Sunday, 26 January 2020

Tea, treats, books, repeat...

Steaming chai tea, freshly baked Date Bread, a delicious date bar… what could be better to cheer the spirit on this rather crappy-weather weekend?
I wanted to say a couple of things about our book club discussion on Monday night.  There were five of us at the meeting, and exactly 50% of us had read the book; that is, two had finished, two had not read it, and I had read half the book.  I just thought that this was interesting. No one loved the book, and everyone found it incredibly difficult to read. One member who finished the book said that it was more a history lesson than a novel; another said it was just one long rant.  The two who finished did not agree with the one comment written by a member of the Booker Prize judging panel who said Milkman is "enormously rewarding...if you persist with it”.  They felt it was an accomplishment to have finished it, but it would not be a book they would recommend… to anyone!  I am determined to finish it, but I need a break, so I’ve renewed my copy from the library and will go back to it later.     
I started reading The Nanny by Gilly Macmillan, which I thought would be totally engrossing, a real page-turner, but it didn’t grab me, so I picked up another older book by her, The Perfect Girl, which certainly proved to be both engrossing and a page-turner.  Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, I had less reading time last week than usual, so I haven’t finished it yet, and I have to set it aside for a bit because I have another book club meeting on Saturday and I have to read that selection, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.  I’ll tell you about that next week, but I started it yesterday and right from the first page I was reading through tears, as Enzo, the poor dog who is the narrator, is literally on his last legs and his owner must decide whether to prolong his dog’s life or make the most difficult decision a pet owner ever has to make.  I would never have picked this book, as I have a hard time reading books about pets (you know they always have to die, and it is heartbreaking), but it was recommended by one of my members so it ended up on the list. I’m sure it will be an interesting read, and not every page will be heartbreaking, but I’m preparing myself by keeping a box of tissues close at hand during my reading hours.
I finished a good audiobook last week that I want to tell you about.  The Dry by Australian author Jane Harper,  is set in Kiewarra, a small farming town about a day’s drive from Melbourne.  There have been serious droughts for two years, and this community, among many others, have been feeling the strain.  As the novel opens, Aaron Falk has returned to the town for the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadler, who, days earlier, apparently killed his wife and son, then turned to gun on himself, leaving only baby daughter Charlotte alive.  While this is the scenario accepted by the investigators from Clyde, the bigger city nearby, who consider the case closed, Hadler’s parents can’t believe it and ask Aaron, an investigator in the Australian Federal Police in Melbourne, to look into Luke’s affairs, particularly the family finances, to see if there could be any explanation for this horrific, tragic event.  Aaron has been away from the town for the past eighteen years, ever since he and his father were driven out by accusations that Aaron or his father were involved in the drowning death of another teen. The only reason he’s back for the funeral is that he received a note from Luke’s father: “You lied. Luke lied. Be at the funeral.” What follows is an investigation into the deaths of Luke and his family, but Harper also intersperses scenes from the years when Aaron was growing up, his friendships, his first love, his friend's drowning, and the impact his alienation and subsequent departure had on him.  It is the first in the “Aaron Falk” series, and, knowing nothing about this author, I thought she was a seasoned writer, but I just found out that this is her debut novel. WOW! What a complex mystery, where nothing is as it seems, and no fact or observation is included unnecessarily. The narrator, too, did an awesome job, and I’ve just placed the second audiobook on hold. I would highly recommend this to anyone, and I’m sure that it would be interesting to read as well as listen to.
That’s all for today.  I’ll try to get out for a bit of a walk, but it’s supposed to be quite slippery today, so I’ll have to be careful.
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 19 January 2020

"Same old, same old" on another snowy morning...

