Thursday 22 December 2016

Books and... soup? on the first post of winter...

Yes, I’m sipping a cup of homemade Carrot Sweet Potato Soup tonight as I write this brief post.  I just realized that next Sunday, my usual posting time, is Christmas Day, so I decided to get something posted well before the hectic few days before the holiday.  

I did end up going back to reread The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan - what a strange book!  This short novel tells the story of a young British couple, Mary and Colin, on vacation in a nameless city (but you know it’s Venice).  They are unmarried but are in a long-term relationship that is clearly not without its challenges.  Still, they are doing their best to enjoy their vacation, despite getting lost regularly in the winding streets and alleyways.  One night, as they are once again lost and in search of an open restaurant, they find themselves approached by a stocky man who, in a gently harrassing manner, takes charge of their search and steers them towards a late-night bar. Talking all night and well into the wee hours of the morning, they learn of Robert’s childhood, with his domineering father and envious sisters. They end up back at Robert’s house, where they meet his wife, Caroline, and they seem to be the perfect hosts, yet the reader, and Colin and Mary, pick up on the somewhat sinister tone underlying their guests’ reception.  Only later do we find out just how deeply sinister their intentions lie.  I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has not read this bizarre, disturbing, deeply unsettling early work by McEwan, since upon rereading it, I realized how much of the “enjoyment” of, or perhaps I should say “appreciation” for, this story depends on not knowing the ending until you reach it.  It definitely embodies major themes of love and death, sexuality and identity, themes which appear in many of McEwan’s novels throughout his decades-long writing career.  But this book is like the distilled version, where only the essence is extracted and all superfluous material disposed of.  It is certainly not a cheerful “holiday” read, but I think it is essential reading for anyone interested in exposing themselves to McEwan’s body of work (and I think all serious readers of literature should give him a go - he isn’t a multi-Booker-prize nominee for nothing!!)  But please don’t just read this one and base all your opinions on it - it was only his second book, and he’s come a long way over the years!

And I read a Young Adult novel, The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel as well.  This novel has been nominated for the Forest of Reading Red Maple Award (suitable for grades 7 and 8 students), and I try to read a couple of these nominees, as well as a couple of Silver Birch nominees (grades 4-6) over the Christmas Break so I can promote them in the new year.  Well, this book was creepy and strange - hmmm, two creepy and strange books in one week, and it’s only Thursday!!  The Nest is a bit of a sci-fi “invasion of the body-snatchers” book, narrated by an anxious young boy, Steven, older brother to his sister Nicole and frail, sickly baby brother Theo.  Steven worries over his parents and his baby brother, and when relief comes in the form of an angel in his dreams, he welcomes this opportunity… until he realizes, over time, that the angel in his dreams may be an otherworldly being in the form of a wasp queen, intent on replacing said failing baby Theo with a brand new, perfectly healthy, unflawed version.  But at what cost this exchange, and what will Steven’s consent and his willingness to help mean?  This book brought to mind the short story by Ursula K. LeGuin, “The ones who walk away from Omelas”, about the perfect town with perfect families and perfect neighbourhoods, but at a high price, a cost the ones who walk away are unwilling to pay.  I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but it was nothing like what I got, a gruesomely disturbing read that was nonetheless a compelling page-turner, even as I grimaced and cringed, the nearer the end I got.  I’m not sure what students I would recommend this to, if any (one reviewer calls Oppel’s tone “visceral”, and I couldn’t agree more).  It was more of a sci-fi horror-type novel, a “nature gone awry” story that is not meant for the squeamish or faint of heart.  Read it at your own risk, but be warned - may cause queasiness.

With that cheerful closing remark, I wish you and your loved ones a Joyful Holiday, and may the New Year be filled with many great books!

Bye for now…

Sunday 18 December 2016

Spies all around us...

It’s been a week of espionage fiction, both in audio and regular paperback, offering very different reading/listening experiences for me.
I was at a loss last weekend in terms of what to read, as I had no library books checked out and nothing that I had to read for my committee.  It was a dilemma, one I solved by turning my head slightly to the left and scanning the bookshelf that is closest to my reading chair.  My eyes lit upon the Ian McEwan section, and I realized that there were still two of his books that I own but haven’t yet read, Solar and Sweet Tooth.  I decided quite randomly to read the one with fewer pages, and Sweet Tooth won by nine pages.  In the opening chapter, we meet Serena Frome (“rhymes with “plume”), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, whose first 18 years were so uneventful that she skips over them almost completely.  She has a younger sister, Lucy, who gets herself into a bit of a trouble and goes on to live a hippie-ish lifestyle, despite the fact that it’s the early 1970s.  Serena, on the other hand, does what her mother advises and goes to Cambridge to study mathematics, even though her real passion is reading fiction.  She will read anything, from Jane Austen to Ian Fleming, and anything in between.  She begins seeing a history student, then begins an affair with his professor, Tony Canning, with whom she spends a wonderful summer (weekends only) on a remote island.  Tony teaches her to cook and takes charge of her reading program, insisting she read history texts rather than fiction.  Serena falls in love with Tony, but is unexpectedly spurned by him one weekend, leaving her devastated.  She does, however, follow Tony’s advice and, upon finishing school,  begins working at MI5 in a low-level position.  She forms few friendships, but manages to form an alliance with Shirley Shilling, with whom she works on her floor of the building.  Serena also becomes fixated on a man from another floor of the building, Max, and believes that they are heading towards a relationship.  Serena is finally approached about going out in the field and working undercover as a literary agent, trying to recruit new arts talent, specifically Tom Healy, a graduate student at one of the new colleges who has written some short stories and is to be approached to write a novel.  He is to receive funding, under the guise of a literary foundation that promotes artists whose works have been politically challenged or censored.  She takes on this project, named “Sweet Tooth”, and meets up with Tom at his college office, where he is an assistant lecturer.  She falls instantly in love with him, and they arrange liaisons at his flat on weekends.  Meanwhile, Shirley is suddenly sacked, Serena is furious, but no one will tell her why this happened.  She continues to see Tom, and his novel, which she secretly hates, is being promoted by his publisher as a contender for the Jane Austen literary prize.  All seems to go swimmingly for the couple, but Serena constantly feels guilty that she is deceiving the man she loves, pretending to be someone she is not.  Does she reveal the fact that she works for MI5 and not the literary foundation?  If so, would Tom despise her and end the relationship?  But can she live with herself knowing the relationship is founded on lies?  When I started this book, I was happy to see that McEwan had returned to espionage fiction, like his 1990 novel The Innocent.  But I was soon disappointed when I realized that this was not an espionage novel, it was a love story, and a fairly predictable one at that.  I felt that the characters were underdeveloped and the story uninspired, despite being very literary.  I don’t want to give anything away, but I personally thought that the “big reveal” was pretty much what I expected, although it may account for the shallowness of the main characters.  When I first read McEwan’s 2007 novel, On Chesil Beach, I felt as though it had been a waste of time, but once I had time to think about it, I realized that it was, in fact, a brilliant novel.  I was hoping that the same would happen with this book, but alas, it did not.  The writing was solid, the characters believable (though not very interesting), and the story was OK.  I just felt that it lacked that special something, that “je ne c’est quoi” that would really make it a great book.  If nothing else, this book has made me interested in possibly rereading his Booker Prize nominated 1981 novel, The Comfort of Strangers, and possibly watching again the fabulous film adaptation of this book, starring Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren. I would rate Sweet Tooth 7 out of 10, and would not recommend it to anyone who has never read anything by McEwan before. By the way, I’m anxiously awaiting notification from the library that his new book, Nutshell, is ready for me to pick up - maybe that will happen over the Christmas Break (“Please, Santa!  I promise I’ve been good this year!”)

