Sunday 29 September 2013

Last post for September...

On this cool, sunny Sunday morning, as I sip my steaming cup of chai and anticipate the freshly-baked Banana Bread that should be out of the oven soon, I’m thinking about what I’ve been reading and what I’m going to read next, as I usually do each week at this time.

I decided last week, after my post, to read Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote.  I have read this novella before, and of course seen the movie with Audrey Hepburn.  There is a story behind my choosing this to read.  My next book club selection is In Cold Blood, also by Capote, the true crime account of the murder of the Clutter family on their farm in Kansas in November, 1959 by two men, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith.  As is my tendency when selecting books for the book club, I select a book for October that is sort of “seasonal”, as in a mystery or a ghost story with Hallowe’en in mind, or one year, when my husband and I went to Algonquin Park for a few days, I selected Canoe Lake by Roy MacGregor, a novel about the mystery surrounding painter Tom Thomson’s death.  I also try to select one non-fiction title for my group to read, which can sometimes be difficult, as we are mainly fiction readers, and some non-fiction is not as easy to read as a novel.  Anyway, one of my members, a retired high school English teacher, read In Cold Blood when one of her students selected it for an independent study project, and she was reluctant to reread it for our meeting.  She told me that she wouldn’t be joining us for our October meeting for that reason, and I suggested that she could choose another true crime book to read and discuss.  That wasn’t something she wanted to do, so I suggested reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s as it is by the same author, and the other work for which Capote is most well-known.  I don’t know if she will come to the meeting or read this novella, but I felt that, since it is so short and easy to read, it would be a good idea to reread it so someone else in the group would be familiar with the story in case she decides to join us.  This novella, published in 1958, tells the story of a writer who recounts the experiences he had in his first apartment in New York in 1943, when he befriended another tenant in the building, Holly Golightly, a young country girl-turned-society woman who shies away from owning or belonging to anything, always on the search for the richest man she can find.  She goes every Thursday to visit Salvatore “Sally” Tomato in Sing Sing, where she receives a “weather report” which she must convey to another man before receiving payment for her visit.  This in the end is her undoing, as she is arrested for aiding a racketeer.  The narrator, an unnamed writer whom Holly calls “Fred” because he reminds her of her brother Fred, becomes fascinated by Holly and her lifestyle, and falls a little bit in love with her as she remains unattainable.  The character of Holly Golightly has become an American icon, and I would certainly recommend that everyone should read this short novel if only to understand the cultural references that are made to this story even today.  I’m also half-way through In Cold Blood, which I hope to finish today or tomorrow.  I will talk about that more next week, after the meeting.

I also listened to an audio book by Harlan Coben last week, Hold Tight, which I was sure I’d listened to before, but it turned out that it was a new listening experience for me.  It begins with the brutal murder of a woman outside a bar by a couple in an unmarked white van (why is it always an unmarked white van?).  It then moves to the decision by a high school boy’s parents to install spying software on their son’s computer in an effort to monitor his online activities, as he’s been acting strangely since his best friend committed suicide a few months before.  When their son disappears, they start a search that leads to underage clubs and the discovery of “pharm parties”.  When another woman goes missing, the story becomes more complex as the reader is led into a web of criminal activity.  Sometimes I enjoy these types of novels to listen to, as I don’t have to pay much attention to the language or the details, always a consideration when listening to a book rather than reading it and seeing the words on the page.  In fact, I just recently listened to the “Andy Carpenter” novel, the “Kurt Wallander” novel and the “Peter Diamond” novel.  All of these are mysteries, though they are not really thrillers.  I have enjoyed reading novels by Harlan Coben in the past, which started many years ago with his “Myron Bolitar” series, featuring Bolitar as a former sports agent-turned amateur detective.  He has moved on to write many complex stand-alone thrillers, one of which was made into a French film, “Tell No One”, and which was both an excellent book and a great film.  This one, however, was not a great listening experience for me, and I’m not sure if the story and writing were at fault, or if it was mainly down to the narrator, who read in such an expressive and over-the-top dramatic way that it totally ruined the book for me.  I guess I’ll never know, as I will be unlikely to read this book again in its physical form.  But, like all good train wrecks, once I got into the story, I couldn’t stop listening and sped through to the very end, which was fairly unsatisfying.  I hope this doesn’t put potential readers off Coben’s books (he's a bestselling author, so I'm not really too worried).  I really enjoyed reading and listening to other novels of his, such as The Woods and Promise Me.  This one, unfortunately, just didn’t live up to my expectations.

