Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A couple more books before year end

 In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren

Having read a number of rom coms by this author (which is in fact to co-writers), I knew what to expect - light, fluffy, feel good reading. The truth is I didn't love the premise of this one - Maelyn is a 26 year old woman who spends Christmas at a cabin in Utah with her immediate family and close friends with whom they have spent Christmas for decades. The holiday ends on a terrible note - she kisses Theo though she has always been in love with his older brother Andrew.

But, on the way home Maelyn's family is struck by a car (or so it would seem) and she wakes up on the plane about to relive the same vacation.  She gets sent back to the start twice more (once she falls down stairs and once she is struck by a falling tree branch), before she finally shakes up her behaviour and gets things right with Andrew. As such, it is all a bit weird since she is re-living these days but no one else around her seems to be. So you have to suspend your disbelief even more than usual for a rom com - which I'm not that great at doing (or maybe just don't enjoy doing).

The underlying romance story was fairly typical and engaging enough, and there were several peripheral characters who were interesting, but the overall premise wasn't for me.

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

Unlike the last book, I quite liked the premise of this one. Julian an elderly, previously famous, artist writes in an empty notebook that he finds at Monica's cafe. He entitles it "The Authenticity Project" and in it he ponders how the world would look if everyone actually admitted the truth about themselves - his most compelling story is of his terrible loneliness. He leaves the notebook behind in the cafe hoping it will be found by someone who adds to it.  

The notebook is picked up by Monica, the cafe owner. She does add to it - talking of her desire for lasting love and to be a mother. She also feels for Julian and endeavours to address his loneliness by hiring him to teach weekly art classes at the cafe. Monica leaves the notebook in a bar where it is picked up by Hazard, an addict and financial trader. He leaves his job and decides to sober up - to get away from it all he spends months in a remote part of Thailand. He takes the notebook with him and makes it his project to find a mate for Monica. He settles on an Australian tourist, Riley, who is headed to London. Before tucking the notebook in Riley's luggage he tells the truth of his addiction and his plan to help Monica.

Riley finds the notebook in his bag while on the plane to England and can't help but try to seek out Monica. So he shows up at her cafe and befriends her, without telling her the truth of how he's found her. Riley joins Julian's art class and spends more time with both him and Monica, and feels very guilty the more time passes without him admitting he did not end up at the cafe by chance. He writes all of this - and his true feelings for Monica in the notebook which he leaves in a playground where it is picked up by Alice. 

Alice is a young mother struggling with her newborn baby and in her marriage. She is also an Instagram influencer who is constantly posting pictures staged to make her life look perfect. She too visits Monica's cafe after reading the notebook and befriends the whole group (which comes to include Hazard when he returns from Thailand).

While some of the book is humorous and light, and there are definite rom com moments, it also deals quite seriously with addiction, postpartum depression and the debilitating effects of loneliness.

I quite enjoyed this one.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

 This book was the 2019 Booker winner and also came highly recommended. I was skeptical at first, because it took me a while to get into it, but I ended up enjoying it - with some qualifications.

First, it takes some time to get used to the style. It is written almost as a stream of consciousness - with irregular grammar and punctuation. Once I got into it I found the style actually made it easy to read - almost like following a live conversation. It flowed very naturally.

There were also a lot of characters - and at first it seemed more like a collection of short stories as it took time for the interrelationships to be revealed. I found it interesting to see how all the women connected to each other, but unfortunately there were so many characters that by the time some of the later ones revealed their connections to an earlier character I couldn't really remember the back story of the earlier character. And remembering the back story would probably have enriched my appreciation of the connections between the characters. I read this in an e-version and it may have helped to read a hard copy as it's always easier to refer back.

The basic premise of the book is to examine the varying lives of black women, girls (and one non-binary "other") in England. Their ancestry is varied - different African and Caribbean countries - some are first generation, others third or fourth. While men wander in and out of most of the women's lives, for better or for worse, the men are really peripheral characters.

Each of the chapters develops the life of the one character in its title (and their immediate friends and family). Most of the stories begins in the present and move back into the character's past. Some of the characters are more historical so there is no present day action though they are connected to present day characters.

Here are some of the key characters - at least the ones I can remember:

Amma is a lesbian playwright and director who has finally hit the big time with a show at the National Theatre. In some ways I guess you could call her the main character as much of the present day narrative revolves around her opening night and the after-party. Most of the other characters have found their way to the production for one reason or another.

Her daughter, Yazz is a college student. The second chapter explores her life and the lives of several of her friends. We also learn about her father - a gay friend of her mother's who is now a successful and famous lecturer.

The third chapter is about Amma's friend Dominique who has emigrated to the US - following another woman into a terrible relationship but surviving that and staying in the US.

Other characters are Amma's childhood friend, Shirley, who has become a jaded schoolteacher and is derided as boring by Amma's more artsy friends. 

Shirley's former student, Carole, who following a traumatic experience at age 13 is mentored by Shirley, eventually attending Oxford and becoming a successful banker married to a successful white man. Years later Shirley is still resentful that Carole never thanked her.

Carole's mother, Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant has set up her own cleaning business and gets a job cleaning for Shirley's twice married, vaguely racist colleague, Penelope. However, when we get to Penelope's story we learn her prickliness is covering up from immense hurt in her childhood.

Morgan is a non-binary social media influencer - and we learn of her childhood where her mother tried to force her into an uncomfortable feminine mold and of her strong relationship with her great-grandmother, Hattie, who accepts her (and her transgendered partner) and welcomes their help on the family farm which she is determined to keep in the family.  Hattie's past was also full of childhood trauma, a difficult marriage and several miscarriages and infant deaths.

One of the chapters entirely based in the past revolves around Hattie's mother Grace, who never knew her Abyssinian father and was haunted by that throughout her life prompting Hattie to attempt to find out about him.

Despite the reservations I referred to above, the book does a tremendous job of examining the lives of women faced with racial, class and gender discrimination. And whatever the connection between the women, or their differences, what they all show is tremendous strength of character and determination to live the lives that they want to live.

Friday, November 20, 2020

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Tammavongsa

 I almost didn't read this book for two reasons. First, in recent years I have been disappointed in the Giller winner. And, second, it is a collection of short stories and I generally prefer novels. But, I'm very glad I overcame those hesitations and decided to read this one. In my view it is definitely deserving of the Giller.

The short stories are all about immigrants to Canada from Laos, though they certainly describe a universal immigrant experience. They are told from many perspectives - the school aged girl who is teased because her father gave her the wrong pronunciation of knife; a boxer who must quit the sport and finds a job in his sister's nail salon; a young girl who helps her mother pick worms on a farm; another young girl whose mother is infatuated with Randy Travis; an older woman who has an affair with her much younger neighbour; and a school bus driver whose wife is having an affair with her boss.

What all of the characters have in common is their striving to survive in a new world - facing obstacles of language, poverty, and underemployment. But none of them give up despite the difficulties - and they are generally very devoted to at least one person in their family. Their resilience made them very likeable characters and the focus on the small details which make up an immigrant's life made for engaging reading.

I certainly recommend this collection of stories.

A Family Affair by Nadine Bismuth

 I quite enjoyed this book. It is by a French Canadian author and is translated from the original French. It is an excellent translation as it is easy to read and the language does not feel forced at all.

The central character is Magalie, a kitchen designer and mother of a young girl. Magalie discovers her partner, Mathieu, is cheating on her and decides to have an affair, essentially for revenge. She first gets involved with her business partner, Olivier. While they are compatible and there are truly no strings attached it ends when Olivier's wife gets pregnant and Magalie discovers one of their other colleagues knows about them.

She then gets involved with an even more unlikely man, Guillame, the divorced son of her widowed mother's new boyfriend. Guillame is a police officer who shares custody of his teenaged daughter with his ex. He is taken with Magalie, but has absolutely no idea how to go about getting her attention which leads to some humorous scenes.

The relationships between Magalie's mother and her boyfriend and Mathieu and his girlfriend are also explored, making the book a rather in depth look at various couples - how they interact with each other and with others around them.

Overlaying the personal action is a news story about a woman who seemingly vanished from the parking lot of a local shopping mall. This puts all of the women in the book on edge, but Magalie and her colleagues are particularly troubled as their office overlooks the park where the missing woman's boyfriend was apparently playing soccer when she disappeared, thus giving him an alibi.

As the novel progresses, the mystery of the missing woman is resolved, but Magalie's life seems even messier. Which makes the book very realistic.

I quite enjoyed this book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

A Few More Titles

After my last post, I promised myself I would not get so far behind on my posting. And, yet again I've left it until I finished a number of books (though not nearly as many this time)!

Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger

I picked up this book because the library decided to make it available to whoever wanted to read it with no waiting list. And I'm really glad they did that as I had not otherwise heard of it and I really enjoyed it.

The novel is a little unusual.  It follows three different characters and it took until almost the end for me to figure out how the stories related to one another (and I'm usually quite good at that). Thematically all of the stories had water, swimming and/or drowning as a main component and they were definitely tied together in that way, if not by plot.

The first character was a young woman in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. The book opens with her stepping into the Seine and drowning herself. So it is not a spoiler when I tell you that happened.  Her story then moves back in time where we learn of her difficult childhood in a small French village, her move to Paris to be a lady's maid, her romantic relationship with another young woman and ultimately the events that led to her taking her life.

