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

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Book talk on a short day before a long week off…

Daylight Savings Time begins today, so we lose an hour, but I can’t complain because it’s also the start of March Break, so I’ll be off for a week.  I foresee many opportunities to drink tea and tackle the pile of library books I have waiting for me! But on this mild, rainy morning, I have a steaming cup of chai tea, a delicious Date Bar, and a freshly baked Morning Glory muffin as a treat while I write about the book I read last week.
I read the newest Michael Robotham mystery, The Other Wife, the latest book to feature clinical psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin, and I found it to be just ok.  Joe’s wife passed away in the last book, Charlie is away at school, so he’s doing his best to raise twelve-year-old daughter Emma on his own.  She suffers from anxiety, and with a recent move to London and switch to a new school, life is even more difficult for her to navigate. When Joe’s father, celebrated surgeon William, is admitted to hospital as a victim of a vicious attack, Joe springs into action and races to the hospital, only to discover that the woman sitting by his father’s bedside, claiming to be William’s wife, is not Joe’s mother.  Young, beautiful Olivia Blackmore has been having an affair with William for the past twenty years, and she is convinced that she has as much right to participate in the decision-making surrounding William’s fate as his “real” family members, his wife Mary and his adult children. When this secret life is revealed, everyone denies the reality of it, but in their search for the identity of William’s attacker, they uncover much more than they ever anticipated.  While the police are content to cut corners and accept the obvious and easy solution, Joe continues to dig until all is revealed, changing his perspective of his father, “God’s-personal-surgeon-in-waiting”, forever. I can’t divulge any more details, as part of the drive behind finishing this book is discovering new tidbits along the way. Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed with the novel. Complex plot and familiar characters aside, it felt to this reader as though Robotham was throwing in every twist he could possibly manage without ensuring that it all made sense or were necessary.  Too many things were left unexplained, and some of the action was totally implausible. (There were also many major typos - not just letters missing, but whole words! - which really irked me and added to my "so-so" response to the book). There were some good parts, don’t get me wrong. It was compelling enough to keep me reading so that I finished it in just four days, but, as with Peter Robinson’s most recent books, this novel, too, left me feeling that perhaps it’s time to give up this series and write something different. I was just looking at some reviews for this novel (most were very positive - was I missing something?!), and it appears that this is, in fact, Rootham’s last “Joseph O’Loughlin” novel. I hope he will undertake some standalones.
That’s all I’ve got for you today.  Because it’s so rainy and tempestuous outside, I’m looking forward to staying in and possibly finishing Sophie Hannah’s new novel, The Next to Die, which I will tell you about next week.  Enjoy the rest of this short day, and keep reading!    
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Book club highlights on a bright, chilly morning...

It’s so lovely to see the sun this morning, after the strange, wild weather we had last week.  It’s a perfect morning for a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar - yummy and cozy.
My Volunteer Book Club met yesterday to discuss JoJo Moyes’ runaway bestseller Me Before You.  You are probably already familiar with the plot, having either read the book or seen the movie, but here is a brief summary.  In a small English tourist town, where the main feature is the castle, twenty-seven year old Louisa is quite happy working at a café and continuing in her long-term relationship with personal trainer boyfriend Patrick.  She lives at home with her mom and dad, her granddad, her sister Treena and Treena’s toddle son Thomas. It’s cramped, but it’s home, and she is completely content… until the café closes and she must find another job to help support the family, since her father is always fearful that he may lose his job at the furniture factory.  After several non-starters, she finally takes a job as a carer for the Traynor family, looking after thirty-five year old Will, a quadriplegic who is entirely dependent on others for his daily survival. Two years earlier, Will was living a good life as a high-powered company executive, taking exotic vacations and going on extreme sporting adventures, until he is hit by a motorcyclist on his way to work one day.  Will has given up the desire to live in this reduced state, and has agreed to give his family six more months, but then has booked an appointment at Dignitas, an organization in Switzerland that offers assistance for those who wish to end their lives with dignity. Unbeknownst to her, Louisa is hired to help change Will’s mind by changing his attitude and outlook on life and restoring his will to live.  I’ll say no more, because it is the uncertainty of her success that keeps the story going. I had four members who came out yesterday, and three had read this novel before. It came out in 2012, and since then, Moyes has written two more books following up on this story, which two of my group members have also read. They loved it. They loved Louisa’s character, her quirky family, the situations they found themselves in and the ways they reacted to them.  Everyone thought they seemed very “real”, and they felt that the ways Louisa grew and changed throughout the novel was moving and inspiring. We discussed the title, who was the "me" and who was the "you", and came up with some very interesting interpretations. We talked about Will, but less so than Louisa, and we discussed his family dynamic as well, his mother and father, and his relationship with his sister. We discussed his attitude towards his current situation, and agreed that he wasn’t really making much of an effort to adapt, that he has pretty much given up on things ever improving (and not just physically, but in terms of outlook and mindset).  I am the only one who did not enjoy the book, and am, coincidentally, the only one who focused more on Will than Louisa. I couldn’t help comparing his situation to the true account of Jean-Dominique Bauby, former Editor-in-Chief of French Elle who was stricken with sudden and total paralysis, or a type of stroke known as “locked-in” syndrome, where he could only blink his left eye.  And yet, he still managed to write a memoir of his life before this trauma, as well as what it was like to be “locked-in”. This brief memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, was brilliant and moving, an inspiration to live life to the fullest, because everything could change in an instant.  Compared to that, in my opinion, Will was a pathetic character who gave up too easily and too quickly. While reading this book, I had to remind myself that he’s just a fictional character whose main purpose is to change Louisa’s life.  It was a good choice for a book club, and a great discussion, and it forced me to read something I would never have read otherwise.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Books and audiobooks on a weird-weather morning...

