Sunday 28 January 2024

Short post, lots of books...

I’ve been quite sick since last weekend and have barely been able to read, let alone write a blog post.  Still, I’m a bit better today so I thought I should at least give you the titles and short summaries of the books I managed to finish over the past two weeks.  

I finished our book club book, The Change by Kirsten Miller, but was too ill to go to the meeting.  This book tells the story of three women living in a Long Island tourist community. Nessa, Harriett and Jo, each in the throes of menopause, discover that they have special gifts:  the ability to commune with and command nature, the ability to see the dead, and possession of superhuman strength/heat. When a body is discovered in the bushes near the beach, the police write the death off as a sex worker who OD’ed, end of investigation. But Nessa, Harriett and Jo know this is not true, and they come together to find the identity of the dead woman and discover who murdered her. They meet obstacles at every turn, but fight back with their special gifts and find creative ways to uncover the truth while also seeking revenge on the men who used them.  I’m glad I didn’t go to the meeting, because I didn’t enjoy this book at all, and I hate going to a meeting where someone has recommended a book and I didn’t like it.  How do you talk about that without offending the person?  Anyway, I don’t think I would recommend this book to anyone, but don’t listen to me, as it was fairly well reviewed.  

Then I read the book I purchased as a “Blind Date with a Book” at our Christkindl Market in December, which I’d planned to unwrap and read on Christmas Day but that didn’t happen.  Finding Lucy by Diane Findley tells the story of Alison, a middle-aged woman who, upon the death of her mother, decides to steal a child.  She selects a gravestone for two-year-old Lucy Brown as a starting point, and moves on from there until she has successfully “rescued” a young girl from a poor, neglectful home and made her over into her own “daughter”.  Of course she has to move and start over as “mother and daughter”, but she manages this fairly easily. As Lucy grows up, though, she wants to know more and more about her past, a past that, of course, is all fictional.  Alison has her own struggles, obviously, but at heart, she truly thinks she’s doing the right thing.  Unfortunately, she didn’t anticipate all of these various complications, and the complex lies she would be forced to tell and keep track of over the years.  This book explores the many repercussions of abducting a child, not just on the child’s real family and community, but on the child and the new “mother”, too. It was pretty good, although I found it lagged about two thirds of the way in, but then picked up again to deliver a satisfying conclusion.  I’m not sure if I would recommend it, although Alison’s character was very interesting.  I wondered, throughout the book, whether she was on the spectrum, which, I think, would explain a lot.  I found Lucy’s adult character to be less interesting than her voice when she was a child, and I would have liked to read a bit more about the story of Lucy’s real family, but overall, it was a decent book that I think readers would enjoy. 

And I finished listening to a fabulous audio book, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, narrated by Nicole Lewis.  I just learned that this is Reid’s debut novel, and wow, this is definitely an author to watch.  This novel, set in Philadelphia, opens with a late-night weekend call from privileged White mom Alix Chamberlain to her twenty-five-year-old Black babysitter Emira, begging her to come and take her three-year old out of the house for an hour, as there has been an incident and Alix doesn’t want Briar to see the police.  Emira is at a friend’s birthday party and is dressed for the occasion, but Alix says she doesn't care, she’ll pay double plus cab fare.  Emira needs the money, so she and her friend Zara go to the Chamberlain house and take Briar to the 24-hour grocery store down the street ("the Whitest grocery store in town"), where a customer alerts a security guard, who accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar.  This ends up being resolved and Emira doesn’t want to pursue it any further, but another customer, Kelley, records the whole thing on his phone and tries to convince Emira to go public.  The rest of the book follows the ways these three characters' lives intersect, their pasts and presents, and the underlying racial tensions that just won’t go away, no matter how often Alix and others may deny them.  This book had everything - plot, dialogue, atmosphere, characters.  It’s hard to believe that Reid packed so much into such a relatively short book.  And the narrator really brought the characters to life.  I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read or listened to in a very long time, and I would highly recommend it to just about anyone.  And I dare you not to fall in love with Briar - so cute!!

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

Bye for now... Julie

Sunday 14 January 2024

Post on a chilly, snowy morning...

We’ve had mild, snow-free weather up to this point in our coldest season, but I think we’ve caught up to our “snow quota” this weekend.  It’s been blowing and snowing since Friday evening, and I don’t think it’s going to stop until much later today.  Good thing I have a steaming cup of chai and a stack of good books to keep me busy!

