Sunday 27 December 2020

First post for winter and last post for the year...

It’s hard to believe that this is the last post for this whirlwind of a year, and that it’s technically the first post of winter.  Most people, myself included, seem to think that winter starts around mid-November, when the final leaves have fallen from the branches and the colours outside are mainly browns and greys, but of course this is incorrect.  I love November weather, with the bare branches silhouetted against the grey sky and just a stray dry brown leaf or two scuttering across the sidewalk.  But we’ve had snow just in time for Christmas, and it’s a bit of a winter wonderland out there right now.  Thankfully, I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a slice of homemade zucchini loaf to keep me warm as I write this week’s post.

I read two books last week.  The first was A Family Affair by Nadine Bismuth, translated by Russell Smith, a title I surely came across on a list of CBC’s Best Canadian Books of 2020.  It is the story of several families whose lives are connected either through their work, their spouses, or their children.  As you might guess from the title, affairs, and the myriad of problems that go with them, are the central theme of this book.  Magalie is a kitchen designer whose husband, Mathieu, is cheating on her with another lawyer from his firm, so she decides to cheat on him with a colleague of her own.  Her widowed mother becomes involved with a man whose police officer son, Guillaume, becomes fixated on her.  As you can imagine, these affairs and obsessions lead to a great many issues, and we are drawn along with the characters through the complexities of these relationships to a heart-wrenching yet inevitable conclusion.  As I was reading this, I was constantly reminded of how lucky I am to be in a stable, loving relationship.  I’m sure there are messy, complicated relationships happening everywhere all the time, but I don’t know anyone who is in this situation and so it was hard to relate to it or to see this as an accurate portrayal of marriage and family; I’m also sure that there are many readers who could relate to this story, so please don't take this as a criticism.  It was interesting and well-written enough to keep me reading to the very last page, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading domestic dramas, especially those set in Montreal.

The other book I read was completely different, but so very good!  Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little was such a treat to read, a real page-turner that was unputdownable.  Marissa Dahl is a film editor in need of work.  When she gets a call from her agent for an interview, she readily goes to the meeting, but she knows nothing about the film, just that it will be directed by a famous, successful director.  Despite her reluctance due to the vagueness of the assignment, she accepts the job and is taken to a small island off the coast of Delaware, where she is expected to spend her days in the editing room.  When she learns that this film is based on a real, as-yet-unsolved murder that took place on this very island decades earlier, she begins to feel even more uneasy, a feeling that only deepens as she learns of the many mishaps and accidents, and the exceptionally high staff turnover rate that plague the filming.  The more she learns, the more frightened she becomes, but who can she turn to for help?  Then another death occurs, and she must decide if she, along with her delightfully quirky young sidekicks, Grace and Suzy, is brave enough, or foolish enough, to try to discover the truth.  WOW, this book was awesome!  It was like being on the set of a Hitchcock film, or a 1950's noir film, but also like watching a 1990's thriller, only on the page instead of the big screen.  Marissa was one of the best unlikely heroines I’ve met in a long time, and I’m so glad I took those film studies classes at university, which allowed me to appreciate nearly all the film and director references (it's amazing what you can dredge up from your memory of classes taken in the late '80s!).  This is a perfect book for any cinephile or any lover of a good Hollywood thriller.  If you are looking for an easy read to help you pass the time during this lockdown, I would highly recommend this, but be prepared to set everything else aside in order to read “just one more chapter”...

That’s all for today.  My only plan is to go for a couple of walks in the snow and maybe finish the book I started yesterday, as it is short and I’m sure I can finish it this afternoon.  Stay safe, stay busy, and keep reading! Oh, and have a Happy New Year, however you decide to celebrate!

Bye for now…

Sunday 20 December 2020

Late autumn post...

It’s a drizzly morning, the last day of fall, and I have to say, I don’t love the damp cold or the slippery walking/driving conditions this type of weather offers.  I will be going to visit a friend for a gift drop-off this afternoon, though, so I have no long walks planned today, but I’m hoping for better walking weather in the days ahead, as I am now off work for the (extended?!) Christmas Break.  Right now I have a steaming cup of chai and a yummy Date Bar to keep me warm and cozy as I write this post.

I read two books this week by two of my favourite Canadian Children’s/Young Adult authors, The Winnowing by Vikki VanSickle and Waiting Under Water by Riel Nason, and I was not disappointed by either one.  I read The Winnowing with my Intermediate book club at school, but since I hardly ever got to sit and read with them, I read most of it earlier this week.  This is a reread for me.  Here is what I wrote about it on Dec 17, 2017:

