Courtney talk a whole lot of "Jack!"( we're a tad loquacious).

disclaimer: I ain't so savvy with the accents on the computer, y'all. So, when we type "Ate's" name --- I want you to know that it doesn't read "Ate" ( as in I ate some carrots whilst watching the World Cup); rather, "TAY" as in parTAY (with carrots while watching the World Cup)! savvy? second, this little book dialogue contains some spoiler-ish content ( but not enough to keep you from wanting to run out and buy the book, methinks)

'Member when Courtney and I discussed Georgette Heyer and it changed your lives? well, we're back! together! la la la !

Rachel:Courtney read the Blooding of Jack Absolute. I have been trying to get Courtney to read TBoJA since, umm, since 200--- when did it come out again?

Courtney: This one came out in 2005. First Jack book came out in 2003.

Rachel: So, when Court texted me saying she was reading some Jack. I thought: count me in! This stuff is FUUUN! ---plus, it takes me back to my university student years. Court, you might have to get us through the first part of the novel because I have not read it in FOREVER! Readers, I just picked up my copy and read from the chapter called “Ate” onward --- ‘cause that’s where all the best stuff is. So, Court, maybe you want to tell us about the first three quarters of the book: like, with Jack and Craster and an annoying female character ( or two ) and Plains of Abraham and Stuff ( to put it eloquently). What was your initial impression of our friend Jack( other than the fact that he looks like Jack Davenport)?

Courtney:Well! Prologue starts when he’s about … 7 I think? Anyway, we meet Jack as who is constantly beat and bullied by his uncle, and his older (by a year) cousin Craster. (And so, the first parallel between Jack and Craster: both were born out of wedlock, and so are considered bastards – except apparently Jack isn’t really a bastard, but we don’t learn that until later on.) Jack’s uncle dies, Craster is annoying (not in a good way), Jack’s parents show up, and whisk the two of them off to London, where they will both be attending (different) boarding schools. And you can’t help but feeling both annoyed with and protective of Jack. He’s a dumb boy who eggs things on, but these people who are supposed to be his protectors (read: his uncle) is a complete tyrant to him. Not cool! Fast forward however many years into the future when Jack is 16 (I think?). He and his friends have formed a society of “Mohoks” (sp?), which they’ve fashioned after the REAL Mohawks of Canada. (Woah, foreshadowing!) Jack gets into a duel with his cousin Craster (the kind of duels where pistols are shot, obviously), and then in order to save the family name and to escape the police etc etc, he gets into the British army, and is shipped off to Canada. (w00t w00t!) Which is where the fun begins. Oh, right, and before he is shipped off to Canada, he has relations with many women. One, he is in love with – a delicate, precious, goddess of a thing, who is rather annoying. One, taught him the art of making love – the mistress of another dude that Jack manages to serious piss off, and seriously the female should’ve known this would eventually happen. And I think there is one other, but I don’t know. Anyway, these parts were really boring. Because, seriously? Must ALL awesome adventure novels have the hero get into some kind of romantic encounter? BAH. It just detracts from the adventure story itself.

Rachel:Humphreys is not the only culprit here. I am looking at you, Bernard Cornwell and you Ian Fleming and you every- other- author -of -adventure- fiction -that -features -some -sort -of- “strong” -heroine ---is it to entice women to read “guy” books? pfft!I think girls want battles and bromance in their adventure novels. You need not cater to us. If we want our girly stuff, we can traipse over to Austen.

Courtney: Rachel, I know that you started when Ate shows up, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ll want to say something about the Plains of Abraham, so why don’t you continue tangentially on with how awesome and underrated Canadian history is?

Rachel: Really? I thought you would never ask!

THE PLAINS OF ABRAHAM as retold by Rachel

-->the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was the pivotal battle in the SEVEN YEARS WAR ( don't ask me how long that war ran for ;) )--

-->It was fought by the British Army and the French army on the plains just outside the fortress of Quebec City.

-->it was the result of a three month siege on Quebec by the British and basically the action went down in an hour---Gen. James Wolfe led the British; Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm led the French

--> WOLFE AND MONTCALM ( is grade eight history coming back to you now? ) were mortally wounded during the Battle and people painted their deaths. ( Apparently Montcalm said something poignant on his deathbed like " I am glad" or " I am glad of it" or summat like that)

-->the Battle basically was the last straw and the last hold that the French had in any power/ ownership of Canadian land---within four years of the Plains of Abraham show-down, all of France's possessions in this area of North America were ceded to the British.

