Sunday 30 April 2017

Last post for April...

It’s a chilly, windy, rainy-ish morning as we end this tempestuous month and look forward to May, which I always think of as the true beginning of spring, when we should be getting more mild, pleasant, settled weather.  But it looks like this next week is going to be rainy and the temperatures are going to be all over the place, warm one day, chilly the next.  Thank goodness for the reliability of a hot cup of tea and a good book!

Speaking of tempestuous weather, I reread that fabulous eco-thriller I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, The Rapture by Liz Jensen.  This novel, set in the not-too-distant future, tells the story of an unlikely group of people who are trying to save the earth from further ecological disaster on a monumental scale.  Gabrielle Fox is an art therapist who, following a car accident that has left her a paraplegic with serious emotional scars, leaves her home in London and relocates to a remote coastal town to take on a contract position at Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital, where she works specifically with Bethany Krall, a sixteen-year-old who, two years earlier, drove a screwdriver into her mother’s eye.  Bethany claims to have visions of future meteorological events after her ECT treatments, but no one believes she really “sees” things, just that she is spouting off what she has Googled or heard on the news.  She dismisses Gabrielle’s attempts to get her to talk about her mother’s murder, but Gabrielle begins to take Bethany’s visions seriously when she predicts, to the day, a tsunami that will hit Rio de Janeiro, a location that never experiences such weather phenomena.  But, stuck in a wheelchair, suffering emotional damage, and having no supports, there is little she can do without allies.  A strange woman appears to be stalking her, and when she is finally approached, it turns out that this is Bethany’s former therapist, Joy, who suffered a breakdown and had to leave the hospital on medical grounds.  She appears to be the one person who can help Gabrielle, as she seemed to believe in Bethany’s abilities, but it turns out that Joy has other ideas.  A true ally comes in the unlikely form of a Scottish physicist named Frazer Melville, whom she meets at a fundraiser and forms an instant bond.  Melville manages to rally a group of climatological experts who must convince the leading meteorological guru to take Bethany’s predictions of worldwide ecological disaster to the media or risk unprecedented catastrophe.  Oh, I nearly forgot - Bethany’s father is a pastoral leader in the Faith Wave, a powerful Evangelical movement that is sweeping the UK with its messages of the Rapture, when true believers will be taken up by God while the rest of the world suffers seven years of plagues and pestilence during the Tribulation.  I don’t read many books in the thriller genre; I prefer psychological fiction rather than plot-driven novels that focus on fast-paced storylines, as these leave little room for the character development that I so enjoy.  While I don’t feel that this novel had alot of character development, I felt that it had all the elements of a successful thriller.  The main characters were flawed yet likeable, even matricidal Bethany, and the story was timely and all-too-believable.  There was also a love story, always an uplifting element in a novel that was bleak at the best of times.  And the relationship Gabrielle and Frazer develop with Bethany, while seemingly unbelievable, is, in fact, simultaneously credible and moving and heartbreaking.  This page-turner will make you angry and sad, and if you don’t already believe in global warming, you will by the time you reach the last page.  This novel reminded me of Peter Hoeg’s book Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and is sure to appeal to a wide audience of readers.   

OK, it’s time for me to get outside, despite the chilly high winds, before the rain starts again.

Bye for now…

Sunday 23 April 2017

Birthday post...

It’s hard to believe, but Julie’s Reading Corner is 6 years old!  Six years of tea drinking and book talk… I hope you’ve enjoying reading these posts as much as I've enjoyed writing them.

I want to start by telling you about the big CFUW Book Sale that happened this weekend, which is the highlight of my year in terms of book shopping.  It’s always a two-stage shopping experience.  On Friday, I go with a specific list in hand and purchase books individually that I really want.  This year that included books by favourite authors, books for upcoming book club meetings, and one book I’ve read before but would like to have on hand in case I want to reread it.  On Saturday, they always offer a deal where you fill a box for $10, so all of the books from this year’s shopping excursion fall into the broad category of "Books to fill my box".  There were 40 books this time, and they can be broken down into these sub-categories:
more books by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past but haven’t yet read
books that were bestsellers at one time but didn’t interest me, but now it’s finally time to give them a try
books that may be future book club choices so I picked up extra copies
books that are better-condition replacements for books I already have
mysteries of all sorts (the biggest pile)
books that go with other books on my shelves
books I know nothing about but I still have space in my box
and books that my husband might enjoy (these are non-fiction)

