Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Marathons

My Favourite Things: M is for Marathons

One of the things I was addicted to, other than reading, was running.  Every day, I would run at least 5 kilometres, more along the lines of 10-15 with a good long run on Sunday mornings around 30 kilometres.  I tend to have this thing with obsessions and I don't ever do anything half-measure; once I take on a task, I do it full out, full steam ahead.  Reading is probably my longest addiction, running comes a close second.  There is nothing in the world, okay except for a couple of unmentionable things (this blog is family friendly after all) like it.  I can remember a few times, after a hard week at work, not being able to get in my run, my husband would meet me at the door with my running shoes in one hand and my shorts and t-shirt in the other hand, begging me to go for a long run and "get IT out of my system." 

And I'll be honest with you, there were days, many of them, when running was a chore and I spent the entire day either talking myself into going for a run, and then talking myself out of going for a run.  The conflict was never-ending, day after day.  I have spoken with a lot of other runners and they all have the same stories to tell.  Once I am out the door though, I could keep going and going and going.  And rain!!!! Bring it on!!!  I can remember being at work, watching the rain, longing to put on my runners and just go out the door.  There were a few close calls where I didn't actually use common sense, and ran into a few difficulties with thunderstorms and such, and had to bail in different stores and call my hubby to come pick me up, dripping and soaking wet.  And then I would get the lecture about safety and whatnot, but that didn't stop me, ever. Even now, it's raining, and I am longing to go out and run, but I can't.  Why not, you ask?

Several years ago I destroyed my knee in a skiing mishap, pretty much tearing every ligament
possible.  After ACL surgery and having scraped a lot of scar tissue out of there, the knee isn't doing too well, running wise at least.  Runners will understand the frustration of not being able to run as there is really no other sport that replaces the "high" that running gives runners and I have not been satisfied with any other sport.  While driving my son to an activity the other morning, I saw a bunch of runners running a 5k race and for the first time in a while, I wanted to be out there with them.  So perhaps I'll give it one more go this summer and see if I can get myself back in running shape and see if my knee will hold up to the strain of running.  I'll have to hit the treadmill first, then try outside, but perhaps one more chance will do it.  Wish me luck, everyone!!  Perhaps I'll run that marathon again one day!!

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for L Authors

My Favourite Things: Authors Whose Last Name Begin with 'L'

Since I do run a book blog, and for a very good reason, I thought I would take the time and share some of my favourite authors whose last name begins with 'L'.  This is an eclectic list, but then so is my reading style, and most of the books I am going to mention are ones that encouraged me to read more by these authors.  Enjoy!

The Earthsea Trilogy is one of those series of books that I read
when I was older although I had heard quite a bit about Ursula K. Le Guin.  I just never seemed to get around to reading her until I was in university for whatever reason, but it certainly didn't take me long to get involved in the legend of Sparrowhawk and yearn to read every book I could lay my hands on by this author.  I still have all the books on my shelf downstairs and have been looking at them lately, wondering if it's time to do a re-read as I haven't touched them in years. The Earthsea Cycle led to the Hainish Cycle which led to Catwings, and I'm sure you get the picture.  If you haven't read her yet, you are in for a treat as she has a unique style with a powerful message that underlies all of her books.  Interesting stuff!!

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has certainly touched a lot of people in a lot of different ways, but this book was not the one I actually read first, it was The Voyage of the Dawntreader.  I actually read them out of order and I found they made more sense that way, at least for me.  I certainly couldn't go through the 'L' author category and not mention this author.  I have taught this novel to countless students over the years and I am always amazed at the differing viewpoints that everyone has over this book.  Quite interesting!  I know Lucy and Aslan were definitely part of my childhood fantasies for quite a long time, and I'm sure I'm not the first kid who was disappointed when they walked into closets and found that's exactly what they were, closets.

