Friday 26 June 2020

"School's out for summer..."

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

Thursday 18 June 2020

Post on a summery morning...

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

Friday 12 June 2020

Friday morning post...

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

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

Sunday 7 June 2020

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

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