Sunday, 22 January 2023

Quick post on a snowy evening...

It finally looks like winter again after a snowy afternoon, but there’s not much accumulation, just a coating of the white fluffy stuff.

It’s late but I wanted to get this post done today, so it will be a short one - sorry.  I finished an early book by Sally Hepworth yesterday, The Secrets of Midwives, which was quite good, not as complex as her later books, but still an interesting (and easy) read.  This book focuses on three generations of midwives and is told in alternating chapters.  Twenty-nine-year-old Neva is a midwife at a birthing centre attached to a hospital, almost a hybrid-model of midwifery.  She is surrounded by doctors and nurses and has a respect for the healthcare system that her mother seems to lack.  What is revealed near the beginning of the book is that Neva herself is pregnant, despite being single and having no man in her life.  Her refusal to name the father infuriates her mother, Grace, who is a bit of a bulldozer in the personality department.  She could be described as hippy-dippy, but is one of the best midwives around.  Grace's mother, Floss, a woman in her eighties who raised Grace on her own after leaving England to come to the US alone when Grace was just a baby, is a bit of a mystery herself, and sees her own situation reflected in Neva’s refusal to reveal who the father is.  All three women face their share of distressing situations, as well as challenges in their love lives, and as we learn about each of these women’s pasts, presents and possible futures, we begin to piece together the complexities of secret pasts and what it really means to be family.  I enjoyed this book quite a lot, and as I mentioned, it was an easy read, not too complex or deep that I had to think too hard about it, but yet it dealt with serious themes with tenderness and compassion.  I would recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed other books by this author or who enjoys domestic fiction focusing on challenges faced by women, in this case women who also happen to be midwives (I learned more about the process of childbirth than I ever needed to know, that’s for sure!!).

That’s all for tonight.  Stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now... Julie

Sunday, 15 January 2023

Post on a bright winter morning...

It’s crisp and chilly outside, but the sun is shining and it’s going to warm up soon.  Since we haven’t seen the sun for so long, I’m hoping to get out for a long, long walk today.  But right now I have a steaming cup of chai to keep me company (no special baked treat today, unfortunately).

I was reading up a storm this past week, so I’ve got three books to tell you about.  The first is the book we are going to be discussing at my next Friends Book Club meeting on January 23, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.  This novel opens with a countdown to the time when thirty-five-year-old Nora Seed decides to kill herself.  Nora is filled with regrets, and she feels that no one needs her and no one would miss her if she was gone.  Her cat just died, she just lost her job, her parents are dead, she doesn’t speak to her brother any more, even her elderly neighbour no longer needs her to pick up his prescriptions, so what is the point of living?  She finally makes this momentous decision, but when she wakes up, she is not in Heaven or Hell, but in some sort of in-between place called the Midnight Library where, after reviewing all of her regrets over her lifetime, she can, with the help of her elementary school librarian Mrs Elm, jump into the alternate lives she would be living if she had made different decisions.  She may have decided to become a glaciologist instead of working at a dead-end job at a music store.  She may have stayed in the band with her brother and become famous.  She may have married her former fiancé instead of breaking off the engagement just days before the wedding.  So many choices she could have made that would have changed her life, but would any of them make her happier than where she already is?  This fun exploration of multi-universes and parallel lives was the perfect book to read at the beginning of a new year, when all thoughts are on resolutions and making better choices for a better year (in case you're wondering, I've made no resolutions, but have decided to eat more tofu!).  It was an easy read that was also thought-provoking, a novel that reminded me of the saying:  “Wherever you go, there you are.”  I think it was a great book club choice, a book that will surely elicit a lively discussion from our group.  It’s a coincidence that near the beginning of this book, it says something like, “Nora wished she had a million doors to escape into and never return”, which is funny because I’d just finished reading The Ten Thousand Doors of January.  

