Sunday, August 27, 2006

On Beauty - Zadie Smith

The Basics: On Beauty, Zadie Smith, 2005, 446 pages, nominated for the 2005 Man Booker prize.

How I found it: When I was researching for the review of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, I looked up the other nominees for the Booker prize that year and Smith's book sounded interesting.

What's it about?: A story of a family in crisis. The novel follows the lives of a British professor, his African American wife, their three children, and various members of the university community to which they belong. The characters learn more about each other and themselves and they learn how to love each other, even when they make poor decisions. The main storyline focuses on the parents and their failing marriage.

Did I like it?: At first I liked it, but the more I read it, the more I started to dislike it. Perhaps the fact that the book is over 400 pages long had something to do with the way the story started to drag halfway through. This book was supposed to be good enough to get nominated for a prestigious award, but I really don't see it. The book was mostly well-written but a lot of the plot devices felt quite forced and some of the characters were quite one-dimensional. Smith also uses a third person omniscient narrator which I found to be annoying, though I wasn't sure why.

Will you like it?: The story itself is rather interesting and deals with race and politics in an admirable way, although I think at times it is a little half-assed. It is one of those Oprah-friendly books though, so women might like it. I didn't like this book, but I didn't hate it so I can still recommend it as an okay read.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on really liked it, editorial reviews were generally positive, the reviewer at Salon liked it, as did the one at the Guardian, and the one at the New York Times.

Outposts - Simon Winchester

The Basics: Outposts, Simon Winchester, 1985, 317 pages, hard cover. (However, there was an updated version of this book released in 2004 and that cover of that book appears above since I couldn't find the old cover on the internet.)

How I found it: Randomly browsing through my favourite section of the Dewey decimal system, the 900s, at the local public library.

What's it about?: In the early '80s Winchester visited each one of the remaining colonies in the British Empire. He writes about his experiences in each place plus gives a little history about each one. His book captures the world at an unusual time - it is just after the Falklands war and at the start of the negotiations between China and Britain for returning Hong Kong so the last vestiges of empire are on everyone's minds.

Did I like it?: I really enjoyed this book. I had heard of many of the colonies, such as Gibralter and Hong Kong, yet I didn't know much about them. Others, like Pitcairn Island and Tristan da Cunha I had never heard of. Winchester captures the heart of the people of each little colony and does a great job of recounting their history as well. As I was reading the book my only complaint was that I wished there was an updated version of the book since I wanted to know what had happened to these colonies, some of which had an uncertain future at the time the book was published. I was quite surprised to find out that Winchester had read an update in 2004, and I had missed it since my little library only had the old version. I'll be sure to pick up the new version.

Will you like it?: Although I haven't read the updated version, if it is anything like the 1985 version, it is a worthwhile read. It is informative, interesting and engaging. As a former British colony, Canada's future, or perhaps Newfoundland's, might not have been too much different than some of the colonies Winchester discusses and it is interesting to see how things might have turned out. Perhaps like me, this book will make you want to visit some of these odd little corners of the world.

But don't take my word for it: Reader reviews from, and a review from a blogger called The Llama Butchers.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Confessions of a Video Vixen - Karrine Steffans

The Basics: Confessions of a Video Vixen, Karrine Steffans, 2005, 205 pages, hardcover

How I found it: When I was looking up a book about the history of hip hop, Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler, which I haven't read yet, on, it said that people who bought that book also bought Steffans book. Then I remembered that I had seen a bit of an interview with Steffans on Tyra Banks' talk show where Tyra called her a whore.

What's it about?: It is an autobiography of Steffans' life. She grew up in a home where her mother beat her, was raped as a teenager then ran away and turned to stripping. She was in several extremely abusive relationships, one of which produced a son. Then she moved to L.A., hooked up with many of Hollywood's influential men (hip hop artists, producers, actors, NBA stars, etc.). She also acted, starred in music videos and lived the high life, eventually battling drug and alcohol addictions.

Did I like it: This book is a piece of crap. It is poorly written and very poorly organize, even though her story is interesting. At 205 pages it is a fairly short book, but Steffans still manages to tell the same stories twice in some instances. Steffans comes across as completely unlikeable. She is emotionally unstable, a negligent mother, a substance abuser, a battered woman and a very poor example to for women everywhere. I don't like to judge, but this woman is despicable. She used here sexual "talents" to get money and gifts from powerful men, but I think she was just being subjugated by them. As a feminist, I take offence at her lifestyle, but at the same time I want her to get counselling.

Will you like it: Please don't buy this book. It is a total waste of your money and really only got published because it has lots of tell-all information about Steffans' sex life with famous people (P. Diddy, Ja Rule, Ice-T, Vin Diesel, Fred Durst, etc.). Don't even do what I did and borrow it from the library. The romance-novel style sex scenes are not even redeeming in a gossip-page kind of way and she doesn't even really talk about the music videos. What a waste of time.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on both loved and hated it, a reviewer on the African American Literature Bookclub really liked it (as a cautionary tale though), a reviewer on AlterNet thinks that Steffans is adding a rarely heard female voice to the hip hop world.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Oak Island Mystery: The Secret of the World's Greatest Treasure Hunt - Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe

The Basics: The Oak Island Mystery: The Secret of the World's Greatest Treasure Hunt, Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe, 1995, 221 pages, paperback

How I found it: My dad and I had read a few books about Oak Island when I was a teenager and now that I live less than an hour's drive from Oak Island I thought I would pick up one of the many books about it.

What's it about?: On an island in Mahone Bay, on the south shore of Nova Scotia, two boys discovered a refilled shaft in 1795. Ever since various teams of treasure hunters have excavated parts of the island searching for some sort of treasure they believe is buried there. In the course of their excavations they have uncovered a complicated tunnel system that seems to flood any shaft that is dug to get at the suspected treasure. This book details what has been found so far, which groups of treasure hunters have operated on the island, and then goes into some of the authors far-fetched ideas about how the treasure came to be on Oak Island.

Did I like it?: For such an interesting topic, this book is pretty boring. It refreshed my memory about the ingenious tunnel system that exists on Oak Island, but other than that I didn't find it to be very credible. I skimmed the last third of the book since it dealt with the author's strange theories about the owner of the treasure. These range from pirates, to Sir Francis Bacon, to marauding Celts, to the Knights Templar and several others. I don't find much merit to any of these conspiracy theories. As well, the author intersperses details about these theories throughout the first part of the text, but then doesn't explain them until the end, which makes for a confusing read. Apparently the author is a British science fiction writer which might help explain why his writing style sucks!

Will you like it?: If you don't know anything about Oak Island this might be an okay place to start. While I can't recommend anything specifically, I can tell you that there are tons of other Oak Island books out there and perhaps you should start with something else. Or you can just check out this wikipedia article - it has the basic information.

But don't take my word for it: Most of the readers on agreed with me (and were even more harsh) but it seems that the few reviewers on that site who liked the book are personal friends of the authors' (how lame).