Thursday, February 14, 2019

"The Golden Tresses of the Dead" by Alan Bradley

Like clockwork over most of the past several years, a new Flavia de Luce mystery by Alan Bradley has arrived in January or February to brighten up the dreariness of a cold, grey southern Ontario winter. :)

"The Golden Tresses of the Dead" is the 10th Flavia novel. Twelve-year-old Flavia is a precocious young chemist/detective in early 1950s Britain. The story opens with the long-awaited wedding of Flavia's beautiful oldest sister, Ophelia/Feely... but the festivities are marred when the happy couple slice into their wedding cake, only to discover a severed human finger inside (!).  Whose finger is it, and how did it get there? Flavia is on the case!

I rated this 5 stars on Goodreads.

There have been hints/speculation that this would be the final Flavia book (sob!!). (And, if it is, the wonderful closing paragraphs would be a fitting epitaph.)  Thankfully, though, Bradley hinted in a recent interview with the Toronto Star that, while this IS the final book he was contracted to do, there may be more to come. Good news for all of us who love Flavia! :)  

*** *** *** 

If you haven't read any of the previous Flavia novels, I recommend you start with the first book in the series, "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie," and continue from there in order. The mystery in each novel is self-contained -- but the plot itself always plays a distant second fiddle to the characters & the wonderful writing.  You will learn more about Flavia, her family and friends, and appreciate them and the stories more, if you start at the beginning and follow her adventures in order. 

I don't seem to have reviewed "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" on my blog, but here's where I've written about the others:

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (#2)
A Red Herring Without Mustard (#3)
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (#4)
Speaking From Among the Bones (#5) 

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6)
As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (#7)
Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd  (#8)

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place (#9) 

This was book #5 that I have read in 2019 to date, bringing me to 21% of my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 3 books ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Monday, February 11, 2019

#MicroblogMondays: A midwinter blog rant

My blog has a label/category for "I hate November," but I'm thinking I need to add an "I hate February" category as well. ;) While I have many reasons to dislike November, I actually dislike February even more (November is, at least, is redeemed by its proximity to Christmas). A few reasons why:
  • February 8th was my LMP date for my ill-fated pregnancy, 21 years ago now. 
  • We now get a February holiday/long weekend here in Ontario (= next weekend/Monday) -- but it was slapped with the wince-inducing moniker of "Family Day" by politicians eager to appeal to "family values." (No doubt I will have another whine on that specific subject coming up soon. ;)  )
  • February weather sucks, to put in mildly.  
Ah yes, the weather...!  I get a lot of flak from my friends & relatives out west, where I grew up, if I dare to complain about the winter weather here in the GTA.  Yes, the temperatures are not quite as cold as they are on the Prairies, and there's usually not as much snow.  There's an old joke whenever people complain about the cold out west -- someone will add, "Yes, but it's a DRY cold."  Unless you've lived somewhere where it's a "wet" or damp cold, I'm not sure you can really appreciate the difference. I often say that I will take -40C in Manitoba any day over -20C in Toronto:  the "damp" cold can be bone-chilling in a way that the brisk cold in Manitoba is not -- and winters here tend to be overcast, grey & slushy.  It may reach -40C at times where I grew up -- but the sun shines a lot more there, and the snow will crunch & squeak under my boots. I miss that sometimes.

What also sometimes gets forgotten (or isn't realized) by people who don't live here:  the GTA is a pretty large area, with a large population and some of the worst traffic in North America -- and that's in GOOD weather. When the weather is bad, road traffic slows down even more, transit (buses, streetcars, subway trains and commuter trains) is delayed -- and tempers get short. There were many mornings, when we were working, that we would leave the house earlier than usual (in the dark) because the weather (and roads) were bad, to give us plenty of time to drive to the train station -- only to find, once we got there, that our train into the city was delayed because of frozen rail switches and doors that were too cold to shut properly -- and I would have to call my boss to say I would be late. (Sometimes, I would STILL get to the office ahead of her!) Once the train did arrive, it would be packed -- sometimes standing room only (for a 25 to 40 minute ride -- assuming there weren't any further delays...!).  I'd eventually arrive at work feeling frazzled and exhausted and generally ready to turn around and go home again. 