So I was planning to read a review book next, once I finish Capote’s book, but I just found out that Wayne Johnston’s newest novel, The Son of a Certain Woman has come in for me.  What a dilemma… I really want to read Johnston’s novel, but I don’t actually have it yet.  I should read a review book, and I will, but Johnston’s novel has the appeal of not only being a title of personal interest, it can also double as a committee title.  I think Johnston’s novel will be the winner in this decision;  the review book can wait until next week.

Time for Banana Bread and reading.  Enjoy the Indian Summer weather we’re having!

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 September 2013

Book talk on the first day of fall...

On this cool, sunny Sunday morning, the first day of fall, I am just waiting for my chai tea to steep as I think about what I’ve read and listened to over the past week, and what I will read next.

I just finished reading Kind of Cruel, a complex psychological thriller by award-winning novelist Sophie Hannah. Amber Heweredine has suffered from chronic insomnia for the past eighteen months, a condition that has forced her to try hypnosis as a last resort, not expecting that it will help, but determining that it can’t possibly make things worse than they already are.  When, under hypnosis, she utters the words, “Kind, cruel, kind of cruel”, she doesn’t understand what they mean or why she said them.  She abandons her hypnotherapist and bolts towards her car, where she encounters another client, a woman she spoke with briefly before her session.  She is suddenly sure she saw those words printed in this woman’s notebook, and is desperate enough to check this by breaking into the car once the woman goes in for her appointment.  After being caught out for this, she is subsequently brought in by the local police for questioning in connection with the unsolved murder of Katharine Allen two months earlier, a woman Amber has never heard of.  Thus begins Amber’s attempts to search for the origin of these words, certain that if she can uncover where and when she first saw them, she will also find the key to solving the murder.  As one murder becomes connected to a second murder two years before, Amber’s search intensifies as she explores past experiences she’s had with friends and family members to try to discover the “mystery behind the mystery”, assisted by a team of eclectic, mismatched police. This quest leads to a dramatic, satisfying conclusion that will leave readers longing for more.  At once an exploration of the reliability of memories versus stories, an investigation into dysfunctional family relationships, and the exploration of parental responsibility, this page-turner kept this reader up late into the night. While I found parts of the story and some of the characters confusing, I found that if I just kept reading, I would get the gist of the story and figure out which parts were significant and which were “extras”.  As I mentioned in last week’s post, Sophie Hannah has been chosen to pen a new Hercule Poirot novel, with the backing of Agatha Christie’s family and the first official novel to continue Christie’s work.  I would recommend this title for just about any fans of psychological thrillers.

And I finished listening to First Degree, an “Andy Carpenter” novel by David Rosenfelt, read by one of my favourite narrators, Grover Gardiner.  The novels in this series are always a treat for me to listen to, and this one was no exception.  It tells the story of independently-wealthy lawyer Carpenter’s efforts to prove his girlfriend, Laurie Collins, former police officer turned private investigator, innocent of the charge of murder in the first degree.  Her former boss on the police force, a dirty detective whom she turned in and who subsequently became the focus of an internal investigation, was found beheaded and burned in an abandoned warehouse.  All the evidence points to Laurie, and it is Andy’s job to prove to the jury that there is reasonable doubt as to her guilt.  At once humorous and compelling, these books are a real treat for me.  While not “laugh-out-loud” funny, Andy’s comments make me chuckle regularly.  I also learn much about the American legal system  from these novels.  And I just discovered that the author has an actual dog rescue foundation, the Tara Foundation, just like his main character in the books - wow!  I’m impressed!  I always enjoy these novels as audio books, and I’m sure the narrator’s natural way with the characters and stories plays a huge part in the success these books have had with me - Gardiner captures the voices and tones of the characters and narratives perfectly, and it is wonderful that so far, he is the only narrator for the books that are available on audio in this series.  I have a recent title by this author as a physical book, but I’m not sure if I want to read it or wait until it becomes available as an audio book… it’s a dilemma.

