Sunday 30 December 2012

Last post for 2012

This week has been a better reading week for me than last week, and so I want to write about the book I finished yesterday.  I also want to give you my Top 10 (+1) Reads of 2012.

I just finished reading White Heat by M J McGrath, a novel of mystery set in the far north of Canada, on Ellesmere Island, and Greenland.  Edie Kiglatuk is a teacher and hunting guide in Nunavut, where she has given up drink and wants her stepson, Joe, to complete his nursing training so he can have a good life in the community where he grew up.  When one of the men on her latest hunting expedition is shot, the event is dismissed as an accident, although Edie is not happy with that conclusion.  When, some time later, the other man from that first expedition goes missing, she begins to suspect that there is a connection, and that this is a situation that is much bigger than a couple of small-time hunting expeditions gone wrong.  She proceeds to conduct her own investigation into the matter, with surprising results.  This novel has been compared to Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and I can certainly see the similarities.  Hoeg’s book takes place in I think Norway, and Smilla is a descendent of the natives of Greenland.  Edie is also half-Inuit and half “qalunaat” (white), and of course the setting is similar to Hoeg’s book.  Both Smilla and Edie are amazing in their resourcefulness and insight, and they are determined to uncover the truth no matter how much or in what ways their investigations are blocked by various parties.  Smilla’s story is much “sexier” and the characters perhaps more likeable, but Edie and her group are more believable, at least to this reader.  I also felt that I learned something about the Inuit culture and a bit of their history, including the shameful ways that they have been treated by the Canadian government and have been dismissed as “you people”.  I found it compelling and well-written, and I guess this is the author’s first work of fiction.  There was also a recommendation on the back of the book from an author, Liz Jensen, who wrote The Rapture, an eco-crisis novel which I loved.  Having read McGrath’s novel, I want to read Jensen’s and Hoeg’s novels again!  Alas, I have no time for that right now.

I’m also listening to Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman.  It tells the story of a man and his wife and their son in a small town.  The man seems too good to be true, so when he is arrested for the rape and murder of a girl in another town fifteen years earlier, their lives, and the whole town, are shattered.  I’m not that far into it, and I have to say, I’m not loving it, but I will stick with it because it’s an interesting story.  What I don’t really like is Hoffman’s writing style.  There is too much “back story” to every encounter.  For example, when Jory’s best friend, Charlotte, meets Barney, a local successful attorney, in the street, they can’t just have a conversation.  Hoffman provides a whole history to their relationship, from his high school crush on her, and his now-successful career, his happiness and her failing marriage.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is so much of it that I as the listener begin to lose track of the actual encounter.  I no longer remember that they are meeting in the street outside Jory’s house, and that the story is really about her.  But I’m having a hard time finding a good audio book, so I will listen to this one to the end.

Now I have a list of my Top 10 (+1) Reads of 2012 (in chronological reading order):

Bel Canto Ann Patchett (book club selection)
Before I Go To Sleep S J Watson
State of Wonder Ann Patchett
*The Lightning Field Heather Jessup (“required reading” box)
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time Mark Haddon (book club selection)
*Before the Poison Peter Robinson
Detour Gerbrand Bakker
*The Large Harmonium Sue Sorensen (“required reading” box)
*The Town That Drowned Riel Nason (“required reading” box)
*Our Daily Bread Lauren Davis (“required reading” box)
*Tell It To the Trees Anita Rau Badami (“required reading” box)
(* - Canadian)

And I have a special request to anyone who reads my blog.  I’ve been writing for nearly 2 years, giving my thoughts on books that I’ve read (and books I haven’t read!), audio books I’ve listened to, and other book-related news and events.  I thought it would be a good idea to get some book recommendations from you, as I am going to have much more reading time in the immediate future and would love to know what you think I would enjoy reading.  Your comments don’t need to be published if you would prefer that - they go first to my inbox, so you can indicate if you do not wish them to be published.  I look forward to hearing from you and reading your recommendations.

Happy New Year!!

Bye for now!

Sunday 23 December 2012

Mmm... tea and book talk...

It’s been a rather disappointing reading week for me, so I’m not really excited about writing this post.  At least I’ve got my cup of tea beside me to cheer me up.

I finished reading Stray Love last week.  This novel by Canadian writer Kyo Maclear tells the story of Marcel, a man approaching his fiftieth birthday, as he looks back over his life.  He was a “stray”, growing up with Oliver, a foreign correspondent who is not his real father, never knowing who his mother was, sometimes the only “beige” boy at school, moving from London to Saigon and back, sometimes living with the neighbour, Pippa, and her sister, sometimes living with Mrs. Bouwn, Oliver’s “Blitz” mother (his own parents died during the war), in love with Kiyomi, his childhood friend and soul mate.  As he cares for Kiyomi’s daughter, Iris, for a few weeks while Kiyomi tends to her ailing mother, these memories all rush back to Marcel, although this reader suspects he’s never really moved past these memories of “what could have been”.  While it was beautifully written and heartbreakingly sad, I found that this novel was just a bit too emotional, that every sentence was imbued with sadness and meaning, almost too heavy to read.  One can understand that, if this was the kind of childhood Marcel had, it’s no wonder the adult Marcel has never been able to move on.  It's not even as if Marcel is yearning for "what could have been" - it's as if he's never known what that option was.  I have never read anything else by this author, who has written a previous novel and has recently won an award for a children’s non-fiction title, Virginia Woolf, but she clearly has skill and talent as a writer, and I believe that she was drawing on her own childhood experiences for this novel as the daughter of a foreign correspondent.  It really was a “good” novel, well-written, emotional, sensitive, multilayered;  I guess it was just not my style, non-linear and too emotional.  Or maybe it wasn’t the right time for me to read it, having recently read The Cat by Edeet Ravel, another emotionally-charged Canadian novel. It also reminded me a lot of Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, in that it dealt with mixed-race individuals in Europe in recent history, the 1960s (Stray Love) and WWII (Half-Blood Blues).  The main characters in Maclear’s novel are a writer, Oliver, and an artist, Marcel, while Edugyan’s novel features jazz musicians.  The authors are both Canadian women writing from the points of views of (sometimes elderly) male characters.  I probably wrote a post about Half-Blood Blues, which I read in the spring of this year for my “friends” book group, and if I did, I probably noted that this novel did not “grab” me, but that I was glad I had a reason to read it.  I feel the same way about Stray Love.  I’m glad I had a reason to finish reading it (it was one of the titles from my “required reading” box), and I really want to love it… maybe I will read it again at a different time in my life and will think it was fabulous.  Would I recommend it?  Well, I already have recommended it to a friend who loved Half-Blood Blues.  I think I would recommend it to others, but I would warn them that it may be a bit slow, and the story shifts from past to present, often offering stories that seem to be randomly plucked from the characters’ lives.

I picked up a copy of Virgin Suicides from work and started reading it last week.  This novel by Jeffrey Eugenides was written in the early 1990s and tells the story of the suicides of five sisters over the course of a year, told from the point of view of the neighbourhood boys.  These girls, the Lisbon sisters, are elusive and mysterious, and the boys who watch them are obsessed by this elusiveness and their unattainability.  While I feel that I should read something by this Pulitzer Prize-winning American author (The Marriage Plot, I think), I’m really having a hard time getting into it.  So far the novel has consisted of nothing but the yearning and angst of the narrator and his friends over the death of the youngest daughter, Cecilia.  It’s probably a good novel, too, but I think it’s not the type of book that would suit my reading mood right now, so, because I can, I will put it aside and take up something else.

And I’ve been having a hard time choosing an audiobook, too.  Circle of Friends was a delightful listening experience, and I’ve had challenges following it up with something else.  I’ve listened to Murder on the Orient Express (good old reliable Agatha Christie) this past week, but am now at a loss.  I’ve downloaded a few titles and have tried to listen to something by Mary Higgins Clark (not my style) and Anne Perry (still not sure, but I think I will not finish it).  I have also downloaded some books by Alice Hoffman, a writer I have never read and don’t actually think I will like, but I’m willing to give it a try as an audio book.  Maybe I will try Blue Diary, a novel about which I know nothing.

That’s all for today.

Bye for now!

Sunday 16 December 2012

Mugs and book talk...

I have a couple of small things I would like to mention today, and then I want to talk about our recent book club discussion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Last Sunday we went downtown to the Chriskindle Market, which we always enjoy.  I’ve been on the lookout for some new mugs, and we found a lovely set at a place that is new to the downtown core, but it used to be in St. Jacob’s, Entertaining Elements.  I love my new mugs, which are a cream colour with what looks like cinnamon swirls in the ceramic.  I use these mugs for regular tea or soup, but for my special Masala Chai on Sunday mornings, only my handmade pottery mug from St Jacob’s will do - I actually think my tea tastes better from that mug on a Sunday morning!  (maybe that’s because I associate it with writing my blog post).