It’s wild and windy outside this morning, although the sun has broken through a few times, but we’re expecting high winds and rain, rain, rain all day today… not great for going outside for a long walk, but great day for staying in and reading!
I read two books last week and finished listening to an audiobook, so this might be a long post.  The first book I read, or should I say devoured, was The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.  Artist Alicia Berenson is in an institute for the criminally insane after stabbing her husband to death.  For seven years, she has not spoken a word, not even to defend herself or explain her actions. Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber, convinced that he can break through her wall of silence and get her talking, gets hired on at the institute and takes on her case as his personal challenge.  But as he digs deeper, he discovers that her silence is covering up secrets far more complex than he ever imagined. And he must consider whether, ultimately, he really wants the truth revealed. This debut thriller sucked me in right away, and kept me flying through the pages until the very last paragraph.  It was one of the best “unreliable narrator” novels I’ve read in a long time, and the plot twists were so sudden and shocking that I had to stop and think about it all until everything fell into place and I was amazed at the final picture these puzzle pieces created. This would be a great novel for anyone who enjoyed The Silent Wife (ASA Harrison), The Widow (Fiona Barton) or Before I Go To Sleep (S J Watson).
And I read a Young Adult novel, Firegirl, by Tony Abbott.  This novel is narrated by Tom, an unremarkable grade seven student who is pudgy and lacks confidence.  He has few friends, and a huge crush on Courtney, the beautiful, flawless, smart girl in class. Tom does alright and things are fine… until a new student joins his class and his life changes forever.  Jessica suffered severe burns to her face and body and is undergoing treatments in Boston, which is why her family moved to the area. Of course, everyone is uncomfortable around her because she looks different and strange, and on the occasions she speaks, she does so very quietly.  Because Tom lives near her, he is forced to interact with her when, after she misses a day of school for treatments, their teacher asks if he can bring over her homework assignment. What he discovers shakes him to the core, and he tries to reconcile his feelings with what he has always known as his reality.  This book was short but powerful, and it reminded my of R J Palacio’s bestseller Wonder.  I didn’t love Wonder, but I did enjoy this novel, probably because I prefer shorter novels that say alot.  This novel really looked at friendships and connections, and explored the idea that who you are inside is so much more important that what you look like on the outside.  It was a good novel that I would recommend to anyone in grades 5 and up.
And I finished listening to the most recent “Cormoran Strike” novel by Robert Galbraith, Lethal White, and it was awesome!  I won’t go into the plot too much, as the book was pretty long and the plot complex, but it begins with Robin’s wedding to Matthew, and the uncomfortable working relationship she has with Strike afterwards, since Matthew is dead set against her working for him after her recent attack on their last case.  Along comes Billy, a homeless man who clearly has mental health issues but insists that Strike help him discover the truth behind his memories of a strangled girl from his childhood. Strike also receives a request from a cabinet minister to help him discover dirt he can use to fight recent blackmail attempts.  Are these two cases connected? And if so, how? Spanning decades and uncovering loads of family secrets, the investigation reveals more than they could have ever anticipated as Robin and Strike race to find all the answers before someone else dies. It was a great listening experience, and I hope they never change the narrator - they have all been narrated by Robert Glenister so far, and he does an amazing job.  The plot was a bit over-the-top, but the character development for Robin and Strike, as well as the development of their relationship, gave this novel that added dimension that so many detective novels lack. It was also the reason this novel was so very long (20 parts, or more than 22 hours of listening!). I would recommend it to anyone, but you need to have read at least the first book in the series, if not all of them, to fully understand their complex relationship.
That’s all for today.  Oh, today is the start of Freedom To Read Week, and in honour of that, I’m using my “Banned Books” mug for my chai tea this morning!  My favourite banned book is probably Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence, but unfortunately I don't have time to read it this week, as I have a book club meeting on Saturday and have barely begun reading our selection.  Happy FTRW, everyone, and read a banned or challenged book today!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Book talk on a long winter weekend...