“The Winnowing by Canadian author Vikki VanSickle immediately caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  I loved the title.  "To winnow" means to blow a current of air through grain to remove the chaff.  Such an ordinary word, though not one we come across often, but in the context of this novel, it is very sinister indeed.  I loved the dark, brooding, mysterious cover.  I’ve read other books by this author, coming-of-age romantic novels which were very good, but this seemed completely different and I was curious to see how she handled it.  And since I’d just done book-talks for these ten nominees in four classes, many of the books were checked out, but this one was available at one of my schools, so I took advantage of the opportunity and started reading.  This novel is set in Darby, a small town famous for finding the cure for the Infertility Crisis and saving humankind.  Marivic is a young woman who is just reaching puberty, which is signalled by the nightmare-ish dreams and extraordinary running ability she has recently begun experiencing.  But these are so much more than just nightmares and sudden physical ability; Marivic is “going ACES” (Adolescent Chronosomniatic Episodes) and has developed imps (Adolescent Physical impairments), something that happens to everyone in town at a certain age.  These are things young people both look forward to and also dread.  Once someone begins “going ACES”, they are sent to a hospital, where they will undergo a procedure called “winnowing”, which will alleviate these nightmares and remove the imps, but it may also affect memory.  Marivic’s best friend, Saren, has just been admitted to the hospital for winnowing, and Marivic is anxious to join her there.  Once admitted, she finds Saren and together they discuss what they expect will happen to them during this procedure.  Saren doesn’t want to be winnowed, which Marivic can’t understand; why wouldn’t she want these horrible ACES to stop and go back to being her normal self?  When they receive a message inviting them to a meeting at the pool in the basement of the hospital in the middle of the night, Marivic agrees to accompany Saren, but only to ensure her safety.  At the meeting, they encounter a young man who suggests that the government is behind the Infertility Crisis, and that the winnowing procedure is designed to keep people from remembering their past and also to thwart their newfound physical abilities, which, he claims, are not, in fact, impairments, but rather natural physical enhancements.  Marivic is ready to dismiss this as nothing more than conspiracy theory, but after she receives tragic news and she has glimpses of something sinister from her past, Marivic must determine how far she is willing to go to find the truth.  I love a well-written dystopian novel, and there are many Young Adult novels in this genre out there, but they are not all appealing to me.  This one, however, grabbed me immediately and kept me riveted until the very last page, which took me just two days to reach (I had a grade 8 student who was waiting for it).  Imagine The Giver (Lois Lowry) meets The Maze Runner (James Dashner) with a dash of X-Files thrown in.  I was struck by how well-written and polished it was, no stumbling around to keep the pace or tone consistent, which I expected, given that this is such a departure from VanSickle’s usual fare.  It explored her usual themes of friendship and coming-of-age, but in a completely new and fascinating terrain.  I was very impressed, and will recommend this to students (and adults!) who enjoy gripping dystopian novels.”

My book group loved it, and they wished that this would be the first in a trilogy, which is so common in young adult books of this genre.  But alas, I think the last page of this book is really “the end”.  Upon second reading, I would still recommend it to intermediate students and adults, so if you are looking for a good dystopian novel, this may be a good choice for you.

I’ve read a couple of novels by Riel Nason, and especially enjoyed The Town That Drowned.  This new novel, Waiting Under Water, was equally as good.  Set in the small town of St David, New Brunswick, this novel tells the story of Hope, a twelve-year-old girl who has lived her whole life in this tiny seaside town.  When she learns that her family will be moving to Toronto at the end of the summer break because the company her father works for has been shut down and his job has been relocated, she falls into despair.  Socially awkward at the best of times, when experiencing anxiety, Hope also has a tic, something like a hiccup, that causes her to stand out and be ridiculed by the popular girls at school, and this summer’s news does little to ease her anxiety.  When she discovers that St David will be featured on the popular morning talk show Rise and Shine in a nationwide contest called “Canada’s Tiniest Treasures”, she and her best friend Willa decide that they will do everything they can to make sure St David wins.  Will Hope find a way to accept her family’s decision and overcome her anxieties?  Will she and Willa find a way to hold onto their precious friendship?  Will St David win the contest?  These questions and more will be answered if you choose to read this excellent coming-of-age novel by this amazing author.

That’s all for today.  Good-bye, fall... Hello winter!

Bye for now…

Sunday 13 December 2020

Post on a chilly, dreary morning...

It’s been a dreary weekend so far, but the relentless rain of yesterday has thankfully stopped and the temperature has dropped significantly overnight, so I expect it’s going to be a good day for a brisk walk.  Right now I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, my “breakfast of champions” for a Sunday morning.

I recently checked author websites for new or upcoming books by three of my favourite authors, Peter Robinson, Robert Rotenberg and Michael Robotham (I like to call them “the other three R’s”!), and was pleased to discover that all three have books coming out in the new year.  But as I was perusing their previously published books, I came across one of Peter Robinson’s books that I wasn't familiar with, Many Rivers to Cross.  I put it on hold at the library and when it arrived, I realized that I hadn’t yet read it, so that was my book choice for this past week.  This is the 26th installment in the “Alan Banks” series, and it was predictably good, focusing on immigrants and hate crimes, sex trafficking and the drug trade.  The body of a young Middle Eastern boy is found stuffed in a rubbish bin on the East Side Estates and Banks and his team are tasked with finding the killer.  The first problem they face, however, is the inability to discover the boy’s identity or even determine where he was originally from.  Their search leads them to various unsavoury characters in Eastvale, as well as the Albanian Mafia, as they explore unfamiliar areas and neighbourhoods in this small but ever-growing North Yorkshire town.  Running parallel to this investigation is the story involving Zelda, Ray Cabbott’s partner and a super-recognizer, who works part-time for the NCA identifying individuals involved in sex-trafficking. When she shows up for work one day, she finds that her boss, Mr Hawkins, has died in a house fire, a fire that is suspiciously like the one from which Banks narrowly escaped in a previous book.  Could Phil Keanes, the rogue art forger, be somehow involved in the abduction and trafficking of girls?  The plots develop at a steady pace throughout the novel until we reach a satisfying conclusion that answers all of this reader’s questions, while also leaving room for the expectation of yet another Banks novel.  It was interesting, but I’m finding Robinson’s more recent books to be rather dry, not as… hmmm… I want to say “juicy” or “meaty” as his earlier works, but being a vegetarian, I dislike those terms.  Maybe I’ll just say that the storylines seem less substantial; they seem to be less interesting, less deep, and less involved than previous plots and stories, and the growth, development and interactions with and between characters seems to be lacking.  Still, it’s worth reading if you are already a Peter Robinson fan, but I wonder, as I’ve wondered after reading other recent “Banks” books, if perhaps it’s time for him to write standalones or start another series.  Or here’s an idea:  maybe he should write books from various team members’ points of view.  I would love to read a novel told from Annie Cabbott’s viewpoint for a change.

