Sunday 23 February 2020

Some favourite authors and Freedom to Read Week on a mild mid-winter morning...

It’s sunny and mild on this mid-winter day, and I’ve got a cup of chai tea and a date bar to keep me company this morning while I enjoy some down-time to write this after a long and busy week.
I had two new-to-me books by a couple of favourite authors I was struggling to decide between last week, Invisible by American author Paul Auster and Nutshell by British author Ian McEwan.  Both are favourites, and both write literary novels that are usually immediately compelling, featuring interesting, complex characters and settings, and focusing on plots that are part mystery, part character study, where all is not what it seems.  I have read numerous books by both authors, but not for a very long time, and I decided on Invisible because it was due back to the library sooner.  It was classic Auster, but this novel also had certain elements of the plot that reminded me of early McEwan novels, in particular The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers.  Set in New York and Paris, this novel centres around Adam Walker, a shy but handsome college student of literature who aspires to become a poet.  At a party one night, he meets older, enigmatic Rudolf Born, who befriends him and takes him under his wing, offering him a job managing a literary magazine.  Adam is stunned, but Born convinces him that he is serious about this, so he accepts the offer, but after being seduced by Born’s girlfriend Margot while Born is away, he feels a bit strange about their relationship.  Born says he’s fine with it, but when an incident occurs late one night while they are out, Adam begins to suspect that there is a dark side to Born, a very dark side.  Born returns to Paris, and Adam and his sister Gwyn live together for the rest of the summer of 1967 until Adam also leaves for Paris on a Student-Abroad Program in order to become more fluent in French.  When he runs into both Born and Margot, as well as other individuals with whom they are involved, the situation gets more complicated, and even more complicated still when accusations about past events are made.  This is all relayed to Jim, a former college friend, via letter and manuscript nearly forty years later, and he must decide what to do with this information. This novel is made up of layer upon layer of narrative from various points of view, and in different narrative formats.  At first I was put off by the story, as it seemed to focus solely on a young man away from home for the first time, with all the usual college-age issues and worries, and this no longer interests me that much, since I am so much older than that, but then I realized that this was recollected by our main character many years later, and I was sure it would become more interesting.  And it didn’t disappoint. This short novel may seem fairly predictable at first, but if you choose to stick with it to the end, it will all come together with subtle plot twists in classic Auster fashion.
And just a reminder that this week is Freedom to Read Week ( I hope you all take this opportunity to read a banned or challenged book. I've put up an elaborate display in my school library, and will be encouraging my students to do the same!
That’s all for today.   
Bye for now…

Monday 17 February 2020


I was feeling a bit rushed yesterday when I was writing my post, and regret that I did not do the novel justice, so I’m going to write a bit more about my thoughts on the book this morning, as I sip a special loose tea that I purchased while visiting my oldest friend this past summer, Manitoba Pumpkin Spice, and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Date Bread.  
The Girls in the Garden was much more than just a suspenseful read.  This modern-day gothic novel, which is set almost entirely within the insulated walls of the private park and gardens of the neighbourhood, treats readers to a present-day mystery which is expertly intertwined with a decades-old death, also of a young girl in the park.  Are these two attacks related, and, if so, how? This novel looks at family and relationships, and asks readers to question whether blood relations are more important than relationships developed through social networks. This ended up being the perfect novel to write about this weekend, as Pip, Grace and Clare moved into their new flat in the middle of winter (like now!), the attack occurred on Grace’s birthday, and the whole novel explores family and relationships, perfect for Family Day.  It is just the kind of plot and story I enjoy, weaving together an old unsolved mystery, family secrets and troubling present-day circumstances, an atmosphere where nothing is as it seems. I will definitely be checking out other books by this author, and would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys these types of mysteries.
That’s all for this weekend.  Enjoy your Family Day!
Bye for now…

Sunday 16 February 2020

Books, tea and treats on a long weekend...