The next book I read was What We Both Know by Canadian author Fawn Parker, which has just been longlisted for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize.  Hillary Greene’s father, a famous author, is losing his memories to Alzheimer's, but he wants to write one last book, his memoir, before this happens, and Hillary is tasked with ghostwriting it for him, as well as caring for him as his dementia progresses.  She hides his condition from his publisher and the outside world, and their existence becomes more insular over the course of the novel as Hillary uncovers information about his life and the sexual abuse of her late sister Pauline that is unsettling, causing her own deeply hidden memories to resurface.  She struggles to deal with these memories and her own guilt, but will she decide to expose all in this memoir or can she find some other way to come to terms with her father’s past and her own involvement in it?  This moving account read like a memoir of a survivor of sexual abuse, and meted out information at just the right pace to keep me engaged without overwhelming me with too many terrible truths all at once.  It was an excellent read that was also quite intense and not very uplifting, so if you want to read it, you need to be in the right mood for this type of book.

And I just finished reading Sorry for Your Loss by Joanne Levy, a YA novel that is a Red Maple nominee.  Twelve-year-old Evelyn “Evie” Walman isn’t obsessed with death, but it’s hard not to think about it a lot when your family owns a Jewish funeral home where you help out whenever needed.  After an incident at camp the year before, and with some girls at school who bully her and call her Corpse Girl, Evie has decided that she doesn’t want or need friends - she’s busy enough with her part-time job at the funeral home, her older brother Nate and her parents, and her quilling projects.  When both parents of a boy her age are killed in a car accident and her family hold the funeral, Evie is asked to help out with the surviving son, Oren, as he deals with his grief over this terrible, life-changing event.  What she discovers, though, is that while she is helping him deal with his loss, he, too, is helping her deal with her own issues.  This was a really engaging book that explored grief and loss, as well as friendship and family.  I also learned a lot about Jewish traditions and the running of funeral homes, topics you don’t find in children’s books very often.  I quite enjoyed this book, and was drawn into the relationship between Evie and Oren as it evolved.

WOW, looking over these three books, I see some overlapping themes emerging. Suicide, sexual abuse, dementia, grief and loss... oh my, not a very uplifting way to start the new year, but I'm not going to let these themes get me down, and neither should you. So get outside and enjoy the sunshine!!

Bye for now... Julie

Sunday, 8 January 2023

Post on an overcast afternoon...

It’s late afternoon on the last day of the Christmas Break. I spent the earlier part of the day trying to get every last little thing done before returning to work tomorrow and I can finally sit down with a steaming cup of herbal tea to write a quick post giving the highlights from my book club meeting.

My Volunteer Book Club met yesterday to discuss The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow.  Set in the early 1900s, this novel tells the story of a girl named January Scaller who has been raised by her absentee father Julian and her benefactor Mr Locke.  Her father travels around the world to find/take/steal precious items, the rarer, the better, and bring them back to Locke, who is a collector and a member of the New England Archeological Society.  January, who refers to herself as an "in-between" girl because of the in-between colour of her skin, often travels with Locke to exotic or cultured locales, where she sometimes wanders off and finds herself in difficult situations, but she always returns to Mr Locke.  As she grows older, she wants more from her life than being another of the items Locke has collected, and when she learns that her father is presumed dead, she finds herself at loose ends.  But once, when she was younger, she thought she saw a door in a field that led to another world, and she’s discovered a book called Ten Thousand Doors, which talks of doors leading to other worlds, worlds where her parents met and where there is a possibility that they still are, lost and searching for each other and for her.  She yearns to find that door again, and after some unfortunate events, heads out to do just that.  The things she discovers along the way frighten her and test her to the limit, while also forcing her to leave behind her childhood and embrace the challenges of adulthood.  She has some help along the way, from her trusted dog to her carer and also her childhood sweetheart, but it is clear that she is the hero of this story, she who must fight the villains and find a way to save the worlds and the doors from sure destruction while also searching for her lost parents.  This book was a bit of a YA crossover, and perhaps young adult readers might have enjoyed it a bit more than my book club members.  We had a small group yesterday, only two who could make it, but we also had a new member join us.  One member listened to it and didn’t like it, but thought that perhaps it was because of the way the narrator read the story.  The other member didn’t love it, and hadn’t finished it yet.  I read it and liked it, although I agree with the others who also found it fairly confusing, not totally believable and over-long.  I think the premise was a good one, and with some additional editing it could have been a really great story.  It is part of a genre I didn’t know about, “portal fantasy”, which makes sense, as every door you go through is a portal into another world, another language and another time.  I liked that there were many strong female characters, that it addressed race, class and sexual discrimination, and that it was a fairy tale and a love story while also being an interesting adventure story. It was also a literary mystery and a love letter to the power of books, words and language, and some of Harrow's descriptions were breathtaking, her wordplay brilliant. It reminded me of another book I read, The Hazel Woods by Melissa Albert, a book I have in my YA collection at school that I really enjoyed.  I’m glad I read it, but our new member decided, based on our discussion, that she would probably skip it and just move on to our February selection.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the afternoon!