It’s Family Day weekend and I’m enjoying the thought that I have an extra day off tomorrow to do whatever I want, which will surely include not only cleaning the house, but also a few additional hours of reading!  I have a cup of steaming chai tea and a yummy Date Bar in front of me… delicious! I'm using a different mug today, one that I bought up in Owen Sound a few years ago made by one of their local artists, Kate McLaren (http://artistscoop.ca/project/kate-mclaren/).  The design is wonderful, but I hardly ever use it for some reason. I ran a Cup and Mug Drive at school for our local Soup Kitchen, so in the past two weeks, I’ve been collecting mugs, sorting mugs, and wrapping mugs, and seemingly doing little else.  I went through the many, many mugs that I have at home to consider which ones I could donate and which ones I absolutely HAD to keep, which made me think about what makes a mug worthy of home shelf space. For me, a mug has to have an appealing design; basically, it has to look good.  I have fairly small hands, so a mug also has to fit well in them, as I often like to cradle my mug in my hands for warmth. The handle has to feel right, too; it can’t be too wide or too narrow, it can’t jut out too far or be too small to fit at least three fingers. And it has to sit right on my bottom lip while I'm sipping;  the ceramic can’t be too thick, but I also don’t like cups that are made of very thin glass, either. So I’m going to test this mug out and see if it passes the “Keep” test… So far, the design is beautiful, a handmade mug depicting a windswept fir tree on a desolate landscape. It is perfectly rounded so it fits well in my hands. It is easy and enjoyable to drink from.  Hmmm… it passes all the tests so far, so I wonder why I never use it. Maybe it is difficult to wash, the final criteria for “the perfect mug”. I guess I’ll find that out when I finish my tea, but so far, I'm having a delightful sipping experience!
Enough about mugs and tea.  Let’s talk about books! I read another Young Adult book last week to check whether it would be appropriate for my library.  Karen McManus’ debut novel One Of Us Is Lying is a high school whodunnit involving characters similar to the cast of the 1980s movie “The Breakfast Club”, and it was awesome!  Five teens are given after-school detentions for bringing cell phones to class, phones that aren’t even theirs. During the detention, one of the the students has a severe allergic reaction and ends up dead.  The other four are suspects, but who could have done this, and why? Told from the points of view of the four suspects, Addy the Beauty, Bronwyn the Brain, Carter the Jock and Nate the Criminal, details about their high school and home life experiences are filled in, as well as their experiences with Simon, their dead classmate, who was anything but an angel.  Simon ran a weekly online gossip column about his fellow classmates, revealing personal and often highly sensitive details about the lives of individuals, making him less than popular and more than a little feared. Police focus their investigation on the four students who were with Simon at the time of his death and seem determined to pin the crime on one of them.  Although they barely know each other, they must learn to work together to find out who the real killer is, while also doing their best to stay off the police radar as much as possible. This book was great for a number of reasons. It was a real whodunnit in the tradition of Agatha Christie (think And Then There Were None) or the game Clue (“Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick”).  It kept this reader guessing until the last chapter. I liked that it was told from various points of view so I felt that I was getting to know each character and experiencing along with them the frustration at the stalled investigation.  It was a bit over-the-top, but not entirely unbelievable, and while I think some of the content was too mature for my students, I would recommend it to anyone from grade 9 up. It was a perfect read for this week because it was really interesting and made me want to read (I had a “snow day” on Tuesday and was totally housebound, so I was happy to spend many hours reading!).  It included a love story for Valentine’s Day, it was also about family for Family Day, and about unexpected friendships. And while most of the story took place between September and November, the final chapter was dated February 16, and I finished the book on February 15, which was a bit of a coincidence. I would recommend this book to adults as well as teens, and would advise that you not be put off by the similarity to “The Breakfast Club”, as I initially was.  While it is a bit of a retelling, it is so very much more!
That’s all for today.  Happy Family Day weekend, and remember to make time to read on your extra day off!  
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Tea and treats on a bright, chilly morning...

