Sunday, 9 May 2021

Mother's Day post...

It’s a bright, sunny, slightly chilly morning as I sip my steaming cup of chai and nibble on a delicious date bar.  With the pandemic still messing with our lives, this year’s Mother’s Day is once again looking very different from past years, but at least the sun is shining and people can get together virtually. I was thinking that the book I read last week was certainly not a book about mothers, but then I remembered the audiobook I listened to, which most certainly was about mothers and motherhood, so I will tell you about that after I talk about the book.  

I read Kelley Armstrong’s YA novel, Missing, a fast-paced read that I found difficult to put down.  Winter Crane is a high school student who spends most of her time out in the shack in the forest surrounding the southern backwater town of Reeve’s End where she lives with her alcoholic father.  All the teens leave, and most never come back.  This is also Winter’s plan, and she intends to leave as soon as possible. When she finds a teenaged boy outside her shack who has been savagely beaten, she does her best to help him.  When he mentions that he knows her friend Edie, a girl who left town and hasn’t been heard from in quite a while, Winter begins to suspect that some of these teens may not just have left town, but may in fact be missing.  With the help of another attractive outsider, she digs deeper and deeper, but what she uncovers could threaten not just her own life, but also the lives of those she loves.  Winter Crane was a fabulous character, a teenaged version of Casey Butler from the Rockton series, and her attractive counterpart is a bit like a young Eric Dalton.  I felt like I was reading something written long before the Rockton books, a novel that planted the seeds for that adult series;  this novel, though, was written in the middle of the Rockton books.  It had a riveting story, the plot was well-paced, and it was written with the kind of attention to detail and character/plot/setting balance that one has come to expect from Armstrong.  If you liked the Rockton series, or if you just want an interesting, fast-paced YA mystery, you can’t go wrong with this one.

The audiobook I listened to also had a really interesting plot and was a title and an author I’d never heard of before.  Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson begins with a book club meeting, one where tired moms of toddlers meet, ostensibly to discuss the book, but really to have a chance to talk to other adults about something other than their kids. But at this month’s meeting, someone new shows up, and that changes everything.   Amy and Charlotte are best friends, despite their age difference.  It is Char’s book club but the moms all meet at Amy’s house.  Everyone is gossiping and complaining as usual when the doorbell rings and Angelina Roux (“call me Roo”), the single mom of a teenaged boy staying at the trashy Air B&B down the street, shows up.  Gorgeous, extroverted Roo takes over, pouring the wine and engaging the otherwise ordinary moms in a game of “Never have I ever’, asking them to share their darkest secrets about the worst thing they’ve done in the past week, the past month, the past year…  Amy has a secret she never wants to share, a secret pushed so far down that she refuses to even think about it:  when she was a teen, she committed a crime that nearly destroyed her.  Saved by the discovery of diving, she reinvented herself and made it her mission to live right and do good.  But now Roo threatens to unearth her brutal history and reveal it to everyone, including the police.  Can Amy find a way to deal with Roo without giving in to her demands and still save herself, her family and those she loves?  I don’t usually enjoy novels that are all about the bonds of mothers and children and the lengths mothers will go to protect them, and this one was totally one of those books, but it was also so much more, an intricately-plotted thriller with three-dimensional characters who were (mostly) believable and a fantastic ending that really packed a punch.  There were a few parts that I thought were a bit over-long, with Amy contemplating her own guilt and the life she went on to live, and what that says about herself and her character, but overall, it was amazing.  I just realized that Jackson narrated it herself, and she did an awesome job.  I will look for other books by this author and hope that they are as unputdownable as this one.

That’s all for today.  Wishing all the wonderful women out there a Happy Mother’s Day!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 2 May 2021

First post for May...

It’s a lovely morning, with the sun shining, the birds singing and the squirrels frolicking.  It’s supposed to rain later this afternoon, so once again, I’m going to try to get out for a long walk before it begins.  Right now I have a delicious Date Bar and some orange slices to accompany my steaming cup of chai, a wonderful way to ease into my Sunday.

