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…

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…

Monday 13 April 2020

Tea and a healthy treat on Easter Monday morning...

I have a steaming cup of delicious steeped chai tea waiting for me this morning, along with a bit of a healthier treat:  homemade apple sauce with cottage cheese and a sprinkling of homemade granola on top. With the self-isolation and distancing restrictions in place right now, I haven’t been going to City Cafe as often as I normally would, so I’ve had to improvise for treats.  I’ve been baking, but I ate my last piece of homemade Date Bread yesterday and I haven’t been motivated to bake another yet.
Good thing I’ve been motivated to read!  I was talking to my cousin last week, and she said she had just started reading a book I’d given her some time ago, Before the Poison by Peter Robinson. I had started two different books by that point and neither had grabbed me, so I thought maybe I should reread Before the Poison and we could talk about it during our next phone call.  I didn’t realize it had been so long since I’d read this great standalone mystery, but in searching my previous blog posts, I read it first in June 2012 and again in June 2013 for my book club.  Here is what I had to say about it in previous posts:

(from 2013)  “I finished reading Before the Poison by Peter Robinson well before my book club meeting, and I enjoyed it as much this time as I did the first time I read it.  It tells the story of Chris Lowndes, a British-born American-transplanted composer of film music (“music no one listens to”) who, shortly after his 60th birthday, returns to Yorkshire and takes up residence in Kilnsgate House, where he hopes to compose music that people will actually listen to and enjoy.  His wife has recently passed away, and we suspect that he is using this time away to grieve and to sort out his life. While inquiring about the former estate owners, he discovers that there was a family who lived there from the 1930s to the 1950s, but that the wife was hanged for poisoning her husband. Chris, who may be ultra-sensitive to otherworldly spirits, experiences what may be visions of the woman, Grace, during his first evenings in the house, and he is determined to find out more about the story and hopefully uncover the truth, which he hopes will prove that she was wrongly accused and convicted, that she was in fact innocent of the crime for which she was hanged.  It’s a British mystery, a haunted house story, a bit of a love story, and a story about what it means to be family. “ 
(from 2012)  “This novel is a ghost story, not a police procedural... it reminds me of one of my favourite novels, Rebecca...  (T)hey both deal with the "ghost", or "presence", of a past resident of a huge house that is practically a character in itself, a woman with a mysterious past, and the house's new resident who is obsessed with the story and with finding out the truth about the past.  (There are) similarities with Minette Walters, particularly with the use of article excerpts to fill the reader in on the story about the mysterious woman. (Robinson) also uses this woman's diary entries later in the book... The only "criticism" I have, and I'm not sure that it's really a criticism, more of a comment, is that the main character, Chris Lowndes, is not really that interesting as a character.  I mean, he's just kind of "there" to move the story along, but he is portrayed as rather bland - the novel does not make this reader want to know about his life before the story begins. In fact, I just had to look at the inside flap of the book to check what the character's name is, which illustrates my point exactly. I find that very interesting in itself, since Inspector Alan Banks is such an interesting character that I would be willing to read a novel about his "life" even if there were no murders or mysteries to solve.  I guess the difference is that this is a stand-alone so the character will not appear in the next book in the series, and it is not really about the character or his personal or psychological development. It is more about the discovery of the past and the characters that existed and the events that took place half a decade before... In both books, the real "stars" are the dead women, Grace Fox and Rebecca de Winter, and the story is really concerned with the mysterious events surrounding their deaths.”
My experience rereading this novel was similar to those of reading it in previous years, and I even thought that my cousin might find it too boring, not complex or psychological enough, because the main character, Chris, is too bland and uninteresting, but I just spoke with her again this past Friday, when she was nearly halfway through, and she said she was really enjoying it.  It’s definitely worth reading right to the end, as the twist at the end is so unexpected and so interesting, and it also explains alot about Chris’ behaviour and his process of grieving over his wife Laura’s death. I would definitely recommend this novel to just about anyone.
And I finished an audiobook early last week that was fabulous.  Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close is so very different from the types of novels I normally read or listen to that I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it.  Narrated by Emily Janice Card, this novel is told from the points of view of several different young women whose stories are all linked together by various weddings, showers, and other dating or marriage-related events.  It opens with Isabella, aged twelve, preparing to be a bridesmaid in her sister Molly’s wedding, what she believed was “the most beautiful wedding anyone would ever have”. But ten years later, after college and a move to New York, crammed in with her roommate, Mary, Isabella has become disillusioned with the whole dating and romance scene.  She is looking for a job, a boyfriend, and a way to be happy, but her pursuits are met with disappointment again and again. What follows are different stories involving various friends of Isabella’s, including studious Mary and boozy Lauren, as they all search for love “in all the wrong places”. This is the ultimate “chick lit” novel, where the trials and tribulations of being a woman are dealt with in a lighthearted way, a genre that I generally avoid.  But I’m so glad I took a chance this time and trusted my instinct when I chose to judge this book by its cover, which is what really drew me in. I listen to audiobooks mainly when I’m outside walking, and I was particularly thankful for social distancing as I was chuckling and laughing out loud at some parts of this delightfully insightful, humourous book. I enjoyed it so much that I have downloaded another book by this author and look forward to listening to it soon.  I would recommend this novel to any woman who needs an upbeat, entertaining book to keep her spirits up during this rather challenging time.
That’s all for today.  I hope the rain stops so I can get outside for a long walk, but for now, I’ll settle in with another cup of tea and read... maybe I'll even bake that loaf of Date Bread.  Stay safe and keep busy!
Bye for now!  Julie

