81. Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood)

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 10.34.07 AMAlias Grace has been waiting on my bookshelf for a long time.  I am lucky to have signed copy after meeting Margaret Atwood this past November as she spoke about The Heart Goes Last.  She has been in the news with the Emmy award winning series of The Handmaid’s Tale which was followed with release of the Alias Grace mini-series. I finally got to reading the novel which was another example of the diversity and powerful writing of Margaret Atwood.

This Giller Prize winning novel was published in 1996 and told the true story of a poor, servant girl, who was charged with taking part in the murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (I should say housekeeper with benefits).   At the age of 16 years her alleged accomplice was hung and Grace was imprisoned for life in the new Kingston Penitentiary.  By accounts, she was a composed and model prisoner although she had previously spent time in a lunatic asylum also.

Atwood was inspired to write this fictional story of Grace’s experience after reading Life in the Clearings by Susanna Moodie.  She spun the tale with Grace sharing her life story with a physician who was hired to assess her with hopes that she could be freed from her life of imprisonment.  The reader learned of Grace’s early years as she emigrated from Ireland after a dreadful trip overseas where she lost her mother (imagine the devastation of a young girl as she watched  her mother buried at sea) and landed, poverty-stricken in Toronto.  As she cared for her younger siblings, her father drank away his income and forced Grace to work as a household servant.

The historical plight of women was highlighted.  With no birth control, her friend became pregnant and in despair died after a dangerous abortion.  The doctor’s landlady’s struggled after her husband abandoned her leaving her close to destitute.  Kinnear expected more than just cleaning from his housekeeper.  Women had a lack of options and control over their own lives.

As Grace recounts her life story, the reader is entranced, wondering how truthful she is being or how skillful in weaving her tale.  The mystical thinking of the time with seances and hypnosis add intrigue and I am still not sure whether Grace was an innocent bystander swept away by her lack of experience or whether she collaborated with the shifty peddler who eventually helped her case for freedom.

Atwood has spun a great tale blending Canadian history with suspense.  The unmarked graves of Kinnear and his house keeper remain in Richmond Hill and readers can now tour the Kingston Penitentiary which opened in 1835.

Before watching the Alias Grace mini-series, grab the book and get lost in the pages of fiction which embeds Canadian history!

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Happiness/Communication Blitz (Books 79-80, 82)

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 5.06.03 PM79.  Happier (Tal Ben-Shahar)

“The journey is more important than the destination”

Returning to work in September, Happier was my first audio book for commuting after I discovered (thanks Alison P) Hoopla.  The book focused on enhancing happiness through positive psychology and was written by a Harvard professor.

He discusses “four archetypes of happiness decision-making using a hamburger analogy.

1. The hedonist lives by the maxim, “seek pleasure and avoid pain”. This archetype chooses the tasty junk-food burger without regard to long-term consequences.
2. The rat racer lives for future gain by sacrificing the present.  The rat race archetype selects a tasteless vegetarian burger made with the healthiest ingredients, with future benefit in mind.
3. The nihilist is someone who has lost his or her spark for life – both present and future. The nihilistic archetype chooses the tasteless, unhealthy burger because they simply do not care.
4. The ideal burger is the happiness archetype – a combination of a tasty and healthy burger. This group knows that activities they perform today at home, at work and in their communities will contribute to a fulfilling future”.

There are some helpful insights including starting a gratitude journal and simplifying life.  Sadly this book was disappointing as it seemed very repetitive after enjoying Neil Pasricha‘s The Happiness Equation and Shawn Achor’s  The Happiness Advantage.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 5.35.52 PM80.  Five Love Languages (Gary Chapman)

This book was suggested by a great friend (thank you Karen) as a great way to think about communication for families.  I had not realized that it focused specifically on communication with a partner and had been looking for some tips for talking with teens but finished listening to the book before so finished listening to it and moved on to the version for teens.

This book had some great tips for really listening and understanding your partner’s needs and was a bestseller.  I have to admit that I had some difficulty relating to the examples even though it was supposed to be an updated version.  Many examples were very stereotypical in their portrayal of wives staying home to make dinner and care for the kids while husbands headed out to work!  I had trouble getting past this and listening to the messages about communication at times.

Overall, we can all benefit from improved communication and it was worth listening to during my commutes.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 5.36.18 PM82.   Five Love Languages for Teens (Gary Chapman)

After finishing the audiobook above, I moved on the the version of love languages specific to teens. At times, it was insightful and made me think of what love language was important to each of my children.

This book may have had some great messages but I did not relate to the religious messaging and did not think the examples were representative of the issues that today’s teens experience.  The tone seemed to express homophobic views as he talked about “immorality” and because of this, it will be the last time I read or listen to a book by this author.

