Sunday 26 October 2014

Last post for October...

As I sip my chai tea and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, I just realized that this is the last week of October!  Fall is my favourite season, and on this windy Sunday morning, I’m looking forward to writing this post, then meeting a friend for a delicious chai latte at a wonderful bakery up the street from me, then maybe taking a refreshing walk in the park.  There’s something about November, though, that is a bit… I don’t want to say “depressing”… maybe “bland” is a better word for it.  There is nothing about November that is awesome:  in September you’ve got Indian Summer, in October you’ve got the beautiful fall leaves, and in December, well, it’s all about Christmas and “when will it snow?” But in November, there is nothing.  I know there is Remembrance Day, which is an important date, but it isn’t necessarily something to look forward to or plan for, and although some people get that day off work, most of us do not.  So I'm thankful that there are quite a few Arts and Crafts Fairs around the city that take place in November, something to perk up the month, at least for me.
I finished the novel by CanLit icon Rudy Wiebe, Come Back, and I have to say, while it started out really interesting, it was a disappointment in the end.  Since I gave a summary of this novel in last week’s post, I will not repeat it here.  I was really looking forward to this novel because it tells the story of a man who is searching for answers to questions that have haunted him for years, questions that originate in a sudden, tragic event in his life.  I love those kinds of stories because they always reveal bits of the main character’s past that are significant, where the character made the wrong choice, or reacted in a way that was, in hindsight, not in the best interest of everyone.  These types of stories make me, too, think about my own life, and consider things I’ve done that could have been done better or differently, and I don’t think literature that encourages self-reflection is a bad thing.  When the character finds the answers, or makes amends, or forgives himself for past wrongs, I as a reader feel satisfied, or forgiven, or relieved of a burden, too.  But in the case of Hal Wiens in Come Back, there were no moments of discovery, no revelations, and no forgiveness.  There was a review in the local paper this weekend for this novel, and the reviewer said that Wiebe is “too wise to offer easy answers”, instead leaving us with the same unanswered questions that “haunt Hal’s restless soul” (  In my opinion, that reviewer is being very generous.  I don’t mind if an author doesn’t tie all the bits of his story up in a neat little bow at the end, but I also don’t want to be left with all questions, and no hint of answers.  I also found the sections that relate entries from Gabriel’s diaries and journals to be too long and boring, saying a whole lot of nothing over and over again.  So, while I’m almost ashamed to criticize this famous, highly respected author, my verdict on this book is that, while very well-written, it is ultimately disappointing.  Shame on me for saying this, but I’m grateful it was short!
This left me with plenty of the week left to read Peter Robinson’s new book, Abattoir Blues.  As a vegetarian, I was a bit worried about this book, due to the title and what I expected would be part of the plot, and I was not far wrong.  Thankfully, there have been no detailed descriptions of what we all know goes on at abattoirs so far, just a few mentions that, while disturbing to me, were not so gruesome that I lost sleep over them.  I’ve still got about 60 pages to go, so I can’t comment on the ending, but so far it has been typical Robinson all the way.  Great writing, interesting mystery, and some insights on the personal dilemmas various characters are facing.  This novel begins with DC Annie Cabbot being assigned to investigate the theft of an expensive tractor from a rural farm.  The station also receives a call about a suspicious stain at an abandoned airfield hangar that may be blood.  When a motor accident caused by a sudden hail storm leads to a gruesome discovery, the investigation team digs to find links between all of these seemingly unrelated events.  As the investigation proceeds, it turns out that they are part of a much larger scheme involving a missing man, a burned-out caravan, possible illegal international black-market trading, and murder.  I always enjoy a mystery by Robinson for a few reasons.  Since I have read them all so far, I am familiar with the histories of each character so find it interesting to be updated on what has been going on in their lives since the last book.  I also find that the stories are not challenging to read; that is, the language is easy to understand and the text flows smoothly from paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter.  The mysteries in his novels are interesting, complex enough to keep you turning pages, but not so complex that you get lost in the twists and turns of the plot.  The characters and situations are also fairly believable, considering these are works of fiction.  So all in all, I would recommend this or any of the other Peter Robinson novels to anyone who likes a good British mystery.  I don’t think this is one of his best books, but it will certainly not disappoint existing fans, and may win over a few new readers.
That’s all for today!

Bye for now…

Sunday 19 October 2014

Book talk on a chilly Sunday morning...

On this crisp, bright, chilly Sunday morning, I am sipping my steaming cup of Chai and thinking about the past week, wondering why I haven’t read very much.  It was a short week, and I only finished Sad Peninsula on Monday.  I had an appointment on Tuesday evening, and a friend had an Open House on Thursday after work, so there goes three of my reading nights.  Ah well, at least I have something to do today… read!

