Sunday, 12 September 2021

Late afternoon post...

I’ve been trying to beat the rain today by getting outside in the morning, so this post is later than usual.  I have no tea, but I’m enjoying a couple of treats as I try to get back into my routine.

I had a volunteer book club meeting yesterday.  Our book was Educated by Tara Westover, and it was a huge success.  This memoir tells of Westover's unusual upbringing in an isolated farm on the outskirts of a Mormon town in Idaho.  Her parents, particularly her father, were Mormon extremists focused on preparing for the End Times, and she and her six siblings were denied proper education and professional medical care.  They suffered neglect and abuse, and grew up in an environment of instability, violence and fear.  At sixteen, Tara managed to pass the entrance exam and enrolled in the local Mormon college, and from there, through scholarships and grants, as well as the support of church officials and professors, she went on to receive her BA from Cambridge.  She was awarded a visiting fellowship at Harvard, then she returned to Cambridge to complete her PhD.  While pursuing her education, she also had to come to terms with her loyalty to family members who opposed everything she was now embracing.  All the members of the book club were fascinated, shocked and horrified by her story, although a couple of us were skeptical about the accuracy of the information.  I wondered at her claims to have had no education before entering college, while another member thought she might have exaggerated the degree of neglect and abuse she experienced, mainly at the hands of her father, but also by her mother and one of her older brothers.  We all liked the conversational tone she used, and were left wondering how she (and her siblings!) survived.  We wondered at times what was true and not true, but understood that this represented her experiences, and that others may have experienced these events differently.  It was a book about the reliability of memory, of truth and experience, and of the will to survive at any cost.  Westover mentions her father’s mental health issues, but we thought she herself was probably bipolar, and the other members of her family likely had mental health issues as well.  At the end of the day, we saw this as the story of a young woman who was brought up in an isolated cult environment and managed to escape and make a life in the “real” world.  It was an excellent book club selection that I would highly recommend to just about anyone

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Lazy post on a long weekend...

I’m feeling lazy this weekend, enjoying the last chance to do a whole lot of nothing before school is back in earnest.  Actually, I’ve been pretty busy this weekend already but thought I should try to squeeze in a post this afternoon so that I leave all of tomorrow free to do… whatever. I'm going to try to get back into the weekly posting habit, but with so much great weather coming up, I can't guarantee that I will post faithfully every Sunday.

I read two books since my last post.  The first was a fabulous YA novel that I happened to get in a box of books I’d ordered in June for my school library.  They were delivered to my house a few weeks ago and this one caught my eye, Everything sad is untrue (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri.  Not only is it a great title, but it’s also got a really interesting cover.  So I picked it up and was immediately sucked into this page-turner of a story.  Told in the form of The Thousand and One Nights (which I’ve never read), Iranian refugee Daniel (the main character) is Scheherazade, spinning tales not to her king/husband in order to save her life, but to his middle-school classmates in Oklahoma to help him explain his culture and fit into his new life.  And like Scheherazade, Daniel’s stories left this reader wanting more.  Weaving together myth, legend, memories and harsh reality, this is the story of Daniel’s experiences as he tries to make sense of his old life and make his way in this new environment in which he finds himself.  I can’t do this book justice, so I’ll choose to say little about it, except to highly recommend it to anyone from about ages 11+.  It is part memoir, part story-telling, an exploration into the difference between speaking and listening, and of course an homage to books and reading.  While it is based on Daniel (the author)’s experiences, it is considered fiction, not memoir.  I urge you to run, not walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of this excellent book today!

And I just finished an intense novel by Megan Abbot, The turnout, which was another page-turner, but in a totally different way.  Sisters Dara and Marie Durant have grown up with ballet.  Their mother was an accomplished ballerina and they, too, have achieved moderate success in this world.  But they have been running the Durant School of Ballet for years, since the death of their parents, and they still live in their childhood house, a huge old building full of cracks and drafts, with Dara’s husband and former ballet dancer Charlie.  There is obvious tension right from the opening pages, and this only grows as Marie moves out and the dynamics of their close-knit group shifts.  When a small fire in one of the studios occurs, Derek, a belligerent contractor, is hired to do some repairs.  But at his urging, Charlie, Dara and Marie agree to undertake more extensive upgrades.  What follows is a steady collapse into chaos and destruction, of the ballet school, the strained relationships between the members of the group, and within these individuals’ psyches.  What a roller coaster ride this was, an archaeological dig into the disturbing secrets of the Durant family, an intimate exploration of the relationships between family members and others who happen, by poor luck, to be involved with this family, as well as a deep-dive into the cutthroat world of ballet.  I have read something else by Abbot, I think it was a look at the world of competitive gymnastics, which was very good, and this one did not disappoint.  I think it helped that I used to take ballet lessons as a young girl, so many of the scenes were familiar, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to understanding and enjoying the book.  This one was more suspenseful than the gymnastics one, more focused on uncovering family secrets than on the actions of the youngsters’ families.  I think I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a detailed, well-researched look at the ballet world, as well as the slow uncovering of a nasty family history - be prepared to feel totally icky by the end!

That’s all for now.  Enjoy the lovely weather, and remember that there’s still another day to this weekend, so try to find time to pick up a good book.  Happy Labour Day!

Bye for now…
Julie 

Friday, 20 August 2021

Three books, one post...

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m quite tired out.  Not only did I have a fair bit of running around to do this morning, it’s also warm and muggy, which I find draining.  But I’ve got a tall, cool glass of water and a bowl of fresh local fruit to re-energize me as I write this rather brief post.

Since my last post, I read a book that was recommended to me by my super-reader friend.  The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting:  Wannsee and the Final Solution by Mark Roseman details the evolution of the treatment of Jews by Hitler and the Nazis before and during WWII, with a focus on the activities that led up to the meeting at Wannsee in January 1942.  This meeting, held in a posh Berlin suburb, was chaired by Reinhard Heydrich and was attended by representatives from all the major Nazi agencies, where together they hashed out the details of what would become known as “the Final Solution”.  Prior to this meeting, there were mass shootings of prisoners and random killings of citizens for no apparent reason, but until this meeting, which, by the way, was not attended by Hilter, there were no actual plans to systematically round Jews up and transport them to concentration camps for extermination. This was very interesting, and it was also, thankfully, brief.  After The Zookeeper’s Wife, this was almost "SS overload".  I had to get this from the library as an inter-library loan, so it might be difficult to access if you are interested in reading it.  Not being a fan of non-fiction, it says something about the quality of the information and the writing that I stuck with it and read it in about five days, so if you are interested in reading more about this subject, this would be a good choice.

