Sunday, 26 May 2019

Book dilemma on a summery Sunday morning...

I have a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar keeping me company this morning, and I’m waiting for my Date Loaf to be done baking in the oven, so I’m looking forward to a slice of that as well.  So many treats, so little time!
That is exactly how I’m feeling about books, too!  I am slightly more than halfway through this surprisingly good gothic novel, The Au Pair by Emma Rous, and I’d love to tackle the rest of it today.  But I have a Volunteer book club meeting next Saturday, and we are discussing a fairly lengthy historical novel, one about which I know nothing, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. This is also a new author for me, so I want to leave myself enough time to finish it.  I’m going to see Margaret Atwood speak on Thursday night, so that’s at least one night when I’ll get almost no reading done.  To make matters worse, I also have Friends book club meeting a week from tomorrow, and we’re discussing a book I’ve never read before, The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver.  So my dilemma is: do I power through the gothic novel and try to finish it today, then skim both the Quinn and Shriver novels next week, hoping to get sufficient understanding of the stories to contribute meaningfully to the discussions, or should I set aside The Au Pair and tackle The Alice Network today with the intent to make good headway before the work-week starts?  Let me tell you a bit about The Au Pair so you can understand why this is so difficult.
This novel is told from the points of view of two narrators, Seraphine and Laura.  On the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Seraphine Mayes and her twin brother Danny have their celebrations overshadowed by the death of their father, who fell from a ladder while working outside at Summerbourne, their isolated home in Norfolk.  This is not the first tragedy to strike this family. The day after she and Danny were born, their mother threw herself off the cliffs and plunged to her death. And a few years before that, their older brother Edwin was present as his twin brother, two-year-old Theo, fell from the watchtower overlooking the cliffs.  All her life, Seraphine has heard rumours that she and her brother Danny were sprite children, twins who replaced the real children that were stolen. Or that she is not really Danny’s sister at all, that she is someone else’s child who was somehow sent to live with the Mayes family for some reason. There were rumours in the village, too, that Summerbourne can’t keep its twins, that one or both throughout history have perished, or been stolen and replaced.  When she discovers a photograph taken on the day she was born of her mother, looking calm and happy and holding just one baby, Seraphine needs to know who that baby is, she or Danny, and if there was only one baby, how did two babies happen to be raised in the Mayes family? Thankfully we have the narrative of Laura, the young nanny from the time before the twins were born, to fill in the history, but how much of her story is clouded by her youth and naivité, as well as her growing feelings for the family friend, Alex?  Sprites, changelings and dark family secrets abound in this not-quite-ghost story, where elements of the supernatural are intertwined with a young woman’s need to find out the truth about her family. I know it sounds hokey, but it's really surprisingly engaging and well-written. It must be incredibly difficult to write a modern gothic novel, as one of the key elements of this genre is isolation, and these days we are all so “connected”, with our phones and devices and social media and instant updates and the endless selfies (and food pics!) that are posted ad nauseum.  But I found this one to be gripping and intriguing, and I’ve been looking forward to making more reading time each night after work and reading later than I probably should have (which would explain why I’ve been so tired this week!!).  Rous has managed to create the same sense of foreboding for this reader as Rosemary’s Baby or Rebecca, where you know something is not right, but you have no idea what that might be, and the truth is revealed bit by bit until the final, shocking ending.  Well, I don’t know about the ending here, as I’ve still got about 150 pages to go, but so far it has been a really riveting read. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not flawless, and it’s certainly not literary, but for this type of story, it’s got all the bases covered and then some!    
I think I’ll go for a long walk then power through to the end of this book, and if I’m not finished, I’ll have to set it aside until after my book club meetings are done.  Have a great day and enjoy the early-summer-like weather!
Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 20 May 2019

Royal post on Victoria Day weekend...

