Tag Archive: Book Reviews

Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel

Back in 2003 everyone was simply abuzz about Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi. The word titillation comes to mind. Now Yanni is back at it again with Beatrice and Virgil, a story about an author who gives up writing after being rejected, but is drawn in by an irresistible figure with a strange request. Henry (le main charactere) is asked by his local taxidermist for help writing a play about a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil) and Henry is so entranced, nay engrossed, by these stuffed darlings that he returns again and again to the lair of the strange old man.

You may be thinking to yourself “That sounds weird, but you know, maybe it has potential. After all this guy wrote Life of Pi. Maybe there’s some hidden metaphor I’m missing like the donkey represents suffering and the monkey is the potential for evil in us all, like that tiger in the boat.” Okay so maybe you’re not thinking that, but that’s what I was thinking. I kept waiting for the turn at the end, where all of the pages of the monkey and the donkey prattling endlessly about the most inane things were going to suddenly become blinding brilliant bits of prose.

Then just as I was thinking Yann should really be called Yawn and mentally estimating the number of pages left-bam! Surprise stabbing! I guess maybe Yawn thought “Hey this book is going a little slow. I know what’ll pick things up: a good stabbing. (Click, clack, click, clack. Yawn is typing at the keys and humming the theme to Psycho) There! This won’t disorient the reader at all or make them feel like they’ve been dropped into the middle of a thriller after laboring through the donkey/monkey saga for the last few hundred pages. Now to end this with thirteen morbid jokes about the Holocaust.” Sometimes you just have to say WHAT THE WHAT?!

Reading it once was plenty


Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, Nahoko Uehashi   

This  was kind of a weird little book but I totally dug it. Moribito II presumably picks up where Moribito I left off (I haven’t read the first installment but I plan to).  Our intrepid hero Balsa is returning to her native land after a 20 year absence to speak with the family of the foster-father who whisked her away to safety and raised her.  When she discovers he’s been defamed as a traitor Balsa is determined to set things right, but ends up in the middle of a tangled plot involving old lies, family ties, and plans to overthrow the kingdom under the mountain. 

Now apparently this book was originally an anime series, and I’m a nerdy little anime lover myself.  Anime has such a wealth of strong female characters and Moribito II is no exception. Balsa is a ferocious warrior, but she’s also complex and interesting to watch as she struggles through her relationship with Jiguro, her foster-father, and how to deal with the sacrifices he made for her and the ways it affected both of their lives. The plot of this book was absorbing. I enjoy reading/watching work by Japanese artists because there’s generally an element of spiritualism that I think adds more depth to the story than typical children’s works. Moribito has this same spiritual element, along with a consideration of family and clan loyalty. This is a series that I’ll definitely be following from now on. 

I'd read it again on a rainy day

Blah’s Orchestra

La’s Orchestra Saves the World,  Alexander McCall Smith

This was one of those books. You know the ones-the ones you’re supposed to like, but you find them rather lacking. The premise promised to be uplifting. La, a woman living in a small English town during World War 2, decides to start a village orchestra to boost morale and show everyone the transformative and healing power of music. However, the book was much more focused on La’s rather mundane daily existence. There was no sense of who the characters in the orchestra were, how they interacted with each other, or how the music helped to hold them together. At various points the charcters tell us how great the orchestra was, but the reader never gets to witness it firsthand. And the ending just didn’t work for me. It’s a personal pet peeve when authors are too afraid to have an unhappy ending that they tack on something that doesn’t really fit with the story. I’d rather have taken something extremely depressing than the unlikely finish to this tale, because as most of us know second chances are pretty rare, and this one didn’t work.

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Reading it once was plenty

He and Mr. Ed are always there to protect and serve

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, Alan Bradley

So kudos to me. I picked a book by a Canadian author before I had even officially joined the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by http://bookmineset.blogspot.com/. What is the Canadian Book Challenge you’re asking? Well I’ve got one year to read 13 books by Canadian authors and review them here on Book Bites. In response to what you’re all thinking 1). Yes there are prizes 2). Yes Canadians can write books 3). No I probably won’t win any prizes because every post will teeming with facetious remarks about our kooky cousins up north, eh.

Speaking of kooky let’s talk about Flavia De Luce the protagonist/detective of Alan Bradley’s sophomore novel The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. Joining the ranks of oddball detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple comes Flavia, a precocious 11 year old with an unhealthy interest in poisons. When the puppetmaster of a traveling show ends up providing a spectacular finale with his untimely demise Flavia is determined to find out who cut his strings, despite everyone’s best efforts to keep her out of the way.

This mystery was a little unconventional due to the fact that a dead body didn’t show up until about 150 pages in. And while the parlor scene (the one where Flavia reveals her brilliant deductions to the bemused town Inspector) was satisfying it wasn’t difficult to deduce who the culprit was. This book is more to be enjoyed for Bradley’s wonderfully irreverant protagonist. Flavia is cheeky and sneaky and extremely funny to watch in action, especially as she prepares a (non lethal) brew to inject in unsuspecting sister’s box of chocolates. I’m not a huge mystery devotee but I enjoyed this novel and will keep an eye on Flavia in the future.

P.S. Why are mystery authors always named Alan?

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Wild Ride, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

This quirky novel features Mab, a socially challenged workaholic, who while restoring an amusement park discovers it’s actually a prison for five of the most powerful demons in the world, and she’s called upon to help keep the reluctant devils in lockdown.  The second half of this novel is where things really get fun. Crusie and Mayer spend the first half of the book developing their character profiles, but it’s when the characters finally get to play off each other that this book really becomes engaging. This is a light and funny read, especially for fans of paranormal thrillers. I’ve read that some of Crusie’s fans are disappointed with this work since it’s a deviation from her typical romance genre. While this book contains some romance it’s definitely more a campy blend of action, mystery, and oddball humor. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would pack it in my beach bag anyday (if I lived near one), but probably wouldn’t recommend it for the book club.

