Sunday, 18 October 2020

Post on a wet fall morning...

It’s been raining off and on this morning, so I’m glad we got out to rake the leaves yesterday while everything was dry.  I don’t mind wet fall weather - it just seems to intensify the gorgeous colours of the trees when it’s overcast and the trunks are black with rain.  I’ve got a delicious cup of chai and a Date Bar to motivate me this morning.  I’ve done a few things already and am running behind, but I have two great books to tell you about, so I’ll just get to it.

Last week I read Polar Vortex by Canadian novelist Shani Mootoo.  This novel has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and I can certainly understand why.  Priya and Alex are living what appears to be an ideal life.  They have a big old house on what is technically an island (maybe near Kingston, Ontario?), where they have room to be creative: Priya is an artist and Alex is a writer.  But all is not what it seems, and cracks begin to appear when Priya invites an old friend to come and stay, a man she hasn’t been in contact with since meeting Alex.  What ensues is an exploration into the decades-long, complicated relationship between Priya and Prakesh, and how it will affect the relatively new relationship she has with Alex.  This literary novel explores various kinds of relationships, and asks readers to consider whether a lengthy but neglected relationship is more significant than a recent but nurtured one.  It also questions whether the secrets in one’s past ever really go away.  I found this to be a truly thought-provoking novel, making me think of my own past relationships, those I’ve neglected and those I’ve nurtured, as well as consider the experiences of refugees as they settle into a new country.  I've also never really thought about the challenges gay couples face, in the past and even now, in our more accepting society. It was a short book that seemed long, packed as it was with so much to think about.  I would recommend this to anyone interested in books exploring relationships, secrets and deception.

And I finished listening to a great audiobook, Normal People by Sally Rooney.  I think this title came to my attention because it’s recently been adapted into a series, which I've heard was not as good as the book (it never is!).  The novel begins when Marianne and Connell are in their final years of secondary school in County Sligo.  Connell’s mother cleans house for Marianne’s family, and although they are attracted to one another, they must hide their feelings from others, fearing negative reactions from their classmates.  Although he and his mother don't have much money, Connell has managed to become part of the popular crowd, while Marianne is considered an outsider, on the fringes, a loner, despite her family’s wealth.  When they both attend Trinity College, Dublin, their roles are reversed, and Marianne is the popular one, while Connell, only able to attend on scholarship, is the outsider.  Once again, their relationship must be kept secret, and this goes on for a few more years as they have different, sometimes disturbing, experiences with different people, but they always remain an anchor for one another despite their involvement with others and their ever-changing locations.  I had no idea what this book was about and didn’t take to it at first, but once the story got going, I was hooked.  I found myself telling them to just get together and reveal their relationship to everyone, criticisms be damned!  I was rooting for them, and cringing at their foolish decisions.  It was a fabulous book, and the narrator, Aoife McMahon, did a wonderful job of bringing the characters and their experiences to life.  I would highly recommend this audiobook to just about anyone, but be prepared to both laugh and cry. 

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend and pick up a god book!

Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 12 October 2020

Very short post on a very long weekend...

It was a PD Day on Friday, so I took advantage of the opportunity to work from home that day, and of course today is Thanksgiving Monday, so it feels like I’ve had four days off (well, I was really busy with video sessions on Friday, but I got to sit around in my “at-home” clothes, so it was definitely more restful than going in to work).  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar on this gorgeously bright, sunny, mild morning.  The birds are singing (it’s mild enough to have the windows open), the leaves are out in full magnificent colour, and I’m feeling so peaceful and certainly thankful for so many things, today and every day.

Last week I read American Predator:  the hunt for the most meticulous serial killer of the 21st century by Maureen Callahan, and it was just so-so.  I’m not a huge non-fiction reader, but I have enjoyed some true crime and historical nf titles in the past, so I thought I would take a chance on this one, and I was thankful that it was short.  It follows the search for, arrest, and subsequent interrogation of Israel Keyes, a man initially suspected of abducting and killing a young woman in Anchorage, Alaska, but who, after some skillful (and some bumbling) interviewing, is linked to many other crimes and murders throughout the United States over the previous two decades.  It was interesting enough at first, and was neither well-written nor badly written, but just average - it met, but certainly did not exceed, my expectations.  But it jumped around quite a bit, and by the time I reached the end of the book, I wondered what the point of it was.  I guess it was vague and had lots of filler because it was hard to find information about this guy; he seems to be the most famous serial killer that no one has ever heard of.  Anyway, if you like reading true crime and are looking for something new, you could do worse than this one, but you could also do better.  

And I listened to an audiobook by K L (Kelly) Armstrong, Wherever She Goes, and have to say that I was happy to reach “the last page” of this one, too.  I have enjoyed several books in Armstrong’s “Rockton” series, and was quite looking forward to this standalone, but it did not meet my expectations at all.  Aubrey Finch is in the midst of domestic turmoil; she and her husband have separated and she fears the loss of custody of her young daughter.  When she and her daughter are at the park one weekend, she has a brief conversation with another young woman who is playing with her son.  Several days later, as she is jogging in that same park, she thinks she witnesses that boy being abducted, but no one will believe her.  Even she is not certain of what she saw, but when more sinister activities take place in her seemingly tranquil suburban community, she is unable to deny her gut instinct and decides to search for this boy on her own.  Sounds like an interesting plot, right?  Well, yes, it would have been interesting if there weren't so many of Aubrey’s lengthy internal monologues popping up far too regularly throughout the book.  And in my opinion, it turned out to be totally unbelievable, too.  Maybe as a print book the reader would have been able to skim the monotonous monologues and get to the “good stuff”, but with an audiobook, you can’t skim or skip parts.  Anyway, not as good as I was hoping, but also not the worst book I’ve ever listened to.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy this gorgeous day!  And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Rain, rain, go away...

