Sunday, 28 December 2014

Last post for 2014...

WOW, another year has passed so quickly - I hope you are enjoying the holidays!  As I sip my Spiced Pear tea (no substitute for the Masala Chai I used to enjoy on Sunday mornings) from a beautiful new mug I received as a Christmas gift, and nibble on clementines and Banana Bread, I am thinking about what I’ve just read, and what I’ve read over the past year.  I’m also debating whether I should have a “reading plan” for 2015… more on that later.

I just finished Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest book, Adult Onset, and I’m almost afraid to write what I really thought of it.  After all, she spent years writing this novel, and probably put bucketsful of emotion, bared her soul even, to write this.  In fact, after reading a few of the reviews, my thoughts that this was a very autobiographical novel were confirmed, so she really did expose her intimate side to readers, which is very brave and probably admirable.  But I thought the book was terrible.  It tells the story of Mary Rose MacKinnon, author of two highly successful Young Adult novels, who is married to significantly younger theatre director wife Hilary and has two children, adopted son Matthew, aged five, and two year old Maggie, Hilary’s biological daughter.  Mary Rose, or “Mister”, is a stay-at-home mom who is supposedly working on the third novel in her "Otherworld" trilogy, but she just can’t get going.  She receives an emailed message from her father praising her on a short film she participated in, “It Gets Better”, meant to help GBLT youths deal with their sexuality, but she is unable to compose a suitable reply to him, and mistakenly sends off the truncated message, “Dear Dad, I”.  So begins a week in the life of Mary Rose, a week when Hilary is away directing a play in Winnipeg or Calgary, when Mary Rose’s psyche begins to unravel.  Her arm starts to ache, a “phantom pain” left over from her childhood, when she underwent several surgeries to repair the bone cysts in her arm.  She forgets things, she loses her temper with Maggie, she fears that she loves Matthew more than Maggie, that she may abuse her children, that perhaps she was abused during her childhood but just can’t remember it.  She worries about her parents, about Dolly and the possibility that she has Alzheimer’s, and about her father, who is unable to show affection to his children but to whom she is deeply devoted, constantly seeking his approval.  Mary Rose worries about Andy-Patrick, “A&P”, her younger brother who is a special liaison for the RCMP, who is unable to hold onto a relationship.  She is 48 years old, and worries about her age, that she has passed her "best before" date, that this is as good as it gets.  She worries that younger bisexual Hilary is having an affair while away, with whatever man or woman has taken her fancy.  I really wanted to love this novel, and struggled to get to finish it in the hope that it would all be worth it in the end, but it did not turn out that way.  I was disappointed to the very last page.  She didn’t seem to know what she wanted the novel to be about:  was it a novel about mid-life crisis?  was it about uncovering deep, dark family secrets?  did she want to explore the trials and tribulations of motherhood and domestic affairs?   All along, I kept wondering where her editors were during the creation and publication of this book.  My biggest complaint was her recycling of characters and situations first encountered in Fall on your Knees, such as the 13-year old Arab child bride, daughter of Mr Mahmoud, who married an older Scottish man and recent immigrant to Cape Breton.  Would people who have not read that first amazing novel by MacDonald (I’m sure there are a few) even get the reference to “wives with heads in dirty ovens”, or her comment, when looking at a website of military graves, that “they are all dead”?  These are taken directly from Fall on your Knees, which begins with the line, They’re all dead now.  She calls the baby who died before she was born, her unborn sister, Other Mary Rose, when in Fall on your Knees there was Other Lily”, the baby who dies before Lily was born.  While the writing was great and there were nuggets of insight, this book was so frustratingly all-over-the-map that I cannot really recommend this to anyone, and I would hope that this is not the first book by this author that a reader picks up – it is not representative of her other works, so please do not judge her by this offering.   Fall on your Knees was her best work, The Way the Crow Flies was also really good, but I fear that, like Mary Rose, Ann-Marie may not have a third book in her. 

As we come to the end of the year, I like to write out my Top Ten Favourite Books and Audiobooks of the Year, so here it is:

Books

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair Joël Dicker
The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty
The Colonial Hotel Jonathan Bennett
Life or Death Michael Robotham
Local Customs Audrey Thomas
Waiting for the Man Arjun Basu
The Children Act Ian McEwan
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers Tom Rachman
The Winter Palace Eva Stachniak
The Narrow Road to the Deep North Richard Flanagan

Bonus title:  The Weight of Water Erin McHugh
Bonus YA title:   Last Message Shane Peacock
Bonus Juvenile title:  The Tale of Despereaux Kate DiCamillo

Audiobooks

Witch Hunt Ian Rankin
All Cry Chaos Leonard Rosen
Tenth Witness Leonard Rosen
The Expats Chris Pavone
The Brothers of Baker Street Michael Robertson
The Baker Street Letters Michael Robertson
Our Kind of Traitor John Le Carré
Mission Song John Le Carré
The Silent Wife ASA Harrison
Dry Bones Peter May

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the last few days of the year!


Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Tea and "It's almost Christmas!" post...

On this first day of winter, and the shortest day of the year, I’m sitting with a cup of tea on the table in front of me and one of my cats on my lap, looking forward to two weeks off work over the holidays, which will hopefull translate into lots of time to catch up on all (well, some!) of the reading I haven’t gotten to over the year.  I’ll just mention that I’ve had to improvise with my tea again, so I used the STASH brand of Black Chai teabags, which are pretty good.  I frothed my warm soy milk to make it a bit special, and I used my huge soup mug, like they do in cafes – it’s not quit the same, but it’ll do until I can find a replacement, which is one of my missions over the next two weeks.

I mentioned in my last post that I was reading a book with the intention of writing a review for the paper, Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North.  Well, just as I was nearing the end, I sent an email to the Books Editor letting him know that I was going to have a review of this book soon, and was informed that someone else had sent in a review that was actually going to be in the paper this Saturday.  That was a bit of a relief, as reading with the intent to review is very different from reading for pure enjoyment.  I had made notes all the way along, so I thought I could still make use of these notes by calling this part of this week’s post “Jottings for review”.  If you recall, this novel tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, a celebrated war hero and surgeon in the Second World War who survived the building of the Death Railway between Siam and Burma in 1943, an undertaking instigated by the Japanese using Asian civilian labourers and allied POWs.  Here is what I would have liked to say in my review, direct from my notes (this is the unpolished version):  This book is a war story and a love story, a book that explores the human condition from various perspectives: Amy, the deeply unhappy wife of Keith, Dorry’s uncle;  Major Nakamura, of the Japanese Imperial Army, who beats his prisoners and denies them the most essential basic necessities, yet loves poetry and justifies his actions as serving “the greater good”; Darky Gardiner, an Australian POW in Dorry’s regiment, who, for reasons unknown, personifies for Dorry the bitter senselessness of war; and Dorry, the sensitive, poetry-loving surgeon who unwittingly becomes the commander of a regiment of mostly Australian POWs who have surrendered to the Japanese in Java.  This is not an easy book to read, nor is it a happy, “feel good” book – it is an awful, wonderful book filled with graphic scenes of horrific conditions, that is still somehow fueled by the spirit of hope and the will to survive:  “a shared dream of human transcendence… that was just out of reach” (p 186).  Points of view and time periods shift from chapter to chapter, but while it may at first seem difficult to follow, eventually the reader becomes so caught up in the story that he or she is pulled along with the story and experiences, with the characters, the loves and losses, as well as the joys and achievements, that are so plentiful in the story.  It is at once a novel that explores the search for those things we most desire, and the denial of these things in the name of personal moral integrity.  When I started to read the last section of the book and found that it began with stories of what happened after the war ended, I immediately thought “Thank goodness the war is over!”  Then I caught myself – if I was so relieved by this ending, how much more relieved were the thousands who had fought, suffered, and yet somehow survived?  It is about memory, and the unreliability of memory.  Of the memory of Darky’s beating, Flanagan writes:  “(it was) no more within their control and therefore no more within their consciousness than a rock falling… It simply was, and it was best dealt with by finding other things to think about” (p 213).  One of Dorry’s favourite lines states, “The world is; it just is”.  Rabbit Hendricks’ sketchbook of some of these war scenes, which plays a major role in the book, is saved in order to remember, to remind us of the war, and the sacrifices, and the atrocities, for once the war is over, it is all forgotten.  This book, too, serves as a reminder of that terrible period in history and the horrors of war that never end, scene after scene of horrors that weave themselves seamlessly into the text, until the shock value diminishes for the reader; this must have been what it was like for the POWs, shock and disgust at first, then this horror becomes reality, day after day, relentlessly plodding on, until the horror becomes commonplace: “It was a day to die, not because it was a special day, but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die” (p 223).  Of the Death Railway, Flanagan writes:  “it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained.  People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only” (p 227).  It is about the lasting effects of war on lives that can go on for generations.  Near the end, the author seems to have lost his way, but despite a rather weak ending, it was one of the best, most meaningful, most memorable books I’ve read in a while.  I felt that this quotation sums up the novel:  “It’s only our faith in illusions that makes life possible… it’s believing in reality that does us in every time” (p 202).  This novels was the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and it certainly earned that distinction.  This book was a powerful, awful, wonderful read that I would recommend to all but the faint of heart.

