Friday 28 June 2013

Last post for June, Part II...

Since the long weekend is coming up and the forecast is for mostly sun and cloud, but not really much rain, I thought it best to take the opportunity this afternoon, while it is pouring rain and thundering loudly outside, to have a cup of tea and write my weekly post.

I was planning to write my post on either Sunday or Monday, which is Canada Day, so I was going to focus on my favourite Canadian novels, but I’m a bit early for that.  Conveniently, though, I want to write about a novel I read last week which may become one of my new favourite Canadian novels.  The novel is The Silent Wife by A. S. A. (Susan) Harrison.  It tells the story of the breakdown of a 20-year marriage between Jodi and Todd, and the disintegration of their affluent life in Chicago.  Jodi is a psychotherapist who is always in control, of her life, her language and her emotions.  Todd is a real estate developer and a perpetual cheater.  While he indulges his whims, she represses hers.  When their situation spirals out of control, each character must decide how far they are willing to go to protect what they have.  Told in alternating “Her” and “Him” chapters, this was a novel I literally inhaled in two days.  The controlled use of language in Jodi’s chapters told this reader more by what was not said than by what was written, and I simultaneously cheered for and was frustrated by both Todd and Jodi, but could understand the reality of their situation as not at all unusual; in fact, I’m sure these circumstances occur regularly in our society.  The way this was handled by the author was both skilled and compelling, and the voices of the two characters were distinct and convincing.  I would definitely recommend this novel to both male and female readers, since, although I thought it was mainly Jodi’s story, the “sides” told by both characters are quite fully developed.  This author has been a visual artist and writer in Toronto for many years, focusing mainly on non-fiction books and collections.  This is her first and only novel, as she sadly passed away in April of this year.

I also finished listening to A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming yesterday, and it was excellent.  It tells the story of Thomas Kell, an ex-MI-6 agent who is called back into service on a special project, to help locate Amelia, the Chief-designate who takes a sudden and unexpected vacation before taking up her new post as head of the organization, but who misses several day’s worth of art classes, supposedly the reason she took the holiday to France.  While trying to track her down, Kell uncovers her mysterious past, and stumbles upon a parallel operation by the French Intelligence Service, which leads to unexpected results.  The narrator, Jot Davies, did an excellent job of capturing the essence of the novel, and the writing was top-notch.  It was compelling and spell-binding, but not so complex that this listener could not follow what was going on, although it was complex enough to keep me paying attention.  I believe that this is the first in a planned trilogy by Cumming featuring Kell, and I eagerly await the next two books in the series.  I’ve actually downloaded The Trinity Six, the first novel of his that I listened to over a year ago, since it was fabulous, and based on a true story of the Cambridge Five, a group of British double-agents who were recruited by the Russian Secret Service when they were students at Cambridge in the 1930s.  This novel is about the search for the possible sixth member of the group.  I really enjoy espionage fiction, and recently read an article in which a British intelligence historian picks the fiction that best reveals the secrets of espionage:  I’ve read a few John LeCarre novels, The Quiet American and The Thirty-Nine Steps, but may try to get my hands on copies of some of the other titles, out of curiosity.

And I’ll try to finish the short memoir, Nocturne: on the life and death of my brother by Helen Humphreys this afternoon.  Written beautifully and with emotion, this homage to her brother, Martin, a concert pianist, teacher and composer, who passed away suddenly at the age of 45, is at times heart-wrenching, but also somewhat self-indulgent.  It is almost too intimate, like reading Humphreys’ diary, and there seems to be no structure to the book; rather, it is more a collection of reflections about life with Martin before his death and how Humphreys has coped with the loss since his passing.  Addressed to Martin himself, it is haunting and compelling, but I’m thankful that it is only 192 pages long, or I would have to stop reading.

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

Bye for now…

Monday 24 June 2013

Last post for June...

Well, summer is definitely here, with all the heat and humidity we expect in Southern Ontario.  And with summer comes the desire to read lighter fare, or so the theory goes.  I remember one day when I was living in Toronto, I headed off to one of the public pools to cool off.  As I was lying poolside with my book, a man came over and asked what I was reading.  I showed him the cover of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, upon which he commented that this was not a “typical light beach read”.  Perhaps he was right, as it took me five weeks to finish reading it - maybe I should have waited until the winter to read it, when I may have been able to appreciate it a bit better!

