Sunday 29 January 2017

Last post for January...

It once again looks like winter outside, with just a few inches of snow covering the ground, and the colder temperatures have arrived.  Good thing I'm prepared, with my steaming cup of chai tea, freshly baked date bread, and of course a stack of enticing books to keep me busy while staying warm and cozy inside.

I read a great book last week, The Widow by Fiona Barton.  I have no idea how I heard about this title, but I had it on hold at the library and when it came in, it sounded really interesting so I brought it home.  This novel focuses on one crime, the disappearance of Bella, a toddler who, according to her mother Dawn, was left alone in the front yard for only a few minutes before she was abducted.  There are several persons of interest, but one man, Glen Taylor, features most prominently as a suspect, and the detective on the case, Bob Sparkes, is obsessed with trying to prove his guilt.  Kate Waters, the reporter who is assigned to cover the case, befriends Glen’s wife, meek, submissive Jean, offering emotional support while also gaining an inside advantage for her story.  When the book opens, Glen is dead, killed days before in an accident when he was hit by a bus while out grocery shopping with his wife.  Jean is trying to cope with the loss, while also dealing with the renewed interest in the case.  Although Bella disappeared several years earlier, she has never been found and the case has never been solved.  The story is told from various points of view (the widow, the detective, the reporter, the husband, among others), and flips from past to present regularly.  The story builds as details are revealed by each character and the minutaie of their lives, as well as that of the investigation, are explored until, by the end, this reader felt as though she had been inside each of these characters’ heads for a short time and saw how they lived their lives and why they made certain choices.  This psychological thriller was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, an “unputdownable” novel that delved into the psyche of several characters very successfully.  I am often disappointed by suspenseful novels that have a slow, steady build-up and then a flop of an ending, and I was afraid that this would happen with The Widow, too, but Barton managed to present an ending that was completely satisfying, entirely credible, yet still left something to the imagination - she didn’t insult the reader by “giving it all away”.  There has been a wave of this type of novel in the past few years, psychological thrillers featuring unreliable narrators and using flashbacks to fill in the story.  I have read a few, such as Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson, The Silent Wife by A S A Harrison, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, and In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware.  Some others that are perhaps the most popular, but which I didn’t care for and never finished, are Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.  I would say this one was almost as good as The Silent Wife, my personal favourite, in terms of building suspense while also creating empathy for the main character.  If you like this type of novel, run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and get your hands on a copy of The Widow by Fiona Barton (I just read that there will be a sequel coming out later this year entitled The Child - I can’t wait to read it!).

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sun while you can, and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 January 2017

Books and tea on a drizzly, mizzling day...

The steaming cup of chai tea and yummy date bar from City Cafe sitting on the coffee table in front of me will hopefully be enough to cheer me up on this dreary morning.  It’s been wet and overcast for days now, albeit milder than normal at this time of year.  I imagine this is what Vancouver winters are like and I absolutely hate it.  A friend of mine who grew up in Edinburgh taught me a new word a few years ago, “mizzling”, when it’s more than misty but less than drizzling outside, and I’ve been able to use that word more than a couple of times over the past week.  Ugh… I don’t think we can hope for much better over the next few days, either.  Thank goodness for good books to keep us busy and book clubs to get us out of the house!

