Monday 28 December 2015

Happy Holidays from Julie's Reading Corner...

It’s Monday, but it feels like Sunday, and I’m looking forward to yet another week off over the holidays.  Hope you had a Very Merry Christmas, and that Santa was good to you - and of course, I hope your gifts included books! I got a pair of awesome kitty mugs from our neighbour, so I am drinking my steaming tea from one of them this morning - mmmm!!!

I have many books and audiobooks to tell you about today, so I think my summaries will be brief.  The first book I read last week was We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen.  This book is one of the Ontario Library Association Forest of Reading nominees for the Red Maple Award (grades 7-8).  It is told from the point of view of two main characters in alternating chapters.  Stewart is a geeky, brilliant boy who scores high on the academic scale but low on the social one.  Ashley is hip, beautiful and popular, but not so smart academically.  When Stewart’s dad and Ashley’s mom decide to move in together, their worlds collide and it is a far cry from The Brady Bunch, where everyone gets along.  It doesn’t help that Stewart is still grieving for his mom, who passed away a few years before from cancer, or that Ashley’s parents split up because her dad is gay, something Ashley cannot share with anyone at school, not even her best friend Lauren.  Ashley is horrified to learn that this geek will be her “stepbrother”; her only consolation is that he goes to a school for gifted children on the other side of Vancouver.  But due to their relocation, Stewart decides to attend the regular high school, which means he will be in the same grade as Ashley and will be in some of her classes.  They must all, Stewart and Ashley, as well as his dad and her mom, learn to get along, and to realize that, while they have their differences, they are all made of molecules.  This hilarious, moving story was such a wonderful, insightful reading experience for me, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Stewart’s character reminded me of the main character in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher, who is also brilliant but is mildly autistic.  I don’t think Stewart is autistic, just “geeky”.  Ashley’s character, too, is hilarious but also insightful.  She is supposed to be “clueless”, but I sense that she is really alot smarter than people give her credit for.  The (hilarious!) names she calls Stewart, his friend Alistair, and Stewart’s cat, Schrodinger, demonstrate real creativity, and I suspect she is just confused and misunderstood.  This delightful read is sure to appeal not just to preteens and young adults, but to adults of any age.

I read another book this week, also set in Vancouver, but so totally different from the one mentioned above.  That Lonely Section of Hell by Lori Shenher tells the inside story of the botched Missing and Murdered Women investigation by the Vancouver Police Department, and the eventual arrest of serial killer Robert Pickton by the RCMP.  Shenher reveals the ways in which the investigation went wrong right from the very start:  from the 1998 tip about Pickton that went uninvestigated to the denial of adequate resources to run the investigation properly.  She describes the years she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder during and after working on this case, the frustrations, sexism and utter failure to follow up on leads that were provided right from the beginning.  I rarely read non-fiction, but I like watching murder mysteries, so I thought I would give this short book a try.  Well, it grabbed me right from the beginning and held my interest until the very last page.  I, like the author, felt the frustration of failure and I wanted to shout at the various police investigators, “Why aren’t you listening to what she is saying?!”  This book was clearly not exploitative, but was rather an honest, searing account of the investigation and her experiences during and after the investigation and trial;  there were few details about the murders, no photos inserted in the middle pages of the book, and it treated the women who were missing and murdered, and their families, with sensitivity and respect.  I learned so much about this case, and the ways in which investigations can go wrong, from this book that I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading police procedurals.  This kind of thing never happens in any of the books I’ve read, and some of the decisions they made and things they did were almost unbelievable - definitely “stranger than fiction”! It was fascinating, frustrating, compelling and shameful.

And speaking of police procedurals, I finished listening to The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin last week.  Rankin is most famous for his “Inspector Rebus” series - there is a new “Rebus” book that has recently come out, Even Dogs in the Wild, featuring Rebus as he comes out of retirement.  Well, I have enjoyed listening to a couple of books from his other series featuring Malcolm Fox, a police investigator working for the Lothian and Borders Police Department who has been working in the Complaints Department for a number of years.  This department is like Internal Affairs, which investigates allegations of corruption or misconduct within the police department itself.  I listened to The Complaints some time ago and enjoyed it, so my expectations were fairly high with this book, too, and it did not disappoint.  In The Impossible Dead, Fox and his team are called away to the Fife Constabulary as a disinterested third party to investigate members of their police department.  One of their officers, Paul Carter, has been found guilty of misconduct, and it is Fox’s job to determine whether fellow officers were complicit in this misconduct.  What seems like a straightforward investigation, albeit one where they face obstacles and resistance at every turn, becomes more complex and far-reaching as they dig deeper and uncover a web of secrecy, lies and corruption at all levels, possibly including prominent members of government.  Add to this the stress of an ailing father and a difficult relationship with his sister, and this reader could understand Fox’s need to immerse himself in the case and continue digging where others may have stopped and called it a day.  A complex plot, an interesting, believable protagonist, and a fabulous narrator (Peter Forbes) made this a totally enjoyable listening experience - and I love the Scottish accent, so that was a bonus!  I would highly recommend this as a good choice of audiobook if you like police procedurals.

