Thursday, December 29, 2016

How Well Do You Really Know Your Neighbors?

Heres what happened when I started reading Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris: I opened it up on my Kobo and began. Three hours later I was still at it. I picked it up in the morning, after having dreamt about it, I am sure, and after picking it up several times during the night to read hidden under my covers so as not to wake my husband.

I drank my morning coffee with the book opened beside me. It wasn’t until the very last page that I was aware of the breath I’d been holding. It’s that good. It’s what I’m recommending this week.

What makes it good is the ever escalating suspense, from the carefully controlled first chapter where we meet the couple, Jack and Grace to the horrific ending.

Jack is smart, good looking, a lawyer who specializes in helping abused women. And, oh, he’s never lost a case. How lucky is Grace to be his wife? Grace, to all appearances is the perfect wife, always beautifully turned out. They live a huge and gorgeous home and host lavish dinner parties. Too good to be true. 

It is.

Behind Closed Doors is something I am calling a “psychopath captive prisoner story,” which is just the name I’m giving to this genre. If this genre has a real name, someone please let me know.

I think part of our fascination with these types of stories is that we like to think of ourselves as Macgyvers able to get out of any scrape and situation. I would do it this way. No, I would do it that way. As I read Behind Closed Doors, I wanted to yell at Grace. Why don’t you try this? Wouldn’t that work?

We have read the stories, seen the news about the horrific true tales of children kept in closets for years, of women imprisoned in dungeons to be repeatedly raped. These horrific events make us want to hug onto our children more closely, and keep hold of those we love with tight arms. It’s one of the more horrible of crimes that people seem to be capable of.

And it is also reflected in our fiction.

Room by Emma Donoghue is the story of a mother raising her son within the confines of a room where they are being held captive. 
 It has also been made into a movie.

Do you remember Flowers in the Attic, that YA book from a number of years ago? It was immensely popular with young people, and when my teen daughter brought it home back then, I read it, too. It's about a family of children who are hidden away in the attic by a mother intent on getting the inheritance which is hers only if she doesn’t have children.

There are more in this genre. Stephen King’s Misery is a tale which is not soon forgotten by those who read it.

I even had a "captive prisoner" novel in The King James Murders.

I will close this brief analysis with a look at the short story The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I remember reading this years ago, probably for a school assignment, and it still holds onto its fearfulness. This short story is about a woman suffering from some undiagnosed illness, and whose husband keeps her in a room with yellow wallpaper - which eventually drives her insane. It’s a great psychological suspense tale and you can read it in its entirety here.

I’d love to hear some of your favorite captive-prisoner stories.

In two weeks: On the one year anniversary of I Like It, I take a brief look back.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Four Important Reasons to Read Thrillers

Today on "I Like It,' I am happy to recommend the mystery/thriller, The Long and Far Away Gone by Lou Berney,

After all the nonfiction memoirs and books of spirituality that I have recently reviewed here, some of you may wonder how I can shift so easily into the thriller and mystery genre. My intention when I began this blog has always been to recommend some media that I especially enjoyed. So yes, I read nonfiction, but I also read mystery and thriller. I enjoy the books, mostly literary novels, I read for my book club. I enjoy poetry. And I enjoy thrillers. I like to read widely. I especially like to read stories. And so should you.

Here’s why:

1. Because you’re more than one kind of person. I’ve been to book signings when pastors (don’t know why it’s always pastors, but it's been only pastors who have said this to me) have picked up my novels, turned them over and have said,  “I only read spiritual books. I don’t have time for anything else.” I'm sorry to tell them I'm never impressed by that. I’m more impressed by a minister or busy person saying they escape into a mystery after a busy day.

2. Because escapism isn’t a bad thing. If it was, we wouldn’t go on vacations, take holidays, spend time kayaking, sailing, sitting by the ocean, walking in the woods or playing with Thomas Trains on the floor with our kids or grandkids (or neighbor kids.) We do a heck of a lot of things in the name of escapism. It’s good for re-charging the brain. I’ve always enjoyed mysteries but I began reading them in earnest in th 1980s when I was taking university courses. The courses were heavy, the reading material heavy. I needed something to get my brain to relax, to get it to move into an  opposite directions. Sometimes you just need to “think differently” to recharge your thinking.

3. Because you learn things. Plain and simple. You will learn new things. With every new setting, and every new story you pick up small and surprising details - even what kind of wine to serve with what kind of main course (something I just learned.).

4. Because stories are how we change. For the most part debate never changes our opinions about much of anything. Measured and carefully thought out arguments don't really change us. Apologetics doesn't change us. And as we know from this past election cycle, even a presentation of facts doesen't change us either. Stories do. That's why we're a people of stories from sitting around the campfire at night and bragging about the day's exploits, to sharing one's innermost secrets. Here's a link which supports my point.

So that's why I would challenge you to pick up a mystery, a thriller, a well-written one—even if you’ve never read one before. The one I am recommending today would be a wonderful place to start! The Long and Far Away Gone deftly weaves two long-ago stories together and will have you guessing and loving the characters. Wyatt wonders how he was the only teenager who managed to survive a massacre at a local theater in 1986. As soon as he could, he left that town, became a private investigator, vowing never to return. 

Until the story begins. 

That same summer of 1986, Julianna becomes separated from her beautiful older sister Genevieve at the state fair. The older sister was never found. The case was soon closed, all trails and clues gone cold. But Julianna has tried to keep it alive by yearly meetings with the police. It has haunted her. She has gone over every second of that last State Fair visit. 

Both Juliana and Wyatt need closure. Both want to move on. Neither know how.

I will tell you no more. Go out and buy it. You will not be able to put it down. And maybe, just maybe, it will change you, even just a little bit. 

Next time, another mystery/thriller: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

When Everything in Life Should be Highlighted

This week I am endorsing a book about getting older, gaining wisdom, and growing closer to God. The book is Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by the Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr who is with The Center for Action and Contemplation.

