Robyn's Book Journal

If anyone is looking for a good book to read, or a good book to avoid, maybe I can help you! **If you have also read the book, leave a comment! What did YOU think of it?

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Location: Vancouver, B.C., Canada

Monday, March 31, 2008

His Dark Materials Trilogy - Philip Pullman

update - the 2nd book sucks. The third brings back some glory of The Golden Compass, but still has many frustratingly boring or not-make-sense-y parts. My advice on this trilogy - stop after #1 and always wonder what might have happened (because it's probably better than what Philip Pullman decided happened...)

The Golden Compass - Many novels written for children are written in simple language (like the language that we insist for some reason to use when speaking to children), have little mystery or intrigue, and no build-up to climaxes or foreshadowing. The first 100 pages of this novel are guilty of all but the first of these plights. But look out for the rest of the book, because you won't be able to put it down.
A young girl must leave her childhood home for what turns out to be a fight for her life (and the lives of many others), and a destiny to be fulfilled. Souls in the shape of ever-present animals, mysterious Dust that has something to do with the Aurora, witches, hot-air balloons, worlds in other dimensions, zombies, and the best part of all - Iorek Byrinson the armoured bear, add up to an exciting story of mystery, betrayal, secrets, lies and finally finding out the truth!
Children's books aren't just for children, folks - for all you guys who "don't read," try something easy and fun and short! But if you are going to choose ONE children's book to read, (re)read "Mrs.Frisby and the Rats of NIMH." Seriously. That book rules even more now than it did in grade 3.

p.s. I know now why everyone I went to see this movie with was so disappointed with the ending!

The Subtle Knife - Am just getting into this book after the beginning was so annoying!! This novel is written with such a more casual voice than The Golden Compass, and that was so distracting! I think it's gone back to normal now, or else I am getting used to it, but I almost put the book back on the shelf (or in the trash). I'm so far glad I didn't, although some sentences still stick out as not making sense, not being something that character would say, or making the character seem stupid when he/she is supposed to be super-smart. And the overt contempt for organized religion was definitely too much. It's as though this book was written by another author, but I'll bet it was just a different editor who thought that this is the type of crap-writing that children want to read.
Stay tuned for how the third book starts...

Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert

Fist of all, let me get this out of the way - I recommend this book.
A true account of a woman's journey from divorce, through Italian pleasure and Indian enlightenment, all the way to relaxation and new-found love in Bali. Gilbert writes in such a casual, honest way that I felt like I knew this woman in real life when I finished the book. I want to know this woman in real life!
Ok. Some hesitations...during the second part of the 3-part story line, Gilbert is at a yoga/meditation retreat for 3 months. I loved reading about her ideas, realizations, and enlightening experiences with God, about God, and for God. While I struggle with the same queries and doubts that Elizabeth goes through, I understand that many people out there actually have a clear image of who their God is, and what he/she does and why. So, I wonder how these people, who are not confused and looking for religious insight, as I seem to be so much lately, might find this portion of the story. Will you think she is being blasphemous, pretentious, stupid, brainwashed, hippified??
Second, I think that although Gilbert really is just trying to be honest, she makes huge generalizations about the people and cultures of Italy, India, and Indonesia (Bali). I have never been any of these places, so maybe her observations are true. But sometimes I found the generalizations a little hard to believe. Let me know if you have read this book AND lived in one of these places so that I know if she's being cute and honest, or horribly pretentious and judgmental.
Now, I've used the word pretentious twice in this review. But this book really is anything but. Gilbert's friendly, sincere, endearing account of this year of her life is another must-read for the list. Especially if you think that your life needs a change - be inspired!!

