Thursday 24 March 2016

Post on an icy cold morning...

It’s a cold, icy day just before Easter weekend, and the schools are closed, so I decided to take advantage of this “found time” to write my blog.  It’s supposed to be beautiful and sunny on the weekend, and if my weekly post is done, I will have more time to play!  I definitely appreciate my steaming cup of chai this morning as the wind blows the icy branches and whistles through the cracks in the doors, but I’ve got CBC Radio 2 to keep me company as I think about the past week’s readings.

I have a book and an audiobook to tell you about.  The book is The Child Garden by Catriona McPherson, a title I discovered after reading a review in the local paper.  The library didn’t have it yet, but I put in a Suggestion for Purchase and they bought it.  Set in the Scottish highlands, this book opens in 1985 with something nasty taking place in the woods: we’re not sure what is happening but we know it’s bad.  Fast-forward 28 years and meet Gloria Harkness, a middle-aged woman, divorced, with a job, a son, a house and a dog.  Her life is pretty predictable and uneventful, so when she hears a knock on her door late one night and finds an old friend from her school days on her doorstep, she does not turn her back on the opportunity to have a bit of an adventure.  Stephen “Stig” Tarrant asks for Gloria’s help in stopping a woman, April Cowan, from stalking him.  April and Stig were classmates at Eden, an alternative high school that was established by Stig’s parents nearly 30 years before, but was closed after just one year because of a student suicide, a drowning in the river under a bridge near the school during a whole-school outdoor sleep-over on May Day.  April has contacted Stig all these years later claiming that it wasn’t suicide, but murder, and tries to meet with him.  When she doesn’t show up for the meeting, Stig thinks this is the end of it, but then receives several more messages.  Stig seeks Gloria’s help because she lives nearby the old school grounds, which have now been converted to a home for the elderly and infirm.  When they head out together to the latest meeting spot, they discover April’s dead body, another suicide.  Could this be the result of her guilt at hiding the truth about the first death for so many years?  But when it is established that April was murdered, Stig is placed firmly in the frame and he must stay hidden at Gloria’s farmhouse if he is to avoid police custody.  When Gloria investigates other former students from Eden, she is amazed at her discoveries, and as one case follows another, the story becomes more complex than anything she or Stig could have imagined.  Will they be able to discover who is behind these murders before they, too, are added to the list of victims?  I have never read anything by this author, although she has written quite a number of previous books, mainly a historical mystery series featuring Dandy Gilver.  This standalone was a bit confusing and vague at first, but once I got over that and learned to just “go with the flow”, it kept me riveted to the very end.  The characters were flawed but believable, and I certainly felt for Gloria’s plight as she dealt with the various difficult situations in her life.  And the suspense was real - I could feel my heart racing as she uncovered case after case and pieced together the puzzle that would lead to a final, satisfying conclusion.  It was certainly not as polished as a psychological mystery by Minette Walters or Peter Robinson, but it was still a good book, and I’m definitely going to try another of her standalones - in fact, I’ve just put in a library request for The Day She Died.  You’ll like this book if you enjoy complex mysteries that involve family secrets from the past.  I think I’ll start giving books ratings out of 10:  This book is a 7.5 out of 10.

And I finished listening to an audiobook a couple of days ago, another mystery by British author Reginald Hill, most famous for his “Dalziel and Pascoe” series. Who Guards a Prince features Douglas McHarg, former member of the Queen's Guard who once guarded Prince Arthur, a minor British prince, and who is now a detective with Scotland Yard.  With the discovery of a severed tongue on a beach by a doctor out walking with his young daughter, a complex mystery is set in motion involving freemasons, a wealthy Irish patriarch in Boston, and a forbidden romance.  As bodies pile up, McHarg must work fast and travel far to uncover the dark secrets and hidden truths even as he is warned off the case by his superiors and targeted by the most influential men.  I thought I’d try this book out as I’m interested in mysteries dealing with secret societies (long before the publication of The Da Vinci Code!)  It was pretty good, and the narrator did a wonderful job of bringing the tough McHarg to life.  It was complex and interesting, and the whole bit about the Freemasons was enlightening, though not as informative as I had hoped (I guess that’s why it’s a “secret” society!)  I didn’t know this was also part of a series, so I may try to find other audiobooks in this series, or others by Hill in the “Dalziel and Pascoe” series.  Not brilliant, but not a bad book, I would give it a 7 out of 10.

Happy Easter, everyone! May this holiday offer you peace and joy and maybe even a glimpse of the Easter bunny!  

Bye for now…

Sunday 20 March 2016

Books and tea on the first day of Spring...

It’s a bright, gorgeous, brisk, sunny morning as I sip my steaming chai and think about the books I’ve read over the past week.  Since it was March Break, I had planned to read at least three books, but managed to finish only two.

