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…

Sunday 16 October 2016

Rainy/sunny Sunday morning post...

I’ve got yummy chai tea and a delicious Date Bar on the coffee table in front of me as I think about last week’s reading and listening experiences.  Neither one of them was amazing, and here’s why…

I’m nearly finished reading Peter Robinson’s latest book, When the Music’s Over, which I think is the 22nd book in the “Alan Banks” series.  There are two plot lines in this novel.  One case, Banks’ first as newly promoted Detective Superintendent, involves the investigation into the historical sexual abuse of minors by entertainment superstar Danny Caxton.  Caxton, now 85 years old, has been accused by numerous women of rape from 1967 to the 1980s, and Banks must try to build a solid case against him.  Banks’ main victim is semi-famous poet Linda Palmer, now in her early 60s, who was raped by Caxton and another man in a hotel room in Blackpool after being lured into a waiting car with promises of introductions into the show biz world - she was just 14 years old.  Banks must work hard to find evidence of this 50-year-old crime, as well as other incidents involving other victims, in order to convict Caxton, a man who has been well-loved by British audiences for decades.  The other case is led by DI Annie Cabbott and involves the death of a young woman found in a ditch along an isolated stretch of highway in the remote countryside.  Evidence suggests that she was severely beaten, drugged, possibly raped, thrown from a moving vehicle, then kicked to death after wandering along the road in search of help.  Who is this young woman, and who committed such a gruesome murder?  When it is discovered that the girl did not live in Eastvale,  Annie and her team involve surrounding communities, and are challenged by hostile law enforcement personnel at every turn.  I’ve got about 40 pages left to read, but feel confident that I can comment on this novel at this point.  I’ve been a Peter Robinson fan for many, many years, and will admit that some of his books in this series are better than others.  This is not one of his best.  In my opinion, it lacks flare, or zing, or “pizzazz” - it seems a bit lackluster, uninspired, “blah”.  The writing is solid, as expected from Robinson, but it just seems a bit flat.  I think it’s missing character development and depth of story - it’s too “all-over-the-place” and tries to include too much.  It has also been fairly predictable so far, with no real surprise elements or plot developments.  It’s all too coincidental that Annie and Banks are investigating two cases simultaneously that are so very similar, despite the decades that separate their occurrences.  I hate to say it, but I think he needs to move on and either begin a new series, or write a few standalones (standalone novel Before the Poison was awesome!)  If you have never read Robinson, I would not recommend starting with this one, as it is just OK - unless it somehow manages to wow me in the final chapters, I would rate it a 7 out of 10.

And I finished listening to the audio version of Charles Finch’s novel The September Society, featuring gentleman and amateur detective Charles Lenox.  It was also just OK, a cozy mystery involving first the disappearance,  then the murder, of an Oxford student.  Charles is contacted by an old acquaintance to find her son, George Payson, who went missing from his Oxford residence the day before.  Lady Annabelle is sure that George would not have run off voluntarily when he knew she was waiting to meet him at the tearoom.  Then there is the issue of the dead cat found in George’s room.  Lenox calls in help from his friend Dr. Connolly and newly acquired apprentice Lord John Darlington to find the connection between this death and a mysterious society that may have been involved in a murder that took place in India decades earlier.  Also significant to the story is the development of the relationship between Lenox and childhood friend and current neighbour Lady Jane.  This cozy mystery was exactly what I expected, a gentle mystery set in Victorian England, much like the book I listened to a few months ago, A Death in the Small Hours.   I don’t love Finch’s novels, but they are OK in a pinch, when I need something to listen to and don’t have a better choice at hand.  I thought this was the first in the series, but I have discovered that A Beautiful Blue Death is first - I have that downloaded on my MP3 player already, and may listen to it after I finish my current audiobook.  I also just discovered that the author, Charles Finch, is American, but he writes convincingly in the voice of a British gentleman in Victorian England.  I would give this book 7 out of 10, as there was no real surprise ending - like Robinson’s book, this too was fairly predictable.

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and have a wonderful Sunday!

Bye for now…

Monday 10 October 2016

Post on a holiday Monday...

On this bright, sunny, crisp fall morning, I’m thinking of all the things I am thankful for.  The list is too long to post here, but a few of the highlights are: sunny fall mornings, great Canadian literature, and hot cups of chai-tea-on-demand, although I’m actually drinking coffee this morning, trying out my new individual-cup coffee maker.  So far, so good!

