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…

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