Sunday, 16 January 2022

Post on a glorious winter morning...

It’s sunny and bright, and although it’s still quite cold, it’s supposed to warm up considerably, making this a great day to take a long walk.  But first I’m going to enjoy a steaming cup of “Oh Christmas Tea” tea and a delicious date bar while I write this post.

I read a rather unusual book last week, which I must have heard about through a publisher's e-newsletter, and I'll admit upfront that this post will not do it justice, but here goes...  No One is Talking About This is the debut novel by American poet Patricia Lockwood, and it was both highly recommended and well-reviewed.  Made up entirely of short posts on a virtual platform known only as “the portal”, the novel begins with an unnamed narrator moving from city to city, touring and meeting her adoring fans.  Her social media posts are incredibly popular, often hilarious, almost always thought-provoking, and she is trying to make sense of her place in this virtual reality.  Then two short messages arrive from her mother, asking her to come home, that something is wrong.  In the second part of the book, still told in short post-like segments, she shares the devastating news that her sister’s unborn baby has Proteus Syndrome (think the Elephant Man) and is unlikely to survive more than a few days.  What follows is a study in grief, the need to make sense of this and find meaning in the universe.  The juxtaposition of these two parts, where “the portal” (or the internet) is so prominent in the first part and so clearly wrong in the second, is interesting because it is still the only way the narrator has to communicate with us, the readers, and she must find a way to make it work without diminishing the grief and sorrow and quest for consolation her family is experiencing.  When I first picked it up, I was a bit put off by the form, thinking, “how is she going to tell a story in these little bites?”, but I quickly realized that these may be small segments, but they have big meaning, and realized that this was a book I should own so I could read it again more slowly to try to better understand and absorb everything Lockwood is trying to convey.  Of course, the second part was heart-wrenching, and she did an amazing job of drawing us in to share her experiences of utter desolation and also her awkwardness with “the portal”.  Her ability to convey this so convincingly may be because it is based on her own experiences with her niece, which makes it even more heart-wrenching.  But it also makes me as a reader think about this pouring out of grief, which in her book she could only do in “the portal” but here she shares in a print book, a format whose future has been called into question for decades with the rise of virtual platforms.  Hmmm… I really do think this is a book I need to have on my shelf so I can take it down and read it again any time I want.  As a recent publication (February, 2021), it won’t likely be in the used bookstores any time soon, but I’ll make a point of looking for it anyway.

That’s all for today.  Stay warm, get outside, and remember to keep reading!

Bye for now... Julie

Sunday, 9 January 2022

Book club highlights on a dreary morning...

It’s an overcast, mild-ish morning, which means the bit of snow we have is now turning to gray slush and melting away.  Thank goodness I have a steaming cup of chai (a new blend I’ve never tried before - Chai Americaine) and a homemade banana muffin to cheer me up!

My Volunteer Book Club met virtually yesterday morning to discuss Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own”, and while it was not the most popular selection we’ve read, it was by far not the least popular, and it had the added bonus of being short (but I think for some members it seemed long!).  In this essay, which is based on two papers she read to the Arts Society at Newnham and the Odtaa at Girton in October 1928, Woolf considered “women and fiction”.  First, she had to determine what that meant:  did it mean “women and what they are like”, “women and the fiction that they write” or “women and the fiction that is written about them”?  She discussed the portrayal of women in the fiction that men have written (always negative) and the socio-economic reasons why there are so few works of literature or poetry by women before the 18th century.  She then determined, through lengthy discourse, that women must have 300 pounds a year and a room of their own if they wish to write.  I’m really simplifying things, as one of my cats has decided that he must sit on my lap NOW, so he’s wedged between me and my lap-desk while I type with one hand (Oh, if only I had a room of my own!).  I had four book club members join the meeting, and only one of them gave up on it, but she blamed this partially on her need for new glasses (it was pretty slow to start off, so I'm actually surprised that so many people stuck with it).  One member loved it, and the other two enjoyed it, too.  We discussed Woolf’s life, or what little we knew of it, as well as her mental health issues.  I shared what I found online about Aphra Behn, a 17th century female poet, prose writer and playwright, to whom, according to Woolf, all female writers owe a huge debt, “for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”.  I took particular interest in her comparison of Jane Austen’s writing and that of Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and especially her idea that, while Charlotte  Brontë was the more gifted writer, Austen achieved more with fewer sentences because she wrote not as men do, but rather, she shaped her sentences to fit her own use.  We discussed “women and fiction now”, how it has changed and what still needs to be done.  We compared it to various movements happening today, particularly recognition of Indigenous writers and Black writers.  This work, and these subjects, deserve much greater exploration and research, but Google Meet ended our session after one hour, so we were left wanting.  It was a good, yet all too brief , discussion, and I think that the one member who gave up on this will now finish reading it (she has new glasses, so she has no more excuses!)

