The Charming Books of 2017 (so far)

When I came back to blogging this year I was sure I’d be able to do weekly or even twice weekly book reviews to catch up on all the fantastic and few not so great books I’ve been reading.  Clearly that hasn’t happened.  So today, in a break from my cataloguing class (it’s so much greater than it sounds, though that just might be me?) I thought I’d do a combo review.

Given that so far 2017 has been something of a rubbish year for me, in some regards, I’ve been drawn to reading happy, light-hearted, humorous and just plain old charming books.  I have been pretty selective so they’ve all been beautifully written, engaging novels that welcome you into a fictional world like a comforting arm around your shoulder.  It’s kind of like cheap therapy, pulling me out of some darker patches of my mind.  I’ve listed them below, given them a rating and a quick run down.

  1. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman – I read this in January and have already reviewed it here.  I gave it 5/5 – its sublime.
  2. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald – This is the story of a young(ish) Swedish women, Sara, who ventures to the town of Broken Wheel, Iowa to meet up with her long time pen pal.  It’s only when she arrives and no is there to collect her from the bus that she finds out the pen pal has died.  Despite this Sara decides to stay in Broken Wheel, a dying little town, and set up a book shop.  The small town characters are unique and charming, and the adventures Sara takes change the course of many people’s lives, not least her own.  For some reason this reminds me of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (without the cannibalism), I thinks it’s the location and the quirky characters.  4/5 for this one (added bonus, it has lots of literary references)
  3. Blue Shoes and Happiness (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series) by Alexander McCall Smith – If you know this series you’ll know what to expect with this one.  Set, as always, in Botswana, with Mma Ramotswe solving cases big and small in her beloved town.  This one involves a pair of blue shoes, a game reserve, and the sinister goings-on in a health clinic.  With her usual penchant for bush tea and straight talking, Blue Shoes and Happiness is a lovely Sunday afternoon on the couch kind of book.  3.5/5
  4. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – this book came at just the right time for me and made an enormous impact.  The story circles around A. J. Fikry, a grumpy bookstore owner and recent widow living on the difficult to access Alice Island.  He dislikes all but the classics, despises children’s books and detests most of his customers.  All that changes when he discovers a small girl has been abandoned in his bookstore and he sets about raising her in the most literary of ways.  That sounds preposterous, but it works, trust me.  Along the way he connects with the local policeman, reconnects with his wife’s sister and brother-in-law and is introduced to his knew agent from a particular publisher (hint this turns romantic).  Again there are lots of wonderful, intriguing and unique literary references and the character development is superb.  Highly, HIGHLY recommended – 5/5.
  5. Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach (who also write the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) – Buffy, a much recognised but retired actor unexpectedly inherits a B&B in rural Wales and makes the sudden and surprising decision to pack up his London life and give country living a crack – mostly because he couldn’t get a carpark in his street!  He’s a hopeless businessman, doesn’t really like the idea of sharing his space with strangers and has no idea how to even start.  What could go wrong?  The first half of this novel introduces you to a vast array of side characters.  My advice is to let this wash over you to some degree, I promise it will all come together in the end.  The connections made in the second half are amusing, delightful and surprising, as Buffy’s guests come to learn basic car maintenance and instead get a lesson in love.  Not everything gets tied up which is a little frustrating and some characters that were introduced in the first half, seem to get dropped for inexplicable reasons in the second and the character development is a bit hit and miss, but overall it’s a fun and funny read. 3/5

And that’s a wrap, all the “charming” novels on my 2017 list.  Please, please hit me with some more recommendations.

Barbara.

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TV Review – The Handmaid’s Tale

Offred-Handmaids-Tale-Season-1

Way back in the summer of 1996/7 I spent a solid two or three afternoons lying on my bed absorbed entirely in the world of Gilead and Offred, swept up in Margaret Atwood’s already-classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale.  The previous year I had had a similar experience with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, another dystopian masterpiece.  These were both school English texts (and given that I also read Day of the Triffids in Year 10 I wonder what on earth the English teachers were trying to prepare us for?) and opened my eyes to a form of fiction that I have continued to enjoy (what does that say about me?).  The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those novels where even the smallest of details have stayed in my mind and with just a slightest of memory jogs I can be drawn back into that world and that bedroom of my teenage years.  It’s one of those formative texts for me, one that I thank those English teachers for have the courage and foresight to pick.  It also started me down a path with Margaret Atwood that continues to this day.