Now I’m reading Ann Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.  Alas, I will have to wait until I finish it, so more on that book in next week’s post.

Happy Winter Solstice!  Hope you get lots of great books for Christmas!

Bye for now...
Julie

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Books and tea on a mild, overcast December morning...

I had no sweet treat this mornong, so to fill my empty, growling stomach I had toast with peanut butter and a delicious Mediterranean Medley jam (figs and dates) before I sat down to drink my tea and write.  I had to ad lib with my tea this morning, as the yummy masala chai I have been drinking as a treat on Sundays for the past 6 or 7 years is no longer available – that is a drag! But my improvised tea for this morning is pretty good, despite being different.  I need to track down someplace that sells loose black tea, as I think that may be the answer to my problem.

This past week has been rather disjointed in terms of reading consistency.  I finished reading a Young Adult book for work, Eric Walter’s Between Heaven and Earth, which is one of the books in the Seven Series.  I mentioned this series in one of my posts in the summer, as I read Shane Peacock’s Last Message in one sitting and was very impressed.  This series is made up of seven books by seven different Canadian authors and are told from the points of view of the seven grandsons of revered David Maclean, now deceased.  While attending the reading of his will, each grandson is taken aside separately and given instructions detailed by David to complete tasks that he himself had been unable to undertake and complete during his lifetime.  Between Heaven and Earth is told from the point of view of DJ, or David Junior, the oldest and most responsible of all the grandsons.  At nearly 18 years old, DJ’s task is to take his grandfather’s ashes and scatter them at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.  He is to go alone, and he figures this task is going to be quick and easy;  after all, how long could it take to climb a mountain?  What he learns during his adventure is that the journey is as important as the destination, and that one must appreciate every step of the way.  This book was an excellent read, and I would recommend it to readers aged 12 and up, including adults.  I would love to find the time to read the other five in the series, and read the next series, Seven:  the sequels, but juggling what I read is becoming a real challenge.  I wanted to read this one in particular, as Eric Walters is coming to one of my schools in May, so I wanted to be familiar with this popular, award-winning Children’s and Young Adult author.  I will try to find time to read one or two of his many other titles, including the one that had recently been nominated for the Forest of Reading Red Maple award, Rule of Three.  So man books, so little time…

I finished this book on Tuesday night, so I had the rest of the week to start something new, which is always a dilemma, as I know I won’t have time to actually finish a book by Sunday’s post (I like to start a new book on Saturday or Sunday and finish it by the end of the week).  I decided to concentrate on one of the many titles I have in a pile waiting to be reviewed.    I picked up A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin.  I have been interested in reading something by this award-winning Chinese-American author for years, and have a copy of The Crazed on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.  Anyway, I started reading Map of Betrayal and had high expectations, but the first 20 pages or so did not grab me, so I put it aside.  I then picked up the latest novel by award-winning Australian author Richard Flanagan, whose works I have also been interested in reading.  I have had The Sound of One Hand Clapping sitting on my bookshelf upstairs for several years now, but fining the time is tough.  Well, his latest offering, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, grabbed me right away, despite the plotline:  it tells the story of Dorrigo Evan, a celebrated war hero and surgeon in the Second World War who survived the building of the Death Railway between Siam and Burma in 1943, an undertaking instigated by the Japanese using Asian civilian labourers and allied POWs.  Tens of thousands of these people, both civilians and POWs, perished as a result of this undertaking, due to lack of food, water, rest and appropriate tools and machinery.  In this novel, Dorrigo (Dorry) relates his experiences leading up to the war, during his service as a war doctor, his imprisonment and treatment while he was in command of a battalion of mostly Australian POWs, and his later life during which he must deal spiritually and emotionally with his fame as a survivor and war hero (a documentary had recently been made of his war experiences).  He is conflicted by this adulation, as he does not see himself as a hero, despite trying to do his best for the men under his command. He is constantly torn between following his own desires and trying to live up to their expectations.  Flanagan writes at one point early in the novel, “They (the other prisoners) were captives of the Japanese and he (Dorry) was the prisoner of their hope”.  He is unable to make sense of the senseless death and destruction the war wrought over the land, and the unnecessary losses of life that go along with this.   It also tells of his early life in the service, and the dilemma he faces when, while practically engaged to socialite Ella and accepted into the embrace of her aristocratic family, he encounters Amy, a woman for whom his passion burns, even while she is unavailable to him.  This quest for the “unattainable she” goes hand-in-hand with his search for logic and meaning in the senselessness and insanity of war.  This is not really my type of book, and there are many graphic scenes of horror and despair, but it is also one of the most absorbing, thought-provoking novels I’ve read in a long time.  Well, that’s not true;  Ian McEwan’s novel, The Children Act, was also thought-provoking, but not horrible.  Anyway, I’m about a third of the way though and will write more when I have finished reading this wonderful, awful novel.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in last week’s post that one of my book club members reread, or reviewed, Louise Penny’s Beautiful Mystery, and thought she came up with the reason the sentences were all so fragmented and disjointed:  she thought the jerky, awkward, jarring language and sentence structure was used intentionally to represent the underlying decay and corruption of the monastery and the brotherhood, and also the addictions the various police members had, when in all cases, the appearance was of beauty and order.  This makes sense, but it still doesn’t’ make me want to read it!  Good for her, though, for giving this challenging book so much thought and consideration (if you recall, my group totally trashed this title in September).

Have a good day, and Happy Reading!


Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 7 December 2014

First post for December...

On this bright, chilly Sunday morning, I’m sipping my chai tea and enjoying a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread as I think about our book club discussion yesterday and the audiobook I just finished listening to earlier in the week.

The Winter Palace
was definitely a success with my book club ladies.  Everyone loved it – no one had a single negative thing to say about it.  Well, that’s not entirely true – one member said she had an issue with the subtitle, A Novel of Catherine the Great, as she said it wasn’t really about Catherine the Great, but more about Barbara, her maid/servant/lady-in-waiting.  The novel, told from the point of view of Barbara, chronicles the rise of Catherine the Great from a feisty teenaged German princess, Sophie, to a powerful Russian Empress during Russia’s “Golden Age”.  I made two pages of notes during the meeting, and will summarize the main points of discussion here, in no particular order.  One member said this was one of the best books she’s read in a long time (YAY!!), and that it was fairly historically accurate.  The person who objected to the subtitle said she loved reading about the Winter Palace, and the changes it underwent during the course of the novel, suggesting that it was almost a “character” in itself; she paralleled the transformation of the Winter Palace to Catherine’s own transformation, so maybe in that way, the subtitle was appropriate.  Speaking of characters, most everyone’s favourite characters were Barbara and Sir Charles. Barbara was an excellent mother to Darya and a good friend to Catherine throughout the novel, someone who was able to resist corruption.  The relationship between Barbara and Egor was strained at first, but with the birth of their daughter, everything changed and Egor was a good father and a good soldier.  This contrasted drastically with the awfulness of the political characters, the decadence and debauchery of those in the Palace, in the political inner circle, with their ermine-lined cribs, diamond-encrusted gowns, and vodka fountains.  Sir Charles, likewise, was a softer, gentler character, a stabilizing figure who helped to keep Barbara on the straight path.  We also thought that Barbara’s maid, Masha, was a stabilizing character for her, helping not only with Darya but with Barbara’s choices throughout the story.  The Orlov brothers, too, were good characters who helped more than they harmed.  The other characters, we all agreed, were greedy and power-hungry.  The Empress Elizabeth was a piece of work, a terrible leader who just got worse over the course of the novel.  Someone offered this quotation:  “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and that was demonstrated aptly in this novel.  We all had a very strong negative attitude towards the Chancellor, who was referred to by Barbara as “the Old Fox” – one of my members, a retired high school English teacher, used the term “worm tongue” to describe him, someone who whispers into people’s ears to influence their decisions, and turn one character against another.  One member was fascinated to discover that so many crucial political decisions were made “in the bedroom”.   Motherhood had a huge influence on the characters in the novel.  Barbara lost her mother at a very young age, and was then raised by her bookbinder father, a good man but very different from her mother.  Barbara then became a good and loving mother, who also shared her daughter with Catherine after Catherine’s children were unceremoniously taken from her and raised almost exclusively by Elizabeth.  In this way, Elizabeth’s and Catherine’s experiences were similar, as neither woman raised their own children, although Elizabeth never had children, adopting/appropriating her orphaned nephew, Peter, at an early age to become the heir to the throne, then seizing Catherine’s children to raise.  Catherine had to make due with as much involvement in the life of Barbara’s daughter, Darya, as she could manage, and one member suggested that it was Barbara’s love for her daughter that ultimately steered her away from Catherine’s court and saved her from corruption.  The fact that Catherine was viewed by Elizabeth as little more than a breeder surely contributed to her bitterness and her ultimate decision to orchestrate a coup and seize the throne from her husband, as a form of revenge.  Names were also important in the book;  Sophie becomes Catherine, Barbara becomes Varvara and Varenka, Darya is also Darenka, Barbara refers to Elizabeth as “the obstacle” or “yesterday” in her secret conversations and letters to, I think, Sir Charles.  And friendship is an important factor in the novel.  We all agreed that there was real friendship between the girls when they were young, and that Barbara stayed loyal and true to Catherine to the end, while Catherine’s relationship with Barbara got corrupted along the way.    Oh boy, was there a lot to discuss about this book!  I came across a review of this book in Quill and Quire that summarized the issues I have with historical fiction perfectly: “Historical fiction can suffer from the impulse to educate the reader… The Winter Palace, however, is seamless in its depiction of place and time, and its telling of a complicated, human story of two women in very different – and very dangerous – positions.  Readers looking for a history lesson regarding Catherine the Great and the societal forces at play during her reign may, in fact, be disappointed:  this is a story of the behind-the-scenes intrigue, hidden love letters, illicit trysts, and sacrifices made for the future” (http://www.quillandquire.com/review/the-winter-palace/).  This explains why I so enjoyed this novel but have had issues with other more traditional historical fiction titles.  Verdict:  excellent book, and great book club choice!  And, although we all know that Catherine the Great ends up on the throne and rules Russia for many years, Stachniak even manages, somehow, to make the ending a mystery!  That is truly the sign of a great author.  I’m interested to read her next book, about the reign of Catherin the Great, entitled Empress of the Night (but not right away… I need a break to read something more contemporary for a bit).