Yesterday my Volunteer book club met virtually to discuss Canadian author Shelley Wood’s debut novel, The Quintland Sisters, and it was a real hit.  Here is my post from May, 2019, when I read this fabulous book for the first time:

“Canadian author Shelley Wood’s novel, The Quintland Sisters, focuses on the first five years in the lives of Canada’s famous five, the Dionne Quintuplets, and is told from the point of view of seventeen-year-old nurse Emma Trimpany who helped care for them.  On May 28, 1934, with the country gripped in the harsh realities of the Great Depression, five tiny babies were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne two months prematurely at their farmhouse near Callander, Ontario.  They were not expected to live for more than a few hours, but they all miraculously survived.  After four months living with their family, they were made wards of the state for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets’ Guardianship Act of 1935 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionne_quintuplets).  During a time of poverty, war and strife, these five children brought considerable profit to the area and were treated as tourist attractions.  This book takes the first five years of their lives and presents a detailed fictional account of their existence as described by Emma in her journal and letters, with newspaper articles and documents interspersed.  Wood describes the Dafoe Nursery, which was built across from the Dionne family farmhouse, the strict schedules of waking, bathing, feeding, play, and family visits for the sisters, and the legal wranglings surrounding the promotion of such items as Karo Corn Syrup and Quaker Oats.  Emma, who wanted to be an artist but became a nurse so she could stay with the quintuplets, having started out as just a housemaid who happened to be on the scene at the time of the birth, offers an insider’s view of the activities surrounding the children and their upbringing during their early years, and also her thoughts and insights into how this might be affecting them and whether it was all in their best interest.  I don’t usually enjoy historical fiction, especially epistolary novels (novels told through diary entries or through a series of documents), but this book hooked me from the very first page.  Emma’s narrative did not seem like diary entries, simply storytelling from her point of view.  It reminded me of Eva Stachniak’s novel The Winter Palace, which was told from the point of view of Barbara, Imperial handmaid to Catherine the Great, a novel that managed to truly transport me to the time and place of the action.  So, too, did The Quintland Sisters, although Wood left out much detail about the Depression and the imminent war.  It was also a love story, one that the author resolves in a very interesting and unique way.  All in all, this was a fabulous book, one that I will definitely put on my book club list for next year, and one that has piqued my interest in the Dionnes and has encouraged me to pick up that paperback I've had sitting on my shelf upstairs for years by Ellie Tesher to find out what happened to them after Emma’s account ends.  This kind of fits into the “motherhood” theme, as the novel addresses family and children, and the rights of parents to have access to, and to exploit, their children.”

I did indeed put it on my book club list, and it was the best book club meeting ever, not just because everyone loved the book, but because Shelley Wood joined our meeting from her home in Kelowna, BC!  This was not planned, but I sent her an email last weekend asking if she would be able to join us, although I admitted that it was short notice, and surprisingly, she said yes, she would love to join our discussion.  She came across as very warm and welcoming, and didn’t just present her information and answer questions, but expressed interest in our group, too.  She told us that a photo of these five girls in a library book inspired her to use them as the subject of her novel, and that part of the purpose of her novel was to keep their story alive so no one forgets this controversial period in Canadian history. She said that she chose to use the epistolary format so readers had to fill in the blanks, and she included real articles from newspapers to demonstrate how they, whom the public generally relies on to “ask the tough questions” and present the whole story objectively, failed in their duty. She admitted that she felt a bit like she was also exploiting them by profiting from their story (she’s donating some of the proceeds to a Child Protection charity).  As she did her research, she wondered if there wasn’t just one adult who loved these children for who they were, and deciding that surely there was indeed someone like that in their real lives, chose to create Emma’s character, the one character in the novel who did just that.  Shelley showed us a precious scrapbook she received as a gift, a scrapbook kept by a young woman who visited the Dionne sisters in the 1930s and whose life was brightened by news updates of their lives.  This scrapbook, she said, made her revisit her cynical attitude towards the tourists who viewed these girls as exhibits and realize that people during those days needed some light in the darkness that was all around them every day.  In answer to my question about whether there were any “right answers” in their early years, she said that the purpose of her novel was to make people feel uncomfortable with the decisions that were made and to wonder what, if anything, could have been done differently to make things better.   She told us that she chose to end the book the way she did because of the way things ended up for the quintuplets, and that not all readers were happy with this (I can’t say any more because I don’t want to give anything away).  She’s working on her next book, and I’m sure I speak for all of my book club members when I say that we can’t wait until it’s published!  After she left our meeting, we went on to discuss other aspects of the novel and our own experiences and knowledge of the Dionne story.  We thought of other questions we wanted to ask or things we wanted to tell Shelley, but I think we were all a bit awestruck in her presence.  It was certainly one of the best meetings we’ve had, and the best virtual meeting for sure.  One good thing about COVID is that, with all of our virtual meetings, anyone can join a meeting from anywhere, and like a visit to the Dionne sisters in the dark days of the 1930s, her visit was a shining light during our own challenging times.

That’s all for today.  Get outside before it starts raining!