And I read a book aloud to one of my grade 3-4 classes, The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, the first book in "The Series of Unfortunate Events”.  I read this book for myself a number of years ago, and remember enjoying it, so I chose this as a readaloud, and was delighted to find that the kids LOVED it!! We finished it the last day they visited the library before the Christmas Break, and they were enthralled to the very last page.  This book begins the journey of the Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, to create a new home and family after their parents perish in a fire, one that also destroys their entire home, a mansion that had a huge library and all of their worldly possessions.  They temporarily live with Mr Poe, a friend of their parents and a man who works at the bank and who will oversee their enormous fortune until Violet comes of age (she is just 14 years old at the time of the first book).  They are then sent to live with their closest relative (closest geographically), Count Olaf, who is a wholly despicable character, a nasty man who is only interested in getting his hands on their fortune, and he will do anything to achieve this end.  What follows are the various ways the children try to escape their fate, and the loathsome behaviour of Count Olaf and his group of friends.  This book was a fabulous readaloud, as it stretched and challenged the children’s knowledge and understanding of language and literary techniques.  They loved it, and I’m not sure that the next book I read to them will even come close to measuring up to the engagement and enjoyment we experienced with this one.  They wanted me to read the second book in the series, The Reptile Room, but I think they can take this out and read it on their own.  The next book I will read to them is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, which they may not enjoy as much, but I think they should have the opportunity to be exposed to this delightful novel.  By the way, I watched the movie, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, last night, and it was perfectly dreadful compared to the book!  It incorporated the first three books in the series (I think there are 13 in total), and I suppose, as a movie to entertain children, it was OK, but only if you had never read the book.  I only watched it because the teacher at the school had the kids watch the movie after we finished reading the first book, so I wanted to be able to talk about it with them when we get back to school.  So if you think this might be something you want to check out, please, please, please read the book!!

OK, that’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the holiday season - it will be back to the real world soon enough!

Bye for now…

Sunday 20 December 2015

Books and tea on a wintery morning...

On this chilly morning, I’m happy to have a steaming cup of tea (and a purring kitty on my lap!) to keep me warm as I think about the books I read recently.  We’ve had some snow, so it looks a bit seasonal, and to help put me in the holiday spirit, I’ve decided that this week, I will drink tea using my festive bright red snowman mug!  Hohoho!

(Before I begin my comments, I need to stress that the thoughts expressed here reflect my opinions and reading experieneces only.)

I read two disappointing books last week.  The first was Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell.  Her last novel,  completed before her sudden death in May of this year, tells the story of a young novelist, Carl Martin, who inherits his father’s house upon his death.  Carl’s father was a believer in alternative medicines, and the large cupboard in the bathroom of the house is filled with unusual capsules and vials.  After publishing a moderately successful first book, Death’s Door, Carl relies on the rent from the upper floor to be his sole form of income as he struggles to write a second novel.  His tenant, Dermot, is a strange, creepy, intensely religious man who works at a veterinary clinic nearby.  When Dermot witnesses Carl’s involvement in a friend’s death, he blackmails Carl and refuses to pay his rent.  Guilt and obsession creep insidiously into to Carl’s psyche as he slowly spirals out of control, despite the efforts of his girlfriend, Nicola.  His actions reflect his mental breakdown and he is unable to stop himself from “taking care of” additional threats and obstacles using violent means.  His deliverance, when it final arrives, takes a most unusual form.  I have read or listened to quite a few of Rendell’s books, both those in the “Inspector Wexford” series and her standalones, and have enjoyed them.  So when I stumbled across this book at the library, I thought that it would suit my mood right now - a good British mystery by a well-known and talented author.  But it was a huge disappointment for me.  I didn’t enjoy it right from the first page, but it was so “easy” to read that before I knew it, I was half finished, so I stuck with it and reached the end in just a few days. I thought the story lacked the complexity and depth I have come to expect from this author, and I didn’t really understand the purpose of the secondary plot, which seemed unnecessary and confusing.  And Carl’s character was not really believable or even likable - he seemed to be a pathetic spoiled young man who clearly could not take care of himself.  His character evoked in this reader the same feelings that the main character in Nino Ricci's novel, Sleep, did - both men spiral out of control and take different, though both violent, means to seek release.  I feel awful criticizing such a wonderful writer, so I’ll just say that this book, her 66th novel, did not appeal to me.

The second disappointing book I read last week was My Life Before Me by Norah McClintock.  This is the first book I’ve read in the “Secrets” series, a series comprised of seven books by seven different Canadian authors telling the stories of seven different young women who, after their orphanage burns down, are sent out into the world to make their own way, armed only with a single clue as to where they came from or who their parents are.  I’ve been looking forward to reading these books since they were published in September, so I brought two of them home with me to read over the holidays.  Set in the summer of 1964, My Life Before Me tells of Cady Andrews, a 16-year-old who is sent out into the world to discover her past.  She dreams of becoming a reporter at a time when women, if they can get into the newspaper business at all, cover the “Social Events” or “Fashion” columns, not “hard news”.  The headmistress at the orphanage gives Cady a newspaper clipping that was found with her when she was delivered to the orphanage, and it is up to Cady to determine what it means, and whether it has any significance in her own life.  This clipping leads her to a small town in Indiana, where she tries to uncover information about the death of Thomas Jefferson, a young black man who, imprisoned for the supposed murder of a white man, was shot while trying to escape.  Cady uses investigative techniques and quick wits to dig deeper into the racial divide of this northern town, and the more she uncovers, the more danger she, and the good people who help her, are exposed to.  What she finds reveals the truth about the murders and about her parentage, and ultimately sets Cady on the road to achieving her dream.  I love books about family secrets and solving mysteries, and this book was “ok” - I would give it 3 out of 5.  It was certainly well-written, and the mystery was complex, the characters, including the minor characters that comprised the townspeople, were interesting and varied, and the exploration into racial prejudice was done with sensitivity and skill.  But some of the ways Cady expressed herself were too mature and adult-like for a 16-year-old, and she had knowledge of some things that no one her age, even today with internet access, would have, let alone a girl who was raised in a small-town orphanage in the 1950s, a girl who rarely left the home and whose main life experience came from reading the few books she could get her hands on.  I guess my main concern is that Cady lacked the innocence and naivete that one would expect from a child who grew up in such circumstances. Having said that, I am definitely interested in reading other books in this series, and I have The Unquiet Past by Kelley Armstrong sitting on my coffee table waiting to be read.

But first I need to finish a delightful book that has recently been nominated for the Forest of Reading Red Maple Award, We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen.  I’ll tell you more about that one next time.

