Monday, March 23, 2009

Review: Unless

This book is the story of a mother's despair when she discovers her daughter has chosen to leave her comfortable, suburban existence and live on the street. Reta Winters is devastated to discover that her daughter Norah is spending her days on a Toronto street corner holding a sign that says "goodness." Her nights are spent in a shelter. Unless enters the interior world of a mother. We learn all of Reta's thoughts; what we learn very little of is Norah herself. Norah is arguably the most interesting character in the book. Instead we get Reta, reminiscing and thinking about all of the elements of her life, her marriage, and her children. Reta has spent her professional life translating the works of French feminist philosopher Danielle Westerman, and writing a chick lit novel of her own. We hear quite a bit about both the novel (which has a sequel in progress) and Westerman. This is far too much for a fictional philosopher whose contribution is never all that well explained, and novels are not especially interesting. Ultimately, Shields never really made me care about any of the characters except Norah, of whom I consistently wanted to hear more. This is one of those book where I suspect there are deeper things going on with the writing, but I simply couldn't engage enough to really investigate them.

Carol Shields, Unless (Random House Canada, 2003) ISBN: 0679311807

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: Dragonwell Dead

I should start by stating that I am clearly not the intended audience for this sort of book. I read this book for the "tea" category in my 999 Challenge. This is the first book I've read in the "cozy mystery" genre, and everything about it was just a bit too cute for my taste. Much of the plot was highly improbable. The basic plot involves tea shop owner Theodosia Browning trying to figure out why a local orchid aficionado dropped dead immediately after winning a rare specimen at an orchid auction. There's not much else to say about the plot, so I'll get on to the elements I found unbelievable or troublesome. First, the prose is chock-full of description that seems to serve little purpose. Second, there's really no character development. The characters are entirely one-dimensional. Third, the elements of the story and completely implausible. What police chief allows a random civilian to drop off key evidence in a homicide investigation to him at her convenience? Finally, all the extraneous elements of the story are just a bit too perfect. Everything is the best and the nicest.- the nicest tea shop, the most popular bed and breakfast. The tea shop has an unflappable chef who can always make just the most perfect pastries. All this saccharine is more than a little tiresome. Nowhere have I seen a discussion (and an extensive discussion, at that) of a community of small businesses that suffer from none of the concerns endemic to business owners. Ultimately this was a quick read, but I got little out of the experience.
Laura Childs, Dragonwell Dead: A Tea Shop Mystery (Berkley, 2008) ISBN: 0425220451

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Review: Lark Rise to Candleford

Written in the 1940s, this semi-fictional account of the Oxfordshire villages Lark Rise and Candleford looks back at the 1880s, a time of transition in the English countryside. Work, social relationships, home life, schooling- all of these things changed in the last years of the 19th c. Thompson examines these changes through the story of Laura, a girl who comes of age in the 1880s and 90s. But truly, in this work Laura's story takes a back seat to description. Thompson is clearly using this book to capture a lost world, and the book includes whole chapters describing the countryside and the traditions of its people. The writing is almost anthropological. While the description is interesting, and it is a very easy read, I found myself longing for more plot, more discussion of what happened to Laura. I also found that the book seemed to romanticize what must have been, by all accounts, grinding poverty. That said, the descriptions Thompson offers are engaging and vibrant, and the book is a quick, and dare I say, relaxing, read.

Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford (Crown, 1984) ISBN: 0140074546