Sunday, 23 October 2016

Hot cup of tea on a chilly morning...

Somehow, within the span of seven days, we’ve gone from wearing t-shirts and shorts to wearing winter coats.  Yes, it’s true - yesterday I pulled out my warmest winter coat and it kept me warm and cozy while I ran my errands.  So I’m especially thankful for my steaming cup of chai tea this morning, as I think about what I’ve read this past week.

Before I move on to new books, I wanted to follow up on the last 40 pages or so of Peter Robinson’s When the Music’s Over - they did not wow me, so my rating of 7/10 still stands.  

But thankfully I read something early last week that really did wow me - Margeurite Andersen’s The Bad Mother.  I have heard of this German/Canadian writer but have never read anything she has written until now, and I’m so glad the English translation of this book was in a box I received to be considered for the awards’ committee I am on.  It is something I never would have normally picked up, but I’m so glad I did.  This memoir is a reflection by Andersen on her life, and all the ways she was a bad mother.  At the age of 30, she left her two sons in the care of her husband for a year and a half, and flew halfway across the world to escape a bad marriage.  Sixty years later, she is writing about this period in her life that has tormented her for so long. In 1945, at the end of WWII, Andersen is twenty years old and living in Berlin, but she wants freedom, to live without hunger or thirst, to be free, so when her handsome lover talks of his homeland in Tunis, North Africa, she is tempted to follow him there to start a new life.  When she becomes pregnant, her fate is sealed and off she goes, but all is not as she had hoped, and what follows are her choices and decisions, the consequences she must face, and the ways these decisions have affected her family (as she perceives them).  OK, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you must be thinking, “But she doesn’t like reading non-fiction, especially memoirs”, and you would be totally right.  But this book was written less like a typical memoir and more like a long narrative, free-verse poem, which was extremely engaging - I was drawn into her story immediately and had a hard time putting the book down.  I read it in two days, and was sad to reach the last page.  I couldn’t believe the things that Andersen had to go through in her life, the choices she faced and the tough decisions she made, trying to do the best for everyone, but also preserving herself.  I was truly wowed and would rate this book 9 out of 10.  

And I started reading a book of short stories called Four- Letter Words by Newfoundland author Chad Pelley.  Once again, I had never read anything by this author, but was pretty impressed with the first few stories in this collection, which deal with themes of love, lust, hate or loss. The first story is told from the point of view of a young man who left home because his father abused his mother and she just took it.  He befriended the old reclusive guy down the street, who helped him through these tough times and also helped him make his escape.  At one point, when telling the reader about his father shouting abuse at his mother, Pelley writes, “...the way he shouted it made her lips quiver.  Her whole body rippled:  she was a pond and he was throwing stones” (p. 21).  That’s beautiful language, clear and concise, and also refreshingly different.  But after reading about a third of the stories, I found my interest waning, as somehow, although the characters and setting in each story were different, it felt a bit like I was reading the same story over and over.  The way I see it, if you are reading short stories, you probably want some variety, and this collection wasn’t giving me what I needed at this time.  So I closed the book and have guiltlessly moved on to something else (I know there are people who, once they start a book, feel that they absolutely must finish it, but I am not one of them).

