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

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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

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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

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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“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

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“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!

May Book Club – “Silent in the Grave”

I’m the first to admit that I don’t always finish every book I start. There are so many books on my to-read list, I simply don’t have time to waste on books that don’t engage me.

silentI started this month’s book club pick, the Victorian-era mystery “Silent in the Grave” by Deanna Raybourn, but it just didn’t do anything for me. The characters were pretty dull, I guessed the murder almost immediately, and the writer seemed to have confused “chemistry” and “creepy”, because the love interest showed his interest in the female lead by first threatening to hit her, and then by drugging her as part of an interrogation, without ever doing anything to change the reader’s creeped out opinion of him.

So, I read the beginning, I read the end, I skipped the middle, and I still had enough to talk about at book club.

I wouldn’t recommend “Silent in the Grave” simply because there are so many other awesome books out there that I would recommend!

For fans of female sleuths in historical settings:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie / Alan Bradley

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The first in a mystery series set in 1950s England, starring precocious 11-year-old chemistry prodigy Flavia de Luce.

Cocaine Blues / Kerry Greenwood

cocaine

1920s Australia provides the backdrop for the first novel in the Phrynne Fisher series of historical mysteries.

Maisie Dobbs / Jacqueline Winspear

maisie dobbs

Maisie is a private detective solving crimes in inter-war years Great Britain.

Mistress of the Art of Death / Ariana Franklin

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Adelia is a “mistress of death”, the medieval version of a medical examiner, who acts in the service of the king to solve mysteries in 12th century England.

Miss Marple / Agatha Christie

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Though originally a contemporary series, Christie’s classic Miss Marple novels range in setting from the 1930s to the 1970s.

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

Here a couple of the books I’ve been reading recently.

Dead in the Water / Carola Dunn

dead

I enjoy murder mysteries, particularly British murder mysteries. I’m always on the lookout for a new series to delve into, so I thought I would give this period piece a try. Set in the 1920s, it features a plucky young aristocrat heroine named Daisy, who is determined to make her own future, and who solves crimes with her policeman fiancé. In this instalment, an unpopular university student is murdered during a rowing competition, and as usual an innocent man is initially accused of the crime (aren’t they always?). Charming and light, Dead in the Water was an ideal read for my commute – not so absorbing that I risked missing my station, but entertaining enough to help pass the time. I think I’ll pick up another title in this series, of which there are apparently quite a number.

Somewhere a Cat is Waiting / Derek Tangye

cat

I found this classic at a used book store (I am a sucker for used book stores, I love the idea of giving pre-loved books a new lease on life), and I absolutely adored it. Derek and Jeannie Tangye left their city lives and moved to the Cornwall coast, where they became flower farmers. This particular memoir tells the stories of the different cats who have shared their lives with the Tangyes. Initially a cat hater, Derek is slowly transformed into a devoted and thoughtful cat lover who lovingly recounts the colourful personalities of his different feline companions. As a fellow cat lover, I devoured this charming, thoughtful memoir, and I’m on the lookout for more books by the late Derek Tangye.

Still Life / Louise Penny

still life

Another murder mystery, but this one is set in Quebec. The first in a series, Still Life introduces Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his colleagues from the Surete du Quebec, who investigate a murder in a rural Quebec village. I did rather enjoy this novel, and I’m eager to discover more books in the series, which I understand feature many of the same characters from novel to novel. I would like to explore more Canadian literature (unfortunately I think the high school experience leaves many of us with an unpleasant feeling towards Canadian authors), particularly popular fiction set in regions of the country I am less familiar with. Again, not necessarily a particularly ground-breaking novel, but certainly enjoyable.

Library Haul – February 24, 2015

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Since I have a bit of time of my hands while I recover slowly (slowly, very slowly), I’ve been watching a lot of TV. As part of my recovery process I’ve also been dragging myself out of the house on slow walks around the neighborhood, and with a library only two blocks from my house, there have been a lot of library visits (BPL – if you’re wondering why there’s been a sudden spike in your circulation stats this month, you’re welcome).

Today I filled my basket with nonfiction DVDs, which are pretty much my favourite genre. I love documentaries, and I grew up watching Nature, Nova and National Geographic (I’m humming the National Geographic theme song as I type). Here are the DVDs I have waiting to be watched this week.

Resurrecting Richard III

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In 2011, a group of amateur historians made an incredible archaeological find: the bones of King Richard III, hunchbacked, with an arrow through the spine. Now, scientists are testing the bones to find out more about the king and also conducting fascinating experiments to determine whether Richard could have fought so ferociously in battle with such a severe deformity.

I love the Secrets of the Dead series (which isn’t nearly as morbid as it sounds), so I’m always excited to find a new episode. History was always my favourite subject in school (side note: in grade 12, my entire purpose for living was to win the school award for top student in history, which I did), and I majored in history in university, so it’s a subject area I am still very passionate about. I never understood people who thought history boring – history teachers, perhaps, but never history. Being of English extraction (in case the name hadn’t given it away), I was steeped in English history as a child, and I haven’t outgrown my fascination with it.

