Sunday 23 February 2014

Books and tea on an Olympic Sunday morning...

I’m watching the Olympic Closing Ceremonies while I type this, so I’m a little distracted but determined to write at my usual time, complete with my cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked banana bread.

I read a book for review this week, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden, by Philippa Dowding, a short novel suitable for 9 to 12 year old girls that begins with the sentence:  This morning I wake up on the ceiling. This sets the tone for this coming-of age story told from the perspective of thirteen-year-old Gwendolyn Golden, a young girl who, on top of coping with many of the usual issues that come with adolescence, is forced to deal with this surprising and unusual gift of flight.  Gwendolyn, or Gwennie, is an average thirteen-year-old.  She is trying to handle puberty, with all its emotional complications.  She has a best friend, Jez, with whom she has shared everything practically since she was born.  She also has a close relationship with her mother.  Her father disappeared mysteriously in a storm seven years earlier, shortly before her twin siblings, the two Chrissies, or C2, were born.  Suddenly, she is afflicted with unexpected flight, something she seems unable to control.  How can she tell her mother or Jez about this new ability?  And how can she learn to control when it will happen, so she doesn’t begin to spontaneously float up to the ceiling during class again?  The candy-store owner, Mrs. Forest, seems to be the only one who can help her, and gives her a book to read, Your First Flight:  A Night Flyer’s Handbook.  Gwennie aptly sums up her situation by thinking to herself, “Oh, I see.  Other girls just get to have their periods.  I get to have my period and start flying around the neighbourhood, too.  That’s me all right.  That’s just so me.”  As Gwennie acquires more information about her circumstances, she is able to regain control of her body as she becomes this unknown being, this Night Flyer, this Skylark, this grown-up.  As she moves from Gwennie to Gwendolyn, she learns that sometimes what appears at first to be a burden is really a gift, and that we must embrace the changes in our lives with openness and understanding.  Told with wit and intelligence, this is an entertaining, fast-paced novel that deals with very real situations, such as loss, change, and emotional struggles.  At times whimsical and fantastical, this story addresses down-to-earth issues with the maturity and strength of character that would inspire any young reader who is facing the journey toward adulthood.  Torontonian Philippa Dowding is an award-winning magazine copywriter, poet, and children’s author.

Once I finished this short book, I was at a loss as to what to read next.  I needed something I knew I would enjoy to fill the short gap I had until it was time to start next my book club selection.  I decided to reread The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, as it’s been far too long since I’ve done so.  Although I haven’t had much time to read these past few days and so am not that far along, I’m reminded again why this is my favourite book of all time.  Steinbeck infuses this novel with so much wisdom, so many insightful comments on the Human Condition, that I could write an essay about something pertinent he addresses on just about every page.  This novel tells the story of the loss of innocence of Ethan Allen Hawley, descendent of a proud New England family who once owned half on New Baytown but who, through bad advice and bad choices, has lost everything and is now a clerk in a grocery store his family once owned.  This store is now owned by Alfio Marullo, a man who came from Sicily decades earlier, but is still considered a “foreigner”.  When one unusual occurrence is followed by  another and yet another in rapid succession, Ethan is compelled to change himself, to dare himself to become what he thinks others want him to be, regardless of his innately strong moral fiber and his belief in personal truth and accountability.  It is the picture of small-town life, and the exploration of the dynamics that work behind the facades of even the most benign-looking settings and groups.  Ethan speaks directly to the reader, and we are drawn into the journey, the exploration, the insidious corruption that steals up on him and sends him spiraling downward, so that there is no specific point at which we can say, “Here is where he went wrong, here is the point at which he betrayed himself and finally achieved the status he thought he wanted, but at what cost?”  It is difficult to describe this book, because not much actually happens.  It deals more with the deterioration of one man’s soul to fulfill the expectations others have of him.  It is a cautionary tale that reminds readers to be careful what we wish for because we just might get it, and that sometimes the treasure we seek is already all around us.  For juvenile fiction, we would call this a “coming-of-age” novel, where we would refer to the “loss of innocence” of the main character.  I don’t know if there are comparable terms that refer to adult literature, since “loss of innocence” is generally associated with youth, and surely Ethan has already “come of-age” by the time this story begins.  I’m not really a huge Steinbeck fan; in fact, I’ve read just a couple other of his novels, Of Mice and Men, which I read before going to see the movie in 1992, and The Grapes of Wrath, which I don’t really recall at all, but which I know I read in 1993 (this is where that list I mentioned a few posts earlier has come in handy - I knew writing down everything I’ve read for the past 20+ years hasn’t been a waste of  time!!)  Anyway, I highly recommend this for anyone who wants a thoughtful, insightful novel which explores small-town America and reveals the dark underside of the desire for wealth at any cost.

