Sunday 28 January 2018

Books, audiobooks and book club talk on a gorgeous morning...

I can’t help but quote Mr Rogers this morning… “It’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood”.  The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, it’s mild and pleasant, a perfect “January thaw” day.  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai in front of me and a fresh date loaf in the oven, and while I have a million things to do today, I have to take time to write this post.  Last week I had a book club meeting, I finished an audiobook, and I read a Children’s novel, so I had to determine whether to leave something out of the post or just give brief sections on each.  I decided to touch on all three this morning.

For our Friends Book Club meeting on Monday night, we discussed Julia Keller’s novel, A Killing in the Hills, the first in the “Bell Elkins” mystery series.  Bell is a small-town prosecutor in Acker Gap, West Virginia, where poverty and desperation pervade.  Having grown up there and endured her own horrible past, she returns with her daughter to try to make a difference, to help those who seem to be beyond help.  When an unidentified gunman kills three elderly men in a downtown diner, Bell pairs up with her long-time friend, Sheriff Nick Fogelson, to find the killer.  Bell’s daughter, Carla, was in the diner when the shooting occurred, and when she has a chance to think about it, she discovers that she recognizes the killer as a guy who came to a party she was at where drugs and alcohol were plentiful.  She can’t tell her mom about this because then she would have to admit that she went to a party like this, so she determines to find the identity of the killer on her own and then ask for help.  Bell, meanwhile, has to deal with her own past demons, as well as work on a case where a developmentally challenged man killed a little boy as they were playing together in the boy’s basement, and to determine whether he should be sent to jail or institutionalized.  I thought the book was ok, but not as good as I expected from reading reviews and the front flap of the book.  I found it repetitive and overly descriptive, particularly when introducing new characters.  The author also described the town many, many times, emphasizing the desperation and poverty and hopelessness.  During our discussion, we agreed that she did a good job of comparing and contrasting the beauty of the natural surroundings, especially the mountains, and the hopelessness of the town and its people.  We felt that Bell was a strong female character, and that her relationships with her ex-husband, with Nick, with Carla and with other townspeople seemed mostly authentic.  But we generally agreed that the ending was so far-fetched as to be nearly unbelievable, and that it just ended too quickly and neatly.  We all thought that the subplot involving the dead boy deserved more attention and would have made a good novel, and also that of Bell’s relationship with her estranged sister, Shirley (this is surely explored in subsequent books) .  All in all, it was not the kind of book we usually read, and it was fairly well received, evoking a lively discussion about the novel and related topics.

I finished listening to I Am No One by Patrick Flanery last week, which sounded like a really promising book.  Jeremy O’Keefe is a history professor at NYU, recently returned from a decade living and teaching in Oxford after the breakup of his marriage and dismissal from Columbia, where he clearly did not receive tenure.  He is waiting to meet a grad student in a coffee shop on a Saturday, but she doesn’t show up.  A young man, a stranger, approaches him and begins making small-talk.  Jeremy leaves, and finds an email in his inbox from this student agreeing to reschedule their meeting, a response to an email supposedly sent from Jeremy making this request.  He does not remember any of this correspondence.  He later receives a box with no postage and no return address containing pages and pages of his internet searches over the past decade or more.  He finds these two incidences strange, and suddenly begins to wonder if some government agency is watching him, which doesn't make sense to him, as he repeatedly claims that he has done nothing wrong, that he is no one of interest.  Over the course of the novel, more of these incidents occur, and we the reader are offered small details about Jeremy’s life over the past decade, details that may make him the target of surveillance by American or British government agencies, or both.  The novel was an exploration of privacy and surveillance, what it means to be the watcher and what happens when the watcher becomes the watched.  Sounds riveting, right?  Not so, in this listener’s opinion.  I found the character of Jeremy so frustrating, so passive, I wondered how he ever became a professor in the first place.  And the writing went off in tangents on a regular basis, offering such lengthy segments of backstory that I forgot what the original point was, and was surprised each time when we returned to it.  The audiobook was divided into 10 parts, and I kept hoping that it would turn around and become the gripping, compelling story I thought it was going to be, but by the end, I felt relieved, knowing that this was about 12 hours of my listening life that I would never get back.  I would not recommend this novel, despite what the reviewers say.

