Friday 26 September 2014

Friday night book talk...

Well, this is strange, writing a post on a Friday night.  It's supposed to be a gorgeous weekend, my husband is away, and I finished the Ian McEwan book a couple of days ago so I wanted to write about it before I got too far into a new book and forgot why I loved it so much.

I didn't get much reading done last Sunday, as it turned out to be a fabulous "outside" day.  But I did manage to get a start on McEwan's novel, The Children Act.  I always enjoy his novels, although sometimes I have to ruminate on them for a bit after reaching the last page before coming to that conclusion - this happened with On Chesil Beach, which I at first thought was a waste of my time, but then decided was brilliant.  The trick with McEwan is to realize that he is a master at the short novel, and what ground he does not cover in terms of time or events he more than makes up for in personal meaning, emotional significance, and  reflections on the human condition.  He is a master at writing about the minutae of daily life and suffusing it with significance, until we as readers are brought inside the main characters' heads and experience his or her thoughts and feelings.  Case in point, Fiona Mayle, High Court judge and main character in The Children Act.  As the novel opens, Fiona is facing the potential breakdown of her thirty-year marriage with husband Jack.  Both are in the “twilight years” of their careers and Jack feels that he must take a bold step before it’s too late.  Fiona is distracted from their “not-quite-argument” by a call from the court advising her that a time-sensitive case involving the son of a Jehovah’s Witness couple who is in hospital with leukemia and refusing the blood transfusion necessary to complete his treatment has been assigned to her and will be scheduled for early the next morning.  Complicating the case is the age of the patient, 17 years and 9 months, that legal “gray area” where he is not quite old enough to decide his fate, but possibly old enough to make decisions regarding his future in an informed and intelligent way.  Fiona hears the arguments of the parents, the social worker/guardian, and the hospital regarding Adam’s condition and the potential outcome of the treatment if he does not receive a blood transfusion.  Despite the arguments by the parents and the social worker, Fiona is not satisfied with their view that Adam’s refusal is truly his own idea, uninfluenced by parents or other prominent religious figures in his life, and decides to go to the hospital to meet Adam herself.  During her visit with this beautiful, intelligent, talented young man, Fiona experiences unexpected emotions that radiate from deep within herself.  Adam, too, responds to Fiona intensely as they share an experience together that will prove to affect them both in their own ways.  When she returns to court after the visit that same evening to present her ruling, she could not have foreseen how profoundly this decision would affect the lives of all involved.  I can’t say any more without giving the story away, but suffice it so say that this novel lives up to the expectations one may have for McEwan’s work.  Now, it does not exceed expectation, at least for me, but considering the bar is already set so high, that would be a difficult feat.   I got this book last weekend, and there were coincidentally two reviews in the local paper for this novel, well, one by a local reviewer and one in the New York Times insert.  The local reviewer seemed to enjoy and appreciate it, but the New York Times reviewer was more than a little critical of this novel, even though he was clearly a fan of McEwan’s writing.  After reading the NYT review, I was slightly worried as I opened the book, but I’ve decided that the reviewer didn’t know what he was talking about.  I found similar themes running through this novel as earlier works by the author, such as potential marital breakdown (A Child in Time), obsession (Enduring Love), and the possibility that profound moments with total strangers can sometimes change lives (Saturday).  McEwan manages to convey to the reader not just the events of a character’s daily life as they pertain to the plot, but the emotion accompanying these events, until we know we will never experience certain things the same way again.  And don’t be fooled by the length of the novel – it may only be just over 200 pages, but each page is filled with such a mastery of language that you may need to reread sections just to make sure you’ve taken it all in.  And while you will want to read it slowly and savour each and every word, it will be the kind of book you won’t be able to put down.  So enjoy!

I’ve barely started the selection for next week’s book club meeting, Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, very different from The Children Act, but hope to make good headway this weekend, despite the forecast of great “Indian Summer” weather.

Bye for now…

Sunday 21 September 2014

Rainy Sunday morning tea and book talk...