I’ve nearly finished listening to Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy.  I remember reading this book years ago, the first book I’d ever read by this author, who recently passed away.  It tells the story of Benny and Eve, two girls who become friends in the small town of Knockglen, outside of Dublin, in the 1950s.  The novel follows them as they move from schoolgirl friendship to university, and relates the changing relationships they have with various townspeople and their new friends and relationships in Dublin.  It is a lovely story that explores what true friendship really means, and how friends remain loyal despite outside influences.  I have about 15 minutes of listening time left, and am a bit sad to be reaching the end of the audio book.  I like reading Binchy’s books periodically, as they are “gentle” books.  They are not really gritty, and while they may offer  situations or characters that are not necessarily pleasant (in Tara Road, the main character’s husband is having an affair and leaves her and the children, in Circle of Friends, Nan’s father is a verbally, and sometimes physically, abusive alcoholic man), there are no graphic details presented to the reader, nor does the author dwell on these situations.  Rather, they are just part of the fabric of the story, along with the usually female main characters who develop unlikely friendships and grow stronger as the story progresses.  I would recommend her books as a welcome change from heavier novels that may be grittier or more psychological.

We met on Thursday evening to discuss One Hundred Years of Solitude,  If you recall, I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I was not going to read this novel, having tried to read it once before, and again when it was chosen for the group.  I just don’t enjoy reading magic realism.  Well, I was relieved to learn at the meeting that no one had finished reading the book, and that those who made it to the meeting did not really enjoy what they had read thus far.  They had issues with the names of characters and keeping them straight (too many sons with the same name as their fathers).  They also had trouble figuring out where the story was taking place, and during what time period (they thought it might be taking place at the beginning of time, and yet lawyers in top hats also turn up at one point, suggesting the 15th century or later).  The one member who hadn’t finished the book but was actually enjoying it was unable to make it to the meeting, which was unfortunate.  The other members decided that they were going to plug away at the novel and finish it, because it was a classic literary masterpiece and the author was a Nobel Prize winner.  I felt no such personal inclination.  If anyone asks about classic literature, I can say with confidence that I may not have read One Hundred Years but I have read Crime and Punishment, and not because I had to - it was a choice!  This brings to mind that list I wrote about in one of my very early posts, a list presented in a novel by Milan Kundera of books that you feel you should read, books that you have heard so much about that you feel as if you have read it, books that you read so long ago you feel they should be reread, etc.  Well, this was a book that I thought I should try to read and get through, but having given it a try twice, I think I can safely stroke it off my list of “Books I feel I should read”.  After all, as an adult, I can make these choices and spend time reading books I really enjoy or want to read.

I’m about halfway through a Canadian novel right now, Stray Love by Kyo Maclear.  I’ll write more about this book next week once I’ve finished reading it.

And that's all for today…

Bye for now!

Sunday 9 December 2012

Very short post...

This will be a very short post, as I'm feeling under-the-weather this morning, but thought I should try to write something for this week.

In my haste last week to write about the similarities between Tell It To The Trees and Fall On Your Knees, I completely forgot to tell you about my book club discussion last weekend.  We discussed Alistair MacLeod's To Every Thing There is a Season, a very short story about a boy's Christmas in Cape Breton in I think the 1930s.  When I chose it as a book club selection, I didn't realize that it was a short story, probably less than 20 small pages of text.  When I took my copy out of the library, I wondered if there would be enough for us to discuss, but I must say, it was one of the best discussions we've had.  This short story tells of a young boy's move from childhood to adulthood during the Christmas season.  He no longer believes in Santa Claus, but he tries to hang onto some aspects of his childhood beliefs.  His brother comes home shortly before Christmas, and they go off to church together through the snowy wood.  When they come home, he is invited to join the adults in a room where his brother's boxes of "clothes" are unpacked and revealed to contain gifts, some labelled "From Santa".  The boy realizes that he will never again receive a gift with this label, that he must let go of some aspects of his childhood and accept the loss of innocence that is inevitable.  His father reassures him by telling him that some things pass, but that good things are left in their place.  It was a lovely story which touched me on several levels.  It brought to mind the innocence of childhood, and I wondered if it is human nature to idealize childhood.  After all, this story was written 40 years later, and the author was recollecting the experience.  Perhaps the boy at the time did not think the open-carriage drive through the snowy wood was so wonderful, perhaps he was cold and tired, maybe even cranky and impatient for the morning to arrive, when he could open his gifts.  We discussed this at the meeting, along with the shift the holiday season has undergone over the years, and the commercialism of it now.  There seems to be less appreciation for simply getting together and enjoying the company of family members now, and the holidays these days seem to run to excess.  We talked about the beautiful illustrations in the small book, and how they really captured the essence of the story.  We also talked about the detailed descriptions of the animals, how these descriptions were as significant to the story as any other part, and how animals at that time were a source of warmth, both physically and symbolically.  In short, we loved it, and we had a wonderful discussion about the holiday season, childhood memories, and loss of innocence.

I had a struggle coming up with a book to read last week, so I took The Sculptress by Minette Walters off my shelf to reread.  It tells the story of a writer, Roz, who is interviewing Olive Martin, a woman in prison for  murdering her mother and sister, with the intention of writing a book about her.  I've read it before and actually found sticky notes inside the cover with discussion notes on it, which reminded me that I once discussed this novel with my very first book group, a group of friends who used to get together once a month.  I'd completely forgotten about that.  Anyway, I still think Walters is a brilliant writer of psychological mysteries, but I'm rather disappointed to see that Roz, the author in the book, is much like the main character in The Scold's Bridle, who is a doctor.  Both characters are weak females who allow themselves to be in relationships with fairly abusive, or at least controlling, males, who seem to cause these characters to go "weak in the knees".  I've never noticed that before, and I'm finding it quite disturbing.  I wonder why Walters felt the need to portray women in such a naive, vulnerable way, and not just once, but in at least two of her novels.  Now I recently listened to The Dark Room and I don't remember her using this type of character in that novel; Jinx, the main character, is fairly strong and seems to know her own mind.  Well, however Roz behaves in the rest of the novel, I will finish reading it, as it is well-written, and I've forgotten what the outcome of the story is, since it's been many years since my last reading.

That's all for today.

Bye for now!

Sunday 2 December 2012

Rainy December day...

On this bleak, gray December morning, I’m sitting with my cup of chai, feeling less-than-energetic as the rain pours down outside.  Since this is a perfect day for reading, I’m trying to decide what to read next, as I just finished a book last night and have the whole day of reading opportunity ahead of me.  Hmmm... it may help to think about what I’ve just read.

I mentioned last post that I was reading Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami.  Well, I finished that novel very quickly, as it was so compelling.  It tells the story of an inter-generational family from India who are living in northern B.C.  The body of a woman is found on the road at the beginning of the novel, and the reader is drawn into the domestic story of this secretive, dysfunctional family.  The novel is told from alternating points of view.  Varsha is the 13-year-old daughter of the father, Vikram, and the first wife, Helen, who died in a car accident as she was making her escape from the family.  Suman is the second wife and mother of Hemant, the younger son and Varsha’s brother.  Other characters that comprise this household are Akka, Vikram’s invalid mother and Anu, the Canadian-raised Indian woman who is renting the backhouse for the year.  This novel was so compelling for me that I finished it in just a few days (I would have finished it in one sitting if I hadn’t had to fit my reading time around the rest of my life!).  This was the same reading excitement I remember feeling when, so many years ago, I read Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees for the first time.  I read that 600+ page novel in just three days, even while working and living.  I remember walking to work and back on the streets of Toronto and reading while I was walking, it was that good!  I actually found many similarities between Fall On Your Knees and Tell It To The Trees.  Daughter Varsha reminds me of Mercedes, with her overprotective ways and motherly attitude towards her younger brother, and her antagonistic behaviour towards her abusive father, whom she nevertheless loves in that conflicting way that is common to young children of abusive parents.  Then there is Hemant, the frail younger brother who resembles Lily in MacDonald’s novel.  Both are weak figures who are made weaker by their overbearing, overprotective older sisters and treated as possessions rather than siblings.  This again is probably common siblings, but is intensified in abusive situations, making it increasingly damaging to both parties.  There is a real sense of isolation in both Canadian novels, although MacDonald’s novel takes place on the East coast in the 1930s and Badami’s is set on the West coast in the 1980s.  The haunting scenes of Anu at the window for Hemant towards the end of Trees is reminiscent of Old Pete (I think that’s his name), the scarecrow that haunts Lily’s dreams in MacDonald’s novel.  And Other Lily is like the lost little brother in Trees, who are nearly as present as characters in the novels as if they were both actual living, breathing characters.  The abuse is present in both novels, suspected in the communities but not spoken of, and the honour of the families is placed above the safety of the wives and children.  In both novels, you know something really bad is going to happen, but you feel compelled to keep reading.  I read a review of Trees which criticized the novel for having “no mystery”, but in my opinion, that is the best, or at least most interesting, part about this novel, that you know it’s going to end badly but you keep reading because you must, you can’t put it down.  While I am comparing it to MacDonald’s novel, I must say it is much shorter and less complex, which is not meant to be a criticism.  While Fall On Your Knees was an amazing literary achievement and a wonderful, horrible, fascinating book, it was so complex and lengthy that it was sometimes difficult to keep track of all the characters and events.  Trees, on the other hand, is more compact, but still extremely interesting, and perhaps less daunting to first-time readers.  A last similarity I wanted to point out before I move on is the use of the description, “making sounds like a puppy”, which is used by both of these authors.  I don’t recall ever hearing that exact description used in another novel, although I’m sure it has been.  I guess when I came across that phrase in Trees, it brought to mind Knees and I started seeing the similarities between the two novels.  Anyway, I would highly recommend this excellent novel.  And now I feel like I should Read MacDonald’s novel again.  Hmmm...