And I finished The Grifiin of Darkwood by Becky Citra last night.  It is one of the Forest of Reading Silver Birch nominees, and I always try to read one or two of these each year, as well as one or two Red Maple nominees.  Will Poppy is a twelve-year-old boy whose mother dies shortly after completing her novel.  Will wants to be a writer, too, but after her death, he decides that he is done with writing.  When his horrible Aunt Mauve moves them to an old castle in a small village, he feels that his life is ruined.  Then he meets Emma and Thom, and learns of the curse on the woods behind the castle.  He discovers a photo of his grandparents and a small cloth ripped from a magic tapestry, and with the help of his friends, as well as Flavian, the bookshop owner, Will can begin to discover who he really is, to escape his horrid aunt, and to uncover the truth about the curse and hopefully lift it from the woods.  Oh, and he may be able to help catch the art thieves who have been roaming the country and evading capture at every turn.  This novel reminded me of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a few different ways.  Not in complexity or depth, but in tone and also basic storyline: orphaned boy living with horrid relatives discovers magic all around him, resists magic but can’t escape it, finds new friends and must fight evil and allow good to triumph.  It certainly read like a first installment, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the author is working on a sequel.  It was a light, interesting read that would appeal to both boys and girls in grades three to six, and I would happily recommend it to these classes at both my schools.

And a final note:  My Friends Book Club has been getting together for nearly six years, so I made a list of the books we’ve read over these past years, which I’m including here.  These books are not in chronological order.

Half-blood Blues - Esi Edugyan
Saturday - Ian McEwan
The Help - Kathryn Stockett
Tell it to the Trees - Anita Rau Badami
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
The Silent Wife - A S A Harrison
How to be Lost -Amanda Eyre Ward
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Sweet Hereafter - Russell Banks
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
The Painted Bird - Jerzy Kosinski
Big Brother - Lionel Shriver
The Mistress of Nothing - Kate Pullinger
The Bookseller - Cynthia Swanson
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
The Story Hour - Thrity Umrigar
The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty
What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty
Defending Jacob - William Landay
Ruby - Cynthia Bond
The Illegal - Lawrence Hill
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
The Green Road - Anne Enright
Be Frank with Me - Julia Claiborne Johnson
The Secret Keeper - Kate Morton
Barney's Version - Mordecai Richler
The Silver Star - Jeannette Walls
The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud
A Killing in the Hills - Julia Keller
Sisterland - Curtis Sittenfeld (upcoming)

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

Bye for now...


Sunday 21 January 2018

Books, audiobooks and treats on a foggy morning...

It’s foggy and mild this morning, and with threats of freezing rain tomorrow, I’m trying to savour the warm, dry comfort of my home as I sip my steaming cup of chai tea and nibble on a delicious Date Bar.

