Laughing Oyster Bookshop Presents

Annual Book Club Suggestions

 

October 16, 2012

 

 

 

Angela’s Picks:

 

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
by Matthew Dicks

Hardcover – Paperback release June, 2014

 

Reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s Room, Budo narrates the story as Max Delaney’s imaginary friend. Budo is special. Not only is he Max’s imaginary friend, he has been for more than five years. This is an uncommon feat for any imaginary friend, their lifespans being the total time during which their real friends believe in them. Max has some emotional and social issues and Budo acts as a guide through his confusing, isolated world. Budo’s voice is refreshing and real (despite his imaginary status), and he helps Max to navigate the social situations and classroom challenges that he faces on a daily basis. While the concept of imaginary friends seems like child’s play, this novel is not for children. Max may be the only person with whom Budo can interact with, but he observes all that is going on around Max. When Max is trapped in a situation that might ensure Budo’s survival for years to come, Budo is faced with deciding which is more important: his own existence, or the happiness and safety of Max, “the bravest boy in the world”. Matthew Dicks weaves childhood fantasy with practicality and rationality, creating an entirely believable story that leaves one questioning the reality of the imaginary.

 

 

Evelyn’s Picks:

 

The Tenants of the Hotel Biron

by Laura Marello   

Paperback

 

Between 1908 and 1918 the rooms of a decaying mansion - the Hotel Biron in Paris (now home of the Musee Rodin) - were rented to artists – to Rodin and painters, poets, sculptors,  a composer,  a dancer and a photographer – “decadents” and bohemians of their time.  Author Laura Marello utilizes invented letters, diaries and notes to tell the stories of the inhabitants – Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, Nijinsky, Rilke, Cocteau, Satie and (most strikingly in my mind) Camille Claudel – collected and edited by Eduard Steichen.  In his introduction Steichen writes “I hope they (the collected manuscripts) will provide a window into the art world in Paris at that time and into our lives together at the Hotel Biron”.

 

You will want to enjoy Marello’s insight into this rich collaborative community with a stack of art books (or the internet) at hand.  Passion, motivation, envy, theft, jealousy abound.  Scholarly research underpins this compelling view of an exceptional group of artists  - this is a book to be enjoyed repeatedly as the reader probes more deeply into the enduring legacy of the characters who met at the Hotel Biron.

 

The Lola Quartet

by Emily St John Mandel

Paperback   

 

Emily St John Mandel grew up on Denman Island and now lives and works in Brooklyn. This is her third published novel – each of which has had a unique location and all of which could be called literary noir.

 

The year is 2009, the economic collapse is in full swing, and the main character Gavin Sasaki is coming undone.  His girlfriend has abandoned him, his shower leaks uncontrollably and he slips into inventing quotes for his articles at the New York Star.  Fired, disgraced, Gavin accepts his sister’s invitation to return home and work in her business as a broker of foreclosed homes in Sebastian Florida.

 

It is 10 years since high school graduation for Gavin and three other musicians whose jazz ensemble “Lola Quartet” was the focus in their lives.  The novel weaves the tale of their unraveling over the ten years and a chance photograph, a child (Gavin’s?) that ties them all together.  Long after finishing this book I continue to care and worry about these characters.

Ru by Kim Thuy, translated by Sheila Fischman, Paperback

Ru – in Vietnamese it means lullaby; in French it is a small stream.  In this beautiful book it is a kind of stream of consciousness collection of vignettes that evoke precise images of a life of luxury in Saigon, of filth and deprivation in a refugee camp in Malaysia, of the beginnings of a new life in Quebec.  Flitting from past to present, linking memories, Thuy paints visual and poetic images of a family and a life in the midst of political disruption and violence.  A powerful, beautiful work.

 

 

 

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

by Robin Sloan

Paperback    

 

 

Meet Clay Jannon, a recession-downsized graphic designer working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour bookstore (situated next door to a strip club).  This tiny shop holds books impossibly old and rare.  And meet the unusual “customers” who arrive late at night, not to purchase but to borrow obscure texts from dark corners of the shop.   Clay’s curiosity is aroused - he notes patterns to their behaviour, and putting his gaming skills and passion for codes to work, sets out to discover what is really going on.  The secret he stumbles on is much bigger than the bookstore can hold.