I’m not sure exactly what a “royal post” entails, but I’m feeling rather queenly as I listen to the “Queen Vic” edition of CBC’s Tempo this morning, all royal music, all morning long.  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar to keep me company on this bright, brisk Monday morning.
I read the latest “Hercule Poirot” novel by Sophie Hannah last week, The Mystery of Three Quarters, and I have to say, it was just ok.  I enjoyed the very first one she wrote as she continued this series originally written by Agatha Christie, but the second and now third have left something to be desired, at least for this reader.  This novel begins with Poirot receiving a visit from a woman he does not know, accusing him of writing to her and claiming that she murdered Barnabas Pandy, that he had proof, and that he would be going to Scotland Yard with this accusation.  Of course, she claims complete innocence, informing him that she doesn’t even know this man, let alone have any reason to murder him. Poirot is prepared to write this off as an unsavoury prank until another and yet another individual come forward with the very same claim.  Four individuals in all have received the same letter, and Poirot’s interest is piqued. Who is this Barnabas Pandy, and why are these individuals being accused of murdering him? And most intriguing of all, why did they receive letters supposedly written by the great Hercule Poirot?  As his investigation proceeds, with Poirot employing his sidekick Edward Catchpool from Scotland Yard, he uncovers secrets, lies, deceptions and cover-ups that all lead to possible solutions, but which are the red herrings and which will lead to the truth? I will admit that it was mildly entertaining, but I never felt a sense of urgency with this book, like I couldn’t wait to pick it up again.  I guess I found it rather bland; it lacked the “zing” that her other psychological mysteries have. I really have nothing more to say about it, except that, if you’ve been reading these new “Poirot” novels, you’ll probably want to pick this one up, but if you’ve never read them, I’d recommend The Monogram Murders, which I recall really, really enjoying.
And I finished a surprisingly good audiobook last week, Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan.  I’ve never heard of this author, but this book was very interesting.  It is the second in the “DI Jim Clemo” series, and I guess at the end of the first book, Clemo was suspended or was off on stress leave or something, because he’s just returning to work and is given as his first assignment an unfortunate accident involving two fifteen-year-old boys who were playing around down by a canal the night before when one of them ended up falling in.  This boy, Noah, is now in hospital and in a coma, and Jim must determine whether there was any foul play that caused him to fall in. His friend, Abdi, is the son of a Somali refugee, and in the wake of recent racial tensions in Bristol, there is the possibility that this could have been a hate crime, despite evidence to the contrary. But Noah’s family are British and upper-middle-class, and, with their son’s life in jeopardy, his parents need to find someone to blame and some ugly prejudices surface.  What was meant to be a simple open-and-shut case to ease Jim back into his job turns out to be more complex and multifaceted than anyone could have anticipated, and as complications develop, Jim must tackle each problem aggressively while also displaying racial sensitivity. It was really a very good novel, more than a mystery-thriller, although the mystery was the thing that kept the story moving. It was also a social commentary and a look at the ways different families deal with very different but comparably difficult situations.  The narrator did a great job, and I thought Macmillan balanced the various aspects of the novel well. It was good enough that I now want to read the first “DI Jim Clemo” novel to find out why he ended up being off. Unfortunately, What She Knew is not available through the library as an audiobook, so I will have to read the print version.  I think I’ll put it on hold right now, before I forget.
That’s all for today.  The forecast has changed and it’s now not supposed to rain this afternoon, so I can to out for a long walk.  Hopefully I can find a new audiobook that is engaging - I’ve tried two others so far, but they have been disappointing. Thank goodness I have about five more already downloaded that I can choose from.  Enjoy this extra day off, whatever you do, but remember to make time to read!
Bye for now…
Julie  

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Book talk on a cool, gray morning...