Robert Ludlum was probably the most influential for me when it came to
developing my adoration for political thrillers.  I pored over the The Bourne Identity, staying up late to finish, having to get up at 5:30 to get to my summer job the next day.  Didn't matter though, as I had to know who was the mole, then to discover you didn't find out until one of the later books.  Read through all of his books, but absolutely detested the movies.  I sat through half of the first movie before actually walking out and reading a book for the rest of the movie.  Don't even get me started on what was wrong with the movie.  My husband, on the other hand, loved it; he hasn't yet read the books. 

Lois Lowry's The Giver is one of my earlier attempts at reading dystopian literature. I first discovered dystopian through the works of John Wyndham but hadn't found enough of it that I liked, and Lowry fit that bill quite well.  I was pregnant with my first child when I read the book for a Master degree assignment and I remember my shock and outrage over some of the things in the novel.  I've introduced the book to my children and they both loved it as well; it was quite a lively topic of discussion for quite a few weeks in my household.  The movie is coming out soon and I am curious to see what they will do with it.

I discovered Stephen R. Lawhead in high school and have been a fan of his
work ever since.  I was just thinking that I haven't yet read any of his newer series and it's time to get going with that.  Taliesen was the book that set me on the path of this author and because I discovered him as he published his first novel, I always had to wait until he published his next one.  Taliesen is the first book in the Pendragon Cycle and that meant a surge of interest in the Roman era, including books by a slew of authors who specialized in that area, especially those who wrote about King Arthur such as T.H. White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, Jack Whyte, and T.A. Barron.

A Perfect Spy was my first John Le Carre novel and I was hooked.  I went and found all the other ones he had published and still read everything that gets published today.  I loved the international espionage stuff and because I was enthralled with Robert Ludlum, this was another author in whom I could submerge myself and just enjoy the thrill and never-ending rush of action after action.  Fun stuff!!

I can just go on and on about some of my favourite authors that begin with 'L'.  Who are your?  Cheers, everyone!!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: The Eagle and the Swan by Carol Strickland

The Eagle and the Swan
by Carol Strickland
Release Date: November 7th, 2013
2013 Erudition Digital
Ebook Edition; 556 Pages
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from NFVBT

3 / 5 Stars

This historical novel tells the story of one of the most maligned--and significant--figures of the Late Roman Empire, Empress Theodora of 6th-century Constantinople. Born the circus bear-keeper's daughter, she was a burlesque dancer, actress and courtesan before she began her escape from the gutter. Through her beauty and brilliance, she attracted the interest of a young soldier, himself born a peasant. Justinian was as ambitious and driven as Theodora. Together, they shook up not only the staid aristocrats of Byzantium but the entire Roman Empire.

My Thoughts
The Eagle and the Swan is the second book I've read about Theodora this year and I was really looking forward to learning more about her and about her controversial life with Justinian.  Ms. Strickland had a very unique view to sharing her research and historical detail, which I enjoyed, but I also feel that this emphasis on historical detail is the reason why I didn't quite enjoy the book as much as I really wanted to.  

The story is supposed to written by a monk, Fabianus, a man rescued from the slums by Theodora and who becomes an intimate in her life.  He constantly struggles with the fact that he may not be able to do justice to her life and to her personality and I liked reading about this conflict as it gave us a more in-depth aspect into the struggles of how another person actually viewed Theodora and how difficult she was to understand.  Through his eyes we could see she was brash, bold, stubborn, independent, but vulnerable at the same time, and quite theatrical, often looking for attention.  It was quite a mix, personality wise, and I can see how perhaps the court didn't quite know how to deal with her and her mixed bag of feelings and temperaments.  Justinian was very different personality wise, although he came from the same low roots, but he was more open in his calculations and his ambitions, colder, not quite as theatrical.  

The way the plot is told is a narrative style whereby Fabianus is told both Theodora's and Justinian's story from their points of view.  While I enjoyed this style in the beginning, I will admit that it did get on my nerves around the mid-point mark, and I felt like it was dragging and I just wanted to get on with the story.  There is only so much of the same drama you can take from Theodora before you just want her to get on with the story.  That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the internal politics but it seemed repetitive, as if it was getting nowhere, and I just wanted to get on with the story.  Besides, there are only so many sex scenes you can share in detail before you've had enough of that and want to get on with the story.  I realize it plays a huge role in shaping Theodora's character and how we view her, but I didn't really need to read about her and the swan in such detail.  Or how many positions so and so wanted - I think the reader would have understand the degradation without going into graphic detail all the time, you know?  