On this very rainy Sunday morning, I’m thinking about the folks in Toronto who will be celebrating Word on the Street, and am hoping for their sake that the rain stops.  But for myself, I would love the rain to continue so I could, without guilt, devote the whole day to reading.  For our Word on the Street festival yesterday, we had nearly perfect weather.  Unfortunately, during the time I was there, the turnout seemed to be quite low… hopefully it picked up as the day went on.  Speaking of Toronto, I am enjoying a Vanilla Scone from Future Bakery that I picked up at the Kitchener Market yesterday.  I may have mentioned these scones before, as they are delicious.  Future Bakery is located in Toronto, but they have a stall at the market here on Saturdays, which is awesome for me!  I would highly recommend these scones… not too sweet, with a subtle vanilla taste and a hint of icing drizzled over the top… yum!  Note:  the bakery in Toronto only makes these scones on Fridays and Saturdays, so if you try to get one during the week, you will be out of luck.
Last week I got a book from the library that I am so excited about, the latest mystery in the “Hercule Poirot” series, The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah.  This novel is the first Agatha Christie family-sanctioned addition to Christie’s extensive body of work, and I think she did an excellent job.   I will admit that I had my misgivings.  I've read a couple of Hannah’s psychological mysteries, and while I found them gripping, I was not always so impressed with her writing skills, so when I read the news about Hannah receiving this honour, I had my doubts. Having nearly reached the end of the novel, I feel that Hannah does indeed have the skills to take o this project and to meet and exceed this reader’s expectations.  In The Monogram Murders, retired Belgian ex-detective Hercule Poirot is enjoying a short holiday in a part of London where he is unlikely to run into anyone he knows, and appreciating the finest cup of coffee in the whole city (according to his opinion) at Pleasant’s Coffee House, when a woman rushes in, seemingly very agitated and distressed.  She exchanges a few words with the waitress, then takes a table in the corner, where she stares out the darkened window, possiibly watching for someone.  Poirot moves to her table to join her, and in the ensuing conversation, he learns that she, Jennie, is in fear of being murdered, yet she does not seem willing to avert this event from happening.  Then she rushes out, leaving Poirot to ponder this encounter as he finishes his coffee and fine dinner and returns to the lodging house where he has chosen to spend his “stay-cation”.  There he runs into his friend, Edward Catchpool, a policeman with Scotland Yard, and learns that three people were murdered that evening at the Bloxham Hotel.  Poirot immediately feels there is a connection between his encounter with Jennie and the three murders, and insists on returning to the hotel with Catchpool to investigate.  The three who were murdered, it is discovered, were originally from the same small village, where something tragic occurred nearly twenty years earlier.  Could these murders be connected to the previous tragedy?  Is Jennie telling the truth when she says she is going to be murdered?  And how can Poirot stop this inevitable murder from taking place, and also solve the crime of the murders that have already occurred?  Have no fear – using his “little grey cells”, Poirot will get to the truth and unmask the culprits, revealing the connections of the whole cast of characters, but will keep Catchpool, and the reader, guessing until the very end.   I’m not quite at the very end, but I will be soon, and if I didn’t know better, I would swear that this was written by Christie herself.  I haven’t read many of her books, but I have listened to quite a few, so as I’ve been reading, whenever Poirot speaks, I “hear” him as if I was listening to an audiobook, and have decided that Hannah has Poirot’s character and speech patterns dead-on.  The novel is set in 1929, and she does a good job of putting the story in that period realistically without using too much description.  Catchpool serves Poirot much as Hastings did in previous novels, as a sounding board and apprentice.  I loved that Hannah found ways to use the word “canoodle” at least twice in the novel, and that Poirot referred many times to “the little grey cells”, giving authenticity to the story.  I don’t know if there are plans for other “Hercule Poirot” novels, and if so, whether they will be written by Hannah alone, or whether the Christie family would consider giving other authors a go at this project, but I would give Hannah an A+ for her work on this novel, and I look forward to checking out future works by this author.
As I was nearing the end of The Monogram Murders, I was thinking about what I would read next.  I have review books to read, and a pile of books to read for my committee, and I also have a book club meeting coming up, so I have plenty of factors that could potentially influence my reading selections (this is when reading starts to become a chore, not a pleasure…).  I headed off to the library to pick up my hold, and was surprised and delighted to see that not one, but two, books were ready for me to pick up, including Ian McEwan’s latest work, The Children Act.   I’m so excited, I’m very nearly shaking!  I love McEwan’s works, which often present situations and explore them in the most interesting and different ways, dragging the reader into the moral and ethical dilemmas with which the characters are also grappling.  I can’t wait to start this book, one that I will read entirely for the pleasure of it, a book that I will read “just for me”.  Alas, the sun has come out, so it may not be a guilt-free reading day after all… darn! 