After my experimentation last weekend, I’ve decided that the best tea and treat for blogging are my usual steeped chai tea and a delicious date bar, so that is what I’m treating myself to today (pun totally intended!).
I have been struggling to get through the very dense prose of Anna Burns’ Man Booker-prize-winning novel Milkman, but unfortunately I’ve only read half so far and my Friends’ book club meets tomorrow night.  The dilemma I had yesterday, after picking up three bestselling novels that were on hold for me at the library, was whether it was worth continuing my struggle, knowing that I would never finish in time, or give myself a break and read one of these others that are due back in three weeks and are surely on hold for other library patrons.  What I decided was to read yesterday as far as I could get, then pick up a new book today, and with that pressure off, the time I spent reading yesterday was so much more enjoyable. Burns is the first Irish novelist to win the Man Booker Prize, and we decided on this novel last time our group met just as a last-minute selection - none of us knew anything about it.  Told from the point of view of our eighteen-year-old female narrator, known only as middle sister, this novel is set in an unnamed city in the 1970s, where walking-and-reading, watching sunsets, and attending French classes are considered potentially subversive. When she begins to be pursued by a forty-two-year-old paramilitary known only as Milkman, rumours abound: is she having an affair with him?  (disgusting); is she joining the renouncers?; or the defenders-of-the-state?; is she being influenced by political ideas from “the other side”, “over the water”, “that side of the road”, or “over the border”? She tries to stay under everyone’s radar and carry on walking-and-reading, and having a maybe-relationship with maybe-boyfriend, but due to her new association with Milkman (who isn’t a real milkman), she is sucked into the political problems of the state and must make choices that will affect her life and the lives of those around her.  At first I thought this was a dystopian novel, based on the namelessness of everything, but then I realized that it was, in fact, based on the political troubles in Northern Ireland in the ‘70s, and one woman’s attempts to navigate through the murky waters of the ever-changing, volatile rules and expectations which, if ignored or spurned, could have disastrous results. This is definitely a Lee Valley book, as it relies heavily on the author’s phenomenal use of language to create a richly detailed scenario and, by drawing the reader fully into the environment, we, along with middle sister, experience the frightfulness and uncertainty of everyday actions and activities.  It is a brilliant novel, but it is not an easy read. Every word and (sometimes very long) sentence needs to not only be savoured, but the meaning of which often needs to be decrypted. It is also filled with wry humour, which serves to alleviate the novel’s dismal atmosphere, demonstrating, too, the hopefulness that exists within the narrator despite the obstacles thrown in her path at every turn. It is a book I want to finish at some point, but I will stop now and read my other books, since they are in high demand. I can’t wait to hear what my friends say at the meeting tomorrow night.
And I finished an audiobook last week that I want to briefly mention here.  Bunny by Mona Awad, tells the story of Samantha Mackie, an outsider in the MFA program at her exclusive college, where she is able to attend only because of a scholarship.  The others in her fiction-writing course she calls Bunnies, because that is what they call each other: four young women who refer to each other as Bunny, as in “Hi, Bunny!”  What did you do this weekend, Bunny?” “Well, you already know, Bunny, because I was with you, Bunny!”. Samantha and her friend Ava, who does not go to Warren College, hang out, drink on the roof of Ava’s house, rant about the bunnies, and take tango lessons.  But when Samantha is invited into the Bunnies’ inner circle, she quickly falls down, down, down the rabbit hole of brainwashing that is the trademark of cult indoctrination. This novel, which I think is geared more towards what is now termed “new adults”, those in their early twenties, was not one I would have read as a print book, but the narrator did such a fabulous job that I stuck with it even as my patience ran thin.  It had such potential, a dark, grisly blend of the most macabre Grimms’ fairytales with twee Disney princesses, this criticism of elite academia could have been brilliant, but it just tried too hard to be everything. It was not the worst listening experience I’ve ever had, and it’s been fairly well-reviewed, so you could do worse if you’re looking for a satirical, fairytale-ish novel.
That’s all for today.  Time to put on my tall boots and get outside for a walk in the snow.

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Different tea and treats, same type of post, on a bright snowy morning...

