Sunday 27 December 2020

First post for winter and last post for the year...

It’s hard to believe that this is the last post for this whirlwind of a year, and that it’s technically the first post of winter.  Most people, myself included, seem to think that winter starts around mid-November, when the final leaves have fallen from the branches and the colours outside are mainly browns and greys, but of course this is incorrect.  I love November weather, with the bare branches silhouetted against the grey sky and just a stray dry brown leaf or two scuttering across the sidewalk.  But we’ve had snow just in time for Christmas, and it’s a bit of a winter wonderland out there right now.  Thankfully, I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a slice of homemade zucchini loaf to keep me warm as I write this week’s post.

I read two books last week.  The first was A Family Affair by Nadine Bismuth, translated by Russell Smith, a title I surely came across on a list of CBC’s Best Canadian Books of 2020.  It is the story of several families whose lives are connected either through their work, their spouses, or their children.  As you might guess from the title, affairs, and the myriad of problems that go with them, are the central theme of this book.  Magalie is a kitchen designer whose husband, Mathieu, is cheating on her with another lawyer from his firm, so she decides to cheat on him with a colleague of her own.  Her widowed mother becomes involved with a man whose police officer son, Guillaume, becomes fixated on her.  As you can imagine, these affairs and obsessions lead to a great many issues, and we are drawn along with the characters through the complexities of these relationships to a heart-wrenching yet inevitable conclusion.  As I was reading this, I was constantly reminded of how lucky I am to be in a stable, loving relationship.  I’m sure there are messy, complicated relationships happening everywhere all the time, but I don’t know anyone who is in this situation and so it was hard to relate to it or to see this as an accurate portrayal of marriage and family; I’m also sure that there are many readers who could relate to this story, so please don't take this as a criticism.  It was interesting and well-written enough to keep me reading to the very last page, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading domestic dramas, especially those set in Montreal.

The other book I read was completely different, but so very good!  Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little was such a treat to read, a real page-turner that was unputdownable.  Marissa Dahl is a film editor in need of work.  When she gets a call from her agent for an interview, she readily goes to the meeting, but she knows nothing about the film, just that it will be directed by a famous, successful director.  Despite her reluctance due to the vagueness of the assignment, she accepts the job and is taken to a small island off the coast of Delaware, where she is expected to spend her days in the editing room.  When she learns that this film is based on a real, as-yet-unsolved murder that took place on this very island decades earlier, she begins to feel even more uneasy, a feeling that only deepens as she learns of the many mishaps and accidents, and the exceptionally high staff turnover rate that plague the filming.  The more she learns, the more frightened she becomes, but who can she turn to for help?  Then another death occurs, and she must decide if she, along with her delightfully quirky young sidekicks, Grace and Suzy, is brave enough, or foolish enough, to try to discover the truth.  WOW, this book was awesome!  It was like being on the set of a Hitchcock film, or a 1950's noir film, but also like watching a 1990's thriller, only on the page instead of the big screen.  Marissa was one of the best unlikely heroines I’ve met in a long time, and I’m so glad I took those film studies classes at university, which allowed me to appreciate nearly all the film and director references (it's amazing what you can dredge up from your memory of classes taken in the late '80s!).  This is a perfect book for any cinephile or any lover of a good Hollywood thriller.  If you are looking for an easy read to help you pass the time during this lockdown, I would highly recommend this, but be prepared to set everything else aside in order to read “just one more chapter”...

That’s all for today.  My only plan is to go for a couple of walks in the snow and maybe finish the book I started yesterday, as it is short and I’m sure I can finish it this afternoon.  Stay safe, stay busy, and keep reading! Oh, and have a Happy New Year, however you decide to celebrate!

Bye for now…

Sunday 20 December 2020

Late autumn post...

