Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Canada Day post...

It’s a hot, sticky Canada Day, and I’m trying to stay cool by not doing too much.  I went for a walk already this morning and picked up a delicious Date Bar (it’s too hot to bake anything), and I’m pairing it with a steaming cup of Pu-erh tea.  They say that drinking hot beverages actually keeps you cooler than drinking cold ones… I guess I’ve been doing it right all these years without even knowing it!
I didn’t plan very well so I don’t have a book by a Canadian author to tell you about today.  What I have instead is a bit of a rant about a book and an audiobook I finished yesterday.  A number of years ago I saw the film adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ psychological thriller, The Girl on the Train and I was quite disappointed, even though my expectations were low.  But I wondered if the book might be better, and I had a copy on my bookshelf so I decided that I would either read it or get rid of it.  Well, this past week I read it and my response to the book was the same as to the movie - low expectations but still disappointment.  Here is a short summary, in case anyone out there does not know what this book is about:  Rachel is the binge-drinking ex-wife of Tom, who is now married to Anna, and they have a young  daughter.  Rachel has lost her job due to her drinking and mental instability but she still takes the train into London every day.  From the train, she watches as she passes her old house, but she also fixates on a young, seemingly happy couple a few doors down whom she names Jess and Jason.  When she catches Jess (real name Megan) kissing someone other than Jason (real name Scott), she is horrified, as they represent everything she wants but does not have.  When Megan goes missing, Rachel decides to tell the police about the other man, and thus becomes involved in the investigation.  What follows are the stories, told from the points of view of Rachel, Anna and Megan, about the time leading up to and immediately following Megan’s disappearance.  Unreliable narrators, binge-drinkers, psychological and physical abuse, miscarriages and obsessions about motherhood… these are all themes explored in this novel.  I guess if I had read this before reading so many other great books that dealt with these themes, I may not have been so disappointed in it, but there are just so many others that did a far better job at this, in my opinion.  My favourite book in this genre is still A S A Harrison’s The Silent Wife.  
At the same time that I was reading Hawkins’ book, I was also listening to The Wives by Tarryn Fisher, a novel told by Thursday, a woman who is married to a man with two other wives.  She gets to see him for two days each week, always on Thursday, but his other wives, Monday and Tuesday, are her constant competition.  She is not supposed to know about them, but after five years of marriage, she becomes curious when she finds out that Monday is pregnant.  Thursday tells herself that she has nothing to worry about, that she, not Monday, is Seth’s legal wife, and that he divorced Tuesday to be with her.  So what if she can’t have children?  So what if she desperately longs to be pregnant?  When she accidentally finds out the name of one of the other wives, she can’t resist the urge to search for more information about her.  As she delves deeper and deeper into the lives of the other women in Seth’s life, she discovers that the man she is married to is nothing like the man she thought she knew.  Unreliable narrators, binge-drinkers, psychological and physical abuse, miscarriages and obsessions about motherhood… these are all themes explored in this novel… hmmm… does this sound familiar?  This is a newer title, so the author definitely stole ideas from other books, and I’m just tired of novels with so little plot and so much internal dialogue concerning how a character ended up in this situation and what she should do about it.  I think I actually preferred this novel to The Girl on the Train, as I felt it had a more satisfying unexpected twist at the end than some others (they ALWAYS have unexpected twists at the end!).  Still, they were so very similar that it was like listening to and reading chapters from the same book, just told by different narrators.  
So I need a break from this!  I think I’m going to find a children’s book to read, and I just started listening to a mystery, The Lost Man by Australian author Jane Harper.
That’s all for today.  Stay cool, stay safe, and have a Happy Canada Day!
Bye for now…
Julie


PS This is my 500th post - WOW!! Thanks for continuing to read this blog.

Friday, 26 June 2020

"School's out for summer..."

It’s the last day of school, and my last day of work until my return on August 31, and while I’ve been working from home these past few months, being off for the summer will mean that I can freely read during the daytime without feeling guilty, so I’m hoping to get through that huge pile of books I picked up from the library last week.  Because of the book I read this week, I’ve made a steaming cup of steeped chai in a small pot on the stove rather than my usual tea, and, of course, I’ve got a delicious Date Bar to go with it.
I read a debut novel by Toronto writer Farah Heron, The Chai Factor.  I’m not sure where I heard about this book, but after last week’s depressing reading experience, what I really needed was a light, easy read that would make me feel good.  And let’s face it, even if the cover, with its bright tangerine background, pictures of an ornate teapot and a guitar, and silhouettes of a man and a women didn’t suggest a love story, then the fact that the word “chai” was in the title was certain to make me smile, as we all know that there’s no better way to lift your mood than a good cup of tea.   Amira Khan is a thirty-year-old woman of Indian descent who is taking the train home to Toronto to finish a project that will hopefully earn her a Masters degree in Engineering.  Her much younger roommates at school were not offering the peace and quiet she needed for this, and she is looking forward to hunkering down in her basement apartment at her grandmother’s house and really applying herself.  When the train breaks down and the passengers are forced to wait in a small train station for a replacement, a creepy guy in a shiny suit makes rude sexual advances towards her, and the red-haired, flannel-shirted, suspendered lumberjack-type guy she saw on the train comes to her rescue, claiming to be her boyfriend.  But rather than appreciate the help, she is offended that he thought she would not be able to defend herself, and when they continue their journey sitting in opposite seats, there is a definite chill in the air, but also a spark of sexual tension.  Reaching her destination, Amira heads off to the library to work on her project, as it is due in two weeks.  When she returns to her grandmother’s house, she is horrified to discover that the rest of the basement rooms have been rented out to a barbershop quartet in town for a competition.  In fairness, she came home early and didn’t tell anyone, so she can’t really complain, but this situation is less than ideal.  What makes it worse is that the red-haired guy from the train, Duncan, is a member of the quartet.  What follows is Amira’s experiences over a two-week period as she tries to complete her school work while not developing a relationship with Duncan.  She also faces challenges returning to the engineering firm where she had worked for four years before taking a leave of absence to further her education, but the new director seems to be not only racist but also sexist. Oh, and one of the quartet is gay, but he’s still partially in the closet with some members of his traditional Indian family.  And Amira also wants to protect her eleven-year-old sister, Zahra, from experiencing the racism and sexism that threatens to dull her enthusiasm and steal her innocence.  She meets adversity and challenges seemingly on every page, and she is so filled with anger that she doesn’t seem to be able to enjoy anything, except maybe her time with her old friend Reena.  Can she find a way to overcome her anger and learn to deal with situations in a more constructive way?  Will she and Duncan get together?  Will Sameer ever tell his family that he’s gay?  And can Amira protect Zahra from the unpleasantness of life?  All of these questions and more will be answered if you stick it out to the very last page.  My first thought was that the plot of this book was not as light and romantic as I had expected.  Amira had so much anger at the world that it was at times overwhelming.  At nearly 400 pages, I felt that this book was overlong, and some of Amira’s rants, as well as the passages describing her conflicting thoughts regarding her feelings towards Duncan, could have been edited.  With all the drama surrounding the completion of her degree, getting involved in a potential relationship, and deciding whether to go back to work at her old firm where things seem to have changed significantly, but not for the better, I was reminded again and again how fortunate I am to be an older adult in a happy relationship, with a job I love, living in an environment where I don’t experience racism or sexism.  I think I now have a bit of an insight into what it would be like to face these challenges on a daily basis, but of course I will never truly be able to understand it, since, as Heron points out, I can just take my equal footing for granted.  I guess my conclusion would be that this book is a bit overlong, but certainly worth reading.  And, of course, the making of chai is an integral part of the story... *smile*
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but remain socially distanced!
Bye for now…
Julie

