Sunday 28 August 2016

Tea and books on a muggy, "end of summer" morning...

As I sip my steeped chai tea, I am lamenting the passage of time, and the end of summer holidays.  I’m excited to get back to school, as there are so many books I want to read and recommend to the students, so many displays to create, and so many "next steps" to take in turning my school libraries into Learning Commons, but I also still have so much to do at home to get even more organized, so this time of year feels rather bittersweet.  

It’s fitting, then, that I have a book to tell you about that is all about time, The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt.  This delightful middle school novel tells the story of Penelope, whose first day of summer vacation is planned out in fifteen-minute increments by her mother, an event planner who won’t leave a minute unscheduled.  But Penelope wants time to daydream and come up with ideas for the stories she plans to write, activities that really can’t be planned, you have to just let them happen and be ready to capture them with notebook and pen.  When she finds that one day in her mother’s planner has been accidentally overlooked and there is nothing planned for that day, she seizes the opportunity to maximize her good fortune and goes to visit her friend down the street, Miss Maddie, who, unlike her mother, encourages daydreaming and sitting idly over cups of tea.  Something strange happens when she shows Miss Maddie the blank page, and Penelope ends up in a strange land, the Realm of Possibilities, where time is unimportant, and moodling (“daydreaming, letting your mind wander, losing track of time and doing nothing”) is encouraged.  She meets Dill, a very tall thin man with wild red hair who informs her that the Realm is being overtaken by Chronos, a man who insists that everyone’s lives, all the Clockworkers, are ruled by the tick-ing and tock-ing of the clocks that are everywhere in his City, the city he plans to expand into the Realm.  The only way to stop this expansion is to find the Great Moodler, who has been exhiled to regions unknown by Chronos ages ago.  Dill and Penelope set out to find the Great Moodler, and along the way they befriend Coo-Coo, a bird whose home on the mountain is in danger of being swallowed up by the City as well.  They are captured by Chronos’ police and sent to jail for wasting time while idling at an intersection.  There they meet the Fancies, who will become instrumental in their escape plans.  But can they get out and find the Great Moodler before the entire Realm of Possibilities is swallowed up by the Shadow of Doubt that looms over Chronos’ City?  This debut novel is an adventure tale full of wit and whimsy, and Britt uses many puns and plays on words that kept me turning pages until I reached a satisfying conclusion.  I was thinking that it would be a great readaloud for the grade 4 classes at my schools, or at the very least, I will promote it in a book talk.  It was like Alice Wonderland meets The Wizard of Oz, with a hint of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys delightful fantastical allegories.  I would give it a rating of 8 out of 10.

And I’m nearly finished a book that is the opposite of delightful, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, a Young Adult novel that I will not be putting in my library, as the contents are too mature for the grade levels at my schools, but will be passing on to one of the high school librarians at our PD Day next week.  This novel is set in a small town and tells the story of Romy, a 17-year old who had friends, got decent grades, had a good job, and lived a normal life… until a year ago, when she got drunk at a party and Kellan Turner, the town sheriff’s son, takes advantage of her against her will.  When she tells her story, no one but her family believes her, and she loses everything; her former friends shun her, she becomes withdrawn, and she loses any connection she had with anyone - she won’t even confide in her mother.  When she meets Leon, a guy she works with at the restaurant, things begin to look up, but then it all goes bust when, against her better judgement, she goes out to Wake Lake for the big drunken bash that happens every year for the seniors at the high school.  She doesn’t remember anything from that night, but is found the next morning by a police constable on the side of the road miles away from the lake, seemingly hung over and in a bad way.  Another girl, beautiful, perfect Penny Young, Romy’s former best friend, also went missing after the party, and Romy is accused of wasting police time searching for her when the whole force should have been looking for Penny.  As Penny’s disappearance turns into days and then weeks, Romy’s suspicions grow and she is faced with a dilemma - repeat her story from a year ago in the hopes that someone will listen, an act that may help find Penny alive, or stay quiet and bear the guilt of knowing she could have helped but didn’t.  I’ve got about 80 pages to go in this harrowing tale, and so far there has not been a single uplifting moment, but it’s gripping and heartwrenching, filled with a hopelessness and despair that is captured brilliantly by the author.  Most of the time that I was reading this, I was thinking in my head, “Just tell someone what it happening to you, tell someone how you are being treated!”, but of course, I know that won’t happen.  I hope that this does not reflect the lives of most teenaged girls today, although I’m sure it happens, which is the reason so many sexual assaults go unreported.   I’m looking forward to finishing this book today, as I suspect there may be a glimmer of hope awaiting Romy by the end of the novel.  It’s reminding me of that classic YA novel, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, also about a girl who is raped by an older student at a summer bash.  I read that many years ago, and am now interested in rereading it.  Although I haven’t finished  All the Rage, I feel confident in giving it a rating:  8 out of 10.  Read this if you are drawn to YA novels that deal with traumatic experiences and learning to overcome the emotional aftermath.  Do not read this if you are looking for a light, uplifting “summer read”.