I also read The Cat, by Edeet Ravel, another Canadian novelist, but one with whom I am not familiar.  This short novel tells the story of a woman who loses her 11-year old son in an accident, and her move from grief to acceptance.  The reader really feels like she gets inside the head of the main character, Elise, as she deals with this tragic even in her life and struggles to find a way to cope.  It is heart-wrenchingly sad, and I don’t know if I would recommend it without that caveat.  I certainly went through plenty of tissues while I read it.  Well-written, but heartbreaking.

And I finished listening to The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.  It was a good story, which would probably have been more interesting if I knew more about the history of Ireland, but interesting nonetheless.  It is told in alternating narratives, “Roseanne’s Testament of Herself” and “Dr. Grene’s Commonplace Book” (I think that was how each section was announced).  The novel recalls the life of long-time patient of a mental hospital, Roseanne McNulty.   Dr. Grene is particularly interested in Roseanne’s story, as her own account conflicts with the documentation he receives from the hospital where she was originally housed as he is trying to assess her case.  His obsession with this patient, and her unwillingness to recount her history, form the basis for this novel.  The narrator used two very different accents when narrating each section, which this listener appreciated, as she gave real life to the characters.  I’m not sure how I felt about the ending of the novel, and I’m not sure if I would enjoy reading this or other books by Barry, but I definitely enjoyed listening to it.  And it was so different from the types of books I usually choose to listen to.  It really was all about language and character, not about plot at all.  The descriptions were often lengthy and the language sometimes excessive, but these were absolutely necessary to the story – this novel couldn’t have worked any other way.  So would I recommend it?  Well, as an audiobook, sure, give it a try.  It’s worth it just t to hear the narrator speak in Roseanne’s Irish brogue.
That’s all for today.  I will go a peruse my bookshelves to find something to read on this rainy day.
Bye for now!

Sunday 25 November 2012

Tea and book talk on a Sunday morning...

On this last Sunday in November, I'm sitting with my cup of chai tea, thinking about what I've been reading and listening to over the past week.

Last week, I wrote about a book by Canadian author Vicki Delany, More than Sorrow, which I had happened upon by chance and had just started reading.  I was really enthusiastic about this book, as it seemed to grab me right from the beginning.  To recap, it tells the story of Hannah, a foreign correspondent who had received a head injury in Afghanistan and is convalescing at her sister’s organic farm in Prince Edward County.  She befriends an Afghan woman, Hila, who lives with the retired couple down the road.  This woman disappears and, because Hannah has been blacking out in the root cellar of the farm and is unable to recall long stretches of time, she is a suspect in the disappearance.  The author also weaves in scenes from the original settlers to the area, and parallels the plight of women throughout history, from the 1800s to modern day.  While I’ll admit it was no great literary piece, it kept me engaged until the last page.  She did an excellent job of creating a gothic atmosphere for both the modern-day and the historical stories.  While it may have been a bit predictable and the parallels too heavy-handed, I would say this book was a real treat for me to read, especially since it was a title I knew nothing about.  Some of the historical parts of the novel reminded me of Property by Valerie Martin, a novel about a female slave owner and her treatment of her slave, Sarah, in the American South in 1828.  While this Orange-prize-winning novel is much better-written, something about Sorrow brought to mind this other novel, which I read more than a year ago.  If you like contemporary gothic novels (but not ones so heavy-handed as Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale), then I would recommend this one.

I’ve now started another Canadian novel, Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami.  I didn’t happen upon this title by chance, but have been meaning to read it for quite some time.  It tells the story of an inter-generational family from India who are living in northern British Columbia.  The body of a woman is found at the beginning of the novel, and the reader is drawn into the domestic stories of Varsha, the 13-year old daughter, and Suman, the second wife of Vikram, father of Varsha and Hemant, Suman’s son.  There is also Akka, Vikram’s elderly mother and Anu, the recently-arrived tenant at the house.  There is definitely an eerie sense about this novel from the very beginning, and the reader wonders if the mysterious death of the woman on the road, Anu, is somehow related to the mysterious death of Varsha’s mother, Helen, which occurred as she was running away from her husband and child.  So much mystery surrounds this family’s story, and there is a strong undercurrent of domestic violence and abuse, that it is both creepy to read and yet entirely compelling.  I just stared reading it on Friday evening, and can’t wait to get reading again today.  Badami is an author with whom I am familiar, as I have read s couple of her earlier novels, Tamarind Mem (which I loved) and Hero’s Walk (which I hardly recall).  I have also seen her read and speak when she was promoting another of her novels, Can You Hear the Nightbird Calling?, which I have but have not yet read.  Trees is, in my opinion, a fabulous read, totally engaging, and extremely well-written, a very accessible novel about a difficult subject.  Just thinking about it now, it is a bit like Our Daily Bread by Lauren Davis in this way, because that novel, too, tackles a difficult subject in a very accessible, readable way.  I highly recommend this title.

And I’m listening to The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.  This novel is set in Ireland in about 2003 and recalls the life of long-time patient of a mental hospital, Roseanne McNulty.  The novel is told from Roseanne’s perspective as she writes an account of herself, and the notes of her doctor, Dr. Grene, as he must set about assessing his patients to determine whether they can be released in to society, since soon the current hospital will be closed and the patients and staff moved to a new facility.  Dr. Grene is particularly interested in Roseanne’s story, as her own account conflicts with the documentation he receives from the hospital where she was originally housed.  His obsession with this patient, and her inability to recount her history (understandable as she approaches her hundredth year), form the basis for this novel, set against Ireland’s turbulent history.  This author has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize twice, and this novel is set in the County Sligo, the setting for some of his previous novels.  I have never read him, but I am finding this audio book entirely engaging, and can’t wait to continue listening.  The narrator is excellent as well, which makes this a wonderful (but not in an uplifting way!) listening experience.

That's all for today.

Bye for now!

Thursday 15 November 2012

Canadian, Canadian, Canadian...

I’m writing this blog post earlier than usual, as I have friends coming to visit on Sunday and so will not have time to write on Sunday morning, which is my usual time.  I will, however, make time that morning to enjoy a steaming cup of chai as I complete the few tasks I have to do before my guests arrive.  For now, I have a cup of herbal tea by my side while I write about three Canadian fiction selections I’ve finished, started, or am listening to.

The first title I want to write about is The Accident by Linwood Barclay.  I’m listening to this title as an audiobook, and it is very engaging.  It begins with the suspicious death of a woman who may have been involved in the illegal sale of counterfeit items in her small town.  While the local police blame the woman for the accident that killed her, along with a father and son in an oncoming car, her husband, Glen Garber, can’t believe that she is at fault, and begins to dig further into the circumstances surrounding the accident.  What he uncovers is a complex web of activity under the calm surface of the town he calls home.  Told in alternating first-person and third-person narratives, this novel is action-packed and fast-paced, as the reader (or listener) faces plot twists and turns on every page.  I am thankful for this alternating narration, as I find the personality of Garber, first-person narrator, to be a bit sanctimonious at times (the audiobook's narrator's fault perhaps?) but this is balanced by the other omniscient narration.  I just realized that this book has been nominated for the 2012 OLA Evergreen Award, an award that recognizes adult Canadian fiction or non-fiction titles.  Linwood is the author of more than a dozen mystery-thrillers, and I always enjoy listening to his books on audio, as they hold my interest to the very last page every time.  I’m nearly done this novel, but have two more downloaded and ready to go when I finish.

The next title I want to tell you about is Beach Strip by John Lawrence Reynolds, another Canadian author who lives in Burlington, Ontario.  This novel is on my “required reading” list, and is a mystery set on the beach strip in Hamilton.  The main character, Josie Marshall, can’t believe that her cop husband Gabe shot himself after she failed to meet him for a rendezvous on the beach.  Everyone seems ready to dismiss this as a suicide, and even Josie is beginning to lean towards that conclusion until another death, also dismissed as suicide, occurs on the beach strip literally at Josie’s feet.  She sees too many coincidences and unexplained circumstances, and undertakes her own investigation into these deaths to ultimately find the truth that lies just out of reach.  This sassy, not-always-likeable, but very human main character is smart yet vulnerable, and the novel is written convincingly from a female perspective by this male author.  I guess it’s been a number of years since this author has written mystery fiction, and his return to the genre, in my opinion, is a success.

