Monday 30 July 2018

Tea and books on a sunny summer morning...

I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar on this early morning, when the day is young and the air is still fresh and crisp.  It’s hard to believe that July is nearly over, so I’ve been ramping up my reading efforts in the hopes that I can get through my ever-growing pile of library books before I go back to work at the end of August.
As promised, I got through two adult novels this week, one for pleasure and one for my Friends’ book club, which meets tonight.  I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Ruth Ware’s latest book, The Death of Mrs Westaway, when I got notification that my hold had come into the library, as I didn’t really enjoy her last two books, The Lying Game, and The Woman in Cabin 10, so I picked it up to read with some hesitation.  But I think she’s found her niche in gothic novels because this was her best yet!  Borrowing heavily from Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca, this novel tells the story of Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a young woman whose mother passed away when she was eighteen and who has been trying to make her own way in life for the past three years by taking over her mother’s stall on the pier, reading tarot cards and telling fortunes.  And she almost manages to stay ahead of the game, except that she’s gotten into debt with a loan shark who wants repayment NOW. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the money, so when she gets threatening letters and a visit from an enforcer, she doesn’t quite know where to turn. Then a letter arrives from a solicitor informing her that her grandmother, Mrs Hester Westaway, has passed away and she, Harriet, has been named in the will as a beneficiary to her estate.  She is requested to come up to Trepassen House, the mansion where Mrs Westarway lived, for further instruction. Now Harriet knows her grandmother and grandfather passed away many years before, but fearing for her life has made the idea of pretending to be this woman’s granddaughter very appealing. If only she could wipe out her debt and start fresh, her life would be so different. So, scraping together her last few coins, she boards a train to Cornwall, where she manages to get to the funeral of this woman and to make it out to isolated Trepassen House to find out how she might benefit from this mistake.  What she finds, however, is anything but clear, and as she becomes more deeply embroiled in the family dynamics that make up the Westaway family, she begins to uncover decades’ old family secrets, which lead her to fear for her life in an entirely different way. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ll just say that I couldn’t put this book down. It ticked off all the boxes for gothic novels, gloomy, isolated setting, family secrets, ghostly presence, damsel in distress, family curse… you get the idea. But while borrowing heavily from other novels, especially Rebecca, this novel still managed to feel fresh and original, and while the “past” in this book is just in the 1990s, the tone of the writing gives the actions from this period the sepia-soaked atmosphere of some long-ago time, faintly remembered by the living and mostly inhabited by the deceased.  It was suspenseful and complex and atmospheric, and the story, while farfetched, was not beyond the realm of possibility for this genre. I loved this book, and would highly recommend it to fans of gothic novels. (it was so interesting, I even went out and bought myself a deck of tarot cards - now I just have to learn to use them!)  
And my group tonight will be discussing Mystic River by Dennis Lehane.  If you haven’t read the book, perhaps this will sound familiar to you from the 2003 award-winning film adaptation.  I did not remember the details of this story, so I came at the book with an open mind, knowing only the basic plot and never having read anything by Lehane before.  In case you are unfamiliar with the plot, this story, set in Boston, is centered around three men who were friends when they were growing up in the Flats, the poorer part of Boston.  Jimmy and Sean spent one year hanging out together on Saturdays when they were eleven years old because their fathers worked together and were friends. David, the boy who never quite fit in, would sometimes tag along and ingratiate himself with the boys, but he was never really accepted.  One day, as they were messing around on the street, a car pulls up and the men inside, claiming to be cops, tell the boys to get in and they would bring them home. Only David gets in, and when he finally escapes four days later, he comes back a changed boy. Fast-forward nearly twenty-five years, and these boys have become men, but have not strayed too far from the neighbourhood.  Jimmy, out of prison after a two-year stint for theft, owns a successful convenience store and has three daughters and a wife. Sean has become a detective with the Boston Police Department and has an estranged wife and daughter. David has managed to hold down a job and a marriage, but he’s more the shell of a man than a fully present person. When David comes home one Saturday night with blood on his clothes, his wife Celeste knows something is wrong, but she can only get a half-hearted explanation from him about an attempted mugging gone wrong.  The next morning, Jimmy’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Katie, is found dead in the park, and an investigation is launched, involving Sean and his partner, Whitney Powers. Since David was one of the patrons at the bar where Katie and her friends went the night before, he is questioned, bringing the three friends back in touch after decades of estrangement. As more clues come to light, suspicions mount as to the extent of involvement of various characters in the story, and it is only in the final chapters that all is explained. This was a lengthy, detailed novel that was as much about the neighbourhood as the characters and their relationships.  It dealt fully with almost every character’s backstory, not just the three main characters, and this is something I have often longed for in other books, such as Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me.  But after awhile, the amount of detail became overwhelming and a bit exhausting, and I was happy to skim some of the more descriptive passages and just focus on the current story (this book read like a film, so it's not surprising that it was adapted into one).  Still, it was a good book, with a complex plot and realistic, flawed characters who were just trying to get by. I am curious to hear what my book club members thought of this book, and I am interested in watching the movie again after our discussion.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the day before we get those rainy days that are in the forecast for this week!
Bye for now…