There were many afternoons when the same thing would happen in reverse -- train delays at Union Station, crowded waiting areas, crowded platforms, crowded train cars (anxious parents calling day care providers -- some of which charged $1 for every minute they were late past 6 p.m.), parking lot chaos (after you spent several minutes clearing & scraping the accumulated snow & ice from the roof, hood & windows of your car) -- and then snow to shovel from the driveway, sidewalks and front step when we finally did get home (in the dark), before we could even think about dinner.

Needless to say, I don't miss those days...! Being retired, we don't HAVE to be out driving in bad weather and on bad roads to get to work, or anywhere else. But it does mean that sometimes, depending on the weather and what else we have going on (e.g., laundry & housecleaning to do), we could go several days without leaving the condo. Cabin fever, anyone?? :p 

I guess I'm in a whiny/ranty mood about the weather in particular right now, because we are expecting a(nother) winter storm tomorrow, which may take the form of snow, freezing rain, or a little of both. Needless to say, we will likely be staying at home (AGAIN).  (I will take a straightforward blizzard ANY DAY over freezing rain.)

What's good about February?  Well, it IS only 28 days long. ;)

(Whine over. If you made it this far, thanks for listening/reading!)

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

"Beartown" by Fredrik Backman

I am only an occasionally serious hockey fan. I love my Winnipeg Jets, whom I've followed since I was a kid (and I was beyond overjoyed when the team returned to Winnipeg in 2011) -- but I don't follow them obsessively (except maybe during the playoffs, lol)(curse you, Las Vegas Golden Knights, lol).

But hey, I'm Canadian. Even if you're not a huge hockey fan, you can't really avoid hockey here, or absorbing some knowledge of the game by osmosis -- especially if you grow up in a small town.

Which I did. I spent my youth (1960s & 70s) in five different towns in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the largest of which (by a pretty big margin) was about 13,000 people. In just about all of these towns, social life revolved around the rink(s) and the sports played therein:  figure skating for the girls, hockey for the boys, curling for the adults. (I wrote about my memories of one of those rinks here.) Until I was 14 (when we moved closer to Winnipeg and to the U.S. border), we had just one TV channel (the CBC). Watching TV on a Saturday night in the winter meant you were watching Hockey Night in Canada (and, during playoff season, you got to watch hockey and nothing but on many other nights too).

When I was I was about 6 or 7, and we were living in Saskatchewan -- just a few miles down the road from the site of a tragic bus crash that killed 16 members of a junior hockey team last year -- my dad would sometimes take me to local hockey games with him (after much pleading from me).  He would wrap me up in a blanket and buy me a treat from the canteen, and I would sit on the hard wooden bleachers of the crowded rink & scream myself hoarse. I liked the fights best back then (!). Local rivalries were so intense that, my mother tells me, the RCMP had to escort the visiting team's players from the arena onto the bus, and then escort the bus out of town.

*** *** ***

This is a very roundabout way of saying that I can see why "Beartown" by Swedish author Fredrik Backman -- about a small, declining town in Sweden and its junior hockey team -- has been a bestseller in Canada.

I KNEW this town in my bones. I KNEW these people.

But the book isn't entirely about hockey. It is, but it isn't. (With a little imagination, I think it could just as easily be about a football-obsessed town in the American South. Or maybe a soccer club in smalltown Britain. But I don't think you have to be a hockey fan, or a sports fan, to relate to the story or appreciate it.) It's about the people of Beartown (featuring a broad cast of characters), their relationship to the team & to each other. It's about winning, and losing, and belonging. It's about obsession, the burdens we place on our heroes, and the price we pay for success.

