Friday 30 March 2018

Book talk on a long weekend...

I’ve decided to write my blog post today to free up more time later this weekend so I can tackle other things that need to get done, including visiting family.  I always feel that Good Friday is a quiet day of reflection, and what better topic to reflect upon than books! I have no special treat, but I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai on this overcast, chilly morning.
I read two Canadian books this past week, both titles that I received when I went to the big library conference at the beginning of February.  The first is a mystery by Atlantic writer Alice Walsh, Last Lullaby.  Set in fictional Paddy’s Arm, a small town of 7000 with a prominent arts college, this novel follows the investigation into the death of an infant and the disappearance of a young woman and her baby around the same time.  Lauren LaVallee is a disgraced lawyer who came to Paddy’s Arm hoping to revive her career after her law licence was suspended while practicing in Quebec. She also teaches law classes at the local college, where she met Claire and husband Bram, and became close friends with them.  When their baby dies suddenly, it appears to be a case of crib death. But when the autopsy suggests this may be a homicide, with Claire as the number-one suspect, Lauren promises she will do everything she can to prove her innocence. At the same time, a student in Lauren’s law class, Jade, and her infant daughter, Cara, go missing, and Lauren suspects the two are connected in some way.  But how? Facts get muddled up with small-town gossip, and everyone, it seems, has something to gain from these events. Lauren struggles to find the truth while also juggling her law practice, teaching, and raising her daughter Bailey, the result of a past relationship from her time in Montreal, a relationship that threatens to resurface and invade her new life. This was not brilliant, but it was a good solid mystery, with a homey feel that gave me the sense that I was eavesdropping on the town gossip.  I loved the way Walsh was able to capture the speech patterns of Newfies, and the references to other places in Canada, particularly in the Atlantic provinces and Ontario, were a bonus. I don’t know if this will be the first in a new series, but I would certainly read other novels by this author, especially if they featured Lauren LaVallee. I would recommend this to anyone who likes cozy, small-town murder mysteries.
And I read a very short novel by another debut Canadian author, Jon R Flieger called You Are Among Monsters.  This was not a book I would have choosen for myself, but the author was at the conference and was handing out free copies so I took it, thinking I would pass it on to my super-reader friend.  But it was actually quite good, far exceeding my expectations (let’s face it - I had NO expectations!). This story is told from the alternating points of view of Ian and Becky, a young-ish couple who have been living in the small fictional town of Coaldale, Alberta.  They moved from Windsor, Ontario (where the author lives) so Ian could complete his training as a funeral director. That was four years ago, and he’s still “in training”; his job mainly consists of being a transfer agent, one of a pair whose job it is to get a dead body from the scene of death to the funeral home, where it can be appropriately prepared.  This is not the life he expected, but he doesn’t know how to change things. Becky, meanwhile, has made numerous applications to the PhD program in History at Bow River University, only to be faced with one rejection letter after another. Unable to find work, she settles into a mundane existence filled with cooking and cleaning and endless episodes of “The Jetsons”, much to Ian’s dismay.  When her interest in Canadian rum-running figures becomes an obsession, disaster is sure to follow. In walks Athene, a precocious teen whose mother was murdered by her father five years earlier. This was Ian’s first transfer, and when Athene wants answers about her mother’s death, she goes straight for Ian, who falls victim to her wily ways. No one is where they want to be but no one knows what they should be doing to make things better.  This was a strange little book, darkly funny and fairly insightful. It reminded me in many ways of David Gilmour’s early novels, particularly How Boys See Girls:  both books have a main character who is trapped in a tedious existence who finds release in a much younger woman/girl about whom he obsesses; both are claustrophobic in focus; and both are darkly funny.  Gilmour’s novel is more fleshed out, but I can see that Flieger has potential as an author. The parts when Becky is writing about the historical figure “Ravager” Misty Collins reminded me of the sections in Marian Engel’s novel Bear when librarian and archivist Lou is on the island reading Colonel Cary’s notebooks documenting bear folklore.  I was drawn in and engaged by Becky’s frustration and the sexual tension between Ian and Athene, but just past the middle of this slim novel, there is a chapter from Athene’s point of view, just a single chapter of only a few pages, that kind of spoiled it for me.  After that section, I was never able to become as engaged in the story, which is unfortunate, because it started out so promisingly. I was also somewhat disappointed by the ending, but, overall, it was a worthwhile reading experience (in large part because it was so short), and this author is certainly one to watch.  
That’s all for today.  Have a wonderful Easter weekend!  
Bye for now…

Sunday 25 March 2018

tea and books on a sunny, chilly morning...

