Monday 28 December 2015

Happy Holidays from Julie's Reading Corner...

It’s Monday, but it feels like Sunday, and I’m looking forward to yet another week off over the holidays.  Hope you had a Very Merry Christmas, and that Santa was good to you - and of course, I hope your gifts included books! I got a pair of awesome kitty mugs from our neighbour, so I am drinking my steaming tea from one of them this morning - mmmm!!!

I have many books and audiobooks to tell you about today, so I think my summaries will be brief.  The first book I read last week was We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen.  This book is one of the Ontario Library Association Forest of Reading nominees for the Red Maple Award (grades 7-8).  It is told from the point of view of two main characters in alternating chapters.  Stewart is a geeky, brilliant boy who scores high on the academic scale but low on the social one.  Ashley is hip, beautiful and popular, but not so smart academically.  When Stewart’s dad and Ashley’s mom decide to move in together, their worlds collide and it is a far cry from The Brady Bunch, where everyone gets along.  It doesn’t help that Stewart is still grieving for his mom, who passed away a few years before from cancer, or that Ashley’s parents split up because her dad is gay, something Ashley cannot share with anyone at school, not even her best friend Lauren.  Ashley is horrified to learn that this geek will be her “stepbrother”; her only consolation is that he goes to a school for gifted children on the other side of Vancouver.  But due to their relocation, Stewart decides to attend the regular high school, which means he will be in the same grade as Ashley and will be in some of her classes.  They must all, Stewart and Ashley, as well as his dad and her mom, learn to get along, and to realize that, while they have their differences, they are all made of molecules.  This hilarious, moving story was such a wonderful, insightful reading experience for me, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Stewart’s character reminded me of the main character in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher, who is also brilliant but is mildly autistic.  I don’t think Stewart is autistic, just “geeky”.  Ashley’s character, too, is hilarious but also insightful.  She is supposed to be “clueless”, but I sense that she is really alot smarter than people give her credit for.  The (hilarious!) names she calls Stewart, his friend Alistair, and Stewart’s cat, Schrodinger, demonstrate real creativity, and I suspect she is just confused and misunderstood.  This delightful read is sure to appeal not just to preteens and young adults, but to adults of any age.

I read another book this week, also set in Vancouver, but so totally different from the one mentioned above.  That Lonely Section of Hell by Lori Shenher tells the inside story of the botched Missing and Murdered Women investigation by the Vancouver Police Department, and the eventual arrest of serial killer Robert Pickton by the RCMP.  Shenher reveals the ways in which the investigation went wrong right from the very start:  from the 1998 tip about Pickton that went uninvestigated to the denial of adequate resources to run the investigation properly.  She describes the years she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder during and after working on this case, the frustrations, sexism and utter failure to follow up on leads that were provided right from the beginning.  I rarely read non-fiction, but I like watching murder mysteries, so I thought I would give this short book a try.  Well, it grabbed me right from the beginning and held my interest until the very last page.  I, like the author, felt the frustration of failure and I wanted to shout at the various police investigators, “Why aren’t you listening to what she is saying?!”  This book was clearly not exploitative, but was rather an honest, searing account of the investigation and her experiences during and after the investigation and trial;  there were few details about the murders, no photos inserted in the middle pages of the book, and it treated the women who were missing and murdered, and their families, with sensitivity and respect.  I learned so much about this case, and the ways in which investigations can go wrong, from this book that I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading police procedurals.  This kind of thing never happens in any of the books I’ve read, and some of the decisions they made and things they did were almost unbelievable - definitely “stranger than fiction”! It was fascinating, frustrating, compelling and shameful.

