Sunday, 21 February 2021

I read banned books…

I couldn’t resist that title for today’s post, as this is the first day of Freedom to Read Week, an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (https://www.freedomtoread.ca/).  I have a button at work that I will wear this week that says “I read banned books”, I’ve been using my Banned Books mug all month, and I’m considering reading a banned or challenged book this week, although I just picked up two books from the library that I’m also interested in reading...  

I just went to look at my bookshelves to see if I had any books that have been banned or challenged that I might be interested in reading, and I found a copy of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, a Young Adult novel that was released as a Netflix series in 2017.  It was challenged after the release of the series, which is supposedly more graphic than the book, and banned at an elementary school in Florida (https://bannedbooksweek.org/banned-spotlight-thirteen-reasons-why/).  I know that at my school, we were made aware of the series and were given training on identifying mental health issues in children and teens.  I’d forgotten that I had a copy, so hopefully it will be an interesting read that I can tell you about next week.  

Last week I read a short children’s novel that my grade 5/6 book club is reading at school.  They were all so far ahead of me that I decided to bring it home and finish it so I could lead an informed discussion at our next meeting.  Among the Hidden, the first book in the “Shadow Children” series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, is told from the point of view of Luke Garner, a twelve-year-old boy living on a farm with his two older brothers, Matthew and Mark.  At the start of the novel, the woods beyond the family farm are being cut down in order to build houses for elite government officials, and this changes Luke’s life irreparably.  You see, Luke is a third child in a world where families are only allowed to have two children.  The government, fearing overpopulation and food shortage, have instigated laws in order to control population growth, laws that are enforced by the Population Police, whose sole purpose is to find these thirds and/or fourths and have them and possibly their families punished or even killed.  Now that the woods are gone, Luke has no protection against the prying eyes of the neighbours or the Population Police, so he must stay not just inside but also hidden for fear of discovery.  One day, while taking a chance peek outside, he sees a face in a window where there should be no one home.  He discovers that another third lives in a neighbouring house, and risks everything to make contact with her.  Jen is the third daughter of a government official, but unlike Luke, she refuses to follow the rules.  She would rather fight for the right to be recognized and to live freely than stay hidden.  As their friendship grows, Jen tries to convince Luke to sneak out to attend a rally of hidden children in front of the President’s house, a move that could change their lives forever.  This was a really interesting dystopian novel that certainly left me wanting more, so I may read the next in the series, Among the Imposters, just to find out what happens next.  It was an easy read with an interesting plot, just the type of book I enjoy.  It reminded me very much of The Giver by Lois Lowry, but with a less detailed and complex plot.  I think Among the Hidden could be read by younger kids, while The Giver, another banned or challenged book, is definitely meant for older children.  

That’s all I’ve got for you today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but bundle up because it’s cold out there.  Oh, and don’t forget to pick up a banned or challenged book!

Bye for now…
Julie

PS Thanks to my friend for continuing to make this blog possible - you know who you are! :-)

Monday, 15 February 2021

Post on a holiday Monday morning...

It’s a long weekend, and I’ve been using this extra morning to do a rigorous main-level cleaning… whew!  I’ve earned this cup of chai and delicious Date Bar today!  

