Sunday 30 January 2022

Last post for January...

It’s been exceptionally cold this past week, but it’s supposed to be a bit warmer today and sunny in the afternoon, so I won’t need to bundle up quite as much for my long Sunday walk.  My steaming cup of chai is still a welcome treat, along with a delicious Date Bar… Best.  Breakfast.  Ever.

I will tell you about two kids’ books today.  The first is the book my Intermediate students’ book club read before Christmas (I only finished on Wednesday).  The Iron Trial is the first in the “Magisterium” series by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, and it was quite interesting and well-written.  It tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy, Callum, who is called to undergo testing to be admitted into the Magisterium, but he does not want to go.  Having been raised by his father, Alistair, a mage who, after the death of his wife, has spurned magic, Call has always thought that magic, and the Magisterium, was something to be avoided at all cost.  When he is forced to join the group of First Years, the Iron Trial, he reluctantly goes, but rather than hating it as he expected, he finds things that he never had in his other life, friendship and loyalty and people who watch out for him.  But when he finally finds out the shocking truth which his father tried to shield him from, Call must make a monumental decision about not only his future, but that of the entire Magisterium and the world beyond.  Sound familiar?  I thought so, too.  There were so many similarities to “Harry Potter” that I almost gave up on it, but my kids are now halfway through the second book, The Copper Gauntlet, and I thought the least I could do was finish the first book.  Normally I sit and read with them, but this year seems to be so much busier than past years that I just didn’t have time during my regular work day.  Anyway, I’m glad I finished it because the ending was a huge surprise.  I now understand why the book club members wanted to read the next book.  If you are a fan of "Harry Potter", this is definitely a book you might enjoy.

And I’m nearly finished reading one of the Silver Birch nominees for this year, The Fabulous Zed Watson by Basil and Kevin Sylvester.  This novel tells the story of Zed Watson, a non-binary kid who is obsessed with finding the missing manuscript of a novel written by H K Taylor called The Monster’s Castle, a tortured romance between a vampire and a werewolf who both happen to be male.  Well, this was never going to be published, so the author released a few chapters along with a poem, and Zed has been searching for clues to finding this book, which they are sure exists.  When they strike up an unlikely friendship with Gabe, a shy, flora-loving classmate, they head off together on a quest to find this missing manuscript, along with Gabe’s sister Sam, a geology student who is headed back to university.  They encounter perils and challenges, as well as clues and successes (and plenty of ice cream!), along the way, but the best part about this book is the pure joy that is the character of Zed.  Despite the challenges they face being non-binary in today’s mostly-traditional society, they always stay positive and manage to make light of any situation.  They are fabulous and they aren’t afraid to show it.  This book is more than a literary mystery… it’s a meditation on society’s (slowly) changing attitudes toward gender identity, the power of friendship, and the benefits of staying positive in the face of adversity.  I am looking forward to finishing this novel today, but have no doubt that it will continue to be fabulous to the very last page.  It is so full of joy, wit, puns and “Zed-isms” that it had me laughing to myself and appreciating every sentence.  I hope this father-son team continues to write together, maybe other books featuring Zed and Gabe on more exciting adventures.  I loved this book, and I’m sure you will, too!

That’s all for today.  Take care, stay warm and keep reading!

Bye for now...


Sunday 23 January 2022

Short post on a bright, chilly afternoon...

It’s mid-afternoon on a lovely winter day. This is the last full week of January, and it’s hard for me to believe that we’re nearly half-way through winter already.  After a long walk earlier today, I’m settled in with a steaming cup of chai, a slice of freshly baked Date Bread and a delicious Date Bar to write what will be a very short post.

