Sunday 25 August 2013

Late summer reading thoughts...

As the end of summer approaches, I always feel like it’s time to take stock of things, life, books, goals, etc, and prepare for another year.  I guess I’ve never outgrown that “student” notion that September, not January, marks a “new beginning”.  That’s how I’m feeling right now as I sit with my steaming cup of chai and think about what I’ve been reading recently.  I’m also surrounded by the scent of baking date bread, which should be ready to come out of the oven in a few minutes… mmm!  The smell of baking always makes me think of fall, too.  And the cool morning is another indicator that autumn is in the air, my favourite time of year.  As you can probably tell, I’m feeling very happy this morning, not a bad way to start the week.

So on to books… I read a young adult title last week for review for the local paper, Beautiful Goodbye by Nancy Runstedler.  It begins on a Saturday afternoon when Maggie and her friend Gillianare exploring the attic of Maggie’s new home while babysitting her younger brother, Cole.  They discover a Ouija board and decide to have a bit of fun, not expecting that any harm could come of it.  Much to their surprise, they make contact with Hope Lewis, a woman from the past who asks for their help, and Maggie takes steps at the local library and the cemetery to investigate further.  Following this initial contact, Maggie, Gillian and Cole again consult the Ouija board after school one day and are transported back in time to 1915, a time when Hope was a teenager and the house was a hotel.  As they befriend Hope and her family and meet the local townspeople, Maggie continues her quest to understand how she is meant to help Hope.  Connected by their shared grief for their recent losses, Hope and Maggie form a strong bond of friendship.  While Maggie wants to help her in whatever ways she can, she also fears that they may be stuck in the past, never able to return to the present day.  They must all work together, and think quickly, if they are to return to their regular lives safely.  Part supernatural mystery, part time travel, part historical fiction, this novel is as much a journey into the past as it is an exploration about loss and grief, and what the bonds of true friendship and family really mean.  A bit of a modern-day Nancy Drew story, it is well-written and moving.  Unfortunately, it is marketed as a Young Adult title, but perhaps it is better suited for Tweens based on the dialogue and actions of the main characters which I feel better reflect those of 12-year-olds, not two 14-year-olds (those two years make a huge difference in a young girl's life, as I recall).  Runstedler lives in Paris, Ontario, and I think this is her first novel, one which was pretty impressive to me, an uninitiated YA/Tween reader.

And I just finished another title by a Canadian author from my “required reading” box, The Family Album by Kerry Kelly.  This novel tells the story of a 10-year old girl, Abby, who shows up on the doorstep of her father’s ex-wife one schoolday requesting help in her pursuit to become a writer.  Cynthia is a well-known radio show host and has published at least one semi-successful book.  She is experiencing a mid-life crisis as she contemplates her recent (well, actually years of) ambivalence towards her creative talents as her children are growing up and leaving home.  When she finds Abby at her front door, having stayed home sick that day, she is taken aback, confronting for the first time, live and in person, the reason her seemingly happy marriage with husband Tom came to an end more than a decade before.  Unsure what to do, she invites Abby in and discovers that she wants Cynthia to become her mentor.  As strange as this at first seems, a deal is worked out between Cynthia, Tom, his new wife Jennifer, Abby, and the children from the former marriage, Matt, Julia and Ben, where they appear to be becoming more of a “blended” family, rather than two separate entities whose members, though overlapping, refuse to acknowledge that the other members exist unless forced to do so.  It is not an easy transition, and some difficult situations arise, but by the end of the novel, the reader is left feeling that things, while not perfect, are getting better all the time.  This novel explores complex family dynamics, so reflective of our time when we live in a society where the traditional nuclear family make-up is  becoming more and more rare.  I liked all of the characters, flawed though they all were, and found the situations to be very realistic.  While it is a short novel, less than 200 pages, it really says a lot and seems to pack in much more than I would have thought could be achieved in so few pages.  It was absolutely the right length, and, although I found the first bit somewhat challenging to get into, it picked up fairly quickly and had me hooked right to the last page.  I would definitely recommend this title to anyone interested in realistic domestic fiction.  Kelly lives in Toronto.  This is her second novel.