I also finished listening to Mo Hayder’s mystery, Hanging Hill, and it was an excellent listening experience.  The novel begins with the discovery of the body of Lorne Wood, a teenaged girl who was brutally murdered and left lying near the canal on the outskirts of Bath, England.  The case is investigated by DI Zoe Benedict, a woman with her own hidden past, and Ben, her sort-of boyfriend and partner.  Also involved in the story are Sally, Zoe’s estranged sister, who is learning to deal with her newly divorced status, and Sally’s daughter, Millie, a classmate of Lorne’s.  These characters become interwoven as the investigation proceeds and another death/missing person occurs.  I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t get into detail, but the main plot involving the investigation was more than enough to hold this listener’s interest, while the subplots that explored the relationships Zoe has with her sister and Ben were expertly interwoven into the text.  The narrator was great, and the story was interesting, although it had parts that were a bit over-the-top at times.  I found myself making excuses to create listening opportunities, like taking the extra long route home from work – that is always the sign of a good audiobook, in my opinion.  I don’t know anything about Mo Hayder, but I’m now interested in trying something else written by her.

OK, that’s all I’ve got for today.  Have a great Sunday!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Mystery and intrigue to brighten up a dreary November morning...

Oh, the dreary weather is making me sleepy!  It is warm-ish and damp, which is not inspiring me to get to all the tasks that should be done today.  I guess I’ll just have to stay inside, drinking tea and reading!  
This is not a bad thing, as I’m a bit more than halfway through my next bookclub selection, Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace:  a novel of Catherine the Great.  I put this title on the list reluctantly, as I am not a fan of historical novels, but one of my members loves this genre of fiction.  It is over 400 pages, a rather large, intimidating hardcover that, I have to admit, I was dreading having to read.  I don’t like reading historical novels in general because, based on the few I have tried to read, I have found them to be too descriptive; the author feels it necessary to describe in detail the settings, the clothing, and the customs of the time period in which the story is set.  That is not interesting to me; that is, when I’m reading, I don’t want to be transported to another time and place, as some others who enjoy historical fiction have described their experiences.  I like character-driven novels that explore the journey or development of the main character, either psychological, emotional, spiritual, or whatever kinds of journeys there are.  But I also like a good mystery, and a good spy story, and a novel that explores political scandal.  Well, The Winter Palace is all of these things, and more!  It is an incredibly well-written, detailed account of the intrigues, scandals and secrets that all played into the making of one of the most famous figures in all of history, Catherine the Great.  I am historically-challenged, so I know virtually nothing about Catherine the Great, so, as much as it shames me to admit, I don’t know really how the book is going to end.  What is keeping me interested is the deviousness of some of the characters, especially Empress Elizabeth, and the nasty, underhanded ways she behaves towards Catherine.  I suspect that, in the end, Elizabeth’s plan will backfire and, rather than getting rid of Catherine, her actions will help her to become an even stronger woman and a better leader of the Russian people.  Told from the point of view of her attendant/maid and only real friend, Barbara, or Varvara, this novel chronicles the transformation of playful Prussian teenaged princess Sophie to one of the most powerful women in Russian history.  It is an intense mystery, a gripping drama, and an exploration into one woman’s struggle to overcome her oppressors, and Stachniak hardly ever describes what the women were wearing or what the ballroom looked like.  For that, she gets two thumbs up from me.  I will talk about this book more next week, after my book group meets to discuss it, but I had to tell you about it today, since it is such an awesome book.  If you haven’t read it yet, run, don’t walk, to your nearest public library and check out a copy of The Winter Palace – you won’t be disappointed!  
I’m also listening to an excellent audiobook right now, Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder, a British mystery about the brutal murder a young girl near a canal in Bath, and the search for her killer.  I’m loving it, but will tell you more when I’ve finished.
WOW, today’s post was quite a teaser.  I don’t usually write about books I haven’t finished, but that’s all I had to work with today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Book talk on a grey morning...

