Monday, 22 May 2017

Book talk on a holiday Monday...

It’s Monday morning, and I’m so happy to have this extra day off work.  I did some shopping on Saturday, some family visiting yesterday, and I still have another whole day stretching before me, waiting to be filled with… whatever I choose!  But for now, I’ve got CBC Radio Two, a cup of steaming chai tea and a slice of date bread to keep me company as I write this post.

I had a book club meeting this past Monday night, when we discussed Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper.  If you recall from last week’s post, I was nearly finished, but was not loving it.  I thought it was too long, detailed and repetitive, but that parts of the story were good so I was determined to finish it before the meeting.  Well, most of the book club members had the same thoughts about the book.  One member mentioned that the most redeeming thing about the book was the occasional insight into children and memories, and how one’s experiences in childhood definitely influence the person he or she becomes in adulthood - she felt this was “interesting and noteworthy”.  I hadn’t thought of this, but it’s true, and can be applied to most of the characters in the book.  One member has read another book by this author, The Forgotten Garden, which she really enjoyed, but she also enjoyed this book.  The member who chose this book was not at the meeting, so I’m curious to hear what she thought of it at the next meeting.

I then spent the next couple of nights finishing Dead Wake by Erik Larsson (this was my book club selection from two weekends’ ago).  The author managed to sustain the momentum of the story to the end, offering insight into the days, months and years following the sinking of the Lusitania, the investigation into the sinking, the entrance of the US into WWI, and what happened to some of the survivors.  I would definitely recommend this to even the most die-hard “fiction-only” readers, as it reads like a historical novel, is thoroughly researched, and is written with skill and compassion.

Then, with only a few evenings left in the week to read, I struggled to find another book that I could finish in a couple of days.  I tried a few novels that I had on my own bookshelves, and finally ended up pulling out something I’ve on my shelves for years, The Incident Report by Martha Baillie.  Baillie works at the Toronto Public Library, and this novel is comprised of 144 fictionalized Incident Reports, the type of reports one would fill out recording incidents at the library.  These reports are anecdotal, and are much like very short interconnected stories (sometimes a single paragraph, some as long as 2 pages) set in the fictional Allan Gardens branch of the Public Library of Toronto.  Some of these reports reveal information about incidents involving library patrons, while others delve into the personal life of Miriam Gordon, author of these reports, both her difficult childhood with distant parents and her current relationship with the enigmatic Janko.  There’s a mystery (who is leaving those curious notes about Rigoletto, and are they intended for Miriam?), a love story, and an insider’s look at a day in the life of a public library employee (when in doubt about what to do, refer to The Manual of Conduct for Encounters with Difficult Patrons).  I’m just over halfway through this engrossing chronicle and, as a former public library employee, I’m finding it pretty “unputdownable”, although I’ve been forced to put it down for most of the weekend due to prior commitments; I’m confident that I can finish it today, and that it will continue to be intriguing.  

That's all for now. Happy Victoria Day, and enjoy the extra day off, whatever you decide to do!

Bye for now…

PS Have I mentioned that I've been watching the new miniseries A Handmaid's Tale, based on Margaret Atwood's novel? I'm really enjoying it, and feel that it's an accurate depiction of the novel, capturing the essence of Atwood's cautionary tale. I would highly recommend watching this, but definitely start at the beginning and watch it in order. I'm tempted to reread the novel, but I'll wait until I've watched all the episodes - I think there are eight in total, and so far only five have been aired.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Tea, books and audiobooks on a glorious Sunday morning...

It is truly glorious this morning, with the sun shining, the birds singing, and the breeze blowing, an ideal spring morning, perfect weather for a Mother’s Day celebration.  

