Sunday, 17 November 2019

Short post on a bright, chilly morning...

It definitely feels like winter is here. We’ve got snow and chilly temperatures, but it’s bright and clear this morning, and I’m looking forward to taking a long walk this afternoon after finishing this post.
I was hosting a Scholastic Book Fair at school this week, so I was staying a bit later each night, one night until after 7pm, leaving me with little time to read.  I did try one short novel, A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe, but I lost interest halfway through.  I ended up reading another (even shorter!) book, State of the Union:  a marriage in ten parts by Nick Hornby, and it was great!  I guess this is a companion to Hornby’s TV series, which came out on BBC this past autumn, consisting of ten ten-minute episodes.  This slim book is also written in ten parts, and follows Tom and Louise as they try to determine if their marriage is worth saving. After twenty years together, things have become boring and one or the other of these partners may have lost interest. Louise had a brief affair, but Tom is not entirely blameless, either, and they are going for ten marital counselling sessions in the hopes that it will help. They meet in a pub each week before their session, and we are treated to their exchanges as they discuss their relationship using witty dialogue and metaphors, comparing their marriage to Brexit, and analyzing the things they have in common, such as crosswords and “Game of Thrones”  (“...when it’s on”). They compare the loss of passion in their marriage to lost keys or a lost pen, and one partner wants to know which it is because a person would spend more time and determination looking for keys than a pen. This work consists almost entirely of dialogue, with what seems like setting and stage directions at the beginning of each part, so it felt very much like reading a screenplay, but it all works for this short but rewarding novella.  I would recommend this to anyone who has been in a relationship. But if you do decide to read it, don’t let the slimness of the volume fool you; you’ll want to read each line and section carefully and think about what their exchanges might mean for any marriage or relationship.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sunny day before the snow starts falling tonight.
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Book club highlights on a chilly fall morning...

I’ve had laryngitis this past week, and one of the ways to cure it, according to my brief research online, is to avoid caffeine, so I’ve been drinking herbal tea these last four days. Because of this, my steaming cup of steeped chai is especially delicious this morning!  
I can’t wait to tell you about our discussion yesterday.  My Volunteer book group met to discuss Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, and it was one of our best discussions yet.  We spoke about the book non-stop for a full hour, with no digressions - this never happens.  There were six of us at the meeting, and if three of us hadn’t had to leave at noon, we could have stayed and discussed it for another hour.  I have read this book before, so this is what I said about it in my blog post in June 2018: 
“It’s a shame that I’m lacking my usual blogging enthusiasm, because the book I read last week was truly amazing.  Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, winner of the 2018 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, explores how the lure of terrorism is affecting Britain’s Muslim youth.  At the age of 28, Isma is finally free to pursue her dreams, after years of raising her twin brother and sister following the death of their grandmother and mother seven years before.  Isma is significantly older than the twins, and with a jihadist father whose life with the children was brief and sketchy at best and who died in uncertain circumstances on his way to Guantanamo many years earlier, Isma has shouldered the role of parent, supported by her extended family, Aunty Naseem and the cousins.  But now she is off to Amherst, Massachusetts to resume her PhD studies, where she meets Eamonn, son of the UK Home Secretary, Karamat Lone. She is clearly smitten with him, but he, unfortunately, only has eyes for her younger sister, Aneeka, with whom he takes up a relationship upon his return to London. Aneeka sees Eamonn as a conduit to reaching the Home Secretary in an effort to bring her brother back home.  Parvaiz has been lured by the recruitment arm of ISIS after learning more about his father’s life and mission before his death, and works for the media arm of the terrorist group in Istanbul, but he becomes disillusioned and wishes to return home to his family and his “real” life. As a member of ISIS, however, this is nearly impossible, and Aneeka does everything in her power to help, including manipulating Eamonn into approaching his father.  What follows is the heart-wrenching story of the effects of distorted religious faith in the hands of one family, and the far-reaching consequences and difficult decisions so many people are faced with because of the actions of one misguided youth. I read that this was a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ play Antigone, about a teenage girl who must choose between obeying the law of the land, as represented by her family, and religious law.  I know nothing about this play, but when reading this short novel, it had the feeling of a play retold, although I didn’t know this for a fact until much later.  I sometimes find novels told from various points of view to be either confusing or repetitive, but this one, told from the points of view of Isma, Aneeka, Eamonn, Parvais and Karamat, was none of these things.  Rather, it flowed as though it was one story told by a succession of storytellers, each patiently waiting for their turn to share the next section of the tale. It was short, barely 275 pages, but Shamsie never made the narrative seem skimped or incomplete;  rather, it was told sparingly yet fully, with sufficient detail that I as the reader felt fully engaged. She may have been able to achieve this because the story is so very timely, and even the most politically illiterate of us (like me!) understands what is going on.  This novel had depth and emotional pull, and had me racing to the last page, which offered a satisfying, albeit tragic, conclusion. I would highly recommend this novel and will seek out others by this author (I think this is her seventh book).”
I agree with everything I wrote in this earlier post, and now that I took the time to look up the story of Antigone, the parallels are more evident and various aspects of the story become even more poignant.  We discussed this play (thankfully one member read it in high school and remembered enough of the story to fill in my meagre info!) in relation to the novel, as well as the almost incestuous relationship between Aneeka and Parvais. One member listened to this as an audiobook and, not knowing that she was near the end of the book, said that when the last line of the book was read, she was shocked and saddened for the rest of the day.  She said that it had such a small cast of characters, yet the book was huge. She also said “this book was chaos”, and we all understood exactly what she meant. Another member said that it really gave an inside view into how terrorists prey on and manipulate vulnerable people; Shamsie presented it in a way that would make even the most uncompromising reader understand and even sympathize. We agreed that this book was written in plain language, and felt like the author was speaking to us and telling us a story.  One member said that, since reading this book, she’s been having trouble finding something else to read that is as engaging. It is a brilliant book, one that I think I’m going to go out and purchase this afternoon, as it is one I need to read, reread, and study, maybe after I read Antigone.  It was a very successful discussion, and I would recommend this novel to any reader.  But be warned - it is not a happy book. In fact, there are no happy parts in it at all - well, some of the stories told and comments made by the Home Secretary are pretty amusing, but not enough to offset the sadness, the overwhelming tragedy, of the novel. 
On that cheerful note, I will end this post.  Get outside and enjoy the brisk, invigorating weather before it starts to rain (or snow!).
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Tea and treats on a "long" weekend...