Time to go and really watch the ceremonies, as they have now begun in earnest.

Bye for now…

PS I just read that The Winter of Our Discontent was Steinbeck's last book, published in 1961, which went a long way toward securing for Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received in 1962.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Post on a long wintery weekend...

It’s snowing this morning, as I sip my steaming cup of chai tea, but I don’t care, as I am warm and snug, and looking forward to a day of reading, with a bonus day off tomorrow.  What could be better?!  As a bit of an aside, I wanted to mention that my husband and I went out to eat last night at an Indian restaurant that was recommended to us, Bombay Grill in Cambridge (  The decor left something to be desired, but I hardly noticed that once the food began arriving.  The food was excellent, and so very reasonably priced.  I ordered a Masala Chai tea afterward, and while it was frothier than my own chai, it was not as delicious.  But it was still a wonderful dining experience.

I finished reading the book I mentioned last week, That Part Was True by Deborah McKinlay, which was one of the books I received for review for my local paper.  This little gem of a book offered a story filled with emotional depth and richness.  It opens with a short letter written to best-selling author Jackson Cooper by Eve Petworth, praising him on a passage in one of his novels.  Jackson is an American writer with a colourful, but often conflicted, love life.  Eve is a British woman, a single mother who is dealing with her own past as well as facing ongoing challenges with her soon-to-be-wed daughter Izzy.  They discover a mutual love of food and cooking, and share, through their correspondence, the details of their lives, along with recipes and cooking tips.  Although they have not yet met, they form a unique friendship in which they offer support and encouragement, a friendship that Eve describes as “decadently sumptuous.”  As the novel unfolds, the reader follows Jack and Eve on their individual journeys of self-discovery.  Although it may sound like a familiar story, this delightful novel is anything but predictable, and led this reader to a surprising, heartwarming conclusion.  I would highly recommend this short novel to anyone who enjoys domestic or realistic fiction.  Although there are two main characters, Eve and Jack, and the novel is told equally from both points of view, I think that this might not be enjoyed by male readers… it is more of a “woman’s book”.

Since tomorrow is Family Day, I thought I would make a list of some good Domestic Fiction titles I’ve read in the past year  (I’m a librarian, so I will jump at any chance I get to make a Book List!)  These titles are not all “feel-good” books, but they deal mainly with family dynamics.  

Peace Like A River by Leif Enger
Lady Chatterey’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World by Janet Cameron
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Family Album by Kerry Kelly
Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

There are others, of course, but these are my favourites. You can find more information in previous posts about each of these titles.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the long weekend!

Bye for now…

Sunday 9 February 2014

Warm post on a chilly day...

It’s not necessarily so cold as it is damp on this Sunday morning, but I’m cozy and warm and surrounded by the tantalizing smells of chai tea, zucchini soup and homemade applesauce… mmm…

