Monthly Archives: September 2006

Around the World in 80 Dates, by Jennifer Cox


The premise of Around the World in 80 Dates is irresistible. Jennifer Cox, a divorced, late-thirties travel writer, tires of her unsuccessful love life and busy work life in London, and decides to go on a round-the-world trip to meet her Soul Mate, setting up (roughly) 80 dates with men in different countries along the way. Fortunatly, Cox writes with just the right tone of breezy, self-deprecating humour to keep this admittedly narcissisitc adventure from becoming cloying or annoying.

80 Dates is really a memoir that does four things at once. First, it tells the story it purports to tell: Jennifer’s world trip and the 80 (give or take a few) guys she dates along the way. Second, it explores the concept of true love and finding a “soul mate” — several of her “dates” are actually more for the purpose of exploring the other’s persons ideas about love and relationships than they are about finding a potential partner for herself. Third, Jennifer Cox never forgets she’s a travel writer: there are fascinating descriptions of nearly every place she visits, including the Burning Man festival in the US, where she meets … well, I’ll let you read that part. But I won’t be giving away more than the dedication does if I tell you that, fourth, this book is also a love story. It’s one thing to circle the world looking for a soul mate, but what do you do if you actually find one? Or … more than one?

Just to be pedantic, Cox does fudge a bit on the definition of “dates.” A day spent at Jim Morrison’s grave does not, in my mind, qualify as a “date” with Morrison. Nor, if you’re a straight woman looking only for men, does lunch with 20 lesbians, however enjoyable, qualify as one of your 80 dates. Unless you’re really, really anxious to fill your quota.

Of course, the one huge unanswered question is: how did Cox fund all this travel? It’s one thing to say most people are slaves to their jobs and don’t have the leisure to devote to finding and maintaining quality relationships — but also, most of us don’t have the kind of careers that allow us to leave the office for a year and travel the world in search of the perfect mate. Obviously she continued travel writing in order to finance the trip, but I also wondered if she had a contract for the book, and an advance, before she set out? If so, did her potential Soul Mates know they were also potential characters in a memoir? And to what extent does the awareness of being observed change the experiment?

Despite my quibbles I found Around the World in 80 Dates an very enjoyable read and recommend it to readers, who are interested in world travel and relationships, even if we may not all get to combine them to quite the degree Jennifer Cox did!

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

The Midwife’s Song, by Brenda Ray


Rarely have I wanted to like a book as much as I wanted to like The Midwife’s Song. I enjoy Biblical fiction anyway — since I write it myself — and for a long time Brenda Ray’s novel has been Amazon.com’s “Better Together” selection to go along with my own Esther: A Story of Courage. There are some good reviews on Amazon for it, so I looked forward to finally reading it. While I wasn’t crushed with disappointment or anything, the novel was nowhere near as good as I expected it to be.

It’s a great concept. Ray picks up on the Bible’s fleeting reference to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who lurk in the background of the Baby-Moses-in-the-bulrushes story (Exodus 1:15-21), and gives Puah, her main character, a story of her own. As Ray herself worked as a nurse-midwife, I expected midwifery to be front and centre in this novel. Although the author had clearly done her research, I would have liked to see a lot more of it — to learn surprising things that would make me think, “I didn’t know a midwife in ancient Egypt would have done that!” There wasn’t enough, for me, of that sense of discovery of an unknown world.

That same criticism could be applied to the book as a whole. The characters’ outlook and motives often seemed anachronistically modern to me: I never felt convinced that I was being drawn into the world of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, nor was there much detail to help the reader grasp the reality of what a life in slavery would have meant at that time. Instead, there’s far too much (for my money) of romance-novel-convention in the romance between Puah and the goldsmith Hattush — seemingly endless descriptions of how handsome Hattush is and how Puah’s heart races whenever he’s around, etc etc. I guess I prefer my romance with more subtlety.

