Life After Life

What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?

This was the question posed by my first book club pick, Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.  
I wanted my first pick to be something that would spark some good discussion, and also remove a book off of my lengthy “to-read” list on Goodreads. As a firm believer in fate, I constantly wonder “what if?” and was excited to read a book that tackled that exact subject.

Life after Life follows the story of Ursula Todd, an English girl that has an infinite amount of lives. Every time she dies (and she dies quite often at the beginning of the book) she comes back to life and is given the opportunity to change her destiny. While she doesn’t remember exactly causes her death, she has this sense that something is wrong, which is enough to enable her to make a different decision.  Whether that decision was the right one or not is completely up to the reader.

I was relieved to find out that everyone that attended the “intimate” book club enjoyed Life after Life as much as I did. Some of Ursula’s lifetimes were really hard to stomach, but overall I think everyone enjoyed her journey. It was fascinating to experience both sides of World War II, and there were enough interesting characters to hold everyone’s
attention over 477 pages!

One of the major discussion points that came up at the meeting was whether we thought Ursula “got it right” at the end. Even when she made all of the “right” decisions, it is debatable whether it was the happy ending she wanted. It was also really interesting to see which events changed drastically based on her decisions, and which ones were completely unaffected.

As an aside, if you really liked the character of Teddy, Kate Atkinson just released her new book “A God in Ruins” that follows his life story.  I’m curious to see how Ursula ties into the story, given how radically different some of her lifetimes ended up being. The reviews are quite positive, so it may be worth a look if you’re on the hunt for something new to read.

– Martina

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You liar! You f*cking liar!

I felt as though we had been reading some strong novels, and I wanted to lighten things up a bit.  I glanced a few “most popular” lists, and came across We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.  The editor’s notes bragged of a twist, included a map (love!), and the setting was a world entirely unknown to me:  old money New England.  Goodreads backed up my choice with several 5 star reviews and readers, who I now know must have been HAF or directly related to the author, proclaimed emotional reactions and that they “profoundly loved” this book.  Sold!

What a fool I was.

This book sucked.  It was easy to read.  That is it’s only redeemable quality.  The characters were underdeveloped to the point that not only do we only know about 5 general facts per person, what we do know is stereotypical bullshit.  Poor little rich girl?  Boring.  Drunken sisters fighting over daddy’s money?  Yawn.  Steely, racist grandfather wielding his wealth in order to control his family?  Over it.  What was supposed to draw in the reader did the opposite:  this was 300 pages of meaningless, pointless drivel.

Am I being harsh?  I really don’t think so.  Here’s the basic plot:  Wealthy family each has a home on a private island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.  The cousins – the bizarrely named Liars, who, to my knowledge, don’t tell lies – are tired of their families bickering over money and possessions and decide to teach them a lesson.  The lesson backfires and the family is forever changed.  There is a romance between one of the Aryan grandchildren and a – gasp – visible minority with a name any gal couldn’t help but love …Gat.  To me, his name sounded like a noise I make when I have a cold; to Cadence, it’s a symphony of heartbeats and sweet nothings.

One member noted that the overdramatic declarations and actions do mirror those of a teenager, for whom this novel was written.  Fair enough.  But I dare think most 15 year olds would read this, turn to their friends, and state:  “bitches, get real”.

What could E. Lockart have done to salvage this book?  Well, how about some character development?  And perhaps have a plot twist which isn’t quite so obvious.  The setting could have been lovely, but filling it with characters so vapid, self-righteous, and dumb completely negated it.

My apologies, book club.  I usually pride myself on choosing excellent books which I know would spark a great discussion and would be a solid read everyone would enjoy.

If I

were to put We Were Liars

in that category,

I’d certainly be

Lying.

liar

See what I did there?

-Laina.

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An “Absoloodlely” Epic Book

The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay has been around since 1989 but strangely none of our members had heard of it!  All these different versions of the book are proof of its longevity:

powerofonecovers

Despite its ‘self-help’ style title, it is not that. While there is plenty of self-discovery along the way, it is young adult fiction. The novel is divided into three parts that tell the story of a young boy named Peekay on his journey through boyhood in South Africa and the ways in which racism plays an integral part within his life and the lives of those around him. Oh, and there’s boxing. And shamanism. And Nazis. And murder. And a rooster named Granpa Chook.

When this book came out my husband, then a pre-teen, felt it changed his life and has forever proclaimed this to be his favourite book. His older sister and mom read the book as well and fell in love with the story and still speak highly of it to this day. After hearing about this book for nearly 8 years, I decided book club might be a great place to try it as it came with glowing reviews. In fact, my husband proclaimed, “This will probably become someone’s favourite book of all time.”; a bold statement for sure and, unfortunately, nobody has proclaimed it to be their favourite book.

