Friday 20 February 2015

Tea and book talk on a really chilly, below-average cold winter afternoon...

On this bright, cold Friday afternoon, I’m at home with a hot cup of tea (just the regular kind, nothing fancy) and a slice of Date Bread as the schools are closed due to extremely cold weather so I have the day off work.  I thought this would be a good time to write this week’s blog post and free up my Sunday morning, since I had the opportunity to finish a book this morning and would love to write about it while it’s still fresh in my mind.
Before I do that, I should just give an update on Peter Carey’s novel, Amnesia, which I wrote about last week.  I did, in fact, finish it on Sunday afternoon, and the ending was easier to read than the middle section, more focused and direct.  But while the plot made an abrupt environmental shift, which provided a totally plausible cause for Gaby’s hacktivism, in this reader’s opinion, it came too late to save the story, and was barely explored, which made me wonder why Carey bothered to introduce it at all.  So still not a really good book, although the ending did provide some sort of redemption, but again, not enough to save to rest of the book.
And in my list of Australian authors I’ve read, I forgot to include Liane Moriarty (The Husband’s Secret) – I just put her latest book, Big Little Lies, on hold at the library.
Over the past five days, I’ve flown through the page-turning mystery-thriller The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson.  This roller coaster book was, in my opinion, not as good The Silent Wife, but far better than Gone Girl, by leaps and bounds.  This novel, told in alternating chapters, tells the story of Ted and Miranda and Lily and Brad, each of whom plans to kill at least one of the others.  It’s a cat-and-mouse game of “who will kill whom and get away with it” that becomes so far-fetched and complicated that, at times, this reader had to recheck who was narrating that particular chapter, yet by the end, it managed to seem almost believable again, and the conclusion was both plausible and satisfying.  Much like Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train (I’ve never read the book, but I’ve seen the movie at least a couple of times), Ted and Lily, supposedly strangers, meet in London’s Heathrow airport and get talking over drinks in the airport lounge as their flight to Boston is delayed.  Ted opens up to Lily about his cheating wife’s infidelity with their building contractor and his desire to be rid of her without losing a substantial portion of his riches in a divorce settlement.  Lily presents an alternative that at first seems to be a response made in jest, but the more they talk about it, the better it sounds.  By the end of the flight, Ted and Lily have a deal that involves trust, secrecy and murder.  It doesn’t hurt that Lily is a stunning beauty with loads of flowing red hair and a smattering of freckles across her nose, enhancing an otherwise pale, flawless complexion.  But these types of arrangements, as any reader of mysteries knows, rarely go according to plan, and things often go from bad to worse as complications arise.  The plot of this novel twists and turns until the reader is not sure who to trust and whether anyone will reach the end still breathing.  It was definitely a fast-paced read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys a complex plot filled with mystery and suspense, a devilishly thrilling read that will leave you furiously turning pages to the very end.
And I’m nearly finished an audiobook entitled Found Wanting by Robert Goddard.  This novel tells the story of Richard Eusden, a British civil servant with the Foreign Office who unwittingly becomes involved in a plot to uncover the truth about the mystery surrounding Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, lone surviving daughter of the last Czar of Russia.  The answer supposedly lies in the attaché case owned by Clem Hewitson, long-deceased great-uncle of Richard’s oldest and best friend, Marty Hewitson.  When Richard, lamenting his boring life and desperate for a change, encounters his ex-wife Gemma, on the way to work one day, he is more than usually receptive to her cries for help when Gemma asks him to take a train to Brussels to meet her other ex-husband, Marty, to pass on a package, Uncle Clem’s attaché case.  Things get immediately complicated and more characters are introduced in this complex attempt to uncover the secrets buried in the case’s contents.  The story takes us from Brussels to Hamburg to Copenhagen to Helsinki and beyond with Richard, uncovering clues and chasing dead ends and deceptions, all in the course of one week, until I’ve become so muddled in the details of the story that I am just looking forward to getting to the end.  It’s a very complex and complicated plot, perhaps unnecessarily so, but still entertaining enough that I’ve been interested up to now.  But I don’t think I will rush to find other audiobooks available by this author, although the narrator, David Rintoul, is excellent.
That’s all for today.  Have a great weekend, and stay warm!
Bye for now...

Monday 16 February 2015

Books and tea on a bright sunny holiday Monday...

