Monday, 30 March 2020

Last post for March...

It’s cool and overcast, with a chance of rain early in the afternoon, perfect weather for a hot cup of tea and a good book.  I hope to get outside for a long walk before the rain starts, though, as this self-isolation makes me want to binge on junk food all day, a bad habit to get into when there seems to be no end for this new reality in sight.

Last week I reread The Rapture by Liz Jensen, which seemed particularly suitable this time, not just for the time of year, with its uncertain, often tempestuous weather, but also because of the COVID-19 pandemic we are dealing with right now.  Here is what I said about this novel in my post on April 30, 2017:

“Speaking of tempestuous weather, I reread that fabulous eco-thriller I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, The Rapture by Liz Jensen.  This novel, set in the not-too-distant future, tells the story of an unlikely group of people who are trying to save the earth from further ecological disaster on a monumental scale.  Gabrielle Fox is an art therapist who, following a car accident that has left her a paraplegic with serious emotional scars, leaves her home in London and relocates to a remote coastal town to take on a contract position at Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital, where she works specifically with Bethany Krall, a sixteen-year-old who, two years earlier, drove a screwdriver into her mother’s eye.  Bethany claims to have visions of future meteorological events after her ECT treatments, but no one believes she really “sees” things, just that she is spouting off what she has Googled or heard on the news. She dismisses Gabrielle’s attempts to get her to talk about her mother’s murder, but Gabrielle begins to take Bethany’s visions seriously when she predicts, to the day, a tsunami that will hit Rio de Janeiro, a location that never experiences such weather phenomena.  But, stuck in a wheelchair, suffering emotional damage, and having no supports, there is little she can do without allies. A strange woman appears to be stalking her, and when she is finally approached, it turns out that this is Bethany’s former therapist, Joy, who suffered a breakdown and had to leave the hospital on medical grounds. She appears to be the one person who can help Gabrielle, as she seemed to believe in Bethany’s abilities, but it turns out that Joy has other ideas.  A true ally comes in the unlikely form of a Scottish physicist named Frazer Melville, whom she meets at a fundraiser and forms an instant bond. Melville manages to rally a group of climatological experts who must convince the leading meteorological guru to take Bethany’s predictions of worldwide ecological disaster to the media or risk unprecedented catastrophe. Oh, I nearly forgot - Bethany’s father is a pastoral leader in the Faith Wave, a powerful Evangelical movement that is sweeping the UK with its messages of the Rapture, when true believers will be taken up by God while the rest of the world suffers seven years of plagues and pestilence during the Tribulation.  I don’t read many books in the thriller genre; I prefer psychological fiction rather than plot-driven novels that focus on fast-paced storylines, as these leave little room for the character development that I so enjoy. While I don’t feel that this novel had alot of character development, I felt that it had all the elements of a successful thriller. The main characters were flawed yet likeable, even matricidal Bethany, and the story was timely and all-too-believable. There was also a love story, always an uplifting element in a novel that was bleak at the best of times. And the relationship Gabrielle and Frazer develop with Bethany, while seemingly unbelievable, is, in fact, simultaneously credible and moving and heartbreaking.  This page-turner will make you angry and sad, and if you don’t already believe in global warming, you will by the time you reach the last page. This novel reminded me of Peter Hoeg’s book Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and is sure to appeal to a wide audience of readers.”

I can’t really add to this, except to say that I enjoyed it again this time around, and would definitely recommend it to just about anyone.    