Then, to fill in the rest of the week, I read (or reread?  I can’t remember if I’ve read it before) Stephen King’s novella, “Apt Pupil”, which came up in conversation during a visit with a friend over the holidays.  What is there to say about this?  It was a study of and an exploration into evil and the need to dominate.  I don’t want to read the other novellas in this collection, Different Seasons, at this time, so I'm returning it to the library, but I’ll check the used bookstores to see if I can find a copy so I can read them whenever I need something to fill a few days.

That’s all for today.  It looks like a great day to curl up with a cup of tea and read, which is what I will do once I get back from a short walk.

Bye for now… Julie

Saturday, 1 January 2022

New Year's Day post...

It’s early on New Year’s Day, and I’m sipping a cup of “Oh Christmas Tea” tea and nibbling on a delicious Date Bar as I review my year in books, a great way to start the new year.

I have three books to tell you about, then I’ll give you my “Best Reads of 2021”.  The first book I read last week was Anthony Horowitz’s mystery, A Line to Kill, which is the third book in the “Detective Daniel Hawthorne” series.  In this book, Horowitz and Hawthorne are paired up once again but this time, rather than setting out to solve a murder, they’re heading to the isolated island of Alderney to take part in a second-rate literary festival to promote their upcoming book.  It looks as if the weekend will be uneventful but, following a large reception at the home of the island’s wealthiest resident, a body is discovered and an investigation ensues.  Who could have committed this murder, and why?  There are plenty of suspects and plenty of reasons to want this person dead, and what follows is a clever mystery worthy of Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I finished this book in a day and a half, and found it to be an easy read, a cozy mystery that really demonstrated Horowitz’s amazing skill with language. 

I also read a Forest of Reading Red Maple nominee, Birdspell by Valerie Sherrard.  This novel tells the story of middle-school student Corbin Hayes, who has been dealing with his mother’s mental illness on his own for as long as he can remember.  When a classmate at his latest school tells him that she needs to rehouse her pet parrot, Corbin jumps at the chance to have the one thing he’s missed out on his whole life - a friend, someone he can talk to, something that is consistent in his life.  Things seem to be coming together for him, but then they take a turn for the worst and begin to spiral out of control.  Will Corbin be able to manage this on his own, and if so, at what cost?  This was a really interesting book, an easy read that dealt with a difficult topic with sensitivity and compassion in a way that children could understand and relate to.  I’m really glad I read this and will definitely promote it to my students.

And I read a thriller by Joshilyn Jackson, Mother May I, that was pretty unputdownable.  Bree and her husband Trey seem to have it all, a happy marriage, financial security, two lovely teenaged daughters and a newborn “surprise” son, Robert.  Bree wakes one night and thinks she sees a witch peeking in through her curtains, but she puts this down to her hormones and her upbringing steeped in her mother’s paranoia.  When she thinks she catches a glimpse of the same woman in the parking lot of the school later that day, she really begins to question her own perceptions.  Then the unthinkable happens:  her son is abducted and she must follow the directions of this vile woman if she ever wants to see him again.  What follows is a murder, an impossible bargain, and an exploration into how far a mother might go to save her child.  This novel was a real page-turner, offering snippets of Trey’s past and one woman’s thirst for revenge.  It had a complex plot and moved along at a good pace, unfolding slowly and revealing just enough information at any one time to keep me reading.  If Jackson’s books didn’t rely so heavily on the themes of marriage and motherhood, I would probably read more of them, but I found it to be too much in this book and just skimmed those sections.  Still, it was an intense read and I could certainly recommend this to anyone who enjoys a well-plotted, complex thriller with a satisfying end.

OK, to wrap up 2021, I’ve read 58 books and listened to 29 audiobooks last year. Here are my favourites:

Best Adult books:

The Benjamenta College of Art by Alan Reed Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng When She was Good by Michael Robotham This Fallen Prey/Stranger in Town by Kelley Amrstrong (two “Rockton” books) Downfall by Robert Rotenberg The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz Version Zero by David Yoon Matters of Hart by Marianne Ackerman Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout When You are Mine by Michael Robotham Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller Christmas Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella The Nazi Officer’s Wife: how one Jewish woman survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn-Beer (NF) The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting:  Wannsee and the Final Solution by Mark Roseman (NF)

Best Children’s and Young Adult books:

Pretend She’s Here by Luanne Rice (YA)  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (YA) The Agony of Bun O’Keefe by Heather Smith (YA) Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (YA) Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix (JUV)

Best Audiobooks:

The Huntress by Kate Quinn A Darkness Absolute by Kelley Armstrong *The Witch Elm by Tana French (on a previous “best-of” list) A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre (NF) Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown The Broken Girls by Simone St James A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki We Were Liars by E Lockhart (YA) The Gown by Jennifer Robson Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell

WOW, looking at these lists, I see that more than a third of the books and audiobooks from last year deserved to be highlighted. That's great news and must mean that I've been selecting my reading material with a discerning eye (or ear!).