I’m trying a new organic chai assam black tea this morning, which is a finer loose tea than I normally use, so bits of the tea have managed to get into my cup.  But it is so yummy that it’s worth it! And I have a different treat, too, a Blueberry Lemon Scone from Future Bakery. The weather was so rainy and unpleasant yesterday that I wanted to reduce the number of places we had to go for errands, so I got this at the market, since we were already there for other things.  It’s good, but I normally get their Vanilla Scone when I choose to buy from Future Bakery, and I've discovered that I prefer Vanilla to Blueberry Lemon... but nothing beats my usual Date Bar.  
I was in a book rut at the beginning of last week, and tried three different books before finally settling on a Young Adult book that I brought home from work on Wednesday.  Word Nerd by Canadian children’s author Susin Nielsen is a coming-of-age story set in Vancouver.  Ambrose is a twelve-year-old who has moved around alot with his mother, Irene. His father died before he was born, so it’s been just the two of them for his whole life.  Irene has a PhD in English and has worked as a sessional instructor at various universities. She keeps hoping that one of them will hire her on full-time, but that goal keeps eluding her and so she packs everything up, including her son, and moves on.  After stints in Edmonton, Calgary and Regina, they settle in Vancouver, where she finds work at UBC. Ambrose is not your average kid. He has a severe peanut allergy, he’s a bit socially awkward, and his fashion sense is rather, um, unique. At his new school, three boys bully him so badly that his mother decides to pull him out of school and homeschool/correspondence-school him for the remainder of the year. So she stays home with him all day and teaches courses every night while he is expected to stay home by himself and watch their one TV channel to amuse himself. When he befriends Cosmo, the unemployed ex-con son of the Greek couple who own the house from whom they are renting the basement, his life changes miraculously, particularly when he discovers that Cosmo also loves to play Scrabble. This change is mostly for the better, except that he must keep this friendship a secret from his mother, who does not approve of Cosmo - did I mention that she is VERY protective? How long Ambrose can keep this other life hidden, and what will happen when his mother finds out, are the driving forces behind this humourous, gentle novel that addresses themes of parenthood, growing up, fitting in and finding a place to belong. I have read one other book by this author and will definitely add more of her books to my collection. I think she is easily as talented a Canadian children’s author as Eric Walters, although perhaps lesser known, at least here in Ontario, so I will try to promote her books a bit more at my school.
Oh, the sun’s just come out, so I think it’s time to close for today and get outside.  After a day of dark skies and relentless rain yesterday, I will definitely enjoy this sunny, snowy treat!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 5 January 2020

First post for the new year...