Monday, February 04, 2008

To All Appearances a Lady - Marilyn Bowering

If you are interested in boats, the western coast of British Columbia, and Chinese immigration to Western Canada, this novel is for you. So, this novel was for me!
You do have to suspend your belief a little as a ghost steers a boat through Haro Strait, but the revealing, twisty ending is totally worth it!
There was one scene in this novel that I felt didn't fit the tone, mood, or storyline. I won't say what it is so that I don't influence your reading of "To All Appearences," but I would be interested in chatting about it if someone else has read this. It just kinda came outta nowhere and was a little shocking. A lot shocking.
In this story, Robert Lam (an aging sailor) goes on one last solitary sail up the coast of Vancouver Island, only to be joined by the ghost of his recently deceased opium-addicted aunt (who raised him). She stays to reveal to him the story of his mother (who Robert cannot remember) and father (whose name Robert doesn't even know).
I love how this book goes back and forth from the present to the past, and if you like good stories, then you'll love the story of how Robert's mother and aunt travel across the Atlantic to their new life in the opium factory, to D'Arcy Island (everyone's favourite leper colony), to Victoria, and back to the sea...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Teacher Man - Frank McCourt

This book made me think about how much a reader's life affects how they feel about a book. How I feel about this book, as a student-teacher who has not read "Angela's Ashes," is nothing like how others will feel about it.
I wanted to read this book now because I am always thinking about teaching and what it means to be a teacher and I was curious about McCourt's experiences. At first I couldn't get into the book BECAUSE I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts about teaching and when I came home and was trying to relax, the last thing I wanted to be forced to think about was teaching.
Or maybe the beginning is just not that gripping.
On this long weekend, however, when my student-teaching experience is coming to an end and I am feeling nostalgic yet hopeful about teaching (but I don't really have to think about it realistically until the holiday Monday), I could get into it, enjoy it, connect to McCourt's experiences, and learn some new ways to think about teaching.
Or maybe the ending is just better than the beginning.
So I wonder about even writing this blog. Just because I liked half of this book now, doesn't mean that I wouldn't have liked it more or less if I had read it at a different time. And whether or not I like it doesn't have any bearing on whether anyone else will like it.
I can imagine that if you are sympathetic to Frank's character from his other books, you would possibly enjoy this account of his later life. I can imagine that if you are interested in teachers, teaching, or are a teacher (especially high school), you would possibly enjoy his insight. I can imagine that if you enjoyed having Bernie Bowker as a teacher, and wanted to relive some of those classes, you may connect to McCourt's story-led teaching style.
Or maybe it just won't be the right time for you to read this. Or maybe it will be the perfect time, like it was for me this weekend, and it will at least make you think...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Ella Minnow Pea - Mark Dunn

This is a book to end all books for Word-Nerds.
A fictitious island that worships Nevin Nollop (the author of the alphabetic sentence "A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog") finds trouble when the letters of their town statue start falling off and the City Council decides that this is a sign from Nollop that the fallen letters should be eradicated from the English language. The novel is written in (postal) letters from one cousin to another or to an aunt or husband, so as the letters fall from the statue, they also disappear from the book.
The story is of the fight for freedom of expression and resistance to a flailing (and failing) City Council who gets in over their heads.
If you are a self-proclaimed Word-Nerd, or wish you were, this is a great novel for you! I thoroughly enjoyed this book, simply because of the wordsmithiness, but hey, it's a delightful story too! I love language, I love word-play, so of course I love this book. I'm not convinced that others would not also love it, though! It's something different that is also an easy, fun read!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Harry Potter Series - J.K. Rowling

Don't worry - no spoilers!

I know most people who will look at this have already read the series, but I just have to say that these books are so worth reading. I don't care that they're written for children (the end of the 6th book was scary enough for me to sleep with a teddy bear the night I read it), and I don't care that they are a "fad." I have read popular children's literature that was not good. We have all read "The DaVinci Code" - a fad, worth reading, but not well-written. These books, though the writing improves immensely as the series goes on, are all good books. I would read them even without the hype, and I encourage those who have been putting it off to read them despite the hype.

Having finally finished the final book after re-reading all but The Philosopher's Stone, I realize what an interwoven story it is, and I became so attached to the characters that I had a favourite Weasley twin (Fred). I love how Rowling always kept the surprises coming, and how she humanized all her characters, even Vol- uh, You-Know-Who!