It’s not really a long weekend, but we do get that extra hour since we turned the clocks back last night, so I’m very grateful for that little bonus, as I’ve been busy in the kitchen cooking and making a delicious pot of Cream of Celery Soup - YUM!  And I have another yummy treat today, a kouign-amann from Ambrosia Bakery in Kitchener https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/suresh-doss-ambrosia-1.5288726.  I haven't tried it yet, but my mouth is watering right now as I prepare for my tastebuds to be delighted!
I read an interesting book last week, a domestic thriller that I expected to be alot fluffier than it was.  I Invited Her In by Adele Parks is about two friends from university who reunite after years apart, but one has a malicious plan to ruin the other.  Melanie and Abigail met at the beginning of their first year of university. Mel was, while not exactly shy, a quiet, more reserved student, and Abi was gorgeous and larger-than-life.  They had a great time together until the following year, when Mel ended up pregnant from a one-night-stand. Abi supported her through the pregnancy, but after the birth, Mel dropped out of school and moved away from the student campus, separating herself from her life “before”.  Abi, for her part, did not make much of an effort to keep up their friendship, and they drifted, as friends often do in their youth. Eighteen years later, Mel is a happy, although sometimes harried, mother of three, with a wonderful, gorgeous husband. She works in a clothing shop and is content; that is, until she gets an email from her long-lost friend.  Abi has been married to her university boyfriend Rob for nearly twenty years, moving to LA to pursue a life on screen, at least in television, where her husband is a successful producer. She lives a glamourous life of parties and celebrity friends until she discovers Rob having an affair with his much younger PA. She wants to come back to London and asks Mel if she could come for a visit.  Mel is excited to see her friend, whose life seems so much greater, more interesting, and better than her own, and so she says yes, come, stay as long as you like… but over the coming weeks and months, she will come to regret this invitation on so many levels. This book was a domestic thriller extraordinaire, with enough twists and turns to keep this reader turning pages until the very end.  Although I found some parts to be a bit predictable, and Mel seemed a bit too naive at times, I really enjoyed this psychological suspense novel and found that the ending was ultimately satisfying. I’ve never read anything else by this author, but I think I’ve discovered a new favourite.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the chilly bright day, and remember to make time to read!
Bye for now…
Julie

 PS My tastebuds are singing…

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Short post on a strange-weather morning...