However, all members at the meeting were in agreement that it was a really good book. As previously mentioned, it is lengthy! A long book made of seemingly smaller stories and events, some were exciting, some scary, some funny, some boring and some very, very interesting. On a whole, we enjoyed learning about the racial divide in South Africa, particularly that between the English and Afrikaaners that was a result of the Boer War (1899-1902). We enjoyed the colourful characters that helped to shape Peekay’s life, in particular Hoppie and Doc.

Some criticisms of the book included whether or not the characters and events that took place were believable or overly exaggerated, or whether or not the message of the book should instead be changed from “the power of one” to “the power of the community”. Personally, I did not connect with the portions of the book where Peekay befriended Morrie (or Hymie, depending on the version of the book you had!) and found myself glossing through this portion.

I won’t spoil the end for you but the concluding scene of the book had some members moved and others questioning if they ever really knew Peekay at all. Did he act ‘first with the head and then with the heart’? That’s up to the reader to decide…

-Kathryn

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Christmastime is the most wonderful time of the year

As a group we spend the calendar year meeting to discuss the books that we’ve read and when we get together we use our meetings to be social and to catch up on one another’s goings on, but seldom do we celebrate!

crackers_insides_questions

Christmastime is in fact the most wonderful time of the year. It is a time where we can indulge and eat and drink be merry, all to our heart’s content (or, well, more than usual). One where we can share the traditions that we grew up with and cultivate ones of our own.

melissa_martina_diana_brigid

Traditions of gift giving… and taking and giving and taking…. and who knows what you’ll receive! Cheese plates, steamware and (highly coveted) tea pots, oh my! Where hot chocolate flows and egg cups are multipurpose, where we sing Christmas carols and we regale one another with the choice riddles and jokes that one typically finds in Christmas crackers.

kat_jess_laina_jill

And while the holiday season has come and gone, and we fall back into our daily routines, we take care to the remember the people that mean so much to us within Bookclub and those members that exist abroad.

mel_jill_laina_melissa_kathryn

Now, regarding the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night: as our meeting was coming to a conclusion and members started to leave, Laina on her way out sent me a message saying, “Go immediately to our elevator. Sweetest dog ever in there. Why???” to which I replied, “That’s how we do. You’re welcome.” because I am a nincompoop. After much trying Laina was finally able to get me to understand the urgency of the situation and I left the few members that were still in attendance and, yes, as it turned out, there was a very lovely, very obedient, well trained and well taken care of dog in my elevator. Just waitin’.

It had a collar with a number that I called but it was the number for the City of Vancouver and their automated voice messaging system. I called it approximately 8,001 times hoping that I keyed in the correct extension I’d get a human person. No. I called the SPCA: automated voice messaging system; I called the 9-1-1 non-emergency line who referred me back to the SPCA (see previous result). I spent the next 30 minutes with the dog trying to figure out what to do next. At this point my absence went noticed and at 1 am we went knocking on doors to try to find this poor dog’s owners.

Eventually we decided to bring the darling in and leave it on my balcony. We made signs and posted them throughout the building. At around 2 am there was a knock on my door and joy abound this dog’s owner was found! We discovered that our canine companion was named Sam and that Sam was a boy. We escorted Sam and his owner back to their apartment and all was well. The next day the SPCA gave me a call back and as it turns if you find an animal in the nighttime, and you choose to take responsibility of it, it’s yours until the morning hours.

Should future you find yourself in such a situation, I would recommend having some awesome, cool, calm and collected ladies at your side to talk you down from your crazy ledge. To you all my gratitude has knows no limits.

Sam the dog

Sam the dog

-Diana

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Reading challenge

Have you ever tried a reading challenge?  I tried it for the first time last year and loved it. There are a few approaches you can take:

Pick a number
My main goal last year was to get back into a regular reading habit. To that end, I used the goodreads reading challenge widget to pick a number that would challenge me but I felt was achievable. In the end I read 37 books of my 40 book challenge, which I was pretty happy with. Full disclosure, I definitely focused on good short reads at various parts of the year, so you can find yourself making compromises to achieve this goal. Overall though I found that I read more, it encouraged me to keep a closer track of the books I read, and I enjoyed it enough to sign up again this year.

Picking a number isn’t the only way to approach reading challenges. You could also…

Work through the alphabet
This one is quite popular on goodreads this year, and if you like the support of joining a group it may be the one for you. The premise is that you work your way through book titles which start with each letter of the alphabet, either in order or as you feel like it. A friend of mine is blogging about this very challenge and I have every confidence it will be worth reading. Check out her blog here!