Before I read this book I had never fully appreciated or understood that there were two parts of life. You work hard when you're young and then you get to sit around in rocking chairs when you get old.
It's been strange for me - navigating this thing called "aging." I spent an awful lot of my early life obsessed with my "career", and "making it" as a mystery author. I am slowly letting go of that dream. And it's okay. I can finally say it's okay. This book helped me a lot. I highly recommend it to anyone who is on the other side of 50.

Our culture is obsessed with what Rohr calls, “first-half-of-life thinking.” Books, the web and magazines abound with self-help checklists–how to get ahead in your career, how to manage your money, how to chose the right spouse, how to prepare for your job interview. These are necessary. It’s good and important to set up house and home and family, but our culture revels in it to the detriment of “second-half-of-life thinking” which is about suffering, loss, giving, and the gaining of wisdom through these life experiences, and sharing.

In most all cultures—except our own—the aged are revered. It’s where we get the word “elder” from. I’m always amused when fresh-faced young missionary men come to the door wearing name tags which proclaim them as “elders,” and twenty-somethings are elected to the “elders” board at a church. Really?

We’ve gotten these things completely turned around in our thinking and and Rohr’s book attempts to set things right again.

Since I am a definitely a woman “of a certain age,” (or maybe even beyond—ahem), I found myself quite interested in his book and read it twice. I’m sure there will be more readings, for there is much to learn as I travel on this journey.

He explains something that most of us know - that is that when we are younger we see things in black and white—things are either “right” or “wrong.” And that’s it. We sometimes surprise ourselves when we are older and things become more nuanced, more gray, more light, more shadows, more bright spots. The elderly person who continues to see things in black and white only, is still lodged in “first half of life thinking.”

As I went through this book I began highlighting portions of it as I read. Now with me, I’m not actually highlighting with a pen. Lately I’ve been read most of my eBooks either on my large-size iPhone or on my Kobo eReader. With both, I have the ability to “highlight.” But it got rather ridiculous when there was so much good information that I found myself highlighting every single page. 

I'll share a few random quotes and thoughts and things I learned from Falling Upward:

-He writes: “The first half of life is discovering the script and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.” Or more simply, the first half of life is building and the second half is living.

-Rohr admits that it’s quite possible to live your whole life and never get past “first-half-of-life” thinking. The movie Grumpy Old Men  comes to mind. Grumpiness, as well as clinging to the first-half-of-life achievements and possessions - yes, it is quite possible to grow old and not to be wise. I think of King Midas in Greek mythology hoarding his gold to himself, or Gollum’s My Precious in Lord of the Rings.

Rohr writes,

The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way or we will not move further. Why would we? 

- I remember a poster I once saw - He who dies with the most toys wins. Rohr would characterize this as first-half of life thinking for sure. The wise person sees no need for “toys” whether physical accumulations or the black and white emotions which characterize youth. The wise person will give all his toys away. Not necessarily the physical things - although those, too - but the spiritual things gleaned and learned through the suffering of growing older, the experience of death, of loneliness, of failing health.

-He calls the path to this growth a “downward path.” I found this to be quite different than all the first-half-of-life self help where one is to strive to make it up the ladder of success. True spiritual growth comes from going down the ladder, falling off of it at times, and maybe staying at the bottom rung and helping those who are stuck there. The Bible seems to echo this:

 He who gains his life shall lose it. This biblical advice runs counter to everything we are taught in our culture.

-You cannot grow up until you have experienced weakness, until you know what it is to suffer. 

It is when I am weak that I am strong - 2 Corinthians 12:10 

I’m currently reading another book which is reminding me very much of Falling Upward, and that book is The Time of Your Life by Margaret Trudeau. She is the mother of our prime minister here in Canada and during the 1970s was married to our then prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. A week ago I heard her speak here at our local university. She is an amazing and gracious woman who has struggled most of her life with mental illness. She says that she didn’t really “find” her life until she was over 50, and Rohr would maintain, that’s just about right. At some point I will be reviewing The Time of Your Life for this blog.

I will end with this quote from Rohr’s book:

Once your life has become a constant communion, you know that all the techniques, formulas, sacraments, and practices were just a dress rehearsal for the real thing—life itself—which can actually become a constant intentional prayer. Your conscious and loving existence gives glory to God.

An ancient native American proverb says that “No wise person ever wanted to be younger.”

IN TWO WEEKS: More mystery with The Long and Far Away Gone by Lou Berney

Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Time To Weep

This week, I was all set to recommend and write about Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward, and then the election happened. Life seemed to turn on a hinge. So, instead, I am recommending that you listen to a series of podcast sermons by Rob Bell entitled Learning to Lament.

Like many of you, my first reaction last week was horror. How can this be? How can it be that people voted for someone so immoral, so self-serving, so obviously opposed to everything I stand for as a Christian?

What really broke my heart was something that started early on in the electoral campaign, the endorsement of Trump by so many “leaders” in the Evangelical Christian church. One so-called “minister” (minister in quotes) said that if you don’t vote for Trump “you will have to answer to God.” There were churches this past Sunday who “praised God” for the “miracle” of the election.

Through the past few years all of this has led me away from the evangelical Christianity I grew up with and on a search towards a very different kind of faith, as yet un-defined.

I want to share here what I wrote the day after the election:

Today is a day of grief for me, a day of lamentation. It is already afternoon and I cannot stop crying - for our Muslim brothers and sisters, for our Hispanic brothers and sisters, for women who've been sexually assaulted, for married women whose adulterous husbands have left them for younger, prettier versions of themselves, for our black sons and daughters. 