It’s bright and sunny… and -10 degrees!  The sun is deceiving, and despite the season’s change to Spring, it’s still very chilly, so my steaming cup of chai is definitely welcome this morning.
I had a Friends' book club meeting this past Monday to talk about Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld.  This novel tells the story of two sisters, identical twins who also have psychic abilities, which they call “the senses”, and is told from the point of view of Daisy/Kate, the younger sister (by 8 minutes).  She and Violet grew up in a challenging household, where their mother, younger than their father by more than a decade, spent most of her days in her room, leaving the girls to tend to the needs of the family.  Their father was also mostly distant, and the girls grew to rely on each other until their teens, when they grew apart. Violet became more flamboyant, flaunting her psychic ability, while Daisy struggled for modesty and restraint.  At the time the novel takes place, they are in their mid-thirties and Violet earns her living as a psychic, while Daisy, who has, since college, gone by her middle name, Kate, is a full-time mother of two, married to Jeremy, a professor of geology at the local university.  After a minor earthquake in their hometown of St Louis, Violet predicts a much more destructive earthquake in the not-too-distant future, a prediction which is met with outrage by the geology department head. Violet’s prediction somehow becomes international news, and Kate must deal with her ostentatious behaviour while trying to maintain her own low-key existence, as well as that of her family.  Throw into the mix her relationship with the neighbours, stay-at-home father Hank and his wife, Courtney, the head of the geology department and Jeremy’s boss, and you have a domestic saga of tremendous proportion, which Sittenfeld manages to relate in a slow, quiet manner that builds to a surprising plot twist that shocked us all. I’ve listened to  American Wife by Sittenfeld as an audiobook and loved it, and I found that this novel was written in a similar way, which I can only describe as her tendency to write in a complete, fully-detailed, yet somewhat flat, unaffected way; Sittenfeld conveys her stories fully and completely, but in a style that is matter-of-face, not emotional.  About this book, I wondered whether it was their “twinness” or their “psychicness” that causes their bond as well as their rift, or maybe it’s both. The group wondered whether this was a realistic portrayal of twins, since they were so different as teens and adults (although Kate says at one point that Violet wasn't saying or doing anything she herself would not do if she wasn't so determined to be conventional).  We thought it was a light, easy read, but it also had depth and offered the novelty of twins, making it a good book club choice. The curiosity regarding the earthquake kept the anticipation and suspense building, which was great, as we all felt that the story lagged at times and seemed a bit over-long.  We felt that Kate was unforgiving and judgmental towards Violet, and we couldn’t decide whether Jeremy was too-good-to-be-true or unwilling to accept Kate for who she was. We thought Kate was not living authentically, and was also unwilling to accept who she really was. We thought the mother was an interesting character about whom the author meted out details throughout the book until we were able to piece together a fuller picture.  Likewise the father, who, again, we learn about piecemeal throughout the novel. Secrecy plays a big part in the book, secrecy between characters as well as between author and reader, and it would certainly spoil your reading experience if I gave anything more away! All in all, it was a good choice and a good discussion, and while none of us “loved” the book, we all enjoyed reading it.
That’s all for today.  Bundle up and get outside to enjoy the sunshine!
Bye for now…

Sunday 18 March 2018

Tea and treats on a bright Sunday morning...