That’s all for today.  Have a Happy New Year!  I hope 2022 is filled with plenty of steaming cups of tea and lots of books that are unputdownable!

Bye for now…

Saturday, 25 December 2021

First ever Christmas Day post...

I think this is the first time I’ve ever posted on Christmas Day, likely because in past years I’ve always been busy getting ready to spend time with family out of town.  But this year, I’m staying home while my husband goes on a solo visit to his parents’ place.  Since it is still foggy outside, I thought I should take a break from reading the new Anthony Horowitz mystery and make time to write before the weather clears and I can go for a long walk.  

Last week I was excited to get a copy of Michael Robotham’s latest book from the library.  When You Are Mine is a standalone psychological thriller that explores domestic abuse, toxic friendships, police corruption and organized crime.  Philomena McCarthy, a young detective constable with the London Metropolitan Police, seems to have it all.  She and the love of her life, Henry, have recently bought a house and are soon to be married.  She faces her share of struggles on the job, being a woman in a predominantly male profession, but she’s settling in and has found a few allies.  She also seems to have been successful in hiding her relationship with her estranged father, Edward McCarthy,  a notorious London gangster-turned-shady property developer.  When Phil and her partner Nish respond to a domestic call, they find themselves attempting to rescue Tempe Brown from her abuser, but Tempe insists that everything is fine.  Against advice to let it go, Phil pursues this case, even after being warned off because the abuser is Darren Goodall, a decorated high-ranking police officer who is hailed as a hero for saving lives in a knife attack.  Phil makes it her mission to go after Goodall and save Tempe, but of course things can’t end well and the situation spirals out of control.  Tempe becomes fixated on Phil, taking over her life and upcoming wedding and alienating her from her friends and from Henry.  A reporter is murdered, Goodall’s wife and children are threatened, and Phil is faced with a series of menacing occurrences.  Henry wants her to leave things alone, but Phil persists, and reluctantly calls on her father for help.  I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll stop here.  I’ll say that this book took me a bit to get into, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down, and spent much of the past week reading.  It wasn’t quite as good as When She Was Good, which I think was my favourite Robotham book after his debut, The Suspect, but it was very complex, the characters were fully developed, there were multiple interesting and intertwining plots, and the main storyline dealing with domestic abuse was handled with knowledge and sensitivity.  I read the author’s note at the end, in which he talked about this issue, so this book was written with purpose and compassion.  I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers or British mysteries.  I also think that anyone who enjoys novels with unreliable narrators or books about obsessive relationships would enjoy it.

That’s all for today.  I hope you have a Very Merry Christmas!

Bye for now…

Monday, 20 December 2021

Post on a Monday afternoon...

I’m off work for two weeks over the holidays, so my schedule is a bit messed up.  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and what remains of my delicious Date Bar (I ate half yesterday) to keep me company as I tell you briefly about the three (yes, three!) books I read last week.

The first book I read was No Vacancy by Tziporah Cohen. This middle grade novel is a Forest of Reading Silver Birch nominee, and it was a super-quick read.  Eleven-year-old Miriam Brockman moves with her family from Manhattan to the tiny town of Greenvale, where her parents have purchased a roadside motel, the Jewel Motor Inn.  Her father’s job was downsized and her parents decided that this would be a good way to live cheaply and save money for a few years until they can move back to New York.  There are plenty of things that need fixing up around the motel, and between helping her parents and looking after her two-year-old brother, she doesn't get to have much fun.  Miriam, who is Jewish, eventually makes friends with Kate, the grand-daughter of the couple who run the diner next to the motel.  Kate is Catholic, and in a small town, these religious differences can mean a lot, so Miriam doesn’t share her details with her new friends.  The motel is not doing well, and Miriam, despite missing her old friend and her old life back in New York, doesn’t really want to leave Kate and her grandparents, whom she has been helping with jobs around the diner and has come to care about.  When, by chance, Kate and Miriam come up with an outrageous but brilliant plan to put Greenvale on the map as a tourist destination, their actions call into question whether, in some cases, the end justifies the means, and what role faith plays in some people’s lives.  This book also explores anti-Semitism and racism in our society today, as well as the ways in which we can all work together to build a richer community.  This book was really interesting, as I know almost nothing about the Jewish faith, so it served as a small window into that culture and religion.  It was a quick read, but a good one, and I think many of my students will enjoy it.

