Sunday 24 November 2013

More tea and book talk...

It is a bright, crisp Sunday morning as I write this post – winter has certainly arrived in my part of the world.  My hot cup of chai tea is a real comfort on this chilly morning.

My week has been quite hectic and out-of-the-ordinary, but I did manage to get the Camilla Lackberg murder mystery I mentioned last week finished.  If you recall, The Drowning begins with the murder of an unknown man who has accepted that he must confront his past, whatever that will bring.  Move ahead in time 3 months to the successful publication of The Mermaid by first-time novelist Christian Tyndall, a man who is clearly astonished by his success but shuns the media publicity it brings.  It is soon revealed that he has been receiving threatening letters, which he refuses to talk about.  At the same time, there is an investigation going on to find a missing man, a friend of Christian’s.  When the missing man is found murdered, the investigation escalates and the detectives on the case believe that the murder and the letters are somehow connected.  Christian is reluctant to talk about the letters or his past, but when another friend is threatened and more bodies turn up, the police put pressure on him to find the truth.  What they eventually uncover is horrific and yet all-too-possible.  I have never read anything by this author before, and I must admit that I have become a fan of this Swedish mystery writer.  She reminds me a bit of Minette Walters, in that her novels are quite dark in their exploration of murder.  The similarities between these two are slight, but they both offer complex stories involving many characters.  I will have to read another to get a better sense of this author’s work, but so far I have not been disappointed.

Right now I’m reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell, about a woman who is suddenly given the responsibility of caring for a great-aunt whom she didn’t know existed until a few days before, and who has spent 60 years in a psychiatric institution.  It is not a “great” novel, but it is an easy and interesting read, and I’ve invested a fair bit of reading time into it already so I will finish it, as it is short – I may even find time to finish it this afternoon. 

I had more of a struggle finding an audiobook to listen to this week.  I finished listening to a novella by Henning Mankell, I think it’s called The Pyramid, which explored the early life of Kurt Wallander, the character that is featured in Mankell’s most famous mystery series.  In the introduction to the story, Mankell tells how he wanted to write about the social condition of Sweden, but only his mystery novels were popular, much more so than those he wrote which focused on the social conditions in Sweden and other parts of the world.  So he tried to incorporate this focus into his mystery novels.  When the Wallander novels begin, Kurt is already an aging detective, divorced with a grown daughter.  Fans have asked Mankell how Wallander came to be in that situation, which prompted him to write The Pyramid.  In this novella, Kurt has only been on the police force for a short time, and is not yet part of the homicide squad.  He and Mona are still in the early days of dating when he stumbles upon his first dead body, that of a neighbour, an elderly man in the apartment next to his, which he suspects may be murder, although the police want to dismiss it as a suicide.  It was really interesting to listen to this story, as I have been a Mankell fan for many years, and have recently listened to the last novel in the Kurt Wallander series, The Troubled Man.  I actually recently read that another mystery writer, Ian Hamilton, the Canadian author of the “Ava Lee” series, is making available for free for a limited time an ebook that goes back to the original meeting of Ava Lee and Uncle, the shadowy figure who helps Lee out in her investigations.  I read that Hamilton has done this in response to a request from one of his readers when he was in Kitchener at Word on the Street – this fan wanted to know how these two characters met and formed a relationship.  I thought that was really interesting, as of course these are characters, not real people.  Then I thought about the series I read regularly, and the main characters do seem like real people, with their own lives and relationships, over and above the murders they are solving (they are generally mystery series).  So what this tells me is that readers really want to know what happened to the characters before the first book in a series was ever written.

Speaking of series, I finally settled on the first book in Val McDermid’s “Tony Hill” series, called The Mermaid Singing.  It begins with a murderer visiting the Museum of Torture in Rome, and getting ideas for his first murder.  Switch to Bradford, England, and the first meeting of Detective Carol Jordan and profiler Tony Hill, who is called in to help in the investigation of a serial killer dubbed the Queer Killer by the police and media, since he is killing gay men in the city.  There is an immediate attraction felt between Carol and Tony, but both are reluctant to act upon it.  I’m not far into the audiobook, but I’m finding it really interesting because I have read some of the books in this series and have also watched a few of the BBC television adaptations of this series, “Wire in the Blood”, but somehow I have missed this first novel and so didn’t really know how things got to be where they are in the other novels or episodes, mainly in terms of their relationship.  This novel is giving me the backstory, filling in some of the blanks.
That’s all for today.  I hope to get outside and enjoy the sunny, brisk weather and then settle down for an afternoon of reading.

Bye for now…

Sunday 17 November 2013

Books and tea on a rainy November day...