And I finished listening to a novel by Daniel Silva, A Death in Vienna, the fourth book in the “Gabriel Allon” series.  It begins with a bomb exploding at a Holocaust research centre in Vienna, killing two researchers and injuring the director of the centre, Eli Levon.  Gabriel Allon is brought in to help find out who sent the bomb, and despite his desire to give up his work as an assassin for the Israeli Office and live out his days peacefully (and safely) as an art restorer, he leaves Venice and travels to Vienna, the city where, over a decade earlier, a bomb went off in his car, killing his son and injuring his wife so badly that she remains hospitalized to this day, having lost her mind over grief and guilt.  Levon, after all, is an old friend, whose mission in life is to hunt down Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice.  It turns out that Levon had been working on a case brought to him by Max Klein, a fellow Jew who thought he recognized a former Nazi SD officer, Erich Radek, living in Vienna under a new name, Ludwig Vogel.  When Klein is also killed, Allon is compelled to follow the clues that lead him deeper and deeper into the world of the Nazi prison camps during WWII, and his own mother’s experiences as a prisoner at Treblinka and as a participant in the Death Marches in 1945, led by Radek.  The search takes him from Austria to Israel to Argentina, and involves not only the Israeli Office, but also the American CIA.  I don’t want to give any more details away about this complex plot, but if you are in the mood for a fast-paced spy thriller, this may be the book for you.  Of course it is not completely believable, but it’s not supposed to be.  The purpose of plot-driven books is to transport the reader and to entertain.  To quote an article I recently read, “Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences” (  It kept me listening eagerly right to the end, and it was narrated by John Lee, which may have played a small part in my sustained interest!  It’s not great literature, but it was certainly complex and interesting, and the myriad of characters kept my attention fixed on the narrative to keep them all straight.  It was a satisfying listening experience, and I would seek out others in this series to listen to (especially if they were narrated by "you-know-who"!).  As a fast-paced thriller, I would give it an 8 out of 10.

That’s all for today.  Have a warm, wintery afternoon!

Bye for now…

Sunday 11 December 2016

Tea and books on a wonderfully wintery morning...

I have a slice of freshly baked Date Bread on a plate beside a steaming cup of chai tea and a kitty slouched over my shoulder as I write this post.  We’ve had a bit of snow over the past couple of days, and as I look out the window, I see that more snow has fallen overnight, making it look like a truly wintery wonderland!

Last week I read the latest book by popular, award-winning Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue,  The Wonder.  Donoghue is most famous for her earlier novel, Room, about a young woman and her son who are kept in a room for years by her male abductor.  I didn’t love the book, but I enjoyed listening to the audio version as it truly sounded as though it was being narrated by a six-year-old boy, which lent some credibility to the story (which, by the way, was based on a true story).  I came to this book with mixed feelings - my other committee members didn’t love it, but I had it on hold at the library and it became available for me at exactly the right time, so I started it, fully expecting to put it down after a few pages and move on to something else.  But it sucked me right in!  Set in Ireland in the 1850s, this novel, also inspired by true stories, tells the story of an English nurse who is sent to the middle of the country to determine whether a young girl who claims to have been living without food for the past four months is, in fact, receiving nourishment surreptitiously.  Widowed Nightingale-trained nurse Lib Wright is sent by her employers at the English hospital where she works to “the dead centre” of Ireland, a small village far from Dublin, a backwards town that is far behind modern times and relies heavily on the Roman Catholic Church for guidance and direction.  Believing that eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell is subsisting on air and the word of God alone, the town and Church benefit from the tourists that flock to this small village to behold “the Wonder”, leaving small gifts and making donations.  But before the parish priest notifies the bishop of this miracle child, who could possibly be the first Irish saint to be canonized since the 13th century, a committee of important village men brings in the nurse and a nun, Sister Michael, to watch over Anna every minute for two weeks and report their observations back to the committee.  They are not to discuss their observations with each other, nor are they to aid or assist the child in any way - they are simply to observe.  What Lib finds on her arrival is a smart, healthy, robust, energetic child who believes that she does not need food to live, but that God is all the nourishment she requires.  Over the course of the two weeks, as she and Sister MIchael work in alternating eight-hour shifts, Lib witnesses the child’s rapid decline in health and mental abilities.  Her hands and feet swell, her physical strength declines, and her hair falls out, leaving clumps of red strands on her pillow.  Lib feels that she is witnessing a slow murder by starvation, and that her presence and that of Sister Michael are impeding the secretive feedings that have been taking place over the past four months, which, while not providing full meals, have provided adequate nourishment to keep Anna fairly healthy.  As her health declines, Lib’s feelings for and attachment to Anna grow, until she knows she must make a decision that will affect the outcome of the observation, a decision that very literally means life or death.  This is a very interesting story, one that was inspired, according to the author, by nearly fifty cases of “fasting girls” from the 16th to the 20th century in various parts of the world, and I found the book to be a real page-turner, but only because of the story itself - I wanted to know what happened next.  The writing, while solid, lacked the “wow” factor, and the character of Lib was positively annoying, and, at least to this reader, was completely unbelievable.  And the love story…?  I can’t even comment on that, except to ask, “What was Donoghue thinking?”  So, to sum up:  I felt that the writing was flawed, the characters were mostly unbelievable, and parts of the story were ridiculous, but I would still recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading fiction based on true stories, particularly stories about the unbelievable things that happened in history.  The main story is fascinating, and worth the investment of reading time.