And speaking of writing a series from various points of view, I just finished the audio version of a standalone by Tana French, The Searcher.  French has written a number of mystery novels as part of “The Dublin Murder Squad” series, each told from the point of view of a detective from the previous book, quite a novel idea (pun totally intended!).  I’ve read a few of these books and have enjoyed them very much.  I’ve also listened to another of her recent standalones, The Witch Elm, which I really, really enjoyed.  The Searcher, unfortunately, did not live up to my admittedly high expectations.  Cal Hooper, a retired Chicago detective, buys a broken-down farmhouse in a tiny Irish town with the intention of settling down in a small rural community where he can leave crime and violence, as well as his unhappy past, behind.  But when a kid named Trey seeks him out, his cop instinct kicks in.  Trey’s older brother, Brendan, is missing, and Trey is certain he didn’t just run off and abandon his family the way their father did years before.  Reluctantly, Cal gets sucked into the mystery, and his less-than-discrete inquiries slowly reveal the hidden truth that lies beneath the surface of this seemingly serene community, one dirty secret at a time.  This novel was just way too long.  There.  I said it.  French is an amazing author and I hate to be critical, but it’s the truth.  It’s too long, and nothing much happens until the last third of the book.  The Witch Elm was also very long, and I had issues with some of the main character’s meandering introspections, but the story still managed to move along at a satisfying pace.  But this one, not so much.  The story ended up being interesting, and the conclusion was satisfying, but it just took so darn long to get there that I wasn’t really even paying attention at that point, which was unfortunate.  Perhaps with these bigger novels, I should actually read the book so I can skim if necessary - with an audiobook, there is no skimming allowed.  

That’s all for today.  

Bye for now…

Sunday 6 December 2020

Book club highlights on a chilly December morning...

We don’t have much snow right now but it’s quite chilly outside today.  Good thing I have a steaming cup of chai and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread to keep me warm as I write about our recent book club discussion.

For my Volunteer Book Club, I normally choose a book that is either seasonal or something that ends in December (for example, A Year on Provence by Peter Mayle) for our last meeting of the year.  But for yesterday’s meeting, I chose a decidedly un-seasonal novel, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.  I started the meeting by apologizing to everyone and wondering aloud what I could have been thinking when I added this to our list for December.  But they were very kind and said that it was OK… thankfully they all enjoyed the book!  Here is what I wrote when I read it for the first time last year: 

“The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that asks the question, “What would happen if the world were ruled by (certain) men?”  I had to qualify that, as I’m sure there are some men out there who would not force all women into servitude, even if it were allowed and strongly encouraged.  But let’s face it, it’s been proven time and again that people who are given supreme power over others will inevitably abuse it.  Everyone knows what society is like in Gilead, whether from reading the book or watching the series, so I won’t spend any more time on that.  Instead I will focus on this new book, a novel that I think was brilliant in its own way.  The Testaments takes us back to Gilead fifteen years after the closing of The Handmaid’s Tale, and offers a look at how the society has developed and changed.  It is told from three different points of view, the testaments of Aunt Lydia, Agnes Jemima and Daisy.  We know Aunt Lydia from the previous novel, but fifteen years later, she is the most powerful woman in Gilead, whispering straight into the ear of Commander Judd.  Agnes Jemima is a precious flower, a girl who, at thirteen, is destined to become the new wife of a powerful, and much older, man.  And Daisy, at sixteen, is a sassy teen living in Toronto who will play a pivotal role in the Mayday operation to bring Gilead down.  I don’t want to give anything else away because the mystery surrounding these three characters and the ways their stories become intertwined is what makes this book a real page-turner.  I hate to compare novels, but while The Handmaid’s Tale was introspective and character-driven, The Testaments is more plot-driven.  Both showcase Atwood’s amazing use of language and her supreme skill at subverting it to create an eerily chilling atmosphere that is shockingly believable.  But in The Testaments, Atwood manages to also offer readers a Gileadean political espionage thriller that kept me staying up late and getting up early to read “just a few more pages”.  My only complaint, if you can even call it that, is with the timing of the stories, but I think I need to read it again before I make any comments, as it was probably just me rushing through it that left me feeling as though it didn’t flow as well as it could have.  Against my better judgement, I read the reviews and they were not great.  One reviewer said “...if The Handmaid’s Tale was Atwood’s mistresspiece, The Testaments is a misstep.  The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a note of interrogation:  ‘Are there any questions?’  Those questions were better left unanswered”  I have to disagree with all of this.  In my opinion, she probably never wanted to write a sequel; it’s been 35 years since The Handmaid’s Tale was published, so if she really wanted to write a sequel, I’m sure she would have done so before now.  With the popularity of the series, it is likely that she felt extreme pressure to write this and answer the very questions she probably intentionally left for readers to ponder.  Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments ends with notes from a Symposium on Gileadean Studies, in which she writes:  “It is gratifying to see such a large turnout.  Who would have thought that Gilead Studies - neglected for so many decades - would have gained so greatly in popularity?  Those of us who have laboured in the dim and obscure corners of academe for so long are not used to the bewildering glare of the limelight” (p 408).  I think this is a direct reference to the sudden and immense popularity of her earlier work.  She is a brilliant writer who can get away with weaving these types of jibes and comments into her narrative and have it flow perfectly - or jarringly - for the reader.  The most memorable part of this book for me is when Aunt Lydia, describing how she became an Aunt, talks about her time in the Thank Tank, not so much what happened to her there, but the process leading up to and following her time there, as well as the phrase, “Thank Tank”.  Unlike the reviewer quoted above, I loved this book.  As with a film adaptation of a favourite novel, the reader (or watcher) has to realize that this is a separate entity from the original and judge it on its own merit.  I highly recommend this book, even if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale,  but you would at least have to have watched the series or be familiar with the setting.”