That said, Brenda Ray has brought to life a Biblical character that, as far as I know, no-one’s written about before, and I think many Christian and Jewish women will enjoy this novel from that perspective without being as critical as I’m being. Ray does make one very gutsy narrative move towards the end of the novel that managed to surprise me, and I’m always pleased when an author can do that. This is a nice piece of Biblical fiction, but I personally would have preferred a little more meat with my manna.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- inspirational

Declare, by Tim Powers

Every so often circumstances conspire to make me read a book I would never have picked up on my own. This month’s book club selection for the Ship of Fools book club was Tim Powers’ Declare, a kind of espionage-fantasy hybrid. Now, fantasy I love, but espionage? Spies? Books about people whose entire lives are lived in deceit and danger, caught in a web of intrigue so complex I am lost by page four and have to keep flipping back to see who’s who?

Not my thing.

However, the book was so highly recommended by Shipmate LynnMagdaleneCollege, who was leading the discussion, that I decided I’d give it a try. The basic premise of Declare is that super-secret agent Andrew Hale becomes involved in a dangerous operation on Mount Ararat, combating ancient supernatural powers who live up there and who affect the fate of nations in Cold-War Europe. Well, that’s one level of what the book is about anyway. It also revolves around Hale’s relationship with two other characters, his long-time (but mostly unrequited) love, fellow-spy Elena, and real-life spy Kim Philby. For some readers (who actually care about this kind of thing) the most intriguing thing about the novel will be the fictional backstory that Powers weaves around the factual experiences of Philby, an odd enough character even in real life.

There is a strong core of Christian faith at the centre of this offbeat and hard-to-categorize novel, and that’s what pulled me forward even when I couldn’t figure out what side anyone was working for or who was double-crossing whom. The fantasy and religious elements kept me going even when the spy stuff was hard slogging. Reading Declare was certainly not enough to win me over to enjoying spy novels, but if I had to read one spy novel in my life, I’m glad this was this one.

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Filed under Fiction -- general

The Bitch Posse, by Martha O’Connor

First up, Martha O’Connor is a brilliant writer. No question about that. Second, The Bitch Posse isn’t for everyone. I know a wide variety of people read this blog, and — let’s just say that if you find the title offensive, you won’t like the inside any better.The Bitch Posse is a dark, raw, often graphic and disturbing book about three teenage girls caught in a web of self-destructive behavior, whose close friendship may be their salvation — or their downfall, depending on whose perspective you take. The novel follows the same three women into their later lives as they deal with the consequences of their adolescent rebellion. One character’s life has completely fallen apart, while the other two seem, on the outside, to be living successful lives while inwardly dissolving into chaos.

All three women — and girls — are strong and well-drawn characters, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in their unhappy lives. I raced through the book, completely engaged even when I was distrubed and repelled. I didn’t exactly identify with any of the characters (although in a way I felt Wren/Rennie, the only-marginally-successful writer and teacher, could have been me in a life horribly gone wrong), but the novel made me reflect on the young girls I work with and how close this story seems to their experience. Reading this book dovetailed neatly (though uncomfortably) with my thoughts about the Dawson College shootings in Montreal this month. There’s a lot here to think about, a lot to make readers uneasy and uncomfortable. The author warns readers up front that this book is not chicklit, and she’s being straight with us.As a chocolate-lover I’m always on the lookout for good dark chocolate. The other day I saw a bar that advertised itself as 99% cocoa. I didn’t buy it. I think that chocolate bar might have been a bit like The Bitch Posse — undeniably high-quality, but a little too dark and bitter for some of us.

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Filed under Fiction -- general

The Dying Days, by Shannon Patrick Sullivan


I would never have known about The Dying Days if Shannon Patrick Sullivan hadn’t posted a comment here on Compulsive Overreader, which just proves blogging is good for something. At least, I might have heard of the book (after all, it was published by Creative/Killick, a local press with whom I have more than a passing familiarity), but I might not have realized that Sullivan’s debut novel is a fast-paced, action-packed fantasy novel set right here in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Once I knew that, how could I resist?