Winter has returned, so it’s perfect weather to enjoy a cup of steaming chai and a delicious Date Bar.  I’m happy the weather is once again bright and cold, as I don’t feel we’ve had much of a winter so far (I know I’m in the minority when I express some sadness over that - clearly people were thrilled when Wiarton Willie did not see his shadow last weekend, predicting an early spring!).  I will go out for a long walk when I finish my post, as I just got notification that I have another hold ready to pick up at the library.
I read two books last week.  The first is She Lies in Wait, a debut novel by British author Gytha Lodge.  It must have been recommended in an e-newsletter, and I was quite happy to get it from the library, as I’m always on the lookout for a new mystery writer.  This novel focuses on seven teenagers who go camping one summer evening, but only six return. Thirty years later, a body is discovered in a hideaway that only these teens knew about, so which of them is the guilty one?  Fifteen-year-old Topaz heads out for a night of camping and partying with her best female friends and their older male friends. Reluctantly, her fourteen-year-old sister, Aurora, has to tag along. Brilliant, spacey Aurora is both thrilled to be included in the group and bored with them because she doesn’t fit in.  When she is discovered missing by one of the group at dawn, they search around their campsite but she is nowhere to be found. After an exhaustive and extensive search by police and community, the case is filed away as open but as-yet unsolved. Thirty years later, a body is discovered in the woods and DCI Sheens is heading the investigation.  When it turns out that the body is Aurora, Sheens must go back and check every detail of the original investigation to find out what may have been missed and reinterview everyone to find the truth. Sheens was a new police graduate at the time of the original investigation, and he also knew the teens in the group from school, although he was a bit older, so going back over the original case brings up some long-forgotten personal memories for him as well.  As he and his team dig deeper into the stories of the suspects, they must use every bit of training they received to sort through the lies to get to the truth and find the killer before he or she silences another witness. This appears to be the first in what will be a new series featuring Sheens and his team, and it was a solid police procedural. It wasn’t brilliant, but the writing was good and it had a complex enough, though still credible, plot to keep me interested.  It was much like Peter Robinson’s middle-of-the-road mysteries, not as good as the ones that really “shine”, but still telling a decent story while also developing the characters of the team members and building relationships between them. I’m sure these will be good books, and I will look for more in this series, but, in my opinion, they are not stellar reads like The Widow, which was the debut novel by Fiona Barton (by the way, her now book just came out and I can’t wait to read it!!)
And I read a juvenile thriller by Linwood Barclay, Escape, the follow-up to Silver BIrch nominee, Chase, and it was awesome!  I am not a huge fan of Barclay’s adult thrillers, mainly set in Promise Falls and featuring Dave Harwood, but these two juvenile thrillers were unputdownable!  My post for the first book, which I finished just before New Year’s, read:
...this is his first book written for kids, and it was a good one. Chipper is a genetically modified spy dog who escapes The Institute and certain termination.  Jeff Conway is a twelve-year-old boy living and working at his Aunt Flo’s fishing camp. He misses his dead parents, his old life, and the dog he had to give away when he moved to the camp. When Chipper shows up at the camp, Jeff becomes involved in a most dangerous game that, if lost, could cost both their lives.  This page-turner was well-written, with interesting plot and characters. The only problem was that it was too short - it actually did end with the words “To be continued…”, and there is a second book available, Escape, which I think I need to purchase for my school library, as any student who reads this one will be sure to want to know what happens next!
Well, I found out what happens next, and boy oh boy, what a roller coaster ride! Although Jeff manages to escape with Chipper, where can they go and how will they live? And along the way, we, along with Jeff and Chipper, wonder who they can trust and what they can believe. I was very pleased with this novel and feel that maybe Barclay has found a new niche.  I don’t think there will be a continuation of this story, but maybe he will write other juvenile thrillers with different plots and characters.
That’s all for today.  Have a wonderful day, get outside and enjoy the clear weather, and don’t forget to keep reading!
Bye for now… Julie

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Books and treats on a mild, melty winter morning...