Then I read Paula Hawkins’ (The Girl on the Train) latest book, A Slow Burning Fire, which was also a quick read, but only because I couldn’t put it down!  I didn’t love The Girl on the Train, and wasn’t expecting to get sucked into this book, which is why it came as such an unexpected and delightful surprise to find that I just wanted to keep reading every chance I could.  Middle-aged busy-body Miriam goes over to the houseboat moored next to hers to let Daniel, the temporary tenant, know that he’s overstayed his tenancy, only to discover that he has been stabbed to death.  She calls the police and what follows is an investigation into the murder.  Laura is a young woman who may have been the last person to see Daniel alive, aside from his killer, and certainly the last person he’d slept with.  She was seen leaving the houseboat after an altercation on the morning of the murder, and she had blood on her, but that doesn’t make her guilty… or does it?  She’s not the only suspect being considered.  Daniel’s mother, Angela, has been dead for nearly two months, but had been estranged from her sister Carla for more than a decade, ever since Carla’s two-year-old son, Ben, fell to his death under suspicious circumstances on Angela’s watch.  Was it truly an accident, or was Angela or Daniel at fault?  Carla’s husband, Theo, has never forgiven Angela for the death of his son, but was he angry enough to kill Daniel?  And if so, why now?  An onlooker, Irene, Angela's elderly neighbour and recent friend of Laura’s, sees all and begins to piece together the connections between and within these relationships (she’s a bit of a Miss Marple), but will she figure out the truth in time to prevent the wrong person from going to prison?  There are many other crimes in this novel that make up the characters’ backstories, and it was a bit confusing (and not at all believable!), but I found that I really enjoyed it.  It was definitely a “Canadian Tire” book, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need.  

And I finished up this weekend by reading a “Lee Valley” book, Why Birds Sing, by Canadian author Nina Berkhout.  After an onstage catastrophe that stalls her career, thirty-something opera singer Dawn Woodward retreats to her home in Ottawa to heal her injured vocal chords and soothe her wounded pride.  As part of her contract, she is obligated to teach a class at the community college while recuperating.  It is her bad luck to be assigned to a whistling class, something she refuses to take seriously - she can’t even whistle!  She decides that it may be time to start trying for a baby, something she and her husband, Ashfar, have put off in pursuit of their careers.  When Ash tells her that his brother, Tariq, a man she hardly knows, is coming to live with them, her response is frosty, even when she discovers that he has cancer.  Oh, and he’s not coming alone - he’ll be bringing his temperamental parrot, Tulip, with him.  She reluctantly prepares the downstairs for his arrival, and remains disengaged with him, his parrot, and the Warblers, her students in the whistling class, until Tariq and Tulip join the class.  Slowly Dawn begins to form connections with everyone. Accompanying Tariq when he goes for treatments, looking after Tulip when he is away, and trying to organize a performance for the Warblers takes up most of her time, since Ash is away so much, but she must also make time for her mother-in-law, Mina, whom she can never please.  As Tariq’a health declines, her marriage shows signs of trouble and she considers returning to the stage, she is forced to think deeply about what is truly important and how to go about finding it.  This book was also a page-turner, but not in the fast-paced way that Hawkins’ book was, but rather in the “I care about these characters and want to know what happens to them next” kind of way.  It is a short novel that seems longer, a book that asks readers to consider how we determine what is important and whether success is always enough to give our lives meaning.

That’s all for today.  Have a safe and happy holiday!


Bye for now…

Sunday, 12 December 2021

Short post on a bright December afternoon...

It’s mid-afternoon on a lovely, mild day, with the sun shining and the squirrels racing and chittering through the bare tree branches.  Thankfully it’s not too mild to enjoy a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, as well as a slice of freshly baked Date Bread… mmm!  (I just got back from a long walk, so I’ve earned it!)