Sunday 22 July 2018

Short post on a rainy morning...

I’m back from vacation, and what a wonderful time we had!  Great weather, great beaches, great hikes, great restaurants, great everything, and even though I didn’t have much time to read, I also managed to read a great book!
I read The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, a juvenile fiction title and the first in “The Breadwinner” series.  I wanted to read this because I have the author booked to visit both my schools in November and wanted to be familiar with at least one of her books.  Ellis is an author from Simcoe, Ontario, whose books are mainly concerned with issues of social justice. This book is told from the point of view of Parvana, an eleven-year-old girl living with her family in Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, which is under Taliban rule.  Because her father was injured in a bombing but must go out to work, Parvana, unlike the other girls and women in her family, is allowed to accompany him to the market each day, where he reads and writes letters for customers, as well as selling the odd item that Parvana’s mother has decided the family can part with.  When Taliban soldiers invade their home one night and take her father away to prison, Parvana, disguised as a young boy, takes on her father’s role and becomes the breadwinner of the family. This shift in roles commences a series of changes, including the development of new relationships, the creation of educational opportunities for girls, and a sense of freedom that Parvana has not experienced in nearly two years.  But where will these changes lead, and can they continue? This wonderful little book was practically “unputdownable” for me, and I look forward to reading Parvana’s Journey, the next book in the series, to find out what happens next.  For me, The Breadwinner offered a window into the experiences of men, women, children and families in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.  It was enlightening and sad and yet filled with hope as I read of the resilience of the human spirit, and the will to survive and to care for those you love at any cost.  This book is recommended for children ages ten to twelve, but I would highly recommend it for adults, too. I can't wait to meet the author later this year.
That’s all the reading I got done last week, but this week should offer more opportunities, and I hope to get through at least one adult novel, maybe even two, if the rain keeps up.  Have a great week, and keep reading!
Bye for now...

Monday 16 July 2018

Another quick post...

