Sunday 27 July 2014

Short post on a sluggish Sunday...

We had friends over for a BBQ yesterday, and we had a great time.  But I’m feeling very tired and lazy this morning… got up late, don’t have much energy.  I even skipped my steeped chai and went straight for the quick and easy tea bag, since I needed that cup of tea right away!  So this will be a bit of a slap-dash post.
If you remember, last week I was talking about Linwood Barclay’s newest book, No Safe House, which I was reviewing for the local paper.  I commented that I was not a real fan of this author’s thrillers, but that this one seemed particularly “thin” and “surface”.  It is described by the publishers as a “companion novel” to Barclay’s 2007 novel, No time for Goodbye, so I decided to read it before writing the review in the hopes that it would provide enough information and background story to make up for what was lacking in this new title.  Well, it was a pretty good read, and it provided exactly what I was hoping it would in terms of story and character depth.  In No Time for Goodbye, 14-year-old Cynthia Bigge wakes up one morning to discover that her whole family has disappeared without a trace.  Twenty-five years later, she has moved on with her life and has a family of her own, a husband Terry and an eight-year-old daughter Grace. She participates in a TV spot on Deadline highlighting her familys disappearance, which she hopes will encourage anyone who knows something about this unsolved case to come forward with information that may help her find out what happened all those years ago.  She has always been on alert for strange events and occurrences going on around her, but this time she notices a strange brown car that pops up regularly.  She also gets an untraceable phone call and a strange email correspondence, and ominous “gifts” are delivered.  Her husband, Terry, is beginning to think that Cynthia is fabricating instances and evidence to convince the police to take her case seriously.  When the family go to visit Cynthia’s aunt Tess, the woman who raised her after her family disappeared, more information is revealed that keep the reader guessing, and while we may have also initially wondered whether Cynthia might just be creating her own drama where none exists, the information now being gathered suggests otherwise, that this is a very involved, long-term plan involving multiple players, including some innocents like Cynthia and her family.  When Cynthia and her daughter are abducted, Terry must contact Cynthia’s former high school boyfriend, bad boy Vince Fleming, to help him find and save them before it is too late.  This book twisted and turned so often I felt that I could use a seatbelt for my reading chair, but I couldn’t put it down until the final page, when the final piece in the puzzle is revealed to Cynthia, and readers feel that they have been given the whole truth.  This book was a real pleasure to read, and while Barclay’s books will likely never be described as “literary”, this one was a fast-paced page-turner that kept this reader guessing until the very last page.  It definitely lent depth to the “companion novel”, and introduced readers to the main and secondary characters who reappear in the newest book, including Rona Wedmore and Vince Fleming.  I would say readers should definitely check out No time for Goodbye before reading No Safe House, in order to enjoy a fuller, richer reading experience.   
I have a book and an audiobook on the go, and am nearly finished both, so I hope to have a fuller, richer, more informative post next time.  Have a great week!

Bye for now…

Sunday 20 July 2014

Tea, books and audiobooks on a muggy Sunday morning...

It’s overcast and muggy on this Sunday morning as I sip my chai tea and think about what I’ve read and listened to over the past week. 
I’ve been really busy with things other than reading last week, so I’ve only managed one book.  I read Toronto writer Linwood Barclay’s newest novel, No Safe House, which is due out on August 5th (I have a review copy because it is one I am reviewing for the local paper).  This novel is a sequel to his 2007 book, No Time for Goodbye, which I have not yet read – I’m planning to read it before I write the review, just so I know a bit more about the backstory.  In No Time for Goodbye, 14-year-old Cynthia Bigge wakes up one morning to discover that her whole family has disappeared without a trace.  Twenty-five years later, she has moved on with her life and has a family of her own.  Then strange cars appear, she gets untraceable phone calls, and ominous “gifts” are delivered - she is about to discover the truth about what happened so long ago, and not even her own innocence is guaranteed.  Fast-forward seven years, and we step into No Safe House.  Cynthia and Terry are having challenges with their rebellious 14-year-old daughter Grace, whose movements and activities Cynthia monitors constantly.  This is because seven years earlier, Cynthia and Grace were abducted and held captive until Terry, with the help of criminal bad boy Vince Fleming, finds and rescues them.  One night, Grace is out with her sort-of boyfriend Stuart, when they stumble upon a crime while undertaking their own petty criminal activity.  Left to her own devices, Grace calls on her father to help her out of the mess she is in and keep her from getting into further trouble with the police; little do they know that they are about to become involved in criminal activity of the most serious kind with some very dangerous people.  Terry and Cynthia must think fast and trust their instincts to keep Grace and themselves alive, while once again asking Vince for help.  By the end of the book, they discover that once you are involved in the criminal activities of some people, there are no safe houses.  Barclay is a bestselling author whose thrillers are wildly popular with readers.  I have listened to a couple of his novels and I have to say, I’m not a huge fan, although his books are real page-turners, if you like that sort of thing.  I’m hoping that once I read No Time for Goodbye and have the background story, this novel will seem less “surface” – perhaps all the character and plot development happened in the first book, so he felt he didn’t need to rehash it in the sequel.  Anyway, I would recommend that if you are planning to read No Safe House, you should probably read No Time for Goodbye first.
I also finished listening to an audiobook last week, Blowback (The Enzo Files, #5) by Peter May, narrated by Simon Vance.  I’ve never read or listened to anything by this Scottish author before, although he has written many, many mystery thrillers, most in different series but some standalones as well.  This series features Enzo Macleod, a former forensic specialist who now teaches forensics at a French university, and who has boasted that he could solve the seven cold cases outlined in a book written by a Parisian journalist.  Book 5 in the series has Macleod trying to solve the seven-year-old unsolved murder of Marc Fraysse, France’s top chef, found murdered on a volcanic plateau near his remote three-star restaurant.   As Macleod interviews Marc’s grieving widow, his spurned lover,  his estranged brother, and a cynical food critic, the complex relationships surrounding Fraysse put everyone in the frame for the murder, and make uncovering the truth even more difficult.  This audiobook was a wholly satisfying listening experience for me, mostly because of the story, but also due to the excellent narration by Vance.  I have now downloaded the first in the Enzo Files series, Dry Bones, also narrated by Vance, but will take a break and listen to something else, saving this one as a treat I know I will enjoy. 
OK, time to get outside and enjoy the day, despite the humid weather.  Happy Sunday!

