Book Review: The Restorer

The Restorer, by Amanda Stevens.  (twitter)
First in the Graveyard Queen Series.

This is another book I read cover to cover in one day. Except that I forgot how creeped out I could get about ghosts and supernatural stuff! Even though I was spooked, I still read it late into the night. I picked this book up because the blurb reminded me a little bit of reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. However, The Restorer is creepier by far.

Amelia Gray is a cemetery restorer in Charleston. And she can see ghosts. She meets John Devlin, a cop who has some ghosts of his own. Her father told her never to get involved with someone haunted, but with Devlin, they seem destined to continue to meet. A body is discovered in the cemetery where Amelia is working and Devlin wants her to help him with the investigation.One body turns into two, and the cemetery has secrets to reveal.

This novel gripped me from start to finish and its twists kept me guessing. I’m not especially easy to fool, but the cast of characters was such that I couldn’t quite pick out the perpetrators. As if the mystery wasn’t enough, the ghosts and their intentions (and not just Devlin’s) had me biting my nails and starting at shadows.

If you like mystery, a bit of paranormal in a contemporary setting, and are intrigued by graveyards and the dead, I’d highly recommend this book. As for me, I’ll count down the days until the second book of the series is released!

(Now available in paperback, and ebook on May 1.)

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 5: Audrey Tautou

Audrey Tautou Cannes I have a bit of a thing for Audrey Tautou. Okay, more than a bit. I can’t quite define what it is that I like about her. She is talented and gorgeous, but there’s also an intangible something that has caught my fancy.

I, like most of the English-speaking world, first met Ms. Tautou in the film Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. The film is a fantasy Paris narrated through the eyes of the fanciful dreamer, Amélie, where clouds turn into animals, old men find their childhood toys, and she can dream of love.

The film is a delight to watch and has become one of my favourites, perfect for a quiet afternoon with a cup of tea.

But what about her other work?
Another of my favourite films is Priceless (Hors de prix), where she co-stars with Gad Elmaleh, playing a young gold-digger who mistakes a bartender for a wealthy target. It’s a charming comedy and the premise seems funnier and far more interesting in French than it might be as done by Hollywood.

She starred in the blockbuster The Da Vinci Code with Tom Hanks, though I can’t say that it is among my favourite films. I far prefer her in films such as Dieu est grand, je suis toute petite, where she plays a young woman who falls in love with a veterinarian who is a non-practicing Jew. She decides to convert, and the film is part comedy, part philosophy.

If I had to make a list, I’d recommend the following films:

  • Dieu est grand, je suis toute petite (God is Great and I Am Not)
  • Dirty Pretty Things
  • Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel)
  • Hors de prix (Priceless)
  • Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie)

No matter what, if you haven’t seen a film with Audrey Tautou (excluding The Da Vinci Code), then you haven’t really had the chance to appreciate her talent. And in the meantime, I’ll go watch Priceless or Amélie and see if I can figure out just what that something is.

Link: IMdB

Doctor Who’s Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith)

One of my favourite Doctor Who actresses of all time has passed away. Elisabeth Sladen died of cancer at age 63.

She played the role of Sarah Jane Smith, one of the Doctor’s assistants, and then had her own spin-off series recently, The Sarah Jane Adventures. She accompanied Doctors 3 & 4 (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker) and showed up for appearances in the newest iteration of the show, opposite David Tennant and Matt Smith.

Many of my favourite older episodes are ones with Lis Sladen, and I can hardly imagine a Doctor Who series without her. Sarah Jane had a great deal of strength and I think she was one of the Doctor’s best companions.

I think this weekend I shall be re-watching some of my favourite episodes, in tribute to Lis Sladen.

News link:

Book Review: Creed’s Honor

Creed’s Honor by Linda Lael Miller. (website)

I devoured A Creed in Stone Creek, so when I saw that there was another Creed book being released, I couldn’t resist. This novel follows Steven Creed’s cousin, Conner, in the town of Lonesome Bend, Colorado. He’s stayed close to home, working the ranch for his uncle and being the dependable one, unlike his twin. He thought he had just about everything he needed, until he met Tricia McCall.

Tricia was trying to sell her family’s land, a dilapidated old drive-inn movie theatre and a lodge, with little success. All she wanted was to sell up and go back to the city. But fate has a way of changing things… especially once she re-introduces herself to Conner Creed.

Overall I found the book good, but it started a bit slow. I had to urge myself to continue, knowing that it would get better. Something about A Creed in Stone Creek snagged me straight away, but Creed’s Honor took a chapter or two. However, patience paid off. Other readers might not have that same problem – sometimes I’m just not in the mood for certain types of books.

