Wednesday 27 February 2013

Quick post on a messy afternoon...

I finished reading Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet by Jamie Ford a few minutes ago and I wanted to write about it briefly before we discuss it at my book group next week.  This novel tells the story of Henry and Keiko, a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl in Seattle during the war years of 1942-45.  Told from the point of view of Henry, a widower in his fifties, the story alternates between 1986, when Henry joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel as the belongings of some Japanese families evacuated during the internment are being uncovered, and the war years, during which time the forbidden relationship between Henry and Keiko develops.  As the Japanese families are evacuated and relocated to permanent camps, Henry struggles to stay in touch with Keiko, but he faces many obstacles, especially in his relationship with his father.  Encouraged by his son, Marty, and Marty's fiancee, Samantha, Henry seeks to reconcile the choices he made as a young boy with the way things have worked out in his life.  I don't want to give away too much of the plot, as that is part of the appeal of the novel, not quite knowing what will happen next to foil Henry's plans.  I wanted to love this book, I really did.  The story was interesting, the characters were interesting, the setting was interesting... but something was just missing.  I found the writing style somewhat flat and the story repetitive.  Having said that, I think it was a good book club choice, and I wonder what my ladies will think of it.  There were many topics for discussion presented in the novel:  family responsibilities, relationships between fathers and sons, loss of innocence and first loves, the roles of tradition in a progressive society, just to name a few.  While I was going to wait until our discussion before writing, I had time now and wanted to get my own thoughts and responses down before too much time passed and they became confused with the responses of the others in the group.  Would I recommend this book?  I think the answer is yes, I would, but I would also let the potential reader know that I did not love the book, and that it is not necessary to read and analyze every word carefully to get the gist of the story.

I'm officially on vacation now...  See you next week!


Friday 22 February 2013

Tea and book talk on a cold mid-winter day...

I have a few novels, as well as a couple of films, to talk about on this wintery morning.

I had my “friends” book group discussion last night.  We discussed The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.  I’m sure you are familiar with the themes of this award-winning novel which was adapted into an award-winning film within the last few years, but I can quickly summarize it here.  Told from the point of view of two maids and one young woman in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, this novel tells the story of what it was like to be a black woman serving in a white family’s home, raising their children and cleaning their house, among other things.  There is also a young woman who sees the injustice of racial discrimination and sets about trying to change things by writing a book offering the stories of a dozen maids and their experiences.  Two members showed up for last night’s meeting, and they both loved it.  They liked the characters who were narrating, and felt that the novel was educational, in that it gave insight into that time period and the circumstances that existed then. They found it very readable, at times funny, but also very moving and sad.  I had to agree that the book was very entertaining and educational.  I actually enjoyed the book, which we had discussed with my “volunteer” book group last year.  What I did not like was the hype that surrounded this novel.  It is not a historical document, nor does it accurately portray the lives of  black domestics at that time in history, yet the hype surrounding it has portrayed this as being “the most important book since To Kill A Mockingbird…” (something like that is printed on the cover of my copy).  In my view, this novel is entertainment, and to suggest that it is an accurate representation of the situation at that time is to trivialize the situations of those domestic workers.  Sorry, I get a bit angry whenever I discuss this book, for the reasons listed above.  In fact, this book was criticized by the Association of Black Women Historians
regarding the trivialization and misrepresentation of these women.  Having said that, it was an interesting read, and I doubt anyone could read The Help and not be moved.

I’m nearly finished listening to Ruth Rendell’s The Vault.  It tells the story of Reginald Wexford, recently retired from the police force, who is brought in as a “consultant” to help with the case when four bodies are discovered in a coal hole (the “vault”) at Orcadia Cottage by the current owners.  There is also a subplot involving Wexford’s daughter, Sylvia, which gives the already-full story yet another dimension .  I haven’t read all of Rendell’s novels, and have been rather disappointed with some of her stand-alones, but I have enjoyed any in the Inspector Wexford series that I have read, and this one is no exception.  It is excellent, and the narrator really captures the essence of the different characters.  I look forward to listening to the last three parts over the weekend.  By the way, Ruth Rendell just had a birthday on February 17th - she is 83!

I have just barely begun reading The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, which is the next book selected for the “volunteer” group discussion in March.  I will write more about that once I’ve read it and had the discussion.

