Sunday 31 March 2013

Last post for March...

On this cool, rainy Easter Sunday, I have a couple of books/audio books to write about.

I finished reading Grave Concern by Judith Millar last week.  This Canadian novel tells the story of a middle-aged woman, Kate Smithers, who returns to her hometown of Pine Rapids in rural Ontario after her elderly parents are killed in a car accident.  She starts her own grave-tending business to make ends meet, and gets to know some of the quirky inhabitants of the town, some of whom are keeping secrets.  This funny, moving, mysterious novel was delightful, and although the plot is often dark, the tone is always light and entertaining.  I would certainly recommend it to just about anyone, I guess mainly female readers.  The only complaint I had is that I didn’t quite understand the last page of the novel, part of the Epilogue and so the author clearly felt if was important to include.  Maybe I will try to contact the author to ask about it.  Otherwise, it was a fun, interesting read.

And I’m nearly finished listening to The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H Cook.  It tells the story of a writer, Wells, who writes about serial killers throughout history who, in the opening scenes of the books, rows himself out to the middle of the pond at his parents’ country house and kills himself, and the search for the truth of his life by his sister, Loretta and his friend, Philip.  I am not really enjoying it, but I’m so close to the end that I will finish it, hopefully later today.  The story is not really that interesting, and I’m getting tired of hearing about how talented and adventurous Julian was, and what a relatively boring person Philip was in comparison.  Having said that, if there was actually more information about Philip and his own life, or even of Loretta’s life experiences, perhaps it may have been more interesting for this listener.  Being immersed in the life of a dead man is less interesting than it initially sounded in the description of the book.  I think I will try reading some other novels by this author, as his writings have been well-reviewed - maybe it’s just this title that didn’t grab me.

And I’m half-way through The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and, while it was a challenge to get into, I’m now loving it.  It is such an involved and ambitious novel, detailing the experiences of the Lambert family members and their responses to their mother’s wish to have one last Christmas at the family home.  If I recall correctly, each of the three adult children have a section in which they detail their own experiences, including their mother’s experiences as her husband, Alfred, suffers more and more symptoms of dementia and Parkinson’s.  I read this novel many years ago, and have little recollection of the story until I’m rereading a particular section.  It is my book club selection for Friday’s discussion, and I have no idea how my members will respond to this; I’m sure some have already read this before, as I have done.  I’ll let you know what they think after our meeting.

Because I knew I had The Corrections to read for next week, I resisted the urge to reread The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck, probably my all-time favourite novel.  I always have the desire to read it around this time of year because it opens with the main character, Ethan Hawley, sweeping out the grocery shop where he works on Good Friday.  He comments on the required closure of the shop at a particular hour to commemorate the death of Jesus on the cross, and he sermonizes in his own version of "latin" to the cans on the shelves while he prepares the shop.  It is such a vivid image from this book for me, that I envision it every year at this time and feel the need to reread the book.  I don't think I read it last year, for some reason, and it's always a most effective rereading if I can start it on Easter weekend, the time during which the story itself begins.  Alas, I had to get to my bookclub book instead, so it'll have to wait until later.

Happy Easter!


Monday 25 March 2013

Art and books on a sunny Monday morning...

I was at an opening at the UpTown Gallery in Waterloo yesterday where Kerry Ross ( was exhibiting some of her recent paintings.  I had purchased a painting from her and was picking it up there, "Portrait in an Orange Bow Tie", which has found a home on one of my walls.  It's fabulous!  It looks like it could be a portrait of an eccentric writer of the 1930s, and it is the perfect piece for my back room.  I'm so pleased with this purchase, and for the chance to support a local artist, who is also a friend.