I read the third book in the “Rockton” series by Kelley Armstrong, This Fallen Prey, and wow, it was a page-turner.  I got interested in this series when I listened to the fifth book, Alone in the Wild, as an audiobook a couple of years ago, and I was so impressed that I took the first book out of the library.  City of the Lost provided all the details and backstories I needed to understand subsequent books, but I think they get better the further you read into the series.  All of the books are set in the town of Rockton, located in a remote northern region of the Yukon, but you won’t find it on any map; this off-the-grid town is populated by about 200 people, all adults, who are fleeing something, a murderous ex-lover, or a gang out for blood.  But not all residents are innocent victims; some are fleeing the law or retribution for crimes committed in their past lives, details concealed by the council and provided only on a need-to-know basis.  Homicide detective Casey Butler ended up in Rockton initially to help her friend who was fleeing an abusive ex-boyfriend, but she has demons of her own that would be better left un-faced.  There she meets Sheriff Eric Dalton and Deputy Will Anders, along with the motley crew that make up the town, and she struggles to accept the fact that no one is who they say they are, so no one can be trusted and nothing is really as it seems.  Still, she manages to settle in and become comfortable enough to call this place “home”, at least for now, something she’s been unable to do for years.  In This Fallen Prey, Casey and Eric are out for a hike when they hear a plane landing at their tiny airstrip.  No one knows about this town, so it’s unlikely that someone stumbled across it accidentally, and neither of them were expecting any arrivals.  What they discover is that the council, who manage the town but whose members are all outsiders, has approved a short-term stay for Oliver Brady, a serial killer whose mega-wealthy stepfather wanted him out of the way for a while.  Rockton is not equipped to house, guard and care for this dangerous criminal, but they’re given no choice and must make the best of this bad situation.  When Brady escapes custody, it appears that he has an accomplice in Rockton… but who?  There are so many people who could benefit from helping him, but who would actually do it?  As the danger for the town and those living in the forest increases, Casey and Eric must ramp up their efforts to find him and his accomplice before more people die.  This book was unputdownable - I loved it!  The first two books were good, but this one was great, as was the fifth, so I’m really excited to listen to the fourth one in audio format as soon as I finish my current audiobook.  Part wild west story, part wilderness survival tale, and a big part murder mystery... Armstrong manages to blend all of these various genres in exciting and all-too-convincing ways that will make you, the reader, care deeply about some characters and want to find out more about others.  I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys complex mysteries, especially those that take place in unusual settings.

That’s all for today.  Happy Family Day!  Do something special with your family, even if yours is of the furry, four-legged variety!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Book club highlights on a snowy morning...

Winter has definitely arrived, and it looks like a fiercely shaken snow globe outside my windows this morning.  But I have a steaming cup of chai and a delicious date bar, as well as a small cup of steaming apple cider, to keep me warm and cozy as I write this week’s post.  Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, my kitty is fully recovered.

My Volunteer book club met virtually yesterday to discuss Beartown by Fredrik Backman, and it was a success.  The small forest town of Beartown is dying.  People are moving away, the factory is laying off more and more people, and the boys’ hockey teams have met with losses year after year.  You see, Beartown is a hockey town.  Hockey permeates every aspect of the town; it’s all anyone cares about, and now there is a rising star named Kevin who could put the town back on the map.  If the Juniors win the final against their biggest rival team in nearby Hed, Beartown could be chosen as the spot for the new hockey arena and training centre; maybe they will get the new conference centre that’s been promised for years; maybe they’ll even get a new shopping centre built, and new schools, and new families… well, it’s obvious that they are pinning all their hopes on this one team, and more specifically, this one player.  During a party at his house following the semi-final victory, Kevin rapes the GM’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Maya.  What can Maya do, knowing how strongly the town feels about Kevin and the team?  And what could be the fallout if she goes public with the accusation?  You’ll have to read the book to find out the answers to these questions and more!  This novel came to my attention while I was searching for a book to add to our list for Freedom to Read Week, which is scheduled for the last week of February this year (I'm using my Banned Books mug right now!).  I’d never heard of this book and wondered why it was banned or challenged.  Well, in 2018, this novel was banned by the North Carolina School District of Rockingham County.  A new English teacher chose this to be on the reading list for a grade 10 Advanced English course, and the school district voted to ban the book on the grounds that it was “vulgar” and “graphic”.  This issue with this decision was that the school district did not adhere to its own book challenge procedure (https://ncac.org/news/beartownnc).  There were four of us in the meeting yesterday: two listened to it as an audiobook and two of us read it in print.  One of the audio people found it difficult to follow, as there were so many characters to keep track of.  The other audio person loved it.  All of us thought it was too long and could have done with significant editing, but at least with the print copies, we could skim some of the less interesting parts.  The more we talked about it, though, the better we liked it.  The story was certainly interesting, with so many different themes to discuss:  the powerful men and nearly-invisible women;  family, community, team and loyalty;  the violence in hockey culture.  We all agreed that this book was not suitable for grade 10 students, but thought that it might be appropriate for grade 12  English students, or even, as one member suggested, for a course on Ethics or Social Justice.  We talked about our favourite characters (Ramona, Amat and Sune) and our favourite relationships (Maya and Ana, Benji and his sisters).  It was a long book that was overly repetitive, but the main theme of rape and its consequences is a story that needs to be told, and not just to adults, but to teens as well.  I would recommend this to anyone interested in novels about family and community, and you don’t need to know much about hockey to understand the story.  I’m going to wait awhile before requesting the sequel, Us Against You, from the library, but I will eventually read it.