Speaking of book clubs, I read a book for my Friends Book Group, which will be meeting tomorrow night.  We will be discussing The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson.  This debut novel tells the story of Kitty Miller, a single woman in her late thirties living in Denver in the early 1960s.  She owns a small independent bookstore with her best friend Freida and has a cat named Aslan (yes, like the lion from the CS Lewis books).  She lives in a rented townhouse and, at the beginning of the book, is taking care of her parents’ house while they are away on an extended vacation in Honolulu with Kitty’s aunt and uncle.  She had hoped to meet a man and marry, even took out a personal ad in the local newspaper about eight years earlier, but things never worked out that way and now she’s resigned herself to her single life.  Unfortunately, business at the bookstore has been declining ever since the streetcar that used to run down Pearl Street has been replaced by buses that bypass the area, and Kitty and Freida have been struggling to pay the rent for the past few months.  They have to make a decision:  move to the new shopping centres in the newly developing suburbs of town or close the shop and move on.  Then Kitty’s dreams begin:  She is married to a man named Lars and is living in one of the new houses in the very suburbs she has been avoiding.  She has children and even a housekeeper, and she goes to fancy parties and wears beautiful dresses.  Her husband (she can’t get used to saying that word!) calls her Katharyn, her real name which she hasn't used since childhood, preferring her simple nickname instead.  She is a stay-at-home mom, as many women still were in the ‘60s, but this world is foreign to Kitty, who has worked all her life.  At first she thinks it’s just a strange dream, a one-off, but when she finds herself in this other dream world night after night, she begins to look forward to it, even longs for it during the days in her “real” world.  She seeks out people who inhabit her dream world and strives to confirm the existence of certain places or facts. As Kitty/Katharyn is drawn further and further into this alternate reality, the reader, too, is pulled along, and we discover along with the main character which world is real and which is just a dream.  I think this will be a good book for discussion, as it will give us a chance to discuss how women's choices have broadened over the past fifty years.  Also, I enjoy books that explore alternate realities, that look at a character’s life and  consider how things may have been if one particular moment were different, one decision made differently.  It was not great literature, but it brought to mind the excellent novel by Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, which also explored women's choices in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  This book also reminded me of a book I read a few years ago by Canadian author Jo Walton called My Real Children, about an elderly woman in a nursing home who is visited by two different sets of children from her two alternate realities.  This book, too, was set in the early 1960s.  I think writing a book about alternate realities and making it convincing is difficult, and I don’t think either The Bookseller or My Real Children completely managed to do this.  Having said that, I’m still glad to have read The Bookseller - again, not great literature, but it was still a compelling read.  I’m curious what the people in my group will have to say about it tomorrow night.

And I finished listening to an audiobook last week, Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver.  This novel, the first in a series, reminded me a bit of an Agatha Christie mystery, though not as good as Christie.  Set in the early 1930s, it tells the story of Amory Ames, a young woman in an unhappy marriage who is tempted away to a seaside resort by her former fiancé, Gilmore Trent, in the hopes that Amory will have some luck convincing Gil’s sister Emmeline not to marry the shiftless womanizer Rupert Howe.  When Rupert ends up murdered, the hotel guests are all suspects, but when Gil is arrested, Amory conducts her own investigation to determine who the real murderer is, often at the expense of her own safety.  As an added complication, Amory’s handsome, yet wayward, husband Milo shows up at the hotel and throws himself into the investigation as well, despite Amory’s reluctance.  When another murder occurs, the plot thickens as more clues are revealed and the suspect pool narrows.  Can Amory discover who the murderer is and free Gil before more bodies turn up?  This cozy mystery was narrated by Karen Cass, and I am happy to have the occasion to use the word “languid” in a sentence properly.  Cass’ narration can be summed up as languid:  slow, easy and relaxed, almost sluggish.  At first I didn’t like the way it was being read, as I felt that she was reading too slowly and that it would take too long to finish the book, but then the style kind of grew on me and I realized that it was exactly the way a book about wealthy aristocrats at the seaside in the 1930s should be read.  She was very expressive and captured the mood of the novel well.  It was a light, easy listening experience, and I may check out others in this series, but not right away - I need something a bit more substantial right now.

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

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 January 2017

Post on a “back to the routine” Sunday…

So I’ve been back to my usual routine for a week now, and while I really like following a routine, I realize that I would have really enjoyed an extra week off.   Oh well, there’s always the Family Day long weekend to look forward to… *sigh*.  