And the final title I have to talk about is More than Sorrow by Vicki Delany.   This book was just published in September, and is a gothic mystery set in Prince Edward County, Ontario.  The main character is Hannah Manning, a former foreign correspondent who suffered a traumatic brain injury while in Afghanistan.  She is convalescing on her sister’s organic farm and stumbles upon some documents from the original Loyalist settlers in the attic.  She also befriends Hila, the Afghan woman who is staying with the retired couple who live in the farmhouse down the road.  While I’m not quite a third of the way into the book, I’m totally drawn into the interconnected stories of Hannah’s recovery, Hila’s past, and the visions Hannah has while in the root cellar of her sister’s farm.  This author, originally from Winnipeg, had a past life as a computer programmer before she began writing full-time.  I believe she is the author of a cozy mystery series set in a fictional town in British Columbia, the “Constable Molly Smith” series.  This novel is a stand-alone, and definitely has me hooked, as it offers a bit on women’s rights, a bit on local history, a bit on self-discovery, a bit on environmental consciousness, a bit on motherhood, and a whole lot in between.  I’ll tell you more when I finish (which I suspect will be soon!).  I’m going to recommend this title for my Committee to consider as well, since I think it’s as good as just about anything else I’ve read so far.

That’s all for today.  As I promised, Canadian, Canadian, and more Canadian…

Bye for now!

Sunday 11 November 2012

Post on Remembrance Day...

It is a bright, sunny, mild November day as we remember those who have served in the armed forces since World War I.  I thought it appropriate, then, to write about some books I’ve read set in WWI, WWII, or books where war is a significant component.

The first book I think of when I think of “war fiction” is, of course, The Wars by Timothy Findley.  This Governor General’s Award-winning title tells the story of a young Canadian soldier in WWI, and while it has been many years since I’ve read it, I remember it being one of the most moving and heartbreaking novels ever.

Another novel about Canadians during the first World War is Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road.  This novel tells the story of two Cree boys and their experiences fighting on the battlefields of France and Belgium.  This novel is told through the narration of the grandmother of one of the boys, one of the last in a line of healers in the family.  This moving novel would appeal to both male and female readers.

A novel I often forget about when thinking of “war fiction” is Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut.  The main character of this satirical novel is Billy Pilgrim, a young man fighting in WWII who, while being held as a prisoner in Dresden, becomes unstuck in time and experiences his life in a non-linear fashion, jumping from present to future to past, and back again.  Once again, it has been many years since I’ve read this novel, but it is a classic that deserves to be reread.

I recalled another novel I read years ago by Pat Barker, Regeneration, the first in a trilogy of novels, that deals with the history of psychology and the treatment of shell shock for British soldiers during WWI.  This novel was nominated for the Book Prize in 1991.  The other two books in the trilogy are The Eye in the Door  and  The Ghost Road (which won the Booker Prize in 1995).  I have the trilogy on my bookshelf, but have only ever read the first novel - perhaps I should read the other two.

Of course, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron must be included in this list.  This novel tells the moving story of Sophie, a woman who arrives in New York after WWII, during which time she was held in a concentration camp after the Nazis invaded Poland.  Her involvement with manic lover Nathan, and the aspiring writer who lives across the hall, and the choice she had to make upon entering the camp, form the basis of the novel.  We read this novel for my book group in September 2009, and then watched the movie starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.  Both book and film are, in my opinion, brilliant and heartbreaking.

For my new book group, we read Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.  I’m sure I wrote about this novel in a post sometime in May of this year, but just to recap, this novel tells the story of a group of jazz musicians in Europe during WWII, some of the members German but black, some American and black, and the racial problems they face during this turbulent period in history.  I’m sure that, even if you haven’t read the novel, everyone is familiar with the title and premise, as this novel has garnered many prestigious award wins and nominations since its publication in 2011.

Of course, there are a couple of non-fiction titles that deal with the war experience that I must mention.  The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is another heartbreaking read.  I remember reading it for the first time just before I went to Amsterdam, where I went to the Anne Frank Museum and walked through the door that led upstairs to the room where her family was hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.  I recall how impressed I was by the writing skill exhibited by one so young, especially in her own personal diary, which was never intended for publication.  She was not writing for an audience, yet what style her writing showed.

And Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is another title that must be mentioned here.  This book relates the author’s experiences during his internment in a concentration camp in WWII and his psychotherapeutic methods of finding a reason to live, despite the hopelessness of the situation and the devastating loss experienced during that time.  Once again, it is a book that deserves to be reread.

There are other books that I have read, and some that I plan to read, that deal with the war experience or the aftermath of war on individuals, which I will list here:
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason (experiences of a Vietnam vet and the effects of Agent Orange)
Smoky Joe’s Café by Bryce Courtenay (Australian novel about the effects of Agent Orange on a Vietnam vet)
Angels in the Gloom by Anne Perry (part of her “World War I” trilogy)
Hart's War by John Katzenbach (experiences of an American POW as he tries to defend an African American soldier accused of murder - on my list to read)
Thin Red Line by James Jones (about the battle between American and Japanese troops on the island of Guadalcanal - on my list to read)

So many books about war, and yet the wars still go on.

Lest we forget…

Bye for now

Sunday 4 November 2012

Reading notes on a Sunday morning…

On this Sunday morning I feel I’ve been granted an extra hour in my day thanks to Daylight Savings Time ending, and so have more time to enjoy my tea as I compose my post.

I finished reading The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda earlier this week, which was the book club selection for yesterday’s meeting.  This novel tells the story of two couples, one in India and one in America, and the tie that binds them, the daughter who is given up by one and adopted by the other.  It explores topics such as motherhood, cultural identity, poverty and affluence, joy and despair, and womanhood in different cultures.  It is a popular book club selection and the first novel by this Toronto-born author, and my ladies loved it.  They found the relationships of both couples to be realistically portrayed, and the characters to be very “human”, flawed but believable.  We discussed what it would be like to go to a different country and face the cultural challenges that are inevitable there.  We discussed what it means for a woman to miscarry, and how men can’t possibly understand the loss that is suffered, how there is no really acceptable method of grieving, but that grieving must be done or the loss never properly heals.  We also discussed the gender inequality in various countries around the world, and the problems these inequalities create or sustain.  All in all, it was an excellent discussion that covered a wide array of subject areas, and the book was definitely well received.  I met with a friend after the meeting and passed my copy of the book on to her - I hope she enjoys it!

I finished this book on Tuesday evening, and I knew I would get no reading done on Wednesday night, as it was Halloween, but I knew I would be faced with difficulty when choosing the next book to read.  The next book selection for my other book club is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  I started reading that on Wednesday evening, and found this attempt to be much like my last attempt to read this book.  I find this novel very challenging to read, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I’m not a fan of magic realism.  I prefer literary fiction, something realistic or believable.  I think I can define this style of writing as such:  Magic realism folds magical elements into everyday life and expects the reader to suspend their sense of disbelief and accept these magical elements as true.  I have a hard time doing this, and so I’ve decided not to read this book.  I will still go to the meeting, though, as I am interested in hearing what others have to say about their experiences reading this novel.  Maybe I will try to read something else by this author instead, so at least I’ve made some sort of effort for this group.

Then I got notification from the library that a couple of books I had requested had come in,  Stray Bullets by Robert Rotenberg and Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding.  I picked them up on Thursday evening, and started reading the Rotenberg novel that night.  If you recall, I wrote about his previous titles, Old City Hall and Guilty Plea, in earlier posts, and raved about them.  The characters in those novels were interesting and varied, the plots were complex and engaging, and the city of Toronto was so vividly described that it was almost as important a character in the novel as anyone else involved in the plot.  I think one reviewer said, of Old City Hall, “Rotenberg does for Toronto what Ian Rankin does for Edinburgh”.  I was quite excited to start this book, as it is a new plot but features many of the same characters as his earlier novels.  But somehow it didn’t grab me.  It must be the timing, or something to do with my reading mood, but I just couldn’t get past the first few pages with any enthusiasm.  That’s unfortunate, but I’m sure there will be a better time to read this book soon.  So then I read the back of the Harding novel, which I don’t recall requesting but must have done so.  The reviews suggest that this novel will appeal to fans of Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje, and I knew before I even opened the book that this would not suit my mood at that moment.  That, too, will go on the pile of items to be returned to the library.