Bye for now…

Julie 

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Post on a rather gloomy morning...

It’s chilly and wet outside right now, but the sun is supposed to come out later, although it won’t warm up much.  We’ve been spoiled recently with sunny, Spring-like weather, but of course it’s still April and we need the rain.  I’ve been baking up a storm this morning, and have slices of both freshly baked Date Bread and Banana Bread to go with my steaming cup of chai, which totally makes up for the crummy weather.

I have two books to tell you about today.  The first is Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester.  I read Lanchester's The Wall recently and really enjoyed it, so I went to my library catalogue to see if they had any other books by this British author, which is how I came to be reading this fabulous novel.  Intertwining four lives and spanning nearly seventy years, Fragrant Harbour follows Tom Stewart as he leaves England on a ship bound for Hong Kong in 1934.  Along the way, he meets several characters who will change his life, most notably Sister Maria, an uncompromising Chinese nun.  He ends up settling in Hong Kong, and we are treated not only to his story, but to an account of the changes and growth there between 1934 and 2000.  Dawn Stone is a British journalist who ends up working in Hong Kong, where she discovers what she really wants and how to get it.  Matthew Ho is a young entrepreneur whose business is faltering and he must make some tough decisions, which are further complicated by actions taken and choices made long before he was born, but which threaten his very livelihood.  This novel was so engaging that I couldn’t put it down.  The longest part of the book is narrated by Tom, which brought to mind W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, mainly because of the narration.  In both books, the narrators are involved in the plots but relate them in a way that implies they are somehow emotionally detached from the main stories. There were plenty of coincidences, perhaps too many to be believed, but these were necessary to bring the narratives together, so I could forgive Lanchester for this indulgence. There was so much information about the history of Asia in general and Hong Kong in particular that it seemed much longer than 299 pages, which means every page was packed with plenty of details.  I don't know anything about Asian history or politics, but that didn't stop me from being carried along on the waves of good writing and captivating plots. I'm not sure that I would recommend this book to just anyone, but I really enjoyed it.

And I finished listening to my favourite narrator, John Lee, read A Spy Among Friends:  Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. I rarely read non-fiction, but I love Macintyre’s books.  This one focuses on Kim Philby and his relationships throughout his years as a British double agent.  From the 1930s to the 1960s, Philby was a high-ranking spy with MI6 while also serving a Soviet master, and he cultivated friendships to gain information whenever he could.  He befriended fellow Cambridge graduate Nicholas Elliott who also moved up the ranks in the British Secret Service, as well as forming a close relationship with American operative James Jesus Angleton, who went on to head up the CIA.  These friendships, though, were based mainly on deception and the quest for information.  Did Philby even know what true friendship and loyalty were? His friends, his colleagues and his wives were all collateral damage in his duplicitous life. I can’t praise this book, and so many others by Macintyre, highly enough.  The narrative carried me along, the research was thorough and detailed, the story was fast-paced and interesting, and I felt that I learned so much about the history of Philby and the Cambridge spy ring, the British Secret Service, and Soviet double-agents.  The narrator did an amazing job of bringing the characters to life and really capturing the spirit of the book.  If you like British spy stories, you can’t go wrong with Ben Macintyre.  

That’s all for today.  The sun is coming out and I should get out for a walk before settling in to start my next book.

Bye for now…
Julie 

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Thursday morning post...

It’s a cool, overcast morning as I sip a steaming cup of chai and enjoy an Apple Cinnamon Date Square, a change from my usual Date Bar.  It is supposed to start raining later this morning, so I’m hoping to finish this post and head out for a long-ish walk before it begins.

I finished reading The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell, a book I found to be unputdownable.  After drinking way too much, Maya, the third wife in a sprawling family of two ex-wives and five children of various ages, stumbles in front of a bus and dies.  Was it an accident or did she step out intentionally?  Nearly a year after her death, grieving, significantly older husband Adrian is tacking up a notice in the post office to find a home for Maya’s cat, Billie, when Jane enters his life.  Beautiful, smart, compelling Jane visits the flat under the pretense of possibly adopting Billie.  When she decides against this, but turns up unexpectedly when the whole family are out for dinner, and when one of Adrian’s daughters admits to having seen her at one of her skating practices, Adrian begins to suspect that Jane had something to do with, or at least knows something about, Maya’s death.  But then Jane disappears and Adrian is at a loss.  When oldest son Luke discovers evidence of possible foul play on his father’s computer, everyone becomes involved in the search for the truth about what really happened to Maya - was is an accident, suicide or murder?  This was such an engaging, gripping domestic thriller that I flew through it, finding opportunities to read whenever I could.  It was part mystery, part psychological thriller, and a big part of the novel looked at the real family dynamics under the veneer of placid acceptance and willing cooperation.  Of course, all is not what it seems, but the brilliance of this novel is the not-quite-knowing what is true and what is pure pretense.  I have read or listened to many of Jewell’s novels in the past, and for me, this one ranks right up there with the best of her books.  The characters and relationships were complex yet credible, the situations were compelling, and the plot rolled along at an even pace that was just right for this reader.  It brought to mind other novels that explore domestic discord beneath a seemingly tranquil surface such as Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, but was a much gentler treatment of this theme.  In my opinion, it’s actually almost too gentle to call a “thriller”- it is more of a domestic drama.  I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys this type of book.