I wasn’t sure last weekend how long it would take me to reread I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which we discussed yesterday for my book club, since it is over 400 pages and is trade paperback in size.  But it was such an easy read that I flew through it in just a few days.  I found it just as delightful as I had the first time I read it.  I may have even enjoyed it more, as I could really savour the wit of Cassandra’s writing, and appreciate the novel’s literary references.  This novel was published in 1949, and was written at a time when British author Smith was living in the US with her husband due to legal complications (he was a conscientious objector), a time when she was missing England and longing for happier days. It tells the story of an eccentric family, the Mortmains, living in a castle for which they have a 40-year lease.  The novel is narrated by seventeen-year-old Cassandra, the younger of two daughters, as she writes of events in her journal.  The family represents genteel poverty: the father, Mortmain, is the author of one very famous novel, and the stepmother, Topaz, is a former artist’s model, but there is no money coming in and no financial prospects, save for the possible marriage of Rose, the beautiful elder daughter, preferably to someone rich.  When two American brothers, Neil and Simon, appear on the scene as their new landlords, the plot becomes more complex as the sisters puzzle over these two very different characters.  A complicated love story ensues, which includes not only the sisters and the brothers, but also Stephen, the son of the Mortmains' late cook, who continues to live at the castle and is in love with Cassandra.  Most of my book club ladies also found this book to be delightful.  Everyone loved Cassandra, as well as the stepmother, Topaz.  Most had mixed feelings about Rose and both brothers, and we all found Stephen to be a bit of a mystery, a dark horse.  No one liked the father; in fact, one of my ladies felt so strongly about the father’s negligent behavior towards his family that she was unable to enjoy the novel because if this.  She said it reminded her of Jeanette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle (which I have never read, particularly because I’ve heard it was very disturbing).  I was less disturbed by the father’s actions than the others, but could appreciate their feelings about him – he really was very negligent, and perhaps more disturbing, he was emotionally volatile.  But, as we pointed out, creative people, geniuses even, are often afflicted by mental disturbances, perhaps because they see the world differently from the average person.  One of the characters that we all agreed was wonderful was Heloise, the Bull Terrier who seemed to be Cassandra’s constant friend and confidante.  All in all, it was an interesting and fun discussion, and I felt that it was a good choice for our group.

I have started a book that I received for review, The Part That Was True, by Deborah McKinlay, and so far it also seems delightful, but in a different was from I Capture the Castle.  I will write more about it when I finish.

That’s all for today!

Bye for now…

Sunday 2 February 2014

Happy Groundhog Day!!

I heard that Wiarton Willie immediately saw his shadow this morning as he emerged from his cozy den, indicating six more weeks of winter for us in Canada.  Hmmm… to me, that means six more weeks of potential “good reading days”, since it’s so much harder for me to stay inside and read on a pleasantly warm, sunny day than on a cold, messy one.  So, for me, this is good news!

Well, I’ve had a busy morning of cooking and baking, and I’m so happy to now be sitting down with my (well-earned!) hot cup of tea, a slice of Date Bread, and my book thoughts for the past week.  I have a book and an audiobook to tell you about today.

I finished listening to Unleashed by David Rosenfelt last week, the most recent book in the “Andy Carpenter” series, narrated by Grover Gardner.  I listened to so many of these books that I have come to associate his voice with the character.  I wonder if Gardener has narrated any other books… I must check that out.  The main character in this series, Andy Carpenter, is an irreverent Paterson, New Jersey lawyer who has become independently wealthy due to some shady business conducted by his deceased police investigator father some years earlier.  He has a golden lab named Tara, whom he loves almost as much as he loves his girlfriend Laurie, an ex-detective.  With his sudden wealth, he opens a dog shelter, the Tara Foundation, where he cares for dogs that are going to be put down by other shelters in the city until they are adopted.  Andy generally takes on difficult cases where cover-ups by prominent members of the community are occurring, and Unleashed is no exception.  In this book, Andy is reluctant to take on any more cases, so when his friend Sam Willis asks him to investigate what at first appeared to be a plane crash causing the death of Sam’s friend, Barry Price, but which turns out to be murder by poison, he declines.  When circumstances involving Laurie and an injured dog lead him to take on the case, he attempts to defend Price’s wife and Sam’s former sweetheart, Denise.  As he uncovers information that leads him to believe Price was involved in high-stakes money-laundering, he searches for other witnesses to help in his case.  These witnesses are all scared, and as the murders pile up, Andy realizes that there is more to the case than just money-laundering, and the lives of everyone involved are at risk.  I thought at first that this story was a bit lame, that it didn’t have the usual depth of character involvement and plot that his other books usually have, and I wondered if that was because Andy’s relationship with Laurie was firmly cemented and there was no more sexual tension, which played a significant role in many of his earlier books.  About halfway through, the case seemed to be solved, and I was feeling pretty disappointed.  I wondered how the author was going to fill the next half of the book.  Then Andy’s case went to trial, and suddenly that customary depth of plot and character involvement began in earnest.  The plot became complex, the characters became more interesting and involved, and my faith in Rosenfelt was restored.  This reader enjoyed a completely satisfying conclusion to the story, and can look forward to listening to further “Andy Carpenter” books.  Hurray!