And I’m nearly finished The Night Country by Melissa Albert, the sequel to her fabulous debut, The Hazel Wood, which I read and wrote about last year, also at the end of March.  Here’s a recap of that first phenomenal book:

“Speaking of YA mysteries, I’m nearly finished The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert right now... it is astounding in its complexity and character development.  Imagine what would happen if Alice in Wonderland went in search of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and you’ve got the basic scenario in this dark modern fairytale-gone-wrong.  Seventeen year old Alice and her mother Ella are on the run from bad luck; they’ve been on the run their whole lives, never staying any one place for long.  Motel rooms, guest rooms, crashing on friends’ couches, this is a way of life for Alice, and she accepts it as a necessity… until Ella meets and marries Harold, and it seems their luck has changed.  Alice gets a job, goes to a posh high school, and actually starts to make some… hmmm… acquaintances (not friends). Then Ella goes missing and Alice must race to find her, wherever she is, and save her from whoever or whatever has abducted her.  Down, down, down the rabbit hole goes Alice, only to discover the truth about herself… and that’s all I can tell you so far. I will finish today, but I have to say that this book is one heck of a rollercoaster ride through fairyland, and I can see why it got such great reviews.”  
The Night Country follows Alice when she’s back in New York, graduating from high school and hoping to begin a “normal” life… but alas, as an escaped Story from Hinterland, it appears she will never be able to escape her true self and is drawn back into the circle of ex-Stories as they form a sort of support group, talking about their issues and difficulties getting along in the “real” world.  When Alice hears about the murders of three ex-Stories, she is more determined than ever to leave her Hinterland past behind, but then something tries to kill her, too, and she fears for her life. She tries to find help from the other Hinterlanders, but somehow they believe she is the one who is killing these ex-Stories, and so she is forced to find the answers on her own. But can she do this before it is too late?  I’m finding this novel to be unputdownable, the kind of page-turner that is sucking me in and pulling me along like a curse, as though the words on the page have put me in a hypnotic state. It is not as good as the first book, as it is made up more of Alice’s descriptions of feelings and impressions than it is of story line, but somehow, I want to keep reading, the words are that mesmerizing. Thankfully there are a few chapters told from the point of view of Ellery Finch, Alice’s kind-of-boyfriend, a young man who, in the first book, joined Alice on her search and ended up stuck in the Hinterland.  His chapters are a bit more plot-driven, less descriptive, and I look forward to these occasional breaks. Still, I’m nearly done, and it’s really been a quick, easy, almost enchanting read. I worry about this one being in my library’s collection, though. The only issue I had with the first book was the use of the f-word, but this novel is much darker, more violent, and more graphic, and there is alot more swearing in it than I remember from the first book. Hmmm… this is one of the challenges I face when trying to select books for the YA collection. I guess I will wait to decide whether to keep or delete it from the collection once I get back to work, whenever that will be.
That’s all for today.  Read, walk, clean, organize, garden… do whatever it takes to fill your days with joy.  Take care and stay well.
Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 23 March 2020

A day late... because I can!