So what is this frustrated reader to do?  I know I should read another title from my “required reading” box, but I just want to read something for fun, something I really want to read just because I like it, and it feels like I haven’t done that in a very long time.  While at work on Friday, I read an article by Ian McEwan entitled “Some Notes on the Novella” (  In this online article, McEwan talks about the value of the novella, and the unfair dismissal of this form of prose fiction by critics.  He mentions his latest novel, Sweet Tooth, in this article, and at that moment I knew what I would read next.  I love the way McEwan writes, the way he uses every word so carefully and expresses every thought so succinctly, with no unnecessary description or superfluous language.  I haven’t read many novellas, but I think that they might appeal to me, as I prefer short novels that say a lot over long novels that describe everything in great detail.  I want novels that take a brief period in a character’s life and describe how something that happens to that character changes his or her life irrevocably.  A bit about Sweet Tooth... I started reading this title a while ago, but put it away because I had other books I had to read for one reason or another.  The novel tells the story of a woman who is recruited by MI 5 in 1972 to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer in order to allow the British Intelligence Service to fund writers whose politics align with those of the government.  At first she reports on the writer, then she falls in love with him.  How long can she conceal her undercover life from the man she loves?  I hope to find out soon!  I’m thankful for that serendipitous reading of the article for helping me select my next book, and will write about my reading experience in my next post.

Another problem I have today is selecting another audio book to listen to.  I finished listening to The Dark Room by Minette Walters on Saturday, which was excellent, and need something else to entertain me while I am walking or taking the bus over the next few weeks.  I will be checking what is available to download through the library’s online catalog today, and will hopefully stumble upon a “hidden gem”, or at least something that can hold my interest until the end.

That’s all for today.

Bye for now!

Sunday 28 October 2012

Audio books, book club meetings, and more...

This week has been less reading-intense than last week, but I have an audio book and a book discussion to tell you about.

You may remember I mentioned an audio book I had started a while ago called My Revolutions by Hari Kunzra.  It tells the story of a man called Michael Frame who, as a young man, was involved in subversive activities as Chris Carter, his true identity.  More than 20 years later, some individuals from his past reappear in his current life and threaten to reveal his true identity and past activities, and Michael must make some choices regarding his future and his past.  It sounded like a really interesting story, and I downloaded it.  Once I started listening to it, however, I found it difficult to follow the story as an audio book, as it shifted around from past to present, and from different times in the past.  With a physical book, the reader can usually keep track of these shifts because the page may have breaks or spacing to indicate these shifts.  Also, the book involved many slogans and headlines, given the political nature of the story, and  again, with a physical book, the reader can tell what these are by a change in text size, capitalization, etc.  These shifts and differing messages could only be conveyed to a certain extent by the narrator, who was really quite good.  But I often felt lost listening to this book and gave it up to listen to something else, probably an Agatha Christie mystery.  I ended up going back to My Revolutions and finishing it, as I figured I could get the gist of the story, which I did.  But, while the story proved to be really interesting, it was a painful listening experience.  I would probably recommend this book but as a reading experience, not as a listening one.

I’ve now moved on to Minette Walters’ The Dark Room, which I’ve read a few times before and have listened to at least once.  I’m loving it!  I can listen to or read her books again and again because they are so complex and involved that at first reading I never catch all the details.  This novel tells the story of Jane “Jinks” Kingsley, a 34 year old woman who owns a photography studio in London.  She wakes up in a hospital and is told she tried to kill herself by driving her car into a concrete pillar while drunk after learning that her fiancee has called off the wedding and has run off to France with her best friend Meg.  She can’t remember anything of the weeks leading up to this supposed suicide attempt, but finds it hard to believe that she would have done such a thing over Leo, to whom she was engaged.  As she struggles to piece together what really happened, with the help of her doctor at the convalescent clinic, unsavoury details of her family life come to the surface and paint a very different picture of the girl than the reader is presented with at the beginning of the book.  I love Walters’ early novels, as she really delves into the psychological aspects of her characters, both the victims of the crimes and the (often alleged) perpetrators.  I just started this audio book a few days ago, and I’m nearly halfway through, as I look for opportunities to listen to it.  I highly recommend this title, but be prepared to be totally confused on first reading.

And my book group finally met on Thursday evening to discuss Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, a novel about a young woman who is summoned by a famous author to write her biography.  This novel, too, leads to the discovery of family secrets, along with a possibly haunted house, eccentric characters and shadowy figures.  I have read this book before and have discussed it with my other book group in the past, so it was not a new reading experience for me, but the other members had never read it before and they loved it!  They loved the atmosphere the author created, the sense of mystery surrounding everything, the characters and their own personal histories as revealed through the novel, the relationships that develop between characters, the shifting between past and present, among other things.  There were no criticisms of this book from anyone.  I think I wrote in a previous post that I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys gothic fiction, as it would definitely fit into that genre.  I don’t think most male readers would enjoy it, but if you like to read about swooning heroines, haunted houses, family secrets, and mysteries revealed, this title is for you.

I’m now reading The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, which is the book selection for next Saturday’s book club meeting.  This novel tells the story of a woman who gives her daughter away to an orphanage in India, and the couple who adopts her.  These two stories are intertwined as they follow the lives of the two couples over the years as their children grow up.  I was sure I had never read this popular book club selection before, but as I started it a few days ago, it was all very familiar to me.  I checked my list (I’ve written down the title of every book I’ve read since 1992), and could not find it listed anywhere.  I’m now past the halfway point, and the story has finally become unfamiliar, so I think what happened was that I started this novel but for some reason never finished it.  I think it will be a good discussion book for my group, as it deals with many different themes, such as a mother’s bond with her child, adoption, inter-cultural marriages, the bond a child has with her country of origin, relationships in general, a journalist’s responsibility to present the truth to his or her readers, even if it is unpleasant, and others.  I’m just over halfway through the book, and I’m enjoying it.  It reminds me a bit of Chai Tea Sunday, by Heather Clark, in that it is not brilliant writing, but it is a good, solid, straight-forward story told in a very readable way.  The Secret Daughter is in my opinion a more complex novel than Chai Tea Sunday but if  a reader came to me saying they liked one of these titles and could I recommend something similar, I would definitely encourage him or her to read the other.  I’ll see how I feel once I finish, and will let you know what my ladies thought of the book.

Time to finish my tea and get on with my day.

Bye for now!

Sunday 21 October 2012

Time for tea and book talk...

I think they’re calling for a lovely fall day today.  The sun is shining, there’s a nip in the air, and there’s no chance of rain in the forecast.  A good day for tea, a walk in the park, and a good book.

I’ve got a couple of books to talk about today, both of them from my “required reading” list.  The first is The Girl in the Box by Sheila Dalton.  It tells the story of a psychologist from Toronto, Jerry, who, during a visit to Guatemala to research the value of ethnotropic drugs in therapy, comes across a young Mayan woman, Inez, mute and possibly autistic, who is being kept in a box in the jungle by her family.  Her parents beg him to take her back to Canada, which he eventually does.  At some point during her stay with Jerry, who arranges therapy sessions for her to help overcome her trauma, she kills him and is sent away to a facility for the criminally insane.  Jerry’s long-time girlfriend, Caitlin, a journalist, is left to deal with the aftermath of this event, and she struggles to find out what really happened and why, in order to find a way to forgive Inez and move on.  This book grabbed me right from the beginning, and although it shifted between narrators and times, it was not overly difficult to follow.  I did find, by the end of the novel, that I was ready for it to be over, and was happy to reach the final page.  I felt that the first half of the book really set the stage for the mystery, and I wanted to read on the find out what happened next, or to find out what happened before, which lead to what was happening now.  The second half, however, lost that edge and droned on a bit, and I felt that the author mythologized (I think that’s the right word) Inez a bit too much.  I found myself gritting my teeth every time the author wrote about Inez’s radiance and inner spirituality, when she’d made that point many times before.  Having said that, it was definitely an interesting read, and I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, perhaps because it dealt more with Jerry and Caitlin, and other minor characters, and their relationships, as well as Inez, whereas the last half of the book focused mainly on Inez, and Caitlin’s search for the truth about the killing.  I’ve never read anything else by this author, who is from Newmarket, although I believe she has written other adult fiction.  I’m not sure I would recommend this to everyone as a great read, but it was definitely interesting and well-written, though not flawless.

The next book I’d like to talk about is Our Daily Bread by Lauren B Davis.  This novel, too, deals with abuse and violence, but in a very different way.  It tells the story of the folks in the small town of Gideon, and the way they handle the presence and activities of the Erskines, the clan that live up on the mountain.  There are many main characters and plots.  I can’t say that this book is just about Ivy and Dorothy, and the relationship that develops between the lost little girl and the widow.  Nor can I say that it is about Albert, the young Erskine man who wants to get away from the clan and leave the mountain behind, and Bobby, a town teen who needs someone to look up to, and the relationship that develops between these characters.  It is also not just about Tom Evans, a good-looking and upstanding town member whose restless partner runs off, leaving him to deal with the children and the town gossip.  No, it is about all of these things and much more.  It is about the town’s reluctance to acknowledge what is happening up on the mountain, to turn a blind eye to the abuse, neglect and illegal activities that everyone knows is happening but no one wants to deal with.  I don’t want to write too much about this novel, to avoid giving any more of the plot away.  I’ll just say that it kept me riveted to the last page.  Davis handled a difficult subject with grace and skill.  She described unpleasant situations with only as much detail as the reader needed to understand, never indulging in unnecessary description for shock value (not that she needed to, as the subject matter was shocking enough).  This novel was inspired by the true story of the Goler Clan living on a mountain in Nova Scotia in the 1970s.  It was both horrifying and compelling, but not for anyone looking for an uplifting read.  I feel that I can accurately sum up this novel using the words Davis penned to describe Ivy at one point in the novel:  it was “unutterably sad”.  I will definiely be checking out The Stubborn Season, another novel by this author.

