Wednesday 30 November 2011

Book thoughts on a snowy day...

On this last day of November, snow is alternately drifting and gusting outside and it finally feels like Christmas is on its way.  My steaming cup of tea is a welcome companion this morning.

I just finished reading Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham, and I must say, while it was compelling and I wanted to know what happened next, it was not one of his best.  I found it to be overly long, unnecessarily complex and confusing, and excessively violent.  I think his first thriller, The Suspect, was his best.  It tells the story of a psychologist who is helping with the murder inquiry of a nurse who was a former patient of his.  As the case develops, the evidence increasingly points to him as a main suspect, and he must uncover the truth before he is arrested and found guilty of a crime he didn't commit.  Sometimes an author's first book(s) is/are his best, because, in my opinion, he is writing from within, being true to himself and not writing for an "audience".  Once an author becomes popular, I feel that he is often compelled to deliver what his audience wants or expects, not necessarily what he really wants to write.  (I'm trying to think of an example, but nothing is coming to me right now.)  This is not always true.  Some authors get better over time, honing their skills and perfecting their technique.  In terms of crime writers, I think Peter Robinson is a good example of this.  His early books are good, but he definitely improves over time.  Since he writes books in a series, his characters grow, develop and change over the course of the series, yet the stories that are central to each novel are interesting and engaging in their own right.  Anyways, long, complex crime novels don't always put me off (remember my enjoyment of Minette Walters' novels), but Bleed For Me, in my opinion, just went on and on, offering the main character's feelings, thoughts and opinions far too often while not adding anything to the story.  Don't get me wrong, it's not a "bad" book, it just didn't appeal to me as much as I was hoping it would, although I flew through the 400+ paged hardcover in just a few days.  Let's just say that, if it were the first book I'd read of his, I wouldn't be inclined to read another.  I think The Suspect was much more low-key, which must appeal to me.

I was having trouble coming up with a "next book" to read, and someone this past weekend recommended two very different books to me:  A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson and On Hitler's Mountain:  overcoming the legacy of a Nazi childhood by Irmgard Hunt.  The first, as I've been told, is a sweet, "wonderfully warm" lovestory set in Nairobi, while the second is not so sweet and wonderfully warm, as the subtitle suggests.  Both of these books are sitting on my desk at work, waiting for me to choose one of them to read, but last night, at the end of my workday, I brought home A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which is my next book club selection.  I have never read this short novel, in fact I haven't read many of Dickens' novels, but with the snow drifting and gusting outside, it definitely feels like the season for this novella.  In the past, I have read Hard Times for a class I took in university, then Great Expectations, which was prompted by watching a very bad movie version of this story.  It was difficult to switch my reading brain from "contemporary" mode to "classic" mode, but I'm now looking forward to it.  I'm not sure I've ever seen a whole film version of this story, nor have I read the book, so it should prove to be interesting and entertaining.  It will also, I think, be a "light" read for my book club members during this busy season.  I hope they enjoy rereading it, or reading it for the first time as I am.

That's all for today...

Bye for now!

PS Regarding last week's post and my feeling that I've "read this book before", it was, in fact, when I read The Last Weekend that I first experienced that feeling.  I really need to broaden my fiction topic selections!

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Tea and book talk on a Wednesday morning...

For a change, this morning the sun is shining and it's bright and cheery outside, but still brisk.  I think November is finally here.