And speaking of police procedurals, I finished listening to The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin last week.  Rankin is most famous for his “Inspector Rebus” series - there is a new “Rebus” book that has recently come out, Even Dogs in the Wild, featuring Rebus as he comes out of retirement.  Well, I have enjoyed listening to a couple of books from his other series featuring Malcolm Fox, a police investigator working for the Lothian and Borders Police Department who has been working in the Complaints Department for a number of years.  This department is like Internal Affairs, which investigates allegations of corruption or misconduct within the police department itself.  I listened to The Complaints some time ago and enjoyed it, so my expectations were fairly high with this book, too, and it did not disappoint.  In The Impossible Dead, Fox and his team are called away to the Fife Constabulary as a disinterested third party to investigate members of their police department.  One of their officers, Paul Carter, has been found guilty of misconduct, and it is Fox’s job to determine whether fellow officers were complicit in this misconduct.  What seems like a straightforward investigation, albeit one where they face obstacles and resistance at every turn, becomes more complex and far-reaching as they dig deeper and uncover a web of secrecy, lies and corruption at all levels, possibly including prominent members of government.  Add to this the stress of an ailing father and a difficult relationship with his sister, and this reader could understand Fox’s need to immerse himself in the case and continue digging where others may have stopped and called it a day.  A complex plot, an interesting, believable protagonist, and a fabulous narrator (Peter Forbes) made this a totally enjoyable listening experience - and I love the Scottish accent, so that was a bonus!  I would highly recommend this as a good choice of audiobook if you like police procedurals.

And I read a book aloud to one of my grade 3-4 classes, The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, the first book in "The Series of Unfortunate Events”.  I read this book for myself a number of years ago, and remember enjoying it, so I chose this as a readaloud, and was delighted to find that the kids LOVED it!! We finished it the last day they visited the library before the Christmas Break, and they were enthralled to the very last page.  This book begins the journey of the Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, to create a new home and family after their parents perish in a fire, one that also destroys their entire home, a mansion that had a huge library and all of their worldly possessions.  They temporarily live with Mr Poe, a friend of their parents and a man who works at the bank and who will oversee their enormous fortune until Violet comes of age (she is just 14 years old at the time of the first book).  They are then sent to live with their closest relative (closest geographically), Count Olaf, who is a wholly despicable character, a nasty man who is only interested in getting his hands on their fortune, and he will do anything to achieve this end.  What follows are the various ways the children try to escape their fate, and the loathsome behaviour of Count Olaf and his group of friends.  This book was a fabulous readaloud, as it stretched and challenged the children’s knowledge and understanding of language and literary techniques.  They loved it, and I’m not sure that the next book I read to them will even come close to measuring up to the engagement and enjoyment we experienced with this one.  They wanted me to read the second book in the series, The Reptile Room, but I think they can take this out and read it on their own.  The next book I will read to them is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, which they may not enjoy as much, but I think they should have the opportunity to be exposed to this delightful novel.  By the way, I watched the movie, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, last night, and it was perfectly dreadful compared to the book!  It incorporated the first three books in the series (I think there are 13 in total), and I suppose, as a movie to entertain children, it was OK, but only if you had never read the book.  I only watched it because the teacher at the school had the kids watch the movie after we finished reading the first book, so I wanted to be able to talk about it with them when we get back to school.  So if you think this might be something you want to check out, please, please, please read the book!!

OK, that’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the holiday season - it will be back to the real world soon enough!

Bye for now…

Sunday 20 December 2015

Books and tea on a wintery morning...

On this chilly morning, I’m happy to have a steaming cup of tea (and a purring kitty on my lap!) to keep me warm as I think about the books I read recently.  We’ve had some snow, so it looks a bit seasonal, and to help put me in the holiday spirit, I’ve decided that this week, I will drink tea using my festive bright red snowman mug!  Hohoho!

(Before I begin my comments, I need to stress that the thoughts expressed here reflect my opinions and reading experieneces only.)