Now I need to select something else to read.  I could tackle my next book club selection, The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, but I think it’s a bit too early for that - I’ll finish it too far in advance of our meeting.  Perhaps another novel from the list of “required reading”?  I have Everybody has Everything, by Katrina Onstad, from the library.  This book has recently been nominated for  the Giller prize, so I read a few pages last night before I went to bed.  I’m sensing that it will not be a book I “can’t put down”, but I will read a bit more before making a decision.  That’s the great thing about being an adult - unlike being a student, I don’t have to read anything I don’t want to read.  There will be no exams or essays, and except for my book groups, there are no expectations for me to read a certain book at a certain time.  The only problem with that situation is that there are so many good books to choose from that it is often difficult to make a decision.  It’s good to have some guidance regarding book choices sometimes.  But that’s for another post…

Bye for now!

Sunday 14 October 2012

All about series...

On this dreary, rainy Sunday morning (perfect for reading!), I want to talk about mystery series, and where you should start with them.

My book group met yesterday to discuss Anne Perry's Angels in the Gloom, which I didn't realize was the third book in a five-book series.  I often read mystery series, which generally do not rely heavily on the reader's knowledge of previous characters or events, and I think I mentioned in my last full post that I was hoping everything would become clear in the end, as this novel seemed to require the reading of the previous two novels to be understood fully.  In fact, as I think about it now, I wonder if this is less of a mystery series than a family saga revolving around the Reavley family, the parents and the adult children, and their involvement with the Peacemaker, during WWI.  My members, those who finished reading it, were confused by the characters and events in the novel, which makes sense now that I realize the situation of this novel in the series.  Well, they had other complaints as well, such as the heavy-handedness of the emotional elements, the foolishness of the murder and destruction of the prototype, and the unevenness of the writing.  Having said that, some of my members who have read her earlier books highly recommend them, especially the "Thomas Pitt" series and the "William Monk" series, which I believe are set in Victorian England.  I really enjoyed this book, although I, too, felt that the emotional elements, especially fear and sadness, were overwhelming at times.  I enjoy books about spies, but I also find them confusing, as they often involve double agents and government secrets as well, but they are usually explained well enough by the end for this reader to get the gist of the story.  I don't usually enjoy books set in WWII, and I almost never read anything set in WWI, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed this book.  I will definitely read the first two in the series to find out why and how the Peacemaker is involved in the war, and eventually the last two novels to find out who he is.  All this to say that I would not recommend starting with this book, as it relies too heavily on the reader's knowledge of previous events and characters.

What I found most interesting about Anne Perry, however, is her history.  I found out a few years ago that Perry's real name is Juliet Hulme, who along with her friend Pauline Parker, at age 15, killed Parker's mother during a walk in the park in Christchurch, New Zealand, because they did not want to be separated (Hulme was to move to South Africa to live with her mother while her parents were seeking a divorce).  I noted that, after a fairly negative discussion of the book thusfar, the mention of this information set the room buzzing.  As one member put it, "This puts a whole new spin on the murder (in the book)".  There is a film I saw a number of years ago about this murder called "Heavenly Creatures".  I've placed it on hold at the library as I would like to watch it again.  Some of my ladies knew about Perry's history, but most did not, and I found that they were suddenly interested in reading other books by her after I mentioned it, which is what I expected.

So back to mystery series... I'd like to talk about some other mystery series that I have read, and where to start reading them.  I'll start with my favourite series, Peter Robinson's "Inspector Banks" series.  I began reading this series about eight years ago, and my first book was In a Dry Season.  This was published in 1999 and is maybe the eighth book in the series that now has about 21 books.  At that time, there were maybe 12 books in the series, so it was not that old, but it was not an early book either.  I had no problem understanding or appreciating the main plot, as it was self-contained; only the main characters, the police team, were carried forth from previous novels, and understanding their previous relationships was not significant to the story.  I don't think I immediately went back to the beginning of the series, but read a few more of his titles before deciding to begin at the beginning.  I'm glad I did read them all in order, as I got the full story of Banks and his wife, children, other characters that appear sporadically throughout the series, etc.  But I believe that with this series, you can start anywhere and enjoy the book at hand.  In fact, I saw Robinson read once a few years ago, and someone asked him whether readers should start with the first book in his series.  He said no, that a writer usually improves over time so if there are several books available, it would be best to start with a later book, then go back to the first book.  That is what I did, and I absolutely agree.  Only in one instance should I caution you:  if you are going to read Friend of the Devil, you should definitely read Aftermath first.  So, read and enjoy Robinson!

Another series I have enjoyed is Elizabeth George's "Inspector Lynley" series.  Like with Robinson's series, I have read books chosen for their availability more than for their place in the series, and have found that, once again, the main stories are self-contained.  You may recall that I was on an Elizabeth George kick last summer, wanting to start at the beginning of the series, but was running into problems because the library did not have many of the early books.  I found quite a few at used book stores around town, and have indeed started reading from the beginning.  I found this useful because, although the stories could be appreciated in and of themselves, I was also interested in the lovestories involving Helen, Tommy, Simon and Deborah, and these full stories the reader can only get by starting with the first novel.  So once again, you can feel confident starting anywhere, but you may eventually want to go back to the early novels and read from the beginning.

OK, I've had a few technical challenges this morning, so have been at this post longer than I'd anticipated.  I wanted to write more, but I'm now all "posted" out so will close for this week.

Bye for now!

Monday 8 October 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

No post today, as I am on holidays and have been out hiking the Bruce Trail in Tobermory all day... makes me want to reread Canoe Lake by Roy MacGregor , as Tom Thomson is from Owen Sound area.

I will resume my regular posting schedule next week.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Bye for now!

Sunday 30 September 2012

Last post for September...

It's a cool, wet Sunday morning, exactly what one would expect for the last day of September.  Of course my cup of chai tea is sitting on the table as I write, and the house is filled with the smell of freshly made zucchini soup... mmm... it really feels like fall.

I'm not sure what the weather will be like for the rest of the day, but I'm hoping that the rain will hold off for part of this afternoon, as I would like to venture downtown to visit Casablanca Bookshop, the used bookstore that has been operating in Kitchener for about 25 years.  Today is the last day it will be open, which makes me a little bit sad.  I have been a patron at that bookstore since I was a student here in KW in the '80s, and have purchased many books (and more recently DVDs) from them over the years.  Sometime during the years I lived in Toronto, it moved from its original location on Ontario Street to a much larger location around the corner on King Street, where it seemed to be fairly busy whenever I went in.  At the end of the day today, it will close its doors to the public forever.  We're fortunate in downtown Kitchener to have a few used bookstores to shop at.  Second Look Books has recently moved from their original location on Queen Street and expanded to a much larger space on King Street.  K-W Book Exchange is still in its original location, but has downsized its space.  In Waterloo, Old Goat Books is still in its original location, and is hopefully doing well, especially now that the students are back.  There's something wonderful about a used bookstore that is very different from a regular bookstore that stocks new books.  There is a sense of history about a used bookstore, a knowledge that someone else has read this book before you.  Not only has someone read it, but he or she purchased it because he or she wanted to add it to his or her collection.  Sometimes there are inscriptions written on the inside pages of used books.  Sometimes a bookmark or slip of paper, a receipt or other item, is left between the pages of a book, that gives the new book owner a glimpse into the life of the previous owner.  There's also the aspect of "user-friendliness" about a used book that I love; that is, the book is often already physically "worked in" so that the pages stay open a bit easier than a new book with a stiff spine.  And there's the serendipidous finds at used bookstores that don't usually happen at new bookstores, and if they do occur at regular bookstores, they are often cost-prohibitive.  Last weekend I was at Word on the Street for a bit, then went to Casablanca to see what they still had left in stock.  I found a book and a DVD to purchase, the book by an author I have never read before, Kate Grenville, and the DVD a copy of a film I've seen before about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and his wrongful imprisonment and ultimate release from prison with the help of a team of Canadian lawyers.  Those were serendipidous finds, but I then went to Second Look Books and found a copy of Bill Buford's Among the Thugs which is hard to find these days - I think it may be out of print.  This non-fiction book addresses the issues surrounding mob brutality and soccer in Europe, particularly in Britain.  I had a copy of this book once-upon-a-time, but at some point, it disappeared - perhaps I lent it to someone and it was never returned.  Now it is back in my collection, the same edition as I had before, and I'm thrilled!  I am excited to reread it, but I think it will be something my husband will also be interested in reading, and I like to encourage him to read whenever possible.  So, clearly, I love used bookstores, and will certainly miss having the opportunity to pop into Casablanca whenever I'm downtown with a few minutes (or hours!) to spare.