As I sip my delicious chai and enjoy a slice of Date Bread, it’s a bright, chilly morning, but it’s not as cold as it has been this past week.  I know people are getting a bit tired of the cold and snow, but days like this help somewhat, when you go outside and find that it’s just a bit warmer than it was, and you feel a sense of relief.  At least that’s my experience.

I’ve been reading a book that I plan to review soon, but have not quite finished yet – I hope to do so this afternoon.  It is Peter Carey’s newest book, Amnesia.  I was so excited to get this book that I had really high expectations, and it started out great, but by the halfway point it began to go downhill and it’s headed in that direction steadily ever since.  I’m hoping the ending will offer some redemption for this novel by two-time Book Prize-winning Australian author Carey.  This book begins with a computer virus, the Angel Worm, being released and hacking into the Australian prison system’s computers.  This worm also inadvertently hacked into the American prison system’s computers, but whether this was intentional or not is left to be determined.  The American government thinks that the hacker, Gabrielle “Gaby” Baillieux, knew that this would happen and wants to extradite her to the U.S. and put her on trial there, where, if found guilty, she may face the death penalty.  Gaby’s mother, Celine, and wealthy businessman Woody Townes, enlist disgraced left-wing journalist Felix Moore to write Gaby’s story and make her so “Australian” that the book will save her from extradition.  Moore, known as Felix “Moore-or less correct”, has recently been found guilty of slander and has been left shamed, unemployable, and banished from his home, his wife and his two daughters.  He has no choice but to take on this project, as much as his gut tells him not to do it;  he desperately needs the money.  Felix, Celine and Woody are old friends from their university days, when Celine was a left-wing activist and struggling actress and Felix pined for her for years.  Promised exclusive access to the subject, Felix is ultimately left to write Gaby’s biography and possibly save her life by cobbling together her story from two bags full of cassette tapes and mini-cassettes featuring the ramblings of Celine and Gaby while “imprisoned” himself in a hut or cottage far from the real world and the company of others.  All of this is seen through the lens of Felix’s obsession with the history of Australia’s relationship with the U.S. spanning over 40 years, particularly the coup of 1975, during which the CIA was suspected of playing a role in the unseating of the Australian Labour prime minister Gough Whitlam as a payback for his withdrawal from Vietnam.  While the novel starts out promising an investigation into this role, or the political motivations of the hacker, or even the results of the computer systems’ corruption, we get none of these things.  Instead, the reader is subjected to the ramblings of Celine about her faltering, unhappy marriage to political leader Sando and her sense of failure as a mother, particularly when Gaby is arrested but then let off without charges being laid.  Page after page of seemingly-unedited, directionless blathering is what I am experiencing right now, with less than 100 pages to go, so I’m hoping it will pick up as I near the end.  Shame on me for criticizing this talented author, but it’s almost as if he doesn’t know what story he wants to tell, so he’s made notes on a few different stories and threw them all together into one book.  This novel lacks focus, and it just now occurs to me that I have the same feeling about this book as I did about Ann Marie MacDonald’s novel, Adult Onset.  So I can’t say I would recommend this novel, although it may all come together in the end.  It started out to be such an intriguing, darkly funny, yet serious literary treat that I must stick with it just in case it turns out to be worth the effort.

But this makes me think of other Australian authors I’ve read.  I can think of only a handful:  Bryce Courtenay (Smoky Joe’s Café, Jessica), Janet Turner Hospital (Due Preparation for the Plague), Richard Flanagan (Narrow Road to the Deep North), Colleen McCoullough (The Thornbirds), Michael Robotham (many novels), Christos Tsioklas (The Slap) and of course Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda, Amnesia).  There are many others that I should explore, but that may be a project I undertake another time – I have so little time to read just for fun these days.

That’s all for today.  Happy Family Day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 8 February 2015

Books and treats on a dull winter morning...

It’s a “double-double” kind of morning here in Julie’s Reading Corner, since I have two treats to enjoy and two books to tell you about as I sip my steaming chai tea on this dull, gray morning.  I was at the market earlier than usual yesterday morning and was so thrilled to see a few Vanilla Scones at the Future Bakery stall that I bought one before I remembered that I was going to bake Date Bread this morning.  The answer to my diemma?  Eat both!  (I will go on a long walk this afternoon to work them off).