I’ve always enjoyed books by British author Gilly MacMillan, such as Odd Child Out and I Know You Know, so I was quite excited to start reading The Nanny, which I had on my shelf.  When I started reading it, though, it seemed very, very familiar, and I wondered if I’d read it before or if it’s such a common plot that I read another book with the same storyline.  When I checked my blog posts, it looks like I started this book a few years ago but it didn’t grab me so I went on to something else.  This time I stuck with it, and it was ok, but paled in comparison to her other books, in my opinion.  This novel tells the story of Jocelyn/Jo, a middle-aged mother who, after the death of her husband and with no money and no family in the US, is forced to return home with her ten-year-old daughter Ruby to Lake Hall, her childhood home in a village outside of London, where her mother still resides.  She has never had any emotional attachment to her mother, believing her to be bitter and unfeeling, and has long been haunted by the disappearance of her beloved nanny, Hannah, during a dinner party when she was just a child.  Her own father died a few years earlier, so this move causes Jo’s compounded grief for the loss of both her father and her husband.  While she is having a tough time, Ruby seems to have formed a real connection with this grandmother she never knew.  When, during a boating excursion on the lake, Ruby discovers a skull, Jo begins to suspect that her past was not at all what it seemed.  Things become more complicated with the arrival of an unexpected visitor claiming to be Hannah, and what follows is a descent into Jo’s past where everything she believed is called into question, and she must discover who she can trust and what she can believe in order to save herself and those she loves before it’s too late.  This sounds like the kind of gothic tale I love to gobble up in a few sittings, and as I said before, it was ok, but not earth-shattering.  There were too many inconsistencies, and too many plot twists, and I found Jo to be a very frustrating character.  I think I enjoyed her other books because they are set in present-day, and maybe she doesn’t write gothic as well as regular mystery/thriller.  Anyway, if you are looking for a gothic mystery, this book may be a good choice, but I’ve definitely read better books in this genre.

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

Bye for now... Julie

Sunday 7 January 2024

Post on the last day of my holiday...

It’s chilly and snowy outside, which means it finally feels like winter.  I’m sad because I go back to work tomorrow and yet I still have so much I want to do.  *sigh* I’m not complaining, but I’m blaming my feelings of frustration on a book I was reading last weekend, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:  the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing by Marie Kondo.  It all started with my desire to clear out and organize our “Alice in Wonderland” closet (a storage space under the eaves for which the door is only about 3 feet high - I need a bottle that says “shrink me” - or is it "drink me"? - to fit inside!).  While I was at my favourite used book store, I saw a copy of this book and thought it looked interesting, so I put it on hold at the library and started reading it after Christmas.  Well, it sucked me right in and next thing I know, I’m reorganizing my dresser drawers using a new and “better” way of folding so I can see everything, and my closets have also been weeded and reorganized.  Then I started on my bookcases… that’s another story altogether, but let’s just say that I never actually got to really, fully reorganizing and weeding the original storage closet, I just put everything back, but more neatly… I guess there’s always March Break! 

Anyway, my book club met yesterday for our first meeting of the new year to discuss The Queen’s Gambit by William Tevis.  As most people know from watching the recent Netflix series, this is the story of Beth Harmon, a girl who was orphaned at age eight when her parents died in a car crash, leaving her with nowhere to go, so she ended up at the Methuen Orphanage, where they gave all the children tranquilizers twice a day to regulate everyone’s moods.  While there, she stumbles upon Mr Shaibel, the custodian, who is playing chess.  Beth is fascinated by the game and is able to pick it up exceptionally quickly.  He agrees to teach her and they play regularly during Sunday mass, and Beth plays games in her head the rest of the week.  Fast-forward a few years, and she gets adopted by Mrs Wheatley (Mr Wheatley is hardly in the picture at all), at which time she begins to lead what we would call a “regular” life for a young girl.  But her fascination and true ability always lies in chess, and she begins to compete in tournaments, always winning despite having no formal training and playing against people who are much older than her.  This short coming-of-age novel follows Beth on her quest to compete in the World Championship in Russia, but I don’t want to give away any details and ruin the story, if you decide to read it.  Everyone loved it, and we all agreed that the Netflix adaptation did not stray from the original novel, which read almost like a screenplay, with not a word wasted.  We loved the intimate descriptions of the various characters, including Beth’s chess opponents, detailed descriptions of their clothes, shoes or physical attributes done briefly yet perfectly.  Despite the brevity of the book, Tevis was able to offer amazing character development, not just for Beth, but for other minor characters who don’t appear often, including Jolene, her friend from the orphanage.  We thought it was amazing that this middle-aged man could write so convincingly as an eight-year-old girl.  We discussed the relationship between Mr and Mrs Wheatley at length, as well as the possible reasons for the adoption.  We discussed the ending, which was excellent, the path that led Beth there, and what she might do next.  It was a great discussion, and while during my first reading I enjoyed it, now I want to read it again, keeping in mind some of the insightful points of our discussion.  Obviously I would highly recommend this book to just about anyone.  

