Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Contest Notice - Debut a Debut

West of Mars (my friend Susan) and her friend Erica are hosting a fantastic contest aptly named "Debut a Debut." You can find all the details here however the basic details are this:

How to Enter
1. Buy, find, or borrow a novel that is an author's debut.
2. Read the novel.
3. Write a review. It does not have to be a professional review. Provide a brief plot synopsis and then mention your likes or dislikes or other thoughts you had while reading.
4. Post the review online - either on a website or blog (reviews at BookCrossing or Gather would certainly count) between February 12th and 17th.
5. Send the permalink of the post to West of Mars or Writing Aspirations in an email message or post a comment to the main contest post with a link to your review.

I was amazed when I reviewed the list to see how many debut novels I've read in the past year. Here's a list with links to my reviews:

Albyn Leah Hall -- The Rhythm of the Road

Diane Setterfield -- The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel

Jed Rubenfeld -- The Interpretation of Murder

Julie K.L. Dam -- Some Like it Haute

Keith Donohue -- The Stolen Child

Melissa Clark -- Swimming Upstream Slowly

Paul Cavanagh -- After Helen

Sam Savage -- Firmin

Tom McCarthy -- Remainder

I haven't decided yet what I'm going to read for this contest; however, a number of the titles are in my to be reviewed pile so I'll have to go hunting.

Here's my question for readers - are you going to participate and what are you planning to read?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Final Paradox by Mary E. Martin

Norma Dinnick is sure that the named executor of her estate is trying to poison her, or else he’s in league with the upstairs tenants to drive her mad, all in a bid to ensure she doesn’t change her will. When she requests Harry Jenkins do something about both the will and the upstairs tenants, he discovers that Norma may be on brink between lucidity and madness – there are no upstairs tenants.

In a bid to forstall Archie (the executor), and protect his client’s safety, Harry follows her instructions and files claim against Archie and the others pursuing a claim on some valuable shares. Unfortunately the motion sets of a chain of events ending up with murder in open court and the reappearance of an acquaintance from Harry’s past. Now Harry must help sort out Norma’s tangeled memories if he hopes to track down the shares - and protect her life.

Final Paradox, the second volume in the Mary E. Martin’s Osgoode Trilogy, once again sees honest lawyer Harry Jenkins up against lawyers willing to twist the legal profession for their own gain. Like Conduct in Question, the book which introduced Harry, what sets Final Paradox apart from other legal thrillers is Harry’s personal struggles and development. Readers will enjoy Harry’s challenges in running his small law practices, intergenerational conflicts with his junior, his difficulties of dealing with an aging parent, and his burgeoning relationship with Natasha.

Unfortunately the central mystery in Final Paradox feels convoluted and contrived, while the villains are not nasty enough to fully engage reader in the action. Natasha is too enigmatic in this outing and readers may be left wondering why Harry doesn’t just walk away. While entertaining, Final Paradox is shadowed by the much stronger Conduct in Question. Hopefully the next in the series will provide a better showcase for Martin’s delightful Harry Jenkins.

Read the review at Front Street Reviews.

ISBN10: 0595407609
ISBN13: 9780595407606

Trade Paperback
268 Pages
Publisher: iUniverse
Publication Date: November 10, 2006


Monday, January 22, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

In Oxford, Mrs. Eagleton is found smothered in her apartment by an Argentinian graduate student and his mentor, a leading mathematics don. Arthur Seldom had been drawn to her home by a cryptic note containing her address, the time, a circle and the words “the first of the series.”

Seldom’s latest book, reflecting on the parallels between the crimes of serial killers and mathematical theorems, has drawn significant attention. He suspects the killer is challenging him to a duel of wits, taunting him to figure out the series and stop the murderer. His theory begins to carry more weight as further murders, and coded notes, are found.

The Oxford Murders is a thinking person’s whodunit. Atmospheric yet challenging, philosophical yet logical, Guillermo Martínez has crafted a mystery which, while meditating on lofty subjects, does not talk down to his readers. Even though the pace moves along rapidly, readers have time to investigate the subtleties of the relationships among the main characters.

The clearest exposition on Martínez’s main message in The Oxford Murders is found part way through the novel when Seldom, musing on the crimes and the infinite number of solutions, states: “…the known terms of a series, any number of terms, are always insufficient.” He then goes on to elaborate: “If a man is no more than the series of his actions, I realized, then he can’t be defined before his death: a single action, his last, could wipe out his previous existence, contradict his entire life…Man was no more than what I most feared.”