Unless you’ve spent the last few weeks or months living under a rock you will be well aware that Hulu has just released (in Australia anyway, it came out a little earlier in the US) a TV mini-series adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Incidentally sales of the novel have rocketed this year, ever since the election of Trump, but especially since the release of the TV series.  In Australia, the series is being shown on SBS and all eight episodes are available through SBS On Demand, so you can choose to binge watch if you like.

I’ve watched all eight episodes although I had to space it out a little as it gets pretty bleak at times.  The adaptation is very true to the original story – I think Atwood was involved in some way, but I could be wrong – but it has been updated to include modern technology in the flashback scenes and to better represent today’s society (ie handmaids from different ethnic backgrounds and characters who are same-sex attracked).  These updates have been seamlessly embedded within the original story and actually make it more poignant in my opinion.  There are one or two changes that have been controversial (I won’t give spoilers) but they didn’t bother me.  The ending of the original book was somewhat controversial in itself, that remains the same, but there is apparently going to be a season two which will flesh out the epilogue (at least that’s what I’ve heard).

What strikes me most about the TV series is how iconic and atmospheric it is, capturing perfectly the feelings of Atwood’s world.  The colouring is muted with dull greens, blues and greys, making the red and white attire of the handmaids all the more striking and memorable.  The constant grey clouds and rain adds another layer to the bleak world of Gilead, as though the very weather itself is being controlled by the theocratic powers with the purpose of further suppressing the masses.  The soundtrack also adds to the overall atmosphere and is the perfect, though sometimes unexpected, matching for the cinematography.

The cast is made up of some familiar faces and some unknown to me.  The protagonist, Offred, is played superbly by Elizabeth Moss (she also played Peggy Olsen in Mad Men and Robin in the magnificent NZ/Australian production Top of the Lake with David Wenham – check that one out if you haven’t already, it’s chilling and yet stunning).  Other notables include Alexis Bledel as Ofglen (this is a long way from Stars Hollow and her Rory Gilmore character), Joseph Fiennes as the Commander and Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) is brilliant in her portrayal of Moira.

This latest (and definitely best) screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps an even more frightening depiction of the near future and a very real reminder of why we must be vigilant in the protection of our rights and freedoms so hard won be past generations.  The body autonomy debates that have cropped up recently, particularly in the US, but also here in Australia around things like abortion laws, are played out to a devastating end.  It’s a realisation that perhaps there aren’t so many steps between where we are now and the society of Gilead.  The fact that Canada is the haven many run to and which offers an open-armed welcome is also pretty close to certain current situations.

On a brighter note, it’s also a reminded that we really are experiencing some of the very best television at the moment and I intend to enjoy it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, the novel, other Atwood works, or your most memorable high school English texts – were they duds or delights?

Barbara

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A New Good Life….

I’ve had a kind of tricky six months or so, a bit of a crisis on identity you might say.  I’ve floundered a bit, I’ve changed my mind about what to do next roughly 300 times and I’ve really missed having an idea of what’s coming day to day, the routine of work.

In that time I’ve started taking on emergency teaching work.  This, I have found, to be a soulless occupation and one I truly have not enjoyed.  Walking into a class that isn’t mine, with students that I don’t know and in a school where the staff are busy and generally haven’t got time or head space to welcome in a new CRT (and I was guilty of the same when I was teaching so I get it).  That’s not to say I haven’t met some absolutely lovely students and that when I’m clearly lost there will be another teacher that notices and points me in the right direction, but it’s just not for me.  I do it simply and only for the money and that’s not a way I want to live.

However, I think I may have finally found my new calling and I am really excited about it.  I have decided to dedicate the next six months to becoming a librarian.  It makes so much sense.  I LOVE books and reading and studying (all of which happens in libraries) and I can still stretch my educator muscles every now and again.  I’ve enrolled FULL TIME in an Information Management program at RMIT which started this week.  Clearly it’s very early days, but when I even found the cataloguing class interesting (and dare I say it, exciting) I though I may be onto something here.

I actually remembered, once I settled on this new direction, that I dressed as a librarian for a walk-a-thon we did at primary school.  I think the theme was something like what you want to be when you grow up…. if only that had come back to me a bit sooner.  Mind you I also wanted to be a zoologist, so maybe that could be next?