-->Jack was there!

Courtney:Ha! Brilliant! So yes, Jack fights in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which was totally awesome because it’s a huge part of Canadian history (even if it only lasted like 15 minutes and a lot of Canadians don’t even know what it is when mentioned) and it made it seem so much more real than when reading history book entries about it. Because you care about the characters, and so it means more to you (not that it shouldn’t mean a lot, but there’s a lot of disconnect due to how many years ago it was)! This is how history should be taught! Anyway! Blah blah blah after that, Jack’s a slave, meets Ate, they don’t get along, then they escape together and then! This is where the fun stuff starts. Because the two of them spend ONE WHOLE WINTER in a cave with JUST THE TWO OF THEM and a dead bear (that they killed to get meat and other stuff and that was really the best part of the whole book). And do you know what keeps them occupied all winter and makes them the bestest of friends? --HAMLET. Because the Bard has a way of making enemies into friends, yo.

Rachel:Seriously. So, one of the things that Courtney and I wanted to address in ye olde Jack Absolute is the theatricality. First off, we should mention that Jack Absolute is not just a figment of the author’s imagination. Instead, he is a character featured in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775): a play I had to read in university—around the time I met “our” Jack. From the start, theatricality is embedded in the stories. There is something so wonderful about Ate mounting a tree stub and quoting the "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy in his native language. Hamlet, for Jack and Ate, is an equalizer. We learn it is something that Jack can “trade” for Ate’s inherent wilderness skill and it obliterates language and cultural barrier for the two of them. In essence, Jack and Ate communicate through Hamlet: Jack teaching English to Ate all the while and Ate translating Hamlet ( as best possible ) into his own Iroquois language. I would have to say, Court, that it is one of the more brilliant literary turns in contemporary fiction. The chapter focusing on their re-hashing of Hamlet as the sleepy, cold winter drips past them is utterly unique, surprising and a type of meta-fiction I can sink my teeth into. Moreover, it provides a delightful contrast: the crude Canadian wilderness somehow made eloquent by a British and “cultured” play. A unifying force that binds their two starkly different worlds together. But, enough about Hamlet ( which, we will learn, is a recurring motif in the trilogy -- I say trilogy ‘cause where in bloody hell is the fourth book?), how about THE BEAR?

Courtney:Okay. So. The bear is really THE BEST moment in the whole book. I mean, here you are reading about how these two guys who hate each other are going to need to hunt deer all winter, and there’s all this snow, and they just have to SURVIVE… and then next moment, Jack is being chased down by a bear, and Ate is close on the bear’s trail. It’s like a scene out of a cartoon! And what makes this moment even better is how pivotal it is in the Jack and Ate relationship – this is the moment that Ate first calls Jack “Jack” (as opposed to “white boy”). And you can tell that it’s that type of moment where a friendship and brotherhood is born! And you know, it always seems to be those bigger moments when their friendship deepens – like when the guy who had enslaved the two of them come back into their lives for the first time, and Jack thinks that Ate is dead. Or when the two of them decide to take revenge on the men who had made their lives miserable (the guy who had enslaved them, and Jack’s cousin Craster).

Rachel: ALSO, we have to have a moment for when Jack speaks Iroquois in iambic pentameter. It is just such a delicious touch. Also, how EXCITED Ate is to fight in a battle. And their attempt to coerce the other into joining each other’s sphere: Jack wants to show Ate the world of Hamlet, Ate wants to show Jack the world of his school Mohock society. I am tickled to the gills.

Courtney:Yes! There are so many delicious bromance moments in this book! (And bromance is so much more awesome than romance!) So now you just have to let me know which is the next of the books that I should read, and I’ll be ready to hunt that one down!

Rachel: 'cept I can't remember what chronological order they go in. Anyone know?

Court, you and I should talk about books more often. We are just so dem'nd good at it.


Movie Review: The Trotksy

I support Canadian film! Well, erm, I TRY to support Canadian film: I cannot stomach the idea of the new Paul Gross western.

The Trotsky (a T.I.F.F. favourite)is set in contemporary Montreal. It features Jay Baruchel --- who will have my heart forevermore after voicing Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon and Colm Feore --- who has always had my heart but has it even moreso since his turn as Cyrano in the Stratford Production of Cyrano de Bergerac last summer.

17 year old Leon Bronstein believes he is the reincarnation of the infamous Russian Revolutionary and once taken from his carefully-cloistered private school and placed in a run-of-the-mill public system he takes the term student “union” literally and plans to overthrow the Government. Here, the government is the tyrannical Mr. Berkhoff, played villainously by Feore.

I thought this film was fabulous. It was funny and clever and featured Baruchel in another empowering teenage role. Leon is not your average young man and his scheme border on manic. But, as his enemy, the head of the schoolboard attests, he is a brilliant young man. Baruchel is endearing as a vulnerable and confused teenager who experiences finding himself and his purpose by reimagining an intense part of liberal history.

As much as the coincidental circumstances in Leon’s life align with Trotsky’s (including an impassioned affair with an older law student named Alexandra), much of Leon’s experiences are created and crafted by an ingenious teenager who sees himself as having a greater part than his world allots.

The climactic scene in the film, where Leon stages a voluntary coup ( led by students dressed as the eponymous creatures from Orwell’s “Animal Farm” ) is surprisingly thrilling and tense. Leon’s a bit of a nutbar, but you want him to succeed. Sort of like the hero in a Gordon Korman novel… which leads me to surmise:

All-in-all, this film was cleverly written, utterly Canadian and immediately called to mind a plot from a Gordon Korman novel.

Now we just need to cast Jay Baruchel as the reincarnation of Boots in the MacDonald Hall series.

(also, Canadians, there is an amazingly giggly scene in which Baruchel's character is featured on E!Talk Daily with that annoyingly side-burned Ben Mulroney!....nice little inside Canadian joke)

Two Rachel Thumbs Up.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Author Field Trip: the Arthur Slade edition

So, last month Courtney, Kat and I headed out to Chapters Brampton ( read: the middle of nowhere ) to meet Arthur Slade who was in town ( all the way from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan) promoting the excellent novel, The Dark Deeps, book II in the incredibly amazing, breathtaking, action packed, brimming with verisimilitude, mindblowing, earth-shattering, Jules Verne meets Victor Hugo at tea with Sherlock Holmes with Robert Louis Stevenson serving scones HUNCHBACK ASSIGNMENTS series.

Slade remains my favourite YA author in the WORLD ( o.k. tied with Catherine Webb) and the only author ( with the exception of LM Montgomery via séance) I would trek to Brampton to see.

Courtney trekked from Cambridge and Kat and I trekked from Toronto. (Kat and I had the better end of the deal because we had a massive Ziploc full of JellyBellys)

Once there, we got to meet Arthur Slade and get books signed and stuff! Of course, we are ten years ( okay, MORE than ten years ) older than his usual demographic but WHO CARES! ??

I was also two or three times taller than all of the kids in front of me in line ( the curse of being an adult who loves kids’ books). Yes, we did let the children go first. It’s all about the children, don’t y’know.

MOMENTS: One little girl ( of the B.O.O.K.E.D series ) who was introducing Ye olde Slade mentioned that “Modo satisfies all my reading needs”. I promptly died of cuteness.

Ye olde Slade rambled about a book on submarines from a bargain bin ( he gets geeked out about stuff, apparently--- ).

It was a night of nerdy wonderfulness and quite well documented in LIVE TWEETS in REAL TIME by my friend, Kat. RELIVE THE MAGIC FOR YOURSELVES, reader-friends