After my last post, if you recall I was in a book rut and was on the hunt for "the perfect book".  Well, much to my surprise and delight, when I got to work that day, Julian Barnes' new novel, Man Booker prize winner, The Sense of an Ending was waiting for me to check out and read.  How wonderful!  I'd never read any of his works, but the premise sounded interesting and it was short, less than 200 pages.  I like books by well-known and respected authors that are short because you can usually count on them to be interesting and complete studies of their characters and situations and to seem as if they offer to the reader much more information that is possible to contain in such a small number of pages.  I will use as examples Bear by Marian Engel and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.  These books offer stories with such depth of character and understanding that it amazes this reader that they are so short.  I expected the same from Barnes' novel, and at first it was delivering.  This novel is about a main character, Tony, and his recollections of his past friendship with Adrian, as well as each of their relationships with the same young woman, Veronica.  These recollections are instigated by a letter from Veronica's mother's lawyer regarding a small inheritance from her, which begins an investigation into the past by Tony that leads to some surprising revelations.  Sounds intriguing, right?  It certainly did to me, so I took up the novel with great anticipation.  By the end, the first thought I had was, "Thank goodness it was short!"  Which is unfair, really.  The writing was good, and I loved some of his observations, particularly the one about marriage being a long, dull meal at which you are served the pudding first.  But this novel got me thinking about other novels I've read that deal with recollections of an adult male who is still feeling a sense of rivalry towards his friend from adolescence, particularly if they have both been involved with the same girl and the friend had the better, longer, or more significant relationship.  I began to wonder why so many male authors, especially male British authors, wrote about this topic.  I recalled Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (which I really enjoyed), The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison, which I discussed in a recent post, and even A Separate Peace by John Knowles, which I haven't read for years.  While this last did not involve a woman, the others certainly did, and this significantly intensified the rivalry.  This led me to consider how I would have reacted to Barnes' novel if I hadn't read these other novels, especially the Morrison novel, which I read recently, and McEwan's novel, which I've read several times and have really enjoyed.  Perhaps I would have appreciated the novel more if I hadn't felt that "I've read this story before", which is exactly the same thing I recall writing in a previous post about another book, which may even have been The Last Weekend.  I'll have to check that post and get back to you, but that would be kind of coincidental.  Maybe it's not the writers who need to find different topics to write about, maybe it's this reader who needs to find different books to read!

Speaking of different books, I am reading Michael Robotham's Bleed For Me, and I'm really enjoying it.  In my last post, I mentioned that I began to read Bombproof but that it didn't "grab me", and so I returned that novel to the library.  I went on to take out this one, as it is part of the Joe O'Loughlin series.  Joe, a psychologist living in England, somehow manages to become involved in gruesome and dangerous murder investigations, and this book is no exception.  Since the main character is a psychologist, these novels often offer the reader some "professional insight" into the working of the human mind or suggest reasons why people do what they do that you won't necessarily find in other novels.  Robotham, though, is not a former psychologist, but an investigative journalist, so I wouldn't use his insights to try to figure out my own behaviour - it's just interesting to read these as they are imbedded within the stories.

And finally, we've been asked at work to send our Readers' Advisory librarian the top three books we've read in 2011, so last night I was looking at my list of books read this year.  I've narrowed it down to six:

What Was She Thinking: notes on a scandal by Zoe Heller
Property or Trespass by Valerie Martin
Our Kind of Traitor by John Le Carre
Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg
The Slap by Christos Tsolkias

Those are my personal top books read this year.  Hope you have a great "Best Reads" list of your own.

Bye for now!

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Wednesday morning tea time again...

On this dreary November morning, I was having a hard time coming up with a topic to write about.  You see, I've been in a book rut again, for both audiobooks and physical books.  After finishing The Ash Garden, I've tried reading The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg (not as engaging as Old City Hall), The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys (too slow), The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey (too dated), Q: a (timeless) love story by Evan Mandery (too youthful and "fluffy"), The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman (I may still go back to that one), Bombproof by Michael Robotham (I always enjoy his works, but this one didn't grab me),  Pitch Dark by Steven Sidor (too supernatural and horror-ish) and Digital Fortress by Dan Brown (too plot-driven and dated).  All of this in the last 6 days!  And for audiobooks, I tried Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, The Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and The Dark Lantern by Gerri Brightwell.  I'm now listening to Fatal by Michael Palmer, but I may not stick it out to the end.  Making satisfying reading selections is clearly an ongoing challenge for me!  I started wondering why I've had such a hard time finding something interesting lately, and the only reason I can come up with is that, for the past four years, I have been a part-time student as well as working full-time, and so I had less time to read.  During that time, I opted to reread all of Peter Robinson's books, the "Alan Banks" series, in order.  Since I owned all of these books, most as mass market paperbacks, they were accessible and easy to carry around to work, to class, on the bus, etc.  So aside from my book club selections, I really had almost no book decisions to make.  Now I have so much free time, I need a constant stream of good books to keep me busy, as I can get through so many more books so much more quickly.  Thank goodness I work at a library or I'd be in real trouble!  Or maybe not... is this an instance of the paradox of choice?  I have so much to choose from that I can't choose at all?  Some of the books that I've listed above have been Advanced Reading Copies, not even books I've chosen off the shelf, so I'm not surprised they didn't work for me.  I'll just pass them on to someone else and hope they find a good home!