 

Enter the massive data digitization capacity of Google.  But Google alone cannot provide the answer - the old knowledge of first books, of alchemy and immortality is brought to bear. 

 

Robin Sloan describes himself as a media inventor – “someone primarily interested in content – words, pictures, ideas – who also experiments with new formats, new tools, and new technology”.   In this literary adventure he has created a world where Gutenberg meets Google books.  Clay’s quest puts to rest the notion that technology will ever replace print and paper books.  And that’s a good thing, because Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an irresistible read!

 

 

Jane’s Picks:

 

The Day of the Jack Russell

by Colin Bateman

Paperback

 

This book is so consistently witty and amusing that the ins and outs of solving the crime which the novel pretends to be about, (the defacing of a Richard Branson-like millionaire’s billboard, followed by murderous mayhem) take a back seat to the writer’s distinctive, young, Irish working-class voice. Mr. Bateman is a master of sparkling dialogue.

 

Our main character runs the No Alibis bookstore part-time and is otherwise engaged as a detective. He has two faithful sidekicks, a young man who helps out in the shop (who could be a doppelganger for Blackadder’s Baldric) and a girlfriend who is a little bit pregnant and in an on-again off-again relationship with him. His cantankerous mother is also in the picture. He lives with her and she must be the most reprobate, curmudgeonly portrayal of an elderly mother in all literature. She is hilarious! I have chosen this book to make the point that there is just as much value in humorous writing as there is in serious literature. Everyone needs a laugh once in a while and there are more than a few laughs in this book. Colin Bateman is also the author of the Murphy’s Law series.

 

This is How

by Augusten Burroughs

Paperback

 

Augusten Burroughs may well have written a self-help book that is actually able to help people. Quite the concept! Let me just give a snippet of his advice so that you can see what I mean.

 

When you say, “I need more confidence,” what you’re really saying is, “I need those people over there to approve of me.” This is the desire to control other people and what they think. The first person who figures out how to do this owns the world.

 

This man may not really have the solutions to all your problems, but he is so engaging and clever that you are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, suspend your disbelief, at least while you an enthralled within the pages of this book. A week later, who knows? you say. But, it’s a month since I read the book and it still stays with me in parts and that is because of the strength of Burrough’s writing voice and his intelligence. He could write about making jam and it would be engaging. This book just purports to tell you how to succeed in life.

 

 

Karen’s Picks:

 

In the Garden of Beasts

By Erik Larson

Paperback

 

The sub-title of this absorbing account is Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.  This ‘novelistic history’, so described by the NYT, details the experiences of William E. Dodd, mild-mannered history professor from Chicago, newly-appointed American Ambassador to Germany.  Accompanied by his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter Martha, Dodd finds himself thrown into the maelstrom that was Berlin as the Third Reich was assembling itself. 

 

Sincere in his attempts to represent the best of his country, and to faithfully relay back to Roosevelt his impressions of the new regime, Dodd is slow to realize that his efforts are being thwarted by members within his own State Dept who are eager to have him removed as he is so obviously not one of the “pretty good club” (as the wealthy members of the US foreign service described themselves).

 

Martha, an intelligent although indiscriminate young woman, is doing her bit for international relations by ‘forming liaisons’ with then head of the Gestapo, a member of the French State Department, and a Russian diplomat.  Her initial entrancement with the glory of the new Germany is soon smothered by fear as more of her friends start to disappear. 

 

Larson’s tale of the Dodd family’s enlightenment fills in so many gaps in my own understanding of why Hitler’s rise to power was unchallenged by the rest of the world.  A riveting read. I have to admit to being shocked at the seeming pettiness of so much of what consumed “the powers that be” at the time.  Hindsight I know, but still…

 

Defending Jacob

By William Landay

Paperback release date Feb 26 2013

 

Former district attorney William Landay’s tale blends family turmoil and courtroom drama like no one since Scott Turow in his brilliant Presumed Innocent.

