Sunday 25 June 2017

Last post for June...

WOW, the month of June has flown by!  I can’t believe it’s already officially summer, and there’s just one more week left of school until the summer holidays!  Good thing I have a pile of books from the library to keep me busy during my time off!

I recently made an impulse purchase at Chapters - I bought a brand new book that I’d never heard of, but it was by an author I have enjoyed in the past, it had a great cover, and it was 50% off, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong.  The narrator of Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is editor Susan Ryeland, and the novel opens with her settling in to read the latest manuscript from bestselling mystery writer Alan Conway.  We are then treated to said manuscript, titled Magpie Murders, featuring German detective Atticus Pünd.  This is a classic whodunnit in the style of Agatha Christie, beginning with an accidental death in a small English village where everyone knows everything about everyone else and nothing is as it seems.  When Pünd is asked by a village resident to look into this death, he is able to see things from an outsider’s point of view, and is not entirely convinced it was an accident, but refuses to help for personal reasons.  When a second death occurs, clearly a murder of the most violent type, he reluctantly agrees to help in the investigation, and discovers many hidden secrets and truths that have lain buried for years, some for decades.  But just when he seems to have solved the case, the manuscript ends.  It appears that the last section is missing, and, upon inquiry, Susan discovers that Alan is dead, seemingly a suicide.  But why would he kill himself before his new book comes out?  Driven as much by the need to discover the whereabouts of the missing chapters as the desire to find out the truth, Susan begins her own investigation, and, like Pünd, uncovers family secrets and hidden pasts, and discovers that in Alan’s own life, all is not what it seems and everyone is a suspect.  I’m not quite finished this page-turner, but I’m loving it so far.  It is a story-within-a-story, an homage to traditional British whodunnits, their writers and the TV series adaptations and spin-offs, and a peek inside the publishing world.  This cleverly written novel has held my interest and had me trying to squeeze in extra reading opportunities before, between and after all the extra activities and events that always accompany the end of the school year.  I hope to have it finished soon, and I’m sure the ending will not disappoint.  So far, I would definitely recommend this entertaining book to fans of British mysteries, or anyone who has enjoyed watching “Midsomer Murders” or “Foyle’s War” (Horowitz is the creator of both series).  

That’s all for today.  I’m heading out to a friends’ place for a BBQ soon, and hope the rain holds off.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now…

Sunday 18 June 2017

Post on a thunderous Father's Day...

The forecast for today calls for an 80% chance of thunderstorms all day, but so far, we’ve had a smattering of rain, some sun, dark clouds, alot of wind, and a mild threat of a thunderstorm in the form of distant thunder. Very unsettled weather indeed, but not as bad as expected... yet!  I’m feeling quite safe, though, in my cozy reading chair with my cup of tea, a date bar and some of the first local strawberries of the season, although I may have to stop typing and rush to close all the windows any minute.

It’s been a super-busy week and weekend, so I didn’t get a whole lot of reading done, but I did finally get to read a Young Adult novel I purchased for one of my schools from our Book Fair in May, Summer’s End by Canadian author and librarian Joel Sutherland.  Set in the Muskokas in the fictional town of Valeton, it tells the story of four fourteen-year-olds who plan to have the summer of their lives before they head off to high school.  It’s bad enough that three of these kids, Hayden, Hannah and Jacob, best friends forever, will be going to different schools in town, but the fourth, Ichiro, will be moving to Japan.  They are all living in different domestic situations, none ideal, and they rely heavily on each other to get through each crisis as it occurs.  After a skirmish during a baseball game, Jacob and Ichiro decide to take Ichiro’s new canoe, a gift from his parents to help ease the pain of the impending move, out on the lake, where they have gone canoeing all their lives.  But something seems different this time… they are drawn further and further out, far beyond any reaches they’ve paddled to before.  As the mist rolls in and surrounds them, they come upon a remote island and decide to stop and take a tour.  What they discover is “Summer’s End”, an old, decrepit mansion that begs to be explored, even as it repels them with the aura of foreboding.  They enter the house, and, against their better judgement, check out the rooms on the main floor.  When the phonograph begins playing on its own and Ichiro becomes paralyzed with fear in one of the rooms, they instinctively race for the door, but not before the screaming begins.  Can they stay away?  Well, that wouldn’t make for a very good novel, would it?  After some research at the local public library, they discover that this house was built nearly a hundred years earlier by a doctor and his wife, who came to tragic and horrible ends not long after they moved in.  The place has been passed down through the family, but no one has been brave enough to live there.  There have also been a number of unsolved cases of missing children over the years, and Jacob thinks these two are connected.  The four kids decide to canoe out there again one night, as Jacob has an idea that may finally  free the spirits of the missing children and solve the mystery, bringing some sense of closure to at least one child’s parent.  What they encounter, however, is far beyond anything they could have imagined, and they must use all their wits to stay one step ahead of the ghostly presences that haunt “Summer’s End” and save the lives of other children in the town.  This novel has all the elements of a deliciously scary gothic horror (a creepy, decaying, isolated setting, supernatural beings, curses and/or prophesies, and a couple of quick-thinking, brave heroes), and I can picture my eleven-year-old self curling up with this type of book and staying up way too late to finish it, savouring every juicy, horrific detail.  The language was not overly challenging, but the content was certainly mature, making this an ideal novel for kids who want a fast-paced, engrossing, plot-driven book.  And being a librarian himself (he is the Children’s and Youth Services librarian at the Georgina Public Library), Sutherland also manages to include a plug for the local library, outlining some of the challenges librarians face when trying to secure funding to maintain a well-rounded library collection that will meet the needs of all patrons.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would agree with one of my students, who has already read this novel and included it in my “Staff and Student Picks” display, that this is “a scary mature read”.  