That’s all for today.  Have a Merry Christmas!  I hope Santa is good to you.

Bye for now…

Sunday 13 December 2015

Short post on a dreary Sunday morning...

It’s a mild, drizzly, overcast morning as I begin to write this post, with no sun in the forecast until Tuesday.  I guess this is a good day to stay inside drinking tea and reading, but I feel a bit restless - maybe I will have to don my raincoat and go out for a short walk later.

I was up early this morning and had time to finish The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.  I don’t normally read historical fiction, and this book was recently voted Best Historical Fiction title on GoodReads (which I almost never check, but I still get their email updates).  Nor am I a huge fan of domestic fiction of the sort Hannah writes. But somehow during a conversation about books with a teacher at one of my schools, this title came up, and next thing I knew, she brought it in for me to read.  I brought this 400+ page novel home and fully expected not to enjoy it, but it totally sucked me in and I had a hard time putting it down.  This novel tells the story of two sisters in France during WWII.  They are estranged both from their father and from each other, partly due to their age difference (Vianne is 10 years older than Isabelle) and partly due to their personalities.  Vianne is the mild, responsible one who always follows rules and lives a quiet life in a small French village with her husband and daughter, Sophie.  Isabelle, on the other hand, gets thrown out of one boarding school after another for a variety of reasons, mostly for not following the rules.  She craves the love and acceptance of her father, but he continually shuts her out or sends her away, as he has done with both children since their mother died.  When Germany invades France and occupies parts of the country, Vianne follows all the rules while Isabelle tries to find ways to break them and resist the Nazis.  As the seasons pass, the order in Vianne’s world begins to crumble as the Nazi occupiers change the rules daily, threatening to destroy the livelihoods of everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike.  Family members are imprisoned, friends are taken away or killed, and no one really knows what is going on.  But still Vianne does her best to follow the rules, hoping that things will get better.  Meanwhile, Isabelle joins the resistance movement and is integral in setting up the Nightingale project, a program to help downed airmen in France return to safety.  When the situation in the village becomes unbearable, Vianne is forced to break the rules and do what is right for those she loves, and she must learn to live with the consequences.  This book has a bit of everything in it:  It is a domestic story of two sisters who must learn to overcome their differences and love one another despite their past experiences.  These sisters must also learn to accept their father for who and what he is.  It is a love story, well, actually two love stories.  It is also a story of war, offering detailed descriptions of the brutal conditions and cruel treatment people were forced to endure at the hands of the Nazis, but told from the point of view of two very different women who made a difference in their own very different ways, and the difficult choices they had to make on an almost daily basis.  It was also a bit of a mystery, as it is told in the form of an extended flashback, and the reader does not discover until the very end who the main character really is.  This well-written, gripping novel is sure to appeal to readers on so many different levels, and Hannah does a great job of portraying the lives of these French sisters despite being an American writer.  It reminded me of the excellent novel we recently read for my book group, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, although they are very different novels.  While I would never normally have read this title, I’m glad my colleague left it on my desk.  I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or domestic fiction.

That’s all for today.  Happy reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 6 December 2015

First post for December...

It’s foggy and damp and mild this morning, definitely not very "wintery" weather, but I’m still enjoying my chai tea and a slice of Date Bread as I think about the "snowy" books I've read and listened to recently.

Imagine living in the Alaskan wilderness with no television, no phones and no internet, in fact, no way to contact anyone except by letter or face-to-face.  That’s just what my volunteer book group had to do with the book we read and discussed yesterday, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a modern retelling of an old Russian fairytale.  Set in Alaska in the 1920s, this novel tells the story of Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged couple who have moved to a homestead in Alaska to escape their past grief and start anew.  “Back east” in America (possibly Boston, but I'm not sure), they were surrounded by family members, but when Mabel lost their baby, her grief was such that she could no longer face being in the company of families with children.  Counting on Jack’s experience running the family farm, they decide to try their hand at farming in the harsh environs up north, seemingly as far away as they could get.  The opening chapter sees Mabel intent on ending it all, but her attempt fails and she is determined to live another day.  She and Jack go out in the snowstorm that night and play as though they were children themselves.  Deciding to build a snowman, what they create instead looks more like a child.  Jack sculpts elfin features on her face, they colour her lips with cranberry juice, and leave her with a scarf and mittens made by Mabel’s sister, Ada.  They return to their cabin and, feeling happier than they have in years, they make love and fall asleep curled up together in their cozy bed.  When they awake, they notice that the snow child is gone, along with the mittens and scarf, with just a pile of snow remaining.  They begin catching glimpses of a child running through the woods surrounding their cabin, and each secretly tries coaxing the child out of hiding.  When this is accomplished, they begin to “tame” her, to include her in the various activities of their lives.  She resists, but eventually comes around, telling them that her name is Faina, though she never seems fully committed to their way of life.  When spring comes, Faina disappears, and Jack and Mabel are distraught, searching for her, convinced they have lost her forever.  When she returns with the first snowfall, they are thrilled to have her back in their lives, and thus a pattern develops.  During this time, Jack also encourages Mabel to make friends with the woman at a nearby farm (nearby being nearly two hours away by cart!), and although she initially resists, she falls under the spell of Esther and George and their three boys, particularly the youngest, Garrett.  Esther is loud and bold and wears trousers (gasp!), completely the opposite of bookish, intellectual Mabel, but they form a strong bond that endures and sees Mabel through the toughest times at the homestead.  These long-time homesteaders can shed no light on who this child could be, and Esther is concerned that Mabel is suffering from “cabin fever”, imagining this child to fill her own need.  Is this child real, or is she a fairy, a wood sprite who appears and disappears at will?  While there are more plot developments that seem to suggest an answer, this question is ultimately left to the reader to decide.  I’d never read this book before including it on the list, but for December, I generally try to choose something either “light”, uplifting, or Christmas-themed, or sometimes I’m fortunate enough to find a good choice that ends in December, like A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle or Letters from the Country by Marsha Boulton.  This one was a good choice because so much of the story took place in the winter, and snow was a significant feature (although there is no snow on the ground here right now and it’s not even very cold outside!).  All of the book club members agreed that it was an interesting story and we liked that it was based on a classic Russian fairytale.  We also agreed that, while it started out really interesting, the middle section dragged and was too long, but then the story picked up again and was a bit of a page-turner to the end.  We put forth our ideas about what happened at the end, but despite our uncertainty, we felt that this did not detract from the enjoyment of the book, and that it actually suited the magical elements of the whole novel.  This was a great book for a discussion group, exactly because of this vagueness and uncertainty.  We discussed the more serious themes of loss and grief, parenthood, isolation, and the importance of various relationships in people's lives.  But the magic-realism aspects of the book kept it fairly light, too. We discussed fairytales, and talked about the origins of these stories and how they’ve been “sanitized” to be suitable for children.  Because of our discussion, I am now inspired to go out and read the original Grimm’s Brothers stories!   For a debut novel, Ivey did an excellent job of bringing the Alaskan wilderness to life for readers.  I would definitely recommend this book to other book clubs.