It’s raining right now, and it’s supposed to do so all day, so I guess it’s a good time to prepare for the cooler weather, both in my closet and around the house… it’s also perfect weather for reading and drinking hot tea!  Good thing I went to the library yesterday and filled my “library loans” shelf with a wide variety of books to choose from.  Right now I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a Date Bar to lift my spirits and brighten my morning.

At my Volunteer Book Club meeting yesterday, we discussed Deborah Ellis’ collection of Young Adult short stories, Sit, and we all loved it!  There are eleven stories in this short volume, and some of the stories are directly interconnected, while others just seem to so obviously belong in the collection.  Sitting is something we do everyday and never think about.  Each of these stories features a child or young adult who is facing a difficult situation, and each of these children is also sitting.  But their sitting is not something they can take for granted, and they use each of these situations to contemplate or reflect on serious issues in their lives or the lives of people around them.  A boy is working in an Indonesian furniture factory, toiling away making chairs under the watchful eye of a cruel boss.  A girl is visiting a concentration camp on a school trip and fixates on the latrines the prisoners were forced to use.  Another girl shares her views about her home situation while sitting in the pink plastic “time out” chair that she has long outgrown but that she is forced to use regularly by her callous mother.  These children face difficult situations or obstacles, but they somehow manage to overcome these challenges and come out alright in the end, due in large part to their resiliency of spirit.  This collection is clearly written for children (each story is brief and fairly simplistic), but my ladies loved them.  The overriding theme of the discussion was the sense of wonder at how Ellis was able to elicit such huge emotion from such short stories.  One of the members said that there were “so many little stories but so many life-changing events”; another commented that there was “so much emotion in so few pages”; another wondered how “something so little could be so big”.  We speculated about some of the characters: we thought the girl in the pink chair would grow up to be rebellious, and we considered the reasons behind the decisions of several other characters.  We noted that many of the stories featured children looking out for each other, and sometimes for adults.  We all agreed that it was the many small details in each story that created a clear picture of each situation, and that it was these small details that make these stories difficult to sum up if trying to relate them to someone else, that somehow the emotional impact would be "lost in translation".  Overall, it was a great book club choice, and I would highly recommend it to just about any reader.  It is short enough to read in a couple of hours, and the stories are very accessible, so there’s no reason not to try it.

And speaking of simple stories with big meanings, I also read The Wall by John Lanchester.  I was reluctant to read this novel directly after The Memory Police because it is also a dystopian novel that takes place mainly on an unnamed island, and I thought it might be too many depressing dystopian novels too close together, but I started it and was sucked in immediately!  John Kavanaugh is a young man who is beginning his requisite two-year posting as a Defender on The Wall, a concrete wall that surrounds the coast of the island where he lives to keep out the Others.  He shares details about his first days, weeks and months, the conditions under which he fulfills his posting, his relationships with the other Defenders, and his experiences both on and off The Wall.  All seems to be going well and one day is much like the next ("concretewaterskywindcold")… until the Others attack.  The early chapters of this novel reminded me of the early chapters of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with the details of the tediousness of the characters' existence, but Atwood’s book is much more complex, while Lanchester’s novel is more simplistic, but no less powerful for its simplicity.  In fact, I think the simplicity adds to the significance: without much detail, this story could be applied to any situation, making it more disturbing.  And it’s obviously based on current controversial political agendas, which makes it even more unsettling, because it’s not just speculative; it’s actually happening.  I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading dystopian or speculative fiction.  Once again, it’s an easy read, but it gave this reader so much to think about.  

That’s all for today.  Stay dry and pick up a good book.

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Speed-posting on a wildly windy morning...

It’s very windy and sunny and warm this morning, probably one of the last warm days of the year, so I’ve got laundry hanging out on the clothesline to take advantage of “nature’s dryer”.  I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a yummy Date Bar while I think about all the things I still want to get done today.

Because I have three books to tell you about, I am going to use the method suggested in one of the books I listened to and describe each book in twenty-five words or less; then I can use as many words as I want to tell you how the book made me feel, what I liked or didn’t like about it, etc.  It seems a bit like speed dating, but I’ll give it a try.  Here goes:

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowly (audiobook):  Boy meets girl.  Boy meets another girl.  First girl moves away.  Boy loses second girl.  First girl moves back, but second girl wants boy back.  Will boy and girl find true love?   I think that was thirty words, but that was as brief as I could be.  This Young Adult novel set in Australia was an ode to used bookstores, love letters, and the joy of books and reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the fairly typical plot line.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen:  Lonely crafter girl meets new boy, but both need to overcome guilt about tragic accidents in their past that have isolated them socially before they can form connections to others.  OK, once again this was thirty words, but it’s the best I could do.  Another Young Adult novel, this time from my school collection, was funny and sad and dealt with difficult topics with sensitivity.  It is sure to appeal to many of my students, especially those who have a creative flair.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t just read Tell Me Everything, which had similar themes but was much less humorous.

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa:  Things disappear on unnamed island and people just accept it and forget about these items. But some people remember and are tracked down by the Memory Police and taken away.  This novel, shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, was a cross between 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go.  It focused on totalitarianism, acceptance and the difficulty of resistance.  It was moving and thought-provoking, and the story-within-the-story added a further dimension to the novel as a whole.  The words and phrases brought to mind vivid images, particularly of the rose petals in the river, and the text flowed smoothly despite being translated.  I would highly recommend this if you enjoy dystopian novels, but be warned that it is not uplifting at all. I know that I haven't done this excellent book justice here, so if you are interested in it, please read about it further online - here is the review from the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/23/the-memory-police-yoko-ogawa-review.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the great weather!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Last post for summer...

