Sunday 26 February 2017

Last post for February...

We have a dusting of snow this morning and the temperatures have dropped over the weekend, making it seem more like proper winter and less like spring, although I hear we have warmer days coming soon.  Still, it’s bright and crisp right now, a perfect morning to enjoy a steaming cup of chai tea (in my “Banned Books” mug!) and a yummy date bar from City Cafe.

This is Freedom to Read week, a time when we celebrate our right to intellectual freedom and freedom of expression (  I don’t have time to read my favourite banned book this week, as I have a book club meeting coming up next weekend and have to concentrate on the book club selection, but last week I read and have nearly finished a new book by Joanne Harris, Different Class, which is turning out to be one that explores the power of the Church and School to ban or challenge what they consider to be “subversive" behaviour.  Set in the early 1980s and 2005, this story is told in two alternating narrative voices, and takes place at St Oswald’s School, an elite British boys’ day school where tradition has ruled for over a century.  But in September 2005, in the aftermath of some scandal, a new Headmaster arrives, with the intention of sweeping out the cobwebs and bringing the School into the 21st Century.  The fact that this Head is a former student troubles Form-Master and veteran Latin teacher Roy Straitley nearly as much as the move to get rid of the pigeon-holes to make way for email and computer workstations.  There is something about Johnny Harrington that has rankled Straitley ever since he was a student, albeit briefly, more than two decades earlier, when he, along with his small circle of friends, was involved in some suspicious and unpleasant business down at the deserted clay pits, as well as some accusations involving a gay teacher.  The flashbacks to the 1980s are told mainly in the voice of an unnamed student who addresses his comments to his friend Mousey, while the sections set in 2005 are told from the point of view of cantankerous, waspish Straitley, who, nearing retirement, resists change and holds onto his life at St Oswald’s ever so tightly, refusing to “go gentle into that good night”.  As complaints are made and issues regarding his teaching and behaviour are raised, stories from nearly 25 years ago resurface, and Straitley detects an almost sociopathic determination on the part of Harrington and his Crisis Team, dubbed by Straitley "Thing One and Thing Two", to rid the School of its history and rebrand it, which includes purging the school of the veteran staff members, the “Old Boys’ Club”.  But how reliable is either narrator?  What really  happened all those years ago, and how much of it is coming back to haunt them?  This is a substantial book, a complex, hefty psychological suspense novel into which a reader could easily lose herself for hours at a time, a detailed exploration into events that are significant on so many levels, and where something sinister lurks beneath the surface.  I thought I would have to put it down and come back to it after reading the book club choice, but I have just over 100 pages to go and it is so interesting, so detailed, and so ominously compelling that I’m going to make time today to finish it.  I can’t give anything more away, as there are some significant plot twists and revelations, and I don't want to spoil anyone's reading experience - much of the delicious pleasure of this book is in the "not knowing".  If you enjoy complex psychological thrillers (like Minette Walters), or novels with curmudgeonly, sardonic schoolteacher narrators (think Robertson Davies and Fifth Business), then this is the book for you.  I had no idea what to expect, so the excellence of this book really surprised me.  I am particularly impressed with the insightfulness of the characters and Harris' clever use of language... and also the fact that she can keep all of these details straight (this is certainly not a short, straightforward novel).  I read one other book by Harris in the past, Five Quarters of the Orange, which I also enjoyed, but it was a very different sort of novel. By turns dark and darkly humourous, this one gets a 10 out of 10, and may be a book that, once it comes out in tradepaperback, I may have to add to my collection.

OK, that’s all I’ve got to say on this bright morning.  Happy Reading!

Bye for now…

Monday 20 February 2017

Post on a long February weekend...

