Sunday 29 March 2015

Books and tea on a bright sunny Sunday morning...

I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a yummy cinnamon bun from the market this morning as I think about my reading experiences over the past week.  The sun is shining in and it’s promising to be an awesome day, just right for the beginning of spring.
I read a short novel by Helen Humphreys earlier in the week, The Evening Chorus, which tells the story of James Hunter, a British pilot in the RAF who was shot down in 1942 and is taken to a German POW camp.  There he finds a way to pass the days by watching a pair of redstarts that have nested on the far side of the camp, just outside of the enclosure.  He begins making a study of these birds, with detailed notes that follow them from courtship to nesting to the development of their young family.  After witnessing a scene of unnecessary cruelty, Hunter is summoned by the Kommandant and taken on a ride that causes him to fear for his life.  Back in England, his young wife, Rose, falls in love with another soldier and struggles to decide what to do about James.  When James’ sister, Enid, is bombed out of her flat in London, she comes, out of necessity, to stay with Rose, and the two women form an unexpected bond of friendship that will change the course of their lives.  I am not a huge fan of Humphreys.  I read her excellent early novel, Wild Dogs, many years ago and loved it – in fact, it was the first book we discussed for my book group, more than eight years ago.  Then last year I read Nocturne, her rather self-indulgent memoir on the death of her brother.  I know she has had several popular historical novels, Coventry and The Lost Garden, but I haven’t read these and so cannot compare it to them.  I can’t decide if this very readable novel was overly simplistic, or if it had hidden depth that I just didn’t get.  It dealt with very real issues of love and loss, friendship and the search for happiness, which can often be found in the most surprising places.  But I felt a bit cheated by the end, like there should have been a deeper, more complete exploration of these issues, not just surface treatment.  All of the characters seemed very “real” to me, in that their thoughts, actions and feelings were believable.  I guess I was just hoping for more.  Still, it was very easy to read, and I think I could recommend this very short book to just about anyone.
I then tried to read a few different novels that have come in for me as holds from the library.  I tried reading Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper, about an elderly woman in Saskatchewan who decides to walk to the East Coast because she had never seen the ocean (too much like The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry), If I fall, If I Die by Michael Christie, about a boy who has never been outside his house due to his agoraphobic mother (too much like Room by Emma Donoghue) and Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon, about an introverted boy who may or may not have been the perpetrator in the horrific shooting at his high school (too much like We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver).  The effort of trying to find a next read can be exhausting, so I wasted one full night of precious reading time doing that last week.  I then settled on Higher Ed by Tessa Mcwatt, which I’m working on now.  I will write about that book once I’ve finished, but so far it is a good choice. 
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 March 2015

Post for the end of March Break...