And I finished listening to Diamond Solitaire by Peter Lovesey last week.  This British mystery is the second in the “Peter Diamond” series.  Diamond is an ex-detective who, while working at Harrod’s as a security guard, stumbles upon a young Japanese girl hiding in the furniture department one night after hours.  He is sacked for this, and since he now has plenty of time on his hands, devotes himself to tracking down the parents of this young girl, who has been given the name Naomi and who remains unclaimed after 6 weeks.  Not only is she unclaimed, she is autistic and cannot speak.  As a result of his efforts to publicize the search, he gets Naomi a TV appearance and, due to this appearance, garners the support of a famous Sumo wrestler in his quest, remarkable as this may seem.  The girl suddenly disappears, supposedly claimed by her mother, but when Diamond follows up on this, he finds that all is far from "happily ever after".  His unofficial investigation takes him to New York, then to Yokahama, Japan, where he hopes to find the truth.   This novel was engaging and fun to listen to, although some parts were pretty far-fetched, like when he manages to talk his way past security guards at some of the most highly guarded organizations there are, US Immigration, a US pharmaceuticals company, and a Japanese university, to name a few, relying mainly on his British accent and his former police and detective experience to get him by.  Having said that, I enjoyed this fast-paced mystery, and the narrator did a good job of bringing each character to life.  I have never read anything by this author before, although I enjoy British mysteries, but as I looked him up, I found that he is most famous for his “Sergeant Cribb” series, set in Victorian England.  Since I don’t read historical fiction, this explains why I waited until I came across a series set in contemporary England before reading his works.  This was published in 1992 and there are many other titles in this series, so I may have discovered a new “favourite” British mystery series!  Hurray!!

That’s all for today.  Go out and enjoy the sunshine!

Bye for now…

Sunday 18 August 2013

Sunday morning tea and book talk...

On this early Sunday morning, I’m just waiting for my tea to steep fully before I pour and enjoy a delicious steaming cup (although it’s going to be quite warm today, at this early hour it’s still cool enough to make a hot cup of tea pleasurable).

Speaking of enjoying a cup of tea, this week I read a non-fiction work, Blue Plate Special:  an autobiography of my appetites by Kate Christensen.  Christensen is the author of several works of fiction, including The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man, neither of which I have read, although I’ve heard of them and I believe she has won awards for at least one of these titles.  This autobiography is, as suggested, a story of her life so far, and details  growing up in various parts of the U.S. and her pursuit of a writer’s life.  The chapters are connected by food, food she’s enjoyed, food she has had to give up, food she wishes she was eating, food others have prepared for her, and food she has prepared for others.  It is about food and hunger, writing and passion, and while food did not always play as prominent a role as I was led to believe, it was nearly always a part of the story.  Christensen had an unorthodox childhood, where scenes of violence occurred regularly and she spent much of her early years experiencing conflicting emotions regarding her father.  Once her mother left this abusive relationship with the three girls in tow, her childhood became a string of moves to various places and new schools as her mother sought a psychology degree and then employment, and became involved in various relationships with ill-suited men, some of whom she married.  During all of this, Christensen found solace in the food her mother prepared for her and her sisters, or the food she read about in novels.  As she grew into adolescence and then young adulthood, she had many experiences where food played a significant role, and her near-obsession with it caused her to overeat and gain weight on more than one occasion in her life.  Basically, this was a book about appetites, appetites for food, passion, sex, and writing, and her struggles to learn to control and appreciate them.  It started off fairly strongly, with the author relating scenes and experiences from her childhood candidly and without self-pity (she never portrayed herself as a victim, a sentiment she expressed when referring to her own mother - “Despite her treatment at the hands of my father, my mother never seemed like a victim to me, no doubt because she refused to see herself as one” p. 12).  The middle section lagged - the chapters did not flow together and the events the author wrote about seemed superficial and unconnected, as if she was writing about someone else in a totally disinterested manner.  By the last quarter of the book, however, the writing once again becomes strong and the story personal and heartfelt as she relates her most recent experiences as an adult and a successful writer and eater, and the story comes full circle.  I don’t usually read non-fiction, and as I was reading this in preparation for writing a review for the local paper, I was not really enjoying it, and it made me consider why this was so.  I came to the conclusion that non-fiction works often lack “plot”, but perhaps this was due to the disjointed nature of this memoir, which seemed to be especially prevalent in the middle section of the book.  It also didn’t delve into the character, and so for much of the book, although it is an autobiography, I felt that there was no real character development and that the story was superficial.  And it was not really about food as gastronomic adventure in the way that, say, Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was, or even the novel I read recently, Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother.  I guess in the end, it was a disappointment for me, but I’m glad I finished reading it, as the last section was the best part of the whole book.  And each section ended with a few of her own recipes accompanied by personal stories, one of which I’ve already made and enjoyed.  So it was not a total waste of time.  I don’t think that my dislike of autobiographies is unique to this book - I’ve tried to read a few others and have generally felt the same way.  I wonder if, when writing about one’s own life, no matter how talented a writer, it is particularly difficult to gain proper perspective.  I mean, in a novel, the characters are contained within a finite period of time and place, and it usually revolves around a particular incident or event, either leading up to this event or dealing with the outcome of it; whereas real life is ongoing, and unless you are focused on a particular event about which you are writing or towards which you are moving, your personal stories would tend to just ramble, much as this book did for most of the chapters.  Anyway, I’m a very particular non-fiction reader, and this book just reinforced this belief.

