Sunday 29 December 2013

Last post for 2013...

WOW, it’s hard to believe another year is coming to an end so soon.  It’s late afternoon, not my usual blogging time, so I’m a bit out of sorts, which also comes with the holidays messing up the week.  I have a book and an audiobook to tell you about, then I will list my top 10 favourites for this year.

I decided not to write this morning because I wanted to finish reading Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson before writing.  I know I was hoping to finish it last Sunday, but with the power going out and the holidays happening, I didn’t get much reading done and so I’m behind.  It’s just as well, as I don’t think this one was her best book.  It tells the story of Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police investigator who makes an impulsive purchase one day that will change her life forever.  She crosses paths with Jackson Brodie, a not-quite-private detective who is looking for the birth mother of a woman in New Zealand which sends him across the UK and Wales in his search.  These two storylines have roots in the past, secrets that are decades old, but these pasts directly connect to current situations.  While this novel features the usual eccentric, flawed but all-too-human characters, situations that are both horrible and heart-wrenching, and the complex interweaving of past and present that I have come to expect from Atkinson’s books, this one seemed to lack a clear narrative that does not rely heavily on the reader’s knowledge of her previous books and their characters and events.  It also leaves too many unanswered questions, while offering too much information about other situations.  While I was anxious to get to the end, I was rather disappointed once I arrived.  I definitely preferred her others over this one. 

And I finished listening to an audiobook a few days ago, Think of a Number by John Verdon.  This thriller is the first in the “David Gurney” series by this author, an author about which I know absolutely nothing.  It tells the story of Dave Gurney, a retired police detective who is contacted by a former university classmate who has been receiving threatening letters and calls from someone he believes is from his past.  These calls and letters become more disturbing once Gurney gets involved, and when murders begin piling up, Gurney uses his expertise at solving complex puzzles and seeing the big picture to avoid more deaths.  It was an OK listening experience, as it was fast-paced and not-too-difficult to follow, but it was definitely not the kind of book I would read.  I’ve downloaded the next 2 books in the series, narrated by someone else, but won’t listen to them right now.

As for my top 10 books, here is a list, in no particular order:
Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison
Stranglehold by Robert Rotenberg
Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World by Janet Cameron
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Children of the Revolution by Peter Robinson
Watching You by Michael Robotham
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (oops, that’s 11… oh well, it’s my blog so I can include as many titles as I want!)

Top 10 audio books:
Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (I really liked this trilogy!)
Trinity Six by Charles Cumming
First Degree by David Rosenfelt
Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt
The Serialist by David Gordon
The Vault by Ruth Rendell
Call for the Dead by John Le Carre
The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey

That’s all for today.  Happy New Year everyone!  I hope that 2014 is filled with great books for all!

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 December 2013

Book talk on an icy, powerless Sunday morning

The power has been going off and on since about 6:30 this morning, for stretches anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours, due to the ice storm we had last night.  As I was deciding when to get out of bed, I was thinking of all the things I would not be able to do with no power.  I couldn’t make tea, or cook, or make Date Bread, and the only kind of oatmeal I could make for breakfast would be the instant kind with hot tap water (too disgusting to contemplate!).  I knew I also could not access the internet, but since I write a draft of my post in a word document first, I could work on my post.  Hurray!  And, without power, I could still read, if that is what I chose to do.  So this has served to remind me of the wonder and simplicity of the printed book – no electricity or batteries required, I don’t have to charge it before I use it, and it can offer me endless hours of cheap entertainment.  At least, during one of the brief periods when the power was on, I made tea, so it is steeping even as I write, and I will enjoy a cup or two soon (I was not looking forward to anything I could concoct using a tea bag and hot tap water!)

I am a third of the way through Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, and I’m really enjoying it.  I hope to finish it by Christmas Day, at which time I plan to move on to my next book club selection, Annabel by Kathleen Winter.  The Atkinson book features Jackson Brodie once again, as a not-quite private investigator, but more of a soft-touch when it comes to women in need.  This time, he is travelling around England and Wales (I think he is avoiding Scotland due to some past negative experiences there) visiting old church ruins and abbeys, when he saves a dog from an abusive owner and takes on a case involving the search for the birth parents of a woman now living in New Zealand, a woman who is a friend of a friend of an acquaintance of Brodie’s former girlfriend, Julia.  In a parallel story, Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police detective who is now head of security at a shopping centre, makes an impulsive purchase that changes her life.  Somehow, Brodie’s case and Tracy’s situation are connected, through those six degrees of separation that apparently link us all to one another.  The story is jumping around quite a bit, and I’m not sure I would be enjoying it or even understanding it at all if I wasn’t familiar with the first three books featuring Brodie, as the same characters pop up, and situations from previous books are mentioned liberally throughout this novel.  What I find amazing about Atkinson’s books is that they cross genres seamlessly.  They can appeal to mystery lovers because they present complex mysteries that involve not only the present case, but unsolved mysteries from decades before that somehow shed light on the current event.  They would also appeal to those who enjoy general fiction titles that explore the human condition.  Her books feature characters that are both complex and sad, yet they ultimately confirm life’s purpose and lift the reader’s spirit.  I have not read her other general fiction titles, including Behind the Scenes at the Museum and her current bestseller, Life After Life, but I would highly recommend the books in the Jackson Brodie series.  If you haven’t read any of them yet, I recommend you start with the first one, Case Histories, in order to get full value out of the later ones.  Be prepared for some quirky characters and some life-affirming events.