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Post on a summery morning...

I know summer doesn’t officially start until the weekend, but it certainly feels like it has already arrived.  It is sunny, slightly breezy, and still not too humid this morning, but it is expected to get much warmer by the afternoon.  Good thing I've already been out for a long-ish walk and picked up a delicious Date Bar, which I will be having with my tea as I write this post.  I’ve made a special tea this morning, called Pu-Erh Exotic.  I learned about pu-erh tea when I read Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane and have found a place close by that sells it.  This one is described as a “Pu-Erh tea with a special fermentation (92%), orange blossoms, cornflower petals, raspberry petals (and) flavourings”. Normally I don’t like flowery or fruity teas, but this one, which is a black tea, is delicious!  Thinking about my special tea, my freshly baked Date Bar and the not-yet-unbearably-humid weather, I’d have to say that this is a practically perfect morning.
OK, on to the book I finished reading yesterday.  These past few months, I have really enjoyed checking out the books that have been sitting unread on my bookshelves, some for years.  This week I decided to try a novel that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (it says so on the cover), Lost Souls by Irish novelist Michael Collins.  The beautiful cover of my edition, an ethereal child with angel wings walking through the trees into the light, was a deciding factor in my choice.  Set in a small town outside of Chicago sometime in what I’m guessing is the 1980s, this novel is told from the point of view of Lawrence, a middle-aged cop who, on Hallowe’en night, discovers the body of a three-year-old girl lying dead in a pile of leaves by the side of the road.  She is still wearing her angel wings, and this image haunts him as he tries to find out what happened.  But this small town is no different from many others in fiction and in life, and Lawrence is drawn into a plot to cover up what appears to be a hit-and-run, since the main suspect is Kyle Johnson, the high school star quarterback who will lead the team to victory and put this town on the map.  Greed and obsession, lies and deception abound as Lawrence struggles to uncover the truth despite being blocked at every turn.  This was the most depressing book I’ve read in years.  It was like spending four days inside a classic country song, you know, the one where the man loses his wife, his farm and his dog.  But while it was, in my opinion, excessively heartwrenching, it was compelling enough to keep me interested right to the end.  I really wanted to find out what happened, who killed the little girl and why so much tragedy had to befall this small, unnamed town and threaten to destroy what little was left of the already-ruined life of Lawrence, a good man caught up in a bad plan with the wrong men.  It was a psychological study of the man and the town, reminding me of my favourite book, The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck, also set in a small town and exploring what happens when a good man is drawn into the corrupt plans of greedy men, but it was told in the style of a hard-boiled crime novel, which detracted from the seriousness of the theme.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, but my conclusion is that this book was just OK - I will not seek other books by this author, and this one is headed for one of the Little Free Libraries in my neighbourhood.  
I’m happy to take a break from reading my own books, and have picked up ten books from my public library last night, so I have plenty of reading material to choose from over the next six weeks… so many books, and surprisingly, so much time!  (just a bit of a problem staying focused these days, a symptom of the pandemic perhaps?...  others have admitted to experiencing the same thing, which makes me feel better)
That’s all for today.  Stay cool, stay well, have a cup of tea and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 12 June 2020

Friday morning post...

It’s a bright, sunny, windy, cool morning as I sip my steaming cup of chai tea and think about the book I finished yesterday.  I have a virtual meeting with my principal in just under an hour, so this may be a short post, but I think it will be a good use of my time.
I read another book from my shelves this past week, Three Days Missing, a domestic thriller by Kimberly Belle.  This novel, set in present-day Atlanta, is told from the points of view of Kat Jenkins and Stefanie (Stef) Huntington, two mothers who could not be more different.  Kat is a member of the “working poor”, barely able to pay the bills, let alone purchase gifts for her eight-year-old son, Ethan.  Stef is the mayor’s wife, a woman who has it all and can afford even more, treating her son Sammy to whatever he wants.  Sammy and Ethan are in the same class at the exorbitantly expensive, exclusive Cambridge Academy, where Kat’s soon-to-be ex-husband Andrew insists on sending their son, since he is a near-genius.  Ethan is being bullied at school, but the teacher, Miss Emma, will do nothing about it.  So Kat is surprised when Ethan shows such enthusiasm for the overnight class trip to visit the gold mines about an hour’s drive outside of the city.  Kat offers Ethan a rare treat, the mummy sleeping bag he’s envied at Walmart, and all seems well… until Kat is woken in the middle of the night with the news that every parent dreads:  Ethan is missing.  Soon after this, Stef receives a call from someone claiming to have abducted Sammy.  Ethan really is missing, Sammy is safe, but since the boys resemble one another, the Huntingtons, and in particular Sammy, may hold the clues to finding Ethan before it is too late.  The rest of the novel weaves together the stories of Kat and Stef, offering the reader a detailed account of each mother's experience as they cope with their situations while the tension builds as the story races to a satisfying conclusion.  This was another advanced reader’s copy I received some time ago, and I’m glad to have finally read it.  It was better than I expected, quite well-written but somewhat predictable.  Still, Belle did a good job of adding unexpected twists to the plot to keep it interesting.  I think I may be suffering from what I’d like to call “reader fatigue”:  I’m just tired of reading about missing children and the dread, anxiety and stress that the mothers of these children are feeling, which can seem a bit overwhelming and repetitive at times. I just listened to an audiobook by Lisa Jewell, Watching You, which also dealt with mothers, parents, and children.  I enjoyed Jewell’s book, which was well-written and polished, with a complex plot that was anything but predictable.  Anyway, Belle’s book was interesting enough, and while the ending was no surprise, the very, very end revealed an unexpected twist that made it worthwhile.  If you like domestic thrillers, this might be perfect for you.
That’s all for today, as my meeting is going to start soon.  Stay safe and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