I finished reading a recently published Canadian novel last week, All the Things We Leave Behind by Riel Nason.  This is a follow-up to her earlier book, The Town That Drowned, about a small town in New Brunswick that was slated to be flooded and the residents relocated to a new town in the late 1960s.  That excellent book was one we read for the book club, and my ladies loved it, even though it seemed more of a Young Adult book than adult fiction.  I think you could read this new book on its own without having read the first one, as it involves completely different characters and takes place maybe 10 years later.  This novel is set in 1977 and tells the story of 17-year-old Violet Davis, left in charge of her parents’ antique business, The Purple Barn, for the summer while her parents are off on “vacation”, or so they tell everyone - really, they are looking for clues as to their son’s whereabouts (Bliss disappeared shortly after his high school graduation).  She doesn’t know when to expect them back, and does the best she can with situations as they arise.  She deals with customers, her friends, her boyfriend, and the other employees at the store.  But she must also deal with the knowledge of the Boneyard, a place on the far side of the forest just past the Barn where deer, moose and other animals that have been killed by traffic are dumped by the Undertakers.  She and Bliss stumbled across the Boneyard years earlier when they were exploring the forest, and while it was a horrific experience for Violet, it seemed to haunt Bliss regularly over the years.  When the opportunity for an estate sale involving a mysterious house in the area comes up, Violet is instructed by her father to “buy everything”, but this sale is not without its complications, and Violet must find a way to deal with this as well as with the ghostly moose sightings she is experiencing out at the campsite where she is staying until her parents come back.  Reading over my description, this coming-of-age novel sounds pretty corny, but it was really quite amazing.  It was focused entirely on Violet’s thoughts and experiences, so we as readers got an intimate look at what she was thinking and how she was feeling during the timeframe of the story.  The language was also beautiful, descriptive without being excessive.  Here’s one of my favourite lines: “The stars are thumbtacked on the black bulletin board of the sky.”  See what I mean?  Simple, yet beautiful.  This novel could be considered Young Adult fiction as well, but it was definitely meant for a more mature audience.  It made this reader meditate on the nature of life and death, the permanence of things past and present, and how we decide what we choose to bring with us as we look toward our future.  I would rate it an 8.5 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys coming-of-age stories.

That’s all for today.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone - I hope you have many things to be thankful for!   

Bye for now…

PS Another thing I'm thankful for is the new Peter Robinson novel, the next in the "Alan Banks" series (he's been promoted to Detective Superintendent!), When the Music's Over - I know what I'll be doing this afternoon!!

Sunday 2 October 2016

Long post on a sunny/rainy Sunday morning...

The weather’s been quite funny this past week, rainy and cool and windy, but then sunny and warm-ish - much like this morning.  I think it will be a good day to stay inside and read!

I wanted to give you a quick update on my book club’s responses to The Illegal by Lawrence Hill.  We all felt pretty much the same about the book:  it wasn’t great, but it had so much potential to be a great book, if only Hill was more focused and developed various plots and characters more completely.  I think we all had difficulty at the beginning, but then it sucked us in and kept us all turning pages until the end, which we agreed was a bit of a let-down.  Still, it made for a great discussion.