That’s all for today.  Have a wonderful rest of the week and enjoy your weekend!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Post on an "April showers" morning...

It rained heavily last night, and we’re expected to have more rain over the next few days.  As unpleasant as this might be, everything is looking very green this morning.  And it’s a perfect day for a hot cup of tea and a good book.

My book club met virtually yesterday to discuss The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith.  Isabel Dalhousie is an independently wealthy single woman in her early forties living in Edinburgh.  She has a degree in Philosophy and is the editor of the “Review of Applied Ethics”, but this is just a very part-time job.  She seems to spend most of her time drinking coffee, doing the crosswords, dropping in on her niece Cat at her deli and attending lectures… oh, and getting involved in things tht are really none of her business.  This novel opens with Isabel attending a concert that she is clearly not enjoying, having been given this ticket by a friend who was unable to go.  She is readying herself to leave when she witnesses a young man fall to his death from the upper balcony.  This event has shaken her, and when she reads about it in the newspaper the next day, she decides that it is her moral obligation to find out more.  Did he just fall or could he have jumped?  When she discovers that a friend of hers was also a friend of this man, Mark, she probes for more information about his life, and thus begins her investigation into what really happened to him before he met his death.  She is also concerned with Cat’s choice of boyfriend, as she has disliked Toby since her first introduction.  She wants Cat to resume her relationship with Jamie, whom Isabel feels would be much more suitable and would make Cat happier in the long run.  Alas, the heart goes where the heart wants to go.  These two issues make up the bulk of this first installment in the “Isabel Dalhousie” series.  We were originally scheduled to read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but one of my members thought it was too heavy and depressing to read right now, so soon after The Hate U Give, and requested that we switch up the reading list so we could read something a bit happier during this stressful time of rising COVID case numbers. It was a great idea, and Eleanor Oliphant is now rescheduled for the fall, when we will all hopefully be vaccinated and life returns to something resembling normal.  This book was well-written and thought-provoking but was not heavy or sad.  It was a light, if philosophical, read, and really took readers inside Edinburgh.  One of my members read this when it was on our book list for last year, before life came to a standstill last March due to COVID, and she enjoyed it so much that she’s now on book five of this series.  We all thought Isabel was much older than early forties, probably because of her habitual, unexciting lifestyle and the fact that she does not have a “real” job, as the “Review” seems to be more of a hobby.  We found her relationships with both Cat and Jamie to be very interesting, as well as her relationship with her very Scottish, very unbending housekeeper Grace.  While Grace sees everything in terms of black and white, for Isabel, all things are varying shades of gray, and she wonders which outlook makes one happier.  One member said this book did not make her feel excited, that it was an easy, calming read, a thought upon which we all agreed.  One of my members had read a few books in McCall Smith’s more famous series, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”, and she found some similarities between the main characters.  I think that, once we can go to used bookstores again, I will try to find a few more books in this series, as Isabel is like a friend I might want to take off my bookshelf and “go for coffee with”, as opposed to requesting from the library and “making dinner reservations”.  It was a good choice and we had a great discussion.  

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

Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 2 April 2021

Easter weekend post...

It’s Good Friday, the first day of the Easter weekend, and I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a slice of date bread to keep me company.  It’s a gorgeous, bright, sunny, chilly morning, the perfect time to write a post about a couple of great books.