Enjoy the rest of your day!

Bye for now…

PS I've added a tentative Book Club selection list for 2017 (see righthand sidebar), but I'll run the choices by my ladies when we meet in September to see if they approve - watch for changes.

Monday 22 August 2016

Tea and books on a marvelous Monday afternoon...

I’m so thrilled to be able to write this post on a gloriously clear, bright Monday afternoon after a great bike ride and errand-running this morning… alas, it is my last such opportunity until next summer, as I go back to work next week.  *Sigh*  Good thing I love my job, and look forward to the challenges a new school year will bring!

I finished reading This Godforsaken Place by Cinda Gault last night.  This novel is set in the Canadian wilderness and the United States in the late 1800s, and tells the story of Abigail Peacock, a young woman who accompanies her father on a journey from London, England to Wabigoon, Ontario to start a new life after her mother passes away.  She attempts to embrace the adventure for her father’s sake, yet she despairs over her wretched life and cringes at the bleak opportunities her future holds.  The attentions of the steadfast, stalwart store owner begin to wear down her defenses, and as her opportunities seem narrow and uninviting, she resigns herself to a dull, dreary life as teacher and wife in a convenient marriage… until she discovers a love for shooting.  This changes her life, and as one situation leads to another, Abigail finds herself travelling on horseback to the US and joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show with the likes of legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Métis leader Gabriel Dumont, all in an effort to fulfill the wishes of a dead man.  All of this is set against the backdrop of Louis Riel and the North-West Rebellion.  OK, so this was one of the books I was going to read for the awards’ committee I’m on, but it sounded so much like something I would never want to read that I thought I’d read a few pages and set it aside, but it was amazing!!  The main character, Abigail, was strong, opinionated, witty and intelligent.  The historical setting was interesting and the writing was superb.  The story itself was pretty far-fetched, and I had to suspend my sense of disbelief for most of the novel, but the writing and Abigail’s character held my attention and made this reading experience a memorable one.  Unfortunately, the last quarter of the book became a bit muddled and lost some of the flare that kept my attention up to that point, and the ending was rather disappointing (even if it did include a posse!).  Still, any book that can include the words “dastardly” and “calamity” and get away with it has to have some merit!  I want to share a short passage with you that demonstrates how intelligent the female characters are and how sharp the writing is.  Abigail is speaking with Annie Oakley over a pot of coffee early on in their relationship.  When asked why she left teaching, Abigail states, “I want to become something I have never been.”  
Annie: “You aren’t satisfied with who you are?”
Abigail: “Who I am has changed.”  
Annie: “That sounds odd to me.  I have never changed.  Quite the contrary, I generally have to fight to go on being who I am.”  
Out of context this may not seem as significant as it did for me while reading the book, but I thought it was brilliant.  I’d give it a 7.5 out of 10 - the rating would have been higher if the ending wasn’t so disappointing.  Despite that, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books with strong female characters who are smart and witty.  Actually, thinking about this now, Abigail’s character reminds me a bit of the main character in Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl, about Sophie Straw, a young woman who leaves a decidedly dull future in a small British town in the 1960s and moves to London, where she pursues her dream of becoming a female comedian on TV.  Both are well-written, if flawed, books with strong female characters, if that’s what you are in the mood for right now.

And I’ll tell you briefly about the audiobook I’m nearly finished listening to, A Death in the Small Hours by Charles Finch.  This historical mystery is one of the books in the “Charles Lenox” series, and is set in Victorian era England.  Once again, not my usual cup of tea (no pun intended!), but it’s surprisingly interesting, perhaps because it doesn’t dwell on exhaustively descriptive details about the setting or the costume of the characters, but rather focuses more on the interaction between characters and the development of the investigation.  This novel finds Lenox married and with a small daughter, Sophie, pursuing a career as an MP, having left the life of gentleman and amateur detective behind.  Taking the opportunity to leave London for a break while he prepares his speech for the House of Commons, he travels with his wife and daughter to the village of Plumley to stay with his uncle Frederick at the peaceful Everley estate.  He is drawn back into his former role as detective when a rash of petty vandalisms turn to murder during his stay and he is asked to help solve the crime and bring the murderer to justice.  This cozy mystery is gentle and engaging, and far better than I had expected, so I was happy to discover that it was part of a series, giving me plenty of other mysteries to read or listen to.  Though not quite finished, I feel confident in rating this one - I’d give it a 7 out of 10, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical mysteries or cozy British mysteries.