An aside: I was at a friend’s place yesterday for a birthday party, and was talking to another friend who recently got back from an extended visit to China.  As we were talking, it came out that he’s considering making changes to certain aspects of his life, based on his experiences there, and particularly the time he spent in Buddhist temples.  This reminded me of Larry Darrell, the main character in The Razor’s Edge, as Larry , too, experienced life-changing events as he sought to find meaning in life by studying with the mystics in India.  It made me think that it was time to read The Razor’s Edge again.  Then, when I looked up information about The Wonder this morning, I found a review written by none other that the master of horror himself, Stephen King.  I was curious about this review, so I read it, and interestingly enough, he ended his review by saying that The Wonder reminded him of The Razor’s Edge, "only turned inside out...  Maugham’s book is about the power of spirituality to heal.  Donoghue has written, with crackling intensity, about its power to destroy” ( I would have never thought of this comparison myself, but it was interesting that he mentioned these two titles at a time when I was thinking of rereading one and have just finished reading the other - coincidence? Hmmm... I'll have to think about that.

That’s all for today.  Have a wonderfully wintery afternoon!

Bye for now…

Sunday 4 December 2016

Trees and treats on a chilly December morning...

I’m sitting down to write this blog after a busy morning of cooking and baking.  I have a steaming cup of chai, which is in a special vintage-looking Christmas mug, and a slice of Banana Bread, the first time I’m using a new recipe that I got from my neighbour’s mother.  And I have a brownie that one of my book club members brought to the meeting yesterday - yum, yum and yum!

My volunteer book club got together yesterday to discuss the critically acclaimed classic coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.  This book tells the story of Francie Nolan and her life experiences from the ages of eleven to seventeen.  Set in Brooklyn, the story begins in the summer of 1912, when we first see the tree that struggles, against all odds, to sprout and survive in the tenement district, in boarded-up lots and rubbish heaps.  Francie is just eleven, but she and her younger brother Cornelius/Neely have the run of the streets as their mother, Katie, works to keep house and home together, while their father, the handsome and talented but not-so-reliable Johnny Nolan sleeps or goes out with the other singing waiters in the Union.  The children are collecting stuff to bring to the junkie, where rags, paper and aluminum are weighed and purchased for a penny or two.  This they then turn over to their mother, contributing to the household budget, but not before allowing themselves a treat at the candy store.  The story follows Francie as she attends school, learns about poverty and survival, and the pride that keeps her mother from accepting charity, even in the face of near destitution.  She encounters many characters, including the local librarian and the various shopkeepers in the area.  Her extended family includes her uneducated yet extremely creative Aunt Sissy and her reliable Aunt Evy and Evy's interesting husband Willie.  Over the course of the six years that make up this story, Francie faces death and new life, poverty and comfort, and must make decisions that most children today would never have to make at such a young age.  This semi-autobiographical novel presents a window into the life of an average girl in Brooklyn before and during WWI, and it was a hit with the book club members.  We all agreed that Francie was to be admired for her strength of character and resilience, even in the face of adversity.  This strength she clearly got from her mother, Katie, who encouraged her children to rise above their situation and strive for a better life than she has had.  We thought that most of the women, particularly the Rommely women, were strong characters, while most of the men were weak or were “found wanting”, but then one member pointed out that there were, in fact, many weak female characters in the book, such as one of Francie’s teachers and the librarian, while there are many strong, or positive, male characters, such as the school custodian, the principal and the Jewish doctor.  These strong male and weak female characters were minor characters, but they were important to the development of the story.  Sissy was a favourite character, with her “kooky ways of doing things, calling all her partners ‘John’ (and) getting a baby through some pretty creative tactics”.  We all marvelled at the ways the women tolerated the weakness of the men, and seemed to be almost attracted to it (one member wondered whether Katie and the neighbours, by putting up with Johnny's alcoholism and irresponsibility, were in fact enabling him in this way of life).  We all felt that it was unfair of Katie to favour Neely, but that she did her best to raise both children to be strong individuals, despite her challenges with poverty, an unreliable husband and her ever-changing circumstances.  One member pointed out how interesting it was that the neighbours all took care of each other, but did it surreptitiously, such as when the women from the building cleaned the Nolans’ apartment while they were at Johnny’s funeral, then placed the key back under the mat.  Another member commented on the duplicity that occurred throughout the story, such as when Johnny and Francie lied about her circumstances to get her into a better school, or when Francie said she was sixteen to get a job, or even when Katie used creative means to meet up with Johnny and steal him from her best friend.  While reading this novel, I was reminded of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  Both Francie and Barbery's Paloma were afraid of what the future might hold for them, that life may end up having no meaning:  Paloma likened her future to swimming around and around in a fishbowl, and Francie was afraid of wasting her life, growing old and becoming disfigured.  All in all, it was an interesting discussion about a book that everyone enjoyed, and one that most of the book club members had been meaning to read “someday” - now they can cross that title off their list!