I thought I would take advantage of this extra day this weekend and post on the holiday Monday so I could enjoy a delicious breakfast at our favourite Greek restaurant yesterday - YUM!  This weekend has actually been filled with yummy food, as I got some delicious dolmas (grape vine rolls) from Al Madina’s at the Kitchener Market on Saturday, as well as another yummy heart-shaped jam-filled cookie from my friend at Bittersweettart.  And I baked Date Bread last night, so I have a slice in a bowl next to the steaming cup of chai on the table in front of me!  Have no fear, though - I’ve had plenty of opportunities for long walks to work off these treats!

OK, enough about food.  I have two books to tell you about.  I spent most of last week reading Second Life by S J Watson.  This is the second book by the acclaimed author of the excellent psychological thriller, Before I Go To Sleep, and I had to eventually put it down, it was that bad.  In the wake of estranged sister Kate’s brutal murder in a Paris alleyway outside a bar one night, Julia conducts her own investigation, certain that the police are not “leaving no stone unturned”.  She determines that the key to finding out who murdered Kate necessitates delving into Kate’s online personal life, where she engaged in cybersex and illicit encounters with strangers.  Beginning by impersonating Kate, Julia soon finds herself connecting with a younger, sexy stranger who brings her back to life after months of grief and gloom.  But when this affair turns violent and threatens Julia’s marriage and family, things go awry and… I don’t actually know what happens next, as I stopped reading the book halfway through.  I found it so unenlightened and non-page-turner-ish that I didn’t think I could slough through another 250 pages because, in the end, I didn’t really care what happened to Julia, and thought that husband Hugh and adopted son (Kate’s biological child) Colin would actually be better off without her.  The text was very repetitive and cyclical, and reminded me a bit of the book I read many, many years ago, 9 ½ Weeks by Elizabeth McNeill (well before Fifty Shades of Grey fame - am I dating myself by bringing up that title?).  I’ve never read Fifty Shades, but I’m no fan of books about women who want to be sex slaves to handsome, controlling men.  So I don’t recommend it, even to fans of Watson’s first book, which was well-written and suspenseful.  

After putting this book down, I picked up a Young Adult novel, Bystander, by James Preller.  I read his more recent title, The Fall, in November of 2015 and thought it was awesome, so I had high hopes for this book, which I decided to read in honour of Pink Shirt Day on Wednesday, February 22nd  (  Eric has just moved to a new town with his mother and younger brother to make a “fresh start”, a “new beginning”, but as the new kid in seventh grade at his middle school, it’s going to be tough.  When popular, charismatic, charming Griffin makes overtures of friendship towards Eric, he thinks that all his problems are solved, but there’s something suspicious and not-quite-trustworthy about Griffin that keeps Eric feeling on edge.  When he witnesses an episode during which Griffin is clearly bullying another student, David Hallenback, he has to decide whether to do something about it or be a bystander.  As the truth about Griffin surfaces, bit by bit, Eric faces tough choices as he finds himself at risk of becoming the bully’s next victim.  It was a good book, one that definitely shows how bullying in schools can continue, that these situations are not always clearly defined and easy to confront and resolve, that there are often grey areas when kids face really difficult decisions.  I have a "Bullying Awareness" display at both of my schools, and this book will definitely be on it, as will The Fall, which I personally enjoyed more, probably because of the first-person narrative, which was engaging, conversational, almost confessional in tone. I think Bystander is an important book because it shows how bullying can continue as a sinister undercurrent of school life, something that doesn’t always have climactic results, but is just a way of life, furtively happening, and that the roles of bully and victim can often be blurred.  It was a good read, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in reading about bullying in schools.  

Oh, in honour of “Freedom to Read Week”, which is February 26th to March 4th, I’m drinking my tea from my new Banned Books mug.  I was planning to read my favourite banned book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover for the occasion, but during that week, I have to read a book for my book club meeting on March 4th.  I planned to read my banned book this week instead, but I have a stack of eight library books that are ready to topple over if I don’t try to get through them, so I guess I’ll have to wait until mid-March to read something banned.  I did, though, pick up a secondhand copy of Lolita yesterday at a used book store, so maybe I’ll read that in March instead of Lady Chatterley… hmmm, so many great banned books, so little time!