I’m sitting here with a steaming cup of chai and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread and I’m feeling a bit sluggish with all the time off I’ve had recently.  I know I need to gear myself up to return to work tomorrow, but I’m feeling less-than-motivated. Maybe after I blog, I will feel like I’ve accomplished something and will be more inspired to get on with my day.
My Volunteer Book Club met yesterday to discuss Canadian writer Lynne Kutsukake’s debut novel, The Translation of Love.  This novel is set in Tokyo in 1947, and explores the lives of several Japanese characters as they try to create a new life after the end of World War II.  General MacArthur is there, bringing democracy to the people of Japan, and we the readers are treated to an inside look at how the Japanese people responded to this occupation/partnership with the Americans.  Aya Shimimoto is a twelve-year-old girl who has returned to Japan with her elderly father after being rounded up and put into an internment camp somewhere near the BC-Alberta border. The people in this camp had to make a choice:  return to Japan or relocate to another part of Canada. They were not allowed to move back to their homes on the West Coast. Aya’s Japanese is not very good, and she has trouble fitting in and forming friendships with the other students in her class.  Fumi is Aya’s seatmate, but she is not happy about it. She does not want to make friends with this shy, silent new girl, and resists at every turn. She is most interested in finding her sister Sumiko, ten years older than Fumi, who has recently left home to become a “bar girl”, a young woman who works at a dance hall and earns her keep by dancing with American GIs.  Sumiko used to visit quite regularly, but Fumi realizes that she has not seen her sister in quite a long time, and is determined to find out where she is, although we’re not sure if she just wants to visit or to persuade her to come home. Kondo is a teacher at these girls’ school, and he takes great interest in his students. He also moonlights at a stall in Love Letter Alley, offering to translate letters Japanese women have received from American soldiers, or to write letters to these soldiers in English from Japanese girlfriends.  Matt is a Japanese-American soldier who works at General MacArthur’s headquarters translating all the many letters the Japanese people are writing to him. Some letters are ones expressing praise and good wishes, but most are requests for more food, help finding a relative, or a desire to return to a home that no longer exists. These characters’ lives are explored in alternating chapters. Although it is just over 300 pages long, it seemed to take me forever to finish this novel, probably because I had a hard time feeling engaged in the stories until the last third of the book, when these stories and characters’ lives finally intertwined and something started to happen.  I was happy to hear that this was a unanimous reaction to the novel: we all thought it was interesting, but that it took too long for anything to happen, that it often felt like the stories and plotlines were meandering with no clear direction. Having said that, we all agreed that were were happy to have read it, that we learned alot about Japanese culture and about the experiences of the Japanese people at the time of the American Occupation in the mid- to late-1940s. One woman’s family emigrated to Canada from Holland during WWII and she commented that people may think that things are easier once a war is over but that really it is a mess for a long time until things get back to normal.  We commented that this was information about a little-known period in history, and one member said that it was just one more thing to make her feel disappointed in the Canadian government (*in 1988, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made a formal apology and offered compensation to surviving internees: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Canadians). We talked about the title of the book, and discussed whether we thought it was a good choice, and to what aspects of the book it might refer. All in all, while not the most popular book selection, it sparked an interesting, lively discussion that kept us going until we were asked to wrap up so that the next group at the community centre could use the room.
That’s all for today.  Happy New Year, and may 2020 be like the vision, clear and perfect.
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Last post for the year...