It may be a coincidence that I am reading a book about mothers for my Friends’ book group, which meets tomorrow night. Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper is a lengthy novel that weaves together three accounts from different time periods in the lives of one family. It begins in 1961, as sixteen-year-old Laurel hides out in the treehouse while her family has bundled off to have a picnic to celebrate her brother’s second birthday.  She is bored by life at their English farmhouse and is anxious to find excitement, drama and romance.  Knowing that she will be leaving soon, she is suddenly struck by pangs of guilt, and just as she decides to join the others, she witnesses a shocking crime that will haunt her for the next fifty years and call into question everything she has ever thought she knew about her family.  In 2011, as she returns to her family home for her mother’s 90th birthday, Laurel finally decides to unravel the mystery of that fateful day, and digs deep into the past to discover clues that will help in her search for the truth.  Her search leads her back to 1941, to the London Blitz, where her mother made choices that would alter the course of her life.  I’m 300 pages into this nearly 500 page book, and so far it is exactly as I expected Morton’s books would be - lengthy, detailed family sagas of hidden pasts and shocking secrets.  I’m finding it overly detailed and repetitive, with plenty of padding. I think the story itself is good - it just takes so long to get to any plot development that it is sometimes frustrating.  I am, however, at the point now where the plot has taken an unexpected and interesting turn, so I’m going to try to finish the book today, as I suspect that there will be a surprising plot twist at the end and I'd like to be able to participate in that part of the discussion tomorrow.  I wonder what my other book club members will have to say about it - I’ll give you a summary of our discussion next week.

I also have two audiobooks to tell you about.  The first is a short novel by Jenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Corner, a heartwarming tale of one woman’s search for a her own happy-ever-after.  Nina Redmond is a librarian who, after being downsized when her library branch is closed, decides that all she really wants to do in life is to find the perfect book for every reader.  She buys a van, moves to a sleepy village in the Scottish Highlands, and opens a mobile bookshop.  She faces challenges and reaps rewards along the way, but will she be able to keep her dream alive and finally find true happiness?  This lighthearted romantic comedy is so different from my normal reading selections that I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it.  The narrator, Lucy Price-Lewis, perfectly captured the spirit of the story, effortlessly sweeping me along on Nina’s adventures.  I had to suspend my sense of disbelief more than once, but all in all, it was a satisfying fairytale of a book with a lovable heroine, a gorgeous setting, and enough quirky characters to keep any reader smiling and chuckling to the very last page.

The other audiobook I finished listening to is a tale of a very different sort. The premise of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is one that most people are familiar with, if not from reading the book then probably from seeing the movie.  In case you are not familiar with the story, this novel is set in WWII and is told from the point of view of nine-year-old Bruno, who comes home from school one day to find one of the maids in his room packing his belongings.  He is outraged by this, but discovers that his family is moving from their large house in Berlin to a new house near a camp called “Out-With”, the result of a visit from “the Fury”, during which his father was promoted to Commandant.  From his new bedroom window, he can see the camp on the other side of the fence, and is curious about the people there, who all wear matching striped pajamas and striped cloth caps.  Having no friends to play with, and unable to get along with his twelve-year-old sister Greta, “the Hopeless Case”, one day he goes off exploring along the fence that separates him from the camp.  After about an hour of walking, he notices a dot in the distance, which becomes a blob, which becomes a shape, which becomes a boy, and he meets Schmul, a nine-year-old boy living in the camp who miraculously shares the same birthday.  Thus a friendship blossoms, but one that Bruno senses he must keep secret from the rest of his family.  Over the course of a year, Bruno and Schmul share stories and form a strong bond, but when suddenly their friendship is facing an unexpected end, Bruno devises a plan for one last adventure, a plan that will lead to tragic consequences.  This moving fictional account of one boy’s encounter with the evils of war was an unexpectedly riveting listening experience for me.  The narrator, Michael Maloney, did an amazing job of capturing the naive voice of Bruno and bringing to life his experiences, innocence, inner struggles, and staunch refusal to acknowledge the true nature of the camp and the fate of those who were imprisoned there, despite his persistent sense of foreboding.  If you haven’t read this book, I would recommend that you head down to your local library and pick up a copy - I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down until you reach the final, heartwrenching conclusion.  It would also be a great selection for any book club.  It is important to note that this book is, according to the author, a fable, and is in no way intended to be taken as a historical account of any real events that took place during the Holocaust.  

