One way to celebrate Freedom to Read Week

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A few challenged books I found on my bookshelves.

Today kicks off Freedom to Read Week, a project of Canada’s Book and Periodical Council. From February 26 to March 4, the council’s Freedom of Expression Committee invites Canadians to reflect on our right to intellectual freedom.

The Freedom to Read website has several great suggestions on ways to get involved, but my favourite is freeing a challenged book.

How to free a challenged book

  1. Browse this list of challenged books for a title that you care about and own.
  2. Tag the book with the Free a Challenged Book label.
  3. Register the book on BookCrossing.com.
  4. Release the book for someone to find.
  5. Follow the book’s journey by heading to BookCrossing.com.

This initiative raises awareness about books that have been challenged in Canadian schools, libraries and bookstores. But freeing one of these titles is also an awesome way to share them with other people. It’s a way to connect with readers you may never meet, and with people who might not have easy access to these books.

I’m going to free a challenged book this week, and I hope you will, too. It can be difficult to part with a book that means a lot to you, but it’s time to release your edition into the world. It will do more good than it will sitting on your bookshelf, and it’s the perfect way to celebrate our freedom to read.

4 reasons to write in cafés

20160809_190939If you’re a writer, chances are you can write anywhere. You probably have memos saved on your phone and handwritten notes scribbled on the backs of receipts. But we all have our preferred writing locations, the places where we are most productive. Here are some reasons why my favourite place to write is in a café.

There is background noise

I am a quiet person, and I am a person who likes quiet. But if it’s too quiet when I’m trying to write, I get distracted. Noises from the fridge or from the neighbours seem louder than they actually are, and I get stuck trying to figure out exactly what it is I’m hearing. And I can’t write while listening to music that I enjoy. If I do, I become immersed in the music instead of in my writing.

Background noise allows me to focus. A loud conversation occurring next to me in a café will annoy me, and if a song by The Smiths comes on, I’ll probably stop writing for a few minutes while the song is playing. But, more often than not, when it comes to noise, the café atmosphere gets the balance just right.

Distractions are limited

Writing at home means easy access to the internet. That can be a good thing–perhaps when a writing project requires a fair amount of research. But most of the time it’s just another distraction. Yes, most cafés offer free WiFi, but the trick is not to log in. Of course it’s easy enough to check your phone from time to time, and I am guilty of that, but it definitely limits those internet distractions.

Writing in a café also means I don’t have to look at my messy apartment and think about how I should be vacuuming  or washing dishes instead of writing.

There are strangers to observe (and write about)

Sometimes I finish writing a scene and I’m not sure where to go next. Instead of staring at a blank page, I find it helps to look around the café. I’ll do a writing exercise where I’ll find a person at another table (or a barista, if the place is empty) and I’ll make up a bit of a story about them. If there’s a group of people or a couple, I might write about the dynamic I imagine them having. This kind of exercise allows me to turn back to my main project with fresh eyes, and it could be inspiration for another project.

All of the refreshments!

When I write (or read, for that matter), I almost always have a cup of tea on hand. To be honest, the tea I have at home is usually better than what I get in cafés. But sometimes I like to switch things up with a hot chocolate or cappuccino, which I never make at home and don’t have the supplies to make. And I haven’t yet mastered how to make an almond croissant or pain au chocolat. Writing in a café keeps the hunger at bay and ensures a variety of snacks and beverages to choose from.

It doesn’t matter where you write; all that matters is that you do keep writing. And while writing in a café might not be the best thing for your bank account, if you’re like me, the payoff is worth it.

Literary cocktail classes at Toronto’s Famous Last Words

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If you’re a fan of the recommended refreshments section in my book reviews, you will like Famous Last Words, a newish bar in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood.

This book-themed bar is cozy and adorable and has a full menu of cocktails made with a literary twist. It’s the perfect place to read or write. But my recent trip there wasn’t to do either of these things. I was there to take a literary cocktail class.

A couple of friends and I signed up for a class called The Roaring ’20s. We learned how to make cocktails that appear in The Great Gatsby (Gin Rickey, Mint Julep) as well as a couple of others from the era (The Last Word, Between the Sheets).

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A Between the Sheets sitting on the Scrabble-tiled bar.

The class wasn’t all about the cocktails, though. We talked about the connection the drinks have to The Great Gatsby and about the characters in the book. We also talked about prohibition–an interesting discussion about history.

Sometimes the recommended refreshments in my book reviews are simply what I think would create a nice reading experience for a particular book. But, where it’s suitable, I try to connect the refreshments to food or drink that appears in the stories. So I absolutely love that Famous Last Words does this by serving drinks that are featured in books. They aren’t limited to this, though. They also create drinks that are inspired by stories and authors.