On this wet, grey, rainy Sunday morning, I’ve got no sweet treat, homemade or otherwise, to accompany my lonely cup of steaming chai tea, no date square from City Café, no vanilla scone from Future Bakery, no gingerbread biscotti from that small bakery in Erin, not even a slice of my own homemade date bread.  Ah well, the tea is delicious, and maybe I should try to appreciate it more, savouring each sip rather than just gulping it down.  Although this may sound like whining, it is actually my way of segueing into today’s post.
My “Friends” book club met on Thursday night to discuss Big Brother by Lionel Shriver.  This novel follows successful Iowa entrepreneur Pandora Halfdanarson as she tries to deal with the extended visit of her brother Edison Appaloosa, a washed-up New York jazz pianist who never quite made it big.  Pandora’s current family is made up of husband Fletcher, a specialty furniture maker who has filled the basement with unsold pieces, teenaged stepson Tanner, who hates school and wants to quit in order to write screenplays, and stepdaughter Cody, a shy girl who wants to please everyone.  When Edison shows up at the Iowa airport, Pandora doesn’t recognize the morbidly obese man being pushed along in a wheelchair by airline staff as her brother, a man she has idolized all her life, remembering him as cool, slick, and attractive.  Four years later, he has become an object of public ridicule and Pandora is put in a position that threatens her own family as she must decide how to help her brother before it is too late and he eats himself to death.  There is so much in this novel to discuss, that one meeting is not nearly enough time to cover everything.  This book is about relationships, and how we deal with those we love; it is about responsibility, and how we offer support to them, while also taking responsibility for ourselves.  It is also about dealing with those we do not love, but whose presence in our lives we cannot truly escape.  It is about mid-life crisis, and realizing that this is “as good as it gets”.  One of my book club members works with people who have addiction issues, and she commented that the weight loss plan Pandora had for Edison and herself was very responsible, one that was realistic and could actually work, taking into consideration not just the weight loss, but also considering why we eat, what purpose food serves, and how those needs could be otherwise met.  Shriver went into detail describing Pandora’s experience eating a salmon steak, describing the grainy texture of the flakes against her tongue (I told you my decision to savour my chai tea relates to the content of this post!).  We discussed Fletcher, his obsession with cycling and fitness, and determined that, at age 47, he was doing exactly what any other man of that age would do; in fact several of our husbands were doing these same things, though not to the lengths Fletcher was taking them.  We talked about their marriage, and thought it was also realistic.  One member, who was unable to make it but who email comments to me, was concerned about the way they were dieting, drinking only shakes made from envelopes of protein powders for months at a time.  I, too, was disturbed by this method, but I suppose for someone morbidly obese, it would make sense to, as Shriver writes, “eat nothing” for a while rather than trying to eat small portions of healthy food, as personal restraint around food was clearly one of Edison’s issues.  We talked, of course, about the ending, and why Shriver would use this technique, what she intended with the original ending and the “real” one.  I have read this book before, and I remember getting to the “fake” ending and feeling somewhat disappointed, then reading the “real” ending.  My first response to that was, “This was a cop-out; she couldn’t decide how to end it, so she used both options”.  But as I thought about it more, I decided that it was brilliant!  How many times have we made major decisions and regretted the outcomes, and these regrets haunt us as we imagine how things “could have been”?  I’ve certainly had this experience, and sometime, if we imagine a different outcome often enough, it becomes almost reality.  As I was reading this book, I thought that Shriver was dissecting the relationships we have with others, particularly family members, as well as the decisions we make involving those we love, decisions we make every day and don’t really think about them.  Shriver has a way of describing them that is exactly right – while her writing is complex and often difficult to understand (one of the members said she had to have a dictionary nearby!), in the end, she gets to the heart of the issue in exactly the right way. She also uses words in a unique way, such as when she talks about Edison“slow suicide by pie”.  One member said that this book helped her understand what kind of books she likes:  she pointed out that this book didn’t have much of a plot, but was intensely character-driven.  She enjoyed this book so much, she’s moved on to Shriver’s Orange-prize winning novel, We Need toTalk About Kevin.  We also talked about the way Shriver describes society’s values, and how we make snap judgments of others based on first appearances, particularly regarding weight.  When Pandora first weighs herself before they start their liquid diet, she responds with amazement and denial.  Shriver writes:  “(T)he weigh-in was now subject to the most ruthless of interpretations.  I believed – and could not understand why I believed this, since I didn’t believe it – that the number on the dial was a verdict on my very character.  It appraised whether I was strong, whether I was self-possessed, whether I was someone anyone else would conceivably wish to be.” (p. 230)  Due to her successful business, Baby Monotonous, Pandora is often asked to give interviews and pose for photo shoots, something she grudgingly endures.  These experiences incite her to consider herself as someone others see, making the reader, too, consider this.  How often do we look in the mirror every day, but not really see ourselves as others would see us?  I think it is healthy to get on with life without obsessing about how we look to others, but I suppose it is also good to take a step back and get outside ourselves sometime and assess who and what we are to other people.  Oh boy, there are soooo many things in this book to discuss, but I must stop now or I’ll be at the computer all day!  I really wanted to compare Big Brother with We Need to Talk About Kevin, since the one member who is now reading Kevin brought up some similarities.  Unfortunately I’ve run out of “writing” time.  In closing, Shriver’s brutal honesty will make readers look inward and explore their own character while hoping for the best for Panodra, Edison, Fletcher, and the other characters who populate the pages of this outstanding, thought-provoking novel. 
That’s all for today!       

Bye for now...
Julie

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Books, audiobooks and tea on a snowy Sunday morning...

On this grey, chilly morning, I have been rushing through all the cooking and baking I needed to do so I could get to my computer and write about the awesome books I’ve read and listened to over the past week.  I was in such a hurry, I forgot to add sugar to the thermos as I was steeping my chai tea – it’s still good, but not quite a sweet as I’m used to.  Ah well, the delicious gingerbread biscotti I had with it made up for the lack of sugar.
In my last post, I didn’t t know what to read next and promised to surprise you in this post.  Well, it was certainly a surprise to me, too, when I picked up and started reading The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman, a book that some of my committee members have reviewed, not always very favourably.  I was not going to read it based on some of their comments, but one member really liked it so I started reading it and was immediately hooked.  This novel follows the main character as she tries to make sense of her past in order to move on with her life.  Tooly Zylberberg is a thirty-something woman who owns World’s End, a failing secondhand bookstore in Wales.  When she gets news from an old boyfriend, Duncan, that her father is ill, she returns to New York to care for him, an event that motivates her to revisit her past.  It is not her father who is ill, but Humphrey, an elderly Russian man who was instrumental in caring for and raising Tooly during her preteen and young adult years.  As we find out, Tooly was “not exactly kidnapped” when she was ten, taken from her father, and brought to live, ostensibly, with her mother, but in reality, Humphrey and the elusive Venn, a man who helped to shape Tooly’s character, teaching her to let go of any attachments to others and look for ways to take advantage of and gain from them.  Tooly’s relationship with Humphrey consisted of his attempts to educate her to be a great intellect by reading science, history and philosophy.  The chapters visit different periods in Tooly’s life:  1988, when she is just ten years old and living with her father Paul, a technology expert working for the US government, seeking long-term foreign postings, at this time posted in Bangkok; 1999, when Tooly is a young woman living with Humphrey in New York, a time when she meets Duncan, a law student, and his roommates, and infiltrates their lives, pretending to herself that she is part of this normal student life; and 2011, when she is a wanderer who has purchased an unprofitable secondhand bookstore in a small Welsh village where she can hide from reality, her only real contact being her lone employee, Fogg.  The structure the author uses of dropping the reader into seemingly random periods with each new chapter makes this novel somewhat challenging to follow, but it is well worth the effort to keep track of the storyline, as Tooly’s past begins to be revealed to her and the reader simultaneously.  I was just reading a review of this book in which the reviewer describes it as “haunting and melancholy”.  I would agree with this, but when I reached the last page of the novel, the first thing that came to mind was that this was one of the most delightful novels I’ve read in a long time.  All of the characters were flawed, but they were endearing, too: Tooly, the lost orphan, a woman who is searching for her own identity in a sea of hidden memories and half-truths, Humphrey, the doting Russian caretaker, Duncan, the unhappy lawyer and former boyfriend, and Fogg, the dedicated employee, to name a few.  Venn was not endearing, but he was, in the novel as in Tooly’s life, such an infrequent presence that I could not hold too much of a grudge towards him; Sarah, on the other hand, was most irritating, and frustrating, and selfish, but again, she wasn’t in it enough to mar my overall reading experience.  I would highly recommend this novel to just about anyone who enjoys a novel of self-discovery.  The writing was superb, the story interesting, and the characters, well, endearing.  I dare anyone who reads this book to not develop warm, fuzzy feelings towards Tooly, Humphrey, Fogg, and maybe even Duncan.
On a totally different note, I just finished listening to an audiobook that was AWESOME!  Since I enjoyed Our Kind of Traitor so much, I thought I would take a chance with another John LeCarré novel in the hopes that I could understand the story.  I downloaded Mission Song from the library, and, not knowing anything about the story in advance, jumped right into the listening experience.  As I began listening, I commented to my husband that the narrator sounded a lot like Danny, from the BBC series, “MI-5”.  When I checked online, I discovered that it was, in fact, David Oyelowo who narrated this audiobook, and he did an absolutely wonderful job of it.  I’ll admit that, with his lilting British/African-accented voice, he could be reading the phonebook and I’d keep listening.  Thankfully, this was better than the phonebook.  This novel tells the story of Bruno Salvador, an East Congolese orphan and love child of an Irish Catholic missionary and a beautiful Congolese woman, both deceased.  As an adult, he is in London, working as an interpreter, making a career of his gift for understanding even the most obscure African dialects.  Trapped in an unsatisfying marriage with Penelope, an up-and-coming newspaper reporting star, he enters into a relationship with Hannah, a Congolese nurse who has captured his heart.  At a dinner party celebrating Penelope’s promotion, Bruno is whisked away on a special assignment to interpret for the British government as he witnesses the negotiations over a contract involving the Congolese warlords and the “Syndicate”, their Western backers.  He is instructed, if asked, to say that he can interpret only French, English and Swahili, keeping all his other languages “below the waterline”.  He inadvertently listens in on one of the key Congolese delegates being tortured by his employers, forcing him to sign off on the contract, which would give the Syndicate the opportunity to plunder the coltan and other minerals in Kivu, a small Congolese village, providing all the wealth to the West and offering nothing to the villagers or the Congolese people.  The rest of the novel follows Bruno as he tries to foil the planned attack, set to take place in just two weeks.  Working with Hannah, and attempting to evade detection from British “enforcers”.  Bruno must think fast to get this information into the right hands while also protecting Hannah’s safety.  Although the pace at the beginning is rather slow, the novel picks up speed until the knuckle-biting conclusion that is emotionally bittersweet, politically damning, yet ultimately hopeful.  I definitely recommend this novel, and Oyelowo does a brilliant job of bringing to life each character, even those Irish and Scottish voices that pepper the novel.  If there was an award for audiobook narration, he would definitely have my vote.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy what’s left of the weekend!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Tea and bunnies on a chilly November morning...