I’ve been off this past week for March Break, so I've had lots of time to read, and have a couple of books to tell you about as I sip my steaming cup of chai tea and nibble a yummy cinnamon bun from the Kitchener Market…mmmm!!
The first book I read this week was reviewed in the Quill and Quire and so I put it on hold at the library, not really expecting that I would enjoy it, as it didn’t sound like the type of book that was for me.  The Hunger of the Wolf by Stephen Marche opens with “Hunters found his body naked in the snow…”  The body in question belongs to Ben Wylie, heir to one of the wealthiest families in the world.  His body was found in the snow near the cabin this American family kept in northern Alberta, a kind of getaway from the pressures of the business world in which they were so embroiled.  The narrator, struggling journalist Jamie Cabot, a man so determined to make it in New York that he is willing to lose his wife in order to stay, decides that he will uncover the truth about the unusual circumstances surrounding Ben’s death.  And Jamie has an in – his family have been caretakers for the cabin in Alberta ever since Jamie can remember, and as a boy, he used to trim the hedges and mow the lawn regularly, even if no member of the Wylie family put in an appearance for months or even years.  What he discovers as he pieces together information gleaned from the fragments of papers, letters and diaries hidden everywhere in the cabin is the secret the family has hidden as they have moved from humble beginnings to the international wealth and fame they have acquired at present – for three days every month, at the time of the full moon, all of the males in the Wylie family turn into wolves.  The Wylies’ rise to wealth and status over several generations is documented in enough detail as to make the reader feel informed, but the author does not overwhelm the story with unnecessary detail.  As for the part about the males becoming wolves, and how they and the other family members deal with this transformation, it is presented in such a way that, while it is important to the story, it is not as unbelievable as it may at first sound, nor is it a detail that consumes the reader’s attention while the rest of the story is being told.  I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I wanted to make that part clear – when I was reading the novel, unless I was at a part where they were turning into wolves or recounting their wolfish experiences, I didn’t think, “Oh ya, well Carl is a wolf as well as a father and businessman”.  If this was intended to illustrate how well the men in the family hid their secret and never talked about it, even amongst themselves, then Marche did an excellent job of it.  This literary page-turner was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  I was particularly impressed with the way in which Marche managed to convey the rise in wealth and status of so many generations in such a short novel – this book was less than 300 pages – yet I never felt that he was skimping on necessary detail or information.  It was all there, clearly and concisely.  He has an amazing skill with language, and I could tell right away that he was a talented and experienced writer.  I’ve never read anything else by this Canadian author, but I will definitely add him to my list of authors whose works I want to read.
I finished another novel last night by Canadian author Elisabeth De Mariaffi.  The Devil You Know is set in the early 1990s, at the time of the Paul Bernardo investigation, and tells the story of 21-year-old Evie Jones, a rookie reporter who is assigned to cover the search of Bernardo’s house in St Catharines.  This investigation hits close to home for Evie, as she is reminded of the unsolved case of the abduction and murder of her friend, Lianne, 10 years earlier.  As she delves deeper and deeper in to the details of that case, given the wealth of research tools she now has access to through the newspaper’s database and archives, she becomes more and more afraid for her own safety, while also suspecting that her family and neighbours may have been involved in the case.  Twisting and turning every which way, this novel did a good job of mounting tension and creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.  It was well-written, but the plot was uneven, the timeline was difficult to follow, and I had to suspend my sense of disbelief for most of the novel, due to the almost surreal atmosphere created by the narrative.  It was also very Toronto-centric, so I don't know how enjoyable it would be for a reader who was unfamiliar with particular streets or locations mentioned in the book.  I’m not sure who I would recommend this book to, or if I would recommend it at all, but it was certainly suspenseful, and kept me interested to the very last page.    