Guillermo Martínez has a PhD in Mathematical Science and it should be clear to readers that this watertight mystery was written by a master of maths – for two separate yet equally important reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, the mathematical elements are described clearly and concisely, providing even a novice mathematician the opportunity to follow Seldom’s explanations.

Second, solving a crime is as methodical as proving a mathematical theorem and the best mysteries have at their core an elegantly simple solution, yet provide an array of plausible solutions. Martínez pulls together an astonishing array of clues and red herrings to create an enthrallingly complex mystery, which holds up under both logical analysis and Wittgenstein's Finite Rule Paradox.

The Oxford Murders is the first book by Guillermo Martínez to be translated into English. Sonia Soto has managed a difficult feat with grace, translating a dense mystery without losing the ease or flavour with which Martínez imbued the original Spanish. A film version, staring John Hurt and Elijah Woods, is currently in pre-production.

ISBN10: 014303796X
ISBN13: 9780143037965

Trade Paperback
208 Pages
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: October 31, 2006


Sunday, January 21, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

In the not-so-distant future, a deadly plague has rampaged through the world. The Blink begins with redness of the eyes causing an uncontrollable blinking response and kills its victims within hours. Within a short period it becomes water and airborne, killing millions of people almost instantaneously.

In The City, inhabited by the recently departed, the effects of the plague are first felt as a onslaught of new arrivals. Suddenly people rapidly start disappearing and soon the exodus has disrupted the flow of The City. New arrivals, who used to stay an average 30 years until the last person remembering them dies, now move on within hours. Soon Luka Sims, the publisher of the only newspaper in The City believes himself to be the only remaining resident and wonders whom he knows who is still alive, until the day he finds the blind man. Together they explore the endless streets of The City, searching for the remaining tenants and with each new person found they piece together a puzzling truth – they are all still there because they know Laura Byrd.

Fighting her way across the frozen tundra to find a way to contact the outside world, Laura Byrd has no idea why her fellow scientists failed to return to their research station. She traces their steps to Ross Ice Shelf research station and finds it deserted. It is only then that she discovers she may the last person left alive.

In The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier takes these two streams of narrative and creates a novel which gains cohesion as the narratives begin to merge. The premise of The City, a step in the move to the afterlife, is fascinating. The novel as a whole is clearly a meditation on the power of memory and its resilience.

As Laura spends months in isolation and then in a fight to stay alive, her thoughts move from deliberate remembrances to free associations and fragmentary memories. At one point, a character in The City asks “how real are our memories” and this is clearly one of the central questions Brockmeier is addressing. Brockmeier’s writing suggests that he believes there to be a difference between the two types of memories; though he leaves it up to his readers to decide.

Laura’s fight for survival is compelling; however, Brockmeier’s writing is the strongest in the chapters set in The City. The voices of the dead resonate with readers and many deserved to be developed further. It is clear from the novel that the dead are aware that Laura may be the last person alive and when she dies, they may move on as well. The issue Brockmeier does not address (and one which may have strengthened the novel) is what emotions this pending departure inspires.

In an interview at, Brockmeier states: “I was curious as I wrote the book about how those residents would react to the circumstances of their existence, what kind of relationships they would form, and what they would do when it came time for them to pass out of living memory.” He has accomplished the first part of this goal brilliantly; it is only his failure to explore of the second part of this goal which keeps The Brief History of the Dead from receiving 5 stars.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 1400095956
ISBN13: 9781400095957

Trade Paperback
272 Pages
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: January 9, 2007


Saturday, January 20, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

Zanna and her friend Deeba have been noticing a lot of strange events lately. There was the fox that intently watched them on the playground and then bowed to Zanna. Certainly the oddest was the umbrella that dragged itself from a rubbish heap to hang from Zanna’s bedroom windowsill. The girls give chase to the umbrella and find themselves in a strange place called Un Lun Dun, a funhouse version of their own city. This new place is filled with animated milk cartons, unbrellas, talking books and flying double-decker buses, as well as with an odd collection of people.

Shortly after their arrival in Un Lun Dun they meet Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is a massive pin-cushion, and Brokkenbroll, king of broken unbrellas. Zanna is disturbed to find out she’s the Shwazzy - the Chosen One – prophesied to save Un Lun Dun from a great evil, the Smog.

