Sunday, 25 August 2019

Tea and treats on a cool, breezy Sunday...

These past few days, it’s definitely felt like autumn is in the air, as the mornings are cool and the evenings are, too.  I love this time of year, with school soon starting (I go back to work tomorrow, so school is starting for me sooner than most!) and the cooler weather tangible in the air.  But it’s also bittersweet, as we say goodbye to summer holidays and trips to the beach. Alas, there will be plenty more warm days, just no more holidays until Christmas. And speaking of Christmas, I recently went to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, which was fabulous.  They had a very extensive Maud Lewis Exhibit, among others, and in the gift shop, I purchased a Maud Lewis Edition Country Christmas Loose Black Tea Blend, which I am trying for the first time this morning. While it’s not Christmas yet, I thought it might be a nice tea to pair with my slice of freshly baked Date Bread, and of course, a delicious Date Bar from City Café.  I fell easily back into the habit of making soup and preparing lunches for the coming work week, and going back to work a week before the students return is a good way to ease back into the routine.  
I read just one book last week, as I was busy trying to squeeze every last moment of enjoyment out of my last week of “freedom”, but it was a good one, and one I knew absolutely nothing about.  I must have read a review of this book and put it on hold from the library, then promptly forgot about it, because when I picked it up and began reading, I didn’t even realize it was from the Young Adult collection.  Keep This to Yourself by Canadian author Tom Ryan is told from the point of view of eighteen-year-old Mac, resident of the picturesque coastal town of Camera Cove, a young man who is planning to head off to university in the fall.  While this should be an inspiring and exciting time for him, he is unable to enjoy the last summer of his childhood because tragedy looms over him. One year earlier, his best friend Connor was murdered, the last of four victims killer by the Catalog Killer, a serial killer assumed to be a drifter who has since left the area, but who remains at large.  Mac connects with his group of friends after graduation, and while everyone else seems excited and filled with anticipation about their future, Mac is unable to get over his loss and move on. When he discovers a note from Connor written on the day he died, Mac is filled with a newfound energy and focuses on finding out who killed his friend. He tries to engage his friends in this search, but is shut down again and again, and told to look to the future, not remain stuck in the past.  He meets Quill, the cousin of one of the victims, and finds both an ally and a love interest. Together they attempt to dig deeper and gather information through various, often pretty creative, means. What Mac discovers in the end is both shocking and chilling, and leads to a satisfying conclusion. This novel was great! It managed to be both riveting and well-written, a real page-turner that ticked all the boxes: it was a murder mystery, by a Canadian author, with diverse characters.  It was also about friendship and small-town life, and it had a love story that was central to the main plot. It’s a shame that the content is too mature for my elementary school, but I will definitely recommend it to the librarians at the high schools in my school board. I would recommend this to readers from high school age on to adulthood.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the fabulous weather on this last Sunday of August!
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 16 August 2019

Friday morning post...