The sixth century Constantinople was quite a time period and I definitely enjoyed the descriptions of life at that time.  There was no covering up and glamourizing it, she told it exactly as she learned about it through research and I definitely appreciated that fact.  Some of it was hard to read about - the young children and the men, the starvation, the way people were tortured and treated, but it was how life was like and I'm glad she didn't trivialize it in any way.  The only negative thing about it is the way she narrated it, I didn't have that feeling like I was there, although I could visualize it quite well.  I also marveled at her building triumphs, having been responsible (with Justinian) for rebuilding Constantinople after the Nika revolt, building or rebuilding aqueducts, churches, bridges, and other buildings.  She was also a huge advocate for the rights of women.

The Eagle and the Swan was a fascinating book in terms of learning about the life of early Byzantine, and the city of Constantinople.  I have always been fascinated by this city, and I really appreciated the fact that Ms. Strickland did not fantasize or glamourize the city in any way, but wrote about it as she would have learned through research; it made me appreciate the difficulty that many citizens faced during their lives, and what a triumph it would have been for both Justinian and Theodora to have accomplished what they did.  At the same time, the way the story was told made me impatient and I found myself swamped in historical detail, and while this is something I often enjoy, it took away from the story itself, and made the story drag on a bit too much, to the point where I found my mind wandering quite frequently and had to re-read passages.  I wasn't overly crazy with the ending, and to be honest, it was a relief to have finished.  If this wasn't a book that I promised to review, I'm not sure I would have finished it, and that says a lot.   For those of you who really would like another take on Theodora, then this one is certainly that, and her story can be quite engaging, and I would recommend it for the descriptions of the time period, and for an interesting viewpoint on Theodora and the questions it raises about women as well as rights and freedoms. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for King

My Favourite Things: K is for Stephen King

I've talked a lot about my discovery of ghosts and horror in many a post over the years, but I certainly would not have developed my love for this genre without the benefit of Stephen King and Peter Straub, two very influential authors in my life.  Who really hasn't been influenced by Stephen King if you are a fan of the horror genre?  There really is no other genre that can leave me petrified at three in the morning, afraid to turn off the lights, having to go to the bathroom, afraid to step off my bed, knowing whatever is under there will eat me.  I remember when I was young I had to jump from the bed to the hallway, which was quite a feat for a young child, and one day I missed, hit the door frame, and knocked myself out.  Luckily mom was outside doing whatever she did in the garden and never knew what happened, but after that I crawled over my night table, swung on the closet door, and leapt out the bedroom that way.  Kids do some crazy things, don't they?  And while there were times I cursed my mom for allowing me to read whatever I wanted, I really was not serious about those curses and hoped the goblins never heard them. 

My first experience with Stephen King is the novel Carrie.  I couldn't really tell you what I thought about the novel at that age as it is clouded with an adult viewpoint, but I do remember being afraid whenever a kid looked at another kid with this certain look at school.  I remember thinking, this is it, we're all toast, and treaded quite lightly for a few months so I wouldn't upset anyone in case they had secret powers. I did dress up as Carrie for Hallowe'en a few years ago, before the remake came out, and nobody knew who I was except for those die-hard King fans out there. 

Pet Sematary is another one of those books that affected me profoundly because I was realizing that many of these books don't have a happy ending.  And it terrified me.  I remember reading this one Peter Straub book, Ghost Story, and I had the Just One More Page Disease, reading into the wee hours of the night,
and slept with the light on for the first time in years.  My dad actually laughed his head off when he found out why I was sleeping with the light on; it was not quite the response I was expecting but it was better than anger.  Luckily, I didn't tell him I was up all night reading the >> book.  But between these two books, I gathered that these books don't always end up happily and were not fairy tales and it left me quite apprehensive as to what would happen.  I was too young to really appreciate the 'horror' affect that had on me as I read and why they fall in that genre.  Pet Sematary is one of those books I really admired both for the setting (should I mention my fascination with cemeteries in this post?) and for the anxiety it caused. 