In the meantime life is going to be busy, but I am hoping to still be able to write a blog post every week or so, reviewing books, sharing thoughts, swapping recipes, and increasing my supply of cardigans (compulsory librarian attire I believe).

Til the next one (a book review I think)

Barbara

 

 

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Recipe – Country Garlic Chicken

Wow, how long has it been since I last posted a recipe or anything really food related?  There are reasons for this – firstly I went AWOL for over a year, secondly my kitchen has been a most uninspired place for such a long time.  As long-time readers will know (maybe?) cooking meals that my two frustrating children will eat has been a definitely theme for years.  Well, that hasn’t changed.  They still refuse seemingly innocuous, unoffensive dinners made specifically because I think they will like them.  They occasionally surprise me…. very occasionally.  I still have one that would willingly eat a devoted carnivore diet and another that has decided vegetarianism is the way to go.  What am I supposed to do with that?

On a recent trip to the library I was browsing the cookbook sections – having already banned myself from borrowing more novels – and picked up a slow cooker book I hadn’t seen before.  It’s called Slow by Allyson Gofton.  I had a good look through the book when I got home and to be honest I wasn’t that thrilled by it.  There were only a couple of recipes that I thought I’d try before returning it.  The first was a Lancashire lamb hotpot.  It was tasty but I’ve got another lamb chop casserole I do in the slow cooker that I prefer.  Then tonight I tried the Country Garlic Chicken recipe.  It smelt delicious from the get go and the taste did not disappoint.  But most impressive is that everyone ate it, devoured it, annihilated it.  Plates were clean before I had time to notice that I wasn’t nagging certain small people to sit properly and eat over their plates.  This is definitely one to add to the list, yay!  It’s been so long since my last kitchen success story.  And, of course, I had to share it (see blow).  Sadly, not realising how good this was going to be there are no photos, but please believe me it looked terrific and tasted even better.

Country Garlic Chicken

8-10 chicken thighs or drumsticks (skin removed if you prefer)
3 tablespoons of flour
1 tablespoon of paprika (I used smoked which worked a treat)
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
12 gloves of garlic (mine were from the garden and were quite big so I used 8)
2 carrots, peeled and sliced thickly
2 parsnips, peeled and sliced thickly
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, stems removed
1-1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water

Place the chicken in a bag with the flour, paprika and pepper and toss to coat.

Heat butter in a heave based pan and brown the chicken in batches (this is optional but highly recommended.

Chop the garlic and place in the bottom of the slow cooker.

Top with the sliced carrot and parsnips.  Place the chicken on top pf the vegetables and then sprinkle over the rosemary leaves.  Season with salt and pepper.

Add the stock, cover with the lid and cook on low for 6-7 hours or on high for 4-5 hours.

Serve with greens and mashed potato (or whatever you like).

This was super easy and completely satisfying.  And better yet it was nice to get back into the kitchen and have a win.

Hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Barbara.

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Litsy – “It’s like Tinder for books”

I’ve written a bit lately about the downside to too much social media – FYI my detox has been a bit hit and miss, I still find myself sucked into a wormhole at times – but today I want to share the best thing I’ve ever found on the internet, Litsy.  As a friend of mine said, “It’s like Tinder for book”…. and it sort of is.

Litsy is a social media app.  It’s only available on smart phones or tablets, there’s no website like Facebook, so if you don’t have an internet connected smart device this one’s not for you.  But if you do, prepare for awesomeness.

The app allows you to share, review and quote the books you’re currently reading, ones you’ve read in the past and loved (or loathed) or ones that are on your radar to read soon(ish).  You can read other people’s posts and reviews and add books that peak your interest to your to-read stack.  The idea is that you follow people (like in twitter or FB) to see what they’re recommending and that other people follow you, building a kind of reading network.

There’s a lot I like about Litsy:

  1. It’s super simple to use. There’s only three types of posts you can chose from (blurb, review or quote), there’s limited characters available for text (like twitter), adding a picture is easy and if you’re reviewing a book you can give it a Pick, So-So, Pan or Bail (no rating out of ten or star reviews).
  2. You want to find out about the latest or most interesting book releases coming up…. this is the place to be.  Loads of proper publishing/lit review type professionals are on Litsy so you find out the goss before it hits the shops (it’s mostly American which can be a bit problematic, but as they’re usually ahead of Australia in terms of publishing dates it just let’s me know what to look out for – or order online from the US or UK).  This is absolutely the best place to find books to add to your TBR (to be read) list or to ask for recommendations for what to read next.
  3. It’s all books!!!!  It’s a place where people pretty much exclusively talk about books.  Now that has to be the best place on the Net right?  It’s my happy place.
  4. It’s all positive.  There’s no trolling, no negativity – besides dissing the occasional book, but even that’s done with respect – no bullying.  It’s full of people who cheer each other on if they’re having a hard time, offering virtual support, participating in global book exchanges, becoming penpals.  It’s beautiful.  I always knew bookish people were the best kind of people, this is proof.
  5. It’s free and there’s no advertising (though that may change) which is completely refreshing for anything online.