That’s all for today.  Happy reading!

Bye for now…

PS Looking back on some of my recent posts, I've noticed alot of *sigh*-ing going on... is it because this summer has been so busy that I've barely had time to do any reading, and have not come close to completing everything on my "to-do" list? Or could it be a reflection of a different attitude or mental state when faced with plenty of time off and a string of hot humid days, a deep intake of breath followed by a long, slow exhalation? I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure the extra sighing means something... on that note, I'll close with yet another *sigh*... until next week.

Friday 12 August 2016

Post for the "dog days" of summer...

We’ve certainly had plenty of hot, sultry days this summer, but I believe that this week was the longest stretch of hot days with high humidity so far.  Thank goodness I have air conditioning and a huge pile of books to read!  And, to keep me busy inside when it’s been too hot to go out, I also got a couple of new bookshelves from IKEA, and have transformed one area in the spare bedroom into a wall of books - it’s like a dream come true!  I have plenty of bookshelf space now, but the challenge is trying to decide how to arrange my books - do I group them by country, by genre, or alphabetically by author?  It’s been fun working on it a bit each day and handling books that have been on my shelf for years that I’ve never read and have nearly forgotten about - I’m discovering so many great novels to read right in my own collection!  I’m also copying my list of books read from 1992-2010 into a new notebook, as my original spiral notebook is falling apart, and it’s been interesting looking at my reading choices when I was so much younger and noticing patterns and cycles.  I’m only up to January, 1998, but I have high hopes that I will finish before I go back to work.  

I’ll be away next week in the gorgeous Georgian Bay area, so I thought I should write my post now, as I have two books and an audiobook to tell you about.  The first book is The Hatching by Canadian novelist Ezekiel Boone (a pseudonym for novelist Alexi Zentner, from right here in Kitchener-Waterloo).  OK, so right from the title, this book sounds ominous, right?  Well, let me tell you, it was creepy, creepy, creepy, right to the very last page... and beyond!  (there will be a sequel, Skitter - yikes!)  This novel opens with a group of Americans on a guided eco-tour in a Peruvian National Park. The group seems to be headed by a rich, cocky fat man, multimillionaire tech guy Ted Henderson.  When he goes off into the jungle to relieve himself, the group waits patiently on the path, but the guide notices that something seems wrong in the jungle, a silence that includes even the birdsong.  Henderson comes crashing out of the jungle with a wave of black following and surrounding him.  As it nears, the guide can see that it is not a wave of black water but a giant swarm of spiders, which proceed to attack the group members and devour them.  The rest of the novel is divided into sections, with different stories involving different characters and different events taking place in different areas of the world:  a remote area in China where a nuclear bomb is dropped on a mining facility; a university in Washington where an entomologist specializing in spiders is hoping that an ancient egg sac enclosed in an insectarium, sent to her from Peru, will hatch; a Marine Corps unit in California is waiting patiently for an assignment, any assignment, but what they are assigned to do is far beyond anything they could have ever expected; in Desperation, California, people are living in houses with fully-stocked shelters attached or nearby, in preparation for the last days, but the disaster that awaits them is not what they anticipated; and on a small island in Scotland, a young couple on a romantic weekend encounter a horror beyond anything they could ever have imagined.  I’ve always enjoyed these “nature-out-of-control” stories, ever since I was a kid and would watch those scary movies about swarms of killer bees that were heading up from Mexico and were attacking people along the way, so this book about giant man-eating spiders seemed right up my alley!  And it was certainly a page-turner.  At first I found it difficult to keep all the stories straight, but once I got into the book, I could see that they were all interconnected and were meant to demonstrate that this “infestation” or attack would not be isolated but would become a worldwide catastrophe.  It was pretty gruesome, and at one point, late one evening, after reading quite a few chapters and nearing the end, I had to put it down because I was starting to feel crawling sensations on my arms, legs and head!  But I finished it in the light of day and will look forward to the sequel, where hopefully all will be resolved.  But with so much death and destruction, will Boone find a way to end on a note of hope for the future?  It was definitely well-written, not great literature, but compelling and creepy!  I’d give it a 7.5 out of 10, but would caution anyone who has a weak stomach or a fear of creepy-crawlies to steer clear of this book - I'll admit that I've been looking at all the spiders spinning their webs in our yard just a little bit differently these days!

