Sunday 25 May 2014

Last post for May...

As I listen to the birdsong coming in through the open windows and enjoy my cup of Chai, I am thinking about what I’ve read and listened to over the past week.

I mentioned at the end of my post last week that I had started a new novel by Jonathan Bennett, in the hopes that it would be more interesting than the other book I’d had to put down half-way through because it was not engaging me at all.  Well, let me tell you, this next novel, The Colonial Hotel, was all that and more!  It is a modern-day recasting of the ancient story of Helen and Paris, about which, I’ll admit, I know virtually nothing, except the bit about Helen of Troy and the Trojan Horse, and only because I think that this is where the phrase, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, comes from.  Helen is a nurse and Paris is a doctor.  They are working side by side to provide essential health care in an unnamed third-world country that is on the brink of civil war, though neither of these characters is working for purely selfless reasons.  During a short break in their work, as they enjoy a brioche and a café au lait at a public cafe, they are taken hostage and separated in a political coup d’etat.  Helen is pregnant and manages to escape with a few other women, while Paris is imprisoned and made to work, alongside others, at various tasks, including building a jail and digging a mass grave, all the while resisting being broken in body and spirit by reliving his time with Helen, and imagining that he is spending time with their unborn daughter as she grows up.  As the years pass and political power changes, Paris is all but forgotten in his cell, where his health and will to live deteriorate to near-death.  Only when a new political party takes over and relative normalcy is restored is Paris rescued by Oenone, the ex-wife of a former political leader who was instrumental in launching the political upheaval that caused so much unrest in the country between the North and South.  As she works with Paris to regain some of his former physical and emotional strength, a new bond forms between them and the story comes full circle.  Told in alternating chapters narrated by Paris, Helen and Oenone, this short novel is at once lyrical and brutal, alluring in its spare, elegant prose and shocking in its honest portrayal of the realities of political corruption and duplicitous leadership.  Bennett is able to demonstrate the timelessness of the themes of the original story in this contemporary setting, offering both emotional depth and universal truths about the human condition.  It is a fascinating exploration of love and forgiveness, the power of parental bonds, and the ravages of war on all that is noble and worthy in our unstable and ever-shifting world.  As you can probably tell from my gushing description, I was totally impressed with the novel, and I couldn’t put it down as I looked for opportunities to read amid long-weekend activities.  I know nothing about this author, who lives in the village of Keene, just outside of Peterborough, but I believe he’s written several other novels and pieces before this.  As boring as the premise may sound to a contemporary reader (retelling of an ancient story, first told in Homer’s The Illiad, I think), I would highly recommend this short novel to anyone who enjoys literature, not necessarily best-selling fiction.

And I began listening to the Young Adult fiction title Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs last week.  It started out OK, but lost me a few chapters into it.  While I would like to finish it at some point, I think I will read the book, as it may be more engaging for me in that format.  Briefly, it tells the story of a teenaged boy, Jacob, who, following a family tragedy, follows clues that lead him to an abandoned orphanage in Wales, a home where his grandfather claims to have lived and which he mentioned to Jacob often throughout his life.  As I just found out while writing this post, the book was intended by the author to be a picture book, but was encouraged by his publisher to create a narrative around it.  I know the book includes many photographs, so that may be why it is not grabbing me as an audiobook.  Anyway, I’ve moved on to something else, so it’s OK – I didn’t waste too much “listening time” to that novel.  I’m listening to David Rosenfelt’s novel On Borrowed Time right now, and will write about it when I’m finished. 

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!

Bye for now…

Sunday 18 May 2014

Books and tea and another list on a long weekend…

On this sunny, cool Sunday morning, as I sip my Chai tea, I am thinking about my reading and listening experiences over the past week.

I usually try to read one book each week, which I then write about here on the weekend.  Last weekend I started reading Canadian novelist Heather Clark’s new novel, Elephant in the Sky.  A couple of years ago I read and wrote about her first novel, Chai Tea Sunday (no mystery about why I had to read that title, is there?!), which told the story of Nicky, a young woman who, having recently miscarried and learned that she can never have children, leaves her marriage and her current life to accept a teaching position in Kenya.  This assignment is both more difficult for her than she had anticipated, yet also more rewarding, and she is able to overcome her grief and once again find purpose in her life.  It has been a couple of years since reading this title, but I remember enjoying it.  Elephant in the Sky, on the other hand, has proven to be a different story.  Alisha is a high-power advertising executive who struggles with the feeling that she is not spending enough time with her family.  Her husband Pete works freelance and is a stay-at-home father for their two children, 13-year-old Grace and 9-year-old Nate.  When Nate begins exhibiting bizarre behaviour, including paranoid delusions, Ashley’s struggle becomes more intense as she must choose between saving her family and saving her career (or this is how I suspect the story will go).  Sounds like an interesting story, right?  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Told in alternating chapters narrated by Nate and Ashley, I was at first excited to read the novel’s opening chapter, which reminded me of Mark Haddon’s excellent novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, narrated by a young boy with autism who decides to solve the mystery of “Who killed Wellington?”, as well as to find his mother, whom he was told had died, but whom he discovers is actually still alive and has been trying to keep in touch with him.  Nate’s first chapter tells of the strange feeling he has in his stomach, like bubbles in his belly, and how he ultimately acts on his irresistible urge to go to the store and get gum, any colour, even though he has forgotten his money.  He is clearly experiencing some form of childhood mental illness, but the reader is not sure what this illness is.  Then Ashely has her turn to tell her story – her chapters include much product placement, including her red Prada laptop bag, and a “killer Dolce & Gabbana suit”, which put me off a bit, but I kept reading because I am interested in novels that explore mental illness.  There were many instances when tears sprang to Ashley’s eyes as she encountered one and then another of Nate’s difficult situations, at home and at school, but by the halfway point, I had to set this book aside and pick up another that I hoped would be more interesting.  This novel was just bland.  It didn’t go anywhere.  Where Chai Tea Sunday was a riotous, colourful African morning, Elephant in the Sky was a wet, grey, ceaselessly rainy day.  I did try reading this for a full three days and half the book before closing it forever (or at least until someone who has read it to the end tells me it is worth sticking it out to the final page).  The reason I stopped reading this book?  It was a copy I was given to review for the local paper, and I knew that the only reason I would finish it would be to submit a review but that the review would be, if not outright negative, bland to the point of, well, pointlessness.  This begs the question:  Is it worthwhile to write bad reviews?  Should reviewers only review “good” books?  My response to these questions is that reading and book choice reflects an individual’s taste like almost nothing else that we do.  It takes into account our reading history and life experiences, and so what appeals to me may not appeal to you, and vice versa.  If I write a bad review, you may not expose yourself to that title, a book that you may have otherwise read and which may, in fact, have spoken to you.  If I write a positive review of a book that appealed to me, on the other hand, you may pick it up and read it, and either like it or not, depending on your reading taste.  So I guess I’m saying that I choose not to write negative reviews, because a) I am not obligated to review any particular titles, b) chances are if the book is not appealing to me, I wouldn’t even bother to finish it, and c) I do not want to deter anyone from reading a book, in case it will appeal to them, even if it did not appeal to me.  I feel safe in writing about my negative reading experiences in my blog, though, since I am certain that far fewer people are reading this than read the reviews in the local paper, and also this blog reflects my own personal reading experiences, not really book reviews.  WOW, that was a lot more than I thought I had to say about Elephant in the Sky!  Anyway, halfway through the week, I started reading The Colonial Hotel by Jonathan Bennett, another Canadian author, which I am finding much more interesting.  More on that novel when I finish it...

I am also nearly finished listening to Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey, the first in the “Darko Dawson” series.  This novel is set in Ghana, and features Detective Inspector Dawson, a good husband and father working in Accra who is assigned to help with a murder investigation in Ketanu, a village in the Volta region.  Gladys Mensa, a young medical student who is trying to educate people about AIDS, is found murdered in the woods, and Dawson must fight the local police every step of the way as he struggles to uncover the secrets buried deep in the village’s community, a village where his mother disappeared nearly 30 years before.  Dawson also learns of the Trokosi, women who were offered to the fetish priests to become their wives in order to bring good fortune on the families by the gods.  Quartey introduces readers to West African traditions and superstitions still practiced in small villages, as well as to the changes and supposed progress that have taken over in the bigger cities.  This novel was a treat to listen to, as it provided not only a great mystery, but also a lesson in the culturally diversity of Ghana.  I highly recommend this title, and will try to find out if Quartey has written more in this series.

And I want to give you a (very short) list of books about royalty that I have read, in honour of Victoria Day:

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie, about the lives of the Romanov family in the last days of Imperial Russia (non-fiction, but reads like a novel - awesome!)

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, about the life of Catherine the Great as told from the point of view of her servant,  Barbara (haven’t yet read this, but it is on my book club list for November)

Famous Last Words by Timothy Findley, which I thought was mostly about the abdication of King Edward VIII to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, but which is also about so much more (amazing book, and one of my favourites, which is probably due for re-reading)

This short list shows that I am not a reader of historical fiction or non-fiction, and that’s OK.  I’ve had to justify this reading taste to people in the past, which I feel is unfair – as adults, we should be free to read whatever books suit us.  I personally find historical fiction too descriptive, when really I am more interested in character or plot development.

I’m all “posted-out” or I would talk about the power of well-written prose as encountered in the Lee Valley flyer this week.  Perhaps I will save that for next week’s post…

Happy Victoria Day weekend! 

Bye for now…

Sunday 11 May 2014

Books and tea on a sunny Sunday morning...

It’s going to be a glorious day today, which is fitting for Mother’s Day.  The sun is out, the sky is blue, the birds are singing… what more could we ask for on this practically perfect day?
I’ve been waking up really early the past few days, so rather than just lying awake in bed, I’ve been getting up, making a cup of tea and reading.  While this has left me feeling quite tired, it has also enabled me to finish the book that is the selection for my next Friends’ book club meeting.  Although the meeting is more than a week away, the book is a library loan and it is due back soon.  The title is The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, an Australian writer who has a number of bestselling novels under her belt.  In her latest novel, the action begins because of the Berlin Wall.  Meet Cecilia Fitzpatrick, the perfect wife and mother to her husband John-Paul and her three daughters.  When she goes up in the attic to retrieve a piece of the Berlin Wall from her earlier travels in Germany for her daughter, she comes across a letter addressed to her from her husband, to be opened after his death.  She is curious (who wouldn’t be?!), but when she mentions it to John-Paul later that day, he insists that it was written just after their first daughter was born, an embarrassingly sentimental outpouring at a time when he was drunk and highly emotional.  He asks her to throw it out.  She intends to do so, but when he brings it up later, her curiosity gets the better of her and she reads it.  And she realizes that once the truth is known, it can never be un-known.  We also meet Tess, as unlike Cecilia in character as chalk is to cheese.  Tess is also a wife and mother, and she runs a small advertising agency with her husband, Will, and her cousin and best friend, Felicity.  But Tess’ unremarkable life changes one evening with a single conversation.  And finally we meet Rachel, part-time receptionist at St Angela’s school who is still mourning the death of her daughter, Janie, 28 years later.  When she learns that her son and his family are moving to New York for two years and taking her grandson, Jacob, the frail sense of purpose she has salvaged in her life collapses.  These three independent stories are skillfully woven together to offer the reader an intimate exploration into the ways each person’s lives and choices affect everyone else.  It is a bit like the Butterfly Effect, where one action ripples out to affect so many other lives in ways we can’t even imagine.  Part murder mystery and part domestic drama, this novel presents a complex situation in a fairly realistic way, and explores how far mothers will go to protect their children’s sense of love and security.  Although it may be a bit too “soap-opera-ish” for some readers, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys novels about family secrets and family relationships.

And since it is Mother’s Day, I thought I should make a list of some titles that I have read that feature mothers as main characters, or where the relationships between mothers and other family members is explored.  I have to admit, I don’t read many of these types of books, but surely I can come up with a few titles!  Here goes:

Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson (read many years ago – the mother in this book would not win the “Mother-of-the-Year” award, if I remember correctly)
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (although Topaz is Cassandra’s stepmother, I feel that she is a significant enough figure in the book to warrant inclusion on this list)
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Eva and Kevin… it gives me shivers just thinking about that relationship)
Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badami (told in two sections, one from the point of view of the daughter, one from the mother’s point of view – awesome book)
A Large Harmonium by Sue Sorensen (a hilarious look at motherhood by this Winnipeg writer)
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (an interesting novel and excellent book club choice)

And I will include a title that my sister-in-law recommended, but which I have not yet read:
Love Anthony by Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice (explores the relationship between two mothers and their children, as well as loss, grief and reconnection)

That’s all for this week.  Happy Mother’s Day to all the awesome women out there!