I finished listening to Long Gone by Alafair Burke on Friday, and I'd say I enjoyed it.  It certainly held my interest and kept me guessing until the end, although I found it somewhat predictable and slightly far-fetched and convoluted.  Having said that, I think it was the perfect book for me to listen to, as I need more "plot" or "story" in an audiobook than I do in a book I read in the traditional way.  Books I love to read and reread are often "un-listenable" for me.  For example, I have read Lady Chatterley's Lover by D H Lawrence at least twice (well, I read Lady Chatterley's Lover at least once and The First Lady Chatterley once), but when I tried to listen to it, even read by my then-favourite narrator, I just couldn't do it.  I think that when I read a book, I often read more for language or character than story, and I often prefer more realistic or literary fiction.  I can see the words on the page so I think I can register them more easily and they mean more to me than if I just listen to them.  I can also go back in the text and reread relevant passages if necessary to keep track of a character's development or to review a particularly poignant description, thought or setting.  So I've learned to look for plot- or story-driven books to listen to and literary or realistic books to read, and this seems to suit  me well in most cases.  Here again is an example of a reader (me!) identifying her reading needs and moods, not always as easy as it sounds.

And speaking of used bookstores, I reread (well, actually I skimmed) Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale last week in preparation for our book club meeting which, incidentally, did not happen.  It tells the story of Margaret Lea, a young woman who works with her father in a used bookstore and who receives a request from a famous author,Vida Winter, to write her biography.  Lea accepts with some hesitation and goes to Winter's house to discover the truth behind the many facades she has offered to her public until now; this time, Winter promises to "tell the truth", and Lea hopes to finally uncover the elusive "thirteenth tale" that is missing from Winter's collection of tales.  This book is at once an homage to gothic novels such as The Woman in White, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights, with all of the requisite family secrets and mysterious houses, and a study in one's search for self.  I have read this novel before, once for my own enjoyment and again for discussion with my volunteer book group, so I didn't really need to reread every word to remember what the story is about.  I would absolutely recommend this novel as a real escape for anyone who enjoys gothic novels, maybe not so much for male readers, but definitely female readers who can appreciate swooning heroines and hidden rooms.

And I just started reading Angels in the Gloom by Anne Perry, which is my next volunteer book group selection.  It is a mystery novel set in England during WWI that appears to involve spies and government conspiracies.  It is the third book in her "World War I" series, and I'm sensing that it would have been helpful to start with the first book in the series, as there seems to be some history about a character called the Peacemaker that would have been useful in understanding what is going on in this novel.  Having said that, I have really just started reading it, so everything may be explained sufficiently by the end of the book to make reading the earlier novels less important.  It is certainly written well, so if I find I like this novel, it would open up a vast selection of novels for me to read, as Perry is a prolific writer.

OK, the sun has come out and it's time to start my day.

Bye for now!

Sunday 23 September 2012

Sunday morning tea and book talk...

On this cool, bright, gorgeous Sunday morning, as I sit drinking my chai tea, I'm planning my day with the intention of attending the Word on the Street festival that is happening at Kitchener City Hall this afternoon.  It's always interesting to check out this celebration of books and reading, and it's a perfect day for it, too.

I think I mentioned in one of my recent posts that I was listening to an audiobook by Hari Kunzru called My Revolutions.  It tells the story of a man, Mike, who has lived the past 2 decades with an assumed name and identity in the capitalist world against which he protested when he was a young activist named Chris.  His identity is about to be revealed as his past keeps cropping up in the shape of former fellow activists.  It sounded really interesting, and it started out well, but I found that it shifted from period to period in Mike's/Chris' life too often for me to keep track just listening to it.  I think that I may have to check the book out of the library and read it, as there are many visual clues on the printed page to let the reader know what is going on in the story.  When a new paragraph starts, that usually means a new thought or idea, but one that is still related to the ideas in the previous paragraphs.  When there is a new section, the reader knows that the author has moved on to a completely new topic which is not related to the previous section, or at least not directly.  And, of course, a new chapter means... well, a new chapter.  These are all things readers know without thinking about them, but the fine art of topic separation can be muddled or even lost when listening to a book instead of looking at the printed page.  Narrators are usually pretty good at indicating these shifts, but they can only do so much for the listener.

All that to say that I've moved on to another audiobook, Long Gone, by Alafair Burke.  I'm not familiar with anything by this author, who is the daughter of James Lee Burke (I've never read any of his books, either).  This novel has three storylines:  Alice Humphrey, a 37-year old out-of-work arts' grad who is offered a too-good-to-be-true job managing a new gallery, finds that maybe it really was too good to be true, as one thing after another suggests that she has been set up; a young girl, Becca Stevens, gets quietly involved with a jock at her school, but has another secret that may be dangerous; and a man (can't remember his name) is keeping an eye on the man who became involved with, lied to and cheated his sister, and who may or may not have caused her death.  These stories become intertwined, with Alice's story being the key to everything.  I was finding it confusing at first, but it seemed to come together fairly quickly and seamlessly, and I'm now anxious to find opportunities to keep listening and find out what happens next.  I'm just over halfway through the audiobook.

And I've started reading a book from my "required reading" box called Walking into the Ocean by David Whellams.  It is a mystery set on the coast of England involving a Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Peter Cammon.  Cammon arrives at a coastal town to help out the local police investigate what appears to be a domestic dispute turned murder-suicide, while the locals investigate a serial murderer.  I've literally just started this book, which I believe is the first in a series (or maybe a trilogy) featuring Cammon, but I'm looking forward to reading further, as it really has the tone and style of a British mystery, even though the author lives in Ottawa.

Alas, I also have to read Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, as our book club is meeting on Thursday.  I started rereading it yesterday, and was hoping to spend the afternoon curled up reading, but I forgot that it was Word on the Street today.  Hmmm... decisions, decisions...  Maybe I'll set aside the Cammon mystery until I finish Setterfield's book, and I've just noticed that the sun has gone and the sky is overcast.  If it rains this afternoon, I will feel justified in not going to Word on the Street.  Whatever I decide to do, I'm sure it will involve books in some way or another, which is always a good thing. 

Bye for now!

Sunday 16 September 2012

Sunday morning book thoughts...

As I sit drinking my chai tea on this gorgeous Sunday morning in September, I'm thinking less about reading and writing than about getting outside and enjoying this beautiful day, so this may be a short post.

I wanted to talk about Peter Robinson for a bit.  I finished his new "Inspector Banks" novel last week, Watching the Dark, the 20th in the series.  The murder that begins this novel is that of a police officer, DI Bill Quinn, who is staying at a treatment centre for police who are recovering from injuries.  He is discovered early one morning shot through with a crossbow on the edge of the woods, and DI Banks is called in to investigate the crime.  The investigation ends up involving an officer named Joanna from the Professional Standards Department, since the murdered officer may have been involved in illegal activities.  It takes Banks and Joanna over to Estonia to investigate Quinn's involvment in the disappearance of a girl there, Rachel, six years earlier.  As expected, this novel was a page-turner, and it was interesting to have the whole team back and working together. Something interesting I noted when I first started reading this book; I read the front flap to find out what the novel was about, then I started reading the book.  I was confused for a moment, because the character's name in the book is Bill Quinn, but on the front flap, it is Bill Reid.  Nowhere online could I find any explanation of this; on the publishers' site he is called Bill Quinn, but on at least one Amazon search result, he is referred to as Bill Reid.  Unless the reader did as I did, read the front flap immediately before beginning the novel, this discrepancy would not be an issue, as nowhere in the text is he referred to as Bill Reid, but I found it curious that such a discrepancy would go unnoticed for such a well-known and highly-regarded author .  Upon finishing the novel, I still felt as I did when I wrote my last post, that perhaps it's time for Robinson to do something a bit different, maybe a new series or more stand-alone novels. 

Speaking of stand-alones, I finished reading his first stand-alone novel, Caedmon's Song, last week as well.  It tells the story of Martha Browne, a woman who is searching for the man who attacked her and who is attacking other women even as she searches.  I've read this novel before, but not for a long while, so I remembered very little about the story.  I must not have read the Afterward by the author during my first reading, but I did so this time.  I learned that he wrote the novel in 1987, the year the story takes place, but it was not published until I think 2002.  At that time, Robinson thought about updating the novel to reflect the current times, but he reconsidered for a number of different reasons.  He wrote the novel after completing the first four "Inspector Banks" novels, and he wanted to write a novel from the point of view of a surviving victim, where police involvement and presence was minimal.  He realized that between 1987 and 2002, forensics had advanced so much, and the prevalence of cell phones and the internet was so great, that it would make the original story impossible to take place as he originally intended.  So he decided to make minimal changes and publish it in its original form, which is a very good read indeed.  I find it interesting that the author felt it necessary and/or useful to the reader to include this information, as least in the paperback edition that I have.