Mmm… now I’ve got my tea, and can move on to other titles.

I also read a couple of very short Canadian titles.  A Bird’s Eye by Cary Fagan, tells the story of a young boy growing up in Toronto in the 1930s.  Benjamin Kleeman is the son of immigrant parents whose unhappy marriage gives him plenty of time to roam the streets and find his own ways to pass the time.  He meets Corinne, a young black girl a year older than him, and falls in love with her.  He then discovers the art of magic, and together, he and Corinne launch his “career” as a magician while he learns about the complications of life and love.  I have never read anything by this author, I guess because I normally think of his works as those written for children, but this novel was a delightful, though very brief, coming-of-age story.  I think it is due for publication by the end of the month, although I read an advanced reading copy (one of the perks of my job!), and I would recommend it to just about any reader.  It is so short, you could read it in an afternoon.

And another short “novel” I read last night is David Gilmour’s newest title, Extraordinary.  In it, he tells the story of a brother and sister reminiscing on a Saturday night while they prepare for her assisted suicide.  Sally is fifteen years older than her half-brother, the narrator (whose name is never revealed, although he is once referred to as “Uncle M” by a niece), and has been in a wheelchair for many years following an accident at a party in Mexico where she tripped over a rug and broke her neck.  Being a single mother, she continued to raise her daughter as best she could, although she admits some regrets about her actions towards her son, whom she left to be brought up by her ex-husband.  Now she is sharing stories and reminiscing about her life while she prepares to end it, and her brother has agreed to help.  This is a snippet of life taken from two characters who are sharing the ultimate commitment, the commitment to end a life once the individual has reached her limit.  It is an intimate look at these characters’ lives, and the ways that people stay connected even when they are out of touch with one another for years.  I thought this book was worthwhile, but I really have a problem with it being marketed as a “novel” - I read it in less than 2 hours, including distractions.  It is so brief that it is barely a novella, let alone a full-fledged novel, and I feel it could have been much improved with a bit more depth and story.  I’ve been a long-time fan of Gilmour’s works, from his early titles (which he once referred to as his “dirty books”, when I had him sign a copy of How Boys See Girls after a reading a number of years ago) to A Perfect Night To Go To China, which we read for my book group and which was also quite short (but not as short as this one!).  I actually prefer shorter novels that say a lot to lengthy, descriptive tomes that go on and on, where I have to read for many pages before anything of any significance happens.  Perhaps that’s why I don’t enjoy historical fiction - they are usually quite descriptive, when what I really want is good character development and succinct, outstanding use of language.  I don’t need to be transported to another place and time, I don’t want to “escape”, and I don’t always need the whole backstory of a character to be described in detail for me - I want a writer who tells me only what is necessary to get the story across without additional information.  I may be a bit harsh that way, and I do read a wide variety of novels by different writers, but for me to say, “This book is amazing”, it has to meet my specific standards.  I understand that not everyone looks for these sorts of things in books, but these are my personal criteria.  Having said that, I’m not sure I would agree that Extraordinary is actually extraordinary, and I think it is too short to warrant the expense of a full-priced hardcover, but if you borrow a copy from the library (as I did) and read it in an evening, it may just be worth the investment.

