Sunday, 31 August 2014

Books and tea on a long weekend...

On this lazy, hot, humid Sunday morning, I’m sipping my not-so-steaming cup of chai as I think about what I’ve read and listened to over the past week.  I’m especially grateful for the extra day on this holiday weekend, to get a head start on my reading for next week and the week after, as I have a book club meeting on Saturday and another the following Thursday… no problem determining what I’ll be reading over the next two weeks!
I read two books last week, one Canadian literary mystery and one juvenile fiction title.  Local Customs by Audrey Thomas got a pretty positive recommendation from one of my fellow committee members, so after reading her “review”, I put it on hold at the library and promptly forgot what it was about.  When I picked it up and started reading it, I thought it was going to be a boring love story, but it turned out to be so much more than it seemed.   Letitia “Letty” Landon, known as “L.E.L.” to her readers, is a successful, well known poet, much sought after to attend social events in 1830s London.  But, at thirty-six, she fears she will never marry and may well become the pitied “dear Auntie” who gets offered the last crumpet at tea.  When she meets George Maclean at a friend’s party, she immediately sees this as the only opportunity she may get to fetch a husband, and so she (rather shamelessly) pursues him in the days and weeks after the party.  A native of Scotland, George is currently the governor of the Gold Coast in West Africa, just at the end of the slave trade.  When he is eventually convinced that he wants to marry Letty, he warns her that the Gold Coast will offer nothing like the lively social surroundings to which she is accustomed.   She admits that this is true, but assures him that she is well and truly ready for a change, and that she can write anywhere, while secretly believing that they would stay in West Africa for a few years, then retire to a cozy London cottage with a fireplace.  Off they go on a ship destined for the Gold Coast, a voyage during which Letty is violently and ceaselessly ill, but once arrived at the castle (which is nothing like the castles in England), they settle into a kind of routine.  When Letty casually inquires what George has planned for the future, he replies that this is where he belongs, that he has no plans to return the Britain or Scotland, that he plans to be buried where he is.  Letty begins to grow frustrated with the life she is living, with Brodie Cruikshank as her only friend.  Brodie is a colonial administrator and fellow Englishman, who is in Africa, but not nearly as committed as George to his life there. While she falls in love with Brodie, he is blissfully unaware, and returns to England, leaving Letty in despair.  Eight weeks after her arrival on the Gold Coast, she is dead, supposedly by her own hand.  This we know right from the start, and it is her ghost, along with chapters narrated by George, Brodie, and Thomas Freeman, a mulatto preacher whose father was a freed slave and his mother a Caucasian British citizen, who offers details and works toward setting the record straight.  Based on real people and a true story the author encountered when she was in Ghana in the 1960s, this novel weaves historical facts and fictional details to speculate on this “true crime” mystery.  Perhaps you can now understand my difficulty in categorizing such a complex novel.   It was a literary mystery, a bit of a (not-so-boring) love story (were Letty and George ever “in love”?), a brief dip into the world of African superstition and local customs, a historical look at missionaries and the end of slavery, and the impacts these events had on Africa and the UK at the time. There was always a strong sinister tone underlying the story, and you never really knew who or what to believe.  I loved it! The writing was superb, although I did find it a bit difficult to follow at times, with the different narrators.  Still, I would recommend it to just about anyone who enjoys literary mysteries, or fictive treatments of mysterious real-life deaths or disappearances.  Note:  if you are now interested in reading this book and either head to the bookstore to buy a copy or put one on hold at your local library, please, please, please do not be put off by the rather unremarkable cover – the contents are amazing!
I also read The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, for something a bit “lighter”.  This novel tells the story of a tiny mouse, a beautiful princess, an evil rat, and soup.  Despereaux is the only surviving baby in the litter, and his mother, Antoinette, names him Despereaux, which means “disappointment”.  She is disappointed that he is the only survivor, that he is so tiny, and that he is the last baby she will ever have.  He does not behave the same way that other mice do, preferring to read the pages, not chew them, and approaching the Princess Pea rather than scurrying away from her and her father, the King.  He falls in love with the princess, and discovers, through a harsh punishment assigned to him by the Mouse High Council, that the evil rat Roscuro is planning to harm her.  He doesn’t believe that he is strong enough or brave enough to save her, but he’s read enough fairy tales to be convinced that “happily ever after” really can come true, and that he may have what it takes to be her “knight in shining armour”.  This novel is appropriate for middle grade children, as there are some truly dark sections that may frighten some children or turn them away.  It is my opinion that it might be best read aloud, which is what I am planning to do this school year with my grade four class (I better start practicing my French accent now!).  Kate DiCamillo is an awesome children’s author and a Newbery Award winner.  Although it is a children’s book, focusing on such themes as loyalty, friendship and bravery, I found it to be a delightful read, a real “feel-good” book. 
I also finished listening to Dry Bones:  the Enzo Files, Book 1 by Peter May.  I listened to a later book in this series a while ago and quite enjoyed it, so went back to start at the beginning.  This series features Enzo Macleod, a forensic specialist in Paris who, as a result of a bet with a writer, is undertaking to uncover the truth and finally bring closure to six old cases featured in a book recently published by this writer using new scientfic techniques.  This first book has Enzo trying to discover what happened to  Jacques Guillard, a brilliant but controversial political figure who disappeared 10 years earlier.  With the help of his daughter Sophie and psychologist Charlotte, as well as Nicole, one of his students, he uncovers buried body parts and complex clues which lead him further and further into the mystery.  It was an enjoyable listening experience, with an excellent narrator, Simon Vance, and I always think it’s best to start at the beginning with series.  Having said that, I found the plot almost too complex to follow, but at some point I gave up trying to keep track of things and just listened.  One of the problems with audiobooks is that all the books in a series may not be available, making it difficult to listen to them in order.  I will try to find others in this series to download, as I enjoy Enzo as a character, and this narrator is excellent.    
OK, that’s all for today.  Happy Labour Day weekend, everyone!

Bye for now…
Julie

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