It’s a gorgeously mild sunny morning, a great way to end March Break and energize me for the return to work tomorrow.  My steaming cup of chai and slice of delicious homemade date bread will certainly help me savour this lovely morning.
During this week off, I did far less reading than expected.  I didn’t finish the Young Adult book I started early in the week, Famous Last Words by Katie Alender, and I’m not quite finished my book club book for tomorrow night’s discussion, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld - I’ve still got more than a quarter of the book to read, so I’ll tell you about that one next week, once I’ve finished and we've had our discussion.  I did, however, have plenty of opportunities to listen to audiobooks, and I finished one last week, The Twilight Wife by A J Banner.  This novel is told from the point of view of Kyra Winthrop, a 34-year-old marine biologist who can remember nothing about the four years just before the diving accident that left her almost entirely reliant on her husband Jacob.  Fortunately for her, Jacob is wonderful and attentive and good-looking, too! And he’s whisked her off to the seclusion of Mystic Island, where he inherited a sprawling house when his mother passed away, to rest and recover.  But all may not be what it seems and when flashes of memory start to return, Kyra begins to suspect that Jacob may not be telling her the whole truth about the past four years, and it is up to her to piece together her own history while playing the role of the dependent, damaged wife.  If this sounds familiar, it may be because there was another bestseller with this same theme not so long ago, Before I go to Sleep by S J Watson, which was also made into a film.  And there were many similarities between these two titles:  a main character who has significant memory loss due to an accident, a loving husband who cares for her, a suspicion that all is not what it seems, and an isolated setting, among others.  I really enjoyed Watson’s book, which is probably why I chose to download this one, and it was pretty good overall, although I think Watson’s book was better. I didn’t love the narration, which may have affected my level of enjoyment, so I can’t really compare these two books fairly.  I’ll just say that it would not be a waste of time to listen to or read this book if you like psychological thrillers where all is not what it seems.
And speaking of listening to a book versus reading it, I finally purchased a print copy of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nicole Bernier.  I’ve listened to this as an audiobook twice and have loved it both times - the novel was great and the narrator, Angela Brazil, was fabulous!  I enjoyed the book so much that I decided I wanted to be able to pick it up whenever I felt like it, so I ordered a copy online, but I’m curious about how much my enjoyment of the book was dependent on Brazil's presentation (she really did an amazing job of capturing the characters and the drama).  I won’t read it right away, as I just listened to it a few months ago, but maybe I’ll revisit this book in the summer when I’m off work again and have plenty of reading time.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!
Bye for now…

Monday 12 March 2018

Books and treats on a March Break Monday morning...

It’s a chilly, overcast morning, but I’m enjoying a steaming cup of tea and a butter tart from the bakery in Erin, Ontario, which we picked up on the way home from visiting family this past weekend.  Snow is drifting down gently, a quiet reminder that it is still winter for a few more weeks.
I finished reading a book last week that is one of the Forest of Reading Evergreen Award nominees for this year, The Clothesline Swing by Ahmad Danny Ramadan.  I am no longer on the this award’s selection committee, but I’ve joined its newly formed steering committee, and this is one of the books for which I am responsible in terms of creating resources such as book club questions, readalike lists, etc.  This book is told in the form of stories that make up each chapter, stories that are told by one man, the hakawati (storyteller), a Syrian refugee living in Vancouver, to his dying partner, in the hopes that these stories will keep Death at bay for just a little longer.  These stories tell of the turbulent history of Syria, the hakawati’s troubled childhood growing up in Damascus and the cruelty he faced trying to hiding his budding sexuality while also struggling to embrace it, his moves from one city and country to another before finally meeting his life’s partner and moving to Canada, which, they discovered, was not as friendly and open an environment as they were led to believe.  Death is also a character in this novel, observing the storytelling and participating in the conversation at different points throughout the novel. It was an interesting novel, one which made me consider the power of storytelling and the reliability of memory. These are not happy stories, but Ramadan’s imagery and use of language are striking, and we are somehow left with a cautious sense of hope as we reach the final pages.  This novel, Ramadan’s debut in English, offers us stories from his own life as a gay man growing up in a dying Syria, which makes the emotional responses to these stories even more poignant because they are true. I found the novel difficult to follow at first, particularly the timeline of the stories in relation to the present (several decades from now), but after a few chapters, I realized that this wasn’t really as important as the stories themselves, and I just let this go.  While not an easy read, I think this is an important one, that these stories needs to be shared.
And I finished listening to an audiobook last week, Darkness, My Old Friend by Lisa Unger, featuring the improbably named Jones Cooper as a retired detective-turned-private-investigator.  The Hollows is a sleepy little town just outside of New York City, where mystery writer Bethany Graves and her teenaged daughter Willow move following an incident that makes Bethany fear for her daughter’s safety.  But Willow is different, more intelligent that the average teen, and this invites trouble in the form of truancy and poor choices in friends. During one such incident, Willow stumbles upon a man digging in the woods, placing her and her mother at the centre of a cold case, the disappearance of Marla Holt more than twenty years ago, a case that her grown son Michael wants reopened following the death of his father Mack.  With the help of Cooper and psychic Eloise Montgomery, The Hollows' police race to uncover the shocking truth behind Marla's disappearance and close this case once and for all. This book was all plot and no character development, but it was an OK listening experience. I don’t think I would rush out to download other books by this author, as her books are not really my style, but in a pinch I could listen to another if I had nothing else available.  It was a page-turner for sure, and would be a quick read, so if this is what you want, it might be a good option.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the day, whether you are off for the Break or at work for the start of a new week.