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78. The Spawning Grounds (Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 10.13.36 AMThe Spawning Grounds has been on my TBR list since meeting Gail Anderson-Dargatz in Grimsby last October.  I am not sure why I waited so long to read it and will always regret that I did not purchase a copy and have it signed that night (sadly, sometimes I need to limit my book purchases)!  I do have signed copies of A Recipe for Bees, The Cure for Death is Lightning and Turtle Valley on my bookshelf.

If you are looking for a thought-provoking story blending family challenges, nature, mysticism, history and legend this is the book for you!  The reader learns about the lives and habits of salmon as Hannah works to save the fish from a dying river.  The salmon and the river have been a part of the genealogy and history of those who live on both sides.  Hannah and her brother have been supported by their crusty grandfather, a landowner and cattle farmer, since their mother’s suicide and subsequent abandonment by their father who could not handle the grief of losing his wife.  As Hannah saves salmon while her friend who lives on the reservation on the other side leads a protest against further development which has been harming the river.  

Her brother, Brandon, gets swept away in the river as he saves his grandfather from drowning.  After Brandon’s rescue it is clear that he is not himself as he experiences visions, draws pictures and is seen walking naked outside – similar symptoms that his mother had exhibited prior to her suicide. The grandfather ends up in hospital, dad comes home and Hannah learns more of their family history and the story of a young boy, whose bones had been discovered, as she struggles to save her brother.  All the characters are impacted by a storm of symptoms, stories and history which escalates along with the weather.

The story is mystical, meandering like the river and leaves the reader pondering the impact of development, the importance of nature and how Canada lives with indigenous people.  It is a terrific read which I would recommend!

If you are looking to know more about Gail Anderson-Dargatz, check out Novel Questions  or the links above.


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Cross-Canada Reading Challenge

Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 10.50.29 AM

Throughout the summer, I participated in a Cross-Canada Reading Challenge.  You might wonder what the appeal to reading books across Canada is and I can say that I picked up (and enjoyed) some books that I may not have ever come across. It required a bit of research and planning but was a fun “virtual” trip across Canada as we celebrated Canada’s sesquicentennial.

Here is the final list of books that I enjoyed:

British Columbia:   Keeper’n Me by Richard Wagamese

Alberta:  The Outlander (Gil Adamson)

Saskatchewan:  Juliet in August (Dianne Warren)

Manitoba:  The Fire-Dwellers (Margaret Laurence)

Ontario:  The Weekend Effect (Katrina Onstad)

Quebec:  The Tin Flute (Gabrielle Roy)

New Brunswick:  The Town that Drowned (Riel Nason)

Nova Scotia:  The Piano Maker (Kurt Palka)

Prince Edward Island:  Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside (L.M. Montgomery)

Newfoundland:  Kit’s Law (Donna Morrissey)

Nunavut:  Consumption (Kevin Patterson)

North West Territory:  The Lesser Blessed (VanCamp)

Yukon:  Drifting Home (Pierre Berton)

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76-77. Summer Reading Blitz # 3

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 6.40.50 PM76. The Town that Drowned (Riel Nason)

As part of the Cross-Canada Summer Reading Challenge, The Town that Drowned was my choice from New Brunswick.  Described as a Young Adult novel it was a fictional story of a family impacted when NB homes were approrpriated, moved and burned to prepare for a hydroelectric dam.  Although the story is fictional, many families were impacted and relocated due to hydroelectric dams in the 1960s.

The story, which was written in 3 sections including the Summer of 1965, the Spring of 1966 and the Spring of 1967, centred around 14 year old girl named Ruby.  She fell through the ice and experienced a vision of the pending flooding.  She was coming of age, struggling with the loss of her best friend and becoming interested in a boy, all in the midst of the drama of the dam.   She helped looked after her brother who was described in a way that suggested he had autism or was on the spectrum which exacerbated the problem since he was adverse to change.

This was a great novel which would help share some of Canadian history with young adults.  It is hard to imagine being given a choice of leaving your community or taking your house and moving it elsewhere for the sake of the building of a dam.

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 6.41.55 PM77.  Consumption (Kevin Patterson)

My final book for the Cross-Canada challenge was Consumption which was set in Nunavut.  It told the story of Victoria, a young girl ripped away from the traditional ways of her family and sent to a sanitarium in the South.  After her tuberculosis was cured, she remained with another family for many years before the culture shock of returning to her family in the North.

The book, set in Rankin Inlet was eye opening as it described the harm to the Inuit way of life, the people and the land which were destroyed to make way for the valuable diamond mines.  Victoria struggled up on her return.  She married, had a family and continued to be plagued by loss.  Part of her story was told through the eyes of a physician who had cared for her extended family.  He had his own demons and avoided his own family by staying up North.  The novel is full of a unique cast of characters who all deal with the challenges of Northern living in their own ways.

