Friday 31 July 2020

Quick post on a lovely summer morning...

It’s still morning for a little bit longer, and I’ve been busy for the past couple of hours getting a number of chores and errands done before the start of the long weekend.  I’m now settling down with a cup of steaming chai and a delicious Date Bar to write a short post, as I still have so many things to do.  In the audiobook I’m listening to right now, one of the characters says that her mom always called May the “Friday of summer”.  Maybe that’s the case for the British school system, but it got me thinking about our summer holidays, and I would say that May is like a Thursday, when you are anticipating the weekend that is so close it feels as if it’s already begun.  June is the Friday of summer, when there are still things to be done but the partying has begun.  July is the Saturday of summer, when you feel like you’ve got so much time, and you try to pack in as much as possible, letting go of your weekday schedule, sleeping in, rushing around, getting things done, and staying up too late.  But August, which is right around the corner for us, is the Sunday of summer, when you already start thinking about going back to work or school the next day, and there is pressure to both get the rest of your chores and errands done and also to rest and relax before the busy-ness of the work-week begins.  *Sigh*... as you can probably guess, I’m feeling some pressure as July comes to a close.  But I think the “dog days of summer” are also over, as that term refers to the hottest days of the season, and this is something for which I’m very thankful.
Speaking of pressure, I’m feeling alot of book or reading pressure.  I have ten books checked out from the library and I haven’t read a single one yet.  I have thirteen books that I brought home from my school library with the intention of reading at least three, but as yet I haven’t read a single one.  I also ordered books for school and I have two that I wanted to read before I went back to work and added them to my collection, but they, too, sit unread.  I have 75 pages left in the book we are discussing for my next book club meeting in ten days, and I want to finish it today.  I also have two books sitting on my coffee table that I took off my own bookshelves because I want to read them.  And since I have subscribed to The New Quarterly magazine, which features new Canadian writing and is delivered, as you might guess, quarterly, I just received the newest edition… but I haven’t read the other three yet!  That was going to be another of my summer projects.  I don’t know where to begin, or how to whittle down the piles.
But enough of my whining.  I want to quickly tell you about an audiobooks I just finished listening to that was so outside my usual reading style that I’m amazed at how much I enjoyed it.  Alone in the Wild by Canadian author Kelley Armstrong is the fifth book in the “Rockton” series.  You may be familiar with her name from her “Otherworld” series, but she’s also written some children’s and Young Adult novels.  This series is set in Rockton, a small community in the Yukon wilderness, a community that no one knows exists and is made up of fugitives and criminals.  Outside of this isolated community are two Settlements, and beyond these are the Hostiles, or Wild People.  Since I’ve not read any others in this series, I don’t have the backstories of the town or the residents, but I could still follow the plot fairly easily.  When Homicide Detective Casey Duncan and Town Sheriff Eric Dalton go wilderness camping on a much-needed break from fighting crime in their town, the last thing they expect to find is a baby, but when Casey hears the unmistakable cry, she knows that this is no wild animal.  The cries lead her to a dead woman buried in the snow, and a baby tucked inside her jacket, still breathing and crying, but very, very young.  Their weekend away cut short, Eric and Casey bring the baby back to town, where they try to gather the supplies they will need to care for her until the mother is found.  Oh, I forgot to mention that no one under the age of eighteen is allowed to live in Rockton, so this poses a bit of a problem, but, being the resourceful people that they must be, living so far North and isolated from everything, the residents all rally together to help care for this infant.  Thus begins the investigation into the woman’s death and the search for the baby’s parents, which leads Casey and Eric further and further into the wilderness around their town.  There they learn about the inhabitants of the Settlements, as well as some of the practices of the Hostiles, all useful information, but will it be enough to solve the murder and find the parents?  I don’t want to get into any more details of this complex plot for fear of giving anything away, but I have to say that it was the type of audiobook that kept me walking a little bit further each day just so I could find out what happens next.  I can’t really classify this:  it was a thriller, a murder mystery, a bit of a western and a wilderness tale of pioneering and survival.  Casey was also a real-life fictional superhero, so we can throw in “superhero fiction” as a genre, too.  I know this sounds strange, and you might be thinking that it’s too far-fetched to be good, but Armstrong, somewhat of a writing superhero herself, manages to pull it off beautifully.  The narrator, Thérèse Plummer, really brought this story to life, and I wonder if I would have enjoyed it as much if I was reading the print version.  I’m curious enough about this series that I placed the first book on hold at the library (yes, another library book, and more reading pressure!), and will give that a try when it comes in.
That’s all for today.  It’s now officially afternoon, on the last day of July, on the Friday of a long weekend, and you’d think this would be a time to relax or at least do something fun, but there’s still so much I want to get done today… I guess I will make a list and tackle one or two of my tasks today, then a couple more on another day, and eventually they will all get done.  The first thing, though, is to finish my book!  Take care, stay safe and enjoy the long weekend!
Bye for now…