My favourite book, on re-reading, was the sixth, The Half-Blood Prince. It's the creepiest, reveals a lot, and is also the one where the kids start falling in love! The whole series is worth reading just for that moment when someone kisses someone at the Gryffindor porthole after a very important Quidditch match! So cute!

Stanley Park - Timothy Taylor (2)

Sometimes I would read a book for school and not really get it or even really like it until we had torn it apart and studied it from the inside out, during which time I would slowly gain an understanding and fondness for it. It's like how you can only love an ugly dog like a Jack Russel if you knew it while it was a cute little puppy.
After reading "Story House," I am afraid that this may have been what happened to me with "Stanley Park." I have since forced many friends to read it, and I apologize if the book was more like "Story House" than I remember. If I ever get the book back, I'll have to re-read it to figure out my true feelings towards it...I just hope that those of you who read it on my recommendation enjoyed it >_< (oh please oh please)

Story House - Timothy Taylor

It's been so long since my last entry, and honestly, other than some teen novels that I read for school/pleasure, this is the only book I've been reading that whole time. That is not because I was relishing the incredible insight and detail of a Taylor masterpiece. Other than being busy with and exhausted from school, this just was not a great book and so I never wanted to read.

An architect father brings his 2 sons - totally opposite half-brothers - to an east-side basement to learn boxing in hopes that they will have one final, real fight and get it out of their systems. Unfortunately, the fight has an unexpected ending that estranges the brothers for many years. Eventually they find each other both desperate to make meaning out of their father's, and their own, lives, and they agree to work together to turn the same house where their familial ties had been severed in the fateful boxing match, into a museum of their father's work. Oh, and there's going to be a reality tv show about it, too. Sounds interesting...somewhat...

Like Taylor's book "Stanley Park" (see the first entry of this blog), this novel takes place in Vancouver and has themes of home and reuniting with estranged family. Instead of food and chefs, this one revolves around structures, illegal trade, boxing and architects. Perhaps this is why I had a hard time getting into it; I didn't understand some metaphors and found the description of the illegal trade ring boring. Although the beginning and the end of "Story House" are very good, the middle lost me.

I don't want to say that this book is not worth reading. I have read worse. And perhaps the architecture/boxing/illegal trade ring stuff would interest some of you more than it does me. But this is certainly not Taylor's best.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Fourth Hand - John Irving

I'm just going to come right out and say it - not my favourite Irving book ever. I won't say it's not good, because I think that to the right person at the right time, this could be a very enjoyable story. At school, we often talk about "boy's books" and "girl's books." I think maybe a man might enjoy this one more than I did. Basically, a sweet good-looking womanizing reporter gets his hand bitten off by a lion on live tv. His extreme fame allows his womanizing to blossom, but leaves his career somewhat limited. He soon falls for the wife of his hand transplant donor, and tries to change his somewhat empty life. One thing that Irving can always do is make the extraordinary seem ordinary, and he does that here wonderfully. I just don't like reading graphic tales about womanizing old men having sex with much younger women despite supposedly being in love with another's where men might sympathize with the main character in a way that I couldn't. I know that men can have sex with people and still love someone else, I just choose to live in ignorance of this fact as much as possible! For this reason, I do not fully recommend this novel to everyone, but I would be interested to know what others think of it, so another Irving fan has gotta read it and let me know!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures - Vincent Lam

This collection of 12 short stories follows a few interconnected main characters from Medical School through to (for some of them) death. An inside view of the medical profession (this book was written by a doctor), the stories are detailed (necessitating a glossary of medical terms in the back) and believable, while exploring profound relationships between the characters. Lam expresses the sacrifices, risks, and realities of being a doctor without being hoity-toity or preachy. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I might have preferred a novel to a collection of short stories, so Lam could further develop a plot with these intense characters. Won the Giller Prize in 2006.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Complicated Kindness - Miriam Toews