Both these novels are books that may not have made their way into my TBR piles but reading across Canada helped me read books that improved my knowledge of our great country, warts and all.  It is hard to imagine the impact of mining on the North and the lack of consideration for both the people and the land that has taken place in Canadian history.  Take a cross-country tour through books and enjoy and learn more about Canada!

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75. Unplug: A Simple Guide to Meditation for Busy Skeptics (Yalof-Scwartz)

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 10.17.20 AMAs the August days waned and my vacation days quickly passed, I was seeking a way to maintain the calmness, relaxing days of summer.  I came across Unplug:  A Simple Guid to Meditation for Busy Skeptics and Modern Soul Searchers at the library and am sharing a few insights that might help others to slow down and relax.  Life can be full of rushing, deadlines, insomnia and stress but this book gives a few ideas that can bring a bit more calm and happiness into your life.

“The minute I learned to unplug, my whole life changed.  Little did I know that nearly 5 years later I would be on a mission to convince you to join me.  But when you discover a life hack this good, you want to share it with as many people as you can!” (p. 1)

I know that many people will scoff at meditation but taking a few quiet moments to reflect and set an intention for your day can infuse you with a mindful calmness and strength to take on the challenges that arise.  For others, doing a mindful body scan before bed might help calm the mind and settle for sleep.   A few helpful tips from the book included:

  • Before meditating, do a brain drain (write down any things on your mind)
  • U – unplug from devices and tasks
  • N – notice how you are feeling
  • P – pick a point of focus (breath, mantra, visualization)
  • L – let it go
  • U – understand thoughts come and go (think of them as clouds drifting by)
  • G – get on with your day

Take a few minutes to care for yourself, to reflect and to maintain calm in the midst of your busy life.  You are worth the investment of a few minutes and may find it makes a difference by introducing a calm, mindful approach.

“Meditation is a practice that teaches you to unplug from distraction and experience the present moment” (p. 23) to avoid the “monkey mind” of over 50,000 thoughts a day.


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70-74. Canadian Summer Book Blitz # 2

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 7.47.47 PM70.  The Tin Flute (Gabrielle Roy)

The Tin Flute was the Quebec book for my Cross-Country reading challenge.  This book has been on my TBR list for a while as I slowly read through the CBC’s 100 Books that Make You Proud to Be Canadian list.  It was the winner of the 1947 Governor General award and is a grim and gritty story that followed a girl, coming of age in an impoverished family.

Florentine feared being trapped in a life like her parents.  The French Canadian couple moved frequently to escape the landlords looking for rent and struggled to support their large family.  Florentine dreamed of a different life as she formed relationships with boys heading off to war.

Although it was not a happy story, it gave a vivid picture of what it was like, living in the poverty of Montreal’s St. Henri as the depression ended and war began.  It was a slow read but one that leaves the reader pondering the challenges of living in this era.

Gabrielle Roy was known as “one of the great contemporary writers on the human condition” (Canadian Encyclopedia.ca) and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1967.  Sadly she struggled with bouts of depression and died of a heart attack in 1983.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 8.00.17 PM71.  Holding Still for as Long as Possible (Zoe Whittall)

Zoe Whittall was highlighted after being short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016 for her book The Best Kind of People.  As part of a summer challenge, I chose to read Holding Still for a Long as Possible with the theme of the LGBTQ community.

This was a book that I had difficulty relating to and sadly, I think it was related to my age.  The characters were in their mid-twenties and the book focused on their social lives, running off to bars and parties.  As a busy, working mom, it was difficult for me to relate.  I also struggled with the description of paramedics and how the one character would text his girlfriend details of the cases that were picked up which in reality, would be a huge privacy breach.

Overall, I was glad that this was borrowed from the library and I enjoyed The Best Kind of People more.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 9.14.33 PM72.  Stone Mattress (Margaret Atwood)

Although I am not a huge fan of short stories, I am a huge fan of Margaret Atwood!  This collection of short stories was enjoyable and a huge departure from the age group described above in Holding Still As Long as Possible.  This collection focused on the challenges and day to day issues for older adults.  A few of the stories were linked and there were some surprises!

My favourite story was Stone Mattress which told the tale of a sly senior citizen getting revenge on a cruise to the Arctic.  This senior meets a man that had date raped her as a young girl, leaving her disgraced by her family and pregnant.  Years later, he did not even recognize her and she devised a plan of revenge fitting the rugged terrain.

After reading a few Atwood works this summer, this collection of short stories shows the diversity of her writing and I hope that more Canadians will enjoy her writing!

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 10.49.04 PM73.  The Piano Maker (Kurt Palka)

The Piano Maker was a surprise 5 star book.  I discovered this author as part of the Canadian summer reading challenge by the County of Brant Library.  I had never heard of this author and am sure glad that he was square a on the Bingo Card.