So what do I read next?  Review book?  Committee book?  Book club selection?  I will drink my tea and hopefully make a choice soon, as I think this will be a good afternoon for curling up with a good book.  Happy Fall!!

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 September 2013

Short post on a cool September morning...

I have a pot of Lentil Chili and a pot of homemade Zucchini Soup simmering on the stove as I write this post... mmm!  I also have a steaming cup of chai in front of me.  Unlike the books I’ve been reading lately, which are books I’ve read and/or discussed  before, my tea is something different, a Pure Chai blend which I bought from a well-known specialty tea chain.  I’m not sure whether I’ll like it as much as my usual blend, Masala Chai, from a little shop in St Jacob’s, but it’s good to try something new every once in a while.

I reread The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery last week.  We had just discussed it in May for my volunteer book group, so I thought I would just skim it to refresh my memory so I could discuss it with some knowledge.  Well, I read nearly every word again, and I made copious notes on sticky notes which are stuck in my book even now.  Once again, like The Sense of an Ending, I really wanted to underline so many passages, but I resisted, even though it is my own copy.  Hedgehog tells the alternating stories of Renee and Paloma as they go about their lives in modern-day Paris.  Renee is the concierge of an apartment building filled with wealthy, aristocratic tenants, politicians and food critics, among others. Fifty-four year old  Renee describes herself as short, squat, and unattractive, with bunions on her feet, who is, despite her station in life, very intelligent, an autodidact.  Paloma is a twelve-year old who is exceptionally bright and who, in order to avoid living the rest of her life in the goldfish bowl of tedium that she sees is her only option as an adult, has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.  These alternating characters share their adventures and activities, along with views and commentaries on their lives and the lives and characters of those around them.  There is much philosophy and theories of art and filmmaking explored in this interesting and unique novel, and it is sometimes a challenge to get through, as it is difficult to understand everything the characters are talking about.  I thought I would skim over those parts, the parts that I didn’t think were essential to understanding their stories, but I found that there were less parts to skim over than I had anticipated.  I found that I was reading nearly every word on every page, and noticing subtleties that of course I missed on my first reading, such as the mention of camellias throughout the book, which I didn’t realize were going to be significant.  I thought the book was really about learning to enjoy the beauty of each moment, and to, as Paloma says, make each moment “an undying”.  It was about learning to build up, not destroy.  Of the friends who met to discuss it last week, one person listened to it as an audio book, and she said that it was very difficult to understand everything the narrators were talking about.  I can appreciate that, as it is not an easy read, even when you have the printed page in front of you.  Another person read the book two years ago while she was on holiday in Cuba, and she remembered enjoying it, but that it was also sad.  The third person had been really enjoying the book, but then got too busy and stopped in the middle.  We didn't realize that she had not finished, so we discussed the ending (which I will not do here, as it will ruin it for anyone who had not read it).  She was fine with that, and determined to make time to finish it.  She, in particular, was a person I thought would really enjoy it, as she works in a field where the practice of  mindfulness plays a significant role, and upon rereading the book, I discovered that this is exactly what this book is all about, living in the moment and appreciating all the beauty that surrounds you in that moment.  I was describing my rereading experience to someone at work last week, and I suggested that this book is like some dishes:  they are great when they are eaten first, right out of the oven, but they are even better the second day, when all the flavours have had a chance to develop and deepen.  So I would recommend that this book be enjoyed once, then a few months later, reread it and appreciate all you missed the first time around.

