Sunday, 19 September 2021

Last post for summer...

It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, the last weekend of summer, and also the day of the Terry Fox Run where I live.  It’s also the day before the election and I’m hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.  At least I’ve got a strong cup of chai tea, a delicious date bar and a stack of books to console me if things go sideways.

I finished Lisa Jewell’s latest book last night, The Night She Disappeared, what she calls her “lockdown” book in the Afterward, and it did not disappoint.  One night in June 2017, nineteen year-olds Zach and Tallulah head to the pub in their village for a “date night”. They meet up with some friends and head over to the mansion that is home to Tallulah’s friend, Scarlett, and never make it home.  People in the village believe that they just ran away together, but Tallulah’s mother, Kim, knows this can’t be true because she’s sure they would never leave behind their eleven-month-old son Noah.  Kim refuses to give up searching for her daughter and trying to find out what happened that night.  In September 2018, Shaun and Sophie, the new head teacher and his girlfriend, arrive at the Maypole Academy from South London.  Sophie writes crime novels that “do well in Norway” and while she is meant to be working on a new book, she has been unable to write anything since the move to the countryside.  Having been told about the missing teens by a local woman, when she discovers a handwritten sign on the gatepost leading to the woods outside their cottage saying “Dig here”, she does just that.  What she discovers is enough to start the whole investigation up again with renewed purpose, and Kim encourages Sophie's interest and her keen eye for potential clues and inconsistencies.  I won’t say too much about the rest of the plot because one of the best things about Jewell’s novels is the slow but steady teasing out of details to bring the stories together, eventually coming to satisfying conclusions that answer all the questions without being too contrived.  Her characters are interesting and well-rounded and the style of her writing is conversational, making this reader feel that she’s just been told a really interesting story by a friend.  I particularly liked Sophie, and wondered how much of this character was based on Jewell herself.  Anyway, if you already read her books, you will not be disappointed in this one, and if you aren’t already a fan but enjoy mysteries that almost cross the line into domestic fiction (a bit like Liane Moriarty except gentler and in reverse), then I would highly recommend them.  

That’s all for today.  I want to still enjoy some more outdoor time before the humidity returns tomorrow and then the rain hits next week.  Goodbye summer…

Bye for now… Julie

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Late afternoon post...

I’ve been trying to beat the rain today by getting outside in the morning, so this post is later than usual.  I have no tea, but I’m enjoying a couple of treats as I try to get back into my routine.

I had a volunteer book club meeting yesterday.  Our book was Educated by Tara Westover, and it was a huge success.  This memoir tells of Westover's unusual upbringing in an isolated farm on the outskirts of a Mormon town in Idaho.  Her parents, particularly her father, were Mormon extremists focused on preparing for the End Times, and she and her six siblings were denied proper education and professional medical care.  They suffered neglect and abuse, and grew up in an environment of instability, violence and fear.  At sixteen, Tara managed to pass the entrance exam and enrolled in the local Mormon college, and from there, through scholarships and grants, as well as the support of church officials and professors, she went on to receive her BA from Cambridge.  She was awarded a visiting fellowship at Harvard, then she returned to Cambridge to complete her PhD.  While pursuing her education, she also had to come to terms with her loyalty to family members who opposed everything she was now embracing.  All the members of the book club were fascinated, shocked and horrified by her story, although a couple of us were skeptical about the accuracy of the information.  I wondered at her claims to have had no education before entering college, while another member thought she might have exaggerated the degree of neglect and abuse she experienced, mainly at the hands of her father, but also by her mother and one of her older brothers.  We all liked the conversational tone she used, and were left wondering how she (and her siblings!) survived.  We wondered at times what was true and not true, but understood that this represented her experiences, and that others may have experienced these events differently.  It was a book about the reliability of memory, of truth and experience, and of the will to survive at any cost.  Westover mentions her father’s mental health issues, but we thought she herself was probably bipolar, and the other members of her family likely had mental health issues as well.  At the end of the day, we saw this as the story of a young woman who was brought up in an isolated cult environment and managed to escape and make a life in the “real” world.  It was an excellent book club selection that I would highly recommend to just about anyone

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Lazy post on a long weekend...

I’m feeling lazy this weekend, enjoying the last chance to do a whole lot of nothing before school is back in earnest.  Actually, I’ve been pretty busy this weekend already but thought I should try to squeeze in a post this afternoon so that I leave all of tomorrow free to do… whatever. I'm going to try to get back into the weekly posting habit, but with so much great weather coming up, I can't guarantee that I will post faithfully every Sunday.

I read two books since my last post.  The first was a fabulous YA novel that I happened to get in a box of books I’d ordered in June for my school library.  They were delivered to my house a few weeks ago and this one caught my eye, Everything sad is untrue (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri.  Not only is it a great title, but it’s also got a really interesting cover.  So I picked it up and was immediately sucked into this page-turner of a story.  Told in the form of The Thousand and One Nights (which I’ve never read), Iranian refugee Daniel (the main character) is Scheherazade, spinning tales not to her king/husband in order to save her life, but to his middle-school classmates in Oklahoma to help him explain his culture and fit into his new life.  And like Scheherazade, Daniel’s stories left this reader wanting more.  Weaving together myth, legend, memories and harsh reality, this is the story of Daniel’s experiences as he tries to make sense of his old life and make his way in this new environment in which he finds himself.  I can’t do this book justice, so I’ll choose to say little about it, except to highly recommend it to anyone from about ages 11+.  It is part memoir, part story-telling, an exploration into the difference between speaking and listening, and of course an homage to books and reading.  While it is based on Daniel (the author)’s experiences, it is considered fiction, not memoir.  I urge you to run, not walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of this excellent book today!

And I just finished an intense novel by Megan Abbot, The turnout, which was another page-turner, but in a totally different way.  Sisters Dara and Marie Durant have grown up with ballet.  Their mother was an accomplished ballerina and they, too, have achieved moderate success in this world.  But they have been running the Durant School of Ballet for years, since the death of their parents, and they still live in their childhood house, a huge old building full of cracks and drafts, with Dara’s husband and former ballet dancer Charlie.  There is obvious tension right from the opening pages, and this only grows as Marie moves out and the dynamics of their close-knit group shifts.  When a small fire in one of the studios occurs, Derek, a belligerent contractor, is hired to do some repairs.  But at his urging, Charlie, Dara and Marie agree to undertake more extensive upgrades.  What follows is a steady collapse into chaos and destruction, of the ballet school, the strained relationships between the members of the group, and within these individuals’ psyches.  What a roller coaster ride this was, an archaeological dig into the disturbing secrets of the Durant family, an intimate exploration of the relationships between family members and others who happen, by poor luck, to be involved with this family, as well as a deep-dive into the cutthroat world of ballet.  I have read something else by Abbot, I think it was a look at the world of competitive gymnastics, which was very good, and this one did not disappoint.  I think it helped that I used to take ballet lessons as a young girl, so many of the scenes were familiar, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to understanding and enjoying the book.  This one was more suspenseful than the gymnastics one, more focused on uncovering family secrets than on the actions of the youngsters’ families.  I think I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a detailed, well-researched look at the ballet world, as well as the slow uncovering of a nasty family history - be prepared to feel totally icky by the end!

That’s all for now.  Enjoy the lovely weather, and remember that there’s still another day to this weekend, so try to find time to pick up a good book.  Happy Labour Day!

Bye for now…
Julie 

Friday, 20 August 2021

Three books, one post...

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m quite tired out.  Not only did I have a fair bit of running around to do this morning, it’s also warm and muggy, which I find draining.  But I’ve got a tall, cool glass of water and a bowl of fresh local fruit to re-energize me as I write this rather brief post.

Since my last post, I read a book that was recommended to me by my super-reader friend.  The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting:  Wannsee and the Final Solution by Mark Roseman details the evolution of the treatment of Jews by Hitler and the Nazis before and during WWII, with a focus on the activities that led up to the meeting at Wannsee in January 1942.  This meeting, held in a posh Berlin suburb, was chaired by Reinhard Heydrich and was attended by representatives from all the major Nazi agencies, where together they hashed out the details of what would become known as “the Final Solution”.  Prior to this meeting, there were mass shootings of prisoners and random killings of citizens for no apparent reason, but until this meeting, which, by the way, was not attended by Hilter, there were no actual plans to systematically round Jews up and transport them to concentration camps for extermination. This was very interesting, and it was also, thankfully, brief.  After The Zookeeper’s Wife, this was almost "SS overload".  I had to get this from the library as an inter-library loan, so it might be difficult to access if you are interested in reading it.  Not being a fan of non-fiction, it says something about the quality of the information and the writing that I stuck with it and read it in about five days, so if you are interested in reading more about this subject, this would be a good choice.

Then I read Matters of Hart by Montreal author Marianne Ackerman.  I don’t know how this novel came to be sitting on my personal bookshelves, but I was going through some books that I thought I could give away and this one was in the pile. When I opened it up, I was drawn in immediately and had to keep reading.  Hart Granger is celebrating his fiftieth birthday at a surprise party planned by his ex-wife Sandrine.  She has invited fifty guests from various points in Hart’s life, so not everyone knows everyone else, leading to some awkwardness.  But his sister Amanda is there, along with his mother, Kitty, so things are rolling along fairly well until there is a knock at the door and in walks Neil, the half-brother who was given up for adoption as a baby.  This throws a wrench in the plans and things, for Hart anyway, begin to spiral downward at an increasingly rapid rate.  What follows is a display of adult sibling rivalry taken to the extreme.  At times hilarious, at others heart-wrenching, this novel was what I would call an “undiscovered gem” hidden away on my shelves.  I’m so glad I didn’t just give it away sight unseen, or I would never have discovered this amazing writer.  I’ll definitely check out other books by Ackerman.

And I read a Young Adult book from my school library collection, Monster by Walter Dean Myers.  This novel, told almost exclusively in the form of a screenplay, interspersed with jottings in a notebook, is a courtroom drama that follows the trial of Steve Harmon, a sixteen-year-old African American boy charged with participating in the plan to rob a neighbourhood drugstore, a robbery which resulted in the shooting death of the owner.  Since Steve is writing the screenplay in his own head, a mechanism he is using to cope with his incarceration, readers are treated to his own thoughts and feelings, his perspective on the trial as well as the words and actions of the others in the courtroom.  This was a book that sucked me right in, one I finished in just two days.  It was powerful and thought-provoking, not obviously tackling the theme of racism in the way that The Hate U Give did, yet that theme is always there, lying just below the surface.  It was a very interesting read, one I will recommend to my Grade Eight teacher as a possible read-aloud.  

That’s all for today.  Stay cool, keep reading and enjoy the last days of August!  

Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 9 August 2021

It's been a while...

It’s been almost three weeks since my last post, and I have three books to tell you about today as I sip my steeped chai and eat a bowl of delicious fresh Ontario fruit.  But this is going to be Speed Blogging, a bit like Speed Dating, as I have my friend (and biggest blog fan!) coming over for a visit in just over an hour.  So here goes…

The first book I read since my last post was The Stranger in the Mirror by Liv Constantine.  This book tells the story of Addison, a young photographer who is about to get married to a wonderful man, but she’s not as happy as she should be.  A few years ago, she was found bleeding by the side of the road and was taken in by a wonderful couple who helped her get back on her feet, but since then, she’s suffered from severe amnesia and can’t remember who she was before her rescue.  Julian is a psychiatrist who has been searching for his wife for over two years.  He has been telling his daughter daily that mommy will come home soon, but how will he find her? And who, of all the people in her life, can Addison trust?  A page-turner for sure, but not nearly as good as it could have been.  If you are looking for a thriller with this type of plot, I would recommend Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson, a truly fantastic read.

Next I read Unsettled Ground by Irish author Claire Fuller, which was short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  It focuses on twins Jeanie and Julius, fifty-one years old, both single and still living with their mother, Dot, in a run-down cottage on the fringes of a small village.  When their mother dies suddenly, they are left to their own devices and must try to make their way through life together using whatever skills they have.  As if this wasn’t frightening enough, as they try to forge a life from what they know, day by day this knowledge is shattered, and everything they have believed their whole lives is called into question.  This literary masterpiece was also a page-turner, but one that demanded attention to language and character development.  It was a fabulous book, tackling serious issues gracefully and with compassion.  I would highly recommend it and will seek out other novels by this author.

And last but not least, I read The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.  This non-fiction title was the selection for my Volunteer Book Club, which met on Saturday morning.  This book details the lives of Jan and Antonina Zabinska, keepers of the Warsaw Zoo before and during WWII.  The lives they saved, the adventures they had, the creative ways they hid “Guests”, both legitimate and not, and the way they handled tricky situation made a serious impression on all the members of the group.  We thought Jan was “fearless, brave and clever”.  We were amazed at the complexity of the Underground.  We thought that, at that time, everyone had to make choices, and those choices were often between life and death.  We were horrified by the “cruel (psychological) games” some of the Nazis engaged in.  We thought it had so much detail and so many people that it was hard to keep track of everything and everyone, but that it was a worthwhile read if only to offer a “window into the Underground, the Resistance”.  We felt that it was called The Zookeeper’s Wife because up until recently, war stories have mainly focused on the actions of men, and the many and varied roles of women have been largely forgotten or ignored.  We all agreed that we would never survive in a similar situation, that we would be caught out in a lie almost immediately because we wouldn’t be able to keep track of what we told and to whom.  Thankfully the only battle we are facing right now is against COVID-19!

That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Two weeks, two books...

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written a post, but I’ve decided that, until I go back to work/school in September, I will write one post for every two books that I read.  I know I’ve got the whole summer off, but it’s amazing how busy things get - I’m actually blogging to the sound of windows being replaced right now! 

I’ve read two books since my last post.  The first is Hostage by Clare Mackintosh, a thriller set on a plane making the very first non-stop flight from London to Sidney, where one of the flight attendants is ordered to assist the hijackers or her daughter will be harmed.  Should she save one life at the expense of more than 300 others?   What would you do in the same situation?  I’ve listened to other books by this bestselling British author, and this one did not disappoint.  It was an interesting setting, perhaps the first thriller I’ve read taking place almost entirely during a flight.  The issues the main character experiences trying to bond with her adopted daughter seemed believable, as well as the issues her husband was facing on his own and in their relationship.  Mackintosh not my favourite author, but her books are consistently well-written and reliably “good enough” to keep me interested right to the last page, and this one has a really interesting ending.  I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys thrillers, but don’t read it if you experience aerophobia (fear of flying - I just learned a new word!).

The book I finished yesterday is one that we will be discussing next Monday for my Friends book club, and one I’ve read before, What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman.  I didn’t really suggest it as a selection for the group to read, I merely mentioned that I was interested in rereading it, but people thought it sounded good so that’s how we came to choose it.  Having reread it, I’m not so sure everyone will like it, but it’s too late to change now.  Here’s what I wrote about it in May, 2016: 

“I have a book and an audiobook I want to tell you about today.  The book I read is What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman.  This is a reread, and it’s a bit of an indulgence for me, as it’s not overly well-written, but it’s a twisty, turny rollercoaster ride through the past 30 years of a woman who claims to be one of the two sisters who were believed to have been abducted from a mall in Baltimore one Saturday afternoon in 1975.  The novel opens with a woman’s confused ramblings as she is driving down the highway.  Her confusion leads to an accident and she is taken to hospital where, having no ID with her, she reveals under questioning that she is one of the Bethany sisters, the younger sister Heather, then refuses to say anything more.  Enter Kevin Infante, a chauvinistic detective who becomes more and more frustrated as he struggles to come up with any leads that might help crack this case.  He consults his former partner, Nancy Porter, who after maternity leave, has joined the Cold Case squad, and together they try to get this woman to open up to them, to give them something, anything, that they can work with.  Unfortunately, all she seems to tell them are vague stories that include details that shift and change according to the situation.  There is also a social worker, Kay Somerville, who becomes involved in Heather’s case, and she approaches her lawyer friend Gloria Bustamante to take on this case and help this woman out.  There are multiple stories intertwined, as lengthy flashbacks fill in the details of the day of the crime, as well as what happened in the intervening years for both of the parents while their daughters were still missing and presumed dead.  It was very confusing, but it’s the kind of book I love to read every once in  awhile, a bit of a “trashy novel” filled with secrets and lies and mystery (I mean "trashy" in the best sense of the word, as in plot-driven as opposed to language- or character-driven).  I didn’t really remember exactly how it ended, but I had some idea, so I could pay attention to the minutiae of the story with that in mind and appreciate the complicated story Lippman created rather than just feeling lost and confused.  All in all, it was a good read, and a change from some of the more literary stuff I usually choose.  I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about family secrets and doesn’t mind multiple stories and many flashbacks.  As an aside, I loved this part near the beginning of the book, when we meet Kay for the first time.  She is talking about books, and how she prefers reading to engaging with others.  She joined a book group to give her a cover and validate her frequent choices of reading over talking.  But she says she doesn't really like being in a book group, because "talking about the characters in a book she had enjoyed felt like gossiping about friends".  I can relate to that!”

I would say that I feel exactly the same way about it this time around, and really enjoyed the portrayal of the various characters, Kay and Kevin and Nancy, but also the Bethany parents, Miriam and Dave.  I hope it will make for a good discussion.  As an aside, I didn’t realize that I’d read it twice before, so it must rank pretty high in my reading memory if I wanted to read it again for a third time.  All in all, you could do worse than this book, which was truly filled with family secrets.

That’s all for today.  The window people have gone for lunch and it’s finally quiet, but they’ll be back soon so I should take advantage of this stillness to get some reading done.  Enjoy the lovely day and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Two books, one post...

I think this is the first time I’ve missed a post, so rather than wait until next Sunday, I've decided to write about the last two books I’ve read this morning.  It’s cool and rainy, and I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious date bar, and it’s the first full week of summer holidays for me, so it’s the perfect time to write this post.

My book club met last Saturday to discuss the Young Adult novel Turtles All the Way Down by John Green.  I chose this book to add to our list because I usually have at least one YA novel, most often during the summer, and this was one a teacher at my school had read and really enjoyed.  This novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes and her friends Daisy and Mychal, three young people who are determined to solve the mystery of a billionaire, Mr Pickett, who went missing in the wake of a fraud investigation and claim the reward money.  Aza suffers from OCD and is constantly worrying about contracting an infection, specifically C. diff.  She is also grieving the loss of her father, so when Daisy and Mychal drag her into this adventure, she reluctantly agrees to participate.  She and Pickett’s son, Davis, knew each other in elementary school, so they use this connection to their advantage.  Davis and his younger brother Noah are surrounded by people who work for their father, but no one who is truly family.  Add to this the fact that their father, upon his death, is planning to leave all his money to his tuatara, which he believes holds the key to increased longevity, and you’ve got two very confused and lonely boys. This motley group search for clues to help locate Pickett, but along the way they encounter other challenges, particularly related to relationships, friendships, and familial responsibility.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this book.  They felt that Green wrote from a female perspective convincingly, and wondered how he could understand Aza’s mental health issues unless he’s lived it (he has).  They thought Daisy was a foil, a bit of comic relief from the more serious explorations into mental health issues.  Green did a good job of including social media as a form of communication, one that is so prevalent with young people.  This book explored the topics of absentee parents, the not-always-great relationships between parents and children, and self-harm.  We discussed the relationship between Aza and her mom, and her mom’s own fears of “losing someone else”.  All in all, it was a great discussion.

And since I’m off for the summer, I have already finished reading Alex Michaelides’ second, much-anticipated novel, The Maidens.  I loved his first book, The Silent Patient, so I think I had unrealistic expectations for this one, and unfortunately I was somewhat disappointed, although clearly the book was gripping enough that I managed to finish it in three days.  Tara, a student at St Christopher’s College, Cambridge, goes missing, and Mariana, a psychotherapist specializing in group therapy, gets a distressing call from her niece, Zoe, who is also a student at St Christopher’s, as well as the missing girl’s best friend.  When Tara’s body is found, the victim of a seemingly frenzied attack, she leaves her busy practice in London and heads to Cambridge, where she reluctantly becomes involved in the investigation, despite the remonstrations of the lead investigator as well as the main suspect, Edward Fosca. Fosca is a Professor of Greek Literature who regularly meets with some of his most intelligent students, a group of young, beautiful women he calls “the maidens”, a cult-like reference to the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.  Tara was part of this group, but the police don’t seem to be taking Mariana’s concerns seriously, so when another girl, also a “maiden”, is murdered, she is determined to stay in Cambridge and prove that Fosca is guilty.  Mariana, still grieving the loss of her husband Sebastian, has a tendency to run away and hide from the truth, but she finds new purpose in helping Zoe and decides that it is her duty to protect her.  Can she solve the mystery before Zoe becomes the next victim?  You’ll have to read it to find out.  There were plenty of potential suspects, plot twists and red herrings, and it was written well enough, so I don’t quite know why I was unable to really lose myself in this story.  I guess I couldn't really identify with Mariana, and some of her decisions were questionable at best. Still, you could certainly do worse than this thriller, so if I were to use Kirkus' rating system, I would say “Borrow it”, as opposed to “Buy it” or “Skip it”.  

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and pick up a good book.

Bye for now…
Julie