Then I read Matters of Hart by Montreal author Marianne Ackerman.  I don’t know how this novel came to be sitting on my personal bookshelves, but I was going through some books that I thought I could give away and this one was in the pile. When I opened it up, I was drawn in immediately and had to keep reading.  Hart Granger is celebrating his fiftieth birthday at a surprise party planned by his ex-wife Sandrine.  She has invited fifty guests from various points in Hart’s life, so not everyone knows everyone else, leading to some awkwardness.  But his sister Amanda is there, along with his mother, Kitty, so things are rolling along fairly well until there is a knock at the door and in walks Neil, the half-brother who was given up for adoption as a baby.  This throws a wrench in the plans and things, for Hart anyway, begin to spiral downward at an increasingly rapid rate.  What follows is a display of adult sibling rivalry taken to the extreme.  At times hilarious, at others heart-wrenching, this novel was what I would call an “undiscovered gem” hidden away on my shelves.  I’m so glad I didn’t just give it away sight unseen, or I would never have discovered this amazing writer.  I’ll definitely check out other books by Ackerman.

And I read a Young Adult book from my school library collection, Monster by Walter Dean Myers.  This novel, told almost exclusively in the form of a screenplay, interspersed with jottings in a notebook, is a courtroom drama that follows the trial of Steve Harmon, a sixteen-year-old African American boy charged with participating in the plan to rob a neighbourhood drugstore, a robbery which resulted in the shooting death of the owner.  Since Steve is writing the screenplay in his own head, a mechanism he is using to cope with his incarceration, readers are treated to his own thoughts and feelings, his perspective on the trial as well as the words and actions of the others in the courtroom.  This was a book that sucked me right in, one I finished in just two days.  It was powerful and thought-provoking, not obviously tackling the theme of racism in the way that The Hate U Give did, yet that theme is always there, lying just below the surface.  It was a very interesting read, one I will recommend to my Grade Eight teacher as a possible read-aloud.  

That’s all for today.  Stay cool, keep reading and enjoy the last days of August!  

Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 9 August 2021

It's been a while...

It’s been almost three weeks since my last post, and I have three books to tell you about today as I sip my steeped chai and eat a bowl of delicious fresh Ontario fruit.  But this is going to be Speed Blogging, a bit like Speed Dating, as I have my friend (and biggest blog fan!) coming over for a visit in just over an hour.  So here goes…

The first book I read since my last post was The Stranger in the Mirror by Liv Constantine.  This book tells the story of Addison, a young photographer who is about to get married to a wonderful man, but she’s not as happy as she should be.  A few years ago, she was found bleeding by the side of the road and was taken in by a wonderful couple who helped her get back on her feet, but since then, she’s suffered from severe amnesia and can’t remember who she was before her rescue.  Julian is a psychiatrist who has been searching for his wife for over two years.  He has been telling his daughter daily that mommy will come home soon, but how will he find her? And who, of all the people in her life, can Addison trust?  A page-turner for sure, but not nearly as good as it could have been.  If you are looking for a thriller with this type of plot, I would recommend Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson, a truly fantastic read.

Next I read Unsettled Ground by Irish author Claire Fuller, which was short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  It focuses on twins Jeanie and Julius, fifty-one years old, both single and still living with their mother, Dot, in a run-down cottage on the fringes of a small village.  When their mother dies suddenly, they are left to their own devices and must try to make their way through life together using whatever skills they have.  As if this wasn’t frightening enough, as they try to forge a life from what they know, day by day this knowledge is shattered, and everything they have believed their whole lives is called into question.  This literary masterpiece was also a page-turner, but one that demanded attention to language and character development.  It was a fabulous book, tackling serious issues gracefully and with compassion.  I would highly recommend it and will seek out other novels by this author.

And last but not least, I read The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.  This non-fiction title was the selection for my Volunteer Book Club, which met on Saturday morning.  This book details the lives of Jan and Antonina Zabinska, keepers of the Warsaw Zoo before and during WWII.  The lives they saved, the adventures they had, the creative ways they hid “Guests”, both legitimate and not, and the way they handled tricky situation made a serious impression on all the members of the group.  We thought Jan was “fearless, brave and clever”.  We were amazed at the complexity of the Underground.  We thought that, at that time, everyone had to make choices, and those choices were often between life and death.  We were horrified by the “cruel (psychological) games” some of the Nazis engaged in.  We thought it had so much detail and so many people that it was hard to keep track of everything and everyone, but that it was a worthwhile read if only to offer a “window into the Underground, the Resistance”.  We felt that it was called The Zookeeper’s Wife because up until recently, war stories have mainly focused on the actions of men, and the many and varied roles of women have been largely forgotten or ignored.  We all agreed that we would never survive in a similar situation, that we would be caught out in a lie almost immediately because we wouldn’t be able to keep track of what we told and to whom.  Thankfully the only battle we are facing right now is against COVID-19!

That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Two weeks, two books...

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written a post, but I’ve decided that, until I go back to work/school in September, I will write one post for every two books that I read.  I know I’ve got the whole summer off, but it’s amazing how busy things get - I’m actually blogging to the sound of windows being replaced right now! 

I’ve read two books since my last post.  The first is Hostage by Clare Mackintosh, a thriller set on a plane making the very first non-stop flight from London to Sidney, where one of the flight attendants is ordered to assist the hijackers or her daughter will be harmed.  Should she save one life at the expense of more than 300 others?   What would you do in the same situation?  I’ve listened to other books by this bestselling British author, and this one did not disappoint.  It was an interesting setting, perhaps the first thriller I’ve read taking place almost entirely during a flight.  The issues the main character experiences trying to bond with her adopted daughter seemed believable, as well as the issues her husband was facing on his own and in their relationship.  Mackintosh not my favourite author, but her books are consistently well-written and reliably “good enough” to keep me interested right to the last page, and this one has a really interesting ending.  I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys thrillers, but don’t read it if you experience aerophobia (fear of flying - I just learned a new word!).