I also weep for the unborn babies- because during the past administration, the abortion rates have appreciably fallen. (Google it. It's true). I am pro-life. And I'm scared. I am so afraid for this fragile environment that God has entrusted us with. I cannot stop crying because our LGTB friends can now go back inside to live in fear. I weep because now there can be even more suicides among young gay people.

If I had sackcloth I would cover myself in it, hide beneath it. God help us.

Today, exactly one week later I am endorsing Rob Bell’s five-part podcast sermon series entitled Learning to Lament

I first listened to the series last spring. Today they make even more sense. 

Here is the computer link for the sermons, but it might be easier simply to go to your podcast app and do a search for Robcast. There are five talks in the series and they released last May. If you have listened at all to Bell, you know how he can break down the most profound of biblical passages and doctrines into simple to understandable  thoughts.

He begins by explaining that the Book of Lamentations (in the Bible,) is a series of poems about a grief for a nation.

It was written at around 500 BC when Israel was being taken captive by Babylon. Their land was no longer theirs. You know those pictures you see on the news of families fleeing from Syria? That’s what it was like. Families, babies, all of their stuff in carts and on their backs and on their animals, heading away from their land, their farms, the soil they tilled. The poems were written while they trampled through the rubble. It was a time for lament, a time for weeping. They had lost their land. They saw no hope.

Bell points out that from the very beginning, the nation of Israel was to be a different kind of people. While all the rest of the tribes were intent on crushing their neighbors and capturing their land, Israel had a higher calling. They were to bless their neighbors. It was right there in the beginning with the promise to Abraham, that through the nation of Israel, "all the nations on the earth shall be blessed."

They were to be a new kind of people, Bell explains, who moved through the world and blessed other people, a people who care for others rather than trying to exploit them. They were to be, as Bell says, “a light to all humanity.”

Over and over there was the command to take care of widows, orphans, and immigrants, over and over it says to show hospitality to strangers. I can't stress that enough. 

As the years passed, something happened. The prophets were the first to notice it. Bell calls them “the first voices of social justice in the world.” The people, the nation, their kings and leaders were corrupted by power, money and control. What started at the top made its way finally down to the ordinary person on the street.

Remember the famous story of Sodom and Gomorrah? Their sin? The reason the city was totally destroyed?

Here it is: "'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy."

Arrogant? Overfed? Unconcerned? Withholding help from the poor? The needy? Does this sound all too familiar? 
The prophets connected the military downfall of Israel with how they cared for the 'least of these.' Familiar?

America has just elected a president who by his own admission (and Google all you want folks, it’s all there), does not care for "the least of these". 

It is a time to lament.

Maybe reason will come later. Maybe compromise and working together will come later. But for now, it's a time to weep. 

In two weeks: Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Of Mothers and Daughters

Today I am taking a look at that most fundamental and personal of relationships, the bond between mother and daughter. Blue Mercy by Irish novelist Orna Ross is the book I am recommending this week.

At the heart of this story is Mercy, the stunning and beautiful mother who has written her own memoir entitled Blue Mercy. It becomes the task of daughter Star, to unravel it, read it, and maybe get it published after Mercy’s death. Problem is, Star has a much different recollection of growing up. Star spent much of her childhood overweight and in the shadow of her enchanting mother’s urges to make her something she was not.

There are more than two generations in this story, however. It begins with the mystery and tragedy of Mercy’s father’s death. Accident? Murder? The result of his lingering illness? Will we ever know the truth? That becomes the backbone of the story.

This family saga moves effortlessly from Ireland to California and back again and from the past to the present without ever confusing the reader.

Once I had opened the first page of this novel, I was drawn in. It has been more than twenty-five years since I was in Ireland, but suddenly I was back there. I could see it. I could hear it. I could feel the fog, smell it. Ross is a master at setting.

What sets this mother/daughter saga apart is a betrayal at its core. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say any more than this, but it is a betrayal on the most personal of levels.

I can’t end this review without mentioning the writing itself. Here are just a few example of Ross’s wonderful prose.

Where I should have had a core, I only had a space.

We walked up the lane in gathering darkness, two feet by two crunching on the gravel.

In describing an Irish fog bank:

Throughout the summer it stayed there, off shore on the water, about 1,000 feet thick, As night fell, it would move in, filling the spaces between our homes and in the morning, as the sun climbed, it would obligingly roll back out to sea.

…a body that wanted to claim space, but also to disappear.

The liquid of the lake is in the air, and so is the clay of the mountains.

Are you in a bookclub? This is an excellent ‘bookclub’ selection.

Many of my own novels deal with mother, daughter relationships - even my new mystery series has this at its core. Ross and I aren’t the only ones.

Here is a Mother’s Day online list of mother/daughter books.

The first on this list is White Oleander by Janet Fitch, a book I absolutely found myself submerged into, and really is much like Blue Mercy in theme and writing. Again this one about a beautiful mother and plain daughter. Highly recommended.

The next on the list is Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, again a book I read an loved.

Years ago I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and remember totally enjoying this piece of life.

And Beloved by Toni Morrison

Here is another list - this one on my favorite place: Goodreads. In two weeks: A look at spirituality for the two halves of life in Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Long Look Inside a Far Country

This week I’m endorsing a memoir, The Girl with Seven Names: Escaping from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee.

I don’t know about you, but I find the whole country of North Korea fascinating, I guess because it’s one of the the last places on earth which is totally a country unto itself, with little to no outside contact. We get little information from that place, and what we do get, we wonder if we can trust.

So, when a Goodreads friend recommended this book to me I was intrigued  I bought it, downloaded it and read it. If you are not familiar with Goodreads, I’m on there all the time. Here is my profile and I’d love to be your “friend” and get book recommendations there.

The Girl With Seven Names follows the story of Hyeonseo Lee, who, when she was seventeen, waded the narrow river from her home in North Korea into China. She was able to evade the river guards and ended up a decade later, a decade of changed names, forged ID cards, harrowing escapes, and many scrapes, as a citizen of South Korea.

