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:
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…

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…

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…