Sunday 28 December 2014

Last post for 2014...

WOW, another year has passed so quickly - I hope you are enjoying the holidays!  As I sip my Spiced Pear tea (no substitute for the Masala Chai I used to enjoy on Sunday mornings) from a beautiful new mug I received as a Christmas gift, and nibble on clementines and Banana Bread, I am thinking about what I’ve just read, and what I’ve read over the past year.  I’m also debating whether I should have a “reading plan” for 2015… more on that later.

I just finished Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest book, Adult Onset, and I’m almost afraid to write what I really thought of it.  After all, she spent years writing this novel, and probably put bucketsful of emotion, bared her soul even, to write this.  In fact, after reading a few of the reviews, my thoughts that this was a very autobiographical novel were confirmed, so she really did expose her intimate side to readers, which is very brave and probably admirable.  But I thought the book was terrible.  It tells the story of Mary Rose MacKinnon, author of two highly successful Young Adult novels, who is married to significantly younger theatre director wife Hilary and has two children, adopted son Matthew, aged five, and two year old Maggie, Hilary’s biological daughter.  Mary Rose, or “Mister”, is a stay-at-home mom who is supposedly working on the third novel in her "Otherworld" trilogy, but she just can’t get going.  She receives an emailed message from her father praising her on a short film she participated in, “It Gets Better”, meant to help GBLT youths deal with their sexuality, but she is unable to compose a suitable reply to him, and mistakenly sends off the truncated message, “Dear Dad, I”.  So begins a week in the life of Mary Rose, a week when Hilary is away directing a play in Winnipeg or Calgary, when Mary Rose’s psyche begins to unravel.  Her arm starts to ache, a “phantom pain” left over from her childhood, when she underwent several surgeries to repair the bone cysts in her arm.  She forgets things, she loses her temper with Maggie, she fears that she loves Matthew more than Maggie, that she may abuse her children, that perhaps she was abused during her childhood but just can’t remember it.  She worries about her parents, about Dolly and the possibility that she has Alzheimer’s, and about her father, who is unable to show affection to his children but to whom she is deeply devoted, constantly seeking his approval.  Mary Rose worries about Andy-Patrick, “A&P”, her younger brother who is a special liaison for the RCMP, who is unable to hold onto a relationship.  She is 48 years old, and worries about her age, that she has passed her "best before" date, that this is as good as it gets.  She worries that younger bisexual Hilary is having an affair while away, with whatever man or woman has taken her fancy.  I really wanted to love this novel, and struggled to get to finish it in the hope that it would all be worth it in the end, but it did not turn out that way.  I was disappointed to the very last page.  She didn’t seem to know what she wanted the novel to be about:  was it a novel about mid-life crisis?  was it about uncovering deep, dark family secrets?  did she want to explore the trials and tribulations of motherhood and domestic affairs?   All along, I kept wondering where her editors were during the creation and publication of this book.  My biggest complaint was her recycling of characters and situations first encountered in Fall on your Knees, such as the 13-year old Arab child bride, daughter of Mr Mahmoud, who married an older Scottish man and recent immigrant to Cape Breton.  Would people who have not read that first amazing novel by MacDonald (I’m sure there are a few) even get the reference to “wives with heads in dirty ovens”, or her comment, when looking at a website of military graves, that “they are all dead”?  These are taken directly from Fall on your Knees, which begins with the line, They’re all dead now.  She calls the baby who died before she was born, her unborn sister, Other Mary Rose, when in Fall on your Knees there was Other Lily”, the baby who dies before Lily was born.  While the writing was great and there were nuggets of insight, this book was so frustratingly all-over-the-map that I cannot really recommend this to anyone, and I would hope that this is not the first book by this author that a reader picks up – it is not representative of her other works, so please do not judge her by this offering.   Fall on your Knees was her best work, The Way the Crow Flies was also really good, but I fear that, like Mary Rose, Ann-Marie may not have a third book in her. 