I started three novels this past week that I will tell you about.  The first is a Canadian novel published in October 2012 by Ian Colford entitled The Crimes of Hector Tomas.  This novel tells the story of a family in an unnamed South American town in the 20th century (I believe it spans from the 1940s to the 1970s) which seems, at first, to be loving and happy.  Enrique, the father, however, has secrets, and when one of his sons, Hector, discovers one of these secrets, he is exiled by his family to live with distant relatives in the countryside.  Accused of terrorism, a crime of which he is innocent, Hector tries desperately to extricate himself from the violence perpetrated by a brutal political regime, and learns that freedom can only come at a terrible price.  Colford, a Halifax author, writes in the traditionally formal style of other South American authors, and does it very well, in this reader’s opinion.  I only got about a quarter of the way through it, though, and felt it was taking too long to read and so I moved on to something else, with the intention and anticipation of returning to finish it at a later date.  I just finished  reading a couple of reviews of this book, however, and they  were not overly favourable, so I may rethink it and just skim the rest of the book to get the gist of the story.  I think it would have a great appeal for male readers, as it involves political unrest, military action, rebellion, and ruthless government tactics to retain power.

The next book I started, and plan to read to the end, is Grave Concern by Judith Millar, another Canadian novel that was published in July 2012 and so fits the requirements for our committee’s consideration (I originally thought September 2012 was the cut-off date, but I’ve since learned it is July).  Kate Smithers, the main character of this novel, returns to her hometown of Pine Rapids, Ontario after her elderly parents are killed in a car accident.  She opens a grave-tending business and, trying to fit back into the town she left so many years before, she meets a host of quirky and puzzling characters that have secrets, some of which concern Kate herself.  It is part love story, part mystery, part reminiscence, and part comedy - as a whole, it is proving to be a cozy, fun read for me, which I will definitely recommend to my committee for inclusion in our considerations for nominees for next year’s award.  I am about half-way through this novel, and hope to finish it in a couple of days.

I was at the library on Saturday and there were a number of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James on the “New Books” shelf.  I checked out a copy, thinking I would read a few pages just to see what all the fuss is about.  Well, I read about 35 pages and found that it was not as badly written as I was lead to believe.  And I had heard it described as “mommy-porn”, so I expected the main character to be, well, a “mommy”, maybe a bored mother and housewife in her mid-thirties or early forties who meets a dashing, enigmatic older man and becomes entangled in a questionable sexual liaison in which whips, chains and bondage are not uncommon.  Was I ever surprised, and definitely disappointed, to find that the main character, Anastasia, is a college student and the man in question, Christian Grey, is not yet 30!  I can’t decide if I should keep reading or not.  So far, there have not been any sexual encounters, although I flipped ahead to read one such scene and only found the description of Grey’s “playroom”.  I think I should probably just bring it back to the library unread.  Having said that, I don’t think it is any more badly written than any other romance novel I’ve read or seen.  I wonder if it’s the content and storyline that make this one so radically different, which is the only reason I feel I should continue reading, so I can get a real sense of the content.  But really, I’m sure I have other things to read that are more, hmmm, suitable to my reading tastes than Fifty Shades.

And I’ve started a couple of new audio books, having finished Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, which was excellent and offered a surprise ending that did not disappoint.  The first was Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie .  This mystery novel by Canadian author Alan Bradley features Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old amateur sleuth who pulls herself away from her beloved chemistry lab in order to clear her father in a murder investigation.  I tried to read this novel a couple of years ago, but it did not grab me, probably because I do not generally enjoy novels told from the point of view of children.  I then remembered that, while I did not enjoy reading Room by Emma Donoghue, a novel told from the point of view of a four-year-old boy about his life in “Room” with his mother, both being kept prisoners by their captor, Old Nick, I was totally drawn into the audio book, which brought the book to life for me - it was as if it was being narrated by a four-year-old boy.  I also enjoyed reading The Town That Drowned by Riel Nason, a novel that describes the fate of an unnamed East-coast town slated to be flooded which was told from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl.  So I thought I would give this a try.  Alas, I did not get caught up in the story.  I personally find the main character, Flavia, to be annoying, and the voice of the narrator heaps irritation on top of this annoyance.  Too bad, because these books, I think there are now five in the series, are wildly popular.  Luckily for me, I had other downloaded books to choose from, and began listening to The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H Cook.  This literary mystery begins with the suicide of Wells, author of non-fiction books about serial killers around the world and throughout history, and follows sister Loretta and best friend Philip as they try to determine why he would decide to take his own life.  I’m not far enough into it yet to comment, although I have to say, I’m finding the voice of the narrator to be rather boring and without inflection (the narrator of the trilogy by Tom Rob Smith is excellent - he completely captures the essence of the story, and reads the novels as I expect the author would want them to be read).  Having said that, I’m enjoying the story, so I will stick with it to the end.