I’ve been chopping vegetables and cooking all morning, and am happy to finally be sitting down with a cup of steaming chai to write my blog post for the week – whew!  This is such a treat for me, to have the technology and the opportunity to share my weekly reading experiences with so many people in such a laid-back, fun way (almost like working in my pajamas!).
My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Richard Adams’ classic novel, Watership Down.  I was disappointed that one of my members, a retired high school English teacher, was unable to make it.  I recall that when I announced the substitution to the group last month, she clapped her hands, grinned and exclaimed, “Oh goody!  I love that book!  Every time I see a dead animal on the side of the road, I think to myself, ‘Oh, the hrududu got him!’”  I now know what that means, and I have to admit, after reading this novel, I will never look at rabbits or roadkill in the same detached way again.  This novel relates the epic journey of a group of rogue rabbits who, on the advice of Fiver, a runt bunny possessed of wisdom and foresight beyond his size, leave their warren to escape the unnamed destruction certain to befall their former home.  Led by Hazel, a seemingly cowardly bunny from their original warren, they search for a new place to call home.  They find a group of large, healthy rabbits at Cowslip and consider joining their group, but something seems unnatural about them and once they discover the source of their discomfort, promptly hightail it out of there.  Once again relying on Fiver for advice, they settle on Watership Down, a grassy hill where enemies are few and food is plentiful.  But alas, they have no females to carry on their legacy, so the rest of the story tells of the perils they encounter while searching for does to bring to their warren.  These perils include men, cats, dogs, and rabbits from another warren, the Efrafra, a Nazi-like group with a militant leader who will stop at nothing to keep his bunnies under his control.  But their experiences are not all bad.  They also make unlikely friends along the way, including a mouse and a black-headed gull named Kehaar who speaks with a Norwegian accent.  I’m sure I won’t spoil it for anyone if I say that there is a happy ending in store, but that there is plenty of bloodshed on their road to freedom.  Most of my ladies loved it.  Some had read it before, years ago, and found it well worth rereading.  Only one member did not read it, but gave up and started next month’s book selection.  Everyone agreed that it was difficult to get into, but once the adventures began, it proved to be much more interesting.  We also all agreed that it would be difficult for a child to read on his or her own, but that a high school student could read and understand it, or a child might enjoy it if it were read aloud to him or her.  It is one of those novels that can be enjoyed by readers of different ages, as it is so complex that it can be read and understood on many levels.  We discussed the names of the rabbits, Blackberry, Clover, Woundwort, Hazel, and Dandelion, among others, and noted that they are all named after types of plants.  One member compared the name of General Woundwort’s rabbits, the Efrafras, to the Luftwaffe, and noted that the plant woundwort is often used as a healing remedy, the complete opposite of the character in the book.  I discovered that the gull, Kehaar, was based on a Norwegian pilot Adams knew in the war, which explained the accent.  We liked all of the characters, and felt that there was interesting character development throughout the novel.  We talked about the unnaturally large, healthy rabbits at Cowslip, and I compared it to the situation in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson or “The Ones Who Walked way form Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin, both short stories that tell of peaceful, successful communities that are bought at the price of an annual sacrifice, and of the community members’ acceptance of this sacrifice as preferable to risking their guaranteed peace to chance.  We discussed the mythological aspects of the novel, and the anthropomorphization of the bunnies to enable them to have rich inner lives and culture.  We felt that there were many life lessons in this novel, and that Hazel was the perfect leader, strong and confident, but also open to advice from others.  Regarding the quotations at the beginning of each chapter, we did not agree:  some loved them while others found them confusing.  One member pointed out that, like many other children’s classics, this one began as stories told to entertain Adam’s daughters on long car rides.  It was a hit with the group, and by the end of the discussion, the one member who had given up determined to keep on and finish it.  I’m certainly glad it was on the list, as I would not have read it otherwise.
Now I must decide what to read next.  I have many choices:  books for my committee, books for review, or a book for work, which would be a young adult book.  Hmmm… I will surprise you next week with my choice.
That’s all for today.

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Short post for an extra long day...

Oh, how I love when this day rolls around every year, the day when we turn the clocks back and get an extra hour!  And how I hate the “partner” day in the spring, when we lose an hour.  The benefits of the extra hour seem to be lost after such a short time, but the costs of the lost hour seem to linger for weeks!!  So I will make the most of my extra hour today and read a bit more than I would otherwise have time to do!
This will be a short post because last week was not a very rewarding or productive reading week for me.  Not sure why… maybe I just couldn’t find anything to grab me in the first few days of the week, which are my really good reading days, or maybe I was distracted.  Anyway, I finished Peter Robinson’s mystery, Abattoir Blues, on Sunday, and it was just OK.  Not his greatest book, but a quick, easy read.
Then I started another book called A Good Day’s Work:  in pursuit of a disappearing Canada, by John DeMont.  This non-fiction title explores the disappearing jobs in our country as society changes and evolves.  It is nostalgic and melancholy, as the author pines for the “good old days” which, according to Pierre Berton, ended in 1967, “the last good year”, as he dubbed it.  The author visits, interviews and/or rides along with milkmen, blacksmiths, cowgirls and travelling salesmen, to name a few of the occupations that have been lost over the past half-century.  As a librarian, I fear that my chosen profession, too, may join this list of lost occupations.  It was a fairly light read, one that I just skimmed, as I found the author to be a bit too melancholy for my liking.  I mean, really?  Were those days truly as “good” as he remembers them?  But I think it would appeal to many readers, so just because I didn’t love it, doesn’t mean you won’t.
Then it was already Wednesday night, and I was still without a good book to read!  Ach!!  What a dilemma!  Knowing that I was running out of time, and that I could not possibly finish a book between then and today, I decided to tackle the book that we are discussing at my next book club meeting, Watership Down by Richard Adams.  I have never read this, but one of my book club members recommended this as a selection, and no one wanted to read Anna Karenina this month (I wonder why?!), so I made a quick substitution and here we are.  My paperback copy is very old and tattered, and the print is really small, so it may only be 475 pages, but really it’s about 600 pages if the print was a normal size!    Have you ever noticed that old Penguin paperbacks use really small print?  Anyway, I knew nothing about this book before I started reading it, except that it was about rabbits.  I am having a hard time getting into it, and can only read a few pages at a time, so it’s a good thing that I gave myself extra reading time to finish this.  I always thought it was a children’s book, but it is far too difficult and mature for children, although maybe high school kids could read and study it in class.  In case you, too, are unfamiliar with this classic, it tells the story of a group of rabbits who, on the advice of a wise bunny named Fiver, believe that a great danger is about to befall Sandleford Warren, and so form a band of roving rabbits, including Hazel, Bigwig and Silver.  The book follows their adventures and perils as this pack of brave bunnies search for a new place they can call home.  I have to say, the first 100 pages was a struggle, but I may be getting in the right mindset.  I just don’t enjoy reading fables, and this type of story seems more suited to children, although the language Adams uses and the writing style is far too advanced for kids.  I will write more once I have finished it and we’ve had our meeting, but I have to admit that I’m not really looking forward to it.  My book club members, on the other hand, all seemed quite excited about this selection, so it should be an interesting discussion.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy that extra hour!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Last post for October...