It’s chilly and overcast this morning as I sit down to write this post, so my steaming cup of chai tea is a welcome treat.  It’s Mother’s Day, and I happen to have a book and an audiobook that I finished last week that deal with themes of motherhood and children, which was an unplanned but happy coincidence.
Canadian author Shelley Wood’s novel, The Quintland Sisters, focuses on the first five years in the lives of Canada’s famous five, the Dionne Quintuplets, and is told from the point of view of seventeen-year-old nurse Emma Trimpany who helped care for them.  On May 28, 1934, with the country gripped in the harsh realities of the Great Depression, five tiny babies were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne two months prematurely at their farmhouse near Callander, Ontario. They were not expected to live for more than a few hours, but they all miraculously survived.  After four months living with their family, they were made wards of the state for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets’ Guardianship Act of 1935 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionne_quintuplets).  During a time of poverty, war and strife, these five children brought considerable profit to the area and were treated as tourist attractions.  This book takes the first five years of their lives and presents a detailed fictional account of their existence as described by Emma in her journal and letters, with newspaper articles and documents interspersed.  Wood describes the Dafoe Nursery, which was built across from the Dionne family farmhouse, the strict schedules of waking, bathing, feeding, play, and family visits for the sisters, and the legal wranglings surrounding the promotion of such items as Karo Corn Syrup and Quaker Oats.  Emma, who wanted to be an artist but became a nurse so she could stay with the quintuplets, having started out as just a housemaid who happened to be on the scene at the time of the birth, offers an insider’s view of the activities surrounding the children and their upbringing during their early years, and also her thoughts and insights into how this might be affecting them and whether it was all in their best interest.  I don’t usually enjoy historical fiction, especially epistolary novels (novels told through diary entries or through a series of documents), but this book hooked me from the very first page. Emma’s narrative did not seem like diary entries, simply storytelling from her point of view. It reminded me of Eva Stachniak’s novel The Winter Palace, which was told from the point of view of Barbara, Imperial handmaid to Catherine the Great, a novel that managed to truly transport me to the time and place of the action.  So, too, did The Quintland Sisters, although Wood left out much detail about the Depression and the imminent war. It was also a love story, one that the author resolves in a very interesting and unique way. All in all, this was a fabulous book, one that I will definitely put on my book club list for next year, and one that has piqued my interest in the Dionnes and has encouraged me to pick up that paperback I've had sitting on my shelf upstairs for years by Ellie Tesher to find out what happened to them after Emma’s account ends.  This kind of fits into the “motherhood” theme, as the novel addresses family and children, and the rights of parents to have access to, and to exploit, their children.
And I finished listening to an audiobook by Clare Mackintosh last week, Let Me Lie, about mothers and motherhood, and what a mother would do to protect her children.  Tom and Caroline Johnson committed suicide the previous year by jumping off a cliff. They did this in exactly the same manner, but seven months apart, leaving a grieving twenty-five year old daughter Anna to pick up the pieces.  Now a new mother living in her family home with her partner and former therapist, Anna is just beginning to come to terms with her grief as the anniversary of her mother’s suicide approaches, when a card is delivered that calls into question everything she thought she knew.  Convinced that it is merely a sick practical joke, she is almost ready to dismiss it when another incident occurs that cannot be ignored, and we the readers are sucked into a whorling downward spiral as bits and pieces of the truth are revealed, until the final shocking conclusion.  I can’t tell you more than this as I don’t want to give away any of the details, as the best part of this novel is the building suspense and the sense of always not-quite-knowing what's going on. I don’t necessarily love Mackintosh’s books, but they are interesting and complex enough to keep me reading, well, actually listening, and this one didn’t disappoint.  It certainly delved into themes of mothers, motherhood and family, and who, in the end, you can trust with your life.
That’s all for today.  Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful women who make a difference in the lives of others every day!
Bye for now… Julie

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Tea and treats on another sunny Sunday morning...