My interest lay not only in seeing if Tricia and Conner would make it, but also whether Conner and his twin brother Brody would put aside their differences. (In the earlier book, the two had a dust-up, and there had been bad blood for years.) This subplot has kept my attention throughout both books, but especially in Creed’s Honor. I can hardly wait for the third book, The Creed Legacy, to find out more about Brody.

I’d highly recommend this book to all readers of Linda Lael Miller’s. I’ve never picked up a book of hers that I haven’t enjoyed, and that’s saying a lot. (I can’t think of any other author, at least not at the moment, where I could make that same statement.) Go and pick it up! (and while you’re there, pick up A Creed in Stone Creek too!)

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 4: Simone de Beauvoir

Without a properly long post on Simone de Beauvoir, I’d be neglecting one of the main reasons why I am so fond of all things French. (Okay, maybe not ALL things French – I could do without Sarkozy, for example.)

I admire her immensely for what she did with her life: becoming a writer, being financially independent at a time where women were still expected to marry and have families, and for living her life the way she wanted. She’s no saint, and certainly some of her views turned out to be poor choices (her support of Communist Russia, her poor treatment of some of her friends and lovers), but her body of work of approximately 20 published books, plus numerous articles is such that it ought to be given more prominence. Not just in philosophy (where until recently she had been neglected, considered Sartre’s pupil and not his equal), but also in fiction.

She won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, for her book ‘Les Mandarins’ in 1954, eleven years after the release of her first novel, ‘L’Invitée’. I read ‘L’Invitée’ (published in English as ‘She Came to Stay’) first, tackling the first two volumes of her autobiography straight afterward. I consider her non-fiction work the stronger of the two, perhaps because her novels are often apparent copies of her life.

Her book ‘America Day by Day’ is a fascinating travel diary of her time in the USA and has occasionally been compared to Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and contains her observations on the American way of life.

What makes daily life so agreeable in America is the good humor and friendliness of Americans. Of course, this quality has its reverse side. I’m irritated by those imperious invitations to “take life easy,” repeated in words and images throughout the day. On advertisements for Quaker Oats, Coca-Cola, and Lucky Strike, what displays of white teeth – the smile seems like tetanus. The constipated girl smiles a loving smile at the lemon juice that relieves her intestines. In the subway, in the streets, on magazine pages, these smiles pursue me like obsessions. I read on the sign in a drugstore, “Not to grin is a sin.” Everyone obeys the order, the system. “Cheer up! Take it easy.” Optimism is necessary for the country’s social peace and economic prosperity. (p. 23)

She wrote a travel diary for her journeys in China as well, and she was a dedicated diarist and letter writer at certain points of her life, most notably when she and Sartre were apart. Her letters to Nelson Algren, her American lover, were published in 1999, and her diary from the Second World War was published recently as a part of the Beauvoir series being released by the University of Illinois Press. (I own the three volumes currently released by the press and eagerly await the remaining four.)

So what is it about her in particular that I find so fascinating? She lived her life on her terms. She never married, but instead had a longterm companionship with Jean-Paul Sartre. They each had lovers and affairs, but stayed a partnership until Sartre’s death in 1980. She slept with men and women, though in public accounts she doesn’t seem to have come out as bisexual. In reading letters since released, she seems to downplay her affairs with women.

She supported herself as a writer. She earned enough income from writing (though until she quit her job as a teacher, she had that income also) that she was able to be financially independent. She and Sartre pooled their funds and not only supported themselves, but often other family members and lovers, friends, and those who asked them for assistance.

She supported the feminist cause. She wasn’t originally a supporter of women getting the vote (French women didn’t get the right to vote until 1944), but she did seem to come round to it eventually. She published the two volume treatise ‘The Second Sex’ (‘Le Deuxième Sexe’) in 1949, and it is considered to be one of the first books of modern feminism. The famous line “One is not born, but becomes a woman,” is from this text. In her treatise, she identifies women as The Other; that is, deviant from the norm (men). I won’t go into it here; the book deserves an entire post to itself.

Her range of books and her journals and letters evoke that period of French life. Though most of her letters were not published until after her death, their existence in the public sphere is invaluable. Letters and journals give the minutiae of a life, rather than just the public face. She was always aware of her public face, and it can be seen in the latter two volumes of her autobiography. The works are far more centered on her relationship with Sartre, and her use of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, and come across more as a proclamation of views and activities than an actual autobiography of her life. They were the official story and sometimes read as a place marker on her and Sartre’s role in public life. She put her support behind a variety of issues in her later years, including abortion rights, signing the Manifesto of the 343, women who claimed to have had an abortion when it was illegal. She edited the political journal ‘Les Temps Modernes’ along with Sartre.