Bye for now…

Saturday 3 May 2014

Post on a dreary May day...

It’s a dreary Saturday afternoon in May as I drink my cup of regular tea and write this post.  All my cats are napping in various spots around the room, and there’s nothing much better to do today than think about what I’ve been reading and, of course, doing some actual reading later on.

My book group met this morning to discuss The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  This excellent novel by former British playwright Joyce was a real hit with everyone in the group.  This novel begins when recently-retired Harold Fry receives a letter from a friend and former colleague, Queenie Hennessey, who disappeared suddenly and unexpectedly 20 years earlier, and who is now writing to say goodbye to Harold, as she is dying of cancer, and “there is no hope”.  Harold feels he should send her a reply, so he jots a brief note and heads off to mail it.  When he reaches the post office, however, he feels that he would like to keep going to the next postal box, and then the next and the next, until he’s decided he must walk to Berwick-on-Tweed, more than 500 miles north of his town, in order that Queenie will keep living, at least until he arrives.  Despite the highs and lows of his extensive journey, Harold keeps travelling by foot, and meets many people, often interesting and compassionate, along the way.  His wife, Maureen, is bewildered by her husband’s decision, and is at once angry, jealous, and confused.  This novel follows Harold on his physical, emotional and spiritual journey towards Queenie, and to some extent, Maureen’s own journey, and offers up stories about those they meet on their way.  We discussed this book in great detail, but here are some of the highlights.  One member said that she thought the suspense created around Harold’s and Maureen’s son, David, was handled skillfully by the author, and that this added to the depth of the book.  The author also did a good job of developing Harold’s character as he made his journey, that he began as a bit of a milquetoast before he set out, then became strong during the pilgrimage, then broke down and needed help towards the end.  Someone said that she liked nearly all of the characters, except Harold’s boss, Napier, whose nastiness plays a significant role in the development of the story, and another member said she really related to and identified with both Harold and Maureen, and their struggles with each other and the outside world.  We talked about the significance of Harold’s shoes, and what it meant to him to not seek out comfort, in fact to refuse it even when it was offered or made available.  We all agreed that he dealt with his fame and popularity in a fair and generous manner, without betraying his own intentions.  He was almost too good to be true, and this was more of a fable than a realistic story.  We compared it to The Alchemist and to the journey of Jesus in the bible, including the followers, the false believers, and the betrayals.  We thought that this novel demonstrated how strongly people are influenced by their upbringing and childhood environment.  While I felt that there was much hope in this novel, another member of the group said she felt a great sense of sadness throughout the book.  All in all, it was an excellent discussion, and I would highly recommend this novel to just about anyone who enjoys novels of self-discovery, or those involving a spiritual or emotional journey.

I also finished listening to A Pocketful of Rye by Agatha Christie last week.  It was as I have come to expect from Christie’s mysteries, repetitive enough that if I miss a bit, I’m not completely lost, yet complex enough to keep me interested to the very end.  This murder mystery begins with Rex Fortiscue, a wealthy businessman, taking ill and collapsing at work one morning, then dying under suspicious circumstances in the hospital a few hours later.  When Detective Neil begins investigating, he discovers family secrets and hidden agendas surrounding Rex and his unusual family.  When another murder occurs, and then another, Miss Marple is brought in to help Neil and his team uncover the truth and solve the murder.  I have not read many books in the “Miss Marple” series, and thought I would not find them as interesting as the “Hercule Poirot” books.  This is true, but not because the murder mysteries are any less interesting.  Rather, Poirot is, in my opinion, a more interesting sleuth than Marple.  Having said that, this was a fun listening experience for me, and light enough to suit my needs during this hectic time of year. 

That’s all for this week.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!  

Bye for now...