It’s such a relief to see the sun again today, after so much rain last week and the overcast, brisk temperatures as recently as yesterday.  It’s still a bit chilly outside, but the warmth of the sun can definitely be felt already, and I’m sure it will turn out to be a lovely spring day.  And while I’d love to get outside right now, I have a steaming cup of chai tea, a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, and a delicious Date Bar to entice me to stay in and write this post.
My Volunteer Book Club met yesterday to discuss Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. This novel, published in 2015, is supposedly the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that Lee originally submitted to her publisher and that was rejected and reworked into Mockingbird.  Set 20 years after Mockingbird, against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, this novel sees twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returning to her home in Maycomb, Alabama from New York for a two-week visit.  She is met at the station by her sweetheart, Henry Clinton, who implores her to move back home and marry him. He points out that her father, Atticus, is getting older, and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and that it is her duty as a daughter to care for him at this time in his life.   Her response is that Atticus will let her know when he needs her, and proceeds to make small-talk with Henry, avoiding his marriage proposal once again. Atticus’ sister, Alexandria, is taking care of the household and her brother now that Calpurnia has retired and returned to her family, and Alexandria, too, implores Jean Louise to move back home and settle down.  It is clear that Jean Louise is trying to figure things out now that she has finished school in New York, and she asks Henry to take her to Finch’s Landing, where they have another discussion about marriage, and Jean Louise proposes a midnight swim. On their way back home, they are overtaken by a carload of young black men driving dangerously fast, and Henry mentions that they now have the money for cars, but fail to get licenses or insurance.  The next day, their swim causes a minor scandal, and Alexandria arranges a Coffee for Jean Louise, in the hopes that it will serve to help her reconnect with old friends and show her how good life in Maycomb could be for her. Jean Louise learns that Calpurnia’s grandson struck and killed a man, and decides to visit Calpurnia to offer her support, but is met with a chilly response. When she later finds a pamphlet among her father’s papers entitled “The Black Plague”, and hears that her father and Henry will be attending the Citizen’s Council Meeting where a racist speaker will be presenting, she follows them to the meeting and is appalled to find that her father is not just a member but is actually introducing this speaker.  She is horrified, and seeks advice from Atticus’ brother, eccentric Uncle Jack, who tells her that Atticus is only trying to slow down the process of racial integration in the South in order to avoid another uprising, but Jean Louise has trouble grasping this notion. The fact that her father has agreed to take Calpurnia’s grandson’s case in order to stop the NAACP from getting involved is too much for her to understand and process. It is only once she has a discussion with her father that she is able to see that, just as she had originally believed, Atticus can still serve as a “watchman”, or moral compass, for the County, and that she, too, could fill the same role. She tells Henry that she doesn't love him and will never marry him, but she is able to finally see her father not as a godlike figure, but as a man, flawed but well-intentioned.  I was a bit nervous about this discussion, due to the controversial response to this novel, and the fact that my group members loved Mockingbird, but they surprised me once again by demonstrating their open-mindedness and insight.  We discussed the controversy surrounding the publication of this novel, and wondered if Lee would have wanted it published at all.  We discussed the ways in which our responses to both Mockingbird and Watchman might have been different if they had been published close to the same time and if Watchman had, in fact, been a sequel to Mockingbird rather than a first draft.  We wondered how much editing went into this novel before it was published, as it felt, despite the rich language, description and characterization, a bit rough, and we all agreed that it would have taken on a different shape if it were polished and released as a sequel.  Because I am not a huge fan of Mockingbird, I thought it might be interesting to read this novel, and I enjoyed it much more than Mockingbird for a number of reasons.  The characters seemed more believable, the difference between good and evil was less defined, more subtle, and the writing had more “zing”, for lack of a better word.  In Mockingbird, Scout and Atticus were too unbelievable, too saintly, and the situation was too obvious.  In Watchman, there is no real “situation”, it is more of a “coming-of-age” story for Jean Louise.  It reminded me of Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent in both style and message, exposing the dark underside of American society, and suggesting that corruption or “evil” is not always clearly defined, but is more often coloured in shades of gray.  All in all, it was a successful meeting, and I would recommend this to anyone, even if you are a fan of Mockingbird.  It is also a great choice for book clubs, especially if your group has already read Mockingbird.        
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine and warmer weather!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Tea and treats on a sunny Sunday morning...

