Monday 31 December 2018

New Year's Eve post and the best of the year...

I have a cup of tea and a delicious Uncle Tetsu's Japanese Cheesecake tart to start the last day of the year, and that means it’s time for a recount of my year in reading, including a total of books read and a “Best of...” list.
But first, I finished two books this past week that I want to tell you about, both by Canadian mystery writers.  The first is the newest book in Peter Robinson’s “DCI Alan Banks” series (I guess it’s DS now that he’s been promoted to Detective Superintendent), Careless Love.  On a deserted country road, a young woman is found dead from an apparent overdose in a vacant car that is waiting to be towed after an accident earlier in the week.  On the moors, a wealthy businessman is found dead at the bottom of a gully, wearing a suit and dress shoes. Could these two suspicious deaths be related, or are they exactly what they seem, a suicide and an accident?  Banks is on the case of the young woman, and Annie Cabbot is taking the lead on the businessman’s death, and what they uncover may lead to a darker web of activity that could put others in danger before it stops. In between investigating these two crimes, Banks and Annie still find time to socialize with Annie’s father, Ray, and Ray’s new girlfriend, the young, beautiful, enigmatic Zelda, who does some work for a British Secret Service (MI5?) identifying faces on surveillance video.  This leads to a recognition of Phil Keane, the art document forger who conned Annie and nearly killed Banks in an earlier book, Playing with Fire, who now seems to be involved in a much nastier human trafficking ring.  Alas, this doesn’t get resolved in this book, but I suspect it will be the main focus of the next in this series - Robinson may as well have concluded the last paragraph with “To be continued…”.  This novel was OK, but as I said in my post about his last book, Sleeping in the Ground, while it was a solid police procedural, it lacked zing, it didn’t “shine”, it was a bit ho hum.  The exploration into personal relationships was also lacking in this book, as in his last one, and the main storyline was only mildly interesting, at least to this reader.  I guess once you’ve achieved the level of fame Robinson has, you can be guaranteed to be published, no matter how good (or not) your next book is. I wish he would take a break from the “Banks” books and write another standalone, but I suspect that is not what he’s working on right now.  Anyway, it was a quick read, and just the type of book I needed over the holidays.
And I read a Silver Birch nominee by Canadian adult mystery writer Linwood Barclay, Chase.  Known mainly for his thrillers set in Promise Falls, this is his first book written for kids, and it was a good one.  Chipper is a genetically modified spy dog who escapes The Institute and certain termination. Jeff Conway is a twelve-year-old boy living and working at his Aunt Flo’s fishing camp.  He misses his dead parents, his old life, and the dog he had to give away when he moved to the camp. When Chipper shows up at the camp, Jeff becomes involved in a most dangerous game that, if lost, could cost both their lives.  This page-turner was well-written, with interesting plot and characters. The only problem was that it was too short - it actually did end with the words “To be continued…”, and there is a second book available, Escape, which I think I need to purchase for my school library, as any student who reads this one will be sure to want to know what happens next!
And now it’s time for a recap of my year of reading and the “Best of” lists, which include a few surprises. I read 61 books and listened to 28 audiobooks last year.
Best of 2018
Adult books:
Little Bee Chris Cleave The Liar’s Girl Catherine Ryan Howard Sudden Light Garth Stein Home Fire Kamila Shamsie The Deserters Pamela Mulloy The Death of Mrs Westaway Ruth Ware From a Low and Quiet Sea Donal Ryan IQ Joe Ide Autumn Ali Smith Missing, Presumed Susie Steiner
*Bonus Books* Nine Perfect Strangers Liane Moriarty and The Nest Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
Juvenile/Young Adult Books:
Monday’s Not Coming Tiffany Jackson (YA) Broken Things Lauren Oliver (YA) The Breadwinner Deborah Ellis (JUV) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas John Boyne (YA) Chase Linwood Barclay (JUV)

Cemetery Boys Heather Brewer (YA) Trespasser Tana French I’d Know You Anywhere Laura Lippman The Midnight Dress Karen Foxlee (YA) The Punishment She Deserves Elizabeth George
That’s all for today.  Happy New Year, everyone!  I hope that 2019 is filled with good health, good friends, and plenty of good books!

Bye for now…

Monday 24 December 2018

Post on Christmas Eve...