· At Chapters in Brampton, fangirling over @arthurslade ! :) 6:46 PM May 12th via Echofon
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t appreciate being called a “fangirl”, I prefer the term: learned book enthusiast)
· @rachkmc just asked @arthurslade a question. @moonsoar and I are amused! 6:46 PM May 12th via Echofon
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I did ask A.Slade a question: I wanted to know where he got his delicious character names)
· "Modo rhymes with Frodo." - @arthurslade 6:47 PM May 12th via Echofon
(EDITOR’S NOTE:not only is A. Slade a brilliant, Governor-General’s award-winning author, he apparently knows how to rhyme)
· Cheap books are not cheap, they're bargains! A la @arthurslade 6:51 PM May 12th via Echofon
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Apparently, A. Slade is also savvy with synonyms)
· @arthurslade totally just HOPPED down the stairs! Amazing! :) 6:52 PM May 12th via Echofon
(EDITOR’S NOTE: It was basically a breakneck-paced action film by this point. Like, someone get Bruckheimer on the phone. STAT.)
· @moonsoar just blanked on her question to @arthurslade . @rachkmc and I are amused! 6:54 PM May 12th via Echofon
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Courtney did rally. Besides, we were all speechless in the presence of brilliance: the kind of brilliance that talks about Star Wars ad nauseum)
· @arthurslade just hopped again! Best author move ever! via Echofon
(EDITOR’S NOTE: in summation, A. Slade is quite the animated author… either that or he thinks he’s a rabbit and his treadmill desk is keeping him in tip-top shape)
· @arthurslade 's fave character is #DarthVader ! Hot dog! ;) via Echofon
(EDITOR’S NOTE: see? I mentioned the Star Wars thing, did I not?)
· Ppl are getting their books signed by @arthurslade now. @rachkmc , @moonsoar & i will wait until it shrinks 2 almost nothing. We r patient. via Echofon
· Okay, we're in line. I wish I had my TP copy of Megiddo's Shadow for @arthurslade to sign. Curse you Amazon!!! Will get #Hunchback1 signed. via Echofon
· Free Starbucks samples in line waiting for @arthurslade to sign our books! Score! via Echofon
· Almost our turn! Special salute @arthurslade ! via Echofon
(EDITOR’S NOTE: upon arriving, A. Slade gave his audience a special salute for coming. Kat returned the favour)

Then we all went home and had to become grown-ups again with careers and deadlines and early mornings.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Miracle at Speedy Motors and Christianity in Alexander McCall Smith

I recently reviewed one installment in a series I quite enjoy: The Miracle at Speedy Motors the ninth book of Alexander McCall Smith's engaging tales of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Grounded in morality and arbitration, I find these books have a steady and solid background, develop character and force the reader to note the good in everyone. Human character, relationships and goodness are at the heart of the novels. More still, they transport the reader to beautiful Bostwana: a bountiful and fruitful land where suffering is paired with grace and etiquette.

While formatting my review of the book at my other book blog, I stumbled upon this article in the Church Times which likens McCall Smith to the gospel. Precious Ramotswe, argues the writer, emblemizes the empathy we find in the Apostle Paul.

Feel free to read that article here

Read my quick and snappy review of The Miracle at Speedy Motors here

and track down Alexander McCall Smith: a prolific contemporary writer ( to say the least) here

A review! Another Alexander McCall Smith Review!

First, a REVIEW:

The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith.

I cannot say that I have read Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series in order---- nor have I sped through the series one after another. I read them now and then. Usually if I am in the mood or if I happen to stumble upon a copy at a used bookstore.

I find this is one series you can read out of order. Though the characters and plotlines continue throughout, the sparse, happy prose moves in such a way that you can catch up. You will easily clutch Smith’s sweet wisdom in the same way that the traditionally-built Mma Ramotswe clutches a cup of her beloved bush tea.

As is usually the case in the series, The Miracle at Speedy Motors opens in a slow, languid, yawn of a fashion with beautiful Africa spread as a canvas and the colourful characters of Mma Ramotswe, Grace Makutsi and JLB Matekoni ( now, like old ,tried friends) inching along the coloured backdrop like figures on a felt Sunday School board.

Yes, there is a mystery--- this one involving a woman and her family. Yet, like the best detective fiction ( and by “best” I mean the stories I hanker toward most often ), it is not so much the problem or its solution rather the characters and how they intertwine with the problem that keeps me dappling in the genre.

There are two major subplots to this absolutely charming novel: Mma Makutsi and her fiancé have found a suitable and comfortable bed for their upcoming life together but strange happenstances find Mma Makutsi’s bed ruined by an onslaught of rain. JLB Matekoni has met a doctor who he believes can heal the spinal injury of his adopted daughter Motholeli.

The scenes in which Rra Matekoni expresses his assured hope in Motholeli’s certain miracle are so touching you just want to sit and deliciously sniff at how sweet and warm and wonderful these characters and their world are.