The second character is Amund, a toymaker in Norway in the 1950s. He is also the father of two small children. His connection to water begins at a young age when he spends time fishing at his grandparents' cabin. He returns to this cabin multiple times throughout his life and reconnects with the sea. Amund at times neglects his family in his quest to develop a plastic that will make lifelike dolls.

The final character is Anouk - she is a Canadian living in the present day and suffering from cystic fibrosis. As a result she is awaiting a lung transplant and is constantly struggling to come up for air. Despite her difficulties she feels most at home in the water - whether the lakes near her Northern Ontario home as a child or Lake Ontario when she moves to Toronto.

All of the stories move back and forth in time a bit - and then the book moves from character to character - so you really do have to pay attention to keep track of the pieces.  But I found it worth it - and while the plot connection was perhaps a bit tenuous, it was real and it was interesting (and in part based on historical facts). The book was well written, particularly all the water related imagery.

I recommend this book.

Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family by Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand

I thought it might be interesting to gain some more insight into Harry and Meghan's relationship and their distancing from the Royal family. The authors are journalists who had tremendous access to the royals as part of their jobs - and it does look like they did a lot of research to back up their story. However, in the end I found it a little boring.  It didn't really add a lot to what I've read on Twitter. I don't really recommend this unless your a Harry and Meghan die hard who wants to read everything they can about the couple.

The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

This was a fun escapist novel. Ellen and Unity are two women in their late 30s who have been best friends since childhood. They are living in their home town and each are in a rut for different reasons. Ellen is the single mother to a son who is headed to college soon. She got pregnant with him as a teenager and has not dated or had sex since. She overhears her son say he won't go away for college because he's afraid to leave her alone since he's all she had. This prompts her to prove to him that she has a life outside of him (which she is now going to have to manufacture).

Unity is grieving her husband who died in the military three years earlier. She is living in his childhood bedroom and while she is running her own handyman business, she doesn't take any risks personally or professionally.

So the two women come up with a list of things to do to challenge themselves and each other - like skydiving and getting tattoos and, of course, finding men. So the story deals with their successes and failures in ticking off the things on the list.  None of it is very surprising, the plot is predictable, but the characters are engaging and it's a great escape.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership by James Comey

I was moved to read this book after watching The Comey Affair mini-series. It is very well written and provides interesting insights into the life of the former FBI director who was fired by Donald Trump. I imagine he is a rather happy man since the election results were announced.

The book does not just deal with his time in the FBI, however. It also talks about his time as a district attorney and prosecutor as well as in private legal practice and as deputy attorney general during the Bush administration.

Interestingly, while he calls himself a Republican, it would appear he has the greatest respect for Obama of all the Presidents he worked under. One of the other very interesting aspects was his time working in New York and prosecuting Mafia leaders. The comparisons of how they govern to how Trump governs are remarkable.

The insights he gives into the Hilary Clinton e-mail scandal are also fascinating - he was clearly in a no win situation when faced with that one. I'm still not sure he should have announced he was reopening the investigation - or maybe he should have announced the investigation into Russian interference in the election at the same time - but I have greater respect for the extremely difficult decision he had to make.

Although some of his "lecturing" about leadership style were of less interest to me, all in all this was a surprisingly easy and engaging read.

Troubles in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand

This is the third book of Hilderbrand's trilogy set on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I would not recommend reading these books out of order - I don't think they'd make much sense. This one ties up a lot of loose ends for Irene, and her sons Baker and Cash, who on the death of their husband/father, Russ, discovered he had a whole other life on St. John, including a girlfriend and a daughter. The book provides more insight into the business that brought Russ to the island as well as his death.

We also see more of Irene's relationship with Huck (ironically the step-father of her husband's deceased girlfriend), as well as Baker's with Ayers (who was the girlfriend's best friend) and Cash's with a woman who surprisingly enough had no prior relationship with Russ or his girlfriend.

At the end of the novel Hilderbrand also brings in a character from her Winter Street series set in Nantucket. It really didn't add much to the plot and seemed more like an update on that family's life to please regular readers.

I enjoy the escapism Hilderbrand brings to her novels and this trilogy was no different. I especially liked how she didn't leave anything hanging at the end of this one so we know the story has come to an end (I guess, at least for now).

His Only Wife by Peace Medie

This was a really interesting novel set in Ghana. Afi is a young girl living in the small town of Ho with her mother and a large extended family following the death of her father. She is learning to be a seamstress and is starting to master those skills. On the death of her father, Afi's uncles were not terribly charitable to her and her mother and they were instead taken under the wing of a local businesswoman, Aunty Ganyo. Aunty Ganyo is not happy with the woman her middle son, Elikem, is involved with and proposes an arranged marriage with Afi. Afi's mother encourages her to proceed with it - and she does.  They are married traditionally (not in Church or a courthouse) and, in fact, Eli is married to her in absentia as he is traveling abroad.

Eli's brothers bring Afi to an apartment in the capital promising Eli will eventually leave the other woman and join his wife. She is happy with the luxurious surroundings and finds a place to learn fashion design, but she longs for her husband to be hers alone.

Eli seems to come and go on a whim - and he is kind and caring when he is with Afi. She also wants for nothing materially. But she is clearly sharing her husband with the other woman and their daughter - even when she gives birth to his son. Though he seems to actually love Eli, he clearly loves the other woman too. It is his family who do not like her (mostly because they can't control her).

This is a very interesting story of how men in certain cultures are free to "collect" women and how women can be psychologically damaged by this arrangement, even when there is no physical abuse. It also shows the tremendous influence family can have on behaviour - both how Aunty Ganyo controls Eli and his brothers and how Afi and her mother are under the control of her paternal uncles.

I really enjoyed this book - it was well written, the characters were interesting and it told important stories without coming across as explicitly moralizing.

Resilience is Futile: the Life and Death and Life of Julie S. Lalonde by Julie Lalonde

I had trouble putting this one down. Julie Lalonde is a well know advocate for women's rights. She works for organizations trying to bring awareness about harassment and inequality. She became very well known for taking on the Canadian military after a terrible experience trying to do sexual assault prevention training at the Royal Military College. The title of the book has roots in her graduate thesis which looked at poverty stricken elderly women. One of her research conclusions was that this group is overlooked and underserved precisely because of their resilience - in other words they don't complain so they don't get help of services.

For ten years - while she is studying and then working and gaining national attention through a multitude of media interviews - she is also hiding that she is a victim of abuse. Her high school boyfriend, who started as a good friend, became very controlling and psychologically, physically and sexually abusive. When she finally left him he stalked her for ten years - her friends who rescued her knew some of the story, as did her family, but nobody knew the extent of his perseverance and her terror. Eventually she raised the issue in therapy and started to gain some insight into her situation, but it was only her stalker's death that brought it to an end.

This is a fascinating look at the extensive toll abuse can take and how even women who appear to be very successful can be struggling to overcome its consequences.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Series of Brief Reviews

I've been busy lately (though never too busy to read), so I haven't had a chance to update my blog in a couple of months.  Just to keep things moving, I've decided to post shorter than usual reviews of the books I've read over the this time period.

Midnight Train to Prague by Carol Windley

This is yet another Nazi era saga - again not focused on the Jewish angle which seems to be the case with a lot of the World War II books I've read of late.  This one was fine, but not great.

It tells the story of Natalia, a young woman from Berlin.  When she is travelling by train from Berlin to Prague she finds out the truth about her father which causes a rift with her mother. She also briefly meets a woman named Magdalena, whose family will reappear later in her life and play a notable role.

In the aftermath of the troubling train ride Natalia and her mother end up at a spa in Hungary. There she meets a journalist, Miklos and falls in love and marries him.  She moves to rural Hungary where she lives on a farm with Miklos and his mother.  When war breaks out in Europe she loses touch with Miklos, who she was supposed to meet in Prague, which is now occupied by the Nazis.

When Miklos doesn't show she sets herself up as a fortune teller. While in business in Prague, Natalia meets Anna, Magdalena's daughter. They become friends before Natalia is accused of spying and sent to a concentration camp. Eventually she is reunited with Anna and, together they must make sense of the past and move on to the future.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

This is a novel of multigenerational family drama - I quite enjoyed the cast of quirky characters.  The book begins when the matriarch, Astrid, witnesses an automobile accident which brings back memories of a troubling event from when she was a young mother.  The novel explores how Astrid navigates this, as well as her relationship with her now adult children - Elliot, a married father of wild twin boys who sets impossibly high standards for himself in business, and is harbouring a secret that he fears will anger his mother; Porter, her daughter who has become pregnant by choice and is (not so successfully) trying to keep her own secrets; and Nicky, her youngest who now lives a bohemian life in Brooklyn and, when she has trouble at school, sends his daughter Cecilia to live with her grandmother.

In addition to these characters, the cast also includes Astrid's friend Birdie, who turns out to be more than a friend and Cecilia's transgendered new best friend.

The interactions between the characters, and the gradual revelation of the secrets they have been keeping, makes for an interesting read.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

This new novel by the author of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is equally mindless and fun. The main character is Lucie - the daughter of an America born Chinese mother and a now deceased blue-blooded New York father. When Lucie travels to a wedding in Capri she meets George, the son of a flamboyant Asian mother. Sparks fly immediately, but Lucie works for years to suppress her feelings for George.

Several years later Lucie meets George again and still tries to deny her feelings for him - which involves her having to take a series of deceitful steps...but everything is humorous and, of course, there is a happy ending.

The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer

Okay, yet another Holocaust novel - best to read other things in between all the Holocaust novels or it gets to be too much. But I did enjoy this one - it is another of the type where the chapters alternate between the past and the present.