I finished my book club book last week, The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse.  Since we are meeting tomorrow night to discuss it, I don’t want to say too much about it here, but I’ll give a quick summary.  During a leave of absence from her job as a detective with a UK police force, Elin and her boyfriend Will accept an invitation from her brother to visit the newly opened Le Sommet, an exclusive hotel in the Swiss Alps.  The location is remote, and the history of the building a bit scary:  it used to be a sanatorium where TB patients were sent for treatment and rest.  The renovation and reopening as a five-star hotel has been met with plenty of negative publicity, so when staff and guests start to go missing, those who opposed the project are the first to be considered.  But could there be more to it than that?  Could it be linked somehow to the history of the place?  Or is it something to do with the individuals, the owner, staff, or guests?  What makes matters worse is that the staff and guests are trapped at the hotel due to a major storm and so no Swiss police can come to help solve this mystery.  When more bodies turn up, it is up to Elin, with no resources and no one to work with, to try to uncover the truth and find the killer before more people are murdered.  Sounds like a great premise, right?  When I first started reading this novel, I thought for sure I’d read it before.  I recognized these familiar elements in this book:  the funicular that brought everyone up to the remote location, the glass walls that can be both breath-taking and claustrophobic, the inevitable snow storm that traps everyone at the hotel.  But once I got further into it, I realized that it just resembled many others of this type that I’d read before.  I found that the main character, Elin, was annoyingly wishy-washy about everything, including her relationship with Will, at the beginning, but seemed to “come alive” once her services as a detective were required.  It certainly picked up around half-way through, and while it was not my favourite “locked-room” mystery, the ending was certainly a surprise.  I’m curious to see what my book club members think about this book, which I believe is the first in a series.

And I read a short novel by British mystery writer Minette Walters called The Cellar.  I was happy to try a new novel by this superb writer of complex psychological mysteries, but I’m not quite sure what to make of this one.  Muna is a fourteen year old girl living in the cellar of the Songoli family home.  She was taken from an African orphanage when she was eight by a woman claiming to be her aunt and whisked away to this new home in England, where she is treated as a slave, whore and punching bag by various members of the family.  When ten-year-old Abiola Songoli goes missing, Muna is brought upstairs and told to pretend to be their feeble-minded daughter when asked any questions by the UK detectives.  Having never learned to read or write and rarely using the power of speech, Muna is nonetheless surprisingly clever, much more clever than her masters could have ever conceived.   What follows are details of Muna’s retribution for all that has been done to her and the inability of the police or neighbours to understand what is truly happening.  I’m not sure what Walters was trying to tell us by writing this novel.  Was it a spotlight on the consequences of abuse, the naïveté of Scotland Yard detectives, or the willingness of society to turn a blind eye to abuse in their midst?  Or was it simply an exploration into the actions and motives of one young woman in response to her horrific surroundings?  I think what disturbed me the most about this short novel was that I read it directly after listening to a TED Talk about the dangers of "the single story" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: (  Whatever it was, it certainly did not hold the same level of complex psychological exploration that her other books had, although it could have been fleshed out to become a really great full-length novel with a fuller storyline and more character development.  As it is, I’m not sure I’m glad I read it, but it’s making me want to reread her earlier books, as I believe she really is the “Queen of British psychological mysteries”.  At least is was short!

That’s all for today.  Take care, stay warm, and keep reading!

Bye for now…

Sunday 16 January 2022

Post on a glorious winter morning...

It’s sunny and bright, and although it’s still quite cold, it’s supposed to warm up considerably, making this a great day to take a long walk.  But first I’m going to enjoy a steaming cup of “Oh Christmas Tea” tea and a delicious date bar while I write this post.

I read a rather unusual book last week, which I must have heard about through a publisher's e-newsletter, and I'll admit upfront that this post will not do it justice, but here goes...  No One is Talking About This is the debut novel by American poet Patricia Lockwood, and it was both highly recommended and well-reviewed.  Made up entirely of short posts on a virtual platform known only as “the portal”, the novel begins with an unnamed narrator moving from city to city, touring and meeting her adoring fans.  Her social media posts are incredibly popular, often hilarious, almost always thought-provoking, and she is trying to make sense of her place in this virtual reality.  Then two short messages arrive from her mother, asking her to come home, that something is wrong.  In the second part of the book, still told in short post-like segments, she shares the devastating news that her sister’s unborn baby has Proteus Syndrome (think the Elephant Man) and is unlikely to survive more than a few days.  What follows is a study in grief, the need to make sense of this and find meaning in the universe.  The juxtaposition of these two parts, where “the portal” (or the internet) is so prominent in the first part and so clearly wrong in the second, is interesting because it is still the only way the narrator has to communicate with us, the readers, and she must find a way to make it work without diminishing the grief and sorrow and quest for consolation her family is experiencing.  When I first picked it up, I was a bit put off by the form, thinking, “how is she going to tell a story in these little bites?”, but I quickly realized that these may be small segments, but they have big meaning, and realized that this was a book I should own so I could read it again more slowly to try to better understand and absorb everything Lockwood is trying to convey.  Of course, the second part was heart-wrenching, and she did an amazing job of drawing us in to share her experiences of utter desolation and also her awkwardness with “the portal”.  Her ability to convey this so convincingly may be because it is based on her own experiences with her niece, which makes it even more heart-wrenching.  But it also makes me as a reader think about this pouring out of grief, which in her book she could only do in “the portal” but here she shares in a print book, a format whose future has been called into question for decades with the rise of virtual platforms.  Hmmm… I really do think this is a book I need to have on my shelf so I can take it down and read it again any time I want.  As a recent publication (February, 2021), it won’t likely be in the used bookstores any time soon, but I’ll make a point of looking for it anyway.