I still agree with these comments, even after a second reading, but I had better luck figuring out the timing of the three testaments, and noticed a comment in the “Symposium” notes at the end that explained it, something I guess I missed the first time around.  I am so thankful that my book club ladies enjoyed this much more than last month’s selection.  The first thing everyone said was that, after reading it, they had more respect for Atwood, something they grudgingly admitted.  I don’t really understand that, since I have always appreciated her writing, even though I don’t love everything she’s written, so perhaps this selection has added a few more readers to her already-huge following.  We discussed Atwood’s wit and “wicked humour”, the power of women when they work together, and the foolishness of men who think they are invincible.  One member commented on Aunt Lydia's cunning and determination to plot and plan every action for fifteen years to achieve her ultimate goal of exposing Gilead for what it really was. We talked about the timeliness of this story, as well as The Handmaid’s Tale, and discussed how, when she first published it in the mid-1980s, it seemed impossible, but now both books are very nearly reflections of our reality.  We discussed how the restrictions in Gilead are similar to our COVID restrictions, such as no contact, the shunning of people who don’t follow the rules, and how masks are similar to the wings the handmaids wear, among other things.  We talked about clothing, and some of my ladies remember not being allowed to wear pants to school except on gym days, as well as outdated dress codes in the workplace. They also had some difficulty following the timelines, but not enough to diminish the enjoyment of the reading experience.  I asked if they thought the voices of twenty-two-year-old Agnes Jemima and sixteen-year-old Daisy sounded convincingly youthful.  Atwood is, after all, in her early 80s - we agreed that all of the characters seemed credible.  One member who listened to this as an audiobook said that Ann Dowd, the actress who played Aunt Lydia in the series, was the narrator, which added to the listening experience. The word "brilliant" cropped up in our conversation quite frequently. All in all, it turned out to be a great book selection and a great discussion to end this most unusual year, and we can only hope, as in the last chapters of The Testaments, for better days ahead.

That’s all for today.  I have lots of things to do and I want to get started.  Have a wonderful day!

Bye for now…

PS For next year's December meeting, I chose Sophie Kinsella's Christmas Shopaholic!

Sunday 29 November 2020

Children's books on a brilliant morning...

I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread to keep me company on this brilliantly sunny, mild morning.  I plan to take full advantage of the gorgeous day before the rain and snow hit us in the next few days.  But first, I have two children’s books to tell you about.

I decided to read as many of the short juvenile chapter books from my shelf upstairs as I could this past week, and was disappointed to have only finished two, but they were both wonderful books.  The first was Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.  This book was published in 1975, and I was a child at that time, so how was it that I’d never heard of it until I started working in my current job?  This novel focuses on the Tuck family, mother, father and two sons, who inadvertently disrupt the life of ten-year-old Winnie Foster, whose family own the woods in the near distance from the Tuck home.  They come across her one morning as she sits alone in the woods contemplating running away, and because she witnesses their conversation, they kidnap her in order to explain their situation.  What they reveal is that they’ve discovered a spring in these woods whose water, if drunk, stops you from aging beyond that moment.  But immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be, and the Tuck family want to warn Winnie not to tell anyone about this spring and also not to drink from it.  What ensues is a kidnapping, a swindle and a murder that is as gripping as I’ve ever encountered in a children’s book.  This story holds more meaning and lessons than is conceivable for such a short novel, and I would highly recommend it to just about anyone.

I also read The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.  This novel, published in 1977, is also one I don’t recall ever hearing about until recently.  This makes me wonder what I was reading when I was young… I was reading all the time, but these two books (and who knows how many others!) seemed to have escaped my notice.  Anyway, this book is about the bonds of friendship and the ways we deal with loss.  Jesse Aarons wants to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade.  Over the summer, he practices every morning before doing his chores on the family farm.  His two older sisters seem to have their mother wrapped around their little fingers, and his younger sisters don’t have to do anything around the house since they are so young, so the bulk of the chores, and their mother’s wrath, fall on Jess’s shoulders.  He is a shy, artistic boy who must hide his talents from his parents and his fellow classmates for fear of being shamed or ridiculed.  When the Burke family move into the ramshackled home down the road from Jess, he dismisses them outright, as no one ever stays long in that house.  But then he meets Leslie Burke, who is in his class and ends up being the fastest runner in their grade.  Jess’s whole being resists Leslie’s overtures of friendship, but he eventually breaks down and they form an unlikely twosome, a bond that is sometimes the only thing that keeps Jess going.  They create the magical kingdom of Terabithia in the forest behind their farms, and of course they are the king and queen of the kingdom.  Time passes and their friendship deepens.  One day, when Jess is distracted by an offer that feeds his own needs, tragedy strikes and he is plunged into grief and also feelings of guilt.  He eventually overcomes the deepest pangs of his grief and begins to use his newfound strengths to become a better, kinder, even braver person.  This novel had me in tears by the end, and, like Tuck Everlasting, I would highly recommend this slightly longer children’s novel to anyone who enjoys a coming-of-age story that rings true.