I finished listening to an audiobook this week, too, Crime of Privilege by Walter Walker, but I’m not going to write much about it, as it was not an entertaining listening experience.  Here is a summary from the Penguin Random House site:  

A murder on Cape Cod.  A rape in Palm Beach.  All they have in common is the presence of one of America’s most beloved and influential families.  But nobody is asking questions.  Not the police.  Not the prosecutors.  And certainly not George Becket, a young lawyer toiling away in the basement of the Cape & Islands district attorney’s office.  George has always lived on the edge of power.  He wasn’t born to privilege, but he understands how it works and has benefited from it in ways he doesn’t like to admit.  Now, an investigation brings him deep inside the world of the truly wealthy - and shows him what a perilous place it is.
It got rave reviews, so I’m sure it’s my inability to appreciate the writer’s skill, but I thought it was overly long and complicated, many parts just dragged along and were repetitive, and the narrator was so wimpy and wishy-washy that I kept hoping it would end.  I almost stopped listening at one point but, after investing so much time into it, I decided I could struggle through one last section.  Perhaps if I had known that it was loosely based on actual historical events related to the Kennedy family, I may have been better able to appreciate it, but I think my problem was with the narrator, George, and his morally righteous, yet incredibly hypocritical, attitude.  It may also be that audio was not the best format, that it may be a book I could have enjoyed in print.  Having read the reviews, I may revisit this book again in print someday and see if I have a better experience. I may even check out other books by this San Francisco lawyer-turned-author. WOW, that was alot more than I’d planned to say about this book!

That’s all for today.  Happy Father’s Day, and get outside before the rain starts in earnest!

Bye for now…

Sunday 11 June 2017

Short post for a hot day...

Summer is definitely here, as we are experiencing our first “heat alert” of the year.  Right now it’s quite lovely and breezy, but it’s still early in the day, so I’m expecting to do very little in terms of outdoor activity later… hmmm, maybe I’ll just sit under a shady tree and read!

I actually have a book I’m not quite finished reading, Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris.  I’m three quarters of the way through this and hope to finish today.  This novel is the first in a series of novels set in the fictional English town of Malbry, and focuses on the lives of students and masters at St Oswald’s Boys’ Grammar School.  I recently read Different Class, which is also set in this school, and it is because of that book, which I thought was fabulous, that I tracked down this one.  Told alternately from the points of view of Roy Straitley, a Senior Master and Latin teacher, and the perpetrator of the crimes, the story unfolds as the new school year begins.  Straitley is nearing 65, and is being encouraged to retire, as he shuns computers and, set in his ways refined over thirty-three years of teaching, he is resistant to change, despite strong encouragement from the New Head.  Along come some new staff members, and one of them is bent on destroying St Oswald’s, crumbling it from the bottom up.  Over the course of the novel, this staff member indulges in flashbacks to when he was a boy of twelve and his father was a Porter at the school.  He desperately wanted to be a student there, but was instead sent to Sunnybank Park, a public school where the common folk send their children.  Through these flashbacks, we witness firsthand the experiences of this narrator, and discover, bit by bit, the events that led to the present day’s desire for revenge.  This person, who remains nameless until the end (and I’m not there yet!), does his best to pass himself off as a first-year St Oswald’s student, and befriends Leon, several years older and full of mischief, with whom he develops a disturbingly obsessive relationship.  As events begin occurring at St Oswald’s, the theft of a pen, the disappearance of some personal items belonging to both staff and students, then a (false) report of drunk driving on the part of a staff member and the revelation of a smuggling operation, only Straitley senses that they are connected, and he must piece the puzzle together before the final act of revenge.  This is a dark psychological thriller that is complex and engrossing, and explores themes such as class consciousness and the long-term effects of childhood trauma and abuse.  The students at St Oswald’s are considered privileged, and experience a sense of entitlement that the local children at the public school, the Sunnybankers, don’t share.  The town despises the elitist attitude of the school, and cling to every shred of news, real or fraudulent, that reflects badly on St Oswald.  This novel, like Different Class, is at once a complex literary mystery and a commentary on social class differences prevalent in British society, where peer pressure is strong and begins at a very early age.  Harris uses similar narrative techniques and style in both Gentlemen and Players and Different Class, and she also explores similar themes, so if you plan to read these two novels, I would recommend not reading them back-to-back, as they are too similar and may give you a jaded view.  I’m looking forward to getting to the end of this one and discovering who the perpetrator is.   