 

Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney in his suburban Massachusetts county for more than twenty years.  He is respected in his community, tenacious in the courtroom, and happy at home with his wife and teenage son, Jacob.  When a student at the local high school is found dead, Andy’s world is upended as he is taken off the case and forced to protect his son from a murder charge. Jacob proclaims his innocence but as evidence builds, Andy and his wife are forced to admit how little they know about their only child, and each other.  A long buried truth of his own re-surfaces and Andy is challenged to deal with it, testing his loyalties and sense of justice.

 

A suspenseful, character-driven mystery that reminds us just how fragile our lives really are, Defending Jacob has been compared to Ordinary People and We Need to Talk About Kevin.

 

Turn of Mind

By Alice LaPlante

Paperback

 

Dr Jennifer White is a retired orthopedic surgeon suffering from dementia.  When her friend and neighbour Amanda is found dead with four of her fingers surgically removed, Dr White is the prime suspect.  But she herself doesn’t know whether she did it. Told in White’s own voice this distressingly believable portrayal of the disintegration of this once brilliant woman, moves from first person into second person and finally, into a third person narrative.

 

The story that emerges is one of two strong women whose friendship was more complex, often adversarial.  As the investigation into the murder progresses, White’s relationship with her live-in caretaker and two grown children intensify, and the question no one wants to ask lingers:  Is White’s shattered memory preventing her from revealing the truth or helping her to hide it?

 

Written as an attempt to deal with her own mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s LaPlante has created a mystery that one appears to be viewing through a prism.

“An unforgettable novel about forgetting” one critic wrote…

 

Ola’s Picks:

 

Jacqueline Winspear

 

Jacqueline Winspear was born and raised in the county of Kent, England; she worked in academic publishing, in higher education and in marketing communications in the UK. She currently resides in the U.S.

 

Her main character Maisie Dobbs is also the title of her first novel in what is now a series of 9 books. All are available in paperback.

 

Winspear’s books are very engaging, with strong plots and interesting characters. The books are set in the late 1920's and early 1930's, post-war England, with the roots of each story set in the Great War, 1914-1918. Although the author did not set out to write a "war" novel, this part of history forms the backdrop of the series. Vivid descriptions of life during and after the First World War bring the stories to life. Maisie comes of age at a time when women took on the toil of men and claimed independence. The unique and engaging character of Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and detective, is very much a woman of her generation.

 

Jacqueline Winspear’s novels have been nominated for and won many awards.

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Rotenberg

 

Robert Rotenberg is a Toronto lawyer, a former magazine editor, and the author of three legal thrillers set in Toronto.

 

His three books: Old City Hall, The Guilty Plea and most recently, Stray Bullets, are all currently available in paperback.

 

Rotenberg applies his courtroom knowledge to modify the legal thriller template into a larger study of the vagaries of human behaviour. The twists and turns in his stories unfold briskly, but the author allows sufficient time to develop his cast of characters in three dimensions, rather than simply giving them a series of quirks. Some of the main characters, like homicide Detective Ari Greene and Officer Daniel Kennicott, appear and develop in all three novels.

 

Rotenberg’s writing style is understated and fluid, enhanced by his insider knowledge of Toronto’s criminal courts. The reader gains awareness of how a criminal case may proceed from the points of view of the police, the Crown prosecutors and the defense. Rotenberg also rounds out the mood of the stories by taking care to describe the city’s charms and frustrations.

 

The Guilty Plea has been entered in the 2012 Arthur Ellis Awards as Best Mystery Novel of the Year.

 

 

Susan’s Picks:

 

419

By Will Ferguson

Hardcover – Paperback due March, 2013

 

Will Ferguson has tackled yet another genre in 419.  Already successful with humour & social satire, as well as travel memoirs, he is now trying his hand at a literary novel, drawing on his keen sense of drama, observation & storytelling. 

 

A retired Calgary businessman dies in a car crash which is initially ruled as suicidal & only after some investigation does it become apparent that he has been scammed from Nigeria & rendered financially bankrupt.

 

His daughter rises from her isolated high-rise life & determines to hunt down the scammer responsible & outdo him at his own game.

 

In Nigeria, the once freelance & successful young scammer is drawn into the web of the larger & malevolent underworld lurking in the back streets of Lagos.

 

A young woman, pregnant, walks across the northern Nigerian desert lands, escaping her nomadic family, looking for a better life in the southern cities for herself & her unborn child.

