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Page Turners

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Since the beginning of the new year, I’ve had an opportunity to read a few books.  Almost all of them have been exclusively from the library. In honour of summer reading, I’m sharing what my eyeballs have scanned so far this year:

The Horn Book of Children’s Literature.  I took this book out of the library. I wish I had known of its existence when my children were born.  It is a series of essays by children’s authors and researchers discussing what makes great literature – and then provides examples.  Prior to reading this book, I’ve never really thought about what makes a great board book, or alphabet book or even a good dinosaur book.  I find the advice and examples for younger children are better than for older children, but that could just be the nature of the business and the fact that ever second tweenager book involves vampires these days. Also, the book is clearly focused on an American audience.  As a parent though, trying to figure out where to spend my hard earned dollars on books – especially when children are less able to provide an opinion beyond a loving and seeing a character they recognize from TV –  having a book like this as reference is handy.  Final verdict – I took it out of the library, but if I found a copy earlier in parenthood, I would have bought it.  Next best option – check out the Horn Book Website at

Under Pressure by Carl Honare. One day, I happened to drift maybe a little too close to the Parenting Section of the library.  This is where I found this book and the next.  This book by a Canadian self-confessed ex-hyper-parent-er, discusses how children, families and ultimately society is going to heck in a hand basket because we put too much pressure on our children to do too much (and at the same time too little).  In general, I would say amen and tend to agree that as a society we tend to be a bit too tough on our little darlings.  However, I found this book a little to preachy and provided a few too many anecdotes for and against each of his arguments. By the end I was confused – are we forcing our kids to perform in sports and school to the point they are having nervous breakdowns? Or are we letting them get off too easily, spending all their time playing video games? In the end I came away thinking that our parenting, while not perfect or completely balanced pretty much hits the right note of moderation.  I have a sneaking suspicion though that Carl maybe hasn’t actually slowed down quite enough to appreciate his own advice.  Final verdict – Do you race around all week long to activities for your children and constantly eat out of a take-out box?  Do you expect them to both be a virtuoso musician AND a star athlete? Do you expect them to get all As all the time?  Are you exhausted just trying to turn them into a mini version of the you that you wish you could be?  This book is for you.  If, on the other hand, you have a good balance of school, family, activities, trips to the park and veg out time – you can probably skip it.

Masterminds and Wingmen by Rosalind Wiseman.  I have two boys, one of whom seems to be approaching tweenagerhood at the speed of light.  Being an old lady, I often worry that I’m not in touch with what is going on in his wee brain or ensuring his emotional/mental health is okay.  I have to admit, I’m probably a bit of an overprotective momma bear, and at the same time, I don’t want to stifle him. I’m looking for clues that will give him the right training wheels to get him to adulthood. In other words, I want something impossible and that does not exist.  I picked up this book hoping it might help guide me as a parent without an instruction booklet.

In the book, Ms. Wiseman lays out the different kinds of roles boys play in their social circles (Masterminds, Wingmen, Clowns, Outcasts etc) and then the kinds of behaviours and relationships that come as a result of playing these different roles.  Then she indicates that boys won’t probably talk to you as the parent and when they do, it will probably be mostly half truths at best, but more likely lies.  I have to admit, while it’s great to have a healthy dose of reality when it comes to parenting, I found the tone and advice more than a little depressing.  I preferred Barry Macdonald’s take on bringing up boys better – Boys on Target and Boy Smarts (a kind friend loaned these to me).  His approach is much more positive and provides specific advice on why your boy-child is behaving the way he is and how to build a relationship with them. Final Verdict: A worthwhile read, but there are better options out there.

Something Rotten, Jasper Fford. Finally – broke the parenting book pattern with this gleeful fantasy set (as Max Headroom would say) twenty minutes into the future.  I bought this one at a second hand sale for fifty cents.  In this installment of the alternate reality of Thursday Next, she returns home to see if she can save her non-existent husband and save the world from certain destruction.  As always there are puns and word play galore, and hair pin plot twists that take you to the edge of death – and back again.  To discuss any further would be to give it away (plus you need to read all the books that come before it first).  Final verdict: I’ve always enjoyed reading Fforde’s books.  They make me giggle and occasionally laugh out loud.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain.  I have heard a lot about this book from various friends who have read it.  Have done a Meyer’s Brigg test, I know I score well into the introvert side of the scale, and I was very curious to read more about myself. I admittedly have been a bit short on cash and did not want to pay full price for this book.  And the waiting list at the library was long.  So, I fired up the e-book (I’m not a fan of e-books, but I have one. This is a story for another time) and put a hold on the much shorter line for it. I did not have to wait long for my number to come up.   Up front, I have to admit, I was not initially happy with the book. It spent a long time dissing extroverts – or at least setting up a relationship similar to that between Americans and Canadians (that is, how do we as Canadians define ourselves?  As “not American.”). I didn’t see much use in that – after all don’t extroverts have as much to bring to the table as introverts? However, as the book rolled along, I started to see myself in it. Quite a few light bulb moments went off.  Why is it that I find church challenging (it may sound odd, but there is a section on this) and not in a faith based kind of way. Why do I have so much trouble talking on the phone?  Why do I not feel motivated by awards at work?  Why can’t I hear the person standing in front of me when I’m in a crowd? Why do have certain kinds of relationships and worry more about the people around me? I found some of the advice valuable as well (recognizing networking/conference events to be challenging, go with the goal to meet ONE person)  Final verdict: I would buy this book so I can read it again. As a matter of fact, I tried to for my e-book and then had technical challenges. I would definitely recommend to anyone that thinks that they might be introverted. Just gloss over the extrovert bashing a bit.

