Sunday, 15 September 2019

Tea and treats on a rainy morning...

It’s overcast and rainy right now, but that hasn’t stopped me from transforming the many wonderful offerings I purchased at the market yesterday into lunches and suppers for the coming week.  Local leeks, beans, kale, peaches, blueberries, carrots, celery, and much more have gone into the making of a delicious pot of soup and a yummy stir fry. And I baked Date Bread, too, so I’m enjoying a slice with my steeped tea.  What a great time of year this is…
I read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline for my Friends Book Club, which will be meeting tomorrow night.  I’ve read this novel before for my other book group, and we all loved it, so I wasn’t disappointed when one of my friends suggested it for this group.  This novel tells the parallel stories of Molly and Vivian, two women who seem to be polar opposites: Molly is a rebellious seventeen-year-old who has been through a number of foster homes in the past nine years, and her current home is not much better than the others.  Vivian is a ninety-one-year-old widow who seems to have lived a rich and full life with her husband until his death, and now leads a quiet, if somewhat reclusive, existence. After an incident at the public library, Molly is forced to put in fifty hours of community service, and Vivian’s housekeeper suggests that she spend that time cleaning out Vivian’s attic.  Cleaning out a rich lady’s attic is not exactly an exciting prospect, but she reluctantly agrees. What she finds, however, is anything but boring. Instead she discovers that, as an Irish immigrant, Vivian was part of the thousands of orphan children who, between the 1850s and the 1920s, were gathered up and sent on trains to various towns and cities in the hopes that they would be placed in loving homes, but the reality for many was anything but loving; they were often placed in abusive environments and made to work on farms or in households and were considered little more than cheap labour.  Through their time together, Molly and Vivian discover that they are, in fact, very much alike, and they form a bond that may be stronger than any family connection. Based on my previous book club experience with this novel, I think tomorrow night’s discussion will be lively and interesting, and I think everyone will have enjoyed reading and discussing it. One of our members is away and will miss the meeting, but she sent these comments to me:
Just wanted to share with the book club that I really liked that book. It was sad but inspiring and the plot of connecting the "two orphans" was clever and made the book interesting to old and young audiences. It is a book where reading makes you a more empathetic and understanding person and gives hope that even if you think your life is behind you, incredible and great things can happen. That was a beautiful message. I give the book an A! Thank you, my book club, and see you in November.
WOW, that was quite an endorsement, and I agree with everything she said. I would highly recommend it to individual readers and book clubs.
On another note, I was thrilled to find a box from Indigo on my doorstep on Tuesday when I got home from work. I knew what it was, Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Testaments, the sequel to her 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, which I had pre-ordered back in August. But I was not expecting to receive a cloth book bag in the image of the book cover, with a surprise message on the back. I was ridiculously happy for the rest of the evening, and the excitement has remained with me all week. Unfortunately, I couldn't start reading it right away, as I had to finish my book club selection, and while I'd love to start it today, I hardly have any time to read over the next week and I don't want my reading experience to be disjointed; instead, I want to savour every word of this delicious novel. So I will save it to read the following week, when my husband is gone away and I will have time to read and read and read, as long as I want, with no interruptions (except for the cats!). I first read The Handmaid's Tale in grade twelve, so I guess I'm so excited because I've been waiting for more than 30 years for a sequel I never thought would actually be written. Thank you, Margaret Atwood, for writing this and finally satisfying all your Handmaid's Tale fans by (hopefully!) providing answers to so many of the questions we've been left with. I can't wait to dive in!
That's all for today. Stay dry and keep reading!
Bye for now... Julie

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Book club highlights on a cool, fall-ish morning...