I read two disappointing books last week.  The first was Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell.  Her last novel,  completed before her sudden death in May of this year, tells the story of a young novelist, Carl Martin, who inherits his father’s house upon his death.  Carl’s father was a believer in alternative medicines, and the large cupboard in the bathroom of the house is filled with unusual capsules and vials.  After publishing a moderately successful first book, Death’s Door, Carl relies on the rent from the upper floor to be his sole form of income as he struggles to write a second novel.  His tenant, Dermot, is a strange, creepy, intensely religious man who works at a veterinary clinic nearby.  When Dermot witnesses Carl’s involvement in a friend’s death, he blackmails Carl and refuses to pay his rent.  Guilt and obsession creep insidiously into to Carl’s psyche as he slowly spirals out of control, despite the efforts of his girlfriend, Nicola.  His actions reflect his mental breakdown and he is unable to stop himself from “taking care of” additional threats and obstacles using violent means.  His deliverance, when it final arrives, takes a most unusual form.  I have read or listened to quite a few of Rendell’s books, both those in the “Inspector Wexford” series and her standalones, and have enjoyed them.  So when I stumbled across this book at the library, I thought that it would suit my mood right now - a good British mystery by a well-known and talented author.  But it was a huge disappointment for me.  I didn’t enjoy it right from the first page, but it was so “easy” to read that before I knew it, I was half finished, so I stuck with it and reached the end in just a few days. I thought the story lacked the complexity and depth I have come to expect from this author, and I didn’t really understand the purpose of the secondary plot, which seemed unnecessary and confusing.  And Carl’s character was not really believable or even likable - he seemed to be a pathetic spoiled young man who clearly could not take care of himself.  His character evoked in this reader the same feelings that the main character in Nino Ricci's novel, Sleep, did - both men spiral out of control and take different, though both violent, means to seek release.  I feel awful criticizing such a wonderful writer, so I’ll just say that this book, her 66th novel, did not appeal to me.

The second disappointing book I read last week was My Life Before Me by Norah McClintock.  This is the first book I’ve read in the “Secrets” series, a series comprised of seven books by seven different Canadian authors telling the stories of seven different young women who, after their orphanage burns down, are sent out into the world to make their own way, armed only with a single clue as to where they came from or who their parents are.  I’ve been looking forward to reading these books since they were published in September, so I brought two of them home with me to read over the holidays.  Set in the summer of 1964, My Life Before Me tells of Cady Andrews, a 16-year-old who is sent out into the world to discover her past.  She dreams of becoming a reporter at a time when women, if they can get into the newspaper business at all, cover the “Social Events” or “Fashion” columns, not “hard news”.  The headmistress at the orphanage gives Cady a newspaper clipping that was found with her when she was delivered to the orphanage, and it is up to Cady to determine what it means, and whether it has any significance in her own life.  This clipping leads her to a small town in Indiana, where she tries to uncover information about the death of Thomas Jefferson, a young black man who, imprisoned for the supposed murder of a white man, was shot while trying to escape.  Cady uses investigative techniques and quick wits to dig deeper into the racial divide of this northern town, and the more she uncovers, the more danger she, and the good people who help her, are exposed to.  What she finds reveals the truth about the murders and about her parentage, and ultimately sets Cady on the road to achieving her dream.  I love books about family secrets and solving mysteries, and this book was “ok” - I would give it 3 out of 5.  It was certainly well-written, and the mystery was complex, the characters, including the minor characters that comprised the townspeople, were interesting and varied, and the exploration into racial prejudice was done with sensitivity and skill.  But some of the ways Cady expressed herself were too mature and adult-like for a 16-year-old, and she had knowledge of some things that no one her age, even today with internet access, would have, let alone a girl who was raised in a small-town orphanage in the 1950s, a girl who rarely left the home and whose main life experience came from reading the few books she could get her hands on.  I guess my main concern is that Cady lacked the innocence and naivete that one would expect from a child who grew up in such circumstances. Having said that, I am definitely interested in reading other books in this series, and I have The Unquiet Past by Kelley Armstrong sitting on my coffee table waiting to be read.

But first I need to finish a delightful book that has recently been nominated for the Forest of Reading Red Maple Award, We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen.  I’ll tell you more about that one next time.

That’s all for today.  Have a Merry Christmas!  I hope Santa is good to you.

Bye for now…

Sunday 13 December 2015

Short post on a dreary Sunday morning...