And I finished listening to an audiobook by Paul Doiron, Trespasser.  This follow-up to The Poacher’s Son (which I haven’t read) features Maine game warden Michael Bowditch, and opens with the search of a property that has been vandalized by vindictive ATV users.  Two large and stately oaks have been cut down on private property, and Mike is called in by the owner to help find out who did this.  He is called away to help in a roadside accident - a woman has hit a deer and her car is stranded on the side of the highway.  When he arrives at the scene, both the woman and the deer carcass are gone.  Then the state trooper arrives and tells Bowditch that this is now his case and he will follow up with a search for the missing woman.  Bowditch is uneasy about this arrangement, but he has troubles of his own to worry about, so he heads home to spend time with his girlfriend, who has recently moved back in with him after a separation of several months.  When the state trooper fails to conduct a proper search for the missing woman, Bowditch steps in and follows his own hunches, which lead him to discover a grisly murder scene that bears many similarities to a murder committed seven years earlier, a case that was closed with the conviction of local lobsterman Earland Jeffers.  As leads present themselves and clues are uncovered, Bowditch conducts his own investigation and must follow the clues as they take him on a hunt for the truth about both the current case and that of the murder committed nearly a decade before.  This was the first book by Doiron I’ve listened to, and it was pretty good.  The author really immersed this listener in the community and culture of the east coast, both with the wealthy summer residents and the poor local folk.  I am definitely interested in checking out his first “Michael Bowditch” novel, as there are many references to that book in this one.  It was an engaging thriller that had a realistic setting and an interesting cast of characters, not too fast-paced but still gripping enough to hold this reader’s interest until the satisfying conclusion.

That’s all for now.  Have a great day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 27 November 2016

Tea and books on a sunny fall morning...

Thank goodness I finished a book this week, so I don’t have to go on and on about the weather!  I’m sitting with my cup of delicious steeped chai tea and a yummy Date Bar from City Cafe, thinking about The Green Road by Anne Enright, which is the book we will be discussing for my book group meeting tomorrow night.  I have to refresh my memory because I finished it a few days ago and have been reading another book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for next Saturday’s book club meeting, and I find that when I read books too quickly in succession, the details of each start to blend into one another.

The Green Road tells the story of the four Madigan children (the “mad Madigans”) and explores their relationship with their mother, Rosaleen, a story that spans from the 1980s to 2005, when they all come home for Christmas to their West Ireland family home.  Dan fled from home to join the priesthood in the 1980s, but ends up scraping together a living on the streets of New York at the height of the AIDS scare among the gay community.  Emmet becomes an aide worker, travelling around the world offering what help he can to those who need it most and have the least, yet being unable to truly care for himself.  The youngest (and prettiest) child, Hanna, moves to Dublin to become an actress and then a mother, fulfilling neither of these roles well as alcohol consumes her.  Only Constance stays close to home and raises a family while her husband acquires more and more wealth.  Rosaleen struggles to cope with the flight of her children and the loss of her husband, Pat, while trying to hold onto some purpose and meaning in her own life.  She is an enigma, and her children are simultaneously repelled by her callous comments and attitude and yet also drawn by the myth of “family hearth and home”.  They want to remember a “wonderful” childhood, yet the reality was anything but wonderful.  This is the story of one family finally coming to terms with the truth about their past and trying to salvage what they can to move forward into the future.  I’ve spoken to a few of my book club members recently who said that they didn’t feel this book was very engaging or memorable, and I have to agree.  I think the problem with this book is the structure:  there are chapters devoted solely to one adult child’s experiences at a particular time in their lives, but there seems to be no real pattern to the time periods chosen, and no mention of the others in each child’s story.  Then, periodically, there will be a chapter exploring Rosaleen’s experiences, but those are more sporadic.  It seems that there is no real rhyme or reason to the book’s structure.  In my humble opinion (not being a Booker prize-winning author myself!), I think this book would have been more engaging if Enright had started out with all the children coming together at Christmas in 2005, then having brief flashbacks to the past to fill in backstories.  I also felt that the chapters focusing on Hanna’s and Constance’s lives were more convincing and believable than those about Dan and Emmet - maybe Enright writes better from a female point of view than that of a male character.  There were some of Enright’s trademark turns-of-phrases that just capture the way things are so simply yet so succinctly:  “Rosaleen was tired of waiting.  She had been waiting all her life for something that never happened, and she could not bear the suspense any longer” (p 259), but these occurrences were fewer and further between than in her past works.  And each of the characters’ stories were interesting and could have been novels in themselves, but thrown together they way they were, they just didn’t seem to work as well as they might have done if the structure was different.  Anyway, I’m glad to have read this book, as I feel that it sheds a real light on the truth behind "happy families" and what it's like to be raised by a mother who manipulates her children psychologically throughout their childhood and plays head games with them to get them to do what she wants. I think it will be an interesting discussion - I suspect we will all enjoy the book just a bit more once we have a chance to talk about it and share our thoughts.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the mild temperature and the sun!

Bye for now…

Monday 21 November 2016

This is a test...

I didn't get my latest post from Sunday sent to my email, so I wanted to send another as a test to make sure this feature still worked.  Hopefully this will be delivered on schedule.  Thanks for your patience during this technical glitch.

Bye for now...

Sunday 20 November 2016

Tea and chat on a crisp wintery morning...