And I finished listening to an audiobook this week, The Ex by Alafair Burke.  I listened to another of her books a few years ago, Long Gone, and I just looked at my comments on that book - confusing, but not bad.  Well, this book, her most recent novel, was not only confusing, but perhaps one of the most irritating books I’ve ever listened to.  I actually planned to stop listening about a third of the way in, but then I read reviews of the book and they were outstanding, so I persevered, but it never got any better, and I’m now thinking that it was two weeks of listening that I’ll never get back.  The novel tells the story of Olivia Randall, a single forty-something lawyer who, after a boozy night (all of her nights seem to be boozy), she is awakened by a call from her law office (does she not have to keep regular hours?) asking her to return a call from someone who claims to know her.  It turns out that the call is from the teenaged daughter of her former fiancé, novelist Jack Harris, asking for her help in getting her dad out of jail.  It seems that, after the death of his wife, Molly, in the mass Penn Station shooting a few years earlier, Jack has devoted his life to writing novels and caring for his daughter as a single father, never interested in dating anyone else… until now.  A couple of weeks earlier, while taking an early morning jog by the harbourfront, he happened to see a woman in a party dress sitting in the grass reading a book and drinking champagne straight out of the bottle.  He nods to her, she smiles at him, he comments to his friend who coincidentally runs an extremely popular online “Missed Moments” column, and...BAM!  Instant romance.  Sounds ideal, right?  They arrange to meet at a particular time at a particular place (a favourite spot mentioned in Jack’s favourite book, the one she happened to be reading at the time of the sighting), but on the appointed day, while Jack is there, she pulls a no-show… then suddenly, shots ring out and three people are dead, including the father of the boy who shot Jack’s wife.  Did Jack do it, or was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time?  It is up to Olivia to help him out of this situation before he is found guilty and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail.  She knows Jack didn’t do it, not a nice, helpful, kind, caring guy like Jack… until evidence surfaces, and secrets and lies are revealed, and she begins to doubt the innocence of her client.  OK, I’m no lawyer, but I’ve read enough crime novels to wonder at Olivia’s behaviour.  She was hired to defend Jack, so my thought is that she shouldn’t care whether he was guilty or not, she just needs to show reasonable doubt for the jury to find him innocent.  Yet she spends half the book thinking, “Could Jack have done this?  How well do I really know the man I was once engaged to, the man I treated so poorly and whose heart I broke?  Could he really be a killer?”  She shouldn’t be focusing on “Is he guilty?”, but rather on “How can I convince the jury that there is reasonable doubt about his guilt?”  And she’s totally self-absorbed, like everything revolves around her, including some of the strange coincidences surrounding this case.  I had to suspend my sense of disbelief for pretty much the entire novel (a nice way of saying "this storyline was ridiculous!"), and it never got any better than the way I felt at the beginning.  I’m not sure why all the reviews were so positive, but of course, everyone’s reading tastes are different. Unfortunately, this one left a bitter taste in my mouth - it was truly one of the worst listening experiences I can recall.  But this book is also compared to Gone Girl and the writer compared to Mary Higgins Clark, so that probably explains things. I'm not even going to rate this book, because it was clearly not my type of novel and I should have just quit while I was ahead and moved on to something else. (oh boy, was I ranting there for a bit? Sorry!)

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

Bye for now…

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Rainy/sunny Sunday morning post...

I’ve got yummy chai tea and a delicious Date Bar on the coffee table in front of me as I think about last week’s reading and listening experiences.  Neither one of them was amazing, and here’s why…

I’m nearly finished reading Peter Robinson’s latest book, When the Music’s Over, which I think is the 22nd book in the “Alan Banks” series.  There are two plot lines in this novel.  One case, Banks’ first as newly promoted Detective Superintendent, involves the investigation into the historical sexual abuse of minors by entertainment superstar Danny Caxton.  Caxton, now 85 years old, has been accused by numerous women of rape from 1967 to the 1980s, and Banks must try to build a solid case against him.  Banks’ main victim is semi-famous poet Linda Palmer, now in her early 60s, who was raped by Caxton and another man in a hotel room in Blackpool after being lured into a waiting car with promises of introductions into the show biz world - she was just 14 years old.  Banks must work hard to find evidence of this 50-year-old crime, as well as other incidents involving other victims, in order to convict Caxton, a man who has been well-loved by British audiences for decades.  The other case is led by DI Annie Cabbott and involves the death of a young woman found in a ditch along an isolated stretch of highway in the remote countryside.  Evidence suggests that she was severely beaten, drugged, possibly raped, thrown from a moving vehicle, then kicked to death after wandering along the road in search of help.  Who is this young woman, and who committed such a gruesome murder?  When it is discovered that the girl did not live in Eastvale,  Annie and her team involve surrounding communities, and are challenged by hostile law enforcement personnel at every turn.  I’ve got about 40 pages left to read, but feel confident that I can comment on this novel at this point.  I’ve been a Peter Robinson fan for many, many years, and will admit that some of his books in this series are better than others.  This is not one of his best.  In my opinion, it lacks flare, or zing, or “pizzazz” - it seems a bit lackluster, uninspired, “blah”.  The writing is solid, as expected from Robinson, but it just seems a bit flat.  I think it’s missing character development and depth of story - it’s too “all-over-the-place” and tries to include too much.  It has also been fairly predictable so far, with no real surprise elements or plot developments.  It’s all too coincidental that Annie and Banks are investigating two cases simultaneously that are so very similar, despite the decades that separate their occurrences.  I hate to say it, but I think he needs to move on and either begin a new series, or write a few standalones (standalone novel Before the Poison was awesome!)  If you have never read Robinson, I would not recommend starting with this one, as it is just OK - unless it somehow manages to wow me in the final chapters, I would rate it a 7 out of 10.

