Sunday 29 October 2017

Books, audiobooks, tea and treats on a brisk fall morning...

I have a steaming cup of chai tea in front of me this morning, but for a change from my usual Date Bar, I have a Long John from Norris Bakery, a delicious cream-filled doughnut that is nearly too big for me to eat (in anticipation of this problem, I ate part of it yesterday to bring it down to a manageable size!).

I’m reluctant to comment on the book I finished last week, First Snow, Last Light by Canadian novelist Wayne Johnston, because he is an amazing writer and I certainly have no right to criticize him, but I must say that this book did not live up to my expectations.  Set in St John's, Newfoundland in the 1930s, this novel focuses on Ned Vatcher, a young man whose parents go missing when he is just fourteen years old.  As an only child, he is alone despite being taken in by his extended family and the family priest, as well as family friend Sheilagh Fielding, and grows up haunted by his parents’ disappearance.  What could have happened to them?  Did they leave voluntarily, or was foul play involved?  And, dead or alive, where are they now?  He spends the next twenty-five years searching for answers to these questions, accruing fortunes and adopting strays along the way.  Johnston is a master storyteller, a true craftsman when it comes to the use of language.  Sentences flow off the page and make his books unputdownable, and this book was no exception.  It started off really promising and I was looking forward to a true literary indulgence.  But around the halfway point, I started to get frustrated, as there seemed to be no other story except the search for Ned’s parents. Oh, and the wallowing of all the characters in their own sorry pasts and self-pity.  I also wondered about the purpose of Sheilagh Fielding in this book.  Her character was first introduced and developed in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, an excellent novel about Joey Smallwood, first premier of Newfoundland, and his struggles to unionize the railway workers.  Johnston’s later novel, Custodian of Paradise features Fielding as the main character, and I believe she makes appearances in other novels as well.  But I’m not sure what purpose she served in this novel.  As a family friend, I get it, but her own part in the novel makes it practically a necessity to have read at least one of Johnston’s previous novels to understand her backstory, so why not just create a whole new character to be the “family friend”?  These are just a few of the reasons I felt let down by this novel; it had such a promising beginning, but was ultimately disappointing. I'll say no more, as I certainly would not want to discourage anyone from reading books by this wonderful author, but if you haven't read anything by him yet, I would recommend that you start with one of his earlier novels.

I finished an audiobook yesterday, though, that far exceeded expectations and was a real treat for my ears.  Set in a small posh village in the Lake District,  Just What Kind of Mother Are You? By Paula Daly begins with harried mother Lisa taking her daughter Sally to school after being off sick, only to discover that Sally’s friend, Lucinda, is missing.  Lucinda’s mother, Kate, is a good friend of Lisa’s, and is the perfect mother, one who does not work, leaving her time to make real, proper breakfasts for her kids and to shop locally for fresh, organic items.  Lisa, on the other hand, can barely keep up with the demands of her job at the local animal rescue charity, as well as those of her husband and children.  When she realizes that, had she followed up on the plan changes for the sleepover the girls were meant to have the night before, the search for Lucinda could have begun a day earlier, she is tormented by guilt, and inserts herself into the investigation to try to make up for her lack of diligence.  DC Joanne Aspinall believes Lucinda’s abduction to be the latest in a series of abductions and rapes of young girls in the area, and the search for the perpetrator escalates.  Told from the alternating points of view of Lisa and Joanne, this novel is more than just a mystery; it is a commentary on motherhood, friendship and family.  And the narrator, Laura Bratton, did an amazing job of bringing all the characters to life.  I’ve had a bit of a struggle lately finding interesting audiobooks, so I was especially thrilled to listen to this fabulous novel.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy this wonderful fall day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 October 2017

Thoughts on a small town setting...

On this gloriously bright, mild fall morning, I’m sitting with a cup of steaming chai tea and a delicious date bar... but I have no books to tell you about.  Between false starts with a couple of uninteresting books, appointments, meetings and get-togethers with friends, I had only two regular reading days last week and so did not get very far in the excellent new book by Wayne Johnston, First Snow, Last Light, which I will tell you about next week.

