What was lost

whatwaslost

“Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen. She hoped she wouldn’t be late.”

It is 1984. Kate Meany is hard at work as a young detective. She cases the Green Oaks Shopping Centre with her partner Mickey, a stuffed monkey. Together, they observe the shoppers, making notes in her notebook:

“She knew that one day she would see someone by the banks with a different look on his face – anxiety, or cunning, or hate, or desire – and she would know that this person was a suspect. So she scanned faces for any flicker of deviance.”

When not at Green Oaks, she’s often in the company of Adrian Palmer, the laid back son of the local newsagent, and the first and so far only client of Kate’s Falcon Investigations, and quite sadly, the closest anyone has come to being her best friend.

Then one day she disappears.

Fast forward to 2003 and Green Oaks security guard Kurt is on the night shift, watching the closed-circuit tv when he catches a glimpse of a young girl with a monkey sticking out of her backpack. And becomes entranced by that image. Adrian’s sister Lisa, who works at a discount music store in the mall, finds that stuffed monkey one evening, adding a little bit of a ghostly presence to the book. She has her own connection to Kate as Adrian was suspected to have something to do with her disappearance.

I came into this story – as perhaps I do for quite a few books – not knowing anything about it except for the fact that O’Flynn’s book won the First Novel Award at the 2007 Costa Book Awards, and was shortlisted for the overall Costa Book of the Year Award. So it took me completely by surprise that the first portion of the book was told by young Kate, and such a compelling, delightful (and of course a little sad) character she is. I have to admit that the second part of the book, with Kurt and Lisa, set me back a little initially, as they are less interesting than that precocious girl. But that desire, that need to discover Kate’s fate pushed me on. And the claustrophobic setting of Green Oaks – full of fallen dreams and mindless wanderers in search of the next bargain – is just absorbing.

What an absolute surprise of a book. Catherine O’Flynn pulls it off brilliantly with her rather amazing debut novel.

WIN6

I read this book for the What’s In a Name challenge (challenge page)

oflynn

Catherine O’Flynn was born in Birmingham, England, in 1970, where she grew up in and around her parents’ candy store. She has been a teacher, Web editor, and mystery customer—and this, her first novel, draws on her experience of working in record stores. After spending several years in Barcelona, she now lives in Birmingham.

Bibliography
What Was Lost. 2007.
The News Where You Are. 2010.

The Year of Pleasures

yearpleasures

“Someone had to die first. It turned out to be John. Nothing more. Nothing less. What fell to me now, what I was driving toward, was the creation of a new kind of life, minus the ongoing influence of what I had loved and depended upon most in the world.”

You know, when I downloaded this book (it’s a library e-book), I never quite expected it to be about grief.

Betta Nolan is a widow, a recent one. She is on a journey, a physical one (she moves from Boston to a small town in the Midwest), and a mental one (moving on from couplehood, figuring out how to live alone, settling into a new place, making friends and finding her old ones).

I suppose her tale of getting over her grief isn’t really a typical one. She and her husband were obviously financially sound enough for her to pack up and move (a little randomly) to this small town, to buy a large house and to dream of setting up a business despite any experience (her background is in writing children’s books). Things seemed to fall into place too easily – finding a house in a charming little town, a nice ten-year-old boy for a neighbour, reconnecting with friends she hasn’t seen or communicated with in decades. It was a little too romanticized, a little too picturesque, somehow.

Still, there were some lovely parts to this book. I’ve not read much by Elizabeth Berg, although she sure has written plenty of books (see below). And she seems to have such an incredible way with the little everyday details, like the simple joy of cooking a chicken, watching the world go by from a car, and even something as ordinary as alleys:

“In alleys, things were more casual and more intimate – and therefore were revealing. In summer, you saw things like colourful plastic glasses left on little outdoor tables, rugs draped over back-porch railings, toys strewn across lawns or handmade sandboxes, laundry on the line with the sleeves of upside-down shirts seeming to wave. There might be hollyhocks and snapdragons and gigantic sunflowers, tomatoes hanging heavy on the vine, green peppers hiding in the shade of their own leaves and waiting to be found like Easter eggs. There might be sugar snap peas climbing chain-link fences with curly abandon, children’s gardens with leggy printing on Popsicle sticks identifying dependable and forgiving crops: zucchini, carrots, marigolds…”

That was, for me, the pull factor. Her way with words. Plus that lovely cover!

Have you read anything by Elizabeth Berg? Is there a book of hers you’d recommend?