I am about a quarter of the way through Rudy Wiebe’s latest book, Come Back, and so far it is interesting and sad, heartwrenching and yet somehow still hopeful.  It tells the story of Hal Wiens, a retired professor who is mourning the death of his wife, Yo.  While in a coffee shop one morning chatting with his old Dene friend Owl, he sees a man wearing an orange down coat walk by the window, a man he is sure is his son, Gabriel.  But that can’t be… Gabriel killed himself 25 years before.  He takes off on a mad search for the man, who has disappeared down any number of streets or alleys at the busy centre of Edmonton, but to no avail.  This occurrence prompts Hal to search for answers to the question that has been haunting him for the past 25 years:  Why did Gabriel, a young man of 24, kill himself?  By immersing himself in the things Gabe left behind, diaries, journals and pictures, Hal begins to understand Gabe’s life, and to face his own grief and guilt as he begins this emotional journey to acceptance and inner peace.  Seasoned readers know that these types of heartwrenching books always (well, usually) lead characters on a spiritual journey that is, while difficult, necessary to overcome the heavy emotional burden they have been carrying around for years, perhaps even a lifetime.  It is pain of the “cleansing” variety, and so we don’t become bogged down in the pain, but rather, we continue reading to get to the moment when the main character is finally able to forgive him- or herself and find the peace that they so deserve.  I expect that this book will prove to be of this type, and I look forward to getting to that moment for Hal.  Shamefully, I have never read anything by this Canadian Literature icon until now, and I’m so happy that this book is holding my interest so far.  I hope to be able to write about it next week in fuller detail, as I expect to finish this short novel in just a couple of days (I have nothing else planned to interrupt my quality reading time this week!).  

There is another reason I have for wanting to finish this short novel soon,a novel I started reading because of the committee I'm on - once I finish this novel, I will allow myself to read the new Peter Robinson book, the 22nd book in the "DCI Banks" series, Abattoir Blues.  I have a copy of this book for review for the local paper, and I can't wait to get to it.  Heartwrenching books about spiritual journeys can be wonderful reads, but sometimes I just want a good British murder mystery!  More on that book in a later post...

I also just finished listening to ASA Harrison’s The Silent Wife as an audiobook, and it was awesome!  There were two narrators, one for Jodi and one for Todd, and they did an excellent job of bringing the characters and words on the page to life.  I know that we just discussed this book at my book group in September, but I needed something to listen to and it was the only thing I had at the time, and it turned out that it wasn’t really too soon to experience this excellent novel again, perhaps because it was in a different form.  So I would highly recommend this version if you are not inclined to read the physical book. 

That’s all for today.  Have a fabulous fall day!

Bye for now...

Monday 13 October 2014

Post on Thanksgiving weekend...

On this drizzly, overcast Thanksgiving Monday, I am thinking about what I have to be thankful for related to books and reading.  Of course, I have many other things to be thankful for, too, like my husband and my cats, my awesome job, good friends, good fortune, etc., but here is not the place to talk about those things.  First and foremost, as I sip my delicious cup of Chai, I am thankful for the rainy overcast day we’re having today.  If it was as gorgeous and sunny outside today as it has been the past two days, I certainly wouldn’t be as willing to stay inside and write a post then finish my book as I am with this weather forecast. 

OK, I’m thankful for my good friend, Dan, who has been instrumental in recommending books to me over the past 25 years.  He was the person who recommended, among others, Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, which is one of my favourite books.  Sure, I probably could have found this book on my own, but there are lots of great books, even great books by Canadian authors, that I have not yet read, and possibly never will read.  He also recommended, more recently, Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord.  I haven’t yet read the book, but I just went to see the film adaptation on the weekend, and it was very enjoyable.  I’m looking forward to having time to read the book soon.  So, if you’re reading this blog (and I know you are!), thanks Dan!  I wouldn’t be the reader I am without you!