Speaking of discussions, my volunteer book group met yesterday to talk about The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland.  This detailed account of the life of Josephine Bonaparte, the first in a trilogy, was written in diary format and gave us an intimate look at the life of Rose Tascher, beginning with her childhood on a sugar plantation in Martinique, where she is told that she would have an unhappy marriage, she would be a widow, and that she would be queen.  Shortly thereafter, she is betrothed to Alexandre de Beauharnais and moves to Paris.  Thus begins her difficult and unhappy marriage, as Alexandre has many indiscretions and fathers several illegitimate children as well as his own legal son, Eugene and daughter, Hortense.  The story unfolds and Rose’s political prowess is honed during the French Revolution, where many were imprisoned and/or executed for no apparent reason, and daily life was constantly in turmoil.  When, near the end of the book, she finally meets Napoleon, the part of the story with which most of us are familiar begins.  This book is the first in the “Josephine B.” series, followed by Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe and The Last Great Dance on Earth.  I am not a fan of historical fiction - I generally find the text too lengthy, with every detail of the setting, customs and costume described.  So I was not really looking forward to reading this book, and had put it on the book club list simply because Gulland's book has been sitting on my shelf for years so I felt it was time to read it.  Well, it grabbed me right away.  I was interested to hear from everyone at the meeting that they also felt the same way (two of the members got the whole trilogy in one volume from the library, but didn’t realize at first that it was all three books - they were wondering what I was thinking, choosing such a huge tome!).  One member said it was “amazing”, that she read it in one day.  Another member said the writing was amazing, that the story flowed so naturally, and that she often forgot to look at the dates, she was so carried along by the story.  We discussed the diary format, and agreed that it kept the details to a minimum, concentrating instead on Rose’s thoughts and feelings about what was going on socially and politically.  We all felt that Rose/Josephine was a very adaptable person, that she could adjust to and accept her circumstances fairly easily.  We commented on the change of lifestyle for her at the beginning, when she left a beautiful, lush landscape where she could bathe in a pond whenever she wanted to go to dirty, smelly Paris, where she had one small bowl of water to perform her toilette.  We talked about the changing roles of women, and how the salons, where anyone could be invited to showcase their talents or political views, a place for networking, were generally organized and run by women, and how Rose was instrumental in guiding the politics of her first husband and petitioning the government on behalf of those who were unjustly imprisoned.  We talked about Napoleon, and wondered if he was passionate or calculating regarding Rose.  We wondered why he changed her name to Josephine, and considered why she would marry him:  perhaps because they were both politically savvy and ambitious, and could find a connection on that level, or perhaps because the future of her children depended on what family they came from, or even that she, a widow and 32, felt she may have few other marriage prospects.  We talked about fate and circumstance, and wondered what her life might have been like had she never been told, at a young age, that she would be queen:  would she have stayed in Martinique and married William, her childhood sweetheart, or would she have gone to Paris as she had originally desired?  How much of her story was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and how much was fate or destiny?  What a different history there may have been if she had never left her island home or met and married Napoleon.  It was a great discussion, and one of the members who had the trilogy had actually already started the second book, another saying she wanted to read it at some point, too.  I would give the book 9 out of 10.

And I finished an audiobook a few days ago, Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah.  Oh my goodness, if you like books where secrets abound and all is not what it seems, then this is the book for you!  Damon Blundy, well-known inflammatory tabloid columnist, is found dead in his home with a knife taped across his mouth and the words HE IS NO LESS DEAD painted on the wall with blood-red paint.  DC Simon Waterhouse leads the investigation into the murder, but rather than focusing on the forensic evidence available at the crime scene, he seems more interested in figuring out the motive, why someone would murder Blundy in this particular way and what it all means.  His main suspect is Nicki Clements, a woman who definitely has a secret, in fact, has many secrets, secrets she is actively trying to share not with her husband, but with first King Edward VII, then with Gavin, two men she connects with on a website called “Intimate Links”.  Nicki displays some questionable behaviour and makes alot of odd choices, but is she capable of murdering Blundy in such a planned and calculated way?  And if so, why?  If not Nicki, who else in the large and varied cast of characters would commit such a calculated crime?  Blundy’s wife, psychotherapist Hannah Blundy, a woman who claims her husband has never loved her, despite his caring, unerringly loving behaviour towards her right from the day they met?  Times columnist Kieran Holland, a man constantly under attack from Blundy’s poison pen?  Pot-smoking horror novelist Reuben Tasker?  The list of enemies and possible suspects goes on and on, and DC Waterhouse and his team must wade through these possibilities to get to the truth.  But, as you might expect, the truth is not what it seems and we are led along the twisting, turning path toward a conclusion that, while somewhat surprising, was for this reader rather disappointing - the “big reveal” did not really shock me.  I had to suspend my sense of disbelief on a number of occasions, such as when the investigation team catch Nicki out in a number of lies while taking her statement and they just let her go rather than charging her with obstructing the investigation or trying to dig deeper to discover what she is hiding from them.  Despite this, it was certainly interesting, and I looked forward to my opportunities to listen (one review that I read said that Hannah puts the “psycho” back into the term “psychological thriller”, and I totally agree!)  This is the 9th book by Hannah featuring DC Simon Waterhouse and his wife, DS Charlie Zailer - I’ve read one of the previous books, Kind of Cruel, which I recall was “kind of confusing”, but still worthwhile.  I am definitely interested in reading the other books in this “series” (I don’t think it’s actually a series, but close enough), and would rate this book 8 out of 10 simply for the complexity of the story.

I think it’s raining again, so I’ll close and start a new book… but what will I read?  You’ll find out next week! Have a great day, and stay dry!

Bye for now…