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the day, but stay warm!

Bye for now... Julie

Monday 1 January 2024

First post for 2024...

It’s the first morning of January and I’m ushering in the new year with a steaming cup of chai, a bowl of fresh fruit, and a blog post.  This used to be my routine but somewhere along the way it stopped and I was forced to write my posts during snatches of time in the early evenings, or sometimes not at all.  I’d love to go back to my original posting schedule, but I’ll have to take time to consider what caused the disruption and see if I can fix it. 

I finished reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and it was fabulous!  This lengthy, detailed novel follows six friends beginning one summer in the early 1970s when they are fifteen and meet at an arts camp, Spirit-of-the-Woods, until the 2000s when they are in their 50s.  Ash and Goodwin are brother and sister, not twins, but very close in age and close emotionally, too.  They are from a wealthy family and have had no struggles in life except that the parents have high hopes for hard-working younger sister Ash, not so much for older brother Goodwin, who takes his good looks and privilege for granted.  Ethan is homely, not from a wealthy family, but enormously talented and has dreams of becoming a famous animator.  Cathy is a dancer who is very talented but is destined to have her dreams crushed because of her stature and other physical attributes.  Jonah is a shy, talented musician, the son of a famous folk singer, a boy who, despite his talent, seems at odds with his surroundings.  And Julie/Jules, sent on scholarship after the death of her father, is, to her surprise, invited into this clique of sophisticated Manhattanite kids, where she discovers a hidden talent for wit and humour.  She and Ash become best friends; everyone else slips in and out of the narrative, but the constant is the state of the friendship between these two women throughout the decades.  I don’t want to give any more details, as the draw of this book is the desire to know what happens next for these characters, who, for this reader, became almost like friends from my distant past - it kind of felt like peeking at Facebook posts to find out how and what they're doing.  I don’t normally enjoy long, detailed books, but this one kept me looking for opportunities to read so I could find out how each character’s life would unfold.  Readers are given insight into all of their lives, but the main narrator is Jules, and we learn, through her interactions and conversations with Ash, what everyone else is doing.  I didn’t love the ending, but overall, I thought it was a fantastic book, one that made me simultaneously want to reach the last page and also yearn for the book to never end.  If you enjoy books about the evolution of friendships, this might be a good choice for you. 

And since it’s the new year, it’s time for my “stats” and my “Best  of…” lists.  In 2023, I read 59 books and listened to 22 audiobooks. 

My favourite Adult novels were:  What we both know - Fawn Parker Enough about love - Hervé Le Tellier  Clock dance - Anne Tyler  The winners - Fredrik Backman  Camp Zero - Michelle Min Sterling  Tom Lake - Anne Patchett  Reykjavík - Ragnar Jónasson and Katrín Jacobsottír  None of this is true - Lisa Jewell  The interestings - Meg Wollitzer  Anomaly - Hervé Le Tellier  The house we grew up in - Lisa Jewell  The foundling - Ann Leary  I have added this new category, Best Rereads, since there were so many this past year:   The dinner - Hermann Koch  The wanderers - Meg Howrey  Autumn - Ali Smith  The plot - Jean Hanff Korelitz  Mindful of murder - Susan Juby 

Best Non-fiction: 

The Buddhist Chef:  100 simple, feel-good vegan recipes - Jean Phillippe Cyr 

Best Children’s and Young Adult novels:  Apartment 713 - Kevin Sylvester  Berani  - Michelle Kadarusman  Gnome is where the heart is - Casey Lyall  Simon sort of says - Erin Bow (YA)  Sorry for your loss - Joanne Levy (YA) The fort - Gordon Korman (YA) The cat who saved books - Sōsuke Natsukawa (YA/adult crossover)  Hana Khan carries on - Uzma Jalaluddin (YA/adult crossover)  But I think my absolute favourites of the year, those special finds that I will remember and talk about and recommend to others for years to come, are: The anomaly, The Buddhist Chef, Gnome is where the heart is and Simon sort of says.  That’s all for today.  Have a Happy New Year, and may 2024 be filled with plenty of great books and many cups of delicious tea! 

Bye for now… Julie