Bye for now…

Friday 11 July 2014

Tea and book talk on a perfect summer afternoon...

It’s really a perfect day as I sip my tea and think about the books I’ve read this week.  That’s right, “books” – I love having lots of free time to read!
The first book I read was Montreal author Jo Walton’s most recent title, My Real Children.  This novel opens with the main character, Patricia Cowen, who is nearly 90 years old, in a nursing home in 2015.  “Very confused”, her nursing chart reads.  As we find out later, of course she is “very confused” – although she is the same Patricia, she has led two parallel lives, her reality splitting when she makes one decision that changes her fate.  She remembers that she had one life up until this decision, but then it becomes difficult to distinguish which of her lives and memories are real.  In one life, she is Tricia, then Trish, unhappily married to Mark, and has four children.  In the other, she is Pat, and raises three children with Bee.  As Tricia/Trish, she lives a traditional, sheltered life, overshadowed and belittled by her husband.  As Pat, she has independence, freedom and happiness.  Both take place over the same period in history, 1933-2015, but the events taking place in the world are very different in each life.  Both lives are filled with tremendous joys and heartwrenching sorrows, and both are equally real.  As we come to the end of the novel, Patricia once again has to choose, and we as readers are uncertain which life is the better one, and which of her sets of children is “real”.  I am not a science fiction reader at all, but this is a sci-fi novel that reads more like domestic fiction.  It is only the subtle dystopian elements fed into one storyline that lends a sense of pending destruction and eeriness to the novel, while the other storyline has a certain utopian aura underlying the narrative.  Upon reading it, I was reminded of all the times in my life when I had to make a difficult decision, and I wished that I could see into the future to find out how things would be with each option.  In this sense, it is a bit of a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for, since Patricia has had to live both realities and, in the end, has had to choose once the lives converge.  I was immediately sucked into this short novel, then towards the middle I felt that it was becoming too predictable and clichéd.  I’m glad I stuck with it, though, as it rose above that and became a novel of quiet importance, one which focused on life’s greater meaning, the importance of parenthood and family, and how we measure personal happiness.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys novels about making choices in life, and dealing with the consequences of one’s actions.
I also read Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, which we will be discussing on Thursday with my “friends” book group.  I have read this novel before, but more than 20 years ago, so I had almost no recollection of it.  It tells the story of a six-year-old boy with dark features who may be a Jew or a Gypsy, and who, at the beginning of WWII, is given to a man to relocate while his parents go into hiding.  Things do not go as planned, and circumstances force the boy to wander alone from one Eastern European village to another, where he is routinely abused, ridiculed and exploited.  His experiences lead him from childhood innocence to adult experience in a most brutal, heartbreaking, and unnatural way.  I felt, upon rereading this short novel, that it was ceaselessly depressing and unnecessarily graphic, but there were certainly some redeeming aspects to the story as well, mostly toward the end where things become a bit more uplifting.  At this point, the narrative shows that the boy is more insightful, as he ponders the passage to adulthood, the sense of pleasure one experiences when having power over the lives of others, and the nature of “freedom”.  He reminds us, however, that he is still just a boy when he repeatedly searches for role models in the various men he encounters on his journeys.  He also likens himself to the different animals he remembers during his stays in different villages, such as when he says he suddenly felt like Lekh’s painted bird, or when he comments on the hare that was captured and fought his captivity, until he became domesticated.  When the door of his cage was accidentally left open one day, he hopped out but, becoming dull and listless, he hopped back in his cage – the boy remarks that the hare “now carried the cage in himself”.  Overall, it was not an uplifting read, but it was OK, and, fortunately, short.  I may comment more on this novel after the meeting, although I know at least three people gave up after a few chapters, deciding it was too graphic and depressing.  I’m not sure that I would openly recommend this to anyone, but his other famous novel, Being There, is a very good read, if I recall correctly (yes, that’s the book on which the film with Peter Sellers and Shirley Maclean was based).
That’s all for today.  Have a good weekend!
Bye for now...