I read almost nothing this past week, but the week before, after writing my post on the Friday, I finished reading that Young Adult classic, I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan.  Duncan, who passed away this past year, has written many Children’s and Young Adult books, but this title may be her most famous one, since it was adapted into a Hollywood slasher film, including a sequel.  I have never seen the films, but one of her books, Summer of Fear, is one of my favourites from childhood, a real suspense story of the sort that I still enjoy today.  I’m not sure why this title piqued my interest at this time, but I decided to read it and find out if I would enjoy any of Duncan’s other teen suspense stories.  This novel concerns four young people, one in high school, one in college, one working at the local TV station, and one taking a year off to work and experience life.  While they each seem to be following their own paths, they share a dark secret:  the summer before, while out on a double-date, they killed a boy while driving too fast under the influence.  They never reported the crime, just moved on and tried to put it behind them, but these things have a way of resurfacing when you least expect it.  When one of the members of the group receives an anonymous note in the mail stating “I know what you did last summer”, she contacts the others to see what, if anything, they should do about this.  Did someone see them?  Could there be a witness they didn’t know about who has come to reveal their deadly past?  One by one, they each receive some kind of notification from this anonymous person, implicating them in the young boy’s death.  When violence strikes, they must band together and decide how to fight this threatening individual before more violence occurs.  This book was written in 1973, but the film, which was “loosely based on the book”, did not come out until 1997.  I read the notes at the back of the book, including the interview with the author.  She says that she updated several of her books before they were reissued, adding things like cell phones and computers, and changing some of the outfits to reflect the changing styles, but keeping the basic stories the same.  She also said that, when she went to see the film when it was first released, she thought she’d walked into the wrong theatre, as there were no hook-wearing, raincoated individuals in her novel.  Reading the book, I could understand why she would need to update, as kids these days would not understand much about the way things were in 1973, when all phones were anchored to a particular location and once you left the house, you could be out of range of communication for hours at a stretch!  (It’s quite amazing that we all survived and remained relatively safe!!)  It was an interesting, very quick read, but I think I still enjoyed Summer of Fear more, perhaps because I have a sentimental attachment to that one.

And speaking of Children’s novels, I read another one last week that was quite good, one that has been nominated for the Ontario Library Association Forest of Reading Silver Birch Fiction award.  Everyday Hero by Kathleen Cherry tells the story of Alice, a twelve-year-old girl with Asperger’s who has recently moved from Vancouver to Kitimat, BC, a move that includes a new house, new school, and (her father hopes) new friends.  Somehow, the files from her old school containing her condition diagnosis and assessment did not arrive, so no one knows about her condition at her new school, which her father believes might be to Alice’s advantage, hopefully helping her to have a more normal life… until Alice ends up in detention, again and again and again.  But while in detention, she meets Megan, a social outcast who, realizing Alice’s special needs, forms an unlikely friendship with her.  When Megan decides to run away to Vancouver to escape her stepfather’s abuse, it is Alice who comes to the rescue, despite her insecurities and challenges.  This book reminded me very much of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, so much so that I think of it as the “Canadian version”.  It was heartwarming and frustrating, but ultimately uplifting, and I’m sure if I had never read Haddon’s excellent book, I would have really, really enjoyed Cherry’s novel.  Even so, I’m sure this book will appeal to many middle-grade readers, and will be a strong contender for the 2017 Silver Birch Fiction Award.

That’s all for today.  Have a wonderful Sunday, and remember to stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Friday 6 January 2017

Post on a Friday morning...

It’s my last day of Christmas Break, so I thought I should take advantage of the rare opportunity to write my blog post on a weekday morning, and a bright, crisp one it is.  It certainly feels like winter, with the typical cold January weather I love, so I’m especially enjoying my cup of steeped chai tea today (I'm using my beautiful new "Home is where my cat is" cup - awesome!)

