What I’ve Been Reading – Advance Reading Copies

I’ve signed up with Net Galley to receive electronic Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) for review. It’s a lot of fun – you can select the books you want to review, and you’re under no obligation to finish a title or submit a review. It’s a great way to see what’s new in the publishing world, and also to branch out of your comfort zone and try books in different genres. I particularly love getting cook book ARCs – I love photography and styling, and cook books these days tend to be hitting it out of the park in terms of gorgeous photography! I also enjoy cook books that tell a bit of a story – whether it’s about the author and their experiences, a different country or culture, or a period in history. Food is always about more than just nutrition – it’s about history, politics, culture, religion, nature and so much more.

OK, enough babbling – here are a few of the ARCs I’ve been perusing lately:


Back in the Day Bakery – Made With Love / Cheryl Day, Griffith Day

back

Mouthwatering food photography, personal anecdotes and a commitment to simple, uncomplicated baking made from scratch make this cookbook a beautiful addition to any home-baker’s collection. Cheryl and Griffith Day are self-taught bakers running a small business in Savannah, Georgia, with an emphasis on old-fashioned recipes with a little twist. Make no mistake, these recipes are not going to be easy on your waistline, but the goodies included in this collection would be delightful treats as part of a balanced diet.

Food52 Vegan – 60 Vegetable-Driven Recipes for Any Kitchen / Gena Hamshaw

vegan

I am not a vegan, nor will I likely ever become one. Severe nut allergies make many popular vegan recipes unsuitable, and to be honest I am not entirely sold on the vegan philosophy. However, I am committed to eating more mindfully, and I try to keep an open mind about different philosophies, and attempt to learn as much as I can.

I particularly enjoyed this beautiful cook book because of its simple, gentle approach to veganism – never strident or judgmental, and always practical, this is a collection of recipes that can fit into most people’s every day lives. Author Gena Hamshaw is in the business of creating beautiful, delicious vegetable-driven dishes. Whether you prepare them as part of your animal-free diet or include them in your omnivorous lifestyle is entirely up to you! “I hope the book will enrich your meatless repertoire and spark – or rekindle – a love affair with vegetables”, the author writes, perfectly summing up the spirit of this inspiring cook book.

The Food of Oman – Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia / Felicia Campbell

oman

I’m a geography nerd, and I’ll admit even I would be hard-pressed to pinpoint Oman on a map. Ask me to describe the food and culture of this tiny Sultanate, and I’d be at even more of a loss. American Felicia Campbell, who boasts a masters in food studies specializing in Arabic cuisine,  takes readers on a tour of this diverse country, steeped in history and culture.

While ostensibly a cookbook, The Food of Oman is really more of a cook book – memoir – travel guide – history textbook hybrid, complete with stunning photography. Campbell understands the complex ways in which food, politics, culture, history and religion are interwoven. Through the pages of her book we gain not only a better understanding of the cuisine of this region, but also a deeper awareness of the people who create and share this cuisine. We truly get a feel for the every day lives of every people just like ourselves, who may live thousands of miles away, but who love to share good food with good friends as much as we do.

I haven’t made any of the recipes form this book, so I can’t comment on their usability, but as a fascinating introduction to Omani culture this cook book is highly recommended.

NOTE – These electronic advance reading copies were sent to me via Net Galley for review. I received no compensation for these reviews, and all opinions are entirely my own.

Children’s books for the young and young-at-heart

“A children's story that can only be

Some children’s books stand the test of time, appealing to readers of all ages. Others offer levels of meaning that are only discovered at different stages of life. Here are a few children’s books that I would recommend to readers both young and young at heart.

Matilda / Roald Dahl

matildaA bright but neglected young girl finds solace both in reading and in the companionship of a devoted teacher in this classic by Roald Dahl. Dahl’s novels are so beloved by readers of all ages in part because of the way that Dahl never shies away from the darker, meaner, nastier side of life, which other children’s authors attempt to gloss over or cover with fluff. Dahl’s protagonists have real hurdles to overcome, but his baddies always get their comeuppance, often in satisfyingly gruesome ways, which makes for a wonderfully cathartic reading experience.

Watership Down / Richard Adams

watershipAs a child, I found this book both traumatic and confusing. A group of bunnies lose their woodland warren to human encroachment and must face terrible perils on their quest to find a new home. Incredibly complex, with elements of mythology, religion, philosophy, poetry and spiritualism (including references to a rabbit religion based around the spirit El-ahrairah), I struggled through this novel as a child, only to be enthralled by it as an adult.