As we come to the end of the year, I like to write out my Top Ten Favourite Books and Audiobooks of the Year, so here it is:


The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair Joël Dicker
The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty
The Colonial Hotel Jonathan Bennett
Life or Death Michael Robotham
Local Customs Audrey Thomas
Waiting for the Man Arjun Basu
The Children Act Ian McEwan
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers Tom Rachman
The Winter Palace Eva Stachniak
The Narrow Road to the Deep North Richard Flanagan

Bonus title:  The Weight of Water Erin McHugh
Bonus YA title:   Last Message Shane Peacock
Bonus Juvenile title:  The Tale of Despereaux Kate DiCamillo


Witch Hunt Ian Rankin
All Cry Chaos Leonard Rosen
Tenth Witness Leonard Rosen
The Expats Chris Pavone
The Brothers of Baker Street Michael Robertson
The Baker Street Letters Michael Robertson
Our Kind of Traitor John Le Carré
Mission Song John Le Carré
The Silent Wife ASA Harrison
Dry Bones Peter May

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the last few days of the year!

Bye for now…

Sunday 21 December 2014

Tea and "It's almost Christmas!" post...

On this first day of winter, and the shortest day of the year, I’m sitting with a cup of tea on the table in front of me and one of my cats on my lap, looking forward to two weeks off work over the holidays, which will hopefull translate into lots of time to catch up on all (well, some!) of the reading I haven’t gotten to over the year.  I’ll just mention that I’ve had to improvise with my tea again, so I used the STASH brand of Black Chai teabags, which are pretty good.  I frothed my warm soy milk to make it a bit special, and I used my huge soup mug, like they do in cafes – it’s not quit the same, but it’ll do until I can find a replacement, which is one of my missions over the next two weeks.

I mentioned in my last post that I was reading a book with the intention of writing a review for the paper, Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North.  Well, just as I was nearing the end, I sent an email to the Books Editor letting him know that I was going to have a review of this book soon, and was informed that someone else had sent in a review that was actually going to be in the paper this Saturday.  That was a bit of a relief, as reading with the intent to review is very different from reading for pure enjoyment.  I had made notes all the way along, so I thought I could still make use of these notes by calling this part of this week’s post “Jottings for review”.  If you recall, this novel tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, a celebrated war hero and surgeon in the Second World War who survived the building of the Death Railway between Siam and Burma in 1943, an undertaking instigated by the Japanese using Asian civilian labourers and allied POWs.  Here is what I would have liked to say in my review, direct from my notes (this is the unpolished version):  This book is a war story and a love story, a book that explores the human condition from various perspectives: Amy, the deeply unhappy wife of Keith, Dorry’s uncle;  Major Nakamura, of the Japanese Imperial Army, who beats his prisoners and denies them the most essential basic necessities, yet loves poetry and justifies his actions as serving “the greater good”; Darky Gardiner, an Australian POW in Dorry’s regiment, who, for reasons unknown, personifies for Dorry the bitter senselessness of war; and Dorry, the sensitive, poetry-loving surgeon who unwittingly becomes the commander of a regiment of mostly Australian POWs who have surrendered to the Japanese in Java.  This is not an easy book to read, nor is it a happy, “feel good” book – it is an awful, wonderful book filled with graphic scenes of horrific conditions, that is still somehow fueled by the spirit of hope and the will to survive:  “a shared dream of human transcendence… that was just out of reach” (p 186).  Points of view and time periods shift from chapter to chapter, but while it may at first seem difficult to follow, eventually the reader becomes so caught up in the story that he or she is pulled along with the story and experiences, with the characters, the loves and losses, as well as the joys and achievements, that are so plentiful in the story.  It is at once a novel that explores the search for those things we most desire, and the denial of these things in the name of personal moral integrity.  When I started to read the last section of the book and found that it began with stories of what happened after the war ended, I immediately thought “Thank goodness the war is over!”  Then I caught myself – if I was so relieved by this ending, how much more relieved were the thousands who had fought, suffered, and yet somehow survived?  It is about memory, and the unreliability of memory.  Of the memory of Darky’s beating, Flanagan writes:  “(it was) no more within their control and therefore no more within their consciousness than a rock falling… It simply was, and it was best dealt with by finding other things to think about” (p 213).  One of Dorry’s favourite lines states, “The world is; it just is”.  Rabbit Hendricks’ sketchbook of some of these war scenes, which plays a major role in the book, is saved in order to remember, to remind us of the war, and the sacrifices, and the atrocities, for once the war is over, it is all forgotten.  This book, too, serves as a reminder of that terrible period in history and the horrors of war that never end, scene after scene of horrors that weave themselves seamlessly into the text, until the shock value diminishes for the reader; this must have been what it was like for the POWs, shock and disgust at first, then this horror becomes reality, day after day, relentlessly plodding on, until the horror becomes commonplace: “It was a day to die, not because it was a special day, but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die” (p 223).  Of the Death Railway, Flanagan writes:  “it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained.  People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only” (p 227).  It is about the lasting effects of war on lives that can go on for generations.  Near the end, the author seems to have lost his way, but despite a rather weak ending, it was one of the best, most meaningful, most memorable books I’ve read in a while.  I felt that this quotation sums up the novel:  “It’s only our faith in illusions that makes life possible… it’s believing in reality that does us in every time” (p 202).  This novels was the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and it certainly earned that distinction.  This book was a powerful, awful, wonderful read that I would recommend to all but the faint of heart.