Bye for now…

Sunday 14 September 2014

Tea and books on a cool September morning...

On this cool, bright morning, I am sipping a hot cup of chai tea and eating a piece of apple strudel from Norris Bakery (yum!) while I think about what I read last week. 
My “friends” book group got together on Thursday night to discuss How to be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward.  I have heard of this author, but had never read anything by her, so was quite interested to check it out.  This novel tells the story of a New York middle class family who is trying to finally come to terms with the disappearance of the youngest daughter, Ellie, when she was just five years old.  On the day the three daughters were planning to run away from their abusive, drunken father, Ellie never showed up at the prearranged meeting spot outside the school, where the sisters were to begin their adventures in New Orleans.  Of course, everyone blamed themselves, and no answers were ever found.  Fifteen years later, the remaining daughters and the mother are trying, not very successfully, to find closure.  Madeline, the middle daughter, has a Wall Street banker husband and a perfect middle class marriage, yet she is haunted by the disappearance of Ellie.  Oldest daughter Caroline is a former pianist-star hopeful, now working a dead-end job as a waitress in a dive bar in New Orleans, having never really given up hope that one day they would find Ellie.  Determined never to spend another Christmas back in New York, her resolve is nevertheless broken when her mother calls and insists that she return for the festivities of the season.  The father has been dead for some years, but the gloom continues to hang over the family palpably, and mother and daughter try to escape through excessive alcohol consumption.  Only Madeline seems able to accept the inevitability of the situation and want to move on, but she can’t do so unless she has the support of the rest of the family.  When Caroline’s mother shows her a picture from a People Magazine and points out a woman in the crowd whom she is certain is grown-up Ellie, Caroline, desperate for a focus to her life, takes up the challenge and heads to Montana in the hope of finding this “face in the crowd”.  What ensues is a search for self, for closure, and for love, and as well as a struggle to decide whether to help the sister you have or to search for the one you have lost.  Told mainly from the point of view of Caroline, this is at once a mystery and a family drama.  While it is mostly depressing in tone, this reader felt that the mood picked up once Part Two began.  The group discussed a few points about the story, mainly the character of Agnes Fowler, who she was and how she fit into the story.  The author did not give away all the pieces of the puzzle, which was good, as it left something to the reader’s imagination.  We discussed the fact that the main character, Caroline, did not have much character development, and someone pointed out that the dialogue was not very unique or inspired.  While we all agreed with this (Ward is no A S A Harrison!), we also felt that the empty dialogue was possibly meant to reflect the emptiness in the soul and life of the character.  That may be giving too much credit to the author, but perhaps Ward meant this to be more plot-driven than character-driven.  Anyway, it was a little bit clichéd, but well worth the reading time I invested, and definitely a good selection for book club discussion.
I thought I would have time to read another novel before post time, but I got distracted doing other things, so that’s all I have to write about for today.
Bye for now...

Sunday 7 September 2014

First post for September...