I would write more, but because there is no power, there is no heat on in the house, so I’m going back to snuggle under the covers with my book and my cup of tea until things get back to normal.

Hope you all have a Merry Christmas! 

Bye for now…

PS It's now 12 hours later, and the power just came back on.  I didn't get any reading done this afternoon, unfortunately, but I'm so very thankful for electricity and heat!!  Happy Holidays, Kitchener-Wilmot Hydro!!

Sunday 15 December 2013

Books and tea on a snowy morning...

It is a very snowy morning as I sip my tea and enjoy a slice of freshly-baked Date Bread – mmm!
Just over a week ago, I picked up a box of books to review for the local paper – with so many great titles, it was like Christmas had come early for me!  It was difficult to choose which one to read first, but I decided on Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, as I felt that it would suit my reading mood best at that moment.  I really enjoyed her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, a gothic mystery about a young woman, Margaret Lea, who is summoned by an elusive writer, Vida Winter, to write her biography.  She must come to Winter’s secluded manor in the English countryside in order to hear her story, and to finally uncover the truth about the rumoured “thirteenth tale”, curiously missing from Winter’s most famous story collection.  What she ultimately discovers are family secrets, lies, mystery upon mystery, and even love.  It was a thoroughly satisfying novel that I have read on my own, as well as read and discussed for both of my book groups.  As you may suspect, I was hoping for more of the same with Setterfield’s new novel, a real page-turner written in the Gothic same style.  And so it began…  William Bellman, who is 10 years and 4 days old, is out in the woods with his cousin Charles and two friends.  William sees a rook on a branch in a far-off tree and, boasting to his friends, claims that he can shoot it down with his catapult, one he designed himself with new features to increase the success of the shot.  Although the bird was too far away, as the others claimed, Will pulled back the stone in the catapult and, even after thinking that he could still stop, that it wasn’t too late to change his mind, let fly the deadly missile which took the rook down with one hit.  The boys went to see the dead bird, perhaps their first experience of death, and each felt the effects, although they made light of it in the end.  They managed to forget this episode during which they lost a bit of their innocence and moved on with their lives.  But as the reader learns, rooks never forget.  Fast-forward about a decade, and William has grown into a fine young man, one with an excellent voice which he contributes to the choir.  He is handsome and smart, and stands to inherit his uncle’s fabric mill, Charles having no interest in such affairs.  He shows great promise in terms of learning and innovative thinking, and soon increases the profits of the mill beyond anyone’s expectations.  He finds a wife, has children, comes to an agreement with Charles to share the wealth of the mill while he alone manages it, and all is right with Bellman’s world.  Until the tide turns.  Illness and death visit the town and leave parents without children and children without parents.   William has noticed, over the years, a dark stranger lurking around corners, particularly at funerals for his friends or family members.  When William fears he will lose everything, he is prepared to make a deal to save the one last thing he cares about.  But can one ever truly profit from a deal with Death?  This book started out slowly, but about half-way through, when Bellman strikes his deal, things pick up and move at a faster pace, and I began to speed through the novel.  Unfortunately, I found it to be ultimately disappointing, with too many issues unexplained or unresolved.  Unlike The Thirteenth Tale, the mysteries were not fully explained, which may work in some more realistic fiction, but in this case, I felt it detracted from the story and the enjoyment level.  I do not feel inclined to reread this book, although I may pick up details on a second reading that I missed the first time, as it is a fairly complex story.  I hate to criticize anyone’s writing, so I guess what I would offer is this warning:  If you loved her first novel, try to lower your expectations for this second offering, and you may be less disappointed than I was.  If anyone reads it, I’d be curious to know what you thought of this book.