We’ve had alot of rain recently, so it’s nice to see the sun, at least for a day (more rain in next week’s forecast… *sigh*).  So I’ll make the best of the good weather today and go for a long walk, but first I have a steaming cup of chai tea with a few extra cloves thrown in for a bit of extra spiciness (*yum*), a date bar and a slice of banana bread to enjoy while I tell you about the book I read last week.
I don’t remember how I heard about this book, Her One Mistake, but I’m glad I came across it, as it was pretty unputdownable.  This debut thriller by British author Heidi Perks is told from alternating points of view, and the narratives take place over a two week period.  Charlotte and Harriet have been friends for the past five years, ever since Harriet moved into the village, although they couldn’t be more different.  Charlotte is scattered, carefree and divorced, while Harriet is orderly, quiet and submissive, When Harriet asks Charlotte to watch her three-year-old daughter Alice one Saturday while she attends a bookkeeping course, Charlotte is thrilled, and makes plans to take all the children to the school fair.  Harriet has never left Alice with anyone before, but Charlotte assures her that everything will be fine… until Alice disappears from the fair shortly after their arrival. Charlotte is frantic, Harriet is devastated, and Harriet’s husband, Brian, is furious. Who took Alice, and why? Could this abduction be linked to the recent abduction of a little boy, Mason, from the same village?  Following the investigation through the eyes of Charlotte and Harriet, we learn, bit by bit, that all is not what it seems, and are drawn deeper and deeper into their lives until we discover the shocking truth. This psychological thriller had everything you could want in an “unreliable narrator” type thriller. It shifted from one point of view to another, and from one time period to another (not quite a “before” and “after”, more of a “during” and “after”).  Having read quite a few of these types of novels, it was easy enough for me to guess what was going to happen, but I still enjoyed it, and thought Perks did a great job, especially since this was her first book. She will definitely be an author to watch, and I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys these types of novels.
Oh, and I went to the big Used Book Sale on the weekend, both Friday and Saturday, and found quite a few books that I didn’t know I wanted but decided I had to have on my bookshelves. Friday is a day to choose individual titles that you really want, because you are charged per item, but Saturday is the “fun” day, when you can fill a box for $10, so you can put into your box anything that looks like it might be interesting.   It’s my favourite weekend of the year, and this year did not disappoint.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Books and tea on Easter weekend...

I hope the Easter bunny has been good to you this year and brought you lots of treats!  Alas, I bought a Boston Cream donut from Tim Horton’s yesterday and just as I was about to take a big bite right into the squishy cream part, it fell on the ground chocolate-side down, so I didn’t even get to taste it and had to deposit it straight into the compost bin.  Good thing I planned ahead and bought a yummy Date Bar from City Café to have with my chai tea, always a delicious treat!
On this long weekend, I finished two Juvenile/Young Adult books.  The first is Refugee by Alan Gratz.  I love this Young Adult author, who is best known for his historical fiction set in WWII.  Refugee is a bit different in that it weaves together three stories set in different time periods, focusing on three separate families who are seeking refuge from a life set in areas of political controversy, war and almost-certain death.  Twelve-year-old Josef and his family are trying to escape Germany in 1939 after his father is released from a concentration camp and told that if he remains in Germany, he will be returned to the camp. They obtain passage on a ship heading to Cuba, where they, along with nearly 900 other Jewish passengers, have been guaranteed asylum.  When, in 1994, Fidel Castro announces that anyone who wants to leave Cuba could do so without interference, Isabel and her family join forces with their neighbours and head out onto the Atlantic Ocean in a manmade boat to try to reach Miami before he changes his mind. In 2005 Syria, amid bombing and riots, Mahmoud and his family also try to escape and head for asylum in Germany, where they believed they would be welcomed.  All of these families seek safety, and all face obstacles, take risks and encounter perils as they journey into an uncertain future, a future that they believe must be better than what they leave behind. These stories, all based on real historical events, kept me forging ahead even when I knew I had other things that needed to be done - I just couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. It had me cheering for these children, forced to grow up too soon and live through things no one of any age should ever have to experience.  This was a moving, heart-wrenching, yet ultimately uplifting and informative novel that I would recommend to readers between the ages of 10 and 100.
Another poignant book I read was Deborah Ellis’ short story collection, Sit.  This Silver Birch Award nominee weaves together stories of different children sitting, sometimes in chairs, sometimes on fences, sometimes on latrines.  One child is in an evacuee camp in Japan after a tsunami, one is working in a furniture factory in Jakarta, one is in prison, one is in a food court with his family, one is sent to a time-out chair by her bullish, domineering mother, one is on an Amish farm working with the community to overcome a tragedy, and there are many others.  This slim volume was so engrossing, so well-written, so moving, and heart-wrenching and touching and literary and… well, the best word I can come up with is “real”, that I think I will have to buy a copy of for myself and maybe add it to my volunteer book club list for next year. Each story offers a snapshot of a situation that explores an emotionally and/or politically significant theme, and each theme begs to be explored further, even as the stories are complete in and of themselves.  I can’t say enough good things about this slim book of stories, and would recommend it to just about any reader. I read it in a couple of hours, but it should really be read slowly, giving time to contemplate each and every situation and theme.
That’s all for today.  Happy Easter and Happy Spring!  
Bye for now…
Julie
PS I almost forgot to mention that next weekend is the big annual CFUW Book Sale in Waterloo at First United Church, so if you are in the area and are in the market for used books, I highly recommend that you make time on Friday or Saturday to check out the huge selection and great deals! http://cfuwkw.org/index.php?page=annual-used-book-sale