It’s a bit cool this morning, but it's bright and sunny and it’s going to be a lovely end-of-summer day.  The leaves are starting to change and it won’t be long before the trees will be on fire with gorgeous fall colours.  It will be getting warmer over the course of the week, but right now it’s still cool enough to enjoy my steaming cup of chai, along with a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread and a Date Bar.  I couldn't imagine a more perfect morning.

Last week I read an unexpectedly powerful novel by German defense lawyer-turned-author Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case.  I had recently read The Girl Who Wasn’t There by this author, and I remember that I did not love it, but it interested me enough that I decided to get this earlier novel from the library, and I’m so glad I did!  This legal mystery opens with Italian-born Fabrizio Collini, posing as a journalist, being admitted to the hotel room of wealthy and well-respected retired German businessman Hans Meyer.  He proceeds to shoot Meyer several times and kick him in the head repeatedly.  He then goes down to the lobby, calls the police, and sits patiently, waiting for them to arrive.  Collini is offered legal counsel and young Caspar Leinen, newly appointed lawyer with his name on the roster, ends up with the case.  Little does Leinen know that the victim is Meyer, the grandfather of his deceased best friend, a man he has long considered a kind of father figure.  Added to this complication is the fact that Collini won’t offer any defense, and Leinen must search for clues as to motive on his own, digging deep into German history and examining the German legal system from every angle to come up with a reason for this seemingly random act of unusual cruelty.  What he uncovers will be sure to shock even the most historically knowledgeable reader.  It was a short novel that started off with a *bang*, then slowed to a crawl for much of the middle section, but then it picked up to a finale that was jaw-droppingly good.  If you read this novel, be sure to also read the notes and afterward, which really make this already-powerful story even more significant.  This book was recently made into a film, and I’ve just placed a hold on the DVD, which is currently on order at my public library.

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the sun and have a wonderful day!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Book club highlights on a warm, sunny morning...

It’s warm and a bit muggy this morning, after the massive rain we got overnight and early this morning, but it’s supposed to get much cooler tomorrow so I’m hoping to go for a long-ish walk this afternoon.  But right now I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar - it feels like forever since I’ve had one of those!  

Yesterday my Volunteer Book Club met for the first time since March.  The community centre where we usually meet is still closed due to COVID-19, but we brought our lawn chairs and sat outside in the sun to discuss Zoe Whittall’s novel, The Best Kind of People.  Four members showed up, an impressive number, considering that it was quite cool early yesterday morning - fortunately it warmed up as we got talking, and I think we were all happy to be back together.  It seemed a bit like a garden party, without the food or drinks (but we had books, which is just as good!).  Here is what I wrote about the book when I first read it in October 2016:

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall tells the story of one family’s experiences in the face of adversity in a wealthy white community outside of Connecticut.  George Woodbury is a well-loved and respected science teacher at a prestigious prep school in Avalon Hills where, nearly a decade before the story is set, he disarmed a school shooter and saved many lives, including that of his seven-year-old daughter, Sadie.  Voted “Best Teacher” every year since, the school, along with his family, is shocked when he is arrested on multiple charges of sexual harassment and attempted rape of minors while on a school ski trip.  Whittall then explores the emotional turbulence of his wife, Joan, a head nurse at the local hospital, daughter Sadie, now seventeen and in the gifted program at the prep school where George teaches, and son Andrew, a gay lawyer living in New York with his partner Jared, as they come to terms with George’s secrets and reconcile themselves to the facts that have been presented while struggling to retain the heroic image of the man they believed him to be.  Loyalty and trust are called into question, and each character must consider everything they thought they knew about their father/husband, as they grapple with this difficult question: Can a man still be a hero if he has also committed unspeakable acts?  It started off really well, and pulled me in immediately.  Setting George up as a hero in the first few pages had me rooting for him to be innocent for about the first third of the book.  But then the evidence begins to pile up, and as accusations mount, the balance shifts and I found myself switching sides.  Of course, the story is told through the eyes of his family members, who really, really want him to be innocent and for their lives to go back to the way they were before, and their experiences of being shunned and ostracized from the very community where they were once respected and loved were difficult to read about but also all-too-realistic.  Whittall never goes into the details of the accusations, nor does she give George a distinct voice in this novel, and she presents the dilemmas of family members caught in this type of situation with understanding and skill.  I think my criticism of this book is that it was too long, and that she presented the experiences of Joan, Sadie and Andrew in too much detail - I was looking forward to reaching the last page, but when I did, I found an abrupt ending that seemed rather rushed, considering all the time and effort devoted to presenting every single detail of everyone’s lives from the time of the arrest to the time of the trial.  The quotation she has at the beginning of the book, though, was poignant and really made me think about the unfairness of society’s views in these types of cases:  “(Rape culture’s) most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the accused, instead of the person reporting the crime…” (Kate Harding, Asking for it).  I didn’t love the book, and I had a hard time identifying with any of the characters, but it was certainly well-written and well-reviewed by many, many sources, so I have to give it an 8 out of 10.”

This time around I felt exactly the same, and others in the book club had similar views.  They wanted him to be innocent, but they struggled to hold onto that belief as the story progressed.  They wanted to know more details about the accusations, and were frustrated to be left not knowing anything about George except what his family members said.  We all agreed that Whittall intentionally painted a picture of George as “the perfect husband”, and “too good to be true” so that we, like the community, would want to believe in his innocence.  We were all shocked to read about the victimization, not just of the girls who came forward, but of the family members, especially Joan and Sadie.  We thought Andrew’s situation was both interesting and sad, and we found the creepy side-story of Kevin-the-writer to also be interesting and sad, and a bit pathetic.  We all loved Joan’s sister Clara, who was as independent as they come, and we thought Elaine, Sadie’s boyfriend’s mom, was a good, solid mother figure, firm yet understanding.  We noted the importance of appearances in this novel, and people or situations were often judged on first impressions or reputation, not what is true.  No one loved the book, but no one hated it, either. I think we mainly found it a rather disturbing topic to read about.  It was a good book club selection, though, as we had plenty to discuss.  I would recommend it for anyone looking for something to recommend to their own book club.

