Sunday 30 March 2014

Books and tea on a Spring-ish Sunday morning...

Well, the sun is out, and it’s supposed to reach a high of 4 degrees today, so I guess it’s sort of Spring-like.  I’m even going to hang some laundry outside today, although I’m not sure if that’s merely over-optimism or outright insanity on my part!  Anyway, that’s for later in the day.  For now, I will concentrate on books… and of course, my cup of tea.
I am more than halfway through that thick novel I mentioned last week, the one I was going to read for review, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker.  It is over 600 pages, but it’s so gripping that I had a hard time putting it down most nights last week.  With just under 300 pages left to go, I think I will have to put it aside in order to read my next book club selection before my group meets on Saturday.  Since I’m over halfway through the novel, though, I feel it’s safe to give you a bit of info about the plot so far.  Marcus Goldman is a young New York writer with a bestseller under his belt, achieved before he turned 30.  Facing prolonged writer’s block, he turns to his friend and mentor, writer Harry Quebert, for support, and is invited out to Harry’s seaside home in Somerset for some R&R.  Shortly thereafter, Harry is arrested for the murder of Nola Kellergen, a young girl who has been dead for over 30 years, and whose body has recently been discovered buried in Harry’s back yard.  Marcus returns to Somerset in order to support Harry and to find the truth about what happened that night so many years ago, as well as the events leading up to Nola’s murder.  He discovers that during the summer of 1975, 34-year old Harry fell in love with 15-year old Nola, and planned to leave town with her at the end of the summer.  He also discovers that Nola, and Harry’s forbidden love for her, were the inspiration for Harry’s career-defining novel, The Origin of Evil.  As Marcus investigates people and events in and around Somerset in 1975, he uncovers truths and cover-ups that lead him deeper and deeper into a world he could never have imagined.   This novel is proving to be many things for this reader.  It is an exploration of a writer’s life, with all its struggles and triumphs.  It is also a murder mystery, but from the perspective of a writer (it felt a bit like reading about Truman Capote investigating and then writing In Cold Blood, except that this is not “true crime”).  This book also satirizes American culture, and small-town mentality, reminding me of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.  But when I first began the novel, I thought of Paul Auster, particularly his New York trilogy and The Music of Chance, where all is not what it seems, and the main character, who seems to be both smart and reliable, is at once taken advantage of and used as a pawn in a much larger and more ominous game.  You can see how this novel could be completely gripping for me, and although I think it is overlong, I’m going to have a hard time putting it aside to read Property by Valerie Martin for next Saturday. 

With the weather improving and the sun coming out more often, I both hope and fear that the number of “good days to stay inside reading” are going to be diminishing as March turns into April and then May.  Maybe I should get a really comfortable outdoor chair so I can sit outside under the large maple tree in the backyard and read for hours.  Hmm… add that to the wish list…

Bye for now!

Sunday 23 March 2014

Books and tea on a bright, cold Sunday morning... again!

I know that the first day of Spring was last Thursday, but as my kindergarten students pointed out to me when I read them a picture book about this season, “There’s still a lot of snow on the ground – it can’t be Spring yet!”  And here I am, with my steaming cup of chai tea and warm Date bread, fresh out of the oven, contemplating what I can do on the brisk day to get some exercise but still stay warm.
I finished reading Northanger Abbey earlier this week, and I must admit that the Gothic section was my favourite part of the whole book, which would explain why I don’t naturally reach for Jane Austen when I’m in the mood to read a classic, but choose instead Jane Eyre or Rebecca.  I was having an email conversation with a woman from my Friends book group who was unable to make it to the last meeting, and I told her this.  She felt the same way, and we began discussing other classics in the Gothic style.  She mentioned that one of her favourites was Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, which I don’t think I’ve ever read.  I thought I had a copy of on my bookshelf, but, alas, I did not, nor did I have a copy of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.  So I headed out to the used bookstore in search of a copy of each, but was only successful in finding the James book.  This one I’ve read before, but didn’t get it, so I’ve determined to read it again and try to understand it better.  I just think James is too difficult for me.  I’ve read The Wings of the Dove and only understood it because I had seen the excellent 1997 film version starring Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache several times.  I have also tried reading What Maisie Knew, but abandoned it after the first few chapters.  I really want to finish reading that one, too.  Oh, so many books, so little time…

After finishing Austen’s short novel, I started reading a short mystery novel by Canadian author Brenda Chapman, called In Winter’s Grip.  It was pretty good, but I didn’t have loads of time to read last week, so I didn’t get very far into it by the time I went to pick up a couple of books for review.  I was so intrigued by one of the titles, 600+ page translated novel The Truth About the Harry Querbert Affair by Joël Dicker, that I promptly returned the other title to the library and began this excellent novel.  I will tell you nothing about this book yet, as I’ve only read 27 pages, but so far it has me hooked.