The book I finished yesterday is one that we will be discussing next Monday for my Friends book club, and one I’ve read before, What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman.  I didn’t really suggest it as a selection for the group to read, I merely mentioned that I was interested in rereading it, but people thought it sounded good so that’s how we came to choose it.  Having reread it, I’m not so sure everyone will like it, but it’s too late to change now.  Here’s what I wrote about it in May, 2016: 

“I have a book and an audiobook I want to tell you about today.  The book I read is What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman.  This is a reread, and it’s a bit of an indulgence for me, as it’s not overly well-written, but it’s a twisty, turny rollercoaster ride through the past 30 years of a woman who claims to be one of the two sisters who were believed to have been abducted from a mall in Baltimore one Saturday afternoon in 1975.  The novel opens with a woman’s confused ramblings as she is driving down the highway.  Her confusion leads to an accident and she is taken to hospital where, having no ID with her, she reveals under questioning that she is one of the Bethany sisters, the younger sister Heather, then refuses to say anything more.  Enter Kevin Infante, a chauvinistic detective who becomes more and more frustrated as he struggles to come up with any leads that might help crack this case.  He consults his former partner, Nancy Porter, who after maternity leave, has joined the Cold Case squad, and together they try to get this woman to open up to them, to give them something, anything, that they can work with.  Unfortunately, all she seems to tell them are vague stories that include details that shift and change according to the situation.  There is also a social worker, Kay Somerville, who becomes involved in Heather’s case, and she approaches her lawyer friend Gloria Bustamante to take on this case and help this woman out.  There are multiple stories intertwined, as lengthy flashbacks fill in the details of the day of the crime, as well as what happened in the intervening years for both of the parents while their daughters were still missing and presumed dead.  It was very confusing, but it’s the kind of book I love to read every once in  awhile, a bit of a “trashy novel” filled with secrets and lies and mystery (I mean "trashy" in the best sense of the word, as in plot-driven as opposed to language- or character-driven).  I didn’t really remember exactly how it ended, but I had some idea, so I could pay attention to the minutiae of the story with that in mind and appreciate the complicated story Lippman created rather than just feeling lost and confused.  All in all, it was a good read, and a change from some of the more literary stuff I usually choose.  I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about family secrets and doesn’t mind multiple stories and many flashbacks.  As an aside, I loved this part near the beginning of the book, when we meet Kay for the first time.  She is talking about books, and how she prefers reading to engaging with others.  She joined a book group to give her a cover and validate her frequent choices of reading over talking.  But she says she doesn't really like being in a book group, because "talking about the characters in a book she had enjoyed felt like gossiping about friends".  I can relate to that!”

I would say that I feel exactly the same way about it this time around, and really enjoyed the portrayal of the various characters, Kay and Kevin and Nancy, but also the Bethany parents, Miriam and Dave.  I hope it will make for a good discussion.  As an aside, I didn’t realize that I’d read it twice before, so it must rank pretty high in my reading memory if I wanted to read it again for a third time.  All in all, you could do worse than this book, which was truly filled with family secrets.

That’s all for today.  The window people have gone for lunch and it’s finally quiet, but they’ll be back soon so I should take advantage of this stillness to get some reading done.  Enjoy the lovely day and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Two books, one post...

I think this is the first time I’ve missed a post, so rather than wait until next Sunday, I've decided to write about the last two books I’ve read this morning.  It’s cool and rainy, and I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious date bar, and it’s the first full week of summer holidays for me, so it’s the perfect time to write this post.

My book club met last Saturday to discuss the Young Adult novel Turtles All the Way Down by John Green.  I chose this book to add to our list because I usually have at least one YA novel, most often during the summer, and this was one a teacher at my school had read and really enjoyed.  This novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes and her friends Daisy and Mychal, three young people who are determined to solve the mystery of a billionaire, Mr Pickett, who went missing in the wake of a fraud investigation and claim the reward money.  Aza suffers from OCD and is constantly worrying about contracting an infection, specifically C. diff.  She is also grieving the loss of her father, so when Daisy and Mychal drag her into this adventure, she reluctantly agrees to participate.  She and Pickett’s son, Davis, knew each other in elementary school, so they use this connection to their advantage.  Davis and his younger brother Noah are surrounded by people who work for their father, but no one who is truly family.  Add to this the fact that their father, upon his death, is planning to leave all his money to his tuatara, which he believes holds the key to increased longevity, and you’ve got two very confused and lonely boys. This motley group search for clues to help locate Pickett, but along the way they encounter other challenges, particularly related to relationships, friendships, and familial responsibility.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this book.  They felt that Green wrote from a female perspective convincingly, and wondered how he could understand Aza’s mental health issues unless he’s lived it (he has).  They thought Daisy was a foil, a bit of comic relief from the more serious explorations into mental health issues.  Green did a good job of including social media as a form of communication, one that is so prevalent with young people.  This book explored the topics of absentee parents, the not-always-great relationships between parents and children, and self-harm.  We discussed the relationship between Aza and her mom, and her mom’s own fears of “losing someone else”.  All in all, it was a great discussion.