We are off to spend a week on beautiful Georgian Bay, and I was planning to bring the library book I hadn’t quite finished yet.  But then I remembered the advice I give students before Christmas Break and March Break, that if they are going away anywhere, they should never, never, bring a library book with them in case they leave it or lose it.  So I got up early and finished Anthony Horowitz’s new novel, The Word is Murder.  I was so excited when I got the notice that my hold for this book had arrive at the library, and started it right after I finished Susan Marshall’s book.  I thought I better write this short post before we leave, since by the time we get back, I will have forgotten my impressions of the book and will have read at least one, if not two, other books in the meantime.
This murder mystery is written in the guise of a true crime book, and is told from the point of view of Anthony Horowitz himself.  It opens with a woman getting off the bus and going into a funeral home to pre-plan her funeral. Six hours later she is murdered, strangled with the cord from one of her curtains.  The police think it is a burglary gone wrong, except that she had just make her own funeral arrangements, and if you’d read any murder mysteries or police procedurals, you would know that detectives hate coincidences.  This coincidence can’t be ignored, and the murder team, headed by Detective Charlie Meadows, calls in ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne to assist in the investigation. Hawthorne, in turn, contacts Horowitz, with whom he has worked as a consultant for a detective series Horowitz was working on, and asks him to write a book about this investigation.  Horowitz is anything but pleased, but he gets drawn into the case, and despite their differences, they form a grudging relationship that keeps them working together until they solve the case. Hawthorne is brilliant, a bit of a Sherlock Holmes, with a quick mind and few words, but when he speaks, he never fails to WOW us with his keen observation and ability to make connections and draw conclusions.  Horowitz, on the other hand, can be a bit of a drag, weighing down the story with lengthy narrative about different tv series he’s worked on and books he’s written, and what goes into researching for a book or script. The fact that he always wants to one-up Hawthorne, his need to be one step ahead, to grasp a fact that Hawthorne missed, the constant competition, got pretty tiring fairly quickly. Having said that, the writing was flawless, the characters well-drawn, the plot intriguing and complex, and I really learned alot about script-writing, particularly the creation of a fabulous British series, “Foyle’s War”, as Horowitz writes the scripts for it. This book reminded me a bit of Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison, whose main character is a film score composer from Hollywood who returns to the British countryside for some solitude, I think after the death of his wife, although it’s been a while since I read it.  Anyway, it’s a bit of an inside view into the world of films and television, which is interesting if it isn’t overdone. This novel is slick, well-written, and interesting, with all the plot devices of a good mystery novel, including the cantankerous detective and plenty of red herrings and misdirections, but I found that the talk of tv series and the writing process made up more of the novel than was absolutely necessary.  Having said that, it was easy to read and I finished it in just a few days. There’s something Horowitz says on page 330, when he’s talking about meeting with students to discuss film script writing and the relationship between screenwriter and actor: “There’s nothing a writer likes more than talking about writing.” That pretty much sums up this book.  It’s a fun literary mystery, and you could do worse if you wanted a quick summer read.
I’m off on vacation now.  Happy Reading!
Bye for now…

Sunday 15 July 2018

Late post on a busy weekend...

It’s after 5pm on Sunday afternoon and I’m just starting this post, so I’ll be a day late once this gets sent to email subscribers.  My excuse is that it has been an unexpectedly busy (and FUN!!) weekend, so please bear with me. I don’t actually like writing late in the day, as I’m more in the “posting” mood when the house is quiet and the morning light, sights and sounds accompany my typing, not to mention my delicious thermos of chai!  But here goes…
I read a Young Adult book this past week by Toronto teacher-librarian and first-time author Susan Marshall, NemeSIS.  I received a copy of this book, signed by the author, at the big library superconference I went to this past February, and I finally had a chance to read it.  This novel tells the story of Nadine, a grade 10 student who, after a lonesome first year at high school, is anticipating more of the same, including eating her lunch surreptitiously at a library study carrel, unless she makes a plan to change her habits.  The inspiration for this change comes in the form of an "AA" pamphlet, which outlines the 12-step program, and Nadine decides to create her own 12 (or more) steps to change her life. These steps include such things as taking part in school life, making friends, living, not just surviving, and getting a boyfriend.  Nadine’s world has changed significantly in the past year, when her Dad moved away, making more permanent her parents’ separation. This move has also emotionally affected Nadine’s older sister Rachel, whose already erratic mood swings have intensified. And mom has thrown herself into work, spending less and less time at home, giving Rachel more time to torment Nadine and their mom less opportunities to intervene.  All in all, Nadine's life threatens to spiral out of control, and she is clearly perceptive enough to realize that she alone is responsible for changing her situation… which she manages to do, literally one “step” at a time. In the interest of allowing the details of these changes to unfold at the author’s, and Nadine's, own pace, I won’t give any more information than this, but I will say that this novel kept me interested right to the end.  Marshall’s book tackles many of the significant issues facing teens today, domestic drama, sibling rivalry, mental health, bullying, challenges transitioning to high school, and of course first relationship stresses. All of these she manages to address fully and completely without sounding like she is lecturing. In fact, the whole book, told from Nadine’s point of view, has a realistic tone that made this reader wonder whether the character is based on someone in Marshall’s life. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book is one of the nominees for next year’s OLA Forest of Reading White Pine Award. I would highly recommend it to young adults in grades 9 or 10 - I think some of the content is too mature for my elementary-aged students, but I plan to offer this book to the high school librarians when the new school year starts. I dare you to read it and not develop an emotional attachment to the main character that has you hoping for the best to the very last page.
That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…