That’s all for today.  Time to get outside and enjoy the sunshine.

Bye for now…

Sunday 22 November 2020

Books and tea on a snowy morning...

How is it that we seem to have so much precipitation on Sundays?  Today we are expected to have snow all day long, but I will try to get out for a walk this afternoon regardless, a bit like the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  

I read a rather disappointing novel last week, To Tell You the Truth by Gilly Macmillan.  This thriller centres on bestselling crime writer Lucy Harper, a woman who seems to have it all, a successful writing career, a handsome, loving husband, and the completion of her latest book.  But all is not what it seems:  Lucy is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her younger brother Teddy when she was just nine year old and Teddy was four, a disappearance that was largely her fault.  Thankfully, she’s always had her imaginary friend Eliza with whom to share her deepest emotions and darkest fears, someone from whom she can solicit advice;  in fact, Lucy had become so dependent on Eliza’s presence throughout her years growing up that she even based her books, the “Eliza Grey” series, on her.  When Lucy starts seeing physical manifestations of Eliza, though, she knows things have gone too far, but her attempts to sever their relationship prove to be ineffective.  Her relationship with her husband, Dan, also seems to be faltering as he makes more and more changes to their lives that bring Lucy closer to her traumatic past.  When Dan also goes missing, Lucy is at the centre of the investigation, and she must try to discover what happened to him, and also to Teddy, before she loses her freedom… and possibly her sanity.  This is the latest novel by an author whose works I’ve enjoyed reading in the past, but reading it was like reading an early novel by a writer whose later works I’ve enjoyed and now I've decided to read his/her early novels.  It was so much less polished and skillful than Odd Child Out, What She Knew and The Perfect Girl, something you would expect from early works, not later novels.  Anyway, I kept at it until the end because I thought it might turn out to be really good, which is what happened recently with Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson, but alas, it was disappointing to the very last page.  I guess if this was a first foray into Macmillan’s books, I might have thought it was OK, but I don’t think I as a reader was wrong to have greater expectation from a seasoned writer like her.  Anyway, it wasn’t the worst thriller I’ve read recently, but it was certainly not the best.

OK, I’ve got to go, as I’ve had a number of distractions this morning, so this short post has taken several hours to complete.  Get outside and enjoy the snow!

Bye for now…

Sunday 15 November 2020

Books and tea on a rainy autumn morning...

The stretch of mild sunny weather last week seems to be mostly at an end, and I have to say that I’m very happy about this.  I love crisp November days, seeing the stark bare branches of the trees silhouetted against the grey sky, and feeling the chill in the air that makes you want to take a long brisk walk, a gentle nudge towards the winter weather to come. But enough about my ideal fall weather...  I have a book and an audiobook to tell you about today as I sip my steaming cup of chai and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Extra Banana-y Banana Bread and a delicious Date Bar.

Last week I read The Good German by Canadian author Dennis Bock, which was both not what I expected and also exactly what I expected.  In November 1939, German anti-fascist Georg Elser attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials in Munich by planting a bomb at a beer hall where they were holding a Nazi rally.  The explosion did not kill Hitler, who left early that day, but it did kill a number of other Nazi officials and wounded many others.  He was imprisoned and finally sent to Dachau, where he died in 1945.  Imagine if that assassination attempt was successful.  We assume that this would stop the war, but Bock proposes another, much more sinister scenario.  What if, rather than stopping the Nazi movement, it only strengthened their efforts after Hermann Göring assumed the Chancellery?  In Bock’s novel, Göring signs a non-aggression treaty with American president Joseph Kennedy to keep the US out of the war.  What follows is a look at what this alternate history might look like if Elser's attempt had been successful.  From the summary on the book jacket and from reviews, I expected this to be more of a political novel, a bit of speculative fiction, as Margaret Atwood calls it.  I didn’t think this was what Bock usually writes, so I was intrigued to see how he would manage it.  What I got instead was a novel exploring the effects of war on those left behind, a coming-of-age story set in a small Canadian town under Soviet rule.  This is exactly what he usually writes about, so I was somewhat disappointed that he wasn’t writing outside his “comfort zone” but not overly so, as I just changed my expectation and got on with the reading.  It was an interesting novel, exactly as interesting and compelling for me as The Ash Garden, also by Bock.

I was going to write about the audiobook I finished listening to last week as well, but time seems to be moving very quickly this morning and I have lots of other things I still need to do, so I’ll just mention it briefly.  I listened to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, which was very interesting, and the narrator, Cathleen McCarron, did a fabulous job of bringing the story and characters to life.  This story centres on Eleanor Oliphant, a 30-year-old woman working as an accounting clerk in a small graphic design company in Glasgow.  She is lonely, socially awkward, and clearly has endured some major traumatic events in her past.  When she inadvertently becomes involved in a situation with a colleague, she slowly finds the healing power of connection and friendship.  That’s all I’ll say about it, except that I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about social misfits, loneliness, and the redemptive power of connection (think A Man Called Ove).  

That’s all for today.  Grab a good book and curl up for the afternoon.

Bye for now…

Sunday 8 November 2020

Post on an unusually warm November morning...