In the present, Alice, is struggling to keep her marriage and family on track in the face of her son's severe autism and her perception that her husband does not pull his weight when it comes to their son. To add to her stress, her ailing grandmother begs her to travel to Poland though is incapable of explaining to Alice precisely what she wants her to do. Intrigued, and encouraged by her husband, Alice hires an English speaking guide and makes the trip.

In the past, Alina is a young girl living in a small town in Poland near what will become Auschwitz. Alina has always known she will marry her childhood best friend Tomasz. Unfortunately, Tomasz is away at medical school in Warsaw when the Nazis invade and Alina loses touch with him. She does, however, stay in touch with his family, including taking in his young sister.

In the alternating chapters we learn what happens to Alina, Tomasz and their families during the war.  And, at the same time Alice learns how these people in Poland relate to her.

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

This is another novel that really revolves around the characters. Sam is a struggling student in a small university town in upstate New York who is looking to make some money to get through college. She accepts a job as a "mother's helper" for Elisabeth. Elisabeth, her husband and their infant son have moved from Brooklyn back to the town in which he was raised in order to raise their family. Elisabeth, a writer, is struggling with small town life and wastes extraordinary amounts of time following social media posts from her old neighbourhood.

Sam and Elisabeth hit it off immediately and develop a weird sort of friendship/co-dependency. Sam also befriends Elisabeth's elderly father-in-law, who takes up her cause regarding the mistreatment of food services employees at the college. This leads to unexpected and unfortunate results for Sam's relationship with the other employees.

Sam and Elisabeth also clash over Sam's much older boyfriend, Clive, who Elisabeth feels is untrustworthy.

The novel is an interesting exploration of the relationship between two women in vastly different circumstances and whether, ultimately, a relationship of this nature is healthy for either of them, and can survive.

The Marriage Game by Sara Desai

This is a light, easy to read and entertaining rom-com. Layla is the daughter of first generation immigrants from India. Her parents run a Michelin starred restaurant in San Francisco and, when Layla moves back to San Fran to start her own business, her parents allow her to use an office over the restaurant. However, they forget that they have also leased out this space to Sam, who refuses to break the lease. Sam is also the son of immigrants from India.

Layla's parents are very traditional and, unbeknownst to her, her father signs her up on a dating site which is meant to lead to arranged marriages. Though Sam also comes from a traditional family, his sister suffered abuse in an arranged marriage so he is very against them. As such he decides to accompany Layla on all of her dates to screen the men. Naturally this leads to some entertaining scenes - and sparks between Layla and Sam (this is a rom com after all).

While the end is predictable, the twists and turns along the way are fun.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

This book is the opposite of light and fun, but it was a worthwhile read (though troubling - I would not recommend it if you are easily disturbed by descriptions of abusive relationships). This book is intended to be a bit of a modern-day Lolita, a book which figures in the narrative.

In the year 2000, 15 year old Vanessa becomes embroiled in an affair with her 42 year old English teacher, Jacob Strane. In 2017, in an era of allegations against powerful men, another former student accuses Strane of abuse. This student reaches out to Vanessa for support and she is terribly torn between sharing her story and defending her relationship. She still struggles with admitting the relationship was abusive, though it has ruined every subsequent relationship she has engaged in, and led her to years of therapy.

The chapters alternate between Vanessa's past and her future so the reader can see for itself the power Strane wields over Vanessa and how she struggles to come to terms with her past. I think this is a really important book for so tastefully exploring such a controversial topic, but it really is difficult to read.

The Paper Girl of Paris by Jordyn Taylor

Here we go again with another modern woman digging into her family's wartime past. In this case 16 year old Alice has inherited an apartment in Paris from her grandmother. Neither she nor her father even knew her grandmother had an apartment in Paris and, when they enter it, it is extremely opulent but suggests that it was abandoned in a hurry.

More importantly, Alice discovers pictures and letters which suggest her grandmother had a sister that no one knew about. So she sets out to figure out what happened - with the help of a cute Parisian boy, Paul, who she meets at a cafe.

In alternating chapters we go back into the past to see what led to the rift between Alice's grandmother and her sister, and how her grandmother ended up in the US.

This book is an easy and interesting enough read - could even be considered a YA novel.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

This is a kind of interesting novel about Albert Einstein's first wife, Mitza. Mitza was a successful physicist in her own right whose legacy was completely overshadowed by her husband's success.

Mitza came from a small town in Eastern Europe to study physics at a Zurich University. She was the only woman in a group of six students who included Einstein. Over time Einstein's friendship turns into something more and the pair marries.

The book definitely does not portray Einstein in a positive light. He is moody and rude, and he steals Mitza's ideas and sells them as his own. I don't know how much of that is rooted in reality, but if it's true he really was not a nice person.

In addition to the relationship, this is an interesting portrayal of the difficulties faced by talented women (not only Mitza, but her roommates) in an entirely male dominated society. These women were well ahead of their time, and definitely struggled with being forced into more traditional roles.

Not a great book, but certainly a solid one and worth the read if the subject matter interests you.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

This is another Sullivan novel which centres around the danger of keeping secrets - in this case for generations. The novel opens with Nora being awakened by a call telling her that her eldest son Patrick has died in a car crash, most likely caused by his own drunk driving. This leads to a phone call by Nora to her estranged sister, Theresa, who is a cloistered nun.

In 1957 Nora and Theresa immigrated to Boston from Ireland so that Nora could marry her long-time beau, who had previously immigrated there. In alternating chapters we learn of Nora and Theresa's immigrant experience - especially their lives in a boarding house run by Nora's fiancé's extended family - and Nora's now adult children.

John, an overachieving political hack, feels responsible for Patrick's death as the car accident followed his revealing troubling information to Patrick about something that happened in his past. Bridget is resentful because her mother does not want to recognize her long term girlfriend. And the youngest, Brian is still living with his mother due to a failed career as a professional baseball player. As the children gather for the funeral, and learn for the first time in their memories, about their aunt the nun, more and more secrets unravel and Nora is forced to face them.

The book is well written and the characters are both likeable and relatable. Though for the reader it is not that hard to figure out what the secrets are, I recommend this book as in the end it's how the people deal with the secrets that really matters.

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

I liked the other novels I read by Sullivan, so decided to pick up this one too. As is her usual style, it is the characters rather than the plot that drives the book. In this case we meet four roommates at an elite girls' college which is intended to be a parody of Smith. Sally, Bree, April and Celia come from very different backgrounds and are forced together by circumstance. But somehow they make it work and their friendship carries beyond their four years at school, though imperfectly. The girls are now women and they are getting together for one of their weddings.

A bit of a subplot develops in the later chapters when April, the radical in the group, starts working for her idol who is a militant feminist. April gets involved in the fight against human trafficking with suspenseful results. This is a little atypical of Sullivan's work which tends to be less action driven.

I did enjoy this book as a study in how people from vastly different backgrounds and lifestyles can somehow, and with some work, mesh when they're thrown together.

Before I Let You Go by Kelly Rimmer

Lexie and Annie are sisters who were very close as children, but their lives were turned upside down when their father died and their mother dragged them to her childhood home which was essentially a religious cult. Things got even worse when she married Robert, the leader of the cult. Lexie was motivated to study hard in order to escape and has become a successful doctor, engaged to another doctor. Annie, unfortunately, turned to drugs.

Lexie had cut Annie out of her life due to the troubles caused by her addiction when she gets a call from Annie who desperately needs help. She is pregnant and in trouble. So Lexie and her fiancé race to her squalid trailer and discover she is in grave danger due to her elevated blood pressure. So they get her elite help, but she is also forced into inpatient rehab once the baby is born.

Lexie must figure out how to help her sister, and the baby, without being so sucked into the drama that her relationship and her job suffer. Interspersed with the narrative are diary entries written by Annie while she's in rehab. In these entries we learn what happened to her after Lexie left their childhood home, and what pushed her toward her addiction.

A powerful, and at times painful, story of two sisters and the devastating impact of childhood trauma.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

This is a really interesting book coming out of Nigeria. Adunni is a 14 year old girl living in a tiny village who is forced by her father into an arranged marriage with a much older man who already has two wives. Adunni's mother, who is now deceased,  had always encouraged her to get her education as having a "louding" voice was the only way to succeed. But Adunni's father is desperate for the money that selling her will bring.

Adunni is mistreated by her husband and his first wife but taken under the wing of his kindly second wife. So when tragedy strikes the second wife, Adunni escapes to Lagos where she is essentially enslaved by a wealthy couple. But none of this destroys Adunni's spirit - with the help of a kindly cook and a neighbour Adunni betters her English and applies for secondary education.

In addition to the interesting story this novel offers insight into the subjugation of women and the poor in Nigeria as well as the great gulf between the rich and the poor. Although, by reference to Adunni's boss we see how even wealthy women are not immune to discrimination. Finally, the language of the book is great - it is all written in Adunni's personal style of English and has a musical ring to it. We also see the subtle changes in the language as Adunni's education advances.

The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham

This book deals with a piece of Canadian history which I knew nothing about so it was certainly educational in addition to interesting.

At 97 years old Winnifred knows she doesn't have much time left. She has already lost her husband and her daughter and many of her other friends. So when her great grandson asks questions about her family tree she decides it is at last time to share the secrets of her past with him and her granddaughter.

She tells them things she has kept secret for decades despite this breaking a promise she made to her best friend when they were just teenagers.