Sunday 8 July 2018

"O, Canada" post on a sunny summer Sunday...

I know my summer vacation has started when I’m able to read two books in one week, and that is just what happened!  HURRAY! I also finished an audiobook that I will tell you about, so bear with me if this is also a long-ish post.
I read a book that was passed on to me by one of my book club members, The Deserters by Canadian author Pamela Mulloy.  This short novel, her debut, tells the story of Eugenie, a middle-aged woman living on a farm in New Brunswick, Dean, a man who fled the US to evade a call for another tour of duty in Iraq and is hiding out in the woods near the farm, and Eugenie’s husband, (I think his name is Sam), who is away in Spain working as a carpentry apprentice.  Eugenie is trying to restore the farmhouse and the land, which she inherited from her grandmother, but it is almost more than she can manage alone. When Dean offers to help out, she readily accepts, and the two form a bond that only shared hard work and private contemplation can bring about. Eugenie is worried that Sam will not want to come back to Canada, and she fears her marriage is over. Well, she fears it, but may also welcome it.  Sam has his own issues to work out, which the time spent alone in Spain is allowing. And Dean is suffering PTSD after his first tour in Iraq, his sections peppered with flashbacks to his time there as he struggles to piece together his memories from that time. When Eugenie’s sister arrives from Montreal, things get complicated, then Sam returns, and we the readers know that things can’t possibly turn out happily for everyone.  Local author Mulloy did an amazing job with this slim literary novel that feels much longer than its 240 pages. While I could have kept reading and finished it in a day or two, the writing style almost demanded a slow, mindful reading experience that allows the reader to take in every word and consider the mounting complications, the emotional turmoil for the characters, that each shift in their seemingly isolated situation creates. It was a wonderful book, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.  I’m adding it to my book club selection list for next year, and am planning to invite the author to come and speak to our group, our first ever author visit!
And I read another book by Canadian author and former Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman, A Matter of Conscience.  Don’t let appearances deceive you - this is both a short novel and a sampling of the documentation pertaining to and stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada over the past several decades, as well as the “Sixties Scoop”, a time when government officials, along with Children’s Aid Society staff, visited Indian reservations and unceremoniously removed babies and young children from their biological parents and placed them up for adoption by non-Native couples in both Canada and the US, effectively wiping out their language, culture and heritage in one fell swoop.  The novel part of the book tells the story of Brenda, a young Indian girl who was one of the babies scooped from her parents and adopted by a white family in Orillia, Ontario, where she grew up loved and cared for… well, mostly loved (not all seized babies were so lucky). She had no idea about her heritage and suffered feelings of displacement throughout her years growing up. Greg is a young man who, just before he goes off to university, travels to Manitoba to work in the mines to earn his tuition money. There he becomes involved in the murder of a young student from a nearby residential school.  This act and the ensuing guilt shape the rest of his life, and when he meets Brenda, he believes that she will be his ticket to easing his conscience. Their tempestuous tale of love, passion and betrayal make up the first half of this book. The second half is filled with “Background Readings”, mostly government documents pertaining to the Indian Act, stories of Indigenous women who were part of the “Sixties Scoop” , who were abused, or who know an Indigenous woman who is either missing or murdered.  It also provides information on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.  