We were out yesterday running errands in the rain while the temperature dropped as the day went on.  I was looking out the car window at the trees and brush on the side of the roads and thought “These are November colours”.  Everything was yellowing and brown, tree branches were bare and the long grasses were the colour of wheat.  It was beautiful and mournful and brought on a sense of melancholy for the season’s passing.  Fall, in all its degrees of change, is my favourite season, and this month, too, is wonderful, but in a different way than the bright, fiery colours of October, when I feel youthful and energetic and want to walk the trails and appreciate the scenery for all its brief beauty.  The landscape now puts me in a more contemplative mood, where I’m prone to nostalgia and my thoughts turn inward.  It is the perfect kind of weather for reading “serious” books that are thought-provoking, the ones that make you ponder life’s many complexities and consider the human condition.

But this morning promises to be the beginning of a bright, crisp, early winter day - we even got our first dusting of snow!  

I’m spending so much time telling you about the weather and my reaction to it because I have no books to tell you about.  I know, it’s shocking, and my only excuse is that I was so busy hosting a Scholastic Book Fair at one of my schools (my most successful one yet!) that I was just too tired to read when I got home.  Also, one of the nights last week I held a Book Fair Family Event, so I didn’t even get home until after 7:30pm, which left no time for reading.  And one of my cats, Riley, has taken to snuggling with me when I sit down in my reading chair with my cup of tea after I get home from work, so I can’t really read then, either.  In fact, here he is right now!  (I’m typing with one hand, so please forgive any typos - they are entirely Riley’s fault!)

I’ve started reading The Green Road by Anne Enright in preparation for my next “friends” book club meeting in a week’s time, and so far I’m enjoying it, although it’s not wow-ing me like her earlier books did.  I’ll tell you more about it next week once I’ve finished the book.

Oh, I do have a book to tell you about, or rather, an audiobook.  I finished listening to Death of a Nightingale by Danish author Lene Kaaberbol.  This is the third book in the “Nina Borg” series, and tells the story of a Ukranian woman, Natasha Doroshenko, who escapes Danish police custody after being arrested on suspicion of murdering her fiancé.  She is trying to find her young daughter, Rina, who has been held in a refugee camp for the past two years.  Nina Borg is a nurse who works at the camp, and becomes involved in the hunt for Natasha, while also providing a safe haven for Rina, who appears to have become a target, likely as a lure to flush out Natasha.  But why are people looking for Natasha, and why is Rina at risk of being abducted?  As Nina uncovers more secrets, the story of Natasha’s past comes to light, and the clock ticks as the chase across the frozen Danish landscape speeds to its conclusion.  This book was confusing and difficult to follow.  I thought the plot was unnecessarily complex, and maybe it was just me, but I felt that it was kind of a ridiculous story.  I read the first book in this series a few years ago, The Boy in the Suitcase, which I recall enjoying quite a bit, but this one really did nothing for me.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until I was halfway through, so I stuck it out and was thrilled to reach the end.  I just noticed that I have placed a hold at the library on the latest “Nina Borg” novel, A Considerate Killer - I guess I will leave it on hold and when it comes in for me, I can give it a try.  Maybe Death of a Nightingale was not one of her best books, and  A Considerate Killer will be better.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sun - but remember to bundle up!

Bye for now…

Sunday 13 November 2016

Tea and books on a crisp, bright Sunday morning...

After a morning of cooking and baking, I’m happy to sit down with a steaming cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread as I think about what I’ve been reading this past week.  In place of my usual classical background music, I’ve pulled out my Leonard Cohen cds, in memory of that great Canadian icon, author, poet, musician, wordsmith… “it is you, who must leave everything that you cannot control.. it begins with your family, but soon it comes round to your soul” (from “The Sisters of Mercy”)  We will miss your thoughts and words, Leonard!

I read a really great novel last week by Canadian author Trudi Johnson, From a Good Home:  a St John’s family saga.  This is the third debut novel I’ve read in a row, and they’ve all been awesome.  From a Good Home tells the story of the Sinclair family history, and begins with the death of patriarch Charles Sinclair, father to Jeanne and Emily, and grandfather to Joe, Lauren and Gregory.  His death throws the whole family dynamic out of sync, as it comes to light that when Charles was a young man, husband and father, he also fathered a child with one of the girls who worked in his household, Hannah Parsons.  Now, sixty years later, the story is revealed and the family must come to terms with what this means for them and how this will affect their lives going forward.  There are no real “main characters”, as they are all important to the story, and the ages of the characters range from early thirties to mid-seventies.  It was a real page-turner, as details of the family secrets were meted out bit by bit, tiny morsels for the reader to devour as we forge ahead to reach the final, satisfying conclusion.  It was a bit like that 1950's novel, Peyton Place, about a small town with scandalous secrets between social classes, but it reminded me more of the Maeve Binchy novels that I’ve read in the past, gentle stories about family and friends, and the bonds that develop in our lives to even the most unlikely people - it was more gossip-y than Binchy but less scandalous than Peyton Place.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, although I sometimes wished there was more to the story than seemingly every character’s obsession with the Sinclair family secrets.  It was a novel filled with longing and regret, but also love and trust, and explored the many types of people who make up our family and our circle of friends - actually, it reminded me a bit of Maeve Binchy’s novel, Circle of Friends, as there are a group of young people who have been friends for years, moving from childhood into adulthood together.  I would give this book a 9 out of 10, and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys books that deal with family secrets, domestic stories, or anyone who likes, as one member of my award selection committee described it, a “juicy” read. (Note: according to the author notes at the end of the book, Johnson is working on a sequel to this - hurray!!)