It’s a drizzly morning, the last day of fall, and I have to say, I don’t love the damp cold or the slippery walking/driving conditions this type of weather offers.  I will be going to visit a friend for a gift drop-off this afternoon, though, so I have no long walks planned today, but I’m hoping for better walking weather in the days ahead, as I am now off work for the (extended?!) Christmas Break.  Right now I have a steaming cup of chai and a yummy Date Bar to keep me warm and cozy as I write this post.

I read two books this week by two of my favourite Canadian Children’s/Young Adult authors, The Winnowing by Vikki VanSickle and Waiting Under Water by Riel Nason, and I was not disappointed by either one.  I read The Winnowing with my Intermediate book club at school, but since I hardly ever got to sit and read with them, I read most of it earlier this week.  This is a reread for me.  Here is what I wrote about it on Dec 17, 2017:

“The Winnowing by Canadian author Vikki VanSickle immediately caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  I loved the title.  "To winnow" means to blow a current of air through grain to remove the chaff.  Such an ordinary word, though not one we come across often, but in the context of this novel, it is very sinister indeed.  I loved the dark, brooding, mysterious cover.  I’ve read other books by this author, coming-of-age romantic novels which were very good, but this seemed completely different and I was curious to see how she handled it.  And since I’d just done book-talks for these ten nominees in four classes, many of the books were checked out, but this one was available at one of my schools, so I took advantage of the opportunity and started reading.  This novel is set in Darby, a small town famous for finding the cure for the Infertility Crisis and saving humankind.  Marivic is a young woman who is just reaching puberty, which is signalled by the nightmare-ish dreams and extraordinary running ability she has recently begun experiencing.  But these are so much more than just nightmares and sudden physical ability; Marivic is “going ACES” (Adolescent Chronosomniatic Episodes) and has developed imps (Adolescent Physical impairments), something that happens to everyone in town at a certain age.  These are things young people both look forward to and also dread.  Once someone begins “going ACES”, they are sent to a hospital, where they will undergo a procedure called “winnowing”, which will alleviate these nightmares and remove the imps, but it may also affect memory.  Marivic’s best friend, Saren, has just been admitted to the hospital for winnowing, and Marivic is anxious to join her there.  Once admitted, she finds Saren and together they discuss what they expect will happen to them during this procedure.  Saren doesn’t want to be winnowed, which Marivic can’t understand; why wouldn’t she want these horrible ACES to stop and go back to being her normal self?  When they receive a message inviting them to a meeting at the pool in the basement of the hospital in the middle of the night, Marivic agrees to accompany Saren, but only to ensure her safety.  At the meeting, they encounter a young man who suggests that the government is behind the Infertility Crisis, and that the winnowing procedure is designed to keep people from remembering their past and also to thwart their newfound physical abilities, which, he claims, are not, in fact, impairments, but rather natural physical enhancements.  Marivic is ready to dismiss this as nothing more than conspiracy theory, but after she receives tragic news and she has glimpses of something sinister from her past, Marivic must determine how far she is willing to go to find the truth.  I love a well-written dystopian novel, and there are many Young Adult novels in this genre out there, but they are not all appealing to me.  This one, however, grabbed me immediately and kept me riveted until the very last page, which took me just two days to reach (I had a grade 8 student who was waiting for it).  Imagine The Giver (Lois Lowry) meets The Maze Runner (James Dashner) with a dash of X-Files thrown in.  I was struck by how well-written and polished it was, no stumbling around to keep the pace or tone consistent, which I expected, given that this is such a departure from VanSickle’s usual fare.  It explored her usual themes of friendship and coming-of-age, but in a completely new and fascinating terrain.  I was very impressed, and will recommend this to students (and adults!) who enjoy gripping dystopian novels.”

My book group loved it, and they wished that this would be the first in a trilogy, which is so common in young adult books of this genre.  But alas, I think the last page of this book is really “the end”.  Upon second reading, I would still recommend it to intermediate students and adults, so if you are looking for a good dystopian novel, this may be a good choice for you.