As I sip my chai tea and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, I just realized that this is the last week of October!  Fall is my favourite season, and on this windy Sunday morning, I’m looking forward to writing this post, then meeting a friend for a delicious chai latte at a wonderful bakery up the street from me, then maybe taking a refreshing walk in the park.  There’s something about November, though, that is a bit… I don’t want to say “depressing”… maybe “bland” is a better word for it.  There is nothing about November that is awesome:  in September you’ve got Indian Summer, in October you’ve got the beautiful fall leaves, and in December, well, it’s all about Christmas and “when will it snow?” But in November, there is nothing.  I know there is Remembrance Day, which is an important date, but it isn’t necessarily something to look forward to or plan for, and although some people get that day off work, most of us do not.  So I'm thankful that there are quite a few Arts and Crafts Fairs around the city that take place in November, something to perk up the month, at least for me.
I finished the novel by CanLit icon Rudy Wiebe, Come Back, and I have to say, while it started out really interesting, it was a disappointment in the end.  Since I gave a summary of this novel in last week’s post, I will not repeat it here.  I was really looking forward to this novel because it tells the story of a man who is searching for answers to questions that have haunted him for years, questions that originate in a sudden, tragic event in his life.  I love those kinds of stories because they always reveal bits of the main character’s past that are significant, where the character made the wrong choice, or reacted in a way that was, in hindsight, not in the best interest of everyone.  These types of stories make me, too, think about my own life, and consider things I’ve done that could have been done better or differently, and I don’t think literature that encourages self-reflection is a bad thing.  When the character finds the answers, or makes amends, or forgives himself for past wrongs, I as a reader feel satisfied, or forgiven, or relieved of a burden, too.  But in the case of Hal Wiens in Come Back, there were no moments of discovery, no revelations, and no forgiveness.  There was a review in the local paper this weekend for this novel, and the reviewer said that Wiebe is “too wise to offer easy answers”, instead leaving us with the same unanswered questions that “haunt Hal’s restless soul” (http://www.therecord.com/whatson-story/4924378-a-novel-of-ruthless-memory/).  In my opinion, that reviewer is being very generous.  I don’t mind if an author doesn’t tie all the bits of his story up in a neat little bow at the end, but I also don’t want to be left with all questions, and no hint of answers.  I also found the sections that relate entries from Gabriel’s diaries and journals to be too long and boring, saying a whole lot of nothing over and over again.  So, while I’m almost ashamed to criticize this famous, highly respected author, my verdict on this book is that, while very well-written, it is ultimately disappointing.  Shame on me for saying this, but I’m grateful it was short!
This left me with plenty of the week left to read Peter Robinson’s new book, Abattoir Blues.  As a vegetarian, I was a bit worried about this book, due to the title and what I expected would be part of the plot, and I was not far wrong.  Thankfully, there have been no detailed descriptions of what we all know goes on at abattoirs so far, just a few mentions that, while disturbing to me, were not so gruesome that I lost sleep over them.  I’ve still got about 60 pages to go, so I can’t comment on the ending, but so far it has been typical Robinson all the way.  Great writing, interesting mystery, and some insights on the personal dilemmas various characters are facing.  This novel begins with DC Annie Cabbot being assigned to investigate the theft of an expensive tractor from a rural farm.  The station also receives a call about a suspicious stain at an abandoned airfield hangar that may be blood.  When a motor accident caused by a sudden hail storm leads to a gruesome discovery, the investigation team digs to find links between all of these seemingly unrelated events.  As the investigation proceeds, it turns out that they are part of a much larger scheme involving a missing man, a burned-out caravan, possible illegal international black-market trading, and murder.  I always enjoy a mystery by Robinson for a few reasons.  Since I have read them all so far, I am familiar with the histories of each character so find it interesting to be updated on what has been going on in their lives since the last book.  I also find that the stories are not challenging to read; that is, the language is easy to understand and the text flows smoothly from paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter.  The mysteries in his novels are interesting, complex enough to keep you turning pages, but not so complex that you get lost in the twists and turns of the plot.  The characters and situations are also fairly believable, considering these are works of fiction.  So all in all, I would recommend this or any of the other Peter Robinson novels to anyone who likes a good British mystery.  I don’t think this is one of his best books, but it will certainly not disappoint existing fans, and may win over a few new readers.
That’s all for today!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Book talk on a chilly Sunday morning...

On this crisp, bright, chilly Sunday morning, I am sipping my steaming cup of Chai and thinking about the past week, wondering why I haven’t read very much.  It was a short week, and I only finished Sad Peninsula on Monday.  I had an appointment on Tuesday evening, and a friend had an Open House on Thursday after work, so there goes three of my reading nights.  Ah well, at least I have something to do today… read!

I am about a quarter of the way through Rudy Wiebe’s latest book, Come Back, and so far it is interesting and sad, heartwrenching and yet somehow still hopeful.  It tells the story of Hal Wiens, a retired professor who is mourning the death of his wife, Yo.  While in a coffee shop one morning chatting with his old Dene friend Owl, he sees a man wearing an orange down coat walk by the window, a man he is sure is his son, Gabriel.  But that can’t be… Gabriel killed himself 25 years before.  He takes off on a mad search for the man, who has disappeared down any number of streets or alleys at the busy centre of Edmonton, but to no avail.  This occurrence prompts Hal to search for answers to the question that has been haunting him for the past 25 years:  Why did Gabriel, a young man of 24, kill himself?  By immersing himself in the things Gabe left behind, diaries, journals and pictures, Hal begins to understand Gabe’s life, and to face his own grief and guilt as he begins this emotional journey to acceptance and inner peace.  Seasoned readers know that these types of heartwrenching books always (well, usually) lead characters on a spiritual journey that is, while difficult, necessary to overcome the heavy emotional burden they have been carrying around for years, perhaps even a lifetime.  It is pain of the “cleansing” variety, and so we don’t become bogged down in the pain, but rather, we continue reading to get to the moment when the main character is finally able to forgive him- or herself and find the peace that they so deserve.  I expect that this book will prove to be of this type, and I look forward to getting to that moment for Hal.  Shamefully, I have never read anything by this Canadian Literature icon until now, and I’m so happy that this book is holding my interest so far.  I hope to be able to write about it next week in fuller detail, as I expect to finish this short novel in just a couple of days (I have nothing else planned to interrupt my quality reading time this week!).  

There is another reason I have for wanting to finish this short novel soon,a novel I started reading because of the committee I'm on - once I finish this novel, I will allow myself to read the new Peter Robinson book, the 22nd book in the "DCI Banks" series, Abattoir Blues.  I have a copy of this book for review for the local paper, and I can't wait to get to it.  Heartwrenching books about spiritual journeys can be wonderful reads, but sometimes I just want a good British murder mystery!  More on that book in a later post...

I also just finished listening to ASA Harrison’s The Silent Wife as an audiobook, and it was awesome!  There were two narrators, one for Jodi and one for Todd, and they did an excellent job of bringing the characters and words on the page to life.  I know that we just discussed this book at my book group in September, but I needed something to listen to and it was the only thing I had at the time, and it turned out that it wasn’t really too soon to experience this excellent novel again, perhaps because it was in a different form.  So I would highly recommend this version if you are not inclined to read the physical book. 

That’s all for today.  Have a fabulous fall day!

Bye for now...
Julie

Monday, 13 October 2014

Post on Thanksgiving weekend...

On this drizzly, overcast Thanksgiving Monday, I am thinking about what I have to be thankful for related to books and reading.  Of course, I have many other things to be thankful for, too, like my husband and my cats, my awesome job, good friends, good fortune, etc., but here is not the place to talk about those things.  First and foremost, as I sip my delicious cup of Chai, I am thankful for the rainy overcast day we’re having today.  If it was as gorgeous and sunny outside today as it has been the past two days, I certainly wouldn’t be as willing to stay inside and write a post then finish my book as I am with this weather forecast. 

OK, I’m thankful for my good friend, Dan, who has been instrumental in recommending books to me over the past 25 years.  He was the person who recommended, among others, Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, which is one of my favourite books.  Sure, I probably could have found this book on my own, but there are lots of great books, even great books by Canadian authors, that I have not yet read, and possibly never will read.  He also recommended, more recently, Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord.  I haven’t yet read the book, but I just went to see the film adaptation on the weekend, and it was very enjoyable.  I’m looking forward to having time to read the book soon.  So, if you’re reading this blog (and I know you are!), thanks Dan!  I wouldn’t be the reader I am without you!

The next thing I’m thankful for is my membership on the book selection committee I’ve been part of for the past 3 years.  We focus on recently published adult Canadian fiction and non-fiction, and for this committee, I have read many titles I would otherwise not have even been aware of, let alone read.  Some of these titles are:  Three Souls by Janie Chang,  My Real Children by Jo Walton, All My Puny Sorrows by Marian Toews, Local Customs by Audry Thomas and Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu.  I have posted about all of these titles previously, so will not recap, but they are all books I’m glad I read.  I am also glad I read Interference by Winnipeg author Michelle Berry.  This book is the multilayered story of a small neighbourhood in Parkville, its interconnected stories relaying the goings-on of different households.  In one household, Claire is dealing with breast cancer treatment, while also trying to hold her family together.  Her husband may be suffering from the onset of dementia, and her son may be in love with his girlfriend’s brother.  Across the street is blond, attractive Dayton, who has stolen her daughter and fled California to escape her ne’er-do-well husband, and who finds release in the Ladies’ Senior Hockey League.  Next door is Trish, who makes custom teddy bears, and is being threatened by a large American teddy-bear-making company for infringing on copyright laws.  And next to Trish is Maria, whose own pre-teen daughter is suffering from obsessive cleaning and fear of germs and dirt, similar to her mother’s own obsession.  Maria also suffers from a bad back, which keeps her from doing many of the things she thinks she enjoys, but really this reader suspects that she has never really been happy with her life.  Her husband, meanwhile, is suddenly and inexplicably flirting with every woman he sees, something he has not done since before he met Maria.  On top of all these household dramas, there are some shady figures that lurk around the neighbourhood and flit in and out of the stories, a man with a prominent scar cutting through the centre of his face, and a small man in a brown suit who goes door-to-door distributing pamphlets of a disturbing nature.  There is a sinister element underlying these stories as suspicions of a paedophile ring circulate, and, because they are told from the point of view of various people in the neighbourhood, reading this book was a bit like peeping in through the keyhole of each household and watching the goings-on, making this reader feel somewhat voyeuristic.  It was a really interesting read, quite unlike anything else I have read… not really short stories, but not really a novel either.  Now that I think of it, I have read something else like this in the past, a book I reviewed for the local paper called Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway, which was also made up of interwoven short-story-like chapters told from various points of view, where nothing is quite clear, including a defined plot.  Anyway, it was a good read, and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys domestic fiction with characters that are very “real”, characters that could be your own neighbours.