My volunteer book club met yesterday to discuss Lisa Moore’s novel, February, which was recommended by one of the book club members.  This novel is really an exploration of grief, in particular the grief of Helen, the widow of a man who died in the oil rig disaster off the coast of Newfoundland on Valentine’s Day, 1982.  She was a young mother of three at the time, with a fourth on the way, although neither she nor her husband, Cal, knew it at the time.  When disaster struck, Helen could not properly grieve, as she had to get on with life, day after day after day, until 26 years passes without allowing herself to mourn her loss and the loss her family had suffered.  She dwells on what she doesn’t know about Cal’s death, and imagines again and again what his last minutes may have been like, hoping that he died playing cards with other men on the rig.  Her children have suffered as well, particularly John, the oldest child and only boy, who feels he must take responsibility for the family, and yet is unable to take responsibility as an adult.  When he contacts his mother from the other side of the world and tells her that a woman he met in Iceland seven months ago just told him she’s pregnant with his child, he is hoping she will allow him to once again shirk his responsibility, but her response is exactly what he needs to hear, and guides him in the right direction without ordering him to do one thing or another.  I hadn’t read this novel before putting it on this year’s book list, but when I read the synopsis just before starting the book, I thought, “Oh no, another dark, depressing book!”  One of my book club members has commented that we always read depressing books, which may be mostly true, but that may be because they are the best kind of books to discuss.  Anyway, I began the book not expecting to enjoy it at all, despite the fact that it was the Canada Reads winner in 2013.  This book, though, far exceeded my expectations.  It was sad and depressing, but it looked at grief and grieving in a raw and honest way that was, according to one of my members, “very revealing”.  Another of my members called to tell me she was not going to come to the meeting because she didn’t want to weep in front of the rest of the group.  She had lost her husband 27 years ago, when she, too, was a young mother, and this book was just too close to her own experience.  She said that she wants her kids to read it, though, so that they could better understand what she had gone through while they were growing up.  I thought that Moore, whose works I have never read before now, used incredible language and imagery to explore this emotionally complex area with sensitivity and grace.  It was all about love and loss, and about the ordinariness and preciousness of everyday life.  When describing an anonymous woman who asks to share a table with John in a crowded coffee shop, Moore writes, “She unzips her jacket and sighs so deeply that she falls into herself like a cake.”  And later, when Helen is waiting for her flight home from Paris, she watches as a Cleaning Operative uses a long-handled claw to extract a crumpled napkin from under the seat of a sleeping man.  Helen imagines that the cleaning operative had reached into the man’s dreams and snatched away a plot twist, the key or turning point on which everything hinged, or that the napkin was the plug that kept the man’s dreams from whirling down the drain in a great spiral into a parallel universe.  These and many other moments like them helped give this otherwise overly-contemplative novel some life.  We discussed the moments of humour in the novel, such as when John wishes to show his family the birth video, but instead brought the video of his zip-lining experience in Tasmania, or when Helen’s sister, Louise, gets kicked off the bus in Paris and has to hitchhike to the airport.  One of my members didn’t like the writing style, the choppiness and repetitiveness of the prose, and she felt that it bounced back and forth too much.  She and others also felt frustrated with Helen’s inability to move on with her life, and we wondered whether Helen would still be feeling the grief so acutely after 26 years.   But then we talked about delayed grief, and the fact that Helen had to take care of her kids, and find a way to make ends meet so she wouldn’t lose her house, and deal with the bureaucracy surrounding the government settlement for the disaster victims and their families, and deal with her pregnancy, and just generally live her life and raise her kids in the best way she could without bringing the children into her own grief and suffering.  Near the beginning, Moore writes that Helen felt “outside”, which I felt summed up her response to her life for those 26 years, that she must deal with what is going on around her and her children, and not deal with what is “inside”, perhaps until she has the time and the emotional strength to do so properly.  One member put it this way:  “The openness and sadness in the novel is all-pervasive, and it is very revealing”.  If I had known what this book was about before I made up the reading list, would I have chosen it?  I think not.  But I’m glad I read it, and it was a good book for group discussion.  And I now feel that I’ve discovered another talented Canadian author that I had not read before.  I would not recommend this to anyone who really needs a linear storyline, or who needs novels that are plot-driven, but it is well worth exploring for fans of language-driven novels.

