Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Happy Canada Day -- with another Canadian Book Challenge!

Happy Canada Day!

What better way to celebrate Canada Day than to sign up for the 9th annual Canadian Book Challenge? John Mutford at The BookMineSet is once again the gracious host, and this year the theme is 'music'. By which I mean that the successive levels of reading are named after the top 13 Canadian albums.

This is always a fun and easy challenge -- the goal is to read 13 Canadian books between July 1 this year and next. You can set yourself a theme or personal challenge, or just read random Canadian books. The only requirement is that you share a review somewhere online for each title you are counting toward this challenge.

There are tons of suggestions at John's blog from previous challenges -- 6523 reviews, to be exact. So join in and have fun reading and celebrating our own Canadian literary heritage!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Trio of Lifestyle Books

I've been reading a wide variety of all kinds of books lately, but not sharing them with you! To catch up a little, here is a roundup of a trio of "lifestyle" books that I've just finished.

My New Roots: inspired plant-based recipes for every season / Sarah Britton
Toronto: PenguinRandomHouse, c2015
256 p.
I received a review copy of this beautiful cookbook, which intrigued me because the author/chef is Canadian (though she lives in Denmark), and, of course, because it's vegetarian. This book is based on her blog, also called My New Roots - which I was unaware of previous to this. What can I say, I don't really follow food blogs! It's a good, solid, vegetable based cookbook. There are nice pictures -- both of the food and of the author & her lifestyle -- which are all one and the same in this book. Britton shares life stories and seems like a normal person, ie: one that is still based in average realities, thus the recipes are not aspirational, but ones that people might actually make. The recipes are vegetarian, and sound delicious, but most are the kind that you'll have to plan ahead for to locate special ingredients & find ample time to create; though not all of them -- some are quick and tasty dips or salads or such, which are more my speed ;) If you are a real food person I think you'll enjoy this one. It's the kind of cookbook you read through even if you're not actually intending to make anything shortly. Check out her blog to get a feel for her style. Oh, and fyi, she took all the photos for the book herself too!

Homemakers / Brit Morin
New York: HarperCollins, c2015.
437 p.

This bright and colourful book by the founder of Brit & Co. is definitely not aimed at my demographic. Morin is another young woman who has left a successful tech career and gotten into crafts and the DIY arena. The book is heavily reliant on her personality; photos feature her so often it becomes notable. Interesting fact though -- the photo locations are sourced through her partnership with Airbnb. That's a clever business idea.

I can see the appeal for a certain type of young person who doesn't have a lot of experience in these areas. But a book is not a website, and unfortunately this book feels like a bit of a dog's breakfast. There are beauty tips, design, then recipes, then crafts again. Most of the crafts are basic and can be found many places, so not terribly unique.  They might appeal to those new to crafting who aren't yet concerned about technique. Also, the idealized concept of "homemaker" is not really for me.

Best part = tech suggestions at end of each chapter. Her background in tech business comes in useful, as she suggests apps and useful online resources for each of the areas she's discussing. That is her unique selling point, and that was the most intriguing part of this book.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up / Marie Kondo
Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, c2014.
213 p.

I don't really have to tell you more about this best-seller except that I put it on hold at the library just check out all the fuss. It's another of those 'get organized' minimalist kind of books. And wow. She keeps ALL her books on a shelf in the shoe closet. That told me that I'm not her kind of person. And wantonly destroying books by ripping pages out so she doesn't have to keep the whole thing! Yikes. To me that's almost neurotic.

But there were some good points: make sure what you own doesn't own you. Things you give space to should "spark joy" -- her catch phrase but it does encapsulate the idea that what you have around you should be there by choice. I did start looking at the excess stuff I have and give some away; 3 bags of books and some clothing. But generally speaking, I like my stuff. I've worked hard to earn it, and I enjoy it. I'm more of a Victorian than a Modernist when it comes to my surroundings; I like having things in my space. I've accepted that fact, and have to just keep it to a level where I can still find everything that I own. When I start forgetting where I've put things then I know it's time to have a clear-out.

As someone who finds material culture very important, especially in terms of the historical record, I'm very leery of this kind of drastic, ground-clearing approach to throwing everything out. I think there can be a balance between hoarding and minimalism, and much of that lies in reducing our consumption in the first place. So. Another book with some good points to ponder, but which doesn't entirely convince me in the end.

And how about you? Have you read any of these titles? If so, what did you think? Or do you have a lifestyle title to recommend to me?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Neil Smith's Boo

Toronto: Knopf, c2015.
310 p.