Sunday 26 July 2020

Local foods and a Japanese mystery on a hot, sultry day...

Last week we saw a few days’ relief from the oppressive humidity, but it’s back today with a vengeance.  After making a big pot of soup made with local field tomatoes (YUM!), and prepping all the delicious local fruits and berries we bought at our market, I went out for a short walk earlier while it was still cool-ish and am now settled down for a day of blogging and reading.  
Last week I read a much-anticipated English translation of The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda.  This novel, set some thirty years later, recounts the murder of seventeen people who were poisoned at a birthday party.  The victims included family members, guests and neighbours, and the effects of this tragic event have resonated in the seaside town for decades.  While the murderer confessed and killed himself and the police closed the case, questions still hang over the event as some wonder why this man, with seemingly no connection to the family, would commit such a heinous crime, and whether he acted alone or had an accomplice.  There was one survivor, the family’s blind daughter, Hisako, who grew up and moved to America.  The novel is set up as though someone is now re-interviewing people, in an unofficial capacity, who were somehow connected to the murders, the family, or other victims.  These include the housekeeper’s daughter, a neighbourhood friend of Hisako’s who grew up and wrote a book about the murders, and the retired detective who originally investigated the crime, among others.  Each account builds on the last as more and more details are revealed or recalled and the larger plot comes into focus, all leading to a conclusion that was thought-provoking, but ultimately left this reader feeling less-than-satisfied.  Don’t get me wrong, it was well-written and interesting, and the format of layering account upon account worked well, but there were many strands to the plot and I felt that they weren’t all resolved satisfactorily.  But I felt that I was meant to read this book at this time, as right at the very beginning the author writes, “It’s so hot, isn’t it?  This heat is so heavy.  It’s like the city is sealed up inside a steamer.  Heat like this is cruel, it robs you of energy, far more than you’d expect”  (p 14).  I read this as I was sitting in the backyard under a tree last weekend with my feet in a pail of cold water!  The fact of the oppressive heat is mentioned again and again throughout the book, and I could totally appreciate it.  Of the murders, the author writes, “Of course people were traumatized.  I mean, it was unthinkable that something like that should have happened in the very city where we lived!  The disruption to our lives was enormous.  Fear spread like wildfire, and we were all on edge, jumping at shadows.  It was as if we were in the grip of a feverish hysteria, brought on by living day after day in a state of high tension - something that normally you’d never experience in daily life.  In the memories of that time, I have a distinct sense of being part of a major event”  (p 21).  This could have been written about our time right now, with the COVID-19 pandemic we are dealing with.  So you can see how I could relate to certain aspects of the book.  I think that perhaps I was not really focusing on the novel as much as I needed to do to keep track of the various characters and their accounts (blame it on the pandemic!), which left the ending less than clear.  It was well-reviewed, so definitely give it a try if you want a detailed, complex, multi-layered mystery.  I want to close with this quote which perfectly captures the experience of books and reading:  “No matter how much information may be available, or how easy it is to come by, when all is said and done books can only be read by working one’s way through them, line by line, page by page” (p 230).
I also finished listening to Shari Lapena’s murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, and it was exactly as I expected, neither great nor terrible, but rather “fair to middling”.  Eight guests arrive at an inn for a weekend away, but a snowstorm barricades them in and knocks out the power.  Gwen is hoping a weekend away will help her reconnect with her friend Riley, who is suffering from PTSD after her time as a journalist in Afghanistan.  Defence lawyer David is taking a weekend away to destress, although he’s not sure he believes that he needs this.  Lauren and Ian are away on a romantic weekend.  Matthew and Dana are, too, but theirs is also to destress as they prepare for their upcoming lavish wedding.  Beverly and Henry have a decades’ long marriage that seems to be on its last legs, and Beverly is hoping this weekend will reignite the passion and save them.  Candace is a writer who is using this weekend to be alone to work on her book.  James is the owner of the inn and he, along with his son, Bradley, must run the place as the weather has barred other staff from arriving to work.  Everyone seems prepared to make the best of things, but when one guest ends up dead, a death that they suspect was not accidental, fear begins to take hold.  During the course of the weekend, tensions rise, along with the body count, and secrets from each guest’s past are revealed until no one knows what to believe or who to trust.  Is the murderer among them? If so, which of them is the "unwanted guest"?  It was a bit like a cross between Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Stephen King’s The Shining, if you can imagine that.  I’m no fan of Lapena, considering her books to be just OK, but she is a Canadian writer so I like to think I’m doing my part as a Canadian reader by reading and/or listening to her books.  I just needed something easy and straightforward to listen to in this heat, and this book did not disappoint - it is at least as good as The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the HouseNot great, but if you want a light, easy mystery, this might fit the bill.
That’s all for today.  Stay cool, stay safe, and pick up a good book!
Bye for now…