I’ve read a couple of novels by Riel Nason, and especially enjoyed The Town That Drowned.  This new novel, Waiting Under Water, was equally as good.  Set in the small town of St David, New Brunswick, this novel tells the story of Hope, a twelve-year-old girl who has lived her whole life in this tiny seaside town.  When she learns that her family will be moving to Toronto at the end of the summer break because the company her father works for has been shut down and his job has been relocated, she falls into despair.  Socially awkward at the best of times, when experiencing anxiety, Hope also has a tic, something like a hiccup, that causes her to stand out and be ridiculed by the popular girls at school, and this summer’s news does little to ease her anxiety.  When she discovers that St David will be featured on the popular morning talk show Rise and Shine in a nationwide contest called “Canada’s Tiniest Treasures”, she and her best friend Willa decide that they will do everything they can to make sure St David wins.  Will Hope find a way to accept her family’s decision and overcome her anxieties?  Will she and Willa find a way to hold onto their precious friendship?  Will St David win the contest?  These questions and more will be answered if you choose to read this excellent coming-of-age novel by this amazing author.

That’s all for today.  Good-bye, fall... Hello winter!

Bye for now…

Sunday 13 December 2020

Post on a chilly, dreary morning...

It’s been a dreary weekend so far, but the relentless rain of yesterday has thankfully stopped and the temperature has dropped significantly overnight, so I expect it’s going to be a good day for a brisk walk.  Right now I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, my “breakfast of champions” for a Sunday morning.

I recently checked author websites for new or upcoming books by three of my favourite authors, Peter Robinson, Robert Rotenberg and Michael Robotham (I like to call them “the other three R’s”!), and was pleased to discover that all three have books coming out in the new year.  But as I was perusing their previously published books, I came across one of Peter Robinson’s books that I wasn't familiar with, Many Rivers to Cross.  I put it on hold at the library and when it arrived, I realized that I hadn’t yet read it, so that was my book choice for this past week.  This is the 26th installment in the “Alan Banks” series, and it was predictably good, focusing on immigrants and hate crimes, sex trafficking and the drug trade.  The body of a young Middle Eastern boy is found stuffed in a rubbish bin on the East Side Estates and Banks and his team are tasked with finding the killer.  The first problem they face, however, is the inability to discover the boy’s identity or even determine where he was originally from.  Their search leads them to various unsavoury characters in Eastvale, as well as the Albanian Mafia, as they explore unfamiliar areas and neighbourhoods in this small but ever-growing North Yorkshire town.  Running parallel to this investigation is the story involving Zelda, Ray Cabbott’s partner and a super-recognizer, who works part-time for the NCA identifying individuals involved in sex-trafficking. When she shows up for work one day, she finds that her boss, Mr Hawkins, has died in a house fire, a fire that is suspiciously like the one from which Banks narrowly escaped in a previous book.  Could Phil Keanes, the rogue art forger, be somehow involved in the abduction and trafficking of girls?  The plots develop at a steady pace throughout the novel until we reach a satisfying conclusion that answers all of this reader’s questions, while also leaving room for the expectation of yet another Banks novel.  It was interesting, but I’m finding Robinson’s more recent books to be rather dry, not as… hmmm… I want to say “juicy” or “meaty” as his earlier works, but being a vegetarian, I dislike those terms.  Maybe I’ll just say that the storylines seem less substantial; they seem to be less interesting, less deep, and less involved than previous plots and stories, and the growth, development and interactions with and between characters seems to be lacking.  Still, it’s worth reading if you are already a Peter Robinson fan, but I wonder, as I’ve wondered after reading other recent “Banks” books, if perhaps it’s time for him to write standalones or start another series.  Or here’s an idea:  maybe he should write books from various team members’ points of view.  I would love to read a novel told from Annie Cabbott’s viewpoint for a change.