And since I’m off for the summer, I have already finished reading Alex Michaelides’ second, much-anticipated novel, The Maidens.  I loved his first book, The Silent Patient, so I think I had unrealistic expectations for this one, and unfortunately I was somewhat disappointed, although clearly the book was gripping enough that I managed to finish it in three days.  Tara, a student at St Christopher’s College, Cambridge, goes missing, and Mariana, a psychotherapist specializing in group therapy, gets a distressing call from her niece, Zoe, who is also a student at St Christopher’s, as well as the missing girl’s best friend.  When Tara’s body is found, the victim of a seemingly frenzied attack, she leaves her busy practice in London and heads to Cambridge, where she reluctantly becomes involved in the investigation, despite the remonstrations of the lead investigator as well as the main suspect, Edward Fosca. Fosca is a Professor of Greek Literature who regularly meets with some of his most intelligent students, a group of young, beautiful women he calls “the maidens”, a cult-like reference to the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.  Tara was part of this group, but the police don’t seem to be taking Mariana’s concerns seriously, so when another girl, also a “maiden”, is murdered, she is determined to stay in Cambridge and prove that Fosca is guilty.  Mariana, still grieving the loss of her husband Sebastian, has a tendency to run away and hide from the truth, but she finds new purpose in helping Zoe and decides that it is her duty to protect her.  Can she solve the mystery before Zoe becomes the next victim?  You’ll have to read it to find out.  There were plenty of potential suspects, plot twists and red herrings, and it was written well enough, so I don’t quite know why I was unable to really lose myself in this story.  I guess I couldn't really identify with Mariana, and some of her decisions were questionable at best. Still, you could certainly do worse than this thriller, so if I were to use Kirkus' rating system, I would say “Borrow it”, as opposed to “Buy it” or “Skip it”.  

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and pick up a good book.

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Last post for June...

It’s hard to believe that it’s already the end of June.  The time has certainly flown by, despite the relative tediousness of pandemic life.  But here we are once again, at what feels like the end of something, a certain melancholy for the end of the school year, but also the excitement of what seems like an endless stretch of lazy summer days… 

Speaking of the end of something, as of July 1, Feedburner, the platform Blogger uses to deliver new posts to subscribers’ email addresses, will be cancelled, so if you are a subscriber who follows by email, this is the last post that will be delivered to you.  I have been considering some options and would like to offer the following:  if you would like me to send a link for each new post to you personally, please email me at:  juliesreadingcorner@gmail.com and I will begin this service as of next week.  A friend also sent me this suggestion:  If you are an RSS/Atom feed reader, you can subscribe to this blog’s Atom feed at this link :  http://www.juliesreadingcorner.com/feeds/posts/default.  I hope you will continue to read my posts and hopefully find some interesting book suggestions, and I will do my best to provide options to make this transition easy and seamless.  Thank you to everyone who visits this blog - I appreciate it!

I read an interesting book last week, another techno-thriller, this one by Irish-Canadian author Ed O’Loughlin.  This Eden begins in Vancouver with two students who end up together due to circumstance and stay together seemingly out of convenience.  Alice is a computer genius who wants to change the world.  Michael just barely squeaked by the entrance exams to get into Engineering.  They meet one afternoon when a group of students are enjoying a rare snowy day, knowing that these weather conditions are brief and fleeting. They end up together for the rest of their time at university, until Alice drops out and says she wants to go and work for a big tech company in Silicon Valley, one she has for years professed to despise.  When the news of this company’s plan to introduce Omnicent, a cryptocurrency that will eventually wipe out the use of money, Alice knows something must be done or governments around the world will lose all power and will ultimately topple.  Then Alice disappears and Michael is at a loss for what to do next, how to go on living.  When he is recruited by this same tech company because of his relationship with Alice, he suspects that there is more going on than they are saying, but he has no proof.  Then he is reluctantly but forcibly drawn into an espionage plan by an Irish asset named Aoife and her elusive boss, Towse, and his boring life changes forever.  What follows is a rollercoaster ride of plot twists and turns through what I think of as “Around the world of horrors in 400 pages”.  I really enjoyed this novel, which pulled me along in the excitement of the chase every step of the way and every page of the book.  But it was so much more than a techno-thriller.  It was a literary exploration into the very things that make up our existence in the world, and asks us to consider who we are and how we define ourselves.  I have to say, though, that despite how gripping this novel was, after reaching the last page, I felt that I needed a break from reading about the darkest sides of humanity.  I would definitely recommend this well-written literary thriller to just about anyone.

That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Post on a perfect Father's Day morning...

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the breeze is blowing… this may be the most perfect morning of the year so far.  And I’ve got a steaming cup of chai, a delicious date bar and a yummy banana muffin to enjoy as I write this post, too, so it really is a perfect morning.

Last week I read a novel that was a bit outside my comfort zone, Version Zero by Young Adult author David Yoon.  Max is a shining star at Wren, the youngest person to ever hold his position at this large social media company.  When he is singled out to head up a new initiative called the Soul Project, he has his reservations:  this project is devoted to mining personal data of the “squishy” sort, sexual preferences, political leanings, etc., to create “emotional profiles” of its users.  When he discovers that this information is being sold to intelligence organizations, he confronts the CEO and is summarily dismissed and then blackballed across Silicon Valley.  He, along with his equally talented tech friend (and secret love of his life), Akiko, decide that the only way to stop what Wren and other big tech companies are doing to their users is to “reboot” the internet, to go back to “version zero”.  When assistance comes in an unexpected way, Max and Akiko, along with Akiko’s boyfriend, and Max’s long-time friend, Shane, jump at the opportunity, but soon realize that this offer comes at a cost.  Can Max save the world from systematic data mining or are internet users forever doomed to sell their souls for access to another free app?  I don’t know much about tech stuff, but this novel started off in such a hip, easy, conversational way that I was immediately hooked.  And I felt that I was learning, along with Max, about the dark side of big tech companies.  But around the mid-point, the plot took an unexpected turn and I kind of lost interest, but it was such a quick easy read that I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did because it had a decent ending that tied up all the loose ends.  I discovered that the author is the husband of another Young Adult author, Nicola Yoon, who wrote Everything, Everything, which I really enjoyed.  This was David Yoon's first novel for adults, and I'm now interested in checking out his YA books, as he clearly writes well and can create an intriguing story.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the day, and do something special for your dad, or any other significant person in your life. 

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Tea and treats on a less hot Sunday morning...

It’s cooled off significantly over the past few days, and with more seasonal temperatures, the weather’s been positively delightful.  I’ve been out for a long walk already, my new routine to avoid the worst of the UV rays during mid-day, so I feel I've really earned my tea and treat.  I've got a big mug of very strong Pu-Erh Exotic tea and an especially yummy Date Bar to look forward to, and I know it’s going to be a great day!