And I’m nearly finished reading a collection of short stories by Canadian author Diane Bracuk, Middle-Aged Boys & Girls.  I don’t normally read short stories, but we try to include at least one collection on our list of nominees for the award, and I think this one might be this year’s choice.  So far there have been stories about:  two friends, one obese but confident, the other slimmer but insecure; a woman whose husband has been stealing the female tenants’ underwear; a single mother dealing with her teen-aged daughter’s budding sexuality; and a former supermodel who must come to terms with her aging body.  These are just a few of the stories that Bracuk shares with us, told with skill and sensitivity, and also a touch of dark humour.  I am planning to read the rest of the collection today, and expect that the quality of the writing will continue.  I would recommend this to just about anyone, but particularly anyone who is middle-aged and facing the changes that come with this phase in life.  I know that short stories have not been very popular for many year, but I wonder why they continue to be unpopular at this time:  in this day and age, when everyone multitasks and has limited time to do anything for any length of time, it’s a wonder that people have time to pick up a legthy novel and stick with it to the end.  Short stories are small, bite-sized nuggets that you can read from beginning to end in one brief sitting, without a huge time commitment, and still have time to do all the other things that fill our days.  Personally, I have no problem findng hours every day to devote to reading, an opportunity for which I am thankful each and every day.

OK, that’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the refreshingly fall-like weather!

Bye for now…

Sunday 6 November 2016

First post for November (feels like September!)...

OK, enough with this wacky weather!  It feels like late September, not the beginning of November, and while I love the extra opportunities to hang laundry outside, I'm longing for the day when the weather will finally be “seasonal”!  But I am very thankful for the extra hour today - I wish I could figure out a way to gain an extra hour EVERY Sunday!

I was a bit of a reading machine this week, and have two books to tell you about.  The first is the one we discussed at my book club meeting yesterday, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.  This Booker Prize-winning debut novel is told in the form of letters written by Indian entrepreneur Balram Halwai to Wen Jiabao, Premier of China, and tells the story of Balram’s rise from servant to successful business owner.  His life began in the Darkness, in a small village in rural India, where corruption is as prevalent as in the the Light of the big cities.  With nothing but his wits to help him along, he must somehow find a way to escape his dismal, inevitable fate, despite the pressures from family and society, and he formulates a plan that includes eavesdropping, deception and murder.  But the reader is left wondering whether murder in a corrupt society is a necessary evil, and if a good man sometimes has to do evil things in order to improve the social conditions that surround him.  I listened to this novel a number of years ago as an audiobook, and remembered being impressed particularly with the narration, which was done by my favourite narrator, John Lee.  This was the first book I’d ever heard him narrate, and until I checked, I thought it was narrated by an Indian reader, not a British one.  Anyway, I’d forgotten most of the story, so when I began reading it for the meeting, I wondered if this was really a good choice for discussion.  And I can say that of the members who came out yesterday, two loved the book, two didn’t quite know what to make of it, and one member quite vehemently announced that she hated it and she hoped there were no other books like this on the list for next year (she asked in particular about A Passage to India but I assured her that it was nothing like this book).  These responsess didn’t really surprise me, as the book is “amoral (and) irreverent”, but also “deeply endearing… and utterly contemporary” (from the back cover of the book).  One member who loved the book felt that Balram was to be commended for his desire to break out of his caste and make something of himself besides being the servant of others for the rest of his life, and that he fully realized that he would have to live on the edge of what is moral and immoral, ethical and unethical.  His situation was one of hopelessness, but he was smart enough and ruthless enough to want to get out.  Another member found this book very disturbing, but she thought the humour helped to lighten the mood.  Another member said she had no idea where this book was going, that there was a twist around every corner, and she wasn’t sure if this was, in fact, the story of a poor boy who makes good, as she first thought it was.  At one point, we veered off into a long discussion about biking, bicycalists, and road safety (you'll have to read the book to understand this!). We talked about the culture shock of the East and West (“...our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs” p. 2).  One member wondered why he was writing about his rise to success, what purpose he was trying to achieve by writing these letters and admitting to his actions, all of them, both ethical and unethical:  does he want to be caught?  Is he bragging?  Someone brought up the fact that, despite his success, he has no friends;  he doesn’t trust anyone, and we were pretty sure his family is all dead (not that he had much to do with his family after leaving the Darkness anyway).  The member who did not like this book at all was very disturbed by the inequality, poverty and corruption that is ever-present in Indian culture.  She mentioned the paradox of this:  that India is a land where people make pilgrimages, meditate, go to ashrams, and engage gurus to guide them in their quest for spiritual enlightenment, and yet the country has no morals or ethics and is utterly corrupt.  She said that her social conscience was deeply troubled while reading this book, which is unfortunate (I don’t want my book club members to be upset by the book club selections), but it shows that Adiga has achieved his objective in writing this book:  “At a time when India is going through great changes, ... it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society… that’s what I’m trying to do” (  So I think it was a successful book club selection, and I hope that next month’s choice, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, will redeem me in the eyes of the group (just kidding!).  I would highly recommend White Tiger to anyone who is interested in satirical novels, or novels that expose corruption in all its many aspects.  This novel gets a 10 out of 10 from me.

And I have about five pages left of a nail-biter of a novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, the debut novel by British author Ruth Ware.  This unputdownable novel tells the story of a cozy girls’ weekend gone awry, and opens with the main character, crime novelist Nora Shaw, running through the woods.  She is tired and scared, and everything hurts, but she knows she must run, she must keep running, to stay alive.  A few weeks earlier, she received an email invitation to a hen party for Clare, her former best friend from high school, but someone she hasn’t seen for ten years.  Her instinct was to decline the invitation, but when she realized that a mutual friend was also invited, they make a pact to attend and sneer their way through this weekend event, scheduled to take place in a remote glass house in the woods.  Once there, however, Nora’s past, which she has done her best to leave completely behind her, is thrust upon her again and again, and it seems she is unable to escape it this time.  She keeps wondering why she was invited at all, and when things start to go wrong, she suspects that there may be an ulterior motive behind her inclusion on the list of guests.  But she could never have guessed how far one person would be willing to go to secure the perfect life… a life that may not include her.  This book grabbed me from the very first page, and I stayed up late reading long after I should have closed the book and gone to bed.  It was a bit like The Silent Wife meets Before I Go to Sleep, with Nora’s inability to remember the last few hours in the house playing a large part in creating the suspense in the story.  The writing was excellent, offering the reader just enough information in every chapter to begin to piece together the bigger picture, but not giving too much away at any one time.  But the last few chapters, where all is revealed, felt rather forced and unbelievable, a bit over-the-top and disappointing… maybe the last chapter will redeem the ending, but I have my doubts.  Overall, though, it was one of the better books I’ve read in this genre (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Couple Next Door, etc.), although The Silent Wife is my personal favourite.  I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys these types of thrillers.  I’m looking forward to her next book, The Woman in Cabin 10, due to be released in January 2017.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the gorgeously “unseasonable” weather!