I was in a book bind last week, as I didn’t want to read the one library book I had checked out and I just didn’t know what I wanted to read next.  So I pulled Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery off my shelf and plunged right in.  This amusing novel takes readers through the gastronomic history of a famous French food critic who, on his deathbed, is trying to determine the identity of that single elusive taste for which he longs but which always slips from his grasp.  Pierre Arthens has made many chefs and restaurants famous and brought many to ruin with his acerbic commentary, both on the job and with his family.  As he lay dying, he searches through his memories, highlighting various points in his life when food played a significant role, hoping to figure out what he’s longing for.  In alternating chapters, we read stories told by various people (and pets!) in Arthens’ life.  Some loved him, some despised him, some felt a kinship with him, and others have more complicated relationships with this difficult, complex man.  Each chapter reveals more about him and the ways he affected those around him.  It was a short book that was both amusing and easy to read, and there were some really insightful moments, but overall, I was rather disappointed.  I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Barbery, and I guess I was expecting more of the same, since Arthens was one of the tenants in the building featured in The Elegance of the Hedgehog - in fact, one of the chapters in Gourmet Rhapsody is written by Renée, the concierge at this building, who is one of the two narrators in the earlier book.  But compared to the philosophical nature of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Gourmet Rhapsody was pretty lightweight.  It was well-written and easy to read, but I guess I was expecting something more akin to her earlier novel.  It was OK, but I will not likely read it again so I can remove it from my shelf and make room for other books.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sunshine and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday, 5 December 2021

First post for December...

It’s mid-afternoon on the first weekend of December, and I’m starting to feel all the stress that this season always brings.  Good thing I’m taking some time to enjoy a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar as I write this post.  I’ve even got a kitty on my lap (typing with one hand) and the fireplace channel on to help create a relaxing mood.

Yesterday my Volunteer Book Group met to discuss Christmas Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella.  I’ve never read any books in this series, figuring that they would be too “fluffy” for me, and they are... except sometimes you need a bit of fluff.  This book hit the spot after my last book about the Nazi officer’s wife, and while this is last in the series, I think you can read it without knowing what went on in the main character’s life previously.  Becky Brandon, née Bloomwood, is living in a cottage in the small British village of Leatherby with her husband Luke and daughter Minnie.  Her friend Suze lives nearby and has given Becky a job helping out at the gift shop at Suze’s stately home.  It’s Christmas, a season Becky loves.  But this year things are going to be a bit different.  Becky’s parents have offered their home in nearby Oxshott to her half-sister, Jess, who is coming back from mission work in Chile for a time, and they’ve rented an apartment in a trendy neighbourhood in London.  This means that Becky will have to host Christmas for the first time ever, and she is feeling more than a little panicked about it.  She wants it to be perfect for everyone, but there seems to be some tension between her parents and their best friends.  She also suspects that Jess is having marital problems but can’t pry any details out of her.  There's also the fact that Becky’s former boyfriend and hunky rock star just happens to show up at the gift shop asking for her.  And how will she ever find that perfect gift for Luke when he claims to only want aftershave?  This book was both hilarious and totally unbelievable.  Being a huge shopper myself, I could totally empathize with Becky, although she takes shopping to a whole other level!  There was a passage I love near the beginning of the book when she is talking about going to London to do her Christmas shopping and she talks about how much she’s missed it, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the whole shopping experience.  She says: ”I mean, I’ve shopped online, obviously.  But that’s a whole different activity.  In fact, they should invent a different word for it.  Online ordering isn’t really shopping, it’s “procuring”.  You procure stuff online.  But you don’t get the buzz of actually stepping into a shop and seeing all the gorgeous stuff, feeling it, stroking it, being seduced by it.”  (p 62-63).  Just yesterday I ordered a new winter coat online and I thought of these exact words.  I wasn’t “seduced” by this coat, I just ordered it out of necessity.  I, too, prefer to be seduced by all that retail stores have to offer.  My book group didn’t spend much time discussing the book, which brought home the very reason that we don’t read many light, fluffy books for book club - there isn’t much to talk about!  We all liked Becky’s spunkiness and ability to stay “up”, even when things look like they aren’t going to work out.  We liked her resourcefulness and her ability to create stories on the spot to cover her activities.  We enjoyed reading about her antics and agreed that this was much like those Christmas movies that are on tv so much over the holidays.  I’ll admit that I shed a tear or two at the emotional ending, and I thought Jess’ idea for environmentally conscious, ethical gifts was brilliant.  All in all, I think it was just the type of book we all needed at this point, and I think it also got us thinking about all the things we still have to do before the “big day”, but still with plenty of time to get everything done.  I’m curious to read the first book, and would be happy to read the others, just not too many in succession.  Maybe I’ll see if Confessions of a Shopaholic is available as an audiobook.  

That’s all for today.  Stay warm and have a wonderful Sunday afternoon!

Bye for now…