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the gorgeous day! and Happy Family Day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 12 February 2017

Book talk on a snowy Sunday morning...

We had lots of snow last night, so it looks like a winter wonderland outside!  I’m happy to be inside, warm and cozy with a steaming cup of chai tea.  No treat today, but I had a treat yesterday, a very yummy heart-shaped, raspberry-filled cookie from a local baker/artisan, Bittersweettart (, that I got at the Kitchener Market.  It was delicious!!

I have a book and an audiobook that I’d like to tell you about in this post.  I read Sophie Hannah’s new book last week, A Game for All the Family, which kept me riveted to the very last page.  It opens with Justine Merrison revelling in the fact that she does Nothing.  After escaping a hectic life in London and a career that nearly destroyed her, she and her family are moving to Devon, to a beautiful rambling estate in the countryside, where she plans to do as little as possible.  This plan works for a few months, but then she begins to notice that her daughter Ellen’s behaviour is changing, that she is becoming more withdrawn and reticent.  When questioned, she eventually reveals that her best friend George has been expelled from school.  Justine knows nothing about this, but upon further questioning, she learns that he was falsely accused of committing a crime in which Ellen was involved and unjustly expelled.  Justine goes to the school to find out what is going on, only to be met with denial from the headmistress - not only was George not expelled from the school, but there never was a George attending the school in the first place.  Did Ellen make up this “friend”?  Is the school covering something up?  Then Justine begins receiving anonymous phone calls telling her to go back to London and claiming that she shares a traumatic past and a guilty secret with the caller, and she becomes more determined to get to the heart of this bizarre story and find the truth.  At her husband’s insistence, she reports these calls to the police, but they seem to be unable or unwilling to help.  When the phone calls become more menacing and the caller threatens Justine and her family, she realizes that she alone must find the truth and safeguard her family from this unstable woman. This book was creepy and riveting, a real page-turner.  About half-way through the book, I flipped to the back inside flap to read the author bio and noticed Hannah’s picture - she looks so normal, like she should be writing “chicklit”, not psychological thrillers about deranged psychopaths intent on killing entire families!  I loved the book, but I’m not sure how I feel about the ending.  Of course, since I can’t give anything away, I can’t explain why I didn’t love the way she chose to end it - I’d love to discuss it with someone and get his or her thoughts.  Anyway, it was certainly well-written and suspenseful, and kept me feeling slightly off-balance, wondering what was reality and what was pure fantasy.  I find Hannah’s books are usually fairly confusing, but the enjoyment of reading them, in my opinion, far outweighs the uncertainty left by the complicated storylines and the details that are often difficult to figure out.  

And speaking of complex, complicated stories that are difficult to figure out (and even more difficult to believe!), I finally got the the end of The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, the first in the “Department Q” series featuring Carl Mørck.  This is the first book I’ve read/listened to by this Danish author, but the review I read compared it to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I’ve never actually read, but I’ve watched the original film).  Carl is just back from a leave after a botched investigation left one of his colleagues dead and another paralyzed, but no one wants to work with him, including his boss, Marcus Jacobson.  Using funds recently received from the government for the investigation of cold cases of a sensitive nature, Jacobson banishes Carl to the basement under the guise of promotion as head of the newly-established “Department Q”.  Carl gets to choose his own cases, control his own budget, and allocate his time however he wants, with the aid of an assistant, Syrian refugee Assad, but all he really wants to do is be left alone to wallow in his survivor guilt.  Alas, he has to show that he’s selected a case to work on and give updates on his progress, so he chooses to reinvestigate the disappearance of Merete Lynggaard, a prominent politician who disappeared on her way to Copenhagen with her brain-damaged brother Uffe five years earlier.  His thorough investigative techniques, along with Assad’s surprising astuteness and skill, lead them on a twisting, turning path that spirals down, down, down into the depths of a sociopath’s plan to torture and ultimately annihilate a woman against whom this madman has a grudge.  This book was long.  It was complex.  It was violent and full of conspiracy theories, false leads and archetypal characters.  The plot was fairly ridiculous and unbelievable, but it was also well-written and suspenseful.  I think part of the problem I had enjoying this book was with the narration, and the author also had to provide so much back-story to set the stage for subsequent books in this series.  I am definitely interested in reading/listening to other books in this series (hopefully with a different narrator!), and would recommend this to anyone who enjoyed the Steig Larsson trilogy or Scandinavian thrillers with dark, curmudgeonly main characters.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and play in the snow!!