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 March 2015

Beware the Ides of March...

I know that every month has an “ides”, but I couldn’t resist the title of this post, as the ides of March are of course the most famous ides of all, thanks to Shakespeare and Julius Caesar.  And so, as I sip my steaming cup of chai tea, I’ll be looking over my shoulder in case someone is sneaking up behind me to cut me down, even in the prime of life.
I have two very different Canadian novels to tell you about today.  The first is Red Jacket by Pamela Mordecai.  This author was born in Jamaica, but has lived in Canada since the mid-90s, and currently resides in Kitchener.  Red Jacket follows Grace Carpenter from her childhood in rural St Chris, a fictional Caribbean island, to her schooling in Queenstown, then to Toronto, where she attends university, then to Ann Arbor, Michigan for graduate studies, and finally to Geneva, where, working for the World Health Organization, she collaborates in efforts to find solutions to the AIDS crisis in Africa and the Caribbean.  Along the way, she meets a wide variety of characters, including Maisie and Stephanie, Charlie and Mark, and finally Father Atules, who works with her on her most important project.  But throughout her life, Grace is troubled by her origins.  She can’t understand why all the other members of her large family are black, while she is a redibo, having copper coloured skin, red hair and gray eyes.  She knows she is loved and cherished, but she never really feels that she belongs.  When some of the neighbour kids taunt her and call her “a little red jacket”, she doesn’t understand what they mean, and it is not for many years that the truth about her real parentage is explained to her.  She struggles throughout her life to find her true identity and to reconcile her circumstances with where she came from and who she has become.  Mordecai uses Creole terminology and speech patterns to enhance the reader’s experience and really create the feeling of being on a Caribbean island.  She provides an index at the back for easy reference, and it is there that one finds the meaning of the term “red jacket”.  While the timelines and side-stories in this lengthy, detailed novel are sometimes a bit muddled, I stuck with it to the end and it was worth the effort.  Alternately heart-wrenching, clever and very real, this novel tackles issues that are relevant on both a personal and a global level.
I also read a very short novel by Jesse Gilmour called Green Hotel.  It tells the difficult story of the struggles 20-something son Hayden experiences living with his artistic, suicidal father.  Hayden’s mother is not in the picture at all, and it seems she hasn’t been since he was under ten years old.  The details of Hayden’s upbringing are challenging in themselves, and his current vices (drugs, alcohol and pyromania) add to an already difficult situation.  What is a young man to do when his father wants to kill himself?  This novel makes the reader consider the value of living at any cost, and does so in a moving, dare I say “positive”, way.  Too bad the writing style is so much like father David Gilmour’s early novels, because there is real talent and a gift with words evident in the writing.  Perhaps Jesse needs to break away from the influence of his famous father and find his own voice.  I also think that if I was a 20-something woman living in Toronto, I might have been able to relate to the characters better, but it wasn’t as much of a hurdle as it may have been.  This book does not require a huge time commitment, as it is just over 100 pages.
That’s all for today!  Stay safe until the Ides are over!

