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…

Thursday 15 April 2021

Thursday morning post...

It’s a cool, overcast morning as I sip a steaming cup of chai and enjoy an Apple Cinnamon Date Square, a change from my usual Date Bar.  It is supposed to start raining later this morning, so I’m hoping to finish this post and head out for a long-ish walk before it begins.

I finished reading The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell, a book I found to be unputdownable.  After drinking way too much, Maya, the third wife in a sprawling family of two ex-wives and five children of various ages, stumbles in front of a bus and dies.  Was it an accident or did she step out intentionally?  Nearly a year after her death, grieving, significantly older husband Adrian is tacking up a notice in the post office to find a home for Maya’s cat, Billie, when Jane enters his life.  Beautiful, smart, compelling Jane visits the flat under the pretense of possibly adopting Billie.  When she decides against this, but turns up unexpectedly when the whole family are out for dinner, and when one of Adrian’s daughters admits to having seen her at one of her skating practices, Adrian begins to suspect that Jane had something to do with, or at least knows something about, Maya’s death.  But then Jane disappears and Adrian is at a loss.  When oldest son Luke discovers evidence of possible foul play on his father’s computer, everyone becomes involved in the search for the truth about what really happened to Maya - was is an accident, suicide or murder?  This was such an engaging, gripping domestic thriller that I flew through it, finding opportunities to read whenever I could.  It was part mystery, part psychological thriller, and a big part of the novel looked at the real family dynamics under the veneer of placid acceptance and willing cooperation.  Of course, all is not what it seems, but the brilliance of this novel is the not-quite-knowing what is true and what is pure pretense.  I have read or listened to many of Jewell’s novels in the past, and for me, this one ranks right up there with the best of her books.  The characters and relationships were complex yet credible, the situations were compelling, and the plot rolled along at an even pace that was just right for this reader.  It brought to mind other novels that explore domestic discord beneath a seemingly tranquil surface such as Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, but was a much gentler treatment of this theme.  In my opinion, it’s actually almost too gentle to call a “thriller”- it is more of a domestic drama.  I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys this type of book.

That’s all for today.  Have a wonderful rest of the week and enjoy your weekend!

Bye for now…

Sunday 11 April 2021

Post on an "April showers" morning...

It rained heavily last night, and we’re expected to have more rain over the next few days.  As unpleasant as this might be, everything is looking very green this morning.  And it’s a perfect day for a hot cup of tea and a good book.

My book club met virtually yesterday to discuss The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith.  Isabel Dalhousie is an independently wealthy single woman in her early forties living in Edinburgh.  She has a degree in Philosophy and is the editor of the “Review of Applied Ethics”, but this is just a very part-time job.  She seems to spend most of her time drinking coffee, doing the crosswords, dropping in on her niece Cat at her deli and attending lectures… oh, and getting involved in things tht are really none of her business.  This novel opens with Isabel attending a concert that she is clearly not enjoying, having been given this ticket by a friend who was unable to go.  She is readying herself to leave when she witnesses a young man fall to his death from the upper balcony.  This event has shaken her, and when she reads about it in the newspaper the next day, she decides that it is her moral obligation to find out more.  Did he just fall or could he have jumped?  When she discovers that a friend of hers was also a friend of this man, Mark, she probes for more information about his life, and thus begins her investigation into what really happened to him before he met his death.  She is also concerned with Cat’s choice of boyfriend, as she has disliked Toby since her first introduction.  She wants Cat to resume her relationship with Jamie, whom Isabel feels would be much more suitable and would make Cat happier in the long run.  Alas, the heart goes where the heart wants to go.  These two issues make up the bulk of this first installment in the “Isabel Dalhousie” series.  We were originally scheduled to read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but one of my members thought it was too heavy and depressing to read right now, so soon after The Hate U Give, and requested that we switch up the reading list so we could read something a bit happier during this stressful time of rising COVID case numbers. It was a great idea, and Eleanor Oliphant is now rescheduled for the fall, when we will all hopefully be vaccinated and life returns to something resembling normal.  This book was well-written and thought-provoking but was not heavy or sad.  It was a light, if philosophical, read, and really took readers inside Edinburgh.  One of my members read this when it was on our book list for last year, before life came to a standstill last March due to COVID, and she enjoyed it so much that she’s now on book five of this series.  We all thought Isabel was much older than early forties, probably because of her habitual, unexciting lifestyle and the fact that she does not have a “real” job, as the “Review” seems to be more of a hobby.  We found her relationships with both Cat and Jamie to be very interesting, as well as her relationship with her very Scottish, very unbending housekeeper Grace.  While Grace sees everything in terms of black and white, for Isabel, all things are varying shades of gray, and she wonders which outlook makes one happier.  One member said this book did not make her feel excited, that it was an easy, calming read, a thought upon which we all agreed.  One of my members had read a few books in McCall Smith’s more famous series, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”, and she found some similarities between the main characters.  I think that, once we can go to used bookstores again, I will try to find a few more books in this series, as Isabel is like a friend I might want to take off my bookshelf and “go for coffee with”, as opposed to requesting from the library and “making dinner reservations”.  It was a good choice and we had a great discussion.  

