Sunday 31 January 2021

Last post for January...

It’s hard to believe that January is already over.  Time certainly flies, even when you have nothing to do!  This will be a short post because I have a recovering kitty resting on my lap and I’m typing with one hand.

Last week I read a fabulous book by one of my favourite authors, When She was Good by Michael Robotham, the second in the “Cyrus Haven” series.  Rather than typing out my own summary of the plot, please check out the Kirkus review here:

I agree with this review.  I think this was even better than Good Girl, Bad Girl; it was so gripping, I managed to finish it in just three days.  I would highly recommend this to any reader who enjoys complex psychological thrillers.

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

Bye for now!

Sunday 24 January 2021

Tea and treats and haggis, oh my!

I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and a delicious date bar sitting on the table waiting to be enjoyed, but the real culinary highlight of the morning is the spicy, fragrant vegetarian haggis I made this morning to celebrate Robert Burns Day, which is tomorrow.  I like to have an excuse to make this delicious dish, which is so fussy and time-consuming, but oh so yummy! (sorry, no mashed neeps as a side!)  It also gives me an opportunity to reflect that I am not alone, that everyone experiences setbacks in life, regardless of how well he/she/they plan:

"But little Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be vain: The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go oft awry, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!"

Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Last week I read a Young Adult novel I purchased from my book fair, Pretend She’s Here by Luanne Rice.  Fifteen-year-old Emily Lonergan is still grieving the loss of her lifelong best friend Lizzie to cancer nearly a year ago.  When she spots Lizzie’s younger sister Chloe one day after school, she immediately goes over to talk to her, only mildly curious about why she and her parents are back in town, as they relocated shortly after Lizzie’s death.  She follows Chloe to the van where her parents are waiting and gets in willingly, thinking they are going to visit Lizzie's grave at the cemetery, and is shocked to discover that they instead drive straight out of town. It only takes a moment to realize that she’s been abducted by the Porters.  She is drugged and wakes up in a locked room in their new house, and is forced to pretend she’s Lizzie, calling Mrs Porter “mom” and attending school using Lizzie’s name, going along with the story that she’s been traveling in Europe to explain why she’s missed a year of school.  Mrs Porter keeps Emily/Lizzie from running simply by threatening to hurt her real family if she tries to escape.  How will Emily/Lizzie deal with this identity shift?  Can she meet the demands of Mrs Porter and keep her family safe?  Can she keep up the charade and fit in at school?  And how will she finally escape?  This was totally my kind of book, and I thought I’d fly through it, but it seemed to take me forever to finish it.  It was well-written and I can certainly see why it's been so popular with my intermediate girls.  I’m sure it will be in high demand again if/when we get back to in-person learning.  

That’s all I’ve got for you today.  I want to get outside and go for a long walk, then come back home and curl up with Michael Robotham’s newest book, When She Was Good… hmmm… I think this is a double-poetry weekend: There was a little girl, Who had a little curl, Right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, She was very, very good, But when she was bad, she was horrid.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Bye for now…

Sunday 17 January 2021

Tea and treats on a snowy morning...

I’m looking forward to nibbling on a delicious Date Bar and a slice of Portuguese Yogurt Bread that a colleague brought to work on Friday, and of course sipping my steaming cup of chai, perfect to keep me warm on a chilly, snowy morning.  

Last week I read Daniil and Vanya, a debut novel by York University associate professor Marie-Hélène Larochelle.  Larochelle’s research focuses on violence in contemporary French literature, which led me to expect that she may explore this topic in her own work, originally published in French in 2017, and I was absolutely correct.  Emma and Gregory are a thirty-something couple living in Toronto who seem to have it all: a good relationship, a large house with an ample yard in a prestigious neighbourhood, and a successful design firm.  Following a traumatic failed pregnancy, Emma is inconsolable. She is determined never to have children, but her grief leads them to sign up with an international adoption agency.  When they get a call to say that there are Russian twins available for immediate adoption, they fly to St Petersburg to complete the process and start their new family.  Things are not, however, as easy or as straightforward as they were hoping, and when the boys demonstrate a lack of empathy, an inability to bond with anyone, a reluctance to speak, and a determination to live in their own little world of two, Gregory denies and Emma despairs.  We follow the twins from toddlers to teens and witness their increasingly perverse behaviour over these years until a final, sadly satisfying conclusion.  Imagine Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin times two, only much shorter and with less detail.  It was certainly unputdownable, and I really wanted to know what happened next, anticipating a “big reveal”, the kind of book that is like watching a train wreck through partially covered eyes.  It was less explicit than Shriver's novel, but still very effective, and it was interesting that Larochelle was able to depict the deterioration of Emma and Gregory, both as individuals and as a couple, parallel to the twins’ increasingly unusual relationship.  I'd read a review of this novel and was immediately interested in reading it, but when I picked it up from the library, I was disappointed to find that the cover design looked much like the blank covers of the advanced reader copies (ARCs) I often get from publishers or at the library conference I attend every year.  It was not enticing and I would never have picked it up from a display shelf based solely on the cover, but I was thrilled to find that I was immediately engaged in the story.  I was always on the lookout for signs that the marriage was not what it seemed, always looking for those hints, particularly about Emma, that were woven into the twins’ story.  It’s definitely not for everyone, the same as We Need to Talk About Kevin, but if you liked Shriver's novel and are interested in reading a dark, violent, slow-burning domestic thriller, this might be the book for you.