Winnifred was brought to Canada from England as a child - she and her group of friends had been street children as their families could not afford to keep them. They went from the streets to orphanages and were then sent to Canada to work on farms. Some of the children were treated like family members, but most were maltreated - overworked and underfed, often beaten or sexually assaulted.

Through Winnifred's narrative we learn about her childhood on the streets and in the orphanage, her crossing of the Atlantic, her work on a farm and later her marriage and motherhood. We also see the strong bonds she shared with the children she met on the streets as a child and how those carried through her life. Finally, we see the consequences she suffered as a result of the secrets she kept - even though she had the best intentions in keeping them. Finally, we see how what was intended to be a program for the benefit of children actually created great harm in many cases.

The Switch by Beth O'Leary

A fun and easy to read comedy about a grandmother and granddaughter who, when stuck in a rut, exchange lives and figure out how they want to live their lives.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This was a really well-written book about twin sisters who were born in a small town in the southern US. They, like most of the other residents of the town, are light skinned and look down on darker skinned people. At age 16 the girls run away to the big city. They live together for a while, but eventually one passes for white to get a job and marry a white man who knows nothing of her past.

Ten years later this twin is living in Southern California with her husband and daughter while the other one has returned to her home town with a very dark daughter (after escaping an unhappy marriage). She lives with her mother who is slowly succumbing to dementia.

The narrative carries on for many years as the twins and their daughters move to different cities. Secrets are also revealed in unexpected ways and we see the consequences of trying to hide your past.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

I quite enjoyed this book which is set in Jaipur and Simla, India. In the 1950s, as a 17 year old Lakshmi escapes an abusive marriage and eventually makes her way to Jaipur where she establishes herself as a henna artist for the wealthy women living in the city. Several years later her ex-husband shows up with a younger sister she never knew she had.

Lakshmi has ambitions, including building a home of her own. To supplement her henna business she is known for her natural potions which prevent or abort unwanted pregnancies. She carefully guards this secret side business from the women she works for, but is in fact often providing these services to their husbands (for their mistresses).

Lakshmi takes her sister under her wing and, with the help of her wealthy connections, gets her into school. But, her sister brings shame upon her by getting pregnant and refusing to abort so they take advantage of an opportunity in Simla. There she is able to capitalize on her naturopathic skills and her sister is able to return to school.

I really enjoyed this story about an independent woman succeeding on her own against all odds. There was also a lot of interesting side information about life in post-colonial England.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

As a preliminary aside, it was a happy surprise to discover this book by a former colleague of mine who left law to follow different passions which eventually resulted in this interesting novel.

Just after World War II, an eclectic group of residents in the small village of Chawton band together in an effort to create a Jane Austen museum in a building where she was reputed to have written. The unlikely group are all Austen fans who are very dedicated to preserving her legacy - there is a labourer, a school teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, the suspected heir to the property which they wish to save and a visiting Hollywood movie star (as well as, eventually, an employee of a London auction house who she brings with her).

The story revolves around the political and familial struggles which ensue in their efforts to develop the museum as well as the romances between the various group members.

I definitely enjoyed this novel - it was particularly well written and researched.

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary

Another rom-com, but this one has a different premise. Tiffy has broken up with her long time abusive boyfriend and is desperate to find affordable housing in London. So she answers an ad for a flatmate - but this is not your typical arrangement. It is a one bedroom, one bed place, but the current occupant, Leon, only works at night and lives with his girlfriend on the weekends so they are never intending to meet.

Their relationship develops through the exchange of notes left in the apartment. So they really become friends before they have actually met. When they meet in person the inevitable sparks fly.

There are interesting side stories about Tiffy's relationship with her abusive ex, Tiffy's job in book marketing and Leon's imprisoned brother.

A thoroughly fun read.

Loathe at First Sight

This is another rom-com but it has a more serious angle too. Melody is a public relations graduate who lands a job as a video game producer. Unfortunately the company she works for is run by an insufferable misogynistic CEO and staffed with almost entirely similarly sexist "bros".

When Tiffy jokingly suggests a new video game to target women - which is based on strippers trying to survive the apocalypse - she is tasked with bringing it to production. But she meets resistance at work from co-workers who are jealous of her and/or think she is in over her head. Even worse, when details of the game are leaked online she is targeted by violent haters who bombard her with online threats and insults to her gender, race and even intelligence.

Her main support comes from an unlikely place - her intern who also happens to be the CEO's nephew. And, of course, she has to fight her attraction to her employee. There are numerous other interesting characters - Melody's friends Jane and Candace, her Korean parents who only want to see her married, her nemesis at work, Asher, and her supportive co-worker and mentor, Kat.

The ending is not surprising but the twists and turns along the way are interesting.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

August Reading (So far...)

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is quite a creative book that I really enjoyed. It imagines what Hillary Rodham's life would have been like if she never agreed to marry Bill Clinton. So it starts out based on fact - with Hillary's early life (particularly the cruelty of her father), her undergraduate years, and finally her time at Yale Law School where she meets, and immediately falls under the spell of, Bill Clinton.

From this point on the narrative becomes part fact, greater part fiction. Hillary is immediately enamoured with Clinton even though she has evidence of his philandering ways early on when they spend a summer together in San Francisco. Despite the reservations of her close friends she follows him to Arkansas and supports his initial runs for office. As in real life, Clinton proposes three times.  But unlike in real life, Hillary refuses all three proposals.

She instead moves back to Illinois and becomes a university professor. Eventually it is her turn to run for public office.  I don't want to give up too much as the fun was in the discovery - but the book follows her academic career, her political career, her personal life and her future interactions with Bill Clinton.  It also gives us a picture of what his life might have been like without her - and he doesn't come off as terribly sympathetic. There are also a few scenes of what the political landscape may have been like in this alternate reality - including Trump's role - which were very entertaining. 

I thought the end was a little too contrived, but it didn't take away from the experience.  I definitely recommend this book.

A Few Books by Mhairi McFarlane

British author Mhairi McFarlane may just have become one of my favourite rom com writers.  Her work is intelligent, humorous and predictable in just the right romantic comedy way.  All take place in Northern England and/or London, involve the typical mishaps before happy ending and very likeable characters.  Not to be mistaken for great literature but a really entertaining, fun and easy read.  In particular I read Who's That Girl, Don't You Forget About Me, It's Not Me It's You, and You Had Me At Hello.

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

This is a fairly typical lengthy family drama from the Irish author, Marian Keyes. The novel centres around three adult brothers, Johnny, Ed and Liam, and their respective wives, Jessie, Cara and Nell. The extended family also includes Jessie's young adult children from a prior marriage, Johnny and Jessie's three young daughters, and Ed and Cara's two young sons.

The first chapter is at a family dinner - Cara has suffered a head injury and it removes her usual filters.  She thus spills a host of family secrets to the assembled group.  The narrative then steps back in time and builds up to the story which Cara is about to tell - though some of it is not what it initially appears.

I will leave out the facts of the story so as not to ruin the surprise, though truthfully it is not the facts that matter as much as the family dynamics and, in particular, the impact of keeping secrets on a family.

Four Books based on the Royal Family

The Royal We and The Heir Affair by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

This pair of books are romantic comedies inspired by Prince William and Catherine - although interestingly it is the older serious brother (and the heir), Nick, who falls for an American exchange student, Bex, at Oxford. Funnily enough the first book was written before Prince Harry met Meghan Markle so is perhaps a bit prescient.

There are some differences from the actual royal family - the Queen was widowed at a young age; her son (the Prince Charles figure) is still married to his first wife; and it is Nick who struggles with the expectations put on him by his family.

Other than being based on the royals, these are pretty standard rom coms. There is love, misunderstanding and eventual happy endings. The first book deals with the courtship and up until the wedding (which does not go off without a hitch). The second picks up after the scandals that are revealed at the wedding and continues through pregnancy and eventual childbirth.

Some of the relationships are quite nice - eventually the Queen and Bex become companions. She also develops a fun relationship with the Queen Mother figure.

Again these are not great literature but they are quite fun.

The Queen's Secret by Karen Harper

This was probably my least favourite of this group of four books. I just didn't really enjoy the writing style - I guess I found it a bit simplistic (even compared to rom coms). The title character is Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The book takes place primarily during World War II and following her husband's ascension to the throne after his brother's abdication. Hitler is reputed to have called Queen Elizabeth the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe.

And, she seems hell bent on taking advantage of that power. The book paints her as the driving force behind the monarchy - not only directing her husband's decisions, but having a personal relationship with, and strong influence over, Winston Churchill. While she uses this power in part appropriately, to defend England during the war, she uses it in part to cover up personal secrets which she thinks will threaten her marriage and her position. In particular, she works tirelessly to keep the former King Edward and his wife Wallis Simpson away from the country. They know a few things about her past that she wants desperately to remain hidden.

By the end the reader has learned all of her secrets - but it didn't really make me like her or sympathize with her anymore although I suppose I was expected to. I wouldn't really bother with this one.

The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull

By contrast, I would highly recommend this book. It takes place earlier in time than the prior book and is far more based in historical fact.

Before taking up with Wallis Simpson, Edward, the Prince of Wales had an affair with another divorced American, Thelma Morgan. After a disastrous first marriage, Thelma marries into the British Aristocracy - Lord Furness. He is a widower with two teenaged children. Thelma is much younger than him and together they also have a son. While her second husband is not abusive like her first one, he does have a string of extra-marital affairs and is unapologetic and public about them.