What Makes Olga Run, Bruce Grierson.  I read about this book in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (which I skim for work purposes). It had a great review and so I looked for it in the library.  The author follows a 90 plus track star and tries to figure out why and how she is still doing track and field and even improving in her ten events.  He links her anecdotes and experiences with those of other aging masters athletes and the latest research (of which there is not much because people aren’t generally doing track at that age).   The result is a fascinating, easy to read book about how to keep your quality of life in your later years.  As someone who is well into their middle-age, with aging parents, it’s worth considering.  Final verdict: Factual and fun, with some life lessons on the run.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams.  I was wandering the stacks of the library (I think I was looking for a shark book for my son) and found this book. I had not realized the creator of Dilbert was also a writer of self-help books.  It was an interesting follow-up to Olga because they are wildly different books but both in the end have similar advice – think positively, exercise regularly and moderately, don’t eat like an idiot, get enough sleep and you will be a happier person.  We are being told this constantly in different ways, and I think intuitively we know this. This is advice I can get behind. (Not sure I get behind ALL the advice provided in this book.  Affirmations are not going to solve my problems. But I do think thinking more positively is a good step).  I also found his theory of “Goals are for losers, systems work,” interesting.  That is, working towards a goal will only get you to that goal but it won’t help you stay there – but creating systems and habits that create live long change are more useful.  I’ve started to think about this and how to put it to work. I’ve started asking myself “How is that system working out for you?” and if the answer is “it’s not” trying to figure out how to change it.  Final verdict: Mr. Adams has certainly had an interesting and varied life. I would not use it as a model, but some of his advice rings true.  Take with a heavy dose of salt.

Shadow of the Night, Deborah Harkness. Another departure into fantasy.  Utter, trashy, romance-y, fantasy.  This is the second in the All Souls Trilogy and reads a bit like the Twilight series meets a Phillipa Gregory novel. No redeeming qualities whatsoever. Perfect for summer on the beach. Verdict:  Park your brain at the first page.  Library loan only.  Admittedly, I’ll see if I can take a loan out on the third installment Book of Life at some point.

Currently reading: Cheap, the High Cost of Discount Culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell. I don’t buy a lot, but when I do, I will admit to looking for the best bargain (just as anyone else would).  I found this book while I had a two hour vacation at the library recently (my daughter was at a birthday party and I had time to kill). Just into the first chapter which covers the origin and rise of department stores.  It’s a bit factoid heavy so far but I will let you know how it goes.


Written by pennyinacastle

July 1, 2015 at 10:22 pm

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Second Hand News

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I love second hand book sales.  One of my favourites was today.  Fifty cents a book for children’s books (let’s get those kids reading!), a dollar for soft cover adult books and three dollars for a hard-cover. Who can beat that price?

What I love about these book sales is that you can buy books from all over the map – and often not what you might be looking for in the first place.  I don’t have the luxury of spending 15 dollars on a “maybe” book.  But one dollar – you bet! You can see where the older best sellers are though – they had many copies of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and Eat, Pray, Love (I saw the movie – a lot of meh).  This year though, they had fewer options for kids.  My daughter was a bit disappointed, because the Nancy Drew was non-existent.  Sometimes that is the luck of the second-hand draw. In the end though she found an awesome book about sewing!

We spent 20 dollars (it was actually 23 but it was the end of the night, the lady working the cash was tired and did not want to make change) and what did we get?

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw by Will Ferguson

Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosalind Wiseman

Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde (although I had trouble remembering if I read it or not.)

Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

The Encyclopedia of Sewing Machine Techniques.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg


Hello Whale! Written by the Scholastic Machine Writers.

Thomas and the Naughty Diesel by…well, whoever writes for Golden books.

Biscuit Finds a Friend by Alyssa Satin Capucilli (because we are all about puppies these days).

A small French/English dictionary and a small English Dictionary because all of our other ones are gigantic and not homework friendly.

Captain Canuck comic (woot!)

Three-D Dinosaur book that looks like it may have been a freebie to start off with.

Computers by Alan Trussell-Cullen. From like 1986.  Did you know you could save information on a CASSETTE TAPE?!  Much hilarity to ensue in the coming days as my husband quotes from this book.

Brady Brady and the MVP by Mary Shaw and Chuck Temple.

Gladiators by Richard Watkins (which actually looks kinda cool).

Discover Life Long Ago.

Getting Around – Animal Marvels

Clifford Halloween Parade by normal Bridwell

So much fun. So many books (and there were so many more at the sale…)  Looking forward to some happy reading! After our trip to the library tomorrow, of course.

Written by pennyinacastle

February 28, 2015 at 4:02 am

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Last Words and First Words

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As I closed out 2014, I realized I did not have a chance to read too many books.  It was a little too busy – what with one thing and another.  I also tried to focus on reading in French (bien sur). The few books I read included:

  • Eat, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss.
  • Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Great premise for a story (apparently there may be a movie in the works).  But it sort of loses its way (and its steam) about two-thirds of the way in.   Definitely a library loan.
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Micheal Pollan. Absolutely brilliant, lyrical writing – particularly considering it is non-fiction.  I could not put it down. It will change your way of thinking about food – in similar ways to Fast Food Nation, but I found the way it discussed our relationship with food to be more profound.  I would buy this book to read it (and I passed it on to someone else).
  • Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fford. Fford for Young Adults.  Better than the Last Dragon Slayer. Clever, quirky and fun. A strong female character is always appreciated.  I have bought it and given it to my daughter to read.
  • The Night Shift by Brian Goldman. I love the radio show White Coat, Black Art on CBC and this was another book that was hard to put down – although I found the technique of using a hypothetical day-in-the-life of the night in the emergency format a bit forced at times.  As someone who works in the realm of health, I found reading about the experiences and opinions of someone working on the front line to be powerful and enlightening.  I would pick this one up second hand.