Now I’m reading Ann Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.  Alas, I will have to wait until I finish it, so more on that book in next week’s post.

Happy Winter Solstice!  Hope you get lots of great books for Christmas!

Bye for now...

Sunday 14 December 2014

Books and tea on a mild, overcast December morning...

I had no sweet treat this mornong, so to fill my empty, growling stomach I had toast with peanut butter and a delicious Mediterranean Medley jam (figs and dates) before I sat down to drink my tea and write.  I had to ad lib with my tea this morning, as the yummy masala chai I have been drinking as a treat on Sundays for the past 6 or 7 years is no longer available – that is a drag! But my improvised tea for this morning is pretty good, despite being different.  I need to track down someplace that sells loose black tea, as I think that may be the answer to my problem.

This past week has been rather disjointed in terms of reading consistency.  I finished reading a Young Adult book for work, Eric Walter’s Between Heaven and Earth, which is one of the books in the Seven Series.  I mentioned this series in one of my posts in the summer, as I read Shane Peacock’s Last Message in one sitting and was very impressed.  This series is made up of seven books by seven different Canadian authors and are told from the points of view of the seven grandsons of revered David Maclean, now deceased.  While attending the reading of his will, each grandson is taken aside separately and given instructions detailed by David to complete tasks that he himself had been unable to undertake and complete during his lifetime.  Between Heaven and Earth is told from the point of view of DJ, or David Junior, the oldest and most responsible of all the grandsons.  At nearly 18 years old, DJ’s task is to take his grandfather’s ashes and scatter them at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.  He is to go alone, and he figures this task is going to be quick and easy;  after all, how long could it take to climb a mountain?  What he learns during his adventure is that the journey is as important as the destination, and that one must appreciate every step of the way.  This book was an excellent read, and I would recommend it to readers aged 12 and up, including adults.  I would love to find the time to read the other five in the series, and read the next series, Seven:  the sequels, but juggling what I read is becoming a real challenge.  I wanted to read this one in particular, as Eric Walters is coming to one of my schools in May, so I wanted to be familiar with this popular, award-winning Children’s and Young Adult author.  I will try to find time to read one or two of his many other titles, including the one that had recently been nominated for the Forest of Reading Red Maple award, Rule of Three.  So man books, so little time…

