Sunday 27 September 2015

Book talk on a gorgeous fall morning…

On this last Sunday of September, as I sip my chai tea and nibble on a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, I am hoping to write this post quickly so I can get outside and enjoy the practically perfect Indian Summer day.  It is not too hot, the sun shining down but not too strongly, and there is a faintly cool-ish breeze, all elements that, for me, are just the right weather ingredients for a long, lazy afternoon walk.

I read just one book last week, but it was nearly 600 pages!  It was an advanced reading copy of Victim Without a Face by Stefan Ahnhem, which will be published in November of this year.  This debut novel is nothing if not ambitious, and explores the extreme consequences of exclusion and rejection.  The first in the “Fabian Risk” series, it opens with a description of a man lying naked somewhere in the outdoors while a crow lands on him.  What follows is a detailed description of his torture and death.  We then meet Fabian Risk as he is moving into his new home in Helsingborg at the start of what should be a six-week involuntary vacation before starting his new job as a detective with the Helsingborg Police.  He and his family have left Stockholm after Risk was dismissed from his former position for a miscalculation that cost the lives of two police officers, and he believes a return to his hometown, which he had never even considered before, will give him a fresh start.  His career is not the only thing that needs a fresh start;  he and his wife, Sonja, have been having marital difficulties, and Risk and his teenaged son, Theodor, have also been having trouble communicating.  So they arrive at their beautiful new home full of hope and good intentions.  But no sooner have they arrived than the phone rings.  Risk sees that it is Astrid Tuvesson, his (future) new boss, and lets it go to voicemail.  When there is a knock at the door not five minutes later, he answers it to find Tuvesson on his new, as-yet-unpacked doorstep asking for his help.  A former classmate of Risk’s, Jorgen Palsson, has turned up in the school locker room, tortured and left to bleed to death, with his hands cut off.  The police also found a copy of the old class photo with Palsson’s face crossed out, hence Tuvesson’s decision to involve Risk.  And so, reluctantly, he is drawn into an investigation that gets stranger and more complex every day, with no end and no leads in sight.  When Glenn Granqvist is found in his workplace, tortured to death and with his feet cut off, Fabian begins piecing things together.  Palsson and Granqvist had been bullies throughout their years at school, paying particular attention to one student, Claes Mallvik.  The solution seems close at hand… or does it?  As bodies pile up and the scenarios become more complex and bizarre with each murder, it looks like the killer will not stop until the entire class has been eliminated, and it seems that Risk alone holds the key.  This Scandinavian page-turner is sure to keep you up late into the night, despite its sometimes unbelievable scenarios.  This crime thriller indicates that Ahnhem is an up-and-coming talent to watch out for.  While this is his first novel, he is an established screenwriter for both TV and film, and has worked on a variety of projects, including adaptations of Henning Mankell’s “Kurt Wallander” series.  I would recommend this to fans of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  It had the same complexity and scope as the Larsson novel, and while it required some suspension of disbelief, it was certainly an entertaining read, a book that kept me reading well past the time that I should have stopped reading and moved on to something else. I am definitely looking forward to the next book in this new series.

And just a quick note on my book club discussion of The Story Hour last Monday.  Some of the book club members loved the book, even though they had some of the same issues with it that I had, like the leaps that the author took when describing the characters’ actions or developments, and some of the plotting.  These members were able to overlook these issues and focus on the book as a whole.  One member, though, really did not like the book, and felt that it was too unbelievable, that the characters would not have behaved the way the author portrayed them, and that the outcomes of their actions were not realistic.  This member is a psychiatric social worker who has experience working with vulnerable populations in the community and in a hospital setting, so she was much more analytical than the average reader would likely be.  I just remembered that my sister-in-law recommended this book to me some time ago, so clearly other readers have enjoyed this book.

OK, get outside!

Bye for now…

Sunday 20 September 2015

Tea and book talk on the last Sunday of summer...

The first day of fall is on Sept 23rd, and today is certainly doing a great job of ushering in the new season.  It is bright and sunny and cool-ish, with still a hint of the warmth of summer.  I’m looking forward to going for a long hike along the Grand River this afternoon, but will hopefully squeeze in some quality reading time tonight.