That’s all for today.  Have a wonderful week!

Bye for now…

Julie 

Monday, 7 September 2020

Short post on a long weekend…

I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai with the last few bites of the delicious raspberry-peach pie I purchased this weekend, as well as a slice of freshly baked date bread.  I’m really taking advantage of the extra day to have more snacks and deliciously less-than-healthy treats, because it is, after all, still the weekend!  The weather is overcast, cool but humid, and very windy this morning, perfect weather for staying in and reading.

I read a book last week that my Friends book club will be discussing in one week, How to Walk Away by Katherine Centre.  Margaret Jacobsen is a twenty-eight year old woman who is about to begin the rest of her life:  she’s got the perfect job lined up, her boyfriend of many years is going to propose, and she is ready to take on the world… until her life comes literally crashing down and she is paralyzed as a result of a tragic accident.  Can she overcome the unexpected obstacles that are before her and find a way to be happy or will this loss ruin her life?  The person who suggested this book wondered if it might be too "soap-opera-y”, and it had elements of a soap opera, for sure, but it far exceeded my expectations.  I think it was the conversational tone of the narrative that redeemed it: it felt as if a friend were telling me the story of her struggles after an accident that nearly destroyed her life.  It was at times sappy, predictable, and totally unbelievable, but it was also honest and true and I felt that certain passages spoke to me and gave me the determination to do better in these challenging times, to be strong for others who may need a little help.  After all, as one of the characters in the novel advises, “When you don’t know what to do for yourself, do something for someone else”, and, in my opinion, truer words were never spoken.  I think this was a good book club choice, and should generate interesting discussion.  I fear that some will trash this book for being too sappy, too emotional, too unbelievable, or too soap-opera-y, and these are all true.  But that is not the sum total of the book; to appreciate it fully, readers have to look past these things and see not just the story but the message, a message of encouragement in the face of adversity that could not have come at a better time. If you are looking for an uplifting read, this might be the one for you!

That’s all for today.  Enjoy the rest of this long weekend, and have a wonderful (short!) week!

Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 28 August 2020

Post on a "Life is good (and almost normal!)" afternoon...

It’s Friday afternoon, the last weekday off before I return to work, and I’m feeling pretty good.  The weather is less humid than it has been lately, I just picked up some new books from Words Worth Books, my local independent bookstore, and I’ve got a delicious Date Bar to accompany my steaming mug of chai.  I commented a few weeks ago about feeling a lot of “book pressure” because I had so many books from the public library to read, as well as a gigantic stack of books from my school library, and there was so little time to make a dent in either pile.  But as my time off comes to an end, I have to say I’m feeling less pressure and more of a sense of accomplishment, having managed to read four books from school and a number of books from the library.  

One of the books that I just brought back to the library this morning was A Burning, and WOW, what a book that was!  This short debut novel by Megha Majumdar was brief yet powerful, the kind of book that left me reeling, and one that I won't soon forget.  Told by three different narrators, this novel follows the arrest and imprisonment of a young woman in India who is accused of participating in a recent terrorist firebomb train attack.  Jivan has been in contact on Facebook with someone she believes to be a young foreign man, just a friend, but she posts an offhand comment about the government which will alter the course of her life.  Lovely is a hijra, a member of the intersex subculture, a man who wishes to be a woman.  She and her sisters are often called upon to perform blessings at births and weddings, but are otherwise reviled by the rest of the community.  Her true calling, she believes, is to be a famous actress, a rising star in Bollywood.  PT Sir is the shy, nervous phys ed teacher at a posh all-girls’ school, the only male on staff and the one everyone turns to whenever there is a technical problem, but otherwise overlooks.  He inadvertently becomes involved in the political campaigning for the upcoming election, where his ethics are put to the test time and time again.  These three narratives, the voices of characters whose lives intersect in what will become the most momentous of ways, drag readers along as the successes of two reach greater heights while the third sinks deeper and deeper into despair.  The finale was at once heart-wrenching and wholly believable, as the corruption of society and self, along with justification and self-deception, are revealed for all to see.  I could say so much more about this book, how it dealt with themes of greed and class struggles, morals and a willingness to turn a blind eye… it’s all there and so much more, and the brief chapters narrated by these distinct voices, as well as the occasional “interlude” by other random characters, serve to make this novel a roller-coaster ride that was so compelling, I had a hard time putting it down, even though I suspected all would not end well.  It was like watching a train wreck while clasping your hands over your eyes, unable to stop yourself from peeking though your fingers.  It reminded me in style and themes of another book I loved, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. I would highly recommend this to any reader interested in the themes mentioned above.

That’s all for today.  Have a great weekend!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 23 August 2020

PS One more junior title...

I must have read A Place Called Perfect the week before last because I know I read three books from my school library collection last week and one of them was Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds.  Hmmm… I guess all the days and weeks really are running into one another!  Anyway, quick summary:  Look Both Ways is a novel told in “ten blocks”, from the points of view of ten different students at a nearby school.  These stories vary in content, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, often gross, but they are all interconnected because these are all students in the same neighbourhood, dealing with different experiences in their family life and at school.  All of the characters are black, and some of them face financial challenges, but the author makes them seem so real that I would dare anyone to read these stories and not feel drawn to each and every one of these kids.  This is the first book by Reynolds that I have read, but he is a major juvenile and young adult author, and this book will soon be available as a graphic novel.  

That’s really all for today… I hope you have a good evening!!

Bye for now…
Julie

End of summer post...