If you recall, this categorization was inspired by Italo Calvino’s categorization list in his novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which I have referred to in past posts (see Chapter One of this interesting novel for more information, or search my blog for “Italo Calvino”).  Anyway, it was an awesome (and awesomely inexpensive!) shopping spree that offered the opportunity to try books I’ve heard nothing about, just because I liked the cover and needed to fill that box.  So I’m looking forward to an interesting year of reading with my new books.

Last week I read a classic 1962 novel by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I have only ever read one short story by Jackson, “The Lottery”, about a small American town that undertakes an annual ritual to ensure a good harvest, a lottery for which no one wants to hold the winning ticket.  Her novel was recently promoted in an e-newsletter, and I’ve also learned that it is being made into a soon-to-be-released film.  It focuses on two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood, who live with their invalid uncle at Blackwood Farms, a large house on a huge tract of land located halfway between the town and the village.  All their other family members are dead, including both parents, an aunt and a brother.  Six years earlier, they were poisoned by arsenic which was mixed in with the sugar that was sprinkled on blackberries, a crime for which Constance stood trial but was acquitted.  They live peacefully in isolation, although Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) must go into the village twice a week for food and supplies, a task she dreads but forces herself to perform.  The villagers and townspeople shun the sisters, but they seem to be quite happy in their isolation, sticking to their daily rituals and being protected by Merricat’s “magic”.  When estranged cousin Charles shows up on the doorstep, Constance is seduced by his flattery and allows him to disrupt their peaceful existence, despite Merricat’s warnings and protestations.  When a fire destroys the upper floors of the house and their uncle dies, the girls must do their best to survive.  This gothic novel is similar to “The Lottery” in that it exposes the sinister underside of small-town America.  It was an interesting reading experience for me, because I found myself sympathizing with the sisters and feeling indignation towards the townspeople and villagers for their harshness and rude behaviour, completely forgetting that one of these young women killed their other family members six years earlier.  While the deaths of these family members are referred to throughout the story, it was easy to “forget” about them and just focus on the ire of the villagers and townspeople, which showed real skill on the part of Jackson.   I’m looking forward to seeing the film adaptation.

And I just finished (finally!) an audiobook that I feel like I’ve been listening to forever, The Travelers by Chris Pavone.  I listened to his first novel, The Expats, some time ago, and really enjoyed it.  I recently downloaded his second novel, The Accident, and started to listen to it, but was completely turned off by the implausibility of the story and the judgmental tone of moral superiority that the author used.  But having enjoyed the first book so much, and since this one was also available as an audiobook, I thought I’d give it a try.  It was more interesting, somewhat more plausible (though not by much), and the sanctimonious smugness was toned-down (also not by much!), but still I trudged on until the end.  This international espionage thriller is set in exotic, mundane and isolated places across the globe, and follows travel writer Will Rhodes as he is seduced into becoming an agent for the CIA… or is he?  His career and lifestyle of extensive world travel make him the perfect candidate to monitor the actions of important people around the world, and after his initial reluctance, he is hooked by the thrill of the chase and the danger, the risks and challenges he faces everywhere he turns.  But is he endangering those around him, and is this new life worth risking his marriage for?  These questions (and more!) will be answered fully if you stick with this fast-paced, head-spinning, “who’s-spying-on-who?” thriller, but be prepared to suspend your sense of disbelief and just be carried along on the wave of action.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunny, mild day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 16 April 2017

Books, not bunnies, for this Easter weekend post...

On this glorious Easter Sunday morning, as I sip my deliciously creamy chai tea and nibble away at a Date Bar, I am feeling very thankful for the lovely weather we’ve been having this weeknd.  I have opened all the windows this morning and can hear the delightful sounds of Spring.