That’s all for today.  Get outside, but bundle up… it’s cold out there!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Last post for January...

It’s hard to believe that January is already over.  Time certainly flies, even when you have nothing to do!  This will be a short post because I have a recovering kitty resting on my lap and I’m typing with one hand.

Last week I read a fabulous book by one of my favourite authors, When She was Good by Michael Robotham, the second in the “Cyrus Haven” series.  Rather than typing out my own summary of the plot, please check out the Kirkus review here:

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/michael-robotham/when-she-was-good-robotham/

I agree with this review.  I think this was even better than Good Girl, Bad Girl; it was so gripping, I managed to finish it in just three days.  I would highly recommend this to any reader who enjoys complex psychological thrillers.

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

Bye for now!
Julie  

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Tea and treats and haggis, oh my!

I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious date bar sitting on the table waiting to be enjoyed, but the real culinary highlight of the morning is the spicy, fragrant vegetarian haggis I made this morning to celebrate Robert Burns Day, which is tomorrow.  I like to have an excuse to make this delicious dish, which is so fussy and time-consuming, but oh so yummy! (sorry, no mashed neeps as a side!)  It also gives me an opportunity to reflect that I am not alone, that everyone experiences setbacks in life, regardless of how well he/she/they plan:

"But little Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be vain: The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go oft awry, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!"

Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Last week I read a Young Adult novel I purchased from my book fair, Pretend She’s Here by Luanne Rice.  Fifteen-year-old Emily Lonergan is still grieving the loss of her lifelong best friend Lizzie to cancer nearly a year ago.  When she spots Lizzie’s younger sister Chloe one day after school, she immediately goes over to talk to her, only mildly curious about why she and her parents are back in town, as they relocated shortly after Lizzie’s death.  She follows Chloe to the van where her parents are waiting and gets in willingly, thinking they are going to visit Lizzie's grave at the cemetery, and is shocked to discover that they instead drive straight out of town. It only takes a moment to realize that she’s been abducted by the Porters.  She is drugged and wakes up in a locked room in their new house, and is forced to pretend she’s Lizzie, calling Mrs Porter “mom” and attending school using Lizzie’s name, going along with the story that she’s been traveling in Europe to explain why she’s missed a year of school.  Mrs Porter keeps Emily/Lizzie from running simply by threatening to hurt her real family if she tries to escape.  How will Emily/Lizzie deal with this identity shift?  Can she meet the demands of Mrs Porter and keep her family safe?  Can she keep up the charade and fit in at school?  And how will she finally escape?  This was totally my kind of book, and I thought I’d fly through it, but it seemed to take me forever to finish it.  It was well-written and I can certainly see why it's been so popular with my intermediate girls.  I’m sure it will be in high demand again if/when we get back to in-person learning.  

That’s all I’ve got for you today.  I want to get outside and go for a long walk, then come back home and curl up with Michael Robotham’s newest book, When She Was Good… hmmm… I think this is a double-poetry weekend: There was a little girl, Who had a little curl, Right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, She was very, very good, But when she was bad, she was horrid.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Tea and treats on a snowy morning...

I’m looking forward to nibbling on a delicious Date Bar and a slice of Portuguese Yogurt Bread that a colleague brought to work on Friday, and of course sipping my steaming cup of chai, perfect to keep me warm on a chilly, snowy morning.  