It’s a mild, drizzly, overcast morning as I begin to write this post, with no sun in the forecast until Tuesday.  I guess this is a good day to stay inside drinking tea and reading, but I feel a bit restless - maybe I will have to don my raincoat and go out for a short walk later.

I was up early this morning and had time to finish The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.  I don’t normally read historical fiction, and this book was recently voted Best Historical Fiction title on GoodReads (which I almost never check, but I still get their email updates).  Nor am I a huge fan of domestic fiction of the sort Hannah writes. But somehow during a conversation about books with a teacher at one of my schools, this title came up, and next thing I knew, she brought it in for me to read.  I brought this 400+ page novel home and fully expected not to enjoy it, but it totally sucked me in and I had a hard time putting it down.  This novel tells the story of two sisters in France during WWII.  They are estranged both from their father and from each other, partly due to their age difference (Vianne is 10 years older than Isabelle) and partly due to their personalities.  Vianne is the mild, responsible one who always follows rules and lives a quiet life in a small French village with her husband and daughter, Sophie.  Isabelle, on the other hand, gets thrown out of one boarding school after another for a variety of reasons, mostly for not following the rules.  She craves the love and acceptance of her father, but he continually shuts her out or sends her away, as he has done with both children since their mother died.  When Germany invades France and occupies parts of the country, Vianne follows all the rules while Isabelle tries to find ways to break them and resist the Nazis.  As the seasons pass, the order in Vianne’s world begins to crumble as the Nazi occupiers change the rules daily, threatening to destroy the livelihoods of everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike.  Family members are imprisoned, friends are taken away or killed, and no one really knows what is going on.  But still Vianne does her best to follow the rules, hoping that things will get better.  Meanwhile, Isabelle joins the resistance movement and is integral in setting up the Nightingale project, a program to help downed airmen in France return to safety.  When the situation in the village becomes unbearable, Vianne is forced to break the rules and do what is right for those she loves, and she must learn to live with the consequences.  This book has a bit of everything in it:  It is a domestic story of two sisters who must learn to overcome their differences and love one another despite their past experiences.  These sisters must also learn to accept their father for who and what he is.  It is a love story, well, actually two love stories.  It is also a story of war, offering detailed descriptions of the brutal conditions and cruel treatment people were forced to endure at the hands of the Nazis, but told from the point of view of two very different women who made a difference in their own very different ways, and the difficult choices they had to make on an almost daily basis.  It was also a bit of a mystery, as it is told in the form of an extended flashback, and the reader does not discover until the very end who the main character really is.  This well-written, gripping novel is sure to appeal to readers on so many different levels, and Hannah does a great job of portraying the lives of these French sisters despite being an American writer.  It reminded me of the excellent novel we recently read for my book group, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, although they are very different novels.  While I would never normally have read this title, I’m glad my colleague left it on my desk.  I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or domestic fiction.

That’s all for today.  Happy reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 6 December 2015

First post for December...

It’s foggy and damp and mild this morning, definitely not very "wintery" weather, but I’m still enjoying my chai tea and a slice of Date Bread as I think about the "snowy" books I've read and listened to recently.