I was in my hometown yesterday visiting family, which gave me an idea for a post topic that I think most readers can relate to:  the small town.  I grew up in a city of 41 000 people, which is significantly smaller than those cities Ive inhabited as an adult, first Toronto and now Kitchener-Waterloo.  Every time I go back for a visit and have a walk around town, I naturally experience some nostalgic moments as I think about my past, and I’m reminded of the ways a small town setting is often used in novels, both classic and current.  My student book club is reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, set in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, where racial inequality and loss of innocence are the main themes.  My favourite book of all time, The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck, is also set in the small East Coast town of New Baytown, and deals with loss of innocence and moral degradation.  These two are classics, but more current works set in small towns include A Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling (class struggles and inequality), The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall (sexual abuse) and The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker (love, death and buried secrets).  What is it about small towns that inspire writers to create such poignant works?  Perhaps a small town offers the opportunity to examine a microcosm of society where only a handful of characters need to be presented, allowing for a depth of exploration that is more difficult in a story set in a big city.  Or perhaps it’s the “prevalence of innocence” (I don’t know how else to describe it) that seems to exist in a small town, the appearance that all is exactly what it seems, where crime is rare and everyone keeps track of everyone, yet somehow folks are always able to keep so many secrets hidden for years, sometimes decades, and the opportunity to uncover those secrets is positively irresistible! Whatever the reasons, novels set in small towns seem to be the ones that delve most deeply into the psyche of the main characters, and do the best job at examining the dynamics between these characters and exploring the human condition.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the wonderful weather before it turns cool and possibly rainy next week.

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 October 2017

Book talk on a rainy, windy, warm/cold day...

We’ve had such strange weather lately, and this weekend is no exception.  It’s been cool-ish but humid with intermittent rain both yesterday and today, and it looks like it won’t stop until tomorrow, when the temperatures will drop significantly… brrr!!  But I’m still able to enjoy my steeped chai tea, as it is incredibly windy so there is a breeze to keep the house fresh.  I’m also enjoying freshly baked Date Bread - yum!  

I had a Volunteer book club meeting yesterday, and a new member joined us, a kindergarten teacher from one of my schools.  This was her first book club meeting ever, and she had some difficulty trudging through the book selection, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden.  Told from alternating points of view, this novel, set in the seventeenth century in New France, recounts the interactions of some Jesuit missionaries with a tribe of Hurons, the Wendat, as they face many challenges adapting to their changing ways of life.  The novel opens with the capture of Father Christophe and a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, by a band of Wendat led by Bird and his right-hand man, Fox.  Christophe’s mission, of course, is to convert as many “sauvages” as possible to Christianity, and he faces many difficulties along the way.  Snow Falls, Bird has decided, will become his daughter, since his real daughter was recently killed by the Iroquois, along with his wife, whom he mourns soulfully throughout the book.  The Wendat people are a tightly-knit community whose members all work together to keep their village running smoothly.  They decide to use Christophe, “the Crow”, to gain bargaining power with Champlain and the colonists as trading partners.  The tribes face many challenges over the years, attacks by the Iroquois, plagues that threaten to wipe out their villages, and the struggles to stay unified as members of the Wendat join Christophe’s Christian mission, which eventually expands to include two more French priests. For everyone, the road is long and fraught with difficulties, and it is only when they concede defeat or accept that they may be overpowered that they are able to move beyond their situations and either accept their fate or begin again as a vanquished people.  This novel is a fictionalized account of just a chapter in the long, difficult and contentious history between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples of Canada.  I can’t explain it any further because it is such a long, overwhelmingly detailed tome that I had a hard time keeping track of specifics.  This award-nominated novel is not one I would have chosen to read on my own, but my group was interested in reading more books about Indigenous people, which is how it ended up on the list, and I will freely admit that if it wasn’t a book club selection, I would not have finished it.  The challenges I faced were ones other members also experienced:  it was difficult to know who was narrating each chapter; the language was dense and the story slow-moving and detailed; and the story was relentlessly harsh.  But the writing was also so compelling that it sucked us in, and by the halfway point, we found we could not put it down, yet some of the scenes were so horrific we had to put it down.  We all thought that the book was a realistic portrayal of the cultures at that time, both native and non-native.  We were disgusted at the ways the Jesuits manipulated the natives, such as by using the clock as a stand-in for the Voice (of God).  We were fascinated by the rituals and ceremonies described in the novel, particularly the ceremony of mourning, when all the bones of the deceased were recovered and moved to the new village location, and the Death Song, which tribal members sang as they faced their imminent demise - we wondered if they did this to help them focus and give them something to think about to distract them from the pain of their torture.  And torture… oh, the torture! That made up a significant portion of the book, describing torture, torturing captives, facing torture.  We discussed how this torture involved everyone, of all ages, which somehow normalized it.  We thought it was interesting that they referred to the act of torturing someone as “caressing”.  In the whole 485 pages, I had just one sticky note, and it marked a section about torture:  Christophe says,  “I think we don’t just allow torturers but condone them as a way to excise the fear we all have of death.  To torture someone is to take control of death, to be master of it, even for a short time” (p 256).  (One member’s brother referred to this book as “The Horrenda”, which is apt!).  We wondered whether warring was just part of the human condition, and discussed the perseverance, persistence and will to survive demonstrated by just about all the characters in the book.  One member summed up what I believe we were all feeling after reading this:  it wasn’t a book that made you proud to be non-Native, but it also didn’t make you want to be Native.  I’m so glad I read this historical novel by Canadian author Boyden, who may or may not have Indigenous roots.  I was sad and horrified and moved and enlightened all at the same time.  (I promised my teacher friend that the books aren’t all this difficult!!)

So as a respite from the “Lee Valley-est” book I’ve probably ever read, I read one of the most “Canadian Tire-est”, A Stranger in the House , also by a Canadian author, Shari Lapena.  I read her first novel last year, The Couple Next Door, which featured an unreliable narrator and a situation where all is not what it seems.  This novel, too, features an unreliable narrator and all is definitely not what it seems.  The story begins with a woman racing out of a parking lot and careening into a lightpost at top speed.  This parking lot is in a questionable neighbourhood, and the woman is a suburban housewife, so what was she doing there in the first place, and what was she racing to get away from?  Her husband Tom refuses to believe that she did anything unsavoury, but his wife Karen is suffering amnesia and can’t remember anything about the accident or the time just before.  There is also the nosy neighbour across the street, Brigid, but did she see anything incriminating and if so, will she tell?  Then a dead body turns up at the abandoned restaurant near the parking lot, and suddenly things are looking alot more complicated for Karen.  As Tom and the detective on the case, Detective Rasbach, race to uncover details that might shed light on the murder, Karen’s life begins to unravel and secrets are unearthed faster than you can say “arrest her”!  This thriller, like her first book, promises much more than it delivers.  In my opinion, the writing and dialogue are stilted, the text repetitive and tedious, and the storyline pretty farfetched.  I guess if you liked Gone Girl, you would like these wildly popular books, but for me, they lack depth of character and real plot development.  But contrary to The Orenda, when it would take me nearly an hour to read 30 pages, this is a book that you could skim-read in an afternoon.  So if you are in the mood for a quick read, a thrilling page-turner, this might be the book for you.

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

Bye for now…


Sunday 8 October 2017

Post on Thanksgiving weekend...

We’ve had unusual weather this past week, very chilly for a few days, then very warm and humid for a while, with plenty of wind and rain, as well as sun and cloud.  It’s been strange, as every day was different.  Today it’s a bit cooler and overcast, which is pleasant weather for walking, reading and drinking warm beverages, all things I’m going to do today.  But first I need to write this post.

I’m nearly finished reading The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, but I will tell you about this book next week after my Volunteer book club gets together to discuss it.  I finished listening to an audiobook earlier in the week, though, which I want to tell you about.  Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan, which I just realized is the first in a series of crime thrillers featuring protagonist David Loogan, begins with David and his boss, Tom, burying a body in the woods near a park in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  David is an editor working at Tom’s literary crime magazine, Grey Streets, and he and Tom get along pretty well, going out for drinks together and sharing confidences.  When Tom calls on him to help bury the body, David doesn’t ask too many questions, but he’s a keen observer of crime scene details and is curious about Tom’s story that the dead man was a disgruntled ex-con/burglar who was also a contributing writer to the magazine.  To his credit, he doesn’t pry into other people’s business very often, and is generally happy to leave people to themselves, expecting the same courtesy from others.  David is a bit of a mystery:  no one knows about his past, and he’s reluctant to discuss the details of his life with anyone, even Tom.  This question runs through the novel:  “How much do we really know about anyone?”  When Tom is found dead on the sidewalk under his office window, everyone initially thinks he jumped, but the detective on the case, Elizabeth Waishkey, doesn’t buy it and goes digging further.  Just as she identifies a likely suspect, another writer from Grey Streets, he, too, turns up dead, this time in his car out on a deserted road near a field.  Once again, the obvious conclusion is suicide, and once again, Elizabeth (or maybe it was David?) thinks this is too easy a solution, that there must be more.  And when another body turns up,  David hightails it out of town (or does he?), but encourages Elizabeth to keep on looking at all the possible suspects in order to finally uncover the truth about these murders and the motives behind them.  When I started listening to this audiobook, I thought it seemed a bit, hmmm, “cheesy” is the best word I can come up with.  I’m not a big fan of pulp fiction, and this seemed to fall into that category:  cheap, low-quality fiction that is too staged and predictable for me.  But I was sucked in because I sensed that perhaps there was a story-within-a-story happening here, a bit of meta-fiction, where the author is acknowledging that this work of fiction is a work of fiction, even making a point of drawing attention to this fact when he has different characters remark at various times throughout the novel, “If this was a story in Grey Streets…” or "This isn't a story in Grey Streets".  In my opinion, this aspect of the novel raises it to a level above pulp fiction, but not by much.  Although I just finished it a couple of days ago, I found the plot so convoluted, so complex and complicated, with so many twists and false leads, that it was hard to make sense of the ending and I’m still not sure exactly who killed who and why.  And, unfortunately, the very last scene in the book was once again too cheesy for my taste.  Was it an interesting listening experience?  Sure!  And I always enjoy a bit of meta-fiction for a change, but I don’t think I would recommend this to anyone unless you really enjoy this genre.  At least it lived up to the motto at Grey Streets:  “Plans go wrong, bad things happen, people die.”

I’ll close by mentioning a few things I’m thankful for on this Thanksgiving weekend:  the ability to download books for free from my public library website;  the fact that my mp3 player doesn’t have a date stamp, so the books I download continue to be available until I delete them; and the many great writing talents out there who keep producing entertaining, interesting, or otherwise worthy books for us readers to enjoy.  

That’s all for today.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 October 2017

A "secret" post on a cool, crisp fall morning...

We’re finally getting seasonal weather, at least for a few more days, and I’m loving the cool mornings and comfortably mild afternoons that we’re experiencing this weekend, complete with lots of sun and a pleasant breeze.  It’s the kind of weather that is perfect for enjoying a warm beverage, and that’s exactly what I’m doing right now, enjoying a steaming cup of chai, freshly baked Date Bread and a Date Bar from City Cafe (I’m really spoiling myself today!).

And speaking of spoiling myself with extra treats, I was thrilled last weekend to pick up the new Michael Robotham mystery, The Secrets She Keeps, which I devoured in four days.  Everyone has secrets, right?  Some are small, trivial things that are merely embarrassing, and some are big, life-changing secrets that are best kept hidden.  But what if your secret could significantly affect, even ruin, another person’s life?  Told from alternating points of view, this novel tells the stories of Meghan and Agatha, two women in London whose paths cross occasionally, or so Meghan thinks.  Agatha is secretly obsessed with Meghan and her seemingly perfect life, and orchestrates “accidental” meetings in order to get closer to her.  But what motivates her to do this?  Both women have secrets, and this novel slowly reveals these secrets to us as we delve further and further into each woman’s past life and present circumstances, until these secrets threaten to surface, with the potential to destroy one or both of their lives.  In his characteristic excellence, Robotham weaves together a tapestry of psychology and emotions to create a rich and full depiction of victim and criminal, and illustrates how one can be both at the same time.  According to the author’s own note at the beginning of the book, this is his most ambitious work, writing in parallel voices of two women, both in their late thirties, and who are both pregnant.  I think he did an amazing job, writing convincingly from both women’s perspectives, demonstrating what a versatile and talented writer he really is (if you’ve read any of his other books, you already know this!).  This, like Life or Death, is a standalone novel, and it was a fabulous read, keeping me turning pages until the very end.  I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys psychological mysteries.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the fabulous weather!

Bye for now…