And I finished listening to an audiobook, A Cold White Sun by Vicki Delaney.  Set in the fictional northern BC town of Trafalgar, this novel opens with a middle-aged woman taking her dog for a long walk up the snowy mountain on the first day of March Break.  As she stops to take in the view, shots ring out and she falls, dead, in the snow.  An investigation ensues, and various townspeople are questioned and released.  Family secrets and hidden connections are revealed until, after another murder attempt, the perpetrator is apprehended.  There is also a romantic subplot, and different relationships among townspeople are explored in this cozy murder mystery.  Part of the “Constable Molly Smith” series, this was an easy book to listen to, although the naive attitude of some of the townspeople was sometimes irritating.  I would listen to others in this series if they were available in audio format, not one right after the other, as the stories are too simplistic for me (I’m not a big “cozy mystery” fan), but it was just what I needed after the complexities of The Silkworm.  I’ve now moved on the The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin, and I suspect that complexities abound in that book!  

That’s all for today.  Happy reading, everyone!

Bye for now…

Sunday 29 November 2015

Tea and books on a bright frosty morning...

I’ve been up for quite some time already, and have been busy cooking and doing laundry, with the plan to take advantage of the bright day to hang some sheets on the clothesline outside - there’s nothing like the smell of freshly laundered sheets that have been dried outside.  While hanging out the sheets, I enjoyed walking on the frost-covered, crunchy lawn, and just appreciated the beauty of the white crust on each blade of grass.  The weather this weekend, both days, is perfect for me - slightly below zero, bright and sunny, not slippery... ideal walking weather.

I got some bittersweet news recently.  The Books editor for our local paper is retiring, and so they are changing the Books page. I have been writing book reviews for the paper for several years now, but unfortunately this opportunity is no longer available - rumour has it that the Books page will be dealt with by someone in a nearby city.  I’m happy for the editor, who will finally have time to read all the books on his list!  But I really enjoyed reviewing for the paper, and it gave me an opportunity to read books I would have otherwise not known about.  But there is an up-side to this, as I realized when I was deciding last Sunday which book to read next.  I found that I could read whatever I wanted!  I didn’t need to read a review book, I didn’t need to read a book for my committee (tomorrow is the last day we can add any new books for our consideration), I could choose to read anything!  It was very freeing... But, like anyone who is used to having limitations imposed upon them for an extended period of time, I approached my freedom with caution.  

I chose to read a book that I originally received to review, but I was able to read it without always thinking about how I would review it.  The book I chose to read was Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks.  Robert Hendricks is a psychiatrist in London in the 1980s, a man who has achieved moderate fame in his field for his pioneering approach to understanding mental illness in the 1960s and for the lone book he published, The Chosen Few, which explored the link between heredity and mental illness, which he never discussed and seems almost ashamed to acknowledge.  Shortly after returning from a business trip to New York, he receives a strange but intriguing letter from a man who claims to have information about his father, who died in the war when Robert was just a toddler.  Robert knows almost nothing about his father, as his mother refused to talk about him as he was growing up, but he sets the letter aside and gets on with unpacking and returning to his life.  Some days later, he is drawn to the letter again, and he researches the writer, Alexander Pereira, to find out more about him.  Pereira, along with offering information about Robert’s father, also requests that Robert agree to be his literary executor, as he believes he has some valuable research to offer into the area of the treatment of mental illness, if only the information could be organized and presented in the right way to editors or publishers.  This is where Robert comes in.  After confirming that Pereira is who he claims to be, Robert agrees to visit the remote island off the coast of France, and arrives with little or no expectations.  Rather than an exploration into Pereira’s life and works, however, what Robert finds is an opportunity to reconnect with his past and make sense of his experiences.  Never willing to think about his past, neither when he was a schoolboy living on the farm with his mother, when he was fighting in the trenches in WWII, nor when he was setting up the Biscuit Factory, the treatment centre he began with two colleagues,  Robert refuses to let his experiences define him.  He is unable to connect to the people or things around him, and sees everything in a disconnected fashion.  He is unable to form relationships, and admits, just a few pages into the book, that “all the connections I’ve made with people over more than sixty years of living can’t conceal the fact that I am utterly alone”.  With Pereira, however, Robert is coerced into talking about his past, and his experiences in WWII, his connections with the men in his battalion, and the mysterious, elusive young Italian woman, Luisa, with whom Robert fell in love and for whom he has been carrying a torch for nearly forty years.  What follows is an exploration into his life, how his experiences shaped him and influenced his choices, and what it means to be human. This novel was a compelling read for me for a number of reasons.  It was a love story and an exploration into the effects war has on the body and the mind of anyone who fights.  I also love a book where family secrets are revealed, and this book had that covered.  It also recounted the development of psychiatry and treatment of mental illness in Britain in the 20th century, as well as exposing the absurdity of so many of the major events of that century.  It explored memory, the reliability of it, the value of revisiting the past, and ways we use memories to reshape ourselves.  This book had so much to offer, and was brilliant… until the ending, which I found to be rather flat, predictable and anticlimactic.  But there were many, many sections that held so much promise, and I wonder if my expectations were raised too high because of these parts.  I had almost no expectations when I started the book, as I’d never read anything else by this British author, so I was amazed at the writing skill and the way Faulks could express the essential struggles of the human psyche in one individual who, having shut himself off from others for forty years, is suddenly overcome with a flood of memories and experiences.  I don't want to discourage anyone from reading this book, just because I didn't like the ending. It was well worth the reading time I invested in it, and so I would recommend it to readers who like books about re-examined lives and the search for identity. I want to share one of my favourite passages from the book, where Robert talks about Minitel, a small computer screen and keyboard attached to your telephone line that could allow individuals to access timetables and book tickets without having to wait on hold to speak to a harassed train clerk.  If it expanded internationally, everyone with a phone line would be linked - “you’d soon be able to type the name of an old school-friend into your Minitel, hit ‘Go’ and the person’s address and phone number would pop up - perhaps even with a photograph.  This sounded quite wrong to me.  Childhood and its friends can’t come bursting back into the shadowless present;  they must... live in a place on which the door had been closed, but where the caress of memory can periodically re-mould them into something meaningful:  their job, in other words, is to be fictional characters.”  Oh, what would Robert think of Facebook?!

