Sunday, January 25, 2009

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

In Coraline, Coraline is bored. When she can't find anything else to do, she starts exploring her flat and discovers a large locked door. Despite being warned not to go through the door and being told that she's in grave danger she finds a way to open the door and enters a parallel world.

Gaiman has created a fantastic story with some great characters. I loved it. It drew me in immediately and I wanted to keep reading. I couldn't wait to see where Coraline's adventure was going to take her. The story was scary, weird and outrageous , but at the same time it was wonderful. It's probably a little too dark and scary for smaller children, but older ones will probably love it. It's hard to imagine how Gaiman could have come up with such a world. It's amazing.

I just adored Coraline. Through her actions, she shows she's brave, intelligent, determined and ready to take on tough challenges. She had a great sense of adventure, despite being very scared. She also appeared to be fearless when facing up to the characters in the other world. I'd like to be a little more like her.

While I probably won't go see the movie, I'd be very interested in seeing how a few sections of the story will be depicted on the screen, particularly near the end where the other world becomes distorted and the colour drains away. I love stuff like that.

I read this through HarperCollins Browse Inside feature when the whole book was available for browsing. Despite having a few reservations about reading a book online, I had no trouble at all. I read a few chapters at a time and really took my time. It was very easy to read and I had a great time with it.

I liked that Gaiman remind us to take nothing for granted; to appreciate what we have; and to be careful of what we wish for. All good advice.

Thanks to Coraline's neighbours, who insisted on calling her Caroline, I've had the song, Caroline by Harry Chapin stuck in head for days. Not that Coraline all at resembles's all in the name.

This is the first book of Gaiman's that I've read. It won't be the last.

Want to learn more about the book or perhaps peek inside? Synopsis and Browse Inside.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse

In The House at Midnight, Lucas has just inherited an old house in the country. Patrick, Lucas's uncle, willed it to him before taking his own life. Lucas is devastated at losing his uncle, especially since his mother died not so long ago. He's decides that the house would make an ideal place for him and his friends to hang out and he invites several of them out for the weekend. Included in the group is Joanna, a young woman whom Lucas has known since childhood. When Lucas starts acting strangely, it's Joanna who suspects the house is having a negative effect on him. Things go from bad to worse when the old secrets that are revealed put friendships and lives at risk.

I loved this book. It's wonderfully written with a compelling, psychological edge. The story is suspenseful but remains calm on the surface. You can feel the turbulent undercurrents threatening to pull the characters under. You just know that something bad is going to happen. It's fabulous.

There were quite a few characters in this book, but because of Whitehouse's skill it's easy to keep track of them. They have many unique, interesting and diverse characteristics. I think I felt the most for Joanna (more about that later); she was definitely my favourite. Both Lucas and Danny frightened me a little; Danny more so. They were both so creepy, although Lucas really didn't come off that way in the beginning.

The author also almost presents the house as another character in the book. It's an interesting concept and brings up the question as to how much our environment can affect our relationships and our moods. I also wondered if houses or other inanimate objects can absorb human emotions. Has this house absorbed something in the past that it's now passing onto its current inhabitants or is the house the original culprit? I'm not trying to say that this book has any supernatural overtones. It doesn't, in my opinion. There's just something about that house.

Whitehouse draws many astounding parallels between the old guard at the house and the new generation who now dwell there. I loved how she put it all together. I also loved her many references to isolation (being trapped, living in a bubble). Not only is the house in an isolated location, but the group has also isolated themselves from most everyone else. They have grown up together and they seem to have lost the ability to grow up and move on. I really identified with Joanna, especially when she said a few times about something being "so adult". I know that feeling. Sometimes I can't believe that I'm actually an adult doing these adult things.

I loved the whole book, but my favourite section was the first three paragraphs of Chapter 15 (page 176). I adored them...absolutely adored them. I won't quote them here because they are lengthy and might give a part of the plot away. I think they resonated with me because I'm sure that at several points during my life I felt just as Joanna did those days...disposable and transparent in a ghost-like sense.

A slightly odd and possibly scary coincidence: we are moving to a house in the country this spring. While the house is lovely, it feels like an empty shell right now and definitely needs some life brought into it. I hope this book isn't a warning of some sort. [Cue the "Twilight Zone" theme].

Highly recommended.

Want to learn more about this amazing book? Synopsis and excerpt. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

In Still Alice, Alice Howland is a 50-year-old professor at Harvard, an expert in linguistics, a wife to John and mother to three grown children. When she starts forgetting things and becomes lost in familiar territory, she suspects that something is wrong and goes to see her doctor. The news isn't good. Alice has early onset Alzheimer's Disease. What follows is an incredible story, told from Alice's perspective, about this devastating and cruel disease.

It's hard to believe that this is Lisa Genova's first novel. It's wonderfully written with outstanding characters. It's also extremely heartbreaking. While the story is fictitious, but it really didn't feel like that. I thought about Alice even when I wasn't reading the book. She was so real to me. Even as I write this, I can feel the tears forming. This book was so easy to read physically, but hard emotionally. I feared getting to the end, but didn't want to put it down. I felt like I was losing someone, too.