I finished this book on Tuesday night, so I had the rest of the week to start something new, which is always a dilemma, as I know I won’t have time to actually finish a book by Sunday’s post (I like to start a new book on Saturday or Sunday and finish it by the end of the week).  I decided to concentrate on one of the many titles I have in a pile waiting to be reviewed.    I picked up A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin.  I have been interested in reading something by this award-winning Chinese-American author for years, and have a copy of The Crazed on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.  Anyway, I started reading Map of Betrayal and had high expectations, but the first 20 pages or so did not grab me, so I put it aside.  I then picked up the latest novel by award-winning Australian author Richard Flanagan, whose works I have also been interested in reading.  I have had The Sound of One Hand Clapping sitting on my bookshelf upstairs for several years now, but fining the time is tough.  Well, his latest offering, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, grabbed me right away, despite the plotline:  it tells the story of Dorrigo Evan, a celebrated war hero and surgeon in the Second World War who survived the building of the Death Railway between Siam and Burma in 1943, an undertaking instigated by the Japanese using Asian civilian labourers and allied POWs.  Tens of thousands of these people, both civilians and POWs, perished as a result of this undertaking, due to lack of food, water, rest and appropriate tools and machinery.  In this novel, Dorrigo (Dorry) relates his experiences leading up to the war, during his service as a war doctor, his imprisonment and treatment while he was in command of a battalion of mostly Australian POWs, and his later life during which he must deal spiritually and emotionally with his fame as a survivor and war hero (a documentary had recently been made of his war experiences).  He is conflicted by this adulation, as he does not see himself as a hero, despite trying to do his best for the men under his command. He is constantly torn between following his own desires and trying to live up to their expectations.  Flanagan writes at one point early in the novel, “They (the other prisoners) were captives of the Japanese and he (Dorry) was the prisoner of their hope”.  He is unable to make sense of the senseless death and destruction the war wrought over the land, and the unnecessary losses of life that go along with this.   It also tells of his early life in the service, and the dilemma he faces when, while practically engaged to socialite Ella and accepted into the embrace of her aristocratic family, he encounters Amy, a woman for whom his passion burns, even while she is unavailable to him.  This quest for the “unattainable she” goes hand-in-hand with his search for logic and meaning in the senselessness and insanity of war.  This is not really my type of book, and there are many graphic scenes of horror and despair, but it is also one of the most absorbing, thought-provoking novels I’ve read in a long time.  Well, that’s not true;  Ian McEwan’s novel, The Children Act, was also thought-provoking, but not horrible.  Anyway, I’m about a third of the way though and will write more when I have finished reading this wonderful, awful novel.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in last week’s post that one of my book club members reread, or reviewed, Louise Penny’s Beautiful Mystery, and thought she came up with the reason the sentences were all so fragmented and disjointed:  she thought the jerky, awkward, jarring language and sentence structure was used intentionally to represent the underlying decay and corruption of the monastery and the brotherhood, and also the addictions the various police members had, when in all cases, the appearance was of beauty and order.  This makes sense, but it still doesn’t’ make me want to read it!  Good for her, though, for giving this challenging book so much thought and consideration (if you recall, my group totally trashed this title in September).

Have a good day, and Happy Reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 7 December 2014

First post for December...

On this bright, chilly Sunday morning, I’m sipping my chai tea and enjoying a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread as I think about our book club discussion yesterday and the audiobook I just finished listening to earlier in the week.

