Sunday 26 July 2015

Last post for July...

On this hot, humid Sunday morning, I’m thankful for a/c as I sip my steaming cup of chai tea and enjoy a bowl of fresh fruit (my favourite thing about summer!), and a slice of freshly baked banana bread.  Since I last wrote, I’ve enjoyed an interesting Canadian novel and finished an excellent audiobook that I would like to tell you about.

I read Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin last week, about women, friendship, and the restorative powers of music.  Mahsa was just a young girl growing up in Karachi when her loving parents, one American and one Afghani, were killed and she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle.  There, under much stricter conditions, she discovered the love of music and the escape this could give her.  She also discovered Kamal Jamal, a young man with whom she fell in love.  Katherine was born in Toronto to a mother who was sent away to a reformatory because she had relations with a Chinese man, and was only reclaimed once her mother was released and had rented a small basement apartment, where Henry, her Chinese husband, was not allowed to live.  Shortly afterward, Henry returned to China, leaving Katherine fatherless and her mother stranded.  Katherine, too, discovered music, and love in the form of jazz musician T Minor.  Both girls find happiness, one in the form of marriage and children, the other in the freedom of university, but life for both presents difficulties as they struggle to get on with their spouses, raise their children, and also strive to attain their musical dreams.  When they encounter each other at a chance meeting in New York, they form an immediate bond, a friendship and musical partnership that sees them through the toughest times in their lives and helps them achieve their musical goals.  I know nothing about this author, but I was immediately drawn in by the smooth writing style, and was intrigued by the parallel stories, wondering if and when they would meet.  But after a few chapters, I was feeling that the story was too much about jazz name-dropping, and the writing was too surface - the author spent quite a lot of time describing the circumstances surrounding the girls when they were young, but then the descriptions of the later stages of life, young adulthood, marriage, and middle age, are barely touched on - at one point, she says of Mahsa, “Fifteen years passed”.  I felt that maybe she was trying to cover too much in too short a book, but it was still a worthwhile read, especially of you are a jazz lover.

And I finished an audiobook last week, The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.  It was very long and I was happy to finally reach the end and find out “who done it”, but it was excellent.  It begins with Robin, newly engaged and recently moved to London, going to another temp job and nearly careening down the metal stairs after colliding with the boss in the doorway.  But, with crisis averted, she settles in at her desk, where she has a placement for a week as a secretary for Cormoran Strike, Private Investigator.  She can’t believe her luck - not only did Matthew propose to her the night before, but she has, since she was a young girl, dreamed of becoming a private investigator.  In the dingy office, with little reception and no hospitality supplies, she manages to provide tea and biscuits for the first client of the day, John Bristow, brother of famous supermodel Lula Landry, who fell to her death from her balcony three months earlier.  John wants her death investigated, not convinced that she killed herself, despite the police's ruling, but sure rather that it was murder.  Strike, who has just that morning been chucked out by his longtime girlfriend Charlotte, is not entirely convinced that John’s suspicions warrant an investigation, but when John pleads with him and offers to pay him double his fee, first month in advance, he relents and takes the case.  Thus begins Strike’s lengthy, detailed, multi-layered investigation into the events surrounding Lula’s death, aided considerably by Robin, who turns out to be an excellent asset to the investigation.  Having just read The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s first adult novel, I couldn’t help comparing it to this one, and found the writing in The Cuckoo’s Calling to be more polished and smooth than the earlier novel.  The Casual Vacancy was very good, but this one was amazing - I guess it could have something to do with the excellent narration, too.  The main characters were fully developed, the minor characters were interesting and varied, the story was compelling and multi-layered, and the use of language was brilliant.  I loved it, and have placed the audiobook version of its sequel, The Silkworm, on hold.  If you like British mysteries, I would highly recommend it.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the afternoon, whatever you’re doing!

Bye for now…

Wednesday 22 July 2015

A few days late, but such great books...