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Bye for now…

Sunday 4 June 2017

First post for June...

They’re calling for rain all day today, including thunderstorms, but right now it is a gorgeously sunny morning, filled with birdsong and the sound of the breeze blowing gently through the trees… it definitely feels like early summer as I sip my chai tea and think about the book I read last week and the book club meeting we had yesterday.

I’ll tell you first about the meeting.  We discussed the first book in the bestselling “Flavia de Luce” series by Canadian novelist Alan Bradley, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  This novel is told from the point of view of 11-year-old Flavia, youngest daughter in a household of three girls, and is set in a mansion in the English countryside in the early 1950s.  Flavia’s father has been a widower since she was a baby, and the girls are left pretty much to their own devices where parenting is concerned.  It is summer, and the girls are free from school for the holidays.  An adventure presents itself when the cook, Mrs Mullett, finds a dead bird on the doorstep, its beak piercing a rare stamp.  Later, Flavia hears her father arguing with a red-headed stranger in the study, and a few hours later, she discovers this stranger dying in the vegetable garden.  Foul play is suspected, and her father is accused of the murder.  Being a budding chemist specializing in poisons and an amateur sleuth, it is up to Flavia, with the help of a few adults along the way, to solve the mysteries of both the dead bird and the dead stranger, and to clear her father's name.  I tried reading this book a few years ago and didn’t enjoy it at all, but one of my ladies made a recommendation for this to be included on our selection list so I added it, figuring that I would stick with it if I had to facilitate a discussion.  I ended up listening to it a few months ago, and that seemed to be a more engaging experience for me, although I didn’t love it.  As the narrator, the precocious, feisty Flavia drove me crazy (I don’t usually enjoy adult books told from the point of view of a child or teen), but I could get over that while listening, I guess because I have to concentrate less when a book is being read to me.  It was exactly what I expected it would be, and didn’t feel the need to reread it for my discussion, although it was my intention to skim it (which I did not have time to do).  When we started the discussion with everyone sharing their initial thoughts about the book, the first three ladies felt much as I did, that it was a light, fun read, although Flavia was somewhat annoying, that it was easy to put down, but that the story picked up about halfway through when Flavia’s father shared the story of his past with her.  I suggested that it was more of a Canadian Tire book than a Lee Valley one.  Then one member, a retired high school English teacher, got her chance to share, and she LOVED the book!  She thought that making the protagonist a girl detective with an interest in science and a love of language, a girl who demonstrated good problem-solving skills throughout the novel, was very clever, making Flavia a great role model.  She pointed out that Flavia was a bit nerdy, from a dysfunctional family, a girl who was bullied by her older sisters, but who, nonetheless, managed to earn the respect of adults.  We discussed Flavia’s mother, Harriet, who disappeared on a mountain-climbing expedition and is presumed dead, and whether we thought she would have been a good mother, as well as Flavia’s search for a father figure. We agreed that the plot became quite farfetched at times, making it necessary for us to suspend our sense of disbelief.  We wondered whether this book would be suitable for children or young adults to read, as the character would definitely be an inspiration to young girls (she has been compared to Harriet the Spy).  At first most of us did not think we would read any more of the books in this series, but after the discussion, a few of us agreed that we might try another one.  I thought that, since Flavia’s character and her relationships with the others in the household and in the village has already been established, the others might be more focused on the mysteries, so might be more interesting.  We agreed that this book was actually a Lee Valley book in the guise of a Canadian Tire one.  It was a great discussion, and a good book club choice.
Rather than reread this book, I ended up reading a book I got from the library, A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell.  Stephanie is a widowed stay-at-home mom and blogger who lives in a small town outside of Connecticut, looking after her five-year-old son Miles. There is nothing unusual about her best friend Emily’s request that she pick up her son, Nicky, Miles’ best friend, from school one day and keep him at her place until Emily is able to come and get him later that night… except that Emily never shows up.  Emily’s husband, Sean, is in England on a business trip, and Stephanie doesn’t know what to do as one day, then another, pass with no Emily.  Sean returns and together they try to find out what has happened, until Sean receives the shocking news that Emily is dead.  The nightmare is over... or has it just begun?  This novel is another in the long line of domestic thrillers to have been published recently, and as a debut novel from first-time author and preschool teacher Bell, it was quite impressive.  I’ve read a number of these (The Widow, The Couple Next Door and The Silent Wife, among others), and have tried and given up on even more (Gone Girl, and Girl on a Train), and this one falls into the category of “pretty good”.  The pacing was steady, the shifting points of view made for a fuller reading experience, and the plot twists were fairly believable.  I had difficulty with Stephanie’s utter naiveté, and some of the plot twists didn’t ring true, but overall, it was a book that was difficult to put down, a fast-paced, psychological thriller filled with deception, betrayals and intrigue, and I feel confident recommending it to anyone who enjoys books featuring unreliable narrators, where all is not what it seems.

That’s all for today - I better get outside before the rain begins.  Have a great day!

Bye for now…