On that cheerful note, I will close today’s post and get outside to enjoy the lovely day.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Bye for now…

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Post on a "thankfully the sun is out!" morning...

We’ve had rain, rain and more rain this past week, which I thought was going to continue into today, so I’m thrilled to see the sun this morning as I sit with my delicious cup of chai and a slice of homemade date bread and think about the book I nearly finished reading last week.

Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania just off the coast of Ireland, killing more than a thousand passengers and crew members and significantly influencing the US in their decision to enter into WWI.  I can’t recall specifically whether I realized this when I made up the book club schedule near the end of last year, but surely it was not mere coincidence that we discussed Dead Wake:  the last crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson yesterday.  This detailed, thoroughly researched book tells the story of the days leading up to, during and following the sinking of this huge British passenger liner by a German u-boat on May 7th, 1915, and relates information about the ship, war strategies, and the individuals involved in making decisions about these strategies. Larson also provides information about just some of the many passengers, intimate details about their lives and why they were on the ship, despite warnings in the newspaper just before the ship sailed, details both interesting and mundane, about passengers who were notable and those whose lives were seemingly unimportant, treating each person with dignity and respect, from the member of the Vanderbilt family to the young American man who was going to England to propose to his fiancé.  My discussion group was small yesterday, just three others and me, but we had a lively discussion nonetheless.  Two of us had not quite finished the book (I ran a Book Fair at one of my schools last week, so was busier than usual and didn’t have as much time to read as I normally would), but we’d both read to the point when the ship sank and people were struggling to survive.  We all agreed that Larson’s book was well-written and read like a novel, but that it was a bit difficult to get into at the beginning.  As he was writing about so many individuals, we struggled to keep track of everyone, unaware that he would do such an excellent job of reminding us who everyone was again later in the book.  And he managed to put a human face on the tragedy, reminding us of the tragedies that have affected so many throughout history, that affect everyone, regardless of status or wealth or social standing.  One of my book club members had recently read another book by Larson, In the Garden of Beasts, which she said was also excellent, so she was quite eager to read this one.  We talked about the magnitude of war, and wondered, along with the author, whether this disaster was allowed to happen to push America to join the war.  We enjoyed reading about the various individuals who were on the ship, and we all agreed that the captain of the ship, Captain Turner, was a good man who did everything he possibly could to get his passengers safely to their destination, and that no fault could be placed on him, considering the poor communication (or intentional miscommunication?) he received.  We also felt that Kapitänleutnant Walther Schweiger, commander of U-20, the submarine that torpedoed the ship, was cold and calculating, and only concerned with filling his quota and going home, but we also realized that he was just doing his job, albeit in a cold, calculated manner that bent the rules of maritime law regarding civilian vessels.  Overall, we felt that this was an excellent book, very well-researched and well-written, and I think we’re all going to try to get our hands on other books by this author.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!  (but remember to bundle up - sunshine can be deceiving).

Bye for now…

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Last post for April...

It’s a chilly, windy, rainy-ish morning as we end this tempestuous month and look forward to May, which I always think of as the true beginning of spring, when we should be getting more mild, pleasant, settled weather.  But it looks like this next week is going to be rainy and the temperatures are going to be all over the place, warm one day, chilly the next.  Thank goodness for the reliability of a hot cup of tea and a good book!