And I finished listening to the audio version of Charles Finch’s novel The September Society, featuring gentleman and amateur detective Charles Lenox.  It was also just OK, a cozy mystery involving first the disappearance,  then the murder, of an Oxford student.  Charles is contacted by an old acquaintance to find her son, George Payson, who went missing from his Oxford residence the day before.  Lady Annabelle is sure that George would not have run off voluntarily when he knew she was waiting to meet him at the tearoom.  Then there is the issue of the dead cat found in George’s room.  Lenox calls in help from his friend Dr. Connolly and newly acquired apprentice Lord John Darlington to find the connection between this death and a mysterious society that may have been involved in a murder that took place in India decades earlier.  Also significant to the story is the development of the relationship between Lenox and childhood friend and current neighbour Lady Jane.  This cozy mystery was exactly what I expected, a gentle mystery set in Victorian England, much like the book I listened to a few months ago, A Death in the Small Hours.   I don’t love Finch’s novels, but they are OK in a pinch, when I need something to listen to and don’t have a better choice at hand.  I thought this was the first in the series, but I have discovered that A Beautiful Blue Death is first - I have that downloaded on my MP3 player already, and may listen to it after I finish my current audiobook.  I also just discovered that the author, Charles Finch, is American, but he writes convincingly in the voice of a British gentleman in Victorian England.  I would give this book 7 out of 10, as there was no real surprise ending - like Robinson’s book, this too was fairly predictable.

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and have a wonderful Sunday!

Bye for now…

Monday, 10 October 2016

Post on a holiday Monday...

On this bright, sunny, crisp fall morning, I’m thinking of all the things I am thankful for.  The list is too long to post here, but a few of the highlights are: sunny fall mornings, great Canadian literature, and hot cups of chai-tea-on-demand, although I’m actually drinking coffee this morning, trying out my new individual-cup coffee maker.  So far, so good!

I finished reading a recently published Canadian novel last week, All the Things We Leave Behind by Riel Nason.  This is a follow-up to her earlier book, The Town That Drowned, about a small town in New Brunswick that was slated to be flooded and the residents relocated to a new town in the late 1960s.  That excellent book was one we read for the book club, and my ladies loved it, even though it seemed more of a Young Adult book than adult fiction.  I think you could read this new book on its own without having read the first one, as it involves completely different characters and takes place maybe 10 years later.  This novel is set in 1977 and tells the story of 17-year-old Violet Davis, left in charge of her parents’ antique business, The Purple Barn, for the summer while her parents are off on “vacation”, or so they tell everyone - really, they are looking for clues as to their son’s whereabouts (Bliss disappeared shortly after his high school graduation).  She doesn’t know when to expect them back, and does the best she can with situations as they arise.  She deals with customers, her friends, her boyfriend, and the other employees at the store.  But she must also deal with the knowledge of the Boneyard, a place on the far side of the forest just past the Barn where deer, moose and other animals that have been killed by traffic are dumped by the Undertakers.  She and Bliss stumbled across the Boneyard years earlier when they were exploring the forest, and while it was a horrific experience for Violet, it seemed to haunt Bliss regularly over the years.  When the opportunity for an estate sale involving a mysterious house in the area comes up, Violet is instructed by her father to “buy everything”, but this sale is not without its complications, and Violet must find a way to deal with this as well as with the ghostly moose sightings she is experiencing out at the campsite where she is staying until her parents come back.  Reading over my description, this coming-of-age novel sounds pretty corny, but it was really quite amazing.  It was focused entirely on Violet’s thoughts and experiences, so we as readers got an intimate look at what she was thinking and how she was feeling during the timeframe of the story.  The language was also beautiful, descriptive without being excessive.  Here’s one of my favourite lines: “The stars are thumbtacked on the black bulletin board of the sky.”  See what I mean?  Simple, yet beautiful.  This novel could be considered Young Adult fiction as well, but it was definitely meant for a more mature audience.  It made this reader meditate on the nature of life and death, the permanence of things past and present, and how we decide what we choose to bring with us as we look toward our future.  I would rate it an 8.5 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys coming-of-age stories.

