Sunday 27 October 2013

Tea and book talk on a rainy morning...

We’ve been having cool, wet, rainy/snowy weather these past few days, so I’m thankful for my hot cup of tea and an opportunity to stay in and read this afternoon, something that is more difficult to justify when the weather is clear, bright and dry.

I finished reading A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah early last week, and it proved not to disappoint in its ending. If you recall, this is a psychological mystery about three women who had been charged and/or convicted of murdering their children. When one of these woman is murdered shortly after being released from prison, aided in her fight for justice by film director and social advocate Laurie Nattrass and JIPAC (Justice Innocent for Parents and Caregivers), the police search for the killer and come across links to Nattrass’ media company, Binary Star, and one of his film producers, Felicity “Fliss” Benson. As cards with 16 numbers set in a grid pattern turn up on every doorstep, and murders and attempted murders pile up, suspects and motives abound in this intense page-turner. I personally found the story almost too complex to follow, but once I let go of the expectation that I needed to understand everything that was happening, I was able to enjoy the novel more fully. Her style reminds me of Minette Walters, that British master of psychological mysteries, in a few ways. Both writers’ novels feature complex stories in which the interesting, sometimes bizarre psychology of the characters is explored in detail. Both writers include such additions to their traditional prose as police reports, newspaper articles, transcripts from interviews, and excerpts from books written by the characters. These, in my opinion, add a certain depth and richness to the stories and characters that give this reader a sense of authenticity. When I read these additions, I feel as though the author is offering me the opportunity to take part in the detective work and draw my own conclusions from the information offered - basically, I feel that the author is adhering to that cardinal rule of good creative writing, “Show, don’t tell”. I must add here that, in my opinion, Walters is a better writer than Hannah, but I also think she has been writing for longer. Her books have a darker, more sinister tone than Hannah’s, but both write deep, dark psychological mysteries that are sure to keep you up late into the night, racing to get to the last page.

And I finished listening to the first in the “Peter Diamond” series by Peter Lovesey, The Last Detective. I listened to the second in this series not long ago and enjoyed it, so when the first was available to download, it made sense to start from the beginning and get the backstory of the main characters before embarking on additional titles. As this novel opens, a woman is discovered floating in a river, naked and dead for some time. Detective Inspector Peter Diamond is called in to lead the team in the investigation, first to find out the identity of the woman, then to determine the circumstances surrounding the death. Diamond is also under internal investigation for allegedly using questionable interrogation tactics in a former case, where the accused is claiming that he was bullied into a confession when interviewed by Diamond, so his every step is being monitored by the Chief Constable. As the investigation into the woman’s death proceeds, Diamond’s disdain for the reliance on forensic evidence and “the men in white coats”, and the increasing lack of respect for what he refers to as “good, old-fashioned detective work” by other, younger coppers is clearly conveyed to the reader, and sets the stage for Diamond’s circumstances in future novels in the series. This novel is interesting in its make-up, as it consists of sections that detail the police investigation which are broken up by sections from point of view of particular characters, suspects in the woman’s death, told in the first-person narrative. These sections offer insight into the characters, and give depth to the story that would be lacking if it was written as a straight police procedural with simply a detailed account of the investigation using the omniscient third-person narrative. It was definitely an interesting listening experience, and I look forward to downloading more titles in this series.

And I just briefly wanted to mention a BBC series I’ve been watching recently, “Dalziel and Pascoe”, which is based on the novels of Reginald Hill. I have a few of his novels on my bookshelf, but I don’t think I’ve actually read any of them. The tv series is interesting, as these two mismatched police investigators, Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, solve violent crimes in their British hometown. I’m inspired to give the books a try, as I feel I now “know” the characters. I don’t recall why I haven’t read the books before - they are contemporary British mysteries, which I generally enjoy. Maybe once I finish the long list of books I have to read over the next month, I will give one a try.

Oh dear, the sun is coming out… That means I will have to be productive instead of lounging around the house drinking tea and reading all afternoon. Darn! Rainy Sunday afternoon, where did you go?

Bye for now…


Sunday 20 October 2013

Book and film talk on a sunny Sunday morning...

I have a few things to talk about on this cool, sunny autumn morning as I enjoy a cup of chai:  a book, a book club meeting, and a film.