It is a bit strange but also quite wonderful to be writing this post on a Monday that is not part of a long weekend, nor is it March Break or any other official “day off” for me.  As for many of you, I am not at work today due to the closure of my workplace, and while this is a difficult time for everyone, I’m finding that steaming cups of tea, bakery-bought or homemade treats, long walks and good books are keeping my spirits up.  
I read two books last week.  The first was a Children’s book called Wait Till Helen Comes:  a ghost story by Mary Downing Hahn.  This chapter book tells the story of three children, twelve-year-old Molly, nine-year-old Micheal, and their seven-year-old step-sister, Heather.  At the beginning of the book, the children are surprised when their newly-married parents announce that they are moving from their city home to a converted church in the country, which will allow these artistic parents to have better workspaces and a full-size painting studio.  They move soon after the announcement, which coincides with the end of the school year, and the children must find ways to amuse themselves in this new, lonely, isolated environment. Molly and Michael are typical siblings, often arguing but ultimately standing together when necessary.  Heather, on the other hand, is jealous of her new family members, always seeming to be angry, and often manipulating her father into believing that her step-siblings are treating her badly so that they get punished. When the children are out exploring the grounds around the church, they discover a graveyard, and Heather is drawn to a small stone hidden by the tall grass under a tree.  Upon further inspection, the groundskeeper, Mr Simmons, discovers that this is the gravestone of a young girl with the initials, H E H, the same initials as Heather, a girl who was the same age as Heather when she died. Upon further research, the children discover that this is the grave of Helen Elizabeth Harper, whose parents died in a fire a hundred years earlier and who drowned in the pond trying to escape.  The parents’ bodies had never been discovered, so Helen was buried alone under the tree. Heather’s mother also died in a fire when Heather was three years old, so she feels an affinity with Helen and visits her grave often, claiming to be talking to the dead girl and stating that Helen is her only friend. While looking for Michael one day, Molly discovers an old, crumbling house where she finds Heather, and possibly Helen, too. But no one will believe Molly, and Heather is determined to set Helen against Molly, Michael and their mother, so that she can drive them away, and she and her father can join Helen forever.  Can Molly convince her brother, mother and step-father that this is really happening? Or will she have to try to overcome her dislike of her stepsister and try to save her from the malevolent clutches of Helen all on her own? You’ll just have to “wait till Helen comes” to find out! I wanted to read this book because it was mentioned so many times in one of my favourite Children’s books, Ban This Book by Alan Gratz as one of the banned books that the kids in this book read.  They often commented to each other, “just wait till Helen comes!”, which piqued my curiosity.  It was OK, not as scary as I thought it would be, although there was alot of discussion about death and suicide.  I’ve now read most of the significant titles mentioned in Ban This Book - yay!!
And I read a book that my Friends Book Club was supposed to be meeting tonight to discuss, The Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain.  Of course, we can’t meet so we’re moving this discussion to our May meeting, at which time we’re hoping things will be back to “normal”, whatever that may be in two months.   I decided to finish the book, since by the time I discovered our meeting was cancelled, I was already halfway through it. This novel is told from the points of view of Caroline (Carly) Sears and Hunter, Carly’s brother-in-law, and spans the 50+ years between 1965 and 2018.  Carly is a physical therapist and is married to Joe, an engineer in the armed forces in the 1960s. One of her patients is Hunter, an intriguing man with a mysterious past, whom she introduces to her sister Patti. They are a happy foursome for a few years, until Joe is killed in Vietnam and Carly discovers she is pregnant.  She also discovers that her unborn daughter has a fatal heart defect, a condition she would do anything to change. When Hunter comes to her with a plan that may save her daughter’s life, she must decide if she is truly prepared to do anything to help save her daughter in this time-shifting, genre-bending novel. I have to say that, while Chamberlain is a bestselling author and loads of people love her books, I really don’t enjoy reading them.  I listened to one of her novels as an audiobook, The Secret Sister, which I also did not enjoy.  This novel had an interesting premise, and some parts were thought-provoking, but, overall, it was just too wordy and repetitive for my liking.  Having said that, it was interesting enough to keep me reading to the very end, just to find out what happens. I think it will lead to a lively discussion, though, as it deals with many provocative, highly discussable themes, both domestic and science fiction-ish.  
That’s all for today.  I’ll wait until the snow stops before going out for my daily walk, but I’ve got a great book on the go right now, The Rapture by Liz Jensen, which I will tell you more about next week.  Stay healthy, stay safe, get outside, and keep reading!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Tea and treats on a strange morning...