I’m enjoying a cup of tea on this cool-ish summer morning, and thinking about the books I’ve read over the past 10 days.  I decided to delay this post until after my “friends” book group met on Monday to discuss our book, and also until I finished an excellent novel that I will be reviewing soon.

My group met on Monday night to discuss Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a selection we made from a list of the Top 100 Book Club Choices on GoodReads.  Set in England in the late 1990s, this novel begins with the narrator, Kathy H, introducing herself and informing the reader that she is 31 years old, and has been a carer for more than 11 years, but that this is her last year in this role.  She admits to being a fairly good carer, that her donors have done better than expected:  “their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’, even before their fourth donation”.  She goes on to talk about other carers and donors, and then begins to reminisce about her early days at Hailsham and her life with the other students during her time there.  She tells us about the dorm rooms, attending classes, and exploring the lush grounds in the country surrounding Hailsham, the pond and the large playing field, a setting that strongly resembles a posh English boarding school.  But instead of teachers, Kathy refers to the adults as “guardians”, and their classes don’t reflect those of other students.  In fact, little details come out through her storytelling that give the reader a sense that something is off, that there is some alternative reality for these students. Like the students, we are “told and not told” what is going on, and as Kathy slowly uncovers the truth about Hailsham and the fate that awaits each of its students, we are drawn into the mystery until all is revealed in a shocking conclusion that is sure to rock even the most seasoned reader.  Both heartbreaking and thought-provoking, in my opinion, this novel is an excellent book club choice.  We had an interesting and lively discussion about this novel, but I can’t give too many details here in case anyone hasn’t read it, as I don’t want to give away the ending.  Most of us had already read this book, and we agreed that knowing the ending detracts from the rereading, since it is the mystery that is so compelling.  Upon rereading, I found the book to be a bit repetitive and slow, but again, this is because I already knew what would be revealed in the end.  We discussed the ethics the situation presented in the book, and agreed that there are certain realities that we know of and accept, but don’t want to know too much about or think about too much, because it may cause us to face moral dilemmas we are not prepared to consider.  Anyway, if you haven’t read this excellent book, I would highly recommend it for just about anyone, and if your book club is looking for a good choice, this is definitely one that will provoke engaging discussion.

I started reading The Past by Tessa Hadly last week, but had to stop two thirds of the way through to read the Ishiguro novel, so I eagerly picked it up again yesterday and finished it.  This novel tells of three adult sisters and a brother who meet up at their grandparents’ country home for their annual summer holiday, but this year may be their last as they consider whether to sell or keep it in the family.  The crumbling house, and the woods and houses surrounding it, are full of memories for all three siblings, and during the three weeks that they are together, their children are having experiences that will become their own childhood memories.  Alice is the youngest of the siblings, unmarried and unlucky in love.  She brings with her Kasim, the 20-year old son of her ex-boyfriend, who sets out to seduce quiet Molly, her 16-year old niece.  Roland, Molly’s father, arrives with his new wife, Pilar, whom the sisters dislike immediately, deciding that she doesn’t fit in with their family.  But Pilar has her own family secrets, which she is reluctant to share with Roland or his family.  Fran arrives with her two children, Ivy and Arthur, ages nine and six, but unaccompanied by her husband Jeff, a musician who claims to have mistakenly booked gigs during their holiday.  And Harriet, the oldest, most reliable, stolid, and placid sister joins them after taking a long and hearty walk in the woods.  What ensues is an detailed, intimate and contemplative exploration into the family’s past, as they consider what to do with the future.  This is a book about the minutiae of everyday life, where nothing is unusual or special, and yet everything is suffused with significance and meaning, as only those activities, undertaken on a lazy, extended summer holiday, can be.  In this claustrophobic atmosphere, the past meets the present and must make way for the future as family secrets and secret relationships are revealed.  I find it most difficult to write about literary novels, because they often don’t have much in the way of plot but they are wonderful to read nonetheless, often because of the amazing, succinct use of language and the way the author describes ordinary things or events that captures the essence more intuitively than the average person, and makes us look at things in a wholly different and more significant way.  This is a book about the loss of innocence, of letting go of the past and moving on:  “she felt resigned to the fact that everything good had to be spoiled eventually”.  This book will be published in September, and I would highly recommend putting a copy on hold at your local library if you enjoy books that explore family relationships and the dilemma that occurs when some family members are ready to move on while others want to hold onto the past.