The Dying Days was a thoroughly enjoyable read. The Everyman protagonist, Christopher Prescott — a PhD student recovering from a bad breakup — unwittingly stumbles into a shadow world of people who exist on the fringes of “normal” St. John’s society — magic-users, keepers of ancient memories and almost-forgotten ways. A chance encounter brings Christopher right into the heart of the world of the Five Clans at a moment of crisis in both his own life and the life of that society — and both emerge changed forever.

The Dying Days never lets up on the action. The entire story takes place over one weekend, packing an almost impossible schedule of near-death encounters and life-threatening incidents into less than three days. This sometimes requires leaps of plot that strain credibility a little (of course, I realize that once you’re reading fantasy you’re already suspending disbelief, but a couple of things happen in the novel that seemed unlikely even within the carefully-established world of the story). Mostly, though, the hectic keeps the pages turning. I had a chapter and a half to finish when I left for work this morning and I was compelled to bring the book with me, finishing it up while my students wrote a test. For a gal who doesn’t normally get into suspense, this was pretty engaging.

The Dying Days isn’t perfect, but it’s very good. The writing is normally clear, competent and unfussy, but it’s occasionally sloppy, and there are a few grammatical quirks that an editor should have fixed — as well as a few quirks, like giving all the characters street names for surnames, that may not be wrong as such, but just irritated me. On the other hand, there are places where Sullivan’s prose becomes positively lyrical, especially in two chapters where the point of view shifts rapidly around between characters, offering a series of brief, poignant and lovely vignettes.

Although I was intrigued by the plot, two things really sold The Dying Days for me. One was the engaging warmth of the main character, a young man who is very easy to identify with. The reader feels pulled right along on Christopher’s journey, and he’s an enjoyable travelling companion. In many ways the story is a personal quest for Christopher, and we see how he learns and changes over the novel’s short span of time.

The other beauty of The Dying Days is the loving detail with which the city of St. John’s is rendered. Bowring Park, especially, gets the fictional treatment it truly deserves. The passage in which Christopher, travelling on a plane of existance that contains the memories of both past and present, looks down on St. John’s harbour crowded with ships from the centuries past, is so beautiful it almost made me cry. It’s always good to read a good fantasy novel, but for me, it’s especially great to read a novel whose author seems to love this city almost as much as I do.

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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Newfoundland author

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde


The Big Over Easy is the first book in the new “Nursery Crime” series by Jasper Fforde, the almost unbelievably witty and inventive author of The Eyre Affair and other books featuring the time-travelling literary operative Thursday Next.

I think Jasper Fforde is one of those authors you just “get” or you don’t. If you don’t enjoy his particular convoluted humour packed full of literary and cultural references and in-jokes, there’s no point trying to learn to like it. If, on the other hand, you like one Jasper Fforde, you’ll probably like them all. I enjoyed the Thursday Next books so much I was a little wary to immerse myself in Fforde’s new world, but Jason’s review was so enthusiastic I knew I’d probably enjoy it.

And I did. Jack Spratt is the main character here, an unsuccessful detective in the Nursery Crime division, investigating the death of Humpty Dumpty — was he pushed? Did he jump? (Yes, this is essentially the same set-up as Robert Rankin’s The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, which I haven’t read though two of my students last year raved about it. Apparently the two books are, despite the obvious similarity, quite different in their takes on the classic nursery crime). In fact something much weirder than either fate happened to Humpty, but while the books hangs together as a whodunit, the real pleasure is in the humour, and in the slightly twisted modern-day England Fforde creates. As with the Thursday Next books, this is a world where literature dominates culture (every English major’s dream world, in fact). Detectives in The Big Over Easy are judged not so much by their success at solving crimes as in how brilliantly and flamboyantly their cases conform to the standards of popular detective fiction — when Jack Spratt’s sidekick, Mary Mary, is interviewing for a job, the first question she’s asked is, “And have you published?” The conventions of classic mysteries and the world of Mother Goose nursery rhymes provide endless fodder for Ffordian puns and in-jokes. I loved every minute of it and can’t wait to get into the next book in the series, The Fourth Bear.

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Filed under Fiction -- mystery, Humour