Tuesday, 30 May 2023

Last post for May...

I’m a bit late, but here’s a quick post about the book I finished last weekend.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez is an exploration into the lives of those residents of a certain country who feel invisible or unknown, particularly those immigrants, legal or otherwise, who have crossed the border from Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and Panama, for various reasons, political, aspirational or otherwise necessary, and are trying to forge a life in the US.  The main focus of this novel is the Rivera family, Arturo, Alma and fifteen-year-old Maribel, who have come to Delaware to send their daughter to a school that has been recommended to them by a doctor back in Mexico, one that specializes in education for children who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, as Maribel has.  They just want their old daughter back, the way she was before the accident, and they're willing to leave their old life behind to pursue the best education and therapy for her.  They live in an apartment complex peopled with other Spanish-speaking immigrants who all have an opportunity to share their stories in short chapters sprinkled throughout the novel.  The plot that connects all of the stories is one of Maribel and the neighbour’s boy, Mayor, and their severely restricted, yet budding, relationship, giving the story a Romeo and Juliet “star-crossed lovers” feel, although there are significant differences from the Shakespearean play.  There’s also a bully, one of Mayor’s school mates, but not a friend.  This book was really engaging to begin with and I was quite enjoying it, but somehow by the end, I felt a bit let down, although I’m not sure why.  While these stories need to be told and we need to hear them, the overall impression I was left with was that this novel managed to be both heavy-handed and yet at the same time hollow.  Maybe it’s because there were too many stories to follow and slot into the puzzle, leaving this reader feeling like she never really got to know any of the characters or stories deeply.  It’s worth reading for sure, and I hope this post doesn’t discourage you from giving it a try, but I just found it too disjointed.  I wish the novel had focused more exclusively on Maribel and Mayor, their families and the situation with the bully.

That’s all for tonight.  Happy Reading!!

Bye for now... Julie


Monday, 22 May 2023

Short post at the end of a long weekend...

It’s nearly 8pm on Monday night of the Victoria Day weekend, and I’m feeling a bit tired and cranky and not really in the mood to write this post.  But I also don’t want to leave it until next weekend, as there’s no guarantee I’ll be feeling any different by then!  (it’s been a long school year so far, and I’m not the only one looking forward to the summer break!)

I finished reading the last book in the “DCI Alan Banks” series by Peter Robinson yesterday.  Standing in the Shadows was just published, but was finished before the author’s death in October.  Robinson has long been one of my favourite British mystery authors, and it was with a sense of melancholy that I read this final installment.  This novel weaves together an unsolved murder in the early 1980s with a skeleton found on an old farm in 2019.  The murdered woman, Alice Poole, was a student who got mixed up with some political activists, and her ex-boyfriend, Nick, suspects that her new boyfriend had something to do with it, but at the height of the search for the Yorkshire Ripper, her murder investigation seems to fall through the cracks.  In 2019, an old farm is being dug up and developed into a new shopping centre, but the local university’s archeology department has first dibs at digging for Roman artifacts.  What no one expected is that one of the archeologists would discover a skeleton, and DCI Banks’ team is called in to investigate.  Are these two cases linked, and if so, how?  Well, of course they’re linked, since they are in the same novel, but the uncertainty of how keeps this novel moving forward steadily through chapters alternating between time periods and narrators.  It was a good, solid mystery, not one of Robinson’s best, but still a page-turner that does not disappoint.  

That’s all for tonight.  Happy Victoria Day!

Bye for now…

Monday, 15 May 2023

Post-Mother's Day post...

It’s the Monday after Mother’s Day, and I’m writing this on the fly, as I have to leave for my book club meeting in a few minutes.

The book we will be discussing is The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell, the perfect book to read right before Mother’s Day, as it focuses on a dysfunctional British family living in the Cotswolds, where the mother is the central character.  Lorelei Bird is a slight, beautiful hippie-type who loves all things colourful.  Her favourite holiday is Easter, and she looks forward every year to organizing a traditional Easter Egg Hunt in their backyard, even when her own children are too old to enjoy such things.  She is married to a somewhat bland university professor named Colin, and has four children, Megan, Bethan and twins Rory and Rhys.  All seems right with the world, although Lorelei has a tendency to save everything.    But when, one Easter, the unthinkable happens, everything the Birds have come to expect comes crashing down.  Each member has their own way of coping, and Lorelei’s is to shut out reality and hoard things even more than usual.  Their traditional family structure unravels, and what ensues is an exploration into dysfunctional family dynamics to the max.  I don’t want to give anything else away, as part of the draw of reading this book is the discovery of the next “family development”.  I’m curious to hear what my book club friends will have to say, as there is certainly a lot to discuss in this book.  I love Lisa Jewell’s books, which remind me of a “lighter” version of Liane Moriarty, and I was thrilled to discover that this was one I had not already read.  It was definitely “unputdownable”, if a bit too contrived and unbelievable.  I would still recommend Jewell’s books to anyone who is a fan of domestic fiction of the Liane Moriarty type.