PS  Libraries are now open for curbside pickup, so you can place holds and pick your items up when they become available.  WOO HOO!!  I already have nine items to pick up, and more on the way - yikes!

Sunday, 7 June 2020

"Sun, sun, sun, here it comes..."

We’ve had plenty of sun and warm weather lately, although this weekend has been gloriously without humidity.  Because it’s been cooler and less humid, I was on a cooking/baking spree this morning and am starting this post later than I normally would.  So finally, with a steaming cup of chai and a fresh-baked banana muffin, I’m ready to get down to book business.
Last week I decided to try a book I recently received as an advanced reader copy, The Paladin by David Ignatius, fully prepared to give it up after a few pages, but this book totally hooked me from the very first sentence, and it kept me wanting to find extra reading time to get to the end.  This cyber-thriller centres on Michael Dunne, ex-CIA cyber-securities expert who, after spending a year in prison simply for performing his duties, is set on finding out what happened and getting his life back.  Two years earlier, after returning from a lengthy assignment in Frankfurt with his beautiful young wife Alicia and their two-year-old daughter Luisa, he is called in for a meeting with the Deputy Director of Operations, George Strafe, to discuss his next assignment.  Michael is asked to go back to Europe with a small team of fellow cyber-experts and infiltrate a hacking organization known as Fallen Empire.  This organization, claiming to be whistleblowing journalists, are not just revealing news and events, not even just publishing “fake news”, but actually creating “fake events” that appear so real, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference.  Michael is hesitant to take on the assignment because it is illegal for the CIA to spy on fellow Americans who are journalists, but George guarantees that if anything should happen, he’ll make sure Michael is protected.  So, against his better judgement, off he goes to Paris, where he and his team of two others discover that Urbino, Italy, is the centre where some serious cyber-deception activity is taking place.  Just as he begins his infiltration, Michael is pulled out of the operation and ordered to return home, where he faces criminal charges and, surprise, surprise, there is no legal protection from the CIA, who claim never to have heard of this assignment.  Oh, and while he was in Europe on assignment, he also had a clandestine encounter with a lovely young woman, an encounter which would serve to ruin his marriage and drive his wife and daughter away.  He lost his wife, his home, his job and most of his friends, and after a year in prison, he’s seriously enraged.  He decides to start his own cyber-security business, which he calls "The Paladin LLC", after receiving an anonymous letter from a “fellow bandit” who calls his group the Paladin, noble and chivalrous citizens who try to right the wrongs of society.  With this letter as a starting point, Michael begins to piece together what happened two years earlier and seek revenge on those who ruined his life.  This is not my normal reading fare, but wow, it was thrilling.  Not always believable, for sure, and for someone who has been working as a CIA agent for so long, Michael certainly has trouble following his gut instincts, but this roller-coaster ride from the US to Europe to Taiwan and back certainly kept my interest and had me turning pages right to the very last sentence.  I would highly recommend this novel if you just need a bit of an escape during these days of isolation, restriction, and too much at-home time - it is sure to help take your mind off the bigger worries of life for a few hours.
I also wanted to mention very briefly that I finished listening to a book that was highly recommended to me by a fellow reader, Bird Box by Josh Malerman. Many of you might know about this because it has been made into a Netflix movie starring Sandra Bullock, so I will just offer a quick summary. This post-apocalyptic novel centres around a woman and her two children, sole survivors of an epidemic that caused everyone else to commit acts of violence and, ultimately, suicide. This seems to happen only if an individual sees something, a "creature", so a small group of survivors in a house, of which Malorie is a member, must live only indoors, with all the windows covered, and must wear blindfolds if they need to go out for water or to empty the waste pails. When Malorie finds herself alone with the children, she must decide whether to stay in the house forever or take the risk and try to find a better future for herself and the children. I didn't love this book, and I only wanted to mention it because I started watching the movie last night and it was so different from the book that I had to turn it off... remember, I didn't even really like to book, so the movie had to be REALLY different, and not in a good way, for me to stop watching it. However, many people liked this movie, so I'm just warning you: in case you liked the movie and now want to read the book, expect it to be almost like a different story.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but don’t forget to stay six feet apart!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Short post on a chilly morning...