Over the course New Years I was away (and away from all forms of media and social media *gasp*) so I had time to finish a couple of books I had been reading.

The first was Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn.  My mom and I both were fans of Shinn’s Samaria books.  This was one that I found on her shelf and took home with me.  I have to admit – I was more than a little disappointed. During the first three-quarters of the book, the author uses a journey to create a world and back stories of a group of six characters.  I’ve had a look on line and noticed there are a number of books in this series, but I’m not sure I want to invest the time and effort – it just took too long to get the action and then it was a bit of a let-down.  It’s kind of unfortunate – by comparison, each of the Samaria books are a narrative in their own right and carry a complete story. Sure there are links to the other books in the series – but you don’t get the impression that you have to read the first book to create the stage for the other books.  Definitely a library loan.

The second was Pirates! by Celia Rees. I bought this second hand (although honestly I can’t remember where).  I thought it might be something my daughter might be interested in when she was a bit older as it seemed to fall into the young adult category. I decided in the meantime I might give it a read to see where it might fall in terms of age category. By my guess-timation, this one falls within the same age as the Hunger Games or Twilight Series.  Basically, it’s not unlike Pirates of the Caribbean in terms of tale or amount of buckles being swashed.  It certainly also has a very descriptive visual quality that would lend itself well to a movie.  The protagonist though is female – a narrator that starts out first as a merchant’s daughter and then eventually becomes a (surprise! not really) pirate.  Imagine Disney’s story as being told by the Kira Knightly character who can take care of herself and wield a sword (thank you very much) along with Jack Sparrow being an evil bad guy – with a bit of folk magic thrown in – and you get the idea.  Unlike Mystic and Rider, the adventure starts right at the beginning and doesn’t end until the final pages.  The only disappointment is that the ending was a bit of an anti-climax that left me feeling adrift.  Over all though, it’s kind of a fun read if you set your expectations low (but I’m going to wait a while before I let the kids read it).  Also a library loan.

Written by pennyinacastle

January 6, 2015 at 1:43 am

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Today I opened up the seventeenth door on my calendar and found…books.

I love Christmas books.  Sinterklaas must know this because each year he brings us a new one.  We have also received a wealth of Christmas books from friends and family. Each year, the numbers grow and each year at the beginning of advent I pull them out and put them within easy reach (the rest of the year, I don’t want to hear about the Grinch.  Sorry kids).

So here are some of the books we have – in no particular order:

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson: This was one of my mom’s favourite books.  So, when I moved out she bought me a copy.  And she bought each of my brothers a copy too.  It’s a book about what it means to be “those children” in a small town – and how these ‘cussin no good kids somehow become the stars of the local Christmas pageant.  It’s narrative teaches about empathy and seeing life from a different perspective.

The Christmas Tree by Janet Salamon and illustrated by Jill Weber: This is a book my mother had sitting on her shelf and I have borrowed it.  It is the story of how a special tree in a convent becomes the Rockerfeller Christmas tree.  It’s a story about how Christmas can sometimes lose its meaning – and how to find it again.

God Gave Us Christmas by Lisa Tawn Bergren and illustrated by David Hohn:  A gentle mama polar bear takes her son on a journey to find the real meaning of Christmas – and that Jesus is the best gift of all.

When Christmas Came by Eileen Spinelli and illustrated by Wayne Parmenter.  Who will come to church in the middle of a snow storm on Christmas Eve? All are welcome – even the stranger at the door.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:  Ours has a lovely red hard cover and illustrations by Quentin Blake. I started to re-read this for the children and had forgotten how subtly funny it was.

The Grinch that Stole Christmas by Dr. Suess:  When I read this story, I do my best Boris Karloff impersonation.  And I hear “You’re Mean One Mr. Grinch.”

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore and illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson: Every year there is a new version out with different illustrations.  In ours, Santa drives a rocket sled.

The Nativity illustrated by Julie Vivas: The bible passages paired with watercolour pictures that depict the journey of Mary and Joseph closer to reality than your average children’s bible.  Mary looks pregnant, Joseph like a teenager doing an impossible job and the angels wear work boots.

Are you Grumpy Santa Claus? By Gregg and Evan Spiridellis:  Even a saint has bad days.  A wonderfully subversive board book we have where Santa starts by stubbing his toe – and it all goes downhill from there.  I won’t spoil the ending.

Dashing through the Snow and A Porcupine in a Pine Tree by Helaine Becker and illustrated by Werner Zimmerman:  Canadian versions of well known Christmas carols with comical pictures.

Captain Sky Blue by Richard Egielski:  An elf pilot gets lost and needs to find his way home.  Filled with fun aviation vocabulary and beautiful pictures.  Roger Wilco!

The Animals’ Christmas Carol by Helen Ward :  When Jesus is born, all the animals describe how they will protect and care for him.  Filled with rich, detailed illustrations accented with gold leaf.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town by Gene Autry and illustrated by Bruce Whatley:  It’s a song that’s hard to resist singing with fun illustrations.

Oh Holy Night illustrated by Faith Ringgold:  Christmas hymns with simple folk art paintings.

Written by pennyinacastle

December 20, 2014 at 3:57 am

Books that I have loved

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You have probably seen the Facebook question – which books have you read and which ones have stayed with you?  You may have even seen the follow up articles – about how children’s books and best sellers tend to make the top ten list. (Not to mention those that wondered why we should give Facebook such valuable information for free anyway?)