In my last post, I had just finished listening to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and loved it.  I rented the film adaptation from the library, and I have to say, I was rather disappointed.  This is the love story set in the English countryside in the 1930s involving two sisters and two American brothers, and the girls’ father, a writer who penned one famous novel and then stopped writing for 12 years.  Well, in the film, the father is portrayed as quite harsh and abusive, while in the book, I recall that he was mostly harmless, if lacking in ambition.  That seems to be what disturbed me most about the film, but of course there were the inevitable changes to plot and characters that happen whenever a book is adapted into a film, which probably served a purpose but, in my mind, did not enhance the story.  So I would say, if you want to really experience this classic “coming-of-age” novel, read the book, don’t watch the film.

And speaking of books made into films, I recently purchased a “previously-viewed” copy of the Japanese horror film on which the American film, “The Ring”, was based.  The film’s title is “Ringu”, and it is totally creepy!  It begins with a couple of teenage girls talking about a video one of the girls watched the week before, when she was at a cabin with some friends.  She said the video predicted that she would die in seven days, and this was the seventh day.  They laugh and joke about this, then the girl dies, seemingly frightened to death by something the viewer can’t see.  Shortly thereafter, the other teens from that cabin also die in mysterious circumstances, and one of the teen’s relatives, who is a reporter, becomes curious and decides to investigate the circumstances surrounding these deaths.  She goes to the cabin and watches the video, which predicts her own death in seven days unless she… There the video cuts to static, and it is up to her to figure out how to stop her own inevitable death by discovering the truth about this video.  I rented this film a number of years ago and was fascinated by it - I remember watching it a couple of times during the week we had it as a rental.  Against my better judgement, I remember renting the American remake, and I have to say, I have no recollection of that adaptation at all, so I guess I was less-than-impressed with it.  Well, I watched my “new-to-me” dvd the other day and discovered that it is based on a book, Ringu, by a relatively new Japanese author, Koji Suzuki, so I ordered a copy for myself (the English translation, of course!) using AbeBooks, the online books exchange site that I have used so often in the past and which has always proven to be reliable.  I got the book about a week later, but haven’t started reading it yet.  Maybe it will be the book I will bring with me to Cuba to read on the beach.

I’ll close now and read a bit more of Jamie Ford’s novel - I hope to finish it before we go away, as it is a library book, so I don’t want to take it out of the country in case it gets lost or damaged, dropped in the sea or covered in sand… sun, sand and sea for a whole week… I will not be posting again until the weekend of March 9th.  Happy reading, everyone!

Bye for now!

Friday 15 February 2013

Short post before a long weekend...

As we approach the Family Day weekend, I thought it would be a good idea to get my entry posted, as I am going to visit my family on Sunday, my usual posting day.

I read The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar last week.  This novel was recommended as a read-alike for Badami’s Tell It To The Trees, which I really enjoyed, so I was excited to read it.  It tells the story of two very different women in Bombay, Sera, a well-off widow and Bhima, her servant of many years.  Both women have daughters, and both are without husbands at the time the story takes place.  Despite their social and class differences, the novel reveals that their stories are very much alike, and makes clear the point that money can’t necessarily buy happiness, nor does it guarantee freedom from misfortune.  Because I was expecting this to be similar to Badami’s novel, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I probably could have done if I had no expectations about it.  It addressed issues of domestic abuse and class differences in modern India, which are definitely interesting to explore in literature.  It was well-written and the stories and characters were consistent throughout the novel, which included many recollections for both Sera and Bhima of earlier, though not necessarily happier, days.  Through no fault of its own, I found the book to be ultimately depressing, with one negative situation following another in a seemingly endless train.  I have to say, I wondered how these women kept on living when everything seemed so hopeless.  In the end, I could recommend this novel but I would warn the potential reader that it is very informative and well presented, but definitely not uplifting.