It’s me again!  I know you’ve heard from me a lot this week, but I wanted to write a quick post about a book I finished yesterday, since I know that if I wait until next week, I will have completely forgotten about it.  So, in order to restore some sense of normalcy, on this bright chilly morning, I have a welcome cup of steaming chai and a Date Bar as I write this post. 
After finishing the Agatha Christie mystery last week, I picked up a debut psychological thriller I received as an Advanced Reading Copy from the publisher a few weeks ago, An Inconvenient Woman by Stéphanie Buellens.  This novel is told from the points of view of two women, one scarred by loss, grief and guilt, the other driven by the desire to right wrongs.  Claire Fontaine is a freelance French teacher and grieving mother who is convinced that her ex-husband Simon, now engaged to another woman, is setting out to commit the same crime he committed when married to her, and she is determined to stop him before this happens.  Sloan Wilson left the LAPD after her father was dismissed on bogus corruption charges and has set up her own business as a “sin eater”, a fixer or cleaner - she takes care of other people’s messy situations.  When Claire tries to warn Simon away from his bride-to-be and her young daughter, he hires Sloan to do “whatever is takes” to make this problem go away.  Claire may be paranoid, but how much of what she suspects is true?  And how far will Sloan go to keep Claire away from Simon until his wedding day?  I initially thought that I was not going to enjoy this book, that it would be too similar to other books I’ve read like this, as it had many of the same features:  unreliable female narrator, inconclusive evidence of a crime that may or may not have been committed, rich, charming, confident male character.  But once I got past the first couple of chapters, it was surprisingly interesting, a real page-turner.  It certainly wasn’t one of the best books I’ve ever read, but it was at least as good as A J Finn’s The Woman in the Window or Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door - I didn’t love either of those ones, but they got great reviews and were best-sellers, so I’m sure this one will be, too.  This novel is due out in September, and if you enjoy books like the ones mentioned above, then I think you would enjoy this one, too. Buellens is definitely an author to watch. 
That’s all for today.  Stay safe, stay warm, and keep reading!
Bye for now...
Julie

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Post on an unpredictable morning...

The weather is very unpredictable this morning, a bit cloudy, a bit windy, a bit rainy, but with significant rainfall expected this afternoon.  I am not unpredictable, though.  I have a steaming cup of chai tea (yes, even in this humidity!) and a homemade banana muffin to keep me company as I tell you about a book and an audiobook. Well, maybe I'm a bit unpredictable, in these unpredictable times, with a post on Sunday night and another again on Thursday morning... what's up with that?!
I have been watching the BBC series, “The ABC Murders”, and have not been enjoying it at all.  I found it strange that Hercule Poirot, in the past always played by David Suchet, was being played by John Malkovich.  I think Malkovich is a great actor, but he’s no Poirot, who I thought was described in Agatha Christie’s books as a small, fussy Belgian with large mustaches and a round, bald head.  Malkovich is first and foremost too tall to be convincing in this role.  His Belgian accent is all over the place, and he’s got a goatee.  But I tried my best to look past this and just consider that it’s not Christie’s Poirot, just another detective trying to solve a series of murders.  But I also found that this Poirot, his character and attitude, seemed too dark, almost cruel.  And the story so far is too gruesome even for my liking.  Since I just finished my last book on Sunday afternoon, and since I spent the first couple of days this week trying and failing to get interested in a few others, I decided to read one of Christie’s novels to see if my impressions of the great detective were correct, or if they were just heavily influenced by Suchet’s portrayal.  I was going to read a couple of these short mysteries, but I think one is enough for now.  I chose An Overdose of Death (original title: The Patriotic Murders), and finished it in a couple of days.  It concerns the apparent suicide of Poirot’s dentist, Mr Morley, just a few hours after the detective’s appointment for three fillings.  Because of this appointment, he is questioned by his friend Chief Inspector Japp, and Poirot can only say that Morley was his usual self that morning.  When another of his patients is found dead from an overdose of the anesthetic used by dentists, Japp decides that Morley realized his mistake and felt so badly about it that he took his own life. Poirot does not buy this story and considers both deaths to be murders.  What follows are Japp’s formal and Poirot’s informal investigations, one constrained by bureaucracy, the other free of such limitations.  It was an easy, cozy mystery, exactly as I expected, and my impressions were spot on.  He is described as a small man with an egg-shaped head, with large mustaches, a man who is fussy, who does not tolerate foolishness, but who is ultimately polite, courteous and kind.  I will watch the last episode of the BBC series, but I would certainly not recommend it to anyone.
And this morning I finished listening to the very long, very engrossing The Witch Elm by Tana French.  WOW, what a book!  And what a narrator!  Paul Nugent brought the whole thing to life and kept me taking long walks even during these hot, humid days, just to get to the end and find out what really happened.  This novel opens with Toby Hennessey telling readers that he considers himself to be a lucky person, and we know from that one line that there will most certainly be bad luck in poor Toby’s future.  He seems to have the perfect life:  a great job that he landed by chance a few years earlier, a great girlfriend who seems almost too good to be true, and a supportive family with enough money to ensure that he will never have financial worries.  There's a bit of trouble at the art gallery where Toby works in PR, but it seems that this will all blow over and he'll be back on track in no time. When a break-in leaves him with slurred speech, a limp, and holes in his memory a mile wide resulting from a severe brain injury, he retreats to the Ivy House to stay with his Uncle Hugo, who has recently been diagnosed with brain cancer and has only a few months to live.  This situation works well for both Toby and Hugo, as this was a place where Toby spent many happy summers, along with his cousins Suzanne and Leon, when they were growing up.  It is the perfect place for Toby to recover and for Hugo to prepare for imminent death.  When one of Suzanne’s children finds a human skull in the giant, 200-year-old witch elm (it’s actually “wych elm”, but since I couldn’t see the written page to check for spelling, I’ll refer to it as “witch elm”), an investigation ensues.  What unfolds is an 18-part, 22-hour, 500+ page exploration into hidden pasts, dark secrets, and family dynamics that is suspenseful, psychological and deeply satisfying.  It could have used a bit of editing, for sure, but overall it was an excellent novel.  I found it dragged around the two-thirds mark, but by then I was 12+ parts into the audiobook and was totally hooked, so I just kept walking and listening, determined today to walk until I reached the end.  I would definitely recommend this literary suspense novel, and maybe as a physical book you could skim over some of Toby’s more wordy, excessively self-indulgent passages, which I couldn’t do with the audio version.  But the narrator did such a great job that I want to recommend the audiobook, too...  *sigh*  Ultimately, I think I’d recommend whatever format you prefer, and hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.
That’s all for today.  Stay cool, stay dry, stay safe, and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Short post on a very warm evening...