What will I read next?  I have a library book (new Canadian title by Dennis Bock),  my next book club title (too soon to read it?), and a couple of books from my “required reading” box to tackle.  Decisions, decision!  I’ll refill my cup of tea and decide later.

That’s all for today.  Happy Sunday!

Bye for now…

Friday 9 August 2013

Tea and book talk on a Friday morning...

On this lovely, cool, sunny Friday morning, I’m sitting with my steaming cup of chai tea and thinking about the book I finished reading last night.  I’m posting today rather than my usual Sunday morning time because my brother-in-law and his kids are coming to stay for the weekend, so while this is going to be a busy day and the post will be short, this is the best time to write.

I just finished reading Hidden by Catherine McKenzie, a Canadian author who grew up in Montreal.  The novel begins when Jeff Manning is hit by a car on his way home from work one Friday evening and dies.  Two women are devastated by this event, his wife Claire and his co-worker Tish.  As the story unfolds, using three alternating narrators, Jeff, Tish and Claire, the reader is offered glimpses into the relationships between Jeff and these two women, and the affair that may or may not have taken place.  As the lives of these two women come together, and details of their families and relationships are revealed, the author maintains a sense of the surreal that keeps the reader from knowing quite what is going on.  The chapters segue nicely into one another, one taking up where the other left off, albeit from another character’s point of view, and it all comes together in a very satisfying ending.  It made this reader wonder if it is true that, as the title suggests, some things are, indeed, best left hidden.  I tried last year to read an earlier novel by this author, Forgotten, but it was not really my style, too light and “chick-lit”-ish for me to get into it, but this one really surprised me - I was hooked from the very first page and held in suspense until the end.  It reminded me a bit of Harrison’s The Silent Wife in a few different ways:  both were told from alternating points of view, both had a sense of the surreal, and both kept me feeling as if there were more to the story than I was being told.  While The Silent Wife was more a literary and sophisticated read, Hidden was more accessible, offering a story that was maybe easier to identify with for the average reader.  It was definitely a book that would appeal to a female audience, and while it lacked a certain depth, I would definitely recommend this title.

And I’m just downloading audio versions of John Le Carre’s A Murder of Quality  and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Books 2 & 3 of the “George Smiley” series.  I won’t listen to them right away, as I’ve started listening to a mystery by Peter Lovesey, Diamond Solitaire, the second in the “Peter Diamond” series (I’m also just downloading the first in this series).  I’ve never read anything by this British mystery writer, but I’m enjoying this novel very much.  More on that one when I reach the end.  Oh, so many (audio)books, so little time…!

Speaking of so little time, I’ve got a full day ahead of me, so I’ll close for now.  Enjoy your weekend!

Bye for now…

Sunday 4 August 2013

Long weekend book talk...

It’s Sunday afternoon on this mid-summer long weekend, and once again, it’s a practically-perfect summer day, blue skies with a few fluffy clouds, a refreshing breeze, and no perceptible humidity.  It’s so far been a fabulous day, which only promises to get better as I sit with my cup of tea and write about what I’ve been reading.