I am also thankful for the opportunity I have to review books for the local paper, as this, too, has exposed me to titles I may not otherwise have come across.  Some of these titles include Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan, The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh, That Part was True by Deborah McKinlay, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker and Life or Death by Michael Robotham.  These, too, have been written about in previous posts.  I am also just finishing a book that I will review called Sad Peninsula by Mark Sampson.  This novel tells the alternating stories of Eun-young and Michael, characters separated by decades but brought together by one woman on a quest to find a way to reveal the truth and make things right.  Eun-young was a young girl in the late 1930s in Korea, when the Japanese infiltrated her town.  With promises of a job earning more than her own father, enough to get her family out of the poverty into which they sunk since the infiltration, Eun-young, along with thousands of other girls, were coerced from their homes and transported north to China, where they were forced to live in camps as “comfort women”, sex slaves who were made to serve the often debauched needs of service men and officials of every rank during the war.  Michael is an ESL teacher at ABC English Planet in Seoul.  A disgraced journalist from Halifax, hiding from his own demons and fleeing from his past, he finds anonymity in South Korea, but is disturbed by the stereotypical view of the country, from the beautiful girls and easy sex to the loose standards of the English school where “teachers” of dubious qualifications “sling English like hamburgers”.  Then he meets Jin, a girl unlike the others, a smart, serious young woman with secrets of her own.  While they struggle to develop a strong relationship, they also keep much of their pasts to themselves.  When in Jin tells Michael about her great-aunt, Eun-young, Michael is intrigued to find out more, but uncovers some things that both horrify and inspire him.  I am about two-third of the way through the book, and expect to finish it this afternoon, but so far both stories are interesting, albeit graphically detailed at times.  This is the second book by Sampson, originally from PEI but now living in Toronto, but the first I have read.

I am thankful for so any other things that are book-related as well, but I’m out of time, and want to get on with my day, so perhaps I will save them for another post.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Bye for now…
Julie

Saturday, 4 October 2014

A "Novel Disappointment" at book club...

As I sip my cup of tea, I am reflecting on the collective disappointment we as a book group experienced with our latest selection, and how this differs from a situation when some enjoyed the novel and some did not.  I will talk about that soon, but first, I wanted to mention the awesome audiobook I finished earlier in the week. 

I recently finished listening to John Le Carré’s novel, Our Kind of Traitor.  It tells the story of disillusioned Oxford don Perry and his lawyer girlfriend Gail, a young British couple who, while enjoying the trip of a lifetime in Antigua, meet dapper Russian guest Dima, and unwittingly become involved in international espionage and money-laundering.  Drawn in by the eclectic members of Dima’s extended family, including beautiful daughter Natasha and a pair of unusual nieces, they develop a close, albeit bizarre, relationship with the group, until one evening, Dima confides top-secret information about international money-laundering involving not only fellow Russian mafia members but also top-ranking officials and political figures from countries around the world, and asks Perry to help him and his family to defect to England.   Upon their return home from their vacation, Perry, nicknamed “British Fair-Play” by Dima, does his best to live up to this assessment of his character by providing a full account of all that was said and done during their brief friendship to MI-6.  Readers are then taken on the slow, detailed journey through the bureaucratic rigmarole that precedes the approval for this defection to happen, with painstaking detail provided at every step of the way.  This contemporary offering from Le Carré is a real treat for anyone who may have struggled with his earlier Cold-War books featuring George Smiley, as it presents readily-accessible and contemporary characters and themes, while still demonstrating his storytelling mastery and amazing writing talent.  I read this novel a couple of years ago, but forgot all but the most basic plot summary, so it was an excellent listening experience for me.  My previous experience reading this novel was one of the reasons I chose A Perfect Spy for my book club to read, not realizing that is was going to be more difficult and less accessible than this novel or, say, The Constant Gardener.  Anyway, I would highly recommend this novel as a book or audiobook for anyone who enjoys espionage fiction, and would also say that this would be a good one to start with if you have always wanted to read a novel by Le Carré but were afraid to try.

Now on to our “Novel Disappointment”…  I tried to read Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, set in a monastery in a remote part of Quebec.  The prior is found dead in the garden, and Chief Inspector Gamache is called in to solve the case.  He and his team are possibly the first people to ever be allowed inside the monastery walls, which house the monks who have achieved worldwide fame for their preservation, resurrection and perfection of the ancient Gregorian chants, once believed to be lost forever.  I expect that the rest of the book details their investigation into the murder, and the monks who live at the monastery, but I will admit to reaching only page 89 after three days of reading, and finally giving up.  It was partly the repetition in the text that was frustrating me, but also the stuttering, stilting way she wrote.  For example, on page 11:  “It wasn’t, then, a casual call.  An invitation to dinner.  A query about staffing or a case going to trial.  This was a call to arms.  A call to action.  A call that marked something dreadful had happened.  And yet, for more than a decade now every time he heard those words, Beauvoir’s heart leapt.  And raced.  And even danced a little.  Not with joy at the knowledge of a terrible and premature death.  But knowing he and the Chief and the others would be on the trail again.”  Look at all those sentence fragments!!  That could have been one or two full, flowing sentences that would take a few seconds to read, but as a stilting, stuttering paragraph, it takes the reader so much longer to get through.  At first I thought this was just me, that I must certainly be missing something.  Louise Penny, after all, is a wildly popular bestselling mystery novelist, one whose novels, at least one of them, has been adapted for TV starring Nathanial Parker, of “Inspector Lynley” fame, as Chief Inspector Gamache.  But when I got the group started with the discussion, they reiterated the writing concerns detailed above, as well as making the following comments:  too many characters, many unnecessary characters, too much information, repetitive, the story dragged, it was too long, many details that were thrown in made it seem too contrived, Gamache was too perfect, all the characters were one-dimensional, it was not memorable, and the ending was jarring, and also unbelievable.  One member said that she had a hard time keeping track of the real plot and the sub-plot, but once she realized this, she skipped the parts about the sub-plot and only read the parts about the real plot, and it started to make more sense.  Another felt that the occasional, but regular, use of French terms thrown into the text was unnecessary and “pompous”, since readers didn’t need reminders that the story is taking place in a French-speaking province.  We all found the information on the music and the chants to be interesting, and one member pointed out that the imagery of the monastery was significant:  Gamache’s first impression was of the light-filled rooms, the effect of the prisms in the windows when there was full daylight, suggesting beauty, purity, and “otherworldliness”, but that underneath, the foundation was cracked and rotting.  I also found, in the 89 pages that I read, some examples of very fine writing, and an intelligent, subtle humour.  Someone in my book group some time ago requested that I add a Louise Penny mystery to the list, and this title was said to be one of her best books, so I put it on the list “untested”, as it were.  What was wonderful about our conversation was how candid we could be once we realized that everyone else felt the same way about the book.  We could all agree with and build on the previous member’s complaint with yet another example or opinion.  It is much more difficult to have a lively conversation when opinions are split, or when even one member has a view that is strongly opposed to the rest of the group.  At those times, we couch our opinions in euphemisms, soften our tones, and generally try to have our say without challenging anyone else’s opinions or hurting their feelings.  I find people are especially careful to use gentle language until they know how I, as the selector, felt about the book, in case I would be offended that they didn’t like a book that I chose.  So it’s much more fun when we are all on the same page about a book, and so this was a fun and lively discussion about how much we disliked this book.  Members who had read other books by Penny didn’t recall the use of such stilted writing, but no one was entirely sure, thus demonstrating the “forgetableness” of the novels.  (Oh boy, it really is fun to rant sometimes!)

OK, that’s all for tonight.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!


Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 26 September 2014

Friday night book talk...

Well, this is strange, writing a post on a Friday night.  It's supposed to be a gorgeous weekend, my husband is away, and I finished the Ian McEwan book a couple of days ago so I wanted to write about it before I got too far into a new book and forgot why I loved it so much.

I didn't get much reading done last Sunday, as it turned out to be a fabulous "outside" day.  But I did manage to get a start on McEwan's novel, The Children Act.  I always enjoy his novels, although sometimes I have to ruminate on them for a bit after reaching the last page before coming to that conclusion - this happened with On Chesil Beach, which I at first thought was a waste of my time, but then decided was brilliant.  The trick with McEwan is to realize that he is a master at the short novel, and what ground he does not cover in terms of time or events he more than makes up for in personal meaning, emotional significance, and  reflections on the human condition.  He is a master at writing about the minutae of daily life and suffusing it with significance, until we as readers are brought inside the main characters' heads and experience his or her thoughts and feelings.  Case in point, Fiona Mayle, High Court judge and main character in The Children Act.  As the novel opens, Fiona is facing the potential breakdown of her thirty-year marriage with husband Jack.  Both are in the “twilight years” of their careers and Jack feels that he must take a bold step before it’s too late.  Fiona is distracted from their “not-quite-argument” by a call from the court advising her that a time-sensitive case involving the son of a Jehovah’s Witness couple who is in hospital with leukemia and refusing the blood transfusion necessary to complete his treatment has been assigned to her and will be scheduled for early the next morning.  Complicating the case is the age of the patient, 17 years and 9 months, that legal “gray area” where he is not quite old enough to decide his fate, but possibly old enough to make decisions regarding his future in an informed and intelligent way.  Fiona hears the arguments of the parents, the social worker/guardian, and the hospital regarding Adam’s condition and the potential outcome of the treatment if he does not receive a blood transfusion.  Despite the arguments by the parents and the social worker, Fiona is not satisfied with their view that Adam’s refusal is truly his own idea, uninfluenced by parents or other prominent religious figures in his life, and decides to go to the hospital to meet Adam herself.  During her visit with this beautiful, intelligent, talented young man, Fiona experiences unexpected emotions that radiate from deep within herself.  Adam, too, responds to Fiona intensely as they share an experience together that will prove to affect them both in their own ways.  When she returns to court after the visit that same evening to present her ruling, she could not have foreseen how profoundly this decision would affect the lives of all involved.  I can’t say any more without giving the story away, but suffice it so say that this novel lives up to the expectations one may have for McEwan’s work.  Now, it does not exceed expectation, at least for me, but considering the bar is already set so high, that would be a difficult feat.   I got this book last weekend, and there were coincidentally two reviews in the local paper for this novel, well, one by a local reviewer and one in the New York Times insert.  The local reviewer seemed to enjoy and appreciate it, but the New York Times reviewer was more than a little critical of this novel, even though he was clearly a fan of McEwan’s writing.  After reading the NYT review, I was slightly worried as I opened the book, but I’ve decided that the reviewer didn’t know what he was talking about.  I found similar themes running through this novel as earlier works by the author, such as potential marital breakdown (A Child in Time), obsession (Enduring Love), and the possibility that profound moments with total strangers can sometimes change lives (Saturday).  McEwan manages to convey to the reader not just the events of a character’s daily life as they pertain to the plot, but the emotion accompanying these events, until we know we will never experience certain things the same way again.  And don’t be fooled by the length of the novel – it may only be just over 200 pages, but each page is filled with such a mastery of language that you may need to reread sections just to make sure you’ve taken it all in.  And while you will want to read it slowly and savour each and every word, it will be the kind of book you won’t be able to put down.  So enjoy!

I’ve barely started the selection for next week’s book club meeting, Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, very different from The Children Act, but hope to make good headway this weekend, despite the forecast of great “Indian Summer” weather.

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Rainy Sunday morning tea and book talk...

On this very rainy Sunday morning, I’m thinking about the folks in Toronto who will be celebrating Word on the Street, and am hoping for their sake that the rain stops.  But for myself, I would love the rain to continue so I could, without guilt, devote the whole day to reading.  For our Word on the Street festival yesterday, we had nearly perfect weather.  Unfortunately, during the time I was there, the turnout seemed to be quite low… hopefully it picked up as the day went on.  Speaking of Toronto, I am enjoying a Vanilla Scone from Future Bakery that I picked up at the Kitchener Market yesterday.  I may have mentioned these scones before, as they are delicious.  Future Bakery is located in Toronto, but they have a stall at the market here on Saturdays, which is awesome for me!  I would highly recommend these scones… not too sweet, with a subtle vanilla taste and a hint of icing drizzled over the top… yum!  Note:  the bakery in Toronto only makes these scones on Fridays and Saturdays, so if you try to get one during the week, you will be out of luck.
Last week I got a book from the library that I am so excited about, the latest mystery in the “Hercule Poirot” series, The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah.  This novel is the first Agatha Christie family-sanctioned addition to Christie’s extensive body of work, and I think she did an excellent job.   I will admit that I had my misgivings.  I've read a couple of Hannah’s psychological mysteries, and while I found them gripping, I was not always so impressed with her writing skills, so when I read the news about Hannah receiving this honour, I had my doubts. Having nearly reached the end of the novel, I feel that Hannah does indeed have the skills to take o this project and to meet and exceed this reader’s expectations.  In The Monogram Murders, retired Belgian ex-detective Hercule Poirot is enjoying a short holiday in a part of London where he is unlikely to run into anyone he knows, and appreciating the finest cup of coffee in the whole city (according to his opinion) at Pleasant’s Coffee House, when a woman rushes in, seemingly very agitated and distressed.  She exchanges a few words with the waitress, then takes a table in the corner, where she stares out the darkened window, possiibly watching for someone.  Poirot moves to her table to join her, and in the ensuing conversation, he learns that she, Jennie, is in fear of being murdered, yet she does not seem willing to avert this event from happening.  Then she rushes out, leaving Poirot to ponder this encounter as he finishes his coffee and fine dinner and returns to the lodging house where he has chosen to spend his “stay-cation”.  There he runs into his friend, Edward Catchpool, a policeman with Scotland Yard, and learns that three people were murdered that evening at the Bloxham Hotel.  Poirot immediately feels there is a connection between his encounter with Jennie and the three murders, and insists on returning to the hotel with Catchpool to investigate.  The three who were murdered, it is discovered, were originally from the same small village, where something tragic occurred nearly twenty years earlier.  Could these murders be connected to the previous tragedy?  Is Jennie telling the truth when she says she is going to be murdered?  And how can Poirot stop this inevitable murder from taking place, and also solve the crime of the murders that have already occurred?  Have no fear – using his “little grey cells”, Poirot will get to the truth and unmask the culprits, revealing the connections of the whole cast of characters, but will keep Catchpool, and the reader, guessing until the very end.   I’m not quite at the very end, but I will be soon, and if I didn’t know better, I would swear that this was written by Christie herself.  I haven’t read many of her books, but I have listened to quite a few, so as I’ve been reading, whenever Poirot speaks, I “hear” him as if I was listening to an audiobook, and have decided that Hannah has Poirot’s character and speech patterns dead-on.  The novel is set in 1929, and she does a good job of putting the story in that period realistically without using too much description.  Catchpool serves Poirot much as Hastings did in previous novels, as a sounding board and apprentice.  I loved that Hannah found ways to use the word “canoodle” at least twice in the novel, and that Poirot referred many times to “the little grey cells”, giving authenticity to the story.  I don’t know if there are plans for other “Hercule Poirot” novels, and if so, whether they will be written by Hannah alone, or whether the Christie family would consider giving other authors a go at this project, but I would give Hannah an A+ for her work on this novel, and I look forward to checking out future works by this author.
As I was nearing the end of The Monogram Murders, I was thinking about what I would read next.  I have review books to read, and a pile of books to read for my committee, and I also have a book club meeting coming up, so I have plenty of factors that could potentially influence my reading selections (this is when reading starts to become a chore, not a pleasure…).  I headed off to the library to pick up my hold, and was surprised and delighted to see that not one, but two, books were ready for me to pick up, including Ian McEwan’s latest work, The Children Act.   I’m so excited, I’m very nearly shaking!  I love McEwan’s works, which often present situations and explore them in the most interesting and different ways, dragging the reader into the moral and ethical dilemmas with which the characters are also grappling.  I can’t wait to start this book, one that I will read entirely for the pleasure of it, a book that I will read “just for me”.  Alas, the sun has come out, so it may not be a guilt-free reading day after all… darn! 

Bye for now…
Julie