That’s all for today.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone - I hope you have many things to be thankful for!   

Bye for now…

PS Another thing I'm thankful for is the new Peter Robinson novel, the next in the "Alan Banks" series (he's been promoted to Detective Superintendent!), When the Music's Over - I know what I'll be doing this afternoon!!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Long post on a sunny/rainy Sunday morning...

The weather’s been quite funny this past week, rainy and cool and windy, but then sunny and warm-ish - much like this morning.  I think it will be a good day to stay inside and read!

I wanted to give you a quick update on my book club’s responses to The Illegal by Lawrence Hill.  We all felt pretty much the same about the book:  it wasn’t great, but it had so much potential to be a great book, if only Hill was more focused and developed various plots and characters more completely.  I think we all had difficulty at the beginning, but then it sucked us in and kept us all turning pages until the end, which we agreed was a bit of a let-down.  Still, it made for a great discussion.

Speaking of discussions, my volunteer book group met yesterday to talk about The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland.  This detailed account of the life of Josephine Bonaparte, the first in a trilogy, was written in diary format and gave us an intimate look at the life of Rose Tascher, beginning with her childhood on a sugar plantation in Martinique, where she is told that she would have an unhappy marriage, she would be a widow, and that she would be queen.  Shortly thereafter, she is betrothed to Alexandre de Beauharnais and moves to Paris.  Thus begins her difficult and unhappy marriage, as Alexandre has many indiscretions and fathers several illegitimate children as well as his own legal son, Eugene and daughter, Hortense.  The story unfolds and Rose’s political prowess is honed during the French Revolution, where many were imprisoned and/or executed for no apparent reason, and daily life was constantly in turmoil.  When, near the end of the book, she finally meets Napoleon, the part of the story with which most of us are familiar begins.  This book is the first in the “Josephine B.” series, followed by Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe and The Last Great Dance on Earth.  I am not a fan of historical fiction - I generally find the text too lengthy, with every detail of the setting, customs and costume described.  So I was not really looking forward to reading this book, and had put it on the book club list simply because Gulland's book has been sitting on my shelf for years so I felt it was time to read it.  Well, it grabbed me right away.  I was interested to hear from everyone at the meeting that they also felt the same way (two of the members got the whole trilogy in one volume from the library, but didn’t realize at first that it was all three books - they were wondering what I was thinking, choosing such a huge tome!).  One member said it was “amazing”, that she read it in one day.  Another member said the writing was amazing, that the story flowed so naturally, and that she often forgot to look at the dates, she was so carried along by the story.  We discussed the diary format, and agreed that it kept the details to a minimum, concentrating instead on Rose’s thoughts and feelings about what was going on socially and politically.  We all felt that Rose/Josephine was a very adaptable person, that she could adjust to and accept her circumstances fairly easily.  We commented on the change of lifestyle for her at the beginning, when she left a beautiful, lush landscape where she could bathe in a pond whenever she wanted to go to dirty, smelly Paris, where she had one small bowl of water to perform her toilette.  We talked about the changing roles of women, and how the salons, where anyone could be invited to showcase their talents or political views, a place for networking, were generally organized and run by women, and how Rose was instrumental in guiding the politics of her first husband and petitioning the government on behalf of those who were unjustly imprisoned.  We talked about Napoleon, and wondered if he was passionate or calculating regarding Rose.  We wondered why he changed her name to Josephine, and considered why she would marry him:  perhaps because they were both politically savvy and ambitious, and could find a connection on that level, or perhaps because the future of her children depended on what family they came from, or even that she, a widow and 32, felt she may have few other marriage prospects.  We talked about fate and circumstance, and wondered what her life might have been like had she never been told, at a young age, that she would be queen:  would she have stayed in Martinique and married William, her childhood sweetheart, or would she have gone to Paris as she had originally desired?  How much of her story was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and how much was fate or destiny?  What a different history there may have been if she had never left her island home or met and married Napoleon.  It was a great discussion, and one of the members who had the trilogy had actually already started the second book, another saying she wanted to read it at some point, too.  I would give the book 9 out of 10.