It’s almost Christmas, and I’m starting my celebrations early with a steaming cup of tea and a delicious Date Bar and listening to a classical Christmas playlist on CBC Radio Two… what could be better?! We even got a dusting of snow last night!
I read two Young Adult books last week.  The first was one that was recommended by a selector at one of the books distributors I use when ordering for my libraries, a novel she described as “ripped from the headlines”.  Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D Jackson is told from the point of view of Claudia, a grade eight student who, when she returns to Washington after a summer spent with her grandmother in Georgia, is met with silence as she tries to reconnect with her best friend Monday.  No one will let her speak to Monday, claiming she is with her aunt, with her dad, or being homeschooled. Does Monday just not want to be friends with Claudia any more, as someone suggests, or is there something more sinister going on? The more people she speaks to (Monday's sister, Claudia's friend from church, teachers at school and even a retired counsellor), the more confusing the story becomes. This thriller about a missing fourteen-year-old will have you staying up late and turning pages to get to the surprising, disturbing but all-too-believable conclusion. This book explores themes of racism, abuse and neglect, and encourages us to stand up for those less fortunate than us.  I loved this book, but thought some of the content was a bit too mature for my students. It seemed to me to be more geared for high school students, but no high school student will want to read a book about grade eight kids, so I will keep it in my collection but recommend it to only the most mature grade eight readers.
And I finished reading a Forest of Reading Red Maple nominee, Skating Over Thin Ice by Jean Mills.  This novel is told from the point of view of Imogen St Pierre, an eighteen-year-old musical prodigy who is attending her last year at a boarding school near Ottawa.  She is extremely introverted and lives inside her music, juggling school work with piano concerts, mainly in a trio with her cellist father and violinist grandfather.  When she meets hockey bad boy Nathan, a promising OHL player who has been suspended for the rest of the season for fighting, she begins to explore other aspects of her personality, emerging from her cocooned life and coming into her own.  We the readers follow on her journey of discovery as she deals with pressures to perform and advance in her musical career, and ultimately searches for what makes her happy. And while the text was sometimes wordy and the voice of the narrator too internalized, the writing was also often brilliant and the insights spot-on, leaving me feeling that I’ve been left with a better understanding of what it must be like for a musically-gifted student (or a gifted hockey player!) to try to live a normal life and blend in with other kids.  Being a classical music lover certainly helped with this novel, an aspect of the reading that I thought would be a hindrance to any grade seven or eight student reading this novel, as most kids of that age would not know who Angela Hewitt, Scarlatti or Ravel are. Still, it was a realistic, moving, yet ultimately uplifting story of self-discovery and the search for happiness.
That’s all for today.  Have a Merry Christmas!  
Bye for now…

Sunday 16 December 2018

Tea, treats and books on the last Sunday of fall...

Next Friday is the first day of winter, and it certainly still feels like fall this weekend, with mild weather, no snow, and clear skies.  I have a steaming cup of chai tea, a delicious Date Bar, and a piece of homemade shortbread to get me thinking about the book I read this past week.
Nine perfect strangers walk into a health resort… no, this is not the opening line of a joke, it’s the premise for Liane Moriarty’s latest book, Nine Perfect Strangers, and it was definitely an enjoyable read.  Told from various points of view, this novel centres around a ten-day luxury health and wellness retreat at Tranquillium House attended by nine different people from various parts of Australia who all have certain personal issues to deal with.  The main character, if you could call her the “main” character (could this be Moriarty herself?), is Frances, a novelist in her early 50s who writes romance novels, but whose latest book got turned down by her publishers. She’s recently had a relationship breakup and is dealing with symptoms of menopause, so she takes her sister’s advice and books herself into this ten-day retreat.  Lars is a handsome, successful lawyer who enjoys attending two retreats each year. Ben and Jessica are a young couple who are experiencing relationship issues and have booked themselves on this retreat to try to save their marriage. Tony is a retired footballer who has booked himself in to this retreat to learn to make healthier lifestyle choices. Carmel, also in her early 50s, is attending this retreat while her daughters are away with their father and his new wife on a trip to Europe.  Heather, her husband (whose name I can’t remember and I’ve already brought the book back to the library so I can’t check), and their 20-year-old daughter Zoe appear to be in perfect health and mental state, but they must have some personal issues to work through, or why would they be here? But things are not as they seem, and the reader senses that something sinister is taking place even as the characters are experiencing the rejuvenation and personal transformation that was promised. I don’t want to give anything more away, because the enjoyment for me was the way this novel unfolded and revealed itself, section by section.  It was definitely not what I expected, with over-the-top plot twists, and characters that were somewhat clichéd, yet I think it worked. It reminded me of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, particularly And Then There Were None, and I thought, “Hmmm, this is certainly nothing like her other books”.  But then I thought about it more and decided that, while the setting is different, and the plot or motivating device (can I call it the McGuffin?) is also different, the exploration into characters to discover that individuals are more complex than they at first appear, and the exploration into different relationships, as well as the handling of difficult issues in a compassionate, sensitive way, while still managing to inject humour into her novel, is all Moriarty.  This was definitely an improvement on her last book, Truly, Madly, Guiltily, and let’s face it, after her bestsellers The Husband’s Secret and her biggest hit, Big Little Lies, I'm sure there would be great pressure to follow up with something just as brilliant, which would be difficult to do.  I can see how this might not be to everyone’s taste, and it’s definitely over-the-top, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a hard time putting it down each night.  If you have never read any of Moriarty’s books, I would recommend starting with The Husband’s Secret or Big Little Lies, but if you are a seasoned reader, this will likely not disappoint.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the mild weather!
Bye for now…