There’s a couple of cons to Litsy which I should mention:

  1. It’s really bad for you if you actually want any hope of getting through your TBR.  You’ll soon realise that stacking every book that sounds good makes for a VERY long list.  I’ve stopped worrying about this, I know I’ll never read them all, but I have them there when I’m looking for something to pick up at the library or bookshop, or add to my Kindle.
  2. It’s kind of easy to lose time scrolling through the app, which might mean you read about books more than you actually read books.  I try and keep this in check and limit my scrolling time.

I’d love to know if any of my readers are also Littens (that’s a person with a Litsy account).  If so let me know your Litsy name and I’ll be sure to follow you.  And if not, you really should think about joining.

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My Out of Control Reading Life

Remember how I posted last time about Warren Buffet reading 500 pages a day and that switching off from social media and devoting that time to reading would allow the average person to read 200 books a year?  Well, I seem to have taken these concepts and morphed my reading habits into something kinda chaotic – I’m thinking this is NOT how Warren Buffet would apply his time!

Firstly, I should say I haven’t switched off social media completely and I never intended to go that far.  But I have made a point of turning to reading at times when I might otherwise waste half an hour scrolling Facebook or Litsy (about which my next post will focus).  Now I give myself 20 minutes in the morning to briefly scan the news, get my fix of Trump-mania (scary and yet unbelievable all rolled into one, a car crash I can’t turn away from) and scan for any interesting book reviews etc.  I give myself another half hour in the evening pretty mush solely devoted to Litsy and that’s about it.  I can tell I’ve cut down a lot because my phone is never on Low Battery mode anymore – with the exception of days I’ve done a lot of listening to audiobooks, like yesterday.  And because I’ve had very few days of work recently (emergency teaching is very inconsistent) there’s been a lot of middle of the day book reading.

This is a good thing (except the lack of work isn’t great for the wallet), but I have somehow managed to have FIVE books on the go at once.  This is most unlike me, is completely unintentional and I’m finding it difficult to get my head around it all.  So how did this happen?  I usually only have two in-progress books at once – one audiobook and one physical book or e-book.  And I do have those two.  But then I started reading all sorts of books about writing.  These are usually ones I dip in and out of, but the current one is really appealing to me so I’ve pretty much read it cover to almost cover.  I do a chapter each morning and then some of the writing exercises.  With the three books I was fine, it worked well.  But then I went to the library and saw a YA book I half read last year and was loving, until I left the school and had to return it unfinished.  So naturally I borrowed it and then inexplicably started it again that very afternoon.  Making it book number 4.  And then I got a text from the library saying the hold I have been waiting months for was finally in, but it’s a short borrowing period only book and I can’t renew it.  I also found myself in the doctor’s waiting room just after I’d picked it up so I just had to start it.  And there you have it, five books and my brain is swimming.

Let’s hope I can get a least a couple of these finished soon so I can relax again – reading is not supposed to be this complicated I’m sure.

What I’m Currently Reading:

Audiobook: Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach
E-Book: The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch (also for Bookclub)
Writing Book: Leaving a Trace: The Art of Transforming Life into Stories by Alexandra Johnson
Others: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

So readers, tell me about your reading habits.  Are you a one at a time reader or do you find the multi-book approach works for you?  And most importantly, what are you reading now?

Barbara

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Stealing the Moment

As I was scrolling through Facebook last night I came across an article posted by The Book Club (ABC).  The heading was simple – Warren Buffet reads 500 pages a day AND if you spent as long reading as the average person does on social media you could read 200 books a year!  So I clicked and read and then pondered.  I’m a pretty average person, no Warren Buffet, but hey if I read 500 pages a day maybe I could be.