It’s the last Sunday of 2019 and I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious date bar as I think about the books I read last week and review the past year in books.
I read two books that I purchased for my school library.  Both were Ontario Library Association Forest of Reading nominees.  The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel is the first in the “Order of Black Hollow Lane” series and is nominated for the Silver Birch Award (grades 3-6).   This novel begins with Emmy being torn away from her Connecticut home and shipped off to Wellesworth, a boarding school in England, so that her child psychologist mother can step up her career from author to television series host.  Emmy’s father disappeared on her third birthday and she knows nothing about him, but still, nine years later, she can’t help wondering who he was and why he left. Never one for making close friends, Emmy is surprised when she arrives at her new school to find herself taken in by Jack and Lola, who offer to help her navigate the strange world of English boarding schools.  Before leaving her home, Emmy received a strange letter that may be a clue about her father, and it led to the discovery of a box of medallions hidden in the wall of the attic, which she takes with her to her new home. There she struggles to meet the rigorous academic challenges of Wellesworth while also searching for additional information about her missing father.  What she and her friends discover is a secret society that dates back to before the school was opened, and Emmy must decide if she is willing to risk her own safety and the safety of her new friends to uncover the truth about this society and find out whether her father is somehow connected to it. This was a quick read, a mystery that revealed clues about the secret society while also focusing on the themes of friendship and the struggles of fitting in to a new environment.  It was a good read, and I just discovered that there is a second book in this series due out in March. I will have to put that one on order for my library, too. I think kids will really enjoy this fast-paced mystery.
And I also read The Unteachables by Gordon Korman, nominated for the Red Maple Award (grades 6-8).  This, too, was a quick read, and tells the story of Mr Zachary Kermit, once an outstanding teacher who, at 55, is counting down the days until the end of June, when he qualifies for early retirement from Greenwich Middle School.  When he gets to school on that first day in September, he is told by his principal that, due to a staffing change, he is being assigned to teach SCS-8, or “Self-Contained Special Eighth Grade class”, aka “the Unteachables”. Made up of a group of misfits and losers, this class is a dumping ground for students who don’t fit into the regular classes, those who are just tolerated until they graduate and become the high school’s problem.  This class is made up of seven students: Aldo (anger management issues), Elaine (rhymes with pain), farm boy Parker (dyslexic), Rahim (sleep-deprived artist), Barnstorm (injured jock) and Mateo (sees the world through fictional fantasy worlds). The seventh is Kiana, a “short-timer”, transplanted from LA for a couple of months to live with her father and "stepmonster" while her mother is away on a film shoot, and is not even officially registered with the school.  She ended up in this class accidentally, and never makes a move to leave, figuring she’d be gone before anyone notices that she’s not actually a student at Greenwich. Kermit, a once-rising star in the education system, had his career ruined years earlier by a scandal for which, more than two decades later, his superintendent has not forgiven him. After several weeks of not looking up from his crossword puzzle, an incident sparks Kermit to stand up for one of his students, even if it is only to get the student out of the class for the rest of the day.  This serves to rekindle the love of teaching he once had, and he goes on to become an inspiration to his students, who, it turns out, are not unteachable at all. This heartwarming novel, told from various points of view, is pure Korman, and while not entirely original, follows the formula he has perfected in previous books to produce a funny, inspiring read that is sure to appeal to many middle-school students.  
And now to review my year in books…  If I don’t finish the book I’m reading right now before January 1st, I will have read 55 books this past year and listened to 26 audiobooks.  That is less than last year, but I did go on two trips and host a large family bbq this summer, and I was sick for three weeks just recently, which could account for the lower number for both formats.  Here are my “Best of” lists (in chronological reading order):
Best Adult Books:
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelildes
Her One Mistake by Heidi Perks
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (made the list because I liked it so much better than To Kill a Mockingbird)
The Au Pair by Emma Rous
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan
HhHh by Laurent Binet
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
*Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie (on last year’s list)
*The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier (on a previous list of best audiobooks)
Best Children’s Books:
One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus (YA)
The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert (YA)
Refugee by Alan Gratz (YA)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (YA)
To Look a Nazi in the Eye by Kathy Kacer (YA)
Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan Wolff (YA)
Keep This to Yourself by Tom Ryan (YA)
Escape by Linwood Barclay (juv)
Sit by Deborah Ellis (juv)
The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch (juv)
Best Audiobooks:
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (YA)
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh
Give Me the Child by Melanie McGrath
Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan
Blackhouse by Peter May
See… last week I promised a longer, more comprehensive post, and I think I delivered this morning!  That’s all for today. Wishing everyone a Happy New Year, one that is filled with good friends, good experiences, and many good books!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Pre-Christmas post...

I’ve been baking up a storm of gluten-free gingerbread cookies this morning (from a mix, but made with beans!), so I’m feeling tired out and not really in the mood to blog, but I have too much to do in the next couple of days in preparation for Christmas to put it off for another day.  So, fortified with a delicious cup of steeped chai tea, a yummy date bar, and a few gingerbread cookies, I’m all set to write a quick post, with the promise of a more lengthy, well-written and comprehensive post next week.
After reading Big Brother, I was in the mood for a good mystery so I pulled a paperback off my shelf and began reading The Red Room by Nicci French.  I have listened to other mysteries by this British husband-and-wife writing team, and I remember that they were a bit quirky but pretty engaging, and this book lived up to my expectations.  Kit Quinn is a criminal psychologist who works with many unsavoury characters as part of her job. This novel opens with her interview of Michael Doll, a suspicious character who has been loitering outside a schoolyard.  During the interview, he attacks her and slashes her face with a broken coffee mug. Three months later, she is back on the job after recovering from her injuries, although she is still plagued by nightmares of being trapped in a red room (hence the title).  She is called in by the police to assess Doll in relation to the murder of a young woman near the canal. During her investigation, she considers other crimes that have recently been committed in and around the area and suspects that they may be linked. The detectives on the case don’t necessarily agree with her, and are not always supportive, and the remainder of the novel shifts between Quinn acting on her own and the police following her advice.  While this novel didn’t “wow” me, the plot, characters, and conclusion were complex and satisfying enough to keep me reading to the very last page.  
Now I have a dilemma.  I am not interested in reading the book I have from the library, so I have to find something else to keep me busy over the holidays.  I’m not sure what kind of reading mood I’m in, but I want to pick something soon so I don’t waste too much of the glorious reading time I have, since I am off work for the next two weeks.
That’s all for today.  Have a Merry Christmas!  I hope you all get at least one good book as a gift!
Bye for now…
Julie