Speaking of tempestuous weather, I reread that fabulous eco-thriller I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, The Rapture by Liz Jensen.  This novel, set in the not-too-distant future, tells the story of an unlikely group of people who are trying to save the earth from further ecological disaster on a monumental scale.  Gabrielle Fox is an art therapist who, following a car accident that has left her a paraplegic with serious emotional scars, leaves her home in London and relocates to a remote coastal town to take on a contract position at Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital, where she works specifically with Bethany Krall, a sixteen-year-old who, two years earlier, drove a screwdriver into her mother’s eye.  Bethany claims to have visions of future meteorological events after her ECT treatments, but no one believes she really “sees” things, just that she is spouting off what she has Googled or heard on the news.  She dismisses Gabrielle’s attempts to get her to talk about her mother’s murder, but Gabrielle begins to take Bethany’s visions seriously when she predicts, to the day, a tsunami that will hit Rio de Janeiro, a location that never experiences such weather phenomena.  But, stuck in a wheelchair, suffering emotional damage, and having no supports, there is little she can do without allies.  A strange woman appears to be stalking her, and when she is finally approached, it turns out that this is Bethany’s former therapist, Joy, who suffered a breakdown and had to leave the hospital on medical grounds.  She appears to be the one person who can help Gabrielle, as she seemed to believe in Bethany’s abilities, but it turns out that Joy has other ideas.  A true ally comes in the unlikely form of a Scottish physicist named Frazer Melville, whom she meets at a fundraiser and forms an instant bond.  Melville manages to rally a group of climatological experts who must convince the leading meteorological guru to take Bethany’s predictions of worldwide ecological disaster to the media or risk unprecedented catastrophe.  Oh, I nearly forgot - Bethany’s father is a pastoral leader in the Faith Wave, a powerful Evangelical movement that is sweeping the UK with its messages of the Rapture, when true believers will be taken up by God while the rest of the world suffers seven years of plagues and pestilence during the Tribulation.  I don’t read many books in the thriller genre; I prefer psychological fiction rather than plot-driven novels that focus on fast-paced storylines, as these leave little room for the character development that I so enjoy.  While I don’t feel that this novel had alot of character development, I felt that it had all the elements of a successful thriller.  The main characters were flawed yet likeable, even matricidal Bethany, and the story was timely and all-too-believable.  There was also a love story, always an uplifting element in a novel that was bleak at the best of times.  And the relationship Gabrielle and Frazer develop with Bethany, while seemingly unbelievable, is, in fact, simultaneously credible and moving and heartbreaking.  This page-turner will make you angry and sad, and if you don’t already believe in global warming, you will by the time you reach the last page.  This novel reminded me of Peter Hoeg’s book Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and is sure to appeal to a wide audience of readers.   

OK, it’s time for me to get outside, despite the chilly high winds, before the rain starts again.

Bye for now…

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Birthday post...

It’s hard to believe, but Julie’s Reading Corner is 6 years old!  Six years of tea drinking and book talk… I hope you’ve enjoying reading these posts as much as I've enjoyed writing them.

I want to start by telling you about the big CFUW Book Sale that happened this weekend, which is the highlight of my year in terms of book shopping.  It’s always a two-stage shopping experience.  On Friday, I go with a specific list in hand and purchase books individually that I really want.  This year that included books by favourite authors, books for upcoming book club meetings, and one book I’ve read before but would like to have on hand in case I want to reread it.  On Saturday, they always offer a deal where you fill a box for $10, so all of the books from this year’s shopping excursion fall into the broad category of "Books to fill my box".  There were 40 books this time, and they can be broken down into these sub-categories:
more books by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past but haven’t yet read
books that were bestsellers at one time but didn’t interest me, but now it’s finally time to give them a try
books that may be future book club choices so I picked up extra copies
books that are better-condition replacements for books I already have
mysteries of all sorts (the biggest pile)
books that go with other books on my shelves
books I know nothing about but I still have space in my box
and books that my husband might enjoy (these are non-fiction)

If you recall, this categorization was inspired by Italo Calvino’s categorization list in his novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which I have referred to in past posts (see Chapter One of this interesting novel for more information, or search my blog for “Italo Calvino”).  Anyway, it was an awesome (and awesomely inexpensive!) shopping spree that offered the opportunity to try books I’ve heard nothing about, just because I liked the cover and needed to fill that box.  So I’m looking forward to an interesting year of reading with my new books.