This is a great peak into the life of a questioning Mennonite teenager. Trapped in the only world she has ever known, Nomi Nickel escapes in the same ways all teenagers escape smothering expectations - with drugs and a reckless boyfriend! People all challenge their realities as teenagers, but the circumstances surrounding this girl's lifestyle make this a dangerous phase of life for her and her family. The story of Nomi's transgression from idealistic child to questioning teenager to town outcast is well-told, intriguing and captivating.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Watership Down - Richard Adams

This is my mom's favourite book, but for so long, I thought (as I'm sure some of you do), "Why would I want to read a story about rabbits?" But I regret not reading this gem of a book sooner!
Fiver has a terrifying vision of destruction of the warren, and believes that they must all leave at once! His brother (?) Hazel, of course, believes him and they try to get the whole warren to leave. Not surprisingly, most of the rabbits think they're crazy, but some either believe, or want an adventure, and they set out to find a new place to live. Along the way they meet new (sometimes unlikely) friends, meet new (sometimes unlikely) enemies, narrowly escape death, see things they could never have imagined, and build bonds with each other that keep them all fighting for each other, and for the "promised land" of Fiver's visions. This book is a real adventure. It is so exciting and endearing. I will never look at bunnies the same way again. And neither will you after you read this - because I know you will if I tell you to. And I'm telling you to.

A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving

This book is so Irving: a little boy is obsessed with his friend's mother; strange characters and events are presented as normalities; the story is enveloping; the characters are both lovable and hateable.
On the first page, the narrator claims that Owen Meany made him believe in God. I instantly had huge expectations of walking away from this book a pious woman. No such luck, but damn, this is a good book.
John Wheelwright and Owen Meany grew up together. From the time that John held Owen up over his head in Sunday School (for Owen is a tiny person with an indescribable voice) until Owen starts John's Masters Thesis for him, they are each other's best friends. Owen affects John's life in so many ways, from the death of John's mother to keeping him out of the Vietnam war. But when Owen plays the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and sees his own name and date of death on the gravestone on stage, their relationship changes. Owen becomes obsessed with ensuring that the prophecy comes true. You have to wait until page 575 to find out if it does!
The story jumps from John and Owen's adventures together to John's "present" life in Toronto in 1987. The "present" story is not as intriguing to me, but you can definitely see the cyclical nature of politics through John's musings on 1960-90s America. Regardless, this book was a joy to read, a great story, and a thought-provoking story, just like all of John Irving's books.

Holes - Louis Sachar

This is a Young Adult book, but is sooo good! Everyone should read it! Even Will liked it! Stanely Yelnats is falsely accused of a crime that lands him in a harsh boys' detention centre where the boys "build character" by digging holes all day in a dried-up lake bed. But Stanley can't help but wonder - are they digging for something? He can't get it out of his head that there is a buried treasure here...can Stanley somehow prove his innocence, break a generations-long bad-luck curse on his family, make friends with the untouchable thugs in his tent group, and also solve the mystery of what, if anything, is buried at Camp Green Lake?? What do you think?!
This is a fun, short book, so why not read it??

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Coraline - Neil Gaiman

This is a short, easy to read, but incredibly creepy book; good for pre-teens as well as adults! I read this book a year ago, and revisited it this year for school. I was just as scared this time! Coraline is a young, adventurous girl who finds a door in her living room that leads into a parallel dimension, where her "other mother" is more responsive, cooks better, and provides better toys than Coraline's real mother. But something about this world is not right; the alternate dimension is full of grotesque versions of everyone in Coraline's life. Eventually, she realizes how evil her "other mother" really is, and Coraline puts everything on the line to save her real family, 3 dead children's souls, and herself!
Pick up the version with illustrations by Dave McKean! This book has great imagery, but the illustrations are cringe-worthy!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tortilla Flat - John Steinbeck