Before we go any further a few facts about North Korea might be in order. The country is currently governed (?) dictated over (?) by Kim Jong-un, son of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il and grandson of the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung Some sources suggest that the moniker for the current dictator is Outstanding Leader.

Unlike many of the stories we get about the harshness of the worker class, the horribleness of the prisons there, Lee’s family was one of the upper classes. Still, however, every minute, every conversation, every word and deed was controlled by the government. She grew up across a narrow river from China, and whereas their electricity was turned off every night, the lights from China blazed. What was it like over there? 

Like many Communist countries, a huge underground economy flourished, and Lee’s mother sold smuggled delicacies from China. These toys and trinkets and interesting food items fascinated the young girl. How could the Chinese be so rich when parts of her country and many in her family were dying of starvation? 

Before you download and read the book on your own, have a listen to her short Ted Talk. It’s very informative.

Here are a few interesting “Did You Know?” facts I learned from this book:

- The Kims are worshipped like gods. Every school child will tell you that a new star appeared in the sky on the day that their Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il was born. Children put on plays about this. Both the birthdays of the Dear Leader and the Great Leader are holidays. (Sound familiar?) North Koreans say that everything in their land was “created” by their Great Leader.

- A framed photo of their Leader hangs in every single home in North Korea. It is a sacred photo. If even a few crumbs of dust accumulate on the photo, the owners of the house will be in dire trouble. And yes, homes are periodically inspected. Or if they’re not, and you’re visiting a neighbor and notice this, you are obliged to report them. Which brings me to the next point:

- Everything, everywhere is bugged. Once a week, students are encouraged to tell on each other at sanctioned events. People in workplaces also do this, and reporting any and all infractions on ones neighbors (and even friends) is very much encouraged. You will be in trouble if you don't.

- When Kim Il - sung passed away in 1994, days of mourning were prescribed. Citizens were required to file past and pay their regards. People were required to sob loudly. If you didn’t wail loudly enough, you could be reported. Lee, a child then, remembers standing in line for hours, crying and sobbing. If they didn’t shed enough tears, and if their tears didn’t look real, they would be severely punished.

Here is a fuzzy but fascinating You Tube look at the mourners. If it looks like people are out of control with grief, that’s what they had to do.

This happened again in 2011 with the death of the next Kim. Here is a video.

- When Lee finally makes it into South Korea, it’s not the end of the story, but her story becomes the sad and difficult story of every refugee. Despite its flaws, she misses her homeland, the friends she left. Her North Korean education was worthless and she had to basically start over. I appreciate the fact that the memoir doesn't gloss this over.

While this book opened my eyes to North Korea, It also brought to mind the plight of many refugees here in Canada - here in Fredericton where I live, even - and while, yes, they are happy to be free, it is not so strange for them to long for their homelands. To long for friends and family left behind. It has given me a bit more understanding.

In two weeks: Blue Mercy by Orna Ross

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Strange Sisters Stranger Twins

I seem to be on a literary thriller kick lately because today I’m recommending another one, The Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne. The novel features Lydia and Kirstie, two very identical monozygous little girl twins. The book describes them as “identical in every way.” They were so identical that their parents had to put different colored ribbons around their ankles when they were babies, so as not to mix them up. 

This little piece of information is important in the plot.

Here is the first sentence of the book:

Our chairs are placed precisely two years apart. And they are both facing the big desk, as if we are a couple having marital therapy; a feeling I know too well.’

And with that, we are introduced to Sarah and Angus, the couple who are moving from London to a solitary island off the Scottish coast that he inherited “to start over” after one of the twins falls to her death from a balcony.

Right off the bat, my “don’t go there” antenna is buzzing off the charts. This is a plot device used by many horror/thriller writers, and, really, it never gets old.

I’ve never been to an island like this, but I’ve watched enough Shetland
to know that it has to be cold, full of fog and is surrounded by unforgiving slate gray seas. And ghosts. There have to be ghosts.

When the surviving twin claims to be her dead sister, and that her parents “got it wrong”,  that's when the story really begins. I won’t go any further without spoiling the plot, but it almost delves into a Stephen King territory - a realm I LOVE in novels, by the way,

And there is a storm. Of course there is a storm. There has to be a storm. And even with all these plot devices that we’ve seen a million times, I found I could not put this well-written book down and kept swiping page after page on my Kobo.

There are many suggestions that these twins were special, so identical as to be eerie, and that science and doctors had been keenly interested in them. And then on the other hand we get sentences like this: 

He’d read the science: there was no such thing as twin telepathy, just the ordinary miracle of identical twins.

So, the reader is constantly back and forth. Which parent is telling the truth? Which of the three family members is spiralling down into insanity? Maybe none of them? Maybe it really is a ghost?

I think we all have a certain fascination with twins. What would it like if there were two of me? I’m sure we non-twinned singular people have wondered that every so often. Thing is, if you were a twin, it wouldn’t be two of you, it would be one of you and one of someone else. Twin novels so fascinating.

Yes, identical have the same DNA. (Which is a great plot device in modern mysteries, and yes, it has been used, but it’s still fun. I remember a CSI episode where not only were their twins, but triplets, all with the same DNA left at the crime scene.)

Identical twins, however, do not have the same fingerprints. That little fact of information is all over the internet, but in the case of this book, the dead twin has been cremated.

If you love literary thrillers, remote islands, lighthouses and gray seas, then I highly recommend this book.

And, if the book piques your interest in all things twins, fraternal or identical, the internet abounds with information.There are even conferences just for twins, all twins, fraternal and identical alike.

One of the more well known ones occurs each year in a place called Twinsburg, Ohio. I wasn’t able to find out which came first, the conference or the name of the city. I’m thinking the name of the city. 