On a less delightful note, last week I read a novel of political corruption and greed .  The Eyes of Lira Kazan by Eva Joly and Judith Perrignon is an international thriller that spans the globe, from Nigeria to Russia, the Faroe Islands, England and France, and tells the story of an unlikely group of individuals who team up to expose the criminal activity of some very wealthy and powerful men.  The novel opens with Nwankwo Ganbo, the head of the Nigerian Fraud Squad, gathering his family together as they prepare for evacuation and relocation under fear of death after Ganbo’s righthand man is found murdered.  In St Petersburg, Lira Kazan is a journalist who has doggedly investigated the life and livelihood of mega-wealthy oligarch Sergei Louchsky, but she has faced threats and obstacles at every turn.  And in Nice, Félix, a court clerk with a keen intuition, convinces his judge and friend to dig deeper into the seemingly accidental drowning of the wife of a prominent Scandinavian banker off their yacht while in French waters.  During a trip to France to meet up with her daughter, Lira undertakes further investigations into Louchsky as he is in Paris to meet with the Prime Minister to secure a trade deal, but she becomes the victim of an acid attack, which she is sure is connected to Louchsky.  While she recovers, she meets Ganbo and Félix, and together they formulate a plan to expose the fraudulent, duplicitous actions of a network of individuals from these different countries as they converge in Paris for Louchsky's fortieth birthday bash.  Intrigued by the cover design and title, I pulled it down from my bookshelf with no expectation, and I was pleasantly surprised.  This fast-paced, plot-driven thriller moved seamlessly from one country to another, and took this reader on a  roller-coaster ride of corruption and exposure.  The main characters are flawed yet credible: they all want to do the right thing, regardless of the cost.  I don’t normally read this type of novel, but every once in awhile, I like to dive into a book that will suck me in and pull me along, keeping me turning pages to find out what happens next.  Hmmm… I guess this is sort of like the John Le Carré novels I’ve enjoyed in the past, The Constant Gardener or Our Kind of Traitor.  Joly is a french magistrate and politician and Perrignon is a french journalist, so it's no wonder this story is so convincing. Filled with suspense, this novel is sure to please fans of international political thrillers.

Since I couldn’t put this novel down, I finished it in just a few days, so I decided to pick up something that I thought would be a bit lighter.  I have enjoyed novels by Australian author Liane Moriarty in the past, and so I pulled down a copy of The Hypnotist’s Love Story that was discarded from the library (this seemed to be the week to read books from my own bookshelves for a change!).  Told from alternating points of view, this novel explores relationships in all their many forms and statuses.  Ellen O”Farrell, a hypnotherapist in Sydney, has a beautiful beachfront house that she inherited from her grandparents, and is financially secure as she runs her hypnotherapy business from her own home. At the age of thirty-five, all she wants now is to find a man and settle down.  Then she meets Patrick using an online dating service, and she thinks that he could be the one.  He is a widower with an eight-year-old son, Jack, who runs his own business as a surveyor.  He seems practically perfect… except for his stalker.  Ex-girlfriend Saskia is a forty-two year old woman who has been split up from Patrick for three years.  But just because you are no longer in a relationship with someone, doesn’t mean you instantly stop caring about them, does it?  A successful professional, she seems normal in every way, but her need to be involved in Patrick’s and Jack’s lives is an addiction that she can’t seem to overcome.  Strangely enough, Ellen finds the idea of Patrick’s stalker not scary, but kind of intriguing, and she does her best to deal with Saskia’s existence in their lives even as she battles to compete with Patrick’s deceased “perfect” wife Colleen.  With Moriarty's characteristic wit and insight, this novel explores the many faces of love and different types of commitment.  While not as polished as The Husband’s Secret or Big Little Lies, and somewhat overlong, this novel is suspenseful and a little bit creepy, while still managing to be light and breezy.  I’m not quite finished yet, but there have been a number of unexpected plot twists that would have foreshadowed her great success with the aforementioned novels (this one came out before The Husband’s Secret). I'm expecting to reach this novel's sure-to-be satisfying conclusion by the end of today.

And the tempestuous weather we always experience at this time of year, cold and sleeting one minute, warm and rainy the next, then sunny, but almost always very windy, reminded me of a book I read a few years ago by Liz Jensen, The Rapture, an apocalyptic eco-thriller that I remember really enjoying.  I’ve put it on hold and just picked it up from the library.  I may have time to reread it, but there were also five other holds for me to pick up, so how do I choose?!

