Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Short post on a hot day...

It is a hot, hot, hot Tuesday morning and I’ve just been enjoying the last of the local strawberries for breakfast as I think about our book club meeting last night.  

We discussed Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. and everyone who was able to attend enjoyed it.  I’ve listened to this as an audiobook twice before, and here is what I said about it in August, 2015:

... I also listened to The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier, narrated by Angela Brazil.  This powerful novel tells the story of two women, friends who are in their late thirties and contemplating their lives thusfar in relation to their children, their husbands, and their halted careers.  Kate, devoted mother of two, struggles with her choices as she considers her return to work as a pastry chef, feeling that it may be too soon. Her close friend, Elizabeth, died the previous summer in a plane crash, which occurred shortly before 9/11.  Kate was given responsibility for Elizabeth’s journals, much to Elizabeth’s husband’s dismay; Dave feels they should have been left with the family, but reluctantly passes them into the hands of Kate, locked in an antique trunk. Kate brings them with her as her family heads off for an extended summer holiday to their favourite beachside cottage in Maine, and she spends her summer reading the journals while tending to her family’s needs.  What she finds during her reading is that Elizabeth was a much more complex woman than she ever realized, leading her to contemplate how much we can ever really know about a person. Written with sensitivity and consideration, this novel explores the roles and expectations of mothers in today’s society, their struggles to balance motherhood and a career, and to maintain a personal identity without sacrificing the needs of their families. It looks at how we deal with loss, and poses the question of whether we can create our own destiny or whether we should just let fate take its own course.  It also makes readers consider whether it is ever justifiable to make decisions that are life-changing for you and your family by yourself, whether one person can take that responsibility solely on his or her shoulders. It was, again, not the type of book I normally read or listen to, being about motherhood and the struggles that women with children face when considering career versus family, but this book was excellent. It was sensitive and considerate, and the author, who was inspired to write it after losing a friend in the attacks of 9/11, did an outstanding job of exploring the randomness of life, the uncertainty we all face every day, and how the constant worry over the possibility of disaster can be paralyzing.  It was a heart-wrenching and heartfelt exploration of the life of one woman who spent her entire life trying to make up for one mistake, and the guilt she carried with her until her sudden death. The narration was excellent, really capturing the anxious tone of Kate and conveying her internal struggles and her constant hypersensitivity to things around her, both actual and potential. I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys character-driven novels.

This time I actually read the book, and it was just as good as the audiobook, maybe even better, because I could stop and contemplate sections as I read them, and go back to review parts if I needed clarification or reminders.  As I was preparing for the meeting, I asked myself what I took from this book, and came up with these: value family and friends, anyone important to you; life is arbitrary and random; you can never really know someone; do what you love; and I wondered if we all have rich inner lives that we conceal from others.  I was reminded of a line from a book I listened to recently, something like: “It’s not too late to become the person you always wanted to be”. One member said that the way this book was written created a sense of urgency to read the journals, so much so that she skipped ahead and read all the journal entries first, going back to read the “fluff” that were Kate’s parts afterwards, which she then realized was not “fluff” at all.  We commented that life is more anxious for everyone after 9/11, so Kate’s reactions to the loss of a friend shortly before that attack was natural. We talked about grief and the grieving process, how everyone grieves in his or her own way, and we should never judge anyone. This book really hit home for me at this time for many reasons, and it was eerie how so much of what was written echoed my own life at this time. I was at my sister-in-law’s cottage last week, and while everyone else went out on the boat, I stayed on the dock and read.  I sat down in the chaise lounger and picked up my book to continue reading, starting at a point in the book where Kate sits in the chaise and picks up the journal to continue reading… art imitating life, or life imitating art? Eerie either way. We talked about the reasons each member of these two couples, Kate and Chris, Elizabeth and Dave, lied to each other, and whether keeping secrets was the same thing as lying. We discussed our own losses, and ways themes in this novel reflected our own experiences. One member said she would have liked to have Kate and Elizabeth as friends.  All in all, it was an excellent discussion, often touching on deeply personal themes, and I believe we all know each other a little better after last night’s meeting.

That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…

Friday, 5 July 2019

Regular tea and a short post on a humid afternoon...

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m drinking plain old Tetley tea with no delicious date snack of any kind on this extra hot and sultry summer afternoon.  This is all out of my blogging comfort zone, but we just had a book club meeting this morning and I wanted to write this post while I had a chance, as tomorrow will be spent getting ready to leave for our trip out west early on Sunday morning.
We got together this morning to discuss The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, a teen book that I knew nothing about and probably would never have heard of if not for the film that came out in 2012, which I have never seen but am planning to watch tonight.  This is a coming-of-age story set in 1991 and is told from the point of view of Charlie, a fifteen-year-old high school student, in the form of letters to an anonymous friend. Charlie is socially awkward and, in his first year of high school, has no friends, since his friend Michael from middle school recently committed suicide.  He is befriended by two seniors, Sam and Patrick, half-brother and -sister who take him under their wings and guide him through the complex intricacies of fitting in, thereby alleviating his loneliness. Along the way, other students join their group and drift away, relationships form and fade, but nothing escapes Charlie’s notice as he absorbs all the activities and experiences going on around him.  We also gain insight into the relationships he has with his various family members, from immediate family to those that make up his extended family. Taking place over the course of a single year, this short novel follows Charlie from loneliness to social acceptance and personal insight to “aloneness” (is that a word?), which is not the same as loneliness. I think it is a modern-day Catcher in the Rye, except even better, in my opinion (I never really enjoyed the Salinger novel). Chbosky admits to being heavily influenced by Catcher in the Rye, along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is evident in the novel.  I didn’t know what to expect from this, but I always try to include at least one Children’s or Young Adult novel on our list, usually during the summer for a bit of a lighter read, so I was thrilled to hear that almost everyone loved this book!  And the person who didn’t love it just didn’t really enjoy the style of the writing - she didn’t hate the book, she thought it was just ok. The voice of Charlie reminded me quite alot of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which we read for my book group many years ago and which everyone loved.  People thought Charlie was sweet and unusually perceptive for his age, that he had a personality that, while socially awkward, did not “put others off”.  We speculated about whether he was “on the spectrum”, but came to no definite conclusions. One member noted that there was lots of crying in this book, mostly by Charlie, but also by other characters.  Another member, who is a teacher at one of my schools, says she thought this captured the experiences of a year in the life of an awkward teenager perfectly. We thought that the epistolary style suited this novel, as it was capturing snapshots of his life, which is how we live. But he not only presented what happened, he also analyzed these experiences, what they meant for him and for others.  We thought the clues as to Charlie’s history were fed to us at the right pace, so we weren’t kept in total suspense and then given too much information all at once. We thought Charlie was “hopeful-sad” - we were optimistic for him, but realized that he would always be more sensitive to his own thoughts and feelings and those of others than most. I would highly recommend this for any individual or any book club with readers of any age, but the content is too mature for kids under age fifteen.  
That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…

Monday, 1 July 2019

Canada Day post...

On this holiday Monday, which is Canada Day, I am enjoying a delicious cup of chai tea, some yummy local strawberries, and some extra tasty freshly baked mini muffins brought over by our neighbour.  It’s a gorgeous summery morning, the first day of my summer break, and I'm listening to Tempo's "We the North" broadcast on CBC Radio Two… does life get any better than this?
I finished a great novel last week (not by a Canadian author, unfortunately), The Altruists by Andrew Ridker, which was so impressive I almost can’t believe this is his debut novel.  In this insightful, tragicomic exploration into what it means to have a meaningful life, Ridker demonstrates an awareness and wisdom far beyond his less-than-thirty years.  The Alter family have recently suffered the loss of mother and wife Francine to cancer. We the readers enter into their lives not quite two years after this loss, and find disillusioned adjunct engineering professor Arthur at a loss to make sense of his life and keep the large family home afloat with his diminishing paycheque from Danforth University in St. Louis.  He uprooted his family from Boston to make this move 15 years earlier, in pursuit of a lucrative professorship which continues to elude him. Francine gave up a well-established practice as a psychologist, but made this move work by seeing clients in their new home. Son Ethan and daughter Maggie fled to New York after their mother’s death, and are still grieving in their separate worlds and separate ways.  They received an inheritance from their mother, an investment that their father knew nothing about, and have been living off of that while they come to terms with their loss. Altruistic Maggie wants to renounce the money and give it away, and Ethan wants to find meaning and happiness, but this search leads him into near-total reclusivity. When their father, with whom they have not communicated since their mother’s death, reaches out to them, they decide to go home for the weekend, thinking it may lead to some sort of closure.  What they get instead is a bumbling attempt to woo them into bailing Arthur out of his predicament and save the house. Will they come to Arthur’s rescue, or will they walk away in disgust? What could have been a sappy or overly satirical look at a dysfunctional family at a time of crisis turned out to be a compassionate, heartfelt, often comical look at the way one family deals with loss and tries to get on with their lives. If The Nest was written by Philip Roth (I’ll admit I’ve never read anything by Roth, but it seems like the right comparison), this is the novel you’d get, and it is a great one.  I know I'm not doing this book justice, but suffice it to say that Ridker is definitely an author to watch.
That’s all for today.  Happy Canada Day, and enjoy the fabulous sunshine!
Bye for now…

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Post on Father's Day...

It’s Father’s Day, and I hope dads everywhere are being treated to something special today.  I’m enjoying a few treats myself. I have a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, a delicious Date Bar from City Cafe, and the first of our local strawberries - yum!  I’m also using a new mug made by a local potter, and so far it fits all the criteria required to make it part of an enjoyable tea-drinking experience.
Before I start this post, I wanted to mention that I may not be writing a post next weekend, as I have a busy day on Saturday and I’m going out of town on Sunday to visit my elderly aunt, which will make it difficult to find time to write.  I’ll see what I can do, but if you don’t see or receive a post next week, that’s the reason.
Last week I read a great British mystery-suspense novel, What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan.  Recently divorced Rachel Jenner and her eight-year-old son Ben are walking in the woods with their dog, Skittle, one Sunday afternoon, as is their routine.  Ben asks if he can run ahead to the swing, and Rachel reluctantly says yes in an attempt to allow him a bit of independence. When she reaches the swing, Ben and Skittle are nowhere to be found, and it takes Rachel just a few seconds to realize that her son has been abducted.  When a massive search through the woods by police and concerned citizens results in the discovery of the dog but no Ben, Rachel is frantic. The case is given to Detective Jim Clemo, who is keen to take on a high-profile case in an effort to prove himself to his boss, DS Fraser.  He recommends his girlfriend, DC Emma Zhang, as the Family Liaison Officer, and together they gather information from Rachel that may help find Ben as quickly as possible. What they hope will be a quick result ends up taking far too long, and with too many suspects and not enough firm leads, this case has devastating psychological impact on many of the key players, including Clemo and Zhang.  Complex plot twists and red herrings abound until the final satisfying conclusion to this taut thriller that kept me wondering to the very last page. I listened to the second book in this series, Odd Child Out, not long ago, so I knew that Clemo had issues with the way he handled this case. This may have skewed my reading a bit, as I was mostly concentrating on how he was messing up rather than taking the novel as a whole.  It was written from the points of view of Jim and Rachel, as well as including transcripts of Jim’s post-case sessions with the department psychologist, which suggests that Clemo has been deeply affected by the outcome of this case.  The text also includes posts from an online blog concerned with finding Ben, offering the reader insight into ways that online media can affect an investigation and influence the public opinion of the parent of a missing child. It was a bit overlong, but it was cleverly crafted, the characters well-rounded and the scenarios credible.  I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys psychological suspense novels involving missing children or family secrets.
And I listened to an audiobook last week by Mel McGrath, Give Me the Child, which turned out to be surprisingly good.  Child psychiatrist Dr Caitlynn/Cat Lupo and husband, games designer Tom, are sound asleep after a rather drunken evening when a knock on the door awakens them.  What they find waiting for them on the other side of the door is Ruby, an eleven-year-old girl who is the result of a fling Tom had years earlier, when Cat was pregnant with their daughter Freya and experiencing a bout of prepartum psychosis.  Ruby’s mother is dead, the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, and Tom is listed as the next of kin. This comes as a total shock to Cat, but she realizes that she must adjust her initial response and welcome this child into her home.  This becomes more difficult when unusual things begin to happen in the household and the behaviour of Freya, initially welcoming towards her half-sister, begins to alter in negative ways. She suspects that Ruby is the cause of these occurrences, as well as the negative influence on Freya, but she has no way to prove it and Tom refuses to acknowledge the problem.  Instead, he accuses Cat herself of having recurring mental health issues and threatens to have her committed if she continues to suggest that Ruby is anything but a well-adjusted young girl. Are Cat’s suspicions real, or is she being paranoid? Is Ruby showing signs of psychopathology or are her actions merely the result of her difficult early childhood and the recent death of her mother?  And does Tom really not see what is happening, or is he hiding something? This was an awesome psychological thriller that asks us to consider what could happen when a child displaying psychopathological traits is left untreated. Think We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Defending Jacob - not a bad combination at all!  I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook, and felt that the author managed to offer an ending that tied up all the loose ends without feeling contrived.  Great book and interesting narrator, too.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the day, but make time to read, too!
Bye for now…

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Short post on a warm summery morning...

It actually felt like summer is on the way this weekend, but alas, more rain and cooler temperatures are in the forecast for the coming week.  *sigh* So I’ll write this short post then get outside to enjoy as much of this lovely day as possible.
I finished The Alice Network on Friday and it was great!  Despite the rather predictable ending, it held many surprises and gave me a sense that I was really learning something about the roles and functions of spies during and between the wars.  I preferred the “Eve” sections over the “Charlie” sections, but I can see why there had to be both to make the structure work. In the "Afterward", Quinn explains how some of the situations in the book reflected situations women and men faced during this time, giving us historical context.  I would recommend it for any book club, and I think both male and female readers would appreciate and enjoy this novel.
And I finished a so-so audiobook last week, The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian.  I have never read anything by this author before, but the premise of this mystery sounded intriguing so I thought I’d give it a try.  Cassie Boden has been a flight attendant for many years, and this flight to Dubai should be no different from the hundreds of others she’d been on before.  She follows her usual pattern of drinking too much and hooking up with a man for a “casual encounter” in his hotel room, after which she plans to go back to her own hotel room to get some sleep before her return flight in the morning.  But this time, after getting “black-out” drunk, she wakes up next to a dead man, his throat slashed and his blood soaking into the mattress. Did she do it? She can’t be 100% sure that she’s not guilty of murder, so she flees the scene, erasing as much evidence as she can of her presence in the room.  Over the rest of the novel, she tries to avoid being charged with the murder, while also trying to find out who did it. It was interesting enough to keep me listening to the end, but I couldn’t really relate to Cassie at all, nor did the details of the story as it unfolded seem credible. And I was reluctant to download this novel because it had multiple narrators, something I usually dislike. I’m not quite sure why they did that for this book, as I don’t think it enhanced the listening experience at all; rather, I found that it was quite jarring whenever a different narrator took over, making the story seem disjointed.  Anyway, it was OK, but certainly not great, and based on this experience, I doubt I’ll seek out other books by this author.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunny day before the rain starts!  
Bye for now…

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Book club highlights on a cool spring morning...

I have a cup of steaming chai tea and a yummy Date Bar as I sit down to write this post, but they are more of a “coffee and dessert”, not the main meal.  As I was cooking and preparing my lunches, I was feeling quite hungry, so I made a toasted tomato sandwich for breakfast, and it was so delicious! It brought me right back to childhood, when I used to have these quite regularly.  I think I'm going to start making them more often.
I decided to finish The Au Pair last weekend, and it was every bit as good in the last section as it had been up to the point when I wrote last week.  The story was complex, the premise believable, and the ending offered a plausible yet surprising conclusion, and while everything was wrapped up, it didn’t feel contrived.  Emma Rous did an outstanding job, especially considering this was her debut novel after eighteen years working as a veterinarian. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys gothic novels or books centred around family secrets.
I started reading The Alice Network by Kate Quinn on Monday night, and was both delighted and disappointed that I got sucked into the story almost from the first page; delighted because I didn’t think I would enjoy this  historical novel, and disappointed because it meant that I wanted to read every word and couldn’t just skim it in order to prepare for my book club meeting yesterday. I’m only halfway through, but I’ll give you a summary of the book and the highlights of the discussion.  Based on an actual network of spies during WWI, this novel is told in alternating voices, one narrative set in the middle of WWI and the other set just after WWII. Charlie St Clair is a nineteen-year-old American girl from an upper-middle-class family who, in May 1947, is being brought to Switzerland accompanied by her mother to take care of her “Little Problem”.  She is not sure how she feels about her condition, but she has agreed to the Appointment because she’s arranged to travel via England, where, instead of remaining with her mother for the last leg of their journey, she heads off on her own with no money and no experience, armed only with an address on a scrap of paper and her grandmother’s pearl necklace. She is off to find her French cousin, Rose, who disappeared during the war and has not been heard from since.  Two years older than Charlie, she is like the big sister she never had, and since she was unable to save her older brother James from killing himself after returning from the war, she is determined to try to save Rose. She travels to meet Evelyn Gardiner, a drunken, cantankerous woman in her mid-fifties who may have some knowledge about Rose's last known location. When she hears about Charlie’s quest to find Rose, her interest is piqued by something Charlie says and so she reluctantly agrees to travel with Charlie, but only if Charlie pays.  We are then introduced to Evelyn/Eve Gardiner, a young British woman who, in 1915, is singled out by Captain Cameron to join a network of female spies who are tasked with collecting information about the Germans. Eve speaks English, French and German, and at twenty-two, looks seventeen. She is slight and speaks with a stutter, so is thought by most to be not very clever, an error in judgement that serves her well. When she goes to work at a restaurant in Lille where German officers are known to frequent, she is able to gather significant intelligence to pass on to the head of the network, Lili/Alice Dubois, who then passes it on to Captain Cameron.  Eve, as the shy, stuttering serving girl Marguerite, is required to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to gain further access to information about the Germans, and it can only lead to horrific consequence. This is as far as I got, about halfway through the book, but I’m sure disaster lurks in the coming pages and chapters. There were just three of us at the meeting yesterday, and only one of us finished the book, the other member having read about two thirds so far. The person who read the whole book said she loved every page, but that there were parts when she just had to put it down and take a break. When I told her I was really enjoying the book, she said that if I thought the first half was good, I would probably find that the second half was even better.  We agreed that Quinn did an excellent job of interweaving the stories - I think one member described the storytelling structure as “layers upon layers, and these layers are also overlapping”. We felt that we learned alot about female spies and spying, which was very different from the stereotypes we had in mind. We were shocked at how much these women were required to sacrifice in the name of duty, and the limited choices women had at the time to serve their country and help the war effort. All in all, it was a successful meeting and an excellent book selection, and I look forward to finishing this novel in the next day or so.
I will not have time to read the book for tomorrow night’s meeting, and I can’t even skim it, as The Mandibles is not the type of novel that lends itself to skimming.  *Sigh* I’ll just have to accept that, in this case, there really were too many books and too little time.  
That’s all for now.  Enjoy the rest of the day, whatever you do.
Bye for now…

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Book dilemma on a summery Sunday morning...

I have a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar keeping me company this morning, and I’m waiting for my Date Loaf to be done baking in the oven, so I’m looking forward to a slice of that as well.  So many treats, so little time!
That is exactly how I’m feeling about books, too!  I am slightly more than halfway through this surprisingly good gothic novel, The Au Pair by Emma Rous, and I’d love to tackle the rest of it today.  But I have a Volunteer book club meeting next Saturday, and we are discussing a fairly lengthy historical novel, one about which I know nothing, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. This is also a new author for me, so I want to leave myself enough time to finish it.  I’m going to see Margaret Atwood speak on Thursday night, so that’s at least one night when I’ll get almost no reading done.  To make matters worse, I also have Friends book club meeting a week from tomorrow, and we’re discussing a book I’ve never read before, The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver.  So my dilemma is: do I power through the gothic novel and try to finish it today, then skim both the Quinn and Shriver novels next week, hoping to get sufficient understanding of the stories to contribute meaningfully to the discussions, or should I set aside The Au Pair and tackle The Alice Network today with the intent to make good headway before the work-week starts?  Let me tell you a bit about The Au Pair so you can understand why this is so difficult.
This novel is told from the points of view of two narrators, Seraphine and Laura.  On the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Seraphine Mayes and her twin brother Danny have their celebrations overshadowed by the death of their father, who fell from a ladder while working outside at Summerbourne, their isolated home in Norfolk.  This is not the first tragedy to strike this family. The day after she and Danny were born, their mother threw herself off the cliffs and plunged to her death. And a few years before that, their older brother Edwin was present as his twin brother, two-year-old Theo, fell from the watchtower overlooking the cliffs.  All her life, Seraphine has heard rumours that she and her brother Danny were sprite children, twins who replaced the real children that were stolen. Or that she is not really Danny’s sister at all, that she is someone else’s child who was somehow sent to live with the Mayes family for some reason. There were rumours in the village, too, that Summerbourne can’t keep its twins, that one or both throughout history have perished, or been stolen and replaced.  When she discovers a photograph taken on the day she was born of her mother, looking calm and happy and holding just one baby, Seraphine needs to know who that baby is, she or Danny, and if there was only one baby, how did two babies happen to be raised in the Mayes family? Thankfully we have the narrative of Laura, the young nanny from the time before the twins were born, to fill in the history, but how much of her story is clouded by her youth and naivité, as well as her growing feelings for the family friend, Alex?  Sprites, changelings and dark family secrets abound in this not-quite-ghost story, where elements of the supernatural are intertwined with a young woman’s need to find out the truth about her family. I know it sounds hokey, but it's really surprisingly engaging and well-written. It must be incredibly difficult to write a modern gothic novel, as one of the key elements of this genre is isolation, and these days we are all so “connected”, with our phones and devices and social media and instant updates and the endless selfies (and food pics!) that are posted ad nauseum.  But I found this one to be gripping and intriguing, and I’ve been looking forward to making more reading time each night after work and reading later than I probably should have (which would explain why I’ve been so tired this week!!).  Rous has managed to create the same sense of foreboding for this reader as Rosemary’s Baby or Rebecca, where you know something is not right, but you have no idea what that might be, and the truth is revealed bit by bit until the final, shocking ending.  Well, I don’t know about the ending here, as I’ve still got about 150 pages to go, but so far it has been a really riveting read. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not flawless, and it’s certainly not literary, but for this type of story, it’s got all the bases covered and then some!    
I think I’ll go for a long walk then power through to the end of this book, and if I’m not finished, I’ll have to set it aside until after my book club meetings are done.  Have a great day and enjoy the early-summer-like weather!
Bye for now…

Monday, 20 May 2019

Royal post on Victoria Day weekend...

I’m not sure exactly what a “royal post” entails, but I’m feeling rather queenly as I listen to the “Queen Vic” edition of CBC’s Tempo this morning, all royal music, all morning long.  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar to keep me company on this bright, brisk Monday morning.
I read the latest “Hercule Poirot” novel by Sophie Hannah last week, The Mystery of Three Quarters, and I have to say, it was just ok.  I enjoyed the very first one she wrote as she continued this series originally written by Agatha Christie, but the second and now third have left something to be desired, at least for this reader.  This novel begins with Poirot receiving a visit from a woman he does not know, accusing him of writing to her and claiming that she murdered Barnabas Pandy, that he had proof, and that he would be going to Scotland Yard with this accusation.  Of course, she claims complete innocence, informing him that she doesn’t even know this man, let alone have any reason to murder him. Poirot is prepared to write this off as an unsavoury prank until another and yet another individual come forward with the very same claim.  Four individuals in all have received the same letter, and Poirot’s interest is piqued. Who is this Barnabas Pandy, and why are these individuals being accused of murdering him? And most intriguing of all, why did they receive letters supposedly written by the great Hercule Poirot?  As his investigation proceeds, with Poirot employing his sidekick Edward Catchpool from Scotland Yard, he uncovers secrets, lies, deceptions and cover-ups that all lead to possible solutions, but which are the red herrings and which will lead to the truth? I will admit that it was mildly entertaining, but I never felt a sense of urgency with this book, like I couldn’t wait to pick it up again.  I guess I found it rather bland; it lacked the “zing” that her other psychological mysteries have. I really have nothing more to say about it, except that, if you’ve been reading these new “Poirot” novels, you’ll probably want to pick this one up, but if you’ve never read them, I’d recommend The Monogram Murders, which I recall really, really enjoying.
And I finished a surprisingly good audiobook last week, Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan.  I’ve never heard of this author, but this book was very interesting.  It is the second in the “DI Jim Clemo” series, and I guess at the end of the first book, Clemo was suspended or was off on stress leave or something, because he’s just returning to work and is given as his first assignment an unfortunate accident involving two fifteen-year-old boys who were playing around down by a canal the night before when one of them ended up falling in.  This boy, Noah, is now in hospital and in a coma, and Jim must determine whether there was any foul play that caused him to fall in. His friend, Abdi, is the son of a Somali refugee, and in the wake of recent racial tensions in Bristol, there is the possibility that this could have been a hate crime, despite evidence to the contrary. But Noah’s family are British and upper-middle-class, and, with their son’s life in jeopardy, his parents need to find someone to blame and some ugly prejudices surface.  What was meant to be a simple open-and-shut case to ease Jim back into his job turns out to be more complex and multifaceted than anyone could have anticipated, and as complications develop, Jim must tackle each problem aggressively while also displaying racial sensitivity. It was really a very good novel, more than a mystery-thriller, although the mystery was the thing that kept the story moving. It was also a social commentary and a look at the ways different families deal with very different but comparably difficult situations.  The narrator did a great job, and I thought Macmillan balanced the various aspects of the novel well. It was good enough that I now want to read the first “DI Jim Clemo” novel to find out why he ended up being off. Unfortunately, What She Knew is not available through the library as an audiobook, so I will have to read the print version.  I think I’ll put it on hold right now, before I forget.
That’s all for today.  The forecast has changed and it’s now not supposed to rain this afternoon, so I can to out for a long walk.  Hopefully I can find a new audiobook that is engaging - I’ve tried two others so far, but they have been disappointing. Thank goodness I have about five more already downloaded that I can choose from.  Enjoy this extra day off, whatever you do, but remember to make time to read!
Bye for now…

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Book talk on a cool, gray morning...

It’s chilly and overcast this morning as I sit down to write this post, so my steaming cup of chai tea is a welcome treat.  It’s Mother’s Day, and I happen to have a book and an audiobook that I finished last week that deal with themes of motherhood and children, which was an unplanned but happy coincidence.
Canadian author Shelley Wood’s novel, The Quintland Sisters, focuses on the first five years in the lives of Canada’s famous five, the Dionne Quintuplets, and is told from the point of view of seventeen-year-old nurse Emma Trimpany who helped care for them.  On May 28, 1934, with the country gripped in the harsh realities of the Great Depression, five tiny babies were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne two months prematurely at their farmhouse near Callander, Ontario. They were not expected to live for more than a few hours, but they all miraculously survived.  After four months living with their family, they were made wards of the state for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets’ Guardianship Act of 1935 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionne_quintuplets).  During a time of poverty, war and strife, these five children brought considerable profit to the area and were treated as tourist attractions.  This book takes the first five years of their lives and presents a detailed fictional account of their existence as described by Emma in her journal and letters, with newspaper articles and documents interspersed.  Wood describes the Dafoe Nursery, which was built across from the Dionne family farmhouse, the strict schedules of waking, bathing, feeding, play, and family visits for the sisters, and the legal wranglings surrounding the promotion of such items as Karo Corn Syrup and Quaker Oats.  Emma, who wanted to be an artist but became a nurse so she could stay with the quintuplets, having started out as just a housemaid who happened to be on the scene at the time of the birth, offers an insider’s view of the activities surrounding the children and their upbringing during their early years, and also her thoughts and insights into how this might be affecting them and whether it was all in their best interest.  I don’t usually enjoy historical fiction, especially epistolary novels (novels told through diary entries or through a series of documents), but this book hooked me from the very first page. Emma’s narrative did not seem like diary entries, simply storytelling from her point of view. It reminded me of Eva Stachniak’s novel The Winter Palace, which was told from the point of view of Barbara, Imperial handmaid to Catherine the Great, a novel that managed to truly transport me to the time and place of the action.  So, too, did The Quintland Sisters, although Wood left out much detail about the Depression and the imminent war. It was also a love story, one that the author resolves in a very interesting and unique way. All in all, this was a fabulous book, one that I will definitely put on my book club list for next year, and one that has piqued my interest in the Dionnes and has encouraged me to pick up that paperback I've had sitting on my shelf upstairs for years by Ellie Tesher to find out what happened to them after Emma’s account ends.  This kind of fits into the “motherhood” theme, as the novel addresses family and children, and the rights of parents to have access to, and to exploit, their children.
And I finished listening to an audiobook by Clare Mackintosh last week, Let Me Lie, about mothers and motherhood, and what a mother would do to protect her children.  Tom and Caroline Johnson committed suicide the previous year by jumping off a cliff. They did this in exactly the same manner, but seven months apart, leaving a grieving twenty-five year old daughter Anna to pick up the pieces.  Now a new mother living in her family home with her partner and former therapist, Anna is just beginning to come to terms with her grief as the anniversary of her mother’s suicide approaches, when a card is delivered that calls into question everything she thought she knew.  Convinced that it is merely a sick practical joke, she is almost ready to dismiss it when another incident occurs that cannot be ignored, and we the readers are sucked into a whorling downward spiral as bits and pieces of the truth are revealed, until the final shocking conclusion.  I can’t tell you more than this as I don’t want to give away any of the details, as the best part of this novel is the building suspense and the sense of always not-quite-knowing what's going on. I don’t necessarily love Mackintosh’s books, but they are interesting and complex enough to keep me reading, well, actually listening, and this one didn’t disappoint.  It certainly delved into themes of mothers, motherhood and family, and who, in the end, you can trust with your life.
That’s all for today.  Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful women who make a difference in the lives of others every day!
Bye for now… Julie

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Tea and treats on another sunny Sunday morning...

It’s such a relief to see the sun again today, after so much rain last week and the overcast, brisk temperatures as recently as yesterday.  It’s still a bit chilly outside, but the warmth of the sun can definitely be felt already, and I’m sure it will turn out to be a lovely spring day.  And while I’d love to get outside right now, I have a steaming cup of chai tea, a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, and a delicious Date Bar to entice me to stay in and write this post.
My Volunteer Book Club met yesterday to discuss Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. This novel, published in 2015, is supposedly the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that Lee originally submitted to her publisher and that was rejected and reworked into Mockingbird.  Set 20 years after Mockingbird, against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, this novel sees twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returning to her home in Maycomb, Alabama from New York for a two-week visit.  She is met at the station by her sweetheart, Henry Clinton, who implores her to move back home and marry him. He points out that her father, Atticus, is getting older, and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and that it is her duty as a daughter to care for him at this time in his life.   Her response is that Atticus will let her know when he needs her, and proceeds to make small-talk with Henry, avoiding his marriage proposal once again. Atticus’ sister, Alexandria, is taking care of the household and her brother now that Calpurnia has retired and returned to her family, and Alexandria, too, implores Jean Louise to move back home and settle down.  It is clear that Jean Louise is trying to figure things out now that she has finished school in New York, and she asks Henry to take her to Finch’s Landing, where they have another discussion about marriage, and Jean Louise proposes a midnight swim. On their way back home, they are overtaken by a carload of young black men driving dangerously fast, and Henry mentions that they now have the money for cars, but fail to get licenses or insurance.  The next day, their swim causes a minor scandal, and Alexandria arranges a Coffee for Jean Louise, in the hopes that it will serve to help her reconnect with old friends and show her how good life in Maycomb could be for her. Jean Louise learns that Calpurnia’s grandson struck and killed a man, and decides to visit Calpurnia to offer her support, but is met with a chilly response. When she later finds a pamphlet among her father’s papers entitled “The Black Plague”, and hears that her father and Henry will be attending the Citizen’s Council Meeting where a racist speaker will be presenting, she follows them to the meeting and is appalled to find that her father is not just a member but is actually introducing this speaker.  She is horrified, and seeks advice from Atticus’ brother, eccentric Uncle Jack, who tells her that Atticus is only trying to slow down the process of racial integration in the South in order to avoid another uprising, but Jean Louise has trouble grasping this notion. The fact that her father has agreed to take Calpurnia’s grandson’s case in order to stop the NAACP from getting involved is too much for her to understand and process. It is only once she has a discussion with her father that she is able to see that, just as she had originally believed, Atticus can still serve as a “watchman”, or moral compass, for the County, and that she, too, could fill the same role. She tells Henry that she doesn't love him and will never marry him, but she is able to finally see her father not as a godlike figure, but as a man, flawed but well-intentioned.  I was a bit nervous about this discussion, due to the controversial response to this novel, and the fact that my group members loved Mockingbird, but they surprised me once again by demonstrating their open-mindedness and insight.  We discussed the controversy surrounding the publication of this novel, and wondered if Lee would have wanted it published at all.  We discussed the ways in which our responses to both Mockingbird and Watchman might have been different if they had been published close to the same time and if Watchman had, in fact, been a sequel to Mockingbird rather than a first draft.  We wondered how much editing went into this novel before it was published, as it felt, despite the rich language, description and characterization, a bit rough, and we all agreed that it would have taken on a different shape if it were polished and released as a sequel.  Because I am not a huge fan of Mockingbird, I thought it might be interesting to read this novel, and I enjoyed it much more than Mockingbird for a number of reasons.  The characters seemed more believable, the difference between good and evil was less defined, more subtle, and the writing had more “zing”, for lack of a better word.  In Mockingbird, Scout and Atticus were too unbelievable, too saintly, and the situation was too obvious.  In Watchman, there is no real “situation”, it is more of a “coming-of-age” story for Jean Louise.  It reminded me of Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent in both style and message, exposing the dark underside of American society, and suggesting that corruption or “evil” is not always clearly defined, but is more often coloured in shades of gray.  All in all, it was a successful meeting, and I would recommend this to anyone, even if you are a fan of Mockingbird.  It is also a great choice for book clubs, especially if your group has already read Mockingbird.        
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine and warmer weather!
Bye for now…

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Tea and treats on a sunny Sunday morning...