I am in the middle of a psychological suspense novel by Sophie Hannah called A Room Swept White.  This author’s name may seem familiar to you if you are a regular visitor to Julie’s Reading Corner, as I recently read her newest novel, Kind of Cruel, for review for the local paper and wrote about it here.  A Room Swept White is an earlier novel of Hannah’s, published in 2010.  It tells the story of three women, Helen, Ray and Sarah, who have been charged with and/or convicted of murdering their infant children on different dates in different areas.  Their main connection is the expert witness, Dr. Judith Duffy, who played a significant role in each court hearing to convince the jury that natural causes could not have been a cause for death in each circumstance, that murder was the only cause they could consider to be reasonable.  Years later, with the help and guidance of JIPAC, Justice for Innocent Parents and Caregivers, spearheaded by Laurie Nattrass, a brilliant, eccentric documentary director and social activist, they have been released from prison or acquitted of the charges.  One day shortly after Helen’s release from prison, Nattrass calls Felicity “Fliss” Benson, a TV producer at Nattrass’ media company, Binary Star, where he suddenly and inexplicably offers her his job, as he has decided to leave the company and work elsewhere.  She has just received an anonymous letter, a card with 16 numbers arranged in a grid pattern, that appears to have no meaning.  On the same day, Helen is found murdered, and it is revealed that she, too, recieved a card with the sixteen numbers, which was left in her bathrobe pocket during or after the murder.  Fliss also has a deep personal secret, which she is reluctant to tell her friend, the police, or us, the readers, but which she alludes to regularly.  It is a real page-turner, filled with increased suspense, as the more that is revealed, the more it seems there is to uncover.  When I read her most recent novel, I had difficulty keeping the mismatched, eclectic members of the police investigation team straight, and I found it interesting that the same police investigators are also working on the case in this novel.  So while it is not really a series, the same police seem to feature in some or maybe all of her novels.  I find her writing a bit confusing, but the stories are so compelling that I will definitely read others she has written, if they prove to be as suspenseful and interesting as these last two have been.  I hope to finish this novel by early next week.

I had my first meeting with my newest volunteer book group yesterday, where we discussed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Hadden.  This novel is told from the point of view of Christopher Boone, a 15-year old autistic boy in the UK who is living with his father.  It opens with Christopher’s discovery of the neighbour’s dog, Wellington, lying dead on her lawn with a pitchfork sticking out of its body.  He determines to solve the mystery of Who Killed Wellington?, and the reader is treated to a look at his unconventional thought processes as he undertakes this challenge to solve the mystery and find the answer.  When I discussed this novel with my other volunteer book group, everyone loved it.  They thought that it was a real success story, that the writing and story were creative and interesting, and that the characters were flawed but believable.  My husband loved the book, too, as did my good friend, a huge reader who learned about this title from my blog post last year.  But the ladies in my group yesterday did not love the book.  There were three members besides me, and they all agreed that they found the book “disturbing”.  One women said her former husband, who spent time in jail and was, shortly after his conviction, diagnosed as autistic, used to send her letters from prison that included diagrams similar to those featured in the novel which were drawn by Christopher to help the reader understand how he thinks.  She also felt worried for Christopher, being all alone on his quest, with seemingly no support in his efforts to find his mother.  She wondered where the Social Services were, and why no one was ever called to help the family deal with their situation.  I also felt this way occasionally throughout the book, and we discussed whether a book like this could be instrumental in bringing to light the inadequacies of the support systems offered to families who have members with special needs.  Another woman in the group has a son who is autistic, so she didn’t really enjoy the book.  The third woman found the opening scene, featuring the murdered dog, to be disturbing, but she enjoyed most of the rest of the book, particularly the creative, unorthodox way it was written, including diagrams, Appendices, and lists.  In the end, they were all glad to have read the novel, and were looking forward to our next meeting.  I thought that this was a good example of the ways in which our personal history and experiences influence our responses to books we read.

And I had a small “Hedgehog Party” last night.  Well, only one person was able to make it, one of the women in my “Friends” book group who recently discussed The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  I purchased the DVD of the film adaptation of this novel (French with English subtitles), and I had a box of Mini-Hedgehogs from Purdy’s Chocolates (YUM!!) purchased specifically for this occasion, and so last night we sat down and watched the film while my husband was away at a “`Boys Night Out”.  I tried hard not to compare the film with the book, and I think it would be an impossible job to do justice in a film adaptation to a book that was so filled with internal thought processes and abstract discussion.  In the end, we both wondered if we may have enjoyed the film more if we hadn’t read end enjoyed the book so much.  It was pretty good, and I guess I would recommend it to anyone who has not read the book, as it is an interesting and moving story, but I would definitely caution anyone who loves the book to be prepared for significant differences and omission in the film version.