Last week I read a classic 1962 novel by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I have only ever read one short story by Jackson, “The Lottery”, about a small American town that undertakes an annual ritual to ensure a good harvest, a lottery for which no one wants to hold the winning ticket.  Her novel was recently promoted in an e-newsletter, and I’ve also learned that it is being made into a soon-to-be-released film.  It focuses on two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood, who live with their invalid uncle at Blackwood Farms, a large house on a huge tract of land located halfway between the town and the village.  All their other family members are dead, including both parents, an aunt and a brother.  Six years earlier, they were poisoned by arsenic which was mixed in with the sugar that was sprinkled on blackberries, a crime for which Constance stood trial but was acquitted.  They live peacefully in isolation, although Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) must go into the village twice a week for food and supplies, a task she dreads but forces herself to perform.  The villagers and townspeople shun the sisters, but they seem to be quite happy in their isolation, sticking to their daily rituals and being protected by Merricat’s “magic”.  When estranged cousin Charles shows up on the doorstep, Constance is seduced by his flattery and allows him to disrupt their peaceful existence, despite Merricat’s warnings and protestations.  When a fire destroys the upper floors of the house and their uncle dies, the girls must do their best to survive.  This gothic novel is similar to “The Lottery” in that it exposes the sinister underside of small-town America.  It was an interesting reading experience for me, because I found myself sympathizing with the sisters and feeling indignation towards the townspeople and villagers for their harshness and rude behaviour, completely forgetting that one of these young women killed their other family members six years earlier.  While the deaths of these family members are referred to throughout the story, it was easy to “forget” about them and just focus on the ire of the villagers and townspeople, which showed real skill on the part of Jackson.   I’m looking forward to seeing the film adaptation.

And I just finished (finally!) an audiobook that I feel like I’ve been listening to forever, The Travelers by Chris Pavone.  I listened to his first novel, The Expats, some time ago, and really enjoyed it.  I recently downloaded his second novel, The Accident, and started to listen to it, but was completely turned off by the implausibility of the story and the judgmental tone of moral superiority that the author used.  But having enjoyed the first book so much, and since this one was also available as an audiobook, I thought I’d give it a try.  It was more interesting, somewhat more plausible (though not by much), and the sanctimonious smugness was toned-down (also not by much!), but still I trudged on until the end.  This international espionage thriller is set in exotic, mundane and isolated places across the globe, and follows travel writer Will Rhodes as he is seduced into becoming an agent for the CIA… or is he?  His career and lifestyle of extensive world travel make him the perfect candidate to monitor the actions of important people around the world, and after his initial reluctance, he is hooked by the thrill of the chase and the danger, the risks and challenges he faces everywhere he turns.  But is he endangering those around him, and is this new life worth risking his marriage for?  These questions (and more!) will be answered fully if you stick with this fast-paced, head-spinning, “who’s-spying-on-who?” thriller, but be prepared to suspend your sense of disbelief and just be carried along on the wave of action.

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

Bye for now…

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Books, not bunnies, for this Easter weekend post...

On this glorious Easter Sunday morning, as I sip my deliciously creamy chai tea and nibble away at a Date Bar, I am feeling very thankful for the lovely weather we’ve been having this weeknd.  I have opened all the windows this morning and can hear the delightful sounds of Spring.