The next thing I’m thankful for is my membership on the book selection committee I’ve been part of for the past 3 years.  We focus on recently published adult Canadian fiction and non-fiction, and for this committee, I have read many titles I would otherwise not have even been aware of, let alone read.  Some of these titles are:  Three Souls by Janie Chang,  My Real Children by Jo Walton, All My Puny Sorrows by Marian Toews, Local Customs by Audry Thomas and Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu.  I have posted about all of these titles previously, so will not recap, but they are all books I’m glad I read.  I am also glad I read Interference by Winnipeg author Michelle Berry.  This book is the multilayered story of a small neighbourhood in Parkville, its interconnected stories relaying the goings-on of different households.  In one household, Claire is dealing with breast cancer treatment, while also trying to hold her family together.  Her husband may be suffering from the onset of dementia, and her son may be in love with his girlfriend’s brother.  Across the street is blond, attractive Dayton, who has stolen her daughter and fled California to escape her ne’er-do-well husband, and who finds release in the Ladies’ Senior Hockey League.  Next door is Trish, who makes custom teddy bears, and is being threatened by a large American teddy-bear-making company for infringing on copyright laws.  And next to Trish is Maria, whose own pre-teen daughter is suffering from obsessive cleaning and fear of germs and dirt, similar to her mother’s own obsession.  Maria also suffers from a bad back, which keeps her from doing many of the things she thinks she enjoys, but really this reader suspects that she has never really been happy with her life.  Her husband, meanwhile, is suddenly and inexplicably flirting with every woman he sees, something he has not done since before he met Maria.  On top of all these household dramas, there are some shady figures that lurk around the neighbourhood and flit in and out of the stories, a man with a prominent scar cutting through the centre of his face, and a small man in a brown suit who goes door-to-door distributing pamphlets of a disturbing nature.  There is a sinister element underlying these stories as suspicions of a paedophile ring circulate, and, because they are told from the point of view of various people in the neighbourhood, reading this book was a bit like peeping in through the keyhole of each household and watching the goings-on, making this reader feel somewhat voyeuristic.  It was a really interesting read, quite unlike anything else I have read… not really short stories, but not really a novel either.  Now that I think of it, I have read something else like this in the past, a book I reviewed for the local paper called Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway, which was also made up of interwoven short-story-like chapters told from various points of view, where nothing is quite clear, including a defined plot.  Anyway, it was a good read, and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys domestic fiction with characters that are very “real”, characters that could be your own neighbours.

I am also thankful for the opportunity I have to review books for the local paper, as this, too, has exposed me to titles I may not otherwise have come across.  Some of these titles include Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan, The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh, That Part was True by Deborah McKinlay, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker and Life or Death by Michael Robotham.  These, too, have been written about in previous posts.  I am also just finishing a book that I will review called Sad Peninsula by Mark Sampson.  This novel tells the alternating stories of Eun-young and Michael, characters separated by decades but brought together by one woman on a quest to find a way to reveal the truth and make things right.  Eun-young was a young girl in the late 1930s in Korea, when the Japanese infiltrated her town.  With promises of a job earning more than her own father, enough to get her family out of the poverty into which they sunk since the infiltration, Eun-young, along with thousands of other girls, were coerced from their homes and transported north to China, where they were forced to live in camps as “comfort women”, sex slaves who were made to serve the often debauched needs of service men and officials of every rank during the war.  Michael is an ESL teacher at ABC English Planet in Seoul.  A disgraced journalist from Halifax, hiding from his own demons and fleeing from his past, he finds anonymity in South Korea, but is disturbed by the stereotypical view of the country, from the beautiful girls and easy sex to the loose standards of the English school where “teachers” of dubious qualifications “sling English like hamburgers”.  Then he meets Jin, a girl unlike the others, a smart, serious young woman with secrets of her own.  While they struggle to develop a strong relationship, they also keep much of their pasts to themselves.  When in Jin tells Michael about her great-aunt, Eun-young, Michael is intrigued to find out more, but uncovers some things that both horrify and inspire him.  I am about two-third of the way through the book, and expect to finish it this afternoon, but so far both stories are interesting, albeit graphically detailed at times.  This is the second book by Sampson, originally from PEI but now living in Toronto, but the first I have read.

I am thankful for so any other things that are book-related as well, but I’m out of time, and want to get on with my day, so perhaps I will save them for another post.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Bye for now…

Saturday 4 October 2014

A "Novel Disappointment" at book club...

As I sip my cup of tea, I am reflecting on the collective disappointment we as a book group experienced with our latest selection, and how this differs from a situation when some enjoyed the novel and some did not.  I will talk about that soon, but first, I wanted to mention the awesome audiobook I finished earlier in the week. 