This leaves Thelma vulnerable to the attentions of the Prince of Wales. She begins a very public affair with him (meeting other members of the royal family, though not his parents). Eventually she separates from her husband to give her more freedom to be with the Prince. Although she loves him, and he even proposes, she does not seem to live under the illusion that they actually have a future together.

In alternating sections (which jump back and forth in time) the book deals with Thelma's twin sister, Gloria Vanderbilt and her bitter custody battle for her daughter, "Little Gloria". Gloria was married to an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune who died quite young. His remaining family consider Gloria an unfit mother due to several scandals (including some relating to members of the extended royal family) and fight her for custody. Thelma supports her sister at all costs - including eventually her relationship with the Prince. Ironically, when she returns to the US to attend the custody hearing she asks her friend Wallis Simpson to look after the Prince for her - and that she did.

I found this story very compelling - and the main storylines are fact based and were something I knew nothing about prior to reading the book. Both the story of the royal relationship and of the American royalty (the Vanderbilts) are very interesting. And the book is well written and easy to read.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

This is another author who is somewhat prescient as she wrote this book before the outbreak of COVID-19 and rushed it to print when the current pandemic hit.

The entire narrative takes place over three days in a Dublin hospital during the 1918 flu pandemic. The story is told from the perspective of a junior nurse, Julia, who is left in charge of a maternity ward for pregnant women who have the flu. The hospital is severely understaffed and short on supplies so she has to be as innovative as possible in dealing with her patients. The only help she has is from a teenaged volunteer, Birdie, who makes up for lack of knowledge with her enthusiasm. She also gets periodic support from a female doctor, Dr. Lynn who also happens to be an Irish separatist on the run from the police.

The story gives great detail about the patients' struggles - both with the flu and their pregnancies. And we of course see how Julia struggles with her responsibility at work and to her brother who has returned from the War and due to psychological trauma no longer speaks. We also learn a lot about Birdie's past - she was an orphan who grew up in a Catholic home for orphans where she was neglected and perhaps abused. We also see the influence of the Catholic church in its treatment of unwed mothers on the ward.

I quite enjoyed this book - though it is obviously not uplifting. I worried a bit that I would find it too much to read it during our own pandemic but because it takes place in the maternity ward it was sufficiently distanced from my current circumstances to make it bearable.

The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel

I wasn't sure I felt like reading yet another Holocaust book when I picked this one up, but I ended up enjoying it. The narrative starts in current day Florida when Eva, a semi-retired librarian, reads a newspaper article about a German library trying to find the owner of a book. Eva recognizes it as The Book of Lost Names which she hasn't seen since leaving Europe in the 1940s. She decides immediately that she must go to Germany to claim the book - much to the confusion of her son who knows nothing of her past.

In alternating chapters we learn about this past. When in her early 20s Eva is forced to flee her home in Paris with her mother after her father is round up by the French police, working for the Nazis, for being Jewish. On the advice of a former boss of her father they take refuge in a small mountain town in the French Free Zone. There Eva becomes involved with the underground - working as a forger in the local church. She is supported by the priest as well as several women in the town who are involved in smuggling Jews and others, such as downed pilots, into Switzerland. Her strongest supporter is Remy, a Catholic forger who is also connected with the underground. Eva decides she must preserve the original identity of all the children who are smuggled out under false names so that they can find their true identities when they return. So using a code devised by Remy based on the Fibonacci sequence, they hide these identities within the text of an ancient religious book thus creating the book of lost names.

The members of the underground are eventually betrayed and we learn of their various fates throughout the end of the war. Eva survives - not a secret since we know that from the start - but we also learn how she survived, who else survived, how the book of lost names came to be in Germany, and how Eva eventually ended up in Florida with a son who knew nothing of her past.

I really enjoyed this book - I thought the characters, both good and bad, were believable and well developed and that the story was not completely predictable as is often the case with Holocaust fiction. I recommend this one.

Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa

This is a fascinating book written in English by a Kurdish woman. It tells the story of a Kurdish girl, Leila, who grew up in Iran. Her father is a drunk who is dealing with demons after having witnessed the slaughter of most of his extended family when he was a child. Her mother is distant, away from home a lot and critical of Leila when she is at home. However, Leila is extremely close with her younger brother Chia.

When they grow up Leila is unable to get into university despite several attempts so follows her brother to Tehran when he gets into university there. Chia becomes involved in anti-government activities and is eventually imprisoned for them. Leila fights tirelessly to get him freed, and when she publishes some of his writings she is also in danger.

Leila is forced to flee Tehran and is given the opportunity to leave Iran, but must decide whether she can trust the man she feels was partly responsible for Chia ending up in prison. Eventually she realizes she has no choice and accepts his assistance to go to Canada.

I thought the descriptions of life in Iran - particularly for a woman and the Kurdish minority were fascinating. They shed light on terrible atrocities as well as the subjugation of various people. I thought the book lost a bit of steam when Leila moved to Toronto and the pages there read a bit more like a tourist's guide to visiting the major sites in Toronto. This may just be because the author is new at her craft.

Despite the somewhat weaker ending, I do recommend this book.

The Answer Is... by Alex Trebek

This is a long-awaited autobiography by Alex Trebek. He claims in the introduction that he has always turned down requests to write his autobiography as he did not feel his life was that interesting. However, faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis he decided he would write about his life.

This is really more a series of vignettes than an actual book. I found some more interesting that others - I particularly enjoyed the stories about the better known Jeopardy contestants like Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer (he clearly likes Jennings; his feelings about Holzhauer are less clear which is telling). I also liked some of his insights into the game itself and changes made over the years.

Otherwise, he is right, he lived a pretty ordinary life so there was not a lot to the personal stories. Worth reading, but  maybe picking and choosing the stories. It's certainly not necessary to read chronologically or even in full. Though the whole book did only take me a couple of hours.

Friday, July 31, 2020

My July Reading Projects

It has been a busy month for reading - nothing like reading outside in the summer! Here's what I've covered.

Daughter of the Reich by Louise Fein

This is a somewhat predictable Holocaust book, but it was decently written and easy to read.  The story centres on Hetty, a young girl growing up in Leipzig under Nazi rule.  Her father is a relatively high ranking local SS officer and the family is very loyal to Hitler.  At the start of the book Hetty worships a photo of Hitler that hangs in her bedroom and can't wait to join the Nazi youth group for girls.  Hetty's older brother joins the Luftwaffe and her mother does everything to satisfy her husband - though French by birth she readily adopts Nazi German ideology.

The problems start for Hetty when she re-encounters Walter.  He was her brother's best friend in childhood and had, in fact, saved her from drowning when she was very young.  She has always admired Walter and now her feelings, and his, become deeper.  The problem is that Walter is Jewish.  He was thus dumped by Hetty's brother and her parents have forbidden her from seeing him.

Much of the book centres on how Hetty's thinking evolves as she starts to see the world through Walter's eyes.  She suddenly can't see the differences between Jews and Aryans.  Her continued relationship with him makes her very wary of trusting anyone - her family, the staff in their household, friends from school, and neighbours.

As she starts to change her views, she struggles to save Walter and his family from their inevitable fate - and to protect herself in the meantime.

In the epilogue to the book we find out how everyone fared following the war.  I won't give it away here...

Girls of Summer by Nancy Thayer

This is a typical summer release for Thayer - a Nantucket based romance novel.  I personally love to escape into this kind of book in the summer, but if you're the type who needs a more serious read, this is not the book for you.

Lisa Hudson is a divorced woman in her 50s who has been getting by raising her two children who are now adults living off island.  So no one is more surprised than she is when she falls for a Mack, a contractor who she hired to work on her house, who is 10 years younger than her.  She is even more surprised that he's interested in her.

Their relationship is complicated when Lisa's daughter returns from Cambridge, having been dumped by her boyfriend, and her son, who is a bit aimless returns to the island from his surfing bum life in LA when he gets injured. And, of course, he reconnects with the girl he longed for in high school - none other than Mack's daughter.

When Lisa's daughter connects with a man who has come to the island to launch an environmental campaign, there's love in the works for the whole family.

It's predictable, easy reading and, for me, lots of fun.

Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

Guillory has become a recent favourite of mine for rom-coms and this book didn't disappoint.  As an aside, I like how all the characters in her books are loosely related even though they are all definitely standalone books rather than a series.

In this book, Olivia Monroe has just moved to LA from New York to start her own law firm with a friend (after burning out in the big firm environment and wanting to be her own boss).  Her personal life is far from top of mind when she meets Max in a hotel bar.  She's drawn to him despite herself and they spend the whole night flirting before going their separate ways.

Alone in her hotel room, Olivia discovers Max is none other than Maxwell Powell, California's hot shot junior senator.  So she thinks that's the end of that given his reputation as one of the country's most eligible bachelors.

Some time later she goes to a fund-raising event and Max is the keynote speaker.  To her surprise he remembers her and seems happy to see her.  For his part he is thrilled to have encountered her again as he had no way of tracking her down after their first encounter.  So he sends her cakes which they had discussed...

Despite Olivia's hesitation they begin a relationship which is at first kept undercover.  Eventually they decide to go public and of course the expected complications arise.  They work through them and everything ends well as it should in a good rom com!

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

After all the fluff I'd been reading (see above), this book was a real change. And it was a very positive change at that!  I loved this book - and it was so eye-opening I think it should be required reading for all Canadians.