I read an interesting book last week, Red Oblivion by Canadian author Leslie Shimotakahara.  Set in modern-day Hong Kong, this book explores one woman’s attempt to uncover distressing family secrets, despite her father's efforts to keep them hidden.  Jill and Celeste, both living in the Toronto area, return home to Hong Kong to care for their ninety-four year-old father (Ba) who has recently fallen ill and is in hospital.  Celeste, who harbours no feelings of nostalgia for her childhood, wants nothing to do with any of this, and can’t wait to get home to her husband and her life. Jill, on the other hand, is still blinkered to what her sister thinks of as their real past and does her best to keep alive her own version of a childhood in which her father was not neglectful, but, while not doting, was actually there for her, at least some of the time.  What Jill discovers as she tends to her father’s business demands while he is incapacitated, however, makes her reconsider all the stories her Ba told her over the years about his struggles to save his family during the Cultural Revolution and his efforts to make money and build a business out of nothing.  Who’s been mailing her Ba these strange items, and what do they mean?  Where did the money to start this business come from?  And who had to suffer for her Ba to get it?  I was hesitant to read this book because I know nothing about Mao and the Socialist Education Movement, China’s Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, but Shimotakahara did a good job of explaining things in a very basic way that made it easy for this reader to understand and follow.  This book was as much about the relationship between a daughter and her father as it was about the fairly recent violent history of China, and one woman’s attempt to do the right thing.  The parallels to King Lear were none too subtle, with the dreams and the visions and the favourite daughter who loves her father best, but these actually helped to give a different context to the story, one that had nothing to do with the potentially violent means by which Jill’s father accrued his wealth, and the nasty historical events he somehow managed to survive.  I felt like I learned something about Chinese history, and the details of Jill’s experiences living in Hong Kong were vivid and interesting.  The story dragged at times, but overall it was a good book about an unpleasant subject, and Jill’s efforts to undo the wrongs of the past, if only on a small scale, are very timely indeed.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the rest of the weekend!


Bye for now…

Julie

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Feelin' hot, hot, hot... again...

It’s back to unseasonably hot, humid weather this weekend, which is why I’m starting this post later than usual.  I’ve already been out for my daily walk to fill my step quota while it was still cool-ish.  Now, in the air-conditioned house, I can enjoy a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar while I tell you about yesterday’s book club meeting and the fabulous book I read last week.

My Volunteer book club met yesterday to discuss Jennifer Close’s debut novel, Girls in White Dresses.  This was a reread for me (actually a re-listen).  Here’s what I said about it in my post from April, 2020:

“... I finished an audiobook early last week that was fabulous.  Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close is so very different from the types of novels I normally read or listen to that I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it.  Narrated by Emily Janice Card, this novel is told from the points of view of several different young women whose stories are all linked together by various weddings, showers, and other dating or marriage-related events.  It opens with Isabella, aged twelve, preparing to be a bridesmaid in her sister Molly’s wedding, what she believed was “the most beautiful wedding anyone would ever have”.  But ten years later, after college and a move to New York, crammed in with her roommate, Mary, Isabella has become disillusioned with the whole dating and romance scene.  She is looking for a job, a boyfriend, and a way to be happy, but her pursuits are met with disappointment again and again.  What follows are different stories involving various friends of Isabella’s, including studious Mary and boozy Lauren, as they all search for love “in all the wrong places”.  This is the ultimate “chick lit” novel, where the trials and tribulations of being a woman are dealt with in a lighthearted way, a genre that I generally avoid.  But I’m so glad I took a chance this time and trusted my instinct when I chose to judge this book by its cover, which is what really drew me in.  I listen to audiobooks mainly when I’m outside walking, and I was particularly thankful for social distancing as I was chuckling and laughing out loud at some parts of this delightfully insightful, humourous book... I would recommend this novel to any woman who needs an upbeat, entertaining book to keep her spirits up during this rather challenging time.”

I had the same experience this time, appreciating all the humorous moments a second time around, but also being wow-ed by the insightfulness of the author.  Unfortunately, this time around, I also noticed that there was a lot of drinking and swearing, which wouldn’t normally faze me, but because I was listening to it through the lens of “book club selection”, I had to question the appropriateness of the book for the members of my book club. This was one of the aspects of the novel they commented on yesterday, but they also found humour and, as one member said, “philosophy and wisdom”.  And they were all able to identify with at least one character or situation.  While it was not the best choice for the group, it was a good discussion, one during which we all thought back to our experiences as young women struggling to fit into our new adult lives.

I also read a page-turner last week, The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz.  Jacob (Jake) Finch Bonner is a middle-aged writer with one successful novel to his name.  After failing to produce anything else of worth, he’s been reduced to teaching a Creative Writing workshop in a low-residency MFA program in the less-than-noteworthy Ripley College.  Trudging through his third year of this workshop he meets Evan Parker/Parker Evan, an arrogant, over-confident student who is convinced he needs nothing from this program because he is going to write a bestselling novel with the kind of plot that will make him famous:  everyone will be reading it; Oprah will want to interview him; book clubs will discuss it; it will be optioned for a film with an A-list director.  He is very private about his writing, but one day during a one-on-one session, he reveals his plot to Jake, who is shocked into finally believing that Parker may indeed have the makings of a bestseller.  The workshop ends, and three years later, Jake is working at a hotel that has been repurposed as a writers’ retreat, still with no new work worthy of publication.  He is reminded of Parker one day by a brash, cocky resident, and he goes online to find out if this amazing book was ever written.  What he finds instead is that Parker died shortly after his time at Ripley.  Jake ponders this new information, and wonders (briefly) what to do now that he alone is in possession of this amazing plot.  Well, write the book, of course!  After all, as any writer knows, stories are meant to be told, even if they belong to someone else.  Fast-forward another three years, and Crib is published to great acclaim. Everyone is reading it, it is optioned for a film being directed by someone who could certainly be classified as “A-list”, he’s met a wonderful woman, and life is good… until he receives that first message accusing him of being a thief, and his life begins to spiral out of control.  I would love to tell you more, but that would spoil the fun.  I wish I knew someone else who has read this book, as the plot was so complex and detailed, with so many twists and turns, that it would make for a really interesting discussion.  Alas, I will settle for telling you that it was a roller-coaster read that kept me wishing for more free time.  According to the “Kirkus” review, this isn’t even Koreltz’ best book, so I will definitely seek out her other books.  I will agree with most reviews that it was easy to guess in which direction the novel was going well before it was revealed, but I was still shocked by the "BIG" reveal. It began as a study of the writing process and the struggles writers go through to put together a new book, a great example of metafiction, but from the point where he receives his first threatening message, it becomes a mystery-thriller that, while very compelling, somehow felt bit flat. Having said that, it was totally worth the time spent to read it, if only because it has introduced me to a writer I'd never read before, which is much like opening a door I’d never realized was there!