I also finished a book from my "required reading" box last week.  Thirst, by Shree Ghatage, tells the story of a newlywed couple in India in the early 1940s.  I thought initially that it was a lovestory, and what a wonderful story it was.  Neither Vasanti nor Baba (Vijay) wanted to be in this arranged marriage, but they are drawn together and learn to overcome the obstacles they face with family and situations to find true love.  But this short novel is far more than a simple love story, although this reader would have been happy enough with that.  No, it is a novel that also explores duty and responsibility.  This reader is not quite sure that the quirky, surprise ending adds value to the novel as a whole - I will have to think about this further.  Having said that, it was a good read, and mostly enjoyable.

Sometime today I will choose another title from the "required reading" box to read this week, then I will reread The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield for my new bookgroup - we meet on September 27th.  For now, the birds are singing, the sun is shining, a gentle breeze is blowing, and I think it's very nearly a perfect day, so I'll get outside and enjoy it.

Bye for now!

Sunday 9 September 2012

Sunday morning tea and book talk...

On this cool, sunny Sunday morning, as I drink my chai tea, I'm thinking about what I've been reading recently and what I'm planning to read soon.

My book group met yesterday to discuss Kathryn Stockett's The Help, and they all loved it!  This is a book that tells the story of a woman in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s who writes a book about what it is like to be a black maid working for a white family at that time.  The book is told from the perspective of three different characters, Abileen, Minny and Skeeter, using three distinct voices.  It is the author's first novel, and according to Wikipedia, it was rejected by 60 different literary agents before being taken on by an agent, and going on to become a bestseller and a popular film adaptation.  I don't recall off-hand if the film was nominated for any awards, but that wouldn't surprise me.  Some of the things we discussed at our meeting were the many different types of relationships Stockett explores in this novel, relationships between maids and their employers, maids and the white children they help to raise, the black community in general at that time, and the community as represented by the church in particular, the relationships of white women and their children, white women and their parents, and white people, in particular white women, and their social hierarchy.  The novel really does explore many different types of relationships and social interactions, and not just superficially; these relationships are presented with enough detail that they could each be explored individually on a much deeper level.  Having said that, we did note that the relationships between women, both white and black, and their husbands was not explored in as much detail as the other relationships, and we couldn't come up with a suitable explanation for that except that perhaps it was just too much for the author to tackle in a single novel; perhaps she realized that she just couldn't try to cover everything and do it well.  As it is, this novel is over 500 pages, but it is very accessible for readers.  We also talked about the relationship between Skeeter and Stuart, the friendship between Skeeter, Elizabeth and Hilly, and how those relationships may have changed over time and as their lives changed.  We noted that there was an air of suspense and a feeling of doom as the reader nears the end of the book, wondering what they reactions to the book might be and how these may impact each character's life.  Another thing we discussed were the similarities between The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird, in particular the ironic situations presented in each novel of the white ladies in the community raising money to help the poor children in Africa, when right in their own communities, black people were being treated unfairly or even killed.  This led us to discuss the possibility that things are happening in our communities and in our lives right now that are harmful to some, and yet we are unaware of these situations.  The novel reminded me of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar in a few different ways.  Although Plath was writing about her own experiences at the time they were happening and Stockett is writing about  a situation 50 years ago, both involve women as their main characters, and these women want to become writers.  They are on the cusp of change, and feel that the written word can help move that change forward.  For Plath, it was the changing roles of women in society in the 1950s; for Stockett, it was relationships between whites and blacks in society in the 1960s.  This novel, then, is one that is thought-provoking on many levels if the reader considers the various aspects presented by the author.

I feel a little bit guilty because I received a second box of books to read for a committee I am on, but my reserved copy of Peter Robinson's newest "Inspector Banks" book came into the library this past week so I'm reading Watching the Dark instead of one of the many books from my "required reading" box, but I hope to be finished soon and so able to move on to one of those titles.  This novel is classic Robinson; Banks is investigating the murder of a fellow police officer who was convalescing at St Peter's Police Treatment Centre, but because the officer may have been involved in questionable activities, a member of the Professional Standards Department is brought in to assist with the investigation.  I'm halfway through, and it is everything I have come to expect from Robinson.  Some new characters are introduced, but many of the original investigative team members play a role in the investigation.  I have to say, I wish Banks and Annie would get back together and make a go of their relationship.  There is so much pining and yearning for the "good old days" of their brief relationship on the part of both Banks and Annie that, to this reader, it would make sense to give it another try.  And while I understand that Robinson has to make each new Banks novel more interesting and complex than the previous ones (this is his 20th in the series), I would love to have a new novel where Banks investigates a good, old-fashioned murder mystery, one that takes place in Eastvale involving perhaps a illicit relationship between upstanding members of the community, family secrets, and a successful love connection for Banks or Annie, or maybe both!  These days, his novels tend towards counter-terrorism, MI-5, spies, and human trafficking.  He's also incorporated the Professional Standards Department into his novels a few times.  Perhaps he's considering a new series where they are the main investigative team, much as Ian Rankin has done in his new "Malcolm Fox" series, where the main character works for the Complaints and Conduct Department.  Anyway, I think Robinson is still a great mystery writer of police procedurals, but I wonder if it's time for him to move on and try something new, maybe even more stand-alones (I thought Before the Poison was an excellent mystery).

And I'm listening to My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru, a novel that tells the story of a 1960s radical who has gone into hiding and now, 30 years later, is looking back on his days as an activist as the past is intruding on his present life among the capitalists he once sought to overthrow.  I know nothing about this novel or the writer, but the summary sounded interesting.  I just started listening to it yesterday, so can make no comment yet on the novel, but so far it's proving intriguing.

I want to get a start on the day, so I'll finish my delicious cup of tea and end this post.

Bye for now!

Sunday 2 September 2012

First post for September...

Happy Labour Day weekend!  I'm enjoying the fact that I have yet another day off work tomorrow, so this morning has been a bit less busy than my usual Sunday mornings.  It's a lovely sunny breezy morning, and I think it's going to be a low-key lazy reading day - hurray for those types of days!!

My husband met with a former colleague of his recently just to catch up, and during their conversation, she asked for a link to this blog, as she was having a tough time finding good books to read.  She is one of the people who read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow upon my recommendation, and she loved it!  He forwarded her email address to me, and I sent her the link, along with what I thought was a randomly-selected book recommendation, based on something that I recently read and enjoyed, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder.  I wasn't sure if she would like it or not, because it is a very different writing style from Russell's book, but Patchett is, in my opinion, a great writer with interesting stories to tell and a wonderful writing style, despite her books being a bit "slow" - it seems to take forever for anything to happen, but she manages that really well and seems to use it to her advantage.  Anyway, the more I thought about State of Wonder, the more I realized that there are many similarities between that book and The Sparrow.  Both deal with an individual or group going off into another land or culture with a mission to learn something new that they expect will benefit their own culture or people.  The intervention of both groups on these new cultures/peoples has unexpected results, and the information learned may or may not be as beneficial as originally expected.  While the settings and styles may differ, the main themes or messages are remarkably similar, so it appears that it is not such a random selection.  I hope she enjoys that novel, but if not, she can always refer to this blog to check out what other books I've been reading and hopefully find something of interest out of those titles (which are all conveniently underlined so they are easy to pick out of the rest of the text).

This reminded me of one of the original purposes of this blog - to make book recommendations to people who don't work in the library or book industry.  I guess I don't actually make book recommendations, but I just comment on what I've been reading.  Making recommendations involves so much more information from and about the reader - what he or she has enjoyed in the past, what types of books appeal to the reader, what "reading mood" he or she is in at a particular time, what season it is, what's going on in his or her life, and many other factors.  Even with all of this information, there is still a chance that what one would recommend will not appeal to the reader, which is why the library is such a great resource.  Readers can borrow books free of charge and try them out, rather than spending money to buy books that they may or may not like and ending up with a shelf full of unread items.

So what have I been reading this past week?  I've been reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and am really enjoying it.  I saw the film some time ago, and feel that they did a good job of adapting the novel.  I will write more about this novel once I've finished it and after my book group discusses it next Saturday. 

And I'm listening to another Agatha Christie audiobook, The ABC Murders.  I think I read this mystery many years ago, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, Christie's books are great to listen to as audiobooks because all the important details are reviewed several times, so the listener really can't miss anything important.  I'm just downloading a few more of her books even as I write, in anticipation of this mystery's end.

Enjoy the rest of this lovely long weekend!!  Welcome, September!

Bye for now!