Anyway, speaking of “light” reading, I just finished An Inquiry into Love and Death by Simone St James, which tells the story of Jillian Leigh, an Oxford student in 1924 who is summoned to take care of her estranged uncle’s belongings in the small town of Rothewell, where he recently fell to his death from a cliff.  Her uncle Toby was a ghost hunter by profession, and as Jillian reluctantly travels to Rothewell to fulfill her duty, she becomes more and more deeply entrenched in the mystery surrounding her uncle’s death and the haunting and possible criminal activity taking place in the town.  This novel is like Rebecca meets “Nancy Drew”, and the love interest, Drew, reminded me of Inspector Lynley of the Elizabeth George mystery series.  While it was a far cry from Rebecca, I felt it was a delightful read.  The author did an excellent job of creating just the right tone and using the right language to make it feel, at least for this reader, as though I’d been transported back to England in the 1920s.  There was romance, mystery, and haunting - what more could a reader want from a book on a hot summer weekend?!  I would definitely recommend this title to female readers.  The author lives in Toronto and this is her second novel.  Her first, The Haunting of Maddy Clare, is also set in 1920s England and deals with a young woman who receives a request from a temporary agency to assist a man, Gellis, as he goes on an assignment as a ghost hunter.  I look forward to reading that title as well, but not right away - it may be a bit too much like the one I just finished, so I need a bit of a break first.

And I’m halfway through an audio book entitled A Foreign Country, by Charles Cumming.  This novel tells the story of Thomas Kell, a former MI-6 agent who is called back into duty for a special assignment, to locate the Chief-designate of the Secret Service after she disappears on a sudden and unexplained holiday, supposedly to take a painting course in the South of France before her life becomes too busy for such activities.  I’m enjoying it so far, and I believe this is the first in a planned trilogy featuring Kell.  I listened to another espionage novel by this author, The Trinity Six, about five British double agents in the 1930s and ’40s, and the search for the supposed sixth member of the group, which was based on a true story.  It was an excellent novel, so my expectations were pretty high.  So far, the current novel does not disappoint.  I'll write more when I finish it.

That’s all for today.  Gonna go for a refreshing swim (but not bringing Crime and Punishment to the pool with me!)

Bye for now…

Sunday 16 June 2013

Short post on Father's Day...

I suspect this will be a short post, as haven’t read much since my last post.  Coincidentally, though, since today is Father’s Day, I was thinking about books where the roles of fathers was explored and the book I just finished was about a father, along with other family dynamics, which is great, as it suits the theme of today’s post.

I read The Dinner by Herman Koch last week.  This book was originally published in Dutch in 2009, and the English translation became available in 2012.  I only heard about it about a month ago when I read a review in our local paper, but I had to wait for a copy to come in for me at the library (I guess many others also read the review!).  This short novel poses the question:  how far would you go to protect the ones you love?  The entire novel takes place over a dinner in an expensive restaurant where two couples, brothers and their wives, meet to discuss something which is revealed about midway through the meal.  The sense of family secrecy hangs heavily over every aspect of the evening, from the choice of restaurant to the lack of reservations to the choice of appetizer and dessert to the conversation.  It is a dark, dangerous look inside one family’s secret closet, and the reader is caught up in the drama and shifting dynamics of these two families as they are revealed, parceled out as each course of the dinner arrives.  It was a really fabulous novel, but a story I felt I’ve read before.  It was biting and sarcastic, critical and opinionated, and as the story unfolds, the reader is increasingly doubtful of the narrator’s reliability.  As one reviewer stated, “Koch has mastered the non-feel-good novel” (  I would definitely recommend it, but I would warn potential readers that it contains disturbing scenes and acts, not detailed explicitly, but with enough force to be unnerving.

