Sunday, 19 August 2018

Long post on a not-so-long weekend...

I’ve been busy, busy, busy this past week, as the usual “end-of-summer-vacation” pressure is on.  I’ve been busy completing projects around the house, trying to get a video editing project for school done, and, as promised, ramping up my reading efforts.
Last week I read the first of ten Man Booker Prize nominees by Irish author Donal Ryan, From a Low and Quiet Sea, which was great.  This novel is told from the points of view of three different characters: Farouk, a Syrian refugee awaiting processing in an immigration camp in Ireland; Lampy, a young man who works at a retirement home and is doing his best to get over a broken heart; and John, an aging accountant and lobbyist who is looking back over his life and reflecting on the shyster tactics he used to get ahead.  These three sections stand independently, and seem to highlight the isolation of individuals in our society today, but as I suspected, they are all brought together in the last section of the book, and it is here that Ryan shows that, while there is isolation, there is also interconnectedness and deep caring. It was an easy read, a quiet, slow-moving look at three characters whose lives would seem unremarkable to any outsider, but who have deep inner lives where loss and suffering of different kinds have taken place and who seek or need forgiveness or resolution.  It was a poignant, emotional novel that insisted on a slow read to savour every line of description, because the author was, after all, describing the human soul.
I also read two children’s novels last week, and will just give a quick summary here.  I read Parvana’s Journey by Deborah Ellis, the second book in the “Breadwinner” series that I mentioned in a July post.  This Canadian author is visiting my schools in November, so I wanted to be familiar with at least one or two of her books.  In case you have forgotten, The Breadwinner told the story of a young Afghan girl, Parvana, who, at 11 years old, is still young enough to be allowed out of the house to help her father earn a living at the marketplace while her mother and older sister must, by law,be confined to their home.  When Parvana’s father is arrested, Parvana transforms herself into the look of a boy and takes her father’s place in the market, becoming the breadwinner until her father is released. At the end of the novel, after her mother and sisters leave to attend a wedding in as-yet-unoccupied Kabul, Parvana and her father discover that the city is taken over by the Taliban and they set out to find them.  Parvana’s Journey takes up where this novel left off, and finds Parvana travelling alone, as her father has died in one of the camps.  Still dressed as a boy, she makes her way across deserts and through villages, picking up strays and caring for those who have been abandoned along the way, all the while using creative means to meet her needs, though sometimes just barely.  It was not as interesting as the first book, but it was still a heartfelt, moving read, one that illustrates the horrible conditions these families faced during Taliban rule. It’s hard to believe that this could be allowed to continue, or to even have come about in the first place, but I’m sure it fairly accurately reflects the situations faced by people in this country.  I think Ellise particularly wanted to highlight in this book the damage caused by landmines, as it is mentioned more than a few times and there are notes about this at the back of the book. I will not read others in this series, but I may, as the school year begins, read one or two other books by this author, in preparation for her visit.
I also read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg, a classic children’s novel about a girl and her brother who run away and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a week.  I read this because it is the book that is mentioned in one of the best children’s novels I’ve ever read, Ban This Book by Alan Gratz, the main character’s favourite book that ends up being banned from the school library on the recommendation of one of the parents because she claims it teaches children to lie, cheat and steal, and the book that instigates the action of the story.  It was also recently mentioned in another book I either read or listened to, maybe NemeSIS, as the main character’s favourite book.  I decided that I should probably be familiar with this story, since it seems to pop up regularly.  Originally published in 1967, the prologue of this novel consists of a letter from Mrs Basil E Frankweiler to her lawyer, Saxonberg, addressing changes to her will.  The novel itself begins with 12-year-old Claudia Kincaid planning her escape from her family home. She’s decided to run away because she feels her parents don’t appreciate her enough.  She enlists the help of her 9-year-old brother Jamie because he is “rich”, having saved his allowance and supplemented it with winnings from his card games with his friend. They make their way to the MOMA and have success hiding out for a week, where they discover that they complement each other and can work as a team to solve most of the problems they encounter.  They do lie, cheat and steal in this book, but I don’t think it encourages children to do any of these things, and I certainly don’t think this book should be banned from any library. It appears on numerous “Best Books for Children” lists, and while I didn’t “love” this book, I can see why children would find it interesting and funny, although it feels a bit outdated.