Then I had to decide what to read next.  I have a pile of books for review, a pile for the committee I`m on, and a pile of books I put on hold at the library.  I was trying to decide which pile to select from, when I came across an article about Sophie Hannah, a British writer who has recently been selected by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new “Hercule Poirot” novel, the first time this has been done since Christie passed away.  One of the books in my review pile is by this author, Kind of Cruel, so I decided that she must be a good writer to be entrusted with such a lofty project.  I started this psychological thriller last night, and will write more about it when I finish.

OK, time to get on with my day.  Happy Sunday!

Bye for now…

PS The tea is not as good as my original blend… good thing I only bought enough for a couple of cups.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Tea and book talk on a sunny Sunday morning...

It’s a lovely, cool, brisk Sunday morning as I sit with a cup of steaming chai tea and a slice of homemade Banana Bread, fresh out of the oven… mmm, mornings don’t get any better than this!

My book group met on Friday to discuss The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  If you recall from my last post, this novel tells the story of school friends Tony and Adrian, and the woman with whom they were both involved during university, Veronica.  Tony dated her first, a tempestuous relationship that ended rather badly, as youthful relationships often do.  During their time together, he spent a weekend with Veronica’s family, which was a rather strange experience for him.  After breaking up, Tony receives a letter from Adrian, requesting permission to date Veronica, to which he responds heatedly and impulsively.  There is some mystery as to what exactly happened in the next while, but then something happens that changes everything.  Fast-forward 40 or so years, and Adrian is again brought into Tony’s life via a letter from a solicitor informing him that Veronica’s recently deceased mother has left him some money and a few documents.  This now causes Tony to think about and analyze the relationship he had with Veronica, and his friendship with Adrian, so many years before, relationships he had not contemplated for years, having grown up and moved on.  The resulting inquiries lead to some astonishing revelations, and some unresolved mysteries, too, as Tony strives to understand what happened all those years ago.  I was thrilled to find out from my book club members that nearly everyone loved the book.  They found the writing to be excellent, the characters interesting, and the story complex and interesting, yet realistic.  The one member who didn’t love the book, but also didn’t really dislike it, felt that Tony was a bit too self-indulgent and whiny, that he never really grew up, to which we all agreed.  But we qualified that by pointing out that this relapse into the past occurred rather curiously, at a time in Tony’s life when he had neither job nor family to occupy his time, and that, as a retiree, he had plenty of time to analyze the mysterious circumstances that led to this posthumous contact from Veronica’s mother.  I suggested to the group that, if he had not received the letter from the solicitor, perhaps he would have just joined the local community centre and found groups of seniors with whom he could play cards or bingo twice a week, and just muddled through the rest of his life with sporadic contact with his daughter and ex-wife. One of my members suggested that what happened during the weekend he visited with Veronica’s parents was more significant than I ever thought it was, that in fact, all the careless remarks and actions were intentional and were intended to lead to a particular, and particularly unsavoury, outcome.  I can’t say any more about it without giving it away, but if you read it, you will know what I mean.  I had never thought of that, but I can see how that could be the case, which makes Veronica’s family more dysfunctional than I ever considered.  But the fact that there were no really clearcut answers by the end of the book is also a sign that it was well-written, as we all agreed.  A book should be open to interpretation, should mean something different to everyone, and readers should relate to a story and the characters in it in their own unique ways.  I’m sure readers find meaning and significance in well-written novels that even the author didn’t intend.  This is the way life is, right?  There are often many sides to every story, and each person experiencing the same event or incident could tell a completely different story from the others.  Anyway, I highly recommend this novel, but I think you need to read it twice to catch on to the subtleties the author uses in the narrative, told from the point of view of an admittedly unreliable narrator.