That’s all for tonight.

Bye for now…

Monday, 1 May 2023

May Day post...

It’s Monday evening, May 1st, International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day.  When I realized this, I had a sudden urge to reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but alas, I have too many children’s books to read to indulge in such a wonderful read.

Speaking of children’s books, I read a book last week that I think was too long and frightening for my award’s grade level, suitable more for young adults, so that took up most of my reading time.  Of course I can’t tell you what it was or anything about it. Sorry!

Then I went back to my book club selection for this coming Saturday, The Push by Ashley Audrain, which I began a couple of weeks ago but put down almost immediately because it wasn’t grabbing me.  The novel, the debut by this Canadian author, tells the story of Blythe Connor, a young mother who seems to have it all, a loving husband and a beautiful daughter.  Her own mother was cold and distant, and Blythe determines to be the opposite with her own daughter.  Then Blythe begins to suspect that Violet’s behaviour is manipulative and that she is not to be trusted.  Is this true, or is Blythe suffering from delusions and/or mental health issues similar to those that run in her family?  When Blythe has a second child, Sam is everything she wished for the first time around, but when tragedy strikes, Blythe is unable to move past the grief to fulfill her role in the lives of her family.  What happened that fateful day?  Is it as Blythe remembers, or is the truth something completely different?  And how will they all move on from here?  This book picked up after what I consider to be a slow beginning, and became somewhat of a roller coaster ride through Blythe’s thoughts and experiences as she tries to process what has become her new normal.  Is she a reliable narrator?  Are her suspicions true?  Or is she just suffering in the "maternal instinct" department as her mother and grandmother did decades before?  I found it a bit hard to follow, as we have three different points of view from three different time periods, but no names as chapter headings, but once it got flowing, it began to make more sense.  And the ending was exactly what I needed.  This book might be what would happen if We need to talk about Kevin met The other black girl, with a splash of Girl on a train.  It was very good, not great, a bit overlong and repetitive, but overall I think it’ll be a great book club discussion book.  

That’s all for tonight.

Bye for now…

Sunday, 23 April 2023

Celebrating this weekend with books...

It’s April 23rd, which has long been considered William Shakespeare’s birthday.  It is also the anniversary of his death, and it’s World Book Day, too!  And what better way to celebrate than by writing a post about my favourite book?!

Last week I started reading a few books, but nothing caught my interest, so i decided that it was time to reread The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck, my favourite book of all time.  Here’s what I said about it in my April 3, 2016 post:

“... as it was just before Easter, I picked up my favourite book to reread, The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.  Every year at this time, I have the urge to reread this book, as it opens with the main character waking up on Good Friday.  A significant portion of the book happens over the Easter weekend, when exchanges occur that drive the rest of the book’s events.  I didn’t read it last year, but this year, because I have much more free reading time, I indulged and enjoyed it as much this time as I did on every other reading.  As I wrote in an earlier post (February 23 2014), Steinbeck infuses this novel with so much wisdom, so many insightful comments on the "human condition", that I could write an essay about something pertinent he addresses on just about every page.  This novel tells the story of the loss of innocence of Ethan Allen Hawley, descendant of a proud New England family whose family once owned half of New Baytown but whose father, through bad advice and bad choices, lost everything, with the result that Ethan is now a clerk in a grocery store his family once owned.  This store is now owned by Alfio Marullo, a man who came from Sicily decades earlier, but is still considered a “foreigner”.  When one unusual occurrence is followed by another and yet another in rapid succession, Ethan is compelled to change himself, to dare himself to become what he thinks others want him to be, regardless of his innately strong moral fiber and his belief in personal truth and accountability.  It is the picture of small-town life, and the exploration of the dynamics that work behind the facades of even the most benign-looking settings and groups.  Ethan speaks directly to the reader, and we are drawn into the journey, the exploration, the insidious corruption that steals up on him and sends him spiraling downward, so that there is no specific point at which we can say, “Here is where he went wrong, here is the point at which he betrayed himself and finally achieved the status he thought he wanted, but at what cost?”  It is difficult to describe this book, because not much actually happens.  It deals more with the deterioration of one man’s soul to fulfill the expectations others have of him.  It is a cautionary tale that reminds readers to be careful what we wish for because we just might get it, and that sometimes the treasure we seek is already all around us.  For juvenile fiction, we would call this a “coming-of-age” novel, where we would refer to the “loss of innocence” of the main character.  I don’t know if there are comparable terms that refer to adult literature, since loss of innocence is generally associated with youth, and surely Ethan has already come of age by the time this story begins.  It was like Catcher in the Rye for adults - the reader wants him to hold on to the golden ring and not become corrupted, just as Holden Caulfield wants Phoebe to retain her childhood innocence.  I can’t praise this book enough.  Clearly, I would give it a 10 out of 10.”

And yes, I still feel this way about the book, but since I’ve read it many times before and know the general storyline, I could really focus on the details.  This novel looks at what it means to be a “Good Man”, (by this I mean person), and asks readers to consider whether one can really be a “Good Man” in today’s society and still be happy and successful. Is success necessary to achieve happiness? And how does one measure success, anyway? It explores morality, ethics and truth, friendship and family, and the struggles of one man to be true to his inner conscience while dealing with the external pressures coming at him from all sides.  This time around, though, I think I questioned whether Ethan was truly a “Good Man”, or whether he was just lazy up until the story began, maybe waiting for the right opportunity or circumstances, for he seemed to be remarkably adept at coming up with a plan and executing it to his fullest advantage.  If you’ve never read this book, I would highly recommend that you pick up a copy and immerse yourself in Ethan’s life for a while.

I also celebrated this weekend by going to the big Canadian Federation of University Women’s (CFUW) used book sale on Friday, the first book sale since before covid.  It was awesome!  I managed to find a few books I’ve never heard of that sounded intriguing, a couple of new books by authors that I’ve read before, a couple books for future book club meetings, and a couple books that I’ve read before but will likely want to reread at some point.  I didn’t spend as much time at the sale this year as usual, since I had previous commitments that conflicted with this event, but I introduced a coworker and fellow book lover to the sale (she left with a box of books!!)  

That’s all I’ve got for today.  Happy Birthday Shakespeare!  Happy World Book Day!  And Happy Birthday, Julie’s Reading Corner!!  (first post on April 21,2011)  Oh, and Happy (belated) Earth Day!!

Bye for now... Julie

Monday, 10 April 2023

Late post on a long weekend...

It’s 8pm on Easter Monday evening, and I’m hoping to wind down early tonight because I go back to work tomorrow and have to get up early, but I just finished a book that I want to tell you about.  Apologies:  this post will be brief.

I read three Silver Birch books last week, but I can’t write about any of them, despite the fact that they were all good, especially the third one (it’ll show up on my “Best of” list at the end of the year for sure!).  Then I read a short novel that has been translated from the Japanese called The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Matsukawa.  This delightful story tells of Rintaro Natsuki, a shy, introverted hikikomori teen who has just lost his grandfather, with whom he’s lived for more than a decade, and he is lamenting the move to his distant aunt’s place after shutting up his grandfather’s second-hand bookshop.  He’s stopped going to school and has totally withdrawn into himself, thinking he has no one who cares for him, when he receives an unlikely visitor in the shop, a talking cat named Tiger the Tabby.  The cat asks Rintaro for help to save books from the fates bestowed upon them by various people who claim to love books and reading, but whose actions do not support this claim, and it is up to Rintaro to use his wits and the wisdom his grandfather imparted or that which he gleaned from books he’s read over his lifetime to figure out how to do this.  There are a number of “labyrinths”, or problematic situations, to deal with, and as Rintaro faces each challenge, his confidence and sense of self-worth grows stronger.  But can he outwit the most cunning and difficult opponent of all?  You’ll have to read this book to find out.  It was truly delightful, a fantastical journey into the exploration of what it means to be a book lover, the fate of books and readers, and how to keep the love of reading alive for generations to come.  This could easily have been a teen novel, as the main character is in his late teens, but it works well as an adult book, too. In fact, it reminded this reader quite a lot of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  If you are a lover of books and are looking for something light, short, and inspiring to read, this might just be the book for you!  And the translator did a great job, too, as the text flowed seamlessly.

That’s all for tonight - sorry for the short post!!  

Bye for now…

Sunday, 2 April 2023

Early-evening post...

It’s a gorgeous early evening after an equally gorgeous day, with blue skies and sun, sun, sun, a welcome relief after yesterday’s on-again/off-again rain showers.

I had a Volunteer Book Club meeting yesterday to discuss Canadian author Susan Juby’s novel, Mindful of Murder, a cozy mystery that takes place at a meditation retreat on a fictitious West Coast island.  This was supposed to be our book for December, but our April selection, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, was unavailable due to too many holds at the library.  I read and really enjoyed this book last year (it turns out almost exactly one year ago!), and thought it would be a great book club selection.  Here’s what I said about it in April of last year:

I had three adult books from the library to choose from, and I ended up selecting a novel with a really bright red cover that jumped out at me and  turned out to be exactly what I needed.  Mindful of Murder by Canadian author Susan Juby is set on a small gulf island off the coast of British Columbia, where Edna, the owner of a spiritual retreat, has died under what may be suspicious circumstances.  Her former employee, Helen, also a former Buddhist nun and a recent graduate of the American Butler Institute, is the executor of Edna’s will, and one of her duties is to execute Plan B, an elaborate process whereby she will decide who will take over running the institute from a selection of Edna’s grand-nieces and -nephews.  This Plan involves hosting these relatives for ten days and having them participate in concurrent courses to decide who is the best candidate.  Since Edna had been on a self-directed spiritual retreat for several months prior to her death, no staff were retained at the institute, so Helen calls on her friends from the butler academy to help her out, as well as a friend who is also an amazing chef.  She also takes on one of the locals to round out the staff, and calls on two of the regular teachers from the institute to teach the floral design and dance classes.  When the relatives arrive, they appear to be ill-suited for this type of work.  Tad Todd is a handsome, self-absorbed, selfish young man who just wants Edna’s money.  His brother Wills is a bit less grating, but he also doesn’t really want to take part in this retreat that has been thrust upon him, but grudgingly agrees because he also wants her money.  Whitney seems to be more in tune with the spirit of the institute, but she, too, has plenty of personal and family issues and is also in desperate need of financial support.  And finally there is Rayvn, the mystery cousin, who appears to be perfect for the role and doesn't seem to care about money at all, but she also seems a bit too flaky and admits quite freely that her favourite thing to do is sleep.  Helen has her work cut out for her, but takes this responsibility very seriously and manages to keep things running smoothly with the surreal calmness associated with Buddhist mindfulness, despite the many challenges she, the staff and the guests face along the way.  After a couple of unsettling occurrences, Helen decides she must also help with the investigation to find out if Edna’s death was truly by her own hand or at the hands of a murderer.  Between the cast of characters at the institute and those we meet on the island, this entertaining, cozy mystery was a positively delightful read.  It was a mystery, but it also offered insight into mindfulness and Buddhist beliefs and values.  It reminded me of the “Isabel Dalhousie” series by Alexander McCall Smith, in that Isabel and Helen are both amateur detectives and philosophers/Buddhist nuns.  These books are gentle yet thought-provoking, and the protagonists are women that I would be happy to have coffee with (that’s what my book group said about Isabel Dalhousie).  So if you are in the mood for a cozy mystery or an exploration into the basic beliefs of Buddhism (or even the basics of being a good butler!), then this might be the book for you.

I felt the same about it  this time around, and I also made a connection to the vegan cookbook I purchased over the Christmas holidays, written by a Buddhist chef from Quebec who manages the kitchen at a meditation retreat.  My book club members also enjoyed the book, although they thought that there was too much “busy-ness” going on and too many potential threads that were left hanging and incomplete.  I would agree with this, and I’m hoping that some of the things the main characters hinted at will be developed and explained in future “Helen Thorpe” books.  One member commented on how much she enjoyed the random bits of Buddhist beliefs that were dropped into the story, and another said she wanted to be more like Helen, mainly her calm demeanor both as a Buddhist nun and as a butler.  I had to leave the meeting early, so I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but I think it was a good choice.  I certainly enjoyed rereading it, and would definitely recommend it.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the last rays of the day's sunshine!

Bye for now…