There's an old banner hanging in the Beartown arena that proclaims the hockey club's motto: "Culture, Values, Community."  David, the coach of the junior team, stares at the banner and ponders what it means:
He was sitting in this precise spot when he was twenty-two, thinking exactly the same things. Sune [the longtime coach of the A-team] was sitting beside him then. David asked about the banner, asked what it meant to Sune, and Sune replied: "Community is the fact that we work toward the same goal, that we accept our respective roles in order to reach it. Values is the fact that we trust each other. That we love each other." David thought about that for a long while before asking: "What about culture, then?" Sune looked more serious, choosing his words carefully. In the end, he said: "For me, culture is as much about what we encourage as what we actually permit."  
David asked what he meant by that, and Sune replied: "That most people don't do what we tell them to. They do what we let them get away with." 
David closes his eyes. Clears his throat. Then he stands up and walks down toward the ice. Doesn't look up at the roof again. Banners have no meaning this week. Only results. [Chapter 26, page 210]
This passage said so much to me about the world we live in right now:
Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn't through love, because love is hard, It makes demands. Hate is simple.  
So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that's easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe -- comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy... 
It doesn't take long to persuade each other to stop seeing a person as a person. And when enough people are quiet enough for long enough, a handful of voices can give the impression that everyone is screaming. [Chapter 35, p. 273] 
It's a tense, dark book, almost right from the beginning (a great winter/hockey season book!) -- and it gets much darker as the story goes on -- but it's uplifting and affirming too. I found it hard to put down.

"Beartown" has been a "Heather's Pick"at our mega-bookstore chain here in Canada, and on several other recent "best" lists. Modern Mrs. Darcy has recommended it frequently, and it's an upcoming pick for one of the library book clubs hereabouts that I hope to join soon (which is one reason why I read it now). (The discussion should be pretty interesting, I think...!)

Personal note: I was amused to read about the town's intense rivalry (hockey-wise and otherwise) with the larger town down the road, Hed.  Hed is a real town in Sweden -- and, coincidentally, some of my Swedish ancestors came from there, or thereabouts. :)  Maybe that's another reason why this book resonated with me.

And, ALI spoiler alert: one of the families featured has experienced the loss of a child, and is still dealing with the grief and its repercussions, years later. There's a lot here about grief and loss (and dealing with it, or not) and parenting and protecting our children (or trying to) that was all too familiar.

I would give "Beartown" 4.5 stars on Goodreads -- but since I can't give half-stars, I wound up giving it five. :)  I think that (properly done) it would make a great movie, or TV series or mini-series (and I learned, via Google, that a Swedish production company has a TV version in the works). Backman has written a sequel, "Us Against You," which I will probably read too, eventually :) -- so it looks like there's plenty of material to keep a show going for quite a while.

(If you want to read a really good (non-fiction) book about hockey, I would highly recommend "The Game" by Ken Dryden, legendary goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. Dryden writes as well as, or even better than, he played hockey. He has also been a TV broadcaster/host, a member of Canada's Parliament, and an executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs.)

This was book #4 that I have read in 2019 to date, bringing me to 17% of my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 2 books ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)

Monday, February 4, 2019

#MicroblogMondays: Small pleasures

  • Checking my bank accounts this morning and noticing that our chequing account balance was larger than expected. It seems one of our investments did better than usual last year, resulting in an unexpected little windfall that was deposited this morning. :) 
  • Using some of that surprise bonus money to treat myself this afternoon to a couple of books I've been eyeing at the local mega-bookstore (hardcovers, instead of waiting for the paperbacks). 
  • Knowing we'll have a nice little financial cushion for the next while, with the possibility of funding a few more fun little "extras."  
  • Enjoying milder, spring-like temperatures today (+11C -- albeit with grey skies & drizzle) after several days around -20C (colder with windchill!) last week. 
  • (Finally) Getting out of the house/condo after barely leaving it all last week because of the extreme weather.   
  • Enjoying a great roast beef dinner from the crockpot/slow cooker last night. (With leftovers to follow!) 
  • Getting to spend time with Older Nephew's dog on the weekend (BIL & SIL -- the "grandparents" -- were dogsitting).  :)  Few humans can make you feel consistently loved & appreciated in the same way that a dog can, lol.  ;)  

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here.  