Sunday 9 December 2018

Tea, treats and audiobooks on a cool, sunny morning...

I’ve got my steaming cup of chai tea and delicious Date Bar on the coffee table in front of me on this gorgeous, crisp, sunny wintery morning.  It’s supposed to be clear, sunny days ahead for most of the week, too, which is awesome as we head into the busy Christmas season.
I finished a book yesterday that I will briefly write about, but I really wanted to focus on audiobooks today, as I haven’t written about any for quite some time.  I finished reading Susie Steiner’s second book in the series featuring DI Manon Bradshaw, Persons Unknown, and I have to say that I was a bit disappointed.  Not that it wasn’t well-written or that it didn’t have an interesting plot and complex mystery at the core, just that it lacked so many of the qualities that made Missing, Presumed so great.  A wealthy Londoner is crossing a park in Cambridgeshire when he falls dead in the arms of a woman out walking her dog.  Why was he in this small city and why would anyone want to kill him? Manon Bradshaw is back from London with her tail between her legs, her adopted son Fly, sister Ellie and nephew Solly in tow.  She begs for her old job back and is put on cold cases, taking advantage of the slower pace as she suffers the pains of her first pregnancy at 42. Davy Walker has been promoted and is running the investigation into the murder of Jon-Oliver Ross, the wealth management consultant who died of a stab wound to the heart in the park, but he must follow firm directions from Gary Stanton, the Chief Superintendent whom Davy idolizes, despite not agreeing with them.  These directions narrow the focus of the investigation exclusively on Fly, and Manon does all she can, while sitting on the sidelines and being instructed to stay away from the case, to find evidence pointing to the real killer. The threads of her investigation eventually come together and lead to a satisfying conclusion that leaves everything wrapped up neatly. I think if I hadn’t just read Missing, Presumed, I would have been more satisfied with this mystery; however, I still recall all the great things about the first mystery that made me love it.  This book had not a single literary reference, and Manon almost took a backseat as a character. And the sections focusing on her efforts to find the real killer seemed to be fraught with the pains of her pregnancy, the physical challenges she experiences, the uncertainty about her decision to have a baby, and her concern for Fly.  She was certainly a lackluster version of the character she was in the earlier book, a mere shadow of her former feisty, opinionated self, which definitely detracted from my reading enjoyment. But I’m still glad I read it, and this experience will not deter me from reading other mysteries by Steiner as they are published.
I noticed that I haven’t written about any audiobooks since the end of October with Clare MacIntosh’s I Let You Go, although I’ve listened to three books since then.  The first I also finished in October, a fabulous Young Adult novel, The Midnight Dress by Australian author Karen Foxlee.  A local girl goes missing and Foxlee drops clues into the story as she shifts from past to present to fill in the details for us.  Newcomer Rose Lovell, a girl who moves around a lot with her single, alcoholic father, never forms friendships because she always has to leave, causing them to end before they even have a chance to begin.  This time, though, Rose moves to a small coastal town where a popular classmate, Pearl Kelly, befriends her and Rose wonders if this time it will be different. Pearl convinces her to take part in the Harvest Parade, but to do so, Rose must find the perfect dress.  She seeks the help of Edie Baker, the town eccentric who knows all the town’s secrets and has many of her own, which she shares with Rose during their weekly meetings while she teaches Rose to sew her own dress, a dress of midnight blue that is constructed from materials taken from other dresses, creating what is to become a dress of stories.  Who is the girl that disappears, where did she go and what has happened to her? This surreal, magical story was at once a mystery, a coming-of-age story, and an exploration into the joys and perils of relationships. The descriptions of the various settings were beautifully detailed, but these didn’t overtake the story. I didn’t know anything about this book, but I’m so glad I listened to it, and will definitely keep my eye (or ear!) out for other books by this author.
Then I listened to a disappointing mystery by Jennifer McMahon, The Night Sisters.  Set in a small Vermont town, this novel explores the bonds between two sisters and their long-ago best friend as they struggle to unravel the mysteries of their past in order to understand the horrific events surrounding them now.  Amy and Piper were best friends, with Piper’s kid sister Margot always tagging along. Amy lived with her eccentric family at the Tower Motel, where they played as girls until two of Amy’s family members disappear. Their friendship is brought to an abrupt end, and decades pass with no contact, until suddenly they are thrown together again and must try to understand events of the past to free Amy from the accusations she is facing today.  The summary of the novel sounded intriguing, and I thought it might be a bit of a ghost story, but the key to the mystery ended up being much more mundane than that. I didn’t really enjoy this book, which I thought was way too long, but I stuck with it until the very end. I will not, however, seek out other books by this author.
And I just finished listening to Unnatural Causes:  a Dr. Katie LeClair Mystery by Dawn Eastman.  The heroine of this novel, Katie LeClair, is a new doctor in a small town outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  After completing her residency, she joins a family practice and is just getting to know the townspeople when one of her patients, Ellen Riley, is rushed to the ER after an overdose of diazepam, which Katie supposedly prescribed but about which she remembers nothing, and dies on the table.  Katie can’t believe that Ellen committed suicide, nor can Ellen’s daughter, Beth, but the police chief is satisfied with this conclusion, and it is up to Katie to search for clues that will help solve the mystery and find out what really happened to Ellen and why.  As I was listening to this audiobook, I kept thinking that, if Nancy Drew grew up and became a doctor, she would be just like Katie LeClair! It was a fun “read”, but not very believable. Having said that, I might listen to another one of these audiobooks if I am struggling to find something else to listen to and just need to choose a book.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!
Bye for now…

Sunday 2 December 2018

Books, tea and treats on a mild, rainy morning...

With a steaming cup of chai tea and a slice of freshly baked, still-warm-from-the-oven Date Bread, I’m all set to tell you about two awesome books I read last week.
I finished reading Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner, which proved to be much more than your average British police procedural.  This novel follows Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw as she searches for grad student Edith Hind, who went missing over the weekend right before Christmas.  Edith's fiancé, family and friends are frantic to find her, and as Manon and her team know, the longer someone is missing, the more likely the shift from a missing persons’ case to a search for a body.  When other crimes are discovered to have occurred around the same time, all leads need to be investigated to discover if these crimes are connected. Complicating matters is the fact that Edith’s parents are wealthy, her father being the chief surgeon to the royals, so they can and do lean on their connections to influence the extent and direction of the investigations.  But investigation into the missing girl, while the backbone of the story, turns out to be just one small part of this amazing novel. Steiner also manages to explore the need for interpersonal connections, the flaws of online dating, long-term relationships and marriage, and the conflicting emotions of a single nearly-40-year-old woman who loves her “singleness”, yet also wants a committed partner.  It is also a literary mystery, with references to the Romantic poets and Shakespeare sprinkled throughout the novel. Oh, it was such a pleasure to be able to savour each paragraph and finally reach an immensely satisfying conclusion. I just checked my library catalogue and it looks like there is a second novel in this series, Persons Unknown, which I will definitely be checking out!
And my Volunteer book club met yesterday to discuss The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.  Here is what I had to say about this novel in my January 6 2017 post:
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney... is (a novel) that everyone has been reading over the past year - it was even recommended to me by my dentist, and we never talk about books!  If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you probably know that I generally avoid reading books that “everyone” is reading, but this one was on the Guaranteed Great Reads display at the bookstore - if I didn’t think it was a great read, I could bring it back for a full refund.  Well, I figured that this would be a great opportunity to support a bookstore and try out a book I wouldn’t normally read.  I started it the very same day, and was sucked in immediately! In case you are one of the few people who have not read this runaway bestseller, here’s a quick plot summary:  the four adult siblings in the Plumb family are eagerly waiting to receive their share of the trust fund their father had set up for them decades earlier, which was meant to be a small top-up in their middle age, but which, after his death, grew exponentially to an amount in the millions.  As the date of the trust’s maturity approaches, each sibling contemplates the ways in which the money from "the Nest" will help them out of their financial situations. Then a family crisis occurs involving one of the siblings, which requires using most of the Nest to resolve. The other three siblings are hoping for repayment from their brother, but they know this is unlikely, yet they anxiously plan, scheme and lie in order to obtain a commitment from him.  Somewhere along the way, however, the story becomes less about getting what is theirs and more about rediscovering what is truly important. I’m sorry to be so vague about the plot, but I really don’t want to give anything away, since much of the enjoyment of the story lies in not knowing how things will be resolved. I was amazed that it really was a “great read”, and I nearly threw my receipt away. All four main characters were complex, flawed, interesting and multidimensional; the minor characters were also complex and interesting; the story was timely and illustrated for me the ways in which people continue to live beyond their means, always hoping for that one big break that will fix their financial woes.  