On this mild, rainy Sunday morning, I’m feeling less than inspired to do much of anything, although I have freshly-baked Date Bread cooling on the counter and, of course, a steaming cup of tea in front of me.  I think it will be a god day for reading.

I did not have much luck choosing a book that really grabbed me this past week.  I thought I would tell you about what I started to read, in case any of the books interested you at all.

OK, so a monk, a pilot and a soldier meet in Heaven…  no, this is not the start of a bad joke, but the setting of a book I started reading  for my committee, Beauty Beneath the Banyan by Crystal Fletcher.  This book is set in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam during and after the Vietnam War, and is the interweaving of six stories told from the points of view of a monk, an American pilot and an American soldier, who are all dead and watching over three women, one imprisoned in Thailand for murdering her husband, one Cambodian woman who is happily married but longs for a child, and a Laotian Hmong refugee.  These three women suffer from the effects that are leftover from the Vietnam War, while the three men died in that war.  It is beautifully written and truly life-affirming, considering the horrible circumstances, settings and situations described in the book.  I got about halfway through and somehow just had to put it down.  I’m not sure if it was too depressing, or the thought of more disturbing scenes and images, however beautifully they are written about, was just too much for me, but I had to stop reading it.  This Barrie, Ontario writer, though, is truly gifted, and I’m sure I will finish the book eventually.  

I also started reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which begins on New Year’s Day, 1975, in Crinklewood (which I think is a neighbourhood in London, England), with Archie Jones attempting to commit suicide by inhaling the carbon monoxide fumes from his car while holding his marriage certificate and a war medal, one in each hand, leaning face-down on his steering wheel.  He is saved by the butcher, who is killing pigeons above his shop, when he tells Archie that he is not licensed for suicides, that his butcher is halal, Kosher.  And so Archie goes on to embrace his new lease on life.  I don’t know what the rest of the book is about, but so far it’s reminding me of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a humourous, satirical, critical commentary on contemporary society.  It is an award-winning novel, and Smith was recently named one of Britain’s notable authors under 40, so I want to keep reading it, but it is quite long and I don’t think it is the right book for me at this time.  I will definitely finish it someday, maybe even someday soon, but for now, I must put it aside.

And I started reading a book that I came across at work last week by Maggie O’Farrell called The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, about Iris, a woman who runs a vintage clothing shop.  She receives a letter informing her that a woman who claims to be her great-aunt, who has spent most of her life in a psychiatric institute, is due to be released.   This book opens with the line:  “Let us begin with two girls at a dance.”  This first line caught me, as it reminds me of the writing style used by Ann Marie MacDonald in Fall On Your Knees, which begins with:  “They’re all dead now.”  The rest of the story, about the outspoken Esme in the 1930s, youngest Lennox daughter, and what she did to deserve a lifetime spent in a psychiatric institute, while Iris tries to find answers from her distracted grandmother, Esme’s sister, Kitty, sounds like just the kind of story I would devour in two bites.  I love novels about family secrets that come to light decades later, and it’s really quite good.  So I must decide between this one, which is a library book, and another which I’m halfway through that I do not have to return to the library.

This other title is The Drowning by Camilla Lackberg, a Swedish mystery writer whom I have never read before, although she is very popular.  I started this book at work a few months ago, which means I read about 6 pages per day on my lunch.  It is nearly 500 pages long, so it’s taken me a while to reach the half-way point.  And it is quite complex, with many characters, so I decided last week to bring it home and read it more quickly in order to more fully enjoy the novel.  It opens with someone confronting their past by walking through an open door on their way to work one day, willing to accept whatever fate decides.  Long hair swings as the visitor is led inside, then is brutally stabbed.  We don’t know who this is or why they have been murdered, but the story then fast-forwards 3 months, when Christian, a first-time author, receives acclaim for his novel, The Mermaid, while shunning the media attention he is receiving for this publication.  It comes to light that he has been receiving threatening letters, which are later connected to a missing man, Magnus, a friend of Christian’s, whose investigation has reached a dead end.  Then a man walking his dog discovers a body frozen in a lake (mystery writers must be ever-thankful for dog-walkers, as they are always discovering dead bodies in wooded or unpopulated areas!), which is identified as Magnus, and the investigation escalates.  This is as far as I’ve read, but clearly there are two other men who have been receiving threatening letters, friends of Magnus and Christian, who may also be in danger.  It is really interesting, and I want to keep reading this one, especially because I brought it home with this intention in mind.  But I can take as long as I want to read this one, unlike the library book, which is due back in 3 weeks. 