It is a bright, clear, not-too-hot Sunday morning, the kind of morning that is perfect for this time of year.  I have a steaming cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked banana bread on the table in front of me, and I’m thinking about what I’ve read and listened to recently.  How could anyone ask for a better way to start the week?
I reread The Silent Wife by A S A Harrison in preparation for my volunteer book club meeting on Saturday.  I’ve read this book before, once to review it last summer, and once to discuss with my “friends” book group this past January.  For the January meeting, I put sticky tags on all the places I thought were significant, either in the use of language or in the character development, but I found that I was putting tags on almost every page!  I left the tags in there so when I pulled this book off the shelf to reread last weekend, I figured everything worthwhile would already be tagged… NOT SO!!  I added even MORE, but different, tags to the book, making it look like some strange attempt at a form of “Book Art”.  I’ve written about this book before, but I’ll quickly summarize it again now.  Jodi and Todd live in a beautiful, spacious waterfront condo in an affluent Chicago neighbourhood. They are in their mid-forties, childless, with a dog named Freud.  Todd is a real estate developer, Jodi is a part-time therapist.  Todd is a perpetual cheater.  Jodi is skilled at ignoring reality and making compromises.  Their 20-year relationship is based on pretense and denial, order and compartmentalization, so when the circumstances surrounding one of Todd’s “dalliances” escalates  and things get out of control, both parties stuggle to preserve what they have and deal with this new reality which just won’t go away.  The novel, told in alternating “Her” and “Him” chapters, follows their downward spiral in a fascinating dissection of each character’s psyche.  Although the narrator reveals in the opening chapter that Jodi would, in just a few months’ time, become a killer, the reader does not feel that the ending is spoiled.  Rather, this reader and those in my book group almost forgot what we were told at the beginning, because the details offered in each chapter were so involved and engrossing, we were totally caught up in the story.  One of my book club members said she didn’t like any of the characters, while another said she felt sorry for all of them, that they couldn’t help being who they were because of their upbringing.  Still another felt that Jodi did what she had to do, given the situation.  We talked about Jodi’s need for structure and control, and how she took care of everything to do with the running of their lives, while Todd just had to work and make the money necessary to pay for it all.  At that point, I brought up something I never considered before – that it was Todd’s secretary, Stephanie, not Jodi, who took care of paying the bills, and we discussed the implications of this arrangement.  We discussed how “traditional” their relationship was, how like their parents’ relationships a generation before, since Todd was the breadwinner and Jodi’s work as a therapist was little more than a hobby, despite her extensive education. We talked about Jodi’s friends, especially Alison, and the uncertainty that the reader is left with at the end regarding Jodi’s guilt or innocence.  I asked whether they thought men might enjoy this book, considering that nearly 50% of the book is told from Todd’s perspective.  They thought not, but a few then considered giving it to their husbands to read (I would like my husband to read it, but I don’t think he will like it, even though he is a social worker who deals with domestic violence situations on a regular basis).  We talked about the film version of this book, which is still in production, I believe, and wondered whether they will do a good job of translating this amazing novel to the big screen.  At this point, someone mentioned another novel, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, which has also been made into a film.  The Silent Wife has frequently been compared to Flynn’s bestseller by book reviewers, a book I had started some time ago but didn’t finish.  I recently downloaded the audiobook and started listening to it, as I felt it was good timing, but I stopped a few chapters in because I just didn’t like it.  It paled in comparison to the far superior novel by Harrison in so many ways, including character development, writing style, and use of language.  What I would really like to do some day is to read Harrison’s novel with another person or persons and discuss it chapter by chapter, so detailed and engrossing is the writing and character development.  That would be my dream, but I can’t think of any way to make it a reality… yet.  Anyway, we had a fabulous discussion that probably could have gone on for much longer, but another group needed our room at the Community Centre so we had to end.  It was probably the most successful book selection so far, in that everyone, everyone, thought it was a fabulous book.  Hurray!!  Unfortunately, not every selection is going to be this popular, but it’s good to have such a positive response from everyone once in a while.  PS I’ve removed all my sticky tags, so my next reading will be like reading it for the very first time!   
I also finished listening to The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson, the first book in a series featuring British lawyer brothers Reggie and Nigel Heath, and their adventures in mystery-solving.  In this novel, we are introduced to the brothers, Reggie the responsible solicitor, and Nigel the screw-up of the pair, the one who, after the breakup of his relationship with actress Laura, had to spend some time at a “retreat” to restore balance to his life and mind.  He is given the job at Reggie’s office, located at 221B Baker Street, of responding to all letters that arrive addressed to Sherlock Holmes with a form letter provided by the landlord of the building.  When Nigel takes a personal  interest in some letters supposedly written by a grown-up Mara from Los Angeles, requesting the return of the original letter and contents she sent to Sherlock Holmes twenty years ago, when she was a girl of eight, all hell breaks loose.  When a dead body turns up in Nigel’s office, with Nigel nowhere in sight, the police in London are in hot pursuit.  Meanwhile, clues lead Reggie to follow Nigel to LA, where he finds his brother trying to contact Mara and save her from sure death at the hands of some greedy businessmen who will stop at nothing to find and destroy some geological survey maps that could cost them millions and destroy their plans to develop an underground transit system at some very unsafe locations.  The characters were interesting, the plot was fast-paced, and the narration by Simon Vance was excellent.  I am definitely interested in listening to other novels in this delightful series.  I’ve already listened to Book Two, but I believe there are several more books available, at least in print.  I will check their availability in audio format, but if necessary, I may read the books.
OK, that’s enough writing about books.  Time to get outside and enjoy the nearly perfect day!

Bye for now…