There is also a fascinating Netflix documentary about twin South Korean girls separated at birth and adopted, one to the US and one to France. The girls “found” each other on Facebook. Twisters is on Netflix and is quite interesting. Here’s a Huffington Post article about the documentary.

Next Time: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Those Creepy Lady Robots: A look at mad scientists

This week I’m taking a short break from books and am recommending the movie, Ex Machina, which is what I would call, a classic “mad scientist” story. And this is a brilliant one.

Just to give you the skeleton of the story - (and "skeleton" is a pun. You’ll get it later) brilliant, reclusive, billionaire computer programmer, Nathan lives alone in a state-of-the-art fortress in the mountains (we never quite know the location) where he works on his projects. Mainly robots of the female persuasion. Apparently there has been a contest back at Blue Book, the Search Engine company he founded, and young, eager, and equally brilliant Caleb, the winner of the competition gets to spend a week with the eccentric programmer.

Take a look at the picture above to the right. Ava, one of his robots we get to meet, is a see-through wisp of a young woman who, when her joints move, there are these ever-so-slight machine noises. Very clever. Very convincing.

The Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) in this movie is fantasticaly rendered. You owe it to yourself to watch it just for that.

And of course, the plot probably proceeds the way you think it will. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have a story. All you would have are people using robots to do their household work. I already have that. "Filch", what we have named our Roomba brand robot vacuum cleaner has saved my body from the back-breaking work of vacuuming. Thank you Filch. Now, if Filch started rebelling and deciding not to work? That would be a movie. 

And that's precisely what happens here when all is not well with Ava and the other robot we meet - Kyoto (whose main jobs, it seems, is dancing and serving meals.)

Of course, there is that horrific, gasp-inducing ending. I will not spoil it for you. I will not even hint at it, but just that it is chilling and it still has me thinking, and wondering.

This moves me to another subject - Mad Scientists in general. They have been around a long time and favorite theme in literature and movies. From Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to 
The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Rcently, I listened to The Invisible Man, another "mad scientist" book as an audio book and loved it. In it, the scientist invents a potion which renders him invisible. 

And who can forget the weird 
piece of vegetation in Little Shop of Horrors yelling “Feed me! Feed me!”

More recently, there is the movie, I, Robot. And today, Ex Machina.

If you are interested in more Mad Scientist books, here's a list courtesy of Goodreads.

Why are we so fascinated with mad scientists? I think it comes down to wanting a kind of constant confirmation of our humanness. Because we ARE, in fact, developing robots like Kyoto and Ava. (See the links below.) Could they ever become human? Could they make choices and "think"?  Could Artificial Intelligence come that far? What makes a human, anyway?

I’m currently re-watching all of the old episodes of the X-Files on Netflix. I was a fan back in the day. In the 90s, when this series was filmed, we, as a culture, feared and were fascinated by aliens and demons. Remember all the horrific, but totally false allegations about devil worship and sacrifice that arose in the mid-90s? That is the stuff of the X-Files.

I find it interesting that we have changed as a culture from looking at demons and devils as the non-human “other”, and are fascinated by what we can invent ourselves. What is a soul? What makes a human person a human person? Do aliens and demons have these souls? And now, we ask, can robots have souls? And feelings? What do you think?

If you were creeped out by Ex Machina, take a look at these sites. This whole thing is a lot closer than we think or that Dr. Frankenstein would ever have imagined.

Click here for a look at some creepy lady robots. And here.  A
nd my personal  favorite.

What are some of your favorite Mad Scientist books or movies? Share them in the “comments” section.

In Two Weeks: Another literary thriller - The Ice Twins.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

How Stephen King Got Me Reading on a Kobo

I have enjoyed the stories and novels of Stephen King for a long time. He is a gifted writer with a brilliant imagination. I devour, especially, his short stories; Four Past Midnight , Everything’s Eventual,  and Just After Sunset.

And now, blog, readers, I come to today’s recommendation, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, another book of his remarkable stories.

But, there has always been one thing I didn’t like about his works. They’re too darn heavy. I mean physically heavy. Some years ago a friend gave me the hardcover edition of Under The Dome. A very nice gesture, a lovely gift from a friend who knew my proclivities, but after just a few chapters I had to put it down. 

I just couldn’t read it. Problem? It's too heavy. The darn thing was heavy and thick as a brick. About killed these old shoulders of mine. Because it was a gift, I really tried. I sat in a straight backed chair and placed it on my lap. Maybe that's the way you're supposed to read encyclopediac sized tomes. Didn't work. I like reading, propped up in bed, an easy chair, or lying on the couch, and that's that.

My friend Walter, told me this story. He was in New York City to speak at a conference.  He had a day to kill and decided to enjoy it walking around, seeing the sights and reading a novel. It too, was a tome.  Walter's solution: he would walk, stop somewhere for coffee or a glass of wine, read 50 pages or so, tear them off the book and put them in the garbage and then go on his way. At each reading, the book got lighter. He also mentioned that some observers were aghast, that he would mutilate a book like that.

For a long time The Stand was my favourite novel of all time. A number of years ago I pounced upon an uncut paperback edition of it in a dusty, used book store. But even the paperback was four inches thick. And thick paperbacks are more unwieldy to read than hardcovers, So, 
as I had learned from Walter, I broke the binding apart in three places and made three regular sized paperbacks out of it. Where there’s a will and all that. 

Maybe Stephen King novels are books you shouldn’t get too comfortable with in bed, without looking under the bed, or in the closet, and of course, making sure all door locks are securely fastened. Maybe they're meant to be heavy, to keep you on your toes.

This brings me to my Kobo Touch. My eReader is as light as a feather and always weighs the same no matter how many books I put on it. Now, I can read Stephen King with impunity. Maybe you have a Kindle or read on your iPad or iPhone, but I recommend it. This has transformed my Stephen King buying habits. (I don't have to wait until they come out in paper back and then tear them apart.)