Genre hopping
Maybe you’ve been sucked into a genre vortex lately and need that extra push to escape. Why not try a genre hopping reading challenge this year? All you have to do is choose a range of genres or sub-genres you don’t normally read (I recommend choosing at least 5) and aim to read a certain number of books from each by year’s end. Choosing a mix of fiction and non-fiction genres can be especially rewarding. Top 100 genre lists are a good place to start if you’re looking for inspiration, and a few years ago SF signal put together a great flowchart of NPR’s top 100 scifi and fantasy picks which you can find here.

A walk through time or space
A good way to diversify your reading habits is to look outside of your usual time period. One approach is to read 2 or 3 books published in each decade over the past 100 years. Alternatively, you could read a book published in each year during a certain timeframe. Reading books set in different locations around the world is also popular. The ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ group on goodreads has straightforward guidelines, 5 challenge levels, and a lot of book suggestions.

If all this sounds like a bit too much trouble you could print out PopSugar’s 2015 Reading Challenge list which has a nice mix of random conditions and comes in a delightful tickbox format.

Happy reading in 2015!

-Johanna

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A Tale for the Time Being

CoverATalefortheTimeBeingAt book club a couple of months ago I asked for recommendations of exceptional books. Not just good, exceptional. It had been too long since I read a book into the early hours, begrudging work and social commitments because it was time I could have been spending in another world. Immediately there were calls of ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ from around the room.

This was my introduction to Ruth Ozeki’s book about Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island in British Columbia, who finds a ziplock bag containing a diary and some letters washed up on the beach. The diary belongs to Naoko (aka Nao), a sixteen year old schoolgirl who has lived most of her life in California before relocating to Japan with her parents when her father loses his job, the family savings, and his US work visa. As Ruth seeks escape from her writers block she is drawn into Nao’s world of bullying and suicide and becomes progressively more obsessed with finding Nao and helping her if she can. The story alternates between a third person narrative of Ruth’s story and a first person narrative as Nao writes in her diary, with some additional sources along the way, and the line between the two worlds becomes increasingly indistinct.

For the first half of the book I found it quite difficult to be interested in Ruth. I’m sure in part this was because Nao’s tale is so engaging, so urgent. Ozeki skillfully evokes the reader’s human desire to help those suffering and as she reads Nao’s diary Ruth’s story in a way becomes your own, although this jarred with my initial feelings towards the character. To be honest, I had concerns that she would fall into the category of “navel-gazing lady of a certain age treading water in the tepid sea of their life”, which when poorly done is either the equivalent of literary nyquil or leaves you shouting at the page ‘Why should I care what happens? You make terrible decisions’. Instead, Ruth and Nao’s stories develop into two halves of a whole.

A Tale for the Time Being‘ negotiates questions of how we face challenges, familial responsibilities, powerlessness, and the complexity of defining self-identity and at times finding self-worth. In other words the triumphs and failures, big and small, which make up life. So, is it exceptional? It is very, very good. Maybe to you it will be exceptional – go and find out!

Side note: As you may or may not have noticed, the ladies at the Tastefully Done Bookclub have been very busy and we are in something of a blog post drought. This is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, so keep us in your feed for intermittent, hopefully entertaining, book-related posts.

— Johanna

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Fun with Myth Adventures

Recently I found myself on the lookout for a short read. I was done with reading books over months; I wanted something that would be done by the time I began. So, I set off to the local bookstore on a mission and hit the jackpot with the Myth Adventures comedy series by Robert Asprin. The first book, Another Fine Myth, was published in 1978 and tells the story of Skeeve, a magician’s apprentice in the backwater dimension of Klah, who becomes the apprentice of a demon called Aahz when his current master is assassinated. The pair find themselves on a quest (of course) to defeat an evil magician before he takes over all the dimensions. This is complicated by the fact that Aahz has lost his powers, leaving them to rely on Aahz’s brains and Skeeve’s paltry magic abilities.

Who could say no to that loincloth?

Who could say no to that loincloth?

The books are a joy to read, mostly due to the dynamic between the irascible, quick-witted Aahz and the clueless Skeeve, and Asprin’s imaginative world-building. The pair are soon joined by friends and as the cohort grows the characters evolve and relationships change. In the introduction to the seventh book, M.Y.T.H. Inc. Link, Asprin comments that ongoing character growth was an intentional goal from the beginning to stop the books from becoming repetitive, and it is effective; more than once I found myself closing one book in the series to then immediately open up the next. I suggest trying Myth Adventures if you are looking for a light-hearted, immersive fantasy series, either as a mainstay or to visit between heavier reads.

–Johanna

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