I know it’s nearly mid-November, but it’s felt like mid-September these past few days, and it will feel this way for a few more days yet.  Strange that last Monday I wore my winter coat and boots to work, and yesterday I wore sandals and no jacket.  It’s definitely unusual, but I may as well enjoy it while it’s happening.  It’s not too warm to enjoy a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, though, and that’s what I’m doing right now as I write this post.  

My Volunteer book club met yesterday, first time back in the Community Centre since March, to discuss the classic Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw, an eerie read for this spooky time of year… or is it?  Most people are familiar with the basic premise of this story. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen one of the movie or Netflix adaptations, but for anyone not familiar with it, here’s a quick summary:  An unnamed young woman is hired by a man in London to work as a governess in a large house in the remote English countryside, caring for and teaching his young niece and nephew.  While there, she begins to suspect that the children are at risk of becoming “corrupted” or possessed by two malevolent spirits, those of the former governess and the uncle's valet/manservent.  Unfortunately, no one else in the house sees these ghosts, but she is convinced that Flora and Miles are in imminent danger, and that it is her job to protect them at any cost.  The situation spirals out of control until the story reaches a tragic end.  This novella is supposed to be a classic study in evil, a ghost story to set the bar for all other ghost stories, but the first time I read it, I didn’t get that part.  I’ve seen the original 1961 film version, “The Innocents” with Deborah Kerr, and found it to be quite haunting, and so I’ve always thought that it was just me, that I was not intelligent enough to understand this novella.  I’m happy to say that it’s not just me!  My whole group found this to be a terrible slog - we all agreed with the comment one of the members made about it:  “So many words!”  Another woman said that she’s never read so many words and learned so little.  My long-held belief that the works of Henry James are just too difficult to read has now been confirmed.  The main point of our discussion was whether the ghosts really existed or whether they were all in the governess’s imagination.  Was this less a ghost story than a study in hysteria and psychological deterioration?  My text had many critical pieces in the second half of the book, and I found those to be at least as interesting as the work itself, shedding light on the dense prose as studied by those much more learned than I.  And several of the book club members also read the introductions or critical reviews and shared what they discovered.  We all thought that the ghosts were not real, and that the poor children being left at the hands of such an unstable and ultimately destructive woman was a crime.  We discussed the role of the absent uncle, who did not want to be bothered about the children at all.  We discussed social class and the way it affected the relationship between the governess and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose.  We discussed the underlying tone of sexuality in the narrative, a narrative that was supposedly written directly by the governess and sent to her friend many years later.  Was the governess in love with the uncle, and also with the children to some extent, and suffering sexual repression?  We all thought it would be interesting to find out what happened after the story ends, “Another Turn of the Screw” perhaps?  We also discussed what the title might mean.  In the end, it was a great discussion, and everyone agreed that there was so much more to talk about than they originally expected.  I am now interested in going back and skimming to find sections where something actually happens and piecing the story together that way, much as you would a set of plastic dinosaur bones, all the better to review this plot and decide what I think about it without all the filler words that made it feel much like plodding through deep mud.  Thank goodness it was short! (but it felt so long!!) I’m hoping people like our next book selection a bit better.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the mild, sunny day!

Bye for now…

Sunday 1 November 2020

First post for November...

I've been busy this morning filling my extra hour with many little tasks in the kitchen, as well as giving my cats some well-earned extra attention.  But now they’ve gone off to have cat naps in their favourite spots and I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, as well as a slice of freshly baked Date Bread, to warm me up on this chilly, rainy morning.  

I read a really interesting book this past week, Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson.  I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I’m so glad I did!  Malcolm Kershaw is a middle-aged widower who owns a used bookstore in Boston, and each day is much like the next, until one snowy afternoon when an FBI agent shows up at his door asking him about a blog post he wrote nearly two decades before, a post he called “Eight Perfect Murders”.  This post listed what then-mystery-fiction-reader Malcolm considered the eight best, cleverest, and most “unsolvable” murders in fiction, including Agatha Christie’s The A B C Murders, James M Cain’s Double Indemnity, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  Now Agent Gwen Mulvaney thinks that someone has discovered this list and is re-enacting these murders, but in real life.  Malcolm is more than willing to help uncover any links to these possible crimes, but things become more complicated as further details about the backgrounds and histories of various characters are revealed.  I don’t want to give away anything more, as I don’t want to spoil it if you decide to read it, but suffice it to say that I will try never to assume anything about anyone ever again, especially used bookstore owners!  At first it seemed a simple, straightforward, darkly funny, yet “light” mystery, but the more I read, the darker and more complex the story became, this twisting, turning, metafiction page-turner that moved so fast I had to stop and catch my breath before reaching a relatively satisfying conclusion.  It began as a “Canadian Tire” book but quickly turned into a “Lee Valley” read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys dark, complex psychological thrillers.

That’s it for today.  Enjoy your extra hour, whatever you do, and remember to make time to read!

Bye for now…

Sunday 25 October 2020

Short post on a chilly morning...

It’s turned chilly and cold this weekend, but I don’t mind.  So far the rain has held off, which makes this perfect weather for a long walk, then curling up with a well-earned hot cup of tea and a good book… hmmm… I think that will be my plan for today.  But first I have a book to tell you about.