I recently finished listening to John Le Carré’s novel, Our Kind of Traitor.  It tells the story of disillusioned Oxford don Perry and his lawyer girlfriend Gail, a young British couple who, while enjoying the trip of a lifetime in Antigua, meet dapper Russian guest Dima, and unwittingly become involved in international espionage and money-laundering.  Drawn in by the eclectic members of Dima’s extended family, including beautiful daughter Natasha and a pair of unusual nieces, they develop a close, albeit bizarre, relationship with the group, until one evening, Dima confides top-secret information about international money-laundering involving not only fellow Russian mafia members but also top-ranking officials and political figures from countries around the world, and asks Perry to help him and his family to defect to England.   Upon their return home from their vacation, Perry, nicknamed “British Fair-Play” by Dima, does his best to live up to this assessment of his character by providing a full account of all that was said and done during their brief friendship to MI-6.  Readers are then taken on the slow, detailed journey through the bureaucratic rigmarole that precedes the approval for this defection to happen, with painstaking detail provided at every step of the way.  This contemporary offering from Le Carré is a real treat for anyone who may have struggled with his earlier Cold-War books featuring George Smiley, as it presents readily-accessible and contemporary characters and themes, while still demonstrating his storytelling mastery and amazing writing talent.  I read this novel a couple of years ago, but forgot all but the most basic plot summary, so it was an excellent listening experience for me.  My previous experience reading this novel was one of the reasons I chose A Perfect Spy for my book club to read, not realizing that is was going to be more difficult and less accessible than this novel or, say, The Constant Gardener.  Anyway, I would highly recommend this novel as a book or audiobook for anyone who enjoys espionage fiction, and would also say that this would be a good one to start with if you have always wanted to read a novel by Le Carré but were afraid to try.

Now on to our “Novel Disappointment”…  I tried to read Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, set in a monastery in a remote part of Quebec.  The prior is found dead in the garden, and Chief Inspector Gamache is called in to solve the case.  He and his team are possibly the first people to ever be allowed inside the monastery walls, which house the monks who have achieved worldwide fame for their preservation, resurrection and perfection of the ancient Gregorian chants, once believed to be lost forever.  I expect that the rest of the book details their investigation into the murder, and the monks who live at the monastery, but I will admit to reaching only page 89 after three days of reading, and finally giving up.  It was partly the repetition in the text that was frustrating me, but also the stuttering, stilting way she wrote.  For example, on page 11:  “It wasn’t, then, a casual call.  An invitation to dinner.  A query about staffing or a case going to trial.  This was a call to arms.  A call to action.  A call that marked something dreadful had happened.  And yet, for more than a decade now every time he heard those words, Beauvoir’s heart leapt.  And raced.  And even danced a little.  Not with joy at the knowledge of a terrible and premature death.  But knowing he and the Chief and the others would be on the trail again.”  Look at all those sentence fragments!!  That could have been one or two full, flowing sentences that would take a few seconds to read, but as a stilting, stuttering paragraph, it takes the reader so much longer to get through.  At first I thought this was just me, that I must certainly be missing something.  Louise Penny, after all, is a wildly popular bestselling mystery novelist, one whose novels, at least one of them, has been adapted for TV starring Nathanial Parker, of “Inspector Lynley” fame, as Chief Inspector Gamache.  But when I got the group started with the discussion, they reiterated the writing concerns detailed above, as well as making the following comments:  too many characters, many unnecessary characters, too much information, repetitive, the story dragged, it was too long, many details that were thrown in made it seem too contrived, Gamache was too perfect, all the characters were one-dimensional, it was not memorable, and the ending was jarring, and also unbelievable.  One member said that she had a hard time keeping track of the real plot and the sub-plot, but once she realized this, she skipped the parts about the sub-plot and only read the parts about the real plot, and it started to make more sense.  Another felt that the occasional, but regular, use of French terms thrown into the text was unnecessary and “pompous”, since readers didn’t need reminders that the story is taking place in a French-speaking province.  We all found the information on the music and the chants to be interesting, and one member pointed out that the imagery of the monastery was significant:  Gamache’s first impression was of the light-filled rooms, the effect of the prisms in the windows when there was full daylight, suggesting beauty, purity, and “otherworldliness”, but that underneath, the foundation was cracked and rotting.  I also found, in the 89 pages that I read, some examples of very fine writing, and an intelligent, subtle humour.  Someone in my book group some time ago requested that I add a Louise Penny mystery to the list, and this title was said to be one of her best books, so I put it on the list “untested”, as it were.  What was wonderful about our conversation was how candid we could be once we realized that everyone else felt the same way about the book.  We could all agree with and build on the previous member’s complaint with yet another example or opinion.  It is much more difficult to have a lively conversation when opinions are split, or when even one member has a view that is strongly opposed to the rest of the group.  At those times, we couch our opinions in euphemisms, soften our tones, and generally try to have our say without challenging anyone else’s opinions or hurting their feelings.  I find people are especially careful to use gentle language until they know how I, as the selector, felt about the book, in case I would be offended that they didn’t like a book that I chose.  So it’s much more fun when we are all on the same page about a book, and so this was a fun and lively discussion about how much we disliked this book.  Members who had read other books by Penny didn’t recall the use of such stilted writing, but no one was entirely sure, thus demonstrating the “forgetableness” of the novels.  (Oh boy, it really is fun to rant sometimes!)

OK, that’s all for tonight.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now…