The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

vacancyI am a huge Harry Potter fan; the kind who wept upon finishing the final book in the series – it felt truly like the end of an era. When Rowling came out with her next project after Harry Potter, an adult novel, I wasn’t terribly interested. I loved Harry Potter for the imaginative new world that Rowling had created coupled with an amazing sense of suspense! I never thought the writing itself was that great and figured an adult novel wouldn’t have that imaginative quality to it. So why did I pick it up at all? I had just finished one rather disturbing novel and half-read two others that I put down because they were either too sad (The Goldfinch) or too boring (The Blind Assassin). Essentially I was keen to read a piece of fluff and I was somewhat curious as to what Rowling would write for an adult audience. Well I certainly got my piece of fluff. The novel chronicles the goings-on in Pagford, a small British town, after the sudden death of the universally loved local councillor, Barry Fairbrother. Before he died, Barry was instrumental in the struggle to keep ‘The Fields’ in Pagford, the poorest area of town where those on social assistance live government housing. While Barry is portrayed as kind and compassionate, his death reveals that he was an anomaly among local residents and his fellow councillors. The novel features about ten or so different characters, rotating perspectives to reveal their relationship to Barry, their views on The Fields controversy, and the mini-drama that is their individual lives. It is a long, meandering read. There were times when I stopped to try to ascertain the point of it all. While the decision on what would happen to The Fields was clearly the apex of the story, it was unclear as to why Rowling required 503 pages to get there. Midway through I decided to stop being frustrated by this and instead read the novel like I would watch a soap opera: with a detached, vague interest in what happens to the various characters. I’m not sure if it was Rowling’s intention that the reader dislike every character (with the notable exception of Krystal Weedon), but if so, then it was a job well done. I heaved a sigh of relief when I finally reached the end. While I did not enjoy the novel very much, it certainly strengthened my resolve to never live in a small town.

Best Banana Bread

I have been making this banana bread for years. It is foolproof, very delicious, and reasonably healthy. And it is super easy! Everything goes in one bowl and you can whip it up in under 10 minutes. I can’t be bothered to take a photo of the loaf I baked this morning. Yes, having a newborn makes you that tired. All my dear readers, you know what banana bread looks like, right?

Add all the following ingredients in one bowl:

½ cup applesauce  (try to get unsweetened; if using sweetened, reduce the amount of sugar added)
1/2-1 cup demerera sugar (or half and half white and demerara)
1½ cups flour (I can use 1 cup all-purpose, ½ whole wheat)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
3 ripe bananas (or two really big ones)

That’s it! Mix it all up and bake in a greased loaf pan for an hour at 325. If you want a dessert bread (which of course, you do), add about 1/3-1/2 a bag of chocolate chips.

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

dinnerAt the rate I am devouring novels these days, I have become a bit less particular about how I select what I read. [This has back-fired twice now, with The Goldfinch (way too sad) and The Blind Assassin (way too boring and pointless)]. One day over the Christmas holidays my mom mentioned to me in passing that The Dinner was rather a good novel. This off-hand statement somehow stuck in my brain when I went to make my next Kobo purchase. Knowing absolutely nothing about the novel beforehand (and completely ignoring its accompanying description as ‘a psychological thriller’), I was somewhat surprised to discover that what I thought would be a silly and fun romp exploring marital relations in a satirical way, was in fact a very dark tale indeed.  The book begins light-heartedly enough, with two brothers and their wives sitting down to dinner at a fancy restaurant. The characters were quirky and the writing was just on the edge of comical and so just as I was settling in for a wholesome bit of fluffy reading, the story took a very dark turn. I won’t reveal what this dark turn is, because it is alluded to right at the very beginning and makes for a very exciting read as you flip the pages to discover what’s happened. If I had been in almost any other frame of mind than the one I was actually in when I read this novel, I think I would give it a very high rating. However it so happened that I started this book at the same time as my husband and I decided to start sleep-training our 3.5-month-old baby and let’s just say that letting your baby cry and cry while reading a disturbing novel puts certain thoughts in your head, such as, ‘If I let the baby cry for one more minute, he’s almost certainly going to become an axe murderer’. As you might imagine, this can instil a certain amount of anxiety in a new mother, however ridiculous these thoughts might be. So…while The Dinner is very well written and a total page-turner, if you are a nutter like me, I’d perhaps avoid reading it until such a time when you have your wits about you.

(PS: in doing a google search for an image of the cover of the book to post here, I have just discovered that the novel is set to be made into a film, directed by Cate Blanchett. Not sure I’ll see it!)