WIN6

I read this book for the What’s In a Name challenge (challenge page)

bergElizabeth Berg was a nurse for ten years before publishing her first book. Her novels Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year. Talk Before Sleep was an ABBY finalist, a New York Times bestseller, and a national bestseller. The Pull of the Moon, Range of Motion, What We Keep, and Until the Real Thing Comes Along also were national bestsellers. In 1997, Berg won the NEBA Award in fiction.

Bibliography
Family traditions: celebrations for holidays and everyday
Durable Goods
Talk Before Sleep
Range of Motion
The Pull of the Moon
Joy School
What We Keep
Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True
Until the Real Thing Comes Along
Open House
Never Change
Ordinary Life: stories
True to Form
Say When
The Art of Mending
The Year of Pleasures
The Handmaid and the Carpenter
We Are All Welcome Here
Dream When You’re Feeling Blue
The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted
Home Safe
The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel
Once Upon a Time, There Was You
Range of Motion

The Cookbook Collector

cookbookcollector

With its title and cover art, I half-expected to read a lace-filled, sherry-drinking kind of book. Judging a book by its cover (title?). Yes! Guilty guilty guilty.

So I wasn’t quite prepared for The Cookbook Collector to be partly about the tech world. Yes, as in start-ups, data storage, MIT, IPOs, multi-millionaires, that kind of thing.

For Emily is chief executive of Veritech, a data storage and retrieval company on the brink of IPO. Her boyfriend is also in the business, working out of Boston.

Jessamine, or Jess, is the younger sister, is the perpetual student, philosophy that is, tree-hugger, antiquarian book-seller.

The contrast between their lives is fascinating. New vs old. The high-tech world of Internet start-ups vs the cavern of the antiquarian bookstore that Jess works at. Emily is steady and deliberate, very much the older sister, somewhat maternal, especially since their mother died when they were young. Jess is impatient and headstrong, and often a bit melodramatic.

Of course though, this being the Bay Area, the antiquarian bookstore is owned by a first-generation Microsoft millionaire. His store sounds like such a gem:

“Yorick’s Used and Rare Books had a small storefront on Channing but a deep interior shaded by tall bookcases crammed with history, poetry, theology, antiquated anthologies. There was no open wall space to hang the framed prints for sale, so Hogarth’s scenes of lust, pride, and debauchery leaned rakishly against piles of novels, folk tales, and literary theory. In the back room these piles were so tall and dusty that they took on a geological air, rising like stalagmites. Jess often felt her workplace was a secret mine or quarry where she could pry crystals from crevices and sweep precious jewels straight off the floor.”

George, a perpetual bachelor at 39, finds himself becoming enchanted, a little reluctantly, by Jess. His interest is intriguing, “nurturing, not predatory”, and kind of sensuous, in a foodie sort of way:

“Laughable, antique, confusingly paternal, he longed to nourish her with clementines, and pears in season, fresh whole-wheat bread and butter, wild strawberries, comte cheese, fresh figs and oily Marcona almonds, tender yellow beets. He would scar red meat, if she would let him, and grill spring lamb. Cut the thorns off artichokes and dip the leaves in fresh aioli, poach her fish – thick Dole sole in wine and shallots – julienne potatoes, and roast a whole chicken with lemon slices under the skin. He would serve a salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and just-picked basil. Serve her and watch her savour dinner, pour for her, and watch her drink. That would be enough for him. To find her plums in season, and perfect nectarines, velvet apricots, dark succulent duck. To bring her all these things and watch her eat.”

The cookbook collector of the title comes quite a bit later in the book (we unravel Jess’ many interests – and men, and venture forth with Emily as Veritech makes her a multimillionaire), when a woman brings her late uncle’s books to George to determine their value. She is initially reluctant to sell them but invites George to the house to view the collection. And what a collection! The kitchen is stuffed with books. No pots, no pans, just books. The cabinets, the drawers, the oven! Can you imagine finding such a treasure trove? And as Jess and George begin to sift through the books, they discover that these cookbooks have drawings, notes, scraps of famous poetry slipped in between the pages.

Come live with me and be my love … interleaved with menus: oysters, fish stew, tortoise in its shell, bread from the oven, honey from the honeycomb. The books were unsplattered but much fingered, their pages soft with turning and re-turning, like collections of old fairy tales. Often Jess thought of Rapunzel and golden apples and enchanted gardens. She thought of Ovid, and Dante, and Cervantes, and the Pre-Raphaelites, for sometimes McClintock pictured his beloved eating, and sometimes sleeping in fields of poppies, and once throned like Persephone, with strawberry vines entwined in her long hair.”

Poetic, a little bit too dramatic, that’s pretty much Jess for you.