It’s 1979, and school is not going so great for Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple – nicknamed for his pale countenance and fly-away hair. In fact, as the story begins, he blacks out right in front of his locker.

And then he wakes up in heaven, assuming that his congenital heart defect has finally done him in. It’s an unexpected heaven, in which all of the residents are 13 year old Americans, although Oliver discovers that while everyone looks 13, some of them have been there for much longer than a year. His new world is full of weirdly specific rules that he must decipher, even as he begins to make friends – just one more difference from his past life. One of these friends is another recent arrival, Johnny, someone Oliver knew in his schooldays.

But what he finds out from Johnny is that they were both murdered…and their killer just may be in heaven with them.

This sets off a journey of discovery, with Oliver, Johnny and their friends trying to figure out what actually happened to them back at school. It also instigates a lot of soul-searching about justice and what the right punishment is for their killer, if they ever find him.

The story is complex, with a diverse cast of characters who all ‘come of age’ through their experiences despite being stuck at the age of 13. The power of friendship and trust is a strong thread that weaves each of these lives together. Smith creates engaging characters with a wide-ranging variety of personalities and characteristics, and each has something new to add to the story.

Written in the form of a letter to Boo’s parents, whom he is desperate to reassure of his continued well-being, this book is a touching portrayal of a young man struggling to find the meaning of his afterlife. It is highly imaginative, thoughtful, and at times extremely funny. I haven’t come across such an original story in ages – if you’re looking for something unusual that can spark conversation about deep themes, while also being an entertaining, eventful read, give this one a try.

(this review first appeared in the Stratford Gazette, June 4, 2015)

Further Reading:

Another novel that might appeal to readers who find Boo of interest is Cynthia Rylant's The Heavenly Village. It is also an attempt to explain the unknown, the stopping place between heaven and earth. It's short, heartfelt, and while aimed at younger readers, I think it works well for older teens and adults in its sensibility.

There have been many comparisons between this book and Lord of the Flies -- I guess the "survival without adults in a strange land" element may be similar, but I find the tone very, very different. Boo has a more inclusive set of characters and much more humour. Other comparisons have been made to The Lovely Bones; again, I think it's a very tenuous connection, residing simply in the concept of a book narrated from heaven by the main character (a teen character). The style of both books is quite different, and Boo is a tightly-written, fast-paced story that avoids many of the issues that readers found distracting in The Lovely Bones.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Man At The Helm

Man at the Helm / Nina Stibbe
London: Viking, c2014.
310 p.

Lizzie Vogel, middle child of 3, narrates this clear-eyed, comic tale of family dysfunction. It’s 1970, and Lizzie’s mother has just overheard a phone conversation that results in the break-up of her marriage. She takes her 3 children and old dog, and moves from their comfortable suburban English home to a small and self-contained village. As a divorcĂ©e, she and her children are outsiders from the start.

To regain some social status, and to avoid any dreaded visit from a social worker, Lizzie and her older sister come up with The Man List. It’s a working document of possible eligible men to test out – basically any man at all in their village; unmarried, financially secure, handsome… or not. 

They send letters (impersonating their mother) inviting these men to tea, one by one, in hopes that someone will stick. Among various setbacks and crises -- pet ponies in the house, a younger brother who mysteriously goes deaf when he closes his eyes, neighbouring twin sisters who target the Vogels, domestic disasters when Lizzie tries to do housework, and lots and lots of money trouble -- they persevere.

When things go really wrong, their mother finally perks up. She gets a job, moves them into an even smaller house, and begins to make things happen. At this point, when they no longer need a “Man at the Helm” to keep them going, Lizzie is about to bin the list. But then they add just one more name…

For reasons clear to those who know me, I really like stories told by middle children ;) But beyond that, I really liked this tale. The narrative voice is a mix of childishness and cynicism that is rather unique to the British. While the story is a little episodic, it carries throughout a sense of the longings of unsettled children for a peaceful, safe childhood. It also feels very 70s in the freedom that these children have to operate on their own (unthinkable now) and in the way their mother smokes and drinks and seduces various men, all matter of course. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek and altogether entertaining.

This is a quick-moving, darkly funny tale of a family in transition. Along with humour and satire, there are also wonderful moments of connection and a sense of hope amidst difficult circumstances. It relies heavily on its setting, so if you enjoy a British sensibility and are interested in a young woman’s voice telling it like it is (or was), you may just love this one.

