Monday, 14 October 2019

Hot tea on a chilly morning...

On this bright, chilly morning, I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar, along with the last of the season’s blueberries.  It's been gloriously cool and bright this past week, perfect fall weather. Since it is Thanksgiving, I am thinking about things I am thankful for, such as the public library, the variety of local fruits and vegetables available at this time of year, my husband and cats, of course, and my book clubs made up of such enthusiastic readers.  I’m also thankful that, despite the busy-ness of life, I can still find time every weekend to sit quietly, enjoy a hot tea and a treat, reflect on what I’ve been reading and share these reflections with you. Thank you for reading my post and making this a worthwhile endeavour for me!.
I read a book last week that I was quite excited about, The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.  I so enjoyed The Death of Mrs Westaway that I felt sure this one would be just as good.  What I’ve determined, though, is that Ware’s mysteries can be hit-or-miss.  I really enjoyed her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, then did not like her next two mysteries.  When she came out with Mrs Westarway, I thought she’d found her niche writing contemporary mysteries that are strongly influenced by classics, almost a modern retelling.  With this novel, I thought perhaps it would be a retelling of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, not just because of the similarities in the titles but also because both are about nannies who are being haunted in a remote location, and I had high hopes.  The novel begins with Rowan Caine applying for a nanny position at Heatherbrae House, located in a remote area of Scotland. She travels from busy London for her interview and finds a stunningly modernized house that combines all the latest technology, such as voice-activated touch panels to control the lights, music and temperature and a home management app called HAPPY, with traditional details such as hidden doorways and dark corners.  When she meets stylish Sandra Elincourt, Rowan is taken in by her welcoming manner and her sociability. After spending the night and meeting the girls the next morning, friendly five-year-old Ellie and sullen eight-year-old Maddie, she heads back home, all the while thinking that she desperately wants this job. We the readers sense that it’s not just because it pays so well, although that is certainly an enticement, but there is some indication that there’s more to this story than is at first apparent.  Rowan is not really bothered by the fact that the last four nannies have left under mysterious circumstances, nor does she take seriously the warning Maddie gave her just before she left for the train station, that “the ghosts wouldn’t like it” if she came back. When she gets the job, she is told that she will have a few days to settle in with Sandra around before she and her husband, Bill, head off to a conference for a week, but when she arrives, she discovers that there has been a change in plan and they will be heading out the very next day.  While Rowan feels a bit out of her depth, she is sure that her past nannying experience has prepared her for the challenge. But she struggles with HAPPY and the control panels, as well as how to manage the children, who appear to be quite at home running around the vast, startlingly wild landscape surrounding Heatherbrae unsupervised. Thank goodness Jack the handsome handyman lives in the renovated coach-house above the garage. When things begin to get creepy and she hears creaking footsteps in the middle of the night, she feels completely out of her depth. Then she discovers a mysterious locked garden and a dangerous-looking pond on the grounds.  Throw into the mix the arrival of fourteen-year-old rebellious Rhiannon, and you’ve got the recipe for a great gothic mystery. Unfortunately, there was something about this novel that left me feeling unsatisfied. The plot was interesting (it was in fact a modern-day Turn of the Screw), the setting was gorgeously creepy, the children were mysterious and unsettling, but I think what was lacking was any depth of character, particularly of Rowan.  She seemed flat and two-dimensional, and rather pathetic, which is a shame, because this could have been wonderfully sinister read. Still, it was certainly a page-turner, and I thought the ending was interesting.  I haven’t read Henry James’ classic in a long time, but I have added it to my Volunteer book club list for next year to read in October. This novel was better, in my opinion, than The Lying Game and The Woman in Cabin 10, but not as good as The Death of Mrs Westaway, so if you like gothic mysteries, you could definitely do worse than this.
That’s all for today.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you enjoy your day in whatever way you choose to celebrate.
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Short post on a drizzly morning...

It’s warm and drizzly this morning as I write this post, and I’m sorry to say that this may be a very short post.  I was going to take a full “sick day” from blogging today, as I’m not feeling my best and it’s been a super-busy weekend.  But a steaming cup of chai tea and a bowl of fresh local fruit is sure to improve my disposition, at least in the short term.
My Volunteer Book Group met yesterday to discuss The English Patient by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje.  This novel, which won both the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award in 1992, as well as the Golden Man Booker Prize in 2018, takes place in a deserted Italian villa near the end of World War II and centres on four dissimilar individuals all brought together by the war experience.  Hana is a young Canadian nurse who has refused to leave with all the others when they abandon the villa hospital. Instead, she pours all her energy into caring for the English patient, an unidentified middle aged man who has suffered severe burns in a plane crash and is dying. Caravaggio is a Canadian thief and former friend of Hana’s father.  He joins the war effort and comes looking for Hana when he hears that her father has died in the war. He discovers not only the young woman, but the English patient, whom he has been following off and on throughout the war. Kip is a young man from India who idolizes the English, joining the British army and becoming a sapper, charged with dismantling unexploded bombs.  Although Hana thinks she has fallen in love with the English patient, she and Kip form a relationship that serves to offer hope in a time of utter despair. Caravaggio’s stay at the hospital serves two purposes: to watch over Hana and to try to get the English patient to reveal information about himself, his war experiences and his true identity. The English patient is nameless throughout most of the book, but Caravaggio suspects that he is really Count Laudislaus de Almasy, a Hungarian spy who, because of his vast knowledge of the African deserts, was aiding the Germans in their efforts to cross Northern Africa.  Mystery surrounding the English patient is the main thing that unites the others, but they also discover that, despite their differences, they all share similar feelings and attitudes, of love and responsibility, loyalty and the need for release. Based on the impression I got from my book club members last month when I reminded them that this was the book for October, I didn’t think anyone would have read the book, let alone enjoyed it, but they surprised me. Most had read at least half of the book, and a few had actually finished it. One member, who complained the most about it last month, raved about it yesterday!  The comment I heard most often from people was that they didn’t know what was going on, that the story was too hard to follow. This is absolutely true. It is not told in chronological order, but rather jumps back and forth in time, and is told from various points of view, too. And much of the narrative consists of sentence fragments. But everyone also commented on how lyrical and poetic the language was, the descriptions of even the smallest thing or occurrence. We spoke about the difficulty of being a spy, how challenging it would be to keep straight the different stories told to different individuals, and how the English patient withheld his identity, despite his severe physical condition, until the end.  One member mentioned the English patient’s lengthy and poetic descriptions, particularly of the desert and the sandstorms, and we wondered whether this was perhaps a ploy, a way to distract Hana and the readers, from probing too deeply for personal information. This is a novel of love and war, of loyalty and deception and betrayal, and while my response to the novel when I finished it was to wonder whether this was truly the best book written in the English language in the past 50 years (as the Golden Man Booker Prize would suggest), after the discussion, I have a new appreciation for it. Maybe with these comments in mind, I may try rereading it sometime in the near future. It was a good book club selection, and provoked interesting discussion from all.

That’s all for today.  I’m going to try to get out for a short walk, even if I have to dodge the raindrops.

Bye for now…
Jule