From one great John to another (John Grisham to John Steinbeck, and stay tuned for my review of John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany!).
I always forget that I love Steinbeck. While reading his books, there are so many "Aha" moments and "I couldn't have said it better myself" thoughts. This book is no different.
Four poor men's lives change when one of them inherits two houses. Out of the forest and under two (and later one) roof, these friends take people in, kick people out, and are always on the lookout for another jug of wine. Exposing the greats, and the flaws, of wine and friendship, the story ends with a great celebration of both that leads to a tragic event that no one could have predicted.
Jenny commented that she couldn't tell whether or not I liked the books I write about. If I don't like it, you'll know. I recently stopped reading a book that I wasn't enjoying, so I'm not going to write about it! I'll give it another chance when I am not so swamped reading so much that I don't enjoy for school! For now, only great books for me! And Tortilla Flat is a great book (and short!!)

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Rainmaker - John Grisham

Another gem from Grisham! Rudy Baylor has just finished law school. As a class assignment, his class offers free legal advice to seniors. Rudy gets lucky when a couple approaches his table about an insurance company problem. Their son has leukemia but the company will not pay for a bone marrow transplant, even though this procedure is not specifically excluded from the policy. Rudy is up against the richest firm in Memphis. Rudy and his "paralawyer" partner execute many cute plans, such as to ensure them the jury that they want, etc. Unfortunately, there is a side-plot with a love story - not John's strong suit. But the court stuff is really good and the story is heartwarming - you really want the little guy to win!
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Give Grisham a chance!

The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

Henry has a genetic disorder that makes him travel through time, mostly to the past, but occasionally to the future. His life is cyclical. He meets himself at all different ages, from all ages. He can never change anything that happens in the past even though he knows the outcome. Henry often visits his wife, Claire, when he is older and she is a child, so that when they meet in the present, she knows him and knows that they will marry, but he has never seen her before. The story is told basically chronologically through both Henry and Claire's perspectives. Pay attention to the dates and ages at the beginning of the chapters - I usually don't in books, but here it really helps you understand what is happening and who is speaking. This book is a wonderful read - one of those books that you want to read again as soon as you're finished it. Being both joyful and sad, this is a most enjoyable, impressive first novel from Niffenegger.
Read it.

Tuesdays With Morrie - Mitch Albom

A seemingly true story about Mitch, who spends every Tuesday with his old favourite university professor who is dying of ALS (his teaching style reminds me of Mr. Bowker - personal and interesting). The men discuss in a teacher-student-like relationship life, love, family, death, and what is important. Mitch has swayed from his Morrie-inspired, hippyish college thinking, but he is once again encouraged towards a less money-oreiented lifestyle by Morrie's "Where would I be without my family" attitude.
The book is kind of preachy, but has many good ideas and lessons. Although many of Albom's (or Morrie's?) pondering about death and illness were not new to me, if you have not been faced with these realities, this book gives an insight that can only come from someone who has. If you wonder what people think about when they are dying, read this book. That makes it sound depressing, but it is actually very up-lifting and heart-warming.

The Testament - John Grisham

I know this is a cheesy "bestseller" type, but seriously, John Grisham knows how to write an exciting story (as long as there's no romance). If you've never read him, pick this one up. I'm starting with this one because it is one of my favourites of his, but there will be more Grisham posts to come!
A multi-billionaire commits suicide and leaves a controversial last will that leaves all his money to an illigitimate daughter that no one knew about. The rest of his many kids (now adults) and his three ex-wives try to contest this will - that's the lawyer part of it. But more interesting is the journey that Nate O'Reilly, ex-addict and ex-litigator, must make into the South American jungle to find this daughter, who is now a missionary deep in the Brizilian wetlands.
Grisham's appeal is in his characters, and the offspring all have great, believable personalities, as do the lawyers, the hero, and the many characters met along the journey.
I'm serious here. Give Grisham a chance. Open your mind. Don't be a snob. Plus, his books are usually really cheap at second-hand bookstores!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Twenty-One Elephants - Phil Bildner