It’s chilly and windy and wet and overcast, yet there are occasional bursts of sun on this strange-weather Sunday morning.  It’s actually just after noon, so it’s technically the afternoon, but it still seems like morning to me. I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a slice of delicious vegan Date Bread in front of me.  I also have a piece of vegan chocolate brownie from a vegetarian cafe downtown. Both are yummy (this is the first time I’ve used apple sauce in my Date Bread in place of egg, and it is a delicious substitute!).
Since it is so late in the day, this will be a short post.  I read an interesting book last week by Australian author Jesse Blackadder.  I don’t know where I heard of this book, but In the Blink of an Eye was definitely a good read.  This novel, based on the author’s own experience in her childhood, is told from the points of view of three family members, father Finn, mother Bridget and son Jarrah, as they face the aftermath of the drowning of young son and brother Toby, a tragedy that changes their lives forever.  It was really well-written, but I felt it was a bit too repetitive, and I didn’t love the ending. Still, since the whole book takes place over a relatively short period of time, it makes sense that it would be focused mainly on the immediate grieving experience, and since we have three people telling the same story from their own viewpoints, it stands to reason that it would get a bit repetitive.  Overall, it was a good book, and if this is the type of book you enjoy reading, then I would recommend it.
And I finished listening to an audiobook last week, Peter May’s The Blackhouse.  This is the first in a trilogy, and I would definitely be interested in listening to the other two books.  Finn Mcleod is a detective in Edinburgh who has been on leave for the past month due to the loss of his son.  He goes back to work and is sent to join the team of police and detectives in a remote village on the Isle of Lewis off the coast of northern Scotland as they investigate the murder of local bully and thug, Angel McCritchy.  Finn grew up in this village and so can relate to the residents, and he speaks Gaelic. He is also sent because he was the lead detective in the investigation of a similar murder in Edinburgh before his leave, and must determine if these murders are linked.  He hasn’t been back to the island in nearly twenty years, and his return brings hearty welcomes from some and utter contempt from others. As he reconnects with people and places from his past, he is forced to reflect on his childhood experiences and face it all, no longer able to run away and hide from everything that made him the person he is today.  What follows is less a murder mystery than a series of personal recollections and stories that, while relating to the case, are sometimes too detailed and overlong for my liking. It was, however, well-written and I didn’t mind the details, as I love the wild, savage beauty of the Scottish landscape and will willingly enjoy it vicariously through May’s books.  And once I realized that there would be many of these recollections, I readjusted my expectations and just went along for the ride. If you are expecting a fast-paced thriller, this might not be the book for you, but I enjoyed it and will look for Book Two on Overdrive Media to download and listen to.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the day and make time to read!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Post on a foggy morning...

It’s chilly and foggy outside this morning as I sip my steamed chai tea and nibble on a delicious Date Bar.  It’s supposed to get warm and sunny today, and I’ve hung my comforter on the clothesline outside to dry, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that the fog dissipates soon!
It was a long weekend last week, and as with all long weekends, it filled up with activities and errands and visiting and additional chores that need to be done at this time of year, so I didn’t even think about what to read next until late Monday afternoon.  I considered every one of the books that made up the huge pile I had checked out from the library, and they all seemed like they would be good reads. But I had to consider how much reading time I would have this past week, so I set aside the nearly-700 page option and chose instead a short-ish Young Adult book, Who Killed Christopher Goodman by Allan Wolf, and I was not disappointed.  This engaging mystery is told from the points of view of six different characters in a small town in Virginia in 1979 as they relay the details leading up to the shooting of a young man, strange but nice guy Christopher Goodman.  David Oscar “Doc” Chestnut is “the sleepwalker”, so named because, although he’s mostly outgrown his tendency to actually sleepwalk, he never does anything, sleepwalking through life.  Hunger McCoy is “the good ol’ boy” who tries to do good whenever he can.  He loves animals, and has begun his own taxidermy projects, called “Roadkill Resurrections”, following in his father’s footsteps.  Mildred Penny is “the stamp collector”, a shy, quiet girl who has a crush on Christopher but can’t get up the nerve to look him in the eye, let alone engage him in conversation.  Hazel Turner is “the farm girl”, a brash, outspoken lass who befriends Mildred as their shifts overlap at the diner where they both work. Oh, and she lives on a farm. Scott “Squib” Kaplan is “the genius”, a smart boy from a well-off family who is, unfortunately, afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, making him a target for taunting and bullying.  He drives an ice cream truck for his uncle and is Doc’s best friend. Leonard Pelf is “the runaway” who lives in a foster home where the couple are religious but seem to genuinely care for him. He has issues surrounding his anger management, and all he wants to do is go back to his family, his younger brother and sister and his mother, but this seems unlikely.  Instead, he takes comfort in caring for the foster couple’s Chihuahua, Scrabbles, as he and his friend Lance plan their escape to California. The one character in this cast that we don’t hear from directly is Christopher, skillfully depicting the distant relationships each of these characters has with him by distancing the reader from him as well; we never really know what he is thinking or why he wears those hugely wide bellbottoms or shakes hands with everyone he meets and greets people using their full names.  There is a festival in mid-summer in this town, Deadwood Days, a Western-themed event that lifts the boredom of summer, if only for a short while. During this festival, Doc, Hunger, Mildred, Hazel and Squib form a bond as they plan and execute a plot to get back at one of the townspeople. At the same time, Christopher is being shot, and each of these students considers what role they played in the events leading up to his death and whether anything they could have done would have prevented this from happening. Told in distinctive voices for each character, this novel is based on an event from the author’s own teenage years, an event for which he, too, felt guilt, a feeling that has haunted him for decades.  I thought it was a fabulous book, reminding me of one of my favourite movies, “The Breakfast Club”, because in both book and movie, a group of individuals who at first appear to be totally different are brought together and find that they are, in fact, very similar. It also reminded me of a YA novel I recently read, One of Us is Lying,by Karen McManus, which I also really enjoyed.  If you are looking for a quick, interesting, engaging YA mystery with a satisfying ending, I would definitely recommend this one.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the fall colours and make time to read!
Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 14 October 2019