We have a big family BBQ tomorrow and have company staying for the weekend, so I wanted to take advantage of this quiet morning to write a quick post before tackling my list of "things to do" in preparation for tomorrow’s festivities.
Just this morning I finished reading the last few pages of the excellent historical novel HHhH by French author Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor.  “HHhH” stands for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”, and Reinhard Heydrich is, in fact, the main subject of this novel; readers are told of his questionable beginnings and ultimate rise within the ranks of the Nazis to become the most lethal man in Hitler’s cabinet.  He is considered to be indestructible, until two men, one Czech and one Slovak, are tasked with a mission: to assassinate Heydrich in Prague. Part of the Czech Resistance, these two parachutists, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, must come up with a plan to fulfill their mission in uncertain circumstances, risking their lives in order to change the course of history.  I don’t normally read historical fiction, but someone recommended this book to me and I put in a “suggestion for purchase” with my library to add to their collection. I’m so glad I did this, as it was riveting, a real page-turner that kept me finding extra opportunities to read, despite the busy-ness of my week. It was a roller-coaster ride of a novel, and was not just concerned with the plot at hand, namely the plot to assassinate Heydrich; Binet also offered insight into his struggles as a writer and researcher while working on this book.  Rather than just offering readers a “Forward” stating that, while based on real events, some of the dialogue, action and characters have been created by the author to enhance the story, he inserts his views throughout the novel. And rather than being annoying and disruptive, this actually made the story feel more like it was happening now, not 75 years ago. I can’t praise this debut enough, and if I wasn’t in rather a rush, I would write more about it and the effect it had on me as a reader, but, unfortunately, my list of tasks is not growing any shorter as I sit and type.  
And I listened to an awesome audiobook recently, City of Saints and Thieves, by Natalie C Anderson, narrated by Pascale Arrmand.  I didn’t realize this was a Young Adult novel until after I started listening to it and looked it up to find out a bit more about it.  This novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Christina, a girl who doesn’t exist. After fleeing the Congo, she and her mother find refuge in Sangui City with the Greyhill family, where they live in relative peace until Christina’s mother is murdered in their home and she runs away, choosing to live on the streets and work with the Goondas rather than take the charity of Mr Greyhill.  Known to the Goondas as “Tiny Girl”, she becomes a master thief, roaming the streets of the city and completing tasks for them in exchange for their protection. But her ultimate goal is to punish Greyhill, whom she is certain killed her mother. When she returns to her former home to retrieve information necessary for her three-part plan to take him down, she is caught by Greyhill’s son Michael, Christina’s friend from her former life, and she must consider whether someone else might actually be responsible for her mother’s murder.  Readers are taken on a thrilling quest that leads us from the dangerous streets of Sangui to the jungles of the Congo in search of the truth. What Christina and Michael discover is brutality, corruption, and finally, the truth about what happened that night in Greyhill’s study. This was a fabulous novel that dealt with several mature subjects with skill and compassion. Although the main characters are in their mid-teens, I think this would appeal to adults of all ages, as the issues are contemporary and, while extremely heavy and depressing at times, the novel is ultimately hopeful.  The narrator did a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life, especially Christina’s friend, Boyboy, a techie nerd who also works with the Goondas. I would definitely recommend this to just about anyone who enjoys a fast-paced thriller set in real-world circumstances.
That’s all for today.  Have a great weekend!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Books and tea on a warm summer morning...

I went out earlier this morning to pick up my usual treat to take advantage of the rather cool-ish temperatures.   It’s supposed to get quite warm this afternoon and remain so for the next few days, but it’s so much more bearable than the humid days we had a few weeks ago, and I don’t think anyone’s complaining.  I have a cup of steeped chai tea to go with my Date Bar as I think about my book club discussion on Friday and the book I read last week.
My Volunteer group got together to discuss The Storied Life of A J Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.  I won’t give a summary here, as I did that in last week’s post, but just a reminder that it is a story of a curmudgeonly bookstore owner who finds love and redemption in the most mysterious ways.  I enjoyed this novel more than I expected, and was impressed with the many clever and insightful turns of phrases that were sprinkled throughout this short novel (I was so impressed that I think I’m going to skim the novel again and highlight  - *gasp!* - all the clever phrases, something I certainly do not condone, ever!!) My ladies all agreed that the book was cute, but not necessarily believable. We thought that Fikry embodied the person we would all secretly like to be, but that we are forced to reign in our curmudgeonly-ness in order to get along in the world.  We all liked Maya’s character, and thought she was super-intelligent and sweet right from the beginning. We noted that all the characters were a bit odd and quirky, including Maya and Fikry’s sister-in-law, Ismay. One member commented that she thought the whole book was like a puzzle, offering pieces here and there, and that you had to really pay attention in order to put them all together.  This comment makes me think that the book actually has more depth than is apparent upon a first reading - maybe I’ll do more than skim it again. They were impressed with the relationship between A J and Amelia, and thought that it was because it was based on friendship that they could make it work. All in all, everyone liked the book, but they didn’t love it, and after a short discussion, people in the group splintered off into smaller groups or pairs to carry on individual conversations.  I have decided to classify this as a “happy/sad” book, and would include on this list A Man Called Ove and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but I think these other two books had more substance and were better-written than Storied LIfe.  Still, it’s short, and I think just about anyone could get something out of it.
And I read The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz last week.  This second installment in the series featuring ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne was ok, but not great, in my opinion.  Hawthorne, who may or may not have pushed a peodophile down a flight of stairs to his death, was fired from Scotland Yard, but he is so brilliant an investigator that he is regularly called back by the Yard as a consultant to help solve cases.  The narrator of the book, a fictional Anthony Horowitz, is hired by Hawthorne to write about his cases, and his publisher signs him on for a three-book deal. Horowitz does not relish this prospect, much preferring to work on the rewrites for the scripts of Foyle’s War, but he reluctantly agrees to write about this current case and becomes caught up in the crime almost against his will.  A successful divorce lawyer, Richard Pryce, is murdered with a very expensive bottle of wine, and the number 182 is painted on wall above him.  The suspects abound: award-winning British-Japanese author Akira Anno, with whom Horowitz has a distinct dislike; client Adrian Lockwood; Mrs Taylor, wife of Gregory Taylor, a college friend of Pryce who was involved in a caving accident resulting in the death of another friend, Charles Richardson; and Richardson’s widow; and many others.  This novel was interesting enough plotwise to keep me wanting to read to find out whodunnit, but it had several flaws, namely that it seemed to be trying too hard to be clever, and also that it seemed to be more about fictional Horowitz’ character grinding axes with everyone, particularly Hawthorne and Anno. There was so much negativity in this book that it was not a pleasure to read, and that negativity overshadowed the plot, the mystery, and the cleverness of the writing.  It was an ok mystery, but not one I would strongly recommend.
That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 2 August 2019