And speaking of writing a series from various points of view, I just finished the audio version of a standalone by Tana French, The Searcher.  French has written a number of mystery novels as part of “The Dublin Murder Squad” series, each told from the point of view of a detective from the previous book, quite a novel idea (pun totally intended!).  I’ve read a few of these books and have enjoyed them very much.  I’ve also listened to another of her recent standalones, The Witch Elm, which I really, really enjoyed.  The Searcher, unfortunately, did not live up to my admittedly high expectations.  Cal Hooper, a retired Chicago detective, buys a broken-down farmhouse in a tiny Irish town with the intention of settling down in a small rural community where he can leave crime and violence, as well as his unhappy past, behind.  But when a kid named Trey seeks him out, his cop instinct kicks in.  Trey’s older brother, Brendan, is missing, and Trey is certain he didn’t just run off and abandon his family the way their father did years before.  Reluctantly, Cal gets sucked into the mystery, and his less-than-discrete inquiries slowly reveal the hidden truth that lies beneath the surface of this seemingly serene community, one dirty secret at a time.  This novel was just way too long.  There.  I said it.  French is an amazing author and I hate to be critical, but it’s the truth.  It’s too long, and nothing much happens until the last third of the book.  The Witch Elm was also very long, and I had issues with some of the main character’s meandering introspections, but the story still managed to move along at a satisfying pace.  But this one, not so much.  The story ended up being interesting, and the conclusion was satisfying, but it just took so darn long to get there that I wasn’t really even paying attention at that point, which was unfortunate.  Perhaps with these bigger novels, I should actually read the book so I can skim if necessary - with an audiobook, there is no skimming allowed.  

That’s all for today.  

Bye for now…

Sunday 6 December 2020

Book club highlights on a chilly December morning...

We don’t have much snow right now but it’s quite chilly outside today.  Good thing I have a steaming cup of chai and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread to keep me warm as I write about our recent book club discussion.

For my Volunteer Book Club, I normally choose a book that is either seasonal or something that ends in December (for example, A Year on Provence by Peter Mayle) for our last meeting of the year.  But for yesterday’s meeting, I chose a decidedly un-seasonal novel, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.  I started the meeting by apologizing to everyone and wondering aloud what I could have been thinking when I added this to our list for December.  But they were very kind and said that it was OK… thankfully they all enjoyed the book!  Here is what I wrote when I read it for the first time last year: 