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Can you spot the copy of Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words amongst all these bottles?

There are still three classes left in this series of literary cocktail classes. Check out Famous Last Words’ event page to see what’s coming up. And even if you don’t feel like taking a class (but it really is a lot of fun), you can always head over to the bar with a book. You’ll definitely find a refreshment to complement whatever it is you’re reading.

Teddy Wayne’s Loner: a gripping and disturbing read

20170125_214130What I read

Loner by Teddy Wayne

What it’s about

Loner opens with narrator David Federman arriving to study at Harvard. While David spent high school getting good grades, he doesn’t have any friends to show for those years. He has basically been invisible. But now David has the opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to reinvent himself.

When David meets Veronica, he is convinced she will be his ticket into the new world he dreams of, and he is determined to get to know her. But Veronica doesn’t end up being quite who David thinks she is.

This novel explores the troubled and troubling minds of young adults, and it’s a frightening place.

Why I picked it up

I heard about Loner near the end of 2016, when I saw it in a Kirkus Reviews “best of” list. I like stories that take place in school and/or coming-of-age tales, so the genre appealed to me, and I also like protagonists who are outsiders. I bought a copy while browsing in Book City on the Danforth one wintry afternoon.

What I liked about it

I loved the way this story builds and transforms as you read. It starts off as being funny, and while humourous moments appear as the novel progresses, the story becomes more disturbing. It’s a powerful psychological portrait of the narrator in his formative years.

On a technical level, I liked the perspective Loner is written in. Wayne chose to write using the second-person perspective. Second-person perspective is less common than first or third because it can be awkward. But I love second-person perspective when the author gets it right, and Wayne has done just that.

You’ll want to read it if…

Pick up Loner if you like books that get you inside the minds of characters and books that have you thinking about them for a while after you’ve turned the last page. But you’ll have to be okay with reading disturbing subject matter. I finished this book right before I went to bed, and I wouldn’t recommend that. I imagine it would be better to finish reading it in the daytime.

Recommended refreshments

These kids have gone away to school and are living away from home for the first time. There is plenty of drinking in dorm rooms going on. I recommend mixing some vodka and club soda, as a few of the characters do during a blackout, or just grab some cheap beer.

How to create the coziest winter reading experience

20170119_213409Winter can be a bit of a downer. Even when it’s not freezing and snowy, January and February are just, well, blah. But instead of waiting for the seasons to change, embrace the opportunity to stay inside and hunker down with a good book. Here are some tips for creating the ultimate, coziest reading experience.

Slip into something more comfortable

If you’re not the type of person who puts on your comfy pants as soon as you get home, you’ll want to change into your coziest gear. Whether it’s pyjamas, a hoodie and stretchy pants or some sweats, just make sure it’s something you feel relaxed in.

Choose the right setting

Set yourself down in a comfy armchair, or maybe you prefer to curl up on the couch. Wherever your favourite reading spot is, keep a blanket close by in case you get chilly and consider whether you’d like some pillows to prop you up or to lean against.

If you live with other people, make sure you have some privacy or–better yet–get them to join you in your cozy reading experience. Just make sure no one can interrupt you with questions or by watching something on Netflix. Don’t like reading in silence? Try putting on some soft background music or use Noisli to create your preferred ambience.

Know your optimal reading time

Your optimal reading time will be when you’re fully awake, so you can read without drifting off, but not when you are so energized that you can’t sit still. My personal favourite times are first thing in the morning and in the evening after dinner, but maybe a weekend afternoon works best for you.

Also consider how much time you can dedicate to your reading experience. If you’ll need to be out the door soon and have to watch the clock (or check your phone), it will be hard to stay in the moment.

Have treats nearby…

Treats are always a good idea, especially when they accompany a good book. Make sure those treats are close by. You won’t want to interrupt your reading to head to the kitchen if your tummy starts to rumble (or if you are just craving something delicious). I love a good pastry, but other baked goods (sweet or savoury), chocolates or toast with butter and/or jam are also great choices.

…and something hot to drink

No cozy winter reading experience is complete without something to sip. My favourite is a nice cup of tea, but coffee, hot chocolate or apple cider will all work wonderfully. Just keep  in mind the amount you are drinking; the urgent need for a bathroom break doesn’t feel very cozy.

Ignore everything else

Do not feel guilty for not vacuuming. Do not think about what’s on tomorrow’s to-do list. Put your phone on silent or leave it in the other room. Allow yourself to be immersed in whatever you are reading.

So don’t be sad that it’s winter. Grab a pastry and a book and curl up under a blanket. It’s time to get cozy.