Short post before a long weekend…

On this gorgeous summer morning, with little humidity and lots of sun, I wanted to take a few minutes to write a quick post, as we will be going away for the weekend and I will not be able to post at my usual time.  
I finished a book yesterday that we will be discussing at my Volunteer book club meeting next Friday.  The Storied Life of A J Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a short novel that is both moving and thought-provoking, not surprisingly a popular choice for book clubs.  It tells the story of A J Fikry, a curmudgeonly bookstore owner on Alice Island, a fictional small island accessible by ferry from Boston.  He is recently widowed and is slowly sliding into alcoholic oblivion. When one major event and then another occurs in his life, he is forced to make choices that may alter his life significantly.  That’s all I want to say about the plot for now, but will write more about it after my meeting next week. I will say that it was much better than I was anticipating. It was well-written and succinct, a story of love and redemption, an homage to bookstores, readers and the printed word, and Zevin demonstrated a real gift with language, as evident in her many skilled turns of phrases.  It brought to mind a few books I’ve read recently, and I would recommend this to anyone who enjoyed A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman or The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.
And I listened to an audiobook recently, The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian.  It tells the story of Chip, a pilot whose is forced to land his plane in the water, killing 39 of the 48 people on board.  He is haunted by these dead souls, and he and his family move away in the hopes that this will be a fresh start. What happens instead is that his family members, a wife and twin daughters, are drawn surreptitiously into a group of citizens in the small town who call themselves herbalists but seem to have a sinister hidden agenda.  And the pilot’s hauntings are becoming worse, not better. Imagine Rosemary’s Baby meeting  The Shining with a dose of The Exorcist, add two narrators, one of them pretty bad, and you’ve got this unfortunate book.  I would not recommend it to anyone.
That’s all for today.  Have a great long weekend!
Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 29 July 2019

Short post after my vacation...

I just got back from a week visiting my oldest friend in Manitoba, and am quite tired from the travel, so this will be a short post before I get to all the chores that go along with catching up after being away for a while.
While I was away I managed to finish a Young Adult book from my school library, To Look a Nazi in the Eye:  a teen’s account of a war criminal trial by Kathy Kacer with Jordana Lebowitz, which was very interesting and well-written.  In this book, Kacer recounts the experiences of University of Guelph student Lebowitz as she attends the first week of the trial of Oskar Groening, “the bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, who in 2015 stood trial as a war criminal and accessory to the murder of 300, 000 Hungarian Jews between 1944 and 1945.   Lebowitz’ grandparents were survivors of concentration camps, and this family history affected her deeply, so when the opportunity arose to attend this trial and share her experiences, she did all she could to make it happen. Kacer came across a mention of her story in a newspaper and decided that partnering with her was the best way to write about this trial, which was something she already wanted to do.  What resulted is a moving account of not only Groening’s involvement in the “machinery of death”, but stories from survivors who were ripped away from their happy childhoods, separated from their families and thrown into concentration camps, witnessing atrocities they should never have had to see and never laying eyes on their family members again. Through this account we also begin to understand how this experience affected one young woman today, and learn about her passionate desire to share her experiences with others in order to learn from history and hopefully avoid repeating it.  It was a fabulous read that I would recommend to anyone interested in WWII history and the pursuit of justice even as much as 70 years later.
That’s all for now.  I have a long list of things to do on this hot, sunny day, but if I start now, I may find some time to read this afternoon.
Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 19 July 2019