The writing was superb, witty and satirical, yet gentle and insightful. Because it detailed the lives and situations of each of the siblings, it was really like getting four novels in one. I was loving this book, and devouring it in enormous chunks. I considered recommending it to friends and colleagues, and maybe even suggesting it as a book club selection for one or both of my book clubs. And then I reached the ending, which was a huge disappointment. Not only was it unrealistic and fairytale-ish, but the author left the reader to imagine nothing about the fates of the characters. I never really thought about how much I appreciate ambiguous endings in books until reaching the end of this one. I don’t need to be told what happens to every one of the characters, including most of the minor ones!  And speaking of minor characters, I was particularly disturbed by the judgmental comments about one of the minor characters who, throughout the book, had seemed to me like the most “normal” one, steady and stable and responsible in the midst of all the “infantile” behaviour of the others. I’m sorry to go on so much about the ending, but it was so disappointing to me that I don’t think I can read this book again, so I will not be recommending it as a selection for either book club. (I’m glad I saved my receipt!) Until the last 50 pages, I would have given this book a 9 out of 10, so please don’t let my feelings about the ending deter you from reading this novel if you were planning to do so - after all, it was the number one most requested book of 2016 at the Toronto Public Library.”

Well, obviously I did decide to read it again.  I thought it would be a good one for us to read right before Christmas because, although it has nothing to do with the holiday season, it is all about family.  I also thought it would be a bit of an easier read than some of the other heavy, depressing, literary selections we’ve recently read or will be reading for next year.  It was an excellent book club selection! There were so many topics to discuss in the novel, like family relations, degrees of dysfunctional relations, what “prosperity” means to different people, how individuals learn to cope based on the ever-changing circumstances that surround them, and how your whole life can change in an instant.  Once again I loved reading about the characters and I loved the style of writing, the wit and sensitivity that existed side-by-side in this novel. And as I was nearing the end of the novel, I wondered whether these last 20-odd pages could possibly hold enough content to ruin the previous 300+ pages of excellence… and I found that I was less bothered by the ending this time than I was in my earlier reading.  In fact, I kind of liked that I didn’t have to read another 100+ pages of extensive detail to find out how everyone was doing, because, let’s face it, it is much less interesting to read about people being happy and everyone getting along than it is to read about tension and difficulty! One of my ladies, who grew up in a dysfunctional family, absolutely loved this book. She had a page written about all the things she admired about it, including the character development, the realistic relationships, the development of even the minor characters, the amazing writing, and thankfully she wasn’t too bothered about the ending, although she also found it a bit unbelievable and a little too pat.  The next person only read the first 50 pages and had to put it down, but after a bit of probing, she revealed that she had grown up in a relatively happy family but has recently been involved in some family disputes of a distressing nature, so perhaps this novel was a bit too raw and real for her. Another member who listened to the book said she couldn’t relate to any of the characters and wasn’t really enjoying it, but that the ending redeemed the book for her. And the last member said she loved this book, that it was the first book out of the last four book club selections that she’s actually enjoyed and finished willingly and enthusiastically.  We had a lively, spirited discussion about so many different topics that I think it was one of the more successful selections in recent months. (Note: By the end of the discussion, the person who didn't read the book decided she wanted to finish it!)
This is a long post, so thanks for sticking with it to the end!  Have a wonderful day and please find time to read!
Bye for now…