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

Bye for now… Julie

Sunday 10 January 2021

Tea and treats on a grey winter morning...

It’s overcast but quite mild outside, and I’m planning to go for a long-ish walk once I finish this post.  I’m starting a bit late, as I was busy cooking and baking this morning, which also meant a lengthy clean-up, but now it’s done and I can settle down to a steaming cup of chai, a delicious Date Bar, and a slice of freshly baked Date Bread.  Mmmm… a deliciously "normal" way to begin yet another strange week...

My Volunteer Book Club had our first ever Zoom meeting yesterday, and I’d say it was a success, despite a challenging start.  We discussed Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I had listened to Ng's first book, Everything I Never Told You, and was somewhat disappointed, as I expected more from a novel that was so heavily promoted and so well-reviewed. This meant that I had middling expectations for this one, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself immediately gripped by the complex web of stories.  This novel takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990s, and follows the interactions of two families, the Richardsons and the Warrens, over the course of a year and a half.  The Richardsons are a well-to-do family who have lived in Shaker Heights, the first planned community in the US, for generations.  Mrs Richardson is a journalist for the local paper and Mr Richardson is a lawyer.  They have four teenaged children who are on the straight and narrow path to college and a wonderfully planned future of marriage and family, just like their parents.  Then single mother Mia Warren and her beautiful daughter Pearl move into the Richardsons’ vacant rental unit, a duplex that is designed to look like a single-family house, and things begin to go awry.  Mia is a photographer who has always relocated once one of her projects is completed.  But this time, she promised Pearl that they would stay, that this would be “home”.  Pearl is enchanted by the Richardsons, with all that they represent:  permanency, stability, wealth, goals and connections.  The Richardson kids, on the other hand, envy Pearl’s freedom and her close relationship with her mother.  Situations arise involving the teens and the parents, as well as other members of the community, until all hell breaks loose and the very foundations of Shaker Heights are shaken to the point of near-destruction.  I loved the book, almost from the very first page, but of the three other members at the meeting, one said she didn’t really get interested until about three-quarters of the way into the book, and another said she felt the same, but became interested near the half-way point.  Their main complaint was that too much of the story centred around the teens, which they found less interesting than the storylines involving the adults.  Those complex plots, though, gave us plenty to discuss.  We talked about wealth and status, family and friendships, motherhood and surrogacy, and which would be more important in raising a child, money or love.  One member said that this book was like getting a peek at what goes on behind closed doors: everything looks flawless on the outside, but once you open those doors, all the secrets and resentments, the personalities and pent-up feelings, come flying out and reveal themselves for all to see. One of my favourite lines, near the end of the book, is from Mia:  “Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance.  We all do things we regret now and then.  You just have to carry them with you.” (p 250).  I like to think we all deserve more than one chance, and that , by carrying these regrets around, we can learn to do better.  Once things get back to normal, whenever that is, I will look for this book in the used book stores, as I’m sure I’d love to read it again sometime. Although not everyone loved this book, we had an interesting, lively and engaging discussion, and I would recommend this as an excellent book club selection.

That’s all for today.  Get out and get some fresh air!

Bye for now… Julie

Sunday 3 January 2021

First post for 2021...

It’s been snowy and winter-like this past week, and it’s snowing again today, but I don’t mind.  I love seeing the contrast of the dark branches against the white snow, especially the ones with ruby-coloured branches, or the very thin branches with bright red berries still hanging on them.  But enough about the delights of the season… I have a steaming cup of chai, a delicious Date Bar (mmm… it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve had one of those), and a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread to fuel me as I write this long post.  