I have two books to tell you about today.  I’ll start with the audiobook I finished listening to last week, The Litigators by John Grisham.  I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by this bestselling author, as his books have never really held any appeal for me.  But I have enjoyed the narrator of this book, Dennis Boutsikaris, in the past, so I decided to give it a try, and while it was the kind of non-stop, action-packed, “all plot, no character development” legal thriller that I was expecting, it was really quite an enjoyable listening experience.  The novel opens with David Zinc, a young lawyer working in a huge firm in Chicago, deciding he can’t stand another 18-hour day in his dark, windowless cubicle.  He turns around, gets back in the elevator, heads to the first open bar he can find at 7:30 in the morning, and proceeds to get very, very drunk.   Finally, in the middle of the day, the bartender puts him in a cab, and, not yet ready to head home and face his wife, he sees an ad on the side of a bus for “Finley and Figg”, a small law firm not far from where David’s cab is, so he asks the driver to take him there.  Oscar Finley and Wally Figg run a two-man operation (they refer to themselves as a “boutique” firm) based mostly on cases acquired through less-than-honourable means.  They can barely keep their heads above water, but Wally thinks he’s found yet another (sure-to-fail!) get-rich-quick mass tort lawsuit against a big pharmaceutical company over Krayoxx, a drug designed to lower cholesterol, but whose side effects, Wally believes, may increase the risk of heart attack.  When David stumbles into the offices of “Finley and Figg”, totally inebriated yet wanting a job, Wally thinks they could use an extra body to handle the huge case that is sure to develop over Krayoxx, so they take him on.  What ensues is a classic story of David and Goliath, and the reader is treated to a fast-paced legal battle whose outcome could go either way and the tone is suspenseful right up to the proclamation of the verdict.  It was fun to listen to, not serious in any way, and sometimes that’s what we need, right?  Something that doesn’t make us think too hard or contemplate life’s deeper issues.  If that’s what you think you need, then this is the book for you!  I can’t compare it to any of his other books, but it was enjoyable enough, and the narrator really brought the story to life.  

A light audiobook offered the perfect balance for the book I was reading last week, Coming Down from Wa by Canadian author Audrey Thomas.  I read another book by this author a few years ago, Local Customs, which I really enjoyed (I liked it so much I bought it new and paid full price!), and I noticed this book as I was wandering around in a used book store a few weekends ago.  I ended up borrowing it from the library, and read it in just a few days.  In this novel, we follow William Kwane MacKenzie as he searches for the answers to the questions his parents refuse to discuss, namely, what happened in Africa when William was just a baby to make them loathe each other.  Growing up in Victoria, BC, he has always noticed the way his parents could barely stand to interact with one another, and he got away as soon as he was old enough to do so, heading to Montreal to go to university and spend time with his paternal grandfather, who can provide little information to enlighten him about his past.  Determined to pursue this quest, he travels to Africa with his model-girlfriend, and while she heads off on a modelling shoot on the Ivory Coast, he heads north, towards Wa, which I gathered is near Ghana, to visit the school where his parents first worked as volunteers, and where they met and fell in love.  His journey is not without challenges, many of them bizarre and unusual, and he meets many different characters along the way, some that help and some that hinder, but all important parts of this journey not only to discover his past, but to discover himself.  I can’t say I loved this book, but it was an interesting and worthwhile read, a window into that time period (set in the 1980s), one that causes the reader to reflect upon the many difficulties in Africa, and what, if any, are the solutions (this is why a light, frivolous audiobook was a good balance!).  I was in a bit of a hurry to finish it because I had to get started on the selection for my Friends’ book club meeting tomorrow night, so I couldn’t spend as much time thinking about these as thoroughly as I probably should have, which is funny, as I still haven’t finished my book club book, and we may need to postpone our meeting due to the weather tomorrow.  Anyway, Coming Down from Wa was an interesting read, and while the ending did not leave this reader feeling completely satisfied, it was certainly not a waste of my reading time.

That’s all for today.  Try to get outside before the freezing rain starts!

Bye for now…

Sunday 14 January 2018

Books and tea on a chilly winter morning...

My steaming cup of chai tea is a welcome treat on this bright, chilly morning.  And I was hoping that the book I read last week would also be a welcome treat, but I was somewhat disappointed.

Sleeping in the Ground is Peter Robinson’s 24th “Inspector Banks” mystery, and if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might remember that he is one of my favourite Canadian mystery writers.  I have read all of his books, even going back to read them in order after discovering his books and starting to read them mid-way through the series.  His latest book begins with a mass shooting at a wedding party in a cemetery just outside St Mary’s Church.  The gunman manages to escape and an investigation ensues.  Detective Superintendent Banks is called into the investigation shortly after returning home from the funeral of his first love, Emily Hargreaves, with whom he had a relationship 40 years earlier.  This death causes much reflection for our brooding detective, but he is forced to focus on the case at hand.  With five dead and four wounded, including a member of Banks’ team, DS Winsome, the search for the killer takes on a certain urgency, in the event that he kills again.  When the bride is a semi-famous model and the groom a military hero, certain questions arise:  Who was the real target?  Why at a wedding?  Was it personal, or was the target the institution itself?  Banks and his team follow the usual methods of uncovering clues and searching for suspects, and are rewarded in their efforts, only to discover the alleged murderer dead in his own basement, ostensibly the victim of suicide.  That should be the end of it, but there are certain things that just don’t add up.  When Banks, along with DI Annie Cabbot and DS Gerry Masterson, continue digging, they uncover clues that may connect it all to a decades’ old murder, but can they find the perpetrator before he claims yet another victim?  OK, this sounds good, and the opening scene is quite arresting, with the images offered to the reader coming straight from the shooter’s point of view.  And, like Martin Edgeworth (you’ll have to read the book to find out who he is!), this novel ticks off all the boxes.  But I felt that it was somewhat flat, lacking that zing that Robinson’s books often have, that certain je ne c’est quoi that leaves me feeling a little breathless and utterly satisfied once I reach the final page.  Granted, some of his novels are simply formulaic, like this one, but sometimes they really, hmmm, I think “shine” is the best way to describe it.  This one did not “shine” - it was rather ho hum in my opinion, but clearly I am in the minority, as I just read four or five reviews and they all rave about this book!  One of the things that really bugged me was that I couldn’t figure out where the title of the book fit in.  Who was “sleeping in the ground”?  Usually the titles are significant, or at least there is some connection to the story, but in this case, it seems tenuous at best.  And his usual character and/or relationship development also seemed to be lacking in this book. It was OK, but not one I would want to go back and reread just for fun.  But it did make me think about which of his novels I would gladly go back and reread anytime.  I loved the following books:  In a Dry Season (my first ever “Inspector Banks” novel), Aftermath, The Summer that Never Was, All the Colours of Darkness, and Children of the Revolution, and I loved the standalone Before the Poison.  I didn’t think this was one of his best, but if you are already a fan of Robinson and Alan Banks, then you should definitely read it.  

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

Bye for now…

Sunday 7 January 2018

Book club highlights on a balmy Sunday morning...

I’m sipping a steaming cup of steeped chai tea and enjoying a slice of freshly baked Date Bread on this positively balmy morning.  After a stint of -16 (feels like -30) days, the fact that it will reach a high of -8 this afternoon is thrilling for me - I can finally get outside for a good long walk without the fear of incurring frostbite!

We had a volunteer book club meeting yesterday, where we discussed Chris Cleave’s bestseller, Little Bee.  I had a copy of this book in my own collection because it is a popular selection for book clubs, but I didn’t have any idea what it was about, so when I added it to our list to start off the new year, I was really going into it blindly.  Thankfully, everyone seemed to either love it, or like parts of it well enough to finish it and contribute meaningfully to the discussion.  This book is told from alternating points of view.  Little Bee is a sixteen-year-old Nigerian girl who comes to the UK to escape certain death at the hands of soldiers.  Sarah is a woman in her mid-thirties living in the suburbs of London, editor of an edgy women’s magazine, mother of four-year-old Charlie (aka “Batman”) and wife of Andrew, a journalist for one of the more intellectual papers (I can’t remember which one, maybe the Times).   Little Bee and Sarah met two years earlier on a beach in Nigeria, near Little Bee’s village, when Sarah and Andrew had been on holiday.  A horrific event from that time unites them, and when Little Bee is released from the UK detention centre, she seeks out the only people she knows in England.  Their futures, bound together, are irrevocably altered, and it is left to the reader to discover the lengths to which one person will go to save another.  Sorry if this is vague, but I don’t want to give anything away, since part of the enjoyment of the book is the sense of discovery we feel as we piece the story together.  It was the most successful book club choice we’ve had in a long time, which is great for me to hear, as there's alot of pressure when selecting books, always wondering if people will like the book you chose.  During the past few meetings, our discussions have wandered away from the books frequently and for long periods, and I think it was partly due to the lack of interest or enjoyment in these selections, but for this book, we managed to stay on topic and find things to discuss for nearly two hours!  Here are some of the highlights from our lengthy discussion.  We all enjoyed the book, and agreed that it was well-written (one member said the writing was “beyond amazing”).  Some of us enjoyed one narrator more than the other, while others enjoyed the whole book equally.  We all agreed that Sarah and Lawrence were bland, wishy-washy characters, unable to make firm decisions, and inconsistent in their actions when they do decide on something.  They seemed to lack common sense, and were blind to the realities of the world. Even when faced with these realities, they refused to believe them or to believe that they could be affected by them.  We agreed that Andrew wasn’t a very nice person, either to his wife or his son.  One member felt that this story was unpredictable, that she didn’t expect and was surprised by many of the things that happened.  We agreed that Little Bee was wise beyond her years, and that some of the things she observed revealed great insight into the workings of the world.  One of the members used the term “paradoxical duality” to describe the horrendous contrasts in the novel, times when the author describes what one thinks or believes and contrasts it with the reality of the situation.  There are many of these contrasts throughout the book, and they are both shocking and revealing.  One member said she learned alot about the horrors of detention centres.  Through our discussion, we identified a common thread running through the story, the beach, and noted that the beach was never a safe place, that unpredictable things happened on the beach, and we thought that the beach, unlike the tourist compound, represented the “real “ Nigeria.  One member felt that the book was very disturbing, but also addictive - it was hard to put down, but she had to put it down.  We discussed the fact that these horrors are part of human history, that destruction and bloodshed has been taking place for centuries, actually since the beginning of time.  We discussed Little Bee’s need to find ways to kill herself in any situation, and that while she planned her death, she also fought death and fought to survive.  There were humourous bits in this book, too, particularly some of the things Little Bee says or observations she makes, the way she expresses herself when contrasting customs or traditions in England with those of her village (she compares British children hiding between the washing machine and the refrigerator and pretending to be in the jungle with African children hiding in the jungle and pretending to have a washing machine and a fridge).  There was so much more that we discussed, but I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out what happens.  It was a great book club selection, and I would highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in reading about the immigrant experience.  

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the warm-ish temperatures, and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Monday 1 January 2018

First post for 2018...

What a great way to start the new year, by reflecting on books and reading!  I had my steeped chai tea Sunday morning, so plain old Tetley today, along with what's left of my yummy Date Bar (I had to have a treat with my chai tea - Sunday wouldn’t be the same without it!)

It’s going to be a long post today, with two books to tell you about and a list of the Best (and Worst) of 2017.  I’ll start with the Young Adult novel I mentioned at the end of last week’s post, Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.  I can’t remember where I heard about this book, but I bought it for both of my schools, and it has an amazing cover, so I thought it might be worth trying over the holidays.  This novel is told from the point of view of Madeline Whittier, a 17-year-old girl who has never been outside.  She suffers from a rare immune disorder, SCID, that makes her allergic to everything.  Thankfully her mother is a doctor who can care for her inside their hermetically-sealed home, along with her nurse and only friend, Carla.  Madeline’s life consists of Skyping with tutors, doing homework, reading, and family time with her mom, and she’s OK with this, she’s learned not to want what she can’t have.  Then a family moves in next door and Madeline’s structured life tumbles into freefall as she quietly and desperately begins to fall in love with Olly, a boy who lives in his own kind of prison.  Will Olly love her for who she is, with all her limitations, or are they doomed as so many young couples in literature have been for centuries?  I know, this book sounds much like other YA romantic dramas that have made their way to library shelves recently - I’m thinking specifically of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars, and Jesse Andrews' book Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, both of which were adapted into films.  Everything, Everything was also made into a film, which was released in the spring of 2017 - maybe that’s how I heard about this book.  Anyway, the book started out as a promising, if light, read - Madeline is an engaging heroine, smart, funny, and surprisingly upbeat, considering her situation.  The pages are made up of not just Madeline’s story, but also drawings, daily schedules, schedules of observations, text messages, email exchanges, etc, which bring the story to life and draw the reader in to share the experiences of a girl on the cusp of adulthood, her hopes and dreams, her struggles, and her resolutions.  Up to just past the middle, it was an “ok” book, not great, but engaging enough, a book I could easily recommend to most grade 7 or 8 students.  But then there was a major plot twist, and the story took off!  I can’t say anymore about it, but I read through the last half filled with anticipation, wondering what would happen next.  WOW, that really cranked my rating up a notch or two and it became "unputdownable"!  