Anyway, The Cookbook Collector was an enjoyable read. The wonderful, often poetic descriptions of food, and that wonderful love for books (whether collecting or reading!)  the contrasting fast-paced world of Veritech and Emily’s Jonathan’s company ISIS. And for me, that familiar Bay Area setting which Goodman deftly paints a picture of.

“Rain drummed the little houses skyrocketing in value in Cupertino and Sunnyvale. Much-needed rain darkened the red tile roofs of Stanford, and puddled Palo Alto’s leafy streets. On the coast, the waves were molten silver, rising and melting in the September storm. Bridges levitated, and San Francisco floated like a hidden fortress in the mist. Rain flattened the impatiens edging corporate lawns, and Silicon Valley shimmered. The world was bountiful, the markets buoyant. Reflecting pools brimmed to overflowing, and already the tawny hills looked greener. Like money, the rain came in a rush, enveloping the Bay, delighting forecasters, exceeding expectations, charging the air.”

I previously read Goodman’s Intuition, although I can’t remember much about it other than it was a workplace novel set in some research institute. But after reading The Cookbook Collector, I’m going to check out the rest of her books.

Allegra Goodman’s works
Novels
Kaaterskill Falls
Paradise Park
Intuition
The Other Side of the Island
The Cookbook Collector

Short story collections
Total Immersion
The Family Markowitz

WIN6

I read this book for the What’s in a Name challenge.

Read in January 2013

I woke up this morning and realised that the little calendar icon on my phone said ‘1’, as in the first of February. I can’t believe January is over already!

So much has happened in the past week. Wee reader’s grandparents went home and he’s taking it pretty badly. I guess the last time either set of his grandparents came to visit from Singapore, he was too young to understand. Now he definitely knows that they’re not here, so he keeps asking after his mama and gong gong. And I think he’s worried that his dad’s not around during the day so he often asks for his daddy although he often answers his own question, saying ‘daddy work work choo choo’ (he takes the Bart into the city). Hopefully things will get better over the weekend!

This month I made a bit of headway with all three challenges (Global Women of Colour, What’s in a Name, Postal Reading) and read a ton of graphic novels.

Fiction (9)
Beautiful Children – Charles Bock
Three Strong Women – Marie Ndiaye (Read for Global Women of Colour Challenge)
The Uninvited Guests – Sadie Jones (TLC Book Tour)
The Messenger (The Giver, #3) – Lois Lowry
Under heaven – Guy Gavriel Kay (Read for What’s in a Name Challenge)
The cookbook collector – Allegra Goodman (Read for What’s in a Name Challenge)
Scent of darkness – Margot Berwin (upcoming TLC Book Tour)
Obernewtyn – Isobelle Carmody
Sold – Patricia McCormick

Non-fiction (3)
If you lived here, I’d know your name: News from small-town Alaska – Heather Lende
84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Read for Postal Reading Challenge)
The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Graphic novels (7)
Water baby – Ross Campbell
Gen13. Superhuman like you – Adam Warren
Waterwise – Joel Orff
The Umbrella Academy Vol 1: Apocalypse Suite – Gerard Way, Gabriel Ba
Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale – Belle Yang (Read for Global Women Challenge)
American Widow – Alissa Torres
Habibi – Craig Thompson

Total: 19

Under Heaven

underheaven

“As to the meaning to be attached to such a conjunction, a pattern discovered embedded in the tale…

Who can number, under the heavens, the jewel-bright observations to be extracted from moments such as these? Who will dare say he knows with certainty which single gem is to be held up to whatever light there is for us, in our journeying, and proclaimed as true?”

This is the third book by Guy Gavriel Kay that I’ve read (Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan are the previous two) and each book just seems to surpass the one I’ve read before. I loved my first introduction to his work, with Tigana. But Lions attracted me more with its glorious battle scenes and setting. Then along comes Under Heaven which simply blows me away with its great characters and storyline.

Shen Tai, second son of the late General Shen Gao, has been in the far reaches of Kuala Nor, the fabled battleground littered with bones. He is in his two-year mourning period for his father and has been burying the bones of these long dead soldiers, both friend and foe. The ghosts haunting his every night. The screams and cries of the sad and angry dead.

As his mourning period comes to an end his old friend arrives to visit and tell him some important news from home. But before he is able to, his bodyguard kills him and tries to kill Tai (he kills her instead – or rather the ghosts of Kuala Nor do). On that very day, he is presented with a gift (for his deed has impressed even royalty) that will change his fate – 250 fabled Sardian horses. Horses prized for their rarity, speed and strength. Not even the Kitai Emperor has one. And which any man, any army would kill for.

tanghorse

Tang Dynasty-era pottery (via China Pottery Online)

You gave a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

So Tai finds himself with more than one dilemma. To find out just who wants him killed (even before the news of the Sardian horses), what the important news from home is, and what exactly to do with his horses (and as a matter of fact, ensuring his own safety as he journeys home). It is a tricky situation for anyone to be in. And made even more impossible by court intrigue and the mystical magic of the land (she-foxes, shamans, ghosts).