Bye for now… Julie

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Post on New Year’s Day…

It’s a bit overcast this morning, but I think it’s supposed to clear up and will end up being a good day for a long walk, which will be a nice change from the rain yesterday.  I’ve got a steaming cup of coffee to keep me company this morning as I write this post.

I read a Swedish thriller that I must have found in a little free library somewhere, The Man Who Wasn’t There by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt.  This is the third in the “Sebastian Bergman” series, and while it gave away the ending of the book that came before, it was fairly easy to read as a standalone.  The skeletal remains of six people are discovered on the side of a mountain by some hikers and a team of special police investigators are called in to help local police investigate this mass grave.  It seems that this was the work of professionals who didn’t want the victims identified, requiring this team, including psychologist Sebastian Bergman, to work extra hard to uncover their identities, being creative, using all resources at hand and calling in favours when necessary to solve this decade-old crime.  Along with the complex mystery are the equally complex relationships between and among the team members, including Torkel and Ursula, Vanja and Sebastian, Jennifer and Billy and Ursula and Sebastian.  This was a complex Swedish psychological thriller of the very best kind, which reminded me very much of the Camilla Lackberg book I recently read, The Drowning, although I think I enjoyed this one more, or at least enough to find and buy the book that came before this one from a used book store yesterday.   If you’re looking for a dark, complex Swedish mystery series, I would definitely recommend this one.

And now I have my Year in Books wrap-up.  I’ve read 67 books and listened to 21 audiobooks this year, and judging by the lists below, it looks like it was a good reading/listening year.

Best Adult Books (20)

No one is talking about this Patricia Lockwood
**Autonomy Victoria Heatherington
The Wanderers Meg Howrey
**The Gown Jennifer Robson
The Mother-in-law Sally Hepworth
The Other Black Girl Zakiya Dalila Harris
**Mindful of Murder Susan Juby
**Greenwood Michael Christie
**Speak, Silence Kim Echlin
Companion Piece Ali Smith
Sorrow and Bliss Meg Mason
**Please Join Us Catherine McKenzie
Escaping Dreamland Charlie Lovett
**The Lola Quartet Emily St John Mandel
Planetfall Emma Newman
Our Wives Under the Sea Julia Armfield
**Indian Horse Richard Wagamese
Ghost Forest Pik-Shuen Fung
**An Unthinkable Thing Nicole Lundrigan
The Man Who Wasn’t There Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt

Best Children’s/YA Books (10)

**The Fabulous Zed Watson Basil Sylvester
**Forever Birchwood Danielle Daniel
**Me, Three Susan Juby
**The Fort Gordon Korman
**The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly Mei Christina Matula
**Butt Sandwich and Tree Wesley King
**How the be a Goldfish Jane Baird Warren
Family of Liars E Lockhart
Door of No Return Kwame Alexander
Undone Cat Clarke

Best Audiobooks (8)

The Imperfects Amy Meyerson
Our Woman in Moscow Beatriz Williams
The Mother’s Promise Sally Hepworth
The Family Next Door Sally Hepworth
Everybody’s Son Thrity Umrigar
This Beautiful Life Helen Schulman
The Arrangement Sarah Dunn
The Younger Wife Sally Hepworth

So many books by Canadian authors (**) on these lists...!