Early post on another hot day...

It’s incredibly hot and humid already, and it’s only 9:30am!  The forecast indicates that we should expect the same into the weekend before it cools down early next week.  One of the benefits of this, however, is that I went out early this morning while it was still cool-ish to purchase a delicious Date Bar in preparation for this post, and it is even more delicious than usual.  This may be because I usually buy it on Saturday and eat it on Sunday morning, so this one is fresher and moister than ever - YUM!  
My schedule is all messed up, too, as I was away last week, home this week, and will be away again next week, so you’re getting two posts in a relatively short time, then there will be a lull before the next post.  Since I’m off for the summer and it’s been so hot this week, I’ve stayed in quite a bit and have had lots of time to read. I started a book with a stunningly beautiful cover, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland, but the serious themes and descriptive writing in tn this book deserve to be savoured on a cooler, more comfortable day when I have the time and can really focus and enjoy the language and the storytelling, so I put it away for another day.  I’m planning to have a yard sale later this summer, so I’ve been going through my bookshelves to see what I could add to my already-large selection of books to sell. I came across one that was a freebie from either the big book sale I go to (“fill a box for $10) or the big library conference I go to every winter.  I’m not a huge fan of the novels of award-winning, bestselling Canadian writer Patrick deWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, but I have a copy of French Exit, which has a very appealing cover, so I thought I would give it a try.  I’ve tried reading Undermajordomo Minor in the past, but the storyline was too strange for my liking and I stopped without finishing.  I think deWitt favours a style that leans towards the absurd, no, it absolutely is absurd, dark comedies that do not really appeal to my taste as a reader.  This one is no exception, but it may be his most “normal” or “mainstream” so far.  This novel tells the story of Frances and Malcolm Price, mother and son who, since the death of father and husband Franklin, have managed to run through their substantial wealth while doing absolutely nothing of any value for society.  They also have an elderly cat, Small Frank, who lives with them in their apartment in New York, although neither of them likes the cat. As we find out later, Frances believes that the spirit of her dead husband lives on in Small Frank, and she both wishes to get rid of him and feels obligated to care for him in this incarnation as she did not do at the end of his corrupt, immoral life as a man.  When Frances realizes that they have nothing left, she sells everything and moves herself and Malcolm to an apartment in Paris owned by her good friend, Joan. There she executes a two-part plan, the details about which only she knows. The eclectic cast of characters we meet in this novel includes Malcolm’s fiancée, Susan, a level-headed young woman who, for some bizarre reason, is in love with Malcolm, a man who seems to have never moved beyond adolescence, despite being in his early thirties.  There is also Mme Reynard, a lonely woman who attaches herself to the pair in Paris; Madeleine, the fortuneteller they met on the ship; Julius, a shy private investigator whose services they employ; and many others. This “tragedy of manners” was easy to read, and I’m sure that it probably deserves a deeper consideration than my two days of reading afforded, but the story was too bizarre for me to reread it and ponder the significance of this or that occurrence.  It was OK, and now I can say that I’ve actually finished reading something by this Canadian author, but I can’t think of anyone I would recommend it to. This is not to say that I don’t recognize or appreciate deWitt’s skill and talent as a writer, just that I don’t enjoy the type of novels he writes. Still, if you are a fan of his work, you should enjoy this one as well, at least according to the reviews.
That’s all for today.  Since I’m staying inside due to the heat, I plan to go through the piles of books set aside for “discard consideration” from my own collections, then settle down for an afternoon of reading with my next, hopefully good, book.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Short post on a hot day...