Bye for now…

Monday 31 October 2016

Post script...

I’ve been thinking about the last book I read, The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall, and was trying to determine what it was about this book that just didn’t work for me, aside from the fact that it was too long, and I think I’ve figured it out.  I was walking past one of my many bookshelves (thanks to IKEA - and, of course, my husband!) and noticed a title that we read for my book club in the summer, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, and it suddenly hit me - The Best Kind of People had so many similarities to Smith’s book that I felt I’d already read it!  In these books, both husbands teach at a school or university, both have sexual involvement with their students, and both have daughters who attend their schools.  Both daughters get caught up in the drama surrounding the accusations against their fathers.  Both wives are nurses working at the local hospitals and both have been with their husbands since they were young women.  The settings are very similar, and while the main issues in one book are concerned with wealth and privilege and the other deals with race, they are both issues commonly explored in literature.  The main difference is that The Best Kind of People is quite serious, while On Beauty is more satirical and humourous.  Of the two, I think I preferred Smith’s novel, but this may only be because I read it first.  Who knows how I would have felt if I’d read Whittall’s novel first?

That’s all for tonight.  Happy Halloween!!

Bye for now…

Sunday 30 October 2016

Last post for October...

It feels like this is the end of fall, that once November starts, it’s bundle-up-for-winter time.  I know that winter doesn’t actually start until late December, but by the end of October, most of the leaves have fallen (not so much yet this year), it gets dark sooner, and there is a permanent chill in the air, with the possibility of snow around every corner.  I like the winter, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t feel that we’ve had a proper fall season yet this year.  Even now, it was winter coats last week, but I’m planning to wear sandals to work on Tuesday and maybe even Wednesday.  In case you can’t tell, I’m not very happy with the weather this season.  Grrr…!!  Thank goodness for my hot cup of chai tea and a slice of homemade Banana Bread to lift my spirits on this dismal, rainy day!

I read another recently published book by a Canadian author last week, as I am trying to read as many of these books as possible for consideration for the book award committee I am on before the end of November, our deadline for considering new titles.  The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall tells the story of one family’s experiences in the face of adversity in a wealthy white community outside of Connecticut. George Woodbury is a well-loved and respected science teacher at a prestigious prep school in Avalon Hills where, nearly a decade before the story is set, he disarmed a school shooter and saved many lives, including that of his seven-year-old daughter, Sadie.  Voted “Best Teacher” every year since, the school, along with his family, is shocked when he is arrested on multiple charges of sexual harassment and attempted rape of minors while on a school ski trip.  Whittall then explores the emotional turbulence of his wife, Joan, a head nurse at the local hospital, daughter Sadie, now seventeen and in the gifted program at the prep school where George teaches, and son Andrew, a gay lawyer living in New York with his partner Jared, as they come to terms with George’s secrets and reconcile themselves to the facts that have been presented while struggling to retain the heroic image of the man they believed him to be.  Loyalty and trust are called into question, and each character must consider everything they thought they knew about their father/husband, as they grapple with this difficult question: Can a man still be a hero if he has also committed unspeakable acts?  It started off really well, and pulled me in immediately.  Setting George up as a hero in the first few pages had me rooting for him to be innocent for about the first third of the book.  But then the evidence begins to pile up, and as accusations mount, the balance shifts and I found myself switching sides.  Of course, the story is told through the eyes of his family members, who really, really want him to be innocent and for their lives to go back to the way they were before, and their experiences of being shunned and ostracized from the very community where they were once respected and loved were difficult to read about but also all-too-realistic.  Whittall never goes into the details of the accusations, nor does she give George a distinct voice in this novel, and she presents the dilemmas of family members caught in this type of situation with understanding and skill.  I think my criticism of this book is that it was too long, and that she presented the experiences of Joan, Sadie and Andrew in too much detail - I was looking forward to reaching the last page, but when I did, I found an abrupt ending that seemed rather rushed, considering all the time and effort devoted to presenting every single detail of everyone’s lives from the time of the arrest to the time of the trial.  The quotation she has at the beginning of the book, though, was poignant and really made me think about the unfairness of society’s views in these types of cases:  “(Rape culture’s) most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the accused, instead of the person reporting the crime…” (Kate Harding, Asking for it).  I didn’t love the book, and I had a hard time identifying with any of the characters, but it was certainly well-written and well-reviewed by many, many sources, so I have to give it an 8 out of 10.

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and have a HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!

Bye for now…

Sunday 23 October 2016

Hot cup of tea on a chilly morning...

Somehow, within the span of seven days, we’ve gone from wearing t-shirts and shorts to wearing winter coats.  Yes, it’s true - yesterday I pulled out my warmest winter coat and it kept me warm and cozy while I ran my errands.  So I’m especially thankful for my steaming cup of chai tea this morning, as I think about what I’ve read this past week.

Before I move on to new books, I wanted to follow up on the last 40 pages or so of Peter Robinson’s When the Music’s Over - they did not wow me, so my rating of 7/10 still stands.  