I also finished listening to Troubled Waters by Henning Mankel.  This is the last in the “Kurt Wallander” series, and I think it’s one of the best.  It opens with Wallander contemplating his aging and pending retirement, but then his daughter Linda tells him that she is pregnant and will be having a child with her boyfriend, Hans, a financial analyst who works in the area of hedgefunds.  He is invited to Hans’ father’s 75th birthday party in Stockholm, where he meets Hakan and Louise von Enke, Hans’ parents.  Hakan and Kurt wander off into a conservatory and then into a windowless study, where Hakan opens up to Kurt and tells him stories of foreign submarines in Swedish waters when he was working as a high-ranking naval officer in the 1980s.  Shortly after the party, Hakan disappears without a trace, leaving Louise, Kurt, Hans and Linda to search for him, a search that always seems to lead to dead ends.  Then Louise, too, disappears, and the hunt intensifies.  Russian spies and American CIA members become part of the story as they try to unravel the mysteries surrounding these disappearances, and I was kept on the edge of my “bus seat” to the very last sentence.  And it was a real swansong for Wallander.  I hadn’t realized that it was the last book in which he would be featured, but throughout the novel, there are signs of Wallander’s disintegration, from his diabetes and memory loss to his poor eating habits and occasional excessive drinking.  It was sad to hear about this decline, since, as a long-time reader of this series, I have grown fond of this gruff, gloomy Swedish detective.  Ah well, perhaps the author will begin a series with Wallander’s daughter, Linda, as the main detective, as she is already a police officer.

And one last thing I was thinking about this past week related to books and reading.  I have a “Friends” book group that meets every two months.  We are meeting next week to discuss The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and I was speaking to a woman at work who may be interested in joining us.  She tried to read the book, but it just wasn’t grabbing her, so I gave her some suggestions if she wanted to finish it, like don’t get bogged down by the philosophers, artists and other creators Renee discusses, skim (but don’t completely skip!) parts that don’t relate directly to the personal stories of the main characters, Renee and Paloma, etc.  She said that, while she appreciated the advice, she felt that she needed a “heartwarming” read right now, and did I have any suggestions?  I had to stop and think… I reviewed my blog to see what I had read recently… I thought about the books I had sitting at home, waiting to be read… and I concluded that I don’t do “heartwarming” very often at all.  In fact, I almost never read heartwarming, feel-good books.  This seems curious to me - do I never want to feel good after I finish a book?  She consoled me by suggesting that I probably choose books that are more “deep” and “meaningful”, which made me feel a bit better, but it still left me contemplating what I read when I’m not reading “deep, meaningful” books.  I have come to the conclusion that, when I need something fun or light to read, something I don’t have to think too much about or analyze, I read mysteries, British mysteries, Swedish mysteries, even Canadian mysteries, to lighten my reading load.  Phew!  I was worried there for a minute, but now I think my reading choices are OK.  By the way, I did come up with a few titles of “feel-good” books for her:  Grave Concern by Judith Millar (a delightfully “light” Canadian mystery), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (light, yet insightful), and Dog by Michelle Herman (heartwarming).  I also suggested The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which I have never read but have heard that it is definitely a “feel-good” read.

Have a great day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 September 2013

Books and tea on a long weekend...

On this first day of September, when the forecast is for thunderstorms and the air is heavy with humidity, I’m inside my climate-controlled house waiting for my tea to steep and anticipating the cooler, less humid weather that usually comes in the month of September.  Unfortunately, no Date Bread in the oven this morning…