Evolve

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For man, beast and nature, it’s been a constant battlefield of change. Some strategic advances were anatomical while others were behavioral. While the bald eagle developed telescopic vision capable of spotting a hare a mile away, the shark evolved the act of sex as we humans know it. Discover what has propelled creatures large and small to survive. Trace the history and importance of these adaptations from their earliest beginnings to today.

This is a four-disc set, so we’ll see how far into I get before it’s due back. While history is my first love, I also have soft spots for science, particularly biology. This series is a bit older, so we’ll see how the effects hold up, but I’m certainly intrigued. Evolution amazes and confounds me, and I’m always interested in learning more.

Honey Badgers

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This is one the most fearless animals in the world, renowned for its ability to confront grown lions, castrate charging buffalo, and shrug off the toxic defenses of stinging bees, scorpions, and snakes. Our film will follow a team of researchers in South Africa who are searching for the truth behind the honey badger.

I’ll be honest, being sick for so long has left me feeling a bit despondent and in need of some cheering up and motivating. I saw this disc at the library and thought, why not? We all need to call upon our inner honey badger badness from time to time!

Collapse

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Over the 20th and 21st centuries, the rise of this civilization has seemed unstoppable. But could modern, industrialized civilization fall apart? Three hundred years from now, will scientists find evidence that this civilization followed a recipe for disaster like that of the Maya or the Romans? Imagine it has already happened. National Geographic reveals a look into the future to descendants in the year 2210 as they set out on a scientific expedition to figure out what happened.

This National Geographic special was based on the book of the same name by Jared Diamond. I haven’t read Collapse yet, but I have read Guns, Germs and Steel and The Third Chimpanzee by the same author, so I am very curious to see this adaptation.  

Egyptian Secrets of the Afterlife

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New excavations are revealing more than we’ve ever known about what the Egyptians knew they’d encounter on their afterlife journey. Today, Dr. Zahi Hawass is excavating a mysterious tunnel at the very bottom of Seti’s tomb, a perilous tunnel dug far below the surface of the Earth. On a true Indiana Jones-style quest, Dr. Hawass will put his own life in jeopardy for the sake of discovery.

I love anything to do with ancient Egypt. To be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of Dr. Hawass, who sometimes seems to be in it as much for the fame as for the research (and who, according to some reports, has an ego large enough to rival the Great Pyramid itself), but I just couldn’t resist this National Geographic special.

So, there you have it – my library haul! Have you borrowed any good DVDs from the library recently?

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Still sick but slowly on the mend…this has been one doozy of a month, complete with missing a heart-breaking amount of work. No story times = very unhappy Jane. But at this point there’s nothing I can do but rest, take my medicine, and focus on getting better.

While I love Netflix as much as the next housebound invalid, reading has been what’s truly kept me from losing my mind these past few weeks. Here’s another short list of a few of the books I’ve been devouring on the couch.

52 Loaves / William Alexander

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I have a soft spot for people who dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to inconsequential quests, particularly when those quests are just a little bit ridiculous. In 52 Loaves, William Alexander commits himself to the task of baking the perfect loaf of bread. Much to the bemusement of his family, he decides to bake a loaf of peasant bread every week for an entire yea, hence the 52 loaves. In between baking experiments, Alexander travels to Morocco to bake his dough in a traditional communal oven, makes his own starter using wild yeast, teaches the monks of a French monastery how to bake peasant bread, attends cooking school in Paris, builds his own backyard brick oven, and more, all in the pursuit of perfection. Madcap, hilarious and more than a little bit zany, this light-hearted romp really picked me up when I was feeling pretty sorry for myself sitting in a hospital bed.

The King of Vodka / Linda Himelstein

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Worthy of a film adaptation, this sweeping saga tells the larger-than-life story of Piotr Smirnov, founder of the Smirnov vodka dynasty. Rising from the humblest of origins as a serf in the Russian countryside, Smirnov built an empire in a true rags-to-riches epic. Interspersed with some of the most famous names in Russian history, from Lenin to Tolstoy to Chekhov, and ranging in period from the 1860s to the 20th century, The King of Vodka reveals the incredible story behind this household name.

A Walk in the Woods / Bill Bryson

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There are times, when you’re wallowing in self-pity and blankets, when all you want to do is escape. Somewhere. Anywhere. And ideally have a good laugh while you’re at it. At those times, few authors will serve you better than Bill Bryson. Not only will you get to vicariously travel somewhere new, you’ll have a hilarious time doing so, and you’ll learn a thing or too as well, and feel smarter for having had the experience. In this madcap yet thoughtful memoir, Bryson decides to tackle the 2,000+ mile (estimates vary, as you’ll see in the book) Appalachian Trail, running from Georgia to Maine. Out of shape, middle-aged and neurotic (in the best possible way), Bryson isn’t exactly hiking material, which makes him just the sort of guide most of us can readily relate to. Bryson’s feelings about bears in particular made me laugh out loud, having had a similar close encounter of my own in Yellowstone National Park. Escapist literature at its very best.

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

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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

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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…)