I also finished an excellent audiobook last week by Leonard Rosen, All Cry Chaos (Henri Poincaré, Book 1).  I don’t usually put quotations from other reviewers into my blog posts, but this one sums this book up perfectly:  Calling all fans of fractals, international-criminal conspiracies and the End of Days:  Your ship has come in (  I’m not even a fan of end-of-days novels, and I didn’t know what a fractal was before starting this book (not sure I could define it properly now, but I’m at least familiar with the concept), but I do enjoy international criminal conspiracies, and let me tell you, this book did not disappoint.  Henri Poincaré is an Interpol Inspector who is close to retirement and living in an idyllic farmhouse with his wife and artist Claire.  When he is called to investigate the death by explosion of James Fenster, a gifted scientist and mathematician on the eve of a long-scheduled speech at the World Trade Organization meeting, he suspects that there is more to this assassination than meets the eye.  Thus he begins a search for the answer that takes him across the world and into dark and murky waters that will endanger all those he cares about.  He is also involved in the imprisonment and trial of Stipo Banovic, a Bosnian war criminal who blames Poincaré for his arrest and vows to hire assassins to kill Henri’s family.  Throw in the Soldiers of Rapture who claim that at 11:38 am on August 15, the world will end, and you’ve got an international thriller that will keep you glued to your bus seat and have you making excuses to go for a long walk, even in the coldest weather, just so you can listen to the rest of the audiobook.  This is the first in a series featuring Henri Poincaré, and is followed by The Tenth Witness, a prequel to All Cry Chaos I will see if this novel is also available to download, as it also got excellent reviews.  

That’s all for today.  Stay warm, and keep reading.

Bye for now…

Sunday 16 March 2014

Books and tea on a bright, cold Sunday morning...

It looks so lovely outside when I gaze out the window, but I know it is bitterly cold and windy today, which makes this another good day to stay inside with a hot cup of tea and a good book…mmm!!

I had a meeting planned for Thursday night for my Friends’ book group.  We were going to discuss Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and I had fully intended to read this novel before the meeting.  I started this short novel early last week, but by Day 3 of reading, I was only 50 pages in.  I was also scheduled to facilitate a book discussion group on Saturday with a Seniors’ group, and since I was facilitating that group, I thought I should give myself enough time to finish that book before Saturday, so I gave up on Jane and moved on to the other novel, which I will discuss later.  When we met on Thursday night, I was relieved to hear that the others in the group also struggled to read this selection, that they were not swept along by Austen’s writing as so often happens with her later novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice.  I will summarize the comments here, or as many of the comments as I can recall.  One member said that reading this novel was like taking medicine – it was not really enjoyable, but she knews it was good for her.  The same member said that the writing was superior, and Austen’s art of perception was amazing, the way she noticed and remarked on the smallest detail of characters’ behavior.  Another member, who had never read Austen before, thought that it was too superficial, that she preferred novels that explore the psychological aspects of characters, such as The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison.  She wondered how Austen would fare if she were writing today instead of 200 years ago.  Our “resident expert” on Austen pointed out that the focus of Austen’s writing was more domestic, and more of a social commentary than a psychological exploration.   I wondered if there was a modern-day equivalent to Austen today, but none of us could come up with any names.  I had to agree with the astuteness of the observations and the superiority of the writing, even in the few pages I had read.  I noted a passage that I thought rivalled her famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”.  The passage in Northanger Abbey goes such:  “But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her.  Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way”.  To the member for whom this novel was her first exposure to Austen, we all recommended that she try P&P, a much later, and more polished, novel, which is full of wit as well as her characteristic social commentary.  We also discussed the “gothic” aspect of the novel, and those who read the whole book said that, when Catherine arrived at the Abbey, the writing changed so drastically that it was as if it was written by another writer.  They wondered why Austen put in this part of the book, as none of her other novels are in the gothic style.  I remember reading a bit of the introduction which said that this book was written primarily in response to the gothic novels that were all the rage at that time, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs. Radcliffe.  According to the blurb on the back of my edition of the book, “Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey gently satirized this class of fiction and gave us a delightful heroine in consequence…”  One member commented on the juxtaposition of characters with opposite characteristics that she thought was done intentionally to show the reader both sides of a person, such as one set of siblings who are superficial and selfish, alongside another set who are honest and true.  She pointed out that, at some period in art history, this technique was also used, for example, to show the front and back of a body.  What else… I can’t really remember any other specific comments, but I will admit that after this discussion, I decided most definitely to finish the book, maybe even this afternoon.  I really should read more Jane Austen, as so far my reading experience is limited to P&P, Persuasion (many years ago), and now this novel.  I have never read Sense and SensibilityMansfield Park or Emma.  Hmmm… maybe a personal reading project?  I’ll revisit this idea in the summer.