She made sure her voice was heard.

Beauvoir / Sartre Grave (Montparnasse)If I had to recommend a book for the Beauvoir novice, I’d choose ‘Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter’ (the first volume of her autobiography) as a good place to start with her non-fiction works. And I’d also recommend ‘She Came to Stay,’ as a first choice for her fiction. Her selected bibliography can be found here. The Sunday Times has an excellent review of the new edition (2009) of The Second Sex.

If you’re in Paris, check out some of her favourite haunts: the Deux Magots and Café de Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain, the Dôme Café in Montparnasse, and her shared grave with Sartre in the cemetery at Montparnasse.

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 3: French Authors

This post has been a long time in coming.

My love affair with all things French began unexpectedly. I enrolled in Philosophy 315 at the University of Calgary. (I took a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and I liked to fill my electives with usually English, Philosophy, or other humanities classes.) That session caught my interest because the subtitle was “Philosophy in Literature.” I’d done poorly at some of the 200-level philosophy courses as I couldn’t seem to formulate a concise argument during assignments and I really couldn’t have cared less about the debate over the existence of God, but I thought I’d do rather well in this one. Reading books? I’m in!

We read several books during the class, starting with Plato’s discourse “The Symposium”, Andre Breton’s “Nadia” (Nadja), Edmond Jabès’s “The Book of Questions: Volume One”, and finally, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nobel prize-winning novel, “Nausea” (La Nausée). While the other books were intriguing and thought-provoking (even though I found the Plato a bit dull), it really was Sartre’s novel that caught my interest.

The book is considered one of the essential works of existentialism, which Sartre is widely credited with bringing to popular public attention (along with his friend Albert Camus). His fiction often portrayed philosophical ideals in literary form, likely making them more comprehensible to those who couldn’t manage to get through his massive tome “Being and Nothingness”. (I have yet to finish that book and have given up. I also find it difficult to read some of his other philosophical essays, and have only managed to read the shortest ones.)

What fascinated me more was Sartre’s companion (and philosopher in her own right, though it’s taken years for that to be recognized) Simone de Beauvoir. She had only the barest mention in my class, but I was determined to seek out some of her books and find out what she wrote. Fortunately, one of my favourite used bookstores happened to have her entire 4-volume autobiography in paperback, and a copy of her first novel “She Came to Stay” (L’Invitée). It’s a fictional account of her relationship with Sartre and Olga Kosakiewicz. She and Sartre had a partnership, but they never married, and each had affairs. Sometimes their affairs meant bringing a third person into their relationship, which is what they did with Olga (and then her sister, Wanda).

Once I’d read She Came to Stay and worked my way through the first two volumes of her autobiography, I picked up some of her other works and started reading works by her contemporaries (Camus, Gide, Breton, etc.). That’s what started me off, and it hasn’t stopped since.

I’ll have to do a future post about Beauvoir specifically, as there’s much more I could discuss.

Book Review: The Keeper of Lost Causes

The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Alder-Olsen. (translated from Danish by Tiina Nunnally.)

Carl Mørck is one of Copenhagen’s finest, albeit cranky and anti-social, detectives. After investigation of a murder goes horribly wrong, killing one of his partners and sending the other to hospital and likely to be paralysed for life, Carl is given charge of the newly created ‘Department Q’. With a staff of one, plus his assistant Assad (whose own origins are questionable), Mørck begins to take on cold cases, convinced that he’s been shunted aside.

One case catches his interest, after several weeks of laziness and dithering: the disappearance and possible suicide of well-known politician Merete Lynggaard. She’s been gone for five years, presumed fallen overboard/jumped from the top rail of a ferry. However, Mørck starts digging, and the case is more than it appears to be on the surface.

Adler-Olsen has created a page-turner. I’m often able to guess at the identity of the guilty party long before it is revealed, but this one kept me puzzled, and I was happier for it. The book jumps back and forth between years, from the time leading up to Merete’s disappearance and for the present day (2007) and Mørck’s investigation, but it didn’t take me out of the story in the least.

His prose style is (at least in the English translation, as I can’t read the original Danish) reminiscent of Hammett or Chandler – what’s often described as ‘gritty and realistic’. If this book were a movie (and I wish it was!), I’d call it film noir. Even if you’re not a fan of crime novels, I’d still give you this one to try. If you’ve read Stieg Larsson and enjoyed his work, then you really should pick this up and expand your Scandinavian noir repertoire. However, you’ll have to be patient: the novel isn’t out until August 18th, 2011. It’d be that perfect last read for the summer, on a lounge chair on the deck, sipping a glass of lemonade.