The One and Only Ivan / Katherine Applegate

ivanIvan the gorilla has spent 24 years in captivity as an attraction in a shopping center, with an aging circus elephant and a stray dog for companions. Ivan’s orderly life is thrown into disarray when a baby elephant is added to the attraction, and when the cruel fate awaiting baby Ruby is revealed, Ivan realizes that he must take action if he is to give Ruby the life she deserves. The novel is written from the perspective of Ivan the gorilla, and takes the form of a journal. Deceptively simple, this is a heart breaker of a book that will tug at the heart strings of adult readers who will likely be better able to relate to the aging animal characters.

Brown Girl Dreaming / Jacqueline Woodson

brown girlI have seen this award-winning verse novel shelved in the children’s, teens and adult sections of local libraries, and considered both poetry and novel. Brown Girl Dreaming is a bit of everything, which is why it can appeal to so many readers. It has elements of a memoir, as the author recounts her childhood growing up as an African-American in the 1960s and 1970s. The protagonist is a child with whom child readers can relate, but the author reflects on her childhood from an adult perspective, which will resonate with adult readers. The verse novel format will appeal to fans of poetry, but the verse is unstructured enough as to appeal to readers of conventional prose as well. The most important fact of all, though, is that Woodson is capable of breathtakingly beautiful writing that will linger with readers long after the final pages has been turned.

The Little Prince / Antoine de Saint-Exupery

princeThough I am typically loathe to quote Wikipedia, the article for The Little Prince sums up my own thoughts quite beautifully:

Though ostensibly styled as a children’s book, The Little Prince makes several observations about life and human nature.[13] For example, Saint-Exupéry tells of a fox meeting the young prince during his travels on Earth. The story’s essence is contained in the lines uttered by the fox to the little prince: On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. (“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”)[14] Other key thematic messages are articulated by the fox, such as: Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé. (“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”) and C’est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante. (“It is the time you have lost for your rose that makes your rose so important.”) The fox’s messages are arguably the book’s most famous quotations because they deal with human relationships.

A gentle, moving and bittersweet tale of loss, loneliness, doubt, hope, redemption, and the search for meaning in the modern world, this classic novella reveals new depths as it is reread over time.

What children’s novels do you think have crossover appeal to adult readers?

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Time for another round-up of some of the many books I’ve been devouring lately.

A Curious History of Food and Drink / Ian Crofton

foodanddrink

I love, love, love random facts and entertaining trivia. As a child the only games my parents and I would play were “Scrabble” and “Trivial Pursuit”, and we regularly gather for family crossword puzzle-solving contests. I’m also a bit of a history buff, with a passion for “everyday history” – stories of the lives of everyday people throughout history. This humorous collection of food-themed information tidbits,  then, really hit the spot. Ever since picking up this book in my local library I’ve been boring thrilling friends and family with some of the factoids I’ve gleaned from its pages – did you know, for example, that the breakfast favourite currently known as French toast was originally called German toast, and was renamed on account of the First World War? Fascinating! The book is arranged in chronological order, going back as far as prehistoric times, and each anecdote is just a little morsel. It’s a perfect commuting book, as you can easily read a tidbit or two and pick it up again hours later.

The Red Queen / Philippa Gregory

redqueen

I love historical fiction, and I quite enjoyed “The Other Boleyn Girl”, despite its questionable portrayal of Anne Boleyn, but I just could not get into The Red Queen. A major reason for this is that I could not stand the protagonist, Margaret Beaufort. I understand that the reader is meant to admire this woman’s tenacity and her determination, even if they cannot stand her personality, but I just could not bring myself to care about this character, and so there was no reason for me to feel any involvement in the story. Margaret at times seemed more like a present-day teenager than a woman of the early Tudor era. Readers are encouraged to feel that Margaret is particularly cruelly treated because she is repeatedly forced into arranged marriages, however arranged marriages were considered the norm for hundreds of years, and it is probable that a well-born woman like Margaret would have expected such a marriage as a matter of course. As well, while arranged marriage at the age of 12 seems abhorrent to modern readers, average life expectancy at birth in Tudor England is typically thought to have been around 35 years of age. A 12 year old girl would likely have been nearing middle age, and her marriage would not have been all that unusual. When writing about history it is all too easy to reimagine the past through the lens of the present, which can make it easier for readers to identify with characters and understand cultures that have long since disappeared. This is a work of fiction, which means the author can do whatever the heck she pleases, but Gregory’s novels are often touted as being impeccably researched and are unfortunately sometimes viewed as historical fact rather than interpretation, which can be problematic for readers.

Cover Her Face / P D James

cover

I have long been a fan of P D James and her Inspector Dalgliesh novels, and I was delighted to find a copy of her debut novel at a library book sale. I had never read this early novel, and I found it quite fascinating. Beyond being an engaging mystery, Cover Her Face provides insight into 1960s England, particularly the social conventions of this turbulent era. Much of the story revolves around an unwed mother of questionable moral character, whose murder highlights the prejudices of English society. What really struck me were the unnerving parallels between several of the scenes in the book and comments recently made public from 2016 potential presidential hopeful Jeb Bush. Mr. Bush is quoted in a 1995 book Profiles in Character as saying:

One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.