That’s all for today.  Stay warm, get outside, and remember to keep reading!

Bye for now... Julie

Sunday 9 January 2022

Book club highlights on a dreary morning...

It’s an overcast, mild-ish morning, which means the bit of snow we have is now turning to gray slush and melting away.  Thank goodness I have a steaming cup of chai (a new blend I’ve never tried before - Chai Americaine) and a homemade banana muffin to cheer me up!

My Volunteer Book Club met virtually yesterday morning to discuss Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own”, and while it was not the most popular selection we’ve read, it was by far not the least popular, and it had the added bonus of being short (but I think for some members it seemed long!).  In this essay, which is based on two papers she read to the Arts Society at Newnham and the Odtaa at Girton in October 1928, Woolf considered “women and fiction”.  First, she had to determine what that meant:  did it mean “women and what they are like”, “women and the fiction that they write” or “women and the fiction that is written about them”?  She discussed the portrayal of women in the fiction that men have written (always negative) and the socio-economic reasons why there are so few works of literature or poetry by women before the 18th century.  She then determined, through lengthy discourse, that women must have 300 pounds a year and a room of their own if they wish to write.  I’m really simplifying things, as one of my cats has decided that he must sit on my lap NOW, so he’s wedged between me and my lap-desk while I type with one hand (Oh, if only I had a room of my own!).  I had four book club members join the meeting, and only one of them gave up on it, but she blamed this partially on her need for new glasses (it was pretty slow to start off, so I'm actually surprised that so many people stuck with it).  One member loved it, and the other two enjoyed it, too.  We discussed Woolf’s life, or what little we knew of it, as well as her mental health issues.  I shared what I found online about Aphra Behn, a 17th century female poet, prose writer and playwright, to whom, according to Woolf, all female writers owe a huge debt, “for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”.  I took particular interest in her comparison of Jane Austen’s writing and that of Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and especially her idea that, while Charlotte  Brontë was the more gifted writer, Austen achieved more with fewer sentences because she wrote not as men do, but rather, she shaped her sentences to fit her own use.  We discussed “women and fiction now”, how it has changed and what still needs to be done.  We compared it to various movements happening today, particularly recognition of Indigenous writers and Black writers.  This work, and these subjects, deserve much greater exploration and research, but Google Meet ended our session after one hour, so we were left wanting.  It was a good, yet all too brief , discussion, and I think that the one member who gave up on this will now finish reading it (she has new glasses, so she has no more excuses!)

Then, to fill in the rest of the week, I read (or reread?  I can’t remember if I’ve read it before) Stephen King’s novella, “Apt Pupil”, which came up in conversation during a visit with a friend over the holidays.  What is there to say about this?  It was a study of and an exploration into evil and the need to dominate.  I don’t want to read the other novellas in this collection, Different Seasons, at this time, so I'm returning it to the library, but I’ll check the used bookstores to see if I can find a copy so I can read them whenever I need something to fill a few days.

That’s all for today.  It looks like a great day to curl up with a cup of tea and read, which is what I will do once I get back from a short walk.

Bye for now… Julie

Saturday 1 January 2022

New Year's Day post...

It’s early on New Year’s Day, and I’m sipping a cup of “Oh Christmas Tea” tea and nibbling on a delicious Date Bar as I review my year in books, a great way to start the new year.