It’s bright and sunny this morning, but with the COVID-19 pandemic warnings, I suspect there won’t be many people outside enjoying the lovely day.  I plan to go for a long walk after finishing this post, but I’m sure it will feel strangely desolate out there and the atmosphere subdued, a bit like those post-apocalyptic novels.
I just finished reading a novel that I brought home from the library conference I was at earlier this year, Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier.  I must have met the author, because my Advance Readers’ Edition says “For Julie” and is signed by the author.  This psychological thriller centres around Marin, a forty-something woman who seems to have it all, a perfect husband, a darling child, and a successful chain of upscale hair salons.  One day, just before Christmas, in a moment of carelessness, her son is taken and her perfect world unravels. Sixteen months later, Marin is a mere shadow of her former self, still struggling with the feeling of guilt that his abduction was all her fault, but when the PI she’s hired to keep the search for her son active informs her that her husband is having an affair, she comes alive, determined to hang on to the only family she has left.  When she enlists her oldest friend to help her out, things spiral out of control, and she learns that she’s not the only one with secrets. This novel was good, not great, a bit too wordy, but I’m glad I stuck with it because it delivered the kind of twisty ending I was hoping for and anticipating. It was a bit predictable, but still held enough elements of surprise to make the conclusion satisfying. I may or may not read others by this author, but I’m glad to have read this one.
The recent empty shelves in grocery stores and pharmacies and the desolate streets and shops have reminded me of that fabulous novel by José Saramago, Blindness.  Published originally in Portuguese in 1995 and in English in 1997, this novel deals with a mass epidemic of blindness affecting nearly everyone in an unnamed city, and the chaos that ensues.  Although it’s been many years since I’ve read it, from what I can recall, this was an amazing novel, one I would recommend to just about anyone.
And, as usual at this "tempestuous weather" time of year, I’m also reminded of another interesting novel, The Rapture by Liz Jensen, which centres around Gabrielle Fox, a psychologist who, after a tragic car accident has left her wheelchair-bound and alone, is determined to rebuild her career.  When she is assigned to work with Bethany Krall, one of the most dangerous teens in the UK, she begins to rethink her choices. But when Bethany, whose predictions of natural disasters are frighteningly accurate, predicts another disaster of epic proportion, Gabrielle cannot ignore her, and with the help of a brilliant physicist, they must fight to convince the right people to act before it is too late.  I just got this novel from the library yesterday to reread it, as the "doomsday" atmosphere surrounding us right now is perfectly suited to this type of eco-thriller.
I hope this wasn’t too dreary and depressing for you!  Please get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but stay away from crowded places.
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Short post on a *short* weekend...

We’ve lost an hour this weekend, and so far I seem to be adjusting to the time change for Daylight Savings Time, but the real test will be tomorrow morning when I have to get up for work... *sigh*.  Right now I feel ahead of schedule, having completed many household tasks, and am happy to settle down with a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar on this bright, sunny, mild Spring-like day.
My Volunteer Book Club met yesterday to discuss Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling, and it was a fun meeting.  I don’t need to summarize this novel, as everyone knows the story, even if you haven’t read the book or watched the movie.  We chose this book so that, during Freedom to Read Week, we would all be reading a banned or challenged book (this book series tops the list of the 100 most frequently banned or challenged books of 2000-2009 - http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009). Some of us had read it before, some of us had never read it, and some of us were “Harry Potter” Superfans.  This meeting was very different from our usual style, where we go around the table to ask what everyone’s initial thoughts on the book were, then get some background info on the author and the novel, then discuss specifics about the plot, characters or themes.  Yesterday it was more of a free-for-all, a constant volleying of comments around the table, with no structure at all, although I did give some background info about Rowling and the publishing of the novel around the middle of the meeting. I think this was partly because everyone knew the book/story so well and partly because this book was just the beginning of “the rest of the story”.  What I mean by this is that it was difficult to discuss the first book as a separate entity from the other six - while it was a complete novel, so many of the themes, plot lines and character stories are carried forward and explored more fully in later books, so that perhaps the first book is a bit “flat” compared to the other later books. I did not love this book, even the second time reading it, and one of the book club members didn’t finish it, saying that she just couldn’t get into it, but perhaps if we had read it as children, we might have found ourselves caught up in the “wizarding world of Harry Potter”.  Still, we had fun talking about the books and the movies, we had a Harry Potter-themed treat (https://onelittleproject.com/halloween-treat-cheese-pretzel-broomsticks/), we even had a quiz!  So it was fun for all of us, but I think we’ll be happy to read an adult fiction selection for next month.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sun, as we’re expecting a few days of rain next week.
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Banned books everywhere!

I’m using my “Banned Books” mug this morning even though Freedom to Read Week ended yesterday.  In honour of my favourite week of the year, I reread a fabulous children’s book that is all about intellectual freedom and censorship.  Here’s what I said about the book the first time I read it:

“I read (or I should say “inhaled” - it took me just two days!) a new book by Alan Gratz this week, one that I recently purchased for my schools, Ban This Book.  It tells the story of Amy Anne, a grade four student who loves to read.  She is not popular, but has one best friend, Rebecca, and two younger sisters, Alexis and Angelina.  She lives in a crowded house and her mom works alot of overtime, so in order to make some time for herself, she goes to the school library after classes have let out and reads, telling her parents that she is taking part in various clubs after school.  When she goes to find her favourite book, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler and discovers it is not on the shelf, she turns to Mrs Jones, the librarian, for answers.  What she hears is unbelievable - this book has been withdrawn from the school library because a parent decided it was unsuitable for elementary school students.  And not just this book… a whole stack of them, fiction and non-fiction, have been deemed by this parent to be unsuitable. This parent is an influential member of the PTA from a fairly wealthy family and supports many school board initiatives.  How is our book-loving heroine going to deal with this? Shy, meek, never-speaks-up Amy Anne, along with Rebecca, devises a plan to keep these books available for students at her school - she forms the Banned Books Lending Library (B.B.L.L.) which she keeps hidden in her locker.  Soon more students join this fight against censorship as it threatens to grow beyond its bounds. Can Amy Anne bring the school board around to her way of thinking and save the school library’s collection (and the school librarian!) before everything is ruined beyond repair? If you have been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that Freedom to Read week is my favourite week of the year.  Scheduled for the week of February 25-March 3, 2018, it is a week I celebrate with my students by putting up a big display of many of their favourite books that have been banned or challenged somewhere, for some reason, in recent history, books like the Harry Potter series, Captain Underpants, Junie B Jones, even some of Shel Silverstein’s poetry collections, and I read a challenged book aloud to my students as well (I think this year it will be The Lorax by Dr Seuss, banned in a California school in 1989 because it portrayed the forestry industry in a negative light and would turn children against forestry.)  Anyway, now you can understand why I had to use my “banned books” mug! This book was entertaining and humourous, but it also tackled a serious topic in a realistic and positive way, demonstrating that even kids as young as ten can make a difference if they stand up for what they believe in.  It was a fabulous book, a real celebration of all things books and reading, which explains the concept of censorship and freedom to read so well in a way that children can understand and appreciate. It will make a perfect read-aloud selection for my grade fives once I finish The Bad Beginning, and it's perfect timing, too, as I’ll be reading it during Freedom to Read week!”
I have nothing to add to this, except that, this year, rather than read a banned or challenged book to the kids, I hosted a game show called “Ban this Book” and had students choose a book from the display and guess why it was banned or challenged.  They had a great time, and so did I! Maybe next year I’ll make it into a more elaborate game, giving books different values and having teams… but that’s for another time. I enjoyed this book even more this year than I did the first time, and, once again, I inhaled it in two days.  I can’t say enough about this fabulous novel, and would recommend it to anyone. As Amy Anne points out near the end of the book, if you look hard enough, any book can be challenged for some reason, and soon there would be nothing left on the library shelves. I have had a wonderful week promoting this idea to my students, and will be talking about it with my Volunteer Book Club next weekend when we discuss the oft-challenged Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the mild, sunny day!

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Some favourite authors and Freedom to Read Week on a mild mid-winter morning...