It is a hot, hot, hot Tuesday morning and I’ve just been enjoying the last of the local strawberries for breakfast as I think about our book club meeting last night.  

We discussed Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. and everyone who was able to attend enjoyed it.  I’ve listened to this as an audiobook twice before, and here is what I said about it in August, 2015:

... I also listened to The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier, narrated by Angela Brazil.  This powerful novel tells the story of two women, friends who are in their late thirties and contemplating their lives thusfar in relation to their children, their husbands, and their halted careers.  Kate, devoted mother of two, struggles with her choices as she considers her return to work as a pastry chef, feeling that it may be too soon. Her close friend, Elizabeth, died the previous summer in a plane crash, which occurred shortly before 9/11.  Kate was given responsibility for Elizabeth’s journals, much to Elizabeth’s husband’s dismay; Dave feels they should have been left with the family, but reluctantly passes them into the hands of Kate, locked in an antique trunk. Kate brings them with her as her family heads off for an extended summer holiday to their favourite beachside cottage in Maine, and she spends her summer reading the journals while tending to her family’s needs.  What she finds during her reading is that Elizabeth was a much more complex woman than she ever realized, leading her to contemplate how much we can ever really know about a person. Written with sensitivity and consideration, this novel explores the roles and expectations of mothers in today’s society, their struggles to balance motherhood and a career, and to maintain a personal identity without sacrificing the needs of their families. It looks at how we deal with loss, and poses the question of whether we can create our own destiny or whether we should just let fate take its own course.  It also makes readers consider whether it is ever justifiable to make decisions that are life-changing for you and your family by yourself, whether one person can take that responsibility solely on his or her shoulders. It was, again, not the type of book I normally read or listen to, being about motherhood and the struggles that women with children face when considering career versus family, but this book was excellent. It was sensitive and considerate, and the author, who was inspired to write it after losing a friend in the attacks of 9/11, did an outstanding job of exploring the randomness of life, the uncertainty we all face every day, and how the constant worry over the possibility of disaster can be paralyzing.  It was a heart-wrenching and heartfelt exploration of the life of one woman who spent her entire life trying to make up for one mistake, and the guilt she carried with her until her sudden death. The narration was excellent, really capturing the anxious tone of Kate and conveying her internal struggles and her constant hypersensitivity to things around her, both actual and potential. I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys character-driven novels.

This time I actually read the book, and it was just as good as the audiobook, maybe even better, because I could stop and contemplate sections as I read them, and go back to review parts if I needed clarification or reminders.  As I was preparing for the meeting, I asked myself what I took from this book, and came up with these: value family and friends, anyone important to you; life is arbitrary and random; you can never really know someone; do what you love; and I wondered if we all have rich inner lives that we conceal from others.  I was reminded of a line from a book I listened to recently, something like: “It’s not too late to become the person you always wanted to be”. One member said that the way this book was written created a sense of urgency to read the journals, so much so that she skipped ahead and read all the journal entries first, going back to read the “fluff” that were Kate’s parts afterwards, which she then realized was not “fluff” at all.  We commented that life is more anxious for everyone after 9/11, so Kate’s reactions to the loss of a friend shortly before that attack was natural. We talked about grief and the grieving process, how everyone grieves in his or her own way, and we should never judge anyone. This book really hit home for me at this time for many reasons, and it was eerie how so much of what was written echoed my own life at this time. I was at my sister-in-law’s cottage last week, and while everyone else went out on the boat, I stayed on the dock and read.  I sat down in the chaise lounger and picked up my book to continue reading, starting at a point in the book where Kate sits in the chaise and picks up the journal to continue reading… art imitating life, or life imitating art? Eerie either way. We talked about the reasons each member of these two couples, Kate and Chris, Elizabeth and Dave, lied to each other, and whether keeping secrets was the same thing as lying. We discussed our own losses, and ways themes in this novel reflected our own experiences. One member said she would have liked to have Kate and Elizabeth as friends.  All in all, it was an excellent discussion, often touching on deeply personal themes, and I believe we all know each other a little better after last night’s meeting.

That’s all for today.  Stay cool and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie