Sunday, 22 November 2020

Books and tea on a snowy morning...

How is it that we seem to have so much precipitation on Sundays?  Today we are expected to have snow all day long, but I will try to get out for a walk this afternoon regardless, a bit like the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  

I read a rather disappointing novel last week, To Tell You the Truth by Gilly Macmillan.  This thriller centres on bestselling crime writer Lucy Harper, a woman who seems to have it all, a successful writing career, a handsome, loving husband, and the completion of her latest book.  But all is not what it seems:  Lucy is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her younger brother Teddy when she was just nine year old and Teddy was four, a disappearance that was largely her fault.  Thankfully, she’s always had her imaginary friend Eliza with whom to share her deepest emotions and darkest fears, someone from whom she can solicit advice;  in fact, Lucy had become so dependent on Eliza’s presence throughout her years growing up that she even based her books, the “Eliza Grey” series, on her.  When Lucy starts seeing physical manifestations of Eliza, though, she knows things have gone too far, but her attempts to sever their relationship prove to be ineffective.  Her relationship with her husband, Dan, also seems to be faltering as he makes more and more changes to their lives that bring Lucy closer to her traumatic past.  When Dan also goes missing, Lucy is at the centre of the investigation, and she must try to discover what happened to him, and also to Teddy, before she loses her freedom… and possibly her sanity.  This is the latest novel by an author whose works I’ve enjoyed reading in the past, but reading it was like reading an early novel by a writer whose later works I’ve enjoyed and now I've decided to read his/her early novels.  It was so much less polished and skillful than Odd Child Out, What She Knew and The Perfect Girl, something you would expect from early works, not later novels.  Anyway, I kept at it until the end because I thought it might turn out to be really good, which is what happened recently with Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson, but alas, it was disappointing to the very last page.  I guess if this was a first foray into Macmillan’s books, I might have thought it was OK, but I don’t think I as a reader was wrong to have greater expectation from a seasoned writer like her.  Anyway, it wasn’t the worst thriller I’ve read recently, but it was certainly not the best.

OK, I’ve got to go, as I’ve had a number of distractions this morning, so this short post has taken several hours to complete.  Get outside and enjoy the snow!


Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Books and tea on a rainy autumn morning...

The stretch of mild sunny weather last week seems to be mostly at an end, and I have to say that I’m very happy about this.  I love crisp November days, seeing the stark bare branches of the trees silhouetted against the grey sky, and feeling the chill in the air that makes you want to take a long brisk walk, a gentle nudge towards the winter weather to come. But enough about my ideal fall weather...  I have a book and an audiobook to tell you about today as I sip my steaming cup of chai and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Extra Banana-y Banana Bread and a delicious Date Bar.

Last week I read The Good German by Canadian author Dennis Bock, which was both not what I expected and also exactly what I expected.  In November 1939, German anti-fascist Georg Elser attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials in Munich by planting a bomb at a beer hall where they were holding a Nazi rally.  The explosion did not kill Hitler, who left early that day, but it did kill a number of other Nazi officials and wounded many others.  He was imprisoned and finally sent to Dachau, where he died in 1945.  Imagine if that assassination attempt was successful.  We assume that this would stop the war, but Bock proposes another, much more sinister scenario.  What if, rather than stopping the Nazi movement, it only strengthened their efforts after Hermann Göring assumed the Chancellery?  In Bock’s novel, Göring signs a non-aggression treaty with American president Joseph Kennedy to keep the US out of the war.  What follows is a look at what this alternate history might look like if Elser's attempt had been successful.  From the summary on the book jacket and from reviews, I expected this to be more of a political novel, a bit of speculative fiction, as Margaret Atwood calls it.  I didn’t think this was what Bock usually writes, so I was intrigued to see how he would manage it.  What I got instead was a novel exploring the effects of war on those left behind, a coming-of-age story set in a small Canadian town under Soviet rule.  This is exactly what he usually writes about, so I was somewhat disappointed that he wasn’t writing outside his “comfort zone” but not overly so, as I just changed my expectation and got on with the reading.  It was an interesting novel, exactly as interesting and compelling for me as The Ash Garden, also by Bock.

I was going to write about the audiobook I finished listening to last week as well, but time seems to be moving very quickly this morning and I have lots of other things I still need to do, so I’ll just mention it briefly.  I listened to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, which was very interesting, and the narrator, Cathleen McCarron, did a fabulous job of bringing the story and characters to life.  This story centres on Eleanor Oliphant, a 30-year-old woman working as an accounting clerk in a small graphic design company in Glasgow.  She is lonely, socially awkward, and clearly has endured some major traumatic events in her past.  When she inadvertently becomes involved in a situation with a colleague, she slowly finds the healing power of connection and friendship.  That’s all I’ll say about it, except that I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about social misfits, loneliness, and the redemptive power of connection (think A Man Called Ove).  

That’s all for today.  Grab a good book and curl up for the afternoon.

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Post on an unusually warm November morning...

I know it’s nearly mid-November, but it’s felt like mid-September these past few days, and it will feel this way for a few more days yet.  Strange that last Monday I wore my winter coat and boots to work, and yesterday I wore sandals and no jacket.  It’s definitely unusual, but I may as well enjoy it while it’s happening.  It’s not too warm to enjoy a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, though, and that’s what I’m doing right now as I write this post.  

My Volunteer book club met yesterday, first time back in the Community Centre since March, to discuss the classic Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw, an eerie read for this spooky time of year… or is it?  Most people are familiar with the basic premise of this story. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen one of the movie or Netflix adaptations, but for anyone not familiar with it, here’s a quick summary:  An unnamed young woman is hired by a man in London to work as a governess in a large house in the remote English countryside, caring for and teaching his young niece and nephew.  While there, she begins to suspect that the children are at risk of becoming “corrupted” or possessed by two malevolent spirits, those of the former governess and the uncle's valet/manservent.  Unfortunately, no one else in the house sees these ghosts, but she is convinced that Flora and Miles are in imminent danger, and that it is her job to protect them at any cost.  The situation spirals out of control until the story reaches a tragic end.  This novella is supposed to be a classic study in evil, a ghost story to set the bar for all other ghost stories, but the first time I read it, I didn’t get that part.  I’ve seen the original 1961 film version, “The Innocents” with Deborah Kerr, and found it to be quite haunting, and so I’ve always thought that it was just me, that I was not intelligent enough to understand this novella.  I’m happy to say that it’s not just me!  My whole group found this to be a terrible slog - we all agreed with the comment one of the members made about it:  “So many words!”  Another woman said that she’s never read so many words and learned so little.  My long-held belief that the works of Henry James are just too difficult to read has now been confirmed.  The main point of our discussion was whether the ghosts really existed or whether they were all in the governess’s imagination.  Was this less a ghost story than a study in hysteria and psychological deterioration?  My text had many critical pieces in the second half of the book, and I found those to be at least as interesting as the work itself, shedding light on the dense prose as studied by those much more learned than I.  And several of the book club members also read the introductions or critical reviews and shared what they discovered.  We all thought that the ghosts were not real, and that the poor children being left at the hands of such an unstable and ultimately destructive woman was a crime.  We discussed the role of the absent uncle, who did not want to be bothered about the children at all.  We discussed social class and the way it affected the relationship between the governess and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose.  We discussed the underlying tone of sexuality in the narrative, a narrative that was supposedly written directly by the governess and sent to her friend many years later.  Was the governess in love with the uncle, and also with the children to some extent, and suffering sexual repression?  We all thought it would be interesting to find out what happened after the story ends, “Another Turn of the Screw” perhaps?  We also discussed what the title might mean.  In the end, it was a great discussion, and everyone agreed that there was so much more to talk about than they originally expected.  I am now interested in going back and skimming to find sections where something actually happens and piecing the story together that way, much as you would a set of plastic dinosaur bones, all the better to review this plot and decide what I think about it without all the filler words that made it feel much like plodding through deep mud.  Thank goodness it was short! (but it felt so long!!) I’m hoping people like our next book selection a bit better.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the mild, sunny day!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 1 November 2020

First post for November...

I've been busy this morning filling my extra hour with many little tasks in the kitchen, as well as giving my cats some well-earned extra attention.  But now they’ve gone off to have cat naps in their favourite spots and I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, as well as a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, to warm me up on this chilly, rainy morning.  

I read a really interesting book this past week, Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson.  I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I’m so glad I did!  Malcolm Kershaw is a middle-aged widower who owns a used bookstore in Boston, and each day is much like the next, until one snowy afternoon when an FBI agent shows up at his door asking him about a blog post he wrote nearly two decades before, a post he called “Eight Perfect Murders”.  This post listed what then-mystery-fiction-reader Malcolm considered the eight best, cleverest, and most “unsolvable” murders in fiction, including Agatha Christie’s The A B C Murders, James M Cain’s Double Indemnity, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  Now Agent Gwen Mulvaney thinks that someone has discovered this list and is re-enacting these murders, but in real life.  Malcolm is more than willing to help uncover any links to these possible crimes, but things become more complicated as further details about the backgrounds and histories of various characters are revealed.  I don’t want to give away anything more, as I don’t want to spoil it if you decide to read it, but suffice it to say that I will try never to assume anything about anyone ever again, especially used bookstore owners!  At first it seemed a simple, straightforward, darkly funny, yet “light” mystery, but the more I read, the darker and more complex the story became, this twisting, turning, metafiction page-turner that moved so fast I had to stop and catch my breath before reaching a relatively satisfying conclusion.  It began as a “Canadian Tire” book but quickly turned into a “Lee Valley” read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys dark, complex psychological thrillers.

That’s it for today.  Enjoy your extra hour, whatever you do, and remember to make time to read!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Short post on a chilly morning...

It’s turned chilly and cold this weekend, but I don’t mind.  So far the rain has held off, which makes this perfect weather for a long walk, then curling up with a well-earned hot cup of tea and a good book… hmmm… I think that will be my plan for today.  But first I have a book to tell you about.

The Allspice Bath by Sonia Saikaley opens in the spring of 1970.  In a hospital in Ottawa, another daughter is born to a Lebanese-Canadian family, and the father, Youssef, is not happy.  This makes four daughters, and with this difficult birth, wife and mother Samira must have a hysterectomy, making her unable to have any more children.  This means Youssef will never have a son, and this is the theme that underlies everything in young Adele’s life, the fact that she was not a boy and can never be a suitable replacement for a son.  As Adele grows up, she encounters difficulties and obstacles both with her family and in her social life.  She is torn because she was born in Canada but her parents are both immigrants from Lebanon, and they are very traditional, so is she Canadian or is she Lebanese?  She is also so much younger than her sisters that she has difficulty relating to them, and they tease her mercilessly on a regular basis.  The novel follows Adele as she grows from a child into a young woman, and follows her struggles as she learns to live her own life and follow her own path, independent of her controlling, obstinate father and quiet, submissive mother.  This book, an award-winner for multicultural fiction, was interesting, and I enjoyed reading it, but I wonder how much of my enjoyment comes from relating to the character’s situation so much.  As I was reading this novel, I felt that it could have been written by anyone in my family, as this is also my background and Adele’s age in the book corresponds closely with my own.  It was interesting to find, on the first few pages, swearing in Arabic, and mentions of delicious traditional Middle Eastern foods pop up throughout the book.  I was happy/sad to learn that my own upbringing and experiences with my father were common amongst children of Lebanese parents, and it helps put things in perspective.  I’m not sure I would behave the way Adele does near the end of the novel, but since I haven’t yet been in that position, I’ll have to wait and see what choices I will make (I can’t tell you any more without spoiling it).  I would say this is a realistic portrait of a young girl growing up in a Lebanese-Canadian family in the 1980’s, and while the writing is not stellar, the story moves along at a good pace until it reaches a satisfying conclusion.

That’s all I’ve got for you today, as I really want to get outside and enjoy this brisk fall day.   

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Post on a wet fall morning...

It’s been raining off and on this morning, so I’m glad we got out to rake the leaves yesterday while everything was dry.  I don’t mind wet fall weather - it just seems to intensify the gorgeous colours of the trees when it’s overcast and the trunks are black with rain.  I’ve got a delicious cup of chai and a Date Bar to motivate me this morning.  I’ve done a few things already and am running behind, but I have two great books to tell you about, so I’ll just get to it.

Last week I read Polar Vortex by Canadian novelist Shani Mootoo.  This novel has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and I can certainly understand why.  Priya and Alex are living what appears to be an ideal life.  They have a big old house on what is technically an island (maybe near Kingston, Ontario?), where they have room to be creative: Priya is an artist and Alex is a writer.  But all is not what it seems, and cracks begin to appear when Priya invites an old friend to come and stay, a man she hasn’t been in contact with since meeting Alex.  What ensues is an exploration into the decades-long, complicated relationship between Priya and Prakesh, and how it will affect the relatively new relationship she has with Alex.  This literary novel explores various kinds of relationships, and asks readers to consider whether a lengthy but neglected relationship is more significant than a recent but nurtured one.  It also questions whether the secrets in one’s past ever really go away.  I found this to be a truly thought-provoking novel, making me think of my own past relationships, those I’ve neglected and those I’ve nurtured, as well as consider the experiences of refugees as they settle into a new country.  I've also never really thought about the challenges gay couples face, in the past and even now, in our more accepting society. It was a short book that seemed long, packed as it was with so much to think about.  I would recommend this to anyone interested in books exploring relationships, secrets and deception.

And I finished listening to a great audiobook, Normal People by Sally Rooney.  I think this title came to my attention because it’s recently been adapted into a series, which I've heard was not as good as the book (it never is!).  The novel begins when Marianne and Connell are in their final years of secondary school in County Sligo.  Connell’s mother cleans house for Marianne’s family, and although they are attracted to one another, they must hide their feelings from others, fearing negative reactions from their classmates.  Although he and his mother don't have much money, Connell has managed to become part of the popular crowd, while Marianne is considered an outsider, on the fringes, a loner, despite her family’s wealth.  When they both attend Trinity College, Dublin, their roles are reversed, and Marianne is the popular one, while Connell, only able to attend on scholarship, is the outsider.  Once again, their relationship must be kept secret, and this goes on for a few more years as they have different, sometimes disturbing, experiences with different people, but they always remain an anchor for one another despite their involvement with others and their ever-changing locations.  I had no idea what this book was about and didn’t take to it at first, but once the story got going, I was hooked.  I found myself telling them to just get together and reveal their relationship to everyone, criticisms be damned!  I was rooting for them, and cringing at their foolish decisions.  It was a fabulous book, and the narrator, Aoife McMahon, did a wonderful job of bringing the characters and their experiences to life.  I would highly recommend this audiobook to just about anyone, but be prepared to both laugh and cry. 

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend and pick up a god book!

Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 12 October 2020

Very short post on a very long weekend...

It was a PD Day on Friday, so I took advantage of the opportunity to work from home that day, and of course today is Thanksgiving Monday, so it feels like I’ve had four days off (well, I was really busy with video sessions on Friday, but I got to sit around in my “at-home” clothes, so it was definitely more restful than going in to work).  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar on this gorgeously bright, sunny, mild morning.  The birds are singing (it’s mild enough to have the windows open), the leaves are out in full magnificent colour, and I’m feeling so peaceful and certainly thankful for so many things, today and every day.

Last week I read American Predator:  the hunt for the most meticulous serial killer of the 21st century by Maureen Callahan, and it was just so-so.  I’m not a huge non-fiction reader, but I have enjoyed some true crime and historical nf titles in the past, so I thought I would take a chance on this one, and I was thankful that it was short.  It follows the search for, arrest, and subsequent interrogation of Israel Keyes, a man initially suspected of abducting and killing a young woman in Anchorage, Alaska, but who, after some skillful (and some bumbling) interviewing, is linked to many other crimes and murders throughout the United States over the previous two decades.  It was interesting enough at first, and was neither well-written nor badly written, but just average - it met, but certainly did not exceed, my expectations.  But it jumped around quite a bit, and by the time I reached the end of the book, I wondered what the point of it was.  I guess it was vague and had lots of filler because it was hard to find information about this guy; he seems to be the most famous serial killer that no one has ever heard of.  Anyway, if you like reading true crime and are looking for something new, you could do worse than this one, but you could also do better.  

And I listened to an audiobook by K L (Kelly) Armstrong, Wherever She Goes, and have to say that I was happy to reach “the last page” of this one, too.  I have enjoyed several books in Armstrong’s “Rockton” series, and was quite looking forward to this standalone, but it did not meet my expectations at all.  Aubrey Finch is in the midst of domestic turmoil; she and her husband have separated and she fears the loss of custody of her young daughter.  When she and her daughter are at the park one weekend, she has a brief conversation with another young woman who is playing with her son.  Several days later, as she is jogging in that same park, she thinks she witnesses that boy being abducted, but no one will believe her.  Even she is not certain of what she saw, but when more sinister activities take place in her seemingly tranquil suburban community, she is unable to deny her gut instinct and decides to search for this boy on her own.  Sounds like an interesting plot, right?  Well, yes, it would have been interesting if there weren't so many of Aubrey’s lengthy internal monologues popping up far too regularly throughout the book.  And in my opinion, it turned out to be totally unbelievable, too.  Maybe as a print book the reader would have been able to skim the monotonous monologues and get to the “good stuff”, but with an audiobook, you can’t skim or skip parts.  Anyway, not as good as I was hoping, but also not the worst book I’ve ever listened to.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy this gorgeous day!  And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Bye for now…
Julie