It’s sunny and mild on this mid-winter day, and I’ve got a cup of chai tea and a date bar to keep me company this morning while I enjoy some down-time to write this after a long and busy week.
I had two new-to-me books by a couple of favourite authors I was struggling to decide between last week, Invisible by American author Paul Auster and Nutshell by British author Ian McEwan.  Both are favourites, and both write literary novels that are usually immediately compelling, featuring interesting, complex characters and settings, and focusing on plots that are part mystery, part character study, where all is not what it seems.  I have read numerous books by both authors, but not for a very long time, and I decided on Invisible because it was due back to the library sooner.  It was classic Auster, but this novel also had certain elements of the plot that reminded me of early McEwan novels, in particular The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers.  Set in New York and Paris, this novel centres around Adam Walker, a shy but handsome college student of literature who aspires to become a poet.  At a party one night, he meets older, enigmatic Rudolf Born, who befriends him and takes him under his wing, offering him a job managing a literary magazine.  Adam is stunned, but Born convinces him that he is serious about this, so he accepts the offer, but after being seduced by Born’s girlfriend Margot while Born is away, he feels a bit strange about their relationship.  Born says he’s fine with it, but when an incident occurs late one night while they are out, Adam begins to suspect that there is a dark side to Born, a very dark side.  Born returns to Paris, and Adam and his sister Gwyn live together for the rest of the summer of 1967 until Adam also leaves for Paris on a Student-Abroad Program in order to become more fluent in French.  When he runs into both Born and Margot, as well as other individuals with whom they are involved, the situation gets more complicated, and even more complicated still when accusations about past events are made.  This is all relayed to Jim, a former college friend, via letter and manuscript nearly forty years later, and he must decide what to do with this information. This novel is made up of layer upon layer of narrative from various points of view, and in different narrative formats.  At first I was put off by the story, as it seemed to focus solely on a young man away from home for the first time, with all the usual college-age issues and worries, and this no longer interests me that much, since I am so much older than that, but then I realized that this was recollected by our main character many years later, and I was sure it would become more interesting.  And it didn’t disappoint. This short novel may seem fairly predictable at first, but if you choose to stick with it to the end, it will all come together with subtle plot twists in classic Auster fashion.
And just a reminder that this week is Freedom to Read Week (https://www.freedomtoread.ca/so I hope you all take this opportunity to read a banned or challenged book. I've put up an elaborate display in my school library, and will be encouraging my students to do the same!
That’s all for today.   
Bye for now…
Julie

Monday, 17 February 2020

Addendum...

I was feeling a bit rushed yesterday when I was writing my post, and regret that I did not do the novel justice, so I’m going to write a bit more about my thoughts on the book this morning, as I sip a special loose tea that I purchased while visiting my oldest friend this past summer, Manitoba Pumpkin Spice, and enjoy a slice of freshly baked Date Bread.  
The Girls in the Garden was much more than just a suspenseful read.  This modern-day gothic novel, which is set almost entirely within the insulated walls of the private park and gardens of the neighbourhood, treats readers to a present-day mystery which is expertly intertwined with a decades-old death, also of a young girl in the park.  Are these two attacks related, and, if so, how? This novel looks at family and relationships, and asks readers to question whether blood relations are more important than relationships developed through social networks. This ended up being the perfect novel to write about this weekend, as Pip, Grace and Clare moved into their new flat in the middle of winter (like now!), the attack occurred on Grace’s birthday, and the whole novel explores family and relationships, perfect for Family Day.  It is just the kind of plot and story I enjoy, weaving together an old unsolved mystery, family secrets and troubling present-day circumstances, an atmosphere where nothing is as it seems. I will definitely be checking out other books by this author, and would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys these types of mysteries.
That’s all for this weekend.  Enjoy your Family Day!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Books, tea and treats on a long weekend...