Now, here’s a passage from Cover Her Face, in which several characters are debating the treatment of unwed mothers in the community.

‘I don’t think, Doctor, that we should talk about the problem of these children too lightly. Naturally we must show Christian charity’ – here Miss Liddell gave a half bow in the direction of the vicar as if acknowledging the presence of another expert and apologizing for the intrusion into his field – ‘but I can’t help feeling that society as a whole is getting too soft with these girls. The moral standards of the country will continue to fall if these children are to receive more consideration than those born in wedlock. And it’s happing already! There’s many a poor, respectable mother who doesn’t get half the fussing and attention which is lavished on some of these girls.’

33 years separate these two passages, yet remarkably little has changed in their societal view of unmarried mothers. Note that the women referred to in Cover Her Face are not young teenagers but grown women in their twenties, living in an era in which sexual education and access to contraception was limited – unfortunately these conditions have also changed little in parts of North America. Though primarily an entertaining who-done-it, Cover Her Face is an engaging look at a bygone era that remains eerily connected to the present day.

June Book Club – “Who Killed Janet Smith?”

“Who Killed Janet Smith? – The 1924 Vancouver Killing That Remains Canada’s Most Intriguing Unsolved Murder”

Literary Nonfiction. WHO KILLED JANET SMITH? examines one of the most infamous and still unsolved murder cases in Canadian history: the 1924 murder of twenty-two-year-old Scottish nursemaid Janet Smith. Originally published in 1984, and out of print for over a decade, this tale of intrigue, racism, privilege, and corruption in high places is a true-crime recreation that reads like a complex thriller. Anvil Press is pleased to be reissuing this title as part of the City of Vancouver’s Legacy Book Project. This new edition features a Foreword by historian Daniel Francis.

janet

Let me preface this mini review by saying that I read a lot of nonfiction. Some of my favourite authors are narrative nonfiction specialists, and as a former history student I am fascinated by the past. Imagine my disappointment, then, when this novel turned out to be a bit of a snoozefest, and a confusing one at that.

The story is indeed intriguing – a Scottish nursemaid is shockingly murdered, and doubt is cast upon some of Vancouver high society’s most influential and powerful figures. At the same time, the appalling institutionalized racism of the era comes into play, as a Chinese servant is dragged ruthlessly into the investigation. Corruption, privilege, cover-ups, kidnappings, wild parties and illicit affairs – this true story has the makings of a exciting period drama. In fact, when I initially read the book’s blurb, I was reminded of American novels such as “In the heat of the night” or “To kill a mockingbird”, where race and justice collide.

Unfortunately, as is all to often the case with nonfiction writing, “Who killed Janet Smith” reads more like a textbook than a novel. This is perfectly acceptable if you’re a student, but less enjoyable if you’re trying to get through the book in time for your next book club meeting. Dry, dry, far too long, and dry…..There is also an incredible array of characters, many of whom are referred to by different names and titles over the course of the book (full names, Christian names, initials, titles…) making for a very confusingly dry reading experience.

It’s always been a bit of a pet peeve with me, as a history fanatic, when people complain about how boring and pointless they found their history lessons in school. History isn’t boring! Uninspired teachers and dry textbooks may be boring, but history is anything but, and in the right hands, it can be as thrilling and engaging as any work of fiction.

For anyone interested in some thrilling narrative true-crime nonfiction, I would recommend the peerless Erik Larson.

The Devil in the White City – Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

devil

“Erik Larson–author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS–intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.”

Thunderstruck

thunderstruck

“Tells the interwoven stories of two men–Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication–whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. Set in Edwardian London, an era of séances, science, and fog, and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.”

Next month we’re tackling Scandinavian fiction, which is a genre I know little about, so my hopes are set fairly high!

brown girl dreaming

I recently bought my ticket to see the inspirational Jaqueline Woodson speak in Vancouver on May 8, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I recently picked up Woodson’s free-verse memoir brown girl dreaming, and words cannot express how deeply moving this beautiful, beautiful book is.

brown girl

I have been sharing one of my favourite passages with everyone I’ve come across, particularly my fellow library staff:

 

stevie and me

Every Monday, my mother takes us

to the library around the corner. We are allowed

to take out seven books each. On those days,

no one complains

that all I want are picture book.

 

Those days, no one tells me to read faster

to read harder books

to read like Dell.

 

No one is there to say, Not that book,

when I stop in front of the small paperback

with a brown boy on the cover.

Stevie.

 

I read:

One day my momma told me,

“You know you’re gonna have

a little friend come stay with you.”

And I said, “Who is it?”

 

If someone had been fussing with me

to read like my sister, I might have missed

the picture book filled with brown people, more

brown people than I’d ever seen

in a book before.