I read three books last week.  The first was Booker Prize winning Disgrace by J M Coetzee.  I have always resisted reading this novel based solely on the popular cover, which shows a feral dog, as I generally avoid books that I suspect feature poorly-treated animals.  But I got a copy from the library that had a plain white cover, so I decided to give it a try.  A professor at a university in Cape Town loses everything due to his inappropriate sexual relations with one of his students, so he reaches out to his estranged daughter in the hopes of rebuilding his relationship with her, while also trying writing an opera about Lord Byron’s affair with a married woman.  I have to say, when I got to the end of the book, I thought, “What was the point?”  I could not relate to any of the characters, not David or his daughter Lucy, not Petrus, a black African who helps Lucy on the farm, not young, vulnerable Melanie, and not older but also vulnerable animal shelter volunteer Bev.  I’m sure it’s just me, because obviously many readers, and of course the Booker Prize judges, thought this was an amazing novel, but it just wasn’t a good choice for me.  Oh well, at least it was short!

Then I read Bloom, a Young Adult novel by Canadian novelist Kenneth Oppel, which has been nominated for the Forest of Reading Red Maple Award.  Set on Salt Spring Island, this novel centres around three very different teens who come together to try to save the world from aggressive, toxic, carnivorous alien plants that are taking over the world.  Yikes!  I had high hopes for this novel, as I read an earlier novel by this author, The Nest, that I loved.  But unlike the subtle creepiness of The Nest, Bloom seemed to be all special effects and not much story.  I can see how it might appeal to my twelve-year-old students, but I felt that it lacked sufficient story to keep me interested enough to read Hatch, the second in this trilogy.  That’s really all I want to say about it.

And I read another short book this week, The Benjamenta College of Art by Montreal author Alan Reed.  The author is a friend of my avid reader cousin, so she passed on her autographed copy to me and I loved it!  This novel tells the story of a year + in the life of Luca, a student at the Benjamenta College of Art.  At the beginning of the novel, he finds it challenging to navigate the maze of rooms and corridors of the college and to feel “at home” away from the small house where he grew up, a small house under a sky that is not the sky over this room, this college, this city.  He is awkward and struggles to form relationships with other students.  Then he meets Amalia and together they blend work and love with the intensity that only students have.  We watch as Luca learns and grows from the awkward new student to a more confident, more inspired one.  This is a love story, a coming-of-age story, and an awakening to all that lies ahead.  I don’t know if this is an accurate depiction of the life of a student at an art college, but I thought it perfectly captured the essence of student life in general, from the uncertainty of change and newness to the confidence of experience, with all the intense and dramatic emotional roller-coaster rides in between.  It was lyrical and engaging, and drew me along the network of corridors into Luca’s inner life, his thoughts, experiences and emotional responses.  It was a short novel that seemed much longer, and I found I had to take my time reading it to really appreciate the richness of the language.  I am truly thankful that my fabulous cousin made me aware of this lovely novel, which would have otherwise certainly escaped my notice.  I would recommend this to anyone who wishes to relive, for just 144 pages, the hopefulness and enthusiasm of student life.

And since it’s the beginning of a new year, it’s time for a recap of last year’s reading.  I read 61 books and listened to 36 audiobooks in 2020.  

My favourite adult books were:

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan
The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell
In the Woods by Tana French
The Paladin by David Ingnatius
How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Marjorie Celona
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
How to Walk Away by Katherine Center
The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach
The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa
The Wall by John Lanchester
Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo
Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson
City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong
An Inconvenient Woman by Stéphanie Buellens
Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

My favourite Children’s and Young Adult books were:

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland (YA)
Tell Me Everything by Sarah Enni (YA)
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Waiting Under Water by Riel Nason

My favourite audiobooks were:

The Dry by Jane Harper (also Force of Nature and The Lost Man) The Spy and the Traitor by Ben MacIntyre (NF)
Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
The Witch Elm by Tana French
Alone in the Wild by Kelley Armstrong
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (YA)
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley (YA)
I Found You by Lisa Jewell (also Watching You and And Then She Was Gone)

And I have a new category:

The Most Disappointing (great reviews ≠ great reading experience) books were:

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Aosawa Murders by Riku ONda
Bunny by Mona Awad (audiobook)
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (audiobook)

That’s all for today.  I hope your new year is filled with lots of hot beverages, plenty of delicious treats, and an abundance of great books!  Happy 2021!

Bye for now…