And I finished an audiobook a few days ago, Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah.  Oh my goodness, if you like books where secrets abound and all is not what it seems, then this is the book for you!  Damon Blundy, well-known inflammatory tabloid columnist, is found dead in his home with a knife taped across his mouth and the words HE IS NO LESS DEAD painted on the wall with blood-red paint.  DC Simon Waterhouse leads the investigation into the murder, but rather than focusing on the forensic evidence available at the crime scene, he seems more interested in figuring out the motive, why someone would murder Blundy in this particular way and what it all means.  His main suspect is Nicki Clements, a woman who definitely has a secret, in fact, has many secrets, secrets she is actively trying to share not with her husband, but with first King Edward VII, then with Gavin, two men she connects with on a website called “Intimate Links”.  Nicki displays some questionable behaviour and makes alot of odd choices, but is she capable of murdering Blundy in such a planned and calculated way?  And if so, why?  If not Nicki, who else in the large and varied cast of characters would commit such a calculated crime?  Blundy’s wife, psychotherapist Hannah Blundy, a woman who claims her husband has never loved her, despite his caring, unerringly loving behaviour towards her right from the day they met?  Times columnist Kieran Holland, a man constantly under attack from Blundy’s poison pen?  Pot-smoking horror novelist Reuben Tasker?  The list of enemies and possible suspects goes on and on, and DC Waterhouse and his team must wade through these possibilities to get to the truth.  But, as you might expect, the truth is not what it seems and we are led along the twisting, turning path toward a conclusion that, while somewhat surprising, was for this reader rather disappointing - the “big reveal” did not really shock me.  I had to suspend my sense of disbelief on a number of occasions, such as when the investigation team catch Nicki out in a number of lies while taking her statement and they just let her go rather than charging her with obstructing the investigation or trying to dig deeper to discover what she is hiding from them.  Despite this, it was certainly interesting, and I looked forward to my opportunities to listen (one review that I read said that Hannah puts the “psycho” back into the term “psychological thriller”, and I totally agree!)  This is the 9th book by Hannah featuring DC Simon Waterhouse and his wife, DS Charlie Zailer - I’ve read one of the previous books, Kind of Cruel, which I recall was “kind of confusing”, but still worthwhile.  I am definitely interested in reading the other books in this “series” (I don’t think it’s actually a series, but close enough), and would rate this book 8 out of 10 simply for the complexity of the story.

I think it’s raining again, so I’ll close and start a new book… but what will I read?  You’ll find out next week! Have a great day, and stay dry!

Bye for now…

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Short post on a sunny Sunday morning...

I’ve just pulled freshly-made pop-overs out of the oven, so the scent of melted butter and cheese is in the air… mmm!!!  I hope they’re good, as this is the first time I’ve made them.  I’m waiting until they cool down a bit before I add one to the chai tea on the table in front of me.

I am nearly finished reading The Illegal by Lawrence Hill for my Friends’ Book Group meeting tomorrow night.  I didn’t think I’d have a chance to finish it in time, and still get to my next Volunteer Book Club book, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. in time for our meeting on Saturday.  This is the problem with booking your book club meetings too close together, the pressure to finish in time and to have a chance to think about the book before the meeting.  There was also the problem of such a short turnaround time between Volunteer Book Club meetings, just three weeks instead of the usual four weeks.  Anyway, I’m nearly finished and will hopefully have time today to finish that one and start on the next one too.  The Illegal tells the story of Keita Ali, a young man from Zantoroland whose whole life revolves around running.  His sister, Charity, has the brains, but Keita has the legs and the stamina.  At this politically turbulent time, in the near-future, when blacks are being deported from Freedom State to Zantoroland, where they are also being turned away or sometimes executed, Keita’s father, Yoyo, is imprisoned and then executed for writing articles damning the government over policies and practices.  When Charity also disappears, Keita signs on with a sports agent to get entered into races in order to raise enough money to find his sister.  He then escapes from his agent and goes running across Freedom State, always trying to keep a low profile because he is black with no citizenship papers for Freedom State and so considered an “illegal” - if caught, he would surely be deported back to Zantoroland and killed.  Along the way, he meets a variety of interesting characters, including a black, gay paraplegic journalist named Viola Hill, a smart, sassy, gifted student from AfricTown named John Falconer, Ivernia Beech, an elderly but wealthy white woman who supports Keita and helps out whenever she can, and Cadance, a beautiful police officer and fellow marathoner.  Together they assist Keita in his struggle to remain free long enough to win enough races to earn the money to free his sister from those who are holding her hostage.  It’s a good book, not one I would have picked up on my own, but definitely fast-paced and interesting, but I’m not really sure what this book is supposed to be.  Is it a dystopian novel?  An exploration of the consequences when society turns a blind eye to the struggles of undocumented refugees?  Although the description of the book sounded like it would take a serious look at what it means to be “illegal”, I found that the book was very “light”, almost humourous in parts, and that I couldn’t consider Keita’s quest in earnest.  I guess I don’t read many satires, which is probably why I’m having a hard time pinpointing what this book is really supposed to be doing.  I like straightforward books: if it’s supposed to be funny, then write in a humourous way;  if an author wants to criticize society, then write a proper dystopian novel.  This book is kind of a hybrid of both. My initial reaction was that it was too "obvious", that it lacked subtlety, that Hill was trying to be clever in this book, but did not manage to be quite clever enough. As I got into it, my initial thoughts didn't change but I found myself swept up in the story and the characters and realized I was enjoying it in spite of myself.  I’ll see how I feel once I finish it, and will let you know what the other book club members thought of it after the meeting tomorrow.

That’s all for now.  Enjoy the glorious sunshine and the cool fall day!

Bye for now…

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Book talk on the last weekend of summer...

It’s officially over, the first day of fall is Thursday September 22nd. So while we still have a few days left, which, according to the forecast, are definitely going to feel like summer, by the time I write my next post, it will be autumn, my favourite season of the year.  

I have two books to tell you about this week, both recent Canadian publications.  The first is the much-talked-about thriller, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena.  This debut novel opens with Anne and Marco Conti attending a dinner party to celebrate next door neighbour Graham’s birthday, a party thrown by Graham’s wife Cynthia.  Anne and Marco have left their six-month old daughter Cora home alone after the last-minute cancellation of their babysitter.  Against her better judgement, Anne agrees to attend the party, despite worrying about leaving Cora alone.  Anne is suffering from post-partum depression, and her worry is exacerbated by gorgeous Cynthia’s blatantly flirtatious behaviour with Anne’s decidedly attractive husband.  They have scheduled to go back and check on Cora every half-hour, taking turns in this duty, but Anne feels terrible, wondering “What kind of parents leave their six-month old home alone to go to a party?”  When they finally return home, they face every parent’s worst nightmare - Cora’s cot is empty.  They frantically search the house, and finally have to admit that she is gone.  They contact the police and Detective Rasbach arrives with his team of investigators.  Unfortunately, they find no trace of a break-in and have no leads.  Anne calls her parents, mega-rich Alice and her husband, Richard, Anne’s step-father.  Her parents have never liked Marco, and this dislike only manifests itself more strongly as the investigation progresses.  What follows is a roller-coaster ride of plot twists as the characters’ personalities, histories and relationships are explored and outward appearances are shattered.  I don’t want to give too much of this book away, which means I can’t let you in on any of the details, but let me just say that no one is above suspicion and nothing is as it seems.  I have heard this book compared to Gone Girl and  Girl on a Train, but I can’t comment on that as I haven’t read either one.  I did, however, find that this novel had many similarities to The Silent Wife by A S A Harrison.  Both novels dealt with couples who, on the surface, seem to have it all, but whose characters and relationships deteriorate as the truth is revealed.  Both depend on unreliable narrators, and both use writing styles that, for this reader, created a claustrophobic atmosphere.  Harrison’s book was far deeper and more complex than Lapena’s novel, but I think that Lapena shows promise and definitely has talent in creating suspense.  It was certainly a book that I couldn’t put down.  I would give it 7.5 out of 10, and will watch for future novels by this author.

And I finished Winnipeg author David Bergen’s latest novel, Stranger, recently as well.  This novel tells the story of Iso Perdido, a young Guatamalan woman who works at a fertility clinic in the mountain village of Ixchel.  She is in a romantic relationship with one of the American doctors, Eric Mann, who loves to ride his motorcycle through the mountains.  When Eric’s estranged wife Susan arrives at the clinic, Iso is assigned to be her keeper, and must work with Susan throughout the extensive and extremely intimate fertility process.  When Iso, not Susan, becomes pregnant, things get complicated, and become more complicated still when Eric is seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and is taken home to America by his wife.  Things get worse when Iso, while disoriented and in labour, signs forms allowing the Manns to take custody of the child, who is removed barely one day after her birth.  What follows is Iso’s journey to reclaim her daughter and return her to her rightful land and family.  I’ve never been a big fan of Bergen’s books, and have possibly read one years ago, I think The Time In Between, and this book was exactly what I expected. It got great reviews in The Globe and Mail and Quill and Quire, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it, but I can be honest in my blog:  this book did nothing for me.  Yes, it was beautifully written and evoked a real sense of “paradise” in the descriptions of Ixchel, the lake and surrounding mountains (Iso’s full name is Paraiso Perdido, or “Paradise Lost”), but I found it to be too surreal, too dystopian and even (dare I say it?) too obvious in its symbolism.  What was lacking, in my opinion, was depth of character.  Divisions of class and disparity between wealth and poverty are all explored, but so clearly was everything in this book presented as either black or white that it didn’t inspire this reader to think about and ponder the situations.  While reading this, I was reminded of that excellent novel, The Colonial Hotel by Jonathan Bennett, that I read and reviewed for the local paper a couple of years ago, and in my opinion, Bennett's novel was just so much better. I would give this book a 6 out of 10, but that only reflects my personal experience.

The sun is coming out and dispelling the fog of the morning, so it’s time to get outside and enjoy the sunshine.  Have a great day and Happy End-of-Summer!

Bye for now…

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Books and tea on a gorgeous Sunday morning...

It is so bright and refreshing this morning, not a hint of humidity in the air, as I sip my chai tea and think about our book club discussion yesterday.

Yesterday my volunteer book group met to discuss The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Swiss author Joël Dicker.  This is a book I reviewed for the local newspaper when the English translation was first released in Canada in May 2014.  Here is a link to that review: I also wrote about this in March, 2014, so here is my summary from that post:  “Marcus Goldman is a young New York writer with a bestseller under his belt, achieved before he turned 30.  Facing prolonged writer’s block, he turns to his friend and mentor, writer Harry Quebert, for support, and is invited out to Harry’s seaside home in Somerset for some R&R.  Shortly thereafter, Harry is arrested for the murder of Nola Kellergen, a young girl who has been dead for over 30 years, and whose body has recently been discovered buried in Harry’s back yard.  Marcus returns to Somerset in order to support Harry and to find the truth about what happened that night so many years ago, as well as the events leading up to Nola’s murder.  He discovers that during the summer of 1975, 34-year old Harry fell in love with 15-year old Nola, and planned to leave town with her at the end of the summer.  He also discovers that Nola, and Harry’s forbidden love for her, were the inspiration for Harry’s career-defining novel, The Origin of Evil.  As Marcus investigates people and events in and around Somerset in 1975, he uncovers truths and cover-ups that lead him deeper and deeper into a world he could never have imagined.”   I clearly loved this novel, but as I reread it, I wondered, as I always do, whether my book club ladies would like it.  When I got to the meeting, there were a couple members already there, and even as we entered the meeting room, discussion of the book and the characters had already started (and a very animated conversation it was, too!)  When everyone had arrived, we went around the table as we usually do to find out what people thought of the book.  Well, I worried for nothing, as everyone loved the book!  Some members said they got a copy from the library and were daunted by the size of the book (over 600 pages), but that it sucked them in right away and they couldn’t put it down.  Another member thought that it was a bit overlong, and that the sections describing Harry’s and Nola’s feelings for each other were a bit excessive and could have used some editing (I had to agree with that).  But in general, everyone enjoyed it.  One member described Harry as “despicable”, and pointed out that there were many controlling women in the book:  Marcus’ mom, Tamara, and Nola, in particular.  Another member felt that the relationships and interactions between Marcus and his mother, his agent, and the lead investigator, Gahalowood, were humourous, and that this comic relief offered a good balance for the seriousness of the investigation, whose subject matter was quite dark.  She also pointed out that there were many “red herrings”, and another member agreed, stating that the author led you down “many rabbit holes”.  One member read a quotation from the book about how Marcus became “Marcus the Magnificent”, that it was all about creating appearances, and that she thought that summed up the entire book, and we all agreed.  We talked about the use of repetition in the book, that Dicker used a format that offered many different versions of the same events from different points of view, all in an effort to find “the truth”, but that the truth is different for everyone.  We discussed “age of consent” and how this has changed over time, in different countries around the world, and in different types of relationships.  I wondered whether a 34-year-old man could, in fact, be in love with a 15-year-old girl, and the group pointed out that Harry had, until his move to Somerset, been a high school teacher, so he would already have been able to relate to his students and to develop a rapport with people of that age group, which I hadn’t thought of.  I guess I had a hard time remembering that, at the time of his relationship, he was only in his mid-30s, that I kept seeing him as the 67-year-old recluse.  We talked about the relationship between Harry and Nola, and wondered whether it was ever consummated - we thought not, but it was never made clear.  Someone else pointed out that Nola behaved toward Harry in an alternately flirtatious and maternal way, which turns out to be significant based on her psychological state as revealed by the end of the book, something I didn't pick up on at all during either of my readings. All in all, we felt that it was cleverly written and that the author used literary techniques to keep the reader guessing until the very last, tongue-in-cheek page.  We thought it would be a good idea to all go to see the movie together when it comes out.  I would give this book a 10 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a literary mystery, a book that explores the reality of life in a small town, or the writer’s life.  Note:  If you decide to read it, please don’t skip the Acknowledgements at the end.  

And I finished listening to an audiobook that was in great demand, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.  This novel opens with the declaration that on May 3, 1977, Lydia Lee is dead.  The rest of the novel explores the lives of the Lee family to determine how the eldest daughter ended up drowned in the small lake in the centre of their community.  The father, James, is the son of a struggling Chinese immigrant family, and blond, blue-eyed mother Marilyn is as “all-American” as you can get.  At the time, their marriage is unprecedented, and Ng follows their lives leading up to Lydia’s death.  It was a bestseller when it came out in 2014, so I was quite excited to finally have access to the audiobook through the library.  But I was somewhat disappointed with this listening experience, despite being an award-winning book.  I think it was the style of the narration that put me off - it was read very slowly and expressively, which tended to drag out the story.  I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read the book instead of listening to it.  I also wonder whether the fact that I listened to much of this book, about an unhappy teen, at the same time as reading All the Rage, about an unhappy teen, influenced my ability to appreciate the book as a separate entity. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it, so let’s just say that my personal experience failed to live up to my expectations.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the glorious sunshine!

Bye for now…