We’ve had alot of rain recently, so it’s nice to see the sun, at least for a day (more rain in next week’s forecast… *sigh*).  So I’ll make the best of the good weather today and go for a long walk, but first I have a steaming cup of chai tea with a few extra cloves thrown in for a bit of extra spiciness (*yum*), a date bar and a slice of banana bread to enjoy while I tell you about the book I read last week.
I don’t remember how I heard about this book, Her One Mistake, but I’m glad I came across it, as it was pretty unputdownable.  This debut thriller by British author Heidi Perks is told from alternating points of view, and the narratives take place over a two week period.  Charlotte and Harriet have been friends for the past five years, ever since Harriet moved into the village, although they couldn’t be more different.  Charlotte is scattered, carefree and divorced, while Harriet is orderly, quiet and submissive, When Harriet asks Charlotte to watch her three-year-old daughter Alice one Saturday while she attends a bookkeeping course, Charlotte is thrilled, and makes plans to take all the children to the school fair.  Harriet has never left Alice with anyone before, but Charlotte assures her that everything will be fine… until Alice disappears from the fair shortly after their arrival. Charlotte is frantic, Harriet is devastated, and Harriet’s husband, Brian, is furious. Who took Alice, and why? Could this abduction be linked to the recent abduction of a little boy, Mason, from the same village?  Following the investigation through the eyes of Charlotte and Harriet, we learn, bit by bit, that all is not what it seems, and are drawn deeper and deeper into their lives until we discover the shocking truth. This psychological thriller had everything you could want in an “unreliable narrator” type thriller. It shifted from one point of view to another, and from one time period to another (not quite a “before” and “after”, more of a “during” and “after”).  Having read quite a few of these types of novels, it was easy enough for me to guess what was going to happen, but I still enjoyed it, and thought Perks did a great job, especially since this was her first book. She will definitely be an author to watch, and I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys these types of novels.
Oh, and I went to the big Used Book Sale on the weekend, both Friday and Saturday, and found quite a few books that I didn’t know I wanted but decided I had to have on my bookshelves. Friday is a day to choose individual titles that you really want, because you are charged per item, but Saturday is the “fun” day, when you can fill a box for $10, so you can put into your box anything that looks like it might be interesting.   It’s my favourite weekend of the year, and this year did not disappoint.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!
Bye for now…

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Books and tea on Easter weekend...

I hope the Easter bunny has been good to you this year and brought you lots of treats!  Alas, I bought a Boston Cream donut from Tim Horton’s yesterday and just as I was about to take a big bite right into the squishy cream part, it fell on the ground chocolate-side down, so I didn’t even get to taste it and had to deposit it straight into the compost bin.  Good thing I planned ahead and bought a yummy Date Bar from City Café to have with my chai tea, always a delicious treat!
On this long weekend, I finished two Juvenile/Young Adult books.  The first is Refugee by Alan Gratz.  I love this Young Adult author, who is best known for his historical fiction set in WWII.  Refugee is a bit different in that it weaves together three stories set in different time periods, focusing on three separate families who are seeking refuge from a life set in areas of political controversy, war and almost-certain death.  Twelve-year-old Josef and his family are trying to escape Germany in 1939 after his father is released from a concentration camp and told that if he remains in Germany, he will be returned to the camp. They obtain passage on a ship heading to Cuba, where they, along with nearly 900 other Jewish passengers, have been guaranteed asylum.  When, in 1994, Fidel Castro announces that anyone who wants to leave Cuba could do so without interference, Isabel and her family join forces with their neighbours and head out onto the Atlantic Ocean in a manmade boat to try to reach Miami before he changes his mind. In 2005 Syria, amid bombing and riots, Mahmoud and his family also try to escape and head for asylum in Germany, where they believed they would be welcomed.  All of these families seek safety, and all face obstacles, take risks and encounter perils as they journey into an uncertain future, a future that they believe must be better than what they leave behind. These stories, all based on real historical events, kept me forging ahead even when I knew I had other things that needed to be done - I just couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. It had me cheering for these children, forced to grow up too soon and live through things no one of any age should ever have to experience.  This was a moving, heart-wrenching, yet ultimately uplifting and informative novel that I would recommend to readers between the ages of 10 and 100.
Another poignant book I read was Deborah Ellis’ short story collection, Sit.  This Silver Birch Award nominee weaves together stories of different children sitting, sometimes in chairs, sometimes on fences, sometimes on latrines.  One child is in an evacuee camp in Japan after a tsunami, one is working in a furniture factory in Jakarta, one is in prison, one is in a food court with his family, one is sent to a time-out chair by her bullish, domineering mother, one is on an Amish farm working with the community to overcome a tragedy, and there are many others.  This slim volume was so engrossing, so well-written, so moving, and heart-wrenching and touching and literary and… well, the best word I can come up with is “real”, that I think I will have to buy a copy of for myself and maybe add it to my volunteer book club list for next year. Each story offers a snapshot of a situation that explores an emotionally and/or politically significant theme, and each theme begs to be explored further, even as the stories are complete in and of themselves.  I can’t say enough good things about this slim book of stories, and would recommend it to just about any reader. I read it in a couple of hours, but it should really be read slowly, giving time to contemplate each and every situation and theme.
That’s all for today.  Happy Easter and Happy Spring!  
Bye for now…
PS I almost forgot to mention that next weekend is the big annual CFUW Book Sale in Waterloo at First United Church, so if you are in the area and are in the market for used books, I highly recommend that you make time on Friday or Saturday to check out the huge selection and great deals! http://cfuwkw.org/index.php?page=annual-used-book-sale

And Julie’s Reading Corner is 8 years old this weekend - Happy Birthday!  And it is World Book Day on April 23, as well as Shakespeare’s birthday… so many reasons to read, read, read in April!