It’s been chilly these past few days, and we’ve gotten quite a bit of snow, so it finally looks and feels like a real winter.  I worry so much about climate change, and, in January and February, the middle of winter, I prefer cold and snowy days to mild, slushy ones, so the weather today makes me happy. 
Speaking of happy, I have a steaming cup of a different chai tea today, an Organic Chai black tea with an Assam base which I’ve had before (it is a finer grind, but it's oh so delicious!) and a yummy Date Bar to keep me company this morning, which is not only on a long weekend, but also happens to be my birthday.  Maybe to celebrate I should go out and buy a new book… hmmm, that sounds like a great idea!
I finished reading a suspenseful novel by an author I have never read before, The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell.  This was recommended to me by one of the teachers at my school, and I really enjoyed it.  Set in a lush private garden in the centre of London, the opening chapter introduces us to twelve-year-old Pip, who is helping her mother out in the bathroom while she is sick after attending a party in the communal gardens.  Pip gets her mother settled in bed, but feels she must find her older sister before heading off to bed herself. Her sister, Grace, is celebrating her thirteenth birthday that day, which just happens to coincide with the neighbourhood party, and she has been hanging out with her friends and her boyfriend all day long.  When Pip heads into the park, she does find Grace, but she is lying in the bushes, bashed and bloodied, her clothes in disarray. The rest of the novel draws us back to six months before, when Grace and Pip move into their new apartment with their mother Clare. Because it is the middle of winter, they don’t really have much opportunity to get to know the neighbours whose flats are located in buildings surrounding the communal park and gardens, but once the spring weather hits, they are drawn into the community, perhaps a bit closer than Clare feels comfortable with.  But the girls love it, having moved from their home and school abruptly due to a tragic incident involving their father’s battle with mental illness. They are embraced by Adele and Leo, a rather hippy-ish couple who have lived in the neighbourhood for years, Leo having grown up there. They have three girls, Catkin, Fern and Willow, who are close in age to Pip and Grace, and who are homeschooled by Adele. Their group also includes Tyler, a young girl who lives across the park, and who is friends with Dylan, a handsome boy who also lives nearby. As close as they are, and as much as they share with each other, these friendships are also fraught with difficulties, the usual ones with which teenagers have struggles for years, connection, individuality, love and the need to belong.  As readers learn about these relationships, as well as the complex and sometimes confusing relationships between the adults in the neighbourhood, we are offered many potential suspects in the attack on Grace, but who actually did it, and why? You’ll have to read this complex, suspenseful page-turner to find out.
That’s all for today.  I want to get outside for a long-ish walk before we get on with our busy day.  I hope you will take advantage of the extra day off to get lots of reading done, as I surely will.  Happy Family Day!   
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 9 February 2020

"It's a mystery" on a clear morning...

On this clear, bright, slightly chilly morning, I’ve got a steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar as companions.  It looks like it’s going to be perfect for a long walk and a hot beverage as a reward.
Last week I went back to the mystery I was reading before my book club meeting forced me to stop and get through the required reading.  The Perfect Girl is a mystery by Gilly Macmillan, and it was a very gripping story.  Told from various points of view, this novel centres on Zoe Maisey, a seventeen-year-old musical prodigy who, three years earlier, was involved in a tragic car accident that caused the death of three other young people from her small English town.  When she is released from the juvenile facility after serving her sentence, she and her mother, Maria, move to Bristol to be near Maria’s sister, Tessa, and to make a fresh start. When the novel opens, Maria and her new husband Chris are attending a concert they organized at a church in town, with the hopes that this will kickstart Zoe’s halted musical career.  She is performing with her step-brother, Lucas, who is also a brilliant pianist, and they are just beginning the program when a man stands up and begins shouting at Zoe that she should not be allowed to carry on with a new life after taking his own daughter from him. Maria and Zoe manage to escape into the evening and return home while Lucas carries on performing alone.  When Chris and Lucas return several hours later, it proves to be a tense evening, and the next morning, Maria is found dead. But who killed her, and why? What readers are treated to for the rest of the novel are chapters from Tessa, Zoe, Zoe’s former solicitor Sam, and Tessa’s husband Richard, all telling their own stories as they try to fit the pieces together to determine what really happened.  This was a tense, engrossing read that offered snippets from Zoe’s past, but mainly focused on the present-day mystery. It wasn’t really fast-paced, but it kept me reading, not only because of the mystery, but also because I wanted to learn more about the characters that were taking turns telling the story. This is something Macmillan is very good at, developing characters, even minor ones, and making her books more dramas and psychological suspense than straightforward plot-driven thrillers. I have read a few other books by Macmillan, and they were all good reads, so if this is the kind of book you like, then this would be a good choice for you.  
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the mild-ish weather, but don’t forget to make time to read!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 2 February 2020

A cup of tea, a treat, and lots of controlling men on a snowy morning...