The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton

rehearsalI recently read Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries, and decided it was my favourite novel of 2013. It was so good, in fact, that I decided I needed to read Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal. I learned in doing a Wikipedia search on Catton that she wrote The Rehearsal as her master’s thesis at the age of 23 and that it had won a slew of awards. However, I did not hold out any expectations that I would like it anywhere near as much as The Luminaries. As it turns out, it was good that I did not have high hopes. This novel screams of over-achievement (in short, like a master’s thesis). I still have no clue what this book was about. Somehow I managed to finish it, mostly because I was expecting to be struck with a bolt of clarity – an ‘ah-ha moment’ – somewhere before the final pages. This did not occur. The novel is split into two alternating narratives: one from the point of view of a drama student at a theatre school; the other about a saxophone teacher and one of her students, whose sister had an affair with her high school music teacher. During the first couple chapters I was convinced that the saxophone teacher story was actually a play; a play which was being performed by the students at the theatre school. About a third of the way in I began to doubt this conclusion and by the halfway point I was convinced I was wrong. And then by the latst quarter of the book I began to doubt again. In the chapters about the saxophone teacher (whose name we never learn), Catton makes references to lighting and the particular way that a character is holding an object or standing, consistent with the over-dramatization of the theatre. And then there’s the ridiculous dialogue. The fifteen-year-old students talk in long-winded phrases, loaded with metaphor and descriptions that no teenager would ever use. Clearly Catton is trying to make some sort of point, but my dim-witted, new mother brain never figured out what it was. I suppose I could do a google search and find some kind of analysis of the novel to help me out. Maybe one day I’ll get around to that.

By no means do I regret reading The Rehearsal. Aside from the sometimes frustrating moments of internal debate over whether the saxophone teacher story was a play or not, it was a mostly enjoyable read. I’d recommend it to those readers who have a more analytical mind and like to spend time thinking about deeper meanings, or allegory, or metaphor, or (insert literary device here). For those of you who like a more straight-forward, simple story, I’d avoid!

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

night circusAfter recently completing The Luminaries, I was eager for another gripping and well-written novel to get me through those night-time feeds with baby. The Night Circus was on my list of books to read, but I have no idea where I heard about it. The novel is kind of a cross between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, but written for adults. The story takes for granted that magic exists and as such is rooted in the genre of magical realism (a genre I came to love via the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude). It is dark – the two main characters have been implicated in a kind of duel, in which only one can survive – but also beautiful. The circus is a wildly imaginative place with a surreal quality about it: everything is black and white and the various tents themselves house a range of acts from the more usual acrobats, fortune tellers, and contortionists, to the more unexpected: an ice garden, acrobatic kittens, and my personal favourite, the cloud maze (a vertical maze constructed of floating cloud-like bubbles that you can climb onto). Coupled with the black and white colour scheme, these latter tents lend that dreamlike quality to the circus; something that I really appreciated during the wee hours. You get to experience the circus from several points of view: that of a teenaged boy who becomes a regular visitor, several of the performers, and those who work behind the scenes. However the two main characters are the duellers and they have a complicated relationship, as the reader is able to anticipate pretty early on. If I had one complaint about the novel it would be that the characters themselves aren’t very well developed and their dialogue is somewhat stilted. They come across as two-dimensional but then in some respects this adds to that surreal nature of the novel. While the story is interesting, particularly as it is told from several perspectives, the ambiance and imaginative nature of the novel is what I loved the best.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

luminariesIt has been a long time since I finished a book and knew for certain that I would be reading it again, soon. The Luminaries is an enthralling read. I don’t make it a point to seek out Booker Prize winners, but I was recently looking for a good book to read during my nightly baby feeding sessions and the recent announcement of The Luminaries as the 2013 winner caught my eye. I may have been put off by the girth of this novel; at 850 pages it is a tome! Luckily I bought it for my Kobo though and I have yet to see a paper copy of it. The novel, set in late 19th century New Zealand, centres around a conspiracy and how a number of different characters have unwittingly played a role in it. Putting the pieces together to figure out the series of events that occurred and how each character was involved kept me awake and engaged throughout the wee hours of the morning as I nursed my babe. Needless to say for a Booker Prize winner, the writing is brilliant. What surprised me was reading about Eleanor Catton after finishing the book. If you are an aspiring novelist, you may feel ill when you learn that Catton is the youngest Booker Prize winner ever, at the age of 28! Thinking back about the writing, this is incredibly impressive. Catton convincingly writes from a variety of perspectives and in a historical time period to boot. The Luminaries is only her second novel, the first being the thesis for her master’s degree! Her obvious talent has certainly made me feel envious even though I’ve never harboured a strong desire to write a novel, let alone an award-winner. It’s a very creative and a complex work and I highly, highly recommend it, especially if you like a good mystery.

Mount Pleasant, by Don Gillmor

mt pleasantRecently I reviewed a Canadian novel called Late Nights on Air, which despite being a rather uneventful and mundane story, I really enjoyed.This might be the first time I have ever read two Canadian novels in a row and liked both of them, but Mount Pleasant is better written and more interesting than Late Nights on Air. I was really captivated by the story and by Harry, the main character, a middle-aged professor who has managed to rack up a sizeable debt. Dutifully taking care of his ailing father, Harry is not too concerned about this debt as his father was an investment banker and Harry is counting on at least a couple million dollars in inheritance: more than enough to cover his debts and buy some goodies for him and his wife. When his father dies and Harry discovers that his estate is worth just $7000, Harry embarks on an investigation to find out how his money disappeared. This is both an entertaining and intellectually stimulating read. The fact that I enjoyed this book says a lot, considering that I read the bulk of it at unspeakable hours of the night while nursing my newborn son. Any book (not in the Harry Potter series) that can keep me both awake and content at 3am in a dimly lit and quiet room deserves hearty kudos. It is extremely well written and I will be quite surprised if it does not make the list for the 2014 Giller prize.

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