Sunday 6 July 2014

Espionage fiction on a warm summer day...

I’m enjoying a cup of Chai this morning while the day is still cool, and am looking forward to an afternoon that includes at least a few hours of reading, although I’m not sure what I will read next.  Hmmm…
My volunteer book club met yesterday to discuss John le Carré’s fairly autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy (1986).  I started reading it last Sunday.  I figured, 600 pages, 6 days, no problem!  I’m not working right now, so I have lots of time to read!  Well, the first day I only managed about 50 pages, and not for want of trying.  So on Monday, I thought, OK, I have to read 150 pages today to make up for yesterday’s shortfall.  I nearly made up this page count by Wednesday, and by Thursday I was way ahead of the game, which left me only 50 pages to read on Friday.  I tell you this because it may give you a sense of how long it took this book to become interesting for me, based on the enthusiasm I had for my reading “assignment”.  But by the end, while I was happy to finish, I was glad I read it.  I was not, therefore, surprised to find that, of the six members who came out for the meeting, only three had finished it (well, two had finished and one was 100 pages from the end before she ran out of time, but she’s probably finished by now), and one of those people didn’t enjoy it.  The other three people didn’t even get to page 200 before they gave up.   I admitted that, if I hadn’t had to read it for the group, and let’s face it, I picked to book for the list so I really had to make an effort to finish it, I probably would have given up, too.  Some of the reasons people gave up on it:  too many characters to keep track of; didn’t know what was going on; who was narrating the story, anyway?; jumped around too much, not told in chronological order; and finally, who were the good guys?.  Even those of us who finished it weren’t sure who all the characters were, which countries they worked for, who they were married to,and what their relationships were to the other characters, although we all agreed that there were no “good guys”, except perhaps Magnus Pym, in his way, and a few minor characters.  In my opinion, this was OK, because while this reader was often in a state of confusion, I was better able to appreciate the identity crisis and lack of clear understanding about the other characters that the main character was experiencing at the time the story takes place.  Here is how the publisher's marketing department summarizes this novel:  “Magnus Pym, ranking diplomat, has vanished, believed defected.  The chase is on:  for a missing husband, a devoted father, and a secret agent.  Pym’s life, it is revealed, is entirely made up of secrets.  Dominated by a father who is also a confidence trickster on an epic scale, Pym has from the age of seventeen been controlled by two mentors.  It is these two, racing each other and time itself, who are orchestrating the search to find the perfect spy” (  Sounds like an awesome page-turner, doesn’t it?  Think The Constant Gardener or Our Kind of Traitor (the only other two I have read by this author).  Having now read this book, I feel that the summary offered by Wikipedia is more accurate:  “A novel about the mental and moral dissolution of a high level secret agent” (  Pym’s disappearance occurs after his father’s death, during which time he secludes himself in a room in an isolated house in a remote small town by the sea, tended to by elderly Miss Dubber and her cat Toby.  During this time, he writes a memoir explaining to his friends and family, mainly to his son, Tom, why he became a double agent and betrayed the British Intelligence Service.  Throughout his life, he was forced to take on so many personalities and personae that his own mental acuity became fractured.  He may have been “a perfect spy”, but he was too sensitive and aware, and this sensitivity, this desire to make things right for everyone, ultimately cost him his soul.  In my own notes, I suggest that this novel explores what it means to be a spy, the trials, the uncertainties, the suspicions that are ever-present, the sense of never really knowing what is true and what is guise, who to trust and who to renounce, the duplicitous nature of spying and how it can interfere with one’s own sense of identity.  This is something I have found in the early episodes of the BBC series, “MI5”.  In the first two seasons, when Tom and Zoe are agents, this is explored quite extensively.  The difficulties in having relationships with those outside the Service, and the effect of taking on many different identities over a period of time, in the interest of the job, are just two of the challenges this series presents.  (note:  later seasons become more action-oriented, more James Bond-like, so for me, less interesting and enjoyable).  One of the members who finished the book also mentioned that le Carré’s writing is excellent, that his descriptions are outstanding.  I have one such description that I want to share with you here.  Before his disappearance, Pym meets up with his first wife, Belinda, from whom he has been divorced for many years.  She is older and heftier than she once was, more severe and angry, as Pym notes:  “Yet her beauty clung to her like an identity she was trying to deny and her plainness kept slipping like a bad disguise.” (p 297 in my Penguin copy)  How beautiful and succinct a statement about her, one that totally captures her in a single sentence.  I think I can conclude this section by saying that le Carré is a brilliant writer, whose books may be worth the effort it takes to read them to the end, if you can let go of the need to understand everything that is going on as well as who all the characters are.  
That’s all I have for today.  Not sure what I will read next, but it will definitely be something new and Canadian.  I’ll let you know next week.

Bye for now…