The book examines the lives of Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie.  All of them were snatched from their families as young children and held prisoner in residential schools until they turned 16 when they were let loose with little more than a bus token (or in a couple of cases managed to escape).  All of the children (and their peers) suffered tremendous emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the priests and nuns in the residential school.  They were also denied any ongoing relationships with their families and thus really had very few memories of how a functioning family relationship should work.

All of the kids end up in Vancouver's East Side - struggling to make ends meet and with addiction and mental health issues.  For some of them, it is the return to their Indigenous culture which brings about stability and, frankly, sanity.

The book alternates telling the story from the perspective of each of the characters.  Sometimes there is a bit of back and forth in time as we learn what happened from a new character's perspective.  But, the story is still very easy to follow - and gripping.  While not graphic per se, the descriptions of what happened in the residential school are extremely disturbing as is the impact of the school on the kids' entire future.

I strongly recommend this book for greater insight into this ugly piece of Canada's past - and to get a glimpse of the strength of the survivors.

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

This book had a kind of interesting premise - Bea is a plus-size fashion blogger who is making quite a name for herself.  She gets a lot of exposure when she writes a negative post about the lack of diversity on a Bachelor like show called the Main Squeeze.  

Following the post she is approached by the new producer of the show to be the star. She is promised the men will be diverse and, even if she has no intention of falling in love, it will be great for her brand.  So she agrees.

When she first meets the men she is unimpressed with their "diversity" - while they are of varying races, only one is slightly overweight and the others are all like fantasy men in Bea's mind.

So we are taken through her good times and bad, her humiliation and empowerment, dates in magical places and in her home town and those of several of the men.  And we see whether Bea is able to find love or stick by her plan to avoid it at all costs.  What I liked about the book is that it was not predictable (or maybe in the end it was, but along the way I was never sure which way it would go).

Again this is a fun and easy read.

I Almost Forgot About You by Terry McMillan

This was also kind of a fun one.  Georgia Young is a twice divorced optometrist in her mid-50's, mother of two and grandmother of two (and counting).  She feels stuck in her life - she has not had a relationship in years, she's bored with her job and she's tired of her big house.

When a patient comes in, who happens to be the daughter of one of her old flames, she discovers he has died.  She regrets that she never told him how she felt about him - so resolves to find all of her past loves even if it's just to tell them what they meant to her. She also decides to sell her house and quit her job...

I sometimes got a bit lost with all the men she was tracking down, but otherwise the book worked well.  There were some quirky characters, including Georgia's 80 something mother who is remarrying, her best friends and even her twin granddaughters.  

As she moves through all her old flames, and even meets a couple of new men, we find ourselves rooting for her - to either find love or decide she's happy enough without it.

While I enjoyed this book, I wouldn't say it was the best of the rom-coms I've read this month.

Beach Read by Emily Henry

Since I am such a huge fan of "beach reads" I obviously couldn't resist a book by this name.  And while it was a rom-com in a way, it was far less conventional.

January Andrews is a successful romance writer who is having trouble writing her next book as she's lost her faith in love.  Her father recently died and at the funeral she discovered her father had been having a year's long affair and her mother knew about it.  She finds out when the other woman shows up with a key to a beach house January didn't know he had, and a letter from her father.  Her mother refuses to talk about it.

January had always thought her parents had the ideal relationship - they were always dancing and holding hands.  If that wasn't true, she no longer believes in happily ever after so how can she write about it.  Desperate for money, and needing to meet a deadline, she moves to the beach house and tries to sell everything in it (without looking at the master bedroom yet) and to get writing.

She quickly discovers her neighbour is Gus Everett - a writer she knew in college who writes literary fiction.  She still feels the sting about remarks he made about her writing in college and is not thrilled to see him there.  But it turns out he is also struggling to write - so they make a bet.  They will each try to write a book in the other's genre - the first to get published wins. And they will spend Fridays learning how to research literary fiction and Saturdays training in romance writing.

But this wouldn't be a beach read if the true story wasn't about the developing relationship between January and Gus - and the predictable bumps in the road.  After all that's what readers of beach reads expect.

Again, I liked this book - it was well written and engaging - but it wasn't my favourite.  In some ways I think it just tried too hard to justify being a beach read.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

A Few More Books...and finished the library reading challenge

28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand

So finally got to my annual summer Elin Hilderbrand new release - and it was definitely a good one. Modelled on the movie, Same Time Next Year, the novel tells the story of the 28 Labour Day weekends that Mallory Blessing and Jake McCloud spend together.

They first meet when Mallory inherits a house on Nantucket from her aunt, a lesbian who was rejected by the rest of Mallory's family when she came out. Mallory hosts her brother's bachelor party on the island and Jake, his college friend is in attendance. For a variety of reasons they are left alone for most of the weekend and develop a strong bond. Though Jake returns to his life, and his girlfriend Ursula, who becomes his wife, he promises to return every year no matter what. And despite near misses, he does.

In between visits Mallory becomes a teacher at a local school, develops close friendships and has the odd relationship but never anything permanent. She also has a son - since his father is a bit of a surprise, I won't give that away. The novel starts in the last summer when her son is asked by Mallory, who is on her deathbed, to call a number in a drawer. When he does, to his surprise, Jake answers. By this time Jake's wife is running for President and Mallory's son had no idea his mother knew him.

While Mallory and Jake are obviously deceitful, they come across as good people who have this one flaw - and you really wish they could have just ended up together (at least I did). While we get the details of many of the summer visits, some of the chapters deal only with what is going on in Mallory or Jake's lives during the rest of the year.  That way we get a more clear picture of who they are. We also see that they stick by their vow only to contact each other at another time in the event of marriage, pregnancy or death.

I like how Hilderbrand started each chapter with references to what was going on in the year of the chapter - everything from politics, to music, TV and movies. It was particularly poignant how 2001 only dealt with 9/11 since that was such an overarching story in that year.

All in all a great book, though quite a sad ending.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

While a historical book, it reads like an adventure or thriller which makes it easy to read despite its length. The book covers two of Churchill's years as the British Prime Minister, 1940 and 1941. The years are crucial as it is then that the UK is under air attack by Germany (particularly what became known as the London Blitz) and feels the threat of a land invasion.

The amount of research Larson did is immense.  In the foreword he states that every work in quotation marks came from someone's diary; while every facial or body language reaction was recorded by someone at the time. And through these sources he paints a detailed picture of the Blitz, Churchill's family and political life, Churchill's decision making process, including his approaches to President Roosevelt, and even Nazi strategy.

I found this highly educational - while I knew about the Blitz in a fairly general sense, I had no idea of the details. Larsen filled in the blanks with times, places and extent of the damage. It also taught me about many larger aspects of the war that I had never considered (e.g. a lengthy section about what happened to France's naval ships that were at sea when Germany successfully invaded).

Personally I enjoyed the details about Churchill's family life, as well (most gleaned from diaries maintained by his youngest daughter, Mary). I felt it humanized the book.

While this is a long book, I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in this era in history. As I said, because of the way it is written, it reads more like a thriller than a dry history book.  I found myself anxious to know what happened next (even though, of course, none of it is truly a surprise).

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Since this book is probably universally known, at least amongst English language readers, I won't spend that much time on it.  I chose it for the last category in the library reading challenge - a book that is older than you are. Having seen the latest movie last winter, and come across a 150th Anniversary Edition while browsing a New York City book store, I decided to reread it. It was, of course, at least 40 years since I last read it.

Looking at it in today's light, it is hard to imagine that this was intended for children (or even young adults). The language is just so dense - though the subject matter is appropriate.  It is also so blatantly moralizing that I'm not sure how young adults of the day could stand all the messages being hammered into their heads.

That being said, it's a classic, and everyone should probably read a classic now and then.  This edition also contained very helpful brief essays at the end putting several themes into context (e.g., women as writers, religion, poverty, the Civil War). Remembering the context makes it easier to digest the blatant sexism.

The Lies that Bind by Emily Giffin

I quite enjoyed this latest novel by Giffin.  I don't want to give a way too much (the lies in the title are best unravelled as you read), but I will give a brief review.

In the spring of 2001, Cecily, a woman in her late 20s, cannot sleep because she is reeling from a recent break up.  So she gets up and goes into a local dive bar for a drink.  When she is about to dial her ex, Gavin sneaks up behind her and tells her not to do it - somehow surmising her intent. She complies and they spend the night together (as friends) - and develop both a deep emotional attachment and physical attraction.

Over the course of the summer their relationship grows, despite Gavin travelling to London with his ill brother. He returns on September 10, 2001 and spends a few blissful hours with Cecily before leaving her while she's still asleep.  And then the worst happens - after the planes fly into the twin towers Cecily cannot locate Gavin.

After several days of searching she sees a missing person poster with his face on it.  She calls the number on the poster - and this leads her both to continue her search for Gavin and to question how well she actually knew him.  Multiple layers of secrets are revealed (some hers and some Gavin's) by the end.

As an aside, one of my favourite characters was Cecily's gay best childhood friend.  He was warm, funny, supportive and the kind of friend everyone should have.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

I partly turned to this book to fulfil my reading challenge category of a dystopian or utopian book and partly because I have read all of the Hunger Games books so was curious about the prequel.

I must say I did enjoy this book though I didn't love it - while Collins' writing is very strong and approachable, I think I preferred the other books in the series. My biggest disappointment was the ending - it was almost as if when the author got to the last 20 pages or so she felt pressured to rush to the end.  Everything just seemed to take a turn way too quickly - though ultimately the turn they took was not a surprise to readers of the whole series.

This book goes back 64 years from the original Hunger Games books to examine the early life of Coriolanus Snow, who was the villain in Katniss Everdeen's world. Snow's illustrious family, which now consists of only his grandmother and his cousin, has fallen on hard times as a result of the war with the districts. Snow is obsessed with regaining their former wealth and grandeur and hopes to do so by being a mentor to a tribute in the annual hunger games.

He is somewhat disappointed when he is paired with a long shot - the girl tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray. However, her sense of style wins him over and the two must work together to give her a chance to survive. Snow does everything possible to make it happen which captures the attention of the extremely weird head games master, Dr. Gaul.  She eventually figures prominently in his future.

Snow's competitive personality is contrasted with that of his classmate, Sejanus Plinth, who is empathetic and horrified by the hunger games events.

I don't want to give away the main plot which of course centres around what happens in the Hunger Games arena.  Suffice it to say there is action, mayhem, murder, blood and gore and ultimately a winner.  The outcome for Snow is not necessarily what he expected either.  

The book does provide a vivid picture of the implications of abuse of power and control, particularly on how it can mold young minds.

If you liked the rest of the series it's worth trying this one.

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner

I always eagerly anticipate my annual Jennifer Weiner fix, and while I didn't like this as much as last year's Mrs. Everything which I thought was probably her best, this was still a really enjoyable read.  It was part romance, part mystery and all round easy entertainment.  I finished it in the course of a day.

The novel is narrated by Daphne who is a plus-size Instagram influencer and part time babysitter.  For middle and high school Daphne attended a prestigious private school on scholarship because her father was a teacher.  There she befriends Drue - a beautiful but very mean rich girl.  Although Drue constantly takes advantage of her, Daphne can't resist the allure of being in her circle and is constantly drawn back in despite the warnings of one of their mutual friends (who is now Daphne's roommate).

This toxic relationship lasts until Daphne's sophomore year at college when she and Drue fight in dramatic style.  The altercation is filmed and launches Daphne's influencer career - she also decides to make peace with her body weight which gives her a huge boost in confidence.

Six years later Drue walks back into Daphne's life and asks her to be her maid of honour at her high profile society wedding. Again going against her roommates advice, Daphne is sucked in and agrees. She feels she now has the confidence to protect herself from being used.  She also makes it into an opportunity by agreeing to wear clothes designed by an online designer and to post about her experiences at the wedding.

The night before the wedding everyone heads to rented mansions in Cape Cod for the festivities.  There Daphne meets a mystery man, Nick, who she fears is too good to be true.  Even more surprising events take place - which I won't give away.

The remainder of the books surrounds Daphne's efforts to solve the mystery of the various happenings in Cape Cod.  It then turns into more of a mystery/adventure story and the romance moves to the back burner though does not disappear.  I would say my biggest criticism is that I couldn't quite believe how Daphne made the leaps in logic necessary to solve the mystery.  Although, admittedly because I read the book quickly, maybe I missed some of the connections. Despite that, I really enjoyed the story.

I also want to point out a couple of side stories which I really enjoyed.  Daphne's relationship with her parents, especially her father, was enviable.  I loved how they supported her unconditionally and particularly enjoyed her weekly restaurant adventures with her father. I also liked how Weiner wove in Daphne's experiences when she was child and her grandmother spent the summer with her and put her on a forced diet.  It was a great illustration of the lasting impact of early body image criticism.

For me this is a must read - but I again caveat that with the fact that I love anything Weiner writes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Another Two Months in Quarantine - Lots of Books!

Because I have had so much time to read, I've actually read a ton of books, but haven't made the time to write about them.  Just so I can keep on top of this, I wanted to post, but you might find my reviews are a little shorter than usual.

Celestial Bodies by Jukhah Harithi

This was a very interesting book by an Omani author (in fact the first female Omani author to be translated into English). It looks at the lives of three sisters who have grown up in a traditional family that gets caught up in a wave of modernization that hits to country. In fact, the older generations of the family were slave owners (and slaves) while the younger ones strain against the rules imposed by religion and tradition, especially when it comes to accepting arranged marriages.

The narrative jumps around in time and place and, at times, is a bit hard to follow.  The family tree at the beginning of the book was an essential reference - I had to look back at it constantly.  The matriarch of the family is Salima, who survived a difficult childhood and now clings to the wealth and stability she's earned.  Her husband, Azzan, is more of a dreamer and drawn to the moon goddess (it's frankly a bit unclear if he's actually having an affair or merely spends time in nature away from his family).

The family's three surviving daughters are Mayya, who accepts an arranged marriage to Abdallah (who truly seems to love his wife, though she doesn't necessarily see it).  The narrative also explores their three children - London, a modern woman who is fiercely independent though not untouched by men who want to keep her in her place; Salim, an irresponsible young man; and Muhammed who has special needs.

The second daughter of Salima and Azzan is Asma who is obsessed with books, but ultimately accepts an arranged marriage too.  Finally, there is Khawla, the youngest and most beautiful.  She promised to marry a cousin when she was very young but he emigrated to North America.  She patiently waits for him to return - which he eventually does, but the reunion is not exactly what she expected.

The other characters in the book are slaves such as Zarifa - while not officially a member of the family she has been intricately involved in the family's history.

The narrative weaves together the lives of the characters to give us a very vivid picture of an old village being dragged into modern times.  But the drama is not all political - there is murder and intrigue in the family's personal history too.

The book takes time and attention, but is a worthwhile read.

The Shape of Family by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

This was a really interesting read about family, and how everything can fall apart in an instant when tragedy strikes. The Olanders appear to be an ideal, global family living in suburban California.  Jaya is the highly cultured daughter of an Indian diplomat who has lived all over the world. Keith is an ambitious banker, but came from humble beginnings in working class Philadelphia.  They meet while Keith is on a business trip in London, fall in love, marry and move to the US.  There they have two seemingly perfect children - Karina, now a teenager and Prem, the baby, now 8 years old, and doted upon by his parents and sister.

When tragedy strikes, the family begins to fall apart and we see how each of the family members moves in their separate ways.  The chapters are narrated by each of the family members in turn and cover about a decade.  Pref's chapters are merely observations of the rest of the family, but we see how Karina first thrives at university then falls in with the wrong crowd, Keith takes a chance on his job that doesn't go his way, and Jaya turns to a religious guru for guidance.

I don't want to give much more of the plot away as there are some surprising turns.  But I recommend this one if you like books about family dynamics.

Last Stop Auschwitz: My Story of Survival from within the Camp by Eddy de Wind

This is a true account by a survivor of Auschwitz and is as heavy as it sounds. Eddy de Wind was a doctor who worked at the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands. His mother had been taken to this camp by the Nazis, but Eddy was assured by the Jewish Council that she would be freed in return for his labour at the camp. He later found out that she had already been deported to Auschwitz.

While working at the camp, Eddy falls in love with and marries Friedel.  About a year later they are both deported to Auschwitz. Upon arrival they were immediately separated though, among the luckier ones since they were not immediately exterminated. Eddy was forced to work as a medical assistant in one barrack while Friedel became a subject of Nazi medical experimentation in another barrack.

This diary was actually written by Eddy while at the camp - in the weeks leading up to the liberation by the Red Army. He gives detailed accounts of his work, the maltreatment of prisoners, his continuous efforts to communicate with Friedel and his hope that they (and their love) will survive.  He also gives an account of what happened upon liberation.

While none of the content is particularly surprising to those who know anything about Auschwitz, it is nonetheless interesting to read a first hand account.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This is not at all the type of book I would normally pick up, but I needed to read something for the library reading challenge that was based on a fairy tale, myth or legend.  This one caught my eye while browsing in a New York City bookstore (when that was still an acceptable activity...). This is based upon Mexican folklore.

Here, Casiopea Tun and her mother are treated horribly by their more wealthy relations who never approved of Casiopea's father. Casiopea essentially serves as her grandfather's maid and is constantly taunted and abused by an older cousin, Martin. In a minor act of rebellion Casiopea opens a forbidden chest in her grandfather's bedroom where she finds what, on first glance, appear to be merely bones. In fact, she has freed the injured and imprisoned Mayan death god, Hun-Kame.

For the rest of the book Casiopea is taken on wild adventures through Mexico and into the US by Hun-Kame.  She is pursued by Martin who is enlisted by Hun-Kame's evil twin.

While the skilled prose and exciting narrative made this a fairly easy read, I'm not sure I would turn to this kind of book again without the prompting of a reading challenge or otherwise.  I prefer books more grounded in reality.

Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali

This is quite an interesting memoir which is actually written while the author is living in a homeless shelter in Toronto.  As a young boy, he is taken from his mother by his father, first to the middle east and then sent with his step-mother and step siblings to the Netherlands.

Ali is treated terribly by his step-family - and his father only makes brief and unhelpful appearances in his life.  Despite that, in the Netherlands as a child and young teenager he does make some friends despite moving around frequently.

Eventually, however, the family makes its way to Canada.  There Ali has a harder time fitting in and turns to partying and drugs to escape his difficult family life.  This leads to an inability to excel in school or hold down a job and, eventually, the homeless shelter.

The mere fact Ali was able to write this book - which is well written - shows his strength and resilience.  It also shows how a child with such promise can be broken by abuse, isolation and racism.  Hopefully, this book has served as a turning point for Ali as he definitely has what it takes to live his best life.