Bye for now!

Monday 18 March 2013

Tea and book talk as spring approaches...

I was in St Jacob’s one day last week with a friend, and we went to the pottery shop where I purchased my special Chai Tea mug, which I’m using this morning.  We talked about the high cost of individual pieces, and she wondered how one can justify a purchase like that, so I told her about this mug, and how, every time I take it out of the cupboard to use it for my delicious tea, it is like giving myself a little gift.  I think she was contemplating going back on the weekend with her husband so they could each pick out a special mug.

I read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith this week.  This novel, set in the English countryside sometime in the 1930s, tells the story of a family of quirky characters who live in a castle rented from a couple of American brothers who have arrived to take possession of their deceased father’s property.  It is narrated by Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year-old girl who loves to write and believes that she is the dowdier younger sister of Rose, the beauty in the family.  Her father, Mortmain, is the author of one unique and influential experimental novel, Jacob Wrestling, and her stepmother, Topaz, a former artist’s model, enjoys communing with nature wearing nothing but Wellingtons.  Along comes Simon and Neil, the “normal” American brothers, sons of Mrs Cotton, a woman who casts Mortmain under her spell and encourages him to write another novel with her aggressive, no-nonsense attitude.  A complicated love story ensues involving the two brothers and the two sisters, with an interesting outcome for all.  I listened to this as an audio book in February and really enjoyed it, but I now realize that the recording was seriously abridged.  Having read the full novel, I understand the story so much better and appreciate it even more.  How did I never read this before?!  It was wonderful!  The characters are quirky but lovable, the story complex yet interesting and “real“, the language descriptive but very much like that a 17-year-old would use in her diary.  This coming-of-age novel should definitely be on the list of everyone who enjoys the classics by Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters.  I’m going to include it in my book club selection list for next year for sure.

In complete contrast to this novel, I’m listening to an audio book, Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, the first in a trilogy by this author set in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and featuring as the main character Leo Demidov, an MGB agent working for the state. I didn’t realize that the MGB is the precursor to the KGB, existing between about 1947 and 1953 as the Ministry of State Security.  I recently listened to the third in this trilogy, Agent 6, and really enjoyed it until the graphic details of the torture and bombings in Afghanistan in the last third of the novel were included.  This novel is Smith’s first, and tells the story of Leo Demidov, an agent who believes in the state and the party and is willing to pursue the objectives of the state at whatever cost, justifying this to himself by “believing” that the actions of the state, which may lead to the wrongful execution of innocent individuals, is always striving to achieve the greater good.  When he and his wife are exiled from Moscow and sent to a small industrial town where he is demoted to a mere cog in the town's ragtag militia, Leo discovers that a series of murders are taking place in the town involving children.  As he seeks to uncover the truth, he is blocked at every turn.  I’m just over half-way through the audio book, and now that this murder mystery has taken over the plot, I’m finding it more interesting, but I have to say, the beginning of the novel, with its descriptions of horrific interrogation methods and unnecessary executions, was really turning me off.  It was so strange… I listen to audio books when I’m walking or when I’m laying on the floor at home stretching, and these opportunities could happen minutes after I set down the physical book I’ve been reading.  So imagine how bizarre it was for me this past week to be reading an idealistic, innocent coming-of-age classic love story and just minutes later, diving into a world of Russian interrogation, paranoid suspicions, torture and execution.  Very strange indeed, so I’m glad to have finished Dodie Smith’s novel - it was just too weird for me.

I’m now trying to decide what to read next, and I think it will be a novel from my new “required reading” selections for the committee I am on, Canadian books that have been published from September 2012 to November 2013.  I have a few Advanced Reading Copies here at home, so it is just a matter of deciding which one to read first.  I’ll let you know what I select.

Bye for now!

Monday 11 March 2013

Tea and books on a messy March morning...