It’s 6:30pm, I’ve just settled down with a stir-fried bowl of local leeks, spinach and tomato, and thought I should write this post just to get it out of the way.
I’m devoting this period of self-isolation to reading books from my own shelves, not rereading favourites or reading the books I brought home from my school library, which I’ll get to in the summer, in an effort to weed my own collections.  I decided to read one of the two unread Lionel Shriver books I have, and really give it a chance, since I so enjoyed Big Brother and I found We Need To Talk About Kevin so well-written and thought-provoking.  I chose So Much For That and finally finished it this afternoon.  Set in New York, this novel is told mainly from the point of view of Shepherd Knacker, a fifty-year-old man who has finally decided to move ahead with his plan for the Afterlife, an African island where it costs dollars a day to live, with or without his wife Glynis and son Zach.  This has been Shep’s and Glynis’ dream for years, with much time and money spent on “research trips” (NOT vacations).  But Glynis always had reasons to rule out certain places, and finally Shep’s had enough.  When he gives her the ultimatum, she retorts with news that she has a terminal illness, and Shep realizes that he must reconsider his plans for the foreseeable future.  Interspersed with Shep’s chapters are those told by his best friend Jackson, who has a daughter with familial dysautonomia, also a degenerative, fatal condition.  Jackson loves to rant about anything, the government, the police, the system, anything.  How these men cope with their lives and families over the course of a year is delved into and explained in great detail, and by the time I reached the 433rd page, I was exhausted.  I have to say, I was so uninterested in this story that I nearly stopped at many different points, but I kept at it, and almost stopped again yesterday, a mere 29 pages from the end, after I got to what I guessed to be the most significant part of the book, the solution to the “mystery” of how this will all work out, but then I came across this passage, where Shep is talking to Glynis:  “ ‘You know, these movies… Remember how sometimes, in the middle, a movie seems to drag?  I get restless, and take a leak, or go for popcorn.  But sometimes, the last part, it heats up, and then right before the credits one of us starts to cry - well, then you forget about the crummy middle, don’t you?... Because it moved you, because it finally pulled together, you think, when you walk out, that it was a good movie, and you’re glad you went.  See, Gnu?’ he promised.  ‘We can still end well.’”  And I thought, OK, this book was a real slog for me, and I put it down so many times, toying with the idea that I just wouldn’t pick it up again, but at this section, I really was feeling a bit emotional towards these characters, so I thought that maybe it would end well.  Alas, I struggled to get motivated to read those last 29 pages, and was so very happy to close the book forever.  It was a fairy-tale, but one that pretended not to be one.  I can see where the idea for Big Brother came from, as I saw shades of that excellent book in this one.  And the single chapter told from Glynis’ point of view was brilliant, reminding me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in both use of language and voice (it's a shame there wasn't more of that).  But the rest… I could have totally done without it.  At least now I can say "so much for that", and can safely give away the other unread Shriver with no misgivings to free up more space on my shelves.
That’s all for tonight.  I hope you have a wonderful week. Stay cool, stay safe and keep reading!!
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 15 May 2020

Book talk on a raining day...

Clearly rain showers are not restricted to April, as we’ve got a rainy day forecast for today, as well as for much of the upcoming long weekend.  But since every weekend seems like a long one in these days of self-isolation, and since we can’t really go anywhere or do anything, I think people are generally less frustrated with the rainy forecast this year than they would normally be.  I’m certainly not frustrated, as I’ve got a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar to keep me company this morning as I write my post.
I finished a novel yesterday that was the debut for journalist Anika Scott, The German Heiress.  I picked up an advance reader’s copy of this book at the library conference I was at in January, and I’m glad I did.  This novel, set in Germany at the end of 1946, follows Clara Falkenberg as she attempts to find her best friend, Elisa, whom she abandoned in their home town of Essen nearly two years earlier.  Clara, nicknamed “the Iron Fräulein”, was once Germany’s most eligible heiress, running the operations of her father’s ironworks empire.  Near the end of WWII, she fled with nothing but a false identification card and a strong will to survive.  Sensing that her life as Fräulin Margarete Müller is about to change, she feels compelled to return to her hometown and try to find answers to the many questions she has about her family, and to reconnect with her friend.  Narrowly escaping an encounter with a British officer, she makes her way under cover of darkness to Essen, where she connects with people both old and new in her search for answers, and faces some cold hard truths about herself and her role in the Nazi plan.  This novel was definitely a page-turner, with interesting characters and a complex plot.  But the thing that I found most thought-provoking was the way Scott explored each character's role in the war experience, questioning the morality of each by considering the choices they made and wondering what they could have done differently, if anything, and what the consequences were or may have been.  I didn’t love this book, but Scott is definitely an author to watch.  If you enjoy novels exploring the roles of women in World War II, you won't be disappointed with this one. It would also be a great book club choice.  
That’s all for today.  Stay safe and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 8 May 2020

Post on a chilly morning...