This story followed a woman who arrived in a small Canadian town in a swirl of mystery and gossip while she keeps the community spellbound with her beautiful music.  The piano in the parish was built by her family and as she plays the treasured instrument the history of the family business is shared.  The reader learns of the plight of this woman and her family as they fled the dangers of the Great War.  Almost destitute, a widow and mother Helene travels to Canada and becomes entangled with a man from the past and his questionable business of selling sourcing and selling artifacts.

This novel has love, danger, war, suspense and death.  It was a great novel which was difficult to put down.  Kurt Palka was born in Austria, previously made wildlife films in Tanzania and Kenya and worked as a journalist.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 10.47.10 PM74.  The Fire-Dwellers (Margaret Laurence)

I have been slowly working my way through Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka series of novels.  My initial introduction to this amazing author was reading The Stone Angel in highschool.  While I can’t say that I fell in love with her reading as a teenager, I appreciated this novel after rereading it as an adult.  This summer, I enjoyed The Fire-Dwellers.

Busy mom’s can relate to the challenges of raising a family, balancing all the responsibilities and losing oneself in the busy days.  This story describes the life of Stacy, living in the suburbs and experiencing an unhappy existence as her husband spends long days as a door to door salesman leaving her to care for their 4 children.  She cannot relate to her spinster sister who lives with her mother who was the main character in A Jest of God which I read last summer.

Through mistakes and soul-searching can Stacy and Mac rediscover each other?  Read the novel to find out and enjoy the wonderful writing of Margaret Laurence!

Posted in Canadian, CBC's 100 Books That Make You Proud to be Canadian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

69. Uncommon Type (Tom Hanks)

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 9.11.11 AMThank you to Alfred A. Knopf/Random House for sending an Advance Reader Copy of Uncommon Type which was won through a Goodreads Giveaway.

Tom Hanks has departed from acting in this creative endeavour, writing a collection of short stories which were all linked to the obsolete typewriter.  The stories focused (mostly) on everyday life situations (Christmas, divorce and bowling except for one tale of time travel with Chronometric adventures).  There are characters that repeat in a couple of the stories but unfortunately I did not really connect with any of them as I slowly read a story each morning.

I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of short stories and unfortunately for Tom, I had just finished reading Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman.  It was difficult for Uncommon Type to compete with our Canadian, Nobel Prize winning, octogenarian, author of short stories!

I am thankful to have had the opportunity to read the ARC but would recommend borrowing this one from the library instead of adding it to your collection!

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68. The Confidence Code (Kay & Shipman)

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 9.05.34 AMMy review on The Confidence Code will be a short since we have already enjoyed (and can review) the comprehensive guest post by Dominique O’Rourke from earlier this summer.  After reading Dominique’s review, I was inspired to read this book also and am sharing a few highlights that resonated with me:

  • “Maybe Nike has it right.  At some point we have to stop thinking and jus do it” (p. 51)
  • “We’ve learned that the secret to success may in fact be failure” (p. 124)
  • The Japanese word gaiman means keep trying (p124)
  • I appreciated the reference to the terrific book Mindset by Carol Dweck.
  • “Risk keeps you on life’s edge.  It keeps you growing, improving and gaining confidence“. (p141)]

Micro-confidence do’s include:

  • Meditate
  • Be Grateful
  • Think Small
  • Sleep more, move, share – in any order
  • Practice power positions (p162-164)

Overall, the book had an inspiring message.  At times the science of genetics and DNA was a bit dry but I really appreciated the section on raising confident daughters and would recommend the book to other parents!

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67. Juliet in August (Dianne Warren)

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 9.10.12 AMAs part of my Cross-Canada Reading challenge, Juliet in August met the requirements for a book set in Saskatchewan.  It was the winner of the 2010 Governor General award and has also been published with the title of Cool Water.

The setting, Juliet, was a small Prairie town with a collection of unique individuals whose lives intersected. The story began with the tale of a 100 mile horse race between an old cowboy and a young man which had become legend in the small town.  Lee was struggling to maintain the farm, that he inherited, when he happened to find an escaped horse and inadvertently set out to recreate the race.  A wife struggled to live up to her husband’s expectations of maintaining their home and caring for 6 children as they slowly sold off parts of their farm.  A man hid his feelings for his deceased brother’s wife recollecting the camel that had been an attraction at the drive in movie theatre he maintained.  A bank manager struggled to tell his neighbours the they couldn’t borrow any more money.  Each character in this novel has their own frustrations and drama including love, pregnancy and death set in the monotonous routine of a day.

The book has a slow pace and is character driven.  The unique characters keep the reader wondering what will happen next and if they can bust out of their routine lives in this quiet town.

This is a slow-paced read and worth taking the time to slowly meander through the town and get to know the inhabitants of Juliet, Saskatchewan!

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