Oh boy, it’s been an awesome week-and-a-half of great literary reading, and I’m hard-pressed to decide what to read next.  I hate when I’ve just finished reading something so amazing, which then makes all the other choices pale in comparison.  But I’ve got a stack of library books on my coffee table just waiting to be read, so I’m sure I’ll find something else to fill the void that is left after reaching the last page of a great book.

Bye for now…

Sunday 12 July 2015

Books and tea on a hot summer morning...

On this hot, muggy morning, I’m sipping a steaming cup of chai tea and enjoying some fresh fruit as I gaze upon my coffee table, which is covered, literally covered, with books to read.  It is a little daunting to think that this mess of piles represents what I hoped to read over the summer, children’s book, young adult books, Canadian books, review books, book club books… where do I start?!  But enough about “what I'm going to read next” - I need to focus on “what I just read”.  

What I just read was the latest novel by Linwood Barclay, Broken Promise. After the death of his wife, former newspaper reporter David Harwood tries to make a new start in Boston with his nine-year-old son Ethan, but finds that he is spending more time at his new job than at home, so he uproots them once again and returns to his hometown of Promise Falls, only to lose his job on his first day back as a reporter for The Standard.  Feeling that his life is in free fall, David moves back into his childhood home with his parents, and, with no job prospects in sight, sees no way to change his situation.  He unwittingly becomes involved in a family mystery when, while delivering a food package to his cousin Marla, who has recently lost her baby in childbirth, he discovers that she is raising a baby boy that she claims was given to her by an angel.  This is further complicated when the mother of the baby turns up dead, murdered in her home.  David is asked by his parents to do a little digging and ask around to try to find out what really happened before Marla is charged with the woman’s murder.  At the same time, other strange things are happening in Promise Falls.  Twenty-three dead squirrels are found strung up along a fence in one of the city’s parks.  On a nearby college campus, women are being attacked at night, although they are not actually being harmed.  And a strange incident occurs one night on the ferris wheel at Five Mountains, the amusement park that has recently shut down.  Are these events linked?  And if so, how?  David races to uncover the truth even as he struggles to determine who he can trust.  This is the first book in a trilogy, a complex, multi-layered mystery with a real small-town feel.  I’m not a huge Barclay fan, and when I started reading this book, I felt a strange sense of deja vu, because many of the characters seemed familiar.  As I read further, I realized that these are, in fact, the same characters, in the same small town, that were in earlier books I’ve read, including No Safe House, No Time for Goodbye and Never Look Away.  Considering this is being marketed as "the first in a trilogy", I was thrown by this recurrence of characters, as I expected a brand new story and setting, and I felt that having read the previous books definitely helped me to appreciate and understand this book more fully.  I’d be curious to find out whether a first-time Barclay reader would enjoy this book, not knowing any of the backstories.  Despite my misgivings, I finished this 484-page book in 3 days, it was that un-put-down-able.  And because there are two more books to follow, this page-turner kept this reader guessing to the very last page, and beyond.

I’m not sure what to do in terms of next books.  I have a book club meeting for my “friends” group coming up a week from tomorrow, but it’s a book I’ve read before and I think this is too early to start reading it again.  I’m off for the summer, so I have lots of reading time, but my husband is on holidays this week, too, so we’re away for a couple of days, which means less reading time. I’ve started an interesting book by a British writer I’ve never read before, The Past by Tessa Hadley, which is really well-written and reminds me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, at least in writing style.  Hmmm… I think I’ll try to focus on the Hadley novel for the next few days, then read my book club book, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro at the end of the week.  
That’s all for today.  Happy Summer Reading!

