Sunday 29 December 2013

Last post for 2013...

WOW, it’s hard to believe another year is coming to an end so soon.  It’s late afternoon, not my usual blogging time, so I’m a bit out of sorts, which also comes with the holidays messing up the week.  I have a book and an audiobook to tell you about, then I will list my top 10 favourites for this year.

I decided not to write this morning because I wanted to finish reading Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson before writing.  I know I was hoping to finish it last Sunday, but with the power going out and the holidays happening, I didn’t get much reading done and so I’m behind.  It’s just as well, as I don’t think this one was her best book.  It tells the story of Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police investigator who makes an impulsive purchase one day that will change her life forever.  She crosses paths with Jackson Brodie, a not-quite-private detective who is looking for the birth mother of a woman in New Zealand which sends him across the UK and Wales in his search.  These two storylines have roots in the past, secrets that are decades old, but these pasts directly connect to current situations.  While this novel features the usual eccentric, flawed but all-too-human characters, situations that are both horrible and heart-wrenching, and the complex interweaving of past and present that I have come to expect from Atkinson’s books, this one seemed to lack a clear narrative that does not rely heavily on the reader’s knowledge of her previous books and their characters and events.  It also leaves too many unanswered questions, while offering too much information about other situations.  While I was anxious to get to the end, I was rather disappointed once I arrived.  I definitely preferred her others over this one. 

And I finished listening to an audiobook a few days ago, Think of a Number by John Verdon.  This thriller is the first in the “David Gurney” series by this author, an author about which I know absolutely nothing.  It tells the story of Dave Gurney, a retired police detective who is contacted by a former university classmate who has been receiving threatening letters and calls from someone he believes is from his past.  These calls and letters become more disturbing once Gurney gets involved, and when murders begin piling up, Gurney uses his expertise at solving complex puzzles and seeing the big picture to avoid more deaths.  It was an OK listening experience, as it was fast-paced and not-too-difficult to follow, but it was definitely not the kind of book I would read.  I’ve downloaded the next 2 books in the series, narrated by someone else, but won’t listen to them right now.

As for my top 10 books, here is a list, in no particular order:
Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison
Stranglehold by Robert Rotenberg
Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World by Janet Cameron
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Children of the Revolution by Peter Robinson
Watching You by Michael Robotham
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (oops, that’s 11… oh well, it’s my blog so I can include as many titles as I want!)

Top 10 audio books:
Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (I really liked this trilogy!)
Trinity Six by Charles Cumming
First Degree by David Rosenfelt
Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt
The Serialist by David Gordon
The Vault by Ruth Rendell
Call for the Dead by John Le Carre
The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey

That’s all for today.  Happy New Year everyone!  I hope that 2014 is filled with great books for all!

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 December 2013

Book talk on an icy, powerless Sunday morning

The power has been going off and on since about 6:30 this morning, for stretches anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours, due to the ice storm we had last night.  As I was deciding when to get out of bed, I was thinking of all the things I would not be able to do with no power.  I couldn’t make tea, or cook, or make Date Bread, and the only kind of oatmeal I could make for breakfast would be the instant kind with hot tap water (too disgusting to contemplate!).  I knew I also could not access the internet, but since I write a draft of my post in a word document first, I could work on my post.  Hurray!  And, without power, I could still read, if that is what I chose to do.  So this has served to remind me of the wonder and simplicity of the printed book – no electricity or batteries required, I don’t have to charge it before I use it, and it can offer me endless hours of cheap entertainment.  At least, during one of the brief periods when the power was on, I made tea, so it is steeping even as I write, and I will enjoy a cup or two soon (I was not looking forward to anything I could concoct using a tea bag and hot tap water!)

I am a third of the way through Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, and I’m really enjoying it.  I hope to finish it by Christmas Day, at which time I plan to move on to my next book club selection, Annabel by Kathleen Winter.  The Atkinson book features Jackson Brodie once again, as a not-quite private investigator, but more of a soft-touch when it comes to women in need.  This time, he is travelling around England and Wales (I think he is avoiding Scotland due to some past negative experiences there) visiting old church ruins and abbeys, when he saves a dog from an abusive owner and takes on a case involving the search for the birth parents of a woman now living in New Zealand, a woman who is a friend of a friend of an acquaintance of Brodie’s former girlfriend, Julia.  In a parallel story, Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police detective who is now head of security at a shopping centre, makes an impulsive purchase that changes her life.  Somehow, Brodie’s case and Tracy’s situation are connected, through those six degrees of separation that apparently link us all to one another.  The story is jumping around quite a bit, and I’m not sure I would be enjoying it or even understanding it at all if I wasn’t familiar with the first three books featuring Brodie, as the same characters pop up, and situations from previous books are mentioned liberally throughout this novel.  What I find amazing about Atkinson’s books is that they cross genres seamlessly.  They can appeal to mystery lovers because they present complex mysteries that involve not only the present case, but unsolved mysteries from decades before that somehow shed light on the current event.  They would also appeal to those who enjoy general fiction titles that explore the human condition.  Her books feature characters that are both complex and sad, yet they ultimately confirm life’s purpose and lift the reader’s spirit.  I have not read her other general fiction titles, including Behind the Scenes at the Museum and her current bestseller, Life After Life, but I would highly recommend the books in the Jackson Brodie series.  If you haven’t read any of them yet, I recommend you start with the first one, Case Histories, in order to get full value out of the later ones.  Be prepared for some quirky characters and some life-affirming events.

I would write more, but because there is no power, there is no heat on in the house, so I’m going back to snuggle under the covers with my book and my cup of tea until things get back to normal.

Hope you all have a Merry Christmas! 

Bye for now…

PS It's now 12 hours later, and the power just came back on.  I didn't get any reading done this afternoon, unfortunately, but I'm so very thankful for electricity and heat!!  Happy Holidays, Kitchener-Wilmot Hydro!!

Sunday 15 December 2013

Books and tea on a snowy morning...

It is a very snowy morning as I sip my tea and enjoy a slice of freshly-baked Date Bread – mmm!
Just over a week ago, I picked up a box of books to review for the local paper – with so many great titles, it was like Christmas had come early for me!  It was difficult to choose which one to read first, but I decided on Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, as I felt that it would suit my reading mood best at that moment.  I really enjoyed her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, a gothic mystery about a young woman, Margaret Lea, who is summoned by an elusive writer, Vida Winter, to write her biography.  She must come to Winter’s secluded manor in the English countryside in order to hear her story, and to finally uncover the truth about the rumoured “thirteenth tale”, curiously missing from Winter’s most famous story collection.  What she ultimately discovers are family secrets, lies, mystery upon mystery, and even love.  It was a thoroughly satisfying novel that I have read on my own, as well as read and discussed for both of my book groups.  As you may suspect, I was hoping for more of the same with Setterfield’s new novel, a real page-turner written in the Gothic same style.  And so it began…  William Bellman, who is 10 years and 4 days old, is out in the woods with his cousin Charles and two friends.  William sees a rook on a branch in a far-off tree and, boasting to his friends, claims that he can shoot it down with his catapult, one he designed himself with new features to increase the success of the shot.  Although the bird was too far away, as the others claimed, Will pulled back the stone in the catapult and, even after thinking that he could still stop, that it wasn’t too late to change his mind, let fly the deadly missile which took the rook down with one hit.  The boys went to see the dead bird, perhaps their first experience of death, and each felt the effects, although they made light of it in the end.  They managed to forget this episode during which they lost a bit of their innocence and moved on with their lives.  But as the reader learns, rooks never forget.  Fast-forward about a decade, and William has grown into a fine young man, one with an excellent voice which he contributes to the choir.  He is handsome and smart, and stands to inherit his uncle’s fabric mill, Charles having no interest in such affairs.  He shows great promise in terms of learning and innovative thinking, and soon increases the profits of the mill beyond anyone’s expectations.  He finds a wife, has children, comes to an agreement with Charles to share the wealth of the mill while he alone manages it, and all is right with Bellman’s world.  Until the tide turns.  Illness and death visit the town and leave parents without children and children without parents.   William has noticed, over the years, a dark stranger lurking around corners, particularly at funerals for his friends or family members.  When William fears he will lose everything, he is prepared to make a deal to save the one last thing he cares about.  But can one ever truly profit from a deal with Death?  This book started out slowly, but about half-way through, when Bellman strikes his deal, things pick up and move at a faster pace, and I began to speed through the novel.  Unfortunately, I found it to be ultimately disappointing, with too many issues unexplained or unresolved.  Unlike The Thirteenth Tale, the mysteries were not fully explained, which may work in some more realistic fiction, but in this case, I felt it detracted from the story and the enjoyment level.  I do not feel inclined to reread this book, although I may pick up details on a second reading that I missed the first time, as it is a fairly complex story.  I hate to criticize anyone’s writing, so I guess what I would offer is this warning:  If you loved her first novel, try to lower your expectations for this second offering, and you may be less disappointed than I was.  If anyone reads it, I’d be curious to know what you thought of this book.