It’s brisk and chilly and a bit overcast this morning as I sit with a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar.  Looking at the forecast, we may even be getting a bit of rain or snow today, not the kind of weather that is making people very happy.  But I’m OK with it, as that is perfect cup-of-tea-and-a-good-book weather!
Last week I had been determined to read and/or listen to something that did not have a thoroughly loathsome main character, and I managed that on both counts.  I just finished In the Woods by Tana French and all I can say is “WOW!”  Well, obviously that’s not really all I can say, as I’m going to write for the next 45 minutes about this book, but that is the first impression I want to share with you, “WOW!”  This first book in the “Dublin Murder Squad” series, and French’s debut, is set in Dublin and Knockaree, a small village just outside of Dublin, and weaves together two crimes involving missing and murdered children.  Rob Ryan is a detective on the Murder Squad, a job he’s dreamed of and aspired to ever since completing his police training.  Until age twelve, he lived in the small village of Knockaree and went by the name of Adam, but one glorious summer day in 1984, he and his two best friends, Peter and Jamie, went into the woods behind their estate. Hours later, only Adam returned to the village after being found in the woods with blood in his shoes and scrapes on his back.  After the investigation, during which Adam could remember nothing of what happened in the woods, his parents sent him off to boarding school in England and moved away to make a fresh start.  Adam started going by his middle name to distance himself from the sensational mystery surrounding his life, and after adopting a British accent, essentially became a different person.  He has no clear memories of his life prior to that day in the woods, but has found a way to cope with that.  Twenty years later, he is partnered with Cassie Maddox, a witty, intelligent detective, and together they are a dynamic duo, playing off one another and getting results.  Rob spends as many nights on Cassie’s sofa as he does in his own bed in the apartment he shares with his annoying roommate, and they know each other so well that they can finish each other’s sentences and jokes.  When, during a moment of downtime, they happen to be in the office as a new case involving a murdered child comes in, they offer to take it, only later realizing that the body was found at an archaeological dig in the woods bordering Knockaree, the very woods where Rob used to play as a child and where his friends disappeared.  Cassie is one of the only people Rob has confided in about his past, and while he knows he should let someone else take this case, he’s compelled to take it on, assuring Cassie that he’ll be alright.  Katy Devlin was a twelve-year-old girl who was destined for the Royal Ballet School in September, but was cut down in the prime of her childhood and left dead on the altar stone at the dig site.  Rob and Cassie have no real suspects, although they investigate the members of the archaeological team and of course Katy’s family members.  They sense that there is something wrong with the family dynamic in the Devlin household, a shiftiness or secrecy, but they can’t pinpoint what it’s all about.  Jonathan Devlin has spent his whole live in Knockaree, and has some shady history as a teen, but has become an upstanding member of the community and is head of the Move the Motorway movement, aimed at preserving the archeological site and having the new motorway moved over a few miles.  His wife Margaret comes across as spacy and appears to be completely out-of-touch with reality.  Katy’s twin, Jessica, seems to have no will of her own, and may or may not have some sort of learning disability.  Their older sister, Rosalind, is beautiful in an ethereal way, reminding Rob of delicate female characters in nineteenth-century novels.  But all is not what it seems, as is so often the case in murder mysteries, and as the detectives dig deeper to find the truth, Rob’s psyche begins to unravel and his carefully-constructed persona begins to crumble.  What follows is the unearthing of the truth about the current case, the revelation of some unpleasant aspects of the past, and the fate of the detectives working on the case.  This was one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in a long time.  It had everything I could ever want in a murder mystery.  The plot was complex, weaving together an unsolved case from the past with a current case that may or may not be related.  The main characters were realistic, likeable but flawed, their dynamic both engaging and entertaining.  And the descriptions, particularly of the woods, were brilliant, especially the way French described the summer of Adam’s childhood.  The novel opens with “Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s… this summer explodes on our tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass...this summer will never end… this is Everysummer decked out in all its best glory.”  But French seems to know how to use this kind of description only when it is necessary to create a scenario into which the reader needs to be immersed to understand the plot or characters.  At nearly 600 pages, I was worried that there would be pages and pages of filler, but this was so not the case.  Instead, the pages were filled with relationships forming and dissolving, partnerships thriving and struggling, plots being poked and prodded and finally uncovered, and characters building up and falling apart.  It even had a satisfactory ending, which, given the complexity of the dynamics on the case and in the squad room, wasn’t an easy thing to pull off.  In case it’s not already clear, I loved this book!  I can’t wait to read the next one in the series, which I think I may just happen to have on my shelf.  

And I listened to a light, easy audiobook, Ann Brashares’ "The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants", that classic YA coming-of-age novel published in 2001.  The novel follows four fifteen-year-old girls as they experience their first summer apart.  Lena, Tibby, Carmen and Bridget have been friends since before they were born.  Their mothers met in a prenatal class, where they were known as the Septembers (their due dates), and formed a friendship that, unlike their daughters, did not last.  Although they go to different schools, the girls have managed to remain friends and they look forward to spending every summer together.  But this summer will be different.  Carmen will be going to South Carolina to spend the whole summer with her father; Bridget will be going to Baja, California to attend soccer camp; Lena is going to Greece to spend her summer with her grandparents, and Tibby is going nowhere, instead working at Wallman’s department store.  When they discover that a pair of jeans Carmen bought on a whim at a thrift store magically fits each of them, despite their different body types, they decide to share the pants throughout the summer and use them as a way to stay connected and share their experiences.  What follows are four stories about experience, love, loss and the meaning of family and friendship.  This lighthearted novel, the first in a series of five “Travelling Pants” books, touches on some serious topics, such as death and sex, but there are many humourous, comical and entertaining moments, too, and as an adult, I found it to be just the thing I needed after A Ladder to the Sky.  I will probably not follow up with the rest of this series, but this was a little dip into this classic series. I have the film adaptation of this book recorded, and may treat myself to a bowl of popcorn and an evening of "girl films", pairing this with another classic, "Mama Mia".
That’s all for today.  Get outside, but bundle up - it’s cold out there!  
Bye for now…
Julie


PS Tana French has a birthday coming up on May 10, so I'd like to send out best wishes to "the First Lady of Irish Crime"!

Friday, 1 May 2020

May Day post...