I read two books last week.  The first was a novel I purchased at Chapters last weekend, The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.  This novel is one that everyone has been reading over the past year - it was even recommended to me by my dentist, and we never talk about books!  If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you probably know that I generally avoid reading books that “everyone” is reading, but this one was on the Guaranteed Great Reads display at the bookstore - if I didn’t think it was a great read, I could bring it back for a full refund.  Well, I figured that this would be a great opportunity to support a bookstore and try out a book I wouldn’t normally read.  I started it the very same day, and was sucked in immediately!  In case you are one of the few people who have not read this runaway bestseller, here’s a quick plot summary:  the four adult siblings in the Plumb family are eagerly waiting to receive their share of the trust fund their father had set up for them decades earlier, which was meant to be a small top-up in their middle age, but which, after his death, grew exponentially to an amount in the millions.  As the date of the trust’s maturity approaches, each sibling contemplates the ways in which the money from "the Nest" will help them out of their financial situations.  Then a family crisis occurs involving one of the siblings, which requires using most of the Nest to resolve.  The other three siblings are hoping for repayment from their brother, but they know this is unlikely, yet they anxiously plan, scheme and lie in order to obtain a commitment from him.  Somewhere along the way, however, the story becomes less about getting what is theirs and more about rediscovering what is truly important.  I’m sorry to be so vague about the plot, but I really don’t want to give anything away, since much of the enjoyment of the story lies in not knowing how things will be resolved.  I was amazed that it really was a “great read”, and I nearly threw my receipt away.  All four main characters were complex, flawed, interesting and multidimensional; the minor characters were also complex and interesting; the story was timely and illustrated for me the ways in which people continue to live beyond their means, always hoping for that one big break that will fix their financial woes.  The writing was superb, witty and satirical, yet gentle and insightful.  Because it detailed the lives and situations of each of the siblings, it was really like getting four novels in one.  I was loving this book, and devouring it in enormous chunks.  I considered recommending it to friends and colleagues, and maybe even suggesting it as a book club selection for one or both of my book clubs.  And then I reached the ending, which was a huge disappointment.  Not only was it unrealistic and fairytale-ish, but the author left the reader to imagine nothing about the fates of the characters.  I never really thought about how much I appreciate ambiguous endings in books until reaching the end of this one.  I don’t need to be told what happens to every one of the characters, including most of the minor ones!  And speaking of minor characters, I was particularly disturbed by the judgmental comments about one of the minor characters who, throughout the book, had seemed to me like the most “normal” one, steady and stable and responsible in the midst of all the “infantile” behaviour of the others.  I’m sorry to go on so much about the ending, but it was so disappointing to me that I don’t think I can read this book again, so I will not be recommending it as a selection for either book club.  (I’m glad I saved my receipt!)  Until the last 50 pages, I would have given this book a 9 out of 10, so please don’t let my feelings about the ending deter you from reading this novel if you were planning to do so - after all, it was the number one most requested book of 2016 at the Toronto Public Library.

I also read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout which we will be discussing tomorrow morning at my Volunteer Book Club.  I guess I should have waited until Sunday to write about this one, as I like to give you the highlights of the discussion, but I have so much cooking and baking to do Sunday morning that I don’t really have time for blogging as well.  This novel tells the story of Lucy Barton, a writer who is recollecting a time many years earlier when she was in the hospital for an unexpectedly long stay, a time during which her mother came to stay by her bedside for five days and nights.  Lucy has been estranged from her mother for years, and is surprised by the appearance of this woman from whom she has been separated for so long, and from who she has intentionally severed herself.  During these five days and nights, they spend some time recollecting instances from Lucy’s childhood, but mostly Lucy’s mother tells her stories about what has happened to people from Lucy’s past, other students or people in the town where she grew up.  In this way, Lucy is forced to confront her past and determine who she is and who she has become, while reconciling herself with who she was and where she has come from.  Strout uses sparse language to relate these recollections, which may or may not be accurate, recollections of loneliness and poverty, of social isolation and emotional deprivation.  It was brutally honest and heartwrenching, and yet I wondered how Lucy could so easily accept the little her mother was willing (or able?) to give and forgive the rest, her entire past, poverty, loneliness, emotional abuse and all.  I don’t feel that I can adequately comment on this book because I didn’t really like it, and yet Strout is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and this book is extremely well reviewed.  Maybe after the discussion tomorrow I will have a better understanding of this novel.  Perhaps part of the problem is that I generally enjoy more of a linear narrative, rather than a series of vague recollections that are part of a larger tapestry that is the main character’s life.  If I have time, I will mention the discussion highlights in my next post.