The Winter Palace
was definitely a success with my book club ladies.  Everyone loved it – no one had a single negative thing to say about it.  Well, that’s not entirely true – one member said she had an issue with the subtitle, A Novel of Catherine the Great, as she said it wasn’t really about Catherine the Great, but more about Barbara, her maid/servant/lady-in-waiting.  The novel, told from the point of view of Barbara, chronicles the rise of Catherine the Great from a feisty teenaged German princess, Sophie, to a powerful Russian Empress during Russia’s “Golden Age”.  I made two pages of notes during the meeting, and will summarize the main points of discussion here, in no particular order.  One member said this was one of the best books she’s read in a long time (YAY!!), and that it was fairly historically accurate.  The person who objected to the subtitle said she loved reading about the Winter Palace, and the changes it underwent during the course of the novel, suggesting that it was almost a “character” in itself; she paralleled the transformation of the Winter Palace to Catherine’s own transformation, so maybe in that way, the subtitle was appropriate.  Speaking of characters, most everyone’s favourite characters were Barbara and Sir Charles. Barbara was an excellent mother to Darya and a good friend to Catherine throughout the novel, someone who was able to resist corruption.  The relationship between Barbara and Egor was strained at first, but with the birth of their daughter, everything changed and Egor was a good father and a good soldier.  This contrasted drastically with the awfulness of the political characters, the decadence and debauchery of those in the Palace, in the political inner circle, with their ermine-lined cribs, diamond-encrusted gowns, and vodka fountains.  Sir Charles, likewise, was a softer, gentler character, a stabilizing figure who helped to keep Barbara on the straight path.  We also thought that Barbara’s maid, Masha, was a stabilizing character for her, helping not only with Darya but with Barbara’s choices throughout the story.  The Orlov brothers, too, were good characters who helped more than they harmed.  The other characters, we all agreed, were greedy and power-hungry.  The Empress Elizabeth was a piece of work, a terrible leader who just got worse over the course of the novel.  Someone offered this quotation:  “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and that was demonstrated aptly in this novel.  We all had a very strong negative attitude towards the Chancellor, who was referred to by Barbara as “the Old Fox” – one of my members, a retired high school English teacher, used the term “worm tongue” to describe him, someone who whispers into people’s ears to influence their decisions, and turn one character against another.  One member was fascinated to discover that so many crucial political decisions were made “in the bedroom”.   Motherhood had a huge influence on the characters in the novel.  Barbara lost her mother at a very young age, and was then raised by her bookbinder father, a good man but very different from her mother.  Barbara then became a good and loving mother, who also shared her daughter with Catherine after Catherine’s children were unceremoniously taken from her and raised almost exclusively by Elizabeth.  In this way, Elizabeth’s and Catherine’s experiences were similar, as neither woman raised their own children, although Elizabeth never had children, adopting/appropriating her orphaned nephew, Peter, at an early age to become the heir to the throne, then seizing Catherine’s children to raise.  Catherine had to make due with as much involvement in the life of Barbara’s daughter, Darya, as she could manage, and one member suggested that it was Barbara’s love for her daughter that ultimately steered her away from Catherine’s court and saved her from corruption.  The fact that Catherine was viewed by Elizabeth as little more than a breeder surely contributed to her bitterness and her ultimate decision to orchestrate a coup and seize the throne from her husband, as a form of revenge.  Names were also important in the book;  Sophie becomes Catherine, Barbara becomes Varvara and Varenka, Darya is also Darenka, Barbara refers to Elizabeth as “the obstacle” or “yesterday” in her secret conversations and letters to, I think, Sir Charles.  And friendship is an important factor in the novel.  We all agreed that there was real friendship between the girls when they were young, and that Barbara stayed loyal and true to Catherine to the end, while Catherine’s relationship with Barbara got corrupted along the way.    Oh boy, was there a lot to discuss about this book!  I came across a review of this book in Quill and Quire that summarized the issues I have with historical fiction perfectly: “Historical fiction can suffer from the impulse to educate the reader… The Winter Palace, however, is seamless in its depiction of place and time, and its telling of a complicated, human story of two women in very different – and very dangerous – positions.  Readers looking for a history lesson regarding Catherine the Great and the societal forces at play during her reign may, in fact, be disappointed:  this is a story of the behind-the-scenes intrigue, hidden love letters, illicit trysts, and sacrifices made for the future” (  This explains why I so enjoyed this novel but have had issues with other more traditional historical fiction titles.  Verdict:  excellent book, and great book club choice!  And, although we all know that Catherine the Great ends up on the throne and rules Russia for many years, Stachniak even manages, somehow, to make the ending a mystery!  That is truly the sign of a great author.  I’m interested to read her next book, about the reign of Catherin the Great, entitled Empress of the Night (but not right away… I need a break to read something more contemporary for a bit).

I also finished listening to Mo Hayder’s mystery, Hanging Hill, and it was an excellent listening experience.  The novel begins with the discovery of the body of Lorne Wood, a teenaged girl who was brutally murdered and left lying near the canal on the outskirts of Bath, England.  The case is investigated by DI Zoe Benedict, a woman with her own hidden past, and Ben, her sort-of boyfriend and partner.  Also involved in the story are Sally, Zoe’s estranged sister, who is learning to deal with her newly divorced status, and Sally’s daughter, Millie, a classmate of Lorne’s.  These characters become interwoven as the investigation proceeds and another death/missing person occurs.  I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t get into detail, but the main plot involving the investigation was more than enough to hold this listener’s interest, while the subplots that explored the relationships Zoe has with her sister and Ben were expertly interwoven into the text.  The narrator was great, and the story was interesting, although it had parts that were a bit over-the-top at times.  I found myself making excuses to create listening opportunities, like taking the extra long route home from work – that is always the sign of a good audiobook, in my opinion.  I don’t know anything about Mo Hayder, but I’m now interested in trying something else written by her.

OK, that’s all I’ve got for today.  Have a great Sunday!

Bye for now…