Sunday 19 July 2020

Still feeling hot, hot. hot...

The heat wave has continued all through last week, but is hopefully ending soon, as we are experiencing an unbearably humid Sunday, with the temperature at 32º, feeling like 42º!  I set the A/C to a slightly cooler temperature and baked a Date Loaf, which I am going to enjoy with my steeped chai.  I also made a big pot of tomato soup with fresh Ontario tomatoes - YUM!  But I’m definitely staying inside today, reading and cleaning the house and reorganizing my bookshelves.  
Since my last post I read two books that I’d picked up from the library.  The first was a short-ish novel, The Girl Who Wasn’t There by German author Ferdinand von Schirach, translated by Anthea Bell.  I thought it was a mystery, and yes, there was an investigation into a missing girl and a suspect being held in jail waiting for his trial, but it was absolutely not a mystery in any traditional sense.  Sebastian von Eschberg grew up in a crumbling countryside estate.  He was neglected by his parents, which made him lonely enough to ruin his childhood, but he was also different; he saw everything in a myriad of vivid colours, alienating him from others, even as he chose to alienate himself from them, preferring to observe life around him rather than participate in it.  When he was still a young boy, he witnessed his father shoot and gut a deer, then go on to kill himself.  We know this can’t lead to a normal adulthood for Sebastian, and so it was not surprising to read that he has grown up to become a famous, if controversial, artist.  He seems to have difficulty forming relationships, which is, once again, not surprising, but the surprise comes when he is picked up by local police for the murder of a teen-aged girl.  This reader wondered if his childhood was bad enough to turn him into a murderer.  Sebastian doesn’t seem to be doing anything to help his case, but his defence lawyer does a good job of digging into his past and the lives of his family to uncover truths that may just set him free.  As I’ve said, this was not a mystery, but more of an exploration into questions of guilt and innocence, appearance and reality, and what "the truth" really is.  It was slow to get going, and I was thankful that it was not a long book, but it was interesting enough that I just got von Schirach’s first novel, The Collini Case, from the library.  I’ve never read The Trial, but while reading this book, I imagined that it might be similar to Kafka’s famous book.  I will close with a passage from the novel that really made me think:
“We get up every morning… we live our lives, all the little things that go into them, our work, our hope, making love.  We think that what we do is important and that we mean something.  We believe we are certain, love is certain, and the society and places in which we live.  We believe in all that because otherwise nothing works.  But now and then we stop, time tears apart for a moment, and in that moment we understand, all we can see is our own reflections…. Then, gradually, things come back:  the laughter of the strange woman in the corridor, afternoons after rain, the smell of wet linen and iris and dark green moss on the stones.  And we go on in the same way we have always gone on, and as we will always go on again.” (p 216)
I was then looking for something else to read and was going through some of the books I picked up from the library.  One was a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang.  I didn’t realize that these were sci-fi stories, but I ended up reading a very short story that had a similar message to the one quoted above:
From “What’s expected of us": “ message to you is this:  Pretend that you have free will.  It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t.  The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma.  Civilization now depends on self-deception.  Perhaps it always has.”  (Exhalation by Ted Chiang, p 60)   
I ended up finding a book that I thought was mainly a mystery but once again, I was wrong.  How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Canadian-born author Marjorie Celona opens in the small fishing village of Whale Bay on New Year’s Day, 1986, when Vera takes her dog, Scout, for a walk near the lake and never returns.  At the same time, Leo takes his young sons to the lake with the intention of teaching them to shoot, but, instead, something happens that will change their lives forever.  What unfolds is the investigation into Vera’s disappearance, laying her life bare for all to see, her thwarted ambitions and her failing marriage to much-older husband Denny.  Leo is of course a suspect, and we learn of his failed marriage to Evelina, his love-hate relationship with his sons, Jesse and Dmitri, and his desire to start a new life with his girlfriend Holly.  The investigating officer, Lewis Côté, works on discovering the truth about the disappearance but along the way he becomes enmeshed in the lives of those left behind.  Yes, it was a mystery, but oh, it was so much more!   It was an exploration into life, death, grief, and the complex relationships that make up a family.  Celona examined issues of loneliness and the need to connect to others.  Regret, lost opportunities, and the ways various individuals cope with past mistakes and forge ahead with their lives are all dealt with beautifully and compassionately in this quietly brilliant novel.  This is one I might put on our book club list for next year (if we ever have book club meetings again!), as it managed to peel back the many different layers that make up the lives of these characters.  I would highly recommend this deeply moving, thought-provoking novel to readers who enjoy books that explore the vast complexities of life. (I'm so excited to finally have a title to offer when people inevitably ask me if I've read anything good lately!!)
WOW, that was a much deeper post than I expected to write.  I think I need a light read this week.  It’s really raining right now, with a chance of thunderstorms and even tornadoes, so I’m definitely staying in and reading!
Stay cool, stay dry, stay safe, and pick up a good book! 
Bye for now…