All goes terribly wrong when Zanna is injured soon after their arrival. She’s returned safely home but Un Lun Dun seems doomed. Deeba may be the only hope for this fantastical city, but will Un Lun Dun accept the help or the unchosen one, or lie down and accept its fate?

Award-winning author China Miéville’s fifth novel, Un Lun Dun, is his first written for the young adult market and is filled with his illustrations of the mysterious creatures met by Zanna and Deeba. While this book is being marketed to middle and high school students, there is much here to recommend this book to adult readers. Fans of the films of Jan Švankmajer, specifically his 1988 film Alice, will find familiar elements in the world of Un Lun Dun.

Miéville, as well-known for his politics as for his writing, is a member of the Socialist Workers Party. His writing has indications of his political leanings; however, he has stated that: “…when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points.…but because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I’m creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have...”

Un Lun Dun is sure to win Miéville many new fans and delight current ones.

Read the review at Armchair Interviews.

ISBN10: 0345495160
ISBN13: 9780345495167

448 Pages
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication Date: February 17, 2007


Friday, January 19, 2007

Hyperion Books - Spring/Summer 2007 Titles

Here are my picks from Hyperion Books' Spring and Summer titles. A number are the trade paperback releases of books which were released in hardcover last year, so hopefully new readers will discover some great reads.

* Queen of Broken Hearts: A Novel by Cassandra King (February 2007)
* The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust by Heather Pringle (Trade Paperback, February 2007)
* A Model Summer: A Novel by Paulina Porizkova (April 2007)
* Not on Our Watch: A Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast (May 2007)
* Grief: A Novel by Andrew Holleran (Trade Paperback, June 2007)
* The Late Bloomer's Revolution: A Memoir by Amy Cohen (July 2007)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Spinning Dixie by Eric Dezenhall

Presidential Press Secretary and professional spinmeister Jonah Eastman commits hari-kari after commenting on a Yemen-born suicide bomber who killed himself and 24 football fans: “It’s hard to believe Western civilization is going to be taken down by a bunch of cabdrivers.” While his career is in a nosedive, his recent loose lips leave him free to help the mysterious blond who shows up at the White House gates carrying a letter from his teenage love Claudine Polk.

Jonah hies off to Tennessee to help save Claudine’s beloved family plantation, Rattle & Snap, from his teenage nemesis and Claudine’s soon-to-be ex-husband J.T. Hilliard. Can this Yankee spin-doctor help his southern belle start a second civil war and perhaps save his own future at the same time?

Billed as a blending of The West Wing, Gone with the Wind and The Godfather, Spinning Dixie is the fourth Eric Dezenhall novel to feature Jonah Eastman. Spinning Dixie, while on the surface a novel about politics and spin, is a novel about first love and the compelling force it can have even 25 years later. Alternating between the summer after Jonah’s senior year in high school and the present, Dezenhall has created a scenario certain to unleash havoc – a New Jersey kingpin’s grandson in Tennessee wooing the granddaughter of a Confederate general on her family’s plantation.

Not having read any of previous three novels, it was difficult to determine where Spinning Dixie fits into Jonah’s story. The novel stands on its own and is chock-full of characters certain to steal readers’ attention: Jonah’s flamboyant grandmother DeeDee; Claudine’s little brother Six; or “the Panamanian,” a colleague of Jonah’s who specializes in intelligence work.

The most compelling sections of this novel are the parts from Jonah’s teenage years. Dezenhall has captured the dichotomy of youthful passion; the hopefulness and sense of wonder, the undercurrent of doom and the inevitable painful ending. The tension between Jonah and Claudine’s worlds turn their romance into one of epic proportions, the doomed romance which has the power – even 25 years later – to draw Jonah back into Claudine’s sphere.

ISBN10: 031234063X
ISBN13: 9780312340636

336 Pages
Publisher: St. Martins Press
Publication Date: December 26, 2006
Author Website:


Monday, January 15, 2007

What did you read in high school?

A friend who is in teacher's college sent me a message asking if I would fill out a survey for one of her classes. What she wanted was for me to think back to high school and try to remember the books I studied from grade 7 through to the end of high school.

What's interesting is that I have no memory of the books read in grade 7 or 8 at all, and little memory of the books in grades 12 & 13. (Yes, I was in high school when Ontario still had grade 13. It certainly gives readers a better picture of my age!)

So this got me thinking. I can't figure out why I remember the books we read in grades 9 - 11 books clear as a bell, while I remember what I was reading outside of school for the rest of the yearw.