Hmmm… decisions, decisions… All of these books are ones I want to finish, but the O’Farrell book and the Lackberg one are definitely the two that suit my reading mood best right now.  Next week is going to be kind of crazy for me, and I don’t think I will get much reading done,  but hopefully I will manage to find time to get through one of these novels.  More on that next week…

Bye for now…

Friday 8 November 2013

Tea and book talk on a snowy morning...

This is an early post as I think it’s going to be a busy weekend and this seems like a good time to write, with a steaming cup of tea in front of me and the first snow on the ground outside this morning, which I think is pretty exciting.

I read a book for my committee this past week, Accusation, by Catherine Bush.  She is a Toronto author who has been nominated for the Ontario Trillium Award for her novel, Claire’s Head.  This is her fourth novel, but the first that I’ve read by her.  Set in 1996, this novel opens with a short news item about the defection in Australia of nine members of an Ethiopian circus, claiming that the head of the circus, a Canadian man, Raymond Renaud, consistently abused them.  Told from the point of view of a reporter, Sara, the story then recounts her first experience with the children's circus, Cirkus Mirak, while she was in Copenhagen at a conference.  This circus, led by Montreal-born Renaud, impresses Sara so much that when she returns to Toronto, she contacts her friend and filmmaker Juliet to tell her about it, in case she would like to make a documentary about them.  Sara and Juliet have a long history together, as they encountered one another as students in Montreal nearly 20 years before, where Juliet supported Sara through a difficult time.  When the circus comes to Toronto, Sara meets and forms a bond with Renaud as they share an intimate experience together, during which time Renaud shares his mission and vision about the potential social benefits the circus movement could have on street children around the world, an encounter over which Sara will experience guilt in the coming months as the accusation of abuse is made public.  She goes on a search for the truth behind the accusation, and the novel explores the concept of truth in the world today, and the damage an accusation can cause, whether true or false.  It sounds like a great story, but I have to say, I was really disappointed in the novel.  Call me a traditionalist, but I generally like my novels to follow a standard pattern, beginning, middle, and end.  If an author deviates from this pattern, they need to do so with more skill than Bush exhibited.  I also prefer my authors to use full sentences most of the time, employing sentence fragments only for emphasis.  This story was told using mainly sentence fragments, which made it really difficult for me to read, despite my keen interest in getting to end and finding out what happened.  I was sorely disappointed in the style of writing and the total vagueness of the overall story, although the issues behind the story are ones that need to be explored by writers.  The only other book I could think of offhand that explores the consequences of false accusations is Atonement by Ian McEwan, which was also vague and slow, but in my opinion, a much better novel.  Not that Bush didn’t have some fabulous ideas and phrases (usually phrases, not full sentences!).  I almost hate to criticize, as I’m sure this novel would appeal to others, but the style was too jarring for me.  I don’t know if this is a style she uses in other books, but this novel did not make me want to read her earlier novels.  It would be a great book club discussion book, and maybe some would find it enjoyable, so take my criticism with a grain of salt.

And I listened to a very different type of book from the above, Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt, an early novel in the “Andy Carpenter” series.  Because I download from the library website, I  listen to these books as they are available, not necessarily in order.  So this book gave me the background on the Willie Miller case, a case to which he refers in a later book.  In this novel, Willie Miller is on death row and awaiting execution for the murder of a girl in a bar 7 years earlier.  Andy’s recently deceased father was the prosecuting lawyer for the original case, and shortly before he dies, he asks Andy to try to appeal the case, just months before Willie faces death.  It seems like an impossible appeal to win, but Andy’s persistence shines through as he leaves nothing uncovered in his quest for the truth.  It also gave me the backstory to his relationship with his ex-wife Nicole, and his current relationship with police investigator Laurie.  It was, as always, an enjoyable listening experience.

I need to go to the library today to pick up my reserves.  Not sure what is in for me, but I hope there will be something I really want to read – I’ve had a few books recently that have been just so-so, and I’m longing to really sink my teeth into a good book (not literally, of course!)

Bye for now…

Saturday 2 November 2013

Early post on a rainy Saturday afternoon...

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, my husband is not around, and my book group just met this morning, so it seems like the perfect time to write a new post, even though it’s a day early.  It’s supposed to be bright, but chilly, tomorrow, the kind of day when I enjoy getting outside, so I’m thankful for the rain this afternoon.