That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Tea and treats on a chilly morning...

It’s certainly cooled down these past few days, feeling more like autumn than spring.  But after one day of rain and one day of chilly, high winds, today is promising to be calm, bright and refreshing.  I’ve got a cup of steaming chai and a delicious date bar on the coffee table in front of me, and I really can’t think of a better way to start my day.

My “Friends” book club is meeting virtually tomorrow evening to discuss The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley.  This mystery/thriller is set in an exclusive remote hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, where a group of adults in their mid-thirties who have known each other since their university days are booked to spend three nights spanning New Year’s Eve, but before their stay is over, one of them will be a murderer and one of them will be dead.  This story is told from various points of view, including the gamekeeper, the manager of the lodge, and several of the guests, which can work if done well, but can often lead to too much repetition.  Unfortunately, I felt this was the case here.  And I would say that at least the first third of the book was made up of various members of the party rehashing their pasts with others in the group, these internal monologues that didn’t seem to move the story forward.  Once something actually happened, it picked up, but I wish Foley had taken the writer’s Golden Rule to heart and did more “showing” and less “telling”.  Still, the ending was interesting, and I’m pretty sure it will lead to a good group discussion.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Feelin' hot, hot, hot...

It’s been unusually hot these past few days, but it’s cool enough right now to enjoy a steaming cup of chai and a delicious date bar.  The sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, I’ve got laundry drying on the clothesline outside, and there’s still one more day left on this long weekend… what could be better than that?!

Last week I read a Young Adult book by Canadian author Heather Smith, The Agony of Bun O'Keefe, and it was an unexpected treat.  This OLA White Pine award-winner tells the story of fourteen-year-old Bernice (Bun) O’Keefe who, after living a sheltered life in a house in the country in Newfoundland with her mentally unstable hoarder mother, is told to “get out”, and so she does.  She makes her way to St John’s, where she befriends Busker Boy, a young Indigenous man with a melodious voice who takes her in and offers her the kind of home, love and protection she never had before. She meets the other renters in the house, Big Eyes, Cher/Chris and Chef, who all take her under their collective wing and try to shield her from any more hurt.  But when danger comes lurking at their door in the form of their loathsome landlord, will their protection be enough to save her? And what, if anything, will be the consequences?  Bun is incredibly naive for her age, having been raised in isolation by her neglectful mother.  She hasn’t been to school since she was six, and her mother, though claiming Bun will be home-schooled, does nothing to undertake any sort of education.  But Bun is also incredibly book-smart, storing all the information and every fact she’s ever learned from books or television, and the awkwardness with which she shares these facts with others make her endearing, not just pitiful.  The success of this book is, at least for me, largely due to the brevity of the details provided, which left this reader plenty of opportunities to fill in the gaps and imagine either the worst- or best-case scenarios.  Bun seems to be on the spectrum, but is this truly the case or was she simply responding to the environment in which she was raised, and can she change if she has a more stable environment surrounded by people with whom she has a loving relationship?  The bonds between the housemates, the diversity of the characters, and the willingness of the adults to take on the responsibility of a youth, something her own mother (and father) neglected to do, made this book both heart-wrenching and heartwarming.  I’m not sure why this book came to my attention at this time, as it’s been around for a number of years.  Perhaps it was on a list of books dealing with mental illness, as May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  Whatever the reason, I’m so glad it did, as it was a quick read, a short book that was still able to tell such a complex, moving story. I would highly recommend this to just about anyone. 

That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Post on a gorgeous spring morning...

It’s lovely and bright outside, warm but not too warm, and there are lots of birds singing this morning, possibly to celebrate such a perfect day.  I’ve been cooking and baking up a storm this weekend, and I’ve got plenty of gardening to do, as well as trying to fit in a walk, so this will be a short post, as I’ve had a bit of a late start blogging today.

I read a wonderful book last week, The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World, by Laura Imai Messina.  Yui is a young woman, a radio talk show host, who lost her three-year-old daughter and her mother in the devastating tsunami of March 2011.  She has been unable to overcome the grief that haunts her every day, and goes through her life like a ghost.  When grief is the topic of one of her shows, she learns of a “wind” phone, a phone booth where people come to speak to their deceased loved ones, and she decides to travel from Tokyo to Bell Gardia to see if this will help.  Along the way, she meets Takeshi, a young man who has lost his wife and whose daughter has stopped speaking since her mother’s death.  Together they complete their first pilgrimage to the phone booth, and thus begins a relationship that may help them both come to terms with their losses and begin living again.  This novel was inspired by a real phone booth in Japan with a disconnected “wind” phone, a place where people can come and speak to their loved ones and hopefully find some kind of comfort.  It was a lovely, gentle story that shows the many faces of grief, the unique ways individuals cope, and the incremental stages, the “baby steps”, that lead to healing and acceptance.  It was also a love story, an exploration into the need for connection with others, despite all the uncertainties.  It spoke of both sadness and joy, despair and hopefulness, and I would highly recommend this heartwarming novel to just about anyone. 

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the wonderful day!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Mother's Day post...