The pondering from this article was centred on two fundemental elements.  Firstly, why do I spend so much time on social media?  What’s the point?  I should say here that I think I might actually be a bit below average, but it’s still a lot of wasted time and on days where I’m not working it can really be a lot!  According to the article the average person (American I’m assuming) spends over 600 hours a year on social media.  You only need a little over 400 to read those 200 books.  For me, I really only use Facebook.  I’ve toyed with Twitter but find it overwhelming and frighteningly abusive at times so generally speaking I steer clear.  I’ve also had a poke around Instagram but find it often vacuous and materialistic so again it’s not for me.  Facebook is good for keeping up with friends and family I don’t hear from often and following blogs, news sites and so on, but on the other hand, it’s full of advertising, fake news and click bait.  It’s probably time I detoxed from that too.  My new weakness is Litsy.  I love Litsy!  It’s an app/social media site for book lovers to share bookish things.  It’s almost entirely positive, no trolling and full of open-minded, intelligent readers.  But sometimes I find myself spending so much time reading reviews and looking a gorgeous ‘shelfies’ that I forget to actually read.

The other big issue with my use of social media is that I often do it while trying to pay attention to something else.  Mostly, the something else is not my kids or other people  but a TV show or an audiobook.  Sitting down to watch a TV show is one of the few things Mr Good and I do together these days.  It’s only a couple of times a week and we’re pretty selective about what we watch.  It might be the latest series of House of Cards (so good!) or Sense8 (how could Netflix cancel this one?) or finally getting to season 1 of Fargo.  There’s a lot of interesting, really well made TV around right now.  But inevitably I find myself reaching for my iphone during a slow bit, scrolling through Facebook or Litsy and the BAM! I’ve missed the vital detail.  It happens all the time.  Why do I do it?

The second path my pondering took was why I would WANT to spend time in that world of social media (Litsy excluded).  Just this week there has been a sh*tstorm over Carrie Bickmore’s timing for the launch of her Beanies for Brain Cancer drive and another over the, granted incredibly insensitive and thoughtless, comments Mia Freedman made in a podcast introduction for an interview with Roxane Gay.  The comments section on any article written about these two women were horrendous.  And this happens ALL THE TIME.  There’s been much written about the way individuals, and especially women, are treated on social media and on why other individuals feel that they have the right to abuse and attack people who have stuck their heads above the parapet for a second which I won’t go into here, I’m no expert after all.  Needless to say though, social media can be a hotbed of horribleness.  I wouldn’t choose to associate with people who spoke such vile things, why would I want to spend time with them online?

I’ve also seen how destructive social media is for kids and not only because it is a minefield of bullying, shaming and humiliation, but also because they are so distracted by it that it’s stealing their moments too.  As an emergency teacher, getting kids to put their phones or ipads away and get on with their work, or listen to instructions or show respect for the fellow classmates is what I do ALL day.  It’s the first thing I say to a class (“Put your devices away and look this way please”), it’s what I repeat ad nauseum during every class.  It got to the point that I was so concerned about use of device in class that I started doing a bit of reading up.  And the research isn’t good.  In one study, in the US, two classes in the same school were compared.  In one class students were allowed to have their phones with them but were only supposed to use them for academic purposes and with permission (but of course this is rarely what happens).  The other class had their devices removed at the start of all classes.  By the end of the year the results showed a significantly higher GPA  for those without devices.  Now this study is not perfect and the results are not definitive – other factors could have been at play – but the results are supported by other research.  It frightens me that social media could be stealing the opportunities and potential for some students.  It also makes me remember, with fondness, the start of my teaching career, where there was no such thing as internet connected phones.  I didn’t not appreciate that time enough!  In the past I have championed the use of technology in the classroom and I have worked in one to one ipad programs with some success, but I do wonder and worry about the overall cost to schools and teenagers especially, of this constant connection to the internet and thus social media.

And so with all this in mind I’m going to attempt to withdraw myself from the field in some ways.  Firstly, I’m going to pick up a book instead of my phone when I want to kill some time (I do this reasonably frequently already), I’m going to put my phone in another room in the evenings so I don’t get distracted by it when watching something with Mr Good and I’m not going to use my phone at all in front of the kids.  I’d like to show them that you can be just as ‘connected’ in life without an iphone in your hand and hope that it rubs off just a little on them as they get older.  I’m going to try to take back the moments that I lose, distracted in a world I don’t even like.  And perhaps I’ll read 200 books in a year?

I’ll keep you posted.

Barbara.

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