That’s all for today!

Bye for now…

Sunday 13 October 2013

Thanksgiving weekend post...

On this muggy, overcast, rather dreary morning, I’m drinking a nice cup of tea and enjoying the fragrance of a freshly cooked pot of applesauce… mmm!  This past week I have been on vacation, so didn’t get much (I should say any!) reading done, as I was busy with one thing and another.  But I do have a few books to talk about today.

I recently reviewed an adult non-fiction reference book for the local paper, and it was so amazing that I wanted to mention it here.  It is common knowledge that the three-toed sloth is one of the slowest and sleepiest mammals in the world, and that the spotted hyena is the most efficient mammalian scavenger.  But did you know that, as a group, birds have better colour vision than any other group of animals on Earth?  Or that the female cane or marine toad (Bufo marinus) lays as many as 50,000 eggs per spawning? These and other strange, remarkable, and sometimes bizarre animal records can be found in the Natural History Museum Book of Animal Records.  Accompanying these records are stunning photos and fascinating facts that are sure to delight and amaze readers of all ages.  This book includes nearly 900 records, which are broken down into sections and include all six animal groups:  mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes ad invertebrates.  The records include not only the familiar ones such as fastest, most colourful and best sense of smell, but more unusual records such as the most vegetarian, the least toes, and the most bizarre defense.  It includes different records for different groupings and focuses on the records that are most relevant and interesting for each type of animal.  The diversity and wonder of the animal kingdom is well-represented in this volume, a definitive guide to the most exotic and unusual creatures on Earth.  Zoologist Mark Carwardine is an award-winning writer, widely published wildlife photographer, conservationist, TV and radio presenter, and magazine columnist.  He has written more than 50 books, including Last Chance to See with Douglas Adams.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in animals, animal facts and/or animal records.  It is a truly amazing book.

And I listened to an Agatha Christie audio book, one of the Miss Marple titles, Murder at the Vicarage.  It is set in the small English village of St Mary Mead and the main characters, the vicar, his wife, and some of the townspeople, are all under suspicion when Colonel Protheroe is found murdered in the vicarage.  The Colonel is not well-liked by anyone in the village, and most of the townspeople had some motive to want him out of the way.  Miss Marple, while not a central figure in the story, is called upon to share her insights and opinions, as she demonstrates keen detective skills and abilities in deciphering clues.  This is the first Agatha Christie mystery I have listened to that features Miss Marple, and it is very different from those that feature Hercules Poirot, in that Miss Marple holds no official capacity as a police investigator or private detective.  Instead, she is merely an elderly woman who happens to be keenly aware of her surroundings and takes notice of everything that goes on in the village.  I just discovered that this is the first of Christie’s mysteries to feature Miss Marple, which is interesting.  Perhaps her role changes as more mysteries were written with Marple as a more central character.  I’ll have to listen to a few more to find out.  Anyway, it was a delightful listening experience, as is usual with a Christie mystery audio book.

And I think this week I will be rereading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon for my newest volunteer book group, a seniors’ group with the Day Program at the local Community Centre.  I wrote about this delightful book on June 3, 2012, after my regular volunteer book group discussed it.  It is a wonderful little novel about an autistic boy’s adventures as he tries to solve the mystery of the curious death of the neighbour’s dog, while at the same time find his mother.  I absolutely do not mind reading this again in preparation for another book discussion.  Actually, we are going to discuss it again in November with my “friends” book group - soon I will be reciting passages of that book from memory… in my sleep!!  Good thing my husband also loved the book, so he can recite along with me!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Bye for now…

Sunday 6 October 2013

Sunday morning tea and book talk...

It is a dreary, rainy, muggy Sunday morning as I sit down with my cup of chai and think about what I read since my last post.  I also have Banana Bread baking in the oven, which, paired with the tea, somehow cheers me up on this first glooming Sunday in October.  And I’ve been reading some great stuff, too, which always makes me happy.

