Sunday 25 September 2016

Short post on a sunny Sunday morning...

I’ve just pulled freshly-made pop-overs out of the oven, so the scent of melted butter and cheese is in the air… mmm!!!  I hope they’re good, as this is the first time I’ve made them.  I’m waiting until they cool down a bit before I add one to the chai tea on the table in front of me.

I am nearly finished reading The Illegal by Lawrence Hill for my Friends’ Book Group meeting tomorrow night.  I didn’t think I’d have a chance to finish it in time, and still get to my next Volunteer Book Club book, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. in time for our meeting on Saturday.  This is the problem with booking your book club meetings too close together, the pressure to finish in time and to have a chance to think about the book before the meeting.  There was also the problem of such a short turnaround time between Volunteer Book Club meetings, just three weeks instead of the usual four weeks.  Anyway, I’m nearly finished and will hopefully have time today to finish that one and start on the next one too.  The Illegal tells the story of Keita Ali, a young man from Zantoroland whose whole life revolves around running.  His sister, Charity, has the brains, but Keita has the legs and the stamina.  At this politically turbulent time, in the near-future, when blacks are being deported from Freedom State to Zantoroland, where they are also being turned away or sometimes executed, Keita’s father, Yoyo, is imprisoned and then executed for writing articles damning the government over policies and practices.  When Charity also disappears, Keita signs on with a sports agent to get entered into races in order to raise enough money to find his sister.  He then escapes from his agent and goes running across Freedom State, always trying to keep a low profile because he is black with no citizenship papers for Freedom State and so considered an “illegal” - if caught, he would surely be deported back to Zantoroland and killed.  Along the way, he meets a variety of interesting characters, including a black, gay paraplegic journalist named Viola Hill, a smart, sassy, gifted student from AfricTown named John Falconer, Ivernia Beech, an elderly but wealthy white woman who supports Keita and helps out whenever she can, and Cadance, a beautiful police officer and fellow marathoner.  Together they assist Keita in his struggle to remain free long enough to win enough races to earn the money to free his sister from those who are holding her hostage.  It’s a good book, not one I would have picked up on my own, but definitely fast-paced and interesting, but I’m not really sure what this book is supposed to be.  Is it a dystopian novel?  An exploration of the consequences when society turns a blind eye to the struggles of undocumented refugees?  Although the description of the book sounded like it would take a serious look at what it means to be “illegal”, I found that the book was very “light”, almost humourous in parts, and that I couldn’t consider Keita’s quest in earnest.  I guess I don’t read many satires, which is probably why I’m having a hard time pinpointing what this book is really supposed to be doing.  I like straightforward books: if it’s supposed to be funny, then write in a humourous way;  if an author wants to criticize society, then write a proper dystopian novel.  This book is kind of a hybrid of both. My initial reaction was that it was too "obvious", that it lacked subtlety, that Hill was trying to be clever in this book, but did not manage to be quite clever enough. As I got into it, my initial thoughts didn't change but I found myself swept up in the story and the characters and realized I was enjoying it in spite of myself.  I’ll see how I feel once I finish it, and will let you know what the other book club members thought of it after the meeting tomorrow.

That’s all for now.  Enjoy the glorious sunshine and the cool fall day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 18 September 2016

Book talk on the last weekend of summer...

It’s officially over, the first day of fall is Thursday September 22nd. So while we still have a few days left, which, according to the forecast, are definitely going to feel like summer, by the time I write my next post, it will be autumn, my favourite season of the year.  