And I finished listening to an audiobook by Paul Doiron, The Poacher’s Son, which is the first in a series featuring Mike Bowditch, a Maine Game Warden who seems to stumble upon mysteries while enforcing the law.  In this first novel, Mike is a promising young Game Warden in Maine when he receives news of a double-homicide in a neighbouring county and learns that the main suspect is his estranged father, Jack.  Convinced of his father’s innocence, he gets involved in the hunt for this fugitive, against the advice of his commanding officer and the chief of police.  This hunt leads him back to the camp where, at sixteen, he spent a summer trying to get to know his emotionally distant, alcoholic father, and where he reconnects with some of the men and women who were part of his experiences that season.  I’m glad I listened to this fast-paced thriller, as it set the stage for future books featuring Bowditch, so I would recommend starting with this one if you are going to read others in this series.  I didn’t realize that there were so many (the eight book was just released this year), and I am definitely interested in listening to more of these mysteries.

Whew, that’s alot of blogging for one morning!  I'm now going to finish my tea, then bundle up and get outside for a long, brisk walk before settling down for my last free afternoon of reading.  Have a great weekend!

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 January 2017

First post for 2017...

On this bright, sunny, crisp morning, the first of the new year, I am enjoying a homemade brunch-style breakfast, nibbling at cheese and oatmeal and banana bread, sipping juice and a delicious mocha cappuccino beverage, and of course, enjoying a steaming cup of steeped chai.  

I realized that, along with my usual blog post about the book I read last week, this is also the time when I recap my year in books.  First I’ll start with my thoughts about a recently published novel by Canadian author Kate Taylor, Serial Monogamy, which tells the story of Sharon Soleymani, an author of popular novels, mother of twins, and wife to English professor Al.  Early in the novel, Al tells Sharon that he has been having an affair with one of his grad students, and he decides to move out.  Then Sharon is diagnosed with breast cancer, and he returns to the family home to help take care of the girls during her treatment.  Once her treatment is completed, she is approached by a newspaper to write a serialized novel to celebrate Charles Dickens’ bicentenary.  She focuses her writing on the relationship between Dickens and actress Nelly Ternan, exploring how the much-younger Nelly may have coped with having a clandestine relationship with the popular, much-loved and very married author and father of nine.  I won’t give away the ending, but I loved this book!  Major themes include marriage and motherhood, writing, infidelity, love, loss and redemption, and Taylor employs some clever writing techniques that certainly kept this reader interested in each “installment” to find out what happens next.  The writing was solid and very accessible, and the parallel stories were detailed enough to provide sufficient depth to give a full picture of each relationship.  I would give this literary novel an 8 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys contemporary domestic fiction.

And now my recap of 2016:  I read 56 books and listened to 20 audiobooks.  My favourites were:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Black Apple by Joan Crate
Bad Mother by Margeurite Andersen
From a Good Home:  a St John’s Family Saga by Trudi Johnson
Serial Monogamy by Kate Taylor

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
March Violets by Philip Kerr
Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon
Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah

WOW, that’s not very many favourites… I guess it hasn’t been a stellar year of reading (or listening) for me.  I’m happy to see that most of my favourite books are by Canadian writers except the Kate Atkinson novel - Way to go, Canada!

That’s all for today.  I'm going to have a bit more breakfast, then get outside and go for a long walk in the sunshine.  Happy New Year!!

Bye for now…