I’m back from my week of sun, sand and surf, and am ready to write about our most recent book club meeting.  But first I wanted to comment on something I noticed while I was away.  The most popular book I noticed people (women) reading during my week in Cuba was, not surprisingly, the Fifty Shades trilogy.  I saw it by the pool, I saw it by the ocean, people were reading it in the reception lobby, and it was in English, French and Spanish.  It was always the trilogy, never the individual titles.  I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of copies I saw around the resort.  It always impressed me, then, when I saw someone reading something else.

I also wanted to mention that I met a woman at the resort who lives in Etobicoke and is the author of three novels.  Marta had been there with her husband, Max, for two weeks. Her website is:, in case you are interested in reading about her books.  I haven’t read them, nor do I know how readily available they are, but I thought it was interesting to meet a published author who lives not far from me while on vacation in another part of the world.

So Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford was indeed a good book club selection.  Just a refresher… this novel tells the story of Henry and Keiko, a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl who meet and fall in love at the age of twelve in Seattle during the 1940s, just as the Americans are sending Japanese Americans to internment camps.  They strive to keep in touch and to carry on their relationship, but things don’t work out as they hoped, and they are forced to continue on alone.  As we went around the table to give our first impressions, my ladies used terms like tender, an easy read, and well-drawn characters to sum up their reading experiences of this novel.  Some members echoed my comments about the flat writing style and felt that it was not gripping, but that it was a nice story.  When I mentioned that I felt it was somewhat repetetive, someone pointed out that much of the novel was written from the point of view of a 12-year old boy, so perhaps that was how he would have experienced life.  They particularly liked the character of Mrs. Beatty, the cafeteria woman who appears to be hard as nails but turns out to be a perceptive, caring individual.  They also liked Sheldon, the black jazz musician who befriends Henry when he faces trouble with the bullies from school.  They thought the relationship between Henry and his father was sad, but also very realistic. We discussed the aspect of jazz in the novel, a mix of cultures that is easy-going and freestyle, not rigid and fixed, and thought that this could represent the difference in generations between Henry and his father.  We agreed that Henry grows during the novel, from the small boy who initially runs from Chas, the leader of the bullies at school, to a young man who is willing to face his opponent with courage and stand up for himself.  This also occurred when Henry faced his father, and we thought that he was much like his father in his stubbornness.  We commented on the nature of the Japanese community in America at the time, and how they showed a sense of loyalty, both to their community and to their new American country, and their obedience to authority.  We discussed the communication issues between Henry and his son, Marty, and noted that things seemed to improve once Marty found out about Henry’s secret past and lost love, which may have made him appear more human in his son’s eyes.  We also discussed Henry’s mother, who would have been in a very difficult situation as she tried to be both a dutiful wife and a supportive mother.  But most significantly, at least for me, was the discussion about Ethel, Henry’s recently deceased wife.  From the beginning of the novel, she is deceased, yet her presence hovers throughout the story.  There is little about her character or the relationship between her and Henry that is revealed until late in the novel.  Once the reader finds out more about her story, she becomes even more interesting, and we wonder about her role in the events that shape Henry's experiences, her innocence and her motives.  I won’t give anything away here, but if you read the novel, pay particular attention to her character.  I’ll admit that I just dismissed her while reading it, but then someone mentioned her during our discussion and it suddenly became so clear, I wondered how I could have missed it! That’s what’s so great about book clubs - we get the perspectives of others on books that we’ve read, and they will always be different than our own responses.  I think the most significant thing I took away from this novel is that we are sometimes faced with a choice not of doing what is right and what is wrong, but what is right and what is best.

And now I must select another book to read.  I finished reading The Suspect while I was away, and it was as good as I knew it would be, complex enough to keep me guessing to the end, even though I’d read it a number of times before, and written in a really gripping style.  I have taken from the library I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto “Che” Guevara.  If you recall, I recently listened to Smith’s novel as an audio book, but it had only four parts so I’m thinking that it was abridged, as the actual novel is nearly 400 pages.  The Guevara book is non-fiction, which I rarely read, so I'm not sure if I’ll want to read it or just wait until the DVD comes into the library for me and watch it.  I also have Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea sitting in front of me, begging to be read (can you see the Cuban influence here?!).  And my book group is meeting in three weeks to discuss Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which I seem to recall is a difficult read, not just lengthy but also complex.  Hmmm… so many decisions.

That’s all for today…

Bye for now!