That’s all I’ve got for you today.  Enjoy the sun!

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 November 2015

Books, audiobooks and tea on a snowy morning...

As I peer through the window, it looks like a winter wonderland outside, all fresh and white and fluffy.  OK, I’m not the one who has to shovel the sidewalk or our long driveway, so I understand that not everyone finds this as awesome, bright and beautiful as I do, but really, who doesn’t get excited by the first snow of the season?!  

Speaking of snow, I read a book earlier in the week by BC author Robert Wiersema called Black Feathers.  This novel is told from the point of view of Cassandra (Cassie) Weathers, a 16-year old girl living on the streets of Victoria.  She has recently run away from home and is trying to escape and start fresh, but winter is setting in and the conditions on the streets are tough.  What she is trying to escape from, we are not sure. Alone and frightened, she is befriended by Skylark, another homeless women who, though also young, has much more experience living on the streets.  She invites Cassie to join her at the soup truck, and while enjoying a hot bowl of soup and a bun, she is introduced to "the community" led by charismatic Brother Paul.  Cassie is wary, but she doesn’t know where else to go, and she desperately craves the friendship and guidance Skylark offers.  This arrangement seems like a temporary solution to Cassie’s problems, but she also suffers from night terrors, in which her reality and her dream world are interwoven until she is not sure what is real and what is her imagination.  When one of the women from the community is found dead the next morning, Cassie flees, having dreamt that she killed her, which makes her feel somehow responsible for her death, although she knows this cannot be true.  She is also taken in by Ali, a waitress at a Chinese restaurant with whom she forms an attachment.  Cassie has yet another protector, Constable Harrison, who warns her to be safe, and advises her to return home.  All the while, prostitutes are being murdered in the city at night, and the reader is introduced to the Darkness, the serial killer who is committing these murders.  The jottings and ruminations of the Darkness begin each part of the book, offering insight into his twisted mind.  As Cassie continues to flee and tries to determine what is real and what is all in her imagination, and as the constable tries to find the killer, while also keeping Cassie safe, readers are subjected to gruesome descriptions that seem unnecessarily detailed. The conclusion is finally reached, but it holds little surprise. OK, I occasionally read these types of books, the serial killer/stalker kinds, but this book was so confusing and inconsistent that I struggled to stick with it to the end.  The writing was not bad, particularly Cassie’s dream/wake-state sections, the descriptions were vivid (though sometime too vivid!), and the insight into the struggles faced by the homeless was powerful.  But there are better books like this out there.  In Birdie,Tracey Lindberg also used the dream/wake-state narrative for her main character, and she did so with more skill.  And as for serial killer/stalker books, I preferred Giles Blunt’s book, Hesitation Cut, although I thought it may be too creepy for some readers.  So I guess I’m saying that I would not recommend this book - it wasn’t terrible, but in hindsight, I would have been better off reading something else for those three days.

So I was pleasantly surprised to pick up a book I recently ordered for my school libraries and found it so absorbing that I had trouble putting it down.  The book is The Fall by James Preller, and it is a young adult novel extraordinaire.  This short but intense book explores the inner thoughts of the narrator, Sam Proctor, as he works through his guilt at his possible contribution to the bullying that caused one of his schoolmates, Morgan Mallen, to jump off the water tower one night.  Told in the form of journal entries, this novel perfectly reflects the thought processes of Sam as he reviews the development of his relationship with Morgan, the things he did right and the many things he did wrong, which added to Morgan’s already-heavy burden.  Preller uses cliches aplenty, mostly in a sarcastic way, but he also manages to explore the fundamental truths underlying some of these well-worn beliefs and sayings.  Using the journal as a vehicle to explore his feelings, Sam moves through various stages, first denial, then remorse, and finally forgiveness (“a gift you give yourself”) in a genuine voice that is sure to make readers of all ages identify with and sympathize with this protagonist, who is not really a bad guy, just someone who was not strong enough to stand up to peer pressure, but someone who is openminded enough to learn from his mistakes and try to make things better.  Despite a couple of weak moments, including the introduction of a bit of magic-realism at the end, I thought it was an excellent novel that explores the effects of bullying and cyberbullying in today's society. I would highly recommend this YA novel as a class readaloud for grades 7 and 8, as it is sure to be a great discussion-starter.