Hot tea on a chilly morning...

On this bright, chilly morning, I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar, along with the last of the season’s blueberries.  It's been gloriously cool and bright this past week, perfect fall weather. Since it is Thanksgiving, I am thinking about things I am thankful for, such as the public library, the variety of local fruits and vegetables available at this time of year, my husband and cats, of course, and my book clubs made up of such enthusiastic readers.  I’m also thankful that, despite the busy-ness of life, I can still find time every weekend to sit quietly, enjoy a hot tea and a treat, reflect on what I’ve been reading and share these reflections with you. Thank you for reading my post and making this a worthwhile endeavour for me!.
I read a book last week that I was quite excited about, The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.  I so enjoyed The Death of Mrs Westaway that I felt sure this one would be just as good.  What I’ve determined, though, is that Ware’s mysteries can be hit-or-miss.  I really enjoyed her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, then did not like her next two mysteries.  When she came out with Mrs Westaway, I thought she’d found her niche writing contemporary mysteries that are strongly influenced by classics, almost a modern retelling.  With this novel, I thought perhaps it would be a retelling of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, not just because of the similarities in the titles but also because both are about nannies who are being haunted in a remote location, and I had high hopes.  The novel begins with Rowan Caine applying for a nanny position at Heatherbrae House, located in a remote area of Scotland. She travels from busy London for her interview and finds a stunningly modernized house that combines all the latest technology, such as voice-activated touch panels to control the lights, music and temperature and a home management app called HAPPY, with traditional details such as hidden doorways and dark corners.  When she meets stylish Sandra Elincourt, Rowan is taken in by her welcoming manner and her sociability. After spending the night and meeting the girls the next morning, friendly five-year-old Ellie and sullen eight-year-old Maddie, she heads back home, all the while thinking that she desperately wants this job. We the readers sense that it’s not just because it pays so well, although that is certainly an enticement, but there is some indication that there’s more to this story than is at first apparent.  Rowan is not really bothered by the fact that the last four nannies have left under mysterious circumstances, nor does she take seriously the warning Maddie gave her just before she left for the train station, that “the ghosts wouldn’t like it” if she came back. When she gets the job, she is told that she will have a few days to settle in with Sandra around before she and her husband, Bill, head off to a conference for a week, but when she arrives, she discovers that there has been a change in plan and they will be heading out the very next day.  While Rowan feels a bit out of her depth, she is sure that her past nannying experience has prepared her for the challenge. But she struggles with HAPPY and the control panels, as well as how to manage the children, who appear to be quite at home running around the vast, startlingly wild landscape surrounding Heatherbrae unsupervised. Thank goodness Jack the handsome handyman lives in the renovated coach-house above the garage. When things begin to get creepy and she hears creaking footsteps in the middle of the night, she feels completely unable to cope. Then she discovers a mysterious locked garden and a dangerous-looking pond on the grounds.  Throw into the mix the arrival of fourteen-year-old rebellious Rhiannon, and you’ve got the recipe for a great gothic mystery. Unfortunately, there was something about this novel that left me feeling unsatisfied. The plot was interesting (it was in fact a modern-day Turn of the Screw), the setting was gorgeously creepy, the children were mysterious and unsettling, but I think what was lacking was any depth of character, particularly of Rowan.  She seemed flat and two-dimensional, and rather pathetic, which is a shame, because this could have been a wonderfully sinister read. Still, it was certainly a page-turner, and I thought the ending was interesting.  I haven’t read Henry James’ classic in a long time, but I have added it to my Volunteer book club list for next year to read in October. This novel was better, in my opinion, than The Lying Game and The Woman in Cabin 10, but not as good as The Death of Mrs Westaway, so if you like gothic mysteries, you could definitely do worse than this.
That’s all for today.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you enjoy your day in whatever way you choose to celebrate.
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Short post on a drizzly morning...