This story is about a little girl named Hannah, who cannot wait to walk across the world’s first suspension bridge. She has watched the Brooklyn Bridge being built ever since she was a baby. When the bridge is finally finished, though, Hannah’s father is afraid to walk on it. Hannah tries to convince her father that the bridge is safe. They go to the official bridge opening where the president of the United States, and the bridge’s chief engineer cannot convince him. Then Hannah learns that the rest of her family, her classmates and teacher, and other members of her community also do not trust the safety of the new bridge. Finally, a trip to the circus inspires Hannah how to prove that the bridge is strong! And P.T. Barnum has a similar idea! A few days later, Hannah makes sure that her family, friends, and everyone in the community is at the bridge the morning that P.T. Barnum’s circus parade traverses the bridge, complete with twenty-one elephants, including the world’s largest elephant! Once everyone sees with their own eyes what the bridge can withstand, even Hannah’s father is happy to walk across with Hannah.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

JPod - Douglas Coupland

Reminiscent of Coupland's Microserfs, JPod takes place in a suspiciously EA Games-like Vancouver videogame company. Six employees are put together in a cubicle pod by a computer glitch - all six work in different parts of the company, but are put together because their last names all start with J. Evan is the main character, whose family includes a dope-growing, biker-burying sweetie of a mother. Bree is a nympho, Cancer Cowboy is a smoker, Jon Doe is a child of a hippie who grew up in a commune and now tries to be as average as possible, Evil Mark is not evil, and Kaitlin is the newbie. The crazy Coupland-esque plot includes the main character meeting Douglas Coupland himself, homemade Coca-Cola complete with cocaine, sabotaging the videogame they are working on with unlockable scenes of Ronald McDonald on a gory killing rage, random contests, etc, etc.
If you liked Microserfs, you should read this too. If you like Coupland, you should read this too. If you've never read Coupland, this is a good place to start. Definately an entertaining read!

Fall on Your Knees - Ann-Marie MacDonald

Story of a family. Starts with James and Materia marrying, causing her Lebenese family to disown her. The couple have three children - Katherine (the apple of James' eye, she is a singing prodigy and is eventually sent to New York to be professionally trained), Mercedes (the mothering type), and Frances (a real troublemaker with a huge heart). Katherine soon comes home from New York single, but pregnant with twins, one who is brought up by James as one of his daughters. The family is steeped with secrets, most of which Frances knows, giving her power and invincibility despite her lying, fighting, and dancing/prostitution. Frances eventually gets her hands on Katherine's diary from New York, learns even more secrets, and sends Lily to New York to meet the people there who were a part of her mother's life.
Best book ever. Could not put it down. Disturbing, but entertaining. A real "page-turner." I mostly know women who have read this book, and since it is about women and family, I'm tempted to say men wouldn't like it as much (well, Will wouldn't be interested anyways). Read it anyways.

Wish You Were Here - Stewart O'Nan

A family spends one last week at the cottage before they are forced to sell it after the death of the patriarch. The deceased's wife, sister, daughter, son, daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren are all there to relive the memories, divide the old furniture, and eventually try to convince the wife not to sell. The young boys are annoying, the daughter is an attention-whore ex-alcoholic recent divorcee who thinks everything is about her. The son is a typical push-over, keep-the-peace type. Although the characters are quite real, the story is shallow, with a surprising, yet barely-discussed lesbian incest attraction between one of the young girls and her cousin. The need to find out if the wife sells the place, remaining selfish and over-dramatic, or actually listens to her family kept me reading, but I wouldn't recommend this book except as a quick, lightly entertaining summer read.

Stanley Park - Timothy Taylor

Jeremy is a chef with his own restaraunt in Vancouver, B.C., specializing in local, organic foods. His mother is dead and his father is an ex-professor who has been doing research/having a mental breakdown since his wife past away, and has been living with his "subjects" in Stanley Park for a few years. Jeremy's life gets turned upside-down while he tries to reconnect with his father, save his restaraunt from being mainstreamed by a new investor whose company sounds suspiciously Starbucksy. Jeremy learns about love, family, integrity, and home in this food-oriented delicious novel. Read it. Everyone.

ps. Jenny - organic coffee can only make this book better!