It’s a bright, sunny, slightly chilly morning as I sip my steaming cup of chai and nibble on a delicious date bar.  With the pandemic still messing with our lives, this year’s Mother’s Day is once again looking very different from past years, but at least the sun is shining and people can get together virtually. I was thinking that the book I read last week was certainly not a book about mothers, but then I remembered the audiobook I listened to, which most certainly was about mothers and motherhood, so I will tell you about that after I talk about the book.  

I read Kelley Armstrong’s YA novel, Missing, a fast-paced read that I found difficult to put down.  Winter Crane is a high school student who spends most of her time out in the shack in the forest surrounding the southern backwater town of Reeve’s End where she lives with her alcoholic father.  All the teens leave, and most never come back.  This is also Winter’s plan, and she intends to leave as soon as possible. When she finds a teenaged boy outside her shack who has been savagely beaten, she does her best to help him.  When he mentions that he knows her friend Edie, a girl who left town and hasn’t been heard from in quite a while, Winter begins to suspect that some of these teens may not just have left town, but may in fact be missing.  With the help of another attractive outsider, she digs deeper and deeper, but what she uncovers could threaten not just her own life, but also the lives of those she loves.  Winter Crane was a fabulous character, a teenaged version of Casey Butler from the Rockton series, and her attractive counterpart is a bit like a young Eric Dalton.  I felt like I was reading something written long before the Rockton books, a novel that planted the seeds for that adult series;  this novel, though, was written in the middle of the Rockton books.  It had a riveting story, the plot was well-paced, and it was written with the kind of attention to detail and character/plot/setting balance that one has come to expect from Armstrong.  If you liked the Rockton series, or if you just want an interesting, fast-paced YA mystery, you can’t go wrong with this one.

The audiobook I listened to also had a really interesting plot and was a title and an author I’d never heard of before.  Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson begins with a book club meeting, one where tired moms of toddlers meet, ostensibly to discuss the book, but really to have a chance to talk to other adults about something other than their kids. But at this month’s meeting, someone new shows up, and that changes everything.   Amy and Charlotte are best friends, despite their age difference.  It is Char’s book club but the moms all meet at Amy’s house.  Everyone is gossiping and complaining as usual when the doorbell rings and Angelina Roux (“call me Roo”), the single mom of a teenaged boy staying at the trashy Air B&B down the street, shows up.  Gorgeous, extroverted Roo takes over, pouring the wine and engaging the otherwise ordinary moms in a game of “Never have I ever’, asking them to share their darkest secrets about the worst thing they’ve done in the past week, the past month, the past year…  Amy has a secret she never wants to share, a secret pushed so far down that she refuses to even think about it:  when she was a teen, she committed a crime that nearly destroyed her.  Saved by the discovery of diving, she reinvented herself and made it her mission to live right and do good.  But now Roo threatens to unearth her brutal history and reveal it to everyone, including the police.  Can Amy find a way to deal with Roo without giving in to her demands and still save herself, her family and those she loves?  I don’t usually enjoy novels that are all about the bonds of mothers and children and the lengths mothers will go to protect them, and this one was totally one of those books, but it was also so much more, an intricately-plotted thriller with three-dimensional characters who were (mostly) believable and a fantastic ending that really packed a punch.  There were a few parts that I thought were a bit over-long, with Amy contemplating her own guilt and the life she went on to live, and what that says about herself and her character, but overall, it was amazing.  I just realized that Jackson narrated it herself, and she did an awesome job.  I will look for other books by this author and hope that they are as unputdownable as this one.

That’s all for today.  Wishing all the wonderful women out there a Happy Mother’s Day!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 2 May 2021

First post for May...

It’s a lovely morning, with the sun shining, the birds singing and the squirrels frolicking.  It’s supposed to rain later this afternoon, so once again, I’m going to try to get out for a long walk before it begins.  Right now I have a delicious Date Bar and some orange slices to accompany my steaming cup of chai, a wonderful way to ease into my Sunday.

Yesterday my Volunteer book club met virtually to discuss Canadian author Shelley Wood’s debut novel, The Quintland Sisters, and it was a real hit.  Here is my post from May, 2019, when I read this fabulous book for the first time:

“Canadian author Shelley Wood’s novel, The Quintland Sisters, focuses on the first five years in the lives of Canada’s famous five, the Dionne Quintuplets, and is told from the point of view of seventeen-year-old nurse Emma Trimpany who helped care for them.  On May 28, 1934, with the country gripped in the harsh realities of the Great Depression, five tiny babies were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne two months prematurely at their farmhouse near Callander, Ontario.  They were not expected to live for more than a few hours, but they all miraculously survived.  After four months living with their family, they were made wards of the state for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets’ Guardianship Act of 1935 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionne_quintuplets).  During a time of poverty, war and strife, these five children brought considerable profit to the area and were treated as tourist attractions.  This book takes the first five years of their lives and presents a detailed fictional account of their existence as described by Emma in her journal and letters, with newspaper articles and documents interspersed.  Wood describes the Dafoe Nursery, which was built across from the Dionne family farmhouse, the strict schedules of waking, bathing, feeding, play, and family visits for the sisters, and the legal wranglings surrounding the promotion of such items as Karo Corn Syrup and Quaker Oats.  Emma, who wanted to be an artist but became a nurse so she could stay with the quintuplets, having started out as just a housemaid who happened to be on the scene at the time of the birth, offers an insider’s view of the activities surrounding the children and their upbringing during their early years, and also her thoughts and insights into how this might be affecting them and whether it was all in their best interest.  I don’t usually enjoy historical fiction, especially epistolary novels (novels told through diary entries or through a series of documents), but this book hooked me from the very first page.  Emma’s narrative did not seem like diary entries, simply storytelling from her point of view.  It reminded me of Eva Stachniak’s novel The Winter Palace, which was told from the point of view of Barbara, Imperial handmaid to Catherine the Great, a novel that managed to truly transport me to the time and place of the action.  So, too, did The Quintland Sisters, although Wood left out much detail about the Depression and the imminent war.  It was also a love story, one that the author resolves in a very interesting and unique way.  All in all, this was a fabulous book, one that I will definitely put on my book club list for next year, and one that has piqued my interest in the Dionnes and has encouraged me to pick up that paperback I've had sitting on my shelf upstairs for years by Ellie Tesher to find out what happened to them after Emma’s account ends.  This kind of fits into the “motherhood” theme, as the novel addresses family and children, and the rights of parents to have access to, and to exploit, their children.”