Friday, February 1, 2019

Right now

Right now... (an occasional meme, alternating from time to time with "The Current")

Reading:  I'm off to a good start with my Goodreads 2019 Reading Challenge (goal:  24 books), with 3 books finished in January (all reviewed on this blog) and another underway ("Beartown" by Fredrick Backman... so far, so good...!).

Recent purchases:  "The Golden Tresses of the Dead" (the latest -- and possibly last, sob!! -- Flavia de Luce mystery by Alan Bradley).

Dh has also been reading more again lately, which makes me happy. :)

Watching: I finally got to see "Three Identical Strangers" last Sunday night on CNN (and I understand it's going to be on again on Saturday night, if you missed it). Well worth watching, especially if you have any interest in adoption issues or multiples. I've always been fascinated by multiples (my sister & I were known as "the Bobbsey Twins," even though we're almost two years apart & really aren't much alike at all, especially once you get to know us well...!), and I remember hearing about this in the early 1980s, when the triplets first found each other at age 19 (they are exactly six months younger than I am).  I knew the story took a dark turn, and I found myself wiping my eyes at a couple of points, but it was still an amazing story with a few surprises, and very well done.

I've been enjoying season 3 of "Victoria" and the new season of "Finding Your Roots" on PBS.

The only movie we saw in January: "On the Basis of Sex," with Felicity Jones as a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and Armie Hammer as her supportive husband Marty).  We both enjoyed it a lot.

Listening: Dh recently discovered that our TV service (Bell Fibe) includes a number of music channels from a service/app called Stingray. (Oh, give us a break, we're aging baby boomers here, lol.)  There are tons of different stations you can listen to (commercial/DJ-free!) -- country, classical, 70s, 80s, 90s, R&B, classic rock (our most frequent choice).  It's so nice to listen to music instead of TV news or sports constantly during the day. We listen to a local classic rock station on the car radio all the time, but the Stingray classic rock channel plays a lot of songs I haven't heard in eons. Of course, even if it's been years since I last heard the song, and it's 40+ years old, I can still sing along. (One recent earworm here. :)  )

Following:  Yay, it's figure skating season!  :)  (Forget the Super Bowl!!  lol)  I've been binge watching (and enjoying) the Canadian, European & U.S. national championships over the past few weekends.  World championships will be in mid-March.

Drinking/Eating: Lots of tea, lots of "comfort food."

Wearing:  Slippers and a cardigan over my socks and usual clothes, trying to keep warm during the recent cold snap! (Floor-to-ceiling windows and laminate floors look fabulous, but they are also COLD in winter!)(Especially when you know there must be a concrete base below that laminate...!)

Buying (besides books, lol):  A friend of a friend makes beautiful sterling silver jewelry -- AND she offers a birthday discount to people on her mailing list -- so I treated myself to some pretty new bling :)  which, happily, arrived today. :)

I also scored a pair of black jeans/twill pants from Old Navy for $5.99 recently. (The legs are way too long & had to triple-roll up the bottoms -- but otherwise, they fit perfectly. And -- $5.99, right??!)

Collecting: Christmas & birthday discounts/goodies from various retailers. I didn't manage to cash in on all of them before they expired at the end of January -- but beyond the discounted jewelry mentioned above, I also picked up a new nightgown for 25% off, and an essential oils rollerball for 30% off. :)

Wanting:  A break from the monotony of winter.  :p 

Loving: That I don't have to get up early, leave the house & wait for a commuter train (that's probably delayed...!) in this frigid weather.

Remembering:  Three years ago today, I officially retired (!!).  In July, it will be five years since I was pink-slipped!

Wondering:  What kind of a month February (generally my least favourite) is going to be?

Feeling: COLD!! COLD!! COLD!! Yesterday morning's temperature: -21C, -35C windchill (-6F & -31F)  I try not to complain too much, though... on Wednesday morning, it was -40C WITHOUT the windchill and -50C WITH the windchill where my parents live!  (-40C is the same as -40F -- and -50C = -58F -- so whatever system you use, you know it's cold!!)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019