Of course books that we read as children and teenagers stay with us.  Most books written by authors who are interested in their young audience care about who they are writing to and take more care in their craft (not to say there isn’t a lot of dreck out there too – Daisy Meadows writing machine anyone?)  There’s a reason most universities have a children’s literature course – and it’s because truly classical kids’ lit is beautifully written and withstands the test of time.  Additionally, one could argue that children’s literature stays with us is because when we are young we are more susceptible to what messages we are hearing and the memories we build with them sticks in our mind years later.

I know the instructions given by Facebook said “Don’t think too much about this” but I have thought about it a little (I can’t help myself).  In my mind, the books that have made themselves a home in my memory are those that I also physically carried around through my life. I invested the time to put them into cardboard boxes over and over again.  I took the effort into schlep them up and down stairs into various apartments and houses throughout my life.  If it means something to me, I’ve probably kept it with me over the years and made room for it on a shelf somewhere.

Very vaguely based on that criteria – here are my top ten (With alternates. Because it is impossible to pick only 10. And I’m rewriting the rules already so why not cheat?):

1) The Bible. And I don’t mean the King James version. I mean a children’s bible. It has simple pictures (although I have to admit, Jesus is a Caucasian guy with reddish brown hair).  It contains both Old and New Testaments.  It doesn’t have every story – but enough that you could use it for a children’s sermon or in Sunday school if you needed to.  Most of the stories are told in a simple fashion and they don’t pull any punches.  As a kid, after reading this book, I thought I had really, truly, read The Bible. All of it. I was so disappointed when I saw a church Bible. My parents gave me my first copy and I can’t honestly remember not having it as a child.  My parents read to me frequently from it and the stories I remember most were about Noah and Jonah in the giant whale.  When I couldn’t find a copy to buy my own kids, I was a little distraught (I just wasn’t happy with the Golden or NIV version).  I later bought a copy at a garage sale where I – miraculously – found it.   In recent years, while cleaning out boxes, my parents found my version, which I have kept ever since.

2) On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My parents gave me this book for Christmas one year probably when I was around eight or ten. I still have the copy that I read so many times the cover wore off.  As a child what struck me was the adventure the family was having – living in a dug out and later in a house they couldn’t afford.  There were plagues of locusts and blizzards.  Laura was someone you could relate to because she was plucky and got into trouble while Mary was a goody two shoes and a pain in the behind.  Their lives were so difficult to relate to in terms of their experiences and yet, somehow the relationships seemed so familiar and so plainly told that you felt like you could understand.


Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. My aunt gave me my first copy of this book. It took me a while to get past chapter two the first couple of times I read it because I initially found it boring. But after a while and a few tries I really, really enjoyed it.  I recently read it with my kids in anticipation of a trip out to PEI.  In the end it is still about a little girl with a big imagination who exasperates her adopted family because she cannot SHUT UP ALREADY about everything that pops into her head. And she gets into a lot of trouble. Who can’t relate to that?

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit. I did not read this book until I took a children’s literature course in university. It is one of the most beautiful and moving books about life and death ever written.  It asks the question – what if you could live forever, what would your choice be? I often think of this book when I talk to my own children about death.  Because it happens to us all – and this book has some of the best answers yet I have come across.

3) The Narnian Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. This is one you have to take as a series (although I found out later, that they were written in an order and manner in which I never imagined).  The first time I heard about these books was when a teacher read them to our class (which is unfortunate because he was a terrible teacher and eventually he felt we were not worthy of being read to. I would have preferred if someone else had introduced me to these books).  I have often wished I was Lucy discovering a world within a wardrobe.  When my grandmother later acquired a similar closet to add to her cottage decor, I was most disappointed to find it did not lead to another world but rather held all of her clothes.  While I am sure many people find the crucifixion of Aslan the most compelling, what tends to stay with me is the terrible final scene of the world Narnia at the end of the Last Battle.  Aslan stands before the door and judges all the animals, humans and other creatures as they come through it.  Then the world ends and ice forms on the door.  Peter closes and locks the door.   Reading it always brought gives me the shivers.

Alternative: The Prydian Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander.  I received a copy for Christmas one year – and I still have the entire boxed set (sans box).  It has epic mythic proportions like the Narnian Chronicles.  Life and death are important themes.  And the last book is still the one that haunts me.  Would you choose everlasting life or to slave away in the service of others?

4) A Wrinkle in Time. A Wind in the Door. A Swiftly Tilting Planet. By Madeleine L’Engle I took these books out of the library many times over the years.  I have a copy I have given my daughter – but I don’t remember the exact origin of them (might have been a garage sale).  The idea of a gawky nerdy girl and boy pulled to the very edges  of scientific thought resonated with me.  The idea of Charles trapped in the evils of conformity scared the heck out of me.  And when I’m having a hard time getting balance in my life, I think of the not-so Happy Medium.

5) Dragon Song by Anne McCaffrey: I think might have accidently brought this book home from school and never returned it. I still have it on my shelf.  It’s the story of a young girl who doesn’t fit in, runs away from homes and discovers tiny dragons.  Eventually she discovers her destiny. It’s set in a richly imagined world that includes its own dynasties and vocabulary that are an introduction to the adult books about the dragon riders of Pern.


Beauty or the Hero and Crown or the Blue Sword.  Actually, it’s a really hard to decide between these books by Robin McKinley and the dragon books.  Beauty is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story, in which Belle is really more of an intellectual adventurer. Written before the Disney film came out, I often wonder if they were thinking of this book when they wrote the script.  The Hero and the Crown and the Blue Sword are tied to the same world but at different moments in its history.

Playing Beattie Bow by Ruth Park. I borrowed this out of the library many, many times. It’s hard to find in print and so I bought a copy second hand.  It’s about a young woman who accidently travels back in time to Victorian Sydney Australia.  A bit of adventure, a bit of (teenage) romance, it’s beautifully written.

6) Watership Down by Richard Adams. I read the first chapter of this book in Grade Three as it was part of a “reader” I had. I read the entire book a few years later. My mom and Dad happened to have a copy on their bookshelf. I have had various copies ever since.  This book is remarkable for its creation of an entire society that includes its own language and mythology (“hrududu” anyone?).  It has its own Lotus eaters and authoritarian styled communities.

It should be read by mangers everywhere in order to better understand what it really means to be a leader.

It is about rabbits.

Enough said.

7)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Gate way drug to The Lord of the Rings. And who can resist the Riddles chapter? I recently read this to my son and he was absolutely still and silent the whole time.  The films don’t hold a candle to the original – which was actually has quite a different narrative style and characterization of wizards, dwarves and hobbits.  Also, there is no barrel riding, troll-killing, zombie-like video game in the middle of it. Sorry to disappoint you.

8) Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Often hilarious, frequently ridiculous and yet pointedly jabbing sharp holes into the stuffed balloon that is western culture. It is a series of books designed to answer the question – what is the meaning of life the universe and everything? In the end, the answer – and the question – wind up being as good as any other that have been thought up by any other philosophy, culture or religion.


Anything written by Jasper Fford, including the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series as well as Shades of Grey (not to be confused with Fifty Shades of Grey – which is, of course, COMPLETELY different).  Mr. Fforde’s stories are set just slightly off kilter from reality.  Just enough for brilliant tongue in cheek parodies and puns (some of which take the entire book to get to). A friend of mine gave me a Nursery Crimes book for Christmas one year – my only regret was that I did not discover them sooner.

Anything written by Neil Gaiman.  Although I have to admit, his picture book about the Wolves in the Walls is the most darkly humorous poke at adults in a long time.

9) The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald. I bought an ancient copy discarded by a library at some point in the 70s.  My copy is falling apart at the seams but has already been taped up once. It has the original wood cut-looking illustrations in it.  It’s a very old fashioned fairy tale that conjures up traditional ideas of what it means to be good and courageous.  It’s surprisingly dark and written in an old-fashioned style, reminiscent of Oscar Wilde or J.M. Barrie.


Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.  I’m sorry that this series didn’t exist when I was a child. I think I would have been swept up with the magic of this series as much as I would have been for the Princess and the Goblin, Narnian or Prydian Chronicles.  My daughter (who I am currently only letting read the first four books so she doesn’t have nightmares) has read them umpteen thousand times already.

10) Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley. This is not a children’s book of course – unlike many of the others. I read it in Grade 9 after another student recommended it to me – and I was probably too young to be reading it or fully understanding it. But just as one of the first books I read was the Bible, this was one of the first books I read that challenged my ideas about the Bible – to confront it and not take it or the church at face value.  In the book, Noah’s a nasty old man who bullies his family, and Lucifer is a cross dresser.  I don’t even want to talk about what happens to the unicorn.  The ending feels empty and hopeless. I can’t even say I really liked the book, but like all great fiction, it made me think and left a life-long imprint.

Written by pennyinacastle

November 23, 2014 at 3:01 am

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Pandas not worth the price tag

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I just finished Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.  This is a book about grammar, and being a professional communicator, I thought it might be relevant to my job.  Additionally, there was a time when you could not walk into a book store and not see it prominently displayed in the front, so I thought perhaps I was missing something in waiting so long to read it.

I managed to snag my copy when the employment education library at our work went out of business.  While this seems a bit ironic and certainly is not ideal (and I am now foolishly wishing I had taken more advantage of this resource of work-related reading material when it was still in existence) I was also quite happy to purchase a few bagfuls of books for a couple of bucks.

And this was one I was glad I had not paid full price for.

Essentially the vast majority of the book is the author bemoaning the poor grammar habits of the great unwashed and entreating us all to just solve the syntax suffering of the world by just using punctuation correctly gawd-dammit.

While I understand this is an issue, and I too worry about the state of the nation’s ability to write, this book just comes across as one big whinge.  Imagine Bridget Jones as a comma crusader.  Only less funny.  As a result, this book has lost a potential member of an apostrophe army.

There were moments when it was an enjoyable read.  The parts where the author delved into the history of why a hyphen exists, its proper usage and why it needs to be used that way.  The parts where grand grammarians duked it out over whether it was possible to write an entire book without colons were whimsical.  Towards the end, the author begins a discussion about how language changes and adjusts with the times, and questions whether the latest twists in the fate of the punctuation nation may mean the end of it  (I’d like a 140 character dissertation on the effect of Twitter on English). Unfortunately, just as these parts would get interesting, the author would intrude again to complain and sneer at those who are not comma correct.  It became a bit tiresome.  It might have been more amusing as a shorter feature article in a newspaper or magazine. But as a book that clocks in at over 200 pages, it’s a bit of a yawn.

Now, admittedly I may be the one with the problem.  I am a bit on the slovenly sentence structure side.  I tend to write first and correct my grammar later (or maybe not even bother).   For me, writing has always been about getting the idea down on paper, not about whether I use an Oxford comma (or any comma for that matter).  I even have a theory about this – I am a victim of the whole learning generation.   There, I said it. I never learned proper grammar! Or maybe I just don’t pay enough attention to detail.

Or maybe I’m just jealous of her serious syntax skills.

Either way, I don’t think this book helped change my so-called writing life.   But maybe it will change someone else’s – after I drop the book off at the Sally Anne’s for recycled reading.

Final Verdict:  Good grammar does not always make for a great read.  Period.

Written by pennyinacastle

April 3, 2014 at 2:56 am

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Famous Last Words

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I’ve finished my last book of the year for 2013 – Age of Persuasion – How Marketing Ate our Culture by Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant.  My husband, a branding consultant and social media guru bought this book at some time in the unidentifiable past and I plucked it off his office bookshelf.