No One is too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

This one was also for my library challenge - a book about climate change. It is a collection of speeches by the teenaged climate change activist.  They are somewhat repetitive - though I suppose that's not surprising given they were speeches to different groups but intended to deliver the same message.  Again, not something I would normally read as I think it's easier to pick up her message using social media, but it was a quick read if the topic is of interest to you.

Chasing Painted Horses by Drew Hayden Taylor

This was a really interesting book, and very easy to read. Siblings Ralph and Shelley and Ralph's friend William are living on an indigenous reserve in Ontario.  When they are pre-teens they befriend Danielle, an odd girl on the reserve who has a tragic family history and doesn't seem to have any friends or family support now.

When Ralph and Shelley's mother gets the idea to have local children pain pictures on a kitchen wall Danielle astounds everyone with her rendition of a magical horse.  She repeats the magic more than once, but then her abusive family whisks her away to Toronto and the children never see her again.

Years later, while working as a police officer in Toronto, Ralph comes across a graffiti mural that so closely resembles those childhood horses that he's convinced it must have been drawn by Danielle. He tries to enlist the help of a homeless man to track down the artist, but is not successful.

The narrative also tells us a bit about the adult lives of Ralph, Shelley and William.  While there's not a lot of heavy action, I recommend the book for those who are still interested in coming of age stories with a twist.

The Hate U Give by K.J. Apart

I chose this book for my young adult reading challenge category even before this topic came roaring back into the news with recent events.

Starr Carter lives in a poor black neighbourhood, but when a childhood friend is killed in a drive-by shooting she and her siblings are sent to a fancy, mainly white private school.  She is skillfully balancing both lives until she is in a car when another of her lifelong friends is shot - this time by police.

At first, amongst her school friends, Starr tries to deny knowing the victim, but she eventually realizes if she doesn't speak up the world will only see the skewed version of her friend being offered up by the police and the media. She realizes she must speak up even if it's putting her family in some danger as violence emerges in the wake of the shooting and a drug lord who her friend had ties to sets his sights on Starr.

This should be a must read for everyone in the current environment of police shooting unarmed, black youths.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

This was quite a fun book in the midst of all the heavier reading I've been doing (see above...).  Nina Hill is the consummate introvert - she works in a book store and is happiest reading at home with her cat or participating in trivia challenges with her close friends.

But two unexpected events force Nina out of her comfort zone.  First, the father she never knew dies and includes her in his will.  She is thus introduced to several of his subsequent wives, their children and grandchildren, giving her a huge family she never knew about.  While some of them are suspicious of her motives (which is weird since she didn't even know about her father and certainly didn't seek out his fortune), many are excited to meet her and happy to bring her into the family fold.  Even more surprising is how several of her half siblings share some of her personality quirks - as did her father apparently.

Second, her trivia nemesis, Tom takes an interest in her.  And despite her better judgment, she is interested in him too.  After several false starts Tom and Nina find they have more in common than trivia competitions.

Not deep, but fun and well written.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I hesitated to read this book given its mixed reception, but ultimately picked it up to satisfy my reading challenge category, a book about current events.  And I'm glad I read it - I really enjoyed it.  Now, I'm not sure it's all terribly realistic, but me that didn't detract from the interesting narrative.

Lydia lives with her husband and young son, Luca, in Acapulco at a time when the city is becoming more and more dangerous because of drug cartels. Despite that they have a happy life - Lydia runs a book store and her husband is a journalist. While working at the store Lydia develops a close friendship with Javier, a well read and charming customer.  Only months later does she discover he is the leader of a new drug cartel that has taken over the city.

When Lydia's husband writes an expose about Javier, she thinks it is balanced enough that Javier will accept it. But, for reasons she only learns much later, he is so incensed by the article that he shoots her whole extended family - only she and Luca hide and are able to survive. (I'm not giving anything away - this happens right at the start).

Lydia immediately knows she and Luca are in danger and they make a run for it trying to get to the US. The entire narrative surrounds their difficult escape - as they travel on the roofs of cargo trains to their destination, and then undergo a dangerous hike with a smuggler, we meet the honest migrants they befriend along the way; as well as the less honest ones (who are often in government or members of cartels, infiltrating to thwart the migration).

The book is well written, the drama is fast paced and the characters are multi-faceted. While I think some of Lydia's narrow escapes are a bit hard to believe, overall I enjoyed the book.

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver

Frankly I found this book a bit too weird for my taste.  When Lydia's husband is killed in a car crash she is devastated and withdrawing from the world.  At the urging of her family she takes sleeping pills to help her cope.  Whenever she takes them, she dreams of a parallel world where her husband is still alive.  The lives of others are also altered in the parallel world (for example in the real world her sister has a healthy baby while in the alternate world she miscarries).

In the real world, Lydia eventually decides to travel abroad to spend more time in the alternate world.  But there she begins to come to terms with how things are in the real world so she returns to her regular life.

As I said, I just found this too strange, but if you like the idea, the book is well written, just not to my liking.

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

I quite enjoyed this book.  It is set both in the present day US and 1950s Tehran.

In 1953, 17 year old Roya meets an idealistic and politically active boy, Bahman, in a stationery shop.  Over books and stationery they fall in love and eventually become engaged.  The engagement is encouraged by Roya's family as well as Bahman's father.  But Bahman's mother, who suffers from mental illness, disapproves of the match as Roya's family is less well off than hers.

At one point Bahman disappears and Roya has no idea what has happened, though she knows he is alive as he sends her notes which she picks up in books at the stationery shop, with the assistance of the shop owner.  The last note says he wants to meet her at a particular square and they will immediately get married.  But Bahman doesn't show up.

Years later, Roya is married to someone else and discovers Bahman is alive and in a US nursing home.  She decides she must visit him to find out what happened on that fateful day.  Through narrative which moves back and forth in time we find out what happened too.  There are also some chapters even further back in time that tell us about the bookseller's early life which ends up being pertinent to the 1953 story.

The story is interesting and there are a lot of fascinating and likeable characters - both in Tehran and in the US (though there are some unlikeable characters too).  I definitely recommend this book.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I hadn't read this book before so when I saw it at a used book sale last fall I jumped on it.  Then I decided to read it for the "classic" category of my reading challenge.  And, boy you can see why it's a classic.  The language of the book is masterful.  And while magical realism is not my favourite, I still had trouble putting this book down. As an aside, I only learned in reading the afterword to this book that a it is responsible for introducing the concept of magical realism to English readers. The novel tells the story of 100 years in the fictional South American town of Macando.  In particular we see it through the lives of multiple generations of the Buendia family - one of the founding families.

Because many of the children are named after their parents and grandparents, the reference family tree at the beginning of the book was vital for me to keep track of everyone. I wouldn't say the story is confusing, I just sometimes had to remind myself which generation I was reading about as it did jump backwards and forwards a bit.

Through just one family, the author manages to touch on global issues like religion, politics, war, imperialism, science and invention and more. There is really no way for me to summarize what happened - it's just too much. All I can say is that if you're in the mood for a classic, and haven't already read it, this one is worth it.

Calm the F*ck Down by Sarah Knight

I picked this book up to fit the category of a book you found helpful.  And while I wouldn't describe the advice in this book as life changing, I did pick up a few tips for managing low level anxiety (particularly the type that keeps you up at night).

The author readily admits she is not an educated expert - she is rather someone who suffers from anxiety sharing strategies that have worked for her. This is not the book for you if you are struggling with serious anxiety - you should seek professional help instead. But if you just feel anxious sometimes you might get the odd helpful hint here.

I should note that the book is full of exercises - I didn't bother doing them - that's just not my thing.

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

This is another book that was just a little too weird for my taste.

When Natalie Tan's mother dies, she returns to San Francisco's Chinatown after many years of estrangement.  Against her mother's wishes she had left town to go to culinary school - where she flunked out.  She then spent several years floating from place to place, working in restaurants and never really developing any serious attachments.

She is originally resentful of her neighbours as she thought they left her all alone to deal with her mother who suffered from serious agoraphobia.  Instead she finds they were providing all kinds of behind the scenes support.  She also learns her mother has left her her late grandmother's restaurant and recipe book.

All sounds normal so far - but then Natalie decides that she has to use cooking as magic to address issues in people's lives.  And there is another whole weird bit involving her father which I won't reveal in case you want to read the book, but it was just too far fetched for me.

I don't really recommend this.  It did include many recipes which may or may not be legitimate - I skimmed over them so don't really know.

Truths I Never Told You by Kelly Rimmer

I'm not sure where I heard about this book, but it was a pleasant surprise. It takes place in alternating chapters in the present and in the late 1950s.

In the present, Beth Walsh's father is dying and is moved into a long term care facility.  Beth, mostly because she is suffering from postpartum depression and wants an escape from her infant son, offers to clean out the family home.  There, behind a locked attic door, she finds a hoarder's den that is uncharacteristic of her otherwise neat and organized father. More mysteriously she finds a series of notes that appear to be from her mother - each attached to an abstract painting that her father seems to have recently painted.

Beth and her three siblings had always been told their mother died in a car accident when they were toddlers, but the notes suggest something more sinister may have occurred. There father, now struggling with dementia, cannot tell them anything.

In alternating narratives from the perspective of Beth in the present day and her mother and aunt in the past, we are able to piece together what actually happened to her mother.  The children also learn that there is more to their father than they thought.

In addition to being an interesting family mystery, the book does an excellent job of addressing postpartum depression and the devastating effects of the lack of birth control and safe abortions in the 1950s.

I found this book to be really interesting, well researched and well written.