It’s been chilly these past few days, and we’ve gotten quite a bit of snow, so it finally looks and feels like a real winter.  I worry so much about climate change, and, in January and February, the middle of winter, I prefer cold and snowy days to mild, slushy ones, so the weather today makes me happy. 
Speaking of happy, I have a steaming cup of a different chai tea today, an Organic Chai black tea with an Assam base which I’ve had before (it is a finer grind, but it's oh so delicious!) and a yummy Date Bar to keep me company this morning, which is not only on a long weekend, but also happens to be my birthday.  Maybe to celebrate I should go out and buy a new book… hmmm, that sounds like a great idea!
I finished reading a suspenseful novel by an author I have never read before, The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell.  This was recommended to me by one of the teachers at my school, and I really enjoyed it.  Set in a lush private garden in the centre of London, the opening chapter introduces us to twelve-year-old Pip, who is helping her mother out in the bathroom while she is sick after attending a party in the communal gardens.  Pip gets her mother settled in bed, but feels she must find her older sister before heading off to bed herself. Her sister, Grace, is celebrating her thirteenth birthday that day, which just happens to coincide with the neighbourhood party, and she has been hanging out with her friends and her boyfriend all day long.  When Pip heads into the park, she does find Grace, but she is lying in the bushes, bashed and bloodied, her clothes in disarray. The rest of the novel draws us back to six months before, when Grace and Pip move into their new apartment with their mother Clare. Because it is the middle of winter, they don’t really have much opportunity to get to know the neighbours whose flats are located in buildings surrounding the communal park and gardens, but once the spring weather hits, they are drawn into the community, perhaps a bit closer than Clare feels comfortable with.  But the girls love it, having moved from their home and school abruptly due to a tragic incident involving their father’s battle with mental illness. They are embraced by Adele and Leo, a rather hippy-ish couple who have lived in the neighbourhood for years, Leo having grown up there. They have three girls, Catkin, Fern and Willow, who are close in age to Pip and Grace, and who are homeschooled by Adele. Their group also includes Tyler, a young girl who lives across the park, and who is friends with Dylan, a handsome boy who also lives nearby. As close as they are, and as much as they share with each other, these friendships are also fraught with difficulties, the usual ones with which teenagers have struggles for years, connection, individuality, love and the need to belong.  As readers learn about these relationships, as well as the complex and sometimes confusing relationships between the adults in the neighbourhood, we are offered many potential suspects in the attack on Grace, but who actually did it, and why? You’ll have to read this complex, suspenseful page-turner to find out.
That’s all for today.  I want to get outside for a long-ish walk before we get on with our busy day.  I hope you will take advantage of the extra day off to get lots of reading done, as I surely will.  Happy Family Day!   
Bye for now…

Sunday 9 February 2020

"It's a mystery" on a clear morning...

On this clear, bright, slightly chilly morning, I’ve got a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar as companions.  It looks like it’s going to be perfect for a long walk and a hot beverage as a reward.
Last week I went back to the mystery I was reading before my book club meeting forced me to stop and get through the required reading.  The Perfect Girl is a mystery by Gilly Macmillan, and it was a very gripping story.  Told from various points of view, this novel centres on Zoe Maisey, a seventeen-year-old musical prodigy who, three years earlier, was involved in a tragic car accident that caused the death of three other young people from her small English town.  When she is released from the juvenile facility after serving her sentence, she and her mother, Maria, move to Bristol to be near Maria’s sister, Tessa, and to make a fresh start. When the novel opens, Maria and her new husband Chris are attending a concert they organized at a church in town, with the hopes that this will kickstart Zoe’s halted musical career.  She is performing with her step-brother, Lucas, who is also a brilliant pianist, and they are just beginning the program when a man stands up and begins shouting at Zoe that she should not be allowed to carry on with a new life after taking his own daughter from him. Maria and Zoe manage to escape into the evening and return home while Lucas carries on performing alone.  When Chris and Lucas return several hours later, it proves to be a tense evening, and the next morning, Maria is found dead. But who killed her, and why? What readers are treated to for the rest of the novel are chapters from Tessa, Zoe, Zoe’s former solicitor Sam, and Tessa’s husband Richard, all telling their own stories as they try to fit the pieces together to determine what really happened.  This was a tense, engrossing read that offered snippets from Zoe’s past, but mainly focused on the present-day mystery. It wasn’t really fast-paced, but it kept me reading, not only because of the mystery, but also because I wanted to learn more about the characters that were taking turns telling the story. This is something Macmillan is very good at, developing characters, even minor ones, and making her books more dramas and psychological suspense than straightforward plot-driven thrillers. I have read a few other books by Macmillan, and they were all good reads, so if this is the kind of book you like, then this would be a good choice for you.  
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the mild-ish weather, but don’t forget to make time to read!
Bye for now…

Sunday 2 February 2020

A cup of tea, a treat, and lots of controlling men on a snowy morning...