And I finished an audiobook this week, The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J K Rowling).  Book 2 of the Cormoran Strike series following The Cuckoo’s Calling, this novel sees Strike and his assistant Robin take on a case to find mildly successful author Owen Quine, who has been missing for about a week.  This is not unusual, as he often takes himself off for a few days, either with his current mistress or just to get away and write.  But this time, he’s been away longer than usual, and his dowdy wife is anxious - when he is away, Leonora is the sole caregiver for their adult developmentally challenged daughter Orlando.  Quine has recently threatened to self-publish a scandalous novel, Bombyx Mori, that reveals the dirty secrets of people he’s known in the writing and publishing world, poorly disguised as characters in the book.  Tired of following cheating husbands so that his clients, wealthy wives, can get rid of them and sue for even more money, Strike accepts this job because of the novelty of a wife actually wanting to find her husband and be reunited, despite his philanderings and notoriety.  What he finds instead is a tangled web of lies and deception, much like the plots of the Jacobean revenge tragedies from which Rowling quotes at the beginning of each chapter.  When a gruesome murder is discovered, everyone comes under suspicion and Strike and Robin must act fast and think creatively to find the evidence that will free the innocent and bring the guilty party to justice. Interesting characters, both honourable and despicable, abound in this lengthy murder mystery, and it was a good, though over-long and unnecessarily complex, listening experience.  I’ll admit that I stopped trying to keep track of the details by the 10th part (there were 17 parts to the audiobook - yikes!), and I was happy to reach the end, if only to have the opportunity to listen to something else.  The narration was great, the development of the relationship between Cormoran and Robin was interesting, and the relationship between Leonora and Orlando was touching, but I didn’t enjoy this book as much as The Cuckoo’s Calling.  It just seemed like it was trying too hard - trying too hard to be complex and clever, and trying too hard to be too literary. The third book in this series, Career in Evil has recently been published, and I’m sure that once it is available as an audiobook, I will download it, but I’m happy to wait for that.

That’s all for today - I think it’s time to go out and play in the snow!

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 November 2015

Book talk on a clear, cool morning...

As the days grow colder, my appreciation for a hot cup of tea increases, and this morning is no exception.  I don’t have a little treat today, since I went to two church craft and bake sales and one similar event at our local community centre yesterday.  Of course delicious homemade baked goods were in abundance, and how can you not take advantage of such offerings, while also supporting worthy organizations?!  (that’s how I was justifying it to myself all day yesterday as I ate cookie after cookie… “it’s for a good cause…”)

I met with my Friends book group on Monday to discuss a book I had read before, just over 10 years ago.  I had forgotten about this book until a friend from the library recently mentioned that she just finished listening to this book and absolutely loved it, so I must have put it forth as a recommendation for our group sometime in the summer.  The book is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafón, his first adult novel after writing several books for young adults.  This book tells the story of Daniel Sempere, a young boy in post-war Barcelona who, upon realizing that he can no longer remember his deceased mother’s face, falls into despair.  One day his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge hidden library of old books, watched over by the elderly caretaker, Isaac.  Being a new initiate, Daniel is allowed to choose one book that he can take home with him, and he wanders the corridors perusing the stacks of books.  He is drawn, finally, to one book, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax, which he ultimately chooses to take.  The book he has chosen tells the story of a man who is searching for his father, and Daniel becomes completely engrossed in the novel.  In his search to find other books by this author, he becomes involved in a complex plot that spans decades and involves a variety of characters.  His first encounter is with a bookseller and friend of his father’s, Gustavo Barceló, who tries to convince Daniel to sell the book to him, offering huge sums of money for the item.  Of course, Daniel refuses to sell, but during this visit he is introduced to Gustavo’s daughter, Clara, who is beautiful and also blind.  Daniel is smitten with this older woman (he is 11 and she is 18), and he uses her blindness as an excuse to visit the Barceló home often, ostensibly to read to her.  One day, his heart is broken when he discovers Clara and her music teacher intimately involved in her room.  He storms out and refuses to see her again.  Several years pass and Daniel, now a young man, increases his efforts to find out more about this mysterious writer, Carax, who supposedly died in Barcelona in the 1930’s, although there is also a story that he died in Paris in the 1920’s.  It appears that a sinister man, claiming to be Lain Coubert, a character from Carax's book, is searching for and destroying all copies of the author's books. As Daniel gets more involved in the search for the truth, he enlists the help of Fermin Romero de Torres, a man Daniel found living on the street, in need of a good meal and a place to sleep.  He and his father take care of Fermin and give him a job in their bookstore, but it is his friendship with Daniel that is most significant in the story.  Fermin had been imprisoned during the war for espionage activities and has been blacklisted by the local police, headed by Francisco Javier Fumero, a former schoolmate of Carax’s, and an utterly nasty character.  At this time, Daniel also renews his friendship with childhood friend Tomás Aguilar, with whom he once had a close friendship.  He also rediscovers Tomás’ sister, Beatriz, with whom he slowly and secretly falls in love, secretly because she is engaged to an army officer.  The plot thickens as Daniel uncovers more connections within and among various people in the city, publishers, booksellers, the hatter, the police chief, and the members of the wealthy family who once lived in the mansion at the top of the hill.  As Daniel digs deeper and deeper, he uncovers family secrets and hidden connections, all the while falling in love and creating close relationships.  This book has humour, intrigue, mystery, romance, melodrama and politics.  It is about the loss of innocence and the discovery of one’s true identity;  it is also a novel about books, an ode to reading and writing, and it offers a look at post-war Spain through the eyes of a young man.  His descriptions were amazing, creating the atmosphere of the dark, shadowy streets of Barcelona as seen through Daniel’s eyes.  These were my thoughts, but not everyone agreed.  In fact, there were only two of us out of six who actually finished the book.  Two others were running out of time and were planning to finish after the meeting, and the last two gave up about a third of the way into the book.  They found it too long, too descriptive, and not really engaging.  There were too many characters, and the plot was too far-fetched and unbelievable.  I can see how people would feel this way, but those of us who stuck with it past the first 200 pages (it has about 500 pages) agreed that it gets more interesting and more engaging.  Knowing that he wrote young adult novels before this one explains many aspects of the novel, such as the ages of the main characters and the style he used.  It was not a totally successful choice, but I bet it would be more successful with my volunteer group, who I feel would better appreciate the style and the story.  Maybe I will recommend it to them next time we meet.  I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good gothic mystery and doesn’t mind descriptive narrative (which I usually don’t like, but this book totally swept me along!). Note: this book was followed by a prequel, The Angel's Game and finally, The Prisoner of Heaven.