The Allspice Bath by Sonia Saikaley opens in the spring of 1970.  In a hospital in Ottawa, another daughter is born to a Lebanese-Canadian family, and the father, Youssef, is not happy.  This makes four daughters, and with this difficult birth, wife and mother Samira must have a hysterectomy, making her unable to have any more children.  This means Youssef will never have a son, and this is the theme that underlies everything in young Adele’s life, the fact that she was not a boy and can never be a suitable replacement for a son.  As Adele grows up, she encounters difficulties and obstacles both with her family and in her social life.  She is torn because she was born in Canada but her parents are both immigrants from Lebanon, and they are very traditional, so is she Canadian or is she Lebanese?  She is also so much younger than her sisters that she has difficulty relating to them, and they tease her mercilessly on a regular basis.  The novel follows Adele as she grows from a child into a young woman, and follows her struggles as she learns to live her own life and follow her own path, independent of her controlling, obstinate father and quiet, submissive mother.  This book, an award-winner for multicultural fiction, was interesting, and I enjoyed reading it, but I wonder how much of my enjoyment comes from relating to the character’s situation so much.  As I was reading this novel, I felt that it could have been written by anyone in my family, as this is also my background and Adele’s age in the book corresponds closely with my own.  It was interesting to find, on the first few pages, swearing in Arabic, and mentions of delicious traditional Middle Eastern foods pop up throughout the book.  I was happy/sad to learn that my own upbringing and experiences with my father were common amongst children of Lebanese parents, and it helps put things in perspective.  I’m not sure I would behave the way Adele does near the end of the novel, but since I haven’t yet been in that position, I’ll have to wait and see what choices I will make (I can’t tell you any more without spoiling it).  I would say this is a realistic portrait of a young girl growing up in a Lebanese-Canadian family in the 1980’s, and while the writing is not stellar, the story moves along at a good pace until it reaches a satisfying conclusion.

That’s all I’ve got for you today, as I really want to get outside and enjoy this brisk fall day.   

Bye for now…

Sunday 18 October 2020

Post on a wet fall morning...

It’s been raining off and on this morning, so I’m glad we got out to rake the leaves yesterday while everything was dry.  I don’t mind wet fall weather - it just seems to intensify the gorgeous colours of the trees when it’s overcast and the trunks are black with rain.  I’ve got a delicious cup of chai and a Date Bar to motivate me this morning.  I’ve done a few things already and am running behind, but I have two great books to tell you about, so I’ll just get to it.

Last week I read Polar Vortex by Canadian novelist Shani Mootoo.  This novel has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and I can certainly understand why.  Priya and Alex are living what appears to be an ideal life.  They have a big old house on what is technically an island (maybe near Kingston, Ontario?), where they have room to be creative: Priya is an artist and Alex is a writer.  But all is not what it seems, and cracks begin to appear when Priya invites an old friend to come and stay, a man she hasn’t been in contact with since meeting Alex.  What ensues is an exploration into the decades-long, complicated relationship between Priya and Prakesh, and how it will affect the relatively new relationship she has with Alex.  This literary novel explores various kinds of relationships, and asks readers to consider whether a lengthy but neglected relationship is more significant than a recent but nurtured one.  It also questions whether the secrets in one’s past ever really go away.  I found this to be a truly thought-provoking novel, making me think of my own past relationships, those I’ve neglected and those I’ve nurtured, as well as consider the experiences of refugees as they settle into a new country.  I've also never really thought about the challenges gay couples face, in the past and even now, in our more accepting society. It was a short book that seemed long, packed as it was with so much to think about.  I would recommend this to anyone interested in books exploring relationships, secrets and deception.

And I finished listening to a great audiobook, Normal People by Sally Rooney.  I think this title came to my attention because it’s recently been adapted into a series, which I've heard was not as good as the book (it never is!).  The novel begins when Marianne and Connell are in their final years of secondary school in County Sligo.  Connell’s mother cleans house for Marianne’s family, and although they are attracted to one another, they must hide their feelings from others, fearing negative reactions from their classmates.  Although he and his mother don't have much money, Connell has managed to become part of the popular crowd, while Marianne is considered an outsider, on the fringes, a loner, despite her family’s wealth.  When they both attend Trinity College, Dublin, their roles are reversed, and Marianne is the popular one, while Connell, only able to attend on scholarship, is the outsider.  Once again, their relationship must be kept secret, and this goes on for a few more years as they have different, sometimes disturbing, experiences with different people, but they always remain an anchor for one another despite their involvement with others and their ever-changing locations.  I had no idea what this book was about and didn’t take to it at first, but once the story got going, I was hooked.  I found myself telling them to just get together and reveal their relationship to everyone, criticisms be damned!  I was rooting for them, and cringing at their foolish decisions.  It was a fabulous book, and the narrator, Aoife McMahon, did a wonderful job of bringing the characters and their experiences to life.  I would highly recommend this audiobook to just about anyone, but be prepared to both laugh and cry. 

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend and pick up a god book!

Bye for now…

Monday 12 October 2020

Very short post on a very long weekend...

It was a PD Day on Friday, so I took advantage of the opportunity to work from home that day, and of course today is Thanksgiving Monday, so it feels like I’ve had four days off (well, I was really busy with video sessions on Friday, but I got to sit around in my “at-home” clothes, so it was definitely more restful than going in to work).  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar on this gorgeously bright, sunny, mild morning.  The birds are singing (it’s mild enough to have the windows open), the leaves are out in full magnificent colour, and I’m feeling so peaceful and certainly thankful for so many things, today and every day.