It’s warm and drizzly this morning as I write this post, and I’m sorry to say that this may be a very short post.  I was going to take a full “sick day” from blogging today, as I’m not feeling my best and it’s been a super-busy weekend.  But a steaming cup of chai tea and a bowl of fresh local fruit is sure to improve my disposition, at least in the short term.
My Volunteer Book Group met yesterday to discuss The English Patient by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje.  This novel, which won both the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award in 1992, as well as the Golden Man Booker Prize in 2018, takes place in a deserted Italian villa near the end of World War II and centres on four dissimilar individuals all brought together by the war experience.  Hana is a young Canadian nurse who has refused to leave with all the others when they abandon the villa hospital. Instead, she pours all her energy into caring for the English patient, an unidentified middle aged man who has suffered severe burns in a plane crash and is dying. Caravaggio is a Canadian thief and former friend of Hana’s father.  He joins the war effort and comes looking for Hana when he hears that her father has died in the war. He discovers not only the young woman, but the English patient, whom he has been following off and on throughout the war. Kip is a young man from India who idolizes the English, joining the British army and becoming a sapper, charged with dismantling unexploded bombs.  Although Hana thinks she has fallen in love with the English patient, she and Kip form a relationship that serves to offer hope in a time of utter despair. Caravaggio’s stay at the hospital serves two purposes: to watch over Hana and to try to get the English patient to reveal information about himself, his war experiences and his true identity. The English patient is nameless throughout most of the book, but Caravaggio suspects that he is really Count Laudislaus de Almasy, a Hungarian spy who, because of his vast knowledge of the African deserts, was aiding the Germans in their efforts to cross Northern Africa.  Mystery surrounding the English patient is the main thing that unites the others, but they also discover that, despite their differences, they all share similar feelings and attitudes, of love and responsibility, loyalty and the need for release. Based on the impression I got from my book club members last month when I reminded them that this was the book for October, I didn’t think anyone would have read the book, let alone enjoyed it, but they surprised me. Most had read at least half of the book, and a few had actually finished it. One member, who complained the most about it last month, raved about it yesterday!  The comment I heard most often from people was that they didn’t know what was going on, that the story was too hard to follow. This is absolutely true. It is not told in chronological order, but rather jumps back and forth in time, and is told from various points of view, too. And much of the narrative consists of sentence fragments. But everyone also commented on how lyrical and poetic the language was, the descriptions of even the smallest thing or occurrence. We spoke about the difficulty of being a spy, how challenging it would be to keep straight the different stories told to different individuals, and how the English patient withheld his identity, despite his severe physical condition, until the end.  One member mentioned the English patient’s lengthy and poetic descriptions, particularly of the desert and the sandstorms, and we wondered whether this was perhaps a ploy, a way to distract Hana and the readers, from probing too deeply for personal information. This is a novel of love and war, of loyalty and deception and betrayal, and while my response to the novel when I finished it was to wonder whether this was truly the best book written in the English language in the past 50 years (as the Golden Man Booker Prize would suggest), after the discussion, I have a new appreciation for it. Maybe with these comments in mind, I may try rereading it sometime in the near future. It was a good book club selection, and provoked interesting discussion from all.

That’s all for today.  I’m going to try to get out for a short walk, even if I have to dodge the raindrops.

Bye for now…
Jule