Sunday 31 May 2020

Short post on a chilly morning...

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

Thursday 28 May 2020

Post on an unpredictable morning...

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

Sunday 24 May 2020

Short post on a very warm evening...

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

Friday 15 May 2020

Book talk on a raining day...

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

Friday 8 May 2020

Post on a chilly morning...

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

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

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

Friday 1 May 2020

May Day post...

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