Last week was fairly disrupted, as there seemed to be something going on every night and all weekend, so I only got to finish one book, The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar.  My “friends” book group will be getting together tomorrow night to discuss this novel, which is one I received quite some time ago to review, so this offered an opportunity for the reading version of multitasking, as I will also send in a book review.  This is the story of Maggie and Sundhir and Lakshmi and Adit, of the complexities of relationships and the power of storytelling.  It opens with a woman who is reviewing her life as she swallows all the pills in the medicine cabinet and drinks her husband’s whiskey.  Maggie, a psychologist who, at the end of a long week, is rushing out of the office to meet her date, is called in to meet with Lakshmi, a patient at the hospital who has tried to kill herself and refuses to talk to anyone, possibly because she has limited knowledge of the English language.  Reluctantly she postpones her date and heads up to the 7th floor where she encounters a woman facing the wall, unwilling to respond to her voice as she calls out to her.  But through persistence and gentle persuasion, Lakshmi eventually relents and turns to face Maggie.  Maggie’s husband is from India, as are both Lakshmi and her husband, Adit, and so, through shared experiences, they begin to communicate and Lakshmi becomes her patient.  Maggie is a black, upper-middle-class professional who has an idyllic marriage to professor husband Sundhir, while Lakshmi is an uneducated immigrant woman in an unhappy marriage to Adit, a man whose nickname for his wife is “stupid”.  When Maggie begins seeing Lakshmi in her home office, the two women form a bond that goes beyond conventional therapy to uncover the loneliness and isolation of one woman, and the shame and guilt of the other. As their stories are shared, they become the unlikeliest of friends, with all the complications that arise when repressed emotions are released and hidden stories are revealed.  This novel explores the complexities of relationships and emotions, and the restorative power of friendship and storytelling.  You know, this was probably a really great book, and one that I might have thoroughly enjoyed if I had read it at a different time, but which offered only a very “flat” reading experience for me at this time, and here is why:  I just read Tell It To The Trees for my other book group last week, and I can’t help comparing them because of their many similarities.  Both books are about immigrant women from India who are in an unhappy marriage, are friendless and lack self-esteem. They both do not know how to drive and are exceptional cooks. Both women seek help from an outsider who appears to be happy and self-assured, and both are set in a cold climate, which contrasts with their native India.  But Trees was suspenseful, mysterious, and extremely well-written, driven not only by the development of so many of the characters in the book, but also setting and language.  It was concise and, for me, brilliant.  The Story Hour, however, following hard on the heels of Trees, fell short in so many ways.  The writing was just “ok”, the stories of Maggie and Lakshmi were mildly interesting but not entirely believable, and there seemed to be alot of what I would consider “filler”.  I’m sure that these opinions have been heavily influenced by my very recent reading experiences, so if you think you might want to read this book, please don’t let my post deter you from doing so.  I read The Space Between Us by Umrigar a number of years ago and thought it was a pretty good book, also about an Indian woman in an abusive marriage, but if I recall correctly, that one was set in India.  So go ahead and read this novel, but I would not recommend reading it directly after reading Tell It To The Trees.  I'm so curious to find out what my book group members thought of it - so far a couple of people have emailed me to say they loved the book, which is great. I'm also curious to see if anyone else has compared it to Trees, as we discussed that novel some time ago, too.

OK, that was a short post, and I’m ready to get outside and enjoy the golden rays of autumn sunlight and the start of the changing colours of leaves.

Bye for now…

Sunday 13 September 2015

Tea and books on a cool September morning...

With the wind gusting and the temperature in the teens, it feels like a fall day, so I can really enjoy my cup of chai tea while it is still steaming.  It seems like it will be a good day to curl up in the afternoon and read, which fits perfectly with what I was hoping to do today.  

My book group met yesterday to discuss Tell It To The Trees by Canadian author Anita Rau Badami, and it was a big hit.  This novel is set in the fictional town of Merritt Point in northern British Columbia, where winters are long and fierce and the isolation can be devastating.  Told in multiple voices, the story begins with the discovery of a body frozen on the roadside, then moves back in time to explain the events and conditions leading up to this death.  The Dharma family have lived in Merritt Point for decades, ever since Mr J.K. Dharma brought his young bride there from India to settle down, and there they have remained.  With J.K. deceased, Vikram, his son, is head of the household, which consists of Vikram’s ailing elderly mother, Akka, his daughter, Varsha, his second wife, Suman, and their young son, Hemant. His first wife, Helen, was killed in a motor accident while she was trying to run away with another man.  Shortly after her death, Vikram went back to India to find another wife, and discovered Suman, a 30-year-old woman who, well past prime marriageable age, was charmed and flattered by the attentions of this attractive widower.  In short order, they married and six months later, she arrived in a cold, desolate climate with no money, no family and no friends.  Soon after her arrival, she learns of Vikram’s true nature, as the rage and need for control lead to abuse and ridicule.  But what is she to do?  He not only abuses her, he also abuses his own daughter and their son.  Her only ally is her mother-in-law, Akka, but what can she do for Suman, since she is bedridden and has no money of her own?  Unable to drive, with no friends, and completely isolated, Suman is at her wits’ end, until the arrival of Anu, a woman who has come to rent the cottage in the back of the Dharmas’ large property.  Needing to escape her own failed marriage and wanting something completely different, Anu leaves her job in New York to try her hand at writing for a year.  She remembers Vikram from their shared university days, although she never knew him well.  Until her arrival, whenever they had secrets to tell, Suman, Varsha, and Hemant were advised by Akka to tell them to the trees, the trees will keep the secrets safe.  But Anu represents the outside world, and brings a fresh perspective to the dysfunctional situation in the household, and she quickly becomes everyone's confidante.  Her visits and conversations, though, must be hidden from Vikram, for his sense of ownership of his family does not allow for outsiders.  As the events unfold, we are drawn into the complex relationships that exist in this family, and with Varsha, Suman, Hemant and Anu each narrating alternating chapters, we are privy to the intimate thoughts and experiences of nearly every character, which is both interesting and, at times, downright creepy.  All of my ladies loved the book.  I had a new member join the group yesterday, and she also thought it was a great read.  We all agreed that it was so compelling that it was a real page-turner, which made it also a quick read.  What follows are some of the highlights of our discussion.  We thought that winter was a character in itself, as well as isolation, both the isolation imposed by the location of the town, but also the self-imposed isolation of the family members, a form of protection and also a way to keep outsiders out of their world of hidden abuse.  We felt that this setting was important to the story, as well as the time period, as it was set in 1979-80, when there were more issues with cultural isolation than there are now.  Someone suggested that Varsha seemed to invite punishment from her father, seeing it as the only way he would show her any attention at all, attention she craved, particularly after her own mother abandoned her when she was just a young girl.  We loved the writing, and felt that some of Badami’s descriptions were wonderful:  Anu describes Varsha as a  “malevolent spider” and Hemant as a “troll”; Varsha describes her father’s voice as “warm… like toasted marshmallows”.  The complex emotions involved in abusive households are subtly explored in this novel, and while we wonder why Suman doesn’t just leave, we also understand why she can’t just go, why there are no simple solutions to this complex problem.  We thought that perhaps Anu was too trusting, that although she suspected Varsha of malevolence, she wasn’t aware of the extent to which she would go to protect what she thought was hers.  I read a review of this book in which the reviewer suggested that Badami gave too much away and made too many obvious connections throughout the story so that there was no mystery left, an obviousness that “undermines what would otherwise be a well-crafted portrayal of a family in shambles, and an accurate, if stereotypical, portrait of abuse” (  I asked my ladies if they agreed with this view, and we all felt that there was still plenty of mystery left in the book to keep us turning pages and cringing at each new account to the very end.  It was definitely a successful discussion, and I would highly recommend this novel as a good choice for just about any book group.

I also read a Young Adult novel last week, Love is a Four-Letter Word by Canadian author Vikki VanSickle. I've been reading quite a few titles recently that I would consider to be "guy" books, books that I would classify as such because, while anyone could read and enjoy them, the main characters of each were male.  These titles include Devil's Pass, Little Brother and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  VanSickle's book is one I would consider a "girl's" book, because the main character is, as you might guess, a young girl.  I have never read anything by this awesome writer, whose books have been nominated for numerous awards, but I'm definitely going to read more of her works now.  Love is a Four-Letter Word tells the story of Clarissa Delaney, a young girl who, nearing the end of grade 8, discovers an ad for auditions for a community production of The Wizard of Oz.  This is one of her favourite stories, and she has always dreamed of becoming an actress, so she convinces her best friend Benji to audition for this upcoming play along with her.  Unfortunately only Benji is cast, and Clarissa must find a way to keep her disappointment in check while being supportive of her friend's success.  She has other things on her mind, too.  Her mom has completed treatment for breast cancer and seems to be getting better, but until she is declared to be in remission, Clarissa will continue to worry.  On top of all this a classmate, Michael, seems to be interested in more than just friendship, but she is not sure she feels the same way.  Will she find a way to figure this out without hurting their friendship?  This very readable, interesting and accessible account of Clarissa's days is sure to appeal to intermediate girls who have enjoyed Words That Start With B, the first book that features Clarissa, or anyone who enjoys realistic fiction about the struggles with love and friendship, mothers and daughters, and dealing with disappointment.  I look forward to reading the first book soon, and following it up with Days That End in Y, the third in the series.