I’m having a hard time deciding what to read next, as none of the other books in the box I received really fits my reading needs right now.  I thought I might read Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, the fourth book in the “Jackson Brody” series.  I really enjoyed When Will There Be Good News?, which I’ve listened to as an audiobook, and I’ve read and/or listened to both Case Histories and One Good Turn.  I don’t know what this one will be about, but the others featured Brody as a private investigator working to solve complex murder mysteries, some cold cases and some current, ongoing investigations.  The quirky characters and Atkinson’s writing style make these a treat if I am in the right mood.  I will give it a try this afternoon, but may have to move on to something else if it doesn’t suit.

Bye for now…

Sunday 8 December 2013

Book post on a sunny morning...

On this sunny, cold Sunday morning, my tea is a welcome companion as I think about what I’ve been reading over the past week. 

I finished reading The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud last week, and it was fabulous!  Just a quick recap:  Nora Eldridge is an angry woman whose life plan included being an artist and having children (husband and money optional), but who instead grew up to become the dutiful daughter of her now deceased mother and ailing, lonely father.  She is also the favourite third-grade teacher in an elementary school in Boston.  At age 37, Nora is despairing ever achieving anything resembling her life’s dreams, resigned to her role as “the Woman Upstairs”, unremarkable but reliable. Then the Shahid family enters her life.  Mrs. Shahid is a successful artist, and Mr. Shahid is exactly the type of man Nora would fall for, but it is Reza, their eight-year-old son and student in her class, who most captures Nora’s heart.  She begins to live through them, separately and together, and believes that they are the keys to attaining her dreams.  Of course, this can’t really happen, and since the Shahids do not reciprocate the need Nora feels towards them, they move on and Nora must cope with this loss as best she can, clinging to the memories of her year with them.  I felt that the ending was great, until the very, very end, when I felt the author tried too hard for a big finish that, in my opinion, felt limp.  Having said that, I loved the writing style, and the way Nora expressed herself and her feelings towards others and the life she feels has been (unfairly?) dealt to her.  I also thought that Nora’s feelings at that time in her life (37 and single, no children, no life as an artist, a third-grade teacher, which was never her career goal at any stage in her life) were realistic and true, although raw and sometimes self-indulgent.  But this book was ABOUT HER, so of course it was self-indulgent!  That was one of the criticisms of the book in at least one review I read,  but clearly that book reviewer had never been a 37 year old single woman whose life had not lived up to her expectations.  It is definitely a book whose main character demands that the reader identify with her, in the same way that We Need to Talk About Kevin did.  Now I’m not saying you have to have had those experiences to appreciate these books, but it helps a lot if you can at least envision what it would be like to have your ambitions thwarted because you made the wrong choices in life, or tried to do the right thing for others which maybe held you back in life.  Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that this book may not be for everyone, but I thought it was great, despite the weak ending.  Read it if you choose, but be warned that it is not a “feel-good” novel.

My book group got together on Friday to discuss The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  It was a suggestion from one of the members who said she read it and “didn’t get it”, and she was hoping that, if we all read and discussed it, maybe she would be able to “get it”.  I will admit to having read this short allegorical tale many years ago and also not “getting it”, but so many people love this book that I put it on the list for December, as I had not yet made a selection for this month.  In case you haven’t yet read it, this short novel tells the story of Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusia who is encouraged by various people to follow his Personal Legend, head to Egypt and find the treasure about which he has had recurring dreams.  Along the way, he meets a cast of characters and learns many life lessons, and has to decide more than once whether to stay where he is and settle for what is known or to continue on his journey to he-knows-not-where in order to possibly find this elusive treasure, but possibly to lose everything he’s worked for, including the woman he loves.  My personal responses to this book on this second reading were that a) this felt more like reading a self-help book than reading a well-written piece of literature and b) this book reminds me of many other titles that I have read.  These titles are The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson,  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving,  and The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, all for different reasons, but the messages of each of these other titles seemed to be lumped together into this one short allegorical novel about finding your personal destiny and living up to your full potential.  One of my ladies, who had never read it before, loved it.  She thought it was simple yet she felt she could apply the lessons and experiences in the story to her own life.  One of the lessons that we talked about in the meeting was the way the universe conspires to help individuals find their Personal Legend, and we shared stories of how individuals or events in our lives have led us to making good choices or finding unexpected opportunities that were exactly right for us at that time, but would never have happened if all these other events had not led us to that place.  One of my ladies felt that the emphasis on God and Allah, and maktub (meaning “it is written”) reminded her of religious fundamentalists, young men who train as suicide bombers.  I had never thought of that, but once she mentioned it, I could see how hints of obsession and religious fanaticism, the belief that one’s destiny is already written, could be gleaned from the text.  Another member didn’t bother rereading it, having read it a number of years ago.  And one member thought it had many valuable lessons in it, but that it wasn’t a great book.  I don’t know if everyone should necessarily read this particular text, but it is very popular, and is still a bestseller, 25 years after it was written, and since the film adaptation is due out sometime next year, if you haven’t yet read it, you will probably want to do so before you see the movie.  All I can say is, at least it’s short and easy to read.  Enjoy!