Last week I read Daniil and Vanya, a debut novel by York University associate professor Marie-Hélène Larochelle.  Larochelle’s research focuses on violence in contemporary French literature, which led me to expect that she may explore this topic in her own work, originally published in French in 2017, and I was absolutely correct.  Emma and Gregory are a thirty-something couple living in Toronto who seem to have it all: a good relationship, a large house with an ample yard in a prestigious neighbourhood, and a successful design firm.  Following a traumatic failed pregnancy, Emma is inconsolable. She is determined never to have children, but her grief leads them to sign up with an international adoption agency.  When they get a call to say that there are Russian twins available for immediate adoption, they fly to St Petersburg to complete the process and start their new family.  Things are not, however, as easy or as straightforward as they were hoping, and when the boys demonstrate a lack of empathy, an inability to bond with anyone, a reluctance to speak, and a determination to live in their own little world of two, Gregory denies and Emma despairs.  We follow the twins from toddlers to teens and witness their increasingly perverse behaviour over these years until a final, sadly satisfying conclusion.  Imagine Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin times two, only much shorter and with less detail.  It was certainly unputdownable, and I really wanted to know what happened next, anticipating a “big reveal”, the kind of book that is like watching a train wreck through partially covered eyes.  It was less explicit than Shriver's novel, but still very effective, and it was interesting that Larochelle was able to depict the deterioration of Emma and Gregory, both as individuals and as a couple, parallel to the twins’ increasingly unusual relationship.  I'd read a review of this novel and was immediately interested in reading it, but when I picked it up from the library, I was disappointed to find that the cover design looked much like the blank covers of the advanced reader copies (ARCs) I often get from publishers or at the library conference I attend every year.  It was not enticing and I would never have picked it up from a display shelf based solely on the cover, but I was thrilled to find that I was immediately engaged in the story.  I was always on the lookout for signs that the marriage was not what it seemed, always looking for those hints, particularly about Emma, that were woven into the twins’ story.  It’s definitely not for everyone, the same as We Need to Talk About Kevin, but if you liked Shriver's novel and are interested in reading a dark, violent, slow-burning domestic thriller, this might be the book for you.

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

Bye for now… Julie

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Tea and treats on a grey winter morning...

It’s overcast but quite mild outside, and I’m planning to go for a long-ish walk once I finish this post.  I’m starting a bit late, as I was busy cooking and baking this morning, which also meant a lengthy clean-up, but now it’s done and I can settle down to a steaming cup of chai, a delicious Date Bar, and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread.  Mmmm… a deliciously "normal" way to begin yet another strange week...

My Volunteer Book Club had our first ever Zoom meeting yesterday, and I’d say it was a success, despite a challenging start.  We discussed Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I had listened to Ng's first book, Everything I Never Told You, and was somewhat disappointed, as I expected more from a novel that was so heavily promoted and so well-reviewed. This meant that I had middling expectations for this one, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself immediately gripped by the complex web of stories.  This novel takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990s, and follows the interactions of two families, the Richardsons and the Warrens, over the course of a year and a half.  The Richardsons are a well-to-do family who have lived in Shaker Heights, the first planned community in the US, for generations.  Mrs Richardson is a journalist for the local paper and Mr Richardson is a lawyer.  They have four teenaged children who are on the straight and narrow path to college and a wonderfully planned future of marriage and family, just like their parents.  Then single mother Mia Warren and her beautiful daughter Pearl move into the Richardsons’ vacant rental unit, a duplex that is designed to look like a single-family house, and things begin to go awry.  Mia is a photographer who has always relocated once one of her projects is completed.  But this time, she promised Pearl that they would stay, that this would be “home”.  Pearl is enchanted by the Richardsons, with all that they represent:  permanency, stability, wealth, goals and connections.  The Richardson kids, on the other hand, envy Pearl’s freedom and her close relationship with her mother.  Situations arise involving the teens and the parents, as well as other members of the community, until all hell breaks loose and the very foundations of Shaker Heights are shaken to the point of near-destruction.  I loved the book, almost from the very first page, but of the three other members at the meeting, one said she didn’t really get interested until about three-quarters of the way into the book, and another said she felt the same, but became interested near the half-way point.  Their main complaint was that too much of the story centred around the teens, which they found less interesting than the storylines involving the adults.  Those complex plots, though, gave us plenty to discuss.  We talked about wealth and status, family and friendships, motherhood and surrogacy, and which would be more important in raising a child, money or love.  One member said that this book was like getting a peek at what goes on behind closed doors: everything looks flawless on the outside, but once you open those doors, all the secrets and resentments, the personalities and pent-up feelings, come flying out and reveal themselves for all to see. One of my favourite lines, near the end of the book, is from Mia:  “Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance.  We all do things we regret now and then.  You just have to carry them with you.” (p 250).  I like to think we all deserve more than one chance, and that , by carrying these regrets around, we can learn to do better.  Once things get back to normal, whenever that is, I will look for this book in the used book stores, as I’m sure I’d love to read it again sometime. Although not everyone loved this book, we had an interesting, lively and engaging discussion, and I would recommend this as an excellent book club selection.

That’s all for today.  Get out and get some fresh air!

Bye for now… Julie