I have definitely felt the change in the season this week, with cool mornings and evenings and a lack of humidity in the air.  It’s been awesome, my favourite time of year, but of course, it's always a bit bittersweet, too. It’s both a beginning and an end, the start of a new school year and the end of summer holidays… *sigh*... I’m glad to have a hot cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar to help me through this time of emotional conflict.  
My Volunteer Book Club met yesterday to discuss The Tiger:  a true story of vengeance and survival by Canadian author John Vaillant.  I knew nothing about this book except that my good friend gave it to his father for Christmas a few years ago, and since my friend is such an avid reader (he reads even more than I do!), I thought it would be a good book to choose as my non-fiction selection for our book list.  This book tells the true story of the December 1997 hunt for one of the few remaining Siberian tigers near a remote village in Russia’s Far East. This tiger has gone against his nature and become a man-eater, and he must be hunted and killed before he kills again. Now I’m not a fan of hunting, and I thought this might be too disturbing to read, but Vaillant does a wonderful job of painting a full, clear picture of the situation the men on the hunting team faced as they tracked this menacing tiger.  And the book deals with so much more than just the story of the hunt, which probably takes up less than a third of the book. It provides so much information about Russian history, political changes and how they affected the people, Russia’s relationship with China, Korea and Japan, and the relationship between man, animals and the environment. It explores the psychology of people and animals, and provides historical context for current conditions. I thought it might be too detailed and rambling for my group, and was sort of dreading the reactions I was going to receive for choosing this book, but to my surprise, everyone loved the book.  They didn’t just like it, they raved about it! One member said that she was talking about it to complete strangers, that’s how much she enjoyed it. These are just some of the things we said at the meeting: This book had everything in it - Russian history, the history of tigers and their strategies for hunting, the fact that, in Russia, there seems to be no “middle class”, only absurd wealth and abject poverty, politics, ethics, anthropology, anecdotes, and animal/human interaction; Vaillant was fair, and he put everything in the book into context by providing detailed background information about people and situations; his writing was exceptional.  Someone said that it was almost as if, for these Russians in this remote area, the feelings toward and treatment of the tiger was a personification of a mythical creature. One member thought, “Oh no, it’s non-fiction; I’ll just read the first three chapters and then fake the rest” but then, like me, she was totally riveted and read every word, including the footnotes. Another member found a film mentioned in the book, “The Sheltering Desert”, online and watched it. Others are planning to read some of the books Vaillant mentions or quotes. I'm going to start using the German word umwelt to refer to my personal space and experience, my personal "bubble" (as opposed to the Umgebung or "objective environment"). I think it was one of the most successful meetings we’ve ever had, and I would highly recommend this book to all readers, even those who don’t normally read non-fiction.  
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the fall-like day. Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 2 September 2019

Short post on a long weekend...

I have a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar on the table in front of me as I enjoy this sunny, cool-ish morning, an extra day off before the new school year begins.  Since it is Labour Day, I got thinking about this blog. What began, in part, as something to add to my resume while I was looking for a job has become, after eight years, a labour of love.  I really look forward to sitting down at the start of each week to write about what I’ve been reading, listening to, or thinking about regarding books and reading. I appreciate the comments I’ve received from readers who have said they enjoy reading my blog;  some have even discovered some great books by reading my recommendations. Thanks for letting me know. That makes this even more worthwhile. As a bonus today, I get to listen to CBC Radio Two, as it is a weekday, not a Sunday, and so they have my favourite radio show, Tempo, airing.  This is a win-win situation, and hopefully the start of a delightful day.
Because I went back to work last week, and I also had something planned every evening, I only had time to read one children’s book, but it was a good one.  The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch, the first in the “Secret” Series, tells the story of Cass and Max-Ernest, two children who form an unlikely bond as they investigate the mysterious death of magician Pietro Bergamon and the kidnapping of one of their classmates.  Cass and Max-Ernest both have unusual home lives; Cass’ father is a mystery, and Max-Ernest’s parents have a, hmmm, let’s say “curious” way of dealing with their divorce and shared custody. When Cass and Max-Ernest go exploring at the dead magician’s house, what they discover leads them on an adventure both dangerous and exciting.  This novel reminded me of The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, the first in the “Series of Unfortunate Events”, in many ways.  The narrator warns readers at the beginning that they should not read this book, that it is dangerous (or unpleasant), but if they choose to continue, they do so at their own peril.  The narrator speaks directly to the reader, and uses challenging vocabulary that fits in naturally with the narrative. All of the characters are a bit unusual, but they have special abilities, the usefulness of which become clear as the story progresses.  It reminded me so much of Lemony Snicket that I thought perhaps it is the same author using different pseudonyms. But according to my basic internet search, they are not; Bosch is Raphael Simon and Snicket is Daniel Handler. If this book was not so long, I would read it aloud to my grade four classes this year, but I think kids would have a hard time staying interested for such a long time when they only get to hear me read once a week.  I think I will recommend it to teachers, though, as they read aloud to their classes every day. If you choose to read this, beware! You may become addicted to this series!
That’s all for today.  Enjoy this gorgeous holiday Monday, and embrace the new school year when it starts tomorrow.
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Tea and treats on a cool, breezy Sunday...

These past few days, it’s definitely felt like autumn is in the air, as the mornings are cool and the evenings are, too.  I love this time of year, with school soon starting (I go back to work tomorrow, so school is starting for me sooner than most!) and the cooler weather tangible in the air.  But it’s also bittersweet, as we say goodbye to summer holidays and trips to the beach. Alas, there will be plenty more warm days, just no more holidays until Christmas. And speaking of Christmas, I recently went to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, which was fabulous.  They had a very extensive Maud Lewis Exhibit, among others, and in the gift shop, I purchased a Maud Lewis Edition Country Christmas Loose Black Tea Blend, which I am trying for the first time this morning. While it’s not Christmas yet, I thought it might be a nice tea to pair with my slice of freshly baked Date Bread, and of course, a delicious Date Bar from City Café.  I fell easily back into the habit of making soup and preparing lunches for the coming work week, and going back to work a week before the students return is a good way to ease back into the routine.  
I read just one book last week, as I was busy trying to squeeze every last moment of enjoyment out of my last week of “freedom”, but it was a good one, and one I knew absolutely nothing about.  I must have read a review of this book and put it on hold from the library, then promptly forgot about it, because when I picked it up and began reading, I didn’t even realize it was from the Young Adult collection.  Keep This to Yourself by Canadian author Tom Ryan is told from the point of view of eighteen-year-old Mac, resident of the picturesque coastal town of Camera Cove, a young man who is planning to head off to university in the fall.  While this should be an inspiring and exciting time for him, he is unable to enjoy the last summer of his childhood because tragedy looms over him. One year earlier, his best friend Connor was murdered, the last of four victims killer by the Catalog Killer, a serial killer assumed to be a drifter who has since left the area, but who remains at large.  Mac connects with his group of friends after graduation, and while everyone else seems excited and filled with anticipation about their future, Mac is unable to get over his loss and move on. When he discovers a note from Connor written on the day he died, Mac is filled with a newfound energy and focuses on finding out who killed his friend. He tries to engage his friends in this search, but is shut down again and again, and told to look to the future, not remain stuck in the past.  He meets Quill, the cousin of one of the victims, and finds both an ally and a love interest. Together they attempt to dig deeper and gather information through various, often pretty creative, means. What Mac discovers in the end is both shocking and chilling, and leads to a satisfying conclusion. This novel was great! It managed to be both riveting and well-written, a real page-turner that ticked all the boxes: it was a murder mystery, by a Canadian author, with diverse characters.  It was also about friendship and small-town life, and it had a love story that was central to the main plot. It’s a shame that the content is too mature for my elementary school, but I will definitely recommend it to the librarians at the high schools in my school board. I would recommend this to readers from high school age on to adulthood.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the fabulous weather on this last Sunday of August!
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 16 August 2019

Friday morning post...

We have a big family BBQ tomorrow and have company staying for the weekend, so I wanted to take advantage of this quiet morning to write a quick post before tackling my list of "things to do" in preparation for tomorrow’s festivities.
Just this morning I finished reading the last few pages of the excellent historical novel HHhH by French author Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor.  “HHhH” stands for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”, and Reinhard Heydrich is, in fact, the main subject of this novel; readers are told of his questionable beginnings and ultimate rise within the ranks of the Nazis to become the most lethal man in Hitler’s cabinet.  He is considered to be indestructible, until two men, one Czech and one Slovak, are tasked with a mission: to assassinate Heydrich in Prague. Part of the Czech Resistance, these two parachutists, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, must come up with a plan to fulfill their mission in uncertain circumstances, risking their lives in order to change the course of history.  I don’t normally read historical fiction, but someone recommended this book to me and I put in a “suggestion for purchase” with my library to add to their collection. I’m so glad I did this, as it was riveting, a real page-turner that kept me finding extra opportunities to read, despite the busy-ness of my week. It was a roller-coaster ride of a novel, and was not just concerned with the plot at hand, namely the plot to assassinate Heydrich; Binet also offered insight into his struggles as a writer and researcher while working on this book.  Rather than just offering readers a “Forward” stating that, while based on real events, some of the dialogue, action and characters have been created by the author to enhance the story, he inserts his views throughout the novel. And rather than being annoying and disruptive, this actually made the story feel more like it was happening now, not 75 years ago. I can’t praise this debut enough, and if I wasn’t in rather a rush, I would write more about it and the effect it had on me as a reader, but, unfortunately, my list of tasks is not growing any shorter as I sit and type.  
And I listened to an awesome audiobook recently, City of Saints and Thieves, by Natalie C Anderson, narrated by Pascale Arrmand.  I didn’t realize this was a Young Adult novel until after I started listening to it and looked it up to find out a bit more about it.  This novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Christina, a girl who doesn’t exist. After fleeing the Congo, she and her mother find refuge in Sangui City with the Greyhill family, where they live in relative peace until Christina’s mother is murdered in their home and she runs away, choosing to live on the streets and work with the Goondas rather than take the charity of Mr Greyhill.  Known to the Goondas as “Tiny Girl”, she becomes a master thief, roaming the streets of the city and completing tasks for them in exchange for their protection. But her ultimate goal is to punish Greyhill, whom she is certain killed her mother. When she returns to her former home to retrieve information necessary for her three-part plan to take him down, she is caught by Greyhill’s son Michael, Christina’s friend from her former life, and she must consider whether someone else might actually be responsible for her mother’s murder.  Readers are taken on a thrilling quest that leads us from the dangerous streets of Sangui to the jungles of the Congo in search of the truth. What Christina and Michael discover is brutality, corruption, and finally, the truth about what happened that night in Greyhill’s study. This was a fabulous novel that dealt with several mature subjects with skill and compassion. Although the main characters are in their mid-teens, I think this would appeal to adults of all ages, as the issues are contemporary and, while extremely heavy and depressing at times, the novel is ultimately hopeful.  The narrator did a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life, especially Christina’s friend, Boyboy, a techie nerd who also works with the Goondas. I would definitely recommend this to just about anyone who enjoys a fast-paced thriller set in real-world circumstances.
That’s all for today.  Have a great weekend!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Books and tea on a warm summer morning...

I went out earlier this morning to pick up my usual treat to take advantage of the rather cool-ish temperatures.   It’s supposed to get quite warm this afternoon and remain so for the next few days, but it’s so much more bearable than the humid days we had a few weeks ago, and I don’t think anyone’s complaining.  I have a cup of steeped chai tea to go with my Date Bar as I think about my book club discussion on Friday and the book I read last week.
My Volunteer group got together to discuss The Storied Life of A J Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.  I won’t give a summary here, as I did that in last week’s post, but just a reminder that it is a story of a curmudgeonly bookstore owner who finds love and redemption in the most mysterious ways.  I enjoyed this novel more than I expected, and was impressed with the many clever and insightful turns of phrases that were sprinkled throughout this short novel (I was so impressed that I think I’m going to skim the novel again and highlight  - *gasp!* - all the clever phrases, something I certainly do not condone, ever!!) My ladies all agreed that the book was cute, but not necessarily believable. We thought that Fikry embodied the person we would all secretly like to be, but that we are forced to reign in our curmudgeonly-ness in order to get along in the world.  We all liked Maya’s character, and thought she was super-intelligent and sweet right from the beginning. We noted that all the characters were a bit odd and quirky, including Maya and Fikry’s sister-in-law, Ismay. One member commented that she thought the whole book was like a puzzle, offering pieces here and there, and that you had to really pay attention in order to put them all together.  This comment makes me think that the book actually has more depth than is apparent upon a first reading - maybe I’ll do more than skim it again. They were impressed with the relationship between A J and Amelia, and thought that it was because it was based on friendship that they could make it work. All in all, everyone liked the book, but they didn’t love it, and after a short discussion, people in the group splintered off into smaller groups or pairs to carry on individual conversations.  I have decided to classify this as a “happy/sad” book, and would include on this list A Man Called Ove and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but I think these other two books had more substance and were better-written than Storied LIfe.  Still, it’s short, and I think just about anyone could get something out of it.
And I read The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz last week.  This second installment in the series featuring ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne was ok, but not great, in my opinion.  Hawthorne, who may or may not have pushed a peodophile down a flight of stairs to his death, was fired from Scotland Yard, but he is so brilliant an investigator that he is regularly called back by the Yard as a consultant to help solve cases.  The narrator of the book, a fictional Anthony Horowitz, is hired by Hawthorne to write about his cases, and his publisher signs him on for a three-book deal. Horowitz does not relish this prospect, much preferring to work on the rewrites for the scripts of Foyle’s War, but he reluctantly agrees to write about this current case and becomes caught up in the crime almost against his will.  A successful divorce lawyer, Richard Pryce, is murdered with a very expensive bottle of wine, and the number 182 is painted on wall above him.  The suspects abound: award-winning British-Japanese author Akira Anno, with whom Horowitz has a distinct dislike; client Adrian Lockwood; Mrs Taylor, wife of Gregory Taylor, a college friend of Pryce who was involved in a caving accident resulting in the death of another friend, Charles Richardson; and Richardson’s widow; and many others.  This novel was interesting enough plotwise to keep me wanting to read to find out whodunnit, but it had several flaws, namely that it seemed to be trying too hard to be clever, and also that it seemed to be more about fictional Horowitz’ character grinding axes with everyone, particularly Hawthorne and Anno. There was so much negativity in this book that it was not a pleasure to read, and that negativity overshadowed the plot, the mystery, and the cleverness of the writing.  It was an ok mystery, but not one I would strongly recommend.
That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 2 August 2019

Short post before a long weekend…

On this gorgeous summer morning, with little humidity and lots of sun, I wanted to take a few minutes to write a quick post, as we will be going away for the weekend and I will not be able to post at my usual time.  
I finished a book yesterday that we will be discussing at my Volunteer book club meeting next Friday.  The Storied Life of A J Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a short novel that is both moving and thought-provoking, not surprisingly a popular choice for book clubs.  It tells the story of A J Fikry, a curmudgeonly bookstore owner on Alice Island, a fictional small island accessible by ferry from Boston.  He is recently widowed and is slowly sliding into alcoholic oblivion. When one major event and then another occurs in his life, he is forced to make choices that may alter his life significantly.  That’s all I want to say about the plot for now, but will write more about it after my meeting next week. I will say that it was much better than I was anticipating. It was well-written and succinct, a story of love and redemption, an homage to bookstores, readers and the printed word, and Zevin demonstrated a real gift with language, as evident in her many skilled turns of phrases.  It brought to mind a few books I’ve read recently, and I would recommend this to anyone who enjoyed A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman or The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.
And I listened to an audiobook recently, The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian.  It tells the story of Chip, a pilot whose is forced to land his plane in the water, killing 39 of the 48 people on board.  He is haunted by these dead souls, and he and his family move away in the hopes that this will be a fresh start. What happens instead is that his family members, a wife and twin daughters, are drawn surreptitiously into a group of citizens in the small town who call themselves herbalists but seem to have a sinister hidden agenda.  And the pilot’s hauntings are becoming worse, not better. Imagine Rosemary’s Baby meeting  The Shining with a dose of The Exorcist, add two narrators, one of them pretty bad, and you’ve got this unfortunate book.  I would not recommend it to anyone.
That’s all for today.  Have a great long weekend!
Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 29 July 2019

Short post after my vacation...

I just got back from a week visiting my oldest friend in Manitoba, and am quite tired from the travel, so this will be a short post before I get to all the chores that go along with catching up after being away for a while.
While I was away I managed to finish a Young Adult book from my school library, To Look a Nazi in the Eye:  a teen’s account of a war criminal trial by Kathy Kacer with Jordana Lebowitz, which was very interesting and well-written.  In this book, Kacer recounts the experiences of University of Guelph student Lebowitz as she attends the first week of the trial of Oskar Groening, “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, who in 2015 stood trial as a war criminal and accessory to the murder of 300, 000 Hungarian Jews between 1944 and 1945.   Lebowitz’ grandparents were survivors of concentration camps, and this family history affected her deeply, so when the opportunity arose to attend this trial and share her experiences, she did all she could to make it happen. Kacer came across a mention of her story in a newspaper and decided that partnering with her was the best way to write about this trial, which was something she already wanted to do.  What resulted is a moving account of not only Groening’s involvement in the “machinery of death”, but stories from survivors who were ripped away from their happy childhoods, separated from their families and thrown into concentration camps, witnessing atrocities they should never have had to see and never laying eyes on their family members again. Through this account we also begin to understand how this experience affected one young woman today, and learn about her passionate desire to share her experiences with others in order to learn from history and hopefully avoid repeating it.  It was a fabulous read that I would recommend to anyone interested in WWII history and the pursuit of justice even as much as 70 years later.
That’s all for now.  I have a long list of things to do on this hot, sunny day, but if I start now, I may find some time to read this afternoon.
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 19 July 2019