And I got a book for Christmas from my avid-reader friend, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.  I was familiar with this slim volume from past discussions with this friend, and the title rang a bell as well because it was adapted into a film a few years ago.  When my friend gave it to me, he said, “I know you don’t really enjoy reading memoirs, but…”  and I responded with, “At least it’s short!” (I soon learned the reason why it's so short). After finishing Everything, Everything, I had a few days left before I wrote my post and thought I could easily finish Diving Bell in that time, which I did. If you read the front and back flaps of the book, you would know that 44-year old Bauby was a successful man living in Paris, working as Editor-in-Chief of French Elle magazine, a journalist whose life up to this point had been full.  One day he suffered a massive stroke that left him in a condition known as “locked-down syndrome”, a condition wherein he was completely paralyzed… well, not completely, he was able to blink his left eye.  It was by using a special alphabet and blinking his eye that he dictated these pages, and I must say that I’m not quite sure what to make of them.  This is definitely not a traditional memoir. Each chapter describes something Bauby observed or experienced during his time in the hospital, such as the sessions with his speech therapist, or memories of his life before the stroke, such as the last time he saw his father.  He offers historical information about the origins of the Maritime Hospital in Berck and describes the other patients.  Basically he did what he could to stay “active” while being unable to move, describing his inner life and conveying his thoughts while being trapped in a body that refused to cooperate.  Are these the last words of a dying man (we know that he died shortly after the book was published in France), a plea to live, or an homage to life?  Although there were some sections of the book that revealed his despair, it was mostly filled with honest reflection and more than a few humourous passages (and his efforts to keep his mind active by dictating his memoir simply by blinking his left eye makes my feeble attempts to keep my own brain active by working halfheartedly at Sudoku seem pretty paltry by comparison!).  I would recommend this book to anyone who is feeling complacent about life, anyone who takes things for granted, as it is a reminder that everything could change in an instant.

And as always, it's time to review my reading experiences over the past year and share my Best Books list. While reviewing last year's books, though, I realized that I’m going to have to offer a list of Worst Books, too (it was not a great year of reading for me). I read 61 books and listened to 19 audiobooks and here are the best and worst of them:

Best Books (I really had to struggle to find titles for this list!):
*The Widow and The Child by Fiona Barton
*Gentlemen and Players and Different Class by Joanne Harris
Dead Wake by Erik Larson (nf)
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
A Game for All the Family by Sophie Hannah
(* better of the two)

Best Juvenile and YA (this list was easy!);
Ban this Book by Alan Gratz
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud
The Winnowing by Vikki VanSickle
OC Daniel by Wesley King
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Best Audiobooks (also an easy list):
The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Just What Kind of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly
Before Nightfall Michael Cunningham
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nicole Bernier (on a previous “best of” list)

And my first ever list of Worst Books (these are books that totally failed to live up to expectation, but I finished them anyway):
The Woman in Cabin 10 and *The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena
First Snow, Last Light by Wayne Johnston
The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty
(* worst of the two)
Worst Audiobooks:
The American Girl by Kate Horsley
The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe

That’s all for today.  I hope 2018 is filled with many books that will inspire and entertain you, make you think deeply about life, make you laugh out loud, and give you comfort and wisdom in times of need.  Happy New Year!

Bye for now…