We also meet some other interesting characters like Tai’s sister Li-Mei who has been forced beyond the Long Wall to become the bride of the leader of the Bogü clan. And the beautiful Wen Jian, the Emperor’s favoured concubine, who, although young, is incredibly perceptive and manages to manipulate and shape the fates and fortunes of Tai and others, all while maintaining that poised guileless image, perfect for being underestimated by others.

One thing I have appreciated with each book of Kay’s that I’ve read, is his writing of strong female characters. Wei Song is both stealthy and witty (and finds herself having a soft spot for Tai). After all, at the Kalin sanctuary on Stone Drum Mountain, “you were taught how to disarm a person with words, confuse or placate them. It wasn’t all blades and bows and spinning leaps that ended with a kick to the chest or head and, often as not, a death.”

In an interview with SF Channel, Kay said:

“As for the female psyche, I used to be flattered when people said I did convincing female characters, but lately I confess it bemuses me. The implied idea underlying the comment is that it is startling that a man can do plausible women characters. If you push this just a bit, you have to ask how any woman could do a convincing man, how any young writer could do a geriatric, how any of us could do someone not…ourselves. Creating characters is, in a large way, an act of imaginative empathy, and I’m resistant to the idea that there are absolute borders to that. In the end, I’d say that we’re really talking about good or bad writing, rather than male and female, or young and old.”

Kay’s Kitai, which was inspired by Tang Dynasty China, is a sumptuous, brilliant read. Full of politicking and covert dealings. But it’s also written with an eye for the splendour of courtly life and the vivid details of this familiar yet unfamiliar land. This is not just a story of Shen Tai, it was a story of those connected with him and how all these events unfold and work in patterns and pieces. It was a world I didn’t want to leave.

In a letter published in advance reading copies of Under Heaven, Kay wrote:

“I want to keep readers turning pages until two in the morning or better (or worse!). So consider this: if I base a book on a slightly altered past the reader who knows what happened in that time and place does not know with any certainty what will happen in my story. In Under Heaven I’ve served notice with the shift to an imagined Kitai from real China that I reserve the right to change, or telescope events.”

 

Guy Gavriel Kay’s bibliography
The Fionavar Tapestry in three parts:
The Summer Tree (1984)
The Wandering Fire (1986)
The Darkest Road (1986)

Tigana (1990)
A Song for Arbonne (1992)
The Lions of Al-Rassan, (1995)

The Sarantine Mosaic,  in two parts:
Sailing to Sarantium (1998)
Lord of Emperors (2000)

Beyond This Dark House (2003)
The Last Light of the Sun (2004)
Ysabel (2007)
Under Heaven (April 27, 2010)
River of Stars (expected 2013)

WIN6

I read Under Heaven for the What’s in a name challenge

What’s in a Name 6 challenge

WIN6
Beth Fish Reads is hosting this fun challenge and it’s my first time joining! Here’s the link to the sign-up page.

Between January 1 and December 31, 2013, read one book in each of the following categories (my ideas in blue):

    1. A book with up or down (or equivalent) in the title: Hand Me Down World (Lloyd Jones), Under Heaven(Guy Gavriel Kay)

handmedownworld

underheaven

    1. A book with something you’d find in your kitchen in the title: The Price of Salt (Patricia Highsmith), The Cookbook Collector (Allegra Goodman)

cookbookcollector

pricesalt

    1. A book with a party or celebration in the title: The Shooting Party (Isabel Colgate), Larry’s Party (Carol Shields)

larryparty

shootingparty

    1. A book with fire (or equivalent) in the title: Enna Burning (Shannon Hale), The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe), The Moon and the Bonfire (Cesare Pavese)

bonfirevanities

ennaburning

    1. A book with an emotion in the title: The Pleasure Seekers (Tishani Doshi), Comfort and Joy (India Knight). Read: The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg

pleasureseekers

comfortjoy

    1. A book with lost or found (or equivalent) in the title: Lost Souls (Poppy Z Brite), What was Lost (Catherine O’Flynn)

lostsouls

whatwaslost

Gosh that was fun! I’m tempted to go look up the previous challenges just to make more lists!

I’m sure I’ll be coming across other books with titles to fit these categories. And I’m looking forward to spotting them.

Which challenges do you have your eye on for 2013?