I have two books to tell you about this week, both recent Canadian publications.  The first is the much-talked-about thriller, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena.  This debut novel opens with Anne and Marco Conti attending a dinner party to celebrate next door neighbour Graham’s birthday, a party thrown by Graham’s wife Cynthia.  Anne and Marco have left their six-month old daughter Cora home alone after the last-minute cancellation of their babysitter.  Against her better judgement, Anne agrees to attend the party, despite worrying about leaving Cora alone.  Anne is suffering from post-partum depression, and her worry is exacerbated by gorgeous Cynthia’s blatantly flirtatious behaviour with Anne’s decidedly attractive husband.  They have scheduled to go back and check on Cora every half-hour, taking turns in this duty, but Anne feels terrible, wondering “What kind of parents leave their six-month old home alone to go to a party?”  When they finally return home, they face every parent’s worst nightmare - Cora’s cot is empty.  They frantically search the house, and finally have to admit that she is gone.  They contact the police and Detective Rasbach arrives with his team of investigators.  Unfortunately, they find no trace of a break-in and have no leads.  Anne calls her parents, mega-rich Alice and her husband, Richard, Anne’s step-father.  Her parents have never liked Marco, and this dislike only manifests itself more strongly as the investigation progresses.  What follows is a roller-coaster ride of plot twists as the characters’ personalities, histories and relationships are explored and outward appearances are shattered.  I don’t want to give too much of this book away, which means I can’t let you in on any of the details, but let me just say that no one is above suspicion and nothing is as it seems.  I have heard this book compared to Gone Girl and  Girl on a Train, but I can’t comment on that as I haven’t read either one.  I did, however, find that this novel had many similarities to The Silent Wife by A S A Harrison.  Both novels dealt with couples who, on the surface, seem to have it all, but whose characters and relationships deteriorate as the truth is revealed.  Both depend on unreliable narrators, and both use writing styles that, for this reader, created a claustrophobic atmosphere.  Harrison’s book was far deeper and more complex than Lapena’s novel, but I think that Lapena shows promise and definitely has talent in creating suspense.  It was certainly a book that I couldn’t put down.  I would give it 7.5 out of 10, and will watch for future novels by this author.

And I finished Winnipeg author David Bergen’s latest novel, Stranger, recently as well.  This novel tells the story of Iso Perdido, a young Guatamalan woman who works at a fertility clinic in the mountain village of Ixchel.  She is in a romantic relationship with one of the American doctors, Eric Mann, who loves to ride his motorcycle through the mountains.  When Eric’s estranged wife Susan arrives at the clinic, Iso is assigned to be her keeper, and must work with Susan throughout the extensive and extremely intimate fertility process.  When Iso, not Susan, becomes pregnant, things get complicated, and become more complicated still when Eric is seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and is taken home to America by his wife.  Things get worse when Iso, while disoriented and in labour, signs forms allowing the Manns to take custody of the child, who is removed barely one day after her birth.  What follows is Iso’s journey to reclaim her daughter and return her to her rightful land and family.  I’ve never been a big fan of Bergen’s books, and have possibly read one years ago, I think The Time In Between, and this book was exactly what I expected. It got great reviews in The Globe and Mail and Quill and Quire, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it, but I can be honest in my blog:  this book did nothing for me.  Yes, it was beautifully written and evoked a real sense of “paradise” in the descriptions of Ixchel, the lake and surrounding mountains (Iso’s full name is Paraiso Perdido, or “Paradise Lost”), but I found it to be too surreal, too dystopian and even (dare I say it?) too obvious in its symbolism.  What was lacking, in my opinion, was depth of character.  Divisions of class and disparity between wealth and poverty are all explored, but so clearly was everything in this book presented as either black or white that it didn’t inspire this reader to think about and ponder the situations.  While reading this, I was reminded of that excellent novel, The Colonial Hotel by Jonathan Bennett, that I read and reviewed for the local paper a couple of years ago, and in my opinion, Bennett's novel was just so much better. I would give this book a 6 out of 10, but that only reflects my personal experience.

The sun is coming out and dispelling the fog of the morning, so it’s time to get outside and enjoy the sunshine.  Have a great day and Happy End-of-Summer!

Bye for now…

Sunday 11 September 2016

Books and tea on a gorgeous Sunday morning...