This is my last week off before I return to work.  I know it’s been a long five-and-a-half months, but believe it or not, I almost feel like I could use an extra week to finish things up.  This is not uncommon at the end of summer break, and of course I’m far more prepared than other years, given that I’ve had all this extra time at home.  I spent a couple of hours this morning finishing up a few tasks that I want to get done before I begin work, like crumbling dried herbs from the garden and cleaning out the fridge.  *Sigh*  It’s a melancholy time, but I’ll do my best to make the most of next week.  

I have three books and an audiobook to tell you about, so I’ll give just a brief summary of each. Last week I read A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan, about a girl named Violet whose family moves to a town called Perfect because her father got a new job.  He is an ophthalmologist and was sought out by the men who run the town, George and Edward Archer.  When they arrive, they are met by these brothers and offered a tea that takes on the flavour of whatever the drinker loves best.  They are then told that they will go blind, but that if they wear the rose-tinted glasses that everyone in the town wears, their vision will be restored.  Everyone loves living in Perfect except Violet, who senses that something weird is going on.  She meets a boy from No Man’s Land, located outside the walls of the town, to whom she feels a connection.  When her father goes missing, she and the boy must work together to try to save him, and the town, before the brothers can go ahead with their evil plan.  This book, while interesting, seemed to take forever to read.  It was well-written, although I felt it borrowed heavily from other classic children’s stories, and the plot moved along at a decent pace, but for some reason I felt that I would never reach the end.  I wanted to read this book because I bought this and the next in the series, The Trouble With Perfect, and I was hoping to be able to recommend them to my junior students.  

I also read a Young Adult book by Sarah Enni, Tell Me Everything.  This novel tells the story of Ivy, a shy artist-type who is beginning to have more intense feelings for her BFF Harrold right before he heads off to what she calls “Smartypants” summer camp.  To fill her time, she discovers an app called VEIL, where local people can post content anonymously.  She checks it all the time, but never posts anything of her own.  When Harold returns from camp and seems more distant, Ivy tries to keep herself busy by identifying some of the posters on the app, and if they are dealing with something difficult, doing something to make them feel better.  While this might seem like a noble idea, things backfire and Ivy must think of a way to fix everything before she loses all the things that mean the most to her.  This was an awesome book!  I thought it dealt with themes of privacy, both on- and off-line, really well, in a way that young people could relate to.  Ivy was into photography as well as other forms of art, and I thought she could be inspirational for students who were also shy creative types.  The story moved at a good pace, but didn’t feel rushed, nor did it drag.  In short, I loved it and will definitely be recommending it to my intermediate students.

And I finally read Kate Di Camillo’s short novel, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, about a china bunny named Edward who is owned and loved by a little girl named Abilene.  Edward is very pleased with himself, thinking he is quite fine, much better than other toys.  When on a ship with the Tulane family, Edward is lost and has various adventures, some pleasant, some harsh, until he finally learns to love.  What an amazing story, so sweet, and sad, and ultimately uplifting.  I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, and finally sat down and got through it in a day.  The illustrations in my copy are lovely, too, adding even more depth to the story.

And I finished listening to an audiobook last week by Alafair Burke, All Day and a Night, which is part of the “Ellie Hatcher” series.  I have enjoyed standalones by Burke in the past, but this is the first in this series that I’ve listened to, and it was just ok.  The novel opens with psychotherapist Helen Brunswick wrapping up her last client on a Sunday afternoon.  She is hoping to get home in time to enjoy the Oscars Red Carpet pre-show with her kids, but instead meets with a gruesome end.  When convicted murderer Anthony Amaro receives a letter claiming that this murder is connected to the one for which he was convicted eighteen years ago, the NYPD and Utica police must reopen this case, as well as the other five unsolved murders of prostitutes that they thought Amaro was guilty of but for which he was never tried.  Can Ellie and her partner, along with Ellie’s boyfriend, an assistant district attorney, find out who killed Brunswick and the others before more people end up dead?  Not my favourite book, and probably not a series I’d be inclined to turn to, even in times of audiobook desperation.  But who knows… maybe I haven’t hit that level of desperation yet.

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

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 16 August 2020

"I can see clearly now..."

This morning I am reminded of that old 1970s song by Johnny Nash, “I Can See Clearly Now” because I’m writing this post wearing my first pair of prescription reading glasses, and what a difference they make!  I truly can “see clearly” now, although the rain is not gone, but has actually just started.  

I read the first book in the “Rockton” series by Kelley Armstrong last week.  You may recall that I recently listened to the fifth book, Alone in the Wild, and was very impressed.  Well, the first book, City of the Lost, did a great job filling in the blanks and setting the stage for that one.  Casey Duncan is a homicide detective with a dark secret.  When her current boyfriend is attacked, she is sure her past has come back to haunt her.  Her friend Diana is also being stalked by her abusive ex who refuses to take “no” for an answer.  When Diana discovers a town to which people can disappear and become whoever they want to be, for a price of course, she convinces Casey to join her, and off they go to Rockton. Located far north in the Yukon wilderness, this is a town that no one knows exists, made up mostly of fugitives, but also some criminals buying their way to safety and anonymity.  Casey begins working with Sheriff Eric Dalton, who has plenty of his own baggage and secrets, and Deputy Will Anders. Everyone in the town has secrets, things they prefer to keep from the other residents, but in order to find out who murdered and dismembered three townspeople in just two months, this team must uncover the truth about these residents before more people meet the same fate.  This was a great introduction to the setting for this series, and getting the backstories of the residents will certainly help to understand the rest of the books, which I intend to read and/or listen to...  OK, this is weird… I just turned the tv from the classical station to “Hits of the ‘70s” because of my song reference above, and would you believe, Johnny Nash’s song just started playing!  Of all the songs they could choose, what are the chances that this particular one would come on now? Hmmm... quite a coincidence.  Anyway, back to the book… it did not disappoint, and I am looking forward to enjoying the others in this series in one format or another.  

That’s all for today.  Take care, stay dry, and enjoy the last few weeks of the summer break.