Bye for now…

Sunday 8 March 2015

Tea and books on a short day...

Daylight savings time begins on this gloriously nearly-balmy morning, as the weather seems to have turned from bone-chilling cold to more seasonal temperatures.  I know this makes most people happy, and I will admit that it’s been a bit too cold for too long even for me, and I actually like the winter!  But it's still chilly enough to enjoy a steaming cup of chai tea, and with my Vanilla Scone as a treat, it's practically a perfect morning. 
My book group met yesterday to discuss Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson.  If you recall from last week’s post, this debut novel, which was written between shifts while the author worked as an audiologist, tells the story of Christine Lucas, a women who wakes up each morning with no memories from the past 25 years.  Due to an accident when she was in her 20s, she has not been able to form new memories, although in her most recent phase, she is now able to retain new memories for approximately 24 hours, but these are erased once she goes to sleep.  Her husband Ben has been taking care of her for the past few months, since she has been released from the care home where she had been residing for about seven years.  She has no recollection of Ben, or her life, or even most of her early memories from before the accident, although these sometimes come back in flashes.  She has been seeing a neurologist, Dr Nash, for treatment, and upon his suggestion, has begun keeping a journal.  Christine has been keeping these meetings and the journal secret from Ben, again upon Dr Nash’s recommendation.  As more memories from her past come back to her and she tries to piece her life together, she begins to suspect everyone and doesn’t know who to trust.  We as readers, too, are unsure who to trust as we get drawn into the complex web of lies and deceit that form the backdrop for Christine’s search for the truth.  Two of my ladies had read this book before but forgot the ending, and two had not read it.  The ones for whom this was a second reading enjoyed it less than the ones for whom this was their first time.  This very much echoes my own experience - I really enjoyed it the first time, and don’t recall having a problem with the ending then, but the second time was a bit more of a flat reading experience.  In fact, I first read this book and wrote about it in a post from February 2012, concluding with “What a fabulous first novel by this British writer”.  I included it on my Top 10 Books for 2012, too.  So maybe this is not a good choice of book to reread, as so much depends on the suspense created in the story, the sense of not knowing what is true or who to trust.  Even though my two ladies who have read it before said they didn’t remember the ending, I think having previous knowledge of the story takes away from the reading experience.  We all felt that it was confusing and difficult to follow, and that it was somewhat repetitive.  After talking about this, we agreed that this was likely done intentionally to mirror Christine’s experiences and to put the reader “inside the mind” of the main character.  We thought the author did a good job of creating a complex plot with a myriad of minute details of which he was somehow able to keep track and explain.  We discussed Dr Nash’s character, his actions and motivations.  Despite being a fairly minor character, his character is interesting to dissect and discuss.  As an aside, in the book, his name is spelled Nash, but in the film version is it spelled Nasch.  We discussed this, and decided that this was done to make him sound more German, and so align him with Freud.  Seems like a rather silly thing to do, but I haven’t seen the film yet so maybe there’s another reason.  Anyway, we discussed memory, and the importance of memory in terms of one's identity.  We talked about Christine’s affair, and her role in the events that occurred because of her actions.  We discussed the ending, and wondered why the final act was planned and executed, what the character had intended (I’m being specifically vague here so I don’t spoil it for anyone).  When this book was originally published in 2011, it received high praise from most reviewers, but the main criticism was about the ending.  All of my ladies also felt that it wasn’t the best ending, that it was a bit too quick and contrived, but we felt that this did not ruin the overall reading experience.  So the book generated good discussion and was fairly well-received by everyone (one member said she couldn’t put it down!), so it turned out to be a good book club choice.  For anyone who has not read this book before, here is some information to help you keep track of the story:  Christine’s accident happened more than 20 years ago, when she was in her 20s; she was in a hospital for a number of years, then in an institution for another seven years or so, and finally at Waring House for another seven or so years, before she was well enough for Ben to bring her home, but she has only been home with Ben for a few months; the whole book takes place over less than a month.  If you keep these things in mind when you are reading, you may find it a less confusing story. 
And I’m nearly finished listening to The Maze-Runner, a Young Adult novel by James Dashner, read by one of my favourite narrators, Mark Deakin.  This novel, the first in a trilogy, tells the story of a group of boys who find themselves in a compound they call the Glade, surrounded by a maze of stone walls on all sides.  These stone walls move each night, closing off the entrances until dawn, and the walls within the maze shift and move each day, too, making the maze, and thus the escape route, nearly impossible to solve.  In addition to shifting walls, there are the nasty Grievers with their squishy bodies, metal spikes and countless stingers who live in the maze.  One new boy each month arrives in the Glade, and the novel opens with Thomas arriving in the box, which delivers him unceremoniously one day, equipped with no memory of what his life was like before and no knowledge of what his future holds (hmmm… I sense a theme in my reading choices here!).  As Thomas tries to fit into the group of boys already in the Glade, he does not experience flashes of memories from before, but rather he senses things that were part of his earlier life, as well as what he should be doing to work with the others to help escape this new reality.  I’m not a huge fan of Young Adult novels, but this is one I’ve been interested in reading for quite some time.  It was also recently released as a film, which I haven’t seen.  I have just one more Part to listen to, and hope to finish it today.  So far it is an interesting listening experience, but I’m not sure I want to listen to the next two books in the trilogy.  One of my library helpers really enjoyed this book and is now reading the second one, The Scorch Trials, which he said is not as good.
That’s all for today - time to get outside and enjoy the mild sunny day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 March 2015

First post for March...