The Long Walk is the one story that really had an impact on me however, as I realized how far horror
could go and how easily it could happen in our society.  One hundred boys began to walk on a beautiful day in May, only to realize what would happen if they stopped, became ill, or had any other problems.  The way the story circled in on itself and brought the reader in on its horror was amazing and I'll never forget how I felt.  Can I say I was now completely hooked? I felt manipulated, drained, and thoroughly thrilled at being put through the wringer by a book.  It was amazing, and I couldn't wait to read more. 

Today, I am still looking for that feeling I had when I was thirteen.  While I had been fascinated by many a book before this, there is something about this genre, and about this author, that I really, really like.  In fact, I'm thinking it's been too long since I've read a Stephen King and it's time to go dig one out.  Cheers, everyone!!

Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for Just One More Page

My Favourite Things: Just One More Page

One of the things I got into the most trouble over when I was a kid had to be books.  Being a kid who finished work very quickly, I went through a school system that didn't really encourage students to find other work to do when they were finished their assigned work, so naturally, I was often bored.  Left to my own devices, it certainly didn't take me long to get into trouble during those early years, looking for something to do.  I can't even name the amount of times I had to sit in a corner or by myself or stay in at recess or write lines because I didn't have anything to do.  I wasn't allowed to read, I just had to sit there and wait until everyone else was done.  And for a rather precocious and active kid, that wasn't going to happen. 

The miracle happened in grade three when I discovered that my teacher never checked to see if I
actually went to the principal's office when sent there because I got into trouble.  I brought a stash of books from home and hid them at the bottom of the three-story staircase, along with a pillow I had swiped from a classroom, and whenever I got sent to the principal's office for talking or disturbing others, off I went to the staircase, crawled under the stairs, and read for about an hour.  I would return to class, and in response to the teacher's "Did you see the principal?", I would respond, "Oh, yes, he made me write lines and sent me back to class." and she never knew what I had done.  That's when a bigger problem began:  The problem of the JUST ONE MORE PAGE syndrome.

The Just One More Page Disease was acquired about this time and it has never been cured.  My forays under the staircase lasted only about thirty minutes at first, then eventually crept up to over an hour because I had the Just One More Page Disease.  Then the symptoms began showing up at night.  Oh, no, what was a poor girl to do.  Because the symptoms were so severe, I had to give in or else the pain of not knowing would last all night long and I would be a basket-case in the morning.  However, the Just One More Page Disease eventually wore down my immune system as I wasn't getting enough rest and I remember my grade four year being the worst when it came to being ill.  After purchasing a flashlight with my pocket money, the Disease reared its ugly head and became a huge problem.  Soon it became the Just One More Chapter Disease and I knew I was in trouble.

Unfortunately, the Disease is still around today as I find myself reading into the wee hours of the night, knowing I have to get up early the next day, but totally incapable of closing the book as I Just Have to KNOW.  Dear readers, I'm afraid I will never be cured and this Disease will be with me until the end.  Should I be afraid?  Should I worry? Should I be concerned that this Disease has seeped into every aspect of my reading life? Should I seek a cure?  Should I be afraid of passing on this Disease to my children (although that might be too late considering the number of phone calls I have had regarding my son reading during math class)? I guess the answer would be: Hell no!!!  Bring it on!! In fact, I think I will go embrace the Just One More Chapter symptom right now, even though it's bedtime, as I just have to know what happens next.  Cheers, everyone!!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I is for Incredible Insomnia

I is for Incredible Insomnia

Notice I left out the "My Favourite Things" in this post?  I thought I would talk about something that has been irking me for several years, and like a disease, seems to be spreading to a lot of people I know - INSOMNIA. 