I really enjoyed the book, although I must confess to having picked it up and put it down a number of times.  It’s the kind of book that forgives you if you walk away from it – while the book in its entirety is about marketing, and each chapter builds on the other somewhat, any individual part can be read on its own without the sense of losing the thread of the book.

I work in communications, so the book was of significant interest to me.  I recently have switched jobs as well and while still in the specific field of strategic communications, there has been more of a focus on working with my marketing colleagues these days so I figured it might be good idea to study up a bit.  That being said, you don’t need to be working in the field of communications, public relations or marketing to enjoy this book.  It’s well written, the format is easy to read and it’s filled with real life stories that are sure to entertain regardless of whether or not you have your doctorate of spin. It’s also chock full of useful information and anecdotes from the trenches that can be of use to you both on the job and in your everyday life.  I particularly enjoyed the extra tidbits of intelligence supplied through side bars – titillating trivia that could possibly get in the way of the flow of the narrative, but made available within context in order to add further depth to the story.  I also liked the “myth” sections provided at the end of each chapter – where within less than a page, the authors use devastating arguments to explode common marketing myths.

I would also recommend this book to any parent who wants to teach their teenager about the importance of critical thinking – and to any teenager who wants to advise their parents on how to stay current with the modern media environment.  To use an analogy from the book – the author draws aside the curtain of the magic of marketing to show the man working furiously behind the curtain to make you want to buy, buy, buy!  At the same time, the book demonstrates how this becomes increasingly difficult for the magicians to dazzle each succeeding generation as they become jaded and wise the wizard’s tricks.

My only complaint – and it is a minor one – is that the book is clearly heavily based on material from the successful radio show of the same name produced by the same authors.  I’m a fan of the show, and I found the book went into greater depth than what is possible in a half hour broadcast.  That being said, it didn’t perhaps cover as much new ground as it could have.  Additionally, I found that I heard O’Reilly’s voice “speaking” the text out loud in my head the entire time I was reading.  The only thing missing were the sound effects and audio clips.

Final verdict:  A good read whether you live and work in the world of communications or not.

On the children’s literature side I recently finished Matilda by Roald Dahl.  I picked my copy up at a second hand book store I frequent that is close by my dentist.  I love Dahl’s books but at the same time I have concerns about their darkness and some of his themes concerning parents.  I was particularly concerned about this book as I had heard that the parents and school headmistress were depicted as small-minded, mean-spirited, dim-witted bullies. (Our friend had been to see the musical of the same name and had raved about it).

While this is certainly true, the over-the-top, comic book nature of Dahl’s characters is such that they can’t be taken seriously.  While Matilda is disrespectful to her parents (decidedly and creatively so) you really can’t blame her given the abuse she puts up with.  Additionally, these characters are balanced by Miss Honey, Matilda’s teacher.  She is portrayed as a sensible, loving adult and the perfect role model for Matilda to look up to – although even Miss Honey needs to be saved by Matilda in the end.

I did find the resolution of the story to be a bit more fantastical than expected given the opening of the book and I also found it came to a bit of an abrupt halt at the end. It doesn’t quite have the masterpiece qualities or epic sweep that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has, nor the dark creepiness of The Witches, but it was still enjoyable, fast paced and deliciously naughty.

Final verdict:  I gave it to my daughter to read and she devoured it in a day.  Then she asked for another Dahl book.  With some trepidation I gave her The Witches.  And she swallowed that whole too.

A Year of Reading

Want to check out the rest of the books I read over the last year?  Head on over to the Penny in a Castle books section!  This past year was a bit heavy on children’s books/young adult side as I try to keep up with the ever increasing demand for appropriate reads for my book devouring horde of children.  It is starting to become a losing battle though, so I may just give up and read some things that are a little more grown up (although I must admit, I can’t resist a few kids’ lit books – just enough to stay young).

Written by pennyinacastle

December 31, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Random reads

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I’ve been doing a bit of random reading lately – mostly to try to find books that will be good for the kids to read.

My daughter is finally starting to grow tired of Rainbow Fairies (“Mom, they’re all kind of the same.”  “Yeah, no kidding!”) and my son is now reading chapter books as well as comic books.  My son recently devoured an Encyclopedia Brown book, and my daughter has taken a shine to Nancy Drew.  Interestingly she seems to really enjoy the “older” Nancy books, with their distinctive yellow jackets and paintings on the cover. She asked if they were all written by the same person – I said no, that the new ones were likely “ghost written” by someone else and that Carolyne Keene was likely very old – if she was still alive at all.

Curious, I thought I would check Dr. Google to see what Ms. Keene was up to these days.  I was surprised to discover she had never existed!  Wiki says the Nancy Drew (and Hardy Boy books for that matter) were written for the Stratemeyer Syndicate by a 28 women for $125 to $250 a book!  Mystery solved.

I’d like to have a few other things on hand though that can broaden the kids reading scope beyond the usual suspects.  I won’t always be able to keep up and keep an eye on what they read forever, but I want to make sure that they get a solid base with the good stuff.  Here are a few recent random reads:

By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder:  I read quite few of the Little House books when I was my daughters age – but not this one.  I picked it up at a book sale at work. The book takes on a darker tone than the others as (spoiler alert) Jack the brindle dog dies and Mary goes blind from fever.  The family has essentially gone bankrupt and has to move away from Plum Creek so Pa can work where they are building the railroad.  The novel takes a few nervous turns as the family settles in among the hard working, hard living men working the rail road. I liked it, but the kids said they found it sad.

The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate: I picked this one up before heading out on vacation this summer.  It’s very loosely based on the real story of a gorilla kept in a run-down shopping mall.  The story is told from the viewpoint of the gorilla, who creates art but doesn’t have much hope.  Things change when a baby elephant is brought the mall by the owner desperate to bring in more revenue.  It’s themes of animal cruelty and seeking a way to a better life are well balanced against a fast moving pace.  The interesting narrative and great writing also make it worth the read.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket: I thought I would get this one at the library before buying it – and then my husband purchased it at a book sale!  The book follows the story of the three Baudelaire children.  The children’s parents die in a mysterious fire, and they are taken by their bumbling executor to stay with their Uncle Olaf.  It turns out Uncle Olaf is not exactly what child services has in mind as a good parent, but the other adults in the Baudelaire’s life fail to recognize this as the children fall into mortal peril.  The story is purposely darker than most children’s stories and used to hilarious effect that will amuse both boys and girls.  Imagine the Addams family as retold by Roald Dahl.  The children are clever and their talents make them interesting role models – and it’s nice to see a strong female role in the oldest sister.

Dragonsong, Anne McCaffrey: This is a book I have read many, many times since I was a teenager. It was the first Dragon book I read by McCaffrey and instantly fell in love with the universe (although, admittedly I was really disappointed by her later works).  This is the original I had from when I was a kid – I have no idea where it came from or how I got it but I have kept it over the years.  I wanted to read it again to see if my kids might be ready for it – but I think they are still too young.  The main female character, Menolly, is strong yet sensitive and kind hearted.  She is a musician but her hard-working father can’t accept a girl in a man’s role.  After an accident leaves her unable to play music, she runs away.   I have never understood why the book wasn’t made into a movie – it’s exciting and, well it has dragons in it!

Three Cups of Deceit, Jon Krakauer: This book is the only adult book I’ve read in a while. It was on one of the libraries shelves close to the children’s section so I snagged it on the way out.  I’ve read a couple of Krakauer books – Into the Wild and Into Thin Air.  I found both riveting and hard to put down. This slim booklet was no different.  It essentially deconstructs the myth built by Greg Mortenson in Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson has used this book and his humanitarian organization to raise millions of dollars.  Krakauer uses journalist precision to question the truthfulness of his story, whether or not the schools that are being built are truly useful as well as whether the money being funneled into the humanitarian organization is being spent appropriately.  Having read Three Cups of Tea first, I had thought that there was something more than a little fishy about Mortenson’s story and was glad that Krakauer has written this book. While Mortenson’s original idea seems noble, Krakauer makes a very convincing argument that many people may have been swindled out of their money.


Horse Heaven

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Nota: If you have not read the book you might want to consider your odds that I have not given anything away.

As part of my summer bucket list I thought about reading a book completely out of genre for me.  I completed this goal – but completely by accident.

Two years ago friends of ours sold everything they own, and moved to a far away land. It was a grand adventure that I have enjoyed vicariously (she’s writing a book about it and I’m looking forward to it coming out!)  While preparing to leave, they gave away many of their possessions including a great number books – a wonderful gift for which I am grateful.   Among them was Horse Heaven by Janet Smilely.

I started to read it several months ago.  It has taken me quite a bit of time to read it. While I have finished it, it is only after many false starts and a great deal of frustration.  Admittedly I’ve read a few other things along the way as I frequently looked for other options when I became irritated with the book.

Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize winner, so my expectations were bound to be high – both in terms of quality and complexity.

Certainly there is quality writing in the book – there are many clever ideas and narratives within it.  Certain chapters and passages I would even say are great.  I loved the idea of a horse mind-reader and the descriptions of how both the horse and its interpreter perceived the world.  However, the difficulty is that the writing is a bit hit and miss – there were some nice turns of phrases and descriptions, but not much that sparked or stuck in my brain.  The human relationships, while complicated, occasionally difficult and sometimes funny, did not seem any different from the ordinary run of the mill dram-ody.

The book also didn’t disappoint in the complexity department – although I would argue that the author was trying to do too much.  There were so many characters within the book that I could hardly keep track of them all (You know you are in trouble when the author feels you need a chart at the beginning to explain who’s who).  Each chapter was from a different narrative perspective.  I’m guessing that the author had hoped to have an epic, sweeping feel to the story. Instead, I felt I simply could not keep up.  Was I now at the part where the horse trainer was abusing his horses with the help of a corrupt vet? Or were we at the part where the wife of a horse owner was having an affair with a trainer?  The book could have been split into several  – and would likely been more engaging and satisfying.  The constantly changing narrative created a couple of additional problems – I would read a chapter, become mildly engaged in a story line or personality – and then abruptly be shot off in a completely different direction.  There seemed to be so many false starts and incomplete endings to the maze that when there was a crisis, it did not mean much. By the end, not only could I not keep the characters straight, I didn’t care about any of them.

And yet, despite there being may characters, and in theory many perspectives, the narrative seemed to be one big drone. The voice throughout seemed cold, clinical and matter of fact (even when the view changed to that of a dog or a horse).  This added to my confusion and also resulted in decreasing my empathy for the characters.

My other issue with the book was that the author seems to assume you know quite at bit about horse racing.  As an outsider to the sport, I don’t know anything about it. This meant that many of the basic concepts that the story arc is based on (such as stakes versus claims, betting procedures and other things) made no sense at all to me. Nothing was explained and a lot was presumed.   The only thing that struck me and was clearly understandable is that horses are delicate both physically and psychologically, yet are often abused and do not live very long.  While it is understandable that horse racing is dangerous, the drugging and doping and reconstructive surgery that is required is horrifying and mind-boggling.  The concept of a three-year old horse already being past its prime and likely to be neglected and abandoned, juxtaposed against the thousands of millions of dollars in horse trading was an eye opener.  Clearly nothing has changed since Black Beauty was written – the whole issue of animal abuse would have made fascinating discussion on its own.

In the end though, there was not enough that was interesting to keep and hold my attention though the exertion of maintaining interest in the multitude of characters and storylines.  I am one of those sorts of people who try not to give up on a book and finish it through the end, but in this case, I don’t think the pay off was worth the effort.

Final verdict:  If given the choice to read this book again, I’d have to say neigh.

Written by pennyinacastle

July 30, 2013 at 12:42 pm

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The Hunger Games Trilogy

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Note: Spoiler alert if you have not read all three books. And comparisons will be made with the Twilight series. How can you not?

I saw that the second movie in the Hunger Games Trilogy “Catching Fire” was coming out in the relative near future, so I thought I might actually read the trilogy.  I wasn’t sure whether I should invest in the purchase so I went to my local library and took out the books one by one.

I had seen the first in “The Hunger Games” series on screen before reading the book.  I was impressed by the movie for the most part. They had done a very good job of interpreting the book – even perhaps improving it by providing further details of the relationship between Game master Seneca and President Snow.

The initial book (and movie) explores some interesting topics that hit close to home.  How do we, as a First World Nation, treat those who provide us with our quality of life?  I found this particularly striking as I was reading the series when a factory collapsed on garment workers in Bangladesh.    How do we look upon television, particularly reality shows?  To what depths are we willing to allow others suffer, to what ethical standards are we willing to lower ourselves to for entertainment?  What do we give up, in order to continue our current existence?  In the second and third book, the themes of knowing who your enemies are and questioning whether a more rigid and controlled way of life and government is necessarily better provides an interesting perspective.

Comparisons have been made between the Hunger Games and the Twilight series.  I would say that Suzanne Collins series is the better of the two.  The issues explored in the Hunger games demand a more thinking and matured audience.  The writing is better, and the narrative is much more interesting – moving along at a rapid pace for the most part.  Initially, Katniss is a much more active character than Bella and fights for her own survival rather than waiting for someone else to come and save her.

There were a more than a few issues that bothered me as I read the series. Why was Katniss’ mom treated badly for having suffered from depression? (Shades of Twilight here as well where Bella’s mom is treated as though she is incapable of taking care of herself. Are all parents morons, not to be trusted? Not a message I can agree with).

While I was impressed with Katniss’ strength and courage in the first novel, by the second and third I was less convinced.  The action seems to take place around her, and she is not so much a decision maker, as someone who simply acts to survive whatever is thrown at her.  While at first she seems to be strong of character – looking out for her sister, and volunteering to take her place to save her.  However, as the novels wear on, she seems to lack empathy or much depth of emotion beyond fear or anger.

Characters arrive and depart from the books with surprising regularity. Even characters the reader may have invested emotional baggage into seem to be dispatched quickly (particularly in the third book) and without much emotional reaction from Katniss – although given that the books explores how war and violence changes people this may be the author’s point.

Katniss’ spends a lot of time worrying about her complicated relationship between Gale and Peeta (*yawn* this is where the book is most like the Twilight series) and this seems to take up significant amount of space, slowing the narrative to a crawl.  This becomes tedious by mid the second book. She seems incapable of making a decision and in the end, there is no clear reason why she makes her choice – she seems to simply follow whatever falls her way.   Yet she doesn’t seem to really care for either of them, so that when she finally makes a choice and settles down – doing the opposite to what she said she would do all along –  it seems a bit baffling.  Instead, choosing the inevitable and expedient only served to make her character weaker and less likable.  Why not choose a third option – leave the boys behind, become a leader and to go her own way. It would have been the more courageous and interesting choice – not to mention a better role model for teen girls.

The similarities of the plot between all three books also becomes a bit boring.   The fact that all three books contain Hunger Games gives the series the feel of a one-trick pony.  By the end of the third book, Katniss has spent more time either fighting or recovering a fight than doing anything else – it’s a bit of a relief when she can actually make up her mind to end it all.  However, even in the last moment where she makes her choice she becomes a pawn of her enemy and gives him what he wants.  The last pages and epilogue of the third book feeling a bit anti-climatic and unfinished.  It’s a bit disappointing for a series that started with a lot of promise.

As I was reading the third book I started to compare the series not only with Twilight, but oddly, Watership Downship (One of my favourite books. It’s about rabbits. Really.)  In Watership down, the rabbits must leave their cosy warren due to impending undefined disaster.  On their journey to find a new home, they initially encounter a different rabbit society that is utterly decadent. However, they do not seem to mind if one or two of their number goes missing on a regular basis to the “shining wire” (ie. Death) if it means the rest of them survive with their rich quality of life.  Later the rabbits encounter a militaristic rabbit society.  In this place, the rabbits survive by absolute obedience to the rules of their overlord General Woundwort.  Comparisons are made between these two warrens and what kinds of the communities do the rabbits want to build.  In the end,  the rabbit survivors re-build on Watership Down, creating an autocratic democracy of sorts. The novel explores similar themes about violence, war and survival.  Like the Hunger Game, Waterhsip Down asks the reader to question and evaluate the kinds of society that we live in and that we want to aspire to.  I would argue that even though rabbits are the medium the author used, they have more depth of character and more interesting adventures than either the warrior or vampire girl.

Final Verdict: The first book is worth a read (although perhaps not a purchase).  Set your expectations low for the second and third books.   Read them if your kids are so that you can have a discussion about the issues the author raises in the books.  Then recommend they go read Watership Down.   I plan to see the new movie when it comes out – I love any excuse to eat theatre popcorn.

Written by pennyinacastle

July 20, 2013 at 11:51 am