The other book club book I had to read this week was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  In case you don’t know what this bestselling novel is about, it tells the story, through a series of letters, of a writer in London who, shortly after the end of WWII, is contacted by a resident of the island of Guernsey, requesting information about Charles Lamb.  Dawsey Adams got Juliet Ashton’s name and address from the inside cover of a book she once had that somehow made its way to a second-hand bookstore on the island.  Thus a friendship and correspondence is struck, one that sees Juliet through a series of life-changing events and gives her an idea for her next book.  The cast of characters is lengthy and eccentric, the information revealed about the German Occupation of the island often heart-wrenching, yet often also surprisingly moving, and the interconnected stories engaging.  This book was a real “feel-good” novel, one that I had a hard time putting down.  Yet I found it altogether too sweet and nice, which I had long suspected and had also been warned about by another reader, whose response was similar.  I can see why it would appeal to readers, and will admit that, while I do not normally enjoy books that use letters to make up a significant portion of the text, this book, consisting entirely of letters, was compelling for me.  I think my problem with this book is that it took a serious topic, German Occupation of the island during WWII, and offered it up in a romantic and amusing way, sort of like German Occupation in WWII “Light”.  I liken my response to this novel to my response to The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which I felt offered up 1960s American Racism “Light”.  Considering that both of these books were bestsellers and that many thousands of readers loved them, my responses are clearly not those of the majority.  As it happens, the meeting on Saturday had to be postponed until next weekend due to illness (not mine), so I can't offer the comments made during the discussion here.

So what to read next… well, Jane Austen for this afternoon, then possibly a mystery I picked up at the library yesterday, about which I know nothing except that the author is Canadian:  Brenda Chapman’s book, In Winter’s Grip (the title is appropriate for the extremely cold weather we’ve been experiencing these past few months!)

Bye for now…

Monday 10 March 2014

Monday morning post...

I decided to use yesterday morning, my usual posting time, to finish the excellent novel I was reading and to post today instead, since it is March Break and so I am not working this week.  I have my usual cup of tea, and CBC’s classical program on in the background, and all is right with the world…

I read two books since my last posting, one for my book group and one for review.  Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay was this month’s book club selection, and we got together on Saturday to discuss it.  It tells the story of Connie, a young teacher in Saskatchewan in the 1930s who has some interesting experiences in her first year of teaching.  She falls in love with one of her students, becomes enthralled with her much-older principal, and must deal with the accusation of rape of one of the female students by said principal, a student who shortly after the incident faces a tragic demise.  This is all told from the point of view of Connie’s niece, Anne, who is piecing together the family history from articles she acquires and stories she hears.  Our group has read and discussed Hay’s earlier award-winning novel, Late Nights on Air, and we loved it, so I added this novel to our list without knowing anything about it.  I read it in just a few days, as it was written very much in the style of Late Nights.  I thought that there were too many characters and coincidences, but that everything would get resolved in the end.  Alas, I was sorely disappointed.  I felt that there were many potential ideas or incidents that could have been used as central themes for this book, but that they were all jumbled together and not dealt with in sufficient depth for my satisfaction.  When our group began discussing this book, I realized that most everyone felt exactly the same way.  Too many characters.  Too many incidents, or coincidences.  Story didn’t flow very well.  No main theme.  Not really “about” anything.  One member read the book twice and took extensive notes, even making a chart to keep track of the characters and incidents, and she still didn’t really get it.  She suggested that it was more like the author had bits of paper filled with ideas on her desk, and she brushed them all into a pile and published them “as is”.  Another member remarked that there were no characters that she really liked, so she found it difficult to relate to anyone in the story.  I thought perhaps chapter headings to indicate whose life and/or time period the chapter would be dealing with would have be helpful to alleviate reader confusion, and also a family tree at the beginning of the book would have helped.  It was not the most successful book selection I’ve made, but it was also not the worst choice.  My newest member of the group, who was unable to attend on Saturday, sent notes on her reading experience with this book, which was great.  She said that she had never read anything by this author before, and that she was disappointed with this book, but that she has since gone on to read Late Nights on Air, which she enjoyed much more.  That is good to hear.  Elizabeth Hay is certainly a talented writer, but this was not her best effort, despite the potential that the book offered.