Although, I love King’s novels, (some of the visual pictures still stick in my mind), it is his short stories which I enjoy even better. When I’d heard that he had a new volume of stories out with personal notes included for each one I was first in line.

Here is how Bazaar of Bad Dreams begins:

I’ve made some things for you, Constant Reader; you see them laid out before you in the moonlight But before you look at the little handcrafted treasures I have for sale, let’s talk about them for a bit, shall we? It won’t take long. Here, sit down beside me. And so come a little closer. I don’t bite.

After a beginning like that, how can you not be drawn in? You can almost see the wizened little man rubbing the skeletonous fingers of his hands together inviting you into the book.

Go in. Do. You won't be disappointed. 

Here are a few of the more haunting tales in the book:

Under the Weather 
You get to spend time with a very ordinary man going about his very ordinary and detailed business day at work (meetings, phone calls) while he keeps a horrific secret at home.

Bad Little Kid 
Oh my. What can we say about this one? I’m about King’s age and so I remember Nancy’s friend Sluggo from the funnies. (They were called “funnies” back then, and not comic strips.) It will make you see differently all of the bullying stories you’ve read in the papers. And, you’ll be on the lookout for this kid.

Mr. Yummy 
A story about age and death and family. As only King can tell it.

Mile 81

This one is reminiscent of Christine, his most famous car story. I will not drive by an abandoned rest area in Maine without thinking about this. And being from New Brunswick in Canada, we drive through Maine a lot.

A couple of things that set King apart are his quirky characters and his dialogue. With his dialogue alone, and you can see them standing in front of you. Every story has a quirky character or two.

I loved his personal comments throughout, almost as much as the stories themselves. He writes that he doesn’t always know the ending before he gets there. I like that, because I’m that way too, and I always figured it a liability. Maybe it’s not.

This tee shirt picture keeps coming up on my Facebook feed (Maybe it’s because I’ve “liked” Stephen King’s “page.") but I love the comment along the bottom: 

 We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.

To conclude - In King’s own words:

"I always feel like a street vendor, one who sells only at midnight."

In two weeks: Another movie review - Ex Machina.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

This Literary Thriller Needs to be Read More Than Once

Today I recommend The Lake House by Kate Morton, which fits into the category of Literary Thriller. This is the genre I’m personally drawn to time and time again. It’s where I always look, if I'm casting about for something “good” to read.

There was a time in my life when I thought “real” readers didn’t read mystery, and I was somewhat embarrassed about my mystery proclivity. That was before I was introduced to the late Ruth Rendell, and also long before I wrote mysteries of my own.

I’ve since gone on to read everything Rendell has ever written, and my one disappointment is that I never got to meet her.

Rendell proved to me that mysteries could be well-written. They didn’t have to be pulpish and predictable. Another author that I read early on was PD James

Both of these authors are gone now, but newer younger authors are taking their place; Kate Atkinson, Gillian Flynn (who I have reviewed for this blog), SJ Watson (who I have also reviewed for this blog), Kate Morton and others.

Morton’s The Lake House, the feature of today's blog, had me glued to the my Kobo eReader screen long into the night.

If you’ve followed this blog, you will know I have written here about the history of the mystery novel, beginning with 
pulp fiction. Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions and say that all pulp fiction is bad writing. It certainly is not. Yet most of it doesn’t have that literary bent that I personally enjoy in a book - musical sentences, compelling plots, and multi-dimensional and flawed characters. 

I have read two Kate Morton books so far, and both kept me riveted. My book club read The House at Riverton  which whetted my appetite. When a friend suggested that I might enjoy The Lake House, I bought it and downloaded it immediately.

The book, almost gothic in its scope, is in essence two stories, no I will amend that—it is multiple stories which span decades and generations. Every “story” is complete with flawed characters and its own plot.

The introductory character, the one that begins The Lake House is Alice, and we see her in 1933  burying a box of “evidence”:

The rain was heavy now and the hem of her dress was splattered with mud. She’d have to hide it afterward; no one could know that she’d been out.

The 2003 story begins with the character of disgraced police officer Sadie:

Sun cut between the leaves, and Sadie ran so that her lungs begged her to stop. She didn’t though; she ran harder, savoring the reassurance of her footfalls.

And of course, the stories, the many of them, intertwine like tangled vines, leaving the reader reading breathlessly until they all weave together satisfactorily at the end.

At first I thought I was going to get confused. I generally like one plot-one character stories, but I did not. I loved this, and will read more of her work.

This leads me to my subject premise— a book like this, a Gothic mystery which spans the years and involves clues, red herrings, blind alleys, and everyone’s own compelling story, needs to be read more than once. Read it only once, and you go from the beginning to the end. You find out “who dunnit.”

Read it again, and the writing springs alive, you can appreciate the placement of clues, why “that” bit of conversation was so important at that place, why “this” clue was placed here and not there. Give it a second reading and there is no feeling of being let down because you “already know” the outcome. No, a second reading will lead you to appreciate how the author did it, and why this falls into the category of Literary Thriller, and not Ordinary Pulp fiction.

Here is a list of Literary Thrillers according to Goodreads. Here is another.

In two weeks: Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King's short story collection.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

How To Start Something New, Part 2

When I wrote Part 1 - How to Start Something New, a Kayak Lesson, I had no idea that there would even be a Part 2 in this discussion. But, that was before I read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, my recommendation for this week.

As you know, I’m a first line stickler, here’s how she begins:

Q: What is creativity
A. The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.

She then goes on to describe this mystery in the most curious way. She likens creative “ideas” to intangible things, such as things in the wind that can be caught. (I picture a huge butterfly net and someone running through a field of ideas). 

She encourages her readers to be aware and willing and waiting and listening for that next big creative “idea.” Although somewhat, at first, woo woo, I think she’s got something there, because it is, as she says, a mystery. I was intrigued. I continued reading.