I also finished an audio book yesterday, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  This novel, written in the 1940s, tells the story of an eccentric family, the Mortmains, living in a castle for which they have a 40-year lease.  The novel is narrated by Cassandra, the younger of two daughters, as she writes of events in her journal.  The family represents genteel poverty: the father is the author of one very famous novel, and the stepmother is a former artist’s model, but there is no money coming in and no financial prospects, save for the possible marriage of Rose, the beautiful elder daughter, preferably to someone rich.  When two American brothers appear on the scene as their new landlords, the plot becomes more complex as the sisters puzzle over these two very different characters.  A complicated love story ensues, which includes not only the sisters and the brothers, but also Stephen, the son of the Mortmain’s late cook, who continues to live at the castle and is in love with Cassandra.  Although this is a classic novel, I had never read it before, and was pleasantly surprised by how interesting it was.  I think, though, that it is the type of novel I would have preferred to read, not listen to, so I may take it up again at a later date and actually read it.  I didn’t really know what it was about when I downloaded the audio book, and it was totally unplanned that I would finish listening to it yesterday, which was Valentine’s Day, but it was entirely appropriate to listen to this love story on a day which celebrates love - the very last line of the book is, “I love you, I love you, I love you”.  Now, could anything be more fitting than that?

For my next audio book selection, I will either choose the first book in the “Leo Demidov” series by Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 (remember I just finished listening to Agent 6, the Russian KGB novel which was excellent), or I may choose to return to The Vault by Ruth Rendell.  If that is my choice, I will have to go back to the beginning, as too much time has passed for me to remember the parts I’ve already listened to.  I’ll decide today, as I’m going out and so will have an opportunity to start a new audio book soon.

I met a friend for tea last weekend and we got talking about books (surprise, surprise!).  She mentioned that she had also read Michael Robotham’s Say You’re Sorry.  She had enjoyed it and asked if I had anything else I could recommend, so I suggested that she start with Robotham’s first novel, The Suspect if she enjoyed his most recent novel.  Well, I needed something else to read so I took my own advice and am re-reading The Suspect even as I write.  Although I remember “whodunit”, the story is complex enough that I don’t remember all the details so it’s keeping me interested.  That’s why I love having so many books on my own personal bookshelf - I can pick up a favourite book at any given moment and know I will have a good reading experience.

That’s all for today.  Happy Family Day weekend!!

Bye for now!

Friday 8 February 2013

Books and tea on a cold, snowy day...

Since it’s very cold and snowy today, and the weather forecast is for clearer, sunnier days for the weekend, I thought this afternoon was the perfect time to write about books while drinking my rather uninspired, but still steaming, cup of orange pekoe tea.

I read two books this week that I want to write about, but first I want to talk about something that was mentioned in two books I’ve recently been reading or listening to.  I read Lam’s Headmaster’s Wager and at one point in the last half of the book, when Chen is talking to someone of influence, his son is given a bottle of Fanta as a treat and sent off to leave the adults alone to talk.  Remember, this book was set in Vietnam during the Vietnam war.  The other day I was listening to an audio book, Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, which tells the story of Leo Demidov, a former KGB member who, after an event occurs which changes his life and the lives of his family members, spends the next 16 years searching for the truth behind that event.  The novel spans nearly three decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s, and moves from the Soviet Union to New York to Afghanistan.  I didn’t realize that it is the third in a trilogy, but I feel that this title could certainly be read as a stand-alone.  While I’ve really enjoyed listening to it, I found that the section which took place in Afghanistan was a bit too gruesome, and offered too many graphic descriptions of torture and murder, for my liking.  (I guess I prefer not to know what is really happening during a military invasion and occupation).  Anyway, the reason I mention this book now is that again, Fanta is mentioned, this time not as a treat for a child, but as a weapon in Afghanistan in the 1980s - well, not the beverage itself, but the broken bottle in which it was held.  I can’t remember the last time I heard about this beverage, and now twice in less than a week it crops up in two very different novels.  I didn’t even think they still made Fanta!