Just this morning I finished reading a brilliant book by Sarah Gailey, The Echo Wife.  I must have read a review of this book, I can’t remember when or where, but I’m so glad I did.  This short novel, barely 250 pages, tells the story of Evelyn Caldwell, a scientist who is doing ground-breaking research on cloning.  Her husband, Nathan, is having an affair with Martine, a genetically cloned replica of Evelyn, a softer, more pliant, more obedient version.  Shortly after winning a prestigious award, Evelyn gets a call from Martine, asking her to meet for coffee.  By the end of that day, Nathan will be dead and the two wives will have to think fast to clean up the mess.  What follows is, to quote a review from “Entertainment Weekly”, “a trippy domestic thriller which takes the extramarital affair trope in some intriguingly weird new directions” (https://ew.com/books/sarah-gailey-echo-wife-preview/).  I don’t want to give away any more details, because half the fun of this book is the not-knowing, but let me say that it’s one of the best, most intriguing, most insightful, thought-provoking, darkly funny books I’ve read in a long time, maybe ever.  If I hadn’t read the Acknowledgements early on in my reading, I wouldn’t have realized what a soul-searching mission about “abuse and grooming and identity” (p 256) this book must have been for the author.  Gailey calls what Evelyn does to her clones “neurocognitive programming”, a cold, clinical, scientifically-detached term for the extensive manipulation she subjects them to on their journey to completion.  This book was amazing on so many levels, containing concepts I could barely wrap my head around.  Imagine Jodi from ASA Harrison’s The Silent Wife meeting one of Ira Levin’s Stepford wives, but written with the brilliant, dark, subversive language we would expect from Margaret Atwood.  This novel was a confession, an apology, an admission of guilt, a therapy session, and a frightening exploration into the very depths of the soul to uncover just how far we would go to achieve our ultimate goal.  I think I need to buy my own copy, as it’s the kind of book that offers a better, deeper understanding each time it is read.  It’s too bad that it’s classified as “Science Fiction” and kept in that section at my public library, as I think it may end up hidden away from the browsing eyes of the general fiction reader who wouldn’t normally read sci-fi (like me).  I’ll do my best to promote it through this post and word-of-mouth. 

And just briefly, I finished listening to another domestic thriller, the latest by Canadian author Shari Lapena, The End of Her, and I have to say, it was deliciously devious.  Stephanie and Patrick are a young couple struggling to keep things together while dealing with colicky twins.  They seem to have everything (except enough sleep!), but when a woman from Patrick’s past shows up and starts making accusations about his role in the death of his first wife, their seemingly-perfect lives begin to unravel.  How will they cope with this woman, the blackmail, a possible investigation, and the uncertainty of their future?  This book twists and turns like the best domestic thrillers, and kept me wanting to find more opportunities to listen and find out what happens next.  I haven’t always enjoyed Lapena’s books, but I would highly recommend this one if you are in the mood for a story that will keep you up too late at night just to get to the last page.     

That’s all for today.  Wishing you a Safe and Happy Easter!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Rain, rain, go away...

It’s a dull, rainy morning as I sip my cup of steaming chai and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Date Bread and a delicious Date Bar.  I’ve got a kitty snuggled in my arms, too, and I’m typing with one hand, so this may be a short post.

I finally got a chance to read Kelley Armstrong's latest book in the “Rockton” series, A Stranger in Town, which I was super-excited about.  Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations and left me feeling a bit flat once I closed the book.  If I remember correctly, Eric and Casey are once again out for a hike, pondering the declining number of residents in Rockton and the unusually high number of extension requests that are being denied by the council, when an injured tourist stumbles onto their path (or maybe they stumble upon the ravaged campsite).  It looks like she was attacked by hostiles, leaving her nearly comatose, and they must try to save her and find out more about her attackers. If it was indeed the work of the hostiles, it would strengthen their case with the council that the hostile situation must be dealt with soon, but in a humane and respectful way.  They discover that this Danish tourist was part of a group of four, and while Eric and Casey are searching for the others, they discover more dead bodies, also possibly victims of a hostile attack.  When two people from the First Settlement go missing after a meeting in Rockton, the case becomes more dire and they must ramp up their efforts before more dead bodies turn up.  Is this all part of a much bigger plan, a plan that could affect the future of the whole town?  It will be up to Casey and Eric to uncover the truth before it’s too late.  OK, just to be clear:  this book was miles above your average run-of-the-mill mystery.  The characters were as consistent and interesting as they were in previous books, the setting was just as Wild West/wilderness survival-ish, the plot just as complex and compelling, and the topic of the hostiles was finally explored in-depth, so I’m not sure why this novel was less-than-satisfying.  Maybe it was because I felt there were not enough of the usual resident interactions that I have come to expect from this series, or maybe there was too much negotiating and not enough detecting…  Whatever the reason, I felt a certain sense of disappointment when I reached the last page.  Of course I will read the next book in the series, when and if it comes out, but I think the fourth and fifth books are her best so far.

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

Bye for now…
Julie