That’s all for today.  Happy New Year!!  I hope 2023 is filled with all of your favourite things, including delicious hot beverages and plenty of great books!

Bye for now... Julie

Sunday, 25 December 2022

Another book...

It’s evening on Christmas day, and I just remembered that I also finished another book that I need to tell you about.  The Theory of Crows is the first adult novel written by award-winning Canadian children’s author David A Robertson, and it follows estranged father Matthew and his daughter Hallelujah (Holly) as they try to find their way back to what they had before they began to drift apart.  Matt works long hours and is trading flirtation online texts with a colleague rather than being home with his wife and fifteen-year-old daughter Holly.  He is himself feeling adrift in his world, unconnected to anything and filled with emptiness.  Holly also shares these feelings of emptiness and desperately needs to renew the connection with her father, but she won’t beg and he has to earn it.  When something happens that changes their lives, they go on a journey of self-discovery and healing that may bring them closer to one another and to the land, as well as to an understanding of how they are all connected.  I have never read anything by this author, and this book started out really well, but somewhere along the way I felt it got a bit muddled.  The messages in the book were good ones, but I felt that it got a bit repetitive and empty (for lack of a better word) after the halfway point, and I didn’t really feel that the ending redeemed the novel.  Still, it was interesting enough and educational in terms of Indigenous thoughts and feelings about the land and their connection to it, so if you were looking for a novel about the Indigenous experience, especially one that doesn’t dwell on residential schools, this wouldn’t be a bad one to pick up.  My one big concern was Robertson’s use of the “f” word, which was scattered liberally across every page in differing forms.  I’m generally not offended by language, but this seemed excessive even by my loose standards, and I wondered while reading it why he chose to do this.  Anyway, there you go, another book to consider.

Have a good night!

Bye for now…

Post on a snowy Christmas morning...

It’s a perfect Christmas morning here in our snowy part of the country, and looking outside the window is a bit like looking into a snow globe that has just been shaken up.  It’s been a month since my last post, and while you may think that I’ve been on a blog-cation, these past four weeks have been anything but for this blogger.  Every weekend has been busy with preparations to rent out our condo to our new tenant, and let me assure you that I would have preferred blogging to doing that.  But it’s all ready to go now and at least I’ve been reading, so I have a number of books to tell you about.

The first book is The It Girl by Ruth Ware, which was, in my opinion, not her best book but also not her worst, just kind of middle-of-the-road.  Ten years after the death of her roommate, Hannah Jones is still coming to terms with this horrific event while expecting her first child.  A decade earlier, she was a new student at Oxford who could hardly believe she was there, never imagining that she would one day be a part of this picturesque beacon of higher learning.  Surrounded by fellow students who all come from wealthy backgrounds, she felt alternately accepted and alienated, depending on the situation.  Her very wealthy, privileged roommate, April Clark-Cliveden, an enigma who took everything in life for granted, was both a great friend and perhaps also a manipulative adversary.  After discovering April's body in their room, Hannah spends the next ten years in a fog, never truly embracing her life and all the happiness that should have been hers to enjoy.  When John Neville, one of the college porters and the man who was convicted of April’s murder, dies in prison, Hannah is contacted by an investigative reporter who wants to dig deeper into the historic murder to prove that he was innocent, something Neville had claimed from the beginning.  This opens up a wound that had never really closed for Hannah, and she undertakes to help this reporter despite her advanced pregnancy and the advice of everyone around her to leave it alone.  If John Neville wasn’t the killer, who could it have been?  And can she find out the truth before she or her unborn child end up dead, too?  This was a page-turner for sure, but it was just OK.  The alternating chapters were a bit challenging, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading to the very last page, so I’d say you could do worse if you were in the mood for an Oxford-based “before” and “after” suspense novel.