I also read a YA novel by Canadian author Shane Peacock, The Eye of the Crow, the first in his “Boy Sherlock Holmes” series.  I have read one other book by this author and found him to be a good writer, and I have the first two books in this series in my school libraries, so I wanted to try it out.  This novel tells the story of 13-year-old Sherlock Holmes in 19th century London, a half-Jewish boy who lives in relative poverty due to his parents’ unfortunate family circumstances - his mother is from a wealthy family but was cast out when she fell in love with Wilber, a Jewish man who was training to become a professor, but whose chances were thwarted by his wife’s wealthy parents when they continued their relationship and refused to abide their demands to end their relationship.  Sherlock avoids school, preferring to be on the streets learning about people and events through observation and reason.  His real interest lies in the police reports and news he finds in the crime sheets.  When the news of a murder in Whitechapel is announced and the arrest of a villain proclaimed, he can’t resist going to observe the guilty man as he is brought to the jail.  But he sees a boy just a few years older than himself, an Arab of Egyptian descent, who appears no more guilty of the crime than Sherlock is.  When the suspect locks eyes with Sherlock and whispers that he didn’t do it, Sherlock is compelled to search for the real criminal and free the innocent man, regardless of the risks he must take to find the truth.  It all spirals out of his control, and he is caught in an underworld where all is not what it seems and trouble lurks around every corner.  It was an interesting story, and definitely made me want to read some of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (I have several collections of stories on my new bookshelf!), but I don’t know how well this novel would hold the attention of a young adult reader.  I certainly had challenges staying interested, as there was a lot of repetition, particularly describing Sherlock’s character, his physical demeanor, and his surroundings.  I know this book was the first in a series and is meant to set the stage for future cases as much as to relate the story, but it was less engaging than I was hoping.  But I will try the next book to see if it gets better - I guess this is the first series to look at the young detective and explore what events and experiences led him to become the greatest detective in history.  I’d give it a 7 out of 10.

And I finished listening to an audiobook earlier this week, The English Assassin by Daniel Silva.  This popular and prolific American author has written numerous bestselling thrillers.  I suspected that his books might not be my normal fare, but it was narrated by John Lee, so I had to give it a try.  This novel explores the Nazi involvement in shady art dealings during WWII.  The main character, Gabriel Allon, an art restorer by trade, also works part-time for a specialized Israeli Intelligence agency.  When he is sent to Zurich to restore a painting for a prominent Swiss banker, he is shocked to find the man lying dead in front of the painting to be restored.  He flees the scene, but is caught before his train leaves the station and brought in for questioning.  He is soon released and would happily have washed his hands of the whole affair, but is requested to perform one last duty, to visit the dead man’s estranged daughter.  Reclusive Anna Rolfe is a world-renowned violinist who is living in a villa in the mountains of Portugal.  When news of her father’s murder reaches her, she becomes involved in a complex web of lies and deception, and she reluctantly accepts Gabriel’s help in tracking down the man who killed her father and stole his secret art collection, a collection of paintings that had been acquired using underhanded means during the war.  As dead bodies pile up, the situation becomes more dire, and the determination of Anna and Gabriel to get to the truth and to reveal the collaboration between Swiss bankers and the Nazis compels them to keep searching, despite the dangers they face at every turn.  This was a “page-turner”, but a bit too unbelievable and sensational for my taste.  I prefer psychological thrillers that build slowly and explore the interrelationships between characters.  It was OK, but not great - in fact, it was exactly the type of book I expected it would be, plot-driven rather than character-driven.  As such, I would give it a 7 out of 10.

OK, that's all for this week.  Stay cool and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 7 August 2016

Post on a lazy Sunday morning...

It’s been such a busy summer so far, it’s hard to believe we’re into the second week of August!  I have three more weeks off until I go back to work at my schools, so I’m feeling the pressure to increase my reading efforts, as I’m not even close to reaching my self-imposed quota!  Next week most of my days are free, but then it’s a week away, and then the last week of summer vacation… *sigh*  I’m actually looking forward to getting back into a routine - I certainly seem to do more reading that way!