Last week I read American Predator:  the hunt for the most meticulous serial killer of the 21st century by Maureen Callahan, and it was just so-so.  I’m not a huge non-fiction reader, but I have enjoyed some true crime and historical nf titles in the past, so I thought I would take a chance on this one, and I was thankful that it was short.  It follows the search for, arrest, and subsequent interrogation of Israel Keyes, a man initially suspected of abducting and killing a young woman in Anchorage, Alaska, but who, after some skillful (and some bumbling) interviewing, is linked to many other crimes and murders throughout the United States over the previous two decades.  It was interesting enough at first, and was neither well-written nor badly written, but just average - it met, but certainly did not exceed, my expectations.  But it jumped around quite a bit, and by the time I reached the end of the book, I wondered what the point of it was.  I guess it was vague and had lots of filler because it was hard to find information about this guy; he seems to be the most famous serial killer that no one has ever heard of.  Anyway, if you like reading true crime and are looking for something new, you could do worse than this one, but you could also do better.  

And I listened to an audiobook by K L (Kelly) Armstrong, Wherever She Goes, and have to say that I was happy to reach “the last page” of this one, too.  I have enjoyed several books in Armstrong’s “Rockton” series, and was quite looking forward to this standalone, but it did not meet my expectations at all.  Aubrey Finch is in the midst of domestic turmoil; she and her husband have separated and she fears the loss of custody of her young daughter.  When she and her daughter are at the park one weekend, she has a brief conversation with another young woman who is playing with her son.  Several days later, as she is jogging in that same park, she thinks she witnesses that boy being abducted, but no one will believe her.  Even she is not certain of what she saw, but when more sinister activities take place in her seemingly tranquil suburban community, she is unable to deny her gut instinct and decides to search for this boy on her own.  Sounds like an interesting plot, right?  Well, yes, it would have been interesting if there weren't so many of Aubrey’s lengthy internal monologues popping up far too regularly throughout the book.  And in my opinion, it turned out to be totally unbelievable, too.  Maybe as a print book the reader would have been able to skim the monotonous monologues and get to the “good stuff”, but with an audiobook, you can’t skim or skip parts.  Anyway, not as good as I was hoping, but also not the worst book I’ve ever listened to.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy this gorgeous day!  And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Bye for now…

Sunday 4 October 2020

Rain, rain, go away...

It’s raining right now, and it’s supposed to do so all day, so I guess it’s a good time to prepare for the cooler weather, both in my closet and around the house… it’s also perfect weather for reading and drinking hot tea!  Good thing I went to the library yesterday and filled my “library loans” shelf with a wide variety of books to choose from.  Right now I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a Date Bar to lift my spirits and brighten my morning.

At my Volunteer Book Club meeting yesterday, we discussed Deborah Ellis’ collection of Young Adult short stories, Sit, and we all loved it!  There are eleven stories in this short volume, and some of the stories are directly interconnected, while others just seem to so obviously belong in the collection.  Sitting is something we do everyday and never think about.  Each of these stories features a child or young adult who is facing a difficult situation, and each of these children is also sitting.  But their sitting is not something they can take for granted, and they use each of these situations to contemplate or reflect on serious issues in their lives or the lives of people around them.  A boy is working in an Indonesian furniture factory, toiling away making chairs under the watchful eye of a cruel boss.  A girl is visiting a concentration camp on a school trip and fixates on the latrines the prisoners were forced to use.  Another girl shares her views about her home situation while sitting in the pink plastic “time out” chair that she has long outgrown but that she is forced to use regularly by her callous mother.  These children face difficult situations or obstacles, but they somehow manage to overcome these challenges and come out alright in the end, due in large part to their resiliency of spirit.  This collection is clearly written for children (each story is brief and fairly simplistic), but my ladies loved them.  The overriding theme of the discussion was the sense of wonder at how Ellis was able to elicit such huge emotion from such short stories.  One of the members said that there were “so many little stories but so many life-changing events”; another commented that there was “so much emotion in so few pages”; another wondered how “something so little could be so big”.  We speculated about some of the characters: we thought the girl in the pink chair would grow up to be rebellious, and we considered the reasons behind the decisions of several other characters.  We noted that many of the stories featured children looking out for each other, and sometimes for adults.  We all agreed that it was the many small details in each story that created a clear picture of each situation, and that it was these small details that make these stories difficult to sum up if trying to relate them to someone else, that somehow the emotional impact would be "lost in translation".  Overall, it was a great book club choice, and I would highly recommend it to just about any reader.  It is short enough to read in a couple of hours, and the stories are very accessible, so there’s no reason not to try it.

And speaking of simple stories with big meanings, I also read The Wall by John Lanchester.  I was reluctant to read this novel directly after The Memory Police because it is also a dystopian novel that takes place mainly on an unnamed island, and I thought it might be too many depressing dystopian novels too close together, but I started it and was sucked in immediately!  John Kavanaugh is a young man who is beginning his requisite two-year posting as a Defender on The Wall, a concrete wall that surrounds the coast of the island where he lives to keep out the Others.  He shares details about his first days, weeks and months, the conditions under which he fulfills his posting, his relationships with the other Defenders, and his experiences both on and off The Wall.  All seems to be going well and one day is much like the next ("concretewaterskywindcold")… until the Others attack.  The early chapters of this novel reminded me of the early chapters of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with the details of the tediousness of the characters' existence, but Atwood’s book is much more complex, while Lanchester’s novel is more simplistic, but no less powerful for its simplicity.  In fact, I think the simplicity adds to the significance: without much detail, this story could be applied to any situation, making it more disturbing.  And it’s obviously based on current controversial political agendas, which makes it even more unsettling, because it’s not just speculative; it’s actually happening.  I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading dystopian or speculative fiction.  Once again, it’s an easy read, but it gave this reader so much to think about.  

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and pick up a good book.

Bye for now…