And as I read, I found myself highlighting passage after passage and typing notes into my Kobo. This is good! Wow! Gotta remember this! With multiple exclamation points!!

She mainly calls upon her own experience as a writer, but she also mentions visual artists, gardeners, figure skaters, musicians and more. And I will add; cake decorators, interior designers, investment bankers, chefs, magicians and Olympic athletes (since we’re in that season). All would benefit by reading this book.

Here are some of my personal gleanings from Big Magic.

Gleaning #1: You’re never too old to begin something new. This was my premise in Kayak Lessons, Part 1. I wrote, that in my dotage I have discovered the joys of kayaking. She tells the story of a friend who began a new creative love and study when she was 84.

Gleaning #2: It all doesn’t have to be about money. In fact, creativity shouldn’t be about money at all. It should be about joy. Yet our society has made everything about money. Sad.

Gleaning #3: It involves some risk.

Gleaning #4: If you are a human, you have a creative gift to offer the world.

She writes a lot about joy, and doing things for pleasure, and it made me ask myself, what do I do for the sheer wonder of it?

1. Kayak - see my original post on the subject. I believe that as we get older, maybe especially as we get older, we need some activity which takes us out into nature - walking, hiking, cycling, skiing, golfing.

2. Colored pencil art - It has not even been a year since I started drawing. Odd for me because I was the first to tell people that “I can’t even draw a straight line”. Well, I’ve since learned that artists don’t need to draw straight lines. Thats what rulers are for.

As mentioned in my first blog on the subject, this has given me such joy. In case you want to look at the colored pencil art of a rank beginner, here’s my Pinterest link.

3. Guitar and singing - Music is such a great love of mine. I call myself an old folksinger, and every other week I sing at a local nursing home. I get to sing all my old favorite Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris and Carrie Newcomer songs to my heart’s content. I have a wonderful Martin D45 that I got new in my early 20s. (So, I guess it’s an antique noq, because I’m one.)

4. This blog - Ah, yes, this blog. I had long wanted to do a blog in which I recommend books and other things that I like. Note, I use the word “recommend” not “review.” This is not a book review blog where I dole out one and two star reviews and tell the world what’s wrong with Book A and Book B. No, we get too much negativity as it is. There are already too many people giving us one star reviews for everything we do in life. This is a personal blog. I wanted to ask the questions - this book that I loved reading so much,  how does this book affect me personally? I wanted to see if I could come up with something that was half review and half memoir. I don't know if I'm succeeding, but so far, I’m having fun.

5. My own writing - I began writing mystery novels in the early 1990s. Such a long time ago now. In some ways a lifetime ago. It used to be a joy, but somehow over the past few years it has become a job, a drudge, (sort of). Let me explain, Most writers, those of us who are not in the 1%, need to do all of our own marketing. We are called upon more and more to bear the brunt of everything. We get one star Amazon reviews, and we have to simply suck it up and move on. Somehow, over the past few years so much of the joy has been taken out of it for me that Gilbert’s book was like a breath of fresh air. I need to work to get back the joy of my first love. I’m working on it. Not there yet.

Now it’s my turn - What do you do for the sheer joy of it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

I will end with what Gilbert calls the creative paradox: 

My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me if I am to live artistically, and it also must not matter at all, if I am to live sanely.

I admit that I don’t often find that balance.

In the researching of this blog I learned that Elizabeth Gilbert also has a podcast. It’s entitled Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert. Look that one up on iTunes. I've added it to my iPhone list of podcasts. I'll let you know what I think.

In two weeks: The Lake House by Kate Morton. Loved, loved, loved this gothic thriller.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mystery Novels in the Era of Fear

This week I’m endorsing and recommending The Cutting, the first in a new mystery/detective series by James Hayman. In a previous blog where I reviewed the Gillian Flynn novel, Sharp Objects, I linked to this very informative 1944 New Yorker article entitled, Why Do People Read Detective Stories?

If you can make it through the quaint verbiage and exceedingly long sentences, it is quite interesting, despite the underlying fact that the author does not have a host of enthusiastic and supportive things to say about the esteemed genre. There, that sentence should get you in the mood for the article. Still, if you are interested in the history of genre, this is an article well-worth reading. Since 1944, when the article was written, the genre has grown by leaps and higher leaps.

I have this theory, and if I were doing some sort of academic paper I’d research the whole thing into existence, but for now, it simply remains a theory of mine—I believe that the worse the world around us gets, the more we escape to the inside of a mystery novel, where at the end of the day, the bad guys are caught. 

Pulp fiction saw its birth in 1939 and a meteoric rise between the two Wars. It was a terrifying time. People were confused and scared. People were dying and being bombed. Whole cities were being decimated. People didn’t know who to trust or where to turn. At a time when rationing was the norm and people were learning to do without for the “war effort”, they needed some reassurance that things would turn out right in the end. Enter the detective novel. Enter authors such as Mickey Spillaine.

Eschewing the leather bound tomes of library quality, these were printed on cheap “pulp” paper, and for mere pennies you could immerse yourself in a place where justice prevailed and things came out right in the end.

Today, and I mean today—as in July 28, 2016—rather than "today" in some generic sense, our world is kind of a mess. Bad people are popping out of nowhere and killing innocents all over the world. People are confused and scared. People are dying and being bombed. Whole cities are being bombed out. 
People didn't know who to trust or where to turn. Again, we see a grand proliferation of crime novels in which good triumphs over evil and good is rewarded. 

Here’s another New Yorker article which sort of backs up my point.

I hope I’m not boring you too much. I find this stuff fascinating. This brings me finally to today’s endorsement, a mystery in the classic sense, with clues you’d better pay attention to (no matter how minute), a serial killer, and someone kidnapped with only days to live. Enter two new crime solvers, Detectives Mike McCabe and Maggie Savage.