“The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that asks the question, “What would happen if the world were ruled by (certain) men?”  I had to qualify that, as I’m sure there are some men out there who would not force all women into servitude, even if it were allowed and strongly encouraged.  But let’s face it, it’s been proven time and again that people who are given supreme power over others will inevitably abuse it.  Everyone knows what society is like in Gilead, whether from reading the book or watching the series, so I won’t spend any more time on that.  Instead I will focus on this new book, a novel that I think was brilliant in its own way.  The Testaments takes us back to Gilead fifteen years after the closing of The Handmaid’s Tale, and offers a look at how the society has developed and changed.  It is told from three different points of view, the testaments of Aunt Lydia, Agnes Jemima and Daisy.  We know Aunt Lydia from the previous novel, but fifteen years later, she is the most powerful woman in Gilead, whispering straight into the ear of Commander Judd.  Agnes Jemima is a precious flower, a girl who, at thirteen, is destined to become the new wife of a powerful, and much older, man.  And Daisy, at sixteen, is a sassy teen living in Toronto who will play a pivotal role in the Mayday operation to bring Gilead down.  I don’t want to give anything else away because the mystery surrounding these three characters and the ways their stories become intertwined is what makes this book a real page-turner.  I hate to compare novels, but while The Handmaid’s Tale was introspective and character-driven, The Testaments is more plot-driven.  Both showcase Atwood’s amazing use of language and her supreme skill at subverting it to create an eerily chilling atmosphere that is shockingly believable.  But in The Testaments, Atwood manages to also offer readers a Gileadean political espionage thriller that kept me staying up late and getting up early to read “just a few more pages”.  My only complaint, if you can even call it that, is with the timing of the stories, but I think I need to read it again before I make any comments, as it was probably just me rushing through it that left me feeling as though it didn’t flow as well as it could have.  Against my better judgement, I read the reviews and they were not great.  One reviewer said “...if The Handmaid’s Tale was Atwood’s mistresspiece, The Testaments is a misstep.  The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a note of interrogation:  ‘Are there any questions?’  Those questions were better left unanswered”  I have to disagree with all of this.  In my opinion, she probably never wanted to write a sequel; it’s been 35 years since The Handmaid’s Tale was published, so if she really wanted to write a sequel, I’m sure she would have done so before now.  With the popularity of the series, it is likely that she felt extreme pressure to write this and answer the very questions she probably intentionally left for readers to ponder.  Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments ends with notes from a Symposium on Gileadean Studies, in which she writes:  “It is gratifying to see such a large turnout.  Who would have thought that Gilead Studies - neglected for so many decades - would have gained so greatly in popularity?  Those of us who have laboured in the dim and obscure corners of academe for so long are not used to the bewildering glare of the limelight” (p 408).  I think this is a direct reference to the sudden and immense popularity of her earlier work.  She is a brilliant writer who can get away with weaving these types of jibes and comments into her narrative and have it flow perfectly - or jarringly - for the reader.  The most memorable part of this book for me is when Aunt Lydia, describing how she became an Aunt, talks about her time in the Thank Tank, not so much what happened to her there, but the process leading up to and following her time there, as well as the phrase, “Thank Tank”.  Unlike the reviewer quoted above, I loved this book.  As with a film adaptation of a favourite novel, the reader (or watcher) has to realize that this is a separate entity from the original and judge it on its own merit.  I highly recommend this book, even if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale,  but you would at least have to have watched the series or be familiar with the setting.”

I still agree with these comments, even after a second reading, but I had better luck figuring out the timing of the three testaments, and noticed a comment in the “Symposium” notes at the end that explained it, something I guess I missed the first time around.  I am so thankful that my book club ladies enjoyed this much more than last month’s selection.  The first thing everyone said was that, after reading it, they had more respect for Atwood, something they grudgingly admitted.  I don’t really understand that, since I have always appreciated her writing, even though I don’t love everything she’s written, so perhaps this selection has added a few more readers to her already-huge following.  We discussed Atwood’s wit and “wicked humour”, the power of women when they work together, and the foolishness of men who think they are invincible.  One member commented on Aunt Lydia's cunning and determination to plot and plan every action for fifteen years to achieve her ultimate goal of exposing Gilead for what it really was. We talked about the timeliness of this story, as well as The Handmaid’s Tale, and discussed how, when she first published it in the mid-1980s, it seemed impossible, but now both books are very nearly reflections of our reality.  We discussed how the restrictions in Gilead are similar to our COVID restrictions, such as no contact, the shunning of people who don’t follow the rules, and how masks are similar to the wings the handmaids wear, among other things.  We talked about clothing, and some of my ladies remember not being allowed to wear pants to school except on gym days, as well as outdated dress codes in the workplace. They also had some difficulty following the timelines, but not enough to diminish the enjoyment of the reading experience.  I asked if they thought the voices of twenty-two-year-old Agnes Jemima and sixteen-year-old Daisy sounded convincingly youthful.  Atwood is, after all, in her early 80s - we agreed that all of the characters seemed credible.  One member who listened to this as an audiobook said that Ann Dowd, the actress who played Aunt Lydia in the series, was the narrator, which added to the listening experience. The word "brilliant" cropped up in our conversation quite frequently. All in all, it turned out to be a great book selection and a great discussion to end this most unusual year, and we can only hope, as in the last chapters of The Testaments, for better days ahead.

That’s all for today.  I have lots of things to do and I want to get started.  Have a wonderful day!

Bye for now…

PS For next year's December meeting, I chose Sophie Kinsella's Christmas Shopaholic!