86. Smile (Roddy Doyle)

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 10.08.43 PMThank you to Knopf Canada for providing an advanced reader copy of Smile, through a Goodreads Giveaway.  This is an honest review.

Smile tells the story of Victor, a lonely man who spends his evenings in a local pub.  His relationship is over and he bumps into an old “friend” named Fitzpatrick, who he can’t quite remember, from their days at the Christian Brothers school.  They reminisce and Victor recalls his days as a school boy.

I have to admit that I hate coming across the “c” word in books.  It turns me right off the text and makes my skin crawl.  I can deal with swearing but that word makes me want to close the book!  Since it was a giveaway, I kept on reading although I still think this did nothing to add to the story.  It made be dislike the characters and made me strive to finish the book and move on.

The novel cleverly reveals a past history that Victor has repressed.  He slowly remembers and the reader begins to question his sanity.  Overall, the book tells a story and at the end “you will be challenged to re-evaluate everything you think you remember so clearly”.  Other than my frustration with that word, the book shared a coming of age story with Victor’s struggles to come to terms with a sentinel event at the school.  It was a creepy and unsettling story that leaves the reader thinking about what happened to Victor.

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85. Calm (Michael Acton Smith)

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 9.53.54 PMLife is so hectic.  Days are filled with work, carpool, errands leaving little time to relax and enjoy an evening with family.  It seems that we are constantly running and need to take time to be mindful, reflect and be still.  Calm is a book filled with beautiful pictures, quotations and helpful suggestions to take time out.

The book reinforces the importance of acknowledging what you are grateful for and suggests journalling the 3 highlights of your day.  We have a habit of talking about our 3 best things at dinner.  The kids might make a joke about it but it gives us time to connect and talk about our day as we share a meal.

The first section encourages taking time to appreciate nature by enjoying activities like walking the dog or cloud gazing.  This is followed by a section on sleep which can seem elusive when your brain refuses to turn off.  There is nothing worse than ruminating over the day’s events as you count down the hours left until the alarm goes off.  Sleep helps the body to repair and rebuild and the book offers suggestions including black out curtains, calm colours, before bed stretching and a setting a cool temperature (perhaps my dad has it right by leaving his window open a crack all winter long)!

The travel section encourages taking a walk, finding a new route home and tips if you are anxious about flight.  It is followed by a section on relationships suggesting that we turn our phones off and focus on those we care about.  Many of us may experience stress at work.  While it may be convenient to work through breaks and eat lunch at our desks, taking regular breaks improves creativity and innovation.

A couple other helpful suggestions include:

  • Take a digital detox.
  • Change your password to reflect and remind you of your intention (i.e. Re!aXt0day).
  • Try something new (i.e. calligraphy, colouring).
  • Rediscover the appeal of cooking from scratch.
  • Enjoy a cup of tea.

This is an easy read with some great tips for relaxing.  The pictures are calming and there are sections that readers can fill in with their own information.  Although I enjoyed the tips, I did feel like the book was a bit of an advertisement for their meditation app (which  comes with a monthly fee).

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84. I am a Truck (Michelle Winters)

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 1.37.52 PMAs we get ready to celebrate the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner, I am reading my way through the short-list including:  Son of a Trickster (Eden Robinson, who I had the privilege to meet at a Laurier event in February), Transit (Rachel Cusk), Bellevue Square (Michael Redhill, who I met in September and a blog post is pending), Minds of Winter (Ed O’Loughlin) and I am a Truck (Michelle Winters).

I am a Truck is a very quick read.  I would actually suggest planning your reading so that you can read it all in one sitting.  I spread my reading out and feel that the disjointed reading impacted the overall impact of the book, leaving me to feel that I should reread it to feel it’s complete impact.

As Agathe prepares a surprise to celebrate her 20th wedding anniversary to Rejean, his beloved truck is found empty, with the door open, on the side of the highway.  Rejean is missing, without a trace.  The couple had lived an insulated life, speaking in French and living off the beaten path, spending their time isolated from the English speaking community.  Rejean liked things a certain way and Agathe seemed to go along with this.

With Rejean’s disappearance, Agathe’s life opens up.  She mourns his loss by smelling his flannel shirts but meets a new friend, finds a job, learns to drive and starts to enjoy rock and roll.  She meets Martin, the salesperson who had sold Rejean the truck and through this character we learn more about Rejean who also mourns the loss of his friend.

This is a unique book, it makes the reader ponder… in fact, I am still pondering and think a second read might help.  I enjoyed the mix of English and French and needed to translate a few words as I read.  It is a book that will spur great conversations at book clubs as readers consider the oddity of each of the characters as they learn more about the disappearance of Rejean.

It is written by Michelle Winters, a writer, painter and translator.  She is originally from New Brunswick but living in Toronto.  I look forward to meeting her at the Between the Pages event at the Koerner Hall, in Toronto, November 6th.

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83. Beneath the Wake (Ross Pennie)

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 1.05.42 PMHave you ever thought about what happens when people die on a cruise ship?  Would you have considered that cruise ships are equipped with morgues?  Would you think that there is the possibility of a burial at sea?  Death on a cruise ship is a sad reality and something that must be dealt with miles away from land, in warm climates where it is essential to keep bodies refrigerated until reaching port.

Ross Pennie has introduced the reader to a whole other side of cruising in his latest novel, Beneath the Wake.  Dr. Zol Szabo makes his fourth appearance as he seeks some rest and relaxation with his girlfriend and son aboard a cruise ship in the Indian Ocean.  Of course, as they sail off into their vacation, crew members turn up dead starting a drama filled trip which leaves respite in its’ wake.  The ship doctor, in a panic, seeks out Zol’s assistance determining the cause of the deadly microbes.

Again, the reader is treated to mystery, intrigue and some education as they learn about infectious diseases, rare reptiles and life on a cruise ship.

Watch for future blog posts about the launch of Beneath the Wake (June 2017)and an overview of our book club meeting where we were privileged to have Ross attend (October 2017) and share insights about this book, his own experience cruising and his writing.

If you are interested in this book, please purchase your copy in the gift shop of the Brantford General Hospital site of the Brant Community Health Care System, where proceeds will support local health care.

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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!

Posted in Canadian, Historical Fiction, Young Adult | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

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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