I was at a private high school and our Shakespeare plays were chosen each year depending what was playing at Stratford. We would read the play, watch the movie version and then go see it live. I know which Shakespeare plays we studied, just not which grade I read it in.

Grade 9 - Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell, Animal Farm by George Orwell
Grade 10 - The Pearl by John Steinbeck, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Grade 11 - The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Grade 12 - Tess of the D'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (can't remember the rest of the books)
Grade 13/OAC - The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (can't remember the rest of the books)

As You Like It
King Lear
The Tempest

So how closely does my high school reading list match up with yours? Do you remember what you read then, or do you have clearer memories of your "non-school reading?"

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Simon & Schuster - Spring 2007 Titles

Too often publishers appear to publish most of their titles in the fall in anticipation of the holiday buying season. I was therefore pleased to find most of the publishers have strong spring lines with an interesting range of titles.

Simon & Schuster don't have a lot of well-known authors in their spring 2007 line; however, there are some great treasures to be found for readers willing to take time with their catalogue. Here are my picks for the spring season:

* Him Her Him Again The End of Him by Patricia Marx (January 2007)
* The Night Buffalo: A Novel by Guillermo Arriaga (February 2007)
* Looks to Die For by Janice Kaplan (February 2007)
* A Family Daughter: A Novel by Maile Meloy (February 2007)
* Broken Paradise: A Novel by Cecilia Samartin (February 2007)
* The Secret Supper: A Novel by Javier Sierra, Translated by Alberto Manguel (February 2007)
* The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson (February 2007)
* The Spellman Files: A Novel by Lisa Lutz (March 2007)
* The Rossetti Letter by Christi Phillips (March 2007)
* The Expected One: A Novel by Kathleen McGowan (Trade Paperback, April 2007)
* The Killing Jar: A Novel by Nicola Monaghan (April 2007)


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Raincoast Books - Spring/Summer 2007 Titles

Raincoast Books is a Canadian publisher and distributor producing a wide range of fiction and non-fiction titles for adults and children. They distribute many well-known imprints in Canada including: Bloomsbury UK, Chronicle Books, Harcourt (HBJ), & Hesperus Press, as well as many others. A full list is available on their website.

The following titles (my picks) are listed by publication date rather than by publisher, except for Hesperus Press.

Raincoast Books
* Paris: the secret history by Andrew Hussey (Bloomsbury USA, January 2007)
* Audrey Hepburn: the Paramount years by Tony Nourmand (Chronicle Books, January 2007)
* Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist by Marisa Handler (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, February 2007)
* If Minds Had Toes by Lucy Eyre (Bloomsbury UK, March 2007)
* Linger Awhile by Russell Hoban (Bloomsbury UK, New Format, March 2007)
* A Book Addict's Treasury by Lynda Murphy and Julie Rugg (Frances Lincoln, March 2007)
* White Man Falling by Mike Stocks (Alma Books, March 2007)
* Welcome to Everytown: a journey into the English mind by Julian Baggini (Granta Books, April 2007)
* Pretty in Punk: 25 Rock, Goth, and Punk inspired knitting projects by Alyce Benevides and Jaqueline Milles (Chronicle Books, April 2007)
* Untapped: the scramble for Africa's Oil by John Ghazvinian (Harcourt, Inc., April 2007)
* Divas Don't Knit by Gil McNeil (Bloomsbury UK, April 2007)
* Return to Akenfield: portrait of an English village in the 21st Century by Craig Taylor (Granta Books, Trade Paperback, April 2007)
* The Nature of Monsters: a novel by Clare Clark (Harcourt, Inc., May 2007)
* The Catastrophist: a novel by Lawrence Douglas (Harcourt, Inc., May 2007)
* The Gravedigger: a novel by Peter Grandbois (Chronicle Books, May 2007)
* Volunteer: a traveller's guide to making a difference around the world by Lonely Planet (Lonely Planet, June 2007)
* The Pantry: its history and modern uses by Catherine Seiberling Pond (Gibbs Smith, May 2007)
* When We Get There: a novel by Shauna Seliy (Bloomsbury USA, May 2007)
* Virgins: a cultural history by Anke Bernau (Granta Books, June 2007)
* Austenland: a novel by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury USA, June 2007)
* Becoming Shakespeare: how a provincial playwright became the world's foremost literary icon by Jack Lynch (Walker & Company, June 2007)
* Sugarcane Academy: how a New Orleans teacher and his storm-struck students created a school to remember by Michael Tisserand (Harcourt, Inc., July 2007)
* The Museum of Dr. Moses: tales of mystery and suspense by Joyce Carol Oates (Harcourt, Inc., August 2007)