I think I will either read the next book in the "Inspector Lynley" series by Elizabeth George, the new book by Anne Enright that is sitting on my desk at work but that I haven't yet read (I think it's The Forgotten Waltz), or Italo Calvino's book If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, which I may or may not have read before.  If I've read it already, it was so long ago that I don't remember it.  Which is interesting, since in the opening chapter of this book, Calvino addresses the reader directly and, on page five of my copy, lists types of books that readers encounter, including but not limited  to:

Books you mean to read but there are others you must read first
Books you've been planning to read for ages
Books dealing with something you're working on at the moment
Books you want to own so they'll be handy just in case
Books you could put aside maybe to read this summer
Books you need to go with other books on your shelves
Books that everybody has read so it's as if you had read them, too
Books read long ago which it's now time to reread, and
Books you've pretended to read and now it's time to really sit down and read them

I have all of these types of books on my bookshelves, and sometimes it's difficult to make a choice.  I thought I wanted something now that is fast-paced and plot-driven, something that will "grab" me, since that last few books I've read have been character-driven and so a bit on the "slow" side (The Bell Jar, The Ash Garden, Notes on a Scandal).  Ah well, I will persevere until I find the perfect book to suit my needs - I will not settle!

Just briefly, my book group enjoyed The Ash Garden.  We discussed the war experience, and how that could cloud the judgment of those affected by it, directly or indirectly, making them act in uncharacteristic ways.  We talked about guilt and responsibility, about love and relationships, about causes and effects.  We discussed the responsibilities of government during wartime, and how these responsibilities may not always be as clear as they seem.  We discussed the ways language is used by writers, and the ways readers respond to this.  It was a great discussion, and we all agreed that this was an excellent, but not necessarily uplifting, book.

I think that's it for this morning.  I'm going to get myself another cup of chai tea, and try to get into a new book.

Bye for now!

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Tea and book thoughts on a cloudy morning...

I've been experiencing technical problems this morning, so I have less time to write than I had hoped, but I'd rather get a short post out there now than wait until I have a chance for a longer post, which may not be until next week.

I finished The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock last night.  It is my next book club selection, chosen because it deals with the effects of the war experience on survivors, and with Remembrance Day coming up, it seemed like a good choice.  I've read this book before (it was first published in 2001), and while I couldn't remember much about the story or characters, I remembered that I enjoyed it and thought it was well-written.  Having just finished it again, I still feel that way about this book.  The main characters are Anton Boll, a scientist from Germany who fled to America to help perfect the atomic bomb, his wife Sophie, a refugee from Austria, and Emiko, a woman who, as a young girl, was injured in but survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and has grown up to become a documentary film maker.  At the time of the story, she is making a documentary film about the bombing of Hiroshima.  Bock presents an interesting juxtaposition of stories in this novel, that of the creator of the bomb with that of a survivor.  It explores the psychological damage that the war, and the bombing, had on both parties, and explores how each person copes with their guilt and shame in one case, and blame and anger in the other.  I would recommend this book to anyone interesting in looking at these aspects of war.  I hope my book club members enjoyed it, but I have no doubt that there will be much lively discussion around this novel.

This book got me thinking of other books about war that I have either read or know about.  I have a short list, just off the top of my head and in no particular order:

The Thin Red Line by James Jones, which I have on my bookshelf and have been meaning to read for some time (I haven't even seen the movie!).  This novel takes place in WWII and explores the experiences of combat for the soldiers taking part in battle.