Bye for now…
Julie

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Feeling hot, hot, hot once again...

Will this humidity never end?  I’ve been stuck inside the house for the past two days, and today is looking like it’s going to be Day Three…  Good thing I have a stack of books to help me through this!

I hosted a Friends book club meeting here last night, the first time we’ve met since January!  It was hot, but in the shade of the backyard, I think we all found it pretty bearable.  Several members mentioned that this book club meeting marked, for them, a significant step towards a return to “normal”.  We discussed Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.  You may be familiar with this novel, as it was adapted into a film starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet in 2008, so I’ll offer just a brief summary.  Published in 1961, this novel tells the story of April and Frank Wheeler, a couple in their early 30s who, in the hopeful year of 1955, are utterly disillusioned with their lives, with the house they have on Revolutionary Road, with themselves and with each other.  Almost from the very first page, we see this disillusionment and sadness, and it only gets more complicated as the story progresses.  Frank works at an office where he takes pride in the fact that he can do almost nothing all day and still collect a paycheck.  April, who once dreamed of becoming an actress, is a suburban housewife and mother of two.  Neither wanted the life they have, and they are not doing a great job of “making the best of it”, although to everyone they know, they appear to be the “golden couple”.  When April proposes that they move to France, things seem to get better as they draw closer in their relationship during the exciting planning stages, but when April becomes pregnant with their third child and Frank is offered a promotion, things begin to fall apart again.  Will this be the end of them, or can they figure out a way to recover from their challenging situations and save their failing marriage?  You’ll have to read the book to find out.  We agreed that it was well-written, and none of us liked Frank, considering him a smooth-talker who was manipulative and a bit smarmy.  We considered April’s situation, how she was cast in a role she never wanted but from which she couldn’t escape.  One member could relate to these characters as they somewhat mirrored her own parents’ lives.  We discussed the significance of the title, whether it meant that this couple was revolutionary, that the post-war 1950s were revolutionary, or perhaps it referred to the coming women’s revolution in the 1960s.  We decided that one of the themes was the exploration of the truth behind the “American Dream”, that it was really all an illusion.  We discussed how important it was to know yourself, another theme in this novel.  I mentioned that Frank and April didn’t love one another and should never have gotten married and had children, and another member said that this was the case for most couples at any given time, that this was reality and that most people learn to live with it, which was an eye-opening comment because it’s true that we never know what goes on behind closed doors.  It was a good book, a good discussion, and a great opportunity to ease back into “real life” as we learn to live with continued COVID-19 restrictions.  We have even picked a book and set a date for our next meeting, which gives us all something to look forward to and to get working on, as it’s going to take place in just five weeks.  Better get requesting the book and reading it!

That’s all for today.  I hear thunder outside, so I’m hoping for a huge thunderstorm - there’s nothing better than reading inside while a wild storm is happening outdoors.  Take care, stay safe, and keep reading!

Bye for now…
Julie

Friday, 31 July 2020

Quick post on a lovely summer morning...

It’s still morning for a little bit longer, and I’ve been busy for the past couple of hours getting a number of chores and errands done before the start of the long weekend.  I’m now settling down with a cup of steaming chai and a delicious Date Bar to write a short post, as I still have so many things to do.  In the audiobook I’m listening to right now, one of the characters says that her mom always called May the “Friday of summer”.  Maybe that’s the case for the British school system, but it got me thinking about our summer holidays, and I would say that May is like a Thursday, when you are anticipating the weekend that is so close it feels as if it’s already begun.  June is the Friday of summer, when there are still things to be done but the partying has begun.  July is the Saturday of summer, when you feel like you’ve got so much time, and you try to pack in as much as possible, letting go of your weekday schedule, sleeping in, rushing around, getting things done, and staying up too late.  But August, which is right around the corner for us, is the Sunday of summer, when you already start thinking about going back to work or school the next day, and there is pressure to both get the rest of your chores and errands done and also to rest and relax before the busy-ness of the work-week begins.  *Sigh*... as you can probably guess, I’m feeling some pressure as July comes to a close.  But I think the “dog days of summer” are also over, as that term refers to the hottest days of the season, and this is something for which I’m very thankful.
Speaking of pressure, I’m feeling alot of book or reading pressure.  I have ten books checked out from the library and I haven’t read a single one yet.  I have thirteen books that I brought home from my school library with the intention of reading at least three, but as yet I haven’t read a single one.  I also ordered books for school and I have two that I wanted to read before I went back to work and added them to my collection, but they, too, sit unread.  I have 75 pages left in the book we are discussing for my next book club meeting in ten days, and I want to finish it today.  I also have two books sitting on my coffee table that I took off my own bookshelves because I want to read them.  And since I have subscribed to The New Quarterly magazine, which features new Canadian writing and is delivered, as you might guess, quarterly, I just received the newest edition… but I haven’t read the other three yet!  That was going to be another of my summer projects.  I don’t know where to begin, or how to whittle down the piles.
But enough of my whining.  I want to quickly tell you about an audiobooks I just finished listening to that was so outside my usual reading style that I’m amazed at how much I enjoyed it.  Alone in the Wild by Canadian author Kelley Armstrong is the fifth book in the “Rockton” series.  You may be familiar with her name from her “Otherworld” series, but she’s also written some children’s and Young Adult novels.  This series is set in Rockton, a small community in the Yukon wilderness, a community that no one knows exists and is made up of fugitives and criminals.  Outside of this isolated community are two Settlements, and beyond these are the Hostiles, or Wild People.  Since I’ve not read any others in this series, I don’t have the backstories of the town or the residents, but I could still follow the plot fairly easily.  When Homicide Detective Casey Duncan and Town Sheriff Eric Dalton go wilderness camping on a much-needed break from fighting crime in their town, the last thing they expect to find is a baby, but when Casey hears the unmistakable cry, she knows that this is no wild animal.  The cries lead her to a dead woman buried in the snow, and a baby tucked inside her jacket, still breathing and crying, but very, very young.  Their weekend away cut short, Eric and Casey bring the baby back to town, where they try to gather the supplies they will need to care for her until the mother is found.  Oh, I forgot to mention that no one under the age of eighteen is allowed to live in Rockton, so this poses a bit of a problem, but, being the resourceful people that they must be, living so far North and isolated from everything, the residents all rally together to help care for this infant.  Thus begins the investigation into the woman’s death and the search for the baby’s parents, which leads Casey and Eric further and further into the wilderness around their town.  There they learn about the inhabitants of the Settlements, as well as some of the practices of the Hostiles, all useful information, but will it be enough to solve the murder and find the parents?  I don’t want to get into any more details of this complex plot for fear of giving anything away, but I have to say that it was the type of audiobook that kept me walking a little bit further each day just so I could find out what happens next.  I can’t really classify this:  it was a thriller, a murder mystery, a bit of a western and a wilderness tale of pioneering and survival.  Casey was also a real-life fictional superhero, so we can throw in “superhero fiction” as a genre, too.  I know this sounds strange, and you might be thinking that it’s too far-fetched to be good, but Armstrong, somewhat of a writing superhero herself, manages to pull it off beautifully.  The narrator, Thérèse Plummer, really brought this story to life, and I wonder if I would have enjoyed it as much if I was reading the print version.  I’m curious enough about this series that I placed the first book on hold at the library (yes, another library book, and more reading pressure!), and will give that a try when it comes in.
That’s all for today.  It’s now officially afternoon, on the last day of July, on the Friday of a long weekend, and you’d think this would be a time to relax or at least do something fun, but there’s still so much I want to get done today… I guess I will make a list and tackle one or two of my tasks today, then a couple more on another day, and eventually they will all get done.  The first thing, though, is to finish my book!  Take care, stay safe and enjoy the long weekend!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Local foods and a Japanese mystery on a hot, sultry day...