Insomnia is a disease whereby one either has difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep.  It is characterized by the following symptoms: fatigue when awake, waking up frequently during the night, having difficulty falling back asleep when you do awaken, having difficulty falling asleep, and waking up too early in the morning.  It is something that one does frequently or on a repetitive basis.  It is also characterized by primary or secondary insomnia as well as acute or chronic insomnia.  Primary insomnia refers to sleep issues that have no related health other issue, while secondary insomnia relates directly to a health issue such as depression, asthma, allergies, cancer, heartburn, and so on.  It is also characterized by its duration meaning that chronic insomnia occurs three times a week or more for at least a month, and usually much longer, while acute insomnia can last from one night to several weeks.  Examples of acute insomnia tend to be: illness, environmental factors such as noise (darn that neighbour!!), medication, jet lag, stress, emotional stress, physical stress, and so on.  Examples of chronic insomnia tend to include: depression, anxiety, chronic stress, pain or discomfort during the night, and so on.

I suffer from chronic insomnia and really don't know why, but it's very frustrating and irritating.  A lot of my issues have to do with my early work day as I don't think I work optimally when I have to get up at 5:30 every morning, and then spend the evenings driving my kids to their various activities.  I tend to blame my insomnia on my kids (LOL) as in the era BK (Before Kids), I really had no sleep issues and could put my head down on my pillow and be out in thirty seconds, sleep for eight hours, and wake up ready to go for a 10k run, which I often did before going to work.  Now, if I hit the snooze alarm any more often, I would be late for work.  What happened? 

I know the traditional methods to treat sleep deprivation tend to center on reconditioning, practicing good sleep habits, exercising and eating properly, relaxation, and meditation.  But what if these don't work?  Behavioural modification treatment has also been suggested and I have been mildly intrigued by that concept as I teach a bit of this in my grade 12 course and it always has very interesting results.  But practicing what you preach is a lot harder than it sounds. As I sit here typing this out at 10 o'clock at night and look around my house, exhausted and ready for bed, knowing that I have to clean the kitchen, fold the laundry, get things ready for work tomorrow, check to make sure the kids did their homework, and do my own last-minute chores I have been neglecting for days, where is there time to sleep?  How many years until retirement again???  Oh, and I probably should not be reading that new book I've been dying to read at midnight either as I don't think that helps my insomnia problems.  But if I can't sleep, I might as well accomplish something.  Cheers, everyone!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

H is for Hugs

My Favourite Things: Hugs

I have been following the Free Hugs Campaign pretty much since its inception in 2004.  I will be the first to admit that I was skeptical at first, and I'm not sure how I would have reacted seeing a grown man approach me with a Free Hugs sign, but I'm hoping I would have behaved rationally and realized what it was all about.  Today, I think it is a marvelous idea and would like to see the concept put into place far more freely, especially amongst friends and family.

Where did it all start?  "Juan Mann"'s world came crashing down on him a number of years ago, and he had to leave London and return home to Sydney with pretty much only a carry on bag full of clothes.  At the airplane terminal, watching other family members and friends be greeted with hugs and kisses, and feeling at his lowest point, he made a sign that said, "Free Hugs".  Although it took quite a while for anyone to respond, a woman eventually did, and the tale was born.  Scientists have known about the recuperative powers of hugs for years, and even promote them as stress reducers.  Kids, of course, know about the power of hugs, or why else would parents have to hug and kiss "all booboos good-bye".

Take a look at the video from the Free Hugs Campaign:

When my kids were small, one of my friends gifted me with two books.  If I had known how often I would have to read these books, I may have hid them somewhere or donated them (LOL), but my kids absolutely loved them.  Today, I think they are rather cute again and think of them pretty fondly. (Now that I no longer have to read them, that is.)

These two books, along with an assortment of other books, shaped my kids early reading experience.  The books are warm and fuzzy, full of bright and cheery colours.  The concepts are very relatable and my kids loved them.  The best part, giving all those many hugs throughout the books.