 

A young man struggles for survival & honour as his village is taken over & destroyed in the frenzy to extract oil from the coastal areas with quick & dirty methods.

 

Once the back stories had been set up & the storylines began to intersect, I found it hard to put this book down. The tale is a grim one & winners are hard to find.  But the pace will keep you reading, as will Ferguson’s gift as a storyteller.  His research shows well, particularly in the larger parts of the book set in Nigeria.  There may be much discussion about his success with this new genre & reviews have been mixed.

 

419 has, however, been shortlisted for the 2012 Giller Prize.

 

 

 

The Night Circus

By Erin Mogenstern

Paperback

 

This book made me smile – with pleasure, with wonder at the use of language, with delight at the very imagining of it.

 

Here is a tale of Magic – with a capital M.  As you might have guessed, it takes place with a circus as its stage set.  Two rival magicians pit their protégés against each other in a not-so-trivial ‘game’, in an attempt to prove whose methods are superior.  The accomplished apprentices ply their illusions & their magic within the confines of the circus, which is itself a mystery.  It arrives at dusk, suddenly & unannounced, at its various destinations.  It remains open until dawn & is filled with wonders & …..well…..magic.  The stuff of dreams.  In fact, it is called Le Cirque des Reves.

 

But not all unravels as it was meant to do.  There is a love story involved, which informs & heightens many of the magic bits.  Several seemingly minor characters step to the fore & become involved.

 

But the most magical parts of this book, for me, are in the descriptive passages, which are often totally transporting.  I was reminded of the early joys of reading & becoming lost in another world for a delicious & dreamlike time.

 

The Night Circus is a debut novel.  I hope for more.  To read more bits of whimsy from Ms Morgenstern, check out her website & blog: erinmorgenstern.com

 

 

Lone Wolf

By Jodi Picoult

Hardcover - Paperback due October 2012

 

Picoult has written many times before about controversial issues.  This time, the issue concerns the decision to let someone die; to take them off life support.  Who should make that decision?  Why?  What are the factors to be considered?

 

There is a wounded family here.  A son who has had an irreparable confrontation with his father; a wife who has left the marriage as a result of this rift & has moved on to another relationship & family; a daughter who resents her brother’s departure, as it has meant a divorce & upheaval for her.  At the centre of the drama is the father who now lies in a coma, possibly never to awaken again.

 

The back story, sometimes more compelling than the human one, is the story of wolves & an intimate look at their way of life.  The father has been completely consumed with a desire to really learn about wolves & has spent 2 years living with a pack in the wild (Picoult learned from a man who had done precisely this).  Now he has been caring for a captive pack, intimately involved in their pack life.  The daughter is the only one who has shared this part of his life in any way.

 

The siblings are divided in their views of what should happen with their father.  What are their reasons, their different motivations?

 

The 2 stories – wolf & human – have interesting parallels, and readers will probably have preferences & see different connections.  The possibility for discussing differences is rich.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Voluntourist

By Ken Budd

Paperback

 

This is not one of your great literary novels.  In fact, it is not even fiction.  This is a memoir, written by an observant & thoughtful journalist, about a period in his life which was fraught with large personal issues.  His attempts to come to terms with his father’s sudden death, his views of fatherhood & the absence of children in an otherwise happy marriage prompted him to respond to an ad for volunteers in post-Katrina New Orleans.

 

Then followed a string of short-term, assistance-oriented treks to other world hotspots:  Ecuador, China, Kenya, Costa Rica, the West Bank, always with a mind to making a difference somehow, struggling with who he was in the world.  ‘I want to live a life that matters.’  He became a ‘voluntourist’.

 

Not only does he take these trips with a journalist’s eye, but also with his very personal heart, recording at many levels, often with a wickedly dry sense of humour.  Well, not always dry – the man is truly funny.  Budd made me laugh out loud on several occasions (distracting for others nearby).  He also made me consider things I had not.

 

He bravely questions, for example, the ethics of making such forays into other cultures, with no appreciable skills to offer.  Food for thought - & discussion.

 

You might not make such trips nor even aspire to do so.  But….should the mood take you over (& one never knows), Budd has included some voluntourist tips & agencies in the appendix.  His Voluntourist website is also entertaining.