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Long-overdue post...

This will be a short post; actually I'll be reusing a post from November 2014, as I've been knocked out with chicken pox these past three weeks, and have had no energy to read or post until very recently.

I read Big Brother by Lionel Shriver this week, and it was as good as I remember it being from past readings.  Here is what I said about it last time:
This novel follows successful Iowa entrepreneur Pandora Halfdanarson as she tries to deal with the extended visit of her brother Edison Appaloosa, a washed-up New York jazz pianist who never quite made it big.  Pandora’s current family is made up of husband Fletcher, a specialty furniture maker who has filled the basement with unsold pieces, teen-aged stepson Tanner, who hates school and wants to quit in order to write screenplays, and stepdaughter Cody, a shy girl who wants to please everyone.  When Edison shows up at the Iowa airport, Pandora doesn’t recognize the morbidly obese man being pushed along in a wheelchair by airline staff as her brother, a man she has idolized all her life, remembering him as cool, slick, and attractive.  Four years later, he has become an object of public ridicule and Pandora is put in a position that threatens her own family as she must decide how to help her brother before it is too late and he eats himself to death...  This book is about relationships, and how we deal with those we love; it is about responsibility, and how we offer support to them, while also taking responsibility for ourselves.  It is also about dealing with those we do not love, but whose presence in our lives we cannot truly escape.  It is about mid-life crisis, and realizing that this is “as good as it gets”.  We discussed Fletcher, his obsession with cycling and fitness, and determined that, at age 47, he was doing exactly what any other man of that age would do; in fact several of our husbands were doing these same things, though not to the lengths Fletcher was taking them...  (My book group) also talked about the way Shriver describes society’s values, and how we make snap judgments of others based on first appearances, particularly regarding weight.  When Pandora first weighs herself before they start their liquid diet, she responds with amazement and denial.  Shriver writes:  “(T)he weigh-in was now subject to the most ruthless of interpretations.  I believed – and could not understand why I believed this, since I didn’t believe it – that the number on the dial was a verdict on my very character.  It appraised whether I was strong, whether I was self-possessed, whether I was someone anyone else would conceivably wish to be” (p. 230).  Due to her successful business, Baby Monotonous, Pandora is often asked to give interviews and pose for photo shoots, something she grudgingly endures.  These experiences incite her to consider herself as someone others see, making the reader, too, consider this.  How often do we look in the mirror every day, but not really see ourselves as others would see us?  I think it is healthy to get on with life without obsessing about how we look to others, but I suppose it is also good to take a step back and get outside ourselves sometime and assess who and what we are to other people.  Oh boy, there are soooo many things in this book to discuss, but I must stop now or I’ll be at the computer all day...  In closing, Shriver’s brutal honesty will make readers look inward and explore their own character while hoping for the best for Pandora, Edison, Fletcher, and the other characters who populate the pages of this outstanding, thought-provoking novel. 

This is an accurate description of my reading experience this time around as well, and I would highly recommend this book to any reader.

That's all for today.  Stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now...
Julie