The weather has warmed up considerably over the past two days, and now everything is squishy and melting with the mild temperatures.  I don’t love this kind of weather, preferring instead a crisp, cold day, but I realize I’m in the minority and we take what we get. So I plan to make the most of it by going out for a long walk later if the rain holds off.  But for now I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar… mmmmm… (My friend has a blog where she posts weekly, and this week she had a quote that she found on Pintrest that said “Without tea there is only darkness and chaos”... I agree totally!!)
Since Freedom to Read Week is always celebrated in February, my Volunteer Book Group met yesterday to discuss our “banned book”.  This year we chose Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and WOW, what a discussion we had!  In case you are unfamiliar with the plot of this 1950’s novel and have missed both the original film and the remake, here is a brief summary.  Humbert Humbert, a man imprisoned for murder, is penning his story on the advice of his therapist. It begins when he is just a boy in Paris.  During a summer vacation at a beach when he was twelve years old, he fell in love with a young girl, Annabel Leigh, with whom he became obsessed. They make many attempts to explore each other, but their efforts are continually thwarted, and their last attempt occurs in a hidden cove on this beach. He is just at the point of “possessing” his darling when they are interrupted by ribald bathers; four months later, Annabel died of typhus, and poor Humbert grows up with stunted sexual development.  He is only interested in what he refers to as “nymphets”, young girls between approximately the ages of eight and thirteen who display an advanced knowledge of sexual behaviour, perhaps “coquettish” is the word I’m looking for, but even more than playful flirtation, more a sense of sexual maturity and even provocation. He does his best to satisfy himself with youthful-looking prostitutes, and even marries, but his efforts are doomed and he spends several stretches of time in sanatoriums in Europe and Quebec. He ends up traveling to America to fulfil a position with a distant cousin, a tutoring post, but when he arrives, a tragedy has occurred and he must find alternate housing and employment.  He goes to check out a room for rent, and is completely put off by the flirtations of the house’s owner, widow Charlotte Haze. He's decided to head back to Europe when he spies her young daughter, eleven-year-old Dolores, sunbathing in the backyard. He is sure that this is his Annabel returned to him, and, against his better judgement, he takes the room. What happens next are a series of events that lead him to take Dolores/Dolly/Lo/Lolita on a cross-country spree spent in motels and inns while they feign a father-daughter relationship in public and carry on as lovers in private. Remember, though, Lolita is just twelve years old, and Humbert is thirty-seven, and this is not a situation involving two willing and equal partners.  What results is a power struggle as Humbert tries to keep up the facade as well as keeping control of Lolita as she struggles to pretend to be leading a “normal” life for an adolescent. I’ve read this book before and have not enjoyed it in the past, and I did not enjoy it this time either. I found the main character loathsome and the subject matter reprehensible. I was particularly disgusted by the lengthy descriptions, on every page for at least half of the book, of the sexual experiences in which Humbert and Lolita engage, or rather, that Humbert, through master/servant power play, forces her to participate in. I will admit, however, that the language was poetic and it was beautifully written. This book was banned in France and England in the 1950s, as well as in Argentina and New Zealand.  This publicity only helped with the popularity of the novel in the US, and while controversial, it is often named as one of the 100 greatest novels published in the 20th century. There were four of us at the meeting, and two of the members listened to this as an audiobook, narrated by Jeremy Irons (who played Humbert Humbert in the 1997 remake of the film). They seemed to have a better opinion of the character and the novel as a whole than the two of us who read the print version. They especially appreciated the poetic language Nabokov used. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, the language was more poetic in the first half of the novel, but seemed to deteriorate, like Humbert’s psyche, in the latter half; while still clever, it lacked the poetry of the earlier part. The audiobook members had never read this before, and one didn’t know anything about it, so it was a shock, “a real eye-opener”, for her.  It was a lively and heated discussion, as we all had different opinions on the various aspects of the novel we were able to touch on in the 90-minute period we were together. One of the main themes running through the novel is Humbert’s inability to move beyond his experience with Annabel, and his regular references to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee” - I read the poem aloud to the group, and we all felt that it gave insight into Humbert’s mindset. We felt that, regardless of how we felt about the subject matter, we had to appreciate the cleverness and poetry of the language and the descriptions of deep emotions. One member felt that this novel was “educational”, and we wondered how Nabokov could imagine what a character such as Humbert would be feeling or experiencing (but we had to resist thinking that this was autobiographical!). We discussed the complicity of Lolita, her choices, her options, and what power she held in this relationship.  We thought Lolita was a tragic character, because she lost her childhood, and we wondered if she could ever lead a normal life. We felt that the thing that made Humbert’s actions most reprehensible was the fact that it was not an honest relationship; he never married Lolita and admitted publicly that they were husband and wife, which would have legitimized their sexual relationship. Instead, they pretended to be father and daughter in public and were illicit lovers in private, but neither relationship was real. One member made a comment relating to something that happens later in the novel by pointing out that sometimes marriage isn’t an opportunity to go into something, but to leave something. We discussed and discussed and discussed, and when I finally had to leave because I had to be somewhere, the others were still discussing… I hope I didn’t miss too much! It was an excellent book club selection, and there were so many more things we could have discussed, but I can absolutely see why this book was banned, and continues to be challenged.
On that note, I’ll close with a link to the list of the 100 most banned or challenged books (http://www.freedomtoread.ca/censorship-in-canada/challenged-works-list/#.XFcV6eHYrnF), in the hopes that you will exercise your freedom to read by picking one up and reading it today!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Lots of treats but no books on a snowy, wintry morning…