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and curl up with a good book!

Bye for now…

Friday 2 April 2021

Easter weekend post...

It’s Good Friday, the first day of the Easter weekend, and I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a slice of date bread to keep me company.  It’s a gorgeous, bright, sunny, chilly morning, the perfect time to write a post about a couple of great books.

Just this morning I finished reading a brilliant book by Sarah Gailey, The Echo Wife.  I must have read a review of this book, I can’t remember when or where, but I’m so glad I did.  This short novel, barely 250 pages, tells the story of Evelyn Caldwell, a scientist who is doing ground-breaking research on cloning.  Her husband, Nathan, is having an affair with Martine, a genetically cloned replica of Evelyn, a softer, more pliant, more obedient version.  Shortly after winning a prestigious award, Evelyn gets a call from Martine, asking her to meet for coffee.  By the end of that day, Nathan will be dead and the two wives will have to think fast to clean up the mess.  What follows is, to quote a review from “Entertainment Weekly”, “a trippy domestic thriller which takes the extramarital affair trope in some intriguingly weird new directions” (  I don’t want to give away any more details, because half the fun of this book is the not-knowing, but let me say that it’s one of the best, most intriguing, most insightful, thought-provoking, darkly funny books I’ve read in a long time, maybe ever.  If I hadn’t read the Acknowledgements early on in my reading, I wouldn’t have realized what a soul-searching mission about “abuse and grooming and identity” (p 256) this book must have been for the author.  Gailey calls what Evelyn does to her clones “neurocognitive programming”, a cold, clinical, scientifically-detached term for the extensive manipulation she subjects them to on their journey to completion.  This book was amazing on so many levels, containing concepts I could barely wrap my head around.  Imagine Jodi from ASA Harrison’s The Silent Wife meeting one of Ira Levin’s Stepford wives, but written with the brilliant, dark, subversive language we would expect from Margaret Atwood.  This novel was a confession, an apology, an admission of guilt, a therapy session, and a frightening exploration into the very depths of the soul to uncover just how far we would go to achieve our ultimate goal.  I think I need to buy my own copy, as it’s the kind of book that offers a better, deeper understanding each time it is read.  It’s too bad that it’s classified as “Science Fiction” and kept in that section at my public library, as I think it may end up hidden away from the browsing eyes of the general fiction reader who wouldn’t normally read sci-fi (like me).  I’ll do my best to promote it through this post and word-of-mouth. 

And just briefly, I finished listening to another domestic thriller, the latest by Canadian author Shari Lapena, The End of Her, and I have to say, it was deliciously devious.  Stephanie and Patrick are a young couple struggling to keep things together while dealing with colicky twins.  They seem to have everything (except enough sleep!), but when a woman from Patrick’s past shows up and starts making accusations about his role in the death of his first wife, their seemingly-perfect lives begin to unravel.  How will they cope with this woman, the blackmail, a possible investigation, and the uncertainty of their future?  This book twists and turns like the best domestic thrillers, and kept me wanting to find more opportunities to listen and find out what happens next.  I haven’t always enjoyed Lapena’s books, but I would highly recommend this one if you are in the mood for a story that will keep you up too late at night just to get to the last page.     

That’s all for today.  Wishing you a Safe and Happy Easter!

Bye for now…