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!