The snow is really coming down, and it doesn’t look like it will let up any time soon, but I’m cozy and well-prepared with a cup of chai tea (bagged, not loose) and several different kinds of treats to keep me fueled for a day of reading!
Uncharacteristically, I haven’t finished anything new to tell you about this week.  We had our book club meeting on Monday night to discuss The Gargoyle and everyone seemed to have enjoyed it. Two of the four of us who were able to make it out on that chilly evening listened to it as an audiobook and they said the narrator was awesome, that he really brought the text, story and characters to life.  We agreed that there were many layers to the novel, and that we would need much longer than one meeting to discuss them all; in fact, we would need to do more research before we could even begin to touch on some of the topics, like Dante’s Inferno and the historical and religious themes that are featured, particularly in Marianne Engel’s stories.  We described this novel as “a tragic love story across the ages”, and wondered how much was real and how much coincidence.  We talked about the gargoyles, or “grotesques”, that Marianne Engel carved, and what their significance might be (we weren’t sure, but thought they must be significant).  We wondered whether Marianne Engel was actually real or just a delusion for the unnamed main character. We discussed the significance of names, particularly Marianne Engel’s name and the fact that the main character remains unnamed.  We discussed so much more, but I can’t recall specifics right now. Let’s just say that it was a great book club choice and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good book for discussion. I would also recommend going to the Penguin Reader’s Guide for more information: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/37067/the-gargoyle-by-andrew-davidson/9780307388674/readers-guide/
I was so excited to start a book I just picked up at the library, The Baltimore Boys by Joël Dicker, a recently translated prequel/sequel to his bestselling novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I really enjoyed.  But between finishing up my book club book last weekend and having our meeting on Monday night, I only managed to get through half of this novel before deciding to put it down and start on the book club book we will be discussing next Saturday morning, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  So I can’t tell you about either book at this point, but will give you book club discussion highlights on Lolita next week.  
That’s all for today.  Gotta get out there and shovel the snow, then come back in and read, read, read!  Stay warm and have a wonderful week!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Short post on a chilly winter morning...

My cup of steaming chai tea is certainly helping me feel warm and cozy on this very chilly morning.  It’s a perfect day to stay in, drink tea and read!
I finished a YA book last weekend that I really enjoyed, April Henry’s The Girl I Used To Be.  Henry has written numerous YA murder mysteries, and this one did not disappoint.  Olivia Reinhardt is an emancipated 17 year old minor living on her own in Portland Oregon.  When she learns of the discovery of new evidence relating to the case of her mother’s murder, she goes back to her hometown to try to discover what really happened all those years ago.  When Ariel Benson was just three years old, her mother was stabbed and her father disappeared, leaving her at a nearby WalMart. She lived with her grandmother until her death a few years later, after which Ariel was shunted from one failed adoption placement to another.  At one point, her adoptive mother made her change her name to Olivia, and she’s stuck with that in the hopes that it will help her remain anonymous while in her hometown; after all, it’s been ten years and no one would expect her to return. She finds a job, establishes some acquaintances and connections, and seems to be managing to investigate while still keeping her true identity secret, but could someone have discovered who she is and be targeting her? I started listening to this as an audiobook, as I’d read at least one other book by Henry that I enjoyed. Unfortunately I didn’t love the narration, but I found the story intriguing, so I brought the print copy of the book home from my library and read it last weekend. It was a bit far-fetched and some of the situations were pretty improbable, but for a YA book, I thought it was quite good. It had that “unputdownable” quality that I love in mysteries, that need to keep reading to find out what happens next.  I was recommending it to some intermediate students at school this past week, so hopefully someone will take it out and read it.
And I’m not quite finished The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, which is the book we will be discussing at my Friends’ Book Group tomorrow night.  This novel follows two different storylines, one in the present day, narrated by the unnamed main character, a former porn star who, at the beginning of the book, is involved in a serious single-car accident while impaired by both drug and alcohol consumption, an accident that leaves him with horrible burns over most of his body, and which also leaves him emasculated.  An enigmatic woman, Marianne Engel, from the Psychiatric Ward of the hospital, visits him in the Burn Ward and develops a relationship that keeps him from giving up on life completely, claiming that they first met at a monastery in Germany in 1350 and have had a 600+ year relationship. The second storyline is narrated by Marianne Engel, and takes the form of stories set during different periods in history; sometimes these stories are a recounting of “their history” (or so she claims), and sometimes they are stories about other historical figures whose lives and situations directly relate to the main character’s situations. Sound far-fetched?  It totally is, but it is also totally absorbing! This debut novel by Canadian writer Davidson has been sitting on my bookshelf for years, and I probably would never have read it if it wasn’t one of our book club choices, but I’m loving it! It’s clever and insightful, absorbing and clearly well-researched, and while it has a few flaws, they are far outweighed by the brilliance of the narrative. I’ll give you the discussion highlights next week - I hope the others are finding it as engaging and enjoyable as I am!
That’s all for today.  Stay warm and keep reading!
Bye for now… Julie