Bye for now…

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Short post about a short book...

On this cool-ish, bright sunny morning, I am enjoying a cup of tea and a bowl of fresh fruit before I head out to the library to return some items and pick up some of my “holds” that are now available.  One of the items I’m returning is a little book that I thought I should write about now rather than waiting until the weekend, when I will have forgotten the details.

The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry, translated from the French by Siân Reynolds, is a hilarious little work that is sure to speak directly to anyone who has ever worked in a library.  A middle-aged librarian arrives early to work one morning to find that a patron has been locked in her department, which is located in the basement, overnight.  Rather than escorting him out, she carries on a one-sided conversation with him as she prepares to open for the day, ranting about everything from patrons who only want the bestsellers (“lowbrow trash”) to other librarians who have the best sections in the library (“French Literature and History”).  She complains that no one ever notices her, and confides in this mystery patron her unrequited love for Martin, a graduate student who comes to the library to work on his thesis, and whom she suspects has a girlfriend (“his blond”).  She extols the virtues of libraries, and laments the turn they have taken to appeal to the masses.  She sees them as being a place that contributes to the reader’s culture, that librarians need to make discerning selections from the mass of publications that are available at any given time.  She notes that most readers don’t come to the library “for the good of their souls”, but to take out DVDs or CDs, to take advantage of the air conditioning, or even to meet someone.  This little book spoke to me and I laughed aloud as I read the rantings of this old-school librarian, because I identified with her in so many ways, sharing her views even as I recognized how ridiculous they were.  She embodied all the characteristics of a stereotypical spinster librarian, and her rantings were both hilarious and very real.  I read a few pages aloud to my husband, and laughed even harder than when I read it silently to myself.  I found this book on the public library “New” shelf, and picked it up just for fun.  It was not for a book review, or for a book club, or for my committee - it was a book just for me!  I must commend the translator, too - the text of this short book flowed naturally, just as one would expect a lengthy rant from a disillusioned yet passionate person to be.  It was a delight to read, and I would recommend it to anyone who has ever worked at or been a patron of a public library.  At less than 100 pages, it requires a small investment of time for a tremendous amount of entertainment.

Now I must head out to enjoy this glorious day.  Happy Reading!

Bye for now…

PS I think my new "Get updates by email" feature is working! HURRAY!!

Monday 6 July 2015

Book club discussion highlights on a warm summer day...

I really love drinking tea, even on hot summer days.  I don’t like iced tea, or iced coffee, but a hot cup of tea, just cooled to take the sting out, is a delicious treat any time of the year.  It’s Monday morning, and I’m writing now because I had an impromptu beach day yesterday, so had no time to work on a blog post.  

