I’m off work for two weeks over the holidays, so my schedule is a bit messed up. I’ve got a steaming cup of chai and what remains of my delicious Date Bar (I ate half yesterday) to keep me company as I tell you briefly about the three (yes, three!) books I read last week.
The first book I read was No Vacancy by Tziporah Cohen. This middle grade novel is a Forest of Reading Silver Birch nominee, and it was a super-quick read. Eleven-year-old Miriam Brockman moves with her family from Manhattan to the tiny town of Greenvale, where her parents have purchased a roadside motel, the Jewel Motor Inn. Her father’s job was downsized and her parents decided that this would be a good way to live cheaply and save money for a few years until they can move back to New York. There are plenty of things that need fixing up around the motel, and between helping her parents and looking after her two-year-old brother, she doesn't get to have much fun. Miriam, who is Jewish, eventually makes friends with Kate, the grand-daughter of the couple who run the diner next to the motel. Kate is Catholic, and in a small town, these religious differences can mean a lot, so Miriam doesn’t share her details with her new friends. The motel is not doing well, and Miriam, despite missing her old friend and her old life back in New York, doesn’t really want to leave Kate and her grandparents, whom she has been helping with jobs around the diner and has come to care about. When, by chance, Kate and Miriam come up with an outrageous but brilliant plan to put Greenvale on the map as a tourist destination, their actions call into question whether, in some cases, the end justifies the means, and what role faith plays in some people’s lives. This book also explores anti-Semitism and racism in our society today, as well as the ways in which we can all work together to build a richer community. This book was really interesting, as I know almost nothing about the Jewish faith, so it served as a small window into that culture and religion. It was a quick read, but a good one, and I think many of my students will enjoy it.
Then I read Paula Hawkins’ (The Girl on the Train) latest book, A Slow Burning Fire, which was also a quick read, but only because I couldn’t put it down! I didn’t love The Girl on the Train, and wasn’t expecting to get sucked into this book, which is why it came as such an unexpected and delightful surprise to find that I just wanted to keep reading every chance I could. Middle-aged busy-body Miriam goes over to the houseboat moored next to hers to let Daniel, the temporary tenant, know that he’s overstayed his tenancy, only to discover that he has been stabbed to death. She calls the police and what follows is an investigation into the murder. Laura is a young woman who may have been the last person to see Daniel alive, aside from his killer, and certainly the last person he’d slept with. She was seen leaving the houseboat after an altercation on the morning of the murder, and she had blood on her, but that doesn’t make her guilty… or does it? She’s not the only suspect being considered. Daniel’s mother, Angela, has been dead for nearly two months, but had been estranged from her sister Carla for more than a decade, ever since Carla’s two-year-old son, Ben, fell to his death under suspicious circumstances on Angela’s watch. Was it truly an accident, or was Angela or Daniel at fault? Carla’s husband, Theo, has never forgiven Angela for the death of his son, but was he angry enough to kill Daniel? And if so, why now? An onlooker, Irene, Angela's elderly neighbour and recent friend of Laura’s, sees all and begins to piece together the connections between and within these relationships (she’s a bit of a Miss Marple), but will she figure out the truth in time to prevent the wrong person from going to prison? There are many other crimes in this novel that make up the characters’ backstories, and it was a bit confusing (and not at all believable!), but I found that I really enjoyed it. It was definitely a “Canadian Tire” book, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need.
And I finished up this weekend by reading a “Lee Valley” book, Why Birds Sing, by Canadian author Nina Berkhout. After an onstage catastrophe that stalls her career, thirty-something opera singer Dawn Woodward retreats to her home in Ottawa to heal her injured vocal chords and soothe her wounded pride. As part of her contract, she is obligated to teach a class at the community college while recuperating. It is her bad luck to be assigned to a whistling class, something she refuses to take seriously - she can’t even whistle! She decides that it may be time to start trying for a baby, something she and her husband, Ashfar, have put off in pursuit of their careers. When Ash tells her that his brother, Tariq, a man she hardly knows, is coming to live with them, her response is frosty, even when she discovers that he has cancer. Oh, and he’s not coming alone - he’ll be bringing his temperamental parrot, Tulip, with him. She reluctantly prepares the downstairs for his arrival, and remains disengaged with him, his parrot, and the Warblers, her students in the whistling class, until Tariq and Tulip join the class. Slowly Dawn begins to form connections with everyone. Accompanying Tariq when he goes for treatments, looking after Tulip when he is away, and trying to organize a performance for the Warblers takes up most of her time, since Ash is away so much, but she must also make time for her mother-in-law, Mina, whom she can never please. As Tariq’a health declines, her marriage shows signs of trouble and she considers returning to the stage, she is forced to think deeply about what is truly important and how to go about finding it. This book was also a page-turner, but not in the fast-paced way that Hawkins’ book was, but rather in the “I care about these characters and want to know what happens to them next” kind of way. It is a short novel that seems longer, a book that asks readers to consider how we determine what is important and whether success is always enough to give our lives meaning.
That’s all for today. Have a safe and happy holiday!
Bye for now…