Thursday 9 July 2020

Feeling hot, hot, hot...

We’ve had exceptionally hot, humid days recently, with little relief in sight, so to pair with my delicious Date Bar, this morning I’m drinking a steaming cup of Manitoba Pumpkin Spice tea and dreaming of cool fall days… *sigh*
Because of the weather, I’ve been staying inside in the air-conditioned house a lot recently and have been spending much of my time reading.  I just finished a new novel by a team of writers, Greer Hendricks' and Sarah Pekkanen’s thriller, You Are Not Alone.  I listened to an audiobook by this team not too long ago, An Anonymous Girl, which I guess I never wrote about in this blog, but I remember that it was quite good, a real “page-turner” (if I was actually turning pages).  Well, this book proved to be just as compelling.  Shay Miller is a single thirty-one-year-old woman in New York who has no real job, no real friends and is in love with her already-taken roommate; in short, she is lonely and unhappy.  When she is on a subway platform one Sunday morning, she witnesses a woman jump to her death.  She picks up the woman’s broken necklace from the platform and leaves the subway without completing the errand she set out to do, thus beginning her obsession to learn about this woman’s life.  She is clearly traumatized by the event and feels a strange connection to the dead woman, particularly to the loneliness and utter despair she assumes the woman felt in her final moments, feelings she herself often experiences.  At the memorial for the dead woman, she meets Cassandra and Jane Moore, two sisters who are stunningly beautiful, polished, and seemingly gentle and kind.  They take her under their collective wing and offer solutions to help her out of her various desperate situations. But as in all good thrillers, all is not what it seems, and if it appears too good to be true, it usually is.  This novel twists and turns, offering stories from a number of different women in Cassandra’s and Jane’s circle of friends, and shifts in time to offer backstories for these characters as well as present-day activities.  It was over-the-top, but in a good way, the kind of compelling read that made me almost glad for the hot, forbidding weather that kept me from feeling guilty for staying inside.  I would recommend this book if you’re in the mood for a gripping read that is not too realistic or depressing - and let’s face it, while our challenging days persist, that’s exactly the type of book many of us need!
That’s all for today.  Stay cool, stay happy, and keep reading!
Bye for now…

Wednesday 1 July 2020

Canada Day post...