OK, that’s enough book talk on this Easter morning.  Good luck hunting Easter eggs!

Bye for now…

PS Don’t forget the upcoming Book Sale next weekend:

Monday 10 April 2017

Another April post on a mild morning...

My throat is no better, so I'm staying home from work today to rest up and hopefully be in better shape for reading aloud for the rest of the week.  I wanted to test this, as I didn't get yesterday's post sent to my Yahoo inbox.  I will watch out for this one...

Enjoy the sunshine and keep reading!


Sunday 9 April 2017

April showers bring... good opportunities to stay in and read!

I’m feeling out of sorts this morning, as I’ve had what I thought was a bad cold all week, but it turns out I have a throat infection, which makes it hard to enjoy doing anything, including swallowing.  Thank goodness for a wide variety of delicious hot beverage choices, which are sure to soothe my raw and scratchy throat.

After blogging and walking last week, I had to decide on what to read next, and I toyed with rereading Anne of Green Gables, but I really felt like I needed something heavy, deep, and serious, something atmospheric that would transport me to another time or immerse me in another era or situation.  I tried a few books that I got from the library, and a couple from my own shelves, but nothing was grabbing me.  Then I received an email announcing the shortlist for the Baileys Prize (formerly the Orange Prize):  Since I have enjoyed Orange Prize/Baileys Prize winning books in the past, I decided to read Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy.  She won this prize in 2004 for her novel Small Island, which I have been meaning to read for a number of years;  unfortunately, it just didn’t grab me when I tried to get into it.  So I thought I’d start with one of her earlier novels.  This book, set in London in the 1980s, focuses on the experiences of Faith Jackson, 22-year old daughter of Mildred and Wade, who moved from Jamaica to England so that their children could have a better life.  Faith believes that this is her home, and has little interest in learning about her ancestry, although her parents, when asked about their lives in Jamaica, are less than forthcoming.  But as Faith moves into the workforce and faces subtle racial discrimination, she begins to suspect that glorious Britain may not be as fair as it at first seems.  When she witnesses an attack on a black female shopkeeper by the National Front, these suspicions are confirmed.  It is then that her parents arrange for Faith to take her first ever trip to Jamaica, claiming that everyone should know where they come from.  What Faith encounters as she arrives at the Kingston airport is chaos, disorder and lackadaisical service, including having her luggage go missing and receiving no clear instructions on how to get it back.  When her Auntie Coral arrives with her cousin Vincent to collect her, she is enveloped in a flurry of embraces and activity that is as disorderly as London is ordered.  But over the course of her two-week visit, she learns that her family stories are many and varied, and that truth is multifaceted.  Faith’s search for a sense of belonging drives this novel, and the first half, set in London, seemed to this reader to be rather limp and grey, somewhat tedious and uneventful.  The second half of the novel, however, was a riotous cacophony of voices and colours and experiences and stories and names and characters and family trees.  Perhaps this was intentionally done by the author, to highlight the ways in which the cultures of each area are influenced by the weather and landscapes, making me wonder about the truth of the statement:  You are where you live.  I’ll admit to enjoying the second half of the book more than the first half, mainly because it seemed to have more character;  I particularly enjoyed the stories that different relatives told Faith about her distant relations.  It was an interesting book, and a good introduction to her writing style, so hopefully I will be better prepared when I next pick up Small Island.  

Just a quick reminder that the Canadian Federation of University Women's giant book sale is coming up in a couple of weeks, on April 21 and 22:
I've already started a list of books I want to look for, because I know that, once again, resistance is futile!!

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sunshine and mild weather!  

Bye for now…

Sunday 2 April 2017

Book club talk on a sunny, Springy morning...

It’s a lovely, mild morning as I sit with my cup of steaming chai… I’ve even opened the patio door to let in some of the fresh Spring air and listen to the birdsong in the backyard (although it’s mostly for our cat, Riley, to enjoy, as he’s been deprived of “the real thing” all winter, having to make do with the silent view from the closed glass door).  I have no treat this morning, but I plan to get a date bar from City Cafe later this afternoon as a reward for the long walk I will take - I have learned that, no matter what I may buy as a treat on Saturday, my will is always broken as I pass by the Cafe, and I know that, as the Borgs used to say in Star Trek, “resistance is futile”.  