I love how the story unfolds. Each chapter represents a month in this two-year journey. We get to see how the disease progresses and how Alice's caregivers cope along the way. Genova shows the wide range of emotions and reactions that patients and caregivers experience. She also outlines the information that research has yielded about Alzheimer's as well as the treatments and drug therapies that are available. While this doesn't take up a large section of the book, it's an invaluable part of the story.

This book was educational for me. Genova presents lots of great information about Alzheimer's without being dry or boring like a textbook or medical journal. (No offense to those who write them!) Of course, I had a vague understanding about the disease, but it's so much more complex than I ever knew. I was particularly struck by the genetic component and what that meant for Alice's family. Fascinating, yet depressing, stuff.

One of my favourite parts was Alice's speech at the conference. I don't want to give too much away, but it brought both tears of sadness and joy to my eyes. I wanted to stand up at the end right along with Alice's family.

The cover of this book is exceptional. I know this is a uncorrected proof, however, I hope they stick with this cover. The butterfly, the it all.

While the story was very sad, at times I felt a slim glimmer of hope. The disease still remains as merciless and destructive as ever, however, the research into the causes and new treatments continue. Maybe one day...

Highly recommended for anyone and everyone.

Friday, January 9, 2009

I Choose to be Happy by Missy Jenkins

I Choose to be Happy: A School Shooting Survivor's Triumph Over Tragedy is Missy Jenkins' inspirational and courageous story about her ordeal during and after the Paducah, Kentucky school shooting in 1997. Michael Carneal, a freshman, walks into the school one morning with several guns and substantial rounds of ammunition. He open fires just as a prayer group was disbanding from their morning prayer. By the end of the day, three students would be dead and five wounded; Missy, 15, among them. As Missy points out, the Heath High School shooting took place before Columbine; at a time when school shootings were virtually unheard of.

In this book, she takes the reader inside on a guided tour of the school and it's social dynamics. The story mostly follows a linear track with just a little backtracking to give us parts of the story just weeks before the shootings. Her story continues to the present day on how she's living as a paraplegic. She also speculates on Michael's reasons for his actions. Her story is supplemented with a few photos to orientate the reader.

I really enjoyed reading this book. While the subject matter is far from light, Missy's courage and strength are inspiring. Just hours after the attack, Missy is ready to forgive Michael for his actions. Spirituality and religion played a big part in Missy's life and helped her tremendously with her recovery. My one small complaint is that it came across a little preachy at times, but just a little.

Missy also writes about how she's coping with being a paraplegic and shares some of the details (such as going to the bathroom) of her life now. These sections will probably not be appreciated by the squeamish. While the details might fall under the category of "too much information", I bet that lots of people (including me) wondered about this, but would never dare ask. Missy's candour is refreshing and educational.

The other thing I really liked about this story is that it was told from a victim's point of view [she did have some help from William Croyle, a journalist.] Too many times stories like these are written by lawyers or another outsiders.

Missy is now married with a son and is a counsellor at a day treatment centre. She gives talks to schools about her ordeal and urges students to take action to prevent this from happening in other schools.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Strength of a Sparrow by Tim Anders

The Strength of a Sparrow is based on a true story of Bouvette Sherwood, the author's mother. She falls in love with a Catholic priest, Hughie Hewitt, and has two children by him. While everything starts out great and they keep their relationship a secret, all hell breaks loose when they are found out. Sherwood thought about writing the book herself, but was frightened by the possible consequences. It's not until after her death that Anders decided it was time the story was told.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but for some reason it reads like a young adult novel; not in content, but in writing style. Maybe that's because the author, Tim Anders, usually writes children's books. However, I don't mean this as a criticism at all. The book is well written and very interesting.

The style and story reminded me of a light-hearted 1940s romantic comedy movie. It's loving, fun, and quite dramatic at times. Anders does a great job of portraying the love that Sherwood and Hewitt had for each other as well as the culture and lifestyles of the people in that era. It made me feel like I was there witnessing this first hand.

I don't know how much of this story is true. A few sections are a bit melodramatic and I suspect that parts of the story are embellished to fill in some gaps and make the story more appealing. I don't think it's meant to be a true representation of Sherwood's life and the author doesn't present it as such. Nevertheless, I believe that the major events in the story are in fact true and that's a tragedy for all of those involved.

I only have two small criticisms about the book. One is that the few graphic sexual references were stark and gratuitous against the rest of the story. I think the author could have portrayed the couple's attraction for each other in another way. The other is the caption accompanying the photos at the back of the book. It's just a bit too sappy for my liking. I did, however, love the photos (both of them are striking) and appreciated their inclusion.

I thought about writing a section on what this book might mean to Catholics, but I don't think I'm qualified to do that. I'll just say that: I was raised Catholic, but no longer attend mass; I don't believe the Catholic church is above reproach; I was not offended by the book.