(a briefer version of this review first appeared in the Stratford Gazette, May 20, 2015)


Further Reading:

This book is reminiscent of Nina Bawden's A Little Love, A Little Learning. In that story, middle child Kate  relates a child's experience of the adult world. She tells us about their family life after their mother has left their father, and they've muddled along alone for a while, until finding them a stepfather. It's sharp and ironic as well.

If you like this author's voice, try her first book, a memoir in letters entitled Love, Nina. You will enjoy a true-to-life story that reveals a young and rather culturally naive girl working as a nanny in the 80s, and encountering famous British writers (sometimes unwittingly) -- then writing home about it. It is charming.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Distinctly Bookish Tea!

As longtime readers may know, I'm a big tea drinker as well as a reader -- "tea & books" is one of the best combos I can think of.

Last year, I worked with our local tea store, Distinctly Tea, to develop an Evergreen Tea Blend in celebration of the Ontario Library Association's Evergreen Award (part of the Forest of Reading). It was a special "Evergreen" blend made up of organic green tea with a touch of piney, smokey Lapsang Souchong. It's the signature blend, but it's also one that divides tea drinkers into those who love lapsang and those who really, really don't. (I love this blend by the way, and it's still available)

This year, thanks to the continued enthusiasm of Dianne Krempien, tea sommelier and owner of Distinctly Tea, we've created a new blend. Introducing....

Evergreen      OWL   Blend           Orange With Lime    Tea

(Orange With Lime Rooibos blend)

It's $10 for the 75 gram tin; it is a delicious, fruity non-caffeinated blend that smells absolutely luscious. I can attest to its yum factor both as a hot tea and as iced tea. And because it's non-caffeinated while being revivifying, you can have it day and night, and it's great for kids too. (tea party, anyone?) And don't forget to check out the Ontario Library Association's 2015 Evergreen Nominees for some fantastic reading suggestions to go along with your tea.

Distinctly Tea ships outside of Canada, and are generously donating 30% of sales to my library. Celebrating great reading with a marvellous tea, how could it be better? I encourage you to take a look -- order online or use it as a reason to come and visit Stratford!

But be sure to say hello if you do ;)

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Mountain Story by Lansens


The Mountain Story / Lori Lansens
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2015.
365 p.

Wolf Truly is turning 18. He's going to celebrate his birthday by hiking to the top of the mountain overshadowing his home in (the not-good part of) Palm Springs. And then he's going to jump off.

Wolf has been brought to this state by a long backstory that we learn in pieces throughout the book. What we know right away is that 1. his mother is dead, 2. his father is in prison for killing 2 people while driving drunk and 3. something very bad happened to his best friend on this very mountain within the last year.

All this combines to convince Wolf that his best bet is spending his 18th birthday as his last day on earth.

However. Fate intervenes, in the form of 3 women wandering in his path as he attempts to reach the remote point from which he means to jump. Being Wolf, and way too kind and generous despite himself, he offers to lead them to the lake they are not succeeding very well at finding. He tells himself he can leave them there and continue with his plan. Unfortunately, something happens, and they all get lost together on the mountainside. For five days.

Many harrowing things happen, to each of the players. In the blurb to the story, it reads: "Five days. Four hikers. Three survivors." And so throughout, you are calculating odds, trying to estimate the author's decisions, and guess for yourself who that lone non-survivor will be. It's nearly impossible. Do yourself a favour and try not to read anything ahead, as the uncertainty was certainly one of the joys of the book for me. It was very dramatic, and yet much more about these characters than the plot alone.

Wolf is a great character. He has depths -- despite a traumatic childhood and messed up relationships with his father and relatives (they live in the bad part of town in a chaotic household headed by his aunt and her multitude of kids), he has gravitas, and the ability to form a deep friendship with a boy he meets on his first day in California. He has solidity, and knowledge of the natural world, and cares about life in spite of himself.

The survival story is certainly compelling. The mountain is wilderness, even if they are lost within sight of the city lights far below. They face extreme weather, wild animals, impassible routes -- much to alarm them, and within this circumstance, they become closer than they might have ever thought possible. It is a fast read, as you want to keep speeding along to find out what is going to happen. But it's also a slow read, in the sense that the narrative loops back and adds to each person's story.

The three women are deftly drawn, but Wolf is the focus of the entire story, perhaps because the story is wrapped in the conceit of Wolf's writing a letter to his son to finally explain what happened all those years ago. I'm actually not sure that framing device was necessary, as the actual event that consumes the book is so vital that it doesn't really need extras. But it wasn't distracting, and there are some key moments that come from that setup.