It is so bright and refreshing this morning, not a hint of humidity in the air, as I sip my chai tea and think about our book club discussion yesterday.

Yesterday my volunteer book group met to discuss The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Swiss author Joël Dicker.  This is a book I reviewed for the local newspaper when the English translation was first released in Canada in May 2014.  Here is a link to that review: I also wrote about this in March, 2014, so here is my summary from that post:  “Marcus Goldman is a young New York writer with a bestseller under his belt, achieved before he turned 30.  Facing prolonged writer’s block, he turns to his friend and mentor, writer Harry Quebert, for support, and is invited out to Harry’s seaside home in Somerset for some R&R.  Shortly thereafter, Harry is arrested for the murder of Nola Kellergen, a young girl who has been dead for over 30 years, and whose body has recently been discovered buried in Harry’s back yard.  Marcus returns to Somerset in order to support Harry and to find the truth about what happened that night so many years ago, as well as the events leading up to Nola’s murder.  He discovers that during the summer of 1975, 34-year old Harry fell in love with 15-year old Nola, and planned to leave town with her at the end of the summer.  He also discovers that Nola, and Harry’s forbidden love for her, were the inspiration for Harry’s career-defining novel, The Origin of Evil.  As Marcus investigates people and events in and around Somerset in 1975, he uncovers truths and cover-ups that lead him deeper and deeper into a world he could never have imagined.”   I clearly loved this novel, but as I reread it, I wondered, as I always do, whether my book club ladies would like it.  When I got to the meeting, there were a couple members already there, and even as we entered the meeting room, discussion of the book and the characters had already started (and a very animated conversation it was, too!)  When everyone had arrived, we went around the table as we usually do to find out what people thought of the book.  Well, I worried for nothing, as everyone loved the book!  Some members said they got a copy from the library and were daunted by the size of the book (over 600 pages), but that it sucked them in right away and they couldn’t put it down.  Another member thought that it was a bit overlong, and that the sections describing Harry’s and Nola’s feelings for each other were a bit excessive and could have used some editing (I had to agree with that).  But in general, everyone enjoyed it.  One member described Harry as “despicable”, and pointed out that there were many controlling women in the book:  Marcus’ mom, Tamara, and Nola, in particular.  Another member felt that the relationships and interactions between Marcus and his mother, his agent, and the lead investigator, Gahalowood, were humourous, and that this comic relief offered a good balance for the seriousness of the investigation, whose subject matter was quite dark.  She also pointed out that there were many “red herrings”, and another member agreed, stating that the author led you down “many rabbit holes”.  One member read a quotation from the book about how Marcus became “Marcus the Magnificent”, that it was all about creating appearances, and that she thought that summed up the entire book, and we all agreed.  We talked about the use of repetition in the book, that Dicker used a format that offered many different versions of the same events from different points of view, all in an effort to find “the truth”, but that the truth is different for everyone.  We discussed “age of consent” and how this has changed over time, in different countries around the world, and in different types of relationships.  I wondered whether a 34-year-old man could, in fact, be in love with a 15-year-old girl, and the group pointed out that Harry had, until his move to Somerset, been a high school teacher, so he would already have been able to relate to his students and to develop a rapport with people of that age group, which I hadn’t thought of.  I guess I had a hard time remembering that, at the time of his relationship, he was only in his mid-30s, that I kept seeing him as the 67-year-old recluse.  We talked about the relationship between Harry and Nola, and wondered whether it was ever consummated - we thought not, but it was never made clear.  Someone else pointed out that Nola behaved toward Harry in an alternately flirtatious and maternal way, which turns out to be significant based on her psychological state as revealed by the end of the book, something I didn't pick up on at all during either of my readings. All in all, we felt that it was cleverly written and that the author used literary techniques to keep the reader guessing until the very last, tongue-in-cheek page.  We thought it would be a good idea to all go to see the movie together when it comes out.  I would give this book a 10 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a literary mystery, a book that explores the reality of life in a small town, or the writer’s life.  Note:  If you decide to read it, please don’t skip the Acknowledgements at the end.  