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Books and audiobooks on a chilly winter morning...

My steaming cup of chai tea and yummy Date Bar are welcome treats on this bright, chilly morning.  Although we only have a dusting of snow, it certainly feels like winter.
I read a really interesting book last week that I saw in a bookstore while I was in Toronto over the holidays.  I didn’t buy it, but ended up taking it out of the library, and I was surprised at how good it was. The Natural Way of Things by Australian writer Charlotte Wood opens with a woman stumbling around in unfamiliar surroundings, wearing strange clothing and processing information through a fog.  She has clearly been drugged, abducted and moved to a remote location. She sees another woman, also dressed in strange clothing, also glassy-eyed and confused. Over time, these women, Yolanda and Verla, discover others in the same situation scattered throughout what seems to be a deserted sheep-ranching operation in the remote outback.  Their hair has been shorn, they are wearing scratchy old-fashioned pinafore-style dresses, and they are assigned to sleep in what look like dogboxes in a kennel-style building. They are controlled by two men, Boncer and Teddy, whose job, it appears, is to degrade them in every way possible. They eat poorly-prepared pre-packaged and/or canned food, they are forced to work for hours at taxing manual labour, moving heavy concrete slabs in order to build a road, or so they guess.  Nothing is ever clear, but over time, the women, at first all strangers, determine that they do, in fact, have something in common: they have all been involved in a sex scandal, and this, it appears, is their punishment. But who is punishing them, and why? This book was amazing, a real wake-up call to the possible realities of women, and not just in a fantastical world, but one that exists in other countries even today. Imagine The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, with all the symbolism and rituals, and Wood’s beautiful, frightening, hypnotic language to describe it all.  WOW, it was certainly an eye-opener, and, while at first frustrating, the vagueness serves to make it all the more believable and real.  If you are a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, then I’m sure you will enjoy this disturbing novel, which made me think of what the Colonies in Atwood’s book might be like, or what the designers of Gilead may have used as a small test group before they worked out all the kinks and “got it right”, launching their new and improved society in America.  
And I finished listening to a fabulous audiobook that is totally not the type of book I would normally read  or listen to. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a roller-coaster ride through a Virtual Reality (VR) world called OASIS on the hunt for a hidden “Easter Egg”.  James Halliday, creator of OASIS, has died, leaving no heir to his fortune.  His dying message, sent to all OASIS users (which, in 2040, is everyone), is that the finder of the Egg will inherit not only his fortune, but the sole rights to OASIS, a VR world that, in this desolate dystopian society, everyone uses for free, often as the only escape available from the drudgery of everyday life.  Everyone spends most of their time inside the OASIS, going to school, shopping, and playing.  Wade Watts, the main character, as his online avatar Parzival, or Z to his friends, is determined to escape the drudgery of his current existence living in “the Stacks” with his neglectful aunt and her string of abusive boyfriends by finding the Egg.  He has no friends in real life (IRL), but has made friends with others who have excelled at the game, mainly the elusive H, the amazing blogger wordsmith Art3mis, and a pair of Japanese brothers, Shoto and Daito, although they are pursuing the search independently.  The clues are all related to pop culture from the 1980s, the time when Halliday was a teenager, and there are numerous references to movies, music and video games from that era. After five years of searching, with no one achieving even the first level of success in the game, people are losing hope and winding down their searches; only the most persistent keep at it.  When Parzival finds the copper key and manages to solve the riddle to open the first gate, the world goes wild and the enthusiasm for the hunt begins anew! Unfortunately, his main rival is Innovative Online Industries, or IOI, a huge, multimillion-dollar, multinational corporation determined to find the egg and inherit the fortune and the rights to the OASIS, with the intention of making it available only to those who can afford to pay a monthly access fee, thereby depriving millions of users who are living in reduced circumstances.  As the hunt proceeds, the danger online and IRL mounts for all involved, and Parzival must determine whether it is worth continuing the search or just accept defeat and his new reality. Oh, and did I mention that Parzival is in love with Art3mis, even though he’s never met her IRL? This novel is set inside a virtual reality and is essentially a wild ride through a gaming adventure, settings and plots that should hold no interest for me, and yet I looked for opportunities to listen to this audiobook and find out what happens next. It was a classic quest of good vs evil, with the underdog taking on the giant, a David and Goliath story that totally immersed me in the 1980s, which is my era, too, so I got most of the references. The narrator, Wil Wheaton, did an awesome job of bringing the characters and story to life, and I enjoyed it to the very last word (it must be good if Cline could use the word "asshat" more than once without me groaning and immediately selecting "delete"!).  I’m now halfway through the movie, which is all special effects and totally geared towards kids, and not a very good adaptation of the book, in my opinion, but I think the intended audience has enjoyed it, as it got a good rating on Internet Movie Database. The book, though, is so much more than special effects. It explores issues such as poverty, environmental destruction, open access to information and technology, greed and fairness, friendship and love, and what it means to be responsible both to others and to the world we live in. It was a wonderful book, and one I’m planning to buy for my school library.
That’s all for today.  I’m going to bundle up and get outside for a long walk, then curl up with a hot cup of tea to finish April Henry’s Young Adult book, The Girl I Used To Be, which I will tell you about next week.  Then I have another book club book to read, The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, for my Friends’ book club meeting a week from tomorrow… “sigh*... so many books, so little time… (thank goodness there is so much tea!)
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 6 January 2019