I read Jamie Ford’s new book last week, Songs of Willow Frost, which I plan to review for the local paper.  If you recall, my book group read his first book,  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, earlier this year.  This novel plunges readers into Depression-era Seattle as seen through the eyes of a young boy who spends his days hoping to be reunited with his mother. Set in 1934, 12-year old William Eng, a young boy who has spent the last five years in Sacred Heart Orphanage among other lost children, dreams of the day his mother, Song Liu Eng, will return for him.  Unsure if she is dead or alive, he almost can’t believe his luck when, on an outing to celebrate the orphanage boys’ collective “birthdays”, he sees a woman on the film screen that he is sure is his mother, despite the fact that she goes by the name of Willow Frost.  Facing the stern treatment and racial discrimination at the orphanage along with other children, William and his friend Charlotte plan their escape to find Willow, who is appearing in an upcoming live show at one of the city’s theatres.  Shift in time back to 1921, where we meet 16-year old Song Lui, the young daughter of an ailing Cantonese mother and domineering stepfather, who makes unwelcome advances towards his stepdaughter.  Song Lui, who has a part-time job singing in front of the local music store, draws attention from the crowds with her lovely, haunting voice.  When circumstances deliver her into an unwelcome situation, being an unwed Chinese mother, she relies on this job to keep body and soul together while she struggles to make a comfortable home for her son William, the only thing that makes her life worth living.  She is forced to give William up, and we are given the opportunity to see how this decision changes both of their lives.  This novel immerses readers in the social climate of the day and offers them the opportunity to experience the inequality and poverty that characterized the community during the 1920s and 1930s, particularly those visited on non-Caucasians.  The author also details the history of theatre and film at that time.  While this novel is sure to satisfy Ford fans, Songs of Willow Frost, like Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, seemed flat to me.  I can’t explain why this is so.  The story, setting and characters are interesting.  The writing is good.  But somehow I was unable to “feel” anything for the characters.  It was a truly bittersweet tale, and all-too-believable, yet it failed to affect me.  I think what my book club members said about Hotel was that it was not “gripping”, but that it was a “nice story”.  I felt the same about this novel.  Some elements stretched the imagination, but overall, it was an OK read.  I would recommend it for book clubs, as well as for fans of Ford. 

And we discussed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson this morning.  I had never read this novel before, but it was recommended by one of my members, so I included it.  Set in the English countryside, in the village of Edgecomb St Mary, the main character is 67-year old Major Ernest Pettigrew, a widower who has just learned that his brother Bertie has died.  He is devastated by this loss, and, while answering a knock at the door, he collapses in grief and is comforted by Mrs Ali, the village shopkeeper, from whom he has been purchasing milk and bread for years, but to whom he has never really spoken.  He finds suddenly that they have much to talk about, and they are drawn into a furtive courtship that consists of Sunday afternoons discussing Kipling and walks in the park, accompanied by tea and conversation.  This relationship is discouraged by the village, which is steeped in tradition, and by the Major’s son, Roger, who is only interested in making money and making the right connections in the business world.  Not only is Mrs. Ali a woman of colour (although born in Britain, her family is originally from Pakistan);  she is also a tradeperson, since she and her now-deceased husband purchased the shop in the village some years before.   While the novel centres around this budding romance, it is not limited to this alone.  It also explores the values of youth versus older adults, the differences in cultures, particularly Britain, Pakistan and America, and the needs of men and women in life and love.  Of the five of us in the group, three loved it, while two did not.  Those that loved it enjoyed the language and wit used by the author, and the humour of some of the situations.  They felt that the novel was realistic and that the characters were interesting and varied.  They felt that the Major’s ability to gradually let go of the traditions and accept change into his life reflected the experiences of older people realistically.  Of the two who did not love it, one thought that the Major was too perfect, and not very realistic at al.  She also felt that the situations all turned out just right, that it was a fairy tale where everyone got what they wanted and everyone lived “happily ever after”.  I was the other of the two, and I felt that the novel touched on too many situations in too superficial a manner.  I wondered if maybe it would have been a better reading experience for me if the author focused on fewer issues but did so with more depth.  Having said that, upon reflection, I thought that perhaps this how we experience life, that injustices surround us every day but that it takes a crisis to force us to notice things, and then we notice everything all at once.  It was definitely a good choice for the book club, and I would recommend it for anyone looking for a “feel good” read.

I think that’s all for today.  I will have to choose another book to read now, definitely one for my committee, since I’ve been somewhat lax in that area recently.  But which one to choose, Accusation by Catherine Bush or The Book of Stolen Tales by D J McIntosh?  I know nothing about either one, just that they are both written by Canadian authors, so I’m very curious to try one and see how it goes.  As always, I’ll let you know in my next post.

Bye for now…

PS You may have noticed that I changed my arrangement of book club lists on the right-hand side – I hope that will make things easier to find.  I’m looking forward to tackling the books on the 2014 Book Club list, which includes what I think are some really great titles.