I did indeed put it on my book club list, and it was the best book club meeting ever, not just because everyone loved the book, but because Shelley Wood joined our meeting from her home in Kelowna, BC!  This was not planned, but I sent her an email last weekend asking if she would be able to join us, although I admitted that it was short notice, and surprisingly, she said yes, she would love to join our discussion.  She came across as very warm and welcoming, and didn’t just present her information and answer questions, but expressed interest in our group, too.  She told us that a photo of these five girls in a library book inspired her to use them as the subject of her novel, and that part of the purpose of her novel was to keep their story alive so no one forgets this controversial period in Canadian history. She said that she chose to use the epistolary format so readers had to fill in the blanks, and she included real articles from newspapers to demonstrate how they, whom the public generally relies on to “ask the tough questions” and present the whole story objectively, failed in their duty. She admitted that she felt a bit like she was also exploiting them by profiting from their story (she’s donating some of the proceeds to a Child Protection charity).  As she did her research, she wondered if there wasn’t just one adult who loved these children for who they were, and deciding that surely there was indeed someone like that in their real lives, chose to create Emma’s character, the one character in the novel who did just that.  Shelley showed us a precious scrapbook she received as a gift, a scrapbook kept by a young woman who visited the Dionne sisters in the 1930s and whose life was brightened by news updates of their lives.  This scrapbook, she said, made her revisit her cynical attitude towards the tourists who viewed these girls as exhibits and realize that people during those days needed some light in the darkness that was all around them every day.  In answer to my question about whether there were any “right answers” in their early years, she said that the purpose of her novel was to make people feel uncomfortable with the decisions that were made and to wonder what, if anything, could have been done differently to make things better.   She told us that she chose to end the book the way she did because of the way things ended up for the quintuplets, and that not all readers were happy with this (I can’t say any more because I don’t want to give anything away).  She’s working on her next book, and I’m sure I speak for all of my book club members when I say that we can’t wait until it’s published!  After she left our meeting, we went on to discuss other aspects of the novel and our own experiences and knowledge of the Dionne story.  We thought of other questions we wanted to ask or things we wanted to tell Shelley, but I think we were all a bit awestruck in her presence.  It was certainly one of the best meetings we’ve had, and the best virtual meeting for sure.  One good thing about COVID is that, with all of our virtual meetings, anyone can join a meeting from anywhere, and like a visit to the Dionne sisters in the dark days of the 1930s, her visit was a shining light during our own challenging times.

That’s all for today.  Get outside before it starts raining!

Bye for now…

Julie 

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Post on a rather gloomy morning...

It’s chilly and wet outside right now, but the sun is supposed to come out later, although it won’t warm up much.  We’ve been spoiled recently with sunny, Spring-like weather, but of course it’s still April and we need the rain.  I’ve been baking up a storm this morning, and have slices of both freshly baked Date Bread and Banana Bread to go with my steaming cup of chai, which totally makes up for the crummy weather.

I have two books to tell you about today.  The first is Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester.  I read Lanchester's The Wall recently and really enjoyed it, so I went to my library catalogue to see if they had any other books by this British author, which is how I came to be reading this fabulous novel.  Intertwining four lives and spanning nearly seventy years, Fragrant Harbour follows Tom Stewart as he leaves England on a ship bound for Hong Kong in 1934.  Along the way, he meets several characters who will change his life, most notably Sister Maria, an uncompromising Chinese nun.  He ends up settling in Hong Kong, and we are treated not only to his story, but to an account of the changes and growth there between 1934 and 2000.  Dawn Stone is a British journalist who ends up working in Hong Kong, where she discovers what she really wants and how to get it.  Matthew Ho is a young entrepreneur whose business is faltering and he must make some tough decisions, which are further complicated by actions taken and choices made long before he was born, but which threaten his very livelihood.  This novel was so engaging that I couldn’t put it down.  The longest part of the book is narrated by Tom, which brought to mind W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, mainly because of the narration.  In both books, the narrators are involved in the plots but relate them in a way that implies they are somehow emotionally detached from the main stories. There were plenty of coincidences, perhaps too many to be believed, but these were necessary to bring the narratives together, so I could forgive Lanchester for this indulgence. There was so much information about the history of Asia in general and Hong Kong in particular that it seemed much longer than 299 pages, which means every page was packed with plenty of details.  I don't know anything about Asian history or politics, but that didn't stop me from being carried along on the waves of good writing and captivating plots. I'm not sure that I would recommend this book to just anyone, but I really enjoyed it.

And I finished listening to my favourite narrator, John Lee, read A Spy Among Friends:  Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. I rarely read non-fiction, but I love Macintyre’s books.  This one focuses on Kim Philby and his relationships throughout his years as a British double agent.  From the 1930s to the 1960s, Philby was a high-ranking spy with MI6 while also serving a Soviet master, and he cultivated friendships to gain information whenever he could.  He befriended fellow Cambridge graduate Nicholas Elliott who also moved up the ranks in the British Secret Service, as well as forming a close relationship with American operative James Jesus Angleton, who went on to head up the CIA.  These friendships, though, were based mainly on deception and the quest for information.  Did Philby even know what true friendship and loyalty were? His friends, his colleagues and his wives were all collateral damage in his duplicitous life. I can’t praise this book, and so many others by Macintyre, highly enough.  The narrative carried me along, the research was thorough and detailed, the story was fast-paced and interesting, and I felt that I learned so much about the history of Philby and the Cambridge spy ring, the British Secret Service, and Soviet double-agents.  The narrator did an amazing job of bringing the characters to life and really capturing the spirit of the book.  If you like British spy stories, you can’t go wrong with Ben Macintyre.  

That’s all for today.  The sun is coming out and I should get out for a walk before settling in to start my next book.

Bye for now…
Julie