Hesperus Press
* The Watsons by Jane Austen (March 2007)
* Sanctuary by Edith Wharton (March 2007)
* Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell (April 2007)
* The Calligraphers' Night by Yasmine Ghata (June 2007)
* A Simple Story by Leonardo Sciascia (June 2007)


Monday, January 08, 2007

Henry Holt & Company - Spring/Summer 2007 Titles

Here are my picks from Henry Holt & Company's Spring and Summer titles. Some exciting books are being released in trade paperback from Owl Books and I would highly recommend Disaster: Hurrican Katrina and the failure of Homeland Security by Christopher Cooper and Robert Block.

Henry Holt
* The Short Bus: a journey beyond normal by Jonathan Mooney (June 2007)
* My Colombian War: a journey through the country I left behind by Silvana Paternostro (July 2007)
* The Master Bedroom: a novel by Tessa Hadley (August 2007)
* Letter from Point Clear: a novel by Dennis McFarland (August 2007)

Metropolitan Books
* Helpless: a novel by Barbara Gowdy (April 2007)
* Inglorious: a novel by Joanna Kavenna (June 2007)

Owl Books
* Book by Book: notes on reading and life by Michael Dirda (Trade Paperback, May 2007)
* Brutal Journey: Cabeza de Vaca and the epic first crossing of North America by Paul Schneider (Trade Paperback, May 2007)
* Disaster: Hurrican Katrina and the failure of Homeland Security by Christopher Cooper and Robert Block (Trade Paperback, June 2007)


Saturday, January 06, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

In a suburban neighbourhood of Adelaide, Australia, a cyclist is knocked off his bicycle, a small act with far-reaching consequences. When Paul Rayment opens his eyes, he is immediately required to give consent to the operation that will amputate his leg at the knee. Refusing to consider using a prosthesis, and profoundly uncomfortable to be reliant on others, Paul returns home under the care of a string of nurses. It is only with the arrival of Marijana Jokić - a Croatian nurse - that Paul’s life begins to turn around and he falls in love with his down-to-earth caregiver. That is until Elizabeth Costello arrives on his doorstep; an unstoppable force who demands Paul take an active role in his own narrative and accept responsibility for his actions.

Slow Man, J.M. Coetzee’s first novel since his Nobel Laureate win in 2003, is his latest meditation on care, aging and the nature of existence. The “slowed man” of the title, Paul Rayment, finds himself both physically slowed by the accident and mentally slowed by depression and an inability to accept his new reality. Elizabeth Costello’s arrival (the titular character of Coetzee's 2003 novel) and machinations are designed to force Paul out of his slowness by holding a mirror before him. She questions his motivations and demands that he face the roots of his desire for Marijana: is it his desire for love; his desperation to leave a legacy; or a fear of his own mortality which drives his desire to take Marijana and her children as his own family.

The Observer (UK) suggests that, rather than Elizabeth intruding into Paul’s novel, he has intruded into hers. “She explains her presence by quoting to Paul the opening section of his novel [Slow Man], the bike and him flying through the air and so on. Far from intruding on his novel, she suggests, he has intruded on hers: “You came to me [Paul], that is all I can say. You occurred to me, a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion ... where we go from there I have no idea. Have you any proposal?”

When Marijana shares her fears for her son Drago, Paul offers to pay for Drago’s schooling. Rather than the “help” Paul believes he is providing, in reality he is forcing himself into Marijana’s world the same way Elizabeth has forced herself into his. The consequences of this act of misguided charity ripple throughout the rest of the novel, reinforcing Coetzee’s key point on motivation. Elizabeth points out repeatedly that, no matter what the motivation behind an action, one is still responsible for the fallout – a lack of self-awareness or premeditation does not relieve one of guilt or responsibility.

A meditation on loss, motivation and the creative process, Slow Man is a thought-provoking work raising more questions than it answers. Coetzee’s spare prose is brilliantly exhibited here; however, this is not one of his more accessible works. The bickering dialogue between Elizabeth and Paul, a post-modern meditation on the creative process will not appeal to all readers. A first-time reader of J.M. Coetzee will have a better introduction to his skillful writing through reading Disgrace or Life & Times of Michael K.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 0143037897
ISBN13: 9780143037897

Trade Paperback
264 Pages
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: October 2006