My volunteer book group met on Friday morning to discuss On Beauty by Zadie Smith.  No one in the group had ever read anything by this acclaimed, award-winning British author, so we were all happy to have had the opportunity to do so.  This novel tells the story of two feuding families, the Belsey’s, led by liberal art history professor Howard, and the Kipps’, headed by ultra-conservative art history professor Monty.  British-born Howard lives with his family in a small, predominantly white college town outside of Boston.  His wife, Kiki, is an American who grew up in Florida, and who no longer resembles the slim, sexy black woman he married.  Their three children all have their own battles:  Jerome struggles to embrace his newfound Christian beliefs while the rest of his family are atheists; Zora believes that an intellectual life is ideal, yet she also struggles to be popular and have a normal social life; and Levi is on a quest for “authentic blackness”.  The book opens with Jerome’s emails to his family describing his life with the Kipps’ in London where he has an internship.  He can’t stress enough how “perfect” and “ideal” this family is compared to his own dysfunctional one back in America.  But this idealism is short-lived, and he quickly returns home after a romance with the Kipps’ daughter ends badly.  Fast-forward nine months and Howard finds out that Monty is coming to Wellington College as a guest lecturer for a year.  What could be worse than having to work side by side with your rival, an ultra-conservative at your liberal arts college?  But when the veil is lifted, it becomes apparent that all is not what it seems and that, really, all families are dysfunctional in their own ways.  This was certainly an interesting book to read, a real “slice of American life”, as one member put it.  We thought that most of the characters were stereotypes, not really three-dimensional, and that they were disconnected from one another and from society.  There were strong male/female stereotypes in this book, too, particularly with Howard and Kiki, Monty and his wife Carlene.  We all agreed that Kiki, Jerome, and self-educated street poet/rapper Carl were the most likeable characters, and that Howard and Monty were detestable (although we agreed that Howard may have redeemed himself by the end, while Monty… well, you’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself!).  One member said that it was difficult to read this book because it seemed to have no plot, but upon discussion, we decided that there were, actually, almost too many plots, and that many of these plots went undeveloped, that the book may have been more engaging if it was more focused.  As we discussed Levi and his embrace of what I would describe as black street language, I learned that this is actually called Ebonics: "American Black English regarded as a language in its own right rather than as a dialect of standard English." I have never heard of this before, so knowing this certainly shed light on Levi's character and his struggle. Everyone in this book seemed to be searching for identity, a search that is usually reserved for teens and young adults. Perhaps the older characters, Kiki and Howard in particular, were not so much searching for identity as attempting to reclaim it after years of losing themselves in their family and their work... hmmm... the "empty nest" syndrome? We talked about the changing roles of women, and how some people still believe that working women lead to the downfall of the family. We talked about Smith's skill at capturing the academic life perfectly, with all its ups and downs. Race, too, played an important role in this book, in both America and the UK, and Smith outlined some of the struggles black people face even in today's society. As I was reading this book, I kept thinking that her style reminded me of John Updike, but I'm not even sure if Updike wrote this way, presenting a slightly satirical look at American family life... I'll have to read some of his books again to find out. It was an animated, interesting discussion that led us in many directions. While not everyone loved the book, we were all glad to have read it. I'd give it an 8.5 out of 10.

That's all for today. Get outside and enjoy this lovely, less humid day!

Bye for now... Julie

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Better late than never...

It’s the middle of the week, and I have only now found time to write a quick post.  The weekend was a whirlwind of family visiting and beach days, and not much time to read, but I have an audiobook that I finished last week to tell you about as I sip my tea - no treat for me today... *sigh*

I listened to Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon, a fictional account of what might have happened during the doomed flight of the Hindenburg in May, 1937.  Populated with actual passengers and staff, this novel details the lives and encounters of many of these characters.  Divided into sections by day (the flight took four days), the story is told from the points of view of several characters, including “the Navigator”, “the American”, “the Stewardess”, “the Cabin Boy”, and “the Journalist”.  Each is embroiled in a drama, liaison or personal vendetta involving other characters, and each may be responsible for causing the explosion that destroyed the airship, or know who is planning to do so.  From the very first page, the suspense builds as the lives and plans of these characters develop in ways so rich and complex that the reader is drawn into the turmoil and uncertainty.  There is mystery, history and intrigue, as well as two love stories, one tempestuous, the other tender and innocent.  The characters are well-drawn, the stories credible, and the suspense nearly tangible.  As an added bonus, this audiobook was read by my favourite narrator, John Lee.  All in all, it was a fabulous listening experience - I wish all my audiobook choices kept me so riveted!  I’d give it a 10 out of 10.

That’s all for now.  Have a great day!

Bye for now…