Saturday, September 26, 2009

New Fantasy Novel by One of my Faves

So last week I bookmarked all the books I've been working away at in order to immerse myself in Jacqueline Carey's new fantasy novel, Naamah's Kiss. In a way this is the first book in a new trilogy but it could also be considered a continuation of her previous series--all set in a alternate ancient time in a land that bears close resemblance to Europe and it's numerous nations.

The previous novels in the series were divided into two trilogies: the first, narrated by Carey's first protagonist, Phèdre nò Delaunay de Montrève, a courtesan in a country called Terre d'Ange who is born marked by the gods and trained as a spy; it contains the novels: Kushiel's Dart, Kushiel's Chosen and Kushiel's Avatar. In the second trilogy the narration is continued by Phèdre's foster son and third heir to the d'Angeline throne, Imriel nò Montrève de la Courcel (they do love the long names), the son of an infamous traitor to the nation. The second trilogy contains the novels Kushiel's Scion, Kushiel's Justice and Kushiel's Mercy. All the books contain political intrigue, romance (and sex!), epic journeys and large and small scale battles. They really do hold all the best elements of a good fantasy novel combined.

I was a little sad when I realized that this new third trilogy was not going to contain any of the previous characters. I had really grown attached to both Phèdre and Imriel and they are only historical footnotes in this new book, but I still had high hopes for it since Carey never seems to let me down. Naamah's Kiss is set several generations past the end of the last of the Kushiel books, with a protagonist, Moirin, who is a descendant of the royalty of two different nations but who is raised by her mother's people, a wild and secretive clan of magical folk who worship a god who takes the form of a brown bear. Moirin's father was a d'Angeline priest of Naamah (the goddess of pleasure, if you will) and early on in the books she sets off across the ocean to find him. I should note that it is pretty obvious in Carey's books which nation is mean to represent which European region and Terre D'Ange (the focus of all of the earlier books) is definitely France while Alba, Moiron's birthplace, is Great Britain. The previous books have contained voyages to Skaldia (Germany), Aragonia (Spain), Hellas (Greece), Caerdicca Unitas (Italy), Menekhet (Egypt) and Khebbel-Im-Akkad (parts of the Middle East) to name a few, but Moirin eventually leaves Terre d'Ange to journey to a place that has only previously been mentioned in passing, the land of Ch'in, meant to represent China and much of the east. It seemed that Carey was striving for a different tone to this new offshoot of the series. Gone is the dark eroticism of the Kushiel books and instead the focus leaned more heavily on a sort of divine mysticism and Moirin's quest to fulfill her spiritual destiny.

I have admit I wasn't sure if I was enjoying the book for the first few chapters but I quickly became absorbed. Carey continues to have a knack for storytelling in all her books and the epic scale of the adventures she pens hasn't changed one iota. I very much enjoyed the character of Moirin though she's quite different from her d'Angeline predecessors--her people have become part of myth, shrouded in secrecy and feared by many.

Moirin is a beautiful and sensitive girl with good intentions mostly, but she is capable of wielding unthinkable magical power and many other characters in the book fear her no matter what good she does. One of my favourite aspects of her character is the fact that before she was sixteen years old she had never been inside of a building, she and her mother lived in a cave and rarely came into contact with people. As a result, Moirin is not at ease unless outdoors and finds life in ordinary society to be repressive to an unbearable degree. She has her people's gift (or curse) of being able to sense her destiny in a very literal sense, and she is driven by the demands of the gods of both countries. You really care for this character, odd as she is. I don't know if I've ever read book told from the perspective of such a profoundly lonely person, completely apart from those around her and generally misunderstood by all. Moirin does make some loyal and true friends but even they do not always completely understand her. On the other hand, gods and demons seems to have a certain fondness for her that is rather inexplicable and at times unfortunate. This is a must read for any fantasy fan.

To read more about Jacqueline Carey's works you can find information on her website.

The next installment comes out June of next year and I can't wait.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Canadian First

So here is a quick review of another great Canadian contemporary novel that I recently finished (I promise to start on some New Orleans fiction soon). Mouthing the Words is the first novel written by Camilla Gibb, who has been shortlisted for her more recent works for the Scotiabank Giller Prize--the top National award for literature in Canada, for my American readers.

I haven't read any of Gibb's other work but Mouthing the Words is definitely an impressive first. I read a review in the New York Times Book Review that compared her style to that of Sylvia Plath and I couldn't agree more--think The Bell Jar with a slightly more modern twist to the prose.

The plot is of the oft-done 'girl grows up in abusive environment and dreams of escape' type, but Gibb's insight into her protagonist's deeply damaged psyche is unrivaled. Thelma, who we first meet as a child, withdraws into her own fantasy world to escape her sexually abusive father and her emotionally-absent mother, but loses track of the separation between fantasy and reality as she grows older. This eventual borderline personality disorder doesn't stop the brilliant Thelma from eventually pursuing her ambitions of a career in law.

This might sound like a very depressing story but in fact the book is often hilariously funny and engaging, with a constant cast of Thelma's imaginary companions who often have a lot to say on the state of things. Mouthing the Words will disturb you, anger you, and above all entertain you--glad to see that Ontario is still keeping up it's tradition of producing bright literary talent. Must read!

We trust that we know to be normal is normal simply because it is known to us. Worlds meet in collisions and the coherence of our histories crumbles. I feel it in the blank looks I tend to receive at dinner parties. When other people recount stories, I habitually interject with statements like, "Oh yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I used to feel just like that when my father held me over the bridge by my armpits." Eyes previously animated are suddenly staring soberly. "You know?" I might add hopefully. "That bridge over the Don River?" A gracious dinner party host might break the uncomfortable moment with some tactfully placed suggestion of more Stilton. And if I had a lover, this would be the perfect moment to give me a reassuring squeeze of the thigh under the table and whisper something in my ear like, "It's OK, dear. Just try not to talk."

Monday, August 10, 2009

An Uncommon Reader

I haven't been getting that much reading done in the last few weeks as work has been pretty crazy in the lead-up to my trip to Canada. Instead, I've been re-reading a few favourites and slowly working my way through A Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan--a memoir about cancer that is so sad in places that I can only handle one chapter at a time.

Last weekend I returned to one of my favourite essay collections, Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. I love books about reading and bookworms because for a very long time as a child I really thought I was the only one--the only really crazy one, I mean. On the first page of Fadiman's introduction she says, "There is a certain kind of child who awakens from a book as from an abyssal sleep, swimming heavily up through layers of consciousness toward a reality that seems less real than the dream-state that has been left behind. I was such a child." So was I; and I find Fadiman's dry and witty stories about her own particular brand of mania the ultimate reassurance regarding my own dubious addiction (because hers is ten times worse!).

Fadiman is the daughter of the famous literary critic and scholar, Clifton Fadiman; her Mother, Annalee, was a foreign correspondent in World War II; and she is married to American author George Howe Colt. I love her descriptions of her family's shared book-insanity and constant discussions of all things literary. One of my favourites in the collection is "Marrying Libraries" which recounts her and her husband's attempt to consolidate their vast libraries, decide whose extra copies should be discarded, and above all, choose how everything should be sorted:
"'You mean we're going to be chronological within each author?' he gasped. 'But no one even knows for sure when Shakespeare wrote his plays!'
'Well,' I blustered, 'we know he wrote Romeo and Juliet before The Tempest. I'd like to see that reflected on our shelves.'
George says that was one of the few times he has seriously contemplated divorce.
Another good essay is "Never Do That to a Book", which compares people that asthetically love books with people that carnivorously devour them with no qualm against defacing the book in the process (guess which one I am?). Equally interesting is "Nothing New Under the Sun" which explores the topic of plagiarism in all its forms.

Fadiman also delves into the topic of gender, always a draw for me, in her essays "True Womanhood" and "The His'er Problem". The latter was particularly good reading and had me in stitches when Fadiman described a job interview she had once for a summer job at the New Yorker where the editor asked her what sorts of magazines she would like to work for. When she got to the new woman's magazine "Ms.", she realized she didn't know how to pronounce, the then new neutral female word and instead referred to it as "em ess". The editor, rather than point out her error, proceeded to discuss that particular magazine without ever once referring to its title:
"Since that time, whenever I have heard anyone talk about civility, I have thought of Mr. Shawn, a man so civil that, in order to spare me embarrassment, he succeeded in crossing a potential minefield of potential Ms.'s without detonating a single one... After I left the building I called a friend. ('How do you say that new little word?... Oh my God, no!') That was a terrible moment, but as Mr. Shawn had surmised, wanting to die in a telephone booth was greatly preferable to wanting to die in his office."
The rest of that essay explores Fadiman's conflicting feelings regarding gender neutral language that is at once fair, but not necessarily poetic.

There is also a recommended books section at the back of Confessions of a Common Reader that I found very useful, with many of Fadiman's own favourite books about books. If you consider yourself a bookworm, this volume is definitely worth owning.
"Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Vampires with a twist

I started watching True Blood when HBO was showing repeats of the first season in the lead up to the premiere of the second season. For a complete recounting of my little obsession with the show please see my other blog, Le Bon Temps. The show made me curious about the series it’s based on, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, by Charlaine Harris, because seeing as I live in Louisiana, where the story is set, it’s hard not to have heard about the books. The local Borders always has a little display them in the “Louisiana fiction” section and the covers were so unique that I came very close to picking them up several times before I caught the True Blood bug.

So I picked up the first book, Dead Until Dark, and started reading. Even though I knew the basic plot of the first novel through watching the show I was completely hooked on this series within the first few chapters. I had just had to read the rest after that. It’s hard not to be in the story: Charlaine Harris has the kind of writing style that is perfect for this kind of fantasy/mystery genre. She really doesn’t waste much time in getting to the action in her books and almost every chapter has it’s own mini-climax with plenty of crazy plot twists.

"I could tell Hugo was convinced that he would get to walk back up these stairs: after all, he was a civilized person. These were all civilized people. Hugo really couldn't imagine that anything irreparable could happen to him, because he was a middle-class white American with a college education, as were all the people on the stairs with us. I had no such conviction. I was not a wholly civilized person."

I’m someone who has always loved vampire novels, from Stoker’s Dracula to, more recently Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian; I’ve even dabbled in Anne Rice on occasion, so I know the run-of-the-mill vampire cliches. Let me tell you, Southern Vampire really turns a lot of them on their head. Harris creates a world in which a multitude of supernatural species live alongside rather naive humans: vampires, shapeshifters, werewolves and even fairies. At the start of the first novel, the vampires have “been out of the coffin”, so to speak, to the human populace for two years, since the invention of a Japanese synthetic substance called True Blood, which allows vampires to survive without having to drink the blood of humans–in theory… duh duh duh.

Enter our protagonist, Miss Sookie Stackhouse, barmaid and reluctant telepath in the small and very fictional town of Bon Temps, whose neighbours have considered her the town crazy since childhood, and who has been hoping, for two years, that she might get to meet a real live vampire. On the very first page of the first novel (I told you, Harris works fast), she gets her wish in the form of Bill Compton, a rather stoic vampire who is attempting to “mainstream”, as the vampires put it, by moving back to his hometown and living amongst its human citizens. Sookie and Bill immediately become romantically entangled and Sookie gets pulled into the rather murky world of vampire politics and intrigue. From that point on the poor girl pretty much gets the crap kicked out of her on a semi-regular basis – seriously, not a single novel passes that doesn’t end with Sookie flat on her back in a hospital somewhere.

The series so far consists of nine books, Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, Club Dead, Dead to the World, Dead as a Doornail, Definitely Dead, All Together Dead, From Dead to Worse, and Dead and Gone. I’m sure you can see a theme here. Each book has its own self-contained mystery or adventure but also builds up the increasing complexity of Sookie’s ever-broadening world – new species to contend with, new vampire political struggles. Basically you could read each novel as a stand-alone and muddle through but you’d be confused beyond what can be explained in the brief recap at the beginning of each book.

What sets the series apart from other mystery or fantasy for me is the humour with which Harris writes all of her characters. Now that I’ve read the books I infinitely prefer the Sookie of the novel to her TV counterpart. It’s no offense against Anna Paquin or the show at all, I just find that they sort of overdo the whole southern charm thing–Sookie sort of ends up coming off as a bit of a bimbo–whereas in the books she still has that polite southern belle element but she’s also sarcastic and increasingly pragmatic about the sort of horrors she is exposed to as the books go on. I like that she’s unflappable.

Bill is a character I really can’t stand in either format because he’s your typical tortured soul style vampire made so famous by Louis in “Interview with the Vampire”, which I find gets very old, very fast, and then you just want him to scram. Like most fans of this series I absolutely adore the character of Eric, the 1000-year old vampire who acts as leader of Northern Louisiana, but he doesn’t really become a major character until the fourth book and on the show he’s still coming off as one of the bad guys–I still have high hopes. Both he and his second in command Pam are favourite characters of mine because they so enjoy their undead lives (no pun intended) and keep a sense of humour in even the most bizarre of circumstances (and there are plenty).

"'I read a policeman's mind,' I muttered. I snuck a look to see how Eric was taking this, and he was staring at me the same way the Monroe vampires had. Thoughtful. Hungry.
"That's interesting," he said. "I had a psychic once. It was incredible."
"Did the psychic think so?"
Eric laughed. "For a while."

Also there is sex. Lots and lots of sex. That seems to be a real sticker with the book and show–these vampires are very horny. And as we all know, sex can only improve a book J

There are nine books so far plus several shorts stories that fall between the novels and Harris has said there will be at least four more before she finishes with Sookie. I can’t recommend these books more and I can say with complete confidence that this series has absolutely made my year. Read it!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Transatlantic flight reading

Sorry for the long gap between posts. The big trip to France took up most of June, if you count all the packing and unpacking and sleeping off the jet lag. On our way to Nice we were delayed in London for 24 hours which was not too bad at all since the airline picked up the tab. We took the red eye across to London so I really didn't do much reading on that leg of the journey; aside from a few trashy romances, I mainly slipped in and out of consciousness until we arrived. Once we arrived in France there was too much to see and do to do more than peak at the books I'd brought along.

On the way back, however, I was in the mood for something funny so I started reading the first book in the Thursday Next series, called The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Several years ago I was on a trip somewhere with my family, I think to Costa Rica, and I was going through books like crazy since we were spending a lot of time being driven from once place to another. So my sister let me read a few that she had brought along and one of these was another Thursday Next novel somewhere in the middle of the series. I enjoyed it a lot but this is a series with a lot of complicated plot twists and I admit to being a little lost with some of the references in the book to what had happened previously. I meant to look for the rest of the series when we got home but, typically, I got distracted by some other book and forgot all about it until I re-discovered it, like some vacation-reading holy grail, on a cart being pushed by a very sweet librarian.

It turns out that the New Orleans public library has the complete Thursday Next series on their shelves, which might not seem so miraculous in any other city but down here whenever I type something into the search engine I know that dreaded "damaged in Katrina" is gonna pop up somewhere. So it seemed like divine literary intervention, if you know what I mean, and I made sure to pack that book in my carry on.

It's definitely just as funny as I remembered. It's irreverent, witty and the absolute perfect book for literature lovers. In fact being at least familiar with the great works of literature is a bit of a prerequisite to getting a lot of the humour in Thursday Next's world, which is sort of an alternate-history/fantasy nod to the written word.

In her world, England is republic with a rather totalitarian method of policing its citizens and conducting its affairs abroad. The country has been bailed out of the World Wars by a giant corporation called Goliath, which now almost runs England and controls its media. The other important difference is that literature, especially the classics, are valued deeply and taken very very seriously. Books are bigger than movies or television and authors are revered far more than any celebrity. Enter Thursday Next, literary detective, war veteran and bookworm extraordinaire. She quickly becomes embroiled in trying to catch a villain intent on blackmailing the government by kidnapping literary figures from their books: including Jane Eyre herself. The book blurs the lines between fantasy and reality but never takes itself too seriously (expect many puns). I think the series continues on for at least six more books after the first so I'm looking forward to reading the sequels when I get a chance.

"I'm not mad. I'm just...well, differently moralled, that's all."

"I shouldn't believe anything I say, if I were you-and that includes what I just told you."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Ten contemporary novels that'll rock your world.

Might as well start this blog off with a bang. I've put together a list of ten books, spanning several decades and genres, that I have found myself thinking about long after they'd been shelved. Some are fond childhood friend and some I've only recently discovered, but all are definitely worth reading. Something for everyone, I promise.

1. The Book of Daniel, E.L. Doctorow (1971)
I'm a big fan of Doctorow but this is by far my favourite of all his works. It's meant to be very loosely based on the Rosenberg trials (the famous couple executed at the height of communist fear in America for supposedly selling national secrets to the Soviets) though the differences are distinct enough that the book doesn't quite qualify as direct historical fiction. The story, though not chronological or particularly coherent, focuses on the son of the so-called spies as he begins to examine his parent's trial and the impact that it had on the lives of himself and his sister, Susan, who has attempted suicide and resides in a mental facility. Honestly, this is a very difficult book to summarize because it skips around in time and topic with Daniel's own thoughts and memories and much of it is a sort of philosophical consideration of America as a nation. The book is about one family and one man but its also the most insightful novel about the upheaval of the 50s and 60s that I've ever read. I especially encourage people to read in now - in the light of more recent political upheaval, the book takes on a new significance.

2. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
And of course we come to Atwood, that reliable rock star of Canadian literature. I've read most of her work from The Edible Woman to Oryx and Crake but I inevitably return to this beautifully written dystopia. The protagonist is Offred, a woman living in a religious dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead, once called the United States of America. The book alternates between her memories of the world that was (the world we are familiar with) and the world that is - a world in which women's minds and bodies are strictly controlled and rigid hierarchy enforced. There is something about the way that this novel is written, dreamy and sometimes apathetic, that unsettles you as you're reading it. I once went through one of my copies and tried to underline all the really great lines - made my book pretty messy - there is at least one amazing, unforgettable line in every chapter of this book.
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.
3. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova (2005)
A few years ago I saw a friend reading this book and was completely shocked at how big it was. I mean I love big books (and I cannot lie), but this was easily one of the heftiest books I'd ever laid eyes on. My friend swore up and down that it was the most absorbing thing she'd read all year so I went out and bought it the next day... and didn't come up for air for 24 hours. This novel is a serious contender for the greatest vampire novel ever written, Bram Stoker included. It's a mammoth-sized tome that takes you through most of Western and Eastern Europe on the hunt for the real deal: Dracula himself. This is definitely a mystery/horror/adventure novel for history buffs as the title implies - the protagonists spend a great deal of time pouring over dusty books in even dustier libraries. The most amazing part of it is that this is Kostova's first book, though it's more like five books in one. She must have had to do YEARS of research to write this thing: customs, language, myths, superstitions - everything is written with such detail that the supernatural aspect of the book seems almost plausible. Very scary.

4. Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson (1981)
A book that falls under my "childhood friends" category. I think I must have read this for the first time when I was around ten or eleven years old - a battered old copy from my school library. It's the story of a young girl growing up in an isolated island community who is sort of perpetually overshadowed by her twin sister. It's not too long and a fairly straightforward story but the prose is beautiful and the ending always makes me cry. I have such a fondness for the books that kept me company when I was small - it's like a hug from an old friend whenever you read them again.
We slept in the same room, ate at the same table, sat for nine months out of each year in the same classroom, but none of these had made us close. How could they, when being conceived at the same time in the same womb had done nothing to bind us together? And yet, if we were not close, why did only Caroline have the power, with a single glance, to slice my flesh clear to the bone?
5. Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson (2002)
This book was assigned reading in Literature For Our Time, the fist year English course at the University of Toronto, taught by the brilliant Professor Nick Mount. In fact much of the books that almost made it only this list were also recommended by him but this book is one that I still think about all these year later. The novel falls into the category of literature I love most: magical realism. Lisamarie, a young girl growing up in the isolated Haisla village of Kittamaat, leads a relatively normal, if troubled life, aside from the fact that she receives the occasional visit from a sort of trickster spirit who acts as a portent of tragedy to come. She finds herself in the unfortunate position of vaguely knowing the future without the power to change it, and inevitably feels responsible when harm comes to her family. We were lucky in my class to actually receive a visit from the author herself, and let me tell you, she was the not the kind of person you picture sitting down to write a novel as dark in tone as this one - she was so bubbly and affable and loved answering our questions - in fact, several of her answers about the hidden nuances in the text surprised me so its a book that needs to be read a few times to understand some of the subtle details she weaves in.

6. Outlander, Diana Gabaldon (1998)
Every time I try to summarize this novel (the first in a series) when I'm recommending it I draw a blank because nothing I can say does it justice without making it sound rather cheesy, and it's anything but. Suffice it to say that this book spans several genres: romance, adventure, and historical fiction with a teaspoon of fantasy thrown into the mix in the form of time-travel. The first couple of novels take place during the Scottish Uprisings of the 1700s (during which most of the Highland clans were wiped out) but in later books the protagonists travel to the New World and eventually become embroiled in the American Revolution - so lots of fun for history buffs but also very acessible for someone who knows nothing about those events. This would also make a great summer vacation read since it grabs you from the get go and makes for great escapism. It's easily the novel that I have re-read the most times (somewhere around 30 or so times, I would say) and I cannot praise it more. Read this book!

7. The Romantic, Barbara Gowdy (2003)
Another Canadian author! And a book set in dear old Toronto... Woot!
Anything by Gowdy is worth reading honestly but I feel this is one of her best. As the title implies, the story revolves around love and a young girl named Louise who is desperate for love from any source. Louise's mother, a former beauty queen, disappears one day when her daughter is nine, leaving only a note that reads, "Louise knows how to work the washing machine" - a perfect example of Gowdy's biting and ironic humour. A warning to readers: this is not a happy tale by any stretch of the imagination and I frequently go through a box of Kleenex while reading it. For these characters love turns out not to be enough.
I'm sure that my mother, at least, would say I'd got it all wrong. Abel might think I'd got it all wrong, too, except he wouldn't care. Looking back over his life never came easily to him, and for the sake of avoiding that ordeal--but also because, ultimately, he attached himself to nothing--he'd surrender to anyone's memories of him. Even mine, these pawed-over resurrections. Even though he knew I loved him too desperately to ever be a reliable witness.
8. The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
Soon to be a movie, starring Rachel McAdams, that I am eagerly anticipating. I have no idea when it comes out - every time I check it still says "in production" and I first heard about it two years ago! I'm very curious to see how on earth they turn this book into a movie because even summarizing it is going to give me a headache. The first time I finished reading it I had to immediately start it over so I could begin to unravel who was where and when and at what point. Still, for all the confusing chronological jumping around in time, this story is absolutely mesmerizing. The plot centres around Henry, a young librarian who has a genetic disorder that causes him to be periodically displaced in time, and his wife Claire, whom he meets on these travels. There is so much more to it than that, including random instances of vast age differences between the characters, but there is no way to explain it here without confusing everyone. Suffice it to say that theirs is not a typical marriage and this is not a typical romance. Read it!

9. A Town Like Alice, Neville Shute (1976)
I actually saw the TV mini-series made of this before I read the book. They are both excellent and the movie really cuts out nothing of the plot - it's about nine hours of watching, though. Since then I've read a lot of Neville Shute (On the Beach is another great) but this remains my favourite. Its also much easier to summarize than most of the other books on this list: The story is sort of two stories, really, narrated by a lawyer who happens to meet the protagonist in the course of carrying out her uncle's will. The first half of the story is recounted to the narrator by the protagonist, Jean, as she describes her experience during the war. She was part of a group of British women and children who are captured by the Japanese in Malaysia during World War II. They were forced to march from town to town, walking all day, because the Japanese had no womens' camp set up in the country - so they just march this group around for three years. Along the way, Jean meets a young Australian prisoner, who steals some chickens to help feed the women and is, she thinks, executed for it. At least half of the original number die, including all of the Japanese guards assigned to them. When the last guard dies, the group decides to stay at their last stop, an isolated Malaysian village, and work in the rice patties until the war is over. Which they do. End story one. The second-half of the book begins with Jean discovering, on a trip back to Malaysia, that the Australian prisoner has actually survived the war. So she heads off to the Australian outback to track him down. I won't tell you any more - suffice it to say, it's quite the epic novel. Shute's stories always have the feeling of a really good story told round a campfire, complete with lovely, faintly nostalgic endings:
"I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf Country, dreaming of the blazing sunshine, of poddy dodging and black stock riders, or Cairns and of Green Island. Of a girl I met forty years too late, and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again, that hold so much of my affection."
10. Wonder When You'll Miss Me, Amanda Davis (2004)
This is a bittersweet pick for me so I'm glad it ended up coming last alphabetically (which is how I organized them, for fairness sake). I discovered her first work, Circling the Drain (Short Stories), in a random bin at some random bookstore in some random city in California - true story. I was hooked from the get go. Her stories were completely different from anything I'd read before, and in fact they were completely different from each other. It was a very surprising first work for such a young woman. So when I stumbled across her novel three years ago I was ecstatic, until I noticed the Afterward by Michael Chabon which lamented her death in a plane crash with her entire family two months before the book's publication. I can't tell you how saddened I was - this was an author who would have gone on to write some amazing stuff and to lose someone so talented so young is a big loss for the literary world. This novel is a sort of continuation of one of the stories in her collection: A young girl, Faith, struggles to return to normalcy after a breakdown but is haunted by bitter, sarcastic hallucinations of her formerly fat self. She eventually snaps and commits some disturbing violence before running of and joining a circus -- definitely not your typical coming of age story. The afterward by Michael Chabon is also not to be skipped as its possibly one of the most touching, heartbreaking tributes to a lost friend, and lost talent, that I've ever read.

So there's the big first list. After this I will most likely stick to reviewing one at a time but I thought this would be a good way to get the blog started and demonstrate the sort of books I read. My hope is that someone will pick up one of these books and make a new discovery.