I finished reading Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene the other night, and I was not disappointed.  It tells the story of Mr. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana in the late 1950s who is
recruited by the British Intelligence Service, I think MI6, to run agents and collect information in Cuba.  Wormold doesn’t have a clue about how to do this job, but he needs the extra money in order to satisfy the materialistic needs of his daughter, Millie, on whom he dotes.  He creates phantom agents and bogus reports, which he submits to the Service, collecting the money for this “agents” himself.  When his reports are taken seriously and the Service begins to act on the information, Wormold tries to get himself out of the situation, but he doesn’t know what to do or how to do it.  While this satirical novel makes fun of the British Intelligence Service and its willingness to believe in fictitious reports from phantom agents, it is also a disturbing look into the dark underworld of the Secret Service.  It was a really quick, interesting read, at times amusing, at others quite disturbing.  I looked this novel up before I started reading it, and found out that Greene began working for MI6 in the 1940s.  It appears that Wormold is based on Agent Garbo, a Spanish double agent who was sending misinformation to his German handlers about a fictitious ring of agents under his control throughout England.  He was collecting their expenses for himself.  When I read that, I went to my stack of Advance Reading Copies and found the title I thought I remembered bringing home from work, Agent Garbo by Stephan Talty.  I gave that book to my husband to read, and thought it was interesting to see us sitting side by side last week, he reading the non-fiction title while I read Greene’s novel.  It was interesting, too, that this novel confirmed some of the ideas presented in the BBC series “MI5”, such as the running of phantom agents to collect extra money, and the fact that the Service prefers their agents to have relationships with other agents, not to get involved with “outsiders”.  I would definitely recommend this as a quick, interesting read, but I’m afraid that I didn’t find it quite as “light-hearted” as perhaps Greene intended.

And I just finished Losing You by Nicci French this morning.  This 2006 novel tells the story of Nina, a mother who, a week before Christmas, is getting ready to leave her home in the UK for a holiday in Florida with her two children and her new boyfriend.  When her 15-year old daughter, Charlie, is late getting home from a sleepover to pack and prepare for the trip, Nina begins to worry.  As time ticks by and Charlie still doesn’t turn up, worry turns to panic as she tries to find her daughter.  To complicate matters, no one seems to believe that Charlie is missing, suggesting that she is merely behaving as any teenager would by going off on her own for a bit.  Nina refuses to believe this, and struggles to make others see that the situation is getting more and more desperate as time passes.  In the end, she must pursue her own leads and follow her instincts if she is going to find Charlie alive.  I had no expectations about this novel when I started it yesterday.  As I was reading, I thought that it was like reading a novel plotted by Michael Robotham but written by Joy Fielding.  A few things I noted about the structure of the novel:  the whole story takes place within a few hours on the same day, and it has no chapters, just paragraphs of text which are infrequently separated into sections by a space.  I imagine this was done intentionally, to make the reader experience the desperation Nina feels as the day drags on endlessly, and it was fairly effective for this reader.  It was, however, unevenly written, somewhat unbelievable, and ultimately disappointing.  Perhaps it’s just me, because Nicci French’s books are international bestsellers, but I just found this novel, and others I’ve listened to as audio books, to be confusing, with too many points left unexplained, too many events or characters that are inconsistent.  So, since I feel I’ve made more than a fair effort with this author team, I feel I can safely scratch them off my list of “Authors to read”.

Now I must find something else to read.  Hmmm... my "friends" book group is discussing The Help in a couple of weeks (appropriate for Black History Month), and my ladies' book group is discussing The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford next, but that's not until March 9th, so it's too early to read that title, although I just picked it up from the library.  What I need to do is determine my reading mood, which would help to narrow my choices.  Mystery?  Tried and true title?  Canadian title?  Literary?  Plot-driven?  I'll have to spend some time on this, and will hopefully have some good reading news for you next week.

Bye for now!

Monday 4 February 2013

P.S. ...

I meant to include this in my post yesterday, but it slipped my mind.  When I've mentioned my "required reading" books in my posts over the past year, I was referring to books by Canadian authors that were recently published and were being consideredfor nomination for the 2013 Evergreen Award, one of the "trees" that is part of the Ontario Library Association Forest of Reading.  I am part of the Selection and Steering Committee for this award, so I've been reading alot of recent Canadian publications for consideration.  The nominees for this year have just been announced:

Eating Dirt Charlotte Gill
Indian Horse Richard Wagamese
Intolerable:  a memoir of extremes Kamal Al-Solaylee
Tell it to the Trees Anita Rau Badami
The Deception of Livvy Higgs Donna Morrissey
The Little Shadows Marina Endicott
The Western Light Susan Swan
Triggers Robert J Sawyer
The Winter Palace: a novel of Catherine the Great Eva Stachniak
Up and Down Terry Fallis

Most of these titles are fiction, with a couple of non-fiction titles mixed in as well.  I haven't read all of them (yet!), but based on the discussion with my Committee members, I think I can safely recommend each of them.  So if your public library takes part in the Evergreen Award process, read these titles and vote for your favourite one (I think you have to wait until the fall to vote, but you can start reading now!).

Happy reading!!