I have enjoyed an earlier novel by this author, Exceptional Circumstances, a political thriller set in Quebec in 1970, about the abduction of a foreign diplomat and cabinet minister by separatists, which was so good I bought a copy and paid full price for it!  So I was quite excited to get a copy of this book from the library, as it is so very important for us Canadians to try to understand as much as possible about the situations Indigenous peoples in our country have faced for decades, situations created by our government which formed the root of many systemic problems for which our country will probably spend many more decades atoning.  I didn’t love the novel part of the book. It offered a fairly surface treatment of Greg and Brenda’s relationship, and while it did bring up many of the issues facing Indigenous women today, it was too short to offer much more than a snapshot. In my opinion, Bartleman wrote the fictional part of the book to garner a wider readership, that this was just a vehicle to get people to read the documentation and stories at the back of the book.  And it worked! I would never have checked this book out if I knew it was non-fiction, but when presented as fiction, I was all over it! Then, when I realized that it was only 130 pages long, I felt obligated to at least skim the rest of the book, the “Background Readings”, which were very interesting and informative and quite heart-wrenching. Whether the publisher’s idea or Bartleman’s, it was brilliant packaging these two components together.  I think I can recommend this to anyone who is interested in finding out more about the issues facing Indigenous peoples in Canada today and throughout recent history, and would recommend reading both the fiction and the non-fiction sections of the book. (Note: these two Canadian novels were anything but uplifting, so if you need a light summer read, these are probably not for you!)
And I finished a so-so audiobook yesterday, The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain.  This domestic novel opens with 25-year-old Riley MacPherson going back to her hometown to clean out her childhood home after her father's death a month earlier.  She is on summer holidays from her job as a school counselor, so time is not really an issue for her. She reconnects with her older brother Danny, a recluse living in a trailer in their father’s RV Park, a bitter young man suffering from PTSD who feels that life has treated him poorly.  While going through some photos, Riley comes across a group shot of Danny, herself, and her older sister, Lisa, who killed herself at seventeen, when Riley was only two years old. Unable to stop herself, Riley digs into her family history and uncovers secrets that have been hidden for decades. As revelation follows revelation, Riley becomes more embroiled in the lies and secrets until it seems impossible to sort it all out and discover the truth, a discovery she is determined to make, but at what cost, and to whom?  It sounds like the kind of book I would like, and it was actually a fairly interesting story, but I couldn’t stand the sections narrated by Riley, and most of the book is from her point of view. She was such a self-centred character, seemingly only interested in how all of this affects her, that I nearly stopped listening to this 12+ hour book. I mean, the ending was fairly predictable and I could guess what was likely to happen to everyone. Riley whined and complained throughout, never considering the emotional states of others,  despite the best intentions of those around her, both family and friends. I did not love this audiobook, and was thrilled to finally reach the end yesterday afternoon. Chamberlain is a bestselling author, though, so clearly others enjoy her novels, so don’t be discouraged because of this post. And the narrator did a good job of bringing the story to life, too, so if you are in the mood for a domestic fiction audiobook that has a complex plot involving family secrets, you could probably do worse than this.
That really was a long post.  I’ll close now, as it’s a perfect summer day and I want to get out and enjoy it.   Bye for now…