The next book I read was Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean for our December book club.  I’ve been a fan of “The Vinyl Cafe” and Stuart McLean for years, with “Dave cooks the turkey” being one of my favourite Christmas stories, so I wanted to share this with my book club members in case they hadn’t been exposed to this amazing Canadian talent.  Not surprisingly, all but one of my members were also long-time fans, and the one who wasn’t definitely is now!  In case you are unfamiliar with these stories, they are all about Dave and Morley and Sam and Stephanie, a family living in a small town in I think Nova Scotia, and their interactions within their neighbourhood and community.  Dave owns a used record shop called “The Vinyl Cafe” whose motto is “We may not be big, but we’re small”.  These always funny, often moving stories were originally aired as episodes on a radio show on CBC from 1994-2015, and it was with great sadness that fans learned of McLean’s death from cancer in 2017.  My book club members, who read Home from the Vinyl Cafe, loved revisiting familiar stories and hearing from Dave and Morley again after so many years.  We all agreed that when reading the stories, we read them while hearing McLean’s voice in our heads, his dramatic pauses and distinctive inflections.  If you haven’t heard Stuart Mclean, I would highly recommend that you check out “Dave cooks the turkey” online today, as it’s a perfect addition to any Christmas celebration.

The next book I read was a sci fi selection that was recommended by a friend, Planetfall by Emma Newman.  This novel is set in the near-distant future and focuses on a colony of settlers on an unnamed planet who, twenty-two years before, followed Suh-Mi, a scientist who, after discovering a mysterious plant while on a hike and eating part of it, fell into a coma, only to regain consciousness with a vision to leave behind the ravaged planet Earth and travel to find God among the stars.  Suh leads a group of followers, including her friend and lover Renata (Ren), and they do discover an alien structure known as God’s City, but Suh enters this structure and never comes out.  We enter the story as a mysterious man approaches the colony claiming to be Suh’s grandson and the son of two followers who were believed to have perished in the accidental crash of one of the capsules.  As the date for the annual Seed Ceremony approaches, Ren is wondering if she and their leader Mack should continue in their charade, considering the arrival of this man to be a signal to reveal the truth about this mission.  But what is the truth, and can she reveal it without destroying the colony and losing herself?  The mystery in this book is intriguing, but it was Ren’s character, her tightly woven shell that slowly begins to unravel, that was most compelling for me, the thing that made me want to keep reading.  This is the first book in a series, and the second book, After Atlas, was actually the book that my friend recommended, but when I started that one, I felt that I needed the backstory to appreciate it and decided to read the first book.  I will definitely read After Atlas at some point, just not now, as I don’t have the time, but I would definitely recommend this series to anyone who enjoys reading novels that ask thought-provoking questions and make readers consider our place in the cosmos and all the responsibilities that go with it.

Then I read Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield, another novel that, coincidentally, focuses on the return of a woman from a failed mission, this time to the depths of the ocean, and her wife’s struggles to adjust to her lover’s transformation.  Leah is a grant-writer and works from home, while her wife Miri, a marine biologist, goes on research expeditions for various companies.  Miri’s most recent expedition was supposed to last for three weeks, but due to some unexplained malfunction, she and her crew mates were trapped in their submarine in the ocean depths for more than six months.  When she returns, Miri is not the person she was before the expedition, and Leah must learn to endure and cope with Miri’s ever-worsening condition as she tries to find answers and accept help from friends, while also creating an insulated existence for both of them.  I don’t want to say too much about this, because the evolution of the condition, Miri’s ever-evolving needs and Leah’s responses to them, are what makes this book unputdownable, a slim book that seems to be so much longer, but in a really good way.  The chance reading of Planetfall and then Our Wives Under the Sea, both novels with such similar themes, seemed very coincidental to me, and I found myself looking for comparisons to Newman’s novel while reading Armfield’s book.  Our Wive Under the Sea was the more literary and definitely more philosophical, yet both managed to explore similar themes of love and loss, grief and coping mechanisms, and the value of love at any cost.  I’m still thinking about the ending of this book, but I would definitely recommend it to just about anyone who wants a short book that has great depth (pun totally intended!!).