I’ve read a couple of books this week that I want to talk about.  The first is The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which is the next book for my book club discussion on Friday.  I have read this novel before, and have even blogged about it (see post for November 23, 2011), but I sort of forgot what it was about, since it’s been nearly 2 years between readings.  I wanted to write about my impressions of the book before the group discusses it, then next week I can recap the highlights of the discussion.  I did remember that, when I first read it, I was less-than-impressed, considering that it was a Booker Prize winner, but I couldn’t recall why exactly I was disappointed.  I didn’t reread my earlier post until this morning, as I didn’t want to taint my new reading experience by my past experiences.  This novel tells the story of schoolhood friends Tony and Adrian, and the woman with whom they were both involved during university, Veronica.  Tony dated her first, a tempestuous relationship that ended rather badly, as youthful relationships often do.  During their time together, he spent a weekend with Veronica’s family, and had curious experiences with each member of the family, patronizing father, supportive but vague mother, and disinterested Brother Jack.  After breaking up, Tony receives a letter from Adrian, requesting permission to date Veronica, to which he responds heatedly and impulsively, as is common at that explosive age.  There is some mystery as to what exactly happened in the next few months or so, but then something happens that changes everything.  Fast-forward 40 or so years, and Adrian is again brought into Tony’s life via a letter from a solicitor informing him that Veronica’s recently deceased mother has left him some money and a few documents.  This now causes Tony to think about and analyze the relationship he had with Veronica, and his friendship with Adrian, so many years before, relationships he had not contemplated for years, having grown up and moved on.  The resulting inquiries lead to some astonishing revelations, and some unresolved mysteries, too, as Tony strives to understand what happened all those years ago.  I have to say, this time around, I really enjoyed the novel.  It was a meditation on youth and age, and a study of the essence and ultimate malleability of time.  I never underline in books, but I felt on many occasions that I would have liked to mark this or that passage in this novel, as Barnes has a real talent for expressing thoughts on the human condition succinctly and with grace.  I thought the ending was a bit vague and a little bit of a let-down, but I didn’t think that this would be reason enough to dislike it as much as I had the first time around, so I reread my earlier post to find out why I disliked it.  This was a good example of how one’s personal reading history affects the response to a current book.  At that time, I had recently read a couple of books dealing with adult male friends who are, for some reason, recollecting schoolboy relationships with the same women, and the subsequent rivalry these relationships caused and which are brought to the surface with new information.  One example is Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam; another is Blake Morrison’s The Last Weekend.  I remarked then that I felt inundated with these types of stories, that I felt I had read this one before, and didn’t male authors, particularly British male authors, ever write about anything else.  I concluded with a thought that, perhaps if I hadn’t just read these other books, my reaction to Sense of an Ending would have been quite different.  How right I was!  It has been a while since I have read any books with this storyline, so I could look at this novel with fresh eyes and really appreciate Barnes’ excellent use of language as he meditates on the passing of time, and the comparisons of life in youth and old age.  I found myself identifying with and nodding my head in agreement with his thoughts so many times.  So my revised views of this novel are duly noted, and I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in character-driven or language-driven novels.

And I just finished Peter Robinson’s new novel, Children of the Revolution.  Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks is back, and is better than ever!! This time, he is investigating the suspicious death of a reclusive loner in a nearby village who seemed to have either jumped or been thrown over the high, steep sides of a bridge.  To complicate matters, the deceased had 5000 pounds in cash on his person, and research into his history indicated that he was dismissed from his job as a local college lecturer some years earlier under suspicion of sexually abusing two female students.  Any of these could be obvious leads, but of course, Banks searches for the most complicated explanations, stepping on the toes of the higher-ups on his quest, and nothing, once again, is as it seems.  I remember when I read the 2 titles in this series before this one and found them disappointing, I wrote in my blog post that perhaps Robinson should write more stand-alones, that I found his novels have become too complex, far-fetched and “international”, and that I was hoping he would write a few novels that involved more local people and spots and less international characters and locations.  Maybe he read my blog (Hahaha!  I wish!!), but that is exactly what I got this time around.  It was an excellent mystery, with interesting plot and characters, and it left me wondering if promotion was in the near future for Banks.  I was, however, disappointed with the last few pages, which I will not give away here, because I thought it was highly implausible and perhaps a bit of “wishful thinking” on the part of the author, but I guess I can forgive him for this small error in judgment.

And I’m listening to Henning Mankell’s Troubled Waters right now, part of the “Kurt Wallander” series.  I will talk about it next week, when I finish, but I just wanted to comment on the similarities between Robinson’s book and Mankell’s novel.  Both detectives are nearing retirement age, and contemplate the changes in the police force and their imminent retirements.  Hmmm… maybe I need to vary my reading material a bit more.

Enjoy the rest of the long weekend!

Bye for now…