Bye for now…

Sunday 5 February 2017

Books and tea on a toasty morning...

It’s been chilly these past few days, but apparently the groundhog did not see his shadow so we should expect an early spring.  I believe it’s already milder outside today than it was yesterday, when the wind howled, making the already low temperatures feel even colder.  Thank goodness for tea and books to get us through the winter months!!

My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss The Martian by Andy Weir.  I put this book on our book club list for a few different reasons:  a good friend highly recommended it, it was on the bestseller lists for months, and I like to pick a genre title once or twice each year, just to give us a bit of variety.  This debut novel by software engineer Weir tells the story of one man’s efforts to prolong and/or save his life when faced with impossible odds.  Mark Watney is a botanist and mechanical engineer who is part of the crew on the Ares III mission to Mars.  When a violent storm erupts on the planet while they are exploring, the crew struggle to return to their Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), but Mark is fatally wounded and blown away by fierce winds.  The other crew members, faced with a difficult decision in desperate circumstances, leave his body on the cold planet and abort their mission.  When Mark miraculously survives the accident, he realizes that he is left alone on a planet with no way to communicate with NASA and no one to help.  He could give up, but his determination to survive for as long as possible, along with his wit and optimism, fuels the novel, and the reader empathizes with him as he faces extraordinary challenges with perseverance and creativity, and a good dose of humour.  Can he figure out a way to contact others and let them know he’s still alive, and if so, can he survive long enough to be rescued?  This novel is written mainly from Mark’s point of view as he writes log entries explaining his methods of survival and his thoughts about his situation, including how he fills all that free time he has (he’s not a big fan of disco!).  While these entries are filled with scientific facts and explanations, they are conversational in tone, making them accessible to the average reader (although my book club ladies and I admitted that we skimmed over most of the scientific stuff).  Was Mark’s struggle to survive realistic?  Probably not, but it seemed like it could possibly happen this way, making this science fiction novel mainstream enough to appeal to a wide audience.  The first thing we talked about at the meeting yesterday was poop, and the many attributes of various types of manure (if you read the book, you’ll understand why!).  We then discussed man’s innate will to survive, no matter what conditions he faces.  One of my ladies thought that there was too much science in the book;  her exact words were, “less science, more potatoes!”  (she wanted to know how he prepared and ate his potatoes).  While we all acknowledged that it was not realistic, we felt that it was an interesting read, not something any of us would have picked up on our own, but a book worth reading.  One member said she wasn’t surprised that they made it into a movie, as it reads almost like a script - I felt the same way as I was reading it, that it read like a movie.  One of my ladies read half of the book, then watched the movie.  I asked if she was going to finish the book and she said no, that once you know whether he survives or not, there was really no reason to read the book, and I agreed -  it was not great literature that considered the human condition, more of a "Canadian Tire" book than a "Lee Valley" one.  We compared it to The Sparrow by Marie Doria Russell, and agreed that Russell's book was deeper in its consideration of the human condition, good and evil, and the meaning of life, while The Martian was more entertaining.  All in all, it was a good discussion, and I am happy to add a sci fi title to my list of books read in 2017, as it is a genre I rarely read.

That’s all for today.  Stay warm and keep reaing!

Bye for now…