I didn’t write this morning, which is my usual posting time, because I wanted to finish reading Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother first.  I was so close to the end that I thought about writing before reaching the last page, much as I had in last week’s post written about the audio book I was listening to, David Gordon’s The Serialist (which, by the way, continued to be good, but I think it dragged slightly by the end - perhaps he could have ended it a bit sooner, although he did address the reader again near the end in another brilliant discussion about the role of books and reading, so I guess it was worth it).  Anyway, I thought I could write about Shriver’s book without finishing it and still be fairly accurate in my entry, but with only 30 pages to go, and not being quite awake enough to write, I decided to read to the end first and write later, which was a fabulous decision.  Big Brother is a novel about a woman in her forties, Pandora, who is married to a rather demanding man, Fletcher, and is stepmother to his two children, daughter Cody and son Tanner, both in their teens.  She also runs a successful specialty doll company, which makes personalized replicas of individuals, each including recordings of the real person’s most annoying or most used sayings.  Pandora’s older famous-jazz-musician brother Edison contacts her and, revealing that he is a bit down-on-his-luck at the moment, asks to come from New York to Iowa for a visit.  Not having seen her brother for a few years, she readily agrees, despite not knowing how long the visit will be.  When Edison arrives at the airport, Pandora doesn’t at first recognize him, but soon comes to realize that the grossly overweight man being wheeled into Arrivals by an employee is her brother.  He gets up and shuffles over to her, and she does her best to hide her surprise at his incredible weight gain, in an effort to be polite.  He is brought to her home, where he is too large to fit into (and to heavy to use without breaking) most of the furniture in the house, which have been handmade by Fletcher and are at least as much works of art as usable items.  Tension rises as Edison and Fletcher clash personalities, Pandora and Cody try to keep the peace, and Tanner behaves as a 17-year old boy often behaves, or mis-behaves, by siding with neither his father nor his uncle nor his step-mother, but responds in a sullen, confrontational manner to all.  As Pandora finds out more about Edison’s real situation, she proposes a drastic weight-loss project for Edison that puts her marriage and her family at risk.  This reader spent most of her time wondering if Pandora will be able to “fix” Edison and still salvage her relationships with her current family.  Up to that point, I thought that it was a pretty good book.  It tackled an interesting subject, that of extreme obesity in America today, and the role food and food-related events and activities play in the lives of the general public.  It was insightful and well-written, very accessible for the reader yet also thought-provoking.  It was told in a straight-forward manner that led me from one point to another in time and followed the conventional structure of a novel.  But I couldn’t help comparing it to that other fabulous novel Shriver wrote, We Need To Talk About Kevin, which I loved, and feeling a bit let down.  There were some similarities:  both explored difficult family relationships in extreme situations; both featured as their main characters strong, successful females who have to deal with difficult males; and both explored public attitudes towards those who don’t necessarily fit in society which are prevalent in America.  But while Kevin was heartfelt and offered real, intense emotions, Brother seemed kinda wishy-washy.  Kevin tackled a really difficult situation while Brother was just sort of challenging.  While Kevin was told in an unusual way, through letters from Eva to her estranged husband, Brother was just ordinary.  Then I got to the end, and discovered that Shriver is truly an exceptionally skilled storyteller.  That’s all I will say about that, so as not to spoil it for anyone, but I would highly recommend this novel to just about any reader, and I would say definitely read it to the very last page.  Though not quite as good as Kevin in my opinion, it was pretty darn great.

And I’m listening to John Le Carre’s very first novel, Call for the Dead, which begins the series featuring Secret Service agent George Smiley.  I once tried to read a later title in this series, The Honourable Schoolboy, but I didn’t understand any of the terminology or references the author used, such as when he referred to “the Circus” (the Intelligence Service).  I didn’t intend to search for this title and start from the beginning, but since it was available for download, and it offers such an interesting and fundamental introduction to the characters and settings upon which the rest of the series rely, I think that I will be able to listen to or read the other Smiley books with greater ease, if I choose to do so.  I have several of the novels in this series on my bookshelf, as well as a couple of his stand-alones.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now…