It’s a hot, sticky Canada Day, and I’m trying to stay cool by not doing too much.  I went for a walk already this morning and picked up a delicious Date Bar (it’s too hot to bake anything), and I’m pairing it with a steaming cup of Pu-erh tea.  They say that drinking hot beverages actually keeps you cooler than drinking cold ones… I guess I’ve been doing it right all these years without even knowing it!
I didn’t plan very well so I don’t have a book by a Canadian author to tell you about today.  What I have instead is a bit of a rant about a book and an audiobook I finished yesterday.  A number of years ago I saw the film adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ psychological thriller, The Girl on the Train and I was quite disappointed, even though my expectations were low.  But I wondered if the book might be better, and I had a copy on my bookshelf so I decided that I would either read it or get rid of it.  Well, this past week I read it and my response to the book was the same as to the movie - low expectations but still disappointment.  Here is a short summary, in case anyone out there does not know what this book is about:  Rachel is the binge-drinking ex-wife of Tom, who is now married to Anna, and they have a young  daughter.  Rachel has lost her job due to her drinking and mental instability but she still takes the train into London every day.  From the train, she watches as she passes her old house, but she also fixates on a young, seemingly happy couple a few doors down whom she names Jess and Jason.  When she catches Jess (real name Megan) kissing someone other than Jason (real name Scott), she is horrified, as they represent everything she wants but does not have.  When Megan goes missing, Rachel decides to tell the police about the other man, and thus becomes involved in the investigation.  What follows are the stories, told from the points of view of Rachel, Anna and Megan, about the time leading up to and immediately following Megan’s disappearance.  Unreliable narrators, binge-drinkers, psychological and physical abuse, miscarriages and obsessions about motherhood… these are all themes explored in this novel.  I guess if I had read this before reading so many other great books that dealt with these themes, I may not have been so disappointed in it, but there are just so many others that did a far better job at this, in my opinion.  My favourite book in this genre is still A S A Harrison’s The Silent Wife.  
At the same time that I was reading Hawkins’ book, I was also listening to The Wives by Tarryn Fisher, a novel told by Thursday, a woman who is married to a man with two other wives.  She gets to see him for two days each week, always on Thursday, but his other wives, Monday and Tuesday, are her constant competition.  She is not supposed to know about them, but after five years of marriage, she becomes curious when she finds out that Monday is pregnant.  Thursday tells herself that she has nothing to worry about, that she, not Monday, is Seth’s legal wife, and that he divorced Tuesday to be with her.  So what if she can’t have children?  So what if she desperately longs to be pregnant?  When she accidentally finds out the name of one of the other wives, she can’t resist the urge to search for more information about her.  As she delves deeper and deeper into the lives of the other women in Seth’s life, she discovers that the man she is married to is nothing like the man she thought she knew.  Unreliable narrators, binge-drinkers, psychological and physical abuse, miscarriages and obsessions about motherhood… these are all themes explored in this novel… hmmm… does this sound familiar?  This is a newer title, so the author definitely stole ideas from other books, and I’m just tired of novels with so little plot and so much internal dialogue concerning how a character ended up in this situation and what she should do about it.  I think I actually preferred this novel to The Girl on the Train, as I felt it had a more satisfying unexpected twist at the end than some others (they ALWAYS have unexpected twists at the end!).  Still, they were so very similar that it was like listening to and reading chapters from the same book, just told by different narrators.  
So I need a break from this!  I think I’m going to find a children’s book to read, and I just started listening to a mystery, The Lost Man by Australian author Jane Harper.
That’s all for today.  Stay cool, stay safe, and have a Happy Canada Day!
Bye for now…

PS This is my 500th post - WOW!! Thanks for continuing to read this blog.