I’m having a hard time deciding what to read next, as none of the other books in the box I received really fits my reading needs right now.  I thought I might read Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, the fourth book in the “Jackson Brody” series.  I really enjoyed When Will There Be Good News?, which I’ve listened to as an audiobook, and I’ve read and/or listened to both Case Histories and One Good Turn.  I don’t know what this one will be about, but the others featured Brody as a private investigator working to solve complex murder mysteries, some cold cases and some current, ongoing investigations.  The quirky characters and Atkinson’s writing style make these a treat if I am in the right mood.  I will give it a try this afternoon, but may have to move on to something else if it doesn’t suit.

Bye for now…

Sunday 8 December 2013

Book post on a sunny morning...

On this sunny, cold Sunday morning, my tea is a welcome companion as I think about what I’ve been reading over the past week. 

I finished reading The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud last week, and it was fabulous!  Just a quick recap:  Nora Eldridge is an angry woman whose life plan included being an artist and having children (husband and money optional), but who instead grew up to become the dutiful daughter of her now deceased mother and ailing, lonely father.  She is also the favourite third-grade teacher in an elementary school in Boston.  At age 37, Nora is despairing ever achieving anything resembling her life’s dreams, resigned to her role as “the Woman Upstairs”, unremarkable but reliable. Then the Shahid family enters her life.  Mrs. Shahid is a successful artist, and Mr. Shahid is exactly the type of man Nora would fall for, but it is Reza, their eight-year-old son and student in her class, who most captures Nora’s heart.  She begins to live through them, separately and together, and believes that they are the keys to attaining her dreams.  Of course, this can’t really happen, and since the Shahids do not reciprocate the need Nora feels towards them, they move on and Nora must cope with this loss as best she can, clinging to the memories of her year with them.  I felt that the ending was great, until the very, very end, when I felt the author tried too hard for a big finish that, in my opinion, felt limp.  Having said that, I loved the writing style, and the way Nora expressed herself and her feelings towards others and the life she feels has been (unfairly?) dealt to her.  I also thought that Nora’s feelings at that time in her life (37 and single, no children, no life as an artist, a third-grade teacher, which was never her career goal at any stage in her life) were realistic and true, although raw and sometimes self-indulgent.  But this book was ABOUT HER, so of course it was self-indulgent!  That was one of the criticisms of the book in at least one review I read,  but clearly that book reviewer had never been a 37 year old single woman whose life had not lived up to her expectations.  It is definitely a book whose main character demands that the reader identify with her, in the same way that We Need to Talk About Kevin did.  Now I’m not saying you have to have had those experiences to appreciate these books, but it helps a lot if you can at least envision what it would be like to have your ambitions thwarted because you made the wrong choices in life, or tried to do the right thing for others which maybe held you back in life.  Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that this book may not be for everyone, but I thought it was great, despite the weak ending.  Read it if you choose, but be warned that it is not a “feel-good” novel.

My book group got together on Friday to discuss The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  It was a suggestion from one of the members who said she read it and “didn’t get it”, and she was hoping that, if we all read and discussed it, maybe she would be able to “get it”.  I will admit to having read this short allegorical tale many years ago and also not “getting it”, but so many people love this book that I put it on the list for December, as I had not yet made a selection for this month.  In case you haven’t yet read it, this short novel tells the story of Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusia who is encouraged by various people to follow his Personal Legend, head to Egypt and find the treasure about which he has had recurring dreams.  Along the way, he meets a cast of characters and learns many life lessons, and has to decide more than once whether to stay where he is and settle for what is known or to continue on his journey to he-knows-not-where in order to possibly find this elusive treasure, but possibly to lose everything he’s worked for, including the woman he loves.  My personal responses to this book on this second reading were that a) this felt more like reading a self-help book than reading a well-written piece of literature and b) this book reminds me of many other titles that I have read.  These titles are The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson,  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving,  and The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, all for different reasons, but the messages of each of these other titles seemed to be lumped together into this one short allegorical novel about finding your personal destiny and living up to your full potential.  One of my ladies, who had never read it before, loved it.  She thought it was simple yet she felt she could apply the lessons and experiences in the story to her own life.  One of the lessons that we talked about in the meeting was the way the universe conspires to help individuals find their Personal Legend, and we shared stories of how individuals or events in our lives have led us to making good choices or finding unexpected opportunities that were exactly right for us at that time, but would never have happened if all these other events had not led us to that place.  One of my ladies felt that the emphasis on God and Allah, and maktub (meaning “it is written”) reminded her of religious fundamentalists, young men who train as suicide bombers.  I had never thought of that, but once she mentioned it, I could see how hints of obsession and religious fanaticism, the belief that one’s destiny is already written, could be gleaned from the text.  Another member didn’t bother rereading it, having read it a number of years ago.  And one member thought it had many valuable lessons in it, but that it wasn’t a great book.  I don’t know if everyone should necessarily read this particular text, but it is very popular, and is still a bestseller, 25 years after it was written, and since the film adaptation is due out sometime next year, if you haven’t yet read it, you will probably want to do so before you see the movie.  All I can say is, at least it’s short and easy to read.  Enjoy!

And I finished listening to Mermaids Singing, the first in the “Wire in the Blood” series by British author Val McDermid featuring clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan.  I have read others in this series, and have watched some BBC film adaptations, but this novel gave me the background to their relationship and set up the characters that appear in later novels.  In this novel, Hill is brought in by the Bradfield police to help catch a serial killer they’ve dubbed “The Queer Killer” because he dumps the bodies in locations frequented by the city’s gay population.  These bodies, before being dumped, have all been tortured in various ways using specially designed traditional torture instruments such as the Rack and the Judas Chair.  The relationship of Hill and his newly established Special Task Force with the police force is explored, as is the relationship between Hill and Jordan.  I listened to this as an audiobook and found the parts narrated by the killer to be particularly graphic and disturbing, but it was otherwise a good listening experience.  I have also downloaded Wire in the Blood by McDermid, but will take a break and listen to something else first.

Time to get out and start my day.

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 December 2013

Tea and books on a grey Sunday morning...

On this grey, wet, chilly Sunday morning, I am happy to look at the coffee table in front of me and see 2 things that make me happy:  a hot cup of chai tea to wrap my cold hands around for warmth, and a book that I am really enjoying, which I will spend this afternoon reading, and hopefully finishing.

I finished The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell this past week, and it proved to be far better than I was expecting.  I think last week I wrote that it was not a “great” read, but that it was short, with a fairly interesting storyline.  Well, once I reached the halfway point, it got really interesting, and I couldn’t put it down!  To recap, it tells the story of woman, Iris, who runs a vintage clothing shop and who is suddenly given the responsibility of caring for a great-aunt, Esme, whom she didn’t know existed until a few days before.  Esme has spent the past 60 years, all of her adult life, in a mental institution, and Iris wants to find out why this happened.  It seemed initially that the story was about Iris, and her struggles to find her way and purpose in life, but it turned out to be about so much more, particularly about the relationship between Esme and Kitty, Iris’ grandmother, when they were young.  At the time of the story, Kitty is in a nursing home suffering from dementia, but her memories are offered to the reader in snippets, jumbled and inconsistent, yet intriguing, in a “pieces of the puzzle” sort of way.  I would highly recommend this title to anyone who enjoys character-driven novels that deal with relationships and family secrets.

The book that is on the table in front of me right now is The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, a title that we are considering for the committee I’m on.  I’m halfway through, but can’t wait to make time to finish it.  This story is told from the point of view of Nora Eldridge, an angry woman whose life plan included being an artist and having children (husband and money optional), but who instead grew up to become the dutiful daughter of her now deceased mother and ailing, lonely father,  and favourite third-grade teacher in an elementary school in Boston.  At age 37, Nora is despairing ever achieving anything resembling her life’s dreams, resigned to her role as “the Woman Upstairs”, unremarkable but reliable. Then the Shahid family enter her life.  Mrs. Shahid is a successful artist, and Mr. Shahid is exactly the type of man Nora would fall for, but it is Reza, their eight-year-old son and student in her class, who most captures Nora’s heart, becoming the son she never had.  She begins to live through them, separately and together, and believes that they are the keys to attaining her dreams.  I don’t know what will happen, but something significant is surely on the horizon, because so far, the family members have been idealized all out of proportion, and Nora has risen so high in her expectations that she is sure to fall far and hard.  This novel reminds me of two excellent books I’ve read in the past.  The first is What Was She Thinking?  Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.  Remember that book?  Maybe you remember the film, with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, about a bitter elderly teacher who becomes obsessed with the new young art teacher at her high school.  This teacher begins an affair with one of her male students, which is, of course, scandalous for the school and for the family.  The elderly teacher supports the new teacher, and her obsession grows.  It is creepy in its insidiousness, yet all-too-believable.  The other book that comes to mind is We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, about a woman who has an ideal marriage and no desire to have children, until she has a son, Kevin, with whom she has difficulty bonding and who grows up to be a sociopathic teen who, shortly before his 16th birthday, commits mass murder at his high school.  It’s not the story that is necessarily so similar, but the writing styles are so much alike that I sometimes feel as though Eva Kachadourian (the mother in Kevin) is narrating instead of Nora.  Both main characters are successful women who are angry at the way their lives have been dealt, but there is also an underlying feeling of resignation with both characters, as though they have come to accept, however bitterly, their roles in life.  Anyway, I’m really excited to finish it, as I’m so curious what will ultimately happen to Nora and the Shahids.  More on this book next week.