The first day of May always brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s fabulous dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, as that phrase is key to the development of the plot.  On this slightly foggy, overcast May Day, however, I am not rereading Atwood’s novel, though I would be happy to revisit it just about any time.  Instead, I have a book and audiobook to tell you about that had some surprising similarities, despite being such different stories.
Since I’ve been walking so much more in these days of self-isolation, I’ve been listening to so many more audiobooks than usual.  I just finished one yesterday, John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky, and I must say that I’m thrilled to have reached the end.  This novel follows Maurice Swift, a young man who wants two things:  to be a famous writer and to have a child.  He would do just about anything to satisfy these desires, so when he meets Erich Ackerman, a German author who, in his mid-60s, has found some recognition for his work and is in Berlin to receive a prize for his most recent novel, Maurice discovers ways to use his good looks to ingratiate himself with and then to wield power over this repressed man.  We the reader know what Maurice is doing, but Erich either remains blind to Maurice’s intentions or convinces himself not to see.  When he has all he wants from this man, he leaves him and moves.  In the next section, Maurice has achieved some fame for his first book but his second doesn’t seem to be living up to audience or reviewer expectations.  When he arrives at the home of Gore Vidal on the Amalfi Coast as a companion to second-rate American novelist Dash Hardy, his true nature is recognized, and Vidal warns him of the dangers of treating others in such callous ways.  The next section concerns Maurice’s marriage to talented novelist Edith as they move to Norwich for a year, where Edith has secured a temporary position teaching creative writing at the University of East Anglia.  During this time, his envy of both the young, aspiring writers in Edith's class and her own work on her second novel push him to acts of unbelievable selfishness.  In the third section, Maurice has moved on once again, and after moving to New York, has begun a literary magazine that prides itself on promoting young, up-and-coming writers by showcasing their stories.  He and his son, Daniel, live fairly solitary lives together, and one gets the sense that fatherhood has not lived up to Maurice’s expectation.  He is, though, a well-respected author, having published several bestselling novels that span a range of plots and styles, and without giving anything away here, by this point in the novel the reader knows exactly what his “writing secrets” are.  The last section is told directly from Maurice’s point of view, and sees him in later years, back in England and living the life of what he thinks of as a “functioning alcoholic”, although what he thinks his “function” is, we don't know.  Along comes Theo, a student who is writing a thesis on Maurice’s life, a paper he hopes will turn into a biography with the help of his father, an editor at a large publishing house.  Though mainly living as a recluse, Maurice can’t resist this opportunity to get his name out there again and possibly reignite a public interest in his books.  But what he reveals to Theo may bring about not a renewed interest but a disastrous end.  I have to say that this book was a bit of a disappointment for me, as I felt it lacked Boyne’s usual subtlety.  I felt that Maurice was a thoroughly despicable character, and while I’ve always known how cut-throat the literary world was, I felt this character was over-the-top.  Boyne, like Maurice, seems able to write different books with wildly differing themes and in different styles, but this one is probably the most “sensational” or “Canadian-Tire”-ish book I’ve read by this author.  Granted, I’ve only ever read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and A History of Loneliness, and he’s written eleven adult novels, so I guess I can’t judge, but somehow I expected something a bit more… I want to say “literary”, but I don’t think that’s exactly it.  Maybe Boyne, like Maruice, wants to both win prizes AND be read.  Anyway, I felt like I needed to shower after finishing this novel, which was well-written but left a nasty taste in my mouth.
And I read a book last week that was also about a main character who was unlikeable, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much:  the true story of a thief, a detective, and a world of literary obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett.  In this book, journalist Bartlett explores the world of rare book theft, and focuses in particular on John Gilkey, a man who steals rare books not for profit but just for the love of books.  He doesn’t recognize what he is doing as wrong because somehow he has convinced himself that he deserves to have fine books just like other people, and it is not his fault that he can’t afford to collect them the way others do, by purchasing them.  Bartlett follows Gilkey over a couple of years, interviewing him both while he is in prison and when he is released or out on bail awaiting trial. Through these interviews, she realizes that Gilkey, along with a desire for the books themselves, believes that having an impressive collection of rare books will garner for himself the respect and admiration of others, that possessing these books will turn him into the embodiment of gentlemanly culture which he so desires (but clearly not enough to work for it). She interviews rare book dealers to learn more about theft and recovery efforts.  While the book is filled with descriptions of rare books, the beauty of the objects and the unique merits of the contents, I, like Bartlett, did not succumb to bibliomania - I believe the books on my shelves should be read, not admired.  Gilkey’s selfish attitude, his belief that he should be able to have what others had without working for it, angered me, probably more so because my reading of this book coincided with listening to Boyne’s book.  This non-fiction work, while easy to read and not terribly long, reminded me why I generally avoid non-fiction and instead stick to fiction; I like my books to have a beginning, middle and end.  But it’s good to try reading something outside of my normal comfort zone every once in a while.  
When I was selecting a new book to start reading yesterday, I realized that I needed a break from selfish, detestable characters. I was tired of reading about men who stole to appear better than they were, to impress and garner status, fame or respectability.  I wanted to read something that featured a main character that was admirable, which made my selection challenging.  I decided on In the Woods by Tana French, the first in the “Dublin Murder Squad” series.  I have listened to other, later books in this series as audiobooks, but this is the one that sets the stage for all the others and I’m quite excited to dive into this police procedural. While it may or may not have an admirable main character, at least it will be the type of book I normally enjoy reading, a straightforward murder mystery. 
That’s all for today.  Get outside and get some exercise while it is not raining, but remember to make time to read.
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Last post for April...

It certainly feels like spring, and while we’ve had some snow over the past week, we’ve also had April showers, which seem to be bringing out the before-May flowers.  Although we are still unable to do much, at least my regular walks are ever-changing, with greenery taking over the browns of winter and colourful flowers popping up, more and more each day, which makes even the most mundane walks interesting.
Speaking of flowers, I finished a book yesterday that I’ve been working on over the past week, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, the much-anticipated debut novel by Australian author Holly Ringland.  This novel was at once captivating and harrowing, a dense, brilliant novel that I both wanted to keep reading and had to put down.  Nine-year-old Alice Hart lives in what appears to be an idyllic home, with beautiful, loving mother Agnes and handsome father Clem, but she dreams of ways to set her father on fire.  Isolated in their remote seaside house, no one escapes Clem's unpredictable moods and violent rages, not even Alice’s dog Toby.  But, like all abusive men, he apologizes afterwards and promises never to do it again, and yet again and again, it happens.  When tragedy finally visits the Hart house, Alice begins a new phase in her life, connecting with a grandmother she never knew she had and learning to speak about the world through the language of flowers at Thornfield Farm.  When, as a young woman, she is once again visited with distressing news, she leaves the farm and ventures off, both to escape her grandmother and to find herself.  What she finds, though, could be either a new beginning or a tragic end.  I don’t want to give away too many details, as part of the suspense that urges the reader on is the sense of not knowing what choices Alice will make in any given instance.  Each chapter is headed with the name of a flower that is native to Australia, the meaning or language of the flower, and a description of the plant, its strengths and weaknesses, which are indications of the theme for that chapter.  The breathtaking descriptions of the staggeringly beautiful yet wildly varying landscapes in different parts of Australia made this book fascinating, but Alice’s often-tragic circumstances forced this reader to take periodic breaks from the exploration into the dark theme of domestic violence and the difficulty of breaking the cycle.  It also explored the ways in which the Indigenous peoples of Australia have been stripped of their culture, and the need to keep their traditions alive for future generations.  I found that the text was at times repetitive, and sometimes too dense, but overall, I found myself anxiously turning pages as the details of Alice’s past and her family history were revealed chapter by chapter, until the final satisfying page.  It was a book I was putting off reading due to the graphic portrayal of domestic violence in the opening chapters, but I’m glad I went back and stuck with it.
And I finished listening to an audiobook last week, also featuring a main character named Alice, Long Gone by Alafair Burke.  This suspenseful thriller opens with Alice Humphrey, an attractive woman in her late-thirties, facing her seventh month of unemployment after being downsized from the art gallery where she worked, ostensibly due to budget cuts, but actually as a consequence of her recent severing of all financial ties with her famous director-father Frank Humphrey.  One evening she attends an art showing and meets attractive Drew Campbell, an art dealer who, after a brief conversation, offers Alice a job running a new gallery he is opening on behalf of an elderly, wealthy benefactor.  She takes the job, encouraged by her friend Lily, even though it seems too good to be true… and, of course, it is.  What follows is Alice falling down, down, down into the rabbit-hole of deception, and we the readers are taken on a roller coaster ride of twists and turns, exposing secrets and lies until we, along with Alice, don’t know who or what to believe.  Of course, it is all wrapped up in a neat bow at the end, as Burke’s novels always are, making them dependable go-to audiobooks when I’m not sure what to listen to next.  Although not outstanding, if you like suspenseful thrillers, this novel will not disappoint.
That’s all for today.  I’m so glad it’s not raining today, as previously forecast, so I can get outside for a long walk.  Stay well and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie


PS Happy Birthday, Julie's Reading Corner! Nine years and 489 posts and still going strong. Thanks for continuing to read these posts. I look forward to sharing book and reading thoughts with you for many years to come.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Unexpected post on a Friday morning...

It’s Friday morning, a bit overcast and rather chilly, with snow and rain expected in the forecast for this afternoon, so I want to get outside for a long walk before that starts.  But as I sip my cup of steeped loose-leaf tea, I thought that this would be a perfect time to write this week’s post, as I just finished both a novel and an audiobook yesterday.


Good Girl, Bad Girl is the first in a new series by one of my favourite authors of psychological suspense, Michael Robotham, and introduces Cyrus Haven, a psychologist with a complicated and troubling past who wants to “save the world”.  It is a book that I had on my shelf, purchased with a Chapters gift card some time ago. Since we can’t go to the library, I’m forced to read books I have on my own shelves, which is great - perhaps my next book will also be one I purchased on that same book-buying excursion.  Anyway, Good Girl, Bad Girl tells the story of two different cases, one active and one a cold case.  Jodie Sheehan was a sixteen-year-old girl who was on the way to becoming an Olympic figure skater when she was cut down in the prime of her life while walking home from a fireworks event.  Evie Cormac is a girl of indeterminate age who has been living at Langford Hall, a secure youth facility, for the past year, after numerous foster attempts proved unsuccessful. She is the girl the media dubbed “Angel Face” after being discovered living in a secret room six years earlier.  Cyrus Haven is a psychologist whose disturbing past has led him naturally to this line of work. He is called in by Guthrie, one of the social workers at Langford, to help evaluate Evie and determine if she is a “truth wizard”, someone who has the gift (or curse) of being able to detect when someone is lying, and also to determine whether she should be allowed to live on her own, as she claims to be eighteen.  No one knows her real age, as there are no birth records and no one claimed her when she was discovered. She refuses to talk about her past, and Guthrie is hoping Cyrus can form a connection with her because of his own past experiences. Cyrus is also a personal friend of Lenore “Lenny” Parvel, the Chief Investigating Officer in charge of the Jodie Sheehan death, and she calls on Cyrus to help with the case. Jodie seemed like the perfect girl, with great family relations, a future as a professional figure skater, and strong friendships.  But all is not what it seems, and the further they dig into her life, the more secrets they uncover. One girl seems perfect, one girl seems broken… Can Cyrus save the one and help find justice for the other? I have always enjoyed reading Robotham’s books, and have some favourites, but over the years, I’ve found myself disappointed in a few, particularly his last couple of books. This one was just OK in my opinion.  It was complex and well-written, but Cyrus is really just a younger version of Robotham’s first psychologist star, Joseph O’Loughlin, albeit with a different past and marital status. I guess what I want to say is that I didn’t love it, and that if I were recommending Robotham to a first-time reader, I would not recommend this one, although if someone had no past reading experience with this author, then they would have nothing to compare it to and might actually enjoy it more than I did.  It was well-reviewed, so please don’t let this post deter you from reading it if you want to try him out - it appears that there is now a second book available featuring Cyrus and Evie, When She Was Good, which I plan to read when I can get a copy from the library.


And I finished listening to The Missing by C L Taylor, another book that I thought was just OK.  It is told from the point of view of Claire Wilkinson, a mother who refuses to believe that her fifteen-year-old son is dead, despite the fact that he’s been missing for six months.  The police have had no new leads, but she insists on passing out flyers and checking out squats and train stations in the off-chance that Billy is dossing there. This disappearance has nearly torn the family apart:  father Mark seem to be alright, but there is tension around his relationships with Claire and his older son Jake; Jake can’t seem to stay focused on his apprenticeship and is in danger of losing his job. He is also having troubles in his relationship with his girlfriend Kiera, who has been living with the Wilkinsons for the past eighteen months, since her father died and her mother’s abusive behaviour drove her to find a safe haven with Jake's family.  This is a troubling enough scenario, but when Claire’s continued efforts uncover secret after secret, what she thought was the truth becomes muddier and muddier, and she feels that she alone must untangle the knotted threads that have become her reality. I wasn’t really that taken with this audiobook, but when I needed to listen to a new one, this was the best I had readily available. Once I had downloaded more books and had other choices, I was already halfway through this one and decided to stick with it, as it was fairly short (but seemed long!).  This was the author’s first book, so I guess it was pretty good. Perhaps reading it in print would have been better, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’m glad to have got to the surprise ending to find out what really happened, but I’m also glad that I’ve reached the end and can now move on to a new audiobook.  


That’s all for today.  Get outside while you can, but remember to stay at least six feet from others!

Bye for now…
Julie