And I started a novel from my “required reading” list, Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor, about a man, Harry, who has always considered himself part of Toronto’s elite, but in reality is crippled by accumulating debt.  When his father passes away,  Harry, in his early 50s, believes that he will inherit a substantial chunk of his father’s wealth which will wipe out his financial burdens, and so is shocked and horrified when he learns that his father died in financial ruin.  He believes that there must be money hidden somewhere, or that his father had been swindled out of his fortune during the last months of his illness, and so he proceeds to investigate his father’s financial situation, albeit in a rather haphazard way.  I’m only a third of the way into this short novel, and I must say, it grabbed me right away.  The writing is superb, and it really describes Toronto, particularly the ritzy neighbourhoods north of Bloor Street, in a way that brings them to life for anyone familiar with the locations.  Having said that, I think I will pass on the rest of the book after reading a few reviews by my other committee members, as they point out almost unanimously that Harry’s obsession with debt and financial burden becomes tedious by the end.  If I hadn’t read those reviews, I would have probably stuck with it in the hopes that the focus of the book would shift to explore family relationships, mid-life crises, etc.  Alas, I have many other books on my “required reading” list that I must get to before they are due to be returned to the library, so I will have to move on to another title.

That’s all for now.  Happy Father’s Day!

Bye for now!

Monday 10 June 2013

Book talk on a rainy Monday morning...

It’s a rainy Monday morning as I think about my reading experiences over the past week while enjoying a cup of Chai tea and a slice of homemade Banana Bread.

I finished reading Before the Poison by Peter Robinson well before my book club meeting, and I enjoyed it as much this time as I did the first time I read it.  It tells the story of Chris Lowndes, a British-born American-transplanted composer of film music (“music no one listens to”) who, shortly after his 60th birthday, returns to Yorkshire and takes up residence in Kilnsgate House, where he hopes to compose music that people will actually listen to and enjoy.  His wife has recently passed away, and we suspect that he is using this time away to grieve and to sort out his life.  While inquiring about the former estate owners, he discovers that there was a family who lived there from the 1930s to the 1950s, but that the wife was hanged for poisoning her husband.  Chris, who may be ultra-sensitive to otherworldly spirits, experiences what may be visions of the woman, Grace, during his first evenings in the house, and he is determined to find out more about the story and hopefully uncover the truth, which he hopes will prove that she was wrongly accused and convicted, that she was in fact innocent of the crime for which she was hanged.  It’s a British mystery, a haunted house story, a bit of a love story, and a story about what it means to be family.  My book club members really enjoyed it.  They were very interested in learning about the experiences of WWII for nurses stationed overseas, as was presented in the novel in the form of Grace’s diary entries.  One member mentioned the experiences Grace wrote about when being relentlessly attacked by the Japanese, and remembered the attitude of the father in Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, his insistence that the American townspeople realize he and his family were Chinese, not Japanese.  We agreed that Grace was in an impossible position regarding her husband at that time in history, and discussed what her options may have been to escape the abusive domestic situation she was in.  We thought that Chris was a likeable-enough main character, but some didn’t really believe that the relationship between him and the real estate agent, Heather Barlow, was realistic, given that Heather was so much younger than Chris (one member said that it was a sure sign the book was written by a man!).  We discussed the use of different music and films mentioned in the novel, and felt we learned a lot about the use of music in films.  All-in-all, it was a successful book selection and a really interesting discussion.  By the way, I noticed that a new  “Inspector Banks” book  should be coming out this year, Children of the Revolution, which makes me a happy reader indeed!

I just finished a novel by Elizabeth Ruth from my “required reading” list, Matadora.  This novel tells the story of Luna Caballero Garcia, an orphaned servant girl in Spain in the 1930s who aspires to become a successful bullfighter at a time when it was frowned-upon for women to enter the bullring, and illegal in Spain for women to fight on foot.  Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, and including a cast of characters from the artistic circles and revolutionary groups in Mexico and Spain, this novel was far more compelling than I had anticipated.  I’m not a huge fan of Elizabeth Ruth, and I was not looking forward to reading a novel which focused on the horrific sport of bullfighting, but I found I couldn’t put it down.  Well, I would say that I felt that way until about two-thirds of the way through, when the author brought in too many additional characters and situations that lead this reader to feel she was trying to cover too many issues and was losing the real focus of the novel.  It was a surprisingly well-written and interesting coming-of-age story, although I skimmed the parts about the actual bull fighting and killing.

And I was having a hard time choosing another audio book to listen to.  I tried listening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which was pretty interesting, in a youthful, silly sort of way, but I think I’ve listened to it before, and it wasn’t really suiting my mood at the time, so I stopped about halfway though, although I may go back and finish it.  Then I started listening to The Red House by Mark Haddon.  He wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time which I really enjoyed reading.  I think The Red House will be a great book to read, but not a good one to listen to, as the author uses techniques that I believe will be more effective if experienced visually rather than hearing the book read aloud.  I will check out the used book stores for a paperback copy of the book, but if I can’t find one, I will borrow it from the library when I actually have time to read it.  (Between two book clubs and the “required reading” for my committee, I hardly have time to read anything I’ve chosen for myself).  I finally settled on Beautiful Children by Charles Bock, narrated by Mark Deakin, about a boy who goes missing in Las Vegas, and the ways his parents learn to cope with this loss.   I’m not very far into it yet, but will write about it when I finish it.

Speaking of reading something for myself, I just got a copy of The Dinner by Herman Koch from the library, which is not a book club selection and not a book I’m reading for the committee I’m on, I’m just reading it for fun!  I read a review in the newspaper a few weeks ago and it sounded great, so I started reading it last night after finishing Matadora.  I’m not far into it, but it totally grabbed me from the first page, so I’m hoping to finish it in a few days and I will write about it next time.

That’s all for today…

Bye for now!

Sunday 2 June 2013

Tea and book talk on a Sunday morning...

As I sip my Chai tea on this sunny/muggy/can't-decide-what-to-do Sunday morning, I realize I’ve stayed right on schedule regarding my reading plans for the week, which is a pleasant surprise.

I finished reading Five Days in London:  May, 1940 on Wednesday, and I must say, I was happy to get to the last page.  I’m not a non-fiction reader, and the few non-fiction titles I’ve read have been written more like novels than information texts, so with this one, it was a real challenge to stay focused and keep my interest level up.  Good thing it was short, and I had a reading schedule to follow.  It was an interesting reading experience for sure, but I think I’ll stick with fiction.

I also read The Guardians by Andrew Pyper last week.  This 2011 novel tells the story of four boys who, while growing up in a small Ontario town, experienced what may have been a haunting and murder in an old abandoned house.  The group is brought together again nearly 25 years later when one of the boys commits suicide.  Their search for answers about their past experiences coincides with the disappearance of a young woman on the evening after the funeral, and it seems to be up to the three remaining men to find her before the house, or the spirit residing therein, takes her to join the others who seem trapped forever in that place of evil.  I read Pyper’s first novel, Lost Girls, when it was first published, a novel about a cocaine-addicted Toronto lawyer who goes up north to a small town to defend an English teacher when two teenaged girls go missing.  I have vague recollections of that novel as having a surreal and dreamlike quality to the narrative, where dreams and reality mingle until it is uncertain what is happening and what is imagined.  I also seem to recall that I thought it was going to be more “psychological fiction” than “ghost story” or “horror” novel.  But I’ve since read reviews of Pyper that call him “Canada’s Stephen King” or “Canada‘s scariest writer”, so I guess I was wrong.  The novel I just finished was described as “psychological suspense”, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as such - it was more Stephen King than Minette Walters.  I guess there’s a reason I only read his first novel and no others until now.

I also finished listening to Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie.  This audio book was every bit as good as any others I’ve listened to by this author.  I was at the library yesterday and took out the film adaptation of this book, which I plan to watch tonight.

I’m a bit behind on my reading of Before the Poison by Peter Robinson for my next volunteer book group which meets on Friday, but I think I can get through it in time.  I spoke to one of my book club ladies late last week, and while she hadn’t yet finished the novel, she told me she was loving it so far, which is great to hear!  I really enjoy Peter Robinson, and, in my opinion, Before the Poison is one of his best books.  I wish he would write more standalones (although I love his “Inspector Banks” books too!)

Time to get reading…

Bye for now!