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…

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…

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…

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 - 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 (, 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…

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…