I also read the latest novel by Canadian author Simone St James, The Other Side of Midnight.  Set in London in 1925, it tells the story of Ellie Winter, a young woman living alone in her mother’s house in St John’s Wood who becomes involved in the investigation into the murder of estranged friend Gloria Sutter.  Gloria’s brother, George, arrives at Ellie’s door the day after his sister is murdered with a note Gloria delivered to his hotel the night before, “Ask Ellie Winter to find me”.  Ellie and Gloria are mediums, able to contact the dead on the other side.  After the Great War, their services were very much in demand by families wishing to contact their dead soldier sons and husbands.  Ellie no longer contacts the dead, but only offers services to help people find lost things.  Reluctantly she agrees to help in the investigation, feeling guilty because it was she who ended the close friendship the women enjoyed until a few years earlier, and she who ignored the peace offering Gloria made after the death of Ellie’s mother.  Ellie is further convinced to help Sutter with the investigation because of the involvement of James Hawley, member of an organization tasked with debunking fraudulent psychics, a man for whom she has held strong feelings since their first meeting a few years earlier, also in the company of Gloria.  Gloria was drowned in a pond while performing a seance for new clients, the Dubbses, but the whole thing seems out of character for Gloria, as she never offers her services at the homes of her clients and she always books her appointments through her assistant, Davies, a woman who knew nothing of this last engagement.  As Ellie and James search for clues and try to uncover the truth about what really happened to Gloria, they find themselves in increasing danger, while also falling madly in love.  I recently listened to an audio version of The Haunting of Maddy Clare, and so I was quite excited to get this book.  St James is a master at creating atmosphere.  You really feel as thought you are there, and I was reminded of one of my favourite books, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, while reading this book.  Both heroines were timid, both had to make a living somehow, as they had no living parents and no marriage prospects.  They each entered into their situation rather reluctantly, not really knowing what to expect, and both turned out to be smarter and stronger than they believed they could be.  And they both became close to and protective of their canine companions. It was a fun, light read, a ghost story with, of course, a strong romantic subplot.  Another gothic mystery, I would recommend this book if you are in the mood for a quick read.

That’s all for today.  Happy Reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 8 November 2015

Tea and book talk on a bright clear November morning...

I’m sipping my chai tea and nibbling on a slice of freshly baked Date Bread as I think about our recent book club discussion, and plan out my reading time for today, as I have another book club meeting tomorrow night and I’ve still got over 100 pages to go - yikes!

My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss a book I’d never read before, The Creator’s Map by Emilio Calderon.  I selected this book because it was one of the titles that my public library offered as a book club set, so clearly some Reader’s Advisory librarian felt that it was a good title for a book club, and sometimes I look to other sources for book choices for my own book club.  This novel, whose main character is based on a real person, tells the story of José María, a young man who, while studying architecture at the Spanish Academy in Rome 1937, where a group of Spanish scholars and other exiles is taking refuge, gets mixed up in a plot to undermine the Nazis as they attempt to invade Italy, a plot headed by Montse, the young beautiful daughter of one of the richest men at the Academy, with whom José falls in love.  While everyone else is pro-fascist and supports Franco and Hitler, José is not interested in politics at all, until he meets Montse.  She is is elusive, secretive, and standoffish, but José’s heart is lost to her, and he is determined to do whatever it takes to win her over.  He suspects that there is a romantic relationship between Montse and Prince Junio, an ardent fascist supporter, Gestapo official and personal emissary to Heinrich Himmler, but how can that be, with Montse so strongly against Hitler?  It seems that José’s only way to win her heart is to expose Junio for who he really is… but what is his true identity?  José becomes involved in the mission Montse has been tasked with, to gather information about the Nazis and pass it on to a British Intelligence agency, including their moves regarding the search for the Creator’s May, a map that has been rumoured to be created by God, showing where the greatest powers are concentrated on earth, and supposedly housed in the Vatican library.  When they manage to steal the map and open it, it turns out to be poisoned, and of course, it is a fake, but this leads to speculation on both sides, the fascists and the resistance - who poisoned the map?  who planted the map?  why was the priest killed?  and most importantly, how is Junio involved and whose side is he on?  It was a bit like The Da Vinci Code and also reminded me of The Name of the Rose, but not nearly as well done.  In fact, we all agreed that it was a confusing book to read, that it was difficult to follow the plot, and that José was a weak character (one member called him a “milquetoast”).  But we also agreed that it was really interesting to learn about the experiences of the people of Spain in the years leading up to and during WWII, which is not something we read about often.  I was thinking the same thing as I was reading the book, that I have read many books about war experiences from the British perspective, the German perspective, the Canadian and American perspectives, even from the Australian and Japanese perspectives, but never from the Spanish or Italian ones, so it was definitely a history lesson for me.  And it was interesting to read about the relationship between the Vatican and the Third Reich, which was what historian Calderon wanted to explore in the novel.  While we didn’t really enjoy the book, everyone was glad they read it, and it led to an interesting and lively discussion.  So I would not necessarily recommend it for the plot, characters or use of language, but it was an interesting look at the history of the Spanish exiles in Rome at that period in history, and while the plot was confusing and it was not extremely well-written, I found it to be a quick read, both because it was a short novel and because it was fast-paced.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 November 2015

Books and tea on an extra long day...