Bye for now…

Sunday 4 March 2018

Margaret Atwood and Shakespeare on a sunny Sunday morning...

It’s a brisk, sunny morning, much closer to seasonal temperatures than we’ve had recently, and I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bare from City Cafe while I think about our book club discussion yesterday morning.
One of my book club members recommended Margaret Atwood’s book Hag-Seed some time ago, and since we haven’t read an Atwood novel in a while, I put it on the list for our March meeting.  I knew nothing about this novel, but the cover always put me off, as it looked like this book belonged to her more “dystopian” books (Oryx and Crake, MaddAddam and Year of the Flood), which did not really appeal to me (I’ve only read one, but that was enough).  It is, in fact, a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it was classic Atwood, particularly in her brilliant use of language.  Felix is the Artistic Director of the popular Makeshiwag Theatre Festival and is planning his most daring play ever, an interpretation of The Tempest like no other.  But when his position is usurped by his right-hand man, Tony, he exiles himself to a hovel in a nearby township, where he spends twelve years plotting his revenge.  Added to his loss of position was the death of his three-year-old daughter Miranda, and his guilt over her death while he was away directing a play has festered.  He finds the perfect venue for his revenge as the instructor of a theatre program at nearby Fletcher Correctional Institute, where he directs Shakespearean plays with groups of inmates in a “Literacy through Literature” program.  He chooses The Tempest, using various techniques to entice the prisoners to take on certain roles, and also plots a secondary interactive scheme to exact revenge on those who forced him “off the throne”, so to speak.  What results is complex, brilliant, and totally effective, a pure reading delight.  I can’t give anything away, because part of the joy of reading this book is the mystery of Felix’ plan, and how he will pull it off.  But here are some of the highlights of our discussion.  One member wondered whether Felix was a madman or a genius, or maybe a bit of both.  She thought his teaching technique with the prisoners was fantastic.  We thought Atwood did a good job of portraying the prison culture, and we learned alot about staging a play and theatre culture, too.  One member thought that there was an overwhelming sense of sadness about Felix, that he exuded a sense of loss, loneliness and isolation, and that putting on this play was necessary for him as part of his grieving process, both to bring Miranda to life but also to let her go.  We thought the writing style was amazing (no surprise there!), but that the cover was off-putting.  One member had the book from the library for a few weeks but was reluctant to pick it up until the library sent a notice that the book was due and she realized that it was time to start reading (like me, she enjoyed Atwood’s earlier novels, but was turned off by her more recent “speculative fiction”).  To her surprise, she loved it and finished it in just two days!  We discussed the structure of the novel, and felt that it worked, and we enjoyed the rap songs that the prisoners/actors made up to make some of the more tedious parts of the play more interesting - we even read one aloud, each taking a stanza (seasoned rappers we are not!).  We especially enjoyed the scene when Felix takes the train into Toronto to purchase props and costumes for the play, and how creative he has to be to make this work (my favourite part is when he is buying a blue bathing cap for the actor playing Ariel, and his impromptu explanation to the middle-aged saleswoman in the swimwear shop).  We discussed the final section of the book, when the actors speculated about what they thought happened to their characters after the play ended.  Some thought they would have been just as happy if the novel ended before this section, but then we thought that it was a bit like real actors debriefing after their final performance.  It also showed how far each of the prisoners had come in such a short time, that they really grasped the meaning of the play and understood their character.  This novel is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare, a project that employs bestselling authors to retell Shakespearean plays in contemporary settings.  Some of the other novels in this project are Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson (The Merchant of Venice), Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (The Taming of the Shrew), and New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Othello).  This led us to discuss why there are so many retellings of Shakespearean plays, and the difficulty in studying the original plays due to the language.  All in all, it was a successful meeting and a great book choice, not one any of us would have picked up on our own.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but bundle up, as it’s still chilly!

Bye for now…