On this mild, gently snowy Sunday morning, I am enjoying a cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread.  If this first day of March is anything to go by, this month will come in like a lamb and go out like a lion, although I’ll admit I don’t really know what that phrase means. 
I read two awesome books last week - yes, two!  They were both such page-turners that I quite literally flew through each of them in a couple of days.  The first was the excellent novel, Big Little Lies, by bestselling Australian author Liane Moriarty.  This novel begins with one of the main characters, Madeline, singing out in the car, “I’m forty today… forty!”, drawing the word out.  Her daughter Chloe responds by singing out, “I’m five… five!”  This sets the tone for this family, forty-year-old larger-than-life Madeline, who talks and shops as a way to fill her time, second husband Ed, who does his best to keep out of things and keep the peace, precocious five-year-old Chloe, who is just starting kindergarten, seven-year-old Fred, and fourteen-year-old Abigail, Madeline’s daughter from her first marriage.  Madeline is friends with beautiful yet distant Celeste, mother of rambunctious twins Josh and Max, wife to Perry, a wealthy, charming hedgefund manager who is away on business trips as much as he is at home.  These two women befriend Jane, single mother of Ziggy, the child of a one-night stand that went terribly wrong.   Shy, quiet Jane is new to the area, and welcomes the other women’s offers of friendship and invitations for coffee at their favourite beachside café.  When sweet-natured Ziggy is accused of bullying another child, Amabelle, which he adamantly denies, tensions between kindergarten moms mount.  This struggle between women who have known each other in the community for years and those who side with timid newcomer Jane increases as readers are drawn along through the six months leading up to the disastrous school Trivia Night, where, due to strong cocktails and lack of catered food, all hell breaks loose and someone dies.  Was it murder or an accident?  And who was the victim?  The cast of characters in this darkly comic mystery include Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan, his younger, new-age wife Bonnie and their waif-like daughter Skye, who is also starting kindergarten at the same school as Chloe, much to Madeline’s horror.  There is Tom, owner and barista at the café where the ladies frequent, Ms Barnes, the kindergarten teacher, and Mrs Lipman, the principal of the school, along with many others on the school parent council.  As the author pulls the reader deeper and deeper into the lives and secrets of each family, we learn that all is not what it seems and everyone has something to hide.  I don’t usually like “women’s fiction”, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, and I don’t like “chick lit”, either.  I also don’t read a lot of “domestic fiction”.  But this novel somehow blends all three genres and yet transcends them to become much more than the sum of its parts.  It manages to be funny while also presenting the serious issues of bullying and abuse with dignity and respect, offering insight into human nature and revealing what lies beneath relationships that may appear, to the public eye, to be perfect.  While reading this novel, which I found to be un-put-down-able, I felt as though I were eavesdropping on the gossip of a group of women I had come to know and like.  I would recommend this book to just about anyone. 
And I just finished reading the selection for next week’s book club meeting, Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson.  I have read this book before, and remember really enjoying it, so I thought it would be something a bit different to add to our book list.  I enjoyed it less this time, probably because I remembered the ending so found it less of a mystery than before.  This novel tells the story of Christine Lucas, who wakes up each morning with no memory of where she is or why there is a strange man in the bed beside her.  When she looks in the bathroom mirror, she is horrified to see an aged face looking back at her, and wonders what has happened.  The man in bed, Ben, tells her that she had an accident more than twenty years ago, leaving her with retrograde and anterograde amnesia; that is, she is unable to retrieve most memories from before the accident, and she is also unable to create and store new memories.  Her amnesia, however, is unusual, in that she can retain new memories each day, while she is awake, for up to about 24 hours, but these are all erased as soon as she goes to sleep, and she wakes up each morning as blank as a slate.  She has no recollection of her husband or her life, and Ben must fill her in every day, leaving tasks written on a blackboard for her to do each day to fill her time.  We find out that she has been secretly seeing neurologist Dr Nash for treatment, and he has encouraged her to write in a journal as a way to remind herself of the things she has learned about her past and present life.  This journal she keeps hidden from Ben, as she senses that he has been lying to her and keeping things from her deliberately.  But she is never sure what is truth and what are lies, and she struggles to piece together her reality and her past in order to live more fully.  She asks at one point about halfway through the book, “What are we, if not the accumulation of our memories?”  By undergoing treatment with Dr Nash and rereading her journal entries, her memories begin to slowly return, in bits and pieces, flashes that appear in an instant and then are gone.  These she cannot retain into the next day, but by writing them down, she is able to slowly form a picture of who she was and is.  But who can she trust, when those who claim to love her and want to help her offer contradicting stories about her past?  This book really made me think about memory, how much it defines who we are and how much we rely on it in so many ways in our daily lives.  This nail-biting read is sure to keep you glued to your seat until the very last page, as the tension builds and more truths are revealed.  I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I was hoping for a different ending than the one in the book.  Still, it was a great read, and I would recommend it to those who enjoy reading domestic thrillers (is there such a genre as that?), such as The Silent Wife or Gone Girl, or those who liked the excellent, though confusing, film “Memento”, which was about a man who could not form new memories and who gets caught up in a complex web of lies and deception.  
That’s all for today! 

Bye for now…