Monday 6 April 2020

Tea and so-so treats on a bright spring morning...

I’ve got a cup of steaming chai tea on the table in front of me, and I hope it will be delicious enough to make up for my so-so treats.  I made Banana Bread late last week, and it was good the first few days, but I think it's reached its limit of "edibility", so I’m going to eat the last big slice this morning. I also have three Timbits left over from the pack we bought yesterday, not even my favourites, but still, they’ve got to be eaten, so this morning I feel like I’m doing a bit of “cleaning up” in the treats department.  They’re not a delicious Date Bar, but hopefully they will see me through the writing of this post.
I finished reading something I picked up at the library conference I was at in January, an Advanced Reader’s Edition of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, which has been heavily marketed by the publisher and promoted by Indigo.  It tells the story of the sexual abuse of fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye by her forty-two-year-old teacher Jacob Strane while attending a boarding school in Maine.  Vanessa was an intelligent, eager, ambitious, yet shy student who begged her parents to attend this prestigious school, and was awarded a scholarship, the only way her family could afford it.  During her second year there, she seeks approval from Strane, her English teacher, and when he begins to single her out for special attention, she is thrilled. But what fifteen-year-old Wye sees as special attention the reader can identify as grooming, and this reader cringed even as I sped through the disturbing pages.  We also see Vanessa at different ages throughout this novel, from fifteen to thirty-two, and see how the abusive relationship with Strane has affected (or should I say “infected”?) every aspect of her life, as she refuses to see what happened to her as abuse. This novel explores the fine lines between coercion and consent, victimhood and culpability.  It was a disturbing read, and while I’m glad I read it, I will be very careful about recommending it, as it may hit a bit too close to home for many people.
I also finished listening to an audiobook last week, The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre, read by my favourite narrator John Lee.  I almost never read or listen to non-fiction, but I’ve listened to another book by this author in the past, Agent Zigzag, also narrated by John Lee, which was awesome.  This book tells the story of the exfiltration of a British double agent from the Soviet Union, and it was a real page-turner - well, I wasn’t turning pages, but I was trying to find every opportunity to listen to more of this story!  Oleg Gordievsky was a well-respected and highly placed KGB officer, but for 11 years during the Cold War, he was also spying for Britain. This book tells his fascinating story, from his early years when he learned German and began reading western newspapers to his recruitment into the KGB and his various postings, where he became disillusioned by the grey totalitarianism of the Soviet regime.  He was sent to Copenhagen in the late-1960s, at which time he decided to fight communism from the inside. After returning to Moscow, he contrived to secure a posting in the west, and ended up in London as a KGB officer spying on Britain, but also spying on his own country for MI6. In 1985, Gordievsky received a telegram from his KGB superiors requesting his return to Moscow. Was this a routine visit, or had he been found out?  He returned with apprehension, and what follows is the detailed recounting of one of the most exciting escape plans I’ve ever read, in fiction or non-fiction. I would highly recommend this book to just about anyone, as it has everything you could want: espionage, politics, history, character studies, even a love story, and it read like a novel by John Le Carré.  
That’s all for today.  Thank goodness walking outside and reading are still two acceptable ways to fill our days during these stressful times.  I plan to do alot of both in the coming week, and will share my thoughts about book(s) and audiobook(s) again this time next week.
Bye for now…