That’s all for today.

Bye for now…

Sunday 24 November 2013

More tea and book talk...

It is a bright, crisp Sunday morning as I write this post – winter has certainly arrived in my part of the world.  My hot cup of chai tea is a real comfort on this chilly morning.

My week has been quite hectic and out-of-the-ordinary, but I did manage to get the Camilla Lackberg murder mystery I mentioned last week finished.  If you recall, The Drowning begins with the murder of an unknown man who has accepted that he must confront his past, whatever that will bring.  Move ahead in time 3 months to the successful publication of The Mermaid by first-time novelist Christian Tyndall, a man who is clearly astonished by his success but shuns the media publicity it brings.  It is soon revealed that he has been receiving threatening letters, which he refuses to talk about.  At the same time, there is an investigation going on to find a missing man, a friend of Christian’s.  When the missing man is found murdered, the investigation escalates and the detectives on the case believe that the murder and the letters are somehow connected.  Christian is reluctant to talk about the letters or his past, but when another friend is threatened and more bodies turn up, the police put pressure on him to find the truth.  What they eventually uncover is horrific and yet all-too-possible.  I have never read anything by this author before, and I must admit that I have become a fan of this Swedish mystery writer.  She reminds me a bit of Minette Walters, in that her novels are quite dark in their exploration of murder.  The similarities between these two are slight, but they both offer complex stories involving many characters.  I will have to read another to get a better sense of this author’s work, but so far I have not been disappointed.

Right now I’m reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell, about a woman who is suddenly given the responsibility of caring for a great-aunt whom she didn’t know existed until a few days before, and who has spent 60 years in a psychiatric institution.  It is not a “great” novel, but it is an easy and interesting read, and I’ve invested a fair bit of reading time into it already so I will finish it, as it is short – I may even find time to finish it this afternoon. 

I had more of a struggle finding an audiobook to listen to this week.  I finished listening to a novella by Henning Mankell, I think it’s called The Pyramid, which explored the early life of Kurt Wallander, the character that is featured in Mankell’s most famous mystery series.  In the introduction to the story, Mankell tells how he wanted to write about the social condition of Sweden, but only his mystery novels were popular, much more so than those he wrote which focused on the social conditions in Sweden and other parts of the world.  So he tried to incorporate this focus into his mystery novels.  When the Wallander novels begin, Kurt is already an aging detective, divorced with a grown daughter.  Fans have asked Mankell how Wallander came to be in that situation, which prompted him to write The Pyramid.  In this novella, Kurt has only been on the police force for a short time, and is not yet part of the homicide squad.  He and Mona are still in the early days of dating when he stumbles upon his first dead body, that of a neighbour, an elderly man in the apartment next to his, which he suspects may be murder, although the police want to dismiss it as a suicide.  It was really interesting to listen to this story, as I have been a Mankell fan for many years, and have recently listened to the last novel in the Kurt Wallander series, The Troubled Man.  I actually recently read that another mystery writer, Ian Hamilton, the Canadian author of the “Ava Lee” series, is making available for free for a limited time an ebook that goes back to the original meeting of Ava Lee and Uncle, the shadowy figure who helps Lee out in her investigations.  I read that Hamilton has done this in response to a request from one of his readers when he was in Kitchener at Word on the Street – this fan wanted to know how these two characters met and formed a relationship.  I thought that was really interesting, as of course these are characters, not real people.  Then I thought about the series I read regularly, and the main characters do seem like real people, with their own lives and relationships, over and above the murders they are solving (they are generally mystery series).  So what this tells me is that readers really want to know what happened to the characters before the first book in a series was ever written.

Speaking of series, I finally settled on the first book in Val McDermid’s “Tony Hill” series, called The Mermaid Singing.  It begins with a murderer visiting the Museum of Torture in Rome, and getting ideas for his first murder.  Switch to Bradford, England, and the first meeting of Detective Carol Jordan and profiler Tony Hill, who is called in to help in the investigation of a serial killer dubbed the Queer Killer by the police and media, since he is killing gay men in the city.  There is an immediate attraction felt between Carol and Tony, but both are reluctant to act upon it.  I’m not far into the audiobook, but I’m finding it really interesting because I have read some of the books in this series and have also watched a few of the BBC television adaptations of this series, “Wire in the Blood”, but somehow I have missed this first novel and so didn’t really know how things got to be where they are in the other novels or episodes, mainly in terms of their relationship.  This novel is giving me the backstory, filling in some of the blanks.
That’s all for today.  I hope to get outside and enjoy the sunny, brisk weather and then settle down for an afternoon of reading.

Bye for now…

Sunday 17 November 2013

Books and tea on a rainy November day...

On this mild, rainy Sunday morning, I’m feeling less than inspired to do much of anything, although I have freshly-baked Date Bread cooling on the counter and, of course, a steaming cup of tea in front of me.  I think it will be a god day for reading.

I did not have much luck choosing a book that really grabbed me this past week.  I thought I would tell you about what I started to read, in case any of the books interested you at all.

OK, so a monk, a pilot and a soldier meet in Heaven…  no, this is not the start of a bad joke, but the setting of a book I started reading  for my committee, Beauty Beneath the Banyan by Crystal Fletcher.  This book is set in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam during and after the Vietnam War, and is the interweaving of six stories told from the points of view of a monk, an American pilot and an American soldier, who are all dead and watching over three women, one imprisoned in Thailand for murdering her husband, one Cambodian woman who is happily married but longs for a child, and a Laotian Hmong refugee.  These three women suffer from the effects that are leftover from the Vietnam War, while the three men died in that war.  It is beautifully written and truly life-affirming, considering the horrible circumstances, settings and situations described in the book.  I got about halfway through and somehow just had to put it down.  I’m not sure if it was too depressing, or the thought of more disturbing scenes and images, however beautifully they are written about, was just too much for me, but I had to stop reading it.  This Barrie, Ontario writer, though, is truly gifted, and I’m sure I will finish the book eventually.  

I also started reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which begins on New Year’s Day, 1975, in Crinklewood (which I think is a neighbourhood in London, England), with Archie Jones attempting to commit suicide by inhaling the carbon monoxide fumes from his car while holding his marriage certificate and a war medal, one in each hand, leaning face-down on his steering wheel.  He is saved by the butcher, who is killing pigeons above his shop, when he tells Archie that he is not licensed for suicides, that his butcher is halal, Kosher.  And so Archie goes on to embrace his new lease on life.  I don’t know what the rest of the book is about, but so far it’s reminding me of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a humourous, satirical, critical commentary on contemporary society.  It is an award-winning novel, and Smith was recently named one of Britain’s notable authors under 40, so I want to keep reading it, but it is quite long and I don’t think it is the right book for me at this time.  I will definitely finish it someday, maybe even someday soon, but for now, I must put it aside.

And I started reading a book that I came across at work last week by Maggie O’Farrell called The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, about Iris, a woman who runs a vintage clothing shop.  She receives a letter informing her that a woman who claims to be her great-aunt, who has spent most of her life in a psychiatric institute, is due to be released.   This book opens with the line:  “Let us begin with two girls at a dance.”  This first line caught me, as it reminds me of the writing style used by Ann Marie MacDonald in Fall On Your Knees, which begins with:  “They’re all dead now.”  The rest of the story, about the outspoken Esme in the 1930s, youngest Lennox daughter, and what she did to deserve a lifetime spent in a psychiatric institute, while Iris tries to find answers from her distracted grandmother, Esme’s sister, Kitty, sounds like just the kind of story I would devour in two bites.  I love novels about family secrets that come to light decades later, and it’s really quite good.  So I must decide between this one, which is a library book, and another which I’m halfway through that I do not have to return to the library.

This other title is The Drowning by Camilla Lackberg, a Swedish mystery writer whom I have never read before, although she is very popular.  I started this book at work a few months ago, which means I read about 6 pages per day on my lunch.  It is nearly 500 pages long, so it’s taken me a while to reach the half-way point.  And it is quite complex, with many characters, so I decided last week to bring it home and read it more quickly in order to more fully enjoy the novel.  It opens with someone confronting their past by walking through an open door on their way to work one day, willing to accept whatever fate decides.  Long hair swings as the visitor is led inside, then is brutally stabbed.  We don’t know who this is or why they have been murdered, but the story then fast-forwards 3 months, when Christian, a first-time author, receives acclaim for his novel, The Mermaid, while shunning the media attention he is receiving for this publication.  It comes to light that he has been receiving threatening letters, which are later connected to a missing man, Magnus, a friend of Christian’s, whose investigation has reached a dead end.  Then a man walking his dog discovers a body frozen in a lake (mystery writers must be ever-thankful for dog-walkers, as they are always discovering dead bodies in wooded or unpopulated areas!), which is identified as Magnus, and the investigation escalates.  This is as far as I’ve read, but clearly there are two other men who have been receiving threatening letters, friends of Magnus and Christian, who may also be in danger.  It is really interesting, and I want to keep reading this one, especially because I brought it home with this intention in mind.  But I can take as long as I want to read this one, unlike the library book, which is due back in 3 weeks. 

Hmmm… decisions, decisions… All of these books are ones I want to finish, but the O’Farrell book and the Lackberg one are definitely the two that suit my reading mood best right now.  Next week is going to be kind of crazy for me, and I don’t think I will get much reading done,  but hopefully I will manage to find time to get through one of these novels.  More on that next week…

Bye for now…

Friday 8 November 2013

Tea and book talk on a snowy morning...

This is an early post as I think it’s going to be a busy weekend and this seems like a good time to write, with a steaming cup of tea in front of me and the first snow on the ground outside this morning, which I think is pretty exciting.

I read a book for my committee this past week, Accusation, by Catherine Bush.  She is a Toronto author who has been nominated for the Ontario Trillium Award for her novel, Claire’s Head.  This is her fourth novel, but the first that I’ve read by her.  Set in 1996, this novel opens with a short news item about the defection in Australia of nine members of an Ethiopian circus, claiming that the head of the circus, a Canadian man, Raymond Renaud, consistently abused them.  Told from the point of view of a reporter, Sara, the story then recounts her first experience with the children's circus, Cirkus Mirak, while she was in Copenhagen at a conference.  This circus, led by Montreal-born Renaud, impresses Sara so much that when she returns to Toronto, she contacts her friend and filmmaker Juliet to tell her about it, in case she would like to make a documentary about them.  Sara and Juliet have a long history together, as they encountered one another as students in Montreal nearly 20 years before, where Juliet supported Sara through a difficult time.  When the circus comes to Toronto, Sara meets and forms a bond with Renaud as they share an intimate experience together, during which time Renaud shares his mission and vision about the potential social benefits the circus movement could have on street children around the world, an encounter over which Sara will experience guilt in the coming months as the accusation of abuse is made public.  She goes on a search for the truth behind the accusation, and the novel explores the concept of truth in the world today, and the damage an accusation can cause, whether true or false.  It sounds like a great story, but I have to say, I was really disappointed in the novel.  Call me a traditionalist, but I generally like my novels to follow a standard pattern, beginning, middle, and end.  If an author deviates from this pattern, they need to do so with more skill than Bush exhibited.  I also prefer my authors to use full sentences most of the time, employing sentence fragments only for emphasis.  This story was told using mainly sentence fragments, which made it really difficult for me to read, despite my keen interest in getting to end and finding out what happened.  I was sorely disappointed in the style of writing and the total vagueness of the overall story, although the issues behind the story are ones that need to be explored by writers.  The only other book I could think of offhand that explores the consequences of false accusations is Atonement by Ian McEwan, which was also vague and slow, but in my opinion, a much better novel.  Not that Bush didn’t have some fabulous ideas and phrases (usually phrases, not full sentences!).  I almost hate to criticize, as I’m sure this novel would appeal to others, but the style was too jarring for me.  I don’t know if this is a style she uses in other books, but this novel did not make me want to read her earlier novels.  It would be a great book club discussion book, and maybe some would find it enjoyable, so take my criticism with a grain of salt.

And I listened to a very different type of book from the above, Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt, an early novel in the “Andy Carpenter” series.  Because I download from the library website, I  listen to these books as they are available, not necessarily in order.  So this book gave me the background on the Willie Miller case, a case to which he refers in a later book.  In this novel, Willie Miller is on death row and awaiting execution for the murder of a girl in a bar 7 years earlier.  Andy’s recently deceased father was the prosecuting lawyer for the original case, and shortly before he dies, he asks Andy to try to appeal the case, just months before Willie faces death.  It seems like an impossible appeal to win, but Andy’s persistence shines through as he leaves nothing uncovered in his quest for the truth.  It also gave me the backstory to his relationship with his ex-wife Nicole, and his current relationship with police investigator Laurie.  It was, as always, an enjoyable listening experience.

I need to go to the library today to pick up my reserves.  Not sure what is in for me, but I hope there will be something I really want to read – I’ve had a few books recently that have been just so-so, and I’m longing to really sink my teeth into a good book (not literally, of course!)

Bye for now…

Saturday 2 November 2013

Early post on a rainy Saturday afternoon...

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, my husband is not around, and my book group just met this morning, so it seems like the perfect time to write a new post, even though it’s a day early.  It’s supposed to be bright, but chilly, tomorrow, the kind of day when I enjoy getting outside, so I’m thankful for the rain this afternoon.

I read Jamie Ford’s new book last week, Songs of Willow Frost, which I plan to review for the local paper.  If you recall, my book group read his first book,  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, earlier this year.  This novel plunges readers into Depression-era Seattle as seen through the eyes of a young boy who spends his days hoping to be reunited with his mother. Set in 1934, 12-year old William Eng, a young boy who has spent the last five years in Sacred Heart Orphanage among other lost children, dreams of the day his mother, Song Liu Eng, will return for him.  Unsure if she is dead or alive, he almost can’t believe his luck when, on an outing to celebrate the orphanage boys’ collective “birthdays”, he sees a woman on the film screen that he is sure is his mother, despite the fact that she goes by the name of Willow Frost.  Facing the stern treatment and racial discrimination at the orphanage along with other children, William and his friend Charlotte plan their escape to find Willow, who is appearing in an upcoming live show at one of the city’s theatres.  Shift in time back to 1921, where we meet 16-year old Song Lui, the young daughter of an ailing Cantonese mother and domineering stepfather, who makes unwelcome advances towards his stepdaughter.  Song Lui, who has a part-time job singing in front of the local music store, draws attention from the crowds with her lovely, haunting voice.  When circumstances deliver her into an unwelcome situation, being an unwed Chinese mother, she relies on this job to keep body and soul together while she struggles to make a comfortable home for her son William, the only thing that makes her life worth living.  She is forced to give William up, and we are given the opportunity to see how this decision changes both of their lives.  This novel immerses readers in the social climate of the day and offers them the opportunity to experience the inequality and poverty that characterized the community during the 1920s and 1930s, particularly those visited on non-Caucasians.  The author also details the history of theatre and film at that time.  While this novel is sure to satisfy Ford fans, Songs of Willow Frost, like Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, seemed flat to me.  I can’t explain why this is so.  The story, setting and characters are interesting.  The writing is good.  But somehow I was unable to “feel” anything for the characters.  It was a truly bittersweet tale, and all-too-believable, yet it failed to affect me.  I think what my book club members said about Hotel was that it was not “gripping”, but that it was a “nice story”.  I felt the same about this novel.  Some elements stretched the imagination, but overall, it was an OK read.  I would recommend it for book clubs, as well as for fans of Ford. 

And we discussed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson this morning.  I had never read this novel before, but it was recommended by one of my members, so I included it.  Set in the English countryside, in the village of Edgecomb St Mary, the main character is 67-year old Major Ernest Pettigrew, a widower who has just learned that his brother Bertie has died.  He is devastated by this loss, and, while answering a knock at the door, he collapses in grief and is comforted by Mrs Ali, the village shopkeeper, from whom he has been purchasing milk and bread for years, but to whom he has never really spoken.  He finds suddenly that they have much to talk about, and they are drawn into a furtive courtship that consists of Sunday afternoons discussing Kipling and walks in the park, accompanied by tea and conversation.  This relationship is discouraged by the village, which is steeped in tradition, and by the Major’s son, Roger, who is only interested in making money and making the right connections in the business world.  Not only is Mrs. Ali a woman of colour (although born in Britain, her family is originally from Pakistan);  she is also a tradeperson, since she and her now-deceased husband purchased the shop in the village some years before.   While the novel centres around this budding romance, it is not limited to this alone.  It also explores the values of youth versus older adults, the differences in cultures, particularly Britain, Pakistan and America, and the needs of men and women in life and love.  Of the five of us in the group, three loved it, while two did not.  Those that loved it enjoyed the language and wit used by the author, and the humour of some of the situations.  They felt that the novel was realistic and that the characters were interesting and varied.  They felt that the Major’s ability to gradually let go of the traditions and accept change into his life reflected the experiences of older people realistically.  Of the two who did not love it, one thought that the Major was too perfect, and not very realistic at al.  She also felt that the situations all turned out just right, that it was a fairy tale where everyone got what they wanted and everyone lived “happily ever after”.  I was the other of the two, and I felt that the novel touched on too many situations in too superficial a manner.  I wondered if maybe it would have been a better reading experience for me if the author focused on fewer issues but did so with more depth.  Having said that, upon reflection, I thought that perhaps this how we experience life, that injustices surround us every day but that it takes a crisis to force us to notice things, and then we notice everything all at once.  It was definitely a good choice for the book club, and I would recommend it for anyone looking for a “feel good” read.

I think that’s all for today.  I will have to choose another book to read now, definitely one for my committee, since I’ve been somewhat lax in that area recently.  But which one to choose, Accusation by Catherine Bush or The Book of Stolen Tales by D J McIntosh?  I know nothing about either one, just that they are both written by Canadian authors, so I’m very curious to try one and see how it goes.  As always, I’ll let you know in my next post.

Bye for now…

PS You may have noticed that I changed my arrangement of book club lists on the right-hand side – I hope that will make things easier to find.  I’m looking forward to tackling the books on the 2014 Book Club list, which includes what I think are some really great titles.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Tea and book talk on a rainy morning...

We’ve been having cool, wet, rainy/snowy weather these past few days, so I’m thankful for my hot cup of tea and an opportunity to stay in and read this afternoon, something that is more difficult to justify when the weather is clear, bright and dry.

I finished reading A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah early last week, and it proved not to disappoint in its ending. If you recall, this is a psychological mystery about three women who had been charged and/or convicted of murdering their children. When one of these woman is murdered shortly after being released from prison, aided in her fight for justice by film director and social advocate Laurie Nattrass and JIPAC (Justice Innocent for Parents and Caregivers), the police search for the killer and come across links to Nattrass’ media company, Binary Star, and one of his film producers, Felicity “Fliss” Benson. As cards with 16 numbers set in a grid pattern turn up on every doorstep, and murders and attempted murders pile up, suspects and motives abound in this intense page-turner. I personally found the story almost too complex to follow, but once I let go of the expectation that I needed to understand everything that was happening, I was able to enjoy the novel more fully. Her style reminds me of Minette Walters, that British master of psychological mysteries, in a few ways. Both writers’ novels feature complex stories in which the interesting, sometimes bizarre psychology of the characters is explored in detail. Both writers include such additions to their traditional prose as police reports, newspaper articles, transcripts from interviews, and excerpts from books written by the characters. These, in my opinion, add a certain depth and richness to the stories and characters that give this reader a sense of authenticity. When I read these additions, I feel as though the author is offering me the opportunity to take part in the detective work and draw my own conclusions from the information offered - basically, I feel that the author is adhering to that cardinal rule of good creative writing, “Show, don’t tell”. I must add here that, in my opinion, Walters is a better writer than Hannah, but I also think she has been writing for longer. Her books have a darker, more sinister tone than Hannah’s, but both write deep, dark psychological mysteries that are sure to keep you up late into the night, racing to get to the last page.

And I finished listening to the first in the “Peter Diamond” series by Peter Lovesey, The Last Detective. I listened to the second in this series not long ago and enjoyed it, so when the first was available to download, it made sense to start from the beginning and get the backstory of the main characters before embarking on additional titles. As this novel opens, a woman is discovered floating in a river, naked and dead for some time. Detective Inspector Peter Diamond is called in to lead the team in the investigation, first to find out the identity of the woman, then to determine the circumstances surrounding the death. Diamond is also under internal investigation for allegedly using questionable interrogation tactics in a former case, where the accused is claiming that he was bullied into a confession when interviewed by Diamond, so his every step is being monitored by the Chief Constable. As the investigation into the woman’s death proceeds, Diamond’s disdain for the reliance on forensic evidence and “the men in white coats”, and the increasing lack of respect for what he refers to as “good, old-fashioned detective work” by other, younger coppers is clearly conveyed to the reader, and sets the stage for Diamond’s circumstances in future novels in the series. This novel is interesting in its make-up, as it consists of sections that detail the police investigation which are broken up by sections from point of view of particular characters, suspects in the woman’s death, told in the first-person narrative. These sections offer insight into the characters, and give depth to the story that would be lacking if it was written as a straight police procedural with simply a detailed account of the investigation using the omniscient third-person narrative. It was definitely an interesting listening experience, and I look forward to downloading more titles in this series.

And I just briefly wanted to mention a BBC series I’ve been watching recently, “Dalziel and Pascoe”, which is based on the novels of Reginald Hill. I have a few of his novels on my bookshelf, but I don’t think I’ve actually read any of them. The tv series is interesting, as these two mismatched police investigators, Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, solve violent crimes in their British hometown. I’m inspired to give the books a try, as I feel I now “know” the characters. I don’t recall why I haven’t read the books before - they are contemporary British mysteries, which I generally enjoy. Maybe once I finish the long list of books I have to read over the next month, I will give one a try.

Oh dear, the sun is coming out… That means I will have to be productive instead of lounging around the house drinking tea and reading all afternoon. Darn! Rainy Sunday afternoon, where did you go?

Bye for now…


Sunday 20 October 2013

Book and film talk on a sunny Sunday morning...

I have a few things to talk about on this cool, sunny autumn morning as I enjoy a cup of chai:  a book, a book club meeting, and a film.

I am in the middle of a psychological suspense novel by Sophie Hannah called A Room Swept White.  This author’s name may seem familiar to you if you are a regular visitor to Julie’s Reading Corner, as I recently read her newest novel, Kind of Cruel, for review for the local paper and wrote about it here.  A Room Swept White is an earlier novel of Hannah’s, published in 2010.  It tells the story of three women, Helen, Ray and Sarah, who have been charged with and/or convicted of murdering their infant children on different dates in different areas.  Their main connection is the expert witness, Dr. Judith Duffy, who played a significant role in each court hearing to convince the jury that natural causes could not have been a cause for death in each circumstance, that murder was the only cause they could consider to be reasonable.  Years later, with the help and guidance of JIPAC, Justice for Innocent Parents and Caregivers, spearheaded by Laurie Nattrass, a brilliant, eccentric documentary director and social activist, they have been released from prison or acquitted of the charges.  One day shortly after Helen’s release from prison, Nattrass calls Felicity “Fliss” Benson, a TV producer at Nattrass’ media company, Binary Star, where he suddenly and inexplicably offers her his job, as he has decided to leave the company and work elsewhere.  She has just received an anonymous letter, a card with 16 numbers arranged in a grid pattern, that appears to have no meaning.  On the same day, Helen is found murdered, and it is revealed that she, too, recieved a card with the sixteen numbers, which was left in her bathrobe pocket during or after the murder.  Fliss also has a deep personal secret, which she is reluctant to tell her friend, the police, or us, the readers, but which she alludes to regularly.  It is a real page-turner, filled with increased suspense, as the more that is revealed, the more it seems there is to uncover.  When I read her most recent novel, I had difficulty keeping the mismatched, eclectic members of the police investigation team straight, and I found it interesting that the same police investigators are also working on the case in this novel.  So while it is not really a series, the same police seem to feature in some or maybe all of her novels.  I find her writing a bit confusing, but the stories are so compelling that I will definitely read others she has written, if they prove to be as suspenseful and interesting as these last two have been.  I hope to finish this novel by early next week.

I had my first meeting with my newest volunteer book group yesterday, where we discussed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Hadden.  This novel is told from the point of view of Christopher Boone, a 15-year old autistic boy in the UK who is living with his father.  It opens with Christopher’s discovery of the neighbour’s dog, Wellington, lying dead on her lawn with a pitchfork sticking out of its body.  He determines to solve the mystery of Who Killed Wellington?, and the reader is treated to a look at his unconventional thought processes as he undertakes this challenge to solve the mystery and find the answer.  When I discussed this novel with my other volunteer book group, everyone loved it.  They thought that it was a real success story, that the writing and story were creative and interesting, and that the characters were flawed but believable.  My husband loved the book, too, as did my good friend, a huge reader who learned about this title from my blog post last year.  But the ladies in my group yesterday did not love the book.  There were three members besides me, and they all agreed that they found the book “disturbing”.  One women said her former husband, who spent time in jail and was, shortly after his conviction, diagnosed as autistic, used to send her letters from prison that included diagrams similar to those featured in the novel which were drawn by Christopher to help the reader understand how he thinks.  She also felt worried for Christopher, being all alone on his quest, with seemingly no support in his efforts to find his mother.  She wondered where the Social Services were, and why no one was ever called to help the family deal with their situation.  I also felt this way occasionally throughout the book, and we discussed whether a book like this could be instrumental in bringing to light the inadequacies of the support systems offered to families who have members with special needs.  Another woman in the group has a son who is autistic, so she didn’t really enjoy the book.  The third woman found the opening scene, featuring the murdered dog, to be disturbing, but she enjoyed most of the rest of the book, particularly the creative, unorthodox way it was written, including diagrams, Appendices, and lists.  In the end, they were all glad to have read the novel, and were looking forward to our next meeting.  I thought that this was a good example of the ways in which our personal history and experiences influence our responses to books we read.

And I had a small “Hedgehog Party” last night.  Well, only one person was able to make it, one of the women in my “Friends” book group who recently discussed The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  I purchased the DVD of the film adaptation of this novel (French with English subtitles), and I had a box of Mini-Hedgehogs from Purdy’s Chocolates (YUM!!) purchased specifically for this occasion, and so last night we sat down and watched the film while my husband was away at a “`Boys Night Out”.  I tried hard not to compare the film with the book, and I think it would be an impossible job to do justice in a film adaptation to a book that was so filled with internal thought processes and abstract discussion.  In the end, we both wondered if we may have enjoyed the film more if we hadn’t read end enjoyed the book so much.  It was pretty good, and I guess I would recommend it to anyone who has not read the book, as it is an interesting and moving story, but I would definitely caution anyone who loves the book to be prepared for significant differences and omission in the film version.

That’s all for today!

Bye for now…

Sunday 13 October 2013

Thanksgiving weekend post...

On this muggy, overcast, rather dreary morning, I’m drinking a nice cup of tea and enjoying the fragrance of a freshly cooked pot of applesauce… mmm!  This past week I have been on vacation, so didn’t get much (I should say any!) reading done, as I was busy with one thing and another.  But I do have a few books to talk about today.

I recently reviewed an adult non-fiction reference book for the local paper, and it was so amazing that I wanted to mention it here.  It is common knowledge that the three-toed sloth is one of the slowest and sleepiest mammals in the world, and that the spotted hyena is the most efficient mammalian scavenger.  But did you know that, as a group, birds have better colour vision than any other group of animals on Earth?  Or that the female cane or marine toad (Bufo marinus) lays as many as 50,000 eggs per spawning? These and other strange, remarkable, and sometimes bizarre animal records can be found in the Natural History Museum Book of Animal Records.  Accompanying these records are stunning photos and fascinating facts that are sure to delight and amaze readers of all ages.  This book includes nearly 900 records, which are broken down into sections and include all six animal groups:  mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes ad invertebrates.  The records include not only the familiar ones such as fastest, most colourful and best sense of smell, but more unusual records such as the most vegetarian, the least toes, and the most bizarre defense.  It includes different records for different groupings and focuses on the records that are most relevant and interesting for each type of animal.  The diversity and wonder of the animal kingdom is well-represented in this volume, a definitive guide to the most exotic and unusual creatures on Earth.  Zoologist Mark Carwardine is an award-winning writer, widely published wildlife photographer, conservationist, TV and radio presenter, and magazine columnist.  He has written more than 50 books, including Last Chance to See with Douglas Adams.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in animals, animal facts and/or animal records.  It is a truly amazing book.

And I listened to an Agatha Christie audio book, one of the Miss Marple titles, Murder at the Vicarage.  It is set in the small English village of St Mary Mead and the main characters, the vicar, his wife, and some of the townspeople, are all under suspicion when Colonel Protheroe is found murdered in the vicarage.  The Colonel is not well-liked by anyone in the village, and most of the townspeople had some motive to want him out of the way.  Miss Marple, while not a central figure in the story, is called upon to share her insights and opinions, as she demonstrates keen detective skills and abilities in deciphering clues.  This is the first Agatha Christie mystery I have listened to that features Miss Marple, and it is very different from those that feature Hercules Poirot, in that Miss Marple holds no official capacity as a police investigator or private detective.  Instead, she is merely an elderly woman who happens to be keenly aware of her surroundings and takes notice of everything that goes on in the village.  I just discovered that this is the first of Christie’s mysteries to feature Miss Marple, which is interesting.  Perhaps her role changes as more mysteries were written with Marple as a more central character.  I’ll have to listen to a few more to find out.  Anyway, it was a delightful listening experience, as is usual with a Christie mystery audio book.

And I think this week I will be rereading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon for my newest volunteer book group, a seniors’ group with the Day Program at the local Community Centre.  I wrote about this delightful book on June 3, 2012, after my regular volunteer book group discussed it.  It is a wonderful little novel about an autistic boy’s adventures as he tries to solve the mystery of the curious death of the neighbour’s dog, while at the same time find his mother.  I absolutely do not mind reading this again in preparation for another book discussion.  Actually, we are going to discuss it again in November with my “friends” book group - soon I will be reciting passages of that book from memory… in my sleep!!  Good thing my husband also loved the book, so he can recite along with me!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Bye for now…

Sunday 6 October 2013

Sunday morning tea and book talk...

It is a dreary, rainy, muggy Sunday morning as I sit down with my cup of chai and think about what I read since my last post.  I also have Banana Bread baking in the oven, which, paired with the tea, somehow cheers me up on this first glooming Sunday in October.  And I’ve been reading some great stuff, too, which always makes me happy.

I finished reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote for my book club meeting on Friday.  It was as good as I remembered it being from my first reading.  Inspired by a short 300-word article on the back pages of a newspaper, I think the New York Times, this “non-fiction novel” recounts the murder of four members of the Clutter family on a farm in Kansas in 1959, and the subsequent travels and eventual capture and trial of the two guilty men, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, men who met in prison and who planned the robbery and murder of the family members.  The story itself is interesting, particularly the responses of the community members to the murders and the choices Dick and Perry make after they commit the crimes, as well as their attitudes and actions after they are convicted.  The writing is superb as well, the sweeping descriptions of the farm and the family before the murders, and the descriptions of the townspeople, the murderers and their family members, and the court processes they encountered during their trial and imprisonment.  Something I noted during my reading, and one of my book club members commented on immediately when we began discussing the book, was the fact that she did not despise Dick or Perry by the end of the book, and she felt she should have felt otherwise.  That’s exactly how I felt, that I didn’t hate them, but sympathized with their situation and felt compassion for them, which I thought indicated that they had been portrayed fairly by Capote in his book.  They came from difficult childhoods, especially Perry, and Dick had his own issues, but we felt that if they had never met and made this plan together, they may have remained alive, although they probably would have ended up doing time in jail over the course of their lives.  Thinking about the legal system these days, their lawyers probably would have found a legal loophole and kept them off of death row - this is something we will never know.  At the beginning of the meeting, one of my book club members, who has been ill recently and so didn’t have a chance to read this book, thought that she was familiar with the story and related what she thought was this story, where a famous lawyer set a legal precedent with his brilliant defense of the accused.  In fact, the case she was thinking of was the Leopold and Loeb case, in I think the 1920s or 1930s, involving two brilliant university students who conspire to commit the perfect murder, and end up killing a neighbour boy. Clarence Darrow was the lawyer who defended them and kept them off death row, succeeding in securing a life sentence for each.  If I recall correctly, one of the boys ended up having a significant positive influence on the prison where he was kept, by setting up a library and some education programs.  If you are interested in reading about this fascinating true crime story, there is an excellent book written by Hal Higdon, Crime of the Century, which details these events.  Getting back to Dick and Perry’s story, what I also found interesting in preparation for my meeting was the story surrounding the decision to write the book.  I know almost nothing about Truman Capote, but in my search for information, I discovered that, as mentioned above, he was inspired to check out this incident by a small article on the back page of a newspaper.  He researched for four years, with much help from his close childhood friend Harper Lee, and he was heavily involved in the making of the film, in I think 1967, of this story (not to be confused with the more recent film Capote which details the writing of In Cold Blood).  Capote was disappointed that he did not receive the Pulitzer Prize for this book, but claimed that it was the first book in a new genre, the non-fiction novel, although it is believed that there were others in this genre written before this book. Incidentally, I was at the library yesterday and found the 1967 film on DVD, which I checked out and plan to watch sometime this week, although I may have already seen it.  Anyway, this is a landmark title that should be read as an example of excellent true crime writing.

Speaking of crime writing, I read another title, this one fiction, involving multiple murders.  Rather than “read”, perhaps I should use the term “inhaled”, as I  finished this 400+ page novel in just two days.  The novel is Watching You by Michael Robotham, and it was excellent.  This new novel tells the story of Marnie Logan, a mother of two whose husband has been missing for over a year.  She has the strange sensation of being watched or followed, but has no evidence of this.  Her situation reaches a new level of desperation as she is contacted by Hennessey, the man to whom her husband owed a large sum of money in gambling debts, and she is forced to make payments to him using some unsavoury means.  Suddenly people start dying around her, and Marnie is the prime suspect.  She seeks help from clinical psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin, who tries to uncover her past and help her deal with her blackouts and missed periods of time.  As he digs deeper, he encounters resistance, but manages to uncover more than he bargained for, as Marnie’s mysterious childhood emerges, and people continue to die in unusual circumstances.  Robotham is a psychological thriller master, and this book does not disappoint.  Complex yet believable, this novel kept me on the edge of my seat up to the very last sentence.  Some of the usual characters are featured, ex-detective and friend Vincent Ruiz, O’Loughlin’s daughter Charlie, and of course Mr. Parkinson, O’Loughlin’s constant companion.  If you enjoy psychological thrillers and are not already a Robotham fan, I highly recommend that you start reading his books right away; best to start with the first one, though, The Suspect, where all the characters are introduced.  For all those existing fans, enjoy his new offering!

That’s all for today.

Bye for now…

Sunday 29 September 2013

Last post for September...

On this cool, sunny Sunday morning, as I sip my steaming cup of chai and anticipate the freshly-baked Banana Bread that should be out of the oven soon, I’m thinking about what I’ve been reading and what I’m going to read next, as I usually do each week at this time.

I decided last week, after my post, to read Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote.  I have read this novella before, and of course seen the movie with Audrey Hepburn.  There is a story behind my choosing this to read.  My next book club selection is In Cold Blood, also by Capote, the true crime account of the murder of the Clutter family on their farm in Kansas in November, 1959 by two men, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith.  As is my tendency when selecting books for the book club, I select a book for October that is sort of “seasonal”, as in a mystery or a ghost story with Hallowe’en in mind, or one year, when my husband and I went to Algonquin Park for a few days, I selected Canoe Lake by Roy MacGregor, a novel about the mystery surrounding painter Tom Thomson’s death.  I also try to select one non-fiction title for my group to read, which can sometimes be difficult, as we are mainly fiction readers, and some non-fiction is not as easy to read as a novel.  Anyway, one of my members, a retired high school English teacher, read In Cold Blood when one of her students selected it for an independent study project, and she was reluctant to reread it for our meeting.  She told me that she wouldn’t be joining us for our October meeting for that reason, and I suggested that she could choose another true crime book to read and discuss.  That wasn’t something she wanted to do, so I suggested reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s as it is by the same author, and the other work for which Capote is most well-known.  I don’t know if she will come to the meeting or read this novella, but I felt that, since it is so short and easy to read, it would be a good idea to reread it so someone else in the group would be familiar with the story in case she decides to join us.  This novella, published in 1958, tells the story of a writer who recounts the experiences he had in his first apartment in New York in 1943, when he befriended another tenant in the building, Holly Golightly, a young country girl-turned-society woman who shies away from owning or belonging to anything, always on the search for the richest man she can find.  She goes every Thursday to visit Salvatore “Sally” Tomato in Sing Sing, where she receives a “weather report” which she must convey to another man before receiving payment for her visit.  This in the end is her undoing, as she is arrested for aiding a racketeer.  The narrator, an unnamed writer whom Holly calls “Fred” because he reminds her of her brother Fred, becomes fascinated by Holly and her lifestyle, and falls a little bit in love with her as she remains unattainable.  The character of Holly Golightly has become an American icon, and I would certainly recommend that everyone should read this short novel if only to understand the cultural references that are made to this story even today.  I’m also half-way through In Cold Blood, which I hope to finish today or tomorrow.  I will talk about that more next week, after the meeting.

I also listened to an audio book by Harlan Coben last week, Hold Tight, which I was sure I’d listened to before, but it turned out that it was a new listening experience for me.  It begins with the brutal murder of a woman outside a bar by a couple in an unmarked white van (why is it always an unmarked white van?).  It then moves to the decision by a high school boy’s parents to install spying software on their son’s computer in an effort to monitor his online activities, as he’s been acting strangely since his best friend committed suicide a few months before.  When their son disappears, they start a search that leads to underage clubs and the discovery of “pharm parties”.  When another woman goes missing, the story becomes more complex as the reader is led into a web of criminal activity.  Sometimes I enjoy these types of novels to listen to, as I don’t have to pay much attention to the language or the details, always a consideration when listening to a book rather than reading it and seeing the words on the page.  In fact, I just recently listened to the “Andy Carpenter” novel, the “Kurt Wallander” novel and the “Peter Diamond” novel.  All of these are mysteries, though they are not really thrillers.  I have enjoyed reading novels by Harlan Coben in the past, which started many years ago with his “Myron Bolitar” series, featuring Bolitar as a former sports agent-turned amateur detective.  He has moved on to write many complex stand-alone thrillers, one of which was made into a French film, “Tell No One”, and which was both an excellent book and a great film.  This one, however, was not a great listening experience for me, and I’m not sure if the story and writing were at fault, or if it was mainly down to the narrator, who read in such an expressive and over-the-top dramatic way that it totally ruined the book for me.  I guess I’ll never know, as I will be unlikely to read this book again in its physical form.  But, like all good train wrecks, once I got into the story, I couldn’t stop listening and sped through to the very end, which was fairly unsatisfying.  I hope this doesn’t put potential readers off Coben’s books (he's a bestselling author, so I'm not really too worried).  I really enjoyed reading and listening to other novels of his, such as The Woods and Promise Me.  This one, unfortunately, just didn’t live up to my expectations.

So I was planning to read a review book next, once I finish Capote’s book, but I just found out that Wayne Johnston’s newest novel, The Son of a Certain Woman has come in for me.  What a dilemma… I really want to read Johnston’s novel, but I don’t actually have it yet.  I should read a review book, and I will, but Johnston’s novel has the appeal of not only being a title of personal interest, it can also double as a committee title.  I think Johnston’s novel will be the winner in this decision;  the review book can wait until next week.

Time for Banana Bread and reading.  Enjoy the Indian Summer weather we’re having!

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 September 2013

Book talk on the first day of fall...

On this cool, sunny Sunday morning, the first day of fall, I am just waiting for my chai tea to steep as I think about what I’ve read and listened to over the past week, and what I will read next.

I just finished reading Kind of Cruel, a complex psychological thriller by award-winning novelist Sophie Hannah. Amber Heweredine has suffered from chronic insomnia for the past eighteen months, a condition that has forced her to try hypnosis as a last resort, not expecting that it will help, but determining that it can’t possibly make things worse than they already are.  When, under hypnosis, she utters the words, “Kind, cruel, kind of cruel”, she doesn’t understand what they mean or why she said them.  She abandons her hypnotherapist and bolts towards her car, where she encounters another client, a woman she spoke with briefly before her session.  She is suddenly sure she saw those words printed in this woman’s notebook, and is desperate enough to check this by breaking into the car once the woman goes in for her appointment.  After being caught out for this, she is subsequently brought in by the local police for questioning in connection with the unsolved murder of Katharine Allen two months earlier, a woman Amber has never heard of.  Thus begins Amber’s attempts to search for the origin of these words, certain that if she can uncover where and when she first saw them, she will also find the key to solving the murder.  As one murder becomes connected to a second murder two years before, Amber’s search intensifies as she explores past experiences she’s had with friends and family members to try to discover the “mystery behind the mystery”, assisted by a team of eclectic, mismatched police. This quest leads to a dramatic, satisfying conclusion that will leave readers longing for more.  At once an exploration of the reliability of memories versus stories, an investigation into dysfunctional family relationships, and the exploration of parental responsibility, this page-turner kept this reader up late into the night. While I found parts of the story and some of the characters confusing, I found that if I just kept reading, I would get the gist of the story and figure out which parts were significant and which were “extras”.  As I mentioned in last week’s post, Sophie Hannah has been chosen to pen a new Hercule Poirot novel, with the backing of Agatha Christie’s family and the first official novel to continue Christie’s work.  I would recommend this title for just about any fans of psychological thrillers.

And I finished listening to First Degree, an “Andy Carpenter” novel by David Rosenfelt, read by one of my favourite narrators, Grover Gardiner.  The novels in this series are always a treat for me to listen to, and this one was no exception.  It tells the story of independently-wealthy lawyer Carpenter’s efforts to prove his girlfriend, Laurie Collins, former police officer turned private investigator, innocent of the charge of murder in the first degree.  Her former boss on the police force, a dirty detective whom she turned in and who subsequently became the focus of an internal investigation, was found beheaded and burned in an abandoned warehouse.  All the evidence points to Laurie, and it is Andy’s job to prove to the jury that there is reasonable doubt as to her guilt.  At once humorous and compelling, these books are a real treat for me.  While not “laugh-out-loud” funny, Andy’s comments make me chuckle regularly.  I also learn much about the American legal system  from these novels.  And I just discovered that the author has an actual dog rescue foundation, the Tara Foundation, just like his main character in the books - wow!  I’m impressed!  I always enjoy these novels as audio books, and I’m sure the narrator’s natural way with the characters and stories plays a huge part in the success these books have had with me - Gardiner captures the voices and tones of the characters and narratives perfectly, and it is wonderful that so far, he is the only narrator for the books that are available on audio in this series.  I have a recent title by this author as a physical book, but I’m not sure if I want to read it or wait until it becomes available as an audio book… it’s a dilemma.

So what do I read next?  Review book?  Committee book?  Book club selection?  I will drink my tea and hopefully make a choice soon, as I think this will be a good afternoon for curling up with a good book.  Happy Fall!!

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 September 2013

Short post on a cool September morning...

I have a pot of Lentil Chili and a pot of homemade Zucchini Soup simmering on the stove as I write this post... mmm!  I also have a steaming cup of chai in front of me.  Unlike the books I’ve been reading lately, which are books I’ve read and/or discussed  before, my tea is something different, a Pure Chai blend which I bought from a well-known specialty tea chain.  I’m not sure whether I’ll like it as much as my usual blend, Masala Chai, from a little shop in St Jacob’s, but it’s good to try something new every once in a while.

I reread The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery last week.  We had just discussed it in May for my volunteer book group, so I thought I would just skim it to refresh my memory so I could discuss it with some knowledge.  Well, I read nearly every word again, and I made copious notes on sticky notes which are stuck in my book even now.  Once again, like The Sense of an Ending, I really wanted to underline so many passages, but I resisted, even though it is my own copy.  Hedgehog tells the alternating stories of Renee and Paloma as they go about their lives in modern-day Paris.  Renee is the concierge of an apartment building filled with wealthy, aristocratic tenants, politicians and food critics, among others. Fifty-four year old  Renee describes herself as short, squat, and unattractive, with bunions on her feet, who is, despite her station in life, very intelligent, an autodidact.  Paloma is a twelve-year old who is exceptionally bright and who, in order to avoid living the rest of her life in the goldfish bowl of tedium that she sees is her only option as an adult, has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.  These alternating characters share their adventures and activities, along with views and commentaries on their lives and the lives and characters of those around them.  There is much philosophy and theories of art and filmmaking explored in this interesting and unique novel, and it is sometimes a challenge to get through, as it is difficult to understand everything the characters are talking about.  I thought I would skim over those parts, the parts that I didn’t think were essential to understanding their stories, but I found that there were less parts to skim over than I had anticipated.  I found that I was reading nearly every word on every page, and noticing subtleties that of course I missed on my first reading, such as the mention of camellias throughout the book, which I didn’t realize were going to be significant.  I thought the book was really about learning to enjoy the beauty of each moment, and to, as Paloma says, make each moment “an undying”.  It was about learning to build up, not destroy.  Of the friends who met to discuss it last week, one person listened to it as an audio book, and she said that it was very difficult to understand everything the narrators were talking about.  I can appreciate that, as it is not an easy read, even when you have the printed page in front of you.  Another person read the book two years ago while she was on holiday in Cuba, and she remembered enjoying it, but that it was also sad.  The third person had been really enjoying the book, but then got too busy and stopped in the middle.  We didn't realize that she had not finished, so we discussed the ending (which I will not do here, as it will ruin it for anyone who had not read it).  She was fine with that, and determined to make time to finish it.  She, in particular, was a person I thought would really enjoy it, as she works in a field where the practice of  mindfulness plays a significant role, and upon rereading the book, I discovered that this is exactly what this book is all about, living in the moment and appreciating all the beauty that surrounds you in that moment.  I was describing my rereading experience to someone at work last week, and I suggested that this book is like some dishes:  they are great when they are eaten first, right out of the oven, but they are even better the second day, when all the flavours have had a chance to develop and deepen.  So I would recommend that this book be enjoyed once, then a few months later, reread it and appreciate all you missed the first time around.

Then I had to decide what to read next.  I have a pile of books for review, a pile for the committee I`m on, and a pile of books I put on hold at the library.  I was trying to decide which pile to select from, when I came across an article about Sophie Hannah, a British writer who has recently been selected by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new “Hercule Poirot” novel, the first time this has been done since Christie passed away.  One of the books in my review pile is by this author, Kind of Cruel, so I decided that she must be a good writer to be entrusted with such a lofty project.  I started this psychological thriller last night, and will write more about it when I finish.

OK, time to get on with my day.  Happy Sunday!

Bye for now…

PS The tea is not as good as my original blend… good thing I only bought enough for a couple of cups.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Tea and book talk on a sunny Sunday morning...

It’s a lovely, cool, brisk Sunday morning as I sit with a cup of steaming chai tea and a slice of homemade Banana Bread, fresh out of the oven… mmm, mornings don’t get any better than this!

My book group met on Friday to discuss The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  If you recall from my last post, this novel tells the story of school friends Tony and Adrian, and the woman with whom they were both involved during university, Veronica.  Tony dated her first, a tempestuous relationship that ended rather badly, as youthful relationships often do.  During their time together, he spent a weekend with Veronica’s family, which was a rather strange experience for him.  After breaking up, Tony receives a letter from Adrian, requesting permission to date Veronica, to which he responds heatedly and impulsively.  There is some mystery as to what exactly happened in the next while, but then something happens that changes everything.  Fast-forward 40 or so years, and Adrian is again brought into Tony’s life via a letter from a solicitor informing him that Veronica’s recently deceased mother has left him some money and a few documents.  This now causes Tony to think about and analyze the relationship he had with Veronica, and his friendship with Adrian, so many years before, relationships he had not contemplated for years, having grown up and moved on.  The resulting inquiries lead to some astonishing revelations, and some unresolved mysteries, too, as Tony strives to understand what happened all those years ago.  I was thrilled to find out from my book club members that nearly everyone loved the book.  They found the writing to be excellent, the characters interesting, and the story complex and interesting, yet realistic.  The one member who didn’t love the book, but also didn’t really dislike it, felt that Tony was a bit too self-indulgent and whiny, that he never really grew up, to which we all agreed.  But we qualified that by pointing out that this relapse into the past occurred rather curiously, at a time in Tony’s life when he had neither job nor family to occupy his time, and that, as a retiree, he had plenty of time to analyze the mysterious circumstances that led to this posthumous contact from Veronica’s mother.  I suggested to the group that, if he had not received the letter from the solicitor, perhaps he would have just joined the local community centre and found groups of seniors with whom he could play cards or bingo twice a week, and just muddled through the rest of his life with sporadic contact with his daughter and ex-wife. One of my members suggested that what happened during the weekend he visited with Veronica’s parents was more significant than I ever thought it was, that in fact, all the careless remarks and actions were intentional and were intended to lead to a particular, and particularly unsavoury, outcome.  I can’t say any more about it without giving it away, but if you read it, you will know what I mean.  I had never thought of that, but I can see how that could be the case, which makes Veronica’s family more dysfunctional than I ever considered.  But the fact that there were no really clearcut answers by the end of the book is also a sign that it was well-written, as we all agreed.  A book should be open to interpretation, should mean something different to everyone, and readers should relate to a story and the characters in it in their own unique ways.  I’m sure readers find meaning and significance in well-written novels that even the author didn’t intend.  This is the way life is, right?  There are often many sides to every story, and each person experiencing the same event or incident could tell a completely different story from the others.  Anyway, I highly recommend this novel, but I think you need to read it twice to catch on to the subtleties the author uses in the narrative, told from the point of view of an admittedly unreliable narrator.

I also finished listening to Troubled Waters by Henning Mankel.  This is the last in the “Kurt Wallander” series, and I think it’s one of the best.  It opens with Wallander contemplating his aging and pending retirement, but then his daughter Linda tells him that she is pregnant and will be having a child with her boyfriend, Hans, a financial analyst who works in the area of hedgefunds.  He is invited to Hans’ father’s 75th birthday party in Stockholm, where he meets Hakan and Louise von Enke, Hans’ parents.  Hakan and Kurt wander off into a conservatory and then into a windowless study, where Hakan opens up to Kurt and tells him stories of foreign submarines in Swedish waters when he was working as a high-ranking naval officer in the 1980s.  Shortly after the party, Hakan disappears without a trace, leaving Louise, Kurt, Hans and Linda to search for him, a search that always seems to lead to dead ends.  Then Louise, too, disappears, and the hunt intensifies.  Russian spies and American CIA members become part of the story as they try to unravel the mysteries surrounding these disappearances, and I was kept on the edge of my “bus seat” to the very last sentence.  And it was a real swansong for Wallander.  I hadn’t realized that it was the last book in which he would be featured, but throughout the novel, there are signs of Wallander’s disintegration, from his diabetes and memory loss to his poor eating habits and occasional excessive drinking.  It was sad to hear about this decline, since, as a long-time reader of this series, I have grown fond of this gruff, gloomy Swedish detective.  Ah well, perhaps the author will begin a series with Wallander’s daughter, Linda, as the main detective, as she is already a police officer.

And one last thing I was thinking about this past week related to books and reading.  I have a “Friends” book group that meets every two months.  We are meeting next week to discuss The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and I was speaking to a woman at work who may be interested in joining us.  She tried to read the book, but it just wasn’t grabbing her, so I gave her some suggestions if she wanted to finish it, like don’t get bogged down by the philosophers, artists and other creators Renee discusses, skim (but don’t completely skip!) parts that don’t relate directly to the personal stories of the main characters, Renee and Paloma, etc.  She said that, while she appreciated the advice, she felt that she needed a “heartwarming” read right now, and did I have any suggestions?  I had to stop and think… I reviewed my blog to see what I had read recently… I thought about the books I had sitting at home, waiting to be read… and I concluded that I don’t do “heartwarming” very often at all.  In fact, I almost never read heartwarming, feel-good books.  This seems curious to me - do I never want to feel good after I finish a book?  She consoled me by suggesting that I probably choose books that are more “deep” and “meaningful”, which made me feel a bit better, but it still left me contemplating what I read when I’m not reading “deep, meaningful” books.  I have come to the conclusion that, when I need something fun or light to read, something I don’t have to think too much about or analyze, I read mysteries, British mysteries, Swedish mysteries, even Canadian mysteries, to lighten my reading load.  Phew!  I was worried there for a minute, but now I think my reading choices are OK.  By the way, I did come up with a few titles of “feel-good” books for her:  Grave Concern by Judith Millar (a delightfully “light” Canadian mystery), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (light, yet insightful), and Dog by Michelle Herman (heartwarming).  I also suggested The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which I have never read but have heard that it is definitely a “feel-good” read.

Have a great day!

Bye for now…