Last week we saw a few days’ relief from the oppressive humidity, but it’s back today with a vengeance.  After making a big pot of soup made with local field tomatoes (YUM!), and prepping all the delicious local fruits and berries we bought at our market, I went out for a short walk earlier while it was still cool-ish and am now settled down for a day of blogging and reading.  
Last week I read a much-anticipated English translation of The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda.  This novel, set some thirty years later, recounts the murder of seventeen people who were poisoned at a birthday party.  The victims included family members, guests and neighbours, and the effects of this tragic event have resonated in the seaside town for decades.  While the murderer confessed and killed himself and the police closed the case, questions still hang over the event as some wonder why this man, with seemingly no connection to the family, would commit such a heinous crime, and whether he acted alone or had an accomplice.  There was one survivor, the family’s blind daughter, Hisako, who grew up and moved to America.  The novel is set up as though someone is now re-interviewing people, in an unofficial capacity, who were somehow connected to the murders, the family, or other victims.  These include the housekeeper’s daughter, a neighbourhood friend of Hisako’s who grew up and wrote a book about the murders, and the retired detective who originally investigated the crime, among others.  Each account builds on the last as more and more details are revealed or recalled and the larger plot comes into focus, all leading to a conclusion that was thought-provoking, but ultimately left this reader feeling less-than-satisfied.  Don’t get me wrong, it was well-written and interesting, and the format of layering account upon account worked well, but there were many strands to the plot and I felt that they weren’t all resolved satisfactorily.  But I felt that I was meant to read this book at this time, as right at the very beginning the author writes, “It’s so hot, isn’t it?  This heat is so heavy.  It’s like the city is sealed up inside a steamer.  Heat like this is cruel, it robs you of energy, far more than you’d expect”  (p 14).  I read this as I was sitting in the backyard under a tree last weekend with my feet in a pail of cold water!  The fact of the oppressive heat is mentioned again and again throughout the book, and I could totally appreciate it.  Of the murders, the author writes, “Of course people were traumatized.  I mean, it was unthinkable that something like that should have happened in the very city where we lived!  The disruption to our lives was enormous.  Fear spread like wildfire, and we were all on edge, jumping at shadows.  It was as if we were in the grip of a feverish hysteria, brought on by living day after day in a state of high tension - something that normally you’d never experience in daily life.  In the memories of that time, I have a distinct sense of being part of a major event”  (p 21).  This could have been written about our time right now, with the COVID-19 pandemic we are dealing with.  So you can see how I could relate to certain aspects of the book.  I think that perhaps I was not really focusing on the novel as much as I needed to do to keep track of the various characters and their accounts (blame it on the pandemic!), which left the ending less than clear.  It was well-reviewed, so definitely give it a try if you want a detailed, complex, multi-layered mystery.  I want to close with this quote which perfectly captures the experience of books and reading:  “No matter how much information may be available, or how easy it is to come by, when all is said and done books can only be read by working one’s way through them, line by line, page by page” (p 230).
I also finished listening to Shari Lapena’s murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, and it was exactly as I expected, neither great nor terrible, but rather “fair to middling”.  Eight guests arrive at an inn for a weekend away, but a snowstorm barricades them in and knocks out the power.  Gwen is hoping a weekend away will help her reconnect with her friend Riley, who is suffering from PTSD after her time as a journalist in Afghanistan.  Defence lawyer David is taking a weekend away to destress, although he’s not sure he believes that he needs this.  Lauren and Ian are away on a romantic weekend.  Matthew and Dana are, too, but theirs is also to destress as they prepare for their upcoming lavish wedding.  Beverly and Henry have a decades’ long marriage that seems to be on its last legs, and Beverly is hoping this weekend will reignite the passion and save them.  Candace is a writer who is using this weekend to be alone to work on her book.  James is the owner of the inn and he, along with his son, Bradley, must run the place as the weather has barred other staff from arriving to work.  Everyone seems prepared to make the best of things, but when one guest ends up dead, a death that they suspect was not accidental, fear begins to take hold.  During the course of the weekend, tensions rise, along with the body count, and secrets from each guest’s past are revealed until no one knows what to believe or who to trust.  Is the murderer among them? If so, which of them is the "unwanted guest"?  It was a bit like a cross between Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Stephen King’s The Shining, if you can imagine that.  I’m no fan of Lapena, considering her books to be just OK, but she is a Canadian writer so I like to think I’m doing my part as a Canadian reader by reading and/or listening to her books.  I just needed something easy and straightforward to listen to in this heat, and this book did not disappoint - it is at least as good as The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the HouseNot great, but if you want a light, easy mystery, this might fit the bill.
That’s all for today.  Stay cool, stay safe, and pick up a good book!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Still feeling hot, hot. hot...

