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…
Julie

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…
Julie  

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…
Julie

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…
Julie

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…
Julie
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!

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Books and tea on a cold, rainy morning...

It was a positively lovely, sunny day yesterday but it’s turned cold and rainy, with the rain not likely to let up all day.  My steaming cup of chai tea, delicious Date Bar and freshly baked Date Bread are welcome treats to keep me warm and cozy on what seems like a good day to stay in and read!
Last week I read The Suspect by Fiona Barton, and it was fabulous!  This is her third book featuring reporter Kate Waters, and I think I enjoyed it nearly as much as her first one, The Widow, which is saying alot because I really, really enjoyed that one!.   On a late-August day, what reporters at The Post call “the silly season”, when not much is happening that is newsworthy, senior reporter Kate Waters is writing celebrity pieces to fill the pages of her newspaper when the story of two missing British girls in Thailand comes across her desk.  The mother of one of the girls, Alex, is concerned because she hasn’t heard from her daughter in a few days, and they had made arrangements to speak the day before so Alex could hear the results of her university applications. Alex’s travelling companion, Rosie, a last-minute stand-in for her best friend Mags, who backed out of the plan, has also not been heard from, and the paper picks up the story to help with the families’ search for their daughters.  What everyone thinks is an innocent case of teens going off on an excursion and forgetting to call home soon ends in tragedy when they turn up dead, seemingly victims of a fire at the guesthouse where they were staying. Kate convinces her boss that they need to go to Bangkok to investigate further to find out what really happened, but what she could not have anticipated was that her eldest son, Jake, who, as far as she and her husband knew, has been working at a turtle conservation site in Phuket for the past two years, turns out to have been present at the guesthouse on the night of the fire.  When he discharges himself from the hospital and flees, Kate becomes more than just “the reporter”, joining the ranks of the other “mothers” who want to find out what happened to their children in Bangkok. Just how involved was Jake, and why did he flee? Told in alternating chapters from the various points of view of Kate (“The Reporter”), Bob Sparkes (“The Detective”) and Alex’s mom, Lesley O’Connor (“The Mother”), this novel unfolds slowly, and we are treated to an insider’s detailed view of these experiences.  Throughout the novel, there are also chapters told from Alex's point of view, detailing the girls' experiences and movements in Thailand, and it is during these chapters that I found myself hoping for a better, simpler outcome, even though I knew the ultimate fate of the girls. This was an edge-of-your-seat read that had me looking at the clock and thinking “just one more chapter” every night before I had to finally close the book and go to bed. I finished it early this morning, and the ending did not disappoint. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys British mystery-thrillers. As a side note, after reading this book, I will never, ever go to Thailand!
That’s all for today.  Stay in, drink tea, and read!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Book talk on a mild spring morning...

I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar, as well as a slice of freshly baked Extra Banana-y Banana Bread, a zesty loaf with lemon and dried cranberries - yum! I have the patio door open so I can hear the birds chirping, and I have my first load of laundry of the year hanging outside. Spring seems to have arrived in full this weekend, and I intend to take advantage of it!
Yesterday morning my Volunteer Book Group meet to discuss The Deserters by local author Pamela Mulloy.  And as a special treat, Pamela came to our group to talk about her book!  This was our first ever author visit, and I feel confident in saying that it was a complete success.  I read the book last year and here is what I said about it then:
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, Michael, 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 Michael will not want to come back to Canada, and she fears her marriage is over. Well, she fears it, but may also welcome it.  Michael 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, Ivy, arrives from Montreal, things get complicated, then Michael 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 situations create. 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!
Well, I did and she did, and what a wonderful discussion it was!  I was quite nervous about this, but Pamela was so wonderful and welcoming, and she fit right into the group.  She began by telling us a bit about herself and her life, and where the idea for the book came from. Interestingly enough, I thought the book was equally about Eugenie and Dean, but the idea for the book originated with her desire to explore the effects of war on soldiers and PTSD, and the relationship and complications with Eugenie came about much later in the planning.  We talked about the names in the book, Eugenie and Michael, Ivy and Dean, and what they meant to the author as well as the way we the readers interpreted them. We discussed the complex and complicated relationships in the novel, between Eugenie and Dean, Eugenie and Michael, Eugenie and Ivy, and the inevitable ending of the story. Pamela shared the ways in which she researched PTSD, and her personal family connection that inspired her to explore this issue.  We discussed why Dean carried around a copy of Homer’s The Iliad, and what Pamela referred to as “the universal and constant narrative of war”.  We discussed the title, and how it could refer to different characters in the novel, deserters from the army, from relationships, from life, from responsibilities.  One member mentioned that, while she understood the internal conflicts and emotions of the characters, she didn’t know what anyone looked like! I’d never really thought about that, but it’s true, there are no descriptions of the characters’ physical attributes, but their internal struggles, as well as the settings, are described in detail.  Pamela said that, for her, the interior of the characters and the settings are more important, but that she didn’t consciously exclude descriptions of her characters, it just never became part of the book. I’m sure we all benefited from this insightful discussion with the author, and I think she also enjoyed hearing the views and opinions of readers who have read her book and thought about it in depth.  It was probably the best meeting we’ll have all year, and once again, I would recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in novels exploring PTSD, complicated relationships, and domestic fiction. Thanks Pamela - you were an awesome guest!
That’s all for today.  Time to get outside and go for a long walk - I may even have to pull out my sandals!  (On Friday, I was wearing boots and gloves!)
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Book talk on a snowy morning... YIKES!

Yes, there’s a mountain of the fluffy white stuff outside this morning, despite the heavy rains yesterday that washed away all the old snow.  I’m sure this will be short-lived, as it is supposed to be sunny and mild over the next few days, with the temperatures reaching 11 degrees on Wednesday.  I guess I’ll have to pull out my boots again to go for a walk this afternoon. For now, I’m enjoying my steaming cup of chai tea and delicious Date Bar - yum!
I read Just Like Family by Kate Hilton last week.  This was a book that I saw in a bookstore when I was in Toronto over the March Break that looked interesting enough to read, but not interesting enough to buy, and I’m glad I chose to borrow instead of purchase.  Set mainly in Toronto, it tells the story of Avery Graham, a forty-something woman whose life seems to be running along smoothly, until suddenly it is not. As Chief of Staff to Mayor Peter Haines, Avery’s days are filled with meetings and calls, and she rarely has time to see her long-time partner Matt, but she’s ok with this arrangement.  She loves the demands of her job and the hustle and bustle of her busy life. But when Matt proposes, Avery is forced to look at her life more closely and contemplate what a lifetime commitment to him might mean and how it might impact her present circumstances, including her relationship with Peter, for whom she works and to whom she has been devoted since childhood.  And just when she needs their support, she realizes that her long-time friendships with the two women who matter most to her have fallen by the wayside due to her recent lifestyle choices. How will she resolve her dilemma and make a choice that will satisfy everyone and still make her happy? This novel by Toronto author Hilton was a good domestic novel, a “women’s” book that dealt with the difficulties of juggling a career and home life and finding a balance that will work in the short-term and also be the right choice in the long-term.  It demonstrated strong writing skills, and some of the imagery was dead-on. I almost hate to criticize, because it was a good novel, but I found it a bit clichéd, and I had difficulty relating to Avery. However, this novel got really strong reviews, and Hilton is a bestselling author, so if you are in the mood for a domestic novel that explores the lifestyle and choices of one woman, you could do worse than this. (I’m just now thinking that maybe I didn’t love it because I don’t normally read these types of novels, but I LOVED The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier, and it is a similar type of novel).
That’s all for today.  Get outside, or just stay in and avoid the snow, whatever you decide.  I think I’ll try going for a short-ish walk then get to my next book club selection for next weekend - we are having the author come and speak to us, so I want to really pay attention to the novel and make lots of notes!  Oh, this selection, the Deserters by Pamela Mulloy, is also a novel about women’s choices, and it is amazing!!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Tea, treats and Young Adult books on a mild spring morning...

The weather has been all over the place recently, mild and rainy one day, sunny and brisk the next, and today is no exception.  It should be mild and partly sunny today, but then getting much colder overnight, so I’ll need to switch from my lighter coat back to my winter coat when I go to work tomorrow morning.  I have tea and a delicious Date Bar, and also a slice of freshly baked Zesty Extra Banana-y Banana Bread as a treat this morning - yum!
I’ll start today with a quick summary of my Friends’ Book Club meeting on Monday.  We all loved The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware.  We loved the characters, the setting, the plot, all of it.  We talked about the role of money in literature and in life, and discussed how it can motivate people to do things they would not normally do.  Someone mentioned The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, about what happens when four siblings expectat a sizeable inheritance, and how this affects their judgement in various situations throughout their lives.  We discussed family, what makes up a family, the role family plays in literature and in life, and what “family” really means. It was a great choice and a successful meeting, and I would recommend this book for any book club.  It’s a gothic mystery, but one with enough substance to keep a discussion going.
I read a Young Adult novel last week, The Lonely Dead by April Henry.  This novel is typical Henry, a young girl is somehow involved in a crime that she alone has the insight and the determination to solve.  In this book, Adele is a high school student who, when not taking her meds, sees dead people. Diagnosed with schizophrenia at age seven, she has been on medication that makes her lethargic and dulls her perception of the world.  At age seventeen, she forgets to take her meds one day and her life becomes so much brighter and clearer, her responses so much quicker. She’s decided to skip her meds, but she can’t tell anyone about her visions or they will deem her mentally ill and possibly lock her away, like they did with her grandmother and her mother.  One night, sneaking out of the apartment she shares with her grandfather, she goes to a party hosted by her former best friend, super-popular Tori, only to get drunk and stumble home alone through the woods later that night. When she comes across Tori in the woods, calling out to her, she is at first confused: why would Tori be out there alone?  Then she realizes Tori is dead, and she implores Adele to help find her killer. But without an alibi, Adele becomes the prime suspect in the murder, and as the evidence against her piles up, she must act fast and find the truth before she ends up in jail for a murder she’s fairly sure she didn’t commit. This novel was OK, not great, but interesting enough to keep me reading right to the end.  I can imagine that it would appeal to the intended audience, intermediate and high school students, and while I don’t think it’s Henry’s best book, you could do worse than this one if you wanted a YA mystery as a quick read.
Speaking of YA mysteries, I’m nearly finished The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert right now, and compared to Henry’s book, it is astounding in its complexity and character development.  Imagine what would happen if Alice in Wonderland went in search of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and you’ve got the basic scenario in this dark modern fairytale-gone-wrong.  Seventeen year old Alice and her mother Ella are on the run from bad luck; they’ve been on the run their whole lives, never staying any one place for long.  Motel rooms, guest rooms, crashing on friends’ couches, this is a way of life for Alice, and she accepts it as a necessity… until Ella meets and marries Harold, and it seems their luck has changed.  Alice gets a job, goes to a posh high school, and actually starts to make some… hmmm… acquaintances (not friends). Then Ella goes missing and Alice must race to find her, wherever she is, and save her from whoever or whatever has abducted her.  Down, down, down the rabbit hole goes Alice, only to discover the truth about herself… and that’s all I can tell you so far. I will finish today, but I have to say that this book is one heck of a rollercoaster ride through fairyland, and I can see why it got such great reviews.  This debut novel tells such a great story that I think I will add it to my YA collection at school, despite the modest use of swear words (I wish she hadn’t used the “f” word - it would make this decision so much easier). Next week I can just mention how I felt about the ending of this book, which two of my colleagues at work have already read; one did not find the ending satisfying, the other thought it was OK, but mentioned that a sequel will be coming out in the fall.  
That’s all for today.  Have a wonderful Sunday, and be sure to make time for tea and reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Books, audiobooks and treats on a GREEN morning...

It’s a Green morning in more ways than one.  Most of our snow has melted so you can see the (mostly brown) grass.  You can also feel that Spring is in the air. And it’s St Patrick’s Day!  I’m celebrating all of these things with a steaming cup of chai tea and a double treat of delicious Date Bar and freshly baked Date Bread… yum!
I finished reading Sophie Hannah’s latest novel, The Next To Die, and it lived up to her reputation for writing smart and sassy psychological thrillers.  This novel, the tenth in the “Spilling CID” series, focuses on a serial killer dubbed “Billy Dead Mates”, because he seems to be killing best friends.  So far four individuals have been murdered, not in pairs but separately, shot in the head in their homes after seemingly inviting the killer inside. Each individual had received a little white handmade book filled with blank pages, except for one line of poetry, shortly before they died.  Stand-up comedian Kim Tribbeck is in the corridor of the cancer ward in the hospital, waiting for her grandmother to die, when she learns of this and realizes that she also received a little book like this at one of her gigs, but that was at least a year ago. When she discovers another of these books after her grandmother’s death, she goes to the police for help, wondering if she will be the next to die, despite the fact that she doesn’t have a best friend.  If the killer is not targeting best friends, what could the motivation behind these murders be? And is Kim, in fact, going to be the next to die? This psychological thriller, featuring brilliant, quirky Detective Simon Waterhouse and his wife, ex-detective Charlie Zailer, as well as the cast of characters on the Spilling CID team, is characteristically wry and smart, with a plot that twists and turns, and there are plenty of red herrings. I found the ending a bit weak, but otherwise, it was a real page-turner.  I liked that it focused more on the development of the case and the people involved in it, particularly Kim, than on the investigating team and their relationships. I haven’t read all of Hannah’s books, but I think I should start reading this series from the beginning. If you like smart British suspense thrillers, this might be the next book for you!
And I finished my book club book for tomorrow night’s discussion, The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware.  I read this last year and blogged about it.  Here’s what I said about it then:
I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Ruth Ware’s latest book… 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!)   
I not only bought tarot cards, I bought a copy of the book!  So I was thrilled when this one was chosen as our next book club book and could just pull it off my shelf.  I still enjoyed it, and was able to follow the plot twists even better this time, as I kind of remembered the twisty ending, though not all the details.  It was awesome, and I’m so curious to hear what others have to say about it.
And I finished listening to an audio edition of what I think is a Young Adult book, As Simple As Snow by Gregory Galloway, which was pretty good, considering I was expecting an adult novel.  It is told from the point of view of an unnamed high school student who is bland and leads a boring life.  He is singled out by mysterious, exotic new Goth girl Anastasia/Anna Cayne, who changes his life forever. Through postcards, shortwave radio broadcasts, and references to obscure music, films and writers, she brings our narrator to life by encouraging him to take an interest in the things in which she herself is interested.  A week before Valentine’s Day, she goes missing, leaving only her dress and a hole in the ice, and the narrator, along with the reader, are given clues in the form of puzzles to help us find out where she has gone. It was well-narrated and interesting, although a bit over-the-top, but I enjoyed it.  It really made me think about my own experiences as a teenager, and wonder if there was one individual who changed my life. I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend this book, but I found it interesting, so if you like to read books about teenagers finding themselves, teen obsessions, quirky characters, and missing persons, then this might be a good one for you to check out.
That’s all for today.  Happy St Patrick’s Day!  Hmmm… maybe my next book should be by an Irish author!
Bye for now…
Julie