Early post on another hot day...

It’s incredibly hot and humid already, and it’s only 9:30am!  The forecast indicates that we should expect the same into the weekend before it cools down early next week.  One of the benefits of this, however, is that I went out early this morning while it was still cool-ish to purchase a delicious Date Bar in preparation for this post, and it is even more delicious than usual.  This may be because I usually buy it on Saturday and eat it on Sunday morning, so this one is fresher and moister than ever - YUM!  
My schedule is all messed up, too, as I was away last week, home this week, and will be away again next week, so you’re getting two posts in a relatively short time, then there will be a lull before the next post.  Since I’m off for the summer and it’s been so hot this week, I’ve stayed in quite a bit and have had lots of time to read. I started a book with a stunningly beautiful cover, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland, but the serious themes and descriptive writing in tn this book deserve to be savoured on a cooler, more comfortable day when I have the time and can really focus and enjoy the language and the storytelling, so I put it away for another day.  I’m planning to have a yard sale later this summer, so I’ve been going through my bookshelves to see what I could add to my already-large selection of books to sell. I came across one that was a freebie from either the big book sale I go to (“fill a box for $10) or the big library conference I go to every winter.  I’m not a huge fan of the novels of award-winning, bestselling Canadian writer Patrick deWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, but I have a copy of French Exit, which has a very appealing cover, so I thought I would give it a try.  I’ve tried reading Undermajordomo Minor in the past, but the storyline was too strange for my liking and I stopped without finishing.  I think deWitt favours a style that leans towards the absurd, no, it absolutely is absurd, dark comedies that do not really appeal to my taste as a reader.  This one is no exception, but it may be his most “normal” or “mainstream” so far.  This novel tells the story of Frances and Malcolm Price, mother and son who, since the death of father and husband Franklin, have managed to run through their substantial wealth while doing absolutely nothing of any value for society.  They also have an elderly cat, Small Frank, who lives with them in their apartment in New York, although neither of them likes the cat. As we find out later, Frances believes that the spirit of her dead husband lives on in Small Frank, and she both wishes to get rid of him and feels obligated to care for him in this incarnation as she did not do at the end of his corrupt, immoral life as a man.  When Frances realizes that they have nothing left, she sells everything and moves herself and Malcolm to an apartment in Paris owned by her good friend, Joan. There she executes a two-part plan, the details about which only she knows. The eclectic cast of characters we meet in this novel includes Malcolm’s fiancée, Susan, a level-headed young woman who, for some bizarre reason, is in love with Malcolm, a man who seems to have never moved beyond adolescence, despite being in his early thirties.  There is also Mme Reynard, a lonely woman who attaches herself to the pair in Paris; Madeleine, the fortuneteller they met on the ship; Julius, a shy private investigator whose services they employ; and many others. This “tragedy of manners” was easy to read, and I’m sure that it probably deserves a deeper consideration than my two days of reading afforded, but the story was too bizarre for me to reread it and ponder the significance of this or that occurrence.  It was OK, and now I can say that I’ve actually finished reading something by this Canadian author, but I can’t think of anyone I would recommend it to. This is not to say that I don’t recognize or appreciate deWitt’s skill and talent as a writer, just that I don’t enjoy the type of novels he writes. Still, if you are a fan of his work, you should enjoy this one as well, at least according to the reviews.
That’s all for today.  Since I’m staying inside due to the heat, I plan to go through the piles of books set aside for “discard consideration” from my own collections, then settle down for an afternoon of reading with my next, hopefully good, book.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

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…
Julie

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…
Julie

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…
Julie

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…
Julie

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…
Julie

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…
Julie