After finishing this contemplative novel, I picked up a book that I put on hold at the library, but where I’d heard of this novel, I can’t recall.  Tina Seskis’ debut novel, One Step Too Far, opens with Emily Coleman getting on a train and disappearing, but what is she leaving behind?  As I sped through the book, I discovered that Emily, who has changed her name to Catherine/Cat, has a twin sister, Caroline, who may or may not be deranged.  She strives to begin again, but soon realizes that it takes more than a new name, new friends and a new job to escape your past.  This page-turner was a roller-coaster ride through Emily’s life, with slices of her distant past interspersed with her present and recent past until all the pieces of this puzzle fall into place, a little too neatly for my liking, but still, it was a good choice after the somewhat-too-contemplative February.  I would definitely recommend this light read to anyone who enjoys fast-paced psychological thrillers like SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep (which is next month’s book club selection).

That’s all for today. 

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 February 2015

Beating the "winter blues" with books...

On this first day of February, when we really are in the middle of winter, I am finding that a good book and a delicious cup of tea can dispel the winter blues on even the darkest, coldest days.  Actually, I’m a “winter person”, so I enjoy the season, but sometimes it is so dark and cold that even I need something to perk me up.  And I found a perk this past week in an awesome mystery that I can’t wait to tell you about.
In my last post, I said that after the Anne Tyler book, I needed a book that was fast-paced and engaging, and I found it in a novel by an author I’d never heard of before.  The Forgotten Girls, by Sara Blaedel, Denmark’s “Queen of Crime”, sucked me in and kept me guessing to the very last page.  The novel opens with a woman racing through the forest to get away from Gone.  Fuelled by fear and panic, she stumbles through the branches and heads for the light, only to meet an untimely end.  Her body is discovered in the forest but remains unidentified for four days, despite the unique scarring which covers one side of her face and shoulder.  Detective Louise Rick, assigned to head up the Special Search Agency, a new unit of the Missing Persons Department in central Zealand, a small town outside of Copenhagen, is frustrated that no one has reported her missing.  Her body was found by a forest worker one morning, but without any clues, she and her new partner, Eik NordstrØm, have no way to identify her.  She takes a risk and releases a photo to the media, which pays off.  A woman who used to work at Eliselund, a state-run mental institution, identifies the woman as Lisemette, a child she once cared for while she worked there many years ago.  Louise discovers that Lisemette, who was mentally disabled, was sent to the institution when she was three years old after her mother passed away and her father could no longer take care of her as well as run the farm.  Although the death has been ruled an accident, Louise feels that there are still too many loose ends to close the case, and continues digging into the history of the long-closed institution, only to uncover some surprising arrangements and their unsavoury  consequences.  While digging into the past of the town and area, Louise’s own past resurfaces, and she must search deep within herself to finally resolve her own personal issues before she is able to move on.  Her search for answers to Lisemette’s death will ultimately lead to a discovery that is sure to shock even the most seasoned mystery readers. I couldn't put this book down, and finished it in just three days.  With its complex plot twists, this mystery thriller reminded me of Harlen Coben and Henning Mankell.    
And speaking of Henning Mankell, I just finished listening to an audiobook by this Swedish author, one of the books in the “Kurt Wallander” series called One Step Behind.  This novel opens with the calculated murder of three young adults who were dressed up in period costumes to celebrate Midsummer’s Eve at a nature reserve outside of Ystad.  When these bodies are finally discovered, Wallander is assigned to head up the investigation.  When one of his most trusted colleagues, Svedberg, does not show up at the meeting, he becomes suspicious and goes by his flat to check on him.  He discovers Svedberg’s dead body slumped in a chair and the indication that a frantic search took place.  Are these murders connected, or was Svedberg just the unlucky victim of a break-in?  When the fourth member of the group from the Midsummer’s Eve party, unable to attend due to illness, is murdered, Wallander ramps up the search with extra help from other police teams.  When yet more murders occur, Wallander, recently diagnosed with diabetes and suffering various health issues, questions his ability to lead the team effectively and considers turning the case over to someone else.  In classic Mankell style, this novel, too, parallels the motives of the murderer with the decline in Swedish society.  While I found it a bit long, and I didn’t love the narrator’s style, it was worth the patience it took to reach the conclusion.  I have just downloaded 2 more audiobooks in the “Wallander” series, both of them a bit shorter than this one, but unfortunately narrated by the same person.  Oh well, once I got used to his style of reading, I could let it go and enjoy the writing. 
That’s all for today.  Stay warm and Happy Reading!

Bye for now…