Sunday 24 April 2016

Books, books and more books...

As I sit down with my steaming cup of tea on this chilly morning, I’m thinking about all the books I found at the big book sale yesterday.  They’re in a box on the floor to the left of my chair, and I’m excited about having a chance to go through them this afternoon and deciding where they should go.  If you’re like me, you have different bookshelves that hold different books.  On the main level, in the living room, I have my “good” bookshelf, the one that holds all the books I’m really proud to have, ones I’ve purchased over the years that either have personal historical value or would make good conversation starters, since these are located in a spot where anyone who visits would see them.  I have a small collection of Elizabeth George books in the small back room, on what is not even really a bookshelf, just an accent table whose shelf I’ve allocated as a bookholder.  Then there are the shelves in the rooms upstairs, the ones that hold books that are in more battered condition, often library discards, or books that are ones I’m less interested in, that I may get around to reading someday but they’re not really a priority.  My husband also has a bookshelf in the basement which I feel is being underutilized… hmmm, what in my box of books can be located down there?  Of course, all of these bookshelves except the basement one are full to overflowing, and there are piles of books on the floor and in cubbyholes, too, so I probably need to do some purging - thank goodness for the “free little libraries” that are popping up everywhere! Trying to decide where to put books and where I've got books located on shelves brings to mind that list at the beginning of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, about different types of books. The list includes, but is not limited to:

Books you mean to read but there are others you must read first
Books you've been planning to read for ages
Books dealing with something you're working on at the moment
Books you want to own so they'll be handy just in case
Books you could put aside maybe to read this summer
Books you need to go with other books on your shelves
Books that everybody has read so it's as if you had read them, too
Books read long ago which it's now time to reread, and
Books you've pretended to read and now it's time to sit down and read them

(my newly acquired box of books contains at least one of each of these types of books, and more!)

I finished Quantum Night last week, and the real plot did indeed become clear, but I wasn’t really “wowed” by it.  It was an “ok” book, and I suspect that fans of Sawyer will not be disappointed, but it wasn’t one I would rave about to people I know.  It was clearly well-researched and well-written, but you know how sometimes you can finish a book and think, “that was awesome!” or “I learned so much” or “that book changed my life” - this wasn’t one of those books, at least for me. I’d probably give it 7/10.

And I read another rather disappointing book, a debut novel by Canadian writer Amy Stuart called Still Mine.  This novel, set in a small mining town in BC, tells the story of Clare O’Dey, a young woman who is on the run from her abusive husband and becomes involved in a covert search for a missing woman.  Shayna Fowles went missing from her home in Blackmore three weeks ago, and no one seems to be looking for her.  Along comes Clare, claiming to be a photographer, who digs into the town’s dirty secrets to find out what happened.  She meets resistance at every turn, but is also brought into the fold and becomes an integral part of the community almost immediately, becoming everyone’s confidante.  When things go from bad to worse, Clare must think fast and make decisions that will get her out alive but also save the other vulnerable members of the community from further harm.  This book, promoted with the tagline,  “The Girl on the Train meets The Silent Wife”, sounded really interesting to me, as I loved The Silent Wife and enjoy reading “taut psychological thrillers” (publisher’s description).  But I just didn’t identify with the main characters at all, nor did I find the storyline credible.  Still, it was a real page-turner, and I wanted to get to the end to finally find out what was going on in Clare’s life that made it necessary for her to disappear.  Clearly Stuart is a writer to watch out for, as the novel was written with real skill and talent.  The publisher is really trying to market this book, and it’s beautifully designed with a lovely cover and pages with mountains and trees at the beginning of each section, so they must have high hopes for it.  It reminded me of Andrew Pyper’s writing style (it’s not surprising that he is quoted on the cover praising the novel), but it also made me think of that 2001 film “Memento”, where the main character can’t retain new memories so he’s constantly trying to get through life, even as he tries to execute a complex strategy to find and kill the man who raped and murdered his wife.  Pyper’s writing style is similarly choppy and vague, and “Memento” also relies on an uncertain past to make the present more suspenseful.  I don’t want to discourage people from trying this book - it may be that I’m being too critical, and clearly everyone’s reading experiences are different.  After all, everyone is raving about The Girl on the Train and yet I couldn’t get into it.  It’s definitely a psychological thriller and a page-turner, so I’d give it a 7/10.  

And I also wanted to mention that Julie’s Reading Corner is 5 years old this weekend.  My first post was on April 21st, 2011.  Happy Birthday!!

Have a great day everyone!

Bye for now…

Sunday 17 April 2016

Books and tea on a delightfully Springy morning...

I’m listening to the birdsong through the open windows this morning as I sip my chai tea and think about books.  I’m using a new mug today, one I bought from that pottery place in St Jacob’s where I got my original “Sunday morning chai tea” mug.  This one is large and meant for soup, but I couldn’t wait to try it out!

I’m not quite finished a new book by Canadian sci-fic author, award-winning Robert J Sawyer called Quantum Night.  This fast-paced page-turner tells the story of Professor Jim Marchuk, a psychologist who has developed the perfect test indicating the psychopathy that is lurking everywhere in society.  When he is called to be an expert witness at the trial of a murderer in the southern United States, he is shocked to learn that not only was extreme violence practiced by a not-too-distant relative, but that he has a period of missing memory, about six months, during his university days.  His search for this missing time leads him to discover that he was part of a top-secret experiment for the US Department of Defense and experienced adverse reactions to the testing which not only caused him to lose any memory of that time, but to also exhibit a totally different personality, a much more violent one.  When he reconnects with Kayla, an old girlfriend from this missing time, he discovers that there are three distinct types of personalities, based on an individual’s quantum superposition (whatever that means!  he did explain it fully in the book, but I didn’t fully understand it even at the time of reading, and now it’s days later).  These personalities are Q1 - philosopher’s zombies or “p-zeds”, Q2 - psychopaths, and Q3 - fully functioning individuals, with a conscience, and Kayla’s team have created a test that can accurately identify these personality types. There is the added discovery of a tool that can change a person’s superposition (thanks for the nod to the Perimeter Institute, Robert!).  With the ability to determine which individuals would be most likely to follow instructions, and the ability also to change people’s personalities, Sawyer explores many moral and ethical scenarios that are set in the very-near future, but so realistic is his portrayal of these scenarios that he’s got this reader wondering if these are possibilities that exist right now!  I’m not finished the book yet, and so, with more than a third of the book left to read (last week was super-busy), I can’t really comment on the novel as a whole, but it’s definitely got me thinking about how consciously I’m engaging in my life, and wondering if I’m a p-zed, just wandering through life, following routines and not really thinking consciously about my life and the things around me.  I like to think that I have a “rich inner life” and that I can “think outside the box”, but look at how easily we fall back on clichés.  It’s so far a really thought-provoking novel, and a fast-paced thriller that is keeping me interested to reach the final page.  I’m not always thrilled with the way he uses the novel as an opportunity for “product placement” (he clearly loves Apple products!), nor do I enjoy the parts where the author is so obviously using the book to get on his soapbox; not that the issues he’s addressing are unimportant, just that he could have done it in a subtler way that made me feel as though he believes his readers have enough intelligence to understand what he’s saying.  I felt that much of the book was like this, that he “dumbed it down” so everyone would understand.  I guess this is so that his book would have wider appeal, not just to sci-fi readers, but to readers of any genre.  I also don’t know exactly what the book is really about, what the main story is.  There are so many storylines that seem underdeveloped that I’m curious if the real point to the story, the main plot, will become apparent in the last third.  I’ll let you know next week what my rating would be, but for now, I would recommend it to just about anyone, as it’s a fast-paced, easy read that is also very thought-provoking.  

And I finally finished listening to Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil, once again narrated by Robert Glenister.  This is the third book in the Cormoran Strike series and it was just about as good as the first one, which was awesome, and significantly better than the second one, which was not very good, in my opinion.   Glenister is the narrator for all three books, which is great, as he’s got the characters’ personalities and voices down pat.  This novel begins with Robin frantically arranging for her upcoming wedding.  Having completed the surveillance course recommended by Strike, she is now getting out of the office more and working longer hours, even on weekends, with no pay increase, which is something fiancé Matthew is not thrilled about.  She is finding that it’s easier to receive personal deliveries at work rather than at home, so when a box shows up one morning, she readily signs for it, thinking her wedding favours have arrived.  Inside the office, she is shocked to find that the box contains not disposable cameras, but a woman’s severed leg.  Strike contacts Wardle, the police detective least vexed by Strike’s triumph over the police in the second book, Silkworm, and informs him that he believes the leg was meant for him, not Robin, as the card included with the leg contained the quotation from the Blue Oyster Cult song, Mistress of the Salmon Salt, that Strike’s mother had tattooed on her lower abdomen.  References to Blue Oyster Cult songs lead into most chapters and sections of the book, as the killer is obsessed with this classic rock band.  Strike puts forth three likely candidates as suspects, men from his past who would want to ruin his business and who would also be capable of such cold-blooded acts as sending severed body parts to him via courier.  The police, not surprisingly, don’t really listen to his suggestions, and follow their own leads.  Strike, then, is forced to investigate on his own.  Despite Strike’s protestations that he wants Robin to follow specific safety precautions, she persists in conducting her own lines of inquiry with these suspects, particularly paedophile Noel Brockbank, while also taking an active role in assisting Strike in his own investigations.  These investigations leads them all over the country, digging into the pasts and searching for the current whereabouts for these unsavoury suspects.  Robin, meanwhile, is conflicted about marrying Matthew, and her attraction to Strike simmers just below the surface, feelings which are reciprocated by Strike.  Of course, it is a complex plot with plenty of nasty characters, and the sexual tension between Robin and Strike is ever-present, which in my opinion somewhat detracts from the story rather than adding to it.  And the ending, which I was so anticipating, felt rather flat and rushed, and left many things unresolved. Still, it was overall a great listening experience.  If you enjoyed the first two in this series, I’m sure you will enjoy this one, too.  I’d give the first book, Cuckoo’s Calling a 10 out of 10, the second, Silkworm, a 7 out of 10, and this third a 9.  It needs no additional promotion, as I'm sure this series has a huge fan following.  I wonder why, now that everyone knows who is really writing these novels, Rowling continues to publish under the pseudonym Galbraith?  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the beautiful Spring weather!

Bye for now…

PS Don't forget the big CFUW Annual Book Sale next weekend:

Sunday 10 April 2016

Tea and books on a chilly Sunday morning...

It’s been well below seasonal temperatures this week, and today is no exception, so I really appreciate my hot tea as I compose my weekly post.

I read a surprisingly good book this week by Canadian author Liam Durcan, The Measure of Darkness, which tells the story of a man in midlife who, due to an accident that has left him with a condition called “neglect”, is trying to maintain control and order in his life while also recollecting his past behaviour.  Martin is a fairly successful architect in Montreal who, while sitting in his parked car on the side of a highway one February night, is hit by a snowplow, causing serious neurological damage and leaving him with “left neglect”, a condition under which he is unable to have an awareness of anything taking place in the left side of his vision.  He not only can’t see what is there, he is not even aware that it exists - he thinks he has clear vision of his whole world, and does not experience any feelings of deficiency.  His estranged brother, Brendan, whom Martin has encountered only briefly twice in the past thirty years, has arranged to have him treated at the Dunes, a prestigious rehabilitation centre in Vermont, although Martin has no idea why he would do such a thing.  Over the years, he has also become estranged from his daughters, as well as his two ex-wives, and there are details concerning the recent decisions involving the architectural firm he founded that he can’t seem to recall.  One by one, secrets and details are revealed as Martin’s life comes into focus for him, his brother and the reader, as we are led ever closer to solving the mystery surrounding the reason Martin was out on the side of that deserted highway in the middle of a snowstorm.  Interwoven into the story is Martin’s obsession with Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov, a non-conformist in the early 20th century, who served as an inspiration to Martin and set him on the road to becoming the architect he is.  Unable to continue his work with his condition, he must decide how to move forward with his future, which can only be achieved by looking back at his past.  I had zero expectations for this book, so was very pleasantly surprised at how captivating a read it was.  I was worried that there might be too many details and too much medical terminology describing his condition.  I was also worried that, given the main character's obsession with this Russian architect, there might be too much description of Melnikov’s life and work, but thankfully, my worries were for naught.  In fact, these two aspects of the novel were, if anything, underdeveloped, but not in ways that seriously impacted the story.  This short novel was surprisingly insightful (no pun intended!), and there were moments of brilliance that made it a really worthwhile read.  My only complaint was that there were quite a few errors in the text, not typos or spelling mistakes, but words that were repeated or left out, maybe five or six times throughout the book - not serious enough to impede the story, just mildly irritating.  I’d give this book 7.5 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading novels that explore the human condition and feature main characters who explore their past in order to better understand their present situation.

I also want to mention that the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW) Annual Book Sale will be held on April 22nd and 23rd in Waterloo - it is a wonderful opportunity to stock up on good books very cheaply while also supporting a worthy cause. Check out this link for more information:

That’s all for today.  I think it will be a good “stay-at-home-and-read” day - HURRAY!!

Bye for now…

Sunday 3 April 2016

Books and tea on a chilly April morning...

Oh boy, it’s a very different look outside from just a few mild days ago - it’s a winter wonderland of fluffy snow and bright sun and chilly chilly temperatures.  But I’m cozy inside with my steaming cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread as I think about what I’ve recently read.

Since my last post, I managed to read two books.  As it was just before Easter, I picked up my favourite book to reread, The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.  Every year at this time, I have the urge to reread this book, as it opens with the main character waking up on Good Friday.  A significant portion of the book happens over the Easter weekend, when exchanges occur that drive the rest of the book’s events.  I didn’t read it last year, but this year, because I have much more free reading time, I indulged and enjoyed it as much this time as I did on every other reading.  As I wrote in an earlier post (February 23 2014), Steinbeck infuses this novel with so much wisdom, so many insightful comments on the "human condition", that I could write an essay about something pertinent he addresses on just about every page.  This novel tells the story of the loss of innocence of Ethan Allen Hawley, descendant of a proud New England family whose family once owned half of New Baytown but whose father, through bad advice and bad choices, lost everything, with the result that Ethan is now a clerk in a grocery store his family once owned.  This store is now owned by Alfio Marullo, a man who came from Sicily decades earlier, but is still considered a “foreigner”.  When one unusual occurrence is followed by  another and yet another in rapid succession, Ethan is compelled to change himself, to dare himself to become what he thinks others want him to be, regardless of his innately strong moral fiber and his belief in personal truth and accountability.  It is the picture of small-town life, and the exploration of the dynamics that work behind the facades of even the most benign-looking settings and groups.  Ethan speaks directly to the reader, and we are drawn into the journey, the exploration, the insidious corruption that steals up on him and sends him spiraling downward, so that there is no specific point at which we can say, “Here is where he went wrong, here is the point at which he betrayed himself and finally achieved the status he thought he wanted, but at what cost?”  It is difficult to describe this book, because not much actually happens.  It deals more with the deterioration of one man’s soul to fulfill the expectations others have of him.  It is a cautionary tale that reminds readers to be careful what we wish for because we just might get it, and that sometimes the treasure we seek is already all around us.  For juvenile fiction, we would call this a “coming-of-age” novel, where we would refer to the “loss of innocence” of the main character.  I don’t know if there are comparable terms that refer to adult literature, since loss of innocence is generally associated with youth, and surely Ethan has already come of age by the time this story begins.  It was like Catcher in the Rye for adults - the reader wants him to hold on to the golden ring and not become corrupted, just as Holden Caulfield wants Phoebe to retain her childhood innocence.  I can’t praise this book enough.  Clearly, I would give it a 10 out of 10.

And my volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Plainsong by Kent Haruf.  This book has been compared to The Winter of Our Discontent, and now that I’ve read it, I can see some similarities.  Plainsong is set in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado, and describes the lives of these central characters: Tom Guthrie, the high school History teacher, and his estranged wife, Ella; Ike and Bobby, Tom’s sons, aged nine and ten; Maggie Jones, another teacher at the high school who lives with her elderly father; Victoria Roubideaux, a high school student who is pregnant and determined to keep the baby; and Harold and Raymond McPherson, two elderly bachelor brothers who run a farm just outside of town, and who end up giving Victoria a place to stay when her mother kicks her out.   These characters’ lives are intertwined as only the lives of those in a small town can be - everyone knows everything about everyone else.  Tom faces challenges at home and at work - his wife is suffering from some unnamed mental health issues, and he must take on the responsibility of raising his sons alone.  There are issues with one of his students, a boy who has caused problems throughout his school history, and one whom the principal just wants to graduate and move him along to become someone else’s problem.  Unfortunately, Tom refuses to pass him until he makes an effort to hand in some work.  When Victoria’s mother discovers her pregnancy and locks her out of the house, she is left to wander the streets until she turns up at the home of one of her teachers, Maggie, asking for some help.  She stays at Maggie’s place until Maggie’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s, scares her into leaving.  Maggie approaches the brothers and suggests that Victoria live with them, that having her there would help them as much as it would help her.  They are, of course, reluctant at first, but then they embrace the idea and welcome her into their home as best they can.  When Dwayne, the father of Victoria’s baby, shows up at school one day, she goes off with him to live in Denver, but it doesn’t work out the way she was hoping, so she returns to the farm, where she is once again welcomed.  Ike and Bobby are two responsible boys who deliver newspapers to the whole town every day before school.  They also collect money each week, where they encounter interesting townsfolk, including Mrs Stearns, an elderly, reclusive woman whom they at first dread visiting, but whom they eventually come to like.  Tom’s wife, Ella, moves from the darkened guest room in their house to a rental place in town, and eventually to Denver, where she is staying with her sister.  The boys visit her regularly, but there is really not much hope that Tom and she will get back together.  Tom then begins dating Maggie.  There is really no plot to this novel, and at the end, many storylines are left unresolved, but there is a sequel, Eventide, which may answer some of the questions readers are left with.   Three members showed up for the meeting, and one member loved this book right from the first page.  She said she connected with the characters right away and she sped through the book, which was unusual for her.  She appreciated the stark language the author used to describe the events in the town.  One member said she felt irritated by Haruf’s writing style at first, with the lengthy sentences describing the minutiae of daily life, but that it didn’t take long for her, too, to be sucked in by the story.  And the other member read it some time ago and didn’t love it, didn’t hate it - she thought it was just ok.  The ladies who loved it grew up on farms in small towns, so they could really relate to the characters and the settings - they said many of the scenes reminded them of their own experiences growing up.  One member talked about her experiences collecting money for her paper route.  I read aloud a favourite scene when the boys are sent by Mrs Stearns to the grocery store to buy ingredients for oatmeal cookies, and they remark that it was more complicated than it seems - two kinds of brown sugar, two kinds of oatmeal in two different sizes, and two colours of eggs in three different sizes - Oh my!  How are they to choose?  One of the ladies said she could relate, as she would often be sent in to do the grocery shopping for the whole family at a young age, and she remembers how confusing it was.  As I was reading the novel, I wondered when it was set;  it was published in 1999 but there was no mention of any sort of technology, no internet, no social media, and the idea of collecting newspaper money seemed archaic somehow, yet it also seemed somehow fairly current.  After some discussion, we determined that it was probably set sometime in the 1980s, before computers became so prevalent. We discussed how realistic the situation with the two brothers was, that back in the day, it was not uncommon to find households and farms run by aged bachelor brothers, and even some run by spinster sisters in small towns and farming communities. We talked about how things have changed regarding raising children, how kids were given so much more responsibility and freedom in our day, and how so much is done for them nowadays.  We thought that if kids are given responsibility and challenges, they grow to be more resilient, and that being too over-protective can be detrimental to a child’s development.  One member liked that this was like reading about “normal people”, which echoed my thought that this book is like a little slice of ordinary life.  As well as The Winter of Our Discontent, this book also reminded me of Empire Falls by Richard Russo, which I read a couple of months ago.  I would give the book a rating of 8, and I’d like to read the sequel to find out what happened to the characters.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but make sure to bundle up!!

Bye for now…