First post for 2019...

With a steaming cup of chai tea, a yummy Date Bar and a slice of freshly baked date bread, I think I’m starting the new year out right!  And I just had a book club meeting… what could be better than that?!
My Volunteer Book Group met yesterday to discuss The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, and it was a resounding success!  A number of years ago, we read another book by this author, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, about two young girls who form a friendship but who, due to class and circumstances, cannot continue being friends. They manage to remain in contact using Nüshu, a language developed exclusively for women in a southern province in China.  I usually try to choose books by different authors each year, as there are so many great books out there, but Hummingbird Lane was a popular book club selection when I was checking online, and I’m glad I added it to our list.  This book follows Li-yan, a young girl in the Akha ethnic minority in the mountains of China, over several decades of her life, beginning at age eight, when she is helping her parents and her village people pick tea leaves in a remote area on the mountainside.  Although it begins in 1988, the opening scenes have the atmosphere of a book set in 1888, with the picking process, the method of travel, and the superstitions and traditions that guide the village people seeming primitive to the extreme. Li-yan has the opportunity to continue her education, but of course love always gets in the way for young women in fiction, and this alters the course of her journey.  Several life-changing events occur, including the birth of a daughter, whom she leaves on the steps of an orphanage, and we follow as she makes her way from girlhood to middle-age, always haunted by her life choices and decisions. Interspersed with Li-yan’s story are chapters offering information about Haley, Li-yan’s daughter, adopted by an American couple living in California. One of my members said she loved this book from the first page to the last, which, she noted, doesn’t usually happen.  We all felt that we learned much about tea, the recent history in China, Chinese ethnic minorities, Chinese ways of life, and the challenges faced by Chinese girls adopted by American parents. There was so much to discuss about this book, and we tried to touch briefly on the major themes: ethnic minorities’ struggles to maintain their culture and traditions while also facing pressure to modernize; tea making and the importance of fair trade; friendship, love and relationships; and the challenges of being adopted by and living in a culture that is not your own.  See did an awesome job of making us feel at once hopeful that the Akha people would be able to hold onto their traditions and also hopeful that they would let some of their superstitions go. We were enlightened by Haley’s struggles, and were able to suspend our sense of disbelief, for the sake of moving the story along, when one too many coincidences occurred. We thought the language and the descriptions were wonderful, and the characters fully developed. I can only hope that the rest of the year’s book club selections meet the level of enthusiasm that this one did.
That’s all for today.  I’m going out for a long walk to enjoy the clear, mild, sunny day.  Don’t forget to make time to read! Happy 2019!!

Bye for now…
Julie