And I finished listening to an audiobook that was in great demand, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.  This novel opens with the declaration that on May 3, 1977, Lydia Lee is dead.  The rest of the novel explores the lives of the Lee family to determine how the eldest daughter ended up drowned in the small lake in the centre of their community.  The father, James, is the son of a struggling Chinese immigrant family, and blond, blue-eyed mother Marilyn is as “all-American” as you can get.  At the time, their marriage is unprecedented, and Ng follows their lives leading up to Lydia’s death.  It was a bestseller when it came out in 2014, so I was quite excited to finally have access to the audiobook through the library.  But I was somewhat disappointed with this listening experience, despite being an award-winning book.  I think it was the style of the narration that put me off - it was read very slowly and expressively, which tended to drag out the story.  I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read the book instead of listening to it.  I also wonder whether the fact that I listened to much of this book, about an unhappy teen, at the same time as reading All the Rage, about an unhappy teen, influenced my ability to appreciate the book as a separate entity. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it, so let’s just say that my personal experience failed to live up to my expectations.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the glorious sunshine!

Bye for now…

Sunday 4 September 2016

Short post on a long weekend...

On this last long weekend of the summer, I’m sipping my regular tea on Sunday evening after a wonderful day outdoors and am appreciating the perfect weather we’ve had recently.  Too bad my recent reading experience has not been quite so perfect.

I was so excited to get notification from the library that my hold for Liane Moriarty’s latest book, Truly, Madly, Guiltily was ready for pick-up.  I almost bought a copy of this title at Coles earlier in the week, but it was a hardcover, and I prefer trade paperbacks - I told myself to be patient, that I would be going to the library on Saturday to pick it up.  Well, good thing I convinced myself to wait, because I just could not get into this book.  If you recall, I’ve loved the last few books by this author, The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies, and this novel started out much the same as the others… some event has occurred that has significantly affected the relationships of the characters in the book, but this event is kept from the reader, meted out in alternating chapters, a bit of a “before and after” strategy.  Three couples are featured prominently in this storyline:  mousy accountant Erika and her equally "male-version mousy" husband Oliver are friends with successful cellist Clementine and her attractive husband Sam, and Oliver’s and Erika’s neighbours, larger-than-life Vid and his stunningly gorgeous wife Tiffany, become involved with the group after an impromptu invitation to a Sunday afternoon BBQ.  We the reader know something significant happened at the BBQ, but in customary fashion, Moriarty strings us along with clues and tidbits, while also letting us in on what is happening at the present time.  I have loved this in previous books, and have marveled at how well she is able to keep everything straight, keeping us in suspense while revealing just enough information to keep us interested.  But this book just was not doing anything for me, for a couple of reasons:  Erika in this book was too much like Jane in Big Little Lies, both in looks and in character.  And I felt that the storyline was also too similar to both previous titles.  I thought at first that perhaps I wasn't able to get into the book because I’ve been distracted, since it was the first week back to work after the summer holidays, but then I read a NY Times review of this book and found myself agreeing with everything the reviewer had written about rehashed stories and lack of depth regarding characters’ relationships.  So I brought it back to the library unfinished, since others were waiting for it and I had no time to finish before getting to my next book club book.  So if this is your first time reading Liane Moriarty’s work, you may find it OK, or you may think “What is everyone raving about?  She’s not that great!”  If I had to recommend a title to start with, I would say read The Husband’s Secret first then Big Little Lies (a much darker story, but still hilarious).  I guess if I had purchased this title, I would have been able to put it down unfinished to read my other book, then would have gone back to it later - it was not so bad that I wouldn’t have finished it, it just did not meet my admittedly high expectations.  

That’s all for tonight.  Enjoy the holiday tomorrow, whatever you do, and don’t forget to keep reading!

Bye for now…