And since I’m writing a long post, I may as well tell you about the two, yes TWO!, audiobooks I finished last week.  The first is The Secret Place by Tana French, a very long (16 parts = about 21 hours) novel, part of the “Dublin Murder Squad” series featuring Antoinette Conway as the only female member of this department.  I’ve listened to another book in this series, which I enjoyed, but I found this one a bit too long and descriptive. Told from alternating points of view and using two different narrators, this novel gives readers the inside scoop on the current investigation in Detective Stephen Moran’s voice, as well as the backstory from the girls’ perspective.  On the grounds of St Kilda’s Girls’ Boarding School, Chris Harper, a student from Colm’s, the neighbouring boys’ school, was discovered murdered a year before, a case Conway had worked but had not closed. One of the students, Holly Mackie, finds a card pinned the the bulletin board called “The Secret Place”, which was started to help students deal with this death - the card, featuring a picture of Chris, contained the words, “I know who killed him”, and Holly brings this card to Detective Moran in Cold Cases because she knows him from an earlier case and feels that this case needs to be reopened.  Holly’s dad is a high-ranking detective in the Dublin Police Force, so she is familiar with the workings of the police and had some idea that this was the best way to get someone to pay attention to this new lead. Moran, wishing to get out of Cold Cases and into the Murder Squad, seeks out the help of Conway, the original investigating officer, who still has no partner and is said to be difficult to work with, always having to prove herself around her colleagues, and together they head off to St Kilda’s to try to discover who put up this card and what new information they may have. Their suspect list is quickly narrowed down to eight girls, or two groups of four, who had access to the Art Room, and also the bulletin board, the night before.  Flashbacks to the year before, leading up to Chris’ murder, are told from the points of view of the four girls in Holly’s group, Holly, Selena, Becca and Julia, as the actual events leading to the murder unfold over the course of the novel. Moran and Conway, in the other chapters, detail their present-day interviews with the girls and the activities that take place on the campus at this time. These sections are all confined to a single day, while the flashbacks span a year or more. It was an interesting enough mystery, but a bit too long and detailed for me. I also didn't love the supernatural element of the story, and can't see exactly why she included it. Having said that, I would be happy to find other audio books by this author to listen to in the future, and I actually have one of her books in print on my bookshelf upstairs.  The first book in this series, In the Woods, was recommended to me a few years ago, but I never did read it, so maybe that would give me some of the background I need to appreciate the references to earlier works.  
And I finished an audiobook that my husband and I were listening to over the summer during our longer drives, a standalone by David Rosenfelt, On Borrowed Time.  This novel is told from the point of view of Richard Kilmer, a freelance journalist who has it all:  a successful writing career and a beautiful woman who has agreed to be his wife. Jen and Richard are visiting Jen’s parents, and head out to visit a childhood haunt of Jen’s when they are hit with a freak storm, which leads to a car accident and Jen’s disappearance.  Richard tries to track her down, but no one he asks has even heard of Jen, much less seen her, and he begins to doubt his own memories. Despite the insistence by everyone he knows that he was never involved with anyone named Jen, he refuses to give up his search, and enlists the help of friends and contacts to help in this search.  He also writes articles about this disappearance and search, which leads to information and unexplored avenues, leading Richard deeper and deeper into a world of conspiracy, cover-ups and murder. It was far-fetched, to say the least, but it was fast-paced and short enough that I could pretty much guarantee we could finish the book together on our road trips before the end of the summer.  I prefer Rosenfelt’s “Andy Carpenter” series, but I think I’ve listened to all of these books that are available as audiobooks, so I’ll take what I can get at this point.
WHEW!  That’s all for today.  I promise that there won’t be another long post like this again until next summer, as I have just one more week before I go back to work and it’s jam-packed with activities, plans and final projects.  Have a wonderful week and make sure to keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

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