It’s really snowing outside, the kind of big, fluffy flakes that make it look like a winter wonderland, or like you’ve shaken a snow globe.  I’m warm and cozy inside, and am enjoying a steaming cup of tea and a delicious Date Bar right now, and am looking forward to a slow day of R&R:  reading and relaxing.
My Volunteer book club met yesterday to discuss Garth Stein’s novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and it was a hit!  Told from the point of view of Enzo, a dog who knows he’s different from other dogs, this novel opens with Enzo’s final day.  He is ready to die, as he believes he will be reincarnated as a man, and he can’t wait for that opportunity. He wants to be able to speak, to shake hands, to stand upright, but especially to have opposable thumbs.  As he accepts that this is the end, he spends the rest of the novel looking back on his life. He was taken from his farm as a puppy and went to live with Denny, a man who loves racing and who knew that he could be a great race car driver, if only he could get that one big break.  Alas, he is always just scraping by, and racing is expensive. Then he meets Eve, a woman who doesn't entirely warm to Enzo, nor he to her. They marry and have a baby, Zoe, and all is right with their world... until suddenly it isn’t. Eve is diagnosed with cancer, and she passes away, a hugely traumatic event in Denny’s life.  But just when you think it can’t get worse, it does: Eve’s wealthy parents (”the Twins”), who never really thought Denny was a good choice of husband for their daughter, decide that five-year-old Zoe would be better off with them, and sue for custody. This battle, Denny is assured by his lawyer, will never be won in favour of the in-laws.  But wait… there’s more! A bogus charge is levelled against him, ensuring that he will never be allowed custody of his daughter. Throughout these many joys and trials, Enzo is there to make philosophical commentary. He is more insightful than other dogs; in fact, he’s practically human already, if only he could escape the confines of his doggie body.  He learns much by listening to others and by watching hours of TV, and he does his best to support, and even to advise, Denny along the way. Will Denny accept his fate, or will he fight on and find a way to save himself and his daughter from the clutches of the stereotypically selfish, thoughtless and bullish Twins? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I didn’t cry nearly as much as I expected, and it was really a well-written book, one that made me think about many things, ordinary stuff that occurs in daily life that I’ve never considered before, such as how we listen to others and often derail the original conversation in favour of our own conversational direction.  Everyone loved the book. They loved Enzo’s voice as narrator, and felt that he was truly wise beyond his doggie-ness. We talked about the trials Denny faced throughout the book, and about the ways Eve supported his dreams as best she could. We discussed Eve’s parents, especially her controlling, bullying father. We discussed the ways in which we can control what happens in our own lives, and how much is out of our hands (we even discussed God and religion, and the fine balance between the ways in which we are expected to help ourselves and what we should leave up to God... if you believe in God). At one point, Denny says “That which we manifest is before us”, and Enzo takes this to heart. The full quotation is: "That which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves” (p 43).  One member pointed out that fear is a huge factor in decision-making, and that people will continue to make the same mistake again and again until they learn their lesson. Another of our favourite sayings from the book is something like “the car goes where the eyes go”, which is another way of saying that you control the direction your life takes. We talked about family, about supporting spouses, about children, about false accusations that can change a life, and about the ways that wealthy people believe they can have it all, that others should just do their bidding, and that money = power. And, of course, we discussed the bonds between people and pets. It was a great discussion, and I would highly recommend this very readable yet hugely insightful book to just about anyone.  But definitely have tissues handy when you read it.
This book made me think about controlling men, and I realized that this type of man features prominently in other books I’m reading or listening to: The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan has a domineering male figure, and The Ice Beneath Her by Camilla Grebe has several nasty, intimidating male characters.  It’s unusual to have so many similar characters appear at the same time in such different types of books, but there it is.  I’m thankful that my husband is nothing like this. Of course, that is also my choice, as I am the master of my own destiny.  This is something we talked about at length in our meeting yesterday, and it is so very true, that women must end the cycle of violence by taking control of their own destiny and making better choices, ideally early in life.
That’s a heavy topic to end this post, but I hope it doesn’t ruin you day.  Stay warm and enjoy the snow!
Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Tea, treats, books, repeat...

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

Sunday, 19 January 2020

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

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

Bye for now…
Julie

Sunday, 12 January 2020

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

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