Three-Day Road by Joseph Boyden, which was the One Book, One Community selection a few years ago.  It explores the experiences of two young Cree soldiers in WWI.

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys, which I also have on my bookshelf and have been meaning to read.  This novel, set in WWII, explores the experiences of a young woman who is transferred from her job as a horticulturalist in London to an estate in Devon where she is to supervise Land Girls in growing potatoes for the war effort.

And on last book:  On the Beach by Nevil Shute, a post-apocalyptic novel set in WWIII.  The nuclear fallout which has devastated most of the world is moving towards Australia and those living there have to prepare for its inevitable arrival and their certain death by radiation poisoning.

What an uplifting list of books I've just presented!  There are plenty more where I've left off.  If I had more time, I could speculate about the reasons wars are so often the topic and/or setting for novels... maybe next time.

Bye for now!

Thursday 3 November 2011

Thursday evening tea and book talk...

I don't often post at night, but this is the first chance I've had to do so in this unusually busy week, so here goes...

I wanted to talk about a book I read recently that I absolutely could not put down.  You may recall that a film came out a few years ago, "Notes on a Scandal" starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, about a middle-aged high-school teacher who has an affair with a much younger student.  I went to the theatre to see this film, and then I borrowed it from the library so my husband could watch it.  It was an interesting film, but I wouldn't say it was one of the best films I've ever seen.  Well, I was reading book summaries in a fiction e-newsletter and the book upon which this film was based was mentioned.  I read the summary, then I read some reviews, and they all praised this book, whose actual title is What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller.   I found it in the library catalogue and placed it on hold.  When it arrived the next day, I read the first page, and I could hear Judi Dench's voice reading the novel in my head.  Although I already knew the story, I really couldn't put that book down, it was that compelling.  I think they did a fabulous job of adapting the book into a film, and the casting was dead-on.  I flew threw that book in just a few days.  I'd never read anything by Heller before, and I must say, I was totally impressed by the way she could make this reader feel compassionate towards two rather unlikeable main characters.  She also left many questions unanswered, and left the reader wondering just how unreliable the narrator really was.  I highly recommend this compelling read, but be prepared for some scandalous scenes.

I also listened to an audiobook written by Nicci French, Until It's Over.  Some time ago I listened to my first audiobook by this author (actually a husband-and-wife team of authors) entitled The Other Side of the Door.  While I found this first psychological suspense challenging to follow, as it is comprised of alternating Before and After chapters (I find it harder to follow time shifts in books when listening to them rather than reading them, as I can't easily go back and check who is doing what at which point in the story), it held my interest until the end and made me think that I might be interested in trying something else by this author.  And so a few months later I downloaded Until It's Over, which tells the story of Astrid, a bike courier in London who becomes involved in first a bike accident, then three murders.  She is considered a suspect until the end of the sixth part in the audiobook's ten parts.  Once the murderer is revealed, the rest of the book tells his or her story leading up to the murders.  I tried to listen to the rest, but this part was just not that interesting.  I guess this character and storyline, starting back when he or she was in gradeschool, failed to hold my attention, so I deleted the audiobook without finishing it.  I wondered if that was wrong, but knew I was done with this story, so I just did it!  I don't know whether I would like to actually read books by Nicci French, but perhaps I should give it a try, as I may have an easier time following the stories on the printed page.

That's it for tonight.  I want to leave you with a quotation (well, a paraphrased quote from memory) from another audiobook I finished awhile ago, The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn.  The setting is a nursing home in London, and a man is visiting his mother there.  For many of the staff at this home, English is not their first language, and the mother is complaining about this.  She illustrates her concerns by telling her son about a situation where she is trying to explain to a staff person that she likes her tea weak.  The staff person doesn't understand right away, but then seems to have an "A-ha" moment and she responds to her client, "Ah, week, week, not every day!", and the mother says to her son, "I haven't had a cup of tea since!" I don't know why I remember this particular scene in an otherwise unmemorable, but still enjoyable and well-written, book, but it makes me chuckle whenever I think of it. 

Bye for now!