I have three books to tell you about, then I’ll give you my “Best Reads of 2021”.  The first book I read last week was Anthony Horowitz’s mystery, A Line to Kill, which is the third book in the “Detective Daniel Hawthorne” series.  In this book, Horowitz and Hawthorne are paired up once again but this time, rather than setting out to solve a murder, they’re heading to the isolated island of Alderney to take part in a second-rate literary festival to promote their upcoming book.  It looks as if the weekend will be uneventful but, following a large reception at the home of the island’s wealthiest resident, a body is discovered and an investigation ensues.  Who could have committed this murder, and why?  There are plenty of suspects and plenty of reasons to want this person dead, and what follows is a clever mystery worthy of Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I finished this book in a day and a half, and found it to be an easy read, a cozy mystery that really demonstrated Horowitz’s amazing skill with language. 

I also read a Forest of Reading Red Maple nominee, Birdspell by Valerie Sherrard.  This novel tells the story of middle-school student Corbin Hayes, who has been dealing with his mother’s mental illness on his own for as long as he can remember.  When a classmate at his latest school tells him that she needs to rehouse her pet parrot, Corbin jumps at the chance to have the one thing he’s missed out on his whole life - a friend, someone he can talk to, something that is consistent in his life.  Things seem to be coming together for him, but then they take a turn for the worst and begin to spiral out of control.  Will Corbin be able to manage this on his own, and if so, at what cost?  This was a really interesting book, an easy read that dealt with a difficult topic with sensitivity and compassion in a way that children could understand and relate to.  I’m really glad I read this and will definitely promote it to my students.

And I read a thriller by Joshilyn Jackson, Mother May I, that was pretty unputdownable.  Bree and her husband Trey seem to have it all, a happy marriage, financial security, two lovely teenaged daughters and a newborn “surprise” son, Robert.  Bree wakes one night and thinks she sees a witch peeking in through her curtains, but she puts this down to her hormones and her upbringing steeped in her mother’s paranoia.  When she thinks she catches a glimpse of the same woman in the parking lot of the school later that day, she really begins to question her own perceptions.  Then the unthinkable happens:  her son is abducted and she must follow the directions of this vile woman if she ever wants to see him again.  What follows is a murder, an impossible bargain, and an exploration into how far a mother might go to save her child.  This novel was a real page-turner, offering snippets of Trey’s past and one woman’s thirst for revenge.  It had a complex plot and moved along at a good pace, unfolding slowly and revealing just enough information at any one time to keep me reading.  If Jackson’s books didn’t rely so heavily on the themes of marriage and motherhood, I would probably read more of them, but I found it to be too much in this book and just skimmed those sections.  Still, it was an intense read and I could certainly recommend this to anyone who enjoys a well-plotted, complex thriller with a satisfying end.

OK, to wrap up 2021, I’ve read 58 books and listened to 29 audiobooks last year. Here are my favourites:

Best Adult books:

The Benjamenta College of Art by Alan Reed Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng When She was Good by Michael Robotham This Fallen Prey/Stranger in Town by Kelley Amrstrong (two “Rockton” books) Downfall by Robert Rotenberg The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz Version Zero by David Yoon Matters of Hart by Marianne Ackerman Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout When You are Mine by Michael Robotham Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller Christmas Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella The Nazi Officer’s Wife: how one Jewish woman survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn-Beer (NF) The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting:  Wannsee and the Final Solution by Mark Roseman (NF)

Best Children’s and Young Adult books:

Pretend She’s Here by Luanne Rice (YA)  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (YA) The Agony of Bun O’Keefe by Heather Smith (YA) Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (YA) Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix (JUV)

Best Audiobooks:

The Huntress by Kate Quinn A Darkness Absolute by Kelley Armstrong *The Witch Elm by Tana French (on a previous “best-of” list) A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre (NF) Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown The Broken Girls by Simone St James A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki We Were Liars by E Lockhart (YA) The Gown by Jennifer Robson Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell

WOW, looking at these lists, I see that more than a third of the books and audiobooks from last year deserved to be highlighted. That's great news and must mean that I've been selecting my reading material with a discerning eye (or ear!).

That’s all for today.  Have a Happy New Year!  I hope 2022 is filled with plenty of steaming cups of tea and lots of books that are unputdownable!

Bye for now…