And I finished listening to Mermaids Singing, the first in the “Wire in the Blood” series by British author Val McDermid featuring clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan.  I have read others in this series, and have watched some BBC film adaptations, but this novel gave me the background to their relationship and set up the characters that appear in later novels.  In this novel, Hill is brought in by the Bradfield police to help catch a serial killer they’ve dubbed “The Queer Killer” because he dumps the bodies in locations frequented by the city’s gay population.  These bodies, before being dumped, have all been tortured in various ways using specially designed traditional torture instruments such as the Rack and the Judas Chair.  The relationship of Hill and his newly established Special Task Force with the police force is explored, as is the relationship between Hill and Jordan.  I listened to this as an audiobook and found the parts narrated by the killer to be particularly graphic and disturbing, but it was otherwise a good listening experience.  I have also downloaded Wire in the Blood by McDermid, but will take a break and listen to something else first.

Time to get out and start my day.

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 December 2013

Tea and books on a grey Sunday morning...

On this grey, wet, chilly Sunday morning, I am happy to look at the coffee table in front of me and see 2 things that make me happy:  a hot cup of chai tea to wrap my cold hands around for warmth, and a book that I am really enjoying, which I will spend this afternoon reading, and hopefully finishing.

I finished The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell this past week, and it proved to be far better than I was expecting.  I think last week I wrote that it was not a “great” read, but that it was short, with a fairly interesting storyline.  Well, once I reached the halfway point, it got really interesting, and I couldn’t put it down!  To recap, it tells the story of woman, Iris, who runs a vintage clothing shop and who is suddenly given the responsibility of caring for a great-aunt, Esme, whom she didn’t know existed until a few days before.  Esme has spent the past 60 years, all of her adult life, in a mental institution, and Iris wants to find out why this happened.  It seemed initially that the story was about Iris, and her struggles to find her way and purpose in life, but it turned out to be about so much more, particularly about the relationship between Esme and Kitty, Iris’ grandmother, when they were young.  At the time of the story, Kitty is in a nursing home suffering from dementia, but her memories are offered to the reader in snippets, jumbled and inconsistent, yet intriguing, in a “pieces of the puzzle” sort of way.  I would highly recommend this title to anyone who enjoys character-driven novels that deal with relationships and family secrets.

The book that is on the table in front of me right now is The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, a title that we are considering for the committee I’m on.  I’m halfway through, but can’t wait to make time to finish it.  This story is told from the point of view of Nora Eldridge, an angry woman whose life plan included being an artist and having children (husband and money optional), but who instead grew up to become the dutiful daughter of her now deceased mother and ailing, lonely father,  and favourite third-grade teacher in an elementary school in Boston.  At age 37, Nora is despairing ever achieving anything resembling her life’s dreams, resigned to her role as “the Woman Upstairs”, unremarkable but reliable. Then the Shahid family enter her life.  Mrs. Shahid is a successful artist, and Mr. Shahid is exactly the type of man Nora would fall for, but it is Reza, their eight-year-old son and student in her class, who most captures Nora’s heart, becoming the son she never had.  She begins to live through them, separately and together, and believes that they are the keys to attaining her dreams.  I don’t know what will happen, but something significant is surely on the horizon, because so far, the family members have been idealized all out of proportion, and Nora has risen so high in her expectations that she is sure to fall far and hard.  This novel reminds me of two excellent books I’ve read in the past.  The first is What Was She Thinking?  Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.  Remember that book?  Maybe you remember the film, with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, about a bitter elderly teacher who becomes obsessed with the new young art teacher at her high school.  This teacher begins an affair with one of her male students, which is, of course, scandalous for the school and for the family.  The elderly teacher supports the new teacher, and her obsession grows.  It is creepy in its insidiousness, yet all-too-believable.  The other book that comes to mind is We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, about a woman who has an ideal marriage and no desire to have children, until she has a son, Kevin, with whom she has difficulty bonding and who grows up to be a sociopathic teen who, shortly before his 16th birthday, commits mass murder at his high school.  It’s not the story that is necessarily so similar, but the writing styles are so much alike that I sometimes feel as though Eva Kachadourian (the mother in Kevin) is narrating instead of Nora.  Both main characters are successful women who are angry at the way their lives have been dealt, but there is also an underlying feeling of resignation with both characters, as though they have come to accept, however bitterly, their roles in life.  Anyway, I’m really excited to finish it, as I’m so curious what will ultimately happen to Nora and the Shahids.  More on this book next week.

That’s all for today.

Bye for now…