When I closed last week, I was wondering what I could read that would be engaging enough to be a quick read to fill in the time until I would start my next Book Club selection, and I considered rereading a Peter Robinson mystery.  Well, I discovered in my collection a book I had not read before, The Boy in the Snow by M. J. McGrath, the second in the “Edie Kiglatuk” mystery series.  I read the first in the series, White Heat, which I really enjoyed, so I was pleasantly surprised to find this book, which I had entirely forgotten about.  It seemed appropriate read this mystery, set in Alaska, during a week when we were experiencing exceptionally cold weather, and finishing the book on a day when snow fell continually for the entire day and into the night.  The story begins with Edie’s ex-husband, Sammy, losing control of his dogsledding team while participating in an important race along the Iditarod trail.  Half-Inuit Edie is in Anchorage to support Sammy’s progress in the race, but she feels out of place “down South”, away from her Northern home on Ellesmere Island.  She is snowmobiling along a trail in the woods when she encounters a white bear, which, when she determines that it is a Spirit Bear, she follows deeper into the woods on foot.  Lost and unsure of which way to go to return to her snow machine, she is thrilled when a couple, a pair of Old Believers, approach her on their own snowmobile.  She gets directions back to her machine, but on the way, she finds the frozen body of an infant, a baby boy in a Spirit House.  As she helps the Alaskan Police Department with their investigation into this death, she becomes more and more dissatisfied with the direction the investigation takes and the conclusions the investigators reach.  Balancing her obligation to support Sammy with her need to find the truth about the boy’s death, Edie faces one obstacle after another in a challenging search which uncovers complex schemes involving human trafficking and baby-selling.  With the help of her friend, police chief Derek Palliser, and a host of other, often eclectic, characters, Edie uncovers a grisly, morally corrupt plot that endangers the lives of many, a plot in which the guilty parties may just escape punishment.  I flew through this book.  Often I would have to put it down reluctantly because of the kink in my neck from reading so long.  It was helpful that I had read White Heat, but not absolutely necessary in order to enjoy this mystery.  There are many reasons to read this book:  complex plot, interesting characters, and a plethora of information about Inuit people and their culture, including the Inuktatut language, which is included in the back of the book.  The cultural information is perhaps at least as interesting as the details of the mystery, and while I found parts of this book to be a bit “over-the-top”, I would still recommend it as a quick, interesting read for anyone who enjoys a fast-paced mystery.  After reading White Heat, I remember commenting that Edie reminded me of Smilla in Peter Hoeg’s novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow (blog post on Dec. 30, 2012), and this comparison certainly applies to this novel as well.  Both women are strong and smart, and definitely under-appreciated and underestimated by all those around them, especially the men.  I hope British writer McGrath has plans to continue this series for many years (and many books!) to come.

I will start I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith today, and will hopefully have time to finish it before my meeting on Saturday.  It is a fairly long book, but an easy read, and a book I’ve read before (see blog posts in February and March, 2013). 

Bye for now…

PS I just checked Grover Gardner as narrator for audiobooks available through my library, and he has an extensive audiography list.  I have listened to many of the books he has narrated, including some of the "Inspector Montalbano" series by Andrea Camilleri, Defending Jacob by William Landay and Shades of Blue by Bill Moody.  I'm impressed!