And Julie’s Reading Corner is 8 years old this weekend - Happy Birthday!  And it is World Book Day on April 23, as well as Shakespeare’s birthday… so many reasons to read, read, read in April!

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Books and tea on a cold, rainy morning...

It was a positively lovely, sunny day yesterday but it’s turned cold and rainy, with the rain not likely to let up all day.  My steaming cup of chai tea, delicious Date Bar and freshly baked Date Bread are welcome treats to keep me warm and cozy on what seems like a good day to stay in and read!
Last week I read The Suspect by Fiona Barton, and it was fabulous!  This is her third book featuring reporter Kate Waters, and I think I enjoyed it nearly as much as her first one, The Widow, which is saying alot because I really, really enjoyed that one!.   On a late-August day, what reporters at The Post call “the silly season”, when not much is happening that is newsworthy, senior reporter Kate Waters is writing celebrity pieces to fill the pages of her newspaper when the story of two missing British girls in Thailand comes across her desk.  The mother of one of the girls, Alex, is concerned because she hasn’t heard from her daughter in a few days, and they had made arrangements to speak the day before so Alex could hear the results of her university applications. Alex’s travelling companion, Rosie, a last-minute stand-in for her best friend Mags, who backed out of the plan, has also not been heard from, and the paper picks up the story to help with the families’ search for their daughters.  What everyone thinks is an innocent case of teens going off on an excursion and forgetting to call home soon ends in tragedy when they turn up dead, seemingly victims of a fire at the guesthouse where they were staying. Kate convinces her boss that they need to go to Bangkok to investigate further to find out what really happened, but what she could not have anticipated was that her eldest son, Jake, who, as far as she and her husband knew, has been working at a turtle conservation site in Phuket for the past two years, turns out to have been present at the guesthouse on the night of the fire.  When he discharges himself from the hospital and flees, Kate becomes more than just “the reporter”, joining the ranks of the other “mothers” who want to find out what happened to their children in Bangkok. Just how involved was Jake, and why did he flee? Told in alternating chapters from the various points of view of Kate (“The Reporter”), Bob Sparkes (“The Detective”) and Alex’s mom, Lesley O’Connor (“The Mother”), this novel unfolds slowly, and we are treated to an insider’s detailed view of these experiences.  Throughout the novel, there are also chapters told from Alex's point of view, detailing the girls' experiences and movements in Thailand, and it is during these chapters that I found myself hoping for a better, simpler outcome, even though I knew the ultimate fate of the girls. This was an edge-of-your-seat read that had me looking at the clock and thinking “just one more chapter” every night before I had to finally close the book and go to bed. I finished it early this morning, and the ending did not disappoint. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys British mystery-thrillers. As a side note, after reading this book, I will never, ever go to Thailand!
That’s all for today.  Stay in, drink tea, and read!
Bye for now…
Julie