 

The little boy’s name was Steven but

his mother kept calling him Stevie.

My name is Robert but my momma don’t

call me Robertie.

 

If someone had taken

that book out of my hand

said, You’re too old for this

maybe

I’d never have believed

that someone who looked like me

could be in the pages of the book

that someone who looked like me

had a story.

We need libraries. We need diverse books.

 

Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014. Print. Pages 227-228.

 

April Book Club : “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

Not only do I enjoy cardigans, tea, cats, and knitting, I am also a member of a book club, which probably does little for my “coolness” factor, but seems to fit the profile of a librarian quite nicely. I have been participating in a local book club for several months, and I highly enjoy this monthly social meeting of fellow book enthusiasts.

This month we read “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith, aka, J.K. Rowling, aka the lady who wrote the Harry Potter series.

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

The reviews for this book are mixed at best, alternatively hailing it as terrific (Chicago Tribune), flawed (NY Times), or middling (NPR).

cuckoo

I actually enjoyed this book considerably more than I thought I would. Full disclosure time – I was never a Harry Potter fan. I know, I know –  a children’s librarian who isn’t a Harry Potter fan?! I read a lot of fantasy, so it wasn’t the subject matter I struggled with, I just never connected with Rowling’s writing style. For this reason I didn’t expect to enjoy Rowling’s foray into adult crime fiction, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. “The Cuckoo’s Calling” isn’t groundbreaking fiction, but it is an entertaining read, which is sometimes all you’re looking for in a novel.

Would I recommend this book to others? Sure, particularly to fans of traditional gumshoe detective fiction. The characters are likeable, the plot isn’t too complicated, the ending has a bit of a twist, and the story moves along at a good pace. If you’re looking for something entertaining to help pass the time on the train to work, you could certainly do worse.

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Since I’ve been sick for the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of time to sit on the couch and read. Here are a couple of the books I’ve burned through during my convalescence.

One Summer :  America 1927 / Bill Bryson

One Summer

Babe Ruth, Mount Rushmore, Prohibition, Jazz, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, the beginnings of the Great Depression, and more – Bill Bryson brings all these colourful characters and facts and more together in a book that’s as entertaining as it is educational. I love, love, love narrative nonfiction – nonfiction books that read like novels. Bill Bryson is a master of the genre, and I absolutely could not put this book down.

Divergent / Veronica Roth

Divergent

Well, the books was better than the movie, I’ll give it that. I have to say, I hated the movie. Hated, hated, hated it. In contrast, I only hated, hated the book. The lead character Tris was far less annoying in the book than she was in the film – I actually cared somewhat what happened to her in the novel, which is something. But it certainly didn’t inspire me to want to pick up another YA novel any time soon….

Eden’s Outcast / John Matteson

Eden

A fascinating account of the relationship between “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott and her father, complicated educator, writer and thinker Branson Alcott. This one was recommended to me by my mother, who has long been a voracious reader of biographies. Fascinating historical figures with intense personalities and a complex, tempestuous but ultimately loving father-daughter bond.

Racing With Death / Beau Riffenburgh

racing

I’ve always been fascinated by Antarctic exploration, and I’ve read different accounts of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen over the years. Racing with Death is the story of Douglas Mawson, an Australian explorer who’s largely forgotten today. Pretty exciting stuff, but not for the faint of heart (frostbite is not pretty…)

Cat the Cat is where it’s at.

I’ve been running a weekly baby time since the beginning of September, and with only a couple of sessions left until the end of the season, I’ll admit I’m beginning to run out of steam. I’ve already read most of my favourite picture books, and finding engaging baby-appropriate books that aren’t completely boring (“What does the cow say? Mooooo” again and again and again….) can be a bit of a challenge sometimes. I try not to repeat books in a season (I’ll be perfectly happy to trot all my favourites back out when the new session starts in January), which means the hunt for new picture books is never ending.

In my quest to shake things up a little bit and try some new things with my group, I’ve been looking beyond the typical J+Babes books for some new picture books to share. I’d used the great Mo Willems’ Cat the Cat books in my Language Fun Story Time, and I just loved their simplicity, sweetness and silly sense of humour. Although meant primarily for emerging readers, I decided to give one of them a try with my baby time crowd, and see how it went.

The first book I tried was:

Cat the Cat Who is That?

cat

It was a hit. The caregivers just adored it. The short, simple text is perfect for sharing with wiggly babies, there is plenty of child-friendly repetition, and the storyline provides opportunities for the ubiquitous animal noises. The typical Mo Willems twist ending brought plenty of smiles and chuckles, and the message of inclusiveness is definitely parent-friendly.

I have since put holds on all the Cat the Cat books I could find in the system, and I can’t wait to bring them out in future story times. Baby time books that aren’t boring! What’s not to love?