All of these elements, plus the author’s deft way of getting it all down on paper, make The Cutting by James Hayman a really good read.

Detective McCabe is called to a horrific crime, where a young woman’s heart has been surgically removed from her chest, and her body left outside of a disused warehouse. This crime bears similarities to other crimes, non-local crimes, crimes from all over, and McCabe and his partner Maggie Savage are on the search of a serial killer, a smart, slick serial killer who outwits them almost at every turn.

Add to this, another young woman is missing from her morning run, and McCabe soon determines that the killer has her, but that she yet might not yet be dead. In mystery phraseology–"Time is running out."

This is a serial killer story with threads and strands which reach way back into the killer's history, back when he was almost normal. That’s the story, and I could not put it down.  

I'm always thrilled to begin with book #1 in a new mystery series with new characters that I can come to know through the series. McCabe himself is a likeable, interesting character, a single dad of a teen girl. There is the angst of trying to raise a daughter. There is the ongoing problem of an ex-wife who barely knows her daughter, and wants little to do with her. Plus, there is the new girlfriend, who may or may not end up with McCabe in future novels. I suppose I will find out. 

What drew me into this book, however, was the first line of chapter one:

Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine coast.

I love Maine. My husband and I have spent fifteen summers sailing down on our 34' sailboat from our Canadian New Brunswick home and along the coast of Maine. Because we out on the water, we know about Maine fogs.
 Anyone writing about fog on the Maine coast will immediately get my attention. And this book did. 

I also wonder, what is it about Maine which births so many crime and horror novelists - Tess Gerritson and Stephen King only to name a few. 

If you like Gerritsen, you will love The Cutting. It will keep you guessing. It will keep you reading, and turning pages (or pressing the side of your Kobo) late into the night.

Next time: Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Of Eat, Pray, Love fame) book on creativity and fear.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Small Slices of (sometimes very odd) Life

I’m back to recommending short stories today. A few months ago I endorsed Wet Thaw, my friend’s little eBook of two stories, as well as Susan Berliner’s book, The Sea Crystal and Other Weird Tales.

In that blog, I mentioned in passing The Man Who Built Boxes and other stories by Frank Tavares.

Today I want to specifically focus in on that book and urge you, if you are a fan of the genre, to read it. (And if you are not a fan of the genre, you should be.)

I love the fact that these days short stories are easier to find and enjoy. Before the advent of Kindles, Kobos and digital material, readers were hard-pressed to find many short story collections for sale anywhere. Oh, I suppose you could meander into a dusty library and thumb your way through some literary journals, but beyond that, they were mostly out of reach. Not anymore. Now they are as close as your Amazon bookstore (which is where I purchased The Man Who Built Boxes.)

A short story is a slice of life—one day, one afternoon, one emotion, a couple of characters at most. Sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—you are left hanging at the end. You often have to come up with your own ending to the story. I like that.

I first read this collection of a dozen stories about a year ago. I’m not even exactly sure how I found it or when and why I purchased it, but when I was casting about for something quick and easy to read, I found it on my iPhone’s Kindle app. I read the first story in the collection, My First Ex-wife’s Third Wedding, and to put it bluntly, I was blown away.

I have since discovered that the author, Frank Tavares is known as the “voice of NPR” radio. I did not know this. His name was unfamiliar to me. Being Canadian, the only NPR I know are the podcasts that I listen to (and totally enjoy, by the way). I also learned that he teaches communications and writing and that his many short stories have “appeared in a variety of literary journals…” You see, that’s my point. That’s what I’m talking about. Normal people don’t have access to literary journals. We don’t even know where to look. And that’s what makes our online world of “any kind of books you might want to possibly read” so really great.

I usually look for two things in the books and media I endorse here. Good writing and good story. These stories had both of these in abundance. Whether it’s the utterly convoluted relationships in the first story, My Ex-Wife’s Third Wedding; the very bizarre tale of Girl in a Box, or the heartbreaking character in Accident With a View, these are little slices of life you won’t soon forget.

I always include first lines in my blog, and so to whet your appetite, to draw you in, here are a few first lines.

Doin’ the Laundry -
Ron-Allen Tucker knew his wife had decided to kill him.

The Man Who built Boxes -
This time it hit John Dodge on the morning of this forty-third birthday.

Antonio’s Yard -
Antonio Enzo Marino was aware of the shift when he woke up a half hour early.

Secondly, there are his imaginative ideas themselves. Why Jimmy Mendoza Hated the Late Tamale Jones features a living man's conversation with his dead friend, who, while they are chatting at the funeral, picks up a cigarette. The story describes how the smoke "seeps from the autopsy sutures in his chest." I loved that very Stephen King-ish visual image. 

Here’s yet another sentence I loved (Loved it because I've done it myself.) -
She bought a paperback and hid herself in it.

In Antonio’s Yard, the earth itself is falling away, even as Antonio’s life and aspirations and hopes are also.

And then there is the story of a dying young woman who carries the tattoos of the faces of every person she has had a relationship with.

The title story is about a man who builds hundreds and hundreds of exquisite boxes, and whose entire house is filled with them.

Even now, I can hear my mother saying, “Who comes up with this stuff?”

The beauty of Tavares writing is that the stories seem like they could be real. His characters talk like us, behave like us. We can almost see ourselves in them. Back when I studied writing I remember one of the cardinal rules in dialogue is to write it the way people think they talk, not the way that they actually do talk.

Tavares has presented characters to us that feel so intrinsically real that we can almost identify with them, despite the very odd circumstances they they find themselves in.

At the end of this collection of a stories is a sample chapter of an upcoming book - Digging up Mr. Bradley. Well, I’m waiting for that book, Mr. Frank Tavares!

Next time - It’s back to mystery fiction with The Cutting by James Hayman.