On a less delightful note, last week I read a novel of political corruption and greed .  The Eyes of Lira Kazan by Eva Joly and Judith Perrignon is an international thriller that spans the globe, from Nigeria to Russia, the Faroe Islands, England and France, and tells the story of an unlikely group of individuals who team up to expose the criminal activity of some very wealthy and powerful men.  The novel opens with Nwankwo Ganbo, the head of the Nigerian Fraud Squad, gathering his family together as they prepare for evacuation and relocation under fear of death after Ganbo’s righthand man is found murdered.  In St Petersburg, Lira Kazan is a journalist who has doggedly investigated the life and livelihood of mega-wealthy oligarch Sergei Louchsky, but she has faced threats and obstacles at every turn.  And in Nice, Félix, a court clerk with a keen intuition, convinces his judge and friend to dig deeper into the seemingly accidental drowning of the wife of a prominent Scandinavian banker off their yacht while in French waters.  During a trip to France to meet up with her daughter, Lira undertakes further investigations into Louchsky as he is in Paris to meet with the Prime Minister to secure a trade deal, but she becomes the victim of an acid attack, which she is sure is connected to Louchsky.  While she recovers, she meets Ganbo and Félix, and together they formulate a plan to expose the fraudulent, duplicitous actions of a network of individuals from these different countries as they converge in Paris for Louchsky's fortieth birthday bash.  Intrigued by the cover design and title, I pulled it down from my bookshelf with no expectation, and I was pleasantly surprised.  This fast-paced, plot-driven thriller moved seamlessly from one country to another, and took this reader on a  roller-coaster ride of corruption and exposure.  The main characters are flawed yet credible: they all want to do the right thing, regardless of the cost.  I don’t normally read this type of novel, but every once in awhile, I like to dive into a book that will suck me in and pull me along, keeping me turning pages to find out what happens next.  Hmmm… I guess this is sort of like the John Le Carré novels I’ve enjoyed in the past, The Constant Gardener or Our Kind of Traitor.  Joly is a french magistrate and politician and Perrignon is a french journalist, so it's no wonder this story is so convincing. Filled with suspense, this novel is sure to please fans of international political thrillers.

Since I couldn’t put this novel down, I finished it in just a few days, so I decided to pick up something that I thought would be a bit lighter.  I have enjoyed novels by Australian author Liane Moriarty in the past, and so I pulled down a copy of The Hypnotist’s Love Story that was discarded from the library (this seemed to be the week to read books from my own bookshelves for a change!).  Told from alternating points of view, this novel explores relationships in all their many forms and statuses.  Ellen O”Farrell, a hypnotherapist in Sydney, has a beautiful beachfront house that she inherited from her grandparents, and is financially secure as she runs her hypnotherapy business from her own home. At the age of thirty-five, all she wants now is to find a man and settle down.  Then she meets Patrick using an online dating service, and she thinks that he could be the one.  He is a widower with an eight-year-old son, Jack, who runs his own business as a surveyor.  He seems practically perfect… except for his stalker.  Ex-girlfriend Saskia is a forty-two year old woman who has been split up from Patrick for three years.  But just because you are no longer in a relationship with someone, doesn’t mean you instantly stop caring about them, does it?  A successful professional, she seems normal in every way, but her need to be involved in Patrick’s and Jack’s lives is an addiction that she can’t seem to overcome.  Strangely enough, Ellen finds the idea of Patrick’s stalker not scary, but kind of intriguing, and she does her best to deal with Saskia’s existence in their lives even as she battles to compete with Patrick’s deceased “perfect” wife Colleen.  With Moriarty's characteristic wit and insight, this novel explores the many faces of love and different types of commitment.  While not as polished as The Husband’s Secret or Big Little Lies, and somewhat overlong, this novel is suspenseful and a little bit creepy, while still managing to be light and breezy.  I’m not quite finished yet, but there have been a number of unexpected plot twists that would have foreshadowed her great success with the aforementioned novels (this one came out before The Husband’s Secret). I'm expecting to reach this novel's sure-to-be satisfying conclusion by the end of today.

And the tempestuous weather we always experience at this time of year, cold and sleeting one minute, warm and rainy the next, then sunny, but almost always very windy, reminded me of a book I read a few years ago by Liz Jensen, The Rapture, an apocalyptic eco-thriller that I remember really enjoying.  I’ve put it on hold and just picked it up from the library.  I may have time to reread it, but there were also five other holds for me to pick up, so how do I choose?!

OK, that’s enough book talk on this Easter morning.  Good luck hunting Easter eggs!

Bye for now…

PS Don’t forget the upcoming Book Sale next weekend:

Monday, 10 April 2017

Another April post on a mild morning...

My throat is no better, so I'm staying home from work today to rest up and hopefully be in better shape for reading aloud for the rest of the week.  I wanted to test this, as I didn't get yesterday's post sent to my Yahoo inbox.  I will watch out for this one...

Enjoy the sunshine and keep reading!