My book group met on Saturday to discuss J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy.  This novel is set in the fictional idyllic English village of Pagford, and the larger town nearby, Yarvil, which is considered poorer and rougher than the posh, wealthy village.  When Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother dies of an aneurysm while heading into a restaurant for his anniversary dinner, the conflict between town and village heats up as the fight over the Fields, an outlying subdivision where the people lowest on the social hierarchy reside, intensifies.  Due to some questionable past land development, no one is quite sure who is responsible for the residents of the Fields, or the addiction clinic that is there to serve those who need it.  Barry, who came from the Fields, was the strongest supporter and made the loudest and most convincing arguments for keeping the Fields within the jurisdiction of Pagford, but Pagford is eager to take the opportunity of his death to hand over the responsibility to Yarvil and close the current Bellchapel Addiction Centre location.  The central dilemma created by Barry’s sudden and unexpected death is how to fill the “casual vacancy” on the Parish Council, and who might best take on this role.  Throughout the novel, we meet various families in the village:  successful doctors Parminder and Vikram Jawanda and their three children; Tessa and Colin Wall and their son; Miles and Samantha Mollison and their children; Gavin Hughes, his girlfriend Kay Bawden and her beautiful teenaged daughter Gaia; Howard Mollison, head of the Parish Council, and his doting wife, Shirley.  These and other village families clash with the families from the Fields, particularly the Weedons, heroin addict mother Terri, her headstrong teenaged daughter Krystal, who goes to school with the other Pagford kids, and Krystal’s younger brother Robbie.  Krystal was the focus of Barry’s campaign to keep the Fields a part of Pagford, making her and her family even more of a target of hatred within the groups in the village.  The families in Pagford also each have their own secrets, which they would prefer to keep hidden.  But one by one, these secrets are made public in a most unlikely way.  The villagers attempt to deal with their own issues, made more complicated by the interconnectedness of the various family members, while also filling the casual vacancy and trying to make the right, or in some cases, the most advantageous, decision regarding the Fields and the Bellchapel Clinic.  Oh boy, was this book a source of heated debate!  Only one member of the group had read this book before, so we were mostly all coming to it with fresh eyes.  Several members said that they did not like it, that they struggled with this book.  Upon further discussion, it turned out that they did not like the characters, that they thought all of them were nasty and unlikable.  Another member, who had read it before and so just skimmed it in preparation for the meeting, enjoyed it the first time and was surprised at how much she had forgotten by her second “reading” (this book had alot of characters, and it was very, very detailed!).  Another member said she loved the book, calling it “spectacular”, and she applauded Rowling’s talent for creating so many very real characters that could evoke such strong emotions in her readers.  I hadn’t thought of it like that, but as I was reading the book, I, too, had strong emotional responses towards each of the characters, and the responses varied so much with each character and situation - that really is the sign of a truly talented writer.  One member felt that the novel offered a very realistic portrayal of Terri’s drug addiction, and thought that Rowling may have been writing from firsthand experience.  We agreed that she was brave to point out the snobbishness of wealthy village society, and the common response to poverty or drug addiction of looking away in the hopes that one will not have to deal with it - the old NIMBY response (“not-in-my-backyard”).  We all felt that this was an ambitious project (at over 500 pages, it was definitely “a big novel about a small town…”), and that it must have been alot of work to create so many fully-developed characters.  There really weren’t any “main characters” and “secondary characters” - they were all equally as important to the story as all the others.  We were trying to determine whether there were any truly likable characters in the novel, and decided that Kay Bawden was a good person, though not very perceptive in her own relationships with Gavin or Gaia; Parminder was good, but not nice to her youngest daughter; and Tessa was a good person, particularly for dealing with her husband’s issues as well as the problems with her son.  Then someone said, “Well, Barry was probably the best one in the village”, which began a whole other thread of conversation.  Was Barry a good guy?  We’ll never know, because he dies within the first few pages.  Of course everyone remembers him well and talks about his saintly qualities, but no one is going to speak ill of the dead.  I learned that the term for this, seeing the best in someone who has died, is “sanctification”.  I had just two sticky-note flags in my book.  The first marked the only real reference I could find in the book that the author had previously written a successful series of books about wizards and magic:  referring to the “casual vacancy” left by Barry’s death, two councillors saw it “not as an empty space, but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities” (p 38).  The second was much further along in the book, as the story becomes darker:  the opening line of chapter six in Part Three states, “Things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised” (p. 288). This sums up the novel in just a few words.  While at first this novel seemed a bit like a bad soap opera to me, it probed deep into many serious social issues and left me, as well as my book club members, considering the ways we view and respond to those members of society who are less fortunate than us.   It was a great book club choice, and I would highly recommend anyone who has not read this novel to pick up a copy and give yourself enough time to read every page and appreciate every character.

Note: I was watching an episode of "Dalziel and Pascoe" last week while reading The Casual Vacancy and Peter said to Andy, "There is nothing more vicious than English village life", which I thought was so very appropriate!

That’s all for today.  Get out and enjoy the hot, sunny day!

Bye for now…