PS My book club ladies met yesterday and they LOVED, LOVED, LOVED A Man Called Ove! They loved the characters, they loved the story, which resonated with so many of them, it made them laugh, it made them cry (both tears of happiness and sadness), and they thanked me profusely for choosing this book. That is the kind of response I'm always thrilled to receive!

Monday 2 July 2018

Long post on a long weekend...

It’s the first long weekend of the summer, and since I’m on summer vacation now, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate my newfound free time by writing an extra long post!  (I don’t know if it’ll be “extra long”, but I will tell you about both the book I read and the audiobook I finished, which I don’t always have the time or energy to do).
I get e-newsletters from Kirkus, an American book review magazine, that offer weekly reviews of new books as well as lists of themed books that include some new and some backlist titles.  Kirkus is very hard to impress, so when they give a good review, you can bet it’s usually a pretty good book.  I recently received a list of “the 13 scariest books ever written”, a list that includes We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Simple Plan and The Shining  (  On this list was a book by thriller writer Megan Abbott, whose books I am familiar with but have never read.  You Will Know Me, published in 2016, tells the story of the Knox family, Eric and Katie, their insightful, quirky son Drew and their focused, driven, possibly obsessive daughter Devon.  Devon is their star, a girl on the cusp of training to be an Olympic gold medallist, and the hopes and dreams of the family, as well as the whole gym community, rest on her strong shoulders.  All seems to be going well until a tragic accident takes the life of young, handsome Ryan, boyfriend of the coach’s niece, Hailey. It seems like a random hit-and-run, but when rumours and suspicions begin to fly, the structure of the gym community begins to crumble, leaving each member to ponder to what lengths the others would go to ensure the success of the whole.  OK, I enjoy watching Olympic gymnastics, but I will never be able to watch again without considering the torturous conditions those poor girls endure to train for it. That was the thing I took most from this domestic thriller, the punishment these girls put their bodies through every day, all the time, and the focus and intensity with which they must necessarily view their path.  How any parent can endure watching this is beyond me, but having never been a parent, I’m sure there are many things I would be incapable of understanding unless it was my own child (or so they tell me!). I didn’t find it overly “scary”, although it was somewhat suspenseful, in the way that Defending Jacob by William Landay was, but it was nothing like We Need to Talk About Kevin, whose author managed to make it a thriller while also being extremely literary.  I felt that this is what Megan Abbott was trying to do with this book, to make it seem like more of a Lee Valley book than what it really was, which is a Canadian Tire book.  There’s nothing wrong with Canadian Tire books, but to move from one level to another takes great skill and immense talent, and unfortunately Abbott falls far short of reaching this goal.  I think her efforts actually detract from the flow of the story; it’s as if she has fixated on a couple of techniques that she thinks will raise the bar and just keeps repeating them over and over, making the text not more literary but rather, at least for this reader, more tedious.  I found the suspense part pretty standard, but what was most intriguing for me was the relationship between Devon and Katie, and I would have been so much more interested in this novel if it had focused more on the domestic drama, with full character backstories, including the dynamics between the gym community members, than on the hit-and-run and subsequent investigation and speculation.  It was an OK book, but not one that makes me want to rush out and read other books by this author.
And I finished listening to an audiobook last week, one in the “Andy Carpenter” series by David Rosenfelt that I was delighted to discover I hadn’t already listened to before.  Sudden Death begins with Andy Carpenter and Willie Miller arriving in Los Angeles to discuss film options for Willie’s personal story of wrongful imprisonment and Andy’s success in handling his case.  When they arrive back in Paterson, New Jersey, Andy is whisked from the airport and delivered to the home of football star Kenny Schilling. He has been brought in to talk to Schilling after shots were fired when the police surrounded his house.  What Andy finds is a body folded up in Schilling’s closet, surrounded by a pool of blood from the bullet wound in the chest. The victim is Tony Preston, Kenny’s friend and fellow football player, and the evidence is compelling for a murder charge.  Andy reluctantly agrees to take the case, putting his team to work to find anything that could prove his client’s innocence. Could there be someone else who wanted Preston dead? Are his drug-related activities to blame for this? Or is Schilling being framed for some reason? Andy, of course, is able to see beyond what most lawyers and investigators accept as evidence, and the resulting investigation is nothing short of riveting, demonstrating that Carpenter is as sharp in the courtroom as he is insecure in his personal relationships.  I loved this book, and hope to have the opportunity to listen to all the books in the series, as I love the narrator, Grover Gardner, who really brings the “Andy Carpenter” books to life. Note: I’ve never read any of these books, only listened to them as audiobooks, so as an experiment, I should try reading one of the books to see if I read the words on the page with Gardner’s voice in my head. Hmmm… if I do this, I’ll let you know the results.
That’s all for today (but that was pretty long, eh?!).  Hope you had a Happy Canada Day, and if you are off today, enjoy the rest of the long weekend!
Bye for now…