But thankfully I read something early last week that really did wow me - Margeurite Andersen’s The Bad Mother.  I have heard of this German/Canadian writer but have never read anything she has written until now, and I’m so glad the English translation of this book was in a box I received to be considered for the awards’ committee I am on.  It is something I never would have normally picked up, but I’m so glad I did.  This memoir is a reflection by Andersen on her life, and all the ways she was a bad mother.  At the age of 30, she left her two sons in the care of her husband for a year and a half, and flew halfway across the world to escape a bad marriage.  Sixty years later, she is writing about this period in her life that has tormented her for so long. In 1945, at the end of WWII, Andersen is twenty years old and living in Berlin, but she wants freedom, to live without hunger or thirst, to be free, so when her handsome lover talks of his homeland in Tunis, North Africa, she is tempted to follow him there to start a new life.  When she becomes pregnant, her fate is sealed and off she goes, but all is not as she had hoped, and what follows are her choices and decisions, the consequences she must face, and the ways these decisions have affected her family (as she perceives them).  OK, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you must be thinking, “But she doesn’t like reading non-fiction, especially memoirs”, and you would be totally right.  But this book was written less like a typical memoir and more like a long narrative, free-verse poem, which was extremely engaging - I was drawn into her story immediately and had a hard time putting the book down.  I read it in two days, and was sad to reach the last page.  I couldn’t believe the things that Andersen had to go through in her life, the choices she faced and the tough decisions she made, trying to do the best for everyone, but also preserving herself.  I was truly wowed and would rate this book 9 out of 10.  

And I started reading a book of short stories called Four- Letter Words by Newfoundland author Chad Pelley.  Once again, I had never read anything by this author, but was pretty impressed with the first few stories in this collection, which deal with themes of love, lust, hate or loss. The first story is told from the point of view of a young man who left home because his father abused his mother and she just took it.  He befriended the old reclusive guy down the street, who helped him through these tough times and also helped him make his escape.  At one point, when telling the reader about his father shouting abuse at his mother, Pelley writes, “...the way he shouted it made her lips quiver.  Her whole body rippled:  she was a pond and he was throwing stones” (p. 21).  That’s beautiful language, clear and concise, and also refreshingly different.  But after reading about a third of the stories, I found my interest waning, as somehow, although the characters and setting in each story were different, it felt a bit like I was reading the same story over and over.  The way I see it, if you are reading short stories, you probably want some variety, and this collection wasn’t giving me what I needed at this time.  So I closed the book and have guiltlessly moved on to something else (I know there are people who, once they start a book, feel that they absolutely must finish it, but I am not one of them).

And I finished listening to an audiobook this week, The Ex by Alafair Burke.  I listened to another of her books a few years ago, Long Gone, and I just looked at my comments on that book - confusing, but not bad.  Well, this book, her most recent novel, was not only confusing, but perhaps one of the most irritating books I’ve ever listened to.  I actually planned to stop listening about a third of the way in, but then I read reviews of the book and they were outstanding, so I persevered, but it never got any better, and I’m now thinking that it was two weeks of listening that I’ll never get back.  The novel tells the story of Olivia Randall, a single forty-something lawyer who, after a boozy night (all of her nights seem to be boozy), she is awakened by a call from her law office (does she not have to keep regular hours?) asking her to return a call from someone who claims to know her.  It turns out that the call is from the teenaged daughter of her former fiancé, novelist Jack Harris, asking for her help in getting her dad out of jail.  It seems that, after the death of his wife, Molly, in the mass Penn Station shooting a few years earlier, Jack has devoted his life to writing novels and caring for his daughter as a single father, never interested in dating anyone else… until now.  A couple of weeks earlier, while taking an early morning jog by the harbourfront, he happened to see a woman in a party dress sitting in the grass reading a book and drinking champagne straight out of the bottle.  He nods to her, she smiles at him, he comments to his friend who coincidentally runs an extremely popular online “Missed Moments” column, and...BAM!  Instant romance.  Sounds ideal, right?  They arrange to meet at a particular time at a particular place (a favourite spot mentioned in Jack’s favourite book, the one she happened to be reading at the time of the sighting), but on the appointed day, while Jack is there, she pulls a no-show… then suddenly, shots ring out and three people are dead, including the father of the boy who shot Jack’s wife.  Did Jack do it, or was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time?  It is up to Olivia to help him out of this situation before he is found guilty and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail.  She knows Jack didn’t do it, not a nice, helpful, kind, caring guy like Jack… until evidence surfaces, and secrets and lies are revealed, and she begins to doubt the innocence of her client.  OK, I’m no lawyer, but I’ve read enough crime novels to wonder at Olivia’s behaviour.  She was hired to defend Jack, so my thought is that she shouldn’t care whether he was guilty or not, she just needs to show reasonable doubt for the jury to find him innocent.  Yet she spends half the book thinking, “Could Jack have done this?  How well do I really know the man I was once engaged to, the man I treated so poorly and whose heart I broke?  Could he really be a killer?”  She shouldn’t be focusing on “Is he guilty?”, but rather on “How can I convince the jury that there is reasonable doubt about his guilt?”  And she’s totally self-absorbed, like everything revolves around her, including some of the strange coincidences surrounding this case.  I had to suspend my sense of disbelief for pretty much the entire novel (a nice way of saying "this storyline was ridiculous!"), and it never got any better than the way I felt at the beginning.  I’m not sure why all the reviews were so positive, but of course, everyone’s reading tastes are different. Unfortunately, this one left a bitter taste in my mouth - it was truly one of the worst listening experiences I can recall.  But this book is also compared to Gone Girl and the writer compared to Mary Higgins Clark, so that probably explains things. I'm not even going to rate this book, because it was clearly not my type of novel and I should have just quit while I was ahead and moved on to something else. (oh boy, was I ranting there for a bit? Sorry!)

That’s all for today.  Stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now…