I read a book I picked up for review for the local paper, The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh.  This debut novel for this author kept me glued to my seat all weekend.  It opens with the discovery of the dismembered body of Cheri, a developmentally challenged local teen who has been missing for a year, found stuffed in a hollow tree trunk near a river.  Told in alternating chapters by Lucy, a 17-year old in the town of Henbane, in the Ozarks and friend of Cheri’s, and Lila, a young girl nearly two decades earlier who comes to Henbane from Iowa with the hope of starting her life over, these parallel stories come together as Lucy searches for the truth behind Cheri’s murder.  Lucy’s mother disappeared many years earlier under mysterious circumstances, and being raised by her father in a small town has been difficult for Lucy.  She has her uncle Crete in town, but no other family to speak of.  She is watched over by Birdie, the elderly woman who lives down the road, who often takes care of Lucy when her father, Carl, has to be out of town.  When Lucy begins working for her uncle at his restaurant for the summer, she meets up with Daniel, an acquaintance from school on whom she has had a crush for some time, who is also working for Crete.  When they are assigned the job of clearing out an abandoned trailer belonging to Crete, Lucy finds a necklace that belonged to Cheri, and she and Daniel undertake to find the truth about what happened to her in the year before her body was discovered.  Lila’s chapters detail the arrival of a young woman in Henbane to fulfill a two-year contract after aging out of foster care.  Lila hopes to save up enough money to go to college and find a job, and she expects to be helping out at a farm and restaurant as part of this contract, which includes room and board.  She is not readily accepted in the backward town, considered an outsider and a witch by many of the townspeople.  Her troubles are compounded further when she realizes that Crete, the man for whom she is she is working, has only a stifling shack to offer as accommodations, her meals are sporadic, and he withholds most of her pay.  When she falls in love with Carl, Crete’s younger brother, complications ensue, and she is attacked and raped by Crete.  She quickly learns that she was really hired to work as a prostitute, servicing clientele procured by Crete.  When Carl saves her from this fate, although not realizing the full involvement of his older brother, he becomes indebted to Crete, even as he takes Lucy for his wife and they have a child.  The stories come together to resolve the mysteries of town and family, and the reader feels that no loose ends have been left dangling.  This literary thriller was an excellent surprise, as I knew nothing about the novel or the author before opening to the first page.  The story and writing style swept me along like a fast-moving river, and while I was satisfied to reach the end, I also wished it was a hundred pages longer. 

I have to get reading, as my friends’ book group is meeting on Thursday to discuss Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and I’ve barely started it.  I also have a Volunteer group meeting on Saturday to discuss The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which I also have not started.  It will be a busy reading week – good thing I’m off work!

Bye for now…

Sunday 2 March 2014

Books and tea on a (still) wintery morning...

We seem to have had quite a bit of snow last night, as the cold wintery conditions continue.  I like the winter and I must admit that even I am getting a bit tired of this.  Thank goodness for a hot cup of tea and a good book…

I finished reading Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent a few days ago, and I think I enjoyed it even more that I had done in previous readings.  I felt I was able to savour every word and phrase the author used, appreciate every image he evoked and every emotion he stirred.  It really is an amazing book, even 50 years later, and I don’t feel that it has diminished in power or significance with age.  I highly recommend it (in case you hadn’t picked that up already!!)

I started reading my next book club selection, Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay, but I’m not far enough into it to comment.  More on that next week after my book club meeting.

I also finished listening to one of the worst audiobooks I’ve encountered in a while, Shut Your Eyes Tight:  David Gurney Book 2 by John Verdon.  If you recall, I listened to the first in this thriller series, Think of a Numb3r, a while ago, and I probably summed it up by saying it was OK, not great, but not a terrible listening experience, until the end, which was way over-the-top.  I’m sure I also said that much of the “over-the-top-ness” was due in large part to the narrator’s style, as he fed this with his expressive narrating style.  These are not positive comments, so why was I compelled to listen to the second book in the series?  Because I needed something NOW?  That must have been it.  It is narrated by someone else, but that did not help.  This audiobook was 14 parts (that is long!), and even more over-the-top than the first one.   Just to sum up, it also features retired detective Dave Gurney, who is recruited by the NYPD to help solve a case from 4 months before involving the murder by decapitation of a young bride on her wedding day.  But this was no ordinary bride – she was a former student at Maple Shade, a school whose students have all had unusual experiences in their past.  The school is run by Dr Scott Ashton, a clinical psychologist and outstanding member in his field, who is specially trained to deal with these experiences.  He is also the bereaved groom.  Gurney takes on the case, despite resistance from his wife, Madeline, and begins to uncover layer upon layer of family secrets and complex plans.  That’s all I’ll say about the plot, but I will say that it was way too long and I didn’t enjoy it. 

I am now listening to Flower Net by Lisa See, a detective novel and the first in the “Red Princess” series, set in China and the U.S.  It’s not bad, but unfortunately it is abridged, which I didn’t notice when I downloaded it.  I’m not sure if I will continue to listen to it, as I do not enjoy abridged audiobooks.  I’ve been having a real challenge finding a good audiobook recently.
That’s all for today.  Stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now…