Imagine living in the Alaskan wilderness with no television, no phones and no internet, in fact, no way to contact anyone except by letter or face-to-face.  That’s just what my volunteer book group had to do with the book we read and discussed yesterday, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a modern retelling of an old Russian fairytale.  Set in Alaska in the 1920s, this novel tells the story of Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged couple who have moved to a homestead in Alaska to escape their past grief and start anew.  “Back east” in America (possibly Boston, but I'm not sure), they were surrounded by family members, but when Mabel lost their baby, her grief was such that she could no longer face being in the company of families with children.  Counting on Jack’s experience running the family farm, they decide to try their hand at farming in the harsh environs up north, seemingly as far away as they could get.  The opening chapter sees Mabel intent on ending it all, but her attempt fails and she is determined to live another day.  She and Jack go out in the snowstorm that night and play as though they were children themselves.  Deciding to build a snowman, what they create instead looks more like a child.  Jack sculpts elfin features on her face, they colour her lips with cranberry juice, and leave her with a scarf and mittens made by Mabel’s sister, Ada.  They return to their cabin and, feeling happier than they have in years, they make love and fall asleep curled up together in their cozy bed.  When they awake, they notice that the snow child is gone, along with the mittens and scarf, with just a pile of snow remaining.  They begin catching glimpses of a child running through the woods surrounding their cabin, and each secretly tries coaxing the child out of hiding.  When this is accomplished, they begin to “tame” her, to include her in the various activities of their lives.  She resists, but eventually comes around, telling them that her name is Faina, though she never seems fully committed to their way of life.  When spring comes, Faina disappears, and Jack and Mabel are distraught, searching for her, convinced they have lost her forever.  When she returns with the first snowfall, they are thrilled to have her back in their lives, and thus a pattern develops.  During this time, Jack also encourages Mabel to make friends with the woman at a nearby farm (nearby being nearly two hours away by cart!), and although she initially resists, she falls under the spell of Esther and George and their three boys, particularly the youngest, Garrett.  Esther is loud and bold and wears trousers (gasp!), completely the opposite of bookish, intellectual Mabel, but they form a strong bond that endures and sees Mabel through the toughest times at the homestead.  These long-time homesteaders can shed no light on who this child could be, and Esther is concerned that Mabel is suffering from “cabin fever”, imagining this child to fill her own need.  Is this child real, or is she a fairy, a wood sprite who appears and disappears at will?  While there are more plot developments that seem to suggest an answer, this question is ultimately left to the reader to decide.  I’d never read this book before including it on the list, but for December, I generally try to choose something either “light”, uplifting, or Christmas-themed, or sometimes I’m fortunate enough to find a good choice that ends in December, like A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle or Letters from the Country by Marsha Boulton.  This one was a good choice because so much of the story took place in the winter, and snow was a significant feature (although there is no snow on the ground here right now and it’s not even very cold outside!).  All of the book club members agreed that it was an interesting story and we liked that it was based on a classic Russian fairytale.  We also agreed that, while it started out really interesting, the middle section dragged and was too long, but then the story picked up again and was a bit of a page-turner to the end.  We put forth our ideas about what happened at the end, but despite our uncertainty, we felt that this did not detract from the enjoyment of the book, and that it actually suited the magical elements of the whole novel.  This was a great book for a discussion group, exactly because of this vagueness and uncertainty.  We discussed the more serious themes of loss and grief, parenthood, isolation, and the importance of various relationships in people's lives.  But the magic-realism aspects of the book kept it fairly light, too. We discussed fairytales, and talked about the origins of these stories and how they’ve been “sanitized” to be suitable for children.  Because of our discussion, I am now inspired to go out and read the original Grimm’s Brothers stories!   For a debut novel, Ivey did an excellent job of bringing the Alaskan wilderness to life for readers.  I would definitely recommend this book to other book clubs.

And I finished listening to an audiobook, A Cold White Sun by Vicki Delaney.  Set in the fictional northern BC town of Trafalgar, this novel opens with a middle-aged woman taking her dog for a long walk up the snowy mountain on the first day of March Break.  As she stops to take in the view, shots ring out and she falls, dead, in the snow.  An investigation ensues, and various townspeople are questioned and released.  Family secrets and hidden connections are revealed until, after another murder attempt, the perpetrator is apprehended.  There is also a romantic subplot, and different relationships among townspeople are explored in this cozy murder mystery.  Part of the “Constable Molly Smith” series, this was an easy book to listen to, although the naive attitude of some of the townspeople was sometimes irritating.  I would listen to others in this series if they were available in audio format, not one right after the other, as the stories are too simplistic for me (I’m not a big “cozy mystery” fan), but it was just what I needed after the complexities of The Silkworm.  I’ve now moved on the The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin, and I suspect that complexities abound in that book!  

That’s all for today.  Happy reading, everyone!

Bye for now…