Sunday 3 February 2013

Love, tragedy, hope... and a cup of tea...

I want to give a summary of our book club discussion and talk about Vincent Lam’s novel on this cold winter day as I enjoy a hot cup of chai tea.

I was a bit nervous going into my meeting on Friday with my book club ladies, due to the somewhat racy sexual content of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  But we hardly discussed these scenes at all, which I found really refreshing.  Most of my ladies had never read this book before, but all knew about it (who hasn’t?!).  In case anyone doesn’t know what the novel is about, here’s a very short summary.  Clifford and Connie, both members of the upper-class, marry during WWI.  They have a brief time together, then Clifford goes off to fight in the war, and is returned home in a wheelchair.  Connie and Clifford live at Wragby Hall, where they entertain others from their social class.  Clifford begins to write stories, and Connie is his main caregiver.  This goes on for a few years, but Connie becomes restless living a life only of the mind.  She yearns to live the life of the body.  She meets Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper who lives in a hut in the woods at Wragby, and they develop a sexual relationship.  Connie and Mellors fall in love and try to figure a way to live together, which is challenging since each of them is already married, although both are unhappy in their marriages. Their struggles and plans make up the last third of the novel, which offers no clear solutions but which demonstrate the real desire for both parties to live together as fully and happily as possible.  The sexual content, for which this book is so famous, made up such a small amount of the book that, while it was an important aspect,  so many other issues and aspects of the novel were also explored that  my ladies were surprised at the attention the sexual content commanded at the time of publication and even decades beyond.  We discussed the historical aspects of the book, the description of the colliers and their situation in relation to the owners of the coal mines, the fact that their families had to fight for compensation if a husband or father was killed in a mining accident, the way work in the coal mines sucked the life right out of the workers, and how the mine owners practically owned the workers.  One member brought up similarities between this novel and the popular British drama “Downton Abbey”.  She suggested that both deal with the end of an era in British history, when the distances between the upper classes and the lower classes were being bridged, where the divisions were less distinct, where the lines between social classes were becoming blurred.  I think everyone’s favourite character in the novel was Mrs. Bolton, Clifford’s nurse.  We loved the contradictory nature of this character:  she was at once sharing town gossip with Clifford and acting as his confidante.  She revelled in learning from Clifford, but she was also teaching Connie and Clifford how to act in order to be accepted by the townspeople.  Clifford was her master, while she had control over his broken body and was empowered by this.  What I found most interesting were the similarities between the concerns of Lawrence in 1928 and our concerns today.  Near the beginning of the novel, Connie has a discussion with Tommy Dukes, a friend of both her and Clifford, about whether men and women can be friends.  This reminded me very much of that fabulous romantic comedy, “When Harry Met Sally”, when Harry and Sally are discussing this very topic and Harry concludes that men and women can’t ever really be friends, because sex always gets in the way.  Another example is near the end of the novel, where Mrs. Bolton suggests to Clifford that perhaps Connie and Mellors could go somewhere far away, and he remarks that there is no such thing as “far away” anymore, that people in Tibet are listening to London radio (I’m really paraphrasing here).  Well, these are the same concerns we have today, that the world is shrinking and there’s nowhere to go and be truly away.  In short, the concerns Lawrence expressed in this novel in 1928 are the same as the concerns we have or talk about today.   I think that, while not everyone loved the book, all were glad to have had the opportunity to read and discuss it, and to discover the many different issues the novel explores beyond just sex.

I finished reading Vincent Lam’s Headmaster’s Wager last week.  It started off a bit slow, and was somewhat more descriptive than I would normally like, but then the story took off and it became really interesting.  I know almost nothing about the Vietnam War, so this book offered an interesting perspective for me, as the main character, Percival Chen, was a Chinese businessman who owned an English school near Saigon during the war.  While he wanted to keep his Chinese heritage, he also had to appear to embrace the Vietnamese way of life.  He walked a fine line, trying to offend no one politically as he strived to keep his school not only open, but profitable; he had to please the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese political players as well as the Americans.  Chen’s inability to face the realities of his life and the world around him, and the tragedies that made up his past and present life, make him a flawed, at times infuriating, character, one who inspired anger and frustration in this reader, but also, ultimately, hope for his future and that of his son.  I would definitely recommend it, as it is well-written and thought-provoking.

That’s all for today.

Bye for now!