As I sip my chai tea and nibble on a cinnamon bun from the market, I’m wishing that we could somehow manage to get an extra hour every Sunday, or even the last Sunday of every month.  That would be awesome!  Alas, it is only once a year, and then there’s the extremely difficult “payback” in the spring, so enjoy it while you can!!

Last week I read a book to be reviewed for the local paper, the latest novel by John Banville, The Blue Guitar.   I was really excited to get this title, as I recently listened to an audio version of the Booker Prize winning The Sea by Banville, which I really enjoyed (see my post from August 19, 2015 for a full description of that one).  So I will admit that my expectations were already high, even before I opened the book.  And it started off really well.  Oliver Otway Orme is a painter, a thief and an adulterer.  While he enjoyed a brief period of moderate fame, he has recently lost the ability to paint.  But he continues to commit petty thefts and engage in affairs.  He steals items that he neither needs nor particularly wants, but which he hopes will be missed by their rightful owners.  He also engages in passing affairs with whomever will have him, though why any woman would desire him is beyond his understanding, since he is “fat, with a big head and tiny feet”.  These affairs are as meaningless to him as his thefts, until he meets Polly.  A more significant affair ensues, until, like one of the items he has stolen, the novelty wears off and he falls out of love with her.  All of these events take place without anyone being aware… or do they?  At the time the novel takes place, he is trying to extricate himself from his connection with Polly, a tangled and messy situation that is sad and pathetic and comic in its absurdity.  As Olly contends with the external storms that occur around him (“oh, pathetic fallacy”), and the one that rages within, he condemns his past and all he has experienced and is experiencing, while also searching for the very essences of these experiences in order to sing their praises.  It is this search for the essence of things, for the “true subject”, for “authenticity”, that brings Olly to the state he is in as he sequesters himself away from everyone he knows.  And it is only when the truth of himself is revealed, as seen through the eyes of others, that he is he able to begin the journey of self-realization and self-acceptance.  This book is divided into three parts:  In Parts I and II, the narrative is delivered in a contemptuous tone, portraying Olly’s scornful attitude towards others.  But the tone in Part III changes from lording and cynical to woeful and self-pitying, which, while not necessarily making for a likable narrator, perhaps makes for a more realistic one.  The “blue guitar” of the title comes from a poem written by Wallace Stevens, “The man with the blue guitar”, a poem influenced by Pablo Picasso’s painting The Old Guitarist.  So it is no wonder that Olly sees himself as an actor in his own life, and views life always as an imitation of art.  Banville’s use of language, his imagery and descriptions, are amazing - I was regularly stopping to read passages out to my husband.  But this book seems to lack the narrative flow that I found in The Sea, feeling instead as though the story was somehow cobbled together with no real plan, and Part III was, in my opinion, not nearly as convincing as the first two parts.  Perhaps this was done intentionally, to demonstrate Olly’s deterioration, and if so, it was fairly effective.  Unfortunately, while I’d love to give the benefit of the doubt to this talented and seasoned author, my feeling as I reached the final page and closed the book was one of disappointment.  Perhaps due to my exceedingly high expectations, or my previous reading experience, I felt that this book just didn’t measure up.

And I finished listening to a rather scary book last week (just in time for Halloween!) by Simone St James, The Haunting of Maddy Clare.  This novel tells the story of Sarah Piper, a twenty-something single girl trying to make ends meet in London in the early 1920s, working for a temporary agency and living in a shabby bedsit.  She receives a call from the agency asking if she is interested in a week’s work, beginning immediately.  She is to meet the client at a pub that afternoon.  Since she has not been working recently, is falling behind in her rent, and is dreading another night alone in her room with no prospects, she agrees.  She meets young, handsome Alistair Gellis, a writer and ghost hunter, and becomes his assistant on his latest excursion to the English village of Waringstoke, where the pair are tasked with getting rid of the ghost of Maddy Clare, a young servant girl who hanged herself in the barn but who continues to haunt the barn and cause mischief.  Gellis needs Sarah’s help because, according to her employer, Mrs. Clare, Maddy hated men, and advised that it would take a woman to successfully contact Maddy and convince her to leave.  As she goes into the barn to face Maddy alone, armed with the latest audio visual equipment (a recorder and camera), she encounters some truly terrifying events, including being raised up and then abruptly thrown down again by Maddy. Maddy also speaks to Sarah and gives her haunting visions, asking her to find out what happened to her before she mysteriously arrived at the Clare household seven years before, clearly battered and beaten, terrified and mute.  Shaken, but resolved to helping Maddy, Sarah sticks with Alistair despite the danger she feels she may be in.  Meanwhile, Alistair’s regular assistant and wartime friend, Matthew, shows up, and the sparks begin to fly.  Maddy is obsessed with Alistair, threatening to “take him” unless Sarah finds out who attacked her all those years ago, the only clues the visions Maddy shares with her.  Sarah and Matthew must solve this mystery before Maddy possesses Alistair entirely, yet they must also contend with their strong attraction towards one another.  St James is a star at creating atmosphere, and this creepy story kept my listening eagerly to the very last line.  I’ve read another book by this author, An Inquiry into Love and Death, and I think I enjoyed this one more - it was certainly creepier and more exciting!  And the love story… whew!  Very passionate, very emotional and very descriptive!  I would highly recommend this gothic novel to anyone who feels in the mood for a traditional English village ghost story.

That’s all for today.  What will you do with your extra hour?

Bye for now…