It’s really snowing outside, the kind of big, fluffy flakes that make it look like a winter wonderland, or like you’ve shaken a snow globe.  I’m warm and cozy inside, and am enjoying a steaming cup of tea and a delicious Date Bar right now, and am looking forward to a slow day of R&R:  reading and relaxing.
My Volunteer book club met yesterday to discuss Garth Stein’s novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and it was a hit!  Told from the point of view of Enzo, a dog who knows he’s different from other dogs, this novel opens with Enzo’s final day.  He is ready to die, as he believes he will be reincarnated as a man, and he can’t wait for that opportunity. He wants to be able to speak, to shake hands, to stand upright, but especially to have opposable thumbs.  As he accepts that this is the end, he spends the rest of the novel looking back on his life. He was taken from his farm as a puppy and went to live with Denny, a man who loves racing and who knew that he could be a great race car driver, if only he could get that one big break.  Alas, he is always just scraping by, and racing is expensive. Then he meets Eve, a woman who doesn't entirely warm to Enzo, nor he to her. They marry and have a baby, Zoe, and all is right with their world... until suddenly it isn’t. Eve is diagnosed with cancer, and she passes away, a hugely traumatic event in Denny’s life.  But just when you think it can’t get worse, it does: Eve’s wealthy parents (”the Twins”), who never really thought Denny was a good choice of husband for their daughter, decide that five-year-old Zoe would be better off with them, and sue for custody. This battle, Denny is assured by his lawyer, will never be won in favour of the in-laws.  But wait… there’s more! A bogus charge is levelled against him, ensuring that he will never be allowed custody of his daughter. Throughout these many joys and trials, Enzo is there to make philosophical commentary. He is more insightful than other dogs; in fact, he’s practically human already, if only he could escape the confines of his doggie body.  He learns much by listening to others and by watching hours of TV, and he does his best to support, and even to advise, Denny along the way. Will Denny accept his fate, or will he fight on and find a way to save himself and his daughter from the clutches of the stereotypically selfish, thoughtless and bullish Twins? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I didn’t cry nearly as much as I expected, and it was really a well-written book, one that made me think about many things, ordinary stuff that occurs in daily life that I’ve never considered before, such as how we listen to others and often derail the original conversation in favour of our own conversational direction.  Everyone loved the book. They loved Enzo’s voice as narrator, and felt that he was truly wise beyond his doggie-ness. We talked about the trials Denny faced throughout the book, and about the ways Eve supported his dreams as best she could. We discussed Eve’s parents, especially her controlling, bullying father. We discussed the ways in which we can control what happens in our own lives, and how much is out of our hands (we even discussed God and religion, and the fine balance between the ways in which we are expected to help ourselves and what we should leave up to God... if you believe in God). At one point, Denny says “That which we manifest is before us”, and Enzo takes this to heart. The full quotation is: "That which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves” (p 43).  One member pointed out that fear is a huge factor in decision-making, and that people will continue to make the same mistake again and again until they learn their lesson. Another of our favourite sayings from the book is something like “the car goes where the eyes go”, which is another way of saying that you control the direction your life takes. We talked about family, about supporting spouses, about children, about false accusations that can change a life, and about the ways that wealthy people believe they can have it all, that others should just do their bidding, and that money = power. And, of course, we discussed the bonds between people and pets. It was a great discussion, and I would highly recommend this very readable yet hugely insightful book to just about anyone.  But definitely have tissues handy when you read it.
This book made me think about controlling men, and I realized that this type of man features prominently in other books I’m reading or listening to: The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan has a domineering male figure, and The Ice Beneath Her by Camilla Grebe has several nasty, intimidating male characters.  It’s unusual to have so many similar characters appear at the same time in such different types of books, but there it is.  I’m thankful that my husband is nothing like this. Of course, that is also my choice, as I am the master of my own destiny.  This is something we talked about at length in our meeting yesterday, and it is so very true, that women must end the cycle of violence by taking control of their own destiny and making better choices, ideally early in life.
That’s a heavy topic to end this post, but I hope it doesn’t ruin you day.  Stay warm and enjoy the snow!
Bye for now…