And to round out the post, I have a Young Adult book to tell you about, The Door of No Return by award-winning author Kwame Alexander.  This novel, set in West Africa’s Asante kingdom in 1860 and written as a series of short, free-verse poems, focuses on eleven-year-old Kofi Offin, a boy who leads a normal life;  he enjoys school, loves his family, especially his older brother, Kwasi, and has a crush on his distant cousin Ama.  His other, slightly older cousin often beats and bullies him, and Kofi finally comes up with a competition he can actually win against him. But during a boxing match at the Kings Festival between Upper and Lower Kwanta, Kwasi accidentally causes the death of the opposing ruler’s son, and when the king retaliates, it changes the course of Kofi’s life forever.  This moving, engrossing novel, the first in a trilogy, is a must for any school library, but while it begins innocently enough for middle grade students, it is definitely meant for intermediate grades, as it contains themes of imprisonment, abuse, rape and human trafficking.  It was a fantastic, engrossing, enlightening book, told in a way that was easy to read without diminishing the severity of the events.  According to the author, this is historical fiction based on real events and shares the story of the people of Africa before slavery rather than only focusing on the slavery aspect of their history.

Whew!  That was a lot of books to write about.  I’m now going to make a delicious hot oatmeal breakfast and enjoy some oat nog as a Christmas treat. Next week I’ll have my “best of” lists to share, but until then, I’m hoping to read a couple of good books that may be contenders.  Merry Christmas everyone!

Bye for now…

Sunday, 27 November 2022

Post on a rainy November day...

It’s gray and rainy outside, thoroughly unpleasant for walking, but perfect for reading!  It’s the middle of the afternoon, and I’m looking forward to doing just that once I finish this quick post.

I read a really interesting novel by Canadian author Emily St John Mandel, another book I found while “shopping in my closet” .   The Lola Quartet is a slow-moving mystery set in New York and southern Florida involving four high school friends who once played in a jazz band called “The Lola Quartet”, but at the end of their final year, they all move on with their lives and lose touch. One of the members, Gavin, moves to New York to become a journalist after his girlfriend, Anna, disappears, rumored to have gone to spend the summer with her aunt in Georgia.  Shifting back and forth in time, we follow Anna as she attempts to stay in hiding, but what is she running from?  And she has a young girl with her, Chloe, who may or may not be Gavin’s daughter.  Fired from his job at a New York newspaper for plagiarism, he goes back to Florida to work with his sister repossessing houses.  She was taking photos of one such foreclosed house when she saw this girl who looks a lot like Gavin, which sets her brother, who has always wanted to be a 1950's private investigator, off on a mission to locate Anna and Chloe, a search that begins with reaching out to his former jazz quartet friends to find out if they have any clue about where Anna went or what happened to her a decade earlier.  Underlying the interconnected stories of the characters in both the past and the present is the theme of music, particularly jazz, giving this story a vintage air.  The narrative was very Paul Auster-esque, in that it was both dream-like and timeless, with prose that carried this reader along as though drifting on clouds or down a slow-moving river.  It’s been nearly a week since I finished it, but that’s how I remembered feeling when I reached the final pages.  It was a short book that seemed much longer, but in a really good way.  I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys Paul Auster mysteries; in fact, this book makes me really want to reread the “New York” trilogy, maybe over Christmas break.

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and curl up with a good book!

Bye for now…