Passage, Connie Willis

I’m going to have to spoil a few things about this book. But since I recommend that you skip it I don’t feel too bad. Passage had a very interesting premise. The main character Dr. Joanna Lander is a research psychologist studying near death experiences and teams up with a partner who has found a way to chemically induce them without the pesky side effect of dying. Joanna eventually decides to go under herself in order to see what’s on the other side and she ends up…on the Titanic. Yep you read that correctly-iceberg ahead, I’m king of the world, never let go Jack-Titanic. Although Jack and Rose weren’t there. Even after that curveball I kept reading because while that was weird I hadn’t yet decided if it was good weird or weird weird. But after approximately 600 hundred pages I just stopped caring. I would like to nominate this book for the most protracted death scene I’ve ever read. It kept going until I was begging for the character to just die already. However, Willis’ prose was excellent in parts and because the wonderfully funny writer at http://booksidoneread.blogspot.com/ recommended her I think I’ll give some of her other books a try.

If you liked The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear (or even if you didn’t) pick up a copy of Rumo. Walter Moers returns to his fantastical land of Zamonia with a new protagonist, Rumo, a Wolperting whose passion for fighting is put to good use as he battles the one-eyed monsters Demonocles’, school yard bullies, fencing champions, and all of the occupants of the Netherworld.  All of the best parts of Moers cult novel Bluebear are here: the wild creativity, the fun and amusing drawings, and sense of adventure. What’s absent are the things that bogged down Captain Bluebear, i.e. the sheer amount of detail that turned Walters’ creativity into drudgery. Rumo is a tale full of action and adventure with a good dose of humor (especially concerning our hero’s love life) mixed in as well. It’s a long read (684 pages) but if you’re anything like me you’ll finish it in no time.

Everyone knows that the book is always better. It always supremely annoys our non-reading friends to be informed how much greater the book was.  However, there are a few movies I’ve found that upturn the usual rule and outclass their literary counterparts. It’s a short list because these movies are a rare breed, and if you can think of any more please leave a comment below.

Stardust, Neil Gaiman:

Stardust is the story of Tristan Dunstan who promises to catch a falling star in return for his love’s hand in marriage. However the star has landed over the wall, which houses the magical realm Stormhold. To complicate things further within the land of Stormhold stars aren’t celestial bits of rock but take human form.  Tristan has to persuade his star, Yvaine to accompany him back to the wall, while dealing with witches, pirates, and princes who are after the star as well.

I actually watched the movie first and fell in love with it, so I was expected the book to really knock my socks off. The book was an average piece of fantasy. It was interesting and funny, but not something I would return to over and over again like I’ve done with the movie. I actually quite enjoyed the ending of the book even though it was substantially different from the movie’s dramatic climax. Overall however I thought the movie was more exciting, more romantic, and simply more fun.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas:

Another book where I loved the movie first and expected to be bowled over by the book. The story follows Edmond Dantes who is wrongfully imprisoned in the alkatraz-like Chateau D’If. Eventually Edmond escapes, but not after learning about a fabulous treasure horde from one of his fellow inmates, and returns to civilization like a vengeful ghost intent on systematically destroying everyone who had a hand in putting him away for all those years.

I read Dumas’s unabridged addition and maybe that was my problem. It was simply too long. The movie had rapid action within a well-constructed plot. Basically it took all of the best elements of Dumas’s classic and wove them seamlessly together. I also felt unsatisfied by the book’s ending, especially after I toiled through all of those pages. Maybe I’ve been infected by Hollywood, but I prefered the guy-wins-his-true-love-back ending instead of guy-drops-his-true-love-and-leaves-with-the-Greek-slave-he-freed.

Twilight, Stephanie Meyers:

 I only had to endure it for two hours instead of the time it took me to finish the book.

Honorable mention: Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

I do not think these movies are better than Tolkien’s epic saga. However, I thought they deserved an honorable mention because I don’t think it’s possible for a movie franchise to better capture a book’s spirit than Peter Jackson did with Lord of the Rings.  I was (and still am) incensed at the movies’ recharacterization of Faramir, but everything else was a minor complaint.  A movie simply can’t capture all of the detailed mythology that went into LOTR, but Jackson still did a terrific job.

Drop the book you are reading right now and pick up The Poisonwood Bible. It’s that good. Kingsolver’s fictional tale about a family of missionaries who travel to the Congo in 1959 is mermerizing. Poisonwood is broken up into a series of mini-chapters, each of which employs a  first-person narrative from one of the Price daughters. Each daughter is wildly different, yet compelling, as is their mother Orleanna.  While the characters and the story are interesting, it’s the prose that makes this a book to come back to again and again.  Kingsolver weaves a spell in words. Reading this was like feeling the heart of Africa beat in my chest.  Frankly I could spent a happy afternoon reading Kingsolver’s grocery list (especially after reading her informative memoir Animal, Vegetable, Mineral).  Poisonwood Bible is a heart-rending, heart-pounding delight.

I found this epistolary novel (written in a series of letters) absolutely charming. Ella Minnow Pea tells the story of the fictional island of Nollop whose denizens esteem language so highly that when letters start falling off a statue in the town square all of the citizens are prohibited from using their fallen fellows.  Mark Dunn has written a narrative love letter to the English language and the ways even the tiniest letters of the alphabet shape the way we express ourselves. I marveled at how Dunn could continue writing despite his alphabetic setbacks. The book would be worth reading just for that,  but Ella Minnow Pea also boasts a delightful protagonist and an exciting narrative. Word lovers everywhere will rejoice over this book.