Happy reading everyone!  I'm off to go dig out these books and see if I can find them.  It's time for another trip down memory lane and a whole bunch of hugs.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me
by Maggie Shipstead
Release Date: April 8th, 2014
2014 Knoft
Ebook Edition; 272 Pages
ISBN: 978-0307962904
Genre: Fiction / Contemporary
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a ballerina whose life has been shaped by her relationship with the world-famous dancer Arslan Ruskov, whom she helps defect from the Soviet Union to the United States. While Arslan's career takes off in New York, Joan's slowly declines, ending when she becomes pregnant and decides to marry her longtime admirer, a PhD student named Jacob. As the years pass, Joan settles into her new life in California, teaching dance and watching her son, Harry, become a ballet prodigy himself. But when Harry's success brings him into close contact with Arslan, explosive secrets are revealed that shatter the delicate balance Joan has struck between her past and present.

My Thoughts
Astonish Me is the story of Joan and Jacob, a married couple raising their child in comfort and peace. Joan however, is a former ballerina, more famous for the reason she helped Arslan Ruskov, a world-famous dancer, defect from the Soviet Union to the United States than for her dancing.  Jacob is a sweet academic who has wanted nothing more in his life than to settle down with Joan in blissful married life.  I was rather intrigued at the story about a ballerina whose dreams of personal stardom and fame never materialized, but whose hope now lies in her extremely talented son.  

I was drawn to this novel due to the world of professional ballet as I always want to learn more about it and am often intrigued at the nuances behind the scenes that we never see when the dancers are on the stage.  It is a very competitive and demanding world, and the dancers are often narcissistic and selfish, spending a lot of time perfecting their bodies and their skills.  I think, over time, this can definitely play on your mind and your emotions, especially as you get older and your body is no longer so pliant and resilient.  I can't imagine what it would be like to work every day of your life for something, to try and master something, and perhaps never achieve that success that you may crave.  For Joan, it led her to leave the theatre behind and seek out life and security in her best friend's arms. She was devastated when she left, and I think dancers, like athletes, probably go through a grieving process, which Joan did in the novel.  It left her feeling rootless and spiritless, especially as she knew that she would never be able to dance with her other love, Arslan, the man she helped defect, and to whom she was hopelessly attracted.

While I was quite intrigued by the ballet world, I always felt like I was missing something when it came to connecting to the characters however.   While every character develops quite nicely, and is intriguing in their own way, and has issues with which to dead which are quite plausible, I never truly felt connected to any of them and wasn't overly sympathetic to their plights and problems when they occurred.  When Joan's son Harry develops an interest in ballet, and then shows an enormous amount of talent and heads to New York to train in summer camps and then study full-time, things begin to get interesting again.  Suddenly, the two worlds begin to re-connect and I like how the author shows how talent can draw two people together but can also tear them apart so deeply they can never reconnect.  She shows how the ego can interfere with relationships and destroy everything that is dear to a person; the relationship between Chloe and Harry demonstrates that rather well.  

The novel does jump back and forth in time, and between characters as well, which I didn't find to be a problem, but some readers do not always like that tendency to jump in time.  I liked it because you don't always get the whole story at once, and it's nice to find out what another character is thinking about the same event sometimes.  I did find Joan to be a rather distant and unfriendly character, and I wish the story had a bit more humour in it, but it is what it is. Again, I did find something lacking in the storytelling, although I can't quite put my finger on it, but I certainly enjoyed the parts about the ballet.  

Astonish Me was a fairly predictable story about a ballerina who helps a Soviet ballet star defect and then falls for him rather hard.  He marries another ballerina who can match him in power and talent as Joan did not have the talent to do so, and Joan leaves heartbroken to marry her childhood sweetheart, Jacob.  I really enjoyed the parts about the ballet world itself, and adored Mr. K. as he was quite and interesting character.  The other characters were  somewhat developed but I found I couldn't connect with them on an emotional level for some reason.  I like the theme of the novel; a chance for redemption and a second chance, but I wish the novel had more depth to it and explored the characters' underlying emotions a bit more.  If you are not a fan of ballet, I'm not sure if this is the book for you.