The first book I read is a Silver Birch fiction nominee called Speechless by Jennifer Mook-Sang.  It tells the story of Joe “Jelly” Miles, an average grade 6 student who would rather be playing video games with his friend Parker “P.B.” than preparing for a school speech competition.  But when he sees what this year’s prize is, a brand new tablet computer with all the accessories, he is convinced to take it seriously.  Class know-it-all and mean-girl Victoria goads him on, and he is more determined than ever to win the competition, but for a very different reason.  When nasty rumours begin to fly, Jelly has to be creative to debunk them while still maintaining his integrity.  He is also coaxed into helping out P.B.’s sister at the local food bank, where he discovers hidden talents, new friends and much about his community.  When the final competition day arrives, will Jelly have the courage to stand up in front of the whole school and do his best to win, while still holding on to what he truly believes in?  This book has everything you could want to find in a book geared to readers in grades 4-6:  it has a male protagonist, but there is a “love story”, too, so it would appeal to both girls and boys.  It’s funny, and easy to read, and has a strong message about values and friendship and community initiatives.  And there are lots of scenes with video games!  What more could a reader want?!  I really enjoyed this book, and would highly recommend it to readers of any age as a fun read that still manages to address serious topics.

And I read a recently published novel by Canadian author Billie Livingston, The Crooked Heart of Mercy.  This novel tells the story of three characters who are all bound together by tragic circumstances:  Maggie, a young mother who has recently lost her toddler son, Frankie, and is trying to get her life back together; Ben, Maggie’s husband, whose life spirals out of control after the loss of Frankie and ends up in a psyche ward after shooting himself in the head; and Maggie’s brother, Francis, a passionate priest who is an occasional alcoholic, occasionally celibate, and gay.  Maggie had worked as a housecleaner and companion for elderly clients before Frankie’s death.  When the bills pile up and she re-enters the workforce after the tragedy, one of her new clients is Lucy, an 80-year-old widow who becomes increasingly reliant on Maggie for companionship.  When Maggie asks if she wouldn’t like her to vacuum or do the dishes instead of just sitting with her, Lucy replies that some rich guy once said, “You don’t get paid by the hour.  You get paid for the value you bring to the hour.”  I loved this quotation, because it helped Maggie to begin to see that she is still a valuable person, despite the guilt she suffers over the death of her son.  Her life still has meaning and purpose, just different from before.  Francis also needs to find his way, his true calling, and the strength to manage his passions, both religious and secular.  And Ben must also overcome the guilt he feels over the tragedy and find a way to begin anew.  Together, these three characters must support each other and somehow find a way to keep on living, in the face of tragedy and adversity.  This short novel was heartbreaking and yet uplifting, and offered insight into the thoughts of these three very different and yet very believable characters.  I found Ben’s character the most challenging, and Francis’ story the most touching, but they all work together to give this novel complexity, dark humour and diversity.  I would recommend this to just about anyone who enjoys a tragic story with an uplifting ending.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!
Bye for now…

Sunday 13 March 2016

Afternoon post for a change...

It’s late afternoon as I write this post.  I’ve got a cup of tea and a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread, and I’m thinking about what I will read this coming week, as it is March Break and I will have plenty of extra reading time.

I just finished a book this morning that my Friends book group will be discussing tomorrow night, Ruby by Cynthia Bond.  This novel, set in the small town of Liberty, Texas in the 1960s, tells the story of Ruby Bell, a woman who grew up in Liberty, only to escape to New York in search of her mother when she was in her teens.  She has returned to the town after many years, and the townspeople and church members waste no time trying to break her spirit once again, just as they had before she escaped when she was young, motherless and completely vulnerable.  The reader is left to decide if she is mad, or just hypersensitive to the guilt and grief of the spirits and “haints” surrounding her in the forest around the Bell property.  When Ephram Jennings, the man who has carried a torch for Ruby since childhood, arrives and tries to reach out to her, Ruby pushes him away, only to be met with insistence, gentleness and love.  But Ephram’s pious sister, Celia, has other plans for her rogue brother, and we are offered their stories and their struggles, and Ephram must decide between loyalty towards his sister, who raised him like a son, and love for Ruby, who may never be able to accept or return it.  Thrown into this mix are scenes of superstition and voodoo, and horrifying details that surrounded Ruby and others like her growing up in this small town where even white girls are offered up as pawns, all for the purpose of making money.  This book was recommended by one of the book club members, but she warned us that there were descriptive scenes of rape and violence.  I, too, would advise any reader that there are disturbing sections of this book, and not just one or two, but many, many lengthy scenes, which seemed excessive to me, but this book was an Oprah choice and got rave reviews.  I didn’t love it, and struggled to get through it, but thankfully, all was explained near the end.  The author used a dreamlike style for much of the book, which was both vague and often confusing - I think chapter headings with dates and locations would have been helpful.  This style was also used in another book I read fairly recently, Birdie by Tracy Lindberg. Both books dealt with the sexual abuse of young girls, mental illness, and superstition, spiritual awakening or magic realism. Both are debut novels and, while I preferred Lindberg’s book, clearly from the reviews others felt that Bond’s novel was also well-written and praiseworthy.  I’m curious to hear what the others in my group thought of this book.

That’s all for now - I’m not used to writing so late, and it’s strange to be ending this post because I have to make something for dinner.  I promise that for the next post, things will be back to normal.  Happy March Break!

Bye for now…

Sunday 6 March 2016

Tea and books on a bright, clear day

It is another lovely day, although still chilly, but we’re expected to have unseasonably high temperatures for the next 10 days or so.  It’s not too warm to enjoy a hot cup of tea, though, and that is just what I’m doing!

Well, the cats have continued to cause issues that take up valuable reading time, so I just finished the book club selection, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson on Friday night.  Here’s a brief plot summary:  the main character, Ursula Todd, born in 1910 in the English countryside, meets an unfortunate end before she even has a chance for her life to begin… until her life begins again, and she survives, only to meet an unfortunate end as a very young girl… and then her life begins again, and she learns to survive a little bit longer, until she once again meets an unfortunate end… and so on, and so on, and so on…  I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this book, as I prefer more linear stories - some flashbacks are ok, if they help to develop the story or characters, but not too many, as I find they become distracting.  But since this book was so wildly popular, and so much in demand, I decided to put it on the list so we’d all be forced to read it.  And it was a very successful book choice indeed!  We all agreed that we were glad we read it, and that it was one we were discussing, because we all got more out of the book after hearing the views of others.  We talked about the main character, Ursula, and what it would be like to have this ability, this sixth sense, to know what was going to happen, or not really “know”, but have a glimmer of the future, and also be able to make choices that will change your own path as well as the paths of others.  As we discussed the other characters, and whose personalities remained consistent throughout Ursula’s various incarnations, we wondered if she is the only one to whom this is happening, if perhaps others are experiencing this as well.  Ursula is not choosing to do this, it is just happening to her, and it’s not reincarnation, where she comes back in another place or time as another creature, but it is the same little girl coming back to live the same life, although she has the ability to change things slightly, but then she doesn’t have the foresight to know how these changes will affect the future of her life and the lives of others.  She’s basically learning from her mistakes, but then she applies different tactics to the very same situations, which lead to other issues - “Re-experiencing life again for the first time” is how we summed it up.  When we considered whether other characters had this ability, we thought that there were suggestions that Sylvie (the mother) and Teddy (the favourite brother) may have been more receptive to these insights, while Maurice (the elder brother), Izzy (the disgraced aunt), Pamela (the elder sister) and Hugh (the father) did not have this insight, that they just “lived”.  We considered Ursula’s various lives, considering which ones were preferable to others, and which ones were the worst possible fates for her.  I mentioned that, since I knew that Ursula would die at the end of each section and then be reborn into the same life, and that most sections were fairly short-ish, when I did encounter rather longer sections, I found myself looking ahead to find when the darkness would fall so we could start again - I was rather impatient with all the detail in the longer sections.  So I guess I fell into the rhythm of the book’s structure:  whereas at first I found the short sections and the repetition a bit frustrating, by the middle of the book, it was working for me.  I was reassured to hear that I was not the only one who was looking ahead in the book for the next point at which our main character would die!  We were all somewhat disappointed by the ending - one member said she found it a bit “flat” - but after discussing it, we decided that it was really the only way Atkinson could have ended the book, that it wasn’t really an ending, that yet another incarnation could be about to begin, just beyond the last page.  We were all glad to have read it because it made each of us think about the randomness of life, and the coincidences that shape how it turns out.  We thought about free will and choice, and how we may be able to control our own choices, but have little control over the actions of others.  One member said that she read it quite quickly, which she found worked to keep herself oriented with the story’s variations, and I would have to agree; I, unfortunately, read it in short snippets over two weeks, and found it very difficult to keep track.  The details about life in both Germany and England during WWII were horrifying and enlightening (the sights, the sounds, the smells, the pressure when a bomb exploded), and the smattering of German words and phrases used throughout the book were accurate (one member lived in Germany for years and was checking for mistakes!).  So all in all, it was a lively, interesting meeting and I would definitely recommend this book if you are looking for something for your own book club.  I would also recommend discussing the book with someone if you are reading it on your own, or at least looking for reviews or discussions online, as it really enhances the meaning and power of the book’s structure and message to hear the thoughts of others.

OK, that’s it for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!

Bye for now…

PS I just got back from a long walk and finished my audiobook, The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty. It was awesome (to find out more about it, you can check out the blog entry I wrote some time ago when I read the book). Anyway, I wanted to mention it here because the way she ends the book talks about the coincidences that shape the direction our lives take, which I had forgotten about and which fits with the book we discussed yesterday. Both authors used some humour in their books, too, although Moriarty's book was funnier than Atkinson's.

And I wanted to share something I read on a sign outside a cafe yesterday, after spending hours trying to get chores done and desperately wanting a coffee: "A yawn is a silent scream for coffee". I love that! (I never did get my coffee... sad...)