The heat wave has continued all through last week, but is hopefully ending soon, as we are experiencing an unbearably humid Sunday, with the temperature at 32º, feeling like 42º!  I set the A/C to a slightly cooler temperature and baked a Date Loaf, which I am going to enjoy with my steeped chai.  I also made a big pot of tomato soup with fresh Ontario tomatoes - YUM!  But I’m definitely staying inside today, reading and cleaning the house and reorganizing my bookshelves.  
Since my last post I read two books that I’d picked up from the library.  The first was a short-ish novel, The Girl Who Wasn’t There by German author Ferdinand von Schirach, translated by Anthea Bell.  I thought it was a mystery, and yes, there was an investigation into a missing girl and a suspect being held in jail waiting for his trial, but it was absolutely not a mystery in any traditional sense.  Sebastian von Eschberg grew up in a crumbling countryside estate.  He was neglected by his parents, which made him lonely enough to ruin his childhood, but he was also different; he saw everything in a myriad of vivid colours, alienating him from others, even as he chose to alienate himself from them, preferring to observe life around him rather than participate in it.  When he was still a young boy, he witnessed his father shoot and gut a deer, then go on to kill himself.  We know this can’t lead to a normal adulthood for Sebastian, and so it was not surprising to read that he has grown up to become a famous, if controversial, artist.  He seems to have difficulty forming relationships, which is, once again, not surprising, but the surprise comes when he is picked up by local police for the murder of a teen-aged girl.  This reader wondered if his childhood was bad enough to turn him into a murderer.  Sebastian doesn’t seem to be doing anything to help his case, but his defence lawyer does a good job of digging into his past and the lives of his family to uncover truths that may just set him free.  As I’ve said, this was not a mystery, but more of an exploration into questions of guilt and innocence, appearance and reality, and what "the truth" really is.  It was slow to get going, and I was thankful that it was not a long book, but it was interesting enough that I just got von Schirach’s first novel, The Collini Case, from the library.  I’ve never read The Trial, but while reading this book, I imagined that it might be similar to Kafka’s famous book.  I will close with a passage from the novel that really made me think:
“We get up every morning… we live our lives, all the little things that go into them, our work, our hope, making love.  We think that what we do is important and that we mean something.  We believe we are certain, love is certain, and the society and places in which we live.  We believe in all that because otherwise nothing works.  But now and then we stop, time tears apart for a moment, and in that moment we understand, all we can see is our own reflections…. Then, gradually, things come back:  the laughter of the strange woman in the corridor, afternoons after rain, the smell of wet linen and iris and dark green moss on the stones.  And we go on in the same way we have always gone on, and as we will always go on again.” (p 216)
I was then looking for something else to read and was going through some of the books I picked up from the library.  One was a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang.  I didn’t realize that these were sci-fi stories, but I ended up reading a very short story that had a similar message to the one quoted above:
From “What’s expected of us": “...my message to you is this:  Pretend that you have free will.  It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t.  The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma.  Civilization now depends on self-deception.  Perhaps it always has.”  (Exhalation by Ted Chiang, p 60)   
I ended up finding a book that I thought was mainly a mystery but once again, I was wrong.  How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Canadian-born author Marjorie Celano opens in the small fishing village of Whale Bay on New Year’s Day, 1986, when Vera takes her dog, Scout, for a walk near the lake and never returns.  At the same time, Leo takes his young sons to the lake with the intention of teaching them to shoot, but, instead, something happens that will change their lives forever.  What unfolds is the investigation into Vera’s disappearance, laying her life bare for all to see, her thwarted ambitions and her failing marriage to much-older husband Denny.  Leo is of course a suspect, and we learn of his failed marriage to Evelina, his love-hate relationship with his sons, Jesse and Dmitri, and his desire to start a new life with his girlfriend Holly.  The investigating officer, Lewis Côté, works on discovering the truth about the disappearance but along the way he becomes enmeshed in the lives of those left behind.  Yes, it was a mystery, but oh, it was so much more!   It was an exploration into life, death, grief, and the complex relationships that make up a family.  Celona examined issues of loneliness and the need to connect to others.  Regret, lost opportunities, and the ways various individuals cope with past mistakes and forge ahead with their lives are all dealt with beautifully and compassionately in this quietly brilliant novel.  This is one I might put on our book club list for next year (if we ever have book club meetings again!), as it managed to peel back the many different layers that make up the lives of these characters.  I would highly recommend this deeply moving, thought-provoking novel to readers who enjoy books that explore the vast complexities of life. (I'm so excited to finally have a title to offer when people inevitably ask me if I've read anything good lately!!)
WOW, that was a much deeper post than I expected to write.  I think I need a light read this week.  It’s really raining right now, with a chance of thunderstorms and even tornadoes, so I’m definitely staying in and reading!
Stay cool, stay dry, stay safe, and pick up a good book! 
Bye for now…
Julie