I wanted to talk about book clubs for a minute before I tell you about our book club meeting yesterday.  I am in two book clubs, and recently one of the members in my Friends book club mentioned that her friend was interested in joining our group and asked if this would be OK.  I was going to suggest asking the other members, since I’m not the only one who can make these decisions, but she decided not to invite her to join.  This got me thinking about book club dynamics, and what makes a successful discussion group.  The Friends book group already has seven members who come out for meetings regularly, and we meet in a coffee shop downtown on a Monday evening.  This means that it is a noisy environment to begin with, and if we’re lucky, the big round table in the corner is available, allowing us all to see and hear each other better, but sometimes we’re stuck at a long table and so conversation is difficult;  in this case, we also have to pull up an extra chair at the end of the table to accommodate everyone.  And we’ve got an interesting mix of personalities, too:  four of us have worked together at our local public library, two of us now work at an elementary school, two members work in the social services field, one with seniors and the other with people with mental health issues.  Some of us are introverts, a few are extroverts, some of us have extensive experience dealing with books and reading, others are just avid readers, but we really work as a group.  It’s hard to say what would happen if we had another member join us.  After this member said she wouldn’t extend an invitation to her friend, I suggested that we could have a special “bring a friend” night - I’m not sure if this will happen, but I think it’s a reasonable option.

My Volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss E M Forster’s A Passage to India.  I haven’t read this book in years, but I still remembered what it was about, and I really enjoyed rereading it last week.  Set in British Colonial India in the 1920’s, this book relates the experiences of two English women as they visit India for the first time.  Mrs Moore is the mother of the City Magistrate of Chandrapore, Ronny Heaslop.  She is accompanied by Adela, Ronny’s childhood friend and potential fiancé, as they make their way through the busy, bustling city.  Not content to stick to the British Club and the sanitized experiences offered by Ronny and his friends,  they insist on seeing “the real India”.  Mrs Moore, during an evening stroll, meets Dr Aziz at a mosque, where they form an instant bond, an encounter which leads them on a fateful journey to the Marabar Caves, an experience which changes their relationships and their lives forever.  This novel, Forster’s last book, represents the inability of the British to comprehend the spirit of India, which is incomprehensible, while also trying to conquer and tame it.  It presents the racial tensions between the Anglo-Indians and the Indians, and the challenges each culture faces when attempting to understand the other.  None of my ladies really liked this book, and none actually read it through from beginning to end.  One member stopped about 40 pages from the end, and I had to agree that I thought the novel could have ended significantly earlier than it did, perhaps before the third section, “Temple”.  But, as we also discussed, this third section brings the story around full circle, and provides a happy-ish ending for all.  Everyone agreed that the descriptions of the landscape were quite beautiful, but they felt that the characters were not likable, even Fielding, the one British character who actually tried to understand the Indians, or at least be kind to them.  They thought these characters were “cold and despicable”.  This surprised me, because I found the main characters to be quite realistic, and sympathized with most of them.   They found the complexity of religions and spirituality difficult to understand, and wanted to know what the echoes in the caves were, and why Adela kept hearing them.  We thought that they represented the primordial spirit of India, the essence of the land before man tried to tame it.  The echo represents spirituality as well as sensuality, the “boum, boum” that Forster describes, and then, when Adela’s echoes end, there is nothingness, which may be the “nothingness” that represents the end of a soul’s cycle of reincarnation, which can also be said to be attained when a soul achieves self-knowledge.  Forster’s novels often explore the pursuit of personal connections despite the restrictions of contemporary society (think A Room with a View and Howard’s End).  Although no one really enjoyed the book, they could appreciate the talented writing style and the intentions Forster had in writing it.  It was certainly an interesting discussion, and sometimes the best discussions take place when there are opposing views.  I’d say it was a success, but I do generally hope that people will enjoy the books at least some of the time!

That’s all for today - get outside and enjoy the gorgeous day!

Bye for now…

PS I'm not sure what I will read next, but I have this sudden urge to read Anne of Green Gables since watching the excellent new CBC series "Anne", just to find out how accurately they are portraying the characters and situations in the book and where they are taking liberties!