I finished reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote for my book club meeting on Friday.  It was as good as I remembered it being from my first reading.  Inspired by a short 300-word article on the back pages of a newspaper, I think the New York Times, this “non-fiction novel” recounts the murder of four members of the Clutter family on a farm in Kansas in 1959, and the subsequent travels and eventual capture and trial of the two guilty men, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, men who met in prison and who planned the robbery and murder of the family members.  The story itself is interesting, particularly the responses of the community members to the murders and the choices Dick and Perry make after they commit the crimes, as well as their attitudes and actions after they are convicted.  The writing is superb as well, the sweeping descriptions of the farm and the family before the murders, and the descriptions of the townspeople, the murderers and their family members, and the court processes they encountered during their trial and imprisonment.  Something I noted during my reading, and one of my book club members commented on immediately when we began discussing the book, was the fact that she did not despise Dick or Perry by the end of the book, and she felt she should have felt otherwise.  That’s exactly how I felt, that I didn’t hate them, but sympathized with their situation and felt compassion for them, which I thought indicated that they had been portrayed fairly by Capote in his book.  They came from difficult childhoods, especially Perry, and Dick had his own issues, but we felt that if they had never met and made this plan together, they may have remained alive, although they probably would have ended up doing time in jail over the course of their lives.  Thinking about the legal system these days, their lawyers probably would have found a legal loophole and kept them off of death row - this is something we will never know.  At the beginning of the meeting, one of my book club members, who has been ill recently and so didn’t have a chance to read this book, thought that she was familiar with the story and related what she thought was this story, where a famous lawyer set a legal precedent with his brilliant defense of the accused.  In fact, the case she was thinking of was the Leopold and Loeb case, in I think the 1920s or 1930s, involving two brilliant university students who conspire to commit the perfect murder, and end up killing a neighbour boy. Clarence Darrow was the lawyer who defended them and kept them off death row, succeeding in securing a life sentence for each.  If I recall correctly, one of the boys ended up having a significant positive influence on the prison where he was kept, by setting up a library and some education programs.  If you are interested in reading about this fascinating true crime story, there is an excellent book written by Hal Higdon, Crime of the Century, which details these events.  Getting back to Dick and Perry’s story, what I also found interesting in preparation for my meeting was the story surrounding the decision to write the book.  I know almost nothing about Truman Capote, but in my search for information, I discovered that, as mentioned above, he was inspired to check out this incident by a small article on the back page of a newspaper.  He researched for four years, with much help from his close childhood friend Harper Lee, and he was heavily involved in the making of the film, in I think 1967, of this story (not to be confused with the more recent film Capote which details the writing of In Cold Blood).  Capote was disappointed that he did not receive the Pulitzer Prize for this book, but claimed that it was the first book in a new genre, the non-fiction novel, although it is believed that there were others in this genre written before this book. Incidentally, I was at the library yesterday and found the 1967 film on DVD, which I checked out and plan to watch sometime this week, although I may have already seen it.  Anyway, this is a landmark title that should be read as an example of excellent true crime writing.

Speaking of crime writing, I read another title, this one fiction, involving multiple murders.  Rather than “read”, perhaps I should use the term “inhaled”, as I  finished this 400+ page novel in just two days.  The novel is Watching You by Michael Robotham, and it was excellent.  This new novel tells the story of Marnie Logan, a mother of two whose husband has been missing for over a year.  She has the strange sensation of being watched or followed, but has no evidence of this.  Her situation reaches a new level of desperation as she is contacted by Hennessey, the man to whom her husband owed a large sum of money in gambling debts, and she is forced to make payments to him using some unsavoury means.  Suddenly people start dying around her, and Marnie is the prime suspect.  She seeks help from clinical psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin, who tries to uncover her past and help her deal with her blackouts and missed periods of time.  As he digs deeper, he encounters resistance, but manages to uncover more than he bargained for, as Marnie’s mysterious childhood emerges, and people continue to die in unusual circumstances.  Robotham is a psychological thriller master, and this book does not disappoint.  Complex yet believable, this novel kept me on the edge of my seat up to the very last sentence.  Some of the usual characters are featured, ex-detective and friend Vincent Ruiz, O’Loughlin’s daughter Charlie, and of course Mr. Parkinson, O’Loughlin’s constant companion.  If you enjoy psychological thrillers and are not already a Robotham fan, I highly recommend that you start reading his books right away; best to start with the first one, though, The Suspect, where all the characters are introduced.  For all those existing fans, enjoy his new offering!

That’s all for today.

Bye for now…