And I finished listening to an audiobook version of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, which tells the story of a family, also from India, who end up making a life in America, and explores the ways in which different generations adapt to a new culture without losing their own traditions.  I am feeling “all posted out” and so will not go into great detail about the plot of this book, but it was an interesting listening experience for me and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys domestic fiction with a cultural twist.  As an aside, I just read that this is Lahiri's first novel, which was originally a novella that was published in the New Yorker; this would explain why I thought the narrative seemed a bit uneven at times and the plot seemed without a specific focus.  This did not, however, significantly detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

Whew!  This was a much longer post than I expected.  Enjoy the rest of the day!

Bye for now…

Monday 7 September 2015

Short post on a long weekend...

On this hot, humid morning, as I sip my chai tea, I’m lamenting the passing of summer, yet am excited that fall, and by that I mean "cooler days", are ahead.  

Although I went back to work last week, I still managed to read two books.  The first is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the debut novel by Ransom Riggs that I’ve been meaning to read for some time.  I know we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but that is exactly what I did in this case - the unusual black and white cover, which features a young girl dressed in WWII-era garb who appears to be levitating, caught my eye from the first time I saw it, and the desire to read it has stuck in the back of my mind ever since.  This seemed like a good time to do so, since I have a copy of this book at both of my school libraries, and I just realized that this book is being made into a movie, which is expected to come out next year.  Jacob, a teenager living in Florida, is very close to his grandfather, but has difficulty relating to his parents.  During WWII, his grandfather was sent to live in an orphanage on an island in Wales, where children with peculiar gifts were said to live.  He regales Jacob with stories of these children and their special powers, sharing photos with him along with the tales.  He also tells of the monsters that he fought during wartime, and as Jacob grows older and learns of the horrors of WWII, he understands that his grandfather is probably talking about the Germans, not actual monsters.  When his grandfather wanders off into the woods behind his house one night, Jacob and his friend follow in an effort to bring him back, but they witness an attack that leaves his grandfather dying in Jacob’s arms.  His last words to Jacob make up a cryptic message about a bird and an island and the other side of the old man, words that haunt him endlessly until his parents send him off to a psychiatrist for grief counselling.  When an opportunity arises to visit this secluded Welsh island, Jacob jumps at the chance to search for this orphanage, hoping to finally overcome his feelings of loss.  What he discovers far exceeds his expectation as he enters a time loop and goes back to 1939, where he meets all of the peculiar children and their matron, Miss Peregrine.  He realizes that not all monsters at that time were Germans, and that sometimes nightmares are real.  He must ultimately choose his path and decide on his fate, a fate that could affect the safety of others, including the girl he loves.  It was an awesome read, and the real photos, which the author collected, appear throughout the book to lend authenticity to the narrative.  It was a bit of a time-travel  adventure, an unusual love story, and an exploration into one boy's move from innocence to experience.  As I was reading it, I realized that this novel had many of the same themes as some other YA books I’ve read recently.  Devil’s Pass by Sigmund Brouwer also featured a teenaged boy who undertakes a journey to an isolated spot in order to fulfill his deceased grandfather’s final wishes, and must search for clues to make this discovery.  It also reminded me of an audiobook I listened to in the spring, The Maze Runner by James Dashner.  In both books, the main characters end up in worlds where nothing is as it should be and they are unwittingly put in a position where the safety of others is dependent on their choices as they try to discover a passage to safety.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure story, but I caution you to read the physical book.  I tried to listen to this as an audiobook earlier in the year but it just didn’t grab me - the photos really add to the story. Note: this is the first in a trilogy, followed by Hollow City and Library of Lost Souls. I may decide to read these in future, as the titles are intriguing, but I've got piles of other books waiting for my undivided attention.

And I read the book for my next book club meeting, Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami.  My meeting isn’t until next weekend, and I didn’t expect to be finished so quickly, but despite having read it a couple of times before, I forgot how unputdownable it was!  I won’t tell you anything about it this week, as I will want to write about our discussion next week anyway.  I’ll just say that it really is a great book.  Let’s see if my ladies agree with me.

Enjoy the rest of the long weekend, and keep reading!

Bye for now…