Anyhow. A long review when the short form is: Read This. It was exciting, thoughtful, and absorbing. I loved the setting -- Lansens really brings all your senses into play with her descriptions of the smells, textures, tastes, sights and sounds of the mountain. And the characters all take a journey that is impossible to stop following.  Great choice for your next read.


Further Reading:

For another tale of a group of people stuck on a mountain -- although this time just briefly and in a sheltering cabin -- you could try Angie Abdou's Canterbury Trail. Be warned that there is lots of recreational drug use, strong language and sexual content in Abdou's work -- but it's all character based, and in opposition to The Mountain Story, this one is darkly funny.

Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk is another story of a quiet son surviving a troubled relationship with an alcoholic father. While Franklin has much more gravitas than Wolf does, he has to trek through the wilderness to try to meet his father's final request. Wolf ends up doing something similar, without intending to.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The World Before Us

The World Before Us / Aislinn Hunter
Toronto: Doubleday, c2014.
419 p.

I read this book a while back, but it has taken me a while to share it. I'm not sure why, as I really liked it. I loved its slow and echoing atmosphere, and the actual physical book's design made it very nice to read (love this dreamy cover).

Jane Standen is an archivist in her mid 30s. She spends her days quietly, pondering the past through the power of everyday objects. Nearly twenty years ago, though, she was a young nanny to a five-year-old girl who went missing in the woods under her care. The girl was never found, and Jane has tortured herself with guilt ever since.

Besides being haunted by her own understanding of what happened all those years ago, Jane is haunted...quite a handful of ghostly voices, tied to her research into another missing woman, one who disappeared from a Victorian asylum nearly a century before.

Jane doesn't hear these voices, a chorus which reflects and responds to her own concerns. The reader, however, is guided and enlightened by their commentary. Eventually, anyhow, as the fragmentary dialogues coalesce into an understandable narrative. These ghosts are all connected to the asylum, the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. As Jane's research progresses, the story deepens to include past and present, contrasting Jane's seemingly vital worry and guilt about her present day issues with the drifting voices of those who also had vital concerns in their own present, now barely a memory for anyone still living. It is quite effective. The ghosts strive to remain active in Jane's imagination -- as they say in the beginning, "Start with Jane because our stories are tied to hers and everything depends on what she does with them."

As I was reading this, the unemotional writing style, and the concerns with the connections between memory and the fact of history, with the objects in our lives and their deep meanings, along with the academic characters, all combined to give me a sense of one of my favourite authors, Penelope Lively. What a fitting discovery, then, to find that Lively has just written a review of this novel in the New York Times which says everything I felt about this novel, both the parts I loved and those I felt some hesitancy with. I won't try to repeat those thoughts for myself, because I couldn't be nearly as succinct or evocative as Penelope Lively!

This quiet and yet complex book needs to be read again, I think. The writing will reward another reading; now that I know where the story is going I can slow down and enjoy each phrase. There were many parts at which I stopped to reread and admire the way something was written, and that for me was one of the joys of this book.

I'll finish with a quote that ponders history, memory, and Jane's work with the artifacts in her museum. These concepts are revisited throughout the story, and I think this quote highlights the way Hunter plays with them:
Memory being what it is, we sometimes remember backwards, or sideways, or inside out. We will read the name of a song and instead of its melody some of us might experience a tightness around the ribs, a corseting. Or we might recall the notes but instead of seeing the musicians playing will picture the diamond pattern of a floor. Applause spilling out from an audience might equal heartache; a leaflet for the Fancy Fair might put the taste of toffee in our mouths. History is never perfectly framed, although the photographs in the museum may suggest otherwise. 
This is a lovely, moving book, one that moves smoothly between present, past, memory, verifiable history, and anxious anticipation of an unknown future. I found Jane an interesting heroine, despite any mistaken decisions she takes. If you like philosophical books that take on the workings of the mind as much as those of the heart, featuring archivists, professors, writers and their ilk, redolent with lost Victorian lives -- well, you will love this one.


Further Reading:

My Ghosts by Mary Swan looks at memory and the links between past and present, within the confines of one family tree. While there are no 'ghosts' in actuality, not even the not-quite-there chorus of ghostly voices found in Hunter's book, Swan's ghosts of the title are the hidden ancestors in each of us. Similarly slowly and beautifully written as well.

Any of Penelope Lively's novels, with her characteristic concern for the vagaries of history and memory, would be a good match with this novel. Her children's novels A Stitch in Time and A House in Norham Gardens match up with the connections between objects and the past, while all of her adult novels tackle memory and our place in history in one way or another, and often reflect the tone in Hunter's novel as well.